Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Cheerleaders

People come and go in our lives and for those of us in the people business, this can often occur at a rapid-fire pace. The older I get and the longer I work in said business; the more appreciation I hold for those who remain in my life after many years. Certain folks stand out and leave an indelible impression and among those are two of the greatest women I've ever had the distinct honor to count as friends: Barbara Reckard and Dotte White.

These two Wonderful Women of West Virginia are long-time best friends and the very definition of upstanding citizens. Former cheerleaders in high school, Barbara would go on to be a high-school teacher and Dotte would become a Magistrate Court judge. They also, along with their husbands, founded the Greenhouse Florist which is now growing by leaps and bounds in the hands of Barbara's daughter, Kaki. My friendship with Kaki has presented me with many gifts and two of the most treasured of those gifts is the friendships I would develop with these two Grande Dames.

Dotte is one terrific lady. When I was first getting to know her, I will admit that I was a tad intimidated. Hers is a family of lawyers and judges, and they tend to be imposing figures but my initial reactions to them were more about my own insecurities than their personalities. I would come to find that Dotte possessed a wicked wit and a completely engaging personality. Her laugh is infectious. Dotte has a fierce love for her family and friends. As we found ourselves at various functions hosted by her son Bruce or the Reckards, she and I decided that we would be "datemates" and get photographed together. To this day, our "couples photo" remains a staple at every function. Whenever Dotte is present, she is forever smiling and laughing and always a joy to be around.

Barbara would have a long-lasting impact on my life for various reasons. She was my History teacher in high school. Her Psychology class, however, was my absolute favorite during my high school years. I found myself utterly fascinated by her lectures.....although "lecture" sounds a bit highbrow for her always fascinating blend of humor and human interest. She knew how to capture our teenage wandering minds.....she could throw you by referring to Harvey, the invisible rabbit from the Jimmy Stewart film and then once she had your full attention; completely enlighten you with facts about psychology or human development. This class was legendary....everyone scrambled to attend. The standout characteristic of this class was the end of the semester parties. The Christmas party would pair us up and challenge each team to collect toys, clothes, etc. for needy kids. We would then host these kids at the Christmas Party. I'm not always up to every challenge but I went after this one like a man possessed. I called everyone I knew and went through every motion I could muster to find as many toys as I possibly could. I had all kinds of folks calling my exasperated but proud parents telling them what they'd found for me. The day of the party when we gave those kids their gifts was one of the greatest moments of any school year for me and one that had a profound impact on me for life. I believe my parents instilled that drive for helping others in me but Barbara Reckard crystallized it. I loved that class so much that I connived my way into the second semester as well. After repeatedly begging Barbara to let me do this, she could have said, "Please go away, you weird, obsessive kid". Instead, she let me be her teacher's assistant for a semester. I don't think I was a very good assistant but I did get to experience that class one more time. This time, we ended the semester spending the day with some physically challenged kids at Colin Anderson and once again the experience completely impacted me.....I would go on to make Colin Anderson my summer job for several years.

As important as Barbara was to me as a teacher, I never dreamt that one day she would become such a vital figure in my personal life as well. As my friendship with Kaki deepened, Barbara and her husband Jim would become friends as well and in time, they would treat me as a member of their own family. When we lost Jim to cancer several years back, I would try to look after Kaki and we would descend on Barbara's home to surround her with love the best way we knew how. It was during these days when I would truly see the vulnerable side of Barbara and it seemed disconcerting at first. Barb had held such a lofty position in my mind and now I was seeing her fully human and my heart just broke. I felt fiercely protective of her at that moment and have remained so. Over the years, Barbara has simply become more precious than ever to me. She is also like a second mother to me and I'm not alone...the entire Greenhouse Gang refers to her as "Maw" as she has become the den mother to us all. For Christmas this year, Barbara was gifted with her own Facebook page already filled with tributes from friends and former students. The outpouring of love to her is completely expected and yet, still utterly amazing. You deserve every bit of it, Maw.

Of course, there are food memories with Barbara and Dotte. Dotte hosted wonderful Easter dinners featuring her famous lamb dish. Barbara and Jim hosted the consummate Christmas Eve bash and those were a foodie's paradise. There were oysters and pate and food of every type, including the beef tongue that Jim kept challenging Jeffy and I to eat. My single best food memory with these two ladies is also one of my favorite memories, period: the Jekyll Island Club Sunday Brunch. Not too long after Keith and I moved to Jekyll Island, Georgia, there was one particular weekend when we had two sets of beloved friends come to visit. Karen Paul, our former Lafayette co-worker and her friend Larry came from Hilton Head and Barb and Dotte came to spend a long weekend at the Jekyll Island Club. Keith and I also had a roommate and co-worker named Annette who would become a lifelong friend. That Sunday, Barb and Dotte, Karen and Larry, Annette, Keith and I would join at this historic hotel for their famous Sunday Brunch. I was the only one at the table who knew everyone in attendance. The meal itself was fantastic. The Jekyll Island Brunch is, to this day, the best Sunday Brunch I've ever experienced. Every detail is perfect, every item is incredibly fresh and delicious and the choices are over-the-top. As we settled into this sumptious meal, I was also completely enjoying the company. It was like the most perfect mix of people you could put together and it happened completely by accident. I watched Barbara entertain the table with her always memorable stories and was delighted to see everyone having the best time. It was a truly delicious moment in every way.

The title of this post is not only a reference to Barb and Dot's high school cheerleading days but also to the fact that these two ladies remain two of our greatest cheerleaders in life. They are foremost in cheering and supporting all that they love and their beloved hometown of St. Marys, not to mention their families and friends have all reaped the benefits of it. I'm forever grateful for their continued presence in my life.

We love you, Barb and Dot.....Long May You Cheer!!

Monday, December 27, 2010

One Very Chill Christmas Day With A Twist

fThe big day started off as expected....... The trees lining the Lorentz's property were beautifully snow-covered on this white Christmas morning. The kids, decked to the nines, burst through their parent's door following church and were nearly over-the-top with anticipation. The aromas of their Dad cooking breakfast filled the kitchen. Sierra and Tanner had to manage a few bites of breakfast before the big moment. The rest of us savored the morning meal a bit more, to say the least....delicious country ham cooked in Worcestershire and a French Toast Bake with real maple syrup. The Lorentz's friend Steve Harrison taps local maple trees to create this amazing syrup.

The kids were let loose and they dove into the presents under the tree. As Keith, in Santa's hat, passed out the gifts, the paper was torn and tossed in the air as they delighted over their presents....Legos, Wii and DS games, Zubels and sewing kits, oh, my...... Sometimes, long pent-up anticipation breeds creativity as Tanner proved with his new Christmas song in the video....Hi Ho, The Mistletoe. The song is sweet in it's simplicity and when performed with his particular brand of enthusiasm, it was frequently hilarious. Check it out at the bottom of this post.

We moved on to coffee sipping and game playing and enjoying each other's company. I called Mom and following a melancholy morning of missing Dad, she had spent a nice afternoon with my sister and family friends and was in pretty good spirits. We shared a laugh and a couple of tears over the phone.....I realized she was holding up just fine.

Christmas dinner carried the twist as we decided we would forego the traditional choices and have some sensational seafood this year. Keith made up a traditional Caesar salad with fresh lemon, anchovy paste and homemade garlic croutons. Kim made a homemade version of Red Lobster's cheese biscuits...they were lighter, fluffier and better than the Real McCoy, as far as I was concerned. We munched on Shrimp Cocktail and bacon-wrapped scallops while Dave prepared the fantastic main dish: Ginormous Alaskan King Crab Legs. These bad boys were filled with delectable crab meat. It was a wonderful meal that flew(or swam) in the face of our traditional Christmas dinner. Fully sated, everyone moved to the living room for some post-meal relaxation. For those keeping score, I outdid myself carrying on Dad's tradition of wearing my food.....I managed to spill soda on my scallops and red wine on my sweater. In fact, the entire dining room probably required being hosed down after my grappling with the crab legs. If someone were looking closely at my sweater post-meal; they could quite possibly identify every course. Those interested in holiday gift ideas for me in 2011 should think about a holiday Haz-Mat suit to accompany the designer drool bucket.

After lunch, I went upstairs to call my sister. She was finally beginning to regroup and was happy to tell me about how her own relationship with Mom has healed over the past few months. When I returned, I expected the usual bout of Wii games, toy construction and lively conversation. I was struck by the silence as I entered the upstairs hallway. I looked down to an astoundingly wordless scene.....the kids played quietly and the adults, all of them, were asleep. It was a blessedly peaceful portrait of the family.....the family that naps together stays together, right? After the drama of the rest of this year, this was a much-appreciated scenario. After photographing them in repose, the kids smiled at me but stayed quiet. I walked down to the kitchen table and sat with Sierra as she silently demonstrated her sewing skills for me. I savored the moment.....quiet and reflective. I looked around the room and thought about how grateful I was for this family and for the peace my own family has found. I thought about Dad and all of the Christmas memories he worked so hard to create and I prayed that he found his own peace.

We would rally for the annual Winge Christmas Party that night. We were all still sated from the seafood, so we ate lightly. We brought a S'Mores dessert with Scooby Snacks and Kim and Dave brought deer sausage and cheddar cheese. I sampled the beef and noodle dish. It's a loud and boisterous scene, once again set in the taxi garage where the vintage Corvette the guys had been working on was in full display. Kids were running about playing basketball. Our branch of the family seemed a bit dazed amongst it all. This raucous scenario was quite the opposite of our serene scene earlier.

The kids went home with their grandparents and we retired back to Kim and Dave's. Recovering the chill feel of the day, we got comfy, popped in a DVD and Dave prepared the dessert we were too full to enjoy after dinner: Irish Cream Creme Brulee. After watching Dave torch the topping, K and I shared this silky goodness while settling in for a quiet and cozy evening.

I hope everyone's Christmas was happy and peaceful. Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Thoughts on Christmas Eve

As Christmas itself began to materialize, I found myself approaching the actual days with a mix of anticipation as well as trepidation. I was looking forward to the conclusion of the busiest retail days of the season as well as the treasured time with Keith's family. I was also dreading the first Christmas without Dad. On Christmas Eve last year, though, my mood was far more melancholy....I'd received several calls about the worsening state of my parent's well-being during an exhausting final day of retail madness and after arriving at our house, promptly set about to having a mini-breakdown before preparing to outrun the great Christmas Blizzard of '09. That year, my state of mind got a spectacular boost in the form of the Wonderful Winges, most especially Sierra and Tanner. This year, I was in far better fetter as we headed home for the holidays but the stresses and loss of the past year still smolder a bit. Keith's clan proved once again to be the perfect tonic for a minor case of Christmas blues.

We arrived on the Eve at an earlier time for a change, so for once we weren't all rushed as we often tend to be. That fact seemed to set the tone for the weekend as it was all blessedly peaceful. It was a white Christmas once again but this time only a picturesque couple of inches worth, not the pile we plowed through last year. The grandparents arrived and the traditional dishes of oyster soup, clam chowder and country ham were plated up along with a delicious apple salad and Kim and Dave's cracked wheat dinner rolls. Over dessert and coffee, we talked and laughed as the kids played and wrestled with Grandpa. Kim and Dave showed us photos and videos of the Colorado ski trip they had just returned from the day before. As I sat and listened to the conversation, I was watching Keith's grandfather and I noticed for the first time certain tics that reminded me of Dad. The voices around me were fading and my mind was flooding with Christmas Eve memories with Dad...the drives to look at the holiday lights after the candlelit Christmas Eve church services before arriving home when we would enjoy a slice of chocolate or pecan pie while opening one present. When my Memory Lane haze cleared, I was still at the dinner table with the Winges and found myself teary-eyed. I got a grip and rejoined the fun but the memories are still there; dancing on the outskirts of my thoughts.

The night would end as peacefully as it began with everyone heading home as Keith and I settled in with his parents. The next day would bring more Christmas cheer as well as a delicious twist on Christmas dinner.....

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Jane's Christmas Dinner

Tuesday night was the latest in what is becoming an annual holiday event: Jane's Christmas Dinner. Each of us in our dinner party group host get-togethers throughout the year but last year's Christmas dinner at Jane's was a highlight and this year even surpassed the last.

As this night is clearly evolving into tradition, Jane decided the main dish would also remain; much to our supreme satisfaction. Despite the all-day preparation involved, Jane was once again making Julia Child's Beef Bourguignon. Just the thought of this mouth-watering dish has had all of us salivating for weeks. We were greatly anticipating this night, to say the least.

I was charged with selecting some of the wine for the evening and decided to turn the choices over to the lovely folks at Wines by Jennifer in Parkville. I had not visited Wines by Jennifer before and I have to say it was a bit of a revelation. The location is a charming and unassuming little cottage on Main Street. The decor inside is cozy and welcoming. One of the knowledgeable employees or Jennifer herself greet you at the door and guide you through the many rooms of wonderful wines. Many of the rooms, particularly the top level, are each dedicated to a certain country and upstairs is where I would head as I was looking for a couple of French Reds to accompany the meal. The good folks at Wines by Jennifer helped me with my selections and indeed the Domaine La Milliere Cotes Du Rhone was a big hit.....it was truly wonderful. Wines by Jennifer also features a terrific gourmet foods section, an extensive collection of craft beers, tasting room and even an art gallery on the lower level. Check them out at http://www.winesbyjennifer.com/.

We arrived at Jane's and after a moment to exchange greetings and take in the delectable aromas emanating from the kitchen, we settled in on this cold winter's night. After sampling a couple of the cornichons Ronnie brought and sipping the first glass of wine, we began to exchange gifts. Keith gifted everyone with a stained-glass ornament that he had made, Jeff presented everyone with a jar of his top-secret strawberry butter and Jolynn gave us a loaf of Challah bread(Holla!) from Bloom Bakery.
Jane gave us a gift bag that included Panera's Broccoli Cheddar Soup, truffles, crackers and most surprisingly, a bar of Beekman 1802 Winter Goats Milk Soap from the Beekman Boys featured on the Planet Green TV show. Did Josh or Brent wrap and make this particular bar? Inquiring minds want to know. Jane and Linda gave us gold charger plates from the Charles Dickens collection in honor of the Dickens dinner. Linda than made me a tad fahklempt when she gave me a copy of the long-awaited recipes for her late husband Jack's Halibut with Vermouth Sauce and Crab Bisque; the latter in Jack's own handwriting. We lost Jack to cancer a few years bcak and the last time several of us had seen him was Jane's Christmas dinner. It was a teary moment of perfect harmony and thats a good example of how treasured these Christmas dinners have become.

We soon moved on to the culinary main event. We began with Linda's Coquille St. Jacques, a rich and savory dish of seafood and mushrooms in a divine wine sauce served traditionally in a scallop shell. Typically, the dish is made with scallops but in this case, shrimp was substituted. The wine sauce was so wonderful that in the end, we drank it right out of the shell or in Jane's case, the sauce was literally lapped up. The next course was a delicious citrussy salad of fresh fruit and greens lightly dressed with Dijon mustard-based dressing. Finally, the main event arrived and Jane's Beef Bourguignon, with all of its flavors and textures, was as amazing as ever. Served with a side of homemade mashed potatoes and crusty bread with killer herb butter; it was truly wonderful. Dessert was Jolynn's spice cake, made from her grandmother's recipe, deliciously topped off with fresh cinnamon-spiked whipped cream. This meal was so excellent that I counted my blessings with each bite.

Throughout the meal, the conversation was as lively as ever and the subject matter ranged from Jane finding herself driving in a funeral procession to Ronnie's musings on public nudity. The wine flowed and the laughter was non-stop. The true joy to be found with this little group is simply being together. Every gathering somehow manages to be better than the last. As that bright moon settled behind the trees on that crisp winter night, we all headed out for our respective homes. The next several days would be the usual seasonal whirlwind of work and family for all of us. In the midst of all of the holiday madness, its truly a blessing to have a cozy, peaceful night with good friends.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Aging Gracefully

Another birthday arrived for the K-Man on Monday and the fact that he has marked another year on the planet is always just cause for celebration. This hard-working guy got to enjoy a well-deserved day off and I got to spend a bit of it with him before my own work.

Earlier in the week, I checked out the new shop at Zona Rosa called Chocolaterie Stam. The shop may be new but these folks have a nearly 100-year-old tradition of fine Dutch chocolates. The shop's decor is a charming paean to its
chocolate wonders. There are pre-packaged choices but you can also hand-pick the goodness and knowing K's aversion to
certain flavors, that's what I did. Among the choices were a Cognac Cream and a Creme Brulee. I hope he digs them.

K's birthday lunch took place at a hidden little gem on Holmes named You Say Tomato. I'd heard great things about this unique joint, both from local media and my friends. The interior has a relaxed deli feel. There are vintage grocery touches all around and it reminded me o
f my hometown corner store....Doug Dale's store. There's a grocery area featuring a deli cooler called Harvest thats filled with fresh produce. The very friendly staff sport tomato-themed chapeaus and are very helpful with the overwhelming array of choices. Keith went with a delicious Grilled
Cheese sandwich and a cup of homemade beef stew. I chose their homemade chicken salad on rye and as a side, one of what is termed "Jane's Famous Knish". The knish was the highlight for me; a comforting blend of mashed potatoes, spinach and onions in a fresh-baked pastry. It was excellent. I have friends who
are such fans of this place that they texted me pics of their food. The always fresh ingredients are one reason this place has such a following and the prices are quite reasonable. I'm told the quiche is to die for. We will definitely be back.

Considering that Keith's past birthdays have been fraught with occasional miserable details like flat tires in cold rain and trips to the emergency room, we are both quite happy that he enjoyed a nice, peaceful birthday this year.

Happy Birthday, Keith. Here's to many, many more.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Drew Graduates, Olivia Captivates, I Ruminate

This holiday season's posts have shown that I have been fortunate enough to experience a plethora of spirit-lifting moments. I have to admit, however, that a combination of this past year's loss and mental anxiety have left my holiday spirit a bit lacking. Dad's passing was a tough ordeal but the outpouring of love our family received kept us going. It is, however, the first Christmas without Dad and this season has left me more than a tad bit melancholy.

In a conversation with Keith this morning. I was reflecting on some difficult holidays my family endured when my sister's mental illness was at its peak and the horrific public and private dramas that were the norm for our Christmas holidays. Nothing would concern me more than for my very spiritual parents to be "not be feeling the spirit this Christmas". Not ones to be beaten down for long, my folks and my Dad in particular, would realize that sometimes they needed to look for and at times, desperately search for spirit-lifters. They would find it through their church, not necessarily from a certain sermon but from working with the Holiday Food Basket program or through the Clothing Center. Sometimes, Dad would gather the three of us in he car just drive around town to gape at the holiday lights and those drives, like the ones he took us on when I was a child, would become some of my favorite Christmas memories.

During these over-the-top days of retail insanity, I often find myself worn out body and soul and in that position of looking for signs of holiday spirit. One unlikely sign strolled in by the name of Phil Donahue. Yes, the famous talk-show host strolled into our store and asked for a copy of his wife Marlo's book. He then asked a bookseller to photograph himself holding the book so that he could send it back to his wife while telling her how much he missed her. Well, damn if my heart wasn't warmed by ol' Phil himself.

Leaving work on Friday, I was supposed to join some co-workers to celebrate our friend Drew's college graduation. After eight hours of unrelenting customer-induced fresh hell, I will admit that as much as I adore my co-workers, the last people I wanted to spend time with were living reminders of the day we had all just endured. So, I took a little side trip strolling through our Zona Rosa shopping mecca and let the frigid air settle on me while taking in their holiday lights. Zona Rosa's lights reflect Kansas City history as they originated as the downtown crowns that were staples every year. Watching the families cavort around the giant tree in the courtyard reminded me of those drives with Dad and indeed helped to recapture a bit of that elusive spirit. Regrouped, I walked on to Stone Canyon Pizza and joined my fellow retail warriors. As Drew was responsible for turning me on to The Mighty Boosh, I gifted him with a book on the truly twisted BBC TV show and a card signed Old Greg. It was good to kick back with my cherished bookstore buds and enjoy a tasty slice of spicy South Of The Border Pie with a glass of Sam Adams Winter Ale. We all wished the mighty Drucifer well in his latest step towards world domination. Oh, the places he'll go...

Saturday and Sunday, another spirit-lifter would enter our lives in the guise of one lovely little three-year-old named Olivia. She and her mother Lisa, an old college friend of Keith's, came for an overnight visit from Omaha. We met at Bravo Italian restaurant for dinner and it wasn't long before I was utterly captivated by the charming Olivia. She would draw a picture of me and we would eat big bites of our dishes together (hers a ridiculously decadent macaroni and cheese, mine a seriously savory Chicken Scallopini consisting of grilled chicken topped with portabello mushroom, provolone cheese and a crazy good lemon-caper sauce with a side of herb linguine). Olivia sat directly at my side and at one point touched my cheek with her finger and said' "You're my best friend.". Whatever cynical armor I was donning at that moment shattered at her very touch. We gleefully moved on to dessert.....while Keith and I dug into our chocolate-chip bread pudding, Olivia sat on K's lap and devoured her ice cream down to the last drop by throwing her head back, bowl and all. Now that's the way to eat dessert. We followed dinner with our own stroll through the Zona Rosa lights. This time, we watched as Olivia ran and danced around the courtyard, completely awed by the ginormous tree with the ornaments as big as she is and the gently falling snowflakes she tried to catch on her tongue.

On Sunday, we took Olivia to Crown Center for some truly kid-oriented fun. The Nutcracker Soldiers lined the shopping center and the Crayola Cafe was packed with children. Lines wrapped around the corner for the train-themed restaurant and the Christmas play. We walked outside where Olivia would play with abandon around the Mayor's Christmas Tree and I would photograph the skaters gliding around the Ice Terrace. We were amazed by Santa's Gingerbread Village....an enormous display created by the chefs at the Hyatt and Westin hotels complete with three lococmotive trains. Once again, seeing all of this Christmas hoopla through her wondrous eyes makes it all feel a bit childlike again....the best way to experience it, let's face it.

I suppose this post reeks of a tad too much treacle. It almost gave me a sugar rush when I re-read it. Then I re-read the last two sentences I just wrote and remember that its far easier to fall back on a full plate of cynicism and bitterness and I'll have that with a side of snark, please. Sometimes, though, its good for me to work a little bit harder to get a little tasty reminder of the magic of Christmas. I just need to check out those lights again or revisit that childlike wonder.....

Recently on an exhausted drive home from work, I was mentally sifting through the night's events, when I saw a fiery streak across the sky. This was not a typical falling star. What in bloody blue blazes was it?! Was I hallucinating? Was I having my first UFO sighting? Is Santa doing a trial run? I was so mesmerized by that awe-inspiring sight that I nearly wrecked the car. I arrived home, burst into the door and asked Keith if he'd heard of any strange sightings in the sky this week. The K-Man consulted his trusty Evo sidekick and as it turned out, that night was the clearest opportunity to view the Geminid meteor shower. I was under a strange spell from my unexpected view of this phenomenon....it made all of my little anxieties seem that much more minuscule. Talk about childlike wonder.

It appears that I am still learning from Dad. He taught me how to find the holiday spirit amid great family strife and now I've learned to seek it out during the down times. I'll miss him this year but I still feel his presence....when I look at the Christmas lights; when I watch a child's eyes light up and even during the occasional meteor shower.