At your mother’s knee

I am beginning work on a illustrated collection of excerpts from my family’s letters. My son and I talked about the examples I’ve used so far and found that his recollection (of my communications with him) is vastly different than the advice I heard from my parents. This is a partial list for Mother’s Day 201o: amusing, and not a little weird.

In no particular order, although I suspect the examples that he remembers most vividly come first:

Baba Yaga eats people. Always has. Always will.

Never play cards for money in a place you can’t leave.

Always trade up.

There’s nothing that can’t be fixed with the  judicious amount of accellerant.

Sleep is a weapon.

Never fall in love with  someone with more problems than you. And, there are a lot of people out there with more problems than you. (I should add that this rule has been flung down and danced on in our household.)

Dress like you had to walk home.

If you get to salt water, turn around.

If you don’t know what color it is, it isn’t purple.

That’s higher than it looks from down here.

The Rent-a-cop won’t think it’s funny. Don’t take it personally.

Remember where you parked.

Wish my mom had told me the one about Baba Yaga. . .

Jerusalem Airlift continued – Easter, 1974

I’ve remembered enough of the big old kitchen on the corner of Tunxis and Jerome to start a fairly substantial drawing. The 12′ ceilings made the perspective difficult to work out correctly, but the proportions are nicely balanced in a room with four large windows, four doors and enough floor space to accommodate three tables. These are only the children who would have been present for Easter dinner – there were probably a like number of adults that year. Below are the text selections for the illustration:

Dad has planted all the early things: peas, carrots, lettuce, beets, onions, turnips, cabbages and parsnip. The rest of the garden is still to be spaded up. The little daffodils are up under the lilacs out front, and by the back door, but only the ones near the back door have bloomed.

We went to mother’s. Aunt C. was there too. Uncle Bert was bowling in the a.m. We had delicious leg of lamb, mint jelly, tossed salad, peas, mashed potato, gravy, mashed turnips, rolls and ginger bread with whipped cream. Also had toffee-crunch and heavenly hash ice cream.

Technical difficulties. . .

This blog is broken, sadly. The only problem is with uploading images, but of course I’m all about the images. We’ll be taking down the site later  today and putting something back up and quite possibly no one will be the wiser. On the other hand, this might be a new and unrecognizable entity by Monday and it’s only fair to leave a message.

I memorize a poem each season, using the time I spend commuting to work and the conference calls and meetings to which I go, but am not expected to contribute past putting out the occasional fire.  My choice for Winter 2010 seems strangely appropriate, so I’m leaving it here as a placeholder. “You, if any open this writing. . .”

Epistle to be Left in the Earth

…It is colder now
there are many stars
we are drifting
North by the Great Bear
the leaves are falling
The water is stone in the scooped rock
to southward
Red sun grey air
the crows are
Slow on their crooked wings
the jays have left us

Long since we passed the flares of Orion
Each man believes in his heart he will die
Many have written last thoughts and last letters
None know if our deaths are now or forever
None know if this wandering earth will be found

We lie down and the snow covers our garments
I pray you
you (if any open this writing)
Make in your mouths the words that were our names
I will tell you all we have learned
I will tell you everything

The earth is round
there are springs under the orchards
The loam cuts with a blunt knife
beware of
Elms in thunder
the lights in the sky are stars
We think they do not see
we think also
The trees do not know nor the leaves of the grasses hear us
The birds too are ignorant
do not listen
Do not stand at dark in the open windows
We before you have heard this
they are voices
They are not words at all but the wind rising
Also noone among us has seen God
(… We have thought often
the flaws of sun in the late and driving weather
pointed to one tree but it was not so.)
As for the nights I warn you the nights are dangerous
The wind changes at night and the dreams come

It is very cold
there are strange stars near Arcturus
Voices are crying an unknown name in the sky

Archibald MacLeish

Compass Harbor

Wednesday I had a stuffy day, full of stuffy doctors’ offices stuffed with sick people and lab tests, so when the end of the day rolled around, I took a walk.

Compass Harbor was the home of George Dorr, Acadia National Park’s first superintendent and the “Father of Acadia”. Dorr Mountain looms over the foundations of the house that are all that’s left from the Great Fire, and the stone stairs that sweep down to the ocean. Huge trees have grown up along the easy walk from Rte. 3 to the Harbor, including many exotic escapees from the formal gardens that once surrounded the estate.

I walked down the trail (you can’t really call it hiking) all the way to the point, and the view down Bar Harbor and the Porcupine Islands. Bald Porcupine boasts a 2,500′ breakwater that protects the harbor from southern storms. Local legend has it that J. P. Morgan paid for the Army Corp of Engineers to build it in 1918, to keep his 340′ yacht “Corsair” from rocking too much during cocktail hour. Meanwhile, George Dorr was building “Dorr’s Swimming Pool” – a much more modest project that still involved several tons of cut square blocks of granite. The walls enclosed a shallow part of the harbor with a sandy beach, so that his caretaker’s children could paddle safely in the warmer water no matter what the tide. You can still see the blocks, forced apart now by storms, and the little beach. Somehow the unseasonably balmy day and the setting sun gave the rich man’s project a little glow of affection; lessened the annoying overlay of privilege and exposed the huge, ruined, expensive project as a passing gift from an old man to someone else’s children.

Jerusalem Airlift

Jerusalem is an adjective in my family; it denotes a similarity in a New World object to something from the Old. Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) isn’t even remotely related to an artichoke, but the taste is similar. Jerusalem Cherry, (olanum pseudocapsicum), is a member of the nightshade family with poisonous fruit – small, round, bright red fruit that look something like cherries. The Old World names were good enough, but the distinction had to be made lest you make a fatal pie out of New World cherries.

My family wrote hundreds of letters when I went away to college. Going away to college was new, but they’d had experience with going away to war and that’s how they approached it. Hundreds of letters about food. About their lives back home, actually – but I’d never realized that food was so much the overarching motif of those lives. I’m working the letters up into a collection. The Old World sent food, but the New sent a facsimile – a Jerusalem Airlift.

Mary came back to the Firehouse after, and we arranged platters of meats, breads and salads for 100. They gave us much more and also sent a beautiful whole ham for Mother and Ben. Dad cut it in chunks last night with the big knife so it could be divided easily. Mother froze the bone for soup later on. PS Thought I’d send nuts – maybe you can use a hammer and something for a pick.

It is supposed to snow this afternoon 2 – 8″ stopping around midnight. I am working overtime tomorrow, then on Sunday we are having your father’s birthday party. He wants that coconut pineapple cake of Doris Watkins’. It always falls apart, but he always asks for it.

I have plenty of excerpts to work with, and hope to begin setting up material to draw as illustrations. (I’m going to skip the ham.) A perfect frontspiece for the book, I think, will be a picture of me standing ghostly in the back yard, holding a layer cake.

Somebody’s Grandma’s Banana Bread

Occasionally I forget to look around the house before I find myself in the grocery store on lunch hour, wondering if we have bananas. And then we end up with too many bananas.

This is a terrific recipe for banana bread, but it’s not my grandmother’s. For one thing, no one in my family is “Grandma”. Women who’s children have children are addressed by their name, say “Martha”, or by their title and surname, as in “Grandma Burnham”. That goes double for recipe cards. The card for this recipe is so stained and creased that I’m not sure who wrote it but it doesn’t matter. This is the fix for when you’ve been to the store without a list. Again.

Grandma’s Banana Bread/Cake

Preheat oven to 350 and grease and flour a 9″ tube pan.

Toast 1/2 C walnuts or pecans in a frying pan until “sweating” and fragrant. Process them in the food processor until chopped fairly small. Don’t clean the bowl. Empty the nuts into a bowl and mix with 1 Tbs of the flour and spice mixture below. Sometimes I add 1/2 C raisins to the mix. Set aside. This recipe calls for 1 C mashed bananas. I regularly throw 3 into the cuisinart and process until smooth. I think you get more banana taste that way. Set aside.

Combine in a small bowl: 2 C flour (can be partially whole wheat), 2 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp nutmeg, 1/2 tsp allspice (optional, but I like it).

In a large bowl cream 1/2 C shortening (I use melted butter, but anything goes here), 1 C sugar. Add two eggs and 1 tsp vanilla and beat well. Use neighbor-lady eggs if you can get them.

Add the flour mixture, then the bananas, then the nuts and stir everything together. Dump it into the tube pan and spread evenly. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the bread is quite browned on top and firm to the touch.

I’ve frosted this bread with orange cream cheese frosting (which is delicious), but more often I serve it with butter and jam for tea.

I had a friend, years ago, who couldn’t stomach the tiny pieces of flour that occasionally stick to the walnuts and raisins in this cake. I found him picking them out at the dinner table one night, and thereafter mixed the nuts with cocoa so it didn’t show. I have no idea how wide-spread that affliction may be, so use that information if you have to, down the line.

Our hardy ancestors. . .dog

Here is a photo of my grandmother’s dog. She took the picture, so I imagine that shadow at the front of the photo is my grandmother. Her dog was known to be fiercely protective and not dependably obedient but he sits here for his picture – perhaps distracted by something over her shoulder. He looks like he might be a really good dog.

This is one of my favorite pictures in our vast collection of family snapshots. Together with the one below they were held in a tiny, fragile wooden frame with glass wired in, like they might have belonged to a young girl for a very long time.

I wish someone had written his name on the back one of these. No one knows it now.