It is that time of year when thoughts turn to baking cookies and watching the old classic Christmas movies. Before taking a break from blogging until January 2nd I want to thank those who have stopped by and read a post or two, or engaged in the topics that made for the drama of the past 12 months. Many such spirited moments are promised as we enter a presidential election year. But for now it is time to ponder the more important things in life–home, family, friends.
Once again James and I put the year into perspective in our annual Christmas letter. I have included parts of that letter for this blog and send it along with my hopes that all have a Merry Christmas (that means you too, Mark P.) and a wish for a Happy New Year to everyone.
2015 was a different kind of year. We didn’t travel much outside of our neighborhood. We didn’t even go out of our way to shop, letting the power of the internet work its magic through the hardworking men and women of the U.S. postal service. What we did do, though, was enjoy just being home and taking part in the little things. What we did do was to use down to a nub an impressive amount of sidewalk chalk, drawing and skipping countless rounds of hopscotch with the neighborhood kids, Priska and Kuno. Those same kids helped us to blow bubbles, large and small, and watch the wind carry them away. We basked in the peace and calm of summer breezes, and we listened to raindrops beat against the plate glass windows. In short, we found a rhythm and pattern to our days that allowed for the small moments to shine; our slow pace this year was a tonic for the soul.
We bravely met the first hints of the waning winter with rakes in hand. So anxious were we to see the snow melt that we helped it along, pulling the piles down little by little, observing the ice crystals as they seeped in to the lawn or formed rivulets on the sidewalk as they made their way to the storm drains which feed Lake Monona, only a number of yards away. The previous autumn, we had undertaken one of those huge gardening projects that is required every few years to make sure the hosta plants are thinned and that the ever-spreading day lilies get placed back behind their borders. We transplanted bulbs in the hopes that the squirrels would leave them in the ground long enough for them to burgeon and become spring blooms. Impatient to be outside, we cleared the area where the blue Adirondack chairs sit, spread out some cardboard so as not to mar the ground as we luxuriated on those above freezing afternoons and welcomed the vernal warmth back.
Our yard is full of life. Over the months, our Adirondack thrones permit us to eavesdrop on the comings and goings of the world around us. The robins tug worms out of the ground; the yellow finches perch upside down on the heads of sunflowers and eat until their bellies are full. Monarch butterflies and honey bees gathered plentifully on the zinnias. And, then there were those ‘friends’ we invited in to our lives, getting to know them one page at a time.
James adventured out with Andres Viestad to taste the flavors and the spices that Marco Polo encountered on his journeys; he set out on the high seas with the likes of Herman Melville and Mark Kurlansky, not so much to capture the Great White Whale, but rather to pay homage to the lowly cod fish so treasured by the Basques. Tranquilly he listened to Nancy Houston recount tales set to the harpsichord tones of Johann Sebastien Bach. And he lamented to decline of our English language with Steven Pinker and celebrated the polyphonic conditional tense of French and the complexities of the indicative past of Spanish with Pierre Patrick Haillet and Maria Luz Gutierrez, both of Middlebury renown.
Under a new hemlock green cantilevered umbrella in the yard, thus making sure that the heat of the day is blunted and those with thinning hair are not burned, Gregory reclined on fire engine red and sunflower yellow cushions and was consumed with a tome covering a twelve-year period starting in 1788. He visited the Potemkin villages, symbols of the imperial power of Catherine the Great and cringed in horror along with the peasantry of the French Revolution as Louis XVI lost his head. Positioned under the sugar maple of our yard, a wave of nostalgia led him to re-read the Ian Fleming series on James Bond which he had first read under the large oak tree back at his family home as a boy. All of this is to say that we aren’t at a loss when asked to give recommendations on a good read.
Good reads and good eats go so marvelously well together. One never knows what might be happening in James’ kitchen, though. And if Gregory isn’t careful, James’ list of “secret ingredients” (those things that Gregory claims to hate, but James sneaks in to the food anyway because of their umami qualities) appears to be growing.
If he had his druthers, James would be a first-class forager. Our attorney friend, Jennifer, comes to eat about once a month. While she is delighted with the gourmet fare offered here, she has been reluctant to write or to sign a waiver indemnifying James from all loss as a result of his “discoveries”. No matter. A tort is a torte.
Risk taker that he is, James now cooks our meat according to the new USDA recommendations which means that lower temperatures can be used affording safety while enhancing the flavor. Gregory has even caught him vacuum-packing our beef to cook in the gentle waters of a “sous vide”, what looks like a fish tank heater, a rather costly instrument now a favorite of the foodies and the gastro-pornographers he watches on television. He sprinkles the meats with ‘lilac sugar’. Gregory walked in to find James creating this by meticulously removing lilacs pedals and grinding them in sugar. There was a small pile of petals assembled on the table that day and when asked what was happening James smiled and retorted, “Secret Ingredient”. But it wasn’t until James came back from Maine that he truly had Gregory flummoxed. James brought out a bag of birch leaves which his dad and friends, Gary and Barbara, had helped him to gather. The leaves were carefully washed, added to sea salt and pulverized in the food processor. While worrisome, they do make for a most impressive food flavoring.
In late August, James traveled to Maine. It was a busy “working vacation”, the end result of which was a U-Haul pod of stuff being shipped across the country. The pod arrived about ten days after James’ return, delivered to our place by a ‘moving company’, two young men and a mini-van, who didn’t know how to back up with a trailer hitched on. James offered to back the rig up for them, but they declined, preferring to aggravate the entire neighborhood for a pair of hours as they unloaded the pod in to the basement from the center line of the street.
For the first time in years, all of James’ belongings are in one place. Everything from awards and certificates from his childhood to antique rocking chairs that his great-grandmother had rocked ‘the kids’ in, to James’ mother’s collection of crystal dishes and serving pieces were loaded in to that plywood box.
Most impressively though was the new old bed that James brought back from his familial home. In 1977, when ‘the twins’, as he and his sister have been known for much of their lives, needed a new bed, James’ Dad tore a couple of pages from the Sears Catalog to use as inspiration and went to his woodworking shop and built matching ‘Captain’s Beds’, a left and a right, which he modified recently to make one king-sized bed for us to use here. Robert must have been given a router for Christmas 1976, as the wood edges were sculpted and decorative. The Captain’s bed has book shelves in the base and head board and two large drawers for storage on each side. After cleaning them up a bit and reassembling them here in Madison, Gregory now has even more reason to stay upstairs in the event of a tornado or severe weather which would normally send the wise to the basement for cover. He states that he will now just tether himself to the massive and heavy bed and keep on reading.
As you know, we are political junkies and as we tune in to our daily dose of insanity and hate-filled rhetoric from what passes for presidential candidates these days, we try hard to think about what it really means to have a home. It isn’t just the place where we live—it is the whole ensemble of memories and emotions that link us to our pasts. While some would deny others of the chance to establish a home of their own here, we want the US to be a place where others can relish in the simple pleasures of life, where others can hopscotch, read good books, share in meals and friendship, get a good night’s sleep. We wish you a restful year ahead and thank you for being a part of our lives.