Sunday, June 16, 2013

Five Life Lessons from My Dad

My dad has been gone for ten years now.  I think of him every day and today on Fathers Day 2013, reflect on these lessons his life reflected.

1.  He showed up.

He was a self employed, small businessman with no employees other that himself.  He had no sick days, paid vacation or pension plan.  He was a tailor and took in dry cleaning; he made money by threading a needle and sewing.  He did that for over 50 years, buying a home, raising a family and educating four children through college.  I only remember one occasion during my growing up years, seeing my father sick, in bed.  He got up and went to work -- every day.

2. He lived simply and within his means.
My parents had only one credit card -- from Gimbels Department Store.  He paid the bill in full in the rare times that the card was used.  He enjoyed the things of this world -- including cars (his '68 Buick Electra was a source of pride and enjoyment); but they did not control his life.   He was proud that he was free from the burdens of debt, that he was able to pay off the 15 year mortgage on our house in eight years by doubling up on payments.  

3.  He valued education for its own sake and as a path to a better life.  
Perhaps more so because he was an immigrant with limited education, he consistently emphasized to his children (all four of with with at least bachelors degrees) that education is important.  He respected it and any person who achieved through education.  He would be so proud to see what his grandchildren are achieving through education.

4.  He was a feminist.
This one took me a long time to realize.  In an era when most girls still became nurses and teachers, he did not make any attempt to steer me into any conventional educational pursuits.  He allowed me to make my own choices.  On the day of my law school graduation, I still recall his quiet pride.  And when I did not marry right out of college as was the custom at the time, he was content.  Even when I moved out of the house (none of my female cousins did anything like this), he was supportive.

5.  He loved unconditionally.
I remember saying to a friend just after my dad died, "No one loved me like my dad".  I still feel that way.  I think it's true that parental love is like no other.  But my dad loved me with an acceptance that had no strings attached, that was always giving and nurturing and nonjudgmental.  I aspire to that kind of love with my children.  

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Losing a Sister-Cousin and Maybe Gaining a Message?

A week ago today, my cousin Karen died.   She died, as obituaries so often starkly state, "after a long, courageous battle with cancer".   This is a profound loss for her children, her father who is still alive, her extended family, her close friends and for me.  I think of Karen as a sister-cousin.  We only had brothers. 
We grew up in the same suburban neighborhood, her house was walking distance, one street up.  She was three years older than me, so up until last Sunday, she knew me for my entire life.   There are cousins that I rarely or never see due to barriers of age, language and geography. There are some I see only on special occasions, like weddings, graduations and funerals. Not Karen.
We went to the same grade school and high school; and both had our first jobs as waitresses at the Jewish Home for the Aged.  Yet sometime in young adulthood, our paths diverged as we were both busy with combinations of advanced education, school, careers and husbands and kids. 
Then slowly our lives began to converge again the past decade, over some mostly sad shared experiences, most notably with losses of mothers, my dad, Karen's husband (also from cancer) and the unexpected responsibility of figuring out care giving and housing for our never married Aunt Mary. 
Karen became deeply religious during that time period.  She spoke openly of her faith experiences, and built an ecumenical faith community straddling her Catholic parish and the United Methodist church where, for decades, she worked as the Director of its pre-school.  An unusual aspect of her obituary was that it listed her as a member of both St. Therese Parish and the Homestead Park United Methodist Church.  She planned her own funeral Mass and it combined aspects and people from these two faith communities.
Karen's struggle with cancer was painful from the beginning and the process of managing it limited her mobility, since the medications precluded her from driving.  She relied on a circle of family and friends to take her to work (which she continued to do until the day before she was admitted to the inpatient hospice), to chemotherapy and doctors' appointments and to family and other social events.
Sometime after Christmas 2012, Karen knew that her time was limited.  One of her wishes was to once again visit her daughter in Philadelphia to see her play hockey.  It was my privilege to accompany her on the train from Pittsburgh over Super Bowl weekend for a final trip before the last trip that we all have to make someday.  We got to see Emily play hockey, to visit my brother, go to Mass together for the last time in Drexel Hill and to talk for hours about our shared family history and experiences from childhood through our adult lives.  
At the hospice early one morning before any other visitors arrived, she asked me to pray with her and I did.  She spoke of being comforted by the voices and messages from two people close to her who had recently died and about seeing patterns that she interpreted as the hand of God.  I wanted to ask her one last thing, but I couldn't say it out loud.  I wanted to ask her to let me know after she died to let me know that she was OK. 
Karen died last Sunday morning, right around noon.  Her wake and funeral were crowded, a tribute to the many lives she touched.  The day after her funeral, I boarded a plane to Boston to help my daughter look for an apartment.  My connecting flight was canceled, so I had to take a cab and schlep my luggage to meet her for our appointment with a real estate agent. 
I left my suitcase in the foyer of one of the buildings as we looked at an apartment many flights up.  When I returned to retrieve my luggage, two cardboard boxes were there that had not been just minutes before.  On the side of one of the boxes in large black letters was printed the word 'HARTZ', Karen's last name.
I looked at Clare; she looked at me.  Is this my sign?  I could read a lot into this.  She's in transit?  She's arrived home?  Or is this just a coincidence? 
I took actual comfort from seeing that cardboard box with those letters.  And I don't believe in coincidences. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Tastes of Thanksgivings Past

Living in the present moment is harder to do at the holidays.  There are those decorations accumulated over decades, that bring back memories of holidays past and thanks to our collection of ornaments gathered at countless vacation destinations, vacations around the world.  
And then, well, there's the food.  
This year I cooked.  Really cooked.  With help.  My daughter loves mashed potatoes and took charge of assembling an authentic version.  No skim milk, I can't believe it's not butter facsimile.  She got organic whole milk from Whole Foods, in glass bottles that have to go back to get a deposit refund.   Claiming to be "from grass fed cows on family farms", and mixed with real butter, the mashed potatoes were a hit.  
In Thanksgivings past, when I hosted dinner, I perfected the art (?) of the shortcut.  Stove Top stuffing, boxed gravy, store bought pies, and the infamous green been casserole made with canned fried onions and cream of mushroom soup (light).  
With real mashed potatoes, I vowed to be a bit more authentic this year.
Taking a literal page from the family cookbook (first edition), I made Aunt Edith's 'Zesty Corn Stuffing Balls".  I actually chopped the celery myself.  It was all worth it when my sister-in-law commented, "this stuffing tastes just like your mom's."   It brought back another holiday memory at my other sister in law's house, when she made pasta with sauce.  Upon tasting it, I said, "this sauce tastes just like my mom's".  
"I watched her make it one day and just wrote down everything she did", she said.  It was the real thing.  
Aunt Edith is gone and so is my mom.
Here's the recipe.


1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped celery
4 T butter or margarine
1 17-ounce canned cream style corn
1/2 cup water
1 t poultry seasoning
1/8 t pepper
1 8 oz. package (3 cups) herb-seasoned stuffing mix (I like the plain seasoned croutons)
3 eggs slightly beaten
1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted

In saucepan cook onion and celery in the 4 Tablespoons butter or margarine till tender but not brown.  Add corn, water, poultry seasoning and pepper.  Bring to a boil.  Pour over stuffing mix; toss together lightly.  Stir in eggs.  Shape into seven or eight balls.  Place in a 9x9x2 inch baking pan.  Pour melted butter or margarine over.  Refrigerate if desired.  Bake in 375 degree oven for 25 minutes."

I confess to two shortcuts in this recipe -- the chopped onions came from Whole Foods and I skipped shaping the stuffing into balls, just pressing the mixture into a large baking dish.

It was good -- one serving of stuffing and the real mashed potatoes were quite enough.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Roots, Wings and Tears

Years ago at a home party that my cousin held to support a woman-owned business selling art, I purchased a print that hung in our house when my children were young.  The quote on the print reflected what I thought was one of my core beliefs about parenting.  In lovely hand drawn script, it proclaimed that "There are only two lasting bequests we can leave our children.  One is roots and the other is wings."
What was I thinking??  
The nest is empty.   Really empty.  While at least one child is still in college, you can cling to the notion that you are still tending the nest.  She graduated last May.  They both have truly gotten wings and flown.  Away.  They are both seeking.  Neither seems to be settling or settling in.  My generation had a more structured road or at least an apparent path to follow. 
My two children spent their college years on different coasts; now they are about to be on different continents. 
I find myself ruminating.   Should I have spent more time on the roots part?  Should we have done less traveling and confined our vacations to places like the Jersey Shore, Lake Chatauqua or Niagara Falls?  Should I have drawn a circle on a map like the one described to me by another mother who told her children that their college options were limited to an eight hour drive from home?  
I am shoulding all over myself these days.  Should I have worked less?  Should I have been a better cook, a better housekeeper?  We live in a wonderful city.  Even the National Geographic says so.  
And what does that saying mean anyway?   Does it mean they fly away and remember where they came from?  Does it mean they come back for selected holidays and call home once a week?
I am not handling this well at all.   Intellectually I know they have to go.  And I keep reminding myself that with all of the available technology we are still connected in ways that were not possible just a generation or two ago.  My own father's father died when he was a year old and he was raised by a step mother in a hill town in Italy for reasons I have never fully understood.  She sent him to the local tailor so he could learn a skill and when he was still in his teens, kissed him goodbye and sent him off to America.  She did not see him again for two decades and then it was for the last time.  He bought her a stove and when he went back in later years, a tombstone for her grave.
I find myself wanting to talk to her.  How did you do it?   Did you cry?  Maybe that's just the way it was and she stoically sent him across the ocean in a manner that was common in that era.  There was nothing for him there and she sent him off with hope. 
I find myself reflecting on Khalil Gibran's beliefs.
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.  
They come through you but not from you,
and though they are with you and yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love, but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Yoga for Grieving

Last Friday night, I attended a free 'Yoga for Grieving' class at Pittsburgh's Keystone Health Club.  It has a really cool industrial vibe, being located in an old Westinghouse Plant.  From the parking garage, the walkway into the club overlooks the vast expanse of a long-vacated manufacturing plant that once was part of the area's economic backbone.  Now it's just a lot of emptiness except for this jewel of a health club, tucked into a corner of this big open space.  Last June, I saw an ad from a local funeral home (Patrick T. Lanigan) announcing its sponsorship of this class as part of its grief support outreach.  I tucked it away, thinking that some day I would like to attend.  Since the class is only every other Friday night at 7:00 p.m., I kept missing it due to other schedule commitments. 
As part of our yoga teacher training, we are supposed to attend two classes a week.  It helps to observe different instructors and styles of yoga and to see how other studios are organized. 
With nothing better to do, I set off for East Pittsburgh directly from work.  It was not until I put the address into my smartphone that I suddenly realized that the route would take me through Braddock PA.  My parents and maternal grandparents are all buried in the Braddock Catholic Cemetery.   Probably almost a century ago, my maternal grandfather and his two brothers purchased cemetery plots on the same hillside overlooking this old industrial town.  My mother's family included talented stonemasons -- there were family monument businesses in Dravosburg and New Kensington.  The three family headstones are beautiful examples of their work.  My grandparents' is an artful representation of the Agony in the Garden.  My cousin tells a funny story that her mother did not want to be buried in Braddock, but she loved the design of the headstone.  They graciously accommodated her desire to be located in a more upscale city location, Calvary Cemetery, and replicated the exact design in what is now her final resting place. 
Thinking that visiting the cemetery was the thing to do, seeing as I was on my way to a yoga class designed to help grieving people, I arrived at the family gravesite as the sun was nearly setting in the sky. 

I always cry when visiting this place and arrived at the Keystone Commons in an appropriately grieving state of mind.  There are other blog posts on this site where I have reflected on how yoga has helped me occupy my time, mind and body at times of loss.  The class was very gentle, much of it done in a chair.   There was no conversation about loss or grief or mourning.  Just dim lights, calming music and soothing postures. 
Teaching yoga is not something I am sure I can do.  But I could do this kind of class. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

You Really Should (Visit Pittsburgh)

One of my many vices is compulsively searching travel websites.  A recent post on (which used to be, but MS and NBC have apparently divorced, at least online) was taken from  Titled, "9 places you haven't visited, but should", the article by Elissa Leibowitz Poma, listed countries (Zambia, Oman, Singapore, South Korea, Colombia and Armenia), a state park (Valley of Fire) in Nevada and two cities, Chan Chan, Peru and Pittsburgh, PA (no I am not kidding).   
I am truly unlikely to be visiting any of the aforementioned sites soon, except for the one where I make my home, Pittsburgh.
The article, like many of these travel briefs that appear in magazines and websites, provides just a few sentences on each of the nine recommendations.  And for Pittsburgh, after reminding the reader that it is no longer gritty and smoky, thanks to the demise of the steel industry, she highlights the Warhol Museum, Phipps Conservatory and the "historical funicular called the Monongahela Incline".
So, what are the other sites I would add to her list?   On a long trip back from a weekend wedding we attended in Charleston, West Virginia I came up with the following "9 places you should visit in Pittsburgh, if you haven't":

  1. The Maxo Vanka murals at St. Nicholas Croatian Church in Millvale.
  2. PNC Park for a Skyblast after a Pirate Game.
  3. The Nationality Rooms at the Cathedral of Learning.
  4. Wild Rosemary Restaurant.
  5. Pamelas, preferably in Millvale.
  6. The city view from the West End Bridge.
  7. The fountain at Point State Park.
  8. The parking lots before a home Steeler game for an introduction to 'Steeler Nation'.
  9. The River Walk from the Convention Center, across the Seventh Street Bridge and along the river past both PNC Park and Heinz Field.
What's on your list of best places in the 'Burgh?  

Monday, August 27, 2012

Yoga Classes and Catholic Masses

It's been a loooooong summer vacation from this blog.    And I truly want to get back to blogging, to thinking and writing about health and wellness and to doing more about health and wellness.  This summer has been bookended by two awesome vacations, one in early summer that took me to both coasts (Maine and Northern California) with Montana in between and a late summer trek by car to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. 

They really are smoky!
What is a vacation?   The word shares Latin roots with the words vacancy and vacate, so it has something to do with space, emptiness and openness.   While there has been frantic activity to be sure, especially in Maine and California with kids, moves and San Francisco sightseeing and visiting, there has been much quiet and solitude.   Quiet and solitude as in not doing much of anything.  In both Montana and Tennessee, there was no access to cell phones, newspapers or the Internet.  In Montana, there was no television.  So, lots of reading, thinking and sitting. 
Yet always from my childhood up to today, there is never a vacation from the obligation to attend Sunday (and post Vatican II, Saturday) Mass.  No matter where we were, we found a Catholic Church.  There was no discussion, no debating, no break.  And as a adult with a family of my own, this tradition has continued.   It has made for some challenges.  Try finding a Catholic Church in Salt Lake City or the Cayman Islands.  Since the advent of the Internet and a great website,,  the task has been made much easier.   But what wonderful memories of grand and tiny churches, in places ranging from the Brompton Oratory to Hilton Head.  And on the most recent vacation in Tennessee, the absolute luxury of two Masses (on Sunday and one for the August 15 Feast of the Assumption) that were celebrated right in our rented vacation villa, thanks to two priests who were with our group and vacationing too.   While vacations bring adventure and new places, there is something comforting about finding the universal Church wherever I go.
Lately I have added a new vacation tradition, with taking yoga classes whenever possible while on vacation.  Not as predictably found as Catholic masses and with content not nearly as consistent, I have done yoga in Puerta Vallarta, Puerto Rico, on a cruise ship and on a dude ranch in Montana. 
The photo doesn't do justice to the view from the yoga studio, but you get the idea.
(Note to fellow Yoga Teacher trainees -- the Gatlinburg Tennessee location appears to be woefully underserved.  Wedding chapels abound, but no yoga studios).  I have travel yoga memories now etched in my head, including arising from Savasana this Memorial Day weekend to gently falling snow outside in the Absaroka Mountains in Montana and to rocking on a cruise ship in choppy waters in Alaska trying to keep my balance. 
On vacation, we still eat -- we need to keep those prayer and exercise routines going too!