Fall Cleaning

It’s that time of year where all the bugs are at their most visibly industrious. Spiders weave vast and complicated webs every night outside, and fill the undusted corners of the house (so, all the corners) with messy spun-sugar looking masses. Hummingbirds fattening up for migration vie for the feeders with European hornets as large as they are. Crickets, some kind of little black beetle, ladybugs, and ALL the stink bugs suddenly want to come in to the house. I want to open all the windows to the glorious fall weather, but that means I am also opening them to the bugs to find all the gaps in the screens and the windowframes. I don’t love sharing my house with bugs, but most of all I don’t love sharing my bed with them – or my clothes. Stink bugs seem to be the only bugs who think that’s a good idea and as usual at this time of year I am puzzled as to why.

The bugs, if they are paying attention to me, may be equally puzzled by the purpose of my version of autumnal industry. I’m having an organizing spree, so far split between the basement (where I work, and therefore where the dogs and I spend most of our days), and two outbuildings which have both partially housed horse equipment, garden tools, and hay, and which I am converting to one single-purpose tack barn and one single-purpose hay barn. I guess that makes three outbuildings, as I am also moving the gardening tools and anything else that doesn’t belong in any of these three catagories to the horse barn, which has not housed horses since we put in the run-in sheds a dozen or more years ago.

Though I am making dump runs in all of this – it’s amazing how often we seem to decide we aren’t going to use something any more and instead of getting rid of it we put it on a shelf – but I’m trying to moderate my default organizing method which I call “throw it all away.” This means that, to the inconvenience of the spiders and stink bugs and crickets, and to the bemusement of the dogs, I am taking things off shelves, cleaning the shelves, moving the shelves to another place, and then putting things back on the shelves. Not always the same shelves, or the same things, as I move items from one space to another, but I imagine the finer points are lost on the bugs. As far as the dogs are concerned, the main benefit to this is that I may occasionally unearth a lacrosse ball or other forgotten toy.

I’m also trying to moderate getting lost in the minutiae of what I’m organizing. I’m throwing away obvious trash, but not otherwise going through things in a lot of detail, because if I start that I know I’ll just wind up sitting on the floor looking at old photographs and notes from when the kids were little, and the basement will continue to look like the aftermath of a fairly gentle earthquake. And I will not – NOT – start cleaning tack in the tack barn. Yet.

Occasionally I find something that is useful and that I know we will no longer use, and then I put it up for sale online. Sometimes (as with a meat grinder I just sold), this involves digging for parts in multiple cabinets, and also looking for owner’s manuals. Last night I was looking for a manual before listing another item. We have a very orderly drawer with file folders for each appliance, up to a point. We also have a cabinet in the kitchen with a pile of stuff in it, and sometimes this is where the manuals for kitchen appliances end up. In my search last night, I did not find the manual I was looking for, though when I put the appliance in question back in its cabinet after photographing it for the add, I saw that the manual was there already. What I did find was the manual for my old LG flip phone, which I used from roughly 2005-2011, a book on deck-building, a recipe for Amish cinnamon bread from my youngest child’s elementary school (she just turned 31), three versions of the recipe for my mother’s truffles (one in my writing and two in hers), a recipe also in my mother’s writing for Truly Awful Cake (I’ve been making this cake for over thirty years and only just discovered it’s supposed to be made in a bundt tin), and what will have to be the lead recipe for my food blog, Mystery Recipes. This recipe reads in its entirety:

2 c. flour
2 c. sugar
3/4 c. cocoa
1 t b powder
1/2 t salt
1 c water
3/4 c oil
1 t vanilla
2 T coffee
350
dry
add wet
15 min (or less)

There’s no title, and no reference to a pan or a shape or a number. It can’t be brownies, because that’s way too much flour, and it can’t be cake, because of the baking time. It doesn’t say anything about forming cookies, though that’s my current best guess. I figure for my food blog I can just post the recipes as I wrote them, and then see how many different food products can be made from the ingredients and method (such as it is). Prizes for the most edible result.

Prior to this mystery recipe I had thought my version of the truffle recipe, jotted down in a conversation with my mother 20 or 30 years ago, was my most cryptic. This one at least says “truffles” at the top, and if the method is abbreviated (and it is – it consists of the following two lines:
“choc, butter – double boiler
add etc – wisk – cool – toss”)
at least I have made them enough that *I* know what I am talking about (even if I apparently don’t know how to spell “whisk”). More puzzling to me is how I wound up with two versions of the recipe in my mother’s handwriting. One of them is probably the original. It is covered with chocolate – one’s hands get very chocolatey while shaping the truffles and coating them in cocoa, and it has notes in three different pens. “Florence’s truffles” is squinched in at the tops as an afterthought in a green felt tip ink. We all think of these as my mother’s truffles, but the recipe came from a friend from her job at the Renwick. The recipe is, in the main, written in blue ball point, and abbreviated (though not as abbreviated as my version). Clarifying notes (“about a teaspoon” next to “rum brandy or vanilla,” and “with cocoa in bag” next to “toss”) are in black felt tip. I can see the exact pens in my mind – my father was forever bring home bags of pens from which finding one that worked was like a much less deadly but more annoying form of Russian roulette – and I recognize each of these inks and the pens they came from. The other one is written on a post card of Bolinas Bay, which doesn’t really give me any clues about the time frame. This one contains the instruction “leave in icebox overnight” and now I’m trying to remember when the last time was that I heard someone call a fridge an icebox, and if it was something my parents stopped saying at some point. For some reason it makes me a little sad to think they did.

The strangest thing about my mother’s two Florence’s Truffles recipes and her Truly Awful Cake recipe is that I have no idea how they got into my cabinet of random papers. I’m quite sure she didn’t give them to me, so they must have been something I chose to keep from her things after she died. Or possibly even after my father died seven years after her: maybe they were in her desk, for some odd reason, or maybe they were still in the kitchen. I have no recollection of finding them or choosing them. Indeed, as far as I can recall, last night was the first time I saw any of them.

I have never had a dream about my mother since she died, and aside from sensing her strongly when I have gone to Wolf Trap, I don’t feel her presence very often. Still, she shows up in ways that are very her. One of the few things I do remember keeping from her things is a t-shirt from the National Zoo for their Boo in the Zoo Halloween event. Eight years after she died, I grabbed it one night to wear as a night shirt, and found after turning off the light that it glows in the dark. These recipes of hers seem like another of her little surprises. It’s not quite truffle season yet – they are a thing we make at Christmas time, though they are not at all Christmasy. Just a tradition, of which we had precious few as a family. I like having her company while I continue my organizing. And I appreciate the reminder that some things I will never get rid of.

Let Her Eat Cake

My friend Elaine died last Tuesday. I knew it when I woke up that morning, but having it confirmed still took my breath away. The first thing I thought when I heard the news, right after “damn it to hell,” was “I need to make her a cake.” I am quite sure it is the memorial she would most have wanted from me, and it is the one I most want to give her.

Her death from cancer was no surprise. I met her through an online writing group in which many of us began blogs. Her blog was called a horse, a husband, and cancer, and in it she openly discussed her 30 year battle with cancer. More than anyone I have ever known, Elaine recognized the relationship she had with her cancer – the actual til death do us part nature of it. Before I even knew her, her doctors had deemed her cancer incurable, terminal. So no, it was not a surprise. And yet. How can she be dead?

We met through our writing. We bonded through our shared interests in horses and baking, and our dark senses of humor. We became friends through our blogs. In Ann Patchett’s Story of A Happy Marriage, a friend asks Ann of her first husband, “Does he make you a better person? … Are you smarter, kinder, more generous, more compassionate, a better writer?” And to all of these things, but especially the last one, I can say a resounding yes about Elaine.

Ours was a writing friendship, something I didn’t even knew I needed or could have. We were motivated and inspired by each other because of how much we loved each other’s writing. Each blog post, each comment, each tangential discussion was fodder for our next writing efforts. Reading each other’s work was a pleasure in itself, and it also made us both want to write more. We never tried to be editor or critic for the other; we were just enthusiastic readers and sources of more material. “Just,” I say, as if those aren’t the things we writers want most. Fairly early on Elaine said to me, “But most of all I want you to write more because the subject almost didn’t matter, I just want your words,” and that is exactly how I felt – how I feel – about her writing.

Elaine began posting a weekly blog last spring, and I was inspired to do the same when I realized how eagerly I read her words first thing every Thursday over my morning coffee. It was like getting an anticipated letter in the mail (and oh, I miss letters), ripping open the envelope and starting to read right there at the mailbox, the letter in one hand and the torn envelope in the other. When I started posting on Mondays, she read and responded to my work as avidly as I did hers. We said we had a biweekly tea date – well, tea for her on Mondays, coffee for me on Thursdays – as we sat down with a hot drink (and maybe cake) and each other’s words. When I was stuck for an idea I would sometimes think, “What do I want to tell Elaine about this week?”

We grew up in different countries, different decades, different families, different schools. Sometimes we wrote about the parts of our lives that had no intersection, and we learned things from and about each other. Sometimes we wrote about the same topics – cake, for example – cake was always central for us – and all the things that baking represents, and the people and rituals it connects us to. Birds, and how they helped us find our way to dead relatives (my sister, her mother). I often wrote about death – of family members, of beloved animals. Elaine often wrote about her cancer, her own death looming far or near on the horizon.

Of course we wrote about our horses. We each had a truth serum horse – the kind of horse that doesn’t let us get away with any of our shit, the kind of horse that requires us to be our truest, most honest, most vulnerable selves in their presence. We both had a tendency to armor up with humor and a veneer of toughness when facing fear, and those truth serum horses have no patience with that. Last summer, Elaine wrote a multi-part series about her horse, Bruce: his life prior to her, and his life with her. Part fact, part conjecture, all truth, she brought him to vivid life for her readers. Less than two months later he was dead from colic. Shocking, unexpected, heartbreaking. And yet I also see that Bruce blazed the trail for Elaine to follow not long after. Shocking, expected, heartbreaking.

In her last message to me, just a few days before she entered hospice, Elaine related her recent terrifying hospital visit in a typically dry yet hilarious way. Her last words to me were “I miss Bruce like my heart is breaking and I might never get to meet you.” My last words to her were “I miss your voice,” and I always will. Until I heard of her death I held out hope that I would get to see her in person for our long promised tea and cake visit, but I know us. Bruce was waiting, and we would both agree with a paraphrased John Muir: “The horses are calling, and I must go.”

The last thing I wrote that I know Elaine read was my Christmas Bat piece, which I wrote because it was a story she asked me for. It began, though, with my explanation that I was giving her the story because I was not able to deliver the 10 layer Russian honey cake she had also asked for. I also wrote of my sadness over the prospect of my friend’s death. Her reply to that was “I expect your friend will change her mind and decide to wait for the layer cake. I know I would. And with covid restrictions, exchange rate, costly flights etc, it might take a looooong time til you deliver the cake to her?” I wanted that time. I can’t separate how much I wanted it for her and how much I wanted it for me. I can honestly say that I would have traded ever meeting her in person for her getting as much life as she wanted. I also know I would have wanted to keep sharing that life, even if only from across the ocean.

I started this piece the day she died. I almost posted it that day, but I knew it was not finished. I revised, and rewrote, and chainsaw-edited. I almost posted it on Thursday, Elaine’s day, but I was still revising. By Friday I realized that as long as I am working on this, I have her with me in a way I won’t when I finish it. Part of me can still pretend that she will read it. The rest of me is grieving daily as I write. I need both the illusion and the grief right now.

When I make Elaine’s cake, it will most certainly be that 10 layer Russian honey cake. It is complicated, time consuming, and it will give me many hours of preparation and baking and construction to commune with her in my kitchen. I will cut it into thin slices and freeze it, to make it last for as many Thursdays as possible.

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
E.B. White

To read Elaine’s words please go to her blog: a horse, a husband, and cancer

Fill-in-the-blank Thanksgiving

I’m looking forward to an uneventful Thanksgiving this year. Thanksgiving was our main holiday when I was a kid. Christmas was exciting for the gifts (which Santa left on our dining room table, since we had no tree), and we had a meal for each holiday – roast beef for Christmas, ham for Easter – but it was usually just my parents and us three sisters. I get to make up my own stories about why, since I didn’t ask when my parents were alive and now there’s no one to ask. I assume it had to do with religious holidays being a loaded topic in a family of mixed religious background where no one in fact practiced any religion. Plus both my parents came from small families, and neither of my parents much enjoyed spending time with their own (or each others’) parents.

My mother worked at one of the Smithsonian galleries from the time I was in first grade, and the Smithsonian is open every day of the year but Christmas. This was something my mother often objected to – “The Smithsonian is an American institution so if it is going to be closed on just one day per year it should be an American holiday like Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July, and not a religious holiday like Christmas” – but I don’t recall her actually objecting to working on the day. Maybe because when she did, my father had to do most of the holiday cooking.

We had very traditional foods when we were all still living at home. Turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, canned cranberry jelly, Pepperidge Farm bread stuffing from a bag. Probably green beans – it seems the vegetables have not stayed in my mind. Something green, for sure. Not sweet potatoes; I think I was in my twenties before I ever tasted a sweet potato. My favorite things to do to prepare the meal were making the roux for the gravy and ricing the potatoes for the mashed potatoes with the already ancient potato ricer which lives on in my kitchen today, discolored metal, chipped orange paint on the handles and all.

We were more likely to have friends of my parents over for Thanksgiving than other holidays. At some point when I was not much older than ten, we started having all holidays with my father’s friend Stan, after his wife died in her early forties. The holidays I remember more specifically tended to involve Stanley (I wrote about one of my favorite Stanley Thanksgivings in The Pack – it was Rose’s first holiday with my family and I’m still amazed she didn’t run screaming into the night).

We also started to drift from the more traditional elements of the Thanksgiving meal. My oldest sister married a vegetarian, my middle sister moved to the other side of the country and then to the other side of the ocean, Rose and I started to develop our own traditions at our own house. A fairly common Thanksgiving meal at my parents’ house became a chicken, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce from Boston Market, several tofu and vegetable options from a Chinese restaurant, and pumpkin pie made by my brother-in-law.

Rose and I have gone back and forth with the traditions. More often than not, we have made the traditional meal, though not always on the traditional day. Our kids often had the actual Thanksgiving meal with their father’s family, and then we’d have our celebration with them on Friday or Saturday. Rose makes the world’s best stuffing, and I think any of us would be just as happy eating only that. One year we were all fed up with holidays and we ordered Thai food from a local restaurant. The restaurant was closed on the holiday but the owner insisted that the spring rolls would not be good the next day. He and his wife came in on Thanksgiving just to make our food despite our best efforts to talk them out of it.

By the time both of my sisters and I were doing our own Thanksgiving things, my parents started going to my mother’s sister’s house for Thanksgiving weekend. It was during these events that the individual years began to earn names. There was the Ten Cat Thanksgiving, when my aunt was fostering seven tiny kittens in her jacuzzi tub, in addition to her regular three full grown cats. There was the Appendicitis Thanksgiving, when my cousin’s husband had to have an emergency appendectomy. We unwittingly continued this tradition three years ago with the Home from the Hospital Thanksgiving, when my middle son (then 29) had a stroke four days before the holiday, and thankfully recovered brilliantly and was released on Thanksgiving day.

So yes, I’m looking forward to an uneventful day. I know it will be the Pandemic Thanksgiving just by definition, but I’m hoping for a low drama day. It will just be me and Rose. Our kids are now doing their own things, too, though in a normal year we would see at least one of them. We are going to have a scaled down traditional meal. Well, at least the turkey will be scaled down to a breast. I look forward to doing something called spatchcocking it, which sounds far more entertaining than it is. Rose will, I sincerely hope, make enough stuffing for the whole family. And if we need a little excitement, maybe I will cook another spaghetti squash whole. The Exploding Squash Thanksgiving has kind of a nice ring to it.