Aug 29 2015

Plum Pickins

Two greengage trees, on the edge of our property, produce the sweetest plum-like fruit. Last month, the trees were flush with little round green plums, promising a bountiful harvest when they’d ripen, at the end of August. Knowing we’d return to the country house for the last week of summer, I envisioned the pies, tarts and marmalade that would result from such a robust yield.

I didn’t even know the trees produced fruit until the Pastry Ace paid us a visit and with her keen culinary eye, pointing out all sorts of fruit growing on or around our property that I’d never noticed. Since then, I’ve watched these plum trees fill out with little round fruit, but I don’t always get to harvest them because often we’re gone when they ripen. Last year our cross-America tour pulled us away for the last half of the summer. Who knows what it was the year before; we were moving to Barcelona and otherwise occupied. We tend to use the country house in July, and do other things in August, sometimes returning for the last week, sometimes not.

~ ~ ~

After my annual escape to Pamplona in early July, I returned to our country house just in time to make the neuron-cake that Short-pants requested for her birthday. (Try that with a hangover after a week-long party.) Soon after, neuron_cakeDe-facto and I flew to the states for work – a neighbor stayed here with the girls – returning to the country house for a week or so before a wedding in Italy called us to the Adriatic coast. We crawled back to Barcelona in heavy traffic, wanting only to stay put, quietly, which we did for a week or so before a return to the country house for the last week of summer, our last hurrah, and maybe finally some time to relax, before submerging again into the routine of work and school.

August is the height of the vacation period in Europe. The cities turn quiet – both Paris and Barcelona, like other European capitals, seem to lose half of their local population. Streets clear out and the energy of vacation covers the city like a heavy beach blanket. It’s still full-on summertime, warm and sunny and relaxed, but the moment the calendar clicks from July 31 to August 1, there’s a sense of melancholy. July is bright and bouncy with the youthful energy of summer fun. August comes with a big sigh, signaling that all good things must end, that summer is rolling by, rapidly, and fall is just a few footsteps away.

~ ~ ~

But I had the greengages to temper my August melancholy. On our drive north from Barcelona to the country house, I pictured those trees covered with juicy, yellow-green plums, and I promised Short-pants and Buddy-roo I’d make pies with top crusts bulging with fruit. Maybe I’d even freeze one and leave it for our return in October.

Minutes after our arrival, I sprinted out to the corner of our land where the two trees stand, ready to pluck a plum off a branch and savor its sweetness. The next day I’d fill up a big bowl and move the fruit directly from tree to pie, but I was impatient to appreciate the inventory. Winston galloped after me, not knowing why, but sensing my anticipation.

I ran down the road and jumped over the ditch and found my two trees, thick with green leaves fluttering in the late afternoon breeze – and not one single plum. tree_sin_mas

Gone. They were all gone.

I recall, now, a few summers ago, going out to inspect the trees in August to find them empty. But it had been a very wet spring and summer. I hadn’t gotten any grapes that season either. It was weird, but it was an anomaly, so I thought. But given that just a few weeks ago I’d seen both trees covered in fruit, something was very wrong.

I looked closer. This couldn’t be the work of birds. The tree had been cleaned, top to bottom. Not even one stray plum hung from any of the branches.

I’m bewildered that someone would clear out all the fruit from both of the trees. Though near the road, they are not obviously visible to a passing car. Somebody knows that the trees are there and possibly they’ve come every year – except the years we happened to be here in August – to help themselves. They must see our house locked tight without a car in front, and they stop and clear out our plum supply. But seriously, they must have had a ladder! There were plums all the way to the tops of those trees. This was a deliberate harvest. Not just let’s grab a few fruit while passing by. They took everything.

Grudgingly, I bought greengages (known as Reine-Claude in French) at the market. They are a precious fruit, coveted (apparently). I had my heart set on a plum pie. Buy it’s not the same, not the same as pruning the tree, weeding around it, watching the little beans turn into berries and into plump little plums, picking them yourself and knowing they came from your own land and your good effort. There’s that, plus the sheer cheekiness of the perpetrators and the feeling of violation that accompanies the loss of something you believed to be yours.

They must have been yummy. This summer has been hot and dry, and this is good for all the fruit on our property. The grapes that get morning sun are already ripe; I picked them yesterday and served them with our luncheon cheese plate. The grapes that see sun only in the afternoon are not quite ready for harvesting, but there have never been so many grapes hanging from my vines, in all the seasons I’ve been tending them.

The endrina (a.k.a. sloe berry) tree on our property is also bountiful. And another one at the end of the road, on our neighbor’s land, is covered in little blue fruit and far easier to reach. I’d been eyeballing it, thinking about the next batch of patxaran. I might not have thought much about helping myself to a few of those blue berries, until now. Yesterday, I walked down and private_propertychatted with the neighbor, asking if she minded if I took a few bowls of those berries before I left.

“Take them all,” she said, waving me off. “We can’t use them.”

I am reminded that my children and my man – and my mother-in-love, who is with us now – are all safe and healthy. And the fruit poachers did not break into our home and damage or remove anything. Not that our purposefully rustic country house contains any possessions of great value, but such theft or vandalism would disrupt the peaceful rhythm of our stay here. Still, it smarts, that somebody stole my plums and dashed my dreams of the perfect pie. Of course, there’s always next year’s crop. We’ll just have to come up with a strategy to keep those plum thieves away.


Jul 22 2012

All His Hard Work

A second after he heard the scratching in the ceiling, the light flipped on. De-facto bolted out of bed and grabbed the empty paint container in one hand, the lid in the other, and with the concentration of a hunter after its prey, closed in on the small barn squirrel frozen in its tracks, tiny claws gripping the stone wall.

We’ve lived with the glis-glis for years. The room that is our bedroom, like many things here at the country house, is not finished, nor is it sealed from the attached barn. This means more breezes in the winter, extra dust all year long, and a few visiting creatures who, no doubt, consider us to be the interlopers. We tried, once, to seal the hole that the critter uses to enter the room, but the scratching and screeching noises lasted until dawn and inspired us to unplaster the hole in the morning rather than endure that kind of a racket for a second night. Re-opening his passageway was our olive branch and we came to a truce with the glis-glis. He’d appear once each night, just at bedtime, squeaking a little before making his nightly run – our bedroom beams seem to be a nocturnal obstacle course – then he’d leave us alone for the rest of the night, except for an occasional scratch or screech, which we learned to sleep through.

But this year, there wasn’t just one glis-glis scurrying through our walls and over our beams. There were three.

De-facto refused to kill the creatures. This means no traps and no poison. His plan, to catch them in the paint bucket and drive several miles away to release them, was foiled twice last week when the glis-glis escaped immediately after capture. He seethed as he reported the escapes. The nightly tussle between De-facto and his barn squirrels had escalated into a war.

~ ~ ~

The truth is that our visits to the country house are never very restful for De-facto. I downshift easily into lazy pace. I have my country house projects: tending the grapevines and the roses – though I haven’t gotten to them yet this summer – and organizing an occasional cupboard, and of course the never ending stream of laundry. But I manage to spend a lot of my time here in a horizontal position, and not necessarily with my eyes open.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo spend their days running in and out of the house, into the forest and up and down the road. Their list of things to do – Short-pants voluntarily documented their choices in writing, as pictured here – includes marvelous tasks like observe blackberries, hang out in tent, story reading and, my favorite, funny time. These are exactly the kinds of things children should be doing on long, hot summer days.

De-facto grows industrious as soon as he steps into his green wellies. He dons his tool belt and begins construction. His work is paying off; the side room of the house has been insulated, wired, wall-boarded and its ceiling painted. During the last two weeks, he removed the rotted floorboards, dug out the space beneath them and, this weekend he borrowed a cement mixer from a neighbor and laid down a new floor. That Big Doll even deigned to descend from the loft, where the mess of mattresses and sleeping bags serve as a place for the kids to play and sleep – or used to sleep until this summer, when the noise from the glis-glis proved too much for them – and offered a sultry hand.

De-facto does all this hard work diligently, teaching himself as he goes along, dutifully promising me, each and every time I give him the look, that a new kitchen will be next.

“This is the best mistake we ever made,” he says of our decision to buy this beat up old house and barn. Despite the dirt and dust and everything unfinished about it, the rustic kitchen that breaks my back to cook in it, the mice droppings that must be cleared from every cupboard every season, I must agree with him. This house stores and feeds the memories of our children’s summers. Years from now I hope they’ll look back and remember the happy moments we’ve had here, happy not only in spite of the lack of luxury, but perhaps because of it.

~ ~ ~

The glis-glis, its four legs spread wide, clutching the stone wall, waited, motionless, as De-facto raised the plastic bucket and swept it toward him. Just as the open container scraped against the wall, the creature scrambled up to the beam and across it. De-facto followed, using the lid of the paint can to prevent the glis-glis from reaching the opening on the other side of the ceiling, forcing him to run around the room. De-facto bounded in pursuit over the bed and to the opposite corner where the glis-glis took cover behind a bag of golf clubs, unused for years and who knows why they’re there. A minute-long standoff, De-facto’s breathing ramped up with adrenalin, until the creature ran up the wall and behind the wardrobe. De-facto grabbed a shirt from the floor and snapped it at the glis-glis, catching him in it and quickly dropping the bundle – shirt and animal – into the bucket and, then, on his knees on the floor, he grabbed the lid and snapped it on tight.

“Now, the drive,” he said, panting. The previous escapes, attributed to his decision to wait until morning to dispose of the glis-glis, would not be repeated. De-facto slipped on his shorts and ran down the stairs. I heard the engine start and the car speed away.

Ten minutes later, De-facto returned, climbing the stairs to our bedroom with the sound of defeat.

“A successful catch and release?” I asked.

He shook his head. In his fury to get those few miles away where he left the living glis-glis to find a new home, he didn’t see the badger in the road until too late. He swerved, but heard a discouraging thump. On his way back, the badger lay dead in the center of the road. De-facto had to stop and move the animal out of the way.

“So much for being a Buddhist,” he said.

He slipped back into bed and pulled the covers up over this head. I curled up behind him, spooning close and wrapping my arms around him, grateful for all the hard work he does here at the country house.


Sep 3 2011

The Lost Sandal

“Tell me a story from your childhood,” she pleads, “tell the one about the lost sandal.”

Buddy-roo is the captain of remorse, the herald of items-loved-and-lost. It is impossible to perform the seasonal clearing out of drawers with her present; shirts that no longer fit are still too precious to part with, she’s steeped in sentimental logic about why we should keep those pajamas, even though they are too tight to even fit over her shoulders. She still pines for her blue checked seersucker sundress, the one with chocolate stains down the front, which was already two sizes too small for her when I finally gave it to the good-will, at least three years ago.

The sandal: a white patent leather thong with a cherry-red flower stitched under the ball of the foot, visible only when the sandal was off, but when you were wearing it you knew you had a secret beneath your toes. The leather was thick and spongy, like walking on a mattress. I loved those sandals.

That summer, the farmhouse down the road was inhabited by a family with two children. It was my first experience with what is very common these days – a famille recomposée – but I’d never before met two siblings with different last names. The family was of very modest means, their clothes frayed and slightly soiled, their personal hygiene wanting, though I was admonished by my mother not to point it out and to treat them kindly and fairly despite how different they seemed. I was happy to play with a girl my own age – Linda was two years older – and I spent a fair amount of time down the road with her, though I was always slightly relieved when their brown rotary phone rang, summoning me to the cleaner familiarity of my own home which did not have the very-slight stench of urine that seemed to pervade theirs. I was always intrigued by their recklessness, how she disobeyed her mother without regret, how her brother Ray, two years younger than me and looking like a shoe-in for a casting of The Little Rascals, used to boast about riding his banana bike down the steep hill near our house at 80 miles-per-hour and pulling a 200-foot skid. To this day, my brother will repeat this claim, with the same I’m-a-little-tough-guy cadence, leaving my sister and me in stitches.

One evening after dinner I opted out of the activities with the boys across the street and ran down the road to play with Linda. The cows – belonging to the farmer who owned the property and rented to them – had been moved to another pasture so we were playing near a pond where they often grazed. We took turns running around the pond, timing how fast we could make a full lap. When I felt one of the sandals slip off my foot, I turned immediately to retrieve it, but I couldn’t see it anywhere.

The sandal had just come off – I’d taken maybe two more steps, because of my momentum, before I turned back – but it had already disappeared, sucked into the mud. Linda came around to help and the two of us, on our knees, pawed away at the dirty, muddy soil in search of what should have been a clearly visible bright, white shiny sandal. I heard the phone ringing in her house but ignored her mother’s shouting out that I had been beckoned home. I couldn’t leave. I had to find that sandal. Dusk was turning night; we could barely see what we were doing when my sister came down the road to fetch me.

She promised that we’d come back first thing the next day and search until we found it. It couldn’t go too far overnight, she reasoned. I could not believe that my favorite sandal had vanished into the mud and that I would have to leave without it. I hobbled home, one sandal on one foot, in tears.

The next morning, my cereal bowl half-finished, I ran down to hunt for the lost sandal. Hours of searching and digging and crying followed. It never surfaced.

This cursed event occurred forty years ago. All these years, every trip home to visit my mother or to look after the house, I pass that pond and think of my lost sandal. Linda and Ray are long gone, that rickety house has been cleaned and renovated, its lawn now mowed and manicured. But the pond remains, just as it was; often circled by cows that turn and stare at me, just like the cows before them, pretending they don’t know where my precious patent leather flowered sandal has gone.

I’ve told Buddy-roo dozens of stories about my childhood: of cherished Christmas rituals, of piles of fragrant autumn leaves, of lemonade in striped glasses sipped under the split-leaf elm, a chorus of summer crickets and fireworks viewed from our cupola. Yet this is the story she remembers most and wants to hear again and again; the one about my treasured sandal, lost forever.

“Do you still miss that sandal?” she says.

I picture the lonely sandal – I refused to discard it – gradually falling to the back of my closet, tumbled under each autumn’s new pair of Buster Brown school shoes, until years later my mother insisted, during a spring-cleaning rampage, that we throw it out. Perhaps this is why it took three years to give away that seersucker dress that was already too small for her, and why those beloved pajamas still reside in Buddy-roo’s drawer. The love of those lost, treasured items – or treasured items about to be lost – seems to run in the family.


Aug 14 2011

The Cloning

I hesitated to put Flat Stanley in her bag, he was supposed to accompany Buddy-roo so we could snap photos of him adventuring with us during our vacation. He’d been an end-of-school project for the English section, and the notice that came with him stated very clearly: DO NOT LOSE FLAT STANLEY, there will be a ‘part two’ to this project in the fall. Her summer assignment: to keep a journal of all that Flat Stanley does with us while on we’re on vacation.

In case you don’t know Flat Stanley, he’s the protagonist in the book that bears his name in which large bulletin board falls off his wall while he’s sleeping and flattens him. He manages to survive without any injury, except that he’s flat-as-a-pancake. But in this condition, he has all sorts of adventures: saving his mother’s prized ring after it falls down a grate, being flown like a kite, traveling via the postal service to visit a friend in California. It so happens that Flat Stanley and I go way back: Short-pants already had her own summer holiday adventures to orchestrate with him and we’ve been the recipient of a few of our friends’ Flat Stanleys who wanted to travel around the world. Paris is, of course, a place Stanley loves to visit.

I remember rushing around that morning, the mother-in-love was packing a lunch for their drive to the country house, while I put the girls’ pillows, blankets, colored pens, books and papers in little bags and backpacks, keeping with my father’s car-packing rule of nothing without a handle. I thought better of slipping Flat Stanley into one of those bags. My children are not so skilled at holding on to things. Shortpants’ eyeglasses go missing at least once a week, I’m constantly finding Buddy-roo’s most cherished possessions in places where if I didn’t know better, I’d throw them out and they’d be lost forever. (Sometimes, alas, this happens.) De-facto has many talents, but remembering where he has put something isn’t his strong suit. Not that I’m without my memory lapses, but when it comes to locating whatever-it-is-that’s-missing-around-here, I still manage to have the best radar.

I contemplated taking Flat Stanley to Pamplona with me. I’d keep him safe in my suitcase and we could start his journal mid-July when I rejoined the family at the country house. Or I could let him have a little fiesta fun, and snap a picture of him at the bullfight, or leaning over our balcony watching the encierro, or dancing with us at the Ham Bar. That’d spice up his summer adventures. But Flat Stanley is her project after all, and I knew he probably should go to the country house in her care. Since he’s used to traveling in envelopes, I found a big white one and wrote Flat Stanley on it and slid his wafer-thin laminated figure into it.

“You won’t want to lose Flat Stanley.”
I attempted my stern-but-tender voice. “Each time you’re done playing with him, you should put him back in this envelope and then back into your back-pack and then you’ll always know where to find him.”

Buddy-roo agreed readily but I knew the chances of that kind of organization were slimmer than Flat Stanley himself. I looked over at my mother-in-love and gave her a pleading you-know-what-I-mean look. She reciprocated with a sympathetic I-know-what-you-mean look and I knew Flat Stanley would be safe, at least for the duration of her visit, which unfortunately was only for a few more days.

~ ~ ~

“He’s not in the envelope?” Buddy-roo looked up at me tearful and confused, “But I always put him back!” I’d returned from Pamplona and inquired about Flat Stanley’s whereabouts. She’d cavalierly produced the envelope, and we’d left it on a shelf, agreeing to take a walk and snap some photos that afternoon. I peeked in it later, and discovered that the envelope was empty. Despite a full search of every corner of the country house, Stanley was M-I-A. Trying to get Buddy-roo to remember when she’d last seen or played with him was like an investigation at a congressional hearing. She had no clear recollection.

Days went by with fruitless searching, scrupulous cleaning of closets and shelves and yet there was no sign of our flat friend. Subsequent detective work revealed that after my mother-in-love left, Flat Stanley made a long drive to Germany to see De-facto’s brother and had been accidentally left behind. One would think, then, that he could simply be returned via his favorite mode of travel, the post. Except De-facto’s brother is moving his family, coincidentally, to California, and Flat Stanley somehow ended up in boxes that are, at this moment, in a container traversing the ocean. The chances of him being returned in time to do her summer assignment, once again: slim.

Buddy-roo’s tears had more to do with losing her paper-doll friend than getting behind on her assignment, but I wasn’t about to give her any excuse to slack off on her summer homework. I found a picture we’d snapped of Flat Stanley before his disappearance – he’s totally visible except for his left foot – and with a little Photoshop magic, his image was successfully cropped, enlarged, enhanced, sharpened, and printed, so it could be cut-out and laminated, looking just like his old self.

Flat Stanley has been cloned.

Just in time. We have but a few weeks of summer adventures left to document, and this time, Buddy-roo vows she won’t lose sight of her Flat Stanley. But just in case (and don’t tell her) I printed a few extra copies. This has me thinking about part two of the assignment, in the fall, when she’ll probably have to send him in the mail to visit a friend or relative far away. We just might find that Flat Stanley really gets around.


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.


Aug 24 2010

Let Them Eat Cake in a Bag

Summer is when routines get interrupted. The daily grind of getting little girls to school is suspended. The constant rigor of a weekly schedule is relaxed. Bedtime is fudged, partly because in France the sun sets so impossibly late during the months before and after the summer solstice that the kids won’t believe that it’s time to go to sleep. Mornings, for the most part, are easy going: we wake up when we wake up. De-facto and I have very little work. Only our uncivilized American clients schedule projects in July or August and we do our best to minimize our participation in such gainful activity when it’s summertime.

Yet within our routine-less summer we quickly develop routines. I go to Pamplona every July. Then I join De-facto and the girls at the country house for the rest of the month. We return home to catch up with our on-line lives, take advantage of the Plage and the quiet of Paris in August. The real truth: we come home so we don’t miss out (too much) on what has become a big routine in our building: the infamous courtyard lunches.

Most of the owners and tenants go away for most of the summer, and those who stay are congenial or at least cooperative and don’t mind that nearly every other weekend, it seems, Ricky and Lucy host a courtyard lunch. Their apartment opens directly on to the courtyard, and their adjustable table is easily moved outside and strategically positioned near the stone wall of a raised flower bed, making for extra seats to compensate for their lack of chairs. Ricky is the most expressive cook among us and happily carries the burden of providing eats. He can do things with tomatoes and olive oil that would drive any foodie to brink of ecstasy.

There’s nothing as pleasant as those very first moments, when people arrive: Ricky sweats over hot burners in his kitchen, stepping out to the courtyard and greeting guests with a dishtowel thrown over his shoulder. A glass of something, usually bubbly, is thrust into your hand and then one by one, plates appear on the table with delicate combinations of Mediterranean ingredients. There’s always a little surprise: mint replaces the basil on a tomato bruschetta, a spoon of virgin olive oil teases the essence out of the canteloupe. These intriguing flavor blends generate no shortage of oohs and ahhhs around the courtyard table.

The champagne – though this past weekend the aperitif was a watermelon cocktail with a vodka kick, and then we had champagne – is eventually replaced by wine, often rosé in color, and this flows steadily. Just when we think Ricky has fed us already too well, he’ll produce a risotto or something with seasoning and ballast that nobody has room for but nobody dares to miss. It’ll be too good.

Neighbors who pass through the courtyard on their way in are spontaneously invited to join us. Those on their way out are inspired to return, and often do after stopping at a local wine seller to contribute to the table. In this fashion, the lunch that starts at 1:30 or 2:00 often bleeds into the evening; sometime around 8:30 or 9:00 Ricky disappears again into his magic kitchenette and produces some kind of pasta concoction, a bit of sustenance – or absorption if you like – to carry on.

It’s rare that a courtyard lunch finishes before midnight.

While all this is going on, our children are not totally forgotten. When she’s not dancing around the courtyard, Short-pants plays waitress and has been known to carry around a sign that says “Please give me some work to do.” Buddy-roo hides out in the bedroom loft, watching consecutive Barbie movies that she’s only allowed to watch one-at-a-time, once-a-day under normal circumstances. Sometimes that big doll makes an appearance and everybody groans but she keeps the girls occupied and this is only one of many reasons that I have not yet found a way to make her disappear from our lives.

There is a moment, however, that marks the true spirit of the courtyard lunch. It’s around 5:00 in the afternoon when the oven begins to emit the most remarkable aroma, a sweeter-than-anything-your-grandmother-ever-baked perfume that makes everyone stop their bantering and storytelling. Hush Sweet Jesus the toaster oven is on bake. We all turn to Lucy. She nods her head affirmatively – smugly in fact – and the courtyard erupts into cheers, “Cake in a Bag!”

Of course Ricky’s culinary prowess is admired and appreciated – even lauded. His effort is the cornerstone of courtyard lunches. But Cake in a Bag, it’s too divine to describe. Lucy makes it all seem so…effortless. After all, it is: open the bag, pour in the pan (okay, and add her secret ingredients) and bake.

Ricky sighs, shakes his head, throws the dirty linen tea towel over his shoulder and shuffles into the kitchen to brood. But his theatrics last only for a moment before he returns to the fold of his friends and he is once again in the routine of the charming host, offering us more wine or a strong shot of espresso. He always comes back, and sometimes he’ll even eat a piece of cake.

If there’s any left.


Jul 24 2009

Good and Hot

Man, it was hot. The sticky, close, humid kind of hot. The serious dog-days-of-summer kind of hot. And guess what came to mind? Potato salad.

The sliced onions were soaking in vinegar and I was making chunks out of potatoes and setting them to boil. I was probably pursing my lips the same way my mother does when she’s concentrating (her sister does it too) and I started to wonder about this urge of mine, inspired by the heat wave, to make a potato salad.

I remember, growing up, how we handled the heat of summer. We’d all walk around the house in our underwear – it’d be too hot wear clothes. We’d put screens in every window and pray for even a slight breeze. My brother would pull the Twister mat out of the box and take it outside, laying it flat on the small slope by the dining room window. He’d hose it down with water so my sister and I could take turns sliding down and cooling off. We’d jump up, covered with grass, running to escape a direct hit from the hose as he’d chase us around the yard. And my mother, she’d make a potato salad, chill it in the fridge all afternoon, and serve it for dinner with a thick slice of cold ham and little French’s mustard on the side. It was the perfect hot summer supper.

It makes sense, then, that I would associate potato salad with a heat wave. But what explains the urgency I felt to make it? This wasn’t a casual, “you know, it’s a bit hot, so maybe a cold potato salad would be a good option for dinner tonight.” No. It was visceral, almost instinctual, like some restless genetic coding was agitated and would not be silenced until I started peeling potatoes.

Last week, my mother-in-love cooked up a pot of homemade soup after roasting a chicken the night before. She added onions and green beans and even some fresh carrots pulled right from our country garden. The aroma filled every room in the house and made us feel hearty. When I offered Buddy-roo a bowl, she turned up her nose. I said to her, “You don’t know what’s good.” De-facto shot me a puzzled, what did you just say? kind of look. “Don’t mind me,” I told him, “just channeling my father.” That was my dad’s standard response when we didn’t appreciate his favored delicacies, like creamed tuna and peas on toast, Welsh rarebit, and gherkin pickles.
shadow_of_her
Without thinking, I say and do the same things my mother and father said and did. There’s nothing deliberate about it; it’s entirely automatic. The actions are involuntary. Or the words just trip out over my tongue. It isn’t until after they are spoken that I realize I’ve said exactly what she said, or he said, all those years ago in a very different time – but probably in the exact same circumstances.

I suppose nothing brings you closer to your parents than the act of being a parent yourself.

After a few hours in the refrigerator, my potato salad was perfectly chilled and I scooped it onto the dinner plates that Short-pants had put out when she set the table. Buddy-roo stabbed the potatoes with her fork. “What’s this?” I could tell by her expression that she was suspicious. “Potato salad,” I said, “try it.” She carved away the tiniest piece possible on the tip of her fork and tasted it. “I don’t like it,” she whined.

“You don’t know what’s good,” I told her.

But I bet she will someday – some hot, summer day – in about thirty years.