Awareness, Faith, Family, Fulfillment, Genuine, Giving, God, Goodness, Inspiration, Life, Love, Mindful, Peace, Real, Relationships, Self Care, Thoughts, Truth, Uncategorized

Walking Away

“If you want more in your life, more connection, more meaning, more fulfillment, you have to shift your attention to something deeper and truer. It will be from that pure and sacred place that you can attract more goodness in your life.” ~ Oprah

It’s very sad when the people we want to feel the closest to are separate from us. There are times that the image of extended family sitting or standing around for any type of gathering is portrayed to be an ideal scenario but it can be a nightmare for many. You can feel trapped in a box of others fixed opinions, reactions and judgments.

For some time now, I have been on this journey of trying, with every ounce of my being, to create peace in my life and this I know for sure, if people or environments don’t feel welcoming, comfortable, no longer familiar or more importantly, like home, I am extremely comfortable with walking away and trust this, there are no hard feelings. I have become comfortable enough with who I am and the choices that feel right for me. At this stage of my life, I owe nothing to anyone, except myself. I have learned to always follow my gut and my heart, along with seeing and hearing with the eyes and ears that God has gifted me. They all allow me to feel and see the genuine and real in myself and the people around me.

I have learned to listen to God’s whisper and it will always be His silent voice that will direct me as to when it is time to walk away. That’s what you do when the negative forces of others attempt to invade your space. It’s what you do when you have had enough with being taken advantage of or disrespected or drained not only physically but mentally, emotionally and spiritually. You walk away and you focus on what’s meaningful to your life. It’s called self care. It brings so much more meaning to your life.

As I walk away, it will always be with forgiveness in my heart, along with silently wishing you peace but before I walk away, I offer these words of wisdom to the unconscious. Know this, you’re not entitled. Stop expecting. Stop assuming. Stop being defensive. Stop complaining. Stop judging. Stop taking people for granted. Mind your business. If it’s not your story to share, don’t share it. You also may want to consider waking up because you’re missing out on the beauty of the world, a good life, the people that truly love you and above all, always say thank you for another day and the blessing, along with the opportunity to be consciously alive.

Be grateful. Be humble. Be loving. Be considerate. Be kind. Be hopeful. Rise above it all. Build each other up. Be unique. Be bold. Be truer. Embrace each other. Life is too short to attract, want or expect anything less than goodness in our lives.

As always, just continuing to keep it real in 2019 and shifting my attention, along with my intentions to all things that bring goodness to my life.

Happy New Year!

Awareness, Believe, Easter, Faith, Family, Giving, God, Hope, Life, Love, Thoughts, Truth, Uncategorized

A Forty Day Journey

“Time directs, heals, teaches and leads hearts to love. Be patient with yourself and with others.” ~ Matthew Kelly

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For the last few years, I have participated in Matthew Kelly’s, The Best Lent Ever. Forty days of absolute awareness, being present and working towards becoming the best version of yourself and learning how to be perfectly yourself. To be honest, some days were more challenging than others and there were days where I failed miserably at becoming a better version of myself and I haven’t quite found my perfect self. It’s not perfection that I am looking to attain, it is being perfectly happy with being who I am and not how anyone else wants or expects or wishes me to be. The last week was probably the most challenging and yet eye opening and extremely telling. It was Holy Week and it started off with the passing of my 94-year-old aunt (my mother’s sister), who went home peacefully to the Lord and her husband on Palm Sunday and the week ended with her burial and a celebration of her life on Holy Friday. It was a week of reflection, along with constantly reminding myself of the importance of being in the present moment, shutting out the chatter and being fully aware of my surroundings. I believe the readings at her mass, at the luncheon and in a booklet her children put together truly summed up who Aunt Josie was as a person, a sister, a wife, a mother, a aunt, a grandmother and great-grandmother and as a friend but more importantly, a devoted child of God and the church. The piece that struck me the most was talking about how non-judgmental she was. She lived a life without any judgment of anyone and she would extend her hand of kindness, love and support to anyone and everyone who crossed her path.

I sat at her funeral luncheon thinking about all of the opportunities where we never take advantage of telling the people we love, while they are alive, how thankful we are for all the guidance, love and support they have added to our lives. Aunt Josie is one person, I am not sure I ever properly thanked for all of her love, support and non-judgment of me. She was there for me many times, guiding me with her kindness and her unconditional love. My heart tells me she just knew how I felt but I did take the opportunity that day, to sit with my Aunt Jean to talk about our family and some questions I had about the past. We also talked about how over time, the dynamics of our family has changed and the realistic reasons as to why change is just a natural progression of life. The conversation at one point became emotional but I knew I couldn’t walk away from her without taking a moment to thank her for her role in my life. She was yet another person who never let judgment be a part of her words, feelings and thoughts, especially about those she loved. She is from the generation of those that understood family loyalty, respect, trust and unconditional love. They believed being there for those that you love was just a given and something that was never questioned. I call them “the just do” generation. They understood boundaries and truths. More importantly, they understood the meaning of being a true confidant and if it wasn’t their story to tell, it was never to be repeated. I walked away from our conversation maybe not getting all the answers to my questions but with a new-found respect and admiration for my aunt and the code that she continues to honor…it’s called family loyalty. Maybe some things in life should never be questioned and maybe there are no real answers and maybe you just need to respect, honor and accept what was in the past and hearing anything different, really wouldn’t change a thing.

Then this morning, while reading my favorite Sunday Paper blog by Maria Shriver, there it was, yet another reminder talking about how we should honor people while they are alive and letting the people we love know they are enough. The article asked questions that made me think…why do people in life rarely see themselves as others see them? Why are they rarely recognized for their powerful legacies while they are still alive? Why are they rarely told how much they are truly loved? Then there was Matthew Kelly’s final video, from The Best Lent Ever, he spoke about resurrection and some of his thought provoking questions and thoughts…what part of your life needs resurrection? What part of your life needs to be resurrected? Because we all have one, every year. You might have the same one three years in a row. You might have the same one ten years in a row. You might have the same one twenty years in a row. He goes on to say, some of our biggest challenges, some of our biggest problems, some of our biggest crises, some of our biggest obstacles – they take more than a year to solve, to change, to heal. The real question is: Do you believe? Do you believe that it’s possible? Do you believe that whatever mess you’ve got yourself into or however bad the situation is in your life or whatever tragedy or challenge it is that needs to be resurrected in your life…do you believe that God is willing and able to resurrect it? Whew, a lot more to think about beyond these forty-days.

My original plan for this forty-day journey was to make time each day to be still, silent and in solitude. I wanted to use the time to reflect on my life…one moment at a time. Each day, I walked away from those moments with a word or a thought. Something that had personal meaning or reflected something about myself or life in general. I knew I wanted to take those words and thoughts and do something with them. Something simplistic and not complicated and out of that came the video below…My Forty Day Journey.

Today and everyday, I hope you take a moment to reflect on the real meaning of life. I hope you get the opportunity to thank someone who has had a significant impact on your life and to tell them how grateful you are that they have graced your life with their presence, their love and their understanding. I also hope you come to believe and know that you are enough and celebrate life every day…your own life and the life of those that you love and who truly matter the most to you.

Happy Easter and as Matthew says, if you are to find lasting happiness in this ever-changing world, it will be as your own wonderful self…the best version of perfectly you.

Believe, Christmas, Compassion, Faith, Family, Giving, God, Hope, Life, Life Experiences, Life Lessons, Love, Relationships, Thoughts, Truth

We All Forget

Outside there is a fresh blanket of the first snow of the season and inside, I’m embraced by the warmth of my pajamas, a hot cup of coffee and my Sunday morning reading. I’m reading stories about what you need to do to prepare the way to what is really coming during this season by Matthew Kelly to getting your priorities in check by Maria Shriver but it was the one minute video by Tony Robbins regarding “what really living is” that caused me to pause and remain still as I absorbed his words and thoughts. While all of their words weren’t anything that I hadn’t thought about before, it was when I pulled all three of their thoughts together that really made me pause and reflect on the where, the what, the was, the is and what’s coming with my own life and I share with you some of their telling words.

Matthew talks about the season and the preparing and somewhere in the midst of all of this, the true meaning of what is really coming has gotten lost or maybe even forgotten. There are weeks of preparing, along with the menu planning, getting the house ready, straightening everything up and making sure everything is right for everyone who is coming. The questions I read are the ones that were so thought provoking…what do you need to do to prepare for the coming season? What in your life needs to be made straight? Are there habits you need to begin or maybe end? Are there some relationships that need a little cleaning up? Do you need to look at how you use your time or how you use your money? Maybe, just maybe, now is the time to take a step back and reflect on what is really meaningful during this season and focus more on spending time with those that are really important to your life.

While reading my next piece, Maria reminded me of all of the people who lost everything during this year’s hurricanes and wildfires. She wrote about the many people who lost everything they own. Everything they worked their whole lives for. In a moment, they lost it all. In a moment, everything can be gone and everything can change. A moment can make all the difference. She wrote about prioritizing in those moments and it made me think about what would be my priorities. What would I grab first and who would I call? Do I know what I would say if I only had a moment? For me, this was probably the biggest question…do I have someone who will check on me and be there for me? I would like to think and hope that I know who they are and that they would be there for me in a moments notice. I know what I value and I know what I would grab first. For me too, it would be the things that have the most meaning to my heart. It would be the things that remind me of my family, love and hope. Her words just reinforced in me that life is a series of moments and we should never wait for those devastating moments to remind us of who and what is important to our lives. Don’t wait for those moments to say the things you need to say. Don’t spend a lot of moments accumulating a lot of stuff because in those moments, they really aren’t going to matter.

And lastly there were Tony’s words, “When do people really start to live? The answer…when they face death.” He goes on to say it’s only then that all of a sudden everything in your life gets reprioritized. You start thinking about who you would call. What would you say? What truth would you tell? What would you share with someone that you never shared before? What kind of gratitude would you have for one more day? How would you treat people? What would you cherish the most if it were the last week of your life? The most eye opening and yet simplistic statement he made, “We all forget that there is something coming for all of us…it’s called death. And rather than thinking of it as gruesome, maybe it can be a counselor.” Wow!

Their words hit something deep within me and reminded me of one of my favorite Oprah lines…”I have less time left here on this earth than I have lived.” Those profound words have taught me I have no time left to waste on people nonsense or chatter that is none of my business. I have lost a lot over the years and at the same time, I have gained a tremendous amount too. I have gotten to a place in my life where I know and believe that God has something more in store for me and I am curious and excited to find out what that is. When I think about how much of my life has been spent on the not so important stuff, it’s time lost that I will never recover. I can’t change any of the mistakes I have made and this I know for sure, even with the many mistakes, I know who I was yesterday and I am good with who I am today. In the last few years, I have spent quite a bit of time in the classroom of silence with myself and God. At first it was uncomfortable because it forced me to confront both myself and the pain head on. But it’s been through that solitude that I have been able to find hope in the little moments and I am able to see hope in the bigger pieces of my life.

I find myself asking quite often, why would anyone what to live life any other way than with a heart filled with gratitude, peace, love, grace and hope. Maybe, just maybe, more than ever before, we all need to make that call of gratitude, hope and love. Because life is too short and we never know when it’s going to end. That’s what I’m thinking about on this beautiful, snowy Sunday morning. And before we all forget…it is the season of giving, of love and of hope.

Peace,

Simply Deborah

Family, Life, Life Experiences, New York City, September 11th, Thoughts, World Trade Center

September 11th…My Story

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For 14 years now, whenever I have told the story of my September 11th experience, I am always asked if I have written or documented it. I had shared my story with a client and she told me she never quite heard the details of that day, described or expressed the way I spoke about it. She asked if I was ever interviewed for a story. I don’t consider my story to be unique, it’s just one of the thousands of stories from that day. Over 2,700 innocent people, which included many heroes of the New York City Fire and Police Departments, along with the Port Authority Police, lost their lives on a day none of us will ever forget.

I only share my story today for a few reasons, I felt it was important to document it somewhere for my grandchildren to read someday and for whatever reason, at this juncture of my life, I found it to be therapeutic to write about it. My disclaimer for this story, for privacy reasons, I didn’t use any of my friends or colleagues names but if any of them ever have the opportunity to read this, I am sure they will recognize themselves, along with the unforgettable and horrific events of a day that we shared. With that said, here is my story…

It was like any other normal work day, I was awoken by the alarm at the ungodly hour of 5am and my normal routine morning regiment began. I was leading a focus group at 10am and I decided to dress a little more corporate than my normal attire of business casual. It was a beautiful day, sunny and clear blue skies…just a picture perfect day with a slight hint of fall in air. As I walked out the door at 6:45am, I grabbed a sweater, as I started my route to the train station. My normal morning routine continued with my first stop at the local convenience store, to buy a newspaper and a cup a coffee. The usual morning customers of the convenience store were standing out front with their coffee and this morning was no different than any other, where one of the regulars would pass a flirtatious remark. I caught the 7:15am train, out of the Springdale station and I was off to my office located in the Financial District of Manhattan.

On the train ride in, I reviewed my notes in preparation of the focus group. Part of me felt unprepared but I knew I would have plenty of time to finish any last minute preparation once I got to my office. Strangely and oddly, for whatever reason, I appeared and felt, more than usual, extremely observant of my surroundings. Once the train pulled into Grand Central it was the normal rush through the crowds of people to catch the express train down to Wall Street. It was the normal hustle and bustle of the rush hour commuters and no one paid attention to anyone, except focusing on their final destination. As much as I loved my position as a Project Manager, I was not a fan of NYC subway system, especially in the hot summer but I loved the excitement, the vitality and the vibrancy you felt being in the midst of it all. It was an adrenaline rush every day. It was my 5 year anniversary mark of working in Manhattan and even with 5 years under my belt, with every subway ride, I still counted the stops…#1-Union Square, #2-Brooklyn Bridge, #3-Fulton St and #4-Wall St…off!

Maybe if it wasn’t for the focus group, I wouldn’t have had my “A” game face on and I would have been just like everyone else, oblivious to my surroundings and just as robotic as the rest of the rush hour commuters. The entire subway ride I felt anxious and I kept watching the time. It felt like it was taking forever to get to my end destination. When we finally pulled into Wall St, the stairwell was crowded with people and as my foot hit the first step, I looked at my watch and it was 8:45am. I remember thinking, you have plenty of time to finish preparing. When I reached the street, I saw what appeared to be paper falling from the sky. My immediate first thought was…is there a ticker tape parade, today? People were running everywhere and many were crying. Many were trying to use their cell phones and I stopped a gentlemen and asked what was going on. He said, “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.” I thought…how is that possible? It’s a beautiful, clear, picture perfect day. I would normally walk up Broadway towards the World Trade Center and turn down the block towards my building. Today, I thought differently and turned down the street walking towards the New York Stock Exchange.

As I walked, stunned with the thought of a plane crashing into a tower, charred paper and debris kept hitting the ground of my path. I immediately thought, my God, this is paper from someone’s desk. Someone, most certainly, was sitting at their desk when the plane hit. A horrifying feeling came over me as I continued to watch the paper and debris fall to the ground. I walked as quickly as possible to my office at Chase Plaza. All I wanted was to get off the streets. When I arrived at the plaza, it was filled with people watching the burning tower. I was not a spectator and my only focus was to get to my desk, to call my daughter, who I knew would be home with my 18 month old granddaughter. I knew she watched the Today Show, every morning and possibly, she could fill me in as to what had happened.

My daughter couldn’t tell me much, as the media was not yet clear as to what was happening, however, the firemen, police and the port authority police were frantically working their way towards and into the building to begin rescue efforts. While my office was only on the 3rd floor of my building, we had a clear view of the towers. My building had glass windows, which were nearly from the floor to the ceiling. Many of my colleagues were gathered by the windows watching the burning building. I walked to the windows and my eyes saw everything and nothing. There was so much to take in and the movement of my eyes was rapid but what I saw, will forever be a vivid memory etched in my mind. A huge gaping hole in the tower, with massive flames and smoke pouring out of it. I heard one of my colleagues scream, “Oh, my God!”, as he saw someone jump from the building. It was enough to confirm, yet again, I was not a spectator nor did I want to be one.

I returned to my desk and sat there stunned. Everything, till this day, appeared as if it were happening in slow motion. I made frantic calls to everyone scheduled to attend the focus group, to cancel the meeting and to tell them to not come anywhere near the building. Next, I heard a huge explosive sound and it was the South Tower that was hit by a second plane. I was surrounded by frantic mayhem and as I walked the floor of my office, many people were watching live footage on their computers. I just went back to my desk and I had several messages from many family and friends checking on me. By this time, officials began closing all New York City bridges and tunnels, along with mass transit being shut down. The FAA stops, for the first time ever, nationwide, all flights from taking off.

It’s now 9:37am and a third plane crashes into the Pentagon and it’s confirmed the United States is under attack. The emotions that ran through my body and mind, went from shock to fear and not fully understanding what the hell was going on nor the magnitude of it all. As I continued to sit at my desk, a friend called, who worked on Broadway. She told me to stay at my desk, she was coming to get me and we were getting the hell out of here. I sat like an obedient child, with my back straight, sitting tall, with my bag over my shoulder and I waited. I knew my friend, undeniably, knew how to navigate her way through Manhattan so much better than myself. I sat there and assured myself, she was going to get us out of here.

Suddenly, what sounded like a stampede of cattle, my colleagues who were watching at the windows, were screaming and running down the corridors. I could hear the voice of a gentlemen on our management team screaming, “Get down on the floor and away from the windows!” The building began to tremble and there was this rumbling, loud sound and vibration. It was so powerful, it threw me down to my knees. Scared, frantic and overwhelmed with fear, I stayed on the floor and hid under my desk. I was frozen and I had no clue as to what was happening. Was our building hit? Was it going to crumble with me in it? As I quivered under my desk, with a million thoughts running through my mind, I could see out the windows and something was happening outside. Again, it felt like life was in slow motion, as I watched what appeared to be an enormous cloud of billowing, grayish black smoke and enveloped inside of it were particles of debris. I watch this massive cloud of smoke, move slowly around the entire building and embrace it. You couldn’t see anything outside, not the perfect blue sky or the buildings surrounding the plaza. It felt like the world stopped and I was somewhere in the middle of it all, frozen under my desk.

Things went quiet and not a sound could be heard for a moment or two. Until someone yelled, “Get out of the building.” Still not knowing what happened, I grabbed my bag and like everyone else, I ran for the stairwell and this is where I learned that the South Tower had collapsed. It was in the stairwell that I met another dear friend, we locked arms and proceeded to quickly walk down the flights of stairs, heading for the lobby. The stairwell was jammed with people coming from the higher floors. Suddenly, I remembered my friend, who was coming to get me was out on the streets when the tower collapsed and I got weak in the knees and began crying. My dear friend, who I was latched arm and arm with, tried to reassure me that she would be alright. When we finally reached the lobby, as people in the stairwell were trying to pull the door open to get out, there were people on the other side trying to push their way in to get away from the smoke and flying debris, which overcame the building’s lobby. Security instructed all of us to go back up to our floors and the building was immediately placed in lockdown.

My floor was the first floor of offices up from the lobby and quickly it was filled with many employees from the higher floors. My first instinct was to go to my desk and call my children. Till today, I can still hear my daughter’s screams and cries through the telephone, “Mom, please get out of there!” For the first time ever, I knew I had absolutely no control over my life or what the outcome of the day would be for me or the people in my building. I returned messages, to family and friends to let them know that at the moment I was okay and I could finally breath when I learned my friend, who was coming to get me was safe and fortunately, her manager stopped her from leaving her building prior to the tower collapsing.

The group of people that were on the plaza level when the tower collapsed, who pushed their way into the stairwell for safety, were completely covered in ash, they were unrecognizable and all you could see were their blood shot eyes. They were in shock and began to babble about the sights they witnessed and of people jumping from the blazing building. I couldn’t sit there and listen and I began to walk the floor in disbelief and observed so many things and people that will be etched in my memory for years to come. A former manager was sitting, silently, on the floor outside his office, holding his legs close to his chest, in deep thought and rocking back and forth. There were several different groups of men and women sitting in circles, on the floor, in prayer and holding each other’s hands.

I sat in a small hallway, which separated one side of the floor from the other, with my dear friend and we just sat silently, holding each other’s hand. There was a young lady, who had just relocated to New York from Texas that sat with us and we attempted to comfort her. She was worried about her husband, who worked for the FBI and she lost all communication with him. Then again, without warning the building began to tremble, vibrate and there was that roaring sound and as I squeezed my friends hand tighter, she softly whispered to me that it was the second tower coming down and she attempted to reassure me, yet again, that everything would be alright.

Another colleague stood vigil at the window overlooking the plaza, which faced the direction of the World Trade Center. She was beyond worried, fearful and she was frantically trying to focus and search through the thick smoke and debris for her son. Her last communication with him was that he was coming to get her. Another moment and thought that is etched in my memory…how was she ever going see or find him through the thickness of the smoke? I couldn’t imagine the thoughts that were going through her mind about her son being out on the streets. What happened next, I can only explain it as being nothing short of a miracle and a mother’s determination to find her child. It was as if the smoke parted just enough for her to see him on the plaza and she screamed, “I see him!” She ran through the crowd of people on our floor and there wasn’t one person, who was going to stop her from getting out of the building or getting to her son and we learned later that morning that they found each other and were safe.

As time passed, the heavy smoke that surrounded the building and filled the lobby of the building was finding its way up to the upper floors through the elevator shafts and stairwells. Yet, another moment etched in my memory is of the Senior Executive, who walked the floor with a bullhorn, advising everyone that they should consider moving to a higher floor as the air quality of the 3rd floor was not good. Not one person moved. Not one person would even consider going to a higher floor. Colleagues from the marketing group, ripped promotional t-shirts, dampened them with water and passed them around for people to wrap and tie around their mouth and nose. Again, there was silence and we just sat and waited for hours.

It was noon before a decision was made to begin the evacuation of our building. We formed ourselves into groups according to where everyone lived and exchanged home telephones numbers. Now, with barely any communication to the outside world, a decision needed to be made as to whether we would take the stairwell or elevator down. I was beyond frightened to get into the elevator but a colleague convinced me it was the fastest way down to the basement level of the building, which was the only exist being used for the evacuation. I reluctantly got into the elevator but when we reached the basement level and those doors opened, there was a sigh of relief until I stepped out and witnessed what I saw next.

There was a bank branch on the ground level, which had an atrium glass fountain, in the center of the branch that went up to the plaza level. The branch was completely empty of people. Debris was everywhere. The glass of the fountain window was shattered and there was blood. It looked like a war zone. No one was talking and we walked silently as we were lead out the back doors. When we got outside the building, again, it was with complete disbelief as to what I was witnessing. The ground was completely covered with ash and debris. It was so deep, it came up to my calves. Military were everywhere, armed and standing guard. Military vehicles were everywhere. We were directed to walk towards Water Street.

As I walked, halfway down the block, I turned and looked back at what would have been the World Trade Center Plaza from afar and all I could see was thick, black smoke. As I shuffled through the debris and passed more and more military, I thought to myself this just doesn’t happen in the United States. This is what you see on the news, in other countries or in movies. As we approached Water Street, and turned to walk up the East Side of Manhattan towards Grand Central, the streets were empty of noise, moving cars, buses and taxi cabs. The streets were filled with thousands of people walking and for the first time ever, in New York City, the streets were silent and it felt like you could have heard a pin drop.

Across the crowded street, I caught a glimpse of a visiting Texas colleague. We caught each other’s eye and while they welled up with tears, we just gave each other a half of a smile, as an acknowledgement of each other. As we ascended onto the neighborhood near the Manhattan Bridge, again, military were everywhere and a military tank was in the middle of the very large intersection. Suddenly, there was this roar of sound up in the sky and we all knew that air traffic was shut down. People screamed and dropped to the ground for cover. It was a fleet of F16 flying over Manhattan. At this point, the crowd started to disband into several different directions with many either going towards Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island, Grand Central and New Jersey.

We walked and we walked for hours. So many of us had little to no cell phone service but we all were so anxious to let our families know we were alright and we were attempting to make our way home. At some point, along the long journey and not having the proper shoes on, the straps of my shoes began to cut into my feet, which started to bleed. There wasn’t a store or a street vendor opened or to be found. Unheard of on any given normal day in New York City but this wasn’t a normal day. At some point, I just took the shoes off and walked barefoot the rest of the way to Grand Central Terminal.

It took over two hours to get to Grand Central and when we finally arrived, it was somewhere around 2:30pm. The outside of Grand Central was completely guarded by armed military. Inside, every track gate and door was closed and guarded by military personnel. I frantically searched the schedule boards looking to see when was the next train to Stamford. My former manager and a dear friend’s, husband was part of my group and they lived in Scarsdale, which was a different train line than Connecticut. The next train to Stamford was at 4pm and his train for Scarsdale was at 3pm. Needless to say, he said, “You’re coming home with me. We are getting out of here, together and I will drive you home to Stamford.” We stood in front of the gates for the Scarsdale bound train, anxiously awaiting for them to open. We were one of the first to arrive on the platform waiting for the train to pull in and when it did, it filled up so quickly, the doors closed quickly and we were on our way out of the tunnel. Again, no one was really speaking and I held my breath until we got completely out of the tunnel. A huge sense of relief came over my entire being when I could see the light of day and I was finally on my way home.

Another one of my colleagues, who was on the Scarsdale bound train, sat quietly and kept to himself for most of the train ride. He was overcome with grief when he learned from his wife that a dear friend of theirs, who worked in one of the towers hadn’t been heard from since that morning. We tried to comfort him but in our hearts we all knew this was just a piece of the bigger picture yet to be discovered and faced by many. The train pulled into Scarsdale and we drove to my friend’s house, where we were greeted by his wife, my former manager and dear friend with hugs, tears and sobs on their front lawn. We cleaned ourselves up somewhat, we sat, we talked and we had a drink. As emotionally drained and as exhausted as we were, my friend drove me to get my car at the train station.

When I arrived home, it was well after 6pm and after letting my family and friends know that I was home safely, I took a shower. I felt like I needed to get the day off of my skin. The biggest mistake I made was turning on the television. When I saw the news footage that captured so much of the horrific events of the day, which was repeated over and over again, I just collapsed on my bed and cried. Even though I was horrified by what I was watching, I just couldn’t turn it off. The telephone never stopped ringing that night and at some point the day just ended and turned into the next morning.

My first call of the morning came from my mother-in-law and I just broke on the phone with her. I packed a bag after that call, got in my car and drove to my daughter’s house. I needed to see her and my granddaughter. When we saw each other, we hugged and cried. My daughter took me to a doctor that day, to make sure my eyes and lungs were clear. She was worried that I may have taken in too much of the smoke and debris. I checked out okay but was suffering from post traumatic stress and was treated for it for many months to come.

Throughout the entire day of September 11, 2001, there were many times I thought I would never see my children, granddaughter or family again. Life changed for many of us after that day and mine was with no exception. Fear consumed me and I gave up my dream position as a Project Manager, which required me to travel to Texas several times a month. Back then, I just couldn’t get myself on a plane nor could I ride the train or the subway. I went back to Chase Plaza once after that day and it took my manager to personally escort me there, to meet and hand off my outstanding projects to the new Project Manager and to pack up my desk. I haven’t returned since but I know one day I will…it’s just not today.

I was one of the fortunate people of that day. I saw. I witnessed. I survived and I will always remember.

God Bless America

Believe, Daughter, Dreams, Family, Father, Father's Day, Lessons Learned, Life, Relationships, Uncategorized

Dance With My Father Again

“It’s only when you grow up, and step back from him, or leave him for your own career and your own home — it’s only then that you can measure his greatness and fully appreciate it. Pride reinforces love.” ~ Margaret Truman

dad1

It’s has been many years since my Dad left us, and with each passing year, whether it is the anniversary of his death, his birthday, or Father’s Day, the pain of losing him may have somewhat lessened but as the years pass, and as I get older, I find I miss his presence more, and more. I miss his voice, his gentle hand, and kisses, his huge hugs, his smile, and his special laugh but what I miss the most is talking with him.

I didn’t always feel this way about my Dad. Growing up, there were many times I didn’t like him but I knew I always loved him. He was a man of few words but his presence was always known. He was a very strict father, who disciplined, and ruled with an iron hand, and I was the “rebel with a cause”, who was going to break his strict discipline beliefs, and during my teenage years, it was my mission in life. He most certainly knew I was going to be his challenge, and I most certainly gave him a run for his money.

I often think of the man he was, and I have come to terms with many things in my life, and I now have a much better understanding of his way of thinking, and disciplining. I wish I would have understood him sooner, as I believe we could have had a much closer relationship during the important years of our lives. If we did, we could have talked through many of our disagreements rather than battling it out.

Today, I understand that he didn’t know how to be any other way because it was what he had learned, and what we learn is what we pass on from generation to generation, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Until one day, someone steps up to the plate, and changes the cycle, and I think that was my mission. While his discipline tactics were not always the best, in his mind, he was protecting his daughters in the only way he knew how, and saw fit. He didn’t want his daughters to make the same mistakes he did but by sheltering us, he didn’t realize he wasn’t allowing his daughters to grow, and learn from their mistakes.

I can sit here, and dwell on all of the bad, the harsh discipline but what would any of that change. Really, nothing. Today, I remember the great things about a man I called Dad until he became a grandfather, and from then on he was only referred to as Poppy. The key thing to remember is how much he loved his daughters, his wife, his grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and the things he taught all of us, and more importantly, me.

He was a thin, good looking young man, with a dream, when he left San German, Puerto Rico, to come to New York. I am not sure what he did between the years that he arrived in New York, and when he met my mother at the age of 27 but my good guess, he more than likely was a ladies man, an impeccable dresser, and he probably had an air about himself that appeared intimidating, and somewhat standoffish. That’s my take, and when he met, and married my mother, he took charge to provide for her, and even more so when their daughters came along.

He was a spray painter for many years, and worked for a marketing exhibit company, painting promotional exhibits for name brand products, and services, which were displayed at conventions but his dream was bigger. It was always to own a restaurant, and my mother, who was one of the most conservative people I knew when it came to money, along with being a realist, and nowhere near a risk taker stood by her husband, and supported his dream.

They opened a small luncheonette in Mount Vernon, right on the borderline to the Bronx, and he was in his glory, and stood proud the day the sign went up, and there it was, Dave’s Luncheonette. This happened so much later in their life together but to him it was the beginning of what was yet to come. Remember, he was a dreamer. They both worked very hard, and long hours. They were up at 5am, and at the luncheonette by 5:30am, and ready for their first customer strolling in for coffee, and breakfast at 6am. There were many times during my father’s bouts with his heart issues, and when he was hospitalized that my sister’s, and I had to step in, and open the store with our mother. Oh, those 5am mornings were killers for me. Opening those gates, bringing in the fresh bread, and newspapers that were waiting at the door. Putting on the pots of coffee, heating up the grills, and greeting customers with a smile at 6am. Really, it’s much too early for smiles. The days seemed endless, along with the end of day routine of cleaning the place, and preparing it for the next day. My parents did this for close to 20 years in Mount Vernon, and again, remember my father was the dreamer, and bigger was still his goal.

Over the years, the neighborhood started changing, and after the luncheonette was broken into several times, they moved onto my Dad’s next dream, Dobbs Ferry, and opened Dave’s Charcoal Corner. A bigger place with more counter seats, and probably five times more tables than the Mt Vernon place. Bigger but still only breakfast, and lunch. By now, I had a career in banking, children, and I stood back, at a distance, and watched how hard they worked in the later years of their life, and I only helped out when absolutely necessary. My Dad was the cook, and my mother was the brains behind the pricing, and how to make a profit. No one handled the cash register nor the checkbook but her. She served the food at the counter seats, while a waitress handled the tables, which more often than not were my sisters on the weekends, along with my daughter during her college years. Me, oh, I was known as the black sheep of their daughters. Very rarely to be seen at the restaurant but when I did not have a choice, I groaned, and moaned all the way through it, and went home smelling like a greasy hamburger.

My Dad became known for making the best home fries, omelets, burgers, pancakes, soups, and more. This was the happiest time of his life, and his personality could easily get him side tracked from the grill to have a conversation with any regular customer, which is when my mother would take over the grill with a huff. It was kind of comical, at times but as the years went by, the aging process, and my Dad’s health were catching up. He was slowing down, and while it was hard for him to accept, after a small grease fire, we knew it was time for them to sell the business, and retire. I truly believe he wished he had pursued his dream much earlier in life but he had a good run for nearly 30 years.

How ironic it is that history repeated itself. Who knew my passion in life would turn to cooking, and also, begin so much later in my life. During a visit with our family accountant, he said to me, “You should have taken over your parents restaurant.” I didn’t have a vision back then of cooking, I was working towards a career in banking, which turned out to be a successful one. I fought my father tooth, and nail to not have any part of the business. I had such a dislike for it, and maybe part of it was how hard they worked, the long hours, and while it was his dream, it wasn’t mine, and it certainly wasn’t my mother’s but she was committed to him, and doing whatever made him happy. I have no right to judge that kind of sacrifice, and my point to this story is about all of the valuable lessons I learned from a man, who I battled with for many years.

My regret is that he is not here today for me to tell him, face to face, how grateful I am for all of the life lessons, values, the unconditional love, and the importance of believing, and following your dreams that I learned from him. He taught me hard work is a given. He taught me how to love my children unconditional, and the importance of being there for them through the good, and the bad. He taught me that you never give up on your children. He taught me the importance of family. He taught me to be courteous. He taught me respect. He taught me the importance of being a lady. He taught me the importance of presenting, and representing yourself well, and with class. He taught me that sometimes silence is golden.

It took me many years to realize, and learn the most valuable lesson of all from my father, to grasp every moment because you never know when it can be taken away from you, in a minute, and without any notice. I am grateful that I got to dance my last dance with my Dad on my 45th birthday. It was in his hospital room, just a few weeks before he passed, and I still wish every day that I could dance with my father again, and to hear him whisper in my ear, “I love you, Debbie Ann.”

daddance

While the day of his passing will always be a blurry memory, it is the priceless memory of our life together that will be a vivid one for eternity. It’s an example of a great love, commitment, sacrifice, and no matter how many years that have passed, it doesn’t change the fact that even though my Poppy is not in front of my eyes any longer, his picture is in my heart, and my mind, and will remain unspoiled forever.

“It doesn’t matter who my father was, it matters who I remember he was.” ~ Anne Sexton

 

 
http://www.vevo.com/watch/luther-vandross/dance-with-my-father/USJRV0300079

Alzheimers, Bronx, Brothers, Dementia, Family, Harlem, Italian Traditions, Italy, Life, Mother, Mount Vernon, Naples, Relationships, Sarno, Sisters, Thoughts, Uncategorized

My Mother’s Story…A World of Silence

“My mom is a never-ending song in my heart of comfort, happiness, and being. I may sometimes forget the words but I always remember the tune.” ~ Graycie Harmon

 mom80

 

Some time ago, I whispered in my mother’s ear, and I promised her that I would always be her voice, and today, three years after her passing, would be no different…especially with it being Mother’s Day. She lived in a world of silence for the last five years of her life, and her life was not without heartbreak or hardship, but yet through it all she fought for herself, her family, and faced every challenge with courage, poise, and grace. She was a loving wife, mother, grandmother, and a great-grandmother. A constant guardian, and a woman who loved unconditionally, and for many years after my father’s passing, she fought a brave battle against an awful, devastating disease…Alzheimer’s. A disease that robbed her of her memory, stripped her of her dignity, along with taking away her smile, and laughter. As promised, I am here to tell a portion of her life story, and to be her voice but first a small disclaimer, for those that read this, who may dispute my version of my mother’s life, I ask, respectfully, to remember while reading this story…it’s my story, and more importantly, my mother’s.

Eighty eight years ago, my mother entered this world as Domenica, later to be known as Minnie. She was born, and raised in Harlem, New York on 116th Street by her Italian immigrant parents, and she was one of fourteen children, of which eight were from previous marriages of her fathers. Her mother, my grandmother was not my grandfather’s first wife but she was his last. His previous wives had passed away, and many of his children from his previous marriages remained in Italy, with the exception of three children from his second marriage, a son and a two daughters. They also lived in the same Harlem neighborhood. One half sister returned to Italy, and my grandmother treated the remaining two, as if they were her own, and they ate dinner with the family nearly every day.

My mother often spoke of her upbringing during the depression era, and the lifestyle during those trying times. She would tell stories of her father, and her family, which were verified by my uncle’s (her brothers) in consideration of writing this blog. My grandfather was a Blacksmith back in his small hometown of Sarno, which was outside of Naples, Italy, and when he came to this country he used the skills he learned from working with horses, and to fix the wagons, known as buggy’s. My grandfather also sold watermelons. He would rent a horse and buggy, and go to the blind uncles’ (my grandfather’s brother) store on 107th Street, to pick up the watermelons that were stored there. I always wondered why, besides the obvious, he was always referred to as the blind uncle versus his name, Dominick. Moving on…my grandfather then would proceed to steer the watermelon filled horse drawn buggy up from East Harlem to the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. This is where he would sell the watermelons through the streets, yelling, with what I am sure was with a definitive Italian accent, “get your watermelon here”, which back in the day was called “hawking”. He was once arrested for “hawking”, and was held at the 41st Precinct, known as Fort Apache, and was fined $2.00. During the off season, my grandfather used the horse and buggy to pick up junk, and was considered a junkman, which turned into a successful family junk, and demolition business that was eventually run by my mother’s brothers. She told stories of how all her siblings needed to help out with the family finances, and the meals she grew up on, were known as peasant food. Through all of that, and much more, the family was rich in history, traditions, and a strong family bond that spilled over into the many future generations to follow.

During 1944, at the age of eighteen, my mother, and her family moved to Mt Vernon, New York, and settled in their new home on South High St. Most, if not all of her brothers, and sisters had little to no education, and all of them went to work at a very young age. My mother first worked in a button factory, on 2nd Avenue between 22nd and 23rd Street, which is where she met my father (more on that later), and then she moved on to work for the Corn Exchange Bank. The bank merged with Chemical Bank in 1954, and ironically, 26 years later, I began a career with Chemical Bank, which lasted 26 years. My mother was extremely proud of her daughters’ career, and always said she wished she would have stayed in banking.

My mother was known for having a love for shoes, clothes, along with pocketbooks, and she always dressed well…I guess this apple didn’t fall far from that tree but she knew how to shop for bargains, and she knew how to save money…that’s where the apple did fall far from the tree. She was all of a size 2, and from many old pictures she always dressed nicely, and she was very slender. She traveled every day from Mt Vernon to Manhattan to go to work, and after she left for work, her younger sister was known to sneak into her closet, and she would wear my mother’s clothes, and shoes but she would make sure they were cleaned, pressed, and returned to their rightful place before my mother returned from work. During this era, it wasn’t unusual that most, if not all of your paycheck, went to straight to your parents, nor was it unusual for the oldest brother to take on the role of watching over the family, and to be the disciplinarian of the younger siblings or to be considered the bread winner of the family.

According to the standards of her era, my mother married late in life, at the age of twenty eight. When she met my father, while working in the button factory, he was a charming, and handsome Puerto Rican, and it goes without saying the 100% Italian family didn’t approve of the relationship nor the fact that he was married before, and had a child from his previous marriage. This was unheard of during this era to consider marrying a divorced man but my mother loved him, and her love persevered. There are several version of the story, and one thing I know for sure, at the end of the day, my grandfather approved of the marriage, my parents were married at St Mary’s Church, my grandfather walked her down the aisle, my parents had three daughters, and my mother loved my father unconditionally, and my father most certainly loved my mother. Of course, they had their ups and downs but what marriage doesn’t. They built a life together, and they were committed to their marriage for better or worse, and my mother always referred to the next generations divorce rate, as being an easy out. She said the new generation thought it was easier to give up on a marriage than it was to work on one. Today, my parents would have been married for 60 years, and they worked side by side in their luncheonette business for over 30 years.

They were married on January 30, 1954, and first lived in the Bronx on Wallace Ave, and ironically, when my older sister came into the world during February 1955, and then me, eleven months later, they moved to Wallace Ave in Mt Vernon. Eighteen months later, my younger sister was born, and yet another move, and for my mother it was back to South High Street, across the street from what was my grandparents’ house, into the 2nd floor apartment of my uncle’s three family home. Years later, my parents purchased the house from my uncle, who moved into a bigger home with his growing family, and this is where my parents remained for over 25 years.

My grandfather had passed days after my oldest sister’s second birthday, and I had just turned one, the previous month. My grandmother passed away when I was five years old, and I really have only a slight memory of her, however, I do remember my grandmother living with us for a short time. I have one vivid memory of her standing with one of those fancy brushes in her hand (the kind that were kept on a mirrored tray on top of the dresser) waiving it, and yelling at my sisters, and I, in Italian, of course, for jumping on her bed. After my grandfather died, she would live back, and forth between her children. She was diagnosed with hardening of the arteries, and more than likely today, she would have been diagnosed with dementia. While she lived with us, it was difficult for my mother to watch my grandmother, who would wonder off from time to time, and my mother had three small children but my mother loved her mother, and she did whatever she could to help her, and to keep her with us. My grandmother’s frequent wondering off days, and forgetfulness worsened over time, which required her to wear her name, and address on piece of paper, and pinned to her clothing. After some time, a family decision was made, and with the medical field not knowing what they know today about dementia, along with the care, and treatment required, my grandmother was institutionalized, at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, Queens Village, New York. It’s my understanding that it was a place that left you with the memory of it being dreary, dark, and a place someone would hope to never end up in. My grandmother died three months later. I have such a clear memory of my mother speaking so often about this time of her life, and she always said she could never be a part of that decision, and she believed her mother died of a broken heart from being left there all alone.

When I think back about my mother, and her thoughts about own her mother, I now understand the fear, and the panic that overcame her entire being every time she forgot where she put something…she always believed she was losing her mind, like she believed her mother did. Eventually, she resorted to keeping notes as frequent reminders of things to do, and where she put things.

Growing up, my memories of my mother are of a vibrant, hard working woman, loving, and caring mother, and when she became a grandmother, her grandchildren added a newness to her life. She was always doing something from cleaning to cooking, and taking care of the house, along with caring for her daughter’s and husband. For many years, she was a stay at home mom, and those curtains, and drapes were changed, and windows were washed every three months. She had a love for music, and once she joined the Columbia Record Club, she would wait with such anticipation to see what album would come each month. Music was always playing while she was cleaning, and she would sing along with her favorites, from Connie Francis to Frank Sinatra to Jerry Vale. She kept herself busy, and while she never learned how to drive, she walked everywhere or took a bus. Nothing stopped her. There were countless amount of days that she walked with her three daughter’s to go shopping on Fourth Avenue, and she always found a way to make the trip special by taking us to the Beehive for ice cream.

During the summers, she would pack up my sisters, and I, along with lunch, and her beach chair, and we would walk to the bus stop by the 11th Avenue park, and we would take the bus to Glen Island Beach. My mother loved the beach, and it’s probably where my love for the beach came from. Years later, she went back to work to help my father with the family finances, and I remember feeling sad that she was no longer there when I came home from school. Times were changing, and we were all feeling it.

Many years later, I think what kept her mind going, active, and alert for so long was that all of her energy, and efforts went into caring for my father in the last 10 years of his life. He suffered with heart disease, and diabetes, and eventually, kidney failure. He had open heart surgery back in 1994, which gave him a new lease on life for a number of years, and then he reverted back to his bad eating habits, he put some weight back on, and was now back to square one. My mother was relentless with taking care of him, and stood by his side every step of the way, and with every doctor appointment but he was stubborn, and she could only fight his ways of being, to an extent. It was during 1998 that he took a turn for the worse, and we weren’t sure he would make it after yet another angioplasty procedure. It took some time for him to recovery, and I remember on Father’s Day of that year, I found him in a fetal position in his bed, with silent tears rolling down his face. I laid next to him, and we spoke quietly, and he admitted he was scared, and wasn’t sure he was going to make it to his granddaughter’s wedding, which was the following month. Low and behold, the man recovered, yet again, and there he was dancing with me at his granddaughter’s wedding.

During 2000, six months after his great-granddaughter was born, he took a turn again but this time he never recovered, and he left us on January 23, 2001. My point to sharing my father’s health is that I believe this is when my mother’s life changed completely, after the loss of the love of her life, is when her memory spiraled, and eventually, she went rapidly downhill to being completely bedridden, never to see the outside world again. I truly believe taking care of him for so many years stimulated her brain, and kept her going, and after he was gone, there was nothing left for her that could keep her stimulated, and the sadness of losing the love of her life took control over her mind, and being. I often wondered if my grandmother’s rapid decline was also related to the loss of her true love, my grandfather.

It was like watching a movie that I had heard about my entire life, and history was repeating itself for my mother, as it did for my grandmother. She moved back, and forth between my two sisters, and occasionally, spent a weekend here, and there with me. At the time, my sisters lived minutes apart, they worked together, and were fortunate enough that they were able to take our mother to work with them. She would sometimes be picked up to attend activities at the senior center but she disliked it, and complained constantly about going. She lost interest in socializing with others, and especially, anyone she considered to be old. My mother was a woman of few words, and I am sure knowing what I know today, she was scared, and her rock was no longer here to help her with making decisions or to keep her safe. She did however, like being in the office with my sisters, and she would putter around the kitchen, and wait for the workers to come in at the end of the day, and make them coffee. I think she felt useful, and had a sense of purpose. She would sit with them, talk, and laugh, and occasionally play cards with a few of them. The atmosphere of the office was less intimidating to her versus a senior center, which I believe was a constant reminder to her of the aging process.

I most certainly believe she knew what was happening to her brain function, along with her memory, and things were happening to her stability but she didn’t have the ability to verbalize it, and I’m sure of it now, all the unknowns were frightening her. The times I spent alone with her, I could see the fear in her eyes, and the confusion but I did everything I could to make her feel comfortable, keep her spirits up, and gave her the space, grace and dignity she so rightfully deserved. In the beginning to mid stages of her dementia, it always amazed me how her long term memory was intact, and she could tell you anything from back in the day, and yet, her short term memory was non-existent. I think the hardest thing to witness was her unhappiness, sadness, her confusion, her depression, and the angry person she became. For me, at the end of the day, none of that matter, and my way of thanking her for all of those years she “justdid”, unconditionally, with every opportunity presented to me, I treated her like she was a Queen because in my mind, my mother was.

I owe a special debt of gratitude to my two sisters’. Our parents always stressed we could, and we should always rely on each other, and that has never been more true than during our mother’s illness. I lived in Connecticut during that time, and work was extremely demanding, along with not having the same flexibility that my sister’s did with their work. They took care of my mother 24/7, for a number of years, and then the day came when my mother was progressively getting worse, and life was changing, personally, for both of my sisters, and a decision was made that it was time to place her in a nursing home. I remember that day like it was yesterday, and again, in my mind, history was repeating itself, and all I could think of were my mother’s words about her own mother when the same decision was made for my grandmother. How could I do this, knowing how my mother felt, and I too found myself in a place where I wanted no part of that decision. I was crushed, for her, not for me. I was so angry with the decision, and yet, I had no viable solution that in my mind could save her or keep her out of a nursing home. In retrospect, it was the right decision but at the same, her being my mother, I always wished there was another option.

Over the four or so years of her being a nursing home, during each visit, I struggled to find a connection with a woman, who eventually, didn’t know my name anymore or who I was. I would say, “Hi, Mom.” Sometimes she looked at me with a blank or confused stare, as if she was thinking should I say hello back or if she was trying to figure out who I was. I would say, “How are you doing?” and there would be an occasional hello, I’m okay or just silence or a rare, “Shut up!” I would sometimes laugh, and say, “It’s me, Deborah Ann” and sometimes she would reply, “Really?” She sometimes mumbled, and I didn’t get what she said, and it just broke my heart. With every visit, on my drive back to Connecticut, more often than not, I would cry all the way home, talking or yelling at God, and asking him, why? Why wasn’t he taking her, and she didn’t deserve to live a life like this. I was told many times, she wasn’t ready, and after years of watching her go slowly, I finally came to terms with believing she worked so hard all of her life, and she was tired, and she was just resting until she was ready to go home.  

However, my sister’s dealt with our mother in a way I really couldn’t. They talked to her, she mumbled, they mumbled back. She growled, they growled back. She would refuse to do something, and they would say okay fine just sit there. It didn’t matter to them that she didn’t remember things. She was treated with such love, and acceptance. They took her everywhere. They fed her, they changed her, and they bathed her. My sisters stepped up, and stepped in. What mattered was that she was comforted by the warmth of their human connection. These are just some of the gifts they gave our mother. I was in awe of them, and they have given our family a whole new kind of role model to emulate in every part of our lives. I love, and admire them both, and I am forever grateful for what they gave our mother.

When our mother passed, I again was my mother’s voice, and I thanked my sister’s for taking such good care of her, for being her strength, and her courage when she was weak, and for loving her unconditionally. Our mother rests peacefully now, and is back in the arms of the love of her life, my Dad. Not sure I have done her a justice with celebrating her life but this Mother’s Day seemed like a perfect time to tell a portion of her life story. There is never a day that my mother doesn’t pass through my thoughts, and I am sure she is looking down upon her family, smiling with happiness, and with a tremendous amount of unconditional love, and pride. For me, I am so proud to call Domenica Squillante Lugo, my mother. She will always be my hero, my mother, and a woman, who silently had incredible strength, courage, perseverance, devotion, commitment, and an enormous amount of unconditional love for her family.

My Mother’s Day message to my mother…while it has been a long time since I have seen your beautiful smile or smelled your beautiful perfume or received your hugs and kisses…thank you for passing on all your love, wisdom, strength, and courage, which have made me the woman I am today. With this message, I send you this song, which was always one of your favorites, and I can still hear your sweet voice singing the words. I love you, miss you but I find comfort in knowing you are at peace, with your true love, and always remember…I will be your whisper, and I will always be your voice.

 

Family, Forgiveness, Life, Relationships, Thoughts, Uncategorized

Just Let Go

balloon

 

As I sat with my morning coffee, today, feeling the warmth of the sun, a few tears rolled down my face, as I reflected on 58 years of my life, and family. I openly admit, I am not perfect, I do not always say the right thing, and I most certainly have made many mistakes. However, at the same time there are so many more things that outweigh it all to make me feel so grateful to be alive, and to have witnessed, experienced, and learned from it all.

As I continued to sit there, I read the reading below, which only made me think more. Over the last few months, I have watched from a distance, and up close, the loss, and failing health of dear family members from my mother and fathers generation. While the aging process is an inevitable part of life, it doesn’t make the process any less painful to face when it’s someone you love, and a person who has impacted your life in a small or significant way. The thoughts that seem to get me through the pain is reflecting on the gifts that each one of them have given me, which have contributed to the person I have become, and who I truly am. I will always value, and cherish their gifts, their love, their teachings, and their memories.

I understand that during difficult times, emotions run high, and we are overwhelmed with confusion, pain, loss, and anxiety but I find myself thinking about a discipline we teach our children…”watch your words.” In the grand scheme of things, while I understand we are all human, is it not our responsibility to be authentic, compassionate, caring, loving and forgiving? Especially when it comes to family. Maybe we need to take a moment to think, take a step back, and look at the whole picture before we speak, and “watch our words.” If we did, we would realize that what we were about to say…more often than not, is not authentic, compassionate, caring, loving nor forgiving but judgmental, hurtful, and more than likely, inappropriate.

Idol, unimportant “chatter” has no room or place in our lives, and some things in life, while hard to do, are just this simple…we need to just let go, and begin to repair, heal, honor, respect, forgive, and love each other for who we are…family.

Family and life are gifts, and they are both too precious to throw away or take for granted. Maybe we need to learn or practice to live a life that is more authentic, compassionate, loving, and more  importantly, a life that has the ability to forgive, and just let go.

La famiglia!

How Many Berry Spoons Are There In My Life?

 “I’ll never forgive him. I told him I would never forgive him.”

The elderly lady spoke softly, but with resolve, as the nurse brought her nightly medication. The lady’s expression was troubled as she turned away, focusing on the drape wrapped around her nursing home bed. This brief exchange revealed a deep, deep hurt.

She told of how her brother had approached her bed, accusing her of taking more than her share of family heirlooms following their mother’s death. He spoke of various items, ending with “the berry spoon.” He said, “I want the berry spoon.” For the forty years since the mother’s death he had hidden his feelings, and now they erupted.

She was both hurt and angered by his accusation and vowed never to forgive him. “It’s my spoon. Mother gave it to me,” she defended herself. “He’s wrong and I won’t forgive him.”

Standing at her bedside, the nurse felt her own spirit soften and grieve. A spoon – a berry spoon! In the bed lay a woman given two months to live – just sixty days – and she would face eternity and never see her brother again in this life. Her mind and spirit were in anguish, and her only remaining family ties were broken over a berry spoon.

As the nurse returned to her station she was drawn deep into thought: “How many berry spoons are there in my life? How many things, as insignificant as a spoon, in light of eternity, separate me from God – and from others? How does a lack of forgiveness keep me separated from my family?” She asked God to search her heart. “How many berry spoons are there in my life?”

Family, Foodporn, Grandchildren, Gravy, Italian Traditions, Lasagna, Meatballs, Uncategorized

Lasagna…An Italian Love Story

“As you get older, you find out that true happiness is not in how much you make or how many degrees you have or how big your house is or how fancy your car is. It’s finding peace, and joy, and a calmness in your life that will soon become the most important thing to you. Your family is what really matters to you, love is what matters to you. Things that are of quality, not quantity.” ~ Life Lessons Learned

I have been away from writing since before Christmas, and for some unknown reason or maybe one that I am not willing to admit out loud, recovery from the holidays took a little longer, this year. I also allowed the grayness of the long, cold winter take away my creativity, along with being preoccupied with the harsh realities of my life, I, unfortunately, somewhat deviated away from my life passion. With Spring approaching, and with a few days of feeling it in the air, there is this sense of renewal that comes with the season, and I’m back!

Lately, I have been thinking about my all-time favorite Italian dish, Lasagna. A favorite, for as far back as I can remember, and in my research of this rich, and flavorful Italian classic, believe it or not, it comes with a history lesson. There are a few theories, but here’s the Italian one…Lasagna originated in Italy, in the region of Emilia-Romagna. Traditional lasagna is made by layering pasta with layers of sauce, made with a ragù or a béchamel, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. In other regions, it is common to find lasagna made with ricotta or mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce, various meats (ground beef, pork or chicken), a variation of vegetables (spinach, zucchini, and mushrooms), and typically flavored with wine, garlic, onion, and oregano. In all cases the lasagna is baked in the oven.

Lasagne calde, calde le lasagne, caldeee! History states that forty years ago, you could hear vendors bellow those words from the busy platform of the Bologna railway station. Though lasagna vendors don’t exist today, Lasagna alla Bolognese remains the most famous recipe in Italy, and throughout Europe. In Italy, there are countless regional variations of lasagna. Ingredients differ according to place, and local custom but the distinctive character of lasagna remains the same…layers of flat or curly noodles, separated by layers of rich gravy or sauces, a focus ingredient like meat, fish or vegetables, all baked up into one glorious masterpiece of flavor. While lasagna was born in Italy, a familiar hot slice of this cheesy, rich comfort food makes it one of the most commonly craved Italian dishes in homes, and restaurants all around the world.

As a child, I was totally addicted to lasagna, and it was a regular dish served on Easter, Christmas Day, and as a special birthday dinner. In between those special occasions, as an adult, it was always my main entrée selection at specific Italian restaurants, who I knew made an outstanding version of this Italian classic, and in my opinion, there were very few restaurants who could accomplish this feat. My first introduction to learning how to prepare, and master an outstanding lasagna was by watching my Aunt Fanny, who besides my father, was one of the first great influences in my life with perfecting my cooking skills. Staying true to our Napolitano decent, her Lasagna Napoletana included layers of curly lasagna noodles, gravy (again, not sauce, gravy!), ricotta cheese, mozzarella, grated cheese, and these tiny meatballs, which were the size of a marble. As tedious as it was to make those tiny meatballs, Aunt Fanny never faltered from putting every ounce of love, and perfection into her lasagna. And as a child, to a teenager to a young adult to a grown up, you couldn’t wait to cut into Aunt Fanny’s lasagna to find those delicious tiny meatballs. A Sunday morning lesson at Aunt Fanny’s always included her masterpiece of a Sunday gravy. Her gravy, more often than not, always included meatballs, Italian sausage, pork, braciole pelle di maiale (pig skin braciole), and beef braciole, which is pretty much what mine is today, with a bit of a variation, and absolutely, no braciole pelle di maiale…only because my children, and grandchildren won’t eat it, and it’s not at the top of the health conscious favorite food list.

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Lasagna Napoletana

Another great cooking influence in my life is Nanny Angie. Honestly, she is, by far, the most talented cook I know. I have watched this woman for over 40 years, turn out food from the smallest to the largest of kitchens that made your mouth salivate just watching it being placed on the table to your mouth humming with absolute pleasure while you ate her food. You walk away from her table completely intoxicated from the experience, and with a belly so satisfied. If I learned anything from Nanny, cooking was about pleasing people. A lot of love is a must, and it will always come through in your food. Presentation was crucial, and sitting back, watching people eat your food with complete, and utter enjoyment would be your reward. She taught me cooking was a labor of love, which took planning, creativity, patience, and precision. Amongst her many masterpiece dishes, her lasagna was right at the top of my all-time favorites. For Nanny, lasagna wasn’t a regular everyday dish, it was saved for holidays, and special occasions. Her lasagna wasn’t much different than Aunt Fanny’s, with the exception that hers did not include any meat. Exact and pure precision went into the amount of ricotta cheese, mozzarella, and grated cheese that was used in her lasagna. You can easily overdo it with the cheese, which would create a runny, cheesy mess on your plate but not Nanny’s…perfection every time. Her lasagna took time, patience, and precision with each layer. It’s hard to describe what it was like watching her make this masterpiece, and the only words that come to mind…it was an artistic creation being prepared right before your eyes. There was a rhythm, a glow, and a sense of pride surrounding her with everything she cooked. Cooking is truly an art, and you have to love it, and have a complete passion for cooking to turn out mouthwatering, and tasteful delicacies, such as Nanny Angie’s lasagna.

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Lasagna

Passing on family traditions is so important to me, and I must admit, with great pride, over the years, my daughter must have been paying attention to the preparation, and skills that went into making a lasagna because she too has mastered the art of making a perfect dish of lasagna. My only hope is that she continues to pay attention, and for as long as I am able, I will continue to teach my granddaughters, too. Cooking together in the kitchen, as a family, and sharing family recipes, along with secrets passed from one generation to the next. may be a lost art for some but not in this Nana’s kitchen.

One of the positive side effects from the labor of making the meatballs, frying the gravy meat, stirring the gravy, and layering the intoxicating goodness of the lasagna noodles, the cheeses, and the gravy on top of each other is the guaranteed knowledge of knowing…there will always be leftovers!

As I have stated many times, it’s extremely hard for me to recite or write my recipes down on paper. I learned from the best of them, and exact measurements were rarely used. I can do all of the recipes below by osmosis but in the spirit of giving back, I have done my best to capture all of the steps, and I hope you enjoy all of them.

Lastly, when in the kitchen, always remember Julia Childs words, “Cooking is one failure after another, and that’s how you finally learn…no one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.”

Buon appetito!

Lasagna

  • 5 cups gravy (Nana’s Sunday Pot of Love, recipe below)
  • 1 (32 oz.) container whole milk Polly~O Ricotta Cheese
  • 1 cup grated Locatelli Pecorino Romano cheese (my preference but if you prefer, you can use Parmigiano-Reggiano)
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 box lasagna (15 sheets, cooked al dente) *see note below
  • 4 1/2 cups shredded Polly~O Mozzarella Cheese
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine ricotta, 3/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, and parsley in a bowl. Season, to taste, with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Add the eggs and mix all together.

Spread 1/2 cup gravy over bottom of 13 by 9 inch baking dish. Place 5 lasagna sheets over gravy, overlapping to fit. Spread half of ricotta mixture evenly over the sheets. Sprinkle 2 cups of mozzarella cheese evenly over ricotta mixture. Then, spoon 1 1/2 cups of gravy over cheese, spreading with spatula to cover. Repeat layering with remaining lasagna sheets, ricotta mixture, 2 cups mozzarella and 1 1/2 cups gravy. Once you have arranged remaining 5 sheets, top with remaining gravy, 1/2 cup of mozzarella, and 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese.

Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil, and bake for about 40 minutes. Uncover, then bake until hot, and bubbly, about 20 minutes. Let the lasagna stand 15 minutes before serving.

Note: A trick to keep the lasagna sheets from sticking to each other, add a little olive oil to the boiling pot of salted water, and once drained, run them under cold water, and carefully hang over the side of a colander or a pot, without touching each other completely. Another quick option is to use the No Boil lasagna sheets, which also produces a perfect lasagna, and saves a lot of time. Barilla puts out a good quality No Boil lasagna.

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Lasagna

Nana’s Sunday Pot of Love (Gravy)

  • 1 1/2 lbs. Italian sausage (sweet or hot or combination of both)
  • 10 – 12 pork spare ribs (small but meaty)
  • Bunch of fresh basil (stems removed)
  • 1 onion (peeled and cut in half)
  • 2 -3 (35 oz. can) Scalfani Italian Whole Peeled Tomatoes (This is my preference. I find them to be the most consistent canned tomatoes but feel free to use your favorite.)
  • 3  (28 oz. can) Scalfani Crushed Tomatoes
  • 1  (6 oz. can) Scalfani Tomato Paste
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • Olive oil (enough for frying)
  • Sugar (handful)

Season both sides of pork spare ribs with kosher salt, and freshly ground pepper. Heat oil, over medium heat, in an 8 quart Dutch oven or heavy pot. Add pork spare ribs, and fry until there is a nice sear on all sides. Remove from pot, and set aside. In same pan, brown Italian sausage until they are just cooked through (approx. 15 min). Remove from pot, and set aside. Add additional oil, if needed. Prepare meatballs (recipe below), and fry meatballs, in batches (do not overcrowd) until cooked all the way through. Add onion, and brown. Drain off excess oil. Do not wash pot. Reduce heat to low, and add all meat (pork, sausage, and meatballs) back into the pot.

Pulse whole peeled tomatoes in blender for a 5 second count, and add to the pot. Add crushed tomatoes, and tomato paste. Take one empty can of crushed tomatoes, fill it to the top with water, and transfer back, and forth between all cans of tomatoes, including tomato paste. Add water to the pot of gravy, and stir.

Add a bunch of basil leaves (handful, not chopped). Add a handful of sugar, and season with kosher salt, to taste. Stir and simmer on low heat for 3 hours.

Note: Keep in mind, you will need extra gravy for the lasagna. A thought to take into consideration when thinking about how many cans of tomatoes you will need or use.

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Pork Spare Ribs

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Italian Sausage

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Scalfani Whole Peeled Tomatoes

Meatballs

  • 1 1/2 lbs. ground meat (combination of pork, veal and beef)
  • 1 egg
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 6 – 8 large slices of Terranova bread, crust removed and cubed (2 day old bread)
  • Milk (enough to coat bread)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  •  1/4 cup chopped Italian flat leaf parsley
  • 2 large handfuls of Pecorino Romano grated cheese

Place cubed terranova bread in a large bowl, and cover with milk (don’t overdo the milk). Let bread soak for approx. 15 min. Squeeze out bread, and drain off excess milk. Add ground meat, egg, finely minced garlic, parsley, cheese, kosher salt (approx. 1 tsp.), and freshly ground pepper. Mix altogether until well incorporated. To form consistent sized meatballs, I use an ice cream scooper. Roll each scoop into a ball, and fry, as noted above.

Note: The meatball mixture should be a tight consistency, otherwise, the meatballs will fall apart in the gravy, and that’s an Italian cook’s worst nightmare!

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Meatballs

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Nana’s Sunday Pot of Love

Family, Food, Foodporn, Italian Traditions, Life, Thoughts, Uncategorized

Nana’s Sunday Pot of Love

Simply Deborah

Since I was a little girl, Sunday’s have always had a special meaning. When you’re fortunate enough to grow up in a multi-cultural family, like myself, you are born into a world of some magnificent foods, and family traditions that stay with you for a lifetime. My only wish has always been to pass on those childhood memories, traditions, recipes, and for them to be replicated for generations to come. Today, I am going to take you on a journey on how I got to a place that I call…”Nana’s Sunday Pot of Love.”

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My dad was born, and raised in Puerto Rico, and he came to New York at the age of 16. My mother was born in Harlem, and her parents, (my grandparents) were Italian immigrants from Naples, Italy, who eventually settled in Mt. Vernon, New York. Me, an American, born, and raised into a family of Puerto Rican…

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Bacon, Baking, Donuts, Family, Foodporn, Grandchildren, Italian Traditions, Maple Syrup, Uncategorized

Doesn’t Everything Taste Better With Bacon?

During the Christmas holiday school break, my 11 year old grandson spent a few days with me, and he had Nana’s kitchen shaking, and baking for as many hours as he was awake. Once you see the pictures of him, you will understand why I continually ask…”Where does he put all of the food he consumes?” It’s amazing to me the amount of food he can put into his thin frame of a body, and by the end of Day 3, Nana told him, “I would need more than a job just to feed you alone or I might need to rob a bank to keep up with your appetite!(Only kidding!)

After a two day marathon of eating, between Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day, along with the holiday excitement, and late nights, I think the exhaustion finally caught up with him, and the day after Christmas he didn’t wake up until around 12:30pm….starving, of course! As usual, the ritual of a typical dialogue between the two of us began, “What do you have to eat, Nana?” As I ran down the endless list of things I could whip up for him, from bacon and eggs with home fries, to challah bread French toast to pancakes to homemade waffles…he proceeds to tell me about this video he watched. Two young guys, who make these Candy Bacon Maple Donuts. The animation in my grandson’s vioce, along with his facial expressions, had captivated this Nana’s undivided attention.

Honestly, though, my first thought, “Are you kidding me, buddy?”…DONUTS! Especially after a Nana marathon of cooking, for days, in preparation of our Italian traditional Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day feast of food! He excitedly ran to get my iPad to show me the YouTube video, “How to Make Candy Bacon Maple Donuts – Handle It” by Epic Meal Time. We watched the video, several times, me with disbelief, and him with pure excitement, and enthusiasm. After the third run through, he asked if I had all of the ingredients, and tools. Being a true Nana, who loves to cook, of course I did! He was so excited, and more surprised than anything else that his Nana had all of the ingredients in the house.

Nana’s kitchen got busy…out came the tools, a large, heavy Dutch oven, a whisk, a cooking thermometer, three mixing bowls, a knife, a slotted spoon, cutting board, baking pan, rolling pin, and a circular cookie cutter. Then the ingredients…cooking oil, flour, bacon, brown sugar, baking soda, vanilla, white vinegar, maple syrup, cinnamon, salt, confectionary sugar, milk, heavy cream, shortening (butter), and pure cane sugar. As I pulled out all of the tools, and ingredients, there was this priceless grin on his face, from ear to ear. One that would capture any Nana’s heart, and we were actually going to make donuts!

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This was my first time making donuts, and to my amazement with all the flour flying, oil heating up, bacon being candied, the glaze coming together…it smelled ridiculously delicious in Nana’s kitchen! Honestly now…doesn’t everything taste better with bacon? If you take bacon, and slather it with brown sugar, cinnamon, and bake it in the oven until it is all gooey, and sticky, the aroma in the house is indescribable, and then you cool it in the refrigerator until it hardens like a candy…are you feeling me, yet? It was off the chart delicious!

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As you will see, he enjoyed every moment of rolling that dough, cutting out donuts, and the donut holes, which by the way we fried up those donut holes, too, and dipped them in the maple glaze. They were our taste test, and there was only one word to describe the donut holes dipped in the maple glaze…yum! He tells Nana, “The best donuts I ever had!” I was amazed how easy they were to make, how they puffed up when they hit the oil, and they were cooked to perfection, I might add.

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Once they were done, and cooled down, we chopped up the candied bacon, the maple glaze was ready to go, and my grandson formed an assembly line of all of the completed items. He dipped each cooled donut into the maple glaze, and then carefully placed them on a serving dish because he absolutely gets, and understands presentation is key. After he dipped, and coated each donut with the maple glaze, with complete precision, he covered each donut with the candied bacon. Once completed, the real taste test began, and there were barely any words being spoken, just a lot of humming….mmmmmmm!

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The end result, I applaud the two gentlemen in the video, and my sous chef of a grandson for a job well done, and to quote my grandson, again….”The best donuts I ever had!”, which made the clean-up, and the flour everywhere, along with a sticky, small disaster in my kitchen, well worth it just to see the huge smile on his face!

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If you are anywhere as structured as I am with cooking or baking, pausing the video with each step, can interrupt the creative process. While the video is quite entertaining, and I do recommend watching it, I took the liberty of writing down the recipe for future use.

Tools

3 mixing bowls

Baking sheet

Large, heavy deep pot for frying

Frying thermometer (recommended)

Cutting board

Slotted spoon

Tongs

Rolling pin

Chef knife

Large circular cookie cutter or a plastic container

Small cylinder cookie cutter or a small bottle cap

Whisk (my addition)

Candied Bacon

1 lb bacon

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup cinnamon

Mix the brown sugar, and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Lay the strips of bacon on a cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil (easier clean up) or use a throw away aluminum pan. Gently, and generously apply half of the brown sugar mixture to one side of the bacon, and bake in a 375 degree oven for 15 minutes. Flip the bacon, and reapply the remainder of the brown sugar mixture, and cook for an additional 10-15 minutes. Remove the bacon, immediately, from the cookie sheet to a plate, and place in the refrigerator to cool completely. Once cooled, chop the bacon into small bits, and set aside.

Maple Glaze

1/2 cup heavy cream

2 cups confectionary sugar

1/3 cup maple syrup

Pinch of salt

Using a whisk, mix all of the ingredients, in a bowl, until thickened, and smooth. Set aside until you are ready to glaze the donuts.

Donuts

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 cup milk

1 egg

1/2 tsp vanilla

2 tbsp shortening or unsalted butter (softened)

2 tbsp white vinegar

1/2 cup sugar

4 cups cooking oil for frying

Mix the milk, egg, vanilla, shortening or unsalted butter (I used butter), and white vinegar, together in a bowl, add the sugar, mix well, and set aside. Mix the flour, baking soda, and salt in a separate bowl. Add the wet ingredients to the flour mixture. Once the dough forms, knead on a lightly, floured surfaced. Let the dough rest in a bowl for 10 minutes.

Flour the working surface, and roll out the dough to about 1/3 of an inch thickness. Cut the dough with a large round cookie cutter or round plastic container. Lift the donuts circles, and set aside on a lightly floured surface. Recombine the excess dough, and repeat the process to make more large circles rounds. Use a small cylinder or bottle cap to cut a hole in the middle of each donut. Save the small circles to make the donut holes.

Heat the cooking oil in large, heavy deep pot, over medium heat, until a frying thermometer reads 375 degrees. Carefully place a few donuts at a time (3 – 4 donuts) into the hot oil. Do not overcrowd. Cook until the donuts are golden brown on one side, and carefully flip them over, once, with a slotted spoon (1-2 minutes total time). Remove the cooked donuts with tongs or a slotted spoon, and place the donuts on a plate lined with paper towels.

Cool the donuts for 10 minutes. Dip one side of each donut into the maple glaze, and allow the excess to drip off. Place the glazed donut on a serving plate, and apply the candy bacon to the top of each donut. Ready to serve, and eat!

NOTE: Carefully place the small saved circles of dough (donut holes), with the slotted spoon, into the hot oil, and fry until golden brown (about 30 to 45 seconds). Drain, and cool on paper towels. Dip the donut holes into the maple glaze. Pop in your mouth!

Donuts! Enjoy!

Family, Food, Italian Traditions

Nana’s Sunday Pot of Love

Since I was a little girl, Sunday’s have always had a special meaning. When you’re fortunate enough to grow up in a multi-cultural family, like myself, you are born into a world of some magnificent foods, and family traditions that stay with you for a lifetime. My only wish has always been to pass on those childhood memories, traditions, recipes, and for them to be replicated for generations to come. Today, I am going to take you on a journey on how I got to a place that I call…”Nana’s Sunday Pot of Love.”

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My dad was born, and raised in Puerto Rico, and he came to New York at the age of 16. My mother was born in Harlem, and her parents, (my grandparents) were Italian immigrants from Naples, Italy, who eventually settled in Mt. Vernon, New York. Me, an American, born, and raised into a family of Puerto Rican, and Napolitano descent…I call it, “the best of both worlds.” I feel cheated in a sense that I wasn’t fortunate enough to grow up with grandparents. My maternal grandparents died when I was very young, and I only have small bits, and pieces of a memory of my grandmother, who died when I was 6 years old. My paternal grandparents lived in Puerto Rico, and my grandfather would never get on a plane to come to New York, to visit or anywhere else, for that matter…his famous words were, “If God meant for me to fly, he would have made me a bird.” I did have the opportunity to visit them, twice in their lifetime, but that’s a story for another day.

While Puerto Rican, and Italian food cultures are completely different, family bonds, and family meals were extremely important, and strong in both cultures. Interestingly enough, my father was a better cook than my mother, however, we would never tell her this…she would have been crushed. My dad was probably the first influence in my life, where I learned to be completely passionate about food, and the art of cooking. His belief with cooking…”cooking took time, and you just couldn’t rush it.”

First, let me start with my Puerto Rican heritage. I have memories of waking up, on Saturday mornings, to my dad just coming back from somewhere in the Bronx (I always regretted not asking where, exactly), with this fabulous Spanish bread, Pan de Agua (Puerto Rican Water Bread), which was always still warm, and the butter would just melt right into it. Heavenly!

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Then there was always that little white box that contained Budin (Puerto Rican Bread Pudding). It was so delicious, and it’s nearly impossible for me to describe its flavor, and taste but I can tell you this, I have never found a replication of it that can come even close to it. I have searched, and searched, and that flavor, smell, and taste are burned into my childhood memory, and I am still hopeful that one day we will meet again.

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Some Puerto Rican dishes that were pretty much a staple in our house…pernil (Puerto Rican slow roasted pork), rice with gandules (pigeon peas), arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), tostones (fried plantains), and flan that delicious vanilla custard, with just a touch of a caramel flavor.

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However, there are three dishes that hold the fondest memories for me, from my childhood until today. Paella was a special treat, and my dad would take us to a restaurant in City Island (again, regrettably, I don’t remember the name) but the length of time it took to make this one pot meal, which includes chicken, chorizo, mussels, clams, shrimp, pork, and some other great ingredients, and flavors, was well worth the wait.

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Then there were pasteles, which is a cherished culinary recipe, and they are typically made only around the holidays (most often, Christmas). I wouldn’t even attempt to recite what the ingredients are…I don’t have the knowledge or the experience with making them to give them the justice they so rightfully deserve. What I do know, is they are extremely labor intensive, and are made in batches of a hundred or more, and when you receive these culinary treasures, as a gift, sharing is something you really think about, and most often, you don’t want to part with them.

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Lastly, I think the meal cooked by my father that we still talk about till this day, my children, sister’s, and nephew included, is Bistec Encebollado, which is fondly known as Poppy’s Steak & Onions. It is strips of shoulder beef medallions (pounded thinly), and sliced onions, which were marinated together for hours in garlic, oregano, olive oil, vinegar, and Poppy’s secret sofrito, and adobo (well, he thought it was a secret). He would sauté everything, and stew all of it for hours, and then it was served with white rice, and beans. While it may not sound like much…trust me, after the bread dipping into the juices, and the fighting for the last piece of succulent steak, everyone left that meal extremely satisfied. This was just one of many dishes that I wished I paid closer attention too. Even though we all know the ingredients or we think we do, no one has perfected it nor has anyone come close to replicating Poppy’s Steak and Onions.

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Typically, they say your mother’s heritage, and traditions dominate your upbringing. For me, while my father had a great influence in my life, he had very little family in New York, and with my mother being one of eight children (4 sisters, 4 brothers), it was her Italian side that dominated my upbringing. Since our home was fairly small (a 2nd floor apartment), most Sunday dinners were spent with one of my relatives on my mother’s side but that’s not to say there weren’t meals at my mother’s table. She always found room, and there was always enough.

Growing up in a large Italian family, (4 generations of 90 or more, and growing), there is such a wealth of knowledge around cooking. I learned from many, if not, from all of my aunts, who I consider to be some of the best home cooks, how to perfect my cooking skills, and the precision, along with the finesse in presenting food. They truly cooked with love, a lot of passion, and for each one of them, it was always about pleasing those sitting at their table, and the gratification they received from your enjoyment of their food.

I grew up watching, and standing, side by side with many of my aunts, at their stoves, mentally absorbing their skills, and techniques. With the exception of baking, which is pure science, they were cooks who measured nothing, and they could never really recite a recipe without saying, a pinch, a handful or palm full measurement. Everything was measured visually, and by taste. It’s a talent that’s hard to learn unless you really enjoy cooking or more importantly, paid attention.

I grew up on Italian favorites such as, pasta fagioli (macaroni and beans), bistecca alla pizzaiola (steak, marinara, garlic, oregano, mushrooms, onions, and stewed in one pot), and pasta e piselli con carne macinata – sauté onions, and garlic with ground beef, add peas, penne, small elbow macaroni or ditalini, and meld everything together. Serve with grated cheese, and crushed red pepper flakes…ahhh, a feast!

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One of my lasting memories is of my aunt’s famous, patate e uova frittata (potato and egg omelet), which included five pounds of potatoes, and at least a dozen or more eggs. She cooked the potatoes in this old cast iron pan, which she still has today, and when the potatoes were nearly cooked, she added the beaten eggs. Once the frittata was done, it was about 3 inches high, and the potatoes always had a crisp to them. Visually, it is an absolute work of art, and since the pan is so heavy, my uncle is in charge of turning it over so that it can continue to cook, and once done, onto a serving dish, and he would carefully place that masterpiece on the table.

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Sunday’s were always about family visits, eating, and playing with your cousins, who lived near, or far. It could be any one of your relatives house that you would visit…traveling to the Bronx or to Flushing or to Brooklyn or to somewhere in between. Whoever’s house it was, it was almost a guarantee the smell of frying meatballs would immediately hit your senses once you walked through the front door, and that Sunday pot of gravy (yes, we call it gravy, not sauce) would be simmering on the stove. The Sunday meal was considered a feast, and that pot of gravy included meatballs, pork, braciole, and pelle di maiale (pig skin), which while today it is considered so unhealthy (I agree)…back then it was so delicious, and it just melted in your mouth after being cooked for hours in the gravy.

Before we ventured out to visit family, my dad always took a ride, after Sunday mass, of course…to the Italian deli, Zuccarelli’s, on Gramatan Ave, and to Dante’s Italian Bakery on 241st Street in the Bronx. It was a given, you never visited family without bringing pastries. I can remember walking into that deli, and even as a child, you were immediately intoxicated by the aroma of the delicacies on display. The Italian cold cuts, specialties, and breads that were purchased were either for the weeks lunches or if you were still hungry when you arrived home from the Sunday family dinner, which usually started at 1pm (on Sunday’s, lunch was dinner), you had an early evening sandwich. And as for the Italian pastries, who could resist a cannoli or a chocolate éclair or a sfogliatelle or a pasticiotto…just to name a few.

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All of these influences have added to my current day traditional Italian Sunday dinners, and holiday’s with my family. Sadly, my parents are no longer with us but the traditions they instilled in me live on. When my children were growing up, my son would smell those Sunday morning meatballs in his sleep, and he would immediately wake up to eat a few of them, just fried, before they went into the pot of gravy. As he got older, and those teenage years rolled around, he didn’t get up as easily but Mom always made sure there was a small bowl of fried meatballs left on the kitchen counter for him.

Before becoming a Nana, my dream had always been for my grandchildren to wake up on a Sunday morning, and say, “I want to go to Nana’s to eat her meatballs.” Today, with the busy lives that many people lead, and with both parents in the workplace, along with keeping up with children’s sports activities, school work, social events, just to name a few…Sunday dinners, as I grew up knowing them to be, has changed. Maybe it’s too much work or maybe people have become very health conscious (everything in moderation is my motto) or maybe families just decided to change, and start making their own new Sunday traditions. However, for me, a Sunday dinner, any holiday or any meal, for that matter, will never be anything less than it was for me growing up…not for this Nana.

Today, my sisters, and I have grown our immediate family into 16, which now includes our own children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews to great nieces and nephews. Last year, when I moved into my new home, my first priority purchase was my dream dining room table…one that seats 12, and then there is always that folding table for 4, which is fondly known as the kids table. Most Sunday’s, Nana’s table is filled with family, and whoever shows up, shows up. It’s a given that there is always enough, there is always room, and an invite is not necessary.

Over the years, the biggest self-gratification, and compliments I could ever receive have been endless. My 11 year old grandson is truly convinced that his Nana once had a cooking show on Food Network, and my 4 year old nephew says, “Aunt Deb’s meatballs are the best.” With every Christmas Eve, in the past, that was hosted at another family members house, it was a given that I would receive a frantic call from my son or nephew confirming I was still doing the cooking, and lastly, my cooking being referred to as “gourmet” is the ultimate compliment I could ever receive.

I always tell my daughter, and now I include my daughter-in-law, and granddaughter’s…“pay attention because I am not going to be around forever” (reality) but for as long as I am here, and I am physically able, Nana’s stove will always have a Sunday Pot of Love simmering on it, and it will always be filled with my famous meatballs, sausage, and succulent pork that falls off the bone.

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The meal will always begin with antipasti, which typically includes fresh mozzarella, fried sweet and hot peppers, an assortment of Italian olives, and soppressata.

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There will always be fresh Italian bread or a homemade focaccia, along with one of Nana’s famous dessert creations. Dessert can be anything from a puffed pastry apple tart served warm with vanilla ice cream to chocolate lava cake to zeppoles with apricot dipping sauce.

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Cooking together as a family builds strong family bonds, memories, and it brings everyone together for laughter, sharing old and new stories, learning, and teaching old family traditions. So surround yourself with family, pour a cup of coffee or espresso or a glass of wine…break out the flour, and dust off that mixer, chop some garlic, and take out the hidden cast iron or frying pan. Get yourself some extra virgin olive oil, and some great Italian cheese, olives, bread, and put on your mad scientist hat!

When you’re passionate about food, the possibilities are endless. In the end there will always be a tasteful surprise, and more importantly, it’s a feast with the people you love, family! The family this Nana loves, will always have a place at her stove, and her table, and unconditionally, they will always hold a special place in her heart, and in her life, along with “Nana’s Sunday Pot of Love.”

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La famiglia e mangiare!