Since our family tragedy, my mind has a tendency to race when I drive. Let’s put it this way, the average person has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts a day, but when I’m driving, 15 minutes or more down the road, probably a day’s worth of thoughts burst into my brain that amount to something likened to a hefty slice of the milky way.
I am beyond grateful that my daughter moved closer to home last August. So is she, because at the beginning of the month, as the world heralded in 2023, my daughter and her friends went on a long weekend escape, and I drove over 40-minute stretches one way for four days in a row to spend the day with her two fur baby rescue cats.
In my mind, the coming new year simply reinforced how the world continues to move on. In the revelers’ mental “crystal balls” they foresaw job promotions, reunions, trips, graduations and so many bright future possibilities. Over three years ago, I was part of this group. Now, I lack a crystal ball and determination. All I know is that it amounts to another lost year without my son. Another year in which I will strain a little bit harder to recall his deep voice, his silly smile, the way he glowed and his thick eyelashes fluttered when I assured him of his impending millionaire status by the time he turned 40.
Another year … another year … was my highway song this past New Year’s weekend.
“Did you stay up until midnight?” My daughter asked me in a text on the morning of January 1st.
I didn’t have the heart to inform her that, no, I was unloading laundry from the dryer at around midnight, trying to erase killer thoughts and staying to myself because I didn’t want to hinder anyone’s festive mood.
New Year’s Day evening rolled around, and I came home from the fur babies after a particularly disturbing exchange of “highway talk.” I sulked, sad and silent until I picked up my phone and saw an IM from my cousin in Ukraine, wishing me Happy New Year.
At first, I thought she contacted me for the sole reason of informing me of the arrival of the package. In actuality, she simply sent a wish: Happy New Year, my dear family.
No strings attached to her greeting. She didn’t receive the package, but she still cared enough to take the time out of her war-savaged world to wish me a happy New Year.
Now, I found something else to worry about. The package. Was it lost? Stolen? I mean, there is a war going on after all.
On January 2, I received the following IM:
I received your package today. I can’t express the joy of my children!!! I am very grateful to you for so many things!!! Everything is very good. one jacket was small for my son, and the boots were small for my daughter, everything else fit!!! I sincerely thank you, your friends. this is a very big help for me
Suddenly, 2023 came into full view by examining one sugar cube out of the big, bad bowl of unknowns.
Was I feeling better? Yes and no. I do best when I don’t judge ANY of my feelings, because my feelings remind me that I am a human being, a work in progress. Off or on the highway, it’s important for me to recognize the gravity of a situation and work through my feelings in order to move forward. NOTE: “Move forward” in this case does not mean “let go” of the grief because, as others have noted: we grieve because we love. (How lucky is that? LOL!) Moving forward, in this case, means to step through each day and be true to myself by allowing my feelings — whatever they are and for however long they exist. I consciously worked on this process for nearly 40 years, and what I’ve most definitely learned is that no one feeling will last forever (at least in my case). In addition, each and every time I sit with whatever feeling I am experiencing, I am stronger and more confident. The more I build myself up in this way, the less I have to tear others down. I am at peace in the world.
Feeling good all the time, FOR ME, is toxic positivity. It doesn’t work. I tried it in my early 20s and failed miserably. I remember when at 25 years old, I was out of control and a mess of emotions, because I always stuffed them behind a happy face. I couldn’t differentiate one emotion from another. How could I when I erased all my so-called negative feelings? My first newfound emotion was utter rage. (It makes sense to me now, because how else was I going to feel after having my identity robbed?) The day arrived when a mentor advised, “Embrace it. Embrace the rage.”
At first, I thought she was crazy. Then I decided I would try it. Day after day, I locked myself in the safety of my car and just hollered and screamed. That was my way to embrace the unwelcomed turbulence in my mind and before I knew it, it diminished in size and lost its demonic proportions. In other ways, over many years, I proceeded to deal and integrate other feelings and emotions. I embraced the pain. Embraced the sadness. Embraced the sorrow. Embraced everything else.
Before long, I could breathe normally again, and even learned to embrace the joy and the laughter, which I had felt guilty over. Suddenly I realized I could embrace the newness of a situation. Embrace the familiarity of old sheets, newly washed and calling for my tired body.
Mind you, embracing all this messy stuff wasn’t accomplished in a chronological or logical sense. I remember a lot of laughter while experiencing some of the most challenging, pent up feelings.
I consider myself fortunate in so many ways. Since I was 25, I learned how to embrace my messiness, because “my healers” embraced me during the process. I was never too messy to not be loved.
Maybe during the 1980s, folks were more in tune with their emotions. These days it seems no one wants to hear a sour puss or a sad puss or someone who isn’t happy and a great success through and through. Maybe it started with the inception of Fakebook when we lost our personal intimacy and human humility. Anyway, I’ve lost most of my early “healers” who loved every single bit of “the messy” I presented. I am grateful for their legacy, because it carries me and keeps me in balance.
“It’s okay,” I tell myself as I embrace what feels like but really isn’t the lowest of lowly emotions.
“It’s okay,” I tell myself when I feel I “shouldn’t” feel joy at a given moment, like when my grand fur babies are purring alongside me. “It’s okay,” I tell June, the deaf fur baby who chewed up my slippers. I can empathize with her anxiety. (Later, I found out it was Gemi who did it!)
“It’s okay,” I reiterate. (Before the tragedy I wouldn’t have been so understanding.)
I don’t need a crystal ball to see if it’s going to be another year of trials and tribulations, haunting memories and sorrow. It’s going to be up and down and all around, and with each passing day, I grow a day closer to the raw truth of my death. Even if I could have a crystal ball, I’d resist. Through it all, those wise owls that were once in my life gifted me with the priceless notion of faith. It’s made me into a big, bad mama, and I’ll take the ride flying solo, ‘cause I CAN, damn it. This is what I have learned. It is my proud culture pumping in my blood. In essence, I’m a born coward, yet biting the bullet, closing my eyes, taking baby steps into the landmine of life. I can do it, I can do it.Here I go, watch me.
One of my blogger buddies shared that self-motivation is tough and, obviously, that’s what it takes to blog on a regular basis. It’s even harder when there appears to be a lack of interest in the blog your write and, as a result, no or sparse comments. I can relate to why she feels that way. It can be scary to reveal your thoughts with the world. In return, it’s discouraging to feel like you’re not heard and people don’t listen to what you have to say.
Occasionally, I look at other blogs and marvel (with green eyes) over the thousands of followers and dozens of comments that each post attracts.
This concept is along the same lines as when my son, an adolescent at the time, cried out in defeat, “I’ll never be famous.”
No, he wouldn’t be famous. Not in the same vein as Justin Bieber or the Jonas Brothers. The reality is most of us are not famous or achieve an influencer status. Most of us just are. A close friend of mine, Father Francis Canavan from Fordham University, who passed in 2000, always taught me that being content with our mundane lives is a tough call for our ego to reconcile with. In our world of constant social media distractions, it is easy to feel we are missing out on the great life that everyone else is “Fakebooking” at the given moment.
We live in a society that celebrates beauty and success and encourages us to chase after it at all costs. Couple this phenomenon with an innate desire to be better, do better, and have more. It makes sense that when you tune into almost any news outlet for five minutes or less, it seems everything publicized is a punch fueled with greed, power and a lot of plastic surgery thrown in.
Don’t get me wrong, if these superficial things are floating someone’s boat, I’m all for it, but if outside impressions affect the silent majority, the “armchair onlooker,” to suffer in an unhealthy “I’m-a-nothing-compared-to-them” way, then the reaction can turn into toxicity and hurt them or, in its extreme, motivate them to turn against others or to resort to self-harm.
Of course, the antidote for ego deflation is to “live in the spiritual.” How? Who knows really what floats someone’s boat?
What provided me with some insight was watching a documentary on Mother Teresa this past Christmas Eve. I learned many things about this incredible woman, but the one that resonates with me is that she lived for 50 years, 50 YEARS feeling abandoned by God.
This state of abandonment is called “The Dark Night of the Soul,” and in Mother Teresa’s case, “The” night stayed with her for a total of 18,250 nights to be exact.
How did she forever change the world in such a profoundly positive way when she herself lived in despair? Certainly she did NOT allow herself to be guided by her dark feelings. She was, however, candid and wrote down her dark feelings and shared them to her own personal God and to a priest, who was also her mentor. Service, of course, was the glue in her life and later exulted her to a sainthood status.
Who, of course, would come close to exemplifying Mother Teresa? Certainly NOT me. After watching that wonderful documentary, I must say, my walk is lighter in my heavy-paired shoes. My faith is stronger and my hope is greater. In essence, I have a deeper understanding of how we really do matter in our own little ways.
And to that end, my son mattered to me. He mattered to Whitney, whom I spoke to on Christmas night. He mattered to a handful of incredible people who really loved him not only for his “worldly” facade (which was incredible!), but for the riches he left in all our hearts: his bright, inquisitive mind; compassionate heart and courage to go on for at least 16 years more than he could bear.
And, the same goes for my little, mundane life that I like so much in its own little way, because what elevates it to greatness is not my recent writing awards (although I am proud of them!), but of the special few people in my life who really, really love me. Who really, really matter to me.
A few of my friends, actually all of us, are aging faster than lightening. There is no other holier, loving gesture to me than looping my arm into a friend’s arm. Recently, for instance, my friend Camille and I were going into a Polish deli and, literally, strolled in arm and arm as if we were children, carefree; FREE AGAIN to just be the way we ARE.
“Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” — Mother Teresa
Camille did not need pierogies and, actually, doesn’t like them, but insisted that we go to a Polish deli she found on the internet a few days before the holiday, so I could get pierogies for Christmas Eve dinner, because the ones I hold dear to my heart “have to have pierogies for Christmas Eve,” and the Ukrainian church was too busy to make them this year due to the war. Pierogie is a type of food that originated in Eastern Europe and is now popular in the United States. It consists of a dough shell with a mixture of mashed potatoes, cheese, onions, and sometimes meat inside.
A few days after my deli visit, on Christmas Eve after church, the next one I strolled arm-in-arm-arm with was my friend Anna from childhood, who is having knee problems these days. She has been struggling with medical issues. It was hard to see her like this, and it felt good to be by her side during this tough time. It was good for both of us. Just for a moment, we were kids again in the same church where we were raised; laughing as we once did, standing on the same floor that has anchored us through these many years.
Now, in this rather fragmented blog post that will probably not attract many comments 🤣, what I’m trying to convey is that, in my opinion, it isn’t the NUMBERS and FAME of my blog so much that counts as it is those few special blog buddies that I’ve developed relationships with — from Preema and Anand in India to Judy in California and Alec in England and Ana and L. Hale and Cindy and Kathy and … wow … with such a tribe, I can go on and on, but I hope you know who you are. You, members of my blogging community, are the ones who truly matter, not thousands of nameless people who deep down really don’t care and wouldn’t go out of their way to buy pierogies for me, if given the chance on Christmas.
And, you see, that’s love. It’s the meaning BEHIND the words and thoughts. The people who love me this year, really, really were there on Christmas (symbolic of Christmases past). First and foremost, I name my daughter who goes to church for me most of all. (And I go mostly to honor my parents and to see Anna, my childhood friend.) The love also spun through the gifts I received: from Anne in New Mexico with her woolly socks that she probably went on a long, pain-in-the-butt peirogi kind of hunt to find, and my friend Michelle with her thoughtful “pain-in-the-butt pierogi kind of hunt” gifts and the same goes for my friend Hope, my daughter and the kid’s godmother and my fiance, who even took the time to wrap his gifts this year, and others who took the time because I matter in their lives. And, they, of course, matter to me and that’s why instead of scoping out something I like to eat, I’d rather go on my pain-in-the-butt pierogi kind of hunts for them.
So, at the end of the pierogi trail, as it turns out, the pierogies from the Polish deli that Camille and I found were not nearly as good as the pierogies from the Ukrainian church, but it’s the thought that counts.
And that’s what I want every single buddy blogger in the community to know: YOU MATTER TO ME. YOUR THOUGHTS COUNT! You fuel my steps throughout each year and get me out of my all mighty, egotistical self so I can manage to think of YOU and some of the things that surround your lives that I see as quite monumental and not at all mundane.
I wish all of you, dear blogger buddies, a wonderful New Year, filled with people who love you enough to take the time to find and buy you pierogies (even if they aren’t the best-tasting ones!) because the love behind the pain-in-the-butt pierogi hunt without fail brings home the prize. The batch may not be the best food you’ve ever tasted, but I promise, the meal will last a lifetime in your memory.
Last week, I promised to share another story this week about “Hope” and faith. My friend Hope, as I previously mentioned, also tops my angel list. She lives in the town next to ours and is a full-time working mother, dedicated wife and mom to three children ranging in ages from five to thirteen, or somewhere in that range. Since they grow up so fast it’s difficult to keep track!
She’s a professional social worker. Her dedication to service goes beyond the bounds of her profession and into her personal life as well. Her name “Hope” suits her. She is one person I know I can count on. Over three years ago, for instance, she, along with her husband and three children, were among a handful of people who participated in the walk my daughter and I organized to raise money for charity in honor of my son. Then at the end of the walk, we were a few hundred dollars short of our goal, and Hope donated the amount that pushed us forward to reach our goal. She showed me how joy could share a seat in a roomful of sorrow.
Anyway, about six weeks ago, I received an IM from my cousin Olya in Ukrainie, which, if you haven’t heard, is fighting a war against Russia, “hello dear Stacey…how are you? sorry for reaching out, but I want to ask if you can help me. I need clothes for the children and for myself. shoes, jackets, something. maybe someone can give some of their children’s clothes, maybe there is any help for Ukrainians in America. I don’t know if it’s expensive for you to send the parcel to Ukraine. but I’m just asking, I’m sorry if something is wrong. it’s very difficult now, it’s all very expensive for me.”
“.… there is not enough money for everything. if it is expensive to send me a parcel. then I will understand .. sorry for bothering you. thank you for the answer, hugs)”
Over these last three years, for no particular reason other than I am a fervent reader and love history, I’ve read a number of books pertaining to World War II. When Olya contacted me, I was reading the award-winning novel The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. The novel, which has been made into a movie, takes place first in 1939 when the Nazis invaded France. Below are a few highlights of the book’s description:
“ In love we find out who we want to be. In war we find out who we are.“
“… The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France — a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.”
At times I found the novel to be utterly intense (especially when it started to hit one o’clock in the morning!), and I forced myself to detach, albeit temporarily, and gave the novel a rest. Of course, the characters kept me company throughout the day, because I couldn’t stop thinking about them and how they were forced to face the atrocities of war.
Even if I wasn’t reading a war-related novel that made me more empathetic than I am, I’ve adhered to a set of practices and principles in my life and one of them states that I am responsible – when ANYONE, ANYWHERE reaches out for help.
Why? Because for well over three decades, I’ve been given examples to follow by some of the most incredible people, all ages and from all walks of life. They do not preach (please spare me!) but teach by example. Like Buddha (meaning awakened one or enlightened one), they are people of honor who are conscious of their actions. I always felt that my Big, Bad THANK YOU to these Big, Bad Buddhas was to fill their unmeasurable shoes and match their qualities as best as I possibly could.
SO, the goal formed, Mission: Pack and Ship Parcel to Ukraine to Sweet Cousin. The first challenge was to find out WHERE do I go to ship a package to Ukraine? It was brought to my attention that the senior center in my town was shipping packages to Ukraine. So that took care of that.
Next step was to figure out sizing, EUR versus U.S. At this point, the kid’s Godmother, Pat, my daughter and fiance were involved and we each turned up contradictory sizing research. Then things started to look clearer when Godmother Pat went to the shoe store and found (how simple!) that the boxes all have both EUR and U.S. sizes printed on them. She also bought a few pairs of shoes while she was there to add to a snowsuit and pants I ordered. How exciting finally to view the makings of a parcel, although we sure had a long way to go! And, I still had different clothes size charts to contend with.
Hope entered the picture when during a fierce rainstorm, she sent me a text message informing me that her electricity went out. I texted her back, “Hope electricity ⚡️ goes on soon. My poor cousin in Ukraine loses a lot too due to war….”
After a text message exchange, I told her about the parcel in the works and she replied,“I’d be happy to buy warm gear for the kids and adults if u have sizes.”
SIZES! Oh, boy! The clothes size dilemma restarted! In addition, I reiterated that she did not have to purchase new clothes because used clothes were perfectly acceptable and, actually, my cousin’s initial request.
Hope wrote, “Of course we want to help! U don’t think she’d want new clothes? I know she’s concerned about cost but we want them to have what they need ….”
In the interim, back to the drawing board, I tried to figure out the correct sizes. I contacted my cousin again, trying to convert sizes with her … we were getting closer to figuring out the right sizes for her family: My cousin; her husband who is working in Poland; her teenage son and her three and a half year old daughter.
Finally, it seemed we deduced the correct sizes, and I felt as if we hit the jackpot!
Hope shot me a text, “Boxes are on the way to ur house … hopefully both within the week.”
I thanked her and she said, “Happy to contribute! I can’t imagine not being able to keep my kids warm and well!”
While I was waiting for Hope’s deliveries, I ordered a few other things on our end, and the parcel was looking good.
Then Hope’s packages arrived and it resembled an early Christmas! I couldn’t believe the quality of the down jackets she ordered; plus, jars of vitamins and socks, socks, socks, not to mention a few toddler toys thrown in.
When I saw all the items, I couldn’t help but hear Whitney and Bradley’s faith-filled voices of affirmation and faith … “We’re already here.” That was the message through and through. I barely had to ask Hope for help and there she was already there, as was her track record.
Does it get more Christmas-y than this?
The story continues!
I ended up packing THREE different packages (I admire people who work in mail rooms) and delivered them to our town’s senior center only to discover that they weren’t sending packages to individual homes. Instead, they send donations to Ukraine as a common relief effort.
From there, I went to the post office, which was conveniently located near the senior center. I could ask, right? Mary, at the post office, weighed one of my three boxes just for the heck of it, and it turned out shipping charges totaled $150. Wow. By the time everything was calculated, I was looking at about $500 — if not more.
Fortunately, come to find out, the Ukrainian church where I’m a parishioner, ships packages every week. I didn’t know this information because I haven’t been actively attending services. Anyway, the people involved are a husband-wife team who volunteer to send packages to anyone residing in Ukraine. The priest gave me the contact information. I called the man, and he instructed me to come to the rectory at noon on the upcoming Sunday, and I followed his instructions.
After I arrived, the man and I decided that in order to save money, he would break up the contents of my three boxes and load them into one huge box that happened to be available in the small room that doubled as a mail room. I watched the man work diligently. He had huge hands, cracked fingernails and rough skin that only a man who works hard labor can claim. He said very little and reminded me so much of my father who passed away in 2000. In fact, he shares the same first name as my dad, Myron.
When the process was completed, the entire package cost what one package would have cost if I had sent it via the U.S. mail. In addition, the package’s expected delivery to my cousin is approximately two weeks.
When I returned home, I informed my cousin that her package was on its way. She responded, “I am sincerely grateful to you, and to everyone who helped you …. I am happy that I have a family, even though it is so far away. Thank you for your support in such a difficult time for us. Peace be with you and God’s blessings.”
I replied, “We are SO HAPPY to have all of you! Love you very much!!!”
In this case, expounding on what I wrote in my last blog post, “Family IS DNA (but still not necessarily just DNA)!”
We can all be a part of one Big, Bag Buddha Bunch, not divided by distance or culture, only united in the small time we have on earth.
As the year draws to a close, it is important to remember that there are only so many Christmases* on the calendar of life. This year, let’s shine forth our best Buddha.
Merry Christmas to all!
щасливого Різдва (Happy Holidays!) as we say in Ukrainian! Or, Христос народився! – Christ is born! In which we respond, Славімо його! (Let us Glorify Him!)
*Hanukkah; Kwanzaa … and whatever holiday you celebrate!
Probably the worst A-hole (excuse my expletive) topping my endless list, is Aunt, I’ll call her, “Jody.” “Aunt Jody” is my ex-husband’s mother’s sister who is semi-retired in Tennessee. Over three years ago around this time of year, my grief-stricken daughter and I discovered that Aunt Jody lived within the vicinity of my son’s last home in Kentucky.
Our plan was to fly into Nashville, sort through my deceased son’s belongings, attend his memorial service and drive his car back to my home in Connecticut. In light of the circumstances and to express solidarity, my ex-husband willingly offered us her contact information.
I sent Aunt Jody a text inviting her to my deceased son’s memorial service that was slated to be held at his place of employment during the week we were in Kentucky. I informed her that we understood if she was unable to attend and, in this case, would be grateful to meet her for a quick cup of coffee in order to connect.
The sole reason I contacted Aunt Jody was that I wanted to affirm to my daughter that she had roots. I have always maintained that strong roots bore healthy growth. From day one, that’s all I wanted for both my children: roots, family, a sense of belonging. However, as it transpired, both my children had minimal contact with their extended families. Ironically, one of the attractions that drew me to my then husband was his big, boisterous family that spanned the northeast and the midwest of the United States. I couldn’t wait to experience how it felt to be part of something so large. When my ex-husband’s grandparents, then in their eighties, and since long deceased, traveled from Michigan to Connecticut to attend our wedding in 1991, it reinforced everything I had ever dreamed of: unconditional love. After all, I was the one who wanted no less than six kids. To me the more family, the more love … and you can never have enough love, can you?
Anyway, over the years, my own family mostly died off and those who lived remained generally uninvolved. On the other hand, my ex-husband, as well as his family, totally abandoned my children at the end of 2010. In my ex’s case, he had suffered a mental breakdown. As far as the rest of his family, although there was no particular reason or a dramatic blow up, I inferred that they did not want an added burden or any drama in their lives. I get it – at least I tried to understand. (Over the years as I grew to know them, I thought up names that described them perfectly, Ice Queens and Ice Kings.)
There I was — my usual naive self — emailing invitations, calling, sending a note via U.S. mail to Aunt Jody. No response. So I kept at it. Finally, about a week prior to our dreaded trip to KY, I was in the car with my daughter and my phone lit up with her text message and I read it out loud.
“.… I thought the whole thing over and I don’t feel we really ever had any contact with each other before and I don’t see a reason for us to start that now …. “
“What else would you expect?” My daughter immediately responded. My daughter is a mental health professional, but the pain that sliced through her voice also tore through me.
What else would I expect? I’d expect her to sound as if she shared the same DNA as my daughter’s. I’d expect her to extend herself during the worst, most excruciating time of our lives. I’d expect her to empathize and to act on her so-called Christian principles and meet up with us to give us a hug in our sorrow. It is in sorrow we find strength. I’d expect her to represent the deeper meaning of Christmas. I did not even have the heart to reveal the outcome of his aunt’s response to my ex-husband; he never asked, because we, generally, do not communicate.
It may sound like it, but division is NOT the end of this story. Shortly after receiving the rejection in the text message from Aunt Jody, my daughter and I arrived in Nashville. While the world awaited Christmas, less than a week away, we held onto each other tight, painful and alone, separated by the incommunicable language of grief.
At the airport we rented a car and drove to our hotel in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The following day, we, out-of-town strangers, parked and exited our car on an empty road less than a block away from the sheriff’s department in a small town located about an hour outside of Nashville. We were early, and we defeated our unwillingness by dragging our feet toward the main entrance to begin the process of collecting my son’s remaining tangibles.
“I hope Whitney and Bradley get here,” I said to my daughter, my voice trembling, a sharp, bitter wind making me feel as if my tear-filled eyes would freeze. They were my son’s friends and co-workers who found my 26-year-old son dying in the closet and unsuccessfully tried to resuscitate him. The same young age as my son, they learned firsthand how trauma could fold into a day that started out as an ordinary Tuesday in which your thoughts already paint inside the lines the fun colors of the upcoming weekend. They were the couple whom we spoke to since the traumatic day unfolded, a month before. They had promised to meet us at the sheriff’s office.
What happened next was something really out of a movie. Two figures intercepted our route. “We’re already here.”
We’re already here. And there they stood before us: Whitney and Bradley; bringing us warmth like two hot mugs of cocoa on an unforgivingly frigid December day would. We embraced in a manner only family could.
Fast forward to today. I’ve been to the icy and snow covered barren place where no human being should roam and, especially when I’m feeling vulnerable, it’s always easy to take a mind trip and be sucked into a destination that freezes my heart and soul.
Instead, I’ve consciously trained myself to choose a detour. It is signaled by remembering Whitney and Bradley’s angelic, booming voices, “We’re already here.”
From there, I may still have the weight of the black hole over me, but I see my big feet making little strides to shuffle forward to the next right thing on the list.
Three Christmases ago, Whitney and Bradley gifted us with a Christmas miracle: From the time they said “We’re already here,” to the time we left, they never abandoned us and, instead, met every single one of our requests.
Now, let me say, I have an Angel list that counters my A-hole list. At the top of the list, of course, is Whitney and Bradley. I have others on the “A list.” Some of them are reading this blog post right at this minute! Every year at this time, I work hard to focus on my list, teeming with Angels that give me the faith to carry on.
Next week, I will share another story that I hope gives you hope in a world that sometimes can seem as if it’s being overrun by A-holes. It is the story of hope, and the main character’s real name IS Hope, and she also instills a faith in me that reminds me of the Christmas miracle that Whitney and Bradley bestowed on us, teaching us the significance of family and being fully present and available — as my daughter said when she was around seven years old and already understanding the environment around her, “Family isn’t just DNA.”
… Beans, beans, beautiful beans … this year, I hosted Thanksgiving Day dinner and beginning on the Sunday prior to the holiday, my kitchen was not only filled with the aroma of pinto beans, tomatoes, chili powder, cumin and a few other ingredients to create a streaming, steaming array of delicious pots of chili, but also an improvised melody of my singing – beans, beans, beautiful beans to a tune similar to “Skip to My Lou.”
If you live outside of Canada or America, you might not be aware that Thanksgiving’s traditional main dishes of roast turkey and/or baked ham are complemented by common, seasonal side dishes, such as stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, gravy, green beans, cornbread, squash, dinner rolls, cranberry sauce and for dessert, pumpkin pie. To serve chili on the holiday table is something akin to ladling out simmering chicken noodle soup on a hot summer’s day – it doesn’t quite fit.
The first Thanksgiving feast between the native Wampanoag and English settlers, Pilgrims, was in the fall of 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It’s likely it consisted of venison, fowl (geese and duck), corn, nuts and shellfish. The modern dish we know as chili, also known as chili con carne (chili with meat), comes much later on in American history. “It does appear to have roots in the American West, particularly the State of Texas. An old legend holds that immigrants from the Canary Islands brought a recipe for chili with them when they settled San Antonio in the early 1700s.”
Enough of the history lesson.
“Chili is not supposed to be part of the meal,” my fiance, a pure traditionalist engaged to a pure non-traditionalist, commented with a slightly bemused expression after he realized that my dinner plan was to serve three different versions of chili: spicy hot, mild and vegetarian.
“Well, it is now,” I replied and went back to cooking.
My sister-friend Anne gave me the idea of making chili for Thanksgiving after she sent me a large-sized ziploc bag of dried pinto beans from New Mexico, the state in which she resides, in the care package she sent this past November. They’ve been one of the consistent, individually wrapped gifts that she’s sent in her thoughtful parcels over these last three years. Sometimes she pens notes about the background information of each gift. For instance, she always writes that she travels forty-five minutes one-way to a farm (I don’t remember its name, but it’s a long German-sounding name) to purchase the dried pinto beans. That’s Anne. She packs every little bean of life with a mammoth punch of love.
There’s typically a separate package in each delivery marked “Stacy and Alex” for me and my daughter, as there was this year. Last month we unwrapped two silver angels, a small and large one, inside the recycled brown bag wrapping. Her accompanying note said they caught her view at one of her favorite greenhouses, and they had our names written all over it. All I can say is when you enter my living room, the focal point is the large silver-toned angel in the center of the fireplace’s mantle.
Anne might live across the country, but her creative powerhouse fuels our spirit and reminds us of the good in the world. In fact, in proximity to the silver-toned angel is a gold and pink-colored, three-inch acrylic dragonfly that she sent in her first package, a Christmas package, the tragic year in which we lost our North Star, Alex’s brother and my son. Sorrow blacked out our holiday, and Alex and I were unable to exchange any gifts. Anne’s individually wrapped goodies arrived via first-class mailing service. Inside, she paired the dragonfly with a blue-colored butterfly. On the attached note she explained that a dragonfly represents change, transformation and an understanding of the deeper meaning of life. The butterfly, on the other hand, she noted meant “hope.” To this day when I see the dragonfly in my living room, as well as the butterfly where I placed it in my garage, they give me a sense of faith.
In that particular holiday package were, of course, a large-sized ziploc bag of her “famous” beans .… Beans, beans, beautiful beans ….
Now, let me say one more thing about the darn New Mexico beans. You gotta soak them for days. And slow cook them for hours and hours and hours. Otherwise, they are crunchy. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to eating. I don’t want my beans to have the texture of potato chips. They really are a nuisance to cook. But in the end, it’s so worth it. The process reminds me of how unconditional love can be inconvenient. In the end, though, the chili made with the pinto beans are yummy each and every time, which may or may not be the result of the unconditional time and devotion you give to a human being. Either way, after undergoing the cooking challenge, I’m a better, more disciplined person because my behavior is a reflection of me. One thing certain after the beans are FINALLY cooked, the chili made, my exhausted self looks in the reflection of the mirror and says, “Damn, that was a good job. Stand tall. Stand proud.”
Additionally, in the package this year was a cutting of her fresh organic sage, direct from her garden. I added it to my TRADITIONAL stuffing, and EVERYONE said it was the best stuffing they ever tasted – and it was, thanks to Anne. So, this past Thanksgiving, Anne visited in her own special way, every time I served delicious stuffing and chili.
Almost every night, holidays included, I light one of my candles in Anne’s honor. I started the tradition after she kicked off the ritual for me and my family a little over three years ago during our tragic time. Although we live on opposite sides of the United States, she always feels close by like a woolly blanket.
Don’t kid yourself, love CAN be bought as long as it’s given unconditionally – gift wrap optional.
So, what’s the ins and outs of making a great chili bean recipe? A lot of patience if you get dried pinto beans from some faraway farm in New Mexico! No matter what you prefer, add a little cube of unsweetened baking chocolate. It balances out the spices in the dish and makes it rich and satisfying, much like a lifelong friendship.
Mild, Non-Vegetarian Chili 🌶️ made with Beautiful New Mexico Pinto Beans
(you can substitute your own dried or canned beans)
Dried or canned pinto beans, about a pound or a pound and a half, depending on how many beans you prefer in your chili
2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil; or non-stick cooking spray
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large sweet white onion, diced
2 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
3 small cans of tomato sauce
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 to 4 bay leaves, use less if they are large bay leaves
1 teaspoon parsley
1/4 teaspoon black pepper or cayenne pepper to taste
Squeeze of lime
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
a dash of pickle juice if you have a jar of pickles on hand (you heard it right!)
Unsweetened baking chocolate, 2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate baking bar
2 cans of evaporated milk
1 carton beef broth (you will use about half of it)
1 to 3 pounds of ground beef (depending on your preference)
Salt to taste
If you are using dried pinto beans, soak overnight in water with bay leaves. (With New Mexico bean, I soak them for a minimum of THREE nights and then quick boil before using them in the slow cooker.)
Place oil in a large skillet (I use my cast iron pan) and set to medium-high heat. When the oil glistens, add onions and cook for 2-3 minutes. Next, add garlic and cook for another minute.
Add spices and stir often so they won’t burn.
Turn up the heat to medium and add meat and brown. Once the meat is brown, stir in beans along with bay leaves. Cool. Add to slow cooker. Top with tomato sauce. After tomato sauce is emptied from cans, pour evaporated milk into tomato cans, swirl the liquid around and pour into slow cooker (I don’t waste anything.) Add beef broth as needed to keep chili moist but not too watery, and chocolate and stir, stir, stir. Squeeze the lime juice, add balsamic vinegar and, if you are a super creative cook adventurer, pickle juice. Slow cook at least eight hours. Freezes PERFECTLY, so you can enjoy it during the winter months; it will surely warm you up like a wooly blanket of friendship.