Monday, December 24, 2012

Charlie Lavia's yuletide greeting from the Great Beyond

No wonder I can't cook. I was digging around for a cookie recipe and found this one for our family's meatballs. My dad dictated this to me, after much prodding, in 2009.

Dad died almost two years ago, and tears came to my eyes this morning when I took the piece of paper out of the recipe binder and saw that I had made note of his editorial comments as well as his instructions.

As some of you might recall, my dad was an original. Here, for your Christmas reading pleasure, is a yuletide greeting of sorts, from the Great Beyond, from Charlie Lavia.


- 1 pound hamburger, 1 pound Graziano's pork sausage. ("Get it at Graziano's, not at  Dahl's. They have it at Dahl's, but they'll screw you on the price. But it takes gas to drive to Graziano's, so, eh, just get it at Dahl's.  It works out about the same. Heh heh.")

- Eggs. ("How many eggs? Jesus, Lisa, I don't know. Two eggs. Three eggs. Just whatever you've got.")

- A handful of breadcrumbs. ("Just pour it in your hand. What do you mean, different people have different-size hands?  Not that different; don't ask so many questions. Can't you just be satisfied with an answer?")

- Grated cheese. ("What do you mean, what kind? What kind do you think?")

- Salt and pepper. ("More salt if you like salt. More pepper if you don't. Don't make a production out of it.")

- Some diced onions if you want. ("I know you don't like onions. I put onions in and I hear about it all damned day. Because you don't like onions, no one can have onions. Jesus. Just pick them out, like at McDonald's.")

- Garlic powder. ("I don't KNOW how much! Until it tastes right!")

- A little milk. ("Sometimes they end up too dry. Just put the milk on your hands and scoot everything around.")

"Mold them into balls and cook them. How big? How am I supposed to know?  If you want to make them like your grandmother, make them like tennis balls. If you want to make them normal, then don't."


We'll eat meatballs tonight, and we'll all miss him.

Merry Christmas, Dad.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ghosts of Christmases past ... wearing wool, eating fudge and speaking Italian

With my Grandpa Kenny, playing "Heart and Soul," 1969
So I did a head count the other day and realized that of all the people who used to surround my family’s table on Christmas, the vast majority aren’t there anymore. 

This doesn’t exactly come as a shock to me; I’m not a young person. And it also isn’t a valid reason to feel sorry for myself; there are 20 families in Connecticut who will be missing their little children every Christmas from now on. But it’s still sobering, especially when I think about the fact that as families lose members, the character of the holiday tends to change as well.

The Christmases of my youth look to my mind like a still from “Mad Men.” Everyone was glamorous and handsome and laughing and smoking.  The women wore aprons over their cocktail dresses from Feldman’s Phase II on the west side; the men wore ties and followed their Hamm’s beers with chasers of bourbon-infused eggnog.  The house smelled of pasta and cherry tobacco from someone’s pipe … and decals.  Our house always smelled of paint and adhesive from decals, our family’s livelihood; the “stickers,” as I called them, bore the names of implement dealers and manufacturers of giant machines. They didn’t hold much interest for a little girl, but I respected them; I knew they bought my books and my markers and my Hostess cupcakes. 

Christmas Eve was spent at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, opening and modeling expensive clothes made of 100-percent wool; although I was allergic to the fabric and it caused me to break out in hives on contact, I was instructed to “ooh” and “aah” over the garments and enthuse repeatedly that I couldn’t wait to wear them.   Grandma also gave me books each year; from her, I received the Narnia series, the Little House books, and the volumes of bad poetry I loved so much, and I couldn’t wait to open the tissue-wrapped packages. We’d eat pasta and sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus around the blue-flocked tree, and then we were off to midnight Mass – at 10:30 on the dot, so there would be enough seats for all of us.

The next day, the same crowd came to our house; we’d all wear our new outfits from Grandma, with my stage-whispers of “Can I change now? OK, how much longer?” punctuating the otherwise-festive environment.  (In all fairness to my allergic little self, I itched so much after a few hours in those woolen dresses that I’d have to be given take a Benadryl before bed to calm the welts.) I wonder now, as all adults do, why I didn’t pay more attention; why I didn’t try to learn some of the Italian my elders spoke for those many, many years in my family room.  Why I didn’t spend more time playing “Heart and Soul” on the piano with my grandpa.  He loved that so much, while I rolled my eyes after the second or third repetition. Why I didn’t ask my nana to please tell me stories of all her brothers and sisters back in Crucoli.  Why I had my eyes in a book instead of on my loud, fascinating, beautiful family. 

This Christmas will mark the second since my dad died; as I told a friend today, last year, his death was still pretty new, but this year it’s all too clear he’s not coming back.  I like to think he’s having Christmas with my mom now, and with my grandparents and aunts and uncles and all the people who used to pass through our front door with great, booming “Merry Christmas”es and platters of fudge and wandas and strawberry-shaped nut cookies stuffed with dates. I see him in his white shirt and tie, smoking a Kool and smelling like Old Spice and laughing more and more as the evening wore on.  I see my nana in her dark-blue housedress and black shawl, smiling as she spoke Italian with the few who still understood her.  I see my grandma, shiny and beautiful, giving air-kisses and sneaking envelopes into our hands. “To our Lisa at Christmastime,” mine would always say.  I think I still have one somewhere.

As I bake and wrap presents in preparation for my family’s Christmas Eve and Christmas Day celebrations, it’s difficult not to feel a bit unmoored; I’m no one’s idea of a kid anymore, or a niece or a granddaughter.  I look in the mirror and my aunt’s face peers back; not my aunt as a pretty young girl, but my aunt at 50, with gray roots and the beginnings of jowls and crepe-paper skin on her hands.  And I realize that for my kids, I’ll someday be one of those memories … the subject of “Can you believe Mom did that?” or “Remember when she tried to cook?” or, hopefully, “This ornament (or this book, or this song) reminds me of Mom.”  And I don’t know how I’ll make it happen, but I’m hoping I can encourage everyone to put down the distractions and remain a bit more “in the moment” this year. 

Because all too soon, those moments are gone.  And you’d give all the fruitcake and tinsel in the world for one more rendition of “Heart and Soul.”  

Thursday, December 6, 2012

From unspeakable sorrow to happily ever after, just in time for the holidays

(Note: This essay was published in shorter form in The Des Moines Register on Dec. 4, 2012.)

Five years ago, Jason Medick couldn’t imagine a time when laughter would be such a routine part of his day, he wouldn’t even be conscious that he was laughing.

Now, the big house on Grand Avenue on Des Moines’ west side hums with activity: shouts of two happy girls. Music. Company coming in and out. A barking dog. And the routine peals of laughter of family members who have begun to heal.

In April 2007, Medick’s first wife, Shari, died suddenly, leaving behind a husband and two daughters, ages 6 and 2.  Among the family members who swept in to help the broken-hearted young dad and his little girls were Shari’s cousins from St. Charles: the McDonald sisters, Jenna, Kati and Trisha.

Kati McDonald had nannied for the girls on and off when Shari Medick was alive. She had left for college but kept in close touch with Shari’s sister, Shana, who filled her in from time to time about how Medick and the two girls were doing.

When she graduated, McDonald contacted Medick to see if she could visit the girls. The rest, as they say, is history.

“We should just jump ahead to the point where – yes – I married the nanny,” Medick said. “But there’s a lot more to the story than that.”

Kati McDonald, now Kati Medick, said when she began to visit the girls, Alice and Pearl, on a regular basis again, she realized she really didn’t know their dad.  She initially had called to offer to babysit the girls, but Jason told her he had nowhere to go.  However, if she wanted to come visit the girls, he said, she was welcome.

“When Shari was alive and I had babysat for them, Jason was always at work,” Kati, 26, said. “He doesn’t even really remember that I nannied for them. So when I started coming over again to see the girls, it was like we started a friendship from scratch.”

And that’s all it was for several months. Kati met the girls and their dad on Monday nights to walk around Gray’s Lake and have dinner at Spaghetti Works – kids ate free on Mondays –- and maybe one other time during the week to walk around the mall.

She dated occasionally during that time, but felt much more drawn to the quiet family activities Jason, 42, organized for his girls.  Before long, Kati was spending several nights a week with the still-grieving family and realized she was becoming attached – but only to the girls, she thought.

“I liked Jason; we had fun together, but he was 15 and a half years older than I was, and he had been married to my cousin,” Kati Medick said. “The last thing either one of us was thinking – consciously, anyway – would be that we could have feelings for each other.”

But each was beginning to, and those feelings came to a head one night when Kati brought a date to a birthday party Jason also was attending.

“When I saw her walk in with someone else, I felt hurt, and I left,” Jason said. “It was then that I realized, ‘Whoa – I was really looking forward to seeing her. What does that mean?’”

When Kati asked her future husband days later why he had left the party, each ended up admitting there was more afoot than just friendship. After talking quite a while about the potential roadblocks, they decided to “try dating and see how it went,” Kati said.

It turned out “roadblocks” was an underestimation. Some people told the couple, in no uncertain terms, that their relationship was wrong. Some said they had begun dating too quickly after Shari’s death, and others said the fact that Kati was Shari’s cousin made the relationship unacceptable.

“They all meant well and gave us advice out of concern for me and for the girls, and for the memory of the wife I still loved, and I understood that,” Jason Medick said. “I had many forces pulling me many different ways in my personal life. It started to get to me, and I told Kati we couldn’t be together anymore.”

Kati accepted the decision – after all, the disapproval had been hard on her as well, and she wanted what was best for Jason and the girls. But Jason quickly concluded he was missing her terribly, and he sought the advice of a counselor to help him make a decision, as well as to help him begin to heal from the loss of Shari.

“He told me that I had to move forward, and those who wanted to come with me would, and those who didn’t want to wouldn’t,” he said. “I had to grow a thicker skin and think about what was best for me and the girls. I wasn’t leaving Shari behind, but I did have to move forward.”

He called Kati and asked her if she'd begin seeing him again, and this past September, the Medicks married in an informal, family-and-friend-filled, standing-room-only ceremony in downtown Des Moines.

In addition to seeing his two daughters, now 11 and 8, serve as bridesmaids, Jason was most gratified that the guests all seemed to truly wish the couple well.

“I think what also helped people come around was when they realized that Kati, who knew and loved Shari, would help keep her memory alive for the girls,” Jason said. “It wasn’t a case where someone would come in and say, ‘OK, I’m the wife now. We need to move on.’”

Indeed, Kati makes sure the girls' mom is a big part of their lives, from saying "Your mom would be proud" of certain activities or behaviors to helping to organize a birthday-commemoration celebration for Shari every year on December 12. The family also participates in a remembrance ceremony every year on April 1, the anniversary of Shari's death.

"Their mom was wonderful, and although I hope to be able to influence their lives in a positive way, I also get a lot of joy out of things that they do and say that remind me of their mom," Kati said. "I'm sure she is very proud of her little ladies."

Those little ladies said they're glad that Kati is a part of their lives; at the wedding, Alice, 11, gave a public shout-out to her new stepmother for "agreeing to marry us."

"She makes us do a lot of stuff together, like going on family bike rides and putting up the Christmas tree together. And she'll tell us things about our mom and say, 'Your mom would have liked this or that,'" Alice said.

Pearl, 8, said Kati "has brought our family closer together," but she registered one complaint.

"She always makes us clean," she said with a giggle. "She makes us clean WAY too much."