Thursday, April 7, 2016

Losing my job and liking it

I got an out-of-the-blue email from a friend yesterday, and not only was it good to hear from her, but the message was practically fan mail. A friend of hers had sent her a blog post about the end-of-year scramble at school. As she was reading it, she reports, she kept thinking, "This is funny; I'll have to send this to Julie," and then she reached the end of the post, and I'd written it.  Ouch ouch ouch, that's the sound of my arm being twisted to repost my musings on the secret benefits of looming job loss, so here goes.

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2015

The last bake sale


“I’ve never known so many people to be concerned about my mental health as the year my daughter left for college,” a friend confided to me recently. “After a while, I started thinking that I probably should have a nervous breakdown, because it seemed as though people were expecting it.”

I’m losing my job next August, that full-time mom-on-patrol stint that’s made up the last twenty one years of my life. I’ve moved from not being able to safely leave a room occupied by a conscious child (“Was that crash on Spongebob or in the dining room?”) to facing an autumn when both of them are in college.

Of course, it’s not exactly a “My work here is done” situation, clear to anyone who deals with the enormous emotional swells of older kids. “The bigger they are, they bigger they fuck up,” a straight-talking mom at the Catholic grade school once told me. True that, sister. But it is a year that’s marked with many “lasts” of my mom gig, and I’m beginning to notice.

I have laid down firm household rules on this topic. I’ve watched too many friends drive themselves crazy in this last year not to be aware of the warning signs. My vigilance began before school had officially started. The senior-to-be was nursing a late-August cold, and I suggested she stay home on day one: no one really needs to go to school on the first day, anyway, I reasoned. After a mighty nose-blow, she looked up at me pleadingly and said, “But mom, it will be my last first day."

“And that shit ends here,” I declared, realizing that we would be tying ourselves into a group knot if we allowed every single moment to be declared “The last Tuesday, October 3 ... ever.”

Re: Re: Re: yourself, toots
After we banned talk of “the lasts,” I had a bit of mental freedom to consider the positive aspects of being made redundant, as the British call it when you're summarily canned. After receiving an email message with the subject line: “URGENT: cupcakes needed for dance concert fundraiser!!!!” I dutifully turned the oven to 350 degrees and began to whip up a dessert. But I hummed happily at the thought that I was closing in on my last bake sale ever. The night of the concert, I found the Mommy in Charge and went through the ritual gratitude and inevitable instructions from her bossiness: “Don’t put it in that corner. That’s where we’re putting the items with sprinkles.” I walked away with a lighter load, and not just from the brownie dropoff. I was reaching the end of the time when some Martha Stewart wanna-be could offer me remedial instructions in brownie placement, napkin fluffing, or any of the countless other topics in which I've received schooling, all while keeping my lips drawn upward and feeling my stomach clench.

And Mommy Emails! I happily realized they were coming to a blessed death, too. Before the next committee meeting on whatever it is I go to committee meetings for, as I scanned the slew of “Re: Re: Re: Re: Tonight’s agenda” messages, I realized I would soon be able to absent myself from the land of Reply All Nitwits, too. Another “plus” went in the “no kids in school” column.

Three leaves and a rock
I thought back to elementary school. Not much to regret there, either. No more summers spent worrying over whether my child would be placed in the class with the functional alcoholic and the baker’s dozen of Mean Girls, or the room with the certified sadist and the pack of stick-wielding, uncontrollable boys. No more notes demanding three fall leaves and a rock, to be delivered with a jar of decoupage by 7:30 the next morning. No more middle-of-the night three-panel posterboard runs for the ruined Science Fair project. No Science Fairs, oh dear Jesus, no more Science Fairs at all.

I reached an apex of appreciation after hosting a cast party for the fall play this year. During the day, I had fielded phone calls from earnest parents who wanted a complete run-down of my security plans, with blueprints, if possible. I was sorely tempted to answer: “Just a minute, let me put down my loaded gun and light a cigarette before I think of an answer.” It was one of those nights that was doomed from the start, because by the end of the evening, I’d had to call for parental pick-ups of two drunken girls and their half-empty bottle of spiced rum. As I shut the door behind the last future Hazelden resident, it dawned on me that it had been the sort of night that made a person glad to be nearing retirement age.

Good luck, girls
Put your hand in a bucket of water, pull it out, and see how irreplaceable you are. My place will be taken by women made of sterner stuff than me. Standing right behind me is a long line of fresh-faced mommies, lined up in alphabetical order and ready to “reply all” to every email, whip up sprinkle-laden snacks, and host the best-darn cast parties ever. They have shapely figures, clean aprons, and the ability to sniff out spiced rum at sixty paces. Youth, and stupidity, are on their side. Good luck, girls. I wish you all the best at that next bake sale, and let me know if you ever need to borrow my Bundt pan. God knows I won’t be using it.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Was Earl right? Reconsidering the crazy man who said there was a microchip in my daughter's brain

We celebrated Emma's 21st birthday this week. Possibly I'm a bit worn down, but I'm beginning to wonder if Earl had a point.

MONDAY, OCTOBER 3, 2011


The Communist Microchip in my Daughter’s Brain, or, what I learned about Sino-U.S. relations from a guy with a topographical sculpture of Hawaii on his office wall

Back when I'd let my subscription for Ms. magazine lapse and picked up twelve issues of Fast Company instead (plus bonus tote bag!), I worked as a corporate drone in a totally made-up sector of American capitalism, euphemistically referred to as “business services." (Or, when the computer geeks tagged along, “consulting.”) An essential part of these "services" involved going to lunch with out-of-town customers, usually with a ratio ten of us to every one of them. We really liked that power-in-numbers thing. Also, floppy neckerchiefs and big earrings, but just for the women.

At lunch, the ten of us would take turns spouting marketing department aphorisms like, “It’s the people who make the difference at our company” and “When customers hear about all we can do for them, they say, ‘I had no idea.’” The other nine of us would nod along in time, solemnly. I realize now that what the customers were actually thinking was, “When can I get the next plane out of this burg and back to my glass-walled cubicle at the RenCen?” But I was too earnest to figure that out. In fact, I think I even wrote the script for a promotional video called, obviously enough, “I Had No Idea.” It had a great deal of footage of puffy white guys shaking hands at the foot of the two-story, twisted staircase in our new red-brick headquarters, the one our owner’s brother had designed. I’m not twisted enough to make this stuff up, so you have to know it’s true.

It was at a ten-to-one lunch that I found myself seated across the slightly sticky table from someone I'll call "Mr. Travel." He ran our Incentive Travel Group, which, back in those fat 'n happy times, mostly required deciding which of the hundreds of possible “Fam Trips” to go on next. (If you don’t already know what a Fam Trip is, don’t ask; it will just depress you and make you miss the nineties, something you probably never thought possible.) That day when I sat down to lunch, I knew three things about this guy, and I was about to learn one more.

Thing One, he had served proudly in the Marines for a number of years, a fact which came up in every conversation I’d ever had with him, no matter how brief. Thing Two, he had a gigantic copper-glazed sculpture that took up one full wall of his office. It was a topographical depiction of the Hawaiian Islands, each one of which he had visited hundreds of times, on those Fam Trips you weren’t supposed to be thinking about. He sat with his back to the artwork, the better to allow visitors to gaze on its splendor during meetings. It made me think of dentist’s offices, and work-related road trips to sad factory towns, when I had to stay in Holiday Inns with exactly this sort of sculpture in the lobby. Every time I left a meeting in his office, I was thinking about root canals and New Jersey, and I wouldn’t be be able to do my best “I Had No Idea” work for days. Thing Three about him was that he liked to walk around the office with both his hands stuck down the front of his pants. Did I mention that all this was happening decades ago, or is that beginning to become apparent?

So there we were at lunch, drinking ice tea (mid-nineties, not mid-eighties, big difference). Back then, I only had one topic I felt was worthy of discussion – my adorable baby daughter. Had I mentioned yet how cute she was?  Did I show you the latest pictures? Did you want to hear more about her? No one ever did, but that didn’t stop me. I babbled on about the baby, hitting hard on the extra-specialness and super-de-duper wonderfulness of every aspect of her, mentioning a minimum of once every five minutes that she’d been adopted all the way from China. I really did love the kid (still do), but I’m sure I made it sound like she was some sort of imported olive oil or antique chiffarobe, not a human being. My apologies to everyone who had to listen to me between June 1995 and July 1997, when I got hit so hard with the pregnancy stick (daughter number two) that  I pretty much shut up about my damn kids altogether.

So there I was, ignoring the I Had No Idea customer at the other end of the table, babbling about my daughter. Mr. Travel took his hands out of his pants and leaned in, close. “Did you ever think,” he said to me, “that the Chinese government has put microchips in all those girls’ heads, and that they’re just waiting for them to get a little older and stronger and then set them loose to destroy you? And ...” (significant Marine Corps pause) "... all of us?"

Well, that shut me up about the baby. And helped me to realize Thing Four: Despite the sculpture and the Fam Trips, and possibly because of the Marine Corps, (and potentially hinted at by the hands-in-the-pants thing), this man was completely insane.

My husband and I had a good laugh about it at the time, as we put our daughter to bed and then went downstairs to watch videos of her that we'd shot during the day. (Yes, pathetic, and yes, I realize that now.) "A destructive microchip intended to ruin our lives?  Ha ha," we cried, merrily.

Then the years dragged on. The many, many sleepless years. And, every now and then, locked in some epic battle for survival with the strongest life form on earth, my daughter, I would think, suddenly, of that comment about the parent-destroying microchip. Was he crazy? Or the sanest man at the ten-to-one table?

Last week, Emma called home four times in three nights. From Beijing. Long after midnight, our time, each time. Her reasons were perfectly good, at least in the cold daylight of her tomorrow, which was still our trying-to-catch-up-on-lost-sleep yesterday. One time, her debit card wasn’t working. The next time she called, two hours later, guess what, it still wasn't working, and she needed to buy an Asian Miracle Bra, and how was she supposed to do that without a debit card? The last time, she called from a wedding, and wanted to let us she was having a good time, in case we'd been worried. That "good time" on a Beijing Saturday afternoon was midnight in Minneapolis, so it was a little less "good time" and more "nightmare that will not end" from the perspective of our time zone.

After the week we'd had, I suppose it was natural for one of us to let our sad, tired minds return to Mr. Travel.  My husband brought it up first. With his head lying on the kitchen counter and his bleary eyes rolling around, unfocused, in his head, he croaked out his new mantra, “He was right!”

“What did you say?” I asked. And then he told me his theory, the kind that can only come with sleep deptrivation: she’d returned to her homeland for a fresh recharge of her capitalist-pig-destruction batteries. That, he concluded, was the motive behind the Gitmo-level sleep deprivation campaign she'd been waging. “If none of us can get any sleep,” he muttered, “then they’ll be able to flatten our economy even more.”

“They’re doing a pretty good job of it already. Too bad I don’t have an important job, or one with national security implications,” I said. He agreed. “All you do now is nod off during ‘I Had No Idea!' videos." 

“And order a lot of coffee at ten-to-one lunches,” I reminded him.

Mr. Travel, wherever you are right now, I apologize.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Shame Cupcakes

I work for a very nice corporate client who was celebrating a recent business success. To mark the occasion, they created a lovely spread of cupcakes in the employee cafeteria. I was on campus covering other stories, and I wanted to get some photos of the event. And then I got sidetracked into an afternoon’s worth of ruminations on shame, joy and how hard women can be on themselves.

I saw a woman approach the table and take two cupcakes. I asked: “Would you mind posing for me by the ‘Congratulations!’ poster, looking happy and holding your cupcakes?” She looked at me aghast, as if I’d asked her to remove several items of clothing and lay herself out on the catering table. “No!” she said, scurrying away.

Undaunted, I wandered into the cafeteria, noticing a woman who had just returned with a plate of the cupcakes for her friends. As she doled them out, I approached: “Ladies, would you mind holding up your cupcakes and smiling for me?” Again with the quick and horrified refusals. Sensing my dismay, one of the women had a suggestion for me. “If you want a picture, go to that table,” she said, pointing at a five-top of guys about 20 feet away. “I bet they’ll let you.”

And lo, it came to pass. The men happily hoisted their treats and smiled obligingly into the camera. They looked as though they were generally happy fellows, possibly extra happy about getting a free cupcake at work. I got the sense that more than one of them might help himself to seconds, if he felt so inclined. If their lips turned blue from the lurid frosting, I doubted they'd care. Cupcakes were happy food, and they were happy about having them. And that was clearly as much thought as they’d given to the entire matter.

I looked back at the table of women, none of whom was willing to have photographic evidence that she had ever, ever eaten a cupcake. Their treats were not going to taste very good. It might as well have been frosting-covered mud pies those gals were wolfing down. And if they wanted a second cupcake, they’d have to sneak down when no one was in the cafeteria, and eat it all in one bite. At least no would have a picture of them doing it, thank God.

I write a lot about food. I write about trending ethnic cuisines and demographic shifts in snacking and what spicy condiment is about to knock Sriracha off its throne. I write about the importance of probiotics to create a happy climate for gut bacteria, the role of fiber in avoiding blood sugar spikes, and why just about everyone needs more magnesium in their diet. But I never write about joy, and I think it’s time I do.

It’s okay to eat food. It’s okay to let others see you eating food. And it’s even okay to eat a cupcake, as long as you savor and delight in every single morsel. If you end up with blue lips and a three o’clock headache, so what. I am not sure where we women lost track of this, but it’s time to reclaim the simple, goofy attitude of the guys at that table: Oh boy, free cupcakes. Don’t mind if I do.  

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

And now the mitten is frozen solid ...

Whenever I am stuck in an interminable line at the DMV or trapped in delayed airplane, I tell myself one thing to make myself calm down: at least you aren't doing this very same activity with a two-year-old.

The recent cold snap (and really, isn't it a bit more than a snap, more like a cold compound fracture?) has me sending some beams of comfort to all the parents out there who are, this very minute, trying to put a snowsuit on a back-arching toddler, preparatory to a brisk trot in subzero temps to the just-as-cold car.

Then I remembered my post about the millionth mitten, and thought I'd revisit it here.

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 3, 2012

The Millionth Mitten

I was leaning back on the one bench they’ve provided at my newly renovated Y, grateful for an unwobbly place to switch out my shoes, and content to watch the passing show. Mid-mornings have a unique flavor at a health club in early February – the stalwart elderly, proud to be out the house, the new-resolution types who are clogging up the parking lots and forever turning the wrong direction in yoga class, and, always, the mommies.

I see the mommies trudging along in the parking lot, holding one child in arms while commanding the second to grab her leg and not let go. I see them in the bathroom, having long conversations about how yes, the toilet is loud, but no, it will not swallow you up, just go, please. Mostly I see them fighting the good fight in the Battle of the Mittens, insisting that it’s cold outside, we need to bundle up, just stick your arm out and Mommy will do the rest.

This particular day, as I sat on my bench, the mother next to me had already undergone a couple skirmishes and a full-scale retreat, and she had only gotten as far as boots and coat. From the corner of my eye, I noted a children's hat that looked very itchy, and featured big ear flaps, and I felt for her. Minnesota parents are a noble lot, nowhere more clearly evidenced than by their ability to bundle up, debundle and rebundle their progeny several times a day for six months of winter (or is it nine?). By January, it starts to get wearing, and by February, it’s positively exhausting. Back in my Mitten War days, I used to think of all those California parents, and their easy lot in life. By March, I’d come to truly despise them. How hard is it to be a good mommy in California?  “Be sure your flip flops coordinate with your sunglasses, dear!” Ha.

I remember that gloomy mid-March evening, years back, when I finally lost it. I only had two children, but two, by my reckoning that evening, was feeling like Two Too Many. I sat at the kitchen table, trying to unsnarl the knot from a wet pair of pink Sorels, and I let it rip: “They will NEVER grow up!  These children will stay little forever, just to Spite Me!” My daughters, ages six and three, stopped their argument about whether brown hair was prettier than yellow hair, and stared at me with wide eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I said, not really feeling very sorry at all. “I just think the winter is getting to me.” They gave me the fish-eye for a bit and then resumed their discussion with vigor. Stupid Mommy. How could winter be so hard? There was sledding and there were snowmen and maybe, if they were lucky, they might even live long enough to see a Snow Day declared in Minnesota.

I thought of that night as I sat on the bench at the Y and watched the exasperated and exhausted mother struggle with the mittens, one more time. It’s never just one mitten that causes a Minnesota parent to go over the deep end. It’s the parade of mittens, the unending string of them, culminating in the Millionth Mitten, the one that leaves you screaming nonsense about how your children will never grow up, just to spite you.

In a few weeks, my girls will be celebrating their 17th and 14thbirthdays, one day apart and half a world away from each other. They put their own mittens on now, or usually don’t, and they need me for very little these days. I don’t have enough distance on those early years, at least not yet, to say that I wish I could go back to the Winterwear Wars. And I knew enough to keep my mouth shut around that young mother. She didn’t need to hear any advice from me, or accept my admonition to Cherish Each Moment. She just needed to get the damn mitten on and get home before naptime.

So I stayed quiet, but I tried to help. I made a crazy face at her child, behind her back. It startled him so much that he allowed some genuine progress to be made. I pulled my lips back with my fingers and stuck out my tongue, and his boots slipped on. She never saw the shocked look on his face, because she was too busy hustling him out to the minivan. I’d given her the only gift I had to give that day – a crazy lady’s distraction to help her get on her way. Someday, maybe she’ll do the same for some other poor soul, sitting on a bench at the Y.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The last bake sale


“I’ve never known so many people to be concerned about my mental health as the year my daughter left for college,” a friend confided to me recently. “After a while, I started thinking that I probably should have a nervous breakdown, because it seemed as though people were expecting it.”

I’m losing my job next August, that full-time mom-on-patrol stint that’s been a significant part of my adult life. I’ve moved from not being able to safely leave a room occupied by a conscious child (“Was that crash on Spongebob or in the dining room?”) to facing an autumn when both of them are in college.

Of course, it’s not exactly a “My work here is done” situation, clear to anyone who deals with the enormous emotional swells of older kids. “The bigger they are, they bigger they fuck up,” a straight-talking mom at the Catholic grade school once told me. True that, sister. But it is a year that’s marked with many “lasts” of my mom gig, and I’m beginning to notice.

I have laid down firm household rules about this topic. I’ve watched too many friends drive themselves crazy in this last year not to be aware of the warning signs. My vigilance began before school had officially started. The senior-to-be was nursing a late August cold, and I suggested she stay home on day one: no one really needs to go to school on the first day, anyway, I reasoned. After a mighty nose-blow, she looked up at me pleadingly and said, “But mom, it will be my last first day.

“And that shit ends here,” I declared, realizing that we would be tying ourselves into a group knot if we allowed every single moment to be declared “The last Tuesday, October 3 ever.”

Re: Re: Re: yourself, toots
After we banned talk of “the lasts,” I discovered some secret treasures. After receiving an email message with the subject line: “URGENT: cupcakes needed for dance concert fundraiser,” I dutifully turned the oven to 350 degrees and began to whip up a dessert. But I hummed happily at the thought that I was closing in on my last bake sale ever. The night of the concert, I found the Mommy in Charge and went through the ritual gratitude and inevitable instructions: “Don’t put it in that corner. That’s where we’re putting the items with sprinkles.” I walked away with a lighter load, and not just from the brownie dropoff. I was reaching the end of the time when some Martha Stewart wanna-be could offer me remedial instructions in brownie placement, napkin fluffing, or any of the countless other topics I’ve taken in, lips drawn upward and stomach clenched.

And Mommy Emails! I realized. They were coming to a blessed death, too. Before the next committee meeting on whatever it is I go to committee meetings for, as I scanned the slew of “Re: Re: Re: Re: Tonight’s meeting” messages, I realized I would soon be able to absent myself from the land of Reply All Nitwits, too. Another “plus” went in the “no kids in school” column.

Three leaves and a rock
I thought back to elementary school. Not much to regret there, either. No more summers spent worrying over whether my child would be placed in the class with the functional alcoholic and the baker’s dozen of Mean Girls, or the room with the certified sadist and the pack of stick-wielding, uncontrollable boys. No more notes demanding three fall leaves and a rock, to be delivered with a jar a decoupage by 7:30 the next morning. No more middle-of-the night three-panel posterboard runs for the ruined Science Fair project. No Science Fairs, oh dear Jesus, no more Science Fairs.

I reached an apex of appreciation after hosting a cast party for the fall play. During the day, I had fielded phone calls from earnest parents who wanted a complete run-down of my security plans, with blueprints, if possible. I was sorely tempted to answer: “Just a minute, let me put down my loaded gun and light a cigarette before I think of an answer.” It was one of those nights that was doomed from the start, because by the end of the evening. I’d had to call for parental pick-ups of two drunken girls and their half-empty bottle of spiced rum. As I shut the door behind the last future Hazelden resident, it dawned on me that it had been the sort of night that made a person glad to be nearing retirement age.

Good luck, girls
Put your hand in a bucket of water, pull it out, and see how irreplaceable you are. My place will be taken by women made of sterner stuff than me. Standing right behind me is a long line of fresh-faced mommies, lined up in alphabetical order and ready to “reply all” to every email, whip up sprinkle-laden snacks, and host the best-darn room parties ever. They have shapely figures, clean aprons, and the ability to sniff out spiced rum at sixty paces. Youth, and stupidity, are on their side. Good luck, girls. I wish you all the best at that next bake sale, and let me know if you ever need to borrow my Bundt pan. God knows I won’t be using it.


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Five years, one week, a couple of lifetimes

I took a client out to lunch yesterday, stopping by to see her agency's swell new digs downtown, and happy to troop through the skyway system with a gal who clearly knew how to navigate Macy's in a Christmas-crowded flash. Stepping into the IDS tower, we heard a kids' choir earnestly yelping away on carols, while proud grannies raised phones for snapshots, and office workers raised the decibel level of their conversations, just a bit. "Wait a minute," I thought, "I've been here, I've done this before -- but when?"  Today I dug through a (virtual) dusty stack of posts and found this keepsake of a wonderful day, five years and one week ago.

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 8, 2011


The Extraordinary Ordinary

I think the magic started with the Cinderella-shoe, strangers-on-an-escalator moment at the IDS Center, but there was so much about that day that was purely extraordinary-ordinary. We look back now and say that it was a “great day,” but it wasn’t even close to being a full 24 hours of something special – more like five hours and change. It was just enough, though -- not only to make us happy at the moment, but to turn itself into a snow globe memory that we’ve been picking up more and more in this current, very different, holiday season.

The particulars: December 10, 2010. Emma had a performance with the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphony, to be held over the lunch hour at the IDS Center downtown. With the sort of what-the-heck laxness that my children will probably use as Exhibit A of my poor parenting choices when they’re older, I told Mary Katherine that she could skip school in order to hear her sister play. We bundled ourselves and the cello into my Beetle, no small feat, and I managed to get us to the right spot downtown.

Everyone in our little group was carrying something – Santa hat, purse, cello, music stand.  It's understandable that, as we arrived at the escalator to part ways with Emma, who was heading to a basement-level green room, that she had already begun to descend before Mary Katherine realized she was still holding the black heels that Emma needed for the performance. “Emma, your shoes!” she called out, and we saw a swivel from that dark, shiny head, as she considered how to get back to us. The escalator was thickly populated with lunch-hour-ers, and it was impossible to turn back. 

And then our heroes arrived. Two young men, just stepping on to the escalator themselves, turned back at the sound of Mary’s cry, and reached out their hands in unison. “Toss ‘em here; we’ll get them to her,” one of them said. Mary lobbed one shoe into each outstretched hand. They arrived at the bottom and dutifully turned the shoes over to the lovely young woman, dressed all in black, standing patiently beside her cello. “Here you go, Cinderella,” one of them said, and they headed off without another word.


During the performance, Mary Katherine and I sat on a balcony and looked down at the orchestra  We were cozy on the floor, flattening our cheeks against the acrylic guard, feeling the sound drift up. Afterwards, with the cello safely stowed back in the car, we tooled around Macy’s, trying on hats, squirting each other with perfume and wandering happily, and aimlessly, from department to department. I was able to make my favorite parenting statement of all time: “Take your time; we aren’t in any hurry.”


Then we ended up on the seventh floor, waiting to see the Great Man. They were the oldest kids in the Santa Line, and by several years. And because it was a weekday afternoon, they were the only kids who could see over the railing, write their names in cursive, or take themselves to the bathroom. I had told my girls I wouldn’t buy them lunch unless they sat on Santa’s lap. “Have you been good?” he asked, a bit ironically, and I held back the urge to try a full Bette Davis retort: “Santa, you have no idea.”


 They’d done what I asked, so I bought them lunch at the Sky Room. We sat together at a small table, looking out at a snowstorm brewing over the late afternoon skyline. And we laughed together, over nothing, just happy to be together and to have no agenda, schedule, tournament, rehearsal or competition to attend, just this once. After Emma had written all over her cup, and the bus boy had been truly terrorized by our loud hoots, we gathered up our things and found the elevator to the first floor. A quick stop at Candyland for ride-home treats, and we headed home.  

And that’s it. Those were small things we did that day, not momentous ones. We attended a performance, sat on Santa’s lap and laughed together over a meal. But one year later, it seems that the day is still sending us a clear, strong signal, reminding us that we really do matter to one another, and that we have a bond which time, distance and circumstance can’t break. 


 For many families, their traditions seem rooted in the rigid belief that if anything is ever allowed to vary from the approved script, everything will fall apart.  If all my kids remember of our traditions is that we had a lot of fun one December day in the Sky Room, watching the snow as it fell over the city, that’s good enough for me.


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Still a secret

It's the day before Thanksgiving, and I pulled out my mom's "secret" recipe today.  Thought it might be a good time to revisit my in-depth expose of three years ago.

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 24, 2012

Secret Recipe



Those aren't tears that I spilled on the recipe. It's just Karo syrup.

My mother lacked for many things in her life, especially material ones, but self confidence was never among them. Robust self-regard was as natural as breathing for Katherine Clifford Kendrick. She held firm convictions about the star quality of her solo at the St. Gregory Church Mothers’ Club Variety Show (proffering a clipping from the local paper whenever the occasion arose, as it often seemed to). Decades after the last bite of chicken a la king had been eaten, she delighted in remembering her “Three Coins in the Fountain” centerpiece for the annual Ladies’ Guild Luncheon. (She had used Madame Alexander dolls with little coins glued to their palms, thanks for asking.)

It only made sense that, as she would be the first to tell you, she was a marvelous cook. She would describe the nuances of the giant pieces of carrot in her Irish stew, sniffing at those chumps who offered finely chopped carrots chips to their families. Because she hated mustard (to ask her about it was to receive a wee bit more info than was really pertinent to the question at hand), she insisted on using yellow food coloring in her potato salad. I believed for years that adding yellow food coloring to any recipe immediately elevated it to the status of “gourmet.”

She swore by her pies. They weren’t just good, they were unique. No one could create a strawberry like hers. “Myyyyy strawberry pie” was the leadoff of the story, as if she and the pastry had been romantically outed in Jerry Berger’s column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Her pecan version, she told anyone who was still listening, was from "My Secret No-Fail Pecan Pie Recipe.” Once she'd finished a lengthy discussion of its secret nature, she would write out the recipe for a friend, using her best Palmer method penmanship. Some secret.

When you raise a child in this way, several things can happen. In my case, it was a strong veer in the opposite direction. I decided to shut down the p.r. firm and live a life without press clippings or superlatives. I function under few delusions about the superiority of my talent, my decorating skill or my cooking prowess. I long ago decided that the only thing that matters in motherhood is Showing Up, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do for 17 years. So far, the reviews have been adequate.

So, when the great Thanksgiving Teenaged Cook-Off was being planned at our house this past week (Three adults, 11 kids aged 21-and-under), and someone asked for pie, preferably one that featured pecans, I volunteered. Hey, I had a secret recipe. And it could not fail.

I will admit that I first turned to alcohol.

For the crust, that is. I used Christopher Kimball’s famed vodka pie crust recipe.  And then, crust in place, I turned to my mother’s “no fail” promise and began to mix the super-secret ingredients. Sugar. Eggs. Vanilla. When I reached into the cupboard for the dark Karo corn syrup, I’ll admit I was already a little bit suspicious. Nothing I’d been doing so far had struck me as very foolproof, or very stealthy. So I read the pecan pie recipe on the back of the blue bottle. Each ingredient matched up exactly with the one from my recipe, except – There! There it was! --  she called for one teaspoon of lemon juice, and those corporate tools at the Karo corporation did not. 

A teaspoon of lemon juice?  That’s the only thing standing between me and imminent pie failure?

Oh mom.

I made the pie, but with trepidation.  I had unmasked her secret, or lack thereof.  As it baked (60 minutes at 350 degrees, when a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, you’re done), I thought about how someone could copy a recipe from the back of a bottle, add a teaspoon of lemon juice, and then somehow convince herself, over the years,  that she had created something that deserved its own Trophy Case in the Pie Hall of Fame. 

That was my mother, a woman who convinced herself more than she ever swayed anyone else, but who remained unfailingly upbeat. In truth, her potato salad was always watery, no matter how garishly yellow it was. And her Irish Stew required another ten minutes of work with the table knife, just to chop up all those oversized carrots.

The pie turned out fine. The recipe page went back in my cookbook folder. I smiled to picture some grandkid getting hold of it one day, thinking she really had a priceless secret recipe from the past.

Just don’t read the back of the Karo bottle, kid. It will break your heart.