Married to Medicine

Married to Medicine

Friday, December 23, 2011

Passing the Torch

In the midst of trying to scrimp and save this Christmas, I did buy one very special gift for my family.  It's an advent calendar, and a really nice one from PBK.  I am IN LOVE WITH IT.  Seriously - LOVE.

In addition to little candies or trinkets, you can also put a scrap of wrapping paper in a pocket.  The child or children then get to open small gift(s) under the tree that are wrapped in the paper that matches.

When I spied it in the store my heart started racing.  I knew I shouldn't be spending any money and yet I'd had it in my heart for years to procure an amazing advent calendar my children would cherish all throughout their lives.  I'd been gazing - repeatedly - online at the current Pottery Barn Kids "stocking" advent calendar (and checking out stuff on Etsy, too).  I'd been dropping all sorts of hints to my husband about how maybe if it went on clearance after Christmas, he could get it for me for next year's Christmas gift.

So when I saw this one over 60% off I HAD TO HAVE it.  Flush-faced (anyone else have anxiety attacks when they spend money?) I handed over my credit card and signed the slip.  As I carried it back to the car, my thoughts turned to its predecessor.  To "The" advent calendar from my childhood, to the house in which it hung for over fifty years, and to the amazing, vibrant woman who hung it:  My grandmother Margaret ("Peggy") Ellis.
1945:  Her engagement announcement to my grandfather.

2009:  Still so vibrant.

I knew, heading home, that things had been a little rougher for her lately.  While we'd all said she'd live to be at least 100, she'd had a stroke last winter (shortly after turning 90).  Thankfully (and miraculously), she'd made a fairly full recovery - *so* her.  But the week prior to my Advent calendar purchase, she'd had "a fall."  A very stroke-like fall.  And when we saw her in October she just seemed slightly less "there."

Thus as I drove off with my own Advent calendar, my mind was filled with visions of my grandmother's calendar and memories of Christmases spent at a little house in Peoria; my father's childhood home.  The excitement of seeing my cousins, the familiar holiday food, the gifts, the love... I made a mental note to thank her for every time she hosted us and all the work she'd put into it, and to tell her about my own Advent calendar and how hers had so inspired me.  I felt even more a mother and a leader in my family as I plotted and schemed for my own children and grandchildren to have such great memories, and to capture those memories in a calendar that would reproduce those childhood feelings and associations throughout the rest of their lives.

One of those earlier Christmases in the Peoria house.

Reading to me and my cousin Ben.

I certainly wasn't expecting to return home to an email from my father telling me that she had been transferred to the nursing home portion of the retirement center she lives in.  What???  I had assumed she had at least five more years in independent living before she'd *even* go to assisted... how could she possibly be in a nursing home facility???  This is a woman who less than two years ago had more energy and a better memory than my parents... heck, than me!  WHAT?  And the rest of the family had gathered in Peoria for Thanksgiving and reported that she seemed to be doing very well.

I had to write my dad back - twice - and make sure he meant to write what he'd written.  But sadly, yes.  All of a sudden my seemingly immortal grandmother - the one who lived through The Great Depression, World War II, and somehow, the death of her own sweet six year old boy Scott Robert Ellis... the one who kept my grandfather at home and out of a nursing home until his very final months all the while herself being in her mid-80's .... could no longer have conversations much beyond "Hello" and "How are you."  She was... the grandmother that *I knew so well* that *I loved* that *I admired so much*, she was very suddenly, in a very real way, gone.

1945 with my grandpa Jack.

Home from The War and newly married.

I know that from the outside it doesn't seem very sad.  She's still alive, she's almost 92 years old, and she's lived a great life.  Nor can I say I have any regrets; during the 6 years we spent in St. Louis, my husband and I saw more of my grandparents than of any other family members, due to proximity.  Some of my most treasured memories of my husband - the ones that melt my heart no matter what else is going on in our lives - are the memories of how strongly he cared for my grandfather as his health failed.  He *loved* to visit the house in Peoria and we went every chance we could.  He learned how to feed my grandfather (through a tube in his stomach) so that I could get my grandmother out of the house and take her for coffee.  He read to my grandfather, who suffered from macular degeneration (among other things at that point).  He found all of my grandparents' old black and white slides and we spent one of our last afternoons with my grandfather looking at them on the old projector.  Thus he was right there when the chronological pictures went immediately from three little boys on family trips "up North" to two late-high school aged boys and a brand new baby girl.  He heard my grandfather utter "She was the answer to our prayers" when those new baby girl pictures came on the screen.  He even heard my grandfather, a man of very few words, say "It's a strange thing... because we wouldn't have had Nancy if we hadn't lost Scott."  At our very last Peoria Christmas, my grandfather - who didn't even know quite who everyone was - was asking for my husband.  I love this man, my husband, who so loved and helped care for my grandparents.

The Ellis Family:  Peggy, Dick (my dad), Scott, John, and Jack.

The daughter she adores; a woman just as capable as she was.

So I have no regrets in terms of whether I maximized my access to and memories of the amazing woman that my grandmother was.  Still, I find myself with a heavier heart this Christmas.  And a yearning to capture some of our family history in a blog entry.   I love the Advent calendar now hanging on our utility closet door, but so much more than that I love the woman who first introduced me to Advent calendars.  My heart is with her this Christmas.  With her stories of growing up poor in Minnesota with four sisters, and a father who was constantly changing jobs for one reason or another.  With her stories of the WWII home front and a friend who, after receiving the news of her husband's death, later received a letter written by him for their baby-to-be; he knew he was "about to be involved in something big" (the storming of the Normandy beaches) and he had a "bad feeling" about how it would turn out for him - he just wanted to leave a few words for the baby he would never meet or hold.  Yes, my heart is with my grandmother and the colorful yet in many ways typical life she led as an American woman coming of age in the 1930's, born in 1921.  My thoughts are on the incredible strength she's had all these years in living on through the loss of her sweet little boy, and with the intense pride and joy she takes in her remaining children.  Her uncanny insight throughout all these decades, her sense of humor, her love of food, the house she kept for so many years and memories, our late-night chatting, and the breakfasts and lunches she always served.  Grandma, I love you so much.  So, so much.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Guy Things I Never Thought I'd Have to Know or Do

I'm all for gender equality, don't get me wrong.  But ladies, let's be honest:  We grow up expecting that certain things will be handled by the men in our lives.  Things like deep blizzard shoveling, for example.  Or... dare I say... toilet clogs.  But now that I'm going on 2 years of being a stay-at-home spouse with a very busy husband, it's finally dawned on me:  The days of "guy stuff" are over.  At least for me.  Here is a list of some of the things I never thought I'd have to know or do.


1.  Deep Blizzard Shoveling.  If you're married to a man who's never home during daylight (or even nighttime) hours, someone HAS to clear the snow.  I once shoveled over 8 hours in one day.  Pregnant.  We live on a corner with two entrances (both with stairs and porches) and a bear of a steep driveway.  And we had a "nor'easter"!

Shoveling... it's not for perfectionists.  Especially our driveway.

2.  Toilet Troubles.  I remember the first time I cleared a clog... I assumed it was an extreme, once-in-a-lifetime situation.  LOL.  Since then I've learned all about all sorts of toilet troubles online and in discussions with my dad, our landlord, and the plumber.  Got a toilet problem?  I just may be your lady.

3.  Dishwasher Trouble-Shooting.  It turned out not to be fixable... but I was able to verify that for our landlord after a lot of research.  And without any water damage to our neighbors below!

4.  Massachusetts Plates.  I believe it took 4 trips to the RMV to finally get our MA plates.  With or without a baby, I did all 4 ... waiting over an hour each time.

5.  Need New Tires.  Good thing our tire blew out before winter arrived!  I'd had no idea all 4 needed replacing.  Now I know what to look for and how to tell... and how to get a good deal on new ones.

6.  Other Car Maintenance.  Oil changes, new wipers, brake adjustments... oh yeah.  And all with a baby in tow.

7.  Take Out The Papers And The Trash.  I don't get any "spending cash" for this but trash and recycling are pretty much all me.

8.  Steam Heater Maintenance.  I can't explain this if your house isn't ancient, but it involves keeping water at a certain level in the basement.  I think I made our landlord write it all down for me... that was before I gained confidence in these matters.

9.  Dryer Vent Fixing.  Actually I haven't done this yet because I can't reach.  But that's why it's been out for nearly a year.  I'm still scheming about how to get a chair down two flights of steep, narrow stairs.

10.  Installing the Car Seats.  It scares me that I'm even involved with this.

11.  Assembling Strollers, Furniture, and Baby Toys.  My parents would be proud.  And utterly shocked.

12.  Purchasing Big Heavy Items, like our Area Rug, and Hauling Them Home.  A big thanks to Kelly, who helped me out with the rug.

13.  Last, but definitely not least:  The time I had to fish a dead, stinking, fly-attracting rat out of my diaper bag and salvage what I could of the contents.  It had to be done... and it had to be done before that long hospital shift was over. 

I almost couldn't do it.  I think it took a few tries.
So all you female medical spouses out there wishing you could afford a house already... be glad!  I can't imagine how much more work that would be!  And I have, since childhood, *always* refused to mow the lawn.  ;)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Citrus Sweet Rolls (our Christmas recipe)

Oh.  My.  GOSH.  When my husband and I first bit into these rolls we were absolutely blown away.  Better than my wildest dreams, these rolls had it all:  Moist, stretchy dough texture - even on the outside of the roll, sweet citrus zing, and a hint of savory (if you do the cream cheese frosting - I now prefer a citrus glaze, details below!).

I love how citrus in seasonal in the winter - really brightens it up!
I wrote in an old blog entry that one of my goals is to try as many recipes as possible so that I can find THE best recipes to be the seasonal staples of my children's childhoods. Devouring my first roll I knew: I had arrived.  I'd found THE #1 Christmas morning recipe for my family.  For us, there can be no more important recipe. Of course, it'll be awhile before I'm hosting my own Christmases.  But for now, I'm thinking our tree-decorating day and whatever day we celebrate Christmas in Boston will include this recipe... and I'll make it at NO other time of the year, to preserve its magic.

Here it is, with pics. I tweaked and combined two different recipes to arrive at our final creation.

For the dough:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 1/4 tsp instant dry yeast
pinch of salt
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 large eggs, lightly whisked

For the filling:
1 stick butter, softened
Zest of 1 orange
1 tsp orange extract
3/4 cup brown sugar (I used dark)

If you like cream cheese icing - leave butter and cream cheese out in advance!:
1 (8 oz) package cream cheese, softened
1 stick butter, softened
1.5 cups confectioners' (powdered) sugar
1 teaspoons orange extract

If you prefer a citrus glaze:
1/4 cup orange juice
1/2 tsp vanilla
2 cups confectioners (powedered) sugar)
pinch salt
2-3 tbsp milk or cream, as preferred for consistency
Zest of 1 orange

Directions (takes a little time, but not at all difficult):

Place the flour sugar, yeast, and salt in a mixing bowl.  Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the buttermilk - this should bring it to a little warmer than room temp (too hot will kill the yeast), swish it around in the pan and add it to the bowl of dry ingredients.  Lightly whisk the eggs - just use the same pan you used for the butter/milk mixture, and add those too.  Mix in mixer a little until it comes together - use a dough hook attachment if you have one - then knead with your hands for about 7 minutes.  Place in a lightly greased or oiled bowl and flip it over so the top of the dough is also greased.  Cover (I use a wet dishcloth for moisture) and let rise in a warm place (I turn my oven on and off briefly so that the oven is slightly warm) for 2.5 hours or until doubled.

You should definitely invest in these baking mats, it is practically miraculous how the dough does not stick to them at all even without flouring them!  Check it out:

While dough rises, prepare the filling.  Simply mix everything together.  Then grease or butter a 9 x 12 inch baking pan.

Punch dough down, and again turn it out on lightly floured surface or baking mat.  Roll until it's about 18 inches by 12ish (doesn't have to be perfect).  Spread the filling evenly all over.

Spreading the filling is a great time for kids to help!

Roll up, starting at one of the longer (18") sides.  Once rolled, slice it into about 12 slices (so, 1.5 inches each to make 18 inches) - doesn't have to be perfect!!  By the way, I'm told unwaxed floss is great for the slicing, but I use this dough cutter by OXO - it's cheap and it's also really handy for scraping flour off surfaces and into the trash.  Place the slices as evenly as you can in the prepared baking dish.  At this point, you can cover and refrigerate overnight if you prefer!

Cover (I used the same moist dishcloth but you could use plastic wrap, you may want to grease it a little because it'll stick a little bit) and let rise again, again in a warm place, for about an hour, until rolls are all touching each other and appear to be the proper size.  If you refrigerated overnight, you may need to let them rise an extra 30 mins or so.

Fully risen, ready for the oven!

Then bake at 375 for 15 minutes, or until lightly golden on top.  Do not overcook!!!!  Or undercook.  It's worth it to test a roll with a knife, you can just eat that one later.  While it cooks and cools a bit, prepare the glaze OR the cream cheese frosting.  Just add everything in and stir (glaze) or mix in mixer (frosting).

Cover with the glaze (or frosting).  Serve.  Heavenly!!!!

Frosted.  PERFECT December morning.
And here's the final product with the citrus glaze.  I really can't pick a winner!!!