30 August, 2008

our two worlds

Goodness, I really MUST got to sleep. But I'm thinking, late this Saturday night, of the darling dresses made by the fashion kit given to Avery by her doting grandmother, and how many hours of the Olympic coverage it took up for Avery, to design these beautiful and touching outfits! I will never forget those evenings with Nonna in the miniature rocking chair that normally lives under the eaves of my bedroom (no one seems able to remember where that chair ever came from!), all of us cheering on some athlete or other (generally with John it was a beach volleyball maiden, I'm sorry to say), while Avery concocted dress after pantsuit after skirt and jumpers. That child has the longest attention span of anyone I know. What pleasant evenings, and how I wish I'd brought these little outfits home.

We are all missing the simplicity of the Red Gate Farm World where we weren't thinking about the election (how we are now!), nor were we worrying about Avery's readiness for the backpack requirements for the first day of school. In that world, we were posing photographs with darling Farmer Rollie and wife Judy, Anne, David and Baby Katie, and dear baby Hastings, now living in his new family.

May I take just a moment to tell Shelley, my friend, how much it means to us that she has given our darling Hastings a loving family? Today we hear he has triumphed over his distemper shot, and Shelley is spoiling him suitably with "frequent little meals" in addition to his ever-available bowl of kitty chow. He has truly fallen into the pot of jam. Avery and I agreed tonight, who would have guessed all these weeks forward that a simple luncheon for a couple of girlfriends would result in a perfect home for our Little Mister, and a lifelong friendship for us as well? That's how life works.

However, there are charms to our London world as well! Among them chiefly is... the PIANO! When we bought it, all in a rush from Becky as she and her family decamped to Greenwich, I didn't give it much thought. Lord knows my family paid for enough piano lessons for me, and sat through enough recitals, that you'd think my skills would still be buried under there somewhere. And as Avery picked her way through a couple of pieces of sheet music we found among her dreaded violin homework (!), my ears pricked up, and so did my fingertips. I was good mother enough to apply tape to the keys between the Cs below and above middle C, and to offer some help with timing and sharps and flats. Avery was in complete heaven, transferring her intense attention from fashion design to "Flying Free," the incomparably tear-jerking song she and her Senior Choir compatriots sang to their retiring headmistress in July (I don't even remember their performance, so busy was I biting my tongue to keep from crying).

And then when she bored of it, I sat down to play, and would you believe it? As the hours and days go by, I get better and better! I can play "Danny Boy from her "Favourites from Ireland" book, and "True Love" from the "Easy Hits From 'High Society'" book we ordered from a music shop. And it's so thrilling to get a skill back. Funny to reach back into a part of my brain that hasn't functioned in 30 years! But I think it's all still there. To think my mother and I used to be able to compete on how fast we could play Chopin's Minute... Minute... heaven's to betsy, what was it called? You were meant to play it in a minute, and we could.

So our slow and lazy days recovering from jet lag, getting used to John's being away all day, facing the grey skies day after day, were punctuated yesterday by a welcome summons from... also a million years away! My dear friend Bea and her partner Edith, visiting from New York, where they live the true life of the bohemians, in a West Village loft filled with Edith's paintings and Bea's son's graphic design work. "He says he's middle-aged," Bea reports with relish, "and I keep asking if he's ever met anyone who's 108 years old." She and Edith and their host in Sussex invited us to meet them at the Tate Modern for the Cy Twombley show, and we were quick to head off on the tube and for a nice walk across the Millenium Bridge to be there.

Now... Cy Tombley. Cy Twombley and a nearly 12-year-old girl, admittedly well schooled from birth in contemporary art, surrounded all her life by abstract art, in fact, brought up after school for several years in her mother's art gallery where representation (let along figuration) was a subject only for debate, but not for purchase or homely familiarity. Cy Twombley is a challenge even for such a girl, even for an adult on some levels. Never having heard, I hope, the classic anti-modern-art phrase, "I could do that," or "my child could do that," her own completely spontaneous but really charming version was, "I think I really prefer art where it's harder for me to imagine making it myself, like Holbein." And of course on a certain level I feel her point. It's just gestural, just almost-handwriting, almost-text, and I did think, we both thought, that the pieces that depended more on color were the more successful. There was one room of all-green gestural works that completely evoked Monet and were in that way really wonderful and yet also... really dependent on Monet. Best to our minds was the room of three huge red spiral works, although neither of us could imagine the three living separately as they do, in all corners of the world, when they're not in the show.

It's frankly the sort of painting that for me requires some historical grounding: what was this fellow admiring? What was he rejecting? It's much more interesting to look at such supremely abstract art in the light of the fight between minimalists and abstract expressionists, than to stand alone there in the museum, trying to understand it on appearances alone. I know that's not always a defensible position for a true painting fanatic, but for a fairly historically based person, or indeed a person who might find herself resisting the interest of those paintings, putting them in their context can help. I don't know about Avery! She sailed along on her own, noticing that a bit had been erased and what would it have been like if the person erasing had just... kept going? Which led us to see layers where exactly that had been done. Good show.

Anyway, we were headed down to the cafe to meet Bea when I heard a voice ask, "Are you Kristen?" and I turned in total astonishment (who on earth!) to find a stranger looking at us in a friendly way. "And you must be Avery, I recognized you from the photograph your mother sent Bea. She's up in the postcard shop, didn't want you to wait, so come with me."

Such fun to catch up with old, old friends, who have known me since before there was an Avery! I met them all on a fantastically energetic Committee on Women in the Arts for the College Art Association, which I went on to chair years later... some of the happiest and most professional moments of my life! A lovely time to catch up, and let Avery have her say, watching her speak to them about art, London, her education. We talked about the show: how Twombley admired Jasper Johns, Donald Judd as well as the great AbEx fellows he was compared to... I had to sing my praises of Carl Andre, which led my intrepid feminist friends to object to his life story. Avery was puzzled. "Well, there was the small matter of his... pushing his artist wife to her death from an apartment window... was he ever prosecuted for that?" we wondered. We talked about Edith's upcoming 80th birthday show in New York, and whether or not I missed my gallery. Not until I talk to these people, not really, but then... I do.

Other than that, nothing of note has been happening. We are really trying to enjoy the near-boredom of the last days before schedules begin to crowd in, in the way they do in this London life. In fact, yesterday I spent some time filling in dates in my calendar from things that have been planned this summer, and I got a bit of nervous stomach to see how much of the next three months is already spoken for.

But I bet there's still time to learn the entirety of the key of F sharp...

28 August, 2008

end of the idyll

So hard to believe we're back in London... but it requires nothing more for verification than to look out the window and find GREY GREY GREY. Yep, we're back.

To think that a week ago we were hanging out with Rollie in the yard, pulling old green shutters out of the big barn, holding them up to the house, examining the hardware. "Could be you could use some of these without much repairs at all," Rollie opined, but we all agreed the paint needed to be darker, so it was off to the hardware store to choose. Actually I let John, his mom and Avery choose (Benjamin Moore's very first invented color, "Litchfield Green"!)while I acquired ingredients at the grocery next door (The Southbu Food Cent, Avery always points out, loving to see each summer which neon letters don't work). Ingredients for what, you ask? Merely for the Best Lunch of the Summer.

Of course in order to have the best lunch of the summer you need already to have had the best dinner of the summer, which involves ordering four lobsters from David Thomas Lobster in Islesford, Maine, and then sitting on your heels waiting for them to arrive. And arrive they do! Rollie was sitting on my new L.L. Bean whitewashed cedar Adirondack chair, keeping us up to date with the progress of haying on Platt's Farm, the price of a gravel-mover purchased from the Department of Sanitation versus the price from a defunct farm, when up pulled FedEx. Every summer the guy is bemused by the square box from Maine marked "PERISHABLE," and makes a big play of it bouncing around in his hands. "Hand it over!" I say, and he says, "Give me one of what's inside, then," and then tells me the latest about the guy up the road who gets ONE bottle of wine delivered, OVERNIGHT. "Don't want to think about what THAT bottle costs him, before he even gets to drink it, "the FedEx guy says, finally relinquishing my lobsters and chuckling, till it all happens again next summer.

John's mom smiled to see the box. "What's this, then, perishable?" and I had to grin to say, "Of course it's lobsters from Dave Thomas, you wouldn't think we'd forget a summer tradition?" It was hard to tear ourselves away for our tennis lesson, and I think Avery and I were worse than ever. "You need two-hour lessons, two times a week so you don't forget everything between one lesson and the next," Val instructed, and Avery looked quite faint. We sat down in the sun at the edge of the road to wait for our ride, and she said, "I think we should wait until we see how school goes, before I sign up for any more lessons..." John came to get us in Quincy, our intrepid green Land Rover, a year younger than I am and MUCH more reliable. How is it that our ten-year old VW can't keep its battery intact over the winter but the Land Rover starts right up every time?

Home for steamed lobsters with the best aioli (just enough garlic and plenty of lemon zest, my condiment of the summer), sauteed red peppers, baguette slices, bean salad. Avery happily eats rigatoni alla vodka sauce as this carnivorous feast takes place under her nose.

And the next day for lunch, because John's mom and I are appreciative if wimpy lobster eaters and leave plenty of leftovers:

Lobster Rolls with Aioli
(serves four)

1 lobster tail for each person, or what we had: three tails and one extra claw), steamed and chilled
1/2 cup good mayonnaise
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 clove garlic, minced with salt
four hot-dog rolls, top-split as they do in New England

Cut each lobster tail and/or claw into smallish bite-size pieces and place in a large bowl, then mix in all the other ingredients and let sit for a minute or two while you toast the hot-dog rolls. Note that these are not called "buns" as they were in my Midwestern childhood, nor are they side-split. They are top-split, which allows for much nicer presentation.

Open the toasted rolls as much as you dare, then pile on the lobster salad and enjoy!


Tomato-Mozzarella Towers with Pinenuts
(serves four)

1 perfectly ripe tomato per person
3 balls mozzarella, sliced thick to make 12 slices
1/2 cup pinenuts, toasted lightly in a skillet or oven till light brown
good drizzle olive oil, perhaps 1/3 cup
sprinkle balsamic vinegar
juice of 1/2 lemon
handful of fresh basil, sliced thin (chiffonade)
zest of whole lemon
salt and pepper

On a nice platter, start with a slice of tomato for each person, then build upwards: a slice of mozzarella, another slice of tomato, until you run out. Sprinkle with pinenuts, letting them tumble down onto the platter. Then you may either mix the dressing ingredients (olive oil, balsamic and lemon juice) or you can sprinkle them separately over the towers. Zest the lemon right over the towers, sprinkle with basil and season with salt and pepper. Divine.


This recipe was taken (OK, I adapted it a little: left out the red onion) from Lynne Rosetto Kasper's new cookbook, "How To Eat Supper," a present from John's mom which I now CHERISH. I cannot explain what makes this salad so much nicer than just tomato-mozzarella, which you all know I can eat several times a week. It's to do with the velvety crunch of the pinenuts, the refreshing tang of the lemon zest, and the fun of the towers. Try them! Two more great recipes from that cookbook to come, below...

We ended the Perfect Lunch with a quarter of a seedless watermelon, simply slicing it on the rind at the table and diving in. And plenty on the rind for Gary later on!

All too soon it was Thursday morning and time for Nonna to fly away: first we took a walk up to John's dad's bench, with Rollie's son Chris haying, sitting high in his John Deere tractor making enormous circles in the meadow. Guess where the expression "hay" fever comes from, duh! I had never before identified it quite so closely with the real thing! I compounded this experience with a visit to the horses, Molly and Cisco in the back meadow, where everyone but me fed them treats and petted them (I'm dumb, but not that dumb), and then we saw John's mom off, John chauffeuring her to the airport. Avery and I stood at the little red gate and waved at them, feeling bereft.

It was hard to separate the symptoms of missing John's mom from the symptoms of extreme allergic reaction, so I decided medication was the better part of valor and took a Benadryl and some other antihistamine and felt awful. Luckily, Konnie and Taylor came over to visit, and after playing with Hastings for a bit, they all took Avery to wash Pokey the Pony with them and do something complicated in the stables, so with little regret I watched them all walk up the dusty road, away. John turned in at the driveway and I fed us luscious crab rolls (just the same as lobster rolls only you need copious amounts of fresh-picked Maine crab sent to you along with the lobsters), and then Avery turned back up and she and John went to Quassy! I, on the other hand, collapsed for an allergy-induced nap... two hours of absolute bliss!

Avery and John returned in time to get cleaned up for Rollie and Judy's dinner visit, and would you believe when I looked back at my blog of last summer, I fed them EXACTLY the same things?? What are the odds? That's why real hostesses keep logs of these things, no? But the chicken recipe deserves to be mentioned one more time:

Lillian Hellman Chicken
(serves 8)

8 boneless chicken breasts
1 cup Hellman's mayonnaise (get it?)
1 cup grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
juice of 1 lemon
sprinkle garlic salt
fresh-ground pepper
1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs

First, make sure your assembly line works: you need a flat surface to trim the chicken, then to the right of that a bowl in which you've mixed the mayo, cheese, lemon juice, garlic salt and pepper. Then to the right of that bowl you need a shall bowl of the breadcrumbs, then you need a cookie sheet past that. Whew.

So smear the chicken breasts one at a time liberally with the mayo mixture (just dipping will not work, smear it with a spoon), then push them each firmly onto the breadcrumbs on both sides, then place on the cookie sheet with space between each. Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, until nicely browned. But not much longer (I did once and they were drier than I'd like).


With this we had scalloped corn (just cut raw off the cob, sprinkled with garlic and with some cream poured over and baked) and the inevitable tomato mozzarella salad, not even towers! But we enjoyed ourselves. Hastings discovered how much more fun it is to go out onto the terrace when it's nearly dark than when it's afternoon, and how ALL his people will follow him madly if he runs away! Both Rollie and Judy proved a dab hand at rescuing an escaped mad kitten.

We sat long into the evening over the cookies John's mom had left behind, and the two flavors of Rich's ice cream Judy brought. Anne and Katie popped in to carry away the remains of the scalloped corn to have with their own salmon, and got a handful of cookies too! We heard Dave's car pull into their driveway and it was so cozy to think of them all together across the road.

Well, sadly Friday morning was spent trying to clear up our messy house to show to our beloved friends Olimpia and Tony who were coming to lunch: we have been to their country hideaway in the Catskills several times for Olimpia's incomparable Italian feasts, but I had never cooked for her, nor had they seen Red Gate Farm, so... it was time to make nice neat piles of all the detritus of our busy summer: Avery's lanyards (both the raw materials and the dozens of key rings, bracelets, zipper pulls and such that resulted), beads and the resulting bead rings, piles of books opened to the pages where they were left, library books carefully separated, clean folded laundry with no drawer space to hold it! The swim bag filled with towels and suits, water bottles on the window sill, tennis rackets, badminton rackets, bird seed! Recipes cut from Real Simple, Hello! magazine, the local newspaper... Hastings' toys with strings, bells, feathers!

And then Olimpia and Tony arrived for lunch on possibly the most beautiful afternoon of the whole summer. I tried two new recipes (both from Lynne Rosetto Kasper's new cookbook, so you can see how much I love it), and they were very much appreciated. How happy it makes me to see people eat! John began at one point to take away a platter that looked empty and Olimpia slapped his hand, "What are you doing? No, no, that's not ready to be taken away!" and sopped up a little more balsamic dressing with a piece of baguette! Perfect. The two new and notable dishes of the day were:

Slow-Simmered Warm Canellini Salad with Rosemary
(serves four hungry people with other bits on offer as well)

1 tbsp butter
3 tbps olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
handful fresh rosemary, then chopped roughly
2 soup-cans canellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
4 tbsps grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper
1/2 bag baby greens (radicchio, arugula, baby spinach, etc)

The key to this dish is be GENTLE, and don't rush it. You can cook the garlic, rosemary and beans ahead of time (as in an hour or so), but the assembly must wait till right before serving so nothing gets mushy or disintegrates.

Heat the butter and oil and add the garlic and rosemary. On a VERY low heat just barely bubble them till the garlic is soft. Do NOT brown. Then add the beans and stir around, and let simmer super low as long as you want, within reason, as in about an hour TOPS.

Put the breadcrumbs in a skillet on LOW heat and toast them till they're dry. Again, be patient. Don't quit toasting them till they're dry. You want them to float on top of the salad, not absorb any oil. When they're toasted, take them off the heat and when they're room-temperature, scatter the cheese on top.

When you're ready to serve, turn the heat UP and add the greens and breadcrumbs and cheese, and salt and pepper. Toss with tongs until mixed well and serve immediately.


Scandinavian Flower-Egg Salad with Mustard and Dill
(serves four hungry people with other bits on offer as well)

2 tbsps mayonnaise
1 lb small red potatoes, steamed
8 eggs, hard-boiled
1 head Bibb (Boston, butter, depending on where you are) lettuce

Mustard-dill dressing:
1 part white wine vinegar
3 parts olive oil
3 parts heavy-grain mustard
2 tsps sugar
1 clove garlic, minced
salt and pepper

Shake up all ingredients in a tightly covered jar.

handful dill, chopped
1/2 red onion, diced small

On a large plate, smooth the mayonnaise in a thin layer. Slice the red potatoes thickly and arrange them in a layer on the mayonnaise. Cut the eggs in quarter wedges and arrange on the potatoes as flower petals. Chop the lettuce into slivers and scatter over eggs.

At serving time, drizzle prettily with dressing and then scatter with dill and red onion. Delicious, and so light!


Oh, these were so lovely! I also roasted a nice plump chicken breast and sliced it thick on a bed of butter lettuce, more (as John rightly pointed out later) as a sop to the feeling that one had to have some MEAT than for any menu-planning reason, and there were plenty of baguette chunks for sauce-sopping, believe me. Lastly, there was the beautiful tomato-mozzarella tower I'm so fond of. We were so happy! My favorite way to eat: lots of different things but they all go together.

We took them on a tour of the strangely-neat house, as well as the lovely horse meadow. Such fun to show off what I truly think is one of the most peaceful spots there is: Red Gate Farm. Becky arrived to pick up Avery for one last Greenwich adventure of the summer, and I loved introducing two of my favorite people to each other! It occurs to me how much fun I had all summer, introducing my beloved Becky to people. It turns out that whoever I'm with, they're some of my favorite people.

Of course Olimpia left behind a tub of her precious meatballs and beef ribs, simmered FOREVER in her inimitable tomato sauce, so John and I selfishly ate them ALL for supper, sparing not a thought for Avery who would return the next day. We went for a ride on what Avery calls "scary road," off Hull's Hill, in Quincy, nearly splitting him into pieces with the state of the pothills! Avery hates the road for its sheer drop on the left side, over a ravine and a creek, but what I always object to is John's turn up an abandoned road that becomes nearly impassable and ends in a pile of charred logs with lord knows what disgusting things left behind by marauding teenagers. We turned back down, and were met at the bottom of the road by... one of Southbury's finest. What are the odds? "That road passable?" he asked John to which John replied, "It was to me, not so sure about you." We decided some neighbor had called the police on us!

We packed up some more, watching the Olympics. My friend Alyssa and I have come up with any number of drinking games based on the ridiculous hyperbole indulged in by the commentators ("unbelievable!" "iconic!" "superlative!") but my favorite phrase of all was uttered during the men's pommel horse. "He literally fell apart during the semi-finals!" I'd love to see that. LITERALLY.

Saturday afternoon saw us on the Merritt one last time to pick up Avery from Anna's house and to pry both Anna from Avery AND me from Becky. Not nice. But we have high hopes of Christmas together, so we refrained from too much weeping and wailing. Mostly Avery was totally silent in the backseat, until we could convince her to tell us the plot from "Legally Blonde," which they had watched the night before. It's funny what will comfort any given person at any given time. We didn't have much time to be melancholy anyway, with Joel, Jane, Anne, David and Katie coming for The Last Supper, so I was grateful for that. Sitting one last time on the terrace stones shucking corn and watching Hastings bound around... and a crazy mixed-up dinner of "Grilled This and That," cleaning out the fridge of veggies and condiments to go with. Chicken marinated in sesame oil, lime juice and soy sauce, burgers on hard rolls, hot sausages: and plenty of sliced onions, tomatoes, avocadoes and cheese to go with everything. Joel brought the traditional Frederickson tomatoes: contrary to most people's morays, we peel them after a quick boil, then chill them all afternoon in a stainless steel dish that looks like it just held a kidney during a transplant. Cold peeled tomatoes are a luxury, as far as I'm concerned: thanks, Joel.

John appointed Jane "Chef's Assistant" which she tried valiantly to pronounce. She appeared at one point during the cooking and put her hands on her hips (as she so often does). "John says the chef's assistant needs to tell you... [momentary hesitation for pronouns' sake] that he has dropped a sausage on the ground and what should he do with it?" Avery played games of alliteration, "Kinetic Katie," "Crafty Katie," although that brought on the debate: is alliteration sound or letter? Tough questions. Katie herself remains above all these petty concerns, merely opening her china-blue eyes wide and smiling at us, if we're lucky.

Sunday we executed such sad chores as rolling the trampoline into the big barn, locking the Everything Shed, putting the swim bag away in the laundry room, and getting ready to... leave Hastings. The car service arrived and Avery carried him up to her bed, where he sleeps with a crazy fluffy cat Olimpia gave her many Christmases ago... and she had to leave him there, all wet from her tears, to be picked up by my dear friend Shelley on Tuesday. A horrible, horrible moment. And off we went. "Was it not worth it, Avery, to have him this summer, if it makes you so sad?" I asked, and she looked at me and said, "But being so sad is what MAKES you know it was worth it." If only I could always approach separation and bereavement so wisely.

And guess what? "Home" is still here! We're back in London to settle in, to remember the new house I spent less time in before we left than I spent at Red Gate Farm! And the kitties are HUGE! All of them. Keechie is limping today, so she's destined for the first visit to the new vet this afternoon; I can't think what she's done to her ankle, but it's since we arrived back home, because she was racing around greeting us when we came in.

Honestly, it's nice to be back. John goes off for work in the mornings just like a normal husband and father! He came in last night just at dinner time, to Avery practicing the piano and me stirring the bolognese. "So this is what it feels like to have a job!" he laughed.

I spent all afternoon yesterday sewing the new-school name tapes on Avery's PE kit: it turns out that no matter how excited we all are for her to start her new school, name tapes are a big, honking BORE anyway. But they're done, and she has cleaned out her pencil case, put name tags on all her backpack belongings, and all we need is lacrosse boots (Avery is massively underwhelmed by THAT prospect, I can tell you).

We're back.

18 August, 2008

party, party, party!

Every once in awhile all the stars are in alignment: the right people, the right energy, the right weather, and a couple of unexpected elements, and... you have the best party. It was like that for my mother's birthday party on Saturday.

First we tied dozens of yellow and white balloons to the fence (admittedly still in its lying-doggo state at the driveway end, but still), and can I tell you how beautiful the day was? Bright blue sky, the kind Avery is terribly tired of hearing me talk about, waving trees, a crispy feeling in the air. Then the balloons had been properly arranged, and John's mom and I had done most of the undercheffing for the party foods (scallops and shrimp with red peppers and asparagus! chicken livers wrapped in pancetta to be grilled on rosemary skewers! chicken breasts marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil and lime juice, perfectly grilled by John! tomato, mozzarella and basil salad, devilled eggs, you name it, we ate it, and there is no holiday tradition I love more than cooking with my mother in law). I jumped in the shower and not a moment too soon: up turned the birthday girl in the driveway! Jane was jumping out of her skin with excitement, Joel was prepared with his incomparable artichoke dip to heat up, and then Anne came from across the road wheeling Baby Katie, and then there were Becky's family: with a new PUPPY! Just what the party ordered: an eight-week-old chocolate lab mix called Cocoa.

I'll tell you, if your party needs livening up, try six children between the ages of 3 months and 14 years, a kitten, a puppy, a pregnant lady and a much-too-small grill, and you'll be all set. But between the oven, the toaster oven, the stove and the grill, all the food came out at the same time, and we simply fell upon it. My mother smiled and smiled, and we all ended up hanging out in the new Adirondack chairs under the hydrangea tree, my sister holding Anne's baby in an amazing feat as both accomplished mother of a toddler AND mother to be. My dad and Joel and John and Becky's husband mark toured the property in various groups, visiting the horses in the meadow, looking at the gorgeous sign proclaiming "Red Gate Farm" made by my dad that finally lives proudly on our fence.

The girls slip 'n slided to their hearts content, since Becky graciously adhered to my request and brought their REAL slip 'n slide, so we could eschew the one studded with staples that I had cobbled together to make work during Cici's sleepover. The sun shone, the girls slid (Jane had everyone lined up properly!), they jumped the pony jumps and trampolined and we adults chatted and ate and relaxed. And dessert? Don't get me started, not that I eat any, but I had asked Becky to make her famous chess pie for my mother, and she made not one but two, the second a chocolately version that everyone went nuts for. Recipes desired, let me know and I shall beg Becky for them! And the obligatory birthday cake that was much nicer than obligatory, saying the now-traditional "Happy Birthday, Mona." And then? It began to rain. So we repaired indoors for what turned out to be sort of the perfect amount of time for Jane to nap, for the grownups to huddle in the kitchen and gossip, wash dishes, put the odd and sundry refrigerator item away, for Ashley to try to train Cocoa to use her peeing pad, and... then the sun came back out!

The weather reports had been that Connecticut thing: almost perfectly accurate. We we were able to sit out again then, and I made up a silly trampoline game for ALL the girls involving eggs sizzling in a skillet, joined by bacon, and then suddenly a spatula, and... BOUNCE! Just the sort of game for an adult to invent and then... disappear and let them continue. Finally full-family photographs, and suddenly everyone piled into cars and were gone... sad goodbyes all around. It was hard to think who to feel saddest about saying goodbye to, so I just didn't come to any conclusions. It was so quiet when everyone had gone.

But the next day brought another party, the wedding shower for Farmer Rollie's daughter-in-law-to-be, a lovely girl called Tricia. For this, John and his mom repaired to New York City to see a show of pre-fab houses at MoMA, and gosh was I relieved to miss THAT. So Avery and I concocted our contribution to the shower, a traditional "Eton Mess," put on our best duds and headed off to a great American feminine tradition.

Eton Mess
(serves at least 10)

2 lbs strawberries, hulled and quartered
2 pints heavy whipping cream, whipped with a trace of vanilla and a tbsp sugar
2 cups meringues, crushed up to pebble size

In a large trifle bowl (don't have one? neither did I, so go to KMart and get one with Martha Stewart's blessing and about $6), put in a layer of strawberries. Add a layer of cream, a layer of meringues, and so on until you run out. End with a strawberry on top.


And we had to bum a ride from Anne, who had more than enough on her plate going to a memorial service in town. "Everyone who isn't here," she remarked on letting us off, "will be there." At least I had a moment to speak to Anne's gentle and better-worldly mother, author of two of our family's favorite books, mother of two of our favorite girls... how I wish my summer included a long, leisurely chat with her that would let us flit from topic to topic without regard for a minute schedule involving so many moving parts. Alas, not this summer, I fear. But some summer.

And I must tell how: if you are trying to attract a groundhog, Gary will attest to the time-honored appeal of many, many strawberry tops from Eton Mess! We were seriously popular that afternoon.

More tomorrow about the adventures of John's mom's last couple of magical days with us, but for the moment, can I report in GREAT satisfaction the repair of our fence? I will document this minor miracle on film (or a modern facsimile thereof) tomorrow, but suffice to say, it's lovely, and ALMOST worth the wait. What a summer...

16 August, 2008

I'm too old to be a triathlete!

Goodness, what happens when your daughter and her houseguest have a dull moment? You set up a triathalon, of course, on the lawn. And then, heaven save you, you try it YOURSELF. Even though a tiny voice is telling you, "Sit down and let the younger generation at those pony jumps before you tear a tendon and force the children to run six miles to find help." But no. I had to run the race.

So the triathalon went like this: jump the first pony jump going UPHILL, then around the trampoline and over another jump then... throw yourself onto the slip 'n slide KNEES DOWN and slide toward the well-water-temperatured FREEZING pool of water at the bottom, then jump up (assuming you're still ambulatory at this point), and run toward the badminton net and get two birdies over, then hit two further pony jumps and let's see, five non-identical jumps on the trampoline.

I can tell you that by the end of this regime, one particular 43-year-old competitor was lying on the ground howling at the pain in her knees, but she did finish the course!

Thank goodness lunch cooked itself. Because dinner the night before had... cooked itself.

Ultimate Cooks-Itself Brisket
(serves four for dinner and four for leftovers)

1 brisket, flat end
1 large can tomatoes
5 cloves garlic, sliced
1 white onion, quartered
1 bottle of beer
1 slug (perhaps 1/2 cup?) molasses
2 soup-size cans beef broth

Place the brisket in a large soup-size stockpot or casserole for stovetop use. Cover with EVERYTHING ELSE. Cover and bring to a boil.

Now. Turn the heat down REALLY LOW, like a bare simmer, and leave it for four hours. If you're home you can turn it now and then, if it makes you feel like you're cooking. But honestly: if you keep the heat low enough and keep it covered, it cooks itself. You can break up the tomatoes if you're nearby, but cover it again right away.

About hour three, I can guarantee you'll be hanging over the pot with a fork and some lame excuse like, "I should test it to make sure it's OK to eat," and start shredding away choice morsels. I'd say you should resist this inevitability, but why? You're the cook, you deserve it.

At the end, put the brisket on a cutting board and slice it against the grain as thinly as you can. If you have a suggestion for the rest of the cooking liquid, I'd love to hear it. It's beer, tomato, molasses, garlic ambrosia. But I throw it away, for lack of any other ideas.


For the leftover brisket, however... I have no such hesitations. I offer you, middle-aged triathlete with sore knees but game spirit:

Ultimate Brisket Sandwiches With Gorgonzola and Red Onion
(serves four for sandwiches)

good chunk of leftover brisket
8 slices toasted rye
a good chunk of Gorgonzola or other blue cheese
1 red onion, sliced
(mustard if you like, or butter)

Slice the leftover brisket thin. Then simply build your sandwich in the proportions you like. UNBEATABLE.


Through it all, Avery and her beloved friend Cici made... bead rings. I cannot explain except to say that... they made rings of copper thread and tiny, tiny beads. We are all wearing them now, and the girls turned them out like... well, like bead rings. So peaceful in the sun on the trampoline, after we all tired of the triathalon, which took awhile.

I cannot describe the peace of the landscape! Avery sighed in exasperation at me, finally. "OK, OK, Mommy, 'the blue of the sky, the red of the barn, the green of the grass.' Enough!" But... how about the red of the gate? And the white of the fence, and the green of the tiger lily bed? Pretty nice. And just take a look at the wildlife who gathered around that afternoon: Gary the groundhog, the cardinal, chipmunks, who knows who comes to eat at my house.

Finally poor John who had been paying some sort of terrible life dues at the DMV registering the car and getting a Connecticut license returned... not on his shield after all, but safe and sound and ready for a trip to the pool! We all concurred, and were ready in a split second. It was one of those pool afternoons that looked like a potential disaster: clouds overhead, was that a sprinkle? Surely not... then we got in the pool... FREEZING! Screaming, daring each other to go under, finally a couple of laps, and we were good to go. A Hello! magazine straight from London, a Soap Opera Weekly from the supermarket... two happy girls and a husband whose novelty had not worn off. We were all in heaven. The pool's unofficial social secretary, Barbara, was back from her Alaskan cruise. "My husband doesn't like to fly and he didn't want to go anywhere. But I was an elementary school teacher long enough to know how to phrase the question. 'Honey, do you want to go to Hawaii, or Alaska?' And he said, 'Doesn't Hawaii have an ocean between us and it?' and I said yes, and so it was Alaska!" They had a wonderful time and saw Mount McKinley which, as it transpires, only 20% of visitors get to do. AND her granddaughter still refrained from being born prematurely during their absence. That does not surprise me AT ALL. It's good to have Barbara back.

At home, showered and relatively braced to face the elements, I repaired to the kitchen finally to watch my beloved "General Hospital" and get dinner ready for... John's mom's arrival! It was, selfishly, my favorite sort of dinner: lots of different things, and you can choose what you like. I've given you all the recipes already, but here's what I fixed: Pan-Fried Salmon, Red Gate Farm Bean Salad, Scalloped Corn, Roasted Beets with Balsamic Vinegar. Just lovely!

And then, suddenly with a crunch of my precious gravel, there was a car. "I wonder who that is?" I asked stupidly, in denial that I might have to give Cici up. "That looks like my parents, oh no," Cici said... And it was. But there was Rosemary too, in her iconic white shirt, black skirt, summer tan, gold bracelet and necklace so shimmery in the early evening, her smile, tight hug, "Sweetie..."

Cici departed and it was sad but all right because we had Nonna to show around, give presents to, introduce to Hastings! Of course he won over John's mom right away, who carried him around as we led her to the cozy guest room with its barn-red coverlet, the pitcher of hydrangeas I had put by her bed, the books and magazines and newspaper bits I thought she could not live without... I wanted nothing more than to stop the clock, stop the calendar, and stay RIGHT THERE: a summer evening at Red Gate Farm with crickets starting to chirp, the tree limbs over Stillmeadow turning black while Anne switches on golden lights across the road, dinner aromas stealing through the house, presents being exchanged, Hastings leaping after wrappings and ribbons, John bringing cocktails and wine, me stopping to look through a perfect new cookbook... I gave a deep thought of gratitude to John's dad who paved the way for all these reunions, smiling over us all, full of quiet joy at our being together, lugging in suitcases, accepting a Scotch with plenty of ice, his deep voice echoing through the house, "Rosemary..." What a miraculous summer we had last year, and none of us took a moment for granted. I will hold that in my heart forever. And he was with us, for me, that first evening with Rosemary here.

Well, pathos never lasts long around here, and it was but the work of a moment to wake up and wend our way to West Hartford to be reunited with MY side of the family! To hug my darling mother (more on her birthday party tomorrow!) and father and brother and Jill, to tour their garden with Joel's unbelievably... how to put it... thorough anti-squirrel devices on his tomato patch. But before I giggle: those tomatoes looked pretty darn healthy, and unscathed, too. From there, with the usual family conversational departures into "Remember when..." and then the various voices of dissension, "That's not how that happened!" or even more likely in my side of the family, "That is not what I said!" We are in a constant battle over the truth as someone remembers it, and the story as it's better told.

I felt completely vindicated when we arrived at our tourist destination, the Mark Twain House Museum in Farmington, to see his quotation, "I start out telling the truth, but somewhere between pen and paper it becomes fiction." I felt such a kinship! Although now that I write that down... I'm not sure it's a direct quotation! How perfect is that.

A gorgeous Victorian mansion to tour, with the ultimate Tour Nazi shouting at John to turn off his phone! "It didn't even make a sound, it only LIT UP!" Avery said, always the first to feel persecuted by authority. Where that comes from, I could not say.

Well, I must sleep. Today was my mummy's birthday party here and a glorious time it was, but as a result I'm pooped. Everyone else is long asleep in my house, the candles are burning in the front windows, and all is right with the world... just remind me, if anyone offers: no more triathalons, thanks. But on a tiny small-world note, can I just tell you that Avery's beloved former babysitter Amy's dad (stay with me here) is the voiceover guy for the Olympics! The guy who tells you all about Budweiser, and what's coming next... that velvety, chocolatey voice. That's my child's former babysitter's dad! Hey, fame has to come from somewhere... Congratulations, everyone in Beijing...

09 August, 2008

the most fun you can have for $2.48

There is such a MAGIC to the light in these summer days, a light that actually translates surprisingly well to photographs, that I simply cannot stop taking photographs and trying to capture the fleeting beauty of our time here. Believe it or not, when I have tough days in the other 10+ months of the year, as much as I love our British lives, I go back to these summer pages and remember that it is always STILL HERE. The serenity, changelessness, comfort and familiarity of Red Gate Farm sustains me all year long.

Part of the experience is in reading the writings of Gladys Taber, from across the road 60 years ago, and hearing in her "voice" the same timbre of love and appreciation of these trees, hills, birdsong, dusty roads, neighborliness, wildlife, fresh produce, I could go on and on! I love it all. Of course our lives 60 years on are very different: in some ways wonderfully the same, but the differences are some good, some bad. I wish I were a gardener, but I am not, don't know if I would ever be, but being first a weekend-er and now a "summer-er," I have not ever had a chance to find out. So my summer memories do not include a glut of cucumbers (as my darling father's garden in my childhood yielded, along with tomatoes), or peaches to put up, or a must-create-zucchini-recipes insistence in August, or six different varieties of beets to glory in. I wish these were my experiences! In my next life I will not be struggling with London traffic or super-competitive children's school acceptance, or dying to break into the British food-writing market, or moving every two years. In my next life, I will be settled at Red Gate Farm growing hollyhocks. My mother in law's dream for me! She loves them.

And even though we built up many wonderful memories of wintertime Red Gate Farm on our weekends from New York (the woodfires John tended with all his heart, our experiments with popping corn! puzzles on the kitchen table, countless dishes of meatloaf coming out of the oven), my fondest memories are of summertime.

What's changed for the good? Well, I must vote for cell phones and email. It is possible to feel quite close to those we love most by those beloved calls and messages in our inboxes! I think Gladys Taber would have LOVED email: any way that keeps people writing and sharing stories is a good thing, I believe, even if it's harder to keep copies of what you say. I absolutely cherish the emails I receive from London friends, beckoning through the summer dust motes like messages from another world! And in the London world, how wonderful it is to receive reports on our darling farmhouse from Anne and David. And to have the phone ring and it's my best friend Alyssa, taking me RIGHT to her beach in Fire Island, with her little boy shouting in the background. These things make modern life almost worth the... let's see, reality television and icky politicans of modern life? And children's medicine that is now sold in "pre-measured" dose packets? Whatever happened to the perfectly good word "measured"? Pre- to what? I am really a curmudgeon.

Goodness, I'm digressing! But I do adore every little thing about our golden summers here, even the gray and lashing afternoons of glorious rain that only underscore the shimmery bits we enjoy so much.

Well, John's home! We reunited with him at Becky's house in Greenwich on Saturday: such a shock to see him so much taller than I remembered, and with a fresh haircut and smiling at us all. We repaired to the lovely Old Greenwich Beach House with Becky's family, enjoying some wholesome American food like burgers, baby back ribs, cole slaw, French fries! Then home for John to take a nap (after duly admiring Hastings, of course: and Avery is most anxious that everyone know he's named after Poirot's sidekick, NOT the "Battle of"!). Avery and I of course ended up at the beloved if grotty old town pool, just what we had been waiting for all summer, all YEAR: the perfect sunny afternoon, complaining to the lazy lifeguards that the music is too loud, lying about trying to get comfortable with our books, knowing that John is here!

His first morning home, we headed to the Laurel Diner for that brunch that kills all other brunches: the two twin cooks, one fat and one thin (we're concerned, though, because the plump cook is slimming down!). The entire stick of butter sizzling on the grill for our hashbrowns, corn beef hash (or "rash" as Avery said as a baby), Avery's Reuben without dressing... we savor every bite! And the same bright-eyed waitress Kerry every summer, who loves that we come back from London and never forgets that I drink something crazy: half iced tea, half lemonade! Only this morning, on our way to the diner, we glanced around our property to fill our hearts and... there were HORSES in our MEADOW! OK, pit stop!

We knew they were coming, but still! Horses in our meadow, swishing their tails in what we know is an effort to get rid of flies but still looks lovely, drinking from an abandoned bathtub as you see! We succumbed to hunger, but were happy on our arrival back home to see our neighbors Mark and little Taylor working in the meadow, and they stopped to chat. Mark is a career firefighter, with that ineffable aura of authority and just-this-side-of-intimidating booming voice that marks any town's Bravest. He's the kind of guy who has the local police force 1) on his cellphone speed-dial, and 2) in his debt for something generous he's done for them, so if he needs help... look out for the sirens! He curbs his normal total authority to get down on Taylor's three-year-old level, and it shows in her: she is the total explorer and intimidated by nothing. John said, "I love your haircut," and she immediately jumped down from the trampoline, covered her head and said, "No one talk about my haircut! I refuse!"

We gave her the cookie she expects at my house and then headed to the tennis courts, where we have as much fun as two really BAD players and their long-suffering male companion can have. Home again, hot and red and sweaty, to see Anne, David and little Katie crossing the road to meet John, home from oceans and oceans away! So many thousands of miles he's come and gone, in so many directions, to be with us. After properly admiring the blue-eyed elf, we walked the property, discussing dredging projects, fence-building projects around the protected border by Phillips Farm, weeding and window-replacing. And discussing the ancient stinky smokehouse! "Years ago," Anne remembered, "we were given a head cheese that was smoked in that place, and... it sat in our freezer for YEARS before we threw it out!"

Through it all Katie smiled opaquely at us, looking for all the world like a philosopher who has yet to come to a conclusion about the state of things around her. As always we talk over and over each other, all four of us, never enough time to discuss, compare, agree, add comments. Increasingly I think what we all need is more power outages: that evening sitting in the candlelight with Anne, David and Katie, Avery and I had a more relaxed, free-floating conversation than we've been able to have with anyone else all summer. We were forced to sit quietly. There's something Gladys Taber's world understood: the beauty of sitting quietly and basking in the company of beloved friends.

Of course, I shouldn't be so hard on myself: cramming all our love and fondness for each other, all of these people all summer, into six weeks is not easy! But we try, and it builds the blocks for next summer, and the rest of our lives and our children's lives. Funny to think that someday, when they are middle-aged and old, the 10-year difference between Avery and Katie will be... nothing. They'll still have just as many silly stories to exchange about their doting parents, no doubt, and, I hope, the many nights we spent around our picnic table, and their candlelit living room, chatting.

Anne and David told a hilarious story about a gift of venison one year from Rollie ("was it road kill?" I asked, and they thought it probably was, got to love Rollie). "There it was, year after year," David said, "this big bloody deer leg in the freezer," and I thought of Lord Peter Wimsey when he says "sometimes 'bloody' is just a good old Anglo-Saxon adjective!"

After a spectacularly thunderstormy afternoon, we ended up sitting on garbage bags at the picnic table, unwilling to eat inside no matter what, feasting on slow-braised brisket, macaroni and cheese and bean salad. And just as we watched the skunk come to claim the leftovers, up popped... Rollie! In his iconic battered blue pickup. I made a pretense of chatting for a moment, but then wisely left him to his long-awaited reunion with John, who he is tremendously tickled to find working again! Out came all his best summer stories. "All this rain, we've been hayin' two days, off two days..." I issued my annual all-boys dinner invitation, which as every summer I call dinner." Out comes his cell phone: "I'm callin' the boss.... Hey, how are you? Listen, can we make supper tomorrow night?" I call it dinner, he repeats it as supper, every year. Got to stay true to ourselves, after all.

So today we got up and drove to Mystic to see my old friend and student and brilliant painter Kathleen, and to divest her of her eldest child, Cici, who happens to be Avery's oldest friend. Hard to top it: they met when Avery was three days old! We stayed for lunch and then headed home, to arrive in time for the girls to "slip 'n slide," a totally plastic thing from Target, inspired by Becky's girls, a hose-filled affair that they throw themselves on, stomach first, and slosh downhill. As it was the end-of-summer clearance sale (weep), this gem of a plaything was reduced from its original astronomical price tag of $20 to... $2.48. Seriously? Seriously! And the fun they had, in the blinky late afternoon light? Priceless, as they say.

From there to our less-than-stellar, but always fun tennis lesson, and our indigestible but lovely classic Cici first-night dinner at Maggie McFly's... I sang to the girls as they went to sleep, and I couldn't get over how LONG they are under the covers! Their being together, as I have seen them since Avery was prone on her back as a newborn baby, then to toddlerdom, little girlhood, and the long sad separation in our London years, underscores the incredible STRETCHING of their little bodies! The everlasting upward lengthening of who they are! Quite magical, and also to hear their backseat conversation, the same as every year, as every Tuesday afternoon in our New York days when I drove them up to the Bronx to ride together, their chattering from numberless sleepovers, Book Clubs at our house, birthday parties and Halloween traipses. John and I exchanged a wordless glance that said MILES: "It's the same as always. Some things never change, and one of them is Avery and Cici." Long may it last.

Well, I'm relaxing to the Olympics and trying to remember when I last did a roundoff-back-handspring-back-flip! Some 30 years ago! But in the glass-half-full mode I plan to take back with me to London: I should be glad I could ever do it at all! And here's hoping the next 30 years are as much fun...

08 August, 2008

and away they go...

Well, it was a wonderful thing to have happen, and all that we had wished for, but let me tell you, it's very heart-wrenching to say goodbye, suddenly, unexpectedly, in the final silent moments before a massive thunderstorm, to two darling kittens.

But say goodbye we did.

How did it happen? I will explain.

Yesterday began particularly pungently, as in with a car full of garbage cans and recycling bags and piles of flattened cardboard boxes to take to the dump. Ick! I hate the dump. But I felt a special pride in doing it, since in theory I could have waited till John got here tomorrow (yippee!), but I wanted the cans and the garbage room to be EMPTY when he got here, to show that I had taken good care of everything while we were here without him. So I went, and struggled with my cans and bags and whatnot, belligerently dressed in a white ruffled t-shirt and little denim skirt: I will not be defeated by the dump! Home singing loudly to the radio, windows open, gorgeous blue sky overhead.

I roasted a chicken breast, whole and on the bone, with nothing but a smear of butter and a sprinkle of salt and pepper, for my Ladies Who Were Coming To Luncheon: two great fans of the wonderful life and cookery author who lived across the road in days gone by (grandmother to my great friend Anne), and the morning was proceeding fairly normally, Avery reading quietly, the kittens playing like crazy nuts. Then... the cable guy came. Which I was expecting, albeit at the far end (as always!) of his two-hour window... I explained to Avery that if one is 15 minutes late for an 11-1 appointment, the guy will arrive SPOT ON the beginning of the window and you'll miss him. BUT, on the other hand, if you find yourself needing to leave a half hour after the END of the two-hour window, he will come at the exact end of that window and leave you biting your nails till he finishes and you can LEAVE.

Well, this guy, and his colleague, arrived spot at the moment of 1 p.m., when my luncheon guests were expected at 1:15. Two really nice guys, one short, one tall, one plump, one thin, just like Jack and Mrs. Sprat. I led them upstairs in the steamy afternoon air to the bedroom television, left them there to labor, and as Amanda bounded into the room, asked rhetorically (I thought), "Do you guys want a kitten?" and the tall skinny guy turned to me, and in the unmistakable tones of my adopted homeland, said, "Yes! Do you have more than one?"


Before we knew it, he (Phil, as he introduced himself, "from Bristol") had Lizzie in one hand, fast asleep, and Amanda climbing his trouser leg. "It's my girlfriend's birthday today, and..." and the short plump guy sat back on his heels and said, "You cheap bastard. You didn't get her anything? And now you're going to give her a FREE KITTEN?" We all laughed. "You got it," Phil said, "and my daughter wants one too." He was excused from any further cable-guy duty (leading one to wonder why they send two guys, if one can be excused to acquire a kitten or two at a moment's notice), and came downstairs to call his ex-wife. "Hey, sweetheart, is it OK if I give her a kitten? I know it'll live at your house, so I wanted to check..." We all waited with baited breath... while Avery clung unobtrusively to Hastings. "Well, great. I'll bring her home, then, and we'll do the exchange over the weekend. Thanks, love." And it was done. Avery found her new riding helmet box, took the helmet out, put a t-shirt and the Christmas ribbon the kittens had made their toy into it, and in went the girls. That was THAT. Quick exchange of email addresses, and off they went.

I can tell you, it was hard for Avery. And she was SO gracious. She needed some time to herself, and with Hastings, when the van had pulled away, carrying those two souls that had become such a part of our lives in the last ten days or so.


Well, as luck would have it, thank goodness my friend Shelley and her friend Anne pulled up just then in the driveway, to keep us from wallowing in our sadness. What fun to meet them in real life! Shelley and I have been fast friends for the last year or so, in a virtual way, exchanging lots of emails and comments on the blog. She is a rare person of innate generosity and wealth of empathy, which is easily felt even through emails and such, but her aura of kindness and giving in PERSON is something else again. You want to lock the door behind her and keep her with you! And Anne, her friend, felt like an old friend right away: a lifelong elementary school teacher, having found her bliss in teaching kindergarten, you sense an amazing combination of experience and WONDER in her: she has seen it all and yet faces each new situation with freshness and appreciation. What a joy to have them here!

We sat down at the table I'd set outside, and pretended not to see the rumbling grey clouds overhead and as far as the eye could see. We unfolded our napkins, Shelley admiring the lovely napkin rings given to Avery by Farmer Rollie and his wife Judy... and still we did not acknowledge the rustling of maple leaves overhead, and sense of a great atmospheric change coming. We helped ourselves to roast-chicken salad with sweetcorn, pine nuts and slivered toasted almonds, celery and lemony mayonnaise, and the yummy artichoke dip made for me each summer by my dear brother in law, and Brie and baguettes. And then... splash. "I just felt a raindrop," I said reluctantly, in the way that one acknowledges the first spots of smallpox. "Oh, that'll be just a sprinkle," Anne said breezily. "It'll definitely be PASSING OVER."

We kept repeating this as we scooped up our lunch, chatting about Gladys Taber, the history of the house across the road, my plans to help re-invigorate some of her recipes into a kind of memoir-cookbook... until the most ENORMOUS crack of thunder happened RIGHT over our shoulders. Avery tensed. Then she said, "I can contribute nothing, really, to this conversation, and I'm really afraid of thunder and lightning, so... would anyone mind if I went inside??" We all followed!

Lunch continued in the dining room, conversation tripping over itself... Shelley brought out gifts of books, knitted catnip toys, gorgeous milk glass, you wouldn't BELIEVE what she had brought... and the rain crashed and thundered and the sky darkened till it was like a late November afternoon in London. Which means, about as dark as you can get without actually needing to light a lamp. Hastings made his appearance and charmed everyone, climbing up everyone's legs, begging for watermelon and blueberries...

Finally it was time for Shelley and Anne to brave the rain which, it was clear, was not stopping ANY time soon. Off they went, leaving behind that feeling I love of girlfriends. Just ladies you really love, and the feeling that you could have talked for about seven more hours and eaten another meal, and not made a dent in what you wanted to say. Thank you, Shelley, for your friendship, and welcome, Anne, to what I hope will be a long and happy shared time together. We made plans for every summer from now on, at Red Gate Farm.

I had barely had time to clear away when there was a tornado warning in our county, so I felt it was my maternal duty to... take everyone down to the basement. "EEWW!" Avery shrieked. "Spiders, spiders!" It could not be denied. My house seems to generate daddy longlegs and whatever other spiders like sugar water gathers ants. But we sat in our punishing straightback chairs, staring at each other, trying to keep Hastings from escaping to the floor which we are fairly certain contains traces of mouse poison. Ick. "One minute to go," Avery intoned. "Fifty five, fifty four..." Finally we came up and NOTHING was happening outside. "OK, maybe I overreacted a little," I admitted. But my Indiana tornado-ridden upbringing has deep roots!

Well, needless to say, Avery's fever went away. It lasted about twice as long as it usually does, and therefore precisely twice as long as I was comfortable with. I had just looked up a pediatrician in town and vowed to take her as soon as she woke up, but in fact she slept incredibly late, and woke up feeling FINE. What a relief. A little stuffy nose, and the next day a little cough, but no fever. Whew. So to celebrate we ran a thousand errands: to KMart for votive candles (an absolute staple in my house), bird seed, kitty litter, all the basics, then the library, then Judy's brother's farm: Painter Ridge Farm: the best view of a sunset in Connecticut, without a doubt, in Washington. Only Judy wasn't there! But a lovely lady called Mary helped us, and listened to Avery's impassioned account of the then-three kittens we needed to find homes for. Her husband, Judy's brother, came in on the tail end of this exposition, and Mary said, "Wouldn't you like a kitten?" And he stopped in his tracks, swiped a sweaty, dusty hand across his face and said firmly, "There's only room for ONE animal on this farm, and that's ME." Avery loved that!

On the way home we nearly ran into a mother wild turkey, helping her baby across the road. "Stop, stop!" Avery screeched, so I did, and then there was another baby turkey, and another, and five more, and six more... there must have been 14 babies, headed by one adult and rounded up at the end by another adult! Avery said, "I think that must not be a mother and father and family: that must be turkey DAY CARE."

We've been hosting a lovely and very friendly skunk lately, who seems happy to clean up any and all dinner leftovers for us: eating our noodles and peppers, shredded mozzarella and deli roast beef, corn cobs and stale Saltine crackers. It seems to mind not at all seeing us about! Avery's inspired to read, yet again, the book written by Anne-Across-the-Road's mother Constance Colby, "A Skunk in the House," which she reads every summer. So lovely. And such a relief, total relief to have Avery well. Although I must report a very entertaining late-night visit by her to my bedroom. Clearly half asleep and also hallucinating slightly with her fever, she approached my bed and said, "Hi Mommy. I just reached out my arms and everything was... totally fluffy." Was it indeed, my dear!?

Well, today I drove her to Anna's house for one more sleepover, took a tour of the nearly-unpacked and settled house, and drove home, which took bloody forever. Between a lashing thunderstorm AGAIN, and terrible Friday-evening traffic, I was on the road forever. But you know what: when the rain cleared but the traffic didn't, the best thing to do was, turn off the AC, roll the windows ALL the way down, find a cheesey radio station playing a song I liked, and just SING! I had a ball, honestly! I am almost never truly alone (which is fine, most of the time!), but to be alone and not chatting with anyone, listening to a book on tape, anything at all to keep me from singing... it was glorious!

I was starving when I pulled into Southbury, so I stopped at the grocery and shopped for the, possibly, BEST dinner of the summer. Why do I create these things when there's no one but me to enjoy them? I think there's something to total improvisation, total spontaneity, and cooking for just ONE that makes a great thing possible, now and then. And you mustn't ever be hindered by any of the following thoughts: "It's not worth it just for me," or "It'll be easier just to pick up some Chinese takeout, which Avery doesn't like anyway," or "It'll be cheaper to..." NO! You are worth it, all on your own! And there is nothing in the world wrong with spending $15 on a dinner you cook JUST FOR YOU.

Carmelized Shrimp and Scallops with Sauteed Pretty Vegetables
(serves ONE!)

4 large raw shrimp, tails on
4 large scallops
2 cloves garlic, minced
sprinkle Penzeys "Fox Point Seasoning"
2 tbsps olive oil (hot pepper flavored if you like! I did)
juice of 1 lemon
several grinds fresh black pepper
1 red pepper
8 stalks asparagus
2 green onions, sliced on the bias
1 tsp butter
splash white wine
2 ears corn on the cob

Seriously: you can prepare this dinner in about 20 minutes, at least 10 of which is spent with you cradling a tiny kitten while swinging on a rope swing, letting the marinade do all the work.

So lay the shrimp and scallops in a single layer in a shallow dish. Cut up red pepper and break asparagus stalks in half. Lay them in another shallow dish with green onions. Sprinkle each dish with an equal amount of garlic, seasoning, olive oil, lemon juice and black pepper. Just leave it all! Play with that kitten. He needs you.

Shuck the corn and boil water in a pot for it.

Heat a non-stick skillet really high. Throw in the vegetables and cook over high-ish heat till to the doneness you like. Remove to their original dish. Heat the skillet again, add the butter and carefully slide the shrimp and scallops in, in a single layer. Cook high for 2 minutes, then turn each shrimp and scallop and cook another minute or to (depending on how large they are). By now, the seafood should be nicely cooked. Throw in the wine and swish the seafood around. This will create a dark caramelly sauce that is DELICIOUS. At the last minute, throw the corn in the boiling water. Put the vegetables back in the skillet and toss with the seafood, then remove to a warm dish. Enjoy with the corn on the side!


I found that the scallops had to be eaten ALL ON THEIR OWN. Followed by a red pepper or asparagus bite maybe, but... the delicacy of the scallops deserves its own attention! So much fun to peel the shrimp, making a mess, butter the corn, making a mess. By this time, let me tell you, your fork has been abandoned and you're eating the asparagus and peppers with your fingers, too!

It was a lovely dinner. I'm trying to enjoy my evening alone and NOT obsess over how much I want to be with my husband and child! Tomorrow evening. What fun that will be.

In the meantime, I'd better go find that Hastings, asleep on Avery's bed, missing her no doubt. Two down, one to go! Want a little tabby kitten?

04 August, 2008

perspective, and blue sky

Ah, gas troubles and fence troubles and termite troubles can move aside for... a sick Avery today. The poor dear woke up very early this morning with what I can only hope is her typical high, 24-hour fever, no other symptoms to take much notice of, just the fever, and feeling logey and pathetic. Who cares about anything else that isn't quite perfect; all we need is for Avery to feel well and be at her best. The trampoline was silent for the first time since our arrival, likewise the swing that didn't swing, no request for a sprinkler, no desire to take a kitten outdoors and make her jump... just a silent day watching "Robin Hood: Series 2."

I rushed out to get a chicken and some carrots, and made chicken soup. In an ideal world I'd chill it overnight to skim the fat, but you know what? If you're desperate, it works like this:

Chicken Soup in a Hurry
(serves several helpings to a hungry but ill little girl)

1 whole chicken (smallish)
3 carrots, sliced
3 stalks celery, sliced
3 parsnips, sliced
1 onion, quartered
1 handful dill
salt, pepper, bay leaves
large handful noodles

Place the chicken and everything else in a large stockpot and cover with cold water. Boil low for 2 hours. Strain everything through a colander over a smaller stockpot and pull off the good bits of chicken from the bones, and place them in the stock. Put stock back on stove and throw in noodles. Simmer for ten minutes, and when you see the stock bubble around the outside of the pot and leave a still pool in the center of the pot, scoop out everything in that center: that's the fat.

By the end of ten minutes the soup will be ready for an immediate serving to the patient. But after she has her first bowl, add more celery and carrots and simmer until nicely cooked. The patient can have little servings throughout the rest of the day and night.


As worrisome as a fever is, I feel she's probably fine. Between helpings of soup, and glasses of ice, and the occasional banana slice, she made it through the day with naps and a LONG bath at night. I had forgotten how much fun it was to read aloud "Nancy Drew," especially "The Sign of the Twisted Candles," so that was good. Halfway through I swore I heard a "tap, tap, tap," and figured it was my imagination, living through the Twisted Candles. But it was Anne, tapping at the back door to give back my bowl from the curry leftovers. We sat down at the picnic table outside on the terrace and I described Avery's symptoms, and she agreed that it sounded like nothing much, but happily offered up, "I know every doctor in town, so just let me know if you want a visit to somebody tomorrow." I figure if Avery's feeling tip-top (ish) by the morning, we can let it go. But just the same, I walked over to Anne's house and got the bit of mango ice cream she thought might help the patient, and looked on at little Katie asleep in the swing. What incredible good fortune to have a neighbor who crosses the road and listens to a bit of a worry, and offers up ice cream. "If Avery's able, could she feed and look after the cats on Wednesday and Thursday? It's the baby's injections..."

How lucky I felt, crossing the dusty road, to come back to our sun-dappled terrace, community of squirrels and chipmunks, peaceful birdfeeders, Avery in her bath through the shade in the bathroom. Blue, blue skies and scudding clouds. The peace of Red Gate Farm!

Homemade pizza for dinner, and she ate! The very best pizza sauce EVER is leftover sauce from last night's:

Rigatoni alla Vodka
(serves 4)

2 tbsps olive oil
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1/2 Vidalia onion, or other mild white onion, sliced
3 tbsps vodka
1 tbsp Italian seasoning
1 large can or 2 soup cans whole tomatoes, squeezed in hand into saucepan
1/2 cup light cream
2 tbsps grated pecorino cheese

Heat olive oil and saute garlic and onion until soft. Pour on vodka and let bubble high. Add seasoning and tomatoes and cook down, stirring frequently and breaking up tomatoes, until well cooked, at least 45 minutes. At the end, puree with handheld blender and add cream and cheese, stirring well.

Use first for pasta sauce and then for pizza the next night!


So in the middle of everything else we've had several more visits from the stove guy and the gas tank guy, each of whom holds the other in the extremis of disregard. "He uses that bubbling stuff to find a leak? That's ancient history. We've got this digital reader..." just like little boys with the better BB gun or computer game! "They won't be prepared for this eventuality," one says, and the other adds the next day, "This sort of turn of events will not be familiar to THAT sort of technician..."

For heaven's sake!

Finally the stove worked. And at lunchtime, on Anna's last day: two different Gary and Groundhogs to eat melon and entertain us! After lunch the perfect trip to the produce stand for corn, basil, plums! "I love the smell of basil," Anna offers shyly, "and a little bit on my pasta if the pieces aren't too big." Then we were off to the pool for a perfect afternoon of blue skies, shouting voices, happy laps. The group of ladies who is always at the pool were quite close to our towels, and one called, "You have a new library book today?" but I wasn't sure she was talking to me, and soon she called out the same again. "A new book?" so I chatted with them a bit. I'm trying to analyze why their questions put me off. They were anxious, having met John last year at the pool, to question me about our lives in England, Avery's schooling, why we want to live there. Normally I quite like talking about London and whatnot. But there was something that made me not want to discuss it all. I felt very protective of our lives there, and not inclined to describe everything!

I think it was because the undertone was so mystified and almost hostile. "I've never felt like leaving the good old US of A", and "Where did you live before you moved there?" and upon hearing New York said, "Well, I suppose it's not so different, them, but living in Southbury we're comfortable." And when I said I was originally from Indiana, the one lady said, "I thought you had a sort of an accent." I felt like a creature in a zoo!

We do live in two very different worlds, and I have to say I love them both. I love the crowded, super-competitive, fancy-ingredient, famous-people-sighting, busy life in London. I miss the voices, and the culture and different-ness. But when we're here I love the ease of getting around, the familiarity, the friendliness and quiet, the pace that's so much more relaxing. And of course if we went back to New York City itself we'd be in yet another culture I love, and miss, but try not to think about too much. As I told the ladies at the pool, far from being glad to leave either place for the other, I feel really lucky that we have BOTH.

So along came the end of Anna's stay, and we took her back to Greenwich, through a most unpleasant rainstorm along the unfamiliar Merritt parkway: I was quite amazed that I was able to get us there, and back! Sad to leave Anna with her family. The night before we had visited Anne, David and Baby Katie, leaving a luscious tomato and mozzarella salad with basil ribbons and olive oil, and chatting about Avery and Anna's friendship. "We didn't like each other AT ALL!" the girls chortled, reminiscing about those early days before they were joined at the hips. "Our mothers MADE us be friends!" Anne, feeding Katie and listening raptly as only she can, said, "That's quite like the first friend I made at kindergarten. I was put with her to play with blocks, and I remember she had the most fragile WRISTS, and I was so afraid I would hurt her, and was so careful... we were friends forever after that..." That is what I love about Anne. Even wholly occupied with her new baby, she can host two little girls in her living room, listen to their tales, and reach back into a story from her heart about her own childhood. She is completely real, completely sincere. David ended up "airplaning" Katie, marvelling at her growth since we arrived three weeks ago... what would we do without them, across the road?

Avery chuckled one afternoon and said to me, in such a grownup voice, "I forgot an excellent Connecticut merchant story, Mommy. You'll love this. I went into the bakery, as you said, and asked for a dozen doughnut holes. A really nice lady said, 'Oh, honey, I'm sorry, this is all I have,' and handed me a little bag. And in it were... a dozen doughnut holes!" You have to live here to laugh.

Yesterday we headed up to Jill, Joel and Jane's house to celebrate, as it turned out, Jane's three-half birthday, with an excellent brunch near their house, in the lovely flower garden park across the road. Such a gorgeous day... feeling lucky for everything.

Well, darkness has fallen and I am wishing for just one thing: a peaceful night for Avery, an abatement of her fever, a restorative sleep. There's nothing like a sick child to make a person stop complaining about other things...