Category Archives: Holiday Celebrations

Droby Fest 2018

Saturday night, December 1, 2018, we pile into my red Ford Flex. It is cold, just above freezing. Rain is falling, and we are all chilled. I tap directions into my iPhone, and off we go to Droby Fest. At this point, you may be thinking that Droby is the name of a band, or that Droby Fest is a community event, it is neither.

A Droby is a fresh Slovak sausage. Our family’s version is made from pork, organ meats, rice, and potatoes. It is seasoned with marjoram. There seem to be many renditions of this peasant sausage. However, they all have meat and potatoes in them.

Droby sausages are not bought, they are homemade in a laborious process. As a child, I had the job of grinding ingredients. My father would clamp a meat grinder onto a tall wooden stool. A large blue speckled Granite Ware roasting pan was then placed below the mill to catch the product of my efforts. I would feed chunks of raw meat and peeled potatoes into its nickel-plated hopper, as I cranked and cranked. When making Droby, you start with a coarse grinding plate and reprocess the mixture with successively smaller plates until it is the right consistency, relatively smooth with just a little bit of chunkiness. At home, we made our mixture casserole style, right in the roasting pan. However, my grandmother made her’s the traditional way, in sausage casing.

My extended family would meet at my grandparent’s south side walk-up on Christmas Eve. Their small residence consisted of a living room, a kitchen, three very tiny bedrooms, and an unheated back porch. Clean and neat, it appeared to be a homage to the 1940s, as most of it had never been modernized. Extremely tiny by today’s standards, it was the home where my grandparents raised their 6 children.

Our festivities would start with a meatless Christmas Eve meal. After a blessing, we would dine on Oplaki (wafers with honey), Opekance (steamed bread balls with poppyseed), and my grandmother’s delicious dried mushroom/sauerkraut soup. Sweets were aplenty, and there were endless supplies of kolacky, drop cookies, and homemade yeast coffee cake. I had to sample all of them.

At 11:30 PM we would go to midnight Mass at Assumption BVM church, a small Slovak Catholic church that was a few blocks away. The church would be packed with parishioners wearing their finest clothing, which were often items that had been removed from mothballs only hours earlier. The smell of mothballs mixed with onions and garlic is a distinct, if not wanted, memory for me.

After Mass, we would return to my grandparent’s for a second feast. My teetotaling aunts might sip on a glass of sweet Mogen David wine, getting a little silly in the process., My father and his brothers would do shots of whiskey, and become more boisterous. We kids would talk, play made up games, and continue to eat sweets. It was then time to eat again, although everyone was still completely full. I don’t recall everything that the second meal consisted of, but I do remember my grandmother’s light rye bread, baked ham, hard-boiled eggs, and Droby. Her bacon wrapped Droby sausage was baked until the casing was deliciously crisp. Yummy!

My grandparents died, and over the years our families grew apart. I recall going to many extended family parties as a kid, but very few by the time that I was in high school. With the loss of get-togethers came the loss of ethnic foods. I tried to make a dish here and there, but I had neither the time nor the skill to move past the most basic recipes.

And then there was a funeral…

When families drift, it isn’t uncommon to only re-connect at funerals and weddings. Such was the case of my extended family. At my Aunt Suzie’s funeral, my sister Nancy struck up a conversation with my cousin Ken. During that conversation, it was suggested that the family have a reunion picnic. At that picnic, it was determined that we needed other opportunities to reconnect, and a variety of get-togethers were eventually created. We now get together a number of times during the year. My cousins Ken and Kris are our family organizers. Their dedication to the Kuna cause is steadfast, and I am very grateful for their efforts.

Droby Fest is our cousin Christmas party, and it is held in the community room of the small Lutheran church where my cousin Bob attends. The building is tucked away on a side street in a quiet neighborhood in Palatine. It appears to have been built in the 1960s, and I would describe its architecture as functional.

The room where we meet is a large, bright rectangle. The walls, a utilitarian blue, the floor basic linoleum tiles. At the far end of the room is a large painting of Jesus with outstretched arms, floating on a cloud. Long folding tables stand in rows, each dotted with folding chairs. Seating is not assigned.

When you enter Droby Fest, you can feel the energy of the crowd. People mill around to connect with each other in a fashion that appears both random and purposeful at the same time. Smiles are everywhere.

As with my grandparent’s parties, food is at center stage. A long row of tables on one wall serves as the buffet bar for the main meal. Another table on an opposite wall serves as the dessert bar.

Everyone brings food, some homemade, some ethnic, some store-bought; it really doesn’t matter. This year the offerings ranged from Slovak chicken paprikash with haluski dumplings, to meatless Shepherd’s Pie for the vegetarians, to gluten-free perogies for those with gluten intolerance. There was something for everyone. My cousin Ken always makes Droby sausage in enough quantity to feed a small army.

The dessert bar is enormous and offers up a wide variety of store bought and homemade sweets. I no longer eat concentrated forms of sugar, so I drool as others sample a little bit of this or that. Alcohol is available, but only a few imbibe, and those that do seem to limit their consumption. This is a far cry from my father and my uncles drinking whiskey shots from the days of yore.

There is no rigid format at Droby Fest. Attend if you can, if you can’t, you will be missed. Talk to whoever you choose. Do whatever you want. Guilt and shame are off limits. We have long transcended peacocking. Victories are celebrated, losses are comforted. There are handshakes, smiles, and hugs.

I am proud of my extended family. Our grandparents arrived from Europe with nothing. Our parents were blue collar workers who wanted more for their children. My generation is highly educated and professional. America really is the land of opportunity!

Droby Fest now extends to three Kuna generations. My kids have tasted Slovak food, and they enjoy it. This Thursday I’ll cook Chicken Paprikash and Haluski with my son Will. He tried this dish at Droby Fest, and he was interested in learning how to make it. Our heritage lives on.

My cousins are kind, generous, interesting, and smart. What a privilege it is to spend time with them. How proud I am to be part of the Kuna family.

Next year we will celebrate 20 years of Droby Fest. We are no longer drifting apart.

Food, the heart of any gathering involving
Eastern Europeans.
Just some of the desserts.
Older connecting with younger.
A new generation of Droby eaters.
Julie, Will and me.
Family
Cousin Bob makes 60 loves of cinnamon bread by hand!
Getting ready to say grace.
Family gathering together.

Thoughts On Christmas Presents

The questions start in November and continue well into December. “What do you want for Christmas?” A query posed to my kids, to my wife, and to me.

When I was a child, this was an easy question to answer. I had very little and had many wants. Unfortunately, family finances were limited growing up, and receiving my desired gift was in no way a certainty.

We opened presents after dinner on Christmas day. This time was chosen so we could include my two maiden aunts, who ate Christmas dinner with us. Most of my friends opened their gifts on Christmas Eve, or Christmas morning, and waiting until 7 PM on Christmas Day seemed like a cruel eternity. This delay also heightened my anticipation for what I could possibly receive.

One Christmas I asked for a radio. That year my mother decided to wrap presents early, and she used a “secret” code to identify the gift recipients in an effort to prevent prying eyes. Unfortunately, she forgot the system by Christmas and had to use other, less than perfect, identifying skills.

She handed me my present and I took it with great anticipation. The size of the box was right, the weight of the box was within specs. I was very excited. I opened my present and burst into a, ”Thank you, thank you,” cry. Under the wrappers was a box that contained a Motorola AM table radio. I wanted something a little more sophisticated, but I was overjoyed getting this approximation. I looked at my mom and saw a disturbed look on her face. “Michael, that radio is not for you. It is for your brother, Tom.” I handed it over to him. There was no radio for me that Christmas.

During my post-divorce/pre-remarried period it was common for me to get little or nothing at Christmas. Yes, there were those times when I was dating someone, and we would exchange gifts, but there were other times when I was “single” and alone. I no longer had the desperate wants of childhood, but I still felt sorry for myself.

I have been re-married for many years, and with this union, I am assured to receive Christmas presents. Early in our relationship, we would shower each other with extravagant gifts. When we had kids we scaled back on our gifts, putting more effort into their presents. Over time, we also scaled back on those gifts.

Gone are the days when Christmas morning meant getting a pair of desperately needed shoes, or a new winter coat. We buy things as required year round. If my kid’s phone goes down I don’t expect them to wait 6 months to get a new one.

Every year my wife and I talk about scaling back further on our purchases, and we have had some success in that endeavor. Yet, we still can buy each other gifts that are forgotten as soon as, “Thank you,” leaves our lips.

This is possibly the point in the post where you may think that I’m going to say that in a moral cleansing effort I have decided to donate all of my gift money to charity. I am sorry to disappoint you, but that is not the case.

We do give to charities, and we also participate in a gift mart where we buy gifts for kids less fortunate than ours, but we still plan on buying gifts for our kids and each other.

After many years of not having anything to open on Christmas day, I want a present or two. It symbolizes to me that someone cares enough about me to make an effort to do something for me. In fact, we encourage our kids to give gifts, not only to their friends and siblings but also to us. It is vital for them to learn that their lives should be more about what they can do for others, rather than what stuff that they can get for themselves.

Through the years I have received many cherished gifts from my children. A red marble from William sits on the desk in my study, a piece of homemade pottery from Kathryn adorns my Rockford office, and a decorated flower pot from Grace serves as my pen and pencil holder at the Ware Center.

Back to the question that I posed in the first paragraph of this post. Since we have few wants, it can be challenging to find a gift that is meaningful to its intended recipient. It has also been vital for us to acknowledge that we are individuals, and we need to be respectful of each other’s desires.

A few years back my wife felt that as a family we should give each other experiences instead of gifts. That sounds great, but the kids and I wanted things to open on Christmas. A favorite gift for me is the gift of time. In other words, taking over one of my household chores for one or two cycles. This kind of gift would be meaningless to my kids, but they, in turn, would appreciate homemade cookies made by one of their siblings. What I’m saying is that it is important to include everyone’s feelings when making a global decision about holiday gift giving. You may think that donating the family’s gift money to charity and spending Christmas Day dishing out food at a local shelter is a fantastic idea. However, your spouse and kids may feel differently. Consideration in everything.

I do feel that gift giving has gotten out-of-control in many families. It makes no sense to go into debt to buy things that you absolutely don’t need. At the same time gift giving is a national tradition during the holiday season. The secret to success is a balanced approach and a doable budget. This balance/budget idea should be extended beyond our immediate families. I have talked to many a patient who was sick with financial worry after buying expensive gifts for relatives because “It was expected.” A frank discussion at Thanksgiving can preserve both your mental health and credit rating. Most extended families are grateful to move from debt spending to a simpler and cheaper option, such as a grab bag or white elephant gift exchange.

As I have already said, few people remember the gifts that they receive a month after getting them. However, most will remember time spent together. Having a happy and low-stress holiday returns the true spirit of that day. Imagine opening up your January credit card statement with relief, instead of dread.

So what did I asked for Christmas this year? I requested a good wool blanket for my campervan’s bed. A quality blanket is something that I would not likely purchase on my own, but once owned I would gratefully use it for years to come. It is lovely to be remembered at Christmas, and it is terrific to be toasty warm when camping on a frigid morning.

A snowy winter.
Christmas tree near downtown.
Christmas lights downtown.

On Father’s Day

Yesterday was Father’s Day, and I am a father of 4. If you are not a dad, you may consider the holiday a “Hallmark holiday.” An event designed by businesses to get you to buy things. If you are a dad, you probably understand that it is more than that.

Established over a 100 years ago it was an attempt by a daughter to honor her dad, who raised six children on his own. Her initial success was moderate at best, and after many years, she abandoned the concept as her life moved on. She eventually returned to the idea in the 1930s and started to promote it anew. This time retailers were on board as they saw the advantage of a day that could mean additional gift purchases. In 1972 President Richard Nixon officially declared it a national holiday. Although used by the business world to hawk products, it also can be an excellent way to celebrate the father or father figure in your life. Father’s Day celebrations don’t have to include expensive gifts and commercial greeting cards!

For many years my wife traveled with my kids to Minnesota on Father’s Day to spend time with her family. Unfortunately, I had to work and was home alone. I don’t believe in letting other people control my happiness. It was important to my wife to be in Minnesota, and so she was. However, I could still make the day significant for me. I started to go on “great adventures” with my sister Carol. We would get into my car and drive in a random direction. We would stop anywhere that looked interesting, to explore. We would culminate our exploration by discovering a random local restaurant. Some were great, some less so. Either way, it was wonderful fun. I have delightful memories from those “Father’s Day” celebrations, as does my sister. In the last few years, Julie has not traveled on Father’s Day weekend, and I have shifted to a more traditional celebratory day.

I have become older and more sentimental so Father’s Day has become ever more significant to me. My family has risen to the occasions and Father’s Day gets the same treatment as any other significant family day from birthdays to Mother’s Day.

For these special days, the celebrant is typically honored with a meal of their choice. Frequently of the homemade variety, sometimes of the restaurant kind. My tastes run pretty basic, and I asked for chicken, mashed potatoes, and a salad. I also asked for a sugar-free dessert, as I gave up eating large quantities of sugar some years ago.

Last Father’s Day I was promised a new BBQ grill, as our current one is over 27 years old. The old grill now has two speeds, burn and not hot enough. I have replaced many of its innards over the years, but it is just too worn out to repair further. Cooking on it is like solving an advanced math problem. You need to calculate relative hot and cold spots on the grill and then move your food around to make sure one piece isn’t chard while another is raw. Life happens, and the grill never came. However, this year my wife informed me that a new one was ordered and was coming in the next two weeks. Yay!

My daughter Grace searched the internet and found a recipe for a sugar-free apple pie. My son William wrapped some gifts. Both Grace and William made me cards with the most beautiful sentiments inside. My wife made me dinner. My daughter, Anne, called in her greetings. My daughter Kathryn, who is studying abroad in Moscow, texted hers.

For me, it was a perfect day of celebrations. Yes, I was delighted to get the grill, but that was a minor part of my happiness. The majority of my good feelings came from the fact that people were willing to recognize me and expend effort to make me feel special. Some words written on a card, a phone call, a dinner, time together. Efforts that said that I was important enough to them for them to take time out for me. This is what mattered and this is what made the day awesome.

It takes so little to make someone feel special. In fact, I think it takes more energy to do the opposite. What does it take to wish someone a good day? What does it take to write a sentence or two in a celebratory greeting? What does it take to recognize someone for a job well done? Very little. So many times people will say that they are too busy to do these simple things. Too busy? Really? Likely not.

A gift of your time or goodwill is typically reciprocated by the receiver. Yes, there are “users” out there, but they can be quickly sniffed out. The Golden Rule has been around for over 2000 years. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Pretty simple, pretty straightforward. Why is it then that we see the Golden Rule ignored everywhere from our personal lives to our government? Practice it today; play it forward.

The Kuna Kampout

Traditions are customs, activities, or believes that are repeated over time. They can seem trivial to those who are outside the group, but they are essential to the individuals inside of it. Traditions offer a sense of security, belonging, and stability to participants. They sometimes serve a higher purpose, or they can be significant based on their merit. In our family, the Kuna Kampout is a tradition that extends to the greater group of my siblings, cousins, and their respective connections. It occurs once a year at a state park in Michigan, typically early in June.

My cousin, Ken, reminded me that the first Kuna Kampout happened in 2002 and was the result of a conversation that I had with him at another family event the year earlier. We were talking at the Clans Christmas get-together called Droby Fest (named after a Slovak meat/potato/rice sausage). I was telling him how much I enjoyed camping, and he had the idea of having a summer campout.

As a child, most family activities were done en masse with all relatives. Birthdays, First Communions, Confirmations, Christmas Eve, Easter; we would all gather, eat, play, and connect. However, our family expanded over time, and it became more and more challenging to host these large events. Our parties transitioned from extended family get-togethers to immediate family get-togethers.

On the Kuna side of the family, this change occurred when I was in high school. Suddenly, the only times that I saw my cousins were at weddings and funerals. I was young, and my life was busy; I didn’t think much about the change.

For the next 20 years, it was unusual to see my cousins as most of the weddings had already happened, and funerals were, thankfully, rare. In the 1990s my sister was talking to my cousin at a funeral, and together they came up with the idea of a fall reunion picnic. I was given the job of making the invitation flyer, and so started a series of major and minor get-togethers that have continued ever since. Our family is lucky to have my cousin Ken and his sister Kris, who have become our event planners. They are instrumental in keeping our family traditions alive.

Within the tradition of the Kuna Kampout are embedded sub-traditions. My nephew’s late night group hike. My cousin’s baked over coals pineapple upside down cake. A campfire sing-along accompanied by my bad guitar playing. However, the main reason we get together is to talk, eat and reconnect. It is over these three activities that we recommit to each other.

I am very fortunate to have nice relatives. No one gets drunk and violent. No one makes snide remarks. No one needs to brag their way to synthetic superiority.

For traditions to continue, they need to be flexible. I had to be flexible to attend this years camp out, as all of my immediate family could not attend. I had a choice to stay at home, or go solo. I decided to push myself and go to the event.

Being an introvert I like the security of having my immediate family around me, but instead of focusing on what I wasn’t getting I decided to ponder what I was getting.

The advantages of going to the camp out solo were:
It would be much easier to pack.
I would be able to spend more time with my cousins.
I could determine what activities I wanted to do.
I would challenge the guilt that I feel over doing things for myself.
I could try vandwelling.

These last two points were of great interest to me. I always have had a sense of obligation that somehow dictated that doing things just for me was bad. This is a ridiculous belief, but it is one that I hold. Over the last few years, I have gone on a couple of small trips with my friend Tom. However, the Kampout would be my first solo event. I want to write about people across America, and that will involve traveling by myself. This solo excursion could be a step in that direction.

Going solo would also allow me to try vandwelling. I am a big guy, but I have a big car that has fold down seats. The rear space is enough for a sleeping bag, and the ability to sleep in the car on a road trip would make any solo travel immensely more affordable. Another step towards my goal.

I am happy to say that I accomplished my goals. It rained heavily on the night of the campout, and sleeping in my car was an advantage, as many of the tent dwellers were soaked the next morning.

In review, this is what this year’s Kuna Kampout gave me. I kept a tradition and grew a little closer to my relatives. I broke a tradition, by traveling solo, and grew a little more personally. Lastly, I tried something new, vandwelling, and grew a little more adventurous.

Dear reader, explore and celebrate your healthy traditions, but feel free to modify or eliminate repeated behaviors that prevent you from moving towards your goals. Celebrate the relationships in your life. There is no better time than right now to let those around you know that they are your priorities.

My home away from home.
Vandwelling.
Playing the guitar
A smaller, but enthusiastic group this year.

Concerning My Birthday Party

The offer to me came earlier this year, and to Julie’s shock, I accepted it.  The offer? Julie asked me if I wanted a birthday party to celebrate my 65th birthday.  She has queried such options in the past, and I have always said no. But, dear reader, it is time for a change, and I am changing. With this said, my simple “Yes” was anything but easy for me to utter.

Why would it be so difficult for me to allow someone to celebrate such a special day? The answers go beyond the obvious, but many of these reasons will be familiar to those of you who have been reading my blog.

First, the obvious.  I am an introvert and being the center of attention can be an exhausting experience.  

Second, the more significant reason.  My life has been a life of service, both professionally and personally.  I have formed many of my relationships under the umbrella of things that I have done, or could do, for others.  I think that this reality is not accidental. In part, I feel if you can help someone, you should. In part, providing a service to someone justifies the relationship. “Be my friend, and I will help you.”  In part, it allows me to have a certain amount of control over the connection. Like most people, I am complex, as are my motivations to do things. Those motivations are neither good nor bad, they are.

Back to my birthday party…

My real fear of asking someone to do something for me is that they won’t do it.  This is based on my childhood where that was my experience. I learned very early on that I had to rely on myself.  I could not expect others to do things for me. Having to rely on myself made me angry, and I turned that anger into the fuel that drove me forward.  As I have said in previous posts, “Take a disadvantage and turn it into an advantage.”

I became robust, resilient, and self-reliant.  However, there is a flipside to this coin. There is a part of me that wants to be loved, cared for, nurtured, and celebrated for who I am, not what I do.  This aspect of me is buried deep in my psyche and highly protected. However, part of my current efforts to grow beyond past limitations is to confront these needs and acknowledge them.  Hence, “Sure throw me a party.”

My past strategy had been to never expect anything from anyone, but to fantasize that people in my life would be there, “If I needed them.”  As a psychiatrist, I know the folly of such a fantasy. I have worked with many caregiving patients (often women) who have devoted themselves to others in selfless ways.  They have selected individuals who were more than happy to be cared for. Sadly, when these caregiving individuals needed help in return, their relationship was nowhere to be found.  Their connections signed up to receive full service, not to deliver a service. Naturally, this makes sense. However, even psychiatrists use psychological ploys to get through the daily experience that we call life.

Although my actual birthday was earlier this year, my celebration is scheduled for this weekend.  I am stressed as this event draws a clear line defining my worth to those around me. My old tapes are playing.  Instead of thinking that the people who care about me will be happy to celebrate with me, I think that they will be resentful and act out their feelings in one way or another.  I have heard stories of people traveling to another state to celebrate a milestone with an old neighbor or a casual friend. This seems entirely normal for others, but not for me. Are my close connections willing to put themselves out a bit to celebrate with me?  My rational self says yes, my inner child says, no. I guess I will know the truth in a few days.

To add to this drama, Julie has asked people to write a little note or letter to me which she will bind into a scrapbook.  I want such records to pass onto my children and grandchildren. I don’t want to become an unknown image on an old photograph.  I want to be a real person to my future lineage. I don’t think that this is grandiosity, I believe that it is based on my sense of mortality.  Who are we if no one remembers that we ever existed? Here again, I fear that I’m burdening others. This reality will also be soon known.

Dear reader, thank you for following my story.  We are all imperfect. My goal in life has always been to make a difference in the world, however small.  I want to leave the earth a bit better, rather than a bit worse. Otherwise, why should I exist?

To move forward with my life, I have decided to be fearlessly honest with myself and those around me, including you.  I may be 65, but I still am growing and evolving. I am traveling forward to a destination not yet apparent in the fog that is my future.  However, I am starting to see vague shapes ahead, and my writing is one of the things that is allowing this clarity to happen.

Next Sunday is my birthday party; the day will come and go.  It will be replaced by Monday. Will it justify my childhood fears? Will it support my objective reality?  I guess I will have to wait and see. Either way, I will grow. Peace.

 

On Cabbage And St. Patrick’s Day

On Cabbage And St. Patrick’s Day.

I gathered Will and Grace and told them, “We are going to the store.”  After a short drive, we arrived at the market, and I pulled out my list.  Carrots, cabbage, small red potatoes… the items trailed on.   A swipe of my credit card, a short return drive, and we were back home.

I checked the internet for cooking times, and the three of us moved into action.  Vegetables washed, peeled, and cut up.  I pulled the slab of corned beef that I bought a week earlier from the fridge and cut it into three pressure cooker sized pieces.  Beef broth, an onion, and eight cloves of garlic went into the pressure cooker followed by a rack.  I plopped the sections of corned beef on top of the rack, set the timer to 90 minutes and pressed the start button. Our St. Patrick’s Day celebration was underway.

Julie told me that she wanted to go for a walk, and this 90-minute window seemed to be a perfect time.  We walked downtown, which was already bustling with people wearing bright green shirts and hats.  The bars were open, and despite the fact that it was only late afternoon some revelry goers appeared drunk.

On our return, I removed the beef and added the vegetables.  Three minutes later, dinner was cooked. Corned beef, cabbage, carrots, baby red potatoes, soda bread. Simple, but delicious.

I thought back to the last time that I made corned beef; it was a year earlier.  In fact, I typically make corned beef only once a year.

St Patrick’s Day has little significance for us.  Yes, I know that St. Patrick converted Ireland to Christianity.  But our connection with the day centers mostly on the meal.

With that said, I would miss not celebrating this minor holiday.  I enjoy our traditional corned beef meal, which somehow makes the day seems special.  I believe that these minor celebrations serve an important function. That function varies from person to person.  St. Patrick’s Day allows some to celebrate by recounting the religious significance of the day. Others use the day as an excuse to get drunk.  We choose the day to have a simple family meal of corned beef and cabbage.

Minor holiday celebrations can give us something to look forward to.  They can bring our families and friends together.  They can allow us to extend ourselves outside of our usual actions and behaviors.  They are more than marketing ploys designed to coerce us to buy things.

So Happy (belated) St. Patrick’s Day! If you didn’t celebrate it, consider doing it now.  I’m sure you can get a nice slab of corned beef at clearance prices.

Cooking Corned Beef and Cabbage.