Search This Blog

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Saturday In The Kitchen With Big Mar

Okay, so once or twice a year, I gather mass quantities of fresh vegetables, olives, pickles and tinned tuna, and head over to Big Mar's house to can our Northern Italian family's version of antipasto. Unlike more traditional fare, there are no lunch meats or cheeses, just the above ingredients in a tomato base that is a magical treat to the taste buds.

my beloved Big Mar: kitchen warrior

and now she's had enough of my
interwebs nonsense

The chopping and par-cooking and canning takes all goddamn day, but seeing the rows of jars stacked neatly on the shelf leaves me with a sense of satisfaction, not only for the yummy snack we'll devour throughout the winter months on the days I don't feel like cooking (read: nearly every damn day because I'm a LAZY SHIT), but also for the satisfaction of keeping this tradition alive another generation.

Besides the obvious consumable end-game, my favorite thing about this long-ass process is I get to spend quality one-on-one time with the woman who brought me aboard this roller coaster we call life. She may be 93, but she is full of élan.


i may not have inherited her elegance,
but i like to think i have her irreverence down pat

In spite of her physical trials, her spirit remains light, buoyant and a wee bit bawdy. She's an absolute joy to be around. Warm and welcoming, she thrives in social settings. Her big, full heart and infinite kindness envelopes everyone in her path. (Except for Uncle Fred who was a right-royal mean mother-scratcher asshole, but that's a story for another time.) There is literally ALWAYS room at her table for another place setting.

And fuck YEAH, can she cook. Unbelievable.

Big Mar is a shining example of how to enjoy the time one has on this spinning orb. She looks that bad boy in the face and says, "bring it, MoFo!"

And Holy CATS is she smart!! A voracious reader, she keeps up with ALL current events local, national or global. She puts me to shame. Had she been born in my generation, she could have been anything she wanted to be. And what she wanted to be was a Chemist. Sadly, her accident of birth placed her in a generation and financial circumstance that kept her goal out of reach. And yet, she is not the least bit bitter.

Nope. Not. One. Bit.

Instead, she chooses to focus on that which brings her happiness, namely her family, her friends and Steve Harvey. I am not even kidding about that last one. She LOOOOOVES Steve Harvey. That little fact cracks me the hell up. My sister, Toni and I aspire to be her when we grow up. We should be so lucky. She kicks ass at this living thang.

                   She bought this for Geo, because, C'MON! Even at 93, fart machines are fucking funny!

But I digress...

So, Saturday I go over to her homestead for Canning-Fest and find her in the kitchen, mixing up fruit cakes, a CD of 40s music cranked to 11, doing her little old lady shuffle dance, and singing like a boss.

Throughout the afternoon while we waited for the veggies to cook, she told me stories of my Dad's antics including the one in which he fleeced four grand from fellow soldiers on the boat home from the war. He later blew it all on a bus trip across the country to see his brother in San Diego. A trip which included a couple days dalliance with a little filly he met in Indiana.

soldier boy

This all happened before they met. He had seen horrible things during his three years abroad. I get that all he wanted was to distance himself from the war with a little comfort from the embrace of the open road, a bottle of whiskey and a random, healthy female. It's so crazy to think of your parents as 20-somethings, adrift and acting like, well … 20-somethings.

Big Mar's musical heartthrob 

lighten the eyes to blue, add a little scruff and a mole…

At one point we put Jack Jones on the player, and I wrapped my arms around her shrunken little frame while we danced to her favorite song. Jack is totally her Rhett Miller. She likes to tease me about my obsession with the blue-eyed lovely one, but guess what?

I said... GUESS WHAT?

(this is where you say, WHAT, muthafucka?)

I FINALLY got her to admit that SHE would have followed Mr. Jones around the country, too if she had the chance.


I know my time with my beloved Big Mar is limited, although not so limited that she can't buy green bananas, if you get my drift. There's still a lot of life left in her, but it's more tangibly finite with each passing year. I know someday her Energizer Bunny battery is just going to wear out, which makes these afternoons all the more precious. I'll take days like this as long as I can.

And who knows, maybe one day when my 5'8" frame has shrunken with age and my hearing is diminished, I'll be in my kitchen, elbow-deep in antipasto, Rhett Miller and Old 97's cranked to 11, singing and dancing with my niece, telling scandalous stories and passing on this tradition to the next generation just like my Mum.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Godspeed, Baba

I knew when I saw Geo's cell number pop up on the Caller ID that something was horribly amiss. He could only manage to say my name... and then the flood of tears came.

His mother had passed away.

Do you know how tough it is to witness your strong spouse crumble? It's heartbreaking to watch his heart break.

The thing is, none of us expected Stancy to ever be able to live in her home again, but no one thought we'd be saying goodbye to her so soon. I touched briefly upon her travails earlier this summer. She had been doing somewhat better over the last few weeks, but her C-Diff flared up again, and I believe she just decided to call it day. She passed peacefully in the presence of her oldest. On her own terms.

Good for her.

Stancy didn't  have an ideal marriage. Out of the turbulence, she raised four wonderful men, the third of whom I will be forever in her debt. For over 30 years I had the privilege to be Stancy's daughter-in-law. I wasn't always the most attentive, caring or thoughtful daughter-in-law, but I like to think we loved each other in our own special way. She was a good person, who did the best she could with the circumstances she was given.

Her smile was bright, her heart was huge and her devotion to the Pirates was infinite. She knew more about baseball than most announcers. In her youth, she played the game in her small hometown north of Pittsburgh. A rarity for a woman of her generation. On a whim, she and a girlfriend would hop in her car and drive the couple hours to Oakland to pony up two bucks to watch her beloved Bucs battle against a rival club. Her unwavering dedication over the past dismal 22 years paid off. Stancy finally got to see not one, but TWO winning seasons. She never gave up on them. EVER.

She also was a wicked good baker, sharp as a tack and enjoyed sarcasm. She loveLoveLOVED Vince Gill (none of those other "fake country acts"), homemade cheesecake and did I mention the Pirates? But mostly she loved her family unconditionally, especially her delightful grandchildren who called her Baba.

Alex was her buddy
these two were two peas in a pod

many years ago with all her treasured offsprings' offspring

the unmitigated joy in her face while holding
her grandson, Matt says it all

I'm not going to lie, Orthodox funerals are rough. If you aren't depressed when you enter, you're desperately clutching for Xanax afterwards. The dirge-like chanting, repetition and incessant incense just magnifies the sorrow.

And oh my goodness, the poor kids. They were devastated by the service. This was their first loss of a significant family member. It's difficult enough as an adult to process the magnitude of what's happening, but as a young adult, it's unfathomable.

We all rallied around each other during the grueling ceremony, holding on while the tears flowed. And as the priest gave Stancy absolution, the eternal flame, which never goes out... extinguished. And her spirit was gone.

Side Note: Sitting beneath the vividly painted icons of Saints and Deity, amidst the rhythmic chanting, my mind began wandering about subjects like the physical act of dying, spirituality and the inevitable departure of my beloved Big Mar. My eyes focused on the icon of the Virgin Mary, and honest to God a joke popped into my head. You know, the one about St. Peter turning an unsavory person away at the Pearly Gates, only to have Jesus encounter the same man in Heaven moments later. Perplexed, Jesus asks how he got inside. The man replies, "your Mom let me in the back door." And I realized, OMG, that's my Mom! She's the non judgmental soul, welcoming everyone in through the back door with open arms, a hearty laugh and big ass table full of food. She IS that joke. I don't mean to sound disrespectful and callous, but what a wonderful gift it is to embody that punch line. It made me smile during a difficult moment.

In contrast to her somber final send off, the viewing could not have been more lovely. It was more like a get-together than a viewing. The space itself was warm and homey. There was a nice steady flow of visitors throughout the five-hour block. People were eating pizza (Stancy's favorite), cookies and pizzelles.

Stancy would have loved it.

There was laughter and storytelling and comic relief when the kneeler broke. I am not making this up. At one point Geo's brother, Mark had the kneeler up on one end tightening the bolt, while his other brother, the priest dressed in full cassock, was wielding a red monkey wrench. All of this happening in front of the casket. It was hysterical and unorthodox and his Mom would have LOVED that, too!

Father Bob wielding the Holy Handwrench

and yes, i am THAT person who snaps a photo at a funeral
but, c'mon! it's funny

Fortunately, Robert ditched the wrench before the Parastas began, because THAT could have been painful…

In the name of the Fath--OUCH, Son and Holy Ghost. In the name of the Fath--OUCH!, Son and Holy Ghost. In the name of the Fath--OUCH! Son and Holy Ghost...

In these difficult times, comfort comes from the strangest places. After all our extended family made their way home from the repast luncheon, I decided to go to Night of the Singing Dead, because after a week of mourning, a good, strong dose of stupid-funny was in order. Two thirds of the way through, one of the characters stopped in the middle of his bit to say no one is really gone if they've touched your  life. They live on forever in your heart.

I like to think Stancy's watching over us up there, talking baseball stats with Bob Prince, playing catch with Roberto and baking pasca with her Mom and sister.

Godspeed, Baba. Thank you for your wisdom, your humor and your spirit. You will forever be in our hearts.