08 August, 2009
Plenty of Girls
So funny it was yesterday, late afternoon: the trampoline was simply filled with girls! I felt quite sentimental, in an odd way considering I never met any of the old ladies who inhabited these two houses in our little stretch of road, to think of their spirits looking in on us in some way and seeing so much young life around the place. There was Avery, looking gorgeous and quite removed from the action, but still kind and sweet to the younger sprouts, then there were my nieces Jane and Molly, 4 1/2 and 9 months old (today!), then there was Baby Kate from across the road and her houseguest Gaia, age 3 1/2. The magnetic lure of the trampoline! Molly took refuge on John's lap, to be protected from the flailing arms and legs of bigger but still rather inconsistently moving girls. Kate sat with a bit more independence, but Gaia and Jane were moving targets, shouting, leaping, tripping over each other, sandals and Crocs everywhere. This pleased Kate to no end, who if her first long sentence isn't "Give me those Manolo Blahniks" I'll eat my ancient Wellingtons. She simply cannot resist shoes, anyone's shoes.
And can you resist these little kitty faces? The girls are settling down, not as seamlessly as one might perhaps wish (should kittens poo in the bathtub? rhetorical question), and their brother is a complete nutcase and delight. Avery is devoted to the task of settling them and gentling them, and in their service has accomplished many things I would never have dreamed possible, including learning to open a pull-top can, will wonders never cease.
I've just settled down from my accustomed nighttime wanderings: straightening flowers still thriving from Olimpia's visit, checking candles in windows I always leave when Anne and David (especially David) are across the road because they like the sign that all is well and cozy at Red Gate. I walked around downstairs, raising the shades in the bathroom from Avery's hours-long spa bath earlier in the week, putting down a dish of dry food for the kittens, folding one more load of laundry, drying up the odd tray and water pitcher and whatnot on the draining board, turning off the dishwasher so the AC can remove some of this humidity without shutting off all the power...
Late Friday afternoon brought us Judy's quick visit, laughing as she stepped over my floor-washing. "You can come to my house when you're finished here," she said, and I was happy to be found industrious and purposeful, instead of sitting around reading Soap Opera Digest as I might well have been found. She asked if I'd found a piano, since one of her friends thought she might be getting rid of hers, "Her daughter's got a much better piano now, she's a good little musician...", then reported on Rollie's finger, finally recovering from being thrashed by the milking cows. She complained, as all the farmers are, about the slow haying with wet weather. I must aver, however, that to my memory, the Connecticut farmer's reportage of weather is much like the English person's: eliciting amazement no matter what the outcome! Wet! Hot! Dry! It's all remarkable, and each summer the reaction is the same, "Well, what can you expect with the crazy WEATHER we've been having this summer?!"
We've kept busy with all our home repair and cleaning projects, while waiting fruitless for the painter to call or come by. Another summer will go by and this house will not be painted. For this we are truly sorry, but what can we do? I would have thought that in this economic climate a person who painted for a living would really like a job painting for a living, but apparently there are forces at work here that I do not understand. In the meantime, I follow the adorable sight of John and Avery filling the bird feeders, or John filling them as Avery follows him around with a rambling account of her dream last night, an involved one having to do with skating costumes available in online stores that then turn into REAL stores, or have magical URLs that can be accessed within the dream and then come true in real life. Actually, the skating dress is that unattainable dream that will doubtless follow Avery through the next 30 years of her life, like our finding a house painter.
Oh, and we have visited the worst, most awful horsey tag sale! How annoying to follow neon signs all over the neighborhood, announcing a HUGE HUGE TAG SALE, only to find that the items for sale were... horse blankets, bits, bridles, old dusty boots, and, branching out a bit, filthy dirty abandoned rabbit hutches, sets of chipped china mugs with grazing horses on them, used nail polish (I'm sorry to say Avery fell for a bottle in the shape of a kitten), and most amusing, two boxes semi-full of chalk, clearly labelled with the original price tags from KMart, 39 cents each, offered for the bargain price of... two for a dollar.
Yesterday, though, was one of those days of summer that comes along all too rarely: a whole day with my sister's family to visit, although alas no actual sister as she was traveling. We got, however, her husband Joel and their two little girls, Jane and Molly, they of the trampolining festival. Here for some play in the sun, Jane running around after Avery and Molly ensconced on a red and green quilt spread out on the terrace, surrounded by puffy pillows designed to keep her safe. Of course, she was able to aim one spectacular fall directly in the gap between these pillows and face-planted, with an enormous belated scream and spurting tears, into the stones. Ah, just a blip on an otherwise perfect day, and from the perspective of parents of a much older and more complicated child, how lovely to have tears so easily comforted!
We settled down at the picnic table with a feast. The first course: why on earth has it taken me so long this summer to make what is quite obviously the best possible cold soup? A long-time family classic, and one definitely worth your while to make, the day before, and chill overnight.
3 tbsps butter
2 bunches (about four cups of chopped good white and light green bits) leeks
1 large white onion, cut in eighths
6 medium potatoes, peeled and cut in bite-size chunks
1 48-ounce can commercial chicken broth, like College Inn
dash white pepper
1 cup light cream
1 cup skim milk (or two cups really good whole milk and skip the cream)
chopped chives to garnish
Melt the butter in a heavy stockpot and throw in the leeks, onions and potatoes. Stir until leeks are translucent, then cover in chicken broth and simmer for about 45 minutes until potatoes are tender. Liquidize with a hand blender and mix in cream and milk, then pass through a sieve into another stockpot into a large bowl. Refrigerate the soup overnight and then garnish with chives to serve. Perfection.
I have innumerable happy memories of this soup, given to me first by my darling New Jersey friends who hosted us for the Fourth of July. It's simply perfect: creamy, cold, beautiful with its flecks of green chives, simple yet complex. It's been the soup of choice for dozens of my gallery opening parties, Avery's enormous birthday celebrations in New York, picnics, all summer outings. Old-fashioned, and yet irresistible. I've worked for months, even years, on a chapter for my eventual book, describing this soup and its importance in our family history, and it's surprisingly hard to produce. You'd be amazed how easy it is to turn out thousands of words about something spontaneous that doesn't really signify, where on the other hand to express something really central to one's life is nearly impossible. Sigh.
Well, we followed our soup with grilled Cornish game hens - to my mind, the unsung heroes of American poultry (did you know there was such a category?). Don't even THINK about spending money on commercial barbecue sauce. You open up your fridge and make your own version of:
Refrigerator Door Barbecue Sauce
(makes enough for one round on the barbecue of whatever meat you have going)
1/3 cup each: honey, maple syrup, leftover tomato sauce, hoison (plum) sauce
couple shakes: maple vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice
Stir or shake all this up, rinse out the empty jars you've liberated from your refrigerator door, recycle them and count this a lucky, frugal, environmentally sound and delicious condiment.
This barbecue sauce won RAVE reviews. You simply remove the backbones of your Cornish game hens, flatten them out, and cover them with sauce, then grill them for about 20 minutes per side at 400. This sauce was even better tonight as cold leftovers, so give it a try. But the star of the lunch? Avery's blueberry tart. A triumph!
Then we were off to the pool, the two big girls and I, swim bag stuffed to the gills with things to read, extra towels, sunscreen, conditioner for my after-swim shower, you name it. John and Joel stayed home to put Molly down for her nap (did it really require two strong men? I didn't ask), and I was more than happy to swim with Avery and Jane, who decided suddenly that it was time to jump off the side of the pool all by herself, for the first time. How exciting! She is intrepid in the water, bobbing along in her upside-down goggles, shrieking with excitement. Whenever she gets an answer to a question that she doesn't expect she says indignantly, "WHAT?" like she wants her money back. "Why are you sitting out in the sun instead of coming in the water, Aunt Kristen?" "Because I'm chilly, Jane." "WHAT?" Her father turned up, full of amazement at her new skills, and concerned at the amount of pool water she was bringing home, potentially, in her belly. When she did something against his wishes, and he frowned slightly, she asked, "Why are you not amused, Daddy?"
Drama when on leaving the pool, a scrape was discovered on the bottom of her big toe. Off to the lifeguards who we asked for Neosporin and a bandaid. Joel and I watched in horrified silence as a lifeguard donned latex gloves and then approached Jane with an unmistakable pad soaked in ALCOHOL! Before we could stop her, she applied it to the scrape: what an idiot! Poor Jane erupted into understandable screams of pain and fear, and then thought the bandaid was permeated with the stuff and would not allow it to be applied! I want to be there when that blockhead lifeguard has a four-year-old of her own who coughs slightly and the mother then decides that the best remedy is to intubate her, just in case. Poor Jane. Finally home, though, and the lure of the trampoline, and all the visitors from across the road.
Is there anything more fun and festive to make for dinner for a lot of people than homemade pizza? That's a rhetorical question, and it was but the work of two minutes to stir up a bit of herby dough and stick it in the oven, letting it rise for an hour and a half while John and I sliced up tomatoes, pepperoni, red onions, mozzarella, cooked sausages and sliced those up too, opened jars of tomato sauce and ricotta cheese and a bag of parmesan and a handful of arugula and a dish of homemade pesto. Here's what I need for my birthday or something, though: a big piece of marble or granite for my kitchen table which would be perfect for rolling out pizza dough if it didn't have two leaves, which means the flour drifted down to the floor below through the seams, in a gentle sort of summer snowstorm. Well, and it's also completely uneven, or the floor underneath is, so the table rocks as I roll out the dough. Actually, as well, I don't have a rolling pin, so Jane was most amused to see me rolling with a wine bottle. OK, I'm making it sound as if my pizza-making facilities are completely inadequate, and they are, but I can tell you that even with two pizza trays, one cookie sheet and one tart pan, dinner turned out pretty spectacular. It's so much more fun than delivery or pickup, everyone can choose her own toppings, and it's just... fun.
Much, MUCH more fun than today. One word: GUTTERS. We knew it was coming, we knew it was necessary. Today rain was forecast all the livelong day, so we rushed to get in our tennis game early, and then raced to the grocery store for whatever we might need during the deluge, and then proceeded home at a far more petty pace to face up to the gutters. And they were worth dreading.
For one thing, John has a pretty painful fear of heights. Even under the best of circumstances, whatever those might be, he's just not happy up high. Well, home repair at our house is never under the best of circumstances. The barns yield up rickety hundred-year-old wooden hand-hewn ladders, which John then insists will be made perfectly level on the ground with a BRICK under one leg. And he hauls up ancient buckets that were once filled with bird seed, to catch the debris. So I followed him around, climbing up onto the roof myself to shimmy across and gain access to out-of-the-way places, and promptly slid down halfway, leaving all my shin skin on the roof tiles. Cranky! John had me hold the ladder, whereupon he accidentally threw whole handfuls of the gutter mess onto my face, hair and the like. Finally, in a growing panic and fit of anger, I said, "ENOUGH!" and we stopped short of the final side of the house, which is underlaid with soft moss that I simply could not see supporting the "ladder." Plus John, on an exploratory climb, reported he could not penetrate the leaves and maple helicopters even with a stick. Hmm. A problem for another day. He insisted on kissing me to dispel my bad humor and then said, "It had better f**ing rain."
So a bit of trouble in paradise. That's the trouble with nature, one of my favorite writers once said. "It's so natural." Poison ivy, spiders, dirty moldy leaves falling in your hair. You don't find that in London. Can it be that we've turned the corner of our summer emotions and find ourselves anticipating the charm in the life we've left behind? It's been known to happen. But then I look at this gorgeous photo of the Farm, taken by Shelley, and I'm smitten again.