November-December Transitions


By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

Another Thanksgiving has passed, and so has another November 30th birthday. From Thanksgiving on, it seems like I am riding a psychotic horse [which I actually have unknowingly done], through New Year’s.

In mid-November, I pull out the Spode Christmas china. This includes the following set of eight each: dinner, salad, bread and butter, followed by soup bowl, smaller bowls, mugs, cups, saucers, and assorted serving pieces. Looking at the Spode Christmas tree puts me in a festive mood. In addition, various other seasonal mugs join the china fray. Naturally, this means all the other dinner plates, et. al., must be stored where the Spode resides ten-months out of the year…Alright, I admit that sometimes, nay often, the Christmas china remains in use until February.

Ever since I took a stand and invested in a non-live Christmas tree, the tree is now assembled and trimmed by Thanksgiving. Pine-scented Glade plug-in provides the illusion of our Frasier fir trees of yore. Neither sweeping up pine needles twelve months out of the year, nor having Fellini and Coco Chanel lap up tree water, and later purging it, are events I miss. Decking our story-and-a-half 1926 bungalow halls merits much work with a comfort food dinner with hot chocolate and handcrafted marshmallows, not by my hand, but by Whole Foods’. The next day usually entails tackling the outdoor lighting for the front porch. We lean toward white lights and big bows on the railings. Snowflake lights dance from above the railing offering cheer to those passing by.

After a rollicking Thanksgiving with friends whose children also came home from college, like mine did, we continued the food fest with my out of town brother’s family. Spirits were buoyant as we dined and then feasted on a delicious and beautifully decorated birthday cake. I blew out candles, opened gifts, and we just had a fun-filled time of it on my birthday weekend. Anjelica had to turn her attention to studying for law finals. With this in mind, on Sunday morning I made us a frittata, served up sliced mango, tea, and yes, we had a bite of birthday cake.

This Christmas time, we are celebrating with dear friends for a Saturday night gathering at our house. It takes me several weeks to finalize the menu, which I did today, thereby breathing easier. Now, the grocery shopping commences! I love preparing appetizers, food, desserts, and drinks for friends. My darling daughter is a fine baker and cook in her own right. After her law finals this week, she will be home to spin her Yuletide baking, musical mixing, and final decorating talents for our celebration. In between, I am finishing final reading and grading for my students, and shopping for family gifts. All I can say is, thank goodness for online shopping!

Ciao for now.

Back Story

When I am feeling better, I think I'll return to yoga - Showalter Fountain, IU Bloomington -

When I am feeling better, I’ll return to yoga. Showalter Fountain, IU Bloomington –

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

Finally, I am getting back in the saddle. Those readers who have suffered from ignoble back disc maladies know of what I write. On the maternal side of my family, the disc troubles are genetic. My mother was from a family of nine and I have 42 first cousins alone on that side of the family. Wretched disc ailments abound among us. Fortunately, one of those 42 cousins is an orthopedic physician of prodigious talents. I think if Mike wanted, he could center his entire orthopedic practice on our family alone.

The ironic thing is that my disc had not flared up for some years. Likely because of that, I compromised my vigilance. By this I mean that I hauled too many bags of heavy groceries, especially canned goods like garbanzo beans and bottled ones such as wine, instead of carrying these items in smaller bags of lighter weight. I also tote books and because I teach, I’m always carting books into most of my classes. Even paperback books feel weighty if one carries enough of them at one time. Luggage is a whole other realm in itself. While I abhor flying, I adore driving; thus, drive vacations are my preference. Packing light has never been my forte, except when I travel overseas. However, air travel is not nearly as nice as it was in years past, thus I tend to avoid it altogether these days. Driving brings out the worst in packing in me. Far too many clothes, books, shoes, and toiletries crowd my bags and weigh them down. Even with wheeled luggage, it still has to be hoisted into the boot of the car and removed from said trunk at the destination.

Now, as Christmas looms large, so do the decorations. I love to deck our halls, inside and out. Our 1926 abode lends itself to coziness and cheer this time of year, and it is fun to decorate. However, as my back heals, I still feel my wings have been clipped. I must acquiesce to the limitations of “not overdoing it” as my friends remind me. At the height of my back pain, I felt like spun glass; now, not so much. As I pour over recipes, both family favorites and new, I think in terms of how much to purchase at the store in one trip. Ever since Costco opened a few weeks ago in our town, I’ve had to rein myself in since those large quantities can be heavy. I shall pace myself accordingly so that I may celebrate Thanksgiving and then Christmas with those I cherish.

While my father’s side of the family is riddled with arthritis, and my mother’s with back ailments, I am not complaining too much. After all, if I do not start bench-pressing, and carry 30-pound objects, I believe I will be fine. Yet, I thank God for my Cousin, Dr. Mike, who has thus far helped me to avoid the S-word [surgery]!

Ciao for now.

The Christmas Chronicles, Part 3

The topper of Lauren and Justin's Christmas tree -

The topper of Lauren and Justin’s Christmas tree –

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

The day after Christmas seems surreal.  After the flurry of choosing gifts, wrapping presents, baking biscotti, making fudge, and savory dinners, the day after The Big Day, is a bit of a letdown.  Yet imbibing a cup of hot tea with the family as we tried to look refreshed at the breakfast table was laid back and cheerful.  Although my thought had been to ramble around the charming brick street village of my brother’s town, taking a peek in the boutiques, and flipping through books at the new little bookstore, it was not to be. While my dear sister-in-law Kelley and I figured we were invited to my niece Lauren’s new in-laws for dinner that evening, it turned out that dinner would be at 2:30 p.m.

“No matter,” I told myself, “It means I will have to return for browsing in the village at a later date.”

We ducked over to Lauren and Justin’s to meet their cat Oliver.  I chuckle over their naming their black cat Oliver, for I had a white cat named Oliver for ten years. Oliver is quite a character, like most cats I know, but he is affectionate, playful and an all round darling furry fellow.

My daughter and my niece with Oliver the Christmas Cat -

My daughter and my niece with Oliver the Christmas Cat –

My niece’s husband Justin has the nicest family. They are of French Canadian extraction, and up until two years ago, they lived in Vermont. His father is a computer wizard and his mother taught French for years in a Vermont secondary school. Each time we have dined with them, the food Ann cooks is a marvel of French Canadian with a twist of Vermont cuisine. December 26th’s fare proved fine too. We have learned that Vermont folks use a preponderance of their tasty maple syrup in dishes such as simmered beans, baked ham, and, I think it might have also been in one of the savory meat pies. As an Italian American in the Heartland, I grew up thinking maple syrup poured over a stack of pancakes was how one ate maple syrup, mighty good it was. However, Anna, Jim, their son Justin and daughter Sabreena have happily broadened my maple syrup horizons.

Ann and Jim laid a beautiful table for our day after Christmas dinner -

Ann and Jim laid a beautiful table for our day after Christmas dinner –

We all exchanged gifts, and talked, and laughed as we marveled at the sunshine offsetting the chilly weather.  After coffee and Buche de Noel, we piled into the car and headed back to Frank and Kelley’s.  In looking over the landscape of Christmas Eve with Uncle Sam’s family, Christmas Day with my brother Frank’s family, and the day after Christmas with Justin’s family, I realized once more how grand this Christmas of 2013 was because we spent it with those we love best.

Buon Natale!

The Christmas Chronicles, Part 2

Saint Monica Church in our hometown on Christmas morning -

Saint Monica Church in our hometown on Christmas morning –




By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

Christmas Day 2013 dawned brightly with snow.  We tossed clothing into our bags, fastened them shut, and downed a quick breakfast before we headed to Saint Monica Church for Christmas Morning Mass. The church was breathtaking in its Christmas glory:  The large Nativity surrounded by trees graced the Blessed Mary Alter.  Red and white Poinsettia abounded in the Sacristy, on the Saint Joseph Alter, and in the alcove of the Pietà.  Our Christmas spirits uplifted, we returned home to hastily load the car with Christmas presents for my brother and his family.  We patted Fellini, Coco Chanel, and Shelton Rae, our cats, goodbye after their hearty Christmas breakfast.  They then settled down on their favorite blankets for long Christmas naps.

Saint Monica Church Nativity on Christmas Morning -

Saint Monica Church Nativity on Christmas Morning –


The sun shone and we played Christmas music during our two-hour-plus drive.  We sang along with Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Rosemary Clooney, and Michael Buble as we traveled over the river and through the snow.  Hugs and kisses abounded as Frank, Kelley, Daniel, newlyweds Lauren and Justin greeted Anjelica and me. We quickly distributed stocking stuffers to respective stockings.  My brother’s food company is now making delicious Lobster Bisque, which we had for lunch.  I certainly ate mine with gusto!

My nephew Daniel and my daughter Anjelica, two of my favorite Christmas elves -

My nephew Daniel and my daughter Anjelica, two of my favorite Christmas elves –

Frank and Kelley's 2013 live Christmas tree =

Frank and Kelley’s 2013 live Christmas tree =

We gathered in front of a cozy fire in the family room with the live Christmas tree. Arranging ourselves around the sectional sofa, the overstuffed side chair and ottoman, Lauren donned the Santa Claus hat, for she would distribute the gifts to each of us one by one.  Kelly, however, had us each draw a word or phrase from a particular Christmas carol.  We had to string the verse together and that determined the order in which the gifts would be given.  We each open the gift Santa handed out one at a time.  Over Christmas mugs of homemade hot cocoa, we oohed and ahhed over the presents.  I was thrilled with a touchscreen digital Crock Pot, which will now force me to plan meals ahead.  Anjelica loved her Vera Bradley brightly colored duffel bag.  Frankie received an IU quarter-zip, pocketed pullover from me.  My gift to Kelley was the Marc Jacobs Daisy Holiday gift set.  Daniel already had plans for his JCrew gift card. Lauren was pleased with her Williams-Sonoma gold touch square baking and loaf pans.  Justin was all smiles when he opened my gift of a very fine bottle of single malt Scotch.

Mama's homemade ravioli, deliciously made by Kelley -

Mama’s homemade ravioli, deliciously made by Kelley –

Later that night, we sat down to a beautifully decorated table to share my mother’s homemade ravioli and recipes.  Although I have made The Ravioli, Kelley now graciously makes 200+ ravioli for us for Christmas Day. Anjelica and I made Mama’s famously moist fudge and our favorite biscotti.  My brother has become something of a wine connoisseur, and we imbibed hearty wines that night.  We talked and laughed and reminisced as we celebrated Christmas.  My family is dear to my heart.  Celebrating Christmas with them I count as one of the greatest of blessings.

Buon Natale!


The Christmas Chronicles, Part 1

By Mary Anna Violi |  @Mary Anna Violi

Cousin Chrissy's Christmas mantle decor -

Cousin Chrissy’s Christmas mantle decor –

We celebrated Christmas Eve differently this year. In the past our family has traveled to my brother’s home, two-and-three-quarter hours south of ours. Once there, we all put the finish gift-wrapping, and then set off for Christmas Eve Mass.  After a music-filled Mass, we return to my brother’s home for dinner.  After we kiss our children a goodnight, we prepare the Christmas stockings. Now that these children are in their ‘20’s, we the older adults sneak around filling all the stockings.

This year I proposed that instead of spending it with my brother’s family, we celebrate with our Uncle Sam’s family. Uncle Sam, my late father’s brother, will turn 95 in January. This year I thought it would be memorable to celebrate with his family.  We used to spend Christmas Eve with Uncle Sam’s family.  This tradition endured for years during my youth. Yet family traditions evolve:  Families add members, they lose members, and members move to other cities. Fortunately, my cousins welcomed celebrating together again.

Cousins: Chrissy and Anjelica at Chrissy's Christmas Eve Brunch  =

Cousins: Chrissy and Anjelica at Chrissy’s Christmas Eve Brunch =

We began at 10:00 a.m. on December 24 at Cousin Chrissy’s, where she hosted brunch. Playful holiday decorations filled each room of her jewel box of a house. The morning proved festive and filled with goodwill.  Brunch began with Mimosas, followed by coffee with shots of Amaretto. Chrissy made several tantalizing baked egg casseroles [one with sausage, one without], a baked cinnamon confection, a tasty fresh fruit salad, and decorated Christmas tree and star cookies.

Cousins Marianne and Steve's Christmas tree -

Cousins Marianne and Steve’s Christmas tree –

Later that evening we traveled across town to Cousin Marianne’s lovely home.  Chrissy is her daughter, and both of them had gone to great lengths to host memorable Christmas Eve celebrations.  At Marianne’s, there were tangy cheesy appetizers, pasta with hot peppers and anchovies [my personal favorite], another spaghetti dish with far less heat in both the red sauce and in the pasta, and meatballs.  We had mixed drinks prior to dinner, wine with dinner, Grasshoppers after dinner, a cream pie, and white cake. Another delicious meal with family rounded out a joyous Christmas Eve.  The best part though, was the conversation, the laughter, and happiness of simply being with my daughter, our Uncle Sam and cousins. In this way, we count our blessings instead of sheep.

Buon Natale!


Have Yourself a Merry Mellow Christmas

We made donuts from a Barefoot Contessa

We made donuts from a Barefoot Contessa

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

We mailed Christmas cards yesterday. Today we made my mother’s famously moist and tasty fudge. This evening I the mixed the biscotti batter, and placed it in the ‘fridge until tomorrow morning when I will then bake the biscotti logs, cool them, and then cut on a diagonal, and finally bake the sliced biscotti again. Perhaps the day after tomorrow we will bake other Christmas cookies. Or not. This is the Christmas of Mellow.

With Thanksgiving having only been a scant three-plus weeks ago, a killer workload, and shopping online and some in the stores, I am ready to kick back and be a washed in the Christmas music of Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Holiday movies such as my favorite:  White Christmas [with Bing], Little Women [with Christian Bale], and The Holiday [with Jude Law].  I know I named only the male leads in these films, but Christian and Jude are gorgeous and I focus on them more than the rest of the cast because I’ve seen these movies many, many, many times. Bing has the gorgeous singing voice.  I’ll say no more.

Anjelica returned home several days after completing her last final exam.  With one semester of law school under her belt, she was more than ready to kick back and fall into the Christmas spirit.  We celebrated the end of her first semester by dining out at our favorite Japanese Grille. The sushi rolls and fried rice and salad were delicious, as was the green tea.

We dined on Angry Dragon and Firehouse sushi rolls to celebrate the end of the first semester of law

We dined on Angry Dragon and Firehouse sushi rolls to celebrate the end of the first semester of law

The other reason I’m more than ready for a Mellow Christmas is because for the last two-and-a-half weeks, the writing muse has beckoned.  Although I’m roughly 50 pages, 11,000 words into it, I’ve been revising already what I’ve written as I press on with character, plot, and setting development. This writing project has me energized and has preoccupied most of my after work hours. This explains too why I haven’t blogged much the past weeks, but I’m back on deck with the blog, with novel development in tow, and loving every minute of having my daughter back home again for three weeks.

I didn’t pen a Christmas letter this year, but we did get the Christmas photo on a card, into the mail, and that, in my estimation was a small victory.  We’ve also been having a blast cooking new recipes from the December issue of Southern Living magazine.  It feels a bit like I’m back in the South again.

In fact, it’s time to pour a glass of vino rosso, throw on some strip streaks, while we continue to celebrate a Very Merry Mellow Christmas countdown to the 25th.

Ciao for now.




Giving Thanks

Giving Thanks encourages us to pause with family and friends -

Giving Thanks encourages us to pause with family and friends –

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

   Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.  For the second day in a row I landed in a grocery store.  One would think we were preparing the entire Thanksgiving feast, but no, we are bringing the crudités, cheese ball [rolled in nuts] and a homemade coconut cream pie. My daughter and I are cooking my November 30th birthday dinner, which is why we had a second day of grocery shopping.

   Today’s grocery experience took place at Whole Foods, fortuitously because we were hungry, and the day before Thanksgiving, samples were out in full force.  We noshed on organic dates, Clementine oranges, Gruyère cheese, roasted lamb, cranberry walnut bread, and vegan pumpkin pie. The only problem with selecting items one actually needs while shopping on an empty stomach is that one winds up with a cart full of extra items not on the original shopping list.  We exited the store with four spanakopita and two pounds of spinach and Gruyère stuffed mushrooms, both of which were not on the list, and a fresh turkey breast, which was also not on the list, but it is snowing fast and furiously here and what if we cannot travel to my brother’s house two-and-three-quarter-hours away on Thanksgiving morning?  I judged it safer to have the turkey breast on hand, although after we loaded up the SUV I realized that we had been invited to share Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow with some dear friends, and had received an invitation from lively local family members.

       “The turkey breast could be frozen until the Christmas holidays,” I mused.        Rationalization intact, I thought about all the frenzied shoppers I observed today.  Maybe we now place too much pressure on ourselves for Thanksgiving.  All the stress used to be reserved from frenetic Christmas shopping. Yet it seems to me that the quest to make Thanksgiving Dinner Perfect has overtaken some of us.  We tend to be a culture of overachievers who sometimes border on anal perfectionists.  Or maybe that is simply who I am and I am in denial.

   At Thanksgiving we need not worry about bearing gifts, for which I am thankful. After all, Thanksgiving’s allure is sharing a delicious meal with one’s family, although this year the first night of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving. Since I am not Jewish, I am off the hook for buying Hanukkah presents.  If gifts were involved, it would mean making sure all gifts looked no less than perfect. That is what I look forward to early next month.  All right, I confess:  I started Christmas shopping over a month ago. However, tomorrow we will sit down with our family and relish a delectable Thanksgiving banquet.

Ciao for now.



A barrel of wine and bottles remind me of my father's wine-making =

A barrel of wine and bottles remind me of my father’s wine-making =

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

As the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays fast approach, I am reminded of a tradition in our family, or at least one of my father’s.  The other evening as I poured the last vestiges of a Pinot Noir into my wine glass, I stood the empty bottle upright, looked long and hard at it, and began to smile.  The bottle evoked memories of Christmases past in my mind’s eye.

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year, family, friends, and vendors would come bearing gifts of alcoholic refreshment to my father.  The liquid offerings consisted of primarily liquors, in particular Anisette, Amaretto di Saranno, Fra Angelico, and the occasional Peach Schnapps.  Others bore bottles of Canadian Club, Royal Crown, Jim Beam, with a brandy thrown in for good measure.  Most evenings, after the table had been cleared, the dishes washed, and the leftovers stored away, my parents would sit in their cozy living room.

My father would inquire of my mother, “Kitty, you wanna shot?”

Invariably she replied, “Yes, Ciccio, that would be nice.”

I would be pressed into service as family bartender to pour them each a shot of their choice – Anisette was a favorite during the Holidays, with Amaretto di Saranno vying with Fra Angelico for a close second.  With great deliberation did I select the shot glasses.  My personal favorites were the etched glass pedestal ones.

My father carefully cleaned and stored the empty liquor and whiskey bottles.  He delighted in giving gifts to family and friends.  Since he was a master wine maker, he tapped into a huge oaken barrel and filled each of the cleaned empty bottled with his hearty dry red wine.  He annually made his wine with only a variety of grapes from the Napa Valley in California.  Family and friends eagerly looked forward to his cheery smile, his broken English greeting of “Hiya!  Merry Christmas!  How you are?”, as he handed them a bottle of wine in one of his bottles.  Though I was unaware of it then, my father was light years ahead of the recycling movement.  While I do not make my wine, I do recycle the empty bottles in the bin provided by my town, and I do give gifts of wine at Christmas.

Dad would be proud.

Ciao for now.


Good Neighbor Jim

The sort of meal Jim liked, The Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island

The sort of lamb meal Jim liked, The Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

I met Jim and Angie 23 years ago when I moved into our 1928 bungalow the week before Christmas, newly separated from my husband and two months pregnant.  My father had introduced me to Jim and Angie.  Within a short time, I loved them too.

Jim’s father Vic had started the family plumbing and heating business, and now Jim and three of his five sons ran the business.  They were master heating and plumbing specialists.  They had installed the gas-water heating system in our house.  More years down the road they installed a new compatible gas-water heating air conditioning system.  Getting rid of window air conditioning units proved a welcome relief. Throughout the years, Jim checked on our a/c, our boiler, and offered helpful advice on home maintenance.

Of German extraction, Jim had a dry, wry sense of humor that always brought a smile to my face.  He reflected a “calls ‘em as I sees ‘em” sort of attitude.  Throughout the seasons, Jim could be found hovering over his large gas grill.  He and his family remain the largest group of carnivores I know, and I say this most affectionately.  Nearly every Saturday night his five in-town children and their families would pull up in front of our houses for a family dinner.  This generally consisted of Jim’s grilled chicken, or pork, or sausage, or ribs, corn, Angie’s pasta and meatballs, a daughter-in-law’s salad, another’s homemade pies, and the sons’ drinks.  Invariably, Jim would hand us a plate of grilled meat and corn over the fence. His own recipe for barbecue was finger licking good, and I am not even a barbecue connoisseur.  We became excellent friends with his son Terry and his family.  My daughter and Terry’s daughter have been close pals almost since birth.  We have also shared many a birthday cake with Jim and Angie’s family.

What impressed me most these past years was Jim’s sense of family, which reminded me of my own.  He and Angie became like grandparents to my daughter.  Our families became intertwined throughout the years, and I reveled in having such tremendous neighbors of kindness, joy, and integrity.

In the past years, Jim had become increasingly hard of hearing, though I’m sure he wouldn’t admit it.  He persisted in climbing up a tall ladder to work on his second-story windows.  In fact, last week he had climbed up that ladder to paint cedar shingles white.  Some may have viewed him as irascible at age 82, but my perception was that he’s “got a lot of livin’ to do!”  He was always a man in a hurry, an active citizen, a tireless Catholic Church champion, and an inveterate golfer.

Last Sunday afternoon sirens shattered the Sunday serenity.  EMS and a firefighter truck pulled up.  Men hurriedly entered Jim and Angie’s house with a stretcher.

Jim died Wednesday night from a massive stroke.

We took the baked rigatoni, Chianti, and chocolate chip cookies we made to Angie this afternoon.

Jim’s champagne-colored sedan is still parked in front of the house, but it still feels like the world tilted

Ciao for now.

Dreaming of Dayton, Part III


Fellini and Coco Chanel are dreaming of their two Persian cat cousins in Dayton -

Fellini and Coco Chanel are dreaming of their two Persian cat cousins in Dayton –


By Mary Anna Violi | @ Mary Anna Violi

I have two cousins in Dayton, Ohio whom I have known since they were babes in arms:  Ann Marie and Jimmy, though in their professional lives they now go by Ann and Jim.  They are both younger than I, but I adore them.  Ann is an accomplished, experienced social worker; Jim is a savvy, personable businessman.  No matter if several months or a year passes, the three of us always are able to pick up where we left off.  Our cousinship is seamless and strong.

Much of this strength I attribute to my mother, Catherine “Kitty”, to their mother, my Aunt Agnes, and to our Aunt Adelaide, the three sisters.  Those sisters were a close-knit trio, in spite of the geographical distances that separated them in their married lives.  Our three families visited over spring breaks, Easter, summer vacations, Christmas, and family milestone events such as baptisms, First Communions, anniversaries, and any other reason to gather and celebrate together.  Cousin bonds were forged during   childhood, nurtured throughout adolescence, and now into adulthood.   What is additionally gratifying is that we engage in the same family practices with our own children.  Our children know their second cousins and I must admit, it is most gratifying to observe this delightful next generation.

Dayton is a beautiful, tree-laden city with fine architecture, hilly residential areas, a winding river, universities and colleges, delectable eateries, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and excellent shopping venues. As a child, I loved Dayton and Kettering, where Aunt Agnes and my late Uncle Joe first lived.  With the wind in my sails from this most recent visit to Dayton, I am once again reminded of how dear my aunt’s family is to me.  How exquisite it is that my daughter feels likewise about her aunt and cousins.

Ciao for now.