Sunday, September 30, 2012

Voices From Before

Dinner is never as full an experience as it might be for me unless there is some kind of chopping involved. And not just a little chopping. A carrot here or an onion there is just enough to tease—not even worth getting out the cutlery. I need a full medley of veggies, maybe some garlic and herbs and meat to trim. Now that’s some good chopping. There’s always a glass of wine at my side and the ritual takes place at Great Aunt Bertha’s cutting board.

This is not your ordinary cutting board. It’s thick and heavy, almost like a mini butcher’s block. It has little feet and the wood is smooth and beautifully worn from use over the years. When Aunt Bertha died in her nineties many years ago, somehow my brother Rick, who hated vegetables and almost never cooked for himself, got the cutting board. I begged him for it. He wouldn’t budge. I chastised him when I would go to his home and see it sitting in the corner of his kitchen, piled high with junk and covered with dust. One time he actually cut up a tomato or something and called to tell me the board had not been entirely wasted.

Years passed and then our Uncle Bud died at age ninety. Come to find out he had a cutting board just like Aunt Bertha’s. Actually, Bud probably made both of them because they were identical and he was a master carpenter. There was a lottery among relatives and I got Bud’s cutting board. The fine china, the big furniture, the lovely jewelry…they were all great, but for me the cutting board was the prize.

As it turned out, one of our cousins also wanted the cutting board and asked Rick, who was Bud’s executor, if he would negotiate a trade with me. Rick knew the dark secret that lay beneath the grit and grime that had covered over Bertha’s twin to this new coveted heirloom, and he knew the futility of asking me to make the trade. It was a moment of soul searching for Rick, but he steeled himself to the challenge and found the strength to let go of Bertha’s cutting board. He gave it to me so I would give Bud’s to the cousin. After years of therapy and grief counseling, I was finally chopping my meals on Aunt Bertha’s cutting board. It was a long time coming.

The other night, as I sipped and chopped, I wondered why I love the old board so much and realized that, for me, it is a time capsule. The board sat in Bertha’s kitchen amidst everyday living nearly a hundred years ago. Now it sits in my kitchen and laces our lives together.

I wonder what Aunt Bertha and her husband, Uncle Bus, talked about as they made their evening meals. I know they weren’t Googling recipes or texting friends. Their phone wasn’t smart, if they had a phone at all. And, if they needed to pick up a few things for dinner, chances are they walked to the market instead of jumping into one of two or three cars parked in the driveway. We usually think of those times as simpler. As a child, I would hear stories and wish I could go back and live in “the old days.”

 Bertha was my grandmother Gladys’ sister. The two girls had eight other siblings, all of whom lived with their parents in a modest four bedroom house in Melrose, Massachusetts, which is a fifteen minute drive north of Boston. When Gladys eloped with a young Canadian named Lindsey Lantz, Lindsey gained U.S. citizenship and Gladys lost hers. She had to reapply and pass a test before she could belong to her homeland again. That’s how they did things then.

Gladys and Lindsey, or Nanna and Da as we call them, had three children, my mother being the last of them. Da was a carpenter; Nanna kept the home. They had no phone and walked to the drug store downtown if they needed to make a call. I remember hearing stories of how they stood and counted cars on the freight train as it passed before them. And how girls would stand on the side of the frozen pond in winter and wait for boys to skate up and offer their hockey stick as an invitation to go around the pond with them.

On Christmas morning, my mother would wake early, eager to dig into the sock that hung at the foot of her bed. Sitting quietly while her older sister slept next to her, Mom would pull out the candy and gum and homemade treats Santa had left for her, and flow over with excitement for all the lavish goodies. During her teen years, Mom would drive “all the way” into Boston to go to dances. Several couples would pile into a single vehicle because very few young people had access to wheels in those days. Some would ride in the rumble seat. Others sat in laps. They hadn’t yet heard of seat belts.

When Mom married my father, Nanna made the wedding gown and all the bridesmaids’ dresses, as well. The aunts cooked food for the reception, which was in the church hall out back. There was no bar, cash or otherwise. They just drank ginger ale.

As I look around my house today, I see several wingback chairs that came from Nanna’s house, and Bertha’s too. They are my favorite places to sit. When I am wrapped in their comfortable history, I travel back to the old living rooms where my ancestors sat sipping tea, knitting, and talking about politics of the day. I have Nanna’s silverware and some of her china. Paintings she did, or Bertha did, hang on my walls, alongside of photographs taken by Great Uncle Aubrey. Da’s tools are the tools we use, and tables Uncle Bud made give rest to our lamps.

I look ahead to the question of what tomorrow will bring, like anyone. But my life is also rich with tangible reminders of those who worked and laughed and loved and lost long before I was born. In their youth they felt the power of here and now. They, too, looked ahead to the mysteries of days yet to come. But now they are all gone. So quickly it is over.

Years from now my great grandchildren will sit at my kitchen table, chopping vegetables at Aunt Bertha’s cutting board, thinking back to the old days when Grandma Donna was still alive. They will wonder what it was like to live such a primitive life. They'll marvel at how I had to use a typewriter and paper and pencil in school instead of a computer, and how children actually had to learn this thing called cursive writing. It will fascinate them that a truck pulled up to people’s homes each day and delivered envelopes that we used to call mail. Landline telephones with cords attached will be museum relics. If I’m lucky, some artifact of mine will have made its way intact through the generations and will be considered precious. I wonder which thing it will be.

To my way of thinking, people as individuals don’t matter much over time. Collectively, we amount to more, though I’m not entirely sure yet what the greater purpose might be. It seems important that we carry forward old things that will thread the past into the future. And so I cherish Aunt Bertha’s cutting board for the rich memories that are layered into its wood, beneath those of my own that will be layered next for some distant relative of mine to ponder.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Bountiful Harvest

I love hot peppers. The only problem is there’s not much you can do with them and whatever you come up with needs to be done in small portions. So, I’m not sure why I felt I needed sixteen hot pepper plants in my garden this year. Part of it was I couldn’t choose. You’ve got your jalapeno and your habanero. The cayennes are long and pretty. There were also these lovely hot banana peppers I’d never seen before and, of course, what’s a hot pepper garden without some chilies? So I got a bunch of each of them and, wouldn’t you know, they all did well.

The other day I realized there were hundreds of hot peppers in my garden and they were all ready to be eaten. The peppers were beautiful and I couldn’t just let them go to waste. I tried to give them away but people were only willing to take one at a time. This was not addressing the problem.

So, yesterday I resorted to the only thing you can do in large quantities with a vegetable that wants to burn a hole in your tongue. I made hot pepper jelly. It sounded simple enough. I should have realized it wasn’t when the recipe began with the words “This is long and difficult but…”

The list of equipment included items I’d never heard of so I had to look things up, then traipse around town to find them. And you’re supposed to wear rubber gloves. Who cooks with gloves on? I ignored the author’s warning and, let’s just say, I should not have done so.

The project took over our kitchen. Equipment sprawled from one end to the other and several pots were going on the stove at once. God-awful ingredients like vinegar, pectin and obscene amounts of sugar waited on the table. It was hard to imagine they could combine into anything tasty.

The author advised I must get everything measured, cut, boiling and ready before I started, so I’d be able to do ten things at the same time once things got underway. I began by preparing the peppers. They’re supposed to be chopped “finely” but I wasn’t sure what that meant in the context of hot stuff. What if I were to miss a big piece? I had mounds of peppers on the butcher block and I kept finding chunks buried in the middle. The vigilance it took to make sure nothing got by me was stressful, but that was mere inconvenience compared to the searing pain that suddenly set in.

This was when I realized the wisdom of wearing gloves. Come to find out, the juice soaks into your skin when you are working intimately with hot peppers. It starts to burn and eat your hands alive, but you can forget washing it off. The inferno will remain until the skin has been sloughed. And no matter how hard you try to remember, you will scratch your nose, touch your lips and you will even rub your eyes with those hands of fire. As an aside, I’ll mention that, when the razor-sharp knife slices into your finger, letting the pepper juice directly into the blood stream, you will feel entitled to swear and yell out the window for your husband to come quickly, as though you’ve just cut your entire hand off. It hurts that much.

With the chopping done, it was time to start making the jelly. It would’ve been better to have three people or several hands but, lacking either of these, I had no choice but to run like a maniac from one task to the next. I was washing the jars and boiling the lids at the same time my peppers were cooking and I was supposed to stir them constantly. The mixture needed to come to a rolling boil—an ordinary boil wouldn’t do—and cook for exactly one minute. During those sixty seconds I needed to keep stirring and also move the now sterile jars close to the pot so I could immediately ladle the jelly into them. And it became obvious I’d better be quick about the ladling because that pectin wasn’t fooling around. It wanted to set the jelly on the spot.

I was torn after I’d filled the first jar because I could all but see the bacteria crawl in to contaminate everything, but the rest of my jelly was firming up and I had to get it into the jars. Inasmuch as I felt a certain obligation to prevent an outbreak of botulism, I had to think on my feet and come up with a compromise.

Finally, I was ready for the last step, lowering the jars into a warming pot to process the jelly. The scalding water almost felt good when it splashed onto my pepper burns, but that misguided euphoria didn’t last long.

Today, after eight hours on my feet and damage to my hands that doesn’t feel like it’s going away anytime soon, I have thirty three jars of hot pepper jelly. The single jar I’ve had in my fridge for the past six months has been tossed to make way for eight or ten others. I’ll be giving the rest away from now until Christmas. If they aren’t gone by then, anyone on my list might as well make room in your own fridge, cuz you know what you’re getting this year.

Next spring, I think I’ll just plant a few peppers and, if anyone hears me talking about making jelly again, please remind me how much fun I had the first time.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Seasons Change

Yesterday was my 27th wedding anniversary. I almost feel hypocritical. It seems as though one of the qualifying criteria for being a divorce attorney should be having gone through a couple really nasty divorces. But, here I am married to the same man for twenty seven years—in a row. I make that last comment only because some people marry, divorce, and then marry the first guy all over again.

My marriage to Cecil started out with the usual star struck romance. Those early days gave way to life's routines, which brought us depth and complexity that wove our lives together more deeply. Years passed and we matured and felt nicely settled. Then we got side-swiped and everything kind of went into the crapper. The flush lever loomed ominously, but we resisted. So now, another ten years down the road, I’m taking stock.

What I see is a couple that has spent ten years trying to survive. Trying to survive is different than living, and it is a far cry from actively loving someone. You try to avoid the life in prison thing at all costs, and it’s no picnic fighting off cancer. Financial devastation has a way of making life unpleasant and a stem cell transplant just lays itself all over everything. 

Then the storm comes and knocks out the power for a week and tumbles huge trees across the yard. It never fails that, right on the heels of all that, you’ll spring a steam leak that ruins the paint job in the living room. To top it all off, the fish in your pond start dying for no apparent reason. And, it goes without saying that, if you happen to be a writer facing deadlines of any sort, they are always there to nag at you.

Where’s the time to tend to niceties?

So, I woke up yesterday, said Happy Anniversary to Cecil, and started in on my To-Do list. I hadn’t even gotten him a card. Maybe we’d go out to dinner later, but that didn’t happen because we got busy with the day. He showed me up with a card and flowers, but he picked them up at the grocery store that afternoon when he was there shopping. Later we argued a little because we don’t seem to appreciate each other anymore. I think it’s him and he thinks it’s me. Of course, it’s both of us.

I thought about our talk and realized how hard it is to make a marriage something you are happy to be in. For me, it’s a long-term commitment that rests on family and partnership. It’s easy, though, to slip into the business of raising a family and partnering through life. The thing that makes a marriage unique is the love and companionship and mutual support that flood in early on and so often dissipate over time.

When events and circumstances threaten to overwhelm, I fall into ‘getting the job done’ mode. Even as I write this now, I am feeling anxious because it’s already Sunday and I have so much left to do before I go back to work tomorrow. I have to confess that I succumb to stress occasionally and indulge myself in the tiniest bit of bitchiness. A little of that goes a long way.

The delicate layers of a relationship need nurturing. We all know this, but often refuse ourselves the temptation to take care of this most important part of being with someone. When we let it slide too much for too long, we wake up one day and there isn’t enough left to sustain the marriage.

As I closed up the house last night, the air was cool and crisp. Just like that, fall had snuck through the woods and slipped in around us. The season has changed. I take it as a reminder that life does not remain constant; it evolves from one moment to the next. This is a gift to each of us that we can make of what we will.

So, today, I am going out to get Cecil an anniversary card. I will tell him how much I appreciate him, how grateful I am to have shared my life with him, and how much I love him. Better a day late than not at all.