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Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Legacy of Nellen

Happy Birthday in Heaven to my grandmother, Ellen McCaffrey McGrath (“Nellen”), who was born on January 21, 1907.  It’s hard to believe that this March will mark her 20th Anniversary in Heaven.  Nellen is someone I think about every day.  One of the reasons I do what I can for my family and my community is because I know a person can have an impact on other long after they are gone.  It’s important to me to that I should have a legacy.  Nellen’s legacy is the accomplishments of her grandchildren -- that would be me, and my brother, Uncle Michael.  Nellen was a tough Irish-American educator (she was one of the first females to receive an Education Doctorate from NYU), a font of wisdom, a laugh fest, and the measure of all things elegant and graceful.  And she would also go Balls to the Walls (please forgive the expression but there is no other more apt) if anyone messed with her family.  I like to think that I have inherited some of her qualities but, of course, the Good Lord broke the mold when he made Nellen.

I should add that Nellen was not my actual grandmother, she was my Great Aunt.  That is, my maternal grandfather’s sister.  Both of my mother’s parents died before I got to know them.  On my father’s side:  his father died during World War II in the Philippines, and his mother did not come to live with us until I got older.  In the meantime, Nellen, who did not have any biological children of her own, basically adopted us as her grandchildren.  She came and got us almost every weekend and took us to her beautiful Victorian home in Cold Spring.  It was a treasure trove, filled with working fireplaces, an Attic with treats and endless discoveries, a full working library and a grand, beautiful sloping staircase with burnished handrails that we loved to slide down.  It was Shangri-La compared to our suburban home.  She was also constantly adopting stray dogs off the street, which was an endless source of pleasure for us kids.  Thus, by the time someone mentioned in passing conversation that Nellen was not our biological grandmother but our great aunt, it was simply irrelevant.  We understood but didn’t care about the technicalities, she was our grandmother for all intents and purposes.

Some of my favorite memories were of going to her house on weekends with my brother when we were little.  First, she would could us anything we wanted for Dinner, it was usually steak and eggs.  We got to help in her big country kitchen.  Then we would make tiny little cakes and frost them and take them to the big recliner couch where we would sit and feast and watch our favorite shows, from Donny and Marie to the All in the Family, to the Jeffersons and the Love Boat.  Later on, there was Fantasy Island.

When I was at NYU, Nellen would write me letters on heavy, creamy embossed stationery, telling me about her adventures with the dogs and her charity work.  I loved getting those letters in my mailcubby.  Once a month or so, she would come into the City and we would go to Tavern on the Green, or a museum or a Broadway play.  She was nowhere near as monied as the other NYU grandmothers but she was better educated, better spoken and never failed to show in her mink coat in the winter or her best Chanel suit in the nice weather.  Nellen was a class act, all the way; however, if you messed with her grandkids, she wouldn’t hesitate to crack your skull with her cane.  Literally.

Nellen had been a teacher, then a principal, then an assistant Superintendent at a school system in Harlem.  She was one of the first commuters from Cold Spring, taking the train in every day.  I love the photos of her and her sister, Margaret, also a teacher, during those days.  They were so elegant, always dressed in heels, gloves, smart suits, pearls, and wide brimmed hats.  They looked like movie stars, not school teachers.  Nellen’s last job was as a principal in Harlem.  She was permanently partially disabled during what were referred to as the “race riots” of the 1960’s.  During the riots, her life was actually in danger.  Her kids, as she called them, were constantly running into her classroom and forming a human shield to protect her.  One day, the riots were very bad, and they formed a shield around her to try to move her out of the building to her car.  They told her that if anyone saw a white adult, there could be danger. These were high school kids protecting her, mind you.  A bottle rocket exploded next to her and she pushed the kids out of her way.  The kids were fine, but pieces of glass lodged throughout Nellen’s leg and permanently disabled her knee despite several operations.  She always walked with an incredibly elegant cane after that.
This was right around the time I was born.  My mother was alone, with my father in the Navy shipside in Vietnam for years.  Sensing a need, Nellen simply stepped up and became our grandmother, teaching my mother everything she needed to know about kids, although she technically never had any of her own.
Nellen did not appreciate anyone who took themselves too seriously and would cut them down with a witty remark and friendly smile without them even knowing it.  It was from Nellen that I learned that words would be my tools, whether as a lawyer or as a writer.  Nellen had so many great lessons, so many great sayings, I wish I could pass them all on to you.  Among my very favorites, “Swing with me, Sister” (just go with the flow); “Enjoy the life you have, this is not a dress rehearsal;” “Life is uncertain, eat Dessert first;” “Never save your good china for a special occasion, every day is a special occasion;” “Education is more important than money; any fool can earn money, but an education is priceless;” “While your friends are out having fun, and you’re home studying, you’ll be the one to reap the benefits when you’re older and they’re struggling;” “Spend one night crying your eyes out, then put on some lipstick and get out there, no man is worth two night’s tears;” and of course, my Life’s Credo and my signature line: “Count Your Blessings!” 

Remember to Count Your Blessings every day, and throughout the day.  And, before you complain about the government, the weather, the (FILL IN THE BLANK), ask yourself, is this the Legacy I want to leave behind?  Or do I want to be remembered as someone who dedicated themselves to their family and the community.  I know that’s what Nellen’s legacy is.  Happy Birthday in Heaven, Nellen, we love and miss you always!  <3 Love, Julia and Michael, Lolo and Lola P.S. I wish you could have met Anthony and the boys, you would have loved them, but I know you’re looking down on us from Heaven

Saturday, January 18, 2014


As my readers know, Mrs. Lo loves to cook.  Actually, I love to feed people delicious, homemade food.  Note I did not say "feed my family," because I don't just feed my family of four.  That would be too easy.  There are always other kids over at LoBiondoFork during the week, having dinner before crew, football, or basketball practice.  And of course, Sunday Dinner has become a virtual TailGate Party, with friends and family en masse.  Except that it's indoors and, instead of sandwiches, we have Lasagna or Chicken Parm or some other dish I have spent all week making.

Mrs. Lo likes to do everything in monumental proportions.  We didn't just start a little rowing program to teach a few kids who were not traditional rowers, we have a well-funded, 50-rower strong America Rows Newburgh program, which is now a national program, one of 36 nationwide Affiliates of USRowing.  I don't just have a closet full of shoes, I have two Imelda Marcos style walk-in closets of Louboutins, Manolos and Miu Mius (not that I ever get to wear them anymore).  If I find out a witness has lied to me, I don't want to just expose a prior inconsistent statement, I want the witness to cry tears of shame, and apologize for violating the Social Covenant, while I have them on the stand.

So it's not surprising that I don't just want my family to eat food, I want them to have delicious, nutritious, homecooked meals every night.  Even though I work full time.  And devote almost all of my spare time to the Newburgh Rowing Club.  And some other sports and charities.  This requires planning at a level that makes a Federal RICO trial look like a pre-school project.  I literally plan my meals out 6 months ahead.  I buy in bulk at at a shameless level and shop at Sams Club with two carts.  The people who work the registers think I own a deli.  All of this "product" is stored in a walk in pantry, two refrigerators, and a deep freezer.  I cook 6 lasagnas at a time, my family eats two and I freeze 4.  I also cook 4 lbs of chili at a time, always having 2 crockpots going.  We will go through 2 lbs in one day  and freeze the rest.

As all parents who cook know, you cannot expect to get home at 4 or 5 pm and cook dinner.  That’s impossible.  All you have time to do, if you intend to get your kids to football or crew or basketball practice on time, is heat up something you cooked ahead.  And so I always have trays of food in the freezer, meaning I spend Saturday nights and most of my free time shopping at Sams Club and cooking.  I couldn’t be happier.  My family is around me, and I have a little TV in the kitchen where I watch HGTV (will they love it or list it??)

Thus, it was probably not a big surprise when I blew the doors off my beloved  KitchenAid oven.  Well, the door didn’t actually come off, thank God.  The crack inside the oven started as a hair line.  With each batch of lasagna, it grew and grew.  Then after making 12 lbs of chicken parm, I opened up the oven door and the glass had cracked and shattered.  I called my husband over and he confirmed it.  “Yup.  You finally blew the door off,” he said.

            I called Michael’s Appliances and explained that I didn’t care what it cost I needed the glass replaced right away.  “Wow,” said the serviceman on the phone,” you must really cook a lot.”  Hey, when your appliance repairman is impressed with your level of cooking, it’s a high compliment.

            But nothing beats the actual service call.  My husband met the man at the house.  Christian had let him in.  When Anthony got home, the repairman was on the phone asking someone how to remove the oven door.  Then he turned to Anthony, perplexed, “Do you have any idea how this door comes off?”  Yes, I do, answered my husband, my wife likes her oven clean and I have to take it off fairly regularly.  He went over and pulled the door off.  Then the repairman reportedly set the oven door on top of my wooden salad bowl.  At that point, both my sons and my husband came running over in near panic mode, “Oh no, not Mom’s salad bowl, you do not want to put the door on top of that, she will have a fit!”  I wasn’t there but this was all reported to me by my family.  Apparently, the serviceman thinks I’m some type of an Oven Ogre.  In any event, the newly serviced oven door is back on and back in service. 

            And just in time, I am making baked ziti and Sausage and Peppers for Game Day on Sunday FunDay.  Hashtag this one:  I Used to Buy Louboutins but now I spend all my money on food and appliances.  Betty Crocker would be proud.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

            Have a great day everyone and, as always, Remember to Count Your Blessings! <3 Mrs. Lo

Saturday, January 11, 2014


Every year, as the Northeast grumbles its way from the glory of Autumn to the drudgery of Winter, Mrs. Lo secretly rejoices.  Winter may bring on darkness, bitter cold, and the national disaster known as the “2-Hour Delay,” but it also brings on another chapter, at least for me:  the Off Season. 

In Spring, we have the High Holy sprint season for crew.  This is followed by the langorous days of Summer Camp at Newburgh Rowing and summer rowing.  Soon to follow is Football camp, which starts in July, then comes the crazy time.  Fall means Head Season for rowing (longer races), Fall Regattas, and Football Season.  Translation:  7 days a week of sports, plus travelling.  Not to mention all that goes on behind the scenes at Newburgh Rowing to make all this, and the Student Ambassador program, happen.  Thus it is,  that while some of my friends and loved ones grumble about winter, I look at it as blissful relief.  It has traditionally been my “Off Season”.
            During my Off Season, I hibernate.   Yes, there are still winter rowing practices but, with carpooling, that’s a light commitment on my part.  Winter is the time when I catch up on everything.  My reading, my scrapbooking and photo albums, and of course, my cooking.  I spend the Winter weekends curled up with my family reading, playing board games, and cooking.  I may make 8 – 12 trays of food per weekend, from lasagna, to meatballs, to chicken parm, to put in the deep freezer.  I store up for the days ahead when I have little or no time to cook.  We dust off the board games and have marathon sessions of Parchessi, Scrabble, and Trivial Pursuits, among others.   Last year, I even started canning blueberries, just as I had seen my grandmother do decades ago.  I had big plans to cook, freeze and can this Winter.
            Then, last summer, Michael joined the Newburgh Rowing Club.  Which has been wonderful, we both have indoor rowing on Tuesdays and Thursdays this winter.  And while we were in Disney, Christian said he’d like to join the Bishop Dunn basketball team when we get back.  There were only two practices a week and the games were all relatively local.  Sounded easy enough.  Then I remembered, we had signed him and Anthony and Kelvin up for Indoor Soccer in New Windsor, a friendly Friday night kickabout.  And Michael has Irish Dancing after school two days a week.  And Michael’s swimming on Saturdays.  And the Student Ambassador Learn to Swim Clinic on Mondays.  Oh, and I work out with a personal trainer two days a week.
            As I was furiously making Chicken Parm at 10 pm on a Thursday night, intended for after the basketball games the following weekend, it hit me:  I don’t have an Off Season this year.  The freezer will be stocked a little bit, but not like last year, when I went into crew season with 60 trays of food already frozen.   Nor will there be any canning this Winter (that was probably a pipe dream anyway).  There will, however, be lots of high fiving and cheering.  There will be tables full of rowers and basketball players after school and after games, carbloading on Lasagna and Ziti.  There will be lots of food, lots of laughs, lots of hugs, lots of Love. 
            And then one day, a very long time from now, there will be quiet.  Because the kids will be in college.  And there will be plenty of time to cook and bake and can.  To read and garden.  And then, to coin the Trace Adkins song, we’re going to miss this.  We’re going to want this back.  We’re going to wish these days hadn’t gone by so fast.   And to quote the song directly:
“These are some good times
So take a good look around
You may not know it now
But you're gonna miss this”

          A year ago yesterday, I lost one of my dearest friends and longtime paralegal, Debbie.  Her death was sudden, and the final act of removing her from the machines took place right in front of me.  She was only a few years older than I am.  She had kids much younger in life, so she had children and grandchildren, who she adored.  The day Debbi died, Anthony and I were physically and mentally drained.  We went to dinner at the River Grill, and then I came home, got under the electric blanket and read all afternoon and all night.  Relaxing is important but I don’t need an entire season off.
          Nor am I going to get an off season.  But that’s just fine.  Instead, God has seen fit to give me a Life.  A Life filled with family, friends, Love, and blessings.  And I do mean Blessings.  Just when I thought I couldn’t go on without some type of break, we got a phone call from the Disney Vacation Club.  I had miscalculated the points they had gifted us for free.  Basically, we were entitled to a free vacation.  Just enough the two of us to take a long weekend at the Disney Vacation Club’s Vero Beach Resort in Florida.  I checked my frequent flier miles.  More than enough for free airfare there and back.  And so, just in the moment I was counting all my blessings, rather than complaining, God gave me just what I needed:  a free mini-vacation in the sun and the sand with my husband right in the middle of the Winter.
          In the moment you decide not only to “roll with it” but to be thankful for it all, you may just be pleasantly surprised.  Basketball, Indoor Rowing, Swimming, Irish Dance, Indoor Soccer, and the Learn to Swim Clinic for the Student Ambassadors are a welcome part of my Winter.  I wouldn’t trade any one of them.  And to think, I have friends who complain there is nothing to do in the Winter, the poor dears! 
          Have a great day, everyone, and as always, remember to Count Your Blessings!  <3  Mrs. Lo (Photo of Christian accepting the OCPSLeague Varsity Scholar Athlete Award for Bishop Dunn Memorial School)
NOTE:  the above Blog is from last year.  For the record, we have yet to experience an off season.  After basketball, Christian went to freshman football (yes, football starts in July).  From there, we proceeded to winter track.  And then directly to Spring crew, which is where we now find ourselves.  I am so looking forward to an off-season.  Someday!  

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Greatest Gift

THE GREATEST GIFT – I firmly believe that the greatest gift you can pass on to your children is the love of reading.  Not money, not athletic prowess, not even the secret to studying and getting good grades.  If I could identify the single most important gift I pass on to my kids it is the love of books and the love of reading.  My mother, a public school teacher for over 30 years, passed that on to me.  Along with my grandmother, who had a Doctorate in Education, one of the first females in the nation to get an EdD.  My mother always said, when my kids were little, “you have to bathe your children in words.”  Mrs. O’Neill, our pre-K teacher at BDMS, and a former professor of children’s literature at the Mount, always used the famous quote, “I was rich indeed, for I had a parent who read to me.”  I had once read that if you rubbed your belly while pregnant and asked for two things, that’s what you would get, so with both kids I rubbed my belly and said over and over “Baby Loves to Read, Baby Loves to Swim.”  We have tens of thousands of books in our home, from poetry and rare and antique books to Dr. Seuss.  I have read to my kids every night as long as the oldest let me I still read picture books to Michael at night.  Michael and I sit and read in our Reading Chair every day. 
     Imagine my utter horror when I realized one day that Christian had stopped reading.  Don’t get me wrong, he reads his novels for school and his textbooks, and he’s on the high honor roll.  But he had simply stopped reading non-school books.  True, he was busy with school, athletics, and friends, but everybody has time for a book.  When I realized he wasn’t reading, my blood literally froze.  There could be no greater failure in my life.  I’d rather have him stop doing sports than stop reading, I was horrified.
            So I prayed.  And I asked my mom for suggestions.  “Well, I’m sure they already had him read Salinger in school, how did that strike him?”  And then it hit me.  He goes to Catholic School, they are never going to assign “Catcher in the Rye,” the book by J.D. Salinger that changed my life and the lives of so many before and after me.  Brilliant, Lola, I said!  That’s it, I will get him “Catcher in the Rye.”  That was 6 months ago.  In the meantime, Michael polished off the entire Percy Jackson series, my husband probably read 30 novels and I read about 10 novels along with the newest biographies of Winston Churchill as well as Alexander the Great.  We are all voracious readers.  But that darn copy of “Catcher in the Rye,” which has sold over 65 million copies since it came out in 1951 and continues to sell 250,000 copies a year, just sat on the coffee table.  Staring back at me.  Mocking me.  I could almost hear Holden Caufield, the main character, saying, “well, who’s the phony now?”  The thing is, I knew Christian would love this novel, he is so Holden.  I have read everything by Salinger, every short story, Frannie and Zooey, the Glass stories, you name it, several times over. 
            I love to read and I love to research the authors.  Especially American literature.  I had my law school graduation at the same table at the Alongquin Hotel where Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Edna Ferber and Donald Ogden Stewart, among other great writers used to gather to form the “Vicious Circle” of writers and journalists from 1919 – 1929.  Many of my NYU professors begged me to pursue writing “or at least journalism.”  Maybe in my retirement.  In the meantime, I write my blog and -- isn’t everyone working on the great unfinished American novel? 
            Then the documentary “Salinger” came out, in honor of his 105th birthday, which was January 1, 2014.  I have watched it several times.  I thought I knew everything about Salinger.  Some things were well known, some things were new.  Some things I wish I hadn’t learned.  That was it, I couldn’t stand it anymore.  I became like a madwoman.  I marched into my son’s room, where he was talking on the phone and I started shaking “Catcher” at him:  “Jerry Salinger stormed the beaches of Normandy carrying the pages of this book!  He liberated the Nazi concentration camps carrying the pages of this book!  This isn’t just a book, this is THE coming of age book, and if you do not read it right now I will have FAILED as a mother.  Do you understand me?  I don’t care if you ever row again, I don’t care if you ever catch a football again, I don’t even care about the Honor Roll!  If you do not at least read one chapter in this book, I will have failed!”  Ok, that was a little dramatic but what can I say.  What did my son do?  “Um, I’m on the phone, Mom, can you calm down?”  That’s it, I’m done, I said to myself. The world needs ditch diggers too.
            Christian is not a cruel child.  He could see his mother was distressed.  Out of sheer pity for me, he began reading the book.  Then something magical happened.  He started getting into it.  In fact, he spent all day reading it.  He stayed up until 3am reading it.  However, he wouldn’t finish reading it right away, because he loved it so much, he couldn’t bear for it to end.  All readers know that feeling. 
            And so it was that I went out to Barnes and Noble in a blizzard to buy “Frannie and Zooey,” the next book by Salinger, so there would be something to look forward to.  Finally, my oldest son is a reader again.  He’s back.  More than any crew victory, or football victory, or even making Principal’s List, THIS was my greatest victory to date as a mother.  Baby loves to read!

            Keep reading everyone, and keep fighting for your kids.  Above all,  remember to count your blessings!  Have a great Saturday, everyone! <3 Mrs. Lo