Missing the Mess

I was having a conversation with my mom (Luza, who, by the way, is 100 years old) and I was telling her how weird it was to only have 1 of my kids left at home. 

Technically, even Jonathan is not here, because he's gone most of the time with school and auditions and driving to LA and rehearsals for the play he's in. So I find myself rethinking making meals. I'm so used to cooking for a crowd and now it's just me and Eric.     

Which is awesome. And completely weird to me.

So I am telling this to Luza and she suddenly she asks, "Is your kitchen clean?" Which at first I thought was an issue with her synapses mis-firing again because that seems to happen more often lately. She's 100, after all. I thought she was changing the subject.


"Yes, as a matter of fact, it is."

Which, now that she was mentioning it, I realized was pretty unusual for my house. There are always dirty dishes and leftover-from-last-night's-party cups and serving dishes that I was too lazy to wash out yesterday. And glasses with some sort of liquid in them on every available surface in the kitchen and dining room and living room. (Shut up. Don't judge.)

But here was my kitchen, with everything in its place and the counters wiped off. Hmmm.


Or mostly clean. But still...

Then she dropped this nugget on me:

"You spend years cleaning and straightening and discouraged that no matter how hard you work it doesn't seem to last for more than a day. Then suddenly you surmise that everything seems to stay neat and straightened and clean and you find yourself missing the mess."

My mom has lived 100 years. She has a lot of life experience. I guess I shouldn't be surprised when she has these amazing moments of lucidity.

"Go ahead and grieve. It's not the mess you miss, it's the messy people."

And so, here I sit, in my pretty-clean-for-a-Monday house, letting the tears fall. I think it's just part of that whole pesky empty-nest thing happening and I just need to embrace it.

Just when I think I need to soldier on through this alone, I get a text from Amy in Miami:


It turns out that the Messy People miss me, too. Who knew?

As an added bonus, it's also pretty nice to have a clean kitchen.

The Secret of Long Life

As many of you know, yesterday we celebrated my mom, Luza's 100th birthday. Thank you all for the wonderful birthday wishes. I printed them all out and they're going in her newest scrapbook, but that's not important right now.

When you reach a certain age, in this case, 100 years, people often ask, "So, what's your secret?"

The question they're really asking, I think, is, "What did you do to get here?"

I can't answer that for other people, but I can tell you that the secret to my mom's long and healthy life are not the things she did, but the things she did not do.

100 pinata

1. She never worked outside of her home.

My dad was always the breadwinner. She went from her parents' home to becoming his bride. She was exclusively a wife and mother and eventually, a grandmother. My siblings and I continue to take care of her.

2. She never drove a car.

My dad, and as we got our drivers licenses, all of us drove her wherever she wanted or needed to go.

3. She was never bitter about the past.

Her life changed radically and completely when we came here to the U.S. She lost the only country and language she had ever known. She never saw her mother again. She left her home and wealth to start over in this new country with a family of 6 kids. She was 47 years old.

4. She did not stop reading.

She still reads voraciously and has two or three novels going at once. She also enjoys the occasional self-help book. Go figure.

5. She didn't lose her faith.

Communism took over our island home and with it, came the destruction of the church. She continues to read her bible every single day. The readings go like this - 1 chapter New Testament, 1 chapter Old Testament, 1 Psalm, 1 Proverbs. On this schedule, she reads her bible cover to cover every year. And it shows.

Luza's bible

6. She has never stopped learning.

Because she's such a voracious reader, she likes to clip articles from magazines and newspapers (in Spanish, of course). She likes to learn fun facts about the nations competing in the Olympics. She collects inspirational quotes. She can have an intelligent conversation about what's happening in the world and politics. She has voted in every U.S. election since she became an American citizen.

7. She won't stop making plans.

Of course, it's been years since she has been able to work on any projects herself, but that hasn't stopped her from clipping decorating ideas from magazines, or making plans to add flowers to her garden. Even when I'm the one hosting the party, she will always offer an idea that she has found. Also, she keeps scrapbooks. She has dozens of them full of the things that she finds cute, or useful, or memorable. She works diligently on these all the time.

8. She doesn't worry about her phone bill.

She is still in touch with her siblings in Cuba and our first next door neighbor when we first arrived in the U.S. She calls many of her old friends (some that she knew from summers in the late 50's from Varadero Beach) regularly.

9. She didn't stop taking care of herself.

She still regularly colors her hair, goes to the beauty parlor, paints her nails, wears perfume, and of course, wears lipstick. Even if no one is visiting that day and even if she's not going anywhere, she gets dressed and grooms herself every day.

10. She never despaired.

She had to start her life over in mid-life, and true to the Cuban character, she made jokes about it. She raised a family in a new and foreign culture. She was always of the "Where There's Life, There's Hope" camp and that's how she has lived her life.

My indomitable mother is 100 years old young. Maybe it's time to make my own not-to-do list.

The Random Italian Thing or Mac and Cheese for All

We're getting ready to celebrate my mom, Luza's 100th birthday in another week. And of course, as we're trying to put this thing together, we've tried to include her in as many decisions as possible.

Luza invitations

She doesn't care much about the decorations, she says. She trusts us with those, as long as they are bright, not just one color, but all the spring colors, but no red and absolutely no black. Oh, and flowers. Lots of flowers. (So much for the trusting us part... but that's not important right now.)

There are two other things that she has a very strong opinion about.

1) Send an invitation to every single person in her address book. This was a no-brainer and obvious to us, of course. The interesting part is that the names in her address book ranged from her first neighbor in Miami back when we first arrived in the U.S. back in 1961 to her old ESL classmates from the 70's. *shaking my head*

2) When we asked if she had a preference for the food we'd be serving, she said, "Yes, I want it to be Italian."

This second feature comes up randomly and at the most bizarre moments. Of course, there's a back story...

The Random Italian Thing

When she was growing up in the Cuban port town of Manatí (read some of that story here), the big cargo ships would come in to load Cuban's main export, which was sugar and they would unload whatever import happened to be coming from Italy (of all places). It was the Italians that captured her imagination. They were from a far away place called, Napoli, and they sang songs, like "Oh, Marie," and talked in accents and fascinated the residents of Manatí, particularly the children.

Apparently the entire family was enthralled with the Italian Thing. My grandmother, Osmunda (as my mom tells the story) learned to cook the most amazing macaroni. And every now and then, as happens to all of us, the craving for the food that her mom cooked overwhelms her.

So, the menu for the party is Italian with a Cuban spin.

In honor of that, I'd love to share this recipe for the most delicious Mac and Cheese. It's pretty simple and in fact, I did a test run the day of the Super Bowl Big Game and it was a hit with everyone. My grandmother, Osmunda's secret was to use chicken broth to cook the pasta and then make it in a flat pan so that every bite has cheese and crunch. I promise you will love.

In honor of Luza's 100th Birthday and the Random Italian Thing, I give you...

  The best mac and cheese

Flat Pan Mac and Cheese (estilo Osmunda)

  • 3/4 pound elbow macaroni
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter (you'll be dividing it up)
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 cups whole milk (must be whole for the best texture)
  • 5 cups chicken broth (divided)
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 6 oz bread crumbs. (I use fresh bread and make crumbs with my food processor. This gives it a fresher
  • taste.)
  • 1 medium bunch of fresh parsley
  • 5 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 cups of grated Parmesan cheese (about 4 ounces)
  • 1 cup Fresh Mozzarella, diced into small cubes (8 oz)
  1. Preheat oven to 425°F.
  2. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil. Add a tablespoon of kosher salt.
  3. Boil macaroni for about 5 minutes. You want it "al dente." Drain. Do not rinse. Set aside.
  4. In the same large pot, melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat.
  5. Add flour, whisking constantly for about a minute. Add milk and chicken broth, whisking constantly.
  6. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and gently simmer. Add kosher salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Simmer until mixture begins to thicken, about 20 minutes. Note: It won't get too thick, but it should coat the spoon.
  8. Meanwhile, melt remaining 4 tablespoons of butter. Measure 3 cups of breadcrumbs (Pulse bread in food processor to make crumbs or use packaged crumbs) and place in a mixing bowl.
  9. Add parsley and garlic to food processor. Pulse until fine, then add to bowl with breadcrumbs. Season with 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt. Pour butter over top and mix with spatula until combined.
  10. In a large mixing bowl, toss macaroni with grated the grated Parmesan — it's ok if the noodles are sticking together.
  11. Pour the milk mixture (bechamel) over the top of the noodles. They should come apart easily now.
  12. Line a long, flat, jelly roll pan with a sheet of parchment paper. Spread macaroni mixture over top.
  13. Distribute the diced mozzarella cubes over top. Scatter breadcrumb mixture evenly over top of those. You can add any other toppings that make you happy at this point. I like it as is.
  14. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until top is golden and the macaroni is bubbling. Let it sit for about 10 minutes before serving.

 Also, it's not too late if you would like to send my mom a Happy 100th Birthday Greeting. Click here and feel free to leave your good wishes in the comment section.


As you know, my mom, Luza, is 97 years old. She has four siblings who are all in their 90's, except for one...

Her big brother just celebrated his 100th birthday in Miami this past weekend.

Fernando 100

Tio Fernando is one hundred years old. (I know. Shut up!)

I don't know what genetic material these people are made of, I just hope I have a tenth of their energy when (if!) I get to be their age.

Those amazing coke-bottle glasses inspired us to give him the nickname, Magoo. =D

"Ah, Magoo! You've done it again!"

Felicidades, Tio Fernando! Que Dios te bendiga!