Monthly Archives: November 2015


I would like to begin this post by telling you about something that happened many, many years ago in a land far, far away.


Actually it was the 1970s, and Butterball had just introduced an exciting new innovation in the preparation of turkeys. Their birds now came equipped with a pop-up plastic device that would make roasting foolproof. When your turkey was cooked to perfection, you would see the telltale yellow plastic disk separated from the base and sticking out as if to scream, “Take your turkey out now, dumbass!”


The pop-up timer was quite a hit and is still in use today. Few people were more excited about it than my father-in-law Otto’s cousin Julia. She had turned down a few Thanksgiving invites, including one from Otto and his wife Dolly –my future in-laws — to stay home with her mother Marie and prepare the perfect bird for the two of them using this innovation.


On Thanksgiving morning Julia awoke early to prep the bird. The two ladies made the obligatory phone calls to their relatives in Germany, and then settled in to watch the Thanksgiving Parade and anticipate their feast. After more than a few hours had passed, Marie became concerned.


“Chulia, shouldn’t the turkey be ready by now?” she asked.


“Now Mutti,” Julia chided her, “You know we have to wait for the popper to pop.”


Being 100% German, Julia had a blind trust in newfangled engineering. She was also as stubborn as an ox. Marie, or Mutti as Julia called her, was a bit older and wiser. She had seen a lot in her time, and did not share Julia’s trust in the pop-up timer.


Nevertheless, in this situation Julia prevailed. Marie, who related this story to me at one of Dolly and Otto’s Thanksgiving feasts years later, swore that she asked Julia the same question every half hour for the next two hours. And every time, Julia’s answer was the same. “Now Mutti, you know we have to wait for the popper to pop.”


Finally Julia checked the oven and saw that the popper had indeed popped. She scooped up the turkey pan from the oven and set it down on the table with a triumphant flourish. With that, according to Marie, the legs of the turkey literally flew off and the chest heaved a sigh that brought up belches of black smoke. “The turkey literally exploded,” Marie said, her head shaking and her cornflower blue eyes widening at the memory. Well, at least they had their vegetables.


On that Thanksgiving Day Julia vowed to never again cook another turkey, and I am sure that made Mutti really happy. The following year they wisely accepted the Thanksgiving invite from cousins Dolly and Otto in nearby Fairview. That is how I ended up spending many happy Thanksgivings in the company of these marvelous ladies.


Aunt Marie and Cousin Julia were both very gracious and fun to be around, with their sparkling blue eyes and ready laughs. Julia especially was game for anything. Whether it was a trip around the world or dinner with the family at our usual haunt, she was ready and willing to not only join in but make sure that everything went as it should.  “This was one for the Memory Book,” she would say happily, even after the most exhausting of family occasions when the rest of us had bleary eyes and aching feet. She was what you would call a “trouper” and spent many an afternoon or evening elbow-to-elbow with my sister-in-law Robin and me, busily washing the dishes after dinner at my in-laws. Not only was Julia game for anything, she rarely if ever complained – even when Aunt Marie’s health began to decline and caring for her took up much more of her time.


Julia was a longtime employee of Hudson County Bank and worked at the Jersey City branch for many years. When I met her she was a bank Vice President, and I admired her career and money savvy. Even when she retired years later, she continued to listen to me lament over work issues and other life challenges that were stressing me out. She always offered me sound advice, and never judged me for what I perceived to be my lack of ambition or direction. And when my in-laws passed much too soon, “Aunt” Julia stepped into the role of “surrogate Grandmother” to all of their grandchildren without fanfare. She simply did what she felt she needed and wanted to do. She spoiled all of us rotten with dinners out and generous gifts. I still recall a Christmas when Robin and I opened our beautifully wrapped gift boxes to find matching and stunningly beautiful crystal globes. My husband John and his brother Jim opened boxes filled with cut crystal wine glasses that were equally exquisite. We were all delighted and pretty much speechless. Julia knew that our Christmases at that point were all about our kids, present-wise – and she wanted to give something special to her “nephews” and their wives. She succeeded brilliantly.


Another present from Julia to me came as the result of a disaster the first time I took the onus off of my mother-in-law and hosted Thanksgiving at our home in 1988. In this case, the Butterball became not a Butterbomb but a fireball. The story is now famous among our friends and family, and frankly I can’t bear to relive it detail by detail even one more time. Yes, it’s still that painful. Let’s just say it involved grease spilling from a spigot formed by a flimsy foil turkey pan being lifted out of the oven. The grease hit the oven’s flame, and my husband came very close to losing his eyebrows. (But not close enough, as far as I was concerned. You catch my drift?). We lost the use of our oven. Slippery grease was spilled all over the floor. The smoke detector, actually both of them, went off. The turkey and my marriage were somehow salvaged, mostly thanks to the good cheer and high spirits of our guests (especially my mother-in-law Dolly, who was so grateful to not be hosting yet again that I think the poor woman would have eaten a broken glass sandwich on moldy bread and been happy as a clam).


So Julia had been witness to yet another turkey gone “fowl.” (Sorry I couldn’t resist). But like I said, she was a trouper. And a smart lady, since she soon gifted me with her own beautiful and very sturdy turkey roasting pan. “I’ll never use it again,” she said. And when I finally got brave enough to face my demons and cook another turkey – after having Thanksgiving catered three years in row due to fireball-induced PTSD – I was very grateful to have that pan. Because it was more than a roasting pan. It represented Julia’s confidence in me and, in fact, in all of us Kampfes. Julia was the quintessential family Matriarch, and believed in unlimited possibilities for all of us.


Julia is sadly gone, but the memory of her giving spirit and sense of adventure continue to inspire us.  I still host Thanksgiving for the extended family at my house. And when we raise our fancy crystal wine glasses in a toast and successfully lift “big tom” out of the sturdy roasting pan, we sorely miss all of the wonderful people who once shared the table with us. But as they do during each successful holiday or Kampfe family gathering, my thoughts turn especially toward the spirited woman who made all of us feel like we were the most important people in the world.


“This was one for the Memory Book.”





Silly Sleepy Stubborn Girl

For years I have been in denial about my stubborn streak. But recently I was out walking with a close friend when she admitted that she does not like being told what to do — and then usually does the opposite.

“Me too,” I said in an unusual (for me) display of candor brought on by over-caffeination.

“That’s the first time I have admitted that out loud,” she said.

“Me too,” I said. And we both felt sort of bad about ourselves.  But no one likes feeling bad, do they? So a few minutes after returning home, I decided that this was not my fault. Naturally, my parents were to blame.

I grew up with my mother calling my father a “stubborn German,” and thinking to myself that this was definitely a case of the Italian pot calling the German kettle black.

Most likely as a result of this crazy German-Italian heritage — not recommended for the faint of heart — I dig my heels in on a regular basis.  I suppose the latest example of this is what my mother views as my “refusal” to take an afternoon nap.

“Are you taking a nap too?” she will ask almost every time I help her to bed in the afternoon.

“No,” I will answer rather tersely.

“Well why not?” she will ask.

“I don’t have time,” I always answer.

“Well, that’s too bad,” she will counter. And then she adds every single time, matter-of-factly, “Well, you should make time.”  As if this “failure to nap” is somehow a result of my not  able to manage my time well.  Which, truth be told, is sort of true.

But back to mom. Since she does not sleep well at night, daytime is nap time. Also, since she does not sleep well, she does not like going to bed on the early side — say, 10 p.m.

“Are you going to bed, too?” she will ask, looking directly into my eyeball and silently daring me to lie.

“Yes,” I say, lying.

“Why so early?”

“Because we have to wake up early,” John or I will answer. Every. Single. Night.

“Well, that’s too bad,” she will say, as if this need for early rising is yet another sign of blatant time mismanagement. After she finally rises from her place on the sofa and heads upstairs, we quickly grab the controller and tune in to dramas and sports shows that we have been dying to watch. We do so quietly, skulking about like teenagers afraid of being caught.

And we feel guilty. Or at least I do. Because I know that this is so far off the mark from what Mom would consider an ideal situation.

Mom’s ideal situation would be for all three of us, or at least she and I, to be on the exact same schedule. Which would be very restful, most likely, but not very productive. I can just imagine a resulting email exchange between me and one of the School Superintendent clients for which I write press releases from home.

“Hi Mary Ann! Can you possibly cover an event on Thursday at 10 a.m.?”

“No, I’m sorry. I sleep until 11:30 these days. Well, me and mom.”

“I see. Well, can you take a photo and write a short release about a student event taking place at lunchtime next week?”

“Not really. Mom and I watch “Family Feud” reruns from around 12 until 2.”

“Ok. Can you come in one afternoon and meet with me about coverage of upcoming events? We really need to get some articles out there.”

“No. Again, I’m sorry. Mom and I nap every day from 2 until dinnertime.”

Can you POSSIBLY cover any night-time events that are coming up?”

Well if night-time means a 7 or 7:30 start, I am afraid it’s  just not possible. That is our time for watching ‘Jeopardy’ and ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ You can really learn a lot by watching ‘Jeopardy.’ It’s almost like working.”

“I’m sure it is. Speaking of working …”

I have a feeling that mom is never going to accept the fact that the rest of the world climbing onto her “sleep the day away” bandwagon is not likely to happen. She’s stubborn. Of course, I’m stubborn as well.

That’s why I continue to “get her goat” by purchasing hair care products and shampoos my hairdresser recommends for her. Until she moved in with us, she was a VO5 gal who never spent more than $1 on a bottle of shampoo. The other day I whipped out my newest purchase — a styling and glossing cream — as I prepared to blow dry her hair.

“What is THIS now?” she asked.

“It’s a styling cream,” I answered defensively. “It will make my life easier.”

“You know what would make your life easier?” she asked.

“What?” I asked, ready for anything.

“Taking a nap!” she answered.

After that exchange, I sorely needed one. It didn’t happen, though. If only I were able to manage my time more wisely …






The Blessing of a Caregiver

One thing my mother always looked forward to was a special occasion. Getting  glammed up and heading out to an event such as a wedding was something she always eagerly anticipated.

Nowadays, due to her advanced age and memory loss, my mother’s definition of “special occasion” has narrowed somewhat. Now “special occasions” are  low-key birthdays and  holidays spent with  family,  dinner or cake and coffee with her sister Millie, or time spent in the company of her caregiver Carol.

Yes, that last part of the sentence is wonderfully and amazingly true. It just took me almost a year to realize it.

My husband John and I returned home this past Sunday afternoon after an overnight stay in Pennsylvania. We had attended the fabulous wedding of a special couple and enjoyed great music and food, nonstop dancing at the reception, and a small “coffee and bagel-fest” the next morning with dear friends. I was in a great mood. Great, that is, until we were a few blocks from home. Although I was anxious so see my mom and find out how she had fared during our first “sleepaway” excursion, I have to admit that I was feeling a bit sorry for myself. I viewed my return home as a return to my caregiving routine. Frankly, I felt as though I could have used another day away and I said so to John. He nodded in agreement as he made his way around the last turn heading to the house.

When we arrived home, Mom’s caregiver Carol was full of questions about the wedding weekend and information about how well everything had gone with Mom. Mom was smiling at Carol, but seemed a bit less than thrilled to see me. “Has she forgotten who I am?” I thought for a panicked moment. It soon became clear that she knew who we were, she just didn’t seem quite like herself.  The ever-perceptive Carol noticed and thought that Mom might be tired. “Would you like to take a nap, Josephine?” she asked sweetly. “You’ve been up for quite a while today.”

“Yes, thank you!” said my mother while flashing a brilliant smile at Carol. “I’ll walk you up,” said Carol, taking her elbow and guiding her carefully. “Well, I do that … sometimes,” I thought ruefully as I watched from the family room.

After Carol left and mom was catching up on her sleep, John and I decided to continue our fun weekend by taking a walk and then heading to a nearby diner. We were sitting in a booth and I was feeling fairly relaxed — until I realized that I had told my mom that we would be home by five. “Well, we will,” John  said. “We’ll be home before then, maybe 4:45.” “Not according to her clock,” I said. “I forgot to set it for daylight savings time.”

“She’ll be fine,” John assured me. “She was tired and she most likely won’t even wake up to look at the clock.” But I was not convinced, and I began to get emotional.

I wish I could say that this behavior on my part was out of the ordinary, but frankly it was not. I have been very thin-skinned since moving my mother in. It’s as though John and I are starring in the “straight” version of the movie “The Birdcage” and I am the Nathan Lane character.

“My mom doesn’t even seem happy that we’re home, and I can’t say that blame her — I’m really off my game,” I sniffed. “I think I’m screwing up because I just wasn’t ready to come back.”

“Did you even consider that your mother might be feeling the same way we are?” John asked. “Just like you and I could use another day away,  she could use another day with Carol.”

I was stunned. And I was certain that John was 100% correct. Just as we had thoroughly enjoyed our time away, Mom had reveled in the fact that she was the total focus of Carol’s attention for 25 hours straight — as well as the recipient of her fabulous home-cooked meals and baked goods. Sure, Mom loved me and was happy to have me back home. But like most mothers and daughters, we have a mix of  good and not-so-good moments in the course of every day. That’s natural. But with Carol, it’s different. And that’s natural too.

For my mom, time spent with Carol is  a “Special Occasion.”

Armed with this new and very freeing information,  I felt relieved enough to enjoy my pot roast without crying.

And as it turned out mom WAS fine. She was sleeping peacefully. And a bit later on she  thoroughly appreciated the pot roast and potato pancake that we brought home for her Sunday dinner.

“You know, that Carol is an excellent cook,” she told us during her meal. “And I think that’s because she enjoys doing it.”

“You’re a great cook too, Mary Ann” she added.

“But I don’t enjoy it,” I admitted, and we had a much-needed laugh as John and Mom agreed.

I sometimes find it hard to watch my mom age and lose her autonomy, and I have gotten in the habit of telling my friends to “enjoy life, it does not get any better after eighty.”

But here is one thing I have learned, thanks to my mom’s attachment to and admiration for Carol.

You are never too old to make a new friend.