Sunday, January 18, 2015

Jaki Jean, Jean & Mini Muffins

Several years ago, I mentioned to my sister Janet that I wanted a mini muffin pan, because I could cook muffins for our mother Jean that she could handle with a fork & her Parkinson’s.  I would no longer have to slice a muffin beyond recognition.

I am convinced that a major part of the joy of eating really lovely things is visual.  Presentation in food preparation, as in anything, is essential.

Not long after that, Janet & her husband David’s brother in law Dave died.  Dave was preceded in death by David’s sister Linda & their only child, Katie.  Janet found a mini muffin pan at the estate sale & bought it for me.

Since then, I have struggled with this kitchen implement.  I wanted to be able to take my favorite muffin recipes & make mini muffins.  I googled, I researched, I looked in vain for a formula to convert 12 muffins to 24 mini muffins. 

I even bought mini muffin liners.  Adorable liners.  Every recipe I tried was a disaster.

The results were always the same.  Never 24 yummy, moist, mini muffins, just 24 inedible rocks.

Then last week, as I was getting Jean positioned for lunch, Daphne Oz of ABC’s The Chew was preparing a recipe for Sweet Potato Brownie Bites without all the calories.

Right up my alley.  So I pulled out the mini muffin tin that belonged to Linda & tried Daphne's recipe.

And my friends, although I made two small changes to the recipe, using dark chocolate chips instead of mini milk chocolate chips & substituting dark cocoa powder for cocoa powder, the results were amazing.

Moist dark brownie bites that melt in your mouth.

I did not douse my Brownie Bites with confectioner’s sugar but I may do that for Jean’s dessert bites today.

So, look out culinary world.  Now that I have conquered using a mini muffin tin, I have no limits.  No boundaries.  Be prepared.

To all brownie fans, mini muffin tin fans & brownie bite fans, here is the link to this yummy recipe without all the calories:

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

On Gifts & my Sister

I thought a lot about what I wanted to write for the dawn of this New Year – which I have every expectation of being glorious & celebratory.  Somehow it seemed natural that I would write this.

Sometimes you receive gifts you long for, sometimes you receive gifts you need, & sometimes, miracle of miracles, you receive a gift that you did not know you wanted or needed but fits perfectly in the center of the note.

Years ago, before I had children but still visited my parents’ house, my sister Janet gave me one of those gifts that fit perfectly in the center of the note.  Sitting at our parents’ table, she listened to my tales of my life in the inner city & my obsession with one graffiti laden wall in downtown Houston.

That Christmas, Janet gave me three black & white photos of my favorite graffiti laden wall.

I still cherish them, spending too much time trying to create the right frames for displaying them again.

We no longer sit at our parents’ table, my sister & I.  Sometimes we sit at one of my barley twist tables to share a holiday meal.  These are fine moments.

But my sister listens to me on Facebook just as she once listened to me at our parents’ table.   And this year, although we have never discussed the PBS show I crave, she gave me the first four seasons of Downton Abbey on DVD for Christmas.


A few days later, I asked her to have her daughter Emily Kate Douglas deliver Janet’s copy of Frozen, which I had not seen but so needed to hear about letting go.  (And, in all honesty, this was a manipulative move on my part so I could meet Emily’s boyfriend Zach.  How great is that name?)

I could have downloaded the song, but I really, really wanted to see the movie Rosie O’Donnell claims is the best animated film ever.  And I really wanted to see Emily Kate & meet Zach in person.

So Janet brought over Emily & Zach (never was there ever a more adorable couple) & my own copy of the sing along version of Frozen.

Right in the center of the note.  Again.

That is my sister.  Whose voice is so different from mine.   We have different takes on so many things, we are so very different, but we both have a voice.   I write.  She sings.

She sings like an angel who has yet to be created.  She lifts up her voice & everyone listens.  It is a beautiful, awesome voice, a lovely soul behind it.

That is my sister, who gives me gifts right in the center of the note.

The most glorious & totally undeserved gift is her love.

Chasing Tamales in Sugar Land

Sleepless, once again, in Meadows Place.  Past midnight & I am on my second cup of Sleepytime Tea with Valerian root & listening to Bill Medley. 

Today was amazing & adventurous.  I set out in search of tamales, got lost in Sugar Land searching for the First Colony library (my local library is closed for the installation of new carpet), managed to find my way to Barnes & Noble to purchase The Giving Tree for an anticipated visit from my grandnephew John.

Because I have no sense of direction, I found a creative way to  get lost within Barnes & Noble & had to ask Customer Service where the frack the check out registers were located.

Of course, in my defense, I don’t get out much & I hate malls so a trip to Barnes & Noble is a major event.  It is the closest bookstore & located in First Colony Mall in Sugar Land, which is worse than shopping in Houston’s Galleria district during Christmas & its aftermath.

But the Children’s Section in Barnes & Noble has a lovely reading area & it was filled with children & parents in rocking chairs.  All reading.  Even the parents sitting on the edge of the area waiting for their offspring were reading.

So it was worth getting lost in Barnes & Noble (not to mention wandering the parking lot for my car) to see so many young people reading.

Upon my exit, I drove the masses looking for parking spots crazy in the search for my car.  Parking is, at best, problematic at Barnes & Noble.  I did make a note of where I parked – two trees away from the entrance to Dillard’s.  Barnes & Noble straight in front of me.

But somehow, I did not process the fact that my car was parked two spaces from the road between the parking lot & the entrance to Dillard’s.  So I wandered, people in cars following me, wanting my parking space.  Frustrated people – who was this ridiculous woman in a purple wool coat with a really fabulous pashima?

My son Nicholas says I have become a cliché.  In my defense, I have always been a directionally challenged cliché.  In the second grade, I got lost walking from 3511 Morningstar Lane to Cabell Elementary, a distance of approximately .03 miles.

And although I have lived in Meadows Place, a literal square mile city nestled between Sugar Land & Houston for the past forty-odd years, I am quite capable of getting lost here.

A directional cliché, indeed.

Part of the awesomeness of the day was talking to both my sons.  Nick, in the midst of packing to move to the new property his wife the Lady Jane will be managing, assured me that he would make time tomorrow to come & visit.  I tell them that it is no big deal, I understand but what I really want to do is guilt him into coming.

Greedily, I call my son Sam, thinking that he won’t pick up & I will have to wait for him to call me back.  But he picks up & we talk.  We talk about the gifts he has waiting to be picked up & about the car he is buying from my sister Janet.  And he tells me that he is seeing a woman named Veronica.  

Which is huge, because Sam is very private & does not readily share intimate details of his life with his mother & has only once introduced me a young woman he was seriously seeing.  (I was very fond of that young woman & grieved when they broke up).

When I tell Jean about my day & adventures & talking to the boys who are grown men, she smiled.  As I was fluffing pillows & rearranging positioning wedges, she smiled again & said, “Veronica.”

And then I remember.

One of Jean’s favorite games to play with me is Things I Could Have Named You Besides Jaki Jean.

Veronica was one of the choices she offered me.  A beautiful name, she said.

It is now no longer the day I began writing about in my sleepless state.  In spite of all the wanderings throughout Sugar Land & Barnes & Noble, the 30th day of December, 2014,  was a good day for Jaki Jean.

And I found tamales.  Without getting lost.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Jaki Jean & Jean on Alternative Names: Veronica? Minnie Jo?

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

So this morning, waiting in a room for Jean's neurologist, Jean says:

I have thought of something else I could have named you.

The last time Jean suggested that she could have named me something other than after herself & my father, she told me could have named me Veronica.

At the time, I asked Jean where she got Veronica & she said she did not know.

But it is a very pretty name.

The thought of being named after a character in an Archie comic book series did not please me.  

I was wary of finding out what other name I might have been called these last six decades.  But we were wedged in the room, the stretcher faced toward the doctor’s entrance & I could not sit behind Jean & work a crossword without interacting.

Because I have already gone through the November 3rd issue of People  magazine with her, I asked her what else she could have named me except for Veronica or after my father & herself.

I could have named you Minnie Jo.

I think of Minnie Driver & Minnie Mouse & then I tell her that no one in their right mind names anything but a puppy or a doll or a cartoon character Minnie Jo.

Jean replied:

Actually I was quite fond of Minnie Jo.

And I wonder who  was this Minnie Jo who might have been the inspiration for my name & why Jean was quite fond of her.  So I ask & Jean tells me a story. 

Minnie Jo was the product of a marriage between my Aunt Flora’s husband’s brother, Tule (Jean spells out T – U – L – E) & a woman I think was named Bessie.

I verify Jean’s Aunt Flora as her mother Luna’s sister.

Minnie Jo was very tall, with light brown hair & nice, dark skin.  I seem to remember she had blue eyes.  She started dating Billy John Burns.  I liked him first.  I wasn’t happy about that.

The last I heard, they were still happily married.

Minnie Jo used to send me cards from time to time & and she would congratulate me on whatever was happening.

I once wrote back to her:  I hope you only have enough clouds in your life to create a beautiful sunset.

I am sure I read that somewhere.

Every time I have one of these conversations with Jean, I marvel at what I don’t know about her.  And I marvel at how much of who I am is embedded in what she has given me.

And, not for the first time I realize, from whom I first learned to be a story teller.

There is a reason I am not named Minnie Jo or Veronica.  I am very much Jack & Jean’s daughter & my name, as my cousin Vicki Willimon Barkley once pointed out, suits me.

I think of a poem by Vassar Miller, a Houston poet I was privileged to meet.   I cannot find the small book containing the poem – but it had to do with naming.  That we name what we love, we love what we name.

Naming is an enormous power – given to Adam by God, it granted Adam dominion over all that was created after him.  The names we give our children define them, dictate the course of their growing into their own identities.

Veronica is  a very pretty name.  It still invokes only two memories – the Archie comic book figure & a flash of the actress Veronica Hammel wearing Furillo’s shirt during a bedroom scene in the TV drama Hill Street Blues.  Minnie Jo still invokes images of Minnie Mouse. 

Jean did tell me that at some point Minnie Jo dropped the Minnie & signed her cards & letters Jo.

I told Jean that I was quite content being named after my parents.  Even it is does sound like a character in a Faulkner novel, if Faulkner had written about a fictional town in East Texas instead of a fictional town in Mississippi.

There are worse things than sounding a bit like a Faulkner character.

After all, Jack & Jean named what they loved & continued to love what they named.

I really need to find that Vassar Miller poem.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Jaki Jean, Jean, & Remembering the First Baby You Ever Held

Tonight I tell Jean that her niece Lawana saw her picture on Facebook & said that she looked so good.

Jean smiled & then said:  Her name is Lawana Jean.

This is new to me & I ask:  After you?

And Jean says:  Yes.  She was the first baby I ever held.

For a moment I am speechless, but because I am never without words for long, I touch her & smile & say:  The very first baby you hold is very special.

Jean smiles & I tell her that I am going to write for a while & she asks: 

What is on TV?

I tell her nothing much, but I see two VHS packages & offer her a choice between The Lion King  (complete with my rendition of From the day we arrive on the planet And blinking, step into the sun There's more to see than can ever be seen More to do than can ever be done)  & Air Force One & Jean quite wisely chooses Harrison Ford over animation & anything I recommend with what passes for my singing voice.

I tell her that Air Force One is one my personal favorites but I do not tell her that seeing The Lion King on stage is on my bucket list.  Even if it is Disney’s really poor version of Hamlet.

And then I sit down at Luna's sewing machine to write & I forget why it was so important to write tonight. 

All I keep thinking is what Jean told me about my cousin Lawana Jean:

She was the first baby I ever held.

Jean was the youngest of nine, far too young to hold my cousins who are so close to her in age.  Far too young to hold her nieces & nephews who did not live on the farm.

I think it was my first realization that I was not the first baby she ever held. 

Because I was the first of Jack & Jean’s children, the first babies I ever held were my siblings. 

There is a running joke in our family, one which I perpetuate, that I am still not over the birth of my sister Janet.  It is true that I have no memory of her birth.  But I do remember holding her.

And I remember all the grownups warning me to be careful, not to drop her.

While I don’t think I ever dropped her, I know without a doubt that over the years, Janet has never dropped me.

I remember holding our brother John – I was so worried about him – why did all the grownups let that ugly thing cling to his belly button?  Who was in charge?

By the time our youngest brother Jason arrived, I was thirteen & an expert at holding babies.  But I had a lot of competition from my two other siblings – everyone wanted to hold Jason.

Over the years, I have held all my siblings’ children - Felicia Marie, Emily Kate, Johnny Alexander & Sarah Jane.  Each time, I remembered how it felt to hold my sons Nicholas Jordan & Samuel Jean.  

And how it felt to hold my baby sister & my younger brothers.

Today I once again held my late brother John’s grandson.

Tonight, writing, I think of how it felt to hold little John, named for my brother & his grandfather John Simpson Ettinger, who was named for our grandfather, John Simpson Alexander Ettinger.  To feel the connection of what came before, of what is & what will continue.

And I think about Jean, how she must have felt to hold that little girl, the first baby she remembers holding, Lawana Jean.

Preparing her for holding her own daughters & sons & grandchildren.  Jean can no longer hold a baby - Parkinson's has robbed one of her arms of its strength.  

But my niece held little John close & Jean spoke to him & his eyes shined & he responded to Jean's voice.

The first baby you remember holding is very special.

And perhaps, so is the one you cannot hold.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Jaki Jean on Coming Home with Jean & Luna's Machine

Friday, November 21,  2014

Tonight was one of those rare perfect drizzling nights in the swamp – when the air begs to be breathed & the tiny droplets of rain beg to caress your face.  A light enough drizzle to turn naturally curly hair fetching & irresistible but a little too many droplets for the fantasy of making love in the rain.  A night for walking one’s neighborhood & thinking.

In another time, even in the space I currently occupy, I would not hesitate to take that walk.  Indeed, I have walked & glided on a bike through this neighborhood at all hours in the past, oblivious to any danger or any threat.

But the world, the square mile hamlet I live in with Jean is not the place that allowed me to leave my parents’ house at any hour & explore.  Always trying to replicate the mornings I left Jack & Jean’s house in El Paso, crossed the desert behind our back yard & climbed a hill to watch the sun rise or set over the Franklin Mountains.

I used to wander the streets of this one square mile hamlet on my bike with a friend, or alone, just for the joy of owning the street early in the morning.  My way of replicating that trek to the top of the hill to watch the sunrise.  Only the Borden Milk Man’s truck invaded our space - & he always offered us a sample of the latest Borden frozen delight.

Of course, he always asked if our parents knew we were out so early & we always glibly lied & said yes, sir.

Tonight I cannot walk in the drizzling rain that begs me to let it curl my hair & give me time to walk the neighborhood & think.

So I open my laptop & write about what I am thinking.

Jean & I have spent nine days & eight nights at Methodist Hospital Sugar Land.  It is a wonderful hospital, doctors & nurses vie for positions there.   It was not our first rodeo at MHSL, & it will not be our last.  God willing.

Because I am not yet willing to let my mother go.

We went through Emergency at the hospital on instructions from Jean’s primary physician.  Results from a test for a suspected UTI indicated the need for IV antibiotics.

And in the Emergency Room, the doctors & nurses detected an arrhythmia.  An arrhythmia that descended to dangerous levels while Jean slept.

So I took my mother to the ER for a severe UTI & she received a pacemaker & we spent nine days & eight nights in the bizarre dimension & time zone of a hospital.

Coming home late this afternoon was an adjustment.  It always is.   After nine days & eight nights, I suddenly am once again responsible for the dispensing of medication  (which I monitor like a hawk – hospital pharmacies make mistakes & Methodist make a big one this soiree) --  after nine days & eight nights, I face the laundry I left when we went on this latest jaunt to the hospital.  I cannot pick up a phone & order a meal.  No wonderful cleaning fairy named Dora will come & clean, no charming aid will come & give Jean a bath, no one will bring a pair of fresh socks.

As I sit at my laptop, remembering & savoring that drizzling rain, I think about all the times I have been able to walk & think, caressed by a mist of tiny raindrops.  Jean can no longer walk anywhere.  All of her thinking, all of her life & experiences are played out in a single space, confined to a bed with an air mattress.  And most of the time, with me as a companion.

When we came home, I moved my computer space to the top of a Singer sewing machine, built in 1921 (I looked up the registration number on the Singer website).  The same machine that Jean’s mother Luna Sims used to make clothes for my aunts & uncles, Lorrine, Ronald, Mansel, Allyne, Edsel, Janette, Melba, Barbara & for her baby, Jean.

When my cousin Linda Wiley offered me the machine, I responded with a joyous yes, please, we would love to have it.  

I took out a page I tore out from a magazine at Methodist Wound Care Center – I am an unapologetic thief of recipes & interesting articles discovered in waiting rooms. And just before Linda mentioned Luna’s sewing machine, I found an article on what to do with old Singer machines.

My sister has our grandmother Helen Irene Roberts Ettinger’s Singer machine.  So I felt that it was quid quo pro for me to take Luna’s as my own.  The picture I robbed from the magazine table at Methodist Wound Care Center showed an amazing transformation - with a minor investment – spray paint the cast iron a deep purple, remove the top of the cabinet & replace it with a coffee table top from IKEA. 

When my cousin Larry & his sweet wife Frances brought the sewing machine from his sister Linda’s place, I discovered that the cabinet had two missing knobs, some damage to the top of the cabinet, a bad paint job & the machine itself intact.

The machine Luna’s hands & my aunts’ hands & Jean’s hands worked while learning to sew.

And the purple based table left the building.

I sit at Luna’s machine & write, my always tile weary feet moving the cast iron petal, & I summon bits & pieces of Luna & Rush’s farm outside Canton, & vivid memories of visiting them after they moved to Dallas.  Rush leading grace before each meal, his deep, rich voice forever implanted in my being.  Sitting on Rush’s lap in his giant rocking chair, that same rich, deep voice singing softly.  And my grandmother Luna, who always greeted us with a smile to melt anyone’s heart. 

Luna always served a stack of sliced white bread & butter at every meal.  For a long time, before Jean got heart healthy with Jack, she did the same.  Once I asked her why & she explained that on the farm, the ingredients for bread were always available & it was a great way to fill out a meal.  After all, Jean said, your grandmother was feeding nine children, your grandfather & whoever appeared at her table.

Jean has Luna’s smile.  And implanted in my being is the feeling that I should offer bread at every meal.  

Saturday, October 18, 2014

For Jeff Phelps, aka Tejano, & Cate Poe

Pho0t stolen from Cate Poe.

This post is for Cate Poe’s Tejano, aka Jeff Phelps.  Whom I suspect will learn & master more about Paper Mache than I remember from all those art classes.

As a quick aside, I am going to point out that the font I prefer is Comic Sans MS, which a link on Facebook tells me is not just a cringe worthy, but a contentious casual font.

Somehow that pleases me & Cate & Tejano will understand.

Of course, Tejano, you can find any number of recipes for Paper Mache online, but Cate is a writer supportive of other writers & both inspires & encourages me, so I am going to share a bit of what I learned as a child.

And recently, in my Catrina creation & over the Internet.

Tejano, the most basic recipe for Paper Mache involves strips of newspaper, flour & water.

To make the glue, use one part flour & two parts water.  The result of mixing it should be a runny glue.  Because I live in a reclaimed swamp with high humidity, I added salt.  And because I wanted to smell something other than the glue it becomes, I added cinnamon.  (I stored the paste in a Mason Jar in the fridge & added water if necessary when I brought it out for additional layers.)

This is not an artist’s recipe.

In public school art class, we built a form of wire (or in my Catrina case, use a skeleton from a Dollar Store) & then dipped strips of newspaper in the flour glue, wrapping the strips around the form.

Always sculpting the desired result.

The larger the wire frame, the easier it is to achieve that result.

And then you painted it.

Because I was dealing with a skeleton not much taller than a Barbie (although with no breasts, huge hip bones & feet), my attempts at Paper Mache were limited by my desire to keep her frame as a skeleton. 

Somehow the whole process reminded me that it is more difficult to write a poem, where every word is so necessary & so apparent, than to create something in a larger venue. 

Of course, there are far more sophisticated recipes for Paper Mache glue.

But sometimes, basics work.

Photo also usurped from Cate Poe.