Old-fashioned fun

December 31, 2009

It was -13° F yesterday morning but Lucy was up early, piling on layers and layers of clothes to go sledding.

“Don’t you want to wait until a little later in the morning, sweetie, when it might warm up?”

“No, thanks, Mom! I won’t be cold!”

We have two hand-me-down Flexible Flyers (the original little-girl owners are now in their early 30s) and with the deep cold and all the ice, conditions are perfect. Hard and fast.

Lucy and a neighbor child spent all day outside sledding, with breaks indoors for hot cocoa and to dry their mittens. They rigged baling twine to the wooden steering bars and were proud to master sledding while standing: essentially surfing on snow. Telling me of their triumphs at the end of the day, the girls’ cheeks were red, their eyes bright, and their voices excited.

“It was so much fun!”

The temperature had never risen above 16°.

I often worry that perhaps I shelter my children too much from modern culture. But I can’t help but feel happy about days like this.

We are so very lucky.

Happy Christmas!

December 26, 2009

We had a wonderful holiday. It snowed on December 23, which made skies gloomy — the above is a color photo! — and the roads slick, but all the skiers happy. Then, like magic, the clouds rolled away and a million frosty stars shone overhead as we went to Alison and Tom’s for their annual Christmas Eve potluck. It was a cozy, happy gathering of friends and we were home by 8 PM — a perfect party.

Our fireplace has no mantel, so as usual, DH hung the Christmas stockings with his climbing gear. DH has few domestic skills but he’s unbeatable with ropes, slings, and carabiners.

Then of course there was some last-minute scurrying, hammering, sewing, and wrapping.

By the time we settled down to our ritual reading aloud of Christmas stories, we were all sleepy. I’m wearing my apron over pajamas. Moments before, Jon had been dozing on my shoulder. The photos are courtesy of Lucy, who was soon snuggled under my other arm. DH in his chair donned his Christmas hat.

Jon as usual chose to read The Night Before Christmas. Over the years we have received a number of beautifully illustrated versions of this but Jon believes the Only Real Version is the Golden Book he knew as a toddler. It is always suspenseful to see how he will read “And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof, the prancing and pawing of each little hoof.” Rewf and hewf? or rouef and hoof?

Our celebrations in the morning were early and full of merriment. We all know each other so well. Lots of used books on hand!

Jon gave me a history of New York City during the Revolution. Lucy gave me a three-pound mini-maul, just like Gary’s “Thor” hammer that was so useful during building last summer. DH bought me several books, a dog cover for the backseat of the truck, and a 50-foot set of drop lights for the barn.

Here is DH opening the towel rack Lucy made for him for his sauna. She also knitted a wool hat for Jon. It turned out slightly too big so we plan to wash it in hot water and let it dry on his head. (Fashion often requires a little suffering.)

And here is Lucy opening her present from Jon, who, after realizing that at 12 she was listening to the soundtrack of Mary Poppins, decided it was time to take his little sister’s musical education in hand. He had spent a long time researching online and chosen two CDs he thought would be appropriate. However, in his card he instructed her firmly that she must tell him if she didn’t like them. “Mom and Dad are raising you to be polite,” he wrote, “but I am raising you to be honest.”

Then it was 7:30 and time for barn chores. The kids rode on the truck tailgate to the school barn, where they and DH helped muck the fifteen horse stalls and feed the pigs, while I drove down to our farm, milked, and turned our animals out.

I had been up before dawn making lists and planning the big holiday dinner like a military campaign. I am so scatterbrained that I must write down every detail or I will forget something crucial. Last year it was the gravy.

Long before the family was awake I had skimmed cream and made Ben & Jerry’s French Vanilla ice cream. Whole wheat buttermilk dinner rolls (from Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book) were rising. The twenty-pound turkey had been washed and spiced. Now, after a shower, I swung into high gear.

Meanwhile this year Lucy has decided that her favorite Christmas carol is the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. It of course sounds best and most triumphant if it’s very loud. So you must picture the apartment rattling to trumpets and voices singing, “King of Kings! Forever! and ever!” I associate this hymn with my father and being very small — so small that in my mind’s eye, I’m level with Dad’s grey suit pant’s leg — and we’re standing in the pew in the big church I grew up in, and the voices of the robed choir are soaring, and I am utterly happy and secure, and any minute Dad will look down at me, squeeze my shoulder, and smile.

So these were all warm memories to be wrapped in as I measured and sifted, poured and chopped, preparing the Christmas feast.

The turkey went into the oven. I fixed the stuffing, using broth from boiling the giblets. (I gave the giblets to the dogs. Toby was so excited by the kidneys he sprang up on the sofa where Lucy was reading and, wagging happily, placed them in her lap.) I rolled out crusts and made a pumpkin pie and a pecan pie. I boiled and peeled and mashed the sweet potatoes before baking them with — I know, I know — a topping of marshmallows. Jon loves sweet potatoes with marshmallows, which is only fitting as due to his auburn hair, my mother called him her little Yam-head. Mint peas. Boiled onions. Gravy.

“Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

I rolled on through the list. Setting the dinner table with the red tablecloth, Mom’s candlesticks, and my grandmother’s white crocheted placemats. Laying out the pre-World War I painted china that was passed down from my father’s unpleasant Aunt Edith. (All I know about Great-Aunt Edith is that she was unpleasant. I reflect on her every holiday and hope my own epitaph is happier.) Setting the places with my grandmother’s silver, which always reminds me of my little sister, who has the other half set. Polishing my great-great-grandfather’s serving spoons; whenever I have the polish out I think of Essie, and so many long conversations in my childhood while silver-polishing. Then I look at the monogram and wonder if my big brother or big sister know what our great-great-grandfather’s middle name was.

I’m all alone in the kitchen but I’m crowded by thoughts of people I love. “Forever! and ever!”

While I am cooking DH always takes the kids cross-country skiing. This year he and Lucy skied the sugaring trails.

Jon was deep in reading all the new books, magazines, and Christmas letters.

Our friend Mike arrived at 1:30. Mike has no living family and spends every holiday with us.

It was a wonderful feast. It was a wonderful day. Hallelujah!



December 24, 2009

Insomnia has moved in again. I’ve been an erratic sleeper for the last few years but sometimes, as now, it becomes oppressive. I’m always an early riser (as are we all — the other morning Jon was still sleeping at 7:30 AM and after glancing in his bedroom I automatically paused, mom-like, to check his breathing, because the late hour was so unusual).

But 2:30 AM is too early.

I’ve been waking up overheated and throwing off the covers. I suppose it’s the beginning of menopause — in recent years I’ve heard a lot of dramatic stories from friends about hot flashes. However even I, given to hyperbole, would more accurately describe my own episodes as “slightly too warm waves.” (On the other hand, I’m always chilly. Moreover I pay so little heed to physical symptoms I didn’t notice I was in labor until ninety minutes before Jon’s arrival. I would never make a good hypochondriac because I am too inattentive.)

When these waves hit, I’m wide awake. I creep out of our bedroom and try fruitlessly to get comfortable on the narrow, hard, institutionally-provided Danish Modern sofa in the living room. Even stacked with pillows this sofa is angular and unyielding. It’s like lying on a zwieback. No wonder Hamlet was a moody Dane!

I find picking up a political book is the best prescription. Somehow reading the words senate president pro tempore is soothingly soporific. Sometimes I can doze off for a half hour between 4 and 5 AM.

But weeks of broken nights are taking their toll. My eyes feel gritty and my head full of cotton batting. It’s hard to focus. When I sit down after washing the dinner dishes the whole family prods me to keep awake. Lucy and I snuggle when she’s in pajamas and she says kindly in my ear, “Mom! Your eyes are closing!”

This is not a good state of affairs for Santa’s Chief Elf.

Spending decisions

December 23, 2009

In this Christmas season, I have been thinking about the different things people are willing to spend money on. DH and I diverge in this area and it’s taken many years for us to come to a modus vivendi.

Of course we agree on the big things, like spending for medical care and education. We also both take having pets for granted, and we share an equally casual attitude toward clothing. (The Patagonia long underwear DH wears under his workout clothes every day is so old and full of holes it looks cobwebbed.) But DH was raised to appreciate some of the luxuries of life — travel, dinners out, fine wines, bestsellers in hardcover — while I grew up thinking that the best things were usually scored on deep sale or in second-hand shops, and I never went anywhere.

We’ve mostly compromised. I go out to dinner with him a few times a year, and we give each other gifts of used books from Bookfinder. (He knows my pleasure in a book is often increased in direct proportion to the lowness of its cost. I love to see $2 written in pencil on a flyleaf. And nothing beats the joy of stumbling on a long-desired treasure for a quarter in a jumbled cardboard carton at a yard sale.)

One could say I was frugal. Or one could say I was crabby and cheap.

Nine months ago I took a look at our DirecTV bill and was shocked. The cost had skyrocketed. Now, it must be remembered that (1) satellite reception only came to these rural mountains about ten years ago, and (2) to get basic service, with only local channels, costs $55 per month and (3) I haven’t watched television in about thirty years.

The idea of spending so much — for TV! — outraged my puritanical soul. With one keystroke I slashed our package to basic service. DH could hardly argue with saving $300 a year and made nary a peep. In fact I didn’t know how sad it made him until last night when I found him hunched over his computer, reading the football schedule.

“I wish we still got ESPN,” he said wistfully. “It looks like a great game tonight.”

I felt terrible. I also wasn’t raised watching football, but I know how much he loves it. Without saying anything I went online. It turns out I could restore ESPN for only $5 a month. I selected CHANGE PACKAGE and went to tell DH.

He clicked the remote and the football game came up in vivid color. Though he is a reserved man, his glee was obvious.

“Gosh, I wonder if we got MSNBC back, too?” he asked excitedly, punching buttons.


“It has that political show Dad watches with the light-haired man you don’t like,” Lucy explained.

“Oh, the rude one.” I’d walk through the TV room and exclaim over the poor manners of the host who constantly interrupted his guests.

MSNBC came up on the television screen, too.

“Yeeeesssss!” said DH, raising his arms in triumph.

I felt like a worm. Sports and politics are two of DH’s greatest passions, and watching television at the end of a long day of work, often while rowing on his ergometer, is his nightcap, his relaxation. How had I thoughtlessly deprived him of it?

But I find I’m often clueless about things other people consider important. Last summer Dean, the carpenter working on our garage, told me that his wife, when paying bills, had realized that Dean had bought himself a JetSki.

“So Melissa said she deserved a diamond ring that cost the same. Only fair.”

“A diamond ring?” I can’t really imagine wanting a piece of jewelry. Well, or a JetSki for that matter.

“Yes, we’re going up to the city after work today to pick it out.”

“Gee, how much does a diamond ring cost these days?”

“Oh, about twenty-five hundred dollars.”

Twenty-five hundred dollars?” I shrieked. “Are you kidding me?”

Dean grinned. “Nope.” He started telling me about the cut, and the gold, but I was stuck on the price.

“Oh my goodness, you could buy a lime spreader for that!” (I dream of someday having a half-ton, ground-driven lime spreader to improve my farm’s sour soil.)

Dean gave me a satirical look. “Really. Now, why didn’t I think of that?”

Football, diamonds, lime spreaders. Each someone’s idea of pampering. Aren’t people fascinating in their infinite variety?

We Don’t Get Out Much

December 22, 2009

I had a lovely day yesterday with Lucy in Vermont. Her personality — quiet, organized, and self-effacing — is so unlike mine, so much more like my husband’s, that I feel I can take pride in her without undue self-satisfaction. (What hath God wrought!) She took her knitting and knitted as we drove, talking.

Lucy is a wonderful mixture of seriousness and naiveté. Her concerns are not those of the typical “tween” in today’s media-driven world. She doesn’t watch television or have a cell phone. She recently asserted her fashion independence by declaring she prefers L L. Bean clothes to those from Lands’ End. She reads books on dog training; she uses the internet to follow horse rescue sites.

“I’m not sure yet where I want to go to college,” she admitted yesterday.

“Lu, you’re twelve, you’re not supposed to know where you want to go to college.”

“Oh, good,” Lucy said, relieved.

But perhaps my favorite moment came when we parked the car under the hospital. My small-town girl took my arm and gave a little skip.

“I love parking garages!” she exclaimed. “They’re so cool!”

Order in the house!

December 21, 2009

I have been moaning to my big sister (as opposed to my little sister, obviously a silly locution since all three of us have been the same height for thirty years, but it’s engrained from childhood). Anyway, I was moaning to N. how tired I am of mess, mess, mess, everywhere I look.

Too many areas of my house and my life are in chaos. (Somewhere I read that C.H.A.O.S. stands for Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome.) While I focus and get the kitchen clean, the bedroom suddenly becomes buried in unfolded laundry. I organize the untidy stacks of paperwork on my desk and the recyclables begin to overflow. I spend hours mucking out the deep bedding in the sheep pen and my truck seats are scattered with tools from building the sauna. I recently threw away from the back of the refrigerator some leftover cake icing that I realize I made in October.

It’s discouraging. Not just because mess is depressing, but because it does make one feel rather a failure.

No matter how hard I try, our life is always slightly disheveled. Lucy loves striped socks and is accustomed now to having an orange sock on one foot and a lime green one on the other.

I raced into town the other night to buy groceries to feed DH’s climbing crew and an acquaintance pushing a shopping cart greeted me with delight. She was wearing clean Carhartts, snowboots, and a tasteful knitted Peruvian hat. “I was just thinking how terrible it was that I’m grocery shopping in my chore clothes,” Jan said, smiling, “and then —” “Then you saw me!” I finished for her, and laughed ruefully. I had broken off working on the sauna to dash into town in the truck before doing evening barn chores, so hadn’t changed. My Carharrts were worn and dirty. All my clothes were covered with a light layer of blue foam insulation dust. There were bits of hay in my polar fleece and random pine shavings stuck to my wool hat.

This could be a metaphor for my life.

My big sister, who is not only older (and faultlessly dressed!) but much calmer and wiser, wrote:

I have finally realized how essential physical order is to my state of mind, and have given myself permission (actually almost a prescription) to take quite a bit of time in life to creating and maintaining it. This means that I have to constantly refuse my brain’s promptings to do one more thing in another area — things that usually seem to be the things that any good person would do. Order is my lifesaving medication. But it requires me to take the time for it, which requires me to say, no, I can’t do this, that, or the other which a voice in my head is telling me must be done, only you, N., will do it, etc., etc.

It requires me to take the time for it. What a concept. Gosh! The idea broke on my consciousness like a crashing wave. Or like a wild surmise (and I was struck silent on a peak in Darien).

And such a kind way to put it. Not, You’re constantly in shambles because you are a hopeless loser as a homemaker but If you want order you need to schedule time to create it; you might need to do less.

I’m going to be thinking about this today. Of course I am taking Lucy to Vermont for a doctor’s appointment and before we leave to catch the ferry I have to walk the dogs, clean the kitchen, milk, muck the stalls, carry water to the broken trough, shower, and also find the medical pre-registration papers …

…which I know are somewhere here in an office pile…


December 20, 2009

DH’s climbing buddies are here. It was -20° F yesterday morning so they happily spent the day grunting up various frozen waterfalls with crampons and ice axes. The photo shows DH and Gary (as always, click to enlarge).

Looks like fun, eh? No, thank you!

I have problems enough with ice on good ol’ terra firma. My “frost-free” water hydrant in the paddock has frozen solid. When I tried to force coax it open yesterday morning to refill the big water trough, the steel bolt on the handle simply broke in half.

Of course it’s reassuring to know that the ice supporting my beloved a hundred feet in the air is stronger than steel… but now I have another problem to sort out and hassle to fix.

I will try to work on it later today, and in the meantime will be carrying buckets from the barn.

Blue over Sue

December 19, 2009

We got word on Tuesday that our friend Sue had finally lost her six-year battle with cancer. She has been constantly in my thoughts since I hung up the phone.

Sue was the business manager here at School and the first person I met the day I arrived in 1983, twenty-four years old and wildly enthusiastic. She was already an institutional legend, tall and famously brusque.

I’d looked out the window at the reflecting pond drowsing in the August sunshine, frogs croaking and dragonflies hovering over the surface, and been overwhelmed. With my fingers touching the glass I exclaimed impulsively, “Oh, I want to stay here forever!”

“Don’t you think it’s a bit early to say something like that!” she snapped.

Later, when we became friends, Sue was embarrassed by this story. Her caustic outer shell hid a huge heart and bottomless generosity. Beneath a shyness that could make her seem prickly or abrupt, she was kindness itself. However, she was almost twenty years older and a distant, overworked administrator, so it took me a while to realize this. Once in the early years I knocked on her office door and Sue whirled in her desk chair to glare at me. I gulped: “You’re scaring me!” She was abashed and immediately apologetic.

A few years later I was made Director of Development and we began working together. That’s when I began to know the real Sue.

Outwardly, Sue and I were nothing alike. She was reserved, playing her emotional cards close to the vest. I blurted out every passing thought and feeling. Her work was always meticulously organized. My desk was a shambles. She joked that she wanted to put a ring in my nose so I could find my keys; she made the long-distance charge code on my phone L.A.T.E.  She could be blisteringly tough when she thought I could do better. But our brains worked in similar ways and that recognition made a lasting bond. I will always think of Sue when I substitute em dashes for hyphens or remember to use fewer instead of less.

Sue worked tirelessly behind the scenes on behalf of others — her kindnesses to me alone were legion. However she was deeply uncomfortable with “fuss” or personal attention. It was typical that when her health suddenly broke down in 2004 and she was flown to Burlington for an emergency operation, she told only the school nurse. The nurse, who was new at the time and nervous to be holding such a secret, called me that morning so I could inform my husband, the headmaster, who was out of town.

“Sue alone for a major operation?” I said. “Forget that!”

I left Jon, 15, at home in charge of Lucy, 6, and the dogs, and drove to Vermont, where I lied to the hospital and signed into the acute care waiting room (families only) as Sue’s sister. The operation, which was supposed to take three to four hours, stretched to seven. It was almost midnight before Sue was in recovery. The news was dire. Sue’s back pain was due to advanced spinal cancer that had spread to her kidneys. She was partially paralyzed. The anesthesiologist said briefly, “Well, the good news is she survived the operation.” I was stunned.

But when I saw her early the next morning Sue was unfailingly herself. Her voice, though weak, was as gruff as ever.

“Well, look what the cat dragged in! They told me my sister had been in the waiting room all night — they wouldn’t listen when I said I have no sister!

The doctors predicted that Sue might live three years at the outside. She made it almost to six. She lost a leg, a kidney, bits of her scalp and face, but she never lost her courage.

Once Sue moved to Michigan to live with her mother, I didn’t keep in touch with her as often as I should have, but just a few weeks ago I sent her a long, three-page, single-spaced letter to fill her in on all the local gossip. I hope she got it. I hope she laughed.

Gosh, I’ll miss her. She was a touchstone in my life. I loved Sue. Isn’t it terrible how you never tell people often enough?

OK, Now It’s Too Cold

December 18, 2009

-25 F this morning. At these temperatures my desire to be outside shrivels.

Progress on the sauna feels infinitesimal. The blue-board styrofoam insulation must be cut to fit each two-foot section of wall and ceiling. Nothing is uniform, so the work is finicky and slow. Finicky and slow is not a good match with deep cold.

I am bundled up until I’m waddling. My nose drips. My hands and feet go numb. The batteries on my circular saw die quickly, and so does my will power.

Even the dogs aren’t interested in going outside. They run out to pee hurriedly and then dash back into the house. Sensible creatures!

Sigh. I hope in hour-long bursts, with recovery time at home to get warm, I can finish the insulation today.

Cold and baby dates

December 17, 2009

It’s -8° this morning. Our high today will be 0°F and I am not looking forward to milking. The warm milk steams in the cold and freezes to the sides of the stainless steel milk pail. If I wear a scarf over my face, my breath mists and freezes on my glasses. And though I can swathe myself in thick woolly layers and keep the rest of my body toasty, I’ve never figured out a way to keep my bare hands from congealing. Katika is tolerant and every few minutes I thrust a frozen lump of aching fingers to thaw in the crease between her warm udder and the inside of her thigh.

Definitely do-able, but not fun.

On such days it’s very tempting to leave the day’s milking chores to Charlie, her eager foster calf. However I can’t skip too often because two years after calving, and hopefully bred back, Katika’s instinct is to dry herself off. Any mother who has ever breastfed understands the basic equation of milk production. Lower demand, lower supply. At this point Katika is only giving a gallon a day, plus Charlie’s ration. Though this is plenty for our family it is not much for a dairy cow.

I will be drying Katika off fairly soon. But I don’t want to go too many months without milk. And because she was pastured with a young bull 24/7, I’m not sure when to anticipate our next calf. I can only guess when she was bred.

Hughie (Hugh Grant), my last bull, got the job done at ten months old. Georgie (George Clooney) was much more confident and even more precocious. Nine months old is generally held to be the youngest age for a bull to be actively fertile. But Katika is a large-ish cow and at nine months the height differential might be a problem. Below is Georgie alongside Katika at 7.5 months. Reaching her would be the challenge.

My first purebred Jersey bull, Ferdinand, was very short — either due to his lineage or due to being a formula baby — and to his intense frustration (and mine) he was never able to breed Katika. Not for want of trying. He was thirteen months old, roaring and dangerous, but Katika merely yawned and strolled out from under his frantic efforts. She was never bred that year.

Georgie was nine months old July 23. If he did the deed on his nine-month birthday, Katika would be due May 1. More likely we are looking at an early June calf. (Knock wood.)

A cow should be dried off about two months before calving, to replenish her own body stores. My plan is to stop milking and just keep Charlie (Charles Bronson) on her while I am away in Florida for the latter half of March, and wean him when I return. My hope is that this gradual decrease will dry her off without risk of mastitis. Katika will be 8 years old next spring, and she has never had mastitis, a record I’m proud of — though I suspect it has more to do with her being the perfect cow than with me being the perfect milkmaid.

Of course it will be interesting, when the calf comes, to look back at all this hopeful planning. Animals are full of surprises, and in my husbandry efforts I often look ridiculous.

In the meantime it’s cold! My fingers are already chapped and cracked from roofing DH’s sauna last week with bare hands in the snow. I wonder idly if this is what in old English novels is called chillblains. In those books goose grease is the answer. (Goose grease! There’s something to contemplate!) But I prosaically make do with Vaseline.