08 March, 2010
I sometimes go through phases when I wonder, "What purpose am I serving, anyway?" Days pass when I don't seem to accomplish anything more significant than emptying the laundry basket, grocery shopping, putting a few things in envelopes and mailing them. Tasks anybody could do, I'm nothing special for it. These are days I will wish I had back when my days are more obviously numbered than I already know them to be.
At such times, I imagine myself with a proper job. Showing up at my local cafe every morning to make lattes and serve unappreciative customers with shouting children. Showing up every day at my local fishmonger to sweep the floor and tidy up after the people working there who actually know how to fillet a hake (and how to tell a hake from a cod).
Or I could go back to school to get a degree in child psychology, and start a practice helping teenage girls get along with their parents. Or open that mythical art gallery/bookshop and get used all over again to worrying about how to pay the rent.
I know this is all an unbelievable luxury. Most people don't have the option to sit around having existential anxiety; they are too busy surviving. But I do have the luxury, and I do worry. What is it all about? My friend Bee has suggested that "middle age" isn't so much about having lived half your life, but rather being in the middle: between your mother and your child, wondering sometimes what it is all about, and who we are meant to be for the time we have left.
Then, like clockwork, before I can indulge myself too much in my quest for self-expression, my phone rings.
"Hi, cutie, what's up?"
"My throat is really sore. I maybe don't think I can stay at school."
"Well, I'm in a car with your father just passing the school, so you have to decide RIGHT NOW."
"But I don't know what the teachers would say, or where to go, and I'm losing my voice."
"Then do you want me to come get you? Quick!"
A trailing wail... "I don't KNOW..."
I jump out of the car, saying, "I'll get to school in five minutes and then you can decide."
The phone rings again. It's that old classic: the grumpy school nurse.
"Your daughter is here saying she feels unwell." (Avery told me later that when she turned up at the infirmary, the dear lady harrumphed and said, "I was just about to take a tea break." A born nurturer, clearly: Nurse Ratchet's English sister.)
"Yes, I know, I'm on my way and I'll be there in five minutes."
"Well, we don't want our girls standing about outside the school in the cold, so you can telephone when you arrive, and I'll send her up."
So warm and fuzzy. I arrive, I ring up, a couple of windy, unpleasant minutes pass and Avery appears, gray-faced with her eyes looking, as my mother would say, "like burned holes in a blanket." I take her schoolbag, she buttons her coat, she puts her arm around my waist and we head home.
"Did you at least have lunch?"
"Well, sort of. It was meant to be a chicken stir fry, but I put in my fork and up came a PRAWN."
"Perhaps a bowl of chicken soup when we get home... I made some for Daddy's toothache and there's a little left."
So we arrive at home, she has a bowl of soup and some buttered crackers, I give her a cough drop, a warm throw around her knees, a new mystery propped up beside her. I share the throw and we lie at opposite ends of the sofa, legs stretched out, she takes her temperature, no fever. Relief.
And there we stay, all the rest of the afternoon, each with our book, dozing slightly and watching the bare branches outside waving back and forth against the steely March sky, feeling lucky. And today, a gorgeous dish of apple crumble to reward her for going to school when I would much rather have kept her home.
I know there aren't many years left when the voice on the other end of the phone could be my daughter, needing to be picked up at school, given a little TLC, a child who wants to spend the afternoon curled up with me and a cat, recovering.
My plan for self-actualization can definitely wait awhile.
(enough for one child for at least six breakfasts)
150 grams/2/3 cup plain flour
60 grams/1/4 cup granulated white sugar
80 grams/1/3 cup cold butter
4 Granny Smith apples, peeled and cut in bite-size pieces
sprinkle fresh-ground nutmeg
sprinkle fresh-ground cinnamon (or powdered)
This is a lovely, light crumble, by Simon Hopkinson, one of my favorite English cookery writers. My crumbles used to have too much butter, which resulted in a heavy topping. And my friend Livia gave me, for Christmas, a cinnamon grinder. I'm devoted to it now. The scent is so much fresher than ready-ground, and it's fun to do. I've also turned my back on ready-ground nutmeg. The aroma of fresh-ground just runs circles around the powdered stuff.
Place the flour and sugar in your food processor and turn it on. Then, a little chunk at a time, drop the butter into the little hole at the top and clamp your hand over the hole: flour will tend to shower out the top when the butter disturbs it, the first couple of chunks. Use up all the butter and whizz until the mixture is nice and sandy.
Scatter the apples in a nice ovenproof dish, sort of 8x6, or even a pie plate would do, I suppose. Scatter the crumble topping over all and grate a sprinkle of nutmeg, and of cinnamon, over the whole thing. Just a dusting.
Bake at 180C/350F for about 25 minutes, till the top is golden. Don't let it burn. Serve warm with ice cream for that sore throat.