Post-Thanksgiving Bliss

November 27, 2009

The whole family was asleep by 8 PM last night. The crowds have gone. The high heels are off, the iron is put away. The hammer is lifted. This is always a quiet, lovely weekend.

Weatherbug (an online weather alert service) is chirping to let me know we may get 4-7 inches of snow tonight, with 40 mph winds. The snow is a month late this year — thank you, God! — so I can hardly complain. Now that the run-in shelter is built I almost look forward to it.

I will spend the morning cleaning up around the farm, picking up the last scraps of roofing tin and plywood, putting away the lawnmowers and wheelbarrows for winter. After lunch I will run into town, drop off Allen’s milk, shop for groceries, maybe look for a family movie. And then I will come home, build a fire, and hunker down with DH and the kids to read, snooze, and be lazy as the snow falls.

A perfect program. Happy days.

A different holiday perspective

November 25, 2009

Though I’ve done it for more than half my life, now, I’ve always rather resented working Thanksgiving.

A hundred families converge on the school from all over the country for two days of academic showcases and parent-teacher conferences. There are art exhibitions, slide shows, fairs, and special dance and musical performances, culminating in a grand sit-down Thanksgiving feast. Students are caffeinated by the excitement. The noisy crush of guests in the halls is overwhelming. A few parents invariably prove to be heavy lifting (for example, the mother who constantly nips from a flask in her purse). For staff, the weeks of preparation followed by the tightly scheduled “holiday” can feel like running an exhausting gauntlet. In our house the day itself starts tensely at 3 AM when DH begins writing his annual speech.

I always used to think nostalgically of my parents and my childhood home.

But yesterday, sitting in the airport with my head bent, sewing buttons on Jon’s blue blazer, I was surrounded by Thanksgiving travelers talking into cell phones. From the snatches I heard, the family celebrations sounded universally dreadful.

“You can only do what you can do. If Dad refuses to come, tough!”

“I know, dear. Just try not to bring that up for the few hours we’ll be together.”

“Mom’s so angry, she thinks what you really meant by that was—”

DH and Lucy, Thanksgiving '99

Listening to all the throbbing telephone conversations I began to wonder if maybe working Thanksgiving isn’t a blessing. Forget the hectic pace, the mad changes of dress clothes, and the occasional feeling that my smile is nailed on. Maybe it’s best to spend the holiday helping others feel warm, happy, and optimistic about their children. Maybe it’s actually easier!

It also occurred to me, driving home, that Jon and Lucy have never known anything else.

How sad they may be when they are out in the world and there isn’t a book fair, an evening performance, and 300 people at Thanksgiving dinner!

Lobsters, Revisited!

November 24, 2009

Recently life has been a bit too hectic for comfort. However I was able to grab an evening to take my friend Alison out for her birthday lobster dinner. Our friend Karen joined us. We had a wonderful time.

There is almost nothing as much fun as giggling with girlfriends who have known you for decades. You know each other’s husbands, children, pets, and wardrobes, so it’s really just a matter of updating the c.v. with your latest misadventures. When Alison announced, “Let me tell you about my recent humorous tragedy,” Karen and I were laughing even before she started the story.

(The tragedy involved German Chocolate cake.)

What did you ask? Did I have the lobster special? Well, I fully intended to but I suspect my face looked woebegone. Alison said generously, “Order what you want and I’ll give you a bite of mine!” So I enjoyed my familiar dinner and partway through, dutifully tried a forkful of lobster. To be honest, it tasted like warm rubber to me — the dripping butter was the best part. This is why I never bother to treat myself to fancy food or wine. It’s wasted on this philistine.

But we laughed and chattered and Alison and Karen cracked shells vigorously and the exoskeletons piled up. A lovely evening.

It was so nice to reconnect. When all our sons were small we moms spent hours talking over coffee while the boys played on the floor in their pajamas. These days the boys are men and we are pulled in so many different directions. We are all so busy. It was cheering to be reminded of our enduring bond.

On the busy front, I have been driving a lot of students to the airport recently. Two last weekend, one today, one next Monday. Checking unaccompanied minors through and putting them on the plane ends up being a day-long duty. I leave at 8 AM after milking and return in time to do evening chores and cook dinner.

Meanwhile DH is flat-out with work. Between speeches and special events, this “holiday” week (with 300 guests, it is the biggest parent gathering of the academic year) will, as always, be breathless.

In many respects it is a poor time for me to take on anything more that keeps me away from hearth and home. Still, the extra cash will be a blessing. I will sew new buttons on Jon’s blue blazer for the Thanksgiving feast while I’m waiting for the student’s flight today. And by Friday the whole family can collapse in a happy heap for a quiet weekend.

Hired Man

November 22, 2009

For centuries, farms had a hired man or two who helped with milking, haying, and other chores. In the book Charlotte’s Web, Lurvy is the hired man; he is generally feeding Wilbur a pail of slops. Robert Frost wrote a poem called The Death of the Hired Man in 1915. (Though the entire poem isn’t as well known, the lines

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in

are famous. I’m sure many who quote them aren’t aware they are referring to a hired man.)

I’ve always hired men to help me, not only for the big projects but for various odd jobs. My friend Mike has been my reliable right hand for years, changing oil and flat tires, or stopping by to saw up a dead tree. However only this fall, with Allen working with me for most of two months, have I ever enjoyed a situation a bit like the old-time “hired man.”

It has been a cozy feeling, having someone on the farm day after day. Another set of muscles on the other end of a heavy board, another brain planning and problem-solving. Sometimes I’d come upon Allen fixing a sticky door or a dripping spigot for me, unasked, and I’d feel almost teary.

It’s also been fun to watch someone else enjoy the animals. Allen loves them all. I could often track where he was around the barn by listening for his voice talking to the sheep or the cows.

A few days ago it was unseasonably warm and we ate lunch sitting on the tailgate of his truck in the sunshine. (Actually, I ate my lunch; Allen ate his dinner from a modern insulated cooler bag that he nevertheless calls his dinner pail.) As we ate, we tossed our sandwich crusts to the chickens. The black hen had brought her two chicks — yes, out of sixteen eggs, only two chicks survived the barred rock hen’s maniacal enthusiasm unsquashed — outside the barn into the sun. The tiny black puffballs scurried under the hen’s feet, peeping and pecking at the ground. “The mama’s talkin’ to ’em and learnin’ ’em how to scratch!” Allen observed happily. His delight in the scene increased my own pleasure tenfold.

More than anything, in the midst of the hard work and long days, the cold and wind and dripping noses, Allen and I have shared a million laughs.

Every day brought new jokes about me being big, him being little (“I’m short,” he’d insist with dignity); him being old, me being nuts (“I know I’m a bit strange —” I’d say, or, “slightly eccentric—” or, “kind of odd —” “A bit?” he would tease. “Slightly?” “Kinda?”)

Perhaps my favorite memory is the day we broke through the concrete floor of the garage for the sewer and water pipes. We had to excavate a narrow hole six feet deep through the subsoil. About four feet down we hit a rock. Allen was too short to reach, so it was up to me. For over an hour I was head down inside the hole, hanging from my hips on the garage floor, scrabbling blindly at the subterranean rock with bleeding fingers. Finally I had its edges. “I’ve got it, Allen!”

Unfortunately the hole was so narrow I could not wiggle myself back up without letting go of the rock. I could feel Allen pulling on my boots, trying to drag me out. First one foot, then the other. No luck. I was jammed upside down in the hole like a cork in a bottle. My arms were pinned over my head, my hands clutching the rock. I was helpless. I felt my stomach bump against the dirt of the hole as I started to giggle.


“Don’t let go of the bastard!” Allen warned, wheezing and pulling.

Finally in desperation he grabbed the straps of my overalls behind my shoulders and heaved. I popped up out of the hole with grit in my hair, bleeding hands — and the rock! For a moment I lay sprawled on the garage floor in surprise. By the time I staggered to my feet, we were both laughing so hard we could only lean on each other, gasping.

The electricians were there that day and the head man was waiting to ask me a question. He said politely, “Before things get too crazy —” His assistant looked at Allen and me, smeared with dirt and laughing hysterically, and snorted: “Too late!” This made us laugh even harder.

So many fun times. Allen has become a dear friend.

Unfortunately the economy that allowed for hired men has gone the way of the Model T. I’m long since out of farm money and winter is closing in. Friday was our last day. The run-in shelter is finished and the mudroom doors are hung.

I will see Allen occasionally this winter — he will stop by for milk when he can, and he has said he will help me take Georgie to the butcher in December — but for now our working days are done.

I’m on my own again.

Short ribs

November 18, 2009

After saying I hate to try anything new, last night we tried a new dish. Barbecued short ribs. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten beef ribs, and would never have ventured there, but when you have a bull butchered you wind up with hundreds of pounds of meat, some of it unfamiliar to me. Not only do I feel I owe it to dear Hughie (the bull) to be mindful and conscientious — I try to use and be grateful for every scrap — but Georgie is going to go in another month and I need to clear out the bottom of my freezer.

The ribs were OK. It certainly went against the grain for me to pour a bottle of flavored corn syrup (Kraft’s barbecue sauce, a first-time purchase) over meat. However, neither DH nor the children had any objection to this sugary treat. The overflow sauce soaked into their brown rice and they mopped that up, too.

“Wow, I love ribs!” Lucy said, wiping her orange-smeared face.

“Me, too!” agreed Jon, licking his fingers. “I just think we should get boneless next time.”

I grinned. “Boneless ribs?” I nudged him in the chest. “How’d you like to have boneless ribs?”

We all laughed. Imagine my surprise today to discover on Google that there is such a product as boneless ribs. What hath God wrought?

For our next ribs meal I’m going to look online for a recipe that doesn’t drip corn syrup. However the success of the sickly sweet Kraft barbecue sauce may make it a tough switch. How do you keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?

On rural language

November 17, 2009

I have always loved to listen to workmen talk. The sentence construction and grammar are so distinctive that I am constantly delighted. While looking at a horse trailer last week, Allen and I met two other elderly men. One of them, speaking of a large local family, said, “Ain’t enough brains between ’em to make a good house cat!”

That generation never “hauls” rocks or stones, they “draw” them. Allen recently bought a new truck and I was concerned by the very small size of the truck bed. He shrugged. “Don’t matter. Ain’t gonna draw nothin’.”

Babies don’t cry, they “blat.”

When Allen refers to a “chimbley” (chimney) I feel as if a history book is speaking.

Not only do I enjoy hearing dialects and accents but unconsciously I can begin to copy them. When he was small, my son would become agitated when I was on the phone with my mother (from the Deep South) for any length of time. My voice would gradually take on a drawl and my R’s would soften. “Stop it!” Jon would cry furiously. “That’s not how you talk!”

I try very hard not to slip similarly into the rural idiom when I’m working with Allen. I’m aware it could be taken as mockery or condescension if I suddenly began speaking with fractured grammar. However I often repeat his words in my mind, examining how his sentences are put together. It is a quiet, ongoing pleasure.

Yesterday Allen and I jacked up the roof of the run-in shelter where our post had sunk. He was giving me directions with the jack while he stood back to watch the roof line.

“You keep pumpin’ til I say stop,” he instructed. “Cabbage?”

I looked up. “What?” I began — and then the penny dropped. I started to laugh. I couldn’t help it. “Allen, are you saying capisce?”

He grinned at me. “Cabbage, caboose, it don’t matter none.”

Nursery Food

November 16, 2009
mozz with Babacar

Harried cook making mozzarella with a child in 2008

I had all sorts of plans for the weekend. It was due to rain on Saturday and clear on Sunday, so I thought I’d do chores, clean, and grocery shop while it rained and then stain the run-in shed in the sunshine.

Nope, it drizzled all weekend. However my family doesn’t mind when I spend more time around the house. The meals improve. On Saturday we had grilled rib-eye steaks, fresh bread, baked butternut squash with drizzled maple syrup, and green beans.

I wish I had the enthusiasm for cooking that many of my friends do. They are as excited by a new recipe as I am about finding a new chick under a hen. I, conversely, could be called a dogged cook. I cook because we have to eat, and I try to nourish my family properly with fresh and (as much as possible) home-grown ingredients, but there is no spark or dazzle for me. I’m afraid when considering a meal I tend to remember the number of pots and pans that will have to be washed.

Part of this may be a basic lack of interest in food. To say I’m an unadventurous eater would be a major understatement. I wasn’t exposed to a wide variety when I was young and I am not someone who likes to try new things. When I was in my early thirties, we moved to the D.C. metropolitan area. DH suggested Chinese food. “I don’t like Chinese food,” I said. He and I had lived in a very rural town for ten years and my only association was childhood meals of canned La Choy chow mein noodles with canned glop featuring ginger slices (as a little girl I thought it was sliced bamboo) poured on top. DH prevailed, we ordered Chinese take-out, and surprise! I loved it! However, this experience unfortunately did not open the door to a new me.

DH has many meetings over restaurant meals. He always reads the menus carefully. He loves to try new things. He would try Grilled Sneaker Treads if someone convinced him that somewhere it was nouvelle cuisine.

I, on the other hand, rarely go out and when I do I like to order the same thing. I have to remind myself not to be upset if, two years later, a restaurant has changed its menu.

It won’t surprise anyone to learn that the staple meals I prepare are very basic: burgers, lamb chops, pasta casseroles, beef stew, shepherd’s pie, cheese omelettes, chicken, pot roasts, meatloaf, baked potatoes, hearty soups. I was reading an English novel recently and a character referred to this sort of menu contemptuously as nursery food.

Of course! Nursery food! I ate all of these things as a child and my taste buds have never grown up. In fact, if someone were to serve me a plate of hot, crusty corned beef hash with poached eggs on top (a delicious feature of my childhood that mysteriously I’ve never attempted to replicate) I’d dive in.

I thought I was the worst possible culinary stick-in-the-mud but I’ve been topped. Last night Allen called to plan work for today. I told him I was making vanilla ice cream for our family dessert. (Allen loves vanilla ice cream.) Then I mentioned I’d just finished making a pound of fresh mozzarella cheese and had mixed up a batch of pizza dough and that soon Lucy and I would build our homemade pizzas for dinner. Silence.

“I don’t like pizza,” Allen said finally.

“You don’t? Why not? You don’t like tomato sauce?”

He laughed. “Ain’t never had it.” It turns out that Allen, too, prefers nursery food. He never ate pizza as a child — why try it?

My dear friend Alison turned 50 last week. I am taking her out for a birthday supper. She loves lobster and a local restaurant is having a $12.95 special.

Of course you can guess: I’ve never eaten lobster. But just for Alison, because I love her, I’m going to try some.

“We need Kate, and we need Leo”

November 14, 2009

titanic2I am very fond of the movie Love, Actually. Long ago when it came out and I saw it in the theater, I recognized all its faults, but since then I’ve seen it so often that I don’t care about faults any more. I just enjoy spending time with the fine ensemble cast, which includes many of my favorite actors, and I particularly enjoy Richard Curtis’s humor. (Curtis wrote the screenplay as well as directed the film.) It’s well-written, cheerful, and sappy. Perfect for me.

In one scene Liam Neeson is trying to help his eleven-year-old stepson sort out a thorny romantic dilemma.

“We need Kate,” he says, “and we need Leo. And we need them now. Come on.” In the next shot you see the two watching Titanic. On screen Jack and Rose are standing in the prow of the ship, their arms spread into the wind. “Do you trust me?” asks Jack. “I trust you,” says Rose.

Neeson and his stepson are acting out this scene in their living room.

“Do you trust me?” asks Neeson.

“I trust you,” says his stepson.

“Fool!” yelps Neeson, tickling him, and they both collapse, giggling, on the sofa.

I’ve always loved this tiny scene and I remembered it the other night when DH was away, Jon and I were feeling ropey, and Jon pulled out the Titanic DVD.

Jon, Lucy, and I watched the film over two nights. For Lucy it was a bit too frightening and too sad for real pleasure. She watched the second half cuddling with me in my chair, her face half-turned from the screen. Lucy has been exposed to so little media (do we count all seven seasons of West Wing on DVD?) that at twelve she is a tender soul. I had to explain to her that Jack and Rose hadn’t really existed, but Titanic had, and had indeed gone down. “I don’t like boats,” she whispered in my ear.

For Jon, who first saw it when he was about Lucy’s age, I think it was a visit to his childhood, a return to a less complicated time when idealism reigned and soaring romance seemed right around the corner. He was blue when the first credits rolled, but by the time the dolphins were leaping in the waves creaming from the bow of the ship and the lush score was ringing out, his mood had lifted. “This film may have one of the best soundtracks ever,” he exclaimed. Whenever I looked over, his face by the light of the screen looked intent and happy.

Isn’t it wonderful how a well-made film or book can smooth out a rumpled spirit? When I myself am a bit knocked off my feet by life I go back to my own childhood and reread old favorites. Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House books. Anne of Green Gables. My Friend Flicka. All Creatures Great and Small. Cheaper by the Dozen. Mrs. Mike. The Family Nobody Wanted. Big Red by Jim Kjelgaard. Karen by Marie Killilea. Of course most of these books were written for twelve-year-olds, but that never bothers me. Deep in their well-thumbed pages I feel warm, protected, and safe.

And doesn’t everyone need that once in a while?

Onward and Upward

November 13, 2009

Yesterday due to family circumstances I had to rearrange my work day. When I finally got down to the farm after lunch, I found Allen leaning in his passenger door, rummaging in his truck.

STA_0251He turned to greet me with a big grin on his face and a goofy hat on his head. “It’s Cowboy Allen down at the ranch!”

I burst out laughing and he gave me a hug. “Thought you sounded a little sad on the phone,” he explained.

I am blessed with wonderful warm people in my life. DH telephoned from North Carolina. My big sister sent her cell number. My friend Alison called from the road on her way to a conference. When I told her I was working with Allen, she said, “Oh, good, then I know you’re all right.”

STA_0251_2Together Allen and I put up all the wood nailers (in August Lucy and I had found 12′ rough-cut 1x8s on Craigslist for $2 apiece and I’d ripped them to 1x4s) and then the metal roofing.

We’ve known that due to misplaced posts, the building was not only bowed but about 9″ out of square. Still, these issues became even more blindingly obvious the moment the straight sheets of metal roofing began to go on.

“Don’t want Dean to see this,” Allen warned.

“I’ll keep the bull in the paddock,” I promised.

We both laughed. In fact all afternoon, as we pulled up sheets of roofing and screwed them down, we kept looking at our wonky building, shaking our heads, and laughing. I started calling the shed Castle Cattywampus.

As long as it stands and keeps the animals dry, I’m not too worried. It’s a 43×12 building cobbled together out of scrounged materials, second-hand roofing, and some new posts, rafters, and lag bolts. Including labor it cost me about $800. I could barely build a wood bin for that.

STA_0257However we also discovered that one of our posts, originally dead level and plumb, had sunk, causing the roof to have a perceptible swayback. Allen was frustrated not to have the excavator on hand to effect a five-minute fix. We will make up our morning next week, to finish final details, and he says he will bring a car jack to lift it back into place.

“If that don’t work we’ll give ‘er a nudge to straighten ‘er in the spring, when we got the machine.”

But for now the animals have a roof over their heads in bad weather, and that’s a great feeling.

Letting Your Children Grow

November 12, 2009

My son has been struggling these past few weeks. He’s made some poor decisions. Nothing terrible, but the emotional fall-out has been painful for him. He is very sad.

He’s 22 now. Six-foot-four and bearded. A man. I have to let him learn from his mistakes.

It is very hard for me. I am a tigress — or an army tank — when it comes to my children. I will move heaven and earth to keep them from harm.

My mother was exactly the same. We used to joke about Mom taking on Mrs. Paslowski, the second grade teacher who was so very misguided as to pick on my little sister — “Poor Mrs. Paslowski!” Knowing that Mom was always at your back was a bulwark. Whenever things were frightening in my college travels I can remember thinking, “As long as I can find I-95, I can get home.” To the absolute safety of my mother’s love. On the other hand, I had the longest adolescence in history.

How do you help your children grow up? How do you find the line between enough intervention and too much?

I am feeling nostalgic today for the years when my boy’s biggest anxiety was shots at the doctor’s office.


in Florida, 1999