A Fine Dish

dish (v) to emit a ready flow of inconsequential talk... babble, blab, burble... chatter, dither... gab, lallygag... natter, patter, prattle, rattle on... yammer, yawp...also...chew the fat, shoot the breeze, sling the bull.... and (n) a container to serve food -or- the food contained in the dish ....(archaic slang) a hot mama

Location: Rock Creek Township, North Carolina, United States

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Cuz'n John and the One Legged Turkey

The first glimmer of stars could be seen from the kitchen window before Cuz'n John arrived that Thanksgiving Day. Dawn way upstate in New York comes late in November, dusk creeps in early, winter is at hand. There is a carpet of snow, the air is crisp but the kitchen is warm and inviting.

It's all right that John's not on time. There had been a number of timing mishaps that day, not the least of which was an incompletely thawed turkey and a temperamental oven. Although we put the bird in around noon, it was still stiff in the joints four hours later. Steven had made the suggestion that we cut the drumstick and thigh off one side and cook them separately in order to speed things along.

When John came in the back door, breath swirling around in misty clouds and cheeks bright red I was just pulling the turkey out of the oven. He and Steven were exchanging greetings when he caught sight of the mangled bird. Steven caught him looking twice.

"Yup," Steven said. "That was some one legged turkey."

John and Steven had met only once at our wedding two years before but they got along very well. For some reason they connected, seemed to understand each other or perhaps recognized some underlying commonality. For whatever reason there was none of the discomfort or formality that I see when my husband is with others in my family.

"You had a one-legged turkey?" asked John.

"Yup," answered Steven. "It was last summer, Helen was just beginning to walk. She was out in the backyard a little away from the pasture. Well, she wandered a little too far, was headed for the dairy barn. We could see her but she was just out of hearing range, not that she'd come on call. Well Walter comes swinging around on his John Deere round the barn. He didn't see her and he couldn't hear us over the sound of the tractor. We went running but it was too far. Good thing there was that turkey."

"What turkey?" asked John.

"Well there was this turkey in the barn. It had hopped up on the sill and saw Helen standing there right in the way of that tractor. It spread out it's wings and jumped in front of the tractor, wings flapping and making a horrible noise. The farmer swerved and stopped and didn't hit Helen."

"Wow. Your daughter was saved by a turkey?"

"That's right. The turkey, though, it got hit on its side, broke one of its wings and crushed its leg. The farmer was going to put it down but he gave it to us instead. After all, it was kind of a hero. We kept it in the backyard as a pet until it got too cold for it to be outside."

As Steven spoke he turned and picked up a long sharp carving fork.

"So where do you keep it now?" John started to ask when Steven speared the turkey in the pan and hefted it over to the platter, its one leg dangling, bone sticking out of the side toward John.

"Oh my God you're going to eat the hero turkey!" said John. "How can you do that? It saved your daughter."

John looked at us, incredulous, his nervous eyes reflecting concern and not a little disgust until he realized we were both leaning back and smiling.

"John, I love that you can believe things that are so impossibly stupid" I said and gave him a welcome hug.

Happy Thanksgiving Day.

Friday, November 18, 2005


The car veers slightly as the driver's head pokes out of the window.

"Look at that. Is it a hawk or a buzzard?"

You have a relentless interest in the earth, the sky and appreciation for all the beings that populate the space in between. The best meteorologists are those who live close to the earth who feel the wind and notice the sky. It doesn't take a super Doppler and a degree to know when to open the windows or batten down the hatches. It comes from noticing, caring, making connections. I learned this from you.

All being are worthy of notice. A man whose body rebels against insect attack dons a safari hat, veil, and ridiculous white coveralls and pokes into the home of a trillion bees. It's not for the reward of stolen honey. It's the process-providing a home for these productive creatures, a hive as a whole organism and each part is infinite perfection. Not one of these creatures is expendable. You pull a single drowning bee from the pool. Convince us that it can be resuscitated and if it doesn't make it, tell us gullible children to 'take its number.' Every tiny being is kept track of and cared for.

Meandering is not aimless. A walk in a centuries old orchard yields evidence of the cycles of life-rabbit and deer spoor, ants and ant lions, footprints, barely audible rustlings. A bird dives from a tree and drags its wing along the ground. You point out a nearby nest with tiny beaks thrust in the air and put distance between it and us, we are human interlopers. You watch, you teach, and we learn to observe but not disturb.

When a mangy fox shows up under the porch or a spitting raccoon inhabits a nearby tree you know what to do. We learn strength and mercy.

Even without the Internet or Library of Congress, you can answer our questions. "Get the book," you say. Small hardcover missives on birds or trees or insects are always accessible on the shelf behind the library door. We feel free to consult them, our little hands wearing the pages in replication of your example. We learn to verify, to study, to draw accurate conclusions.
Children absorb what is around them. They notice everything, especially the minute. It takes patience and a willingness to set aside daily distractions to join with them in their discovery of this incredible world that we inhabit. The car veers to the side of the road and all the heads pop out the window.

"See, it's a hawk, see the tail? My father taught me that," I tell them.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Fast Food

"Chris's project took a long time," I told Sam as we skimmed the shelves at the grocery store. "We need to do the shopping chop-chop."

"Chop-chop shop. My favorite," answers Sam with his usual Eeyore-like delivery.

"We'll need to make something easy for dinner tonight or we won't eat until breakfast."

As we walk through the produce section Sam helps me brainstorm ideas for good dinners. He is very helpful in the grocery store and it primes my pump to have someone bounce around ideas. As well, we talk about balanced meals, what's on sale, and how base ingredients can be combined in different ways. All of my kids understand that today's meatballs and sauce may go into tomorrows lasagne and the tail end may show up stuffed in peppers on Saturday.

"Look, they have chicken roasters on sale."

"Can we have chicken cacciatore tonight?" Sam looks hopeful.

"Well, not tonight. First we roast the chicken. Then we use the bones to make stock and the next day strain and reduce it and then the next day..."

"We have chicken cacciatore! Yea!" Sam finishes. "I'll pick out the mushrooms"

The meat department almost defeats me. Even though I cook meat dishes for the family every day, it is still difficult to get the creative juices flowing while poring over shrink wrapped slabs of beef and factory stained hunks of pig. And the prices are outrageous. Steven and I have struggled over the last five years as each week the grocery bills have increased. It's not just the kids are getting older or that they have more guests more often. Food prices have been rising and the sales are not as generous. I heard this morning that nationwide there will be up to a 5% jump again because of energy costs.

"How many dinners do you have?" Sam asks when he catches up with me.

"Let's see. Roast chicken, Chicken Cacciatore, I guess we can get those smoked pork shoulders--they're on sale and that will be a real quick and easy dinner."

Sam doesn't look thrilled anymore.

"I guess we can have beef stew," he ventures.

Sam is so sweet. He does not like beef stew--something about the texture and the thickness of the gravy. But he knows that Helen and her best friend Kelsey really like it. It's a concession for him to suggest it.

"How about marinated beef chunks on the grill with pasta salad?"

"Yea" he says once again.

Stocked up with produce and meat, we head down the first aisle.

"So what are we going to have tonight?" he asks again. (Poor boy must be hungry)

"Well we need something really fast. We could have that pork."

He at least tries to hide his disappointment. We stop in the aisle and I think.

"I know. This will be really quick. The shrimp was on sale for $3.99. If you peel them for me I'll make shrimp in a marinara sauce on angel hair pasta and we can buy some croutons and I'll make you a Ceasar's Salad."

For a second, I get the weird feeling that I'm standing naked in a spotlight at the First Baptist Church. A wave of disapproval crashes around me. It's not from Sam. He's jumping up and down.

"Angel hair pasta! Shrimp marinara! Yea! Ceasar salad, with anchovies too Mom?"

"Of course," I say, slightly distracted by the aura of negativity I feel building around me--and I look up. A woman in a nurse's smock and sensible shoes glares at me between the Hamburger Helper Cheesy Favorites and the Stroganoff-in-a-Bag. She drops some boxed dinner into her basket and hurries down the aisle.

In that little moment I felt her dissatisfaction flung in my direction but not directed at me. I recognized her as a person who felt she had not had a break in far too long. Who was carrying too many responsibilities, working too many hours for too few rewards. I looked at Sam skipping down the aisle in search of croutons and realize how fortunate I am. It's not that I don't have responsibilities or time issues or personal difficulties--we all do. I feel so fortunate that despite the pace and pressure of my life those external forces can't blindside me. Within the cycles and pulling tides I am mindful of the meaningfulness in my life, the wonderful people and even, fast food.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Change of Seasons

While putting away fall and pulling out warm woolens I find a scarf tucked away in the attic. I sit back on my heels and remember...

Long fingers of sunshine reach through the gaps in the morning glories that have overgrown our secret place; they stroke your cheek. We are face to face, you with your short fleshy legs spread straight out, my legs encircling you, your hips just in reach of my bare toes. You are searching for the hidden pictures in your puzzle book with complete concentration, your lips pressed together, glistening, like the crumpled and still damp wings of a blue bottle neck butterfly that has just ventured into a new world. As you find each hidden treasure your lips part, and you whisper "fin' it."

I reach past you for a battered green wicker basket that is loaded with mismatched balls of lamb's wool. Rooting through it I find a crimson hank and attach it to the motley shawl I am making for your sister. It is warm enough now but fall is stealing in like the friend who no longer knocks, she just shows up on the couch while you're not looking. In just a few more days I will be wrapping your sister like a gypsy, sheathing her like the iris and day lily bulbs we've snuggled away under mounds of sycamore and sumac leaves against the morning chill.

You don't even notice as I turn the shawl and spread it over our bare knees. Part of me counts, single, double, double, slip, but by now I don't have to look at the stitching. Instead I look at a strand of the sun gold hair that has slipped from your braid. You are looking at a stray oak leaf that has drifted into our little haven and has fallen on your page. You grasp the stem and run your fingers over the veins. Expressions pass over your face, absorption, curiosity, amusement, in an ever-changing stream. I cannot resist-I say--

"Hey, Sammy."

You tilt your head and I see how your face only carries a hint of baby roundness. Your eyes with their fringe of dark eyelashes have the deepness of the twilight Carolina sky. I am suddenly struck by the bare beginning of a real resemblance to your father and for a moment I can't speak.

You hold the leaf toward me in the flat palm of your extended hand, smile broadly and say "for you."

Friday, November 11, 2005

Farms in Decline

The New York Times recently published an article about the difference between organic and sustainable farming practices which mentioned a dairy in upstate New York about twenty miles north of my hometown.

As a native of the Hudson Valley, where Ronnybrook Farm Dairy is located, it is shocking to visit and see the demise of the family farm. As a child in Dutchess County many of my friends were from dairy farming families. Most of these were very small affairs where one of the parents also held an outside job. Others were owned by the very wealthy who hired farm managers for the day-to-day business. Less motivating than the tax write-off was the desire for their children to grow up with the farm experience--hard work with intrinsic rewards that offset privilege. One notable gentleman farmer who always gave me a thrill when I saw him in town was James Cagney. He retired 'upstate' and personally raised Scottish Highlanders on his small farm. Another 'wanna-be' farmer was a quite elegant and esteemed actress. She bought a dairy farm near Amenia, just over the border in Connecticut, specifically to expose her children to a more healthful lifestyle. Within a month she sold all her stock. A friend from Amenia told me that in a magazine interview she explained, 'I didn't realize that cows have an odor.' (That comment didn't make her very popular at the local grocery store.) To her credit, she does support the Connecticut Farmland Trust which must decently upwind from her property.

Notably, all of these farmers used some sustainable practices. A bike ride through the county from early spring to deep into the fall showed expansive hillside pastures dotted with meandering cattle, their black and white hides contrasting sharply with lush green or bright autumnal backgrounds. Cows, by the way, are incredibly resilient creatures. On warmer days in the winter and especially during the January thaw, they slogged through mushy snow and mud to soak in fresh 'dairy- air' and sunshine. (You can imagine, the Far Side was a favorite comic strip of my peers.)

While my mother was wary of 'raw' milk, my favorite dairy beverage was a fountain drink. We would line up in the barn--kid, cat, kittens, kid, waiting for an obliging older brother or cousin to shoot us a stream straight from the udder before hooking an ever-so-patient cow to the milking machine. My mother, by the way, was a wiz with laundry.

Because of its proximity to NYC, Dutchess County is now overrun with the affluent overflow of that megalopolis. With the influx of upper middle class professionals, the value of real estate skyrocketed. This had a two-fold effect on family farms. Acres of pastureland became hugely desirable to developers who cut up plots of land into tiny checkerboards of fractional acre lots. A small home in a bedroom community can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Secondly, the time intensive, backbreaking labor and financial costs of running a farm with a marginal profit at best became less attractive as the family farmers aged. Ronny, who took over Ronnybrook's Farms from his parents, is in a small minority. Very few children of farmers can afford to stay in the area.

I see the same thing that began in the Hudson Valley over twenty years ago happening right now in Guilford County. While I understand that financial health is very important and the availability of jobs that pay a living wage is necessary, at what cost? The old Dutch farming families from Dutchess County are gone--died off, their birthright sold, their children drifted away. I am just now appreciating how privileged I was to grow up healthy and strong from the wonderful foods and outdoor lifestyle my parents so graciously provided me. It's crucial that we pull together and support the local farmer, sustainable practices, and the agricultural lifestyle before it becomes so much dirt before the bulldozer.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

November 8

If they were here or I were there, we would celebrate. I would make her shrimp curry with fragrant basmati rice. I would tell her a little fib, 'no worries, it's light coconut milk--there are hardly any calories at all.' I would make him cutlets from turkey tenderloin in a marsala sauce and a creamy risotto with freshly grated locatelli. I would offer her a Tsing Tao to cool the spice and give him a spritzer made from Dr Brown's Cream Soda and a shot of dark red Italian wine--sweet and warming.

And it would not be just me, the children would insist on helping. Sam would set the table for them with french white on white china and freshly polished utensils. Chris would be busy in the kitchen whipping chocolate and cream for a melt in your mouth mousse. Helen would carry them small trays with delightful treats, crunchy puff pastries with kiwi and strawberries.

And we would sit together and smile across the table. We would talk about school and art and politics and computer games. Or we would sit together and smile and not talk at all.

Then when the children had cleared away the dishes and crumbs, we would sit a little while longer and I would exact my charge for this wonderful time because at root, I am not a selfless person. My price would be an explanation; not the when, where or why but the how. How did you do it? How do you continue to do it?

How do two people align there lives for almost fifty years and continually support each other? How did you know the moment you saw her on the steps of the girls' dormitory that autumn afternoon and how did you manage to follow through? How did you recognize him and not let him slip away with all the stresses and demands of being a smart and dedicated and ambitious and talented young woman with the limited opportunities of the 1950's? How did you maintain your sense of self and your unity as a couple through the years long process of birthing, raising a family and letting go? How do you shape and align two separate lives into parallel strands so that neither one fouls but rather strengthens the other despite external and internal obstacles and tensions?

And they would look across the table at one another and smile. And in his eyes would be not 'my children's mother' or even 'my wife,' but simply 'Patty.' And in her eyes would be, 'how do you explain a no-brainer?'

Happy Anniversary to Pat and Dan Billeci, wed November 8, 1958.

Saturday, November 05, 2005


"I got another email from your math teacher."

The silence itself echoes 'uh-oh.'

Chris is like the Florida weather pattern. He can go from sunny to sullen to stormy to sunny again in moments. He gets off the bus each day shining and smiling. He has transformed his grueling hour and three-quarter commute into an opportunity for fellowship and camaraderie. He bounds off the school's 'big yellow taxi' with buoyancy in his step--it's great to be home!

Mom can be such a downer.

The smile fades, the shoulders droop. He knows what it's about.

"Get your test and your math book. She said if you correct the problems that you got wrong, she'll give you partial credit and bring your grade up."

"Can I have a snack? Can I call Corey? Can I watch TV first? Do you need some help with dinner? I'm hungry. I got an A on my vocab test...." He has a litany of defensive munitions to delay the inevitable. One look at me and they peter out--duds.

His backpack thumping down the hall, head hanging. He complies.

From 5 to 9 is the busiest part of my day. The boys arrive home at 5:10, Steven at 6, Helen at 6:45. Dinner is central; it's not only time for nourishment but decompression, communication, unity. Because of their ludicrous commutes, dinnertime has been pushed to the limit so that no one is left out. Adolescent boy appetites must be curbed but not crushed, dad needs to be met and appeased, dinner needs to be heading for the table as a famished Helen trudges down the driveway in the dark. It's an acrobatic juggling of needs and attention far removed from the solitary stretches of silence during my days.

As I check simmering pots and peer into the darkening street I see Chris lounging in the livingroom.

"Math done?"


"Please set the table then. I'll look at it after dinner."

Dinner is not complicated, but my mother-in-law is right, I'm prodigal with the pots and pans. There's a mountain in the sink, overflow on the counters. Helen needs to be quizzed for Ancient History. Sam wants some help with vocab. First, though, I want to check over the easy stuff and glance at Chris's grudgingly proferred torn sheet.

It's a mess. Nothing is numbered, the equations are not on line, there's no spacing, the problems aren't written out. I ask for the test to see if what he has scribbled here and there makes any kind of sense. Algebra. I feel tension arising, irritation.

"Chris, you have to do this over. Put the number of the problem, the answer and then show your work. The teacher needs to see what you're doing so she knows that either you know what you're doing or what she needs to teach you." The tension is arising again, scritch-scratching like a small rodent in a low vector of my brain. I push it away, like the limp hair over my eye.



"NO. I don't get it, all right. She didn't teach it. I don't understand how to do it. I hate school."

"Chris, just do it. Just do it like I said, lay it out so it makes sense." The rodent is scratching behind my eye. I am more irritated then I should be but I don't have time for this. I need to do the dishes and that can be done at the same time as quizzing the others. Chris stomps off to his bedroom and I have a moment.

Why is this tension arising? Mentally, I step back and look at it. What is at it's base?

Algebra. Equations. I remember doing it, if not how. Bringing home these problems. Asking for help. It was my dad who showed me the way to format them. Laying out the problems in rows and columns, lining everything up as if it was on graph paper. Allowing space on all sides so that there would be room for each operation. How I loved the neatness of it. Like puzzles that could take off in any direction but would eventually lead to one unequivocal solution. I loved that. Where is this tension coming from?

Not the time. I thrust my hands in warm soapy water. Helen's questions are taped to one window, Sam's vocab to another. I shoot off questions and simultaneously listen to their answers. Probe my irritation like a sore tooth then just let it go. Giving hints, rinsing pans, scrubbing the sink. Done.

By eight the kids have on their pajamas. Sam is heading to his room, Helen settling on the chair.

"Mom, come watch the Daily Show with me" Helen says. It's part of our ritual. I learned about politics from reading Doonesbury, Helen is picking up on current events with Jon Stewart. Generation gap?

"Just let me talk to Chris, I'll be right there."

Chris is lounging on his bed, listening to a cd. I ask him for his homework.

He has neatly written on every line "I don't know."

The repressed tension comes bubbling to the surface, so out of proportion to this incident in a series of incidents with kids and school work.

"Get another piece of paper now. What's the first problem. Write it now." The orders are terse, direct, military-style and full of contention.

Chris's tension is tangible, his body stiff and jerky. He is beyond argument.

I direct him on what to write and where. Name, there. Number, there. I flip through Chapter 3 of his textbook trying to figure out how to separate the 'x' from the 'y' while the rodent gnaws on my optic nerve. This is nothing like the straighforward text I remember--a little red book with small print and no pictures. No, this looks more like an eclectic web page with all the links broken. Word problems, life activities, big full color pictures--where are the explanations?

I call Helen in.

"Do you know how to do this?"

"Hmmp. Yeah. It's easy. Just do the distributive property there, got a calculator? then combine like terms and subtract that from both sides and there's the answer."

And it clicked. And I remembered. And the confusion and frustration started to dissipate and I saw the little man behind the curtain, the rodent with the sharp teeth and nasty claws and it was fear.

Chris did the problem while I worked on the next one. When he was ready, I did it in front of him step by step on scrap paper then had him copy it, step by step and it started to sink in and his shoulders dropped from his ears by a tiny space. By the third problem, he got it. It made sense now, he had it forever. As he copied it onto his homework sheet I told him what I remembered.

"You know Chris, I didn't take algebra until 9th grade. We had this teacher, Bert, Mr Bertolozzi but we called him Big Bert. And he was big. He was the football coach too and the track coach. I remember how he tried to explain things sometimes and we would just not be getting it. He would start to get frustrated and explain it again but he was kind of tense and he'd glare around the room. He would go over the same thing over and over and his voice would get louder and thirty narrow ninth grade butts (yeah, we had big classrooms and little butts) would slide backwards in the seats but the seats were connected to the desks so there was no place to go."

I watched my boy as he finished the problem and started to listen. I watched his lower lip loosen. I saw a break in the tempestuous clouds.

"So one day while he's glaring around the classroom, frustrated because not one of us could give him a glimmer of hope and the bell was going to ring and he had explained this operation in absolute terms for the third time he looked up and roared like a dare 'So. Any questions?'

I looked around at my classmates pressed backwards with their heads pulled back and their eyes on the cracks in the floor and I sat forward and raised my hand.

Bert got a suspicious look. His eyes narrowed slightly and I saw a little twitch under his bushy moustache. He sighed.

'Yeah, Billeci. What's your question?'

'Why do you have maps in your classroom. This is a math classroom, not a social studies classroom and you know, we don't have maps in the social studies classroom.'"

Chris, whose eyes were finally up and level with mine giving just a hint of a smile, tropical sun breaking through the wall of cloud.

"And you know what Bert did? He took both his hands on either side of his head and grabbed his hair and started to pull. "

Chris's smile widened, the clouds streaked away and in his face was the brightness clarity of a semi- tropical afternoon.

"Don't you love to do stuff like that, Mom? Isn't it great to make everybody laugh?"

"Yeah, it is. 'Cause you know, we all loved Big Bert but he was a little scary sometimes. And for me, I always felt like I had to be the 'smart' one 'cause I wasn't the 'pretty' one and I wasn't the 'social' one. If I didn't have smart, what did I have?

And algebra was hard for me to get at first. And it was scary that maybe I wasn't so smart after all. So sometimes, I needed to laugh, and we all did. And you know what? The bell rang for the end of class and Big Bert laughed too."