Archive for July, 2009
I have been spending a lot of time with my children lately, and paying close attention to the little things they do and say. There’s such growth and change from one day to the next, and I want to catch that moment of transitioning and record it down, so that I can look back and say that I remember it happening.
For the first three years of my son’s life, I made periodic journal entries about his progress, my thoughts on motherhood, and my hopes and dreams for his future, and our future as a family. Reading through the leather bound journal now, I either cringe in embarrassment at my naivety as a young mother, or am impressed at the insight I had into specific situations (mostly I cringe).
When my daughter came along, I meant to repeat the process, and bought the perfect journal for it. Needless to say, the journal gathered dust on my bedside table for a long time. Then one day I read in a magazine about how a family writes things down as they occur, on pieces of paper, which they then drop into a box to read at the end of the year. As bits of paper are always fluttering around my house, I decided that this is what we must do.
The only problem? None of the boxes I had were worthy of their soon to be contents. But I knew what just would. I had been eyeing a collection of gorgeous vintage apothecary jars at a local antique store, hoping to find a justifiable reason for making them mine. They were five in all, and, of course, could have been individually bought, but I felt they had to be displayed as a group in order to be fully appreciated. The price was a bit steep, but as a house of transitory moments in my daughter’s life, nothing else would do.
I saved the tallest for my daughter, and filled the remaining four with fleeting objects from nature. They glint and sparkle, and fill me with joy almost as much as my daughter’s being does. Occupying a prominent place in the family room, they’re a daily reminder to record what I see and hear, and enjoy my life with my children to the fullest.
I love the sound of trains at night. Sitting at the kitchen table with all three windows open, the curtains ruffling in the breeze, I listen to them, and to the nighttime stillness of the house, and feel so comforted. As a child we didn’t have an automobile. My parents didn’t need one as we lived in the city, and the tram and bicycles delivered us wherever we needed to go.
Every summer, as soon as school was out, our mom packed our suitcases and off we went to the countryside to spend our summers with Tanti Marie, our cousins, and the kids in her village. It was a six-hour train ride from our place to hers, mostly filled with anxiety over the summer-long separation from our parents, and worry that our elder cousins might have outgrown the wish to play with us. My sisters and I were the youngest of the bunch, and still very much interested in physical play, not talk, boys, or dress-up.
Despite the uncomfortable wood benches in our compartment, and the beauty of the red poppy fields flying by, the train would eventually lull us into a restless sleep until our mom would wake us urging to eat some of the chicken schnitzel she had prepared for the road. Because we were picky eaters, we needed to be bribed with candy. Sweets were a scarcity then, as was pretty much everything else, but somehow or other, our dad never failed to produce the most delicious candy for us. It was their hope that the fresh mountain air, and fresh cheese and milk would stimulate our appetite and upon our return we would be a few kilos heavier.
When the train pulled into the station closest to our destination we were overjoyed. Whatever trepidation we may have had up to that point was replaced with excitement by the promise of an entire summer of freedom and play. We couldn’t sit still for a moment. We were ready to shed our shoes and take off running.
Although the village was remote, and another half hour by bus from there, the air was different, almost pungently sharp to our unaccustomed city noses, and the country folk with their baskets returning home from the market in town, were loud and crude in their manner toward each other. There was a ton of winking and pinching going on, and we stared unabashedly fascinated, despite our mom’s urging to look out the window.
Tanti Marie welcomed us with her customary pink raspberry cake. To this day, it is the most scrumptious raspberry cake I have ever eaten, and sadly I will never know how to make it, as she had passed away before I had a chance to ask for the recipe. She served huge slices of it with fresh glasses of goat milk for the kids, and thick Turkish coffee for the adults. It was the first day of summer, in the most beloved home of my childhood.
Years ago, a friend and I took a few sunny summer days to explore the Pacific Northwest coast. Our main goal was to stay off the beaten path and experience life at a slower pace. Antique shops, flea markets, and art galleries were our destination, as were berry farms, deserted beaches, dusty book shops and coffee houses. We had reserved a couple of nights at bed and breakfast places along the way, provisioned ourselves with a picnic basket overflowing with Belgian chocolates, crusty bread, and the best cheeses we could afford, and set out.
She was to be married that summer, and soon after to move away. I suppose, in a way, we were gifting each other a last memory of our girlhood. Ours was a friendship that had carried us from childhood, through the turbulent, self-conscious adolescence, and into our twenties.
The views were stunning. Rolling pastoral beauty giving way to dense emerald forests. We followed a river that shined like mica and came into a village right out of a nautical painting. The sun was setting, all rose and apricot colored over the bay. We parked our car and strolled the heart of the main street in search of a coffee house. With steaming drinks and chunks of cheese filled bread, we made our way to the beach, content to sit on the sand and soak up the beauty before us.
As darkness was approaching, we didn’t linger too long. Somewhere along those dusty roads, the hostess of a white Victorian house was awaiting our arrival, probably eager to lock up and go to bed. Our bedroom, at the top of three flights of stairs, was under the eaves and decorated with a large-scale lilac print wallpaper right out of a Victoria magazine. The brass, queen-sized bed was piled up with fluffy pillows, and in the bathroom a claw-foot tub occupied most of the space. We loved it.
A misty morning arrived too soon. We took our time over breakfast in the ornate dining room, both decided that the food could be better, yet stuffed ourselves nonetheless, and set off for a day of treasure hunting. It seemed that time stood still. The clouds and morning drizzle cleared away, and our minds emptied of everything but the joy of each other’s company.
That night’s bed and breakfast was a far cry from the first. We took one look at it and turned our car around. It was spooky! Our overactive imaginations had us roaming the dark roads in search of acceptable lodging. Finally, after it seemed as though we drove for hours, we found a newly built hotel, devoid of character, as expected, but with views of the silver ocean lapping at the rocks below.
Before we headed home the following afternoon, we stopped into a local bookshop and sealed our three days together by each purchasing a copy of Jane Eyre. It was a favorite book to both of us, and a talisman to remember our friendship and our last adventure before matrimony.
One Saturday morning when I was 12, my father woke up and decided that that was the day his daughters would learn the feminine art of keeping house. “Marioara,” he said to my mom, “these girls are getting as tall as poplars and all they do is play.” Now I may have been 12, and already taller than my mom, but my sisters were 10 and 7, and petite. However, that’s how things were done in our family. The entire group was involved. Example: if one of us broke a rule, we all paid for it. The reasoning? So we’d learn the consequence and not attempt to break a rule, ever again. Sometimes it worked, most often it didn’t. It created an accomplice sort of bond between the five of us kids, though, and we saw to it that we weren’t found out.
My mom, being the wise woman she is, set about finding age appropriate tasks for us three. The youngest was shown how to fold clothes and organize the closets. The second was soon scrubbing the toilets, polishing the furniture and vacuuming, and I got sent to the kitchen to start on the soup, and peel the potatoes. I was 12, old enough to know better than burn down the house.
All the while cleaning the chicken, I was remembering the ones at my Tanti Marie’s country house, running around the yard without their heads, blood splattering everywhere. Not a pretty sight, nor memory. But I persevered and soon enough I added it to the cold water-filled pot waiting for it. To that I added salt, carrots, onion, celery, and parsley, placed the lid on top and moved on to the potatoes.
I will admit that to this day, I do not enjoy peeling potatoes. There is something about their cold and slimy texture (to me, at least) that raises the hair on my arms. I cut them, cubed them, filled another pot with cold, fresh water, added salt and the potatoes, and set them to boil. After the potatoes were fully cooked, I drained them, added the softened butter that had been sitting on the counter for so long it had practically melted, and then the milk, and stirred like crazy. They turned out delicious.
When the soup was ready, my mom strained it, disposing of the celery, parsley, and onion, saved the meat and carrots on the side for frying them later, and explained the importance of simmering the homemade noodles in the soup broth. Thankfully, I didn’t have to make the noodles. Those remained my mother’s and grandmother’s responsibility.
Over the years I experimented with the addition of herbs, garlic, roasted shallots, heavy cream, sour crème, crème fraiche, and a few other condiments in my mashed potatoes. The soups became more complicated as well. Yet, regardless of the outcome, my most proud moment is when we sat down for lunch on that Saturday, and I served everyone the chicken noodle soup and mashed potatoes I had made.
Across the street from us, in a lime plastered, ivy-covered house, lived the shoemaker and his wife. As children, we loved to play in their rose filled garden, or sit with him at his workbench, eating bowls of stew with homemade crusty bread, and watching him cut the myriad colored leather for the shoes ordered. His wife always had gold foil wrapped chocolates for us, in the many pockets of her apron.
They were old and stooped. The only child they had ever had, long dead of some childhood ailment. Children had a tendency to die back then, the old shoemaker used to say, his eyes filling with tears. And because I cried easily as a child, I would tear up alongside him. His wife would hear me crying and come rushing out of the kitchen, scolding the old shoemaker for saddening children with his stories. She would take me in the cool, dark kitchen with her, where she was always pickling or making jams, and give me a blue velvet covered box out of an old walnut armoire, to look through.
It was a treasure box of sorts, with mementos of their child and the trips they had taken while newlyweds. Amidst the smiling photos, train ticket stubs, and christening gown and bonnet, there was also a teddy bear. A small, skinny one with a chewed paw. It bore the importance of having belonged to their baby. Out of respect for the old shoemaker’s tears (or most likely, because I was afraid to touch the plaything of a dead child), I didn’t touch it, although my young fingers craved to.
The ivy-covered house with its fragrant rose garden is no longer there. In its place is an ugly concrete building with shuttered windows. The people within are silent and secretive, and the only time one sees them is when they back their car out of their gated yard.
Yet, the bittersweet memories of childhood remain deeply rooted in my mind. A treasure box of them, that I’m determined to document before old age sets in, and I forget. Colors and textures, and sounds, and sensations. Life lessons learned at a young age.
Many houses are deserted by the men of the family for lack of… simple comforts. ~ Edith Wharton
I love interior design almost as much as I love to read. I salivate over glossy magazines and books featuring exquisite residences from around the world, and wish that my work would be featured as well. Wishful thinking. For one thing, it’s nowhere near as good, and for another, I could never be as detail oriented as required.
Edith Wharton, however, was not just one of the best female American authors (Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence, The Custom of the Country, and The House of Mirth, are just a few of her novels) she was also a superb interior designer. The Decoration of Houses, is one of the best books I’ve read on design. On the Lenox MA property she had bought in 1902, five years after she wrote the book, she created a peaceful and harmonious space where she was able to entertain her closest friends. Known as The Mount, it is currently owned by a preservation group, who has restored it to its original grandeur, as the original furnishings are long gone.
Readings of her books and tours are offered daily during the summer months. Check out: http://www.edithwharton.org/index.php for more info and some great photos.