Baking with Sam

Three years ago today, at about this time, I got the phone call from my sister Caroline telling me our father had passed away. Last year I joined a local memoir writing group and I have been sharing pieces about my family cookie bake. This is the piece I shared this month and now I share it with you. Dad – not a day goes by that I don’t miss you or think of some piece of advice you gave me. Thank you for continuing to spark laughter.

Kolachki

According to my sister Caroline, also known in my family as Crinnie, my father is responsible for introducing kolachki to our family. Dad discovered kolachki at a church potluck supper. He loved church suppers because of the variety found in the many dishes. I don’t remember how old I was the first time I heard him say, “If you go to a church potluck and leave hungry, it’s your own fault Denise.” The kolachki Dad first encountered were most likely served on a cookie platter after a funeral. Crinnie remembers Dad coming home and telling Mom he had discovered a new cookie for her to make.

Like many cookies, there are multiple variations of kolachki from different counties in central Europe. Some are made with cream cheese dough but our family recipe uses yeast. Polish kolachki are often filled with fruit but we make our kolachki filled with nuts and honey, like Hungarian recipes.

Kolachki dough is flaky and light. You can cut the dough in diamonds and wrap the corners over the filling (our usual method) or you can make a log of the dough and nut filling and cut the cookie slices. Whatever method you use, it is important not to overstuff the cookies or the nut mixture will cause the dough to split open.

“Don’t be skimpy on the nuts – put more in,” Dad used to say as we added the filling for the kolachki.

“How many times have you made these?” Mom would reply with a frustrated sigh.

“You should be able to taste the nuts!”

“If you put too much filling in, they won’t stay closed. I’m telling you. I make these every year. You can taste the nuts.”

“Maybe if you pinch them harder…”

“I’m pinching them!”

These types of conversations happened with other cookies as well. As Chief Quality Control Professional, a title my brother-in-law Paul created for Dad, Dad became a self-proclaimed expert on topics such as the proper amount of dough needed to make a good crust for pecan tassies, the optimal amount of filling for the chocolate thumbprints, and the best consistency of oil cookies.

Dad was not present for the first decade of cookie baking. It wasn’t until our cookie bake moved to Crinnie’s house in 2002 that Dad decided to join the festivities. After years of consuming cookies, Dad was now going to become a baker. He showed up that first year with his big green apron, carried in Mom’s baking supplies, sat at the table and said, “Where’s the coffee Caroline?”

Dad’s baking skills took a back seat to his plumbing ability for a few years thanks to Crinnie’s kitchen sink. It’s not clear what the problem was, but the entries in our family cookie journal refer to Allen wrenches and trips to the hardware store as the cookies were baking.

Dad dropped Mom off and then went back home to get tools to work on Crinnie’s sink. Must be he fixed it because he spent the next 2 hours doing dishes. (2004)

Once again, Dad needed to fix Crinnie’s faucet. Didn’t this happen another year? (2006)

This year, baking was done in shifts so we could all take turns visiting Dad in the hospital. We all missed him. Paul asked who would wash the dishes! (2007)

Happy to have Dad back with us again this year. Dad asked Caroline about fixing her sink. Good thing she keeps an Allen wrench close at hand!

Dad enjoyed watching all the chaos that is our annual cookie bake. He would chuckle as “his girls” argued over whether the printed recipe was already doubled or if it required alteration. He rolled up his sleeves and helped roll cookie dough into balls whenever my arms got too tired to continue.

One of our collective favorite memories of cookie bake with Dad happened in 2011, the last year Mary Jane was alive for our annual celebration. Dad was pleased to have all six of his girls together for one more time. Instead of focusing on Mary Jane’s declining health, we embraced the holiday. Donna made new aprons for all of us, including Mom and Dad. Sandy brought us colorful Santa hats. Dad’s hat was green felt with red accents. He wore his hat and apron all day as we baked tray after tray of cookies.

Baking took a backseat as we paused to say farewell to Mary Jane in the late afternoon. Her energy was fading and she was facing a two-hour drive home. Dad escorted her out to her car where they embraced for a long time before loading the backseat with boxes of cookies.

Coming back into the house, Dad slumped in his chair and wiped the tears off his cheeks. All of us were crying, knowing Mary Jane would never be back for cookie bake again. We hugged and sniffled, passing the tissue box around the table. Eventually Dad left the table and went to the bathroom. He returned shaking with laughter instead of sobs. The rest of us stopped crying and looked at him with quizzical stares. It took him a few minutes to find his voice through the laughter and speak.

“All day long I thought there was something wrong with my hearing. I’ve been hearing ringing in my ear. Did you know the hat has a bell on it? I’ve been hearing that damn bell all day!”

Dad’s admission broke the spell for all of us and we joined him in the first of many laughs about that hat. He continued to joke about his hearing at each cookie bake thereafter, including the one we celebrated a month before he died in 2016. Dad’s Santa hat, as I call it, now sits on the Christmas decoration in the corner of Crinnie’s home office. We still laugh about this story every year when we argue among ourselves about the preferred amount of kolachki filling. No doubt, Dad would tell us to add more nuts.

An elderly man wearing a red and green elf hat and an elderly woman wearing a blue apron smile at the camera. He is seated at a table and she is standing. They are making cookies.
Dad with his hat, helping Mom with cookies. Photo courtesy of Sandy DiNoto.

Not Feeling the Need to Write

Today marks the one year anniversary of my father’s death. This is the fourth post I have started to write about him. Although there were probably nuggets of truth in each of them, none felt “right” to share. Some were funny, others were full of grief. Unfortunately, they didn’t express what I wanted to say in a manner which sounded authentic.

Just now I realized why that is the case. I was writing a post about Dad because I felt like it was something I “ought” to do. I was pressuring myself to come up with something new to say about him, to recognize and celebrate him on this day.

But, the reality is I have already written several good posts about him, if I may say so myself. I’ve told stories and shared lessons learned in these posts:

30 Days of Thanks Day 2 – Sam

Gratitude at the Kitchen Table

Seven Secrets of Success from Sam

30 Days of Thanks Day 24 – Sam and Dolly

Happy Father’s Day Sam!

30 Days of Thanks Day 11 – My Favorite Veteran (and Veterans Everywhere)

The Citrus Peeler

Being Number Six

And honestly, I really don’t want to write about Dad today. Sure, I will think about him all day. I’ll call Mom later. Most likely, I’ll get teary if the right song comes on my Spotify playlist.

I don’t want to write about him just because of the day. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to write today.

I want to write every day. I just don’t like being told what I need to write, or feeling like I “should” write something. It’s probably why I have never looked for or accepted a job where my only responsibility is to write.

I inherited that stubbornness from Dad. Maybe that is how I’ll honor him today. I’ll stomp my foot, cross my arms in defiance, and not do something “just because.” When I write about him next, it will be because I want to, because I have something new to say.

Thanks Dad, for teaching me that sometimes it’s OK to just do things my own way.

An older man sits in an old office chair. He is holding his hand next to his mouth, to project his voice as he yells an order. He is wearing a fishing hat an a white cooking apron over a plaid shirt and blue jeans.
Sam, barking orders at a family picnic. Photo – A. Conklin

 

 

A white peace lily flower stands amidst dark green leaves.

30 Days of Thanks Day 26: Flowers

I got back from my Thanksgiving holiday this afternoon. When I walked in my apartment, the first thing I saw was a new flower on my peace lily plant.

If you are unfamiliar with the story of my peace lily plant, and the significance of a new flower, I encourage you to read this post.

Coming home to a new flower felt like my sister and my father were greeting me as I returned from this past weekend. I smiled and offered a prayer of gratitude.

Then I managed to shove eight containers full of cookies in my freezer.

30 Days of Thanks Day 11: Veterans

Every year for November 11th, I have thanked veterans. I am appreciative of their sacrifice not just today, but every day. I am able to live independently because there have been men and women willing to serve my country in the armed forces.

Last year, I wrote about my favorite veteran, my father. In case you missed it the first time, you can find it here. I don’t have anything to add other than to say how much I miss Dad. I miss his laugh, his smile, his hugs, and his stories. It has been almost a year since I last saw him, and eleven months since his death.

Dad had great stories to share about his years in the Army. He spent time in Alaska and described the ship ride through the Pacific in vivid detail. Somewhere there is a photo Dad took of Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower visiting the troops. I like this photo of my Dad better.

Black and white image of a young white man in uniform. He is kneeling in snow, in front of an army building, holding a rifle to his shoulder.

Today I am grateful for Dad, for my uncles, cousins, brother-in-law, nephew, friends and everyone who has served in uniform. I appreciate your sacrifice and service. Thank you.

The Citrus Peeler

This past weekend I sobbed because of a citrus peeler.

You’re right. It really wasn’t the fault of the peeler. But the sobs snuck up on me when the peeler was in my hand, so it’s a convenient excuse.

Wait, you don’t know what a citrus peeler is?

A citrus peeler is a plastic tool used to help peel citrus fruits. I know, you got that from the name. It has a sharp cutting hook on one end that can be used to slice through the skin of an orange, or in my case yesterday a grapefruit. The other end is a thin, slightly curved, flat piece of plastic which can be used to peel a section of peel away from the fruit. You use the cutting edge to make slices down the sides of the fruit, then peel the sections away with the peeler.

A blue plastic citrus peeler.
My citrus peeler.

Do you need a citrus peeler to peel an orange or grapefruit? Of course not.

However, my father used to swear by his peeler. From the first time he brought one home around the time I was ten years old, he rarely peeled an orange without it. He enjoyed his citrus peeler so much, he bought an extra just in case his trusted peeler broke.

When I was a teenager, Dad would grab his citrus peeler and an orange at night when we sat on the couch to watch Jeopardy! together. We would share the orange while I shouted out answers, trying to beat the contestants. Sometimes, mouth full of fruit, I would frantically wave my hand at the television, moaning when I knew the answer but the contestants got it wrong. Dad would laugh and shake his head.

If you ever make it on the show Neecie, don’t bring any food.

Yesterday, I sat watching a movie, a half peeled grapefruit in my lap, sticky citrus peeler in my hand, and it hit me. I eat fruit this way because of my father. Without warning, the memories of shared snacks came at me.

Grief is sneaky like that. You can be perfectly calm, doing something mundane like peeling a grapefruit, and all of a sudden you find yourself unable to breathe because your insides are being twisted by a crushing vice. I feel as if it waits for you to delude yourself into thinking you’re managing. You’re in your routine, coping as best you can, not mired in overwhelming feelings of loss, and BAM! Like a coiled cobra, grief lashes out and strikes, the venom paralyzing you in a heartbeat.

Which is how I found myself crying over a grapefruit yesterday, holding a sticky citrus peeler. And once the floodgates opened, they didn’t close.

After Dad’s death in December, I knew eventually I would have a melt down. I thought it might happen on his birthday in January. When it didn’t, I thought maybe I’d break down when I next visited his grave. I never expected it to happen on a Sunday afternoon in March while I peeled a grapefruit.

I’m sure it will happen again. I wish I could say that it won’t. But grief doesn’t work in neat, predictable patterns. Next time it may be something other than the citrus peeler. I hope it is, because I’ve cried enough tears over that!