I Am an American Cupcake

Early last Sunday morning, I was frosting a batch of chocolate cupcakes to take to church for fellowship hour. In honor of Memorial Day, I’d used Americana liners and placed tiny US flags on top of each. I imagined the kids at church enjoying the flags. My slight smile immediately dissipated as I reflected on the Latino (And Friends!) Play Festival we’d recently attended.

Memorial Day is a time to honor those who served and ultimately sacrificed their lives for our country. We remember heroes, and in doing that, I feel compelled to mention a few heroes who carry within them the strength and courage of the greatest warriors. Most in this group haven’t medals, notoriety, or even social security numbers, but they have battle scars that will undoubtedly remain throughout their lives.

Elizabeth, along with her Performing Arts class from Northfield High School, participated in a two week performance at the Northfield Arts Guild. Elizabeth warned us that the program wasn’t appropriate for our younger two, but I finally decided we’d go as a family to watch the performance, regardless. I was sure to prepare Nikolas and Katerina beforehand, but none of us were quite prepared.

Traditionally, the Performing Arts class had been intended for Latino/EL students. However, this year the class had expanded to allow any students attending NHS, with the intention of allowing a greater interaction between mainstream students and minorities. Our daughter, Elizabeth, signed up for the class.  Furthermore, the teacher had wanted to get immigration issues out to the public, and hopefully help with awareness.

We attended the event, last Friday evening, seated in a packed theater. Those mere ninety minutes will continue to impact and haunt me for the rest of my life. Standing before us were seventeen children, artistically sharing their real life stories and experiences over a tear-filled audience.

The pain from these teens possessed and enveloped our hearts, enraptured us as they confronted stereotypes, poverty, health care discrimination, suffocating oppression, molestation, bullying, murder, racism, rape, hopelessness, drug abuse and alcoholism, domestic violence, abandonment and eventually hope. Never, in my forty-two years have I witnessed a more heart-wrenching, powerful, deeply spiritual and aching experience, other than Katerina’s battle with congenital heart disease.

Elizabeth had a few different roles, one representing an American teen raised on stereotyping, living in oblivion to the struggles of the world, belting out racist cliches and assumptions. Another role, which we faced as a family was health care discrimination. Katerina was denied health insurance by several big companies based on her “pre-existing health conditions.” We wanted to buy our health insurance, and Katerina was blatantly denied. Obamacare to our family, represented freedom from discrimination. Finally, Elizabeth’s main role was as a dancer being bullied and ostracized by her classmates, all of it genuine. Elizabeth’s dream is Broadway, and she tapped away some of the tension of the program with “Don’t Rain on my Parade.”

A boy on the stage spoke of his mother being raped, and the bruises covering his own body the following morning, after a night of only remembering “the monster’s eyes.” A fifteen year old girl cried out, remembering the fear provoked by an immigration officer’s badge, representing authority that would take her mom away, possibly never seeing her again. A once anger-filled teen had witnessed while a little boy, his father being shot and killed by his mother. The haunting voices and horrifying touching were expressed through a girl who had been molested by an uncle at the age of six (Katerina’s age.) Another student, at ten years, was raped by a man entrusted to smuggle him across the border, to be reunited with his mom. He’d only followed his mother’s innocent orders to behave and listen to what the man said. I wondered how Nikolas would be affected by these tragic stories, and his dripping tears along his cheeks had spoken for him. We witnessed one story after another, taking hold of our hearts by these courageous children.

On that stage, through blurry eyes of tears, a shining aura of light surrounded the group of teenagers-they represented quintessential hope. These children stood on stage with pride, embraced one another, mourned together as they shared their pain and abuse, wiped the tears from their friends, now a united family. These heroes stood before us due to the heart and dedication of Jennifer Lompart, an NHS teacher.

Sitting in the front row was Mrs. Lompart, the hero who orchestrated it all. Throughout the program, a resounding and instinctive voice told me that some of these children’s lives were saved as result of Lompart teaching this class. Most of these children hadn’t shared their stories with anyone;  abuse, pain and treachery resided within their guarded walls, a cancer essentially killing them.  Lompart gave these students a voice, a safe place for them to shed their victimization and begin to heal. Jennifer Lompart wins Teacher of the Year Award this year, and every year after.

What does it mean to be an American? A hero? A human being? I don’t believe that waiting twenty minutes in line at a Starbucks drive-thru with the engine running, ordering a five dollar coffee with a crown of whipped topping, then buying one for the next car, boasting about it on Facebook, and hoping you get 180 likes, is exactly the definition. Those two coffees you just paid for cost more than double what one of the teens in the play makes hourly at Taco Bell, in which they share with their mother, hoping to get the bills paid by the end of the month.

Education is the key, yet the US government spends roughly 12 billion annually on border control, with continued abuse and barbaric practices in the Southern US.  What a remarkable contribution that money would make instead to educate immigrant families, find them homes and jobs here in this country.

Love and humanity is in confronting racism, poverty and all that makes us squirm and look the other way out of discomfort. Excuses and delusion sweeps in and gives us reason to justify why we fail to embrace the uncomfortable, and instead look forward to what was added to the Netflix menu on our 55 inch flat screen.

I gazed down at my finished cupcakes-cute and promising sweetness. I suddenly felt ashamed. Here I stood in my semi-roomy kitchen, with cabinets and a refrigerator filled with mostly unnecessary food. I was bringing cupcakes to church, we’d add to the offering plate, dish out hugs and prayers and well, you know, “just doin’ my part.”  I hold the door for people, shop at the Co-op for mostly organic and locally grown foods.  I give a few bucks here and there to those in need, box up old clothes, not caring if there are stains, because after all, it’s a donation to charity. It’s all one big fat farce. I am a white, educated, middle class American and as full of fluff as the frosting on the cupcakes before me. I am failing at doing my part as a human being. As long as racism, victimization, discrimination, immigration hostility, violence, poverty, homelessness, and hungry children are sharing this country beside me, I might as well be a cupcake. When will a human life become more valuable than a dollar?

I will forever be haunted by the stories of the young heroes in which I had the honor to meet. My prayers go out to these children, that they never, ever give up and continue having their voices heard, regardless of what language they speak. They represent the future of America-by facing persecution, danger and risking their lives for freedom and a better life, entirely reminiscent of our forefathers.

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MN Twins, Unloaded Hot Dogs and a Whoppin’ Big Lesson

Shriners Hospital sent our family field box seats to the MN Twins baseball game. Katerina is a Shriner’s kid, due to her leg length discrepancy. If you are ever feeling a little down, need some perspective in your life, head on over to a Shriners Hospital; you will undoubtedly be changed, at least for the moment.

The same Friday evening as the game, was picture night at the girls’ dance studio. I’d taken Katerina in earlier to have her picture taken, but Elizabeth stayed on for the night at the studio, glad to skip the game.

The drive to Minneapolis was a full hour, but at least the traffic wasn’t bad. We were all so excited! I was even more excited to eat, after having read an article about the Twins’ stadium food that my friend Tamara had mentioned on Facebook. Additionally, Andrew Zimmerman, one of my favorite Travel Channel stars, supposedly had a food truck there.

After paying twelve bucks to park, which meant a greater trek to the field, we came across a homeless man. We kept walking until Nikos said, “Wait! Keep going and I’ll catch up!” I know my hubby well, and he’s the kind to buy a meal and give it to those who look like they could use one. He ran back with one less ticket to the game and we all hoped the man would make it to and enjoy the game. Nikos promised the man that he’d buy him a hot dog if he showed up.

We decided to eat before finding our seats. Nikos bought some kind of steak sandwich, Nikolas a burger, Katerina had loaded nachos, and I had garlic fries and then asked the guy at the counter for a loaded hot dog. The cashier looked annoyed and smirked, then asked what I meant by a “loaded hot dog.” I explained, “Well you know, slaw, sauce, onions, the works!” His robotic reply was handing me a tiny cup of onions and pointing over to the condiment station. I dumped every last diced onion on the hot dog, then saturated it with enough mustard and ketchup that the hot dog was elevated. Nikos also bought a $14 Pepsi and later a popcorn. We were then a hundred dollars poor. I was bummed to not have the time to find Zimmerman’s food truck, but the game had already begun.

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The Target field was massive, hyper-stimulating and impressive. As modern as it all was, the atmosphere still somehow clung to the days of yesteryear, undying energy. The prevalence of nostalgia brought me back to the 1970s, watching a Cincinnati Reds game, hearing the fans, combined with tube socks and the funny talking guy from the speakers. It was an exciting game, the temperature was ideal, and Katerina was hooping and hollering louder than ten rows of fans together. Nikos asked her what just happened in the game and she shrugged her shoulders and replied, “I have no idea!”

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The moment I’d taken one big chomp of my hot dog, Nikos shockingly remarked, “Rebecca! You look like you just puked all over your shirt and pants!” I scowled at him and then was horrified by the mess all over me. Every bit of my hot dog was all over me! I told Nikos to go get me some napkins and he further aggravated me by saying only a washing machine would take care of that kind of mess. After two more bites (What?! No sense in wasting a perfectly yummy hot dog!) I hissed at Nikos to get me some napkins, and he said he first wanted to watch the play. I gave him “the look”, and he immediately proceeded to bring me five freaking pitiful napkins.

Nikos was right, the sauce just smeared all over my pants and shirt and I was too embarrassed to get up until…the kid in front of me had a small plastic bag over his head, entirely enclosing his mouth and nose, and his parents were distracted by the game. I freaked out and yelled to get that bag off his head. The mom glanced back and then immediately tore off the bag and almost the kid’s head in a panic. She thanked me too many times, and I tried to make her feel better by explaining that all three of my kids had done the same at some point in time. Nikos looked shocked and asked when that happened. Eye rolls are very appropriate in a marriage when one asks questions as such.

Nikolas told me he couldn’t wait for baseball season to begin. He loved the game and admitted that he’d never be able to throw as far as the guys on the team. It had been an exciting evening, and for a couple innings, the Twins were catching up. Nikos’ homeless friend never showed up, but I hope he’d at least gone to the game.

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It was getting chilly, even with the blanket I’d packed-yes, I was feeling momentarily smug and all organized, like a got-it-together kind of mom. Of course, all I had to do was glance down at my mustard/onion/ketchup massacre to remember I was as well put together as scrambled eggs in a frying pan. It was well past Katerina’s bed time, so we decided to leave before the game had ended.

Driving home sleepy and contented, I sang “Twinkle Little Star” to Katerina, our nightly ritual. I turned and appreciatively stated, “Katerina, thank you for this wonderful game! We wouldn’t have gone, had it not been for you and Shriners!” Katerina wisely replied, “No Mama, don’t thank me. Thank God for making my legs special.” I doubt there is need for me to explain the whopping big lesson that I learned from my precious little girl that wonderful evening.

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Confessions of a Part-Time Baker

Just before sending off one of my favorite recipes for publishing, I decided against it.  Rather, I felt like we needed to get to know one another a little better first.

When we moved to Minnesota, I became a food artisan vendor for the Riverwalk Market Fair, a wonderful European-style outdoor market, five months out of the year. Other than snickerdoodles, I primarily sell Greek sweets and savories. I also cater from time to time-baby/bridal showers, dinner parties, holiday meals, and church a couple of times (hands down most intimidating!)

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There’s a dilemma when one becomes coined as a baker or caterer. Regardless of what my food tastes like, there is an assumption that I’m suddenly some kind of food critic or authority baker. I often hear apologies before I’ve even tasted the first bite. Let’s set things straight here. I have anxiety when asked to share a dish, dessert, prepare an entire meal, and so on, due to the expectations of others, assuming that everything out of my kitchen is going to be delicious. I love food. I love cooking and experimenting with ingredients, and alongside my endeavors are many failures-stinking, burned, over-salted, soggy disasters.

Yesterday afternoon, while sifting through piles of antique treasures (or trash) at a thrift store, I ran into a customer named Dee. She ran up, gave me a hug and introduced me to her friend. She began gushing about my food the moment after our introductions. Suddenly, I became sweaty almost paralytic, when Dee mentioned the pie contest that I’d won. I began stammering and averting my eyes to some rinky dink picture frame, when my obnoxious husband mentioned the massage. I’ll tell you about that momentarily.

I stink at making homemade pie crusts; I really stink at it. I also don’t like the extra added mess in my kitchen. My Grandma Sharp, Aunt Jeanine (uses Grandma’s recipe), as well as Aunt Alice, made the best pies, with such perfect flaky golden crusts it didn’t matter what filling was put in the pie. Here’s my confession: I USE READY-MADE PIE CRUST! Shew-wee, I feel better now.

A year ago, Dee had stopped by the Riverwalk Market and ordered four pies for her church, to be delivered the following Saturday. Two apple, one pumpkin and chess pies seemed simple enough. I didn’t burn anything, the pies set well, so I deemed the job a success. I sauntered in the church hall and noticed a seemingly never-ending table of pies, with several elderly ladies hovering proudly over their lovely pies. Dee had me write down the flavors of each pie with my name on four pieces of paper, and then handed me a check. A sly smile swept across Dee’s face and she admitted that she’d just entered my pies in a bake-off. I adamantly tried to withdraw my pies but she’d already sent in the papers. As I escaped from the church hall, I felt like I’d stolen their organ and it was strapped to my back.

Later afternoon, Dee left a message on my phone congratulating me on a first place win for my apple, and a second place finish for the chess pie! The church wanted my address to mail me the freaking prizes! I called Dee back and stressed in the message that she’d ordered the pies, paid too much for them, the prizes were hers, and I’d hear nothing more on the subject. I was so glad she hadn’t answered her phone.

Another sunny Saturday had swept by and then the next, and whom did I see all smiles at the Riverwalk Market, headed straight toward my booth?! “Good morning, Dee!” Dee was with her dude, and they both were carrying certificates, lotion, shower gel, and a gift certificate for an hour long massage. The couple had begun telling customers how I’d won the pie bake-off and that the judges consisted of a head pastry chef of 35 years and a renowned chef from the Twin Cities. My knees were knocking and heart a-fluttering. Dee exclaimed, “Both chefs were particularly impressed by your perfect pie crusts.” Dee’s boyfriend added, “You need to get these certificates framed and post them right here at your market.” I tried and failed every attempt of making Dee take home my undeserved prizes. That was it; not only did I fool pastry chefs, was paid too much to begin with, had a slew of prizes, was entirely a slimy cheater for not confessing that I hadn’t made the pie crusts homemade, it was for a church! I had my big toe, well actually, my second toe is longer, so two toes already creeping down to the fiery gates of you know where.

Those two certificates serving as proof that I’m a fake wanna be baker are hidden in the dark recesses of our scary basement. Perhaps one day, I’ll hear knocking or something straight out of an Edgar Allen Poe tale. I gave the massage certificate to Nikolas’ teacher as a gift, and I passed the other items off to my girls.

Ahhhhh, a long overdue exhale and I feel better. Just don’t request any pies.

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Staycation Day in Minnesota

Finally, the week we’d all anticipated, Spring Break!  Then, it snowed a foot.  A couple of weeks ago, there had been some teasing days of sixty degree temps, and I toyed with the idea of going camping. That was officially out.  I suppose I’m still in denial that we moved to Minnesota.

A quiet and very white morning greeted us on the first day of Spring Break. I announced to the kids (after the sleepyheads slept in until 7:15) that we were gong to enjoy a staycation, the entire day.  Sometimes, I annoy myself by my chipper morning personality, but no worries, it dissipates after my coffee high winds down.

11033620_10153131164594286_4182863064622686171_n (1)Nikolas tromped outside and gathered a big bowl of freshly fallen snow.  We were making snow cream!  Nikolas mentioned that if a person were starving, they could always eat snow cream to survive.  Yeah sure, as long as they had vanilla, cream or milk, and some sugar on hand.  My kids also like to add sprinkles, which makes it gross and gritty on the teeth.

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Just so you know, Katerina had eaten two spoonfuls of her Grinch explosion, and needed a fresh bowl, minus the sprinkles.

It took four minutes before Katerina was dressed to go outside, and had even zipped her jacket without help.  She played alone in the backyard, sweetly singing on the swing.  I rapped on the kitchen window from time to time, blowing kisses at each other.

Meanwhile, Nikolas and Elizabeth enjoyed-rather, I enjoyed thirty minutes of peace while they played video games, and were miraculously and momentarily jovial.

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Katerina and I played farmer’s market and kitchen, Nikolas practiced his yo-yo tricks (which were pretty amazing!), Elizabeth tapped some new scratches on her bedroom floor, claimed that she desperately needed to practice for her upcoming dance competition, and it wasn’t even nine-thirty in the morning!

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We cheered the contestants on while watching the Price is Right, the happiest show on TV.  It’s also a way that I reconnect with my grandparents, who passed years ago.  I well remember Grandpa Sharp, standing up and turning off the TV when Bob Barker kissed a lady, harshly saying, “You kids don’t need to see that kind of garbage!”  Elizabeth feigned groveling depression due to “the most depressing commercials, ever,” eventually announced that she couldn’t bear it any longer, and retired to her wreck of a room for more dance practice.

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Lunch was leftovers, and after, Katerina guilted me into doing a science experiment.  It was pretty cool making blue elephant toothpaste.  I’m just about exhausted of ideas for science experiments.  Please send me some new ones if you could.

We watched Little House on the Prairie in the afternoon.  Elizabeth claims that its chauvinistic-yeah perhaps, but it’s feel good TV, unless it’s the episode with Sybil, small pox, or Laura with the crazy mom trying to kidnap her.  During the commercial break, Katerina donned her Little House attire and made me dress up in my old-timey dress.

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Later, we were decked out in our snow gear for some sledding.  We walked over to St. Olaf Hill and half of the time was spent refereeing Elizabeth and Nikolas with their constant fighting, pushing each other in the snow and my threatening them that they’d be grounded for two weeks if they didn’t stop.  I thought Elizabeth was really cute how she stuck her legs out to slow down.

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Flying down from the top of that scary hill transported me back to age eleven, snow blinded and splendidly reckless. Likewise, little Katerina showed no fear.  She plopped penguin style, belly first on her sled and howled all the way down with sheer delight!

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Soaked and bones a-thawing, I made some fresh whipped cream for proper cups of hot cocoa.  Once I convinced the kids that they had received equal amounts of whipped cream, we snuggled on the couch and allowed the hot cocoa to seem inside our souls, reminding us that life is wonderful.

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The day continued, but I needed a solid twenty minute nap.  Meanwhile, Nikolas had gone back outside and built an igloo.  Why would he first take a warm bath, change out of wet clothes, and then head back outside?  Because Nikolas is a twelve-year-old boy!  I did make him use the hair-dryer, but I guarantee you, he’d left it damp.

The snow in MN is generally very dry, powdery.  However, the temperature made for a perfect snowball throwing and fort building environment.  Nikolas was very proud indeed of his igloo, said he’d sleep there once he’d decorated it with Christmas lights.  He never slept in it.

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I made Greek gyro, tzatziki, cinnamon rice and tomato salad for supper, left it to cook for three hours.

Board games were next on the list, and I kept Monopoly hidden inside the far recesses of the armoire.  The last time the kids played Monopoly it was a bonafide disaster, another story, altogether.

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First we played Chutes and Ladders, in which Elizabeth’s almost frantic need to win was disconcerting.  She accused Nikolas of cheating, and wouldn’t let it go until she won.  Nikolas said he wasn’t going to play until Elizabeth quit, and dealing with those two bickering, helped me to remember why we very rarely had game nights.  I read posts on facebook or see commercials of a happy family laughing, enjoying an idyllic board game night of togetherness.  Well, it just didn’t pan out quite like that at our house, but hey, there were bouts of fun (I think).

Finally, our last game was Trouble.  I hereby declare that Trouble is the single-most annoying board game in existence.  It lasted for-freaking-ever!  I don’t even remember who won.

Although I looked forward to the roads being cleared and getting out of the house first thing the following morning, as well as our upcoming road trip later in the week, I’d chalk our staycation as a success, with a little bit of sweetness tucked inside.

 

 

The Drive From You Know Where–Part II

Eric and I were up bright and early, and in a frantic search of coffee.  Eric saved the morning by discovering a bag of coffee in the freezer.  Many of you know how I despise Starbuck’s, but I wasn’t about to deny a cup of ANY brand of coffee!  The rest of the house slept, and rather well.

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Eric and I took sweet Sassy with us on a walk up along the ridge.  Sassy couldn’t hear very well, but she smiled and led the way with tremendous dignity.

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I feel inclined to boast on our relationship, dear readers.  I have grown so comfortable with you that I’m now posting pictures of myself without makeup.  I almost didn’t include them, in all honesty,  but that would mean that I’d surrendered fully to vanity, and I have done my best to keep this genuine.

Morning fog hovered low in the green valleys, as winter had not yet arrived.  We ran into a neighbor, and he told us about an old homestead to check out, just over the hill.

Nikos and I borrowed Eric’s car, because our tenants renting our house, had asked us to clear out the Amish shed.  Sophia was going to Abbey’s to play with Ava, Arron and Nikolas were interested in nothing else but the spy rover and could have been happily occupied for fifty years, Eric was being picked up by his best friend to enjoy lunch at the iconic Jim’s Spaghetti House,  and finally, Elizabeth had to practice her dance as she’d been going through withdrawal.  Katerina was thrilled to join her mama and daddy.

Back to our sweet house on the hill, yet it was no longer ours.  It was strange.  The tenant was a nice guy, around our age, and at first difficult to chat with.  He showed us the changes they had made to our house, and it had truly become theirs.  Once he warmed up, we talked while emptying the shed.  Nikos claimed that I was the hoarder, but no, it was evidently him!  Nikos couldn’t give up a jacket from 1982, rusty tools, and just a bunch of garbage I’d never even blink at keeping.  I had gone through old crafts proudly given to me at one time by the kids, pictures, old clothes, and a basket with lights and pine I’d made one Christmas.  I decided to take it back to MN with me. The kids’ crafts, pictures, books, and Nikos’ junk we’d store in Daddy’s and Leandra’s basement.  I felt sentimental, but far more inclined to throw everything out.

Our renter had a granddaughter with cerebral palsy.  They had chosen our house because it was one story and conducive to his granddaughter’s needs.  I realized I’d also been difficult to open up.  I appreciated the emotion he quickly hid while speaking about his granddaughter, and I began telling him about Katerina.  I was trying hard to hide my own teary eyes.  Sifting through years stolen by time all too quickly, memories and emotion, I suddenly looked up to see two hawks circling high above our heads.  They seemed to be dancing a choreographed piece and finally, they faced one another, and in-between them was a rectangular rainbow, each hawk holding one end up.  Our tenant took a picture and I asked him if he’d captured the rainbow.  He blankly looked at me and asked, “What rainbow?”  I turned to Nikos, he also said he didn’t see a rainbow.  That rainbow, just as plain as my hand, the dancing hawks, were a sweet, sacred morning gift.  I could not speak, think nor look up, because my eyes were indeed filled with tears.

I told Katerina, who was chasing the tenant’s little dog (the size of a guinea pig) around, to get her shoes on, because we were going for a walk.  My little girl, I used to take her for stroller rides on the same and familiar road.  I used to stand on the front porch and watch for Nikolas and Elizabeth to hop off of the school bus;  both of them would break out in a run when they caught sight of me.  So much had changed moving to Minnesota, yet it hadn’t.

Katerina talked about the funny kids in her class, our cats at home and what mischief they were undoubtedly getting into, why she likes our house we moved into more, and I appreciated the partial sunshine and the spring-like temperature.  I was also struck with the profound realization that we’d likely never take this walk again.  I knew to listen closely to Katerina’s happy chatter and be accepting of never again’s.

One of our old neighbors came out and passed the time, her business is dong very well.  I will never have an entrepreneur propensity, or most likely I’m just lazy.

As the two of us walked up our old driveway, our renter asked if he could say a prayer for Katerina before we left.  The four of us held hands in a circle as he prayed earnestly.  Only Katerina said “Amen” without a choked up voice or tears.

We left our house with its sweet memories and ate at Tudor’s.  Logistically, Tudor’s is not healthy fare, however, it truly feeds the soul.  Biscuits n gravy, fried taters, eggs over easy, and good crunchy bacon, all made from scratch will never be considered anything but soul healthy eating in my book. Man, I’d missed Tudor’s!

The three of us went to our favorite park in Hurricane.  Back when Katerina was in heart failure, she wasn’t allowed to be around people, due to the high risk of pneumonia and other infections.  We’d have Tudor’s breakfast picnics usually every Sunday morning, and take Katerina on stroller rides.  She’d point her tiny finger at the trees and gaze out and smile peacefully.  Her first word was actually, “tree.”

We hiked through the woods and around the pond, and sat while Katerina played at the playground.  I don’t know why it had only occurred to me then, that I’d taken three walks already.  What a wonderful, healing and deeply special day it had been!

When we made it back to the ranch, Eric had thankfully fed the kids.  I felt guilty not bringing back Tudor’s.  We had to pack because we were heading back home-such a brief visit!  We were also going to stop by Jo’s house (the house in which I was raised) and then Jennifer and Matt were having a post Christmas party.

Abbey, Ben and kids met us at Jo’s, and we ended up following them to Jennifer’s party.  Sometimes, ONLY SOMETIMES, GPS is a good thing.  The dogs were all excited and barking, Nikos immediately had gone off with Donald to look at his electrician “stuff.”  It was so good to see Jo;  there’s no one in the world like her!  One of Jo’s sons, Donny, was sitting at the table eating a meal, Nikolas was teasing the dog and getting on my nerves, Jo was telling me about the new changes she’d made on the house, and so on.  I felt bad not being able to stay longer, but we were already an hour late for Jennifer’s party.

I wish the following picture would have turned out to capture Jo’s old-timey Christmas tree.  Jo still uses the C-9 lights, the kind any 1970’s kid had on their Christmas trees and real tinsel!

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From one get-together to another, we made it to Jennifer’s beautifully decorated home.  I swear if someone unloaded all of Jennifer’s decorations on my floor, I’d still not know what to do with them.  I just don’t know how to do all of that pretty decorating!  Lisa and Phil, Angie and her son, Paul and Patty, our whole clan, and the many kids made for a crowded house.  The food was wonderful as always, and Jennifer made the best corn salad, for which she had given me the recipe.  If you want a copy, send me an email.  Matt has turned the downstairs into a man floor, with a pool table, shuffleboard or something, and we all played a card game.  I lost early on, didn’t really care because I wanted to eat some more of Jennifer’s delicious food, and Angie ended up winning.  I love getting together with my friends because we’ve been close for so long, distance and time cannot interrupt our friendship.  I had the best time, and the kids all got along, as well.  Katerina and Reese were besties all over again.

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10486578_10202990201489003_3904951044373355322_n10533095_10154992268625529_7989546555278232593_nWe stayed too late, but I wanted to prolong the night as long as possible, knowing that the following day we’d be crammed into Eric’s rental car and driving home.

Bright and early, I did a load of laundry, heated up some coffee from yesterday, and Nikolas wanted to take a walk with me.  My sweet little boy, so quiet, his mind always on building go-karts, robots, a million facts about space that I have to pretend that I can remotely follow his conversation.  Nikolas and I both commiserated over how much we wanted to take Sassy back with us.  We love that dog, dearly.

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A light mist silently fell, the fresh scent of leaves and the far off smoke from a wood-fire filled the heavy air.  Nikolas and I stopped and gazed over the countryside, the hills an integral part of us.

It didn’t take long before our peace was interrupted by my husband who acts younger than his own son, growling and pretending he was some kind of bear, wolf, who knows?!  Eric and Nikos met us up on the ridge and we hiked down to the old cabin.

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Finally, the inevitable arrived, and we left WV.  The fighting began in four minutes.  I was still sad about leaving Sassy, as well as grouchy, because I didn’t get enough sleep.  I argued with Nikos, Eric, Elizabeth and I even complained about Arron and Nikolas for being too quiet.  Yep, I was unreasonable and not a nice passenger.

Along the way, Eric and I remembered the trips with Daddy, we’d traveled the same highways, on our way to visit our grandparents and Aunt Carolyn, Uncle Howie and cousins in Cincinnati. In first grade, I even lived with them.  They were very good to me, sat and pretended to listen while I read books as slowly as the next first grader.  Aunt Carolyn always packed a Little Debbie oatmeal creme pie in my lunch.  My cousin told the bus driver that I died after I moved back to WV, because he didn’t know how to explain it!

1925998_10153651151703032_7779367403521709321_o Suddenly, Eric spotted a sign to Shawnee State Park!  Eric and I both are obsessed with brown road signs. This was a park our parents had frequented, and later, Daddy would stop by there often with us.  Eric and I were so excited to take our families there!  We played ball, ran around on the deserted road, checked out the creek and threatened Arron and Nikolas to not go in it.  It was a wonderful break!

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Back to the car, and wow did Elizabeth get to me!  We were arguing non-stop all the way to visit our mother’s grave in Milford, OH.  Just before we made it to the cemetery, I was crying, Elizabeth was crying, everyone else hated us, and I told Eric to just pull over because I didn’t want to go to the cemetery as a hot mess.  I was crying and despising my teenager at that moment, feeling like a crappy mom, and not worthy of visiting my mother.  Nikos said if our mother had raised me, we would have fought too, and she understands how annoying Elizabeth is.  Well, that got Elizabeth all worked up again and another verbal battle ensued.

We piled-some of us fell out of the car, and became instantaneously somber as we approached our mother’s grave site.  Here Eric and I stood with our children, their sweet hopeful and young hearts only know their grandmother through our stories, and we’ve so little. How tragic that this beautiful woman hadn’t the chance to raise her children and live a long full life, in which she was entirely deserving.  We all prayed, some silently, and hoped our mom knew that she was still very much loved, a piece of our hearts reserved forever for her.

As a Frisch’s neared, I suggested that we stop for some pie and coffee, hot chocolate for the kids.  Eric and I remembered our sweet Grandma Sharp.  Frisch’s and Grandma Sharp are synonymous, as Grandma loved her fish sandwiches and crinkle-cut fries.  Grandma would fold her remaining three or so fries in a napkin, tuck it in her well-cared for purse, never allowing anything to go to waste.  Grandma was the epitome of a grandmother, simply perfect.

Some of the kids had ice cream, I had apple pie and it was just about the best time I’d had the entire trip, All it had taken was a piece of warm pie, a dollop of ice cream swiped from Katerina, and a coffee with cream to make the world right again.

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Trust me, we had plenty of dysfunction left, those stupid Ram Dass and Tim Ferris pod-casts about did me in.  I couldn’t read my book because I felt car sick, but we chugged on down the road.

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Evening came and Eric convinced us to stay at a Holiday Inn Express.  We like our Hampton Inns, so it took some persuading.  We checked in and then ate at a Cracker Barrel for supper.

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Again, it was so late that the kids were too tired to swim.  Nikos and I really liked the Holiday Inn Express, as did the kids, and that was before the pancake machine.

I was fanatically determined to beat Eric down to the breakfast room and we did it. There it was, a freaking pancake machine, that spit out pancakes!  I want to go today and stay at a Holiday Inn Express, just to see that machine again.  I don’t even really like pancakes, but that’s beside the point. The five of us ooohed and ahhed at that super cool pancake machine!  We were now fans for life of the Holiday Inn Express-thanks bub!

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Being that we were somewhere in Illinois meant that we had seven hours left-yuck!  The weather grew considerably colder each mile we drove.  Elizabeth was still impossible, I was freezing, Sophia and I agreed on putting the heat/air knob midway, even though I often secretly moved it with my big toe when she wasn’t looking.  Sophia is very smart, and she caught on quickly.

It was lunchtime and we’d made it to Wisconsin Dells, an area that every mid-westerner is familiar.  Half of us wanted Culver’s and the other, Subway.  We left the kids with Elizabeth in the car, and the rest of us filed into the Subway to realize that an entire bus had arrived just before.  While I had gone to the restroom, one of the kids had set off the car alarm, so all of Subway were glued to the window staring at our car.

Everyone ended up getting Culver’s, and I tried their cheese soup.  It wasn’t very good.

Nikos drove and the absolute best part of the worst drive ever suddenly happened-Eric and I both managed to take a nap!  We awoke thirty plus minutes later and all was quiet, blessedly peaceful.

We returned to snow-covered everything, minus ten temperatures, the kids all went sledding, and Eric made his now infamous (at our house) tai green curry for supper.  It was good to be home.  We were all friends again.

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The way to sum up this road trip from you know where…I’m still married, we didn’t beat any kids or leave them at a rest area, and I’m still claiming that I’m related to my brother.  And you know what, I’d do that trip all over again.

Thinking back, it was uncomfortable to say the least, but somehow, it was also a beautiful memory, despite its dysfunction. Growing up, Eric was a better at everything brother, who chopped my Barbie’s heads off, convinced me there was no Santa when I was twelve, shot arrows at my doll house and called me “ugly sea hag.”   We grew up and he turned into one of my very favorite people I’ve ever known.  Eric has grown to be a contemplative, even sentimental person, a deeply devoted and loving father, generous, and kind-hearted, without the need for acknowledgment.  I am grateful for the time we had during my brother’s visit, and also for the bond we share, growing up under different circumstances, in which Eric understands.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfApBz4_XQk