December 2, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013, the old and the new

I have been lucky to grow up in a family that loved and celebrated the holidays and instilled in me a sense of the importance of traditions. My mom would work her tail off cooking, baking and entertaining family and friends--all while working full-time and raising three kids--and somehow made it look easy. And although I may not have shown my appreciation then, I now find myself wanting to do the same things for my family. When I have the energy. That is once or twice a year.

This year I hosted my husband's family at my house. Every year we do something different for Thanksgiving, sometimes spending it with friends, sometimes at my in-laws' cabin. I hadn't done Thanksgiving at our home in East Nashville ever (is that possible?) so it was high time.

This turkey tureen from the 50s? belonged to my mom. 
I had a lot of fun preparing, baking and cooking. Mostly the baking.

I admit it. I went a little crazy with the pies this year. Not that I don't always go a little crazy with the pies (last year I think I made 8) but my oven broke at the end of the summer and it took me two-and-a-half months to fix it. I, mistakenly it turns out, thought this was a sign that it was time to buy a new one. We are planning to remodel our kitchen fairly soon, so I started to do some research and look at options. Then I found out that the ovens of my dreams cost between three and five THOUSAND dollars. I called the repairman instead.

With my oven back in action, I had pent up baking energy that needed to be released just in time for Thanksgiving. Since I love to bake, I usually end up doing the pies. Plus, I was also doing the turkey and a few other things too, so I started planning early.

Following in my mom's footsteps (she was an extremely organized planner), I set out all the serving dishes two days before with a note on what would go in them. Before you start making fun of me, and believe me I know it's crazy -- I used to make fun of my mom for this--but I realize now why she did it. Not only is it fun and it gets you in the spirit, but it allows you to see what you have and what you still may need. And then I go thrift shopping to find it. For example, I needed a gravy boat and a coffee server and found both at Goodwill, along with some cool little glass bowls for cranberries and a glass dish for apps. Score.
Organization overload?

Cool thrifted vintage Pyrex coffee carafe.
I decided to try some new things instead of the old standards, like a collard green gratin that is sure to reappear in future years. I was also inspired by a beautiful spread on non-traditional Thanksgiving pies in the November 2013 issue of Saveur magazine. I decided to try three of them. I love trying new things, especially when it comes to baking.

Instead of pecan and pumpkin I made a chocolate-ginger-chess and a pumpkin-maple brulée (in the end, though, the brulée part never happened but it was still delicious).

My secret to pie dough is in the combination of shortening and butter-- and I do it in the food processor so it's fast. But chilling --both the dough before rolling for at least an hour and the crust, in the shell and crimped, for about 30 minutes-- is the single most important way to achieve a pretty-looking pie.
The salted caramel apple recipe (adapted by Saveur from Four-and-Twenty-Blackbirds in NY) was the perfect combination of sweet and salty, fruit and spices and called for a teaspoon of Angostura bitters added to the apples. At first I thought this was strange, but it was actually genius. I had never heard of that but I'll be adding it to all future apple desserts.

I love the lattice crust, even though it made me have to think too hard when putting it all together. After making and filling the pie, the recipe calls for making a caramel on the stove top (sugar, water, butter and heavy cream) and then pouring it over the apples. If you think "that's overkill" or "it's not worth the extra work," think again. It was amazing. Then brush the crust all over with an egg wash and sprinkle both sea salt and Demerara sugar over the top. It's a dramatic pie that tasted as good as it looks.

Some traditions are meant to be broken. I don't think I'll host Thanksgiving again next year (my mom used to do it every year). It's soooo much work and maybe I won't have as much time on my hands as I did this year. But I will probably bring the pies.

This little girl got her own personal pumpkin pie. She ate so much of it she got sick. Oops!

May 21, 2013

A new "big girl" room

Over the weekend I had one of my redecorating, rearranging, cleaning and organizing frenzies. I have them every once in a while and when it occurs, everyone better clear out because there is nothing stopping me.

I had been looking at pictures on this blog that I spend way too much time looking at. I have mixed feelings about decorating and home blogs. I like them because they help me to get inspired and I love looking at the way people decorate their homes. But I hate it because afterward it always gives me an unpleasantly anxious feeling that I need more stuff, more money and a better, bigger, nicer house.

When that happens, first I close the computer. Then I get to work. I love re-purposing and moving around the stuff I already have so it looks new and different. Sometimes I buy one or two small things to accessorize (I'm a big fan of getting new pillows), but mostly I pride myself in doing the change-ups without spending any money. And sometimes, I even get rid of stuff while I'm at it, which is a real bonus.

My first big project was the nursery three years ago --really a space that was going to be a walk-in closet before we found out I was pregnant. Daniel finished working on it a month before she was born, we painted it pale yellow and I decorated the whole thing for a few hundred bucks using mostly thrifted, garage sale and flea market items. It turned into a darling little room for her and I loved doing it.

Our house has been a work-in-progress since we bought it six years ago. We've remodeled two bathrooms plus added a wall of built-in closets in the bedroom and then, June's nursery. But it's a small, open, Craftsman style bungalow that presents many challenges since all the rooms basically connect to one another. There is not much of a sound barrier anywhere and not really a second bedroom, not ideal for families. Which is why I am constantly changing things and moving furniture around to make it work.

my sweet, hard-working husband
Now my baby is a little girl--soon to be three (sniff sniff)-- and she's been asking for a "bigger bed." She never really slept in her crib and when she was 20 mos. old we took it out and replaced it with a toddler bed. She loved that but lately I could hear her at night thrashing around and hitting the sides all the time. She was getting too big for it. Also, I would like for her to be able to get up on her own (she's an early bird) and just play with her toys or look at books for a bit before I have to get up. Yeah, right.

June's new room was our living room until recently, then it became her play room since not much could fit in her bedroom. Now I wanted to move her in there to sleep too. But I wanted it to be special and look different for her, even though my budget right now was about zero. And I didn't want to wait.

I got to work and moved everything around, got rid of a small couch that didn't get used in there, put away a bunch of toys that never got played with and generally cleaned and organized the space. Daniel had taken June to the zoo so I could work like mad without interruption. 

I had bought the old iron bed at the flea market a long time ago and it was up in the attic. I bought the bedding and pillow at Ikea a year ago. The cotton twill curtains were all thrift store finds.

 I made a little reading nook, and a space for drawing and painting in front of the window.  I used all the existing curtains but moved some around since I now had to cover the two french doors separating the room from our current living room (This should be interesting at night. I also just ordered a sound machine). The dresser was in the nursery (used to be changing table) and I switched out the drawer pulls for some pastel crystal ones. Good storage bins are key and I already had these. The rug was my single purchase --$10 on clearance at TJ Maxx.

After my day's work it turned out really cute and when June got home from the zoo she said "I love my new room!" The transition was a little rough for her the first night, and made me a little sad because my baby is growing up too fast, but change is good.

I still would like to move to a bigger house someday. But for now, we are fine in our little "spatially challenged" bungalow. It's cozy and I feel good about living simply and with less because our space forces us to do so. It curbs my shopping tendencies too. And I've gotten really good at sourcing great things at local yard sales, flea markets, antiques and junk shops. Daniel will tell you I'm no Mrs. Cheap. But still, I am pretty resourceful. And it just feels good to make do with what you have.

Next project: turning the old nursery into a fab new office/hideaway.

May 12, 2013

Happy Mother's Day

Dear Mom,

It's Mother's Day. It's been a wonderful day. This day used to be one I took for granted. Then, after you were gone, I hated it. Now I know what it means to be a mother and it fills me with great joy. But the sadness is still there too.

Sometimes I wonder how I can do it without you to guide the way.  Mixed with the joy of motherhood for me (and the joy is like none I've ever had), is always a sadness that you're not here to witness it, that you aren't here to be a grandmother to June and a model to me.

You'd be proud of me, though. I am a good mom, despite your poignant absence. That's not to say that I don't have moments when I feel tired or irritable or like I don't have the energy to get through another day with a headstrong girl who is way too much like her mother. There are moments when sadness overtakes the joy. But mostly these days with June have been some of the happiest of my life.

All the work you did has paid off in so many ways. You gave me so much in the 30 years I had with you, but nothing compares to the lessons I learned about how to be a good mother. It somehow got through to me, even without my knowing it.

I had no idea I would enjoy it so much. You were right. You always said you wanted 6 kids and while that was not to be, you gave everything to the three you had. I now understand that desire. While I in no way can imagine being a mom to that many, I get why you loved it so much and why a big family was so important to you.

I wish I'd done this earlier. Everyday I realize how lucky I was to have June when I did. Being an "older" mom has its advantages for sure, but had I known how much I would love it, I would have started a lot sooner. (I can see you saying "I told you so.") I would love to give June a sibling, but nature is not cooperating. I know you know how that feels. It's yet another thing I wish I could talk to you about.

June is such a special little girl. She is beautiful and bright and funny and curious about the world. She loves school and she is sensitive and emotional and when she kisses me on the cheek, there's nothing better.

I've told her about you--Grandma Marilyn. I've told her that you are no longer here, but that you are in our hearts and she repeats that to people. She loves looking at pictures of you, especially the one of you in your prom dress which she calls the "princess." I will continue to keep your memory alive so that she knows you existed. And I will always carry you in me so she will know you even though you're gone. She's like you in a lot of ways. You'd be happy to know that she loves dresses and dancing, princesses and weddings. She can't wait to take ballet classes when she turns 3. Sound familiar?

Today, as always, Mom, you are missed. You are my inspiration for how to be a mom. Happy Mother's Day.


March 6, 2013

When things fall apart...

Patsy and Paul Ramirez

Let's just say I come by it honestly. Patrocinio "Patsy" Ayala-Ramírez, my grandmother on my dad's side, was a feisty Mexican lady who endured economic hardships as an immigrant, domestic hardships as a wife and mother of four, social hardships as a divorcée at a time when most women didn't do that, and she always came out on top. At least in my eyes. I looked up to her. I miss her.

The stories in our family are many that involve one of us standing up for what is right or defending ourselves against people who are taking advantage or otherwise wronging us only to lose out on a job, a promotion, an opportunity, a friendship, but with our principles and pride intact.

My dad ended up in Las Vegas with his young family in tow in 1973 partly because of the great opportunities in a growing town, but also because he couldn't get another job in his hometown of Pueblo, Colo. He had been working for the city government on a program to help minorities land jobs, but when the jobs all seemed to be going to "other" candidates, he blew the whistle and was fired. He responded by promptly suing the city--and won. Thus, he was deemed a "trouble-maker" and unemployable. I could not be more proud of this story.

I don't know when I'll learn that people are fallible and don't always live up to my high expectations of them and that it's okay. Not only is it okay, but it's irrelevant. I don't have to fight every battle, right every wrong, vindicate myself on every issue or prove anything to anyone. Not even to myself.

I have had a tough set of challenges lately, seemingly coming at me from all angles--work, friends, frenemies. Whatever it is the universe is trying to teach me, I am either too dense to get the lesson or too stubborn to try.

But in order to wake up, I have to feel the short term pain of seeing myself doing this yucky thing in order to be free of it.

The above is a quote from one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Pema Chodron. I re-read her slight but heavy little book "When Things Fall Apart" about every two or three years. Why do things seem to always be falling apart in one way or another? Perhaps I am drawn to Buddhist teachers and thinkers because of its foundational tenet that life is full of suffering (samsara) and it's only our reaction to it that matters. This is so central to my experience. It never fails. I am always being faced with ways to keep learning this lesson.

Again, from Pema:

Really the question you have to ask yourself is: Do you want to spend your life making your habits and patterns stronger? Or do you want some kind of transformation to happen? — so that your strength and your confidence and your capacity to love and to care for people can begin to surface— you're not always blocking it. 

I want the latter. I really do. I want the transformation to happen. I want to take what I can from every negative experience or interaction with people to make myself better able to deal with those interactions in the future. I am not perfect. Far from it. I have too much of my granny and my dad's pride and principled, opinionated blood. But I wouldn't have it any other way. I know that my little girl is learning from me to be her own person, to know right from wrong, to stand up for herself (when she will inevitably be faced with adversity) and to be proud of herself and where she came from. She'll be a fiery one too, no doubt about it. She already is. But hopefully with a good dose of her daddy's equanimity and patience.

But sometimes I just wish things would be a little easier. I want to remember these early childhood years of hers which are so precious --free of any crap that may be going on in my life. I want to recommit to being with her and really interacting with her on her level, everyday, when time allows, and not just being distracted with whatever challenges may be going on in my life. This time flies by so fast. I want to cherish it more than I do when life just gets in the way.

On that note, here are some priceless words that have come out of my little fiery angel's mouth lately:

"You're a good mommy to me."

"You smell simply great."

(getting ready to go out in the cold) "Let's get all bungled up."

Me: "Can I come to the park with you?"  J: "No." Me: "Why?"  J: "Because I don't like you."

"I love you my best heart."

 And there it is. Right there. That is what my life is about right now and that is what I live for. Jobs and even friends will come and go. But my family will always be there for me. I am lucky to have so many people around me (including a strong network of friends) to support me when things get tough. And, taking the best and the worst from those who came before me, I can only do my best and do everything with honesty and integrity and not look back.


January 20, 2013

Wanted: more fun.

It is hard to believe January is almost over. So far 2013 has been a bit rough around the edges.

We rang in the new year in our p.j.s on the couch, not even feeling festive enough to watch the ball drop on t.v. I came down with a nasty cold and went to bed after sharing one glass of Prosecco with my husband and two friends who stopped by. It was about as uneventful as a New Year's Eve could be, bringing to mind the last couple of them since having a child, equally calm and starting to look like a trend. It's not like I long for the days of partying in bars (well, I wouldn't mind going back to the times I spent December 31st in a ski resort ) but, in general, life has become more staid and less fun. Thus, I am making a commitment to myself and to my family this year to have more FUN.

That being said, we are not off to a good start. The week before Christmas the Parents Day Out program where we had been sending June two days a week for the last year and a half simply imploded. Our beloved teacher got fired under murky circumstances and what had been a lack of confidence in the school's director turned into full-fledged incompetence. So I do what I usually do when faced with a crisis: look for a way to solve it and move on. We fortunately found June a spot at the Montessori school in our neighborhood and we were lucky that she just barely made both the age cutoff and the no diapers cutoff (Yay! potty trained!)

Uncle Chris came to visit us for Christmas
After what seemed like an interminable holiday break (and a nice, quiet Christmas) and much talking up and preparing for the new school, her start date of Jan. 14th finally arrived. She went for just half day as they like to phase in new students slowly. She came home, took a long nap and woke up with a fever. Bummed, but optimistic her little immune system would prevail, I put her to bed early thinking she would be fine to go by the next day. But she wasn't. And not the next day either. She was sick. We juggled staying home with her and working, trading off according to whom had what to do.

On top of it, it was as gloomy last week outside as it was inside. No sun, rain turning to freezing rain (what ever happened to snow??) and then more of the same. For five days straight. Or it could have been more. I lost count. And it seems everyone I know is sick. Sick kids, sick parents, sick dogs.

We are better now, thankfully.  Everyone's healthy and ready to start a new week. We have the lunch basket ready to go and we will try this new school thing again.

And, in other hopeful news, there's a new baby across the street who came three weeks early but he's healthy and strong and our friends are doing well. I've been cooking for them and doing their laundry this weekend as their house is inconveniently under construction and they have no washer and dryer. I love cooking for people when they need the help, especially when it involves a new baby. I've been doing a lot of that lately. Babies are everywhere in our circle of friends and neighbors. It makes me realize we live in a wonderful neighborhood where everyone knows and cares for each other and our kids will grow up being friends. There are other places I'd rather live sometimes, but I know we have a great community here, good friends and a lot to be thankful for.

I am hopeful for this new year and the fresh start it allows me. I'm very excited for this next phase for June too --starting a 'real' pre-school, in a class with older kids where she'll be challenged and hopefully supported and loved everyday. And even though we are starting pre-school a little earlier than planned, she's ready for the challenge.

I'm also relieved because she will go to school an extra day per week which will give me time to... breathe. And maybe go to the gym again, get healthy, get back to my writing, look for new horizons, meet a friend for coffee, the options seem endless. I'm giddy at the thought of having one partial day to myself --no work and no mothering. Ahhhhhh.

Daniel has some new possibilities to grow in his career this year too. And my job is changing, evolving... but I continue to like the place and the people I work for. Sometimes it's too much and it's hard to get everything done and still find the joy in doing it. I've been too busy lately to look up and figure out if I love it anymore or if I am just going through the motions, like an uninspired-robot-pastry chef. Or whether I am living up to my full potential for a satisfying career and the right balance of work and motherhood. I intend to figure that one out too.

It's unlike me, I know, but I feel pretty optimistic lately. And, although we have our ups and downs like most people, there is so much love in our little house. Since she's been sick June has been extra snuggly and affectionate. When she throws her little arms around my neck, gives me kisses and says "Mommy?" Yes. "I love you," I want to melt and cry and thank my lucky stars to be where I am today. I know I complain a lot and I am the worst at finding the grass is always greener somewhere else. And that's when I look up at the mantra I copied years ago that sits on my desk and repeat it: "Be happy with the life you're actually living." 

Happy new year and--let's have more fun!