Category Archives: Family

Ghosts of Thanksgivings Past

Next week will mark the first Thanksgiving that Andy will be without both his parents, which will make it one of the more difficult years to give thanks. I still remember the Thanksgiving we had the year his Mom died. It was Andy’s second holiday with my family, and he’d already won everyone over. We sat in the Ko house, where I’d spent almost every Thanksgiving and Christmas since I was born, and it was one of the last times both our families were relatively intact. 

I think back to those who were still with us then – Andy’s parents, my grandmother, my Uncle Roberto – and I wonder if we did our best to realize how lucky we were. Suzie’s brothers were talking to Andy when we got the call that his Mom had taken a turn for the worse and we had to leave early to get back to the hospital. Our Thanksgivings would never be the same. 

As much as we once loved the holidays, there is always a slight dampening of the festivities when you think back on what has been lost, and what we’re always in danger of losing. More than a dampening of the eyes, it’s a dampening of the spirit and the happiness that is often afforded innocence and youth. 

In the darkness of the early morning, before the sun has risen and the world feels a little lighter, I watch in vain for the cardinal to visit our backyard. I hope it returns by the time Andy wakes. I hope he finds it, and that he finds some small comfort in the season. 

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Weird… and Wonderful

It really wasn’t all that out-of-the-ordinary or strange, when you consider it in the pantheon of outfits I’ve worn over the years. A ceremonial Indian wedding coat, adorned with a few sequins and some sparkle, and some beadwork around the neck. A bright marigold-orange silk, paired with a loose pair of turquoise pants. I’d worn it to one of the Beaujolais events a few years back. On the rainy day we were traveling to Amsterdam to check out my brother’s new house, it seemed a fine choice.

Andy and I pulled up to the house, and I texted my brother to help us with the potted palm I’d brought to warm the place. We entered and were dutifully impressed by the results. My brother had worked hard on the house, and he and Landrie welcomed us in as the twins ran rambunctiously around.

We talked home decoration and I offered what little guidance I could. They had already done quite a bit, and the living and dining rooms were mostly complete. We sat for a drink before getting ready for dinner with our parents.

As we were leaving the kids looked at me and asked why I was dressed like this. “Like what?” I asked.

“In a dress,” one of them said. “It’s weird.”

For one brief moment it stung, just a little.

“Aww, you hurt Uncle Al’s feelings,” Andy explained gently as we went out into the rain. But by then there wasn’t much hurt left. This was how kids talked. I understood they didn’t mean anything by it.

I just hope the rest of the world will be as forgiving as me.

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A Husband’s Birthday

Two score and a decade and half of years ago, a baby was born who would give his parents, myself, and everyone who knows him much joy. This is Andy’s birthday and, as is his desire, it will be a low-key event, without fanfare or pomp, but I’m still going to make some ado about it here because while he may not want a big bash, he’s more than worthy of some public gushing and online accolades. (He’s on Twitter and Instagram – @drewvanwagenen – so show him some birthday love and tell him I sent you.)

Since he’s not big on having his photo taken, he’s not on this site as often as he should be, but his spirit imbues just about everything I do, informing all of these posts in ways not often seen or blatantly explained. The truth is that I wouldn’t be half of who I am without him in my life, and maybe that should be said a little more often. Perhaps somewhat carelessly on my part, I’ve always assumed that everyone knew that. On this, his birthday, I’m taking a moment to confirm it.

Happy Birthday Drew – and many happy returns of the day!

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Memories of the Rose

SOME SAY LOVE, IT IS A RIVER THAT DROWNS THE TENDER REED

SOME SAY LOVE, IT IS A RAZOR THAT LEADS YOUR HEART TO BLEED

SOME SAY LOVE, IT IS A HUNGER, AN ENDLESS ACHING NEED

I SAY LOVE, IT IS A FLOWER AND YOU ITS ONLY SEED.

It was one of the first songs I learned on the piano, and to this day I can still play the opening chords and melody. A hit for Bette Midler before I was old enough to walk, ‘The Rose’ is one of those classics that has endured thanks to its timeless lyrics and beautiful balladry. For me, it conjures memories of my grandmother.

Whenever she’d visit, she would request that I play it for her, and she’d sit and listen in rapt fashion as only a grandmother could. Occasionally, as was her disturbing way, she’d mention that she would like me to play it at her funeral. A macabre and rather unsettling notion for a kid to contemplate, and when she did pass away, years later, I was in no condition to play ‘The Rose’ on the piano even if I wanted to. Still, there was something beautiful to what we shared as she bravely challenged her mortality and I vainly sought to put the idea from my head.

In many ways, my grandmother was a timid woman. Afraid of the world and often afraid of people, especially those she didn’t know, she taught me caution and quiet. She relied on and deferred to my grandfather while he was alive. He died before I was born, so I never saw her interaction with him, and by the time I was old enough to notice such things, she was more of a widow than anyone I’ve met since. I knew that she’d gone to work in a factory during the war, and I knew that such an act wasn’t for the meek or quiet, so I assumed she kept her strength and power hidden away. Of course she never had to show it to us children: as grandmother she doted on and adored us no matter how we might misbehave or push our bedtime back.

IT’S THE HEART AFRAID OF BREAKING THAT NEVER LEARNS TO DANCE

IT’S THE DREAM AFRAID OF WAKING THAT NEVER TAKES THE CHANCE

IT’S THE ONE WHO WON’T BE TAKEN WHO CANNOT LEARN TO GIVE

AND THE SOUL AFRAID OF DYING THAT NEVER LEARNS TO LIVE.

For all her apparent meekness, she still held a certain sparkle and pizzazz, particularly when in comparison to the staid and strict way my parents behaved and expected us to behave. My grandmother was the one who taught me how to make a fashion statement, whether in a string of crystal rosary beads, or a glittering clip-on costume earring. She would wear sequins on her scarf, and carry handbags dripping with beaded tassels. Conservative in almost every other aspect, particularly in the leather-bound chignon that kept her hair ever-pulled away from her face, she showed her spark with her jewelry. I learned the power of a statement piece, and when we got to visit her home in Hoosick Falls I had hours of fun in her jewelry boxes. In that way, my grandmother lived in my imagination.

She would tell my brother and I stories of Greta Garbo, and how she was the greatest star in the world and then simply disappeared. The mystique she described lent her an air of mystery and magic too, and we begged her to trot out those Garbo stories at every bedtime. Try as I might, however, I could never place my grandmother among the youth from a former era. I desperately wanted to picture her laughing and sipping at her favored glass of beer (“with a good head on it” as she used to say), but I couldn’t reconcile the kind elderly woman who tucked us in with someone who would kick her heels up on a table and smile for the camera. Yet I know it happened. I’ve seen the picture.

WHEN THE NIGHT HAS BEEN TOO LONELY AND THE ROAD HAS BEEN TOO LONG

AND YOU THINK THAT LOVE IS ONLY FOR THE LUCKY AND THE STRONG

JUST REMEMBER IN THE WINTER FAR BENEATH THE BITTER SNOW

LIES THE SEED THAT WITH THE SUN’S LOVE IN THE SPRING BECOMES THE ROSE.

As she grew older and more feeble, as she lost her senses and her memory, she receded into the childlike innocence of old age. Shrinking into a tiny woman, she moved further and further from those youthful days of boundless energy and bold, shiny bracelets. The hesitancy and shyness that marked the bulk of her adulthood dissipated, and in rare instances she would get a glint in her eye of remembrance and fire. I wondered if she wished she had let loose more, or if she realized she had lived just enough. Whenever I have a moment of doubt before a moment of indulgence, I often think of my grandmother. She would have thrilled at this necklace, she would have run her hands appreciatingly over this scarf, she would have approved of these fancy shoes. She would have gotten dolled up and turned it out, just for a trip to church. She would have put on the pizzazz and sparkled, just for a moment, and she would have smiled like a beneficent queen. I learned that from her too.

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Father’s Day

On this Father’s Day I’m going to hug my Dad a little tighter, because I’m keenly aware of how dear our Dads are. My father has always been a strong and silent support system throughout my life, and I’ve often been too silent about how much he means to me. I’ll try to show that more than one day in the year. To all the Dads out there who do their thing in such unassuming yet loving fashion, Happy Father’s Day to you.

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A Father’s New Journey

My father-in-law passed away early on the morning of June 14. He will be buried on what would have been his 91st birthday, and there’s a beautiful bit of poetry in that. A small glimmer of hope and celebration in this ultimate rebirth, and I hope there’s a sliver of healing in the midst of such profound sadness.

He had always been kind to me, no matter what was going on in the world, and that meant more than I could ever fully express. Andy used to take him to see the car shows at the Saratoga Automobile Museum. On those mornings I would gratefully step aside while father and son spent the day together. One year they brought back a photo of a ridiculous Country Squire station wagon – and told me that the monstrously wood-paneled beast was ours. I didn’t believe it until it arrived a few days later. (Despite my pleas for burglary, it still resides in our side-yard.)

The following year, they attended another show, and when they came back they had a photo of Andy’s father pointing to another car, as if Andy was getting a bride for his Frankenstein. I was mustering every ounce of self-control to not lose my shit in front of his Dad when he said that he got me. Every time they went to a car show thereafter, Tom would pose with a crazy car and Andy would send the pic to me. Once I got his sense of humor, and he had a wonderful one, I felt like we bonded.

He got along swimmingly with my own father, and at gatherings at our home they would often sit together and talk. There was lots of laughter between them, right until the last days, and I know that my Dad will miss his friend.

He remembered me every Christmas and birthday, and he treated me as well as he treated his own children. He didn’t have to say anything to make me chuckle. It was a roll of his eyes, or a hysterically incredulous ‘are you crazy?’ look that could elicit a howl of laughter. He was sly in his digs, and witty when he wanted to be. There was a thoughtfulness in the way he spoke, and in the way he interacted with people. By the time he reached 90, he took it all with a grain of salt, but even in his last days there were glimmers of the hard-working man who brought my husband into the world.

On his last night, his father showed Andy a glimpse of who he had been. He mustered the energy to pull his Boston Red Sox cap onto his head. He tugged on the bill a bit, as if he was about to throw a pitch, and let a quick smile cross his face. He was ready for a new inning.

We will miss you, Dad.

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Suzie is 42!!

My best friend/sister-figure Suzie (well-known in these parts) turns 42 today!

If you see her, wish her a very Happy Birthday.

If all goes according to plan, we will be recuperating from last night’s Pride Gala, to which she graciously accompanied me (minus the kinky boots and neck accoutrements). My collection of Suzie-archives runs deep and vast (though I fear the collection of nonsense I’ve sent to her over the years is larger and more embarrassing) so here are a few choice shots from around two decades ago.

Happy Birthday Suzie! And many happy returns of the day!!

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Sibling Non-Rivalry

When twins show their love, it’s a beautiful thing. My brother and I posed like this a few times in our childhood, which makes me wonder how these two will turn out. Their love is apparent, but there is also competition and the occasional squabble. All are necessary parts of growing up, I suppose. For now, we make the most of moments like this, when unabashed affection is easily summoned for the camera.

 

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Family Easter Mayhem

Whenever I’m faced with a family gathering involving kids, I think longingly of one of the very first episodes of ‘Mad Men’. Don Draper is set to return home to his daughter’s birthday party, and he begins by having a few beers out in the garage. Tipsy, and emboldened, he heads out on an errand and promptly falls asleep in his car, missing out entirely on his daughter’s birthday party. If I were a father, I would never do such a thing, but I’m not. Still, I am an uncle, and still wouldn’t do anything. That doesn’t mean I can’t daydream about missing a kid’s party.

No such escape was necessary for this year’s Easter festivities at my family’s home. We had a lovely time with my niece and nephew, engaging in some reading and fine dining before Emi started drawing a tattoo on one of Noah’s toys. “Sweetie, that’s disturbing,” I found myself saying, which was very much a first. Outside of sardonic tweets, I’ve never called anyone ‘sweetie’ and meant it. Oh well, it was Easter. Hope yours was just as fun.

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Brotherly Love on a Birthday

We could not have been born further apart in the calendar year ~ he arrived on February 25 and I was at the other end of the seasons on August 24. It was as if we were destined to be opposites, and no amount of work or effort would, or could, change that. Yet for all of that, I only have one brother, and I love him like only a brother could. He remains the single person on this earth who went through the same exact experiences of growing up that I did, he knows all the family secrets that I know, and he remembers things that I’m starting to forget. There’s an unbreakable bond in all of that, and despite our arguments over the years we’ve settled into a friendship of sorts. (Even when that friendship is tested, we’re still brothers. Nothing can alter that.)

Today, I wish him a very Happy 40th Birthday – yes, my baby brother is 40, and that leaves a bit of a sting on both of us. We’ve come a long way since the days of clowns (he had one named Shrinking Violet at one of his birthday parties) and Chuck E. Cheese (I still have nightmares of all those balls), but in so many ways we’re the same boys who snuck into each other’s rooms at night, not willing to end the day apart, not wanting to turn the light off on childhood, on our time together.

Happy Birthday, bro.

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Hosting Sunday Brunch

Can you believe that we’ve never hosted a Sunday brunch until now? My friend Chris voiced his incredulity, and when I pondered it my own mind boggled a bit too. We’ve had weekend guests who have shared in breakfast and brunch-like meals, but never have we had people over specifically with the intent of brunching. This was the first time, and though it came off without a hitch, it was a lot of work, so we likely won’t be doing this with any regularity.

The pièce de résistance was a bowl of Pennsylvania Dutch pickled beets and eggs, but that was so pretty it deserved its own post (to follow later today). It also required a 48-hour prep time, which gives you an indication of the forethought and planning that is required – such as the baked French toast you can see above. I’m not a fan of making French toast because of all the smoke and mess, so a baked version was much more to my liking. It could (and actually should) be prepared the night beforehand, so the bread can soak up the batter.

The home fries (with onion and yellow peppers) and the frittata had to be made right before serving, which is where the stress of the whole thing surfaces. Both, however, won’t be harmed by waiting around for an hour or so – and some people prefer a room temperature frittata anyway.

This was my first freaking frittata and it was fabulous, if I do say so myself. Following the advice of various frittata experts, I cooked up the vegetables separately to eliminate a lot of the excess liquid they would otherwise bring to the dish, and it turned out quite nicely.

The deviled eggs (half with horseradish) were provided by Suzie, and I always find that the secret to getting really good deviled eggs is to ask someone else to do them. I provided the traditional brunch libations (Bloody Marys and mimosas).

We brought out the waffle-maker (as we do once or twice a year) and other people baked them up.

Is it worth having a waffle-maker if you’re only going to use it once a year? The answer is yes. At least on this morning. I’ll sing a different song when I trip over it in the attic again.

It was a grand time, and it turns out that the key to a great brunch isn’t so much about the food or fanciness of the dinnerware, but rather in the family and friends we were lucky enough to assemble. We’ll do it again when spring returns.

Word.

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A Pancit Birthday Dinner for Mom

We left it in the hands of Mom as to what kind of birthday dinner she wanted, and she chose a traditional Filipino one of pancit and adobo. I made those dishes (the latter in a slow cooker, which I’m still not completely sold on as far as cooking adobo goes). Andy made the sensational lavender cake depicted here, and it was a fun evening that I won’t bog down with excessive verbiage. The photos tell most of the story. (Cheese board by Suzie Ko, so there’s no otherwise-likely litigation in the future.)

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A Mother’s Birthday

Today we celebrate my Mom’s birthday, and as the woman who brought me into the world and has had to deal with me ever since, she deserves more than mere accolades. We’ll do a proper dinner at our house tomorrow evening, but for now here’s a birthday place-card. Here’s wishing the happiest of birthdays to the person who gave me a sense of style, showed me a sense of purpose, and loved me even when I didn’t always deserve it.

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Brother & Faux Sister

This photo takes me back. Not just to the first day of 2017, but way back to my childhood, when my brother and I would play with Suzie and our cousins on New Year’s Day. Relegated to the family room and later the basement, we were also sentenced to the kid’s table in the kitchen for our dining enjoyment, and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Times have changed, and there are new kids at the table and in the family room, but every once in a great while I see a glimmer of the mischievous fun we had in our childhood. I see that in this photo, and it makes me smile. (In an effort to pretend that we have in fact grown up, I have omitted the next shot that showed Suzie flipping me the bird. Maybe things haven’t changed that much.)

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From My Fam to Yours: Xmas Day

The day after Santa arrives is always a celebration, even if there’s the usual deflated expectations of hype and hoopla. This time around there was nothing but smiles, and a rambunctious crew ready to run wild until someone busted a lip open. Such is the excitement of Christmas Day, and the perils of a game of chase.

We’ve come a long way from the days of prim and proper behavior, of dressing up and settling formally into a church pew. I never thought I’d miss that, but part of me does.

Still, there is nothing that can dim the magic of Christmas, especially when you learn to embrace family and friends more than you do throughout the rest of the year. That’s the lesson I’ll try to remember as we begin the long trudge through winter darkness.

 

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