Friday, November 2, 2012

Honk If You Love Democracy!

My mother, Irene, first got involved in politics with the Democratic Primary in 1960.  JFK's vision was too good for her to pass up.  For the rest of her life, she stayed involved.  She campaigned for candidates and was one of the election judges in our local precinct in RD#1 Finleyville, PA.  For my mother, Election Day was the biggest day of the year, after Halloween, of course, but that is another story.

The polling place for our precinct was the basement of the Dowling family's house near the intersection of Gilmore and the Elrama-Finleyville Road.  The poll workers and other neighbors spent days preparing food.  On Election Day, half of the basement was dedicated to voting and the other half was a buffet filled with local delicacies.  My mother's specialty was stuffed cabbage which she made in a 22 quart electric roaster. Pounds of ground beef and rice, onions, several heads of cabbage and the secret ingredient, Campbell's tomato soup.   Yum!  

Our bus stop was 20 yards from the Dowlings.  After school, the kids from our neighborhood filed off of the bus and into a basement filled with the smells of rigatoni, cabbage rolls, baked ham and coffee.  There were almost as many cookie varieties as Mon Valley wedding.  We'd each fill a small plate, stuff our pockets with cookies and take a seat among our neighbors who were there to vote, to eat or just to visit with old friends.  I thought that this was what Election Day was like in every town in America. 

I voted this morning! I never voted early before so I was pretty excited about it.  I love voting!  I always get a little misty when I stand there in the voting booth.  This morning, as I stood in the line among my neighbors at the Silver Spring Civic Center, I did kind of miss the smell of the cabbage rolls.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Now then... Where were we?

FADE IN:  Montage of turning calendar pages and changing seasons.

I am happy to be back and maybe, for a wee indulgent moment, to look back at 2011. 

I lost my dad in March.  He was a force of nature and until the day he died, I don't think I ever believed that he would.  He lived most of his 83 years, on his own terms.  And from all accounts, he died the same way.  He played golf, and won, twice that last week.  Then kind of as an afterthought, he went to the hospital, had a few surgeries and never woke up.  No long lingering illness.  No loss of dignity.  Just gently into that good night. 

A small orphaned part of me hopes that he was greeted at his destination by my mother.  My 1950 Kennywood Memories mother.  Young and gorgeous, they step into the photo booth.  She takes off her cat eye glasses and leans into his strong shoulder.  He pulls her close as they smile for the camera.  Snap.  Rest in Peace.


Many blessings in the New Year to you and all belonging to you.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy Mulligan!

It is 10:30 am on New Year's Eve. 

Being a sentimental sort of a gal, I do look forward to the New Year and the fresh start it offers.  Not the quit smoking and lose twenty pounds kind of fresh start.  Although years ago when I smoked, I did often quit for the New Year. 

No, I am talking more metaphorical here.  The symbolism of a clean slate.  Do Over.  Mulligan.  Pentimento.  Call it what you will.  I especially like that last one.  Pentimento.  Painting over what didn't turn out as you expected.  Not wasting time judging or trying to hide things, necessarily, just moving on without regret. I am ready.  Are you?

May your 2010 be filled with success, good health and all the joy your hearts can hold.  Many Blessings to you and to all belonging to you.

Happy, Merry, etc.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Didn't I come to bring you a sense of wonder?

I was in the supermarket this morning.  In the midst of the bustle the sound system played Christmas carol standards from Ella Fitzgerald and Dean Martin.  I rushed around trying to get the very last of my shopping done.   Then because I really needed it, the Chinese Dance from the Nutcracker began to play.  I stuffed my arms up into my sleeves and gave my best imitation of one of the Chinese mushrooms from Fantasia.  I know it is probably politically incorrect, but those little guys just make me want to dance.  And as I danced my way around the corner I ran into a man dancing the other way. We nodded to each other and kept going.  Don't you just love Christmas?

When I was in the 4th grade at Elrama Elementary School, my class made a field trip downtown to see the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater perform the Nutcracker at the Syria Mosque.  They did very little to prepare us in advance for what we were about to see.  In retrospect, that was the perfect approach.  We just got our permission slips signed and then showed up with our brown bag lunches and got on the bus.

Holy Cow!  The theater itself was fantastic, a grand building with sphinxes out front.  Sphinxes.  Imagine.  Nothing like that in Finleyville or Elrama, where we had come from.  We took our seats.  The auditorium was huge.  We all fidgeted and looked around at the murals and the chandelier.  Once the curtain went up I couldn't tell you what anyone else was doing.  I was levitating above my chair, dancing along in my imagination.  It was wonderful from start to finish.  I was the perfect age to absorb the wonder. And it still feels the same to me today.

Over the years I have seen countless versions of the Nutcracker, from professional productions to my niece's preschool ballet class.  It is really funny when they are in tutus and diapers.  I have seen the Harlem Nutcracker and the American Ballet Theater with Mikhail Baryshnikov and this afternoon, Nutcracker: The Motion Picture.  I stay away from the animated ones, because they are, frankly, terrifying. 

Whenever I see it or I hear the music, I am transported back to that day.

The Syria Mosque is now a parking lot.  That is too sad for words.

I have discovered that there are a few places around the US, particularly San Francisco and Chicago where you can dance along with the Nutcracker.  Imagine.  Next year I am going to dance it, even if I have to go alone.  I owe it to myself.  I owe it to George Balanchine.  I owe it to the world, really. 

Let me know if you want to join me.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Treasure Hunting

My friend, Liz, is an avid treasure hunter.  Not deliberately, but she is such a great observer that she can come up with just about anything while walking along the shores of Liscannnor Bay.  Unusual rocks, fossils or the fragile heart-shaped shells that float up on mounds of seaweed around Brigid's Day, there is always treasure on the beach.

A few years ago, one Easter Sunday, after a week of gales, she found a giant rope during our morning walk with the dogs.  It was at least forty feet long and about eight inches in diameter.  It was waterlogged, covered with sand and had the odd bit of fishing net and wood attached to it.  One end still had the original woven loop and the other looked as if it had been torn violently from its moorings.  In other words, it was fantastic.  We were overcome with that universal feeling that all treasure hunters get.  Possession!  We had to have it.  I didn't want it for myself but I was adamant that she got to keep it.

The trouble was that the car was almost a mile away at the cemetery and the only other way out to the road was through half an acre of ancient blackberry bushes.  With no other options, we proceeded to drag the rope down the beach.  We tried dragging it by one end.  It didn't budge.  We tried dragging it by both ends.  It buried its middle under a mountain of sand.  We settled on dragging it by the middle and that worked, sort of.  People passed us on their own walks. They stopped to review our work before continuing on.  "So.. you've got a rope, then,"  said one man as he passed as if it was a most ordinary occurrence.

It was tedious work and after forty five minutes of pushing, pulling and trying to coerce the dogs into towing, we agreed to call her husband for backup.  While we were waiting for Liam to arrive, a woman walked by with her three sons, the youngest of whom was about six.  The boys excitedly eyed the rope and asked questions about where we found it and what we intended to do with it.  They all helped us drag the rope, amid much giggling and speculation about what kind of ship it came from.  A pirate ship, it was decided, and we all agreed to return tomorrow to see if the rest of the ship floated up.  The boys worked hard, but they soon tired and went off with their mother to finish their walk.

When Liam arrived, we had gotten about a third of the way to the cemetery.  "We'll have to saw it into pieces," he said.  "No. Please.  Anything but that," we cried.  He eventually came around to our way of thinking and we all continued pulling, pushing and dragging the giant rope down the beach.  Two hours after she found it, we rolled the rope into the back of the van, triumphant.


My eight-year-old nephew, Marcus, and I went geocaching a few weeks ago.  It is kind of high tech treasure hunting using a hand-held GPS and clues from an internet site.  It was our first time out so we didn't really know what we were doing but during the course of the day we managed to find three hidden treasures.  When we were tromping through the mud on the banks of the Monongahela River, Marcus found loads of treasure.  Not the treasure we were looking for, not right away.  He got a white rock, some sort of clam shell and a bottle cap.  He was so excited about seeing the bottle cap that he went in the water after it.  Eventually, we remembered what we were searching for and we located our first cache.  It was a great rush.  Now I know how the guys who raised the Titanic felt.


Liz called me from Ireland the other day to say that she'd found a message in a bottle.  Truthfully, her dog, Lily, found it. The note inside was from a man in Newfoundland, named Eugene.  Liz, being happily married, sent him a photo of the dog.  I wonder how he felt after putting his longing and loneliness into the bottle only to have the respondent be a border collie who likes to eat socks.


I pondered all of this as I was out walking the dog along the banks of the Monongahela this morning.   Is what we see as treasure and pick up or what we pass by unnoticed really so random after all?  If there was a message in a bottle floating here in the Mon, would I be able to pick it out amidst all the other litter?   

Eloise and I continued up over the hill past the Pony League field and as we crossed an area which must have been an old dumping ground for the glass factory before they made this into a park.  I looked down at something shiny peeking through the dirt.  I dug at it with a stick until it popped out.  I dusted it off on my jeans.  It was a green lump, as big as an egg.  I held it up to the sun.  "A giant emerald," I told Eloise as I slipped it into my coat pocket.

That's the thing about treasure.  There is always another one if you keep looking.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cupan Tae?

When I moved to Ireland I had a coffee habit befitting a woman who lived in a neighborhood with a Starbucks on every other corner.  And I had it bad.  I suffered severe coffee withdrawal in the first few days I was in County Clare.  At that time you couldn't really get a proper cup of coffee.  Even if you ordered one in a posh restaurant, chances are, you got a cup of instant coffee.  Higher end instant coffee, but instant nonetheless.  Blech!  I was devastated.  Coffee was the fuel I ran on.  As I worked my way through increasingly more stressful jobs, my coffee intake increased accordingly.  It was the fuel I ran on.  And I kept running.

Life in my little village didn't require that much extra fuel.  No one I knew had a life so complicated that they couldn't stop for a cup of tea.  If you met a friend on the street one of you would say 'Fancy a cuppa?' and you'd tuck in to Connie's crowded little cafe in Ennistymon, the Atlantic Hotel in Lahinch or on a fine day, the garden of Mary Gray's Doolin Craft Shop.  Or if you found yourself in Dublin, the little girl's tea party fantasy filled with fairy cakes, scones and crust-less cucumber sandwiches served to you on tiered trays to the overstuffed sofas of the Lord Mayor's Lounge at the Shelbourne Hotel.  When the tea arrived, you'd relax and catch up for as long as you had.  Tea always fits into the time allotted.

Tea in Ireland is not really considered an event but it is treated like one.  In keeping with the Irish tradition of chatty hospitality, when you arrived at someone's home before you found yourself a chair you'd hear 'Will I put the kettle on?'  And not any kettle.  They have fabulous electric kettles that boil water in two minutes.  Then the biscuits would appear, not the everyday plain biscuits but the 'just for company' biscuits.  If it was near the holidays, giant tins of assorted biscuits would be offered up to guests.

There are rules for the making of the tea.  I have had instruction from the best experts in the field. Liz's husband, Liam, got me up to speed on the proper method for warming the pot to improve the brew.  And Mary's Auntie Mary in Tullywinney gave me a piece of advice I will treasure always.  "Kathleen,' said she, 'it's not worth boiling the kettle if you're not going to drink it from a china cup." She was right. It just tastes better.'

After a few days at Auntie Mary's house, she began to treat me like family.  She asked me to fill the jug from the milk in the fridge.  She laughed at my surprise when I opened the fridge to find a bucket of milk sitting on the shelf.  On a dairy farm, they don't bother putting it into a carton.

When I moved back to America, I felt a few steps out of sync with everyone else.  One thing led to another and I started drinking coffee again.

Recently while I was visiting Washington I had the pleasure to see some of my favorite friends.  The pace of the place makes it hard to catch up with folks.  It was just lucky this time.  Everyone I wanted to see was available.  I had some lovely visits and I drank countless cups of tea.  A lovely Chinese green tea with a faint fragrance of damask roses with Juliet, iced tea with Renee, and my favorite Lapsang Souchong after an afternoon of crunching through the fallen leaves along the canal with Kurt and the dogs.  Each was an event, perfect in it's own way.

A nice cup of tea always reminds me that Life is good.  So I've put my coffee pot up on the shelf for a while.

Will I put the kettle on?

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Turfless - to be destitute of turf.

We woke at sunrise, the hound and I, and got dressed for our walk. The clear, bright Autumn Sunday with no wind blowing let the factory smells fade away, leaving only the crisp scent of the morning and the falling leaves.

As we stepped through the door, we each sniffed the air. Eloise chasing evidence of her arch-nemesis: Big White Cat. Me, searching for the smoke of a turf fire off in the distance. 3321.69 miles in the distance, as the crow flies.

The blue-gray smoke of a turf fire has the ability to cover time and distance. Cozy like oatmeal with a bit of cinnamon, or hot spiced cider and fuzzy slippers. Afternoons in front of the AGA in Ant's kitchen solving the problems of the world over pots of tea and McVitie's Ginger Nut bisquits. Waking up on a Sunday sofa covered in newspapers. It conjures warmth, shelter from the storm, lost places and boxes of old photos. Happiness with a tinge of longing, like most truly Irish things.

When I was packing to return to America, I stuffed the zippered pockets of my jacket with small bits of turf briquette before tucking it into my suitcase. Thanks Bord na Mona for making it so dry and portable. On days like this when I miss Autumn in Ireland, I light a bit of the turf in an incense burner and let the smell fund my memories.

When I lived in Ireland, I had a waxed paper envelope full of autumn leaves that I would take out of the drawer when I felt lonely for Autumn in America. In my mind's nose the red leaves always smelled a little spicier that the others.

There was a time in my life when I thought that all I needed to be happy was a little cottage by the sea with a turf fire and a ginger cat.

Hmm.  What was I thinking?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Maybe it's the sunstroke talking...

Disney World Orlando.  What an amazing place!

I have sunburn on my nose and blisters on my feet.  Lots of blisters.  There are little tiny geckos running around everywhere and while I think they are adorable, I am really hoping that one of them doesn't jump on me.

I was on safari in the Animal Kingdom.  I saw the Muppets in 3D.  I flew in a hang glider over the Golden Gate Bridge.  And I threw up after wobbling off of Mission: SPACE.  That wasn't one of the high points, but it was memorable.  I should have listened to the 4th or 7th warnings about bailing out if you are prone to motion sickness.  Who knew?  I do now.  In the future if anyone asks if I am bothered about spinning clockwise at the speed of light in a darked, enclosed space, I will definitely raise my hand and quickly step out of the queue.

I love amusement parks.  They're in my blood.  But I didn't expect to love Disney so much. The diverse cast of thousands went out of their way to ensure that the magic was seamless.  Litter was spirited away almost as it hit the ground. They have crowd control down to a science.  At times of the day when the queues for the most popular attractions are longest, suddenly a parade or street performers would appear. 

It was diabolically hot and outragrously expensive.  At times you really had to look to see where the attractions ended and the merchandising began.  There were far too few water fountains.  And let's face it, the heads on some of the Siamese Dolls in It's a Small World looked like they were about to fly off.   But what a wonderful place!  It's fantastic.  It's incredible.  If it is not the happiest place on earth, it deserves credit for trying.  I loved it. 

Just one thing though, I am more than a little creeped out that they keep taking my fingerprints. The nice young woman at the gate assured me that they deleted the information after the passes expired.  Can I get that in writing?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Vanessa vs. the Zombies of Bill Heffner Elementary School

Vanessa gave her mother one final spin to show off her meticulously mismatched outfit before planting a pink flowered boot on the first step of the bus. 

“Have fun, monkey butt,” whispered her mother. 

She waved goodbye and gave the driver a big smile as she looked for an empty seat.
When she was little, she always sat with her brother, but Billy was in Middle School now so she was making the trip on her own for the first time. He sure was a pain, but she kind of missed having him there. First day of school and all. You never know what to expect. 

Vanessa found an empty seat a few rows back. She patted her hair flip and slid across to the window. She turned and looked around at the other passengers. The bus was about half full. The last two rows were filled with 4th and 5th-grade boys, noisy as usual. The first two rows were filled with the shy kids and the little kids, not making a peep. In the middle, nothing but zombies. 

“OMG that is sooo cool,” cooed one of them as she examined the “I Y Hannah” bag carried by her seatmate. 

Vanessa rolled her eyes.

“Everyone knows you’re just jealous.” one of them said. At that, Vanessa laughed out loud. 

“Check this out.” declared another. “It’s a special one of a kind Hannah Montana watch. My mom got it online for my birthday.” She waved her arm in the air to give the others a good look. 

Two of the others were showing off their identical one of a kind watches.
“I guess one of a kind means that you have only one of that kind.“ Vanessa groaned to no one in particular. She looked down at her own oversized watch with the brightly striped leather band and smiled. 

Living in a military community means high turnover in the school population. Vanessa was relieved when the bus stopped again and she saw a familiar, friendly face from her class last year. Relieved, that is, until she spied the Hannah Montana Metallic Denim Scooter with Glitter Belt. 

“Oh no. Not you too.” 

“I got a wake up call this morning from Hannah Montana,” she chirped as she approached the seat. 

“You need a wake-up call,” said Vanessa as she shoved her monkey backpack on the empty seat. 

At each stop, a few more passengers got on. Some were zombies, collectively sporting the entire Walmart Hannah Montana clothing collection. The rest were regular students buzzing with the excitement of the first day of school. The seats filled up until the one next to Vanessa was the only one open. 

She picked up her backpack, pulled out her iPod and cranked up “Funkytown” to drown out the incessant zombie chatter. She sat back and rocked her flowered boots in time with the music. 

At the last stop before the school, a tiny first grader got on and bounced into the empty seat. Vanessa recognized her from the Family Support activities on the base. 

The zombies, smelling fresh meat, hovered near the new arrival, flashing their Hannah Montana Thunder Velcro Sneakers and their Purple Pouchettes. 

The little one, not knowing any better, was mesmerized by the glitter of it all. 

“Be careful,” whispered Vanessa. “they’ll suck out your brain.” 

One of the zombies slipped a Hannah Montana lip gloss ring on the little girl’s index finger. 

“Go ahead. Give it a try. It’s Rockin’ Blueberry. My favorite.” whispered the Zombie. 

“Nooooooooo,” screamed Vanessa as she grabbed the ring and threw it out of the open bus window. “That’s how they turn you into one of them.” 

The zombies hissed at Vanessa’s declaration and slid back into their seats. 

As the bus pulled up in front of the school, the zombies packed their Hannah Montana notebooks, pencils and school planners back into their Hanna Montana Glam Glitter Backpacks and Canvas Guitar Sling Bags and started leaving the bus. 

One of them leaned into Vanessa as she passed and whispered, “Next time.”

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

You Want Pretty?

Oh man.  I finally did it.  I have been dancing around it for ages.  I spent twelve hours researching.  I collected six authentic recipes and three that were just silly.  I interviewed several people about their experiences.

Compiling all of this information, I waited until the time was right.  Today. Lunchtime.  I was hungry.  I had a few spuds from my sister's garden.  I was ready.

I reviewed all of the information about what could go wrong as I waited for the potatoes to steam.  No boiled potatoes in this recipe.  I got my equipment ready and made pesto from the last few basil leaves on my porch.  I have a few minutes so I toasted some pine nuts.  I poked the potatoes with a fork.  It was undeniable.  They were ready.  I nervously pulled out the ricer and quashed the spuds.  That wasn't so bad.  I beat the egg and mixed it through the potatoes.  So far, so good. 

I added the flour a tablespoon at a time to keep from adding too much.  This took forever.  For-ever.  I gently rolled out my snake.  Well--it wasn't so much a snake as it was an oddly-shaped floury gob.  Traditional recipes two and six cautioned strongly about over-working the dough.  I have a choice.  I work on the snake and have perfectly shaped gnocchi, however inedible.  Or I could break the rules a little and and go for something a little less traditional.

I carelessly ripped off pieces of dough and flung them into the boiling water.  Fabulous.  They floated.  I fished them out, drained them and tossed them with pesto.  I sprinkled them with cheese and the toasted pine nuts.  I opened my last Limonata.

I sat down at the table and looked to my bowl. In retrospect, I should have snapped a photo.   My first pesto-covered bite confirmed that they were indeed the best gnocchi ever.  So far anyway.   I may revisit that snake thing.

So there you have my gnocchi.  They weren't pretty.  You want pretty?  Call Sophia Loren.  These were perfect.  The perfect comfort food.  And in keeping with all great comfort food, I think I'm ready for a little nap.