New Role: Caregiver of Memories

For a few years after my parents died and my caregiving role ended, I was at loose ends. I felt like I had washed ashore on a deserted island and did not know what to do with myself. I tussled not only with feelings of abandonment, guilt, regret, and sorrow but also with questions of self-worth. Caring for my parents had been exhausting, both emotionally and physically, but I realized that I liked being needed.

Mom died in 2011, and Dad passed away three years later. By then, my oldest daughter was a cool college co-ed, my son was a junior in high school, and my youngest child was in middle school. Seven years had passed since Mom and Dad moved to Jefferson City, Missouri, to live near me. After they were gone, my children and my husband needed me, but not to the same extent my parents had.

I grappled with each emotion, one by one. I realized that even though it did not make sense to feel like an abandoned orphan, emotions and logic don’t always coincide. I talked to other late-in-life orphans and found that their emotions mirrored mine. Turned out, I wasn’t crazy when I longed to give my mother one more hug. I just missed the woman who had chatted with me after school and who had enjoyed baking and eating Mrs. Goodcookie treats with me. I was normal!

I also experienced guilt and regret for what I didn’t do. Several months before she died, Mom had wanted to visit a grocery store. Not to shop necessarily, but to look at what she could buy. Soup, meats, ice cream–Mom was like a kid in a candy store. So many options, impossible to try everything. I never honored Mom’s request, and I regretted it. I tried to absolve my guilt by recalling the times I had taken her to grocery stores. On multiple occasions, we spent so much time in stores–Mom in a wheelchair and Dad with the grocery cart–that I had to leave them shopping while I rushed to pick up one or more children from school before returning for my parents and their haul. Recalling those times assuaged my guilt a little bit, but even today, twinges of regret periodically prick my conscience.

I eventually adjusted to a new normal, just like I had somewhat adjusted to Mom and Dad’s living in town when they used to live 600 miles away. I realized that I had not been the perfect caregiver, but it was okay. I had struggled to keep track of Mom’s and Dad’s medical needs, check my children’s homework, create special dinners for my family and parents, hold a job, spend time with my husband, fill pillboxes every week, and volunteer at my children’s schools all without screaming every five minutes or running away. I like to think I was perfectly imperfect.

I slowly found myself slipping into a new role: caregiver of memories. I recall stories in my blog and for my children. I relive events in my mind and during conversations with my siblings. I display family pictures. I wear one or more of my mother’s bracelets every few days. And my dad’s old flannel robe? Gotta wear that, of course. Nothing is more comfy!

I wear the red, plaid robe similarly to how Dad wore it: loosely belted over a T-shirt and pajama bottoms. When I put it on, I remember Dad’s wearing it while drinking a cup of instant coffee, eating yet another slice of toast with jelly, and sitting at the long wooden table my parents bought second-hand for their kitchen in Pittsburgh.

I recall snippets of conversations from my visits. “Good morning, Lisa,” he might say as I entered the kitchen. “Help yourself to whatever you want. Have some orange juice. Would you like some scrambled eggs?”

“I’d love some eggs, Dad,” I envision myself saying. “Thanks.”


Resolved: Shop ‘Til I Drop

Surrounded by men’s slacks, a Mizzou sweatshirt and a black and white poncho, I debated whether to buy short black Naturalizer boots with a side zipper and a wooden heel, almost two inches high. Would my feet hurt? Enough traction? Too high of a heel? 

I looked up as two shoppers approached. “Hi, girls!” My daughters Liz and Suzie knew where to find me at the Dillard’s New Year’s Day sale.

My older daughter Suzie couldn’t pass up these comfy Naturalizer shoes.

With so many items deeply discounted, it’s hard to make snap decisions. I find it easier to grab as I go and find a semi-quiet area to make decisions. That’s what we used to do when I was a child shopping for after-Christmas bargains at Peddler’s Village in Pittsburgh. Mom could stand for only short periods of time, so after quickly perusing the store for ornaments and other items, she established headquarters.  

Now, I’m the mom, who needs to bunker down. This year, I set up headquarters in front of a display of full-price designer purses. It came with a perfect ledge for sorting items and trying on boots. If only I didn’t have people wondering whether the purses were on sale. Dillard’s really should have paid me for answering so many questions about the purses near my headquarters.

My daughters had other concerns. “What is all this?” Liz asked about my stash, which threatened to trip passersby.

“A lot of it is for Daddy and Tim.” I urged her to call them at home and tell them to come. I knew they wouldn’t want to tear themselves away from bowl games, but I also knew they could use nice khakis and Nike windbreakers. They could miss a few quarters of football. 

I discovered the New Year’s Day sale several years ago. I was driving by Capital Mall in Jefferson City, Mo., when I noticed the full parking lot. I considered it fate — my sister, Elaine, had given me a Dillard’s gift card for Christmas.  Since then, I have made an annual pilgrimage to the sale. My finds have ranged from a Vera Bradley laptop case in Java Floral to a swirly peach skirt. Super feminine.  

The New Year’s extravaganza causes me to reminisce about bargain shopping during my childhood. Hill’s Department Store closed in Pittsburgh when I was about 9 years old. My parents bought me a long, red polyester flowered dress with an elastic waist, eyelet stand-up collar, and puffy long sleeves that ended in white eyelet cuffs. Oh, how I admired my reflection. When I wore that dress, I could look past the buck teeth and the straight long hair always arranged in the two-and-tie-back style my mother favored. I was beautiful. 

The memory of that sale and many others have turned me into the bargain hunter I am today, and if the size of the crowd at Dillard’s indicates anything, many other people also grew up scavenging bargain bins.

“This sale is my second church,” a shoe shopper told a friend on her cell phone. Walking through the store, I saw six exuberant shoppers pose for a picture with Dillard’s bags crowding their feet.  The sole man in their group snapped the photo. 

After four hours of shopping, I checked out. By then, Suzie had left to eat lunch with a friend. Jim and Tim had come, moaned, tried on clothes and urged me to hurry up. Liz had threatened to walk home.

Later that afternoon, I thought of returning to look at sweaters, but the memory of my grand total stopped me. (Sorry — no full disclosure, folks! Suffice it to say that shopping for five people adds up.) So far, my favorite purchase is the memory foam pillow currently supporting my lower back. By the way, I passed on the short black Naturalizer boots. Too small. No matter how chic they looked, if my feet hurt, I wouldn’t wear them.  I tried on a 9 1/2; unfortunately, the store didn’t have them in a size 10. Maybe next year.

In the meantime, I may unearth the polyester wonder my parents bought me 40 years ago. If nothing else, I”ll get a good laugh out of it. So will my kids. “Polyester?!!” they’ll gasp. “It was the 70’s. Polyester was huge!” I’ll say.

A birthday note to Ed, the baseball fan

Guess what, Dad! Baseball season started yesterday — the same day as your birthday. You would have been 94 years old. I never realized the two milestones frequently coincided until Jim pointed it out this weekend, but I imagine you appreciated it.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Pittsburgh was the city of champions with its winning football and baseball teams. Willie Stargell was one of my favorite players.
I brought this banner from Pittsburgh when we cleared out my childhood home.

Many of my memories of you relate to baseball. For instance, I remember how much you enjoyed watching Tim play baseball. You rarely missed a game when Tim was a pitcher/first baseman in 2012 for his American Legion team. When I arrived to pick you up, you were usually waiting outside with your walker, a baseball cap on your head, a gleam in your eyes, and wire-rimmed glasses perched on your nose. Your enthusiasm was infectious. No matter how crazy my day had been, I relaxed and looked forward to the upcoming game.

We stayed to the end of every game, no matter how long they ran.  A few times, in fact, the field’s caretakers were preparing to turn off the lights as we pulled out of the parking lot.

Thanks to support from you and the rest of their fans, Tim and his teammates — the Royals — won 16 games and finished second in their league. Jim was Tim’s head coach that year, so he rarely spent time with us fans, but he recalled your interest. “Ed was never critical of Tim as a player or of me as a coach,” Jim said. “He just enjoyed it.”

As a native of Pittsburgh, you were a Pirates fan through good times and bad. Do you remember the time that Suzie and I went with you to a game in St. Louis? The Pirates were playing the Cardinals. You wore your Pirates hat of black and gold, and, of course, you stood out in a sea of red and white. However, nobody cared much about team colors because it was 100+ degrees with high humidity. If I could, I would have chosen a different day to go, but we already had tickets.

I was so worried about your getting sick! I brought a cooler full of wet washcloths, and I kept at least one draped around your shoulders or on your head.  Periodically, I wiped your face with a washcloth. I frequently sent Suzie to get more water from the pitchers that the stadium provided. Finally, you had enough of my coddling.

“Lisa, just watch the game!” you exclaimed.

All three of my kids have played baseball or softball, so when we visited Kentucky on vacation in 2008, we just had to visit the Louisville Slugger factory. Everyone who takes the tour brings home a mini bat. We gave this one to Dad.

My husband and I along with our three kids signed Grandad’s souvenir bat, at left and above

I calmed down and enjoyed the game. The Pirates won, but in Cardinal country, we kept our elation to ourselves. And, fortunately, you didn’t get heatstroke.

It’s too bad the Pirates haven’t won the World Series since 1979. At least, they’ve had several good runs. Do you remember coming to our house in 2013 to watch the Pirates play the Cardinals in the National League Division Series? I hope you don’t remember that we picked you up late and that you missed the first few innings. I apologize. If I could do it again, believe me, we’d be early.

Pitching+to+Matthew+Snyder+Park+early+1990s (1)
I can only imagine how much Dad enjoyed playing ball with his grandson Matthew in the early 1990s at Snyder Park in the Pittsburgh suburb of Whitehall. Matthew’s dad, Chip, played baseball in high school and college. (This picture originally appeared in a scrapbook. Note the curved edges and blue background.)

I cringe when I recall how my home looked that day. Jim dropped you off on a side street, so you could avoid the front steps by walking across a neighbor’s backyard and entering the house through the back. The patio outside our back door was cluttered with unplanted plants, chairs, and sidewalk chalk. I vaguely recall clearing a haphazard path for you and guiding you through the Nahach maze.

Once inside the house, our dining table said “Welcome!” with a lopsided grin. “Have you been grading?” you asked when you saw the stacks of papers and gradebooks. “Always!” I replied.

You handled the chaos at my house with aplomb. Despite the backpacks strewn on the floor, the scattered newspapers and the dog spread out on the floor or sofa, you had no problem negotiating your way to an available chair. Good job, Ed! I hope I’m that nimble in my 80s and 90s.

Jim vaguely remembered that the Pirates lost the division series to the Cardinals, but neither of us remembered what year it was. I should  have remembered it was 2013 — the last year you cheered on the Pirates for a whole season. You passed away the next May, just a month and a half into the 2014 season. That year, the Pirates claimed a wild card spot, but lost the all-important game.

This afternoon, the Pirates lost their 2017 season opener 5-2 against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, but, hey!, the season is a day old. Let’s give them a chance. Happy Birthday, Dad. I hope you can catch some innings.

Potato Salad: More Than Picnic Food

A memorable picnic needs homemade potato salad. Perfectly cooked potatoes. Hard-boiled eggs cut in chunks. And creamy dressing with zip. Multiple textures meld, delivering one delicious bite after another.

Mmmm, mmm, …. mmm. Just thinking about it makes my taste buds tingle.

My mother, Helen Yorkgitis, considered potato salad her signature picnic food. She cooked potatoes with the skins still on because she thought that helped them retain vitamins. After peeling hard-boiled eggs, she separated each yolk from the white, chopped them separately, and added them separately. After mixing her ingredients together with a creamy dressing, she wiped off any smears from the side of the bowl, and before serving, she dusted the top layer with paprika.

Mom’s meticulous approach produced a salad with distinct notes. I could taste each piece of potato, each chunk of egg. It wasn’t mushy like some potato salads. It wasn’t overly spicy. It was smooth but crisp. No wonder, Mom’s potato salad was in high demand.

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Mom was very particular about many things as a cook and hostess — from making potato salad to setting a table.  Case in point: the placement of forks on the table during this birthday celebration for my brother Chip, two years before I was born. I like how this photo revealed so many emotions among my siblings. What was upsetting my oldest sister? What made my brothers laugh so much?

“Helen, are you going to bring your potato salad?” I remember her sister, Anne, asking before multiple gatherings, including a family reunion at South Park in Pittsburgh and a trip to the vacation home of their brother, Joey. “If you want me to,” my mother usually replied.

Only my sisters and I knew how much effort the potato salad required. We cradled potatoes in paper towels while we peeled them, that’s how hot they were. If it was a humid day, beads of  perspiration dripped down Mom’s face, and her glasses slid to the tip of her nose. We did as much of the work as possible at the kitchen table, but Mom couldn’t avoid  standing for a good part of the time and taxing her arthritic knees.

For Mom, the end result overshadowed the effort. She appreciated the accolades. She liked to prepare food that others savored. I also imagine she enjoyed spending time with her daughters. Sitting around the table or standing by the sink, we exchanged stories, shared laughs, and bonded as only people with a common goal can do.

Although my sisters and I helped her, Mom usually reserved certain tasks for herself. She was the one who cut the celery. She was the one who separated yolks from whites and chopped them. If we did something she wanted done just so, she kept an eye on us. She really was particular about her potato salad.

As an adult, I appreciate homemade potato salad, but when I make it, I cut corners. I don’t have Mom’s patience. I peel potatoes before cooking them. I cut yolks and whites together. In addition, I doctor my dressing more than my mother ever did. Consequently, it never tastes the same. Mayonnaise, Miracle Whip, ranch dressing, and even sour cream might make their way into my dressing. I also may add cheese, mushrooms, chopped pickles — radical, I know.

I last made potato salad for Mom at a Labor Day picnic in 2008. By that time, she and Dad had lived for nearly a year in Jefferson City, Mo. Mom had survived a stroke and surgery, and she had spent several months in a rehabilitation center. By Labor Day, though, she had been living in her apartment again for several months. A picnic seemed like a good idea.

It was a good idea. My potato salad turned out well, but I worried that it didn’t have enough time to chill. As my mother tasted her first bite of potato salad, I held my breath.

“Lisa, your potato salad is good,” she said.

I exhaled, smiled, and thanked her. My mother rarely gave compliments, so I knew she genuinely liked the potato salad. I felt like I had arrived as a cook.

I don’t know what else we ate. Brownies? Likely. Did my husband make hotdogs? Probably. We even may have roasted marshmallows. After the picnic, we walked on the cement path around the lake. We took turns pushing my mother in her wheelchair. Dad used his cane. The kids danced around us and spent time on the swings and slide. It was a lovely way to say good-bye to summer and hello to fall.

Labor Day is tomorrow. I don’t know what we shall do. What shall we eat? Potato salad, anyone?




A gardening legacy

By Lisa Yorkgitis Nahach

When I noticed small yellow flowers on my tomato plants in early June,  I was thrilled. I knew that before long, I would see tiny tomatoes. I wondered if I should fertilize so that I could get even more blooms and tiny tomatoes. If so, what kind should I use? How much? How often?

“Oh, how I wish I could ask Dad about it,” I thought aloud.

Farmer Ed
Farmer Ed looks so proud of his crops. I don’t remember his growing corn, so one of my siblings must have snapped this shot a long time ago. I primarily remember his tomato plants. The corn looks amazing, and I imagine it was tender and juicy, like good corn should be. Note the tomatoes in the foreground and the massive pine trees in the background. Farmer Ed was in his element.

Dad was an avid tomato gardener. He tended a strip of land outside his assisted-living apartment, and his plants produced so many tomatoes that we had to get down on our knees and lift branch after branch to find all of the tomatoes. Even then, we never could be sure that we had found all of the ripe tomatoes. I hated finding rotten ones that we had missed.

Until I began helping Dad with his plot here in Jefferson City, Mo., I had never tended a vegetable garden. Oh, I had dabbled in flower gardening, but growing vegetables always seemed out of my league. Ditto for my husband. Early in our marriage, he had tried growing cucumbers, lettuce, potatoes, and green beans, but he had little success, thanks in part to the neighborhood rabbits.

Dad gardened regularly during my youth in Pittsburgh, but his efforts barely registered on my radar. I was more interested in reading, swimming, dancing, and other activities. He and Mom canned numerous jars of tomatoes, and I enjoyed tomato-rich meals like chili and spaghetti. However, Mom did most of the cooking, something she could do fairly easily, despite her arthritic knees.

For my Dad's funeral, my siblings and I commissioned an arrangement of tomatoes and assorted potted flowers, including this iris my sister Elaine planted at her home in Minnesota. It looks beautiful in her garden.
For my Dad’s funeral, my siblings and I commissioned an arrangement of tomatoes and assorted potted flowers, including this iris my sister Elaine planted at her home in Minnesota. It looks beautiful in her garden.

Consequently, I was not prepared for the abundance of produce Dad offered when he first planted tomatoes here three years ago. “Take as many as you want,” he would tell me with a wave of his hand. At first, I hesitated, but I could tell that Dad wanted to share his bounty. He was proud of his tomatoes, and at that point in his life, he had so few opportunities to give of himself. My refrigerator overflowed with tomatoes.

Fortunately, I ran across my mother’s recipe for meatballs and sauce.

As the sauce simmered, I found out that heat loosens tomato skins, making them easy to remove. To me, it was an amazing discovery. My sauce turned out well with layers of flavor, courtesy of onions, green peppers, and celery leaves as well as multiple spices and Dad’s homegrown tomatoes. I used the sauce for two pans of lasagna. I was so happy when Dad asked for a second helping.

That success lead me to make other dishes with tomatoes. Corn-and-bean salsa. Fajitas. Tacos. Spaghetti. Bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches.

Dad last shopped for starter plants two years ago at Longfellow’s Garden Center in Centertown, Mo. He had recently turned 90, and he had been asking to go to Longfellow’s for a few weeks. He didn’t bother to hide his impatience. He always followed the philosophy that the sooner one planted tomatoes, the better. I’m ashamed to say that I put him off, but finally we went after church.

Ed with Tomatoes
My father, Ed Yorkgitis, tended a narrow plot outside his assisted-living apartment at Heisinger’s Assisted-Living Center in Jefferson City, Missouri. Nina Muenks, one of the activity directors, shot this photo to accompany a Summer 2012 newsletter article she wrote about Dad. Copies of the article appeared as part of two garden arrangements at Dad’s funeral.

In one of Longfellow’s greenhouses, he perched on the red seat attached to his walker and directed my husband, myself, and our two younger children, Tim and Elizabeth, to bring him plants. Tim was especially patient with him, bringing Dad numerous plants. “How about this one, Grandad?” Tim would say and hold out another possibility.

Finally, Dad selected three tomato plants and two pepper plants. Some of the tomato plants already had baby tomatoes. We also picked up some soil. At his home, he directed us where to plant them, and he quickly settled into a routine of watering, assessing, fertilizing, and watering. Never mind, that he could not carry his green watering can while using his walker. He would fill the can with water from the sink in his kitchenette and walk out the back door, holding onto furniture and/or walls. After tending his plants, he usually relaxed  outside in his two-seat glider with ivy-patterned cushions.

One day, in June 2013, I entered his senior-living center from a third-floor entrance and spotted Dad from an upper window. I stopped, momentarily, to look at him. I smiled. Dad was napping in his glider. Chances are, he had just finished watering and maybe fertilizing his plants.

That nap proved to be Dad’s last one in his glider. Later that day — after my visit with him — a staff member at the assisted-living center called me. Dad was on his way to the emergency room.

Dad battled a severe urinary tract infection, a touch of pneumonia, and fluctuating blood pressure, all conditions exacerbated by his Parkinson’s disease. After spending more than a week in the hospital, he was so weak that he could not walk, even with the help of his walker. Instead of returning to his apartment in assisted living, he had to go to a rehabilitation center affiliated with Heisinger’s.

During Dad’s hospital stay and his weeks in rehab, my family and I continued to tend his tomatoes. When his cherry tomatoes ripened, I brought him a bowlful to enjoy. When the bigger tomatoes were ready, I made him sandwiches and brought other dishes for him to enjoy. As his strength returned and he resumed walking, I thought he would soon be able to return to his assisted-living apartment. I was wrong.

His therapists deemed him a fall risk since he frequently abandoned his walker, just like he had done when he wanted to water his plants. Despite their efforts and my frequent reminders, Dad continued to forsake his walker — by the door of his room, outside bathroom stalls, and beside kitchen chairs. Eventually, my siblings and I realized the time had come to shop for a nursing home, and eventually, Dad settled into a private long-term nursing room at Oak Tree Villas.

By this time, we had moved all of Dad’s belonging out of his apartment at Heisinger’s, but we continued to water his tomatoes, using random containers and water from a public restroom. We usually returned home with at least one random plastic bag full of peppers and tomatoes. When a new resident moved into his apartment, she granted us permission to continue caring for the garden. We visited a few times each week, and between our visits, the maintenance men watered sporadically, and various people picked ripe tomatoes.

My family and I felt odd tending the tomatoes since Dad no longer lived there. We tried to keep a low profile, and we usually visited at 7:30 p.m. or 8 p.m., when most residents were retiring for the night. We tried to work as quickly as possible, but the plants had so much foliage that watering and picking all of the ripe tomatoes required at least a half hour of work.

ed in garden
I think that Dad couldn’t wait to come home and change into an old T-shirt and older pants so that he could check on the progress of his garden. Here, he is in the back yard of our home in Pittsburgh. Notice the many ripe tomatoes ready to be picked. Also note the monster evergreens; my parents planted these after first using them as Christmas trees.

“Mom, it’s sooo embarrassing,” Elizabeth would say with a groan. “What if we see someone?”

Despite my misgivings and my family’s complaints, I could not abandon those tomatoes. They continued to thrive, thanks to Dad’s early care, much as my siblings and I have thrived because of my parents’ nurturing. Those tomatoes were part of Dad’s legacy.

When Dad moved into his room at Oak Tree Villas, I planned to find a plot he could tend. As his health declined, though, I knew that would not happen. In early May 2014, Dad entered the hospital for the last time.

As he lay dying, I outlined a different plan. I hope he heard me.

“Thank you for teaching me  how to garden,” I told him. “Jim and I are going to plant some tomatoes and peppers, too.”

Dad died on May 17.

For his funeral, my siblings and I commissioned our florist in Pittsburgh to create two garden arrangements featuring tomatoes. The result? Bounteous displays of irises, azaleas, coreopsis, other flowers, and, of course, tomatoes. Copies of a Heisinger newsletter article about Dad’s gardening capped off the arrangements. After the funeral, relatives, friends and I took home the flowers that comprised the arrangements. Dad’s gardening legacy had sprouted branches.

This year, a few days after July 4th, my family and I picked our first tomatoes and peppers. Since then, we have picked some every few weeks. Of course, we don’t have anywhere near the amount of produce Dad would have had, but that’s okay. I’m hooked. Next year, maybe I’ll buy some fertilizer.

Love Doesn’t Need a Measuring Spoon

Mom measured most ingredients very carefully, using the flat edge of a knife to level off spices, flour, and leavening agents. After more than 50 years of use, my mother's measuring spoons are bent, discolored, and disconnected from each other. I still use them, however, and I treasure the connection with her.
Mom measured most ingredients very carefully, using the flat edge of a knife to level off spices, flour, and leavening agents. After more than 50 years of use, my mother’s measuring spoons are bent, discolored, and disconnected from each other. I still use them, however, and I treasure the connection with her.

For Mother’s Day, my daughter Elizabeth made a decadent chocolate pudding pie with a cookie crust. The recipe called for a teaspoon of vanilla. When the time came, did Elizabeth reach for the bottle of vanilla and a teaspoon? Nope. She just poured in what she thought was the right amount.

“Oh my,” I said to her. “Granny is probably turning over in her grave.”

My mother, Helen, usually measured ingredients carefully. She taught me to level off a cup of flour with the straight edge of a knife. She showed me how to pack a half cup of brown sugar so that it fell out of a measuring cup in a lump. For more than 50 years, she used her silver measuring spoons so frequently that they are now bent, discolored, and disconnected from each other.

Of course, Mom never needed to measure her most important ingredient. Neither do I, and neither does Elizabeth. I’m talking about love. The more, the better.

I sometimes prepare food haphazardly for my family, but I don't remember Mom ever doing that. She even cut sandwiches carefully, from corner to corner.  Mom's magnet now hangs on my refrigerator. Years ago, we sometimes joked about her secret ingredient, but I really do think that love helped her turn ordinary meals like tuna loaf into a special family meal. (She also owned a spice canister with a similar message. My sister and I think it's squirreled away in a storage box, awaiting excavation.)
I sometimes prepare food haphazardly for my family, but I don’t remember Mom ever doing that. She even cut sandwiches carefully, from corner to corner.
Mom’s magnet now hangs on my refrigerator. Years ago, we sometimes joked about her secret ingredient, but I really do think that love helped her turn ordinary meals like tuna loaf into a special family meal. (She also owned a spice canister with a similar message. My sister and I think it’s squirreled away in a storage box, awaiting excavation.)

Mom’s special ingredient made tasty meals even tastier. I especially liked her chicken paprika, a Hungarian dish also known as chicken paprikash. Just thinking about the pasta shells and tender chicken smothered in a paprika-flavored cream sauce makes my taste buds tingle. I have made it for my own family, and although it’s good, it doesn’t measure up to what my mother made.

When my parents moved to Jefferson City in 2007, I tried to make holidays special. A picnic on Labor Day with homemade potato salad and other fixings. Pork roast on New Year’s Day. A cake shaped like a Christmas tree for the holiday season.

My most poignant memory focuses on Mother’s Day 2009. That year, Mom was hospitalized a few days before Mother’s Day because of her heart condition. What kind of celebration could we have? She was in intensive care at St. Mary’s Hospital in Jefferson City.

Fortunately, on Mother’s Day, the ICU staff gave families more leeway with respect to the number of people in a room and the ages of children allowed. ICU rooms are bigger than typical hospital rooms, but even so, Mom’s room bulged with ten visitors, medical equipment, and everything we needed for our Mother’s Day luncheon.

I made one of my go-to meals: beef stroganoff in a slow cooker as well as a fresh loaf of bread in my breadmaker. My visiting siblings brought side dishes and desserts.

“We were a beehive of activity within the ICU,” my sister, Elaine, wrote when I asked for her memories of the day. “Having a party where you’d think there would be little to celebrate — and yet there was. We were laughing and carrying on, and Mom lay there like a queen, surrounded by life and love, at the center of life and love for all of us.”

I wish I remember more particulars about the day. The beef stroganoff turned out well, but I realize now that what we ate didn’t matter. We were just happy to have the ability to celebrate Mother’s Day with Mom, a.k.a. Granny.

My sister reminded me that Elizabeth floored us by how well she read a greeting card to Granny. At the time, she was only in first grade. She read slowly, loudly and clearly, like the best of church lectors. I don’t think she stumbled once.

We spent Mother's Day 2009 with my mother in the intensive care unit at St. Mary's Hospital. We used this tray table in her room to hold her cards and a flower arrangement my sister and I created using silk flowers. Mom and I had taken a flower-arranging class years before and enjoyed it very much. (Note the handle of my father's cane to the right of the tray table. At that time, my father used his cane in a cavalier manner, often placing it where it would do him no good. He lost it several times, so eventually we put our names and my phone number on it.)
We spent Mother’s Day 2009 with my mother in the intensive care unit at St. Mary’s Hospital. We used this tray table in her room to hold her cards and a flower arrangement my sister and I created using silk flowers. Mom and I had taken a flower-arranging class years before and enjoyed it very much. (Note the handle of my father’s cane to the right of the tray table. At that time, my father used his cane in a cavalier manner, often placing it where it would do him no good. He lost it several times, so eventually we put our names and my phone number on it.)

As Elizabeth read, the room grew quiet. We were spellbound. Granny looked occasionally at the card, but she focused on Elizabeth, her youngest grandchild. The moment seared itself into my memory bank. My mother and my little girl. Life doesn’t get any better than that.


In Honor of My Father’s Birthday

Dad liked the sweet and tangy taste of lemon desserts. For his 88th birthday, I made him this meringue pie. I didn't think the pie could handle a candle, so I brought one of my jar candles for him to blow out.
Dad liked the sweet and tangy taste of lemon desserts. For his 88th birthday, I made him this meringue pie. I didn’t think the pie could handle a candle, so I brought one of my jar candles for him to blow out. When I decided this month to visit the nursing home where he once lived, I brought homemade lemon bars.

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Dad enjoyed having a private room at Oak Tree Villas, where he lived from July 2013 to May 2014. He would have turned 92 on April 2nd of this year. He enjoyed company, so to honor his memory, my two younger children and I visited residents and served treats. We traveled from room to room, taking our cues from staff members and residents.

By Lisa Yorkgitis Nahach

Holding a milk-glass basket filled with sweets, I knocked lightly on a partially open door at Oak Tree Villas in Jefferson City, Missouri. I waited for a moment and then nudged the door open a little bit more. A woman relaxing in a recliner opened her eyes. She had lush white hair, which framed her face in soft curls. I estimated her age at 85.

“Hello,” she said in a clear, welcoming voice.

“Hello,” I said. “My name is Lisa, and these are my children Elizabeth and Timothy. We brought you some treats. Would you like a brownie or a lemon bar?”

“A lemon bar, please,” she said.

My father probably would have selected a lemon bar, too. He loved the can’t-miss-it flavor of lemon, especially in sweets. When I arranged to commemorate Dad’s 92nd birthday earlier this month by visiting residents at Oak Tree and offering them a treat, I had no trouble deciding what to bring.

Lemon bars have long been a family favorite. Featuring a shortbread crust and a smooth, tangy lemon filling, the bars look very festive arranged in paper cupcake holders. I wasn’t sure if one pan would be enough, so an hour before show time, my daughter offered to make brownies. She’s a sweetie!

At the nursing home, the treats were a hit. “These lemon bars sure are good,” one woman called after we had left her room and gone into another. “I’m glad you like them,” I told her as we passed her sitting in a wheelchair in the doorway of her room.

Staff members at the nursing home served as our guides. One resident ate only pureed food, so she couldn’t eat sweets. Another woman was diabetic, so she, too, shouldn’t have any. If residents were sleeping soundly, we left a brownie, a lemon bar, or both on a side table. If a door was closed, we didn’t disturb the resident. Once inside a resident’s room, we took our cues from them as well as visiting friends or relatives.

“Thank you for stopping by. That was very nice of you,” said a male visitor.

One of the most receptive residents proved to be the lady with lush white hair who opened her eyes as we entered her room.

My mother collected both milk glass and baskets, and I treasure this milk-glass basket. It served as a conversation piece as well as a way to deliver sweets to residents at Oak Tree Villas. I shot this photo in the activity room at Oak Tree Villas.
My mother collected both milk glass and baskets, and I treasure this milk-glass basket. It served as a conversation piece as well as a way to deliver sweets to residents at Oak Tree Villas. I shot this photo in the activity room at Oak Tree Villas.

She invited us to sit down, and Tim and I each chose a chair. She didn’t have any more chairs, so she urged Elizabeth to sit in her wheelchair, on her hamper, or on her bed, which had a raised-edge mattress, like my father’s hospital bed used to have.

“It doesn’t look comfortable, but it is,” said the resident, who moved in after my father passed away.

My daughter used to have no trouble sitting on Granddad’s wheelchair or on his bed, but she turned shy on me and remained standing, giving the elderly resident a head-to-toe view of her lanky 5’10” self dressed in skinny jeans and a pink Under Armour  sweatshirt.

“You two must do something athletic,” the resident said.

When we told her that Tim and Elizabeth played basketball, she reminisced about how she, too, used to play that sport, except she and her friends didn’t have a gym. They played outside until the weather grew too cold.

Our conversation covered many other topics — the new clothes her mother made for Easter, her four grandsons, and the milk-glass basket I inherited from my mother and used to carry sweets. She admired the basket, called Elizabeth and me pretty, and declared that Tim was a handsome young man. Our new friend charmed us, that’s for sure.

In fact, I think her charming ways have helped her stay young at heart. My kids and I thought she was about 85, but we found out that she is more than 100 years old.

Dad would have been envious. I remember the awe in his voice when he spoke of centenarians. “See that woman?” he said one day a few years ago. “She just turned 100.”

He wasn’t able to live to a hundred, but he did lead a full, active life. Before Parkinson’s Disease reached its final stages, he stayed so busy with activities that I sometimes had to hunt him down when I went to visit. On a sparkling spring day in 2012, a few weeks after he turned 89, I found him at a gathering to celebrate April birthdays. The activities included a quiz about celebrities and other well-known figures who celebrated their birthdays in April. Dad knew so many answers that I thought to myself, “Wow! I hope I am as sharp as he is when I get to be his age.”

Happy Birthday, Dad. We miss you.