Archive for the ‘family’ Category

I was originally going to respond to the NaBloPoMo prompt, “Are you good at hiding your feelings, or is your face an open book?” but something else related to the topic of Masks has been on my mind lately, namely, do you hide from your roots?

There used to be an expression when I was young, “forgetting where you came from.”  It was used in talking about people with humble beginnings who had risen to great heights, like Donald Trump being from Rego Park in Queens, NY.  Rego Park is a nice enough neighborhood, but it will never have the same status as being from Jamaica Estates.  Or Gramercy Park in Manhattan.  One of the highest compliments anyone could pay such a person was that “he hasn’t forgotten where he came from”; to “forget where you came from” was despicable.

And it’s on my mind lately because I know two people who seem to have forgotten Where They Came From.  One of them is my own daughter, who has apparently decided that her parents are too ordinary for her to bother staying in touch with.  Or maybe it’s that our house, all 950 square feet of it, is too modest.  It may even be that she has unhappy memories of growing up among us, though that was never an excuse for blowing off Family.  Be that as it may, she recently acquired a hot-shot job with an international company that involves jetting back and forth across the Atlantic – I won’t say where – and other than apprising us of that fact (after telling her immediate world on Facebook), she hasn’t said a word to us about her life.  Or her husband, or their children.  The situation has gone on for so long that I’m not sure it can ever be repaired, and that’s not something anyone should be able to say about her children.

The other is an old friend of my husband’s from grade school.  These two boys were over at each other’s houses every day, and were as close as brothers.  They stayed in touch through high school and college, and even after military service, for a time.  But military service seemed to change things between them, as (despite having a college degree before enlistment) my husband was assigned to the enlisted ranks, and this other fellow became an officer.  After the service, he and his wife had us out to their home a few times, and we had them to ours; they lived on Long Island, in increasingly tony neighborhoods, and we lived in Queens, not too far from where we had grown up.  He went on to a career in nuclear physics, my husband went into occupational safety and health.  And one day, this guy simply stopped writing, and didn’t return telephone calls.  We never figured out why.

Recently, my husband went to some trouble to look him up on the internet.  He’s now living in the Southwest – I’m being deliberately vague – but he has an important position in his community, and is very obviously among the ranks of the Successful.  My husband got an address for him and sent him a note, together with his e-mail address and an invitation to renew the friendship.  That was three weeks ago, and he hasn’t heard a thing.

Meanwhile, over on Facebook, I’ve reconnected with a number of people who are cousins, or friends of cousins, from the old neighborhood.  It’s so much fun to talk about the old haunts, to catch up on one another’s lives, to see what we all look like now – you can see the resemblance to who they were 40 years ago – just to reconnect.  When we are “together,” even via the internet, the masks come off, and we are still pretty much the same group who enjoyed laughs together, and shared the torments of Catholic school (about which we laugh, now).  Every once in so often, one or another of us will reconnect with yet another branch of the family, and the fun starts all over again.

I feel sorry for my daughter, and for my husband’s friend.  Sure, it’s nice to have the toys and props to impress your new friends – maybe – I mean, aren’t you always on display?  Don’t you always have to wear that mask?  When do you get to be yourself, to slip and say “cawfey” when referring to your morning beverage, instead of whatever pronunciation of “coffee” is locally acceptable?  Or talk about what it was like to move from a four-room railroad flat in Ridgewood to a single-family house in Maspeth?  (A railroad flat is an apartment with rooms just like a railroad car – you have to walk through all the rooms, even the bedrooms, to get from front to back.  A lot of Brooklyn and Queens apartments were railroad flats.)

Home has a lot of definitions:  Home is where you hang your hat, home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in, home is where the heart is – my favorite came from the German author, Max Frisch:  “Home is where we understand the people, and they understand us.”  Home is where you can take the mask off.  Home is where you came from.

Don’t forget where you came from.  The loss is permanent.

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“Frank Lloyd Wright said, ‘TV is chewing gum for the eyes.’  What are your favourite shows to chew?”

First:  This should be my last post on the subject of vision, at least under the prompts of NaBloPoMo (National Blog-Posting Month).  Tomorrow, the Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia is visiting my parish, and I plan to be on hand for that.  Readers who are Orthodox will know what a Hierarchical visit entails, and I fully expect to be gone all day.  (And for anyone reading this blog who thinks, “Oh, goody, a chance to break in and steal stuff” – nice try. My husband isn’t Orthodox, hates driving in Massachusetts, and won’t be coming with me.)

Frank Lloyd Wright was, as all good architects should be, something of an artist.  He appreciated that all media should have, as its goal, the ability to move a person onto another plane, to make one think beyond one’s usual pathways and parameters, to expand one’s experiences, even if only vicariously.  For him to comment on television as “chewing gum for the eyes” strikes me as a profound statement, for after all, what is chewing gum?  It’s nutritionally devoid.  It’s worse for you than ice cream, which at least has some dairy content in it, in addition to all that sugar and fat.  Chewing gum has nothing.  I guess it stimulates salivary glands, since I see people chewing it everywhere nowadays – I think the last time I had a piece of chewing gum, I was thirteen years old – but I know that when I see people chewing mindlessly, I don’t think much of whatever is going on in their heads.

And the same with television.  It doesn’t have a lot going for it, especially nowadays, especially in the USA.  That said, there’s really only one show I will only give up during Lent:  NCIS.  I got into it because I once worked for someone who had been an investigator with the old Naval Investigation Service (now Naval Criminal Investigation Service).  I’m well aware that the television show bears very little resemblance to the job my old boss did, and not just because of all the high-tech gadgetry; it’s television, it’s supposed to be escapist and unrealistic.

But there are a number of cultural gags that I just can’t resist.  Primary among them is the “family” aspect.  The show is billed as being like “one big dysfunctional family,” and that about describes my family, too.  Abby is my little sister to the life (except for being a goth).  McGee is just like the oldest of my younger brothers, and Tony is definitely my nosy middle brother (the now-retired Treasury agent, so at least his bratty nosiness did serve a useful purpose n his life).  (In case you’re reading this, Donald, that was a compliment.)  Jimmy Palmer, the assistant medical examiner, is a lot like my youngest brother, who also has a very weird sense of humor, and to whom I owe my use of the word “distructions” as a cross between “directions” and “instructions.”  Ziva is me.  Definitely.

One of the other, really funny, aspects of this show is the generation gap.  Every once in so often, they’ll run a show where the electricity goes out in the building, and all the high-tech gadgetry fails.  The young people will start talking about “where will we find a dinosaur to figure out how to do this” – and up pops their boss, who not only knows how to get the job done, but also how to operate the ancient equipment that people of my generation always used.  And in his ability to pop up seemingly out of nowhere, especially just as a young staff member makes a rude observation about him, Gibbs is just like everyone’s dad or mom, with the eyes in the back of his head.  Ducky, the medical examiner, is like a kindly old grandfather with an endless well of stories, all delivered in an inimitable bumbling-old-Scot style – but his job expertise is unparalleled, and his knowledge of and comments on the dark recesses of the human mind, which result in the necessity for his job, are trenchant.

I miss that kind of family, all arguing with each other endlessly, tormenting one another with truly stupid gags, but all pulling together to get the work done.  And caring about one another – that comes through very clearly, episode after episode.  When one has a crisis, all the rest rally around him.  When one is in danger, all the rest go all out to rescue her.  Last season ended darkly, with the destruction of  NCIS headquarters, and this season, the office “mascot,” Abby, is having trouble getting back to her usual upbeat self – I was reminded of the trauma so many of us felt around 9/11, and I wonder if this season will be a way of exploring that and helping people to find ways to slot it into perspective, so that we never forget – but can still go on with living.

So for me, this show has depth and perspective, definitely not chewing-gum material.  It feeds a part of me that would otherwise go neglected, the point in time where my brothers and sister and all our cousins lived within a few blocks of one another, the part where we were Together.

There are other shows I watch – All Creatures Great and Small, primarily, Mystery! occasionally, and I do wish that the British television series around the Miss Read books would be imported, as that would be nourishing in a different way.  But to get back to my Roots – NCIS, every time.

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“Do you agree with Nietszche’s quote: ‘Love is blind; friendship closes its eyes’?”

Oops, I missed a day.  Oddly, it was a day on which not a lot was happening.  Go figure.

First, let me say that I really hate that I do agree with Nietzsche’s quote – I hate agreeing with Nietzsche about anything, developer of Nazi philosophy as he was (and yes, I’m aware that he was unaware of that himself.  But from him we have the idea of Superman (Uebermensch) and Untermensch, sub-human, and, well, we all know enough about Nazism for me to need to go into it more than that.  Eww).

But I’ll make an exception in this case, because frankly, there’s nothing like long-term marriage to convince you of its truth.

You know how it is when you fall in love.  The one you love can literally do no wrong.  People who fall in love with abusers will make all kinds of excuses for their abominable behavior, and even those of us who fall in love with perfectly reasonable human beings think they are just the most perfect people who ever walked the earth.  Even when that becomes pretty obviously not the case, a certain element of it remains through courtship, engagement, and marriage.

It doesn’t take long for reality to set in.  A happily-married couple I know was talking about a party they had attended, where someone asked the husband, “How long have you been married?”  The husband responded, “We’ve had nine wonderful years together.”  After they left the party, the wife said, “Dear, have you forgotten that we’ve been married ten years?”  And the husband responded, “Dear, have you forgotten that first year?  That was not wonderful.”  The wife, laughing, went on to explain that when they got married, she had been living at home with her parents (college having been within commuting distance), and he had been living in a frat house.  It’s been over 25 years and they’re still married, so I guess they worked that one out.

Elsewhere on this blog – I think I called it “A Tale of Two Planets” – I’ve talked about the disparity of an only child’s being married to someone from a large family.  We both had some adjusting to do, and have had to make adjustments throughout our marriage, even now, in retirement.  Retirement can be stressful for both partners; one or the other is suddenly cut loose from the moorings of a lifetime, and the stay-at-home spouse, if there was one – I was – has grown accustomed to a certain routine that suddenly needs massive tweaking.  It’s almost as bad as having a new baby in the house, except at least this new “baby” can speak up.

After 43 years of marriage, such as we have had, you simply can’t close your eyes anymore, especially not to the fact that the person you married so long ago has grown old.  There’s no way around that.  But there is a way through it, and through all the other vicissitudes of the unique Friendship that a long-term marriage is:  We laugh.

By now, I’ve grown accustomed to the fact that it’s impossible for my husband simply to walk out the door, if he’s going anyplace.  He needs at least fifteen minutes’ worth of separation time, from the time he says he’s leaving until he’s actually out the door and on his way.  When it gets too exasperating, I’ll start to laugh, and make some kind of comment about Poky Little Puppy.  He shakes his head in embarrassment that I know him so well, and moves a little faster.

By now, he’s grown accustomed to my woolly-headedness.  I’m not exactly scatter-brained, but from a lifetime of dealing with kids and their simultaneous needs, I usually have at least four separate trains of thought running through my head all at once, and will jump from one topic to another with the ease of the Flying Wallendas.  And he starts to laugh, and makes a comment about my sheepish wool-gathering.  Sometimes one or the other of us makes such funny observations that we both collapse laughing.

It’s a unique way of closing your eyes to the “faults” of the other.  It actually opens your eyes to your own “faults” – and helps you realize that those “faults” aren’t faults at all, just idiosyncrasies that make the person you love – the person you love most in the world.

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“Do you prefer to have still photographs or videos from important moments?”

That’s a no-brainer:  stills, every time.

Sure, they’re posed, and they aren’t “spontaneous,” like that’s a virtue.  But let me tell you about photos.

My Aunt Mary, whom I’ve mentioned a few times in this blog, was the de facto Family Archivist.  If there was an important event in my mother’s family, Aunt Mary kept a record of it.  She must have had a photo album for every year of each of her children’s existences:  Birthday parties, graduations, First Communions and Confirmations, and then she had pictures of all the wedding and baby showers she hosted over many, many years.  If relatives came into town to visit, she had photos of those visits.  Every photo was put into an album, with those black gummed tricorner thingies that were once ubiquitous – you could buy them at any stationer’s – and the black pages, the consistency of blotter paper (for any of you that use fountain pens), had the name of the event and the names of the people photographed written in in special white ink that wouldn’t bleed on the paper.

They were works of art, those photo albums, and on rainy summer days, when we kids had nothing better to do and my mother and her sister didn’t want to have us underfoot, Aunt Mary would take out those photo albums and we’d sit poring over them for hours, reminiscing about the happy times we’d had.

Seven years ago, Aunt Mary died.  My sister, who cared for her in her last illness, was one of the ones to clean out the house.  We knew that the photo albums properly should go to her sons; what we didn’t know was what would become of them, and of the memories in them.  So she took one, filled with the events and people she remembered, and I took one, filled with the events and people I remembered.  Since we are literally a generation apart, there being fifteen years between us, we felt we had a fair representation of family history; and the other albums went to the people they properly belonged to, her sons and their children.

Now I look at those albums and remember.  “There’s Aunt Clara!” who’s been dead for nearly 50 years.  And, “Oh, my goodness, there’s Grandma Carey!” – my great-grandmother, surrounded by her four great-grandchildren.  And, “I remember when Aunt Loretta and Uncle Bob came in from Buffalo,” or, “…when Aunt Gerry and Uncle Richie got married.”  I even found a photograph of my cousin’s first military ball, him in his Junior ROTC uniform with his date – me – at his side.  Hey, when you’re fourteen years old and Catholic, girlfriends are in short supply.

Our own photographs are not nearly in such good order, mostly because I just can’t stand the thought of putting them into those soulless plastic albums.  Recently a local craft store began carrying scrap-booking supplies.  I like the dedicated pages – you know, the ones that have “Generations” watermarked onto them, or “School Daze,” stuff like that – and the fact that you can put together a unique document of your own memories.  I even like the funky little decals you can buy to decorate the pages.

And it was in among the funky little decals that I found them:  tricorner photograph thingies.  They aren’t gummed anymore; they have backing that you can peel off, and they’re self-stick, which is a vast improvement over that vile-tasting gummy stuff.  And they come in a variety of colors, not just black.  But – tricorner photograph thingies.  And pens in many more hues than white.

I think I know what I want to do, come winter.

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Some time ago, my husband and I came to the realization that we needed to undertake two fairly extensive home-improvement projects as soon as possible:  We needed a new roof, and we needed to have our bathroom professionally overhauled – periodic re-caulking around the bathtub was getting out of hand.  The roofing job began last week; the bathroom retro-fit is taking place as I type, and it’s already apparent on both fronts that it was TIME TO GET THEM DONE.  The roof would not have lasted out this winter, and the wiring that we found when the walls were ripped out of the bathroom – well, let’s just say that building codes were very different sixty years ago.

What it all amounts to is that our regular schedule is, shall we say, “discombobulated,” as we try to stay out of the way of the roofers, plumbers, plasterers, and electricians.  In short – I stay on the porch with my cross stitch, and my husband stays in the office, online.  It’s been wonderful for my gigantic cross-stitch project; not so wonderful for catching up with e-mails, or blogging.

So I will blog as I can, and in the meantime, here’s today’s prompt from NaBloPoMo:  “Which sense is more important to you: vision or hearing?:

Oh, boy, I can hear my aunt laughing snidely from the other side of the grave.  We had this “conversation,” if you can call debate a conversation, when I was a teenager, and rashly asserted that if I had to choose, I’d choose hearing over sight.  Everybody in the family jumped down my throat on that one, most emphatically my mother’s sister, the family doyenne – if Aunt Mary didn’t approve of something, or didn’t like something, or stopped buying something or started buying something, whatever it was became gospel.  In-laws could find themselves frozen out in the cold for all eternity, with one dismissive glance from this particular aunt.

This is what I thoughtlessly challenged with my assertion on the subject of the importance of being able to hear.  Here’s the thing, though:  I’m a musician.  Not a professional musician, just someone who has always related to her world in terms of sound (and it’s this particular aunt who told me that I could sing before I could talk, incidentally).  I was in my fifties before I realized that not everybody can produce a melody with complete accuracy.  I cook, believe it or not, based on the sound of the cooking; I know when something has come to a boil, when it’s time to add more water, on the basis of the sounds emanating from the stove.  And my timer (another device based on sound) is my best friend.

I am also aware that blind people have a sharper sense of hearing that allows them to “see” with their ears, so my assertion wasn’t as off the wall as it sounds.  Nevertheless, my aunt never let me forget it; so help me Hannah, she was reminding me of that discussion two weeks before she died.  And I meekly reversed my assertion:  “Yes, Aunt Mary, you were right, seeing is more important than hearing.”  For most people, anyway.  What the heck, she was old, and she needed to be right.

Thing is – sight has become more important to me as I’ve grown older.  Not more important than hearing, but at least as important, as I’ve had to make my way around a part of the world that is absolutely auto-dependent.  How can you do anything if you can’t drive, and how can you drive if you can’t see?  That’s my current dilemma.  And there’s another aspect that I could never in a million years have foreseen when I was a teenager:  I “hear” with my eyes, too.  That is – I can sight-read music, look at it and know what all those little dots on those little lines mean in terms of reproducing a  sound with my throat.  I can look at a piece of music and, never having heard the melody before, sing right along with my choir without missing a beat.  I could even sing in harmony, if I still had the vocal range I had fifteen years ago.

So I take care of my eyes.  Go for regular vision checkups, wear those glasses that change color in sunlight, try to remember to take vitamins that enhance vision (I’m terrible at taking Pills regularly).  I cherish my ability to read, to work at the computer, to run my errands by car (bicycle would be even better, if New Hampshire ever gets on board with the notion of bike lanes).

But it all goes better with Bach.

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Talk about a memory tied to a certain candy, especially if it involves another person or a place.”

Oops, looks like I pre-empted today’s prompt yesterday.  I guess that’s what happens when you take things day to day, as I tend to do now that I’m retired.

But, especially now that I’m halfway through my seventh decade of life (did I just write that?!), I do enjoy sharing memories of a time increasingly distant, and since part of this prompt mentions memories tied to another person or a place, I’d like to run with that.  It does mean getting off the Sweet topic, but sweets really never were a big part of my life.

It’s August now, hot and humid, and every year around this time the memory of my grandmother’s yard surfaces.  As I’ve mentioned, my stepfather was Polish, and his mother was a farm girl from the Old Country; she never did learn to read or write, but there wasn’t much she didn’t know about growing things.  The part of her yard that fronted the street was a riot of flowers, a plot at least 10 x 20, and things grew there all summer long.  I don’t know what they were; I doubt she knew their names in English, and since she was the only gardener I knew, there wasn’t a hope of my knowing what they were, either.  Nor was her garden laid out in tidy beds, so that you could point to a flower and ask, “What’s that?”  Grandma’s flower garden looked like she had taken packets of seeds and broadcast them into fresh-dug earth, and then she tended whatever came up.  It certainly flourished.

In the back of the yard (which was really the size of a house plot) was where she kept her vegetable garden.  Those beds were tidier, and it was easier to recognize what she was growing there.  She had peppers, onions, beets, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, peas, green beans, and she must have grown her own horseradish, too, because she certainly made her own horseradish every Easter.  I don’t know how she did it.  It was the best stuff to eat, but grating it must have cleared out her throat and lungs for the rest of the year.

Early in my childhood, she also kept chickens, but two of her sons lived in the same house as she did, and as their families grew, I guess she felt that the chickens weren’t safe among so many little savages, because they disappeared by the time I was ten.  One of my uncles had six kids, the other had nine, and then there were the grandchildren who didn’t live there but visited regularly; we probably terrified the chickens by our sheer numbers.  The rest of the yard, and this is why I refer to it as a “yard” and not a “garden,” was given over to play equipment for the hordes of savages:  swing sets, slides, eventually a huge above-ground pool where my cousins disported themselves all summer long.

I guess I was 20 or 21 when I paid my grandmother a visit one hot August afternoon.  I’m not sure where the cousins were, but I do remember that it was uncharacteristically quiet that day.  My grandmother was watching soap operas, but she turned the TV off so we could visit, and we spent a bit of time chatting in the cool of her basement apartment.

“Come out into the backyard,” she said suddenly, and rose, shuffling the length of the house from front to back; she had terrible arthritis.  She made her way up the steps from the cellar into the yard with a pot in her hand; I assumed she was planning to dig up some vegetables for her supper.  Instead, she began pulling up grass by the handful, long stalks that grew next to the fence that bordered her vegetable garden.  I offered to help, but she was content with her grass-pulling, so I just sat and watched her.

When she had filled the pot in her hand, she hobbled back into the kitchen of her apartment, rinsed off the grass, chopped it, filled the pot with water, and began to cook it.  To say I was floored is an understatement.  It would never have occurred to me that my grandmother might be senile, especially since we had just been conversing lucidly, but – cooking grass?!  Where was she going with that one?!  After half an hour or so, she turned the flame off and ladled the grass soup into two bowls, and set one before me.  Yikes.  But what could I do?  She was the only grandmother I had, and I loved her and didn’t want to offend her.  So I picked up my spoon and ate.

It was delicious.  I’ve never tasted anything like it, before or since.  I couldn’t wait to get home and tell Dad about this wonderful stuff his mother had made.  “Oh, yeah, schav,” he said, when I told him.  “Do you make it from just any grass?” I asked.  “No, you need sorrel grass,” he said.

I’ve never eaten it since that summer.  Never found sorrel grass to grow, and frankly, I’m not sure it would grow for me; I have the blackest thumb in the neighborhood, if not in the entire Northeast.  Once I looked it up online and found that a couple of Jewish food companies actually sell it prepared, as they do borscht; but it doesn’t appear to be for sale anywhere but in the New York City area, and even though I’m from there, I haven’t been back home in over twenty years.  I’ve long since lost my taste for city living.

My grandmother has been on my mind a lot lately, probably because lately I find myself hobbling more and more the way she did, as her arthritis progressed.  It’s a little strange to think of myself as being as old as my grandmother, especially since she had so many skills I’ll never acquire.  Like making schav from scratch.

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“What candy did you eat once that you wish you could get again?” is the prompt from NaBloPoMo, and in the meantime, WordPress’s Daily Post has issued a challenge:  Going from Mundane to Meaningful.  Goodness, two tasks.

As strange as it sounds to me – I can’t think of a single candy I would wish to eat again.  Not even the handmade chocolate bunnies that my mother used to buy at Easter, from a candy shop owned by an in-law of her father’s.  I’m sure it was excellent candy, but like pearls cast before swine, we little piglets just wolfed it down (so to speak), and I can’t even remember what it tasted like anymore.

Not even the fruit bonbons that my grandmother kept in a dish on her coffee table, desirably mainly because if we had touched them, we would probably have lost a hand – my mother somehow had this idea that Other People’s Candy was out for show only.  Maybe it was.  But over the decades, the appeal of hardened sugar water, or whatever candy consists of, has waned.

No, wait a minute.  Come to think of it…I actually do have a good candidate.  The year I was fifteen, my grandfather came to New Hampshire to visit his son, and I was spending the summer with that same son, who happened to be my godfather.  My grandfather, a great lover of walks, invited me for a walk with him, and as I also loved a good long walk (before arthritis caught up with me, anyway), I accepted gladly.  We ambled down Central Avenue together until we came to a candy shop – not one of those places where they sold candy like Snickers and Three Musketeers, but the kind of place just like where my mother used to get those Easter bunnies.  All their candy was home-made.  He bought a couple of pounds of good milk chocolate, then said to me, “How about some white barque?”  I expressed my ignorance on the subject, and was I surprised to learn that it was white chocolate.  White chocolate?!  Who ever heard of such a thing?  But he bought a pound, and I had a sample, and – yeah, I was hooked.  It was really good.  It had almonds in it, and even though it was high summer, that chocolate hardly melted at all.

For years and years afterward, I lusted after the memory of that chocolate.  Shortly after that visit, the candy shop closed for good; it’s now a bar.  How things change…I mean, the juxtaposition of the innocence of candy versus the kinds of things that go on in bars just seems to smack me in the face, as I’m thinking about it.  And to top it all off, the Food Police have us all convinced that Candy is Bad, and they’re strangely silent on the subject of booze.  The FPI – Food Police Investigators – do give a grudging nod to dark chocolate for its reputed Health Benefits, but I think they’d be just as happy if it too disappeared off the planet.  People tend to feel too darn good after chocolate.

Recently, I’ve discovered that there are producers of candy who offer white chocolate.  These tend to be either smaller manufacturers of “organic chocolate,” or manufacturers of high-end chocolates, like Lindt; in any case, the chocolate is mass-produced, and it doesn’t include almonds (from what I can tell, nuts are what set barque apart from plain ol’ white chocolate).  I’ve tried it; it’s good.  But it’s not homemade.

And it’s not the gift of a grandfather who wasn’t all that affectionate and not at all good with words, but who understood very well what children, even teenagers, like.

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