It’s hard to believe that this time tomorrow, we’ll be approaching JFK and the Red Gate Farm part of our Christmas celebrations!
Life has been an absolute, unmitigated madhouse for our family in the last several weeks. It seems as if every possible “fast-forward” on every remote control in the world has been pushed.
Avery has survived, even thrived, during her university application process. She’s endured and even enjoyed her interviews, and has retained her sense of humor, if not entirely her energy level. She NEEDS a break, plenty of days to sleep and remember to enjoy life.
John’s triumphed in his plans to acquire the perfect plot of land to build our dream home, outlasting the most circuitous of council planners. 2015 will bring building drawings!
I’ve rung my last English bell of 2014, at a lovely wedding. Who could have dreamed, nearly four years ago when I first pulled a rope, that I would be able to be part of someone’s most important day?
We’ve taken a deep breath and decorated for Christmas. What could be more beautiful, and uplifting?
How neglectful I have been of my precious blog!
Believe me, I have cause. Let me explain.
I feel that my feet have not touched the ground in three months. Since late August, when the heat really turned up under the cookbook — the COOKBOOK! — I’ve been full-steam ahead getting it ready. It all began with the graphic design, with my beloved Briony of Bournemouth, a long process toward perfection.
The job proceeded through a fog of admin: I’ve become the proud owner of an ISBN, and an importers’ license in both the US and the UK. I’ve learned to compile an index (that one was nearly the death of me).
I’ve approved the colour proofs, as you see above (THAT was an exciting day!) and seen the thrilling end of our Kickstarter campaign.
Very soon, yet another milestone will be achieved: the “ebook” will be uploaded to various sites as a phenomenon to be read on Kindles, iPads and phones, believe it or not! Tomorrow I’ll approve the cover, which will be terribly exciting, with its biographies, photographs and blurbs. It will feel very real, at that point.
And then it’s a waiting game. The holidays will come and we will settle ourselves comfortably in the winter wonderland of Red Gate Farm. We will all put the book out of minds, as best we can, to wait for its arrival in January. A real book, to hold in our hands.
Whenever I have felt vaguely, usually very late at night, that I just can’t learn another thing, accomplish another thing, I have been given a gift of some kind, of encouragement from my readers. I have permission from one reader to share with you her feelings about the book.
“So many things have happened since I first caught sight of your blog (way back in 2007). Numerous jobs, countless flats and… oh, I wasn’t even married back then! I can honestly say that there aren’t many blogs I’ve followed for so long. But somehow, I always come back to yours — it’s like the solid ingredient amongst all the moving parts of life. You have a way of writing that draws people in. And ‘wow’ to all your recipes, including one lamb recipe from long ago that even my (now) husband can’t forget.
When I mentioned I funded a kickstarter campaign to get a cookbook, he knew straight away that it must have been written by “the lady with that blog that had the lamb recipe”. I haven’t cooked that dish for years! It obviously made an impact!
Like many backers, I look forward to receiving the cookbook…”
But because life is never played on just one level, our autumn has been filled with every other conceivable delight.
I spent a heavenly weekend, when I was at the absolute depth of my “I can’t possibly accomplish this” mood, at Kingston Lacy, a sublime National Trust property, at a writing workshop organised by my brilliant friend Rosie, Writer-in-Residence, and taught by my equally brilliant mentor, Orlando. What a shot in the arm, a stimulus at just the right moment.
Two complete days of work on writing, no domesticity, no family, just pondering the future of my writing career under the support and love of Rosie and Orlando was just what the doctor ordered.
And then more happened.
The following week brought our half-term holiday, spent in the fairytale city of Prague. John’s lovely mom came all the way from Iowa to join us, and the four of us walked, climbed, shopped, and ate our way through this magical Czech city.
We visited the Castle, after a heavenly walk across the Charles Bridge.
Our glorious guide Irena introduced us to “Prague’s Most Dangerous Beverage,” a light and delicious “early wine.” What fun to toast one another, at one of Prague’s farmer’s markets, after a day of touring.
By far the most memorable food we ate in Prague was discovered by John on our very first night, at the stunningly simple cafe “Nase Maso,” or “Our Meat.” Quite simply, they serve steak tartare, chock-a-block with capers, onions and cornichons, served with traditional Czech rye sourdough. We WILL be back. We ate there twice more!
We visited the Kafka Museum, the Communist Museum, and refreshed ourselves with traditional rolled pastries, “trdelnik,” crisp, warm and rich with cinnamon.
We spent lots of money at the fabulous Shakespeare bookshop.
Then we ate at the popular restaurant Lokal, with delicious old-fashioned dishes like schnitzel, and the most amazing soup of liver and dumplings.
Avery’s contribution to our tourism was our late-afternoon visit, on our last day, to the Cafe Kaficko, with quite simply the most unusual hot chocolate in the world. An impossible combination of thick and lovely, intensely chocolatey.
As always, one of my favorite parts of a holiday was the time to spend with my family, time not given over to homework, property development, cookbook issues. Just time to enjoy life, which for Avery meant life with her Leica.
How we walked! Every night we collapsed at our flat with feet that felt they couldn’t take another step. Then the next day we were ready for more. John’s mom treated us to a magical dinner atop a roof near the city centre, with views you simply couldn’t believe were real. And fireworks! What a city. And how lucky we were to have Rosemary with us on our adventure.
Home from Prague, it was time for Avery’s birthday, her 18th. It was almost impossible to celebrate, with her Oxford University exam looming, with all the pressure that can possibly be exerted on these girls to succeed. We gave her her presents and remembered the olden days when everything was much simpler (although it didn’t feel that way at the time).
On the volunteering front, my Home-Start babes have turned one! I face the end of my time with them with equanimity this time, being slightly more mature than I was a year ago, facing goodbyes to my last family. They will be fine. I will miss them, and our weekly walks through the bright leaves of Barnes, as I talk to them, feed them, play with them during our afternoons together.
On the Eve of Remembrance Sunday, John and I took a trip to East London, to the Tower, to see the famous poppy exhibit, quite simply one of the most emotive experiences I have ever had. Airplanes from City Airport took special routes, to give their passengers a chance to see this unbelievable installation.
To add an almost palpable sense of excitement to life, Mom and Andy came to visit! This epic event had been hotly anticipated since summer, when Mom first bandied about the idea that she might be feeling well enough to brave the long journey. And she did!
What fun we had! I don’t think we could have crammed any more into the six days of their visit. A bus tour on a day that started out rather wet, but the skies cleared miraculously in time for us to enjoy the views, especially of the Weeping Window at the Tower, with the poppies still in place.
Tea at the Goring with Fiona and Kim!
Lunch with Sue at The Botanist, conversation simply unstoppable, and dinner here at home with Elizabeth and Maddie, for a late celebration of Avery’s birthday!
There were important birthday cupcakes, from Madeleine’s Boutique in Sheen. How would Avery have got through so much of the last year without television (lots of it really bad)?
We had lunch at the gorgeous Petersham Nurseries, too early for their Christmas celebrations, but still lovely with its climbing vines.
We popped in a cab and made our way to Tottenham Court Road to see “White Christmas,” a dream come true for the three of us, who together (and probably separately) can quote the entire film! Mom reminisced about her date to see the premiere, when she was in high school. An unforgettable matinee, “all that snow.”
She and Andy were here to view the proofs of the cookbook!
Andy himself had what I think was a fine, fine time. I had fixed him up with a B&B here in our little neighborhood, with a lovely lady who gives over her cozy summerhouse to guests. She and Andy hit it off straightaway, and every morning when he came to our house after his evening and breakfast with her, he was simply thrilled with his chats. She had been involved in the rock scene of London in the 1970s, which couldn’t have fit better with Andy’s life. He himself went on a rock and roll tour — including Abbey Road! — and to the British Museum, braving public transport and having a grand holiday. She sent him to a local memorial to musician Mark Bolan, who died in a car crash here in Barnes.
As much as I loved all the special events I’d planned — ending with Mom hearing me ring and meeting my ringing friends, and brunch at the Olympic with John and Suzanne — the best was having her in the kitchen with me, talking over everything that we miss saying all the year long — what’s happening with Avery, our building plans, my friends, her friends, Days of Our Lives! Just time to be together, relaxed.
Before we could catch our breath, it was time for the school Christmas Fair! Always one of the happiest days of the holiday season, the culmination of months and months of work with hundreds of volunteers, all to flower on one day in November. John as Treasurer and I as helper in the “Vintage” clothing stall had our work cut out. Clothes folded, hung, tagged, priced and arranged, gossip exchanged with mothers who have been my friends for seven years — a bittersweet day because this time next year, everything will be so different. No more school. It was a day to remember.
This memorable autumn. How have we managed to get up every day and accomplish all these things! And managed, at the same time, to get homework done, to get Potters Fields to the starting line, to get dinner cooked each night. How we will have earned our Christmas holiday. And that’s probably where you’ll see us next…
What a whirlwind the last three weeks has been! “Tonight at 7.30: One Family’s Life at the Table” is ever nearer reality.
Thanks to YOU all, with five days to go, we are very nearly at 140% of our goal, which means Kickstarter has been un unbelievable success. Over 200 backers from every corner of the globe, over 500 books spoken for! Pop on over to the page to order yours, if you have had it on that list of things to do and just haven’t gotten around to it.
We are just hours away from choosing our printer, which means that the books will appear somewhere between 8–9 weeks from now. It will be an unbelievable thrill to hold the books in our hands.
Meanwhile, look what appeared in the post here in our London home this week!
My darling niece Jane is famous for not recognising me once when she came to Red Gate Farm because I was NOT wearing an apron! It’s a complete thrill to see this one, but I’m not going to put it on until the book has gone to the printer. I just don’t quite believe it yet.
I have learned more than I can possibly tell you, through this process. It’s been great fun hearing from people from all walks of my life: grade school right through grad school, bell-ringing, old theatre days and musical days, from former babysitters and current Lost Property volunteers. Everyone wants a copy of “Tonight at 7.30″!
Everyone has laughed with me over the story of the roasted turkey slithering to the kitchen floor during the filming of our Kickstarter video, and my loved ones have been very patient in their listening to my tales of the steep learning curve. More people than I could ever have dreamed possible have jumped on board with our project, with orders coming from as far away as Singapore, Australia and Denmark, as close to home as Chiswick and Ealing, and as homely and sweet as my childhood hometown of Indianapolis, John’s of Waterloo, and our precious New York. The most amazing thing has been the number of books ordered by people I’ve never met — virtual friends from Facebook and the blog world, friends of friends whom I feel I know because they’ve been such loyal readers and supporters. And then there are perfect strangers who have ordered the book.
I’m unrecognisable to myself in all the techy things I’ve learned to do! Who knew I could make a “screen shot”!
I sincerely hope lots of you will send me pictures of the book on your kitchen counter, spattered with olive oil and cream.
The next blog post will be about our recent adventures in Prague, where we took a few days away from the cookbook and savoured life as tourists. Until then, thank you ALL for your support and keep cooking!
After months and years of working towards our goal, the cookbook, our baby, is ready to become a reality.
The Kickstarter campaign has begun. Click here!
For those of you who may be new to Kickstarter (I was), it’s a “support the project” system where the general public gets excited about an idea and pledges support. You can choose your level of support (one book, 100 books) and then when the project is successfully funded — we’ll give it 30 days — the book goes to print!
Avery and I are incredibly excited.
A fabulous index? Check.
Everything measure properly in both American and European standards? Check.
All my efforts in writing, and Avery’s in photography, beautifully translated into a perfect format? Check. Our cookbook was designed with love by Briony Hartley, graphic designer to the stars (truly, she’s designed books for the Queen!).
Beautiful portraits taken by the best people photographer we know? Vincent Keith, thank you, CHECK.
Avery’s taken her last photograph: this perfect lavender blossom, and a little visitor, to illustrate Judy’s lavender cookie recipe.
What does this all this preparation and excitement mean? This means that you all have the chance to choose a level at which you want to be involved in bringing “Tonight at 7.30: One Family’s Life at the Table” to life!
Click on this Kickstarter link and start reading, and watching (there’s a really sweet video which I think I’ve watched about 100 times already). Then scroll down and see what you’d like: one cookbook for yourself as a little treat, or several to give away as presents?
How about a signed copy? (You’ll get a darling “Tonight at 7.30″ apron thrown in!)
How about splurging with some friends and inviting yourselves over for dinner, here in London, or at Red Gate Farm? Or hey, I’ll come to you, in New York or even in Indianapolis. (Mom can’t wait to see you.)
We are are thrilled more than we can say to welcome you to our project, so many loving years in the making.
“Tonight at 7.30: One Family’s Life at the Table.”
Bring on the fun!
Impossibly, we’ve been back in our London lives for two weeks. Thrown in at the deep end, it’s been about unpacking, first, with the help of our kitties. They missed us, I think.
We’ve had the first Parents Guild meeting, I’ve reunited with the Home-Start infants, now crawling, “like beetles,” their mum says, laughing. And of course I’ve been ringing. The putto at Chiswick, surveying us from on high in the ringing chamber, does not change.
We’ve been cooking, for ourselves and for the Lost Property lunch. Those ladies form such a beloved part of my life; I can’t bear to think of this time next year when my relationship with the school will be over. Must enjoy every bit of life right now.
But even as we take part in all these cherished activities, our hearts are heavy. Just as we arrived back in our London lives, we learned that one irreplaceable part of our American lives has gone.
Jeanne, one of our dearest friends for 25 years, my darling “other mother,” hostess to us for countless dinner parties and sleepovers, and most heartwarmingly hostess to Avery all of August this last summer, has died.
The only consolation, upon hearing the news from my “other sister” Cynthia, was to sit down with our piles of photograph albums and go back into the past.
Jeanne and Cynthia and I met when John and I lived in Maplewood, New Jersey for a year, during which time we got married. I worked with Cynthia at the local bookshop, and quickly found their beautiful home to be my home away from home. Over bowls of vichyssoise, plates of chicken Pojarski, hundreds of glasses of red wine far too fine for me, we became inseparable.
Sometimes I felt that everything we did together had happened in a novel. Jeanne had discovered, long before I met her, quite the most perfect way to do everything, and we were happy to fall in with her plans.
Avery in her turn christened Jeanne “Jeannemommy,” a name we all ended up adopting. “It’s not easy being a baby,” Jeanne told me more than once, and that sentiment helped me to see Avery’s childhood from her perspective, rather than that of a flustered, uncertain mother.
From Jeanne, I learned everything I know about feeding people, welcoming guests into my home. I will never be able to replicate her effortless way with guests, making us all feel that by being there in her home, we were adding something to her life.
And what a cook! The gazpacho (for which John used to jokingly — or not! — ask for a straw)… the buttery caramelized carrots, the macaroni and cheese, the paper-thin-sliced roasted ham at Easter. All vegetables were braised in chicken stock. The devil’s food cake, the brunch dish of creamy scrambled eggs with mushrooms, “oeufs interallies.” The endless parade of evenings spent at that kitchen table, sipping a single-malt Scotch, watching Jeanne puttering around, producing all our favorite things to eat.
She adored my husband, comparing him always to her own husband who had died just a few months before I met her. “John,” she said during our last afternoon together last month, “you are just the right size to hug.”
Our friendship was a mutual admiration society. I never tired of hearing about her childhood in Minnesota, her unbelievable adventures at the Manhattan project as a very young woman, her early married days, her experiences as a new mother. She in turn thought that my way of doing things was quite the best way of doing things, perhaps because as much as possible, I imitated HER way of doing things.
And so last spring, I spent a week visiting when Jeanne was not at all well, feeling that life without her was not something I could contemplate.
When I came home to London and spoke with her on the phone, she had just one thought. “I want Avery to live with us this summer, while she works in New York.” Cynthia, John, Avery and I had very frank conversations about this. Could it possibly be a good idea to add a month-long guest to a rather fragile household, one of whose members was not feeling very strong? But Jeanne was determined. She described the long talks she would have with Avery, the interest she had in her summer adventures, the fun we would all have on our visits to them over the month.
And so it was. Avery arrived, settled in to her airy bedroom at the top of the house.
She worked in New York all day and commuted to Jeanne and Cynthia each night, taking advantage of their perfect home, their listening ears, their advice and commiseration when life in the Big Apple was trying to say the least.
We visited several times, cooking dinner together in the big kitchen, feeling thankful every time we saw them together that they had had this summer, those evenings.
Finally at the end of August it was time to collect Avery and say our goodbyes. Jeannemommy cooked lunch for us, a last bowl of creamy pink ice-cold gazpacho, just like so many summers before. I knew in my heart it was the last time I would see her.
I will be grateful for the rest of my life that I had the sense to tell her how I felt about her, to hug her an extra time, to meet Cynthia’s loving eye and know that something of a miracle had happened to all of us. It was a feeling I can’t describe: the meeting, merging, connecting of generations, of people who bring out the very best in each other, an unnameable gift of my child coming to truly know and love someone who had been of the utmost importance to me, all of my adult life.
It was goodbye, and we all knew it. When Cynthia told me, shortly after we had arrived back in London, that her mother had died, it was with a sense of pure gratitude that I thought of Jeanne. Of course all our lives are worth living, I know that. But for me, I knew I had had the luck to know someone whose life was immeasurably worth living, and that with her death, a light had gone out of all our lives.
How was she so wise, to know that she wanted Avery with her this summer, that she could do it, provide one last summer of support and comfort?
We bellringers rang for Jeanne the day after we learned the news, and it made us all laugh that we rang very badly! After all, part of Jeanne’s magic was her unswerving acknowledgement that we all make mistakes, that we are here to learn from one another, that laughing at adversity is much the best way.
When I described her, and our friendship, to my vicar, he listened gravely. “I want you to be careful with your feelings, Kristen. Just because you know it was time, and you were able to say goodbye, doesn’t mean that there won’t be an enormous emptiness where Jeanne was. But there is this: when you describe her life, and her death, I know an awful lot of people who would say, ‘Yes, please.’”
We will never forget her. I am grateful to have Cynthia still there, to help us remember.
Goodbye, my dearest “other mother.” And thank you.
It’s always so hard to believe, when we wake up on the last day of summer, that the next time we get out of bed it will be in London. I’m too old-fashioned to think that’s normal, no matter how many summers (and Christmases) we go through the unbelievable transition. Change, and saying goodbye, is never my favorite thing.
We drove one last time to New Jersey, four weeks after the big Summer Experiment of 2014, to pick up Avery at Jeanne and Cynthia’s where she’s lived, high at the top of their celestial house, commuting to New York. Goodness, the experiences she has had, many of them she is anxious not to repeat, mostly of a commuting nature. South Orange, New Jersey Transit, the PATH train, Hoboken, Seacaucus, Penn Station, Grand Central, Bridgeport, Seymour. The MetroCard in her wallet can now be shelved. But living with Jeanne and Binky? That was heaven.
We arrived for lunch, bringing egg salad made from the eggman’s last delivery. But there was no one at home! I thought for a moment that they had all been beamed up by aliens (including Binky’s car). In a moment, though, we found that Jeanne was taking a quiet nap in the library, and then the girls came in from a most profitable trip to the consignment shop: glorious sweater bargains! We had our lunch, then said goodbye, feeling a funny cocktail of emotions: nostalgia for all the meals we’ve enjoyed around that kitchen table, relief that Avery’s summer of tri-state drama had come to an end with no bones broken, and sadness at saying goodbye.
Avery, in her end-of-summer exhaustion, growled out the window at the passing landscape. “Blast you, Newark,” and then slept peacefully all the way home.
At home, we raced to the farmer’s market to meet Mike, Lauren and their kids for a picnic from the Chubby Oven, a moveable pizza feast: but they had run out of food! A quick exchange of phone calls revealed that Mike and Lauren already knew this and were headed to Red Gate Farm armed with Di Palma’s pizzas, which we devoured on the terrace. As the sun set, we moved inside for some serious dollhouse time for Abigail, for me to hold Gabriel on my shoulder. Rosemary’s gift, left behind for Abigail, was a big success.
To think that we met Mike only because Anne-across-the-road thought he might be a candidate to adopt one of Avery’s shelter projects, the divine kitten Jessica. Four years, two kids and countless meals together later, they are a treasured addition to the cast of characters at Red Gate Farm. It’s good to have friends who are at a different (earlier or later) stage of life than where we are, fun to look back and remember, or look ahead and imagine.
The last days slipped by. Every day we said, “Isn’t it the most beautiful day?”, not minding the repetition.
You know how they say that if you stand by the Eros statue in Piccadilly Circus for 24 hours, someone you know will pass along? Change that to five minutes, and you’ll have some idea of what our terrace is like, the last few days of our visit. Sometimes I think it is my most beloved place on earth.
I love Judy’s geranium waving pinkly, maple leaves falling onto the picnic table, the changing view high over head, a patch of sky between the trees and chimneys.
Judy herself stopped by as I was performing my usual futile and yet pleasant task of carrying stacks of books from one room to another, shelving, changing my mind, reshelving. Hot and sweaty, I was more than happy to sit with Judy and a glass of ice water and while away an hour or so, discussing the summer. Regina from the Land Trust saw us enjoying the afternoon and came to join us.
I do believe that we all need as many mothers as we can get, and I am very happy to have Judy in my arsenal, although she’s really far too young to be my mother. She is everyone’s mother.
Truth to tell, though, her starring role is as Little Rollie’s grandmother. She brought him by for a quick jump on the trampoline.
Once he got over his shyness, he popped up to the terrace to gaze adoringly at Avery, to watch the chipmunks and squirrels helping themselves to peanuts from the glass John keeps filled.
Fully confident, then, he began discussing with amazing specificity the various farm implements he had encountered on a recent visit to his great-uncle’s farm. “I saw a backhoe, and a brewer’s grain hauler, and a hay-baler…” Fourth-generation Connecticut farmer in the making.
Anne crossed the road with Kate and sat with us, strategizing our joint project of the cookbook and her plans to bring her grandmother’s writings into the 21st century. We both think Gladys would be happy to think of us talking about her work, updating her recipe for chicken liver pate, feeding her granddaughter in the iconic kitchen. I sit with my copy of Anne’s mother’s memoir of their childhood. Kate exists happily in the reflected glow of her ancestors.
How on earth did the whole summer go by without a trip to the pool? Excuse me, the Poo.
Years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the “L” blew off the pavilion (a rather grand name for the lifeguards’ hut). Yesterday I said in surprise, “But I thought you replaced the ‘L’. Didn’t I see it last summer?”
“Yep, but in the middle of the night last month, somebody took it off again. We keep meaning to put one back, but…”
“I like it that way,” I said stubbornly.
“Yeah, well, so does somebody else.”
Because school’s already in session, we practically had the poo to ourselves. A bronzed teenage lifeguard horsed around with his little clients, an elderly lady swam majestically up and down her lane. Avery read aloud from “Missing Susan,” one of our summer staples, and the afternoon progressed as all pool afternoons do.
We shared the absolutely necessary bag of Bugles, simply the best snack ever invented.
“How do you even GET 53% of your daily allowance of saturated fat into just 210 calories?” I marvelled.
“52%,” Avery answered, taking one.
We swung by Mike and Lauren’s house on a last, joyful errand: petting Jessica, who Mike captured and held for us.
And because it’s always nice to have something to look forward to, while we’re away this autumn, our friend Al will fix the windows in the Big Red Barn, a project that’s been staring us in the face since we bought the house.
Away we fly this evening with lots to think about: Mountain Station, “Fresh Out,” steamed clams and lobsters, American cheese, grams versus cups, the shady court, pizza delivered, 666, The Honourable Woman, chipmunks, squirrels, woodpeckers and goldfinches, moldy cars, a family reunion, grandmothers, yellow balloons, forgotten photographs, newly-cut wood, daddy-long-legs, corn on the cob, tomatoes, spicy mayo, hot dogs. See you in just four months.
Ten years ago this month, our family moved into Red Gate Farm.
It seems like just a breath ago, but also the place seems to have been part of our lives forever, this little white farmhouse sitting demurely in a dusty bend of Sanford Road. The moment we brought Red Gate Farm into our family, the house and its setting, its atmosphere and its aura of tranquility, began to nourish and sustain us.
I didn’t want a weekend house.
“I like New York on the weekends, when everyone else goes away,” I insisted.
“Have you ever thought that there might be a good reason that everyone else goes away?” my husband asked reasonably. “Maybe they’ve got something we haven’t.”
“Yes, traffic, and packing up the car, and weekend guests, and worrying about the house while we’re in town all week,” I said.
But I knew it was only a matter of time. My husband loves real estate. He loves to look at houses and apartments, any houses and apartments, whether he’s in the market to buy or not. But I could recognize that behind his insistence this time was a real impulse to have an escape hatch. So I went looking with him.
Weekend after weekend, we left behind the quiet, abandoned city and sat in the cars of real estate agents as they drove us all around the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, in case you’re not from there), and even venturing into the riotously expensive neighborhoods of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. We saw many, many terrible houses.
“This house was built by the architect who built Madison Square Garden!” chirped one enthusiastic agent, not seeming to conjure up a mental image of that monstrosity, the most hideous of strains upon the New York City skyline.
“Don’t pay any attention to the smell of cat pee, it’s only in the carpet,” caroled another optimistic go-between, leading me to wonder if other houses boasted pee in the walls as well.
“The kitchen is bigger than it looks, it’s just because it’s so dark inside that it seems small.” True enough.
After trawling these places for Saturdays and Sundays we struggled back in the home-going traffic while I tried not to think, “I told you so, I told you so.”
Finally I put my foot down. It was May. New York City was fresh and dewy and much more appealing than the highways where we were spending all our time stuck between SUVs and trucks filled with hydrogen. “This is it,” I said firmly. “The last weekend, and then we admit defeat, and just stay here, where we’re happy.” “Fair enough,” John said, and we headed out, with our little 7-year-old daughter in tow.
The day brought fresh disappointments, if fresh could be the word. In the minuscule driveway of one sad little dwelling, the agent reassured us, “I know this yard is awfully small, but think how close you’ll be to the road if you need to be plowed out!” At this, I shut my lips in a tight, thin line and John said, “One more house, then we’re finished.”
As we pulled off the felicitously-named Jeremy Swamp Road onto an unpaved bit in dappled sunshine, I admitted, “This is more like it.” A pervasive quiet hung in the air, as we came up a gentle hill. We stepped out, walked to the gate of a white picket fence, opened it. “That gate should be red,” I thought suddenly. “This is Nancy Drew’s Red Gate Farm, only the gate is white.” I looked up through massive maple leaves into a blinking blue sky, saw two red barns speaking gently to each other across an expanse of green, green lawn, a low brick chicken house in the distance, the depths and darkness of a pond enclosed by ancient stones. The house itself, a little white saltbox with a rambling, awkward addition on the back, sat quietly by a graying woodshed with wavy glass in the windows. Over all flowed a generous sense of peace.
“I don’t even need to go in,” I said. “This is it.”
John later pointed out to me the undesirability of this statement, from a negotiating standpoint. But he was smitten, too. And when we did go inside, it was a house made to order for us. Dark, original floors, white, white walls, and where there could have been a dark, unpleasant original kitchen, the Fico brothers who restored it had opened up the “borning room” into a double-height space of light and air, soaring but cozy. The bedrooms upstairs were perfect for us, with Avery’s tiny space being just large enough to picture two twin beds, and lots of laughing sleepovers.
That was that. We bought it. And scrounged around in our storage spaces for antique (and just plain old) furniture we had put away in favor of the modern pieces in our New York apartment. There was everything we needed, except beds, which ended up coming from LL Bean. Every object we brought into the house seemed to float into just the right spot, benches sitting happily under windows, leather chairs flanking a little old fireplace, mismatching bookshelves finding ceilings of just the right height, old rugs brought back from Russia settling onto the wide-beamed floors as if they belonged there.
So Red Gate Farm became our weekend haven. And because Southbury has always been intelligent enough not to become fashionable, traffic posed no problems for us. We sped up there every Friday evening without fail, longing to arrive to the peace and calm, after the craziness of the city.
Of course the peace and calm brought with them their own plagues.
“Was there always a hole in the dining room floor?” I asked in some panic, late one Friday night.
“There! It’s as big as my fist, going down into the basement.”
Our neighbor farmer Rollie, who would soon become one of our closest friends, came by to investigate. “That’s from a country rat,” he said knowledgeably.
“How’s that different from a regular rat, like we have in New York?”
“Well, it lives in the country.”
And there was the evening we arrived to find that the pound block of butter I had left out on the counter had been thoroughly gnawed into a neat little pyramid, teeth marks clearly showing. Country rat again, no doubt.
And the skunk that slithered out from the garbage bag I had left on the kitchen step for a moment, and the mouse I just stepped on in my morning-bare feet, but not quite enough to do him in. And the bat we discovered in the barn one chilly October day. I poked it with a stick, sure it was dead. When it wiggled to life, Rollie said slyly, “Happy Halloween,” amid our screams.
So many girls, from babies to teenagers, have shouted with laughter on the trampoline under the big maple! Avery invented an elaborate game of complex jumps named for the characters in the venerable Archies comics, so the sticky summer air was often filled with cries of “Veronica, Veronica, BETTY!” Minnows without number have emerged from the pond to be inspected and thrown tenderly back, and it’s also been transformed into a perilous skating rink one winter.
“Do you think this ice is thick enough to hold Avery?” I asked our neighbor Anne one winter day when the air made icicles inside your nose.
“Oh, sure, I’m sure it’s fine,” she said blithely, and tested it herself. When we all heard cracking sounds, we scrambled to give Anne our hands and get her out in time.
In recent years, as our daughter became less of a player and more of a thinker, our shelf space and floor space and in fact, any horizontal space, have become burdened with her books, and mingling with my books, provide a revealing glimpse into our lives: “There is No Such Thing As Society,” “Les Miserables,” “Lord Byron and His Circle,” “How To Eat Supper.”
Also as Avery grows up and away, John and I have learned to create our own patterns of quiet life at Red Gate Farm, with long days of work on the terrace, in the forests cutting the wood for a Christmas holiday, in the kitchen watching “Days of Our Lives” and scrubbing the floor, in advance of guests to come in the months we’re away in London.
The Aggravation board, and unfinished jigsaw puzzles, lie in wait for the unwary guest, and John’s beloved goldfinches crowd the bird-feeders, an exercise in tranquillity for anyone willing to collapse on the terrace and watch for a minute, an hour, an afternoon.
Of course, because I am a cook, when I think of Red Gate Farm, I think of food. And guests, and parties, and people I have fed. These memories bring great joy.
There have been countless meals at Red Gate Farm, whether lobster feasts at the picnic table on the terrace (a terrace lovingly built from local stone by the last owner’s husband), or blueberry muffin breakfasts at the little blue kitchen table overlooking the big hay meadow, or enormous turkeys for Thanksgiving in the cozy, candlelit dining room. I remember one summer feast with my friend Shelley during a power failure, surrounded by candlelight from tall holders and tiny votives, watching the rain lash the curvy old window glass.
Family and friends have streamed endlessly through the doors: some choosing the muddy springtime path to the back door, some the treacherous snowy walkway to the front of the house. Lighted candles have twinkled from the hydrangea tree every Christmas Eve, and we’ve established a treasured tradition at the table once the lights are lit: every year, Anne, David, Alice, Connie and little Katie troop across the road for a creamy, garlicky, celery-laden oyster stew, complete with round, dusty little oyster crackers to pop in the bowl and scoop up with a silver spoon.
Red Gate Farm has seen long, lazy visits by my precious parents-in-law, birthday parties for my mother, August half-birthdays for my niece Jane, and Camp Kristen weeks with lots of little girls rushing in and out in bathing suits, shouting, “Who has my goggles?”, piled in sleeping bags in the guest room eating popcorn and watching “The Pink Panther.”
There have been sad days of illness, and days that were a gift because illness had retreated, and days where the house itself provided a cocoon of comfort to those of us living with loss and bereavement. The house has seen and welcomed the birth and babyhood of my two nieces and our dear Katie across the road. I often think of Avery, her cousins and their neighbor Katie leaning over the fence, long after we are gone, exchanging gossip, and maybe even recipes.
Sadly for our love of Red Gate Farm, we moved to London just a year and a half after we bought the gorgeous place. A year and a half of peaceful weekends was in our past. But the future brought Christmases there, and summers. Now, although we feel quite English and happy to live in our new home most of the time, each December and June we find ourselves reaching out to Red Gate Farm, pining for its serenity, imagining the glories we will find when we arrive.
There is the new tradition of driving wearily up the road in the dead of night, jetlagged, the car packed to the gills with everything we need for our holiday. We approach the house in the dark to see its lights blazing, since Rollie, Judy and Anne have made everything ready for our arrival. They vie, sweetly, for who can turn up the heat, who can stock the refrigerator before the other gets a chance. How lucky we are in our neighbors.
We stagger up the walk under our luggage, push open the front door that sticks with age, drop everything on the floor and simply drink in the atmosphere: a mixture of old books, ashes in empty fireplaces, woolen rugs and leather chairs. We feel both the weight and the lightness of the generations of people who have opened that door before us, we sigh, and are home.
Christmas Eve Oyster Stew
(serves 8, with leftovers)
6 tbsps butter
3 tbsps plain flour
8 pints shucked oysters, in their liquor
6 stalks celery, minced
2 white onions, minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 quart whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
sea salt to taste
white pepper to taste
celery salt to taste
Tabasco to taste
lemon juice to taste
In a very large, heavy stockpot, melt the butter, add the flour and cook together until bubbling but not browned. Add the celery, onions and garlic and sauté until celery and onions are softened. Pour in the oysters and their liquor and stir them constantly over medium heat until their edges curl firmly. Heat the milk in a separate pan and just before it boils, add it to the oyster mixture. Whisk until flour is thoroughly incorporated and the broth is creamy and smooth. Add the cream and then begin adding seasonings to taste. Taste continually as the broth heats through and get the balance of flavors just right to suit you. Serve with oyster crackers. The flavors intensify over time, so you may make the stew ahead of time. Just be sure not to reheat it too intensely as the oysters will become tough.
It’s our last Tuesday morning at Red Gate Farm and all our guests have departed. Even our child has departed. The air is still and warm and I should probably pop up to find something for lunch, but it’s just too peaceful to move.
A far cry from the crazy round of activity and celebration that’s been the scene for the last two weeks!
It never seems quite like summer until John’s mom arrives, and she did, to kick off the August mania. Her first evening was the last quiet moment for days on end, it seemed.
Oddly, for Connecticut in August, it’s been cool in the mornings and evenings, requiring everyone to snuggle into cardigans and throws. But the days have been intensely lovely, with unbelievable blue skies and puffy clouds. The farmer’s market soaks it all up.
We have eaten an incredible number of ears of corn on the cob, of juicy tomatoes drizzled with the special Tuscan Herb olive oil from the market. And for an afternoon treat, why not sample one of dear Kate’s homemade strawberry muffins? Only 50 cents, right here in Sanford Road.
“They are still warm from the oven,” Kate assures me in her quiet way. Irresistible, even to this military gentleman cruising along the road. “I’m off to South Korea tomorrow. Happy to support small local businesses,” he says with a grin.
And yes, before you tell me, I know the fence looks just awful. It’s a fact of Red Gate Farm that everything is falling down; it’s just a question of what’s falling down fastest, and therefore gets the quickest attention. The fence has been collapsing by degrees for the last decade, and I suppose it can go awhile longer. John applied some elbow grease and bubble gum to the gate, at least.
Avery has had what can be called only “The Commuting Summer,” making her way from New Jersey every morning to spend the day in New York, either at her AIDS charity or at her internship with our historian friend Anne Nelson. And then of course she needs to get up here to Connecticut for the occasional moment of leisure, like dear Cici’s graduation party in Mystic. We motored there one lovely Friday evening. These two girls never change.
We reminisced with Cici’s parents and her friend Emily’s family — they were celebrating together — and marvelled that we are talking about Cici’s departure to college, and Avery’s applications next year. Is the world ready for these two to be unleashed upon it? Cici’s dad said in his eloquent toast, “We’re counting on you.” How heartwarming to be included in the party.
With Avery home, it was time to make some of the last dishes to photograph for the cookbook. Avery is frankly living for the day that she no longer constantly hears, “Can you get a picture of…” Sometimes, though, these last jobs remind us how delicious forgotten dishes are.
Warm Cannellini Beans with Rosemary and Rocket
2 tbsps olive oil
2 tbsps butter
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 large stems fresh rosemary, leaves only, minced
2 15oz/400g cans cannellini beans, drained
1/3 c/30g fresh breadcrumbs
4 oz/113g grated Parmesan or Pecorino
2 handfuls arugula/rocket
olive oil to drizzle
fresh black pepper and sea salt to taste
Heat the olive oil and butter in a large frying pan and add the garlic, rosemary and cannellini beans. Saute until garlic is soft. In a clean frying pan, toast the breadcrumbs until crisp and add to the beans. When ready to serve, add the cheese and arugula and toss well. Add more olive oil if needed and season to taste. Serve warm.
The warm, idyllic, peaceful weekend afternoons were spent with Avery and her grandmother discussing her Russian trip, her work experience, her internship. I slaved away trying diligently to make sure that every one of the 100+ recipes in the cookbook has proper measurements in both American and European methods.
What IS this American obsession with putting things into cups to see how much space they take up? I want to give every American cook a scale and be done with it. “Loosely packed, ” “a scant cup”? The mind boggles. But it must be done. Every person who has come through the door in the last month has been subjected to discussions of measurement and phrasing, and no person will be gladder than I when this is all finished.
John recovered with some good, hard physical labor with a chainsaw, hacking away at felled trees in our forest. Our woodshed is full, for Christmas.
I found time to cross the road in search of one of Gladys Taber’s cookbooks, there to find a classic recipe or two. It’s impossible to imagine writing my own cookbook without her example: remarking on the unremarkable, the daily, the delicious. We have been so lucky to have her family across the road all these years.
Weekends last for no one, though, and all too soon it was back to the city for Avery, and this time John’s mom and I joined her, just a couple of commuters we.
What a delightful train journey (if you don’t have to do it every day!).
Somehow, the American version of “Mind the Gap” seems less stern. More just an observation.
Avery’s discovery of the Upper West Side, through her historian boss Anne, has been a joy. I think she’s found her niche. The apartment itself where she has been working — on mysteries of the French resistance — is as if you distilled Avery herself into a piece of real estate.
She is in heaven. Watch this space for an announcement of the book she’s been helping with. It seems almost unfair for her to put this experience on her resume; every hour has been something to remember.
The four of us repaired to Central Park, never a feature of my New York (downtowner that I was), to discover its delights. Almost lily ponds! Waterfalls. Just a backdrop to the four of us, appreciating each other’s company and the incomparable feeling of being in New York, with its unique energy.
Finally we had to let the two scholars get back to work, so it was but the taxi ride of a moment for Rosemary and me to get ourselves to Zabar’s. Oh, the bagels. Oh, the nova, smooth as silk, oily and fragrant. Breakfast for dinner was in order.
What happy memories that place brings, not to mention 300 different types of cream cheese. It’s almost painful to enjoy a true New York bagel, knowing it will be months before we encounter one again.
Finally summer ratcheted up into high gear with the arrival of my mother for her birthday celebrations. It was time to head to Jill’s house for the reunion, and the birthday girl was in fine form.
Th evening involved involved tomato-basil risotto and a certain amount of silliness.
The next afternoon brought a long-awaited visit from my cousin Dewaine and his wife Clare, making Red Gate Farm part of an East Coast jaunt. Something made John’s mom and me seek out an old leather suitcase full of photographs. “I wonder if there are any of Dewaine in here?” There were. An orgy of reminiscences ensued. My Philadelphia PhD graduation in 1992!
Avery turned up from train station in time to laugh over our former selves. Ah, her turn will come.
Avery and Dewaine had met before, but many years ago. it was lovely to see them together again; at her baby naming ceremony he made quite a prophetic speech about the young lady she would turn out to be.
With all the family in place, we feasted on barbecued chicken, two-cabbage and carrot slaw and crab-stuffed mushrooms. As we ate, a thousand old family stories were aired and enjoyed.
But it was the chocolate mousse that made the meal. Is there such a thing as “too much chocolate mousse”? Jane asked, with her ubiquitous “air quotes.”
The birthday luncheon proceeded as it always does, with a nice warm afternoon filled with food: Jill’s devilled eggs, my clam chowder, corn on the cob, tomato salad. There were hot dogs for the girls (and my brother), and finally, lemon blueberry birthday cake. Jane had to make sure it smelled all right.
Lemon Polenta Cake with Blueberries
1 c/225g butter, softened
1 c/225g sugar
2 ¼ c/225g ground almonds
2 tsps vanilla extract
zest of 4 lemons
juice of 1 lemon
1 c/125g cornmeal/polenta
1 ½ tsps baking powder
pinch sea salt
1 c/100g blueberries
Butter and flour a 12-inch/30cm springform or plain round cake pan. It does not need to be particularly deep.
Beat the butter and sugar together until pale and light. Stir in the ground almonds and vanilla. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Fold in the lemon zest and lemon juice, the polenta, baking powder and salt.
Scrape the batter into the pan and scatter the blueberries on top. Bake at 350F/180C for 45–55 minutes. Test with a toothpick or skewer in the center; if it comes out clean, the cake is done. The center may seem jiggly, but the sides of the cake should have come away a bit from the tin. Check frequently to make sure the top does not burn; it should have a deep golden brown color, but not blackened.
This cake is inspired by my friend Elizabeth who has made it for me many times without blueberries. It is a lovely cake both ways, and very nice to have for people who don’t eat wheat.
What a nice way to mark the years, with this party, and all my favorite cast of characters on the stage.
We never seem to run out of things to say, this group! Land Trust news, news of “Little Rollie” and his adventures, anticipation of the school year to come for everyone, even a discussion of “Days of Our Lives” for Mom, Judy and me. A new topic of conversation: “Is this picnic bench sagging? How old is this table anyway?” Peaceful times.
The sun disappeared to be replaced with low clouds and maybe even a hint of rain to come. We had had fun, our mother and we.
Avery has gone back to the city for her last week of work, and we have had our last blow-out dinner of the summer. Lobster, naturally.
We must pack up the house, say goodbye to the daddy-long-legs, prepare ourselves for the school and work year to come. But we will go with a thousand summer memories.
It’s the picture that will make us laugh in deepest February, the picture that will sum up Summer 2014, the one that spells our family in a nutshell (and I mean that) and keeps us looking forward to every time we have the chance to be together.
You know those family stories where you can’t really tell truth from fiction anymore? This is one of them. “The Tall Tale of the Ice Bag.” Yes, it has our name in the handle (and also in the inside of the bag, but that’s not important). It’s one of the LL Bean bags we bought years ago in Maine at the outlet store, a store full of bags with mistaken monograms, mistaken names, or just monograms and names of people who forgot to pick up their orders. I think this one says “Dylan.” Did John give it to Joel? Did Joel experience an understandable moment of bag envy and simply walk off with it? The matter has been thrashed out in every possible way, with both men clinging in a completely incomprehensible way to this piece of canvas.
Finally, with the wave of a Sharpie, Joel solved the mystery once and for all.
Molly, in the background, smiled her approval.
This was our Sunday, a perfect scrambled egg-bacon brunch with my sister’s family, Jill herself coming armed with her own “Awesome Blueberry Muffins.” They were.
Jill’s Awesome Blueberry Muffins
(makes 16 )
3 cups/378g plain flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup/200g white sugar
4 oz/113g butter
zest of 2 lemons
2 tbsps vegetable oil
1 cup/250ml sour cream or creme fraiche
1/2 cup/125ml milk
1 tsp lemon extract
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Mix the first four ingredients with a fork. In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy, then add the zest and oil and beat until mixed. Add the eggs one at a time, beating between each. Stir in the sour cream. milk and extracts until well-mixed.
Pour half the dry mixture into the wet and fold just until mixed. Add the second half of the dry mixture and stir gently until just mixed. Fold in the blueberries and spoon into muffin tins lined with muffin paper.
Bake at 375F/190C for about 30 minutes, until browned.
Can you tell by the muffin photo that we had Avery back for the weekend? What a joy it was, after a day of complicated travel for her (yes, 42nd Street and “Grand Central” are the same stop on the subway; this is not an obvious thing) and lots of remote advice from John, to pick her up in nearby Seymour, Connecticut, a charming little hamlet containing a Metro-North station through which came this old-fashioned train.
She hadn’t eaten since the night before, in New Jersey, and had spent the day traipsing through New York on a shopping spree, carrying a good portion of her worldly belongings in a bag that conveniently split on a train platform about halfway through the day. She was ready to be picked up, fed a couple of slices of pizza in the car, and driven through the green and undulating hills to Jane’s summer camp, and the “Moosical”!
Yes, it was about a farm full of discontented cows who refuse to produce enough milk for the local ice cream bar. I can’t make this stuff up.
Jane’s performance was nothing short of dramatic genius, which didn’t stop Jill, Avery and me from collapsing into our annual puddle of uncontrollable laughter. It’s a family weakness.
A great summer tradition, Jane’s musical. What next year, a group of tie-dyed veal farmers?
It was very pleasant to have Avery under our roof again, and no, not only so she could photograph all the recipes I’d been experimenting on during the week. But there was that.
New England Clam Chowder
50 littleneck clams
1/2 cup/118ml white wine
4 whole stems fresh thyme
4 medium potatoes, peeled and diced the size of (well) dice
3 tbsps butter
4 stalks celery, minced
1 white onion, minced
8 stems fresh thyme, leaves only
3 quarts/2.8 liters whole milk
1 cup/236ml heavy/double cream
sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste
flat-leaf parsley to garnish
Place clams in a large bowl and cover with fresh, cold water. Leave for 20 minutes, then drain in a colander. Bring the wine to a boil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan or stockpot with a close-fitting lid. Place the clams in the wine and cover. Steam the clams until they open, which they will begin to do in about 10 minutes. Remove the lid and with tongs begin lifting out the clams that have opened, and others will open as you do so. When you judge that all have opened that plan to, discard any that have remained closed. If there is no grit in the cooking liquid, discard the thyme and keep the liquid to add to your chowder. Rinse stockpot and dry thoroughly.
Cool clams until you can handle them. Meanwhile, melt butter in the stockpot and saute celery, onion, thyme leaves and potatoes for 2 minutes. Cover with milk and cream and season to taste. Add clam liquid of you like. Simmer very low until potatoes are soft, about 15 minutes.
While chowder is simmering, take the clams from their shells and remove the hard “mantle” and attached innards and discard them. Rinse the clam that remains (the belly and foot) and chop as coarse or fine as you like. Add the clams to the chowder and stir to mix. Heat very gently before serving. Garnish with a few chopped clams and a bit of chopped parsley.
The afternoon taking photographs was simply perfect.
Avery and I took a break from all this photography and recipe-writing to spend some money at the local Gap (a favorite summer activity), get an iced tea at the Starbucks (ditto) and pay a visit to the visiting animal shelter which had parked a truck full of puppies in the parking lot. We are suffering from pet withdrawal and as such could have adopted the lot. From there we progressed to the pet shop where Avery cuddled a lionhead bunny and moaned softly.
When we got home, our beautiful neighbor Taylor had dropped by with her latest American Girl acquisition and a number of tall tales to tell, which her mother later corroborated. Mummified hoarder lady found in collapsed house by Taylor’s rescue dogs? Check. Dead local cow dropped off in Taylor’s driveway to be made into dog food? Check. Her face belies these horrors.
Taylor picked up Avery’s camera and revealed an unexpected talent. I love this photo of Avery.
And this lovely image of the Aggravation marbles, fodder for so many perfect Red Gate Farm shrieking games.
The next morning brought my New York best friend, Alyssa. And Tina, the Wonder Dog.
Alyssa is my best friend for many reasons, high on the list being her understanding of the cravings I get for New York Jewish foods. She brought bagels and everything to go on them from our beloved Russ & Daughters, scene of our delicious early summer lunch. Whitefish and baked salmon salad, horseradish cream cheese, sable and smoked salmon.
I have never been a dog person, but we all had to agree that this might be in part due to the extreme strangeness of Alyssa’s previous canine children. Sydney? Super odd. Lila? Don’t ask. But Tina?
What luxury, to sit around exchanging bagel plates for fruit salad plates, whiling away the summer afternoon giving and getting news: of Annabelle’s university choices, Elliot’s performance at the World Trade Center memorial, plans for summer vacation on Fire Island, neighborhood news from our precious Tribeca. Old friends’ talk. One of those afternoons to remember.
Tina is a most devoted dog. She did not approve of Alyssa’s brief trip inside the house without her.
Dinner that night was a typical Sanford Road barbecue with Anne, David and Kate trooping across the road. We were having so much fun chatting, and such reaching-over-each-other confusion eating, that we didn’t even pick up a camera. The barbecued chicken was a delight: marinated in a funny mixture of buffalo wing sauce, Ranch dressing and Worcester sauce! And of course corn on the cob. And potato salad, still warm from being made at the last minute.
The next morning brought Jill’s family and the blueberry muffins, and the girls showed their annual interest in the spidery room in the Big Red Barn, and the seemingly endless numbers of Avery’s cherished picture books that emerge from cardboard movers’ boxes therein. Quiet, old-fashioned fun.
What lovely girls my nieces are. Sweet Jane, nearly ten years old now.
This is an uncharacteristically docile image of Molly, but it shows her true beauty.
Tomorrow will bring John’s mom! Summer always reaches a new level of celebration when she arrives, to inhabit her cozy bedroom at the front of the house, with its barn-red spread and piles of books. And next week, my mom, here for her annual birthday bash. It’s life, concentrated. Just add water.
In the early evening, here at Red Gate Farm in the first days of August, the peace is really indescribable. It is the sensation of utter calm that we look forward to all year. We sit on the terrace and try to read, or work, but what we really do is look up and out over the landscape, listening to the squawking of John’s finches and the squabbling of the squirrels and chipmunks, and feel grateful to be here.
I wander around taking photograph after photograph of views that have been captured before, many times, but I don’t mind. I see them fresh every summer.
A week ago today, we were still in the halcyon mood of happiness that came from having picked up Avery at Heathrow, from her adventures in Russia. It was a life-changing experience.
We listened in admiration to her stories of the human kindness, generosity and sheer good fun of the people she met there in the orphanage “community,” where she washed dishes, made costumes, woke in the middle of “the night of the hornets” to swat at creatures who grew larger with every telling of the story. Her colloquial Russian improved by leaps and bounds, so if anyone needs to know, quick, how to say, “please bring the scissors, the Scotch tape and the spray paint,” Avery’s your woman.
We awoke on the dreaded travel day with that single-minded purpose that sort of blinds us every year to the unpleasantness to come: the emptying of the fridge (thank you, Elizabeth, for giving a home to my cheeses and eggs), the saying goodbye to the puzzled cats, wrangling luggage in the hot London sun, suffering through security, downing a meal, the long flight, customs, the long drive in the dark to the house. And to sleep, about 16 hours after we left “home,” waking several times in the night with no idea where I was.
In the morning, we awoke early to this lovely sight.
Deadly or not, we decided not to take any chances and simply shut the door again after we each had an incredulous, disgusted stare. I think the car will have to be shredded.
For the time being, we are keeping our rental car while we come to terms with the finality of goodbye to a car that’s seen us through a dozen happy years. I just don’t think it can be reclaimed.
We turned to happier things, like the first brunch at the Laurel Diner! Nothing like it.
Oh, the goodness of butter. Perfect corned-beef hash, hash browns, a fried egg or two with cheese, sausage AND bacon. Avery and I shared everything and it was a feast. John has his own, of course.
With meals like this, we’ll have to measure Avery one more time, although I think she’s stopped growing.
We’ll also have to play plenty of tennis to work it all off. After taking the whole year away from the courts, what with my bum ankle, John’s bum knee, and our obsession with cycling, it’s been nice to get back to our game, as untutored as it is. We always have fun.
It was time to whip up the interstate to share a pub dinner with Jill, Joel, Jane and Molly. Jane brought along the script to her upcoming musical (something involving dairy and some French tourists; we’ll see it this week), and we had a good discussion.
Since last year’s musical was a neo-Socialist foray into labor conditions at a button factory, anything could happen, on Thursday night. I would like to tell you all the plot details I learned from Jane, but truth be told, I was too busy just enjoying the sound of her voice and having her sitting next to me, to pay much attention to the exact details.
Oh, jetlag. How difficult it is those first few nights to stay awake! How easy it is to wake up very early. But the sights and sounds are not to be missed.
We’ve been joined, as every summer, by one of the little fellows who lives under the terrace. What must they think of our yearly arrival, and the inexplicable largesse that comes with it? They make hay.
We made our usual inaugural trip to the farmer’s market where we bought the first corn on the cob, the first tomatoes and cucumbers, and petted the resident baby goat, advertising goat’s milk soaps. I always feel vaguely that I’m getting away with something, petting the goat but never, ever buying any soap.
After leaving us to our own devices for a day or two, the visitors begin. We take farmer’s market apple cider doughnuts to Alice-across-the-road, and persuade her to come over to the terrace for a peaceful catching-up of recents events, mostly Avery’s tales of her Russian adventure. And then our friend Peter comes from around the corner to report on haying up in the meadow, and Tricia and little Rollie come to warn us about an alleged bear sighting. “Mind your bird feeders,” Tricia says. “This bear made a real mess of Rollie’s hives, up the hill.”
I feel bad about the hives, but I’d love to see the bear.
The peace is broken only slightly by the work that’s followed us here: the cookbook and Potters Fields. John spends the early part of every day catching up on what comes over the wires from England during the night. That house WILL get built.
It was time, on Sunday, for a little party.
Since we saw Mike, Lauren and the beautiful Abigail last, they have acquired baby Gabriel, and he was well worth the wait.
Abigail seemed to take him entirely in her stride, simply plopping herself down on the ground to play with Avery’s old dollhouse, much as she ever has, while Lauren and John chatted, and Mike and Avery took care of brunch, which was Russian blini! Avery and I concocted these from her memories of having flipped them at the orphanage, and a culling of several different recipes. Some were buckwheat, and some plain flour. All were delicious.
(makes enough for 6)
1 1/2 cups plain flour
1 cup buckwheat flour
large pinch salt
small pinch sugar
3 cups milk
1 tbsp vegetable oil
butter for the pan
Simply whisk everything together thoroughly, then melt butter in a very large frying pan and ladle in enough batter to coat the bottom of the pan, no more.
Cook until easily loosened from pan with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, then flip or turn over, as your braveness indicates.
We piled these with sour cream, smoked salmon, some smoked pork, and julienned roasted pickled beets. They were divine.
Abigail ate them plain. Six of them!
We finished with a glorious, purely American fruit salad.
It was time, then, to pile into the car and drive toward Avery’s real summer: her stay with our darling friends Jeanne and Cynthia, in the most heavenly bedroom in the world, high on the third floor of their celestial house…
We ate by candlelight, savoring the truly fabulous Scotch that Cynthia had laid in for us, and went to sleep peacefully, as we always do under their loving roof, me in the high four-poster bed I always have, and John on his sleeping porch. Some things never change.
In the morning it was time to walk to the train station, board NJ Transit bound for Hoboken, switch to the PATH and take the short walk crosstown to Avery’s internship for the month, at AIDS Service Center New York, a non-profit group involved in confidential testing, advice and advocacy. You’d never guess such important things could happen behind this front.
It was exciting to walk along the fantastically rich and beautiful Fifth Avenue, passing gorgeous townhouses on the cross streets and curlicued apartment buildings, only to find that this big-hearted advocacy group occupies such a stark office.
We popped into Patsy’s down the street for a quick pizza, before dropping her off.
And Avery was gone, in the big blue front doors and off to her summer adventure. No matter what time she is able to spend up here with us, it’s a bit of a milestone, waving her off to live her own life. We’ll keep you posted on what we hear. And what we eat…
Vacation is here.