Mom, will you die when I’m tall?
No sweetie, I’m not going to die until you’re very old and I’m very very old. Being tall has nothing to do with it.
But Mom, what happens when I die. What will I do then?
Well, when you die, you don’t really have a chance to do anything else.
That’s sad, Mommy. I’m going to be very sad when I die.
Oh sweetie, you don’t have to worry about that right now. It’s not going to happen for a really really long time. But you’re right, it is a super sad thing when someone dies, and crying about it is what people do. Just like I cry about Zayde sometimes.
Did Zayde know me Mom?
No. You were in my belly when he died though, and he knew you were on the way.
Four years ago, on the day after Thanksgiving, my dad finally let go after an eleven year battle with multiple types of cancer and all the complications that came along the way. Over the course of his illness he suffered much of the time, enduring a stem cell transplant, multiple rounds of chemo, radiation, and more pills and pains than anybody should have to. But here’s the amazing thing: during all that time he maintained an intense desire to keep going. To live. To be present as best he could, and to participate in and witness the big life events. He defied all the medical odds, and despite being told he may only have six months, he made it over a decade. They weren’t easy years. They were anything but easy. Yet whenever you asked if it was worth it, he always responded with, “Well it sure as hell beats the alternative.”
My dad didn’t die when I was tall (at 5’1″ I’m never going to claim that description,) and he didn’t die when I was old. By years, he wasn’t very very old either, just 66. But his health caused him to age too quickly, breaking his body down.
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving 2010, there was the same question there had always been: will this be his last? I was at my own home in New Jersey when the call came that it was time. Honestly, I can’t remember right now exactly when in the day I heard, but I was planning to have a house full of people that afternoon for dinner. I had already made the caramelized onions for the gravy, the cranberry sauce was chilling, the green beans were trimmed, and the cornbread was drying out for the stuffing. Should I leave the turkey in the oven and head to the airport immediately, or would there be enough time to wait until the morning?
I’d already said my goodbyes so many times over the years. That’s one of the silver linings of an extended illness, and let’s be honest, there aren’t many. At all. But I’d sat by my dad’s bedside more times than I can count, telling him that I loved him, that we’d be okay without him, reminiscing about happy times and thanking him for the love he’d given me. On my last visit, my son was 3½ at the time, and we spent hours videotaping the two of them together, just playing with cars and telling stories. He knew he had another grandson coming in a few short months, and we said all we needed to say.
So after countless phone calls back and forth to California, I decided to fly out at the crack of dawn on Friday, November 27th. And so on Thanksgiving my dining room was filled with people I loved who understood my red-rimmed eyes, and although the mood was subdued, the comfort I found at the table helped strengthen me for the days ahead.
My dad waited for me to get there. Who knows how these things work, but he waited. After an epic battle, he managed to time his final day so that he was surrounded by his family. My brother had already flown in from Hawaii, my step-siblings from Colorado, all in anticipation of Thanksgiving. I was the last to arrive, at ten in the morning on Friday. I walked into the house and went to his room, where I held his hands and said my ultimate goodbye, reassuring him that he could let go. That it was time. Within a few hours, as my stepmother and all of us kids piled onto the bed and gathered around it, as we wrapped him in our love and bathed him in our tears, his breathing slowed and then it stopped.
He’d fought for his life so many times. When anyone else would have given up long before, he pushed through because he didn’t want to miss anything. He valued living. He appreciated the small things, and there were days when that’s all he had. When the red jello with cool whip on top made him smile, or a root beer float, or some rocky road ice cream. He had a sweet tooth, my dad, and his motto was always “Eat Dessert First.” And so on Thanksgiving, I think it’s fitting to follow his advice. While this Pear and Cranberry Crisp makes for a lovely end to a meal on this holiday or any other day, it’s also a perfect way to start the celebration.
I’ve been making this for a few years now, ever since I first saw it on Smitten Kitchen. Deb Perelman strikes again with a flawless recipe, and there’s really no need to change it. As is, it’s heavenly. The sweet pears are balanced by the tart fresh cranberries, and the crisp topping surprises everyone with crumbled gingersnaps, giving it a bit of heat and a bite that leaves you wanting more. I’ve mentioned before my lack of pie baking experience, but I am a huge fan of crisps and crumbles because you get the fun of the filling without any drama from the crust. It’s baking made easy, and that makes everyone happy. The only thing you may want a rolling pin for is crushing your gingersnaps, and that’s a perfect job for little hands.
But even though the original is a keeper, I’ve played with the ingredients time after time, because that’s just what I do. One of my favorite combinations is replacing the pears and cranberries with apples and cherries, and adding some almond extract. But if it’s summer, peaches and blueberries are a great choice. And I make a few slight additions when I serve this crisp for breakfast or brunch. Some old fashioned oats and almonds get added so there’s a heartier topping, and an extra hint of nutrition thrown in.
If you have a house full of guests like I will, people are going to be hungry long before the turkey is ready. The night before, mix the topping ingredients together in the plastic bag you used to crush your cookies, so when you get up in the morning you can just preheat and slice your pears. Throw everything into a baking dish, and pop it in the oven while you’re getting your green beans trimmed for the afternoon, or just sit with some hot chocolate and watch the parade. When it comes out bubbling and browned, spoon it over some greek yogurt and breath in the heady combination of brown sugar, melted butter and ginger. It’s comforting, ridiculously delicious, and without much effort you’ve got something special to start your day.
Whether you are eating your dessert first in the morning, or saving it for the end of a meal, take the time to enjoy the sweetness. Don’t feel guilty about it, because there’s no point in that. With each bite, remember you’re lucky. Just to have the day ahead of you, filled with potential, you’re lucky. My dad fought for each and every day, and despite how tough it got, he chose to stay positive when others weren’t. It added years to his life, and it is a lesson that I will always be thankful for.
Pear and Cranberry Crisp with Gingersnaps, Oats and Almonds is a really easy fall dessert, that also happens to make a warm and comforting treat for breakfast when served with some plain greek yogurt. The topping is what surprises you with it's spiced ginger kick, so while it's a simple homey dish, your company will surely be asking for seconds.
- 1 cup gingersnap crumbs (113 grams or about 16 cookies)
- 1 cup all-purpose flour (125 grams)
- ¾ cup old fashioned oats (72 grams)
- ¾ cup sliced almonds (75 grams)
- ¼ cup granulated sugar (50 grams)
- 3 Tablespoons packed light or dark brown sugar (37 grams)
- ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt (a little less if you are using table salt)
- 1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
- ½ cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled (113 grams is one stick)
- 2 pounds of Bartlett pears (900 grams, about six small,) peeled, cut in half, with the core and seeds removed, and then sliced into ¼ inch slices
- 1½ cups fresh cranberries (170 grams)
- 1 Tablespoon lemon juice (15 ml)
- all the zest you can get from your lemon, finely grated, at least ½ teaspoon
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- ¼ cup granulated sugar (50 grams)
- 2 Tablespoons cornstarch (14 grams)
*This recipe is only slightly adapted from Deb Perelman's Pear Cranberry and Gingersnap Crumble on Smitten Kitchen.
**Want to switch the fruit? Any pears you like will be fine, so don't stress about finding Bartletts. Also, apples and pitted cherries (frozen work well) make a great combination. Just swap the vanilla extract for an equal amount of almond. Or in the summer try peaches and blueberries. Really, the options are endless.