Monday, June 30, 2008

No longer a big, depressing downer


It's Monday, and after an entire week off from work, I woke up this morning at 5:15 am, guzzled a Starbucks Iced Coffee, and proceeded to get busy. At 1:30 I met my cousin, Mati, for a much needed workout with Bob, the personal trainer from Hell (thank you, Mati...I think), then stopped at the farm to buy some beautiful fresh produce, and now I am back in my work loft, at my computer, ready to roll up my sleeves once again.

I am blessedly back in the saddle.

Thank you to everyone who reached out to me this past week, and special thanks to all of you who downloaded my grandmother's cheesecake recipe; it's a great honor for me--and my family--to share it with you.

Time to get busy again...

Suzanne Brown 6.30.08

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Mourning


Self portraits: Friday, in bed, after the funeral + yesterday afternoon

Dictionary.com defines grief as "keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss", and certainly that definition describes how I've been feeling after the death of my grandmother this past week. I've not mourned in many, many years, and I had forgotten how profoundly unpleasant it can be, how emotionally and physically draining.

When I used to ponder my grandmother dying, I never assumed it would be as hard as it's been on me, or my family; she was old--ancient, really--and had lived the classic "good, long life", so I guess I assumed through my rose-colored mental picture, that when she finally passed away, we would all be ok. But we weren't, aren't. We all grieve, each and every one of us connected to her, because my grandmother was special in a way that words can't express. Certainly I tried in my posting last week to capture her spirit, as did my brother, John, in his informal eulogy at the funeral parlor on Thursday, and her priest at the funeral on Friday. But what I realize now is that all three of us failed miserably at our task, through no fault of our own, because Mary Miksad was beyond words; words cannot describe perfection. And that is why we grieve. We grieve because we lost something rare, something unique to this earth, something irreplaceable, something precious. We know it, and we lament it.

I know my grandmother would not want me to be in the state that I have been in--sorrowful beyond words, filled to the brim with profound sadness--and yesterday afternoon she told me so in an email. This poem arrived in one of the sympathy cards my parents received, and my mother thought it was so beautiful that she typed it out and sent it to my family. Yet I am convinced it was not my mother that typed out these words and hit the 'send' button, but my grandmother, sending it through her. I was laying on the sofa, feeling melancholy and listless when it arrived in my inbox; I read it, and had one good, long, last (I can hope) cry, then got up from the sofa, wiped away my tears, and started to become the person that my grandmother would want to see, want me to be. Yesterday that meant getting my hair dyed and cut, filling the refrigerator and cupboards with food once again, going to the gym, and slowly getting my spirit, and my smile back. Even in death my grandmother continues to inspire me, teach me lessons.


SAFELY HOME

I am home in Heaven, dear ones;
Oh, so happy and so bright!
There is perfect joy and beauty
in this everlasting light.

All the pain and grief is over,
Every restless tossing passed;
I am now at peace forever,
Safely home in Heaven at last.

Did you wonder I so calmly
Trod the valley of the shade?
Oh! but Jesus' love illumined
'Every dark and fearful glade.

And He came Himself to meet me
In that way so hard to tread;
And with Jesus' arm to lean on,
'Could I have one doubt or dread:

Then you must not grieve so sorely,
For I love you dearly still:
Try to look beyond earth's shadows,
Pray to trust our Father's Will.

There is work still waiting for you,
So you must not idly stand;
Do it now, while life remaineth-
You shall rest in Jesus' land.

When that work is all completed,
He will gently call you Home;
Oh, the rapture of that meeting,
Oh, the joy to see you come!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Mary Miksad - Nov. 13, 1910 - Jun. 24, 2008


Snapshots of Grams

I am three years old, and I am in the back yard of 31 Parsons Street. It is summertime, and I am standing on the cement walkway that leads down into the yard, and I see my Grams in the second floor window, hanging clean white sheets on the line to dry in the hot sun. She smiles, waves down to me, and I smile back at her. I know that later I will tippy toe up the creaky backstairs after dinner to visit with her and Pops, and she will sneak me a Stella Doro cookie, give me a big hug. I am comforted and feel safe knowing that she lives upstairs above us.

I am four and once again climb the back stairs to visit my grandmother. I pass by the toaster which sits on the kitchen table, and that always seems to have two toasted slices of bread popped out of each slot, although I am not sure why. I see my grandmother in the living room exercising along with Jack Lalanne on the television, wondering what on earth she is doing, and why Jack is wearing that funny blue jumpsuit. Despite the fact that I am just a child, it doesn’t escape my attention that my grandmother does this routine each and every day, so I stand next to her on the carpeted floor and start doing some of the exercises with her. Together we raise our arms towards the sky, then bend over and touch our toes. We do jumping jacks, and what a pair we must look like as we do them; she holds her big bosom in place with her hands as she does hers, and I, a klutzy four year old, can never seem to coordinate my arms and feet, so I just jump around the living room. Later she pours me milk, and she has tea, and we share a some cookies.

I am five years old and my brothers, and I, and my cousin Eddie John are playing in the backyard on 31 Parsons Street, making up games the way that kids do, playing catch, running around, climbing trees. One of our favorite things to do in that backyard is to have relay races around the big azalea bush on the far end of the property. Two people line up where the cement walkway meets the grass, someone yells, ‘ready, set go’ and off we run, down the yard, around the purple flowered bush, and back towards the finish line. My grandmother comes down into the backyard, and joins us in our relay race, running just slow enough so that each of us wins by a hair. Afterwards she congratulates us, praises us. Grams is always praising us for something we do; even the smallest things that hardly seemed worthy of praise receive a “Good, Good, Good!”

I am six now, and we are getting ready to move from my grandparents house on Parsons Street, to our new house at 393 Upland. I am in the car with my mother, and I am feeling anxious. I am sure my mother senses this, as I ask her how far it will be from our new house to Grams and Pops’ house. She tells me it will be exactly one mile, and to prove it to me, she drives the one mile there and shows me on the odometer. But to me—a six year old—it might has well have been five million miles, because the only home I know—where my grandmother and grandfather live—is no longer where I am going to live.

I am nine, and my grandmother brings me to my first Penny Social in the basement of her church. I love that I am alone with her on this day, that I am the center of her attention, and I especially love her teaching me exactly what a Penny Social is. We walk around the church hall, looking at the items displayed on the folding tables, deciding which items were worthy of our tickets. We use Prell Shampoo at home, so I really want the pink-colored strawberry-scented shampoo, so she advises me to put a bunch of my tickets in the basket beside the shampoo to up my chances of winning, and when I do win it, it’s as if I had won the lottery. I open the top of the shampoo bottle and inhale the sweet, strawberry scent, and Grams breathes it in, too, and I am happy that she thinks I made a wise decision at my first Penny Social.

I am ten, and we are down the Jersey shore; my parents and my brothers, John and Michael, and my Aunt Mary Ann and Uncle Ed, and my cousins Eddie John, and Mark, and Kevin, and my grandparents are there as well. And there is Grams, on the shoreline, in her practical swimsuit, wearing her white sailor’s cap. There she is again, on the boardwalk, as we watch the fireworks, wearing her cap. And, again, next to my Aunt on line at the Dairy Queen, cap on head. If I flip quickly through the photo album in my mind, I can see her, each and every summer, in her white sailor’s cap for as long as I can remember.

I flip even faster and I see animated images of my grandmother whiz by, like in those flipbooks that fascinated us as children. Grams at the stove on Thanksgiving mixing a slurry of flour and water in an old pickle jar, then blending it slowly, patiently, with the turkey drippings, to make a smooth, flawless gravy. Grams filling plastic Easter eggs with half dollars, to hide in the backyard, even though the kids are probably too old to hunt for Easter eggs. But we do it anyway—willingly, happily—after our ham dinner and kielbasa and paska; a family tradition. I look up at the window, on the second floor of the house on 31 Parsons Street, like I did when I was four, and there is Grams, looking down at us, smiling.

I flip faster…

Grams tasting my brother Michaels’ cheesecake—her recipe that he made for a family holiday—and showering him with praise. “Good. Good, Good” she says as she digs in; my brother beams.

A family birthday party, everyone singing the Happy Birthday Song, then Grams starting the next chorus of “May the Good Lord Bless You…” and we all join in.

There is Michael and Nancy living downstairs from Grams at 31 Parsons Street, and Michael Junior, climbing the back stairs to visit Grams, as I did when I was a child, playing in the backyard, running around the old azalea bush.

There is John and Maureen moving in to 31 Parsons Street, the house once again filled with family. Family—always family.

There is Mark and Mati, moving in to 31 Parsons Street, and Grams leaving her home for her new home at Cabrini Nursing Home. In the first time in all the years I’ve known her, I see sadness. But this is Grams, so it doesn’t last long.

As I quickly flip through the past five years, there’s Grams giddily beating her friends at cards, or the horse races; dimes, quarters. There’s Grams, at her 95th birthday party, surrounded by family. There’s Grams, just two weeks ago, as I sat with her in her room, saying “Good, Good, Good” when I told her I’ve been busy with work this summer.

And there she is again, on June 23rd, and I am in the photo as well. I am sitting quietly next to her as she sleeps, wondering if she can hear me, touching her arm and telling her I love her, thanking her for all the things she has showed me, taught me in the past 44 years. I thank her for showing me there really are good, humble, honest people in the world, because she raised a family filled with those virtues. I thank her for never being needy, for always being independent, because in her I saw a role model and realized that I too could be a strong and independent woman. I thank her for watching Jack LaLanne on the old television set in her living room when I was just a child, so when I grew up, I would know that staying fit and active was important. I thank her for my father, for if it were not for him, I would not be here right now, nor would my brothers, John and Michael. I thank her for treating my mother, Barbara, like a daughter for the past fifty years. I thank her for my Aunt Mary Ann, for without her I would not have my Uncle Ed, and my cousins, Eddie, Mark and Kevin. I thank her for her flawless matzoh balls, and her flavorful stuffed cabbage, her incredibly moist nut rolls, her smooth gravy, and of course, her heavenly cheesecake. I thank her for all those things, and so many more than I could ever list; that I either don’t have the vocabulary for, or there are simply no words for.

And then I kiss her head, tell her I love her, and my album closes.

Mary + Her Heavenly Cheesecake


My grandmother is dying, which at 97 years old is certainly not a tragedy, but there is great sadness in my world this week nonetheless. I went to say good bye to her yesterday, and sat quietly next to her as she slept, holding her hand, taking her in. I realized it would most likely be the last time I would see her--a blessing actually, as it's almost unbearable to behold her in the state she is in--and I wanted to thank her for everything she taught me in my lifetime. I thanked her for teaching me that there really are good, humble, honest people in the world, because she raised a family filled with those virtues. I never saw my grandmother ask for help, or be needy, so I thanked her for showing me that I too could be a strong and independent woman. I thanked her for watching Jack LaLanne on the old television set in her living room when I was just a child, so when I grew up, I would know that staying fit and active was important (I'm confident that's part of the reason she lasted to almost 98). I thanked her for her flawless matzoh balls, and her flavorful stuffed cabbage, her incredibly moist nut rolls, but most of all, I thanked her for her cheesecake. For my grandmother's cheesecake recipe is, as far as I'm concerned, the only cheesecake recipe; it's rich, and creamy, and absolutely heavenly.

Today, with work being the last thing on my mind, I bake. I bake cheesecake in honor of my grandmother, who I wish could be here today, in my home, to share a slice with me one last time, over a cup of tea. But since she can't be here, I will instead share the recipe with you in my grandmothers honor; I hope you make it and enjoy it, with her in mind.

Suzanne Brown 6.24.08


Mary's Cheesecake (PRINT RECIPE CARD)
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Combine 3/4 cup of graham cracker crumbs + 3 tablespoons of melted butter. Press crumb mixture into bottom of springform cake pan.

Beat together 3 large packages of cream cheese, 5 eggs, 1 cup sugar + 1 teaspoon vanilla. Pour mixture into pan and bake for 1 hour.

Remove cake from oven.

Mix together 1 pint sour cream, scant 1/2 cup sugar + 1 teaspoon vanilla. Remove cake from oven and pour mixture over the top. Return cake to oven and bake at 475 degrees for 5 minutes. Allow cake to cool, then refrigerate before serving.

Friday, June 20, 2008

HAPPY SUMMER!


“Then followed that beautiful season... Summer....
Filled was the air with a dreamy and magical light; and the landscape
Lay as if new created in all the freshness of childhood.”

~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Well, here it is, the first day of summer. Soon we will be seeing Back to School displays in the stores, so my advice to you on this, the longest day of the year, is to head outside tonight, build yourself a crackling campfire, toast some marshmallows for yummy, gooey s'mores, and perhaps belt out a few old-fashioned campfire songs under a starry night sky before heading off to bed in the wee hours, smelling like smoke, and wishing that summer could last forever.

CLASSIC CAMPFIRE S'MORES (PRINT RECIPE CARD)
We have the Girl Scouts to thank for this messy treat. The term s’more stands for ‘gimme some more’.

1 large marshmallow
1 graham cracker, broken in half
1-2 squares of a chocolate candy bar

Toast a marshmallow until hot and gooey, then place on 1 half of a graham cracker and top with 1-2 squares of chocolate. Top with a second graham cracker to make a sandwich.


HOME ON THE RANGE
Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Chorus
Home, home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Where the air is so pure, and the zephyrs so free,
The breezes so balmy and light,
That I would not exchange my home on the range,
For all of the cities so bright.

The Red man was pressed from this part of the west,
He's likely no more to return,
To the banks of the Red River where seldom if ever
Their flickering campfires burn.

How often at night when the heavens are bright,
With the light from the glittering stars,
Have I stood there amazed and asked as I gazed,
If their glory exceeds that of ours.

Oh, I love these wild flowers in this dear land of ours,
The curlew I love to hear cry,
And I love the white rocks and the antelope flocks,
That graze on the mountain slopes high.

Oh give me a land where the bright diamond sand,
Flows leisurely down in the stream;
Where the graceful white swan goes gliding along,
Like a maid in a heavenly dream.

Then I would not exchange my home on the range,
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Summer Ear Inspiration


My summer playlist, in no particular order...

Hanky Panky - Tommy James and the Shondells
Lay Your Head Down - Keren Ann
Don't Stop Believin' - Journey
Wild Night - Martha Reeves & The Vandellas
They - Jem
Don't Stop Me Now - Queen
Let it Ride - Bachman Turner Overdrive
Summer in the City - Lovin' Spoonful
Schools Out - Alice Cooper
Fight For Your Right - Beastie Boys
Hold On! I'm Comin! - Sam & Dave
You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet - Bachman Turner Overdrive
Die Young Stay Pretty - Blondie
Honey - Moby
Falling for You - Jem
Don't Stop - Fleetwood Mac
Stay With Me - Rod Stewart
Bad Reputation - Joan Jett
Soul Rebel - Bob Marley and the Wailers
Bad Day - REM
More Than This - Roxy Music
Lively Up Yourself - Bob Marley and the Wailers
Pull Up To The Bumper - Grace Jones
May This Be Love - Emmylou Harris
Shake Your Money Maker - George Thorogood
You Shook Me All Night Long - AC/DC
The Real Slim Shady - Eminem
Reasons to Be Beautiful - Hole
Orphan Girl - Emmylou Harris
The Ocean - Dar Williams
Rise - Eddie Vedder
In the Midnight Hour - Wilson Pickett
I'll Take You There - The Staple Singers
I Put a Spell on You - Screamin' Jay Hawkins
I Need a Lover - John Mellencamp
Long Nights - Eddie Vedder
Iowa - Dar Williams
I Got a Woman - Ray Charles
Fat Bottomed Girls - Queen
Since I've Been Loving You - Led Zeppelin
Do You Believe in Magic - Lovin' Spoonful
Boys on the Radio - Hole
End of The Summer - Dar Williams
Better Days - Bruce Springsteen
You're No Good - Linda Ronstadt
Best of You - Foo Fighters
Wall of Death - Richard & Linda Thompson
As Cool as I Am - Dar Williams
California Stars - Billy Bragg and Wilco
Queiqu'un M'a Dit - Carla Bruni

I'm curious as to what's on your playlist this summer! Submit a comment below...I love getting mail!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

South of the Border, New York


Maybe it's the tropical weather we've been having these past few weeks, or maybe I'm simply bored, bored, bored to death with Pinot Grigio + Sauvignon Blanc, but lately I've had a mean hankering for a big, salt-rimmed margarita, served straight up, with side of warm tortilla chips, and a molcajete filled with creamy guacamole just waiting to be dug into. I don't know about you blogoholics out there, but few things give me more pleasure than eating good, simple, handcrafted foods; make me a BLT with toasted white bread, real mayo, and ripe, red tomatoes (yes, I'm still eating tomatoes; salmonella, shmalmonella) and I'm the happiest girl in the world, pass me a bowl of fresh pasta with butter and grated Parmesan cheese and I will be your friend for life, and I can't even begin to to tell you what I will do for a crispy, thin-crust New Haven-style clam pizza, cooked outside on the grill. So, when I tell you that I've been itching for a couple of margarita's and a belly full of guacamole, I guess you know by now that it can't just be any old margarita, or ho-hum guacamole that passes by these taste buds, and down into this gullet of mine. Nope, I can't settle, and I won't let you settle either, dear reader; there's no time for bland guacamole or sour margarita's in our world.

With the longest day of the year just a few days away (yes, the days will be getting shorter after the 21st) I can think of no better time than right this second, to drop everything you're doing (unless you are holding an infant, carrying a vat of nitroglycerin, storing a priceless Ming vase, or juggling knives), to start squeezing limes, mashing avocado's, and kicking back with some good friends for an impromptu mid-week summertime happy hour.

I'm off to take my own advice...

TRADITIONAL MARGARITA (PRINT RECIPE CARD)
From my book, Summer: A User's Guide

This recipe can easily be modified if you prefer a fruity, frozen Margarita. Simply add a handful of strawberries, some sliced mango, a splash of peach nectar – or whatever kind of summery fruit or fruit juice you have handy – and blend with ice.

1 1/2 ounces tequila
1-ounce Cointreau, Grand Marnier, or Triple Sec
1-ounce lemon juice
1-ounce lime juice
Kosher salt (optional)
Sliced limes (optional)

If you prefer your margarita with salt, pour salt onto small dish, moisten rim of chilled cocktail glass with sliced lime, and dip into salt. For a straight-up cocktail, add all ingredients and cracked ice to a cocktail shaker, shake well, then strain into a margarita glass. Garnish with a slice of lime. Makes 1 cocktail.

CANTINA GUACAMOLE (PRINT RECIPE CARD)
From my book, Summer: A User's Guide

If you’d like, you can add some minced jalapeƱos to this recipe to spice it up, or some chopped cilantro for a bit of South of the Border flavor.

2 plum tomatoes
2 firm-ripe California avocados
2 tablespoons minced red onion
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Salt and pepper, to taste

Quarter tomatoes, remove seeds and chop. Halve and pit avocados, scoop flesh into a bowl and mash (you can use your hands, a masher or a mortar and pestle). Stir in remaining ingredients.
Season with salt and pepper to taste. Makes 2 cups.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

My Dad


With today being Father's Day, I figured it would make sense to give a little verbal pat on the back to the man who has been in my life, loving me unconditionally, for the past forty-four years; my dad.

I think that if I was--for whatever imaginary reason--forced to come up with one word to describe my father, lest the world as we know it cease to exist (which, if I think about how much it cost me to fill up my gas tank the other day, might not be a bad thing), it would be simple. Now, I'm not saying that my dad is simple in the head (although after 50 years of marriage, I am sure there are more than a handful of times my mom would have disputed that statement) but rather that he's not swayed by fads, or things that are too fancy, or places that someone from his generation might describe as swanky. Nope, my dad doesn't need, or care about, or want expensive toys; he is happy with his old fishing pole that works just fine, and the practical car that gets him from Point A to Point B without going over the speed limit, or guzzling a lot of gas. And he doesn't crave fancy vacations (although my Mom certainly does drag him on them), but I am confident he wouldn't mind a weekend down the Jersey Shore, dropping his crab nets off of the pier, and pulling up a few dozen blue crabs for dinner, just like he did every summer when we were kids.

My father sure does likes to eat, but he is not swayed by fussy gourmet foods; a juicy burger off the grill, or a good slice of pizza from Capri Pizzeria will do just fine for him. I sincerely doubt my father would ever shop at a specialty supermarket or buy produce that was stamped organic, but each and every year for as long as I can remember, he's grown a small vegetable garden in a patch of land in the backyard, and he sure is proud when his tomatoes turn out well.

He also loves baseball; I remember when the Yankees were in the series against Boston in 2003, and my brothers and Dad went to the game. It was one of those magical New York nights, with clear skies, perfect weather, and energy pulsating through the city, but the Yanks were down, and it was getting late, and the group was starting to get tired, so they contemplating leaving early to get ahead of traffic, when suddenly in the 8th inning, Derek Jeter turned the game around with a double. Then Matsui hit another double, then Posada did as well. The Yankee Stadium crowd went crazy, as did the Miksad men, who at this point had no need for sleep, and could care less about Bronx traffic. So, they sat back down, and cheered along as their beloved Yankees came from behind, winning this white-knuckled game with a home run in the 11th inning. I swear, I never heard my dad as excited or animated in all the years I've known him, as he was describing the game to me on the phone the next day; I could literally hear the smile in his voice.

So, today, on Father's Day, I want to thank my Father for teaching me to appreciate all that is simple in the world; the taste of a ripe red tomato from the vine, sitting on a pier, catching crabs for dinner, eating simple foods, and enjoying a good, salty dog at Yankee Stadium on a summer's night. I'm sure he had no idea until this very moment how much of an inspiration he was for my book, Summer. Thank you Dad for always reminding me what's really important in life.

Happy Father's Day!
Suzanne Brown 6.15.08

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Dueling Camera's

Yesterday I posted Madeline's take on what she thought was cool around my home. Today, inspired by her curiosity, I went through the same exercise, looking at the place where I live and work with fresh eyes, trying to capture a bit of it's unique personality. Thought I'd share my take on what's swell where I dwell...






















Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Inspired by a Ten Year Old


I snapped my own picture of Mads with my iPhone yesterday.

Yesterday, my young friend Madeline came over to cook with me, and afterwards, she borrowed my camera and set out to capture "everything that's cool" (her words, not mine) in and around the house, and in the car ride back to her own home. Well, I just got around to looking at the photographs that this future Annie Liebowitz managed to snare, and I'm amazed that these came from the eye of a ten-year old.

Isn't it funny how sometimes artistic inspiration comes from the most unexpected places? I didn't need to make a trip to MOMA to stimulate me creatively; I found it at 5:30 this morning from a sixty-five pound, freckle-faced spitfire named Mads.






















Suzanne Brown June 10, 2008