New traditions on St. Patrick’s Day

The day before St. Patrick’s Day, I called my mother to ask for her corned beef and cabbage recipe. I had never made the traditional holiday dish before and decided this would be the year to try.

“I don’t really have a recipe,” my mother said. “I hate corned beef and cabbage. I always have.”

What? What is this blasphemy from red-headed. fair-skinned Alice Kelly Flynn? Growing up I distinctly remember my mother cooking corned beef and cabbage on many occasions. I even recall a few years ago visiting my parents’ house on Cape Cod on St. Patrick’s Day when my daughter Elizabeth held her nose the entire afternoon because the smell of boiled cabbage was making her sick. I think her word was “disgusting.”

But my mother said this week that she only made the dish for my father’s benefit. She grew up eating boiled dinners all the time and if she doesn’t have to eat another one for the rest of her life, she will be happy. I think her word was “gristly” when describing the cuts of boiled beef from her childhood.

One year my mother actually forgot it was St. Patrick’s Day and my father came home from a long day at work to find his wife in the kitchen making chicken stir fry for dinner. My father insisted they adhere to tradition and head out for corned beef and cabbage and my mother obliged.

With this new information about my mother, I decided to adjust my St. Patrick’s Day plans. After all, if my mother didn’t even like corned beef and cabbage and my daughters were already proactively complaining about the smell that would soon infiltrate our house, why should I bother?

What Alice does love are Irish scones, especially ones “dressed” as they say in real whipped cream and strawberries as served at the Keltic Kitchen in West Yarmouth, home of the traditional Irish breakfast.

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Elizabeth and my mother at Keltic Kitchen last fall. Sigh. I miss warm weather.

 

I decided I would make scones instead. Seemed pretty easy. But the cupboards were pretty bare.  My mother and father went to Sons of Erin, a social club near their house, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with music and food. Paul and I headed to Market Basket, also surrounded by music and food.

 

 

Here’s the recipe I followed after I Googled “Easy scone recipes.” I often add the word “easy” to my searches for recipes.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 5 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup butter
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 cup milk

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly grease a baking sheet.
  2. In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Cut in butter. Mix the egg and milk in a small bowl, and stir into flour mixture until moistened.
  3. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead briefly. Roll dough out into a 1/2 inch thick round. Cut into 8 wedges, and place on the prepared baking sheet.
  4. Bake 15 minutes in the preheated oven, or until golden brown.

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Caroline, my other favorite redhead, helped make the whipped cream from scratch.
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Who needs corned beef?

While Alice does not love boiled corned beef, she does thoroughly enjoy a Reuben sandwich. Which is what brought us to The Indo, an Irish pub in downtown Beverly, on Sunday afternoon.

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My good friend Debbie (who considers St. Patrick’s Day one of her favorite holidays) and I split a delicious Reuben, the tried-and-true sandwich composed of corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressed grilled between slices of rye bread.  It was a lot easier and more enjoyable to sit in a festive pub than to make my own boiled dinner. I think Alice would be proud of me.

Our St. Patrick’s Day weekend festivities were rounded out with a trip to the local Cabot Cinema to catch a special screening of The Quiet Man, the 1952 classic starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.

 

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Wayne plays the role of  Sean Thornton, an Irish-born American who travels to Ireland to reclaim his family’s farm and his birthplace in Inisfree. He meets and falls in love with the fiery Mary Kate Danaher, played by O’Hara. It’s billed as a romantic comedy, and the movie won an Academy Award for director John Ford. But the romances sure were different back in the good old days.

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At one point, Wayne’s character forces the woman he loves to return to their village by alternately dragging her, kicking her and shoving her over the course of five miles. In another scene, on their wedding night, he throws her onto their bed and breaks it. She slaps him pretty routinely and concedes to possessing a “fearful temper.” I think we were simultaneously laughing and gasping at the ridiculousness of it all. #relationshipgoals, this is not.

The Emerald Isle scenery, though, is certainly beautiful. The pub scenes are funny.  And there is character name Michaeleen Flynn and another named Mary Kate (the same as my niece), so I consider those two additional positives.

The movie is an American classic that I have heard about my whole life so I am glad I could finally see it in my hometown theater with a friend I’m very lucky to have. Thank you, Mom, for talking me out of the boiled-dinner route.

Sometimes traditions are better off tweaked.

ONE NOTE: The “Irish Lass” sign at the top of the post hangs in our living room. I found it washed ashore on a beach on Prudence Island, Rhode Island, when I was 10 years old. I have walked many beaches in my life and never come across anything nearly as good.

 

 

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Feathered friends

When I was young, if anyone in my town asked me where I lived, I might say South Pleasant Street. But more likely I said, “Across from the Duck Pond.” It was a landmark with instant recognition

From my mother’s bedroom window, she had a nice view of the pond and could watch the ducks every morning as she sipped her first cup of tea. More than once she invited our kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Raymond, to bring the whole class to our house so all the kids could experience the thrill of feeding the always obliging ducks pieces of stale bread. (She came with my younger sister’s and brother’s classes too.) I felt like a big deal when kids told me how lucky I was to live where I did on our walk back to school.

Every afternoon the “Duck Lady,” as we called her, would arrive to feed the assortment of waterfowl cups full of dry corn from the trunk of her white Pinto. The ducks would get flustered and jockey for position as soon as they spotted her car. She was an odd character — eccentric might be the better word. But she was nice to my grandfather who lived with us, and she sent my sister a get-well card when she was in the hospital for several months, so I always liked her.

In the winter, my father would become a wrangler of sorts and help convince the ducks to leave the pond that would soon freeze and waddle or fly across the street to the brook. As a kid, I thought his actions bordered on heroic.

The Duck Pond is where I first learned to cast a fishing line, hook a worm, row a boat, skip a rock and ice skate. We knew to be on the lookout for snapping turtles and wary of the lily pads’ tangled roots below the surface. Every now and then I used to row our boat to a quiet cove where no one could see me. I was seeking solitude before I knew what the word meant. Many years ago, my sister Christine gave me a copy of a Claude Monet print that reminds me of this special place of my childhood.

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I hadn’t thought too much about ducks until this past Saturday when I went to the see the documentary The Million Dollar Duck. The film, screened at the Peabody Essex Museum as part of Salem Film Fest, introduces viewers to the world of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, the only juried art competition run by the U.S. government.

Every year wildlife artists from around the country submit their best paintings of ducks in the hope that their artwork will be chosen for that year’s Federal Duck Stamp. The stamp is used for hunting licenses and for entrance to any National Wildlife Refuge. Revenues from the stamp have bought and maintained more than 5.3 million acres of waterfowl and wetland habitat in the U.S. It’s considered one of the country’s most successful conservation programs, and I knew nothing about it until Saturday.

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Roughly 300 artists enter the contest each year, and this amusing documentary follows seven of them right up until the nerve-wracking public judging. They are a quirky, competitive and talented crew of characters and we found ourselves rooting for almost all of them. Although there is no prize money, the artists can generate lucrative deals from re-licensing the stamp image on other merchandise, hence the title “Million Dollar Duck.”

“In music you have the Grammys. If you’re an actor, it’s the Oscars. If you’re a wildlife artist, it’s winning the Federal Duck Stamp Contest.”

— Mark Anderson, 2004 Federal Duck Stamp winner, The New York Times

The filmmaker, Brian Golden Davis, and one of the artists, Tim Taylor, were in attendance at the screening. The film had its premier at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and Davis shared that Animal Planet had acquired the TV rights and another company acquired the movie rights. Really try to see The Million Dollar Duck, if you can. We were all cheering and laughing and grateful that such a program as the duck stamp existed.

My 14-year-old daughter Elizabeth said she was trying to think of how the movie could be better and she couldn’t think of a thing she would change. Who would have thought a movie about ducks, stamps and the federal government could be so much fun for adults and kids alike? 

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My husband and sister Kathleen chat with the filmmaker, who gave my sister a Million Dollar Duck button after she told him she was here to celebrate her recent birthday.
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The girls look at one of Tim Taylor’s duck stamp entries. The detail is pretty amazing.

On my way to work today, I stopped at the post office to see if they sold the Federal Duck stamp. The worker shouted yes, and was so excited because no one had ever asked to buy one from her before. I gave her $25 and officially purchased the 2015-2016 Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp.

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This year’s stamp features ruddy ducks. Art by Jennifer Miller of Olean, N.Y.

 

Screen Time

Before kids, one of my sisters used to refer to my husband and me as Siskel and Ebert, as in the thumb-up-or-thumbs-down theater critics. We went to the movies a lot. Our third date involved seeing a movie: A League of  Their Own. There was a year we had seen every movie nominated for the Academy Awards. Then we became parents and there was a year (or two) where we hadn’t seen a single one of the nominated movies.

I partly blame my mother for our drastic reduction in movie viewing post-kids. She babysat for one of our first dates after our daughter Sarah was born. We were thinking of catching a movie, but then my mother gently suggested that we use the rare time off to catch up without interruption. In a movie, after all, we couldn’t talk to each other. You know, share our hopes, our dreams, our fears … I bet we talked about how little Sarah slept. But it seemed like sound advice. And for years, we always felt like we should reconnect on dates and not sit in silence at the movies. Although I know now, sitting in silence together is reconnecting. Sometimes it can be healthier for a relationship than talking.

This year, I saw three of  the Academy-Award nominated films: Spotlight, Brooklyn and The Martian. I loved them all  (rooting for Spotlight to win Best Movie ). I also saw  all three in the movie theater., which, to me, makes all the difference. It’s an event. There are no distractions. I hope to see an even higher percentage of the Academy Award-nominated films when 2017 rolls around.

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Brooklyn makes me want to go to Ireland again.

Thinking of the Oscars and, of course, my year of living like Alice,  I asked my mother recently about her top three favorite movies. I knew Barbra Streisand’s  Funny Girl was high on the  list. Let’s just say we don’t share that in common.

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Beautiful voice, but she has always grated on my nerves. Yentil anyone?

A Quiet Man with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara is another one. My mother says she tries to watch the movie  every year around St. Patrick’s Day. ( I plan to do the same this year if anyone wants to join me.) The third top pick is American President. Following in the footsteps of Alice, we decided to watch the movie early this morning, which seemed especially appropriate with the Massachusetts presidential primary  on Tuesday.

Written by Alan Sorkin, the movie came out in 1995.  It tells the story of  a widowed U.S. president (Michael Douglass) who falls in love with a lobbyist (Annette Bening). Like his TV show West Wing, Sorkin’s characters speak in such clever sound bites that sometimes it’s not very believable conversation. But I liked it.

Toward the end of the movie, Douglas’ president lambastes his fictional Republication opponent, U.S. Senator Bob Rumson, played by Richard Dreyfuss:

“We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections.”

Remind you of anyone? I am not afraid of what Donald Trump wants me to fear. I am afraid of Donald Trump becoming the Republican nominee for president.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not far from the tree

My sister-in-law called my cell phone the other night around 8:30 pm. And my first question after hello: Is everything OK?  I don’t know why I jump to the conclusion that people are calling with bad news. It wasn’t midnight; it was 8:30 pm for God’s sake. I do the slightly panicked voice to my husband on occasion. Paul will sometimes offer a preemptive strike if the telephone call is out of the blue: “Nothing is wrong,” but just checking on … Sometimes he calls just to say hi. Imagine that.

In my effort to spend the year acting more like my mother, I have come to discover how much I already act like my mother, in ways big and small. I would never call my mother at an unusual time of day (or at work) without first assuring her that everything is fine. As kids, if one of us was not home and she happened to hear sirens in the distance, she would assume one of us was in a car accident. And now that my oldest daughter drives, I sometimes do the same thing.

But there are little things too. I cut butter the wrong way, just like my mother. I used to think everyone sliced the stick horizontally across the top in a thin layer until a high school friend commented on my unusual technique. I discovered that, in fact, most people cut butter in a vertical motion, as in pats of  butter. But old habits are hard to break and I never retrained myself to cut butter the proper way.

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Her influence extends far beyond the refrigerator. My kitchen windowsill is lined with glass bottles and usually a few flowers, just like my mother. I keep the dining room table free of clutter. Before a party, I shove things into closets to make the room look neater. There is an abundance of throw pillows on our bed.  All very Alice Flynn.

 

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If I come to a sudden stop while driving, I use my arm as an extra seat belt on the occupant in the passenger side. Every time an ambulance races past, I say a prayer for the people inside. My mother taught me that. Whenever I talk to someone on the phone to make a reservation, or ask a question on a bill, I always ask for a name.  I don’t like to waste my day by sleeping late.

For good or bad, many of us act like our mothers in more ways than we probably realize or are willing to admit. We have to decide for ourselves what we want to do the same or set out to do differently. I want to worry less than my mother does. But I’m also grateful every day to still have someone so deeply invested in my life.

The other day my mother happened to pick up the phone at the same time as my Dad. She didn’t catch the caller’s name but heard him asking my father about making an appointment to check his fluids. My Dad’s had a tough winter of colds and coughs, but my mother worried why  the doctor was calling now? Were they hiding some bad news from her? She kept listening to the conversation as my father scheduled an appointment to come in to have his fluids checked, with the auto mechanic up the street.

My mother couldn’t stop laughing at that one. Neither can I.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mixing it up in the kitchen

Every night I seem to get the same question from my family: What’s for dinner? Always hungry these people.

My rotation is fairly limited, but dependable — unlike the Boston Red Sox.  Ziti or lasagna, chicken with Mexican rice, homemade pizza, meatball subs, panini sandwiches. I also really like take-out. Growing up my mother seemed to also have her go-to dishes: shepherd’s pie, pork chops, breakfast-for-dinner, are a few that come to mind. On occasion, she tried new things, but they weren’t always met with a warm reception. (To this day, salsa is far too radical of a food idea for  my father to even consider.)

I do remember one new dish my mother made that I loved: French onion soup. My mother found a recipe after ordering it several times at a nearby restaurant called the Barnside Tavern. I was thoroughly impressed that she could recreate the soup at home, served in dark brown crocks with overflowing cheese.

Last weekend my daughter Elizabeth ordered a delicious three-bean chili at a restaurant in Portsmouth, N.H., called The Works. Since she had a bad cold, the chili was the perfect comfort food with enough heat to clear her sinuses.

 

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Like Alice, I thought we could recreate the dish at home. I had never made chili before but with the Super Bowl the following day, I thought it would be a good time to try. Here’s the recipe we found from Cooking Light:

Ingredients
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 cup pre-chopped onion
1/2 cup pre-chopped green bell pepper
2 teaspoons bottled minced garlic
3/4 cup water
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 (15 1/2-ounce) can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
1 (15 1/2-ounce) can red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 (15 1/2-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 (14 1/2-ounce) can organic vegetable broth (such as Swanson Certified Organic)
1 (14 1/2-ounce) can no-salt-added diced tomatoes, undrained
1 tablespoon yellow cornmeal
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
6 tablespoons reduced-fat sour cream

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion, bell pepper, and garlic to pan; sauté 3 minutes. Stir in 3/4 cup water and next 9 ingredients (through diced tomatoes); bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 8 minutes. Stir in cornmeal; cook 2 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in cilantro. Serve with sour cream.

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The Fritos were not an  ingredient, but maybe my favorite part.

The store was out of fresh cilantro so we didn’t add any. And we served with Monterey Jack cheese and Fritos on the side. It was delicious. And everyone liked it. Next time I would double the batch.

I’m not sure why cooking feels like such a chore sometimes. On occasion I adopt an auto-pilot approach. It’s not that I don’t like the final product; it’s the process that I don’t enjoy as much as I wish I did. All the chopping and dicing, the cleaning up. And I know from every self-help book, Oprah magazine and tea bag I have ever read, you are supposed to enjoy the journey. I like the part when we are sitting down at the table. But there is a boost that comes from trying something new.

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I have not adopted the clean-as-you-go approach.

Maybe some day I will be as accomplished in the kitchen as my mother,  but she’s quick to point out that she didn’t start out that way. “I’m not that great of a cook, Susan,” she corrected me the other day. “Don’t put me up on a pedestal. When I first got married I was a terrible cook.”

Before the age of microwaves, she said she especially struggled with timing, making sure the meat, potatoes and vegetables were all hot at the same time. For those of you who watch Downton Abbey (which my daughter Elizabeth says is the same as the Kardashians except the people have British accents) , it calls to mind the struggles of poor Mrs. Hughes. She can’t seem to make her new husband, Mr. Carson, happy in the kitchen. I think she should dump every dish that he criticizes right on his head.

One of my parents’ first fights happened in the kitchen. After trying hard to make a nice dinner for her new husband, my mother dropped the roast beef she was taking out of the oven onto the kitchen floor. She blamed my father, who had repeatedly promised to fix the faulty oven door. My mother was so mad she left the roast beef right where it was. My father was so mad that she blamed him that he did the same.

Growing up we were told that the roast beef sat there for hours. My mother know says it was probably closer to 30 minutes. Eventually my parents agreed to pick the roast beef off the floor together. There may be more romantic stories to share for Valentine’s Day, but I always really liked that one.

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My parents at their surprise 5oth anniversary party in 2011. Photo by John Hart.

 

 

Happy Birthday Mom!

It seems a short blog post is in order today to wish Alice Flynn a very happy birthday. Growing up my mother always made a big deal out of our birthdays. And she says her mother always did the same for her.

Her birthday on Feb. 3 coincides with the Roman Catholic Blessing of the Throats, so part of every birthday was spent in church. Her other tradition involved eating her mother’s homemade hot water sponge cake. Being the youngest of six children, my mother concedes she was a little spoiled on birthdays (and probably in general), especially when her siblings started to work and could splurge on presents.

The fact that my mother made a fuss over our birthdays is even more impressive considering three of her four children’s birthdays were very close to Christmas: December 13, December 19 and January 15. She never did combination birthday/Christmas presents, although she may have wrapped birthday gifts in Christmas paper, but I forgive her now.

Summer birthday parties would have been much easier. Imagine tying the figure skate laces of 10 cranky, runny-nosed elementary school kids at a birthday party held for one of us on the pond across the street. I remember another party at Chuck E. Cheese’s for my brother, back when Chucky E. Cheese’s was The Thing. Tommy had so much fun running around in the tunnels, swimming in the ball pit, playing video games and eating pizza that he threw up on all of his friends on the way home.

I have always loved my birthday, and I know I have my mother to thank. Everyone should feel like a very big deal at least one day of the year.

 

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Let’s celebrate with Hingham High’s most adorable baton twirler.

 

 

 

In the cards

One of my all-time favorite Alice Flynn memories stems from an event that took place when I was sound asleep. And while I did not witness this incident unfold, my mother’s amusing account the next morning created a recording in my mind that I can replay whenever the mood strikes. It’s so classic my mother that I smile whenever I think about it.

On a Wednesday night back in the late 1970s, my mother won the $500 jackpot at a Bingo game held at a Catholic church in the next town over. She came home so excited that she scattered all her winnings on top of my father asleep in their bed, sort of like rose petals but better. “It probably wasn’t the smartest thing I ever did. But boy he got out of bed quick,” my mother recently quipped.

My mother likes to gamble. She will be the first to admit it. She’s not reckless (in fact she’s probably the opposite), but she likes to win whatever prize is up for grabs. Her mother also liked to gamble, and I have vivid memories of my Nana Kelly having no qualms about taking all my pennies in family poker games despite my quivering lip. My mother’s strategy toward games of chance of any kind is simple: Think positive. She expects to win, and very often she does.

On her first trip to Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut, she won more than $900 from a crooning Elvis Presley slot machine that landed on three matching gold records. My parents almost missed the Knights of Columbus bus back home to Cape Cod while waiting for their payout.

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My mother was all shook up.

But it’s not just gambling in the traditional sense. She once won round-trip airline tickets to anywhere in the United States from a raffle fundraiser run by the high school Boosters. (They went to San Diego.) At a church holiday fair, she bought a chance on the most beautiful wooden dollhouse you have ever seen in your life. Inside, the rooms were exquisitely decorated, like an Ethan Allen showroom, with a four-poster bed, red leather sofa, pedestal kitchen table and pewter dishes. My sister Christine got the dollhouse for Christmas that year.

I share some of my mother’s wishful (perhaps delusional) thinking toward gambling. I expect to win and I really, really, really like to win. My best prize ever was winning two tickets to the Final Four college basketball tournament in 1994, as part of a promotion with WBCN at a restaurant/bar near our house. When they drew the piece of paper with my name on it, I started to shake. I really, really, really thought I was going to win. Earlier that day I had told my mother that we would probably miss Easter dinner because we would be in Charlotte, N.C., for the games. I sort of willed it into happening, or so I like to believe.

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My husband (then boyfriend) with Arkansas fans at the Final Four. (Not sure what he was thinking with the Daffy Duck shirt …)

In my ongoing pursuit of living more like Alice, I recently invited three friends to gamble with me. Which is why this past Friday night, we went to the weekly Bingo organized by St. John the Baptist Parish in Salem. I called ahead and spoke with a kind woman named Marilyn and learned the games started promptly at 6:15 pm (doors open at 2 pm) and that the top potential prize for the progressive jackpot that night was $1,700. She wished us luck. I was feeling hopeful; that sum could really improve our family’s February school vacation week plans.

We stepped inside the florescent-lit bingo hall around 5:30 p.m. I thought I would remember the drill from the one or two times I played Bingo in my early 20s with my aunts and my mother. Not so much. Nice older ladies seated behind a long table immediately started firing questions at us: How many sheets do you want? Do you want the blue strips for the 50/50 game? Are you playing the Progressive Cover? How about the Quinella Double Bingo? It was a language we did not speak or understand. I asked one older woman what she would tell her daughter to do: She said she would tell her daughter to go home and not waste her money. I appreciated her honesty, but we were committed.

We bought our cards/strips, colored daubers ($1), some sodas and grabbed seats near the front. We found a few nice women nearby who took pity on us, and one, in particular, who took it upon herself to make sure we understood the many combinations of games. Before long we figured out the Coverall, Broken Picture Frame, and Number 7-to-Letter-Z games. But the Picnic Bench was tricky.  I’m not quick enough to stamp only the numbers that fall into an area that would form a picnic bench base. That’s at least an intermediate skill.

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My friend Leeann and I feeling positive at the beginning of the night. Photo by Julie Diewald.

What’s amazing is how some people can play 50 cards at once without batting an eye. With daubers in hand, they move up and down the rows, blotting with efficient precision. Many are very serious. We learned some don’t appreciate chit-chat.  They line up their good luck charms in front of them, share salty snacks on paper plates, and sigh loudly when someone shouts “Bingo” from across the room. I suppose you should feel happy when someone else wins. But I kind of understood the chorus of collective disappointment. I may have even joined in.

 

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As Rudolph’s friend Yukon Cornelius liked to say, “Nothin.”  I was once “waiting” on one number, but most of my cards were duds.

Sadly, the night ended without any of us winning a penny. As my friend Julie pointed out, the odds were not in our favor because we played a lot fewer cards than everyone else. But we laughed a lot, maybe too much, considering some of the looks. Could Foxwoods be our next adventure?

Honestly, I‘m OK with the outcome. It wouldn’t have been fair if I won $1,700 at Bingo in January and then won the HGTV Dream Home in March. I have a good feeling about this one.

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Friends and family are welcome to visit me in Florida. Just call first.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Girl of my dreams

In fourth grade I got my first, and only, “N” on my elementary school report card. Back then N stood for “Needs Improvement” but it really felt like an F. My handwriting skills were seriously lacking, and I guess my teacher couldn’t bring herself to give me an “S” for Satisfactory. It hurt, but even back then I knew she had a point.

My drawing skills were no better but I guess the art teacher was more forgiving. Maybe she saw an abstract expressionist in the making. I don’t think my art or handwriting abilities have advanced much past fourth grade. For a few years I helped oversee the bulletin board designs at my daughters’ elementary school. More than once, I wrote words that someone mistakenly thought were done by a student. I just went with it.

I offer this as a somewhat long-winded way to introduce my elephant. This is the go-to doodle that I have relied on for as long as I can remember.

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I was always particularly proud of the three drops of water that come out of his trunk, a playful detail that brings the sketch to another level. Maybe fifth grade. I have signed many a birthday card with this little guy, and he often shows up to keep me company as I’m taking notes during long meetings.

My mother, of course, creates a much better doodle. For as long as I can remember, she’s been making “The Girl,” as I call her. I just learned that my mother learned how to make “The Girl” from her mother. And her four sisters also drew their versions of “The Girl,” and somewhere in her house she has a collection of some of their respective drawings. (She’s still looking for them and I will post if she finds them.)

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This is an old drawing of “The Girl” that I keep on my bulletin board at work.

What I also recently discovered is that The Girl was actually my Nana’s version of the Gibson Girl. In the 1890s, a man by the name of Charles Dana Gibson created the so-called Gibson Girl, known for her hourglass figure, aristocratic air and perfectly upswept hair.  His pen-and-ink drawings appeared in popular magazines and came to represent the spirit of this new, independent woman at the turn of the century. I read somewhere that the Gibson Girl influenced popular opinions about femininity in the early 1900s in much the same way that Barbie did in the late 1900s.

 

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The original Gibson Girl

 

Who knew Nana was so hip to the scene?

On a recent visit, my mother agreed to teach me how to make her version of the  Gibson Girl, step by step. (I cut her off at the end as she’s adding her bow.)

I have been practicing the technique. I can’t get the lips down at all. They should be more heart-shaped. My girl also doesn’t look as sweet or as pretty as my mother’s.

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In fact, I think we can all be honest: She needs improvement.

 

 

Blossoming relationship

I have gushed at length about my mother’s many talents, but today I must divulge a weakness: computers (remote controls can be problematic as well). She tries, she really does. And I know I should have more patience. But … On a recent visit, she insisted that I refrain from touching the “wifi” plugged into the side of her laptop or it would  mess everything up. It was actually a mouse. She had two mice plugged in at the same time.

Seated side-by-side at her kitchen island, I had offered to try to straighten out an ongoing problem with email and so I took control of just one mouse and started clicking. But she insisted that I  teach her how to the fix the problem herself. You know, “Teach a man to fish,”  that short of thing. I relinquished control and guided her through the steps.  It was excruciating.

Less than an hour later, my mother and I had switched roles. She became the expert and I became the person painful to watch. I had asked my mother to teach me the steps to make a fresh flower arrangement and before long she actually took the scissors out of my hand, more than once in fact. It was a nice moment of understanding, or payback. We both laughed.

My mother’s expertise with flowers far, far exceeds my knowledge of technology. She has worked as a professional floral designer for some 40 years. And before that, as an amateur, she would cut and dry bunches of sea lavender to make centerpieces and wreaths to sell at school fairs. She taught me how to decorate my window boxes and mantle with greens for the holidays and how to hang a garland around the front door. She made flowers for my wedding and my two sisters’ weddings. She’s talented. And now famous.

The winter issue of Cape Cod Home featured a story on houses decorated for the holidays, including this one (see above and below images) done by my mother for Harvest of Barnstable. My favorite line: “Our beautiful designs were conceived in house by Alice Flynn.” Yeah Mom!

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I love flowers, but I tend to place them in a vase after I get home from the supermarket. I don’t arrange. So that’s what brought us to Trader Joe’s on a recent Saturday morning for some hands-on learning.

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Photo by Elizabeth Leighton

The selection was good. We picked out white hydrangeas,  purple delphinium and stalks of pink/purplish alstroemeria, along with three varieties of eucalyptus. You always want texture in addition to the flowers. Remember that. I also discovered that it’s best to select an odd number of each variety of flower (3 hydrangea, 5 delphinium, 7 alstroemeria).

And here’s a few other beauties I gleaned:

Tip 1: Before you start, always cut the stems diagonally, under running water, about an inch from the ends. You don’t want them all the same height, though. That would make for a boring flower arrangement.

Tip #2: Before placing flowers into arrangement, you must remove any leaves that would be in the water. My mother was adamant about this step.

Tip #3: Add water and preservative to the vase. (I always did this after the flowers were in the vase and it made a mess.)

Tip #4: Start with the larger, more dominant flowers first. In our case, it was the hydrangea. It’s best to work with a single type of flower at a time.

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My mother looks worried.

 

Tip #5: Turn the arrangement as you go along to make sure it looks even on all sides.

Tip #6:  Generally speaking, the height of the arrangement should be one and a half times the height of the vase.

Tip #7: Keep layering the flowers, and edit as you go.

Tip #8: Use baby’s breath to break up any heaviness. “When in doubt, add white,” advises Alice.

In the end, the arrangement looked beautiful. I can honestly say I did 85 percent of it myself. I did catch my mother “editing” some after I had briefly left the kitchen and returned. She couldn’t help herself. I’m not complaining. There are far worse things a mother could meddle in.

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The finished creation at home on our buffet. Photo by Sarah Leighton.

 

 

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Nana’s Candy

First off, some apologies are in order. This Christmas I made “Nana’s Candy” from memory to give to some co-workers and neighbors. Then on Christmas Day my mother brought bags of her delicious candy to give to her children and grandchildren, as has been her tradition, and I noticed it tasted and looked a little different than mine. Then we started talking ingredients. Turns out I forgot a key one: sugar. I left sugar out of a candy recipe. I also shortchanged on the butter and bought the Toll House chocolate chips instead of her preferred Ghirardelli brand.

Some people can cook without following a recipe. I am not one of those people. My sister used to laugh when I set the timer to boil pasta. I like to measure; any advice to add a dollop of this, or a dash of that, is ultimately a recipe for disaster, or at least food that doesn’t taste as good as it could.

Shortly after our first daughter was born, I remember my utter panic when I asked the pediatrician for advice, and he said it’s up to me to decide what felt right. I can’t even remember the question, but was seeking definitive answers on how to care for this helpless infant completely dependent on us for everything. ‘Trust your instincts’ wasn’t one of them. YOU’RE THE EXPERT. PLEASE TELL ME WHAT TO DO. I eventually did learn to trust my gut as I navigated this motherhood thing. Most of the time I’m just winging it. But in the kitchen, I like rules.

Before I share the recipe, my mother wants to make sure everyone knows she didn’t invent it. There are many versions out there.  And she also noted that it’s “not the healthiest thing in the world.” You would have figured that out for yourself. But the salt-sweet combination is delicious, and addictive. It has magical powers over me, like the trance-inducing Turkish Delight that The White Witch used to control her subjects in The Chronicles of Narnia. More than once, I have climbed out of a warm bed, late at night, because I craved one more piece of my mother’s candy before I drifted off to sleep.

Without further ado, here is the recipe:

Nana’s Candy

1 sleeve of Saltine crackers

1 1/2 sticks of butter

3/4 cup of white sugar

1 12-ounce package of Ghirardelli semisweet chocolate chips

3/4 cup crushed walnuts.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat cookie sheet with nonstick spray. Arrange Saltines on cookie sheet.

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In saucepan on low heat, combine butter and sugar, stirring occasionally, Once butter is completely melted, pour over Saltines, trying to distribute equally.

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Then bake for 15 minutes. Remove cookie sheet from oven and sprinkle crackers with chocolate  chips.

 

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Using plastic spatula, spread the melting chips out evenly over the crackers.

 

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Then sprinkle walnuts on top.

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Place cookie sheet in freezer for at least three hours; I left them in there overnight. Remove from freezer and break into small pieces.

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You could create small bags of candy to give away on Valentine’s Day, or  you could hide it and keep it all for yourself.

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Nana approves of either approach.