A Christmas Carol Without The Ghosts – Broken Hearted

Since my last post about my father’s devastating news, a lot has happened.

On August 4th, around noon, my father died. The last 36 days of my father’s life were pretty terrible. Although we tried to make the most of them…how can you possibly enjoy the moment when you know each moment could be the last you spend with that person. Obviously death is possible each and every day for everyone, but getting an expiration date thrown into the mix just makes it far more real.

After his death, nothing was the same. How could it be? The void left was infinite.

My mother did her best to cope, but after 53 years of marriage, it is hard to contemplate a single day without the person you spent so much of your life with. Zeb took the loss especially hard, because although my father was his Papa, he was also his best friend. So I spent much of the past 4 months, 24 days consoling both my mom and my son, all the while doing my best to come to terms with my own grief.

For the most part I thought I was doing okay. I planned activities for my mom and Zeb, I threw myself into cooking and baking, and I became very involved in Zeb’s school’s Parent Group and developing a website for them. With all this distraction, I really thought I was doing good.

With the holidays approaching, however, things got more complicated. They say that all the “firsts” after losing someone are especially hard. Christmas being a holiday that was always celebrated heartily in our family, I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. Still, I pushed forward. I bought tickets for all of us (including my Mom) to see A Christmas Carol play, to go to a theater to see a professional choir perform holiday carols, visits to local holiday displays and functions, and a trip to the Toledo Zoo to see their holiday light display and tree lighting. My mom was doing great, truly enjoying the events.

Being that there were so many of our traditions that my father was responsible for or a huge part of, I also took it upon myself to start a few new traditions, while letting these old traditions rest until we were ready to deal with them. One of them was to have a gingerbread house decorating contest. I cut out and baked three different house designs, assembled them (they would have to sit too long to dry before being able to decorate), and then assemble all the icing and decorations for the great decorate-off. This turned out to be an awesome new tradition that my mom is already planning for for next year.

With all the happenings for the past month and a half just for the holidays, I really kept all my emotions in check while still helping my mom and Zeb deal with the ever mounting emotions that were sparked by the upcoming holidays. Or so I thought.

For me, Christmas Eve marked the beginning of the end. It was the last “Christmas” event with my mom, as my brother was spending Christmas day with her. We were going to church for the Christmas Eve service at 3:00, then the traditional Chinese dinner back at my mom’s and opening presents, plum pudding, and relaxing. Christmas day I figured would be very calm because it would be just Hubby, Zeb and Grace. Easy-peasy.

Well, we headed to church at 2:30 and the moment we entered the parking lot, my anxiety level spiked. Walking into church I was immediately flooded with memories of my father and last Christmas when we went to church. Fighting back the tears began immediately. After finding our seats, my mother began to cry. Of course try as I might, at this point I could not control the tears either. For the entire service I sat next to my mother, trying to silence my uncontrollable sobs. By the end of the service, my head was throbbing and I was exhausted.

Once outside the church, I took a deep breath and regained my composure. We then drove to my mom’s while Grace went to pick up our Chinese food.  Everything was going good. We were laughing around the dinner table, enjoying a good meal, sharing memories about past Christmas’s with my father–handling it quite well.

With dinner done, we retired to the great room and began to open presents. First Zeb and Grace, then Hubby and I and then finally it would be Mom’s turn. Zeb and Grace finished their gifts, as did Hubby, but I was slowly unwrapping mine, feeling not quite myself. My head was hurting me, my chest was aching, and I was having a hard time breathing. Still, I pushed forward, thinking this was just because of the pending let down that almost always follows a holiday.

At 6:12 p.m. (I know this because Grace noted the time, knowing from her CPR classes this would be important) I opened a 12″ cast iron fry pan. Without commenting on the pan I asked Zeb to bring me some water. My mom turned and asked me if I was okay. I said, “No,” and grabbed my chest.

Hubby who was sitting next to me with his feet up, shot up, as did Grace who was sitting on the floor. In unison they asked, “What’s wrong?”

I told them my chest really hurt me. Then as I was talking I couldn’t catch my breath. Grace asked if my arms hurt. I told them my neck and jaw and ears were throbbing and hurt terribly. Hubby ran to the entrance yelling behind him, “We’ve got to go.” My mother wanted to call 911, but Hubby knew he could get me to the hospital quicker. He grabbed my coat, put on his shoes, and he and Grace got me to the car. By this time the pain was so intense in my chest, I thought it was going to burst.

It took 14 minutes to get to the hospital and the entire time I was hunched over in agonizing pain. At one point I really slouched, and Hubby told me later that he thought at that moment — That’s it! She’s gone. I heard him yell my name, and I lifted up slightly. I really couldn’t focus on anything. Everything was a blur.  Hubby tore into the Emergency entrance and Grace got a wheelchair. They pulled me from the car into the wheelchair and Grace ran as fast as she could while pushing the wheelchair into Emergency.

For the next seven hours I had three EKG’s, a CT scan, x-rays, blood drawn, and after nearly an hour and a half of sitting in the hallway they finally gave me a nitroglycerin pill and some baby aspirin. At about the hour mark, the pain lessened. On a scale from 1-10, 10 being the pain I felt while at my mom’s, I’d say it was a 7.

So what was it? Was it a heart attack? Was it just chest spasms? Food poisoning?

The unofficial diagnosis was Broken Heart Syndrome or a stress-induced cardiomyopathy. A heart attack in every way, other than there is far less likelihood of permanent damage to the heart and I have no blockages to my heart or in my arteries. A portion of the heart stops working brought on by stress and grief and the heart becomes inflammed and surrounded by liquid.

What a way to celebrate Christmas! Hubby tried to make light of my dismay later by telling me, “This will definitely be one Christmas we never forget.”

What now? Well, against doctor’s orders I checked myself out of the hospital at 1:30 Christmas morning. They wanted to keep me to do more tests, give me drugs for a heart attack, and basically treat me as if I’d had a heart attack with all the whistles and bells. I am not a doctor person. I do not like hospitals or trust that they are there to do much more than pad the bill for as much as they can. I’ve had too many bad experiences with both doctors and hospitals to take a risk like trusting them.

Hubby got me home. I laid on the couch with Zeb until he calmed down while Hubby sat on the computer scouring the internet for as much information as he could find on Broken Heart Syndrome, heart attacks, treatment, side affects, and risks for death, repeat attacks, and permanent damage. Knowledge is power.

Needless to say, Hubby got no sleep that night. I was so exhausted from the pain and emotional toll everything had taken on me that I did fall asleep but not before sobbing for fear of never waking up.  Hubby sat right next to me all night checking to make sure I was still breathing continually.

Obviously Christmas day there is no way to see a cardiologist (not even if I’d stayed in the hospital could they guarantee that one would actually come see me), so the day after Hubby called and talked to one in our area. He told them everything we had gone through, read the diagnosis from the doctor, and gave them as much information as he could. They scheduled an appointment for me for the 14th of January. I guess it’s not as serious as one might believe.

On the 14th I’ll go and have new tests done to get a completely unbiased opinion and take it from there. Hubby, Grace, and my mom have me on the couch until such time as they deem me better. I cannot eat much, as when I do my chest hurts. My chest is very sore and walking short distances winds me and makes my chest hurt more. I’ve rinsed a few dishes, but have little strength.

Our research tells us that it will take between 1 and 6 weeks for me to recover, but it could be a lot longer if by some rare chance there was damage to the heart. Hubby has made it clear that my days of consoling my mom and Zeb are over and it is time for me to concentrate on myself. My mom has not so much as mentioned my father since she’s had me to take care of.

I had a heart attack. Not for the typical reason (heart blockages) but real nonetheless. Broken heart syndrome can kill you, can happen again, and could increase my risk for a more traditional heart attack. I had my heart attack on Christmas Eve, the day more heart attacks happen than any other. My father’s death took more of a toll on me than I thought — it literally broke my heart. Now I am concentrating on building myself back up with meditation, calming exercises, laughter, rest, family support, essential oils, and love — no drugs. I feel really stupid for allowing this to happen. I keep thinking I should have handled this a whole lot differently. Well, duh! Hindsight is always 20/20.

As I sit here on the couch, listening to Hubby putz around in the kitchen and Zeb vacuuming the dining room, I can’t help but feel far more than Simply Grateful for this second chance. Stress and grief can literally cause heart attacks that induce blockages to the heart and kill you. Broken heart syndrome is bad, but this could have been so much worse. I cannot shut off the grief over my father’s death, but I know he would not want me to ruin or lose my life over it. If nothing else, to honor him and his memory I am going to do whatever it takes to get through this set back. Hubby’s favorite saying is, “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.” Nothing about this will be lost on me. This was my A Christmas Carol without the ghosts and for this I am Simply Grateful. ~ Tilly

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The Bathroom Incident

I sat on the edge of my unmade bed staring into the bathroom knowing what I had to do. For months I’d been avoiding it, many months, too many months. Excuses had been made time after time until finally there were no more excuses, no more getting around it, no more denying the inevitable.

Already my day had been full and it was only 8:00 a.m. I’d made breakfast for the kids, gotten them both off to school, done a 45 minute workout, put in a second load of laundry in the washing machine, and had one drying in the dryer, put the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher, taken out some meat for dinner and set it on the counter to defrost, and wrote three things on my daily to do list in the hopes it would motivate me to actually do them. Surely such a productive morning could be rewarded, surely this would warrant the governors reprieve from what I knew was waiting for me in the bathroom.

A new excuse — Hooray!

But alas, I knew this lame excuse would not be enough to thwart the guilt I would carry with me, as I had been for months, if I didn’t just bite the bullet and do what had to be done. It wasn’t like it was going to take me any time. In fact it would all be over in just seconds. The trouble was I didn’t want to face the ugly truth. It was far too easy to ignore the situation than to walk that lonely mile, or ten or so feet in this case, and deal with what was absolutely necessary if anything I did the rest of the day, week, or month was going to make any difference.

Yes, the time had come and as much as I really wanted to just shut the bathroom door, walk away, forget all about it, and go on living in blissful ignorance, I knew I just could not do it. Not and be able to look at myself in the mirror again.

Mirrors! That was all part of the problem. Every morning when I look in the mirror I see what I want to see. I have gotten very good at fooling myself, brainwashing almost, into believing that everything was fine and there was no reason to do it. No reason to rock the boat. But there were tell-tale signs everywhere beyond the fun-house mirrors I’d convinced myself were real that even if I wanted to ignore them, I couldn’t.

No, there was nothing I could do, nothing I could say, nothing I could dream up as a reasonable excuse to delay walking into the black hole that surely would destroy the false sense of complacency I’d spent months building, designing, engineering to justify my actions.

Slowly I slid my feet onto the cold floor and with my hands firmly on the bed, pushed myself to a standing position. Halfway there. Not really. Standing was surely not half the battle here. Actually it was just the first step to the many it was going to take to actually do this deed.

Sucking in a deep breath I closed my eyes and took a step. My feet felt like lead. The natural spring in my step was now nothing more than a mere dragging of cinder blocks across the floor. My heart began to race.

“Maybe I’ll have a heart attack before I get there,” I thought to myself. “Then I’d really have an excuse worthy of listening to.”

The cinder blocks dragged on, slowly closing the distance between me and my nemesis. Sweat began to stream down the back of my neck and drip into my eyes from my forehead. Why was this so darn stressful? People do it all the time. In fact, some people do it everyday and think nothing of it. Why oh why had I put this off so long? Why had I spent so much time trying to avoid this when I knew it would only make matters worse? Ignorance is a wonderful thing, until reality smacks you upside the head and tells you “You’re only hurting yourself.”

I crossed the threshold into hell — I mean the bathroom, and the cold ceramic tile made me wince. A mere pat on the back compared to the slap in the face I knew was waiting for me just a few feet away. Reaching the end of the road I stood staring aimlessly at the wall in front of me, refusing to look anywhere else.

Closing my eyes I sucked in one last breath of air and stepped up with one foot and then the other. Firmly positioned at my destination I squeezed my eyes tighter, willing them to glue themselves shut. No luck. I opened my eyes and looked up, then to the right, then to the left. I looked everywhere and anywhere I could except where I needed to look — down.

For hours (actually minutes, but it sure felt like hours) I stood there, enjoying every last-minute of life as I knew it, as I had convinced myself it was okay to be, before I finally let out the breath I’d been holding and looked at my feet. There it was. I could no longer go on telling myself nothing had changed. It was right there in front of me, in black and white — literally.

How could this have happened? How could I possibly have let things get this far out of hand? Panic began to set in. How was I ever going to fix this? It was worse than thought, worse than I imagined, although to be honest my alternate reality had really convinced nothing was wrong so thinking and imagining were rarely, if ever, done.

I jumped back onto the hard floor and quickly retreated back to the bed. It was done! I’d finally done that which I hate doing the most. That which causes me more stress and anxiety than it should because I put it off rather than deal with it. That which in order for any changes I make to mean anything needs to be faced and addressed. It was over and now I could move on, make plans, deal with it. None of this gave me any comfort. No, the writing was right there on the wall, well not exactly the wall but close, and it was time to face the music.

Yep — 155! That’s what the scale said. ONE FIVE FIVE! ONE HUNDRED FIFTY-FIVE.  ONE WITH TWO FIVES AFTER IT. FIFTY PLUS FIVE PLUS ONE HUNDRED. TWO HUNDRED LESS FORTY-FIVE. ONE HUNDRED, FIVE TENS, AND FIVE ONES.

My heart was in my throat. Sure the holidays had been full of wonderful food and lots and lots of sweets, but that’s what the holidays are for. But this has started long before the holidays were even a line on my to do list. I’d been ignoring the ever tightening jeans, the rolls that formed on my back between my bra straps, and the ever-increasing chins that formed when I lowered my head toward my chest (actually lately I’m not sure I even have to lower my head for this to happen!).

Yes, I’d finally gotten myself back down to the gym and was making great strides at maintaining a regiment, adding more reps, increasing the weight, and getting my heart rate going three or four times a week — but this was almost too much to bear. How was I possibly ever going to get back into shape, lose the weight, have the will power not to eat chocolate, sweets, sugar — basically everything I love to eat and cook with. No, this was just too much for any one person to deal with.

So without looking back into that horrid place that houses that tortuous contraption called “a scale,” I threw on some clothes, grabbed my coat and keys, opened the garage door, and got in the car. There was only one thing that was going to change my mood, give me hope, make that ugly memory of what will be forever referred to as “the bathroom incident” forgotten. I tore out of the driveway, flew down the street (stopping only when absolutely necessary), and headed to the hairdresser.

Yep, nothing like cutting off 8 inches of hair to bring that scale down an ounce or two. Hey, and if your hair is really thick like mine, you might actually be looking at nearly a whole half pound. Then, on my way home I stopped off and bought myself a candy bar to celebrate. No point in letting my well-intentioned efforts go unrewarded now, is there?

So, that was my morning. How’s yours been? I’m home now, planning on how to continue making all the sweet concoctions I want to share with the family and somehow be able to show restraint and not eat them myself, and working on menus of salads, yogurt, cottage cheese, and fresh vegetables for myself while the family still gets to enjoy loads of mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetables in cream sauce, and other gazillion calorie entrees that can no longer be on my plate. But I’m not bitter. No, I got myself in this mess and it’s up to me to do the time and get myself out of it.

I sure am hungry though. What I wouldn’t give for a fresh slice of garlic cheese bread right about now — but instead I’m going to go make a fresh salad for lunch, and for this I am (sort of) — Simply Grateful.

The Eleventh Day of Christmas

On the eleventh day of Christmas, poppy seeds were on my mind

So a recipe for bread I had to find.

When I was 18, I moved out of the comfort of my parents home and into my first apartment. I had no roommate, no boyfriend, no one to share the bills or the chores. Every responsibility rested solely on my shoulders, including the cooking.

Growing up my mother made dinner nearly every night, but my time in the kitchen was quite limited. There were no cooking lessons from mom or afternoons spent learning the basics of cooking from either of my parents. Any cooking lessons I received came from my home economics teacher, Ms. Mazzola, when I was in seventh grade. I remember learning to make zucchini bread, blueberry muffins, and learning the basics of how to use a measuring cup, oven, and reading a recipe. Beyond that, I was self-taught.

Moving out on my own I thought I knew everything, but learned very quickly, I truly knew nothing at all. Beyond budgeting money, keeping my apartment clean, and laundry, there was also the new responsibility of being solely responsible for feeding myself. Money was tight, very tight, with more than half my yearly income going to rent, utilities, and insurance, so eating out was not an option. That first year I ate a lot of toast, eggs, and jelly sandwiches.

By my first anniversary of being on my own, I had changed jobs, increasing my salary substantially, moved into a new apartment where more utilities were included in the rent, and began teaching myself how to cook. During the first year I did learn how to cook a roast, can applesauce, and make cheesecake, but still my cooking skills were in great need of improvement. So, with a little more money to play with, I began collecting cook books.

Four years later I had more than 100 cookbooks, had learned how to cook many exotic dishes along with tons of home-style meals, and had taught myself how to can. It was an exciting and enlightening journey, one I reflect on warmly.

It’s been 28+ years since I moved out on my own and started cooking and a good portion of the cookbooks are gone (I copied the recipes I liked from most) and now I utilize the tried and true books I love and kept. I still have a soft spot for cookbooks, in fact, I think I truly like them better than researching recipes on the internet. Although there are some awesome recipes on the internet, it is terribly frustrating when I try a recipe that has obviously not been tested.  I ran into this when I first started playing around with mixes-in-jars and tried filling mason jars only to find that unless I had a jar that held 6+ cups of dry ingredients, it wasn’t going to work. News Flash! A quart jar only holds 4 cups packed dry ingredients.

There are definitely those recipe sites where all the recipes are tested, but sometimes I like to go rogue and try something that maybe can’t be find on one of those. This is when I really need to be careful and often need to rely on the experience and lessons I’ve learned throughout my years of cooking. I am certainly no expert and have had my share of failures — more than my share probably — but with failure comes a lesson and with a lesson comes knowledge and that knowledge can be far more beneficial than when everything turns out as written.

During the holidays Hubby’s mother used to make an Eastern European rolled poppy-seed bread that Hubby really enjoyed. Now that she is older and not able to really make these types of things anymore I decided to see if I could make something similar for him that he would enjoy just as much. None of my cookbooks had anything like this, so to the internet I went. I found several recipes, all basically the same and set to work.

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After I’d mixed the dough for the bread portion, I found I had something just slightly thicker than soup — nothing like the dough that was described. Rather than throw it out and start from scratch, I increased the amount of flour and after 3+ more cups of flour, had a dough that was ready for proofing. From that point everything went good and in the end, I had a poppy-seed bread that Hubby said was perfect. If you’d like the recipe, check it out on Simply Grateful Cooking, Poppy Seed Bread.

Honestly, having the recipe not work out worked out for the best in the end. Seeing as I had a ton of dough to work with, I decided to try making some fruit, cinnamon, and poppy-seed sticky buns with it. These were even better than the bread and something I could call my own. At first I thought I would cut the recipe in half so I wouldn’t end up with so much dough, but now that I have more than one thing I can use this dough for, I think I’ll keep it as is.

Whether it’s preparer error or creator error, some recipes are just not going to turn out no matter what you do. Being able to salvage a recipe and even expand on it is one of my favorite aspects of cooking, and for this I am — Simply Grateful.

 

The Seventh Day of Christmas

On the Seventh day of Christmas the countdown did begin

To say farewell to last year and see the new one in.

New Year’s Eve through the years has changed from what was once a big deal to something quiet and reflective. The transition was not an easy one to accept at first. Watching as friends and family drifted away, witnessing the kids growing up and getting closer to leaving the nest and starting their own New Year’s Eve traditions, and spending more and more New Year’s Eve countdowns without Hubby around because of the demands of work — have all taken their toll on finding a reason to “celebrate” at year’s end. Continue reading

Something As Simple As Tying A Tie – A Random Act Of Kindness

Having a son with special needs can be challenging, heart-wrenching, bittersweet, and sometimes just downright difficult. Yet, most of the time I’d have to say it is no different than having a “normal” son. Although I have never had a “normal” son, my daughter does not have special needs so based on my experience with her, Zeb is “normal” in most senses of the word.

Probably one of the most difficult aspects of having a son with Down Syndrome is watching how other people react to him. Supposedly our society is now being conditioned to be “tolerant.” What is that, really? Well, from my experience I can tell you that tolerance when it comes to Zeb means ignoring or avoiding him. When this isn’t the case, he endures staring, pointing, laughing, or worst of all that “pity” look with a little shake of the head.

I also just love it when I get that “look” from people as if they “understand.” They understand nothing. Unless they have had a child with a handicap, and even then every one of our experiences are different, they have no idea what life is like for a person with a disability, let alone the family that takes care of them.

Zeb though is very lucky. He does well for himself. Although we do not believe he will ever be able to live on his own completely, he can go out to movies by himself and nearly every Saturday night I drop him off at Barnes & Noble where he sits in the cafe for about two hours listening to his iPod, drinking pop, and enjoying some independence away from mom and dad. Many young adults his age with special needs will never be able to do even these seemingly simple independent acts.

When I drop Zeb off at the bookstore, he goes in by himself, finds a table, and gets himself settled. I do not go in with him or even check on him until I pick him up a few hours later. He has a phone that he can call me on if he has any trouble, but (knock on wood) for the past several years he has not had occasion to do so.

For the most part there have never been any problems leaving him by himself. Once or twice when I picked him up he was quiet and withdrawn. When I talked to him about it I found out that either people at another table were staring at him making him uncomfortable or teenagers had made rude comments to him. I comforted him and explained that some people are just mean or rude and tell him to do his best to ignore them.

What else can I do? The world is not going to change and I cannot expect it to. I have done my best not to force my son on the world, but at the same time I don’t think it is fair that I keep him locked away. He has a right to experience as much of life as he can, regardless if people accept him or not.

Fear is a terrible thing. It hinders a persons ability to think, reason, and understand. There is nothing worse than walking through a store with Zeb next to me and watching as a mother grips the shoulders of her child and pulls them far out of our path, as if their child might catch “it.” Thankfully Zeb doesn’t understand their actions or pretty much even notice. A case where ignorance is definitely bliss.

There are occasions, wonderful occasions though when a person will come up to Zeb and strike up a conversation or stop him to comment on how nice he looks. This absolutely makes Zeb’s day/night and he floats on Cloud 9 for hours and remembers these experiences for days. He refers to the people that take the time to acknowledge his existence as his buddies or even friends.

At Barnes & Noble there are several “regulars” that Zeb sees week after week and some of them have taken to stopping by his table, shaking his hand, asking him how he is, and engaging in conversation with him for a few minutes. They are sure to say goodbye to him when I pick him up and smile and tell me to have a good night. No pity, no fear, no tolerance, no difference. These experiences touch me and prove that there is understanding and acceptance out there.

Saturday night when I went in to Barnes & Noble to pick Zeb up, I noticed that his tie had been tied incorrectly. Hubby ties it for him, but ties it while it is hanging on a door knob. The back portion of the tie was hanging about 4” past the front portion of the tie. I looked at him and said, “I’m sorry Buddy, I didn’t notice that Daddy hadn’t tied your tie right.”

He just shook his head and began putting his iPod away. I went on and told him that I’d fix it for him, but I didn’t know how to tie a tie, but I would go on YouTube next week and figure it out so this wouldn’t happen again.

Zeb smiled and told me, “That’s okay.”

As I stood waiting for Zeb to put on his suit coat a young man at the table behind us asked, “Would you like me to fix that for you?”

Surprised we both turned and looked at the young man. Zeb is quite shy when it comes to most strangers, but with men he is more comfortable than women. He looked at his tie and then shook his head yes. Overtaken by emotion I nearly choked when I said, “This is so nice of you.”

The man was in his early 20’s, from the books and papers on his table I assumed a college student, and by himself. He stood up and accepted the tie that Zeb had removed from his neck and handed to him. The young man put the tie on his neck, over his t-shirt, and began tying it. It took him two tries to get the lengths of the tie right (this tie is very difficult to judge because it is a thicker tie) then carefully loosened it from his neck, pulled it over his head, and helped Zeb fix it back around his neck.

This random act of kindness that young man performed for Zeb means more to him than anyone could possibly understand. The first thing he did when we got home was to run in the house and show Hubby how his tie looked. Hubby looked at it and said, “That’s not how I tied it.” Hubby had tied a Windsor knot and the young man hadn’t.

I explained to Hubby what had happened. Hubby told Zeb to take the tie off and offered to retie it. Zeb grabbed onto the tie and held it close to his chest defensively and flatly said, “No.” To Zeb, that tie will never need to be retied. He will leave it tied as the young man tied it because it meant that much to him.

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What that man did for Zeb goes much deeper than just tying a tie – he treated him with kindness, with compassion, with respect, things that Zeb never takes for granted. This made Zeb’s night, and probably his whole week. For me this act will be something I remember always because for one moment Zeb wasn’t ignored, pitied or feared, he was accepted for who he is and seen as a person – not as someone with Down Syndrome, and for this I am forever – Simply Grateful.

The Grill Master – It’s All In The Sauce

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Growing up I was lived in a home where my father was the only person who barbecued. Mom was in charge of cooking in the kitchen, but whenever it came to grilling anything from hot dogs to prime rib roast, Dad was in charge.

The line of “men” being in charge at the grill wasn’t something that started with my father. His father and my mother’s father were also the Grill Masters at their homes and whenever we went to any family reunions on either side of the family, men were always the ones who hung around the barbecue pit, drinking beer, sneaking tastes, and chasing away any woman who came within ten feet of the hot coals.

For 20+ years I was comfortable with this barbecue hierarchy and never questioned it.

Then I moved out on my own and started dating my now husband, Hubby. While living on my own I never invested in a grill, but Hubby bought me a little hibachi for my balcony so we could grill steaks, burgers, or just about anything we wanted. While we dated, Hubby took care of the grilling. I don’t think it was because he wanted to do the grilling, but more because of my ignorance when it came to cooking anything anywhere other than the stove.

After we got married and I began accompanying Hubby to barbecues at his parent’s house however, it became immediately clear that things were very different in his family when it came to the “Rules of the Grill.” There were no men gathered around the grill, no beer drinking and comradery going on by the coals, and no taste testing hot off the grate. Nope, just my mother-in-law standing over the grill, sweating, cussing, and completely alienated from everyone else. Until the food was put on the table for everyone to enjoy, it was as if the grill and my mother-in-law didn’t exist.

Owning a barbecue for Hubby and I didn’t come until a few years after we got married, but when we did get one, I held my ground when it came to grilling.  I took care of the food preparation inside the house, and Hubby was to be in charge of the grilling. I never gave it much thought because he’d done it while we dated on our little hibachi at my apartment, but after we were married, his attitude changed. At one point he even pointed out to me that “His Father” didn’t have to grill — that “His Mother” did all the food prep including the grilling.

Being the so understanding and ever patient wife that I was back then (NOT), I quickly pointed out that he didn’t live in Oz anymore and here in the real world if he wanted to have a barbecue, he was going to have to do the grilling. At first he protested by burning practically everything he put on the grill, but I held my ground. A battle of wills that I knew was not going to end well…or at least with me being the victor.

Finally after many arguments and too many ruined meals, grilling became a thing of the past. Dinners were planned rather than barbecues and Hubby won. Or so he thought.

Summer is the time for grilling, but even in the dead of winter, a burger is just not a burger unless it’s cooked slowly over the hot grates of a grill. Hubby may have won the battle, but I was looking long-term and waging to win the war.

After a year or so of no grilling, Hubby began suggesting we grill on occasion. There was no argument, he just went to the grill, lit it up, and grilled. Then, because of the lack of tension between us, I also became far less averse to pitching in and grilling if I happened to plan a meal that included grilling during the week when he was working. I’d light the grill and get the meal almost done in time for his arrival and then he’d finish up while I put everything I’d made in the kitchen on the table.

This compromise on grilling has served us well for the past 20 years. Now however, because Hubby’s work schedule is in such upheaval (working from Monday morning 8 a.m. until Friday afternoon 4 p.m straight with only a short break to come home each day for dinner) I have taken to grilling completely. Dinner is done and on the table when he gets home. He still will grill if we have company, but for the most part, I have taken over the role as Grill Master

As with most things I attempt to do, taking on this new Grill Master role is not taken lightly. Now I am struggling to truly earn that title. At this point I’d have to say I am just barely scraping by, but I continue to work at it. One thing I have learned though is that success in this role has a lot to do with the tools you have to work with. Not just the grill itself or the utensils used, but also the selection of meats as well as the sauces used.

That being said, this year I have been experimenting with various recipes for homemade barbecue sauce. The one I made last year Sizzlin’ Plum Barbecue Sauce didn’t quite turn out how I’d wanted, so this year I tweaked the recipe to make it better (check out my post today on Simply Grateful Canning for the updated version Plum Barbecue Sauce Update). I’m also going to have posts on a few other sauces I’m working on, so keep a lookout.

Marriage can be a battle of wills, but realizing that compromise will serve your relationship better, is what holds you together, and for this I am — Simply Grateful.

American-Style Carbonara

Many of the recipes in my repertoire have been inspired by dishes Hubby and I have eaten while on vacation or in restaurants.  Although we don’t vacation or eat out very often, when we do we like to try foods that I don’t typically make at home.

Back some 25 years ago we went on a Caribbean cruise. At that time my pallet was quite young and hadn’t experienced much of anything so practically everything that was served on the cruise was new to me.  One dish that was new to both of us was carbonara.  This particular dish was served as an appetizer one evening and after tasting it, both Hubby and I ordered a second helping and then Hubby a third.

Even back then it was important to me to be able to make at home the dishes Hubby enjoyed when we went out, so when we returned from our trip, the search for a recipe for carbonara began.  It didn’t take long for me to find one among the cookbook collection I had at that time.  Now most of those cookbooks have had the recipes I liked in them scanned into the computer and the books themselves donated, but this particular cookbook is one of only a few I still have.

The original recipe is what I consider “authentic” Italian cuisine and uses ingredients that I do not usually keep on hand and therefore won’t necessarily use.  No matter what recipe I use, one rule of thumb I have is all the ingredients have to be something I would normally use.  I don’t want to buy a bottle of high-priced vinegar that will be used in only one meal perhaps two or three times a year.  My version of a recipe like that would have to either be tweaked so I can substitute something I already have on hand, or I would have to find other recipes that would share the specialized ingredient so I can justify the purchase.

In carbonara, one ingredient never on hand in my house is pancetta – Italian bacon.  The first time I made the recipe, I did go out and buy this bacon, but not only found it too salty, but too expensive for my budget.  Since then I have found using thick cut, smoked bacon serves this dish well for several reasons.  First and foremost, taste.  Hubby likes this dish so much that I serve it as a main course.  Using the thick cut bacon which is not as salty or expensive as the pancetta, I can use more of it to make the dish hearty and filling and not worry about it being too salty. Second, price. Although bacon is expensive, thick cut smoked bacon is at least half the cost of pancetta, and more likely a third of the cost of a good pancetta. And third, convenience.  I always have bacon in the freezer.  Hubby likes to have bacon for breakfast at least twice a week, so whenever I need a quick and easy meal on the fly, I know there is bacon in the basement freezer to cover me.

Another ingredient in carbonara that I don’t always have on hand is dry white wine.  This is an easy fix and actually kind of a fun one.  Several times when preparing this meal I discovered halfway through that I didn’t have any dry white wine or any white wine at all.  Scavenging through the cabinets and fridge I came up with red wine. Using this not only worked, but gave the carbonara a different flavor.  This led me to trying various types of wines and the results have always been wonderful.  Probably our favorite is to use a dark red wine because it gives the dish a pretty red hue and the flavors are more dense and complex.

American-Style Fettuccine Carbonara

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2 Tbsp. Olive Oil

2 Tbsp. Minced Garlic

1 lb. Thick Cut Smoked Bacon, cut into pieces

2/3 Cup Wine (white or red)

3 Eggs

3/4 Cup Grated Romano and/or Parmesan Cheese, additional for topping

1 lb. Cooked Pasta – Fettuccine, Linguine, or any style you like

Heat oil in skillet over medium-high heat.  Add garlic and saute until fragrant. Add bacon and fry until lightly browned. Add 1/3 cup wine and simmer until almost evaporated.  Add remaining 1/3 cup wine and turn burner to low and cover.

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Beat eggs lightly.  Stir in cheese.

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Cook pasta.  Drain. Add egg-cheese mixture and hot bacon mixture and toss well.

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Top with some freshly grated Parmesan cheese and serve immediately.

One thing I have learned over the years is that being flexible is a necessity in the kitchen.  Had I not tried a different bacon in this dish I might not have continued to make it and had I not experimented with various wines, I never would have discovered that just because it calls for “dry white wine,” doesn’t mean you HAVE to use “dry white wine.” This isn’t rocket science, and for this I am — Simply Grateful.

 

Making Krofna – A Serbian Tradition Carried On

As Hubby and I get older, our priorities, what we deem important, and our desires are changing.  Perhaps it’s the fear of our own mortality, but even more so at this point, the mortality of our parents.  For Hubby, the mortality of his parents is hinged closely to the fading of his heritage.

He came to the US when he was a young boy and quickly assimilated into American ways and customs.  His parents however clung to their heritage and never quite assimilated.  They picked and chose the American customs and traditions they liked, and dismissed all others as not as good as the “Serbian” way. This selective assimilation has been a hindrance in many ways, but most prominently in preventing them from forming any type of bond with Zeb, Grace, or myself.  We tried for years to include them in the American traditions that Hubby and I carried on from my background once we were married, but they made it clear they were not interested in participating in anything “American” unless they could somehow try to out-do it in a “Serbian” way.

The best example of this would be in birthday celebrations.  According to Hubby, his parents never had a birthday party for him.  There was one small party when he was very little and still living in Serbia, but since coming to the US, they hadn’t had a party, bought him gifts, or even made him a cake.

The first year we dated, when Hubby’s birthday came around, I made a huge deal about it.  I made a romantic dinner for the two or us, made him his favorite cake, had presents for him, and even got us tickets to a sporting event to attend on his birthday.  Every year since we met, I have made sure that his birthday has had a celebration.

After we got married, it was only natural I invite my parents, my brother’s family as well as Hubby’s parents over to share in the celebration. This is how my family celebrated birthdays — with family.  From the first time his parents came over for their son’s birthday though, it caused problems.  My mother-in-law is tremendously competitive and after coming to our home to celebrate her son’s birthday, she immediately had to invite us over to her house to have a birthday celebration for her son “the Serbian way.”  Those were her exact words, “the Serbian way.”

Well, this didn’t sit well with Hubby, because to him “the Serbian way” meant no celebration at all.  Suddenly after 25 years of never so much as a Happy Birthday, it was imperative his parents somehow prove to everyone what great parents they were by having a “Serbian” birthday party.  And don’t think that they didn’t understand about birthday parties, gifts, and cakes because many of their friends in the Serbian community they were a part of had parties and celebrations every year.  In fact, his parents had even thrown surprise parties for some of their friends, but never for their son.

This instance is only one example of many that pushed Hubby to the opposite end of the spectrum when it came to carrying on “Serbian” traditions.  Although we did participate in Serbian traditions that his parents continued to carry on year after year, he made it clear to me that most, if not all, of these would die with his parents.

As my in-laws got older, Hubby mellowed and began bringing up some of the traditions he really did enjoy that his parents were getting too old to carry on.  I offered to carry these traditions on, in fact researched many of them in-depth on the internet, but his parents were resistant. Hubby was open to the idea of me taking over the traditions and “Serbian” ways, but understood how hard it was for his parents to let go of running things.  So when they were no longer able to host holidays or parties alone, we ‘lent a hand’ as much as we could.

For a few years this worked out, but when it became clear that all the work would have to be done by us and his parents were only “hosts” in name, they decided it was better to let the traditions die rather than allow us to take them over.  They were less than supportive of any efforts we made to carry on the traditions that were part of their heritage.  We invited them for Serbian Easter, Serbian Christmas, and Krsna Slava (our family Holy day) but they refused to come. They shut the door on all of it.

Hubby insists he’s fine with it, but I have my doubts.  He puts up a good front, but with his parents in their 80’s and with the limited time he has left with them, I know he realizes that the traditions of his heritage will die with them if they haven’t already.  This presents a challenge to me.  How can I somehow, even if only in small ways, help Hubby hold onto his heritage which when you think about it is actually holding onto the memory of his parents?  We are defined by what people remember about us when we are gone, be it the traditions we pass on, the memories we instill, the love we’ve shared that causes hearts to break when we die, or even something so small as food we made that became a reflection of home.

For the past couple of years I have been trying to duplicate some of the foods that were part of Hubby’s heritage, not everything, just those that he really loves and will miss when his parent’s are no longer here to share with him. Some are traditional Serbian dishes that are only served on certain holidays or occasions, but others are foods that his mother just made because she knew her son liked them.

This morning after I made my first batch of yeast doughnuts I began thinking about a doughnut-type bread that Hubby’s mother has been making for many years — krofna.  This is a bread traditionally served before Lent begins, but Hubby’s mother makes it several times throughout the year.  The traditional recipe is more of a sweet roll, but my mother-in-law prepares it less sweet and stuffs it with cheese.  When I tasted the dough of the yeast doughnuts this morning, I was surprised how similar the texture and taste was to my mother-in-laws.  So, you know what I did this afternoon?  Yep, I tweaked my recipe for yeast doughnuts and made Hubby a batch of krofna.

Krofna – Cheese Stuffed Doughnuts

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3/4 Cups Milk

2 Tbsp. Sugar

2 tsp. Salt

2 1/4 tsp. Active Dry Yeast

1/4 Cup Warm Water

4 Cups Flour

1/3 Cup Melted Butter

2 Eggs

Shredded Cheese – mozzarella, cheddar, or whatever you like

Oil for Deep Frying

  • Heat milk to near boiling.  Combine hot milk, sugar, and salt in medium Set aside for 5 minutes.
  • Add 2 cups flour to milk mixture and beat until blended.
  • In small bowl dissolve yeast in warm water.  Add to milk mixture along with eggs and melted butter.
  • Mix in the remaining flour 1/2 cup at a time until dough forms.  Knead with dough hooks in mixer for 3-4 minutes.
  • Place dough in oiled bowl and allowed to double in size (about 40 minutes).
  • Separate dough into 8 to 12 sections.  Roll each section into a ball and then flatten with a rolling-pin on lightly floured surface.  Place approximately 1/4 to 1/3 cup shredded cheese in the center of dough.  Pull sides up and seal the cheese inside, forming a circle.  Let rest 15 – 20 minutes.
  • Heat 1 inch of oil to 375 in frying pan.  Fry krofna until golden brown on both sizes.  Drain on paper towel.

The minute the first krofna came out of the frying pan, Hubby was there with a fork and knife to cut into it.  It was perfect.

Family politics are tricky no matter what, but throw ethnic traditions and customs into the mix and things quickly complicate beyond reason.  I would never claim to be a good daughter-in-law or even come close to it, but I am a good wife.  This recipe for krofna will ensure that at least while I’m alive, Hubby will be able to enjoy this bread that has been something he has loved for many years from his mother.  I am not trying to replace her, just provide Hubby with a tangible reminder of the good memories they shared.

I probably won’t make these again for quite some time, as Hubby’s mother does still make these on occasion for him. The recipe will be in my cookbook for when I need it which is good enough for now, and for this I am — Simply Grateful.

Canning Pear-Cranberry Pie Filling

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When I was a kid I hated pears. The texture, the taste, even the look of a pear was something I absolutely hated.  Not until I was an adult did I finally discover the joy of pears and all the possibilities.

The turning point for me came one warm summer afternoon when Hubby and I were enjoying a barbecue at a friend’s house.  After the grill was through spouting smoke, our hostess brought out dessert.  The moment we saw it, Hubby exclaimed, “Oh good, apple pie my favorite!”  You see, Hubby loves pie and especially apple pie.

With a coy smile however, our hostess replied, “Not quite.”

We were intrigued.  It sure looked like apple pie.  The beautiful brown sugar topping with the perfect slices of apple peeking through — what else could it be.

Well, when I took my first bite, I immediately knew what it was — pear. Very smooth and mild with just a hint of spice.  A nice change from the traditional apple pie.

Although I love pear pie on its own, I really like it with a little zip in it and that’s where cranberries come in and thus this wonderful new pie filling for the pantry shelves.

Pear-Cranberry Pie Filling

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  • 11 lbs. Pears (mixed varieties)
  • 3-12 oz. Bags Cranberries
  • 4 Cups Sugar
  • 2 Cups Clear Jel
  • 3 Cups Water
  • 6 Cups Apple or Pear Juice
  • 12 Tbsp. Lemon Juice
  • 1 tsp. Nutmeg

Wash, peel, and core pears.  Slice pears 1/4 – 1/2 inch wide and soak in water containing lemon juice to prevent browning.

Boil water and blanch pears and cranberries for 1 minute after the water returns to a boil.  Drain but keep warm fruit in a covered bowl.

Combine Clear Jel in water and mix until smooth.  Add the Clear Jel slurry, sugar, spice, and apple or pear juice in a large stock pot.  Stir and cook on medium high heat until mixture thickens and begins to bubble.  Add lemon juice and boil 1 minute, stirring constantly.  Remove from heat.

Fold in drained pears and cranberries and fill hot jars with mixture, leaving a 1-inch head space.  Remove air bubbles.  Wipe rims, adjust lids, and process immediately for 25 minutes at a full boil.

This recipe made 7 quarts of filling plus a pie to enjoy right away.

As with my apple pie filling, I use a variety of pears with varying textures and sweetness to really make this filling pop.  This pie filling is absolutely wonderful on its own, but to switch it up I might add a jar of apple pie filling on occasion.  This gives me even more dessert possibilities, and for this I am — Simply Grateful.

Christmas Candy #5 – Creamy Peanut Butter Fudge

Back when I was a young girl, every couple of years my family would head up north to a family reunion on my father’s side.  We’d spend a weekend on the farm of one of our cousins hiking, talking, playing horseshoes, riding motorcycles, picking apples, and tubing down the Ausable River.  Most of all, though, we ate.  Everyone brought food, everyone made food, and everyone ate food.  There was absolutely no chance of anyone going hungry, because there was always something cooking.  From 5 in the morning until well after midnight, everyone fought over who was going to get the kitchen next.

When my children came along, the family reunion had all but stopped.  Thankfully, one of my cousins took it upon herself to organize one last hoorah.  I took the opportunity to spend the weekend taking pictures of the old farm, hiking along the trails for one last time with my children, and gathering recipes from my cousins.

One recipe that I am thankful I got was from my cousin Linda.  She was famous for making her peanut butter fudge every time there was a family reunion.  It was popular with the kids, of course, but the adults loved it just as much. That last time we gathered at the farm, Linda taught me how to make her fudge.  I’m not sure I would have been able to make it had she just given me the recipe.  Not being familiar with making fudge, I was terribly intimidated by it. After watching her do it however, I realized that fudge wasn’t something to be afraid of.

Linda’s Creamy Peanut Butter Fudge

I really should have gotten a bigger bowl to store this in.  I guess we'll just have to eat until we can fit the lid on.

I really should have gotten a bigger bowl to store this in. I guess we’ll just have to eat until we can fit the lid on.

  • 1 lb. Light Brown Sugar
  • 3/4 Cup Cream or Milk
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp. Butter
  • 1 Cup Cream Peanut Butter

Bring sugar and milk to boil over medium heat.  Heat to soft-ball stage — 235 degrees.  Linda never used a thermometer.  She used a bowl of ice water and dropped some of the sugar and milk mixture into it after it had been boiling for a while.  I use both.  I wait until it reaches 235 and then start testing for the soft-ball stage.  It isn’t an instantaneous thing that once it reaches 235 it’s done, so be sure to test.

Once the mixture reaches the soft-ball stage, add the butter and stir until melted.

Remove from heat and add creamy peanut butter.  Pour immediately into buttered or foil lined 9×9 baking pan. Refrigerate until set.  I prefer to put my fudge in a foil lined pan because it makes it much easier to remove from the pan.

Not even a year after the reunion we lost Linda very unexpectedly.  It was a terrible shock to the entire family.  After her funeral the family gathered together and reminisced.  I brought up her peanut butter fudge and everyone agreed it was the best they’d ever tasted. Many in the family commented that they wished they had learned how to make it.

I’m not sure that mine lives up to Linda’s, but it is one of my families favorites and a recipe I hope to pass down for many generations.  It has become a Christmas tradition in our family.   I am sorry Linda is no longer with us but she will forever live on in the memories and recipes she left behind, and for this I am — Simply Grateful.