Archive for December, 2009

For Bev

My friend Bev has been bravely undergoing treatment for cancer. She loves angels as much as I do, and so I thought I would bring her some to cheer her up today.

the herald angels sing

Stay strong, Bev.  We are all thinking about you and praying for you.


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The Morton

I needed a few days to regroup after Christmas. I was tired and achy and a little “out of sorts”. I was crabby. Tom suggested a jaunt out to the arboretum where we could have lunch in the Ginkgo Restaurant and wander the acres and acres of trees.

We belong to the Morton Arboretum. We justify the expense by saying if we go just once each quarter we will have gotten our money’s worth. We generally use our passes much more often than that and enjoy the beauty it offers through each season. Neither of us made it out there this fall for some unexplainable reason. Life is like that sometimes. We have periods of time where everything is just a bit off kilter and we are not sure why or even aware of it happening until it is past. Maybe nature was just storing up its pleasures like a squirrel with nuts for a time we really needed it.  

So, on Sunday, we bundled up and headed out to one of our favorite retreats, grabbing some lunch first as we sat near the expanse of glass and looked out onto Meadow Lake were we could see hearty souls trudging in the snow and a few geese skimming the lake and soaring past the windows. Families were out and about on snowshoes – did you know you can rent snowshoes at the Morton? The lobby was filled with families and groups queuing up to pay for their rentals, choosing snowshoes, and clapping in on snow clogged feet with cheeks all rosy from the cold.  Sitting at our table we could see children sledding and a few cross-country skiers gliding by.

My one experience with snow shoes was not a good one and a tale for another day. My adventures on cross-country skies are, of course, snowbound escapades with me mostly splayed as the fallen snow angel, spending most of my time in rather on the snow – though there is one very funny occurrence with me landing full fanny in someone’s tomato soup in Fullersburg Woods   .  .  .

With Tom nursing a wounded foot and me achy and crabby and out of sorts, a drive around the grounds would have to do and so, after sating our appetites, we hopped in the car and took a slow, leisure ride around the Morton Arboretum on a snow-capped day and it could not have been a better balm for our souls.

Looking into the Piney Woods.

It was truly beautiful!

The sun was trying to peak out and the day was mostly gray, but the snow was a clean, white blanket for fun and imagination and each turn in the road brought more beauty to behold. We couldn’t get out and walk and so the windows went down and then up and down again and again as we pulled the car over to capture the views both small and expansive.

Coming out of the piney woods a hawk swooped down quite close to our car and casted a shadow as if to mark our entry into the clearing. He surprised us – and we likely him – and he soared away before we could get a closer look and he could capture whatever mouse or vole had caught his eye.

Life is like that sometimes. We miss the chance to capture whatever is right in front of us. I’m better for having taken the ride out to the arboretum on Sunday. All nature’s wintry beauty was, indeed, right there in front of us.

We will return to this spot come spring – come March – where these mallards were swimming on Sunday. This is where the spring-peepers sing. Another day and another season  – we will return and look forward to a walk-about. You can find out all about the Morton Arboretum here: www.mortonarb.org/

Crowley Marsh

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Louisa May Alcott/American Masters

Monday night, 9 pm, WTTW in the greater Chicago area.

I have been waiting for this presentation and here it is, another Christmas present just for me (well, that may be stretching the truth some, but, hey, it is Christmastime and a gal can pretend if she wants to), that American Masters is doing. The following is copied from the WTTW website schedule.

American Masters: Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women
Encore HD Airings of this Episode

Monday, December 28 at 9:00 pm
Thursday, December 31 at 2:30 am

The author of ‘Little Women’ is an almost universally recognized name. Her reputation as a morally upstanding New England spinster, reflecting the conventional propriety of late 19th-century Concord, is firmly established. However, raised among reformers and Transcendentalists and skeptics, the intellectual protege of Emerson and Hawthorne and Thoreau, Alcott was actually a free thinker with democratic ideals and progressive values about women — a worldly careerist of sorts. Most surprising is that she led, under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, a literary double life, undiscovered until the 1940s. As Barnard, Alcott penned scandalous, sensational works with characters running the gamut from murderers and revolutionaries to cross-dressers and opium addicts — a far cry from her familiar fatherly mentors, courageous mothers and appropriately impish children.

Always a fan of Little Women, Little Men, I was thrilled when we visited Orchard House in Concord a few years ago and even more appreciative of Louisa as I learned more about her life, saw the little corner desk she wrote at, using both her left and right hands so she could write longer, walked the streets of Concord and saw her grave. It was a phenomenal trip for me and I know I will enjoy this American Masters feature even more so as some of it was filmed at Orchard House.

Bronson Alcott's school behind Orchard House in Concord, MA

Louisa May Alcott's grave in Concord. People often leave stones at famous resting places in this area.

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Silver and clay

We savored our stew with Katy and Tom in our cozy candlelit dining room and delighted in its marriage of flavors on Christmas Eve. I am sure I purred like a contented kitten as seconds were scooped into pastry shells with an old silver ladle from a tureen, which was hand thrown by potter and ceramic artist Sarah Jo Hermanson of Herringbone Studios of Elmhurst some years ago.   It is something so lovely for me to see and feel old silver and earthen pottery working together to bring a savory meal to rest on a plate. I like the contrast of old and new, silver and clay, both tempered by fire and formed by skilled artisans’ hands that enhance the simple, hearty foods prepared by my own.

The tureen did double duty this season and was pressed into service on Christmas day as well. It held Heather’s heavenly potato leek soup, our first course, and I think we all knew a legend was born in the flavorful soup and the generous hands that made it. Even eight month old Jake ate it with guttural glee, pumping his hands and opening his cherubic mouth with each rounded spoonful that sailed toward him – and I think I heard his mom purr with delight as well.

Friday’s larger gathering around our long kitchen table enjoyed the soup as the meat was “resting” and the root vegetables roasting. My earthy tureen once again served us well on yet another holiday, another celebration, and another chance for the gathering of family.

My blessings are many. I hope yours are as well.

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Christmas visitors

Christmas Eve, mid-afternoon, this young buck came by for a sneak peek before strolling back into the woods. Tom got a much better picture of one of his friends on Christmas day in the morning as he stopped by for an appetizer before crossing the road where four or five of his friends were waiting. Looked like a stag party from our cozy vantage point. Then, again,  maybe they were just refueling after a long winter’s night.

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Irish Mist

My mother swooned at her wedding. It was not so much for the excitement of the day as for the taste of wine. My mother never touched wine. She never drank liquor, so when the ornate chalice touched her wedding lips she felt faint. Communion in the Greek Orthodox church is wine and bread and the sacrament is part of the marriage ceremony. She toasted my sister and I at our own weddings, but did so with a glass of water. She partook in communion throughout her life and I realize now that the very act of communion was a tremendous act of faith for her. I honor her humble faith, the faith of a convert, so complete and her unquestioning example to others.

My post is not about faith, however, but about how I came upon our annual Christmas Eve meal.

Christmas Eve at our house is a simple stew, served in pastry bowls, a festive ring of rice with red peppers dotted throughout to hark the holiday spirit. A simple salad, perhaps a side dish, but, the guest of honor is the stew. Irish Mist Stew. Not a cheap entrée, but my present to those at the table.

My best friend, Sue, often joined us on Christmas Eve. For several years she and her children, or her sister and nephews, and even her mother sat at our holiday table. It is with fondness that I remember those years. Glad in my heart for the gatherings. My cousin, Ted, would usually be with us, sometimes my sister and Rick, sometimes another cousin or two or a friend who was alone that night. After dinner, Ted would sit at the piano and carols were sung, or we would just listen in delight. I always found his playing a gift and held thanks in my heart.

Sue gave me the recipe for the stew, one day at her house, which was then but a block away, sipping on coffee, real coffee, this was before the mocha and latte mania, and solving the problems of the world – or was it just the PTA? – she mentioned a recipe her mom had made. Mary Alice was a superb cook and knew how to stretch a meal. The mother of nine, she had to be. I cherish the moments spent with her.

I made the stew one blustery Christmas Eve, to rave reviews, and it soon became a once-a-year tradition for our table. It has become tastier over the years. Our guest list has waxed and waned as the cost of Irish Mist has sky-rocketed. I will make it for as long as I am able, however, for it is a gift from so many to me, not to mention a delectable feast.

It was the last year Mary Alice joined us. Our table groaned with the season’s bounty and was circled by family and friends. Someone asked where the recipe came from and I looked at Sue and said it was from her. Sue said, no, it was from her mother, who corrected us both. “No,” said Mary Alice, “it is from your own mother, Penny.”

My own mother, already deceased, who never drank liquor!

Ma worked for many years as a cashier in a liquor store (Armanetti’s for those of you in the Chicago area). Ironic, I know, that she worked selling liquor. There were always “give aways” from the various distributors and she always managed to amass a quantity of whatever was being given away. A child of the Great Depression, nothing was ever thrown away. One day she came over to our house with a hefty pile of recipe booklets – the type you have surely seen with such recipes as the Harvey Wallbanger Cake, or my favorite, Christian Brothers Cream Sherry Cake, which I still make, even though the good Christian brothers no longer make the sherry. I was busy with two school age children and browsed flippantly through them then passed them on to Sue, who most likely did the same before giving them to Mary Alice. So, on that Christmas Eve, Mary Alice gave me a most treasured gift, the circle completion type of gift, that the recipe was from one of those pamphlets my mother had passed along to a daughter who, I am sorry to say, didn’t at first appreciate the gesture. This recipe, thankfully, fell into Mary Alice’s hands, the question was asked and the answer supplied on her last Christmas around our Christmas Eve table.

Thank you, Mary Alice, for bringing a giving voice at just the right moment, and thank you, Ma, for giving us many, many warm and tasty Christmas Eves, long after your passing. We carry our mothers with us through holidays and life, even when they are called “home”. I think my mom would enjoy knowing that a little bit of her generous spirit lives on in this way. My cousin Chris called the other day and asked for this recipe, which I gladly supplied. My parents were her godparents. You see the circles of life, do you not?  I am passing it on to you as well, while my stew simmers in a very large pot and its promising aroma fills our home, with wishes for a Merry Christmas, a happy holiday, and a joyous celebration wherever you are.

Irish Mist Stew

1# beef stew

2 T flour

1 1/2 t. salt


2 T butter

1 onion

1 carrot

1 stalk celery

1 T red wine vinegar

1 1/2 c. water

1 c. Irish Mist

dash of mace

dash of nutmeg

Coat meat in flour, salt and pepper and brown.

Add remaining ingredients, bring to boil, then simmer to 1 1/2 hours, or until tender.

Serve over prepared pastry bowls, such as Pepperidge Farms Pastry Shells.

I at least triple the recipe and add turnips, potatoes. I add peas at the very end.

You can also add tomatoes at the end if you like. It is the liqueur, mace and nutmeg that give it the unusual flavor and tenderness.

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Fallen angel

I was an angel of the Lord.

A fallen angel, really, though I redeemed myself the night of the birth.

Our Sunday school at Holy Apostles was staging the Nativity and I was selected to be an angel – THE ANGEL who proclaims the joyful tidings of Jesus’ birth to the sheep abiding shepherds.

I probably would have made a better Mary than a heavenly host, as I was shy and soft-spoken, much as I imagined Mary.  I was probably too young at the time to be Mary and I was not pretty enough.  Pretty girls were always chosen to be Mary.  At least in the 5th grade. Still, I would have been a good Mary.

Instead, I was a tiding angel.

A well-intended adult had the abiding faith that I would be heard by the shepherds tending their flocks at night. Faith works in mysterious ways.

The Nativity was to be held on the stage of church – the first church for Holy Apostles. It was an old Lutheran church renovated to house our Greek Orthodox Christian family and served as such for most of my elementary years until the current structure was built.  The stage was in the basement of the church and the Nativity would be presented on an evening in December, shortly before Christmas.

We were to memorize our lines, mostly biblical passages, and our parents were to properly adorn us so that we could properly adore the baby Jesus.

Being an angelic host, I was crowned in an aluminum foil halo and a white, flowing gown.  I do not remember if I had wings, but, the wide, ample dolman sleeves  flared out in the most heavenly fashion when my arms were held straight out. I commanded earthly attention – or at least the attention of the flock of sheep.

Aunt Christina had a sewing machine and so she sewed my angelic costume.

I felt quite holy in it!

I memorized my speech.  A textbook first born overachiever, I eagerly learned my lines and was humbled by the importance of my role.  My biggest obstacle was not in the saying of the words, but, saying them so that they could be heard.

Fear not, for behold!

Fear not?  I was as frightened as a dormouse meeting a Christmas cat coming down the chimney.

Finally, dress rehearsal.  Dress rehearsals, to this day, are almost always disastrous, especially when they are Christmas pageants.  This one was no different.

The wise men, always a role coveted by the most mischievous of boys, misbehaved as if on cue,  as did the cane wielding shepherds, whose sticks, brandished as weapons,  were repeatedly confiscated.

A platform was hauled out so that the Angel of the Lord could rise above the lowly flock.  What were they thinking?  Was it not enough to expect a coherent proclamation of good tidings? Did I have to walk the plank to do it?

Fear not, for behold!

Fear not? Did they actually expect me to climb Mt. Holy Apostles just to deliver the message according to Luke?

The shepherds gathered, the sheep shephed,  and Father Bill decided to check on the pageant’s progress just as my father arrived to pick me up . . .  just as I commenced my heavenly ascent!

That is when I became a fallen angel.  Two or three steps up the heralding ramp and I tripped and tumbled, crashing to earth, denting my Reynolds Wrap halo with it’s glistening dust, as well as my already fragile ego.

Where was divine intervention?

I swear I heard the sheep giggle.

Adults rushed, as adults always do, when children want to fade into the woodwork.  I was examined for broken bones as helping hands attempted to disentangle me from my glorious gown.

The show must go on, so, slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y, ever so slowwwwwly,  I ascended toward the brightly shining star, finally reaching the peak of my performance  where I flapped my winsome sleeves, and peeped my proclamation, which, unfortunately, only the giggling sheep could hear.  The abiding shepherds could not hear me, nor could Father Bill or my father, Pete.


Most of the words became slurred in the swaddling clothes.


Tears pooled in my eyes as Father and Father huddled. My heavenly halo threatened to dangle into foiled doom. My earthly pride  sapped.

The priest came forward, his black robe preceding his purposeful steps. I felt a sermon at hand.  I had a most important speech, he sternly admonished.  Not only the shepherds, but, the entire world needed to hear St. Luke’s words.  “You must project your voice”, he projected.  Could I do it by Sunday night’s performance?

My halo nodded yes as I silently pleaded for mercy and leapt down from my lofty lift, tears no longer in abeyance, and sobbed my way to my daddy, who I knew was not only disappointed, but was embarrassed by my tears.

That night I cried myself to sleep, knowing I would awaken a fallen angel with tear stained eyes.  I did not know how I could possibly be a properly proclaiming Angel of the Lord as I feared my fate at the feet of snickering sheep!

My mother paced over my pendulous tears. “Pete, do something.” My grandmother sagely said I could do this (what did she know? she couldn’t read or write?)  My father patted my shoulder and asked me if I thought I could do this. He said he had confidence in me.  He knew I could do this. I was a smart girl. He had faith in me. Did I have faith?

I did.  In the end, I was awesomely angelic as I proclaimed:

Fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, for unto you is born this day, in the City of David, a savior, who is Christ the King.  You will find Him wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger . . .

. . .  and the sheep did not giggle. The Wise Men behaved. The shepherds

shouldered their canes tightly and a Child was born.

(I’ve been a little overwhelmed lately, so, hope you don’t mind this retelling of my story from a few years ago. Do you have a heavenly story or even a more earthly one of a Christmas past or present?)

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