Lost?

A few years into full retirement and you have accomplished nothing. The mental list of what you would do if you only had more time is still waiting. You fill your days with mundane activities which serve as excuses. You clean and cook like a well oiled machine. Are you paralyzed by having too many choices or are you realizing that in this last chapter what you deemed important in the past just simply isn’t?

If so then why do you feel unfulfilled, why do you wake up every day searching for life’s meaning? What is really missing?

You have been programmed to feel that being alive means contributing, giving back, adding value, making a difference. You need to either undo years of brainwashing or satisfy it by getting out there. Which will it be? How much longer are you going to float in limbo? When will you choose the path to complete your short journey on this earth?

You Did it for Love

You want forty years to wash away the painful memories of that day, but it’s not that easy. You are doomed to suffer, sometime in silence, occasionally out loud which you always regret. Don’t share if you can’t take advice. There’s no love big enough to absorb your pain. Whatever happened is in the past. Get over it already.

It was a cold January with daily ice storms which caused heavy tree limbs to snap on top of power lines. You turned on the gas oven and sat in front of it’s open door, holding him close under a heavy blanket as you both shivered in the dark. He was calm as he whimpered softly into your chest, falling asleep, oblivious to what was to happen. You held back your sobs determined to be strong, cold and strong, no emotion would escape your body or mind. It had to be done, that’s all there was to it, it had to be done.

A strong wind howled at the window banging on the shutters, making you feel small, weak, insignificant. You already had that talk with yourself. No one could hate you more than you hated yourself, no one. 

He was to come and get the baby around six but you feared the weather made him late. He hadn’t called but it was easy to imagine the icy roads in the dark without steet lights to guide him. You made him agree to take the baby, convincing him of his responsibility as the father.

You were relieved for a moment thinking maybe he won’t show up, maybe he changed his mind and you, given more time will change your mind too. 

How many times did you replay the scenario in your head? You worked two jobs and hauled the baby from sitter to sitter barely seeing him awake or spending any time with him. This was for the best. Your heart will break but the baby will be in good hands. So what if it was uncommon for fathers to have custody. Those who would accuse you of being a bad mother had no idea.

And then there was the other issue, the one you kept to yourself, the one that was making you to choose between your child and your deepest feelings, feelings you could not control. 

Collapsed on the floor with a sweaty baby in your arms, you try to listen for the sound of footsteps. You may have dosed and feel disoriented. Was it the wind shaking the shutters or someone knocking.

Carefully you pry the baby from your arms and lay him down next to you. You walk to the door. The wind pushes it open as you loosen the latch. You freeze in front of it, your lips moving in slow motion as you hear yourself whisper from afar.

 And then it all becomes fuzzy, like a dream, one that you have replayed for years. You let the bundled figure enter and move towards the baby. You see him be lifted up into the air, arms reaching in you direction. You look away and hold back tears because you’re strong and you know what’s good for him. From the corner of your eye, you watch the figure move towards the door. There’s still time to stop him, but you feel paralyzed. It’s for the best you keep repeating quietly, it’s for the best. You watch yourself walk slowly towards the door, you watch the figure disappear into the darkness. There’s still time to stop him but you’re in another world by then, disconnected, removed.

You stand at the door oblivious to the cold wind. Time dissolves into millions of shooting stars and you find yourself floating gently above, hugging your shuddering body. Pain gives way to numbness. Reality seems a distant past and for a moment, only a moment, you feel at peace.

In memoriam… Agnes Miriam Liebermann (Agi Mark)

Where do I start writing about my mother Agi, someone who has not only been part of my entire life, but someone who has touched so many in the span of almost 92 years. I can go back to the beginning and share memories growing up which span three countries and two continents, I can tell you about the hardships she endured and the challenges she overcame, or the joy she experienced as a grandmother and great grandmother, or the convictions she stubbornly adhered to, but all those would not do justice to describing who she was: a truly independent woman who exemplified the life of a courageous professional in the most difficult of times.

Born in Romania in 1925 between the two World Wars, into a family of highly educated professionals, my Mom knew what was expected of her from an early age. Even as she was faced with the worst possible circumstances as a teenager as Europe burned around her, she never lost focus and pursued her education eventually completing her Medical Studies and becoming a Doctor of Pulmonary Medicine. It was in Medical School that she met George Liebermann the man she married, the man who became my father. She gave birth to me while still an intern and to my brother Gabriel shortly after.

As Romania fell into Soviet hands after WWII, life became almost unbearable for my parents as a young struggling family who believed in freedom and opportunity. They secretly made plans to emigrate and left in 1964 for Austria, leaving everything behind except hope for a better future. It became a stepping stone to Agi’s final destination: America.

My Mom lived almost her entire life in Dallas Texas, a place she grew to love. She pursued her work in the Medical Field and surrounded herself  with family and friends. After being fluent in five languages, she added English and conversed easily with people from all walks of life.

Mom experienced the world around her with interest and enthusiasm. She fully embraced new technologies and insisted on owning the latest computers and iPhones. Her interests extended to current events, the arts and music. She enjoyed traveling and always emersed herself in the local culture. 

In addition to all her educational accomplishments, my Mom was also an excellent cook. Many bellies were filled with her special Schnitzel and creamed spinach platters and tasty walnut pastries. Agi’s kitchen was filled with the latest gadgets and she was versed in the most current of trends.

Agi was also a fashionista. She wore the most trendy yet classy outfits, down to the matching shoes, bags, gloves and hats. Even into her later years, she dressed to impress, if only herself. 

But all of my Moms accomplishments and talents cannot describe who she really was. To know her was to be touched by someone who lived life to its fullest, who embraced all people, who never met a person she didn’t find valuable, who believed that the world was for all to share. She was a humanitarian, a peacemaker, an ambassador, a real hero, and she was my Mom.

Closest family members:

Katherine Jabbar and Taregh Jabbar

R. Gresham Ellington and Ruth Verbrugge 

Leyla Jabbar Sanford, Dylan Sanford, Baird And Lena Sanford

Hamid Jabbar and Carmen Pedro

Rachel Lane and Eric Lane

Erna Mark

Sasha Mark and family

Andre Mark and family 

Not The Same Country…

My parents brought my brother and I to the US on June 15th. 1965. I was 14. Dad was a Hollocaust survivor and my Mom and her family lived in hiding during WWII. We were Eastern European refugees placed by the American consulate in Dallas Texas, a place of opportunity for us given that Mom and Dad were both physicians and there was a need for qualified professionals.

I’m not going to describe here the difficulties of the transition and the cultural shock we all experienced, that’s for another time. My focus in this short essay is the difference between this country more than fifty years ago and now, specifically as it pertains to immigrants. 

My Dad did not talk to us about his experiences in the concentration camps, not directly. He used his pen to write down the horrors he witnessed as a young man, deported along with his family by the Germans to certain death simply because they were part of an ‘undesirable’ group of the human race. I have not let myself dwell too much on that past even when as an adult, I read his writings in which he tried to work out the why’s as best he could. I don’t think he ever got there, I don’t think he was ever at peace. How could he be? To live with those memories and try to relive the what ifs, drove him to the brink of insanity. 

But there was one thing that he believed in and that was America. He felt deep in his heart that if he could only start life over in this country, build a future for his children and feel part of a place where he was accepted, his past would seem less of a burden. Not everything worked out as he expected. He did not loose his demons not his paranoia and was fighting to the end to justify his existance. But overall, he did manage to live a little bit of his American Dream.

I never thought I would say this but I’m happy he’s no longer with us to witness how his beloved country, the one that he so much wanted to live in, the land of freedom and opportunity open to all people, no matter where they came from and what they believed in, has been taken over by hatred. I’m glad he cannot hear the words spoken by right wing conspiracy theorists who echo the same rhetoric used to exterminate millions. He would certainly be distressed after believing and hoping that his fellow human beings would learn from the past and know what hatred and discrimination can lead to. 

I am not blind to it nor do I believe that hate will win in the end, but if history is a lesson, it’s one we haven’t learned well enough. As the dividers breed hate, we must speak up and counter their words. Fear cannot make us stay quiet for if we do, those who are bent on setting us against each other will certainly win. 

In memory of my Dad and all he stood for, I will always remember that freedom is not free and that as long as there are good and honest human beings on this earth who speak up against hatred and evil, we will survive. 

We all share this fragile earth with the same goal: peace and love to all and generations to come. Let’s hope we can all take care of it together.

A Note on Eggplant

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Cultural Identities through Cookery continued…
Eggplant, both hated and revered yet so versatile. I am in the lover’s camp. Lately, thanks to NAFTA and our Mexican neighbors to the south who have graciously taken over our fresh fruit and vegetable production, eggplants have proliferated and prices have fallen. Their year around availability has almost caused me to overdose, almost.

Believed to have originated in Southeast Asia, eggplants traveled West and adapted to a variety of cuisines. They also took on many shapes, colors and sizes. Thomas Jefferson, the original American Foodie, brought eggplants to this country via France. Background searches attribute its name to an old white oval shaped variety the size of a large egg and still available in some markets.

My favorite recipe is the simplest and the one I most often prepare:

Roasted eggplant dip.
Roast one large eggplant till soft, preferably over an oven flame. Peel, mash and whip with 1/2 cup of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and half of a finely chopped onion.
*Variation: stir in a couple of spoons of yogurt and add a crushed garlic clove.

Eggplants make a great meat substitute especially when sliced, breaded with flour, egg, breadcrumbs and fried. The cutlets can be covered with cheese and marinara and baked the Italian way, or with a nice mushroom sauce. You can also use them to make sandwiches by placing them on a toasted bun with a good aioli some spinach leaves and sliced red onions.

The spongy quality of the eggplant causes it to absorb a lot of oil which I do not object to because it is also the reason for its ability to take on so many flavors. I had the best baby eggplant curry at a Thai restaurant and of course Middle Eastern cuisine features stewed or fried eggplant in many dishes.

Vegan Eggplant Stew
Sautee a chopped onion till golden. Add a cubed eggplant, salt and pepper and a couple of spoons of curry powder and fry till soft. Add a pound of sliced mushrooms and a cup of tomato sauce. Simmer for 10 minutes, taste and serve with rice and yogurt.

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Cultural Identities Through Cookery continued..

For those of us for whom cooking comes naturally, it is hard sometimes to witness scenes of total food illiteracy. The last fifty or more years produced an entire generation that not only does not know how to cook but does not have a clue about where food comes from. Some of this dilemma could be related to our mothers’ and grandmothers’ need to enter the workforce instead of staying in the kitchen, but also to big agricultural businesses which managed to infiltrate every aspect of our lives. The timing was perfect and before we realized what happened, we stopped cooking from scratch and turned over critical responsibility for the health of our families to faceless powers whose only goal is profit.
When I say that cooking comes naturally, I neglect to mention the years I spent learning how to cook, the examples and the encouragement that I was provided, the opportunities to practice and foremost, the appreciation I received while developing cooking as my language of love. Preparing a meal is much more than the practical steps required to construct an edible dish. The practice of cooking takes finesse and a feeling that cannot be acquired by following a recipe.

Cooking with love takes creativity and thriftiness. It encompasses the respect and admiration for ingredients and their providers. Selecting fruits and vegetables that were tended with care and pride will enhance the simplest dish with fresh aroma and delectable taste. The attention provided by those who treat our earth with love, transcends every bite of food and satisfies our palates through all our senses. When food becomes a medium to savor and linger over, quality not quantity becomes the norm and satisfaction is on the highest level.

I was fortunate to grow up in the kitchens of the best and most resourceful cooks: my grandmother, my mother and a constant parade of local domestic help who contributed their customs and traditions. They cooked from the heart instinctively, knowing how to marry ingredients for the tastiest outcomes. They learned like me at the feet of their maternal ancestors and knew how to make the best of freshly available ingredients, always cooking in the season. Nothing was wasted for resources were scares and the need great. Uneaten summer bounty of fruits and vegetables was preserved for the long winters and added a welcome surprise to sparse dishes.

My earliest memories place me on the clean scrubbed pine planks of my grandmother Dora’s kitchen floor, playing with the brass weights of a scale treasured both for its usefulness as well as its pedigree. I was around two and a half. Very soon after that, I was allowed to help sort veggies and legumes. I watched and listened and tasted while asking a lot of questions and annoying my caretakers.
I also spent time in the garden where rows of tomatoes and peppers ripened next to peas and beans and where freshly plucked carrots still warm from the earth’s heat, tasted like honey. Onions, radishes and potatoes came in all shapes, colors and sizes. Everyday provided a new discovery, a new exciting flavor, a newly ripened gift. Chickens pecked away by the hog pen and the hen house where every morning a selection of multicolored eggs waited to be retrieved. Apple, peach and apricot trees were scattered among the tall walnuts which made the best summer hideouts, while raspberry bushes provided a natural fence along the river. At the very back of the garden lived the most important members of this little paradise, the bees.

Every morning, fresh milk was delivered along with yogurts and cheeses. The family who lovingly tended to water buffalos, provided us with the riches and most nourishing of their offerings. A parade of other farmers stopped by to share their latest products.
When we sat down for our noon meal, our table was covered with dishes lovingly prepared from the very best and freshest ingredients.

The foundation of my love for cooking was built early and everything that followed became the structure which I rely on for today’s creations. When food is scarce, innovation becomes critical. I remember savoring a simple bowl of caraway seed soup with croutons never realizing that it was invented to quiet growling stomachs.
Romania behind the Iron Curtain suffered from misguided agricultural policies dictated by the Soviet Union and local market shelves were left bare. Were it not for the creativity of cooks who were accustomed to starvation having already lived through wars and devastation, I would not have absorbed the invaluable knowledge of cooking something from nothing.

My grandmother’s tiny village seemed to defy it’s expected condition. The seasons cycled from summers to winters and through autumn and spring with total disregard for who was in office. Small plots of veggies thrived behind twig fences. Everyone had a specialty. A need for fresh mushrooms encouraged foraging and educating each other about their safety. Grape arbors producing several varieties adorned the yard of a nearby neighbor and the surplus became an easy homemade wine shared with all. Chickens, geese and ducks roamed without care and the aroma of freshly baked bread mingled with the smell of frying onions drifted through open windows. Time stood still! Simple pleasures passed down through generations beckoned all to break bread at large communal tables. Living close to the earth is the simplest and most satisfying of pleasures.
This language, my favorite language of love is universal. Pleasurably sharing earth’s bounty establishes a human connection for which no words are needed.

I Miss You Terribly, an Ode to Schnitzel

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I know I did the right thing, I know you were in pain, I know you put on a brave face, I know you tried to hang on…I miss you terribly!

You came into my life as a blue eyed blonde at just eight weeks, the last of twelve siblings to leave your parents’ care. Advise against bringing you into my home evaporated when I saw you. High maintenance, hard to train and anti-social are just some of the labels given to your breed, yet I took on the chalange and became your adopted mother. Small enough to fit in a cat carrier, you adapted quickly to your new surroundings and chewed up the appropriate number of furnishings…I miss you terribly!

As you grew, the cats took up residence at higher and higher altitudes slapping your sweet face with clawless paws. You patrolled our property with decisive arrogance and a threatening bark, alerting everyone of your presence. ¬†You considered your training nothing more than parlor tricks and after obediently proving that you are a quick learner, you reverted to your own unique style of behavior. I loved the way you searched for my approval…I miss you terribly!

You tried to fill the emptiness left when the kids moved out. You made sure that I was never alone. You smiled gratefully when talked to. You loved your baths and lying in the sun. You reluctantly shared me with the man of the house. You woke us up without fail and took us on morning walks…I miss you terribly!

How quickly time passed and as we both aged, you much faster in dog years, you tried to prepare me for the inevitable. You took fewer walks and hated the stairs. You stopped jumping on the sofa. Your interest in chewing waned. You followed me with your eyes instead of your legs. You knew the end was near…I miss you terribly!