Category Archives: family

>The Aftermath of Disaster

>Today I went out early to try out my new light, strong weed-whacker and I wept. I didn’t cry at the efficiency of the machine or its ability to cut clean swaths through my over grown acreage. No, I cried because I had snipped a snake in two.

The temperature dropped and it rained hard last night, not ideal circumstances for a reptile, but great for a middle-aged gardener who likes to work hard when it is chilly. The snake was one of my favorites, a ribbon. He was green with light yellow ribbons running all round his small lithe body. I saw him and he was in half.

I stopped and bent over him, there was nothing I could do so I returned to clipping, perhaps a little more carefully. And then I started to tear up, then cry and before I could even identify what was wrong I was collapsed in the garden chair sobbing, with my Maine coon cat galumphing to the rescue.

My daughter and her 25-year-old French boy friend had been visiting us in the in country three weeks ago. They were cute, he is lively, silly an artist and a wild thing. One day he helped me clean the haymow in the big old barn and when we finished sweeping and carting the hold hay, he leaped form the loading door in the mow and down to the lawn. Maybe forty feet. It was thrilling and scary as so many of those stunts are. I laughed and my husband upbraided him. “Never do that again here, do you understand?’ The boyfriend quieted, as do all the boys when faced with my husband’s stentorian tines. He agreed.

The next day we went on a drive to see the local goats and the boy friend took his skateboard. He had asked my daughter to take him to a big hill earlier in the day and he had skate boarded down form the historic house Olana, built on a precipice of the Hudson River. She drove behind him and said he was going nearly 45 miles per hour. No helmet, no pads, shorts and a tee shirt.

On this trip home he hit a rock, pothole, divot and the next thing we knew he was on the street. We raced back and found him quiet with blood pooling on the pavement trickling out of his ears. He began breathing a heaving rattle. Terrie fed I took the car to the neighbor, as of course I had no cell phone reception. They called the ambulance; it came. I convinced the driver to allow my daughter to ride with as the kid speaks little English and in a crisis I know second languages go fast. They left; I followed the tortuous 30 miles to the nearest trauma hospital.

We spent days in the E.R and then the ICU. We had to call his parents in Nice. The arrived and we all translated and intervened. endlessly. We drove back and forth, we slept fitfully, we interviewed and befriended doctors, nurses and aides. He lived. The brain bleed stopped just as they were going to operate. He lost tons of weight, has a cane, is exhausted and jokes that he lost three days. His parents go home tomorrow. He follows in two weeks after the Neurosurgeon gives the OK for him to fly. And I will stay here changed.

I am terrified, and quaking at cars, roads, motorcycles, barking dogs. I made it through September 11, rescued my kids, wrote a book, volunteered and carried on. But this is the first item that someone I know, I like, I am in a way responsible for has gotten this hurt on my watch. I imagined the worst and I fantasized a jubilant return home for the cute, artist boy. I slept next to my daughter and we patted each other every night for weeks, when the nightmares came. I still find myself shaking my head like a wet dog, in an attempt to clear the images that leap in.

My friend Susan who studies the brain and alternative healing says that when an event like this accident happens the memories are logged in the limbic brain. In a way they by pass normal feeds of memory are logged right where they can crop up more easily and unpredictably. And they do.

SO today when I unwittingly sliced into the snake and sniveled, I know full well I was crying provoked by this new memory and sense of incredible fragility that it has installed in my very own reptile brain.

>Enough wallowing

>I decided enough wallowing and wailing and weeping.

After all, it is the Epiphany. Thousands of years ago, wise men in long dresses schlepped through the desert using a star and found their way to the manger where a baby named Jesus lay with his surprised mom and dad.

And so we took this day as an auspicious one, and the name Epiphany morphed over time to mean a great awakening, a happening that changes us. And it happens once a year. So I decided rather than leaving my blog and tossing it away, I would attempt rebirthing myself with a sense of wonder.

I have been working furiously for the past two days, not making money, but taking chances and doing multiple reach-outs. Some things will stick and now I feel as if I am out of the closet on stealing jewels and making amends, and am moving toward being valuable. I feel, after so many folks read the posting and took time to write to me, I feel they are right that we all have things we have done where are deeply ashamed and yet we attempt to incorporate it into the fabric of who we are and move forward.

So today I made the Epiphany cake, the same one my mother made for the nearly fifty years that I knew her and probably before that. In some cultures it is called a KING’S CAKE and my mom, an Italian who spent the first seven years of her married life in France, borrowed liberally from those two cultures to make a family tradition.

The cake looks like a crown; it is not a layer cake. It can be adorned with candied fruit to make the top of the crown more enticing. And here is a must: there has to be a prize or a coin hidden inside the cake. In New Orleans, it is a plastic baby, in our family it was a special coin. Whoever gets the prize will have especially good financial luck all year. My mother used to attempt to get my father to eat slice after slice so the family wouldn’t sink. My kids have a technique that they believe gives them an edge to finding the coin.

The cake our family makes is handed down from a good friend from the old Washington Heights neighborhood, Otta Maligold, and it is an old-fashioned Jewish sour cream coffee cake. My mother — the erstwhile anthropologist — loved the juxtaposition of a Christian holiday marked by Jewish pastry.

Here is the recipe; it is simple and delicious.

Epiphany Cake
A la Elizabeth Piccirilli and Otta Maligold

Pre heat oven to 350

¾ cup butter
1 ½ cup sugar (Reserve a small amount to dust the top of the cake and inside layer. Add cinnamon to this reserved sugar)
1 ½ cup sour cream
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 ½ teaspoons of both Baking Soda and Baking Powder
½ teaspoon salt
Cream butter and sugar WELL
Add Eggs and sour cream
Then add vanilla, salt, baking powder and soda then add flour little by little
Put one half of the batter in a ring pan, the more it resembles a crown the better.
Then sprinkle in half of the cinnamon sugar you saved.
Next layer the remaining batter. Do not STIR.

Cook for 40 to 60 minutes until a knife comes out clean.
Turn out onto a cake plate
Let cool, decorate with the remaining cinnamon sugar or candied fruit to make the crown

Keep eating until you get the PRIZE.

Now go out and make lots of money and share it with all those you love and those in need.

Be happy, be joyful, be generous and know that life is glorious.

And that is your Epiphany.

>Where the hell did I put that?!

>I am of an age when one begins to forget. I am not old, I know that, so don’t go complimenting me for all I do and achieve, it is not about that. This is reality. People forget, and the more you do and whisk through, the greater the chance of moving on automatic pilot. And that means losing things. This infuriates me and turns me into a raging harridan. Not pretty.

Then my son, daughter, or husband has to try and locate things, calm me down and stop me from railing and ranting that I am losing my mind. Oh, so not pretty. So this morning I started a notebook marked:


Simple. I clean, I decorate for the season, I file things without thinking so that surfaces are clear and I can write, but then I have done it all in a haze of, “I must find calm, and create. . . must find clarity.”

And then weeks, hours or months pass and I recall the gesture and desire, but not the locale. Hence this new notebook idea.

Last summer when I rented the house, I put some fragile things away, there were three hand-made, lemon nesting bowls. I recalled carefully placing them somewhere and then only one month later, they were gone gone and I tore the house apart. Finally Zachary found them in the bottom drawer in a rarely used hall credenza. So this year as I am cleaning, to supposedly write, but really to think about decorating for the winter holidays, I took them back to the credenza, but I took out the notebook and wrote it down. I also noted where I squirreled away a few hundred bucks as I keep losing and finding that. The losing is horrible, but every re-find in funny and exciting.

It scares me–this loss of vigor in my brain and body, although my soul seems pretty much enlivened by age, the other faculties are dimmed. And so I am hopeful this notebook will get me in good habits before I am as wacky as my late-eighties friend, Beati, to whom I gave a notebook. But as she says, “I forget to write in it, then I forget where I put it.” So I started today to note the lemon bowls and tiny envelope of money. I promise to write down after the holiday where decorations have landed so we don’t have to go on an annual scavenger hunt to find the wreaths upstairs and the lights under the coats in my son’s closet.

As long as I believe that every age has a lesson, I can keep forging ahead. Now where did I put my boots, because I need to get out into the sunshine and air out my brain and flex my old legs?

>Who’s the jumper and who’s the pusher?

>I learned long ago how to jump-start cars. It was a byproduct of owning classic British cars that were touchy in rain, sunshine, cold or any other meteorological contrivance. Or at least that was the excuse to which we ascribed their fragility; after all, a racy British car with a snarl for a grill and sleek fins could not be badly made, there had to be a reason.

So faulty Lucas electrics, or ancient wiring, or damp garages, whatever the cause, these cars were mercurial and I got good at popping the clutch and starting the car when the battery was dead or the starter was moist. It was almost like a party trick. I could start a car with a millimeter of hill, or push it myself while running alongside and then jumping in, ease into second gear. I put the key in the “on” position and the clutch to the floor, gas down, then pop the clutch. The engine then, roars, or sputters into ignition and drives away to the amazement of all. Especially men.

It was a nearly flawless way to pick up gents, way better than blond hair or a push up bra. And yet alas, as most cars have morphed from standard (actual shift cars) to automatics, this trick has been less possible to flaunt. Until today.

I purchased a 1976 MGB, a red roadster, for my husband as a 50th birthday gift. I knew his brother, who had passed away, taught him to drive on such a car and I knew that my lovely Zac lusted after cars, snappier than our Subaru as we drove on the highways.

This man is the stepfather to my children, but really their only daddy. He taught them to ride bikes, to dance, to laugh uproariously, to appreciate the Four Tops and other back in the day groups, and he told them that it was “a parent’s privilege to pay for college” when their birth father hired a fancy lawyer who got the courts to rule he was not responsible for a nickel for their Ivy League education, Zachary stepped in to foot the bill. I bought him the car as a tiny thank you for all he does for us.

He is our rock and we all adore him. So today when his baby wouldn’t start after a week of crisp fall days I talked to him about “jump starting” the car. I had done it before without him, but he wanted to try it this time. I pushed it down the hill with him at the wheel and he tried a few times but no POP. I got into the Subaru and pushed him up and down the street in front of our house. NO POP.

Finally I said, “Hey, let me try, okay?”

I got in the seat, which no longer slides up and he is over six feet while I hover at a proud five-five. I got in, held myself up by grabbing onto the wheel and depressed the clutch, found second gear, got the creaky key into position and he started the push and I popped it out right away. Zoom it coughed and sputtered into drive. I gunned the gas and took off up the hill, made a u –turn and stopped the car on the downward slope of the hill, just in case, and got out to switch.

I was a puffy peacock, all pride. “I don’t think you are doing it right,” I crowed.

“Well, I gave you a very fast push,” he retorted. He got in the car and roared off.

Why did I have to be the one to save the day? Why can I be so edgy?

I was not going to solve that half-century conundrum, but I could call and leave a message on his phone.

“I’m sorry I was bad-tempered. What I see is that we need both the jumper and the pusher; life is all about seeing which position suits us best.”

I do feel this way. I recognize he maybe better at getting the car to go fast with a big push, but I am great at leaping in at the right moment and popping that car to life. So once again, not only did we get the car to start, but also we remembered that we are a great team because of our differences.


>Does anyone mend anymore?

I have a note on my refrigerator that says only: MEND

I know that it means I have to stitch up the tear in the old cashmere blanket before it bisects and I have to use the sewing machine. I guess that’s where the Ben Franklin aphorism, “A stitch in time, saves nine” emanates. I may now need more than 30 to staunch this rip.

And I have a nightie that is unseemly due to missing buttons, but I don’t have kids home now, so sometimes I just wear it gaping. But I know it needs buttons. There is a quilt cover with a safety pin that upbraids me with my laziness because I have not replaced the buttons. My husband has a sweater he wears on weekends dotted with moth holes. I know how to darn, and sew, mend and close up seams, but does anyone know these things now who is not over 50?

My daughter is about to be 24 and is living downtown with us in the loft she grew up in while her apartment is sublet so she can do an unpaid internship working on a film about Hunger in America. (How can you not help support a kid doing that kind of work?) She said the other day, “I really need to sew buttons on this skirt.” I know she means, I really need you, mama, to sew these buttons on. But instead I said, “We need to plan a mending night where we take out all the ratty stuff and renovate it so it closes, and looks better.” But it seemed so old fashioned.

Maybe that is where we need to go as a country and as a family.

We need to return to mending our fences, our sweaters, our nighties and our relationship with the world.

Maybe our finances need some old fashioned savings and a moratorium on purchases in favor of rummaging through closets and cleaning out drawers to see what treasures lurk in those dark untapped places.

I started saving every five-dollar bill that came into my hands at the beginning of the summer and I now have nearly 500 dollars, that’s a hundred crumpled fives stuffed into a big jar. I was going to start a savings account, wait until I got a thousand dollars and then buy a CD, but I think I may use what I saved to give us a little bit of a Christmas. Still it was a fun exercise to see that little bits do add up.

I like the idea of mending. Mending a fragile friendship, mending a crumbling stonewall that just needs the tumbling pile to be reorganized. I love mending the sweaters, closing holes and crocheting a new edge to the fraying cuffs. It makes me feel as if I saved something and I might have a little bit of value left in me.

Perhaps we can introduce mending nights as the new thing across America. Everyone brings a small project to the table: fixing broken table legs or that gaping nightie. I don’t want to be the only one doing this, but I bet with the economy in continued free fall, the virtue in mending may begin to seem mighty again.