Friday, December 23, 2011

A Christmas Kindness Remembered

I think I have mentioned in previous essays that I lost my mother, Arline Wark Levisay, when I was a boy of 13. With my son Bryson now that same age, this holiday season has brought back many memories and images of those tough and at times very sad years. My mom passed away in early December 1974 and that first Christmas was an absolute blur. I remember so clearly my father on Christmas morning, so sad, seemingly so lost, trying to pull together some sort of a Christmas morning for his three kids. In hindsight I never gave him enough credit for just enduring the deep sorrow and absolute emptiness that my mother’s passing must have left for him. My father often reads my blog so I will say publicly how deeply I appreciate what you had to go through all those years ago, especially that sad snowy Christmas of 1974.

It was actually a few years later when I was in High School that a wonderful experience happened that I wanted to share today. While I had a number of friends in my school days, there were four of us that were nearly inseparable. Rob, Jimmy, Dave and I were all close pals, and I am proud to say remain so to this day. We all did a lot together, Jimmy and I sang in County Chorus together, Rob and I were 8th grade ping pong champs, and we all spent hours over at Dave’s house, listening to Pittsburgh Pirate games on the radio and playing homerun derby. What’s also unusual is that they all knew my mom before she passed away, a rarity among the friends and acquaintances in my life today.

As I said, we all spent a lot of time over at Dave’s house and were often showered by the kindness of his mom, Mrs. Marjorie Carfang. She always had a kind word, a welcoming smile and we all spent numerous meals at her kitchen counter. It was one of those moments that have come back to me this Christmas season. Jim and Dave are both from devout catholic families, Rob and I the troublesome Protestants in the group. Every Christmas Eve, Dave and Jimmy’s families would celebrate the coming nativity with a meal of the “seven fish.”

The Feast of the Seven Fishes (festa dei sette pesci), celebrated on Christmas Eve, also known as The Vigil (La Vigilia), is believed to have originated in Southern Italy and is not a known tradition in many parts of Italy. Today, it is a feast that typically consists of seven different seafood dishes. However, some Italian American families have been known to celebrate with 9, 11, or 13 different seafood dishes. This celebration commemorates the wait, Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus.

To me this was an unknown custom, yet exotic and religious all at the same time. One Christmas Eve as a high school junior or senior I found myself back at that familiar kitchen counter. Mrs. Carfang, busy in the kitchen, patiently explained the meaning of this special meal and very kindly let me sample a number of her dishes. While I don’t remember all seven, I do remember sitting at that counter tasting all these different flavors and feeling the warmth, kindness and candidly the love of that wonderful woman.

Well Mrs. Carfang passed away a number of years ago, and it was very important to me to head home for the funeral. I don’t get back to Murrysville Pa. very often, but I try to make it back at least once a year to visit my mother’s grave, and to see Jimmy and Dave who still live in our hometown. It was early last summer that I stopped in for a visit and after visiting Rob’s mom, Jimmy and I went over to see Dave and Mr. Carfang. Dave’s dad still lives in the same home that I remember so fondly and the sight of that old kitchen counter literally brought tears to my eyes. After dinner, we pulled out the lawn chairs and sat outside, drinking Iron City beer (actually IC Light) and listened to a Pirate game on the radio; it was fantastic! After a few drinks, the conversation turned to Mrs. Carfang and it was obvious that Dave’s dad was still deeply mourning her loss. I started talking about how much I loved her cooking and how fondly I remembered sitting in HER kitchen as a boy. Well Mr. Carfang went into the house and brought out a well worn recipe book that was filled with Mrs. Carfang’s recipes. As you can tell by previous essays, I am very partial to the history, memories and love of family recipes. We went through the pages, Mr. Carfang commenting on different recipes and little tricks/secrets that Mrs. Carfang would use. That night I wrote down a number of recipes and I have been recreating them in my own kitchen. In another essay I’ll share her meatball recipe or maybe rice and pea soup recipe, two absolute treasures. What follows though is a dish that Mr. Carfang really enjoyed and he remembered it being served as one of the “Seven Fish” oh so many years ago, enjoy!

Mrs. Carfang’s Tuna Stuffed Peppers

6 green and/or red peppers (tops removed and ALL the seeds and pith removed)
1 6oz. can of Tuna (in olive oil)
¾ cup bread crumbs
1tbsp grated parmesan cheese
1 clove chopped garlic
¼ cup chopped onion
1tbsp chopped Italian parsley
1 tsp oregano
8 oz. cooked eggplant (diced small)
1 egg
½ cup milk
2 cups cooked rice
Salt and pepper
Mix all ingredients, stuff peppers and place in a roasting pan. Sprinkle with olive oil, add your favorite spaghetti sauce (I’ll share Mrs. Carfang’s sauce recipe in a future essay)in the pan and lightly on the peppers, bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Enjoy !

Post script: Just this week I talked to Jimmy on the phone (we talk every week) and asked him for a bit of “Holiday Kindness”. My mother’s grave is close to Mrs. Carfang’s and Jimmy’s Aunt’s graves in a lovely cemetery in Delmont Pa. I am so appreciative that Jimmy is able to stop by the cemetery this week to put some Christmas greens on my mom’s grave, with me thousands of miles away in California. This seemingly small act of “Holiday Kindness” means the world to me, and once again Jimmy, I have you to thank!

This Christmas season, try to remember the kindness that others have shared with you across your life and just like Jimmy, maybe find a way to pass that along to others who could benefit from a kind word, a visit to a cemetery, a generous act, or maybe even a stuffed pepper.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Road Ahead

Over the past year I have had the pleasure to be part of a number of fiftieth birthday celebrations including my own. For those of us born in 1961, it’s been a year of dinner parties, surprise trips, sometimes small intimate affairs and at times large raucous events. Regardless of the format, this event has typically brought friends together to recount events, reflect on the passing years, to tell stories and on the whole “celebrate” this so-to-speak milestone. It was at one of these recent birthday events that I was reminded of a fundamental lesson of life.

It was the fiftieth birthday of a dear friend, a great guy that I have known since 1979 when I met him as a college freshman. As we started making plans for get away weekend to celebrate the event, we had a late night phone conversation that shed a little light on his mindset. With quiet sincerity, he shared that he felt that more than half his life had probably passed by and what had he really accomplished. He wasn’t sure that his professional accomplishments had fulfilled his youthful potential and all in all, was feeling pretty let down by life. I tried all the obvious angles of response, reminding him of his healthy beautiful children, his successful 20+ year marriage, etc., really to no effect. I am certain that many of us in our “middle years” have probably had some sort of this same type of reflection, this same uncertainty about what we’ve accomplished and what this thing called “life” is all about. Indeed the art and literature over the centuries is filled with humanity’s pondering the infinite question of the meaning of life. (If you haven’t seen Monty Python’s film “The Meaning of Life”, add it to you list immediately!) I am not suggesting that I have uncovered some unique insight to this eternal question, but my friend’s fiftieth did indeed remind me of an important “point of view” on this whole topic. That “point of view” is forward!

As I thought about my friend’s comments/disappointments/frustrations, it struck me that all of it was a reflection on what HAD or HAD NOT occurred to this point in his life. It was all in the past tense, all in reflection, all looking at life through the rear view mirror. None of the perspective was influenced at all by what MAY lie ahead. What challenges/adventures/experiences MIGHT be around the corner of life? What new relationships/friendships/acquaintances may be just around the corner? How can we all so easily fall into the trap that the past is somehow more valid that the future. Both the past and the future are real, both true, both important yet with one major distinction. There is an infinite INABILITY to affect the past, while there is an infinite ABILITY to affect the future! With that “truth” in mind, the future is actually a lot more important than the past. It’s “influencable,” it’s“dreamable,” it’s possible, it’s unfinished, it’s clearly yet to be!

It’s here that I want to reflect on the last few months of my friends Bruce Paynter’s life. I’ve written a number of essays about my time with Bruce, his battle with ALS, the amazing conversations I had with him as he approached his own mortality. One thing that I haven’t shared was his zest for life as his disease progressed. I remember so clearly a day when I was with him at the hospice facility just a few weeks before his passing. Through a bi-pap respirator, he not only wanted me to meet all his nurses and the volunteers, he talked with all of them about the challenges in their lives. He wasn’t some sort of passive depressed patient. Bruce was living, having an impact on the people around him, and building new relationships with a clear sense of his limited time. Writing this with tears in my eyes, I not only miss my friend Bruce but continue to be inspired by him!

We must remember that life is precious and fleeting for all of us. It’s truly a treasure to have a chance to affect the “future” of our lives. Keep my friend Bruce fresh in your mind, chatting up the staff of the hospice facility with little time left in his life. Whether we have weeks, years, or maybe decades to live, let’s all try to push away the rear view mirror and stay focused, engaged and inspired by the road ahead!

post script: in an homage to Bruce's love of music, I needed to include these wonderful lyrics from Neil Young ...

Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons,
You can't be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you're thinking that
You're leaving there too soon,
You're leaving there too soon.