Tag Archives: #gratitude

Happy Japchae Day!

Thanksgiving is hands down my favorite holiday. I love celebrating with a large group of family and friends. I love reflecting on all for which I am thankful. And I love foods that we traditionally load onto our holiday table: the turkey (especially tasty when eaten while it is being carved), Ocean Spray whole cranberry sauce, my mother’s stuffing recipe, Marilyn’s World Famous Chocolate Chip Cookies, Anita’s rugelach, Adam’s vodka infused apple pie, and Hannah’s japchae.

Wait! Japchae? What is a Korean recipe that features translucent sweet potato noodles, thinly sliced beef, and vegetables doing on our Thanksgiving table?

For many years, Larry and I spent Thanksgiving with our cousins Freya and Randy. We literally had to travel over the river and through the woods to their Washington County home—which I referred to lovingly in Yiddish as in ekvelt— to share the day with at times over 30 family members and friends. Their daughter-in-law Hannah, a first-generation Korean-American, brought japchae every year, and I considered that to be as traditional as apple pie. In 2014, the holiday was especially sweet as our daughter Julie and her husband Sam had told us that they were expecting a baby in mid July. Larry and I were so grateful to harbor the secret throughout that memorable weekend. 

True, a few Thanksgivings were not exactly times of gratitude. Larry’s 78-year-old grandmother Bubbie Rose passed away on Thanksgiving morning in 1974, three and a half months after she beamed throughout our September wedding. My father passed away a week before the holiday in 2008, much to the annoyance of the congregant who was responsible for arranging for the food at the traditional Jewish gathering after the funeral. “I hope you realize this is a lousy time to ask people to help set up a shiva minyan,” she informed me. Fortunately, members of our Upstate New York shul gladly showed up. And despite our grief in both occasions, we were all grateful for their long lives and all the blessed memories we share.

In 1984 the day before our family’s planned departure to visit my Pennsylvania siblings for Thanksgiving, a section of our garage door hit Larry on the head when the spring snapped. Fortunately, Larry avoided what could have been a catastrophic injury by mere millimeters. Upon the advice of our doctor, however, we cancelled our traveling plans. A quick supermarket run to secure a turkey and all the fixings and a Blockbuster run (remember those?) for a stack of family friendly movies resulted in a quiet cozy long weekend. We were grateful for that unexpected intimate family time. 

The most sobering Thanksgiving came in 2016. As we were packing for our flight the next day to Colorado for a gathering with our son-in-law Sam’s family in Fort Collins, our daughter Julie called to tell us that our 15-month-old granddaughter was in the hospital with pneumonia in a hospital a mile from their Rocky Mountain home. By the time our plane had landed, she had been rushed to Denver’s Children’s Hospital. 

The next few days are still etched in my memory: Our wan granddaughter, connected to oxygen and IV’s, rushing to hug her Zayde. Julie and Sam holding their daughter as she watched endless repeats of Frozen on their iPad. Her wails every time a nurse entered the room. Our 120 mile round trips to the hospital while listening to the depressing news of the recent presidential elections. Adam rolling out a vodka-infused crust for the apple pie. Sharing a lovely Thanksgiving dinner with Sam’s family around a table missing three important people.

As Larry and Adam headed to the airport, I remained behind to provide needed help as Mountain Girl continued her recovery. Despite the circumstances, I have to say that week caring for my granddaughter, still connected to oxygen by a three foot hose because of the 9100 foot altitude, was precious. We sang and danced to “Wheels on the Bus” and “Rubber Duckie” and “The Alphabet Song.” We stacked toys and put together puzzles. She learned how to walk up and down the stair. I fed her so many blueberries, her favorite food, that she had numerous “blueberry blowouts,” for which Gammy was responsible. It was not the Thanksgiving we had planned. But we were thankful for modern medicine that saved her life and that provided the needed interventions, including a twice a day nebulizer, that resulted the healthy, thriving second grader she is today.

By the following year, Larry and I, who had moved to Florida that June, headed up north. Thanks to dear friends who let us “house sit” while they visited relatives for a week, we again shared a wonderful Thanksgiving with Larry’s huge extended family. Freya and Randy had passed the Thanksgiving reins to our niece Laura and her husband Paul, who had recently purchased a home in Guilderland, New York. The buffet table was laden with almost all the Shapiro traditional food except one. Hannah bypassed on making japchae. Oh well! We still had plenty to eat.

Maybe it was because airports were especially crowded on this holiday weekend. Maybe because we weren’t used to the cold. Or maybe it was because I no longer could depend on Hannah for japchae. In 2016, Larry and I decided to join a large group of friends from around the country and the world at a nearby resort. By the second year of shredded salty turkey over gluey mashed potatoes and subpar pies, our friend Peter declared that Larry and I should host a Thanksgiving potluck at our home. 

We happily agreed. Plans were going smoothly until we realized a few days before our scheduled Thursday feast that Peter and his wife Margaret were flying home on Thanksgiving Day. “I thought you Americans had all your holidays on Monday,” he said. No, Peter, I explained. Thanksgiving is ALWAYS on Thursday!

Fortunately, everyone was able to adjust their schedule, and we celebrated Thanksgiving on Ere of Yontiff—Wednesday. I prepared a 22-pound turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and my World Famous Chocolate Chip Cookies. Everyone else filled in with their own favorites. I was hoping the Hunters would bring scones and clotted cream. Instead, their contribution of two bottles of Moet & Chandon champagne worked out, as did the orchid they brought that continues to bloom. Not surprisingly, no one brought japchae.

We got to celebrate our International Thanksgiving one more time before COVID shut down the world, necessitating that Larry and I share our 2020 meal with extended family on Zoom. By 2021, however, we were up and running with the understanding that everyone bring their favorite dishes and COVID-vaccine infused arm. 

What a joy it is to know that 2022 is ushering in what I hope to be a new string of large gatherings of friends and family!

You may be reading this the day after Thanksgiving when Larry and I will be eating leftover turkey, stuffing, and apple pie. Meanwhile, we will have had what we hope will have been a wonderful day with many of our “regulars” as well as several new friends. We hope the day will be joyful and uneventful. If not, I will find reasons to be grateful—no matter what challenges pop up and even if we don’t have japchae!

Remembering wonderful past Thanksgivings, including our 1979 gathering with our family in Pennsylvania!

Dayanu

Browsing recently at a Denver airport store on my way home to Orlando, I was greeted by the clerk. Exchanging pleasantries, I asked him how his day was going. “Counting the hours, ma’am. Just counting the hours.” “It can’t be that bad,” I replied. “I am working a fifteen hour shift in a newspaper stand in an airport, “ he said. “And this with a college degree. As I said, ‘Just counting the hours.”

Okay, so this young man was not living his dream. But all I could think of is that the clerk appeared to be the same age as a friend of mine who became a quadriplegic twenty years earlier as a result of a freak accident. “Be grateful for what you have,” I wanted to say to this total stranger. “Don’t count the hours; count your blessings.”

On Passover, we Jews celebrate the physical and spiritual redemption from slavery. Each year, we sing Dayanu, a song which lists the steps leading to our freedom. In it, we are reminded of our need—our responsibility—to be grateful for all G-d has given to us.

Yes, it is sometimes difficult to be grateful. College degrees and sometimes lead to menial job. Cars break down; toilet overflow; a bite into a hard candy results in a $3000 dollar dental bill. But as a dear friend said to me after I complained about a costly home repair, these are all First World problems.

In addition, in our highly commercial, secular world, it is sometimes difficult to be happy with just enough. We are bombarded with advertisements promising us happiness if only we purchase a new car, a new home, even a new brand of soap. We are exposed to all this noise on television, on billboards, on ever-targeted ads on the internet between our Facebook posts.

I am sure the Jews who escaped Egyptian slavery complained. Some of the kvetching is recorded in the Torah, but I can only imagine the grumblings that were not written down. “Manna that tastes like coconut cream pie again? For one night, can’t it taste like my mother’s matzoh ball soup?” Or: “Who put Moses in charge? We’ve been wandering this desert for forty years. The man can’t find his way out of a paper bag!”

The child of parents who were on different ends of the “cup half full”/cup half empty” continuum, I struggled as to whether my father’s rose colored view of the world was a better way to go than my mother’s practical but less than optimistic outlook. Whereas my father was content with his life, my mother often compared herself and our lives to others, and she saw the grass as greener in the other’s yard. “Comparison is the thief of joy,” said Theodore Roosevelt. And also, in my eyes, the thief of gratitude.

When looking for property in Florida, Larry and I made the conscious decision to downsize. We chose a smaller home that, in line with most houses in the Sunshine State, had no basement and a fairly inaccessible, extremely hot attic. We purchased the home with all its furnishings in a community whose  home owner’s association that took care of our lawn and shrubbery. As a result, we were able to  divest ourselves of much of our belongings and start over.  Once we unpacked—and gave another load of unneeded items to a local charity–we assured ourselves that we were never going back to having so much.

Despite my best intentions, however, I began to fall into my old habit of  acquiring more than we needed. The search for that one last item to complete our new home—a new outdoor seating set, a water softener, updated lighting fixtures— was taking me away from where I wanted to be: grateful for what I had.

One day, while at a salon getting my hair cut, I saw a poster with the following affirmation: “Gratitude turns what we have into enough.” And somehow that quote from Melody Beattie was the kick in the pants I needed.

Researching studies in positive psychology, I learned that those who are habitually grateful are significantly happier—and even healthier— than those who are not. One recommended method to enhance these feelings is by maintaining a gratitude diary in which one records on a regular basis three to five things for which one is grateful.

Using a beautiful floral-covered journal a dear friend had given me as a going away gift, I started ‘counting my blessings’ each night before I went to bed. Some entries were major milestones: “I saw my granddaughter crawl for the first time!” Other day’s reflections were more mundane: “Larry and I laughed our way through a great ‘Big Bang Theory’ episode.” No matter what the magnitude, I was ending my day focusing on the positive.

In the process, I have turned the focus from how many material possessions I have to how much goodness I have in my life. “Collect moments, not things” says a Hindu expression. The journal gives me the opportunity to capture those moments: savoring an Upstate New York apple, reading a book to my granddaughter, sitting on our lanai and viewing the wildlife in our pond, appreciating one more day of good health.

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was thank you,” wrote Meister Eckhart, “that would suffice.” Or, in the word of the Passover seder, ‘Dayanu.’ Chag Sameah!