True Grit

Memory Makers Masquerading as Cats

I love blog posts about the magic of ordinary days. You know the ones that expound upon the grit in our daily lives as if it’s some sort of fairy dust sprinkled over us that makes everything perfect and wonderful. This blog post is about the true nature of grit.

If you have ever owned cats or know anything about their personalities, you know they are thieving, little devils. They develop weird passions for things like pens, pencils, Q-tips, etc. Basically, anything they can swipe off a table, out of a cubby in a bathroom cabinet, or from the trash. My three cats (Henry, Simon, and Freddie) crave pencils especially if I’ve placed an eraser cap on the end. They usually chew off the eraser that comes with a pencil (I have found gnarled pieces of metal left as evidence of their handiwork) necessitating the addition of an eraser cap. I believe they work in concert to ensure this happens, and then they celebrate by waiting until I go to bed to work the pencil out of the jar in the living room, the wire spiral of my notebook, or from the side of my laptop cooling station.

Looking for one of my lost pencils is what prompted this blog post. I was on my hands and knees in the kitchen with the three offenders watching my progress as I laid my head parallel to the floor to peer beneath the printer table. I spied a popcorn kernel, and my mind flooded with memories of teaching Joshua how to make popcorn on the stove. I retrieved the kernel and sat back on my knees as I recalled what a great day that was and how many more like it we’ve had since. But I didn’t find the pencil.

I looked into the corners of the fireplace mantel also in the kitchen. A two by three piece of grey Lego was wedged behind the antique wood. It has been years since my kid played with Legos. He started by building every kit according to instructions, but his best creations were those he made up without the benefit of a pattern. The Titanic with a removable panel to simulate destruction by an iceberg, the Iron Giant, a mask similar to that worn by General Grievous, an M1 Garand that ejected the clip, a three-level ship longer than my kitchen table, and a working crossbow were among my favorites. Still no pencil.

Under the stove I found a cap from a bottle of Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy. How my cats managed to get the bottle cap was beyond me, but its discovery prompted the memory of a wonderful, teen-free evening spent with my husband. The night was outrageously hot and the light beverage tasted delicious and refreshing. Husband and I felt like newly-weds again as we whiled away hours in each other’s company doing absolutely nothing and loving every moment. Again, no pencil.

I crawled all over the house looking for my pencil. I could have simply used another one, but it was a matter of principle now. The cats trailed me with mild interest, and I swear they nodded their heads toward their litterbox as if suggesting I look there. Little creeps.

Every room received a thorough search, and along the way tidbits of stuff located beneath furniture or in corners prompted memories of the past twenty five years. At times I fretted over scuffed baseboards and the scars of puppy-chewed carpet, a house that looks quite “lived in” and the realization that I need to sweep more often than I already do! (A wise friend once said, “If you have pets, you’re going to have pet hair.”) But every inch of every room in our home offered up life that was and still is sound and stable. I cast a glance at my cats who sat just out of reach watching me. Their smug faces seemed to say, “You’re welcome.”

I eventually found my pencil inside the cooling station where a clumsy paw had pushed it in an effort to snag it off the table. I threaten to beat their hides every time one of my pencils goes missing, but I have to admit the process of looking for it adds to my memories most positively. Someday—hopefully not in the near future—my broken heart will reminisce Henry, Simon, and Freddie, and I’ll be most appreciative for the days they decided to steal my pencils.

Mockingbird Calling

As a teenager, there are so many things that one doesn’t appreciate. My ninth grade Honors English teacher assigned the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, as part of our reading for the year, and we didn’t question it. I wondered who this man, Harper Lee, was and what sort of book this dead man had written. While my teacher, Mrs. Kraft, quickly corrected our wrong assumption about Harper Lee’s gender, she didn’t mention that the authoress was still alive. It was a small oversight, and being teenagers, we were either too disinterested or too lazy to care. I ended up loving the book so much that I read it a couple more times throughout my life.

Fast forward to the release of Go Set a Watchman. By then I was writing and seeking publication, and if there is one thing I’ve learned as a writer it’s that I would never want my first draft of anything published for the entire world to read. The idea was horrifying, and since I had heard that Go Set a Watchman was Harper Lee’s first draft, I refused to read it in honor of her. Still, the point I made at the beginning of this post didn’t hit home with me.

It wasn’t until I read Charles J. Shields’s Mockingbird: a Portrait of Harper Lee that one particular fact become apparent. Harper Lee had still been alive in 1984 when I read her iconic novel for the first time. At least this time I had a better understanding of who she was and how much of herself and her life she had written into her novel.

I’ll provide you with my impressions of Nelle Harper Lee rather than bore you with facts. At first I wasn’t sure I liked this brash person who didn’t seem to recognize or understand boundaries in other people’s lives. In situations where most people would be embarrassed by such behavior, it appeared that Nelle didn’t have the good sense to be ashamed. What I thought of as her complete lack of social skills made me wonder if she was autistic, and I absolutely do not say that as a thoughtless insult. On the contrary, Nelle’s haphazard navigation of life touched my mother’s heart, and I wondered if she had anyone who truly understood her.

Adding to my concern was Nelle’s mother’s mental illness, and I wondered if the lack of maternal guidance toward her late-in-life daughter also affected the formation of Nelle’s personality. Alice Lee, the oldest sibling, and A. C. Lee, Nelle’s father, certainly filled any void in her life. According to Shields’s account, they presented a resilient style of parenting that I don’t believe the sensitive artist within Nelle was strong enough to withstand. Support for her chosen career came reluctantly, and only after her success with To Kill a Mockingbird did they come on board.

Then the pendulum would swing in the other direction, and a soft, caring Nelle appeared. She was still outspoken but also attentive to other people often to her own detriment. Her close friend, Truman Capote, benefited the most from this side of Nelle. He took advantage of her gentle nature when he employed her as his “assistant researchist” during the writing of In Cold Blood. A bare mention that had to be shared with Capote’s lover was all Nelle received for the extensive work she did. Along with Capote badmouthing Nelle on several occasions and his obvious envy of her success, it’s no wonder their relationship became strained.

I believe the pressure to live up to the success of To Kill a Mockingbird overwhelmed Nelle. I also believe that as much as she wanted to be a writer, she only had one novel in her, and this is absolutely fine. She could have been quite happy for years writing articles for newspapers or short stories for magazines, and if the idea for a novel came along, she could have penned it free from the burden of living up to her prior achievement. But the public and her family wanted more. The public wanted another book they could sink their teeth into, and for some reason I never truly understood, her family wanted her back home in Alabama at least six months out of the year. The tug of war on Nelle, both internally and externally, did little to encourage her writing. A second novel never came to light, and after ten years the bloom of her success from To Kill a Mockingbird had faded.

For the remainder of her life, Nelle viciously guarded her novel and characters, not so much as allowing a cookbook named after Calpurnia to be published. She basked in the waning glow of her novel, occasionally enjoying a resurgence of celebrity with anniversaries of the novel or when someone wrote an article about her or her famous book. Otherwise, she led a reclusive life to the degree that no one could ever convince me she wanted or approved the publication of Go Set a Watchman.

So do I have a clearer picture of Harper Lee? Actually, without her memoirs or at least a book of her personal correspondence, I’m left with more questions. I would have loved to speak with her, to wrestle her out of her insecurities, or at least understand where she was coming from. I believe we could have been friends.

– – – – –

The copy of Mockingbird: a Portrait of Harper Lee that I read was published prior to Nelle Harper Lee’s death. I do not know how the revised and updated copy reads, or whether it supplies further insight into the authoress or the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Quite frankly, I enjoy the mystique surrounding this simple woman, and I don’t feel as if I need to know more.

Pretty Fly for a Seasoned Fry

What’s a hamburger without French fries? This is no doubt a question Joe Tedesco would ask anyone who tried to serve the popular sandwich without it’s equally famous side. It’s also a question Joe did not have to ask Charlie Rollins and Graham Silver when he attended their party. The pair knew enough about their unofficial guest of honor to know plenty of fries had better be on the menu if hamburgers were anywhere nearby. They went one better and offered seasoned fries unlike anything Joe had ever tasted.

The following recipe is the one I came up with for the above-mentioned scene. Even though Joe never had the chance to try the delicious fries, I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as my family did.

Seasoned French Fries

Eight large russet potatoes

1 ½ c all-purpose flour

1 ½ t garlic powder

1 ½ t onion powder

1 ½ t ground cayenne pepper

1 ½ t sea salt

1 ½ t black pepper (I used a coarse grind)

1 ½ t paprika

Peanut oil for frying

¾ c water, more as needed

Combine the flour, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne pepper, salt, black pepper, and paprika with a whisk, mixing well. Set aside.

Wash and peel the potatoes. Place whole peeled potatoes in a bowl of salted cold water to keep them from turning gray. Remove one potato at a time and cut it in half lengthwise. Lay the flat side down, and cut the potato in half horizontally so you end up with a top half directly over a bottom half. Keep the halves together and cut them into ¼ inch strips. Do the same with the other half of the potato. Proceed in this fashion until all the potatoes have been cut into strips. Return the cut pieces of potato to the cold water while working on whole potatoes. Once all the potatoes have been cut into strips, drain them in a colander and rinse the cut potatoes with fresh cold water to remove excess starch. Pat the cut potatoes dry with a paper towel.

I used a heavy pot on the stove to heat my peanut oil and a candy thermometer to maintain exact heat. Heat the peanut oil to 350° F.

Add the ¾ c of water to the seasoned flour and whisk. Add more water in ¼ c increments and whisk until you have a thin batter. Place two large handfuls of potato slices in the batter and toss to cover. Excess batter will drop off when transferring the potatoes, but don’t shake off so much that your potatoes are thinly battered. Carefully place the battered potato slices in the hot peanut oil a few at a time until the surface of the oil is covered. An Asian strainer with handle is perfect for the task.

The temperature of the oil will drop a little with the addition of the cold potatoes. Maintaining 350° F will result in well-cooked, crispy fries. You may need to separate the fries as they cook to prevent sticking. When the batter turns a deep gold (approximately 10 – 12 minutes), the fries are finished cooking. Use the Asian strainer to remove the potatoes from the oil and drain them in a large bowl lined with paper towels. It is most important that the peanut oil returns to 350° before adding another batch of battered potatoes. When it does, proceed with the frying process until all the potato slices are cooked.

You may salt to taste if needed. The flavor of the seasoned batter becomes more evident once the fries have cooled to a temperature at which one can eat them without burning fingers or mouth.

Enjoy!

Collecting the Masses

As I was typing a blog post last week, a tiny red flag flew up the mast in the back of my mind. I ignored it and pressed on toward my writing goal for the day. Fortunately, that small warning kept popping up as I went about business. I don’t know why my mind settled on the word hoard (or was it horde), but I knew I had used it recently only I couldn’t remember where. Making matters worse, after double checking definitions, I realized I had chosen the wrong one.

For two days, I skimmed my memory for how I meant to use it, and that helped me track down the scheduled blog post. Much to my relief, it hadn’t posted yet.

I had chosen hoard when what I meant was horde. Word had completely failed me when it produced neither red, blue, or green squiggles beneath the offending version to prevent my error. The next time I receive a survey from Microsoft during an update, I’m going to request purple squiggles for homonyms, homophones, and homographs. But I digress.

Hoard, the noun, means:

*a stock or store of money or valued objects, typically one that is secret or carefully guarded

“Smaug stood guard over his hoard of treasure.”

*an ancient store of coins or other valuable artifacts

“The search for a hammer resulted in the discovery of the largest hoard of Roman gold coins.”

*an amassed store of useful information or facts, retained for future use

“The NSA has a hoard of stored information about my activities.”

Hoard, the verb, means:

*amass (money or valued objects) and hide or store away

“She hoarded shoes worse than Imelda Marcos.”

*reserve in the mind for future use

“She hoarded every insult against her and plotted her revenge.”

And then there is horde, only a noun and the version I meant to use.

*a large group of people (derogatory)

“The Mongol horde invaded China.”

*a loosely-knit, small social group typically consisting of about five families (Anthropology)

A horde of peasants had lived about five miles outside of the village.

God Gives Us Teenagers Because He Loves Us

I have a theory. I’ve been sitting on it for about six years, keeping it to myself as I mulled it over and tested it. I experience it in daily life especially when interacting with my teenager. It goes like this: I ask Joshua to do something, and he responds with “Oh joy, oh rapture” to let me know that he is not going to enjoy what I’ve asked him to do. I already knew that what I requested of him wasn’t meant to produce pleasure, but nevertheless, it needs to be done. A voice in my head whispers, “Kind of like I told you (insert request here) needs to be done.”

Another example is when Joshua asks me for something, and the answer is no.  I usually follow up with a tactfully pointed out, “Why would I spend money on (insert desired objection) when you don’t appreciate what I’ve already given you?” And the gentle voice in my heart says, “Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?”

Then there are the times when I give Joshua instructions for completing a task, and he does it wrong because he doesn’t listen and/or doesn’t care about the outcome. It takes him twice as long to finish (insert task here) and often things end up broken. I say, “Why didn’t you do it the way I told you the first time?” and the loving but firm voice speaking to my will sighs, “Exactly, beloved.”

My theory: God gives us teenagers to let us know what it’s like for Him when dealing with us. If I hadn’t heard His voice every single time I corrected Joshua, I would never have come to this conclusion. And because I’m the adult, the parent, the smart one who has lived more than twice as long as my child, I have it all together and nailed it the first time, right? Wrong.

I’ve grumbled, complained, whined, begged, pleaded, made deals, and sulked my way through life just like a teenager. God—being the great parent that He is—never backed down. Discipline and guidance came my way whether I wanted it or not. The lessons flowed from God to me to Josh, and still I didn’t catch on.

Until one day last week when I had a moment of brilliant insight. I had been moping because I received my first rejection notice concerning the novel I’m currently querying. Instead up getting right back up in the saddle and sending out another query, I sat in a chair at the kitchen table and sulked. It was a most unproductive day until my teenager came home. While Joshua may be a sluggard when it comes to picking up the dirty socks on his bedroom floor, he’s a drill sergeant when it comes to my writing.

“How many queries did you send out?” he asked. No “Hello, Mother, how are you? It sure is wonderful to see you.”

“None,” I replied.

“Get up.”

“What?”

“Get over to the laptop and send out a query letter.”

“I don’t want to.”

Without further comment, Joshua pulled out the chair with me in it, used a karate hold on me that put my arm behind my back, and led me to the computer at the other end of the table. Before you become upset thinking that he hurt me, please be assured that we laughed throughout the whole process. No bullying was involved as my son strong-armed me out of the doldrums and into positive energies. It worked.

Here’s the key: I knew better than to resist the karate hold because it was a real one he learned on his way to becoming a red belt. It didn’t hurt at all when Joshua helped me from the chair and gave the instruction to get back to work. If I had pushed or leaned in any direction against the hold, it would have been painful, and that’s when it hit me. God’s instructions only hurt when I resist them.

Finally, I’ve learned my lesson. Will I always apply it to my life perfectly? Probably not, but that doesn’t let me off the hook from trying. Just as I expect Joshua to strive for new levels of maturity in his life so, too, am I expected to stop behaving like a child, grow up, and pass the lesson forward.

Oh, Honey—That’s Good!

Jewish honey cake is traditionally served at Rosh Hashanah, but all Shirley Tedesco knows is that her new neighbor, Muriel Shapiro, loves the stuff. Besides, it’s only January, and Shirley is desperate. At least she takes the time to discover Muriel’s heritage as well as her preferences in desserts.

From the deep wells of kindness that abide in Shirley’s heart, she uses the delicious cake to make inroads with Muriel. And while her motives are pure—she really does want to become close with the shy Jewess from New Jersey—if pressed to admit, Shirley also needs a babysitter who has never experienced her brood of eight unholy terrors.

The following recipe is the one I had in mind for Shirley to present as a peace-offering prior to Muriel experiencing the Tedesco horde. When Muriel agrees to babysit, she has to watch the twins, Holly and Noelle. Unfortunately, the twins are disgruntled at being the only siblings without plans for the evening, and they take it out on their unsuspecting babysitter. There isn’t enough honey cake in the world to repair the damage the girls inflict upon poor Muriel.

Jewish Honey Cake

3 ½ c unbleached flour

1 t baking soda

1 T baking powder

1 t cinnamon

½ t ginger

¼ t cloves

¼ t nutmeg

Dash of allspice

4 extra large eggs

1 ¼ c packed dark brown sugar

4 T extra virgin olive oil

1 t vanilla

1 ¾ c honey

1 c very strong coffee (decaf is fine)

1 c golden raisins

1 c whole or half candied or plain almonds

Preheat oven to 300° F. Grease and flour two 9×5-inch loaf pans or one 9×13 pan. Set aside.

In a saucepan, combine the honey and coffee and bring to a boil. Set aside to cool.

Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and spices together. In a large mixing bowl, blend the eggs, brown sugar, vanilla, and oil. Do not overbeat.

Stir the flour and honey/coffee into the egg mixture alternately, beginning and ending with the liquid. Blend well. Toss the raisins in a little flour to keeping them from sinking and stir them in gently. Pour into the prepared pan(s) and place the almonds over the cake. (If using whole almonds, arrange them in straight rows to denote a serving and to indicate where to cut the cake finishing with an almond on top of each piece.)

Bake for 60-70 minutes, or until the cake springs back. Let the cake sit overnight before serving.

Serve as is or top off with freshly whipped cream. Enjoy!

Danny Does Denim

The younger Tedesco brother, Danny, is not known for his success with the ladies. It could have something to do with his perpetually broke-down car (his dates always have to drive), his constant lack of funds (his dates always pay for dinner and entertainment), or his questionable sense of fashion (his only decent suit is made of denim). Fortunately for Danny, his most recent girlfriend is not at all put off by her new beau’s style choices.

Known as the Canadian tuxedo or the Texan tux, Danny’s suit, manufactured by Lee, comes with a lovely matching vest. No doubt Grandma Josephine Tedesco bought the ensemble for him, but whether or not she remembers doing so is another matter.

Keep in mind that a denim jacket (also known as a jean jacket) is a different animal altogether. Denim jackets are a stylish staple in casual wardrobes and enjoy varying degrees of popularity throughout the decades. It’s also commonly worn by those in a more rugged line of work (think cowboys and roughnecks). But when it comes to tailored suits, denim is rarely if ever well received.

The history of the denim suit is short and infamous, and its origins don’t go all that far back. Levi Strauss is credited as the originator of the denim jacket in the 1800s, but the earliest reference to a denim suit that I could find was 1951. A story exists of singer Bing Crosby being denied access to a hotel in Canada because he was dressed from head to toe in denim. Although the was eventually allowed in, Levi’s made him a custom double-breasted denim suit jacket so that he would “never have problems wearing Levi’s jeans, even in fancy establishments.”

The jacket, presented to Crosby at the 1951 Silver State Stampede in Elko, Nevada, contained a leather label on the inside bearing a “Notice to all Hotel Men” stating that denim was acceptable to wear on any occasion. At least Danny is in good company. Bing’s suit now lives in the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko.

In 2015, Ralph Lauren took a stab at the denim suit with a hipster and Wall Street version. In my humble opinion, both look like something a demented college student would try to pull off as good fashion sense. I have no doubt CEOs avoided these two suits like the plague they are.

If these denim suits don’t float your boat, you can always opt for one of the two hundred, limited run reproductions of Bing’s jacket that originally went for $1,800.00. I’m sure eBay is stocked with these little goodies.

 

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