Sunday, August 23, 2009

My sister's keeper

Since early January, my brother-in-law has been a member of our nutty household. He himself is the opposite of nutty. He’s a calm, matter-of fact guy, with a taste for tennis, mixed nuts, a glass of red wine on occasion. I think the exposure to our maniac ways has been both eye-opening and amusing to him, although he does often seem perplexed by the effusive greetings from the 100 lb. dog when he returns from a business trip, or my daughter’s high-pitched squeals from the pool outside his room. He is one of the most level headed people I know, and it’s been an unexpected pleasure to have had this time to get to know him better*.

That’s why it’s been so gut wrenching to watch the twisted, ridiculous, torturous tale of his California adventure unfold. Originally transferred here by GM to start what was supposed to be a three year tour of duty, our collective excitement dimmed as the strain of living out of boxes and with a mother-in-law in Michigan began to take a serious toll on his wife and child. Every weekend here was full of fruitless rounds of open houses and real estate tours And the new job consisted of helping decide which GM dealerships were on the chopping block, and then being the bearer of bad news, day after day.

When my sister and niece arrived, you could almost see the burdens he’d been carrying simultaneously lift and shift. The drive to find a home for the people he loved consumed him, but every house hunting outing became a Goldilocks situation:

“Too small”
“No pool”
“Too old”
“Wrong schools”
“Too cold”
“Not cool”

And then, on the day they finally found the perfect house (a delighted chorus of “Just Right!!!” from the entire displaced Michigan clan, and a huge sigh of relief from their incredibly patient but increasingly baffled real estate agent), the news broke. And he did, too. His job, tough as it was, had been eliminated. The whole, precarious plan, the months of upheaval, the push towards normalcy, had all been derailed with the stroke of a pen. Worse still, they put him in a kind of crazy limbo that only a company like GM would be capable of: he was on a list of people to be reassigned, but no specific job was available. If he did not get a “reassignment” within two weeks, he’d be laid off. And the reassignment was completely out of his control.

No amount of tennis, wine, nuts, or support from all of us could make this better**. You could see, writ large all over his face, the savage self-criticism of a person whose role as provider for his family was on shaky ground.

Although this story is repeating itself all over the country, with as many small painful variations are there are people losing their jobs every day, the blow is deeply and intensely personal, and it reverberates down to the very foundations of a family.

On one of the dark days of limbo, I came home to find my sister cutting into a bubbling pan of the cheesiest, most luscious sausage and spinach lasagna. Clearly, the urge to cook people into feeling better runs strong in our family. Everyone gathered around the dinner table and dug in, and the lasagna did indeed work its magic. Laughter and chatter flowed across the circle of warm light, as we savored both the food and the pleasure of having the people we loved all around us. The dog was at our feet, vacuuming up every crumb that dropped. That dinner reminded us that no matter what, our foundations were intact**.

Now, we are counting ourselves lucky, and deeply thankful, that we heard this week that he is likely to get one of the coveted reassignments, to a position that not only preserves his stature at the company but actually interests him. He’s cautiously excited, and immensely relieved. And the hunt for the perfect house will resume, in Washington D.C.***

My Sister's Magic Lasagna
Also known as Get Several Pounds of Everything at the Store Lasagna or “Really? You put THAT much cheese in here?” Lasagna

1 box of lasagna noodles
2 lbs. ground beef
1 lb. Italian sausage
1 Vidalia or other sweet onion, chopped
¼ c. chopped garlic
1 lb. mushrooms, chopped (optional)
2 ½ large jars of hearty marinara sauce, preferably Mids, preferably with sausage (!)
1 large can chopped tomatoes
Some tomato paste, on standby
Italian spices, on standby
1 container of ricotta cheese
4 c. grated or shredded mozzarella cheese (one package, if you buy it pre-grated)
4 1/2 c. grated or shredded cheddar cheese
1 ½ c. grated Parmesan cheese
about 2 Tbs. chopped parsley or other fresh herbs
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and completely drained of excess water (optional)

Preheat to oven to 350. Oil a 9x13 pan with cooking spray, and get out a cookie sheet to hold the pan.

Boil water and cook most of a package lasagna noodles according to directions, then rinse in cold water.

Brown the meats together, and drain of fat.

Cook up the onion and garlic in some of the meat fat until softened. Take ½ of the onion mixture and put it in with the meat, along with some salt & pepper. Take other half, sautĂ© in the mushrooms if you are using them, and add that mixture to the marinara sauce in a large pot. You need a lot of sauce. Add the chopped tomatoes. Season to taste with the herbs to make it yummy. Use your standby tomato paste if you want to intensify the flavor. Allow sauce to simmer on low while you make the cheese part.

Combine in a large mixing bowl the tub of ricotta cheese, the mozzarella cheese, 2 c. of the cheddar cheese, the Parmesan cheese, chopped parsley, a little salt and pepper, and the eggs. Mush with your hands ‘til its nice and goopy.

Now you are ready to assemble your lasagna. Start with a layer of sauce. Then add noodles, covering the whole thing. You can cut the noodles to make them fit if you need to. Then cheese. Be generous. Layer on some meat. Sauce. Noodles. Cheese. Meat. (Insert layer of spinach here, if you are using it.) Sauce. Noodles. Cheese. Meat. Sauce. (Spinach) Noodles. Sauce. Finish with 1 ½ c. of cheddar cheese.

Put the completely stuffed pan on top of the cookie sheet, and bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Cover with foil about 30 minutes in. You should see some drips and bubbling over happening. Add another cup of cheddar cheese (!), then bake for 5 more minutes. Allow to set for at least 10 minutes, but preferably 20. This tastes even better the next day.

* Between my sister and my niece, it’s pretty hard for him to make much of an impression when they are in the room.
** It was powerful stuff. The good news came through just a few days later.
*** Selfishly, and oh so quietly, this Goldilocks is saying, “Too far.” I don’t want to jinx anything, but man!

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