Category Archives: Family

ghost

My dad’s ghost came to visit on Saturday, in the form of his younger brother.

We live in the Louisville, KY area. If you aren’t from around here, your town probably doesn’t celebrate the Kentucky Derby as if it were a two-week national holiday, but we do. As part of the festivities, vast numbers of people who don’t choose to fight the madness at Churchill Downs hold Derby parties, instead. For as long as I can remember, a household from my church has held a Derby party and welcomed any and all of the congregation who want to socialize, eat a lot of good food, watch the races on TV, and place $1 bets.

Also for as long as I can remember, until he died in 1999, my dad was the Official Taker of Bets at the church Derby party. He always arrived at the hosts’ house before the first race on the first Saturday in May (usually around 10:00 a.m.) and stayed until after the end of the last race in the evening. Equipped with business-card-size betting tickets on which he wrote the race and horse numbers, he accepted dollar bills and divided up winnings throughout the day. Being a betting man and a lover of most sorts of gambling, he also placed his own bets and generally did well. He was A Fixture at the party.

Some number of years ago (I wish I could remember how many), the party needed to find a new home base, and we took over the role of hosts. Every first Saturday in May, we open our house to any and all church friends who want to come. My husband is now the Official Taker of Bets. It’s a fun, laid-back day.

Saturday morning, as we were getting the house ready for guests, we got the news that my uncle and aunt would be coming to the party. No big deal, right? Except that they live in Minneapolis and we haven’t seen them for at least 3 years. She’s a flight attendant, and he’s semi-retired; so when she was asked to work a flight to Louisville that had open seats, she suggested that he come along. Only when they were on their way to the airport and he was on the phone to my mom with the news did they realize that it was Derby Day. (The Twin Cities are clearly outside the borders of the Land of Derby Madness.) It was a little surreal for me to anticipate this completely unexpected visit from some of my favorite relatives when my mind was so firmly entrenched in the normal rhythms of Derby.

They arrived in mid afternoon. And my dad came with them.

My dad was 16 years older than this, his youngest brother. They didn’t look terribly alike, although they shared a body type and a fair skin tone. My dad’s voice was a little lower, and after years in southern Indiana he had lost his Wisconsin-born accent. But when you were in the room with them both, you knew immediately that they were brothers — they shared an indefinable essence of Miller Guy.

And so, on Saturday, when my uncle greeted me, I heard my dad. Not his voice, no, but the same pattern of speech, the slight clipping of words. I found myself watching my uncle closely when he spoke, because in the movements of his face — the planes of his cheeks, the shape of his mouth when he smiles, the way he opens his mouth only as far as absolutely necessary to release the words — I saw my father. Their eyes were very alike, and so were their gestures and their general body language. They’re not what I think of as big men, but when a Miller Guy is in the room, he is A Presence. You’ll hear him talking and laughing, and he’ll come over to get to know you.

When it came time for Derby bets, my uncle (who had already cashed a ticket for several earlier races) decided to buy tickets only on the 4 or 5 horses that were 50-to-1 long shots. My mother, following her standard practice to guarantee a win, bought a ticket for each of the 19 horses in the race. I chose 3 horses based on their history of running on a muddy track; and, because my mother had mentioned a couple of times that a jockey named Calvin Borel was winning pretty much every time he sat on a horse — and she is an extremely lucky woman when it comes to winning things and picking horses — I threw in a dollar on Mine That Bird.

The race was the most exciting I can remember, with the jockey threading his horse at afterburner speed along the rail and out to a 6-3/4 length victory. The horse was Mine That Bird — a name I hadn’t thought of or heard mentioned at any point during the race call, because he began in last place and charged to the win in the last quarter mile. When the caller announced the winner, I cheered — and then realized that I wasn’t hearing any cries of “I won!” from the crowd of people in the other room. Out on the deck, on the other hand, I saw my uncle and my mother celebrating. We were the only 3 people with winning tickets.

The total pot was $129, so we each won $43 for a $1 bet. Most years, even when we’re dividing the pot among 10 or 20 winners, our payout beats the payout at the track; but this year the odds were so massive against Mine That Bird that Churchill Downs paid out $103 for every $2. It was nonetheless the largest win at our church party for a great many years — we think no one has won so much since Gato del Sol made a surprise winning run in 1982 and only 2 people split the pot.

This year, we kept the winning in the family. We hugged a lot, and I thanked my mother for her outstanding tip, and we talked endlessly about the amazing, the unbelievable, the astounding race we’d just witnessed. We took pictures of us with our fistfuls of dollar bills. And we agreed that my dad would have been ecstatic to have been there and watched Mike Miller, Anne Miller, and Tiffany Miller Taylor claim the prize.

I don’t believe in ghosts, or an afterlife, or angels. But I do believe that my dad was here on Saturday. My uncle and aunt brought him along and made him alive again. Some days it’s hard for me to remember much beyond the very hard time at the end of my dad’s life; but seeing and talking with his brother brought back bits and pieces of happy memories that had been hiding.

My dad was here with me, two days ago. And thanks to that, I have a much stronger, better sense of him with me now.

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a wish for a safe world

My son is gay. 8th-grade boys who are happily and comfortably out of the closet are pretty rare, so he serves as a sort of unofficial model for the kids at school, demonstrating for them daily by his mere existence that being gay is just another way of being human and nothing to get upset or angry about.

In large part because of my son’s openness at school and the (relative) lack of negativity he’s received from kids or adults, a friend of his (let’s call him C) decided it would be safe for him to come out, too.  One huge difference between them is the fact that C’s dad is extremely homophobic; but he figured his dad would be angry at first and then get over it.

So, C came out, at school and at home.

And his dad left.

I don’t mean he left the room — he left the house. He left his marriage. He left his family.

When this happened, C tried to “fix” the situation by recanting on his admission. No, he said, I’m not gay after all. I don’t know what came over me.

And his dad came back.

But it didn’t last long. C had tasted the freedom of being his authentic self. Of being able to talk freely to my son and his other friends about who he is and who he likes and what he wants from life. After a few days, C came back out at home.

And his dad left.

Apparently his dad isn’t planning to return to his home as long as he has a gay son living there. Of course, I don’t know what the parents’ marital status was before this; maybe it was shaky anyway, and he was looking for an excuse to leave. But I can’t pull together the words to describe how tragic I consider this situation.

A bright, handsome, talented young man will carry with him the rest of his life the conviction that he caused the breakup of his family.

A husband and father is so overwhelmed by hatred and disgust for something that he won’t even try to understand, that he rejects his own son and, by association, his wife and other children.

The other family members must try to cope and sort out their own thoughts and emotions, as they’re pulled in opposite directions by people they love.

I do not — cannot — understand the father’s actions. I want to go to the mother and beg her to support her son and love him no matter what. I want to offer the boy refuge.

I want the world to be safe for my son, and for C, and for the countless GBLT boys and girls who are sitting in middle school (or high school, or college) today and concentrating not on their classes, but on how to tell their families and friends their most private secret so they can finally, finally be themselves.

wow

Today I watched an ultrasound of my son’s heart. (It was a follow-up standard thing as part of making a decision about surgery on his sternum to correct his combination pectus excavatum and pectus carinatum.)

The last time I was in a room with an ultrasound machine, I was pregnant with the boy who was now lying on the table, watching his tiny  heart beat inside him, inside me. Now that heart pumps blood for a 6-foot-tall almost-man, who is still and will always be my baby.

The doctor pointed out valves, chambers, and blood flow. It was all very cool — and also, for me, not exactly a spiritual moment, but … a “wow” moment. My boy. His actual heart. Right there on the screen. Valves rhythmically opening and closing, blood flowing in and being pumped out, a chunk of untiring muscle that keeps alive one of the people I love best in the world.

Wow.

wedding cake, part 2

About 8 hours. That’s how long it took me to make the wedding cake, from beginning to mix through placing the final flower. It was a wonderful adventure that has left me immensely happy and satisfied.

Yesterday around lunchtime I started baking the layers. Two great tips that I got online proved helpful:

  • To prevent the cake from sticking to the pan, cut a parchment paper or waxed paper circle to fit the bottom. Spray the entire pan with nonstick cooking spray, place the paper circle in the bottom of the pan, and then spray the paper. I used parchment paper, and all the layers dropped out of the pans like a dream.
  • To help keep the cake layers flat (which is what you want for a wedding cake, as opposed to a dome shape), bake them at a lower temperature for a longer time. I baked the cakes at 325 degrees F rather than 350 and had to do very little trimming to flatten them.

I started with a 14″ chocolate layer. The recipe is one of my favorites: it yields a dark, moist cake that isn’t overly sweet. I made a double batch for each layer, which was the perfect amount. I wasn’t sure about baking time; it turned out that 52 minutes at 325 was just right to bake the cake through without drying the edges.

While that was baking, I made the lemon curd filling for the vanilla cakes. It’s a nice custard: easy to make, and plenty thick so I knew the layers wouldn’t slide while I was frosting the outsides.

Next, I figured out how much batter I needed for the 10″ and 6″ layers. My recipe for vanilla buttermilk cake was enough to make three 9″ layers, but I needed to make two 10″ layers and two 6″ layers. I’d done some math based on surface area, but it didn’t seem to me that I’d end up with enough batter. After filling each pan halfway with water and measuring the volumes,  determined that I needed to make a total of 1-1/2 batches. But because the batter contained baking powder and wouldn’t hold, I actually needed to make two 3/4 batches. Thank goodness for a calculator and for the fact that I measure things on a scale that has weight/volume equivalencies built in.

The 3/4 batch worked perfectly for the 10″and 6″ layers. They baked about 35 minutes at 325. When they were finished I removed the chocolate layer from its pan (hurray parchment paper!), mixed up the second round of chocolate batter, and put the other 14″ layer in the oven. When it was finished I made the other two yellow layers.

Finally, I made some extra-thick chocolate buttercream frosting to go between the chocolate layers, covered it with a damp paper towel, wrapped all the layers in plastic wrap, performed geometric manipulations to make them all fit in the crowded refrigerator, and got ready to go to dinner.

This morning I put the vanilla layers together with lemon curd and the chocolate layers together with frosting. Then it was time to generate 2 cups of egg whites — which, if you’re curious, took 13 eggs. The Swedish Buttercream came off like clockwork, transforming itself from runny goo to perfectly satin frosting so quickly that I didn’t have time to worry. We packed everything in car (including my mixer and extra ingredients in case I needed to make more frosting) and headed for church.

There, I applied a first thin layer of frosting to each of the three tiers, to seal in crumbs; Chloe turned the tiers for me as I worked. We put each tier in the refrigerator while I worked on the others, so the frosting had time to set. Next, out came the bottom and middle tiers. We cut 6 straws just a little longer than the cake was thick, pushed them down into the center, and then snipped off the extra length (which sent tiny bits of plastic flying everywhere); they would serve to support the upper layer, making them easy to separate when it was time to serve. Will, by virtue of being tallest, stood on a chair and looked down from above to ensure that I was placing the 10″ tier in the exact center of the one below it. On it went, and I covered the join with frosting. More straws, more snipping, and the top tier went into place.

Time to pipe. We decided on little round beads of frosting around the top edge of each tier, and little flowers of frosting all around the bottom joins. By the time I was finished, my right hand was cramping — that’s a lot of linear inches of piping!

I sprinkled silvery edible glitter over all the top surfaces (we decided the effect was rather like Tinkerbell applying fairy dust), and the result was highly satisfactory.

While I went away to practice some music for the church service, Chloe cut the tops of the flowers so they’d be ready to place. When I got back, it was time for the only nerve-wracking part of the day: transporting the cake from the kitchen counter to the serving table. That much cake is heavy, and we didn’t want it to tip. Our friend Malcolm lifted the cake carefully onto a rolling cart, while Chloe and I hovered around it, ready to make a grab if any layers tried to slip. We rolled the cart to the table, and he lifted it into place. Perfect.

Now, flowers, flowers everywhere, around the tiers and gathered at the bottom. And, of course, the lovely ladies on top. It was beautiful.

When it came time to serve, the layers separated easily, thanks to the straws. Doug’s suggested cake-cutting pattern worked perfectly: I cut a ring of cake about 2″ wide and then sliced off rectangular pieces. The quantity turned out to be just right. Everyone had plenty, the brides had lots of cake to take home, and we have some too.

All in all, a successful adventure that I just may undertake again one of these days.

wedding cake, part 1

Topper for the cake

Topper for the cake

At Christmas time, our good friends Carol and Jo Ann celebrated 30 years together by travelling to Massachusetts to get married. Friends and family will celebrate their legal union on Sunday with a reception at church. I’m asked fairly often to make cakes for church events, but this time the request was for a wedding cake.

I’ve had people ask me about wedding cakes a few times in the past, but I’ve declined. Yes, I make good cakes — but a wedding cake is so special, and it should be so beautiful … and I’ve always felt that my cake-decoration skills aren’t up to it. (I’ve tried making frosting flowers, and let’s just say that they haven’t looked good enough to eat.)

But I really, really want to make this cake for Jo Ann and Carol. And thanks to the wide world of advice and encouragement available online, I’m going to.

Here’s the plan:

  • Three tiers: 14″, 10″, and 6″
  • Bottom tier: 2 layers of chocolate cake with chocolate ganache filling
  • Top two tiers: 2 layers of vanilla cake with lemon-curd filling
  • Frosting: Swedish buttercream
  • Decoration: white piping and real flowers (which are infinitely more lovely than their icing counterparts), plus a beautiful and appropriate cake topper
Wedding cake pans

Wedding cake pans

My web searching provided several things I needed: a recipe for a really good vanilla cake (I’ve never found a yellow cake recipe that satisfies me), a recipe for frosting suitable for a wedding cake, and lots of advice about how to frost and construct the the finished product. A local shop provided the other things I needed: high-quality, heavy-duty cake pans; and clear vanilla extract (yes, it’s clear like water, so it doesn’t color the frosting).

The search for a frosting recipe was eye-opening. Sure, I have a buttercream recipe that I use all the time: butter, powdered sugar, vanilla, milk; beat until fluffy. It’s great for a standard sort of cake, but it isn’t satiny, smooth, and easy to pipe through a pastry bag — all the features that are important for frosting a wedding cake. A Google search for “wedding cake frosting” came up with some … interesting ideas of what people consider “ideal” for this purpose: several recipes included cups and cups of pure shortening and promised to taste “just like the frosting on a cake from the store.” And the reviews for those recipes happily concurred: “My family loved it. They said it tasted like it came from Kroger!” Ummm. No, that’s not quite what I’m going for.

Fortunately, I came across SmittenKitchen.com, and the site’s series of entries entitled “Project Wedding Cake.” When it came to frosting, she had already found the answer for me: Swedish buttercream. I’d never heard of it, but her description and the many comments on the original post clearly indicated that it was worth a try. And, bless her forever, Ms. Smitten Kitchen provided the quantities necessary to make a tiny test batch. I did so last night. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever made: heat egg whites and sugar until the sugar dissolves, beat until double in size, add vanilla, add soft butter, and whip until — well, until it’s ready. Again, thank goodness for detailed directions and encouragement. The stuff in the bowl is initially runny, soft, and nothing like frosting. But I kept the mixer going, because Ms. Smitten Kitchen promised me that I must believe and that it would come together. And suddenly, miraculously, the runny mixture gained structure and substance and became perfect. I tasted it, and all I could say was “Wow!” When my son tried it, his eyes grew wide. It’s infinitely smooth, satiny, buttery, and delicately sweet, and I can tell that it will be a dream to spread and pipe.

Tonight I’m planning to make some of the cakes. I’ll make the rest tomorrow, along with the frosting and fillings. After all the components have had some refrigeration time (to make them easier to work with), I’ll fill the layers and apply the outer layers of frosting. Sunday morning I’ll transport the pieces to church, where Doug will help me construct the tower and I’ll do the decorating. It promises to be a happy adventure.

Harry investigating my new pans

Harry investigating my new pans

an abundance of unkindness

Last night at dinner, my kids were talking about school and some of their teachers. My son said, “Mr. Jock [not his real name] keeps doing something really annoying.”

And what might that be?

“When two guys are wrestling around in the hall or something, Mr. Jock will ask them if they’re going out. Or he’ll call them girls — like, ‘Girls, are you coming to class?'”

Mr. Jock apparently makes such comments fairly often. Homophobic words litter his everyday speech.

His — and a lot of other people’s.

Teenagers have taken to using the word “gay” as slang for something stupid or ridiculous. Don’t like a movie? “It was really gay!” Think a kid at school is doing something goofy? “He’s so gay!”

I can fix that behavior within the confines of my house. My daughter’s ex-boyfriend learned to eliminate the negative “gay” figure of speech pretty quickly. Now we’re working on the new boyfriend.

But I can’t fix the behavior of my son’s teachers, and the other students, and all the people he’ll encounter for the rest of his life, who will speak and behave in ways that are bigoted and hurtful. Many of them will do so unconsciously, reflecting the way they were raised and taught. Others will do so very much on purpose.

And we live in relatively enlightened times! I’m frightened enough for my son as he faces the rest of his teen years and then adulthood. What must it have been like for parents of GBLT youth 20 years ago, or 50? It gives me some slight inkling of what it must be like to parent a child who’s a member of racial minority, even today. How did mothers and fathers bear to let their children leave the house in the days before Civil Rights brought at least partial sanity to our society?

For our gay youth, there is still very little sanity in the United States. Hate speech of the kind that is no longer tolerated when it refers to skin color is commonplace when it refers to sexuality. GBLT people can’t talk openly about their relationships or hold hands with their partners on public streets without risking verbal or physical violence. Prop 8 and similar laws around the country remind them that regardless of the strength of their love, many people consider their relationships “wrong” and unworthy of cementing with a marital bond (unless, like some dear friends of ours plan to do over Christmas, they travel to one of the few enlightened places that allow gays and lesbians to wed).

I love my son more than I can possibly express. I want to be able to ensure that his every moment is filled with happiness, love, and sunshine. But I can’t. I’m helpless even to ensure him a hate-free environment at school — we decided that it’s better not to try to address Mr. Jock’s behavior, lest fallout come back on my son; and my daughter has warned her brother that although the high school he’ll attend next year is a relatively GBLT-friendly environment, he’ll face plenty of unthinking insensitivity there, too.

All parents want their children to experience the very best that life has to offer. In the United States, all parents want to tell their children that they live in the land of equality and freedom. But some of us have to tell our children that as much as we love them, and as great as our country is, life for them will not be equal and free; instead they’ll encounter venom and hatred and disgust, not because of who they are but because of who they love.

No mother should have to say that to her son. It isn’t fair to either of us. And it makes me very, very angry.

in the presence of greatness

We were very, very glad we took the kids along to see this potentially historic event.

We were very, very glad we took the kids along to see this potentially historic event.

Our trip to see Barack Obama speak in Indianapolis yesterday was worth every minute of the drive, the wait in the incredibly long line, and the additional wait in the damp, cool outdoor grandstand where we sat. The man is a tremendous presence, and he spoke of working together, of making our country and the world a better place, of making sure that average people can lead good lives. He was phenomenal.

A small portion of the line that snaked through the Indiana State Fairgrounds

A small portion of the line that snaked through the Indiana State Fairgrounds

We arrived an hour before the gates opened, and the line was already at least a quarter mile long, wrapping around the buildings of the Indiana State Fairgrounds, with more people arriving constantly from all directions. It was the most diverse crowd I’ve ever been part of — black and white; older people, 20-somethings, and elementary school groups; union groups wearing matching shirts; people in all varieties of Obama-wear. While we waited, volunteers went up and down the line asking people to consider volunteering to help the campaign for a few hours between now and Nov. 4. Other folks demonstrated the spirit of free enterprise by selling buttons, hats, and t-shirts.

Once the gates opened, the line moved fairly quickly. At the base of the Security personnel checked all bags and belongings, and everyone walked through a metal detector. Volunteers were everywhere, directing people to seating. One of them pointed out the way to the infield, where we could be near the stage. It sounded good, so we gave it a try; and yes, we were probably only about 50 feet from the podium, but we were also standing in about 4 inches of mud — and would be for at least 3 hours, packed into the crowd. Sitting in the grandstand began to look like a good idea, so we moved up into the seats. Because we were there so early, we got excellent seats near the center and not too far up, close enough to see the speakers’ faces.

A small Obama fan

A small Obama fan

One of the two (visible) crews of sharpshooters who kept up constant surveillance of the entire area

One of the two (visible) crews of sharpshooters who kept up constant surveillance of the entire area

We were surrounded by happy, excited humanity. A couple with a sweet and charming 9-month-old girl sat in front of us. The 2 hours of waiting passed quickly, and the constant influx of people continued. An excellent assortment of music played over the loudspeakers; we agreed that we’d buy a CD compilation of Obama campaign music (and it looks like we can!). We were interested to see six sharpshooters setting up on top of two large vans to either side of the stage area; their weapons were in bags, not visible but within easy reach, and they spent the entire event scanning the surrounding area with binoculars. (Talk about a stressful job: constant vigilance, all the while hoping you never have to do what you’ve been trained to do.)

The sea of diverse humanity

The sea of diverse humanity

Overflow people were directed to the infield.

Overflow people were directed to the infield.

By 11:45, when the first speaker came to the podium, the grandstand was full (it holds about 14,000) and latecomers were being directed to the infield. We heard from a volunteer organizer, from the Indianapolis congressman, and from Jill Long Thompson, who’s running for governor. Then there was a short break, followed by an amazing new song; I didn’t know what it was at the time, but told Doug that it sounded like Lionel Ritchie. Turns out I was right: It’s a song called “Eternity,” with Ritchie’s singing mixed with Obama’s words. You can hear a sample here. (It gives me chills.) At the same moment, Obama’s motorcade entered the fairgounds area, and the crowd erupted.

First on the stage was Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, who was in the running for VP. He gave an excellent short speech, including the story of how his father took him to see Lyndon Johnson speak in Indianapolis — the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry Indiana. Bayh brought his two sons to hear Obama yesterday, hoping that they’ll once again witness a Democrat carrying the state. It appears astonishingly possible. Then, Bayh introduced “the next President of the United States: Barack Obama!”

Obama walked onto the stage to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.” He began by commenting, “What a magnificent crowd!” I agree, particularly because it was the middle of the day on a rainy, cool weekday in Indiana. He spoke for about 45 minutes, covering all his major campaign themes but also touching on some new points and covering economic issues in more depth. (Speaking about those who will get a tax cut: “Let’s see a show of hands: How many of you are making less than a quarter million dollars a year? [Pretty much every hand goes up] Yeah, that looks like a majority!”) Several times, he got really fired up in a way I haven’t seen at the Democratic Convention or in the debates, and it was marvelous to hear the emotion and commitment in his voice. As he finished, the music came up: Stevie Wonder singing “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” Perfect.

As we made our way out, my son commented, “That was amazing.” We left feeling energized, excited, hopeful, and most of all positive. Obama made no personal attacks; he talked about the need to make changes that will transform our country and help all Americans. It was a message of cohesion, of national pride and strength, of the hopes that we all share, and of his readiness to lead the country forward.

It was a great day, and we heard a great message from a great man.