Interview your parents

When I was in ninth grade, a teacher assigned the class to interview someone older than us about their childhood, and write up the results. Being shy and lazy, I decided to interview my father, because I knew where to find him (upstairs).

I remember showing up with the absolute minimal effort: a scrap of paper and a pen, and no preparation whatsoever. He was very annoyed when I asked him to just sorta talk about his life, and he sent me off to do more preparation. Equally annoyed, I slunk off to write up a proper list of questions.

As so often happens with good assignments, I started off just trying to fulfill my minimum obligation, but discovered in the process that there was a lot I actually was curious about. I knew what his favorite holiday treats were, but what did he eat on normal days? What games did he play with his friends after school? Who were his friends, and why? Was there anyone he was scared of? What did his parents expect from him? Did he get along with them? Did that change?

I ended up with a decent article, and I’m fairly sure my father enjoyed the evening. We didn’t get along well at the time, so that’s a stand-out memory in itself: Him relaxing and telling stories, and me listening attentively.

As I listened, I slowly realized something that hadn’t hit home to my self-centered teenage self: This is a real person, not just a rule-maker and the bringer of unfair consequences. This is someone who had a favorite candy and a favorite tree and a favorite uncle as a little boy, someone who got in trouble with his teachers and his parents. This is someone who once wasn’t in charge of anyone.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image by jbauer-fotographie 

Sincerely, Horace J. Schmiddlapp

The other day, my therapist said, “How are you? The last time we talked, your father had just died.”

And I answered, “Well . . . he’s still dead.”

This is totally a dad joke, and he would have laughed. Every time a celebrity died, he would rail against the 24-hour coverage on the news, as if there could be some update. Still dead! And I’m finding myself doing more and more things in tribute to him. If you care to play along, here are some things you could do in tribute to my father:

1.Sign something ‘Horace J. Schmiddlapp’. I forget how this first got started. I think he got tired of having to sign endless, useless permission slips for his eight children, so he started signing them ‘Horace J. Schmiddlapp’, and no one ever questioned it. Now that we’re going over legal documents and working through thorny issues of his estate, we’re glad he only took it that far.

2. Bring fancy cookies to the people who work at the post office and bank. This was a recent development, but apparently he used to do this every Christmas. I was amazed to hear it. When I was growing up, he cultivated a reputation as a curmudgeon. I guess it goes to show: Just because you used to be one way, doesn’t mean you can’t start bringing people cookies.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Words about death

We buried my father a few weeks ago. He and my mother had bought plain Trappist coffins for themselves years ago, to spare us children the trouble. But my father’s house, even though it had many rooms, was short on space, because it was so full of books — books to sell, books to read, books to just . . . have. And the coffins were also full of books. Books everywhere. Think of all those words, words, words.

Some years ago, when my sister lived there for a while, her little son took a marker and scribbled on the side of the casket, as kids do. I think he must have been pre-literate, because it almost looks like a letter, but maybe not. Who knows what he was trying to write. Whatever intentions the child had went down into the grave with my father’s body.

If this sounds grim, I’m telling it wrong. We all thought it was hilarious. That’s something my father would say: “You’ll go to your grave not knowing,” with a satisfied wiggle of his eyebrows. He loved having a secret, and he loved having a joke. And he loved talking about death.

At the cemetery the rain dripped off my hood and onto my virus mask, down my rain jacket, off the lame bunch of flowers I had bought at the supermarket, because I didn’t know what else to do. So lame.

When my father died, I had to ask my friends how I was supposed to respond to people who had sent Mass cards. I wanted to know if it was all right to thank them via email, or if I needed to send out paper cards of thanks. The part of my mind that wasn’t crying for my father was fascinated by the flourishing of social problems that sprung up overnight surrounding his death.

If someone I don’t know expressed sympathy on Twitter, was it weird to “like” their sympathy? Would it be offensive to tell a mutual friend of my brother that he probably wasn’t ready to receive any casseroles? I was afraid I’d have to come up with something to say at the burial, and I didn’t know what to say.

Was it okay to tell a little joke as the coffin was lowered into the grave? I could hardly help myself, so I whispered it to my husband, who laughed; and then I worried that the laugh might have been caught on the livestream that my brother’s girlfriend was sending to my siblings who couldn’t be there because of the virus.

It occurred to me, nobody knows how to do this. Nobody knows what to say or how to act. This is true any time anyone dies, because there is nothing more unknowable than death. How we love to talk about death. But the ones who can still talk are the only ones who don’t know what they’re talking about.

The only people who understand what it means are, by definition, not telling! So sue me, this makes me laugh, and I know my father would find it funny, too. He spent his whole life talking about death. I wonder what he thinks now.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

My father, Phillip Prever, 1942-2020

My father died shortly before midnight on Thursday. His heart was so worn out. A few hours before, he had been packing up books to send out for delivery. After that, my brother heard him praying, and decided to check on him later, not wanting to interrupt. Then my father lay down in his recliner, and then that was it. Or maybe I’ve gotten the details wrong. It’s been a long day. We are glad he didn’t have to die in a hospital, hooked up to the beeping machines he hated so much.

I used to call him on Wednesday evenings. Most of the time, I would say, “Hey, it’s Simmy.” He would say, “Hey, Sim. How’s it going?” and I would say, “Oh, fine. Are you in the middle of anything?” and he would say, “Nahhh, I’m just listening to some music.” The same conversation almost every time, but always different music.

The time before last when I called, it was Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy he was listening to. He had gotten his hands on a huge collection of LPs, and was listing them for sale one by one in his online store. For each record, he had to visually inspect it, and then listen to a few samples of both sides, to make sure it was playable. Then he could list them. But when he sampled the Bach, he didn’t pick the needle up, but let it play. 

We talked about Bach for a while, how he was a god. My father used to play that fantasy himself, at a snail’s pace, the pace of an amateur, amateur, “one who loves.” I do remember hearing him play parts of it, the halting notes filtering up through the wooden floorboards as we fell asleep. I imagined parts of it were corduroy, parts were wood, parts were curling gold. I told him he should keep the record for himself. He protested that it was a rare recording, and worth a considerable amount of money. But keep it! I insisted. Well, he said, maybe he would. 

Last time I called, the day before he died, he sounded worn out. He didn’t have much banter in him, and he didn’t want to talk much about the kids, which was unusual. He had seen my mother at the nursing home twice this week. Because of the virus, he couldn’t be in a room with her or feed her jellybeans every day like he used to, but the aides bundled her up and wheeled her onto the patio, and he talked to her six feet away, through a chain link fence. He said that he told her he loved her, and that she said “I love you” back to him, and that made him happy. He told me he loved everybody, and told me to send his love to everybody. I told him I loved him. He said he loved me, too. And then that was it. I still can’t believe that was it.

I looked for the Bach record online, and I can’t find it listed. I hope that’s because he decided to keep it, and I hope he listened one more time. 

 

 

 

You can get a dolphin picture anywhere

Do we let them know we see and delight in them as they are, for who they are? Or do we hustle past their actual selves in favor of a generic family photo op? God gave us specific children for a reason. One of our primary jobs as parents is to identify and encourage what is good in them – not what we wish they were like, but what is good in them right now. Our job is to find something delightful in them.

Read the rest of my latest in my new marriage and family life column for Parable Magazine.

Image by HAMID ELBAZ via Pexels (Creative Commons)

What’s for supper? Vol. 113: Just pretty much all the food. All of it.

First a prayer request: My father is in the hospital, waiting for heart surgery. He’ll have a triple bypass, or possibly a quadruple bypass, on Tuesday. We’re very glad this surgery is available, and have high hopes he’ll start feeling better than he has in a long time once he’s recovered; but of course the recovery is long and hard, especially since he is 75 and has other medical issues. He lives alone, close to where my mother’s nursing home, but an hour or more away from all his children, so the logistics are a little daunting.
Thank you!

And now the food! We ate so much ridiculously good food this past week:

SATURDAY

Gosh, this seems like so long ago. Saturday we went ice skating and came home to have hot chocolate, popcorn, and grilled ham and cheese. Corrie was very very enthusiastic about skating and won all the races.

I did a lot of skating with Benny, until the moment came when I leaned too hard on the skating frame and it collapsed. Le sigh.

***

SUNDAY
New Year’s Eve. We pretty much ate all the food that is available to the known universe. 

Some friends sent a huge, spectacular hamper packed with luxurious treats, so we hauled out all the various tea sets you accumulate when you have eight daughters, and had a sort of rolling English tea party. Tragically, I forgot to take pictures of my own, but you must take my word for it that it was fancy beyond all reason:

If you don’t have extraordinarily generous friends who send you luxury hampers, I recommend getting some right away.

While everyone continued feasting and being fancy, my husband casually strolled into the kitchen to prepare, you know, a little sauteed scallops topped with shredded duck and Hollandaise sauce.This photo miserably fails to capture how rich and sumptuous this dish is.

If you don’t have a husband who likes to casually stroll into the kitchen and make your dreams come true, I recommend getting one right away.

This dish is not an obvious combination of flavors, but it makes so much sense once you’re shoveling it into your mouth.I thought duck would be more or less like dark turkey meat, but it’s really almost closer to lamb. So good. A wonderful meal for a special treat. (Aldi has both duck and scallops on sale every so often!)

And now the sushi! Yes, we had a sushi party on the same day as our English tea and our duckstravaganza. It made sense at the time.

First, I bought good rice and several packages of nori, soy sauce, rice vinegar, wasabi, pickled ginger, a little jar of roe, tuna steaks that were frozen at sea, some seared and seasoned tuna, canned salmon for the sissies, fake crab legs, toasted sesame seeds, avocados, mangos, carrots, cucumbers, and chop sticks, which we forgot to use.

I bought a sack of Nishiki rice, which is just gorgeous, like mother of pearl. It is expensive, but definitely worth it for a treat. I used the sushi rice recipe in this post (after skimming, with growing horror, through numerous other recipes that discussed whether it was more auspicious to rinse the rice 54 or 128 times before cooking), except I didn’t use quite that much salt. I cooked six cups of raw rice in the Instant Pot, which makes good sticky rice.

While the rice was cooking, I peeled the carrots into strips and pickled them, and we stirred some hot sauce into some mayo, and sliced the tuna as thin as I could, and the kids helped prep the avocados, mangoes, and cucumbers. It was all so lovely.

Now that I have ramekins, I use them all the time. Ramekins!

When the rice was done, I carefully sprinkled the vinegar mixture over it (I sextupled the recipe, but didn’t need that much) and then Benny’s moment of glory came: She used her special gold lace fan to vigorously fan the rice while I carefully turned it:

I guess you fan it to evaporate the vinegar, so the rice takes on the flavor without getting mushy. It worked!

We couldn’t find the rolling mat, so we opted for sushi cones, where you break a panel of nori in half, set the rice and fillings on one side, and roll it up diagonally. It took a while to get the hang of it, and they were not dainty, but on the other hand, NOM NOM NOM NOM NOM.

We kept the rice covered while everyone took turns building their sushi cones.  A few variations:

It was fantastic. Just about everyone found some combination to their liking. Some of the kids skipped the nori altogether, and made deconstructed sushi; some of them just used rice and vegetables; some of them (okay, me) just parked themselves in front of the tray and systematically worked through eleven different combinations.

We’re doing this every New Year’s Eve from now on. What ingredients would you add?

***

MONDAY
Birthday! Baby New Year turned twelve and requested calzones. 

To make twelve calzones, I used three balls pizza dough divided into fourths, then made the cheese filling (this was more than enough):

32 oz ricotta
3-4 cups shredded mozzarella
3/4 cup parmesan
1 Tbs garlic powder
2 tsp oregano

1 tsp salt

I stretched the dough portions into the size of small plates, then added a ball of cheese mixture, plus whatever fillings were requested. I folded the dough over and pinched the ends tightly shut, then pressed the calzone to spread out the filling evenly.

We greased two baking trays with shortening and sprinkled them with corn meal, laid the calzones on (with a few inches in between, as they puff up), and brushed the with egg yolk beaten with a little water.

I baked them at 450 for — okay, I don’t remember how long. Maybe 15 minutes?

 

Then we served them with ramekins (ramekins!) of hot marinara sauce for dipping.

We made this one-bowl chocolate cake recipe. I didn’t taste it, as chocolate is a huge migraine trigger, but it looked pretty good. Decorations courtesy of the 90% off shelf after Halloween. I’m a saver.

We made chocolate frosting with a recipe on the side of the cocoa powder can. I think it was just shortening (we had run out of butter!), chocolate, and powdered sugar.

My son took a few pictures of his sister blowing out her candles, and then Google helpfully and spontaneously merged them into this horrifying glimpse into the spirit realm of birthdays:

I don’t want to know what that creature wished for.

***

TUESDAY
Chicken enchiladas and beans and rice

One of the college girls offered to make chicken enchiladas before she flies away again. They were so good. She used boneless chicken thighs with Pioneer Woman’s recipe,   and made thirty nice enchilada longbois, some red and some green.

I made some quickie beans and rice. Cooked up a few cups of rice and added a can of black beans and a can of chili kidney beans, drained, a can of Ro-Tel tomatoes, some jarred jalapenos, and a bunch of cumin, chili powder, and salt.

***

WEDNESDAY
Pork ramen

We just had this, but I like it. I browned up some boneless pork ribs in olive oil, then sliced them thin, and then I cooked up some frozen stir fry veggies in the pork pan. I made a dozen or so soft-boiled eggs in the Instant Pot. The trick is to do a quick release after cooking, then dunk them in ice water, and then shells slide right off, almost in one piece. Not necessarily easier than using the stove, but a good trick if the stove is in use or if you really want unblemished whites.

 

I served a big pot of cheap ramen and let people choose pork, veggies, and eggs, plus sesame seeds, hot sauce, soy sauce, and chopped scallions.

Do you make fancy ramen? What do you add? I like this meal, but would like some more variety in the add-ins.

***

THURSDAY
French toast?

I am not sure. We had a pretty good storm going, and school was cancelled, but we got the news in the morning that my dad was going to need heart surgery, and was going to meet with the surgeons on this day.

So Damien and I rolled slowly north through the storm to the hospital while the kids managed at home. We had a good visit (the only thing my father requested was The Odyssey, Fagles translation) and I like the surgeon.

We thought we’d have to spend the night, but the snow slowed down toward evening, so we pushed ahead to get home, stopping only for Five Guys, because where else would you go on your way home from a visit to the cardiology wing?

I know this isn’t the popular opinion, but while their fries were quite good, I thought the burgers were just okay. The meat was kind of mealy, and the buns were just too greasy to be enjoyable. Huge portions, though. You can see that I am not complaining.

Then we trundled the rest of the way home through the last of the storm, and Damien installed me on the couch with a lot of red wine and The Big Lebowski. 

***

FRIDAY
I think we are having beef stew.

We’ll say an extra decade of the rosary because it’s Friday, but I have this big hunk of beef going unheeded in the fridge, and it has been quite a week.

QUITE A WEEK. Here is a picture of my dad from this summer, talking (possibly about the Declaration of Independence) with my brother Joe:

My father’s name is Phil, if you’d care to mention him in your prayers! Thank you.

Podcast 22: My father’s Six Day War

In today’s podcast, I interview my father, Phil Prever, about living through the Six Day War fifty years ago.

He and my mother and my two oldest sisters in Jerusalem in 1967. He was half a block from the border with Jordan when the radio suddenly started repeating, “The window is open. The window is open.” Half the people in the office abruptly got up and left. He realized it was code, and the war had begun.

Hear the interview to find out what my parents were doing in Israel in the first place,
what was the one Hebrew word he learned right away,
what made him realize the war had broken out, and what it was like as it happened,
what “The window is open” means,
whether he thinks there were actually angels fighting with the Israeli pilots
and what was the city like after the fighting was over.

Here is a recording of the song he mentions, “Jerusalem of Gold, written in 1967 and played everywhere on the radio after the war was over:

Days with my father

When I was growing up, everybody else’s father would happily (or so I thought) camp overnight outside K-mart to make sure their kids got one of the few remaining Cabbage Patch Kids in town. They would give them the best presents: Game Boys, Simon Says games, and of course the Barbie Dream House, with elevator and real bubbling hot tub. We never got any of these things.

Instead, my father gave us experiences. It took me a while to realize this was a conscious decision; and it took me even longer to realize what a great one it was. He would spend days and weeks planning out trips, making reservations, calling ahead to make sure everything was what he thought it would be, and of course parking in a safe place and then heading out first by himself to “reconnoiter.”

We would set out on long, long excursions with nothing but a few metal canteens of water and several packets of sugar wafer cookies. But when we got there, it was always something amazing.  And, unlike all those cruddy toys I wanted so much, they are something I still have, in my memory. In no particular order, here are a few of the gifts my father gave us:

PIC Alpine Slides
PIC St. Gaudens

PIC Polar Caves
PIC Fenway Park
PIC Queechee Gorge
PIC Peaks Island Ferry

PIC Hamlet
PIC Isabella Stewart Gardner
PIC Rollins Chapel concert
PIC The Cloisters

PIC Hood Museum
PIC Museum of Modern Art
PIC Mt. Ascutney

PIC Metropolitan Opera

PIC Fairbanks Museum
PIC Midsummer Night’s Dream

PIC Coney Island Nathan’s
PIC Covered bridge
PIC Big Apple Circus
PIC Hopkin’s Center Symphony
PIC Lake Sunappee seaplane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy father’s day, Abba! Thanks for all the days.

Espressivo

(photo source)

Glenn Gould is the second person I ever heard who plays Bach properly.  The first one is my father, who is not a very good pianist.

My father has the ear of a great musician.  He takes orchestral scores to bed as a little night reading.  Haydn eludes me, but his music brings my father to tears.  Once, when he was striving to explain sonata form, I coolly answered that I’d rather let the music just wash over me, instead of wrecking the mood by overthinking it.  By the look he gave me, I think he heard me say something like,  “I prefer to let small children be mutilated by elephants, rather than harsh my buzz.”

The radio always played classical music as I was growing up, and the awkward, melancholy voice of Peter Fox Smith was the sound of Saturday afternoon at our house.  We didn’t learn table manners or social skills, but we knew how to behave at a concert, and sneered mercilessly at the dolts who clapped between movements.

We drove 45 minutes in a snowstorm to hear Sally Pinkas play (stopping only when we skidded and rear-ended another driver, who turned out to be the local choir director), and once hauled the old red minivan four hours to watch The Marriage of Figaro at the Met.  We pulled over to the shoulder at the outskirts of the city, hung sheets on the car windows, and changed into our fanciest dresses (and were appalled to see other opera lovers show up in jeans).

But the best music lesson I had was at night, when the sounds of my father’s upright piano floated up through the floorboards of our bedroom.  He often played Bach at night.  He would play the same fugues and partitas over and over again, and he never got any better at them — his fingers just wouldn’t perform what his mind was hearing.  So what I heard as I fell asleep was a halting, passionate, pleadingly tender rendition of these gorgeous melodies — all largo, grave, and always con espressivo — never in the prestissimo that Bach directed.

I remember first learning that some people are emotionally repelled by the music of Bach, and hear nothing but a dazzlingly intricate array of sound, mathematical, impersonal, elegant and impenetrible.  I was dumbfounded.  My father, with his meager technical skills, laid Bach out bare.  Again and again, struggling to pefect an unusual chord, he would string it out, one note at a time, five or six or seven times in a row.  Occasionally, to our glee, he would call out, “Yahhhhh . . . ” in the note he was trying to find – as if his lost fingers would hearken to him and realize which piano key they were aching for.

So to me, Bach sounds like struggle,  longing, and tireless devotion.  That is still how I hear Bach, even when some hotshot virtuoso zips over the keyboard in the time key that Bach called for.   When I discovered that Glenn Gould is known for slowing Bach down, for drawing out the tempo and turning those breakneck intricacies into vulnerable or exultant songs of the human heart, then it sounded like the real Bach to me.  In fact, Bach sounds like Music to me — like the heart, the tendons, the  inner workings of music.  My other cherished composers – Brahms, Schubert, Mahler – wouldn’t have anything to say if Bach hadn’t said it first, somehow cocooned in a code of speed and density.

I am grateful to Glenn Gould for revealing the heartbreaking beauty of Bach, and I’m grateful to my father for revealing his unburnished talent to his family.  From him came music.  A clever teacher can produce clever students; but, in music as in all other things, only love begets love.