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
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.