Thursday, March 29, 2007

A walk down pierogi memory lane

Published March 19, 2007

When I was young, we couldn't eat meat on Fridays so we ate fish or pierogis.
(Yeah, well, sometimes we ate toasted cheese, too.)
Then, in the '60s, the Catholic Church relaxed the rules and we could eat meat on Fridays - except during Lent. So, this time of year always sends me on a trip down Pierogi Memory Lane.
When I was young, my mother - who, being Hungarian, had dumpling skills for chicken paprikash but not pierogis - would phone St. John's Ukrainian Catholic Church on East 31st Street in Lorain - my dad's family's church - and order dozens of the potato-filled dumplings.
Then we would take a big empty bowl and a piece of tinfoil to St. John's church basement where tables of old women chatted in Ukrainian as they turned out pierogi after pierogi, lining them up on a big wooden cutting board. When the board was full, someone would carry it into the kitchen where other workers would drop the stuffed dumplings into boiling water.
When the pierogis were done cooking, they would be ladled into a big pot and it was from that pot your order would be counted out into the bowl you brought, ladled with butter and sauteed onions and sealed up with your piece of tinfoil.
Well, St. John's is still making pierogis - not every Friday but the third Friday of every month. And the dozens of very old women who made them when I was young have been replaced with about 20 young and old, male and female, church members, about half of whom speak Ukrainian.
Friday I went to St. John's to pick up some pierogis I had ordered.
I introduced myself to the man checking orders and taking payment at the door.
He pointed over toward the stove. "Talk to Father," he said.
I looked across the room and I saw a man in a T-shirt stirring huge steaming pots. I looked back at the seated money-taker.
"Father. Over there," he pointed again.
Then I realized he meant the young man in the T-shirt.
Father Steven Paliwoda was working just as hard as everyone else making the 200 dozen pierogis they expected to sell that day. He spoke to me in English but occasionally spoke to the woman next to him in Ukrainian.
Donna Kapucinski, who is 69 and lives in the same house on East 31st that she lived in as a child, told me St. John's has been making pierogis for at least 75 years.
"My grandmother made them here," she told me.
Across town, at St. Anthony's Catholic Church on East Erie Avenue, pierogi-making has been taken to a new level.
The school's PTU - with help from volunteer parishoners - makes about 1,200 dozen each week. Last year, the group made $32,000 selling pierogis.
Chairpersons Carla Rock and Lisa Stefan have the weekly sale down to a science. Those who can't come to the church to help out can peel potatoes or chop onions at home.
Unlike the Ukrainian St. John's, St. Anthony's has no ethnic affiliation. In fact, the priest, Father Joe West, who is Scottish and German, said he never heard of pierogis until he got to Lorain.
When I went to visit its pierogi-making operation last week, I was sent home with bags of frozen pierogis to cook.
So we've been eating pierogis every day since.
My son just asked me if I wanted anything from Taco Bell. He was going to get a March Madness snack.
"There's a lot of pierogis left in the refrigerator," I told him.
"I don't know how many days in a row I can eat pierogis," he said.
And then he added, "How many did you buy anyway? A gross?"
No, I thought, that's just the number of calories in all those pierogis I've eaten.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Victims made not born

Published March 12, 2007

"Help me. Help me, please! Please, someone help me."
Those were the words, the only words spoken - over and over and over - by the new roommate that the nursing home had moved in with my mother-in-law.
If this woman was my mother or grandmother, the words would have been heartbreaking.
But she wasn't. And the words did not break my heart; they made me angry.
I was working late last week when the phone on my desk rang.
It was my husband. He was calling on his cell phone from the nursing home to tell me about it. He was upset and he was angry.
"Where's her old roommate? Did you complain?" I asked him.
Apparently they had done some patient shifting at the nursing home that afternoon and the way it looked to us - the only way it could look - was that they put this troublesome woman in with someone who couldn't complain about her - my mother-in-law.
My husband's mother has been in hospitals and nursing homes for a year. Her health is steadily declining. She speaks a little but could never complain about a roommate.
And that's where her son and his wife come in.
"There's nobody to complain to," he told me. "The only one here is the night nurse and she doesn't know anything about the move. In fact, she feels terrible about it. She keeps apologizing," he told me.
Nobody to complain to? Quite impossible for this newswoman to believe.
I had an idea.
"I'll call you back," I told him.
It wasn't even 9 p.m. I had bothered people a whole lot later than that.
I got the phone book and looked up the number for the nursing home. The receptionist answered the phone.
"I'm Patti Ewald. My mother-in-law is a resident there. Can you please tell me the name of the nursing home director?" I asked her.
She promptly gave me the name.
"Would you like her voice mail?"
"Do you have her home number?" I asked.
"Just a minute," she said. With that, I cradled the receiver between my ear and my shoulder so I could use both hands to look in the phone book myself. Yep, she was listed.
I told the receptionist never mind and then I dialed the director's home number.
I was trying to stay calm but I was having about as much success doing that as I have staying out of the ice cream in the freezer.
"What happened to her old roommate?" I asked.
"She said she would move," the director answered.
"She asked to move?"
"She said she would move," the director repeated.
Now, I know this roommate. I talked to her often. I was fairly certain she had not asked to be moved.
The director continued dancing around questions until it became apparent what had happened: The patients who could speak up and complain were spared the wailing roommate.
And since my mother-in-law couldn't, she was the unlucky winner.
But not for long.
My husband and I complained enough that by the next night, my mother-in-law had been moved to another room with another roommate.
And the wailing woman?
I don't know what happened to her. This particular nursing home has no separate quarters for Alzheimer and dementia patients.
She probably was put in a room with someone else who is unable to complain.
But this new "someone" most likely doesn't have a son and daughter-in-law willing to insist on peace and quiet for a gravely ill loved one.
And that's a shame because that means they don't have a mother like mine who taught us not to allow others to treat us unfairly.
"You have to stick up for yourself," my mom always told us.
"Because if you don't, no one else will."

Friday, March 9, 2007

Yes, it was a purr-fect day

Published in The Chronicle March 5, 2007

We were going to the cat show.
My brother, my friend and me.
I was going because I really wanted to see all the cats.
They were going because I was schlepping them there.
They lasted, um, about five minutes.
"Know what it smells like when they put 500 cats in a gym?" my friend asked.
"Like they put 500 cats in a gym," he answered himself.
I don't care. I didn't smell anything. Besides, it was 225 cats, not 500.
I love the cat show. The North Coast Cat Fanciers group holds one every year at Clearview High School. It was at this very show 12 years ago that I bought a skinny little loudmouth I named Charlie Chan. He's sitting on my lap right now, no longer skinny but just as loud as the day I bought him.
If you have never been to a cat show, let me set the scene for you.
Vendors of feline paraphernalia line the hallways leading to the gym. They sell cat toys and cat beds and anything else a cat could ever want.
In the gym, cages of cats sit on rows of tables that stretch from one side of the room to the other. Their owners sit on chairs in front of them. Some are friendly, some are not (the owners, not the cats). I saw more than one sign that said, "Do not touch; owner bites."
Four judging tables line one of the walls and there are so many categories, judging goes on all day long.
I peer into cage after cage. Fluffy cats? Not for me. I'm in search of Siameses and their look-alike brethren, the Oriental Shorthair.
Ah-ha. I finally spotted my favorite - an all-white Oriental Shorthair. He looked just like a white Siamese.
He was curled up asleep in his cage - which was actually more like a zippered pup tent - with a chocolate-point Siamese that looked exactly like my Charlie did 11 years and about nine pounds ago.
The white cat's name was Versace. His Siamese friend's name was Zhivago.
As I looked at them, a woman came over and took the white cat out.
"He's beautiful," I told her.
"Thanks. It's his turn to be shown. When I come back, you can hold him."
Hold him? Me?
With that, she went scurrying toward the judges' tables.
When it was Versace's turn on the judge's table, he was a star. His beauty was overshadowed only by his personality. He batted at the cat toy the judge waved in front of him. He was quite charming. A winner.
But he didn't win! The judge put a Second Place ribbon on his cage.
How could that be?
Versace's owner, a woman from Denver, took the beautiful white cat out of the numbered cage and walked back toward her table. I waited a couple of minutes, then I followed.
When she saw me, she said, "Oh, do you want to hold him?"
She had been serious!
"Can I?"
"Sure," she said and she handed him to me.
"I can't believe he didn't win," I told her.
"I can't believe it either. He's No. 1 in his region," she said, "and 25th in the country. Oh, well."
"Do you win money at these things?" I asked her.
She laughed.
"No. It costs me money, a lot of money.
"But, when he wins one of these," she said as the back of her hand brushed the ribbons attached to the front of his cage, "I feel pretty."