08 July, 2009
the ones we love
Well. John's stubble is lengthening, my interest in makeup is dwindling, the number of corncobs in my rubbish is piling up: it's summer vacation. The barn is red, the goldfinches golden, Avery has been kidnapped by her best friend, the tiger lilies in the front yard are orange, the lawn guys have arrived with their earplugs and suntans, we've arrived.
We arrived, in fact, on Saturday evening to the blue skies and sunset colors of a New Jersey Fourth of July, and to a shower of overwhelming memories. Twenty years ago, as a nearly-married girl of 24, I moved to Maplewood, New Jersey to plan my wedding and settle down for a lifetime of married bliss. My first step in this direction was to enter the bookshop of my small town and introduce myself to the girl behind the counter. She was none other than Livia, a person whose smile and meeting of the eyes was perfect magic. I fell in love (not at all awkwardly, since my almost-married state could definitely encompass falling in love with just one more person), and we made fast friends within an instant. Livia and her mother, the effortlessly elegant and timelessly adorable Janice, became our constant companions for the following year. And then... John was transferred to London. Eleven months after we'd spent all our time cementing our friendship, we were... gone.
And yet such was our mutual admiration society that we have remained the most devoted of friends through the last 20 years. Livia came to us in London, we came to them every summer when we came home from England, we spent countless weekends with them after we returned to live in New York. I remember well the evening dinner party with them when I was just hours from giving birth to Avery, and the photograph of John cradling a giant piece of quartz from Livvy's collection that she reckoned was about the size our baby would be when born... her gift of a monogrammed sterling silver cigarette case for Avery upon her birth was the most, let's see, characteristic gift of all Avery received.
In the intervening years, we have had marathon phone calls from London to New Jersey, frantically intense visits on our returns home, a snowy dinner out at an Indian restaurant in Tribeca, the odd snatched dinner at their house, an unforgettable millennium house party in 1999... and finally a terrible, encompassingly loving arms-opening gesture to us in the days after we escaped our experiences of September 11, 2001. Our days there recovering from what we had been through will never be forgotten.
And through it all, many, many Fourths of July together, on the park hills of South Orange with glow-in-the-dark necklaces strung around Avery's sweaty little girl neck, she donning a white dress with smocking of an American flag for YEARS until she could scarcely breathe in it!
And so our arrival on Saturday night was, for me, simply steeped in love and memories. Impossible to live up to and yet, because they are who they are, their welcome to us surpassed anything we had ever had before. "Nothing ever changes here," Livia said placidly, pulling us into the white, white kitchen of the 1920s stone house. A glass of old Scotch, exchange of gifts, endless tale-telling, then a rush out to see fireworks... and back for the dish I had so hoped I would get: Janice's pink gazpacho! Ice cold, flecked with roasted almonds and permeated with the perfume of cumin... We remembered the old days of trying to decide what Avery would call Janice, when she was a tiny tot, and the agreement upon "Janicemommy," because for ages Avery could not seem to distinguish between "Janice" and "Mommy." I couldn't have been happier.
Candlelight both tall and in votives, Janice's granddaughter Anastasia there in all her 25-year-old glory, inclining her head gracefully when we realized that she was the age Avery is NOW, when Avery was born. How felicitous, how delightful! She who taught us to sing "Over in Killarney," to comfort newborn Baby Avery, and we still sing it to her every night.
Following the gazpacho was the most sublime cold shrimp salad, whose recipe I must share with you here:
Janice's Cold Summer Shrimp Salad
(serves 6 as a main course for luncheon or a late supper)
1 1/2 lb cooked large shrimp, tails removed, cut in thirds
1 1/2 cups celery, chopped fine
1/2 red pepper, cut fine
tiny bit of shallot, minced
1 cup mayonnaise
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
squeeze of lemon juice (plus the squeezed bit stirred through the salad)
1 tsp salt
Simply mix all, add the best of grateful friends and candlelight, and enjoy...
We succumbed in our own ways that evening to jetlag, or simply realistic exhaustion: first Avery who crept off to her old accustomed bedroom, sleeping with the plushy swan she has always slept with at Janicemommy's house, her room lit subtly by the ceramic nightlight "Gladys the Goose," tucked away in the corner of the room, dark shining wooden floors, white shelves filled with old children's books, the shades pulled down against the ancient ivy climbing up the windows.
John settled down on his own sleeping porch, a screened-in room adjoining my own bedroom, where he has always slept for the years we have descended on the family... I covered his sleeping shoulder with a silk white eiderdown, turned off his bedside lamp, lowered the shades...
And I myself kissed everyone good night and retired to my high four-poster, propped up by vintage white pillows in cases with knitted and crocheted edging, looking at the fireplace mantel with the carved wooden cat, its nose embedded in its wooden tail, a ceramic cow on a ceramic bit of lawn, on the table a pile of books, from "Cold Comfort Farm" to "Pride and Prejudice," with "Crime and Punishment" in between..."
It is a place of pure comfort, under the best and worst of circumstances, having seen life and death and fear and luxury. That is real comfort, I think, when where you are, and who you are with, have seen it all, and can still... comfort you.
Off in the morning to Red Gate Farm! A crazy afternoon settling in, unpacking our bits and pieces, looking up to see Anne, David and Kate coming across the road! John immediately races out the front door to open the gate (the RED one), which promptly falls off its hinges! "Welcome home!" Anne shouts! And there is baby Kate, a beautiful, plushy-haired, blue-eyed little-girl version of the baby we saw at Christmas, pulling herself up to Avery's knees as she sat beneath the tree holding Avery's tree swing, staring her in the eyes calmly while unleashing a ceaseless soft babble of unintelligible... language!
A slow, early evening, then everyone to sleep to awake early to the morning glories of Red Gate Farm... the chipmunks, John's birds beginning to return, and finally Becky's family, arrived to take Avery away to Greenwich for the week! We succumbed to the local brilliant fried-food joint, Denmo's, for an indulgent American lunch: can you imagine us eating all this food! Shrimps, clams, chicken, burgers, curly fries... and then ice cream if you can imagine (I could not!). It was heavenly to see Becky, to catch up on gossip, to pass Avery off with all adjurements to shop for clothes, we'll pay you back, be polite, have a fabulous time, enjoy it while you can (the unspoken undercurrent of every reunion with our old London friends)...
No wonder we feel exhausted by the first week of being back among our American ties: we haven't even described yet the joyous reunion with Jill, Jane, Joel and Molly! Much less Rollie and the horses...