Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Tomorrow is Thanksgiving 2011, and it marks the fifth year I have made the Thanksgiving dressing for my family gatherings.  I am a self-proclaimed “not very good” cook, so I don’t know why I ever volunteered to make the dressing in the first place.  I think it was because in 2006 my mother was getting too weak to do much cooking.  A year before, during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she had contracted the West Nile virus, and it had taken a toll on her strength.  Maybe I volunteered because I wanted to learn how.  Whatever reason, I went to her house to make the dressing.  Of course by the time I got there she had already done most of the prep work and made the cornbread so there wasn’t much left for me to do but watch.  My mother never was one to teach her cooking skills.  You had to watch to learn.  For her it was easier to just cook and get it done then to wait while we struggled through the steps.  That year the dressing was mostly hers, but she gave me the credit.  That was also the year my daddy divided up his “old money”, out of print bills he had been saving in an accordion file for a few years.  Then, later with cash in pockets, we spread out the Black Friday ads, an annual tradition, and plotted our strategies.  That was a good year.

Now here I am five years later making the dressing again and thinking about the four years that have passed since that last good year.  I got started this morning by making the cornbread and boiling eggs, then on to chopping the vegetables.  As I peel the paper skins off of the onions, and make the first slices I think about Thanksgiving 2007.  Did we have it at my house or my sister’s?  I don’t remember.  I do remember making the dressing all by myself.  My mother reassured me that it was good, and I think I did a pretty good job of it even though I watched my brother-in-law generously douse his serving with salt.  And Daddy divided his “old money” again, a smaller amount because he had only been saving for one year.  Then, again with cash in pockets, albeit less than the previous year, we spread out the Black Friday ads and plotted our strategies. 

Next come the green onions.  I find it is much easier to snip them with kitchen shears rather than try to chop them.  Mama always chopped, but I always look for the easy way.  I snip away the green shoots stopping short of the white parts, saving that for the chicken stock.  With each cut I think about Thanksgiving 2008, the first holiday without my father.  By that time my mother was living with my sister and unable to do any of the cooking aside from maybe peeling potatoes, which she always did in an effort to hang on to her last thread of independence.  My sister, Becky, hosted that year because she wanted to have Thanksgiving in her new home.  With full stomachs, but empty hearts and pockets we still spread out the Black Friday ads and plotted our strategies.

Celery is something I could do without in any dish, but my mother put it in the dressing, therefore, so do I.  I cut off the leaves and the ends and save them for the chicken stock.  The fresh smell and the crisp sound the knife makes as it slices through the watery stalks serve as the background of my memories of Thanksgiving 2009.  By then, dressing was my thing and despite the fact there is no written recipe I could make it taste pretty much just like Mama’s.  She agreed.  That Thanksgiving was only a week or so after my nephew left us.  That was a bad time, so I don’t remember much about it except for the fact that I hosted lunch at my house.  Friday was black, indeed.

I mix all of my chopped vegetables in a bowl and set them in the fridge to wait their turn.  Now it is time to put my chicken on to boil.  Mama always used chicken in her dressing instead of turkey, I guess because the turkey had not even been cooked before she started the dressing.  Plus, she needed the stock. I put the chicken in one of her favorite pots, cover it with water, add cut onions, celery, garlic, salt, pepper, and bay leaves and turn it on to do its thing.  I think of last year, Thanksgiving 2010.  My sister, Becky, took her turn again and had us over to her house even though it was the first Thanksgiving after her husband’s death.  Again, the family gathered, gave thanks, ate my dressing, and combed over the Black Friday ads and planned strategies.  My sister slept, and no one minded.

Here it is, 2011, and it will be the first Thanksgiving without Mama.  At first I wondered if my sisters and brothers would even want to get together.  Afterall, with both parents gone now, there is nothing that bounds us to be together.  But in the spirit of the holiday, thankfully, they do, and we will.  Becky wants us at her house again; because this might be the last Thanksgiving she has there.  I will bring the dressing, and for the first time I will not have Mama to reassure me that it is fine, just like hers.  I will just have to have confidence that after five years I know what I’m doing.  And even though we all have really, really empty pockets I look forward to our annual tradition of spreading out the ads and plotting our strategies.

Life goes on, and so do Thanksgivings.   While these past few years have had their own brand of sadness, I am still thankful for what I knew, what I know, and what I have yet to learn. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

.....and far too many stars have fell on me

A Leonid meteor shower peaks tonight.  I long to see shooting stars and make my wishes upon them, but they are so elusive.  I try to sit out and watch for them during these special events but inevitably it is too cold, there are too many mosquitos or my neck just gets tired of craning backwards.  Still I prevail, and try, at least, to watch the night skies for signs of movement other than blinking airplane lights. 

There was a time in my life when I was afraid to look up at the night sky.  When I was about 10 or 11 I was with a friend and we saw some very strange lights we were certain was a UFO come to get us.  From then on I would avoid the stars out of fear of what I might see.  Now it is the opposite.  I find myself searching the stars.  I don’t know what exactly I am searching for, or why, but I have an overwhelming need and desire to feel a closeness with the heavens.  Maybe it is because two years ago tomorrow, there was another Leonid meteor shower I watched innocently while across town a light was leaving the earth to join those above me.   

It’s funny how memory works.  Some things I long to remember, like Christmas mornings when I was little, but cannot squeeze the memory out of hiding.  Other things I wish I could forget, like embarrassing moments that keep replaying like a tape recorder on rewind/fast forward.  There are parts of that day two years ago that I remember too clearly no matter how hard I wish I could forget.  The morning started off in a terrible way with a stupid argument with my husband.  That argument ruined the rest of my day.  I walked around in a gray funk all day, sorry for things I had said, hoping he was sorry for things he had said.  That afternoon after work I was looking forward to getting home and making it all right.  The sun was setting in front of me and James Taylor was on the radio singing about no matter how down and troubled I was I had a friend.  For some reason this made me think of my deceased sister, and I cried all the way home.  Thinking back I always wonder if I saw the ambulance coming my way in the eastbound lane.

After supper my husband and I went outside to watch the meteor shower. We sat together on the bench he built for me out of the leftover granite used for the countertops in our house.  It was a cold night made even colder by the granite, but sitting there we made up for the argument of the morning and all was forgiven.  I remember seeing one shooting star, moving very slowly across the sky, almost in slow motion.  I was amazed at it because most of them go by so fast you can barely see them, but this one was taking its sweet time inching across the blanket of stars in the background.  Thinking back I always wonder if it was him waving goodbye to me.

When we were too cold to stay out any longer we went inside.  My husband went to his office to clean.  Afterall, Thanksgiving was going to be at our house and his office was a dusty mess.  I went into the living room to watch a Judy Garland movie, the one where she sings about the Atchison, the Topeka and the Santa Fe.  I always liked that song because I often call my son, Addison, Atchison, from the song.  I don’t know how the movie ended because mid-way there was a phone call which led to my husband calling my children together to tell us news I refused to believe no matter how much he tried to convince me it was true.  I remember a black hole opening up and I was so close to falling in, but something held onto me.  Thinking back I always wonder why terrible things happen.

I remember saying we had to go to the hospital, telling myself I had to be there for the others, when actually I didn’t even know if they were there.  I pulled on a green sweater, one that I don’t even take out of storage anymore.  There are other things I remember, though, I wish I could forget.  The looks on the faces of the frat boys in the hall outside of the ICU, the looks on the faces of the family inside the ICU.  The feeling of utter horror in knowing the nightmare I was in was a reality.  Thinking back I always wonder where the strength comes from to deal with such tragedies at that moment when strength is needed the most.

Two years later, on this night I go out and sit in the cold on the granite bench with my dog at my side, and I watch for shooting stars as she searches in the weeds beside me.  I am looking up and she is looking down where I used to look in the UFO fear days.  I am looking for that shooting star moving in slow motion.  I want to wave back at it, and tell him everything is O.K. down here, so go and have your great adventure.

I have finally come to a place of peace over what all has happened.  The black hole is a distant dot on the horizon.   Sometimes, like tonight, it comes close enough for me to peer in from a distance, but not close enough to engulf me.  

Thinking back I always wonder why this young man, who I knew since he was almost a baby, was so special to me.  So very special he was.  So very special he is.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why me?

I was always the good one.  You know the type, the girl who doesn’t drink, do drugs, smoke, cuss, or sleep around.  She may hang out with those who do some or all of those things, but she sits quietly in the corner and soaks in the ambiance instead of contributing to it.  Yep, that was me.  My parents had no idea how lucky they were (or maybe they did) because I had every opportunity to do all of the above and cause them untold grief.  But I didn’t.  I’ve pretty much stayed the good girl throughout my life.  I still don’t smoke, my only drugs are vitamins or the necessary, I’m a faithful wife, and I only drink a few sips here and there for the flavor, not for the high.  I obey the law; I pay my bills, pay my taxes, and teach my children to do the right thing.  Yep, that is me.

So tell me this.  Why is it I am the one who is always suspected of being the bad guy?  When I was about 10 I was suspected of shoplifting.   Of course it didn’t help that earlier that same day I had been playing some pretend game at home where I had stuffed water-filled insoles into my denim jumpsuit.   And so later at McCrory’s, when the suspicious sales clerk grabbed me by my arms and shook me viciously, the insoles fell out through my pant legs.  Yes, I did look guilty, but I was innocent, I tell you!  Come to think of it, why did my parents not sue the pant legs off of McCrory’s?

Skip ahead to high school.  I was invited to a Cheap Trick concert by my most favorite person of the day, and he bought me a t-shirt.  I wore it to school, of course.   A few days later my English teacher pulled me aside after class and apologized to me.  She said she saw me wearing the t-shirt and she basically thought I was advertising myself as a cheap trick.  She had since learned it was only a band t-shirt and she felt so sorry for having such bad thoughts of me she had to apologize.  I didn’t know why she was apologizing.  I didn’t even know what a cheap trick was.  Did I mention I was a senior in high school?

In college I spent a summer studying abroad in Jamaica.  The opportunities to indulge in every vice, especially drugs, were presented to me not just daily, but hourly.  Did I concede?  Of course not, I was the good girl.  What I did do was get the most fantabulous tan, learn my school lessons, explore a beautiful island and eat some great food.  Oh, and I got my hair braided, complete with colorful beads.  I was feeling pretty good about myself, yes, indeed.   Maybe it was my envious tan, or braided hair, or maybe it was the six-pack of Red Stripe I bought for my brother, but for whatever reason, I was the one, the only one who was pulled out of line in customs to be searched.  Forget the guys in line with me who stayed high the whole time, it was innocent, gloriously tanned, me who had to have her bags searched while the rest of my group was literally running to the connecting flight home.  My oldest friend and travelling partner and my professor were kind enough to wait on me.  Of course my folly made rich fodder for my professor’s ribbing later and forever.

And now there’s my most recent incident.  I spent this last weekend with family visiting my niece in Michigan. We spent some great time shopping at thrift stores, quirky boutiques, and my favorite chain stores not available in my area.  At my favorite store, World Market, I picked up a few things including a bag of pumpkin scone mix and an interesting, shiny red, wind-up double egg timer.  I only bought small things I could pack to bring home, leaving in Michigan a fantastic art deco vintage lamp and lovely ceramic nativity because I knew it was impractical to pack such things.  Oh, and I also bought two bags of gourmet popping corn for my husband because he doesn’t like the microwave kind.  I now know that pumpkin scone mix and popping corn look very suspicious when they go through an x-ray machine.  And stick a metal timer next to dense objects and TSA will surely think you have the makings of a bomb in your suitcase.  Luckily the TSA officer meticulously going through my dirty laundry was a very nice and informative man.  He gave me good advice on how maybe next time I could order the popcorn online because, afterall, there was a website address on the packaging.  And, yes, the timer was quite interesting; he’d never seen one like that before.  Knowing I am innocent and trying to avoid embarrassment at all cost I cheerfully encouraged him in his duties, and if searching me meant stopping something bad from getting onto my plane, then have at it.  

I’ve no doubt that I will continue to be the good one, sitting quietly and soaking up the ambiance of those around me who are whooping it up. Sometimes I might take more than a few sips for flavor, and get a little loud with them.  But whatever I might do in the future, I am sure of one thing.  I will order my scone mix and popcorn online, and I will forgo interesting double egg timers.  I will go for the antique lamp and ceramic nativity even if it they make for impractical packing.  And for the record, the tan and braids were worth it!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Farmer, baker, grandfather

My children were born with a special gift I never had.  They had the blessing of growing up with both grandfathers and both grandmothers in their lives.  Both of my grandfathers died long before I was born.  While I did have both grandmothers (and I loved them both) I’ve always felt an emptiness in that space where my grandfathers should have been.

For some reason I have always felt closest to my paternal grandfather.  An immigrant from Hungary, Karoly Csaszar first lived in Chicago before settling with his wife and young son (my father) in rural Lamar County.  He lived there on a farm until he died in 1959 at the age of about 74.  From what I’ve been told he did many odd jobs in and out of town, whatever he needed to do to support his family outside of farming.  But his primary skills were in baking.  I’ve heard he was an excellent baker, and was especially practiced in the art of making his own phyllo-type dough.  I have his kitchen table.  Its well worn wood reminds me of the time and effort he must have put into each baked good to please his family.

I have his wallet in which I found his last driver’s license.  It was issued on December 31, 1958. The thin yellowed paper documents the gray hair and brown eyes I’ve seen in his pictures.  In my mind he was a large man, but the driver’s license proves me wrong.  The state says he was only 5’6” tall and weighed 160 pounds.  The wallet also contained his over-65 hunting and fishing license giving him permission to hunt and fish without a license and authorized by the Deputy Sheriff and Tax Collector, Louis Csaszar, my father.  But from the other things I’ve heard about my grandfather I have a feeling these little pieces of paper were only formalities, and no one was going to tell him he couldn’t drive, hunt or fish if he was not lawfully licensed.  Rumor has it my father gave up his Deputy Sheriff and Tax Collector position to avoid having to arrest his father for brewing his own beverages.  But that’s only a rumor, of course.

I’ve never been able to understand this attachment I have for a man I never knew.  I remember feeling jealousy towards my older sisters because they did know him.  Hearing them talk about him made me feel like there was a great party and I wasn’t invited.  No, I did not know him, but I did meet him once in a dream.  In my dream I was at his house.  I saw my mother sitting on the couch and she was young, so I knew I must have travelled back in time.  Then I thought, if I’m at the farm, and I’m back in time, then Grandpa’s here and I’ll get to meet him.  Sure enough I turned and there he was sitting in a chair with an ottoman in front of him.  I sat on the ottoman and faced him, our knees almost touching.  He was smiling and just as we were about to speak my grandmother came in and made me leave him to help her change the sheets on her bed.  I call this dream a visit because it was so real.  It was also very real because it would have been just like my grandmother to call attention away from him and to her.

My father was a dedicated son to his parents.  I never heard him speak of them in any ill way.  He revered their memory, and when his health began to fail he wanted pictures of his mother and father hanging on the wall in front of his recliner, above the television, where he could see them.  I think this comforted him in some way.  After he died I took those pictures home with me.  I have the one of my grandfather hanging in a position in my dining room where I face it everytime I sit down to eat supper.  It comforts me in some way.  It also reminds me to remind my children how fortunate they have been.