On Making French Onion Soup

It was a rainy day. A drizzle in the beginning, and then a downpour.

“The earth needs a drink of water,” Anna said. This is how I explained rain to her, once upon a time, and she remembered.

I don’t mind rainy days. Every now and then, especially during summertime, it’s refreshing to take a break from sunscreen, water bottles and hours-long outdoor fun (swimming! sandboxes! biking!) and simply hang out.

Read on the front porch. Watch a movie. Go to the coffee shop (my personal favorite).

Or make French onion soup, as I recently did.

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For Christmas, my brother Jared gave me a copy of The Skinnytaste Cookbook by Gina Homolka. I’ve made several recipes from it since then, and liked them all. My favorite one probably is the recipe for French onion soup.

Do you like French onion soup, friends? It might be an acquired taste; I don’t know.

When I was growing up, there was a local restaurant called Jim Dandy’s. My family and I often dined there. And when we did, I ordered their French onion soup. It was hot and cheesy—what was there not to love? Jim Dandy’s made me fall, hard, for French onion soup.

The foods we prefer now, as adults, usually are the ones we loved as children. It’s why, even at the swankiest restaurants, you often find some version of macaroni and cheese on the menu. Sure, maybe it features bites of lobster. Maybe it boasts Beaufort D’Ete. But you know, and the restaurant knows, that underneath all the glamour and gourmet ingredients, you’ll take a bite and happily remember the Kraft version your mom or dad threw together way back when.

So I recreated that happy childhood memory—French onion soup—that rainy day.

But you know, and the restaurant knows, that underneath all the glamour and gourmet ingredients, you’ll take a bite and happily remember the Kraft version your mom or dad threw together way back when.

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The Skinnytaste recipe for French onion soup estimates that it takes about an hour and a half to cook, start to finish.

I read once that you can’t rush soup…and the home cook in me begs to differ. You can rush pretty much anything if you’re hungry enough, friends.

In this recipe, the onions go through three stages of cooking: 1) softening, 2) caramelizing and 3) simmering. Each stage is supposed to consist of 30 minutes each, but I’ve found you can get the job done in about 25 minutes per stage.

It’s pretty cool, I think, to watch onions transform through softening in the beginning…

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and then caramelizing…

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and finally simmering. I took this picture before adding the dry sherry, white wine and beef stock…but hopefully, you get a sense of the distinctions in the three stages here:

IMG_4721

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I didn’t really start cooking until after Grace was born. Before parenthood, Stanton and I loved trying out different local restaurants together, and becoming regulars at our favorites. Given the choice, I still would rather make a reservation than make dinner. 😉

Over the years, though, I have found a fulfillment in feeding the people I love. There must be something innate or biological about this, because I really do love eating out. But when Grace or Anna ask for a second helping of the pasta and meatballs I make every week, or the dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets we always have on hand in the freezer (that counts as semi-homemade, right?)…I feel good.

Given the choice, I still would rather make a reservation than make dinner.

Grace and Stanton share similar tastes. Basically, they both love red meat. Burgers, steak, tacos. Grace’s favorite fast-food chain is Five Guys. Do they like my French onion soup? The answer is no, although they will politely have a few spoonfuls. Anna, however, will sit down and enjoy a bowl with me.

Because French onion soup isn’t a crowd favorite in my house, I don’t make it all the time. Just on chance rainy days.

“Some people walk in the rain; others just get wet.” (Roger Miller)

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I didn’t think, when I was younger, that I would grow up into the kind of person who makes soup on a rainy day, and enjoys it. Instead of, say, the kind of person who does something just a bit more interesting.

In the moment, as we’re living life, it’s easy to forget the value in our many, seemingly mundane tasks. Preparing food for a family. Answering the phone when a friend calls, even though we don’t have much time to talk. Helping a co-worker save face. Waving another driver into our lane from the parking lot, even though it means we may not make the green light ahead.

It’s also easy to forget, or maybe not even consider, that who we are now…what we’re doing right now…maybe this is what was meant to be all along, even if the route to our current destination was circuitous, confusing or all-out crazy.

I’m not a great cook. I can’t create a recipe like I can create story. What I can do is (mostly) follow a recipe. I can make sure nobody is hungry. I can offer second helpings and listen to what happened during everyone’s day, and share some of my own.

I offered our neighbor, who told me she had a cold, some French onion soup. She said thanks, but no thanks. “I never really got into French onion soup,” she said.

“It’s an acquired taste,” I agreed.

Anna, who was with me, crossed her arms. “My mom?” she said to our neighbor. “Her soup is delicious.”

Our neighbor laughed; I did too. It’s nice to have somebody in your corner. “I’ll have to give it another try,” she said.

“It’s OK if you don’t,” I assured her.

Some things are acquired tastes.

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

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Coincidence (or Fate) and a Few Wrong Turns: A San Francisco Story

About 17 years ago, I was standing outside a high school in my Pennsylvania hometown. It was a Saturday morning, and I was waiting to take the SAT II’s, in Writing and Math. At that time (and maybe still today), the majority of colleges didn’t require SAT II scores in addition to the much more familiar SAT scores. But a college I was interested in—the University of Richmond—did.

Like other writers before me, math has never been an intuitive skill of mine. There are times, today, when I’ll catch a glimpse of one of Stanton’s Excel worksheets on his laptop, chock-full of line after line of numbers and budget items for his job, and my eyes will literally glaze over. Excel = my cure for any bout of insomnia.

So 17 years ago, I was feeling confident about the SAT II in Writing, and concerned about the Math one. Part of my concern stemmed from my unfamiliarity with my new graphing calculator, which my handy SAT II prep booklet had instructed me to bring to the testing site that morning. What were all these buttons for again? Sine, cosine…I was pretty clueless.

Standing outside that sunny morning, I noticed a girl. She was tall and blonde, and—I’m relying on an old memory here, but I believe this next part is true, too—had a large supply of No. 2 pencils. This girl looked prepared, I thought. She also looked like a person who would know how to work the sine and cosine buttons on my calculator. I walked over to find out if she did.

As it turned out, the answer was yes. She was warm, friendly, helpful. She helped me with my calculator. We chatted some more, and I discovered she also was applying to and hoping to attend the University of Richmond. Popular colleges for high schoolers in our part of Pennsylvania include Lehigh University, Penn State and St. Joe’s in Philadelphia. It was extremely coincidental (or, perhaps, fate) that I bumped into anyone else thinking about that particular school in Richmond, Va.

As it turned out, the answer was yes.

Allison and I ended up heading six hours south and attending the University of Richmond together. She was my first friend in college. When she invited Stanton (whom I met in college, and whom Allison knows well, too) and me to her wedding in San Diego, this past weekend, we very much wanted to be there for her, if possible.

Flying from our home in New York across the country to California—that’s a bit of a trip, friends. Not a problem, but a bit of a trip, East Coast to West. Coincidentally, Allison’s wedding date fell around the same time as our 10-year wedding anniversary. Stanton and I decided to combine our good friend’s happy day with a mini vacation of our own—several days in Napa, by way of San Francisco. We flew out to the Golden State earlier that week.

Before we left for our West Coast adventure, my dad gave me his copy of the AAA TourBook for Northern California. I smiled with affection, and some amusement. Does anyone but a dad still actually have these kinds of hard-copy guide books and maps anymore? We’ve got our phones with access to Google, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Uber. A guide book I could hold in my hand—of course my dad had one.

I did read through my dad’s AAA TourBook, but the Millennial in me couldn’t help but turn to Yelp for a first-morning-in-Northern-California breakfast spot recommendation. Yelp recommended the Beanstalk Café, not far from our hotel in Union Square—lots of good reviews, opening soon at 8 a.m., sounded perfect. Stanton consulted Google Maps on his phone for directions.

Seconds later, we trekked up one of San Francisco’s famous hilly streets for breakfast, my dad’s guide book tucked away in my carry-on back at the hotel.

I smiled with affection, and some amusement. Does anyone but a dad still actually have these kinds of hard-copy guide books and maps anymore?

If you ever find yourself near Union Square in San Francisco, the Beanstalk Café is a solid choice for breakfast. Stanton and I both enjoyed their signature toast cups (bacon-wrapped scrambled eggs baked within bread—I could have eaten another one!) and coffee. I’ve enjoyed a lot of coffee, in a lot of places, and this place’s coffee is amazing.

Now, I wasn’t planning on writing this post. If I was, then I would have taken a picture of my toast cup to show you, friends. I would have been that person styling and photographing her food (typical Millennial behavior, right, Dad?), instead of doing what generations before us have done with food—putting it in their mouth, and chewing.

But one hour into our San Francisco excursion, things took a turn for the story-worthy. (You never do know when your life is about to take a turn for the story-worthy, do you?)

Stanton and I had been to California before (San Diego, both of us; Monterey, just him), but never to San Francisco. Of course, we wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge; we had to. Also on the itinerary my Type A self had prepared weeks ago: A drive by 2311 Broadway, the house where Party of Five, one of my favorite TV shows, had been filmed.

“Ugh, Party of Five,” Stanton said, as we walked out of the Beanstalk Café.

“Come on, it will be fun!”

“What will you do there, Mel?”

“I just want to see it, Stan.”

Stanton grumbled a bit more about my ‘90s nostalgia and enduring affection for Scott Wolf. Then we came upon a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station. Stanton gestured. “Let’s take the subway to the Golden Gate Bridge, and then we’ll take an Uber to Fisherman’s Wharf to pick up our rental car.”

Stanton grumbled a bit more about my ‘90s nostalgia and enduring affection for Scott Wolf.

“Why don’t we just take an Uber to both places?”

“Mel, the subway is right here.”

I frowned. “How about a trolley, or cable car? Those things are much more San Francisco.”

“But the subway is here, honey.”

Reluctantly, I fell into step with Stanton as we made our way down. “You know I don’t like being underground.”

“I do. You’ll be fine.”

We walked past a gentleman playing lively music on his guitar, as well as several folks engaged in questionable activities. “I’m also concerned about earthquakes.” I grabbed Stanton’s hand.

“The chances of that happening…”

Huh…I witnessed a few more questionable activities. “Stanton. I am officially out of my comfort zone.”

Stanton squeezed my hand. “We’re fine, Mel. I’ll just buy our tickets, and we’ll be at Golden Gate in no time.”

And when Stanton asked the lady behind the Information Desk how to get to the location, that’s how he described it: “Golden Gate.” (A mistake, as we would later learn.)

“Take the N train,” she told us.

“N?” Stanton repeated.

She nodded. “N as in ‘nasty.’”

The N as in ‘nasty’ train, friends…that should have been our first clue.

The lady directed Stanton to hold his ticket against an electronic reader. He did, and then walked through the turnstile.

“And what should I do?” I asked the lady.

She peered through her glasses at me. “Follow him.” (This is a direct quote.)

Follow him. Stanton and I would later joke that this was not the best advice anyone ever gave me.

But I didn’t know then what I know now. So I followed him, friends.

Stanton and I would later joke that this was not the best advice anyone ever gave me.

Two other things we should have asked that lady: 1) The N as in ‘nasty’ inbound or outbound train? We didn’t know, and we needed to know. And 2) at which station did we get off the train? Two major questions.

We ended up on the outbound train—an educated guess. Then I asked another rider where we should exit to see Golden Gate.

“The park, or the bridge?”

I smiled blankly. “Excuse me?”

“Golden Gate Park, or Golden Gate Bridge?” this lady said in accented English. “They are two different places.”

“Are they pretty close to each other?” Stanton asked, nodding optimistically.

The lady shook her head. “No.”

I looked at Stanton. “We have no idea where we’re going. Let’s get off this train.”

Stanton grunted his agreement, and we got off at the next stop. We walked back up to street level.

Have you ever seen the movie My Cousin Vinny? There’s a scene in which the title character’s girlfriend, played by the excellent Marisa Tomei, notes that she and her New York City-accented, leather-jacket-wearing boyfriend “don’t blend” in the small-town Alabama setting they’ve found themselves in.

Let me tell you, friends: Wherever in San Francisco we were that morning, at that moment, Stanton and I didn’t blend.

“Stanton…”

“I know, I know, I’m getting an Uber now.”

And then, like many a wife has done during a romantic getaway with her better half, I looked at my husband and hissed, “You did this to us. This is your fault.”

Never one to lose his cool (except when watching his beloved San Antonio Spurs), Stanton continued tapping at his phone.

“We have no idea where we’re going.”

Minutes later, we hopped into our Uber ride. “My husband may have mixed this up when he called you,” I said to the driver, as Stanton shook his head, “but we’d like to go to the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge, not the park.”

“OK,” the driver said, confirming the information with his phone. He picked up another passenger, and we were off.

We drove along, and drove along some more. Then I noticed a street sign: Broadway. We continued along Broadway, a thoroughfare lined on both sides with gorgeously maintained Victorians. “Stan…oh, my gosh.”

“Mel, you should feel completely fine here…”

“No, no.” I scrolled through my itinerary (in an emailed “note to self”) and smiled. “This is the street the Party of Five house is on!”

The driver stopped and dropped off the other passenger at a home across the street from the site of the Salinger family’s many and varied dramas. (One of my favorite quotes from the series: “She’s a juvenile delinquent, Bai!” –Will to Bailey, regarding fun but troubled Jill, in the first season.)

“What are the chances?!” I rolled down the window and took a bunch of pictures, as any bona fide fan would do. Here’s one of them, for all the other Scott Wolf, Matthew Fox and Neve Campbell (circa 1994–2000) fans out there:

1_Party of Five

“I can’t believe that happened,” I said, as we began driving through Pacific Heights again. “That was the craziest coincidence. The subway, the N as in ‘nasty’ train, the wrong stop…all of that led to this.”

“I’m glad you’re happy, honey.”

“And I’m not upset with you anymore, Stan.”

“That’s good, too.”

Finally, we arrived at the Golden Gate Bridge. Here’s the picture of that, because you can’t go to San Francisco for the first time and not get a picture of yourself against the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge.

2_Golden Gate Bridge

A breathtaking place.

Stanton and I both loved walking the nature trails of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area surrounding the bridge. The setting, along the deep-blue Pacific Ocean, is amazingly gorgeous and refreshing. We could have stayed all day, simply walking and listening to the waves breaking.

We had to get to Fisherman’s Wharf, though, to pick up our rental car and head to Napa for a wine tasting reservation. Another Uber, please.

(A travel tip, for those who may not know: It’s difficult to find parking in San Francisco, and it can be expensive to park in the city, too. For example, it would have cost us about $60 to park a car at our Union Square hotel overnight, for just one night. Thus, we didn’t want to pick up our rental car until we were ready to drive it out of the city.)

I asked this Uber driver to bring us to Ghirardelli Square, which (according to my dad’s TourBook) was an easy walk to Fisherman’s Wharf. “The original Ghirardelli Chocolate Company is there,” the chocoholic in me informed the driver. He smiled politely, but didn’t seem interested.

Soon after, he pulled over at a busy intersection. Stanton and I exchanged a glance. “Is this Ghirardelli Square?” I asked him.

He smiled politely again, and pointed to his phone. “My phone says it is.”

My phone says it is. Even the Millennial in me will agree (as my dad certainly would) that there’s something unfortunate about that statement, about that philosophy. Stanton and I hopped out, crossed the street, and did indeed find Ghirardelli Square close by.

We enjoyed walking through the elegant space…

3_Outside Ghirardelli Square

…and partaking in Ghirardelli chocolate treats inside the red-brick building. (Impossible to resist.)

4_Inside Ghirardelli Chocolate

Fisherman’s Wharf, nearby, was much more tourist-y, but still fun to see. There was a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! on Jefferson Street, and any time I see one of those, I sense I’m in Tourist Trap Central. (Can you believe the hills?)

5_Fisherman's Wharf

We picked up our car, then bags at the hotel, and headed to Napa. On our drive back to San Francisco later that week, Stanton and I exited before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge in order to explore the national recreation area again, this time on the north—we love this place. Absolutely beautiful. We conferred with our phones and my dad’s TourBook to find directions, and were mostly successful.

6_North Tower

However, we inadvertently drove into Sausalito, a lovely coastal town opposite San Francisco. It felt like a “hidden gem” find to us. The pace is a little more laid-back, and parking is easier. We had dinner at the Salsalito Taco Shop (gotta love that pun)—a seafood platter for Stanton, some lettuce wraps with chicken and veggies for me (pictured below).

7_Salsalito Taco Shop

How do we end up where we do? On a visit to an unfamiliar city…on a Saturday morning taking the SAT II’s…wherever we find ourselves right now, this very minute?

Some of us may believe that a life is a series of events, strung together across many years, a random collection of people, places and things. Life as chance, as coincidence. A valid point of view, to be sure.

Others of us may believe that some things are meant to be. That people, places and things come into a life for reasons. Even if the reason is simply to surprise and delight us with the apparent craziness of the moment (my Party of Five house moment), so that we can remind ourselves to smile, take a breath, have a little faith.

Have a little faith in the goodness of life, the beauty and resilience of it, and in the goodness of the people who surround us.

Or maybe life is a little of both, part coincidence, part fate.

I’m not going to make a case for one point of view or the other. I am, after all, the person who still isn’t quite sure how to use a graphing calculator, 17 years later. What do I know?

…smile, take a breath, have a little faith.

One thing I do know. This past weekend, my husband and I attended our good friend’s wedding. Allison looked radiant as she walked down the aisle holding the arms of her mom and dad. I felt tears come to my eyes.

I was happy for her, that she had found the perfect person for herself. I was grateful for our friendship, our love for each other.

(Because what good is anything—a special occasion, an ordinary day, a misadventure on a San Francisco subway that becomes a story—if you don’t have friends and family to share that journey with, and reminisce and laugh about it with later?)

Most of all, I was happy to be there.

Whatever coincidence, or fate, may have contributed to my being there, at that moment, to share in joy, friendship and all the good things that words often struggle to explain, and math and science can’t quantify…but that move us in life, and that we remember for years…

I was happy to find myself there.

(P.S. Congratulations and best wishes to the newlyweds. We love you. ❤ )

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

You’re Not Subtle, and I’m Not an Idiot: On 10 Years of Marriage

Tomorrow, Stanton and I are celebrating our 10-year wedding anniversary. You’ll excuse me, friends, for taking a moment here to reminisce.

We got married in my Pennsylvania hometown, early spring a decade ago. It was a beautiful day, filled with family and friends. Italian pepper cookies (a Minetola family favorite), as well as a rendition of “God Blessed Texas” (a nod to Stanton’s San Antonio roots), were involved.

Afterward, we honeymooned on the Costa del Sol. One morning, we took a ferry from southern Spain to Morocco, to spend the day there. I remember setting out at sunrise, the mint tea when we arrived, the adventure of it all.

2_Wedding Day

What most sticks out in my memory, though, is getting seasick on the ferry ride back.

That’s true love for you, am I right? One minute you’re #livingthedream; the next, you’re asking your partner to find a barf bag, ASAP.

😉

You know, I really do believe that’s true love. Oprah may have said it best: “Everyone wants to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.”

During 10 years, our limo has broken down a time or two. And it probably will break down a time or two again; we’re only 10 years in. At this point, Stanton and I have seen each other at our worst, at our most vulnerable, in our darkest hour. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has always been worth the effort and the journey.

What have been helpful to Stanton and me all this time, I think—and what we want to pass along to our children—are gratitude, humility and hard work. Values that our own parents lived out for us. We try to embrace and enjoy every day, and we also recognize real life is not an endless joy ride.

Speaking of which…

One minute you’re #livingthedream; the next, you’re asking your partner to find a barf bag, ASAP.

Stanton and I met at a party, in college in Virginia. Our good mutual friend David introduced us. David has since passed away, sadly, but I still smile at the memory of him, and the memory of that young, innocent time we all had together.

At that party, David was talking with me, plus my other girl friends. Stanton told me later that he saw his friend David across the room and thought, “What’s David doing with all those girls? I’ve got more game than him.” A healthy level of self-confidence (possibly fueled by some Milwaukee’s Best) prompted Stanton to join our group and introduce himself to me.

(We’ll always love you, friend.)

1_After College

College parties, your wedding day, ferry rides across international seas—they’re all more “special occasion” than “real life.” As anyone who has been married for a while knows, marriage is made up of more ordinary moments than special occasions. Real life is working…grocery shopping…taking your car for its state inspection and hoping it passes. If you have kids, then real life also includes less sleep and more worry.

One evening recently, Stanton and I were in the family room (10 years later, we’ve landed in New York’s Capital Region). Grace and Anna were upstairs; they had both just fallen asleep. The TV was on, quietly, tuned in to a “Parks and Rec” rerun. (Maybe one day we’ll watch something new, something we haven’t already seen hundreds of times—maybe.)

Neither of us was watching the show, though. Stanton was replying to a work email, and I was folding the girls’ laundry.

Not. Glamorous. But this is exactly what was happening.

I had music on in the background, and a new-ish country song started playing: “Unforgettable,” Thomas Rhett.

This is one of the things Stanton and I bonded over, when we were getting to know each other: our love of country music.

“And I bet right now you’re thinking/ That it’s crazy I remember every detail, but I do”—these lyrics from that song can get stuck in my head.

Everyone says it, and they say it because it’s true: I can’t believe how much you’ve grown. I can’t believe how much time has passed. It feels like just yesterday.

It feels like just yesterday to me too, friends. College—studying at Boatwright, weekend pizza dates at Mary Angela’s in Carytown. Our first home. The births of our daughters. Saying good-bye to our grandfathers, his Grandaddy and my Poppy. Being there for each other, for a lot of things.

Everything.

In that moment—that ordinary moment when we were together in the family room, doing nothing special—I looked over at Stanton and told him I loved him. I interrupted the relative quiet to say it; it was different from saying, “Love you!” as you’re both leaving the house, going in opposite directions. Stanton knew that; he replied, “I love you too, Mel.”

I feel a lot of gratitude for ordinary moments like that. For our home, for our family, for our history together. For those end-of-day, “Parks and Rec”-rerun moments.

Maybe one day we’ll watch something new, something we haven’t already seen hundreds of times—maybe.

I have just one more story to share. I don’t want to overdo it in the sappiness department. So here’s my last story, friends.

About halfway into our marriage, Stanton and I were on a date. Dinner. The place was an Italian restaurant.

We were talking, eating, drinking some wine. I said something—I don’t remember what—and Stanton narrowed his eyes at me.

“What?” I asked. WP_20160904_019

“I hear you,” Stanton said. “If that’s what you want, then OK, we’ll do it.”

I narrowed my eyes back at me. “I didn’t say that. What are you talking about?”

“Mel.” Stanton sighed. “I know you. I can read between the lines; you’re not subtle. And,” he added, “I’m not an idiot.”

I like to think I communicate well with people—I try to be diplomatic, to listen and empathize. What was revealing for me in that moment with Stanton is that he knows me—he really knows me. My diplomacy doesn’t work on him (anymore).

And that was an encouraging revelation, the revelation that I can be myself with him. I can be totally honest with him, and he’ll still stick around.

Every now and then, it’s also worthwhile to remember that you did not, in fact, marry an idiot.

😉

Happy Anniversary to my hubby. Thank you for loving me, for everything you do for our family, for reading everything I write and providing constant encouragement (and great raw material).

You make me happy—and you drive me crazy—but most of all, you make me happy. ❤

“I sing to you. Not all the time, but definitely on special occasions. We’ve dealt with our share of surprises and made a lot of sacrifices, but we’ve stayed together. You see, you’re a better person than I am. And it made me a better person to be around you.” (The Family Man)

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

 

When a Picture Falls Out of a Book

One corner of my kitchen countertop is a mess, always. Stuff just accumulates there.

My daughters’ ponytail holders. My Us Weekly magazines (I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit, I’ve been a subscriber, off and on, for years). Stanton’s various electronic gadgets. Pens, batteries, coupons, Shopkins, the occasional card. Lots…of…stuff.

The other day, I tried to clean up some of the stuff. Scoop the ponytail holders into a drawer. Recycle the magazines. Then I picked up an overstuffed file folder and a coming-unbound book—“Chocolatina” by Erik Kraft, one of the girls’ favorites—and a picture fluttered out of the jumble of paper and pages.

This picture:

When a Picture Falls Out

This picture shows my three siblings and me with our mom and her parents, our Poppy and Grandma. I’m the cute one. Just kidding, friends. 😉 I’m the one wearing the orange shirt.

My brother Josh is making bunny ears on my head. My other brother, Jared (in the striped shirt), would grow up to become the cute one. My sister Jenna is resting her head on the table.

I’m not sure whose birthday we’re celebrating here. If one of them is reading this, maybe they’ll help me out. (Hint, hint…)

I emailed this picture to my family, along with some old friends who have been around us Minetolas so long, and sat at that kitchen table with us so much, that they, too, know all the characters in this story.

Jared replied all: “photo cred: John Minetola?” That would be my dad, and I replied that yes, I thought so. Otherwise, he would have been in the picture.

This was before the selfie stick era, you know.

When this picture fell out of that book, I wasn’t expecting it. But instantly, after I picked it up, I smiled.

I smiled because it was a happy memory. Not a perfect memory—whose birthday cake was that?—but a happy one, because we were all there together. And I’m grateful that we still do gather around that table, many years later, for dinners and rounds of Uno and other normal, nothing-special moments that actually are special in their togetherness.

Poppy, of course, has since passed way, five years ago now. I miss him, but I know he’s in a good place.

I do wish he could have been here to have met Anna. I know he would have loved everything about her—every little thing, from her dimples to the mischievous twinkle in her eye, which is exactly like his.

Poppy did have a chance to meet Grace, about a year and a half before he died. I will always remember the way he leaned over to her—an old man with glasses, looking with big love at my baby—and said, “I hope you live to be 90.” Grace looked back, and I like to think she understood what he said.

Sometimes, our best pictures are the ones we don’t take. But our memories, strong and enduring, of times that touched our hearts and stay with us forever.

“I hope you live to be 90.”

In her book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” Marie Kondo writes that it can be difficult to organize pictures. Not only do we file them into photo albums, but we also stick them into books as bookmarks, or magnet them to the refrigerator, or pull them out of our photo albums to send to loved ones. Our pictures…end up…everywhere.

Have you ever opened a book, or knocked a day planner to the floor, and a picture or other memento fell out, rousing a memory?

What did you remember, friends?

Reflecting on a past moment, we might slip on our rose-colored glasses. We might romanticize a time, long gone, that we struggled through in real time, years ago.

I’ve had my moments with rose-colored glasses, and romanticism too. I’ve had my moments, friends.

People aren’t perfect. We aren’t perfect. Life is beautiful, and it’s also humbling.

Life is both/and; shades of gray, not black and white.

Our pictures…end up…everywhere.

Poppy loved nature. The older I get, the more I love and seek it out too.

Last week, my parents were in town for the girls’ winter break. One morning, I brought my dad and Grace to Five Rivers, a nearby nature park. We spent some time bird-watching at the visitor center, using binoculars to look out the expansive windows. We spotted many eastern bluebirds, and even an opossum.

“Poppy would have loved this,” my dad said.

I agreed.

“The best thing about a picture,” Andy Warhol said, “is that it never changes, even when the people in it do.” I loved seeing Poppy again in the picture that fell out of the book. I so appreciated remembering him, too, when I was bird-watching with my dad and my daughter.

Years from now, I wonder if my daughters will stumble upon an old picture, or frayed certificate of participation that I saved—a memento of some kind. So much of our life is digitized now, but we still keep hard copies of this and that here and there.

I wonder what Grace and Anna might find. I wonder what they’ll remember.

I hope they’ll skim over the imperfect parts. The persistent morning rush and end-of-day crankiness. My forgetting Anna’s teddy bear on “Bring Your Teddy Bear to Preschool Day” (that happened yesterday), Stanton’s coming home later than he’d said (two nights ago).

I hope they’ll skim over those parts, and remember that we loved them. At the very least, that we tried.

That is, after all, what families do: Love. Work. Play. Be there for one another. Try.

This quote made me laugh, so I’ll end with it, for your enjoyment too: “My whole family is lactose intolerant, and when we take pictures, we can’t say, ‘Cheese.’” –Jay London

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

Book Review: The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille

The Cuban Affair Book CoverIn my high school history classes, I remember learning about Mesopotamia (the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, fourth millennium B.C.); the Magna Carta (England, 1215); and World War I. In college, I took a course called Greek and Roman Values to satisfy my history requirement. I didn’t get much formal education regarding current events post-November 11, 1918.

This is why, in large part, I enjoyed Nelson DeMille’s new novel, “The Cuban Affair” (September 2017), so much. I learned so much intriguing history about Cuba, and the international politics surrounding it, in DeMille’s work of fiction.

DeMille traveled to Cuba as field research for this book, and he wonderfully incorporates the local colors and flavors from that trip into “The Cuban Affair.” As I read this book, I really felt Cuba. DeMille engaged all my senses with his descriptions of the climate, architecture and overall feel of the Caribbean island nation. Also, I didn’t realize how close Cuba is to Key West, Florida: just 90 miles.

I really enjoyed learning about Key West too. As always, DeMille gives his main character, Mac, a former military man, a wry sense of humor. (I don’t think you can write a Nelson DeMille book review and not use the word “wry.”) I loved Mac’s wry description of his bar hangout in Key West, occurring early in the novel: “The place was starting to fill up…Freaks, geeks, loveable weirdos, and a few Hemingway look-alikes. He used to live here, and you can see his house for ten bucks. You can see mine for free. Bring a six-pack.” These words helped me see the scene Mac inhabits, and gave me a sense of Key West’s laid-back, quasi-Lost Generation vibe.

I found Mac to be a fairly well-developed character. I appreciated his social-cultural reflections on Maine, where he grew up, and his current hometown of Key West, along with his perspective on military life and, by extension, Afghanistan. Mac struck me as a man who had been to war, as his character was intended. Two examples of Mac’s reflections: “Close by was the Zero Mile Marker for U.S. Highway One, the literal end of the road that started in Maine. I’ve had a lot of profound thoughts about that, usually fueled by a few beers,” and “Portland, though, was a good place to grow up and it’s a good place to grow old. It’s the years in between that are a challenge to some people.” (Pretty deep, right? I found myself reflecting on my own “years in between.”)

At the same time, Mac seemed older than 35, the age he was supposed to be. That’s pretty much how old I am, and some of his character behaviors (or lack of behaviors) didn’t ring true to me.

For example, Mac didn’t have cell phone service in Cuba. Shouldn’t that have driven him crazy? Not being able to text, not logging in to Facebook, not playing Hearthstone? Also, Mac goes out of his way to make snide remarks about novelist Richard Neville, who is a thinly veiled fictional version of Nelson DeMille (I love how DeMille made the last names similar!). DeMille may have been having some fun with his storied alter ego, but it was hard for me to believe Mac really would have cared enough about Richard Neville to prank him with a sweaty Hemingway T-shirt.

Much of the plot of “The Cuban Affair,” once Mac gets to Cuba, depends on a series of circuitous events happening. All these events—from hoped-for encounters to code words to restored Buicks—seem a little convoluted. None of that bothered me, though, because I so appreciated the taste of Cuba and U.S./Cuban history that DeMille serves up in his engaging story. I believe, though, that you need to read this story with some suspension of disbelief. Don’t think too critically about the practicality of the various plot points, and you’ll enjoy it.

It’s a fun story, overall, and funny too. Later in the story, the anti-Castro Cuban “godfather” Eduardo explains to Mac, “‘Almost all Cubans believed that the Castro regime would not last more than a year. That the Americans would not allow a Communist country to exist off its shores’”—to which Mac sardonically considers, “Why not? We’ve got California and Vermont.” I laughed out loud, friends. Why not, indeed?

As an aside, I liked the cover design. I thought the turquoise background featuring red palm trees, one of which showed Mac’s boat, correlated beautifully with the story. Turquoise brings to mind the Florida Keys; red signals Communism. The bright color palette stands out from DeMille’s previous books, many of which present darker, more ominous palettes (“The General’s Daughter,” “Plum Island,” “Up Country”).

I have read nearly all of DeMille’s books, and “The Cuban Affair” is one of my favorites because, to me, it felt fresh and different. I also sensed the hours upon hours of research DeMille had put into this Cuban adventure, and I appreciated that a lot. “The Cuban Affair” is a worthy read.

Photo credit: Simon & Schuster

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

The Christmas Presents I Remember

Yesterday morning, Anna and I stopped by our local post office. While Anna munched on crackers and thumbed through a display of bubble mailers, I addressed several flat-rate envelopes and stuck the last of our Christmas presents for family and friends inside. I felt two emotions at the same time—hope, that everyone would like what I’d picked out for them; and relief, that my Christmas shopping and boxing was now (literally!) wrapped up.

For all its festiveness, the end of the year can be a stressful time. Arranging get-togethers and travel plans with loved ones. Finishing work projects. And buying presents. Always…buying…presents.

To be honest, I love picking out presents for people. I especially love doing this for my daughters. Stanton and I are so looking forward to Friday morning, when the girls will open our Christmas presents for them before we drive to my mom and dad’s house in Pennsylvania.

I think Grace will love the blue watch we got her—actually, I know she will, because she told me that’s what she wanted: “a blue watch.” And I can picture Anna’s eyes lighting up when she opens her box of dress-up headpieces. And I picture…ripped wrapping paper on the hardwood floor; hot chocolate with marshmallows in mugs on the coffee table; and staying in our pajamas longer than we ever would on a normal Friday morning.

I thought back to my own childhood. I tried to remember, what were some of my favorite Christmas presents? I thought harder…

christmas-present

What came to mind, instantly—and as clearly as if it had just happened—was my parents’ living room. There was ripped wrapping paper there, too. And my Dad with a big Hefty bag, cleaning up.

I remembered my Dad.

And my Mom. In my memory, my Mom was sitting on the couch, holding a cup of coffee because she’d been up until 2 a.m. wrapping all the presents and baking the last of our Christmas cookies. Although I didn’t know it at the time.

Kids never know, until much later, all the things their moms and dads did for them.

My Dad and my Mom.

My brothers and sister, too—I remembered them. We were all there together. Later that day, my grandparents would come over…and other family and friends…and we’d celebrate Christmas all day long.

I remembered all those things very clearly.

Not one single Christmas present, however, is a clear memory. (Sorry, Mom and Dad!)

Kids never know, until much later, all the things their moms and dads did for them.

Christmas presents are fun—the giving and the getting. They’re especially fun for kids. It’s unfortunate, though, that some of the things related to the fun and festivity of this season can be stressful.

So if you’re feeling stressed right now, friends…if you still haven’t addressed all your Christmas cards (me neither!)…or wrapped your kids’ presents…or crossed off some lingering end-of-year to-do’s…take a breath. Take a moment.

Remember.

What the people you love will remember…is YOU. That you were there.

That you cared.

They love YOU.

Merry Christmas, all. 🙂

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “This Is Just a Story.” Fun, timely and thought-provoking.

Glitter, Tea and the UPS Guy: This Is Christmas

My desk is covered in specks of greeting-card glitter. Every evening for the past week, I’ve been writing out Christmas cards, a handful at a time, in the cozy corner space where I usually work on my magazine articles, blog posts and short stories. Maybe I’ll have everything mailed before the middle of next week—maybe.

As I scroll though my list of addresses, the names of family members and friends evoke memories of times, places and seasons in my life. Jenna, my sister—Pennsylvania, our childhood; and now New York, our new, shared home turf. Rick and Sara, college friends—Virginia. Steve and Dulce, San Antonio, the first years of our marriage. Every name a memory, and a gratitude I feel for love and friendship that stand the tests of time and space.

This year, I scooped up several boxes of Christmas cards during a buy-one-get-one-free sale at Hallmark. Stanton and I are still patiently waiting for my e-books to top Amazon’s bestseller lists; until then, we won’t say no to a bargain. 😉

Every name a memory, and a gratitude I feel for love and friendship that stand the tests of time and space.

Last week, I lost my voice—a cold going around, friends here guessed. I usually end each day with a cup of tea (accompanied by a piece of dark chocolate). Last week, I drank more tea than usual.

I fell in love with tea three Decembers ago, when Stanton and I escaped for a post-Christmas weekend getaway at a country bed-and-breakfast. The B&B hosted an afternoon tea time featuring Mighty Leaf, a richly flavorful whole-leaf tea. My go-to brands these days are Tazo and Yogi, which are satisfying without being budget-breaking.

That weekend at the B&B was when I felt first a tug in my heart to consider a little sibling for Grace, who was about 2½ at the time. The first year of parenthood had been hard for me, and for Stanton too. We fumbled with questions about how our new roles as “Mom” and “Dad” related to our relationship with each other, and our careers. And we struggled with issues that affect many first-time parents, from sleep to money to depression (OK, that was just me).

Two and a half years later, though, our family life had settled into a good rhythm. We agreed that another family member would be wonderful, if it was meant to be.

It was, and it is. I am so thankful, especially during this time of the year.

glitter

Like other moms I know, I’d rather do almost anything other than shop in a store with my kids. (“Mom, can I have this?” “Mom, I want that!” “Waaaahhh!”)

Thus, I did the majority of my Christmas shopping online this year. Amazon is a perennial favorite, of course. I also found great gifts (and sales!) at the Eddie Bauer, Pottery Barn Kids and Williams-Sonoma websites.

Our local UPS deliveryman is starting to feel like a friend, he’s been bringing packages to our front door so much lately.

The only downside to all my online Christmas shopping: The girls want to open the packages now.

“Not all the presents inside are for you,” I tried to tell them.

“We don’t care,” Grace sweetly replied. “We are so curious.”

“Geor! Geor!” exclaimed Anna. (Curious George, her point of reference.)

Glitter, tea and the UPS guy: This is my Christmas, friends.

Tell me about yours.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “This Is Just a Story.” Fun, timely and thought-provoking.