PEELING POTATOES

It’s the Saturday after Thanksgiving and things around here have finally calmed down.

It all began Wednesday afternoon with the preparation for Thursday’s big dinner. The ingredients for the stuffing had been sautéed, the ‘first course’ soup bubbling on the stove. Pies baked and vegetables washed, the only thing left to do was peel the potatoes.

Peeling potatoes. If I have peeled one potato in my lifetime, I have peeled millions.

Being the oldest in an Irish house full of five children, we ate mashed potatoes every night. I mean every, single night, without fail. Sometimes mashed by hand, other times with the mixer, it was the secret ingredient for stretching the food budget for a limited but rambunctious family. My three sisters and my brother all had specific duties when it came to mealtime, but since I was the oldest and a girl, I was given the responsibility to peel the potatoes.

I actually looked forward to this job, since it gave me a sense of accomplishment. I became quite adept at de-skinning the spuds, whipping out a five pound bag in under five minutes. I also developed my trademark method of slicing the skins off quickly, handling the peeler by scraping away from me, rather than towards me, as was traditionally done.

Sitting on a stool in front of the kitchen garbage can, silver peeler held in my right hand, I would systematically turn and slice the potato held in my left until it stood white and naked, shimmering under the kitchen lights in all of its potato glory. The tip of the peeler swiftly dug out the eyes of the most stubborn interloper, creating craters envious of any man on the moon. Whether the snow fell silently on the ground or the rain slapped loudly against the kitchen window behind me, I sat there and peeled potatoes. The cool afternoon breezes of summer wafting through the screen door beside it, or the sun streaked beams of spring danced across the linoleum floor like an invited ballerina, I sat and peeled potatoes. It became a time of pondering, wondering and dreaming, long lasting and ever present in my memories.

I’ve noticed over the years the transition of the lowly potato peeler. From a slim and somewhat feminine looking piece of metal, it has become refined and bulked up into a black, thick handled Adonis. Handles which now have grips, so as to avoid the once common journey into the trash along with the skins, as the peeler became airborne once my pace picked up.

I’ve peeled potatoes during the greatest events in history, dragging the kitchen trash can into the living room to sit in front of the one television set we owned. As a young girl whose feet barely touched the ground, I sat on the couch and watched from the corner of my eye the sadness in my mother’s face as she watched President Kennedy’s coffin pass by Jackie and her children.

I sat in disbelief and watched the Challenger explode on that cold winter morning, while my own babies played on the floor, unaware of the changing of history at that moment.

I’ve sat in darker kitchens and peeled them silently, tears streaming down my face as I prayed for those who needed it and even those who didn’t.  

I’ve sat and peeled them while admonishing angry teenagers, angst filled voices screaming over the sound of the slap slap of the skins into the trash.  They yelled, I peeled.  They stamped their feet and slammed their bedroom doors, and still I peeled.  When I really wanted to throttle them, I peeled and peeled and peeled.

I’ve peeled potatoes as therapy, watching the skins pile up on the countertop as metaphors for the challenges in my life. Day after day, I would peel them away until they no longer had any power over me, becoming dark piles of yesterdays that went to the trash can outdoors and hauled away.

Countless mounds of white sustenance when all I could afford to eat as a single mother, they sustained me and those who needed me to stay healthy and strong. Even as my children grew and left to create families of their own, I peeled potatoes for one and was happy with the task of the day, a warm reminder that some things never change, that everything changes, and it was going to be all right.

Then suddenly, society’s outlook on the potato became slanted. They were now considered nuisance carbohydrates, adding unneeded pounds to those trying to lose weight. It was time for me to back away from my old friend, leaving behind my once trusted confidante and friend.

I didn’t peel a potato for nearly two years, freeing up my hands to do other chores at dinner, and finding other outlets to occupy my time. I always felt something was missed at mealtime and I was right.

Slowly and steadily, I worked the potato back into the menu, for I now had a welcome partner at the table and who enjoyed them as much as I did. It was if the world had been slightly askew, but now righted itself, with the return of mashed nirvana to my table.

Watching me grasp the peeler again in my right while I looked at the small mound of potatoes calling from the plastic bag on the counter, he gently touched my other hand and offered to start peeling.

“That’s okay.” I answered softly. “I like peeling potatoes. It’s what I do.”

I must have peeled my millionth potato this Thanksgiving week, and I can’t imagine starting the holiday doing anything else while anticipating peeling many more in the years to come.   Little faces now watch me curiously as Nana begins the afteroon again with getting ready for dinner, curious but not yet ready to assist in the duty.

When it finally is time to hand the peeler to someone else, I will sit back and watch with a smile, as the skins pile up on the countertop, signaling life continues on. I don’t think it can get much better than that.

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SECRET OF THE ROUX

With the arrival of another Thanksgiving dinner, I am reminded of how things have changed.

When I was a young mother with babies and cats, the preparation for the holiday seemed to take days. Scouring the newspaper ads for the various sales at the competing supermarkets was a week-long event, culminating with the Sunday paper and its Pandora’s box of colored flyers.

If I wasn’t already confused by week’s end, seeing the different prices for fresh cranberries and oranges, as well as bags of bread versus bagged ready made stuffing, I was close to the edge. Sweet potatoes or yams, mashed potatoes or baked, the choices were endless and daunting, but still, a lot of fun. Canned cranberry sauce vs. jellied? I could never decide, so I bought both. Corn, turnips, squash, I cooked it all and there was enough leftovers to feed an army.

Of course, the crowning glory was the turkey, with stuffing in it, around it, and behind it.

In my old neighborhood, no self-respecting mother would serve a store bought pie, but I always bought an apple pie to hide in the pantry, just in case my pumpkin pie was less than adequate. These were babies mind you, and if I smothered a “mistake” with whipped cream, no one was the wiser. But there were some people who kept score.

In fact, most imperfections could be hidden – dinner rolls whose bottoms were burnt could be cut off, creating “shorties.” Mashed potatoes too lumpy? Add more butter. Better yet, one could drown the whole feast in gravy.

Gravy, too, could be bought in a can or ripped from a package. I came from a long line of gravy makers, and my mother made the best. She knew how to make it, but didn’t know how to teach me. Her heart laid more in matters of the arts, creative on canvas and clay, but not in the kitchen.

My younger sister picked up cooking like a second language, and once she started talking, I was truly a foreigner.

So any time it came time to prepare a meal with gravy, my heart was heavy with the thought of messing it up once again. It was too watery, too gooey or too pasty. I tried and tried, but I just couldn’t get it. It invariably turned out lumpy and uneven, a metaphor for the life I was living, and trying not to notice.

Fast forward many years later, and although I had become more adept in the kitchen, gravies still intimidated me. As I entered a new stage in my life, with the addition of another family to add to my resume, I began to experiment with recipes and theories, both IN the kitchen and out.

I discovered the secret of the Roux.

To seasoned chefs in the kitchen, this may come as quite a surprise that I had never learned the mastery of a skill so simple. Roux. Butter, flour and pan drippings/juice from whatever you’re cooking.

As I had with so many other areas of my life over the years, I’ve had to practice, over and over and over again, the Roux. Blending and stirring the three together until they were one, the Roux must become invisible, immersed into the gravy without taste and texture.

Because just as the Roux is the foundation of any gravy, the substance you pour over your meal, so is the Roux of Life.

Love, tenderness and kindness make the Roux of a life one can be proud of. They have to be blended to form the perfect base. There will be lumps if you don’t have all three.

As with all the good things in my life, I have learned the secret of the Roux. My foundation is now secure and the recipe is complete. Everything else is gravy.

Learn to make a perfect Roux. You’ll never be sorry.

I hope whatever lumps you are trying to blend into your life, may you temper the stirring with patience, kindness and tolerance. I hope you have a wonderful and Happy Thanksgiving, now and forever.

SECOND FIDDLE

I’m not good at second fiddle
I have to be out in front
I’m not the kind who fakes it
I never learned to punt

I’m not that good at second string
I have to lead the way
I don’t know how to follow you
I never learned to play

So hold my hand as steadily
As you rosin up the bow
Teach me how to pluck the strings
That’s all I need to know

For when I sit and think about
The darkness of the night
The quiet times between the songs
My eyes don’t have the sight

For I never learned to see through pain
I haven’t got the knack
But shattered souls are gifts from God
‘Cos light shines through the cracks

No, I can’t stand for second fiddle
I have to sing the lead
So pick a song you silly one
And try some harmony

For you will be much happier
If I win this one for now
You can show me what to play
And I can show you how

NOVEMBER ROSES

It is becoming increasingly harder for both of us each time he goes out of town. The weather is growing colder and I am reminded I need to turn the heat up to warm this little house.

He misses me, and the dogs, and the life we’ve made together here on the lake.

I miss him not being here when I close my eyes at night and when I open them again each morning. I miss his loud booming voice, his big mouth, which is only surpassed by the size of his heart.

But most of all, I will miss the November roses.

We both understand what we signed on for, taking new directions and accepting new positions in life at this late stage in the game. We’re both in careers that are youth oriented, his more so than mine, and don’t take kindly to those seemingly just dropping in. The time is now, the moment fleeting. There are no second chances once the merry go round has begun.

At feeding times, the boys look up at me from their bowls as they slurp the last of the food from ceramic dishes. Their eyes search the kitchen, the once-around-the-parameter glance for which they are known, and question me silently, “Is he back yet?”

I don’t begrudge him his success and the fact that he has to be on the road to achieve it. He’s worked hard to get where he is, and we all reap the fruits of his labor. He is truly, gloriously happy. Sometimes I go with him, but often times I stay home to handle the day to day, plus tend to my own career, the kids and the mundane. It’s what I was made to do and I do it well.

This summer brought us unusually stormy and wet weather, and not much time for tending our gardens. We were surprised with the arrival of three shiny orange pumpkins that we pampered like houseguests who rolled the dice and decided to stay. They seemed to fertilize and energize everything around them.

The rose bushes given to us as wedding gifts four years ago (its seems so much longer!) have steadily grown and produced glorious blossoms. Even now, during these unseasonably warm first days of November, they stand straight in vases throughout the house, reminding me that he was here and will be home again, soon.

While the autumn leaves fall to the ground, a yellow and gold rustling carpet greets me as I open the door to view the lake. As the sunlight shines through the kitchen window, I know he is looking up at the same sun when opening his eyes, remembering the last of the November roses he left on the table for me, a promise of love and many more tomorrows.

AGREED DESTINATION

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The young woman sat across from the not-so-young woman.

Do you have any regrets?” she said suddenly.

They were finishing up eating their lunch and it was quiet since both had been very hungry. Not ready for conversation, it was a surprise and she nearly choked on her apple pie.

The not-so-young one put down her fork and looked off into space for a moment. The young one watched intently, trying to see if she could tell by her gestures, whether she was going to tell her the truth, what she really thought.

No” she said finally with finality, and then shoveled another piece of crust into her mouth.

“None.”

Really?” The young one was not convinced.

“Even after all that’s happened? How could you be so certain?”

The not-so-young one looked out the kitchen window and pondered the body of water before them. The waves were silent and the air was light, the water smooth and still, glassy and calm.

How to explain such realizations, such acceptance? she wondered to herself.

When will she realize sometimes the decisions are made for you and not by you?

The young one grew impatient, eating quicker and gulping her coffee. She shifted in her seat, but did not press for more information.

After a few more moments they both spied a row of ducks, slowly gliding across the water. One behind the other, they moved silently forward, all in unison and heading towards an agreed destination.

For a few moments they sat frozen as they watched the ducks take turns in leading, one moving ahead of the other, another one falling behind to let the new leader in.

Before long another duck decided to forge ahead, and they were quick to fill in the gaps left by their decision.

My life has been like the rhythm of those ducks,” the not-so-young said to the young one.

“Sometimes I have been the leader of my life, sometimes I have fallen to the back and let life lead me.  

Sometimes I would glide beside another’s life, and sometimes I would just let life carry me, not caring where it led. Every thing that has happened, was supposed to happen.”

The young one looked out towards the ducks, almost out of their view now, able to see the final flit of their tails before they blended in with the horizon.

You’re goofythe young one said with a smile.

Winking, the not-so-young one lifted up the last forkful of pie.

“Yeah, but it works for me and she stood up to signal lunch was over. She wondered when she would get it.

“Come again soon and don’t forget the bread.”

“For what?” The young one said as she walked towards the door.

You have to feed your ducksthe not-so-young one answered, finally smiling for real.

“You have to feed your ducks.”

Feed your ducks. Feed your life. Live.

 

 

A MESSAGE FROM SEN. MIKE NOZZOLIO

Beginning next April, a new state mandate will require every New Yorker to purchase new license plates over a two year period, whether they need one or not, at a cost of $25 per vehicle. The new plate requirement was included in the 2009-10 state budget enacted by Governor Paterson and New York City legislators now dictating State policy.

 I opposed this new requirement and voted against the state budget because the people in my district have made it clear that they are fed up with new taxes and fees. Now I am looking for your support.

 Cars are not a luxury for the residents of Upstate New York, as we do not have the same access to public transportation that Downstate residents enjoy. This New York City-driven tax hike is especially hurtful to Upstate, because people depend on their cars to get to work, go to school, shop and travel throughout their communities. This new license plate fee is in addition to the 25 percent increase in driver’s license and registration fees that were included in the budget and are already in place.

 Clearly, Upstate New Yorkers cannot afford more taxes. That is why I have started an online petition calling upon Governor Paterson and Senate President Malcolm Smith to repeal the outrageous new fees imposed on motorists. Please click here to visit my website and join the fight to eliminate the new motor vehicle taxes.

 At a time when families are struggling to make ends meet and businesses are forced to cut jobs or leave the state, Governor Paterson enacted a budget with $8.5 billion in new taxes and fees, including the license plate scheme, to pay for billions of dollars in new spending. The result of this spending binge is a $4 billion deficit.

 The taxes and spending have to stop. I encourage you to sign on to my petition drive to let the Governor know that enough is enough.

Sincerely,

Mike Nozzolio

NOVEMBER IN DOOLITTLE

The change of season was in full swing. The winds of November were upon the inhabitants of Doolittle, and although they felt no chill or briskness in the air, it was apparent to Emeline she was experiencing autumn in the Kingdom. She remembered back to when she was a child in the convent, where the Sisters of Mercy tended after her and held her close when she was lonely or afraid. She closed her eyes and memories of varied smells and aromas filled her nostrils, bringing to her mind the smoky remnants of burning leaves among the hay. It was a bittersweet memory.

Vespertine the Ladybug could see the change in the surroundings as well, but it did not affect her very much. Her underside was becoming soft and wooly, forming a winter coat she would need to protect her from the elements, should she travel over the footbridge with Emeline.

Shortly before Gasper the Great passed on, he appointed Vespertine as the aide and lookout for Emeline. A surprise to many in the Kingdom, she quickly proved her competence with her agility and flexibility when traveling. She could get into places where many of the other animals could not even think of going. She was very much an asset to the woman as they procured tears for the Tear Jar, standing atop her shoulder or whispering in her ear, or even sitting in her coat pocket as they filled the clay vessels. It was from such a journey they had just returned. She had proven herself beyond any question.

Most of the leaves from the oak trees had fallen to the ground, creating great carpets filled with red and yellow and brown flecks. She flitted from leaf to leaf, sipping the morning dew deposits with her tiny tongue. She looked up toward the horizon to see the flock of geese that had just flown overhead, honking their arrival and acknowledging her presence.

She thought of the Grey Goose, the Great Gaspar, who had instructed her in so many ways. She missed him dearly, and wondered how much longer they had to wait for his return. It was a secret she had been sworn to withhold from her beloved Emeline. She watched the woman who had ventured closer to the lake, and sighed inwardly while settling down amongst the grassy hill beneath a mighty sycamore tree.

“Soon, dear Emeline” she said dreamily as she dozed off to sleep. “You will see him again soon…”