Aug 5 2011

Precious Evenings

The summer is waning, but daylight still lingers long after dinner. At this point in the season – summer seems to turn a corner when August settles in – I think we appreciate the precious sunny evenings even more, knowing that they are numbered. The good news is there is still a month of summer left. The bad news: there’s only a month of summer left.

Seated at the dinner table, you can look out the back door of our country house and see the sun making its leisured descent to the horizon. Even after the meal and the dishes, it still has a good distance to cover; there’s a whole chapter of the day left. Last night after dinner, Short-pants kicked off her sandals and slipped into her knee-high green boots, grabbing a metal bowl from the cupboard and sprinting out to pick blackberries from the wild bushes that line our property while Buddy-roo made a beeline for the rusty old swing set. Some friends have joined us in the country for a few days, adding their three children to the mix; the gang of rowdy kids clamored around the yard with the gleeful, wild abandon that a summer night deserves. I think this might the moment when you feel most free, as a child: playing outside after dinner, like you’re stealing extra hours of fun that the winter won’t permit.

I remember how my brother, sister and I would cross the road after dinner to meet up with the five neighbor boys and play touch football in their front yard. Somehow these just-before-dusk football matches morphed into a game we called Spook. A musty old sleeping bag – a thick and weighty brown one with a flannel interior that had drawings of Davy Crockett and other frontier accessories – was central to this game, which was in essence a dressed-up form of tag. The person who was it (the Spook) had to carry or use the sleeping bag in some fashion while chasing the rest of us. My brother liked to run around the yard speaking in ye olde English, like Prince Valiant of the Sunday comic strip, alluring us into his grip. One of the neighbor boys would hold the sleeping bag with arms stretched wide open like the wings of a bat while running around the yard screeching a high-pitched alarm. Another would just hunch on all fours under the sleeping bag, waiting for us to come up and kick or taunt him and then he’d turn and grab us. We’d play Spook until it was too dark to see anymore.

The night might finish when, long after sunset, all eight of us would pile into their red convertible (before seat-belts were mandatory) and drive to town for ice cream cones. This was the same car we’d squeezed into earlier in the afternoon, when its white vinyl top would be latched to the windshield and the windows rolled up and shut tight to make us as hot as possible during the two-mile drive to the beach. We’d pour out of the car, jump down the thick, uneven cement steps to the lakefront, tossing our towels and shoes and T-shirts aside as we’d make the final sprint to plunge into the water. At night, that convertible top would be unlatched, folded and tucked behind the wide back seat, leaving us open to the night air, hair blowing across our faces as we’d cruise down the steep hill to town. The ice-cream stand had drive-thru service; what a joyful thing it was, being one or two cars back from the ordering window, fretting over maple-walnut or mint-chocolate-chip or just plain strawberry.

Last night as the sun finally set, De-facto lit a fire in the backyard while Short-pants led an expedition of the other children to forage in the forest for long narrow-ended sticks suitable for marshmallow toasting. Those that didn’t drop into the fire were sandwiched while steaming hot between two cookies with a slice of chocolate, melting into the perfect S’more, the time-tested summer’s eve treat. We let the sticky-fingered pack of children run wild into the night, forgiving any bedtime curfews usually imposed. When they finally wore themselves out (and nearly put themselves to bed) the adults stayed out in the back yard by the fire, finishing off a bottle of wine, staring up at the night sky, pondering Cassiopeia. What precious moments, these long carefree summer evenings, unburdened by tomorrow’s deadlines. Thank god there’s still a month of them ahead. And zut, there’s only a month of them left.


Jul 25 2011

Missing Terribly

They removed themselves from the dinner table while De-facto and I lingered with our wine. One washed the dishes, by hand, in the low sink that breaks my back but perfectly suits their half-sized bodies. The other dried the plates and glasses and put them away. They chatted and sang, laughed together in the way of intimate friends. Once the dishes were finished, they retired to the other end of the long main room of our country house.

Short-pants sat on the couch and opened one of the 17 books she received for her birthday. Hunched over, she fell into the pages of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. If I’d wanted her attention I’m sure I’d have to call her three or four times to pull her out of the story. Buddy-roo elected to sit in one of the child-sized plastic chairs and then she, too, opened a book and began to read. She is not an avid reader like her older sister, but when she reads its with full concentration, carefully enunciating each word out loud. I know she prefers the medium of cinema and video so I’m careful not to nag her to read. But when she gravitates to a book on her own like this, I feel supremely satisfied.

I made a mental note of the scene: the two of them with their heads bowed as if in prayer, plunged into the world of words and stories, the rough stone wall of the country house behind them, the backdrop of a perfectly serene moment.

This is when it feels good to be a mom. When you know they’ve been running around in nature all day, galloping through forests and fields, hunting for blackberries and running down the road to visit the lambs, spending more than half the day outside in the fresh air, using only their imaginations to play, and to top it off their after-dinner the activity of choice is to sit with an open book and read. This is when mothering feels satisfying, when for a slight moment I think I might even be a little good at it.

This is also when I think if only my mother could see them. There are too many mental snapshots of the girls that I would paste in an album dedicated to her. The last lucid sentences from my mother, before she stopped talking and later stopped breathing was a lament that she wouldn’t get to see the girls grow up. “I’m so curious about who they’ll become,” she said.

Already they’ve grown so much, I know she would be tickled to watch them, to see their distinct personalities emerging, to witness their passage from little girls to big girls and, soon enough, to young women. It just doesn’t seem right. She should be seeing this. She should see them now, and later. She should see them grow up.

Some days, surprisingly, it doesn’t cross my mind that she’s gone. She was never the kind of mother that demanded front and center attention. She never railed at us for not calling or coming to see her. She was busy enough herself and appreciated – even applauded – that we had busy lives, too. She never required our daily concern, not until the very end, and even then she was probably the most independent patient in the history of hospice care. That I might pass a day without thinking of her isn’t so surprising. It’s that when I do think of her, nearly every day, it smarts. I’m still startled that she’s gone.

My thoughts of her are often funny, like a silly memory of a family joke and I can see her sitting at the head of the table laughing or rolling her eyes in pretend-perturbation when the joke was on her. Sometimes they’re maddening, those reflective moments when I realize I’m more like her than I ever expected I could be. Sometimes poignant, when I’m touched by something I know would touch her, like the vision of her two granddaughters happily reading to themselves. Sometimes it’s just wishing I could see a unread email message from her, bold and bright in my in-box, with news of her travels or a question about the girls. That was our day-to-day banter, and I miss it.

I wish she were still here. I wish she could see them, know them, watch them, love them as they grow up. Maybe wherever she is, she’s doing all that now. I don’t know. All I know is that it’s terrible that she’s missing all this, and that I miss her, terribly.


Jul 19 2011

Under the Rim

I should know better than to call them with that Auntie-Em voice, the one that telegraphs something menacing like you’re in trouble or there’s a job for you ahead. If I could just get-a-hold of myself before hollering, “Girls!” and strategize for a moment, pretend I’m offering them a surprise candy, turn my voice to an entirely different timbre. But I’m too often in a hurry, or impatient; my beckoning call gives away it’s I’ve-got-something-for-you-to-do reason.

They come nonetheless, two blond heads bobbing into the kitchen. Short-pants and Buddy-roo are well behaved and though sometimes they’ll dilly-dally and stretch things to the breaking point, they do know when to tow the line.

“Snack-time?” says Short-pants.

“In a moment,” I say, “but first, the toilets.”

I brace myself for their protests, which come at me like a squall. I do not relent. At home in Paris, we are lucky to have a house cleaner who comes weekly and scrubs our toilets, dusts (sort of), vacuums and changes the sheets on the beds. He is unappreciated by the girls; they only understand that his coming means they have to pick up their belongings. This is counter-intuitive to them, they do not yet distinguish between picking up and cleaning. I do understand their sentiment. When I was their age it was beyond me why we had to neaten up before the cleaning woman came. This is a classic passing-of-the-baton moment: you know you’ve become your mother when you hear yourself saying exactly the same things she said to you.

But I respect our cleaner for doing the work I’d prefer not to do, and I do not want to aggravate him by leaving 2-dozen pieces of plastic strewn about Buddy-roo’s floor for him to organize prior to running the vacuum. He comes for only three hours a week; it could take a good chunk of that time just to pick up the books Short-pants has left piled on her floor – I need him to be cleaning, not tidying.

This is my mother channeling herself through me. She had precise ideas about how to treat the people who helped keep our house in order. She was also the queen of cleaning-with-the-cleaning-woman. I have vivid memories of her, in her bathrobe, lifting and turning mattresses in tandem with Georgia, a woman of robust enthusiasm and loyalty, our house-cleaner for many years. Then there’d be that May Saturday when she’d invite Georgia for an extra day of work, and direct all of us to help her wash all the windows of our house. I can still picture my brother, in his long, angry, early-70’s haircut, cursing under his breath as he pulled the storm windows off for the summer season and carried them to the basement while my sister and I, following Georgia’s orders, faced each other with the window between us, squeaking away at each pane with an old strip of white cotton bedsheet.

One summer when I was in high school, my sister’s boyfriend hired me to be his house-cleaner. He lived with two other college-aged guys, the three of them had college-aged-guy living habits. Every week I found myself confronted with their mess of worn clothes, dirty underwear, shoes, books and open magazines, record albums and empty bottles and overflowing ash-trays. It took me a good hour-and-a-half to get their house uncluttered enough to start the real cleaning. Then I knew what my mother meant.

My friend the Fiesta Nazi rents out her studio apartment each year while she winters in a warmer climate, and her consistent complaint upon returning to her Paris home each spring is the condition of her toilet. Her renters are usually students or young adventurers, in their early twenties, and it seems that none of them have learned how to properly clean a bathroom. This made me realize that because we have a weekly cleaner at home, my girls could grow up to be just like her clueless, irresponsible renters. So I set out to make Short-pants and Buddy-roo learn how to scrub the bowl. They may not have to do it at home. But here at the country house, it’s their job.

I accompany one daughter, then the other, and remind them what to do. Lift up the seat first. Make sure the toilet’s been flushed. Pour in the cleanser. Pick up the brush. Buddy-roo slides the brush tentatively along the side of the bowl, barely stirring up any bubbles from the soap we’ve added. I take her hand, like a golf pro correcting the student’s grip, and guide her to use a little more pressure and to move it all around the bowl and then under the rim.

“Use a little elbow grease,” I tell her.

She looks at her elbow, and then up at me, quizzically.

“It means work harder at it,” I say.

She scrubs harder.

“And close your mouth!” My reminder comes just in time, seconds before her vigorous scrubbing splashes a bit of the soapy water up and it lands on her chin.

The country house is a perfect place for this activity; as the primary sweeper, vacuumer and cleaner, I’m happy for the extra hands. But the main thing is I don’t want them to grow up being total princess slackers. I think our generation of parents makes the mistake of doing too much for our kids, or letting too much be done for them. Our indulgence leads to their indolence. I’m counting on the fact that it will come in handy, even in their very privileged lives, to be able to roll up their sleeves, put the brush in the bowl and – with a little bit of elbow grease – clean under the rim.


Apr 24 2011

That Big Scarecrow

Could it be that That Big Doll is turning over a new leaf? She’s wearing clothes, and she got a job. The country house seems to suit her.

Let’s see how our garden grows with her strict supervision.


Apr 22 2011

Country Rhythm

She set up the chairs at the edge of the property, just as the sun bent low in the sky. The sunset was ahead and she wanted a front row seat. The invitation was so clear, so soft, and because it was issued without whining words or direct demand, all the more irresistible. The dishes could wait. The evening chores – scanning the lawn for tools left out, closing barn doors and latching the shutters – this could happen later. There’d be plenty of time before it got dark. There was a moment, there, waiting: Please sit with me, she said without words. Please sit with me and say goodbye to the sun and to this beautiful day.

The rhythm of the country house is a welcome break from the hectic pace at home in Paris and the creative chaos of last week at CREA. Here we slow down. There are fewer interruptions. We are alone as a family. We are focused on the basics, occupying ourselves with simpler concerns: What to eat? Are you warm enough? Shall we go for a walk? The kids are even freer here than last week, the country provides fields and forests for exploring and escaping. They run in and out of the house, down the road to see the sheep or the neighbor’s dog without the chaperone that is required in the city. This is freedom for De-facto and me, too; since we are not needed as escorts, we are left to finish that long chapter or nod off into a late afternoon nap.

Oh but if the country house were just that: long lunches and lazy afternoons, reading thick volumes and dozing off mid-sentence. That is the ideal country house, one that might be pictured in Homes & Gardens: replete with perfectly distressed tables and painted wicker chairs. But anyone who owns a country house – not just a second house or a vacation home – but a fixer-upper country house, knows that there’s little time to rest and repose. A country house is mostly work.

This morning, the blinding sun on the staircase reveals the fact that I have not swept since last October. The mice who’ve so kindly kept an eye on things since we were here in February left us many little presents on the shelves where we store the plates and glassware. All must be washed and replaced, I’ll clean it now but I know this task will be repeated in July. The lawn is knee-high and the lawnmower needs to be repaired. The garden is to be tilled and planted, the weeds plucked from the back stone terrace. The cobwebs cleared from every corner of every room in the house.

Then there’s the laundry. Several loads from the suitcases we brought from Italy. Three more loads of clothes and sheets we could not wash last winter because it was too cold and damp for them to dry. In the wash now, a load of blankets that smelled of fireplace smoke after the long, locked-in winter. If I had to choose my Sisyphean task, I know what it would be; in front of me all the laundry to do, and more laundry.

We have no dryer at the country house, so doing the wash requires meteorological knowledge. On a warm sunny day, it takes 3-4 hours for clothes to dry on the line, an hour less if there’s a brisk wind. When it rains, the drying time could be up to 3 days – and in the meantime the cumbersome and not particularly aesthetic drying rack becomes the centerpiece of the house. Some say make hay while the sun shines, I say wash clothes. Five loads yesterday. More today.

Buddy-roo runs into the kitchen, screeching with glee after making a trip to the neighbors to feed their chickens. In her outstretched hand, a large brown egg, hatched overnight, a gift that will become a fresh omelet. Short-pants returns after an hour in her forest; she’s been sitting on the discussion bench (she named it) knitting, and she returns to show me her work. She’s getting good, the rows of purple yarn are entirely uniform; I can’t see even one dropped stitch. It is the beginning of a hat, she says, and for the first time I see it could be something to wear.

I can hear De-facto in the loft of the “new room,” a hopeful room we’ve been renovating for years. He’s fashioning a windowsill out of an old slab of oak he found in the barn, telling the girls how reusing this piece of wood means we didn’t have to kill any more trees. They run to the barn to find more wood that might save a tree, but on the way they forget their mission, caught up instead in the chasing of dandelion fuzz that is dancing with the gusts of wind. The breeze is brisk, it stirs up the pollen and makes us all sneeze, but it sure to dry the laundry well and fast. This might even leave me some time to read and rest.

This post is about nothing, really. It has no point to make. It’s about the day-to-day of the country house. It’s about simple tasks and basic pleasures. It’s about being in nature. It’s about the kind of manual labor that frees the mind to wander. It’s about being away from the distractions of the world and folding into my family. It’s about no other moment than this one, this moment now, taking its place in the string of moments and memories that will always be part of our peaceful escapes to the country.

Or maybe that is the point.


Feb 19 2011

For a Few Days

I’m tucked under the comforter of my bed, the space heater generating barely enough juice to keep my hands from freezing, the children tumble into a world of instantaneous imagination in the living room below me. They weave stories as they go, shouting out commands to each other – it’s always in the past tense, “and then you were calling for help” – turning the plot into a new direction. A wood-crafted puppet theater becomes the television, Buddy-roo pretends to change the channel, a box of chalk as her remote control, and Short-pants performs a feat of improv, acting out each program: a news report, a weather forecast, a show about dancing animals, a documentary about the first woman doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell.

When the puppet theater accidentally falls over, the two of them shift seamlessly to a new scene. Buddy-roo calls a repairman on her pretend phone, Short-pants runs out the side door and comes around to knock on the front door for her next role. “What’s the problem ma’am?” She says in her deepest alto voice. Buddy-roo explains the catastrophe: her TV has fallen and broken and what will she do? The repairman inspects the damage. “I’ll have to take it to the shop, for a few days.” The damsel in distress cries out in despair and faints on the couch. (Art imitates life.)

There are so few toys at this country house, mostly remnants of broken ones, old board games and puzzles (with pieces missing) handed down from the neighbors down the road, a few old Barbies and a their torn dresses, a small plastic stove, some costume jewelry that the mother-in-love brought after a major paring-down-of-her-possessions. But it is enough to amuse them for hours. We have more toys and more books at home in Paris, but the “I’m bored” cry is heard there, and not here, in the country.

In the country we wake up naturally, without an alarm. There is no school. There is no rushing through breakfast. There is no out-the-door-you’ll-be-late. There is no internet (unless I walk down the road to borrow our neighbor’s wi-fi). There is nothing but the slower rhythm of time that is more natural, more civilized than what motors us in the apparently civilized city. I do not know if I could take this suspended pace all the time, but several times a year, as it coincides with the school holidays (it’s winter break now) it is just what the country doctor ordered. Fresh air. Deep sleeps. Long walks. Manual labor. Less media.

In the evenings after dinner as night lays down around us, we huddle around the wood stove. There is no checking of the email or watching a DVD or answering the phone or Skyping with a client in a far away time zone. We sit, the four of us, around our stove and talk. And laugh. We play Mille Bornes. We tell stories. We look at each other. We’re a family together, we four.

Did I say the four of us? I am mistaken, because we have an extra body here. As we were packing she caught my eye. I was startled by her as is often the case, there’s something so wrong about That Big Doll, something about her height coupled with her anatomical proportions and those oversized, alien-like eyes – if I catch sight of her out of the corner of my eye I jump a mile. “Should we bring That Big Doll?” I asked. The girls hopped up and down, cheering.

I had to get her out of the apartment. That Big Doll has become a liability. The boy guests at our house are a bit too fascinated that something their size could have such breasts, and the conversations she is provoking amongst my children, though hilarious and manageable, are conversations I’d rather have a few years from now. Removing the object of their origin may not thwart those discussions – Pandora’s box has already been unhinged – but I’m sure we’ll all live happily ever after if we don’t have to look at her every day.

That Big Doll made the car trip on her back (her preference, I suppose) on the panel under the rear window of our rented car, evoking interesting glances from cars on the auto-route. She was a bit out of sorts in the country at first; clearly she’s a girl used to the streets of the city. She quickly acclimated, however, and has shown herself to be quite the nature girl. Who knew?

Short-pants peeks into the bedroom where I’m working and hands me a piece of paper. Please come to the show ‘The Four Accidents’ at 3:30 pm. Signed, the Puppeteer. She watches while I read, waiting for my response.

“You’re going to do a show!” I know my enthusiasm is important to her.
She nods her head, her two front teeth like barn doors in the middle of her smile.

“Is it going to have a beginning, a middle and an end?” I ask.

She nods again. You may think me harsh on this count, but if you’ve sat through any of those homemade productions that go on forever with no clear plot line, you know the pain I’m trying to avoid.

“And tension,” she volunteers, “that gets resolved near the end.”

That’s my girl.

At 3:30 there’s murmuring in the living room, as the crowd of three plus That Big Doll assembles to view the advertised performance. The puppets dance on her fingers as the four accidents are revealed, one by one. There’s a wizard, a princess, a knight and a chef, all of whom suffer in their own way. When a dragon sets the castle on fire, a repairman arrives to rebuild the castle, with his invisible team of helpers. But between each accident, this narration: “And they live happily ever after for a few days.”

It seems our little playwright has a practical streak.

Tomorrow we return to Paris. I’d stay another week if we could; I’m thoroughly rested and relaxed from the fresh air and slower rhythm of life. But work calls and for that a more steady internet service is required. It’s true if we installed a connection here, we could stay on and work from the country house as easily as we do in Paris. But then we wouldn’t have the feeling of being truly unplugged. Our afternoons wouldn’t be surrendered to walks in the woods, visiting the lambs down the road, pruning in the yard, plastering in the new room. We wouldn’t linger around the wood stove every night with the same feeling of freedom and peace that comes from having no other option, really. I wouldn’t want to be here forever, without the Internet, but I can live happily ever after without it…for a few days.


Nov 1 2010

All the Saints

Because the interior walls of the country house are not at all soundproof, we usually overhear the girls talking to each other as they ready themselves for bed. Last night they were wired from all the sugar and excitement of trick-or-treating. They also get to share a room with the mother-in-love when she joins us at the country house so going to bed is always a bit of an adventure, sharing those last just-before-sleep moments with their grandmother.

“Oh, will you stop it,” Short-pants screamed, “You’re talking about dead people again!” Buddy-roo protested. She was missing my mother and remembered sharing a bedroom with her when we took our family vacation to Punta Cana. And for that matter, she was also missing Grandpa Artie, De-facto’s father, who died before I was in the picture and long before Buddy-roo was considered, let alone conceived, but she has a special kinship with him because they share the same birthday.

(While I was in labor for Buddy-roo, we worked on the New York Times crossword – a visitor had brought it and left it – and were more than slightly stunned when the central word around which the entire puzzle was written was his name, A-R-T-I-E.)

My mother-in-love came up the stairs and into their room and heard their dispute. She made the expected, gentle inquiries. Short-pants remained exasperated. “She keeps talking about dead people and it’s useless.”

“But I miss Grammy,” Buddy-roo countered. Mother-in-love launched a sensitive and sensible explanation of how the people we love who die are never really gone; they stay with us when we think of them. So it is good to remember them.

“See?” Buddy-roo defended her nostalgia.
“I still say it’s useless,” said Short-pants.

I remember how famously my mother and my mother-in-love got on. De-facto’s mother admires everyone without envy, and she’s a great listener and a strong woman in her own right with as many fascinating accomplishments as my mother. Sipping iced-tea on the back porch, exchanging stories, admiring their grandchildren – I loved that that the girls could enjoy the company of both grandmothers at the same time. Though the way my mother was with the girls was different than how my mother-in-love engages them, the feeling of having both of them side-by-side had to be a real treasure. At least it was for me.

That my mother is gone makes me even more appreciative of the visits we have with De-facto’s mother. I always knew – but now I really know – how crucial it is to drink in every moment, every encounter, every single visit with her. She is so good to us, worthy of sainthood (who else volunteers to defrost your refrigerator?) and we shouldn’t ever take her for granted.

We worked our fingers to the bone. De-facto put up wallboard in the new room and I tended the grapes. She weeded along the front, side and back of the house, mulched any patch of exposed ground, trimmed roses, structured our new compost, hauled firewood, made a soup, colored puppets with the girls and a dozen other tasks to improve the quality of our country living. She is a powerhouse in a way that is surreal; she is as wise as her years demand but just as spry and fit as a woman twenty-five years younger.

For Halloween she dressed as the Countess Duvet who lives in the graveyard. She moved in – very temporarily – to the abandoned barn across the street, with candles and theatrics in order to add another trick-or-treating stop on our sparsely populated road.

“I eat my supper off the tomb of the Count,” she said, with a dramatic accent that made her claim believable. The girls jumped and squealed, not quite sure whether she was funny or frightening.

She cannot replace my mother but her presence somewhat palliates the loss, because she is my friend, because she knew my mother and loved and admired her, too. Having loved and lost her own mother, she respects the necessary passages of each generation. My mother-in-love knows everything I know, and so much more. But she won’t spoil it: she smiles at me, watching as I mother and cook and work and love and garden and grieve, and just puts her hand gently on my back from time to time to let me know she cares, which is just enough to remind me that there are saints here on earth.


Oct 29 2010

Just the Doing of It

We arrived in the dark. Not the optimal time to get started at the country house. There was everything to do as dusk turned to night, fumbling with rusty skeleton keys to open the doors, switching on the electricity, venturing out to the yard to uncover the water pump to open its valves, visiting each tap in and around the house to turn off what had been left on to prevent pipes freezing, unpacking the car, stocking the fridge with groceries we purchased at lightening speed at the hypermarket ½-hour away, its closing hour pressing in on us as we raced to the check-out. De-facto set to light the wood stove, which took forever to start burning and once lit, seemed to take forever to heat the room framed by the stone walls that have assumed the outside temperatures that get cooler with each passing day.

We huddled over our dinner, shivering. Without hot water (it takes hours for the heater to deliver) we left the dishes for the mice and the morning and bracing ourselves, headed upstairs to the unheated bedrooms. Quickly stretching the cold, clean sheets over dusty mattresses, we fell into our beds waiting for the warmth and dreams to come. In the morning, frost inside the windows, and a light layer of white on the meadow across the road, but the sky blue and clear and fresh and that feeling of how good it is to be here á la campagne.

I rose and wrapped my icy hands around a warm bowl of café-au-lait and slid into my wellies and out to the yard to inspect my grapes. Take note of the possessive pronoun that has been assigned to these eleven stalks inherited when we purchased the property. I share ownership of this house with De-facto and his brother, but the grapes – they are mine. I’ve assumed the role of vineyard caretaker. Last year’s vendange managed to produce a single, but thrilling, crate of grapes. It took several years of cutting and caressing the abandoned vines, but finally, I’d found the right result. The crop was small, but it informed and inspired my approach for the year to follow: Last winter I cut them back more than ever before. In April, new wires secured the vines. In July, suckering and pruning revealed bunches and bunches of baby grapes, and the promise of a robust harvest.

Only September took us to far away places that made a quick weekend trip to the country house impossible. Our first opportunity comes now, with the school half-term break otherwise known as La Toussaint. A bit late for harvesting, but I held out some hope that at least a portion of the grapes could be salvaged. My inspection grew more discouraging with each vine. The birds had picked them over, they’d fallen to the ground, or a skeletal bunch of grapes remained, scrawny raisins, taunting me.

I came too late to harvest anything significant – anything at all, for that matter.

Today, clippers in hand, a deeply inhaled breath of country air and I started pruning and clearing. The work is not easy. Some vines have crawled up into the trees and require a tug-of-war to pull them down. (I am somewhat lenient with them, otherwise they’d be trimmed and thinned but since I am not here for months at a time, they grow with a wildness that a disciplined viticulturist would not permit.) The long serpentine limbs fall to the ground and I cut them into smaller pieces, one at a time, to be hauled away to the compost. The thicker vines I separate and cut into kindling, taking them to the stable to dry to be burned in future winters. I pull out the thorny weeds and dry grasses that have grown wild at the base of the stalk, raking again and again until all I can see is a soft bed of the terroir. The vines look relieved, freed of the weight of their long branches and leaves. They stand spry and lithe, my knobby, skinny friends, unburdened and smiling at me.

The girls, dressed in a hodgepodge of old clothes and torn fleeces that we keep here – a wardrobe that can get dirty and ripped and who cares – kick their toes upward to the sky, swinging together so hard that I wonder if the old swing set will topple. They run back and forth from house to garden, woods to field, shaking sticks and making up songs and stories. The swing set transforms into a pirate ship or a schoolhouse, whatever they require as a backdrop. Their play is as temporary as anything can be – made-up games in a made-up world that are made-up in the moment. There is no practice for this; no preparation for a final performance, and no expectation of an outcome. This is play in its purest form, just for the doing of it. They play with passion and zeal until a new story is offered up or something else distracts them in that moment, like a neighbor passing by with a sheep dog, or my mother-in-love calling to them from the house, “hot chocolate!” which instantly frees them from this moment, without a measure of its value, and they move on to the next.

Clippers in hand, the rake rested against the thick stone wall of the house, I look around at the lawn cluttered with leaves and cuttings and consider my story with the grapes. It’s futile, really. Given the amount of time I can devote to these vines, given their ill placement with insufficient sunlight, given my real knowledge of anything beyond what I learned as a seasonal worker during school vacations, I will never be a great grape grower. I will never make a fine wine. It is the silliest, most pointless work I do, year-in and year-out, work that will never be successful. And yet I toil for hours, my hands raw despite the protective gloves, my back aching from the bending and scooping and hauling and carrying.

Buddy-roo spies the old wheelbarrow and asks if she can help. During our first year here, we bought a shiny new metal one and its wheel broke off after just a year of use. The old rickety wooden one that we found in the stable has a lot more character and still rolls strong.

“Can I be the horsie?”
“Sure.”
“Tie me in.”
“I don’t have any rope.”
“You can use the imaginary rope I have right here.” She reaches out, as if to hand it to me.

This is my play, I guess, here at the country house, to tend the grapes. Even though it turns out just to be an agricultural exercise, even if there’s no harvest, I find it immensely satisfying. It’s all worth it, to love just the doing of it, regardless of the outcome. I’m pretty sure this is the trick to most things: being present with the doing of it, deliberately enacting the tiny tasks of life, one vine at a time. It’s just not always easy for me to cultivate this attitude of a mindful life. It takes the simplest of tasks and a playful child to remind me how.

I make the motions of harnessing Buddy-roo to the wooden cart. She provides the sound effects: Chtck. Ctchk. I fill the wagon to the brim with vines and leaves. She neighs, kicks the ground, and then gallops toward the compost pile with glee.


Jul 23 2010

Tour de Luxe

There’s nothing luxe about our life at the country house. We have what we need: a stove with an oven, a fridge, a table and chairs. There’s a shower with hot running water, two functioning toilets attached to a septic tank. Beds with linens – albeit old ones. One set even dates from my first post-college apartment,which means they’re something like 25 years old. (They’ve never seen the inside of a dryer, which might be why they’re still in use.) It’s all livable, just not particularly luxurious. A bit rough around the edges.

The country house is a renovation in progress. This means we live beside the dust and mess and clutter that is part and parcel of do-it-yourself construction. It’s part of any type of renovation, but particularly so when achieved the snail’s pace of 2-weeks at a time, three or four times a year. But we did not buy a ready-made chateau; we bought a rundown house attached to a barn, previously inhabited, for 30 years, by an eccentric bachelor. Which means we bought into the idea of slow motion, by-our-own-hand improvements from the start. Part of the pleasure, or so De-facto tells me, is solving the puzzle of what to fix and learning how to do it as you go.

In the meantime, I’ve tried to keep things sparse. And yet the house has still become the dumping ground for every odd piece of furniture, unwanted rug, blanket, throw-pillow or lava lamp. Nothing matches; our plates are all left over from other sets of china from our past, the silverware is abundant but with very few matching place-settings. I’ve vowed not to decorate, nor to buy any furnishings or appliances until the house is closer to finished. As a result, we live with what’s been inherited or donated, a hodgepodge of eclectic furnishings and belongings.

It’s amazing what you can live with – and without.

The electricity at the country house is more or less jerry-rigged, the wiring is so ancient that they don’t make plugs to fit some of the outlets in the house. If we use the oven and the burners on the stove and try to run the washer or plug in the speakers for music, we’re likely to trip the short-switch on the fuse-box. There is no landline for a telephone. There is no cable. There is no Internet.

Which is challenge for someone like me who writes 3 blogs and conducts most of the prep work for her business on-line. There are no less than a dozen moments a day when my natural reflex to check email or Google the answer to something goes un-satiated. In order to access the rest of the world, I must walk down the road 100 meters to our neighbors, who have kindly given us the code to their wi-fi. I sit on the bench outside their kitchen door and send/receive messages and bathe in the data I can download before I feel my presence is an imposition. You can imagine this makes posting somewhat problematic; but managing an on-line conference call meeting with colleagues has to be carefully timed and executed as well.

In the mornings De-facto toils in the side room we’ve been renovating for the last three years, maneuvering a support beam in the foundation or plastering or painting. I hole up in the upstairs back bedroom and write, surfacing at noon-thirty or so, just in time to make lunch for my hungry tool-belted man and our girls. My primary chore in the country is cooking, not the easiest task when only two of the burners on the stove work and there’s hardly an inch of counter space. But that’s life in the country; you get by with less than perfect conditions and in the end, it’s perfect.

After lunch there’s always some project, the cleaning out of shelf that’s been overtaken by cobwebs in our absence, trimming the tree branches over my grapevines to keep them in the sunshine or liberating them from the ferns that spread furiously when unattended. Or laundry. The country house is a high-speed factory for dirty clothes.

And then. The Tour. The high point of the afternoon is that moment when we pull out our old 20″ television (miniature compared to current models) to watch the Tour de France. That we have no cable is a handicap, but De-facto broke down and purchased an antenna, a set of rabbit ears which if correctly configured on the table just outside the door, permits a reasonable picture, though a bit snowy – at least it’s enough to watch the cyclists in action. We turn it on around 2 o’clock and let it blare in the background as De-facto paints the ceiling or I cut back the rose bushes. As they close in for the finish of the stage, we draw closer, staring intensely at the screen with fingers crossed. This year Schleck is our favored rider; his 8-second lag behind Contador seems like an eternity.

The girls, well, they run wild. In Paris they are somewhat incarcerated, on top of each other in our apartment and requiring an adult to accompany them to go anywhere outside our building. In the country, they run unhindered. Short-pants disappears into the forest behind the house while Buddy-roo wanders down the road to visit our neighbors. They run in and out of the house at will. They are free.

When the stage is over, and the post-tour television wrap-up is completed, De-facto makes his announcement, “Family bike ride!” This is met with some protest, as Short-pants is not so fond of bicycling and Buddy-roo makes a habit out of being contrary. But eventually it gets sorted out, who rides solo and who rides on the extension attached to De-facto’s bike (which makes for a bicycle-built-for-two). We peddle down the road. Our destination: the pasture with the shaggy pony. The sky is unblemished blue. The late afternoon sun turns us into long shadows on the pavement. There’s fresh air and a little exercise and the laughter of children. What about this isn’t a tour de luxe?


Nov 4 2009

Are We There Yet?

Whoever said “it’s the journey and not the destination” wasn’t in the car with me yesterday.
well
We were slow out of the gate. The ritualized closing of the country house takes more time in the fall (heading into winter) than in the warmer months of summer. The refrigerator, as usual, is emptied, defrosted, wiped and left unplugged, open to the air. The floor is swept. The dishes and glassware are washed, stowed and covered. The water is not only turned off, but in anticipation of the cold it is siphoned from the toilets and the hot water tank, to avoid the catastrophe of frozen, bursting pipes. Electricity shut off. Doors and shudders latched. It’s a frenzy of cleansing and storing activity. Then finally, en route.

The back roads from our little village to the highway are bucolic and picturesque, but their meandering makes for uncomfortable stomachs. Buddy-roo lost her breakfast about fifteen minutes into the ride. I am smart enough to bring a few plastic bags – her car sickness is also a ritual event – but not smart enough to check those bags for holes before tucking them into the pocket of the car door. The little pink plastic sac I shoved under her precious, ashen face just before she puked had a teeny tiny hole in the bottom, which became big very quickly, dumping most of the contents of the bag into her lap. Who knew how fast I am out of the seat-belt? Or that I could be a contortionist, reaching around the front seat, wiping up the mess with the four paper towels left on the roll? Oh, happy drive.

De-facto had the idea to stop at a giant Decathalon store just before the on-ramp to the highway, for what was promoted as a quick errand. When I finally found him, he had set up house in roller blade aisle. Short-pants and Buddy-roo had each been fitted with a pair, and they were shuffling around, finding their legs like baby foals, while he examined roller-blades in his own size. Of course, each pair that he tried on required a test drive. He’d skate circles around the girls, their giggling filled the store despite the height of its hyper-sized ceiling. (He didn’t intend to buy them for the girls, by the way, he was just giving them a quick lesson, gearing up for the winter skating season, and keeping them occupied while he contemplated his selection.)

How hard is it to select a pair of roller-blades? Apparently not so easy when you’re deciding whether or not to splurge for the super-geared-up sexy pair or just go for the solid they’ll-work-anywhere ones. While he weighed his options, I explored the store and got sucked into the vortex of early Christmas shopping. Which meant the additional game of get-through-the-checkout-without-anyone-seeing-what’s-in-your-cart, which I managed to win, but without any help whatsoever from the very un-elf like cashier.

I should have known we were in trouble when De-facto whispered the forbidden word: “McDonalds.” It’s not at all in his nature, stopping to eat at a rest stop. He’s more of what-can-we-scrap-together-from-the-fridge-and-eat-in-the-car kind of road tripper. So while the peanut-butter-and-Nutella sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs and sliced cucumbers aged in another bag (no holes in this one) at the foot of the passenger’s seat of the car, he ordered up a few super-size-me meals and we even sat in the restaurant to eat our fries. (It is absolutely in my nature, to eat fries.)

Our little pause would have been an exotic change of pace if the rest of the drive had been business-as-usual. But it wasn’t. On three different stretches of the A20, we inched along in the cruelest of single-lane traffic, passing through miles of orange-coned construction zones without the sight of even a single hammer. That meant three distinct opportunities to spend 45 minutes traveling the distance that normally takes about five minutes. And
bouchonthen, when we were so close to home, with what should have been less than ½-hour to go, we found ourselves nose to tail-light with thousands of other idiots like us, stuck in rush-hour traffic during a (seasonal) train strike. The journey from our country house to Paris should have taken just over four hours. We were in the car for nearly eight hours.

The girls, it must be said, were marvelous. Napping. Reading. Coloring. Singing. The computer came out and movies were cued up. They are professional travelers. No whining, “Are we there yet?” Not a single complaint from the peanut gallery in the back of the car.

Just a few grumbles from yours truly in the front seat. Regretting that McChicken sandwich, or something like that.