Friday, December 30, 2011

Carrot Cake Connection

So Fawn texts me two days day before Christmas on her way to the grocery store.  "Mom, don't kill me but I need ingredients for carrot cake again!!!"  Just a few weeks earlier she had called and asked me for the recipe, that time for Thanksgiving.  The same thing happened last year and I think the year before.  To tell you the truth, I'm not sure how many times I've given it to her, I've lost count.  But I can't fuss at her too much.

Being that my dad had been a meat cutter, I would call him from Alabama every year a few weeks before Christmas and ask him about a particular cut of meat that I was preparing for a special dinner.  I used the same kind of roast and prepared it exactly the same way every year, but I always wanted to make sure that I got it right.    "Dad, how long am I supposed to cook this if it's a four-pound eye of round?" I would ask.  And every year he would patiently go over it with me again.  The first year after he died, I felt a sense of loss as I prepared the meat to go into the oven.  I had long mastered the recipe, but I missed the sound of his voice on the other end of the line, a thousand miles away in New York. I think the call I made from my kitchen each year on that particular occasion was something he had come to expect and looked forward to, simply one thing of many that connected us.

I do the same thing with my sister Beth.  There is a fruit salad carried down from my father's family that requires a certain amount of jello, and every year I call to ask her how much I should use.  It doesn't matter that I've made the stuff for most of my life.  I call every year and ask her what to do.  Except for this year.  She's been working a lot so I decided to go it alone.  She called a couple of days ago.  "So how much jello did you put in the fruit salad?" she asked.  I told her.  "You should have put in another pack," she informed me.  Sigh.  I told her I was afraid of putting in too much, I did that once and it wasn't as good.  "I thought it tasted pretty good this year," I continued, "but maybe I should have put in one more pack."  Like I said, we go through this every Christmas.  And in spite the fact that she makes me wonder if I'll ever get it right, somehow it seems to draw us closer together.

So I'm thinking that maybe when Fawn calls from Green Bay and asks for that carrot cake recipe again or Angela texts from El Paso for the umpteenth time asking how much soup she needs for her favorite chicken recipe, they might be using it as a way to connect, to be closer to their mom who is so far away in New York.  Maybe?  But then there's Autumn down in Birmingham.  She sent me a message a few weeks back.  "Mom, need your pastry recipe."  I knew the one she was talking about, the one that came from her Grandma Burke.  I always made it for my kids on Christmas and New Year's mornings, one of their favorites.  But I didn't hear back from her after that, so a few days later I called and asked her if she still wanted the recipe.  "No thanks mom.  I found it." 

Ok,  so maybe my theory has some holes in it.  Perhaps they're more like their father, writing things down on little pieces of paper and then forgetting where they've put them.  It doesn't really matter.  They can ask me as often as they like, however they like.  It's all good as it helps keep them close in spite of the miles.  Connected.  And I need that. 

Mom's Old Henry Bars recipe

So back to the carrot cake recipe.  Each time Fawn calls I pull it out of the large zip lock bag where I keep my special recipes.  No neat little file box with pretty three by five cards for me.  If I did that, I'd have to recopy the ones my mom wrote down on whatever piece of paper she had close at hand.  It probably wouldn't be a bad idea.   Her "Chicken Every Sunday" recipe is especially vulnerable, written on the thinnest  of paper and in danger of disintegrating at any moment.  But it reminds me of her, so I treat it as if I were handling one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, not wanting to lose any of her hieroglyphics.  The "Old Henry Bars" recipe has faded some over the years, but she loved making them when she needed something quick and easy and yummy. I do the same.  And then there's the pastry recipe from my mother-in-law, her letters large and neat, much easier to read than my mother's.  A couple of the corners are ripped off and there are food stains on the front and back of the card. But I won't replace it, it's more valuable than ever now that she's gone.

Some years back one of my girls decided to take all the recipes out of the zip lock and organize and write them down into into a notebook.  She was well into her project when I realized that she'd been throwing away the originals, including the paper with my mother's carrot cake recipe.  That was the first one to be entered into the notebook, now titled "Marcy's Carrot Cake."  The remaining originals are now neatly packed into the front pocket of that same notebook of which I pulled a cake recipe a few weeks back and made a couple of times over the holidays.  I felt connected to the giver as I mixed the various ingredients, following the familiar handwriting.   And naturally there were the compliments.  "What a delicious cake," they would say.  And I would reply every single time,  "I'm glad you liked it."  And then I would smile. "That was my mother's recipe."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Singing By Christmas

The choir right before the Christmas cantata

It had been six months since I'd flown to New York for the botox injections that help me talk and my voice was still doing relatively well.  I had a bit of raspiness and occasionally a word would catch in my throat, but all in all, I didn't sound all that bad.  In fact, I probably could have held off the trip a bit longer and if I had, I would have seen the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center and the stores on Fifth Avenue all decorated for Christmas.  It would have been a new experience for me, visiting New York during the holidays.  But it wasn't December, it was the first Tuesday in November, and there was a reason for going when I did.  I had been calculating in my head not how long it would take for the botox to help me talk, but how long it would take to let me sing again.

Having a voice disorder, my inability to speak without forcing every word was hard enough, but losing my singing voice was especially devastating.  Over time I accepted the reality of how my life had changed because of Spasmodic Dysphonia, but that didn't change the longing I had to make music again.  That is until early last year after meeting with a new doctor in New York.  (See "Singing" November 8, 2010.)  For the next few months I was able to do what I hadn't done in four years, sing.  Unfortunately the injections are temporary, eventually the effects of the botox wear off.  Thus the spasms slowly returned and sadly the singing was the first to go.   I had wanted to sing for Christmas, but it wasn't going to happen.  At least not this time.

And that's why I flew to New York when I did.  As I sat in the chair waiting for the doctor to insert the needles into the muscles adjoining my vocal cords, I visited with his two assistants.  They looked at me and both commented on how remarkably strong my voice was, even after six months.  "You're the best voice we've heard today!" one of them said.  I said something about wanting to get it out of the way before the winter weather hit the city.  I remembered my first time there.  It was January and a frigid, biting wind swept mercilessly through the streets of Manhattan.  I had never been colder in my entire life, so in part it was the truth.  But there was more, the part that was harder to articulate.  If I had spoken my heart it would have gone something like this:  "Well actually, I've been figuring out how many weeks it takes to sing again.  I knew if I came now, I'd time it just right for Christmas!" 

Last Sunday evening I had the privilege of directing our Christmas cantata.  Not only did the choir watch my hands to bring them in and cut them off at the appropriate moments, they were watching my lips as well.  For you see, I sang along with them on every single song, every single note.  And Christmas Sunday morning, just a few days from now,  I'll be singing the carols along with everyone else.  It's all I really wanted, all I asked for this year.  I wanted to be singing by Christmas.  

Larry and I right before the cantata

Warming up with the choir before the cantata  

Monday, December 12, 2011

Dropping Needles--A Christmas Reflection

We have a real Christmas tree set up in the sanctuary.  A guy who attends here has a tree farm and asked if the church might like a live one this year.  It's big, about ten feet tall and a good seven or eight feet across. And it's nice, real nice, evoking quite a few oohs and aahs over the past few weeks.  There's only one problem.  It stopped drinking water a few days after it went up, and I'm afraid it might start dropping too many of its needles.     

I like live trees, that's what Larry and I had always had in our families.  I still remember sitting on the couch in my piano teacher's living room waiting for my lesson, watching the colors change on her aluminum tree.  Even as a child I didn't quite understand the appeal of that.  But she lived in a neat little house without imperfect children or bothersome pets.  Looking back now, I suspect that she simply didn't want to deal with a dirty tree and those pesky pine needles.

That's the chance you take with the lives ones.  There's almost always a big sign on the lot advertising the trees as being fresh.  Hmmm.  I've learned you need to size em up, shake them around a bit and then watch the eyes of the sales person as you ask when they were brought in. And if they don't meet your gaze while talking,  you take your business somewhere else.  But no matter how hard you try, sometimes you get a bad one.   

Six or seven years ago while still living in Alabama,  I noticed the water wasn't going down in the tree stand.   We were barely into December and our lowly fir was already beginning to drop needles.  I went back to Lowes and approached a girl working in the garden center.  "We bought a tree here a week or so ago and already it's dropping needles," I explained. She looked at me rather suspiciously.  "Do you still have the receipt?  she asked.  "Bring me the receipt along with the tree and we'll give you another one."  I suspect she didn't believe me, that I wouldn't really come back with a tree.  But a couple of hours later we pulled the poor half-naked tree out of our van and dragged it into the store, leaving a thick path of needles behind us.  She took one look.  "Oh, I guess it is dropping needles, isn't it.  Go head, get yourself another tree."  And she pointed in the direction from whence we had originally picked out our pathetic little pine.  "Could we get something a little pricier?"  I asked.  It was worth a try.  After all, we had gone to a lot of trouble to strip it of its lights and ornaments,  load it back into the van and drive it across town.  Plus I'd be vacuuming needles out of the car for weeks.  No sympathy from this lady however.  "Sure, you can get whatever you like as long as you pay the difference."  So much for Christmas spirit.

Finding a live tree was never a concern until we moved to Costa Rica for language school. It was 1985, our first time so far from home.  It was going to be hard enough as it was, and not having a proper tree would make it all the more difficult.  Therefore, when Larry said that he had seen some being sold on the street six or seven blocks from the house, I was ecstatic.  We rallied the kids and headed out in the direction where he had seen them.  Not only was it a longer walk than what we had anticipated, we discovered that the trees were actually set up in the center of three major boulevards on a small medium.  We managed to cross with all three kids in tow, ignoring the best we could the traffic whizzing all around us, and picked out a good- sized pine, remarkably similar to what we might have found in the States. Somehow we managed to get it back across the street to the sidewalk and started the long trek home, five gringos and a very cumbersome,  heavier than anticipated pine tree.  There were a few times during that year we could have really used a vehicle,  this was one of them.

Angela, Joel and Fawn on Christmas morning in Costa Rica 

It wasn't too many days later that we discovered our treasure already dropping piles of needles.  On Christmas morning it looked so sad that I didn't even take a close-up shot of the tree with all three children sitting in front of it.  Instead we took a shot of them sitting on the steps leading down to the living room, the tree well out of view.  The best picture I have is one of our little chihuahua sitting underneath the lowest branches.  Even in that, it's pretty obvious that the arbol has nothing left of its former glory.  A few hours later we removed all the decorations and dragged it outside, the remaining needles trailing behind.

Chiqui under our very dry Christmas tree 

We had another reason for removing the remaining vestiges of Christmas that afternoon.  My sister Dawn had come to spend Christmas with us, and the next morning we were going to load up on a bus and head to the beach for a few days.  The tree might have been a disappointment, but the adventure of spending that memorable Christmas in Costa Rica was not.  In fact, it turned out to be one of our absolute favorites ever.  

Larry,  Marcy , Fawn, Joel and Angela at Caihuita in Costa Rica two days after Christmas

This will be our third year in this parsonage and three years with an artificial tree in the corner of our living room.  Fifty-seven live trees, fifty-eight if you want to count the lemon from Lowe's, and after all these years I buckle and resort to a fake.   But someone offered it, we're not putting money out for a new one every year and our kids aren't around to fuss and complain.  Besides, most people can't even tell it's not the real thing anyways.  But the best part of all, it manages to drop a few needles, just enough to remind me of those past places and times that have been such an important part of my life.  And in that remembering, I joy and I laugh.