16 August, 2009

heaven with family

As my dad said this evening, watching the girls playing together, the dads building a course of horsey jumps with Avery's beloved set of jumps, my mother and I sitting with my sister as she fed the baby, "Too bad you don't live just a half a mile away." Truer words were never spoken, a truth I try very hard not to think about 11 months of the year. Life is so absorbing as it is, in London, that it isn't too difficult to feel that it's all just fine, working splendidly thank you. Until our family is all together (minus my brother who stayed home to mind the house and cats), I don't think too much about What Might Have Been, what life might be like if we all lived within shouting distance of each other and had the time to spend weekends together, do home repair projects together, to have our parents mind our child, to have the luxury of getting sick of each other, annoyed by each other. As it is, we just hold it close these few weeks (just days with my mother and father), and enjoy.

Today was such fun! All three of us cleaned house with a vengeance, eradicating spiders in their webs (they proliferate unbelievably in the summer months!), dust bunnies under beds, I washed kitchen rugs AND the floor, we made the guest room bed, grocery shopped till we dropped for the day today and the big birthday party tomorrow. Finally the house was completely presentable, one more load of laundry in the machine.

John and I suffered, there's no other word for it, through a sweltering, stinking game of tennis mid-morning, while Avery swam. I do not do well HOT. I kept straining to hear the sounds of children jumping into clear, cold water, and felt all the hotter and more martyred to the game. But we persevered in the humidity and got in about 40 minutes before I finally said UNCLE and drank my last enormous gulp of icy water, and we headed to the pool. Glorious, face-cooling laps, refreshing beyond belief to drift through the water, listening to children's shouts, lifeguard's occasional lackadaisical whistles and all-too-repetitive "Don't run!", the Top 40 Claptrap radio blaring its wares over the still summer air. We roused ourselves to shower, go home and get dressed for the arrival of my parents. I listened to one of my favorite summer books on tape, "Missing Susan," about a mystery tour of England with one of the tourists an intended murder victim, snorting with laughter as I fed Avery some leftover pasta with a truly stupendous tomatoey vodka sauce and started on devilled eggs for my mother, who would kill for them. And then there they were!

"What on earth are you doing coming in the front door?" I asked in bewilderment, since nobody but Terminix ever enters the house in that fashion. "Your mother wanted to enter the house," my father began, and my mother finished, "Through the proper entrance, and to see how you've changed these rooms!"

The changed music room and dining room found favor, as did the resurrected bookshelves, special ornaments, all the old objects finding new life. I always simply bow to the fact that my mother is a supremely gifted interior designer and I myself, as I confessed to her, just put things where they go and generally never think about them again. It's funny: her gifts in home decor found no purchase with me, where she cannot be bothered to think a thing about what to eat. But I greatly enjoyed growing up in a beautiful home and she loves to eat my food, so somehow we both fell into appreciating each other's talents without having the slightest inclination to pick up the other's interests. It's a rare mother, I think, who can see her child growing up without sharing her own passions, developing her own, and go on to love visiting that child in her design-challenged home and love being fed by her. We really enjoy each other, that's the simple truth.

My father came armed with solid-gold tomatoes from his own garden, which my sister and I are meant to share. Exactly how will that work, I wonder? We all gazed upon them today and I promptly made my tomato-mozzarella salad out of dull tomatoes from the supermarket, postponing the inevitable squabble. My mother brought me a watercolor of my childhood home, where they still live! And an old shadow-box made of a printer's tray that I, in high school, had filled with trinkets and mementoes from that senior year: so many things I had forgotten about completely! My city champion diving medal! And medals from singing competitions, and essay contests, a key to the city from the mayor of my hometown... And a piece of driftwood from Omaha Beach, amazingly, with the flag of Normandy behind it, and my boarding pass to France when I was 17.

Avery was enthralled with this hitherto undreamed-of evidence of my adolescence, and I was visited with a beloved memory from my childhood, sitting on my bedroom rug with MY mother, looking at her high-school diary, hearing stories of her boyfriends, her quarrels with my grandmother who always seemed far too serene to go in for such scenes. When I looked at Avery, in all her teenage grace, tucking her hair behind her ear, exclaiming with disbelief and admiration at the tokens of my childhood achievements, I felt a complete surreal dislocation of roles, and times. How we replace our mothers! How lucky we are to have daughters to sit down with and look at all this tiresome and yet beloved memorabilia! How on earth did we produce these wonderful girls, Avery this summer seeming suddenly to be such a companion and friend.

John retreated upstairs to take a nap in the humid summer air, even with AC. I taught my mother a skill she never in her LIFE will use: how to remove the backbone from an enormous American chicken, and smothered it in barbecue sauce. Two of them, in fact, and she was completely grossed out, further reinforcing her view that food should come in a form not recognizable as an animal, I'm afraid. I made a sugar-cream pie ("Chess Pie," I think, to my dear Southern friend Becky), and you can, too.

Sugar-Cream Pie
(serves 8, or my mother when she's in the mood)

1 store-bought pie crust, or you can make your own
5 tablespoons flour
1 cup unrefined sugar
2 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
whole nutmeg

Sprinkle flour and sugar into the unbaked pastry crust, then add cream and mix WITH YOUR FINGERS. I know this sounds disgusting and it is. A bit. But every recipe I read included this arcane instruction to mix with fingers, so I did. Just keep stirring gently, picking up the sugar from the bottom, squishing the flour bits into the cream, until it's all mixed. Then gently add vanilla and grate nutmeg, just a sprinkling, over the top.

Bake at 450F for 10 minutes, then turn oven down to 350 and bake for another hour. Take the precaution of lining the oven floor with foil, because I didn't and the repulsive job of cleaning my oven which I'd done the DAY BEFORE will now have to be redone, because sugary cream leaked over the edge of the pie. Drat.

Cool completely before serving.


This pie was received with the enthusiastic accolades of John and my mother, the reserved "it's nice" of other people, and I myself decided, with Abraham Lincoln, that "it's the sort of thing you'll like, if you like that sort of thing." Very sweet and creamy, simple and old-fashioned. Avery can decide whether or not she wants to blog it herself, after we make the two further desserts for tomorrow's birthday party.

My sister and her family arrived, in the warm August afternoon, to Jane's scream, "Nonna!" and my father's amused scrutiny of Molly, who can match him gaze for gaze. The girls retrieved Avery's horsey jumps from the barn, I concocted a salad of spinach and arugula with steamed potatoes and red onions and a mustardy vinaigrette, and then Joel walked out of the kitchen saying calmly, "There's smoke in there, a LOT of smoke," and sure enough, my oven was emitting angry relentless waves of smoke from the sugar on its floor, utterly forgetting that its current job was to cook the barbecued spatchcocked chicken. Ah well, John leapt to the rescue with the grill, and the chicken was gorgeous in the end, half-baked, half-grilled. Be spontaneous, I always say.

We ate, the girls horsey-jumped, my mother gave them adorable gifts in the form of a stuffed alpaca owl for Molly, a stuffed deer baby for Jane, and silver horse charms and a charm necklace for Avery!

Tomorrow will bring Anne, David and Kate from across the road, and all the family again for the annual birthday party. I can't wait. But I'll leave you with one question: why is my blog so easy to write and my cookbook/memoir so impossible? What on EARTH am I missing that I can't seem to bridge this unbridgable gap? How can I solve this conundrum? Answer me that and I'll cater your daughter's wedding. Or whatever. It's killing me.


A Work in Progress said...

I sympathize with your conundrum. I think you need a really good commercially minded editor with alot of experience to help you shape this. Memoirs are so tricky. I think you really have something here - you have a unique voice, and I for one absolutely consume your writing, so there has to be a wider readership out there. But I would think this is where the professionals come in - I wouldn't try to do it on my own.

Kristen In London said...

Oh, you are so correct in what you say. I need professional help. Not in the way it sounds! I need someone to help me figure out where to go from here. Why am I not satisfied with simply my blog? I don't know if it's just an old-fashioned preference for a "real" book. Anyway, thank you for your vote of confidence, as always...