Thanks for Caring

deckNew England has been hammered with heavy snow and frigid temperatures for the past several weeks. Boston has been practically shut down and even New Hampshire, where snowy winters and subzero temperatures are common, has been challenged by the relentless cold and drifting snow.

After the fourth blizzard in as many weekends, I woke Monday morning and checked the news for the  temperature.  It was five below zero with wind chills at least four times as cold.  After a hot shower and two cups of coffee, I layered a scarf under my coat, pulled on my boots and trudged through the snow to my car.   It reluctantly but thankfully started, and shivering all the while, I drove to work.  The parking lot at work looked like something from a science fiction movie, with twelve-foot snowbanks and snow-covered paths.   Trying to ignore the wind that bit at my face, I locked my car and hurried into the shelter of the building, where I bumped into the smiling face of one of my coworkers.

He is a favorite of almost every employee where I work.  He is in his early twenties, with spiky red hair and a perpetual grin.  He comes from Project Search, a program that places high school graduates with developmental challenges in the workplace.  He has been at my workplace for several years, and often stops at my office to chat. He tells me his favorite video games and the movies he’s watched over the weekend.  He asks my favorite football team and laughs at me when I admit to not knowing how a fantasy team works.  I know he usually walks to work and back, even though he lives a couple of miles away.

“Are you walking home today?” I asked, concerned about the subzero wind chill.

“Nope.”  My dad drove me here and he’s picking me up.”  He replied.

“Great.  Have a good day,” I smiled, and started for the elevator.

Right before the door closed, I heard his voice, “Thanks for caring.”

Thanks for caring.

I’ve thought about this all week.   How often do we say thanks for caring?  How often does someone say it to us?  And, is caring such an anomaly that it deserves special recognition?

It was by watching my mother that I learned that acts of caring are generally free, but their value is more precious than gold.  She was one of the most caring people I have ever met.  She checked in on the neighbors during storms.  She baked bread and mended clothes for people at work.  It was a rare dinner when there was not an extra place set for a visitor. And she was never too busy to offer coffee and sympathy to someone who was sad, or hurt or just needed an ear.  She always took time for a hug.  She never walked past a stranger without smiling a hello.  She stayed up late when her eyes were heavy with fatigue to finish sewing a costume or a dress that was needed the next morning.

When she became ill, Mom gave me a list of people to contact for her.  She asked me to write letters she was too weak to write by herself. They were letters of kindness that expressed her regret of a moment of carelessness, a word of encouragement, a gentle and final farewell.  And the night she passed away, she took a long look at me and said, “I’m worried about you.”

“Me?  Why?  I’m fine!” I replied, hiding the fear that the lump in my throat would choke the very life from me.

“You’re all alone,” she stated, her eyes filling with tears.  We didn’t speak of the real truth.  Where my siblings had their elderly-handsspouses, I was divorced.  Alone.  She knew she wouldn’t be there to comfort me, to guide me, to help me bear the sorrow in the days to come.

“I’m fine,” I lied.  “I have wonderful family and friends.  I’m never alone.”

Her gaze relaxed and she smiled.  Releasing her from her responsibility was the last gift I could give her.

You taught me well, Mom.  Thanks for caring.

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The First Snow

This morning I woke to find the season’s first blanket of snow on the ground outside my window.  I had anticipated the storm and even prepared for it.  Indeed, just yesterday I climbed the stairs to the attic in search of my snow brush and a shovel, and smiled at the irony of finding them next to my beach chairs and umbrella. 

As I pushed the wet heavy snow from my car windshield, I realized that my heart still quickens when the first  snow of winter falls from the night sky, glistening in the street lights and covering the black pavement like baby powder.  I still think that the first snow has some magical qualities.  And as I do every year, I remembered the day I snuck snow into Elizabeth’s hospital room.

She was eight years old, painfully thin, with sunken cheeks and huge eyes.  For years, her symptoms had baffled her doctors. We knew something was wrong.  We just did not know its name, and without a name, nobody knew how to treat her.  Finally, her symptoms became so invasive that her doctor admitted her to the medical center for a week of testing.

I knew the testing would be difficult. She would have an IV and an A line inserted. She would have blood tests every hour or so.  We would recount her story to multiple medical students, doctors and nurses.  She would be allowed not food or drink for thirty-six hours, or until her blood sugar made a drastic drop.  She would be exhausted and hungry and nauseated.  And she would not understand.

The first several hours after her admission went quickly.  The staff at the medical center gave great pediatric care, and made my daughter as comfortable as possible. But as the hours passed and she was moved into the PICU-Pediatric Intensive Care Unit- she grew hungry and irritable.  Not wanting to leave her, I waited until early evening when she drifted into an uneasy sleep before sneaking off to the hospital cafeteria for a quick bowl of soup.  On the way back to the PICU I heard someone mention that it was supposed to snow.

When I reached Elizabeth, she was awake.  “Where were you?” she asked.  “Why did you leave me?  I’m hungry.  Can’t you get me something to eat?”  Her big eyes filled with tears that rolled down her pale cheeks and splashed on her bed sheets. I gathered her in my arms, wrapped her in her favorite blanket and walked through the PICU, softly singing to her until she fell asleep. I sat by her bed until dawn broke.  As the sky turned from black to gray to white, I realized the snow had fallen, just as predicted.

When Elizabeth woke, she was listless and quiet.  She lay in her bed and stared at the wall, too nauseated to watch television or play.  She didn’t want me to read to her.  She didn’t want to play with “Diarrhea Doggie”- the stuffed puppy named by an intern to make her giggle in naughty glee.  She didn’t want her back rubbed.  And when I told her I was going to leave the PICU for a short time, she didn’t protest.  She just lay in silent resignation. 

I hurried to the cafeteria for breakfast, but found I was only able to swallow half a cup of coffee.  I felt alone, and bewildered and ineffective at making things right for my precious little girl.  Tears burned at my eyes, and I knew it was only a matter of moments before they would spill down my face betraying my silent worry.  Needing a place to collect myself, I made a beeline for the parking lot and sat shivering and sobbing in my freezing car.  I cried and prayed and then cried some more.  Finally, I dried my eyes, and looked at myself in the rear view mirror.  I looked almost as bad as Elizabeth.  My eyes were sunken and red rimmed from tears and lack of sleep.  My hair was messy and my clothes were wrinkled.  I clearly needed something to lift my spirits and more importantly, lift Elizabeth’s.

Getting out of the car, I absently dragged my hand across the window and realized how sticky the snow was.   “Great for snowmen,” I thought, and wondered if Abby and Gabe were playing in the white stuff on their way to the bus.  Snow brings out the fun in all of us- especially the first snow of winter.

And then I had a thought.  I hurriedly packed together a large snowball and placed it in my jacket pocket.  Then I went straight to the PICU.  Elizabeth was still awake, her eyes staring ahead, looking at everything, looking at nothing. 

“I have a present for you!” I exclaimed, and she turned my way.  I carefully drew the snowball from my pocket, not sure how the nearby nurses would react if they noticed. 

Elizabeth’s eyes widened and a smile came to her lips.  “A snowball?  Here?” 

“All for you.   It’s the first snow of winter- magic snow!” 

She took the snowball and held it in her hand for a few moments.  It began to drip on her covers and she placed it in the plastic water cup by her bed.  She grinned at me and laid back, her now sparkling eyes still on the melting snowball. She watched it until it was nothing more than a small puddle in the bottom of the cup.  And although the  following hours were difficult and long, the spark in my daughter’s eye remained.  She managed to endure the rest of the testing, and subsequently received a diagnosis and a treatment plan.  And a few days later, I took her home, where she grew from a spirited skinny little girl to a spirited willowy young woman. 

This morning, I walked into work and heard people muttering about the mess they had to drive in, the slop on their sidewalks, the coating on their cars.  They complain.  They gripe.  And while they grumble, I smile, because I will always welcome the first magical snow of winter.

Momma G’s Bean Soup or How to Thaw the Gizzard of a Frozen New Englander

This winter has been particularly cold and snowy.   Today as I watch fresh snow drifting onto the banks outside my bedroom window I listen to the forecast- sub zero temperatures for most of the week.   I smile, thinking about the ways my parents worked to keep their family warm during the long Massachusetts winters.

The house where I grew up was a drafty old New Englander at the top of Dye House Hill.  On frigid winter nights, the wind would sneak through the cracks between the doors and their casings, blowing icy shivers down my neck.  My mother nailed moth-eaten woolen blankets over the doors in an effort to keep out the cold, and the cast iron radiators hissed and clanged, protesting the overtime.  We played a game of hide and seek with the sun, opening the window shades during the day to capture a little warmth from the pale January light, and closing them as soon as the drifts outside the window turned blue with shadow.

My father hung a thermometer outside the dining room window and at night he and I would shine a flashlight on its dial, watching the needle sink lower and lower, and announce to the family how many degrees below zero the temperature had fallen.   During winter storms, we watched snow pile in the backyard, occasionally measuring it with a yardstick borrowed from its home next to my mother’s sewing machine.

On frigid mornings my sisters and I laid our clothing on chugging radiators before slipping out of our flannel night gowns.  The aroma of fresh coffee lured us downstairs to the small kitchen that was my mother’s kingdom. There, the chill of winter was warmed by bowls of oatmeal and thick slabs of homemade toast slathered with melted butter.

My mother was not a gourmet cook, but she could take a few basic ingredients and make a feast that would fill the bellies of a family of ten.  On cold nights, her specialty was “Stone Soup,” named after one of our favorite folk tales.  The story goes like this:  Three hungry soldiers enter a village and finding nobody willing to give them food, fill a pot with water and stones in the village square.  As they light a fire under the pot, they explain to the villagers that they are making soup from a stone.   They convince the villagers that the soup would be even more delicious if they only had an onion, or a potato, or a cabbage.  One by one, the villagers volunteer a few vegetables, until a giant pot of delicious soup is created for all to share.   

My mom’s soup was much like stone soup in that she added whatever she could find from the refrigerator.  Leftover pot roast and potatoes that would normally serve two people could be stretched to feed a small army with a bit of broth and some onions, carrots, and parsnips.  Throw in a can of tomatoes and the rest of the corn from last night’s dinner, and the simmering pot would sing a tantalizing Siren’s song to a hungry family.  Homemade bread or muffins and a slice or two of cheese on the side would complete the meal.  A bowl of this hearty concoction thawed many frozen bellies that had been out delivering newspapers, or shoveling walks, or sliding on the hill beside Columbia Hall.

As a young mother on a tight budget, I learned to make my own soups.  I could get three meals from one chicken- roast chicken for Sunday dinner and chicken soup for Monday and Wednesday suppers.   Unlike other meals that require following someone else’s directions, there is freedom in making soup.  I could be as creative as I wanted, and the results were usually delicious.  I found that homemade soup not only nourished my family’s bodies, but also their souls.  Maybe it is the chopping and sautéing, or perhaps it is that my best soups are made while listening to Josh Groban, but I think making homemade soup is a labor of love and comfort food at its finest.

Recently, my daughter Elizabeth asked me for a recipe for soup.  Recipe?  How do you write, “A little of this, a little of that, add whatever you have in the refrigerator?”   I thought of my mother, and how I adapted her Stone Soup to create my own bean soup.  For all those readers shoveling, de-icing and cursing the wicked New England winter, here is Momma G’s Bean Soup.  Soup from a stone… Imagine that!

Momma G’s Bean Soup

What you need:

Large pot

3 cans of beans- black beans, kidney beans, black eyed peas…anything that looks appealing

2 stalks celery- cut into small chunks

2 carrots- cut into small coins

1 onion- diced

1/3 small cabbage- about 2 cups shredded

1 cup frozen corn

1 small jar of med heat salsa

1 can tomato sauce

1 can diced tomatoes (you can use the pre-seasoned ones, or southwestern style stewed tomatoes)

3-4 cans vegetable or beef broth

Ketchup (about ¼ cup)

Cajun seasoning (optional)

Oil

Heat oil in bottom of the pot and add onions, carrots and celery.  Cook until tender and add cabbage, tomato sauce, salsa and diced tomatoes.  Gently simmer until cabbage is soft and veggies are tender.  Drain all the beans and add to the pot.  Add broth one can at a time until the soup is the consistency you like.  Add ketchup and Cajun seasoning to taste (go easy on the Cajun seasoning- it will get spicier as it simmers.)  Once the soup has simmered about 20 minutes, add the frozen corn.  Simmer another 5-10 minutes and it’s done.  This freezes well, and should make a huge batch.

Snow Day

Today is a snow day.  The world outside my window is like a snow globe shaken so furiously that the flakes swim chaotically in all directions.  Plows struggle in a futile attempt to keep the roads clear.  Radio and television anchors read long lists of closures and children snuggle under their covers, languishing in the knowledge that school is cancelled.  Snow days.  I used to love them.

When I was a kid, we lived at the top of Dye House Hill, not far from the center of town.  Snow days were announced by five short blasts of the fire horn precisely at 7AM.  It was a joyful sound, signaling freedom from winter classrooms, and announcing to parents that they were in for a day of wet boots and snowsuits.

No matter how much I wanted to go back to sleep on a snow day, I could never do it. I was always too excited to pull on boots and snow pants, and be the first to make footprints in the deep white drifts outside the front door.  I would scoop a mitten full of fresh snow into my mouth, and pulling a rusty Flying Saucer behind me, head for the sloping driveway at Columbia Hall. 

For a young child, soaring down a hill of fresh snow is akin to flying.  There was magic in speeding downhill, nothing but white rushing toward me, splashes of ice freezing my lips and turning my cheeks crimson.  At the bottom of the hill I would roll onto my back where I would lie breathless, letting the flakes float from the sky to my face until I rose to climb the hill and prepare for another run.  Finally, when fatigue and chill overtook me, I ‘d trudge home again, where I would struggle to pull snow-filled boots from my frozen feet and hang my mittens to drip on the steaming cast iron radiators. My mother would put my cold hands under her arms to warm them, wrapping me in her soft arms and kissing my damp hair.  From the safety of my mother’s kitchen, I would watch as the storm gathered strength and covered the streets and houses until the world outside became strangely unfamiliar.  When the sun sank, the alabaster drifts turned to blue and I would shudder, glad for the glow created by my mother’s homemade bread, simmering soup and musical laughter.   And always, the next day, when at last the storm was over, there would be sun so brilliant it was blinding.

Today is a snow day.  The last several weeks were filled with dark, turbulent skies that threatened to toss my siblings and me over and over, like the wind before a blizzard.  The winds blew, and in facing the skies, our eyes streamed hot tears, our footing slipped and our chests ached from trying to breathe through the sobs.  We clung to each other, desperate to stand against the winds, but the winds came, and with the winds, came the snow.  It covered the pavement, covered the dried remains of grass in the front yard, and covered the familiar paths and roadways that led to our normal lives.  Nothing is the same.  Nothing is as it was. And tonight, as the sun slips below the horizon, the azure shadows threaten to steal what warmth is left in my heart.

But I am my mother’s child.  I push away the melancholy and remind myself that it even though it is covered with snow, I know the path home.  I know to follow the glow left behind by my mother, to simmer homemade soup on my own stove and to fill our home with laughter.  I will wrap my loved ones in my arms, and kiss their heads.  I will make our home safe and warm.  And tomorrow, when at last the storm is over, there will be sun so brilliant it is blinding.

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