holidays

The Great Sausage Meltdown of 2015

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Homemade pierogies frying in butter

I am third-generation, full-blooded Polish-American. My great grandparents arrived here in the early 1900s and settled into a neighborhood with other Polish families in Buffalo, New York, and there they stayed. My parents were the first to leave when they moved west to Denver when I was 9. Denver was quite a change from my insulated life in Buffalo. In Buffalo, I’d been surrounded by people with names like Rzeszutek, Michalak, and Trzaska. There were three full phonebook pages of folks with my maiden name. We were practically Smiths. In Denver, there were seven individual listings for Nowicki in the phone book, and one of those listings was our family.

My childhood in New York was steeped in Polish culture. We broke and shared oplatki (a communion-like wafer) with our family at the Christmas table before our meal. We filled baskets with everything we planned to eat at Easter breakfast (hard boiled eggs, sausage, rye bread, horseradish, and a butter lamb with a peppercorn eye and a red ribbon around its neck) and took them to our Catholic parish to be blessed by a priest the day before the holiday. My parents and aunts and uncles, in a quaint tradition was meant to foretell their child’s future, would place a shot glass, a rosary, and a silver dollar in front of their children on their first birthday to see which they would reach for first. The shot glass represented social skills, the rosary deep faith, and the silver dollar wealth. (Legend has it that I reached for both the shot glass and the silver dollar simultaneously. I’ll let you decide what that says about me.) There were the Polish carols, the celebration of saints’ Feast Days, and the occasional uttering of whole phrases in Polish by my grandmothers. I thought all these things were part of everyone’s childhood.

Once we moved away from our Polish family, though, these traditions slowly faded into our history. My children have heard me mention these things only in passing. There is just one Polish tradition we continue to hold. Every year we make pierogies and serve them with fresh Polish sausage (not to be confused with its smoked cousin, kielbasa…horrorsfor our Christmas meal. My mother, sisters, and I have done this every year for as long as I can remember. We have taken turns making the pierogi dough and carefully stuffing them with sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, or farmer’s cheese, before boiling them. We trade off these duties. Last year, I made the pierogies. This year, I was tasked with bringing the sausage and fresh horseradish to our Christmas Eve dinner.

With all that has been going on with the new house, the holidays, and my husband’s birthday on December 20th, my trip to Tony’s Meat Market to fetch the Polish sausage got delayed until December 23rd. Honestly, I was grateful I hadn’t let it slide until the 24th. At approximately 11 a.m., I got in a long line at the butcher shop. After standing for ten minutes to reach the counter, I finally got close enough to ask for fresh Polish sausage. The gal looked at me like I had asked for filet of Tauntaun. She consulted with the guy next to her in a hurried whisper then replied that they didn’t have any. It had to be special ordered a week in advance. Deflated like one of Tom Brady’s footballs, I turned and headed out of the store. This was not good.

Making pierogies is a day-long endeavor. I had gotten off easy with sausage task and I was about to blow it. In my family, you don’t want to be the one who screws up the only tradition we have. I would hear about it. For a long time. I was already running a litany of the expected and predictably critical comments on an audio reel in my head. We’re a lot better at “I told you so” than compassion in my family. I opened the car door, plunked myself down and, hand to God, started to cry…over goddammed sausage. My sons must have thought I was losing my shit because they dared not say one word while I quietly wept. When I at last pulled myself together, I called my sister for my fair comeuppance.

“Tony’s didn’t have the fresh Polish sausage,” I lamented. “They told me you have to special order it.”

“That’s what I usually do,” she replied. Of course, I thought, bitter at my error.

“I’ve never had to do that before,” I squeaked. “They’ve always had some in the refrigerator in the back,” I told her.

“No. You have to order it in advance,” she reiterated.

“Well, crap. I’m not sure where else to look for it. And my day is packed. Luke has a haircut at noon, I have to be downtown at 2 to meet Steve, we ran out of toilet paper, and we haven’t eaten yet.”

“Do you want me to do it?” she asked. “I can take care of it,” she said, sounding about as annoyed and condescending as I would have sounded if I had been in her shoes. The only thing worse than screwing up in my family is screwing up and needing someone else to bail you out.

“No. No. I’ll figure it out,” I said, pulling on my big girl panties. “I’ll call you if I I can’t get it somewhere else.”

After hanging up the phone, I wracked my addled brain trying to figure out the next logical place to find Polish sausage in a town not known for Polish anything. The name of a store downtown came to me. I searched the number for Marczyk’s Fine Foods and called. If Marczyk isn’t a Polish name, it must be close enough because the guy in the meat department told me the fresh sausage was available for $6.99 a pound. I told him I was on my way and drove the 20 miles to the store to make things right.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my little, pre-Christmas meltdown and I’ve decided it’s a borderline insane how stressful we make the holidays with our wanting things to be just so. And, no matter how well-intentioned they are, traditions are things that we expect to be just so. Our lovely custom of sharing a Polish meal would have been marred had I shown up with Polish kielbasa from the fine Hillshire Farms simply because it would have fallen outside of tradition. Aren’t the holidays stressful enough without raising our expectations at a time when we’re already overwhelmed and likely to let things fall through the cracks? The truth is that people mess up. Relatives make inappropriate comments. Christmas trees get taken down by overzealous cats. Holiday cards get lost in the mail. And at the end of the day none of it matters because it just doesn’t.

I declare 2016 the year of letting go. No more sweating the small stuff. If I show up with the wrong sausage next year or my pierogies are a little thick skinned, you can just deal with it. I’m moving on, baby.

 

 

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Dead trees tell no tales

Dead trees tell no tales

It was with great joy today that we slayed the ghosts of Christmas past by dismantling our holiday decorations. Few things delight me more at the beginning of a new year than boxing up baubles and stashing stockings, organizing ornaments and gathering up garland. As tedious of a task as it is, paring down after a season of excess is exhilarating. I love putting things back to right, restoring order, and returning to ordinary time.

Some people love Christmas with unbridled enthusiasm. I am not one of those people. I do my best to live in the moment and revel in the excitement of my children during the season, but I could do without the trappings of the holidays. I’m happier without all the overdoing. I prefer to practice random gift giving and card sending. I like buying things for someone when the mood strikes me and not when the calendar says it’s time. I enjoy that smell of pine more in a summer forest while I rest in a hammock. If someone parked a red-bow Mercedes in my driveway on Christmas morning like the holiday ads imply some people do, that might increase my seasonal joy. Still, it probably wouldn’t stop me from grousing about the wasted hours putting up and taking down lights. Every Thanksgiving, as I turn my face toward New Year’s Day, I lie to myself as I repeat this mantra: “Five weeks of insanity and then it’s over.”

It’s never truly over, though, is it? We removed the dry, dead carcass of our Christmas tree from our house this afternoon. The drag marks from the front door made its disposal look like a crime scene. Its needles on our walkway told a grisly tale of one cut down in his prime, held hostage, tortured, and cruelly left to die far from home. I might be able to muster a bit of melancholy about it all if I wasn’t sure that I’ll be finding its errant needles in our home until next Christmas. It’s hard to miss a holiday that never truly leaves.

Keep Your Hands Inside The Ride At All Times

You could eat out of this pantry without being poisoned. No more canned goods from 2003!

You could eat out of this pantry without being poisoned. No more canned goods from 2003!

I’m a strange beast. For most of the year, I operate at breakneck speed. I can’t stand to be bored. You likely won’t catch me growing mold as I fester on the couch, not even during the winter months. I’m busy, and I like it that way. But, for three weeks, three glorious weeks beginning mid-December and running through the first full week of January, I shut down and become Slothstine rather than Justine. In all likelihood exhausted from 49 straight weeks of running headlong into my future, I quit moving. I don’t work out. I only go out when absolutely necessary (apparently Christmas with the family is compulsory). I lounge in bed reading, surfing Al Gore’s Internet, playing games on my iPhone, and going into some sort of trance while busting through episode after episode of my latest television show du jour. It is decidedly, uncharacteristically, not at all like me.

There are pluses and minuses about this annual holiday shutdown. On the bad side, without my usual workouts and time on my yoga mat, I often resurface during the second week of January only to find a random Hot Tamale candy stuck in my hair and tell-tale orange fingerprints on my clothes from excessive Cheetos consumption. And, it’s right about that time that I step on the scale and hear it whimper. My house is a pit because it’s hard to clean a bathroom when your butt hasn’t moved out of bed. My husband, like a dog whose repeated enthusiastic requests for a nice walk have gone unanswered, stops barking at my door. Of course, that might have more to do with my slovenly state than with ego-bruise gained from the repeated times I smacked him on the nose with the rolled up newspaper when he asked if I wanted to go for a long, winter’s walk with him. My kids. Well…where are my kids, anyway? I have no idea. And, at the end of this three week period of sloth and gluttony, a time during which the only real accomplishment I can note is my OCD completion of three puzzles (2500 individual pieces, thank you very much), I’m usually ready to hit the ground running as soon as the kids start back to school after Christmas break. If I can find them, that is.

Just as Punxsutawney Phil emerges after a long, shadowless winter, I too am ready for spring. Yes. Spring is still over two months away. I know this. But, I’m well-rested after my three weeks of hibernation. To that end, in the past four days I’ve picked up the pace. I’ve done insane things, like wash light fixtures, clean out our pantry, and scrub the laundry room floor on my hands and knees. I finally made it back to yoga today, and they’re having a promotion that coincides with my fitness goals. If I complete 20 classes in 30 days I’ll get a retail credit for new yoga clothes, so that’s a win-win, right? I registered for the Tubbs Romp to Stomp 5k snowshoe event in Frisco, the 7k Running of the Green (which, knowing me, will be more like a Walking of the Green), and my annual MS150 ride. Yesterday I whipped out 16 handmade greeting cards so I won’t miss birthdays during the first quarter of 2013. I think I’m finally back on track.

I used to feel bad about this rollercoaster ride I’m on. I would berate myself for falling off the wagon and losing myself to Christmas cookies and movie theater popcorn. I don’t anymore. The way I have it figured I’m merely one of those people who needs something to motivate her. And, nothing motivates me more than the chance to let go and fall apart occasionally. After a quick, exhilarating downhill slide, my coaster car is back on the platform and about to begin its next ascent up the highest peak on the coaster. I’m a lifelong coaster rider, and I’m ready for another go around. There will be plenty of time to relax again when I head down the big hill next December, arms in the air, smile on my face. It’s all good.

 

 

 

 

Somewhat Accidentally Living Deliberately

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Let’s do this thing.

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die discover that I had not lived.”                      ~Henry David Thoreau

When we went to cut down the tree last week, we actually had two permits and cut down two trees. We do that every year. In past years, we’ve cut down one tree for the living room and then one for the family room. This year, though, we decided to make a change. We would cut one big tree for our living room and a smaller tree that I would use to make garland and maybe wreaths. Why would I do this to myself, you ask? When I complain each and every year about how I simply try to get from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day without running away from home what with the season doubling my average workload, why would I decide that crafting some fresh, pine decorations would be a wise choice? I’ll tell you why. It’s because I’m certifiable. Always have been. Always will be. If it seems like it can be done, I will find a way to do it because I’m a loon who at some point unconsciously decided that sleep is overrated. I had a grand plan to save us a bunch of money by cutting down a $10 tree and sacrificing it for nostalgic greenery. A grand plan is all I ever need to get myself into trouble. My life is filled with grand plans.

Well, that “extra” tree had been resting near our front porch all week. Every time I opened the front door, I felt that tree judging me. Oh….you had such big plans. Yet, here I sit…waiting to be burned in next year’s fire pit. Shocking! Yes. This is what happens when I am sleep deprived. I see dead trees. Sometimes the dead trees talk to me. (I really should get more sleep.) I began to despise that obnoxious, sarcastic, negative spruce. And, as lazy and exhausted as I felt, I vowed to put a stop to its derision. So today I found my way over to Michael’s where, for approximately $20, I bought some wire, some wreath forms, and some pre-made holiday bows. I was going to do this thing and stop the tree voices.

Yeah, baby!

Yeah, baby!

In the waning hours of daylight as we approach the shortest day of the year, as the sun began to sink behind the hills, I stood in my backyard with a dead tree, pruning shears, and green wire. Me. The one who gets rashes hanging ornaments on a fresh tree because I happen to be allergic to trees. I tried something new. I created a wreath. I actually did it. After years of buying fresh, evergreen wreaths for our home, today I made one myself. Tomorrow I will create its twin. I will hang them around the lights on the garage to decorate our home festively for the holidays. Every time I come home I will look at them and be proud of myself. And, I will cross this task off my lifetime list of things to try my hand at. Okay. Okay. Making a wreath was never actually on my list of things to do in this lifetime, but I’ll put it on my list just to cross it off because it feels good to do something I’ve never done before. Crossing things off my lifetime list has become my pastime.

The older I get, the more important it’s become to me to try new things. There’s a sense of urgency in my life now that there wasn’t at 20. At 20, I thought I would live forever or, at least, it never crossed my mind that I would die. But, I will die and as I look at the moments of my life as I leave this place, I want to know that I made the most of my time here. I want to know that I loved, that I created, that I gave back, and that I did not always shy away from the experience of living in even the smallest way. My life is a work in progress and someday it will be halted by death. When it is, I really hope I’m in the middle of trying something new, sucking the marrow out of life even as the life is being sucked out of me.

 

Sorry — I Gave At The Office

Sometimes back lighting doesn’t work

Okay. You caught me. I am late writing this blog again. Why? Basically because, well, I am insane. I am normally a busy person. I don’t think anyone who knows me would dispute that. But, during the holiday season, I become the rough equivalent of an ADHD squirrel on four Red Bulls. I take my normal daily workload and add a few items to it. Today was our planned “lazy day” at home. In my head, I imagined watching football while casually stringing lights on the tree. Somehow, though, that leisurely day dissipated into chaos. We put the exterior Christmas lights on the house, hung the wreaths, washed and folded four loads of laundry, meticulously placed seven strands of lights on a 10 foot tall Christmas tree and then decorated it, adorned the boys’ tree with ornaments, posed for our annual holiday card photos, edited said photos, designed and ordered 100 holiday cards online, cleared the refrigerator of the last of the Thanksgiving Day leftovers, and did it all without murdering our children in the process. I think that’s a reasonably full day, don’t you? So, I hope you will excuse the fact that this is a brief and prosaic entry, devoid of pithy sayings and greeting card sentiments. I hope you’ll understand that today I gave at the office and have nothing left to offer.

On a side note….to the cyclist who chastised us for parking briefly near the front of our neighborhood while we used a self-timer to attempt to capture at least one decent photo of our four-person family for our holiday cards, thank you for starting off our holiday season with the kind of spirit we’ve come to know and expect this time of year. It wouldn’t be the holidays without a spoil-sport Grinch now, would it? Keep calm and merry on, friends.

Take Your Stocking And Stuff It

Guess which stocking belongs to my husband…

I’ve blogged a few times recently about traditions and about how we’ve struggled to create some for our little family foursome. Steve and I both came from families with fairly ingrained family traditions. When you start a new household, you ideally take some traditions from each side and then add to them or make them your own with a slightly different twist. One thing I looked forward to when Steve and I got married was picking out new Christmas stockings that would be unique to our household. Steve and I each had inherited the stockings we’d had with our parents. It sounds silly, I know, but I was adamant that I wanted us to start a new tradition for our family with matching stockings of our choosing. I couldn’t wait to purchase and hang our own stockings and to add to our collection of what would be hung by the chimney with care with each child we added to our happy home.

The first Christmas Steve and I were married, however, my incredibly thoughtful mother-in-law had a special stocking created for me, one that looked exactly like the one Steve had when he was growing up. The stocking is hand knit and has my name as well as the year I was born (I really wish I could erase that part). The funny part about my stocking is that it is quite obviously smaller than Steve’s. My mother-in-law swears they were created using the same pattern, but you’d be hard pressed to believe it if you saw his stocking that is big enough for a Cadillac or at least for twice the amount of gifts that mine will hold. I have to admit that I was not a great sport about the gift, at least not in front of Steve. He tolerated my tirade about how I felt the stocking was an intrusion and how it robbed me of my chance to start my own tradition. Although he understood then what I did not, that his mother was trying to be inclusive and thoughtful when she had a stocking handmade for me, he also understood my feelings and told me we should go ahead and start our own tradition.

So, we did. We ordered some holiday needlepoint stockings from LL Bean and had our names embroidered onto them. When the boys were born, my mother-in-law commissioned knit stockings for them, just as she had for me. I also got them stockings, stockings that matched the ones Steve and I had chosen for ourselves. I was hell bent on setting up this tradition for our family. I figured that since his parents lived in another state, it would not matter. We could keep the stockings my mother-in-law had knit for us and just put up the other ones in our home. No one would have to know. Well, then, my in-laws decided to purchase a home 30 minutes away from us and to come to Denver in the winter. The space between us dissipated and, as it did, the ability to put up the stockings we’d bought without creating hard feelings disappeared.

Now, seventeen years after my hand-knit stocking was gifted to me, those stockings are the only ones we put out. Oddly enough, the tradition I fought so vehemently is one I now truly enjoy. I love our stockings. They were created from a pattern that Steve’s grandmother had, and we know no one with stockings like ours. Because they’re knit they stretch to hold a ton of stuffers. And, I love to point out to anyone who will look that Steve’s stocking is gargantuan while the rest of ours are all the same, significantly smaller size. Although they look funny on our mantle with Steve’s stocking dwarfing the rest of ours, there’s a charm and a story in that which trumps the visual oddity.

Every time I open our box of Christmas decorations, I’m reminded about how pig-headed I was as a young bride and how ungrateful I was when my mother-in-law was simply trying to include me in her family. I’m also reminded that I wasted $140 on holiday stockings that we simply do not use. They stay in the box while we hang and stuff the knit ones instead. They’re the ones the boys recognize and are excited to see. Now, I have a yearly reminder that sometimes the effort is not worth the battle. Sometimes, the things we think are important are truly not important at all. I no longer want to tell my mother-in-law to take that stocking she had made for me and stuff it…unless, of course, she wants to stuff it with Starbucks gift cards and cute tops from Boden. I’d be totally cool with that.