Happy Birthday Jeffrey

IMG_0880Dear Jeffrey,

Every year on your birthday, I write you something- some of the letters are poignant, some silly, all are heartfelt. I look at the photo of you above, taken just a few days after you were born, and I can still almost smell the sweet heavenly newness. Today, you look me in the eye and try not to giggle, and fight with me about taking a shower and how soon you need a haircut: “Sooner” I say, to your infinite “later”. You babysit, and keep track of your money earned to put towards gadgets you love, and your room is littered with socks, Legos, and comic books.

Last year I wrote you the following:

Son, you make your mama proud. When you were born, all copper hair and furrowed eyebrows, I knew you had a noble heart— and time after time, as you’ve grown, you have made me proud. Now, on the eve of beginning middle school, I’m fighting with my own worries and fears, which are always greater at night, as you well know. Yet I remind myself of the strength of character you have already shown- you make good choices for a growing boy. You pick good friends. You are kind and thoughtful of others. You watch out for those smaller and younger than you, and you have a profound sense of fairness and take great umbrage if you feel it’s been trodden upon.

Thank you for being my son. Thank you for shouldering a harder burden than many boys twice your age, and doing it with love, kindness and grace. Life the past few years has been harder than I wish or had planned, but the lesson for all of us was to make the best of things- even hard things. Thank you for still being a kid enough to crawl in bed next to me some mornings and chatter away about games and toys and what you’re hungry for— usually bacon and waffles. Thank you for turning to me when you are sad and need my shoulder. Thank you for trusting me with your heart, your ideas, your inspiration, and your dreams.

Where once you were small and needed my hand to guide you, today you can stand toe to toe and look me in the eye, even though we usually dissolve into a fit of giggles when you do. It still disconcerts both of us that we’re near the same size. It won’t be long before I have to look up to you, my son… Actually, the truth is, my dear, honest, goofy, sincere boy, I already do.

Each of those things still applies, even more-so as you grow. I watched you navigate the treacherous waters of your first year of middle school with integrity and determination, even in the face of difficulty. No, it’s not easy- and son, the truth is, you weren’t granted an easy row, but you’re strong enough and have a big enough heart to do what is required of you- and to do so with honor and courage.

I am, as ever, proud to be your mama. I love you, dear son. Happy Birthday!


Turn the Hearts of the Children…

Scotland_highlands_bagpiper_photo_tour_tom_and_pat_cory_440_238_80When Jeffrey wanted to learn to play the bagpipes, I thought it was cool. I did! Honest, I swear, I did. All my life, I’ve loved the bagpipes, and find them haunting and beautiful. While our surname is obviously a Scottish clan name, I never really gave it much thought beyond knowing we were one of thousands of families whose “Mac—” became “Mc—” in their emigration. I knew my ancestors came down through Canada via Nova Scotia, but somehow missed picking up Nova Scotia is NEW SCOTLAND. Derp.

So when Jeff picked up the pipes, I started poking around. He wanted a kilt. I knew my uncle (a state court judge) wore full Highland Dress for formal occasions, so I talked to my cousins, and found out, glory be, we have a tartan. A specific tartan, tied to very specific ancestral lands in the northern highlands of Scotland. Cool, right? We don’t just have a modern tartan- we’ve got an ancient tartan, a hunting tartan, a formal tartan…

So I’ve been doing some reading. Turns out we’ve been around a loooong time as a clan- direct lines back to 1085. We’ve got more than bit of history. We fought with William Wallace in 1296. Remember Braveheart? Yeah, that William Wallace— though his real story is not as romantic as Mel Gibson made it seem, the battles are firmly established history, as is his horrible demise and cry for freedom for Scotland. After Wallace, in 1306, we followed and fought for Robert the Bruce and helped win Scotland’s independence at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. It’s not like things were all roses after that though…

Life in Scotland was hard. There were centuries of retaliations and bloodshed and fighting amongst clans. Our name means “sons of fire” and the family motto on our crest is “Manu Forti” with a fist clenching a dagger. It means ‘with a firm hand’ and we had a warlike reputation for being a good ally and a formidable foe. 3000 of us fought alongside William of Orange.

Finally in the 1800’s, the clan suffered greatly as a result of the “Highland Clearances” and my family’s ancestors emigrated to Canada. There are still ancestral lands in the northern highlands that bear our name, as well as two ruined castles.

One of the more interesting things I’ve discovered is that we became known for our piping. To exert control over people, some music was outlawed, kilts and tartans were banned (clan identity was dangerous) and the bagpipes were outlawed. We played anyway. From 1629 on to the modern day, our piping as a clan is renowned. We have clan society pipers in Scotland, Nova Scotia and throughout Canada.

Discovering these rich veins of ancestry turns our forbears from dusty pages in a colorless book into rich, passionate and full blooded people. I’m utterly fascinated how my children’s red hair and freckles are tied directly to blood that runs in my veins from these very people. It’s lovely to imagine my own willingness to stand up for my beliefs, to battle if the need arises, might stem from these very same mitochondrial strands in every cell in my body, passed on in my children’s bodies… And so it goes. Hearts to our forefathers, indeed. All because my son, out of the blue, wanted to learn the pipes.

Taking my Punk to Punk


Jeffrey turns twelve next week. It’s hard for me to wrap myself around the idea that he’s leaving primary, starting Junior High, wears shoes larger than me, and looks me in the eye. Next week I’m sure I’ll pen a sentiment-ladden tome about the passage of time and the anniversary of his making me a mother *sniff*, but this week, I took him to his first concert. Well, his first concert-concert. He’s been to the theater, the symphony, and plays in the school brass band… but you know what I mean.

There is only one band he truly loves- mostly because they’re the only band I know of that combines all the typical rock instruments, but adds in mandolin, accordion, banjo, fife, AND BAGPIPES. We went to see the Dropkick Murphys.

Seriously, is that not the coolest rendition of Scotland the Brave? We love bagpipes! (and coolest hymn ever, if you’re me…)

For a kid who sings along with these songs in the car with the windows down at the top of his voice, he was surprisingly nervous. I told him being unsure in new situations was normal, and I would have no problem selling the tickets, but I wanted him to ponder it. As a mother, it was fascinating watching him grapple with his own desires and fears— I knew he would be okay either way, but I also knew he would lay the foundation for courage in other situations if he persevered through his uncertainty. But I had to let him figure it out on his own, knowing he was okay with me either way. He decided to go.

It’d been years since I went to a small venue show. While I had read him in on what to expect, I had forgotten about the under-21 wristbands and the security pat-down. We had an interesting discussion on why some underage teens would want to buy beer, and how the wristbands kept kids protected from stupid people. There were a fair amount of kids his age, and that made him feel more comfortable.

The show was at The National, an old converted theater in the state capitol. Cool architecture, winding staircases and heavy curtains, peopled by folks in Boston t-shirts and some wearing kilts. The opening band was horrible, and we ended up leaving the floor for the balcony where we could find a seat and wait for the Murphys. We scored seats right at the railing of the balcony and had a great view. I love general admission all-ages shows. There were a surprising amount of families.

Then the lights went down. The energy went up, the curtain dropped, and the Murphys were on fire. It was an amazing show— there’s no way to adequately describe the energy of the music, the tightness of the band, and the camaraderie of the crowd. The Murphys really like their fans, and it shows. (Another reason to stick with small venues)

By the end of the show, he was actually standing and swaying, though not fully ready to jump in and dance. Not bad for a twelve year old punk. I sure do love this kid.

IMG_0848Thanks to my old friend Susan M. for showing me by example the richness available in being open to new experiences and the joy in taking your kids with you.

Hello, Atlantic


Growing up on the beaches of Northern California was wonderful. Many a July day was spent wrapped in a heavy green woolen army blanket, cheeks stinging, eyes tearing from the wind, while I watched my dad waist-deep in the surf. Dad would be covered from neck to foot in black neoprene, making him look like a big shiny seal the sharks like to eat as they swam around the Farallon Islands. I learned early you could get just as burnt in the fog as you can in bright yellow sunlight- ultraviolet rays are no respecter of overcast or cold. My dad was a long-pole surf fisherman, and when the Strippers weren’t running, he’d toss a Hawaiian throw-net in the surf. It’s a beautiful and elegant tool, and in Hawaii I’m sure it’s near idyllic. Off the coast of San Francisco on the edge of the Pacific drop-off where the undertow took at least one person a summer, it was brutal.

Until I moved east, this was the only kind of ocean I knew. Beaches are cold and rocky. Sand is course. July is cold. I still love it. So when I stepped off the peeling boardwalk in North Carolina onto the sugary soft sand, I gasped in surprise. The slope to the water was gentle and long, with fronds of beach grass and winding wire and drift-wood fences meandering across the gentle swelling dunes. The water laid low and deep sea-green across the horizon, and the clouds, on humid warm fronts from the calm ocean, watercolored and gentle. IMG_0816It was shocking to step in and have the water be warm- I hadn’t realized I was braced, per a lifetime of conditioning, for an icy intake of breath, until the waves lapped up to my ankles and I laughed. So this is why people like the beach! This is why people want to vacation there! I grew up in abject terror of turning my back on the violent waves of the north pacific- and the idea of letting a child play in the dangerous undertow was unthinkable. Here on this beach, children dug with plastic pails and shovels down by the water, playing and laughing in the gentle surf. Sandpipers chased tiny crabs. Driftwood and seashells scatters the sands. I sat there for hours, taking to friends, playing with kids, and marveling at what a difference a continental shelf and an ocean going current can make. And I got totally sunburnt. Some things don’t change.

Recipe: Rustic Cheese & Onion Enchiladas with Beef Sauce

cheese & onion enchiladas

I love enchiladas. When I was a kid, I never understood why Nana said they were so much work- at my house, my mom would crack a can of enchilada sauce, roll cheese in a tortilla, and pop ’em in the oven. Presto! American enchiladas. And even those were good. But then I learned how to really make them… and my culinary world changed. I also understood why Nana said they were a lot work. When I’m feeling really ambitious, I even made masa and press my own tortillas,  but you don’t have to. Good quality tortillas are available at any latin grocery, and you should totally get them there. Fresher, better all around.

With the help of a crock pot, this recipe is easy, and the ingredients are found in most kitchens. (Seriously though, I can’t encourage you enough to head to the international or latin market near you.) Remember, improvisation is part of the adventure of cooking, and cooking is awesome.

Rustic Cheese & Onion Enchiladas with Beef Sauce

Regular enchilada sauce is made by roasting and softening dried chilies in oil, simmering them in broth and spices, and pureeing them in the blender. I can give you the recipe for that another day. This sauce uses chili powder and tomatoes, but despite the shortcut, the beef creates an unctuous texture and outstanding depth of flavor.

  • 1 1/2 pounds stew beef or chuck roast, cut into 2″ chunks
  • 3 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 onions, minced
  • 3 Tbsp chili powder
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp granulated garlic
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 28-ounce can tomato puree
  • 2 oz red wine
  • 2 cups grated cheese
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 1 cup queso fresco, a crumbly fresh Mexican cheese
  • corn tortillas
  1. Heat oil in a heavy skillet and pat beef chunks dry. You want to form a good brown crust on them, and if they’re wet, they’ll steam. Brown all chunks and season with salt and pepper.  Brown over medium-high heat, turning only as needed, until caramelized and dark brown on most sides.
  2. Transfer to crock pot standing by. There are a lot of good browned bits on the bottom of your frying pan. Deglaze the pan by adding the 2 ounces of wine to the pan and using a spatula to get all the goodness up- transfer to crock pot. If you prefer not using wine, use chicken broth or water. It won’t taste as deep, but it will still work.
  3. To the crock pot, add the minced onion, spices, garlic and tomato puree. Stir to combine and cook on low for 3-5 hours, or until the meat is falling apart. I start mine in the morning and let it go all day.
  4. When beef is tender, you can pull the chunks of meat out and run the sauce through a strainer to create a velvety sauce, or you can leave it, have a chunkier sauce. Shred the beef into tiny bits and add half the beef back to the sauce. I do the sauce both ways, depending on how much time I have. (the kids like it smoother)
  5. Saute remaning minced onion until soft, mix in a bowl with the other half of the beef and the 2 cups of grated cheese. Any shredding cheese you like is fine- colby, a mix of cheddar and jack, or Mexican cheese.
  6. Pour a thin layer of sauce in the bottom of a casserole dish, and assemble the enchiladas by rolling a heaping 1/4 cup of filling in each tortilla. Corn tortillas roll easier if they’re warm— wrap them in a damp paper towel and microwave for 30 seconds— that should help. Once the pan is full of neat little rolls, pour the rest of the beefy sauce over the top, and sprinkle with crumbled queso fresco. (If you don’t have it, more of your regular cheese is fine.)
  7. Cover with foil and bake at 375 for 20-25 minutes until the cheese is bubbly and hot.

Pretty Close to Perfect


My heart always lightens when the sun tips over the edge of the year, and July fades into the lower, leonine light of August. It’s still summer, but it’s no longer blasted-out, white-sky July. I can’t feel autumn yet, but I can hear its whispers around the edges of the dusk- soon… soon…

It was whispering when I put my kids in the car late in the afternoon, hair still damp and smelling of chlorine and sunscreen, and headed west, where friends had invited us to join them in celebration of Pioneer Day. Tiny towns dot the Virginia countryside, and history drips from the lampposts and roadside markers of this famous battle, or that sanctified soil. We’re not visiting — we live upon it, breathing it in, infused by those who came before us.

The hills of the battlefields roll into valleys and the low old mountains gently rise as we near the West Virginia line. The roads turn from the seething snakes of DC highways into meandering runs, placid and verdant.

The road narrows again, and I tap my GPS to make sure she knows where she’s leading. The canopy of lush trees forms a cathedral over the narrow black ribbon of road, and thick, leaf-laden vines climb the trunks, the telephone poles, the split-rail fences of decades past. My children look up, leave their screens in slack, relaxed hands, laying in their laps. The windows rolls down, and it’s quiet.

The blacktop gives way to gravel crushing beneath our slow wheels, and the earlier cloudburst left eddies and cuts in the earthen driveway. Blackberry and raspberry brambles send tendrils out from their thickets, dangling berries close enough to pluck from the open windows.

In the driveway are the cars of friends. Gathering our potluck contributions from the trunk, we hear the raindrops on the trees, but the leaves are so thick they don’t reach our heads. The kids look up and marvel. This is where the color green was born.

Hugging warm-baked pretzels in an old enamel bowl, the kids follow me up the wooden steps to the screen porch, and we are loudly and jovially welcomed to the celebration. The porch is overflowing with friends and children, and the kids melt into the party before I turn around to make introductions. Abby is already holding hands and skipping with a girl her age, and Bean found some stairs to hide under and chew on a piece of red licorice. He is happy.

The kitchen, like so many kitchens, is full of more welcoming voices and countertops overflowing with Pyrex pots and casseroles and dishes of food. I hug long-missed friends I haven’t seen in a year, and promptly forget the names of new friends freshly introduced. There is laughter everywhere, and little hands on legs, pressed to backs, warm embraces and invitations to sit and chat a spell.

The doors and windows are all screened and open and strung with lights; the earlier rain cooling the August air and bringing a comfortable breeze. On the porch, a fiddle is produced, and the most splendid American music fills the house. From everywhere, people gather to listen. Legs tapping, feet keeping the rhythm, faces smiling and eyes warmly glowing. The children start to dance. The music moves from Irish folk songs, to American bluegrass, to classical and back again, weaving a spell of beautiful enchantment. Laughter punctuates the music. Every soul is smiling- you can’t help it.

Soon, August whispered to me. Soon. I’m learning to listen. Life is pretty close to perfect. Wherever you are.