How do I know it’s high summer? Because in that particular season, here in Connecticut, our daily tennis games happen all too often on the middle court, with one quartet of Grumpy Old Men on one side and ANOTHER quartet of them on the other. Why they bother to gather seemingly every moment of the day that we might want to play, only to shout and moan at each other — “You stupid idiot, put on your glasses, that shot was So LAWNG, whaddarya, crazy?” — I cannot imagine. Bless their hearts, I suppose, putting on their whites, driving to the court, leaning against their racquets as if they were canes, sweating in the hot sun.
John’s onto a cool scheme at Tennis Warehouse whereby we can test a whole array of racquets, and then order the ones we like best. Yesterday we battled it out with four choices and either I’m a total sucker for suggestion, or it actually makes a difference to have a good racquet. I hit some killer backhands, listening to the summer wind whistling through the mesh. As we…
It is a hot morning at Red Gate Farm, when all the road is sizzling, steaming, the air thick with humidity. Anne’s pond across the road beckons temptingly. “Help yourselves, dive in, because there’s going to be a real heat wave!” Anne invited, as they drove away for their week in the city. The day we get Avery to dip her city-girl toes into a body of natural water… well, let’s just say that day is a long way off.
The flowers that my friend Judy brought by on Saturday so far have held up in the shade of the terrace. “I know you and flowering plants, Kristen. Just water these and keep them out of the direct sun, and you should be all right. Enjoy,” Judy laughs.
Even when you’re made of cast iron, it’s a hot day to be a dog, or a chicken.
Life has settled down to its summer routine. Kate has ambled across the road, hand firmly in Anne’s, purple crocs proudly displayed, in order to plop down on the kitchen floor to play with the old dollhouse, and its thousands of myriad items. Whatever this dollhouse cost, some dozen years ago, it has paid us back ten thousand-fold, entertaining little Avery, her cousins Jane and Molly, and now Kate, for hours on end.
The first grocery trip has been made — my favorite, when I get to start from scratch and fill up all the drawers from empty! The farmer’s market has been visited, and my favorite peach guy greeted. Tyson adopted Jamie the kitten last summer, so I feel it incumbent upon me to chat while. Plus, he is super young and cute.
Now before I forget, I have had several requests for the recipe for the chicken salad I served to my mother and her best friend. It really was lovely, so here goes. Of course once you’ve made the chicken, you could just have that all by itself, but it was festive with lots of other ingredients added. The chicken itself appears in the recipe index as “Lillian Hellman Chicken” as it’s made with Hellman’s mayo.
Hoosier Summer Chicken Salad
(serves at least 4)
2 large chicken breast fillets
1/2 cup Hellman’s mayo
1/2 cup grated pecorino or parmesan
juice of 1/2 lemon
sprinkle Fox Point Seasoning
1/2 cup breadcrumbs (I used a mixture of homemade and Panko)
3 hard-boiled eggs — devilled or plain, cut in half
handful heirloom tiny tomatoes, halved
6 little heirloom purple potatoes, steamed and halved
1 head Bibb/Boston/butter/little gem lettuce (name depends on where you are!), inner leaves only
minced chives and dill to garnish
sea salt and black pepper to taste
dressing optional (you could just drizzled olive oil over it): equal parts mayonnaise, olive oil, lemon juice, a dollop of mustard, a dash of white wine vinegar)
Trim the chicken breasts completely. Mix the mayo, cheese, lemon juice and seasoning and squish the chicken breasts in the mixture, generously coating them on all sides. Roll in breadcrumbs and bake at 425F/220C for 30 minutes. Let rest a few minutes, then slice on the bias.
Simply arrange the chicken and all the other ingredients on a pretty platter, and pour over whatever dressing you have chosen. Enjoy!
Mostly I confess that our family has been eating… CORN. And CORN. And more corn! It’s what I dream of all year long in London, where whatever passes for sweetcorn just isn’t. Of course, I could be missing marvellous corn because I am not there in July and August, but right now I’m just happy to have the Connecticut real thing.
Of course, life in the summer wouldn’t be complete with a visit from darling Jessamy, beloved feline child of our friends Alice and Connie, who kindly lend her to us for “Kitten Camp” twice a year. Avery and Kate cannot get enough of her.
Our quiet existence was enlivened considerably last week by Avery’s first driving lesson! John was incredibly patient, amazingly effective in his tuition. I sat nervously in the back seat, twisting my hands together at the ridiculous prospect of my BABY being behind the wheel of a car. But there was no need for nerves. She did beautifully.
It was quite the ecumenical adventure, looking for a place to practice. We started off at the local riding stable, but since the only place to drive was an abandoned roundabout, we moved on. After all, Avery’s driving skills would eventually have to include more than first gear, constantly turning left. So it was off to the Congregational Church, which was fine for several spins, getting up to second gear, but then a nice lady drove up, rolled down her window and announced that it was private property. Sigh.
Off to the synagogue up the road and their lovely parking lot, grown over with weeds. “I bet you’re the only one in your class to learn to drive on a bed of clover,” I observed. Shortly afterward we were shooed away by another nice lady. Doesn’t God want Avery to learn to drive safely?
Finally we ended up in the parking lot of an Episcopalian church which happens to be situated at the junction of several stoplights, which means the general population uses it to cut through and avoid the lights. Therefore, although it is technically private property (a nice lady drove up to tell us), “as long as you’re really careful, you can stay and practice. Good luck!”
Avery did beautifully. The usual spate of beginner’s “killing the engine”, which will soon pass. And home safely, to a restorative supper of bison burgers, and… corn.
And a new variation on the classic stuffed “courgettes,” or “zucchini” as we call them Stateside: crab-stuffed! So now you can have sausage-stuffed for your Congregational friends, mushroom-stuffed for your Jewish friends, and crab for the Episcopalians. Works for everyone. And if you have a little extra stuffing, mushrooms are a good container, too, as you see.
We’ve had plenty of moments when the power goes out, as usual. Perhaps this summer is the summer we’ll upgrade the electrical system. What a luxury it would be to have the air conditioning on WHILE running the dishwasher or the dryer? I can’t imagine!
The weekend brought my sister Jill’s family for “everything on a lettuce leaf” lunch, and all of us plus Anne, David and Kate for ice cream up the road. Kate waved her cone back and forth across the fence, leading David to suppose that she’s invented a new topping, “Fences Pieces.”
Molly woke up from her nap, and we all gathered for an afternoon of water balloons. Here’s my little Molly…
One hundred water balloons filled at the kitchen sink, thrown at people, or the trampoline, or simply dropped on the kitchen floor. John and Joel chasing each other across the sunlit lawn, Jill barricading herself cleverly behind a stack of books, a camera, her phone in her hand! “You can’t throw any at me, I have a phone!” Jane used little Kate as a human shield! Finally we got all the girls to take a deep breath and pose.
The festivities ended when simultaneously John and Joel cracked Jane’s and Molly’s heads together and Kate’s balloon erupted into a fountain of water up her nose. “It isn’t a party until everyone’s crying,” Jill and John concluded, and then it turned out we had run out of balloons! A beautiful afternoon. Anne and I agreed, “We keep saying this is the most beautiful day of the summer, but this REALLY is.”
Sunday found me BELL-RINGING! Yes, I could have taken the summer off, but I really did not want to lose everything I have learned over the past few months (measured in hours, as one does in bell-ringing, and I am up to hour 13). So it was but the work of a moment to enter my zipcode into the website of the North American Guild of Change Ringers, and voila, there was a tower for me. The Melrose School in Brewster, New York, with a purpose-built wooden and glass tower.
This tower contains eight lovely bells, vintage 1973, and is home to some of the friendliest people I have ever met. Namely Mike, my intrepid teacher, taking time off from his rehearsals for “Sweeney Todd” at the local community musical theatre.
After introducing me to the bells — each with a beautiful verse inscribed upon it, and named variously (I rang William and Angela, for example), we descended into the ringing chamber, with its eight ropes arranged in an unusual oval shape, suited to the shape of the tower itself which had to accommodate to the plot of land assigned to it, in the grounds of the school.
This bell tower and its bells were provided for by a bequest from the great American businessman and philanthropist C.V. Starr, founder of AIG and great-uncle of Kenneth Starr, former US Independent Counsel. The Melrose School itself is home to a convent, the Community of the Holy Spirit, who founded the school and named it for the Scottish saint Melrose.
For some reason — I will try to find out next week — Starr left money to the convent and the school specifically to provide for the bells, and I’m so happy he did! Because he was who he was, and the Sisters who they were, no less a personage than the Archbishop of Canterbury himself came to dedicate the bells, in 1974. And so my tower was born.
How the ringers welcomed me! John, a white-haired gentleman of my very favorite sort — double PhD in music and theology! — Dinah, an ex-nun, Mensa member and now professional fingernail-painter, Mike with his grisly musical t-shirt and his three beautiful small children milling around the school.. they welcomed me all. And I rang proper changes for the first time! I shall try to explain.
First, one simply learns to handle the bell, silently. This process takes about ten hours. Then, as you’ve heard me burble on about, one is allowed to make a sound. Then, one take part in “rounds,” which is simply the bells — six or eight or ten — ringing downward from the highest tone to the lowest, in order. THEN, just as I’ve rung rounds only TWICE and to only partial success, these Melrose ringers prodded me into “call changes,” which means that as I’m ringing my number six bell in its number six place, the conductor shouts, “six to five,” and I ring in FIFTH place instead! Try to imagine! “Six to four,” might come next, and I have to look to the number THREE bell to ring after her, in fourth place.
MADDENING, I can tell you! Maddening. It is the one activity of my entire life where it is impossible to think of anything else while I’m doing it. There is no recipe-musing, blog-planning, grocery list-making. I can ONLY RING THE BELL. No wonder where are prayers for us!
It was a thrilling, lovely experience. I can’t say that I performed brilliantly, as it took me much too long to respond to the call changes. After all, only a few hours ago I was simply “rope-pulling” silently! But finally, toward the end, as I was sweating freely and frantically trying to keep up, the conductor called one last change and I got it straightaway. “Go to the head of the class!” shouted my fellow ringer John triumphantly!
“Modesty is a beguiling trait,” he said afterward, as we made safe loops of our ropes, “but you need not be modest any longer. You have made great progress.”
Now it’s back to the mundane Red Gate Farm tasks of weeding, window-washing and picking up hundreds of tiny scraps of water balloon from the dandelion-dotted grass…
Sigh of relief. After negotiating five airports successfully, I am at Red Gate Farm. And after an intensely hot and sunny day spent unpacking and weeding the terrace, the skies have opened and the rain is pattering gently down in the great upside-down bell of the side meadow, pooling in the gutters that want clearing out, and dripping from the roof of the big red barn. I am home.
John and Avery picked me up last evening, one of those golden-blue Connecticut evenings when there seem to be more orange lilies waving in the breeze than you knew had grown on earth, when the hour’s journey from the airport sees the skies turn to pink and purple, making everything look misty and perfect. Our own garden boasts one last perfect lily.
This was an intelligent strategic decision on the part of our little farmhouse: to appear first in a dim, dim light. Because poor thing, it’s suffered over the long snowy winter. We have arrived to discover the ceiling of the laundry room falling down, mold in the rafters and pathetically stained walls in the living room. Repairs are in order.
It’s a small price to pay for the luxury of having this lovely oasis to come to twice a year. Poor thing, abandoned all winter while we cavorted in London, all spring while we moved into our new house. But now it’s Red Gate Farm’s turn for some tender loving care.
First up on the agenda was to switch out the gorgeous winter glass doors for the clever screens made by our clever carpenter. “Avery, because you are a city child, this is your first experience living with a screened-door. DO NOT, EVER, open or close them by the screens!” John warns. It takes awhile.
Never mind, it will all come right in time. Meanwhile, we can turn our attention to the important things in life: weeding the terrace, ridding the wide lawns of a spring’s worth of fallen sticks and branches, visiting the supermarket and the farmstand and filling the fridge with American food and drink: sweetcorn, American cheese, limeade, enormous kosher dill pickles. It’s important to take time to appreciate the July buds of the hydrangea tree, whose seasonal blossoming marks the transition from beginning of summer, to time to say goodbye, every year. Thank goodness today it was “hello, hydrangea.” We have a whole summer to enjoy.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. In between leaving London and arriving at Red Gate Farm, I have been “home.” How many places can one call home, anyway? Well, three, if you’re me. The third, but by no means least important, is my childhood home in Indiana. And that’s where I spent the last five days, with my mother and brother.
It breaks my heart not to include my adored father in this list of loved ones, because while I was able to visit him, he wasn’t at home.
In February, our family was forced to the conclusion that my brilliant dad, lifelong sharpest brain — and tongue to match — in the Midwest and beyond, must be moved to another stage of his life, in a home where he could be properly cared for. Alzheimer’s spares no one. The disease has taken my precious father into another dimension, a place where we cannot follow. How sharply I felt his absence when I emerged from the walkway from the plane, how keenly I missed his sharp gaze, his tight and encircling hug. “Here’s the Kreeper, then, whaddya know, safe and sound,” he would say, using my childhood nickname with no embarrassment, effortlessly shouldering my heaviest bag, “What the dickens do you have in here, rocks?” In the old, dear days, how I loved his dash to grab little toddler Avery from rushing into the crowds, “Hey, you little monkey…”
My dad, who relished the hot days of summer that would bring me home for a visit, who adored discovering the tracking software that would help him follow my flight in the skies, who couldn’t wait to show me the tallest tomato plants in his garden, the plumpest specimens, brandishing without eco-obsessed shame his spray can of Miracle-Gro… who abandoned any family discussion when it was time for his evening roller-blading session, who single-handedly (my little self thought) kept all of Central Indiana in its right mind (“I’m out spreading mental health,” he’d say with irony as he went off to work)… he is another person now.
That dad has been replaced by another, quieter, more puzzled man. I approached him at his home, surrounded as he was by warm, loving ladies holding his arm, coaxing him to eat. They were not expecting me.
“Hey, here comes somebody who means something to the Doctor!” one nurse said, watching my dad stand up straighter, take his hands out of his pockets. His eyes stared magnetically into mine as I greeted him, pressing a framed photo of Avery into his hands. He clutched it tightly, I asked if I could hug him, and after a few seconds his arms came around me tightly, the framed photo in one hand. We stood a bit apart, he staring intently at me. Was he looking for something, I wondered, or was he trying to tell me something, or both? I could only look back, trying both to give and to receive, whatever the important messages might be.
“Want to take him for a spin around the porch?” a nurse asked. “Hold tight, don’t let the Doctor wander, because he will,” she warned. I took him around the shoulders and we descended in the elevator, workable only with a code to be punched in, on his safe, safe floor. We went out the front doors of the home, for my dad the first time in the fresh air since February. He lifted his face to the sun. “I know you love to be hot and sweaty,” I said, “so let’s take a little walk.”
We walked around the porch, greeting fellow residents with the hesitant smile he he has now — by no means shy, just reserved — and emerged into the parking lot, where he identified cars as German, and I reminded him of his German car when I was a little girl, asking, “Do you remember your license plate said ‘PSYCH”? And Mom’s said “PSYCHE.’ Because you were a brilliant psychologist.”
“Was I really,” he marvelled. “Unbelievable.”
A lot of things are unbelievable.
We had our walk, and I held him around the shoulders, so diminished now, so far removed from the broad, beefy swimmer’s shoulders that accomplished the fastest butterfly stroke in his Wisconsin high school, the shoulders that carried my suitcases, planted tomatoes, cradled my daughter. “Do you remember tarring the driveway together every summer, Dad?” “Did I do that this summer?” he asked. “Of course,” I lied stoutly. “Every summer, getting so hot.” “Sometimes too hot to work,” he remembered.
Suddenly, as we walked, he leaned into my enclosing arm and said, “Better. Better now Kreeper’s here.”
I felt that the world had started all over again, from the moment before. “Better for me too,” I said. “Better for Kreeper to be here.”
It seems to be the profoundest mystery of the world, where my father is now.
And home again, to cherish being with my mother. Where on earth did her sense of design go since I seem to have inherited none of it; did it skip a generation to emerge in Avery one day, when she has her own house? My mother has spent the last six months throwing herself into projects to enliven our childhood house, her home of 45 years. Every room is stamped with her inimitable style: warm, cozy, personal.
Every room contains furniture made by my father, discovered and refinished by my mother, her handmade samplers, her china collection, her shadow boxes. A home filled with the possessions and love of a lifetime of family.
She is brave beyond anything I could have imagined. What fun we had. She invited her best friend Janet to lunch, and I cooked for them a complicated, freshly summery salad of chicken baked in a parmesan crust, on a bed of butter lettuce with steamed heirloom purple potatoes, tiny tomatoes, devilled eggs. We revelled in each other’s company, with a lifetime of friendship to amuse us.
And we went out to lunch, to the gorgeous and mysterious (no signage!) Black Market Bistro on Indianapolis’s Mass Ave. Tongue salad with beets and cottage cheese! Iceberg lettuce wedge with creamy dressing, roasted rainbow trout on a bed of arugula with two kind of olives and panzanella — stale toasted bread, a sort of superior crouton. Heaven, with my old friend Amy. A joy to see her.
And one whole day spent cooking my mother’s — and my! — favorite foods, stopping to switch the sprinkler in the garden, to try to draw breath in the awesome Indiana humidity, and finally to welcome old friends for a completely heartwarming supper party on the gorgeous back porch, built by my dad years ago. Crabcakes, Moroccan meatballs, fried huge shrimp, stuffed baked mushrooms, colorful three-cabbage slaw, steamed asparagus with shaved Asiago… and pals from the past. What a joy to see Kevin and Todd…
And happiest-making of all, Kevin’s and Amy’s gorgeous daughters, first cousins and the closest of friends, Colleen and Jesi. I believe that is the way we survive the pains of adulthood: we revel in watching the next generation leap wholeheartedly into the joys of THEIR whirlwind ride. Long may it last.
That was my visit “home,” bittersweet, filled with childhood and adult memories, leaving me with gratitude for the life I had as a little girl, with two loving parents I cherish, a sister and brother I love and don’t see nearly often enough, friends in abundance who still surround my mother with love. A beautiful way to start my American summer.
John spent yesterday on a tour of Brutalist architecture at Cambridge University — and you thought BELLRINGING was an esoteric passion! — and came upon this building, future academic home of our daughter, she hopes. How else can she combine her sick imagination with her keen judge of character AND knowledge of Russian? All she has to do is get into Cambridge.
While he was absorbing the breezeblock and tiny pinched horizontal windows which are his delight, Avery was sleeping until 11, as befits a hardworking future spy, and I, I was ringing my first rounds! This means, for the uninitiated, that I took my place for the first time among my fellow five ringers, and upon a signal from the first bell to ring, we all rang in downward-tune succession, each bell in its place, with proper timing between the blows. SCARY! To hear the result of my ringing spreading out over the village, keeping my place as fourth in succession, over and over. I wish I could tell you how it sounds.
And it went PERFECTLY. I stayed in my place, my teacher having told me before we began, “Just you follow whatever Giles does. When you see him begin to pull, YOU pull, because that’s just the space of time needed between bells. Don’t obsess, don’t panic, just follow whatever Giles does.” “That sounds like a terrible idea,” joked Giles in his turn!
It was beyond exhilarating to take my place, finally to serve the purpose that all these lessons have led to. Ultimately, when I get a bit more practice, I can ring the “call to service” with my fellows.
HEAVEN! The only thing I couldn’t do was to stop on time! In order to stop, you must get your bell right to the top of the balance so it STAYS. It’s harder than it sounds to do, and I’m afraid the village was treated to the sound of my bell ringing at least four times alone, after everyone else had competently “stood down.” It will come! Details. I can’t describe the sense of accomplishment, and of camaraderie, that I felt when my bell was finally set and everyone applauded! How lucky I am to have found these people to guide me along the way.
“We couldn’t have you going off to America without knowing how to ring rounds,” my tutor Edmund said stoutly. “But they’re not expecting me to!“I said, laughing. “Well, now you’ll surprise them.”
This was the scene, last week, at the final social event for the lovely group of parents at Avery’s school who work together to keep little extras around the place going. I represent Lost Property, of course (in all I do, in fact, my heavy responsibilities are never far from my mind), John has been in charge of all official mailings to parents about our activities, and then there are the Ladies Who Arrange Flowers, the Ladies Who Arrange Theatre Outings To Raise Money, and so on. We gather every summer term to gossip, say goodbye to the outgoing head of our group, and to eat delicious food in someone’s beautiful conservatory, as you see.
I took a salad of heritage tomatoes, fresh artichoke hearts and burrata, that creamiest of all possible mozzarellas, with a simple dressing of lemon juice and super-intense olive oil. But that was the least of the offerings. Elspeth, the hostess, had made a salad of cold basmati rice and poached chicken, a tart of spinach and feta cheese with pinenuts, and especially for me, celeriac enthusiast, a salad of the shredded celery root with tomatoes, whole grain mustard and white wine vinegar. When I make it, I will share the recipe.
But a suggestion I can give you, for these hot summer days, is a platter of crunchy baguette slices, topped with anything and everything that takes your fancy.
These little delights were topped with mozzarella and goats cheese for Avery, and that plus avocado slices, halved tiny tomatoes, fresh homemade pesto, and our savoury favorite: anchovies mashed with butter and simmered until liquid. That mixture is simply the ultimate in umami, that mysterious, savoury “fifth flavor” that is so much the rage these days.
This is the perfect meal for a hot, HOT day when your Aga is still heating up the kitchen because you can’t bear to turn it off. All you have to do is toast the baguette slices, melt the butter and anchovies, and then BACK AWAY from the stove and assemble your little bites in cool comfort, somewhere far from the heat.
Thank goodness the heat broke for my day with Bee, a virtual friend who, until Wednesday, I had known only by her brilliantly thoughtful and inspiring blog, “From the Desk of Bee Drunken.” As you will see when you begin to read her insightful and moving posts, I was very, very excited to meet her finally, in person. We made a plan to find each other at La Fromagerie, simply the best of all possible cheesemongers, in Marylebone. And from the moment we met, it was love at first sight! Our “hello” quickly turned into a warm hug, which the morphed into a five-hour conversation that did not begin to make a dent in what we had to say to each other.
We closed down the coffee service at La Fromagerie, and meandered down the High Street to Le Relais de Venise, the best spot for steak frites in the world outside Paris — Bee is a Texan, and she knows her steak — and proceeded to close THEM down as well, talking with feverish glee. I had taken along my camera to get an image of her, but we were far too busy for me to remember to do it! We discussed the joys of writing, the joys of daughters, our many moves around the world, our favorite books. Would you believe we share two favorite authors, neither of them well-known! We both believe the novels of Laurie Colwin to be the apogee of fiction, and the memoirs of Anne Morrow Lindbergh to be the highest level of the genre to be found. “When I find out someone loves Laurie Colwin,” Bee said, “it’s not that I know I will LIKE the person, but I know we will meet on a very important level.”
But we DID like each other! There is an irreplaceable joy in discovering a new soulmate.
As important as sharing a happy afternoon filled with laughter, though, is the knowledge that I have another ally in this perplexing business of living. When life throws me the occasional day of despair, of inexplicable loneliness, or unnameable dread, when even the company of my beloved family cannot quite lift my gloom, I am so often saved by reaching to one of the girlfriends I cherish. So often, their blend of humor, empathy, energy and love lifts me up. I am so lucky that in Bee, I have one more friend in my arsenal.
This knowledge makes life a little more delicious, and mixed with a little fresh pesto, I am all set.
(serves four as sauce for starter with pasta)
4 cups loosely packed whole fresh basil leaves
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
juice ½ lemon
3 tbsps pine nuts
3 tbsps grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
pinch sea salt to taste
Place all ingredients in food processor and blend till smooth, taking care to scrape the pesto away from the sides of the processor to incorporate all bits.
This pesto is equally good as a dressing for tomato salad with mozzarella, or drizzled over a white fish like cod, sea bream, sea bass or lemon sole. Try adding a spoonful to any vinaigrette. It is lovely treated like a salsa verde and served alongside grilled pork, beef or lamb. Stir some into mashed potatoes for the side dish of your life.
To think that a week from today I’ll be at my mother’s house in Indianapolis, far away from the exotic cheeses and bells and school events of London. A few days after that, I will be happily ensconced in my little dormered house in Connecticut, looking out at the big red barn, making American plans, seeing American friends and family, in a different world, really. I am ready for the break, actually. I will spend the summer reflecting on all the joys of London life. See you there.