Sunday, March 29, 2009

What no Vampires?

Rollin' out some garlicky meatballs today, a memory popped into my brain and I found myself in the kitchen laughing away. My BF is used to this. If I'm not talking to myself in there, I'm often laughing...and sometimes singing too. I know, a bad scene. 

But today, I started thinking about those Sherman Avenue Murphys know, my roots. What a street that was! Many small homes, cape style, but Dutch colonials and a few old farmhouse from the days of the apple orchard too. Ours was a cape...very cute, I like to think. My dad was meticulous about it.

The Cucurellos lived in a Dutch colonial down the street. I could sit on my porch and just about inhale the smell of garlic coming from Grandma Cucurello's (Angie) kitchen. It was there that I first tasted the love of my life: pasta! When I'd come home from their house, my dad (aka Archie Bunker) could smell the garlic. "Go right upstairs and change your clothes!" Oh brother. "I didn't come all the way across the ocean to smell that abnormal smell." 

"But Dad!" Well, you know what ensued after that. Archie, I mean DAD, always got his way. Then one day, the Cucurellos invited Mr. I'm-ALL-Irish-ALL-the-TIME to dinner. We were all so excited, we could barely stay glued to our skin! Imagine. Well, he went alright, but not after a WHOLE bunch of dawdling and dilly-dallying...something he'd never allow in me.  

We sat down at the table and they stuck a medium-sized bowl in front of him. The larger bowl of pasta and "gravy" with that wonderful garlic smell was divvied out by Rose Cucurello, the diminutive mom of the household. I could see my dad's expression of fear from the corner of my eye. I feared for the Cucurello household. Big Dan (weighing in at about 350) was in his place, at the head of the table, getting ready to say grace. A few words were mumbled by my not-so-grace-filled Dad under his breath. It was then that Angelina, his partner in prayer (another story), hopped up from the table and grabbed another bowl from the kitchen. This time, it was the butter and pasta for wimps bowl. Archie B. was saved! Boo-hoo!! But...what my dad didn't know was that he needed to pace himself. He fired down the pasta...believe it or not, he'd never even had THAT before! And then came the leg of lamb and all the trimmings! I thought my father was going to die! It was so worth the price of admission, I laugh even now thinking about it.

But that was the end of our garlicky pasta fact, we didn't even have pizza in our house until my dad died. As sad as his death was...there was a silver lining. As he would say, before he was even "cold in the ground," we were concocting all sorts of things in his kitchen.And what did we fire up first on that Irish stove of ours? It wasn't meat and potatoes, that was for darn sure! 'Twas our own bootleg version of Grandma Cucurello's pasta sauce that we'd tried so many times before of course! (Don't tell Dad!) 

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I Can Hardly Wait!

National Geographic's  Africa (1996) is a wonderfully epic series entitled, Africa, which explores the vast regions of this immense continent through the eyes and therefore the lives  of its people. There's a spiritual essence that grips and binds the viewer to the very real day-to-day struggles, the simplicity and the camaraderie of a people fighting for their livelihood, for their day-to-day survival and for an embedded system of beliefs that has endured there for centuries. The cinematography is breathtaking. But what stands out for me is the carefully crafted respectfully told stories within the narative of these productions.

Then comes along a little book with a very strange title: The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. It was placed in my hands and honestly, I gave it little attention at first, setting it aside for the larger stack of books on my list. When I finally got around to it, I fell in love. Precious Ramotswe is a highly endearing character. Kind and confident, she takes on the small problems/mysteries that fall upon her doorstep as a most unlikely private investigator in Botswana. The authentic voice of Precious is most unmistakably captured by Alexander McCall Smith. Imagine that! A white Anglo-Saxon tells the story in the voice of a Botswanan female!

And now, HBO offers its fans the a seven part series beginning March 29th. Facebook has established a 'fans page,' with interviews with the master-storyteller, Smith. He speaks of the idea for the detective agency as a "literary device," a useful tool in exploring the lives of the occasional agency visitor. Small plot lines become entwined in the life and travels of Precious, of course. "Everyday somebody can come in with a fresh issue."

More than a few editors at the SCBWI mid-winter conference challenged authors to think outside their comfort zone. They spoke of creating stories that were less known to them, residing instead in the outer realm of possibility for us all. Stretch ourselves, they said...invent rather than recreate. In my estimation, that is exactly what Alexander McCall Smith has done. He has captured the very nature, the spirit of Botswana in a way that is so very real and appealing. And yet this is no travelogue, no recounting of his own experiences there. Could it be that he is the reincarnated Precious Ramotswe in the body of a 20th century white gentleman? 

Monday, March 16, 2009

Kathleen's Irish Soda Bread Recipe

The story goes that good Irish cooks never measure, so when I took down this recipe at Kathleen's table some twenty-five years ago (on the back of an envelope), I was given that disclaimer. It took me many a try to get it all straight. 

Irish Soda Bread: Preheat the oven to 375*

Sift together: 
2 1/2 C flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 "generous" tsp. baking powder
("a bit of salt") 1 tsp.
"a few" spoons of sugar (3-4)

Cut 3 tbsp. of softened buttered into the dry mix.
Add 3 tsp. caraway seeds
1 egg
1 C buttermilk
1/2 box of raisins ("In good times, I always add more!")

Roll out onto a lightly floured bread board and knead for just a few minutes. Shape and cut with the "sign of the cross" using a sharp knife. ("Always remember to say a small prayer.")

Bake for 45 mins. Serve with a generous amount of butter, and a good hot cup of tea!
I make two loaves at a time and bake them on a greased cookie sheet.

(Be sure to read the story below for a bit more of the backstory on this recipe.)

My thanks to Mrs. Vokes for all the wonderful loaves that were dropped off on our doorway. We never caught you! You were a true Irish rascal!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Sweet Taste of Soda Bread

On any given March 17th one thing in the Murphy household was certain.
Kathleen Vokes would come and go, leaving a warm loaf of Irish soda bread on the front step for sure. My brother and two sisters and I would fight for the chance to be the one to find it there, but in truth...she was a sneaky one, so you just never knew when she'd come.

There were other times too, when Mrs. Vokes would turn up with her soda bread, quite often in fact, for she was the quiet white-haired matriarch in the neighborhood, and she had a very watchful eye and a kind spirit to match. We were a bit of an oddity in our neighborhood, having lost both parents by the time I turned eleven. My brother, ten years older than I, was the breadwinner, as was my sister Carol.  Mrs. Vokes had always played a quiet role in our family, tending to my mom when she was sick...for she herself was a nurse. She'd come up with one of the two daily pain injections, and sometimes Carol would run down to her before the time was up, because Mom was desperate and unable to wait.

But I was oblivious to most of that. Mom died when I was just a bitty girl, and then Dad later.
Mrs. Vokes, to me, was a mystical character. She had wild white hair and pinky toes that stuck out at the ends of her cloth sneakers. She always wore an apron or held a trowel in her hand. She, like my dad, tended that small plot of land as if it were a farm in Ireland. I'd skip down the hill and knock on her door and often find her in either place, the garden or the kitchen, and then I'd be enlisted to roll out the pie dough or dig up some lost bulbs, hidden deep in the soil.
But my favorite, by far, was the making of the Irish soda bread. 

I hadn't seen Mrs. Vokes in many years, having left to go off to college, to begin my first teaching job and to buy a home of my own and have my first baby. But, to my delight, on a trip to my brother's, I discovered her there once more. Matt was just six months old, and so I propped him up on the kitchen table. She was pulling an apple pie out of the oven and so the kettle went on and we talked. I asked her if she'd give me her Irish soda bread recipe, which of course she did. There was no recipe, was a 'bit of this and a bit of that', but I've managed to figure out the this and thats and have made more than a few over the years. 

When I got in my car to leave that day, we were both teary. It'd been so long, and in that short visit, I realized just how much she meant to me as that bitty girl so long ago. As fate would have it, though, my car wouldn't start. We went back in amidst the fitful cries of my little guy, Matthew. He was starving. So, as only she would, she slipped him onto that generous hip of hers and got him smiling and laughing again. But then it all stopped and the crying started again. It was then that I realized the secret incredient of all my visits to Mrs. Vokes. She switched him then from her hip to a seat atop the table, dug into that sugar bowl of hers and shoveled a heaping teaspoonful of the white stuff right into his mouth! I was horrified, but hysterical at the same time. We both laughed and laughed, and Matt's crying of course stopped. Good old Tommy Sullivan rescued us then and we were off on our way. 

Sadly, that was the last time I saw her, but I have a lifetime of memories from that kitchen, some of which are stored in my Middle Grade novel, Forever and Always, a story of a young girl growing up with only a dad, who learns to find mom in the small places, in the stories of people and the events that shape her life, those nooks and crannies of the universe. 

Tomorrow's entry: Mrs. Vokes's Irish Soda Bread Recipe. Stay tuned!

Monday, March 2, 2009

More Will Be Revealed

Tomorrow is the anniversary of Anne Biggins Murphy's birth...circa 1911! Anne Biggins traveled the Atlantic, arriving at Ellis Island from County Mayo at the age of seventeen. She was blonde and beautiful with sparkling blue eyes. And best of all, she had a job waiting for her. She and her sister, traveled by boat. Kathleen, apparently, was so sick, she barely survived the trip, but eventually regained her health over time. Anne's destination was the Atterbury's home in Plainfield, NJ. The Atterbury's were  an influential family connected to the stock market, as far as I know.They lived in what was then considered a mansion in the Sleepy Hollow section of town, known for its grand homes. That was long before my time. I was a late-life baby, the last of four. My mom had lived through my dad's deployment to Normandy, Sicily and North Africa, where he was awarded the silver star for bravery.  She had raised four kids and built a home here with my dad. They were, as people tell me, the most Americanized of our tribe. Mom received her citizenship ten years after she landed and was proud as can be of that. 

But at the age of 46, just three short years after I was born, my mom died. In those days, no one talked about people after they died. Especially the Irish! My mother was a saint, that was all I needed to know. And...she was was watching down on me from heaven. Jeesh! Try stealing an extra cookie or lying to your teacher about homework when you know that. The 'old Irish', as we younguns called them, were always telling me how gorgeous she was and how I was 'the picture of your mother.'
On a trip to Ireland about three years ago, more was revealed. I got more of a picture of the woman, and the land from whence she came. Turns out, she was not a saint! Yay, I can stop trying to live up to that actually hurts to try! She was a spitfire, loved clothes ("a clothes-horse" they called her) and most of all, she loved people. I stood in the white cottage where she was born and got to see her school house down the hill. We drove up onto the small mountaintop to see where my Granny Biggins was born! 

My cousin Marilyn sent me a letter a number of years ago too, telling me how my mom cared for her and for her sister after their mom died, washing her hair and letting it dry out in the sun, and talking them into the next phase of womanhood during their early teenage years. Another cousin, Eilish, a member of the Australian part of the clan told me how my mom had arranged to have her mom come over too. But Nora met her man, and that kept her in Ireland...and then later off to Australia, so that was not to be.

Many angels have shown up in my life over the years, and like my mom, they've left their mark too. I've recently received all her papers in the mail, as I ready myself to apply for my Irish Citizenship. In that group of papers I found of course, her birth and death certificates, her baptismal certificate and her marriage license. That's what it boils down to, as my dad would say. But you know what...she boiled down to a whole lot more to a lot of people. So Happy Birthday, Annie Biggins! The world is a better place because you arrived in it!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

God Loves Penny Candy Too!

Story finds me, even when it's not supposed to. I swear. It's not my fault! Today we had a second collection, and on those days, I  often feel sorry for the very nice man that passes the basket. The second collection is an exercise in futility in these economic times. But that's not what struck me this day.

The basket was passed a few rows in front of me and I watched as a boy of about seven or eight knelt up on the pew and tried to put a couple bucks in after he'd missed his chance in his own row.
He obviously hadn't processed the fact that his mom had given him as many of those  green paper suckers as she did. He stared at the cash with eyes wide. "Whoops!" he said then. And in a flash, he grabbed back a dollar or two from his initial donation. A look of relief and a devilish smile spread over his face once he'd rescued his bucks. It amused me and the man passing the basket, "Candy money!" I whispered. He laughed and I did too. I'd have done the very same thing. That's why my dad never trusted me with more than a nickel, a dime or once in a big while, a quarter! 
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