29 December, 2009

a flood of memories

Twenty years.

As of tomorrow, that is how long my beloved and I have been married.

I keep trying to picture myself 20 years ago, with no house (much less two, on two different continents), no PhD (however redundant these days), no child - how is that possible?

As if to punctuate this great milestone, yesterday found us all in SoHo to go shopping. SoHo, the place of our first New York home in 1993, where we could stand on our "balcony" (this is what we called our fire escape) and look to the north at the Chrysler Building and to the south at the Woolworth Building. Here we planted our adult lives, made our first New York friends, bought our first important art. And by important I mean...

I had art students. I was the youngest professor at Hunter College and my God, how I LOVED my job. Art students! Those who made art with their hot little hands and those who were training to study it all, and what fun we had. At the end of every semester, I invited my students home to my loft on Broadway to drink wine, eat shrimp butter and show slides of their work. And one of those early semesters, I was lucky enough to find Brenna Beirne, who showed a slide of an installation of sculptures I can only now describe to you, stored as they are in a massive warehouse somewhere in New Jersey until we someday have walls tall and wide enough to hold them.

They are "The Ladies." Five full-scale sculptural casts of Brenna's own form, from the neck down, in five different poses, cast in plaster, brushed with wax and graphite. When I saw the slide of these pieces, I simply could not believe their beauty. "Where are they now?" I asked in wonder, and Brenna answered with youthful carelessness, "Oh, they were stolen from my senior show." "STOLEN?" "Yep."

"Weren't you devastated?" I asked. "Why? I still have my body, I can always make them again." Just then, John walked into the apartment to see the slide on the wall. "WHAT are THOSE?" he demanded, in thrall as I had been.

It was but the work of a moment to commission Brenna to cast her body, one more time.

So she arrived on John's birthday, our friend Christine in tow to steady the ladder, and while John was at work, she installed "The Ladies." Five Ladies all in a row, from full profile to the left, part profile, straight ahead, part profile to the right, full profile to the right. HOW I wish I had a photograph to show you.

And John came home, dropped his briefcase, and was stunned.

These sculptures followed us to yet another loft in Tribeca, and then had a wall designed just for them in our final loft before our move to London. Whereupon, they were wrapped carefully, said a prayer over, and waved goodbye to their storage place far, far away. When will we ever see them again?

Yesterday we stood outside that old loft on Broadway, remembering the deli across the street where I bought our orange juice and "two eggs on a roll," the block-long walk to Dean and Deluca where I bought croissants, and John's mom once snapped a photo of me coming home, buttery paper bag in hand, in a long form-fitting black dress, ready to teach my class... young and hopeful and THIN and full of energy!

From there to one of our favorite shops on West Broadway, where we helped Avery shop tirelessly for clothes (she and her grandmother have an inexhaustible supply of energy for this activity, long after John and I have stopped looking at our watches!). Suddenly John emerged from the back of the shop, saying, "You will NEVER believe who I have run into back here!" And it was... Brenna. My dear girl, who had just peopled our memories ten minutes before!

A long, hugging reunion, exchange of how to get in touch with one another, a bit tearful at her encountering Avery at age 13, my asking after her twins of 9 and a half years... life, in short, surprising us once more.

A big gulp of life.

Off we went to the shop where we, 20 years ago, bought my gorgeous gold wedding ring, now too small (Avery's arrival for some reason made my hands and feet grow!). We dropped it off to see if they could stretch it somehow, as my latest arrangement of it as a pendant on a leather thong is just not quite enough. More memories, of us in the very same place, planning our wedding, deciding we didn't want a diamond, would just move straight to the wedding band, John choosing his own (years later lost in the wild snows of Canada on a skiing trip when he removed his glove with a flourish and...).

John's mom and Avery went off on their Christmas errand of finding Avery's signature fragrance, a perfume she felt really identified her. And after trying on all she wanted to, guess what she chose? Chloe, my own high school fragrance! How the past seemed determined to haunt me yesterday.

In a cab uptown via 6th Avenue, haunting me further with memories of Avery's ballet classes at Joffrey, with the hated "Miss Liz," one of Avery's long string of early-childhood hated female authority figures! No wonder ballet lasted only about a year. But I loved those days, when I'd run her up the three floors of skeevy stairs, drop her off in her pink tutu, then race back downstairs and up the block to Jefferson Market, one of my favorite foodie destinations: the perfect mozzarella, the plumpest pork roasts, a fruit stand to die for. Then back up those three flights of stinky stairs to hear what I came to think of as Avery's "Moan of the Week." How she HATED ballet!

From there past 11th Street, a brief look at the yellow facade of the school where Avery was evacuated after September 11, 2001... terrible memories of September 19, dropping her off into what felt to me the most dangerous of all possible traps... terrible hollow, black memories of dread.

Uptown further to Shun Lee restaurant to meet up with my darling Alyssa and Annabelle! Alyssa and I agreed later that we can survive being 3000 miles apart when we ARE apart, but when we're sitting together at a dinner table, the number of dinners we're missing together suddenly seem overwhelming and we feel quite ferklempt. The girls have become so elegant, so sleek and grownup, that the shimmery vision of their 2-year-old selves together just breaks our hearts. How have the years so dissolved since then?

From dinner, clutching each other in goodbyes, we headed in a tremendous wind across Columbus Avenue to Lincoln Center, and... the Nutcracker!

When Avery was tiny, maybe just past her third birthday, John's mom and dad decided she needed to go to the "Nutcracker." Friends and relatives alike shrank from our plans to spend untold dollars on a late evening of ballet for a tiny child who would probably melt down. I brought along a little plastic bag full of jelly beans, prepared to bribe her with them should her patience flag. My psychologist father objected strongly, saying, "You should not give her a treat to convince her to behave, but rather give her one after she HAS behaved!" This subtlety was entirely lost on me, intent only on three hours of good behavior, no matter what theories I ruined in the doing.

As it was, she was an angel, completely riveted. And John's parents took us to the Nutcracker for all the years to come, until we moved to London. As if we needed one more reason to be sorry to move away.

And even then, when we returned for the holidays to Connecticut, John's dad was too ill for the "Nutcracker" to be part of our plans. And then he was gone. Unbelievably. A stunning gulf of loss where our Christmases, our endless games of the Fabulous Foursome who were John's parents and we, and then the Fivesome when Avery arrived, had played such an enormous and joyous part of our lives.

Here's something strange, something I've learned. When you know you're going to lose something unutterably dear to you, you try to believe that the love you've felt, the appreciation you've always hugged close, will count for something, will give comfort. "At least we never took anything for granted," you say to yourself, trying to believe it. You hold your memories close, you treasure the person.

Then when the loss comes, you feel that all that assurance, all the past appreciation, doesn't count any more. What about now? What about wanting to tell him something now, right now? About Avery's school acceptance, a new dish I know he'd love to share with us, a first look at our new house. There is only sadness at the void.

But what I've found this Christmas is that the memories DO help. The streets of SoHo were filled, yesterday, with images of John's dad, his love of shopping, his careless disregard for how much a dress might cost at Morgane le Faye, if it looked beautiful on Avery. His joy in finding just the right extravagant bottle of Scotch for John (and a secret black sweater for me, most years). His shy pride at meeting our friends, seeing the cool new sculptures hanging on our wall, hearing me tell about teaching, John's reports of exotic business trips, my trying out a new recipe that he'd later report was "a meal to kill for." He was there, with us, all day yesterday, and never more so than at the "Nutcracker," looking back over all the years of tiny Avery, right through the elegant teenager she was last night.

The memories really do help. They do.

Home we came, visions of snowy Sugarplum Fairies dancing in our heads. Christmas trees alight, our cozy house here to welcome us, a day of beloved friendships to pore over.

Twenty years. They couldn't have been more full, which means great joys and great sorrows, putting down roots here, pulling them up and starting again, holding people close and saying goodbye, saying hello again, holding onto images from the past and knowing that yesterday will provide many more for the future.

A huge sigh of thanks for everyone we hold dear.

Most of all, thank you to my husband. Twenty years. Here's to twenty more, at least.

28 December, 2009

in the wake of Christmas

Oh, a quiet day today, making turkey soup, taking a walk with Anne and little Kate across the road, watching Kate choose every dirty snowy puddle she could find. "I can't believe it was snowy here yesterday, and today, green everywhere," Anne marvelled. We could hear the rain thundering down all night.

The stormy night suited my mood of reluctant goodbyes to my family: my mother, father and brother: after two days of reminiscing, giggling over silly shared jokes, family-familiar quotations from movies, "But, Harlot, Scunny!" "I saw it in the window and couldn't resist it," discussions of old high school friends ("I swear he had a crush on you but your nose was always in a book!"), analysis of the plots (truly) of "Days of Our Lives," watching the little girls and Avery share jokes with my mother, my brother playing a toy guitar for them all, my dad watching over all. He was a tremendous help in the kitchen on Christmas Day, quietly washing dishes, supervising Jane's help with my cheesy spinach, listening to all the gossip.

I find if very sad that family, and family time in our lives, is such a rarity. I spent the first 18 years of my life simply cocooned with my family, close and extended, and that life provided a sense of warmth and acceptance that I feel again whenever I am with my mother and father. Why must it be for two days at a time twice a year? It is not enough time, ridiculously not enough, to make them realize what they mean to me. But it's what we have. Perhaps this year they can make it to London, and we can have the fun of showing them our house, Avery's school, our little world. Until then, we've had our Christmas.

And it was controlled INSANITY! Simply loads of packages for everyone to open, especially as I feel compelled to wrap books separately, to be appreciated on their own, each one, and of course I give mostly books! A pull-tab "Miffy" for baby Molly, which was grabbed by five-year-old Jane immediately. My sister broke in.

"No, no, Jane, don't break that. Let Molly break it for herself."

There were the remote-controlled helicopter races between John and Joel - John's gift of the year to everyone he loves, and no matter my skepticism, everyone in fact loved it! Hovering near our heads, threatening to go into the dishwasher, to cut off my knees, to ascend into the double-height kitchen ceiling where no one could reach it! Engine-obsessed Jane was in heaven.

Avery retreated now and then with a favorite Sherlock Holmes book and a throw, to a remote corner, but was soon followed by Jane, and then by everyone else who wanted to be with Avery and Jane! Perhaps the most peaceful moment of the entire day: with Joel in the barn, looking up at the repair braces we've been paying for and receiving email photographs of all autumn. The whole project looks massively official and supportive and quite as if the Big Red Barn might well stand up for another 200 years. Joel and I took several deep breaths in the darkness of the barn and then plunged again into Kitchen Christmas Central, to manage the chaos.

Chief among whose elements was... the Raw Turkey! Slow-cooked was the goal. How long it would have had to cook, at 250 degrees F, I do not know, in order to be ready for dinner, but considerably, painfully longer than the 5 hours allotted to it. Joel, who is my ace carver, approached with carving knife. "Kristen, look at these juices..." Running red and pink. Awful. Panic. "Can we all, including the mashed potatoes and spinach, wait for another hour?" "We'll have to!" So Joel dismembered Mr. Turkey and separated the breasts from the sternum and I turned up the heat (all I was capable of) and we simply waited.

Finally the turkey was deemed edible, the mashed potatoes had survived, the very rosemary-y gravy whisked up with cream, the stuffing out of the oven and the apple gone in. We gathered around the table. Feasting ensued, and by the time we got to the pies with whipped cream, everyone was feeling slightly mad with overeating and festivity. "Don't lick the reindeer!" I had to warn dear Jane, who saw the ceramic centerpiece covered with stray whipped cream. At this, my mother choked into her pecan pie, she who taught us all to love phrases that we feel certain have never been uttered before. "Don't lick the reindeer!" Classic.

So the holiday has come and gone again. Today we were tired. We took a walk up the meadow to John's Dad's Bench, sat to recover our breath, to remember our time with him two years ago, to be grateful, regretful, all at the same time.

And tomorrow: into New York for shopping and the Nutcracker! That's life for you, isn't it? Just when I think I will take a moment to wallow in nostalgia for my childhood, in my love for my too-far-away family, tomorrow appears with its own delights. A lesson, I'm sure, to be learned in the New Year...

25 December, 2009

Happy Christmas Eve...

"Whirlwind" doesn't approach a description of the last few days here in Connecticut. Our arrival was like all arrivals: late, irritating, slowed by traffic, a bit of anxiety whetted by having Avery ill with a cold, asleep on the backseat of the car from Newark... The car filled to the gills with luggage containing every precious Christmas present I could find in London for our nearest and dearest, my mind filled with holiday prep of a magnitude I could hardly imagine, all to be accomplished in three short days.

But as always, we pulled up to the serenity of Red Gate Farm - newly painted a bright, shining white! - and crunched through the snow, staggering under our suitcases and jetlag, pushed open the front door, swollen with age. And into... perfection. Warmth because our neighbors turned on the heat, a refrigerator full of food because our neighbors thought we might arrive late and need a roasted chicken, a dozen eggs, butter, milk. And other treasures! A newly published book written by our Thanksgiving tenants, and a bag of pecans harvested from their Oklahoma summer home!

Electric blankets switched on, a Scotch poured, Avery folded into her cozy tiny bed under the eaves, in that smallest of all possible bedrooms.

Tuesday I awoke at my usual first-day hour of 7 a.m. and it was a good thing, because I never stopped moving the entire day! A massive grocery shop, brisket in Guinness and tomatoes and garlic put simmering on the stove for dinner, presents unpacked, a lightning trip to the shopping center for wrapping paper in hundreds of yards, tape, ribbons, bows. A rush to get John's mom's room ready and welcoming: that barn-red comforter, green glass bedside lamp glowing over the photograph of John's dad, smiling at us from his easy chair, clean towels and the best Hello! magazines I could bring from London, fresh shampoo! And off to the airport to get her.

And as Avery and I sat at the first red light on the way, CRASH! Our heads and torsos swung back and forth like those crash dummies. "What the...?" Rear-ended, by a hapless young girl from San Francisco, driving her father's mammoth 4x4, "I thought the light was green!" No time to call the police, just a quick exchange of phone numbers and my forestalling her "I'm SO SORRY! I'm SO SORRY!" with "Just give me your number, I have to get to the airport!" The taillight a goner, the bumper not much better, but driveable. And to White Plains we went.

Christmas isn't Christmas until I've put my arms around John's mom. An overwhelming sense of gratitude at seeing her, all in one piece, so grateful to have her safe and sound under my wing for the foreseeable future. I know she'll leave again, but for right now, she's safe with me.

Home to decorate the two trees, left here by Farmer Rollie in the woodshed: one in the front parlor bearing every antique glass ball and knitted doll and ceramic riding boot (thanks to my darling Christmassy mother!) that we could find in the cupboard under a bookshelf that serves as my Christmas attic. One of the leather armchairs didn't mind being moved for the duration, to make room for the tree. And another tree in the kitchen, decorated only with white lights and the silver bells John's mom gives us each year, engraved with something significant from the past twelve months. This year: "Hello Minnow", for our new little grey Cinquecento!

The brisket! Heaven.

Classic Winter Brisket
(serves 6-ish)

3 tbsps olive oil
1 flat-cut brisket
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 white onion, sliced thin
1 bottle Guinness
2 cups chicken stock
2 large cans Italian plum tomatoes
good sprinkle dried thyme
pinch sea salt

In a very large heavy pot, heat the olive oil and sear the brisket on both sides. Then add the garlic and onions and stir until slightly cooked. Add everything else and cook until the sauce comes to a high simmer, then turn heat down to maintain a low simmer for at least three hours. After that, the cooking may be stopped at any time and restarted at any time, simply reheating when you're ready to eat.

Serve with noodles and something crunchy like slaw. Perfect for a cold night.


Tomorrow I shall tell you in proper detail about what you do with the leftover brisket cooking juices, but for right now, one word: MINESTRONE.

Yesterday I did nothing in the morning but wrap presents, watch John's mom wrap presents, discuss wrapping presents with Avery and John! Secrets abound: "Avery, your present isn't really a THING at all..." and all the elaborate preparations for John's mom's present which isn't a THING either... much whispering, shouts of "Don't come in here!" "Can't I come through to get to the bathroom? I really want to brush my teeth..." "NO!" And we concocted the traditional Christmas oyster stew, which really must rest for at least a day before serving. Fresh-shucked Maryland oysters, minced celery, onions and garlic, cream and Tabasco: you can't go wrong.

Then in the afternoon we headed off to my sister Jill's for the true family reunion! The delight of seeing my entire family in one room! My dad's twinkling eyes, my mother's crinkly, delighted smile, my brother's shy hug. And Jill, Joel, Jane and Molly! We took a tour to see their fabulous entryway-bathroom renovation, the house truly perfect now. Heated floors! Bathroom drawers with their names burned into them! What luxury and style. Their house simply bubbles with welcome and comfort, as do they. We loaded the car with all the parcels they've been graciously taking in from the postman for us, in the weeks running up to Christmas. A shocking pile!

Jill set up a cookie-decorating station for the girls, and of course Jane discovered that if you put a great deal of glitter on a cookie WITHOUT icing it first... "Uh oh!" John and Joel tried in vain to resurrect our taillight... I fear that's going to be a long, unpleasant story. "Did your neck or back hurt at all, Kristen?" someone asked, and I had to admit, "Not until I talked to the insurance agent."

Finally I read Jane her naptime story and it was time to head home, trying to arrive before dark fell, with our plundered lights. Minestrone, more wrapping, pretending as always that there is no jetlag.

And tonight, the lighting of candles in the hydrangea tree, a fairytale moment. And not a breath of breeze, so we skipped the yearly "will they or won't they" with the candles. Then the traditional Christmas Eve with Anne, David, Connie, Alice and now baby Katie from across the road. The child can say "bubble" and "baby" and "Avery", renewing her love affair with my teenager, her boon companion of the trampoline over the summer. We talked, as usual, all over each other, enjoying little canapes of smoked dilled salmon on blinis with creme fraiche, watching Katie run from "mama" to "dada", narrating her progress as she went, staring into the fire and saying dreamily, "Pretty, pretty..." Oyster stew, gingerbread men and brownies made by John's mom, the delights of a small child up far past her bedtime who doesn't seem to mind, goodbyes on the snowy porch. Connie said, "It's such a joy to see this house so festive and happy, when it was dark and neglected for so long. I just wish you could be here always." So do we, Connie. Sometimes!

When I am in London I dream of the peace of this place. Candles always flickering, family always here, friends we can never see enough of, people to cook with, gossip with, surrounded by books and old, shabby, favorite furniture and art from the 20 years of our marriage. Of course London life bubbles in its own way, revved up like a super-caffeinated drink sometimes, all fizzy, glittery and exciting. But when I take a late-night walk here, down the unpaved old road, and look back to see our little white house, perched in the moonlight, Christmas tree lights winking from inside, a blanket of stars overhead, family inside safe and sound, I think, "If only..."

The truth is, for me at least, the beauty of life is in the contrasts. The quiet of Red Gate Farm finds its charm in my knowing I'll be back in the bustle of London very soon, and the frantic pace of London is lovely because I know I can always touch quietude here. I know how lucky I am.

Merry Christmas to you all, friends and family alike. Have a wonderful one.

13 December, 2009

the best of times, the worst of times

Charles Dickens aside, it has really been the ultimate holiday roller coaster chez moi these days. Let me explain.

Monday I awoke with a blinding headache. I'm not prone to headaches. I tried everything: John squeezing the back of my neck till my eyesight went blue, a couple of ibuprofens, finally the ultimate: two fizzy tablets of Tylenol with codeine, in a glass of water. I first discovered this sovereign remedy when we were in Moscow many years ago, minutes away from a private tour of the Kremlin, when POWEE! One of those cartoon headaches, where lightning bolts issue from the head of the Actual Sufferer. A savvy fellow traveler offered me the fizzy solution and ZAP - another cartoon moment. Lightning bolts evaporate. But not on Monday.

The Royal Albert Hall and its Annual Choral Society Christmas Concert waits for no man, however suffering, so off we went after an early supper. And for the first half I was golden. Forgot the headache in favor of "Once in Royal David's City" with the full soprano descant, AND the Royal Grenadier Trumpeters in those fluffy furry black hats! Their trumpets came complete with the royal seal on little flags which they draped ceremoniously over the heads of the choir below when they played.

I'm sorry, American identity mine: when you're in the RAH, full of holiday greenery, the plummy tones of the conductor telling very tame and hilarious jokes ("When I was a little boy, I visited a family who said a prayer before every meal. My family didn't do so, because my mother was a very good cook"), and those trumpets blare at the final chorus of "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing"... you just want to be English! At least I do. And there's something about a National Anthem that celebrates not just the country but its leader - "God Save the Queen" - that is heartwarming. Bless her! Why couldn't we Americans sing "God Bless the President"? I'm sure we could learn. It's very unifying.

And in the row above us was... drumroll... "Strictly Come Dancing" finalist Chris Hollins! What could be better!

And so all was well until... I suddenly became most rashly unwell, all of a moment, and had to dash out of the hall. Twice. By the second time I was well and truly ready for the end of the concert, so last verse, no encore, bob's your uncle and we were home. Me under Avery's puzzled scrutiny, huddling under a duvet with several hundred hot water bottles and John hovering over me. Nothing to be done.

Monday night and Tuesday were a blur. Wednesday I staggered above the surface of misery to discover that aside from fatigue, I felt quite well. That old chestnut, the 24-hour bug. "Poor Mommy," Avery said, brushing my brow in relief.

Until Thursday morning when John said, "I have the worst headache." Oh no.

Oh yes.

And then that evening Avery slunk into our bedroom at precisely bedtime (as creatures like this will do, in captivity). "I've broken another bracket on my braces. I think it needs to be fixed tomorrow."

Sigh. "Tomorrow" already involved a visit to school to drop off the proceeds of Monday's Lost Property sale, a stint at the LP room itself, a trip to the post office, and, as it turned out, a horse show.

I rose from my fainting couch to accomplish all these things (broken braces brackets are really no big deal, and Avery's ortho immediately said at the same time I did, "We must stop meeting like this; people will begin to talk"). From there a race to get a cab to Hammersmith and to take John's place at Olympia for the Annual Horse Show, with Avery's friend Lillie and her father, the MOST urbane, gentle, protective, elegant man I have ever met. He wore an ascot. He was the dream escort, and the two girls in complete heaven. I had prepared myself with an antihistamine, and for once did not sneeze my head off.

Four hours, one gourmet dinner, a celebrity bump-into for the girls with the Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla, to the uninitiated! "honestly, we just accidentally walked into her!" they claimed), a very nice evening of conversation and a walk home in the snow later, it was finally bedtime. Poor John was down for the count.

So this morning came that dreaded sound in my life: the ALARM CLOCK. I am the original night owl. Any one need advice, recipes, a reading list, flight schedules at midnight? I'm your man. But patient conversation at 7 a.m.? Not so much. After supplying apple tart, salami and apple juice, the banter went like this:

"Have you brushed your teeth? And your hair could use something..."

"Mommy, I have this down to a schedule. You don't need to worry."

"But today you need to pack for the party and sleepover after school."

"I KNOW [elaborate patience]. Trust me!"

(five minutes later)

"Did you pack your toothbrush and toothpaste? And don't go on Facebook until you've packed your bag. Did you REALLY brush your hair? It looks..."

Believe me, I'd hate me too if I were her. She maintained an elegant silence. Her lovely friend Emily could not arrive soon enough to allow her to escape from me and into the frigid snowy air, full of gossip and comparison of afternoon social plans. Double sigh.

Can I just ask? HOW ON EARTH do people with more than one child, a job, and no second parent ever survive a week when they get sick? This week I would have had to do all John did for us, plus all I did for us, plus earn a living, AND vomit. I live in complete awe and amazement at everyone who does what I do without any of the support I have.

Of course, these people are probably sensible enough not to be neurotic wrecks over mere inconsequentials, as I manage to be. For example. This morning I knew very well that Avery was going straight from school, at noon, to a birthday party with a school friend, including a movie at a cinema, on a public bus, and spending the night. But somehow, in the fog of weeklong illness and holiday must-cheer, I never ascertained some salient details. Imagine the police, if Avery didn't turn up.

"So, Kristen [we'd be on a first-name basis], who are these parents your daughter was going to?"

No idea. Avery says they're both doctors.

"And the birthday girl, is she a close friend?"

Couldn't pick her out of a lineup, although I hear she is REALLY good at putting eye makeup on other girls at lunchtime.

"Where do they live?"

Well, I could tell you the address on the class list, but I later found out through assiduous (if belated) telephoning that this address is outdated by 6 months.

"Did you send your daughter with a phone, spending money or identification?"

At this point, I would simply give up and start signing adoption forms. How could I be so careless? I'll tell you how. Because this year of Avery's life seems to be all about how to Hold On and Let Go. Pay Attention But Don't Interfere. Be Supportive But Not Intrusive. And I just don't know how to go halfway. I'm very good at handling it ALL. And apparently, if today's any example, I'm spectacularly talented at doing nothing. But the whole gradual letting-go of control? Not so much.

I finally broke down and called a friend whose daughter was going to the same party. "At the risk of sounding both a nutter and really irresponsible..." I began... when the other mother broke in. "You mean where on earth are they, and who are they with? I don't know either."

So John and I survived a quiet evening recuperating, with some nice simple sauteed lemon sole. He's asleep and I'm definitely NOT worrying about Avery, who has no phone or visible means of support. She has a strong scream.

And I have my mantel full of Christmas cards. Isn't it funny. Snail mail is nearly dead in our lives. I rarely use a stamp in normal life. I have one friend without a mobile phone or email and I do ring her at home and I write to her. But real letters? Never anymore. Until Christmas. Now the rug inside the letterbox is full of lovely white square envelopes with foreign stamps, and my heart leaps.

So even if I can't keep down a meal on a given Monday evening, or keep track of my daughter on a given Friday night, I can keep friendships of a lifetime, marching in their green, gold and red, above my flickering fireplace. And for that moment, as I look upon them, life is safe, and good.

11 December, 2009


One a.m. after a night at the theatre and I'm perched up in bed over a plate of luscious salt beef, a dollop of mustard and a half a pickle... can you tell I passed by one of my favorite little shops on the way home from Leicester Square this evening? I am very lucky that my greedy tabby Hermione who normally snatches anything and everything off my plate has decided that Jewish foods are not to her liking, so my snack is safe as I type.

Is it January yet? I adore this time of year, as you know, and I'm certainly not complaining. But there's no doubt that the hands of the clock start spinning around, layer after layer of party, concert, dinner, celebration of every kind piles one after another, and before you know it, you've scheduled three things in a row at night with a school-age child who's completely exhausted by tonight, a lovely crisp Friday.

Wednesday began cold and fair with my little writing class meeting here for croissants, a slight dissection of my "Thanksgiving chapter," and a long discussion of characterization and how to get it. It was a cool exercise: call to mind a real person you know, then list every quality about that person you can think of (or imagine, if you chose). We spent ten long, silent minutes at it and what we ended up with was fascinating. What happens when you clear your mind and simply LIST things about a person is that patterns begin to emerge, connections between personality traits, significance arises from little habits and preferences. I can see how this sort of exercise could build an entire novel's worth of characters if only I could be disciplined enough to do it.

Certainly it makes solitary things like grocery shopping or waiting for the bus MUCH more interesting, as every single person you see becomes a potential collection of qualities, likes and dislikes, experiences, hopes and dreams. It was great fun. Exhausting, strangely, I think because it opens the mind, makes everything an ingredient for writing. Is there anything more fascinating than the people one knows? Yes, maybe it's the people other people know, because all three of us in the little class came up with entirely different sorts of people.

From there to the Christmas concert at school in the evening, with a delightful afternoon of cooking in between, since I was hosting a little party after the concert. Roast ham, gorgeous bresaola, Parma ham, several luscious cheeses brought by Annie, including my hands-down favorite, Mont d'Or, slightly stinky and perfect with plenty of crunchy crackers. Just lovely. A huge salad of tiny tomatoes with cucumber and a great dressing gave some welcome color and texture to the dinner:

Tomato Cucumber Salad
(serves 8)

2 pounds baby plum tomatoes
1/2 hydroponic cucumber, seeds removed with a spoon
1 stalk lemon grass, about 6 inches in length
1 tbsp chilli oil
zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
lots of fresh-ground black pepper
1 tsp Dijon mustard
sea salt to taste

Simply halve the tomatoes, dice the cucumber, and shake up everything else in a jar and pour over. Luscious.


The "Service of Lessons and Carols" itself was a paragon of all things Avery's dear school represents: hard work, the pride of girls in their accomplishments, style AND substance. The concert began with the heart-breaking (to me, for various reasons) "Once in Royal David's City", with two beautiful girls, dressed in black, singing the first verse in candlelit darkness, the high vaulted ceiling of the Great Hall soaring overhead. Then, chillingly, the voices of many, many girls in the second verse soared from behind us, and we realized, without turning our heads, that they were singing in the great Marble entryway outside the Hall. In they filed, carrying candles, singing with that combination of innocence and slight awkwardness that makes schoolgirls so irresistibly tear-making, to me.

I was glad, perversely, that Avery had felt she had not practiced enough to take part, and so was sitting beside me where I could put my arm around her. What more does anyone want, at Christmas or any other time, than to have a daughter to hold and appreciate, while beautiful music flows all around.

Impossibly elegant and poised readings, in accents that would put the Royal Family to shame. Girls little and big, singing, reciting, praying.

It was almost a relief to have the solemnity and beauty broken by the crush of parents all leaving at the same time, so many familiar faces now that Avery has been there over a year. Lost Property mothers, familiar faces from the Parents' Guild, from guests at our dinner parties, Thanksgiving, playdates, shopping trips, birthday parties. So lovely to feel we belong.

Of course, bad mother that I am, I hardly recognized the passing of time at dinner after the concert, and it came as quite a shock to my holiday spirit to have someone, a child, say plaintively, "You know, you guys, it's a SCHOOL night!" Reluctant departures, cleaning up in a leisurely way and enjoying the decorations...

Thursday found us at the orthodontist for a look at Avery's first breakage. "You know, I don't even think we NEED this bracket," said he airily, whereupon I wanted only to ask, "How much did that bracket cost, anyway? Put it back!" She has been such a star at getting used to these things, it was almost a pleasure to go to the appointment just to hear she was perfectly on track with the whole process.

Home to rush a bit through preparations for a dinner guest from faraway New York, an old, old friend who with his lovely wife used to grace our dinner table three, four times a week when we were all newlyweds. He took one look at Avery and said, "It's true, you're a teenager, I just didn't realize..."

We feasted on Szechuan chicken with red, yellow and orange peppers, and broccoli, roasted peanuts, thick slices of fried ginger and hot chillis. The perfect antidote to too much Christmassy food. I've decorated my table with some really borderline glittery tealights: they're either lovely, or they're terribly tacky. None of us can decide.

Another late night, with gossip from New York, news of our old brunch haunt Bubby's having turned 24-hours! Shocking! The times, the times I ran over JFK, Jr.'s fancy business shoes with Avery's stroller as we waited in line at Bubby's... and real estate news (the lingerie store that replaced my art gallery is going strong, also shocking), the crowded school situation. We all felt quite tearily homesick for New York, as one does when chatting about the old days with someone who's seen many parts of the last 20 years with us, whether in New York, London or Moscow... old friends. Life may change, and old friends with it, but it's always good to keep the ties.

I must report on "Legally Blonde: the Musical"! But something tells me I'll never find the time. So all I can say is that it's a hugely enjoyable evening with passable American accents, all stereotypes cleverly underscoring everything the British already think about us, but, as Avery says, "in a good way!"

Next week, I promise, really WILL be quiet... ish.

08 December, 2009

a week of calm

At least, that's what I have in mind. Last week delivered the dramas of orthodonture from hell, "to voiceover or not to voiceover," capped off with a Friday afternoon at the skating rink closeted with (actually, if only I could have shut her up in a closet) the loudest, most obnoxious mother at the adjacent table... oooh, I could have smothered her with a roll of paper towel. Finally home in the cold rain for a truly lovely weekend appreciating the Christmas tree, a sleepover date from one of Avery's sweetest friends, and a Sunday nap, in a shaft of gentle late-afternoon sunlight on the sofa. Bliss.

So my hopes are that the drama has been exhausted and we can hope for peace. We've been playing tennis doggedly in quite too-cold sprinkling rain, shivering and feeling foolish, but I figure we've burned off at least a tablespoon of mayo. I finished the last of the Christmas cards and popped them in the post on my rainy way to school pickup, and we are now contemplating nothing more dramatic than a carol concert at school on Wednesday. Quite, quite peaceful.

But you know me, the most peaceful thing I can think of is cooking, followed by eating and as my favorite cookery writer Laurie Colwin says, the best possible thing which is "talking about cooking while eating with friends." That will be the story here at home after the carol concert, since my friend Annie and I have decided to bring the two families together for a smorgasbord supper. I must confess that as much as I dote on a nice meat, veg and starch dinner nearly every night, my favorite way of eating is choosing among lots of different flavors, a little of this, a little of that. Could it be my Scandinavian blood coming through? So we've divvied up the bits we'll each bring, and I'm quite excited, responsible as I shall be for "meats and fish."

Meats... I think a small gammon (ham) roasted with a mixture of minced garlic, Dijon mustard, honey and plum sauce, then sliced really thin. And a turkey breast: they are available here, wonderfully, as small as a large chicken breast in the States, so you're not making a commitment of holiday proportions. Fish... how about hot smoked roasted salmon, cut in thick slices to serve with a dip of creme fraiche and wasabi paste? The wasabi cuts into the cream and turns it a lovely pale green, a color that seduces you into forgetting how HOT the dip will be!

Then, I will indulge in my latest food obsession, which tends to crop up every night at about midnight when the tennis-playing side of my brain is hushed up by the indulgent side. "Go on, so what if a tablespoon of this spends your entire hour of tennis? Life is short!" This obsession is just about any product from the Findlater company out of Scotland, my favorites so far being a smoked salmon pate (light and rich at the same time, creamy and not too fishy), and a duck pate with just a hint of chopped apricot rimming the dish (a blessing for John who abhors any combination of fruit and meat, so he can avoid the fruit). These pates are sinfully indulgent, perfect either on a bit of toasted baguette or that most apposite of all crackers, the Bath Oliver. Order some, do! And have that midnight snack and think of me.

If you are out and about as we were on Sunday in Marylebone, our old stomping grounds when Avery used to be in school there, I can highly recommend the Natural Kitchen for brunch. Pass up all the overpriced (shockingly so, even for London!) raw ingredients on the ground floor, don't be tempted to sit right down in the chilly window. Head upstairs and be prepared to wait 15 minutes or so for a table in the bustling, warm, chic and delectably-smelling first-floor dining room.

We were not put off by the fact that everyone there besides us looked incredibly, how shall I put it, rich. Just like people who've been out Christmas shopping and to whom the word "recession" applies only to their gumlines. Such great people-watching, and -listening. Avery has a pet peeve: the new ad campaign by Patek Philippe for their watches, with the slogan, "You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation," and a photo of an actual father and son, smirking into the camera. At the Natural Kitchen, Avery looked around and said, "Everyone here looks like one of those ads." She looked down at her own clean but permanently horse-stained jodhpurs and boots and sighed.

But all that wealth around us didn't stop the Eggs Benedict from being truly sublime, perfectly runny yolks, French ham and a faultless Hollandaise. John's full English was equally remarkable with Lincolnshire sausages, spicy and tempting. Avery had a ham and Emmenthal croissant that was lovely too.

Sometimes, however, meat, veg and starch is the way to go, and when you're in that sort of mood, where you want a dinner that requires nothing more challenging than scooping up something simple on a fork, you cannot do any better than:

Chicken Pojarski with Caramelized Carrots and Rice
(serves 4)

splash of olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 tbsp paprika (sounds a lot, but trust me)
4 chicken breast fillets, cubed in bite-size pieces
splash of Madeira
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup creme fraiche (half-fat is fine)

5 tbsps butter
1/2 cup dark brown soft sugar
4 carrots per person, sliced in rounds

1/2 cup basmati rice per person

For the chicken, saute the garlic and shallot gently in the oil, then add the chicken and cook on all sides briefly (not fully cooked). Set chicken aside and add the Madeira to the pan and raise the heat. Scrape all cooked bits into the liquid and add chicken stock. Lower heat and whisk in creme fraiche. Add chicken and its accumulated juices and poach very gently for 15 minutes. At this point you may turn off the heat and leave the dish until you are ready to eat, heating it gently just before serving.

About 40 minutes before you want to eat, melt the butter and sugar together and simmer, sizzling. Drop carrots in and cook, stirring occasionally, lowering the heat as necessary.

About 20 minutes before you want to eat, steam the rice. I've found that the rice sticks much less to the pan if you turn the heat off for five minutes or so before serving, keeping the lid tightly shut.

Pile the rice in the center of the plate and ladle the chicken and sauce on top, then make a nice mound of the carrots on the side. All you need is... a fork.


Eat this dinner unashamedly in front of the telly while you watch Delia Smith's Christmas programme, or if you're all alone, carry your laptop to the dining table and, for the next five days, you can listen to this wonderful programme on BBC Radio Four with Simon Parkes, all about "The Food Memoir." If, like me, you're trying to write a food memoir yourself, you can sit back and wail a bit at the genius of the writers Parkes talks to. Jealousy: it's ugly. But then I wipe away my tears and pick up my fork, and with an unwieldy bite of creamy comfort food, all's right with the world.

02 December, 2009

stage mother

I would never have thought I had it in me.

You know Avery wants to be an actress. She spent long months on the wait list at the Sylvia Young Theatre School, which actually trains children fulltime, running as a real school, to be singers, actors, dancers, while one imagines fitting in the odd English and maths lesson now and then. All she wanted was a spot in the Saturday lesson. Finally one appeared. I was reminded of the old New Yorker cartoon, "Spots still available in domino tournament. If nowhere else."

So three years ago she began her weekly Saturday acting lessons and has enjoyed them tremendously. "You should have seen what we did today, one girl was sent out of the room not knowing that her character had been kicked out of the apartment she shared with the rest of our characters, and then had to come back and improvise..." interspersed with Antigone, pantomime, you name it. She loves every afternoon of it. Well, associated with the school is an agency, and they agreed to take her on. Many piles of paperwork, submissions of photographs, signing over of all her life information ensued. And since then, many auditions. Even callbacks. But never a job.

Until today.

I must backtrack and explain the process, for my own sanity. You must understand that when your child turns 13, many people step forward to give you advice on many things, which all boil down like a reduced veal stock, to the following issue: how to get your child to be more independent. But not [other people's fingers raised here in admonition] to assert her own independence too much, or request independence in a disrespectful way, or achieve the independence first and THEN ask for it. The permutations are quite, quite unbelievable, and you will know I speak the truth when I say that I have heard far too much on the subject. This recalcitrance on my part is due entirely to my desire to keep Avery wrapped up in cotton wool, preferably curled up next to me with a good book and a leg chain, for the foreseeable future. This I realize I cannot attain.

So I compromise. I try to leave her in charge of decisions, details, arrangements. In general it's working out fine (there was that incident with the taxi and an ice skate which nearly gave me a heart attack, but I'm over that now).

My phone rang last week to tell me that Avery had, not an audition, not a callback, but a REAL JOB. As a voiceover for a character on "Bob the Builder," a very popular BBC show here in the UK and also as an import to the US. Cool! But let me tell you, the road from the job announcement to the eventual job was dark and twisty, like a character on "Grey's Anatomy." First there was the laconic request from the agency for a "letter of permission" for Avery to miss school on the day. So I typed up a letter to Avery's form teacher, explaining the job and asking that she type up a letter giving Avery permission to skip school. Nothing happened. "She's out ill," Avery explained, "so I gave the letter to the substitute." I promptly forgot about it for another couple of days. "Don't forget to ask for that letter," I mentioned once or twice. "I won't."

Finally it was Monday, Avery was finished having her braces put on (don't ask) and I felt it was time to move on to the next crisis. "You know, you've got to produce that permission letter or you can't go on the job," to which she replied in a pain-hazed frenzy, 'I know, I will, I will!" and disappeared into the school. I knew the issue was not over.

Halfway through coffee on Tuesday with my long-suffering friend Dalia, my phone rang. It was the agent, Reb. "You know, I needed that letter yesterday, so the council can apply for her permission!" he wailed (this was the first I had heard about council permission). "This is the first I've heard about council permission," I wailed back, and he said, "You have to fax it to me by this afternoon, and even then I have to go to Plan B [some much more wonderful child actress, his tone implied]."

Before I could reply, another call came through. Avery on a borrowed phone, at lunch. "My teacher says there isn't enough information about the job in the letter you sent, for anyone to sign it and in any case that's not her job, it's the pastoral head, and this is REALLY IMPORTANT TO ME and what a terrible week..." Understandably frantic. I ring off telling her I'll call her back. Ring up Reb. "What more information can you give me?" "What did I give you already?" "NOTHING!" So he comes up with the name of the producer and the address of the job. I ring off and call Avery to tell her I'm emailing all the information to school, but the call goes to voice mail. Lunch is obviously over.

I sigh, feeling my stomach muscles clench. I know I can't solve everything for her, but the day after her braces are put on, to see her face such disappointment through no fault of her own... I couldn't bear it. So much for independence. I called the lovely school secretary and grovelled, gladder than ever that she and I had forged a little friendship over "Lost Property." "Email me the information, and I will walk it over to the pastoral head... wait, I see her now. Send it right on." I do so. I ring Reb to tell him the letter's coming. He says he'll ring when it comes.

No call comes.

I turn up at school, grovel some more to the secretary's secretary who smiles sunnily and says, "Oh, yes, that permission letter's been given to Avery to bring home." OH NO! I meet Avery outside school, grab the letter, race back to the office. "Could you fax this to this number?" handing over the grubby sheet torn out of my mystery novel, given me by the dismal Reb. She goes away with it and comes back. "That fax number is not answering," she says, sympathetic with my squirming anxiety. "My teeth hurt so much," Avery moans almost silently. "I'm not allowed to have medicine in school, so I haven't taken anything..." I can't bear it. I ring Reb. "Why isn't your fax machine turned on?" I ask through gritted teeth. "Oh, I'll check, hang on..." Back again. "It's on now." B***dy hell. Finally the fax goes through. Avery swallows her nurofen, drinks water, we walk home in the gathering dusk, realizing there are no snacks she can chew, feeling slightly hard done by, steeling ourselves that the job might not now come through.

At home, I simply cannot bear another phone call, so Stage Father takes over, to be told that the council permission is missing and so she cannot do the job. After all my crazy day. I feel I can hardly bear it. Avery chokes down some soup for supper, we are all demoralized.

Then this morning, John is imbued with an extra sense of "after all that!" and rings the council himself. And voila! Job ready! Be at Sylvia Young in an hour! Done.

Long story short, she had the time of her life. "There was a room separated by glass from another room where a man was arranging all the sound, and I was all alone in the room, wearing these headphones, while one lady told me what to say, and the storyboards went up..." Sheer heaven. "I had so much FUN." She did one version in English, and another in American, presumably for the two markets in which they'll sell the DVDs. "I played a little girl who cheered a lot, 'yay! yay! yay!'"

As a parent, one learns to rise above annoyances and try really hard to think what one's learned from the situation. How about, "Never ever EVER get involved with show business"? I don't think that will work. Avery had such fun. I suppose I learned the channels of power to go through, the fact that no one on either end cares that I don't know what I'm doing, that everyone is supremely ready to drop a piece of paper that's asking him or her to do something. Everyone except the school secretary, who deserves a medal. Or a plate of brownies, more likely.

Up and down, up and down. Great parent-teacher conference, awful cold, great Thanksgiving, awful braces, great acting job. As for my career as a stage mother, I think it's over. I'm much better as a cook for someone who can't chew.

Creamy Mushroom Soup
(serves 6)

2 tbsps butter
1/2 white onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
4 cups mushrooms, white or chestnut, chopped
1/2 tsp dried thyme or 1 tbsp fresh leaves
splash Madeira or white port or Calvados
2-3 cups chicken stock (just to cover mushrooms)
1/2 cup light cream

Melt butter in a heavy stockpot and fry onion, garlic and mushrooms till soft. Add thyme and Madeira and simmer high for 1 minute. Add chicken stock and simmer until mushrooms are completely cooked, about 10 minutes. Puree with hand blender, add cream. Season with sea salt and pepper.


This soup can be made with turkey stock (Thanksgiving or Christmas leftovers?), or beef stock. I made it once with stock from roast duck bones and that was lip-smackingly luscious, but rare. I don't roast ducks very often. I bet with a rich ham stock it would be lovely too.

Turn off your phone, close down the computer, gather your long-suffering loved ones with disappointments, frustrations, sore gums, homesickness, anything, and tuck in. Pure creamy comfort. That audition can wait.