December 2017


Yesterday on the way to pick up my daughter from her dad’s, I looked to the sidewalk on their street and saw my son, carrying a backpack and a bag I didn’t recognize, followed by his dad. I stopped and rolled down the window, and learned that my son was on his way home to NYC, off to the bus stop with his dad. I instinctively raised my hand to my mouth and blew him a kiss, and he returned the gesture, neither of us self-conscious enough to withhold this from his dad, though inside one of our houses this could not have happened.

Earlier in the day, I had heard from a new friend that he was spending the day with his eleven year old daughter, making art and cooking.

After dropping off my daughter at her retreat, I had considered visiting my old guy and his son before they both departed for other worlds, longterm. I wanted to give them each a hug and wish them well. He wanted time with his son. I demurred, and rather than driving west from the retreat center, I drove east, back to my drum circle, where I expected to be welcomed, and was, though unexpectedly our teacher had brought his daughter, another eleven year old spending part of the vacation with her dad. She drummed with us, exchanged knowing glances and smiles and giggles with her dad, and took time away to read her book, a novel that seemed so sophisticated for an eleven year old, something George Orwell, that she must have been reading it for homework, or awfully precocious. At the end of the drum circle, her dad got up and gave her a big kiss on her head, which she wiped off while bowing her head and smiling.

I thought when I got home and again this morning about eleven, about dads, about my friends in the Sharing Circle who have been incarcerated and who hold such tender hearts for their loved ones, children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, friends, about the men I’ve met on OkCupid since I started back at that, and how many of the conversations I’ve had have been about fathering, and the pleasure and challenges that brings to fathers of divorce or who don’t live with the mothers of their children, whether the children live with them part time or are grown and on their own. A few weeks ago I read an article in the New York Times about soccer games for children and their fathers in prisons in Italy, arranged by those who know the importance of fathers to their children, and play, and connection. Revolutionary and essential.

I think about all the dads I’ve known in my many years of teaching and caring for children and the depth of commitment so many of them have towards their children.

I’ve been reading A Gentleman in Moscow, slowly, intermittently. Today’s chapter just happened to include an incident when the main character finds himself in the role of father to a child who he’s been asked to care for by a young woman he’s known since she was a child. When the child in his care has a terrible fall, he feels the depth of connection of a true parent. I had been wanting to write this piece since last night. At the end of that chapter, I decided to start.

My own dad died when I was six, as I’ve written here many times. Lately I’ve found myself telling that story to strangers and trying to explain the experience and loss of my dad from my fifty one year old perspective. Recently, my sister sent me an e-mail from my mom’s brother in which he told her about watching my dad and his brothers playing basketball at their high school, about the grace of their running and dribbling. For some reason, that set my sister off. Neither of us knew my dad played basketball. My mom was nine years younger, so she probably never saw him play in high school, though her older brother did. My sister and I sure never did, though I loved watching basketball at my high school and had crushes on plenty of the players. There are so many things about my dad we’ll  never know. Hearing stories and studying other dads gives me clues.

This week, as often happens on holiday vacations, I had my kids for the first half and they’ve been with their dad the second half. I’d hoped to see my son for our traditional trip the the museum, for a meal or a walk before he headed back to New York. Last year his sister and brother and I drove him home on New Year’s Eve, spent the day walking and ended up at the MOMA, where I was able to buy him a membership for his birthday and get the rest of us in for five bucks each. Not this year, though the last thing he said to me was that I should come visit with his sister. I hope we will. The image of his dad smiling while walking him to the train and the three of us sharing that moment of happy/sad, our boy is here/our boy is gone, I’m home/I’m going back home transition reminded me of how this life I’m living works. My kids get a dad. I get time without them, which is sometimes a gift, though often sad.

Today I’m enjoying that time, sleeping late, reading on the couch from A Gentleman in Moscow, eating leftover banana bread I made for my middle son’s day after Christmas birthday, soon to eat pasta with the meatballs I made for my daughter’s Christmas birthday, listening to music from the last chapter of my book, Tchaikovsky, being quiet and still, resting, writing, things I haven’t done a lot of this last week of holidays and birthdays.

My kids have a dad. The drum teacher is spending his last day of their time this vacation with his daughter. The new friend is spending the rest of the week with his daughter. The old boyfriend and his son cleared out some of the son’s stuff from the attic and added more, negotiating a big life change and move for his son, leaving a piece of his life behind, before heading out on separate trips today.

I have a photo of my dad and mom and sister and me opposite me in the living room, which I pulled out when searching for something in the china cabinet, shared with my kids, and decided to keep out for the holidays. We were that small family once, for a very short time. My kids and their dad and I were a little family for a shorter time than is ideal. My kids are growing up and learning how to be in their dad’s house and my house and to figure out what home and family mean to them, how long they want to be here or there or off on their own, with friends, faraway.

At this time of year, time for reflection feels critical. The cold and snow and quiet and time alone today are just what I need. After a gray morning the sun has come out. My pasta must be cooked. Time for lunch. Enjoy your sense of dad, whoever he may be,  living, dead, imagined, a friend or relative, whoever looks after you and plays with you, whoever makes you smile and work hard and be strong in a loving sort of way.

Today is Christmas Eve. I have the blessing, and I use that word cautiously, rarely, of waking up with all three of my children sleeping in their beds, which, for longtime readers of this blog, and you know who you are and you are few, is one of the rarest, sweetest pleasures in my life.

Rather than start the day with Quaker Meeting, which has been my tradition of late on Sunday mornings, I slept in and am taking it easy while my kids snooze.

I replied to messages from two old friends who had written me nice, long messages for which I needed focus and my laptop to compose an adequate reply.

I showered and skipped my usual preferred morning routine when I have time, proprioceptive writing and yoga and meditation, in favor of another pleasure I indulge in mostly when my kids are home, puttering in the kitchen.

Today’s treat of choice is attempting to make my Grandma’s Christmas Cookies vegan so my daughter can enjoy them again. I have this little recipe on an index card which I copied from an index card of my grandma’s or my mom’s when I was young and heading off into the world and ready to begin making Christmas of my own. I wish I could take a photo and show you the card, but my blog has sent me too many messages saying I’m out of some sort of space and so I suspect I can no longer share photos here with you, sadly.

I’m letting the dough chill as I write. I should have made the dough last night. I was too busy out with my kids. First we dropped my daughter off for a lovely self-organized birthday party with five good gal friends, hosted by my daughter in Veggie Galaxy and then at the Somerville Theater, where they say Ladybird, a movie everyone has been telling my daughter and me we need to see, which we also saw over Thanksgiving with my son. Then my older son and I ran an errand before meeting my younger son for dinner at Shanghai Fresh, the delicious and affordable restaurant where my kids and Richard and I celebrated my 50th birthday last year, and whose food I have been craving. Then off to Whole Foods for ingredients for Vegan Meatballs and birthday raspberry sorbet to go with the vegan chocolate birthday cake we’ll share tomorrow evening with my mom and sister and her family and my kids in honor of my daughter’s Christmas birthday.

Tonight the kids will be with their dad and stepmom and I’ll be home, alone for the first time in my life on Christmas Eve. I’ll cook and bake and wrap and listen to music and maybe do the writing and yoga and meditation I didn’t do this morning, and then the kids will return to sleep in their beds another night, one of four we’ll share this vacation, more than we’ve shared in a long, long time, blessing, blessing.

Here is my best guess at how to make the cookies, vegan and old-fashioned Grandma style. Rest in peace, Grandma Petrie. She would be 111 if she had lived to January 6th, 2018 rather than leaving this world at 99 and 3/4 just before my 40th birthday.

Oh, what I would do to bake at her side again.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happiest of New Years.

Grandma’s Christmas Cookies, as written, as modified for vegans, and with tips from me for your baking pleasure and success

1/2 c. margarine (I normally use butter. This year, it’s Earth Balance)

1/2 c. sour milk (I add 1 to 2 tsp. lemon juice or white vinegar to a little less than a half cup of milk until the milk curdles, then top off with milk if it isn’t quite 1/2 cup, most years whole cow’s milk, this year, almond milk)

1 c. sugar

1 egg (this year I used egg substitute, purchased at the local Big Y out in Greenfield, available elsewhere, I’m sure.)

2 1/4 c. flour

1 round tsp. baking powder (measured as only a girl who’s watched her grandmother can)

1 tsp. vanilla

nutmeg (Grandma had her amount. The card doesn’t say, so I guess at somewhere under a quarter teaspoon.)

1 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. anise seed

1/2 tsp. salt

Cream shortening + sugar.

Add milk + eggs – beat.

add flour + vanilla + other ingred. (This is how I wrote it once upon a time. These days I add the vanilla before the dry ingredients and tend to mix the dry ingredients separately before adding to the wet, but it doesn’t seem to really matter.)

Roll out using plenty of flour – use 1/4 ” cookie cutters.

Bake 350 degrees.

Use plenty of shortening in frosting.

(So that needs translating! After mixing the batter, it is very, very sticky. I put it in a sealed container in the fridge and ideally leave it there overnight. Too late for that today, so we shall see. When rolling the dough, take out only small amounts at a time. Keep a pile of flour beside the rolling spot on the counter. Cover the counter and the rolling pin and your hands in flour, and begin rolling, turning the dough over once or twice as it expands, to prevent it from sticking to the counter. Dip cutters in flour pile before cutting dough.  I can’t remember if these need to be baked on a greased cookie sheet, so I either grease one or bake the cookies on a silicone silpat mat. As you can see, no baking time is indicated. I think it’s about 7 or 8 minutes. I just smell them when they are almost done and open the oven and I’m usually right. They should be lightly brown on the edges, and not wet looking in the middle.  They need to cool on a wire rack before you frost them.

To frost them, I mix powdered sugar with a bit of vanilla and butter/this year Earth Balance, and then slowly bring the frosting to spreadable consistency by adding milk/almond milk this year, a few drops at a time.

To frost and decorate, you have to do the process in alternation so the frosting doesn’t dry out before you add the decorations. It’s ideal to do this with your kids or your grandma or mom or sister or a friends. I just realized its been years, but that I used to very much enjoy baking ginger bread with my day care kids, teaching them as my grandmother and mother taught me, to make and work with the dough, and to enjoy the fruits/cookies of our labor. Maybe next year I’ll do that again. Its a lot of work, but it’s festive and we always enjoy working in the kitchen together.

Tonight I’ll make two batches of meatballs, one from the Betty Crocker cookbook my mom used when I was growing up, which I requested more than once on my own birthday, including my sixth, which is one of my last memories of time with my dad, and one from Martha Stewart my daughter found online after requesting vegan meatballs with spaghetti and sauce for her birthday. Great taste and great food are passed down, happiness in the making and the sharing and the eating for the holiday and birthday time we’ll be together.