Over twenty-six years ago, when I was pregnant with Rebecca, a dear family friend gave me a really special gift. On the surface, it doesn’t seem special, but over the years, it has become a cherished item in our family. It’s an item that is used several times a year but only on special occasions – typically birthdays. It’s a reminder that each of us has something to offer, that each of us is unique, that we are all special.
This simple plate that says, You are special today, has made an appearance at occasion after occasion throughout the girls lives. Using it has become a time-honored, beloved tradition in our house. Everyone knows that the table is not completely set unless the plate is in its proper place at the seat of the guest of honor.
It might seem silly, but you see, it’s about so much more than a plate.
All month long, I’ve written and posted about love. I’ve touched on romantic love, self-love, and the love between mothers and daughters and grandmothers and granddaughters. I’ve talked about our Father’s love more than once. What I haven’t mentioned is the love between a daughter and her father, a love which I happen to think transcends all other types of earthly love as a reflection of the love between a daughter and Our Father.
Pope John Paul II said, “In revealing and in reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God, a man is called upon to ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family.” How true that is.
It took my parents several years to have me. Just as they were in the throes of adoption, I gave them the surprise they’d been praying for. By then, my father, at thirty-three, was a little older than most first-time fathers of the time. Of course, I didn’t realize this until much later in life; but now I am reminded every day how truly blessed I am to still have him with us at eighty-four (eighty-five in April).
Growing up, my father was loved and adored by everyone, which was no surprise as he was always a kid at heart, and he has a heart the size of a mountain.
I’m sure it will come as no surprise to my family, friends, and those of you who follow me on social media that I’ve been thinking about my grandmother a lot over the past month. My grandmother was, to say the least, extraordinary. She didn’t win any awards. Gram wasn’t known outside of her hometown. She didn’t do great things or travel to faraway places or lead protests or discover a new star. She didn’t do anything special at all unless you count every single little thing she did with extraordinary love, and she taught me so much.
There are many lessons I learned from my grandmother, but there is little that she taught me through words or preaching or admonishments. Almost everything I learned from her, I leaned by watching her, and I try my best to emulate all that she taught me.
These are the things I will always cherish and strive to uphold.
I have wonderful memories of holiday meals with my extended family. We would all gather for every major holiday–Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter–and most of the minor holidays–Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and often Independence Day.
The faces at the table changed over time. Babies came, loved ones passed, and new husbands or wives appeared. Always present, though, was the love for each other. And the Southern Maryland Stuffed Ham.
When Ken and I got married, I insisted on a complete, traditional Southern Maryland fall menu. That had to include stuffed ham. My Dad and my grandmother spent days making enough stuffed ham for 300 people. Ken’s Eastern Shore relatives never again saw holidays meals the same way. Each time we returned from Thanksgiving or Christmas at my Mom’s house, Ken’s family asked, “Did you bring back any stuffed ham?”
Looking back, I’m amazed that Dad and Gram pulled off this feat for my wedding. Stuffed Ham is not your average meat.
If you look closely at the Thanksgiving picture above, you will see the stuffed ham in the middle of the table. “What’s all that green stuff?” you may ask. That, my friend, is the stuffing. It’s not your average stuffing made of some kind of bread and mild spices. This ham is stuffed with a bushel of fresh, leafy kale and a boatload of hot, savory spices. It’s unlike anything you’ve had before, and unlike anything you will have anywhere other than St. Mary’s County, Maryland (yes, Charles County and a small area of Virginia have their own versions of stuffed ham, but it’s not the same) and small parts of Kentucky to which early Marylanders migrated.
While the dish itself is one of the most unique you could ever have, it’s the process and the history that really make this truly different and special.
I am a brownie person, and I’ve raised brownie-loving girls! It’s not unusual for me to come down in the morning (when the girls are home) to find a batch of brownies on the kitchen counter–half-eaten of course! On the other hand, I’ve come down to peanut butter cookies, oatmeal no-bake cookies, and cakes in assorted colors (the green cake with blue icing looked so awful that even the baker–whose reputation I will protect–didn’t even eat it!
My sister-in-law, Lisa, makes wonderful brownies, and I never turn her down when she offers to bake them for any family occasion. And who doesn’t love brownies topped with ice cream like the delicious ones my mother made the last Christmas we were all together?
“The family is the first essential cell of human society.” –Pope John XXIII
Have truer words ever been spoken? Where would I be without my family? Though I put God first and foremost in my life, I would be nothing, have nothing, achieve nothing, and live for nothing if not for my family. Not seeing most of my extended family for over a year was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in life. Thankfully, that long, dry period ended this past weekend.
On Saturday, we hosted a graduation party for our middle child, Katie Ann. She graduated in May from Mount St. Mary’s University, but we wanted to give our family a little more time to be comfortable in a large gathering, so we asked them all to save the date for August 21. It made my day to get responses like, “I told the rest of the family they could do whatever they wanted, but I will be there come hell or high water,” and “I’m done with not seeing everyone.” We were all determined to be together, and not even a potential tropical storm was going to keep us apart.
Opera great, Robert Breault, is attributed with saying, “What greater blessing to give thanks for at a family gathering than the family and the gathering.” And he was so right.
When Ken and I got married back in 1993, we knew that we were going to be parents right away–his mother’s Golden Retriever was due to have a litter of puppies just a few weeks after our wedding. We were both very much dog people and were raised with dogs in the house. We brought our first baby home a few days before Christmas, and the timing could not have been more perfect. That was the winter of the great ice storm that crippled most of the Mid-Atlantic, particularly the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Ken was working in Annapolis and was stranded. I was home alone–two hours from my own hometown–with no friends, no family (I still hardly knew Ken’s family), and nowhere to go. I was housebound with nobody but Tucker to keep me company. I’ve often kidded that it was that puppy who got me through the first year of being married.
There are few things our family enjoys more during the summer than crabbing in the rivers and creeks that extend from the great Chesapeake Bay like multiple fingers from a hand. These offshoots, consisting of salt, fresh, and brackish waters, are as much a part of Ken and me as the blood that runs through our veins. I come from a long line of watermen and boat builders dating back to the Ark and the Dove that landed on St. Clement’s Island in 1634. Much of my family history was woven into my book, The Devil’s Fortune. Ken began working as an apprentice on a crabbing boat when he was eleven and owned his own boat by the time he was fifteen. Our girls are water creatures, especially our youngest, a champion swimmer and proud holder of a boating license since she was twelve.
As much as our family enjoys crabbing together, what we enjoy even more is taking other people crabbing. There’s something about it that appeals to people on so many levels that it’s akin to a spiritual event. In fact, our former Associate Pastor, Father Olsen, summed it up best several years ago. After we went crabbing, steamed our catch, and sat down to eat, he said a blessing over the food. He thanked God for the experience of harvesting, cooking, and feasting on God’s earthly bounty. It was such a beautiful moment that I still think of it each time I sit down to eat our catch.
One thing I learned at an early age is that life is not all about work, and work is not all about the absence of fun.
This past weekend, my parents were visiting for Father’s Day. Mom and I spent a little bit of time in town–we live right outside of the Maritime tourist destination, St. Michaels–and visited my girls at work, Morgan at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and Katie at Simpatico, a fabulous Italian market. We all went crabbing, along with Ken’s mom, and feasted on our catch with Rebecca and Anthony who joined us on Father’s Day afternoon. We went to Mass, did a little gardening (thank you, Dad for the new forsythia!), and relaxed, happy to enjoy Mom and Dad’s first time staying at the house since 2019.
While I was making desserts on Sunday afternoon, we listened to a playlist that I created which consists of all the music we listened to when I was a kid. At one point, I looked at my mom and said, “I made this list because all these songs remind me of non-football Sunday afternoons.” Mom smiled, knowing exactly what I meant. She added, “When we’d play all the old records and clean the house before the start of the work week.” I nodded and said, “Yep. We’d blast music while cleaning and doing laundry, but what I loved most is how we’d dance and sing while we did our chores.” Those afternoons are among my favorite childhood memories.
I learned so many lessons on those Sundays, lessons like…
If you’re from the Mid-Atlantic, have traveled here, or are familiar with the area at all, you know that one of the area’s claims to fame is its Maryland Blue Crab. I was blessed, not only to be born in Maryland, but to be born into a family of master boat-builders and to a grandfather who was a waterman. I grew up with blue crabs as something we took for granted rather than as a delicacy. There weren’t big crab feasts for us where we invited all of our friends and neighbors and enjoyed the special meal. No, crabs for us were sometimes a regular dinner but more often an evening snack, usually accompanied by whatever the most popular prime-time television show of that night was. And it was pretty much a daily occurrence at Granddad’s house.
I knew that my grandfather was smiling down on me when I met my husband, a young man who had been working on the water since the age of 11, who owned his own boat, and paid his way through college by catching crabs all season. For most of our marriage, it was the seasonal crab haul that took us on our vacations and added a little more spending money to our pockets. For the past several years, Ken traveled extensively; and while his travels took him, and often the whole family, to beautiful and exotic places around the world, they also took him away from his favorite pastime–being on the water and catching crabs. That all changed in 2020.