Normal Service to Resume Tomorrow

Facts:
1. I love my mother.
2. I visit her three times a week and call to check in every day I don’t see her.
3. I have a “Power of Attorney” for her affairs, which means I handle any legal affairs and her finances — paying her bills, buying birdseed for the feeders outside her window, shampoo, and anything else she might need that her nursing home doesn’t provide.
4. I was the one responsible for organizing the finances and paperwork when she moved. When she ran out of money, I got her signed up for Medicaid so she could stay there — in a safe place where there is constant supervision.

I tell you these things not because I expect to be canonized or praised; I’m fully aware many other people do much more for their elderly relatives, while others have older folks in their family who are exceedingly difficult to deal with.

In general, Mom is not a challenging person, but her short-term memory has declined to the point that it can sometimes be frustrating.

Most of the time, my brother and I laugh it off. After all, it’s certainly not her fault, and she’s still fun to be around — how many 91-year-olds can you say that about?

Last night, however, I hit a wall.

I’ll spare you the details except to say she left me a voicemail demanding I do something I can’t do without endangering her Medicaid eligibility.

We’ve had a similar converstion many (many!) times with me being forced to repeatedly play the part of the spoilsport who won’t allow her to act on her generous impulses.

But yesterday, the tone of her message was different, more peremptory, and something she said made it clear she knew she was ordering me to do somthing she knew I wasn’t allowed to do.

Also, I’d just finished a shift at a grocery store on the last weekend before Christmas, six hours that registered over 9,000 steps on my Fitbit.

Since this was at the end of a week with several days Mom didn’t answer her phone when Darling Daughter or I called, and would instead call while I was at work and leave messages wondering why she hadn’t heard from me … well, I was already feeling a little frustrated.

I know this doesn’t present me in a very flattering light.

Worse, my first impulse was to call her back and tell her if she’d like to replace me with someone who would do her bidding, she was welcome to do so.

Instead I deleted the message. Then I cleared my deleted messages box and fumed all the way home.

Several hours later, I was still feeling put upon and realized if I visited, or even spoke to Mom on the phone in the near future, I was in grave danger of saying something I would regret later.

Not really the holiday spirit one might expect from a loving daughter.

The only solution I could come up with was to have a day off from “Mom duties.”

This is not something I’ve done before. Even when we travel, I call her regularly and arrange to have someone visit her a few times a week in my place.

Otherwise, I call or visit every day. And since her nursing home is a half-hour drive from my house and only allows visitation during certain hours, on a normal day, this is a factor in organizing my day. (It’s a lot closer to my brother’s house, but we chose it mostly because it was [and still is] the best one I’ve ever been in.)

Today was different. I got up, organized the many tasks on my holiday to-do list, and focused on getting ready for Christmas.

Did I feel guilty? Yes, especially when Darling Daughter texted that Grandma had called her four times in two hours. And when Big Brother texted a response to my text explaining the situation, he mentioned Mom had asked him three times in one conversation how his surgery went and called BB’s relatively new girlfriend to talk to her about him.

Add in a phone call from my uncle, who was concerned because his sister had called him several times while he was driving and then didn’t answer her phone when he called her back, and let’s just say, it wasn’t quite a Mom-free day.

As Big Brother put it, “Mom’s definitely on a roll today.”

Clearly. But just for today, I refused to take responsibility by calling or visiting. Mom is surrounded by healthcare professionals. If there’s anything seriously wrong, they’ll let me know.

Has my “day off” accomplished what I hoped? Yes. Tomorrow I will see her and once again explain why I can not do what she wants.

So, “Normal service to resume tomorrow,” with me in a much better frame of mind.

As a complete non-sequitur (and apologies in advance to my friend Kate) here’s a picture of some rum balls I made today.

And just to amuse you, here’s a picture of a nut saved for a future snack by one of the squirrels in our yard. You know, just in case s/he is running around the yard and gets the munchies. They do this frequently, and every time I come across one of their stashed nuts, I can’t help but laugh.

Fun with Phyllo, Part Two, Or “I Wish I’d Taken a Picture of the Spanakopita Instead”

Above is a picture of some very leaky lemon curd phyllo pockets along with some semi-leaky mincemeat pockets.

The Spanakopita, which I did not take a picture of, turned out great.

To be fair, some of the leaks on the mince pockets are from where I poked them before baking so I’d be able to tell the two sweet treats apart.

Turns out, this was not the problem. The fact that lemon curd must liquefy to a greater degree in a hot oven was the problem.

Never mind, I’m sure they will still taste fine. It’s just they will have more of a lemon glaze than a lemon filling. And phyllo is always delicious.

Also, you can’t know how something will work until you try.

In the future, I think I’d use the little phyllo cups for lemon curd and just be a bit more careful folding the mince pockets.

Fun with Phyllo

About two months ago, a friend and I decided to take a two-hour evening cooking class on cooking with phyllo. It was being offered by a local college and presented by a local company. The class was not cheap ($50), but we thought it would be a nice evening out before the holidays.

When we tried to sign up, however, we quickly realized this was not going to be as simple as one would think. To make a long story short, we each spent well over two hours attempting to fill out online forms, making phone calls and sending emails to multiple people.

By the time someone managed to manually sign us up, we were already tossing around the idea of visiting the phyllo company’s store and having our own little cooking day at home. So when the representative of the school told me there was an extra fee to pay for the class by credit card, my friend and I decided that was one barrier too many, especially for a class that the school was likely getting for free from a company wanting to present recipes using their products.

In the end, we decided instead to make spanakopita at my house and to try something like these “Filo Mincemeat Purses of Open Tartlets.”

This morning, we drove to the Athens Foods store. Shopping there was in some ways like shopping in a different country because many of the labels were in Greek.

I loved it, partly because they had a wide assortment of honey!

Thyme honey, Linden honey, Coriander honey, and more! — I bought three different types. πŸ™‚

Phyllo was only $2.25 a package! Incredible to get so much deliciousness for so little!

I had already bought the mincemeat ready-made, so my friend bought the feta and provided the rest of the ingredients for the spanakopita.

The recipe we chose made individual triangles, rather than fililng a single large pan, and we found we liked working with the phyllo that way — so much so that we used the same technique for the mincemeat. Since I had some lemon curd on hand, we also made a few lemon pastries. They are triangles too.

Brush with butter … lots and lots of butter! (You can see the final results at the top of the picture, almost ready to pop into the freezer.)

After one cooking session, I can hardly claim to be an expert, but I will share a few things we learned.

  1. Despite it’s bad reputation for being difficult, working with the phyllo sheets didn’t actually seem that bad, probably because we covered the ones we weren’t using with a clean damp dish towel to keep them moist. I will say when we got to the last few sheets, they were a bit drier and more easily torn, so I can see where people would have issues if they didn’t keep them moist.
  2. That one stick of butter in the spanakopita recipe? Take it as an estimate — an extremely low estimate if our experience is typical. I think we used more like a pound for the two recipes. Maybe we were just overly generous?
  3. Also, if we did spanakopita again, I think we would process the spinach mixture a bit more. There are plenty of recipes around for it including one on the Athens Foods website, so we can also mess around with the seasoning if we think it’s warranted.
  4. Using phyllo to make triangular pastries seemed a very forgiving way of making bakery. Since you place the filling at one end of a strip, then fold over the corner to make a triangle before continuing to fold triangles to the end of the strip, every fold is reinforced. It’s rather like folding an American flag — minus the worries about where the stars go — and the result is a little package that’s unlikely to lose its stuffing. At least, we think (and hope) that is the case.
  5. Also, since you freeze the triangles on a cookie sheet before storing them in the freezer, when you’re ready to serve them, you can pull out as many or as few as you need.
  6. Another discovery from both this and “Pierogi Day” is just how fun it can be to cook with a friend. On both occasions, we laughed and chatted our way through the task of assembling many pastries and pierogis, resulting a freezer stocked with delicious goodies!

Will I bake with phyllo or make pierogis again? Absolutely! I also hope to again share the experience with friends.

Of Gratitude and Guilt

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude and more specifically the many reasons I have to be grateful. And you probably realize when I spend a lot of time considering any idea, the end result is a blog post.

But when I thought about sitting down to list the many things I am thankful for, I realized such a post usually comes across as gloating.

You know what I mean. We’ve all seen them — the Instagram photos or personal blogs about someone’s beautiful children, wonderful husband, and fabulous life, and how #blessed and #grateful they are to have achieved such perfection.

Well, I’m confident enough (or maybe just old enough) to find this type of thing merely annoying rather than undermining, and luckily Instagram has a couple of buttons to make them less common on my feed (“unfollow” and “block” come to mind).

My life is not perfect because I am not perfect.

Still, I am grateful because I know I am (no-hashtag) blessed.

As I write this, I am sitting in our living room, which I finally managed to decorate for Christmas, and if I squint and/or turn the overhead ligths off, I can manage to see only the beauty of holiday exhibited by the items we’ve accumulated through the years.

If, on the other hand, I leave the lights on and my eyes wide open, the clutter covering the coffee table becomes apparent — a large basket overflowing with magazines and books, several stacks of DVDs and still more books, plus multiple remotes for our outrageously large television.

I’m ashamed to admit I am grateful for that TV. We got it several years ago when we realized it was becoming increasingly difficult to make out the picture on our old one. It was the winter before the last World Cup, and we’d begun watching the few football games we could find on free TV. To our shock, the numbers on the jerseys seemed to have shrunk, and with the World Cup coming up, this was a problem. (Note: I use the term “football” in the global sense, referring to the game everyone but the US calls “football,” the one actually played with one’s feet.)

Anyway, we needed a new television, and with my blessing, The Engineer went shopping. I expected one with a larger screen, but when I saw what he bought, I had to laugh.

Going from our old television, which was about as deep as it was wide (no exaggeration) to the one we have now was like going from two tin cans and a string to a new iPhone. And I am so thankful we made that choice every time we watch Premier League football or a movie with a beautiful setting.

I should mention here that in my unperfect life, the television hangs above an old desk of my father’s (which I am also grateful to have, even though it’s held together more by hope than any structural integrity). Flanking that desk are two ugly wire frames holding dozens of CDs, and on it are my old computer and a stack of Christmas disks.

I’m grateful for the music on those CDs — Melissa Ethridge, Aimee Mann, Chris Isaak, several incarnations of a Very Special Christmas, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and more (so many more), which I play mostly when The Engineer isn’t home.

To my left is an old record cabinet that belonged to my grandparents. I’m not sure how I ended up with it, but it’s one of only two pieces of furniture I’ve ever refinished. It’s topped with stacks of books about France, because we plan to go there in several months, along with a few about Portugal and Spain because I also want to go to those countries again.

I’m grateful to be able to plan a trip, even if the execution of that plan may not come off because of COVID.

The record cabinet is filled with yarn. Beneath is a basket filled with yarn and an old step-stool that opens to a chair that my siblings and I used to use to brush our teeth. Beside it is my great-grandmother’s rocking chair, which I inherited from my mom.

I’m grateful for that chair because it is a link to those who came before me.

On the other side of the chair is another basket filled with yarn.

And we’re not done yet because beside the couch where I’m sitting is a large bag of yarn.

I’m grateful for the yarn. I usually get it cheap at thrift stores and use it to absent-mindedly crochet lap afghans to donate. I also have some scrubby yarn I paid full price for (GASP!), but that’s okay because one bundle makes a ton of scrubbies, and I give them away like candy.

Should we walk into the kitchen — or indeed, any other room in the house — we would find more stacks of stuff — mostly books and recipes, although the dining room table right now is home to a plastic tub of Christmas cards because there’s always someone I miss when I send ours, and I don’t want to have to run all the way upstairs just to quickly get a card in the return mail.

I’m grateful for those cards, even though I never pay more than a few dollars per box and sometimes feel it’s not worth the effort of sending them. I’m grateful because every time we go to the mailbox in December and find cards from distant (and not-so-distant) friends, I know it is worth it after all.

And I’m grateful for the recipes too, and the wherewithal to have enough time and money to try out some of them, even if they don’t always turn out as advertised.

And books … how can I possibly express how grateful I am for books? My love for books is more than love; it’s a (mostly) sociably acceptable addiction. Like Thomas Jefferson, I cannot live without books.

I should also mention central heating and programmable thermostats. In the winter, I am so very grateful to wake up to a warm house. I think of the ancestors in my family tree — some of whom feel as familiar to me as people I know — and know they would have been overwhelmed by this convenience we take so much for granted.

As I look over this list, I realize I have focused only on tangible, material items, when the things I’m most grateful for are not things; they are people.

My family — The Engineer, Darling Daughter, Aged Mother, sometimes worrying Brother — I am more grateful for them than I can express. The fact that we are all — at least for the moment — relatively well is an additional blessing because that is not always the case.

My friends — the one I frequently walk with, the ones I’ve known for more than forty years (and how can that be?), ones I met through various jobs and kept in touch with, even the ones I see only occasionally — each one makes my life infinitely richer.

The natural world and beauty which surrounds me every day, and the fact that my place of residence is within twenty minutes of more amazing parks than I can count — how lucky am I? Plus, there’s the endless entertainment supplied by the many squirrels and birds just outside our windows.

I think my favorite is when the squirrels take a nut or bit of bread we’ve tossed out and “hide” it in a tree. Yes, I know we’re not supposed feed them bread, but really our yard has so many nut trees, if they go for the bread too, I can’t imagine it’s going to seriously damage their health. And you can’t not laugh when you watch a squirrel carefully, well, squirrel away a piece of pita bread between a branch and a tree trunk as if s/he really expects it to be there when they get the munchies.

I have so much, how can I not feel guilty when there are others who are struggling? And yet, surely it would be much worse to not be thankful? If I try to be charitable with what I do have, doesn’t that balance things out at least a little?

Also, I have experienced enough loss, even tragedy, to know that smooth periods in life don’t last. Anything, even everything, could change tomorrow, so for now, when things are good, I am choosing to be grateful for my imperfect life.

But not #grateful.

“Deck Those Halls and Trim Those Trees”

Today, The Engineer and I (finally!) got down the Christmas decorations. And when I say The Engineer and I got them down, I should add two things: 1) Getting them down is as far as his contributions go as he is not a fan of holidays, and 2) We are not a family who goes overboard with holiday decor because #1.

The job/duty/joy of decorating has traditionally fallen to me, then Darling Daughter and I, and now me again.

Also for the record, I should admit DD has told me in recent years I always made her feel she wasn’t doing it right. Since I didn’t realize I was quite that bad of a control freak, I’m very sorry for acting that way.

Perhaps it serves me right that I’m stuck doing it alone.
Again.
Naturally.

As I’ve gotten older, I find myself wanting to simplify the holiday season while at the same time wanting it to be as magical as it was when I was young and later when Darling Daughter was a child.

I guess what I really want is a Christmas Fairy to come along and put up all the ornaments and decorations I’ve collected through the years, and then come back and take it all down sometime around New Year’s.

In the absence of said fairy, it falls to me. And once we have all the crates down, I find myself enjoying the process.

This year, for some reason, I found myself humming The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping.” (You can click through for the song, although the video is kind of a non-event despite featuring a tablecloth I know my mother once owned.)

You may or may not know (and I didn’t until I looked the song up after hearing it on my very favorite Christmas CD, “The Edge of Christmas”), The Waitresses were a New Wave band from Akron, Ohio. They formed in 1978, which means they were likely performing in Akron around the time I was going to college there.

And yet, I never heard of them until driving across town to buy “The Edge of Christmas.” Apparently (and unsurprisingly), I was not as cool as I thought I was when I was in school.

Yes, I bought the CD before iTunes and cell phones existed (I’m old; I admit it). I used my land line to call every record shop (and they were still called that because CDs were actually pretty new back then) in the Cleveland area to locate the disk. I wanted it because it has the all-time best Christmas song ever, “The Little Drummer Boy (Peace on Earth).” (Don’t try to tell me any different because I’m not listening.)

Anyway, “The Edge of Christmas” is a great CD, and also includes (along with Bing, Bowie and The Waitresses) the second best holiday song, “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues, featuring Kirsty Macoll and a theme that’s about as different from Bing and Bowie as it could be.

But I digress.

The point is tonight I decked our halls and trimmed our tree and sang The Waitresses.

Our tree has a lot of handmade ornaments — some crocheted by a friend who does a different design every year for her card, a few from Darling Daughter’s younger years, and some from my mom’s years attending ceramics class. (The cat is from then too.)
More ceramic class results: the big lighted tree and two smaller ones, along with the third Santa from the left.
My manger is also one of Mom’s projects. It’s just four pieces, which fit together like a puzzle.
I’ve included this second view so you can see the small angel, also made by Mom back when I still spelled my name “Kim.”
And from the “I can make stuff too” school of decorating, here’s one more tree decked out with some of last year’s “Super Scrappy” Christmas stars. In looking up that post, I noticed I shared Bing and Bowie in it too. I’m nothing if not consistent with my holiday likes and dislikes. πŸ™‚

Speaking of scrappy, dig these great bees I bought from my friend Joyce.

These girls are made from steel drums.

Joyce does mission work in Haiti with E=H: Education Equals Hope , and I like to buy stuff from her because the money goes right back to the artisans and to support the lunch program at the schools there.

A few years ago, I bought some other pieces of metalwork from her, and this year I had the idea of asking if the artist could do some bees. I was really pleased with the results and ordered four, three for us and one for a friend who also keeps bees. Aren’t they great? The Engineer suggested we hang them outside on the trees aound our hives, and I think that’s a wonderful idea.

Meanwhile, on a completely different subject, that same beekeeper friend taught me to make pierogis this week!

One recipe makes a lot and I may share a few … not too many because I love pierogis!

All this decking the halls and trimming the trees and making pierogis and sending cards and even winterizing the bees have been challenging to fit in because The Engineer went to Canada to work for eight days and ended up staying for two weeks. Then, my co-worker got a severe case of COVID and has been out, so I picked up an extra day at work for a few weeks, which probably doesn’t seem like much, but it did change my plans quite a bit.

The good news is she’s on the mend and will be back doing half-days at the end of the week. I’m pleased for her sake, but also for mine because I’d really like to do some Christmas baking, and next week, another friend and I are having a “cooking with phyllo” day at my house.

We’re doing this because after spending hours (NOT exaggerating) attempting to sign up for a similar class at a local college, we decided to just give up and buy phyllo and do our own thing.

If we are successful, I’ll try to remember to take pictures to share. If we are calamitously unsuccessful, I’ll do the same. πŸ™‚

Oh, Christmas Tree; Oh, Christmas Tree

How lovely are your branches …

The park walkers have been decorating again, and I couldn’t decide which of these two slightly different angles I preferred, so here are both pics.

I love that the walkers who use this park decorate every year for Christmas. Almost makes me ready to prod The Engineer into going up into the loft so we can get our own decorations and tree down.

Almost.

But not quite yet.

Snow …

… and we’ve not even got the bees treated and winterized yet. The Engineer was out of town for two weeks, so those tasks got postponed.

But mostly this picture is for my friend, Kate, in Australia, who is currently sweating 75% humidity and 85F days. She asked for a snow pic, and Ohio provided the opportunity to take one. ❄️ πŸ˜„

We will do the bee work tomorrow and Tuesday. They should be fine.

Enjoy, Kate!

The Nine, by Gwen Strauss: A Book Worth Reading

I just finished The Nine: The True Story of a Band of Women Who Survived the Worst of Nazi Germany by Gwen Strauss.

I listened to the book on audio, read by Juliet Stevenson, and I know the story will stay with me for a long time.

It is a story of “solidaire,” which the Collins Reverso dictionary translates and defines as an adjective meaning “who stand together, who show solidarity; interdependent.”

I am convinced that interdependence and solidarity is the reason the nine survived.

This “standing together” is something the author, a grand-niece of one of the nine, explores in her writing. Her research has led her to believe that women often survived longer in concentration camps partly because they more likely to band together, giving them the strength of a group when sometimes their own strength might wane.

Each woman in Strauss’s book has a distinct character, which comes through clearly. Thus, the women each bring a different strength to the group, and it’s these differences that helped them through the many tragedies and difficulties of their journey.

All were young — younger than my own daughter is now — and active in the French Resistance. All were eventually caught. Some were tortured, a fact Strauss illuminates, but does not dwell on. And all were deported to Ravensbruck for their activities, arriving there in 1944, near the end of the war.

There they banded together and managed to remain together during the many “selections,” somehow avoiding extermination, and ending up at a work camp near Leipzig making guns.

After the invasion at Normandy, the Allies moved through Europe, and it became clear Germany would lose the war. The Nazis responded by forcing those in the camps on death marches, often without food, water, or any apparent destination.

Those who couldn’t walk were put to death. Thousands more — already weak and often diseased from the poor conditions — died on the marches.

The nine in the book chose to escape or die trying.

The story of how they survived, and what happened to them afterward, is something you need to read for yourself.

I will add that this book has made me think about how war is written about, who is chosen to be the “heroes” and who is ignored, why women’s contributions and suffering are often ignored or downplayed, and how ordinary people can be caught up on the wrong side, sometimes against their will. I will ponder on the consequences borne by not only those who lived through war’s tragedies and terrors, but also their children and even their grandchildren.

And I will wonder if — like the nine — I would have had the strength to choose to make decisions based on my convictions of right and wrong and be willing to deal with the aftermath.

Quick Bee Update: Once the weather turned, I took the sugar syrup and honey off the hives, and today I tried a different recipe for bee patties. I learned this new method of making the patties at the most recent meeting of one of our local beekeeping groups.

Based on the speaker’s recipe, I combined one bag of sugar (four pounds) with about 4/5 pint of water and 1 tsp of white vinegar. This I heated to a rolling boil, finally reaching 245F, the minimum recommended by the recipe. After allowing the mixture to cool slightly, I poured it into foil pans to harden. (I actually doubled the recipe, using two bags of sugar, which made three pans.)

If you decide to try this recipe, please be aware that sugar syrup gets very hot, scorches easily, and definitely needs to be watched every minute it’s on the burner because when it boils, it bubbles up quite high in the pan. In fact, I had to ladle some of it out of my pan to prevent a dangerous overflow.

Making it is a hot sticky mess, and it takes a long time to reach 245F.

Will the bees like it? I guess we’ll see!