Food as a Love Language

Norman Rockwell

Freedom from Want by Norman Rockwell

It seems like I’ve spent the past month in the kitchen. I baked Christmas cookies, cakes and pies. I made soups and snacks and egg bakes. I prepared a bountiful Christmas dinner followed by a taco bar for New Year’s Eve and game day fan food for the big NFC North division football game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers. I’ve grocery shopped, sliced and diced and rearranged those plastic storage containers in my refrigerator countless times. You likely did the same. But it wasn’t always this way for me. I haven’t always been as intently focused on food. But this focus will likely last longer than the 12 days of Christmas. Because I’ve come to understand something that once made me scoff.

For years, my mother-in-law has seemed obsessed with food. It’s partly a generational thing. Or a regional thing. Or a raised on a farm thing. Whatever the reason, family gatherings are always scheduled around the next meal. Eager attempts to make sure she prepares each of her son’s favorite foods. Genuine disappointment whenever guests refuse second or even third helpings. This behavior used to make me chuckle. “What’s the deal with all the food?” I wondered.

I grew up in a small household of only girls. We didn’t think much about food. My mother freely admits she doesn’t like to cook. But it’s not like we starved. It’s just that my young life was fueled by more cold cereal and TV dinners than my husband’s. No big deal. Right?

Well, food has become a bigger deal to me. Why? Because I have teenage sons.

As my sweet boys grow taller than me and develop separate lives that I’m only partly privy to, I become like an awkward girl trying to get their attention for a few minutes a day. Gone are the days of having chubby-cheeked toddlers snuggled on my lap. I no longer lie next to little pajama people at night telling stories or singing songs. They are learning to cope with life’s challenges without running to their mommy every time they wince from a bit of pain. And these are good things. Thank God my boys are becoming men. Beautiful, compassionate, hard-working men who I’m sure still love their mother even though they offer me fewer hugs in public.

But you know what makes them light up? Food. I’ve discovered what my mother-in-law has known all along. That one sure way mothers can show love to her boys who no longer want to be snuggled and covered in kisses is to make their favorite foods.

And so, I bake cookies and pies. I make pasta and soul-comforting soups. I stock the pantry with snacks and the freezer with frozen pizzas. (By the way, one frozen pizza used to feed my family of four in a pinch. Now, it’s an afternoon snack for a ravenous teen boy.)

I will simmer roast beef in the crockpot and make stacks of pancakes on Sunday mornings. I will shower my boys with a food storm of love until they move away and dream of their mom’s home-cooked meals. I will pray God’s blessings over all of our shared meals and create dinner table memories with my children. We will break bread together. We will connect and converse. I will get to peek into their lives while they partake at my table. I will cherish the opportunity to love them with the bounty of my kitchen. I will bless them with abundance. And one day, I will likely be distraught, like my mother-in-law, when my sons are middle aged and their wives scoff at the idea of second helpings.

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Vacation Trees

A little bit of Paradise among the Vacation Trees.

A little bit of Paradise among the Vacation Trees.

One of the best things my mother ever did for me was put me on an airplane to visit my grandfather in California when I was 8 years old. My grandfather had moved from Michigan to Palm Desert, Calif., a land of better weather and economic opportunities, and he was missing me. He asked my mother to send me along for a vacation–something I surely would not have done for my own children, as I’m too anxious and overprotective. But the experience was life changing for me and I will be forever grateful that I got to experience another world that summer and many more summers to follow.

Palm Desert is a land of manicured golf courses and wealthy snowbirds, a place perfectly suited to Grandpa’s business model of condo caretaking. When I wasn’t splashing in his backyard pool or curiously inspecting his eco-friendly rock “lawn” dotted with palm trees, I’d go along with him to inspect the homes of vacationers who’d left their desert dwellings to escape the summer heat. On rare occasion, I’d be introduced to one of these migratory species, people from places like San Francisco, Oregon, Washington and Canada. They wore wild sunglasses, sipped cocktails, collected art and kept golf carts in their garages. And they seemed to love Grandpa almost as much as I did.

For lunch, Grandpa and I would often stop at a restaurant for burgers with my Uncle Cory–Grandpa’s youngest of three sons. Cory followed Grandpa to Palm Desert in the 1980s along with his young bride, all of them evolving into “desert rats” whose winter wardrobes devolved to a few pair of long pants and light jackets. I envied them. How they got to live in eternal sunshine, where an ice rink inside a shopping mall was considered an entertainment oddity. But mostly, I enjoyed their company. These men were constants in my life. Always glad to see me. Always sad to see me go. I loved them, their stories and their smiles.

Grandpa and Uncle Cory have since passed on from their desert paradise to a heavenly paradise. Grandpa in 2008. Cory this past February. Grandpa thought he’d lived too long. Cory surely didn’t get to live long enough. But then, life is never a constant. We are touched and changed by people. And we try to pass along some of the joy we’ve encountered from others.

I introduced the hubs to Palm Desert over 20 years ago. We’ve regularly visited all of our married life. Our kiddos get to see the same mountains, fruit stands, country clubs and palm trees of my youth. I tell them stories about their great Grandpa and their great Uncle Cory.

The California Clan

The California Clan in 2005

Once, when our children were little and we’d exited the airport after landing in CA, one our children peered up at the unusual landscape and asked, “Are those vacation trees?”

We laughed. Ah, yes. Palm trees will forever be known as vacation trees in our family.

This Palm Sunday, we’ll go to church and wave palm fronds in worship, remembering the humble yet triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem shortly before his arrest and crucifixion. We will proclaim, “Hosanna. Hosanna in the highest.”

I will wave my palm frond toward heaven and say a prayer of thanks for two men who introduced me to vacation trees. Palm fronds will from now on be to me, a symbol of a little bit of paradise found on earth and its fullness yet to come.

 

Me with Uncle Cory in Palm Desert, CA.

Me with Uncle Cory in Palm Desert, CA. circa 1984

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Travel Tips from Our Family Vacation in Washington D.C. & NYC

We live on the tundra. This means I prefer to vacation someplace warm in winter and sit around sipping beers and reading books on my front porch during summer. We typically head to SoCal sometime between January and March because we have family in that area. But as our ducklings get closer to leaving the hubs and me to waddle around the yard alone, we’ve decided to be a bit more adventurous and take a few family vacations to previously unexplored destinations.

We made a list of locales we’d like to visit and began to plan. First on the list was Mount Rushmore since it’s not far from home. But when the oldest went on a church mission trip to the area, South Dakota was demoted from priority status. Next was Washington D.C. because the middle school sponsors a student trip there. I convinced our sons, (decided for them) that it would be more fun to go with family. Plus, I’d never been there and was excited to see our nation’s capital for myself. So for the first time, we ventured east for a summer vacation. Here is some of what we learned along the way…

TRANSPORTATION

We flew and decided not to rent a car when we arrived. (We also packed light, each with only a backpack or small carryon suitcase.) I was told the Metro rail system around D.C. is easy and efficient. This proved to be true. Once we deciphered the fare machine and route maps, we became pros at navigating the city by subway. This may have been one of our kids’ favorite vacation activities.

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Re-loadable fare cards also work for the bus system and twice we used a combination of train and bus service to visit more distant attractions: the Washington National Cathedral and Mount Vernon. But, the subway isn’t necessarily quicker than taking a taxi­–and for four passengers, riding the metro isn’t a lot cheaper either. So, if you’re in a hurry, are traveling in a group and don’t have far to go, a cab isn’t the worst decision. If you plan to drive, the traffic didn’t look horrible but I have no idea how much it costs to park.

Halfway through our trip, we boarded an Amtrak train to New York City. Friends had tied these two destinations into one vacation and it seemed like a good idea. Amtrak is much different than air travel: no security line and no assigned seats. I’d pre-purchased tickets online. From there, you just show up, wait for your track to be announced and rush the platform to ensure getting seats together. Not particularly scenic. Not luxurious. But easy enough.

ATTRACTIONS

We spent a total of eight days in D.C. and three days in NYC. This seemed adequate for seeing most of what we wanted to see. I did minimal pre-planning. Outside of the Amtrak tickets, the only pre-purchased tickets were for a visit to the Statue of Liberty, which was totally worth it. Getting to the ferry was a short cab ride from midtown. Security was tight but tourists were moved along efficiently and quickly.

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While in NYC, we also visited the 9/11 Memorial and museum. I’d been advised to purchase advance tickets but didn’t. No problem. We were able to walk right up and get tickets for the same day.

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Other NYC vacation highlights included a full day exploring Central Park (probably the kids’ favorite place with its large outcroppings of stones for climbing adventures), and a double-deck bus tour around Manhattan (this type of excursion was better in Chicago where the quality of our tour guide was superior). There is surely more to see and overall, everyone agreed we’d like to return to NYC sometime.

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In Washington D.C., we visited most every monument and museum as well as Arlington National Cemetery and Mount Vernon. We did not coordinate tours for the White House or the Capital building, which require advance planning. But we saw SO much, I don’t feel as if we missed out on anything. Some of our D.C. highlights were:

Going inside the Washington Monument. (The hubs got in line at 7:30 a.m. for free same day tickets.)

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Strolling around the National Mall monuments at night.

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Resting my weary body after walking MILES each day.

FOOD

I’m not a trinket buyer so most of our pocket money went toward food. And I must say, I was disappointed by the lack of decent restaurant fare in D.C. Again, maybe my lack of proper pre-planning and research are to blame. But a simple Google search should have turned up something filling, healthy, moderately priced and within walking distance from the National Mall. But alas, our days were filled with fast food, cafeterias and bags of Combos. The museums have a great racket going with free admission, IKEA-style exhibit paths that make it virtually impossible to exit until you’re exhausted and famished, and then–a cafeteria filled with tourists and $40 family lunches not including beverages as we carried our own water.

Dining was easier in NYC with its wide variety of dine-in and take-out restaurants and delis. Many also had lovely patio seating.

We treated the kiddos to a meal in New York’s Little Italy one night for funzies. This was by far the most expensive dinner of our trip. But it was relaxing. The food was fresh and tasty. And of course, mama slowly sipped a wonderful glass of wine. (Most nights, I sipped my evening allotment of resveratrol back in the hotel room, poured from a bottle I picked up for $10 at a nearby drugstore. Don’t judge.)

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ACCOMODATIONS

We have been saving Marriott reward points for years thinking we’d use them to take the family to Europe someday. But that day may never come and if travel companies decide to change the rules before vacationers like us get the chance to use those precious points, we’re screwed. So we decided to start using points now. This meant ‘free’ hotel stays but limited us to three Marriott properties based on availability: the Marriott Courtyard and Marriott Gateway in Arlington, VA and the Marriott Marquee in Times Square.

Arlington is a bit farther than I would have preferred for daily treks into D.C., but it was easily managed via Metro rail. I was really excited about staying on Times Square in NYC and the hotel is very nice. But, a room with a view costs extra and the tourists packed onto the street just outside the hotel made Times Square one of my least favorite places to wade through daily. I only needed to see it once.

Overall, the biggest surprise of the trip was being less overwhelmed than I anticipated. “Would a big city make us anxious?” Nah. Both cities seem pretty much the same as anyplace else, only bigger. Oh, and D.C. smells better than NYC. Gah! (More photos on Instagram @wordsbyangela)

Next on our list, Yosemite National Park!

If you have questions or additional travel tips for readers of this post, please add them to the comments section.

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Sip Your Drink Slowly, and Other Tips for Handling Irksome Family Members.

Large Group of Happy People standing together.Things don’t always turn out how we want. Blah Blah. Heard it all before. Right? Make lemon drop martinis out of lemons… or something like that. But what about when people don’t behave how we want them to? Yes, if we’re honest, we must admit we have certain expectations about human behavior. Not usually our own behavior, no, our harshest criticism seems especially passionate when it comes to the folks who happen to be related to us.

It’s summer and the season offers plenty of opportunity for family gatherings, or at least the expectation of some level of family togetherness. And when it comes to family, what I seem to notice most consistently is the disappointment people harbor when it comes to certain family members.

“Why doesn’t he call more often?” “She forgot my birthday.” “He’s too busy and doesn’t make enough time for me.” “She’s spoiling her children.” “He doesn’t pay enough attention to his children.” “They only call when they need something.” “She’s so critical of everything I do.”

On and on it goes, an endless lament of unmet expectations sprinkled into a simmering stew of deeply held disappointments and grudges.

Welp, here’s the deal as far as I see it. When it comes to family, we’re kind of stuck. Unless there is some really hurtful dysfunction or brutality at work, a la August Osage County, it’s difficult to have relationships if we just pick up our toys and go home when others get on our nerves. Instead, consider a handful of coping techniques I’ve found helpful when tempted to complain about someone else’s behavior.

First, I’m willing to bet that most of the time another person’s behavior isn’t about me. It’s about them. They’re trying too hard or aren’t trying at all because they’re worried about perception or making a mistake. My mind can be hard to read and yours probably can be too. Heck, the people who live in my house with me are often unsure of how to make me happy. So how can we expect others to know exactly what to do or say to please us? Or maybe that person you’re annoyed with is just plain clueless and has no real intention of being helpful or hurtful. So what? Laugh it off. Give it a pass. Don’t keep a record of wrongs.

Second, generational and cultural differences do exist. So stop measuring other people by the social mores of whatever generation, town or religious tradition you came of age in. Be gentle, not condescending. And even when it’s difficult, try to give the old folks a break–for many reasons, but mostly because our behavior toward them is teaching our children how to treat us when we’re old. Seriously. Think about it.

Lastly, stop being pissed off that your family doesn’t mirror some romanticized TV version of unconditional campfire Kumbaya. The fact is many people simply cannot live up to the expectations we’ve set for them. Either because they never learned how or are emotionally unequipped to do so. So when we get anxious, angry or agitated because others are not meeting our needs, we’re being just as annoying as they are. Put yourself in their shoes and consider the source. Then consider the only true source of life, the creator and maker of all things who stands ready to meet our very real needs.

I pray blessings on all of your family gatherings this summer and hope we can be quick to forgive, offer kindness and seek a spirit of harmony. May our expectations be in line with what’s realistic and our concerns be more about how we can bless others rather than how we desire others to bless us. Oh, and if life give you lemons, be sure to sip your lemon drop slowly.

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