Before moving to Georgia, my husband and I lived in Northern Virginia for five years. Living in New York was exciting, but I quickly discovered my age and height weren’t exactly desirable traits to casting agents. Moving was inevitable. But where to go? Michael had spent many summers as a kid in Fairfax County, Virginia so we thought we’d give that a shot. Safe neighborhoods, access to DC… what could go wrong? We settled into an apartment in Old Town Alexandria, thinking we’d be there just a few months before buying a home.
Little did we know that the great NVA housing boom of the late 90s was about to hit its stride. Teeny, tiny townhouses built in the 70s (that cost more than the colonial we live in now), houses we didn’t even really want, were suddenly out of our reach. We spent endless weekends getting our hopes crushed, being outbid on homes that were run down and required long commutes. Our time living in the apartment grew longer and longer.
Our beautiful daughter was born, and the three of us tried to make the best of our living situation. Truthfully, it wasn’t that bad. I could walk to work, our rent was less than we paid in NYC and we were a short metro ride from tons of free museums in DC. Best of all, we had great neighbors in our building. By far, the best one was Miss Caroline.
Every once in a while, a person enters your life, and you know for sure that the universe put them in your path to help you grow. I was feeling really worn out in NVA. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for a living. I was living someplace completely foreign to me. House hunting was brutal. Worst of all, I felt like I was floundering. At 31, I felt like my life was just happening to me. I wasn’t making it happen.
Miss Caroline was the first flicker of light that brought me back to a path of personal action. She’s one of the few people you meet that lives entirely in the present. Regrets of the past and anxiety about the future don’t cloud her thinking. She holds no grudges and is void of any bitterness. She’s an amazing artist, a fantastic cook, and at 71, is in better shape than most people half her age.
Miss Caroline was the most joyful person during my pregnancy. I wasn’t living near any family, and she stepped in as the excited grandma-to-be. She always complimented my appearance and asked how I was feeling. When Gigi was born, she fawned over her and talked often about what a miracle she was and that she was a gift to the universe. We loved being around her.
The longer we stayed in the apartment, the closer she and Gigi got. I appreciated having such a positive person around my baby. As Gigi grew older, she would spend time in Caroline’s apartment, where Caroline let her play with her colored pencils and other art materials. They enjoyed putting baby powder on their feet and making footprints on Caroline’s yoga mat. Caroline would tell her about the places she’d travelled and where she still wanted to go.
Holidays were a hoot. Caroline liked to celebrate them all. She has a knack for finding art and beauty in every moment, and holidays allowed her to express that in an even bigger way. She would give Gigi a card or gift, elaborately wrapped, often with a special note or quote inside. Halloween was one of her favorites, and Old Town Alexandria celebrated in grand style. It’s a historic town, with narrow streets and rows and rows of centuries-old, beautiful townhomes. Neighbors string lights across the street and festoon their homes with pumpkins and scarecrows and other decorations. Lee Street, in particular, is an all-night party of epic proportions.
Caroline and I would walk down to Lee Street, with Gigi in her stroller, and take in the excitement. I didn’t wear a costume, but Caroline always did. It was the same every year. She’d wear a dramatic black hooded coat, and a mask she’d gotten in Venice during Carnival. She wouldn’t talk to people, just look straight in their eyes and leave them wondering who she was. Nobody ever figured it out. We looked forward to the festivities every year.
Eventually, the time came when we had to leave Virginia, too. We needed to get our daughter in a good school district, and we were running out of time. I had visited my brother in Georgia and realized how much easier it was down here, and we made the decision to move. I dreaded telling Miss Caroline.
In true Caroline fashion, she didn’t see it as an ending. She saw it as the beginning of a new life for me, Michael and Gigi; an adventure for us as a family. I remember the last night we saw her. It was late, and I brought Gigi up to her apartment to say goodbye. Miss Caroline was in her nightshirt, but she welcomed us in her apartment. She told us how proud she was of us for putting our family first. She was so positive and supportive, I could hardly bear it. I held Gigi’s hand as we walked back to our apartment, tears stinging my eyes.
It took us a few years to get our footing in Georgia. It was quite a cultural shift for us. Our careers started taking off, and the demands of being a two-working-parent- family were taxing. Every six months, though, we’d receive a life raft of sorts in the form of a Christmas or birthday gift from Miss Caroline for Gigi. Always impeccably wrapped, with a beautiful, handwritten card. Even from a distance, Miss Caroline remained a positive force in our lives.
A couple of years after moving to Georgia, Miss Caroline paid us a visit. Most excitingly, she came on Halloween. Oh, the fun we had! It was just like old times. Miss Caroline carved pumpkins with us (hers was the best, by far) and helped bake spider cupcakes. She assisted with the boo bag assembly. She even brought the hooded coat and mask to wear trick or treating in our neighborhood. For dinner, I served Feet of Meat, which is basically Ina Garten’s turkey meatloaf recipe molded into feet with cashew toenails. I’d made it a few times before, but this was Miss Caroline’s first time seeing it. She took such delight in its absurdity that every time I make it now, I relive her moment of glee.
Oh, how we miss Miss Caroline! Her enthusiasm and positive energy are infectious. Perhaps her most inspiring trait is that she makes her life exactly what she wants it to be. What she dreams for herself becomes her reality. She learns from every experience and uses it to shape her present existence with no bitterness. She has no regrets. I remember this when I feel stuck and use it to move in a positive direction. I’m lucky to have had her light shine on me.
I made Feet of Meat again this year. As I pulled it out of the oven, I thought of Miss Caroline racing for her phone, saying, “Oh my gosh! That is amazing! Oh, let me take a movie! I have to show my granddaughter!”
Feet of Meat, aka, Ina Garten’s Turkey Meatloaf Recipe from her book The Barefoot Contessa.
This is the full recipe, as it appears in the book. I usually cut it in half for this dish. I mean, five pounds of turkey burger?!? Who can eat that much meatloaf?!?
3 cups chopped yellow onions (2 large)
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves (½ tsp dried)
1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
¾ cup chicken stock
1 ½ tsp tomato paste
5 pounds ground turkey breast (!!!)
1 ½ cups plain dry bread crumbs (I use seasoned Panko bread crumbs)
3 extra large eggs, beaten
8 large cashews for toenails
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
In a medium sautee pan, on medium-low heat, cook the onions, olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme until the onions are translucent but not browned, about 15 minutes. Add the Worcestershire sauce, chicken stock and tomato paste and mix well. Allow to cool to room temperature.
Combine the ground turkey, bread crumbs, eggs and onion mixture in a large bowl (tip from me – take off your watch first!). Mix well and shape into feet on an ungreased baking sheet. Place one cashew in each toe for toenails. Bake for 1 ½ hours, until the internal temperature is 160 degrees and the meat loaf is cooked through.