Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Help has arrived!

We couldn’t go on running to feed my dad at his house four times per day while Mom recovers from her operation.

My sister was always late to work because she had the breakfast shift. I had to take time off from work in the middle of the day to fix and serve lunch.

The evening hours didn’t interfere with work, but they interfered with homeschooling. And they do take time out of the day. It was stressful.

And Dad, instead of being thankful, complained to Mom about any little thing we did “wrong.” Not giving him a glass of buttermilk at night. Serving an undercooked egg (even when my brother cooked it exactly 2 min. 10 sec. like Dad instructed). Not giving him enough vegetables. Or water. It was always something, and hearing about his complaints was downright demoralizing.

“We have to get someone in here to take over the breakfast and lunch duties,” I suggested last weekend after we realized that a nurse, even if covered by insurance, would only give him his pills. And that wasn’t the problem. He takes his own pills.

“We should ask around for some middle-aged or older Ukrainian woman,” suggested my youngest brother. “Someone who speaks Ukrainian and cooks the Ukrainian food that Dad's used to. The best way to find someone like that is by word of mouth.”

I sighed inside and braced myself for delivering a lot more lunches.

That was Saturday morning. So we each made a call and put out the word.

By 2:00, we had interview and hired our rescuer. Lydia was definitely sent there by God! She’s 64, has 15 years experience with cranky old people, and was a take-charge kind of woman, yet compassionate and has a servant heart. And my father loved her!

She’s also from our church.

God bless you, Lydia! And good luck to you!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Homeschooling is coming along. The kids are doing labs, taking tests (the completion of each Apologia science test is a celebration), writing reports, giving oral reports, and even learning Russian. The school year is going reasonably well.

But I'm a mess. Working a 40-hour-per-week job and teaching stretch me to the utmost. I'm completely, utterly inundated with work just juggling those two tasks because, after all, I still cook and do some housework. But my mother's sudden hospitalization has driven me to the very edge of the precipice. I have moments of losing it.

In a few days she'll be released from the hospital, but if she goes home, my father's demands could kill her. He thinks only about himself, and whether she is able to serve him or not, he will expect it. And she is so used to that role of servant that she would probably fetch or clean or do whatever just to get him to stop pestering her. So we kids have to either find some place that will take in my mother while she convalesces or find daily help at home. And even if we do find a place for Mom, we still need to find a person to at least come in daily and feed Dad lunch and do some laundry. I can't possibly take time off daily at lunchtime, drive to Dad's, fix him a meal, and go back to work, not even if I work from home. It just tears up the day. If all goes well, Mom will be healing for two to three months! I'd lose my mind.

If Dad was a pleasant person, appreciative of our efforts, flexible – perhaps we could do it. But he is not. He has very particular demands. He eats specific foods prepared a certain way. He cuts tomatoes with a specific knife, as my sister-in-law found out when she gave him THE WRONG KNIFE. But the worst thing is that he so often puts us down that none of us want to be around him. He's close to 90 years old, frail, dependent – but so critical and unpleasant that all of us kids are really struggling with serving him.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mom in the hospital

I had just come home from shopping for a birthday gift for my niece when my husband met me in front of the house and said, "The party is canceled. Your mother is in the hospital."

That was on Saturday. Days later, I still haven't caught my breath.

My two brothers and sister had beaten me to the emergency room. X-rays. CAT scan. Diagnosis: ulcer had perforated her duodenum and the contents spilled into her abdominal cavity. Without surgery to clean her out and sew up the hole, she would die of infection.

Prep for operation. Saying good-bye – just in case. Waiting. Praying. Driving home to check on Dad. Waiting some more. Returning to the hospital. Waiting…

Mom made it through surgery and is recovering well, though she's in a lot of pain and sometimes confused due to the medications. But it's Dad who's put a wrench in my already overbooked life. He's 89 and can barely walk, and then only with a walker. He goes from bed to easy chair, where he sits all day watching TV, dozing, doing sudoku, dozing, cruising the Internet on his laptop, dozing some more… Then at the end of the day, he shuffles back to his bed. He needs someone to prepare his meals and place them in front of his easy chair, so my siblings and I divided up the days. I get to prepare the lunches and wash the dishes from the previous meal.

I won't get into details, but it's not been easy. My dad's personality is the opposite of pleasant. Each of us dread our shift. I know it's un-Christian, and I go to the ends of the earth to serve others, but I have a hard time serving my own father. I know this, yet I cringe each time I go over there. Years of putdowns and criticism never go away. I'm an adult – been an adult for decades! – and could easily push his frail body over, yet I still fear him. I'd rather serve a stranger. It's his tongue.

…no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:8)

In fact, over the weekend, my brothers, sister and I reminisced about his insults over the years. How sad. Unfortunately, that's how we'll always remember him. For his tongue.

We can't wait for Mom to get back home, but even when she does, she herself will need care! All of us work, and I work full-time AND homeschool three kids.


Monday, September 14, 2009

A year ago today...

This was the day, a year ago, when my brother Greg was taken off life support. His accident was on September 11, a date that will never slip by unnoticed. Technically, he died on September 13, the day he went brain dead. It's been a year. Seems longer. Much longer.

It still bothers me how my brother's affairs all ended. No will. No administrator. No estate. House being foreclosed. Everything for naught. Meaningless.

The house is still unsold, unoccupied, with gutters that need cleaning and a yard that sorely needs care. The lawn that Greg so painstakingly planted and tended is full of weeds. The flower gardens he created are overgrown or emptied, the hostas dug up and replanted in other gardens, including a memorial garden I created in my own yard. It's painful to go to his house, painful to think about his death, painful to think even of him. Still. A year later.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

She drowned the candy thermometer in caramel

Lately I've been obsessed with cakes - I mean tortes.

I've been baking tortes since I was 14, but only last week did I learn the definition of torte : a cake that uses ground nuts instead of flour.

OK, there's more to the definition than that, but my cakes - I means tortes - never had flour in them. Lots of nuts and eggs and butter and sugar, but no flour. But I digress...

I've been obsessed with tortes the last few weeks, ever since I began trying out new recipes with the hopes that the girls can make a small business out of baking tortes. So I've been outdoing myself brainstorming, researching, and trying out new recipes. Hazelnut Dacquoise. Chocolate Truffle Torte. Mocha. How would Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Truffle Torte sell? Would an almond buttercream taste good in a hazelnut torte, or should I put in a layer of chocolate? What if I put crushed hazelnuts in one layer of the praline buttercream? I have to hold myself back from going to the kitchen to make yet another torte when my refrigerator is already filled with sweets - or when I have homeschool plans to make or homework to grade.

Until I perfect the recipes I want to feature, I haven't involved the girls in the testing, so they've been doing some testing of their own. They love to bake just as much as I do, and I never know when suddenly they'll spread out cookie tins and mix concoctions of oatmeal and brown sugar, or, more recently, caramel chocolate bars with nuts. Mmmmmm!

But alas, accidents do happen, and when I walked into the kitchen last week, I found my digital candy thermometer, which you need for making caramel, a little... um... sticky. All the words had disappeared from the buttons, and the label was curled back.

It was an expensive batch of caramel chocolate bars, but you know, they were worth it. I just love when the girls cook and bake because they want to, not because I ask them to.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

This book is actually interesting!

Those were Jacob's words a few chapters into the first book I assigned him this school year.

What a sad reflection on the literature that I’d assigned him in the past. Not that all books I gave Jacob were boring; in fact, he had enjoyed the livelier books, such as The Red Badge of Courage and Never Cry Wolf. But during the summer I had decided that I would not assign him another book that I myself have not read or one that I didn't find interesting. Looking back, I wonder why on earth I felt that I had to assign him classic books for his own good. If he doesn’t like to read, why give him books that are difficult even for me, an avid reader? Just so he can say he read them???

I had found A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah interesting. It was also unsettling and eye-opening, but very interesting. I guess Jacob found it interesting, too. It's opened his eyes to a new and previously unknown world - and he enjoyed the experience.

I guess I succeeded.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Exploring Social Injustice through Literature

Last year I was bent on teaching Jacob the classics. Moby Dick. Walden Pond. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Yaaawn...

Oh, Jacob read them all right – but they didn’t do anything to instill a love of reading in him. In the end, I’m not sure what he got from these books. He did learn a few things – and a lot of perseverance. And that literature can be really boring. But that’s not what I wanted to teach.

So this year, Jacob's senior year, I changed my approach. None of the books I selected are classics, not in the stood-the-test-of-time way or on the list of must-reads in the local high schools. In fact, when I pre-read some of the books that are on the local high school’s list of assigned literature, I was horrified! For example, I would never assign Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic, with its foul language, focus on sexual thoughts, and visits to brothels, not even if it does give insight to what a wounded Vietnam War veteran goes through. And it wasn’t even well written.

So this year I compiled my own list. I’ve read all these books, so I know what’s in them. I chose them because they touched my heart and taught me something new. And they weren't hard to read.

Yes, all these books have a theme. They aren’t uplifting, and although some have happy endings, what the subjects live through is heartrending. I’m hoping to arouse both awareness and empathy. So I’ve decided to call this course "Exploring Social Injustice through Literature."

Here is the book list:

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah is the autobiographical account of a 12-year-old boy who got separated from his family during a brutal civil war in Sierra Leone, West Africa, and how, after struggling to survive on his own, he ends up abducted into the army. The book describes the atrocities of the war, mass slaughters, and how children are brainwashed and drugged to become killing machines. It's a very a disturbing and powerful book.

Sold by Patricia McCormick is a story of sexual slavery, a heart-breaking account of a 13-year-old Nepali girl, Lakshima, who is sold into prostitution by her stepfather and transported to a brothel in India. This difficult topic is handled sensitively. The book is written in free verse. It reads like poetry and hints at the horrors that Lakshima lives through in terse, but poignant language. Although the book is a work of fiction, it is based on true lives and depicts the horrors of forced child prostitution faced by an estimated 300,000 girls worldwide.

City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre - the book, NOT the movie! (The movie was made into a love story, but the original book most definitely is not.) Over 20 years ago, I read this moving true tale of a destitute peasant who ends up as a rickshaw driver living in a slum in Calcutta, a Polish priest who came to live with the poorest of the poor, and an American doctor who joins the priest to help in the slum. Scenes from this stirring book remain with me to this day - the intimate details of the daily lives of the poor, their desperation, and the self-sacrifice of those who try to help them. A detailed and gut-wrenching view of poverty.

Slave: My True Story by Mende Nazer is an autobiography of a village girl in Sudan who was kidnapped, raped, and transported north to the capital city of Khartoum and sold into slavery. Describes the conflict between the Arab north and the black south, and the Arabs' attitude towards the blacks. Mende was severely mistreated, humiliated, and abused until she finally escaped to freedom. Sadly, there are many more slaves like her all around the world today, hidden and suffering in silence.

Where Little Ones Cry: Tragic Stories from War-torn Liberia by Harvey Yoder is a collection of true short stories about different children and how they survived the civil war that recently tore apart Liberia in West Africa. Most stories are not that well-written, but the book is informative, describing the horrors of war from different people's perspectives. My favorite passage, which rings so true, is from a first-person story called "War!" as told by a Liberian woman:

I almost have to laugh now when I think of how war was presented in the history books. Generals and plans. Heroes and marches. Lots of trumpets blowing and people making speeches. Maps showing where armies marched and who controlled which countries. A few pictures of the destruction of buildings and cities.

That is not war. That is just what they tell you about war. War is much more than that. War is screams, death, and horror. War isn't real until it visits you personally...

Growing Up Empty: The Hunger Epidemic in America by Loretta Schwartz-Nobel is about hunger and poverty in America. I read it because of a comment on this blog. Some parts of the book are like a textbook, but the stories of the invisible poor around us are a real eye-opener. I will probably assign only a few select chapters. The stories of an upper middle class wife and mother reduced to poverty when her husband runs off with another woman (and all the money), and the description of the hardships of families in the armed forces were both a revelation to me.

Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculee Ilibagiza is firsthand account of hiding in a bathroom for 91 days to survive the 1994 genocide as frenzied Hutus slaughtered Tutsi "cockroaches." She writes how her faith in God helped her survive the genocide and forgive her enemies. All this was happening while Jacob was toddling around the house with his Playskool toys.

When Invisible Children Sing by Chi Cheng Huang is a memoir of a Harvard medical student who went to Bolivia to work with orphans in Bolivia and expanded his ministry to reach out to street children who live in squalor and inhale paint thinner to dull their appetites and senses. Describes the day-to-day life of these children, and what keeps them on the streets.

Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America by Mike Yankoski describes how he, an affluent college student, decided to test his faith and live with the homeless for seven months. It gives an insider's view of homelessness in America.

Jacob already read the books below, but if he hadn't, I'd include them as well:

Tears of My Soul by Hyun Hee Kim is the memoir of a woman who planted a bomb that blew up Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987. She described growing up in North Korea, being indoctrinated by Communist thinking, then being recruited and trained as a covert-operations expert. Although the author was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for her terrorist crime, she was later pardoned. She described her deprogramming in South Korea and her redemption through Christianity. I couldn't put this book down and read it at one sitting.

A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer is a fascinating and horrifying autobiography of a child who was ostracized by his family and sadistically tortured by his alcoholic and (I believe demon-possesed) cruel mother. Hard to imagine that anyone would treat another human being like this, much less her own child. An inside look into child abuse and what the child is thinking.

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung is a personal account of surviving the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia from 1970 to 1979 from the viewpoint of a young child. Since she started out as a middle class city girl but ended up a war refugee, it makes me wonder whether my life might not have a sudden and unexpected turn of events that could lead to completely unexpected results. Powerful descriptions of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

Even though the subjects of these books are emotionally difficult, I think that Jacob will enjoy reading them. Hopefully, they'll touch his heart.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Making praline paste can hurt - if you're clumsy like me. I pushed a lone hazelnut into the 370-degree F caramel (I measured the temperature before pouring it), and now I have a blister to remind me not to repeat that maneuver.

My girls keep wanting to earn money, and a way that we've brainstormed is to bake and sell cakes. I'm not talking about the usual birthday cake from a mix; I never even tasted one of those until I was almost grown up. In my home, I grew up on European tortes, cakes baked with pecans and blanced almonds and walnuts, icings made of praline creams laced with Frangelica and mouthwatering chocolate tinged with rum. What I thought was a normal birthday cake in my family is something only the fanciest bakeries can produce.

The idea of selling cakes sprang from tea and cake that I served the youth group after a mission training meeting at our house last winter. As one mother picked up her son, I handed her a piece of George's birthday cake.

"Where did you get this?" she asked after one bite.

When I told her I baked it, she asked whether she could order one for her next party. She still hasn't, but the seed was planted.

So before we dive back into school and (hopefully) launch the girls' baking business, I'm testing out a few new recipes. The girls learn them right along with me. Yesterday's Chocoloate Truffle Cake was a real hit at today's barbecue at my sister's house. And tonight's test cake is has praline buttercream. But I had to make the praline paste.


Friday, September 4, 2009

Things falling into place

We returned from our visit to Ukraine in mid-August. But even after a few days readjustment, I couldn't face homeschooling. I felt overwhelmed by the complexity of the high school subjects I need to teach (all three of my kids are in high school!), the paperwork I still needed to turn in to the school district, the projects at work, the mess that I had to sort through in my home office before I could teach, the schoolbooks I needed to order... It all bore down on me.

However, I had to face it: the beginning of school was just around the corner. And somehow, though I can't clearly remember how, things began to fall into place.

First it was the math. We had a tutor for all three last year, but Jacob and Alexandra didn't feel challenged enough. Alexandra had always been in advanced math, but she was bored by the slow pace set by the tutor, who admitted that the level of high school math she was teaching my older two kids stretched her abilities.

I don't recall whether I mentioned the community college pre-calculus class or they heard about it from Peter, a homeschooled friend, but they jumped at the chance to take a challenging class. The best part was that the college class is being offered specifically for homeschoolers in a church building, not on campus. I signed up Jacob and Alexandra.

Next was Physics, which I thought would be the bane of my existence this coming year. I had decided to teach Physics to Jacob, and to double up Alexandra and Larissa and teach them both Biology. I know Biology well – I have a B.S. in Biology – so that subject doesn't stress me, but I fully expected to read the Physics text hand in hand with Jacob, staying up late nights to relearn Physics as I did with Chemistry last year.

Then my friend Nita mentioned that the homeschooling center was offering not just the lab, which is what I had thought, but the entire Physics course. (Driving all that way just to do a lab didn't seem worth it.) A physicist would explain the concepts, provide the materials and do the labs with the students, and be available to answer questions – questions I'd be hard-pressed to answer without investing a lot of time reading and studying. What a relief! I signed up Jacob right away. Then Alexandra decided that she, too, wanted to take Physics to get it out of the way. "But I'll do Biology, too, so that next year I don't have to take a science," she explained.

The math class is at a church 18 miles away on Mondays and Wednesdays, 1:50 – 3:30 PM. Then Physics runs 4:00 – 6:00 PM on Wednesdays, giving Jacob just enough time to drive the 8 miles or so from the church to the homeschooling center. He'll be driving Alexandra and Peter as well, which will be a real help.

Jacob still wants to take a mechanics class as an elective, and I have to figure out how and when before I write my IHIPs (Individualized Home Instruction Plans), but what a relief that a couple of tough subjects have fallen into place!

What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
— Albert Pike, Scottish Rite Freemason (1809-1891)