The Miracle of Nettie’s Easter Pies

Here, in honor of Mother’s Day, is a piece I wrote about my mother-in-law. It appears in the new book, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery.

Twelve years ago, my mother-in-law, then age 78, went in for open-heart surgery. She suffered complications, and on a sweltering day in late June, she died.

My wife and I drove from the cemetery to her one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn and started to go through her belongings. We scoured her drawers, cabinets and shelves, poring over her clothes, photos and mementoes, deciding what to keep, give away or throw out, and were almost finished. Antoinette — or Nettie, as everyone called her — had lived on little her whole life, so we expected no hidden fortunes. But how mistaken we were. We opened the freezer and looked in, and there were her pies.

It was quite a find. In early spring every year, Nettie would make an announcement. “I’m making the Easter pies,” she would say. “Going to be busy, so nobody bother me.”
The pie was an Italian specialty called pizza rustica. Her mother had once made the same pies from a recipe her family brought to America from Naples. Little Antoinette watched her mother prepare the pies for Holy Saturday, slicing the smoked ham and hot sausage into bits, filling the dish with fresh ricotta and Romano cheeses, brushing the beaten egg wash onto the crust to give it a glaze.

Nettie made 15 or 20 pies every April for more than 40 years. Her mother had handed down her recipe, but Nettie never looked at the sheet of paper, every spring making up the proportions in her head all over again. I can imagine her standing in the kitchen pressing the dough with a rolling pin, her cheeks smudged with flour, her fine hair in disarray.

The pies came out looking like two-inch-thick omelettes — stuffed with cheese and flecked with meat, all topped by a heavy, flaky, dimpled crust baked golden brown. Nettie wrapped the pies in foil and labeled each for its intended recipient (the size of the pie you got was a measure of her affection for you). Her doorbell would start ringing at noon as relatives came from all over New York City and Long Island to collect this family dividend.

Now we had discovered that Nettie saved a few wedges of the pie, including one for herself, labeled “Nettie” (as if even in her own home, she had needed to earmark her handiwork for herself). My wife and I looked at each other in surprise, saying nothing. Then we reached into the icy mist and took out the pies one by one, putting each in a plastic bag.

In moments, we left her apartment for the last time and walked out into the hot, still afternoon for the drive home, holding the pies as tenderly as we might an urn.

That Sunday night, as we gathered at the dining room table with our 15-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter in our home in Forest Hills, my wife served us one of the pies, steaming hot and giving off a savory aroma. She sliced a wedge for each of us, and we ate silently, scraping our plates for crumbs.

I’d eaten my mother-in-law’s pies every spring for more than 20 years, and they always tasted good. But now the pie tasted better than it ever had, as if somehow flavored by the tears of our grief. With each bite I recalled with fresh clarity everything Nettie had meant to all of us over the years — how she had raised her daughter without a husband around, all while toiling as a seamstress in a factory, and especially how she had lavished love and attention on both her adoring grandchildren.

I’d never felt so grateful to anyone. Eating the pie that night felt almost sacramental, as if I could actually taste her kind and generous spirit.

Afterwards, my wife waved us all into the kitchen. She opened the door to our freezer and pointed toward the back. And there it was: one last slice of the pie, the one that was labeled

“This one I’m saving,” she said.

And so she has. And there Nettie’s pie remains, untouched, unseen, but never forgotten. Other families leave behind insurance policies or furniture or jewelry, but Nettie left us her pie. That single slice will serve as heirloom enough, and feed our hearts year-round, giving us all the Easter we’ll ever need.

Mothers in History: The Museum Exhibit

Here, in honor of Mother’s Day this year, is a piece I wrote that appeared in Newsday in 2007:

This weekend our museum unveils “Milestones in Motherhood,” the first exhibit tracing the evolution of mothers through the millennia. Our highly interactive, multimedia presentation brings you the latest insights into the most controversial family member since the creation of the uncle.

For starters, we see Mother Nature in a diorama, fists on hips, looking ticked off about being fooled. Future generations, when similarly deceived, would come to copy the hurt look on her face. Centuries later, we view Mother Teresa feeding the lepers of Calcutta, raising the bar on maternal compassion forever beyond the reach of mortal mothers everywhere.

In between, we pick up some little-known facts about moms. We hear, for example, of the activist mother who lobbied to outlaw the long-standing domestic practice, never really proven practical, of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We also learn how the Virgin Mary, a product of immaculate conception, set unrealistic expectations about the ease of pregnancy and childbirth for generations. Every two hours, we offer a live stage show featuring the devil, who explains why his upbringing forced him to coin the phrase “mother from hell.”

If this ambitious retrospective teaches us any single lesson, it’s that matriarchy is clearly a world order stronger than any known government. Also represented in our hallowed hallways are:

Prehistoric Mom. A reconstructed skeleton of this early hominid reveals a spine with an uncanny degree of flexibility, enabling her literally to bend over backward, the better to accommodate her children and husband. Forensic analysis reveals a tongue prehensile and poisonous, handy for striking dead on the spot anyone who dared to cross her.

Pyramid Mom. Female pharaohs inaugurate the ritual, since adopted in several industrialized nations, of mothers being worshipped by all who behold her. Soon all homes in ancient Egypt would come equipped with obligatory altar and pedestal.

Immigrant Mom. Credited as the inventor of guilt (though the patent is still pending), she specialized in the second-guessing of her children, often first-generation Americans. In a favorite household practice, she repeatedly asked all her children, including adolescents, when they planned to get married, to whom and exactly why.

Eisenhower Mom. Presented in her natural habitat, the kitchen, she cleaned to the point of surgical sterility, all while wearing full makeup and high heels. A voice-over recounts how she eventually stormed segregated lunch counters nationwide demanding the legal right to cook with her hair uncoiffed.

Executive Mom. Here, to do right by job and child, she multitasks her brains out, often even while multitasking. In one tableau, she pecks e-mails on her BlackBerry and conducts an hour-long overseas conference call with a deeply disenchanted top client as she breast-feeds her infant triplets.

Visitors to the IMAX theater can view a computerized rendering of the typical mother’s hypothalamus as it produces the very chemical empowering her to read her children’s minds. We also go inside a working laboratory where researchers are striving to isolate the so-called Mommy Gene, long suspected of being responsible for all that is good and true in the world.

As you probably can guess, no single trip to this fascinating retrospective will be enough to take it all in. Make sure you go back a second time to catch the must-see enlarged slides of the original one-celled mother and the papyrus document containing the first known mother-in-law joke.

Of course, no exhibit of such unprecedented scope comes off without intense debate over its contents. The United Kingdom, miffed over the lack of reference to the queen mother, has filed suit. Planning similar litigation are estates representing Mother Goose, Ma Barker, Moms Mabley, Mama Cass, the first Soccer Mom and the Mothers of Invention.

As you exit, if only to avoid being subpoenaed for these suits, we invite you to browse in our gift shop for an hour or three. Still in stock is everything from mother-of-pearl pendants to a “Whistler’s Mother” lunchbox to a CD-ROM re-creating the mother of all battles.

Our collection’s signature artifact is here, too – a reproduction of the Leave No Mom Unappreciated Act, still stuck in committee on Capitol Hill since the dawn of the republic.

Mother’s Day Special Comes to Town Soon!

Dear Reader,

Starting this Sunday, you’re all in for a treat. In honor of Mother’s Day, we’ll be posting guest columns from eight mothers, each addressing a letter directly to her kids.

No, that’s no typo. That’s eight, as in two more than six and four times more than two.
Among the contributors will be Jill Smokler, the force of nature behind the top blog Scary Mommy,

Also here will be a high school teacher, an advertising executive and photographer and a Ph.D. in communications

Rounding out the cast of contributors will be a former Washington Post reporter, a longtime friend of mine who prefers to remain anonymous, a public-relations professional and two women partners who are now mothers together

All these guest columns are very much in keeping with my diabolical plan to give you a chance to hear voices other than mine for a change.

Be grateful for small blessings.

Meantime, as long as we have your attention, let us urge you to take three little actions.
For starters, please take our pledge to write letters to your kids,

Second, please answer the nine easy multiple-choice questions on this survey about family history

Third, do subscribe to this blog.

Now, you might well ask yourself, “Why on earth should I? Why should I take some dumb pledge, fill out a dumb survey and subscribe to this dumb blog?

Well, for starters, you’ll lose all your extra weight overnight. You’ll also be able to earn millions of dollars a day working from home in your spare time. And you’ll have the best relationships you ever imagined.

Do you know any other blog that can make such claims?

But here’s the clincher. It’s now all free. True, it was free before. But now it’s even freer.
In fact, it’s now twice as free. And that’s a 50% savings! Here’s the catch, though. It’s a one-time offer only. Or at least it will be until the second time it’s offered. So technically, consider this my second offer.

Once again, this entire package is now available free — only now I’m offering a discount.
If you’re under 100 years old, you’ll get 15% off.

And if you subscribe today, you’ll get an additional 10% off, tax excluded.
Take advantage. This offer may be unavailable again until tomorrow. Or maybe next Tuesday at the absolute latest.

Bear in mind these additional benefits of coming through right now. You’ll never get fat. You’ll never be hungry again. Best of all, you’ll never get old.

But why take my word for it? The New York Times recommended my blog:
So did Woman’s Day:

The Fox News Channel even gave us airtime:

Chances are, if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were even remotely aware of this blog, it would recommend you take one dose daily.

P.S. – Tomorrow this blog resumes its regularly scheduled programming.

Do You Know Your Own Family’s History?

Dear Readers,

And if you do know your family’s history, how much do you know– a little, a lot, or something in between?

How much do your kids or grandkids know?

Have you ever considered writing a personal family history for future generations?

Those are the kinds of questions posed in this survey:

Please take two minutes to answer the nine easy multiple-choice questions here.  I’ve got my heart set on getting at least 100 responses and we’re up to 75 so far.  I’ll be sharing the results with all of you for Father’s Day.

Thank you.


My Sundays With Stanley

Here’s my tribute to longtime friend and loyal mentor, Stanley Siegelman, recently deceased, that appeared yesterday in The Forward.

Toward the end, as he lay dying, pretty much all I wanted to do was make him laugh. I called him every week with a line or a joke or a story he might find funny. I plied him with levity. And laugh he often would. Even so, I suspected that as I tried to humor him, he was actually humoring me. Together, we whistled in the dark.

Somehow I got the idea that if I could just keep him laughing, maybe I could keep him alive. Scheherazade, the Persian queen who told tales for 1,001 nights to save herself from beheading, would have nothing on me. If I could just make him laugh often enough and hard enough and long enough, it would lengthen his life by 1,001 nights and maybe even save him from cancer. We would strike a deal. Just as I kept him going, he would keep me going, too.

But instead Stanley Siegelman, my friend, my editor and mentor, my surrogate father, my tribal elder, died this week anyway. Stanley, a father and grandfather, a World War II veteran, an award-winning editor with Hearst and Fairchild magazines and a long-time contributor of whimsical poetry to The Forward, had just turned 87 years old.

We knew each other for 34 years. Stanley hired me, then age 25, to write for the pharmacy magazine he ran. For four years he gave me heavy doses of the praise and encouragement I then most needed as a young writer. I invited him and his wife Shirley to our wedding two years later. After I left the magazine to freelance full-time, he referred business to me.

We stayed in particularly close touch over the last 10 years, after Shirley died. Right around then he started composing his poems for The Forward, perhaps to ease his grief. He loved to pun, compulsively so – years earlier he wrote an article about insect repellents that began, “Let us spray” – and saw the English language as a playpen for rhyme.

His whimsical poems addressed anything and everything Jewish that twanged his funnybone – the Elliot Spitzer debacle, a Brooklyn restaurant named Traife, you name it. He often told me of a poem in the works or just submitted and about to appear. Once in a while his editor would rejected a poem of his as perhaps off-limits, news Stanley shared with me with both disappointment and delight. At those times he reminded me of an otherwise polite boy who knew he was being a little naughty and mischievous. He caught a second wind late in life, publishing some 185 poems, humor his lifeline.

I visited him in Great Neck every few months, often on Sundays – my Sundays with Stanley. We went out to lunch at a diner and took walks in a nearby park near the water. Always we talked about writers and writing, about books and articles and essays, with special attention to Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and other literary heroes. We also discussed our own work. Even all these years later, I still showed him my materials, still addicted to his unstinting approval.

I’ve never had a talent for friendship, but luckily Stanley did. A friendship is a miracle and all miracles are to be treasured. He edited my copy, but never tried to edit my life. He remains the only person in my life I seem to have failed utterly to disappoint.

Toward the end, as he sensed his life coming to a close, he refused to let me see him, no matter how much I asked. “I have to confront this on my own,” he explained. Still, he welcomed my phone calls and always asked me for news both personal and professional. “So tell me about your latest successes,” he would say, and give me the floor. Years back I wrote a novel he had read that remained unpublished, yet he kept asking me, “Did someone accept your book?”

Eventually he would get around to telling me about his health. He always kept his accounts matter-of-fact, almost telegraphic. He took this test and that medication and the physician gave him the following prognosis. He conveyed such details with a scholarly detachment, ever the reporter, casting a cool clinical eye on his own mortality, perhaps the better to mask any apprehensions. “I’m terminal,” he told me once. “There will be pain. That will be it.”

Never once did he complain, nor seek sympathy, much less pity. That was just never his style. If his spirits sank, he never really let on. “It’s a long haul and I’m getting tired of it,” he admitted in an unwavering voice. “I’m tempted to close my eyes and let it be. The sooner the better.” The last time we spoke, he wished me all the best. He said it almost officially, as if he already knew it would be the last time we spoke. I had run out of jokes and he had run out of laughter.

If Stanley was unwilling to complain even then, how can I ever? The man taught me how to die. He also taught me how to live.

Guest Blog: My Mother’s Memoir: Part 3

Dear Cory and Rory,

These are but a few of many small tragedies and humiliations the Luby family experienced during those years. Although sometimes deprived, the family learned to thrive. Mom and her siblings protected and cared for each other. The kids worked and played on the farms and learned a tough resilience that I think most of us just do not know.

As a young girl, I remember times sitting at restaurant tables for lunch with mom and several of her sisters reminiscing. It transported me into their early lives. The girls would succumb to near-hysterical laughter. We would inevitably draw notice from the nearby tables. This was how all Luby family gatherings were my entire life.

The Lubys all married. Mom married my father Lee Allen and together they raised five children. I am the second child. At my grandparents 50th wedding anniversary in the early 1960s the cousin head count was approaching 45. I have a vague memory of singing the song “Yellow Bird” with my younger sister Leslie as part of the entertainment during the celebration.

Our publisher, Mr. Adams was so patient with me, a godsend. We worked by phone and email, sending corrected manuscripts back and forth. During this time mom once again asked me to finish her memoir and I reassured her I would work on it. She suffered some health setbacks and her husband worried about whether she would live to see the final version. We completed it in three months.

We presented Bonnie Jean’s finished memoir to her, among her family members, around her 80th birthday last year. It was a smash hit, with requests for more copies. Mom was over-the-moon happy.
P.S. — See below bonus links to memoirs by or about other mothers.

Guest Blog: My Mother’s Memoir: Part 2

Dear Cory and Rory,

I collaborated on my mom’s memoir with her husband and his publisher friend. It took a lot of work, made all the harder by the little time available. I am not a writer by any stretch of the imagination. I wanted to maintain a narrative true to my mother’s voice, colorful and descriptive. Certain regional colloquialisms proved hard to edit. I had to correct dates and other facts. I compiled sheets outlining our family’s genealogy. I had many email conversations with mom’s sister, Karen, to recover some stories. I selected photos from hundreds stored away, adding names and descriptions. Aunt Mary sent several photos, including one of my mother at seven years old, the only photo I’ve seen of my mother as a child.What a blessed discovery!

The Luby family eventually left Nebraska for Idaho. Mom recalled her youngest brother, Kent, then seven years old leaving his dog Terry behind as they drove away from the farm. He loved his dog and was crushed.

Several older Luby children and other family members had already settled in the Boise valley. They made all the arrangements for the re-settlement. The family arrived in Boise on my mother’s 16th birthday.

I remember my grandma’s and grandpa’s tiny house. Their oldest children bought it for them in the 1940’s. It had two dinky bedrooms which seven people then shared. By today’s standards it would be considered a shack.

But the property itself was beautiful – big trees, an irrigation ditch running through the front yard and a dilapidated chicken coop in back. It was an awesome fantasyland for us grandkids. Grandpa loved his yard and he would sit there with us singing his nonsense songs. Grandma even had a washing machine. She had several washing machines that wound up repossessed while she lived on the farm. Mom recalled how grandma cried one such time because it was also her birthday.

P.S. – Part 3 will appear tomorrow.

Guest Blog: My Mother’s Memoir

A few months ago, Teresa Mills e-mailed me a note about “Your project interests me with regards to my own children,” she wrote. She asked me for some advice – how to begin, whether to go chronologically or randomly – and I shared the little I know. She also told me about a special family project she had undertaken. At that point I invited her to contribute a guest piece. Luckily, she consented, and the result is below. Formerly of Idaho and now of Virginia, Teresa worked as a drafter for a Marine engineering firm until marrying her husband Bob, a corporate trainer. Previously, she served as a Corpsman in the Navy. Together, they have two children, daughter Cory, who will graduate from Virginia Tech in May, and son Rory, an all-state soccer goalkeeper, who is trying to discover his path.

Dear Cory and Rory,

My mother, Bonnie Jean, asked me about ten years ago to edit her memoir. She had been writing furiously for several months. This was to be her legacy to her family. She seemed serious this time, so I agreed to do my best. The rough draft was sent and I began editing. Alas, my own family life took over and the manuscript was set aside on the proverbial back burner. Then her husband, Bob, nudged me to finish this past year. Bob wanted to publish the memoir and present it to mom as a surprise.

My mom’s mother, Hazel Thompson, was Scottish and her father, Ed Luby was Irish. Both families were surprised at the match, and disapproved of it. You just did not inter-marry then. The families to some extent withdrew contact and support. Hazel’s mother, Charlotte Thompson, rarely saw her daughter and her family. Ed fared better: he received the Luby farm to live on and work.

My mother was the ninth of thirteen children born to Edmund and Hazel in Giltner, Nebraska. Hazel had been bedridden during most of this pregnancy. She had burned her legs severely after spilling kerosene on herself and then lighting a lamp, thus catching her stockings on fire.
When mom was five, shortly after Christmas, the Luby family farmhouse burned to the ground. It was below zero that night. Everything was lost. The cause was probably an overturned ashcan left on the porch to cool during the night. My aunt Mary recalled sitting on a mattress watching the scorching fire consume the family piano.

This event was a turning point for the family. Older Luby children in Idaho learned of the fire by radio. The family became famous. Much help flowed in from all over the country.

Ed and Hazel then struggled mightily to keep the family together, housed and fed on a working farm. They both sometimes resorted to outside work. They moved several times, renting various pieces of property. The Depression visited upon the Lubys more than on most.

P.S. – Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

Punch Lines For The Kids

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Now, without further ado, a few more lines that just might prompt a sound approximating a laugh:

· Sometimes it feels like life is a test and I should have studied harder.

· My favorite food is pie in the sky.

· If I were a Broadway show, I probably would have already closed.

· Our eyes met. Then they shook hands.

· My favorite sport is fishing for compliments.

· Dusk fell, apparently with no one around willing to catch it.

· I forget just about everything. I even forget all the stuff I remember.

· Crazy is the new normal.

· Possibly my major advantage in life is that I look much smarter than I really am.

· I took a personality test the other day. The idea was to find out whether I actually had any personality.

· Given a choice, you should probably make it.

· He talks so much crap that he should take toilet paper wherever he goes.

· As I get older, I wake up earlier and earlier. At some point I’m going to start waking up before I go to sleep.

· You can always count on me to keep my commitments. Once I break a promise, it stays broken.

· Do these jeans make me look bald

P.S. — Please take my survey on family history:

Dad Waxes Philosophical, Bores Children To Sleep

Dear Michael and Caroline,

Now for some random lines, mostly serious, cobbled together to illustrate my personality and, to some extent, my preoccupations:

  • That summer of 2008, when I got laid off, turned out to be the summer that never was – the summer I went without seeing the Atlantic Ocean, or hitting a baseball, or going into a pool to swim or, for that matter, a single vacation day.
  • It’s good always to have a smile in your voice. My voice usually sounds to me like more of a grimace.
  • For most guys, being married is like living in an assisted living facility. I’m such a guy.
    I was designed to be domestic. I required little domesticating.
  • It took me a long time – too long, really – to discover that people skills can actually come in quite handy.
  • You know what I love? Someone accusing me of overthinking. Because you never want to be guilty of thinking too much, do you?
  • Uh, oh. There’s that look on her face again. Same look I see with almost everyone I know. Someone’s getting exasperated with me. Story of my life.
  • How can I ever be close to anyone, as close as I always claim to want to be, if all I ever do is keep my distance?
  • Joke I must. Because in funny I trust.
  • My favorite quote of all time, straight from ”Ethics Of The Fathers” in The New Testament, is this: “The ultimate criterion of character is the contribution we make to human happiness.

My Son The G-Man

Dear Michael,

Over the years, without realizing it, maybe even without suspecting it, you’ve turned into one. It’s as important as anything else you might be. It’s something I’ve always tried to be and wanted you to be, too.

A gentleman.

Now, I know what that must sound like to you. Some old-fashioned idea about a guy in a tuxedo with pomaded hair who bows before young ladies and tosses off bon mots with ease.


By gentleman I mean something unrelated to class or wealth or breeding, something beyond stereotype and caricature, something eternal.

Let’s start with the concept of decency. To me the most essential mark of a gentleman is decency. And I consider you to be decent, a key characteristic in my book.

Decency means you carry yourself with respect and loyalty and integrity and honor. It means you tell the truth and consider the welfare of others and try to do right. And you do so less for personal advancement than because it comes naturally to you.

Decency is treating everyone equally, whether CEO or doorman, and lending a hand to others, whether colleagues or the homeless, and appreciating the hand you’ve drawn in life, whatever it might be, and making your best effort, either in the classroom or the karaoke bar, and trying, however hard it seems, to think well of others and speak well of others.

I know. It sounds like basic Boy Scout pablum. It might as well come out of some chapter in the Old Testament.

But that’s what I’ve come to believe about being a gentleman. In my heart of hearts, because I’ve known you now for 25 years, I see you as one yourself. And it makes me as proud of you as anything else. And bodes well for you, too.

Because here’s something else I’ve come to believe. Once a gentleman, always a gentleman.