Tuesday, May 3, 2016

With a Smile and a Wink

Two funny cemetery stories:

My dad was buried in the same cemetery as other family members. While home for Dad's funeral, I wanted to visit a few of them. Dad's in the middle of the 3 plots he and my stepmother Joyce bought when her son Peter died. I thought that was strange, expecting the middle to be saved for Joyce. She explained, that day as a matter of fact, that she had to have Dad buried in the middle because he gave her instructions that he was not to spend eternity laying next to strangers. I could just picture Dad saying that and I couldn't help but laugh.

So I had no problem finding Peter, but my stepfather Shim, I knew he was close but I had the hardest time finding him. Eventually I did.

That night I was talking to Shim's son, my (step)brother Andy and his girlfriend Beth. I told Andy that I almost texted him that afternoon. That I'd had a hard time finding his dad's grave, but didn't think Andy would appreciate a text in the middle of a work day, years after his father's death saying "I can't find your dad".

As I knew he would, Andy laughed and Beth added "if there's anyone you actually could say that too, it's Andy."

Fingerprints decorate our hearts: Daddy's Girl and With a Smile and a Wink | www.BakingInATornado.com | #MyGraphics #Family

In a piece I wrote about my former step sister Kathryn, I talk about the complexity of my family. Truth is, I've heard some pretty bad stories about step parents. I don't have one. After my parents divorced I wanted nothing more than for both of them to be happy, for them to have someone to go through life with, to grow old with.

Both of my parents did. And they chose well. I care deeply for my stepmother and I loved my stepfather as well. Together we formed families not biological but every bit as relevant as those formed by blood.

My stepfather came into my life when I was a teenager. One of his sons was a classmate of mine and I'd actually gone to pay my respects years before when his mother died. Years later, Mom and Shim dated for over a decade but didn't marry until the youngest of their kids was in college. We used to joke that we were the Brady Bunch, Mom and her two girls, Shim and his three boys. Honestly though, due to our ages we never all lived together, each of us kids moving in and out as we made our way through life's transitions as young adults. But Mom was the family glue and we all came together often for meals and for holidays whether we were living there or not.

Shin was a really interesting guy. He was very into self-awareness, thinking things through, speaking with intent. If he asked you how you were, he wasn't being polite, he genuinely wanted to know. He'd listen to your answer, contemplate and respond. That's just how he was. It took some getting used to, someone who didn't partake in the social convention of niceties, someone who appeared to overthink an issue that seemingly could be dispensed with quite simply. He had his flaws for sure, but I will say this: that man did not have a mean bone in his body. he genuinely cared about you and you knew it. He was a very calm man with a gentle spirit, an accepting nature. And he was very well liked.

I remember being home pregnant and Shim running out for my craving, Chinese food. I remember him standing in line to buy lobsters for the whole family, a favorite treat whenever I was there. I remember being home with a sick baby and Shim running out in the middle of the night for Pedialyte. I remember that, in his own quiet way, he was there for me.

He had a smile that literally lit up his face. It's cliché I know, but it transformed him. It was a fully joyous smile with just a twinge of mischievous thrown in.

Shim also had a rather dry and wicked sense of humor. I know "wicked" is a strange word choice when talking about someone who didn't have a mean bone in his body, but that's the word that comes to mind. He would bait people, throw something out there that you took seriously because of his propensity to be so thoughtful, never fully meaning what he said, just trying to get you going.

Shim had Multiple Myeloma. He battled it for many years and was successful. Until he was not.

When the time came that it was clear that his disease was winning, my family called me home to Boston. I live 1500 miles away. It was Thanksgiving time and happened to be my older son's birthday. My boys came home from school and I was packing for the flight. My husband had to stay behind but my sons and I flew out that afternoon, arriving in Boston that night.

Shim was frail looking. The rest of the family saw his transition in baby steps, but for me it was one leap. And he clearly was not as sharp as he had been, he was mentally diminished, his tones muted.

It was at dinner one night during this visit that I saw a glimpse of the old Shim. He said something, I don't even know what, but it hit its mark. Familial debate, mild frustration, incensed contradiction. I looked over at Shim and in that moment of chaos, he looked at me, smiled with his entire being, winked and quickly looked away. He had been baiting us. And this moment of clarity, this glimpse of the man I'd come to say good-bye to touched my heart. It was a gift to treasure and I knew it instantly.

Fluffernutter Cupcakes, reminiscent of a favorite New England sandwich. A peanut butter cupcake with a marshmallow fluff center. Add a chocolate frosting, and you've got dessert. | Recipe developed by www.BakingInATornado.com | #recipe #cupcake

Fluffernutter Cupcakes
Fluffernutter Cupcakes, reminiscent of a favorite New England sandwich. A peanut butter cupcake with a marshmallow fluff center. Add a chocolate frosting, and you've got dessert. | Recipe developed by www.BakingInATornado.com | #recipe #cupcake

Fluffernutter Cupcakes, reminiscent of a favorite New England sandwich. A peanut butter cupcake with a marshmallow fluff center. Add a chocolate frosting, and you've got dessert. | Recipe developed by www.BakingInATornado.com | #recipe #cupcake

 (before frosting)

Within a very short time we were flying back to Boston again. This time for a funeral. I had booked a two week trip, wanting to be with my mom not only through the funeral and the formal shiva time, but to do whatever I could with and for her after everything calmed down and she was faced with settling into her new normal.

The first time it happened, I was washing Mom's kitchen floor. We had been sitting shiva that night and the house had been packed with friends and family stopping by to pay condolences. I was staying with Mom so after everyone was gone, I was the one cleaning the floor. I remember thinking how funny it was that I have my own house professionally cleaned, yet here I was cleaning floors. Then I was sobered by the thought of exactly why I was there cleaning the floor. In that moment of loss, I saw Shim look at me, smile with his entire being, wink and look away. It didn't surprise me because, after all, he was legitimately on my mind.

I was sitting on Mom's bed the second time. I looked over at Shim's bedside table and saw books with bookmarks in them, a pen from his favorite casino, his alarm clock. Mundane items, yet they shook me. All I could think of was this his life just felt so interrupted. My eyes were welling up when that same image from that dinner not long ago flashed into my head. And again I thought it was just that he was on my mind.

A pen to remember him by | www.BakingInATornado.com

The pen from his favorite casino, at my house now

All the times it's happened since, over the years, ti's always been when I'm not just upset or sad or deeply hurt, but lost in it. Like a flash, unbidden, that luminous smile and mischievous wink. No matter what the burden, in that moment it's lightened.

Really, you'd expect a message from beyond to be something big, tangible, inexplicable in any other way. Something immediately identifiable that you could physically touch or see or smell. Not with Shim. It's subtle, characteristic of who he was, a fleeting recurring image, a gently nudge sparking a slow process of realization, reconciling what I now know:

He's still here for me. With a smile and a wink.

Baking In A Tornado signature | www.BakingInATornado.com | #MyGraphics

Fluffernutter Cupcakes
1 stick butter, softened
1/2 cup crunchy peanut butter
1 cup sugar
3 eggs, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla
1 3/4 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup milk

1/2 of a 7 oz jar of marshmallow fluff

1 stick butter, softened
3/4 cup dark chocolate chips
1 tsp vanilla
3 cups powdered sugar
about 1/4 cup milk

*Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 18 baking cups with cupcake liners.
*Cream 1 stick butter, peanut butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla.
*Carefully (starting on lowest speed) beat in 1 cup flour. Next beat in 1/2 cup milk. 
*Carefully beat in the remaining flour with the baking powder and salt and finally beat in the last 1/4 cup milk.
*Fill cupcake liners to about 2/3 full with the batter. Bake for 18 to 22 minutes, or until the center springs back to the touch. Cool completely.
*Gently spray the inside of a gallon size freezer bag with nonstick spray. Spray a spatula as well and use the greased spatula to place the marshmallow fluff into the bag. Manipulate the fluff into a corner of a bag.
*Melt the remaining stick of butter with the dark chocolate chips in a microwave until completely smooth when stirred. Mix in the vanilla. Set aside.
*Using an apple corer, remove the center of the cooled cupcakes. Be careful not to go all the way to the bottom. *Snip the corner of the bag and pipe the fluff into the cored-out centers of the cupcakes.
*Carefully beat the powdered sugar into the chocolate chip mixture. Beat in 1/4 cup of milk. If needed, beat in more milk 1 TBSP at a time until frosting is of piping consistency.
*Place the frosting into another plastic bag, manipulate into the corner, snip the bag and pipe the frosting onto the cupcakes. 


  1. Well, that made me cry. I know what it's like, to receive subtle, yet much needed messages. Shim sounds like he was an awesome guy. We need more Shim's in this world.

  2. We need more Shim's. Best Step Dad Ever (mine) my have some competition here~

  3. So sweet, both the story of your step father and the cupcake recipe. It seams he was a very sweet and kind, the world was a better place with him in it.

    1. He could definitely be challenging but he was a very thoughtful person, in more ways than one.

  4. I can still feel my Grandma's hand in mine. It was squishy and cool. She's been gone 15 years and I can still remember holding her hand to help steady her as we walked across her backyard so many times. Our loved ones will always be with us in ways like this.

    1. I love that you have that tactile memory, Rabia. It's heartwarming.

  5. Beautiful post. You've outdone yourself with this recipe. Tears and drooling.

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Jules. I knew you'd love this cupcake.

  6. Such a touching testimonial, brought tears to my eyes! Now that recipe is such a MA thing! My sister still keeps a jar oaf marshmallow fluff in her pantry just because one might need a fluff n nutter sandwich some day!

    1. I'm with your sister. Last time everyone was gone and I was on my own for dinner, I had a Fluffernutter.

  7. Oh, this is beautiful, Karen! What a lovely picture you share of your stepfather. I think he was someone I'd love to know. I believe they remain close to us. When we need them the most!

  8. What a beautiful story, tribute and honoring post. I sat here crying while reading. It has been almost 3 years since my Daddy past and I miss him so much. Very few people are blessed with great memories of step parents or second parents. Thank you for opening your memories and heart, sharing with us, making us cry and laugh just a bit today. Blessings to you my friend.

    Now these cupcakes! Girl you need to stop! I'm having a sweet craving, hankering or desire whatever you want to call it, right now I NEED a cupcake!

    1. Without a doubt I've been very lucky when it comes to step families.

  9. I remember this! I loved it then. I love it now! Those who have left for home are still so close to us!
    I was teaching my teenagers (I think it was the last day I was able to be in the classroom with them before the COVID lockdown) and looking down the front row. In my mind, I saw my Dad sitting there, a big grin on his face. I looked back and, of course, he was gone. But he was there for an instant. I know he was.
    Big joker. I wonder if he's met your stepfather. I think they'd get along famously!


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