Saturday, February 16, 2019

Heart-filled thanks to my first Valentine

Dancing with my dad on my wedding day.
Happy Valentine’s Day to my first Valentine — the guy who loved me from my first breath of life; whose face lit up when he handed me a cuddly stuffed animal or a new pack of Crayons (and continued the tradition with my kids); who supported me through all of my activities, performances, and academic and professional pursuits from childhood through adulthood; my secret admirer who sent me a sweet anonymous Valentine in the Pennysaver one Valentine’s Day when I was in elementary school; my biggest fan, who saved every article and blog post I ever wrote, proudly showing it to everyone around him; the life of the party who knew how to help me get through heartbreak, hurt or disappointment with a joke; who fell in love with Penn State as much as I did and became its biggest fan; became a huge fan of my husband, too; and who fulfilled the duties of both parents during 20 years of highs and lows after my mom died, including my wedding, and the births of both of my kids.

So to my dad, thank you for a lifetime of love, and for a final lesson that has changed my life. It is appropriate to thank my dad during the American Heart Association’s Heart Month because his big, loving, generous heart is what ultimately failed when he died in October 2015 after suffering a heart attack following years of heart health problems. Through the pain of losing him, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was traveling down the same path. I had gained a lot of weight, and while I acknowledged that it put me at risk for heart disease and many other diseases, I wouldn’t take the leap to do anything about it. When my dad died, I had to face the fact that my weight was putting my health in jeopardy. 

Heart disease and stroke cause 1 in 3 deaths in women each year, according to the American Heart Association, which places cardiovascular disease as the No. 1 killer of women. Among the steps the American Heart Association recommends to help prevent heart disease is to lose or manage your weight. 

Hanging out with one of my loves.
It took me a couple of years after my dad’s passing, and more weight gain to have the courage and the will to really commit to making my health a priority by losing weight. So I joined Weight Watchers (now WW) Freestyle on Jan. 28, 2018. The app makes it so easy to see what foods will fit into my daily needs and to track everything I eat without having to count calories. I do not feel like I am being deprived, especially because the program doesn’t make any food off-limits. I can even still enjoy a sweet treat, but WW helps me do so in moderation. I love to bake because it is one way I show love for my family, especially by baking treats that are safe for my food-allergic child. But now I don’t indulge in so many of those treats I make for my family, instead I allow myself a sample of the baked goods every once in a while.

I was so proud to step on that scale on my one-year anniversary and see that I had lost 60 pounds in my first year on WW! Yes, it feels so good dropping clothing sizes, but more importantly I feel better physically. My knees, which had been bothering me to the point that I needed physical therapy for them, feel better. My energy level is higher, and I feel like I am more present in my kids’ lives and more comfortable participating in activities with them. I can also track my activity on the app. I haven’t been as successful in sticking to a regular exercise routine, but I certainly do more knowing that I can track the activity on my app and because I know that it is a big part of ensuring that I’m doing everything I can to help my heart health.

I miss hearing the pride in my dad’s responses as I tell him about the various goings-on with my kids; I miss talking to him about Penn State’s highs and lows on college football Saturdays; I miss hearing his hearty laugh; I miss knowing he has my back, even if we disagree; and most of all, I miss his big heart. 

So to my dad, who gave me the confidence to know that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to, even learning from a lesson that came from heartache — Thank you!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Baking comfort into our day

I have lots of fun memories of jumping on sleds to race down the big hill in our yard, constructing snow forts for epic snowball battles, and making snow people during winters while growing up on Long Island. I can almost hear the laughter and squeals piercing the cold air in our neighborhood as my sister and I played with our friends. But I didn’t love the snow and cold, I still don’t. So after a while, I was happy to retreat to my warm house where I was sure to find my mom ready to greet me with a warm slice of homemade bread or a chocolatey brownie, fresh out of the oven. It was comforting to know that I could relay tales about my adventures in the snow to my mom, while enjoying a warm treat and some hot cocoa.

My mom’s homemade cinnamon braid bread was a favorite in my family and, for me it always evokes a feeling of comfort. Something I especially need today, the 20th anniversary of my mom’s death. My mom died during the blizzard of 1996 after a short battle with breast cancer. So while the historic snowstorm buried New York in several inches of snow, my family was getting ready to bury my mom.

My mom and dad celebrating my birthday 40 years ago
A lot has changed during the past 20 years since I was a 23-year-old beginning to make memories without my mom in my life, such as marriage, the births of my two children, job changes, a move south and back to New York, various trips, new friends and family members, along with the loss of friends and family members, most recently the death of my dad in October. There have been many times that I wish I could call her to share in a happy moment or to gain comfort or advice.

I tell my kids a lot of stories about my mom so that they can get to know her through my memories. They also feel a connection to her through my baking. I have converted many of my mom’s recipes so that they are allergy friendly. When I make my mom’s pancakes, blondies or cinnamon braid, my kids know that they are special in addition to being tasty because the recipes came from their grandma. Now they are just free of the foods to which my son Joseph is allergic (peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg, soy, sesame, mustard, strawberry, cantaloupe and watermelon).
Every year on January 8, I bake something that I enjoyed baking with my mom. Because baking was a hobby we shared, it makes me smile on a sad anniversary. My son is happy to taste the finished product, while hearing stories about the grandma he never got to meet. My daughter Pamela (my mom’s namesake) enjoys baking with me, excited to make the dough for cinnamon braid as soon as we woke up this morning.

In 20 years I have not developed a love of snow, but I appreciate the joy and excitement it brings my kids. And I am thankful for the comfort of an allergy friendly cinnamon braid that evokes memories of my mom on those snowy days so long ago.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Thankful for fun scares instead of food frights

Spooky music greeted us as we walked through the dimly lit room, ghostly beings swinging above our heads. Pamela tightened her grip on my hand when she heard the sound of rats squeaking as they feasted on severed hands during a dinner party attended by a stylish skeleton and pumpkin head creature. As we rounded the corner, we saw a skeleton that had donned a witch’s hat to sit and read the local newspaper. Then, through dark strings that formed a type of curtain, we spotted the creepy face of a Guy Fawkes mask staring at us while the person dressed all in black clutched a skull and knife. He startled us as he suddenly stood up. Some kids ran from him screaming, especially when he would pretend to be a statue then jump up as they peered for a closer look. Once the secret was out that there was a live person behind the intimidating mask, he started to show up at random spots to scare people walking through the haunted house at the Pawling Free Library.

My 12-year-old son Joseph had a blast watching people’s reactions to him from behind his Guy Fawkes mask during the library’s haunted house. He worked with other kids to plan the event and set it up on Halloween.

Halloween can be extra scary for kids with food allergies because of the ubiquity of candy and treats that are filled with potentially life-threatening allergens. While lots of kids revel in the huge piles of candy they collect trick-or-treating on Halloween night, kids like Joseph focus more on costumes and fun that doesn’t relate to food. He is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg, soy, sesame, mustard, strawberry, cantaloupe and watermelon, along with having asthma.

Over the years, Joseph has enjoyed dressing up and checking out other people’s costumes. When he was younger and we lived in North Carolina, we enjoyed food-free Halloween parties through the local food allergy support group NC FACES (Food Allergic Children Excelling Safely) where he could play games and get fun prizes instead of candy. We have always made our own treats free of all of the foods to which he is allergic, such as Halloween-themed cupcakes, cookies and chocolates in the shapes of pumpkins, witches, bats and ghosts.

As for trick-or-treating, he did that, too. But his goal was to collect candy to leave for the Halloween witch, who would replace the candy with a gift for him to find the next morning. This year, my daughter Pamela collected lots of candy trick-or-treating — enough to leave for the Halloween witch to bring gifts for her and her brother.

This year, Joseph decided to focus on the fun scares that go along with a haunted house. Nicole, the youth services programming coordinator at the Pawling library who was leading the teens in planning the haunted house, made the extra effort to ensure that the event would be safe for him. Especially with Joseph being there for several hours, I had worried that kids might be eating candy during setup or while walking through the event, and she had no problem making sure that wasn’t the case.

As we begin the month when giving thanks plays a prominent role, I am so thankful for the empathy exhibited by people like Nicole who help make it easier for Joseph to enjoy events like the haunted house.  He was thrilled to be able to dish out fun scares instead of facing candy-filled frights.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Sibling support for food allergy walk

In one week our team, "Nuttin' We Can't Overcome", will participate in the Westchester FARE Walk for Food Allergy. My 7-year-old daughter, Pamela, wrote why she walks each year and donates her own money to support my 12-year-old son, Joseph, who has multiple food allergies. Here is what she wrote: 

I think it is important to support my brother in the FARE Food Allergy Walk because I love my Joey. I feel bad that he misses out on eating some food because of his allergies. I also get scared sometimes because I don't want  foods to hurt him.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Annual walk a reminder of kind gestures

Pamela and Joseph at the 2014 walk
in New Rochelle, N.Y.
The arrival of a package is usually greeted with excitement. Is it something fun, a new outfit, or one of our favorite allergy-friendly products? My favorite packages represent kind gestures, such as a letter, funny item or gift from a great friend or family member. Those packages bring an instant smile no matter what is in the box because they let us know that the person who we likely haven’t seen in a while and miss terribly, is thinking of us.

My sister Linda during the walk this year
in Indianapolis.
We recently received such a package from my sister Linda. The box was full of coupons for allergy-friendly brands, a FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education) Walk T-shirt, snack samples and a gift card to fuel my caffeine obsession. The package was a tangible representation of my sister’s support for my family as we navigate life with food allergies. She sent the items after recently participating in the FARE Walk for Food Allergy in Indianapolis in honor of my 12-year-old son Joseph, who has multiple food allergies and asthma. While she started attending the walks with us when we all lived near each other in North Carolina, she has made a point to attend the Indianapolis walk since moving to Indiana.

My dad and Linda with
Stormy, the Carolina Hurricanes mascot
at the walk in Cary, N.C., in 2009
We are so grateful for the support we have received from Linda, other family members, and friends through the years for our team “Nuttin’ We Can’t Overcome”, whether they have walked with us, made a donation, or sent well wishes as we take our annual walk to raise money for food allergy research. The support for our participa
tion in the annual event is one of many ways others have shown us consideration and kindness.

My sister Beth and Joseph
during a rainy walk in Cary in 2012
During a recent discussion with my children about kindness, we listed the many ways our friends, family, colleagues, and community members have exhibited kindness regarding Joseph’s food allergies. They include ensuring only safe food is served at an event; washing hands without complaint after eating unsafe foods while hanging out with Joseph; taking the time to find a non-food treat or prize that Joseph would appreciate, especially on candy-heavy holidays like Easter or Halloween; learning how to administer his life-saving epinephrine; being cautious about safety measures we have in place in our home or at a restaurant; or even just taking a minute to listen.
Our family bundled up for a cold walk in Cary in 2011.

When we walk along the water during the Westchester FARE Walk for Food Allergy on October 10, I will be reflecting on those many kind gestures. Like the package my sister sent, they all will make me smile.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Nostalgia often an ingredient in my kitchen

Nostalgia snuck up on me while I was shucking a dozen ears of corn from the local farmer’s market this weekend. Suddenly I was transported back to my childhood patio, sitting with my Grandpa Al and a big pile of corn, removing the husks and placing the cobs in a huge pot, ready to cook. 

Grandpa Al feeling patriotic
at a summer cookout
Patient and kind, my grandpa was always happy to sit and chat, listening to my tales and showing genuine interest in what I had to say, while also sharing some of his own wonderful stories. I have many fond memories of Gramps, whether he was dancing around the room with me on his feet, teaching me about the flowers in his yard, or playing shuffleboard in his neighborhood. We spent many summer days with my grandparents, enjoying fresh produce from the farms in eastern Long Island. When I think about all of those family cookouts, the warmth my grandpa exuded glows brighter in my memory than the summer sun.
My dad, me and Grandpa Al 

I suppose it is natural for some wistfulness to linger at the unofficial end of summer that comes with Labor Day weekend. As colder weather looms, we reminisce about the carefree summer days and fun outings. Naturally, thoughts of my grandpa made me think of my mom. When I take a glimpse of my childhood summers, it is so easy to picture my mom donned in her bright bathing cap, happily swimming back and forth through the Long Island Sound water at our town beach, where we spent every day each summer. I love to look back and picture the joy on my mom’s face as she soaked up sun at the beach or bustled about the kitchen preparing food for our family gatherings.

Another summer memory:
My mom and me when I graduated from Penn State
Melancholy sometimes creeps into those memories, too, since my mom died almost 20 years ago. I miss her every day, but I like to share my memories with my kids so they can get to know her through my stories. I think making food from her recipe collection also helps my son and daughter feel a little closer to her. I wasn’t sure I would be able to share my mom’s recipes with my kids when I changed my cooking habits 12 years ago to feed my son Joseph, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg, soy, sesame, mustard, watermelon, cantaloupe and strawberries. But successfully substituting ingredients allows me to share my mom’s recipes along with those memories. I smile at least a couple of times a week while making pancakes using my mom’s recipe, switching out ingredients to make them safe for Joseph.

Pamela at the farmer's market
The comfort of one of my mom’s recipes was just what I needed during my nostalgic reverie this weekend, so I made an allergy-friendly version of her cinnamon braid. I always chuckle as I look at my mom’s recipes with vague notes in the steps like “add some flour” because they are a reminder of a habit we share to often wing it in the kitchen. As my kids gobbled down the yeasty bread coated with cinnamon and sugar, I told them how my mom would greet us from a day of sleigh riding with warm cinnamon braid and hot cocoa. Thankfully, it is not snowy and cold yet, but that bread gave me a delectable hug while putting grins on my kids’ faces that reminded me of the sweet smile my grandpa would share on my childhood patio. After enjoying the warm bread, my daughter Pamela said she wants to learn exactly how to make her grandma’s yummy cinnamon bread so she can bake it for her kids when she’s a mommy.  And with that my melancholy melted away.