Tuesday, November 23, 2010


I began my love of coleslaw at Friendly's. Do you know Friendly's? When I moved to Atlanta in an ill-fated pique of commitment to the wrong man I discovered that Friendly's was region-specific and oh, my taste buds, - I missed Friendly's. And not even the ice cream; good ice cream is easy to come by - B&J's, Breyers, Edie's - but good coleslaw is another story. I lived a couple long years without good coleslaw (sometimes you can get decent stuff at a grocery-store deli, but none of the grocery stores in my part of Hotlanta complied) and I might admit, though barely, to considering the coleslaw factor when M and I first had the idea of moving to the frozen north. Just a few days after trekking a bleary thousand miles up the eastern seaboard in a super-sized moving van (car towed behind) while trying to keep three violent dogs far enough away from each other so they couldn't mutter bad dog words under their breath, we stopped for lunch at Friendly's. I can't remember what I had - probably a chicken sandwich - but I do recall the coleslaw was...disappointing. Like so many other things in life, the memory and anticipation was better than the actual moment. But. Several years and children later, in the midst of a farm share allotment that was a bit heavy on the cabbage, I learned how to make my own coleslaw. I use purple cabbage and extra dijon. I am awesome at making coleslaw.

I only read up to page 110 in that book, You Can't Go Home Again (which is why Thomas Wolfe's house burned down the night before I was scheduled to visit) but I think the title is the most important bit. I could never go home to Friendly's coleslaw. Or to the exact Friendly's where I first found with that crunchy, pickley taste; yesterday, driving around my old hometown with my oldest boy in the back seat I discovered a Dunkin Donuts parked on the spot where there used to be a Friendly's, where we used to celebrate school chorus concerts, where we went for lunch on certain Saturdays, where I'd walked up and down the stone wall that rose and fell beside the ice cream window. There's another Friendly's in town, up by the highway where most of the development of the last few years has fallen. We had lunch there a couple of years ago and while guiding my middle boy to the bathroom, infant hanging on one arm, I noticed a black and white photograph of a bakery with its name high in the window: Danforth's. There, amidst the near-tangible aroma of greasy of diner food, the smell of that bakery rose high in perception and I could have been three again, holding the weathered hand of my grandfather on his weekly trip to Danforth's. You may not be able to return home to your truest starting point, but stay open to evidence and it will find you: restaurant photographs, the cabbage on your counter.

I’m a Sort-of -Vegetarian, I think that’s the technical term. I eat poultry and seafood, but not pork or beef. During my senior year of high school my boyfriend bet me that I couldn’t go a year without eating meat. Never one to pass up a challenge, and having been heavily influenced by the Smith’s song “Meat is Murder,” I set about eating other types of protein over the course of the next twelve months. And vegetables, I made sure to include some of them in most meals. Though I am not one to take joy in a meatless menu, I do have a fondness for a variety of vegetables and have come to associate them with different memories and meals. Onions sautéing in the pan when I come home must mean we are having paninis, T wouldn’t eat a sandwich without them. Carrots are wonderful in a ginger soup, which happily no one will eat but me. I could eat bowl after bowl and never tire of the earthy orange broth. Green beans are best cooked on the stove with tomatoes, garlic and red pepper flakes--I have been known to pinch a flake or two too many. Tomatoes are lovely; especially the tiny ones that can be popped into your mouth, anticipating the flavorful explosion before your lips are closed. Corn on the cob, fresh picked, reminds me of Morning Glory farmstand and the ease at which it is cooked and then eaten. Yellow as the sun, chins dribbling with butter. I’m not a fan of cabbage, nor coleslaw or sauerkraut. Instead cabbages remind me of the now closed bookstore, Cabbages and Kings. We always stopped there during our vacations to the Cape. We visited right before it closed and it saddened me to know that kids wouldn’t go there anymore with fistfuls of change in order to buy themselves a ticket to a new world. It saddens me too to think of all that is lost, like my grandmothers recipes. I would love to have her knowledge of piroghis and Sunday soup and turkey ala king. If only I had the chance to sit down at her table I would eat Salisbury steak, meatloaf and even cabbage rolls.

Monday, November 22, 2010


As she set out the teacups that reminded me of my own, our talk turned to thrift shops and second hand stores. When M and I lived in Pittsburgh, we often spent our time together visiting such stores for treasure, both books and tea. His eyes lit up when he found a book about war he didn't yet own, my pleasure came from adding to my eclectic collection of china.

Our host for the Library Tea was a former children's librarian, whose list of qualifications included: extraordinary baker; owner of cups, saucers, plates, pots and other tea necessities; and visitor to the homes of the Brontes, the Alcotts and the Austens. Even though our event was intended for a middle school audience, I was enraptured. I hung on her every word and was especially entranced when she spoke of her visit to the Bronte house. She led us up to the moment when she saw the open box in Branwell's room and knew that the toy soldiers who were the inspiration for Pauline Clarke's “Return of the Twelves” were real. Our shared remembrances of author connections turned to favorite books of the past; what had challenged the adults when they were in middle school. The middle-schoolers talked of the first time they read a book meant for adults; discovering the joy that comes from not understanding everything but knowing enough to get through the book and feeling satisfied for the experience. All the while we merrily munched on scones, cookies and cake.

Serendipity, happenstance, coincidence, perhaps it was fate that again brought the fortuitous juxtaposition of tea and soldiers to my mind this week. Finishing Nicole Krauss's “Great House” I felt a jolt of recognition as I read the lines spoken by Weisz explaining how he came to track down lost items : “They begin to talk and I go back with them to their childhoods, before the War. Between their words I see the way the light fell across the wooden floor. The way he lined his toy soldiers up under the hem of the curtain. How she laid out the little toy teacups.... They've bent their memories around a void.” In the the battle against losing objects of the past, I am a soldier armed with memories. If only I had my Grandmothers recipes, her telephone stand. It is often the space around the hole that shapes us and defines us. Yet we move forward, sustained by cups of tea and conversation.

"Want to play war?"
"Yeah! How about World War I?"
"Nah, we do that one all the time. How about the Korean War?"
"I know, how about Future War?"
"Let's play Future War!"
They creep across the lawn. They hide behind fallen limbs and crouch as still as they can in the under-brush. They ambush me and the dogs with lazery shooting sounds and jabbing sticks. They fall to the ground, dead, and their brothers-in-arms drag them to safety where they revive and reload. Sometimes limbs are blown off. Sometimes there are disagreements and they call on me to set them straight: "Which side was Ireland on? The Vietnam War happened, like, last year, right?" We are a fairly peaceful family, but - not to be sexist - boys like war. And guns. And grenades. And tanks. They like to be heroes, they like to be saved. T draws rather magnificent military maps. L makes swords that can actually produce bruises and blood with nothing but printer paper and tape. Listening to them leaves no question as to the origins of the present-day, real-life wars; we may hear about money, oil, human rights, turf, but mostly it's a confused kind of ego out there in the hot sun. My boys revel in the language of battle, the sense of power that comes from firearms, even imaginary ones. But when someone falls too hard, or heads get knocked together during a tactical surge, they cry and come looking for me. Hugs, murmuring sounds, the occasional band-aid, and popsicles put these soldiers back right.

For a while, T had a collection of plastic toy soldiers that he bought with his own money after M and I see-sawed on the moral indications of plastic soldiers. We relented and T spent many after-bedtimes arranging his soldiers in intricate stations on the floor of his loft that I inevitably destroyed with my knees when I climbed the ladder for a kiss goodnight. Last week I tried to find some for a picture, but only one surfaced from the back of the tubby-toy drawer in the bathroom. He stayed for a night and a morning on the bathroom windowsill while I (and the rest of the family) fell victim to a stomach bug, and then just hours before our planned photo shoot, B bit his head off. Poor fallen soldier.

Monday, November 15, 2010


I remember the sound and feel of the receiver as I slammed it down, an abrupt period to my rant. The corded rotary telephone lived in the hall, and once I hastily ended my call, I scurried to the bedroom and looked for the best place to hide. Those mattress springs are burned into my memory, they were all I could see as I waited with baited breath under my sister's bed. Hiding there seemed the obvious choice: all of my Cricket magazines were boxed up and stored under my bed, and there I could only be approached from one side. Huddling next to the wall meant no one could reach me-- or so I thought. Moments later there were the pounding of footsteps, screen doors slamming and voices being raised. We lived in a small house, it didn't take long to find me. I don't remember who pried me out, or the punishment that followed, though I am certain I was grounded. It couldn't have been For Life, even though that's what my parents must have threatened. Here I am, decades later, decidedly Not Grounded. The cause of my parents' consternation: upon learning that I could not possibly bring home a new kitten until after we returned from our once-a-year-family-vacation to my aunt's house in Cleveland, I had called my very sweet neighbor and berated her for not being kind enough to petsit our brand new kitten while we were away. It had seemed such a simple solution in my ten-year-old mind. Now that I am grown, or at least older if not truly grown up, I don't seem to get in much trouble. I don't have anyone looking over my shoulder issuing punishment when necessary. After all these years my feelings towards animals haven't changed much. Though I am meant to be devoting every spare moment of my life to my thesis, I spent today with a friend. Weeks went into planning our meet-up in the middle so neither had to drive more than 90 minutes. There was to be much chatting and catching up on our way to visit a litter of baby bunnies. Some people may wonder at the need for pets, especially coming in to an already chaotic household. Each animal must be fed, cared for and loved, much in the same way as you would a child. Why go through all of that hassle, driving such an incredible distance and repeatedly getting lost (even though the printed out directions seemed very clear this morning before I set out.) I can only answer that dogs and cats love you like no one else. And bunnies, especially brand new baby bunnies, have the very softest fur and the cutest little ears. They are definitely worth the trouble.

When my children are grown, when I am no longer responsible for transportation to piano lessons, karate lessons, swimming lessons, and cub scout meetings, I will sell my car and never drive again. I will ride a bike. Up mountains, down mountains, over covered bridges, through tree-lined, laughter-filled suburban loveliness. Yes, I know. I live many miles from a grocery store. Winters here aren't conducive to open-aired travel. And the last time I rode a bike further than a half mile I was...15? 16? I don't even care. Cars are nothing but trouble, even when you have a husband that knows (mostly) how to fix some of the broken bits. Cars require endless gasoline, they make weird, squeaky, worrisome noises that can ruin a day, they cost a lot of money and depreciate in value. I figure I have another 15 years before I can safely denounce driving. I will be a fifty-year-old woman on a bike, long gray hair streaming behind me, a smile on my face (close-lipped, because of bugs), trouble-free.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


How to make a garden: for two years throw your compost onto a small patch of land, not too far from the side door to make the walk a hard one in the winter but not too close that you can smell the rotting coffee grounds. Let the chickens eat their fill of your waste, scrabbling and scratching and fertilizing the dirt beneath their feet. In the fall, use a big blue tarp to drag leaves from the back yard, the front yard, the side yard, the bit of yard by the road - drag all those leaves over to your soon-to-be garden and cover it as if it needs a woolen blanket to keep warm. Moan plenty about your aching back that night, even though your pain is a proud one. In the winter, throw compost on the top of the snow. Worry about bears. Throw more compost on the top of the snow. If the bears are distracted by the garbage they won't bother coming over to the house. In the spring of year number two, trade with your neighbor - tilling services for fresh-baked bread. "Smells like it'll be good," he'll say after running over the plot a few times with those strong, jagged tines. He's not talking about the bread. Feel proud of your good-smelling dirt. Plant four tomato plants (started inside several weeks before, with help from the Baby who eats some of the planting soil; he is number three and eating dirt warrants only an exasperated look) even though frost is still a possibility. Plant a row of lettuce. Plant six broccoli seedlings, and a few egglants. Two days later kick madly at the chickens who assume these, too, are for their benefit. Whine to your husband about a fence. Replant the poor assaulted seedlings in pots and put them on the porch railing. Whine more about a fence. Rejoice when the fence appears (after more whining). Plant lots of tomatoes, broccoli, celery and Brussels sprouts and also encourage the various volunteers that surprise you every year. And carrots. Plant carrots, because the children like to pull them up and sometimes they even eat them. In November feel wistful when you pick the last of the carrots. Wish you had planted more. Wish you had a bigger garden. Whine to your husband about a bigger garden. Recognize that you love the garden even more once all the harvest is gone, once you have laid leaves and hay again over the earth. Dirt smells good.

In Science class this week T was asked to do some research on Kittinger and his unintentional breaking of the sound barrier in the 60's. At that time he parachuted from an altitude of 20 miles above the earth's surface. Turns out there are two people currently in a race to break that record. Reading the article I was surprised to learn all about the great lengths people have gone to and the risks involved. Getting up high enough seems to be the tricky part, though freefalling that fast can prove to be fatal. Glancing through T's assignment, I was reminded of an image that often flashes in my head at the strangest of times. It's of the woman in the movie “Apollo 13” staring up into space knowing that her husband is there, and yet has no contact with anyone. (M and I went to the theaters to see it to celebrate our first anniversary.) Having not lived through this period of history it still hit me hard, still does. It is the longing on her face that often haunts me. Recently young T (a's oldest son) asked for a birthday cake that would represent the earth as seem from the moon. Maybe a rather unorthodox request, but to me it seemed magical, like he was gaining some perspective. It was a chance for us to celebrate his turning a year older and possessing the ability to see oneself and one's planet from a different place altogether. Major milestones. The going out may be the exhilarating exciting part, but there too is the return. Always the return. The chance for the daredevil, spaceman, adventuresome boy to put two feet firmly on the ground; the solid steady earth welcoming him home.