Pondering Easter Traditions

Growing up, Mom was the creator and keeper of Easter holiday traditions. She helped us color eggs, and after we were asleep, she hid the Easter baskets. Each one had a name in it so the four of us wouldn’t fight. She made sure we each had the same amount of candy and eggs. She bought my sister and me Easter hats, dresses, shiny patent leather shoes, gloves, and spring coats. My brothers had dress shirts, pants and ties. It was always too cold for the summery clothes we wore to church. But every year she lined up the four of us next to the tulip garden for a photo. Year after year, she made ham, au gratin potatoes, fruit salad, and Mimmie, my grandmother, brought coffeecake. It was work, but all I saw was the joy Mom took in those traditions.

My husband, sons and I don’t live close enough to be a part of my parents’ celebration and our own observances are hit or miss. When my sons were young, my husband and I traveled to his parents, and I bought the Easter clothes and candy and sent the greeting cards. We all went to church despite my ambivalence about Catholicism.

Over the years, the old ways had begun to seem hollow instead of joyful. I told myself that it was better to lighten up and let go. We would invent new traditions and keep the day simple.

In the last ten years since my father-in-law died, we have stayed home. Now that Mom is gone, I feel even more unmoored from Easter customs. I have quit pretending to be an observant Catholic. Easter is a low-key affair. No church. No dress-up clothes. My sons and husband are relieved. None of the four of us likes ham, so we make a big Easter breakfast instead. Mimmie’s coffeecake is the one thing we always have.

FullSizeRenderWe have gone our own way and simplified our celebration, but sometimes I wonder if I’ve let too many of the old ways slip away.

Keeping up those rituals tied us to generations of family who did the same things—put on new clothes to symbolize renewal, ate special rich food after a period of fasting, and came together as family because that’s how you strengthen bonds.

What remains in our minimalist Easter ritual is that my family of four spends the day together, eating good food, talking and laughing. There is little history or religion in our day, but I believe our celebration has what’s essential: it strengthens our ties with each other.

Trying Hard to Embrace Winter (even though I hate being cold)

Although this week is a blessed reprieve, winter came WAY too early to Minnesota. This year, we had high temps in the mid-20s on Veteran’s Day and by mid-month we had single digit lows. And snow. Jeesh.

This unwelcome weather called for drastic rethinking of my usual approach: gritting my teeth, hunching my shoulders against the cold, and waiting for it to be over. Instead, I’m trying to embrace winter and focus on what I do like. So here goes—

Drinking hot tea – Holding a hot mug full of tea warms you up. Drinking it warms you up even more. I don’t see much of my favorite mugs during summer, so it’s a treat to pull them out. I stash the peppermint and green tea with blueberry (good as iced tea) in favor of Celestial Seasonings Candy Cane Lane and Gingerbread Spice—teas that are sold only in winter.

Eating homemade soup and stew – Stew is such an ugly word for the wonder that is Guinness stew (tender chunks of beef braised for hours in a rich beer and onion gravy served over champ – an Irish version of mashed potatoes made with green onions) or Hungarian goulash – not the hamburger hotdish, but beef simmered with spicy paprika and onions. Chicken mole chilé – spicy with a hint of cocoa – the taste is rich with nothing sweet about it. Tortellini soup with chunks of carrots, zucchini, and Italian sausage. Mmmmm.

Spitzbuben are sandwich cookies made with ground pecans, butter, flour and sugar. Raspberry jam holds them together. Don't tell my husband there's one missing! Quality control.

Spitzbuben are sandwich cookies made with ground pecans, butter, flour and sugar. Raspberry jam holds them together. Don’t tell my husband there’s one missing! Quality control.

Baking Christmas cookies – Maybe I should really say eating Christmas cookies since that’s mostly what I do. My husband is a whirling baking dervish who makes dozens of breads, spitzbuben, chocolate cherry espresso drops, spicy peanut butter cookies dipped in chocolate, and almond bars, while all I usually manage to make is a batch of ginger cookies and frosted sugar cookies.

Watching TV shows while I exercise (re: cookies) – While I log miles on the treadmill, I catch up on the TV shows I never watch from April through October. I love going to the movie theater to see the year’s best movies. Plus, Mad Men and Downton Abbey resume in January (geeky fun – I can’t wait!)

Wearing Smartwool sox – OMG are they expensive, but they work. My feet are warm and dry. So worth it. So are silk long johns, a puffy down coat, shearling boots, mittens, and earmuffs. Yes, I’m aware that by New York standards I’m one big walking Fashion Don’t. And I get tired of putting on all of that, but I hate being cold even more, so look out for the hot pink parka headed your way – that’s me.

lightsSeeing Christmas lights, moonlight on snow, sundogs on January mornings – Yes, I hate that it’s full dark at 5:00 p.m. in December, but there’s something so fanciful about Christmas lights—they help tamp down the gloom. To me, it’s magical when the moon reflects off the snow and casts blue shadows—so occasionally I’m willing to don all of the gear described above so I can walk on a quiet winter’s night. Blue shadowsSundogs (flame-shaped rainbows that flank the rising sun like parentheses) appear only in the dead of winter when it’s really cold—a small compensation for being up early when it’s minus 20.

I haven’t completely lost my mind. I still hate tear-your-face-off winds, shoveling snow, icy sidewalks, slushy streets, sooty snow clumps chunking off my car and hulking in the garage. And no, I’m not a skiing, skating, snowmobiling, ice fishing nut. But winter does have its rewards and if I’m going to win this battle against Mother Nature, I have to outwit her. Starting now. With Irish coffee – the kind with Bushmills and whipped cream.

How do YOU cope with winter?

Lemonade, Anyone?

For years, a hand-painted Nippon china lemonade set has had a place of honor in my dining room. My grandmother, who was born in 1885, gave it to me. Mimmie, as we called her, had a 4th grade education (hence the spelling “Mimmie” instead of “Mimi” as others might have spelled it). Screen shot 2013-02-24 at 2.04.44 PM

Mimmie’s maiden name was Margaret Zoe Mominee. She was born in a log cabin in Mominee Town, which is east of Toledo in Northwest Ohio. Mominee Town was at the crossroads of Corduroy Rd. and what used to be called Big Ditch Rd. (perhaps the names were descriptive of the roads at the time). Family lore has it that Mimmie’s French Canadian ancestors came through Windsor, Ontario, past Frenchtown Township in Michigan and settled a little south of Lake Erie.

Map circa 1900

Map circa 1900

Mimmie was an easygoing cheerful woman. She laughed easily and didn’t fuss when her grandkids (my two older brothers, younger sister, and I) grew restless and squirmy during. Every week, we drove across town with my Dad for a visit. There was nothing to do at her house, but she’d pull out an old red rubber ball for us to bounce outside.  Or my sister and I could look through the button collection in the drawer of her treadle sewing machine. When we’d had enough, she’d offer root beer floats, which she called “brown cows.” We also got chalky pink or white mints from the covered candy dish that sat on the built-in china cabinet in her dining room.

Centered inside on one shelf was a yellow lemonade set painted with violets and a gold rim. On another shelf was a blue and white chocolate set that was painted with pink flowers.  It was also Nippon although it looked like Bavarian china. Nippon porcelain was made between 1891 and 1921 in Japan. It was a less expensive version of the European tea, lemonade, and chocolate sets popular at the time. The pieces could be collected at Sears, Montgomery Ward, grocery stores, gift shops and dime stores. These porcelain sets were some of the few fancy things Mimmie had, and more than likely, she bought them a piece at a time. When my sister and I admired the sets, Mimmie told us they’d be ours one day.

Looking back, they’re a puzzle.  Mimmie was very practical and down-to-earth. She made many of the cotton house dresses she wore. She’d create a pattern from the old dress and “run up a new one on the sewing machine” as she said. She only wore jewelry with her one good dress—a navy blue crepe dress with a white lace collar. And she only wore her good dress to church or family occasions.

She was a good cook and liked to bake, but she made Boston brown bread in empty vegetable cans, banana cupcakes (to use up bananas going bad), and oatmeal cookies, our favorite. Mimmie was not one to make shortbread cookies or fussy foods suitable for a ladies tea. But I wonder if she ever invited her sisters or women friends over for lemonade. And if she didn’t use the sets, but kept them for good, did they meet some yearning for nice things? A yearning I share, which I why I coveted the set as a girl.

Today, the sets are collectible and valuable. But after dusting them and keeping them for good for 30 years, I’ve decided to invite friends over for lemonade this summer.  And if a cup gets chipped, so what? Except for my sister, no one will ever care about this set as much as I do, and she has her own set!

A book called The Secret Life of Objects by Dawn Raffell inspired this blog. I’ve decided a lot of my things have stories to tell, too.

Resigning as MVP of the Eating Team

Screen shot 2013-01-01 at 8.21.20 PMI like the idea of a New Year and New Year’s resolutions. I want to believe that change is possible.

Achievable improvement has lots of appeal. So at very least, I’ll lose the weight I gained as a MVP on the Eating Team (Best All-Around Consumption – entrées, sweets, snacks, and alcohol). Nothing but fruits, vegetables and low-fat healthy everything from now until at least March.

But seriously, in a perverse way, I enjoy being virtuous . . . for a little while. I’ll obsessively calculate my Weight Watcher points (but I’ll spare you the details). I’ll be pleased when I no longer need to cram myself into my jeans and disguise my newly acquired spare tire with big sweaters.

I have other loftier goals—to be more generous, to be more tolerant, to think before I speak, to improve my writing. But I regularly make those resolutions and then backslide, so I’m realistic about the resolutions—I recognize that all I’m likely to accomplish is incremental improvements.

I have also learned that any time I’m dissatisfied with how I’m spending my days, I need to recalibrate—I can’t wait until another New Year rolls around. Taking stock and making resolutions is an ongoing process for me.

At heart, I’m an optimist. Lodged in my belief that I can change is a belief that the world can change, too. I’m hopeful about America—despite the political stupidity and individual selfishness that is rampant in our culture. I still believe Americans collectively strive to be better than we have been, and at very least, we will make incremental improvements in 2013.

But for right now, I’m focused on eating a juicy tangerine—a change I can control.

SSSHHHHHH SSSSSHHHH The Scale is in the Drawer

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACrystel came upstairs the other day and said she weighed 79 pounds. I didn’t pay any attention to this. We only have one scale in the house and that is in the basement bathroom. I just figured that she stepped on it after she was done showering.

She had never mentioned her weight before. She is ten-years-old and not overweight. But then she did it the next day and again the next.

I had it in my mind to inquire about her sudden interest in her weight, but then it slipped my mind. Neither Jody nor I ever talk about our bodies or other people’s bodies. We tell them … if you are hungry, eat; when you are full, stop eating. If you don’t like something, you don’t have to eat it. They have our permission to leave food on their plate.

We have intentionally not made food a focus in our house. Though, Jody and I, do have controls on the amount of soda the children drink by having cold water available in the refrigerator and as a general rule they don’t drink soda at home. We also don’t deny them candy, but they have to ask for it.

Our thought is … if candy isn’t taboo then there isn’t any reason for them to hoard or hide it. It is December 27 and they still have Halloween candy left.

Jody and I haven’t ever been concerned about Antonio and Crystel’s weight—in large part, because they regularly exercise at Tae Kwon Do.

One disagreement that Jody and I have had about the children eating cropped up when the kids were little. Antonio or Crystel said they were hungry, and Jody told them that they could wait until breakfast. I told her later, “You just need to know … if they ask me for something to eat, I don’t care what time it is, I am going to let them eat. I’m not ever going to send a kid to bed hungry.”  We head off any arguments by giving them a warning early enough in the evening … “If you want to eat, eat now.”

One day after school, when Crystel tells me, “I weigh 80 pounds,” I remember to ask her about it.

“Are the fourth graders talking about their weight at school?”

“No. Why?”

I tried again. “Are your classmates weighing themselves?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

Well, why the interest, I think to myself. I don’t want to make too big of deal about it, because then for sure it will become a big deal. That’s how it works with Crystel.

I tried one more time. “Do you tell classmates what your weight is? You know some classmates might be sensitive about their weight.”

“Who? Who is sensitive?”

December 27 - Two Dolphins pushing Crystel with their noses in Mexico.

December 27 – Two Dolphins pushing Crystel with their noses in Mexico.

Hmmm. She is just like her Mama Beth, answering a question with a question. I wasn’t getting anywhere fast.

“I don’t know,” I said. I needed to change the subject. I asked her the first thing that came to my mind, “Are you hungry?”

Jody and I don’t have glamour magazines lying around the house, and Crystel hasn’t started getting any teen magazines. So … maybe she is just curious about how she is changing from day to day.

Doesn’t matter. The scale is going in the drawer, in the cat room, by the litter box.