Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas Cookies!

It sounds a bit snooty, we admit it is true
But for this exchange, not just any cookie will do . . .
We’ll have prizes for beauty, for class, and for taste
Your extra effort will not go to waste . . .

Well, that’s different, I thought.

An invitation to a snooty cookie exchange. I couldn’t get through the door unless I brought “cookies that look and taste great” (what if I’m a lousy baker?) and “the kind you put on the TOP of your best cookie plate!” (Now I’d have to go out and buy a jazzy cookie plate, too.)

Holy macaroons. What if I showed up with one of those Corelleware plates we got for our wedding forty years ago, and only average looking peanut butter cookies? That wouldn’t happen—I don’t even like peanut butter.

Who sends out an invitation like this? I was betting there’d be a cookie bouncer at the front door, somebody I’d have to bribe to gain entry. 

“Hey, big boy,” I’d say, waving my cookie plate under his nose. “How’s about a little extra something delicious before Christmas?”

Yuck. That’s just all kinds of wrong. I tossed the invite aside.  How twisted can you get, I thought in aggravation. I mean, I think I make some pretty good cookies. My father-in-law told me once that I came home with the short end of the stick after one of those cookie exchanges. (I sure miss that guy and his fondness for my Mexican Wedding Cakes.) Still, I wondered who else got invited. What my competition looked like . . .

Good grief! What was wrong with me? Already I was lowering myself to the level of the snooty cookie invitation. But what if, instead of trading my favorite chocolate chippers for somebody’s hard as rock snickerdoodles, I came home with Paradise Bakery-worthy cookies! Maybe the RSVP was there to keep out the white cookie trash! Well, this was actually a compliment! And weren’t there going to be prizes??  Where did I put that invitation? What a great idea! This would be the best Christmas cookie exchange I’d ever entered . . . that is, been to!

With excruciating precision, I searched every tattered cookie recipe card in my files, read through cookbooks til my eyes blurred, considered and discarded one idea after another until finally—I found it! The Piece de Resistance, the one cookie destined to bring me greatness, my golden ticket to cookie stardom! Lemon Snowflakes! Even now, the very thought of them makes me drool. Delicate, buttery circles topped with tartly sweet lemon icing. Better than shortbread, yummier than lemon meringue pie, I knew they’d put me in the winner’s circle.

It had been a while since I made them, but this wasn’t my first rodeo. I knew I could whip them out after dinner that night. It was, of course, too late to sew a snowflake costume for myself so I could match my cookies, but I felt confident I’d get by the bouncer at the door and win the whole thing. One taste of my melt-in-your-mouth entry and people would think I’d been up all night baking.

Words I was destined to regret.

I forgot you need lemons to make lemon snowflakes. I’d already juiced the lemons my friends gave me, and I needed lemon rind anyway. Please God, I panicked, let there be ripe lemons at the grocery store because I don’t think Pumpkin Snowflakes sound good at all! By the time I got back from the store with the lemons, it was nine o’clock. But that was okay. All I needed to do was mix the batter with the softened butter?! And chill the dough at least ONE HOUR?!

Seventy-two dough balls and four hours later, the hand frosted citrus fruits of my labor sat on a new glass plate and I fell into bed at one a.m. There were no visions of sugarplums dancing in my head anymore. Just angry thoughts like how much I hate contests. And cookies. And Christmas.

Refreshed after five hours sleep (who are we kidding?) I got ready for the early morning “party” and headed out, arriving a little late. I would have been even later if the fabric store was open. I walked through the front doors of the hostess’s home and, instead of being greeted by the cool looks of competitive cooks, fourteen women sat in a circle howling with laughter. Did I miss something? I thought this was a serious competition. With relief I saw that no one had tried to sway the judges with fancy homemade costumes (how low could they go?) There were a couple of ugly sweaters in the room, but they weren’t that funny.

I sat down in exhausted confusion. I thought only dedicated, extremely gifted bakers had been invited. There was absolutely no mention of prizes for comical cookies. Anxiously I surveyed the entire room—yes, a table laden with platters of beautiful baked goods stood off to the side. But nothing had been judged, no prizes awarded, no cookies rationed yet.

So what was so funny?

Finally, as fragments of stories began piecing together, I realized that an entirely different contest had been taking place here for the last thirty minutes. One by one, each guest was given a five minute time slot to describe in her most painful detail the astronomical lengths she’d gone to in order to bake a Top Of Her Best Cookie Plate cookie.

I wasn’t he only amateur baker intrigued by the invite and finally defeated by a deceptively innocent medley of flour, sugar, and butter. Every single person had been so intimidated by the challenge that a few had even refused to come this morning! And now, the brave, if no so brilliant, few who did show up were so emotionally—some even physically—scarred from the experience that we all sat in a circle competing for the prize never even mentioned on our invitations—a Purple Heart.

Suddenly, no one cared anymore how good their cookies looked or tasted. The highest honor was now on the line for the cook with the most tragic story of baking gone amuck. As each of us waited to pour out our bitter tales, each successive narrative became more pathetic, more involved, and more hysterical.

This was a competition of unprecedented proportion. And I was ill-prepared.

I told my tale of late night icing and missing lemons, embellishing my agony as much as possible, but honestly, I’d given everything to forgotten snowflakes sitting on a plate in the corner of the other room. 

I sighed as humility overcame me. More than an hour after the Saddest Baking Experience trials began, the last competitor finished her tale. With an entry of Stained Glass Window Cookies hiding on the table somewhere behind us, she told us how the directions called for Lifesaver candies placed inside a sugar cookie dough. “Bake on parchment paper,” the instructions read.

“I didn’t have any,” she said, “but I figured wax paper would work just as well.”

She held up a mangled length of wrinkled wax paper with three or four cookies glued on in broken sections by the remains of Lifesavers baked at 375 degrees. It was the death knoll for every other woman in the room. The room exploded in laughter, women rolling on the floor as violently as the tears rolled down their faces.

She won of course, Wax Paper Woman. No one could begrudge her the honor. Hers had been the most humiliating episode any of us endured. That is until the seasoned judge/hostess made these closing remarks to our entire distinguished group.

“I can’t believe the way you’ve all carried on about a bunch of cookies for the last hour. You women need to get a life!”

Sour grapes, if you ask me. She didn’t have an entry.

With wishes for a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you, and especially Pete Hopkins who graciously allowed the use of his amazing cookie photo.  Thanks, Pete!  The original photo can be viewed at this link:

Friday, November 6, 2015

Looking Up

I have a doctor’s appointment on Tuesday. Today is Friday. I’m dreading it like it’s tomorrow. I always dread checkups. Because there are reasons I must be checked on by physicians. Some of them are the same as the reasons you have to go to the doctor, but this one is because I survived a cancer scare two and a half years ago.

I lost major body parts in that scare, as well as an entire factory of hormone producing organs. I miss them.  I wage a daily battle as a result of that change in my anatomy. 

On the up side, I’ve learned wonderful new words like adaptogens, probiotics and breathing . . . deeply. I only thought I was introspective before my surgery. Now I gauge my emotional well-being the way meteorologists check for cold fronts. It’s a tough balance sometimes between being proactive and counterproductive when it comes to heading off another meltdown.

I passed the two year mark last May.

“Two years is a big deal when you’ve had cancer,” my surgeon told me. “After that, you only need to come in twice a year for checkups instead of four times.”

It was really good news. And it feels like good news right up until four days before I have to see her again and walk into a cancer hospital and let her look under my hood and inspect my chassis. I hate it. And it makes me feel sorry for myself sometimes. Until I remember some very important facts:

  • ·         I didn’t have to go through chemo.

  • ·         I don’t have to get blood tests and check for cancer markers.

  • ·         I didn’t lose my hair. Or my breakfast, lunch or dinner. Every single day. The way many women do after a cancer diagnosis.

  • ·         It wasn’t a death sentence.

So let the tears fall. Let the fears fly. That doctor saved my life. And the same God who fought for me two and a half years ago still fights for me today. Even when appointments like the one on Tuesday remind me that once upon a time I had cancer.

They’re a blessing in disguise—they also remind me that I don’t have it anymore.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Playground Lies

I think I’ve been fat all my life. 

I haven’t, of course, and when I look back at photos of myself throughout the years, I realize I really only had one pudgy year in my childhood—third grade. Third grade, I think, must be the hardest grade.  I know that because a little third grader told me so.  It would take some work for me to remember what kind of trauma is typical on a Terrible Third Grader Kind Of Day, but let’s say you lost your lunch money, fell in a mud puddle in front of the whole class, threw up in the lunchroom and forgot to turn in your homework. All on the same day.  

I think that’s the kind of day Charity had when she dissolved into tears in my living room one afternoon and proclaimed,

“Ten is the hardest age ever!” 

On that particular day, I was twenty-seven, the mother of two small children, living in the foreign land of Florida which, everyone knows, is inhabited by child-eating alligators and giant mosquitos, and seldom saw my husband who walked into burning buildings for a living.

I had a little bit of trouble relating to a muddy ten-year-old.

But, now that I look back on being fat all my life, I realize Charity was right.  It’s hard to be ten, it’s hard to be a third grader, and it’s hard to think you’re fat whether you are or not.

When our kids were small, we had a list of things we taught them never to say to anyone, especially if they were trying to insult somebody. We didn’t say “shut up” in our house. We never told anyone they were stupid. And, worst of all, we never called anyone “fat” even if they were. Especially if they were. I knew from personal experience that being called “fat” is an identity  wound you may never overcome, and I didn’t want my kids scarring each other with the label or reminding another already scarred person of how they’d, no doubt, already been labeled.

Every one of those misdemeanors was a crime in our home and would get you sent to your room without dessert—so the punishment would fit the crime.

For a couple of years when he was about five or six, our son had an imaginary friend. And then he had two of them. We’d hear him talking in his room and find out later how silly we were to think he was talking to himself, when he was in the company of Roy and Ernie. Who could only be seen by our son.

Sometimes Lee and Roy and Ernie got into arguments. That’s a trip.  Watching your five-year-old arguing with his three-year-old sister is one thing. Watching him argue with two invisible kids can send you running to the Yellow Pages.

One afternoon we were all in the car—my husband, myself, our son, our daughter, and Roy and Ernie—only I didn’t know Roy and Ernie had come along for the ride until I heard our son, Lee’s, voice begin to rise from the backseat.

“No, I didn’t!”

“Yes, you did!”

“No, I didn’t!!”

"Yes, you DID!!”

His voice rose louder with every punctuated sentence, his head turning side to side as he took turns arguing individually with Roy and then Ernie and then Roy again. Until, finally, one of the two silent partners lobbed a pre-emptive strike voiced by our ventriloquist son:

“You’re fat!” we heard him say, and then he crossed his arms, put on his really mad face, and stopped talking.

“What’s going on?” I asked, with a mixture of amusement and anxiety.

“Ernie called me fat,” he said angrily.

Now, I don’t know if you have some inside scoop as to the ins and outs of a conversation like that, but since Ernie and Roy were kicked out of the car that day and never heard from again, I think it’s safe to say that problem took care of itself. I’m just telling you about it because calling someone “fat” in our house was paramount to an assault with a deadly weapon. It was a really bad idea and our kids knew it.

Unfortunately, no one told the people I grew up around how deadly it is for a kid to be thought fat in the third grade. 
“You’re so fat, I bet you wear a bra!” boys yelled at me on the playground.  They were right—that year my mom bought me a training bra.  Training bra.  What does that even mean? Do they still have those? I knew I was too young to wear one, but since t-shirts apparently weren’t doing the trick (do little girls still wear those, either?), the nice lady in the department store sold my mom a training bra for her little ten-year-old daughter.

When the class picture came out that year, I had, unfortunately, been seated on the front row instead of hiding safely on the back one.

“You took up two chairs!” the boys laughed again. And even though I didn’t really take up two chairs, in my mind I agreed with them that I sure didn’t look skinny where I sat in that photo.  What a shame that little kids can spend their childhoods comparing themselves to one another and grow up believing they’re not good enough.

So my mom took me to the doctor who listened to our fears of how fat I was and put my ten-year-old self on a diet of carrot sticks (which I hate to this day) and a half sandwich for lunch. No more cookies or hostess cupcakes to make the other kids jealous at school. It was all serious business for me to lose weight.

My grandmother, of course, had the perfect solution for helping me get thin.  It’s the same answer most people come up with today when they figure out I have some weight to “release.”  (I just heard that description of weight loss efforts.  I like the sound of it much better than Biggest Loser.)

“Just tell her no more seconds,” she said matter-of-factly.  

 I considered that plan for a minute, and then asked,

“Can I have thirds then?”

At least she had a good sense of humor, even though she had no idea how hard it was to be ten years old in the 1960’s. She grew up in the 1910’s when people washed their laundry in a galvanized bucket, scrubbed their own floors with horse hair brushes or something, baked their own bread in a wood burning oven, and chopped wood for the fire that kept them warm all winter.  If I’d been as lucky as her and lived at a time in history like that, I’d have been a skinny little kid, too.

My dad said I was fat because I watched too much television. I did watch as much television as I could, but that consisted mostly of I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, and Let’s Make A Deal, which came on once a week. Maybe I was fat in the third grade because we lived in a retirement trailer park where there were four other kids to play with. 

We made the most of what we had, though, and I got pretty good at kickball and avoiding the cars that interrupted our games. I rode my bike sometimes and skated up and down the rows of trailers. Sometimes we played at the playground with the two swings and a slide, and in the summer there was a swimming pool to swim in when it wasn’t sixty degrees outside where we lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. I guess that means we swam once a week. If we were lucky.

So I went on the doctor’s diet at the end of the third grade. Then I went to summer school for fun during the month of June because I got to take an art class and a science class and a class on dinosaurs. But the fourth class was required of everyone—P.E.  I hated P.E., which I thought stood for Punishing Eula because she’s fat.  In P.E. I got to do fun things like jumping jacks and running around the track—over and over and over again. I still hate P.E., too.

And when I started the fourth grade, I weighed ten pounds less than when I left the third grade.  I also was several inches taller. 

 And that’s my point.   

What no one seemed to understand when I was a kid is that children—even babies—get growth spurts that begin with eating more than  normal, putting on a little weight and then growing taller and going back to their normal appetite.

If grownups don’t interfere with this natural circle of life, kids might grow up with a fairly healthy self-image. If all the adults in a ten-year-olds life agree with a child’s peer group of third grade authorities, then a growing kid may spend the rest of her life in a self-imposed prison of unworthiness.

Maybe I was born at an unfortunate time. It was the decade of Twiggy.  Ever heard of her? She made a skinny, boy-body famous by wearing it when she was a girl. Suddenly curves were out and boobs were a no-no.  With her bobbed, slick hair and androgynous looks, she most resembled, oh, I don’t know, let’s say Justin Beaver today. Only she was a girl and he isn’t.
And once a girl like me hit puberty, she couldn’t compete with Twiggy’s supermodel look. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t deflate the curves predestined for me by heredity and sexual orientation. And since I blossomed earlier than my friends who were doing a much better imitation of Twiggy than I was, I stood out like a sore thumb.A swollen, sore thumb. 

I was different than everyone, it seemed. I couldn’t compete with my mother’s cheerleader, Southern belle story of having a “twenty-one inch waist” when she met and married my dad at sixteen. I couldn’t compare with the Miss America pageant contestants we watched every fall on TV. I sewed for and dressed countless Barbie dolls who flaunted their lopsided figures and mocked my poor self-esteem.
And now, forty-five years after a doctor first put me on a diet as a ten-year-old, I’ve been on and read so many diet plans I think I qualify as the world’s most defeated professional dieter.

But do you know what’s really sad about that? When I look back over photos of myself between infancy and age forty-five, the only year of my life where I really was pudgy was that one year as a kid when I first believed the boys on the playground. 

I was slender on my wedding day when I felt I wasn’t. I was slender through two pregnancies and bounced back to a healthy weight, though I chased an elusive desire to lose “ten more pounds.”  I ate like a pig that whole, busy time my kids were growing up and never gained an ounce, but I hid behind everyone in family photos for fear someone would point out that I was “fat.” There’s hardly a single photo of me in all our family albums where it looks like I even have legs. I’m always standing behind someone skinnier than me.

How does a girl get over a lifetime of believing a lie?

By replacing it with the truth. One painful step at a time.

There were wounds that set me up to believe that third-grader lie. Many of them have been healed and many others are currently being healed. We all have them. We’ve all been hit by lying arrows that want us to believe we’re inferior, we don’t measure up, and we’re a disappointment.

But those are lies. Playground lies. I don’t know what lies you heard during recess, but make no mistake, they’re deadly.

The problem isn’t what we eat. The problem is what we believe. And it may be time to kick Roy and Ernie out of the car for calling me fat.

Out of the mouths of babes.

With thanks to Brian Talbot for the use of the wonderful picture seen above. Brian's work, including the site for this photo, can be viewed at

Monday, August 3, 2015

Puzzling Pieces

It keeps me awake at night.

This story—the mystery I’ve stumbled across. Like Alice, I’ve tumbled into the twisting, gravitational pull of someone else’s rabbit hole and I have no idea where or when I’ll land.

Thrilling, captivating, and surprising, I’ve been stunned and shocked by what I’ve discovered. But there are still too many gaps to reveal whether he was a hero, a zero, or just another human being with feet of clay.
Like me.
I blame it on that photograph.
It’s just a simple framed picture of my great-grandparents on their wedding day, taken more than one hundred years ago.  Which sounds like forever until I stop to realize that, if life had not been so hazardous at the time, they would have both lived long enough for me to have met them. After all, my grandchildren still have three living great-grandparents and will always have their very own, personal memories of them.
All I have is a faded photograph. And the internet.
The wedding portrait hung in Grandma’s bedroom. For a few years following her death, it hung in my dining room. Eventually, I gave it to my aunt in exchange for a smaller version, and now it adorns her wall. Ironically, it’s traveled almost as many miles as the couple who gaze out stoically from within its frame.
Grandma told me she barely knew them. Her parents, the couple in the photo, both died of tuberculosis by the time she was ten years old.
“I was born in South Carolina,” she said. “My mother was disowned by her family when she married my Irish Catholic father, because he was divorced. I had no siblings and, when mama and daddy died, I was raised in Arizona by my foster parents,” she said. “Now eat your potatoes.”
Grandma rarely minced words, so I thought that’s all there was to the story. She was born. She was orphaned. She was adopted. She grew up. Life was hard, but she got over it. End of story. End of questions.
But one afternoon, years after I passed the portrait on, replacing it with a tabletop version, I ran across a handwritten family tree that Grandma gave me forty-five years ago. Then I sat down next to my husband, Rob, plugged some of the names into, and out of Pandora’s internet box tumbled hundreds of puzzle pieces—completely out of order—containing a  fascinating story of Grandma’s parents.
It’s incomplete, though.
It reminds me of bagged yard sale puzzles I’ve bought a few times—lots of pieces, no idea what the end result should resemble. If not for a couple of facts in the family tree Grandma gave me, we’d have never discovered anything about her family. She didn’t say much about it when she gave the booklet to me, but I think she knew that, someday, I’d go looking for another picture of her parents and I’d need a little help.
So far, I’ve spent about four months coaxing my computer to spit out their records. And while the internet plays a mean game of cat and mouse, I’ve earned its respect by being tenacious. All I knew of my great-grandfather before came along was his name and birthdate. And that he was from County Cork, Ireland.
But he wasn’t from County Cork.
Nor did Grandma’s own grandparents disown their daughter for marrying him.
I assumed he was an only child, just like Grandma, since all I knew was his name and birthdate. But imagine my surprise and delight the evening the names of his eight siblings surfaced on the internet and revealed that he was from Galway County, Ireland.
But here’s the thing—Grandma wasn’t an only child, either.
Her father was married once before marrying Grandma’s mother and fathered five children, including two who died as infants. Also, Grandma’s parents lost a baby boy the year before she was born. In all, her father welcomed seven children into the world. So while she grew up as an only child, and though she knew of them but never met them, Grandma actually had three half-brothers. Somewhere.
Guess who now knows where they grew up?
Oh, internet. You are a remarkable, magical thing.
You are also my tormentor. You supply the facts but make me analyze their hidden meanings. You prove existence but not intent. You name names but hide hopes and dreams. You expose heartache but ignore conclusions.
How can I assemble a jigsaw puzzle when all I have to go on is speculation?
He was always a shadow of a man to me, just one photograph away from being invisible. Now I have over a hundred documents proving his existence but no explanation of his choices.
Except for one. The one where he adopted out the only child he ever had a relationship with—because he was dying of tuberculosis.
In all the years he spent in America’s military and all the years he traveled the world, the most important act of bravery he ever exhibited was when he found a family for his daughter, my grandmother, in the months before he passed away. He gave up all his rights to her while he was still living, but found a family to love and protect her at the end of his own life.
In the end, he died alone and uncelebrated, two thousand miles from his wife’s grave in South Carolina, five thousand miles from his childhood home in Ireland, his name mentioned in dozens of newspaper articles but missing from his own headstone.  Today his body rests under a eucalyptus tree in an unmarked grave in Phoenix, Arizona.
I don’t know why I know more about Grandma’s father than she did. I don’t know why her story was so condensed as to blur the lines of reality. Maybe it’s because I was a kid and kids don’t need to know the pain their grandparents experienced when they were kids. I bet the internet won’t explain any of that to me, either.
For now, I have that photograph. And the internet. And my own speculation. And gratitude to the man whose protection of my grandmother led to my own birth and the powerful bond I once shared with her. He was not a zero. He was a hero.
That’s a pretty good piece of the puzzle.