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.
When my husband, Jim, and I went to southwest Missouri recently to support our son’s basketball team and spend some time together, I had no idea that the trip would help me deal with my grief. One stop gave me an opportunity to vent my sorrow while another convinced me that I can rise above grief and rebuild my life. In one weekend, I experienced the spectrum of the grief process.
At Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage, Mo., I quickly realized I had stumbled upon a place where I could grieve without worrying about concealing my tears. The chapel features more than 80 murals by Sam Butcher, creator of the childlike Precious Moments figurines, and it urges visitors to take time for reflection. I especially appreciated the memorial room that Butcher created for his son Philip, who died as an adult in a 1990 highway accident. The mural in the room depicts heaven and a sign “Welcome Home, Philip” as well as an empty bed surrounded by Philip’s friends and family members.
After reading the posted information about Philip, I felt compelled to sit and study the mural more closely. I felt peaceful, like I do when church empties out and I can light a candle, kneel, pray, and reflect upon … well, anything. At the chapel, I thought not only about the parents I had lost but also the baby I had miscarried and the pain my parents endured when my sisters Mimi and Susan died from physical ailments at ages 47 and 39. Sure, I cried, but it was a cleansing, therapeutic cry. It felt good.
The chapel’s measures of comfort didn’t end with Philip’s memorial. In the next room, I found tributes to children and adults who had died in addition to several over-sized old-fashioned ledgers for people to write prayer intentions or to jot notes to relatives and friends who had died. Given a chance, I could have commemorated every relative and friend who had passed away. I settled for asking for prayers for my parents and for writing a note to my mother.
“Let’s go,” my husband urged. “This is depressing.”
“I don’t find it depressing,” I said. “It’s comforting.”
This trip didn’t mark our first trip to the chapel. We also visited in the Summer of 2004 with our children, who were then 2, 6, and 9. We didn’t have much of an opportunity to read the plaques and learn about the circumstances surrounding the murals. Elizabeth, my youngest, identified with the Precious Moments statues adorning the grounds because they were about the same height as she was. She had limited speaking skills, but she had no trouble excitedly pointed at the statues and then at herself over and over again. She also enjoyed tossing her Cabbage Patch swimming doll in the fountains and trying to retrieve her. Repeatedly.
Needless, to say that experience differed drastically from my most recent trip.
Jim and I next went to the city of Joplin. Jim and I had been there the night before for one of my son’s basketball games, but it was dark. I did not get a clear picture of the lingering effects of the EF-5 tornado in May 2011 that killed more than 155 people, destroyed or damaged about 7,500 homes and affected about 550 businesses, according to Internet reports.
After driving down one block after another of leveled ground, I was amazed more people didn’t die. Foundations of former buildings and remnants of former parking lots gave the only hints in some blocks of civilization. It’s a flat area that looks even flatter now.
However, it’s heartening to see the new homes, new churches, new businesses and other buildings. The human spirit is resilient. We watched two basketball games in the new high school that’s still unfinished. Like many modern high schools, it looks more like a sprawling college campus than a school for teenagers. I especially liked the gymnasium during the game Saturday afternoon. Windows line the upper level of the gymnasium, and during the day, natural light meshes with electrical lighting to produce an almost mystical aura similar to what it’s like outside after a hard rain. Too bad, the boys from Jefferson City didn’t win their championship tournament game against Francis Howell High School from the St. Louis area.
We spent more time driving around Joplin than we had planned, and I was glad. I had set my heart on eating at a barbecue joint another parent had recommended, and we drove up and down 24th Street, then 20th Street, then 4th Street, and finally under recommendation by a clerk in a convenience store, we found Big R’s on 15th Street. Great hamburgers, curly fries, and pulled pork, not to mention awesome pie.
While driving in the tornado-affected area, Jim and I quickly noticed that the tornado had destroyed not only buildings but trees. The trees that remained looked barren, even for a winter’s day. One tree, in particular, stood out.
“Stop the car,” I told my husband. “I’ve got to get a closer look at that.”
Crooked ovals painted in vibrant colors adorned its trunk and limbs. It looked like a tree version of the Edvard Munch works called The Scream. I sensed the tree was screaming in the face of adversity. Maybe, it was screaming at Mother Nature. Perhaps, “Leave us alone!” or “Huh, you think you’re so powerful. Just you wait!”
I later found out via the Internet that multiple artists worked on the piece, known as the spirit tree. Inspired by Native American art, it gives tribute to the residents of Joplin who have rebuilt their lives as well as to the many volunteers who have helped them. I felt that the tree epitomized the resiliency of mankind.
I was intrigued. If the residents of Joplin can resurrect their lives after the tornado, I can rebuild mine after enduring seven years as a caregiver and losing my parents. In the future, when I become upset, I will try to find renewed strength by thinking of those who overcame so much. Like the spirit tree, I can scream, too.
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.
By Lisa Yorkgitis Nahach….. LisaYorkgitisNahach@gmail.com
On a Wednesday evening in January ten years ago, my father called and told me that my sister Marianne “Mimi” Carl had died from an asthma attack. She was 47.
My left hand shook uncontrollably as Dad relayed the news. I was in shock. I remained numb as my husband, Jim, and I prepared to drive to the funeral in central Pennsylvania, about 900 miles from our home in Jefferson City, Mo. Reality did not hit until we rolled into town and passed my sister’s church. A sign announced the time and date for my sister’s funeral later that day.
“It’s really true,” I said aloud. “Mimi really did die.”
Based on my experiences, I think that the human mind allows us to suppress intense feelings until we can deal with them, usually a little at a time; however, sometimes, we receive a jolt, which forces us to face reality. These jolts often occur when we read a public notice or hear about an event in a public arena.
Earlier this month, I received two frigid blasts of reality when I attended memorial services honoring my father, Ed Yorkgitis, and others who had died within a specific span of time. Held in conjunction with All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2), the memorials occurred at the hospital where my father died and at the senior-living community where he lived for several years.
Until I heard Ed’s name read at the memorials and saw his name listed in the programs, I think I had subconsciously imagined my father on a trip – maybe to another planet — where I could not reach him. After the funeral last spring, my sense of self-preservation kicked in to allow me to continue living. Otherwise, I might have wallowed in grief over his death, sorrow over his suffering, doubt over my contributions as a caregiver, and regret about the things I did not do for him. I’m not saying I had not experienced any of these feelings over the last several months, but I had tried to let them surface in a controlled manner. Naturally, I wasn’t always successful.
The memorials forced me to probe my feelings further than I had done in several weeks. My father really was dead, and I knew that I had to traverse considerable miles of emotional terrain. Otherwise, I would not have felt so emotionally drained on the days leading up to the memorials and for a few days afterward.
My wake-up call also made me realize that I still was trying to deal with the deaths of my mother and other family members. Some of my emotions are so murky that I can’t pinpoint them. They frequently overlap and conflict with each other. Sometimes when my feelings surface, I feel a tightening in my chest and my breathing becomes shallow. At other times, I may sob so vehemently that I scare my husband and/or children. So far, my sense of self-preservation always has kicked in. I calm down, and I set the feelings on a shelf to be examined later on.