Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The First Day for Yona Rae

About 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, Ari called to say that he was on the road to Jess and Alex’s home because they were on the way to the hospital. Abby, Alex’s assistant had come over to stay with the girls, who had just been put to bed and were unaware that that Mommy and Daddy had left. We had no further information about contractions, water sac, etc. until a bit later. Then, we only knew that Jess had been having contractions and that her water had not broken. About an hour later, when Ari arrived at the hospital, we began receiving periodic text messages and phone call updates. They had broken her water sac, so we knew this was no false alarm, especially since Jess had been dilated 7 centimeters since Wednesday.

Yona Rae arrived at 12:28 a.m. on April 27 and weighed 7 lbs. 11 oz. Jess had a fairly easy labor and delivery and no stitches. The first photo was sent within five minutes of her birth. Ari first sent it to Saul’s phone, and then to my email. I could tell from our phone monitor that Mom was stirring. When I went to her room, she was sitting up on the side of the bed. I told her she had a new great-granddaughter. After some initial groggy confusion, she wished me a mazel tov on my new granddaughter, and I wished her one back. I went to the office and printed two copies of the photo, one for her, which I left on the bed next to her as she slept, and one for Saul to see when he awakened in the morning. We had been hoping that Saul would be able to finish up the semester before Yona’s arrival. As it turned out, he taught his 8:00 a.m. class on Monday morning and made arrangements to skip his afternoon class. Stacey and Adele came over to stay with Mom and we were on the road to Baltimore by 10:30 a.m. on Monday.

The day was a great one for a drive, and although tired, we were both feeling very lucky and relieved that everything had gone so well. Yona was awake and contented when we arrived and she is an absolutely beautiful and alert baby. She looks a lot like her sister, Izzy. After a while, Alex’s parents, who had arrived at the hospital at practically the same moment as we, left to meet the girls after school and take them to dinner. They spent the night at Jess and Alex’s house and drove back the next morning. We had a bite to eat in the hospital’s cafeteria, stopped in to kiss the girls good night, and headed for home, arriving about 10 p.m.

On Sunday morning, my cousin Anne came, bearing incredible New York-style bagels, whitefish salad and lox. We ate breakfast and she stayed with Mom so that I could take some time when Saul went to Chestnut Hill College’s convocation, to shop for everything I needed to prepare the Scholar-in-Residence dinner at MBI-EE for 100 for this weekend. On the way down to Baltimore, I arranged with everyone who is helping out in the kitchen to prepare the dinner on Thursday afternoon and evening instead of Friday morning. Hopefully, we will be able to spend a long weekend with the kids in DC and Baltimore. Stacey will be staying with Mom 24/7 for those days. I am really looking forward to being with the kids this coming weekend.

Adele stayed for Shabbat dinner last Friday and helped me, along with Saul, to get a great meal on the table in the space of two hours. I made challah, black bean soup, the best guacamole I have ever concocted, Russian dressing with Boston lettuce, pomegranate chicken, and brown basmati rice with apricots and pistachios. For dessert, we had fresh blackberries, blueberries, strawberries and bananas dipped in individual bowls of melted chocolate.

We were able to go to services on Saturday morning. After Anne left on Sunday, I made potato salad, kohlrabi coleslaw, and gezer chai (living carrots) to use up a big bag of carrots that remained after Passover. Mom allowed us to wheel her out on the deck on Sunday evening and we had dinner with Beth and Paul in the gazebo. I spent this morning catching up with laundry, making a carrot cake for dessert this coming weekend, and baking two batches of Jumbo Oatmeal Peanut Butter and Raisin cookies, which are Alex’s favorite. Then, I met my friend Roxy at Villa Barolo in Warrington, where we had a leisurely lunch. Roxy treated me for my birthday, which we had not been able to celebrate for a few months. I had an incredible mixed mushroom risotto that was perfectly delicious. Then, I slept for a few hours when Saul arrived from school.

I am tired, but happy that we all have been so wonderfully productive, and reproductive! this week. I am so proud of my terrific family!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Cap and Gown Season

As Saul was leaving for school today, he asked me if I would please hang up his academic regalia, which rested, neatly folded, in a rather elaborately designed, pocketed, clear plastic bag, on our dining room table. “Oh,” I said, “I guess it needs to be ironed.” I had been embarrassed in the past that he and my kids had looked shabby compared to others who either had the foresight, had loving relatives with the foresight, or had enough O.C.D. about their sartorial habits to take the neatly folded gowns out of the bag before the actual graduation, and iron out the sharp creases the material accumulated from laying folded. In our defense, I would say that many others looked far worse at graduation and appeared to have removed the items from the bag and left them for the dog or cat to bed down on before actually donning them for the ceremony. Saul told me I need not worry about ironing the gown, that no one actually did that anymore, and that letting the wrinkles “hang out” would be sufficient.

After he left, I dutifully found a hanger, figured out which parts of the plastic bag were pockets and which parts needed to be ripped open, and reverently hung this impressive uniform on an infrequently-used closet door frame so that I could look at it from time to time during the day. I guess I have a bit of cap and gown envy. The very old tradition at my high school (Philadelphia High School for Girls) was for everyone to wear individual white dresses and carry a cascade of red carnations at graduation. I was happy about it at the time. After all, it was the iconoclastic 60s and everyone was encouraged to “do your own thing.” We did look (and smell) wonderful at our graduation ceremony, although the girls who could afford designer dresses probably looked a little more upscale.

I didn’t attend my college graduation from Temple University. There were a number of reasons for that. I remember the night of my older sister’s graduation. The only place large enough to house Temple’s graduation was Convention Hall. We were stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for so long that in order to make it to the graduation in time, my sister got out of the car in the rain and ran the last few blocks. When we were finally seated, we were treated to endless speeches and no individual recognition of the graduates. The whole evening was a nightmare. Six years later, my graduating class was even larger than hers. By attending summer classes, I was able to graduate with my B.S. in Education in three years. I was eligible for graduation in January of 1970, just before my twentieth birthday, but graduation ceremonies were held only once a year. It seemed anticlimactic to pay the fees to show up in cap and gown months after I had graduated and gotten my diploma and was already working. I took some masters courses after marrying in 1971, (another chance to wear the costume), but never finished. It became our focus to have Saul finish his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Before beginning this post, I looked up the history and raison d’etre of these impressive garments, and suffice it to say that one could spend a lifetime researching this topic. The mortarboard and tassel are really such an oddity, if you think about it. What practical purpose could this garb have ever had for scholars!? Did that flat square keep rain from dripping on their noses? When my daughter, Jessica, and then her husband, Alex, graduated from Columbia University, I was treated to one of the most impressive displays of pomp and circumstance I have ever seen outside of televised royal weddings. Columbia’s history predates the existence of The United States of America. In the outstretched arms of those velveted and resplendent dignitaries leading the academic parade were jewel-encrusted gold scepters and orbs worthy of a king.

As the wrinkles “hang out” and I fret about whether to try to hurry up the process in a shower-steamy bathroom or actually set up the ironing board to satisfy my own O.C.D., we are counting down the days again this year until finals are over, grades are turned in, and graduation ushers in a period of free-wheeling summer days enjoying our granddaughters as the only staff of “Camp Bubbie and Saba.”

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Best Things in Life are Free… Or Used to Be

This title comes as a protest against a comment I overheard a number of years ago as I was leaving the beach of a very ritzy, members only, club in Boca Raton, Florida, where I was a guest for a day. Two guys in their late thirties were washing off the sand at an outdoor shower as I was passing. One was lamenting the high cost of maintaining the membership for his entire extended family, while the other was consoling him that the cost was well worth it because he could rest assured that the accommodations were better than anywhere else precisely because he was paying so much for them.

For me, it had been one of the most miserable beach days imaginable. Signs warned of some dastardly insect-like infestation of fleas or ticks in the ocean water. The sun was broiling. We were ensconced (or trapped) on some very substantial and plush loungers with large, baby-carriage-type awnings that could be adjusted to avoid the sun at any angle. The sand was too hot to walk on, so miserably uncomfortable college students spent the day making large tips bringing icy cocktails and upscale sandwiches to botoxed and liposuctioned gods and goddesses who lounged in the latest beachwear. I guess everyone has a different idea of what constitutes a heavenly day.

Lately, as I recall memories of my childhood for my grandchildren, it seems that all the best moments were either free, or very inexpensive. Now, these opportunities are unavailable, ruined by either pollution, urban blight, or the fact that someone has figured out a way to sell what was once free. We used to spend some summer days fishing in the Schuylkill River and picnicking at the tables in Fairmount Park. We always brought along a jug to fill with the sweet spring water that issued from an elaborate stone fountain along the river. We played halfball with broomsticks as bats, and used old metal bottle caps to play dead box in the square we drew with a piece of white chalk on the cement driveway between rows of houses. We jumped rope made of old clothesline. We played hopscotch. We walked to the public library on cold, rainy weekends, and curled up there on well-worn leather armchairs. When we wanted to play with friends, we went outside to see who else wanted to play. The playgrounds in the neighborhood were safe and free, with baseball diamonds, swings, monkey bars, and teeter-totters. I spent every summer at my elementary school playground camp that was run by Miss Elizabeth Forsythe. I learned how to make linoleum tile and wood carvings, weave baskets out of wicker and raffia, weave pot holders on looms, make leis out of crepe paper and sing songs like “There Were Three Men of Jericho.” (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob)

The joy in life came from praise from family and friends, fresh farm-grown food, including whole milk delivered by a truck to the door in glass bottles set in wire racks, warm bread delivered from the local bakery to the door in the morning, walking in the park, visiting museums, playing pinball for a nickel or getting an ice cream cone at Sam and Edith’s corner store, boiling the water for corn-on-the-cob and then going out to a friend’s garden to pick it, watching fireworks at the park on the fourth of July, and a host of other delights that were either free, or very inexpensive.

Now, we must pay for spring water that is clean. Books come from Barnes & Noble or Borders. Crafts are bought pre-packaged by project. Children must be scheduled for play dates. Camp is very expensive. Games are mostly electronic. Adult supervision is necessary for every moment a child is outside of the house. The difficult economic times right now have made me nostalgic for the freedom of my childhood, but I would never want to be a child again with other people controlling my life decisions. At some point, and I am not sure where, having expensive toys like color television sets and color-coordinated bedspreads became a goal and a sort of competition to see if I was successful. There ought to be other measuring sticks.

Having put away the last of the Passover items on Friday morning, Saul and I went over to Costco to see about Shabbat dinner. The refrigerator is full of leftovers, but we have been eating the same food for a week, so we were greatly attracted to a hefty fillet of wild halibut in the case. We splurged and it was worth every penny. The recipe will appear shortly on the other blog, but it was among the best fish dishes I have ever had. I was exhausted, so dinner was a one-hour quickie that afforded me time to take an afternoon nap. Only Larry joined us, as Beth was not due to arrive from Costa Rica until late Saturday night. We had: crusty loaves of garlic bread from Costco that were hot out of the oven when we purchased them (in lieu of home-made challah) doctored up packaged cream of butternut/apple soup, Boston lettuce salad with Russian dressing, baked halibut, baked Yukon Gold potatoes with sour cream and butter, and steamed asparagus. For dessert, I made cup custards, which are the simpler versions of créme brulée, with fresh strawberries. Larry regaled us with stories about his travels in Costa Rica and brought us some gifts.

On Saturday, Stacey and Adele stayed with Mom so we could attend services, and then Stacey stayed all evening so we could go to dinner at Nunzio’s in Collingswood with Ken and Randi and Haley and Erik to celebrate recent birthdays. Saturday was actually Ken’s real birthday, and he surprised Randi with a new Rogue in the garage when they came home from breakfast at Jeff and Barbara’s house. Naturally, we took the new car for the long drive over to New Jersey for dinner, which was delectable. I had a whole Dover sole filleted tableside and a tuna carpaccio for an appetizer. I hope fish is as good for you as they say it is, or I am in trouble this week. Please, please let my brain not be fried from too much mercury!

Sunday, Ken and Randi came in the morning and Adele stayed all afternoon with Mom and we took the opportunity to take a two-hour drive in the Prius to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where we met Ari for a leisurely lunch by the bay at Harris’s and watched the yachts float past.

Monday, I finally got the information I needed and completed a publication that was past its deadline. Yesterday afternoon and today, I started to develop the awful cold that it going around that I am told lasts for 10 days to two weeks. Thank goodness my work is caught up, Stacey is coming, and I am able to spend more time in bed and away from Mom. Writing this blog post was a trial, with hot tea and tissues at hand, but I am glad I did it. Writing blogs is one of the best free things in my modern life!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Brisket Accomplished

The seders are over and also the wild frenzy of cleaning and cooking that preceded them. I spent the better part of Tuesday in an effort to get all of my favorite Passover recipes posted on my other blog so that they would be available and useful to my friends and family, as well as to those other readers out there in cyberspace who have been logging on in increasing numbers.

Jessica drove in with my granddaughters last Friday and we did have an excellent time together. The girls were very happy to see their G.G. Evelyn, and she was even happier to see them. I hired Beth’s friend, Stacey, who has been laid off from her job since January, to help me take care of Mom as she becomes more and more bedridden, so I was able to get a lot more done for the holidays with a clearer conscience and with less interruption. I roasted my turkeys, one for me on the grill and one for Faith in the oven. The girls helped me get a huge pot of chicken soup cooking by peeling carrots and parsnips. Then, we grated Meyer lemon peels and squeezed them for sorbet. When Ken and Randi called to see how we were handling Shabbat dinner, since the kitchen had just been kashered, we invited ourselves over to their house for dinner. They were both wonderful and magnanimous and prepared an exceptional dinner which included appetizers, spinach salad, grilled striped bass and haddock, mashed cauliflower with parmesan, and brown rice pilaf. For dessert, we had apple strudel, fresh watermelon, and coffee. We stopped in at Adele and Larry’s house to load up baby things that were passing from Erica to Jessica.

Saturday, I arose very early to pack up the chicken soup that had been cooling during the wee hours of the morning. Ken and Randi stayed with Mom in the morning and then were relieved by Stacey in the afternoon so that Saul, Jessica, the girls, and I all could attend services and then visit G.G. Sima at Safe Haven at Lion’s Gate on her birthday, April 4. We brought her a gardenia plant as a gift. Each time we visit, there is less and less cognition. She recognizes us as people she knows, but cannot remember names anymore. When Saul mentioned her youngest sister, Sheva, who died as a child during the Holocaust, she had no memory of her whatsoever. The girls found a box of hats and scarves while we were visiting, and put on a show for us. When we returned home, we ordered pizza for dinner. Then, the girls helped me make 100 matzoh balls. After we tucked them into bed, I made giblet gravy and sliced and packed the two turkeys. Jessica peeled many apples and together we made haroset.

Sunday was gefilte fish day. It is best to get started early in the morning because this is an all-day process, but unfortunately, that was not to be. Saul went out to the garden with Sami and Izzy to assess our horseradish situation before heading off to Assi Market. The girls had a great time finding the distinctive green tops and digging out the roots while oohing and aahing over the wriggly earthworms. When Saul arrived at Assi Market at 9 a.m. to pick up the 25 pounds of carp, it had not been cleaned, filleted and prepared as we had requested. He came back home to help me with other tasks while they prepared the fish. At 10:15 a.m., he went back to pick up the prepared fish. When he arrived home with it, we dumped the frames into the sink so that I could ready them for the stock and discovered that they had merely sliced the fillets away from the bones. The fish had not even been gutted!

When I first began making gefilte fish approximately 30 years ago, I was paying about 40 cents a pound for carp, swimming weight. The price climbed by 15 or 20 cents a year for a few years. Then, suddenly in one year, it went from one dollar a pound to two dollars a pound. I was told that the increased cost was because the carp from The Great Lakes had become too polluted to eat and that it was now being obtained and shipped from California. This year, the fish was $2.99 per pound. Assi Market tacks on an additional $2.00 per pound to clean and fillet the fish. I opted to pay for this service considering my situation this year with my mother. When I saw that for $50 the fillets still had the skin on them and the fish had not even been gutted, I packed everything up and sent Saul back to the market with them. The manager was very apologetic, and for another hour, while Saul watched and waited, they prepared the fish properly, even removing the bitter, tooth-shaped bone near the gills.

While we were waiting at home, the girls helped make the matzoh apple kugel and Adele made the chocolate almond bars. By the time Saul returned, everyone was hungry for lunch and Jessica was anxious to get on the road home. I had given Stacey the day off on Sunday figuring that I would have plenty of help. My cousin, Anne, had come in from upstate New Jersey to help with the fish and learn the process. We left my sister, Adele, with Mom, and the rest of us headed off for a pre-Passover lunch at King Buffet in Plymouth Meeting, the girls’ favorite sushi restaurant.

It was almost three o’clock before I was able to get the fish frames in the pot and start grinding the fillets. Anne stayed until 6 p.m., but was not able to see the process through to its finality because of her long drive back. While the fish stock was cooking and the ground fish mixture was solidifying in the refrigerator, I put the two large briskets on to cook and roasted beets. I was able to finish and pack up the 52 pieces of fish into dishes, finally, by 11:30 p.m. Despite all the hassle, the fish was the most beautiful and delicious that I have ever made. I wanted to record the process for the recipe blog, but I suspect that this will be the last time I will ever prepare gefilte fish from scratch. The time, effort, and expense involved in preparing it properly just is not worth it.

On Monday, we first shopped to pick up last minute food items, like asparagus, and then to replace some of the novelty items we needed to make the seder and the Chad Gadya more interesting. These included a black cap with a rhinestone skull and crossbones for the Angel of Death, a rain stick, animal masks and hats, frog water pistols, and a stuffed goat (or lamb) as an afikomen present for Presley. I made and filled the mocha mousse crepes and made potato knishes. Saul and I prepared the mixtures for blood orange, banana, strawberry, and mango sorbets, in addition to the Meyer lemon. I sliced the brisket as Faith was arriving to move some of the dishes to her refrigerator and freezer to give me additional space.

On Tuesday, Saul whipped and packed the sorbets into the freezer. I began cooking the sweet potatoes and prepared chopped chicken liver. Saul took the food processor out to the garage and ground the horseradish. Then we made the hrain. By Tuesday evening, we were exhausted, not just from the cooking, but from the cleaning up afterward, and from the tension of helping Mom through bad spells. We discussed getting up before dawn on Wednesday, the morning of the first seder, to be present at synagogue for a one-time-in-28-years blessing of the sun, for morning minyan, and for a siyum of the firstborn. Saul is a firstborn child, and has an obligation to fast on the day before the first seder unless he participates in a study session which absolves him from fasting. We decided, after much debate, to wait until the next 28-year blessing, and Saul did his studying alone on the Internet this year, learning more about the blessing of the sun.

We made a wise decision. Getting the last minute chores done and setting the tables for 19 with ironed tablecloths, napkins, china, silver, and crystal used up all the time we had available on Wednesday. Anne picked up Aunt Ruth and arrived early to assemble the 150-year-old seder plate that Uncle Stef, of blessed memory, had brought from Germany. This was the seder plate we all remembered from childhood. We have searched, fruitlessly, all our lives to find one like it for ourselves. It was a joy to behold on the table this year and a remembrance of Uncle Stef and his wonderful seders.

Our guests were: Aunt Ruth, Anne, Bob, Ken, Randi, Jamie, Andy, Presley, Haley, Erik, Marianne, Stacey, Jeff (Ken’s business partner), Barbara, Jeremy and Jeffrey, and Elaine. We started a bit late, as Jamie and Andy had a long drive from Delaware, but the seder went very smoothly, the food was sumptuous, and we finished up a little before midnight, albeit with my prodding Saul to continue with the seder rather than telling “just one more story.” I fear I have taken his mother’s place in constantly urging him to finish more quickly. Mom was wheeled to the table as the seder began and managed to get through the beginning, even having a few bites of dinner. She was awake through most of the after-dinner session and was disappointed that she could not muster the strength to be wheeled back in for the conclusion.

Thursday morning was spent cleaning up from the previous evening. In the afternoon, I slept for almost four hours while Saul answered multiple phone calls. When I finally awoke, I took watch so that he could sleep for an hour. Since the few guests we invited for the second seder had last-minute changes in their plans, my friend Faith invited us to join her family for the seder I had helped prepare for them. Stacey stayed with Mom, as she has become too weak to travel, and we had the opportunity to spend a warm evening catching up with some of Faith’s children and grandchildren whom we have not seen for a number of years. I greatly missed being with my own children and grandchildren for both seders. Perhaps next year will be different.

Friday, I finally organized my kitchen and put away the last of the seder items for next year. I made another batch of Passover rolls to tide us over during the week and another matzoh apple kugel. Ken and Randi joined us for Shabbat dinner and we had delicious leftovers.

Adele came this morning and I slept until 10:30. The Sunday New York Times Crossword Puzzle was too easy this week and I finished it in an hour. The weather today was raw and rainy and Saul and I found ourselves suffering from post-party (as opposed to post-partum) depression. In the last week, we have had to resort to giving Mom medication (Lorazepam) to help her get through bad periods where even the oxygen mask does not help her to breathe freely as she goes into afibrillation. Jessica’s due date has been moved up to May 10, Mother’s Day, and she could have the baby at any time now. I am trying to deal with each minute as it comes, rather than worry about the future, but it is a struggle, as my brain doesn’t normally work that way. Keeping busy in the kitchen was a great way to forget about my troubles for a while, but now that the brisket is accomplished, I need to find other outlets to keep myself from brooding.