We are inland, and up on a bit of a hill, so being washed away isn’t a worry. But we are surrounded by enormous old maple trees. If a tree falls on you and there’s no one across the road to witness it, do you make a sound?
All we can do, we’ve done. The pantry is full of canned tomatoes, pasta, and chicken broth. Chickpeas, tuna in olive oil, mayonnaise. The fridge is full of creamy vichyssoise, every kind of cheese you can imagine, bacon, and what my brother-in-law Joel calls “Connecticut’s disaster French toast shopping list”: milk, eggs and bread. The freezer is full, and John says when the power goes out, we’ll decide on menus based on how quickly its contents seem to be degrading. “Tonight it’s ribs and Mint Oreos, potato pancakes and butter!”
John’s found a kerosene lamp that his parents gave him years ago for Christmas, more as a designy thing than as a…
Every summer it comes as a surprise to me to remember why it’s called “fall.” Because they are – falling, that is. The lovely green canopy that has kept us cool on even the hottest summer afternoons has begun to make its way, leaf by crunchy leaf, onto the picnic table. The stretch of hillside between our pond and the brook has begun to fill with colorful fragments, blinking in the afternoon sunshine.
The change in the air from sultry to snappy fits my mood today. I’m feeling rebooted, fresh and ready to take on tasks like clearing out the archaeological nightmare that is Avery’s bedroom, shelving all the random books I’ve read over the last few weeks, clearing away Jessamy’s litterbox and food dishes and waving her off on her trip back to the city. Camp Curran is over, for the kitty. She has shredded her last roll of toilet paper, has had her last nap on the living room chair.
Yesterday I would never have dreamed that today would bring energy to attempt anything more strenuous than pouring a cocktail. I have been on a completely insane trajectory of Extreme Hostessing, stretching back more days than I can count. My loving friends and family have pointed out that I have a very hard time saying “no” to any proposed get-together, especially if the get-together might involve feeding someone. There is really nothing I love more than preparing a truly delicious meal for my loved ones, who always seem to enjoy getting fed. I think that while everyone gives me advice to learn to say “no,” all those people would be astonished if I began the practice on them! At least I hope they’d miss me.
However, this tendency to say only “yes” can be taken to an extreme, as I experienced in the last ten days or so. I blithely proposed and invited, included and reached out, and every single one of my little plans came to fruition. Which meant a frenzy of demented revolving door arrivals and departures, overlapping guests with incompatible dietary requirements, plus the resulting filled dishwashers, endless laundry loads. You know what I mean. I bet you’ve been there too.
It’s what happens when we come “home” for the summer and try to live in five weeks as if we were here to stay. I see us as a family of spiders trying desperately to weave enough webs to last all year, to catch all the lovely plump, satisfying flies we can to feed us during the months in London when we live a completely different life, filled with completely different people. Except I stop short of actually wrapping my beloved people in silk and sucking them dry. At least I hope so. Speaking of spiders, look who John found today on the picnic table, drinking from the rainwater in my votive candle.
Now that I’ve had a good night’s sleep and the incipient fall sun is shining, I can step back and say that I would rather get myself in a too-frantic pickle than miss any of the adventures we’ve had this summer.
Including, of course, bellringing. As soon as my mother’s birthday extravaganza was over, I had a perfectly wonderful, intense bellringing session where I had the inimitable thrill of ringing the “treble bell,” which leads every session of rounds, or a peal. So, since I was the first to ring, I got to utter the immortal — in bellringing circles! — words, “Look to… [everyone must meet my eyes]… Treble’s going… [we all pull our bells off the balance to be ready to ring]… Treble’s GONE.” And I pull off and the rounds begin.
That very afternoon, as I was blithely pulling my ropes, John’s sister’s family arrived from Minnesota. Now, their visit is a rare treat; even seeing them hasn’t happened in four years, and that time we went to them. They have not been to visit us on the East Coast in – I can’t even remember – eight years? So it was a reunion well worth waiting for. Cathy, her husband David, their girls Sarah and Ellen. Lovely.
I had cleverly undercheffed plates of chopped vegetables and cooked sausage and shredded cheese before I went off bellringing, so even though I got lost on the rainy way home (typical me!) we were able to assemble crispy, tall pizzas when I got in, and settle down around the dining room table to catch up on our various lives.
After dinner some of us played “Aggravation” while others gathered around the telly at the back of the kitchen, to listen to the pattering rain on the roof and watch “Dark Shadows”! Do you remember, Barnabas Collins and all the sheetrock cemeteries and supposedly blood-curdling music and… nothing happening, episode after episode? Too funny. Avery and Cathy began what would be a four-day conversation called “Books You Must Read.” It was very sweet to see the two most voracious and eclectic readers any of us knows, poring over title after title.
In the morning the rain was relentless, so we piled into the car and drove up to see Joel and the girls for a diner lunch, so they could meet John’s family and also recover from their disappointment at my mother and brother going home that morning. Then we were onto the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, a really wonderful place to take any people who love books as my family does. I personally love Twain’s quote, “I never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Words to live by!
From there we were onto a trip to Barnes and Noble, to stock up even more fully than my house already is, and I must say I found this particular section a little grisly.
Home for rigatoni alla vodka sauce, cheesy spinach, and crostini piled with everything in the fridge, including creamy mozzarella for Cathy who is a vegetarian, and anchovy butter for John, his mom and me.
After recharging my batteries to something like 60% overnight, I awoke to John with a toothache, a journey that has occupied us through to today, poor man. But at the time, that sunrise, we didn’t know how bad it would get, and I could enjoy the dawn sky, not something I EVER normally see, as my nearest and dearest will tell you. Now I kind of wonder why.
When Cathy’s family arrived from the hotel, we managed a clean-out-the-fridge lunch, and then a ride up the Phillips Farm meadow in Quincy the Land Rover, to see John’s Dad’s Bench. How the girls screamed and shouted as Quincy bounced up and down the hills!
There was time for quick stop at Tricia’s garden, where Cathy bonded with Baby Rollie and I callously raided for vegetables. Tiny eggplants from their branches, and beets, pulled right from the ground! If I weren’t a combination of not-here-in=spring and super-lazy, I would LOVE to have a garden yielding such solid gold bounty.
Cathy and I cooked together in the perfect afternoon sunshine, producing the beets and eggplants ready for grilling, and little round squashes stuffed with mushrooms and goat cheese. I can NEVER get enough grilled beets.
These lovelies were supplemented by bison burgers, and sweetcorn, and David and Katie from across the road. What an unforgettable menu, and guests.
Any memories of Cathy’s family visit would not be complete without a reference to our trips to the local dairy farm, Rich’s, for ice cream. Have you heard Jon Stewart’s hilarious injunction against the use of the word “rich”? “We have to call them ‘job creators’ now, not ‘rich.’ You know, like saying, ‘This cake is so moist and JOB CREATOR.” Well, we have made many visits to “Job Creator” Dairy Farm lately. I personally cannot take that much sugary fat, but I am alone in this, so I keep everyone company. Except Avery, who brings a book. Cathy probably would too if she weren’t all grown up.
The next afternoon saw us burning calories on the tennis court and then joining Cathy’s family at their hotel pool. It sort of put our community pool to shame, with its lovely shaded chairs and snack bar, serving “whipped cream vodka shots.” The girls had an amazing time.
We came home to a stir-fry dinner, with everything under the sun included — many vegetables for Cathy, plus chicken and beef fillet for us, and a touch of Chinese five-spice.
We piled into Quincy, the girls screaming at every bump, for another trip to Rich’s, and sadly, in the middle of the night, John’s tooth absolutely killing him. This meant he was off to the dentist, and our trip into New York with Cathy’s family off the schedule. We kissed them goodbye, and vowed that it would not be so long before another reunion.
And the very afternoon they all left, Avery’s best friend Cici arrived for her summer stay, including the best heirloom tomato-burratina salad ever, with lemon zest and pine nuts. Glorious!
Why would a giant ball of burrata be called “burratina,” which sounds to me like a diminutive? Who cares. It is quite simply the creamiest version of mozzarella you will ever sink your teeth into. The dressing on this salad was nothing more or less than olive oil, and lemon juice.
Cici stayed for two days, on the second of which I drove John to Waterbury for emergency root canal surgery, poor MAN. I raced home to feed the girls and drop them off at the crummy community pool which did not look any more appealing after our exposure to the hotel loveliness. This impression of skankiness was enhanced by the apparent accidental loss of a crucial letter on the sign.
The day only got crazier after that. We abandoned poor John to his antibiotics and narcotics and a darkened bedroom and raced off to a hasty but beautifully put-together tea party given for us by the niece of the old lady who lived in our house before succumbing to old age. Cathy is a supreme baker and her apple pie was stupendous, but I confess to worrying about sitting quietly chatting when I had a large number of people to feed that night for dinner, having invited them in a rash of confidence that of course I would have time to DO IT ALL. Off we went.
Cici and Avery paced about in denial that she was about to be collected to go home. A combination of hot and sweaty (I turned the AC on a bit too late!), worried about John and his miserable chipmunk cheek, and overwhelmed by dinner prep for 11 in an hour’s time, I began to experience a sensation that my summer holiday had become a giant steamroller with me in its path, about to be crushed.
Jill and Joel and the girls arrived, Jill wisely prescribing a cocktail. I prepared shrimp to fry, corn to boil, sliced tomatoes and mozzarella. John’s mom set the table. Avery and Cici entertained Katie.
Realizing that Cici’s brother, to arrive any minute, suffers from celiac disease, I dashed to saute a chicken breast for him. John emerged from his cave of pain to say hello and threw casually over his shoulder, “Keep the back door shut when you have the AC on,” to which I growled through gritted teeth, “I have a lot bigger problems than that on my mind right now.”
And yet finally, candles lit, food on the table, everyone gathered around, it all came together as usual. Cici’s family arrived, we made room. The fried shrimp was crunchy, the tomatoes juicy, the corn buttery. We were with family and friends. The mosquitoes landed. All was well.
And so I have survived. I have rested and spent today quietly. It will be only a matter of time before I’ve forgotten the craziness and scheduled six more impossible things before breakfast. Maybe that’s what summer is all about.
Or maybe I need an intervention.
The humidity has really settled in. It’s that deceptive sort of weather that makes you don your tennis togs, grab JUST not enough cold water, and head to the courts. After you’ve moved around for about five seconds, you’re SOAKED! It’s a nice temperature if you don’t MOVE.
Last night was one of those iconic Connecticut evenings, heavy with damp, fragrant air, rolling distant thunder and flashes of heat lightning behind Stillmeadow. I dashed across to leave a package that had come UPS for Anne and David, opening our sweet little red gate to run across the dusty road, knock on their door, hear sounds of Katie’s bathtime, look in at the cozy lamplight, feeling at once like a bit of a voyeur and also intensely grateful for our friendly little bend of road.
How I love having Kate turn up to trampoline, her mother to sit down for a quick sandwich — today’s of slices of a rolled-up mozzarella, pancetta and parsley concoction, plus the juiciest of heirloom tomtoes — listening to her dad struggling with the lawnmower across the road. And more heat thunder and lightning, today at lunchtime. They are the best possible neighbors.
Avery’s best friend from babyhood has turned up for her annual visit. Cici came to meet Avery when Avery was three days old and Cici a grownup lady of six months, and they were joined at the hip for nine years, until we moved to London. Their friendship is one that survives from year to year with a mysterious alchemy from little girlhood to the beautiful young women they are now. The two of them haven’t changed one iota.
They’re teenagers, which means they can watch eleventy hundred episodes of “America’s Top Model” in a row, while comparing the relative merits of American and European candy, then sleep for twelve hours. They also don’t mind the heat if they can be on an amusement park ride, so John has taken them off this afternoon to Quassy and after sharing a few rides with them, has left them to spend a hot afternoon filled with roller coasters, The Saturation Station, and fried dough. Last night they ate their weight in spaghetti carbonara, so my conscience is clear. I have fed them real food.
Cici is the last in our series of summer visitors, and a nice crowning touch to a season of celebrations. My mother has come and gone, for her big 75th birthday weekend. What fun we had.
Oh, the food we cooked! We made our way to Jill and Joel’s house for an on-the-day birthday dinner, where my contribution was tri-color slaw, with poppy seeds and an Everything Dressing.
(serves at least eight)
1/2 head red cabbage
1/2 head Savoy cabbage
4 carrots, shredded
Dressing: 1/3 cup each: olive oil (I used the leftovers from a jar of marinated artichokes!), mayonnaise, lemon juice, Thousand Island dressing, plus 1 tbsp Dijon mustard and 1 tbsp poppy seeds
Shred both cabbages and all the carrots, toss with dressing. Serve room temperature or cold.
And my goodness, Joel cooked an incredible dinner. Grilled pork tenderloin and the best risotto.
Fresh Tomato Risotto with Basil
5 cups chicken broth
4 tbsps butter
1/2 chopped onion
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 1/2 pounds firm ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 cups carnaroli, arborio or vialone nano rice (about 10 ounces)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
10 basil leaves cut into very thin strips
In a medium saucepan, bring the broth to a boil and keep simmering constantly.
In a large saucepan, combine 2 tbsps of the butter with the onion and the oil. Cook over moderate hear, stirring occasionally, until the onion turns pale gold. Add the tomatoes and a pinch each of salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.
Add the rice and stir to thoroughly coat the grains. Add 1/2 cup of the simmering broth to the rice and stir constantly until most of the liquid has been absorbed; adjust the heat to maintain a simmer. Gradually add more broth, 1/2 cup at a time, and cook, stirring the rice constantly to prevent it sticking to the pan at any time. The rice is done when it is firm but tender, without a chalky center.
Add the remaining butter, the cheese and the basil and stir for 1 minute longer. Season with salt and pepper and serve at once.
It was lovely to have all the girls together with their grandmother and John’s mom, sitting in the backyard with the swingset and the chalk games being played on the driveway. And after risotto, there were cupcakes.
Jill and Joel’s kitty Snowball marched back and forth with first a half-dead chipmunk and then a more-than-half-dead bird in his mouth… “The cycle of life,” said Joel. “Finally, another man in the house. That’s my boy.”
And we gave Mom her present — “the most fun I’ve had with my family in a very long time!” John said, describing the evening we put it all together. The 75th birthday Personal Crossword.
How we racked our brains for clues, and answers! Going all the way back to Mom’s childhood, her favorite movies, sports teams, color, flower, television shows, all our names, the neighborhoods she’s lived in… it was SUCH fun. And she enjoyed it.
But the fun didn’t stop there. The next day brought them all to our house for the annual party, decorated carefully with as many yellow balloons as we can fit in the back of the Land Rover.
Even a very cool teenager is happy to get out of bed to tie a few thousand balloons to the fence and the bird feeder!
It is always such fun for me to work in the kitchen as the time for the party approaches, and to watch cars pull up in the driveway, filled by a happy group of so many wonderful people. Of course, it’s a complete accident that some of them come armed with the most delicious food, like Cathy and her strawberry-rhubarb pie, or Olimpia and her famous meatballs! It’s the friendship that matters.
And of course it’s a completely coincidence that Tricia and Rollie come armed with everyone’s favorite baby, Tiny Rollie. Olimpia and Tony may have enjoyed spending time with him, just a little.
There was the table of little girls…
And while I did not get a decent picture of my dear friend Shelley, I did snap Avery with Shelley’s present. There is a lady who understands cats.
There was time to sit for a time to appreciate everyone’s special contributions: the wonderful stories that Cathy tells of her aunt living here in our house, Shelley’s encyclopedic knowledge of the geneology that makes her eighth cousins something-removed from Anne, Joel and Olimpia’s contributions of ideas for eggplant meatballs, the shouts of the little girls (and one big girl, ever-patient) on the trampoline, ringing sweetly in the distance. First Joel supervised and they were crazy.
And then, because they all adore John’s mom who wielded the camera (as we all count on her to do!), they posed for her, each of them beautiful in her own unique way.
My husband’s good humor and endless energy with the girls and the Land Rover, added the spice of Everyone’s Favorite Dad to the mix.
And Anne didn’t save all her baby enthusiasm for her own. She had time for Tiny Rollie, too.
Jill and Avery simply cannot take a bad photograph. The two most beautiful girls at the party, perhaps.
And what part do I play in all this? I am the rope that draws everyone in, the chronicler of our times together, the grateful audience for everyone’s charms. And the producer of grilled scallops wrapped in bacon, it must be said.
Through it all, my mother performed her usual miracle of finding something to talk about with everyone. She had brought the crossword with her to beg for mercy, to ask for help with the last three or four clues (and they weren’t our best effort, I admit). She sat on the shady terrace with Anne’s and Olimpia’s floral tributes all around her, and enjoyed all her favorite foods, which happen –happen!- to be my favorite foods! There were chicken livers sauteed in butter and Madeira, mushrooms stuffed with sausage, pecans baked with spiced butter, heirloom tomato salad with mozzarella, olive oil and lemon juice. I think she was happy.
And for once, Jill, Joel and John’s strictures that “it’s not a party at Red Gate Farm unless everyone’s crying” did not come true. The day ended magically, as all birthdays should, with cake.
Now it is all over for another year. The birthday is over, the last hugs have been exchanged, and my mother and brother have gone home. Thank goodness John’s mom has stayed behind to cheer us up. Although, to tell you the truth… we’re pretty happy these days.
And then it rained. Anne’s pond filled up first, and ran under the road.
Then it ran into our pond, which rushed around as if all sorts of important things were happening under its surface. Maybe to the crawfish and minnow and tiny brook trout, it was exciting.
The reflecting ball predicted more rain for the days to come, and it was right.
The hydrangea tree suddenly realized it was mid-August and burst into bloom.
I drove off in the rain to ring bells in Brewster. “Look to… Treble’s going, Treble’s gone.” We rang rounds and call changes on all eight bells as the rain drummed down the windows. I stepped past the wet, fallen apples outside the belltower door, got in my car and promptly got lost coming home. Why does rain make everything look unfamiliar? Thank goodness there were my mother’s birthday flowers in the window at home to welcome me.
There comes a moment, every summer, when we’ve truly settled in. Tricia has brought her traditional herby centerpiece, bless her heart. We’ve spent the first few weeks settling in, seeing all the neighbors, playing tennis, cooking, swimming, rereading all the summer books we’ve been thinking about all winter. I catch David in a rare moment of relaxation, reading by the pond, and this image seems to epitomize summer.
There’s time for an afternoon photoshoot with Avery, trying to capture her 14-year-old self. Our house is peppered with framed series of photographs of her as a little girl, making faces, being silly. It has been a few years since I sat her down to be captured, and it was more like working with a professional model than a child. Times have changed.
She has opinions now on the photographs I take! “Delete! Delete! I look demonic!” I have to be strong. But there are some we agree on.
We’ve had plenty of hot and humid tennis games, accompanied inevitably by the Grumpy Old Men At the Tennis Court, whose grumpiness seemed to have been ratcheted up recently. One morning last week, after a heavy rain the night before, we arrived at the courts to discover that they had eschewed the shady court out of fear of its puddles, and were installed on the far court in the blazing sun. A recipe for disaster. All four of them spent the whole morning wondering under their collective, grumpy and highly audible breaths.
“Those young people might not want that shady court, they might rather have a sunny court… we should ask them if they want to move to our court, here in the sun.”
“Of course not, you fool, if they did, they’d move to the center court… Nobody wants to play in the sun. Shut up and serve.”
There has been the chance for Anne to bond with her kitty niece, Jessamy, here at Camp Curran.
I’ve had time to recreate — with my own quirky additions — the breakfast strata concept that Alyssa and I inhaled during our jaunt to Beecher’s Cheese Shop in Manhattan. I have to warn you: it’s very rich. But what a celebration of savoury.
12 slices old-fashioned white bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 lb pork sausage
1/2 lb chestnut mushrooms, chopped
1 Padron pepper, sliced thin
handful small heirloom tomatoes, cut in half
1 cup cheese curds (or pizza mozzarella, cut in bite-size pieces)
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
2 cups half and half
Butter a 9 x 13 baking dish. Place the bread in a large bowl. Saute the sausage and break it up into small pieces. Add the chopped mushrooms to the sausage and saute until soft.
Add the sausage, mushrooms, pepper, tomatoes and two cheeses to the bread in the bowl and mix well. Beat the eggs briefly and then whisk in the half and half. Scatter the bread mixture in the baking dish and pour the egg mixture over. Bake at 350F/180C for 40 minutes or until egg mixture is set. Serve warm.
All these activities are compelling and delicious, to be sure. It’s our summer.
But it’s all a bit of a waiting game, until the mothers come.
Of course in summers gone by it was the mothers and the fathers. In those wonderful days we reverted to being the children again, with the fathers fighting over who would carry heavy bags of groceries and pay the dinner checks, and the mothers bringing entertaining gifts from their bags for the granddaughters. When the fathers were here, they ran errands: to the hardware store for the screwdrivers they thought we needed, to the balloon store to carry home dozens of balloons for birthday parties, to the liquor store for a special Scotch to accompany a chess game. They came with us to the pool to swim laps and toss little kids to and fro in the water, and to provide endless quarters for the snack machine.
I hope sincerely that I appreciated those days and summers with our fathers.
Everything changes. Our mothers are examples to me of The Right Stuff. While life changes and children get taller and the fathers are no longer with us, the mothers still pack their suitcases and take endless flights to arrive at Red Gate Farm, arms outstretched, smiles glowing, bags still packed with homemade cookies, piles of hilarious old family photographs, ready to have a good time. Dinner conversations are sprinkled with stories and memories of the fathers, and it is as if they were still with us, for scattered moments.
The important thing is to make sure we appreciate our families as they are now.
My, how we prepared for John’s mom’s arrival! We became the Compleat Cleaning Team, scrubbing every inch of the house, putting up the new clothesline so I could wash and hang out the ancient red rug in the guest room that always takes a bit of a beating during the busy summers. Especially with a toilet-paper-obsessed kitten around.
Finally everything was bleached, Hoovered, mopped and folded. And we were off to the sweet little municipal airport to fetch Nonna. With all the dreadful international airports we seem to find ourselves in, I love this little local one, nestled under blue skies in a cozy hollow of green hills, always smelling of new carpet, with one unintimidating arrival gate which seems to emit only happy people being reunited with grandchildren! And so we found her, gathered her up and brought her home to relax with a glass of wine and enjoy the special brand of ease and comfort that this old house seems to offer everyone.
And we had such a good dinner… there is just nothing like fresh fried haddock, with homemade tartare sauce. John’s mom asks me to tell you that although she always says this, it was “the best haddock ever.”
I love the feeling I get when my mother-in-law is safely under my roof. I love her settling into her cozy red room with the green glass lamp, the table piled with tantalizing books she might like to leaf through before going to sleep, a selection of little presents gathered in London and New York — a jar of ras el hanout, a funny mug with bicycles painted on it. I went through boxes and boxes of photos from the barn and assembled a little pile, full of memories.
It’s one of the unexpected benefits of getting older. We are finally able to give a little bit of comfort, a little coziness, some cherishing, to our parents, who have given so much to us. A place to come and relax.
And the next evening brings MY mother, all the way from Indiana. I know she was a bit intimidated by the idea of travelling without my dad, for the first time. A first time to check in by herself, to handle the luggage, to be in charge. But she handled everything with aplomb, with my brother’s help, and I was so glad to get her here, safe and sound.
They arrived with Jill and her family, for an evening of trampolining…
Here’s how my conversations go with my niece Molly.
Molly: “Aunt Kristen, how old were you when you were my size?”
“Well, how old are YOU, Molly?”
(she holds up fingers) “Two.”
“Then I think I was two when I was your size.”
Molly considers. “No, I think YOU were ONE.”
The mothers arrived. All was right with the world.
Just a word to let you know that there is some behind-the-scenes tweaking going on at Kristen in London… please forgive any craziness for the next week or so, if clicking in various links takes you to lands far, far away. Back to normal soon!
I’ve been grounded, temporarily.
It all has to do with buying a mattress.
Perhaps I should explain.
When we bought this little house seven years ago, Avery and I weren’t even around to do it. We were in Maine for a summer vacation when the papers were signed and every last T was crossed and I dotted. So John was left to handle the last-minute details like oh, say, moving in, and buying all the furniture. And he would be the first to tell you he is the last word in CHEAP. So our mattresses were the cheapest that Sears could offer, and gradually, over the years, ours has not shown itself equal to the task. My husband is 6’2″ or 3″, and by no means a sylph, so when he decides to turn over in his sleep, there are ramifications.
The mattress salesman yesterday described the phenomenon as “motion transfer.” And it simply isn’t done, in the best of bedrooms. We needed a new mattress.
“What you have is coils,” he explained in deadly earnest. “And that’s going to give you motion transfer. Now, are you a hot sleeper? Then the Tempurpedic won’t be for you. A lot of sleepers will tell you they hold in the heat…”
And on and on, mattress after mattress, until finally we came to… The Doctor. Yes, it turns out that while many people’s PhDs turn out to be less than useful after a decade or so (mine, for example, gathering dust under a pile of cookbooks), Dr Michael Breus, PhD, is The Sleep Doctor. “What’s his PhD in?” I ask. “Sleep,” our Mattress Professional Fred answers, deadpan. “In the sleep world, he’s a celebrity.” Who knew there was a sleep world.
There is. And for better or worse, The Doctor has designed the perfect bed for us. After at least an hour testing beds (and getting remarkably sleepy in the process), we alighted on the right level of firmness, with as little motion transfer as possible. Then we took Avery with us on the way to playing tennis, to confirm our choice. “Mattress longevity has to do with the breakdown of materials,” Fred explains. “Now with your latex mattresses, you’re dealing with a rubber product. No breakdown.” [Which is in itself a bit troubling.]
“There’s a lot more to this mattress business than I would ever have dreamed,” I said to Fred, who reminded me a little of a downmarket Leonardo di Caprio, complete with goatee and slightly menacing smile. “Not really,” he answered, bitterly.
We came home and I looked with disfavor at our old mattress, crouching on the bed with elderly defiance. I had washed the sheets that day so the poor thing had nowhere to hide. As I made the bed, some malign fate put the bedframe in COMPLETELY the wrong place and I smashed my kneecap into the corner. “AAAGH!” I bellowed, as the wood made contact with my poor middle-aged Osgood-Schlatter’s inflamed cartilege, the bane of my knees since my teenage years.
And so here I sit, on my cool and peaceful terrace, unable to play tennis for the time being. We went off to the court this morning, hoping to tease my poor knee out of its bad mood by exercise, but it isn’t cooperating. So I shall sit here for today, waiting for my new mattress to arrive, plotting out the crucial trips up and down the stairs instead of racing about as I usually do. Getting old and running into things sucks, as it turns out.
Thank goodness this didn’t happen on Monday, when we ventured into the city.
It’s always exciting to make the nostalgic drive down the Henry Hudson Parkway to Manhattan, saying all the same things we say every time. “Isn’t the GWB — the George Washington Bridge — beautiful? Why are these highways so pothole-y? Look at the gorgeous skyline. Aren’t you lucky to be a native New Yorker, Avery?” We headed down Broadway, watching the crowds seethe hotly across the intersections, and dropped me off at 20th Street to meet Alyssa at Beecher’s New York, the new super-fashionable cheese shop sprung from its original in Seattle.
Samples, samples! Alyssa and I wandered around trying everything, except that she turned up her pretty nose at “fresh curds.” “It’s against my religion to eat anything with the word ‘curd’ in the title,” she maintained, but she was really missing something. Such an intensely DAIRY flavor, and the squeaky nature of a halloumi! When I got home, I put them together with grilled beets, and the curds were delicious, but to be honest, the dish needed another ingredient to tie it all together. Ideas?
We tried something called “breakfast strada” as well, a sort of superior savory bread pudding with roasted vegetables and curds, and may I tell you, I shall be replicating it as best I can tomorrow for brunch. Salty, cheesy, creamy, sausagey. A very good idea indeed.
From Beecher’s we went across the street to an old favorite haunt, Fishs Eddy.
Now I must be a tiresome old person and reminisce about the olden days, when we lived in New York in the early 90s, and Fishs Eddy was a mecca for anyone who loved one-of-a-kind vintage castoff porcelain and china. They bought up all the china from diners and men’s clubs that had gone out of business, along with old flowered Italian wine glasses, sets of silverplate from train dining cars, giant platters with the names of old steak joints painted in gold on the rims. Glorious stuff.
Now the world has run out of such brilliant flotsam, but Fishs Eddy has stayed cool. The shop is filled with hilarious coffee mugs bearing such uplifting images as “You’re not perky; you’re obnoxious,” New Yorker cartoons showing a doctor looking at a naked patient and saying, “TMI, TMI,” drawings of male models wearing nothing but boas and carrying feather dusters. And one tiny section of old treasures, including these dies from a stationer’s shop, bearing customers’ addresses in reverse script.
“Look, Alyssa!” I whispered excitedly. “It’s Russian!” She looked closely, then at me pityingly, “Honey, that’s just ‘Pennsylvania’ upside down and backwards.”
From Fishs Eddy we sauntered in the blistering heat to the incomparable ABC, which used to be called “Carpet and Home” but is now just ABC. Quite simply, do NOT enter this store unless a) someone has tight hold of your purse-strings or b) you already own all the cool items you could possibly want. There are candles purporting to smell of everything you can imagine, including “cashmere” and “bamboo,” (call me a sucker, but I could smell the closets of rich Newport wives and the fields of Vietnam), piles of beautiful fabrics that could be made into every sofa cushion you could ever want, notecards with New York yellow cabs on them, and glass cases of handmade jewelry.
“Look, these little bracelets have inspirational messages on them,” I cooed, thinking they would be nice for a Christmas present for Avery. “Aw, listen to this: ‘the ones you love are life’s most precious gift…’” Later, when I described these bracelets to Avery, she snorted and said, “Really? You read inspirational messages and thought of ME? The ‘you’re not perky; you’re obnoxious’ mug sounds MUCH more my speed.”
Finally we tore ourselves away from merchandise and headed to the restaurant, abckitchen, for lunch with my divine editor Ivy, she of the peerless Vintage Magazine. Alyssa and I were early and sat for a bit chatting in the gorgeous interior of this, Jean George Vongerichten’s new venture, locavore-obsessed and filled with all the most beautiful people in Manhattan. None more so than my beloved chum.
Ivy arrived and we dug in: roasted heirloom beets with “housemade” yogurt and micro-herbs, to start. I would carp slightly and say that I like my roasted beets with a bit more bite, not quite so thoroughly cooked, but the several different varieties and colors were intriguing. Then I had a tuna burger with shredded radicchio and wasabi mayonnaise on a truly interesting roll. I have every intention of making a tuna burger very soon, so I shall report when I do.
We were Ladies Who Lunch! It is a beautiful atmosphere with lovely waitstaff and a very heartfelt, sincere menu, listing EVERY single source for EVERY single ingredient. An earnest menu.
Finally it was time to say goodbye and jump into the car when John and Avery pulled up outside. They had spent the hot, hot afternoon shopping in SoHo and were ready to leave the teeming streets behind. Hugs all around, and out to New Jersey for the evening and to spend the night with our precious friends Lille and Janice, they of the most perfect house in creation. White, white everywhere, dark floors, oil paintings, Steiff animals overflowing shelves. The most peaceful spot on earth, and the scene of so many cozy overnights, going back 20 years ago, to our newlywed days.
As always, we sat in the white, white kitchen and chatted about everything and nothing, surrounded by enviable china that I want always to get my greedy mitts on. The artichoke platter! To die for.
The cabbage leaf-tureen, which has contained every perfect soup from vichyssoise to gazpacho.
China envy abounds, in Janice’s house.
We stayed up far too late, John finally retreating to his sleeping porch and Avery to her bedroom, with bookshelves filled with Nancy Drew, Beatrix Potter, lit by Gladys the Goose. Nothing ever changes, in that house. A blissful feeling of childhood serenity.
Home in the morning to Red Gate Farm, where we all collapsed in various stages of total exhaustion! I’m not as young as I used to be! A hot day ringing the third-heaviest bell in North America, another hot day gallivanting in Manhattan, a too-late night with a girlfriend and a bottle of Scotch… I needed to recover. And to eat copious amounts of spinach. I cannot believe I have not provided you with this recipe already, but it’s simply the best. How else are you going to get your family to eat an entire pound of spinach at one sitting?
3 tbsps butter
2 tbsps flour
1–2 tsps celery salt
1 lb baby spinach, washed and spun dry
1 cup shredded melty cheese: sharp Cheddar, Fontina, or Edam
2 tbsps light cream
Melt the butter and add the flour in a large skillet, cook until foamy. Add the celery salt and stir. The mixture will be rather lumpy and unpromising. Do not despair. Turn off heat.
In batches, put the spinach through the Cuisinart until fairly finely chopped, but not mushy. As you go through the batches, empty each into the skillet with the buttery mixture.
When all the spinach is in the skillet, add the shredded cheese and cream and turn on the heat, low. Now simply stir constantly until the cheese is melted and the mixture is thoroughly amalgamated. Pour into a baking dish — about 9x9 will work, or a pie plate — and bake at 425F/220C for 20 minutes, till bubbling.
This dish is a family favorite, always first on the list of requested side dishes. It is a staple at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and has been known to make even people who “don’t like spinach” sit up and beg like a dog for more. The only caveat I would offer is that the celery salt makes the dish quite salty: do not add further salt.
And may I offer you quite simply the best scallop salad ever? This was a dish compiled out of what was in the fridge, and heavenly it was. The combination of scallop and bacon is of course classic, as is goat cheese with beets. But altogether, with avocado and rocket? All my favorite foods, on a platter.
Scallops, Beets, Bacon Salad
4 large or 6 small beets
2 tbsps butter
24 large scallops
8 slices streaky bacon
juice of 1/2 lemon
6 ounces goat cheese
2 handfuls rocket
drizzle olive oil
fresh black pepper
About an hour and a half before you want to eat, wrap the beets in foil and roast at 425F/220C. Allow beets to sit in tightly wrapped foil out of the oven for about 10 minutes after roasting, then slip skins off and cut into wedges.
Melt butter in a large skillet till smoking and browned, then carefully place scallops in, in a single layer. After cooking for about 30 seconds, turn. Cook another minute, or until opaque, but not too firm. Remove from heat.
Cook bacon in same skillet or in oven until crisp. Drain on paper towel. Dice avocado and toss in lemon juice.
On a large platter, assemble all the ingredients to your liking and sprinkle with fresh pepper.
Oh, the textures! The firm beets, soft scallops, crisp bacon and creamy cheese, with a little slurp of velvety avocado and a bite of rocket… and the flavors! Salty, sweet, buttery, everything you could want. And SO good for you.
I cannot tell a lie: I fear it will take more than spinach and beets to cure my knee. I suppose rest is the only solution. Luckily, any moment now my motion-transferless bed with a doctorate will appear, and I can cast myself upon it with a Nancy Drew and recover.
This is, quite simply, the sky view I dream of, during our months in London. Lovely as those months are, they are characterized most often by grey skies (not “gray”, you know), the soft patter of rain, a slightly island-y wind whipping through the trees bereft of leaves.
But I’ve said it before: happiness is about contrast, because the previous day the sky was gunmetal, the air thick with humidity, the meadow across the road full of flying turkeys. No kidding.
So stop before you agree to do something, “When turkeys fly.” THEY DO.
I am lying here doggo, half-reclining with an icy glass of vodka on the armrest of my terrace chair, totally exhausted from my afternoon. I spent it… bellringing, of course, since it is Sunday. For a special treat, my ringing band in Brewster arranged for us to meet at Kent School, in Kent, Connecticut, whose tower possesses 10 bells! More than I have ever rung. The view outside… to die for.
The view inside… the bells had to be muffled because, believe it or not, the neighbors object to the sound of bells! What is wrong with people. Reminds me of Avery’s old primary school in London, located next to the Chinese Embassy who forbade the use of the school playground because the sound of children’s voices was too… what? Human? Life-giving? Joyous?
I rang today for two and a half straight hours, successfully ringing the tower’s tenor bell, Great Paul, who weighs in at just over 2700 pounds. Ouch! Then I was assigned “tenor” a highly technical nomenclature meaning “last bell whose job is only to ring in 6th place without screwing up,” while my band rang a complicated method called Grandsire. I can report that simply staying in 6th place while everyone else moves around is JOLLY difficult! And incredibly hot and sweaty. “Why take a shower when you can just visit the tower?” everyone chimed in.
These are the kindest people I have ever met, I think. Friendship based on a single point of interest is a new experience for me. I think always before I have become friends with people because I encountered them in daily life, found them compelling, and made my interest known. These are the mothers I meet by chance through childish activities, cherished chums of my own childhood for whom longevity is enough to solidify feelings, neighbors who prove themselves warm and inviting, fellow volunteers at school. These people I meet as PEOPLE, and we either choose to be friends, or we are nodding acquaintances, friendly enough.
But these people entered my life strictly through the avenue of loving bells! Why do I, with no exceptions in London or here, find them all to be friend material? There is not one I would walk away from and choose to have no more to do with than to pull ropes together.
John says it is the strength of shared interest, especially a “freaky” interest like bellringing, that makes everyone so friendly. We want to stick together. Their particular brand of supportiveness is unlike any other in my life: it is highly specifically critical — “speed up, but not that much! backstroke needs to follow through, let the sally rise” — but at the end of each bit of ringing, there is a great deal of laughter, relief that that particular exercise is finished, cheerful making-fun of everyone in turn.
I think too that it is the only thing I’ve ever tried to learn where the company of others is absolutely essential. You know me: I’m a social bird of my species. I like to gather people around, and I enjoy them in all their peculiar variety. But cooking, eating, writing, reading, biking… all these can be accomplished alone. To ring a lone bell would be… unthinkable. It is the cameraderie, the arcane jokes only we can understand, the community spirit that adds an indefinable sparkle to bellringing.
When life hands me a set of ideas I don’t feel like thinking about, a constellation of problems I cannot solve, I quail a bit at the notion of getting up the courage to persevere, to stay cheerful, to keep the bogeymen from the mental door. Bells, and the people who ring them, are an irreplaceable amulet against these demons.
I came away with every muscle in my body protesting!
Ah, no matter my exhaustion, it was a great afternoon. And now I am back safely home, to rejoin… Summer Camp. That’s what we’re calling our summer supervision of dear, darling Jessamy, fluffiest cat on earth.
Last night I went into the bathroom to find the roll of toilet paper strewn toothfully across the floor.
“Avery, you’re Head Camp Counselor. I don’t think you’ve had enough activities for her here at camp, if she’s eating toilet paper.”
Avery: “Actually, Mummy, I think eating toilet paper IS one of the activities.”
How lucky we are to have her to play with this summer.
This week we joined in a particular New England activity: Town Hall Meeting. Why? Why are we not taking advantage of our singular status as highly infrequent members of the community, to stay OUT of town politics? I’ll tell you why. Our road is being threatened with paving.
An enormous part of the charm of our dusty, pointless little road is its dusty pointlessness. We regularly sit out on the terrace with our books and computers, or our lunches and dinners and shout automatically as cars go by, “SLOW the *&&% down!” Because the little road goes up and down, everyone with an accelerator at his or her disposal feels like gunning it. All is relative of course: excessive speed in our dusty pointless road is around 30 mph. But still. The clouds of dust drift across our lawn, we fear for the wayward steps of little Katie crossing the road in unthinking joy.
The ONLY result of paving our road would be the increase of the mph to 40, or 45. Unthinkable.
So on intrepid Anne’s advice, we turned up at Town Hall on Thursday morning to sit in the newly-carpeted, acoustic-tile-ceilinged splendor of the Road Paving Meeting. This was hilarious.
In the light of certain recent events of a political nature happening down the Eastern Seaboard, we felt immensely proud to be part of our local government. All six of them, gathered around a conference table. Half the residents of our road lined the room.
“Whew, there’s a lot of people here,” one worthy board member (or whatever his title might have been, SelectPerson Extraordinaire).
“Well, I can tell you right now that Jim can’t make it. He’s at the Wetlands meeting.”
(Much lackluster discussion about whether or not we should discuss adjourning.)
“But we can’t make any decisions without Jim. How long is that Wetlands meeting going to take?”
“It’s got some serious business on its table, I can assure you.”
(Much rustling and stacking and straightening of papers.)
“Fine. I’ll just go down there and find out how long that meeting is expected to take.”
(Avery described this robust personage as “Dolores Umbridge,” if that makes any sense to Harry Potter fans.)
She returned. “At least 45 minutes.”
WELL. It was decided to adjourn, whereupon all the really interesting discussion took place, with secret agendas being aired — “Not that I want MY road paved before theirs!” “There will have to be CULVERTS!”
Finally we adjourned till a fortnight or some such English-sounding period of time, being hotly pursued by the local Crazy Person Running For Office, who pressed upon us his mimeographed (I think this term was actually bandied about) Manifesto Against The Way Town Business Gets Done. In the parking lot, he reluctantly let us get into our car and shut the door. “Serial killer, serial killer,” Avery hissed. “There’s definitely a severed head in his car trunk.”
Oh my. Will the road be paved? Or will it remain, as the biased town lingo goes, “un-improved”? Even under the stress of “rain events,” which appears to be the terminology for “rain”? Watch this space.
I spent a restorative afternoon at the Farmer’s Market.
Finally we had a much-needed cloudy day, waking us with sprinkly rain and an instant excuse not to play tennis. I stayed home with a leftover ham hock — a sad little sentence, that, but fear not. From this pitiful-sounding specimen whose original roast the night before had been so sublime, came ham and bean soup, and the best Reubens EVER.
Not really a recipe so much as a list of my favorite foods, piled up. The shredded leftover pork, a slab of cheddar cheese, a thinly-sliced onion, a handful of sauerkraut, a drizzle of Thousand Island Dressing. Popped into the panini maker. Heaven.
And we made it just in time to the most touching exhibition I have ever seen, I believe: on a par with the Vietnam Memorial, only so homely, so transitory, so local and personal. It is the Field of Flags, and on its travels through Connecticut it stopped here, to move on, on Wednesday morning.
Avery took these beautiful, sensitive photographs. There is one flag in the ground for every one of the 6,126 soliders who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, and their names listed on a sandwich board at the top of the hill, by the doors of the church. So, so poignantly, there is an empty plastic sleeve tacked to the board, to contain a temporary sheet of paper for those soldiers who have died since the last complete typed list was made up. Thankfully, since the field arrived on July 15, no one else has died.
It is impossible to look at this field of waving flags, so beautiful and evenly-spaced, so colorful and lovely, and not realize that every single flag represents a family torn apart, memories cut off like a spigot, children left father-and mother-less. If it comes near to you, go see it. It reminds me that while we make gentle fun of our Town Hall, while we lie back on the trampoline on a peaceful summer afternoon marvelling at “the red of the barns, the white of the picket fence, the blue of the sky,” there is another red, white and blue that has been torn apart, bravely left behind so far away.
How unutterably lucky we are to bask in the freedom we have here, to enjoy our family summer, take every advantage of our love for our friends and neighbors and family.
This luck became abundantly clear when Joel and Molly arrived for an afternoon of fun and frolic, while Big Sister Jane and Mom Jill were in Indiana visiting our mom. Lunch first, including this tomato-mozzarella-pesto salad that Avery’s photograph made look even better than it tasted.
The pool beckoned.
All we can do, in these times of such warm high feelings and such reminders of the cost of all our luxury, is to hold the important ones close — whether they’re precious summer cats, bellringing buddies, crazy Town Hall nuts or perfect nieces — and enjoy ever moment of Summer Camp.