Freedom

A few days ago I wrote a post about my son’s upcoming first day of kindergarten and my resulting angst. As with many parents, that first day of “real” school is a huge letting-go milestone. I wrote about my fears and worries, the difficulty of handing him over to someone else.

However, upon a few days’  worth of thoughtful consideration, I’d like to recant those statements.

Today is the day. And the truth is, now that the time is upon us, I’m finding a strange joy bubbling up from some hidden source deep within. To my surprise, I find that I’m ecstatic that my wiggly, high-energy, million-questions-a-day, Neil-Degrasse-Tyson-watching boy will be someone else’s responsibility for six and a half hours a day. I’m delighted that I will be able to focus my attention on my two-year-old, who’s sometimes overlooked in favor of her big brother — maybe she’ll finally learn the difference between pink and purple (though I’m beginning to suspect she just likes the word “purple” more than “pink”). I’m thrilled to consider the possibility of occasional quiet time at home.

In fact, to be honest, I’m nearly tremulous with anticipation at the (perhaps too optimistic) thought of getting STUFF done! I have a whole list in my mind. Ready?

  1. I will SEW! I will finish fixing both the kitchen and dining area shades, which I made a year ago but are not perfect. The dog ate the string of one, and the string of the other is threadbare and lumpy and no longer catches properly. They both need dowels added so they rise smoothly without drooping. Possibly I will make them workable before my husband gets around to ordering more modern, sturdy wooden blinds sometime in the next few months, rendering my shades redundant.
  2. More sewing! I will make adorable appliqué bird pillows for the kids’ beds, to go with their future beautiful fairytale forest bedroom. I’ve never appliquéd, nor have I ever sewn pillows, nor have I yet found a pattern. Still, it’s on my to-do list.
  3. I will perfect the garden! Weeding! Trimming! Pruning! Mulching! Fall planting! Naturally, my two-year-old will follow me about like a well-trained puppy, pulling only actual weeds, never picking up my pruning shears and definitely never using them to chop into my roll of landscape fabric.
  4. Writing! I will catch up on multiple projects. Possibly I’ll write a chapter or two in my embryonic book, or edit the already-existing chapters. Maybe I’ll do some writing for the kids. Maybe I’ll keep up on this blog. Who knows? Anything could happen.
  5. I’ll shop! JoAnne Fabric, here I come! With only one toddler, firmly secured in the cart, I will stride through the aisles like a boss. I will gracefully promenade between rows of calico with not a single pause to dash after an errant child. The glassware and faux gardening tools will have no need to fear questing fingers. We’ll shop with confidence, just me and one small person whose arms are still too short to grab for interesting paint kits.

I’m sure you get the idea. Yes, I’m still anxious about my son’s future career as an elementary school student. Yes, I’ll be thinking about him all day. I’ll miss him and wonder how he’s doing every ten minutes. Still, I can’t help thinking ahead to all the time I will have with just one child for six and a half hours, five days a week. I’m a little bit excited.

What’s more important than all that freedom I so optimistically anticipate, though, is my growing belief that all this missing each other and hours away from each other will make our time together a little less stressful and more joyful. I think that my son will benefit from a more relaxed mom, a more refreshed mom; one who, after a daily break that might feel a little too long, will be more than willing to answer endless questions about the intricate workings of octopus tentacles or ant mandibles or crystalline structures. I think that I might be a little less “touched out”, as mom lingo has it, and more welcoming of my sweet boy’s need for hugging and contact. I’m excited that I’ll see him learning and growing in kindergarten, and I’m excited for the refreshing break each day so that I can be a better mom to a boy who deserves my best.

It’s going to be a great year.

Eight Plants That Have Forgotten It’s Fall 

There’s something odd about our place here in Oregon. There’s some quality that hints of eternal youth, of continual renewal and transformation. A touch of Eden, perhaps. Oh, not for us human residents — this magical spring of youth is reserved for our plants.

Take our wisteria vine, for example. Look up how to grow wisteria, as we did when we moved here a bit more than two years ago, and you’ll learn that wisteria blossoms in the spring and then fades. That’s the normal course of events. But not ours. Our first summer, it blossomed at least twice. The following year, it put out blooms at least four times (I lost count near the end), tender green buds appearing just as the flowers from the previous wave of color began to fade. This year, it’s currently in its fourth wave of blossoms, with the velvet-soft buds of the next incarnation now appearing. It will be September any minute now, but that wisteria is determined to flower ceaselessly.

Then there’s this lovely hellebore. It’s an early spring flower. This one appeared in late January or early February, a rich purple with faint greenish tinges. An earlier-blooming hellebore, which was a delicate white, bloomed in December and faded as this one was at its height. Another purple one lost its blossoms by May. But this one is still blooming. The purple color has faded, allowing the underlying green to take over. You can see the brown seed-cases in the center, and a touch of dry brownness along the petals’ edges. But this dainty, fragile spring  blossom  is still holding its own, refusing to die off. It’s August 30, and here it is.

Our raspberry harvest was in June, just as it was last year and (to a lesser extent, due to neglect) the previous year. This year, after extensive work over the past two summers improving the raspberry bed, we had the best harvest yet. Naturally, I assumed that the June harvest was the end of it. Apparently I thought wrong. Yesterday, as I trimmed and weeded and supported young green canes, I found…this. A handful of tiny green almost-berries! Today, as I finished pruning dead canes and tying up young ones, I found two more plants that appear to be making new berries. I had no idea this was possible. I’m not sure it actually is — and yet, there it is, another piece of evidence that our home holds a few grains of the Soil of Youth. img_9251

We took a walk Sunday evening, Aaron and I and the kids. Niko and Sofia munched apples they’d filched from our trees and picked frothy blooms of Queen Anne’s lace as we strolled down our driveway to the lane — season-appropriate actions that were entirely expected for the end of August. What was less expected was what we found as we passed the plum tree at the end of our driveway. As we paused to examine a branch that overhung the driveway and needed to be trimmed, I gasped. “No way!” The branch sported a twig inexplicably laden with flowers. That’s right. Plum flowers! In (nearly) September! img_9192

This next one is, I think, actually appropriate to some varieties of strawberries — a second, smaller, crop of berries in late summer. A couple of weeks ago, we noticed blossoms in the bed of strawberries that was originally here before we moved to this home. This week, we’ve been picking the occasional berry to snack on. It’s a delightful, probably normal feature of whatever variety these plants are, and I halfway expected it. What I didn’t expect was for Niko to find a red, ripe berry in one of our new Hood River strawberry beds — a variety not known for producing a second crop! Once again, magic has touched our garden. (Most likely a seed or runner crept over to the neighboring bed from the twice-bearing bed…but I prefer the more magical explanation.)img_9254

I’ve been told that lavender, promptly harvested, can produce a second wave of flowers. The past two summers, I harvested the buds just before opening for the most fragrant bouquets, carefully hanging and drying them — and waited in vain for a second crop. This year, an extended wave of migraines kept me indoors for the peak lavender harvesting time (you can blame them for my lack of blog posts, too). I finally managed to trim the flowers as they were fading, long after the ideal time, and tossed most of them into the compost. Since some of them had already gone to seed, I expected no further flowers from them. And yet, here they are, weeks later, a charming display of dainty buds and flowers.

When I was growing up in Northwestern Ontario, most of the roses around our place were wild roses. All of them, wild or domestic, were spring flowers. Once the summer heat arrived, they were done blooming. Here in Oregon, it’s a different story. As long as dying flowers are kept trimmed, these roses will produce flowers until the first frosts. I know it really is normal for this area — but it thrills me every time I look out at our rose bed filled with vibrant color!

Last week, I decided to tackle some overgrown shrubs that provide shade along two small ponds and screen the lawn from the driveway. As I trimmed and hauled away branches, I leaned down to pull a few weeds from the shady pond garden — and there, nestled in dark green leaves, was a purple primrose! In the spring, that primrose plant had provided a splash of color in that dark corner, with multiple blooms, but of course the flowers faded as summer approached. Maybe the overgrown shrubbery had provided enough shade that this plant was tricked into thinking it was still spring. Who knows? All I know is that it’s one more example of the magical, eternity-tinged properties of our garden. A slightly faded, bug-eaten example, but come on! A primrose, at the end of August? That’s got to be real garden magic. img_9347Whatever the reason for the magic touching our home, I’m grateful and delighted. Grateful for the beauty, grateful for a respite from pain that allows me to enjoy it, and grateful for our life here in the country after too long hemmed in by a city’s concrete. Delighted by the surprises I encounter nearly every day.

A Zombie Pie Thanksgiving

Today, the day before Thanksgiving, has been filled with dinner preparations. With our home already filled with the sparkle and glimmer of Christmas decorations, I’m in the holiday spirit. Fruitcake a la Alton Brown (our family’s kitchen god) rests on the counter, sealed into a bag, awaiting its next soaking with brandy. The turkey is soaking in a salty, herbed brine, Alton Brown’s cranberry jelly is setting up in the fridge, and this year’s pumpkin pie looks perfect.Well, nearly perfect. The blank surface is evidence that I lost track of time and forgot to add a pretty leaf-shaped pastry garnish.

This quiet day of cooking in an empty kitchen is a contrast to the busy Thanksgiving preparations of times past. Having just made a trip home last month to the commune where I grew up for an Ontario Thanksgiving, the difference stands out strongly in my mind. This year was the first time I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving with my Canadian family since I left home at the age of 18 to go to college.

My husband and our two small children and I took a two-leg flight from Portland, Oregon to Minneapolis, Minnesota, then drove up along the coast of Lake Superior to the three-farm commune where I grew up in Northwest Ontario. It was a long trip, especially the 45-minute flight from Portland to Seattle, which culminated in both children throwing up simultaneously as we descended after a turbulent journey through high winds.

By comparison, the four-hour flight to Minneapolis and the nine-hour drive up the coast the following day were blissful. The kids were cooperative and calm, the roads were clear of snow, the iPad fulfilled its role of providing soothing entertainment, and the scenery was breathtaking. Oh, and — no one threw up. The only drawback was that, as usual, we forgot to calculate how much longer everything takes with two small children, so we didn’t arrive at my parents’ house till 9:30 in the evening… their time… which was only 6:30 Portland time, so we weren’t as tired as we should have been.

Anyway, we arrived in the dark, and had a delightful pre-arrival welcome from a friend who was leaving the farm on her way home as we were pulling into the commune’s driveway. She recognized first an unfamiliar vehicle (the commune is part of a small town, the entire population of which — including the three communal farms — is about 300, so an unknown car is notable) and then our faces, and we slowed the vehicles to call a hello between cars. Pleased that she’d achieved the very first viewing of our family, she went on her way and we pulled on up the driveway, already feeling thoroughly welcomed.

As we stepped through the doorway of my parents’ home and into the living room, Niko skidded to a halt as his face lit up with an incandescent glow. “Awe…some!” he breathed. There, covering a good two cubic feet of the living room floor, was a magnificent tower of wooden blocks, consisting of all the blocks in the bin that my dad keeps on hand for just such occasions. Welcome complete.

The following morning was Thanksgiving, celebrated on the second Monday in October in Canada. We took the opportunity to zip over to another of the three farms, to see a cousin and her two children who were there just for the day. They would leave before the early holiday dinner, so we abandoned my mother and the other ladies of my home farm to dinner preparations and skedaddled off for a lightning-fast visit. Niko and Sofia were in seventh heaven, playing with cousins near their age, flinging just-raked leaves at each other, and exploring the brush near my aunt and uncle’s home. Other visits had to wait for another day, but we did manage to get in the essentials before we had to return to Oregon.

 

As we visited at my aunt and uncle’s home Thanksgiving morning, the phone rang — my mother, asking if I wanted pie crust made ahead for the pie I was planning to make later. Then again, asking how many apples I needed per pie. And one more time, asking if I wanted apples peeled and cut, and if so, should they be sliced or chopped? “At this rate,” I told my aunt, “the pie will be made by the time I get there, and I’ll just take credit for it!” The machinery of a communal kitchen runs smoothly, and with an abundance of cooks bustling about, I wouldn’t have been all that surprised if the pie had, in fact, been finished without my lifting a finger. As it turned out, the pie — a recipe I adapted from my mother-in-law’s amazing recipe — turned out to be the very ugliest pie I’ve ever made, so perhaps I should have left it to them.

I arrived in the farm kitchen after lunch and was cheerfully greeted by half a dozen busy women, all intent on one or two tasks, all moving easily around each other without friction. This is one of the things I really, truly miss — a communal kitchen. If you grew up in a large family with a big kitchen, you might know what I’m talking about. Cooking is a social activity, a companionable endeavor. It’s rare to cook alone for any significant amount of time. Someone is always wandering in to get a snack, check the mail, help out, or just say hello. If one person is in charge of dinner, likely someone else will be baking bread for the week, another person making cheese from fresh milk, and a fourth somebody putting on the coffee for everyone else.

Thanksgiving is no exception to this rule. People drifted in and out of the kitchen and dining room, sneaking samples of the feast, sharing stories, reminiscing, and, of course, drinking coffee. Women tossed cooking questions out to the group, each one triggering a rousing discussion as five different people offered opinions. As I helped wash up some of the cooking dishes, I overheard a discussion that is more or less a requisite at a farm Thanksgiving: creamy yam casserole with marshmallows, or without, or roasted? One young woman, a relative newcomer who married into the community, was preparing a marshmallow-free casserole that was traditional in her French-Canadian family, and the women were spiritedly voicing their own favorites, without rancor. “You know,” my mother said, “this kind of thing is really what makes this farm the best place. On other farms, people would argue about which one is best forever, and then they would take a vote and choose one to make, and only about a third of the population would really be happy about it. Here, we just make them all!” Sure enough, one of the other women was cutting large yams into manageable chunks for roasting, and I’m pretty sure I saw a bag of marshmallows somewhere.

Between helping with a few dishes and making my pies, I wandered the main house, taking pictures of items I’ve seen my whole life as well as the festive decorations. Here are a few of my favorites from a nostalgic stroll down memory lane:

And a few images of the autumn decor:

 

My priority was to make the apple pies. I used my own recipe, which makes delicious pie… that is, it has every other time before this. As I added ingredients, I found myself almost falling into a familiar rhythm. I’ll find spatulas here in this drawer — Hey! What happened to the spatulas? Oh, here they are. When did you change that? And sugar — aha! Right here in this giant bin where it’s always been. (I took a precautionary taste before adding it in. It wouldn’t have been the first time salt and sugar got confused.) A bit of flour — yes, right where I thought it would be. Cinnamon… nutmeg… vanilla? Didn’t the vanilla go here with the spices? “Are you looking for vanilla? I have it over here, sorry!” (The apology made me feel right at home. This is Canada, after all.)  And no,  the vanilla didn’t belong where I was looking for it…  those 15-plus-year-old memories can only do  so much.

It felt good, working with the women who taught me to cook, in the big familiar kitchen. My pleasure was somewhat tainted, however, by my observation that the pies’ filling was a little runny. And there was too much of it.  The pies were full, very full, even though I left out a couple of cups of filling, and they sloshed menacingly when they moved. What had gone wrong? No idea. There was nothing to do but to bake them off anyway. As the ovens were full with turkey and rolls, I carried them out of the big kitchen and down the hill to my parents’ little house, where I prudently placed them each on a flat pizza pan before baking them.

I’d like to pause here to point out that my reputation was on the line here. Did I mention that this was my own recipe? Published here, on this very blog? And that it had been nearly two decades since I had cooked for a farm gathering? Did I mention that everyone knew that I was the one baking these apple pies (no hiding in anonymity)? Have I pointed out that the aforesaid “everyone” also  knew that I was using a recipe I’d published on this blog, an endeavor that has been followed with mild interest by various members of the community? Oh yes, I was very conscious of the vulnerability of my reputation, as I slid the sloshing pies into my mother’s oven.

Forty-five minutes later, I cringingly opened the oven door. My fears had come true. Let me assure you: this was the ugliest pie known to cuisine. Never before have I seen, nor do I wish ever to see again, a pie this ugly. The crumb topping had been displaced by bubbling filling, and patches of it had slid off the pie onto the pizza pans underneath, and some had dripped off the pans and onto the oven floor. The weight of the sliding filling had broken the edges of the crisp and flaky crust, destroying any chance they had of looking like ordinary pies. With the missing patches of topping, the crumbled edges, and the bubbled-over filling, my pies looked like pastries that had died violently and then been returned to a semblance of life by a misguided cook. Undead pies. Zombie pies. They were horrific. I was so ashamed, I didn’t even take a picture. This is what they were supposed to look like, although even this pie’s crust could be prettier:Featured Image -- 823

(They didn’t look like that.)

I was writhing in humiliation as I carried the pies back up to the main house and deposited them with the oher desserts, every one of which was more attractive than my sad apple pies.  I tried to sneak them in, hoping everyone would forget who was responsible for them, but in vain: one of the ladies sitting in the big dining room, working her magic on flower arrangements with preserved leaves, called out as I entered, “Hope! Are those your delicious apple pies? I can’t wait to try them!” I felt like dumping them into the trash, but instead I dutifully thunked them down next to the butter tarts and chocolate roll and cherry pies awaiting dinner.  I can’t even begin to tell you how much I hated seeing my dilapitated desserts next to everyone else’s lovely food.

But the thing is, this was a family Thansgiving. Nobody cared, really, what those pies looked like. They were there to visit, laugh, fill up on turkey, munch on soft, freshly-baked rolls, and sample as many desserts as possible.  Sure, my pies weren’t the first to disappear. They may even have been the last to be devoured over the next few days of leftover feasting. But nevertheless, they did get eaten, and, despite their imperfect texture, they were delicious, especially eaten alongside the homemade maple ice cream that was served with dessert.

Those pies shredded my reputation, but my sense of belonging and family wasn’t hurt one iota. As I visited with folks I haven’t seen in years, watching them valiantly attack my soggy apple pie, I felt perfectly happy. It was good to be home.

Sayonara, Hummingbird

When we came to view our home before purchasing it, the owners had a pretty glass hummingbird feeder hanging in the tree that grows next to the pond and stretches its branches over the porch. They generously left a lot of gardening tools, even fish and bird food, but they took the hummingbird feeder with them.

There was a gap of about twelve hours between the feeder being removed and our arrival. When we walked up onto our porch that first morning to start unloading, we were greeted by a furious hummingbird. It dive bombed my head and then swooped, chirping angrily, around the empty spot. I quickly drove to the convenience store about ten minutes away, found a similar glass feeder, and hung it in exactly the same place.

The hummingbird was not placated, nor were its friends and family satisfied. Despite having fed from that identical locatio not five feet from my face on each of our visits before we took possession, they all refused to use the new feeder while I watched. All summer, I did not see them feed from it even once. They ate from the petunias hanging on the porch, from the wisteria, from the gladioli, from the bright red Crocosmia across the pond, but they never allowed me to witness them at the feeder. Gradually, as the summer passed, I noticed the nectar level dropping; slowly at first, then more quickly. I would see the tiny birds buzz past the feeder. They’d fly toward it, then swerve away. Sometimes I’d see them perching above it, even on it, never feeding — making a point of not feeding. I am positive that they watched for the car to drive away before flocking to the green glass feeder to greedily consume the red nectar.

Until today. For the past week, we’ve had a skim of ice on the ponds this morning. Today, for the first time, it was cold enough to freeze the nectar. There was an intricate frost pattern on the glass, and the red nectar was hard and slightly opaque. No more pretending to avoid the feeder; now it’s unavailable, inaccessible, frozen.

Sayonara, hummingbirds. See you next year.

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First Fire

Wind is up, temperature down (around 45-50 degrees now), power out for the second time today. Our heat is electric, as is our whole kitchen, so we won’t be settling in with hot chocolate and warm cookies — but the former owners left us with a spotless fireplace and sizable wood pile, so today I made our first fire! It’s doing a pretty good job heating the house. I’ll just have to keep Sofia away, since we don’t have a screen for it. Hopefully the house doesn’t get too cold tonight as we anticipate our first frost. IMG_1147.JPG

Backsliding Into Worldly Depravity

Yup, that’s me. Backslider. Depraved. Worldly. Actually, the “backslider” label may be inaccurate. You can’t backslide into new territory. No, this is much worse. Tumbling headlong into sin is more like it.

When I was a kid, living on one of a trio of Christian communes in Northwest Ontario, we did not do Halloween. We regarded those who did with a sort of fascinated horror. Christmas and Easter were Paganism-tainted, worldly holidays which we also did not celebrate – along with birthdays – but those at least were fairly innocent and had a religious slant. Halloween had no such excuse. It was, to our sheltered eyes, the embodiment of Satan-worshiping evil. I mean, those kids actually dressed as ghosts, goblins, and witches. They were practically inviting demons to possess their souls.

It started slowly: “gradualism,” the preachers of my youth would say (probably are saying right now, if any of them see this). Living in Anchorage, Aaron and I would buy candy just in case trick-or-treaters came by. We didn’t want to disappoint any kids, after all. Then, when I started teaching, I saw how much my students loved Halloween. I didn’t want to disappoint them, either, and since other teachers were allowing costumes on that day, I did too — and bought a green-feathered witch hat which I donned each year so as not to appear unpleasantly strait-laced. Then, Niko arrived, and we were given the cutest little Winnie-the-Pooh costume for him. Who could resist that? The following year we actually purchased a dinosaur costume; last year, a robot. And this year, we entirely succumbed.

Three nights ago, we dressed both of our innocent children in Disney-inspired costumes and joined friends (one of the nicest families I know, who are — incidentally — faithfully church-attending people) to trick-or-treat in their neighborhood. It was…well, fun. No goblins assaulted us. No witches hexed us. Not a single soul became demon-possessed. In fact, everyone we met, at homes and on the street, were remarkably polite and kind.

We had a tense moment when we encountered a snazzily dressed skeleton with a cane and top hat, his skull leering menacingly. The little boys, aged four and three, froze as Baron Samedi and his family approached. His wife poked his arm. “You’re scaring those kids! You have to take your mask off!” “Oh, no!” he said with genuine concern. “No, I don’t want to scare anyone!” And despite the effort he’d exerted to make a convincing Baron, the skeleton immediately pushed his mask up to the top of his head, transforming from a dark lord of death into a cheerful man in a colorful suit, smiling sheepishly at us.  He kept his mask off the rest of the time we were out.

No, we weren’t hauled off to the realms of death. We weren’t lured into a Satanic ritual. We just enjoyed the fresh air, collected treats, and walked to a nearby church for their Halloween/harvest festival. The boys went crazy in a bounce house while the babies stared at the crowds with wide eyes. And on the way home our family stopped for groceries, where cashiers and customers ooooh’d and ahhhh’d over the fairy princess and little pirate. Our kids were just as innocent, but better-exercised, at the end of the night as they’d been before donning their costumes.

Yes, this year I embraced worldly depravity with a will. And as I watched my son marching up to the doors of strangers with his lantern-lit pumpkin basket (courtesy of our generous friends) glowing bravely, I was so glad I did.

Burn Pile?

When we moved to this home in the spring, there was a tiny burn pile. More of an ash circle, really. Over the summer it’s grown as we’ve trimmed and cleaned up bushes and shrubs and vines. Niko has been fascinated with the idea of a burn pile. A pile made just for burning! He’s asked me nearly every week, “Will we light the burn pile soon?” Of course, the start of burn season coincided with the start of autumn rain, and we haven’t had a good weekend for it. Today was the first time it’s been not raining while Aaron has been free to manage the burning. Niko was fascinated with the flames! However, it turns out that a day so humid that you accumulate water droplets on your clothes and hair is not conducive to burning. It flamed long enough for Niko to get excited, then damped down again.

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