Courage to be Catherine

Catherine and Daddy FARE

Emmy dresses
royalty marathons
picking coach for mommy
dancing around people protocol
knowing when to tip
touch her throat
tangled with mermaids
surrounded by sentinels
she knows what to eat, drink
she knows the safety
of one hundred orange shirts
for the courage to be Catherine

There’s this little girl, four years old who sings this song: “Milk, eggs, wheat and beef! Milk, eggs, wheat and beef!” Her name is Catherine and those are her food allergies. She stood on the stage at the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) walk and sang the song, bobbing her head from side to side. “Come on everybody, sing it with me!” The song has helped her remember her allergies.

Catherine is typically a shy and polite little girl. To see her on stage and to see her take it all in with grace: that she was a race ambassador (thus the green sash) and that she had her own “Cruisin’ for Catherine” team, well, it makes you know that some are born with old souls. And I think it’s an old soul that can handle the precautions she and her family have to take for her life-threatening food allergies. That’s right. It’s a matter of keeping her safe and alive. I have watched her mother, one of my dearest friends, become a major advocate for FARE, and in the process educate everyone around her. This year, she emailed us an article titled,  “What it’s like to be an Allergy-Mom.” For all that I thought I knew, being an emotional support during various ER visits or tests to see if she might age out of one of the food allergies, this article gave me new insight into my friend’s daily life.

As an added twist of kismet, during the last year, Catherine’s dad was diagnosed with serious food allergies as well. And do you know what his reaction was? I’m paraphrasing, but it was basically: “I have nothing to complain about. Catherine deals with this every day. Now she’s not the only one, she’s not alone.” The amount of planning and pressure that her mother goes through is just part of how she breathes everyday. I saw her zip through the grocery store with cases of the foods that her family can safely eat. I’ve known her to laminate instructions for family members and caregivers.

Food is the center of my family’s life. It’s how we celebrate. And today, on Thanksgiving in the U.S., the entire day centers on food, football and oh yes, gratitude. At a recent Weight Watchers meeting, we reviewed all the holiday activities typically scheduled and how many of them revolve around food. One woman talked about her family’s stuffing recipe and how it’s been passed down through the generations and now there’s a granddaughter with Celiac disease so the matriarch doesn’t know how to adjust the recipe and have it taste the same. Here’s my suggestion to anyone facing this dilemma: Start some new traditions! Some can be food-related, visit for Kelly Rudniki’s most recent post featuring allergy-friendly Thanksgiving recipes or check out innovative yummy products from folks like Dr. Lucy. And think about some non-food related celebrations. This year, we are having the Recycled Box Car Races at my house. It helps me deal with my artistic obsession with cardboard. (I always want to make things out of all of boxes coming from Costco!) And my son can’t wait to beat me in the race. He’s already trash-talking my “Bodacious 8” racecar.

So today, I sing your song, Catherine, “Milk, eggs, wheat and beef!” and I say, thank you for teaching me courage by just being yourself, every single day.

Matriarchs FARE

L’eggo my EGO!


Hey you! With the big head!  L’eggo my ego already, will ya?

In the U.S., it’s Thanksgiving soon. You will read a lot about gratitude, but today, let’s talk about ego. It’s that voice in your head that says:

“I’m right. You’re wrong.”

“What about me?”

“That’s not fair!”

I’ve had the most excellent honor of glimpsing the other side of grief and it comes with a lot of clarity. Clarity about who I want in my life and how. Sometimes when we decide who can be allowed in our inner circle, or be a member of our personal board of directors, our ego and its fantastic soap operaesque conversations come into play in our mind or live with other people. The inimitable Jonathan Fields of The Good Life Project got me thinking about this when he wrote, “What, you don’t need me?” post yesterday.

Step back for a moment, as you glide into yet another [possibly emotion-stirring-giant-food-coma-inducing] family meal this Thanksgiving, ask yourself what you want it to look like.

Maybe you don’t want Uncle Marty to be drunk.

Maybe you don’t want to hear your mother criticize your clothing, your spouse, your sexual orientation.

What if, you let Uncle Marty and your mom, do them.

What if you just did you.  Create a force field of love around you. What if those comments bounce back and when the most excellent rerun of the soap opera starts again in your head, you shut it off and tune in on your Lotus Flower Heart Channel. Or your I’m a Rock Star in this show. I’ve been incessantly listening to Stevie Wonder over the last week and have found that man to emanate so much love in his songs that even my neighbor at the office said that she likes hearing me sing. And it’s not because I have a great singing voice.  It’s because I am happy.  I am trying my best to let that big head full of thoughts float out through my ears and be replaced by Stevie singing, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.”

5 Life Lessons from Mama Chelo

Mama Chelo bequeaths her cookie jar to me. It is currently on display at the Gilbert and Sullivan museum just outside of Philadelphia

Mama Chelo bequeaths her cookie jar to me. It is currently on display at the Gilbert and Sullivan museum just outside of Philadelphia.

Those of us who knew her were all so blessed, fortunate, luck luck lucky, to have shared the planet with Consuelo Calderon Villarreal, best known as Mama Chelo.
She imparted this wisdom to me at various stages of my life.

1. Sprinkle Mosquitos
We all know that Mama Chelo was prone to a wee bit of exaggeration and drama, in the true theatric sense of the word. That took immense creativity. At one point in her life, she owned a luncheonette. She purposefully put the lunch specials sign upside down in the front window. So folks would come inside to tell the charming, pretty lady with the adorable accent that she made a mistake. Then, just a few minutes later, those individuals would find themselves ordering that very same lunch special. When kids came to get ice cream, she offered them chocolate sprinkles, or as we call them in my Philly homeland, “jimmies.” “Do jou wan mosquitos on dat?” Of course kids said, “Yes!” And of course, they always want to get ice cream at Mama Chelo’s luncheonette. She was leaps and bounds ahead of the marketing moguls of today. So when you are stuck and don’t feel like you have the resources to make it happen, remember, get creative and sprinkle mosquitos.

2. Build the Chimney
At some point, Mama Chelo needed a new chimney on the roof. She was a single mother. She didn’t know how to do it and didn’t have the funds to pay someone. Without the assistance of a YouTube instructional video, she got a hold of some bricks and cement, climbed on the roof and built it, brick by brick. Nike coined “Just Do it” years later, but when you think about chickening out on anything, especially your dreams (yes, I’m also talking to myself now), think build the chimney.

3. Be a Beautiful Oogely Monkey
This lesson could also be called “Shake what Mama Chelo gave you” for all my blood relatives. Mama Chelo cared a lot about what she looked like. She sewed many of her own clothes and they were tailored, tapered, scoop necked and looking back, she pulled off “hot” into her later years. She called everyone a beautiful “oogely” (translation ugly) monkey. “Why did God make you such an oogely monkey? You are so beautiful!” She always wanted to feel and look beautiful. While there were times even in her visually impaired days when she would squeeze the back of my arm (a gentler form of that fat pincher they use at the gym) and tell me if I’ve gained weight, she really did make me feel like the most beautiful monkey in the world. Think about how you show up in the world and celebrate your own inner and outer beauty.

4. Test Drive
Mama Chelo never got to choose her husband. He was chosen for her. When I was in my twenties, she told me to test drive my future husband. She urged me to live with him before marrying him to get a sense of day-to day-life with him. That was very useful advice.

5. You live in my heart and you don’t even pay rent. Vives en mi corazon y no pagas renta.
Mama Chelo made a lot of people feel loved. Express the love you have for people in your life. Declare it. Your heart is big and the mortgage is paid.

Happy 106th Birthday Mama Chelo!