Thursday, December 31, 2009


May your home never be too small
To hold all of your friends.

May you live as long as you want
And never want as long as you live.

May the good Lord take a liking to you,
But not too soon.

May you have warm words on a cold evening,
A full moon on a dark night,
And the road downhill all the way to your door.

May your neighbors respect you,
Trouble neglect you,
The angels protect you,
and heaven accept you.

Dance as if no one were watching,
Sing as if no one were listening
And live every day as if it were your last.

Happy New Year!!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Do You Want to Know a Secret (part 1 - by Margaret Ullrich)

In exchange for straight hair, I agreed to escort my cousin Nadia to a Beatles’ concert and to marry a Beatle, George Harrison.

If I had been born ten years earlier I would never have had such a problem. But there I was, a fourteen-year-old stuck with naturally curly hair in 1964. Thanks to the Beatles, long, straight hair was in style. My black curls were the envy of all my mother’s friends, but I was a fashion misfit in High School. Once I almost set my head on fire when I tried to iron my hair myself. When I asked my Ma to iron my hair, she shot me The Look and said I was crazy. I had no other choice but to ask my sixteen-year-old cousin, Nadia, to do the deed. She was the only one who would understand.

Nadia had a major problem of her own. She had to marry Paul McCartney, the cute Beatle.

Nadia’s problem started when she had said she wanted to marry a boy with a cute accent. She had accepted her fate: to stay in Corona, get married and have babies. She knew she was expected to follow in her Mom’s Sicilian footsteps. She just wanted to march to a cute accent. When she saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, she said Paul looked as cute as he sounded and she was going to marry him.

But, how would a girl in Queens meet a Beatle? Nadia knew that if her parents had their way, they would have chosen a local Corona boy instead of an English rock star to become their son-in-law. Then Nadia had a dream. She was at a concert, her eyes met Paul’s, she zapped him with a psychic message and he became her love slave. When Nadia heard that the Beatles were going to have a concert in Shea Stadium she said it was a sign from God. So, she decided she had to go to the Shea concert and grab the bull - I mean, the Beatle - by the horns. Not mentioning her dream, Nadia asked her parents for ticket money for the Beatles’ Shea Stadium concert.

Uncle Des and Aunt Betty agreed to give Nadia the money. But there was a small catch. Nadia had to go with a relative. None of the Aunts or Uncles was interested. I was the only cousin Nadia had who was near her age and easy for her to control. Uncle Des also thought I was the perfect relative for his daughter to ask. He knew that his brother Peter, my Pop, would never waste money on a rock concert. So he thought that he didn’t have to worry about Nadia going to any Beatles’ concert. It wasn’t his fault if his brother was cheap.

When I told Nadia I didn’t have any money for a ticket, she made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. If I swore I would get the money and escort her, she would straighten my hair. When I stalled, Nadia threw in an extra incentive. After she and Paul got engaged, she would work her magic on George Harrison so he would propose to me. Since I was stuck at an all-girl high school run by Dominican nuns, boys were a rare commodity. The way we saw it, it was either George or the convent for me.

I had my doubts about Nadia’s psychic powers, but I did need someone to iron my hair. If she could snag me a husband, it was a bonus. I swore I would get the money.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas With the Sopranos by Margaret Ullrich

Okay... We didn't exactly sit down with Tony and Carmela.

We had a nice Christmas. It started with the Christmas Eve Mass. The church was packed. In addition to serving as Lectors, Paul and I were also asked to serve as Eucharistic Ministers. No problem. Just doing our bit to keep the lines moving. There were two more Masses scheduled for Christmas Eve and the parking lot was packed.

Christmas Day was simple and good. Friends and feast. What more could one ask for?

While the turkey was in the oven, I was flipping through a cookbook Entertaining with The Sopranos. I'm a sucker for cookbooks, which makes it easy for folks needing a last minute gift for me.

Food is a big item for us Maltese, just like for Italians. I can remember family gatherings where folks sat down at noon and didn't leave the table until after supper. Meals were complete - from soup to nuts. I had to admit I'd gotten a little lazy in the kitchen.

What happened?

The photos of the meals brought back lots of memories. Julia Child these recipes aren't. I know they are doable. I'm not saying I'm another Julie Powell. But surely I could put a little more effort into our meals.

Life is sometimes weird. While I'd grown up envying German classmates their pastries, Paul had grown up craving Italian food. Paul was all in favor of my cooking my roots, so to speak.

Resolution for 2010: Cook my way through Entertaining with The Sopranos.

After dinner a friend asked me to tell her a little more about Cousin Nadia from Would Santa Ever Find Me? I had to confess Cousin Nadia, as most characters I've written about, was a mixture of a few people. My pal wouldn't let me off so easily. She wanted to know more about what living in Queens was like.

I could understand that growing up in Queens, New York, USA might be exotic to a transplanted Filipino living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Who knows? Maybe other folks are curious about life in Queens in the 60s, too.

Resolution #2 for 2010: serialize my book A Tale of Three Islands.

Nadia will be a blog regular starting Tuesday.

Hey... that's easier to do than the recipes.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve Thoughts

This has been a very different December for us. Enjoying a few get togethers with friends and a party for volunteers at church, as well as having to sort out financial and legal papers. Tonight we'll be Lectors for a Christmas Eve Mass.

I met with my investment advisor to go over the papers from Ma's two annuities. They had sent the forms for an American resident. Also the applications were different. Lisa helped me find the W-8 form I need from the half dozen the U.S. government have on their site and printed 2 copies. She read over the papers and they're a little clearer now.

I had e mailed one company and asked if they wanted both my social security and social insurance numbers. I was told they do not give tax advice. I called the other company and the woman there explained they want the social security number so they know where to credit the witholding tax. Why the other company couldn't have said that...

We also went to a 'celebration of life' for a friend who passed away. Phil was 69. We had first met him in 1978 when Paul started working at the Free Press. There was a video of some of the highlights of Phil's life and a few funny stories from family members and friends. It was good seeing everybody and reminiscing. Some are still working at the paper and others, like Paul, are retired. We hadn't seen some of the Free Press folks for quite a while. It was like being in our 30s again. Where did the time go?

We're pretty much set for Christmas... Last Christmas Aunt Betty said to enjoy life. Aunt Betty passed away in January, a week before Pop.

Yes, it will seem odd tomorrow - not talking on the phone with my parents and Aunt Betty, or sharing a bit of turkey with BoBo. But, we still have much to be thankful for.

Paul's cartoon 'The Bicycle Lesson' has had some success. It screened in Miami (Florida), Danville (California), Fredericton (New Brunswick), Guelph and Toronto (Ontario), as well as 4 screenings here in Winnipeg.

I've enjoyed working on my book and blogs and serving as public relations person for the Winnipeg Model Railroad Club.

The volunteer party was fun. There was plenty of food, games and kareoke. Paul and I joined a fellow parishioner Brenda in singing Tom Jones' Delilah. Lots of silliness. The evening flew.

Like Aunt Betty said - enjoy life.

Merry Christmas, Everyone.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

More Dog Thoughts

The rest of Sue's 'dog thoughts'...

Anybody who doesn't know what soap tastes like never washed a dog. - Franklin P. Jones

If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons. - James Thurber

If your dog is fat, you aren't getting enough exercise. - Unknown

My dog is worried about the economy because Alpo is up to $3.00 a can. That's $21.00 in dog money. - Joe Weinstein

Ever consider what our dogs must think of us? I mean, here we come back from a grocery store with the most amazing haul -- chicken, pork, half a cow. They must think we're the greatest hunters on earth! - Anne Tyler

Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea. - Robert A. Heinlein

Speak softly and own a Great Dane. - Tom Cash

If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you; that is the principal difference between a dog and a man. - Mark Twain

You can say any foolish thing to a dog, and the dog will give you a look that says, 'Wow, you're right! I never would've thought of that!' - Dave Barry

Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole. - Roger Caras

If you think dogs can't count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then giving Fido only two of them. - Phil Pastoret

My goal in life is to be as good a person as my dog already thinks I am. - Unknown

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Dog Thoughts

My friend Sue forwarded quite a few 'dog thoughts'. I'm sharing some today, some on Tuesday. Hey... it's a busy time of year. Enjoy.

The reason a dog has so many friends is that he wags his tail instead of his tongue. - Harry Falk

Don't accept your dog's admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful. - Ann Landers

If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went. - Will Rogers

There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face. - Ben Williams

A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself. - Josh Billings

The average dog is a nicer person than the average person. - Andy Rooney

We give dogs time we can spare, space we can spare and love we can spare. And in return, dogs give us their all. It's the best deal man has ever made. - M. Acklam

Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate. - Sigmund Freud

I wonder if other dogs think poodles are members of a weird religious cult. - Jody Falk

A dog teaches a boy fidelity, perseverance and to turn around three times before lying down. - Robert Benchley

Dogs need to sniff the ground; it's how they keep abreast of current events. The ground is a giant dog newspaper, containing all kinds of late-breaking dog news items, which, if they are especially urgent, are often continued in the next yard. - Dave Barry

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Deck The Halls by Margaret Ullrich

It didn't really feel like Christmas was coming because of the milder than normal weather and the lack of snow. But, at the beginning of December, we set up our decorations, including our tree.

A few years ago we bought an artificial tree. No more tree chopping for us. Customs give way to reality, especially when arthritis acts up. When we want a piney smell, we burn some scented candles. Now we don't have to worry about keeping the tree watered.

We also bought some old-fashioned bubble lights. We had bubble lights when we were kids and, to us, they add just the right touch.

We've cut back on some of our decorations. Some of them were more trouble than they were worth. A few years ago we bought a set of 8 electric candles that would light up as they played a medley of Christmas carols. A candle would glow as each note was hit. The candles were fine. The music was fine. But the set would start up whenever it detected a noise.

For example, if our dog Herbie walked by and shook his collar, we'd suddenly hear music. For a few years we had to unplug the musical candles whenever we left the house. Otherwise our dogs would panic when the music started up and we weren't home. Finally, we stopped setting up the candles.

We have icicle lights on our house's eaves. When I see them I really miss Bobo. When we let BoBo out after it got dark, he loved to sit on the side door's stoop and just stare at the lights for a while before walking off to do his business. I wish I knew what they meant to him. Did he think they were small stars that had settled on our house?

BoBo was our little holiday star.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Chop That Tree (part 2 - by Margaret Ullrich)

I thought I had dressed warmly.

That fink, the ditzy receptionist, showed up looking like the Michelin Man. She was ready to march to Thompson if necessary. So were the three other women co-workers. The other wives - who all knew better - had begged off. One was even pregnant. Or said she was.

I was alone with four career women who were full of the "I am woman, hear me roar" career fever. While they talked shop I felt as welcome as a lump of coal in a Christmas stocking.

The Jewish co-workers - who I had hoped would keep the tree hunt frenzy within limits - had turned into lumberjacks. They were also ready to march to Thompson if necessary.

After walking five minutes I couldn't feel my toes. We hadn't even gotten out of the parking lot. I was doomed.

I didn't know it could get that cold.

We marched. Finally, someone approved of a tree. The men chopped. The tree crashed. The branches that hit the ground broke off the tree.

I said, "The bare side could be placed against a wall."

The heat from their glares should have restored my circulation. It didn't. We marched. Someone approved of another tree. The men chopped. The tree crashed. It broke.

God, it was cold.

We were doomed to spend all day wandering like Flying Dutchmen on a quest to find the perfect unbreakable tree. The lot was littered with other broken felled trees. Some trees had landed across their comrades in a criss cross pattern that looked like a cradle. A cradle, something soft, something to receive and hold...

Hold it - something to catch a damn tree!

Nose drip and tears had frozen my mouth shut. If I'd had the equipment I would've written my idea in the snow. I slapped my face trying to restore circulation to my lower jaw. Finally my lips parted. I clutched Paul's arm.

"Cradle... tree... cradle," I mumbled and criss crossed my arms.

The women thought I was pregnant and wanted a homemade cradle. Thank God, months of marriage - misery and love - had united Paul's mind to mine. Months of marriage had also taught us that Paul was no carpenter. He knew the homemade cradle idea was bunk. Paul caught on to my pantomime and told the others of my plan.

Someone approved of another tree. It would land on four broken trees. The men chopped. The tree crashed. It survived. We marched. Someone approved of another tree. It, too, survived.

Christmas was saved.

God, it was cold.

I didn't know it could get that cold.

I couldn't believe it. Some fool was planning the next year's tree chopping expedition.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Chop That Tree (part 1 - by Margaret Ullrich)

God, it was cold.

I didn't know it could get that cold.
I didn't know I'd ever be stupid enough to be outdoors in that kind of cold.
I didn't know I'd been stupid enough to marry someone stupid enough to work with people stupid enough to be out in that kind of cold.

It was our first December in Winnipeg.

Paul and I had grown up in New York City. There people went to an empty parking lot where the trees had magically appeared, like the ground beef at the local supermarket. No questions asked. No one wanted to get too personal with an ornament.

At the New York parking lot we'd browse, find a tree we liked and switch the price tag with the cheaper tree which no one liked. Then we'd carry the tree to the clerk, who gave us the fish eye as he noticed the fullness of such a "good find", sighed and took our money. The whole deal was done in ten minutes. Another Christmas had begun.

Apparently, that isn't good enough for Winnipeggers. Oh, no, they have to get down and dirty with their holiday bushes.

I'll never forget how happy Paul was when he came home and told me we'd been invited to join a group of Winnipeggers for a real, old-fashioned Christmas experience. If I'd had a clue I'd have realized that giving birth in a barn, unaided, would've been an easier old-fashioned Christmas experience. We were going to chop down a real Christmas tree, just like our ancestors.

Well, my parents are from Malta, a sunny Mediterranean island. It just wasn't in my genes to know how to dress for a freezing, miserable, forced march through a blizzard-hit forest. The windchill - which I still didn't understand - was in the "exposed skin can freeze in 2 minutes" range.

That didn't sound good, so I said, "Thanks, but no thanks."

Somehow Paul convinced me that his entire future career prospects, our unborn children's college fund, our grandchildren's lives and our golden years' security and comfort would all go up in smoke if I didn't join the mighty tree hunt.

His Jewish co-workers were going.

Everybody, even that ditzy receptionist who always dressed like a showgirl wannabe with skirts up to there, was going.

So, we were going.

God, it was cold.

Part 2

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Holiday Baking Now by Margaret Ullrich

Well... they say with age comes wisdom. At least enough wisdom to have sense enough to take it easy at holiday times.

My ethnic food leanings have broadened quite a bit over the past 37 years. We live in the north end, in one of Winnipeg's most multicultural communities. Our neighbors and fellow parishioners have introduced Paul and me to quite an assortment of ethnic specialities. The food has been interesting and delicious.

But, even more important, our friends have introduced us to the real joy of just being together. Companionship truly matters more than eating fancy cookies or trying to follow customs from a simpler time.

When we had dogs, Paul and I had certain rules we had to follow. Sunday mornings had a definite routine to them. After Mass we came home, changed into regular (in winter - warmer) clothes and did our doggie duty. Our dogs knew to expect a walk from us and we knew better than to try to ignore their needs.

Now that we're dog-free, we've gotten into the habit of joining friends at our local McDonald's after Mass. There isn't anything particularly seasonal or festive about the food at Micky D's, but that just doesn't matter anymore. What does matter is getting together with our friends.

I still bake a few favorites for the holidays. But, along with the biscotti, strufoli, spitzbuben and zimtsterne, I also include a few oreos on my cookie platter.

I never get any complaints... or leftovers.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Holiday Baking (part 2 - by Margaret Ullrich)

Okay... So much for Paul. It wasn't his fault - American melting pot and all. Our son would grow up with ethnic kitch. He'd know what to say to a Lucia Queen.

The 80s was the decade of old time family shows and memoir books. Have you ever browsed through one? It could make one weep. Listen to this...

"Evenings when a cold blustery wind howled outside
were perfect for sorting through recipes. They were
cozy times. The children were sitting at the oak table
helping Mama chop fruit and raisins. Papa was cracking
and shelling nuts and crushing fresh spices in the grinder."

Isn't that sweet? It convinced me that if we did things just like people did before television was invented, the world would be a kinder, gentler place.

We'll never know. Paul told me, in no uncertain terms, that he was too busy to grind nuts for a cake he didn't even want. Alright. Scratch Paul grinding his nuts. I bought ground nuts.

Step two... the batter had to be mixed. Back to that memoir...

"When all the fruits were in, Grandmother called, 'Come,
stir the batter!'
We all took turns giving it a stir - clockwise for good luck -
and made a wish."

I called, "Come, stir the batter!"

Carl pointed to the mixer sitting on the counter and announced he was staying on the eighth level of his computer game The Temple of Ra. He also told me, in no uncertain terms, that he was too busy to stir batter for a cake he didn't even want.

I stirred the batter.

Don't ask what I wished.

It's been downhill ever since. Do you know about the charming Swedish custom of hiding a whole almond in the rice pudding? The lucky person who finds the almond has to get married or do the dishes. Both my husband and son managed to swallow the almond.

I tried the German version - whoever finds the almond receives a marzipan pig. By then Paul and Carl had their own tradition: swallowing the almond. I felt so guilty looking at that poor rejected pig. I started my own tradition and ate him... along with the cake.

There's a Christmas carol that goes: "Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat..."

Well, the goose isn't the only one.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Holiday Baking (part 1 - by Margaret Ullrich)

I don't know about you, but as far as I'm concerned, there are 2 questions no one should ever ask a woman. The first is "How old are you?"

The second is "Have you done your holiday baking?"

Holiday baking has been with us an awfully long time. Did you know that ginger was popular in Greece 5,000 years ago? The Egyptians were eating gingerbread when the great pyramid of Cheops was new. I wonder what their gingerbread men looked like.

Holiday baking can be a problem for immigrants. My parents and I arrived in America in 1950. Christmas had been a religious celebration in Malta. Traditional desserts were simple - cookies, fruit and custard. For the holidays, we had cassata: the custard was spread on a sponge cake. Whoopee. If my Sicilian cousins were visiting, Pop picked up some cannoli. Our cookies were dull - the big thrill with an anise biscotti was seeing how much milk it could suck up before breaking in half and falling into your glass of milk. It was like eating the sinking Titanic.

I knew my German classmates ended their meals with more oomph. At church and school gatherings, their mothers brought the most delicious homemade cookies I'd ever tasted. And they were gorgeous. The cookies, I mean. Since Ma wasn't in the race - she brought the coffee - I was free to sample and praise every cookie. The mothers beamed. My friends thought I was nuttier than the cookies.

My husband is third generation American - half Swedish and half German. To paraphrase the biblical story of Ruth, I believed, "What thou eatest, I will eat... thy cookies shall be my cookies..."

Well, you get the picture. Thanks to the movie The Sound of Music, I had a master plan for our first Christmas: sitting beneath a huge tree, singing Edelweiss and happily munching fancy cookies, my favorite things. Ethnic things.

The ethnic bit nearly ended my marriage.

There's an old German saying: That which really tastes oft us trouble makes. That should've warned me. It didn't.

I studied German and Swedish Christmas customs. A good wife gets up at 4:00 a.m. to mix her cookies. No sunlight should land on the dough or disaster would befall the household. The good wife hoped there'd be a crescent moon to bring good luck to her baking. No kidding. Without that sliver of light she could get killed, stumbling around in the dark like that.

For our first December thirteenth as a married couple, I decided that I was going to create an authentic Swedish Saint Lucia Day.

According to tradition, buns and coffee were served between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m. by the eldest daughter, who was dressed as the Lucia Queen. Since we didn't have children, I, as an eldest daughter, became the first Maltese Lucia Queen. Ever.

I stitched up a long white robe and tied shining red balls to our Advent wreath. I memorized the traditional poem. I made a batch of cinnamon buns.

Finally, it was 3:00 a.m. Clad in white, carrying a tray and balancing the wreath with bouncing balls and flaming candles on my head, I shuffled slowly to our bed. I was a walking cherries jubilee. Hovering over Paul, I chanted: "O'er earth that sun forgot, Dark shadows linger... "

Hmmph... No answer. The Lucia Queen required an audience. Creating my own liturgy, I ad libbed. "Wake up, Paul."

Still no answer. I set the tray down, gave him a push and repeated: "O'er earth that sun forgot, Dark shadows linger... Damn it, wake up."

He snorted, turned and faced me. It took him a while to focus. Okay... back to the chant. I started softly, building to a truly impressive booming voice.

"O'er earth that sun forgot,
Dark shadows linger.
Then on our threshold stands,
White clad in candlelight
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia."

He looked. He blinked. He screamed.

He said something that no one should ever say to a Lucia Queen.

Part 2

Thursday, December 3, 2009

What People Leave by Margaret Ullrich

Paul's parents had set up their affairs very well. My parents didn't.

We're slowly getting used to our new situation. My brother George lived with our parents all his life and he's sorting out the paperwork. He was just beginning to see the end of the work from our Pop's death in January. Then Ma died in October, a week after her 87th birthday. He wrote us:

I'm slowly getting used to the house being empty and quiet.

It's a long day. I usually get up at 4:30 a.m. I'm at work by 5:30 a.m. On a good day I'm out by 4:00 p.m., but usually I get out by 6:00 p.m. By the time I get home, cook dinner, clean up, I'm ready to crash and go to bed.

Well, maybe that's a good thing. Keeping busy at work takes my mind off of Mom and Pop's death. I'm also still working on getting my house ready to move into. Between working on that house and doing the maintenance on these houses, that pretty much keeps me busy during the weekend.

We hope George will be able to take better care of himself now, too. He's had a rough time of it since the century began. He had to go to the Towers on 9/11. He saw people jumping while the Towers burned. During the past 7 years he also had to take our parents to all their doctors' appointments.

We're learning about settling estates from friends who are also former Americans. Our friend Roger was from Brooklyn. He had to settle his Dad's estate, and he explained the procedure:

We get the wills and the papers and show them to our investment advisor for the financial aspect and the lawyer for the legal aspect of the situation. After our lawyer has a chance to go through everything, then she'll get in touch with the estate's lawyer. There's no point for them to talk now since our lawyer hasn't seen anything.

It's a slow process, but I'm sure it will sort itself out.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What Dogs Leave by Margaret Ullrich

We just got back from a walk. Bumped into a few people. Folks are still asking where Bobo is and if we'll get another dog.

We've had at least one dog for 35 years. It's funny the stuff you get used to doing and having around the house. We had a board over the bottom of our bookcase because our fourth dog, Popcorn, got into the habit of peeing on the bottom shelf. He also taught Bobo that little trick. We just got used to vacuuming around the board. Finally we realized we don't need to protect the bottom shelf anymore.

I never realized how many habits we had gotten into because we had dogs. It was a whole lifestyle: get up at night (sometimes a few times) to let the older dog out, wipe them down when it rained and snowed (now we don't have a towel hanging in the side closet), having to do 2 hour-long walks every day (we each did an hour).

During the winter we wondered if one of us would come home with a broken limb because of the ice. We also had to remove ice and mud from their toes after they'd been out in the yard and after walks, and carry treats when we went out so we could calm them when we got home.

There was also the nightly teeth brushing, twice-a-week fur brushing, every three months trimming of fur and nails (I clipped while Paul held). Whenever we were out we had to watch the clock (after 4 hours we'd be asking for trouble). And, of course, checking their dishes regularly during the day.

I asked my cousin Alice how she got used to life after her dog Sadie died. Alice wrote back:

After Sadie died it took a while to get used to her not being there. Looked for her to let her out. And I could swear I could hear her claws on the kitchen floor or her whining to go out.

I missed her but now I'm glad I don't have a pet.

My grandkids tell me they're getting a dog for Christmas. All I could say is they better not. I always wind up with them, and I really don't want any more pets. I don't even want to dog sit.

Alice is right. It's a lot of work.

Still, I miss them.