Thoughts about Life in Rural Massachusetts
“Think big thoughts but relish small pleasures.” — H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
February 2017: January in February
January storms and January thaw waited until February this year. Two storms in a week brought a combined 15 inches of snow. But the snows were light and soft and just plain beautiful. All the trees looked like they were coated with sugar. The air on storm mornings was, yes, cold, but also crisp and quiet. Kids were delighted to get a couple of days off to play. Neighbors who were not quite so delighted were out early with snowblowers and plows. Hearty souls got their workouts clearing paths or cleaning up what the machines missed. That was 10 days ago.
Yesterday and today it reached 50 degrees. To the daughter who lives in North Carolina, 50 means donning a parka. To those of us who’ve been dealing with near zero temps for a few weeks, 50 i the tropics. We go outdoors in our shirt sleeves. Everyone I met on my walk today was grinning.
It’s New England. There will still be a storm or two before winter quits. But a day or two of a sunny reprieve is a promise of spring.
December 2016: A Secret Santa Christmas
It had to happen eventually. With 12 people now in the core group of what we call “family”, buying gifts for everyone became stressful and financially daunting. So we, like many other families I know, moved to a “Secret Santa” approach this year. Each family member drew the name of one person for whom to buy a gift.
Change is sometimes difficult. I think at first some of us missed the pile under the tree. But we found that our time together was in no way diminished by a smaller number of presents. Just getting the whole gang together is its own kind of fun.
I imagine our routine will change again when grandchildren enter the mix. Christmas has a different kind of magic in it when young kids are involved. But for right now, the kid in each of us is satisfied with good feelings, good talk, good food, and good will.
November 25, 2016: Another Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is a big deal at our house. Family, to us, is a way of feeling, not just biology. There are many people who have become fixtures at our Thanksgiving table because we have embraced each other as having important roles in each other’s lives. This year, there was only one bio kid and partner, with the other 3 at their various “outlaws”. But there were former students and families, best friends of our children, and good friends of the adults who joined together to feast and be thankful. For many at the table, it is a favorite holiday. The only demand on us is to enjoy each other’s company and to remember all the many things for which we are grateful. So – a 21 lb turkey took center stage and root vegetables and brussells sprouts rounded out the feast – followed, of course, with pies. Everything was seasoned with stories and discussions and laughter. A very good day.
October 21, 2016: Readying for Winter
First frost reminds us that, however much we wish it were not so, winter winds and snows will be on us soon. It’s as if we and our neighbors came to all at once. Summer is over! Suddenly, people are raking leaves. Snowblowers are getting tuned up. Storm windows are being installed or let down. Wood piles grow. Lilies and dalias are being dug to overwinter in dry cellars. The last of the harvest is being canned or frozen or pickled. Busy. Busy. Busy. It’s the annual push before the snows – part of the rhythm of a New England year.
October 14, 2016: There are Bears in these Hills
A neighbor called me in the early evening a few days ago: “There’s a bear in your back yard. Please help alert neighbors that they should get their pets inside”. Bear? Yup. It happens. Black bears are losing their habitat so are now starting to share ours. Bears have been spotted in yards, on town streets, and at the local landfill.
This time of year they are eating machines, storing up for hibernation. Apparently, a neighbor thought it was already safe to bring out a bird feeder. Wrong. Whatever GPS bears use located it. The stand and feeder were ripped out of the ground and all the seed devoured. For the past few nights, the bear has come back looking for more.
This isn’t the first time this has happened – just the first time this year. So now we look carefully at the yard before going outside at night when the black of a bear too easily blends in with the dark. We look around before doing yard work and are cautious about where and when we let kids play outside. (A few weeks ago, a teen walking her dog at dusk had a run in with another bear. She escaped by climbing on top of a car! She got a few scratches and a great story but it’s not a story most of us want our kids to share.)
Mind you. I don’t live out in the country – although country surrounds us. I’m in the center of a small town. The lesson in this – other than to watch out for bears – is that we need to respect their territory so they have less reason to go into ours. I hope the Natural Resources Department of the University down the street is studying the problem and coming up with some solutions.
In the meantime: Hope for a cold snap. Then the bears will go wherever bears go to sleep through the winter and we can relax our vigilance — until spring.
September 30, 2016: Sweater Weather
Suddenly it’s here: Sweater weather. Only a week ago, we were dealing with temperatures in the 80s and 90s. Now cooler days and even cooler nights have been swept in by whatever it is that does the sweeping. It calls for jackets in the mornings and sweaters by late afternoon. The local college coeds have given up their flipflop — a true sign of fall. It’s that lovely time between summer heat and winter cold, when the leaves turn and it’s a pleasure to be outside. Yup. It’s time for sweaters.
September 15, 2016: Drought 2016
Rain, or rather the lack of it, is the talk of the town. We’re in the worst drought in 35 years. Our main reservoirs are being shut down, leaving us dependent on town wells. A mandatory water ban is in effect. Lawns are brown and crunchy. Flower and vegetable gardens are shriveling. There’s no turning on a sprinkler to amuse the kids or restore some green.
With two colleges and a university in our little town, the needs for water here are huge. The need for cooperation by everyone to limit water use is even hugher. It’s humbling that we have had to be reminded that the supply of such a necessary part of our lives isn’t bottomless.
I know I have taken the gift of plenty of running water very much for granted over the years. I’ve planted more decorative gardens than productive ones. We added a water feature to our yard. We watered the lawn and washed the cars. My family has luxuriated in showers and routinely used a dishwasher and laundry. We’ve done all this without giving it a thought.
Now we and our neighbors are doing our best to do our part to conserve and use water wisely. It’s challenging to change our water habits but we’re working on it. So far it is do-able. There is still water running from faucets. To be limited is certainly different than to do without. But like many people, I scan the skies daily and listen to weather reports obsessively, hoping for the rainy days I once complained about.
A drought is a come-uppance. It’s a lesson in being more mindful of what we have and more respectful of our place in nature.
September 1, 2016: Movin’ In weekend
Labor Day is aptly named for my part of the world. It’s the weekend when about 30,000 young people return to the 5 college area to move back in for another school year. Many of the passing cars are stuffed with the items the well-supplied college students seem to think are necessary for survival. Worn mattresses are lashed to the roofs of cars. Trunks are tied shut over dorm fridges and rolls of carpet.
A trip through town, if one is brave or foolhardy enough to want to venture forth, is a study in chaos. Shabby furniture, laundry baskets full of who knows what and stacks of boxes are on sidewalks everywhere while beleaguered parents and cranky teens ferry belonging from car to dorm or apartment. The grocery store lines are impossible. The lunch counters are full. It’s an annual ritual that means the bread-and-butter of our little town’s economy is ba-ack.
Townies like me bemoan the relative peace of summer while still appreciating that the colleges are what give our town the identity, culture and uniqueness it has. Within the next three days, things will settle down and life will be back to our version of the academic year normal.
Welcome back, everyone.
August 10, 2016: Corn season
It’s August. In my part of the world, that means the corn is ready for harvest. Roadside stands are piled high. Prices are low. It’s time to indulge in corn everything: corn on the cob, corn chowder, corn fritters, corn relish, corn succotash,. Dinner is often just burgers, fresh tomatoes and fresh corn in one or more recipe. It’s simple and it’s my idea of gourmet!
August 1, 2016: And then come Peaches
The peach crop this year is non-existent in western Massachusetts. We had an early spring which caused the buds on the peach trees to start to open. Then we had a cold snap that made them die. No flowers means no peach crop. I ache for the peach growers who are dependent on the crop. Although I know that part of farm life is understanding that bad years are inevitable, I know it still hurts.
But we live in a time when fruit can be brought to us from warmer climes. With apologies to the local fruit growers, I added a dozen peaches to the grocery cart. Yes, they are expensive. Yes, they aren’t as sweet. But at least they “are”.
So – this hot afternoon (it is August after all) was spent over a hot stove as I transformed those peaches into jam, completing my yearly jam making rituals. The kitchen is filled with steam and the sweet smell of sugar and peaches. The counter is now populated by a dozen jars of lovely jam that we will enjoy throughout the winter months.
July 11, 2016: Jam Making Time
It’s early summer. The berries are starting to come in. Strawberries. Raspberries. Now blueberries. For me, berries mean jam-making. Summer is not summer and I’m not me unless a succession of glistening jars of jams shows up on the counter-top.
It’s not as hard as it might look to someone. The right tools make it easy. A food processor makes short work of prepping the berries. I have a special pot that is just the right size and shape for cooking up the fruit. I own the necessary canning pot, rack, wide mouth funnel and tongs. I recycle my jars every year. It’s just a matter of hauling the stuff up out of the basement and picking the fruit – which is its own sweet pleasure. Then it’s a matter of letting the rhythm that comes with years of practice take over. In a few short hours, a half dozen quarts of berries are transformed into a dozen or so jars of jam.
There is comfort in knowing the ingredients that went into every jar. There’s satisfaction in having every one of them taste just right – not too sweet; more like pie filling than candy. There is pleasure in presenting jars to family and friends. It’s a rite of summer I wouldn’t miss.
June 8, 2016: Cutting garden
When I was a girl, my grandmother always had what she referred to as a “cutting garden”, a flower garden that was designed to provide flowers for the table throughout the summer. Tucked way back on their property, the cutting garden was not intended to be part of the visual landscape around the farmhouse. It was meant to be plundered. Every few days, we’d go out to make a new bouquet with whatever blooms had come up next.
For my grandmother, flowers on the kitchen table were a necessity, a mark of a well run and welcoming home. The kitchen might be a mess from the canning and jam making and baking and meal prep but the table was always a visual oasis that let us ignore the chaos of sink and stove which were constant sites of work in progress.
I continue that tradition. No, I don’t have a “cutting garden” but I do have a farmer’s market and, in a pinch, even the local grocery store to provide me with bunches of summer blooms. Every time I pass through the kitchen and spot the flowers on the table, I smile with memories of the grandmother I loved and with appreciation for what it means to give ourselves moments of beauty in our otherwise hectic days.
June 1, 2016: Sensory experience
I was outside early this morning, walking barefoot in the dew. It brought back childhood memories of slipping outside before anyone else was awake to run and slip through the cool wet grass on hot summer mornings. It was delightful then. It still is.
May 8, 2016: Cows
It’s been reported that Gertrude Stein, turn of the 20th century literary figure and art collector, was enamored of cows. A New Yorker article from 1934 described part of the daily routine of Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas:
“The two ladies drive around in their Ford till they come to a good spot. Then Miss Stein gets out and sits on a campstool with pencil and pad, and Miss Toklas fearlessly switches a cow into her line of vision.
“If the cow doesn’t seem to fit in with Miss Stein’s mood, the ladies get into the car and drive on to another cow.
“When the great lady has an inspiration, she writes quickly, for about fifteen minutes. But often she just sits there, looking at cows…”
I understand the impulse. I live less than a mile from a major university bustling with human activity and less than 2 miles from a pasture of placid cows. Sometimes I prefer being around the cows. There is something relaxing and even hypnotic about watching them stand, chewing their cuds and seemingly contemplating the mysteries of the universe – or not.
May 3, 2016: Volunteers in the Plant World
When I talk about “volunteers” in spring, I’m not talking about charitable people doing voluntary good deeds. As worthy as they are, for a few days they take a back seat in my admiration to the “volunteers” in my garden. They are the plants that weathered the storms of winter to send up another generation, even though they aren’t supposed to in our zone. Don’t you just love the name? Volunteers! Without any help or coaxing from the humans, these plants bravely poked their heads up before anyone else to take a look around. Today I found a couple of stray pansies blooming in an otherwise brown and dreary flower bed, their little faces nodding toward the sun. Some yet unnamed plants are sending up shoots in the compost heap. I’m guessing they will become squash or cucumber vines. I leave them be. Volunteers deserve respect.
April 22, 2016: Mulching
We spent the last few days mulching the flower beds. I don’t remember doing this back when I was a girl in the 50s. Oh, we threw some straw around the strawberries but that was about it. I don’t remember the spring ritual I now follow of spreading a couple of inches of bark mulch around every plant in the place. It’s labor intensive work but I have to say, it’s gratifying. The new brown mulch makes every flower bed look loved and cared for. It keeps the moisture in and the weeds out. Just goes to show that what used to be isn’t always what’s best.
April 15, 2016: Stationery
While reading a story set in the early 20th century, I stumbled across an old fashioned word I haven’t seen for some time: Stationery. Not as in” still” like a stationary bike. But stationery with an “e” – meaning “paper”. I have to admit. I haven’t used real stationery in years. My correspondence is on email and an occasional card. But the word surfaced nostalgic memories of time spent in stationery stores (yes, whole stores devoted to paper) looking for the perfect, creamy, dreamy paper on which to write long letters to relatives and friends. Oh, the weight of it; the feel of the textures as I ran my fingers over the surfaces. And the colors… I once had a stack of different colored papers for different occasions. Choosing the right one was part of the joy of writing. Composing social letters was a meditative and aesthetic experience.
I’ll probably not go back to those days. Social media allows me to be more frequently in touch and more involved with the dailyness of those I love. But it’s nice to remember.
April 4, 2016: April Storms
After an unusually mild and snow-less winter, it snowed this morning. In April. Yes, I know. It’s a truism in New England that if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute. So despite temperatures that reached the 60s last week encouraging daffodils and tulip shoots to appear, this morning brought a sugaring of snow. The forecast is for more tomorrow. Snow. Wind. It’s a reminder by Mother Nature that we’re not at all in charge. Winter will have a last laugh or two or three before it’s over. Even though the temperature will rise again next week, even though it’s tempting to get out there and scratch the itch that says it’s time to garden, don’t. Be content with seed starters in the window.
March 27, 2016: Spring Creeks
Spring isn’t only about mild weather and soft flowers. It’s also about wild creeks and rushing streams. The snow melt from up North sends rushing water into creek beds and creates seasonal waterfalls. One of the delights of the season is hanging out near a stream to listen to the water dancing over and around rocks and to watch it crashing and flowing by.
March 6, 2016: Sugaring time
A sure sign of early spring: Maple trees on the country roads are decked with sap collection buckets. I do understand that the plastic tubing that some farmers are using now is more efficient but somehow it takes the romance out of it for me. I’m happy a few of the smaller outfits still set out buckets and go around every few days to collect the sap for boiling off.
As kids, we’d lift the lids and peek in to see how much was there. If no adult was looking, we’d quickly dip in, then suck the juice off our fingers. It was always a surprise that it wasn’t that sweet or even interesting.
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? How did some long ago person discover that if you boil down 10 gallons of what looks and almost tastes like water, you’ll get 1 gallon of the sweet, cloying treat of maple sugar? Well — I’m glad whoever it was did. It’s a yearly ritual to go to the local sugar shack and stock up on freshly made syrup to sweeten our pancakes and waffles and fritters and bread and ice cream and even snow.
February 29, 2016: Who was watching who?
Unseasonable warmth is bringing out the wildlife. While on a walk today, I caught a glimpse of two does and their fawns eyeing me from across a meadow. They were standing against some trees, so still I almost didn’t see them. I froze too, hoping it would encourage them to come closer. It didn’t. After some psychic communication between them, the moms nudged their little ones and all four melted into the forest.
February 22, 2016: January? thaw.
It happens at least once a winter – usually in January. A relatively warm week melts the snow and gives us a teaser taste of spring. This has been a weird year. Mostly too warm but with intermittent days of freeze. Only a week ago, an arctic blast brought sub-zero temperatures – much to the delight of ice fishermen who had been itching to get out on the ice for weeks.
Then the thaw. This year at the end of February. Three days in the 40s and the inlet at our favorite lake is almost clear. The ice has melted along the edges of the main lake. The fools who couldn’t wait to ice-fish are still out there – much to my distress. Ice in these conditions is iffy. But try to tell anything to grown men who are obsessed with their sport.
There are gifts in this weather. Bird song greeted us this morning. Two magnificent bald eagles soared over my head during a walk. Fish jumped in the open water — probably to get away from those fishermen. No snow on the picnic tables makes me think of summer gatherings to come.
I know better than to see the thaw as the end of winter. We’ll probably have at least one more blizzard, maybe two. But this brief respite provided by Mother Nature does lift the spirits with promises of what’s to come.
February 15, 2016: It’s cold, cold, cold
Last night it was 14 below with the windchill and the furnace quit. I’m lucky. My husband has the skills to figure it out and get it going. He’s the type to put a parka on over his pajamas and start tinkering in the basement. Meanwhile, we’re lucky to have a wood stove and a stacked cord of wood in the barn.
Back-up for heat in this climate may not be essential – There are many people who do without it. – but I’m very glad we decided long ago that having a wood stove and a generator makes for less panic when a high tech furnace fails or the power lines go down. They have a way of doing that at least once a winter.
So last night my husband tinkered. And me? — I stoked the stove and made him some hot chocolate as a reward for eventually nursing the balky furnace back to life.
February 8, 2016: Snowing
It’s cold. It’s snowing. It’s February in New England. School has been canceled. The office is closed. Anyone with a smidgen of sense is staying off the roads. When our whole world shuts down this way, we all have a collective excuse to be lazy. With the exception of emergency service workers and the folks who see snow as white cold because they get to move it, the rest of us can stay in our jammies, drink cocoa, play with our kids, or read a good book. I feel sorry for Californians whose relentlessly sunny days mean they rarely get the gift of a surprise day of sanctioned hooky.
February 1, 2016: Seed Catalogs
Seed catalogs are beginning to fill my mailbox. Just when winter is feeling endless; just when I’m tired of being cold and unable to garden, gorgeous full color booklets full of pictures of vegetables and trees and flowers show up. The companies are smart. They know that the promise of all that green and all that color is too tempting to resist. If I’m not careful, I’ll buy more seeds than I can possibly start in my windows and under grow lights. But with the seed packets comes a kind of primitive and very human hope. Isn’t that what we’re all feeling when we start poking seeds into dirt? It’s hope for the return of the warm and the thrill of watching things grow that drives us — and makes spring feel not all that far away.
January 26, 2016: Capricious Winter
Winter is capricious and unfair. Here in my part of New England, we’re prepared and accustomed to shoveling snow through much of the winter.It’s not that we like it. We’re just used to it. But last week, we missed the huge snowstorm that hit the East Coast. friends and neighbors all the way to the Carolinas are shoveling snow. Towns that never saw the need for snow plows are at a standstill. So much for knowing what to expect.
My best counsel to those living in this year’s snow belt is to go with it. There’s no point in fretting. Enjoy the unexpected pleasure of snow days. Stay home. Drink cocoa. Read a book. Make a fort with the sofa cushions with your kids. Life will return to your version of normal soon enough.
January 10, 2016: Season’s End
The heightened activity of the winter holidays is over. The once beautiful Christmas tree in our living room looks skeletal with more needles piled at its base than on the tree – or so it seems. I know I’ll be finding them in odd place for months – under the couch, in magazines, hiding around the edges of a room I know I vacuumed thoroughly. Over the next few days, the tree will be hauled to the curb and holiday decor and holiday magic will go back into boxes and to the attic for the next 11 months.
It’s time to embrace the dark part of the year; to light a fire in the wood stove and candles on the table; to remember the good times of the holiday season fondly but allow ourselves to accept its ending. For folks like me, it’s both sad and a bit of a relief. All that frivolity was exhausting at times. A little winter hibernation is looking good right now.
One thing I’ve learned is that the dead of winter isn’t dead at all. It’s a time for regrouping and inner reflection. Nature means for us to slow down. It’s a time to read, to watch old movies, to make homemade soups and hunker down under a comforter and be comforted. Like the bulbs we planted last fall, we aren’t hiding. We’re gathering ourselves to come up renewed in the spring.
January 2016: New Year’s Resolutions
It’s the first Monday after the turning of the year. When I pull in, the parking lot is full. When I get to the pool, so are the lanes. Never mind that from February through December, I have my choice of parking spaces and I never have to wait for a lane. It’s January! The state of the gym is a testament to New Year’s resolutions and good intentions. I admit, I rather enjoy the 11 months of the year when I often have a lane to myself. But my better self wins: Keep on comin’, everyone. It’s good for body and spirit to move!
Christmas Cookies 2015
I generally don’t bake. Being people with little will-power, my husband and I don’t need the temptation of sweet confections in the cookie jar. Better to use it for the odd assortment of rubber bands, twist ties and errant keys that seem to collect on my kitchen counter. But then December comes and I’m bitten by the cookie-baking bug. It’s a nightly ritual for weeks. After dinner, after the clean up, when the house gets still, I turn on Christmas music, preheat the oven and make a batch or two.
Over the course of December, a dozen diffent kinds and shapes of cookies and bars emerge from my kitchen: sugar cookie stars and bells and decorated Christmas trees, spritz cookies, gingerbread people, chocolate crumbles, pfefferneuses, mint brownies and peppermint bark. I just can’t help myself. For me, Christmas isn’t Christmas unless the kitchen is dusted with flour and the house is infused with the lovely smells of cookie baking.
Fortunately, we have lots of help with the eating. Family and friends who come to call leave with take-home boxes. Adult kids get tins of cookies for Christmas. And Santa and this Mrs. Claus finish them up by the New Year – making the annual promise that the cookie jar will remain empty until December next year.
Thanksgiving Thanks 2015
Thanksgiving is the only universal American feast day. There is no need for decorations or elaborate ceremonies. There are no presents to buy. It’s all about being with the people we care about and, oh yes, eating.
The gathering at our house includes a boisterous crowd of family, friends and friends of friends. Dinner has become complicated with gluten free, vegetarian, lactose intolerant and, yes, turkey-lovers in the group. But everyone brings something to add to the groaning buffet so all have more than a few things to choose from for their plates. And then there are the pies: Pumpkin, Mincemeat, Cherry, and gluten free Lemon Meringue. Gluten free apple crisp and chocolate and caramel filled cupcakes rounded out the fare. Every year we celebrate with an evening of good people, good food, good conversations and an all around good time.
In times when the world seems an increasingly worrisome place, we are all so grateful to have warm homes, warm food and enough to get by. We’re especially grateful to have people in our lives we know we can count on in good times as well as in times of need – and this yearly opportunity to tell them so. Everyone left happily stuffed and stuffed with happy.
November 2, 2015
Cacophony. It’s a wonderful word, isn’t it? Its definition – unpleasant combination of loud, jarring sounds – is right there in the word itself.
So – Today I woke to a cacophony of squawks and honks from a flock of geese. Having found a place to rest and feed on their way South, they were apparently calling to their friends. “Come on down. It’s safe. No hunters! There’s lots of room on this sandbar! Honk. Honk. Squawk!”
It’s hard to be mad at an early wake-up call when geese on the move are having such a great time. Well. All right. I wasn’t 100% happy at first. But then I remembered to appreciate the beauty of the early morning light, the colors of late fall and the sight (and sound) of those birds having animated goose conversations before resuming their long flight to wherever they go. It’s one of the last gasps of fall. Winter silence will be here soon enough.
October 24, 2015
There’s something very satisfying about making something new out of something old. Our 147 year old house has been a continuous project for the 43 years we’ve lived here. Anyone who owns such a place knows it’s both a challenge and a delight to keep it up and keep it singing.
The doorway between our kitchen and back room hasn’t ever had a door. I got it into my head that it would be nice to have one. Such things are never simple. Of course, the opening isn’t the size of any currently manufactured door. I was about to give up on the idea. Then my husband found an old door moldering in the barn basement. Yes, it’s the right size. It might even be the original door. But it was not only dirty (very) but had rusting hardware and blistering paint on it.
Oh well. Time to get out the ZipStrip and go to town. It only took several gallons of stripper and more patience than I usually can command to get through the 7 layers of paint on each side. Oil based pain. Lead paint. Milk based paint. Some kind of white wash. 147 years of paint history was revealed by my putty knife and stripper. It became a kind of meditation. Five days and about 40 hours later, I have a stripped and sanded door. Rust remover and steel wool will make the hardware shine again.
October 16, 2015 Changing “seconds” into firsts
All things don’t have to be perfect to be great. My farmer grandparents never wasted a thing – and taught me lessons in doing the same. “Seconds”, the less than perfect tomatoes or apples or squashes, can be made into perfectly delicious “firsts”. All it takes it some careful cutting and a food mill. This week, my kitchen has been filled with the wonderful aromas of autumn: Apples simmering for sauce; Tomatoes and vinegar cooking down into ketchup; Squash and pumpkin puree that will be frozen for pies and soups.
For years, I used my grandmother’s hand operated food mill for such projects. Turning and turning the handle of my old and – up until a week ago – reliable food mill is a kind of meditation I value. But food mills, it turns out, do wear out after 60 or so years – much to my dismay. What to do.
Imagine my delight to find that such equipment is still available. My new and shiny food mill looks just like Grandma’s but without the dents and scratches from years of wear. I enjoy imagining it becoming uniquely mine with scratches and dents that come with use and time. Someday, I hope grandchildren will use it and feel as connected to me as I do to the women who came before me in the task of turning blemished fruits into perfect treats.
October 13, 2015
The Shutesbury Historical Society opens up the 150 year old one room school house for one day each fall. Entering the school is like time travel. Books and slates are on every desk. The walls are cluttered with maps and mementos from the late 19th century and early 20th century. It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize kids sitting in the rows, heads bowed over slates or listening to the teacher.
For me, the visit evokes a special kind of memory. From 1952 – 1954, I actually attended such a school in New Milford, Connecticut for first and second grade. There were 22 kids in 5 grades with 1 teacher in 1 room.
A class that size becomes a kind of family. The teacher, of necessity, turned to the big kids to work with the younger ones to practice skills. Older students were also in charge of stoking the pot bellied stove and monitoring the play ground. Younger kids looked forward to the day that they would be old enough to assist. If we wanted to play a team game (whether a spelling bee or baseball), we needed to include everyone. Those were the happiest school days of my life.
I often wonder if today’s kids would be more enthusiastic and successful in school if they felt the sense of belonging and industry that was in the very air we breathed every day.
It’s leaf-peeper season in western Massachusetts. Cars with out of state plates are lined up on every byway. Those of us who are lucky enough to live here are able to see spectacular views just by driving to the grocery store. It’s as if nature is giving us a grand finale to warm weather before covering the land with frost.
September 22, 2015
When we added a metal roof to our barn, we didn’t consider the oak tree standing close to it. This year’s bumper crop of acorns reminds us, yet again, that nature will have the last word. Our days and nights are now punctuated with “crash”, “thump”, “ratta-tat-tat” as acorns drum down on the roof. Our dooryard is littered with acorns, acorns, acorns. I swear the tree was laughing at me this morning. As I tried to clear a path, more acorns dropped on my head.
In the 40 years we’ve had the tree, this has never been an issue. I’m thinking that nature has it about right. Every few decades, it’s important to drop lots of seeds to reforest a forest. This tree may be the only oak on our land but it still answers the call of the life cycle. Awesome.
July 6, 2015 Bald Eagles
There are words that are so over-used they become meaningless. Awesome! Amazing! Fabulous! So what do we do when something truly is awesome, amazing or fabulous? Last night I saw a bald eagle up close and personal for the first time. He was perched at the tip of the tallest tree in our neighborhood, surveying the area like it was his personal kingdom. Those birds are HUGE! He sat there for a very long time, ruffling feathers and looking this way and that, unconcerned by the number of people looking up at him. It was thrilling! He was Awesome! Amazing and fabulous! I guess all I can do to convey the experience is add a whole lot of !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
July 4, 2015
Most years, we all happily go to the annual fireworks event. It’s a time to wander about to catch up with old friends and see how kids have grown. This year, rain and cold deflated the fam’s enthusiasm for sitting out under the cloudy sky, being eaten alive by mosquitoes. It’s a sure sign that the children aren’t children anymore. Sitting around the living room chatting, sometimes shouting, took priority. Being Hartwells, it was a raucous event. Who needs fireworks for entertainment when the daughter who now lives in the South (so is perpetually cold when she visits) dug around a closet until she found some wool Christmas socks to warm her feet and a pineapple to carry around? Her “comfort pineapple” she said. It’s a comment on my family that no one found this unusual. Then there was the experiment to see if a toy Brontosaurus was tall enough to become a toilet paper roll holder and discussion about dog breeds, belly dancing, body building competitions and beer brewing. No, it’s not a bunch that veers toward things intellectual — unless they want to . In the name of peace, no one took on anyone else about whether Bernie Sanders is a viable candidate or what to do about the flock of Republicans who have announced so far. This family is fun because everyone has opinions about all things and the conversation is totally random.
April 11, 2015 Spring Spring Spring
Finally. The temperature hit 70 today. The gardens beckon. There’s something meditative and celebratory in being outside in the dirt for the first time. Oh yes – there are still some small piles of the white stuff on the north side of the house. But the south side is warm and inviting. Some people like to wear garden gloves. Not me. I like the feel of the earth – warm on the top, cool beneath. I like to squish the mud between my fingers and grub around for weeds that are already pushing up among the bulb shoots. Dirty nails and dirty knees on my jeans tell me that it’s spring at last!
March 14, 2015: What a long cold winter it’s been
March is doing its thing: In like a lion. It’s still cold. The snow piles from plowing and shoveling still hover over 8 feet in my yard. But we’ve had a few days over 30 degrees and spring fever is setting in. The one or two patches of visible ground around my back stoop give us hope. The rare hour when the sun shines bright enough to bring the thermometer to 40 feels like a quick trip to the Bahamas. Daylight savings time adds to the illusion. I so hope that March ends as it should: Out like a lamb.
I’ve decided that it takes a lot more bravery to bake than to cook. You can’t taste until you serve it. You just have to hope that the original combination of whatever actually tastes as good as you think it would. There’s drama in slicing into the cake or pie or bread that you haven’t made before. I hold my breath while folks take that first bite. When there’s an all out smile instead of a diplomatic, “Umm, that’s interesting,” I’m so relieved.
Snowbound in January
A guy on the news said it well: “If you don’t like the snow, don’t cry about it. Go south.” Maybe he was a little glib. Some people are here because of jobs or family and can’t just up and leave. But it is true that snow is part of living in New England. The last few days are proof. We got merely 16 inches. Folks further east got anywhere from 2 to three feet. Those of us who’ve embraced the inevitability of being snowbound were prepared. Wood supply handy to the wood stove, check; 100 lbs of salt on hand, check; a few days worth of canned goods and bottled water in the pantry, check; batteries for flashlights, check; bathtub full of water so we can flush the toilet, check. We were ready. Then we just had to hunker down and enjoy the special quiet that comes with snowfall.
December 2014: Christmas
At our house, our favorite tradition happens a few days before Christmas when we invite friends and neighbors over to take a break from the hustle and bustle and enjoy eggnog, cookies and the company of each other. When the children were small, we added a birthday cake and candles for Baby Jesus. There were so many candles, it looked like a bonfire. It made the point. We were celebrating something much older and more important than presents and candy. We’d sing “Happy Birthday” and collectively blow out the candles, making wishes for a bright new year for everyone.
These days, the party is a reunion for kids who grew up together and an affirmation of friendship for the neighbors who have been coming for over 30 years. We don’t have the birthday cake any more but there’s always someone who, by mentioning it, brings it back in memory. Sometimes we even still sing Happy Birthday.
November 2014: Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving. It’s America’s only universal feast day. Unlike other holidays, decorations are entirely optional and there are no gifts to buy. The focus is on being with people we love, giving thanks for all that we have, and breaking bread – or carving a turkey – together.
At my house, it’s all about the pies. The night before is a flurry of pie making by the women in the family. It’s a time for catching up while we roll out dough, peel apples, and mix up the fillings for pumpkin and mince pies. There’s something about a warm kitchen filled with the aromas of baking that invites confidences, jokes, and general sharing. When the clean up is done, there’s always time for tea as we celebrate the line of pies cooling on the counter.
October 31, 2014 Halloween
It’s not about the candy. (Parents are lucky to come out even when the amount given out is compared to the amount taken in.) Actually, the kids may think it’s only about the candy. But for the adults in my neighborhood, it’s long been a celebration of fall. For the kids not used to being out at night, wandering the roads, tromping through the leaves, and sweeping the yards with flashlights is a thrill. For the parents who trail along, it’s a time to greet each other and chat curbside while kids go to the next house. The adults left to mind the door, ooh and ahh over costumes and dole out treats, often sending a candy and a cheerful shout to those patient grown-ups lingering at the edges of the yard.
By 8:00, it’s over for another year. Wound up kids dump their bags on kitchen tables and compare their haul. Parents of differing philosophies encourage a once a year pig out on sugar or tell their kids it’s one treat a day for the next eon – or some combination. Costumes are abandoned.Porch lights go off. Kids reluctantly go to their beds. And we start to turn our attention to the coming winter.
October 17, 2014 Ducks
The police log of our local newspaper is often a source of entertainment. Reported last week: Unruly Ducks Confound Police. Seems that a flock of ducks decided to take up residence in the middle of a country road. Police gave chase. Ducks thought that was hilarious. They refused to be shooed and caused a ruckus. Wish I’d been there. . .
October 17, 2014 Summer came and went
A busy summer of writing meant neglecting this blog. Back now with two books at publishers and life once again a bit more leisurely.
April 26, 2014: Spring is springing
Finally. Our world is coming back to life after the winter’s sleep. First came the crocus; then the daffodils! Suddenly it’s as if every plant and tree is competing to see who can be next to show off: Hyacinths! Magnolia trees! Ornamental Cherries! Forsythia! Tulips! Every morning something new and beautiful greets us.
April 22, 2014: Wildlife
Living in this part of rural New England means sharing with wildlife. Our foundation is home to a groundhog. The barn harbors squirrels and chipmunks, a raccoon and mice. This time of year, ants march through the kitchen and frogs that somehow survived the winter again take up residence in the small pond we created in the back yard. Red foxes trot down the street now and then. And – especially in the fall – we have to take care to look for the occasional black bear that may come wandering through the neighborhood. I love that they haven’t given the territory entirely over to us.
April 21, 2014: Bald eagles!
While reading lakeside, I heard a sudden splash. I quickly turned to see a bald eagle with fish in his talons swooping up to the top branches of a nearby giant pine tree. What a thrill. Throughout the afternoon, the performance was repeated several times. The thrill was never less for the repetition. He (she?) never missed the fish. I never missed taking a moment from my book to watch that magnificent bird soar up and over the lake to the favored tree.
April 10, 2014 : Ostereierbaum (Easter egg tree)
It’s originally a Germanic tradition. During Lent, people decorate outdoor trees with Easter eggs – lots of Easter eggs. I suspect the custom was brought to our valley by the influx of Polish farmers at the beginning of the 20th century. Since then, it’s been adopted by many who have no idea of where the idea came from; who just love the idea of celebrating the arrival of spring with something colorful and surprising. That’s how it started for us. Every April since our kids were very young, we’ve spent a delightful few hours on a Saturday hanging colored eggs on a small pear tree in our yard. At a time when the earth is just waking up, when only crocuses are peeking their heads from the ground, the colorful trees offer relief from winter landscapes and a way to say “welcome spring.”
March 25, 2014 Maple Sugaring Time
Finally. The nights are cold and the days are warm and the sap is running. All over our valley, sugar shacks are in business. When I was a girl, shiny buckets were hung on every tree up and down our street. We kids would open a lid now and then to see how full the buckets were and sometimes to furtively dip a finger in for a quick taste of the sap. It doesn’t taste like much but I’m sure it was made a bit sweeter by the idea we were getting away with something.
These days you’re not likely to see buckets on a residential street. Things have sadly changed in that way. I’m sure many would disappear within days. But out in the woods and around the farms, those buckets still can be seen with the drip, drip, dripping of the sap filling them. Many farms have moved to plastic tubing going from the trees directly to the boiling room. It’s efficient, I know, but my tree-hugger side objects. There is something reverent about touching each tree as we collect the day’s sap.
If you’ve never gone to a sugar shack, let this be the year. It’s the kind of total sensory experience that memories are made of. The whole place is usually surrounded by a cloud of sweet smelling steam from the evaporators that boil day and night. The fires make the shack toasty warm inside. Most serve at least pancakes and maybe some corn fritters that are suitably coated with new, sweet syrup, fresh from the boiling off.
Visiting a sugar shack is an annual ritual. Go at least once to get a mapley taste of spring – and to take home a gallon of new syrup to last until next year.
March 1, 2014: It’s March!
It’s always a relief to get through February. It may be the shortest month but around here it can feel like the longest. With nights in the single degrees and days not much better, it can feel like winter will never end. Then comes March. I love the name. It may still be cold. There may still be snow on the ground. But we’re now “marching” toward the first day of spring. Some confused robins showed up in my yard this morning. They are way too early but it was still good to see them. I threw out extra seed to tide them over and hope they know how to keep themselves warm enough for the next few weeks. March 20 is the official first day of spring. It’s coming.
February 14, 2014 Valentines in the Snow
Forget about the roses. A nor’easter came through, leaving a landscape covered in white, lots of white. It’s begging to be written on. Get out there and stomp out a huge heart shape in your yard for your sweetie. Then hunker down with cocoa and old romantic movies. The world is shut down anyway. Enjoy the day.
February 2, 2014 Groundhog Day
What a strange, quirky little holiday. If a groundhog peaks out of his (or her, I imagine) den and the day is cloudy, spring will come early. If it is sunny and the groundhog sees its shadow, we’re in for more winter cold. This year, Groundhog Phil in Punxsutawney, Pa. saw his shadow, foretelling 6 more weeks of winter! I don’t know who anointed that particular beast with the ability to tell the future but I’m not happy with him. It’s been so cold this year, I’m more than ready for warm sun and daffodils. We New Englanders are hearty folks so we’ll roll with it. But next year, would someone please make sure that burrow stays in the shade?
December 14, 2013– BIG Snow
First snow dusts the world with sugar. BIG snow dumps two feet of the stuff! It’s one of those bad news – good news kind of days. Bad news: Shoveling, snow-blowing, scary driving. Good news: Reason to stay home, bake cookies, and read by the fire. If we get the bad news part done by noon, we have the rest of the day to enjoy the quiet after the storm. That and a little hot chocolate and life is good.
December 7, 2013 — First Snow
After a week of dreary gray days and rain, we woke this morning to a beautiful surprise: Bright blue sky and a world coated in white. With just enough to be pretty, not a major chore, it’s like a greeting card sent for the holiday season.
November 15, 2013 — Fall Clean up
It was much more fun when the children were small. Raking leaves meant jumping in the piles, tossing leaves at each other, and taking turns getting covered up in a leafy bed. If you’ve never had the chance, be sure to add that to your “bucket list”. The crunch of the leaves, the lovely tangy smell, the contrast of crisp air and warm burrow is not something to miss in a lifetime.
Nowadays, my husband and I rake and rake and rake some more – without the distractions and fun of children’s laughter and leafy games. Sometimes, though, we jump in and emerge with leaves in our hair. No one is too old for a leaf fight!
There is something about being out in the fall air, making piles and chatting now and then that is very satisfying. It’s concrete work. You can see where you’ve been and where you haven’t. The piles grow. The yard takes on that ready-for-winter look. We pile it all on tarps and haul the load down to the road for the pick-up we’ve arranged. Phew. Now we can relax and look forward to the snow.
October 12, 2013 — Leaf Peeping
It’s “peak weekend”! Columbus Day weekend in rural New England is a riot of color. Sugar maples are ablaze with reds, oranges and yellows. Birches are a pale yellow-green. Oaks are bronzed. And here they come! Our roads are filled with cars sporting license plates from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and further South.They are the Leaf Peepers, people who travel miles north every year to see the show. They slow the traffic on winding back roads and fill the scenic rest areas. They meander through antique shops and gift stores, purchasing maple syrup and tea towels and candles to take wherever is home. For maybe a week, our countryside is a destination! When the Peepers leave, we know it’s time to finish stacking the wood and putting the gardens to bed! Winter is coming.
Sept 30, 2013 — Cider Donuts
It’s that time of year again. A local farm stand is featuring their famous cider donuts. For the uninitiated: Cider donuts aren’t filled with jelly, fruit or cream. They aren’t adorned with orange frosting, powdered sugar, sprinkles or chocolate bits. They don’t need to be decorated or “enhanced” or sweetened up to be worth a special trip to the stand. They may be naked but they are anything but plain.
Cider donuts are rich brown circles of deliciousness — a little firm on the outside; flaky and tender on the inside. Warm and fresh out of the kettle, they are a perfect mate for crisp, cold new-pressed apple cider. However hard they try, the donut chain stores can’t get it right. There are some things that just don’t taste the same when mass produced. For that, I’m grateful. They taste even better for being a once a year treat. Pass me another donut, please.
Sept 1, 2013: Eggs by the Roadside
Driving across town today, I saw a cooler beside the road. A handmade sign said, “Fresh organic eggs, $5 a dozen.” A coffee can with a slit in the top was placed strategically next to the cooler. I again thought how wonderful it is that we can still trust in people enough to take only the eggs they need and not to make away with the can — at least most of the time. I pulled over, selected a dozen, deposited my $5 and sang all the way home. Egg-straodinary!
August 22, 2013: Peach Jam
Peach jam is my favorite to eat and my least favorite to make. Give me berries! Prep time is almost non-existent. Then there are peaches: the blanching, the peeling, the pitting, the slicing and chopping, the mess.
As I was fretting, I had one of those moments of insight that can make me both marvel and feel a little ashamed of myself: My grandmother did all this on a big black wood fired kitchen stove! She didn’t have a food processor or powdered pectin or a burner that went on and off with the turn of a button. I remember stirring and stirring and stirring the vat of peach pulp, testing and retesting to see if it had jelled yet. She used hot paraffin to seal, not shiny new rings and lids straight from the hardware store. Her results? Always perfect.
During childhood winters, I remember pushing the paraffin disk aside to get to the peachy sweet and gooey jam. Delicious. So, here I am, doing a modern day version that is easier than Gram ever dreamed would be possible, remembering those times together as being as sweet as the jam.
August 17, 2013: 45 th Anniversary
Today I’ve been married (to the same guy!) for 45 years! Plans are modest: We’re fixing our rowboat this afternoon, having a quiet dinner later, maybe some ice cream and a cuddle while watching a movie. At this point, there is no need for trumpets and parties. We’re comfortable together the way that people can be who have shared a life, raised 4 kids who are all good people, and mostly gotten along — and we still think each other is hot! After 45 years, that’s more than enough.
August. 3, 2013 Crows
I think crows have been given a bad rap. Somehow they’ve been portents of evil and bad luck for centuries. I just don’t see them that way. Four were in my yard today. They may not have the most beautiful voices in the world but they are certainly conversational. One discovered my much-neglected pear tree and let the others know. Soon all 4 were at the top, feasting on pears and having a raucous crow-party. Once they ate their fill, they took off, the sun glinting off their huge blue black wings. Beautiful.
July 28, 2013 Turkey Traffic
I found myself at the rear of a long line of cars backed up on one of our country roads today. A tree limb down? Someone with a flat? No — A family of wild turkeys was wandering around in the middle of the road and taking their own sweet time thinking about whether they were going to move for some multi-ton vehicles. Four adult birds and seven young ones were happily finding something edible on a road damp with recent rain. Or maybe they just liked the yellow line. Hard to know with turkeys.
After taking a few pictures with those ever-present smart phones, folks started to get impatient. Someone honked. The birds gobbled back. Very neighborly. Someone got out to shoo them along. An adult bird took exception to that, puffed up, then decided people aren’t worth the trouble and went back to milling about with the flock. Finally, the turkeys saw something more interesting, at least to turkeys, and made their way off to the roadside and into the woods. 11 cars of people were able to get going after maybe 15 minutes of living on turkey-time.
I love living where we are reminded that human beings are not entirely in charge.
July 20, 2013: Raspberries
Raspberry jam making is my favorite. It is so easy. No hulling the tops like strawberries. No picking out the little black stems from blueberries. Just wash ’em and crush ’em and cook ’em up with a little Pomona’s pectin and sugar and it’s as if the jars fill themselves. 10 lovely glistening jars of jam are now sitting on my counter as if by magic. Well . . Not quite. It’s still hot work on a hot summer morning. But I find the whole process meditative and far more rewarding than a lot of other tasks I can think of – and successfully put off by making jam.
July 1, 2013: Summer Showers
Ten minutes ago, the sun was shining and the family was enjoying a backyard dinner. Now rain is coming down in sheets, flooding the window sills and blowing in the screen doors. We run around madly, bringing in plates of food, shutting windows and mopping up. What happened? Some of the kids run outside, laughing and hollering. Who needs a sprinkler when nature has provided a backyard water park? And then, just as suddenly, it’s gone. Windows get thrown open again. We go back outside to air that is refreshed and a welcome drop in the temperature. Best of all, there’s a double rainbow overhead!
June 20, 2013 Strawberry Picking
It’s June. One of our annual rituals has always been to go to a local field to picks quarts of berries. Now that my own children are grown, I welcome the chance to share the fun with neighbors’ kids. Is there anything as red as a strawberry? Is there anything as juicy as a perfect berry still warm from the sun? As lovely as the perfect ones are, I’ve found that kids always like the odd shaped ones best. “Look. I found a heart,” says one kid. “Looks like someone’s arse”, says an irreverent teen. “But here’s one that’s double.” “I found the biggest one in the field.” The kids call out and show off their finds. The game and the fact that baskets fill quickly makes the hour we spend in the field an event. Soon we have 8 quarts, enough to make jam and to feast on shortcake tonight.
June 14, 2013 Breathe. You’re at the lake now.
There’s something about being next to water that is immediately soothing. Scientists probably explain it as having something to do with ozone or something. I prefer to think that water sprites have something to do with it. Whatever the cause, it’s as if stress immediately drains from me when I get close to the local lake. I don’t need to stay long. I don’t even have to get in a swim. Just a few minutes of solitude, looking at the lake and breathing in the lake air is renewing in a mysterious and wonderful way.
May 4, 2013 Apple Blossoms and Bumble Bees
Most of the year, the crab apple tree in my yard isn’t anything special. It’s just an ordinary tree that provides a little shade on our walk. For a couple of months in the fall, it’s a nuisance. Hard little apples fall and rot and fill the air with the scent of vinegar or hard cider. But in the spring — Ahh. In the spring we get a show. One morning we wake up to find that overnight the buds have burst open and covered the tree with white, white blossoms. Soon the whole tree is vibrating with the buzz of huge bumble bees. I like to imagine the bees were sleeping inside the buds and were waked by the opening of the flowers. I love to stop for just a few minutes whenever entering or leaving the house to just take in the loveliness and smell the sweet, sweet scent of apple blossoms on the breeze. In a day or two, the blossoms will drop and drift like a light snow. And then it’s over for another year.
April 28, 2013 Fiddleheads
In my part of New England, we get to eat a bit of spring for a couple of weeks a year. Fiddleheads, the tightly coiled tips of new growth of ferns, are found in the woods and by streams only in very early spring. Gather a pound or two, rinse well, and quickly saute in a little olive oil and maybe some garlic. Spritz with some fresh lemon. Sprinkle with salt. Then savor the taste of green. They are kind of spinachy-artichoky-asparagusy. Mostly, they are delicious.
March 23, 2013 Crocus
In my hurry to get out the door this morning, I almost missed them. The first crocus are popping their heads through the inch or so of snow still left on the ground from last week’s snowfall. Purple and yellow and white. The small fragile blossoms somehow manage to work their way through the cold stuff to give us the first hint that spring is really on the way. I’m sure there is a metaphor in there but it’s enough to smile back at them and think, “Yeah. It’s time.”
March 17, 2013 Everyone is Irish
I just made a cake with green frosting and shamrocks on it. Why? It’s a stretch to find some Irish heritage in this family. But Irish or not, we’ll have green cake for dinner because in my part of the country everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. There are parades – lots of parades. Folks are wearing the only green item of clothing in their closets. We all eat corned beef and cabbage. Those who drink, drink green beer. Sure. Partly it’s a day for those who are Irish to celebrate it. But for the rest of us, it’s an excuse for a celebration in this cold, strange month of March. There’s nothing like a bit of Irish jigging to Irish music to warm you up and lighten your spirits.
February 7, 2013 Snow Panic
It’s the day before the storm. A Nor-easter is predicted to bring a foot or more of snow to our part of Massachusetts. Go to any hardware, grocery, or big box store and you’ll find long, long lines. People are in “snow panic”, laying in extra milk and bread, flashlight batteries, water, and candles. Some are optimistic. They’re buying DVDs of movies or TV series they haven’t seen, counting on the power to stay on long enough to do a marathon watch of Downton Abbey or all of the Harry Potter films. Others stock up on sand and salt and throw in a new snow shovel to deal with driveways adrift.
Yes, there have been some week-long stretches of no power and no access to the store. But most of the time, even when nature has dumped a foot or two, it’s been possible to get back to normal in a day or two. So why the panic?
I think it’s human nature to have to “do something” when feeling threatened. Even if we already have 2 snow shovels and a week’s worth of canned goods in the pantry, it just doesn’t feel right to hang around waiting to be snowed in.
So, I admit it. I went out and bought some really good tea and a new book. I did “something” and now I feel ready – and hopeful – that work and school will be called off and we’ll get to stay home for a day or two.
After the obligatory shoveling and salting and sanding, we’ll get to play in the snow and come in for cocoa. We’ll get to read and talk and maybe eat by candle-light. As long as there is no emergency like a tree limb hitting the garage or pipes freezing, we can enjoy the pleasures of an unexpected holiday.
January 15, 2013. January Thaw
It’s been over 40 degrees most of the past week. That followed freezing temperatures, snow and ice. We know we’re probably in for more of the same over the next three months. But, for now, we’re enjoying the respite from heavey jackets, gloves,, and hats; from chipping ice on the sidewalks and hauling in wood for the stove. The thaw is a welcome rest in mid-winter. Like catching our breath during a run, a momentary stop lets us appreciate our surroundings and get ready for another difficult stretch.
January 1, 2013
2013! How did that happen? I find I’m never really prepared for the passage of time.
December 18, 2012: Making Christmas
I love the sound of that. Making Christmas. Because surely Christmas is something each of us makes according to the images in our own heads. For me, it is repeating treasured traditions. At least one adult child still wants to be in on picking out a tree with her dad. They haul home the tallest one that will fit in our living room, over my protests that we don’t need the tree that ate Massachusetts; something smaller will certainly do. Not. That good-natured argument has become part of the tradition, as surely as my husband cussing as he strings the lights and me putting on the ornaments that each child has been given on each year of their lives. I still make cookies, buy and wrap presents, fill stockings and prepare pretty much the same meals as always for whoever comes for Christmas week dinners. I don’t have to do any of these things. I do them because they mark the rhythm of the year and affirm our sense of family and home.
December 1, 2012 Christmas Cookies
My German grandmother was famous for it. Thanksgiving dinner was barely over when she began making the cookies: Lebkuchen, sugar cookies, gingerbread men, chocolate and vanilla pinwheels, spritz, and peffernuss; shortbread, ginger stars and filled surprises. By the time Christmas week arrived, she’d have at least a dozen kinds. When company came, she’d arrange a selection on a huge tray, bedecked with some small evergreen branches and colorful hard candies. What a treat! So, of course, my mother repeated the whole extravaganza, baking a dozen different kinds each year that were kept carefully in tins until company arrived. Then out would come a big platter or tray of cookies. Fast forward another few decades and it’s my turn. I gave up making over a dozen kinds years ago. Being a working mom does impose some limitations. But I just don’t feel right at this time of year if I con’t fill the house with the warm smells of baking cookies for at least a few evenings. With apologies to Grandma, I only make 6 or 7 kinds and fill in with some store bought confections. But I take a sweet pleasure in inviting company over and presenting a tray of cookies, adorned with evergreen.
November 22, 2012: Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving: It’s the only national feast day in America and we honor it the way we should – by giving thanks and feasting together. At my house, there turkey-lovers, vegetarians, vegans, and gluten-free folks to accommodate. So, like other families that are large and complicated, the pot luck buffet looks quite unconventional: Spanokopita, delacotta squashes stuffed with fruited rice, baked tofu, and kale alongside the turkey and corn bread stuffing and mashed potatoes and butternut squash and … Everyone eats and talks and eats some more. Everyone sighs with contentment. We linger at the table for good conversation and rally in time to watch football on TV. Our team won. We had more pie. Everyone went home stuffed and happy. What a good day!
November 4, 2012: School Bus Stop and Friendship Start
Every weekday morning as I drive around a nearby corner, I see a cluster of moms waits for the kindergarten bus with their children. Some are clutching coffee cups. One always has a toddler on her hip. The children all have coats on and backpacks on their backs. One clutches a lunchbox. In the morning rush, it seems that the moms prioritize getting that cup of coffee over grabbing a jacket. So they stand there, shivering, sipping coffee, admonishing kids and getting to know one another.
October 1, 2012: Peak Weekend
In the Northeast of the US, the trees put on an annual show. The forty shades of green of summthe freshness of autumn air. I arrive at my destination refreshed and delighted by the sights and sensations of New England fall.er turn to vivid oranges and reds and yellows. A drive through the countryside is a treat marred only by the dozens of cars that are also driving through the countryside. It’s early October. If there is this much traffic, it must be peak weekend, the weekend when the leaves are at their most spectacular and no one wants to miss the show. The leaf-peepers are out in force. Locals know to save their own viewing for weekdays. Taking a longer route to and from work is a chance to take it all in at our own pace. I roll down my car windows to feel the slight chill and breathe in
August 2012: Home Improvements
I think home improvement projects are like childbirth. If we remembered how uncomfortable they are to go through, we’d never do another one. Hypnotized by the lovely results, the memory of the experience gets dulled and we’re set up to do it again.
The last 6 weeks have been an unpleasant reminder that construction projects never go smoothly in a hundred year old house. They take at least 3 times the original budget and 4 times the estimated timeline to complete. With the primary bathroom the object of our efforts, we’ve also had to deal with major inconvenience. And yet — It’s almost done. The new floor doesn’t sag. The new fixtures work better. It really is pretty. Sigh. I can already tell that the memory of tripping over tradesmen and dealing with a bathroom out of commission will fade over time. But not quite yet. . .
July 4, 2012: Independence Day
Don’t you just love the 4th of July? A day off that often happens in the middle of the week feels like playing hooky. It’s one of my favorite holidays. No need to visit the malls. No presents to buy, wrap and deliver. No decorations to put up – and take down. Just ask everyone in the family to bring something for a potluck bar-b-que and you’re good to go. My family and friends just spent a lazy afternoon chatting on the bank of a lovely local lake, with an occasional wave to folks in a kayak or canoe that drifted by. Life is sometimes very sweet.
June 15, 2012 Strawberries
Strawberries come right on the heels of the asparagus. All over the valley, churches are sponsoring their annual asparagus and strawberry suppers. Whatever meat is served takes a big back seat to steamed Hadley grass with lemon and strawberry shortcakes built on homemade biscuits and topped with a mountain of whipped cream. Have you noticed? People are quite partisan about their shortcake. In this area, they are made with a buttery biscuit dough, dropped by the spoonful on cookie sheets to bake into small hills of deliciousness that soak up the berry juices. Transplants from elsewhere prefer angel food cake or little sponge cake cups or lady fingers — something the locals can’t at all understand. Might as well eat air. But whatever the base, the stars of the desert are the red, red berries, swimming in juice, sweetened with just a wee bit of sugar. Yum. Let’s have another. . .
May 18, 2012: Asparagus!
I live in the asparagus capital of the world. Really. Back in the summer of 1974 I was in Paris, looking for a place to have lunch. On a charming side street, I spotted a little cafe. Imagine my surprise to see a banner strung across the window that read “Imported from Hadley, Massachusetts. Fresh Asparagus!” Of course I went in for a taste of home and to see what the French might do with our humble Hadley grass. Hmm. What came to my table was a plate of perfection: steamed asparagus with a rich and creamy hollandaise sauce.
Those of us who love this green gift from the gods eat it steamed, grilled and roasted; plain, with sauces, on top of pizza, in our eggs and under cheese. For some of us, a plateful with just a little butter and lemon is a piece of heaven.
The season is as fleeting as spring, short and delicious.
April 30, 2012 Spring Gardening
I am again reminded that as much as we’d like to think we’re originals, family trends and history will out. Growing up, my family always had a big garden. In his youth, my grandfather was a dairy farmer. He may have left the farm, but he didn’t leave the soil. He raised his son and his grandkids to value growing our own food. I bless him and curse him for it.
Once the ground thaws, I feel absolutely compelled to get out there and get my hands in the dirt – no matter how busy I am, no matter what other responsibilities have some priority. I love the feel of the warm earth in my hands. I love clearing away the debris of winter and weeding out the new sprung weeds. I love the sun on my back and the breeze in my hair.
I don’t love my creaking knees. I don’t love dealing with compost or fertilizer. I have to rein myself in from my urge to put in a vegetable garden when the truth is that I don’t have the time to tend it. “Sorry, Grampa,” I whisper. “I just can’t till that sunny corner of my yard now only to feel guilty about neglecting it all summer.”
My compromise? I recognize my heritage and honor my grandparents by planting some flowers and remembering to water them occasionally. Mostly I go off to the farmers’ market every week and load my basket with fresh veggies. When I rinse the dirt from the new radishes and lettuces, I let my memory drift back to those late spring and summer days when my grandmother and I took care of the produce that had come fresh from the garden. Somehow the resultant salad is all the sweeter.
April 1, 2012: Rabbits and Springtime
I’m hopeless as an artist. Only three year olds think I’m adept. That’s because I can draw a circle with a smiley face, a snowman with three circles and some dots in appropriate places for a face and buttons, and what passes for a rabbit because it has long ears. That’s it. I often signed off notes to my kids with the face; the snowman reserved for winter and the rabbit for spring. Just a little something to personalize the “don’t forget to . . .” notes tucked in a notebook or left on the kitchen table. Who knew that those scribbles might be important someday?
I was surprised and warmed by my daughter’s complaint on receiving her Easter package of goodies last year. “Where’s my rabbit?” she asked in a call home. In my haste to get the box into the mail, I hadn’t added my annual scribbled rabbit to the address. We both laughed that she felt it as “something” missing.
Of course the “something” wasn’t just my amateur effort at art. The little sketch I’ve always just dashed off as a fun way to welcome spring has come to mean so much more. The annual appearance of the rabbit is an affirmation of something about the rhythm of the year, our sense of family, and a personal message of love from me. Just goes to show again that as parents, we don’t always know which of the things we do take on significance. I certainly won’t forget to add the rabbit to the package this year.
March 25, 2012 Celebrating Early Spring
Springtime has come early to Massachusetts this year. March is usually still a time of snowstorms and shoveling. This year, daffodils are in bloom and robins are frequent visitors to my front lawn. Every day, we pinch ourselves. Is this for real? 80 degrees in March? “In like a lion. Out like a lamb?” This year the lion is a pussycat. Freed of boots and into sandals, even our feet are celebrating. It’s a lesson in just how delicious the unexpected can be when the unexpected is sweet and warm and smells of spring.
March 5, 2012 Children’s Birthdays are Ours too.
Today is my younger son’s birthday! Oh, we’ll cook one of his favorite meals and call in the whole gang. We’ll have the usual cake and ice cream and presents. But I wonder if he (or any kids, for that matter) understands that his birthday is our birthday too. It’s the birth of us as the parents of him. It’s the birth of a new and larger family.
Ask any mom or dad: We remember vividly when labor started; the trip to the hospital or the arrival of the midwife; how labor went and, finally, what it was like when this new little red-faced, squirming, sometimes hollering little person was placed in our arms. However long ago it was, a few moments to remember and it feels like yesterday. He or she had arrived! And we were changed utterly.
So, my son: Happy Birthday to you! It’s been quite a journey. It’s been a gift to see you grow and change and become who you are. It’s also been a gift to grow and change and become who I am because of you.
February 12, 2012 Valentines Day
Valentine’s Day gives us a reason to celebrate the love in our families.. Make or buy cards for everyone. Put a red tablecloth on the table. Serve heart shaped pancakes at breakfast. Slip little notes into lunch boxes. Present a heart shaped cake at dinner. Holidays give us an excuse to do it up in a big way. Show the people you love that you love them on Tuesday. Then make sure to show them every day of the year. That’s what’s meant by “tending the family heart.”
January 23, 2012 New Semester, New Students
I wonder if the students in front of me experience it the same way. I walk into my classroom at UMass Amherst on the first day of the new semester and wonder who these people are and where they put the students I know. “Oh yeah”, I remind myself. “It’s a new group.” The next few weeks are about learning names, figuring out who is going to shine, who is going to need help; who is a willing volunteer and who tries to hide in the back of the room. Didn’t I just do this a little while ago? Yeah. But that was in the fall. In spite of the 20 degree weather, this is called the spring semester – a term that promises warmer days ahead. Ok. Ok. We’ll manage. We always do. By week 3, this group will be comfortable with me and each other and we’ll all be engaged with the material. 12 weeks will fly by. The seniors will graduate. Everyone will scatter to their home towns and states. Come September, I’ll get to do it all over again.
January 13, 2012 The Snowless Winter
You’d think I’d be happy there hasn’t been snow yet this winter. I’m not. Oh, it’s good to not have to shovel the stuff. it’s nice to still go out unencumbered by boots and mittens and scarves. But it generally is leaving me out of sorts. In western Massachusetts, snow is part of the rhythm of the year. I miss waking to mornings when the world has been magically transformed by an overnight snowfall. I find myself longing for the sounds of kids delightedly sliding down hills and skating across our little lake. I miss the random days off when my whole world gets to play hooky at the same time. Snow days: Days to play board games with the kids, to read, to trudge out to make snowmen and angels, then hang out by the woodstove, drinking hot chocolate. Having found ways to love winter, I now feel like a kid who’s been deprived of a favorite toy.
January 2, 2012 Erasing Christmas
( for more pictures of the sad fate of Christmas trees after the holiday, check out this link. http://www.buzzfeed.com/mikehayes/heartbreaking-photos-of-christmas-trees-discarded )
I always find the clean up at the end of the Christmas season kind of sad. Taking down the Christmas tree is never as much fun as putting it up. Ditto for taking down the outside lights, boxing up decorations, and carting those boxes to the attic. There are no jolly songs to accompany the tasks. There are no more holiday events to look forward to. Still — I try to focus on the positives. We did have a wonderful time for the last few weeks. The living room looks suddenly bigger without a tree taking up major space. I’ll probably get more rest. But however much I look for a silver lining, I still find the return to plain old normal a let-down. Sigh. Good thing Valentine’s Day is just around the corner!
December 10, 2011 Christmas Carol Books
Here we go a-wasailing. . . While going through an old trunk the other day, I found a stack of little Christmas Carol booklets. Those of us of a certain age will remember them. Put out each year by the John Hancock Insurance Company, I think they were meant to be the company’s Christmas cards. My little collection comes from a few different years so I’ve got covers that feature a sketch of a nativity scene, some choir boys, and a church at nightfall. Finding them evoked memories of a time when a group of us, young and old, would get together and go house to house in the neighborhood, singing those traditional Christmas songs. Most of us knew the first verses so could sing them with gustuo. We’d stumble through the rest of the verses, clumsily shuffling those little books and flashlights with mittened hands. Every now and then, we’d be invited into someone’s home for hot chocolate and Christmas cookies. It was another time. I can’t help feeling a little sad that it’s unlikely that I’ll ever hear a happy group coming up my driveway singing Deck the Halls. But if such a little Christmas miracle were to happen, hot chocolate will be served.
December 6, 2011: Geese
While, walking across campus this morning, I was stopped in my tracks by a fly over of geese. With a rush of wings and a cacophony of sound, they were still in lift off from the campus pond. Whoosh! I momentarily felt swept up in the flock. Then they were in formation, a chevron in the sky headed south.
November 26, 2011 Hmmm. Pie
We’re a famly that generally doesn’t have deserts but Thanksgiving is the big exception. For that feast day of all feast days, we make at least 6 kinds of pie: Apple, Pumpkin, Mincemeat, Cherry, Chocolate Cream, and something new (this year, Peanut Butter thanks to one of the guests). Now, there’s no way we’re going to eat all those pies, having just had a big meal of turkey and fixings. We enjoy slivers of this and that but, oh man, there is so much pie! Yay! That’s the point. All dietary rules are off for the next few days. It’s a tradition in this family to keep inviting people over to share the leftover turkey and pies. We have pie for breakfast with our morning coffee, pie for lunch with our turkey sandwiches, pie for dinner with turkey soup, and pie whenever we feel like having pie. By stretching out the holiday food, we stretch out the holiday with family and friends. Good talk, good fellowship, and good pie is a wonderful combination.
November 24, 2011 HAPPY THANKSGIVING.
24 lb turkey. Check. 15 lbs of potatoes. Check. 3 mashed butternut squash. Check. Eggplant lasagna for the vegetarians. Check. Baked tofu and gluten-free gravy for the gluten free-folks and vegans. Check. Apple and mince pies for the traditonalists. Check. Pumpkin mousse for those gluten-free folks check. The menu at my house has gotten complicated but the simple joy of lots of good people (family, old friends and new) around the table sharing a meal, conversation, and laughter hasn’t. We are truly grateful for the food, the fellowship, and for the serendipity that brought us all together to make our unique kind of family.
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November 11, 2011: Casseroles, Cookies and Care
It’s one of the “rules” I grew up with. If someone brings you a casserole or pie or cookies to comfort you when you’re sick or to celebrate an event, you never, ever, return an empty dish or pie plate or platter. You fill it with something delectable as a thank you. So I do it. I do it faithfully. And what I’ve learned is that it’s about more than cookies. My grandmother’s generation had it right. The exchange of casseroles and plates keep people connected in a special way.
We’re all so busy, busy, busy that we can forget to be grateful. Weeks can go by before we find time for tea and conversation with a friend. But bring by a plate of cookies and time slows down. There’s time for tea. There’s time for talk. Even if it’s only a 10 minute visit, a visit and a real thank you has happened.
I imagine a great stream of cookie -filled plates going from house to house to house in my grandmother’s time; some to cheer the sick, others to celebrate the new baby or a birthday, some to return the plate of a sender. What it meant is that people stopped by and both gave and got some warmth and caring.
November 4, 2011: After the Storm
A record breaking storm in our part of the world last weekend caused extensive tree damage and power outages. For us, that meant no heat, no electricity, no cable, and no Internet for 5 days. It was a window into what 18th century living was like. Bundled up and huddled around our woodstove, we managed to keep warm. Candles lit our way at night and the outdoor grill got heavy use for cooking and heating water. Life slowed way down. With no computers or TV to go to and the only heat in our dining rooom, we sat around the table and talked, played Bananas (a fabulous word game), and lingered. When the whole community seems to agree that the usual pace and demands of modern life are suspended, we all have permission to shift to a different reality. Yes, it was hard. No, I don’t want to live without the convenience of light at a flick of a switch or heat from a furnace or hot water from the tap. But the extended time with young adult children, friends, and neighbors as we shared the warmth of the fire and pooled our food more than balanced out the loss of conveniences for awhile. I hope we can hold onto the reminder that time and talk are also what warm and light our families.
October 25, 2011: Autoharps
I stumbled into autoharp ownership Saturday. Not one but two were listed in the classifieds of our local paper and at a bargain price. I’ve always wanted to own one so I made the call and agreed to go take a look. It was a great day to go on a treasure hunt, sunny and warm and at the peak of leaf peeping season. Driving down long country roads was just the kind of day off I needed. When I arrived at the house, I was greeted by a woman my own age, another aging folky who had grown up as I had listening to Jean Redpath and Woody Guthrie and playing old time music. The autoharps are beautiful; rich honey colored wood, each intact and waiting. She was ready to let go of that part of her young adulthood that made music, but I’m ready to reclaim mine. More than money and harps changed hands: She got to pass the harps to someone who treasures them. I got to add a wonderful new musical distraction to my life. Perfect.
October 23, 2011: Autumn Sounds
Go outside. Close your eyes and just listen. In the north, a seasonal symphony is there for your listening pleasure. Wind blows through the trees, knocking and rustling branches. The swish, swish, swish of lawn rakes adds a gentle rhythm. Children’s laughter and shouts are a joyful melody while feet shuffle and crunch, shuffle and crunch through the dry leaves and twigs. Hammer blows of a sledge splitting logs and the thunk, thunk, thunk of a neighbor stacking wood are our percussion section. And the wind softly whistles it own sad song.
October 16, 2011: Apples!
It’s the season of apple picking in New England. With orchards sprinkled throughout our valley, there are plenty of opportunities to pick our own. It’s a celebration of fall to tromp through the orchard to a tree so heavily laden with apples that most are within easy reach. Best of all, we have varieties to choose from that rarely make it to chain supermarket shelves: Gravensteins. Paula Reds, Galas, Macouns, and Baldwins. Cortlands, Jonathans, Winesaps, and Romes. The names are as interesting and individual as the apples themselves. Each has a distinct flavor and a particular use. Around here we know that the best pies are made from at least two and maybe three varieties. My personal favorite is a mix of Cortland and Baldwin slices sugared, spiced and generously mounded before putting on the top crust. Make a few slits in the top to let out the steam, pop it in the oven, and within an hour the whole house smells like some version of heaven.
October 7, 2011: Our Daughter’s Wedding
“And the seasons they go round and round, And the painted ponies go up and down. We’re captives on the carousel of time.” — Joni Mitchell
The marriage of our youngest a few weeks ago was truly magical. The weather held for the outdoor wedding. The ceremony itself was both solemn and fun. Family and friends laughed and cried and celebrated as siblings quite literally launched the young couple into their new life together. For her dad and I, the day evoked both memories of our own past and hope for the future.
September 10, 2011: My Grandmother’s Hands
I loved my grandmother’s hands. I remember tracing the age spots. “Angels’ kisses”, she called them. Her hands were bent and strong from a life of hard work but were soft, so soft, to the touch. Even when very old, she had skin like silk. I remember those hands stirring pots, rolling out dough, and shining the counters. I remember them traversing piano keys, wielding knitting needles, turning pages, and arranging flowers. Most of all, I remember moments when she’d simply take my hand in hers as a gesture of comfort and care.
I’ve been surprised and pleased lately to see that my own hands are becoming like hers: Kissed by angels, bent and strong from living life, yet somehow still soft. Aging is so much sweeter when it is tied to memories of love.
September 1 , 2o11: Wedding Dress — Ahhh
My youngest daughter is getting married in a month. Organized and confident as she is (she’s an events planner, after all), she hasn’t acted much like a sentimental or anxious bride. The wedding has seemed in many ways like just another party. You line up the place, the decorations and the food, invite the people, buy the clothes, plan some entertainment and you’re good to go.
Every now and then we parents get to have one of those moments. The brain takes a snapshot, both visual and emotional, that a camera can’t possibly replicate and that lasts forever. While fitting her gown last week, the seamstress placed a veil on my daughter’s head. When I looked at her, I was surprised to see my self-assured, matter-of-fact girl with tears in her eyes. I teared up (of course). The seamstress teared up. We all looked in the mirror at the transformation from girl in pretty white dress to bride. “All of a sudden, I really feel bridal”, my daughter said softly. Sentimental sighs all around.
I’m so pleased. I got my mother-of-the-bride-moment. The internal camera got a great shot.
August 26, 2011: Tomatoes
August means tomatoes. It also means doing really hot work during really hot weeks of the year. Canning tomatoes is not for sissies. The rest of the family gets suddenly very busy when they see the bushels of ripe red tomatoes sitting next to the back door. They know that anyone within range will be enlisted. Just like in the children’s story of the little red hen , no one wants to help but, I assure you, everyone wants to eat the wonderful bar-b-que sauce next week and the spaghetti sauces that will be on the table in January. So they find creative ways to opt out. Suddenly people even want to clean out the barn or do yardwork. Fine with me. I get a clean barn, a spruced up yard, and canned tomatoes. My little secret is I thoroughly enjoy the task of making ketchup and sauce. The family may evacuate the house when it’s full of vinegar vapors but I love the smells, the stirring, the filling and processing of jars. After some 50 years doing it (helping as a child, doing now), the rhythm of the work is a kind of meditation. The result? Beautiful jars full of ruby red goodness and a very pleased me.
August 2, 2011: Screen Doors
It’s probably an old joke, but when I was a kid, I really did think they were called “scream doors”. My mother was always screaming, “Don’t slam the door!” — usually after the door had slammed for the five hundredth time that afternoon.
Unlike my mother, I have a fondness for those old wooden screen doors. The sound of them slamming was the sound of my kids going in and out during a summer day, doing the many things that kids do. In for a popsicle. Out for a romp under the sprinkler. In for a towel. Out to the treehouse. In with a complaint. Out with a retort. In chasing a sib. Out being chased. Slam. Bang. Slam. Slam.
For over 30 years those doors have gone up in the spring and down in the fall. Now they’ve fallen apart. Today we replaced them with very nice, insulated, storm doors; the kind you don’t have to take down for winter and never have to paint. They’re attractive. They’re practical. But they don’t slam. I’m really going to miss that sound of summer.
July 29, 2011: Apologies Do Matter
While working on my house the other day, a young worker dropped a hammer on my antique desk, leaving a major gash in the top. Very few things in my house matter that much to me but the desk does. The kid was terrified. He blurted out “sorrys”, and went out to talk to his boss. The boss came in to also express regrets. Although doing my best to hold it together and be gracious, I was teary. So I said the usual things and mostly meant them: Accidents happen. It’s part of the history of objects to be beat up on by life. It could have been worse. No person was hurt. It’s only a thing. Right? Right. But it is still my desk we’re talking about here!
An hour or so later, the young guy comes back in to see me. This time he’s not panicked. This time he has something he really wants to say. I don’t remember his words. What I remember is his heartfelt intention to own his mistake and to express how bad he felt about it. At that moment it wasn’t about words. It was a meeting of feelings, his and mine. It mattered. The desk still is wounded but my heart? Not so much.
July 23, 2011: Coddled Eggs
Finding the jars for coddled eggs in my attic the other day evokes memories of a time when breakfast was an event, not a pop tart or cold cereal and certainly not on the run. Back in the 50s, when I’d visit my grandparents in the summer, I’d wake up to the smell of coffee and bacon. Up since who knows when, my grandmother always set a table for breakfast. Often she’d make coddled eggs.
For those who’ve never had the pleasure: Coddling means breaking eggs into buttered jars, screwing the tops on tight, and submerging them in simmering water until just the right moment. Too long in the water and you’ve got rubber. Too short and you’ve got runny egg whites. Just right and you’ve got a little bit of heaven. It’s an art form my grandmother had down. I remember dreamily studying the scenes of birds and branches that are on the jars as I spooned out the buttery eggy treat.
It’s not that we had any more time in those days. My granddad had to get to work. I had to get off to wherever I had to get off to. But my grandparents felt strongly that getting up early enough to really enjoy breakfast, to read the paper, and have some conversation was worth it.
As a mom, I managed to make sure people had breakfast but there was nothing calm about it. Special breakfasts were reserved for weekends. But maybe as a grandmom I’ll be able to pass on the quieter pleasure of something as lovingly time consuming as coddled eggs. I think I’ll give those jars a try this weekend.
7/23/11: Farmers’ Market
The Farmers’ Market isn’t just about food. It’s a capital “E” Experience. Really. Going from booth to booth slows me down. I think about what tastes the family might like to have that evening. I dare to experiment with other-worldly veggies. I chat with farmers about what on earth one does with that strange looking tomato. An hour buzzing through the local supermaret gets food into the house. But 15 minutes strolling through the market renews me and adds those little extras to the usual family meals that spark culinary adventures and conversation.
July 21, 2011: Green Rain
Some memories are forever attached to the sense of smell. This one is about a special childhood retreat: When I was a little girl, we lived near some woods. Not too deep in was a circle of giant ferns. I liked to think fairies gathered there. On hot days, I’d lie on the cool ground among the ferns, completely hidden from view, breathing in the fresh sweet smell of the leaves I was crushing under me. Being young, I was unaware of the damage I was doing. Iwas just enjoying lying quietly in the coolness, surrounded by green and smelling what I can only call green rain.
I now have a few of those same ferns in my garden; far too few and too precious to lie among with some idea of reliving the experience. But while watering them last evening, that same sweet scent rose from the damp ground. Green rain. Suddenly I was 8 years old again, feeling safe and calm and touched by fairies.
July 19, 2011: Fennel
I admit it. The fennel seeds on my spice rack came with the rack – 43 years ago. I didn’t have a clue what fennel was. Haven’t been curious enough to find out. Didn’t have any idea what it is used for. Until now. New cookbook: The Essential N.Y. Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century is riveting reading. Author Amanda Hesser took on the formidable task of identifying – and testing – recipes featured in the Times from the late 1800’s to the present. It’s fun to read what was “in” eating year to year. Once I hit the 50s, things began to look familiar as I found recipes my mother cooked and I haven’t seen since. From there it was a trip from one food fad to another that I’ve watched be the “latest thing” served at friends’ homes and that I’ve made in my own kitchen. So – Ms. Messer: In appreciation for that trip down culinary lane, I thought it was the least I could do to try something unfamiliar. Fennel had never been stewed in my cooking pots so – why not? I went out and bought a couple of those strange bulbs, cooked them with those old fennel seeds, and served them with a flourish. It was a grand departure from the familiar and it was delicious.
july 12, 2011: Blueberries
Blueberry jam. Blueberry pie. Blueberry muffins. Blueberries in my part of the world are the taste of July. I stained my favorite wooden spoon permanently purple making jam this weekend. In February, it will be a reminder of summer. 18 jars of purple goodness sit on my kitchen counter waiting for the trip down to the basement jelly cupboard. I think I’ll just let them sit for a few days and enjoy the simple art of the purple jars on the white counter top and the promise of winter breakfasts of toast and jam.
July 4, 2011: Fireworks
I’m all for fireworks. When I die, I want to go out with a multi-colored bang in the sky! Got that, kids? Forget about a funeral. Don’t wear any black. Just set off some rockets and remember how we ohhhed and ahhhhed together at every burst in the night sky. Those times when we were all crowded on our picnic blanket, looking skyward and sharing in the wonder are among my fondest memories of being a family. Every 4th for me is a happy combination of past memories and present joy.
June 24, 2011: It’s All In How You Look at It
A young friend of mine explained, “If you believe life is beautiful or if you believe life stinks, you’re right.” Some people just seem to know that truth naturally. It’s not what happens to us that matters so much as how we decide to look at it. Is a tragedy a devastating blow from which we’ll never recover or is it something to grieve and learn from? Is happiness fleeting or is the memory of happy times what keeps us afloat during more challenging ones? It’s up to us.
June 26, 2011: Another Perspective
I was talking with a man who is in his seventies the other day. He still works part time as the estimator for a local landscaping company. I needed their services to undo what happened to the yard when a new sewer line was put in. (Don’t ask.) It was a pleasure to chat with him. He knows his stuff, had some good suggestions, and was sympathetic about the unexpected and unwelcome expense of it all. As he was leaving, I said, “Have a nice day.” He stopped, turned and looked at me with a smile. “No,” he said. “Say – ‘Make it a good day. That’s what I’ve learned about life. A big part of how your day goes is how you make it.'”
June 21, 2011
Local strawberries are in. Brief, wonderful harvest of ruby red fruit that sings, “June. June. June.” They are the reason for the month: Strawberry shortcake. Strawberry-rubarb pie. Strawberries on cereal for breakfast. Strawberries and cream for dessert at dinner. Feast for a few weeks and then they’re gone for a whole long year. Spent the morning making jam, preserving June in a jar.
June 20, 2011: Catching Up
Sign observed in Boston subway station: Father and son sitting ona riverbank with the words, “Catching up doesn’t always mean working late.” I couldn’t say it better. Summer time offers longer days and less stressful evenings. No homework. Fewer kid activities. Hopefully, less work brought home by parents. It’s just plain true that the kids grow up fast. It’s up to us to find ways to sit on riverbanks or stoops or in backyards or just around a table and connect with them to make memories.