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And Here’s to You, Mrs. Richards

Gail called earlier than usual this morning and that fact alone scared me.  I had served my Breakfast Pie to everyone before they ran off to school and work. But I know when you have multiple little children, everything takes longer and by the time Gail is free enough to talk on the phone, it’s usually late morning or some days, after lunch. The pitch of her voice reinforced the feeling that something was wrong.  I knew it couldn’t be a medical emergency because Gail was a nurse in her earlier life and she can handle any health problem quickly and confidently.  The only time Gail’s façade cracked was due to her recent inability to get pregnant.  Gail needed her children and they were growing up and leaving her without a purpose.  Gil didn’t want Gail to work even though their original plan included them practicing as a team.  Gil probably thought his abandonment of their professional plan permitted Gail the chance to raise her children without working. But Gail took great pride in being a nurse and wanted to do both.  It was unconventional but it suited her.  After all, I was crazy enough to be considering going to school.  After Gail’s kids get a little older, she may have more free time on her hands that she needed to use caring for other people.

I tried to remain nonchalant on the phone with Gail but was intrigued by the change in her habit. Her words came tumbling out of her mouth so fast that I couldn’t keep up with what she was saying. Apparently, Gil’s longtime nurse was getting ready to retire.  Mrs. Richards was old-school all the way, kept Gil in line with appointments, ordered supplies and left promptly at 5 every day so she could get home to make dinner for her husband.  Gail was afraid that Gil would hire some young nurse.  Of course, that was a threat to her and an affront to the fact that she was a nurse and could do the job.  Except that she had little children.  Gail wasn’t upset by the fact that she was raising children; she was a wonderful mother who spent play time with her kids, kept them clean and well-fed, helped them with homework and spent more time with them than Gil due to his doctoring schedule.

I suggested Gail help Gil speak to the applicants so she could help choose the best one.  Gail said that she would suggest that idea to Gil in a way that would show how much she cared about his work and use her professional knowledge.  Gail also let me know that she had an additional idea to propose that might solve two problems.  Although she did not want to share it with me yet, Gail now sounded pretty excited about the chance to get involved.

Gail mentioned that she wanted to plan a nice retirement celebration for Mrs. Richards.  She had cared for the practice and Gil for many years without enough acknowledgement. Gail didn’t want to let another nurse’s work go without praise.  That’s Gail, always looking out for everyone.

School Daze for Me Too

There was a light cool wind that picked up the dried leaves and twirled them tornado-fashion along the wall of the quad.  I had been on the community college campus a few times for school events.  It was compact and efficient; a modern center of learning. Ivy would die here from lack of attention as students of all ages crossed in uncertain paths from parking lots to classrooms.  I called the office yesterday and asked for the location of Lucy’s writing class. Luckily, the class was held early in the day and I could rationalize a visit on my way to the grocery store.  I felt like a self conscious imposter student walking through the maze of corridors.  I passed an open-doored classroom and glimpsed Lucy sitting at a giant wooden desk.  I tapped on the doorjamb and entered when Lucy smiled with surprise at me.  After confirming that I wasn’t interrupting, Lucy invited me to sit and I slid into a desk in front.  Strange feeling sitting in a student desk again and a little reminder that I might be out of place.

I let Lucy know that Mr. Todd had told me about her teaching position and how I found her class.  She was impressed with my sleuthing but still a little puzzled about why I was sitting in a student’s desk in front of her.  I hesitated for a moment and then  asked her about the class. Lucy was noticeably pleased to discuss the writing class and the work of her students.  She was proud of their writing assignments and gave an example of one student who had already sold an article to a local magazine.

Lucy apologized for talking so much and asked about my interest.  There was a long pause while I contemplated my response. I  probably should have thought this part through. I was afraid that Lucy would laugh at me, think me crazy, pity me or even think I might not be capable of writing.  And the imposter in me was afraid of those things too.  I gulped and told Lucy that I might be interested in taking a class.  The words came bolting out of my mouth like one big long word.  Somehow, Lucy must have understood me because she clapped her hands to her face.  Oh god, she must think I am nuts.  But she lowered her hands and smiled.  Lucy told me that was a great idea.  She knew I loved books and reading.  She asked me if I had ever written anything and I told her that I had only started writing down my thoughts a couple of months ago.  She seemed relieved and told me that she lived in fear of students who brought whole written binders to class that weren’t really very good because they hadn’t learned anything about writing before they presumed they were writers.  How ironic; my lack of writing was good.

Since the term had already started, Lucy suggested that I register for the next term, get the textbook and start getting ahead that way.  I might enjoy being prepared ahead of time; it actually suited my personality better.  I thanked Lucy and she told me how much she looked forward to seeing me in class. Now, the hard work was up to me.  Somehow I had to break it to Steve.  I should have asked about homework.  How much could there be?  It’s just a writing class.

Home Sweet Maison

It was nice to finally be able to admire the pale pink walls of Chloe’s “salon.” The lightly flowered upholstered couch was set off with glass-topped side tables which made the whole room seem lighter. The drapes were silk and slightly shiny, tied open at the sides to let in the sunlight streaming in the front window.  A large gilded mirror hung above the mantle.  It looked like an antique. A small clock sat next to a vase of perfectly chosen flowers. There were candles of varying sizes in every room. I had spent enough time in the kitchen to enjoy its rustic charm that served as an opposite, but companionable friend, to the formal dining room with its heavier sideboard, hutch and round table.  I have always wanted a round table in my dining room since that’s the way I always envisioned my super-elegant dinner parties of my daydreams.  Everyone could see everyone else and the candlelight would make us all more attractive.  I admit that I was jealous of the table.  Each room led to the next with grace.

I knew the girls would love what Chloe had done.  Chloe created a home that reflected herself; she was just being the best Chloe she could be.  It was both strong and feminine. That simple description was a good one.  I wonder how my home would be described? When I looked over at Chloe, she was looking eagerly at my face.  She certainly didn’t need my approval but I smiled at her.  Chloe would surely host a beautiful party for us.  The menu might be the most interesting part since Chloe’s lack of preconceived notions about what to serve would allow her to choose freely. Chloe asked if she passed inspection for the card players.  I let her know that she did not need to pass our inspection and would be sure to show us all how to entertain her own way.  I was looking forward to it.  We were starting to expand our group to include our new neighbors easily.  Their inclusion was helping us to change too; what could be wrong with that?

All American Chic

Chloe wanted to hostess the next card party so that she could return everyone’s hospitality.  Mags keeps the party schedule and called me to ask if I thought Chloe was ready to hostess the group.  I didn’t see any issues and offered to help Chloe if she wanted any help.  Mags called Chloe back and added her as hostess for the next card party.

During out next conversation, I also offered Chloe my assistance.  I still had not seen the inside of her house since the workmen finished their projects.  But I imagined it was very chic.  And I really wanted to see it.  I was a little uncomfortable with my mini-obsession with Chloe. I didn’t feel this way about Mags and I respected her as extremely chic and fashionable.  Perhaps it was the foreignness or the mysterious nature of the French.

I tried to learn something from all of my girlfriends.  Gail was very practical and gave me tips on housekeeping and childcare.  Sarah was an all-American woman interested in bettering her family and life.  Judy Anne, my Southern charmer, taught me about using finesse to an advantage.  Edie, even young Edie, demonstrated an ability to use her ambition and talent in a way that fulfilled her. Too bad no one knew about her secret skill; it was a little like a superhero having a hidden identity.  I could never keep a secret like Edie.  And Mags, of course, my heroine.  It’s not that I wanted to be her, I just thought she was great at being Mags.  Maybe that’s the part I’m missing. I wasn’t really sure who I was anymore.  Life was constantly schooling me and showing me some alternate way of seeing things that I was previously so sure of.  I needed to start figuring me out.

I decided to call Chloe back and invite myself over.  Since it wasn’t just a drop-in, she would have time to prepare.  That way I could really enjoy seeing the way she had updated Mrs. Kravitz’ house and get to know her even better.

Leftover Love

The rain had fallen so hard and for so long that Snowball was a sopping mess at the back door.  This morning, Daisy and Junior balked at wearing their galoshes and rain slickers to the bus stop since it hadn’t yet started to rain when they left for school.  Now I was glad that I hadn’t given into their pleas to leave their gear at home.  I towel-dried Snowball and opened a can of tuna for both our lunches.  Before I mixed in the ingredients for tuna salad, I pulled out a couple of spoonfuls for the cat, which he devoured. The house was dark enough to require the lights on in every room and I decided to preheat the oven to do some baking.

Rainy days are great for big bowls of soup or stew but I already had pulled some beef out of the freezer to make chili, so I decided to go with that.  I don’t make it extra spicy so the kids don’t turn up their noses when I serve it.  I wanted to make cornbread to serve with it but thought about making it as muffins to please the children.  Small food is cool to kids.  Muffins look like cupcakes. I was really trying to put a little more thought into the look of my meals.  It wasn’t as if they were picture worthy, but the pictures in recipes always catch my attention first.  I can’t imagine a world where our family meals would be subject to photography.  Both of the children enjoyed the cornbread muffins, especially since I always add a touch of sugar to the batter.

The leftover muffins caught my eye the next morning. It was still dreary outside and I wrapped the muffins up in a tinfoil tent and placed them in the oven on warm.  When everyone arrived at the table for breakfast, I made a small hole in the middle of the warm muffins and inserted some jam.  You would have thought that I invented a new delicious breakfast treat; everyone loved the muffins!  It was so nice to send everyone off with a smile on their face.  Even without the sunshine, our day started well.

School Me

Mr. Todd was behind the counter at the book shop.  I wanted to look at a newly published novel.  At the library, I was on the waiting list but it must be very popular because I was eighth.  That means I wouldn’t see the book for four months.  I wanted to check it out in person to see if it was worth waiting for and maybe read a little of it every visit.  I know, I know, crazy idea, but I’m a fast reader and I might finish it in multiple quiet visits.  The front table was stacked with the most recently published novels and the display was enticing.  I found the book in question and after Mr. Todd finished the transaction and opened the door for the shopper, he came over to greet me.  I hadn’t seen Mr. Todd for a couple of months, so we spent a few minutes catching up.  Mr. Todd went on to tell me about Lucy’s new position at the community college.  Lucy was teaching a class in writing and would only be working weekends.  We went on to discuss the popularity of the book I was holding.  I had stopped thinking about my plan to shop-read the book and told Mr. Todd that I was going to purchase it. I didn’t know why that came out of my mouth and even I was surprised when I said it.

It must have been the shock of hearing about Lucy’s writing class.  I had never thought of taking a class.  Could I be a student? In fact, when I finished school the first time and went to work, I was just doing what was expected of me at the time.  Everyone was working in some capacity during the war.  The years had passed without me considering about going to school and I wondered if maybe I was too old.  Or if Steve would think it a crazy idea.  I have my share of those.  I would have to check into this idea a little more.  I might have to talk to Lucy.

Another Casserole Please

I could not decide on the theme for the card party scheduled for my house.  Being the hostess is a serious responsibility.  Mags had done a great job with her special party to introduce Chloe to the group.  It was fall, and that usually makes it easy to plan a theme.  Little did I know how helpful Steve would be in considering what to choose.  Steve is not really picky but definitely has his likes and dislikes.  I never serve anything with fruits that he doesn’t recognize and the vegetables need to be off the same list his mother served.  It was a short list, which didn’t really help.  This time of year there were still lots of good end of summer vegetables at the market, so I pulled his mother’s Squash Casserole recipe out of the recipe box to use up the zucchini and squash I had in the icebox.  The corn would be easy to find and serving it off the cob would be a nice change from the summertime.  The great thing about a casserole is the fact that it can be put together earlier in the day and popped into the oven at the last minute.  That left me time to sit and contemplate life.  That’s what I was calling my new journaling time. I prepared the ingredients and placed them all together following the recipe perfectly.  I had made it many times without the corn, but it was a nice addition and Steve always liked it.

My contemplation time was still my own secret and from time to time I read back through my writings and didn’t recognize words that I had written just a couple of months ago. I’m not sure if that is normal, but I didn’t let it bother me.  I could have been sleep-deprived when writing some of those notes.  I realized that I needed to purchase a new composition book for my journaling since I was nearing the end of my current one. That is a lot of writing for me.  Sometimes I would think of a topic that I wanted to write about early in the day and by the time I could find time to actually write it down, it had disappeared or changed completely.  I had heard about real writers getting “writer’s block” but figured that I would never be a real writer because that never happened to me.  I always had a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head ready for the page by the time I actually sat down to write.  Part of the problem was that I didn’t want anyone else to know what I was doing and laugh at me.  I also liked having at least one secret just about myself.  I must remember to stop at the stationary store and look for a new journal.  Maybe one a little thicker next time.  My life was starting to be like a casserole; pieces of it were put together to enjoy later. That thought gave me my theme.  Casseroles.  Everyone liked them, everyone understood them.

After dinner, Steve thanked me for making the casserole.  It is always nice to know that my cooking is appreciated.  Children will eat or not eat based on their short list of things they like.  Adults are supposed to be more open to new foods, eat things because they are good for them or be polite and try a few bites.  Luckily, everyone enjoyed the casserole.  A success in many ways.

I Thought It was the Wine

Don’t ask me how these things happened, they just did.  Chloe heard a shortened description of our card parties as I described them at our dinner party.  The guys both had smirks on their faces as I explained the importance of the parties to bond with the other mothers in the neighborhood.  I glossed over the alcohol intake that helped us not stress about who actually won the games, and mentioned how the creativity of our menus resulted in better meals for our families.  Chloe clapped her hands in delight and spoke rapidly in French, then started to cry. I had no idea what she was saying, but Francis’ face lit up also.  After the mini-celebration ended, Francis told Steve and me how grateful he was that we had asked her to join the group.  Francis reached across the table and gently held Chloe’s hand as she wiped away tiny tears.  After she composed herself, Chloe told us herself how grateful she was to be included also.  Francis went on to say that they had never felt at home in the states until recently.  Having a proper home gave them great hope that they could finally put the hard times behind them.  Being away from home must have been difficult for Chloe, and Francis seemed to understand the sacrifices they had to make to create a new life with Marie Claire.  They wanted Marie Claire to have a better world.  We all sat quietly for a couple of minutes.  Steve proposed a toast to having a better life for our children and we all clinked our wine glasses.

Mags was the hostess for the first card party that Chloe attended while the girls were at school.  Marie Claire had been enrolled at the same school as Daisy and the two youngsters held hands as they walked to the bus stop on the corner.  It was good to have the girls busy for the day so that we could both enjoy ourselves. I brought a big batch of my Stuffed Mushrooms as an appetizer.  Mags had made room in the oven for them so we could enjoy them piping hot.  Thoughtfully, Mags served French wine instead of a cocktail. Long story short, we never played cards that afternoon.  We ate delicious food, drank many glasses of wine, asked Chloe a lot of questions and enjoyed life.  It seemed fitting for such a beautiful fall day.  As we were leaving to walk across the street to return home, Chloe linked her arm in mine, leaned toward me and thanked me.  I surprised her by answering in some French that Francis had taught me and called her “mon ami.”

Baking Duo

Zettie Louise had requested Junior work at her house on Saturday.  I guessed that yardwork might be involved since the leaves had started to fall early this year.  Stevie dressed in a pair of dungarees and older sneakers with his favorite baseball cap firmly planted on his head. A couple of hours after he went to Zettie Louise’s, I left with Daisy to pick up some groceries.  I noticed that the leaves on Zettie Louise’s lawn were untouched.  When I returned from shopping, Steve was working in the garage and helped me carry in the bags.  Steve said that Junior was still at Zettie Louise’s, so Daisy and I went inside to spend some girl-time baking.

The kitchen warmed up quickly, so I cracked the window over the sink to let in some cool air.  Daisy was wearing her new little baker apron and standing on the step stool next to the sink with me.  I planned on making an cinnamon apple cake.  We could have it for dessert tonight and tomorrow.  I wanted to use a recipe borrowed from my aunt.  I remember that she used to serve it at the wake after everyone’s funeral, so it must be a keeper. The cake was light and sweet and didn’t need a frosting because it had a swirl of cinnamon and brown sugar through it.  Daisy could help by practicing her apple slicing. I cut off a small portion of one of the apples for her to use.  I kept a special little knife for her and her skills were getting better every time she practiced. I cleaned and peeled the apples and entertained Daisy by making long curvy peelings.  We were going to save the peelings to put in the backyard to feed the neighborhood squirrels.  I liked this recipe because the apples were actually grated on my box grater and distributed in the batter. When the batter was together, Daisy lovingly scooped the grated apples into the cake.  The house smelled delicious as it baked and Daisy washed the dishes diligently using lots of water.  I want her to be a good cook.

With my recent change of view about cooking, I wanted to try and pass on some better feelings about cooking for a family.  Eventually, Daisy went outside to the garage to “work” with daddy as I started preparing dinner.  I heard some conversation in the garage and went out to check on who was visiting.  Zettie Louise and Junior were holding  a plate of cookies and offering them to Steve and Daisy.  As usual, Zettie Louise surprised me by doing something unusual and enlightening.  When Junior saw me, he proudly turned his plate toward me to show me the cookies he baked with Zettie Louise.  They were golden brown and delicious looking; I tasted one and found it yummy.  As Zettie Louise started to leave, I thanked her for baking with Junior.  She opened my eyes to another possibility that I had not even thought about.  Zettie Louise smiled and thanked me for letting Junior spend the day with her.  She was very comfortable with Junior and he seemed to appreciate her.  Her actions were changing his view of the world too and showing him new possibilities. So many changes for all of us.  Just when I thought I knew my world, it widened a little more.  And it was good.

Life is a Process

In order to get to know Chloe and Francis better, I decided to have a dinner party.  Chloe agreed that Marie Claire could stay overnight and I would feed the kids earlier, which would give Chloe time to get ready for dinner also.  While I fed the three children, Steve changed for dinner.  I knew that he would watch them while I finished getting myself ready.

It may have been a little bold having Chloe over to eat but she didn’t seem so snobbish about what she ate so far.  Mags had asked me the other day about inviting her to the card parties, since we were getting ready to start up again.  I thought it was a good idea even if Chloe didn’t play cards right away.  She would liven up the group with some new stories while we learned more about her.  I planned on running the thought by Chloe at dinner.

Since there was a hint of a chill in the air, I thought that I would try to make French Onion Soup.  The recipe had a handful of ingredients, but it took a long time, hours, in fact.  Not that much had to be done but a little stirring from time to time to soften and cook those onions.  And those onions wouldn’t cut themselves.  I was definitely suffering for my craft.  While the onions were starting to cook, Chloe knocked at the back door to ask a question about whether Steve would be wearing a tie at dinner.  Francis was unsure of the dress code for dinner parties since they hadn’t been to many recently.  It was at that point that I realized that Chloe felt at home in my kitchen.  She peeked into the Dutch oven on the stove and gently moved the onions around.  I was stunned when she commented on the beauty of the onions.  Chloe regarded cooking as an art and I had always thought of it as another task.  She gently murmured to herself about “the process, the process.”  She had a genuinely delighted look on her face as she leaned over, capturing the smell of the onions by drawing the air towards her with her hand.

A few minutes after Chloe left, I took the lid off the pot and tried to mimic her gesture.  I needed to slow down a little and take a mental note or two.  Cooking should be satisfying for the cook and the diners.  This thought could change my whole outlook on meal preparation.  I felt a little silly all alone in my kitchen but I leaned my head toward the onions and repeated my new mantra – the process, the process – as a small smile of satisfaction crossed my lips.