Thanksgiving on a Small Scale

The holidays were a Big Deal when I was a kid. My grandparents went all out–baking and cooking a giant feast for the entire family–and we’d come from all over, driving hours or flying in just to spend a few hours gathered around that table groaning with food.

A Thanksgiving turkey, roasted to perfection. A choice between mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes (so naturally you had to do a little of both). Sausage balls and something my grandmother called “dressing”, which was a sort of fried stuffing. Yeast rolls fresh from the oven and dripping with butter. Green beans cooked for hours with bacon and onion until they melted in your mouth. Succotash. Creamed corn. Streamed ‘greens’, which might be spinach one year and mustard greens the next. Cornbread made with buttermilk and fried in an iron skillet until the edges turned crispy. Ham biscuits (both regular and country) on sweet Hawaiian rolls.

And the desserts! At least two cakes–usually a pound cake or sour cream cake and a coconut one, too. Three pies–either pecan or lemon chess and a French silk chocolate pie. Sweet potato pie was another common choice, though I preferred pumpkin myself.

We’d stuff ourselves to bursting, and then the kids would play games (or go see a movie when we were older) while the men watched football and the women packed the food so that everyone could take some with them and sat in the kitchen talking. When the sun began to sink in the sky, we’d load up the car and drive home, replete with food and taking enough leftovers with us to last us at least another week.

We’d repeat the entire cycle again in December, only there would be the added excitement of Christmas gifts and my grandmother’s much-loved decorations to look forward to as well. The magic of pulling up to her house and seeing the brightly lit tree glowing in the window is the hallmark of my Christmases Past.

I loved these visits–they stand out as bright memories in my childhood.

I found out many years later that my mother loathed these gatherings with the power of a thousand burning suns and resented the family tradition that insisted we go every year. When my grandparents died, the huge family gatherings died with them. My mother hated cooking and was of the opinion that holidays shouldn’t be about food or giving gifts. Holiday gatherings became stilted affairs in which we either ate out (which caused a chorus of complaints) or I attempted to make my grandmother’s traditional dishes (which also caused a chorus of complaints). My grandmother’s cooking was a hard act to follow. I tried to hang on to the old recipes, but my mother gave away the cookbook that contained most of them.

After my father’s death, all pretense of gathering for Thanksgiving stopped. My mother began taking part in a big community feast operated by her church each Thanksgiving. They opened the doors to the town and invited everyone to come. The church ladies outdid themselves preparing their very best desserts, and the church paid a caterer to bring in platters of turkey and all the fixings. For three years I went down to the church with my mother to help serve the community–and for three years, my mother forbade me to fix a plate and sit down with everyone else. It didn’t matter that every other member of the congregation, including the minister and his family, was taking part in the feast. As far as my mother was concerned, the food was for the ‘poor people’ and I didn’t need to eat any of it. 

Finally, I quoted 1 Timothy 5:18 at her: For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn.

After that, she snippily informed me I no longer had to come down to the church on Thanksgiving Day.

As a single person, it was hard to get excited about the holidays. I frequently was expected to work anyway. I stopped cooking the family favorites, especially after the loss of the cookbook. Thanksgiving (and to a certain degree, Christmas as well) became just another day.

When I first got married, I made an effort to go back to lavish Thanksgiving meals, but truth be told, I’m not that great a cook. Work remained unforgiving when it came to scheduling, and the thought of all that preparation for a meal that would be eaten in less than twenty minutes seemed too much. My husband’s kids were teenagers when we met–now they’ve gone off to college and have their own plans. So why bother, right?

The truth of the matter, for the first time in a long time, I find myself thinking differently about the coming holiday. The last couple of years have been rough, but our family seems to be moving into a better place right now. Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I find myself wanting to make a little more effort than usual for Thanksgiving this week. Because the truth is, I am thankful. I’m thankful our family has reached a kind of resting spot on a steep uphill climb. I’m thankful for a roof over our heads and jobs that (mostly) pay the bills. Everyone is in reasonably good health at the moment, and life is pretty darn okay. My life partner is also my best friend, and I am thankful every day for that.

And that seems worth honoring by baking a few pies.

Wake Up Call No. 457

It’s no secret that I’ve had a staggering amount of loss in the past year. I’ve alluded to it before. If I gave all these losses and traumas to a single character in one of my stories, readers would howl at the unbelievable plot.

Loss of communities and my own sense of identity as I re-brand myself as an author in a new genre with a new pen name. Death of multiple pets and family members. Earlier this week, my brother who’d been battling cancer for some time, lost his fight. Next week, I will be attending my third funeral in a year.

The last conversation I had with him was a good one. He spoke of his plans for his celebration of life service, and visiting with old friends who’d made special trips to see him one more time. How the love of his life was also his best friend, and how he was glad he hadn’t waited to travel and do the things most people do once they retire. I was glad he’d reached a point of peace and acceptance in his world full of pain, but I was struck by one statement in particular.

“I have no regrets.”

I honestly couldn’t say the same. It’s not that I’ve made terrible decisions in my life, but the choices I’ve made have locked me into certain pathways from which I can’t escape. Most of those decisions were based on following a calling and choosing a way of life I thought best suited to my personality, but the reality of it is I’m fried from work commitments. I spend the day putting out other people’s metaphorical fires, and then come home drained and empty, with nothing left to give to my loved ones or to myself personally.

I’ve had some health scares too. I’ve been to the ER twice in the last year, both of which should have served as wake up calls to clean up my diet, to slow down, to take more walks with the dogs, to shut off social media and shut out my fears for my country and the rest of the world. To take a deep breath and calm down.

But the truth is, that’s easier said than done when you’re living off your adrenal glands. When work is so stressful you’ve developed a twitch under your left eye, it’s hard to settle for a salad for lunch when there’s a bowl of Easter candy sitting in the employee lounge. It’s easier to throw the ball in the yard for the puppy for a half hour in the evenings after work than it is to take the dogs for a walk. Get up earlier and exercise? I can barely drag myself out of bed as it is. I wish all mirrors could be banned as I look at myself and note every line, every wrinkle, every roll, and an increasingly visible scalp. An old woman looks back at me, and I don’t recognize her. I am utterly exhausted. I don’t know how to squeeze more out of my day.

And I do have regrets. I hate that I wake up every morning playing a negative soundtrack in my head about how much I hate my job, I hate the way I look, I hate the way I feel, I hate the clutter in my house, I hate the person I’ve become.

Again and again over the last ten years, I’ve said I need to make changes. And each time, I start out meaning to do so, only to let the stresses and demands of my daily life suck me back into grabbing processed food on the run, living off soda and cheese & crackers, starting exercise programs I never complete, and continuing to feel crappy and exhausted. I think for most middle-aged women, the combination of stress plus changing hormones sets us up for all kinds of ‘failure’. We simply can’t stop being the workhorse of the family to take care of ourselves, but we have less reserves than we had when we were twenty.

But we only get so many wake up calls. I’m lucky I’ve had as many as I’ve had, to be honest. I’m extremely fortunate that good genes have left me relatively healthy despite the abuse my body takes at my hands on a daily basis. Given the junk food I eat, it’s a bloody miracle I’m only 20-25 pounds overweight and not more. My heart is healthy, and I’m not pre-diabetic. I still have my gallbladder. While not an athlete, I go hiking and horseback riding. My biggest issues are pain-related, stemming from a lifetime of refusing to respect my body and joints that are severely annoyed with me. There is also the ever-increasing list of foods I can no longer eat because of my skin condition, or digestive issues, or food sensitivities. I’m running out of time to coast on my genes. I have caught a glimpse of my future and it’s a scary place–unless I make changes now.

There are reasons I’m not a fan of some of the more popular and successful diet systems. I have friends who’ve lost tremendous amounts of weight through Weight Watchers, etc. But most of these systems require a degree of tracking that is very triggering for me, coming as I am from a household of people with eating disorders. I’d never really considered myself as having an ED, but I suspect now my extreme pickiness is a form of it. Likewise, only a few days of logging food intake on WW or My Fitness Pal has me running in the opposite direction.

I also have a slew of minor but frustrating issues relating to food: I have a skin condition called acne rosacea that is that is triggered by certain foods. I’ve developed a caffeine sensitivity that has resulted in my having to give up caffeine entirely. I struggle with heartburn and digestive issues. So following a specific diet plan is often an automatic fail for me. I just can’t do it. I have to tailor my meals around what I can eat.

But I think I need some accountability, which is why I will be posting about my journey here. No pictures–I’m neither that brave nor that vain. But I will be logging what I’m doing as a whole on my path toward health–mental, physical, emotional. The Wake Up Call for a Middle-Aged Woman, so to speak. The focus here isn’t going to be on weight loss, though that would be a nice bonus if it occurred. It’s going go be about feeling better: about myself, about my life, about my future.

Because I don’t want to have any more regrets than I already do.

 

 

 

Of course this is going in a book someday…

I started out with the best of intentions today.

I’d forgotten, however, that the Powers That Be had decided we needed to start doing weekly office meetings prior to the start of the business day. On Mondays, no less. I know this is for the benefit of the newbies on board, but as someone who is not a newbie, I resent upsetting my morning schedule to come into work even earlier than usual. As such, I forgot to allot time to make breakfast and wound up grabbing a granola bar. Okay, could have been worse. I could have chosen Captain Crunch.

Fine. Off to work I go. Only because we now do the early morning meeting thing, it’s been decided I get out early on Mondays, which yay! for getting out early but… that means I get to work through lunch. Because why stop to eat when I am going to be leaving in an hour, right? So now I’m leaving work at 1 pm, and I’m well beyond peckish and moving into hangry territory.

But it’s okay, because I’m going to stop at the store where they have that new salad bar. I’m going to load up on good, healthy food and pick up a few items while I’m at it. I juggle the flimsy plastic tray while I kick my shopping basket along side me, loading the plate as I go. I am just at the end of the line applying a dash of salad dressing when the plastic gives in the middle and the whole thing dumps down the front of my pants and into my basket sitting on the floor at my feet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is salad and dressing everywhere. My planned purchases are covered with bacon bits and cheese. I attempt to wipe up the mess with napkins from the salad bar, but quickly end up with a sticky goo on my hands. A shopping passing by smiles and says, “Don’t take it so hard. It happens to all of us.”

I don’t know what she saw on my face but her words do me in. Tears begin to flow. A staff member comes to help clean up and says, “Having a rough day, dear?”

“No,” I say. “I’m having a rough year.”

And the words threaten to spill out messy and sticky like the salad dressing. I recently lost my cat to heart failure. I lost my mother to an unexpected stroke two weeks later. My dog is dying from cancer. My sister is dying from cancer. Our country is either on the brink of destroying democracy or taking us back into war–or both. Civil rights are being taken back to pre-1950s status. We’re poisoning our planet and the government wants to remove restrictions aimed at slowing that down. And someone has had the gall to be nice to me.

Because kindness is just too much to bear right now.

But I don’t say any of these things. I sniff and wipe my face with the parts of my hands not covered in salad dressing. I see a cute guy looking at me with a worried expression on his face, but instead of offering to help, he tiptoes away like someone who doesn’t want to get involved with the crazy lady snuffling into the California French.

“You can get another salad, sweetie.”

I shake my head. I don’t want another salad. I thank the people who helped me clean up and take the rest of my purchases to the checkout. I don’t want to talk to anyone, so I go to the automatic cashier, only the scanner can’t read my dressing-covered food. I try again and again until I am slamming the items down on the scanner and I have to call someone over to help anyway.

Deep breath. It’s all good. It will be okay.

In the parking lot, I overhear two women speaking of the likelihood of us going to war with Korea. I’m waiting behind them patiently while they put their carts away, but  then one of them says, “Well, we’re living in the end times now. Everything that has been predicted in the Bible is coming true now.”

She shrugs, resigned.

I can’t help myself. “Well, there will be some people in the government that are going to have a rude awakening when Jesus comes back,” I snap.

They look at me, blinking slowly like sheep surprised at finding a dog among them that might possibly be a wolf, only they’ve forgotten what wolves really look like. One of them smiles uneasily.

“Jesus,” I say, shoving the cart into the rack with a little more force than necessary, “believed in charity. Jesus believed in taking care of the poor.” My voice rises a little higher, louder. “Jesus believed in health care.”

One of the women laughs. “That he did.”

“And Jesus, ” I said, not yet finished. “Believed you should pay your taxes.”

There is a narrowing of eyes at that, and a little nod. Maybe I got through. Maybe not. But I swear if I hear one more person fatalistically state that the end times have come and there is nothing we can do, I think I shall scream.

Which is why I ended up in the bathroom at McDonald’s, scrubbing the dressing off my hands like Lady MacBeth trying to remove bloodstains. Right before I stuffed my face with a burger and fries.

SAMSUNG CSC

So no, as a ‘first day’ on a new diet plan went, it was not highly successful. But I didn’t punch anyone, so I count it as a win.

Besides, I am so using this in a story some day. Only it will be funnier, and the cute guy will have the balls to come over and help, and another romance will be born.The realization hit me as I was finishing the last of the fries and my hangry pains faded away. Oh yes. Good stuff here.

 

 

McKenna Hates to Cook

Believe it or not, I used to be the girl you hated when you were growing up.

I say believe it or not because I was the girl with the Coke-bottle lenses, braces, and mountains of frizzy, untamed hair. I was also a bookworm and a nerd, the first one to answer the teacher’s questions and the last one to get picked for any team sports.

As a matter of fact, I was Hermione Granger, only I didn’t grow up to look like Emma Watson. But (and this is a big ‘but’ here) I could eat whatever I wanted and not gain an ounce. 

Yep. You read that right. I lived off of bread, cheese, crackers, and peanut butter. I could grab a burger and fries and not feel the slightest bit concerned about my weight, while my friends subsisted off diet Coke and a cup of yogurt. I never gained the ‘freshman twenty.’ In fact, I was underweight much of my life, to the point that my dad used to call me ‘a hank of hair and a bag of bones.’ It was well after his death that I discovered those words actually referred to song lyrics and were not as fondly insulting as I thought.

I’ll never forget that time in college when I sat down in front of the television with my usual plate of snacks, only to have my roommate say to me, “One day you’re going to wake up fat.”

She spoke with such utter seething resentment, it quite took me aback. But I thought no more about it, and ate my stack of cheese and crackers. Years passed. I survived college, grad school, and entered the work force. My job had ridiculous hours: I started the day with a Coke and a package of Lance peanut butter crackers. Lunch was usually a bologna sandwich or a burger. Dinner was leftover Chinese if I was lucky, but usually a frozen pizza, and sometimes a bowl of Captain Crunch. On a bad day, maybe two. I lived this way for decades. I kid you not. One of the things that impressed me most about my husband when we first met was that he actually knew how to cook. Before we started dating, it was rare that I bothered to make a meal for myself.

My weight slowly crept up from 121 to 135, but it stayed there. I’m not athletic by any means, but I’m reasonably active. I walk the dogs every day. I ride my horse when I have time. I’m on my feet all day at work. But I don’t do any sort of organized exercise. The one time I tried an aerobics class, I dropped out from sheer embarrassment at my inability to follow the routine.

Then one day it happened. My former roommate’s vindictive prophesy came true. I did wake up fat.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But after a lifetime of rocky hormones, menopause hit me like a freight train. I began having 30-40 hot flashes a day. I gained 20 pounds in a two week window. Horrible heartburn assailed me whenever I ate, and suddenly I could no longer handle the foods I’d always eaten. Things were so bad, I wound up having a full GI and Gyno workup done because the changes were so abrupt and so intense, I thought something had to be seriously wrong with me.

Nope. Just hormones leaving town and wrecking the place in their wake.

Worse, I had no idea what to do about it. I was like that kid in high school who never had to study only to get a rude awakening on reaching college. Just to complicate things, eating disorders run in my family, so I tiptoed the fine line between trying to change my eating habits and not getting obsessive about tracking points or calories. We’re talking scary eating disorders in my family–the kind where someone thinks eating nothing but an apple and a cracker for an entire week is something to be proud of. Whatever I did, I had to make sure I didn’t fall down that particular rabbit hole.

I did My Fitness Pal for a while, but the tracking proved problematic. I found it very useful for helping me realize just how many calories I consumed on average however. Jiminy Crickets! I had no idea.

Then I did what any good author would do: I began researching diets. Let me tell you, I practically own the diet section of the bookstore. I have it all: Paleo, Whole30, South Beach, Blood Type, Wheat Belly, FODMAP and more. I got books on healing your gut, your metabolism, your thyroid, and curing your adrenal fatigue.

Let me tell you what I’ve learned.

There is no one perfect diet for everyone. If there were, we’d all be following it. The next thing I’ve discovered is that most of these diet plans have something useful to say. Most of them also have a fair amount of BS associated with them. My takeaway message from everything I’ve read is this: eat more fruits and veggies. Eat less red meat. Avoid processed foods.

We all knew that, right? Of course we did. But somehow it’s more palatable to dress it up under the guise of the X diet. Do I believe that Paleo and Whole30 work for some people? Absolutely. But not because we’re cavemen or because of some entirely arbitrary set of rules handed down by some parents in ‘tough love’ mode. I think the reason Paleo or Whole30 or Wheat Belly plans are so effective for many people is because most of what we eat is really bad for us. I’m not just talking Cheetos and KFC, here. I mean the granola bars and the fruit cups and the Lean Cuisine. I mean 90 percent of what the average on-the-go person consumes here in the US because we’re too damn busy or tired to buy, prepare, and eat real food.

Most of these diets are impossible to maintain long term. As is the four hours of exercise a day that one of my friends used to do to artificially maintain her weight at 125 pounds. To be honest, the idea of giving up bread forever makes me weep. I’d honestly rather give up chocolate. No, seriously. I can’t think of anything finer than that moment when you remove a crusty loaf of homemade bread from the oven and slather that first slice with butter.

But bread is one of the things that makes me feel horrible after eating it. Bread, pasta, cheese, peanut butter… I feel like I’ve swallowed a basketball after I eat these foods.

So what’s a girl who’s an incredibly picky eater and hates to cook do? Especially when her husband can eat three times as much as she does, casually decide to lose some weight and drop ten pounds without blinking. Ah, now I finally know how my old roommate felt. It’s a wonder she didn’t kill me.

Silhouette of a cheese burger loaded with summer garden vegetables isolated on fire, macro

Well, this is my journey. Stick around and find out. I plan to blog something each week about finding my way back to health without losing my joy for living. Maybe the answer is a metabolism reset with one of these diets. Maybe the answer is that I truly will have to give up foods I love and learn to love others. It’s not just about the weight, though I would love to go back to my previous hormone-crash existence. It’s about not feeling like crap all the time. It’s about sleeping better at night, and having the energy to do the things I love to do, and being able to bend over and tie my hiking boots without feeling like my stomach is about to explode.

Come for the food/diet/exercise/recipe chatter and poke around the site if you enjoy paranormal romance. Share your thoughts and experiences. I’d really like to know about your successes and failures.

As for me, several of my friends are doing Weight-Watchers. Of all the paid diet programs out there, it’s the one I’ve seen be the most successful. That said, I’m going to be accountable to my friends rather than to a group. I don’t want to move into ‘apple and cracker’ territory…