A Mother’s Day Reflection

May 14, 2018

I didn’t want today to get away without wishing you and yours a Happy Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day observances have long been bittersweet for me because in late summer of 1997, I suffered an ectopic pregnancy and lost my itty bitty baby – and, as it turns out, my only chance at motherhood. Then, in 2015, Mom passed away from Alzheimer’s. So, Mother’s Day that year was kind of a double whammy for me. What made it bearable, however, was the thought that Mom was getting to spend her first Mother’s Day with her granddaughter.

Today I was really missing Mom. This was my fourth Mother’s Day without her… and it was the most difficult one so far. I woke up missing her… and then all morning I was beset by little things that triggered memories.

Memories are strange things. They crop up at odd moments – and for the most unusual reasons.

When a butterfly crossed our path this afternoon, it reminded me of the time Mom and I were heading home after going out to dinner one Thursday night (because Dad worked late on Thursdays and we decided we didn’t want whatever it was that was in the fridge). We noticed a hot-air balloon with a great big butterfly on it flying low overhead… so we decided to follow it. It eventually landed on the golf course. And oddly enough, it had been Mom’s idea to chase it.

Songs are big memory triggers.

My local Kroger occasionally plays Vaughn Monroe’s “Ballerina”; Mom and I both loved that song. And I always thought he had the most magnificent voice! Go on, give it a listen and judge for yourself.

Or I’ll hear one of the songs she would call and ask me to play when she’d listen to me on the air at work (like “Life in a Northern Town” from the Dream Academy; Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You”; “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra; “Lotta Love” from Nicolette Larson… or even “Penny Lane” by the Beatles). Those are the songs that generally bring a smile.

Then there are the songs attached to  memories of Mom that make me laugh out loud. One morning in 1974, over breakfast, Steve Miller’s “The Joker” came on the radio. At the part where he sings, “I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker,” my sister Áve and I, being of tender age and having no frame of reference for that particular term, asked, “Mom? What’s a midnight toker?” Not surprisingly, she had no earthly idea. And we had no clue until years later how truly hilarious it was that we’d asked her that!

Another time, in the mid ’80s, Áve and I were listening to WFCS, the radio station at nearby Central Connecticut State University. “Never Say Never” from Romeo Void was blaring from the little radio on the kitchen counter. Mom happened to wander in just when the chorus came on and we were singing along, “I might like you better if we slept together…” She made her infamous “Mom lips” (a dead giveaway of her utter displeasure) and muttered, “Oh, that’s just nice!” and left the room. I won’t even tell you what she said when she heard the Rolling Stones’ “She’s So Cold.”

But music isn’t the only memory trigger.

Mom was big into words. She was a terrific writer – and a fun storyteller. And she used to write some of the best letters I’ve ever received. She used to write me letters all the time while I was away at college.

This morning, on our way to church, something triggered a memory about those letters. She’d write two or three times a week, usually during her lunch break, typed on the clunky old electric typewriter at her desk in her office at the City of New Britain’s City Improvement Commission. When she and Dad came back from a 25th-anniversary trip to Italy, she wrote extensively about that. But mostly, she’d tell me what was going on at home or at work, or she’d regale me with the latest antics of Rehab – a cranky old stray she and her coworkers adopted. He wasn’t the nicest cat (a far cry from our dear Scruffy at home), and he had a penchant for sleeping in open file cabinets and getting black fur all over the files, but Rehab did manage to keep most of the rodents at bay in that drafty old City Hall building.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but those letters were as much for her benefit as mine. I was the last of her brood to leave the nest and she was probably really missing having someone there when she got home after work… not that she missed the loud music and the phone being tied up all the time. But it gave her a connection to her youngest kid. And it was nice to open up my mailbox in the student-center mailroom to find a small envelope with my name and address neatly typed and the New Britain postmark and return address.

Yep, memories surely are tricky things. Some are wonderful; others not so much. They sneak up on you at the most unexpected times and, if you’re not careful, will burn a hole in your heart. If you’re lucky, though, they’ll warm a small cozy place in there and leave you with a smile.

What are some of your favorite Mom memories? And what triggers those memories?

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Italian Easter Bread

April 10, 2009

My godmother, Evelina Betterini, used to bake these elaborately decorated basket-shaped breads for each of her godchildren every year for Easter. It was a tradition for her (and my Uncle Larry) to deliver them to the kids the day before Easter.

The breads themselves were works of art: Perfectly golden brown edible Easter baskets cradling delicate cargoes of brightly hued eggs… with graceful basket handles overarching the colorful bounty. All in all, a little piece of heaven, a true treasure for the senses! Beneath that glistening golden crust lay this rich vanilla-scented bread, with its dense texture and slightly sweet taste… It was an Easter treat par excellence.

Twenty-five years ago, Aunt Ev gave me the recipe, which she’d received decades earlier from her mother. Each year, I’d plan to make it and, every year – no matter how certain I was where I had put it – I would invariably misplace my copy of the recipe. But I knew I could always call Aunt Ev and get it from her again.

In March of 1994, two weeks before Easter, I knew exactly where my copy of that recipe was… and I knew that didn’t bode well – because Aunt Evelina lay in a hospital bed ten miles away, battling cancer.

All along, throughout her lengthy stay in that hospital, my beloved 55-year-old godmother had insisted she wanted to go home for Easter. And early in the morning the Wednesday before Easter, Aunt Evelina went Home.

Now my husband and I have carried on Aunt Evelina’s legacy – and her tradition of delivering these delectable Easter breads to our godchildren at Easter. And now I’d like to share that tradition with you.

This is one tradition I’ve managed to hold firm to in the fifteen years since Aunt Evelina passed away. And, although this has been an insanely busy week for me (between almost-nightly choir rehearsals for Holy Week services and my having started a brand-new full-time job [yippie!]), I’m still going to be bustling about the kitchen tomorrow, baking Aunt Evelina’s Italian Easter Bread.

These breads were a glorious part of my childhood at Easter and I hope they’ll become a family favorite for you – and become a part of your Easter traditions, as well. If you attempt this recipe, I’d love it if you’d let me know how the bread turns out for you.

Just two words of caution:

1) This recipe makes a lot of bread! You might want to try a half recipe your first time around.

2) This bread is highly addictive. So maybe you’ll want to make that full batch after all.

I wish you a blessed and happy Easter, or a blessed and happy Passover, as the case may be.

Mangia!

Aunt Evelina’s Italian Easter Bread

12 eggs, room temperature
2 cups sugar
1 cup shortening, melted and cooled
1 cup milk, room temperature
Pinch of salt
4 tablespoons baking powder (if using large eggs. If, however, you are using medium eggs, 3 tablespoons baking powder; for jumbo eggs, use 5 tablespoons baking powder.)
2 tablespoons vanilla extract (more or less, to taste)
10½ to 12 cups flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Beat eggs ’til lemony colored. Add sugar a little at a time. Add cooled shortening while beating egg/sugar mixture. Add milk and vanilla. Add pinch of salt. Add baking powder and flour a little at a time. Mix ’til you can’t use a wooden spoon; then mix by hand. Dough should be of a medium-stiff consistency.

Form dough in to desired shapes. Raw eggs may be pressed (gently!) into the dough before baking, then criss-crossed with strips of dough to hold them in place. (You may use hard-cooked eggs, but they tend to get somewhat rubbery during baking.) Bake 25-30 minutes.

Notes: Go easy on the flour – use only enough to achieve the desired consistency. You may want to start with the breads on the bottom rack of your oven for the first 15 minutes, then put them on the top rack during the last 10-15 minutes.

If desired, brush breads with milk before baking, for a shiny, glazed top.