Tag Archives: family adventures

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: 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: 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: 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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Tete-a-tete: Keeping up with the pace of modern-day elder care

Elder care used to be about making sure your aging loved one had the appropriate mobility and home health aids and selecting the best nursing home when the time came. These days, however, with people leading longer, healthier and more active lives, caring for an aging relative has become a whole new ball game.

To those who haven’t experienced this for themselves, when I say that I’m going to upstate New York to help my mom take care of my 91-year-old grandfather, it conjures up images of, say, spoon-feeding porridge to a bedridden nonagenarian.

In this case, it’s not really like that.

Grandpa works out three days a week at the local health center, where he swims laps in the pool and uses the weight machines. He works part-time selling petroleum products and has been a member of a yacht club for nearly 70 years. He’s part of a weekly bridge club, serves as an elder in his church, and regularly socializes with friends, including his identical twin brother.

It’s kind of a riot when he’s together with his brother. They banter back and forth and stories of their youthful shenanigans tend to come out, like the time they were caught waterskiing on the canal that runs through Seneca Falls (a definite no-no). It’s like listening to a real-life Waldorf and Statler from “The Muppet Show.”

Medical appointments are certainly involved when we visit Grandpa, but they’re far from the only thing. To help facilitate Grandpa’s sales work, my uncle got him a computer. This is the first time in Grandpa’s life that he has ever had a computer, and he is diligently learning how to type using the ubiquitous Mavis Beacon typing software, an endeavor Mom and I are helping him to troubleshoot. He initially had a tendency to position his fingers one off from the home keys, which led to numerous ants tumbling off the log in one of those typing games until he figured out what was wrong. Now he’s plugging along at a steady pace with far fewer errors.

One of the tasks Mom has delegated to me is to go through Grandpa’s inbox and weed out any spam that may have snuck past the filters. I also go through his cell phone and delete text messages he’s received (Grandpa doesn’t text, but people sometimes send him messages) and old voicemails. He’s always been a stickler for an empty postal mailbox and an empty answering machine, and that mindset has transferred to their technological counterparts.

The empty email inbox, unfortunately, is nigh impossible. Just because you’ve responded to an email doesn’t mean you’ll never need to look at it again – you might need it for reference in the future. As such, we’re encouraging him to think of his inbox as a filing cabinet rather than the electronic equivalent of a postal mailbox. He’s expressed concern about running out of space, but we’ve assured him that he has plenty of room to store old emails and still receive new ones.

I also assist in matters of editing, research, and archiving. As the longest-tenured member of his yacht club and a former commodore (or a former club president, in non-nautical terms), Grandpa is often called upon to contribute articles to the club newsletter or historical information for special events. His memory is sharp as a tack, but spelling, punctuation and grammar have never been his strong suit. We’ve worked out a system where he jots down his thoughts with pen and paper and I type them up, asking him for clarification and additional information as needed.

Last year, Grandpa and his twin gave a talk during his church’s coffee hour on the history of the family farm, which was in the family for 150 years. For this occasion, Mom put together an extensive PowerPoint presentation featuring old photographs and historical timelines, with some technical assistance and grammatical input from me. I also helped assemble the notes for what Grandpa and his twin were going to say, and during the talk itself, I took on the crucial task of manning the controls, advancing the presentation from one slide to the next.

Modern-day elder care can be a far cry from stopping by the nursing home on a Saturday afternoon to play board games with your loved one and talk to the doctor about their current medications. Though medical advocacy is still an important part of it, it’s also about providing the assistance they need to continue living a full and independent life for as long as possible.

And that assistance can take many forms. As I’m sitting on the couch in my aunt and uncle’s cottage and writing this column, my view of the lake is regularly interrupted by Grandpa and his twin zipping along in a John Deere Gator. Grandpa is now backing up, and Mom is spotting him. He and his brother are about to drive up from the cottage to where Grandpa has parked his SUV so they can unload the petroleum products he’s ordered for his customers, and Mom is following on foot to give them a hand.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published June 2, 2016


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Tete-a-tete: Easter dinner reveals a shocking family secret

In a world of casual acquaintances and social media friendships, you know your family members better than anyone else. You’ve participated in their milestones, been with them through thick and thin and know their likes and dislikes down to a T.

And then, one of them drops a bombshell so shocking, you wonder if you really know them at all.

Oldest Younger Brother and his wife, Sister-in-law, joined us for Easter dinner this year. Mom and Dad had prepared our traditional repast: roast lamb with mint sauce and a ham steak.

As we were passing the serving dishes, Oldest Younger Brother said that he had something important to tell us. We waited until the dishes had made their rounds and everyone had been served, anticipating news about a work-related decision or perhaps an announcement about starting a family.

He took a deep breath, and uttered the words that shattered our world forever:

“I like ham.”

In near unison, our entire family exclaimed, “What?”

For the past 20 years, Oldest Younger Brother has portrayed himself as an ardent ham-hater. In fact, this is one of the reasons our Easter dinner has roast lamb as its centerpiece and the more ubiquitous ham has been reduced to a side dish. If Oldest Younger Brother is partaking of what would otherwise be a ham-centric meal, there needs to be a non-ham option so he’ll have something to eat.

He gestured to his plate. “I took a piece of the ham steak when it went around to see if anyone might notice.” He cut into the ham and took a bite of it with obvious enjoyment.

There was a considerable amount of sputtering as we tried to wrap our minds around this revelation.

“I’ve been encouraging him to come clean,” Sister-in-law said. “I told him that he couldn’t keep lying to his family about this.”

When Oldest Younger Brother was 10 years old, Mom prepared a ham for dinner. Though he liked ham, that wasn’t what he wanted for dinner that night. He told Mom that he didn’t like ham and made a fuss about how there wasn’t anything for him to eat for dinner because ham was the only option. Mom took his complaint seriously and made him a frozen pizza instead, satisfying his immediate craving for a non-ham meal.

But now that he had established himself as a ham-hater, there was no going back. I stopped suggesting ham and pineapple as a pizza topping when we ordered out, Dad stopped packing ham sandwiches in his lunches and Mom began providing alternatives for him at every ham-centric meal. At 10 years old, Mom and Dad felt Oldest Younger Brother was old enough to voice his opinion about his gastronomical dislikes and have a say in what he ate as long as he made healthy food choices.

Even though he really and truly loved ham, Oldest Youngest Brother couldn’t let on that he did without getting caught in his lie and possibly punished. There was also the thrill of having gotten away with his deception, and he wanted to see how long he could keep it up. He successfully maintained his ruse until he went away to college at age 18, sneaking into the kitchen late at night after the rest of the family was asleep to eat leftover ham scraps.

Given that Oldest Younger Brother has not been a full-time resident at the family homestead for more than a decade now, it could be argued that we could’ve returned to our regular consumption of ham as soon as he had gone away to college. By that time, however, it had become a way of life, and Oldest Younger Brother is at the homestead enough, especially for holidays, that it didn’t make much sense to return to ham-centric meals.

And so, Oldest Younger Brother moved out and enjoyed ham to his heart’s content, making sure to abstain from ham consumption in the presence of his family, while the rest of us continued to suffer ham deprivation. All I can say is thank God it wasn’t bacon.

I have had a particularly difficult time adjusting to Oldest Younger Brother’s revelation, for, in addition to missing out on years of spiral hams, I have missed out on years of Grandma’s homemade raisin sauce, a recipe that is only served with ham.

Since ham was typically not the focal point of our meals because Oldest Younger Brother wouldn’t eat it, we would usually have a ham steak instead of a spiral ham with all the trimmings. Given its much smaller size, it isn’t really worth the trouble of making raisin sauce for a ham steak.

To top it off, Youngest Brother is 18 and Younger Sister is 17. Because of Oldest Younger Brother’s 20-year deception, they have been raised in a world without raisin sauce and thus have not developed an appreciation for raisins. This is unspeakably cruel and, it turns out, entirely unnecessary. It has been a hard thing to forgive.

Truly, we know very little about other people, even our closest family members. One moment, everything is rosy, and the next, you’re wondering who that ham-loving stranger sitting at your dining room table is.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published May 5, 2016


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Tete-a-tete: Time flies when you forget to change the clocks

Daylight Saving Time is our biannual reminder of the subjective qualities of time. Though nearly the entire United States employs this system, a significant portion of the global population does not spring forward and fall back.

For those of us who do, there is a certain period during which time-related confusion is expected. For every cell phone or electronic clock that updates itself automatically, there’s an older clock that needs to be changed by hand. If that manual adjustment does not occur, we end up being too late or too early.

It’s one thing when this happens on the day of the time change. It’s another thing when it happens almost a week later.

The church we attend decided to hold a dinner-and-a-movie event as part of its adult Christian education program, and Mom and I were in charge of preparing the dinner. Those of you who are long-time readers of this column may have just cringed involuntarily, as you will recall that cooking is not exactly the forte of the Santoski women. (We recently buried another failed corned beef brisket in the front yard. So much for Saint Patrick’s Day dinner.)

Since we are well aware of our proclivity for culinary disaster, we opted for an uncomplicated menu: beef stew in a crock pot, a Caesar salad, a few flatbread pizzas, and cookies for dessert. The beef stew had been cooking all day and the salad simply needed to be tossed. The pizzas would only take 10-15 minutes to bake, so we saved those for last, intending to pop them in the oven at 6:15 p.m. so they would be nice and hot when people arrived at 6:30 p.m.

Even though the preparations involved were simple, we arrived at the church at 4 p.m. to give ourselves plenty of time to get things ready at a leisurely pace. We also wanted to leave enough time to deal with whatever unexpected circumstances might rear their ugly heads, like the croutons going rogue.

I assumed responsibility for keeping track of the time so that Mom could focus on the preparations without having to worry about when to put the pizzas in. Since I know how quickly time can slip away, I preheated the oven immediately to avoid unnecessary panic come 6:15.

Mom focused on setting up the TV and DVD player while I tossed the salad (mercifully, all of the croutons behaved). We then moved on to wiping down the table and assembling the appropriate dishes and silverware, my eye always on the clock in the church kitchen, counting down to pizza time.

Neither of us wear a watch, and we both had our cell phones in our purses, as we didn’t want them to get misplaced (or covered in salad dressing) in the midst of our preparations. Besides, who needs an additional timekeeping device when there’s a perfectly good clock on the kitchen wall?

A little before 5:30 p.m., one of our church members came into the fellowship hall. We thought nothing of it at first. Since he holds a position in the lay leadership and is very involved with the church’s services and events, it’s not unusual for him to be at the church at a variety of times.

When he mentioned that his wife would be joining us in a few minutes and that she was really looking forward to seeing the movie, we were perplexed, wondering why they had decided to arrive an hour early. We’re a small, close-knit church community, though, so perhaps they had come early to see if there was anything they could do to help.

And then, I happened to check the clock on the wall in the fellowship hall and realized that it was 6:30 p.m., not 5:30 p.m. When the clocks in the church were changed that previous Sunday, apparently the one in the kitchen had been overlooked.

Thank God I had had the foresight to preheat the oven – and that everyone was gracious about starting dinner 15 minutes late.

Time is subjective, to an extent. As the classic example goes, a minute can feel like an eternity depending on which side of the bathroom door you’re on. Though the experience of time may be relative, standardized timekeeping is essential to keep everyone on the same schedule. Daylight Saving Time, in spite of our best efforts and our technological advances, continues to be a monkey wrench in the cogs of a smoothly functioning society.

And as I write this, I realize that the effects of that monkey wrench may be more far-reaching than I originally thought, because even though we discovered that the clock in the church kitchen hadn’t been changed, I’m not sure that we actually did anything about it.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published April 7, 2016


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Tete-a-tete: When choosing heirlooms, cross your Ts and dot your … claims

Nothing spurs discussions about family history quite like a traditional holiday dinner. With family members young and old gathered round a table set with china, silverware and glassware that have been passed down through the generations, the story behind every important item is eventually shared – sometimes multiple times.

Younger family members may be tempted to block out the history of Great-Grandma’s cut-glass butter dish after hearing it year after year, but there comes a time when you realize you need to start listening very carefully. Older relatives start passing away, and suddenly you’re the one who has to remember the significance of the family tableware and other inherited items because eventually there won’t be anyone to jog your memory.

Not only that, you also find yourself in the awkward position of deciding what will be passed down to future generations and what may have to find a home elsewhere based on which items you express an interest in inheriting. Even with four children in our family, it’s impossible to keep everything.

As such, Mom has become very intentional about letting us know which table items are merely attractive and which ones have significance to our family. That oddly-shaped gravy boat is much more meaningful now that we know it was the designated vessel for Grandma’s homemade raisin sauce at every ham dinner. Though none of us kids may have room at present for a full set of Waterford goblets, we’re more inclined to stake our claim on one each now that we know Mom patiently collected them over a period of years, asking for a single goblet as a gift from her parents every Christmas.

Mom and Dad are in excellent health, so there’s no sense of urgency in regards to making those decisions. Over the past three years, however, Mom’s mother and Dad’s mother have both passed away, leaving items of varying family significance to each of us kids. Mom’s father, our only living grandparent, is steadily going through everything from furniture to photographs with Mom’s help, passing things along ahead of time and making notes about why they’re important.

As you can imagine, the future of our family heirlooms is rather at the forefront of our minds these days. Deciding who gets what can become a sticky situation, regardless of how big your family is. Hurt feelings can abound to such an extent that relatives who were once on good terms end up never speaking to each other again.

To avoid such issues, my siblings and I have developed a system of color-coded dot stickers, like you might see at a yard sale. Mine are red, Oldest Younger Brother’s are yellow, Youngest Brother’s are blue and Younger Sister’s are green. If there’s something one of us particularly wants, we stake our claim by putting our sticker on it. If more than one sibling wants the same item, we negotiate, offering dibs on other items in the house until we’re able to reach a satisfactory compromise.

The system currently exists in virtual form, as I don’t think our parents would be too pleased if we started sticking dots all over the furniture, dishes and various knickknacks. We do, however, announce our interest in inheriting something by telling the family we’d like to put our dot on that.

I, for example, have my dot on a wooden blanket cabinet and an assortment of cordial glasses. Youngest Brother has his dot on the sterling silver flatware, the piano, a painting of the ocean done by our great-great-grandmother, and two of Grandpa’s tool cabinets, stocked with tools from previous generations. Oldest Younger Brother has his dot on a couple of glass-fronted, cabinet-style bookcases.

This practice has led to some rather preemptive dotting. Not that long ago, Mom purchased a lovely new lamp. As she was removing the lamp from its box, 16-year-old Younger Sister’s eyes lit up. “I’m totally putting a green dot on that,” she exclaimed.

Mom responded by complimenting Younger Sister on her excellent taste and asking if she wanted any of the furniture that coordinated with the lamp. Mom is passionate about making sure each of us kids get what we want from the family possessions (along with any corresponding pieces) as well as making sure we understand why those things are important.

And it really does make a difference to know what’s important and what isn’t. For example, Mom prefers to store home-brewed iced tea in glass containers rather than plastic ones, so she has saved a number of glass bottles and jars for this purpose. And it is entirely a matter of her preference; there’s no family or historical significance attached to them. Knowing this saves us the agony of deciding what to do with them in the future. They can be recycled without guilt and without shame, unless one of us wants to hold onto them for the associated iced tea memories.

There comes a point in every family’s holiday celebrations when the past and the future collide. Instead of simply listening to the stories behind the holiday tableware, you become the person who will preserve those items and their stories for the generations to come – or who will send those items to estate sales or secondhand stores where they’ll become part of other families and other stories.

So listen carefully. Choose carefully. And have your dots at the ready – but not literally. It doesn’t matter how old you are; you can still be grounded for prematurely sticking dots all over your mother’s teapot.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Jan. 7, 2016


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