It Isn’t Easter Without Horseradish

Happy Easter! Happy Spring! Some flowering trees on my walk.

 

 

Chrzan– horseradish (pronounced Kshan)

I bought a jar of horseradish at the grocery store. It pained me because I know Ciocia Felicia grated fresh horseradish for the Easter breakfast table at my parents’ house. I’m 2,006 miles away so I have to figure out how to burn my nose hairs on my own, so I can feel like I had a normal Easter without them.

I can picture her grating it- outside or on the porch, silver metal bowl in hand, eyes tearing, nose sniffling and face red with force. Woman against rooty beast. When it comes to hand to hand combat, believe me, I put my money on Ciocia Fela. She’s not easily put off by tears and some hard work. Someone walks out a winner from the shred, and it isn’t the root.

Ciocia keeps the grated horseradish white, or dyes it purple with beets. She stores it in a recycled jar. I like seeing those old jam jars. Makes my store bought shrink wrapped cap hygienic but disappointing. I bought Bubbies brand because it had natural ingredients and their dill pickles are super tasty. I had a different brand I picked up first but when I saw that Bubbies made horseradish, I brought the other one back with a skip in my step. Any company that has a photo of their ancestor on the bottle is okay in my book. This is the best I can get to homemade without doing it myself.

If Ciocia had her picture on a jar, she'd be wearing her Elton John glasses.

I’m not sure I have the mettle to hand-grate some myself. I’m likely to touch my eyes or scrape my knuckles. It just wouldn’t be fun to try unless I had my mom and my aunt, hovering behind me saying, “Not like this. Like this.”

It’s the Chrzan we talk about around the table, second to the fresh kielbasa.

“Where is the Chrzan?”
“Pass the Chrzan”
“Is the Chrzan hot this year?”

Adam usually plops a heaping spoonful onto his kielbasa and rye bread.

Czy ty zwariował – Have you gone crazy! My mother will say.

Everyone waits for the verdict, hot or not hot? It happens every year. It will happen again today even though I am not at home.

I’ll ask on the phone.

If ‘It’s not that hot’ is proclaimed. Ciocia will go on to complain about the root. She’ll shrug. She’ll wonder if Market Basket didn’t have good ones this year. She’ll act like it was a firecracker that didn’t go off. A dud. A fuse with no blast. She’ll feel had, robbed of something spectacular. There’s nothing she likes better than setting off a Roman candle at the kitchen table while silently taking praise while washing the dishes.

spring fireworks

It’s not like one cooks a horseradish to perfection, you either get a good root or not. You either balance it perfectly with vinegar or you don’t. It’s either going to create a new path in your sinuses or it won’t.

Every Easter, we gather around the table to find out.

Will my store bought horseradish be as tasty at Ciocia’s homemade horseradish? I dunno.

My nose is waiting.

The Pleasant Steady Pulse of Satisfaction

It is difficult to write today. Not that I have a particular block, just that the work week drained me. I am much more interested in reading (four new books on the coffee table) than showing up in front of a blank page. Writing is work and to paraphrase my friend Catherine, you get to only enjoy a few moments of glitter. The rest is sweat.

If I have to work today, I’d rather mop my hardwood floors- which I did. And not lazy-man mopping, only maneuvering the mop head around furniture. I moved my sofa, I rolled the bed away. I swept up dust bunnies so large they reminded me of childhood cotton candy vats that spun airy fibers into a kind of wig. I’m a tidy person, but still the dust collected. I pictured my mother’s eyes assessing the mound and figuring exactly how many days I let this carnival dust bunny grow under my bed.

This only validated my need to mop instead of write because obviously these dust bunnies would have tried to suffocate me overnight.
I thwarted them.

For now.

When I was a kid and inexplicably sneezed in succession in bed at night. I heard a singsong voice coming down the dark hallway from my parents’ bedroom, “Someone didn’t vacuum so good.”

“I vacuumed!” Achoo!

“Not behind the bed.”

Achoo! Achoo!

I feel like this sneezing memory is much like the nagging blank page in my head. It wasn’t going to go away until I did something about it. No matter how much I wanted the page to write itself today, I had to work at it like rolling away an unwieldy bed from a wall.

I am reminded of the words of so many great writers, mentor and artists who talk about creative process and their work. Two words: Show up.

So I stared straight at this blank page and found words after I moved some furniture in my mind.

I finally got into the rhythm of work and felt the pleasant steady pulse of satisfaction.

Five Minute Intervals of Courage Part 2

I came home from my double black diamond experience to find 80 degree weather in Denver. It’s surreal to go from snowy mountains to hot and dry in the city in just an hour and fifteen minutes. My neighbors buzzed by on their moped and looked utterly baffled by my snow pants and ski jacket. “Just got back from skiing.” I managed to blurt out, hoping I didn’t appear as Twilight Zone as I felt. My second beer at high altitude was still in fuzzy effect. I could already tell that my human luge experience was going to reveal its toll in full force by morning. Everything was slow motion and sunny.

When I turned on my computer to check in with the world, I found a rejection letter from a literary magazine. Before I could even sigh or feel a ping or a ting in my confidence. I filed it in my “No Vacancy” folder. That was it. No huffing or puffing. It was like I was sorting mail. I don’t know if it’s because I pushed my limits and careened down a mountain earlier or because I know the slim statistics of getting published, but it didn’t feel bad to hear, no.

I think I realized that giving myself credit for taking a risk far outweighs the result. Better to have had a David Lee Roth tumble down the mountain experience than stay with the familiar view on an intermediate trail. Better to file a No Vacancy letter than it is to keep pages dormant on a hard drive.

The intermediate trail is a fine place. One that I’m sure I’ll continue to enjoy but I know risks drive me toward progress. No guts, no glory.

“Hi Mom, guess what?”

By the tone of my voice she already knows that I am trying to convince her that something was a good idea.

“What?”

“I skied down a double black diamond trail.”

“I don’t know what this is.”

“It’s the hardest trail. I was at the top of the mountain. 12,313 feet!”

Szukasz guza!” You’re looking for a goose!

“I love that phrase.”

A ty na dupie zechalas.” And you road down on your ass.

“Yup.”

My mom, she knows me so well.

Dobrze ze portki nie zgubilas.” It’s good that you didn’t lose your pants.

And I didn’t lose my pants, but I held onto my life by the seat of them.

Five Minute Intervals of Courage

Me at Copper Mountain 3/17/12

With names like Kaboom and Revenge in the expert trail terrain, it’s not difficult to imagine why normal people stick to the intermediate trails like Windsong and Rhapsody.

‘Would you like to ski the top of the mountain?’ my friend’s husband asked. We were riding up on a lift together. He’s a well-seasoned skier.

“Mmmmm,” I hesitated. ” I don’t know. Looks steep.”

“It’s not that bad.” He replied.

I know him well enough to examine this statement carefully. He, like me, watched the Mount Everest show on Discovery. He, unlike me, would actually attempt to climb Everest. This distinction is everything I need to know about statements like ‘It’s not that bad.”

Being so high up on the lift, I saw the double black diamond trails. I watched a speck of a skier navigate the sheer drop of the mountain as if he were tracing beautiful vine paths. I turned to check out the rest of the trail below. It looked doable except for that formidable first wall of white.

‘Just take it slow.’ This not only made sense it seemed 100% possible to accomplish. After all I’ve been skiing for a while, and while I’m not an expert, and I’m still working on my form, I have been down single black diamonds before(though not my favorite). Why not see what a double is like?

 

For five minutes, I sang out Yes. By the time we got to the top, a place where I could still choose to go down an intermediate trail or traverse the rim of the mountain to reach the last 2-person lift that would take us to the tip pity top- I shook my head no.

“I can’t do it. I’m losing my courage.”

“No problem. We can meet up at the bottom.” T said. He was encouraging and kind.

I stood staring at the map. Do it and Don’t do it tugged their war in my head. The blue sky and intense Colorado sun were energizing me. The wind whipped the tip of my nose as I tried to readjust my gator.

I looked back at the map and then back over my shoulder at this mysterious part of the mountain- a place where you can walk to an edge and see the other side. It was still early in the day and I felt the pull of challenge and a promise of a reward. My ratio of fear to interest was equal.

I had another five minute interval of courage.

“Okay. I changed my mind. Let’s hurry up before I change it again.”

We traversed areas roped off at ledges and jumped on the lift. I only noticed a handful of people. It was so quiet and beautiful. At the top of the lift, we had to take off our skis and walk another 5-10 minutes. This is what crazy expert people do, and I am only one of these things.
At 12, 313 feet, I was panting. I could really feel the altitude. The base of the mountain is a little over 9,000 feet.

And this is where I paused for the first picture.

That was my first reward: Mother Nature saying, check out these guns. The moment was deserving of the word, awesome.
Every second I looked over the ledge though, another minute of courage drained from my sun-kissed face. T offered pitch perfect encouragement and had saint-status patience. He had moved a few feet down the mountain. His black and white coat framed the sky. I saw nothing below where he stood. Just the sense of space, a drop off.

I felt like a cat who stands at a door threshold and backs up with hind legs when it discovers the weather is not to their liking.

Nope definitely cannot do this.

“I can’t.” I croaked to T.

He encouraged, he cajoled. I waved him on to stop waiting. I knew I was holding him back. I was clearly having some decision making issues. Scared or stupid, I couldn’t tell which one I was being. And not necessarily certain if it was exclusive to one definition.

I popped my skis off. Two older gentlemen walked up.

“I’ve lost my courage” I said to them both. “I’m turning back.”

“You don’t need courage” one said, “You just need to turn.”

“One turn at a time. Little U shapes. Gravity will pull you forward but tip your skis back up toward the mountain.”

“You can do it.”

“But I feel like I just fell out of the turnip truck.”

He laughed. “We all fall out of the turnip truck.”

And I thought, right. No one is born knowing how to ski double black diamonds. You learn it. You do it. You try. Essentially baby steps.
I was renewed. I clicked my skis back on and slid into the first position where I had seen T at the ledge. The older gent saw me pause again.

“Do you see a path you can take?”

“Mmhm.” I said.

I thought: I can do this and cut into the first mogul and moved toward my second.

This is the part where you might think I’m getting ready to do my victory lap on the page.
But this is the part in the story where the back of my ski felt like it had an uh-oh.

I wiped out.

I started sliding down the mountain. Not just sliding, but I somersaulted like a sneaker in a washing machine. Skis popped off one at a time, I couldn’t tell you when because I was too busy thinking: Shitshitshitshitshitshit. Stop body stop!

I must have looked cartoonish. My heavy ski boots plunked into the mountain and gave my ragdoll body some gravity, like a magnet keeping me on the mountain. I was thrown forwards, to the side, spun upside down, and for a few seconds I was lateral to the mountain in some weird David Lee Roth split. I erupted into laughter and puh- and uh and erred my way down. I managed to straighten myself out and untangled a pole from between my crossed ankles. I went even faster.

I had become a human luge.

I laughed harder and harder and kept thinking to myself: As long as you’re laughing you won’t break anything. The sound of speed crackled under my jacket. I went down 200-300 feet. It took about 10-15 seconds, I guess. It was blur. I landed at the merciful plateau before the next much less steep dive down.

“Well, that’s one way to get down the mountain!” I yelled laughing to the graceful gent who effortlessly weaved around moguls and picked up my skis and poles littered on the mountain.

“You almost had it. You always have to go toward the future.” He said as he leaned forward on his ski showing me the balance I didn’t manage to keep.

“Don’t lean into the past too much. “ He said shifting his weight all the way back. “You’ll lose your balance.”

Wise words.

“Don’t give up.”

“I won’t. Thank you.”

He handed me my skis and I met up with T who by chance had looked up the mountain and saw me start my descent. We had the most brilliant ski down the rest of the trail. And he bought me a beer at lunch. The hardest part was behind me. While I didn’t actually ski down the face of the double black section, I certainly experienced it. If I practiced a little more on some single black diamonds, I could do it again. I could get better.
Sometimes you just have to get a feel for something.

As my brother John texted: No guts, No glory.

…Next week: Part 2: What mom said and how I relate this incident to writing.

From Nothingness to Somethingness

Skype snapshot

My parents just learned how to use Skype.  I practiced with them on my Dad’s birthday last week. (Happy Birthday again Dad!) So far so good– if we can just get Ciocia and my Mom to stay in the webcam frame.  They’d just finished up a nice birthday dinner and I said I was jealous. Ciocia disappeared from view and came back with a slice of her meatloaf on a paper plate so I could see it.  Something she cooked up after watching a cooking show.

Skype snapshot: Ciocia's prized meatloaf.

I made an email appointment for them to talk to their niece, Gienia (Geh-niah), in Lithuania today. My mom and aunt and I last saw her in person in 1997, Dad only by photo.  So it’s a little more than exciting to get them coordinated.

I seem to appreciate technology much more when I’m connecting my parents to it.  I tend to have a ‘Look Mom! It’s magic!’ disposition.  She is always surprised about what is possible. Dad keeps up with these things so it’s my mom who stays marveled.  For a person who used to call a travel agent and show up in person to procure multi-layered paper stock boarding passes, I revel in telling her that now you can check in at the gate using your phone.

Well, I can’t because as you know, I’m just a few steps up from Michael Douglas’ Wall Street phone. But still the possibility exists!

Sometimes my mom will ask, “Masz wiadomość od Spacebook?”  Do you have news from Spacebook?

“Ma, it’s Facebook. My Space is one thing. Facebook is another.”

“Spacebook. Facebook. I don’t know these junks.”

I like the idea of Spacebook so much better. I picture everyone on it floating around like a tethered astronaut in space. Only silence and waving.

I have Facebook and Skype to thank for connecting me with some of my relatives in Poland and Lithuania. Otherwise it’s the slow romantic letter changing hands and making its way onto planes and into letter bags for delivery through a mail slot. I don’t want to see that ever end. But to see a long lost relative face to face on a computer screen feels like magic. What couldn’t be done before is now completely possible. From nothingness to somethingness.

Sometimes I can’t wrap my head around how something so simple can be so historic.

Lifting the Roof

 

 

Last week my brother texted me: hey your blog didn’t go through. Really? I replied. I worried that I messed up synching my website and WordPress. Normally I have things set to automatically post on Central Mountain time. But since I was in Massachusetts for the weekend, I thought I made an error since I was on Eastern Standard Time.

“You didn’t see the pictures?” I asked.

“Yeah, I saw the pictures. But no text.”.

“Did you read the title? It says Photo Essay.”

“Oh.”

We had a laugh.

I had a lot I wanted to write about last weekend but the pictures of the bird feeder captured what I was feeling that I couldn’t (still can’t) find words to express.

Since I was last home, Ciocia Felicia hot glued an aluminum pan to the bottom of the bird feeder-  a wider base for the birds to rest while they ate. I was drawn to the tied twine over the roof.  It was hard to tell whether the roof was holding up the floor or if the floor and twine was keeping the roof from blowing off.  Either way, it was fortified.

At first I was puzzled by this. Wouldn’t the wide, flat base invite a squirrel to set up a lawn chair on it? Wouldn’t it gorge away on seeds like the way someone at the beach reaches down into a bag of chips?

“No squirrel.” Ciocia said. Apparently, they don’t have the palate for Wild Bird seed.

I flew home to help take care of my Dad, while my Mom and Ciocia had a respite weekend at a casino-complete with tickets to the Farewell Glen Campbell tour. A Christmas gift from our family.  May the record state that my mother who usually goes to bed at 7pm stayed out until 3:30am. When they called to tell me this they were giggling like girls at a sleep over.  I got to spend quality time with my Dad. Heard a new story about the house he grew up in in Poland.

I hope I have this energy at age 73 and age 85. I hope I have my father’s grace when I am thrown into things beyond my control.

The high winds battered the feeder the next day. I went outside to fix it. It had flipped up on the corners where there was no twine. The glue came undone on the edge.

I stood there reshaping the aluminum, trying to make the floor straight again. I did the best I could.

The house swung from its hook in the wind.

 

1991 Self Talks to 2012 Self

I just passed in ten pages of a chapter for my writing workshop and my mind is rather deep in 1991. I was studying in London at the time and took my first trip to Poland as an adult. So I’m having a hard time switching gears back to the blogosphere. My 2012 self is talking to my 1991 self and we’re having quite the conversation. It’s interesting to notice streaks of wisdom with forehead slapping -you were so 19! Not that I did too many stupid things just that when you’re that young, you’re brave with inexperience.

While I didn’t write about my wardrobe I was thinking about what I wore back then: Black tights with jean shorts, Doc Martens, a plaid shirt and a velvet hat, rim tipped up.  I swear on my life that was fashionable. (I think.)

I wore Juba-Juba Perfume Oil from The Body Shop. Sometimes I dipped myself in it when I knew I was going to the University of London Union and would see the bartender I had a crush on. He was tall and looked like a cross between a greaser from the 50s and a New Wave punk rocker. I got heart bubbles every time I saw him. I might have been the most perfumed Grunge girl on the planet. I imagine the fragrance coming off of me like Pig Pen’s cloud of dust only mine was of the clean and flowery variety. People still talked to me. That was good. No luck with the bartender though.

I can’t say that I didn’t have self-conscious thoughts back then. What teenager isn’t self-conscious? But it is fortifying to see how little fear existed in everything I did.  Whether it was traveling alone to Dublin for a week or flying to Poland with a mission to meet family (some I had never met before, some I hadn’t seen in 16 years )or wearing my best plaid to talk to a punky bartender,  I did so with curiosity leading the way. I just went with it. No noise. Nothing to overcome. Nothing to reason out.  The motivation of doing what I wanted was pure.

It’s good to know that 19 year old is still inside me. It hollers up to my almost 40 year old self and says, Keep going!

Another One Bites the Dust

 

I embrace technology with reluctance. Answering machine? I swore I’d never buy one in college wondering, why can’t people just call back? Eventually, I caught up with the idea but just shy of voicemail coming into the picture. If I could still be using my childhood black rotary phone, believe me I would. There was nothing like carefully dialing a boy’s number, heart pounding, finger releasing at the silver half-moon watching the disc circle back hoping my finger didn’t stutter a second dial on the way up. You had to be paying attention. Last I knew that black phone was in my brother Adam’s attic. His then young son had lifted it out of a box and asked, “Dad, What’s this?”

On a recent trip to San Francisco, my friend who works for Apple remarked that my cell phone was antique. “It’s only a year old,” I said. “You should have seen my last one.”  When I went to trade my Ericsson up, the AT&T clerk turned it around in his hands like a rare fossil.  Please. Let’s not exaggerate, I wanted to say. It’s not like I passed in a Michael Douglas 1980s cell phone from Wall Street.

It’s not that I don’t like technological advances. (I have an ipod that was given to me.) I’m just slow on the uptake. Why throw away what still works? I donated my mint condition VHS player when I moved in June. And you know what? I regret it. How am I going to watch my rare Peace Corps video vignettes from Eritrea, Africa that fellow volunteer Colin taped in 1995? If I know Colin, he’s already converted it to DVD. I must have thought this thought when I packed up the player (in its original box) as I loaded up the car for Goodwill. Otherwise, poof it’s gone. If anyone wonders whether I am my mother’s daughter, you needn’t look for further proof.

At least I don’t put plastic on the lampshades.

I’m more of use it into the ground kind of person. Enjoy it while you got it is my motto.

My mother used her Maytag for 40 years. It saw so much use, the dial was completely worn to white with only the slightest blue flecks as evidence that numbers once existed. She knowingly turned it to the click, like an expert safe-cracker. This proved to be a great excuse for my not being able to do laundry. It had its curbside exit after a few visits from the repair man who finally had to break it to my mother.

All this came up because today I was thinking about our family stereo. The wide console one with the smoky quartz colored plastic hood. I so clearly remember it in the “Big Room”- our fancy room. The Christmas tree room. The one with an ornate chandelier and crystal filled credenza. It’s also the room that for a time in the late 70s and early 80s got blocked off at the threshold with white chenille bedspread to conserve heat in the house.

I am not joking when I say, that my brothers and I would slip into our snowsuits, carefully slink past the tasseled bedspread just so we could listen to the stereo.  Winter 1980. I am eight years old. Adam had newly acquired Queen The Game album. I remember his careful, no thumb prints handling and the way he put the needle down and moved back from the turntable, palms down in a careful-do-not-disturb way. John and I would dance a jig to “Another One Bite’s the Dust”. Our dancing was a cross between the Peanuts Gang head wagging and some crazy ass kids in snowsuits trying to stay warm. On some nights we could see our own breath.  The crystals on the chandelier were in gentle percussion with our steps. If we bounced too much, Adam still in lotus in front of the stereo would yell, “HEY! Don’t make it skip.” He’d resume his watchful eye, palms at-the-ready to lift the needle up.

We’d read liner notes and learned lyrics.

We listened to one side and then flipped to the other. We studied the album, understanding somehow that it was a work of art. A concept. A poem. Something to be experienced as a whole especially because you saved up to buy it with a special trip to Record Lane or RRRecords.  At some point was it that year? Or later? Adam showed me how to put the needle down with my thumb.

And you know what? You can’t do that with an ipod.

——————-Let me tell you about my Victrola… That baby can pump out some SOUND!

 

Brotherly Love

My brother Johnny once paid me $5 to leave him and his neighborhood friend Tom alone. I took the five bucks. After a respectable 20 minutes, I found them. “You promised. Give it back, you big baby.” Johnny hissed.

John loved calling me, you big baby.

He also loved suffocating me with blankets in front of the TV and holding my head underwater in the pool at the Cape. Adam seven years older than me was disinterested in torturing me, while Johnny four years my senior relished it. Just the same I wanted to hang out with both of them.

I had friends up on Christian Hill but that wasn’t close enough for the quick after school hang out. I only had our neighbor’s granddaughter to play with and she didn’t visit all the time.  Unlike my brothers who had their two friends Tom and John L., also brothers, just down the street.

I was the sidecar. The mascot. The tail. The pain in the ass sister with five bucks in her pocket dying to play.

Who are they kidding I thought, how can you play hide-and-go-seek with two people? They needed me, even if they didn’t readily admit it.  Who else would circle around the house for what seemed like hours trying to find them. Who else would race a sled alongside them and appreciate the yellow shag carpet remnant they lined the sled with or marvel at the fake paper licenses they created for pulling themselves over for fast sledding down Mr. Ouellette’s backyard hill?

I made for the slowest snowball target. The gullible player in 52-Pick Up. I was the lightest projected human off ramps of snow and given the sacred “booster” request, meaning someone would lie on his belly and link their sled behind mine and just as I was about to hit the ramp, pushed my sled forward with all his might.

Getting air, as every kid knows, is like breaking the sound barrier.

One booster from John L. sent me flying vertical. Plastic crackling over the ice. My red sled fell away from me like the space shuttle loses its rockets when it hits the atmosphere. I ripped through the sky and then gravity barreled me straight back to earth. My head a pumpkin thud. Sky and tree branches seemingly moved in a circle. Faces suddenly popped into view. My response to are you okay, slow.

A goose the size of a plum started growing at the back of my head. No blood, a relief; a good indicator that my parents would not have to kill anyone with a look that night.

A fearful, don’t tell Mom, okay? And then a comforting, you’re okay. Somebody rubbing my head until I had to push the hat back up above my eyes. I can’t remember if I cried. I’m sure I did. It was Kryptonite to the boys when it came from a real accident.

“Man, did you see her go up?” Head shakes and ohhhhs lasted the whole way back up the hill and over our fence. They knew how to cheer me up. Our round-toed spaces boots barely gripped the chain link as we climbed over.

That night I sat next to my mom on the couch. She stroked my hair, hand stopping at the bump on my head. My eyes wide.  She called it a guza. A bum­p– oddly similar to us calling it a goose in English, though I am sure the only relation is the sound.

“Aw, nothing. Jus’ bumped my head sledding.”

Some moments called for discretion, especially when future launches were at stake.

Years later, discretion was the same friend that would get me into my first party.