Monday, December 28, 2009

It's important to know your Heroes

Whenever we went out to eat as a family, it was a big crowd. Six of us. We take up a lot of real estate in a restaurant, so, as parents, it was important to us to have well behaved children with good manners who were kept engaged at the table. More than once, over the years, people have approached our table and remarked that they enjoyed watching us enjoy each other's company with well mannered young children.

What we especially appreciated was the unspoken rule that once you were at the table, you stayed at the table. It created, both at home and out, a captive family group where we shared a lot, told stories when visitors were eating with us and allowed everyone have input in conversation if they wanted to, encouraging the kids to speak up. As they grew into their teens, we really wanted to keep conversation going---about anything!

When dining out, beverage orders were always "Just water, please" to keep down the tab at the end of the meal, but frequently we'd be out for a special occasion, so we would order mocktails for the four kids. The girls would get a Shirley Temple each, and the boys would get the male counterpart and Stephen would order wine or martinis for the adults. As the meal progressed and various courses of the dinner were presented and served we'd relax and engage in lively conversations. At a particular favourite restaurant that we frequented, we became familiar with the owners (good Greeks) and they never rushed us through a meal to flip the table.

Overall, our dining out experiences were good times. We really liked how Andrew would open up, chat a little more, and share more than usual at these times since he generally would keep to himself more than the girls or Justin. A result of birth order, no doubt.

Recently we had a friend and her teen son visiting and took them to a familiar restaurant after a big day of sightseeing in New York City. Eager to share the fine menu and extensive wine list, Stephen ordered for us, including a 'kiddie cocktail' for the teen like we used to for our boys. The waiter took the drink orders, but moments later the M'aitre D approached and asked if Stephen had ordered for the table. He recounted the drink order, and said he could not serve young Jacob. Confused, I pressed him, and said we were all having wine, but we wanted Jacob to toast with us after a good but long day, so he could enjoy a "Rob Roy".

Apparently, a Rob Roy, named for the great Scottish folk hero, is prepared with scotch, sweet vermouth and bitters.

"No, no!" I exclaimed! "We've ordered this dozens and dozens of times for our kids; we used to get Shirley Temples for Kathryn and Olivia, and Rob Roys for Justin and Andrew!"

Our M'aitre D gently advised me that the drink I was referring to for the boys was a Roy Rogers, named for the singing cowboy; just Coca-Cola and grenadine syrup. I'd confused the two names many, many years ago. Our Greek restaurant hosts never made the distinction, and always presented the Rob Roys to Stephen. (A Greek would never insult Stephen by pointing out the mistake. Instead, they took the order, but delivered the drinks to Stephen time after time--respecting their customer, while obeying strict New Jersey drinking laws.) In hindsight, I now see why Andrew was more open and relaxed on those occasions.

I have a vague notion that he even said, "I love you guys." to all of us at the end of one meal. I just hope he'll never have to say, "Hi, my name is Andrew, and I really don't know why, but I'm an alcoholic." ....

"Hi Andrew"

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Happy Days Are Here Again!

My mother, Dad, and our pal, Paul, got along famously. Paul employed the proper amount of respect for the older couple while sharing family anecdotes, amusing travel stories, books read, movies that each other appreciated, and music to entertain. My mother especially liked him, and she didn't cotton to many people quickly or easily. A credit to Paul's character.

On a surprise visit to us all in New Jersey, Paul had interrupted a family movie we'd all started to watch. In the ensuing activities, that particular movie had been abandoned and later Paul suggested renting one he'd heard very good reviews about and had been well recommended by friends whose opinions he trusted. Cautioning that it wasn't a 'family' movie, we reserved it until the four kids had gone to bed.

We five gathered around to watch with wine glasses in hand, and Paul sat perched in his chair expectant with hopeful anticipation for an entertaining evening. As the opening credits rolled, my mother groaned loudly. Bruce Willis was among the lead actors. She loathed him. Paul sank imperceptibly lower realizing a slight disappointment early on, but it only got worse: the movie generously featured sex, violence, kidnapping, dismemberment, foul language, lesbian witchcraft, drugs and alcohol. Now, Pat and Wally were no prudes, but this might not have been the best blind-choice selection to view with brand new elder acquaintances. Paul shriveled in the overstuffed club chair as the on-screen embarrassments continued, muttering apologies and protesting 'I just didn't know'. He was mortified. Pat and Wally were more amused at his discomfort than they were offended by the movie's content.

Never-the-less, Paul's good standing over the course of the weekend earned him an invitation from Pat and Wally to Cleveland Place where they'd semi-retired in New Brunswick, Canada. Naturally, when the opportunity presented itself for our next visit, we invited Paul to join us, and much to our surprise, he accepted. He caught a flight to Newark airport in New Jersey where we picked him up in our Blue Dodge Grand Caravan and we proceeded to make a non-stop fourteen hour trip northward with Justin, Andrew, Kathryn, Olivia, Scout, and Mittens the cat. A sack of egg-salad sandwiches sat between Paul and Kathryn. She was in charge.

By the time we'd reached Hartford, Connecticut--normally a two hour drive--we'd been on the road in heavy traffic which added an extra solid hour. Paul was already tired as this was the second leg of his long trip. Occasionally, Scout, our otherwise extremely passive, non-barking, gentle, pink-nosed, yellow Labrador would burst out with vicious, deep throated, seriously intent barking and growling episodes when a motorcycle passed or followed us. Not just any motorcycle, only the Harley-Davidson with its distinctive low 'pah-tay-tah-pah-tay-tah pat-tay-ta' engine noise. We're sure it conjured up negative puppy memories from before he joined our family from the pound with paint on his ear and a profound fear of beer bottles. Co-incidentally, it seemed, these episodes would occur just as Paul's head bobbed about as he was nodding off, snapping him to alert wakefulness. We all found it quite amusing. Paul did not.

Becoming road weary, Scout weary, and needing a break, we pulled over to a rest stop and allowed everyone a 7.5 minute bathroom/stretching break (we had to make up for lost road time). As well seasoned travellers the kids knew we meant business and anyone of them could potentially be left behind if they didn't stick to our schedule. As we all gathered to head back to the parked van, Kathryn ran ahead to reserve her seat of choice next to the egg-salad sandwiches. She jumped in the open door, not realizing that it was another families' look-alike blue Dodge van, and they were already in it. We laughed and pointed calling attention to her, and she quickly re-emerged embarrassed and quite cross, which made us laugh harder, longer and louder. Back on the road, the heavy traffic dispersed, and we were on our way. By the time we'd reached Maine, we'd run out of conversation, Scout was fast asleep, and we were all tired. We asked Paul for a story to help pass the miles and keep us alert. He told us this one:

My father was chief engineer on a B-24 Liberator bomber. They were returning to England after a bombing mission when flak hit a hydraulic fluid line. It was the middle of the night, the plane was low on fuel, and the floor of the plane was slick with spilled hydraulic fluid. Because the hydraulics were out, the only way to lower the landing gear was to crank it down manually.

Flying over the English Channel in pitch black, it was up to my father to manually crank the two landing gear wheels down. He had to stand on a small narrow catwalk under the plane where the landing gear was located, below him was nothing but water. One crewman held onto my father by his flight jacket while another held onto him.

As my father was turning the crank to lower the first wheel the cable slipped off the pulley. Despite the noise and vibration of the bomber in flight and wind whipping around, he undid the nut holding the pulley wheel on so he could get the cable back on. As luck would have it, the nut slipped out of his fingers. He watched as it plummeted down into the North Atlantic.

My father kept his cool. He lowered the second landing gear wheel, removed the nut from the pulley of the lowered gear, and used it to successfully lower the other wheel. They were able to land in England no worse for the wear.

Pretty amazing especially considering these were 18- and 19- year old kids.

But there's more to the story.

After safely landing at the air base in Manston, England, because there was a landing strip especially long, and because the hydraulics was out, they had no brakes and it was necessary to come to a long and agonizing roll to a stop at the end of the strip. They were then picked up by the local base people and taken to a barracks to spend the night. In the middle of the night, their pilot, Dick Rice, woke Dad to tell him that their plane had been wrecked. Dad said" Yes , I know, that's why we're here. Rice said "No, you don't understand. The plane has REALLY been wrecked. A British bomber loaded with incindiary bombs had aborted a mission and landed on the same strip as we had and had slammed into our plane." They went out to the strip to see the damage and ,sure enough, the plane had been slammed into by the big Lancaster bomber. There were incindiary bombs scattered all over the ground together with huge puddles of oil and gasoline. AND believe it or not, NO fire !!!! Dad's plane's name "The Flying Jackass" was later to be replaced by the "Modest Maiden" which they flew for the rest of their missions.

This captivating story entertained us until we were just a few miles from the Canadian border crossing and customs. It was at this point, Kathryn asked plaintively, "Daddy, how much longer until we're at the interrogation?"

Bearing no passport Paul blanched.

Happy Day

When we left Omaha for New Jersey, we left several friendships behind. It was difficult. One in particular was our pal, Paul. A single fellow, a few years younger than us with a keen sense of humor and positive attitude toward pretty much everything--even our friendship, considering we were a little older and had what most people would perceive as a burden of four small children. But he befriended us and more importantly, for us, included us in several social events among his peers.

After we'd settled in New Jersey I developed a serious case of home-sickness, particularly missing getting together with friends which was our major social past-time in Omaha. Since my birthday was arriving, I was especially suffering. Mum and Dad made the trip from Canada for a long weekend visit and we enjoyed each other's company. I cooked, we ate, drank a lot of wine and visited. Dad recounted a slew of Norton Company anecdotes which held all our attention around the dinner table. The general atmosphere of the household at the time was a constant state of frenzied activity with the kids, Scout the dog, the cat, phone calls, meal preparations and clean up. It had been Mum and Dad's first visit to our family in several years, and they seemed a little overwhelmed with the exhaustive nature of a large family.

For my birthday night, we'd decided to rent a nice family movie, and enjoy a quiet relaxing evening, so Stephen suggested he would dash out for more wine. The neighborhood liquor store was just a few blocks away. We agreed on what he was to bring home, and we'd start the movie as soon as he was back. So we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

I became increasingly annoyed at his delay. What was taking so long? I surmised, that since I hadn't received a birthday present from him, he must have made a second stop to pick up something last minute, which heightened my annoyance. I called his cell phone.

No answer. Dad asked if this was Stephen's proverbial "Can't take it anymore and went out for a pack of cigarettes" and was never seen again. Real funny, Dad. Boy was I annoyed.

Another cell phone call. Stephen answered, but I could barely hear him as the background crowd noise was interfering. "WHERE ARE YOU? Are you at Target? WHAT IS TAKING SO LONG.?" I could hear that he was rushing, "Sorry, I just got caught up in a magazine, I'm on my way!" (Stephen has a notorious history of dashing out for a quick errand--say to pick up a quart of milk at the shopette--but stops at the magazine rack, and completely loses track of time while he gets caught up in a lengthy article.) Boy he was in BIG trouble--to do that tonight of all nights.

I re-joined Mum and Dad and we started the movie without him. Eventually Stephen returned to my cold stare and Mum and Dad's disapproval. Especially my mother who was growing tired: the movie was not very captivating, and the constant distractions were clearly irritating her. He had brought wine, though, and was beginning to pour us each a glass when the phone rang. I answered while Stephen came back and forth into the room with wine glasses. The kids took the opportunity to each get up and find a snack, which created a flurry of five people dashing about back and forth into the room. My mother heaved a heavy sigh. Dad quietly observed while his lips grew thinner and thinner with growing displeasure.

It was PAUL on the phone!! What a treat! He remembered my birthday and actually CALLED me to say as much! Oh, I do have friends....friends who miss me...I was elated! The movie, the wine, my folks, everything else would have to wait, I was on the phone, and it was MY birthday. Joy!

"Oh, hi, Jane, this is your friend, Paul, calling! I just wanted to wish you a Happy Birthday and...."

DING DONG! The door bell rings, which causes Scout to leap up barking and romp about, while Stephen calls out "I'm getting the wine, answer the door!" This kids all gather around and I holler at them to get it, "I'm on the phone with PAUL!", and glance over at Mum and Dad. My mother has thrown up her hands and is shaking her head---absolute chaos. The dog won't stop barking, the kids are crowding, as the door is opened.

In walks Paul continuing to talk on the cell phone that he'd borrowed from Stephen who'd picked him up at the airport 20 minutes earlier.

It was the best birthday ever.

One Potato, Two Potato...

We'd been living in New Jersey for about a year when we decided to throw our first party. It was time; we were settled, Stephen was established in the company and had met several people who he thought might enjoy a lively evening of music, food, and cocktails with us. The invitations went out to well over a dozen suggesting they bring a guest, an instrument (we had the piano) or CD featuring their favourite musical selections to share. We'd had this kind of party several times before with friends at our home in Omaha, and it was always a crowded house, with lots of food and entertainment, that lasted well into the wee hours of the night.

I started to get a bad feeling when by 7:30 only a few people had arrived, but kept hope. By 8:30 it was clear that whoever was coming, had arrived, and it was not the crowd we expected. No one brought any music to play or share. It was very quiet, and the embarrassment of food set out was a constant reminder during the evening that our anticipation of attendance at the party had not been met. Two couples came-we totaled six.

So I mentally switched gears for the kind of party it was going to be. Instead of music amplified throughout the house, or played live with willing guests providing the entertainment, we'd share a more intimate evening with drinks and small plates of heavy hors doeuvres. The living room was ringed with 3 chairs and the couch, everyone sat, sipped and nibbled. It was very quiet.

Topic: we need a topic---my brain was scrambling for an ice-breaker; nothing political, religious, or touching any other taboo or potentially awkward subjects. I asked if anyone was taking a vacation soon, since we were planning some camping trips in New Jersey in the summer. We LOVE camping! Good idea: camping, it's a safe subject--the great outdoors, nature, favourite spots, memories and anecdotes from childhood! I bragged about our extensive list of camping supplies, our cast iron skillets, the endless list of red and green Coleman equipment, the aluminum nesting cookpots, and our infamously leaking tent. Yes, we LOVE camping, who doesn't? What's NOT to like? It should definitely spark conversation!

The circle of guests suddenly transformed into a Campers Anonymous meeting. The woman next to me immediately chimed in to declare her complete and utter distaste for camping and any outdoor related activities. She described her idea of 'roughing it' as having to settle for a Super 8 motel over a Hilton adjacent to shopping malls or outlets. She proceeded to recount a particularly disturbing childhood experience involving an outhouse, complete with spiders and intestinal distress....

This party ship was sinking, and fast. It wasn't even 9 o'clock.

Next around our tiny camp-fire ring was the young dating couple. He'd been introduced upon arrival as visiting the U.S. from one of the Middle Eastern countries, and spoke very little during the early part of the evening. But he began to offer his camping experience.

It was actually more of a bivouac experience during the Persian Gulf War when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. He described his rancour at being assigned KP out in the hot desert sun. His job for this particular day required peeling hundreds of potatoes for the troop. He didn't have a proper tool, so he was resigned to using a small knife to undertake the seeming insurmountable task. But not long into his duties, the knife slipped and he gave himself a tremendous gash in the palm of his hand severing a major blood vessel. This required a minor surgical procedure in his very primitive setting and several stitches to repair the wound. At this point he revealed his scar.

Ohhhh, it was nasty.

This story was becoming a little heavier and somber than the previous two light anecdotes about spiders, smelly National Park outhouses, and a delicious pork and bean recipe. But it continued.

Our guest grew quiet, paused, looked thoughtful; he passed his gaze around the circle, meeting each guest's eyes, and took a deep breath. He had more to say.

He recounted that because of his injury, he was relieved from his begrudged daily duty of lowly potato peeling, and was allowed to return to his tent and cot to recover. AHHH! We all sighed--no more grunt work, a regrettable injury is healing--all's well that ends well.

The story wasn't over. He lowered his head into his hands and continued. Shortly after he was freshly bandaged, and given pain medication, a skirmish occurred, and his six fellow troop members were called up and immediately deployed to an airplane to provide air support. An air force scramble for which he had to stay behind.

Within minutes the plane was shot down and all his friends were instantly killed.


What to do? I stood up, took a plate off the sideboard and walked to the middle of the circle. "Cheese puff, anyone?"

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Be sure to look both ways.

My father is very generous. My mother never spent; Dad overspent. His purchase philosophy remains "it only costs a little more to get the very best." Between the two of them, our family had good stuff that my mother usually found at a bargain price as she was 'very reluctant' to spend money. It seems a lot of things they acquired over the years were 'investments' of 'good quality'. Often, however; there would be confrontations between them over his spending versus her frugality. Most expenditures had to be justified. I think I have inherited both my mother's and father's emotional issues regarding money- which, in me, still remain in conflict.

When Stephen and I moved to New Jersey with young Justin, Andrew, Kathryn, Olivia, the dog and cat, we first lived on the 34th floor of The Marriott Marquis hotel in Time's Square. We stayed there for several weeks while Stephen worked as a computer consultant in Mid-town Manhattan. While he was working during the day, the kids and I tried to experience all that Manhattan had to offer for free since we had very little money at the time. However, if it meant we'd miss out on a significant experience, unique cuisine, or 'investment in quality', we'd find the money.

Eventually, we found a home, across the Hudson river in New Jersey, where the majority of Stephen's consulting work would continue. Since we'd just moved from Omaha, Nebraska, it had been quite a while since we'd seen my folks who years earlier had semi-retired and lived in Canada. They made the trip to N.J. to visit and stay with us once our life had quieted down. Eager to share our experiences in New York City we made several suggestions for Museum trips, shopping excursions, cultural events, fine dining, and sight-seeing. We settled on a trip to see the current Broadway show called Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk starring Savion Glover.

Dad told Stephen to call the theater to inquire about tickets for the eight of us: his treat. My mother and I both began to wring our hands at the anticipated cost the day's event would incur--transportation by train and taxi times eight, tickets times eight, meals etc.--all at inflated New York City prices. While Stephen was on the phone, Dad called out from the other room, "Ask for 'the best seats in the house'!". Again, he was going to get the very best. Soon, we had eight front row seats for a 7:00 first-run Broadway Show in New York City.

We all took the train to Penn Station--about a 40 minute ride from our home in New Jersey. During the ride, we all sat together and talked in wonder about the infrastructure of a major metropolitan city and the local news--the most topical being Mayor Rudy Giuliani's latest measures to decrease peak-hour gridlock, accidents, and increase the flow of traffic at high congestion areas. Mayor Giuliani had imposed strict Jay Walking laws with a hefty penalty for violation in the high-congestion areas, even erecting pedestrian gates at key intersections to prevent jay walking.

Arriving at Penn Station, Dad, Mum, Kathryn, Olivia and I took one cab to the theater; Stephen, Justin, and Andrew took a second one, each which required about a 10 minute ride depending on city traffic. Our cab arrived first so we positioned ourselves outside the theater and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Dad suggested we go into the Italian restaurant across the street, get a table and start with a pre-theater appetizer while he waited outside until the boys all arrived. We did. And it was quite some time before Dad finally entered the restaurant wearing his wool tweed hat and coat. Stephen and the boys were just behind him, and they were all enjoying a laugh.

I expected Stephen was sharing a story explaining their delay, but Dad approached the table quickly and quietly explaining he'd been propositioned while he stood just outside the door, and was invited 'down to the docks', ensured he'd have a 'very good time', and it 'wouldn't cost much' by a fairly attractive, scantily clad, young woman.

We girls tittered, the boys shared knowing elbow jabs. Dad was downright flushed!

My mother misheard him, however; somehow she thought he'd been ticketed for Jay Walking! Mr. Giuliani's latest victim. She became irate.

She sharply banged her fist on the table making the silverware bounce and the dishware clang and exclaimed loudly, "You tell them you refuse to pay whatever it costs! We're Canadian, and we WON'T pay!" She protested, growing louder and more angry, she was sputtering and working herself up creating quite a case in their defense. We were confused at first, until she demanded, "I will write a letter to Mr. Giuliani, MYSELF, and tell him that we can do that wherever, and WHEN ever we want in OUR country!"

We now realized what had happened, and we all burst into laughter.

This made my adamant mother very angry. "WHAT?" she questioned us. "You've never done that in the middle of the street? I have hundreds of times, and I have NEVER been ticketed. Who does Giuliani think he is picking on tourists and expecting them to pay huge fines--how is anyone supposed to know it's not allowed here?"

When we were all finally able to catch our breath, we explained what WE were talking about versus what SHE was talking about. More explosive laughter.

By the time we caught our breath the second time, the waiter approached our table and said he was glad we were all enjoying ourselves.

The Broadway show was good, too.

Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?

My mother was a very classy lady. She appreciated the finer things in life but would never pay full price for them. She knew quality, had excellent taste, had a great sense of humor which included being able to laugh at herself, and was extremely.......frugal.

In the 70's, my family lived in Plymouth, a suburb of Detroit Michigan, for several years while my Dad was an abrasives engineer for Norton Company. My mother was primarily an at-home mother who sometimes took self-fulfilling job opportunities outside the home. She was a school librarian for awhile, and later passed her real-estate license exam to sell homes. I never knew if she made much money, but I know that she never spent any without tremendous consideration.

There were two high-end department stores in Michigan at that time. J.L. Hudson's and Jacobson's. Jacobson's fulfilled the luxury niche. My mother knew those stores, but found the sale racks. She never followed fashion trends, always keeping a classic, timeless, style of well made and long-lasting garments. Whenever there was a social event for Norton Company, she was the Queen of the Ball, but at a mere fraction of the price of any other women in the room. The Norton wives shopped at Jacobson's and Hudson's, too, but they all went to the stores in Southfield, Jackson, or Ann Arbor.

Not my mother. She went to the stores in downtown, metro, Detroit. In the early 70's, one could still see the effects and lingering decline of the city after the 1967 race riots. Crime was high, housing conditions were sub-par, and the economy of the inner city continued to suffer. But for Pat, THAT'S where the best prices could be found. I remember a particular trip to Jacobson's in Detroit and her angst at the purchase of an evening gown for a Norton event. It was a one-of-a-kind, from a big name designer. It was a lot of money (to this day, I don't know how much), but for that particular dress, it was a relative pittance. She walked around the store, nearly pacing, but she ultimately relented and received the personal customer service and attention that every patron at such a posh store should receive.

On the evening of the big Norton event. My mother was gorgeous. Not flashy, just elegant, pure class. I remember tagging along as she made-up, coiffed, and bedizened. Since cocktails were in several hours, and dinner even later, she decided she'd have a wee snack to tide her over just before they left: two pieces of white bread with a slice of American Cheese and Heinz yellow mustard.

On her first bite, the mustard oozed out of the back end of the sandwich and plopped a quarter-sized dollop right onto her lap. She pointed to her forehead, tapped her fingertip a few times and said, "Stupid, stupid, stupid."

She fixed the stain, wore the dress. I'm sure they had a wonderful time. We still have the dress.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Cheese Stands Alone

As the Winter Solstice approaches, I sorely miss the company of friends.

While we lived in Omaha, our house was in a constant state of controlled chaos with major repairs and do-it-yourself projects, children, toys, pets and company. For most families, the holidays would create even more havoc, but for us it didn't seem to. Both Stephen's family and my family all lived back East in Massachusetts or other far away places in the country so we rarely saw extended family at holiday time. Our situation in Omaha with our growing young children allowed us to continue some combined family traditions and create new ones of our own.

As winter solstice arrived, we made candles in the traditional pioneer dip-the-wick method. We used these candles on December 21 as the shortest day of the year grew increasingly dark and we rejected the use of any artificial light--which included opening the refrigerator door! It was interesting as we all noticed that as the day progressed and sunlight grew dim, we all gathered closer and closer together into one room. By the time Stephen arrived home from work, the house would be completely dark and we'd find ourselves around the dining room table, reading, snacking (no cooking was done on Solstice), or sharing some simple family activity by candlelight. Most times, Stephen would share stories of his days as a young refugee from Cyprus which captivated the kids' interest.

When we moved to New Jersey, we continued this tradition, but expanded it to include the new friends we'd made through Andrew's participation as a drummer in a Bag Pipe band. We enjoyed this new circle of friends so much that we started a Summer Solstice celebration that we could have outdoors and include more people. We'd invited over 25 people, and I prepared several Greek recipes from Stephen's family to lay on the buffet tables set up on a large deck off the kitchen.

Since Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year, the party lasts much longer than Winter Solstice, so by the time sun had set it had been a long evening of eating, laughing, and visiting. But the highlight of the party was to be the traditional Cypriot cheese dish called Saganaki. A generous portion of Haloumi cheese--imported from Cyprus--cooked in a shallow dish, doused with Brandy, ignited, and quickly extinguished by squeezing a lemon over the flame. It's very dramatic, everyone yells "OPA!" when the flame ignites, and we enjoy the savory warm melted cheese with home-made pita breads.

Throughout the evening, I had been describing this event to heighten everyone's anticipation for it. Few had seen it before, and were keen to experience it. When the moment arrived, I went to the kitchen and prepared the special pan and heated the specially prepared (expensive) wedge of cheese. I pre-measured the precise amount of (expensive) brandy. The children gathered around as everyone expectantly waited on the deck outside. I gave the ceremonial lemon to one of the kids and asked that it be delivered to a new acquaintance who was expecting her fourth child any moment and seemed to sit quietly by herself most of the evening. I wasn't confident that she was enjoying herself. I asked that the lemon be cut in half.

As the kids and I paraded the blistering hot pan out to the deck in front of all of our guests, I poured the brandy over it and with great flourishing gestures, Stephen struck the match to ignite it.

No flame.
No "OPA!" Silence.
Stephen struck another match.

We dashed back to the kitchen and splashed more brandy over the cheese, quickly came back and Stephen repeated his performance.


The cheese and pan were immediately and completely engulfed in flames and everyone shrieked! I gestured and shouted to the woman with the pre-cut lemon to quickly pass it over, but the had kids neglected to ask her to cut it in half. It was still whole.

Now realizing what was necessary, she asked for a knife, but the only one immediately available was a plastic picnic knife so with that she proceeded to saw away at the lemon rind, while I barked "Hurry-up!" at her. "I'm trying." she timidly replied though frantically attacked it . The knife promptly broke and only cut a small incision in the lemon.

By now the cheese was bubbling and the pan was nearly too hot for my oven-mitted hand, so I snatched the lemon from her, and tried to squeeze what juice I could from the small cut over the towering flame while everyone watched in horror.

The pan was too hot, the flames were too high; I shoved the lemon back at her and screeched at her to "CUT IT IN HALF!" as Stephen presented his Swiss Army Knife from his pocket. He struggled to find the correct blade in the same panic-stricken manner of a victim who is being chased down in a parking garage and finally gets to their car, but has to find the correct key on the crowded key ring before the killer catches up. While we all watched in slow motion frenzied anticipation for her to reveal two lemon halves, I held the inferno at arm's length not noticing as the flaming molten cheese slid out of the pan over the deck railing and onto the grass down below. Everyone promptly ran to that side of the deck and watched as the cheese undulated and its flames slowly died while singeing the surrounding grass.

They applauded.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A bargain can cost a high price.

While living in Omaha, Nebraska, we were raising four small children, so we frequented neighbourhood garage sales and thrift stores to help cut costs on clothes and toys. My favourite was a highly organized department thrift store on 24th street in South Omaha, where I would usually visit once a week and seek out the youth clothing section (25 cents for kids' trousers!), the kitchen section, (20 years later, I'm still using the same 10 cent potato peeler), and scout for other bargains. Between the thrift store and garage sales, we rarely purchased new clothing or toys that were quickly outgrown.

One Saturday at a garage sale a Mary Kay cosmetics rep was selling off all of her discontinued color samples which consisted of hundreds of individual one-time use eye makeup shades in various colors, aspirin sized blister bump packages of one-time use lipsticks, dozens of mascara brush wands, and blush colors ranging from bright pink to dark brown for every complexion and skin color. It cost $2.00. What little girls ages 4 and 6 wouldn't LOVE to play with an endless supply of makeup without fear of mother's scolding for using her treasured expensive beauty products? I snatched it up for Kathryn and Olivia.

After a particularly long afternoon, I stretched out on the couch and invited the kids to amuse themselves for awhile, suggesting I just needed to lay my head down for a little bit. Four children amusing themselves didn't offer a quiet, peaceful setting for a light cat-nap, so I told the girls to get their newly acquired 'make-up kit' and give me a makeover, while I just laid quietly under their gentle brush strokes. They got to work, I got some peace and quiet, and before I knew it I was fast asleep.

Satisfied with the results, the girls left me snoozing on the couch and found something else to do, and much later I was awoken hard by the door bell. Startled, I jumped up and went to the door where I met an acquaintance delivering some papers for an up-coming neighborhood association meeting. She abruptly handed them over, paused for several moments meeting my eyes, and off she went. I was taken aback by her brusque attitude, and watched her quickly leave.

It wasn't until I'd shut the door, and walked down the hallway back into the house passing a mirror when I saw the Mary Kay vision I'd become. My entire eyelid area was deep purple, with enough mascara on my lashes to put Tammy Faye Baker to shame. Flaming red-blushed cheeks of two different shades--one for each side- were even sporting a black beauty mark for effect. Since I'd just woken up, my hair was tousled and the lip-stick quite smudged.

I know why she hurried off, but to this day, I wonder what she thought, and even more, what she told.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Do you like my hat?

For me, it's always an interesting story. Anyone's story. I like the order, the chronological path that brought someone to a place in time or space--but in its descriptive linear order, it's the sheer chaos of our universe and lives that got you there. So is our story.

In 1978 I saw what I thought was a foreign University student sitting in the hallway at our high school. Dark olive-skinned sporting several day's worth of thick facial hair growth, he sat with self-confidence and a smirk of amusement and was joined by several other students who I knew attended our school. To me, he appeared as a rather exotic visitor wearing a Saudi Arabian Kufiya.

If our first encounter were a scene in a movie, at this point the viewer would see an assortment of suburban teenage students in various stances of leisure and non-purpose at a folding table with several metal folding chairs, only two being occupied behind the table. The foreign-looking student in one, and another younger male in the other. The camera would pan out to encompass the corridor, as various students passed on their way to class with the typical cacophony of lockers, conversations, whoops, doors closing, and teachers urging everyone on their way. But then motion would slow, the camera becoming my point of view, and turn to the group at the table capturing the curious state of activity there. The headdress, the jet black hair, a spontaneous smile and quiet laugh bearing white teeth, all viewed in increasing slow motion. He looks in the direction of the camera--me, and smiles more brightly. Resume current time speed of filming and continue to class. Cut.

Turns out, it was just HAT DAY at the school and that was his hat of choice. The exotic foreigner was a student in the school--a year older than me--back home in the United States after spending four years in his father's home country of Cyprus since 1970. When the Turks invaded Cyprus, the family returned to Massachusetts in 1974. I'd never seen him before, but the first impression was a good one. And so our story begins.