Lessons from Grandma

My beloved Grandma passed away last month.  I have struggled to find the time to appropriately grieve with the near-constant distractions provided by an active 2 year old, but I have been surprised by how much her death feels like the cliched “ending of an era.”  I know this sounds strange, as all death is an end of some kind, but I’m starting to learn that there are many shades of “endings.”  When my dear friend passed away several years ago, I mourned for all that would no longer be  – the loss of future memories.  But with Grandma’s death, I mourn for all of the memories of her life that I failed to capture, and her experience-forged perspective.

This feeling may be heightened because Grandma had been my last grandparent and with her passing, I feel like I have lost my connection to her entire generation.  A generation that has seen such sweeping changes in technology, medicine, civil rights and popular culture.  A generation that experienced World War II, a conflict that is hard for me to comprehend – the horror of the concentration camps, the sheer number of deaths, and the wide impact on civilian day-to-day life.  Together, these events shaped my Grandma’s personality into the stereotypical grandmother, a woman who was fiercely supportive of her family and who always had baked goods waiting.

My Grandma and Grandpop were part of a large, closely knit family so holiday gatherings were always overwhelming affairs, crowded with aunts, uncles and cousins.  These parties were nearly always intense, but there was also a special feeling of “belonging,” that came from being surrounded by people who knew you and where you came from, and would always support you.  I am grateful for having experienced this, especially as the decline of defined benefit pensions, and the resulting increase in career-driven mobility has made it unlikely that our children will be able to.

All of my grandparents were characterized by a strong work-ethic and extreme thrift.  In our ignorance, we grand kids often found the latter amusing like Grandma’s uncanny ability to “win” couch-side on “Price is Right” or Nana’s extension of sheet life by splitting them lengthwise and resewing them with the lesser-worn outsides on the inside.  I am grateful for their example though and wish young people could see more of their perspective, especially when I see articles like this that describe how our current teens want more things, but are less willing to work to earn them.

During my last few visits with Grandma, she showed me the photos albums from when she was a young woman.  I was struck by how carefree and happy she looked, especially in my favorite series of photos depicting their outings to a local island park.  This is particularly remarkable to me because I imagine that if I compared our lives at the same age, I would have had far more discretionary time, money and opportunities, yet not been so happy.  It is these pictures and their lesson – to fully enjoy the best moments in life – that I hope I will always remember when I think of Grandma.




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My Favorite Things: Herbal Tea Edition

Just another quick “my favorite things” post.

As I have been pregnant or breastfeeding for a significant portion of the last three years, I have explored a lot of herbal teas in an attempt to create non-caffeinated versions of my sanity-saving “coffee breaks.”  My absolute favorite is Celestial Seasonings Bengal Spice Herbal Tea.  It is deliciously spicy, and remarkably sweet, even without honey.  I prefer mine with a little milk though — a habit picked up from a British post-doc in graduate school.

There have been countless late afternoons and evenings where I have been surprised by how calming a simple cup of tea can be.  I suspect some of this effect is from the familiar ritual of preparing and enjoying tea, as well as the sense of taking a few minutes for oneself, even if that feeling is perhaps a bit delusional.

The only downside to Bengal Spice Herbal Tea is that it can be difficult to locate in stores.  Luckily, Celestial Seasonings has an online tool to help you locate it near you (note:  this website seemed to be experiencing some technical errors at the time of writing this).  Only my local Wal-marts, rather than any of the grocery stores or Target, carry Bengal Spice Herbal Tea.

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Coco-Banana-Nut Steel Cut Oatmeal

I again need to apologize for my long blog hiatus.  However, I have a wonderful excuse.  I am pregnant (yeah!) but I experienced significantly more morning sickness this time (boo!) which left me functioning at sub-optimum levels for several months.  To ease my way back into the habit of blogging, I’m planning on doing a series of quick posts on some of my current favorite things – one of which is Coco-Banana-Nut Steel Cut Oatmeal.  I developed this recipe a year or two ago, jointly inspired by Banana-Walnut Slow Cooker Steel Cut Oatmeal (America’s Test Kitchen, Slow Cooker Revolution) and Banana Nut Bread (Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything).  The latter is responsible for the unusual addition of coconut.  I’m currently loving this breakfast though because it is amazingly satisfying for a long morning, and I like to imagine that the bananas improve the sleep-depriving nocturnal leg cramps that seem to be one of my special pregnancy blessings.  I have also been surprised at how well this breakfast stores and reheats, which helps when you need a quick meal.  This recipe makes about three servings.

Coco-Banana-Nut Steel Cut Oatmeal

  • a handful of nuts
  • 1/2 Tbsp butter
  • 2/3 cup steel-cut oats (honest steel-cut oats, be careful NOT to buy “quick-cooking” or otherwise modified steel-cut oats)
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 ripe banana
  • a few Tbsp of flaked coconut
  • sweetener of choice (caramel sundae sauce, brown sugar, maple syrup, etc.)
  • milk or cream
  1. Put nuts in a single layer in your pan and toast, stirring often, over medium-high heat for just a few minutes or until fragrant.  Pour off into a heat-resistant bowl.  It is better to under-toast, than to burn them.  Omit this step if you are in a hurry.  Peel and mash banana.
  2. Add butter and steel-cut oats to the hot pan.  Stir and toast over medium-high heat for a minute or two or until fragrant.
  3. Add water.  Stir and bring to a simmer.  Cook for about 20 minutes or until nearly done.  Note:  I’m not sure I’ve ever really watched the clock, so this is a only a very rough approximation of timing.
  4. Add mashed banana and coconut, and cook for a few more minutes.
  5. Serve and garnish as desired with preferred sweetener, toasted nuts, and cream or milk.  Store toasted nuts and oatmeal separately for leftovers.
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Make new friends, but keep the old.

“Make new friends, but keep the old.  One is silver, and the other gold.”

These words, the first line of a popular Girl Scouts song, have been popping up in my thoughts this week.  As I have recently relocated, I have embarked on a quest to make new friends, joining some local clubs and organizations.  I look forward to developing close relationships with some of the people I have met, but I find myself particularly grateful for my “old” friends right now.  We were fortunate in being able to get together with several old friends over the extended Thanksgiving holiday, which reminded me of how special these relationships are.  There is nothing quite so relaxing and comforting as spending time with people who have known you, your mistakes, your struggles, and your triumphs, for decades.  And who continue to love and support you.

Over the years, I have read quite a few articles discussing the proven benefits of friendships to women, but I’m afraid I didn’t have time to do a lot of research on the topic.  If you are interested, check out this summary article from the New York Times, written in 2009.  If you are even more interested, consider picking up The Girls from Ames, which explores the nearly fifty-year friendship between ten girls from Ames, IA.  While I found the personal stories of the girls somewhat interesting, I was fascinated by all of the references to studies about women and friendship, as well as the illustration of the natural dynamics and workings of such a complex and sustained friendship.  For example, in general, the relationships between the girls generally suffered while most had young children and were establishing their careers, but rebounded as money and time became more available.

The holidays are also a great opportunity to reconnect with old friends.  And if you’ve lost touch, you may be able to find their contact information through internet searches and databases.  Give it a try!


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Comforting Rituals

For as long as I can remember, my parents have started each day with a cup of coffee.  I suspected that coffee would be addictive for me as well, so I intentionally avoided it for awhile.  But by the time I was fully immersed in graduate school, I too had a daily habit.  For me, the appeal is less about the actual coffee, and much more about the transitional ritual of making coffee, preparing your cup, and sipping the warm, caffeinated concoction.   My brother introduced me to a french press several years ago, which not only makes amazing coffee, but also heightens this ritual as it requires more physical manipulation than just pushing the button on a coffee maker.

Coffee also has a lot of comfortable and self-indulgent associations for me – memories of childhood mornings and family celebrations, of catching up with friends over coffee, and this luxurious sense of taking a few minutes for oneself.  This is not entirely unique to coffee though.  I have similar feelings about tea, especially after having shared numerous tea breaks with a British colleague in graduate school.  I still have a cup of tea most afternoons to combat stress or hunger.

On a related note, one of my favorite parenting resources is I Love You Rituals by Dr. Becky Bailey, which contains interactive nursery rhymes and games or rituals, that you can do with your child to help establish and maintain a strong connection.  These are particularly helpful during times of transition such as moving or a new sibling, just like coffee helps me fully wake up from sleeping.

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Election Day!

I voted today!  And I have to sheepishly admit that it was my first time to do so.  I was pleasantly surprised that it was a painless process with no waiting.  The worst part was trying to keep a hold of my ball-obsessed two year old who had spied the tempting numerous bags of balls on the walls of the elementary gym that was my polling location.

I’m not sure exactly what finally made me vote, although I suspect part of it has to do with getting older and becoming a mother.  But most importantly, it seems like America is at a crossroads and I really believe that the outcome of this election may be critical to what our children’s America will look like.  It is pretty amazing that we live in a country that allows each individual to exercise their right and express their opinion as to what direction America’s policies should go.  And an awesome gratimood.

If you haven’t voted yet, there is still time today!  If you need information, visit http://www.vote411.org or call 1-800-OUR-VOTE.

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Love and Loss

Today would have been the 38th birthday of my dear friend, Karis, had she not succumbed to cancer several years ago.  She was diagnosed with aggressive leukemia eighteen months into our unexpected and surprisingly deep friendship, and passed away a mere twelve months later.   I initially raged at the universe for Karis’s death.  It seemed like such a cruel taunt to have been able to experience such a wonderful friendship, only to have it torn away from me.  My raw grief has mostly faded now, and I realized while writing this that I have known Karis longer as a memory than I knew her when she was still alive.  With that time and reflection, my emotions have mellowed and although I wish that we could have had a longer friendship, I am grateful for having known her at all, even with the pain that her death brought me.  It is hard to know how to balance reliving memories with being present in the current day, but today, on her birthday, it seems appropriate to celebrate Karis and our friendship.

Six years ago, I met Karis at a lunch scheduled to allow her to further explore our research laboratory before she joined as a fellow graduate student.  Along with another colleague, we discussed lab projects, policies and politics, as well as more personal topics such as Karis’s unusual antique wedding ring.  She wore cropped pants, a ruffled and patterned blouse, and heeled shoes – all items that I would come to recognize as part of her trademark style.  Two hours later, as I copied scientific articles for her to peruse, she looked me in the eye and told me that she just knew that we were going to be good friends.

We ended up becoming the best of friends.  When Karis joined the lab, we had work spaces across from each other so that we could talk as we worked, or for serious discussions, swivel our chairs and talk face to face.   And we talked a lot!  We had very different backgrounds, so I taught her about lab protocols, graduate student life, country music and Southern customs.  She taught me about the importance of dressing well, motherhood, wine appreciation, and Hallmark ornaments.  Despite our differences, there were incredible parallels between us as well.   We had similar names and appearances, and we even both had twelve toenails.  One memorable day, we wore the exact same sweater without even knowing that the other one owned it.  Our most defining shared trait was our enthusiasm for nearly anything – holidays, charity fundraising, lab decorating, professional conferences, food, cutting-edge genomic techniques, fashion, etc.  One year for Christmas, we planned caroling of the neighboring research laboratories, bought small research-related ornaments for everyone in our lab, attended the downtown Christmas parade, and planned (with the help of numerous spreadsheets) a cookie baking “extravaganza” projected to produce 38 dozen cookies.  Most importantly though, Karis and I shared a remarkable acceptance of each other’s weaknesses, and an appreciation of each other’s strengths.  We pushed each other past our comfort zones, and our mutual confidence blossomed as a result.

Four and a half years ago, we were working side-by-side, and our souls were celebrating our recent successful hosting of a fabulous bridal shower and Karis having just passed her qualifying exam.  Amidst this joy, Karis’s doctor called her and asked her to return to their office that afternoon.  She had gone in that morning because she was convinced that the extreme stress of the qualifying exam process had induced a stomach ulcer.  I had a terrible feeling about the urgency of the doctor’s concern and offered to give her a ride, as her car was in the shop.  She blew it off and scheduled an appointment for early the next morning, and planned to be slightly late to the eagerly anticipated Zoo lab outing the next day.

The next morning, I received a simple text with the words “no zoo,” followed by a devastating, although not altogether unexpected, phone call where she told me that she had cancer and an appointment with an oncologist that afternoon.  Within a week, she was hospitalized and receiving chemotherapy.  The details are not necessary here, as her struggle is likely familiar to so many others who fight this disease, and to those who are companions and observers of this combat.  I will simply say that Karis spent approximately nine months in the hospital, endured two bone marrow transplants, and battled cancer with every fiber of her being.

Throughout Karis’s struggle with leukemia, I constantly brainstormed ways to support Karis and her family.  I worked hard to ensure her research project continued, and that Karis felt like she was contributing to it.  I visited her nearly every day, sometimes for just a few minutes, or for overnight.  I vividly remember her hosting a Scrabble party in her hospital room where Karis cheerfully served snacks while wearing sterile gloves and a facemask.  I sent her notes and letters, and dropped off distracting movies and books.  One thrilling day, I arranged for the majority of our department to scramble around with large letters on the parking garage roof that was visible from her hospital room window, spelling out phrases of encouragement.  I cleaned up vomit and gave her sponge baths.  In short, I tried to pour myself into the void of her suffering, as if I could physically keep her safe through my own sacrifices.

And I watched her spirits fade and her prognosis deteriorate.  Finally, we were all told that the end was near.  I struggled to find truthful words of comfort to offer her and ended up telling her that I was there “to make the unbearable bearable.”  And to be truthful here, by this point in her suffering, death would be a release from the unrelenting pain, hopelessness and shattered dreams of the future.

Three and a half years ago, Karis passed away.  I was not able to be with her during her final hours, but a mutual friend was there, and she told an unresponsive Karis that I was on my way.  According to this friend, Karis’s breathing slowed and she calmed.  I choose to believe this story, as it underscores the unparalleled exchange of trust that was a foundation of our friendship.  I am confident that Karis knew that I would never abandon her, as the depth of my love had been illustrated, not through the good times, but more powerfully, through the worst of times.

Today, on her birthday, I remember Karis before late-stage cancer – smiling, laughing and spreading joy.  And I think about how grateful I am to have known her and our friendship.  Her illness was an intense, emotional and truly transformative experience.  I am more empathetic and tolerant, more appreciative of relationships, and more determined to make the most of every day, as we know not what comes tomorrow.  Overall, I am grateful for all that Karis’s life and death taught me about love and loss, which are perhaps, the most important and relevant emotions of our human existence.

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Drama. Period Drama.

PBS always provides excellent television programs but the period dramas produced over the last few years have been particularly spectacular, and I’ve listed some of my favorites below.  With a young child, I can not commit to watching a program at a specific time each week, so I take advantage of their video streaming and catch up later.  It is not unusual of me to watch a show ten or fifteen minutes at a time, while I fold a load of laundry or eat lunch, which is a great way to get a little gratimood.  Enjoy!


Downton Abbey

Masterpiece:  Upstairs, Downstairs (series reboot)

Call the Midwife

Masterpiece Mystery:  Sherlock (ok, more a contemporary mystery than a period drama, but excellent nonetheless)

Lark Rise to Candleford

Note:  Not all of these are currently available on streaming, but as of 10/24/12, Seasons 1-2 of Masterpeice:  Upstairs, Downstairs and Season 1 of Call the Midwife are available (once the episode airs).  Downton Abbey & Lark Rise to Candleford are sometimes available via Netflix or Amazon Prime streaming.

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The Chaperone

This summer, I read and loved The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty.  The plot is based on the true detail that an unrelated thirty-six year old housewife chaperoned a rebellious fifteen year old Louise Brooks in New York City in the summer of 1922.  As very little is known about the chaperone, the author fleshes out the character, Cora Carlisle, providing a background resulting in complicated yet believable motivations.

I really loved this portrayal of an intergenerational relationship.  Early in the book, Cora has a discussion with one of her peers who bemoans about her daughter’s generation in this excerpt:

“Something is wrong with this new generation.  They don’t care about anything important.  When we were young, we wanted the vote.  We wanted social reform.  Girls today just want to…walk around practically naked so they can be stared at.”

It made me chuckle, as I imagine that a modern-day Jane Austen might declare that exasperation with younger generations is a “truth universally acknowledged.”

Later, in that same conversation, Cora’s friend shares her enthusiasm for joining the Ku Klux Klan on the basis of their shared interest in “serious women’s interests.”   The author then discusses how an elderly Cora tries to explain this to a shocked and horrified grandneice by saying:

“…it was foolish to assume that had you lived at the same time, you wouldn’t be guilty of the same ignorance, unable to reason your way out…To someone who grows up by the stockyards, that smell just smells like air.  You don’t know what a younger person might someday think of you, and whatever stench we still breathe in without noticing.”

Let me be clear that I am in no way defending the Ku Klux Klan, but propose that we should be cautious in judging our elders without considering how radically cultural climates may change over several decades.

This entire exchange occurs within the first chapter and does a great job of establishing a strong theme of tolerance.   Throughout the novel, Cora gradually learns to accept and tolerate the things that she cannot change about her life, and to be creative and open-minded as she makes decisions to improve her life.  Cora’s experiences in New York and her interactions with Louise Brooks have a substantial impact on this process.

Finally, the author incorporated into her plot some lesser known American history such as the Orphan Train Movement, the internment of Germans during World War I, and Shuffle Along, the first successful African-American musical.

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The Wings of (Holiday) Anticipation

“I can’t help flying up on the wings of anticipation. It’s as glorious as soaring through a sunset.” -Anne Shirley, in Anne of Avonlea (1987 movie)

It was cooler and overcast all last weekend, and for the first time this year, it felt like fall.  As I savored my pumpkin spice latte, my inner self started to thrill in anticipation of the coming extended holiday season.  In addition to Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, we have numerous family birthdays to celebrate.  All of these events seem particularly special this year, as if steeped in a sense of rebirth, perhaps due to our recent relocation closer to family or my son’s increasing awareness.

As much as I love going a bit overboard for holidays and special events, I recognize that this excess is not consistent with the goals for my family or the lessons I want to teach my son.  I have to work at keeping things simpler, and trying to focus on the truly important things, like love and family, rather than the oh-so-tempting material trappings.  How do you keep this balance?



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