Amazing Grace

Matt, right, with his son Michael at a family wedding five years ago.

The holidays always make me a little uneasy because bad things tend to befall my family when the rest of the world rejoices.

My maternal grandfather died on New Year’s Eve when I was 10. I still remember my Dad coming into my room and breaking the news to me. It was one of the first and only times I ever saw him cry.

Several years later, my father was diagnosed with colon cancer about a week before Christmas and spent the holiday in the hospital. About all I remember from that horrible year was wishing Christmas would end as quickly as possible.

It was hard to watch people celebrating when my father was recuperating from surgery and on the brink of chemo, and I just wanted it to be over. Yes, I’ll admit I was a Scrooge, but I didn’t care. My family wasn’t together or particularly happy, though we did manage to cobble together a wonderful Christmas Eve dinner orchestrated by my paternal grandmother.

So it’s always with a mix of excitement and dread that I greet the holidays. My excitement and joy is tinged with caution. Call it Murphy’s law. As my father-in-law Steve Murphy used to say, you never want to be too happy because life has a way of putting you in your place.

This year’s Christmas was a bit magical. My family scored our best tree ever from a nearby tree farm and we splurged on new colored lights to accentuate its perfect lines. We spent Christmas Eve with my extended family, returning home around 1 o’clock on Christmas morning.

The following day, we opened gifts, had brunch and visited a nearby monastery to worship. In the late afternoon, we headed to my sister’s house dressed in tartan, sipping champagne and wine and feasting on traditional ham, potatoes and greens.

But then I got the call that reminded me why I dread Christmas: one of my brother-in-laws suffered a heart attack the day after the holiday and was in grave condition at Yale-New Haven Hospital. One of my sisters called with the news and was hysterical, but I tried to be calm: we must be positive, he survived the ambulance ride to the hospital so that was a good sign, he’s getting the best care at a top-notch hospital and most importantly, he cannot die because he’s needed so much here.

Matt and his family with the bride and groom, and with our extended family.

I met Matt when he was still a teen-ager. He and my sister began dating in high school and they went to prom together. He was her first love and they married about 10 years after their first date. They set up house a few miles from my parents’ home, and began building their family with two sons, and several years later, a daughter.

Matt quickly assimilated into our large clan, becoming known as much for his laid back personality as his kind heart and willingness to help in any situation. The year my Dad was in the hospital, it was Matt who bought a Christmas tree and erected it in our living room. I didn’t know that until my mother told me yesterday.

While in high school, Matt worked in the local fish store and never lost his skill with a clam knife. On Christmas Eve, he went to my mother’s house and shucked about 400 clams for our stuffed clam course. He also supervised the prep and cooking of the baked stuffed lobsters. This was no easy task: there were about 35 of us gathered that night.

I don’t remember Matt eating on Christmas Eve because he was too busy working in the kitchen to serve and feed us. He was that kind of guy: generous to a fault, always willing to put others before him.

We had a great conversation on Christmas Eve as we sat around the bar in my parents’ basement. He was off from work from his job at Sikorsky Aircraft in Stratford, CT., and looking forward to some down time. He was happy and upbeat, talking about the weekend’s upcoming football games and Christmas shopping with his daughter.

I guess that’s why it was so shocking to hear that he became violently ill the night after Christmas, and was rushed to the hospital. It seemed surreal, and was hard to wrap my head around the news that he was gravely ill. I decided to be positive and think good thoughts. I refused to consider the alternative.

But as the day dragged on, it became clear that he was fighting an uphill battle. I prayed to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, hoping for a miracle. I begged God to spare him, telling him that his work on this earth was far from over. But it was not to be. Matt died around 1 a.m. surrounded by 21 members of our extended family.

So many of Matt’s in-laws and nieces and nephews were at the hospital that staffers shepherded them to a conference room to wait their turn to visit his room. As one of my sisters said, he wasn’t just an in-law. He was our brother, an integral part of our family for nearly 40 years. He was loved, and he will be missed more than he’ll ever know.

I’m impressed and proud of my two nephews and my niece, who are much more composed accepting their father’s death than I’d be at their age. About the only comfort I received was seeing them and how well they’re handling the situation. Just when you think you understand kids, they’ll shock you with their ability to handle life’s worst situations.

As we drove home from visiting Matt’s family, I told my daughter that I’m still struggling to deal with Matt’s death. I told her I’d need grace to do it, and at this point, I don’t have it. She didn’t quite understand the definition of grace, so I tried to explain it and give her an example:

“Your cousins showed a lot of grace today,” I said. “And I want what they have. I need it.”

What I’ve learned about grace is that you can’t demand it – it must be granted to you. I also now know that you don’t necessarily know when you have grace, but you know when you don’t.

I’ve lacked grace over the past few days, and it’s been painfully obvious to me. But my nephews and niece reminded me of what it looks like, and maybe that in itself is grace in action. I hope and pray it is.

Portuguese Water Torture

It’s a good thing she’s so cute.

I admire people who wake up at the crack of dawn, let the dog out, and fall back to sleep for a few hours.

My friend Barbara says she can sometimes sleep after getting her young daughter on the bus in the morning. She even drifted off to 10 o’clock one morning, awakened only by the sound of her ringing phone.

But this isn’t me. Once I’m up and slugging down my first cup of coffee, I’m up for the day and raring to go, at least until I can grab an afternoon nap. I know industrious people like my older sister who hit the trail with her dog Susie at sunrise, but I prefer to write or watch Netflix comedy specials, movies or documentaries. Perhaps this is why she’s so slim and my pants are snug, but that’s a blog for another day.

Early morning is my special time, at least since children entered my life 22 years ago. As a freelance writer, I was often tasked with writing articles on deadline, an impossible feat with two young children yammering in my ear all day.

So with looming deadlines and limited childcare, I began to awaken at 5 a.m. to write, or “craft,” as my old editor John would say, realizing that’s when I’m most clear-headed and able to string together thoughts and sentences.


In the world of sleep vernacular, I’m an early bird or “lark” – someone who awakens early and performs best in the morning. The Curmudgeon is an “owl,” someone who relishes night hours. We’ve always had these tendencies, but our bird proclivities have become more extreme over the years.

Over the past few months, I’m ready to hit the sack at 9 p.m., while the Curmudgeon is laying out legal paperwork on our dining room table and digging into files well past midnight. This may explain why he sleeps to 7:30 most mornings, unable to roust himself from bed when I’ve already logged almost three hours of wakefulness.

As far as I can recall, he’s always been this way. When we were engaged, he joined us briefly on a family vacation to Hilton Head Island, S.C.. When he was still in bed at 9 a.m., my father surveyed the breakfast table and asked, “Where’s Steve? Doesn’t he ever wake up?”

There are exceptions to our nightly ritual, of course. Last night, we saw Jerry Seinfeld at an Indian casino about an hour from our house, and returned to watch the end of the President’s Cup golf tournament. After the United States pulled off a come from behind win, we went to bed around 12:30 a.m.

I hoped to do the impossible and sleep in, but was awakened by one of the worst sounds on earth: my sister’s Portuguese water dog whining at 6 a.m. The whining (or “squeaking” as my sister calls it) is akin to Chinese water torture, only worse. It’s like listening to a screaming baby who needs to be fed, changed and put down for a nap all at the same time.

I consider myself a nice person and a dog lover. One of my sisters has even called me a dog whisperer – an exaggeration if you ask me. But I can’t stand the sound of whining in the human or animal kingdom. All I want to do when I hear it is stop it as quickly as possible.

One of my worst periods as a mother was when my son began whining around age 3, but at least you can try to reason with a pre-schooler. “Use your words,” I’d plead, or “I can’t hear you when you whine.” But what do you say to a dog besides “STOP!” “Cut it out. I mean it!” or at my lowest point, “If you don’t stop it, I’m going to have to bring you home.”?

I’ve been watching my sister’s pup while she and her family are in New Mexico, where she’s receiving her doctorate in education. I’m very proud of her accomplishment, though I wish she’d invited me to tag along. Like any New Englander, I’d go anywhere to escape this climate for a few days, but it wasn’t in the cards. So I volunteered to watch her pooch.

The whining began at 6 and quickly reached an irritating and persistent crescendo, startling me out of a sound sleep. When it became clear that my pleas to stop were futile, I assumed she needed to be let out. I got up and opened the front door. But she didn’t need to do her business. She wanted to be fed, and whined until I ran into the pantry and got her kibble.

I wasn’t moving fast enough for her, so she continued to whine until I placed her bowl on the floor. Within about a minute, her food was devoured and I was officially up. So much for my fantasy of sleeping in.

I made myself a mug of coffee and settled onto the couch to watch a documentary on Netflix when I noticed the dog had disappeared. I went looking for her, finally finding her upstairs in bed snuggled next to the Curmudgeon. In addition to being a dog, it appears our furry house guest is an owl too.

I was happy for both dog and man, I really was. But let’s be clear: that should’ve been me in that bed.


My 200th Post

Strike up the band: a blogging milestone.

My food blogging instructor (yes, such people exist) warned us about a few things during our semester-long course at a nearby community college.

  • Blog at least once a week, or readers assume you’ve abandoned your blog.
  • Keep posts short and sweet.
  • Use lots of photos.
  • Most bloggers stop after two years.

I’ve come back to the last one often because it’s tempting to ditch the whole thing and move onto other things. For the most part, bloggers don’t get paid, so our blogs are a labor of love stemming from a need to write and communicate with the outside world.

And though I’d be lying if I said I’ve never thought of packing it in, I love to write and am happiest when I’m using the creative part of my brain. I think most people are the same way, though sometimes we get sidetracked.

When I was in a creative funk, I used Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist’s Way,” which was given to me by my brother-in-law David, who’s an actor. Today, Cameron even has an online course to help people unblock their creative potential. If you’re feeling stuck, give it a try:

This is my 200th post. I believe part of the reason I’ve stuck with it is my refusal to be a blogger who lasts only two years. I can be stubborn, enjoy a challenge and I don’t like quitters. And though it seems like I’ve been doing this forever, I’ve only been at it since May, 2017, meaning I’m only about six months past the quitter zone.

The focus of my blog has shifted somewhat. In the beginning, I wrote a lot about food because that was the focus of my coursework. But today, I write about whatever’s on my mind, and hope it resonates with at least one person. I love feedback, and am puzzled when people tell me that they read my blog but never like it or comment. Sometimes, I write a post in hopes of getting one of these holdouts out of the shadows (and I mean you, Greg M.).

I like to see the humor in life, but realize not everyone thinks I’m amusing. Some people think I’m an idiot. I know because a newspaper reader once said she thought I was a dipstick while I was standing in line at the fish store. My fish monger Dave was mortified, and so was I. People love to shoot the messenger, as any newspaper reporter will tell you.

My blog emerged from one of the worst periods of my life just after my son left for school. I struggled for months to figure out how to fill up the time that he once occupied. And believe me, that kid consumed a lot of my time, energy and focus.

One morning, I awakened with the idea for this blog and the title, which is based on my favorite childhood sandwich. I’ve never awakened with an idea like that before, so I guess there’s a first time for everything. All I know is that after months of floating, it was a relief to have my own little project.

I didn’t have a plan, just to write from the heart. Forty-seven drafts have never seen the light of day – probably a good thing. If I don’t have enough confidence to push the publish button, the blog probably won’t resonate with readers either.

Back in my newspaper days, editors always put an upbeat or light story on the front page to offset often tragic or disturbing stories. It was thought that these light or “fluff stories” – and by the way, I was once known as the “Queen of Fluff” – would provide relief to readers.

I’d like to think of this blog as a continuation of my fluff days. You all have enough on your plates – and believe me, that’s not lost on me – that you don’t need to read anything heavy here, or my philosophy on life. So I’ll continue to plug away, at least until I can put a little more distance between me and the quitting zone.

Thanks for reading, particularly my faithful followers and fellow bloggers who comment and let me know I’m not howling into the wind. You know who you are, and you’re a loyal crew.

Mums the Word

My favorite photo of my daughter in a princess dress. She didn’t really listen to me at this age either.

I learned a long time ago to keep my mouth shut about major decisions.

Once you share your plans, it builds expectations and people wonder if the job came through, you got the house or the pregnancy test turned out positive. Once people are in the know, it opens to door to questions, unsolicited advice and opinions.

I wasn’t always this way. When I was younger, I was notorious for having a very big mouth and trouble keeping secrets. Just ask my mother, who recalls me asking older relatives embarrassing questions at family gatherings, including this one: “Why don’t you like each other?”

But with age, I’ve learned the value of keeping quiet. There’s nothing worse than opening your mouth, and then having to explain that you didn’t get the job, or the promotion you expected went to someone else. As my paternal grandmother used to implore me after filling me in on something, “Don’t say nothing.”

My best kept secret was my son. After 10 years of disappointment and stories of adoptions that fell through at the last minute, I told only my parents that we were about to bring him home. I brought him to my parents’ house and my sisters were shocked to see him in my arms, mainly because they couldn’t believe I kept such a big secret.

This has been on my mind lately because my daughter is applying to colleges, and applied to one early decision. She told five of her friends where she applied early decision, and even had a friend take a photo of her sending in the application. I told her I don’t think it’s a good idea because she’ll have to explain herself if she doesn’t get in.

After screaming and telling me I’m old and out of touch with today’s kids, she defended her decision. This brought to mind the famous John Lennon quote:

It’s true, isn’t it? Not many people’s lives go perfectly according to plan. Most of us are living our own version of Plan B, making the best of what’s in front of us. But it’s hard to drum cautious optimism into a teen-ager with a stubborn streak.

“This is how I’m wired,” she said. “My friends are supportive, and I want them there if I don’t get in.”

Fair enough. But we’re living in a society where people overshare everything on social media, and I still believe some things – like your college plans – should be kept confidential.

Back in the dark ages when I applied to colleges, you never told anyone where you were applying for fear of jinxing it. I looked up the origins of this superstition, and found that it’s rooted in ancient Mediterranean cultures that believed the evil eye would be cast on those who boasted about their good fortune.

I don’t know why humans are programmed to anticipate the worst, but apparently it traces back to our ancestors. I guess we can blame them for this spirit of pessimism and superstition, along with a host of other less than desirable traits.

I know other people in my age group share my belief in jinxing things by discussing them. Several months ago, a friend confided to me her plans to pursue her dream of buying and operating a business. She’d been in discussions for months and wanted to share her news, but worried that discussing it might make the deal fall through.

She asked that I keep our conversation confidential and I did. If the deal fell through – which it didn’t – I didn’t want to be responsible. But I was honored that she trusted me enough to keep quiet. It was clear she had no idea what a big mouth I’d been in my youth.

So far, neither kid has followed my advice about keeping things close to the vest. They do what they want, dismissing me as old-fashioned and out of touch. But I hope one day they’ll see the value in the saying, “Silence is golden.”

Postscript: She learned last night that she got accepted to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where she applied early decision. So the agony is over, at least until we drop her off and pay her tuition bill.