Five Years Later: What I Learned from Losing Momcat

Earlier this month I read this article on grief and loss, and it made me consider everything I’ve learned since Momcat died five years ago. Today would have been her 72nd birthday.

Here’s what I have learned in the five years since Momcat died:

  • There are a million analogies for grief. All of them apply at one point or another.
  • There comes a point where I feel people should just know that Momcat is gone. Even if I haven’t spoken to them in a long time, there should be something in my voice, in what I talk about that tells them she is gone. Magical thinking at its best.
  • She continues to appear in dreams when I am most in need of guidance, whether I know it or not.
  • There are days when I wake up not sure that she’s really dead. I didn’t see her body, so how do I really know? Having very vivid dreams in which I am with her compounds this feeling.
  • I am easily annoyed by people who bitch and complain about their mothers. I want to yell at them to resolve their issues and get to know their mother as a person, because one day she will be gone.
  • There is still so much I don’t know about Momcat, and every piece of paper I find with her writing on it becomes a clue. Old calendars, day planners, notebooks full of lists offer some insights, but not enough to satisfy my curious mind.
  • There are days when my grief is just beneath my skin, that one small bump or scratch will make me bleed. Other days it is buried deep, a wisp of a seed in my belly. This year I’m aware that my grief manifests itself in overreactions to mildly stressful situations. I resent this sneaky subversion.
  • In moments when things are going really well, I find myself annoyed that I can’t call to tell her my good news and hear her be excited for me, that all I can do is talk to her photo and imagine her response, dig into my memory and hear her voice say, “Hey, that’s great.”
  • I believe there’s an alternate universe in which the events leading up to her death play out every year, and if I could just cross over, I could ask the questions I never got to ask, and tell her once again that I love her.
Momcat holding me outside my grandparents' house.
Momcat holding me outside my grandparents’ house.

Friday’s Hot Tip: Homemade Salsa

When I was growing up, my parents and I would frequently go out to lunch on Saturdays. It was a post-church treat as Momcat didn’t have to cook or clean anything up. One of our preferred lunch spots was Alamo, a Mexican restaurant with a more Tex-Mex flair. The salsa came to the table in a big Melamine bowl and was the perfect consistency: finely blended fresh tomato, onion, garlic and cilantro. This is the place where I first heard Pops say “Don’t fill up on chips! You’ll be too full to eat your tacos.” But they were so good, and the salsa was so tasty, it was hard to stop.

For many years I have searched for the perfect salsa like Alamo makes (yep, they are still in business), without much success. Sure, there have been some strong contenders – I particularly like Trader Joe’s Salsa Especial. Only in recent years did I consider the possibility that making my own salsa could bring me to that same blissful state as Alamo’s chips and salsa did so many years ago.

A few months ago, I had lunch with a friend who makes all sorts of fabulous sounding dishes at home. I mentioned wanting to make salsa and she whipped out a notebook and started writing down a recipe a friend had given her years before. I believe its origins are from someone’s Mexican grandmother. Todo del mundo ya sabe that abuelitas make delicious food, and this salsa is no exception. Even better? It’s super inexpensive to make and all you need is your blender or food processor. I’ve even made a short video to show you how easy it is.

You can easily adapt this recipe to suit your tastes. Can’t get fire-roasted tomatoes? Use regular instead. Don’t like cilantro? Leave it out. (You have made abuela cry, but she understands.) Too spicy? Use mild chiles instead. No lime? Use a lemon, or, if you must, use ReaLemon or ReaLime in the plastic container.

Homemade Salsa

  • 2 14-oz cans fire roasted diced tomatoes (Make sure there’s no added garlic, onion or chiles in the can. Trust me on this. You’re going to be adding fresh garlic, onion and chiles anyway, so why do you need it here?)
  • 1/4 C onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 4-oz can diced jalapenos
  • 1 cup fresh cilantro, rinsed (jam the cilantro – leaves, stems and all – into a measuring cup)
  • 1/2 lime, juiced

Put all ingredients in food processor or blender. Process/blend on low speeds until ingredients are combined. Makes approximately 4 1/2 cups.


My Declaration of Independence: the 2012 Edition

As many of my semi-regular readers know, every year I use Independence Day as an opportunity to declare my own personal independence from something. (You can read the background here.) Frequently I use the text written by our Founding Fathers as the basis for my own declaration. This year I’m doing it a little differently. Probably because this year’s declaration is harder for me, but, as I am discovering, it’s necessary for my health and well being.

I’m declaring my independence from gluten.

This is not about me jumping on the Paleo bandwagon – I’m way too picky about meat and fish to go full Paleo – or following what seems to be a trend among some circles. This is about my health, and my belief that Momcat’s early death was the result of undiagnosed celiac disease.

A quick gluten and celiac disease primer:

  • Gluten is a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and related grains, such as barley and rye.
  • Gluten adds elasticity to dough – it gives bread its chewy texture and helps it rise.
  • Gluten is often added to foods as a stabilizer, or to add protein.
  • Celiac disease is a chronic, hereditary, autoimmune disease. If someone with celiac disease eats something containing gluten, their small intestine becomes inflamed and damaged. They may experience diarrhea, nausea, or bloating. And they end up not absorbing necessary nutrients from food, all because their body can’t process it.
  • Someone who is undiagnosed with celiac and continues to eat gluten may become more susceptible to other autoimmune disorders, such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and rheumatoid arthritis. They may have unexplained skin rashes that do not go away. They may have gall bladder, liver, or kidney problems. They may suffer from depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. They may have problems with their teeth. Their hair may thin or fall out. They may be constantly tired or fatigued. (You can find a more comprehensive list here.)

Momcat had a lot of the above symptoms for years. A month before she died, I asked her if she’d ever been tested for celiac. She muttered something about the test coming up negative. But anyone who’s ever been to the doctor and had blood tests know that sometimes tests aren’t accurate, and that diagnostic tests, especially for food allergies, tend to improve over the years .

I’ll never know for sure if she had celiac. But I know how I feel when I eat a lot of glutentastic products:

  • I get really sleepy. I call gluten my natural sedative because if I eat bread or pasta at dinner, I am guaranteed to be asleep in two hours or less.
  • I get weird rashes on my body.
  • I have a lot of gastric distress: bloating, abdominal pain, and what I will not-so-delicately refer to as poo problems.

And I know that Momcat’s sisters and my cousins suffer from a lot of the same medical issues Momcat did: fibromyalgia, arthritis, fatigue, allergies, asthma, high blood pressure. And none of them have gone gluten-free.

At this point in time, I can’t afford to get tested for celiac. But when I look at all of the evidence, it tells me that declaring my independence from gluten is the thing to do.

But giving up gluten is so damn hard. Those of you who love tortellini and cinnamon rolls and burritos and pizza and bruschetta understand this. Because even if you stay away from gluten, and you dutifully eat all the gluten-free substitutes (many of which are quite good), there are moments when gluten beckons to you and says, “Oh, come on, one little piece of pepperoni pizza won’t kill you. Look how thin the crust is! All the gluten has leaked out. Honest.”

I think of gluten as my bad boyfriend, the dark, mysterious guy with the six-pack abs, the guy who promises that this time he will treat me right. (In my fantasy, gluten looks like Joe Manganiello.) So I let him spend the night and wake up the next morning, all alone, feeling as if a fleet of moving vans ran over me, then shifted into Reverse and ran over me again. And there’s no note, no kiss goodbye, nothing. That’s because gluten is a selfish bastard.

Joe Manganiello, actor, True Blood, Magic Mike
What gluten would look like if it was a person.

So I’m going to try extra hard to live independently of gluten. But if the real Joe Manganiello knocks on my door, offering me a latte and a gluten-free cinnamon roll from Mariposa Bakery, I am so going to hit that.

 

 

 

Hard Habits to Break

When I was a kid, Momcat and Pops had specific ways of doing things but didn’t necessarily have reasons as to why they did these things the way they did. It was likely the way they were taught by their parents, and their parents before them. These things ranged from food preferences to cooking styles. Momcat did not use any other white rice but Uncle Ben’s Converted Long Grain, nor did she ever buy white bread, grape jelly or shredded cheese. We never had honey in the house because Pops hated it. All of our towels came in sets of two and included a matching hand towel and washcloth. When I got my driver’s license and started driving the family vehicles, Momcat was vigilant in letting me know I needed to move the seat all the way back when I was done using the car, because the next person driving the car might be Pops and he needed more legroom. And you never, NEVER, put a bumper sticker on a car.

Once I was living on my own, I did a lot of things the same way as I was taught. I bought block cheese and shredded it as needed. I never bought honey. My towel sets were always two bath, two hand and two washcloths. I always pushed the driver’s seat all the way back when I got out of the car – even though it was my car and no one else was driving it.

It took me a while to realize that a number of these habits weren’t really Moxie originals – I had taken them on because they had been instilled in me by my parents.  I started questioning each one. Was oatmeal for breakfast something I really liked? No. I like oatmeal but it doesn’t fill me up. Same with cereal. So I stopped buying cereal. I stopped drinking most juices because they gave me heartburn. Tired of shredding my fingers on the cheese grater, I stopped buying block cheese and now I only buy shredded. On my 30th birthday, for the first time ever, I had honey in my peppermint tea and was astounded at how good it was. Now I’m never without a jar of honey. And the bumper sticker thing? I put a window cling for my alma mater in my car’s back window and Momcat lit into me when she saw it. “WE do NOT put stickers on OUR cars!” she said, glaring at me.

Some of those habits, have passed my idiosyncrasy litmus test. While I may not be buying Uncle Ben’s anymore, Momcat’s rice cooking methods (2:1 ratio, boil water, add rice, cover, lower heat, DO NOT LIFT THE LID) have proven to be failproof. I like having handtowels because I use them to dry my hair – the bath sheets I prefer to buy are way too big for my head. And while grape jelly is fun to eat, especially with peanut butter, there’s something quite spectacular about apricot preserves or a lovely mixed berry jam on good bread.

Oh, and the driver’s seat? As it so happens, the car I’m currently driving has a programmable seat. I positioned the seat just the way I wanted it, then I pressed a button that saved the settings. Now every time I turn on the ignition, the seat automatically moves to where I want it, and slides back when I turn off the engine. God bless technology.

What habits were passed down to you from your parents?

Human Kindness Is Overflowing

All names have been changed.

It’s popular belief that death comes in a series of three. This past Friday marked the 3rd person I’ve known that has passed away over the last 3 months.

On February 25, my maternal grandfather died. Grandpa J was in his early 90s and had just come home from an extended stay in a nursing home.

He was a true jack-of-all-trades, fixing and building many things. When I was little and would go to visit, Grandpa J would always be wearing his work clothes: a navy blue button-down shirt and pants in either black or dark blue. His hair was a thick shock of white and his eyes were a cool blue-grey. He scared me a little, but at the same time, I would talk to him about his life and he would always answer my questions. Momcat remembers when, at the age of 5, I cornered Grandpa J for an inquisition. “You asked him all these personal questions,” she said. “I wanted to crawl under the table.”

He wasn’t very good with interpersonal relationships – family connections were often strained and tense. But during the icy cold Michigan winters, he would go out of his way to ensure that poor families had heat and that their pipes didn’t freeze. He was also a volunteer fireman and injured his leg on the way to fight a fire that had started at a local mill.

In his last years, he softened up a great deal, but still struggled to connect with family. Pops went to see him in the nursing home a few months before he died. “Don’t ever get old,” Grandpa J told Pops. “It’s awful.”

On April 25, Momcat & Pops’ next-door neighbor died. Fifty years ago, Margaret Woods built a house next door to my paternal grandparents. Even after my grandparents retired to Florida and Momcat, Pops & I moved in, she stayed on.

Mrs. Woods worked for the police department for many years – she would pronounce it poh-leece. She’d seen and heard a lot of crazy stories by working there and as a result didn’t put up with much foolishness. I think she chased away some mischievous boys with a broom once – I could be making that up, though. I remember sitting in her air-conditioned rec room for a couple hours while she talked about all sorts of things. I considered writing mysteries based on our relationship. In these tales, I would be the Nancy Drew to her Jessica Fletcher. I never did write anything, though.

Her garden was phenomenal – my best friend Deena and I often referred to her place as “Better Homes and Gardens.” I think Mrs. Woods’ well-manicured lawn was viewed by many neighbors as a challenge to make their yards look just as nice. But she wasn’t one to lord her gardening skills over anyone. She just loved to work in the dirt, and she was happy to offer suggestions and advice to anyone that asked.

On May 4, my cousin Sasha’s grandfather died. Dr. Y was Estonian and had come to the U.S. during WWII. After the Nazi occupation of Estonia, he lived for a while in a displaced-persons camp with his young son Ned, who later married my aunt Gigi.

Dr. Y lived near Pops & Momcat, so when Uncle Ned & Aunt Gigi came to town, we would all get together for pizza or a barbecue. At one of those gatherings, Dr. Y cooked one of the best porterhouse steaks I’ve ever eaten. Remembering it now makes me long for a juicy slab of meat, perfectly grilled, with some A-1 sauce.

Dr. Y always had a gleam in his eye and a quick laugh. The last time I saw him was Christmas 2005, at Ned & Gigi’s house.
“Moxie, psst!” I heard Sasha’s husband, Mark, whisper. He gestured at a bottle on the kitchen counter. It was time for the drinkers in the group to surreptitiously enjoy a shot of Estonia vodka that had been infused with jalapeno pepper.
I headed for the kitchen. Uncle Ned poured the shots. Dr. Y’s eyes gleamed and he grinned at me. “In Estonian, the word for vodka is the same as in English,” he said. “You just pronounce it wad-kah.”
Wad-kah,” I repeated. “Any way you say it, it’s good stuff.”
He laughed. “That’s right!”
We lifted our shot glasses and toasted – to what, I don’t remember. A good year ahead, perhaps. All I remember is the burn of the vodka down my throat.
“Gaaack,” I sputtered. “Good – stuff.”
“Yah!” Dr. Y laughed.

Three deaths, three very different people. Yet their acts of beauty, integrity, kindness, and generosity made an impact on the world. Grandpa J would refuse to charge people for fixing their furnace, if he knew they couldn’t afford it. From what I understand, Dr. Y was pressured by the Nazis to work for them, but he refused, showing incredible courage. And Margaret Woods beautified her corner of the planet by making her garden a lush, gorgeous sanctuary that would literally make people stop and stare.

I can’t really quantify the influence that these 3 people had on my life. But there’s a Randy Newman song that I’ve been listening to a lot lately, and I have a feeling it’s resonating with me so strongly because of these three people:

Bright before me, the signs implore me,
Help the needy and show them the way.
Human kindness is overflowing,
And I think it’s going to rain today.