They came pelting into the house, all four of them, on that August afternoon in 2008.

"Grandma, come and see what we made!"

Now I'd been a parent long enough to know this could be either a scenario for disaster or a "grab your camera" moment. I took a chance and picked up my trusty Canon SureShot.

About three quarters of the way down our lawn, they gathered around a small tepee made of branches and twigs. Emma, who was three at the time, could fit inside standing up; the others flanked it. They were all grinning from ear to ear, pretty proud of themselves. They posed for a few pictures and then showed me the finer points of the construction, which included a pathway of larger branches leading up to the entrance. It was the sort of project that not only kept them busy and outdoors for a few hours on a summer day, but also fostered the sort of creativity that's sadly lacking in many children's lives these days.

Too soon, their visit came to an end and they headed back home to start school. A month later, the remnants of Hurricane Ike came roaring through Northeastern Ohio, downing limbs right and left and leaving devastation in its wake. When it had passed, we were amazed to see the little tepee still standing tall in the front yard. We called the kids and let them know what terrific builders they were that their creation had weathered a pretty strong wind.

After that, we became curious to see exactly how long it would last. As the calendar moved toward Thanksgiving, my husband decided to put it to use for something he'd always wanted--a Christmas crèche. He came home one night with a ceramic Nativity set of 9" tall figurines. It was pretty complete--Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, a shepherd, two wise men, an ox and sheep, and an angel.

I shook my head. "Not going to work," I declared. "Ceramic won't last a New York minute in this cold."

He let me ramble on and then, in his own imitation of a wise man, went out and put them in the tepee anyway, first adding some straw and stringing an extension cord with a spotlight. The angel was hung from the top, overlooking the Holy Family. I examined his project and found that it was actually pretty nice. It didn't make any difference that because there's so little traffic on our street, very few people ever saw it. Throughout the holidays, every time we drove out the driveway, we were reminded of what Christmas was all about.

In the spring, when the snow had melted enough to bring in the statues, we found they were still in great shape, so we packed them back in their box and stored them with the other decorations.

Christmas, 2009. The tepee was still there. It had made it through an entire year plus of rain and wind and sleet and snow and ice, and many summer lawn cuttings. Out came the Nativity set and once again the Holy Family graced the little shelter that our grandchildren had built. When snowstorms came, the spotlight melted the drifts and kept Baby Jesus warm. We found ourselves keeping the light on almost into February. We just liked seeing it, even though the snow often kept the shepherd and wise men buried.

Christmas, 2010. Ditto.

By now, the kids eagerly looked forward to seeing the tepee when they came for visits. One day, the older ones even expressed some doubt about whether this was the original tepee or whether we took it down and put it back up when we knew they were coming--sort of like Aunt Martha's ugly vase that you bring out of hiding when Aunt Martha is on the front doorstep. But no, we assured them, it was most certainly the original. We hadn't changed a twig.

2011. Not all miracles are momentous, life-changing affairs. Some are almost too small to be noticed at all. We know one happened in our yard as again we find ourselves ready for the "Christmas star" to shine, welcoming all to the stable.


Every day, ideas continually bombard us. We stand there, a bit like Jim Thome, trying to figure out which ones to let go by and which to try and hit out of the park.

Several years ago, I came upon an article in some woman's magazine telling how the author had a special Christmas tablecloth on which every year all the guests signed their names. Afterwards, she would embroider the names as a permanent record of who had been there. Each year was a different color. Hmmm, I thought. That's a good idea.

There were a few problems, however. First and foremost, we didn't have Christmas dinner. Not one with guests, anyway. Because the family is so scattered and Christmas involves transporting gifts, we don't much try to get together for that holiday.

Ah, I mused, but we do generally have a mob for Thanksgiving. How could I take that idea and tweak it? Or, as they say on American Idol, make it my own? I churned that around in my head for a while and eventually a light bulb went on. What was Thanksgiving without cooking? And what says cooking more than--aprons! My "tweak" was that instead of simply inscribing names, we could do a theme, and everyone would put their mark - a thumbprint--along with their name.

At the craft store, I found a muslin apron and some fabric paint. The first theme was a no-brainer - turkeys. Everyone made a thumbprint out of brown paint and added a penciled name. Afterwards, I added red wattles and orange tail and feet and embroidered the names in orange and brown floss, adding an embroidered year at the top of the bib.

It was an instant hit. In the years that followed, we did apples, pumpkins, grapes, pilgrims and Indians, spoons, bowling balls (a Thanksgiving tradition), and on a somber feast in November, 2001, tiny submarines and an American flag, representing our son who had been deployed to the Gulf shortly after 9/11. Last year, it was candy corn. What was especially fun was to see the thumbprints increase in size as the years went on. One of my favorite aprons is the pilgrim one. Granddaughter Caroline once printed her name across half the apron, and added three or four extra bars to the final E. She just started college.

On the day of the feast, everyone in the kitchen has a choice of which apron to wear, although the number of choices now far outnumbers the cooks, since this will be our 20th year.

Thanksgiving has now moved from our house to some of the kids'. I grumbled at bit when that change happened, but it's kind of nice to be in charge of the stuffing, the rutabaga, and the pumpkin muffins, and that's all.

We'll be gathering again this year. It won't be everyone, but everyone will be there in spirit--and in thumbprint.


A Dog Story

His name was Al. In the days before we knew him very well, we'd had loftier expectations and registered him as "Greenbrier's Alex." We should have known better, for even his arrival was fraught with misconceptions.

In the late 1970's and into the 1980's, one of the top family TV shows was The Dukes of Hazzard. It told of the escapades of a couple of back country cousins and featured a souped up Dodge Charger called The General Lee. One of the regular characters was Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane, who was always trying to outsmart the Duke Boys. His faithful sidekick was a laid back Basset hound named Flash. Our kids loved the show and we particularly loved Flash, who was rarely roused to do anything more than get up on the seat of the police cruiser. So, when we felt the time was right for a dog, we decided we needed our own Flash.

In retrospect, this was far from being my finest hour and I may never live it down. Who am I kidding? There is no "may" about it. Here's how it unfolded:

I scoured the nightly want ads (acoustic ebay) looking for someone who was selling a Basset. Eventually, my search paid off. A woman was looking for a buyer for a six month old puppy--&75 or best offer. I was excited. The kids were excited. I made an appointment to check it out. A few of the kids went with me.

We were only in the place a few minutes, when a roly poly bundle of fur and floppy ears came charging out into the room, toenails clicking and oversized feet sliding on the bare wood floor. In a second, he was in our arms, wriggling and lapping our faces with his tongue, and all of our hearts immediately melted. This was where he belonged. Permanently.

Which left only the finances to be decided. Best offer, huh? I knew there was someone else coming to see the dog and I wanted to be the person with the best offer. Therefore, I told myself, I had to go higher than the $75. "I'll give you $125," I blurted out. Surely that would win the auction. I know, I know. I have endured gales of laughter every time that story is told, so now I know and have for a long, long time. But hey, I got the dog!

Which is when Al began to show his true colors. At six months old, I guess I figured he'd be at least paper trained. Wrong again. And he didn't really show any interest in it. Not for quite a long, long time. Besides the canned stuff, he considered almost anything "food." He had quite a liking for butter, even to the point of getting up on the kitchen table to chow down when nobody was looking. He once even crunched up a pair of eyeglasses that had been carelessly left within his reach. He wasn't leash-trained, either, resulting in daily walks being more of a daily drag, literally.

The kids adored him. I'd often find a pile of them curled up with Al on top of a floor heater watching television. "See, Al?" they'd say. "There's Flash!"

Al's "home" was a huge cushioned wicker basket that was parked under the counter of our lower level kitchen. The end of the counter was supported by a post and we'd hook him up to the post by his leash. I did have one rule that, most of the time, was obeyed. The dog wasn't allowed in the carpeted parts of the house--living room, dining room, bedrooms.

If you don't know anything about Basset hounds (and want to), I'd advise you to watch an early Tom Hanks movie called Turner and Hooch. Hooch was a French mastiff, much larger than Al, but with the same propensity for--well, there's no polite way of saying it--slobbering. When these dogs shake their heads, it goes flying and the devil only knows where it will land. I got to the point where I wished it would always land on me, rather than the back of the bookcase that separated the kitchen from the family room. Clothes were easier to wash than the back-breaking labor of scrubbing an expanse of wood. Eeeeuuuu, as they say. And enough of that.

I never found out until later, but a favorite activity the kids dreamed up was to put Al in his basket and send it like a sled down the basement stairs, much like the dog Max in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

But by far, the best part of Al's life, according to him, was Tuesday night, otherwise known as Garbage Night. Pickups were on Wednesday morning, so all up and down the street and throughout the development, people set out their metal or plastic cans the night before. And Al knew it. You could almost see the excitement building throughout the day. The entire household would go on alert, because we knew he was plotting his strategy for escape. Front door? Back fence? It would have to be a split second decision. Would I stick my head out to call one of the kids? Between my legs or however he could manage it, he'd be gone. The backyard was fully enclosed by a rickety wooden fence. Under the pretense of needing a potty break, he'd go along each side, nosing the slats gently until he found one that wiggled. A few more nudges and he was out, never to be seen again until the wee hours when, his body stuffed like a sausage, he'd bark to be let in. And out. And in. And out, and so on through the night. If you've ever overdone it at some country kitchen buffet, you probably know how he felt.

There were other exploits--the time he ate an entire coffee cake, or when he pulled me on cross country skis through a park and suddenly took off after a squirrel, or rolled in the manure at a relatives farm, or--it goes on.

Life eventually caught up with Al. He went blind and then his back gave out on him. It was sad to see this rambunctious animal that had caused us so much frustration and tumult and at the same time, given so much loyalty and love, reduced to pulling himself around with his two front paws. The decision was made.

I stayed with Al until the end, as I'd been with him from the beginning and most of his days in between. As the last breath left him, I closed my eyes and saw him in his glory days--ears a-flap and tail wagging as he came charging through the snow to greet me. He'd been worth every penny of that $125.

A Modern Parable

This is a story (the first part, anyway) of a young woman who opened a letter that came in the mail one day and found a check for $200. She had bumped into one of her uncles at a family event a few weeks previous. He had commented that he still felt guilty for not paying her for some work she had done for him some thirty years ago when she was a teenager. The woman had tried to assure him that he didn't owe her a thing, but yet here was the envelope and the check. She didn't want it, didn't need it, and while she remembered doing the job, she had never expected any payment for it.. She wanted to send the check back. But something stopped her. She called her father for advice.

"It was a debt that had bothered him for years," her dad said. "You need to let him pay it, so that his mind is clear."

That story reminded me a bit of a talk I once heard on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The priest who gave it said that there were three components to the story. First, of course, you have the Samaritan, who gets the most attention--and the most credit. Samaritans and Jews didn't exactly get along at that time and we don't really even know who the injured man really was. Nonetheless, the Samaritan stopped to help, after several other people had passed the man by, reminding us all that we have an obligation to those less fortunate.

There is also the innkeeper, who takes in the man after the Samaritan brings him there, and who trusts that he will be paid later. This, too, is a good example for us who often look with suspicion on people who make promises.

The third figure in the picture is the injured man himself and if you really think about it, he was in the hardest position of all. It's a place that few of us want to be in--obligated to someone else. We resist it. We can do it all ourselves, can't we? We don't need any help.

My mother was as independent as they come. She'd had to pull herself up by her bootstraps so many times, it's a wonder she had any bootstraps left. We all loved her, but we tread carefully. In her later years, if any of us tried to take her arm to steady her over a rough patch, she'd glare at us and say, "When I want your help, I'll ask for it." (And to be honest, the older I get, the more I understand her.) One day, however, she fell and broke both wrists. It's pretty hard when you can't turn on a water tap or the television set or make yourself a cup of coffee, or even get dressed. You don't have much choice.

And so, the young woman swallowed her pride, kept the $200 check, and thanked her uncle. Then she passed the money along to a needy organization, thus paying the good deed forward.

I don't think I'll ever forget how the priest who told the Good Samaritan story ended his talk.

"Sometimes, you have to be the one in the ditch."

Home Improvement

Home improvement isn't always a planned thing. Sometimes it's the result of a completely unanticipated event. It could be a kid proudly scribbling his ABC's in Sharpie pen on your bedroom wall. Or Mother Nature could do what amounts to the same thing.
In the tail end of winter, 2010, I walked through out living room and suddenly spied something new--a shell pink elongated bubble hanging from the upper molding of the wall. It looked like--oh, just use your imagination. It was, I later learned, caused by a water dam, ice that had built up in one of the valleys between different slopes of the roof and then melted on the bottom. The water had nowhere to go but between the dry wall and a few coats of paint. We let the water out and mopped it all up, but to put it mildly, the decor had been seriously compromised.

Life got complicated and we never seemed to find the time to do anything about it. Clearly, the room needed to be repainted, but it seemed more than we felt comfortable handling. Painters were expensive. But it was right out there in full view of whoever came into the house. We considered a few options: putting the Christmas tree in front of it (which would have worked at least until after New Year's) or hanging a picture over it, but even with our rather eclectic tastes, it would have looked pretty odd.

Enter our oldest daughter, who had just shipped her last kid off to college and thus had a bit of time on her hands before she needed to start sending care packages. "I'm coming down to paint," she informed us. And she did, bringing rollers, buckets, spackle--obviously she had done this before. Needless to say, we welcomed her with open arms, and a few old sheets to use as drop cloths.

The first order of business (aside from dealing with the paint bubble) was color--the bane of every redecorator's existence. Ever visit the paint department of a big box hardware store? If you've ever wanted to know what infinity was like, that's a pretty close approximation. Now, I had something in mind, but none of the little paint cards I'd already brought home seemed to work. We were dealing with a stone fireplace with wallpaper above it. Mary began picking up books and other items from the room and holding them up to the wall, the fireplace, and the light, trying to get me to see different colors. Not my strong suit, but we came up with a few ideas and went to get some small sample cans. Within hours, the entire wall looked like a patchwork quilt. We thought one looked promising, but despite his being color blind, my husband's reaction was about eleven thumbs down. Back to the big box for more samples. More patches. More samples. I almost wore the carpet out walking back and forth, squinting one eye to cover up one color so I could see another without distraction. Miraculously, throughout a fitful night's sleep, I came up with a decision--one of the first colors I'd looked at, of course.

Before the painting started, though, things got down and dirty. You know how, over the years, you accumulate things--books, pictures, bowls or figurines and the like? My daughter, a reality show aficionado, believes that if you're going to freshen up a room, you need to go all the way. Why do you have all those books? To read. When? Sometime. Haven't you got a big bookcase upstairs? Yeah. And what about that stuffed polar bear on the mantle? Uh, a gift. It's been up there for years. It's dusty. Uh, yeah. Probably.

Ever seen one of those shows where they're trying to get somebody to clean out the stuff in her closet and the poor thing is screaming and crying because she can't let go of her favorite pair of Crocs? It was a little like that. Not pretty. I let an old microwave cart go to the basement, but argued over a bookcase of the same era--and lost. I'm not quite sure where the marble bookends went, but I suppose they'll show up some day. I was essentially told to put things I wanted to put back in one box, keep but relocate in another and discards in a third. That last box has, at last count, about two items. Including the polar bear. All the boxes are still in the dining room.

So, the painting progressed. Our daughter spent three days going up and down ladders. She is one of the neatest painters I've ever seen, a Renoir with trimming brush and roller. The end result is that the room, foyer, and hall look better than they have for years. The ecstasy was definitely worth all the agony and now I'm ready for company.

Mother Nature sure has a funny way of motivating us.


For those millions who eagerly await my next offering, I'm sorry, but I just--well, forgot and am behind a good four postings. So, am now playing catch-up. Enjoy.



Now, they’ve gone just a little bit too far!

By “they,” I mean whoever out there is trying to make sure we all look reed thin like Audrey Hepburn (females) or as buff as Ryan Reynolds (males). I mean, it wouldn’t be a bad thing for any of us, I guess, to move in that direction, but it most likely would take the entire staff and student body of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and their wands to do it. But they’re still trying. Oh, yes, they are.

Case in point: For my birthday, I requested dinner out at one of my favorite Italian restaurants. The place was not crowded and pleasantly cool after a rather warmish day. I snuggled into a booth with my significant husband and daughter, smiled at our handsome waiter, ordered a glass of pinot grigio, flipped open the menu, and felt the cold clutch of fear grip my stomach, which I knew all the pinot in the world wasn’t going to dispel.

My menu selection system, carefully honed after several decades, is this: look first at the dishes I like (which tend to be some combination of pasta and shellfish) and then at the prices, eventually coming to some sort of balancing act between the two. This time, however, there was a third bit of information thrown into the mix – the calorie count.

There are, to my mind, a few good reasons for going out to dinner. It definitely is a great way of kicking back and easing the stress of the day. You don’t have to think of what to have, how to cook it, whether they’ll like it, or who’s going to clean up after it. You can talk without interruption (except by the annoying habit of wait staff of coming back every five minutes to see if there’s anything you want. Hey, just give us a little bell, okay?). Somebody actually brings food and drink to your table and if you drop a knife or fork, you don’t have to invoke the three second rule or get up and wash it off. Just ask for a new one. The last thing I want to worry about is the bathroom scale laughing its head off the next morning.

But you can’t help it, you know. It’s right there in front of you and try as you might, you just can’t block it out. Especially when the number associated with your entree is somewhere in the vicinity of the national debt, even without the bread, butter, wine, and dessert, none of which, by the way, had a calorie count attached. I also had salad, which added another third of my recommended daily calorie consumption. Another odd thing is that the calories almost matched the price tags, minus the decimal point, but including the zeroes that came after them.

Did I enjoy my meal? Not so much. Will I go back there? Note to area restaurants: Probably not. Unless this was just a trial run and they go back to letting us eat with our delusions intact. Or until I finally get my figure looking something like Audrey Hepburn’s, which I’ve been working on ever since I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 19—oh, whenever. In other words, not any time soon.




If you were one of the 2.5 million who read my last column, you may remember me saying something about spending my family vacation “testing the waters.” I’m happy to report that I did. And I survived. Mostly.

The first test involved my twelve year old granddaughteR. More of a baseball player than a swimmer, she nevertheless accepted my now realized as foolish challenge to a length of the pool. A short pool. She grumbled a bit about being better at backstroke, so I let her do that. She beat me handily. Well, then, I reasoned, I could probably take her at freestyle. Wrong. She beat me by half a body length – and by more than a half century, which was my consolation.

Next came a delightful hour and a half out into the Sound on my brother-in-law’s sailboat. Thankfully, I remembered to duck when the boom went flying by over my head and I got to take the wheel for a while, too. I love sailing.

So on to the boogie boards, probably my favorite thing to do in the ocean. There’s no feeling quite like it when a wave gets under your board and carries you smoothly up onto the beach. Some of you who are, like me, aging will certainly realize the problem with that – getting up. I was pleased, therefore, to find that the waves were tame enough that I seldom reached the shallows, ending up in water only hip deep, so the whole maneuver much less of an issue. Best of all was catching a wave with a bit of a boost from a second one. That time, I zipped happily almost to shore by the side of my newly-engaged granddaughter. We came up grinning at each other.

Water Test #4 was a kayak expedition on an inland river, Pat and I sharing paddling duties with our more muscular sons. Our goal, according to our oldest, was what appeared to be a Lego bridge somewhere off in the distance. He’s actually well known for letting you know the goal only after you’re too committed. I was glad to have that additional power behind me. For well over an hour, the bridge never seemed to get any bigger. In and among the reeds we skimmed, taking in the local wildlife: lesser blue heron, egrets, and even a dolphin who cruised along about 50 feet away. The neatest things were the oyster beds. Close up, we could see all the little oysters joyfully spitting into the air. It reminded me a little of the dancing water fountain that used to be a big attraction in Tower City. Or our kids. Anyway, the bridge eventually did show up as a rather large structure and we beached the boats beneath it. The reward for our efforts was a margarita at a local pub. Surprisingly, I detected only a little soreness the next day.

The last day of vacation dawned. Throughout the week, “Minute to Win It” contests had been held at night. There were four teams. I headed up one: The Granny Birds. Through the heroics of a grandson and a son-in-law, plus a stellar team effort water ballet that included a senior citizen, a pregnant woman and a six year old, we won the whole enchilada – a ride on a Waverunner. Now, a Waverunner is basically a floating motorcycle, only there are no roads, no lines, and I’d never been on one. After several futile protests, I donned my life jacket and goggles and headed out onto the Sound, me steering and my daughter sitting behind me. Quite simply, I was terrified. I tried a little throttle. It moved forward. A little more. It jumped like a jackrabbit. Whoa! I kept experimenting until my passenger muttered something about either seasickness or water in her face, I wasn’t quite sure. Now the Sound was nothing like Beartown Lakes. It had whitecaps, for Pete’s sake! Then the order “Floor it, Granny Bird!” came from behind and so I thought what the heck and I did.

The first few seconds were fun. However, the situation quickly deteriorated to the point where the Waverunner and I were parting company with increasing regularity and if I didn’t slow down, we were going to part company completely as we flew over the waves, or rather, off the top of half of them. It was like riding a galloping horse, something I was never very good at. Think “saddle sore.” I finally managed to let go of the accelerator, stopping, if not on a dime, then maybe a half dollar, and it was a good thing my daughter had a tight grip. I’ll spare you any further details. Safe to say it was more of the same for a half hour before I bailed. Well, not literally into the Sound, but I dismounted, so to speak, back at the barge and allowed my daughter to have a little fun on her own for the rest of the time. My arthritic neck felt it for a few days. The thing is, if I could be on a calm lake with a slightly smaller machine and could play around with it by myself for however long I wanted, I just might try it again. And if I don’t get that chance, well, I still have a notch on my belt.


From My Scrapbag

Birthdays are funny things. You either love them or hate them. When you’re young, you can’t wait, either for the party or for the status of a particular age: starting school, becoming a teenager, the driver’s license, the legal limit. Reaching 30, you’re probably getting a sense that the calendar pages are flipping with much more rapidity than you’d like. Whoa, you say, let’s put the brakes on a bit, okay? Unfortunately, this seldom happens, and life continues apace until you get your first AARP invite, at which point the whole thing is like watching the sixth race at Churchill Downs.

I’m having a birthday this year. No surprise there, I guess, except that it’s next month and it doesn’t seem as if the heat has entirely dissipated from last year’s candles. I do detect, however, somewhat of a shift in my thinking. Hey, I tell myself, you can still get out of bed without sounding like a Halloween haunted house, what with all the creaks and groans. Upon occasion, you can crawl around the floor playing trains with a grandkid and you can still paddle a mean kayak. So what if you have bifocals? You still can read, and while your tech skills aren’t quite up to par with Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, you do know an iPad from an iPod and have completed all available levels of Angry Birds, even if they aren’t all three stars. Reason enough to rejoice.

My mom believed in celebrating birthdays, too. She was a good cake baker and each year presented me with a two-layer chocolate cake with 7 minute boiled frosting, beautifully decorated with colorful rosettes and leaves. Not only did I enjoy it then (with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top, naturally), but it sometimes tasted even better the next day when the frosting had formed a sugary crust.

One of my favorite birthday presents ever was a 78 recording of The Sons of the Pioneers, with Roy Rogers—my idea of rock stars back then. It was many, many years later that I learned my father had thought me a hopeless case for aspiring to be a cowboy, even into my early teens. It’s nice to think he and my mom supported me anyway. I still like horses.

A while back, the family had a surprise birthday party for me, with the kids coming from all over and a phone call to Italy to talk with the one who couldn’t get home. I’m not sure they yet believe I was really surprised, so let me put that to rest right here. I was totally and utterly flabbergasted. Really.
So the years have alternately crept, sped, and flashed by and here I am facing yet another milestone, but I get to celebrate it with my five brothers and sisters, which is about as good as it gets. In the meantime, I’m planning to test the waters, so to speak, when we go on vacation, to see if I can still catch the waves on my boogie board.

Happy birthday to me!


An Easter Remembrance

Easter in Buffalo, NY, can be, as in Cleveland, an iffy thing. One year, daffodils, hyacinths and tulips may carpet the ground, and the next, the Easter Parade garb of choice is the parka. Yet in the Easters of my youth, there were certain details that remained inviolate, regardless of what kind of breezes blew at sunrise.

First, though, getting to Easter was a journey, starting with a Tenebrae service, usually held on the Wednesday of Holy Week. The part I remember about it was that they turned all the lights out in the church, then read some prayers while they were turned on again. I thought it was to symbolize Christ being the light of the world. Some churches still do Tenebrae.

Holy Thursday Mass was celebrated in the morning, due to most schools being closed for vacation. And many people took off from work or went in late. The lavish Mass ended the reposing of the Blessed Sacrament in a beautifully decorated side altar and in the stripping of the altar in preparation for Good Friday. Churches were open for adoration of the faithful throughout the day. One of the special practices was to visit seven churches. Since we pretty much walked everywhere back then, and since Irish Catholic South Buffalo had more than enough churches, this resulted in a great combination of exercise and piety. I guess it also got us out of our moms’ hair for a while.

Good Friday hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. It remains the most somber day of the church calendar. I loved—still love--all the rituals that were so different from everyday church.

By noon on Holy Saturday, we were ready to break out the jelly beans, since almost every kid had given up candy. Lent was “officially” over. Some purists carried on their fasting until Easter. I fluctuated. Of course, we dyed eggs, adding decals of lambs and crosses and lilies. (Try and find any of those in your Paas package now!) I’m sure that’s probably why even today, the smell of vinegar makes me think of Easter.

Easter Sunday had its own rituals. No self-respecting female would dare venture out without two items: a hat and a pair of white gloves. We had to wait until after Mass to attack our baskets, which were filled with traditional stuff: marshmallow Peeps; chocolate rabbits, crosses, and chickens; and our favorite special treat, compliments of Mom/Easter Bunny—Fanny Farmer buttercream eggs. They were delicious, not to mention deadly. You could practically get a sugar high just from opening the box. My mom would fix our typical Sunday brunch, the centerpiece of which was a Breakfast Ring, frosted and decorated with jelly beans.

In the afternoon, my friends and I often hiked (sometimes through slush or worse) over to the South Park Conservatory for their Easter display. The huge domed greenhouse smelled heavenly—a mixture of earth and flowers. This was the first, and for a long time, only place I’d ever seen a banana plant.

I’m not sure that we ever ate dinner on Easter, replete as we were with the contents of our Easter baskets. Occasionally, we probably went to our aunt’s house and I guess we must have had ham.

I no longer wear a hat to church on Easter and the white gloves have gone the way of the dinosaur. But I still love this time of year. As Christ’s Resurrection takes center stage, it’s almost as though all the world has now been given permission to burst forth in beauty.

Happy Easter!

At long last--spring!!

Now that the warm winds of spring have occasionally wafted over Northeast Ohio, bringing once more to life what has lain dormant under the winter snows, I, too, feel those stirrings and at last emerged from my cocoon.
(Yeah, I know I spent at least three weeks where the sun was shining, the flowers blooming, and the birds chirping, but I just couldn’t resist the urge to wax poetic. So sue me.)
Anyway, on one particularly warm day, I venture out onto the trails of Beartown, which I hadn’t trod since an unexpectedly mild New Year’s Day. The water in the lakes is high with rain and melted snow and the spring peepers set up an ungodly racket. For something that makes so much noise, they sure are elusive to the eye. But it’s a sign of awakening and I search for more as I motor along.
A log floats invitingly on the surface of Middle Bear Lake, but no turtles have clambered aboard for a sunning. They may be yet tucked in the mud. Their winter-long spa, as it were.
A couple of Canada geese honk a welcome and it might be time for me to begin looking for the arrival of Jim, my resident blue heron. A vulture soars by overhead, eyes open for a tasty morsel.
Deeper into the woods, the tips of skunk cabbage peek out from the marshy areas where creeks have cut deep grooves into the land. I often wish we had the type that live in the Northwest, with huge yellow blossoms. But in a while, we’ll have an equally golden marsh marigold for color.
As I come up from the park, I take a tour around my small above-ground garden, finally freed from snow piles. Already, the garlic cloves I planted last fall are sticking up. I’m wondering what else to plant this year. Last year’s garden was pretty much a disaster, between the deer and the Japanese beetles and the pumpkins I had such high hopes for, but which practically rotted on the vine. I’m putting peas back on the bamboo teepee, and going to try potatoes again, but in the ground this time, not the growing bags, which dried out too quickly. Maybe bush beans, too. Or, this may be the year I just let whatever seeds are in the compost do what they will. That always means at least a few varieties of tomatoes that I eat or toss into soup.
Finally, I come upon some sprouts of chives and the first hint of real color erupting from its journey.





My mother raised me to be a law-abiding citizen. And she succeeded, pretty much. I never did get into much trouble when I was a kid and even went through high school without once getting a demerit (detention, jug, whatever they call it these days). I came close a few times. Crimes in my high school tended to be a) wearing socks or b) cutting from one side of the hall to the other in order to get to class faster. We walked single file in a one-way traffic pattern. I was never that much of a renegade, though.

When I got older and learned to drive, I still stayed on the straight and narrow. My first—and only—speeding ticket came on the heels of a 42 year clean driving record. I could still spit nickels when I remember it, mostly because I had a handy excuse sitting next to me and was too dumb to use it. My husband had an IV in his arm (which was why I was driving in the first place) and I probably could have pled being in a rush to get the bag changed. That happened nearly 20 years ago and it still rankles. It never occurred to me. That’s how law-abiding I am.

Not so other members of the family, however. Not so. They think that getting somewhere five minutes early is worth the risk of being pulled over and cited. Not to mention paying those fines. If you added up all the tickets they’ve accumulated, you probably could buy a Boeing 747.

Someone Who Shall Not Be Named got a speeding ticket about a month ago, in a Cleveland suburb named Something Heights. SWSNBN was evidently admiring the scenery and exceeded the speed limit in a school zone by about 10 mph. It was before noon, so maybe all those kindergarteners were on their way home. No excuses, though. It was a legitimate bag.

So home came the ticket and promptly disappeared. It wouldn’t have been prudent to let it slide (speeder, yes; scofflaw, no), so when the paperwork refused to surface after much digging around, calls were made to the Something Heights Police Department to see what could be done.

“Call the Something Heights Court,” was the response.

“Call back later in the week,” was the response of the court clerk. “We don’t have anything on file yet.”

Well, okay. But on Friday, there was still nothing. And nobody acted like they’d ever heard of a ticket getting lost. Requests for suggestions netted a “Call the Police Department.”

Did that. Again. Got a better answer. “Just come down to the Court and they’ll take care of it.”

So, SWSNBN hikes on down to the Something Heights Court (which, incidentally, is in the same building as the Something Heights Police Department and about 15 feet away) and takes care of the bill. Which amounts to: $235.

For a measly ten miles over the speed limit? Hitting 90 on the Turnpike probably wouldn’t get you that. But I guess if you do the crime, you do the time. Only in this case, it looks like you’re liable for everybody else’s crime and time, as well. Here’s the itemized printout:

1. IDSF HB1 & HB562 (no explanation): $25
2. Victims of Crime: $9
3. Capital Improvements: $10
4. Computer Legal Research: $3
5. Court Costs: $107
6. Drug Law Enforcement – HB562 (again?): $3.39
7. Justice Program Service – HB2: $0.11
8. Security Fee: $1.00
9. IDATF (State) – HB562 (again again?): $1.50
10. Speeding Cost: $5
11. Speeding Fine: $70

Note how the actual speeding fine was only $75. I guess crime does pay after all. At least for the Something Heights Police Department. Be careful out there




A middle grade novel by Mary C. Ryan

Seventh grader Ray Brennan has a lot on his plate. A major trumpet solo in the school stage band’s spring concert is in serious jeopardy, things aren’t going well at home, and to top if off, there’s the question of who’s been watching him. Add a mysterious girl who nobody seems to know and a best friend who’s no help at all, and Ray is wondering if things can get any worse. As it turns out, they can. His trumpet goes missing. Ray eventually learns that help can come from very unexpected sources, but that it’s not always easy accepting it.



I’m gonna sit right down and write myself an e-mail,
And make believe it came from you.

I’m not so sure this is what Fats Waller and a myriad of other recording artists would ever have envisioned when they covered this charming, but somewhat snarky song way back when, but it sure seems to be where the world is heading, isn’t it? It came to me a few weeks ago when, putting the Christmas decorations away, I noticed on a nearby shelf, an old plastic tub simply overflowing with “stuff.” So much so that the lid wouldn’t stay on any more. I worried that some little mousies might be looking for material for a nest and by some miracle, I had a few free minutes. So I got it lugged upstairs and started to go through it. It turned out to be somewhat of an archaeological dig.

One of the first things I uncovered was a blue plastic bag filled with newspapers and magazines from the Kennedy Assassination, nearly fifty years ago. At the time, and maybe even still, I figured they’d be worth something to somebody, so into the family archives they’d gone. Along with, I might add, newspapers and magazines from the first landing on the moon, and a special edition of Life on the elevation of John Paul II to the papacy. Interesting, but do I want to keep those things? I do. For now.

The next layer held a bunch of photographs, invitations to our 15th wedding anniversary party that the kids threw for us, old concert programs, and well, you know. I’m sure you have a box or two of such things in your house. I sorted it all out, tossing several items that I had no idea why they were there in the first place. I had a fair pile to go into the recycle bin.
But then towards the bottom came the motherlode. The sarcophagus loaded with golden artifacts. The Holy Grail.

A bunch of letters. Letters the kids had written from camp, from college, from after they were married. Letters from other family members. Letters from my mom. Letters from Pat’s mom and dad. Letters from me to Pat and he to me. Precious. Endearing. Funny. Jubilant. Thankful. Loving. Begging for an extra bit of cash, for a prayer. The whole spectrum of life to read again and again, not click on Delete and forget.
How long had it been since I’d added to that stash? I wondered. What with emails and text messages, we hardly ever have to pick up a pen and actually compose our thoughts to put on paper in a permanent way. Even I, the resident technophile, began to feel a sense of loss because I knew those opportunities for a personal connection with others was going to keep fading.

I suddenly remembered a picture of my oldest sister that I’d recently found. So, I sat down, grabbed a pen and caught her up on a few things that have been going on in my life, enclosing the photo. I wrote another to a second cousin whose mom had recently passed away—and got a handwritten note back. Each time I stuck a stamp on an envelope and popped it in the mailbox, I felt as if I had accomplished something. I think I’m going to do a lot more of it, even though my handwriting has deteriorated somewhat over the years.

Will letter writing ever completely disappear? Obviously not. But the opportunities for doing it are slowly disappearing. Do kids at summer camp write to their parents anymore? (Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah. . . Hint: You can find it on iTunes.) What a loss if they don’t. Do you even get baby announcements, or just a link to a Facebook page or web site where you can see pictures of the new arrival just moments after birth and Mom looking like she just stepped off the cover of Glamour magazine due to having a makeup artist in the delivery room? You know, I even gave some thought to handwriting this column, but figured I’d hear about it and it wouldn’t be pleasant.

Don’t expect a letter from me anytime soon. But hey, you don’t have to wait. Take a few minutes and write—actually write—a note to someone. It doesn’t have to be Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope, although in a pinch, the back of an envelope is as good as anything, as Abe discovered. You might get a text back. Or an e-mail. Or a phone call. But you’ve done your part in preserving a little bit of your personal history. Give yourself a pat on the back.


I think it may have started with a particularly good homily that evidently started a chain of thoughts until one night, my husband looked at me and asked, “What can I do to make your life easier?”

Now, I’m not sure if there’s anything a wife would rather hear. “Can I change that diaper?” Maybe at one time. But that was long gone. “How about dashing off to Paris for a few weeks?” Better. Probably too much to wish for. Personally, I’ll take making my life easier. I had an answer all ready for that one. It came out without missing a beat. “Cook on Sundays.”

Like many a wife who has been married—oh, probably anywhere over 30 years, I had come to the conclusion that figuring out what to eat every night was among the all time most mind-numbing jobs ever invented. Even Mike Rowe hasn’t dared touch it. I welcomed any opportunity to get out of it. I’d already parlayed a deal where we’d go out for pizza every Friday. Here was my chance to ditch yet another day.

We were not “chicken every Sunday” people. We didn’t eat big dinners at 1 pm as was the case with many families when we were kids. We tended more towards brunch—eggs, bacon, hash browns after Mass. Then a light supper. Over the years, the brunch mitigated into more of a fix it yourself event. But there still was supper. And frankly, I was tired of it.

“Deal,” said my husband.

“Deal,” I said.

What followed was interesting, to say the least. The next Sunday, I waited. And I waited and waited and waited. Finally, the question popped out. “What’s for supper?” Only it didn’t come from me.

“Uh,” I said, trying to be tactful. “I thought we’d agreed you were going to do that.”

“Oh.” There was a long silence. Over the rumblings in my stomach, I could hear the wheels turning in his brain. “Well, how about soup and sandwiches?” Followed closely by “Where do you keep the soup?” and “Do we have anything for sandwiches?” I pointed out the cupboard where the soup had been residing for the nearly 20 years we’d lived in the house, and the refrigerator where, on any given day during the same time span, he could find lunch meat and cheese. And the basket where we/I store the bread. And so we ate. And it was good. Enough.

There were a few (actually, a lot) more Sunday of “Ooops. Forgot.” Then, he started to get creative. He went to Giant Eagle and picked up a box of something that when you threw it into the microwave for a while, turned into something vaguely resembling Italian food. One portion. We split it. I kept my mouth shut—after eating my half. My stomach wasn’t quite so forgiving, but maybe the ballgame was on and he didn’t hear it.

Eventually, we had a little chat. I won’t go into the details. You can probably figure it out. And so we stumbled along, week after week. Lots of soup and sandwiches, and some meals that had you fed it to POWs, you would have been cited for violation of the Geneva Convention. I bit my tongue a lot, both literally and figuratively. The best thing you could say about it was that with all of our travels, we weren’t often home on Sunday night.

Just a few weeks ago, however, we had a major breakthrough. He arrived home from work and said, “We were talking about Beef Stroganoff today. We haven’t had that in a while. I think I’ll make it on Sunday.”

Oh, lord, I breathed, I can see it now. I’m going to have to stand by his elbow every step of the way like a pitching coach. The last time I did that was years ago when he wanted to make my signature German coffee braid for Christmas. It’s a yeast bread. Does that give you some idea of the amount of time I was “on call?” The result was spectacular, I must say, with frosting and holly decorating the top. The dog ate it, except for the holly. The saving grace of that episode was that over the years, it has made an excellent family holiday story.

On Sunday, he got ready for the Big Meal. The day before, we’d bought all the necessary ingredients. Now, I got out the ancient Betty Crocker cookbook, opened to the appropriate page and suggested he read it carefully before starting. I answered a few questions, such as “Where’s the cutting board?” and “What knife should I use?” His engineering brain obsessed a bit over the exact width and length the beef strips should be until I was afraid he’d get out a ruler, but eventually, he let me go back to sitting by the fire with my book. Suddenly, there was a loud crash from the kitchen, followed by a few un-Sundayish words and he appeared in the living room. “You have to be careful taking the flour bin out of the cupboard,” he announced. “Mmmm,” I muttered. He went off to fetch the broom and dust pan.

There were no further mishaps, no further questions to speak of, and then he called me to the table. There was wine and napkins and plates and all the right silverware and a steaming plate of Beef Stroganoff. Gratefully, I took my place. We said grace and ate. And it was good, too. A bit on the salty side, but definitely edible. (The next day, I noticed that in the drawer, the plastic measuring spoon labeled TBSP was on top and asked him about it. He said that was what the recipe called for. I checked. Of course, you have to know it was TSP.)

In terms of going above and beyond, I consider this right up there with the Duke of Windsor giving up his throne for his lady. Overall, I think I’m as lucky as Wallis Simpson. Happy Valentine’s Day to my King of the Kitchen! Oh, and Happy 50th Anniversary, as well! It’s been quite a ride.



“Not spend Christmas at home?” I stared at this sudden incarnation of Ebenezer Scrooge, whom I normally refer to as my husband. “Are you crazy? Christmas at home is a tradition! Remember how the kids always come into our bedroom at the crack of dawn, and then you go out to check if Santa left anything, and then we all form a line, youngest to oldest, and then—“

He let me babble on for a full minute before cutting in. “We can do the same things there.”

There, I had just been told, was an A-frame chalet nestled in the rolling hills of western New York’s ski country. Supposedly, it supplied all the amenities—hot and cold running water, two baths, a furnace and potbellied stove, and sleeping quarters for a small army—necessary for a family with six children. It sounded nice enough, except that it would be Christmas and it wouldn’t be home.

Pat was clearly disappointed in my lack of enthusiasm. For several years running, he’d mentioned that he’d like to do something different for the holidays. I’d always managed to come up with some excuse. There wouldn’t be any friends or relatives to share the joy of the season. We’d miss a lot of parties and good times. What if we got suck in a blizzard? Could we afford it?

“You worry too much,” he said now. “We survived the Blizzard of ’77, didn’t we? As far as parties go, they’re always the same. We can invite people to join us for some skiing, and yes, we can afford it.”

“But—“ I saw his eyes. He really wanted this.

“All right,” I sighed. But my heart wasn’t in it.

The kids didn’t share my discomfort. Skiers all, they were ecstatic about the chance to schuss to their hearts’ content. I’d given up the sport many years ago. So, while they gleefully put their gear in order, I shopped for Christmas gifts and packed warm clothes for everyone.

The first sight of our new abode brought back memories of Heidi. Perched halfway up a hill off a dirt road, its triangular roof was already decorated with Christmas lights. Behind it rose a small forest of evergreen. As soon as everything was unloaded, Pat, with the owner’s permission, sent the kids up to cut one of the pine saplings. They went about it with a pioneering spirit and soon returned with an acceptable specimen. They stuck the tree into a hole bored into a log and promptly decorated it with ornaments, lights, and tinsel provided by the chalet owner. The rest of the day was spent staking out claims to bedrooms and settling in.

The next morning, Christmas Eve, Pat and I took a leisurely stroll down the main highway to the tiny village in the valley. The sun was unseasonably warm. As we passed the local ski resort, it was evident the weather was not, at this point anyway, about to accommodate the skiers.

But it occurred to me, suddenly, that this Christmas Eve was different from the many that had preceded it. It was peaceful, for one thing. There was no last minute tearing around for forgotten items, no phones ringing, no visitors dropping in. The family was together. And it felt absolutely wonderful.

After supper that evening, rain began to fall. Rain on Christmas Eve? We refused to let it dampen our spirits. We sat around chatting and ignored the slanting streaks of water on the windows. Finally, around ten o’clock, someone brought up the fact that we had a custom of everyone opening one gift on Christmas Eve.

“You two go first,” the kids cried. They’d evidently chipped in and bought us something special. What could it be?

Matching red long johns, that was what.

They wanted a fashion show. Our protests availed us nothing. Pat and I retired to our room and reappeared looking like a couple of middle-aged Santa clones.
In a sudden bust of what could only be called idiocy, Pat grabbed my hand. “We need to do a snow dance!” he yelled.

We pranced and capered in front of our giggling offspring, Pat bellowing out whoops and mysterious incantations.


“Look!” We followed Anne’s pointing finger up to where the spotlight on the peak showed a distinct flurry of white outside. “It’s snowing! You did it, Dad!”
There’d be no living with him now, I mused, although the sight of the falling flakes somehow put the final touch on the evening.

But it wasn’t over yet. The kids wanted to go out. A mad dash for coats, boots, and mittens ensued.

Down the drive and onto the whitening road we trooped, Barry leading the way with an old-fashioned kerosene lantern he’d dredged up in the basement. We held hands, took long, running slides along the slippery ground, and belted out a raucous rendition of Let it Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow. The surrounding countryside was dark. If anyone objected to our bellowing, there was no sign of it.

Earlier in the day, the boys had scouted out a hill across the road and it was there they led us. We climbed a short path through brittle stalks of summer’s weeds, the glow of the lantern lighting the way. The further up we went, the quieter it became. The singing changed, too.

“The first Noel, the angels did say, was to certain poor shepherds. . .”

A chill ran through me. We did look like a band of shepherds high up on our little mountain. An arm went around my shoulders.” Look down there,” Pat whispered.
Below, the lighted chalets of the ski resort shone brightly through the falling snow. With a little imagination, one might have thought we were gazing upon the little town of Bethlehem.

At the crest of the hill, we stopped, out of breath, and sank down into the snow. A stillness descended, as if each of us was aware that we were experiencing something from another time. Two thousand years ago, the world lay asleep in the night, unaware of the miracle taking place in its midst. However, we needed no angel to appear with glad tidings. We knew full well what that supreme act of love had wrought.

Out of the silence, Barry’s clear tenor began:

“Silent night, holy night. . .”

Softly, the others joined in.

Pat hugged me. “We seem to have done a pretty good job with this bunch.”
I nodded, unable to speak for the lump in my throat. Like the shepherds of old, we had carried the news of God’s command: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” And down through the centuries, God’s gift was manifesting itself anew on that holiest of nights.

Other Christmases have come and gone, with traditional parties and gifts and goodwill. But never have I forgotten the beautiful sense of peace and joy that came in the stillness on that hillside, when we welcomed the birth of the Savior as we had never done before. In the hands of God’s love, we were all “home.”


We’ve already received our “I’m b-a-a-a-ck!” wake-up call from Old Man Winter, but Mother Nature was kind enough to give us a little reprieve so we could get out and deck the outside halls without numbing our fingers. Strands of broken and useless lights were replaced by new ones at our house. We should be pretty sparkly.

Even had the time and the temperature for one last paddle on the Upper Cuyahoga on Veterans Day. The scenery was vastly different from high summer, but had its own beauty, and a nice hint of wood smoke in the air.

One of the best Black Fridays we ever had was the day we handed out the advertising flyers from the newspaper to everyone at the breakfast table and tried to find the most useless Christmas present ever. It generated a lot of laughs. I can’t remember what won, but the electric nail polish dryer was in the running. Obviously, people have forgotten how to wave their hands.

Stepped out the front door the other day and a huge flock of Canada geese flew honking right over my head. Heading south, of course. Smart birds.

The kids are always asking what we want for Christmas. I have a philosophical problem with coming flat out and requesting certain things, but my resolve has crumbled in recent years. My previous system was to float ideas out throughout the year. Didn’t seem to work. Even I didn’t remember what they were half the time.

Love the seasonal arrivals—pomegranate, rutabaga, Clementines, chestnuts. And I’m eager to make my first pot of stew. Nothing like it on a cold evening.

We bought a new electric blanket. We like to sleep with the window cracked and that warm nest sure beats freezing cold sheets!

Despite the fact that stores have been playing Christmas songs for weeks, I’m waiting until after the great feast of Thanksgiving to start singing along. But just to get the ball rolling, here are a few you won’t find on anybody’s iPod:

Bring a torch, Jeanette Isabella,
Someone swiped my spotlight again . . .

Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle with good cheer.
The mailman’s bringing cards and gifts
So keep that mailbox clear.

God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay.
Remember those mosquitoes
Have finally gone away. . .

Snowplows we have heard on high,
Gently rumbling down the lane
And snow mountains to the sky
Give my back an awful pain.

Christmas is a’comin’, ‘tis the season of good will.
Please to put a dollar in the store clerk’s till.
If you haven’t got a dollar, a five or ten will do.
If you’re broke, they’ll send a basket and a “God bless you.”

I’ll be home for Christmas.
You can count on me.
Cleveland’s ice and blowing snow
Cut down the visibility. . .