The Christmas season has wrought its usual miracle and we are safely out of the chaos of London and into the chaos of the mad rush toward A Red Gate Farm Christmas.
We arrived in the middle of the night on Friday, our jetlag routed a bit by a suicidal/homicidal driver from JKF. I was thisclose to shouting, “Pull over, you lunatic, and let my husband drive!” Finally we descended the exit ramp off the murderous highway and onto the quiet country road to the house and I have never been so relieved in my life. Thankfully Avery slept right through it, but the hand I had resting on her sweatered, sleeping back was sweaty as we emerged from the car into safety.
Rollie and Judy had, as always, visited in the afternoon to fill the fridge and turn on heat and lights, and to leave five fragrant balsam wreaths on the front step. Could we have any better neighbors? I also suspect Anne and David had done some elf work on that subject, so we had food to welcome us. And my dears, the relief of seeing all the house repairs we had worried…
Tis the season when every evening, the three of us convene to ask, “What do you have on for tomorrow?” There has been plenty to do, starting with a whole series of musical events at Avery’s school.
For these, I arm myself with a handful of tissues, since nothing brings witless tears to my eyes quite like the sound of girls’ voices, singing in heavenly imperfection. There was the “Singing Tea,” a phrase that makes my American relations laugh. What on earth? How does a tea sing? British people will understand that it means a concert of the girls who take singing lessons at school, preceded by a tea. That is, a period of standing around clutching cups of tea and watching the girls themselves wolf down untold pieces of cake, having skipped lunch in order to rehearse.
Sandwiched as she was between Hayden and Bach, Mozart and Brahms, Avery’s piece was more funny than even it normally is. “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” of course, by the incomparable American mathematician and songwriter Tom Lehrer. “My heart will be quickenin’, with each drop of strychnine…” Perfect for our intensely satirical daughter.
Then we were onto the Junior Choir singing “Cry Me a River” at the Soiree Musicale. They were heavenly. I needed my tissues.
And then there was the week-long adventure of the much-anticipated school musical, “Sweet Charity.”
The musical was sublime: the dancers professionally in time with one another, the lead charming, and the ensemble full of crazy energy. Granted, the plot which centers on “dance hall hostess” bemoaning the loss of their innocence while they solicit clients and drink and smoke, is not one I would naturally have chosen for a girls’ school whose cast runs the gamut from 12–18. But as a friend of mind pointed out, maybe it was just this sort of daring subject matter that grabbed the interest of the older girls. At one point Avery was singing and dancing right in front, practically in the laps of the audience, so we fatuously chose those seats every evening. It was such fun.
Finally there was the Christmas Carol Service in the Hall, a room of such elegant proportions that I always feel I’m in a Harry Potter movie.
My mother asked if the girls sang traditional carols, and I replied, “Yes, so traditional that they sing them in LATIN.” Simply heartbreakingly beautiful, all of them in their black concert clothes, shining faces illuminated by hand-held lights, every one of them gorgeous in her own way. On the brink of everything.
On top of all these events, we’ve been attending far more than our share of school Christmas Fairs, getting ideas for our own Fair in a year’s time, for which John is totally responsible! I think it is wonderful that a girls’ school is happy to have a father in charge. A good example to the girls for what a husband and dad can be. And naturally, we’ve been decorating our own house, too.
There is of course the tree itself.
It is lovely, but I am bemoaning a bit the new trend in trees: someone has bred one that doesn’t drop its needles but also doesn’t smell like a Christmas tree. This is our fate, this season. I have hopes for a smelly tree in Connecticut. The beauties of shopping for Christmas decorations in England far outweigh a non-fragrant tree, though. With our lovely friends Vincent and Peter we went strolling (or rather pushing our way through choking crowds) down Columbia Road in the East End. What an experience! We looked up at one point and saw this fellow.
I especially like this last one for the very expressive size of the font. It’s as though the writer begins by feeling terribly emphatic and annoyed with his neighbors, then begins to lose steam, and finally at the end seems to regret being so angry.
We repaired to Vincent and Peter’s cozy home where they plied us with various tarts and quiches, among them this beauty made with red onions, black olives and sardines (photo courtesy of Avery).
And then we came home with five gorgeous (if lethally prickly) wreaths made of real holly, as only the English can do. They adorn the back windows of the kitchen.
Avery has, of course, set up her annual ice-skating pond with its lead skaters and sledders, giving strict instructions to anyone who visits to wash hands after touching! This year saw the addition of some amazing “Insta-Snow”, which works by sprinkling water on a very tiny amount of powder, causing it to fluff up many times its original size!
To keep up our strength during all these festivities, on the advice of my cooking friend Caz, I made these:
Sophie Grigson’s Christmas Sprouts
(serves 6–8 as a side dish)
675 g brussels sprouts
100 g smoked duck breast or bacon, cut into strip
50 g toasted chopped hazelnuts
15 g butter
1 tbsp sunflower oil
300 ml double cream
2 tsp turmeric
dash of lemon juice
4 tbsp breadcrumbs
3 tbsp finely grated parmesan
3–4 tbsp chopped parsley
Trim the sprouts of their outer, tough leaves. Place the sprouts into a saucepan of simmering salted water and cook for 4–5 minutes, until almost, but not quite, cooked. Drain thoroughly, allow to cool slightly, then cut in half.
Place the butter and oil into a wide frying pan over a medium heat. Add the bacon lardons and almonds and sauté for 3–4 minutes, until lightly browned.
Add the sprouts and sauté for a further 2–3 minutes, stirring constantly.
Add the cream and bring the mixture to the boil. Boil for 2–4 minutes, until the cream has reduced to a rich sauce. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Remove from the heat, add the lemon juice and spoon into an ovenproof gratin dish.
Mix the breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese together in a bowl, then sprinkle evenly over the top of the sprout mixture.
Place into the oven and bake for 18–20 minutes, until the top is golden.
I am not a massive fan of sprouts but even I really liked these. Go easy on the breadcrumbs as you want the end result to be quite creamy.
One of John’s and my holiday outings was a nearly complete bust, so let me pass on my intelligence. “Taste of Christmas” sounded so wonderful! We have always loved “Taste of London,” a food fair at which lots of top restaurants turn up to serve tiny portions of their signature dishes. Lovely chance to wander through Regent’s Park — even in the rain, as it was in June! — and eat sumptuously, facing far too many choices, and walking away feeling stuffed and gluttonous.
I didn’t read the small print on “Taste of Christmas,” which turned out to be at the ExCel conference center — depressing! — over an hour’s drive to the Docklands, in short, the area far, FAR East where the Olympics are going to take place! You can imagine how far one must go to find land in London on which to build giant stadiums. That’s how far we drove. And upon arrival, we discovered only SIX restaurants were taking part and the rest was a mishmash of unattractive Christmas ornaments and mostly-useless kitchen implements. Once there, however, we tried to have fun, and sampled all the food there was, plus we found a very exciting silicon mat that one can place directly on the burner of an Aga stove and fry things! Like these peppers, stuffed with goat’s cheese.
The only other lasting good thing from the dismal fair in the middle of nowhere was this salmon dish from Rhodes W1, which I’ve replicated as best as my taste buds can accomplish.
Olive-oil-Poached and Smoked Salmon Terrine with Sweet Lemon Dressing and Microherbs
(serves 6 as a starter)
2 cups olive oil
300 g/10.5 ounces fresh salmon fillet
200g/7 ounces cream cheese
200g/7 ounces creme fraiche
1 tsp capers
handful baby cress
handful baby shiso (Japanese coriander)
handful fresh tarragon leaves
juice of 1/2 lemon
300g/10.5 ounces smoked salmon
1/4 extra-virgin olive oil
juice and zest of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp clear honey
fresh ground black pepper
Bring the cups of olive oil to what can only be called a “shimmer”. It’s short of the temperature for frying, but a piece of breadcrumb will move about if you drop it in. Carefully lower in the salmon fillets and cook at this temperature for three minutes, then carefully turn the fillets over and cook for another 3–4 minutes until JUST cooked through. Remove and drain on paper towels.
In a food processor, combine the poached salmon, the cream cheese, creme fraiche, capers, HALF the quantity of all the herbs (reserve the other half for garnishing), the lemon juice and seasonings. Pulse until well combined but not a total mush. Taste for seasonings and add salt if needed.
Combine dressing ingredients and set aside.
At this point, you may decide if you’d like to serve this dish as a sit-down starter or as a finger food. If as a starter, choose a platter on which you’d like to serve the terrine and place a piece of plastic wrap twice as big as the platter in the center of it. In as close as you can come to a rectangle that’s about half the size of a piece of typing paper, place a layer of smoked salmon slices on the plastic. Spread a layer of the poached salmon mixture on top. Cover with another layer of smoked salmon, another layer of mousse, and finish with a top layer of smoked salmon. Cover with the extra plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least four hours, or overnight. Then unwrap the terrine and lay it on a cutting board. Carefully, with a serrated knife, saw the terrine into perfect strips about an inch wide. This recipe should yield 8 strips. Arrange on the serving platter. Sprinkle the reserved herbs over and drizzle with dressing.
If on the other hand you’d like to serve the dish as a finger food, simply spoon a bit of the mousse on a baguette slice, top with a bit of smoked salmon and a sprinkle of herbs, and drizzle dressing over each portion.
Our wonderful neighbors Suzanne and John came to share this with us, to investigate all the Christmas decorations, and most surprisingly, to offer to give our tree a second home when we leave next week! How wonderful to recycle our own tree, and not into pulp, but into a second family’s celebration.
Finally, as a glorious, hard-won Christmas gift to myself, today I managed to triumph over a so-far impossible bell-ringing challenge. You’ve heard me rant on about “Plain Hunt on Five” which simply means a method where all the bells change their order in a pre-ordained pattern. Until now I absolutely could not see the pattern! No matter how many different ways were offered to explain it, I could not see it.
Until this morning! I have had a week’s enforced absence from the Tower after pulling a muscle in my shoulder, and the challenges of ringing had assumed epic proportions, as any challenge does when one is not allowed to address it! But today all the pieces fell into place. My teacher handed me the rope to the heaviest bell, the Tenor, and said, “Right, cover on Plain Hunt. Backstroke/handstroke over the five, then the three, then the one, then the two, then the four, then all over again till we say stop.”
And it clicked! We were ringing for a special service involving the parish children, called “Christingle” service where the children all carry lighted candles tucked into oranges and walk up the central aisle. So we had an audience of parents, kneeling with their children, pointing to the ropes and to the computer monitor mounted on the wall, showing the bells in the belfry, swinging to and fro. “That’s what’s making the sounds!” parents explained. And I was able to keep my place, not perfectly mind you, but to keep it, and to take my place in the so-familiar tune of Plain Hunt. Onward and upward straight afterward, to another method called Grandsire Doubles, and I could keep my place there too.
“You’ll be really helpful to us now,” said one very advanced ringer who’s never spoken to me before. “Now we can ring a lot of methods we can’t ring if we don’t have 6 or 8 proper ringers.” Joy! I am a proper ringer now, or at least approaching one. A lovely Christmas gift for me. I hope very much your holiday preparations are including some happy-making moments for you, too.
Here I sit in a stream of sunshine coming through what are called the “font windows” of my bell-ringing church, grinning idiotically at anyone who walks in the door and might want to buy charity Christmas cards from me. So far there are no takers on this lovely late November afternoon.
Mostly what I am doing is recuperating from our Thanksgiving revelries. I think every fork, knife and spoon, every roasting tray, platter and spatula, every pitcher, glass and plate, was pressed into service! How delicious were the savoury flavors of garlic, sage, ham and turkey, the lofty spoonsful of potatoes cooked with sharp Cheddar and shallots, the spinach with celery and Gruyere.
Of course I can never look at cranberries without thinking of my parents’ first married Thanksgiving. In my family, there is nothing more memorable than a memory of someone else’s memory, and the story of my father’s adventure with cranberries is legend. “These don’t seem to be moving in this blender,” he told my mother. [What cranberries were doing in a blender in any case is a mystery to me.] “Stir them up a bit and see what happens,” she advised, not thinking to add, “Turn the blender off first.” They always claimed that when they moved house years later, they were still finding bits of macerated cranberry behind the curtains.
That was the same ill-fated Thanksgiving when my mother’s sleeve caught on her bathroom shelf full of perfumes brought back from a summer in Europe. What a fragrant Thanksgiving it must have been, I imagine now.
And then, at the last minute when their guests were arriving, my father pulled the turkey out of the oven and tipped the cooking fat right back inside, watching in dismay as it caught on smoky fire! I could only imagine, last night, peering anxiously at my own bird.
My poor parents, struggling through a newlywed holiday full of disaster upon disaster. What I love about family stories is how quickly they turn from tragedy to comedy, usually within an hour or two. How happy they must have been when the last guests left and they could close the door behind them and begin turning the day into a legend.
Our own turkey-cooking yesterday was its usual unscientific, “let’s try this and see what happens” fiasco. Brining in herbs and kosher salt and peppercorns, of course.
The night before, as the best of husbands will do on such occasions, John sent me a link to a story about turning my expected four-hour cooking time into two. Why this would be appealing I do not know, since the whole day is spent in the kitchen anyway. The revolutionary method involved flipping the poor bird over in all its boiling cooking liquid (“ow, that went right through my SOCK!” John moaned at one memorable moment) several times, which was unduly stressful. Out came the thermometer. “It’s cooking way too fast, turn down the heat!” Then another stab. “Hang on, now it’s cold inside.”
Oven turned up, oven down, turkey in, turkey out, covered in foil, uncovered in order that we could snatch away bits of crisp skin to “test it.”
And then as I was sprinkling “sugar” on my carrots to caramelise them, it was only in the nick of time that I noticed my “sugar” was in fact… couscous. (It probably would have been a great dish, carrots and couscous, but not at that moment.)
In short, it was a typical Thanksgiving afternoon.
In years past, however happy our Thanksgivings have been here in our adopted homeland, I have always felt a bit melancholy, a bit homesick for the holidays of childhood when children and guests were hanging around all day, watching football and having a day off usual activities. It seemed sad to me, the first few years we were here, to have the day quite and alone while child and husband were at school and work, to have the dinner at night just like any ordinary dinner party.
Suddenly last night, though, I looked around at my beloved guests – old friends and new – and realized that this is the new normal. I dote on the moment when Avery and her friends beat a tattoo on the front door, rushing in with cold cheeks, demanding snacks, then settling down to homework before dinner. I really love seeing my guests come in from the windy darkness, bearing pies and flowers and wine, everyone excited to have “a real American Thanksgiving.” Somehow every year we manage to have people round for whom it’s their first Thanksgiving, and this makes everything exciting and festive.
“We welcome you here to our American holiday. We are thankful for Thanksgiving — a time to pause and reflect on the joys and sorrows that a full life contains, to appreciate the gifts of love and life, to cherish the memory of those who are not present, to recognize our absolute gratitude to friends and family who ARE present. Today we think of the love we feel for those closest to us, and we hold dear all our hopes for the future and for reconciliations to come. Thank you, Thanksgiving.”
We explained to our English guests that it had been people just like them who bravely climbed on the Mayflower to endure the hideous journey to the New World and the winter of sickness to come, during which half their number died. “They left England seeking greater religious persecution than was available at home,” John deadpanned, paraphrasing Garrison Keillor. It is hard to believe that our excessively jolly, festive holiday has any roots in despair and hunger.
I now feel that the sense of wonder, of appreciation for our American traditions, the grateful consumption of my lovingly prepared dishes, is the best Thanksgiving we could ask for. It has a different quality from the familiar childhood holidays full of family faces we saw every year on that day. Every year here, in what have become our real lives, there is a feeling of newness to the splendour of the occasion.
Sitting here in the peaceful church, selling Christmas cards to absolutely no one, gazing on my beloved bellchamber and anticipating the hard work that tomorrow’s practice will bring, the friendly banter among us as we pull our ropes in the blinking sunshine coming through the windows, I am content.
Turkey Meatball Soup
(feeds the multitudes)
1 turkey carcass, plus the vegetables that roasted with it in the tin
2 lbs/1 kilo ground turkey (turkey mince)
enough breadcrumb/milk mixture to make the meatballs JUST stick together — perhaps 3/4 cup of each
pinch onion powder
pinch garlic powder
pinch dried parsley
4 carrots, sliced
4 stalks celery, sliced
1 cup tiny pasta stars, already cooked
Simmer turkey carcass in enough cold water to cover him for as long as you can, several hours at least. Poke at the carcass to remove the meat from the bones whenever you pass by.
Pass the turkey broth through a sieve into a stock pot (this is an important step: one year I poured it RIGHT DOWN THE DRAIN).
Mix the turkey mince with the milk, breadcrumbs and herbs until all is thoroughly mixed. Bring turkey broth to a high simmer and form golf-ball-sized meatballs to drop into it, one by one. When they float to the surface, add the sliced carrots and celery and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the cooked pasta and ENJOY.
How wretched of me to let so much time go by without writing. But I am sadly subject to a tummy complaint that hits me now and then — usually when there’s something I can’t “stomach” or I have a lot to “digest” or I’m trying to trust my “gut” instincts about something. In other words, every once in awhile, some significant worry that floats through my life joins forces with a coincidental bug or virus — that kind other people are too tough to succumb to — and decides to take up residence in my tummy and make me miserable. Sometimes it lasts a very long time indeed. This time was only a week. But what an unhappy week it was, to be sure.
All I could do in the way of physical activity was to ride my bike every day, gently, with John. The views of our bike path along the river were restorative.
It has been a beautiful autumn here in London, with unusually bright, beautiful leafy color. We often wish we were back in New England for the traditional incandescent foliage, but this year in real England, we could not complain.
Over the weekend, though, giant Hoovering trucks trundled down the road into the village, which had been covered with ankle-deep piles of orange leaves, and sucked them all up. The sidewalks are bare now, waiting for the last few crunchy bits to fall from the trees. The wind, too, has changed from a bracing freshness to a lashing dampness that turns hands on bicycle handlebars into red icy paws.
The best thing for icy paws is hot soup.
Broccoli Soup With Nutmeg and Gorgonzola
2 tbsps butter
4 cloves garlic
1 large shallot
2 heads broccoli, separated into florets
pinch fresh nutmeg
chicken stock nearly to cover (perhaps 4 cups)
3 tbsps Gorgonzola or other creamy blue cheese
3 tbsps creme fraiche
sea salt and lots of fresh black pepper
In a heavy saucepan, melt butter and add garlic, shallots and broccoli, sprinkle the nutmeg over and stir to coat everything in the butter. Pour in enough chicken stock nearly to cover, but not quite. You do not want the soup to become water. Simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure you get all the broccoli under the liquid. When broccoli is soft, remove from heat and puree with hand blender. Add cheese and creme fraiche, place back on heat and stir until cheese is melted. Season, being sure to add plenty of black pepper till soup is slightly spicy. Serve hot.
My paws have been particularly occupied with adventures in bell-ringing! This crazy activity of mine — half sport, half musical instrument — has been both a joy and a curse. Sometimes, as I wake up on a Sunday morning to find something decent to wear, hop on my bike and turn up at my dear St Margaret’s to spend an hour pulling ropes and exhausting myself, I think, “Why on earth am I putting myself through this? I could be sitting quietly with Hello! magazine, or even sleeping.”
The reason I persevere is partly pure stubbornness! I can’t bear the thought of having put all this effort into learning the craft only to drop it. This week is the six-month anniversary of my first lesson, and it has taken just this long for me to feel a true member of the community. Last week eight of us gathered to ring for a special Evensong, celebrating a local composer who had been awarded one of English Heritage’s “blue plaques.” The church itself was magical in the crisp darkness.
So was the bellchamber, with my beloved teacher Howard bringing down the “spider” that holds all the ropes.
The band gathered around — me, plus seven men, mufflers wound round their necks, blowing on their hands. We rang. The churchgoers appeared in their Sunday best, bringing children over to admire the bell-ringing. I suddenly felt an enormous pride in my being able to turn seven ringers into eight, to make us a full band, a ringer for every bell, a full octave present. I was a needed, valuable part of my small, chosen community.
Last weekend saw me at the ultimate crazy activity: an entire day out in the Surrey countryside, in the remote and beautiful villages of Limpsfield, Merstham and Bletchingley, ringing ALL day long in training.
As difficult as the day was, six straight hours trying desperately to learn “Plain Hunt on Six” and “Plain Hunt on Eight,” it was an accomplishment. Surrounded by lovely people, gorgeous architecture and country views.
It was just my luck — I think! — that I was given the toughest, most experienced ringer in all the United Kingdom to spend the day with, having my every movement scrutinized, and yes, being shouted at. He rang at the Royal Wedding!
And up first thing in the morning to ring for our beautiful Remembrance Day services.
There is no doubt in my mind that my new vocation has provided a very satisfying distraction from my other primary activity: watching my teenage daughter grow up and away. She celebrated her 15th birthday this month, with new headphones, a silver bracelet, piles of books.
Fifteen is a real milestone. For one thing, I remember being 15 myself! I was my real self that year, the self I am now. So I know that the daughter I gaze upon now is the real person she will live with, all her life. I like very much what I see. She is immensely funny, a great debater, a truly liberal thinker, and a loyal friend who views gossip as a behavior only slightly more civilized than littering. She has an enviable sense of style, even if sometimes it expresses itself through poems written in ink all over her hands.
The other side of this shiny coin is, however, the gradual withdrawal of the little, dependent, hand-holding child I was used to all these years. Of course this development took place gradually… one day she simply brought herself home from school alone and that was that. She took her first taxi ride alone, her first Tube ride alone and turned up safe and sound. Stuffed animals no longer went along on sleepovers, her bookshelves became filled with books I have not read, her Facebook page filled with people I have not met. The sort of cringe-making school photos she always hated are replaced with professional headshots, taken for her acting agency.
In short, the child I poured so much of myself into, spent so many seemingly endless hours reading to, marching people in and out of her dollhouse, arranging magnetic letters on the fridge to spell her own personal version of “Mommy,” has metamorphosed into a young lady. I find the transition completely baffling, and while I know it has taken place over a number of years, sometimes the new Avery seems quite unbelievable to me, dignified, intellectual, a bit remote. As much as I cherished every stage, they all sped by anyway, leaving me with an independent near-adult.
Now, Avery and John will roll their eyes as I say this, but… there is a very useful parallel in this process to bell-ringing. Stick with me here.
What makes English bells unique is that they live on a wheel, which lives on a frame. European bells just live on a frame and hang downward all their lives, being able to chime only in a very limited back-and-forth motion. English bells can live downward OR upward, as we choose. Some churches store their bells downward, some upward. Here are the bells of St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green, London, in the down position.
The English like, in everything they do, to push the intellectual limits, to make the simple complex, to make the transparent clever. So they devised a way to get the bell all the way UP, and keep it there, as long as we like.
Here is a bell in the up position.
A bell in the “up” position is an essentially unstable thing, a very dangerous thing, because all it wants to do is go DOWN. If you pulled the rope of a bell you thought was down and harmless, and instead it was up and ready to COME down, that bell would come crashing down uncontrolled and then — inevitably — momentum would carry it back UP, and you with it, perhaps taking off your fingers if they were stuck in the rope, or pulling your shoulder out of its socket. We take “up” bells very seriously indeed.
Bell-ringing is entirely about control. What the beginning ringer learns to do is to approach a “down” bell and take its long length of rope in hand, the rope made into tidy coils. Then you start to pull your rope, and as the bell goes higher and higher toward the top of the frame, you let out the coils. You gradually have less and less rope hanging down as the bell takes more and more of it up into the belfry, finally flying up as high as it can go, pointing its great mouth straight upward, and at the moment you stop pulling and “set” your bell at rest.
The whole process, tightly controlled, should take more than a minute. You must put all your controlled strength into PULLING that rope, because depending on how heavy your bell is, you could be trying to pull more than a TON of weight from its happy “down” position to being 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Bells don’t want to go up.
As I have thought of Avery growing up, from a baby until her teenage years, I now see the whole process as an attempt on my part to get her from the “down” position to “up.” How we push them to turn over when they would just as soon lie still! “Stand up, baby!” we urge, holding their little hands insistently when all the baby wants is to plop back down on its diapered bottom! Then walking, chewing instead of drinking, holding a spoon, going to school, SHARING. All the things a little child would rather not do. They’re hard.
How I doted on all these stages! The hours I spent driving her to ballet, to horseback riding, the endless evenings spent reading aloud from picture books, then watching her choose her own chapter books and read alone. I got her bell “up,” in other words. My task was blissfully clear. I was to pull steadily, get her bell “up,” no matter how the process went against inertia. And it worked, beautifully.
But what I’ve discovered as the mother of a teenager is that what goes up…
The bell wants to come down again, filled with all the power of gravity. And now the job of the ringer is to help the bell come down safely, steadily. You hardly pull at all, just enough to get the bell off the balance, and then you watch OUT! Because those hundreds of pounds are filled with all the potential you’ve put in them, getting them up there. You can’t let the bell fall on its own, or the rope swings wildly, smacking into the other people in the belfry, flying upwards with uncontrolled, unguided power. It can’t control itself. You have to learn how and when to coil the ropes to keep the bell coming down in a steady, safe way.
You see where I’m going with this. All that pulling, all that power you’ve invested in your child — all designed to make her a happy, independent person — come back to roost. The child WANTS to come down, swing on her own. And you’ve got to figure out how and when to coil the ropes with just the RIGHT amount of control. Little steps down.
It’s a fact of bell-ringing that some people prefer to ring up, some to ring down. Some people like the challenge of getting a bell to do something against its nature, to go up, and some like the challenge of controlling a very heavy, powerful force of nature in its inevitable path.
I am a more natural ringer-up. I like the clarity of the task, and the fact that none of it will happen without my trying really hard. I am more intimidated by the coming-down of the bell, full of its own power.
But the fact is, you can’t be a proper ringer without being able to do BOTH. My church rings all its bells UP at the end of a session. They live in the “up” position. But when I ring at Chiswick, they ring their bells DOWN at the end of a session. I can’t pick and choose. What my teachers tell me is that eventually, I’ll be good at both. I might always prefer one job over the other, but I’ll be safely capable of both. I still panic a bit, now, every time someone tells me to “ring down.” But I can do it.
I am lucky that my particular, personal “bell” is ringing herself down really beautifully. I am so proud of her. I don’t always know when to step in and help control the rope and when to let gravity take its course, but I’m gradually learning.
Goodness, since we arrived home from Paris a week ago today, we have certainly hit the ground running. There has been a cold, rainy day out in Greenwich for me — on a boat on the Thames, wet wind whistling — with my bell-ringing friend Alastair and his lovely grandchildren… And a brilliant bell-ringing session on Saturday, and the reward that afternoon of a fabulously unusual lunch out in Chinatown with my friend Sam at St John Hotel, the latest outpost of the St John empire presided over by Fergus Henderson, the famous “nose to tail” restaurateur.
I had a pork and pigeon terrine to start (lusciously rich, with cornichons and a dense chewy bread), and Sam a mallard and butternut squash salad. Then my main course was a rabbit fillet wrapped around rabbit livers, in a buttery bed of carrots and Savoy cabbage, luscious. Sam’s main course of skate and brown shrimp arrived very late and was therefore on the house! The delay gave him a chance to share my rabbit, so all was well. We can most definitely recommend St John: lovely friendly waitstaff and a pretty, simple white interior. Sam came home with me for a good long gossip and John’s brilliant slow-roasted pork shoulder with a lemon-garlic-rosemary rub. Brilliant! And thank you as always for the photo, Avery.
(serves at least 8)
1 3-kilo pork shoulder, boned, rolled and tied
1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled
1/2 lemon, cut in two pieces
5 rosemary branches, just leaves
5 thyme branches, just leaves
sea salt and fresh black pepper, LOTS
olive oil (as necessary for proper consistency, perhaps 1/4 –1/3 cup)
Place all the marinade ingredients in a small food processor and blitz until the lemon pieces are very small and the mixture is smooth. Rub over pork joint. Place in a foil-lined baking dish and wrap foil around the joint to make as airtight a tent as you can. Roast at 300F/180C for five hours. Uncover and roast at 425F/220C for 30 minutes, then remove from oven and allow to rest for 20 minutes. Pour off cooking juices, meanwhile, and pour through a gravy separator into a saucepan. Whisk a bit of flour and cream into the juices and simmer to make a savoury gravy. Carve pork in thin slices.
Then, because it pays to have friends in high places, we spent Sunday in Oxford with our friend Jo who is a brilliant guide at the incomparable Bodleian Library.
What could be more inspiring for Avery’s university plans than to tour this 17th century landmark, where books were originally chained to lecterns and everyone studied theology. An overwhelming sense of history, and of course most important for me, it’s where Lord Peter Wimsey filled his head with quotations.
I labored cheerfully and came home to carve pumpkins with John and await Avery and her friends for a muted, teenage Halloween. No more costumes or trick-or-treating for them, just a cozy evening together with pizza, lots of candy and a whole slate of American Halloween movies: Charlie Brown, of course, and Avery’s favorite “Castle” episodes. I felt a little melancholy at being yet again in England on Halloween, where little dressed-up figures ringing the doorbell are few and far between. Still, it was Halloween.
Today is a typical grey, misty London day, the first since I can remember with no guests, no plans, no parties, no exposure to public transport, no holiday atmosphere. It’s about time, just to be quiet, to let a kitty lie heavily across my legs, to take stock of our busy lives.
And to try to remember our Parisian holiday! It was Avery’s birthday present. Sunday dawned with big plans. Notre Dame!
We went especially on Sunday morning to hear the Gregorian mass, and also the bells. I can report that the bells sounded absolutely dire, off-key, rather unpleasant and forgettable. I was terribly disappointed until we saw a display in the church announcing their massive and expensive plans to overhaul all the bells in the winter of this year. I looked up at the bell tower and imagined them renovated, chiming out over Paris as they did in Quasimodo’s day.
From there we crossed the picturesque Pont de l’Archeveche, narrowest of all the bridges spanning the Seine, and home to one of the peculiarly European padlock-love displays. Avery just adores these, first seen in Rome, then Venice, then Florence. Now Paris takes its place in Avery’s visual memory.
We hopped into a taxi and sped to the Boulevard Raspail to visit the famous biologique, organic, food market. We queued for the famous fried potato-cheese galettes, well deserving of their reputation!
I eventually made a decision and bought a joint of freshly-rotisseried crackly pork, plus these tomatoes, a bag of spicy roquette, and two enormous artichauts, like exotic flowers when I prepared them!
We reluctantly (well, I) left the market and we walked to my beloved Musee Rodin, in whose shabby and brilliant archives I camped out for months and months 20 years ago, doing my research. There we fulfilled a Facebook plan that warmed my heart: I met beautiful Lindsay, the daughter of my singing teacher in Indianapolis when I was Avery’s age!
How unbelievable to be with the new generation, smack in the middle between me and my daughter, and she looks just like her mother! I felt overwhelmingly nostalgic, for the wonderful hours spent singing as Lindsay’s mother taught me the ins and outs of technique, 30 years ago.
We toured the gardens and the house. Avery took brilliant images of the sculptures so dear to my heart.
And before you get depressed (as we did) at the peeling paint, scarred marble steps and creaking floorboards, I must assure you that the Musee is undergoing a massive renovation this winter, as well as the Notre Dame bells! It is an idea whose time has come. But go now, before they close for their repairs.
We sauntered out into the sunshine to find lunch. Sadly our destination, Cafe Max (another haunt of my years in Paris) was closed. So we ended up at a rather quixotic and bizarre restaurant, Home in Paris. A massive buffet! Typical brunch items like creamy scrambled eggs, sausages and bacon, plus salmon and sole en brochette, on barbecue sticks, and tiny steak Tartares topped with quail’s eggs! Grilled aubergines, peppers and courgettes, fine beans… and hard-boiled eggs stuffed with — are you sitting down? — truffled mayonnaise! And the desserts… Avery was in heaven.
“Have you noticed?” I asked. “Everyone here but us is FRENCH.” It turns out the restaurant is quite a destination for the locals — so simple to bring your mother who eats only vegetables, your child who eats none, your teenage son who eats everything and can never get enough! Lovely.
We staggered off down the avenue de la Motte Piquet, walking and walking and walking until we reached…
Then we hopped onto a tour bateau and spent a stuffy half-hour inside, drifting down the Seine, until we came to our senses and stood outside by the rail. The Hotel de Ville, the Musee d’Orsay (closed for a strike!), the Jardins des Plantes, all passed by. We were just happy to be together.
One of only two original Metro station entrances left in Paris! But beware: there are over 100 steps up from the train! Puffing and panting, we headed toward lunch at the cafe made famous by the film “Amelie,” Les Deux Moulins. Steak tartare, Avery’s beloved croque monsieur, feeling like total tourists! Ah well, why not.
And up, up, UP to Sacre Coeur! Avery’s photo, of course. She has such an eye!
I was terribly disappointed to find that the famous fruit and veg shop in the film was closed!
We came home for a brief toes-up and then headed out for a bit of last-minute shopping, finding the perfect cape for Avery’s winter coat. And collapse!
Finally, our last morning in Paris. I awoke feeling rather ill, probably the result of too much pate and cheese and total exhaustion, and was tempted to slip back into bed and recover before our trip home. “But we really want to see the Oscar Wilde tomb in the Cimitiere de Pere-Lachaise,” John reminded me, and we really did. So off we went, picking up a lovely little chyrsanthemum plant to give to dear Oscar, and trooping gamely through the cemetery in search of our goal.
And it was. Poor Oscar. Poor us!
We had to admit, then, that it was time to go home. A quick lunch at our beloved apartment (thank you, Kathleen and Joe!), packing and cleaning, and to the Eurostar, where I bought several brilliant little mustards in duty-free, Avery milled around the makeup counters, I picked up a Paris Match with the first photographs of the little Sarkozy daughter, and we came home.
What glorious adventures. Overwhelming, really, bringing together memories of the past, the joy of showing our child a lovely time, the drama of appreciating one of the world’s greatest cities. Happy Birthday, Avery!
We are back from the unforgettable delights of Paris, and I’m even now finding it a bit difficult to adjust to normal life! Seemingly dozens of loads of laundry have, however, helped me come down to earth.
There is no way to convey the magic of Paris in photos, or words. Even the simplest things are rather other worldly, like this view from our rented apartment, near to the Louvre.
It’s tempting to try to describe the extraordinary charms of everything about Paris: the architectural details around every corner, the charming blue street signs, the stylish girls and boys on mind-bogglingly speedy scooters, the perfectly fashionable small French children speaking in high piping voices, “Papa! Maman! Je voudrais du pain au chocolat!” Even the florist displays have a foreign, glossy poetry.
And there began the pattern of our holiday in Paris, each of us going along with the passions of the others! We walked and walked and walked, first passing an unexpected landmark in my life — Dehillerin, the world-famous kitchen supply shop, made famous by Julia Child in her memoirs.
No photographs were allowed inside, so I cannot show you the unbelievable sight of an entire WALL of wire whisks! Hundreds of choices! Every sort of cast-iron and copper and porcelain implement you can imagine, rows upon rows of knife sets, fish molds, madeleine trays, brightly-colored cutting boards, stock pots of every size in the world. Heaven. I didn’t buy anything, though. Self-denial is my motto, as you know.
From there we happened upon a very satisfying vintage clothing shop called “Hippy Market,” where Avery tried on thousands of garments, looking especially for a new winter coat. If only her arms were shorter.
From there we trooped toward the Pompidou Centre, passing along the way this incredible art installation. A wall of words, quite simply.
The general message of the wall is a sort of pan-modern support of peace, greenness, tolerance and love. Quite beautiful, as Avery’s detailed photo shows (she is becoming a more gifted photographer all the time).
We arrived at the Pompidou and Avery and John decided to take a break, sit on a wall and take photos of the new Converse. So it was but the work of a moment for me to cross the square to “DOD,” or “Dish of the Day,” one of the most charming and delicious delicatessens you will ever encounter. I cannot seem to find a reference to this place on the web, but trust me, it’s opposite the entrance to the Pompidou. Fresh breads, fruit and veg, wine, prepared foods, salads, and cheeses. Oh, les fromages francaises! I could not resist this darling packet of three different laits, milks, with its label, “Would you know which is which? Sheep, goat and ewe.”
I also could not begin to resist two different sorts of rillettes, which are terrines of shredded preserved meats, confit in fact, suspended in… fat. I bought goose, AND duck. Spread on a piece of baguette… heaven!
We put aside our acquisitiveness and went into the Pompidou, marvelling at the views from the glass escalators. Memories of my long-ago days doing dissertation research came back to me, twenty years ago, a student, alone. So much happier to wander through the museum with my darling family! We each chose our favorite pieces. Avery really liked the conceptual installations of Fluxus artist George Brecht.
John absolutely fell in love with a brilliant Japanese installation of a length of cassette tape being perpetually blown in a waving oval by an overhead fan! Silly me not to write down the name of the artist…
I myself fell desperately in love with a text installation — always text with me! — of metallic words, telling a story of two men in a bar, suspended around three of the four walls of one room. Again, I stupidly did not take any notes of the artist! I welcome any intelligence from anyone who finds herself at the Pompidou any time soon.
I find it very intriguing that all three of us eschewed traditional painting, drawing or sculpture, even photography was pushed aside in our enthusiasm for irony, humor and a deceptive simplicity, in these installations.
Having slaked John’s thirst for architecture and salved our cultural consciences, we turned to the more mundane subject of what on earth to eat for dinner, and where to buy the ingredients! And here we came upon a slight disadvantage of taking an apartment in a very popular tourist area: while there is every cafe under the sun, finding fresh ingredients is rather more difficult. But finally we came upon Supermarche G20 in the rue Etienne Marcel. And here John uttered one of the sentences we collect in our game, “I don’t think anyone has ever said this before.”
“Kristen, stop fondling the kumquats.”
But who can resist their dimpled skin? I didn’t buy any, however, restricting myself to ingredients I actually needed for dinner, since we had to carry it all home. We decided upon a dish of veal sauteed with mushrooms and garlic, the sauce finished with brandy and creme fraiche. Heavenly. Home laden, feet aching, all of us completely worn out, but reviving enough after dinner to go out for a little explore in darkness.
We came upon this menu, at the fantastic — and I mean that literally, surely it is a fantasy — Restaurant Le Grand Vefour.
Could any menu priced at 282 Euros — about $380 — possibly be described as “a pleasure menu”? We were gobsmacked. What on earth were they serving? Avery succinctly said, “It would be like eating coins.” We enlarged upon this theme, imagining our conversation with the garcon. “Yes, could I have my change in notes, please? These coins are SO hard to chew.”
Up in the morning completely refreshed to venture out of the apartment, finding that Saturdays in our neighborhood are VERY quiet indeed. “The people must really respect weekends here,” John observed, with some wishful thinking, remembering the seven-day work weeks of his career. Look what interesting graffiti we came upon at a building site.
We sauntered toward the shopping street of the rue de Rivoli in order to further our search for Avery’s coat, wandering into Zara, no luck there, then sending Avery off down the enormous escalier roulant, escalator, into the depths of Sephora, her beloved cosmetics shop. Her capacity to shop there always amazes her parents, as we cannot understand how she can look in one more city at another set of shelves containing makeup! But it’s just as I am with cheese and bread, and John with the windows of estate agents!
John and I couldn’t quite take 45 minutes in Avery’s mecca, however, so we agreed to meet later and meandered toward the river, for a spot of sightseeing. And there, poor John, I came upon a French… pet store. Just look at the chatons, the precious French kittens for sale. And I mean SALE. These kittens were expensive, coming in at 820 Euros each!
Poor John. We had to go back with Avery, and thereupon for the rest of the day she and I imagined all the other purchases we would give up in order to have a Parisian kitten.
It was time for lunch, and we found ourselves outside the gorgeous soaring Cafe Marly at the Louvre where we had seen people dining in luxury the night before. “Let’s just do it,” we all decided rashly (after all, it would take a lot of declined lunches to buy a kitten). And there we were, seated in the sun outside, with gorgeous views of I.M. Pei’s glass dome. It was a total DELIGHT. Just look at my Salade Nicoise, Version 2011, with a mysterious sauce made of whipped tuna, avocado and creme fraiche.
And it was WELL worth the walk, the enormously long queue. Her photographs are simply divinely evocative, troubling, unique.
This show led to very provocative discussions about, for one thing, how important is it to know the life story of the artist — or any details about the creator whatsoever — before you see the work? Avery’s considered opinion, and I agree, is that knowledge of the artist’s wishes, intentions, biographical details CAN add to our appreciation of artwork which without that knowledge might be mere pictures. But there can be an over-reliance on such details (certainly many theorists want to call them “extraneous”) that can cloud our immediate reaction to artwork. I must admit that when we came to the end of the show, and read the timeline of her life — interestingly at the END of the show, not the beginning! — that she committed suicide… I was not surprised. An awe-inspiring collection of images, and what a life.
And so from there home, stopping to buy ingredients for Avery’s beloved “Steak frites.” What a joy to cook at “home.” And to collapse once more, to refresh ourselves in sleep… and onto Day Three in the morning!
I’m busy in the kitchen this sunny London morning, preparing for a little dinner party tonight — my father’s first cousin is visiting! — at which I’ll serve the nation’s favorite dish. Curry! Next week will see Hindus celebrating Diwali, the festival of lights, and for that reason all the telly chefs seem to be coming forward with their various versions of the classic Indian treat. What Americans may find funny is that British “curry” often does not feature… curry powder! Curry powder itself is, of course, an amalgam of many spices including turmeric, coriander, cumin and cinnamon. British curries, including the one I’m making tonight, feature a paste of lemon grass, chilli, ginger, garlic and oil. I’ll start with that and then add spices as I go along.
If you can imagine, Avery is on school holiday this week and next! How on earth, we might well be tempted to ask, can a school system be ready for a holiday just six weeks after the beginning of term? Until I became the mother of essentially a British teenager you could never have convinced me that anyone could need a break in October. But we all do! This particular year, when Avery and her mates are buckling down to what are called GCSEs (the first really important exams that will occur next year, after which children can legally leave school). Homework levels have spiked and there is real pressure to produce serious work in several languages, three sciences and (toughest of all, to my mind) mathematics that I can no longer even pretend to understand.
Added to this onslaught of work are the rehearsals for “Sweet Charity,” the musical Avery will be in next month. As the days grow shorter and colder, Avery seems to come home later and later, laden with books and files, starving to death, and with a huge workload before we can hope to sit down to dinner. It was a nice break last week to head over to Kingston to hear the Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes talk about his career, the stratospheric success of DA, his future plans — a series about the Titanic next year!
He was simply adorable! For all the accusations that he is a snob, that “Downton Abbey” is a snobbish programme, I have to admit that I love it all. I do think it’s a funny contradiction, Americans’ attitude toward anything resembling the British aristocracy. We may well have fled England ourselves all those years ago seeking greater equality and freedom, but we love nothing more than Hello! magazine, the Royal Wedding, and anyone addressed as Countess or Lady. So I enjoyed greatly sitting on the dusty floor of the Rose Theatre in the round, and listening to the plummy tones of Mr Fellowes describing his life as a drama student, some 40 years ago. “We found ourselves between the brilliance of John Cleese and Monty Python before us, and Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry who came after us. In short, we were the bread between the jam, as it were.”
“Acting is like playing tennis,” he pontificated. “You should always pursue each activity with people who are better at it than YOU.”
Oh, speaking of tennis, we have had to admit that very shortly, the courts will be too damp, leafy and dangerous for us to play. And so we have taken up a new and totally crazy sport: SQUASH. One lesson at the Barnes Squash Club has convinced at least John that we should pursue this, so I’m going along with it.
I can understand that if I am going to continue to cook for us, we have to find ever more clever ways of burning off all the calories. But I have to admit I think I’ll always feel more comfortable with the sort of squash that takes butter and sage and gets pureed with a hand blender.
Roasted Butternut Squash Soup
1 large butternut squash
2 tbsps butter
6 leaves fresh sage
500 ml/2 cups chicken stock
drizzle single cream
Cut the squash in half lengthwise and dot with butter and sage leaves. Roast at 220C/425F for about half an hour or until fully cooked and soft. Scoop squash into a saucepan and cover with chicken stock. Simmer for five minutes, then puree with hand blender. Pour into warm bowls and drizzle with cream.
One of the biggest treats of this autumn has been our trip to Borough Market. It’s the way John gets me to accompany him on his real-estate forays into the East-ish End of London: the lure of every delicious foodstuff you can dream up, under one corrugated metal roof, high above our heads. Stalls of pumpkins (speaking of squash!)…
But perhaps my favorite stall of all is Gastronomica, that famed Italian seller of all things charcuterie (what’s Italian for “charcuterie,” anyway?), dairy, cheese… and the best butter on the face of the earth.
I brought home a head of cauliflower to roast whole, and WHAT a good idea that was. Simply drizzled with lots of olive oil and sprinkled with a good sea salt, roasted in a hot oven for 30 minutes.
Fortified by my cauliflower, I’ve been a good girl and done my “pool duty” at Avery’s school, a termly obligation which entails picking up the keys to the fabulous old structure at a house nearby, cycling through the autumn leaves over to school, opening up the box with its money to pay the lifeguard, asking members to sign in, then breathing in the steamy air for an hour and a half while swimmers trundle up and down. One man came in from the chilly outside to greet me and the lifeguard, who pummeled him with questions about the football match going on: Wales — vs– France. “I can’t believe you’re rooting for Wales, sir,” said the lifeguard. “Well, normally of course I wouldn’t. But they’re playing FRANCE.” The lesser of two evils, to the English mindset.
On Sunday we all awoke to a foggy day which I spent making every mistake in bellringing that it is possible to make. I led with the treble very badly, finally learning to follow the tenor. It’s a nice lesson in life: to be the leader, sometimes it’s necessary only to follow who seems to be last. Then it was onto Chiswick where when asked to “ring down” the treble bell, I accidentally pulled it down in two strokes. Was there ever a scarier moment? “You got away with that because it was the treble, a tiny bell,” Matt said. “If you’d had a heavy bell you’d be missing a hand right now.”
And this is my new hobby. How do I get myself into these situations?
The only way to recover was with a lovely plate of lemon sole, sauteed in olive oil and topped with a dusting of crispy Fox Point breadcrumbs. Terribly successful to taste, but not pretty enough to photograph. On the other hand, the side dish of julienned beetroot, shaped into a cake and fried in duck fat, was beautiful, with its dollop of sour cream.
It turns out that while julienned potatoes will form a cake, beetroot will not. And beetroot with duck fat is simply gilding the lily, as it were. Cooking is not always successful if you make experiments.
Avery’s been experimenting this break, but not with beetroot. First she spent a day in Tottenham with her fashion designer mentor Stephane St Jaymes, the brilliant man who offered her a “Take Your Daughter To Work” day last spring. I love the outfit she chose for her day with him this week.
So tomorrow, with her new haircut and ready for an adventure, we are off on the Eurostar to Paris for an early celebration of Avery’s birthday. More from there!
Autumn is here, my favorite time of year. ’ Tis the season, almost as much as Christmas, when all our activities get ratcheted up in intensity and it seems there is never a chance to take a deep breath. In just the last four days, we have been to the Royal Albert Hall to see Idina Menzel and Marvin Hamlisch in concert (beyond amazing, quite simply the best concert we’ve ever been to), hosted a dinner party for 14 (I was worrying it was going to be 13 until one family unexpectedly brought their German exchange student who spoke no English, so it was a bit difficult to tell good news from bad), and drove to Kingston to see Jane Asher in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” our favorite play of all time.
All simply lovely activities on their own, but squashed together into too few days has left me feeling a bit as if I’ve eaten too much foie gras over too short a period… and in need of a cup of tea.
In the midst of all this, Avery has had a milestone. Those wretched braces, her reluctant companions for the last two years, are GONE! She is very happy.
And I spent two lovely mornings with my super-volunteer friend Fiona, who last year was kind enough to invite me to take part in one of her elegant and yet homely projects: The Queen Mother’s Clothing Guild, which sees hundreds of volunteers gathering together in St James’s Palace in Piccadilly.
We spent the hours sorting through thousands of donated and purchased new garments for needy women and children. I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside the Palace, so I can only describe to you the GRANDEUR! We folded and sorted sweatsuits in a room with ceilings four times as high as my own house, looked down on by TWO Joshua Reynolds heroes of the aristocracy. The room next to us was entirely covered in TAPESTRY! The walls were hung with spiraling arrangements of weaponry and heraldry… and another room adjacent to ours was the setting for William’s and Kate’s engagement announcement! It was rumoured that the happy couple were IN the building as we worked, possibly even had entered through the same cobblestoned courtyard I had myself come through!
What an extraordinary privilege to be in such a setting, surrounded by lovely hard-working women, dragging enormous boxes of sheets and pillowcases from one room to another, buying up aprons emblazoned with the Guild’s logo as presents for various deserving friends at Christmas!
How amazing to take our lunch break and eat our sandwiches under a giant 25-feet-wide painting depicting Queen Victoria’s arrival in India! And get this: to find the ladies’ room, one had to pass through what is Prince Charles’ favorite room in which to read the paper! Red brocade wallpaper and all. Simply amazing.
If all that grandeur were not enough, last week saw us at the 502nd birthday party of Avery’s school, in the awe-inspiring environs of St Paul’s Cathedral. How wonderful to listen to the choir singing “Lord, graciously hear us,” in a descant written by Avery’s own music teacher, surrounded by the mosaic images of the Saints, with the girls and boys filing past in all their young, brilliant splendor. Sadly, another event at which was strictly enjoined against taking photos, but here is an official one.
And I have been laboring happily in the support of my beloved church, not only bellringing madly (and with some marginal success at ringing my first method, Plain Hunt on Five, of which I am ridiculously proud!) but also taking part in that MOST English of all possible activities: the church coffee morning. Here is the view of the little coffee shop, complete with crunchy autumnal leaves.
I called John up surreptitiously on the day to say that I felt EXACTLY as if I were in an Agatha Christie novel, just waiting for the body to turn up in the scullery! The story was this: one day in the year, on Saturday as it turns out, the coffee shop ladies who normally sell their wares to the general public took off their aprons and headed over to the Church Hall to run the Jumble Sale. We the bellringers stepped up to run the coffee shop in their absence!
I had been put in charge of asking everyone to donate a cake or “biscuits” or fairy cakes, and had gathered a goodly number. I myself took a lemon-blueberry cake with drizzle topping, and an apple-banana cake over which I liberally sprinkled icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar to us Yanks) in an attempt to make it look more professional. “Should these be priced at £1, or 50p?” we asked each other, slicing up orange-honey cake with a yogurt and pistachio icing, old-fashioned ginger cakes and Victoria Sponges, arranging coffee cups and tea bags and sugar bowls. This was the scene.
Between plating cakes and making signs and arranging flowers (Matthew came in with an offering of a posy from his garden: “These are chamomile…”), we took turns running over to the bellringing chamber to send our peals out over the village. How I adore that blue door, with our bicycles propped against the wall which so miraculously protected our beloved bells from the fire in the 1970s. What happy memories I have now of the six months I have been coming to the church to learn my art.
Of course, the giant excitement of our autumn season has been the Visit of Laurie and Christian, all the way from South Africa! Laurie is one of my closest friends ever, dating back to 1983 when we were excited, nervous, chatty, happy freshmen in college who lived in the same dormitory for the first year and happily joined the same sorority which meant sharing EVERYTHING for the whole four years of college. She hasn’t changed a BIT. Still the same gorgeous Texas girl of our youth!
Christian is her 11-year-old boy, a total joy to have around. Of course it doesn’t hurt that he’s drop-dead gorgeous.
From the moment of their arrival, our lives were just that much brighter than they had been before. Laurie is a tall girl, with arms that hug you with her whole being. She has never lost her Texas lilt of voice, her bubbling way of speaking, her bottomless enthusiasm for everything around her. Life just sparkles when she is around.
We spent the whole first evening catching up. “It’s different, though, catching up in the age of Facebook and email,” Laurie observed. “We know what each other’s houses and kids look like, we’ve had a chance to say we’ve moved house, or changed schools, so it’s a lot easier.” It was true: we got right down to the nitty gritty of appreciating each other, as we always have.
What is it about old friendships? I have moved house — and indeed country — so many times that I consider myself to be an expert at friendship. New friends from new schools, new neighborhoods, new jobs, new shops, a new church: I am a connoisseur of friends. They come in all shapes and sizes: the friend you see once a year to go to a food festival and stuff yourselves with gourmet food, the friend you meet for lunch to celebrate or commiserate, the friend who is your child’s best friend’s mother, the friend who teaches you to ring a bell. I cherish them all.
But there is something indescribably precious about an old, old friend. That person who knew you 25 pounds ago, who became part of your life when you weren’t old enough to drink but did it together anyway, who knew you before you knew your husband whom you feel you’ve known forever… that person who was at your wedding and met your baby when she was tiny, who knew your parents when they were the age we are now! That friend is one you keep, you hold onto, you appreciate with all your heart and history.
For me, the essence of an old friendship lies in the fact that she has seen you at your best, at your worst and everywhere in between, and still loves you anyway. New friendships are a bit more luxurious: you can choose to see them only when you’re at your best, or at least presentable. But when a friend has seen you flat out in tears — the teenage “I’ll never be happy again and ONLY YOU will ever understand” sort of tears, and also the adult tears of real heartbreak — or desperately hungover when you both wake up together in your dorm room, or after you’ve been up for 28 straight hours studying for that wretched German exam (Laurie always thought of my German teacher as HER German teacher, that’s how sympathetic she was)… well, then, that friend holds a special spot in your life.
What adventures we had! The very first day I had to love them and leave them, for my second day volunteering at the Queen’s Mother’s Clothing Guild (that is fun to type). So they went off to Greenwich to stand on the median line — boring but necessary for Christian’s geography homework! — and to take a boat down the Thames, while I folded scarves and counted t-shirts. Then we all met up at home where I was busily making chicken meatball soup for Avery’s ailing best friend, and chicken-asparagus carbonara for us.
How we talked and talked and talked.
And the tourist activities that I always get up to when visitors come… we marched poor Christian through THREE museums on Wednesday morning along! The Science Museum (where frankly the shop was our favorite exhibit, I think!), the Natural History Museum, and the V&A, where we sat outside in the spectacular Indian summer sunshine, beneath the impressive outdoor sculpture exhibit.
If you ever find yourself in that “Museum Row” in Knightsbridge, let me tell you a little secret: the cafe in the courtyard of the V&A is a spectacular spot: simple sandwiches and salads, lovely pastries and tea, and you can plop yourself down in the sunshine around the central fountain and watch the world go by — at least that portion of the world that wants to look at Victorian cast courts and then take a break for lunch. Oh, those cast courts! Replicas of ALL the great masterpieces of the medieval-Gothic-Renaissance times in Europe, made out of plaster but totally convincing as stone, marble and bronze. So impressive. Fiona had joined us for lunch, and she took us on a tour of those incredible replicas.
And when you’re ready to plunge into the South Kensington Tube, take a tiny detour and blow your cheese budget at La Cave a Fromage, simply my favorite cheese shop in London, I believe, partly because they give SAMPLES! And they carry what is to my mind the finest of all creamy cheeses: the three-milk Robiola (sheep, ewe and goat milk! amazing).
We came home, dumped all our parcels and headed over to the nearby school fields where I had got permission for us to watch a rugby practice! What a glorious way to spend a perfect mid-September late afternoon… sitting on a grassy hill, gossiping with my precious friends, watching young boys try to destroy each other! Christian found an abandoned ball and had a run around (I’m sure no one minded when one of his enthusiastic kicks sent the ball over the fence into the road!). Glorious day.
We all piled into our tiny convertible and headed over to Avery’s school to pick her up and make the transfer of soup to her ailing friend (I firmly believe that my chicken soup with meatballs should be patented for curing minor illnesses, and even major illnesses shouldn’t be ruled out). Laurie and I got permission to go on a quick tour of the school, and it was fun to see the pretty 100-year-old campus with new eyes: the fabulously impressive Main Hall with its enormous Victorian organ, the playing fields stretching out in the sun, the mosaics and engraved names of the “scholars” from 100 years of girls’ achievements in the hallway.
Home for that protein-fest dinner, pierrade, perfect in the slightly chilly dusk.
Thursday saw us shopping in Regent Street, finding Christmas presents for everyone on Laurie’s list. Then we had a picnic, thought of just that morning as we surveyed our treasures from “La Cave.” Robiola, Gorgonzola, Bresaola and Prosciuotto di Parma, all with a crunchy baguette, and pile of hard-boiled eggs, a clutch of tiny tomatoes. We sat on the grass in Hanover Square and watched all the young businesspeople in their suits and ties, scarfing down sandwiches. They went off to a matinee of “War Horse,” and came home blown away, teary and touched, as we all have been after seeing that magnificent play. I offered restorative fried haddock and fresh tartare sauce.
I spent Friday morning putting my beloved church back together after a busy evening the night before. “What happened HERE?” I asked when I came in, seeing overturned chairs, crumbs, empty wineglasses. “We had the hell of a fashion show!” answered one of my bellringing teachers, and we all put our heads down to hoover, take out recycling, rebuild the altar, replace kneelers and candles. I love everything I do in that place!
Then home for a HOT HOT afternoon, getting ready for our dinner party that evening. It was glorious fun to have everyone pitching in, putting napkins in silver rings, picking up on John’s brilliant idea to move the enormous dining table OUTSIDE in the garden! He mowed the lawn, I cooked — chicken meatballs in a sour cream-paprika sauce, green beans in garlic and lemon — Laurie set the table, filling candlesticks, choosing wine glasses, chatting all the time. That is just about my favorite time, getting ready for a fabulous evening, in our cozy home.
Our guests arrived and a wonderful evening began, finding out straightaway that one of our guests went to the school in South Africa where Laurie has put Christian down! They actually know people in common, in their little road outside Durban. I would say how unbelievable that is, but such things seem to happen in our lives all the time.
Conversations flowed as the teenagers at one end of the table ironed out the world’s worth of political issues facing them, Laurie and I regaled the adults with silly stories from our teenage years together, our friend James fell under Laurie’s spell…
Laurie said seriously, “You must visit a place with people you love who live there, else you will never see the stars in their sky.”
I could not rest on my hostessly laurels, however, because Saturday bellringing practice waits for no man. At the end of the practice, Laurie and Christian turned up for the promised beginning lesson I had arranged with my teachers!
And then they were off, given a ride by Laurie’s childhood friend who happens to live a mile from me! We promised to return the visit perhaps next fall! Wouldn’t that be exciting, to stay with real South Africans on a game farm? Watch this space.
Real life has settled down again, I suppose. How blue I felt for days after Laurie and Christian left, bulging suitcases showing the fruits of their shopping, bone-crushing hugs and endless silly jokes. The only consolation for missing them is knowing how lucky I was to have them here at all.
I will leave you with a recipe I just tried for the first time last night, taken from a cookbook, “Sumptuous,” that Laurie brought for me. Part of her remains here, after all. Thank you, friends, for an unforgettable time!
serves about 10 as a side dish)
2 medium aubergines/eggplants, whole
2 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 salad onions, finely chopped
juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 cup/250 ml creme fraiche
sea salt and black pepper to taste
Prick the aubergines all over with a fork and rub olive oil onto them. Roast at 220C/400F for 30 minutes. Let cool, then cut in half and scoop the insides out into a medium bowl. Fold in all the other ingredients. Voila! Perfect with slow-roasted shoulder of lamb.
I have been enjoying a little respite from remembering, self-examination, and the dredging down inside for ways to tell of our experiences ten years ago. I am terribly grateful to all my wonderful readers who assured me that I had been able, finally, to express what I intended to express. As unlikely as it sounds, as soon as I pressed the “publish” button on my beloved blog, I felt a real weight off my shoulders. I flexed my muscles, took a deep breath, and felt completely prepared to let go of these experiences and memories, and to return to the ordinary business of living — and being me, writing about living.
Why do people want to write, anyway? Well, I turned as one should always do in these situations, for wisdom from great writers. Foremost among them for me is the inimitable E.B. White, author of countless humanist essays, endless articles for the New Yorker magazine, and for me most importantly, of “Charlotte’s Web,” possibly the greatest children’s book of all time.
E.B. White tells us two challenging things:
“Remember that writing is translation, and the opus to be translated is yourself.”
“All writing is both a mask and an unveiling.”
White’s words of wisdom here support a notion I believe completely: every self is an opus, every ordinary person’s life gives us examples for living our own. The hurdle is in the translation, of course. With a bad translation, even the most fascinating and illuminating text (self) can appear opaque, meaningless. We put the text aside and give up on whatever its message might have been, because the translation left us cold.
As well, White is telling us that writing is about CHOICES. Remember the old school game of “show and tell”? Think about it. Why are they two different notions? Because just showing — unveiling — means very little without being able to stand beside your chosen object and tell why you care, why you brought it in to school. And if the chosen object is your own SELF, then the unveiling and the translation become very precious.
Writing down our September 11 memories made it possible for me to put a sort of frame around our experiences,to try for once NOT to wear a mask but to unveil everything. E.B. White also famously said, “Write what you know.” Most of the time what I know is extremely daily, prosaic and ordinary, and I take a great joy in putting it into words, cherishing it all. Writing about such appalling experiences was very different — there was no joy in remembering, but I learned that remembering even terrible things very well is a gift. My husband and family felt relieved to have that part of our lives framed, defined, put in a box, and the lid shut firmly.
What made those memories so hard to unveil was the emphasis they put on how precious our lives are. It’s like the game I play on the Tube, looking around at every single passenger and saying to myself, “That person is the most important person in the world to SOMEONE. I wonder who that someone is?” Events like September 11 underscore that crucial role that every single one of us plays, to someone. More than one person, maybe, if we are lucky.
But after awhile, it is very nice to make sure that box lid is firmly shut, put the box on a high shelf, and turn back to the daily round of activities that make up our real life, deeply comforting in their lack of significance.
In other words, what I really like writing about is what the Victorian novelist George Meredith called “seeing divinity in what the world deems gross material substance.” How I love gross material substance, how I revel in it! Gross material substance might present itself as medieval church where I ring, and the weight of its glorious bells…
Not to mention the people who pop in and out of my imagined narrative: the daughter and husband whose crises of orthodonture and taxes form little hurdles to hop over, or crash into… And the lovely people at my church who have given so much time in order to make out of me a respectable bellringer! I did a really good job at ringing in “rounds” last weekend and Trinny, one of my lovely instructors said to Howard, my most devoted teacher, “Kristen did really well at that, Howard! Give her a little praise!” to which Howard answered, “She is nothing now but one of the nameless, faceless rabble to me,” grinning at me a bit with a twinkle in his eye. What an honor that is to me, to be part of the rabble. We pull our ropes, and the lovely tones float over the village, and I suddenly notice the little figures in the leaded glass window above my head!
Look closely! The little shapes at the bottom of the window are BELLRINGERS! And if you count over left to right, the eighth little fellow is dangling at the end of his rope high above the bellchamber! Someone with a sense of humor created this window, knowing how sometimes bellringing can be deadly serious, literally heavy, and we all need a little lightening of the spirits. That lightness is certainly something supplied by our young ringers, every one of them a beauty inside and out.
Life was made more delicious by lunch out with my friend Elspeth at Sonny’s in the High Street. How admire the food at that lovely cafe. It is my goal this weekend to reproduce the dish I had there: perfect sashimi of yellowtail tuna rolled in black sesame seeds, accompanied by little dollops of avocado mousse, tiny piles of individual grapefruit beads, and a scattering of shiso, a new ingredient for me, which the waitress explained was “Japanese coriander,” in America “Japanese cilantro.” Delicate and gorgeous.
To work off all this lovely food, John and I have been doggedly riding our bikes and playing our crazy version of tennis. “Use the WHOLE court!” we chortle, jumping for balls that go high over our heads.
One morning we hopped on our bikes and rode to hell and gone, trying to find the All Saints Church, Fulham where I was to ring bells that night! We rode and rode and rode, until finally we came to a bridge. “Well, this isn’t Putney Bridge where the church is,” I complained. “No, I think it’s… Battersea!” We were miles out of our way, so we turned around and rode past the Wandsworth Bridge as well, laughing at ourselves, and finally came upon the church where I was lucky enough to be a visiting ringer that evening. Gorgeous.
The fun of being a decent-ish ringer is that now I can be itinerant! I can wander, wherever I am invited. And the fun of Fulham was that we rang on what are called “simulators,” which means I wear headphones that play the sound of bells ringing in rounds, only the sound of my bell is left out! So I have to manage to ring in JUST the spot where the silence falls. Then there is a shameful session with Edmund, my Fulham teacher, who shows me on the computer screen an exact record of my efforts, and how far off the mark they are! Great fun.
With all my ringing activities, Avery is just as occupied — much more so! — with rehearsals for the school musical, “Sweet Charity.” She came home last week raving about the lesson the drama teacher had given them that day. “You know, it looks totally different to smoke marijuana than an ordinary cigarette,” Avery assured us, perhaps not noticing our looks of mild dismay. “So she showed us exactly how it should look.” “From personal experience, I assume?” I asked faintly. “I guess so,” Avery said, unconcerned. Her father gave an elaborate mimed demonstration, derived I fear more from trashy B-movies than any very extensive real-life knowledge.
All a mother could do was to cook, really. I had been hard at work the day before making some emergency chicken soup for one of Avery’s friends who was ailing, and something inspired me to make… chicken meatballs. So much more fun than just little pieces of chicken breast floating in the broth! And it required nothing more than John’s suggestion the following evening, simply “Pojarski?” to catapult those little meatballs into a sublime new dish. Give it a try.
Chicken Meatlballs in Pojarski Sauce
for the meatballs:
about 2 lbs/1 kg chicken breasts (about 8 small half-breasts), boneless and skinless
1 1/2/350 ml cup milk
1 1/2 cup/80g Panko breadcrumbs
1 tbsp Fox Point (or other savory) seasoning
good grind fresh black pepper
for the sauce:
3 tbsps butter
1 tbsp flour (more later if needed to thicken sauce)
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 1/2 tbsp paprika
about 1/3 cup/90ml brandy
1 cup/275ml chicken stock
1 cup/275 ml sour cream
good grind fresh black pepper
Trim the chicken breasts completely of any fat, gristle, tendons. They must be supremely perfect for this dish. Now place them in your Magimix or Cuisinart and pulse carefully until the chicken is finely ground. Not mushy, but finely chopped.
Mix the milk, breadcrumbs and seasonings in a medium bowl, then add the chicken. With clean hands, squish together all these ingredients until you can see that the chicken is thoroughly mixed with the breadcrumbs and the seasonings are well-distributed. The mixture should be as wet as you can reasonably handle. Add more milk if necessary to achieve this very fragile, wet mixture. Set mixture aside.
Now make the sauce, because you will poach the meatballs in it. In a large (at least 12 inches) shallow frying pan or paella pan, melt the butter, add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for a minute. Then add the garlic and shallots and saute until soft. Sprinkle on the paprika and cook for a minute or so. Deglaze the pan with the brandy and cook for two minutes rather high, stirring as the brandy evaporates. Add the chicken stock and sour cream and begin stirring with a wire whisk. Simmer and season with black pepper to taste. Be careful of the seasoning as this sauce (and the meatballs) can be deceptively salty depending on the seasonings with the chicken and the flavors of the stock.
When the sauce is thoroughly mixed and hot, carefully make meatballs the size of golfballs and drop them gently into the simmering sauce. Try to maintain a single layer, but if you cannot, poach the first layer for several minutes until the meatballs can be moved carefully, then fit in the extra meatballs. Poach at a low simmer for about five minutes, then turn each meatball carefully, coating them in the sauce. Poach a further five minutes. Taste to make sure chicken is thoroughly cooked. At this point you may take the pan off the heat and leave it for the flavors to develop. Heat through when you are ready to eat. Serve with noodles.
These meatballs are light, fluffy, delicate. The sauce is the definition of savory, rich, old-fashioned.
It was just as well that I was fortified with this lovely dish, because my next bellringing outing was a disaster. I tried a method called Plain Hunt on Five, which involves the bells actually switching places in their order. Beyond me! I got confused, the bell began to fall, I panicked, made the near-fatal mistake of looking UP into the belfry, the bell really fell and I forgot how to raise it. Too scary!
After rescuing me, my teachers explained kindly. “When you’re riding a bike, if you’re really good at the skills, then when you get lost you can retrace your steps. Or if a pedestrian wanders into your path, you can swerve to avoid him. But if you’re just beginning at riding the bike, if you get lost or swerve, you might fall off in the heat of the moment, and lose track of all your skills because they aren’t automatic yet.” Truer words were never spoken. I’m just not an automatic ringer yet. Thank goodness for those funny little window fellows, to cheer me up.
These lovely windows were put in around 1983 after arson fire of 1976 destroyed all but the original 1215 bits of the chapel, and the tower. Can you imagine, 1215! We are bandying around ideas on how to celebrate our 800th birthday in three years’ time. Imagine.
The brilliant thing about learning a new skill, and doing a new and very SPECIFIC thing, is the lovely freedom of being shouted at and criticized but ONLY for the thing one is doing! Just the wrong handling of your bell at that moment in ONE particular way. No hard feelings! No accusations of “being a bad ringer”. Just a mistaken action, at a particular moment, easily fixed, easily forgotten. No baggage.
Wouldn’t life be better if we could take criticism for everything that way… “That thing you just said to me, oh husband mine, I will take that as merely criticism of one particular aspect of my wifeliness, not a condemnation of the whole enterprise!” I’d like to emulate my ringing teachers and learn not to start criticisms with “You always…” or “You never…” Just “don’t do THAT!”
My father, the brilliant child psychologist… what an invaluable resource he was when Avery was a baby. I remember he offered me the following advice when I was a very young mother. “Be sure that what you say to your child is ONLY what you mean to say to her about exactly what is happening right then, not all mixed up with how mad you got at work, or how annoyed you are with your husband, or bad traffic or anything else. Just talk to her about the one specific thing. And then it’s over, and you both move on.” How wise and loving he was.
And so life has calmed down once again. This weekend will bring an anniversary party for old friends, a housewarming party for other old friends, for which I shall enjoy shopping for gifts. A haircut for Avery, a spot of gardening for me, our joint family project looking after the next door cat (coal-black, called “Snowy”) while our neighbors are on holiday, a delicious Saturday supper of lamb chops. “Gross material substance,” in other words. How lovely and divine it all is.
What did we learn from September 11?
I learned that nothing, whether it is bad or good, lasts forever. After the events of the day, that truism seemed to apply only to good things: skyscrapers, happy kindergarten, safety, security.
But as the months went by, I learned that the bad bits do not last forever, either. As a lovely Scottish writer put it, “Grief is a wonderful thing in a way, because after a bit you can put it down, by the side of the road, and walk on.” I learned to do that, but it was slow-going and with many steps backward along the way. I learned that in many ways, I was made of The Wrong Stuff. I could not be farther from the personality of a hero who runs into a burning building or a mayor who goes to 343 firemen’s funerals, or Abby the Kindergarten Teacher who spent seven hours a day with 45 five-year-olds and was still smiling at 3 p.m. I just was not made of The Right Stuff.
I empathized with the editorial writer of the New York Times who mused whether she would rather die smothered in a tunnel or falling from a bridge. I worried a great deal about vehicles parked in my street with no immediately identifiable owner. The whole “if you see something, say something” motto of New York City found a willing collaborator in me, and my local precinct of New York’s Bravest got heartily sick of my phone calls. I’m sure I was on a “loony neighbor” list with the box next to my name firmly ticked. In ink.
I took a lot of fitful naps and became obsessively familiar with the topography of Afghanistan. I was irritable and snappish. I was not inspirational or uplifting or even one iota optimistic.
But the thing was, life was relentless. Coping with Avery’s needs got me up in the morning and kept me going during the day. It was impossible not to get excited when the classroom chicks hatched, and even though there wasn’t a place to sit down, the kindergarten room was a magnet for many of us parents. Abby’s unfailing, gentle smile was always filled with love and patience, for all of us. We parents often felt as much under her wing as the children did.
And then, in February, it happened. Our beloved PS 234 was given back to us.
The Federal Emergency Management Administration had occupied the school since the evening of September 11. On the school’s website there was a calendar with a smiley face stuck to every day the school had been open that year. It stopped at September 10. Who knows what state the school building was in when the last of those official boots walked out the door. We kindergarten parents were not included in what must have been a massive parental effort to make the school welcoming again.
What I do remember is the open weekend before the official reopening on Monday, February 4. With characteristic sensitivity, the school’s administrators simply opened the doors, all weekend, and let us all re-acquaint ourselves with the school in our own time, in our own ways. All Avery wanted to do was run around “the yard,” the seemingly unappealing, simple concrete open area which had been the scene of such panic and chaos months before. In the months and years ahead, “the yard” would be the scene instead of hours of chalk-drawing, whispered confidences, kickball and even a little childhood romance… Around and around she ran, exorcising ghosts.
There were huge trucks parked outside the front door of the school, loaded with fresh school supplies, juice boxes, probably even a hamster or two. It was very, very exciting, and also heartbreaking in a way. Starting over is always a challenge, and we had started over so many times that year.
We went inside and for some reason were the only people there. The solitude and silence were just what we needed to absorb the memories of the past, to reconcile the hope and innocence of September 10 with the experiences of September 11, the adjustments, tears, losses and gains of the intervening five months. The quiet hallways were lined, poetically, touchingly, with the dozens of American flags made of every material you can imagine, from countries all over the world, sent to us to cheer us up on arrival. “Welcome home!” they said in many languages. “You’ve got your school back! Hip hip hooray!”
Avery stood gazing up at one of the dozens of quilts that had been sent to us, reading the heartfelt, empathetic messages from children we would never meet. “I know it’s been hard for you, but it will get better.” “The whole world is thinking of you.” “We had a hurricane in our town once and three people died, so I know how you feel.”
It was stunning and humbling to think of all the effort, all over the world, that strangers had made to create gifts for our children (and for us), to hang in our school. I thought of all the schoolteachers who felt helpless, imagining what they would do if their school were taken from them, and it must have felt so good to be able to do something, to give us something. They were such interesting donations: not commercial or monetary or valuable. They were simply outpourings of sympathy, and we needed them.
Of course there was one tangible gift that became part of Avery’s life and has followed her everywhere. Abby Bear.
Abby Bear — dozens of Abby Bears — were sent to us by a school in Alabama, and distributed to all the kindergartners. She has moved with us across an ocean, and to three London homes. Something tells me she’ll be making the trip to university in four years’ time.
On our way home from the quiet tour of our school, I asked Avery, “What do you remember from that day, September 11? Do you remember anything special?”
“Well, I remember that I was the last one in through the red door. And then, there was a very loud noise, and all the pigeons flew in the same direction.”
So we went back. That Monday in February, a cold and bitter day, there were many odd things to notice. Cheerleaders! A marching band from the local high school! Hundreds of reporters, among them a lovely writer from People Magazine who included us in his story. The chancellor or commissioner or whatever he is called, of Education turned up, the president of the PTA at whom I had so unhelpfully cursed on September 11, made a speech. Finally our beloved Anna Switzer, the most formidable and yet warm-hearted principal any school will ever know, welcomed us.
I don’t remember anything anyone said because I was too busy trying not to cry. Unsuccessfully. Everything to do with Avery always makes me want to cry, but it was a bit more so that day even than usual. I looked at Anna Switzer and wondered how she had survived the last five months: the worry, the pressure, the controversy over the air quality — should we or should we not return? — on top of the usual problems any school has, like never enough money for anything. Anna was indefatigable. When she discovered that Avery, a lowly kindergartner, used handkerchiefs instead of tissues, she gave her one. “I collect them,” she explained. Avery has it still. Perhaps it was in her pocket that day.
Throughout the speeches, I felt myself disintegrating a bit inside. Here was the day we had all been waiting for! Why wasn’t I completely happy? I think there was a lot of anger underneath my general worry and fear, anger that made it hard to get to the celebratory bit. How monstrous it was that we should be forced into this situation at all. How unacceptable that we should have to stand there, feeling tearful and grateful and thankful and SPECIAL. Why should John have to spell out “PS 234″ in raisin toast for Avery’s birthday? I was suddenly in the mood to throw a bowl of cereal at her in the morning and get back to being casual, and ordinary.
But we got through the ceremony. Abby gathered up her charges, in all their human variety and small stature. That kindergarten class was her first ever job.
We soldiered on. I discovered what it was like to be part of the PS 234 community. The PTA — a much more bossy and vocal group than our English school’s “Parents Guild” — ran the place. We raised tens of thousands of dollars to provide our school with a library, where I worked from Day One, labelling each and every book with a barcode so the collection could be computerized, for the first time. This was the view from the window of the library.
Only if you had been there before September 11 would you know that you shouldn’t be able to see any sky from this window. There should be only the buildings, as far, really, as the eye could see. These trailers and trucks down below housed emergency workers well into the summer that year.
During the days I spent barcoding books, there were surreal moments. An announcement over the loudspeaker. “The kindergarten trip to Staten Island has been cancelled due to a bomb threat at the Statue of Liberty. Pickup at normal time today.” There was Laura Bush’s visit to read to the children, a visit complete with escorts from the National Guard, carrying rifles and automatic weapons into our school.
But in general, something like normal life prevailed. We held the annual Spring Auction which raised money for the art and music departments. I became the head of the Book Sale which took place every semester in the very hallway where we all had stood, wondering what to do, on September 11. In that same hallway, I read with children who were having trouble keeping up. (Actually mostly what I did was listen to childish chatter as the kids would much rather gossip than read aloud.) I was class mother, so I went on countless school trips to arboretums, zoos, museums. Gradually our memories of the school as a place of horror and uncertainty became replaced with cozy, messy, shouty memories of kids with sticky hands. Avery became used to seeing me at school, in school, nearly every day. It was the only way I could think of to cope. It was a bit of a cheat really: I was in theory “leaving her at school,” because I left her in the schoolyard and kissed her goodbye. But I was there.
One day John told me something he hadn’t wanted to tell me before. He had been invited to a financial information services breakfast at “Windows on the World,” the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, on the morning of September 11. He had decided he was too busy to go. Everyone there died.
These adjustments and experiences and memories had unexpected effects on me, perhaps on all of us. I had my first and only ever borderline suicidal thoughts. Not that I really wanted to be dead, but sometimes the overwhelming preciousness of being alive, and the lingering fear of how much we all had to lose, overwhelmed me. I imagined, briefly, how much easier it would be just to throw it all away myself, take the bull by the horns, just give in, give up. At times like that I decided to think it was a normal stage of grieving, and I retreated under a duvet with a pile of cats, an old familiar video on the television, and waited out the day until it was time to pick Avery up at school. Seeing her again always made the unspeakable fears retreat, for a time.
Summer came. We all went back to playing in the park across the street from the school, where one scary evening in winter a team in Hazmat suits had come to vacuum up the sandbox. That’s how crazy life was in the months after we went back to school. Some city official would wake up in the middle of the night and say to himself, “Oh my God! That sandbox! There could be ANYTHING in it. Quick, get rid of it. Maybe no one will notice us there.” And we’d wake up to a brandnew, cleanly filled sandbox for the first time in living memory, when for sure neighborhood children had been squatting there and doing who knows what for years.
That same official, responding to the pleas of still-upset parents, installed some sort of magic air-measuring balloon at the top of the schoolyard. Every once in awhile, there would be no “yard,” what we called “recess,” because some number measuring something had been too high, that morning. Now, in hindsight, I think so many of these “official” measurements and actions were a sort of “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” as we all vaguely hoped some Wizard was looking after us.
There were, once again, birthday parties in the park, however. Ice cream and cake wait for no man.
On the last day of school that year, the hugs and kisses were fervent. We said goodbye to Abby who with her personal brand of emotional glue had held us all together, individually and as a group, since September 11. The new school year would be a fresh start, another “first day of school.”
Every year we observe the anniversary, in small ways. We watch the names being read on television. Alyssa called me the first year. “They were on the Cs, and I had to go to the grocery. When I got back, they were only on the Ms.” Every year I speak in an email to Jen, the mother I stood with on the corner when the plane went over. I speak to Kathleen, Cici’s mom, with whom I shared the whole terrible day. Every year I speak to my friend at Cantor Fitzgerald, a little about September 11, a little about art. Here in England we go to the beautiful memorial to the 67 British victims, in Grosvenor Square where the American Embassy looms.
Every year we ask Avery what she remembers and somewhere along the line, the memories (as few as they were) went from real memories to only stories being told about what she remembers being told she remembers.
This spring, out of the blue, the phone rang here in London as we were still unpacking boxes from our latest move. “Hi, this is Doug, from that Canadian newspaper who interviewed you and Avery in November, after September 11. Do you remember? You showed me the hat you bought for Avery from the Afghan store in New York, during the first part of the war. Do you remember?”
Suddenly I did. I told him I’d call him back, scrambled to my feet, ran up to Avery’s room at the top of the house, rooted through her closet, and finally found it.
I called him back and he asked many questions about how we had coped in the years since that day. Avery overheard my half of the conversation and came into the room after I had hung up. “Do you guys realize that I know less about September 11 than anyone else my age? I was the only one who was there, and I don’t know anything about it! It’s probably the most interesting, significant thing that will ever happen in my life, and I was left out of the whole thing.”
(My friend Elizabeth smiled wisely when I told her this story. “We hope it’s not the more interesting, significant thing what will ever happen to her.” I smiled more grimly and said, “Maybe we don’t. Maybe that’s as interesting as it needs to get.”)
“You were four years old!” I said, immediately defensive. “You didn’t have any business knowing anything about it. You were a baby!”
We talked about the day, what had happened to her. “I remember the school was REALLY crowded!” And of course she remembers Abby.
“Go ahead and find out anything you like,” we said finally. Avery is an inveterate news house, addicted to the BBC and vociferously well-informed about all current events, much more so than I.
We will never know if it was the right thing to do, to protect and shelter her. Children are resilient, everyone always tells me. People in general are resilient. One thing I certainly learned from September 11 and the days and months and years afterward is a sort of modified Nietzsche truism: “That which does not kill you does not necessarily make you stronger, but you are still alive. Get on with it.”
We continue to try. On this anniversary my greatest hope is to remember, then put the memories down by the side of the road, and walk on.
(click here to read of what happened to us on the day of the events)