23 December, 2008

sigh of relief

As promised, just to get right away - from the pressures to achieve something, be on time, say the right thing, remember people's names, the whole list - is a tonic. Our flight was late leaving, long flying, late arriving, the drive up to Red Gate Farm impossibly long. But all it takes is to leave the main road, to turn up onto Jeremy Swamp Road, to remember the thousands of times ("How many times have we made this turning?" John asks as always after a long absence) we've... left the main road, as it were, to arrive here, to peace.

We found homemade chili in the fridge from Judy, a roasted chicken, eggs, bread, juice, butter from Anne and David (who also made the beds), the heat and lights turned on by Farmer Rollie, the walks shoveled, perfection at midnight.

It isn't as if bad things haven't followed us to Red Gate Farm. The place has seen jobs won, jobs lost, illness, worry, fear and recovery. But the prevailing sense, in the small panelled entrance way, smelling of woodfires, wool and leather, is one of acceptance. All can happen here, and most has. The place has stood for nearly 200 years. The peace is in part the tiny scale of the house itself, set inside the hilly, ranging landscape of its setting. As the great cookery writer Peg Bracken always said, "Just give me a window over the sink," and mine looks out over the expanse of my back lawn, littered in summer with trampoline, sliding slippy thing, birdbath filled with goldfinches... and today overlaid with a quietening blanket of snow, punctuated by red barns and permeated with the gurgling of an overfilled brook running into the pond.

But then you enter the house, whether through the lovely front entry into the warmth of the Christmas tree, or more likely, through the messy kitchen door into the smell of chicken stock on the stove, the sound of kids singing, people wrapping presents, somebody shouting, "Get me a Phillips screwdriver, quick!" and "The Holly and the Ivy" playing in the background. It's always full of boots people have shoved off their feet in a misguided hope to keep the wide floorboards clean, shopping bags full of ingredients for some dish I've decided I can't wait to make: pesto, meatloaf, potatoes dauphinoise. And then someone knocking at the back door: Anne and David with baby Kate, here for the first dinner of the holiday, Rollie in his winter worksuit and hat, asking, smiling, "Was the Christmas tree what you wanted, then, Kristen?" a bone-crushing hug, his only expression of his feeling for me. Then the UPS guy, "You're back, I see," and then Jill poking her bright face in this morning, "Just making sure you're here before I bring in Molly," and my magical, gorgeous, sprite of a newborn niece... and her big sister Jane, giving me a hug with arms AND legs tucked tight around me.

Bliss. Candles lit in the windows, the silver bells John's mom gives us every year with a legend from the past twelve months engraved on them, the stockings hung by the fire, ribbons strung along the dining table, an enormous pot of pork ribs simmered in garlic tomato sauce ALL afternoon. An entire luxurious afternoon with my sister to chat, get to know her baby ("she's really just a baby," we say, unconvincingly to each other), admire Jane's growing personality of staggering humor and memory for all our conversations and fun of the past, thankfully handing over the task of wrapping presents to my crafty, clever daughter who ENJOYS it, bless her heart! It must have skipped a generation, the love of wrapping, because I have clear Christmas memories of my own mother contentedly running through roll after roll of paper, tape, ribbon.

Today the snowstorm had stopped and the landscape was that impossibly perfect Version Number Two of what everyone back in England expects we have when we're here: in summer, it's the green, green grass, the blue sky, rushing brook, waving tiger lilies. Today it was blue sky, yes, but also the red of the barn against the blinding white snowscape, the dead hydrangea blossoms waving in the wind, white picket fence with the red sign my dad made saying "Red Gate Farm" hanging close beside the (you guessed it) red gate. One moment when John said, "Would you have time to help me to get everything looking really nice for when my mom and dad get here?" And silence for that moment... He's on his way to get his mom at the airport right now, and while some of the memories will be sad, his dad will be here with us, and the blissful, grateful memories of years of fun will overcome the sad bits, I know. Nothing here has ever changed, even when everything does. This place remains to open its forgiving arms to us, "I know you've been away for months, but come on inside, it's all still here."

It's not all sweetness and light, of course. There are the many evidences of our furry friends, for example, taking refuge in the house while we're away, and hastily removed by Rollie before we arrive... when we used to come here every weekend, I left butter out on the counter so it would be nice and soft when we arrived. I will never forget the LAST weekend I did that: on the Friday night we staggered into the house with all our clobber to settle in and find... distinct rows of TEETHMARKS in the butter. So not inviting, so not yummy.

And today, would you believe: I made a gorgeous pot of red pepper soup with thyme and brandy, and poured it through the sieve into... a stockpot full of SOAPY WATER. Truly. Yep, homemade stock from the roasted chicken Anne left us, peppers laboriously picked up by me and John in TWO separate trips... and I poured it into Fairy liquid. But here's my family for you. I said, "That's the dumbest thing I have ever done," and what does my husband say? "I bet not," while my loving sister chimes in, "You mean today?" Well, we're none of us perfect, I say, while pouring cups and cups of lovely red ambrosia down the sink. Grr.

After a prolonged search through the house's many bookshelves, we finally found the scattered favorite Christmas picture books: A Pussycat's Christmas, A Child's Christmas in Wales, A Christmas Carol, The Birds' Christmas (a little-known lovely story by Kate Douglas Wiggin), and my personal can't-read-without-crying favorite choice"When It Snowed That Night", by Norma Farber, which I first read about in my favorite Christmas mystery, "The Body in the Bouillon," by Katherine Hall Page. It sums up my Christmas: mothers, presents, Kings, children, babies, and chicken soup, plus a fair number of miracles, actually.

The Queens came late, but the Queens were there
with gifts in their hands and crowns in their hair.
They'd come, these three, like the Kings, from far,
following, yes, that guiding star.
They'd left their ladles, linens, looms
their children playing in nursery rooms,
and told their sitters:
"Take charge! For this
is a marvelous sight we must not miss!"

The Queens came late, but not too late
to see the animals small and great,
feathered and furred, domestic and wild,
gathered to gaze at a mother and child.
And rather than frankincense and myrrh
and gold for the babe, they brought for her
who held him, a homespun gown of blue,
and chicken soup -with noodles, too-

and a lingering, lasting cradle-song,
The Queens came late and stayed not long,
for their thoughts already were straining far -
past manger and mother and guiding star
and child a-glow as a morning sun -
toward home and children and chores undone.


Foxi Rosie said...

Just beautiful... Like the opening scenes of a film with narration, a scene and page turner... You are truly talented and Avery is just divinely beautiful. Enjoy the warmth and love the season brings.

Kristen In London said...

oh Foxi, thank you, we are so happy to be here. Such a cast of characters, it's a joy to try to portray them. The soup... the soup was a tragedy!
loads of love... for the holiday and beyond.