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.

 

 

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.

The Griswold Family Christmas Tree

It looked a lot smaller in the forest.

One of our favorite things to do once Thanksgiving is over is to enjoy our annual holiday viewing of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. This seems to get us in the right frame of mind for our next favorite holiday activity…cutting our own Christmas tree. We normally wait at least a week after Thanksgiving before getting our tree, but last year we realized that a freshly cut tree lasts much longer than you think it will so we figured we should get it sooner and enjoy it longer. While a forest tree is not as lovely and symmetrical as a tree you select from a tree lot, you get a lot more exercise when you do it our way. Besides, at $10 a tree, it is quite a bargain anyway you saw it.

When it’s cold, we often pull into the forest, find the first semi-sort-of-okay-but-admittedly-totally-Charlie-Brown-tree, cut it down, and take off. With 50 degree temperatures today, though, we were unencumbered by inclement weather so we sauntered, letting several perfectly acceptable trees stand firm while we looked for something a little better. At one point, I had wandered off in my own direction alone when I spotted IT, a reasonably full number in blue spruce. Steve was nowhere nearby and although I had the saw in hand I felt I should acquire a second opinion, so I called out to him.

“Marco!” I yelled in his general direction. Although I couldn’t see him, I knew he would get the message. No response. I yelled again. Louder this time.

“MARCO!”

“Polo,” came the faint response.

When he was near enough that I could see him clearly, I yelled again.

“Over here! I need your opinion.”

The tree was very close to another tree, which usually is a bad sign, but it was tall and still very full. When Steve arrived I asked him to find the one I was thinking about. When he picked it right out, I knew I was onto something. We went over and inspected it. It was taller than our usual tree, but I thought we could make it work. We checked the base of the tree (it can’t be more than 6 inches in diameter if you want to cut it) and determined we were good to go. We’d have to cut off the lower portion and bring it back with us, but we still felt it was manageable so Steve began to cut. He kept cutting. He kept cutting some more. Dang. This was taking way too long.

Someone must be overcompensating.

“Do you want me to work on it for a while?” I asked, trying not to sound impatient but being really impatient.

“I’m fine,” he said as he started working on it again.

It was still taking what seemed like forever. Either the saw was worthless or we were having operator issues, I thought.

“Where is Charles Ingalls when you need him?” I quipped.

Steve shot me a look and made some reference to the notion that a proper spouse would be supportive. Clearly, he did not think my comment was nearly as amusing as I thought it was. For the record, I thought it was both appropriate and pretty dang funny. (Also, I know I’m not a proper spouse.)

When he had gotten about 5/6ths the way through the trunk, he was starting to slow down from the overexertion. I offered to take over. In less than a minute, compared to his ten, the tree fell over.

“See. And that is how it’s done,” I said as I quickly stepped out of his reach so he could not throttle me.

Once it was on the ground and no longer standing directly beneath a Ponderosa pine that was more than twice its size, our tree seemed a bit bigger. We tried not to trouble ourselves with this detail and got to work making it manageable for the trailer ride home. When we got back to the car, we were relieved to see our tree was roughly the same size as the one our friends had cut down. No worries.

Not your usual Charlie Brown forest tree

Then, we got the tree home and off the trailer. That was when we started to suspect that we might have a problem. You know how sometimes you take more food than you’re actually going to be able to eat because your eyes are bigger than your stomach is? Well, I began to wonder if we’d had similar problems sizing up this forest tree to the realistic size of our living room. We leaned it up against the house. It was huge. I told Steve that, ala one of my favorite scenes from Christmas Vacation, someone was going to ask us where we thought we would put a tree that big. We got out the tape measure. It was 15 feet tall. While a 15 foot tree can easily fit in our living room with the 18 foot ceiling, it cannot fit in a tree stand that can only support a 12 foot tree. Steve cut off a few more feet while I walked around muttering, “little full, lot of sap.” With that last cut, however, we found that now the bottom appeared sparse and uneven so we omitted a couple extra feet to balance it out. Voilà

Now, not only do we have the perfect Christmas tree, but we also have several decent starter logs for our fire pit as well as an attractive section of log Steve hopes to fashion into a comely centerpiece for our dining table. We got all this for the low, low price of an Alexander Hamilton. As I sit here inhaling the beautiful forest scent with my kleenex by my side (did I forget to mention that three of the four of us are allergic to evergreen trees?), I’m feeling confident that we chose the right tree. Now I just have to make sure Uncle Lewis doesn’t stand too near to it with his stogey.

My Staring Contest With Time

At Anderson Farms – October 2003

We don’t have many family traditions. With our families so close by, we usually spend the holidays jumping from house to house to join someone else’s tradition (and the months before the holidays bickering over which family gets which holiday and who had it last year). We haven’t had much opportunity to establish our own family traditions for our family of four. At first, when the boys were young, I really didn’t care. Now that the precious years when they believe in Santa are over, I’m starting to wish we had some things in place.

One tradition we have managed to establish is our annual trip to Anderson Farms to trek through the corn maze and pick our pumpkins. We have done this every year since Joe was born, so this will be our 11th consecutive trip there. That first year, Joe was all of four months old. I’ll never forget that day. It was warm, and we had Joe in the Baby Bjorn as we trekked through the corn. We had to stop at one point and change his diaper in the middle of the maze. When we’d walked as far as we could go, we set him into a decorative wheelbarrow full of pumpkins and snapped some photos. He was chubby and bald headed then. If he’d been orange, he would have blended right in with the other smooth, round, orange things.  We’ve been there when it’s been 80 degrees and we’ve been there when we’ve been out in the pumpkin patch as it began snowing. We’ve gone with friends and family, and we’ve gone through it just the four of us. One year it was ridiculously muddy after a significant rain and Joe slipped and fell into an enormous mud puddle, much to my dismay since I was hoping to capture a decent family photo. At least it was memorable. Last year we rushed through the maze in advance of a windstorm and were nearly blown back to our car and had to cut the visit short.

In the giant cornucopia in 2011

It’s not an inexpensive day. We’ve never gotten out of there for under $80 (including admission, lunch, and pumpkins), but it’s so worth it. Some things you do regardless of the cost because they mean that much. This is one of those things. So, this Saturday we’ll be up with the roosters. We’ll hit Starbucks and head to Anderson Farms by its 9 a.m. opening time. Looks like good weather, so we should be peeling off layers as we warm up during our maze hike. Our goal this year is to get all the punches on the maze punch card. We haven’t been able to accomplish that feat with the boys yet, but I have a feeling this is our year.

As the boys get older, these trips are the things I treasure most. I can look back through photos and watch the cornstalks appear to grow shorter as our boys grow taller. It’s magic. Now we just need to establish a couple other family traditions so we can have them in place for a few years before the boys move out. When you have young children, people always tell you to “enjoy it while you can because it will be gone before you know it.” That saying is so irksome at the point when you’re exhausted and up to your elbows in diaper cream and baby wipes and can’t wait to move to the next phase. Sadly, though, it is true. Mine are only 9 and 11, and it breaks my heart when I think of how true it is. Your time with your children passes in the blink of an eye. The trick is not to blink. And so I begin my staring contest with time.