Friday, December 26, 2008

Beautiful Bargains

I generally don't have enough money or energy the day after Christmas to scout out gifts for next year (which even the bargain shopper in me would find gauche) or hunt down cashmere sweaters for myself. I do, however, usually find myself seeking an adventure by mid afternoon. After multiple, back-to-back days, of shopping, wrapping, baking, and being somewhere on time (or sociably late), I have recovered quite well by early afternoon on the 26th of December. Despite all previous protests (I am not going anywhere near the mall tomorrow!), after a glass of mimosa, I usually give in to my inner bargain hunter and hit the strip.

Since I wasn't in search of gifts that would sit in storage, and didn't need gift tags or bags or wrapping paper, I was looking for inspiration. Maybe I'd see an ornament that would look perfect on my tree, or a garland for my banister, or another decoration that would be worth the 70 percent off retail.

Piece by piece it spoke to me.

First the hurricane lamp. After several minutes of hemming and hawing (or as my boyfriend would say with his Boston accent, hemming and hahring) I chose the largest of three sizes, with a gold pedestal and trim (vs. silver). From there I walked around in search of something with which to fill it, although that wasn't a necessity. I have ornaments that went back in storage instead of on my tree this year and I feel creative enough that next year it wouldn't be empty at Christmas time. But then I found myself looking at beautiful discounted ribbons, which were displayed near the make-your-own wreath bins full of glittery bulbs and sprigs and...things I've frankly never seen before. I started filling and emptying and arranging and filling again.

A few minutes later I paid the cashier $12.60.

I came home and hemmed and hahred all over again, but eventually made this simple centerpiece that now sits, aptly, at the end of my coffee table.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Honor Roll

The other day I asked my father about his newspaper subscriptions. "Do you get the paper delivered everyday?" I asked.

"No, not every day," he answered. "I usually get Wednesdays for Ma's sale papers and Saturdays. But when I know the honor rolls are coming out, I usually get them every day."

In addition to wanting to see the names of my niece and nephew in print, he explained that he looks for other names as well. Then he pointed out, in the honor rolls of three towns listed, the children of people he knows--some family, some friends. He gave backstories about siblings of these kids who had already graduated and whether or not those kids made frequent appearances on the high honors list or regular honors list. He was animated and joyful as he spoke because to my father, education still means something. Making the most of education opens doors; making the honor roll portends a good future.

As he folded the newspaper to put it away for safekeeping, I thought, surely, that has as much to do with my being a teacher as my love of school supplies.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Satisfaction of a Sandwich

A while back, on an episode of Nigella Feasts on the Food Network, she made a sandwich on thick black bread smeared with cream cheese and jam, which she wrapped and took with her on a busy day in London. My first thought was, why would anyone need a recipe for a sandwich? My second thought was a little more generous, as I was filled with pleasant memories of growing up on open face sandwiches like this. We always had great breads and rolls on hand from one Polish bakery or another, nary a slice of Wonder bread in sight, and so I wondered if maybe it's a European thing. She did call it a Hungarian sandwich after all, and noted that the black bread can be found at Polish bakeries. So maybe some folks wouldn't think of a sandwich like this. My last thought on the matter, when they showed her biting into the sandwich in the back seat of a taxi cab was, yeah, right.

As I set out to go Christmas shopping yesterday, after being snowed in the day before on my first snow day of the season (tee hee), I made a list of stores I needed to go to, things I needed to buy, and coupons I had available to redeem. I also made myself a sandwich to take with me.

Yes, I know.

I'm not sure if it's more embarrassing that I laughed at the premise on Nigella Feasts or if I'm simply embarrassed that I packed a lunch to go Christmas shopping--period. As if I were heading off for a long day at work. As if I couldn't go a few hours without food. Clearly I can. But more than once in my life, easily influenced by a friend's suggestion or led by my own proclivity for dining out, I have abandoned shopping goals for a juicy burger and a warm seat at a bar. And I couldn't afford that with Christmas around the corner and another storm in the forecast. I didn't want to be distracted by hunger, nor did I want to spend five dollars or waste five minutes in a drive-thru line. Especially since I had my favorite Polish ham (Krakowska szynka) and rye bread on hand.

The day before, while preparing for the storm, I went to the Polish deli not far from where I live. In fact, I met my father there when I learned that my mother was sending him on an errand. I have often enjoyed foods from this deli at my parents' table, but have been too intimidated, or out of practice, to go in by myself. As children my sisters and I would accompany our parents to a deli in Hartford, but that was decades ago. Just in case the culture of Polish delis had changed--would I have to order in my rusty Polish? could I order in English?--I thought maybe I should have a chaperon. So I waited in line with my dad, eyed out my favorite, garlicky and delicious ham, then let him order for me. (Next time I'll order myself.) I drove home with the aroma of a half pound of Krakowska szynka, not a single slice of which will go to waste.

Yesterday at 1:30 I paid homage to Nigella. Halfway through my shopping adventures, I found a parking spot in the Macy's lot, unwrapped my sandwich, and enjoyed every bite.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Can Openers

When I moved back to Boston, after college graduation and a subsequent brief attempt to live back home, I had no idea what I was doing. Yes, I had intentions of going to graduate school, I had a job at my alma mater as a Resident Director that came with an apartment, and I knew and loved the city, but really I had no idea. How was I to know that my first trip to Star Market to buy ketchup and salt and pepper, coffee and sugar, peanut butter and saltines--condiments and basic staples: things I might enjoy in the comfort of my own apartment outside the three campus meals I'd be provided-- would cost 50 dollars, 50 of the $100 I had to my name, with no idea of when my first paycheck would come? I came ready with a teak salad bowl set, a coffee maker, white stoneware service for 8, and other things I had been shopping for while living at home and planning my getaway, but it killed me to pay 5 bucks for a deluxe white, rubber-covered hand-crank can opener on that first trip to Stah Mahket.

That was 1989. I lost track of the teak set, gave away those stoneware dishes somewhere along the way, but still have that can opener. For nearly twenty years I have been squeezing every penny out of that five dollar can opener. (I can be laughably cheap.) It has been my one and only. It is still functional, but sometimes takes two times around just to cut the can and it requires as much energy to open a can of tuna as it would to jack up my car and change my tire. Its sentimental value makes it impossible for me to throw it away; but its usefulness (or lack of therein) sent me into the aisles of Bed, Bath, and Beyond looking for a replacement this weekend.

It was practically free, since I had a coupon, but I kept it in the bag for 2 days while I honestly considered returning it, but tonight I finally used it. I made shrimp fra diavolo and needed 2 cans of diced tomatoes for the recipe, so I used the new opener. What a delight! If I didn't have to mind my sauce, I probably would have spent the next several minutes creating reasons to open cans...maybe I'll have tuna fish for lunch tomorrow. Pineapple chunks would be great for dessert. Maybe I should start with soup? With the energy I saved--quickly opening can one, then can two--I could have danced around my kitchen. I didn't, of course. I also didn't have to pop a handful of Advil tonight to alleviate hand pain. I think it changed my life.

My old opener will remain in my utensil drawer next to my new Oxo Good Grips opener, but mainly for the memory. Funny how we hold on to things that are no longer useful or good...

Oh, Christmas Tree

Yesterday I woke up to our first real snowfall. I knew snow was predicted overnight, so I looked out the window as soon as I came downstairs with the same anticipation a child might look for evidence of Santa Claus. Waking up to the blanket of snow got me a little more into the spirit of the season, enough to motivate me to make several (2 floor!) trips to my storage bin in the basement to retrieve my Christmas tree and ornaments and decorations.

Yes, I have an artificial tree, whispered in contempt by some as I might say white zinfandel, and I love it. I don't have to venture out to a tree farm and cut down a tree (or, more likely, ask my father to) or attempt to tie a pre-cut tree to my car using some combination of bungees and ropes and rely on knot-tying skills I never had to learn in Girl Scouts. And batting my eyelashes and playing helpless girl is a role I'm neither familiar with nor fond of. Living alone lends itself to a tree that comes in a box, and the one I have is perfect for me. It's small enough to fit between my living room and dining area, and tall enough to fit the ornaments I've collected over the years.

It took all day to decorate the tree and my house, mainly because I let it. I like to take the time to unwrap ornaments and marvel at them again, sit with the memories they bring back to me, and find their perfect places on the tree. Among my favorites are the sparkly key I bought the year I bought my car, the same year I went to Europe and bought a Big Ben ornament in England and a painted ceramic bulb in Florence. I have an adorable Lolita "fashionista" martini glass ornament from my friend Amy, and an ornament that looks like a purse. I have a set of engraved silver stars: love, joy, hope, and peace. I love the rag doll ornament I got from my "angel sister" my freshman year at Simmons (were we ever PC!), and still remember that it was from Carrie (who I also remember volunteered at the New England Aquarium and went on to Tufts Vet School to became a veterinarian). I have several glittered pine cones (none real), a few snowmen ( again, oh never mind) and ornaments that look like chocolate dipped strawberries. My newest acquisition is a pearl covered heart.

Once I have everything perfectly placed on my tree, my growing collection of Christmas angels and ceramic snow people have found their seasonal homes on bookshelves and end tables, and Christmas candles scent the room, I turn off all my lamps and let all my other lights rest. I also usually turn off the TV and put on some music--if not Christmas carols, then Vivaldi. Last night I chose Christmas carols. (Okay, okay, I usually have an adult beverage close by as well.) I sit in the light of the tree and the flickers of candlelight, and allow myself the luxury of it all, enjoy the peace not afforded in the shopping malls at this time of year. I sit and try to be happy in my heart. I find it rather easy.

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