Every year, for as long as I can remember, Mom baked Easter bread. The loaves were perfectly braided and shone with a glossy finish. As they baked, the house filled with home sweet home aromas heralding spring.
Mom never cooked or baked small. There were five kids, a husband, and an extended family. She had to make at least a dozen Easter Bread loaves because everyone expected one, including her mother-in-law, who, although was a talented cook (my grandma could make frozen broccoli into a culinary masterpiece) did not excel in baking.
Bread baking was Mom’s specialty before the fad of bread makers and boxed mixes. Mom coaxed yeast, leveled grains, and figured out the perfect amount of raw honey to add. She stirred with the wooden spoon (the same spoon she threatened unruly children with) to create the most heavenly pumpernickel, honey white, whole wheat, and rye breads. Home-baked breads were a staple, like potatoes and pasta. There was nothing better than a slice of toasted honey white bread with jam for an afternoon snack.
A few days a week, Mom kneaded ingredients until they were thoroughly mixed and pulled from her fingers. She slapped the dough into a round mound, squeezed it into her grandmother’s wooden bowl, spread Crisco on the top and sides and covered it with a dish towel. My siblings and I could only watch. The dough rested and rose under a sunny window. By late afternoon, even loaves sat cooling on a cookie rack and the house waft of warmth and goodness. She spanked our hands away while we waited for Dad to come home.
Easter Bread, however, required extra work and patience. Mom had to scheme the bread baking and the egg coloring tradition efficiently. The recipe called for twenty-one eggs. Since egg salad and the smell of hard boiled eggs chased most family members from the house, coloring hard boiled eggs was a sinful waste. Instead, Mom poked a hole on the top and bottom of each egg and blew out the contents. The egg guts rushed into a bowl like an explosion of snot. After blowing five or six eggs, Mom would need a break, which gave my sisters, brother and I the opportunity to blow eggs. Finally, we had a job! A secret ingredient just may have been the spit that dribbled into the slosh.
The same hand that accurately diagnosed fevers on foreheads detected the temperature of the water and melted butter. If the liquids were too hot, it would kill the yeast and cook the eggs—too cold would leave the yeast dormant. She threw in a pinch of salt and a splash of anise. Her eye units were always perfect.
Mom stirred with the wooden spoon, sprinkled flour to make the puddle come together into an elastic bolus. She soon abandoned the spoon, placed her rings on the ledge over the kitchen sink and plunged her hands into the bowl. We took turns showering dry flour into the bowl, onto her hands, as we watched the wetness slowly evolved into this gorgeous yellow glob.
Mom stood on tippy toes against the kitchen table, pressing her full weight into the depths of her grandmother’s wooden bowl. She pushed, commanding the sugar, eggs, anise and yeasty water to blend smooth with flour. Flour and egg drippings layered the kitchen table. The floor was dusted exposing silhouettes of footprints. We all had flour sprinkle on our cheeks and hair. Finally, flushed with exhaustion, Mom lovingly tucked the dough edges into a tremendous bowl, allowed one or two children to spread Crisco on the top and sides, and lay two dish towels over it. It smelled sweet and rich with licorice and egg.
The bowl sat in a sunny window where the dough could rest and grow. Mom put her cups and spoons in the sink while we kids set up the next step—coloring the hollow eggs.
Hours later, after the table was wiped clean of cemented flour and puddles of purple and pink, and the floor swept and mopped, Mom carried the overflowing dough back to the kitchen table for another beating. She kneaded out the air in a yeasty gush and pounded the dough to half the size. Once again, the dough was greased, covered and sent back to the window.
By the time we kids tumbled indoors to forage for snacks, six evenly braided loaves sat on three cookie sheets recovering from their last thrashing. Mom painted her milk and egg mixture on the tops giving them a wet luster. As the breads baked the whole house, even the garage, smelled of home. There was nothing more delicious on a cool spring morning then a toasted slice of Mom’s Easter bread with a smear of butter. Spring had arrived, and it was perfect to be home, sweet home.
My Easter bread paled in color, texture, taste, and presentation. Through the years, I had proven to be a very good cook, but, like my grandmother, a labored baker. My attention often strayed from burning ovens and my math and measuring skills were never accurate. I managed to forget an ingredient, or worse yet, substituted a healthy option which never yielded an edible variation.
When I first baked Easter bread solo, my three little girls peeked under my arms, dipping wet fingers into every step. They managed to “help” beyond the egg blowing and flour showering. Perhaps I should have threatened the wooden spoon. Flour dust hung in the air invoking volleys of sneezes. My bread was never as fluffy or golden, and somehow there were ribbons of red or blue in the dough from a dye spill. Plops of dried flour and splashes of food coloring and egg baptized the walls and floor splashed with food coloring and egg. My girls were elbow deep in colors, kneeling on the kitchen chairs as they dipped the eggs and occasionally crushed them. The dog lapped up green puddles with chips of egg shells.
My dough braids were never even and the loaves baked dense with my signature ring of burned edges. Thankfully, I didn’t need to bake a dozen, since Mom continued her tradition. Even my own mother-in-law happily passed my offerings in wait for my mom’s glorious bread. But, my girls and husband ate up toasted slices of my Easter bread slathered in butter and jam. The surviving pastel eggs decorated the table. Warmth and goodness waft through my house, heralding spring, reminding me that I am home sweet home.
Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer will be available on October 3rd! It is a memoir of a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year with breast cancer treatment. Ultimately courage was found with the help of writing and the love of family and friends. It is not a cancer warrior story wrapped in a pretty pink ribbon.
The cover design is complete, and the initial proofs are ready for the Advanced Readers Copy. Amazon and Barnes and Noble have it listed for pre-order sales. If Amazon has it, then it’s really real. This entry is an excerpt from the first chapter.
Chapter 1: And So It Begins
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Matt dragged me back to New York University Clinical “C” Center. We took a morning rush-hour train from Ronkonkoma to Penn Station. I wanted to walk the remaining six blocks to quell my anxiety.
It was so much colder this day than it had been the previous week when we ventured into the Clinical “C” Center. That day, the breast surgeon over-kneaded my right breast, unable to feel the deep mass the mammogram had promised. Her sonographer pushed and poked a slippery wand deep into my breast while I struggled to remain still and conscious. When the technician asked me to hum, a gray shadow thickened as the drone reverberated off a rib. A biopsy was ordered for the following week. Ever since I’d been hoping that this was all a big waste of time for a benign lump.
Frigid winds blew down 34th Street. I wrapped my wool coat tighter and adjusted my hat. Matt held my hand, pulling me behind him, as he weaved through the crowds. The red earflaps on the alpaca hat that Sara, the eldest of our three daughters, had knitted for him danced behind his broad shoulders. Sara worked in Manhattan and planned to meet us for lunch. Matt had the address of a bar with an incredible beer list; we thought it would be a good place to go to celebrate the probable good news after the appointment. I hadn’t told Sara the reason for the appointment; I didn’t want to worry her, and besides, after a week of thinking myself into it, I believed the lump to be benign.
My anxiety heightened in the waiting room and then even more so in the next room, where they left me to wait once again after having me don a seersucker robe. Thankfully there was plenty of space to pace.
Finally, the doctors arrived. I was instructed to lie on a hard table. A pathologist, radiologist, nurse, and technician surrounded me. As soon as the poking for the just-right spot started, I faded from consciousness.
I expected this. My squeamish nature has always allowed me to escape discomfort through fainting. I felt my body lighten and fall limp. I could not see but heard distant voices calling my name, debating if they should stop. I mumbled for them just to finish. I passed out again as the pressure mounted and the needle plunged deep into my breast.
Once I was upright, still wrapped in the shapeless robe, I was escorted to a small lab to chat with the pathologist. He asked for my medical history. It was boring. My history was clear of memorable injuries, illnesses, or surgeries. By my thirty-first birthday, I had given birth, without anesthesia, to three healthy baby girls. Presently I struggled with blood pressure and weight issues, but I assured the pathologist that I would seriously work on that.
The pathologist reviewed his decades of experience and expertise in studying this insidious disease. Wow, I thought as he rambled, this ancient scientist must have invented the microscope and staining protocols that initially identified pathological cells.
He was giving me way too much of his résumé.
Finally, he came around to the biopsy. Positive. Absolutely positive.
I was speechless. How could this be?
He rattled on as to the depth of the tumor, the size, the need for surgery, and how he admired the skill and manner of my surgeon, Dr. Axelrod. My eyes welled up with tears. I needed to sit down. He patted my shoulder and said, “I will get your mister.”
Matt walked into the room, arms laden with coats, hats, and my oversized pocketbook. He took one look at me and said, “Oh, Christ, this doesn’t look good.”
I spent the week reviewing the proofs for Hug Everyone You Know: a Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. It has shaped up very nicely. I must admit that I am very tired of reading it over and over again. I’ve been living with this manuscript for almost four years. It is time to set it free. The cover art should soon be finalized. Once that is completed I can get the bookmarks and flyers designed and printed. I am going to keep it local and have Weeks and Reichel Printing do the work. Launch date is October 3rd–just about six more months.
This is my cousin’s little girl, Guliana, sweet as can be. I just love the fact that Famous Seaweed Soup is still a prized read for young readers. Too bad the book is out of print.
I am officially signed up with the publicist, Caitlin Hamilton Summie. She was incredibly genuine and I was impressed with her candor. She and her husband, Rick, put together a personal package I could manage. I am looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and taking on this publicity/marketing challenge.
It’s Martin Luther King Day, and I am enjoying a day off from work. It is supposed to be a day of reflection and service. To be honest, I typically spend the Martin Luther King holiday in the service of me catching up on my neglected house chores. I can sleep a little later and write more than my usual dismal amount on a work day.
But this Martin Luther King Day feels so different. I am struck by the timelessness of this brave man’s words and the action he desperately believed for all Americans. I am not Black, or Hispanic, or Asian, or Native American or Other. I am American—proud of the legacy of leaders that mirrored the essence of the founding fathers. The words of the Constitution proclaim freedom for all to speak, read, process and practice life’s pursuit of happiness. It is and always has been a work in progress. We Americans have always needed the words of courageous citizens to remind us of these American goals.
It is the words that matter. On this day, words should really matter. Let’s bring the spirit of Martin Luther King to soften the words of brutality and frustration so that all can hear without trembling or brewing anger. Let’s choose words that sing out peace and compassion so that all can listen without feeling degraded and shame. Let’s speak out the words that reach hearts that enlighten minds, rather than churn stomachs and point fingers. Let’s temper words so that all can trust the unity of our nation and the global community of fellow brothers and sisters, no matter the language that is spoken, the religion that is practiced, or the color of the skin.
Martin Luther King lived to unite our nation to a greatness we so desperately want to achieve. His words were directed to all Americans. This Martin Luther King holiday, more than ever, our nation needs to heed the words of the dream for unity and peace. If words of peace and fairness are spoken and written with honesty, action will follow. It is through action America can claim greatness.
I completed six weeks of ice skating lessons today—a Christmas gift from my daughters. The adult group had dwindled from two wobbly adults to just me. It was like having private lessons in the company of a crowd. The rink was abuzz with several groups of soon-to-be figure skaters and hockey players. I was the only adult walking into the center without a kid towing a wheelie athletic bag filled with gear. The place was noisy and packed with children, parents, grandparents, gear, and skates. Except for the adult group lesson in ice area N, no student was above fourteen years of age.
My instructor, the patient soul, encouraged me to correctly push from the side of the blade, keep my eyes up, and arms steady. Apparently, my toe tipping propulsion method and wild arm swings had been wrong all these years.
To be truthful, I was never an athlete. I did not have the drive or coordination to compete in sports. However, I had and still do enjoy active recreation, like ice skating, biking, sailing, and swimming. These ice skating lessons made me realize that the skills I had acquired in my youth without the benefit of lessons are also completely wrong in execution and form. I can say that I swim and do enjoy swimming in the bay and a tumbling ocean. When my daughter was on the swim team, she was coached to cut through the water with fluid grace and measured efficiency. What a beautiful sight. I think my only swim instruction was the doggie paddle when I was a toddler. Later, I imitated swimming with long arms and flutter kicks. The fun was easy. I always loved water skiing, but that was acquired after relentless attempts and plenty of falling. I eventually learned to jumped the wake, kick off one ski to slalom, and even skied behind a speeding boat with no hands. My only measure of success was not plummeting out of my skis and the exhilaration. It was crazy fun.
Back on the ice, I worked at coordinating my knees and feet to swizzle, skate backward, and glide. I think my instructor was afraid of the way I quickly twirled to a stop, catching my balance. She tried very hard to teach me to stop by scraping the sides of the blades of both skates at the same time. I managed only to slow down enough not to crash into the wall.
“Bend your knees. Push on your whole foot. Tighten your core,” she instructed.
I use feet muscles that had never been called upon in such a way. I am not going to discuss the state of my core.
To my credit, I fell only once during the six weeks period. My skates slipped from under me and smacked the backboard reverberating the crash throughout the rink. It sounded like I was hip-checked. I quickly scampered up more embarrassed than hurt. Well, I did bloom an incredible bruise on my thigh the next day—a reminder that the Stage IV cancer makes me more delicate than I actually believe. But I won’t let this cancer dictate what I can and cannot do. I just need to be careful not to put so much crazy in the fun.
The children twirled, swizzled, and marched without fear. How could they be afraid with such a short distant to the ice and wearing waterproof pants, padding on all major joints, and helmets? The helmet décor was indicative of the ice skating lessons’ purpose. Future figure skaters with a flair for ballet wore Princess Elsa helmets sporting sparkling blue reflectors. The miniature hockey players had on strong bubble helmets protecting the whole head and a face cage guarding noses and orthodontic investments.
Parents and grandparents watched from behind the plexiglass flashing thumbs up to their child’s fleeting eye contact and recording the event on their phones. Frequently I would look up from my glide to see expressions of morbid anticipation towards me. It must be the rubbernecking syndrome—one cannot look away from an impending disaster. When the lesson was finished, a few adults cheered my progress as I walked off the ice.
“You did great this week! Better you than me out there!”
My best fans, however, were my cousins and their two young children, Giuliana and Joey, who took lessons in the B area of the rink. After our sessions, Joey always asked if I fell. Giuliana would like to go skating with me.
“We could hold hands, so you won’t fall,” she said. What a sweetie.
I got my skating report card today—A-1, meaning I accomplished the skills for the Adult Level 1 class. I earned a patch! I may sew it on a jacket or somehow glue it on to my skates.
The temperature is rising here after a major snow storm and Artic blast. There is little hope for any canal or pond to freeze over. Nevertheless, I have a tentative ice skating date at the rink with my cousins during the winter school break. It would be fun to skate with a sweetie holding my hand.
My daughters gave me a Christmas gift certificate for ice skating lessons at a nearby rink. I had been complaining that Long Island winters have not been cold enough for ice skating. The canals, ponds, and Great South Bay rarely freeze over. Yes, there is an indoor ice rink providing year-round access, but, it is not the same.
When I was a kid (I can’t believe I just wrote that) winter was frigid enough to freeze the ponds and canals for months. My friends and I would toss our school books on any horizontal surface, quickly change into “play” clothes, grab our skates, and get outside. There wasn’t much time since the days were short and we all had to be home by dark. My neighborhood was a budding development within a rezoned estate along the Great South Bay. Brackish streams from the tidal overflow bled through unfenced backyards between bare trees. We could skate these creeks in relative safety since they were barely knee deep. Although I had a little sister or brother tagging along, the afternoons were fun and free. I imagined that kids in Holland got around much the same way. I wondered if they came home as wet and cold as we did.
When the canals froze over, the bulkheads were littered with boards acting as planks leading to the solid ice. The hockey players always got on the ice first and claimed their space. Bricks or pieces of lumber marked the goals. Despite their territory, there was plenty of room for the rest of us kids. We raced, twirled, and practiced lazy figures eights. I prided myself on being decently fast skating backward. Whip lines spontaneous formed, attracting kids and adults like magnets to race and pull and finally stop and turn shaking off the end skaters who screeched and fought gravity with exhilarating speed. Ice skating on the neighborhood canals and ponds made winter playful.
The ultimate ice skating happened on the Great South Bay. I grew up in a house that overlooked the bay toward Fire Island. When the bay froze, and the wind blew in just the right direction, “glaciers” would creep up the bulkhead. In the still of the night, my sister, Mary, and I could hear it creaking.
Dad put out an aluminum ladder to climb on and off the ice. In the distance, the Blue Point Clam Company dredgers plowed through attempting to harvest burrowed bivalves. But their efforts did not foil the ice on our side of the bay. It was not a smooth rink. There were small bumps and fissures caused by the wind and waves as the water became more solid.
We all bundled in hats mittens and snorkel jackets. Mom, my sisters, and I had white figure skates. I think my grandmother made pompoms from leftover yarn to differentiate the skates. Dad and my little brother, Billy, wore black skates that were pompom-less. Our neighbors, the Driscolls, Clarks, and Dohertys came to our backyard and tromped down the ladder with their bulky winter gear. The whip lines were epic. We also raced back and forth in relays; my Dad shouting out “Faster! Faster!”. Most attempts to imitate the skating Olympians by forcefully swinging our arms side to side or crossing one skate in front of the other confounded fragile agility causing collisions and fits of laughter. We made slow figure eights that looked like rounded triangles. We glided on one leg, stretching forward on the bumpy ice. Mom coached us to lift our arms and hold out our hands and fingers gracefully like Peggy Fleming. Peggy Fleming never wobbled or fell as clumsily as we.
These days, winters have not been quite so cold. I suppose it’s better that the bay doesn’t freeze for months at a time, saving worry and repair on the bulkheads. When my daughters were small, we built an eight by 20-foot rink with spare lumber and a plastic tarp. For a week or two, they had fun sliding and skating in the backyard. Occasionally, a local pond would freeze solid enough. My girls were amazed I could skate forward and backward without falling. About ten years ago, I bought a new pair of wide figure skates but had used them once or twice.
The ice skating lessons will prepare me for whenever a big freeze does happen. I’m thrilled that my skates still fit and I can stand in them. I will be ready. I can’t wait to open my child heart to those warm memories of playing on top of the bay.
This story was told by my Uncle Joe, my mom’s eldest brother. Anthony, their father, died when my mom was just a little girl and Uncle Joe was 14 years old. As the years rolled forward, he became the keeper of their father’s stories. This is one of them.
My father was a printer—a compositor, as he liked to say. He was the guy who set the type. He had to be very good or they never would’ve picked him year after year to make those fancy calendars at Christmas time for the company’s best customers. The calendar had to look like a picture but made from pieces of type. All year long Dad kept his eye out for good pieces of type just in case he got picked again.
Dad started working on the calendar in October. He would work his regular shift, then on the calendar for overtime. I especially liked the opera box. There was a guy, in a tux, reading the program by the light of a huge fancy chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The wife, dressed in a fancy gown and jewelry, looked out of the opera box. The details of the drapes, side lamps, and borders were incredible. I’m lucky my mother saved that one. She always threw out stuff, like our marbles and baseball cards, and we’d have to start over every time those seasons came around again.
Then Dad got laid off. I couldn’t figure out why. He never got drunk or fought. There was plenty of screaming and hollering in my family, but he never started anything. And he would be the one settling the arguments. On weekends, I would often find him reading and using the dictionary. He told mom how he could out-spell all the guys at work and always won the bets as to where a hyphen had to placed.
So, how come Pat, who came in drunk, or Mike, who started fights, or Nick, who couldn’t spell or know where to put the hyphen, did not get laid off? None of those guys ever got picked to make a calendar. My friend, Monty, said we should cut our name in half and make it sound English. When I told dad, he didn’t say anything, but his face got mad.
One day, I came home from school and found a machine in my bedroom. It was made of iron, stood taller than me and was very heavy. It had a foot pedal and a flywheel bigger than a car wheel. There was a round plate on top for the printer’s ink. The plate spun part way ‘round on a ratchet each time the rollers rumbled over it, then over the type. It had levers and gears and rods that made all the parts work together. It would feed the paper over the type then kick it out in time for the next sheet. It never missed no matter how fast you made it go. The rumble of the rollers, the sticky sound of the ink, the tinkle of the plate with the clicking of the ratchet, the whoosh of the flywheel and the beat of the pedal were the magician’s music making the print appear on the pages flying out of the flapping mouth.
Dad named the press Diana, after my little sister. I didn’t get it. All a little sister could do was play jacks and jump rope. Dad’s machine could do much more than that. He should’ve picked a better name, like Hercules, and then it wouldn’t have been so bad to take the fliers to school, in my knickers, and ask the teacher if it would be all right to pass them out to the kids in class. The kids razzed me double that day and made airplanes out of them. If any got their homes, it didn’t bring in any business.
But around October, dad was busy every spare minute setting his type with a little metal tool that had a slide and markings, then putting that line in a wooden frame that fit in the press. When he got it composed, he’d give it a try. Then he’d put in tiny shims to straighten out a line or a letter or make the type sit up higher or sit down lower. Then, he’d try it again, and again, and again, and again.
Come December, dad had finished. It was a card with a border pressed right into the stiff card paper. In green ink, there was a poem in the shape of a Christmas tree with the first letter of each sentence in red ink. It started with the letter “A” in red to give the tree an ornament at the peak. It flared out to make the tree, came in for the trunk then flared again for the stand. Our name was printed at the bottom, right under the stand at the end of the poem, in neat black letters. From across the room, it looked like a painting of a Christmas tree, with red ornaments, on a stand sitting on a little black rug.
It didn’t fold. It wasn’t anything like the cards my friends sent. Their cards folded and had real pictures of real trees. Ours was a Christmas tree made from the green letters of a poem with red capital letters. It was like the tree was reciting, giving out that Christmas-y warmth. The ink had a shine, and it stood out from the card. I could imagine the feel of a Christmas tree when I ran my fingers over it. Every card came out perfect. It was all we had to give that Christmas.
My mother’s grandmother was the matriarch of the family. Every detail of home life was dictated by her. Despite the strict force, the woman aimed to keep her charges well, safe and loved. My mother told this story many times. She was raised in a multi-generation home on West 9th Street in Brooklyn.
The Day Begins
Grandma had rules and routines. After my father had died, when I was eight years old, my two brothers, mother and I lived with my grandparents. While my mother worked long hours in a dress factory, Grandma took on most of the childcare. Grandma’s house rules were unspoken but clearly understood. She was a slight woman standing barely five feet tall, yet every muscle fiber twitched with strength and purpose. God help the child who thoughtlessly attempted to challenge her or innocently forgot.
The day began with Grandma’s morning ritual. Before anyone stirred, she was dressed and had tied a stiffly starched white apron over her black dress (she was always in mourning). A large pot of coffee brewed on top of the stove. Grandma then carried a day-old newspaper to the basement and lay pages on the floor. She sat on a three-legged stool she had placed in the middle of the papers, released her gray hair and brushed out the tangles. Once every hair was smoothed, she pulled the mass into a tidy bun at the nape of her neck. Grandma returned the stool to the corner, rolled the newspaper with the stray hairs, plunged the mess into the trash and climbed the stairs to the kitchen.
Coffee was ready. Grandma made herself a three-minute egg and poured exactly four ounces of orange juice into a jelly glass. She dipped the stale heel of bread into coffee then into the egg yolk. She ate sitting down in the quiet. With breakfast satisfied and her dishes washed, she was ready to take on the individual breakfast orders of the household—so long as it was a soft-boiled egg, toast, coffee and/or orange juice.
My brothers and I greeted Grandma with a kissed on her cheek. Sitting down to breakfast was mandatory—no arguments. It did not matter if you woke up late or promised to meet your friend at the corner. While we ate breakfast, Grandma spoke Sicilian, reminding us of our afternoon chores. As a small child, I spoke fluent Sicilian, but once I went to school, the words could not come out just as the English words would not form in my grandparents’ mouths. I understood Sicilian perfectly just as they could understand English.
After breakfast, there was bed inspection. No one was allowed to leave with their bed unmade. The sheets had to be pulled and tucked, and the blankets evenly lay on top of the mattress and over the pillow. Of course, the floor had to be clear of socks and pajamas. My room was always neater than my brothers. While they finished picking up, Grandma brushed and braided my hair. She would sweep the loose hairs later in the day.
Finally, we were ready for school. Grandma handed each one of us a brown bag lunch that held a sandwich, fruit and one of her baked cookies. We each delivered a kiss on her cheek. She gave me an extra tight hug. The stiff apron scratched my tender cheek. I would feel the tingle of the hug on my cheek while walking into the outside world.