17 May, 2010
you CAN go home again
There is no substitute for going "home." No matter how strongly I feel about my own home in London, or how much I loved our various apartments in New York, when I walk into my mother and father's home in Indianapolis, I know I am "home."
I feel so tall there now! The kitchen where I spent so many happy childhood hours seems smaller than I remember, the ceilings lower, the counters lower, the lights dimmer. All the cupboards (or "cabinets" as they were called in my childhood) are within my reach, but my strongest memories of them are from the vantage point of being 10, crouching on my knees on the counter, to get down a can of corn or the blender, which lived far in the back, on a dark shelf.
Every room in the house is testimony to my mother's intensely personal decorating skills, and every object has been chosen with deliberate care to reflect her taste in any given year. When I was little, everything was yellow: checked sofa, chairs and curtains, the whole living room a sunny haven, flanked by the fireplace on one end and her conservatory/plant room on the other. Very 1970s! Now, yellow has been replaced by deep browns and clear whites, in the tuille of the chairs she inherited from her mother's house, in the southern-style shutters at the windows, the masses of brown and white transferware china she has collected all her life. The walls are covered with samplers she stitched herself in the long days she spent looking after the three of us children, and there are displays of antique eyeglasses, symbolizing my grandfather's career as a prominent optometrist in southern Indiana.
The plants are still there in the plant room: luscious ferns, tiny baby primroses in hanging baskets, the terrarium we children planted, with even the stepping stools stencilled beautifully by mother, reflecting her belief that everything one uses or looks at should be decorative, should add to the visual landscape.
She has a squirrel collection! No, not taxidermy (she is far too fond of living furry things to do that), but every other conceivable material: fuzzy Steiffs, cast-iron doorstops, paperweights, carved wood, all sitting demurely on a painted tray, tails tightly curled.
And everywhere are photographs. My mother has a positive genius for making arrangements of touching, significant, historical (she likes to call them "hysterical") objects, combining them with photographs, placing them all in deep boxes behind glass: all our family history hung on the walls. My great-grandmother's passport, wedding certificate, teaching degree, christening dress, string of pearls, photograph of her holding my grandmother, smiling at her baby from under a cloche hat. My mother collects printer's type, and makes boxes for baby gifts, for my daughter a box filled with types of cats, symbols of New York City where she was born, my and my husband's initials, her birth announcement, a photo of her as a newborn baby.
The many, many photographs of our family reunions, grandchildren arranged stairstep-fashion, the tiniest child changing as more babies appeared! My beloved grandfather, dead so prematurely at 64, in the happiest family days you can imagine, all of us grandchildren being pulled in a cart behind his lawnmower on the acres of lawn in front of their big, rambling stone house, on the street named for him... he with pipe in mouth, billed cap on head, broad smile as he spent his days the happiest way he knew, surrounded by his grandchildren. How he would have adored Avery. This is something my mother and say to each other at least four times, every time we get together. "Wouldn't he have thought her the little princess," for that's what he called all of us granddaughters. We were each a princess, when he was with us.
So I went home, last week. My father valiantly dragged in my impossibly heavy suitcase, and I brought out presents for everyone, talking and listening, catching up on family and neighborhood gossip. Who had sold a house, whose children had got divorced, how many cars were in the next-door garage in various states of disrepair, who had turned gay or got arrested (it's an interesting neighborhood)...
And in the morning there was time to sit out on my mother's screened-in porch, surrounded by hanging plants, with a giant box of memorabilia from my 98-year-old grandmother's house. My mother was glad to have me go through it, making a pile of things I wanted to bring home with me, including a photograph of some random great-aunts, old ladies in their flowery print dresses, eyeglasses with rhinestones at the corners, gnarled hands folded in their laps. And guess what? They were 45 years old when the photo was taken! Times have certainly changed... somehow I don't think there was a "cougar" among them.
There is a dusty film in some unfamiliar format, of my baby mother held in her father's arms, and an old photo album belonging to my grandmother with pictures of long-ago Easters spent looking for eggs under their giant spruce tree, and Christmases in polyester pajamas with tousled hair, all of us grandchildren gradually getting older until I suppose she stopped putting photos away, and just let them pile up on her bedside table.
That was the one quiet day at home! From then, time speeded up in a blur of visitors. My mother's best friend Janet, gorgeous as ever, hostess of many, many sleepovers with her daughter who grew up with me, always the more glamorous, popular and beautiful! Just looking at her familiar face made me feel as if the intervening 30 years had never happened, and we were once again jumping off the dock at their lake house, or our lake house, or speeding on water skis behind one of our boats, all of us with perfect athletic figures and perfect tans, eating hot dogs and steaks and getting up at the crack of dawn in 1981 to watch Princess Diana's wedding, on our dodgy aerial television.
And along with her came her great friend Dallene, famous in my life for teaching me to play piano, a joy that has stayed with me all these years; if I'm not as good as I was at age 12, it's not Dallene's fault! How many hundreds of hours I spent at the piano in her elegant Victorian house, with her son under my feet, trying to keep me from reaching the pedals! And her husband our high school football coach, the two of them bursting with energy to teach all of us everything they knew... Many years later, they turned up in London on a school trip, and I cooked something for them, a pork roast, Dallene thinks, and of course she says, "That was the best pork roast I ever ate!"
It was simply lovely to sit with them and my mother, feeling petted and loved, remembered as a skinny little kid tagging after the cooler kids, practicing my piano and making chocolate chip cookies, seeing them always in the bleachers at my diving and gymnastic meets, a set of ladies ready to take care of me and all our friends, stalwart mothers. I love to think that there are girls in Avery's little social circle who see me as just such a mother, there to pick them up at the train station after school trips, to provide popcorn while they watch a movie. Every time Avery asks for help with her piano music, I think of Dallene and what she added to my life, once a week, for years and years, and I told her so! Which made us both happy.
Then it was onto producing lunch for my dear friends Bob and Ann, Bob who married us in his infinite philosophical wisdom, 20 years ago. Ann was and is a total feminist and iconoclast, and she was more than happy to turn the traditional marriage service into something that reflected who we were. To get ready, my mother polished the brown and white china, spreading a matching tablecloth on the dining table where we NEVER eat unless company comes! More china shone down from the cherry sideboard that my dad made with his very own hands.
It was tricky for me, queen of butter, cream and other fattening things, to make something that would please Bob and Ann who are 80+ for a good reason. They really take care of themselves, biking through Holland last year, playing tennis twice a week. So I really felt I didn't want to poison them at lunch, and I spent a lot of time thinking of just the right dish: savoury and festive, yet not heavy and guilt-inducing. I think I invented just the ticket, and I have to tell you that I served the chicken salad in... a chamber pot. I really did, as you see.
Chicken Salad with Basmati Rice, Artichokes, Pinenuts and Courgettes
3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tbsps olive oil
1 tsp Fox Point seasoning
2 cups basmati rice, steamed in 1 1/2 cups water
2 heads Boston lettuce, well trimmed and leaves separated
1 large globe artichoke
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 cup pinenuts, lightly toasted
2 medium courgettes (zucchini), cut into bite-size batons
1 red onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced with salt and lemon juice
juice and zest of 1 lemon
handful chives, chopped
handful fresh dill, chopped
2 tbsps mayonnaise
1 tbsp olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Saute the chicken breasts in a large frying pan with the oil and Fox Point, till just cooked. Don't overcook. Slice thin and set aside to cool, reserving the seasoned oil in the frying pan.
Steam rice and set aside to cool.
Line a large bowl (or chamber pot) with leaves of Boston lettuce, just the sweet inner leaves. In a separate large bowl, mix all the ingredients (including chicken and rice) for the salad and toss well. Add the seasoned juicy oil from the chicken pan and as much of the dressing (or none) as you like and mix well.
Arrange the salad in the bowl lined with lettuce leaves and serve with baguette slices, rolls, or as my mother did, buttered biscuits.
This was so delicious! So many different textures, colors and flavors that each bite was interesting. Be sure to serve a couple of lettuce leaves on every plate. If you're the type of person who likes things wrapped in lettuce, eat the salad that way, wrapped in a leaf.
For dessert we had blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries tossed in a little lemony sugar water, and my mother's all-time, old-fashioned favorite sweet:
1 box lemon cake mix
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 package lemon frosting mix or 1 cup lemon frosting
1 8-ounce package cream cheese
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup lemon frosting for top
Butter a 9x9 cake pan and heat oven to 350F/180C.
Mix the cake mix, 2 eggs and melted butter and press into the cake pan evenly. Mix frosting mix or frosting, cream cheese and 1 egg and spread on top. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until set and golden brown. Cool and spread remaining frosting on top. Cut into 12 squares.
Now I know you will sit up at this and say to yourself, "Self, what is Kristen doing with processed foods full of high-fructose corn syrup and artificial flavorings?" And to this I can only say, this was the first dish I ever cooked in my entire life, age perhaps 10, and that's what we did in those days. I'm sure if I put my mind to it, I could come up with a pretentious recipe using all organic pure ingredients, and it would be a page long and cost about $20. But why? How often are you going to eat Lemon Bars, anyway? Once a year? Go for it.
Bob and Ann and we sat around the table for hours, reminiscing about my college days (where he was my professor, to be sure, but he started when my parents were there!), our lives in London, discussing the recent election, my sister's career, and theories of children in foster homes, all subjects dear to our hearts. Best of all were the stories about old professors my parents and I had had in school.
"Remember old E., how blind he got in his old age?" Bob asked.
"Sure," my mother said promptly. "Once there was a kid in my class who had a bet that he could crawl out down the central aisle, and E. thought he was a dog. 'Who let that mutt in my classroom?'"
"Versions of that story are legendary," Bob laughed, "but the best is that one kid bet another a quarter that he could crawl out. When E. saw him, he walked back where the kid was on his hands and knees and said, 'Young man, what are you doing?' And the kid said, 'I just lost a quarter,' so E. got down on HIS hands and knees to look for it!"
Finally they had to go, having driven an hour from my college town to see me.
Thursday saw me having coffee (I really needed it at that point, jetlag threatening to catch up with me!) with my old high school friend Brent, now the director of the Indiana University jazz radio station. We talked over and over each other, trying to fill in the gaps between 1983 and now. Indiana politics, the history of our little neighborhood where we grew up, adventures in college, and of course the joys of Facebook, where we found each other after all these years!
He raced me home where we jumped in the car and drove two hours to the little town in Southern Indiana where my mother grew up, and where her mother now lives in a gorgeous little retirement home, where she is the undisputed Queen. And the oldest lady at 98! "Well, hey there, Bettye," person after person called to her, while we were there. And she remembered me perfectly, although it's been several years since I saw her, isolated as she is in that town, so far from London. "I'd like to go back there," she said reminiscently, "and spend more than two weeks. I was there for two weeks with your grandfather, and it surely was not enough to see all there was to see..." her voice trailing off as she looked into the past, two dead husbands ago, another lifetime it must seem.
I confess to a little heart-thumping fear when I first saw her. So much older than I remembered, living not in the houses where I visited her as a child, but as a patient, really, in a nursing home. I know that my life is impoverished by not spending enough time with her, and with the other old, old people who exist in my life. Oldness can start to seem scary, so far away, as if they aren't really people anymore. But the longer I sat with her, the more we exchanged stories, and she looked through the photographs of Avery and John that I had brought, the more I recognized the silly, chatty, resolute matriarch of our family who held us all together for so many years. When we got up from the table where we'd been sitting as she had a cup of ice cream, she started to stand up and abruptly sat back down in her wheelchair, laughing. "I almost forgot I was living in this contraption, honey! Almost stood up on my own two feet. Got to remember I scoot, now, not walk. It's hell to get old!"
We left after an hour or so, and I kissed her soft cheek and she clung to my arm for an instant, saying, "It's good of you to come see an old lady, honey," and I could only hug her back and see her old, old eyes overlaid with the snappy brown ones in the photos on my mother's porch. How odd it is to try to see the continuity between that buxom, beautifully dressed young lady holding my baby mother, and this lady so diminished and tiny. But when I said, "Now you behave yourself, young lady, till I see you again," she squeezed my hand and said, "What would be the fun in that?" She's still in there, after all.
As if this wasn't overwhelming enough, I was then taken out for a super-fancy dinner with eight of my best friends from high school! Simply unbelievable, that I have been friends with Amy, in particular, since I was five (and she is still exactly the same, with an enormous booming laugh and sparkling black eyes, always looking for trouble), and most of the others since our high school days. What struck me was the continuity of their personalities! Jami, still a vegetarian as she has been since one thunderstruck day at age 14! Tawn, her sister, eccentric, brilliant and white-haired, as beautiful as ever. Lynette, ever the Francophile among us, who managed to marry a Frenchman! The "other Amy," older than we, sophisticated and lawyerly but with the same wicked gleam in her eye. And the little sisters of the group: gregarious Jill, serene and gentle Jennifer, and Shelley, full of zest for life and well she might have, with a boyfriend who is, shall we say, considerably more YOUTHFUL than the rest of us! She too, is a discovery of Facebook, and say what you will about social networking, if it brings together friends from 25 years ago, I say, bring it on.
It was a good thing we started out at an outdoor table, because we simply shouted with laughter! Catching up with stories of our adolescent children ("is it OK if she has a total attitude, or should I nip it in the bud?" was a common topic!), our husbands (some of them high school sweethearts!), our parents, old teachers we remembered. "Remember how that health teacher told us that if you have a tapeworm, all you have to do to get rid of it is to hold a bowl of macaroni and cheese under your chin, breath in through your mouth, and then when the tapeworm appears, grab it and pull it out?" EEEW! A strong pedagogical memory for us all!
Home very late, as I really felt I had to talk at some length with everyone! We parted, vowing not to leave it another long space of years before we see each other again. How lucky I felt, to have had such good judgment in choosing friends, so long ago.
And that was that. Hugs and kisses all round with my mother, father and brother the next morning (and of course Maisie the cat!), and off to the airport. There I sat, not reading, not people-watching as I usually do, but lost in the space of years that comes to you when you step back in time. Four days of memories... and a lot of love and fun remembered.