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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
My mother, Helen Yorkgitis, suffered from arthritis, diabetes, congestive heart failure, and other conditions. Despite her afflictions, however, she often exhibited an incredible capacity for sympathy.
One day in early 2009, I felt so overwhelmed by a recent sorrow that I had to share it with her. She was my mother, and I needed her. At her hospital bedside, I told her that I had had a miscarriage.
“Oh, Lisa,” she said. “I am so, so sorry.”
I cried then, and I am crying as I write this post. Up until that point, whenever I had told someone I suffered a miscarriage, he or she had brushed it off as if it mattered little. After all, I already had three healthy and beautiful children. Weren’t they enough?!
In spite of my mother’s illness, she showed more compassion than anyone else had, and I will be eternally grateful to her. She expressed her sorrow but did not mention my living children. She knew I was mourning another child — someone I already loved but never had the chance to meet. I didn’t want to hear about Suzie,Tim, or Liz even though I loved them as much as any mother loves her children.
Helen had not known about my pregnancy because I lost the baby very early. At my first doctor’s appointment in early December 2008, my obstetrician could not hear the baby’s heartbeat, and an ultrasound revealed that the baby’s growth did not correspond with the weeks of gestation. My baby, apparently, had died in the womb. I could have had the fetus removed surgically, but I decided to wait until I naturally miscarried. After all, I reasoned, maybe my doctor made a mistake. Maybe, my baby was still alive.
I felt the first cramps indicating the beginning of my miscarriage while walking to visit my mother. The cramps hurt so much that I had to grab onto a cement wall for support. The pain passed, and I saw Mom. At that time, I could not handle talking about what was going on, so I didn’t tell her then.
I miscarried a few days later while I was home alone. My husband had taken the kids shopping to use the gift cards they had received for Christmas. The date: Dec. 28, 2008.
My mother’s empathy stemmed, in part, from the miscarriage she experienced in the mid-1950s, but I like to think she would have been sympathetic even if she had not had a miscarriage, too.
At the time of her miscarriage, she and my father were living in a walk-up apartment in the Pittsburgh area with my oldest sibling, Susan. Like my miscarriage, Mom’s miscarriage happened within the first trimester. She wondered if all of the steps she climbed carrying baby Susan, laundry, and/or groceries hindered her pregnancy. She never found out, of course, just like I never found out what lead to my miscarriage.
As I write this, I am cooking a ham to accompany the turkey my sister-in-law is preparing for Thanksgiving Day dinner. I studded the ham with whole cloves, just like my mother taught me. My daughter Suzie is creating a glaze of orange juice, brown sugar, and mustard, just like my mother used to make.
Happy Thanksgiving, Mom. I miss you. Thank you for the many ways you showed your love.