Photo of baby wombats at a feeding bowl. The image features white text which reads "30 Days of Thanks Winner! Once again, I am thankful for baby wombats."

30 Days of Thanks Day 30: December!

Tonight is the last of my 30 Days of Thanks posts for 2017. Another year, another round of daily gratitude posts.

I am thankful that I made it through the month. I am proud of myself for setting the goal on October 31st of committing to daily gratitude posts – and meeting the goal! I have not been consistent with my daily writing this past year, but I managed to pull this off.

I am grateful, so incredibly grateful, to all of you who read my posts and supported me on this journey. Your comments, emails, and texts kept me focused and gave me strength when I was ready to say, “I’m not going to finish!”

Yet, here we are. Tomorrow is December 1st. I am reminded yet again how important it is to remain grateful in the midst of life’s challenges.

Did everything n November go according to plan? Of course not.

But so many amazing things happened in November – from Hamilton, to Brava!, to cookies with my sisters, and everything in between.

I am truly blessed to be surrounded by so much love. I am grateful for the opportunity to work and live independently. I appreciate your support and loyalty to me and my writing.

Welcome December!

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30 Days of Thanks Day 25: The Cookie Journal

Today was our family’s annual cookie bake. Eighteen bakers ranging in age from 4 to 90 years, nineteen cookie recipes, two ovens, and seven hours of chaos in my sister’s kitchen.

I think it’s my favorite day of the year.

Our baking tradition started in 1990 when I was an exchange student to Australia. My sisters Donna and Caroline joined my mom for a day of cookie baking when she was missing “her baby.”

In 2002, Mom gave us little notebooks as gifts. My sister Mary Jane suggested we turn one of them into our cookie journal. I offered mine for the cause.

For fifteen years, we have kept notes in this journal. We write about our flops, like the year Mom forgot to put sugar in the fancy brown cookies because she was worried about Mary Jane and I driving down in snow. We write helpful hints, like how important it is not to put too much filling in the pecan tassies. We sometimes make reference to the fact that someone didn’t read the journal about the last time we had difficulty with a cookie.

Mary Jane started the journal that first year and anointed me the keeper of the journal. Over the years, other sisters and family members have all added to the journal, but each year it comes home with me.

The journal is a record of our family history. The year my father was in the hospital for Thanksgiving, we recorded how we baked in shifts so we could all take turns going to visit him. New births are recorded, as are tragedies.

We all cry when we see Mary Jane’s last entry in the journal tucked against my sister Susan’s words. Her simple message of love, written a month before she passed away, reminds us why we gather together for our annual tradition.

The day isn’t really about the cookies, although we do make some really good ones if I do say so myself. It’s a day full of love and laughter, and I wouldn’t want to start the holiday season any other way.

30 Days of Thanks Day 21: An Escape Plan

This is a collection of most of what I will need to bring with me for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. Once again, I am headed to my sister Caroline’s house. I will celebrate Thanksgiving with her husband’s family on Thursday.

But the real reason I am excited about an escape from reality will take place on Saturday. That is the day we gather for the annual DiNoto Cookie Bake. Regular readers know how much I look forward to this family tradition, as I have written about it in several posts.

Tonight I am grateful to have an accessible place to run to when I need a break. My brief escape from day-to-day reality also gives my Personal Assistants a respite. How fortunate I am to have a sister who is willing and able to assist me from time to time.

30 Days of Thanks Day 26 – Mary Jane

Today is the annual DiNoto Cookie Bake, a day my family gathers to start our holiday baking. I have written about our annual tradition before in this post. The day started in 1990, while I was living in Australia as an exchange student. My mom was missing “her baby,” so my sisters Donna and Caroline suggested they join her for a day of baking cookies. Twenty-six years later, we still gather on the Saturday after Thanksgiving at my sister Caroline’s house.

My late sister Mary Jane loved baking with her sisters. When we gathered together each year Mary Jane made the Russian Tea Cakes, pecan shortcake balls rolled in confectioner’s sugar, and the chocolate thumbprints, a recipe from our Grandma DiNoto. Mary Jane’s Russian Tea Cakes were perfection – buttery goodness that melted in your mouth.

Mary Jane joined us for the last time at cookie bake five years ago. She arrived with her youngest daughter Karen that Saturday morning, shortly after Mom had finished the first tray of her oil cookies. Before Karen even had even removed her coat, Mary Jane had her apron out and was asking Karen to tie it behind her back. A few minutes later, Mary Jane’s oldest daughter Sara surprised us when she arrived with her family.

That last year Mary Jane, who never ate cookies during our annual cookie bake, tested each and every type of cookie we made, smiling her enjoyment with each mouthful. She rolled the Russian teacakes in sugar, put mini chocolate chips in the chocolate thumbprints, and gave directions to Karen when Karen helped fill the kolachki cookies. Other family members stopped in throughout the day and many photos were taken. It was the last time all six DiNoto girls were together as Mary Jane died one month later.

Cookie Bake 2012, the first year we baked without Mary Jane, was emotional. More than once, we had to take a break to shed a tear or offer each other a hug. But, that year was also full of joyfull moments like watching Emily, Mary Jane’s granddaughter, having a tea party with her Noni, my mom, or laughing when Mom put an apron on Sara’s husband Will. We did our best to soldier on as Mary Jane would have wanted us to, knowing the day has never really been about the cookies. It wasn’t until after lunch that we realized nobody had made Russian teacakes or chocolate thumbrints, the recipes Mary Jane had always been responsible for at our annual Cookie Bake.

Mary Jane was admitted to inpatient hospice a month after Cookie Bake. I spent several hours at her bedside each day for the week she was a patient. As I helped her eat soup the second night, she told me she had always wanted to write a book about her sisters. I sat with tears streaming down my face, her strong hand clasped in my weak grip, listening to her talk about her writing dreams. Then she asked me to make her a promise.

You have to do it for me. You have to write it. Promise me you’ll write the book. And stop crying!

It took me a couple of years to work up the courage, but this year – a year of one challenge after another – I am finding refuge in writing. I have an outline, and I am spending time each day writing some of our sister stories. I hear Mary Jane’s quiet voice in my head encouraging me to write, and I’m doing my best to honor her spirit and the promise I made.

Thank you Mary Jane, for helping me find a purpose for my writing. I hope I tell our sister stories in a way which would please you. I am grateful for the chance to share memories which keep us connected. Although many of them cause me to cry at my keyboard, they also make me smile. We all miss you so much every day, but especially today – a day you always enjoyed when we were together.

Today, as we measure flour, sugar and butter, we remember we are surrounded by that which can never truly be measured. Love and support from family and sisters mean more than the confections we create as a group. We carry on with traditions, relishing memories while welcoming new bakers into the fold. Mary Jane’s son and daughter-in-law are joining us today for their first Cookie Bake, reminding us part of our dear sister is still with us whenever we gather as a group.

Mary Jane and Denise - Photo of the author, a woman in a wheelchair, and her sister. Both women are wearing green Santa hats and holiday aprons over red shirts.
Mary Jane and I, matching and sporting aprons made for us by our sister Donna. Photo courtesy of S. DiNoto.

Sister Email

I am the youngest of Sam and Dolly’s six daughters. “The sisters” are the women I turn to for support, guidance, affirmation, information, and love. Susan, Mary Jane, Donna, Sandy and Caroline (and I suppose I need to include me too) all bring unique insights to every situation, even though we come from the same background. Each of us have different strengths and skills.

For example, if you want all of the sisters to know something, tell Sandy. She is a pro at disseminating information in a timely and efficient manner.┬áIf you want something organized – a party, your pantry, your dining room table – call Susan. If you want a laugh, just wait until you get the perfect birthday card from Donna. I truly don’t know how she does it year after year. Caroline, or “Crinnie” as we call her, is a pro at crafts and makes the best jams and pickles. And Mary Jane was always honest but never in a spiteful or mean way. As for me – well, I’m good at public speaking and explaining medical information in a crisis. You’d have to ask the others how they would describe me.

Over the years, we have adopted different technologies to stay in touch. For several years, all of us except Crinnie communicated by sister emails. Someone would start a note to the rest, and everyone would respond as time allowed over the course of a day or two. There were several emails which ended, “Now if only Crinnie had email we would be all set! I’ll call her to let her know what’s going on.” One of us would pick up the phone to pass along the latest and then respond to the rest of the group with any new input.

Around 2009, Crinnie joined the new century when she got the internet at her house. She quickly learned how to connect to email and ‘reply to all.’ Within a few weeks, she had learned about emoticons. “I can put a smiley face in, too. Aren’t you all impressed? :-)” Of course we were.

Sometimes the sister emails are used to coordinate sister gatherings. The flurry of notes planning our annual DiNoto Cookie Bake, held at Crinnie’s house on the last Saturday in November, occasionally starts in mid-October. The emails include a list of needed ingredients and our assignments, along with locations of good sales. We should be getting an update from Crinnie any day now.

These days, most of our messaging is done via text. A sister, usually Donna because she is an early morning person, will start a conversation early in the day about a topic. The rest of us will chime in as we are able. Even if we are replying to just one sister, we reply to all and it is up to the recipients to know when a sister is talking directly to you. Often, the topic will change without warning. I often say these strings of texts would make for an interesting study in sister dynamics to an outsider who is not familiar to us.

To illustrate, I offer you this actual series of texts from July which started with a question about chocolate crinkles. Hey – we’re cookie bakers. What did you expect?

Susan: I read the recipe for chocolate crinkles on Sandy’s blog. Then I checked my recipe. Maybe I copied wrong all those years ago, but I only use 1/4 c of oil, not 1/2 c.

Donna: My cookie book recipe calls for 1/2 cup

Me: I’ve never made crinkles.

Donna: (Photo of crinkle recipe in cook book) Some batches are better than others, don’t know why.

Donna: WHAT!!??

Susan: Try using 1/4 cup of oil!

Me: Never. Mare always made them so I never did. Sara makes them now, so I don’t!

Donna: I will because sometimes the dough feels soft, even after having been in fridge overnight.

Donna: Good for you Denise.

Susan: I made some tonight and rolled them in granulated sugar because I felt they would be too delicate to transport if I used confectioners sugar. They reminded me of those chocolate Archway cookies.

(Archway is a brand of cookies which were sold in the store my father managed)

Donna: And they are yummy! The Archway cookies. Remember the guy that rented the garage from dad?

Susan; Yes. And he was reported to the police by a busybody neighbor who thought it was illegal or some sort of Mafia activity.

Donna: Seriously? I don’t remember that, funny.

Susan: True. Because the delivery truck came at night. I remember the police coming to the house to talk to Dad. I’ll ask him on Friday. I’m going to take him up to the VA hospital.

Me: I remember “helping” George, the Archway man.

Donna: That’s his name, was trying to remember. Going to bed, will be in touch.

Sandy: Betty Crocker recipe online uses 1/2 cup. Tried to send link.

Sandy: Yes. Chief Payne asked Dad what was being delivered there. Dad asked him, ‘What do you think?’

Sandy: Dad told him if it was anything more he’d be driving a nicer car!

Donna: Too funny. Dad really does have a good sense of humor.

Crinnie: You’re baking @ 9:00 PM?

Susan: Yes!

Sandy: I was baking at 9 PM too last night. Tried a new lemon butter cookie. Tried to use a cookie press but it was a disaster so I rolled cookies out.

The discussion continued for the next week, although in between we talked about Mom’s skin tear, Dad’s appointment, the aprons my sister Donna made us, and the truck my brother-in-law drives for work. Then, two weeks later we got this message from Susan:

You know the old rule – always be sure you have all the ingredients before you start. Well, I ran out of vanilla so I added mint extract to the chocolate crinkles. Very yummy!

This just goes to prove that all the people who ever said the DiNoto girls never finish a conversation are wrong! It may take us weeks to circle back to our original topic, but we DO come co a conclusion. Eventually.