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Friday, November 22, 2013

Comfort and Joy: E.B. White, President Kennedy and Me

Comfort and Joy: E.B. White, President Kennedy and Me: A Page from My Memoirs-     As I was going through boxes in the attic, I came across my beloved copy of Charlotte ’s Web, written by E. B...

E.B. White, President Kennedy and Me

A Page from My Memoirs-

    As I was going through boxes in the attic, I came across my beloved copy of Charlotte’s Web, written by E. B. White.  I had forgotten I had tucked the book away with other mementos from my grade school years.  Inside the front cover I had carefully written my name in cursive, followed by the date, November 22, 1963. 

    I was in the third grade that year, and our teacher, Mrs. Hudson, had been reading a chapter a day from Charlotte’s Web after recess.  I loved the story of Wilbur and Charlotte. I remember how much I wanted the book for my very own, to take home and savor during the twilight hours before going to sleep.  My plan was to read not just a chapter a day, like Mrs. Hudson did, but to rush ahead and find out what was going to happen to Wilbur.  The suspense was making me crazy. 

   I purchased the paperback version of Charlotte’s Web for a quarter at the book store cubby in the back of the tiny school library.   Mrs. Hadcock, the librarian wrapped the precious book in brown paper and I returned to my classroom, tucking my gift to myself away in my desk.  Then I lined up dutifully with my classmates for recess. 

   It was a golden autumn day with brilliant sunlight slanting through the blue sky, the colored leaves crisp and crunchy under our feet as we played tag under the oaks and maples.  I remember there was a chill to the air and a beauty to the light that would have taken my breath away if I had stood still long enough to notice, but who pays attention to such things when they're eight years old?  It was more important that Mike Lehne asked me if I wanted to play on the teeter-totters. 

    My two best friends, Gail and Kathy, hopped on the teeter-totter next to us, and we all sang The Beatles' “She Loves You” at the tops of our lungs.  Mrs. Hudson and the other teachers watched us with half-smiles, shaking their heads.  As I was lifted up into the air on the teeter-totter, I remember the rush of cool fall air against my face, the way my skirt puffed out around me, the feeling of being full of happiness.  I was on the teeter-totter with the cutest boy in the class.  My best friends were beside me, and when recess was over there would be another chapter of Charlotte’s Web. 

   We piled into the classroom after recess, hung up our coats, and took our seats.  I reached into my desk to make sure my own copy of Charlotte’s Web, which I had spent half my allowance on, was still there.  I carefully wrote my name and the date on the inside cover.  Mrs. Hudson sat at her desk, her curly brown hair windblown from recess, her sweater slightly askew on her shoulders.  She opened the book and just began to read.  

    For a few moments I was lost in a world of talking animals and a gentle girl named Fern.  I wondered what it would really be like to have a pet pig and vowed never to kill a spider, even if it was huge and ugly. 

   I was brought back to reality when the school secretary came into the room.  Mrs. Wilkinson’s eyes were red, and there was a flowered handkerchief clutched in her hand.  We watched as she beckoned Mrs. Hudson out into the hallway, closing the door carefully behind them.  The boys ribbed each other.  “Aw you’re in trouble now.  You’re gonna have to go see the principal.”  A spit ball flew across the room and landed in Gail’s hair.  Jimmy chanted, “Karen and Mike sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.” 

   “Class!” Mrs. Hudson came back into the room, clapping her hands together just once, her stout sensible shoes clicking on the hard tile, “Please put your chairs on your desks and get your coats. Quickly, quickly now.  Line up here by the door.  We’re having early dismissal.” 

   We all did as we were told, but why were we going home early?  There was no snowstorm, no teachers’ meeting; it wasn’t a holiday.  The school wasn’t on fire.  Was it The Bomb?  Were we going to the basement and sit with our legs crossed and heads down, having only water and Saltines to eat?

    Clutching my copy of Charlotte’s Web to my chest, I retrieved my lunchbox and coat before lining up with my chattering, boisterous classmates.  There was a party feeling in the air.  Again, Mrs. Hudson clapped her hands for silence, and as we turned to look at her, we noticed her face looked funny.  It had gone pale and her eyes were red-rimmed.  “You’re all going home to be with your families,” she said.  Then her eyes filled with tears as she quietly spoke these words, “The president has been shot.” 

   Twenty-four children stood there in stunned silence before the questions came pouring out of us.  “Who would shoot the president?”  “He’ll be all right, won’t he?”  “Did someone get into the White House?”  “Where was he?”  “Where were his bodyguards?”  “Why would anyone want to shoot President Kennedy?” 

    My sister, Dee, and I arrived home to find our mother glued to the black and white television, the laundry left forgotten on the ironing board.  Her crying frightened us, and we became even more scared when she turned the sound low on the TV and told us we needed to pray for our president.  We kneeled on the living room carpet like good girls and prayed for him and Mrs. Kennedy and little John-John and Caroline.  We said Hail Marys and Our Fathers. Mom held her rosary, but the president died anyway. 

   That night, after a solemn supper, our family went to my grandparents’, where we joined the rest of our all-Catholic clan.  Cousins, aunts and uncles had come together to mourn John F. Kennedy.  My grandmother was inconsolable.  It was as if her own son had been shot down that day.  My dad and uncles drank beer and whisky while staring in stoic silence at the television, watching over and over again the horrifying details of that awful afternoon.  Grandpa stared off into space, alternately puffing on his pipe and holding various babies on his knee.  He wasn’t bouncing them or singing silly songs as usual.  I stood in the doorway watching him, willing him to tell just one joke or funny story.

   With Charlotte’s Web in hand, I wandered between the men in the living room and the women in the kitchen. My mother leaned against the counter, presiding over the percolator while the aunts sat with my grandmother at the big table sipping cooling coffee and dabbing their swollen eyes with wads of soggy tissues.   Grandma sat with her apron on, her head in her hands, her rosary twined around her fingers. 

   I ended up in the parlor, where my older cousins sat on the staircase talking softly.  My teenage cousin, Judy slid over so I could sit next to her, and I leaned against her for comfort and protection, from what I didn’t really know.  That full, happy feeling I had felt earlier in the day was completely gone.  She took my book from me and smiled.  “I remember this.  Do you want me to read to you?”  Forgetting I was too old for that, I nodded my head, too sad and confused to speak.  She started from the beginning, and all my cousins stopped talking to listen to Judy tell of farm animals that could talk, a girl named Fern, and a spider called Charlotte.  E. B. White’s words were still there on the page, even though our world had changed forever. 

   I’ve read the story of Charlotte, Wilbur and Fern many times since in my life-- to four daughters, all grown; to grandchildren, nieces and nephews; and all manner of small friends.  Every time I read it, it’s always with a great measure of sadness, for I remember that long ago autumn day when everything felt perfect, warm and wonderful.  All I had to concern myself with was a spider and a pig. 
 
   Then our president was killed in Dallas.    

Saturday, November 9, 2013

One for Peaks!

I don't know what there is about it, but I'm filled with boundless glee when I approach the ticket window at the Casco Bay Ferry Terminal with my five-dollar bill and say, "One for Peaks!"
With my pass in hand, I roll my cart on to the ferry and settle in for the twenty-minute trip, texting my family, "I'm crossing over!"

In the past few weeks I've been very fortunate to cross over to Peaks and fashion two writing retreats for myself at what I refer to as "The Pink Lady of Peaks", the grand old house on Peaks Island that belongs to my daughter and son-in-law.

On this particular weekend they have gone off to Prince Edward Island, leaving me in charge of the beautiful, luxuriant Elsa, as well as two elderly hens by the names of Olive and Tulip. All I have to do is let the chickens in and out of their abode, and tend to Elsa's seemingly endless string of needs, which can put a slight crimp in my writing schedule.

For instance, she has to be fed promptly at 8:00 a.m. followed by a thorough sifting and stirring of her litter box. The consequences of not doing these chores is dire and we won't go into the details here. Suffice it to say you don't want to screw this up.

Queen Elsa also requires a great deal of brushing, fluffing and flattering throughout the day. Take it from me, she cannot be trusted with an open door to the outside, or near dairy products. This includes a bowl of ice cream with chocolate sauce and my lime Greek yogurt.

I do think I've gotten to the point where I have her figured out though. Once her requirements are fulfilled, she settles in for a long nap on the sunny spot of the sofa where she snores away for hours. When it comes to the middle of the afternoon, I can't always resist the urge to lay down beside her and cover up with one of many of the Irish woolen blankets on offer.

It's blissfully quiet on the island this time of year. Even during the walks I take to punctuate the shift from morning to afternoon then again at sunset, I only see one or two islanders on their way to the grocery or the ferry.

Today, other than checking on Olive and Tulip, I haven't been out at all, opting instead for gentle yoga and an hour-long soaking session in the claw-foot tub upstairs. As I relax in the warm water with Irish bath salts from The Burren Perfumery and listen to the wind outside the window, I'm filled with such gratitude for this place, for my daughter and her husband, and most of all for the time and flexibility I have to leave the mainland to be here.

Peaks Island in November isn't for everyone, but it certainly is for me. It is here in solitude where I gather my thoughts, put away my worries, sleep for ten hours at a stretch, write for eight hours or more, nap, eat pasta, cheese, ice cream, drink pots of tea, and somehow become new.

Is it the sea air, the quiet, this welcoming, warm house sitting on the hill and blushing in the glow of afternoon sun? Is it Rachel and Jubal's generosity-the whimsical little directions and sketches they leave for me, as well as plenty of delicious provisions?



 
Whatever it is, no matter how long I stay here, it's never enough. I know I'll be back, but I always experience a bit of wistfulness, a physical pull of "homesickness-in-the-making" when I walk down the hill to the ferry for the return trip to my house on the mainland.

I do everything in reverse with a different sort of happy anticipation, and drive north on 295 to my schedules, interviews, writing deadlines and laundry. And my family. They are the reason I stay on the mainland to begin with, and probably always will. I start to look forward to upcoming events with the grandchildren-the birthdays and holiday times, as well as the ordinary but extraordinary charming little moments around the everyday.

It's good to know the island won't be going anywhere and there will always be a special place for me here.  No matter what, I will always make it so.
 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Chocolate-Covered Zucchini


Today was tough. After lunch I got a massage then lounged in the hammock finishing Stephen King’s “On Writing”, which all writers and writer-wanna-be’s should read immediately. It made me want to sit right down and work on my novel. Almost.

Instead I dabbled around in the garden where I found an epic zucchini about the size of New Hampshire. As I hauled it into the house, I told it, “I can’t let YOU go to waste, now can I?”

I gave it a rinse and shredded it up in the food processor then got out my worn-out handwritten recipe for Chocolate Zucchini Cake. I’ve made this family favorite, which originally came from one of my kids’ high-school friends, zillions of times. I’ve tweaked it over the years, upping the chocolate the older I get.
Making this moist chocolately, no-frosting-needed dessert is a great way to rid yourself of those monstrous squashes that hide so well under the weeds and leaves. It can even be made on a winter’s day with store-bought zucchini because it’s great comfort food any time of year and makes the house smell like Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Be careful, because it’s highly addictive, but at least you can tell yourself you’re getting in your veggies, albeit chocolate-covered. As you can see, I like it fresh out of the oven with a cold glass of milk, but we’ve been known to eat it with whipped cream and every flavor of ice cream you can imagine.

This particular cake is traveling with me to Peaks Island tomorrow for a girls’ day out, minus one piece.  I’m using the excuse that I had to do a photo shoot for this blog. I’m not sure my friends and family will buy it, but that’s what I’m going with.

Chocolate Zucchini Cake
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease 9x13-inch pan.

1 stick unsalted butter
½ c. oil
1 ¾ c. sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
½ c. buttermilk OR ½ c. milk w/1 tsp. vinegar added-let these 2 ingredients mingle for at least 15 min.
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp.salt
6 T. cocoa
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 c. grated zucchini
2 c. chocolate chips (1 c. for batter and one cup to add on top)

Cream butter and oil w/sugar. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Combine dry ingredients and add to creamed mixture w/buttermilk. Stir in zucchini and 1 c. chocolate chips. Pour into pan. Sprinkle the other c. chocolate chips on top. Bake for 1 hour.

 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Summer Vegetables Five Ways


As I was going through my refrigerator this afternoon, I realized I had a ton of gardeny goodness to use up. I don’t really like feeding all those nutrients to the compost bin! After I put it together, I felt like a genius and just had to share. Right now my tummy is smiling and I deserve a square of dark chocolate and a glass of wine for being so clever.

I just started dicing and throwing ingredients into my big yellow bowl. Here’s what I came up with:

 


Summer Vegetables Five Ways
3-4 large tomatoes or 2 pints cherry tomatoes
1 red pepper                 
1 green pepper
2-3 jalapenos
3 stalks celery
1 med. cucumber
1/2 small red onion or 4 scallions
3 cloves garlic or garlic scapes
1 med. zucchini
Juice of 1 lemon or 2 limes
Pinch sea salt
2 handfuls baby kale, julienned

Handful cilantro, chopped, or ¼ c oregano, ¼ c. fresh parsley and ¼ c. fresh basil for an Italian flavor

Chop all the vegetables and herbs by hand or in a food processor. Combine in a big bowl with the salt and citrus juice and let stand at room temperature or in the fridge for several hours.

1.       Salsa-prepare as above and serve with chips and crudite

2.       Bruschetta-serve as above on toasted rustic bread (may want to use a slotted spoon to drain off some of the liquid.

3.       Serve as above over pasta.

4.       Gazpacho-puree half the mixture in a blender, add back into original mixture and serve with sour cream garnish

5.       Juice/Smoothie-place mixture in a blender or juicer, add tabasco sauce, if desired.

 Are we healthy or what?


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Eight


   This week I learned an important lesson: never make plans when an 8-year-old is concerned. Since granddaughter Anna and I both have a June birthday, I had the idea that we'd celebrate with a sleep-over then drive up the coast for a lunch of fried seafood and ice cream.  That sounded like an excellent way to celebrate a joint birthday, right?
   I picked Anna up at the appointed hour, thinking we’d swing into the local ‘50’s diner on the way home for a burger and a milkshake. Anna nixed that suggestion, however, letting me know she wanted vegetables. Vegetables? I’d been eating greens, cucumbers and carrots all week in preparation for this birthday splurge, but Anna insisted she really needed vegetables and within a few minutes we were sitting in the Chinese restaurant, her plate mounded with garlic green beans and sautéed broccoli. I sat next to her, feeling slightly dazed.
   Once we arrived home, Anna promptly rolled her luggage into the guestroom and popped on her nightie while I retrieved the supplies for our traditional manicure.  With one hand painted “peony” and the other painted, “pink pearl”, Anna picked out a movie and hinted around about popcorn and ice cream, explaining the reason she wanted vegetables for dinner was so she’d have room to eat more later. With her favorite tattered afghan draped across her shoulders, she curled in the Canadian rocker munching away. The moment the movie was over, she uncurled, yawned, and announced, “I’m tired. I’m going to bed.” 
   Early the next morning I heard the patter of bare feet across the hardwood floors. “Grammie”, she teased, “I’ve been waiting for you to play Memory with me.” I stumbled into the living room to find playing cards in rows on the carpet. I made tea and tried to focus, but of course, because of my sleepy state and the fact that Anna had laid out the cards and had been “practicing”, I didn’t win.
   As we ate our breakfast at the kitchen counter, I asked her if she’d like to drive up the coast, but she had her own ideas. She suggested we build a fairy house under the balsam fir in the front yard then have ramen noodles for lunch on the porch. She had it all figured out.  Although I had been looking forward to a day in Boothbay Harbor, I realized Anna had the better plan and it would certainly be more cost-effective than what I’d had in mind.
   For the next couple hours, we happily foraged for materials to build the fairies a proper home, complete with cattail-fuzz beds, rose petal duvets, rock walkways, and a pinecone and moss living-room set.
I had promised Anna a ring for her birthday so when we were ready to cool off in some air-conditioning, the two of us headed downtown where we purchased not one, but eight lovely rings at the five-and-dime. We also found a summer blouse which she put on the second we got home.

As Anna slurped down her noodles and watermelon, we watched the birds frolicking in the yard and marsh. As a matter of fact, most of the sultry afternoon was spent in this manner, with Anna utilizing the binoculars as she marveled over the bright orange shoulders on the resident red-wing black birds, exclaimed over the petite cuteness of the hummingbirds, and delighted in the family of fat brown wrens poking their heads out of their little house. Occasionally, she walked around front, looking for evidence of fairies.
 
Anna and I ended our time together by joining her mother at the strawberry patch. As I kneeled on the ground filling my baskets with the warm ripe berries, I listened to her tell Mommy about our day; about the fairies and the birds and the noodles.
It seems like only yesterday her mother was that age, but it was thirty years ago. I recall what it was like to be 8 years old myself, fifty years ago...to wear dime-store rings on my fingers. To run everywhere bare foot.  To believe in fairies. To have no plans.  To be simply, emphatically eight.
 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Four



I just spent the weekend with my lively grandson, Abel, who is quick to tell anyone who's listening (or not) how old he is. I have to admit that for as long as I can remember, four- year-olds have always intrigued me. I love how spontaneous and unaffected they are, how independent and free-spirited, and how incredibly smart they are.  For instance, when Abel stated he was "feeling juicy" as he wiped his hands on his shirt after consuming a vast quantity of watermelon, I suggested that just maybe he needed a bath. With one eyebrow raised, he looked me up and down and exclaimed, "That would make me feel even more watery!" 

Okay. I found it interesting that the word "sticky" was not brought into the conversation. I could see that he also considered it a great imposition to wash his hands when he came inside from playing T-ball. Again, he considered swiping his grimy hands across the front of his shirt Good Enough.  Again, I got The Raised Eyebrow.

The weekend didn't go quite according to plan, but Mr. Master Negotiator managed to work everything out. After enjoying a cheeseburger with ketchup, a game of golf on the Wii, two stories and five bedtime songs, I tucked him into the trundle bed in my office. He balked at first because the bedspread was different than last time he was here. I had to show him that the reversible quilt was the same, just flipped around. Somehow, he managed to convince me to turn it over.  We kissed. We hugged. We talked about the plans for the morning.  I suggested we go to "Betty's Homestyle Cooking" for breakfast, but he scowled just like "Calvin" in the famous comic strip and announced he was going to "Boot 'n Buckle"

Alas, our planned overnight deteriorated when Abel adamantly decided my doors "weren't strong enough to hold out bad people" and he wanted to sleep in his own bed. At his house. Across town. No amount of cajoling, bribery, or showing him the alarm system (the noise it made was scary), could convince him otherwise. Thank goodness it was only 9 p.m. and not 2 a.m., when I would not have been so easily swayed.

In short order, he was toted out to my vehicle and driven home with the promise that I would return to fetch him in 12 hours. On the drive back to his house, I consoled myself by listening to "Wake Me in the Night", a song written for his boy by my son-in-law, Chris Lajoie, a member of the band, String Tide. When Abel  was snuggling into his daddy’s arms in the driveway, he conceded we could go to my breakfast place of choice, further melting my heart. 

As  promised,I showed up at 9 a.m. where I was once again greeted by my favorite four-year-old, dressed in his fluorescent orange ball cap and fleece jacket. A very sleepy Mommy and Daddy, still clad in their jammies, let me know that just because a certain someone went to bed late does not equate to a morning of sleeping in. Apparently, Abel’s feet had hit the floor well before 6:00 a.m. I snickered silently to myself, trying not to let on that I had slept until 8:15.

After taking the little guy off their hands, we headed to “Betty’s” where my grandson slurped down a glass of apple juice in two seconds flat then devoured a pile of bacon and one bite of an English muffin. He was more than ready to start his day and we were off to play lacrosse in my backyard followed by Wii in the living room. When noon arrived he was ravenous but that didn’t stop him from giving me strict instructions on how to prepare his grilled cheese sandwich, saying “to make it look burned, but don’t really burn it.”  Got it. There’s nothing like a kid who thinks he’s a grilled cheese connoisseur.  

Another thing I like about people this age: they don’t beat around the bush. They say what’s on their minds, like, “You smell.” “That tastes yucky." "That shirt is ugly.” See, you know where you stand, which saves all kinds of time and energy. 

I also like their practicality. For example, Abel often skips wearing pajamas, opting to put on a clean set of clothes at night so when he wakes at the crack of dawn, he’s ready to seize the day. I wouldn’t recommend this to a business executive, but for someone who plays in the dirt making motor sounds and rearranging rocks, I think it’s a pretty good idea.

As you can see, Abel is always teaching me something new, but right now I need to go take a nap. It’s been an awfully busy couple of days.