Monday, April 21, 2014

Saying Goodbye to A Friend...

Jim's favorite photo with his son after they raced. 
Long before Jim O'Donnell was my friend, he was my boss. And up until the past Easter Sunday, we maintained a very unique relationship leaving many memories that will endure. Jim was a well-known, award winning, high-end pool designer and builder who's philosophy was to say "yes, it can be done", when other designers said "no, it can't", and then find a way to make it happen. The result was always stunning.  But for his staff? Well, let's just say it could be a challenge to keep up with his vision.

I felt I always thought quickly on my feet until I met Jim. He thought faster than anyone I know. He was almost impossible to beat in an argument, and since starting out as his office manager over 13 years ago, we've had more than a few. While simultaneously adoring him, he could exasperate me to no end. During my tenure at Waterscapes, I have actually quit three times. Each time, he would call me the following day and act like nothing happened. I'd answer my phone and he'd say "Yo, I was thinking, when you come in tomorrow...". He didn't even take my "no's" for an answer. And in the morning, I'd be back.

Jim's zest for life was hard to ignore. He raced in triathlons and skied the mountains of Switzerland, Vermont and Colorado . He coached high school track, and wore a path jogging and biking from the streets of Riverton to the rugged terrain of foreign, exotic lands.  Never a smoker, he felt his diagnoses of lung cancer six years ago was a real insult to the healthy lifestyle he so preciously nurtured. When Jim, and his wife Margaret, called me at home to tell me about his diagnoses, I remember standing on my back deck, starring at the moon, stunned. The words, "this is just not fair", kept repeating in my head.

Those five words repeated again Sunday morning when I found out that he lost the battle. In spite of the odds, a part of me kept expecting his 'yes I can' mantra to defeat the prognosis. And it did, for much longer than medical personal predicted. But not longer than those who knew him. I am so grateful to have been part of  the last 13 years of his life. There are so many things I'll remember about Jim, especially the side that not everyone got to know.

Both of my sons worked summers for Jim in high school and college. When my youngest son Kyle was seriously injured in a ski accident, he was admitted to Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia to have his eye orbit and jaw surgically rebuilt. It was late on Sunday evening and I text Jim on the way to the hospital to tell him why I wouldn't be in the next day. By the time the staff settled Kyle in, it was 11:00 at night. I walked out into the hall to stretch my legs, and found Jim standing there.

When my 40-year marriage ended suddenly and surprisingly (even to me), I initially didn't tell anyone. I guess it was a way of holding on to the normal for a little while longer. I lived less than two miles from the office, but one morning I found myself lost and crying on the side of the road. I keep still, the text conversation that followed. "I'm sorry, but my life is in crises and I can't find my way to the office. I'm lost." How strange that must have been to him. When I left the day before, everything was fine. He responded. "Look up at a street sign and tell me where you are. I will be right there." And he was.

I will remember the many times we were having a conversation through the office walls, when the phone would ring and I would answer only to find that he had unknowingly left and was calling to check in. His quick feet served in so many ways. Just as often, the phone call would involve me getting the wallet he left on his desk to read a credit card number to a gas attendant.

I will miss the many late night job texts that often lasted till one of us fell asleep mid-word. Having 10 years on him, the 'older sister' in me would fuss about him walking around the office barefoot in the summer, which was ironic because I always thought he bought the coolest shoes. Dots were his favorite snack. And he could crunch his way through a Tootsie Roll Pop in seconds. His stick was in the trash before I even had mine unwrapped.

Jim died on Easter Morning. And I must admit, when I found out that he was also born on Easter, I smiled a little. It just seemed fitting since he spent a lifetime convincing most people he could walk on water. All of us will die, but sadly, not all of us really live. Jim O'Donnell lived...every day of his life. And those of us who knew him well, will remember a part of him, every day of ours.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Now I Know Why...

Was there really any reason for this room divide?
When you've been married for over 40 years and single for less than 8 months, Sundays can be hard. Work and friends keep me busy Monday through Saturday, but come Sunday, I try to stay out of everyone's way and keep to myself. Which works because I have become project obsessed with home renovation and it gives me a day to actually do the things I've been obsessing about all week. I need to keep my mind and hands busy so something is always going up, or as just recently, coming down. But this past weekend, a relative stopped by, and with seven words, changed my whole perspective about why I'm doing what I'm doing. Let me back up a little.

As I've written before, I was married to a man who could do most any kind of home repair from electrical, to carpentry, to plumbing. He never asked or encouraged me to help, so I never did. Never even thought to. My bad. Now, anything and everything that needs to be done is on me and I'm okay with that. Actually, I like doing it. And, unlike some of my ex's projects, everything I start, I finish...just saying. So after taking a few courses and watching more than a few how-to videos, I've gotten to the point where I feel confident in my weekend endeavors. As a matter of fact, last week I took down a half-wall that really had no purpose other than to divide the kitchen and dining room. As a big believer in "open concept", it became apparent that this wall had to go.

But this past Sunday, my uncle, who is an independent home repair contractor, stopped by. My mother, who died when I was only nine, was Uncle Andy's older sister. Sadly, since her passing almost 50 years ago, I loose more memories of her with each year that goes by now. I can't recall the sound of her voice or any of the details that I use to. I know that she loved to decorate for every holiday and that is a tradition I carry on. And until Uncle Andy stopped by, it's most of what I knew about her...or at least remembered.

Waiting for the floor guy to finish my new functional area!
As my uncle walked around the demolished wall, I asked for some advice in mitering the floor trim to cover the piece I removed. He checked out my attempt at patching the support wall left exposed by the portion that came down. He showed me a better way of doing what I was doing, but stood smiling, otherwise seemingly impressed. "You are so much like your mother," he offered still shaking his head. I was stunned. "In what way?" I eagerly asked. "You probably don't remember when she was young and healthy," he was right. Sadly, most memories are of my Mom lying in bed moaning as cancer ate its way through her 39-year-young body. "Well, let me tell you, she was a pistol when it came to repair projects", he continued.  "Your father never knew what he was coming home to.There was nothing she wouldn't take on. Just like you."

Really? This was a revelation to me! This was a game changer! All this time, I thought divorce and the fear of being idol, and not wanting to spend weekends on the couch, had turned me into a rehaboholic. But as it turns out, it was my suppressed DNA coming through! I thought I had found some magical inner strength, but it was my Mom, cheerleading me through every doubt, every screw, every nail, every notion I had to make my house, my home!

My uncle has been wonderful since this whole divorce thing. Although I try not to bother him, he is always just a phone call away when I get in a little over my head. But Sunday's drop-in did more for me then he'll ever know. As he started down the steps, he stopped and asked "what's your next project?" Having recently just purchased a miter box, I smiled and said "I really would like crown molding in the living room." He looked at me sternly and measured his words. "You...can'"

Don't worry Uncle Andy! I won't be alone!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Asparagus and Spring...Perfect Together!

I'm not sure if the people who live in warm climates year round can appreciate Spring the way we northerners do. And maybe it's because we just experienced one of the worst winters in memory, but these warmer, sunny days of late have sent my spirit soaring. (But I'll admit, I'm a sucker for beginnings...first warm day of Spring, the first beach day of Summer, the first cool breeze of Autumn...the first snowfall of Winter.) But it's Spring now, and I will soak in every single moment.

While acknowledging that there are flavors tied to every season, it is asparagus that makes my mouth water each April. I can't be totally confident if it's the flavor or the memories I associate with it that brings it home each Spring, but this vegetable will make many appearances, in many forms, on my table this season. I can remember, when we were kids,  my sister Betty and I fighting over who would get to drink the buttery, warm broth at the bottom of the bowl each time my Dad made it. We were suppose to rotate turns, but she always seemed to be closer to the bowl then me.

And I will never forget my Grandmother making asparagus and egg sandwiches on warm Italian bread. This was a Spring diversion from her famous pepper and egg sandwiches. After Grandmom passed, my Aunt Lee would spend Easters with me. On Good Friday, we always had flounder, baked macaroni and cheese, stewed tomatoes, and of course, fresh asparagus. The next morning, we would get up very early and make a trip to a bakery that the whole family refers to as "the bread store". All they make are rolls. Really, really good rolls. And they're cheap!

In Haddon Heights, NJ, worth the trip!
Around the holidays, police have to direct traffic in and around the neighborhood because of Del Buono's popularity. Grab one of the paper bags stacked at the door and head to the big oven racks that are dumping hot rolls into bins. Then, fill your bag and try to make it to the register without getting knocked over. This always worried me since my Aunt needed a cane to walk...and wasn't afraid to use it if someone got in front of her. The aroma on the ride home was amazing. On our last "bread store" run before she became to ill to go, I watched her pull a stick of butter from her coat pocket, grab a warm roll and say "I can't wait" That picture of her joyfully consuming that roll in the car will stay with me forever. Once home, she'd get out the frying pan, I'd get out the eggs and asparagus. Next stop. Heaven.

Aunt Lee is gone now, but I think of her often this time of year. And even though I now have to use Egg Beaters because of a mid-life allergy to egg yolks, (go figure), it doesn't make one bit of difference. I will have this sandwich, or an omelette variation, at least once a week till September. Food...its scents, its flavors are so tied to our memories of family. I appreciate that even more as I get older.

Another thing I discovered about getting older, I could live on appetizers. Seriously. I don't need a full meal every night. Friends and I have discovered that appetizers and happy hour can be dinner! With that in mind, here is my absolute favorite spring appetizer. And of course, you will need asparagus!

Asparagus Roll Ups!!!   


  • 2 sheets of puff pastry, defrosted (Pepperidge Farm works great)
  • 2 oz of herb flavored goat cheese. (You can use any type of soft cheese you like, such as cream cheese or Boursin, but if you know me, you know it will be goat cheese!)
  • 12 spears of asparagus.(For anything else, I prefer the pencil thin variety, but for this one, the thicker stalks hold up better.) Cut the harder, bottom ends off.
  • Par boil the asparagus, drain and let cool.
  • Preheat oven according to pastry package, which is usually 400 degrees.
  • Unroll the puff pastry sheets out onto the counter and spread the cheese mixture, covering it completely.
  • Diagonally cut each sheet into about six slices, each about 1" in diameter.
  • On the diagonal, wrap the strips around the asparagus, leaving room at the end for the tip of the stalk and one end, and the bottom of it, on the other.
  • Place on parchment lined baking sheet and bake around 15 minutes, or until golden browned and puffed. 
I usually serve this with homemade Hidden Valley Ranch dip. The kind you buy in a packet, then make according to directions. It is really so much better and worth the effort. 

This recipe is so easy it cry's out for variations. I served it, then a friends served it, but spread the cheese on thin ham, before cutting and wrapping. It was wonderful. Or crumble bacon into the soften cheese before spreading. Or do it this way. Almost a healthy appetizer!

If you decide to add something different, please let me know. I will definitely try it! 

Photo's by ImageGoggle and Jo Ann Phelps