Chicory and jewelweed

So, my life is pretty much pandemonium right now. Word just came that our pastor died on Friday. I just got back from a 9 day tour of California that started with my grandmother’s funeral and ended with a work conference. Piemas is happening this coming weekend. I have international travel planned the week after Piemas. My husband is traveling for a week in there. Holy Week hits then, with the church services and trumpeting. I have a great candidate (Anthony Wilson) running for Stoneham Town Selectman whom I’d really like to support. And to top it all off, Grey has a three month research project due on Beethoven – which is brilliant teaching but requires real work to be done at home. I need to finish the final report on the Mission Study Taskforce (maybe Grey and I can work on our reports together?) And I promised the Historical Commission I’d kick off a project to get some signs for Nobility Hill “at the beginning of the new year” (a time quickly passing).

I swamped!

So what does a Brenda do when she’s swamped?

Time for some good old-fashioned escapist daydreams.

Chicory - helping solve the "no coffee if you're lost in the woods" problem
Chicory – helping solve the “no coffee if you’re lost in the woods” problem

I’d love to hear what your favorite daydreams are and were. But a preferred genre of mine is the frontierswoman/forager fantasy. I read “My Side of the Mountain” at a tender age, shortly after having read the extremely influential “Nya Nuki: Shoshone Girl Who Ran“. Both of these books include children whose ingenuity in living off the land and foraging offered a kind of independence – not just from grownups, but from civilization itself. I desperately wanted to be the sort of girl who could safely skin a porcupine, or tan my own leather clothing in an oak stump. I even (oh bliss!) lived in the middle of the woods. Real woods. The kind of woods where if you got lost you were in deep trouble. Woods that had deer and bear and cougars. (I actually saw a cougar in person once only a few miles from my home. Memorable.)

Surely with a hatchet, all the information I’d gleaned from many re-readings of both books (plus Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe and several of the other classics – this was actually before “Hatchet”) I’d be all set to live off the land. I was pretty happy and had no desire to run away from home, but I planned out how I could make it work with my extensive skills if needed.

My favorite northwest trail snack
My favorite northwest trail snack

Only one problem – I had no skills. Sure, I knew the uses of a handful of plants. Wood sorrel is extremely tasty and I still often grab a few when I’m wandering in the woods (happily I didn’t eat enough to discover that overconsumption can lead to kidney stones). There’s an abundant plant in the Cascades called Vanilla Leaf that smells great. I was unaware of its insect repelling properties, but had sachets of it tied in my closet for years. (I’ll probably gather another one this year!) I knew to rub the immature heads of fiddles on my nettle stings (somehow I managed to encounter either nettles or blackberries almost every time I went into the woods). The blackberries of the west are so prolific and numerous that it’s hard to imagine anyone going hungry in August from their sheer abundance. I enjoyed a huckleberry from an old stump as much as the next girl.

But that was about it. I never fished. I never hunted. And I didn’t have any other plants in my repertoire. I would’ve gotten hungry right fast. And I could never find a book that taught me what I wanted to know…

Mountain bog gentian. Mom and I had been looking for this for years!
Mountain bog gentian. Mom and I had been looking for this for years!

I tried various things during my life to remedy this. I looked for books on plants at the library. They were all arcane and above my head and didn’t have nearly enough pictures. I tried to take a class on Ethnobotany in college. They denied me. Something about “300 level botany class” and “your only science course was Chemistry for English Majors”. Mom and I had a precious book of flowers we took with us backpacking and managed to bag almost all of them, except the Mountain Bog Gentian (above) which took me nearly 20 years.

But I was no nearer my goal of wilderness sustenance. I’d read “survivalist” books while camping, but so many of them are long on concept and short on the sort of detail you want before you put a wild plant in your mouth.

Then, the other day I was in Barnes and Noble with a $20 gift certificate ALL FOR ME. I wandered through the shelves of this actual physical book store. And I came across Northeast Foraging, by Leda Meredith.

Northeast Foraging

Folks, this is the book I’ve been waiting for my whole life. It has great, clear pictures. It has instructions on when to find this stuff, and where. It tells you how to use the parts that are useful. It helpfully informs you about risks or dangers or poisonous lookalikes. It even tells you if the plant is endangered or not. (My favorite lines come from some of the more invasive plants. She says about sustainably harvesting japanese knotweed “You’re joking right? … I guarantee that despite your most ambitious collecting, it will survive. Harvest at will.”

You know Japanese knotweed, whether or not you realize it
You know Japanese knotweed, whether or not you realize it

I’ve been reading about a few plants every night, and it’s awesome. In the pages of this book, I’ve met many old friends whose names I never knew. I used to play with plantain on the playground (man, I would have LOVED to have known uses for it back then!) I first met chicory the first summer I actually spent in New England and have long admired it from the car window. There’s a mulberry tree on the walk to Lindenwood which I now intend to raid this fall. I’ve seen the odd-looking stands of mayapples and the spring-loaded seed-pods of jewelweed provided me with many a happy moment of lightly touching them to make them go SPROING! But I never knew their names, or uses. It’s such a pleasure to finally come to know a friend you’ve known by sight for a long time.

There are some that are theoretically common which I’ve never seen. Perhaps I’m too north in the range. (Thinking of you, paw-paws!)

But now, in the midst of this tumultuous period, I go to sleep thinking of the old friends, the past walks, and the future adventures I’ll have trying to find and eat some of these.

What do you like to daydream of? Which daydreams did you have as a kid that you’ve sadly lost in grownuphood? (Or did they evolve?)

Fifteen years

Fifteen years ago today I woke up as Brenda Johnstone for the last time. It was a bright, clear August day in Washington State when I exchanged vows in a tiny white church with my beloved. The whole congregation was there. My family was in force. His family had a long way to travel, but came too. Some intrepid college friends made the transcontinental journey.

Man and wife.

I remember that a big beetle got caught in the lace of my mother’s wedding dress. My left knee shook through the whole service. Adam wouldn’t stop mouthing “I love you”. My brother forgot a verse of the Wedding Song (a faux pas he’ll never be allowed to forget). I insisted on Wagner’s version of Lohengrin’s Bridal March for the processional and Medelssohn’s proper recessional. But we did not have live music. We used the same version of the wedding vows my parents had used – and have claimed ever since that “I slipped Elden a $20 to add ____ to the vows.” (Usually “entertain me”) (Elden’s integrity and incorruptibility is what make that so funny.) At the buffet reception there was chocolate cake, Martinelli’s sparkling cider (it was a dry wedding) and an espresso van.

That night I fell asleep in a bug-ridden nearby bed and breakfast as Brenda Flynn, for the first time.

The college crowd

Fifteen years is a long time. If you’re thinking “I didn’t think Brenda was that old!” Well. I was 21 on that bright August day. Fifteen years, three homes, two children. Fifteen years also marks the length of time we’ve been playing once a week with the same gamers, and how long we’ve been members of our church. These are not coincidental numbers. That day fifteen years ago marks not only the beginning of my married life, but my adult life. It’s been a wonderful, joyful fifteen years.

If I had it all to do over again, I would joyfully do so.

Still newlyweds

The Bay of Fundy

While my parents and children were off exploring colonial America (and being Very Hot in the process), Adam and I took an alternate track and went up North to the Bay of Fundy.

I struggled quite a bit with what to do this vacation. I knew it would be happening, as it’s a crying shame not to go on vacation with your spouse when your parents are taking your children for a week. For a while I dabbled with the South of France, but after a very lovely month off and tropical island vacation between jobs, that seemed a touch financially irresponsible. (Tragically. Still saving it for next time.) So then I figured we’d go camping in Canada. You know – like the White Mountains only with Tim Hortons. I did not very much research, no prebooking, and very little planning. I knew I wanted to see the Joggins Cliffs. I knew the Bay of Fundy was internationally renowned for have the world’s largest tidal differences. I knew it was a Dark Sky preserve. And I knew it was in Canada. On this vast wealth of knowledge we went on vacation.

On Friday we went to a very swank French restaurant in Boston (the meal there may have cost us as much as the rest of the week put together) and walked across a glowing Boston back to where my car was parked at my office in Cambridge. Then Saturday we packed and headed north. The first night we spent in Bangor (which might be the first time I’ve ever used rewards miles for anything). The second day, we listened to podcasts and hit the Bay of Fundy National Park. We went to the middle of nowhere, took a right, and drove for another hour on mosquito-ridden roads to get to Point Wolfe Campground. I’d picked it because it seemed rural, tent-focused, and was right near the bay we’d come so far to see.

It wasn't bad when we were by ourselves, but a bit crowded when four other families were there.
You are seeing four campsites in this picture.

It was also, it turns out, crammed cheek-to-jowl and lit with obnoxious street lights. (Which seriously – National Park in a dark sky reserve with street lights?!?! What are you thinking, people?!) The sites were also often too small for us to pitch our (granted – enormous) tent on. We picked the least bad site and thought dark thoughts about switching campgrounds, although we were too lazy.

We thought it looked like Venus, or some other planet.
We thought it looked like Venus, or some other planet.

That first night we came in was beyond foggy. We kept driving past these viewpoints that claimed to be veiwpoints that were really fog-points. It started raining almost as soon as we entered Canada, and not a day on vacation was without its precipitation. But that first night was the foggiest. We went down the trail in the dying light to the Wolfe Point beach. We walked and walked on slick rocks and red clay and never found the ocean – it was too far out. Our shoes and pants were covered nearly to the knee in the reddest of clay. It was otherworldly in the mist, as we could not even hear the sound of waves and mountains appeared and disappeared to our right and left. As we slept that night, raindrops fell on our head through the thin cover of our tent-sides.

Rocks in the fog
Rocks in the fog

On Monday we went to Cape Enrage. With the timing that evinced my careful preparation and thought, we were there at high tide (which meant we couldn’t see very much). We opted not to do the zip line or rappelling, but we spent a long time sorting through rocks finding all manner of 320 million year old fossils. We thoroughly enjoyed the treasure hunt of finding the fossils. In fact, so much of my photography of this journey was fossil-related I have an entire album of fossils from Cape Enrage and Joggins Cliffs (penultimate day) which you can see here. We also got some dulse. Gamers beware.

Adam examines the cliff faces at Cape Enrage
Adam examines the cliff faces at Cape Enrage

It should be noted that someone (who would that be?) quite literally did not think for a minute about the well known fact that our cell coverage does not extend to Canada. We grabbed 15 minutes of wifi a day by parking outside of the National Park headquarters, and once or twice dining in establishments that offered free wifi. We navigated with actual paper maps and brochures. How very odd it was!

I handed the camera to Adam
Me, sea kayaking in the Bay of Fundy

Tuesday we went sea kayaking. Given that we’d come so far to see these cliffs and tides, this seemed like the thing to do. Fun fact: sea kayaking is quite a workout! We didn’t turn over (there are hardly any waves that we witnessed in the Bay of Fundy, although we saw dolphins twice). We did manage to keep up with all the appallingly energetic Quebecois couples with their teeny French-speaking children who went on the tour with us. Mostly. It was a really lovely trip on what we were assured was a “beautiful warm” day on the Bay of Fundy. By which they mean light rain and mid-60s. Man, those are some muscles I don’t use often. But it was a lot of fun!

The tilted strata were so very clear. Apparently further down the coast than we could go with the tides stand 320 million year old trees where they first grew.
The tilted strata were so very clear. Apparently further down the coast than we could go with the tides stand 320 million year old trees where they first grew.

Wednesday I thought far enough ahead to plan for a day that involved a lot of sitting. It also involved thunder as we drove through Moncton. We arrived at the Joggins Fossil Cliffs after a long drive and several outlandish theories about Nova Scotia (supported by too few data points – eg “Nova Scotia is primarily inhabited by cows”).

So here’s the thing about your Bay of Fundy vacation.
1) Be prepared for it to be cold, even during a heat wave in Boston in mid summer.
2) Be prepared for it to be soggy. See also #1.
3) Plan your trip around the tides.

This was my favorite of the fossils we found, with shells embedded throughout it.
This was my favorite of the fossils we found, with shells embedded throughout it.

But in this case, I tragically did not calculate the tides. One great thing I got out of this was a clearer understanding of how tides world. They go low to high every 6 hours and 18 minutes – based on where the moon is as the earth turns plus the fact that the moon is also in motion (that’s the 18 minutes). We got to Joggins 2 hours before high tide, just as the water was getting high enough to prevent us from getting to the coolest stuff. And four hours before it would be any lower than it was that very moment (at 3 pm, a 3 hour drive from our tent). We hunted the shore for neat fossils and found very many indeed – but I was really sad that we’d come so far in order to NOT see the famed standing trees which have stood where they took root for well over 300 million years. Trees that helped Darwin understand evolution. And they remained past a spit of land that the high tide kept from us. So close!

That night, for the first time, we truly enjoyed the dark skies afforded us by being 100 miles from the nearest Starbucks. The Milky Way was as clear as though it was painted across the sky. The stars were close, glorious, beguiling, beloved. We stayed out, necks crooked, enjoying the brilliance of the archaic night sky.

It's quite literally a beach of priceless fossils, where at any moment a rock might fall and our understanding of early life on earth might change.
It’s quite literally a beach of priceless fossils, where at any moment a rock might fall and our understanding of early life on earth might change.

By this time, we’d pretty much exhausted the entertainment options within a 2 mile drive. I mean, there were hiking trails. And, um, er… the Hopewell Rocks. We didn’t see those. It was a beautiful, lovely, restful place. But the combination of an inhospitable campground and not much else to do encouraged us to go home a wee bit earlier than originally planned. On Thursday, we awoke to a novelty. Sunshine.

Point Wolfe, at near low tide
Point Wolfe, at near low tide

We grabbed the advantage to go on a hike. Now, Adam was nervous because the hike said “difficult”. When you take a “difficult” hike in the White Mountains (or even a “moderate”) you’re well advised to name your next-of-kin and carry a body brace in for the very likely event you break a leg falling off a cliff after being struck by lightening. I trusted this was more a “difficult” hike the way every other place I’ve been rated difficult and my confidence was rewarded. We hiked up these rain-forest hills along a bluff and to a spectacular lookout of the Bay. It looks almost cheery in the sunshine!

LOOK! We even vacationed together!
LOOK! We even vacationed together!

Then we crawled in the car and began the 10 hour drive home.

It was a good vacation. It was restful. It opened the clogged arteries of the soul. We had a really good time being together, as we so often do. I crossed off a few bucket list items: sea kayaking, Joggins Cliffs, dulse, dragging my husband to Canada. But it was not a transcendently wonderful vacation in the way the Wonderland Trail, Istanbul, or even Ashland have been.

Next time, I do more research.

I did take many pictures!

1) Pictures of us hitting the beach before Camp Gramp kicked off
2) Pictures of our time in New Brunswick (with narrative comments)
3) Many many pictures of the cool fossils we found (and left behind)

Six things my sons have never seen me do (and two they have)

I was in the basement the other day, folding Mt. Laundry as usual, when my eye fell on the ironing board in the corner. I wondered when the last time was used it. I gazed at the rather crinkly blouse in my hand, and wondered how long it would be until I used it again. (Certainly not at 11 pm on a Sunday night!) Then it occurred to me that my sons had never seen me use it. Not once. It was unlikely they even knew what it was for.

What other things are there that I know how to do – that I was carefully trained for by patient parents – that my sons have never witnessed in their memory? As I gradually eroded Mt. Laundry, I compiled a list.

Iron clothing
I remember my mother in the living room on a Saturday night, ironing my father’s work shirts: collar, sleeve, fronts & back. I remember being taught how to do it myself – the hiss as you pulled the iron upright, the spurt of steam to ease out a particularly wrinkled patch and the moist warmth of the rapidly cooling cloth as you pulled it onto a hanger to join the rest. My husband wears button up shirts to work every day, but I discovered the wonders of “no iron” shirts. One or two of my shirts ought to be ironed. In response, I never wear those shirts. And even if I unburied that old ironing board and exhumed the iron we bought when I got married… I do my laundry segregated in a laundry room in the basement. (One of the few joys of doing the laundry is you get to watch WHATEVER YOU WANT ALL BY YOURSELF while you fold it.) So my sons would not be introduced to the phenomenon even then.

Clean the house – including vacuuming & dusting
I work full time. Lately, full time has been even fuller than 40 hours a week. I also have a 1 hr each way, each day commute, and I travel for work regularly. Once home, I cook for my family, do aforementioned laundry, schedule our summers, pay the bills, raise two kids, volunteer in my church and enjoy a rich social life. Sometimes I even make it to the gym to work out! About the time Grey turned two, cleaning the house on a glorious Saturday morning, I wondered how much it would take to hire cleaners to come once every two weeks. I have barely turned on a vacuum since that glorious day.

Now, I know *how* to clean a house. I can mop. I can vacuum. I can dust, and wash windows. I can polish. I’m not amazingly great at it, nor is it a great source of pride to me. But my sons have never seen me spend a Saturday morning truly cleaning the house. Magic fairies (we call them “the ladies” which is questionably accurate) come and make the house smell great and change our sheets and scrub the floors. I threaten the kids to pick up their room with the reminder that “the ladies” are coming and anything left on the floor will inevitably get put into a random bin. I think that – unlike ironing a shirt – cleaning a house is actually an important skill for a kid to have, so I’m trying to figure out how I’ll teach them this vestigial skill of mine before they become responsible for their own houses.

Lest this list get to be a list of ways in which I am not a housewife, I thought I’d add in one other thing that I would like to do, and don’t. Since I tore my meniscus night on four years ago, I’ve noticed I’m very physically careful. I have a back which is a challenge, and a zombie left knee, and I’m often sore and achy. And so… I don’t jump. I just don’t. I don’t hop or leap or generally move quickly. I’m active – I hike and climb. You wouldn’t think of me as a sedentary person – but I wouldn’t (for example) jump on the trampolines at Skyzone, and I often bow out of activities that require cutting and dodging. I wonder sometimes if I’ll ever rediscover my courage and flexibility, or if this will become who I am.

Sew a button – or anything
In Jr. High and High School, we were fortunate to have vocational education. There was a well appointed “Home Ec” classroom and quite an extensive shop with gear for woodworking, machinery, CAD and other practical applications. (Fun fact: my computers credit in high school was actually in CAD drafting.) In a sign that the ’50s were still going strong in that neck of the woods at that time, by default in Jr. High the girls would get one semester of Shop with Mr. Jones and three semesters of Home Ec with Mrs. Muir. I suffered through my required first semester of Home Ec, learning how to bake a biscuit and sewing an apron (seriously – an apron!?!?). I learned enough to sew a seam, thread a bobbin, put on a button and read a pattern. But although I cook often and regularly, clothing now does not reward the effort of sewing. It costs considerably more to buy fabric and sew it yourself than to go to Kohl’s and get something.

I particularly thought of this because Thane made a puppet in Cozumel and LOVED sewing it. Loved it. I think he’d really enjoy learning some sewing, but I’ll extremely ill-suited to teaching him. Also, let us speak of gender neutral options that exist in sewing kits. (HINT: THEY DON’T!)

After my first semester of home ec and my first semester of shop, I knew which one I preferred. There could not be a RULE that said girls couldn’t do shop instead of Home Ec and so I happily spent 8th grade as the one girl in a class of 26 guys learning how to put together a lawnmower engine and turning a bowl on a lathe.

Sit down & write a letter to my mom
I have loved writing letters for my whole life. I still do. I have boxes full of papers and envelopes, and stacks of pencils. I have written hundreds of letters in my life – to my uncle, or my penpal on the Island of Sumatra that I once met in Olympia and wrote to for years. I wrote letters in codes. I wrote them backwards. I wrote them and then cut them up to be a puzzle. I wrote to people I knew well and people I’d never met.

I remember my mother writing letters too. She wrote to her mother, mostly. I remember the envelopes with the return address from Zaire and lovely block pattern that were filled with regular missives – daughter to mother – and the return envelopes that came with beautiful cursive addresses.

But. Well. My mom reads my blog, right? And sometimes I call her on my way home. Periodically I send her emails or comment on her G+ postings. Once a year – on Mother’s Day – I write her a letter. (HINT HINT SIBLINGS!) But to my sons, that letter is indistinguishable from goofing off on Facebook, or being at work, or playing Minecraft. It’s just mom on her computer, again.

Chop wood
For a period growing up, our home was heated by wood. (This was true of many homes around us, and remains true for some.) My father, the archetypal good Boy Scout, knew all about the cutting, splitting, stacking and seasoning of firewood, as well as the tending of fires. I learned this art on hot August afternoons where there was no where I’d rather NOT be than in the “back forty” splitting, stacking & hauling with wood chips in my hair and splinters in my fingers. We’d get a cord or two of logs delivered off a local logging truck – which were were NOT allowed to play on lest they shifted. Then we’d gradually cut our way through them, trying to make sure no one got crushed or chain-sawed up or had an axe head fly off at them.

The Easter I was 13, my grandfather gave me my very own axe. (A Boy Scout axe, light and sharp, with a blue handle and gilt writing.) I know how to aim an axe, how to heft it. How to condense the space between your hands as the head flies towards to wood. I know where not to stand when someone else is splitting. I know what to do when the axe gets stuck. I know when you’ll need a splitting maul instead, and how to construct a woodstack that will be a pride to you among your neighbors. (Actually, I’m not really sure we ever got that right. I for one did not care about the opinion of my neighbors on my wood stacking abilities.)

Ah, the things that I learned to do that are of a time past. I doubt I will ever regularly iron my husband’s shirts during M*A*S*H episodes, sew a summer dress, heat my house with wood or spend an hour every week to write my mother a letter and put it in the mail. (I may eventually have to clean my house again, and I hope some day I’ll get to jump!)

But while my housewifery is clearly being called into questions, there are a few arcane arts I preserve. I often feel – when I do these things – like an archivist or a wizard. I think very much of my ancestors while I do these things. I remember their hands at work at these same tasks.

Bake bread & pies
There was a period of my life when my mother decided to bake all our bread. This was particularly true when she was struggling with her carpal tunnel syndrome. She said that working the dough made her hands feel better. I remember the countertop kneading, the distinctive slap as she’d shape the loaves. I certainly remember how delicious they were. (She usually made 2 small loaves, one of which was mine by right and tradition.) I mastered my mother’s recipe (although I make it much more rarely since my husband bakes bread for us weekly!) and still enjoy that same slap on the loaf!

I also learned to make her pies, although in all truth I have never mastered quite that pinch of the crust that she makes look so effortless. Also, it took me like 9 years to get my crusts to come out round instead of square.

My sons have stood in the kitchen and watched me in my apron – flour on the tip of my nose – wresting with dough. Just like I watched my mom. But better yet, they have also watched their father do the same!

Put up a batch of jam
I usually do this after they’re in bed, truthfully. But they have watched me transform a bushel of apples to gleaming jars of apple butter. I picked the crabapples during their soccer practice which I turned into delicate pink crabapple jelly. I remember my great grandmother’s crabapple jelly, made from the tree in our back yard. Every time I hear the “pop”! of a jar lid, I remember. And hopefully my boys with find the sound a keen source of memory too – connecting them through shared memory across generations.

So, what do you no longer do? What do your children not realize you even know how to do? And what relics of bygone eras do you hold firmly to

Ernie and the Tiger’s Eye

Between the ages of 6 and 9, I lived in a small, remote farming town in the desert/agriculture side of Washington State. The sign as you entered Prosser proudly proclaimed that it was a friendly town with friendly people.

One day I hatched a scheme to scare up some additional pocket money for penny candy at Bonanza 88. I and my best friend Jasmine would draw pictures and go door to door selling them. Now keep in mind that my art skills then were roughly as good as my art skills now. Which is to say that I still can’t draw worth a darn. In a flurry of activity we drew 15 or 20 artistic renderings with crayon on pieces of paper. Then, methodically, went door to door across the whole block – we two little girls.

I’m guessing we failed to ask permission on that one.

Happily, this story does not end up with years going to therapy or my body in a ditch or anything. We had a perfectly lovely time. Some people weren’t home. I have in my memory the face of an immigrant family, completely bewildered by this underage door-to-door salesmanship. Two of the houses I remember particularly. One of them was white, and had snap-dragons lining the walkway. I paused on my way up to make them snap. At home was a grandmother-type, by herself. She had a blue cut glass bowl of ribbon candy – old and sticky – on her table. We stayed quite a while there. I believe she had popsicles. I’m sure she rounded up quarter for us, so we left her house satisfied entrepreneurs.

The last house we left was only three or four doors down from my house. It was blue – a slate blue – with a red door. It was a two story house – unusual in our land-abundant, ranch-heavy town. I suspect it was one of the oldest houses in town. In it was Ernie. Ernie and I formed a strong friendship. He was very old – I believe he was a WWI vet. And his house was filled with all manner of fascinating things. Ernie never moved from his chair between the front door and the kitchen, but he knew exactly where every single object in his house was. Jasmine came with me that first time, but I went back by myself many times.

Ernie’s basement was a hall of wonders. There were mounted heads on plaques. He had a hand-turned crank that lit a light. There were cupboards and drawers and cubbies – all neat and organized and lovely and full of nifty things. Ernie must have delighted to play the classic old guy trick of giving me a tiger’s-eye and telling me I had to keep it with me at all times to fend off tigers, and going on about how well it had worked for him. If I headed up the stairs to the now-still bedrooms, there were daintier things telling of a bygone time when daughters and wives had populated the house. My favorite, on the stairs, was a popup book of gnomes. When you pulled the handles, all manner of funny (and scandalously inappropriate to my mind then) things would happen. Ernie would send me on a quest to a particular room, and have me either look at something there or bring it back to him. Then he would tell me stories about it.

I suspect that Ernie lived an accomplished and interesting life, of which I saw the briefest pages. I’ve loved old codgers my entire life, since I was a young girl, and Ernie was the finest vintage of old codger. I do not remember saying goodbye to him. I wonder if I disappeared? If I told him I was leaving? If I just stopped coming? If, perhaps, he didn’t answer his door one day? I don’t know, and will likely never find out.

Of course, this idyllic turn of entrepreneurial zest somehow did not meet with maternal approval after I got home with five quarters and a bunch of stories. I was *supposed* to be playing at Jasmine’s house, not wandering the block as an itinerant artist. My ear was mightily bent on the topic of “talking to strangers”. (“But mom! He’s not a stranger now!”) But I was chastened, at least temporarily.

Thus it was when, a week later, I seriously hurt myself a mile away from home while with my sister, I walked that entire mile – bloody, with gravel deeply embedded in face, hands and knees – turning down all offers of assistance from kindly grownups who offered to call my mom, explaining through pouring tears that “I’m not allowed to talk to strangers or go into their houses.”

You may all take a moment, friends, to have great pity on my mother.

Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary

Thane sets out the cookies for Santa
Thane sets out the cookies for Santa

It was midnight when my fellow-Santa and I laid the final touches around the tree. The cookies artistically partially eaten. The massive stuffed animal with the bow. The careful interspersing of presents – the ones from Santa outermost to indicate the jolly old elf had laid them there himself. We were weary from a lovely long day of cleaning, cooking, preparing, and caroling at our church. Our children had fallen asleep in record time. We’d had a lovely chat with some old friends in the neighborhood, and now we were ready for repose. We lingered, looking at the tree lights, looking forward to the morning’s joyous faces.

Ready for the morning!

The next morning at seven, I thought I heard some noise downstairs. “Aha!” I thought. “My children bestir themselves. Perhaps they’ve started to open their stockings! I don’t want to a miss a minute.!” I shook my beloved awake and headed down the stairs, muzzy-minded.

To my shock – my horror – a scene of wrapping mayhem lay below me. My sons were in the midst of a piranhic frenzy of quiet unwrapping. Well over half their gifts lay strewn around in the shards of wrapping paper littering the floor.

STOP! STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP! I sat on the stairs, weak-kneed, as they looked up at me with confused faces. “This,” I said to my similarly week-kneed husband, “May be funny later. Maybe.”

Perhaps this was the culprit of the Great Christmas Mayhem!
Perhaps this was the culprit of the Great Christmas Mayhem!

After a good number of deep breaths, a pot of coffee and a very long explanation to the children that we open presents TOGETHER like we have every Christmas for their entire LIVES, I satisfied myself that there was an excellent chance that Grey really believed he was being kind in letting us sleep in. We talked through the presents they had already opened, and slowly enjoyed the rest together. We did enjoy ourselves, once our hearts got back to a normal tempo.

I only wish I’d had the presence of mind to take a picture of the carnage, with the sweet, innocent confused faces wreaking it.

This is what most of this week has looked like around here

Twelve hours later, my brother, mother and father had all arrived in my house, bringing loot and Christmas cheer with them. As I worked on the roast lamb, I became increasingly uneasy with my menu. The lamb, with carrots, celery and parsnips, had seemed a quintessentially British dish, well served with Yorkshire Pudding and Christmas Pudding. But there was tomato sauce. The veggies were cubed small. And spice numbers 5 and 6 were turmeric and saffron. These are not British spices. On further review, the dish was downright Indian. So I scrapped the Yorkshire pudding and substituted rice, and I’m delighted to report it was absolutely the right call. (And a delicious recipe to boot!)

A beautifully set table with lovely people
A beautifully set table with lovely people

I likely warned my family 10 times that night that I would not be offended if the Christmas pudding turned out to be inedible. It seemed unlikely to be good. 4 cups of raisins and only one each of flour and sugar? Dates and citrons? Suet? This incredible double boiling maneuver – done twice? I’d be lucky if anyone ate two spoonsful. The hard sauce – equal parts butter and powdered sugar – might be eaten straight. But I doubted even it could rescue this unlikely looking concoction. I poured the brandy on with liberal hand and set the pudding to blue flame, lasting far longer than I thought it would and bathing the wide eyes of my son in eerie light.



And so has this time with my sons and my husband, my mother and father and brother been. I hope you, too, have had a joyful and restful holiday!

I have pictures of our Christmas celebrations here.

Also, since all the Christmas Cards that will be sent have been sent, you can see pictures of the great photo shoot we had this autumn here!