Memory Lane

My grandfather owned a drive-in restaurant for many years.  It was a small, family run business in the town of Bloomington, Illinois.  The restaurant was called Kip’s and it was a mainstay of the local community.  It was one of those small town place’s where everyone knew each other, and all the employees kept their jobs for years.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the restaurant lately.  Mostly about my family history there.  The years I spent sitting in the back booth, close to my grandfather’s office.  The dark wood paneling of the dining room, a throw back to the 70’s and probably the last time the dining room had been remodeled, and the orange formica tables and booths; the booth benches were hard, without cushions, but easy to clean and sanitize with bleach.  My grandparents were meticulous when it came to the cleanliness of the restaurant.  Like their home, there was always a faint but pleasant smell of bleach in the air.  It just smelled fresh.  I also recall the times I spent in the back kitchen, helping my grandmother make the Cole Slaw, or peeling potatoes.  My reward for a job well done was a delicious lunch of Coney Dogs, Cole Slaw and an ice-cold frosty mug of Root Beer.  Heaven to a ten year old.

My grandfather passed away in the ’90’s, and the restaurant was handed down to my father who ran it for another handful of years.  Unfortunately, with the growth of the town and the restaurant boom that hit Bloomington in those years, Kip’s was unable to keep up with the many chain restaurants that had become popular at that time.  Even the most loyal locals like to add diversity to their dining options, and my father was forced to close.  To the heartbreak of our family, Kip’s faded into the history of the town, but not before people came out in droves to enjoy their favorite comfort foods, one last time.

It’s been many years since I’ve enjoyed my favorite meals at Kip’s.  My father kept all the family recipes, but for one reason or another, we stopped making them.  So the recipes have sat unused, the paper turning yellow, thinning over time, and the print of my grandfather’s handwriting fading with each decade.

Last week my kids and I went to Dallas for our Spring Break.  My dad and brother live there with their families, and we spent the week enjoying the hot Texas sun and swimming in my brother’s pool.  I suggested to my father that we do a Kip’s family dinner night.  My kids had never tasted a Coney Dog, or the Cole Slaw that I loved so much as a kid.  I wanted them to experience that part of my childhood.  I wanted them to taste the food their great-grandparents created, built a successful business around, and understand that this was part of their family legacy.

So my brother, my father and I spent an afternoon cooking.  My dad unfolded the recipe for the Coney sauce, and it was the most fragile thing I’ve seen in years.  The paper bearing my grandfather’s distinct handwriting was yellow and splotched with years of use.  The creases in the paper were so worn from being folded and unfolded that even the tape applied years ago to hold it together had begun to deteriorate.  How many years had it been since he had written out this recipe?  Sixty, maybe?  We had to convert the recipe down to a useable quantity, as the original recipe was written to produce ten gallons of sauce for the restaurant.

And then we cooked.  The three of us banged out the Coney sauce and Cole Slaw within a couple of hours, and it was the most fun I’ve had in ages.  We laughed and reminisced about our childhood and the years spent in the restaurant.  My dad told us stories of his teenage years working the curb service.  At one point, I looked at them both and said, “I bet Nanny and Paw-Paw are so happy we are doing this right now.”  Then my dad handed me a spoonful of Coney sauce to taste.  The moment the flavor hit my tongue, I was absolutely transported.  Back to the booth with the orange formica tabletop.  I was ten years old again.  And I could hear my grandfather’s voice and the sounds of the kitchen and feel the slide of the ice down the frosty mug full of foaming, ice-cold Root Beer.  It always amazes me how a smell or a taste of something meaningful can take you back to a time or place long gone.

We assembled the family that evening, excited to force our food memories upon them.  They were skeptical at first.  A few of the girls don’t eat hot dogs, and a Coney Dog is essentially a hot dog smothered in Coney sauce.  The teenagers were also not too excited about being forced to eat Cole Slaw.  It wasn’t their thing.  But we insisted they try both.  Annnnnd……it was a hit!  My son ate four Coney dogs!  And even my niece, who hates Cole Slaw, said she would eat this Cole Slaw, any day.  Coming from her, that was high praise.

I knew they would love the food, because good food is just good food.  But what mattered to me more was that they got to experience a part of our family history, tangible through food.  They never got to meet their great-grandfather.  He had passed before any of them were born.  But they got to experience a huge part of him, and our family, through this dinner.  Through these recipes.

Food is universal. It speaks to all of us, whether it’s about comfort, health, or enjoying a shared experience.  And for that reason I’ve decided to create a Kip’s family cookbook! I will include all the best recipes from my grandparent’s kitchen, as well as a history of the restaurant that brought so many people together across the community it shared.  I can’t wait to share it with you!  🙂

Her Eulogy

A little over a week ago we lost my beloved grandmother.

Some of you may recall that I’ve written about my visits with her every summer. Getting Old is not for Sissies  She was 96 years old and passed peacefully in her sleep.  It’s a blessing to know that her passing was quiet and quick.  It’s heartbreaking for me to accept that she is no longer with us.  A physical and emotional presence that reminded me every day to be my best self, even when I wasn’t.

This past week our family came together in her hometown of Bloomington, Illinois to celebrate her life and lay her to rest.  We are a family strong in Catholic roots, and my Nanny was a devout Christian Catholic woman to her core.  So, as you would expect, her service included a Catholic mass in the church where she was raised, and where she also raised her family.  I was baptized in this church.  My parents were married in this church.  My grandfather was memorialized in this church.  Our family’s life is intricately entwined with sacraments and services that took place in this church.  I spent countless Sundays sitting in the pew next to her, learning how to participate in the Catholic mass by watching my grandmother.  Memorizing the responses, imitating her motions of kneel, stand, sit.  Kneel, stand, sit.  This particular house of God has immeasurable significance for me in terms of emotional and physical memories.  To stand in the sanctuary, in front of her casket, was almost more than I could bear knowing it would most likely be the last time I ever had cause to visit this place.

When the service started I was beside myself with emotion.  As were the rest of my family.  My Nanny meant so much to each and every one of us.  We were all trying to manage our grief.  The service was lovely, but something was missing.  The priest gave the eulogy for my grandmother.  This is not common.  Typically, a family member would do it.  But for some reason no family member had been identified or asked prior to the service to give the eulogy.  I don’t know why, and wouldn’t dream of questioning the decision because I was not the one responsible for planning the service.  But it felt incomplete.  The priest did his best to honor my grandmother, but he did not know her. He could not convey with any depth of emotion or real intimacy the woman that she was, or what she meant to all of us.

I know I wouldn’t have been able to stand at the alter and talk about her without completely breaking down, and I’m talking about some serious ugly crying.  And because I need closure I decided to write my own eulogy, of a sort,  honoring her and my memory of her.  So, this is what I would have wanted people to know about my grandmother….

Kathryn, or Kay, as most people knew her was born in June of 1921.  She was an Irish Catholic Midwestern girl who grew up during the Great Depression.  She often told stories about the depression, describing food shortages and what little money most families earned at that time.  She talked about having one pair of stockings that she had to wash out by hand every night so she could wear them again the next day.  She told these stories in an attempt to help us understand how good we had it growing up.  I’m embarrassed to say that at the time we were just horrified  to learn that she had to live without things like Doritos and Taco Bell.

My Nanny was very meticulous with her appearance.  She wasn’t necessarily vain, but it was extremely important that she always look her best.  Perhaps this was something learned during the depression, as she had so little material possessions or clothing.  She learned to work with what she had.  She did her hair and make up every day.  She pressed her blouse and her slacks.  She sewed clothes for herself and her children.  Once, she made herself a beautiful camel colored wool-lined dress coat.  She loved cashmere turtle-neck sweaters and wool blazers.  She once made my cousin and I matching plaid, wool, pleated skirts to wear to Christmas Eve Mass.  I would give anything to have that skirt back.  She also slaved to ensure that her husband and children went out into the community every day as representatives of her household.  They were meticulously dressed, pressed, and laundered.  At her funeral service my cousins and I were laughing and trading stories.  One cousin told me that she came to Nanny’s house one day wearing a pair of ripped and torn jeans.  Nanny asked her if she bought the jeans like that, and when she confirmed that she did, Nanny said, “Poor girl.  Can’t even afford to buy a whole pair of pants.”

She kept her home in the same meticulous manner.  She made her bed every day.  Hospital corners.  She cooked and baked almost every meal from scratch and she always had a cake or pie prepared in case someone dropped by and she needed to offer them something.  She knew how to refinish wood floors, kept a garden, and everything had it’s place.  She tried to teach me the importance of these things.  As a teenager I would laugh.  Make my bed every day?  Well, that was just crazy talk.  But when I stepped into her home I would breath in the smell of freshness, with a hint of bleach, and it was comforting.  I loved knowing that I would crawl into a bed that night with freshly washed and ironed sheets.  And that I would wake up to the sound of eggs frying in the pan and the smell of biscuits coming out of the oven.  My own childhood home was often chaotic and unorganized, so being in her home provided a sense of old fashioned comfort.

Given that my Nanny was a devout Catholic woman, she was truly a servant of God.  She took her responsibility as a Christian seriously and every moment was a teachable moment.  She prayed openly for everyone.  She and my grandfather organized and coordinated a prayer group every week, and they were huge members of the charismatic movement within the Catholic church.  No one loved Jesus more than my Nanny.   Last summer when I was visiting her, she was worrying quite a bit about family members, and I said to her, “You know what you need to do.  Just give it to God and everything will be ok.”  That’s what she would have said to me.  She looked up at me with wide eyes and said, “You have been listening to me all these years!!!!”  Even when I didn’t want to, I was listening.

I have a strong personality, much like my grandfather.  Nanny would always remind me that my tongue could be sharper than a sword.  She would say, “Mind your words.  They are like feathers, and once you let them go, the wind takes them and you can never get them back.”  I didn’t want to hear it at the time, but over the years I found myself measuring my actions and words by whether or not she would approve.  I can honestly say that in those moments where I held back, or didn’t do something impulsive because I knew she would disapprove, I never once regretted the choice.  The thought of doing something that might embarrass her was unacceptable.  She would often say to me, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, and that covers a lot of territory.”  Of course, I often did thing she wouldn’t do, and in my adult years I would sometimes tell her stories of my bad behavior.  Sometimes she would laugh and other times she would roll her eyes and say, “Well, I will pray for you.”

She loved the Lawrence Welk Show.  She would sing at the top of her lungs while cooking or doing housework.  She made me homemade mashed potatoes and gravy every Sunday because she knew it was my favorite.  She helped my grandfather manage their drive-in restaurant.  She coached the young people who worked for her at the restaurant on how to mind their manners, develop a strong work ethic, and represent their employer and community with pride and dignity.   She was an old fashioned, fierce, Godly woman who loved her family and loved her Jesus.  She refused to talk poorly about others because she felt it was a terrible sin.  She taught me about faith, unconditional love and how to respect myself and others through her actions.  She could talk the talk and walk the walk.  She held her loved ones to a high standard, and she voiced her disapproval when we fell short.  But there was always love.   She was love and light, with a little bit of sass.

The last time I saw her prior to her passing was last July during our annual summer trip.  Her Alzheimer’s was progressing rapidly and she had become more emotional and confused.  I knew it was the last time we would make the trip as a family.  Too many people in the room made for a rough afternoon.  As I was leaving and saying good-bye, she was the most distant she had ever been,  like she was saying good-bye to the mail man.  At the door as I was about to walk out, I turned around and said, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”  In an instant she lit up from the inside and said, “And that covers a lot of territory.”

She was laughing as I closed the door behind me.

That Time I Lost My Sh*t On the Dance Floor

It’s Saturday at midnight in the bar and I’m out with the girls enjoying a 90’s cover band and some ice-cold beer.  The 90’s is my favorite decade, and every song brings back memories of high school and college, in such a good way.  I felt nineteen again, and although I wasn’t drunk on alcohol, I was definitely drunk on memories and music.

You know that feeling, when all your favorite tunes are being played and your body has an almost involuntary reaction.  It becomes this sort of instinct and rhythm combined.  My nineteen year-old self was really into rock music.  Imagine some air guitar, arms in the air, hair being thrown in every direction, and a complete and total disregard for the other bar patrons around me, other than my friends.  It was just me, the band, my girls and the music.

Image result for dance like nobody's watching meme

I don’t do Zumba, but you get my point.

Now picture a middle-aged woman, married with two kids, who drives the weekly car pool and volunteers in the PTA, throwing her long hair and rocking out to Alice In Chains, Metallica and Nirvana.  The dance floor wasn’t overly full, so I stood out.   I think at one point I might have screamed, “I’m with the band!”  Except, I’m not with the band.

Good times.

It was so fun, and in the moment I had no regrets.  It was a great night.  I mean seriously, when anyone plays Enter Sandman by Metallica, you throw your hair to that shit.  It’s just how it’s done.  I think the point where I really peaked and just let my shit go all over the dance floor was when the band played Man in the Box, by Alice In Chains.  One of my favorite songs, and when I became aware of my environment toward the end of the song, there were a few dudes thrashing next to me, so I guess it was good.

Except, in the light of day, when I woke up with a very stiff neck and a screaming headache, I had a moment of thought that said, you-are-too-fucking-old-to-act-like-you-belong-in-a- White-Snake-video-and-oh-my-God-you-are-such-an-asshole!  I woke up embarrassed.  I know we all like to pretend that we don’t care what other people think, but the truth for most of us is that to a small degree, we do.

Image result for dance like nobody's watching memeI’m a person who typically embraces the immediacy of a good time and enjoys being in the moment with my friends.  We’ve been at weddings where Dan and I are the only ones on the dance floor, while the other couples are engaged in far more dignified conversation and interactions.  Not shaking their asses to Baby Got Back.  I always look back later and self-consciously think, damn, did we take that one too far?  Shouldn’t we be past this sort of behavior yet?  So Sunday morning, as I reviewed the events of the previous night, I thought to my self, are you honestly going to be the crazy lady that loses her shit every time someone plays some AC/DC?

Fast forward a few hours, and Dan and I are in attendance at a lovely baby shower/brunch for our dear friends who will soon welcome twin boys into the world.  After a brief cocktail hour, where a few mimosa’s were going a long way to soothe my misplaced embarrassment, the father-to-be takes up the microphone and begins to welcome his family and friends to this celebration of babies, and also discuss some important events of the past nine months.  He said shortly after they discovered they were pregnant, he received a call from his doctor and learned he had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

He said he spoke with one doctor who gave him “good odds” with a 60% chance of survivability.  He decided that wasn’t good enough, so he fired that doctor and got another one who told him with 100% certainty that he would live through this cancer.  That he could beat it.  And he did.  Over the past nine months, he fought his cancer while his beautiful wife managed a complicated pregnancy with unbelievable grace and strength.  They kept the cancer diagnosis to themselves, for the most part, telling only a few people.  Dan and I found out about a week ago, after he finished his last chemo and was able to share the good news with everyone that he was cancer free.  We were all so grateful for his outcome, and we celebrated his health as much as we celebrated the babies!

Image result for dance like nobody's watching memeA short while later there was a moment during the party and the DJ was playing some great dance music.  There wasn’t a dance floor, just good music playing to keep the party lively.  Dan and I were sitting by the bar and the father-to-be, along with another friend began an impromptu dance-off in the space next to us.  Then the grand-father joined in, and these three grown men began taking it to town in front of everyone.  It was crazy and awesome and hilarious and I started to cry a little.  I was actually laughing first, and then found the emotion behind the laughter.

Here he is, grateful to be alive, lucky to have two beautiful babies on the way, and he wasn’t embarrassed by his super sweet dance moves.  He wasn’t concerned about what anyone thought of him, or whether or not he looked silly.  All three men were simply enjoying the moment, making the most of the mood and the occasion and the love.  It was quite simply the most amazing celebration of life I’ve seen in a long time.

Image result for dance like nobody's watching memeI found my perspective and some unnecessary but welcome validation in that moment.   The truth is that I AM the mom and friend who will dance in the bar, or in my living room with my kids.  I AM the person who sings at the top of my lungs when the song is good and the company is better.  I AM the person who isn’t afraid to live in the moment and  doesn’t care what strangers think because my life is not about them or what they may or may not think of my Saturday night amateur rock show performance.  I’m done feeling insecure about this, and as we all know, insecurity is an asshole, and we do not choose to be friends with assholes!

So when I ask myself  if I’m really going to be that middle-aged mom who loses my shit every time my jam comes on?

Well, this isn’t me, but you get the idea!

Vacation!

Hello, world!  I’m home!

The family and I spent nine days visiting with friends and relatives throughout the Midwest.  I call this trek our annual Midwestern Tour, as we hit Illinois, Indiana and Michigan in the same week. This time of year the area where I grew up is amazingly beautiful.  You wouldn’t believe how green everything gets.  Even the corn fields look beautiful when I haven’t seen them in a while.

We spent the first couple of days in Chicago, then drove south to central Illinois to visit my grandmother.  We then drove three hours north through Indiana and Michigan to reach my mother, other grandmother and various relatives who live in the area.  It was fast, organized, exhausting and incredibly fun.

Here’s the highlight reel…

10635748_10152955877379574_8811372455149121989_n[2]While in Chicago, my college friend hosted a house party and invited all of our girlfriends from school, along with their families.  We BBQ, drink, laugh and relive our glory years together while our kids run around and make new memories and form new friendships.  This year the adults sent the kids to the basement to play so we could play the game, Cards Against Humanity.  If you’ve never heard of it, it’s an adult card game of mostly vulgar and inappropriate topics.  If you’re not too uptight and appreciate a dirty joke, then this game is for you.  I will say that I did surprisingly well in the game, and my two most popular cards read, “Altar Boys,” and “Two Midgets Shitting in a Bucket.”  Feel free to use your imagination here as to what these cards may have been in response too.  🙂

We visited my grandmother, who is 94 years old.  I’ve always had a very close relationship with my Nanny and she’s an incredible woman.  She is in amazing health but starting to lose some of her short-term memory.  We looked at the same photo album about four times, and although it was new for her every time, I continue to be amazed at her ability to remember details about family history from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  Her own mother was born in 1897, and every conversation feels like a history lesson, but one you don’t want to miss.  When I ask her how it feels to be 94, she tells me, “getting old is not for sissies!”

St. Joe lighthouse

St. Joseph, Michigan

While in Michigan, we visited with several of my high school friends, my mother, grandmother, aunt and a few cousins.  I went to my favorite childhood restaurants.  We drove to St. Joe and took the kids to Silver Beach, which is on Lake Michigan.  My kids ran down the pier alongside the lighthouse, disbelieving that Lake Michigan wasn’t as big as our Pacific Ocean back home.  I found a lake house there I would like to buy for the low, low price of 1.6 million dollars.  What a steal!  LOL!  At one point Bryn looked at me, while having dinner outside on a patio overlooking a beautiful lake active with boats and jet-skis, and she said, “I can’t believe you got to grow up here!”

Yeah, I got to grow up there.  It’s funny how so often in life we don’t appreciate what we have until we can look back with some perspective.  Growing up, I didn’t appreciate the beauty of the fields, the lakes or the small community that looked out for each other.  I took it for granted and was more excited to see other places.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that the older I get, the more I appreciate where I come from, and this annual trip means more to me every year.  I want my kids to experience the things I loved about growing up in the Midwest.  Admittedly, my kids have opportunities that I never had as a child, and I’m thankful for that.  But I also want them to appreciate the simplicities of life.  The small things and traditions that add up to big things when you look back on your life and remember what you loved most about your childhood.

lake canoeingI want them to gorge themselves on strawberries while picking them fresh from the fields, and then bring the berries home to make fresh strawberry jam in grandma’s kitchen.  I want them to canoe the rivers of my hometown and camp under the stars, even if it’s just in their grandmother’s back yard.  I want them to catch fire flies,  sit around a bonfire in a field with their cousins, learn to water ski on the lake and marvel at the incredible beauty of the leaves turning in the fall.   I want them to know who their people are, and why, no matter what they choose to do in life, it will always be special that their family comes from this incredible place.

So yeah, it was a good vacation.  😉