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Tete-a-tete: “Handicapped accessible” doesn’t really mean what people think it means

Given the widespread access to information in this day and age, it’s easy to assume we’re all on the same page regarding the definition of certain phrases. If you don’t understand what something means, you can Google it, you can ask Siri about it or, if you’re a bit more old-school, you can look it up in a dictionary or an encyclopedia.

Take, for example, the phrase “handicapped accessible.” Wiktionary defines this term as an adjective that describes something that is “able to be accessed by people having physical handicaps.”

In practice, however, the definition of “handicapped accessible” appears to be “What? We made the space a little bigger and put some grab bars on the walls. What do you mean you’re still having problems?”

Over the course of the past year, my 92-year-old grandfather’s health has steadily declined. He’s completely there mentally and in good spirits, but his condition is such that he’s now on oxygen 24/7 and needs a wheelchair to get around.

Mom and I have been facilitating Grandpa’s travels, which have ranged from medical appointments where he lives in upstate New York to a multi-day road trip down to Georgia to attend his last sales convention for the company for which he worked for half a century. Our experiences have run the gamut from mildly inconvenient to “Is there a hidden camera somewhere? Are we being pranked?”

I’d like to acknowledge here that the language surrounding physical disabilities and mobility issues can be very charged and that everyone has their preferred vocabulary for describing these particular challenges. I’ve opted to use the term “handicapped accessible” because that’s how the managers and other personnel with whom we interact usually describe their facilities.

The biggest offenders, I’ve discovered, are bathrooms. Contrary to the opinion of most designers, a slightly bigger space and grab bars on the wall near the toilet does not a handicapped-accessible restroom make.

More often than not, we have to soap up Grandpa’s hands for him because the soap dispenser is too high or too far away for him to reach. We then have to splash water onto his hands to rinse them because the sink is so high that he can’t turn on the faucet himself, much less stretch his arms far enough to get his hands under the flow of water.

Paper towel dispensers and trash cans tend to be similarly out of reach. We have better luck with hand dryers, but if they’re not automatic, someone may still need to push the button for him because the dryer is positioned too high. Mom always carries hand sanitizer in the event we end up in a hand-washing scenario that’s going to be too taxing for Grandpa.

In addition to the height and positioning of the fixtures, the size of the bathroom can also be an issue. It doesn’t matter if the bathroom’s bigger if it’s not big enough to get a wheelchair inside and then maneuver the wheelchair within the bathroom space (see also: elevators). This may seem like an unnecessarily obvious statement, but Grandpa and I had a close call where I was able to get him into the restroom but almost couldn’t get him out again.

That bathroom, by the way, happened to be in a brand-new hospital, where you would think accessible design would have been a priority. Don’t get me started on the contortions required to fit a wheelchair into the examination rooms and then position said wheelchair in range of the room’s oxygen hookup.

On a related note, I’ve been in more men’s bathrooms these past few months than I care to count, a fact that Grandpa and his twin brother find quite entertaining. You do what you need to do to help your loved ones. And I always knock first.

Hotel rooms are another area where the meaning of “handicapped accessible” becomes ambiguous. Turning on the lights upon entering a handicapped-accessible room can be unexpectedly tricky. Sometimes, the light switch on the wall was mounted too high for Grandpa to reach while sitting in his wheelchair.

In one room, the wall switch didn’t turn on the lights at all because the previous occupant had turned off all the lamps by hand before leaving. To sync the lamps back up with the switch, we had to turn all of them on by hand – including a floor lamp wedged in a corner behind a table – and flip the switch off and then on again.

Had Grandpa been there by himself, he would have had to sit in the dark until there was enough sunlight for him to see by. Except that there was no way he would’ve been able to open the shades on his own.

Speaking of hotels, their definition of handicapped-accessible parking can also leave something to be desired. One particular hotel had rooms that opened onto the exterior of the building, and Mom and I were very excited that there was a handicapped-accessible parking spot right in front of Grandpa’s room. After hours of driving, it would be great to get him right inside so he could relax.

Unfortunately, though the parking spot had a sign indicating it was handicapped accessible, the sidewalk didn’t have a point of entry for a wheelchair. While Mom and I were working on a solution, Grandpa and his twin took matters into their own hands.

Grandpa’s twin, who is a bit unsteady and often pushes Grandpa’s wheelchair instead of using a walker, pushed him all the way across the parking lot to the other end of the hotel to get him up onto the sidewalk and then pushed him all the way back down the sidewalk to get to his room. So much for easy access.

Regardless of where your travels may take you, you will eventually have to deal with the dreaded “lip.” Those of you who have maneuvered wheelchairs may already be nodding and cringing.

Most entrances have a slightly raised part of the doorframe you have to step over in order to enter the building. It’s a subtle bump you may not even notice if you can walk easily. To an inexperienced wheelchair jockey, it feels like you’ve suddenly run up against the Great Wall of China.

There’s a knack to successfully navigating a wheelchair over a lip and, as Grandpa can tell you, I’m still mastering it. You have to push down on the wheelchair handles and pop the front wheels up and over the lip. If you try to meet the lip head-on and push the wheelchair straight over it, substituting force for finesse, you run the risk of accidentally dumping your passenger head-first onto the floor.

I have yet to unintentionally eject Grandpa, but we’ve had a few rocky encounters with the lip, the most memorable being at a restaurant with a 45-degree ramp leading up to its entryway. Pushing my 165-pound grandfather and his oxygen tank up the ramp was enough of a challenge – and then we ran into the lip right at the top.

I couldn’t go backward without risking a Three Stooges scenario, and I didn’t have enough stamina left to execute the required wheelie. I’d love to tell you how I managed it, but I don’t quite remember. It’s possible I blacked out and had an Incredible Hulk moment.

For those of us who are able-bodied and accustomed to navigating our environment without a second thought, it often takes a mobility impairment – either of our own or of someone we know – to realize that “handicapped accessible” tends to mean limited or incomplete accessibility. Great strides have indeed been made, but there is certainly room for improvement.

Perhaps we can require that anyone who designs a handicapped-accessible space must successfully navigate it with a mobility aid before it’s approved for public use. Soap dispensers might suddenly be easier to reach if a few architects had to deal with dirty hands sans the benefit of a savvy caregiver with hand sanitizer.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published July 6, 2017

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Tete-a-tete: The ins and outs of the college moving experience

Given the option, most of us would not choose to move four times in as many years. Packing and unpacking, protecting delicate items, moving large pieces of furniture – it’s a stressful process. And yet, it’s considered perfectly normal for college students to move in and out of their living arrangements each year as dorm assignments change or apartment leases expire.

This usually ends up being a family endeavor, with parents and siblings pitching in to help the move go as smoothly as possible. Unfortunately, there are always things you can’t prepare for that inevitably complicate matters.

Architecture poses one of the biggest unexpected challenges. In my sophomore year of college, I lived in a dorm that was entered by walking down a flight of stairs. This was not a mere two or three steps down – we’re talking about a good two dozen steps.

This flight of stairs did not appear to serve any significant architectural purpose apart from being part of an incredibly dysfunctional design, for they only led to the lobby, which included the elevator and stairs leading to four floors of dorm rooms.

The day we students were scheduled to move in, the elevator happened to be out of order. And guess whose room was on the fourth floor? These circumstances led Dad to question whether I had employed my critical thinking skills when I had selected my dorm. (I believe the exact turn of phrase was, “Are you an idiot?”) I chose to live in a different dorm for the remainder of my college career.

Oldest Younger Brother fared well with dorm living, having been graced with a functioning elevator when moving in and moving out. Impractical architecture reared its ugly head once again, however, when he began living off campus as a sophomore.

That year, he and his roommates rented the top floor of a triple-decker. There was no elevator, which was fine because we hadn’t really expected one, but the architect had seen fit to design a narrow staircase that had a landing, immediately followed by a 90-degree turn, every five feet.

Dad and Oldest Younger Brother labored valiantly to heft his new-to-him loveseat up the stairs by passing it from landing to landing, up the center of the stairwell, only to discover it wouldn’t fit through the doorway of the apartment.

They borrowed a hacksaw and cut off the legs of the loveseat, but it was still too tight a squeeze. Dad and Oldest Younger had to remove the doorframes in the apartment – yes, the doorframes, not just the doors – before they could settle the loveseat in its new home in the living room. Even then, it barely made it.

When it was time to move out, Oldest Younger Brother opted to leave the loveseat. There was no way they were getting it back out of the apartment unless it was in pieces, and it might just save the next renter some hassle.

Another unexpected challenge you might encounter is the unpreparedness of your college student. My junior year, I was living in a dorm with a reasonable arrangement of steps and a functioning elevator, so Dad figured the two of us could handle the moving-out process by ourselves. He told me to make sure I obtained boxes so I could be all packed up when he arrived.

I don’t know really know what my thought process was, but I didn’t get boxes. Nor did I tell Dad I didn’t get boxes.

I do remember he thought I’d be able to get them on campus. Apparently, some colleges sell boxes and other packing materials at the end of the school year to make things easier for their students. Given that my school did not consider a broken elevator on Move-in Day to be an issue, it was no surprise that boxes were not being sold on campus.

Getting boxes would have involved taking the college shuttle to the mall, walking to the home supply store several plazas over and carrying the boxes back to the mall without getting flattened by unconcerned urban drivers. It was not a risk I was willing to take.

So when Dad arrived, expecting to load up the van and go, he was shocked to find that I was, by and large, not packed. He made an emergency run to a nearby drugstore and returned with a pack of lawn bags – big, heavy-duty paper bags used for grass clippings and other byproducts of lawn maintenance.

I don’t think a dorm room has ever been packed up so quickly. Parental frustration is an excellent motivator.

On the plus side, we did discover that the lawn bags were more durable (and easier to store) than the banker’s boxes we had been using previously. I was glad my lack of preparation had resulted in some sort of positive outcome, but I didn’t mention that to Dad until, like, next year when I was packing to move in.

We just moved Youngest Brother out of his dorm after his first year of college, and I’m pleased to report that this was quite possibly the easiest move-out process we’ve ever had. Neither architecture nor student unpreparedness interfered – there were no inappropriate stairs, the elevator worked properly and he did some packing beforehand. The half-dozen large tote bags Mom brought easily accommodated everything else.

Our cousins who live nearby volunteered to help, and between the five of us, everything took three trips, the last trip being devoted solely to the refrigerator. We were even able to go out to dinner afterwards without anyone being grumpy or frustrated due to moving day mishaps.

I hope things will go as smoothly for Younger Sister when she starts college this fall and we move her into her dorm. She’s a very responsible young lady, so I doubt preparedness will be an issue, and the dorms appear to be laid out in a logical fashion.

But then again, there’s always the elevator.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published June 1, 2017

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Tete-a-tete: When dealing with cabin fever, this cat’s on a roll

Cabin fever is an essential part of New Hampshire winters, and one of the things that makes spring so welcome. After months of shoveling snow and cleaning off the car, it’s positively invigorating to do something outdoors that doesn’t involve that white fluffy stuff.

This goes double for those furry family members who are accustomed to getting plenty of outside time during the more temperate seasons. When massive snowbanks interfere with their recreation for a prolonged period of time, the resulting frustration can lead to damaged furniture, chewed shoes and knickknacks being knocked off the mantelpiece – unless you (or your pet) get creative.

Pets do not always understand winter, especially young pets. When Boots, our family cat, adopted us about two years ago, the vet estimated she was about 7-10 years old based on the condition of her teeth. And then, Boots started getting longer.

Instead of a senior kitizen, it turned out we had an adolescent on our hands. The bad teeth, we believe, are due to Boots having to hunt in order to survive while she was living outdoors. To this day, when she kills something, she eats everything but the head, tail and entrails. It’s a very economical practice but makes for a lot of wear and tear on the teeth.

Once we realized how young she was, some of Boots’ behavior made more sense – like the fact that she expects snow to disappear overnight.

All winter long, she would insist on going outside, only to hurry back in after discovering the snow hadn’t gone away and was still covering over the holes and burrows of the local wildlife. Her hunting instincts thwarted, Bootsie needed more playtime to burn off her energy. When our busy schedules interfered with that playtime, she would take out her frustrations on the side of the couch.

We keep her well stocked with toys, but they don’t really last long. Anything with catnip in it is gutted in a matter of hours. After a failed period of trial and error during which we attempted to find more durable options, Boots herself unexpectedly hit on a creative solution – or, more accurately, dragged said solution to the ground and destroyed it.

Dad had been doing some cleaning, and he left a roll of paper towels standing on end in the middle of the family room floor. Boots wandered over to it and gave it a long, hard stare. She bopped it with her paw, reflected for a moment and then, to our surprise, launched herself at it as though it were her deadliest foe.

She wrestled with the roll of paper towels for several minutes, tearing through the layers with teeth and claws. Boots and the roll were about the same size, which made for a satisfying battle on her part. Since there are a lot of layers to rip through and it’s not the easiest work to do, that one paper towel roll lasted her about a week, which is far longer than most of her toys.

The carpet did end up covered in piles of paper towel confetti, but that level of cleanup was more than acceptable if it meant we could preserve the couch and keep the kitty happy.

Paper towel rolls helped Bootsie get through the long winter, and now they’re helping her cope with the disappointments of spring. Even though she was surviving on her own outdoors before she adopted us, we do have some ground rules for when she goes outside. First, she can’t go out when it’s dark, and second, she can’t go out unless someone is home to let her back in (and out, and in, and out, and …). This leaves a limited amount of time in which she can go outside and enjoy the lovely spring weather.

To the kitty’s great dismay, an entire beautiful day might pass with her only being able to spend a few minutes outside. It might even rain, which means no outside time at all. (We still offer to let her out when it rains, but she’s not a fan of precipitation.) On days like these, she retreats to the living room and shreds some paper towels.

Being cooped up all winter is rough whether you’re a person or a pet. If the weather is right for outdoor adventures but the timing isn’t, consider taking Boots’ approach. Find something inexpensive and satisfying to take out your frustrations on, and make the most of the outside time you do get.

Please do remember, though, that unlike Boots, you will have to clean up your own mess. So choose your target carefully.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published May 4, 2017

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Tete-a-tete: An artistic masterpiece 20 years in the making

Handmade gifts are typically associated with young children. Since preschoolers and elementary schoolers tend to be a bit short on cash, they’re often encouraged to make a card or a draw a picture for Mom or Dad for their birthdays and various holidays. Regardless of the level of skill these creations exhibit, they are invariably treasured and put on prominent display.

Some children continue this practice even after they start earning money and can afford to buy gifts. Dad has a lovely piece of macaroni art hanging on his office wall that Oldest Younger Brother made for him. Oldest Younger Brother took care to sign his work with his name and his age at the time: 19.

Depending on the artistic talents of your parents, sometimes the situation gets reversed. For the last 20 years, I’ve been asking Mom to create a piece of artwork for me for my birthday or Christmas.

When I was in high school, I made the discovery that Mom was an artist while helping her go through some old boxes. At that point in time, I knew she had a stellar sense of aesthetics due to her fashion choices and the plans she’d drafted for the interior design of our new house, but I didn’t realize how skilled she was at drawing and painting.

Sorting through her projects from her high school and college art classes (Mom majored in art history) made quite an impression on me, and I asked if she would make me something as a gift. Mom was touched by my interest and enthusiastically agreed.

And then, as it so often does, life happened.

Instead of setting up her easel and paints, Mom was volunteering for Boy Scouts, helping with science fair projects, taking my siblings and me to sports practices and drama rehearsals and doing the myriad other things moms do. She’s also devoted a considerable amount of time to taking care of my grandfather, who has been living on his own since Grandma passed away a few years ago and is dealing with increasing health challenges.

I remind Mom intermittently that I’d like her to create something for me, and though she’s expressed a desire to return to her personal artistic endeavors, she simply hasn’t had the time, instead channeling her creativity into birthday party decorations, children’s crafts and working as a substitute art teacher for the school district.

A few weeks ago, however, she had an unexpected opportunity to use her painting skills when she and I took Grandpa and his identical twin to his company’s annual convention. The company offered an instructional painting class for the attendees’ family members as a special social opportunity while the attendees were otherwise engaged. Since you had to sign up in advance, Grandpa signed Mom up first and told her about it later.

After the class, Mom proudly presented me with a lovely painting of a pineapple in bright tropical colors, finally fulfilling her 20-year-old promise.

Well, that’s sort of how it went.

After the class, Mom showed me her painting and wondered aloud what she was going to do with it. “The colors don’t really go with anything in the house, so I’m not sure where I’d put it.”

“It might work with the wall color in the family room. Maybe you could put it …” I trailed off, remembering my request from two decades ago. “Wait a minute! My birthday’s coming up!” I tried to control my excitement. “If you wanted to, you know, you could give it to me.”

“Oh, you’re right!” Mom exclaimed. “But do you really want it?”

“Of course! You made it! Plus, I actually have a few pineapples in my decorating scheme, and the colors will work perfectly.”

Mom beamed and happily handed me the painting, which I accepted with equal joy.

To consider this a happy ending would be premature, as we still had to get the painting safely home. Grandpa’s convention was in Saint Simons Island, Georgia, which is near the southeast corner of the state. The painting had to be carefully loaded into a jam-packed SUV every day for four days while we made our way back to Grandpa’s home in upstate New York. From there, it had to be transported back to New Hampshire with equal caution. There were a few close calls, but the painting is currently leaning against the wall in my bedroom, waiting to be hung in a place of honor.

Just as parents appreciate it when their kids sign and date their drawings, I too would like Mom to add these elements to her painting. She has signed it, but I’ve asked her to add the date as well as where it was painted. This will help me to remember why she painted a pineapple (it’s a symbol associated with Saint Simons Island) as well as just how much time passed and how far we had to travel before Mom was able to create a work of art for me as promised.

Given how busy life continues to be, I’m not going to wait for those elements to be added before I hang the painting. Otherwise, it could very well be leaning against the wall for another 20 years.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published April 6, 2017

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Tete-a-tete: Promp and circumstance: Modern-day prom prep

Depending on the school, prom may not be until April, May or June, but the average high school student has been preparing for months, 17-year-old Younger Sister included. That may sound a bit superfluous, but prom truly does require more planning than it used to.

For girls, the most important thing is the dress. Thanks to online shopping, the options today are nearly limitless and you have to start looking pretty early in order to narrow it down. Unfortunately, having more options doesn’t necessarily mean having more good options, as Younger Sister can tell you.

All she wants for prom is a plain satin two-piece ensemble in a neutral color – no sequins, sparkles or other embellishments. She’s comfortable with a narrow gap between the skirt and the top but would prefer to avoid an entirely exposed midriff.

You would think Younger Sister is asking for the holy grail. She’s sifted through hundreds of options online, and everything she’s found in the two-piece style has been too glitzy, too colorful or the top is so cropped and the skirt is so short that it looks more like a figure skating costume than a prom dress.

I wish I had a time machine so Younger Sister could go shopping back in my prom era. Two-piece ensembles weren’t particularly popular, but unembellished satin dresses were all the rage and easy to find in the special occasion section of the department store of your choice.

A few girls may have gone to a bridal boutique or high-end shop in hopes of finding a standout dress, but most of us did our prom shopping at the mall. Having the same dress as another girl wasn’t a big deal as there were only so many variations on the A-line silhouette popular at the time (read: straps or no straps) and it only came in so many colors. I remember my prom being a sea of similar dresses in shades of pink, purple and blue along with black and white.

In fact, two girls showed up wearing the exact same dress: a bright blue beaded number that was so unique, each likely thought she’d be the only one wearing it. Rather than getting upset, they laughed about it and posed for pictures together. One of those pictures even ended up in the yearbook.

These days, having a unique prom dress is considered so important that girls set up special groups on Facebook where any girl attending prom at their school can post a picture of her dress. With duplication not only discouraged but preventable, shopping early is a must, and more and more girls are taking the online or (expensive) boutique routes to ensure they get the one-of-a-kind dress of their dreams.

For guys, the planning revolves around the all-important promposal. Instead of the tried-and-true “Will you go to the prom with me?” that’s stood them in good stead for so many years, guys are now expected to ask their prospective date to the prom in witty, clever and thoughtful ways that can require as much forethought and coordination as a marriage proposal.

Dad recently had the pleasure of witnessing a promposal while we were celebrating a few family birthdays at a fondue restaurant. He made a wrong turn on his way to the restroom and ended up in a part of the restaurant known as Lovers’ Lane because of its intimate atmosphere and out-of-the-way location. A waiter was preparing a pot of cheese fondue at the table of a teenage couple, and when the fondue was ready, the boy turned to the girl and said, “I know this is cheesy, but I’m very fondue of you. Will you go to prom with me?”

Of course, the girl said yes. How could you possibly refuse a guy who takes you out for cheese fondue and has an appreciation for puns?

Promposals certainly amount to a lot of pressure for the guys, especially since there’s no guarantee the girl will say yes. It is, however, far preferable to the confusion that can ensue when the guy doesn’t bother to ask the girl because he assumes she’s going with him regardless – like what happened with my grandfather and grandmother.

Since Grandpa was dating Grandma and had taken her to other dances, he figured he’d also be taking her to her junior prom (Grandpa was a year ahead of her in school) and he didn’t need to ask her – that is, until Grandma told him that another fellow had driven out to her house and asked her to be his date. She had told him she thought Grandpa was going to ask her but that he hadn’t yet, and if Grandpa didn’t ask her, she would accept his invitation.

Grandpa was baffled that she would even consider going to her junior prom with someone else – after all, she was his girlfriend – but Grandma replied that since Grandpa hadn’t asked her, she wasn’t sure if he wanted to take her. He made it clear that he absolutely wanted to take her, and she happily accepted. After that, Grandpa took special care to ask Grandma to every school dance.

Between crafting the perfect promposal and scouring the global marketplace for a dress you love and no one else has, prom requires more planning than it once did. The pressure for a perfect prom experience is real, but make sure that doesn’t keep you from enjoying the preparations or the event itself. Whether it’s a duplicate dress situation that makes the yearbook or your promposal is the wrong kind of cheesy, sometimes the best memories are made when things go awry.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published March 2, 2017

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Tete-a-tete: Blue Apron – a Pandora’s box of weekly culinary adventures

We enjoy the humorous situations on TV shows, but truth be told, they often seem a little far-fetched. The grains of truth are certainly there – for example, a child leaving an important school project until the last minute – but surely they exaggerate for comedic effect.

At least, that was what I thought until I found myself in a situation straight out of “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

In the pilot episode of this long-running sitcom, Ray buys his mother, Marie, a subscription to the Fruit of the Month Club as a birthday gift. As the name of the club suggests, each month, she receives a box of a different kind of fruit.

Rather than seeing this as a thoughtful, enjoyable gift, Marie panics at the amount of fruit she has in her house and how on earth she and her husband, Frank, will be able to eat it all. When she realizes this first delivery isn’t a one-time thing and this scenario will be repeating itself every month for a year, she has a meltdown, demanding to know why Ray would do such a thing to her. He apologizes, completely bewildered.

When I first watched that episode, I found it entertaining but thought Marie was overreacting a bit. A subscription to the Fruit of the Month Club was a pretty creative idea for a birthday present, and it was hard to imagine how the presence of a dozen pears could be so stressful.

And then, Oldest Younger Brother and Sister-in-law gave me a subscription to Blue Apron as part of my Christmas present.

Blue Apron is a service that sends you just about everything you need to make a meal – the recipe, the ingredients, and the seasonings. Everything is perfectly portioned and pre-measured to make cooking as easy as possible, and the ingredients are farm-fresh and sustainably sourced to boot.

After choosing three meals from the website, I anxiously awaited my first delivery. I am not the most skilled or experienced cook, and I had my doubts as to how this experiment would play out. I am, however, very good at following directions, a trait I hoped would be my culinary salvation.

When the box arrived, I opened it expecting to see the ingredients for the first meal I had chosen. To my surprise, I found the ingredients for all three meals. I proceeded to have a mild conniption.

How on earth did the Blue Apron people expect me to cook everything in this box before it spoiled? Who did they think I was, Julia Child? Apparently not, given that there wasn’t any wine included in the box.

Mom assured me the produce would keep and that the meat and seafood could be frozen and then thawed when I was ready to use them. She also promised to help me if I wanted her assistance – a truly generous offer, given how much Mom dislikes cooking.

I cooked the first meal, Spicy Shrimp and Korean Rice Cakes, on my own, and Mom and I made the second meal, Seared Chicken and Couscous, together. Each meal took about an hour and a half to two hours to prepare. Everything turned out surprisingly well, thanks to Mom being a helpful extra set of hands and my refusal to let her add or substitute any ingredients.

The biggest challenge we faced was neither the endless washing and chopping of produce nor zesting a lemon while overseeing a pan of sizzling chicken but the simple fact that the Blue Apron meals made two servings and there were six of us at the house at that time, some of whom had dietary restrictions. As such, the Blue Apron meals had to be cooked in addition to whatever else was being made for dinner that evening, making it tricky to plan.

While we were figuring out when we could fit in the Potato and Artichoke Quiches, another box, containing three additional meals, arrived. These meals, I should add, were selected by Blue Apron without my input. You should have seen my face when I unpacked a tray of raw catfish filets.

In that moment, I completely identified with Marie’s panic over the Fruit of the Month Club. How could there already be more food? I hadn’t finished making the food from last week! How am I going to cook everything before it goes bad when I still have to meet my work deadlines and manage all my other responsibilities?

To quote Marie, “I can’t talk, there’s too much fruit in the house!”

Mom took pity on me and made the quiches herself. But before I was able to make any of the meals from the second box, a third box of Blue Apron-selected meals arrived.

There is nothing quite like the guilt brought on by the combination of a busy schedule and a fridge full of sustainably-sourced fresh produce. The famed Irish Catholic guilt pales in comparison.

Since the arrival of the third box, I’ve managed to make two more meals on my own – well, apart from that panicky moment when Younger Sister had to race into the kitchen and help me open a package of ground beef because I couldn’t do that and stir a pan of sizzling aromatics at the same time.

Though the Blue Apron subscription has been a source of stress, it’s been an excellent learning experience and an opportunity to broaden my horizons. My peeling, coring, and chopping skills have improved, and I now know what a fennel bulb looks like. When I first took it out of the box, I thought I had accidentally been sent a heart transplant for the Jolly Green Giant.

I also have more confidence in my ability to determine if meat or seafood is appropriately cooked and of course, Boots, our family cat, loves her concurrent subscription to the Box of the Week Club.

I’d offer a bit more of a wrap-up here, but it’s getting toward dinner time and I need to cook Lemon-Caper Catfish with Spiced Lentils and Collard Greens because I don’t know if there’s a fourth box currently in transit. I’ve been so busy cooking, I haven’t had time to contact Oldest Younger Brother and ask him how long this subscription lasts.

And I just discovered that the all-important lemon has mysteriously disappeared. Perhaps a subscription to the Fruit of the Month Club is in order.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Feb. 2, 2017

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Tete-a-tete: Serve up a slice of family traditions, new or old

As children grow up and leave the nest, long-held family holiday traditions change. Sometimes they’re replaced with new traditions, and sometimes the old traditions evolve to accommodate the current shape of family life.

Since their marriage nearly three years ago, Oldest Younger Brother and Sister-in-law have alternated holidays between their families, spending Christmas with one and Thanksgiving with the other. Since they spent Thanksgiving with us in 2015, they celebrated Christmas with us in 2016.

Though we certainly miss their presence on Christmas, their absence on Thanksgiving is considerably more challenging as it affects the logistics of our annual pumpkin pie-making competition. Historically, the four of us siblings split into two teams and compete to see who can make the best pumpkin pie, using the same recipe that Oldest Younger Brother and I have used since childhood.

We aren’t the greatest bakers, though Oldest Younger Brother has shown marked improvement since moving out of the house and learning how to cook for himself. Making the “best” pumpkin pie means not making too many mistakes in measuring out the ingredients and coming up with a result that is generally edible.

Now that Sister-in-law has joined our family, we split up into one team of three and one team of two. But when Oldest Younger Brother and Sister-in-law aren’t with us for Thanksgiving, there’s no fair way to divide the remaining three siblings.

This past Thanksgiving, Dad proposed a novel solution to our dilemma. Instead of us siblings competing, he and Mom would duke it out for best pumpkin pie bragging rights. They agreed that Dad would make the recipe we traditionally ruin – I mean, use – and Mom would make a recipe from one of her cookbooks.

Mom made her pie first, and her efforts quickly began to mirror that of myself and my younger siblings. She somehow managed to cut herself without having anything sharp in the vicinity, with the possible exception of a broken eggshell. It had been a while since Mom last used the mixer, so she had forgotten which direction to turn the dial to shut it off. Regrettably, she chose the wrong direction and pie filling sprayed across the counter.

Dad surveyed the scene and commented, “I made the turkey, and I didn’t use that many dishes.”

“You may have made the turkey, but I made the mess,” Mom cheerfully retorted.

Dad cleaned up the kitchen before starting his pie, for which he used one bowl and no mixer. Mom kept a close eye on him, jokingly criticizing his cooking process: “He’s looking a little messy over there.”

She nudged me. “Don’t have anything to drink before dinner. It might make Dad’s pie look better.”

Dad finished his pie – and both his and Mom’s cleanup – in 15 minutes. Mom’s pie preparation took about half an hour to 45 minutes.

In Mom’s defense, one reason it took her so long to make her pie was because she was simultaneously having a conversation with me, which impacted her ability to focus on what she was doing.

The other factor was Mom’s proclivity for substituting ingredients. Her theory is that if two ingredients are roughly the same color and texture, they are interchangeable. This has led to such occurrences as the Savory Muffin Incident, in which she substituted cilantro for parsley.

Cooking also brings out Mom’s natural creativity, which can lead to her adding ingredients that seem like they’ll mesh well with the rest of the recipe. Given her theory about substitution, this does not always end well.

In the case of the pumpkin pie, she was thinking about adding some additional spices. I ultimately talked her out of it, making the argument that she didn’t want to lose to Dad because she had strayed from the recipe.

Finally, it came time for the moment of truth – which, I must admit, was somewhat anticlimactic. Mom was especially eager to know our thoughts on the pies and which one we preferred, but it was hard to choose.

To my palate, both pies were excellent but similar, with Mom’s tasting a little bit sweeter and Dad’s having a slightly stronger pumpkin flavor. Youngest Brother and Younger Sister didn’t taste much of a difference either. To Mom’s great disappointment, it ended in a draw.

I will confess that my perception of the pies’ flavors may have been affected by the sizable amount of whipped cream I had automatically placed on my slices. After nearly three decades of eating burnt pies with incorrectly measured ingredients, it’s a reflexive act of self-preservation. Without a hefty serving of whipped cream, you might taste the pie, which isn’t always a good thing.

Though Oldest Younger Brother and Sister-in-law are slated to spend Thanksgiving with us this year, it’s hard to say if the pie-making competition will revert to its previous format. Youngest Brother will be a sophomore in college and might study abroad, and Younger Sister will be a college freshman and may or may not come home for the holiday depending on her location. More changes will come over time as spouses, children and job changes continue to enter the picture.

Cherish the traditions you have while you have them and embrace the ways in which they evolve. It might require some adjustment on your part, but the new memories you make and the new adventures you have will be well worth it – especially if they involve your parents mocking each other’s pies.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Jan. 5, 2017

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Tete-a-tete: ‘Family court’ has a whole new meaning at our house

Deciding what you want to be when you grow up is a fun and imaginative exercise when you’re a small child, but it’s slightly more stressful when you’re a high school senior filling out college applications and realizing that, with perhaps the exception of theater, you can’t major in being a fairy princess.

Sometimes you might have an interest or a skill that corresponds to an obvious course of study and career path, making for an easier decision. An affinity for building things with LEGOs, for example, could translate to a career in mechanical engineering.

Other times, the clues are more subtle and have more to do with personality traits than personal interests. Such has been the case with 17-year-old Younger Sister, who has spent the past few months applying to colleges and wrestling with these all-important questions.

Being the loving and supportive family we are, we’ve done our best to help by offering suggestions and guidance, which has involved some serious reflection on her character and what makes her tick.

Younger Sister is a very straightforward young lady who is not afraid to speak her mind and stand up for what she believes in. She is articulate, logical and adept at defending others who are afraid to speak up or simply do not know what to say.

When coming to a decision on a contentious matter, Younger Sister speaks with confidence and decisiveness, giving the impression that her conclusion is not only the obvious one but the only correct one.

Mom and Dad, veterans of numerous discussions and debates with Younger Sister, have come to the conclusion that she would make an excellent lawyer.

I concur, having recently been the defendant in what Dad considers Younger Sister’s first court case: Older Sister Who Parked Her Car in My Spot.

One day, I happened to arrive home before Younger Sister. She usually parks close to the house, while my typical parking spot is on a part of the driveway overhung by trees. Having recently divested my car of an accumulation of pine needles, acorns, leaves and other natural debris, I thought I would give my car (and myself) a break by parking close to the house, in the spot where Younger Sister normally parks.

Younger Sister arrived home later that evening, after the sun had set. Upon entering the house, the first words out of her mouth were that I should not have parked in her spot and that I needed to move my car immediately. Because she had to park where I normally do, she had had to walk about ten feet in the dark before she was close enough to the house for the sensors to pick up her presence and the outside lights turned on.

This, she informed me, was unacceptable, as she was away from the house for much longer periods of time than I was, often leaving and returning when it was dark outside. Since I drive less frequently than she does and mostly during daylight hours, I should therefore be the one to park further from the house.

As previously mentioned, it is unwise to debate Younger Sister unless you are prepared to bring your A game. I did my best, reminding her that “her spot” had been occupied by numerous other family members over the years before she got her license and that she did not have a monopoly on it. Objection overruled.

I then attempted to argue that, since she does drive more frequently, her car would end up with less of an accumulation and it would thus make more sense for her to park under the trees. Objection overruled.

As a last resort, I pointed out that when I get home after sunset, I have to walk that same distance in the dark, which makes that aspect of the parking issue equally problematic for me. Younger Sister’s rebuttal was that there’s a difference between me walking that distance once in a while and her walking it every morning and every night.

Verdict: Further deviation from the established parking arrangement will not be tolerated. Any exceptions are to be submitted for approval ahead of time and will be accepted or rejected based on their legitimacy.

On second thought, perhaps Younger Sister should skip being a lawyer and go straight to being a judge.

Though my points were all valid and reasonable, Younger Sister’s were more so, and they were delivered with her characteristic confidence. I was right, but she was more right. And she has since generously permitted me to park in “her spot” on occasions when I have had a legitimate need to do so, such as after running errands and needing to bring a number of bags into the house.

Younger Sister has not made a concrete decision as to whether she’ll be going into law and is still keeping her options open in terms of future professions. Regardless, it’s obvious that advocacy and debate are among her strengths.

I just hope that wherever she goes to school has assigned parking spaces so she can focus on honing her skills inside the classroom rather than outside.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Dec. 1, 2016

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Tete-a-tete: Drafted on the farm: Grandpa’s war at home

With Veterans Day right around the corner, many of us are thinking of the men and women who serve in the military and the families that support them. Their courage, dedication and willingness to sacrifice have helped secure the freedom and safety of those of us here in the United States and those in numerous nations around the globe.

There are many ways to serve our country apart from being an active duty soldier. For example, we often hear about the Rosie the Riveters who worked in the factories during World War II to provide munitions and other supplies for the soldiers fighting overseas. What tends to be lesser known is that during this same time period, there were a number of able-bodied men who enlisted but were never called up because the government had a different assignment for them. My grandfather was one of these men.

The year was 1943. World War II was raging, with the U.S. having been involved since December 8, 1941, the day after the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor. Grandpa and his twin brother were in their senior year of high school in Seneca Falls, N.Y. They lived in the neighboring town of Tyre, having moved there at age 13 with their parents and younger sister to live on the family farm.

Like many other young men at the time, Grandpa and his twin were eager to enlist in the armed forces and do their part. Their father (nicknamed “Raging Reg” in his college sports days) had served in the Army in World War I, fighting in France and Germany. Having grown up sailing on the Finger Lakes, Grandpa and his twin hoped to join the Navy and put their love of boating to use for their country.

They went with a group of their friends to enlist and returned to their daily lives of school and farm chores, waiting for their assignments. By the summer of 1943, everyone had been called into service – except Grandpa and his brother.

At that time, they had completely taken over running the family farm, which happened more out of necessity than intention. The reason they had moved back to the farm in the first place was because their grandfather, Ulysses Lincoln Grant Seekell (guess which war he was born after?), had taken a nasty fall off a load of hay and was no longer able to keep the farm going on his own. Their father and mother both worked, so the boys stepped up to help their grandfather. He was eventually completely unable to work and soon passed away, leaving Grandpa and his twin no choice but to take charge of the farm.

With so much responsibility now on their plates, Grandpa and his twin didn’t have much time to wonder why they hadn’t been called up. In the fall of 1943, however, after the crops were harvested and the haying was done, they made an appointment to see Izzy Hershberger, the chairman of the draft board in the neighboring town of Waterloo, and find out what was going on.

As Grandpa tells it, Izzy took one look at them and told them there was no way they were going into the military. “Boys, you are drafted on the farm,” he said. “We have to have somebody working that land out there.”

This wasn’t exactly what they’d been hoping to hear. Instead of setting sail for adventure like their friends, they’d be growing corn and soybeans and getting up at dawn to milk the cows. Izzy’s decree made it official.

This was the reality for many farmers during the latter years of World War II. With so many men having been drafted to fight overseas, there weren’t enough back home to work the fields and raise the crops needed to feed the country and provide rations for the soldiers. As a result, men who were actively engaged in farming had their military service deferred and were drafted on the farm instead.

Grandpa and his twin farmed together through the war’s end and into the 1950s, when his twin relocated to take a job in sales. Grandpa (and Grandma, who he married in 1946) raised three children on the farm, including my mother, and continued to work the land until they sold the property in the mid 1990s.

His tale reminds me a bit of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which Jimmy Stewart’s character sets aside his dream of leaving the small town he grew up in and traveling the world to take over his family’s business for the greater good. And given that the fictional town of Bedford Falls is said to be based on Seneca Falls, it feels like a fitting comparison.

Unlike soldiers, whose courage and sacrifices are recognized with a variety of medals and official honors, Grandpa and his twin didn’t have anything to acknowledge that they were drafted on the farm apart from their own recollection of events. This changed last year when, in honor of their 90th birthdays, their state senator, Michael F. Nozzolio, issued each of them a proclamation celebrating their life’s achievements, including their war-time service on the farm. It was a proud moment for both of them and for our family.

To everyone who has served this great nation of ours, you have my deepest thanks, from the soldiers who fight the battles to the military families who support their soldiers to the farmers and factory workers who ensure soldiers and civilians alike are well supplied. God bless you, and please know that no sacrifice or act of courage, publicly recognized or not, goes unnoticed in His eyes.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Nov. 3, 2016

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Tete-a-tete: With family, you have to give it the ol’ college try

Family dynamics change when children go away to college. Some new college students relish their newfound freedom and independence and distance themselves from their families while they spread their wings. Others crave the security of home and invest more time in their relationships with their parents and siblings through texting and social media.

Nineteen-year-old Youngest Brother recently started college in upstate New York, six hours away from us. I’ve been giving him space to adjust, being unsure as to how our family in general and I in particular fit into his new college life. In this season, older siblings are sometimes considered an asset, sometimes an embarrassment, and I figured I’d wait and see which one I was and take my cues from there.

The verdict came last month when Mom and I went to upstate New York to visit Grandpa and help him with various errands and medical appointments. Our itinerary also included visiting Youngest Brother, whose school is about an hour away from where Grandpa lives.

We drove to his campus early in the week and took him out to lunch between classes. Youngest Brother talked with us about his heavy workload and the expectations of his professors. While he was pleased to see us and enjoyed our company, he was also anxious to return to campus.

It’s a feeling I remember well from my own college years – that daily, generalized sense of panic over having a lot to do and limited time in which to do it. Want to make a college student spontaneously combust? Take them off campus in between classes in the middle of the week and give them a vague idea of when you might be bringing them back. You could power a small city off the resulting nervous energy.

We were far too kind to do that to Youngest Brother, and we made sure he was back on campus with time to spare before his next class. Mom stocked his dorm room with cereal and snacks and promised to return in a few days with some additional supplies. Youngest Brother asked if I would also be coming back, to which I responded that I would.

When the time came for Mom’s second trip, however, I decided to stay back and take advantage of a quiet day to get some of my work done. I didn’t think it was especially important for me to put in a second appearance, reasoning that Mom and Grandpa would provide more than sufficient companionship for Youngest Brother and that they were probably the people he wanted to see the most anyway. I’m just his big sister, so I figured he wouldn’t mind my absence.


Shortly after they left, my cell phone rang. It was Mom. She had just gotten off the phone with Youngest Brother, having wanted to let him know that she and Grandpa were on their way.

Youngest Brother asked if I was in the car with them and she responded that I was not, having elected instead to stay back and work.

He was not pleased. “What do you mean she’s not with you? Turn around and go get her!”

When Mom said that, I started to cry, partly because I was touched that my presence really did matter to Youngest Brother and partly because I was angry at myself for missing the opportunity to be there for him. College is a crucial testing ground for family relationships. Family members have to make an extra effort to show they care and to be part of their student’s life from a distance while still giving them the space they need. Those who don’t run the risk of jeopardizing that relationship post graduation.

I’ve always told Youngest Brother and Younger Sister that they can reach out to me at any time and I’ll be there for them. (I’m there for Oldest Youngest Brother too, but given our much smaller age difference, I’m not sure I ever vocalized that to him back when he went off to college.) And here I was, about a month into Youngest Brother’s college career, completely negating that promise.

Mom and Grandpa obligingly came back to get me while I took one of the fastest showers I have ever taken and made myself presentable. This time, our arrival coincided with the end of Youngest Brother’s classes for the day (and the week), so after giving him the rest of his supplies, we took him out to dinner.

Given that his birthday was coming up the weekend after our departure and Mom, Grandpa and I were all in attendance, Mom decided to make it Youngest Brother’s official birthday dinner. When we got out of the car at the restaurant, Youngest Brother gave me a big hug and told me how happy he was that I had come with them. Somehow, I managed not to tear up again.

Maintaining family relationships when a child goes off to college can be challenging, especially when you’re an older sibling who wants to respect their freedom while still being supportive. Knowing where you stand makes all the difference.

Which is why when Mom went to see Youngest Brother a third time to drop off some paperwork, I didn’t hesitate to accompany her. I’m not about to miss another opportunity to be there for him.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Oct. 6, 2016

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