Journal

Cooking up Some Memories

Cooking up Some Memories

I just got home from dropping my son off at play rehearsal and entered a house that smelled just like my grandmother’s house did when we arrived for a visit and a fresh, welcoming pot of vegetarian goulash was warm on the stove.

What a happy, comforting feeling!

Today is my grandmother’s birthday. She would have been 95, which makes it the fourth year that she has not been physically present for her birthday celebration. We sat around enjoying “Great Grandma’s Goulash” and sharing memories of her. It looked just like her goulash and smelled just like it, too. I thought it tasted just like it, although my son insisted that – although it’s really close – next time I must buy the brand of tomato soup that she used, to make it completely authentic…even though some of the ingredients in it make me shudder.

Isn’t it incredible how powerful smells are in recreating an atmosphere that makes you swear your dearly beloved relative or friend just left the room for a moment and could walk back in any second? As much as we want to remember how someone looked or sounded, sometimes it’s certain smells that bring them back to us most poignantly. The aroma of a familiar meal cooking can be one of the closest experiences to being in that person’s actual physical presence.

For Christmas, my mother-in-law gave each of her children a beautiful, homemade recipe album that is a real work of heart.

The recipe album – which is perhaps best described as her culinary memoirs – includes not only the recipes themselves (handwritten on index cards) but also typed narratives, old photos, and notes that provide the context within which the meals were shared.

 

For her last birthday, I gave my own daughter a large binder of favorite recipes that featured many she enjoyed as a child. It wasn’t as artful or narrative as my mother-in-law’s gift, but it was very important to me to pass the recipes along to Jasmine.

My mother-in-law and I both love to cook, and one thing we both know is that you can cook up someone’s presence by making foods they used to either serve or request. I think that is why it was so important to both of us to pass down our most treasured recipes to the next generation. For example, I have always remembered my vegetable jambalaya recipe as the last meal my former father-in-law had a taste for before he died. Some part of him exists within that recipe simply because he loved it and requested it when nothing else appealed to him. It was a way in which I cared for and nourished him and is a vehicle of love.

My grandmother’s presence is invoked magically by making her goulash and a couple other recipes I’m so glad I had the foresight to ask her for while she was still alive. She would keep the ingredients on hand, and if we called to say we were going to visit, she’d have a batch ready by the time we arrived. My mom’s signature dish is her macaroni and cheese. My mother-in-law’s might be her creamed onions. Mine is probably baked ziti with two sauces: red and white. But at another time, it might have been my mom’s tuna noodle casserole or my Mexican pie or tofu pot pie – or perhaps the “love soup” I traditionally make when someone is sick or the Christmas Eve menu I make to accompany our favorite Christmas movies. When I think of foods from my childhood, Chocolate Crinkle cookies from the ubiquitous Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book come to mind. Although I haven’t made them in decades, I’m certain that mixing together the ingredients would bring me back to making the cookies with my mom in the kitchen of my childhood home. Our spirit – and memories of happy times together – live on in the recipes we leave behind. In the delicious fragrance of vanilla extract being measured into a teaspoon.

My refusal to buy the soup laden with high-fructose corn syrup that my grandmother used to make her signature goulash got me thinking about what gives these special foods their magic. Must they be recreated authentically? Can you substitute an ingredient and still make it “work,” or is that cheating? My son admonished me for tweaking my grandmother’s recipe to make it more healthful, explaining that it’s only a once-a-year indulgence, so keep it real for Pete’s sake! Cooking such special recipes conjures comforting memories. I am talking about comfort food in the fullest sense of the term – food that appealed to everyone’s diverse tastes, brought us together, and made us feel content and happy. My baked ziti is not what I tend to make when I’m hungry or want something healthful to eat. It’s the dish everyone requests for family get-togethers, and it nourishes in a different way. It makes you feel loved! Like my grandmother with her goulash, I make sure to have baked ziti ingredients on hand so I can make it on the spur of the moment if my daughter calls to say she’s visiting. (And of course, she gets to take home the leftovers.)

Family recipes and the stories around them are an important, intimate thread of family history. Which ones will you share? Which recipes will you want to acquire from loved ones in order to conjure happy, comforting memories?

 

 

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (www.susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Very Special Recording

A Very Special Recording

I just came across the most awesome idea and simply must share!

Since learning of my mom’s cancer diagnosis right before Christmas, I have been very busy with “mom” projects. One involved scanning lots of pictures from old photo albums, including one that belonged to my grandmother that contained lots of photos of my mom as a baby, a child, and a young woman prior to meeting my dad. Scanning proved to be a fairly time-consuming process, and I had a deadline I was trying to meet (the end of the holiday break), so I sped up the process by taking photographs of pictures, using a tripod. So far, I have digital images of nearly 200 old photos of my mom organized in an iPhoto album.

I was talking with a friend in the midst of scanning and photographing images, and he mentioned the idea of making a screen recording with my mom using QuickTime (a Mac application). A screen recording captures images that are shown on a computer screen while simultaneously recording live voices using the computer’s internal microphone. The end product is a movie file containing both images and sound. It is very simple to do, and the possibilities are endless!

For example, my friend described to me how he and his parents explored significant places via the website, Instant Google Street View at http://www.instantstreetview.com/ and recorded the screen images along with their live conversation about those places. The website allows you to navigate and view certain locations as if you’re taking a walk down the street. (My kindergarten students love to take a virtual walk around town on this website and see all the familiar places.) This technology makes it possible, for example, to record yourself exploring and talking about childhood neighborhoods, places you traveled to, etc. I love the idea.

The night before school resumed and my mom began chemo, I brought my laptop to my parents’ house, and we sat around it and made a screen recording of the photos of my mom in my iPhoto album and our voices discussing each picture. It was wonderful. I learned so much about my mom’s life and my parents’ life together as we looked at the photos onscreen. Some incredible stories came out of this 50-minute conversation, and everything is captured in a video that can be copied for family members. I am so grateful to my friend, Sam, for giving me this idea. 

 

  
As I mentioned above, it is very easy to do this on a Mac. Here’s how:

  1. Open the QuickTime Player application.
  2. Under the File menu, select “New Screen Recording.”
  3. Click on the down-pointed triangle to the right of the red dot, and select “Built-in Input: Internal Microphone.
  4. Click on the triangle again, and select “Medium” Quality, which results in a good quality recording and a smaller (yet still very large) file size.
  5. Click on the red dot to begin recording.
  6. Create your recording by talking about what you’re viewing on the screen. 
  7. When you are finished, click on “Stop Recording” at the very top of the screen.

That’s all there is to it. Movie files I create in this way are, by default, saved to my “Movies” folder.
To playback the movie, open the file, and click on the sideways triangle “play” icon.

As I mentioned above, the file size will be large. The 50-minute recording I made with my parents was 2.03 gigabytes. However, you can reduce the file size enormously by using the free app, “MPEG Streamclip” (Mac or Windows version) at http://www.squared5.com/ and following these instructions:

  1. Open the app, and drag your movie file onto the workspace (five dots in a square icon). 
  2. Under the File menu, select “Export to MPEG4.” 
  3. Set compression at H.264
  4. Try 20% quality (which can be boosted if need be).
  5. For Sound, select MPEG-4 AAC.
  6. To the far right of Sound, select 128 kbps.
     
     

The above image shows the settings I used, and the resulting file was 140 MB. Then select “Make MP4.”

If you’d like to make a DVD, you can drag the original (larger) movie file into an app such as iMovie (and then finish in iDVD).

I am so grateful for the technology that makes it possible to create keepsake recordings like this so easily. When I tried it with my parents, it was such a positive experience that I just wanted to tell everyone about it! It’s something you can do by yourself, too, if the people around you aren’t tech savvy and you’d like to make recordings about your own life.

Within the next couple weeks, I’d like to make the same kind of recordings with my dad, with photos from his life and of his ancestors, and maybe take a virtual tour of his hometown or even of the town in England where we visited relatives. He’s always enjoyed taking us on car rides through his old stomping grounds, and this is a great way to have a more permanent record of the places, people, and stories that are woven together into the fabric of his life. I’d also like to make a screen recording of my parents’ favorite places in Hawaii. I can’t wait!

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (www.susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Christmas Spirit

Christmas Spirit

This Christmas was very different from Christmases past. My husband was 2,100 miles away for ten days, and there were three weather events during that time. His flights got all messed up on his way home due to weather, and he ended up spending a sleepless night in Chicago’s O’Hare airport. His flight took off without a hitch in the morning but then was unable to land due to weather and got rerouted to Connecticut. He had to take a bus back to Albany. He finally arrived home in the early evening and by morning had come down with the flu, which had him bedridden and moaning in agony for three days straight, including Christmas.

Amidst all that, my report cards were due before leaving for the holiday break. And my mom was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer, which makes all the other grumps and groans seem so trivial.

Needless to say, I didn’t have the time or energy to get into the Christmas spirit. There was too much going on. We didn’t send out Christmas cards or put up a tree or even any lights. We didn’t take a single Christmas decoration out of the box. I had intended to run errands and do a little shopping to finish the gifts I was making but never got around to it. Instead, I spent the few days before Christmas in quiet retreat at home. Although I didn’t have much Christmas spirit, I abided deep in spirit.

While wrapping presents on Christmas Eve afternoon, it suddenly occurred to me that there was something I’d been meaning to do for a very long time. Despite feeling very far behind in getting ready for Christmas with family the next day, I knew that going to a Christmas Eve church service with my parents took precedence over all else. I used to enjoy the Christmas Eve service when I was a child and had been wanting to go with my parents for many years but never did for whatever reason.

The other stuff clamoring to be done was ultimately not all that important. Nothing having to do with stuff is ultimately important, especially if it gets in the way of spending precious time with loved ones…now…because we can.

So I went to church, and my sister came along, too. It had been about 30 years since either of us had been to church with our parents, and they were surprised, to say the least. During that service, I received the most wonderful gift of Christmas. At the end when we were all holding our lit candles and singing “Silent Night,” my parents whispered something to each other then looked at my sister and me and smiled the most beautiful smiles. It was a moment of savoring that we are all here together in this perfect moment. It was beautiful. 

My parents commented afterward that it was just like old times when we were kids except that they didn’t have to force us to go to church. I stayed up much later than I’d intended talking with them and am so glad I did. 

Christmas was quite an emotional day for my family, although my mom’s spirit is strong, and we probably had the most meaningful Christmas together ever. I recorded video of her playing “Winter Wonderland” on piano. That is the one song she has memorized all these years – for as long as I can remember. She apologized for being a little rusty but explained it was because she really hadn’t played piano at all since she took up guitar a couple years ago. Needless to say, making video recordings of her playing guitar is high up on my to-do list. 

A posed shot of my parents followed immediately by a candid


At one point, my dad said, “Be grateful for every day because it might be your last.” Isn’t it the truth? The only moment we are guaranteed is this moment. Of all of us, he is most acutely aware of this after suffering cardiac arrest back in February. That he survived is a gift. I remember that evening as we drove to the hospital not knowing if we would arrive to find him dead or alive. That I could talk briefly with him before he was transported to another hospital was a gift. I was grateful to at least have that. But we were given so much more. Time together is the greatest gift of all, especially when you realize how precious and limited it is. 


Health crises like this put everything else into perspective and reorder one’s priorities. You realize immediately what is important and what is not – and where your attention needs to be. I am grateful for all of the teachers and experiences that have prepared me to face my mom’s illness and the family dynamics related to it with greater consciousness, love, and selflessness than I might have otherwise. Furthermore – and although it may sound absurd to speak of blessings with regard to a cancer diagnosis – one thing for which I am grateful is the gift of time for love and healing. How often do we bump along the road of life thinking we have all the time in the world – and can put things off until later? And then something awakens us and gives us the opportunity to let go of everything that gets in the way of living and loving to the fullest right now. I think of September 11th, 2001 and wonder how many people had an epiphany right before jumping to their death. That we can awaken with any time at all to set things right is a tremendous spiritual blessing. Let’s be grateful for each day and live as fully as possible one day at a time, focusing like a laser on what is most important: Love.



Healing prayers for my mom and our family are most appreciated.

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (www.susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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