September

September was a cartload of treasures pulled by steady mule over the hill of suddenly bone chilling nights–the flannels did not make it onto the beds until the end of the month, replacing terribly smelly summer sheets–and creaked slowly to rest in the sunny afternoons.

The yard became strewn with crimson leaves. A sewing machine was finally settled on a desk cut to size, threaded with red thread and ready for projects. Maple soft-serve at the state fair, and the last bouquets of a flower subscription. Properly sized boots and warm tights were ordered and arrived in boxes. Woe to the generation (’tis mine) that killed off the storefront shoe shop where one could have (once upon a time!) walked in with three children and walked out with three pairs of shoes that fit. My due punishment are boxes of wrongly sized, misunderstood pairs of shoes, return to sender.

Old sweaters and cozy layers were pulled out of the closet to be washed and handed-down. I emptied drawers of one-size-too-small wardrobes, tsked the abundance of it all, and tucked these back into the very same boxes to be passed down next season.

Esme turned six months old and in the blink of a midnight chime, I realized I was no longer carriage, only pumpkin, and needed to sleep train her for our sanity. She began eating mashed food of all sorts with gusto. I offered these foods to her as a perplexed dining companion, entirely caught off guard by her early interest.

Bright and shiny sunflower maze.

Once more to the pond.

Homeschooling began and was scary, and then delightful, and then ordinary and soothing. I made new homeschool friends at local events and we made conversation about expectations, and savoring the little things, as is our way. I started a newsletter to write about homeschooling in more detail, so as to avoid attaching too many ribbons to my blog’s (already fitful) kite. You can sign up for that newsletter in the little box on the righthand side of this blog.

It is monthly and there has only been one issue, so you can catch up quickly.

Out for a walk.

Presidential candidate Andrew Yang has suggested the idea of a monthly universal basic income. The banality of those words universal, basic, income cause it to drift rather quickly into a divisive debate that you might find yourself arguing–does $1000 really matter? Wouldn’t all costs just become $1000 more expensive? Would we find raccoons lining up to demand their $1000 and if so, what would we say to them? And so on.

But behind Andrew’s theory is this wonderfully complex double helix idea of unobserved labor and the labor that is now, or will soon be, in the hands of robots (he mentions retail, customer service, food prep, and transportation as soon to go). One strand of the idea is the headache of society, a word that strikes fear in every political heart: unemployment. The other strand is the unobserved, unpaid labor that we rely on: merry volunteer coordinators, reliable child-rearers, cheery bake sale makers, careful wikipedia-entry custodians.

There is a delicious savor to unobserved labor, it silkens and soothes society’s function, it is the very butter to our brownie mix. It is behind every Why do you do this? -Because I want to help. We see it, of course, but how often do we not see it? And how does the person behind the unseen feel, from time to time? That is the intriguing prompt buried in Andrew’s proposal.

And it was on my mind when I considered that of the thirty dinners hath September, I made 26 of them for our family of five. I say that not as a compliant, but rather an observation of something that was not noted on my calendar and may therefore go unreflected upon. We went out to eat three times, each was a spot I’d meant to bring the family all summer: pizza by the pond, fried clams by the river, and a fancy meal on the patio behind a hotel in town.

Hammering petals into fabric.

 

 

a rocks and minerals party

We were making a pavlova—that wonderfully messy dessert that looks like a dried cloud on your baking pan, fingertip crunchy on the outside, soft and marshmallowy on the inside. The pavlova was for friends who were coming for dinner that night, but as we made it—whipped the eggs whites in the thundering mixer for minutes on end—thoughts turned to cake in general, and then desserts on the whole, and we began to discuss the type of birthday party for which a pavlova would be the perfect cake. It looks likes a cloud…a rock…a mineral. And there we had it, our theme for the collective birthday party for the two older girls that summer.

The rocks and minerals theme went exactly as far as thus:

+ jello made with chilled hibiscus tea that shimmered with gemmy iridescence. We pompled this with rock candy bits that looked amazing; and promptly melted into puddles once outdoors. The kids didn’t notice but I wouldn’t recommended the additional step of pompling to you. I would recommend the tea jello—I added some sugar to the chilled tea, the kids loved the color and I could use what I had in my pantry tea cupboard.

+ favor bags: one golden rock candy swizzle stick, one geode for cracking open at home, and a little bag of purple rock candies.

+ a table strewn with our collection of rocks, and a rocks and minerals handbook, plus crayons and paper for those less inclined to fling themselves into ruckus group games, one of which seemed to be cheerfully shouting hello? hello! at each other for ten minutes.

The rest was very simple–play as you wish, run around outside, let the moms gather on a picnic blanket to chat in that sleepy afternoon way that they do, let the babies trip in the grass, let the older brothers look bored, munch on handfuls of white cheddar popcorn, spill pink lemonade, sing, sing twice because the three-year-old was on the couch with a fever and felt terribly left out.

Eat pavlova colored with sedimentary lines of food coloring and sharp pink raspberry sorbet, open presents. Go home. 

Do you open presents at your birthday parties? When we were in Boston it had largely fallen out of favor. The gifts were typically huddled in the corner to be opened after the party, almost as if we were collectively embarrassed by their grandness. But I remember loving that part of parties as a kid. I loved seeing the different things my friends would receive. It was like wandering the aisles of the most personalized shop I could imagine. And I couldn’t wait till they opened my present and I could bask in the joy of believing I had given the perfect gift.

So, we do it now. The kids gathered into such a tight cluster, I could barely see what was happening, but I could see the smiles of pride on the giver’s faces as theirs was unveiled because they would look up and around for a moment, as if to catch the spotlight they were sure was searching for them.

My favorite pavlova recipe, from Repertoire by Jessica Battilana. Making a pavlova makes one feel like a magician master of substance and sugar.

For the meringue:
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3 large eggs, separated
Pinch kosher salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice or white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

To make the meringue: Preheat the oven to 250 degrees and line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone baking liner or parchment. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar and cornstarch. Put the egg whites and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or in a large bowl with a handheld mixer). Mix on medium speed until the whites hold soft peaks, then add 3 tablespoons of cold water and continue beating until the whites again hold soft peaks. Increase the speed to medium-high and add the sugar and cornstarch mixture 1 tablespoon at a time. When all the sugar has been added, beat 1 minute more.

Add the lemon juice and vanilla, increase the speed to high, and continue to beat the egg whites until they hold stiff, glossy peaks, 5 minutes more. Transfer the meringue to the prepared baking sheet and, using an offset spatula or the back of a spoon, gently spread into a circle about 8 inches wide, slightly higher on the sides and with a slight depression in the center.

Bake the meringue until pale golden, about 45 minutes. The meringue will have a crust on the exterior but still be soft inside. Turn the oven off, crack the oven door slightly (stick a wooden spoon in the oven door to keep it propped open) and let the meringue sit in the oven for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and let cool completely. Once cool, run a spatula under the meringue to free it from the silicon baking mat or parchment and transfer to a large plate. The meringue is best made the same day you plan to eat it. If you prefer, you can make individual meringues; prepare two baking sheets, then spoon four equal-size mounds of meringue onto each of the baking sheets, for a total of 8 meringues. The baking time is the same.

I added a tiny bit of food coloring (the gel kind) to the mixer at the end, then swirled in more food coloring with a toothpick once the meringue was on the pan, just before baking. The cake pictured above was the recipe made three times. I portioned all the ingredients ahead of time and mixed and baked the layers one after another. It fed twelve kids and six adults.

 

the June garden

I just ate a lunch of cold chicken and pickles, dollop of dijon. All prepared one-handed because the baby wanted to sit with me. Cold, perfectly bitter coffee to my left, some leftover chocolate torte that I didn’t make correctly–the crust was like butter gravel–but no one noticed. There are at least five glasses of water strewn across the table.

Feels like it’s time for a June garden update.

Maybe the girls will remember the first summer their parents gardened. When their mother invited them individually to see orange cherry tomatoes, as if one tomato every three days was enough to satisfy any appetite. When their dad marked the distance before planting the strawberry seedlings we got from the local parks commission. When the wild grass grew up so quickly around everything we planted that you had to tramp it down just to check on the plants.

When only two of the carrot seedlings came up, and none of the cucumbers.

I reseeded both for a second try; hoping for a very mild early October around here. I’m such a novice that I often read the back of the seed packets three or four times before planting, carrying a ruler with me to get the spacing right. I have two gardening manuals, one Vermont specific and one hardcover from my Maine gardening guru, Barbara Damrosch. I over-research the simplest things, it is my way.

I visit the hall of wonders at the farmer’s market. I cannot believe what they have. We have a single carrot sprout the size of a blade of grass and they are selling bundles of carrots for $3. “They’re probably using row covers,” my friend says. STILL.

-This is AMAZING, I say to one of the vendors.

-I think so, he says, pleased.

The peas haven’t given a single hint that there will ever be actual peas to eat, but the plants themselves are adorable gangly teenagers that Joe and I check on every morning. We find them entangled with each other and any wayward grasses that crossed their path, eager tendrils wrapped around each other’s necks. “Fair Romeo,” one whispers.

One variety that I picked out of the catalog for its garnishing ability has frizzly spastic threads, as if they brushed themselves with an electric hairbrush.

My favorite time to go out is in the evenings after bedtime. Bedtime is a light term here, meaning children have been tucked into their beds, but are likely to chatter and pull books off their shelves for the next two hours. In the morning when I wake them it looks like it rained books overnight; books drip gently off the edge of the beds and pool together on the floor.

The baby isn’t really into daytime naps, so when she goes down for the night a light, loving load lifts off my shoulders. I love to sneak out and pull weeds for fifteen minutes of actual productivity; frowning at what I think might be onion strands emerging at last.

Now I know why people fall for zucchini! It’s so cheerful and easy to grow. Their leaves crisp softly between your fingers like toast. I planted it for its blossoms but the seedlings have come up so beautifully I’ll probably end up with zucchini bounty, just like the rest of them.

The three-year-old styles herself like a member of a local ladies pie society. She and I both love the peppery nasturtium blossoms we planted near a stone wall. It feels wild plucking the blossoms off the plant and munching the soft, brilliantly orange petals between your lips; like a horse eating clover.

The milkweed in the field is about to blossom and I’m so excited to see how the butterflies like it. They’ve been making do with the wilted lilac and the cheery but tiny purple catmint flowers (pictured here). I can feel my excitement for their satisfaction in the new nectar, that’s how much I’m looking forward to it.

common milkweed

We planted a little strawberry patch that will give fruit next year, but all the wild strawberries we’ve since found in the fields have made it feel a little silly. They are scattered everywhere; I love hunting for them. A few patches have reddish ants that have claimed ownership of them. These ants greet you with a numbing-sting bite if you touch their strawberries.

But they haven’t found all the patches.

And there is a snake who loves to soak up sun on the path to the peach trees I bought on clearance at Home Depot last Fall. The peaches, though they were likely raised down south, have set out fruit after their first Vermont winter.

 

Vermont Christmas Tree Farm

 

My holiday armchair mystery novel ended all too soon, a natural consequence of tucking into oatmeal flannel sheets and reading far too late into the night. The days till Christmas still seem long and calm though I have a few more aspirations: homemade marshmallows, sparkling sugared cranberries, salt dough ornaments. This morning the windows were etched over with frozen snowflake glass and after breakfast of toasted english muffins and two fried eggs with melted cheddar (a meal I am totally addicted to and eat every single morning), I bundled all the girls to the three-year-old’s pediatrician appointment. “And do you eat fish or meat?” asked the kind pediatrician. “Dogs eat fish,” Alma cheerfully replied. “Would you like to finish drawing the eyes on this face?” she asked. “You can draw the eyes,” Alma replied.

I love looking at these foggy photos from finding a tree earlier this month. A quiet muddy Christmas Tree farm, an hour before closing on a rainy day. It was so muddy Joe had to hop the girls individually off into their socks before they got back into the car.

Christmas Trees of Vermont Springfield, VT.

old movies

I’ve recently challenged myself to reexamine what movies I’ve let slip into regular rotation in our house. I like to think we’re unconventional in our approach–favoring Miyazaki films or old musicals–as well as strict. We don’t watch movies or television in the house on any consistent basis; a month can go by without watching a movie as a family or with the kids by themselves. Though I curate the girls ipads for travel eagerly—I really enjoy the world of education apps—I have also purchased a few Disney movies over time. The way Apple has designed it, the app has always displayed all of these, even the ones I don’t want them to watch anymore and have deleted, like the vintage Looney Tunes that I immediately realized was too violent. (Honestly, friends don’t lead friends to fall off cliffs.) They see these purchases on the app and ask me to be sure they are downloaded for the trip. I say “oh, ok sure…” and it goes from there. Somehow Alma ended up watching Frozen a few times during travel and it bothered me to think about how often she’d heard certain lines repeated and how impactful that could be.

I checked this gem of a book out of the library: Ty Burr, dad of two daughters and the Boston Globe film critic wrote The Best Old Movies for Families: a Guide to Watching TogetherHis tone is really perfect–he loves movies, and he loves sharing them with his daughters and watching them respond. He reviews all sorts of old movies, summarizes the plot, makes the pitch to watch, even tells you which dvd edition to try to get. He’s careful to flag films that you may have forgotten have a few creepy scenes (I did this with the original The Absent Minded Professor, oops).

A beginning list I scribbled for us to check out: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Sherlock Jr (1924), The Music Box (1932), and La Belle et La Bete (Criterion edition from 1998), as well as many old comedies like The Gold Rush and City Lights. The girls recently finished memorizing the ten commandments chapter of Genesis and I’ve got the 1956 version on the list as well.

I’m ready to rehash the few films we do have on hand digitally completely. I think I used the excuse of not wanting to spend more money as a reason to leave it alone. The shrug effect. And it may mean spending a bit to rebuild the digital library and straight up deleting the few that were ill advised to begin with, fun songs or not.

Ty Burr doesn’t recommend the film Gandhi, but we applied the same approach when we recently decided to screen it for the girls. They had memorized a brief history sentence about imperialism and Gandhi, and I was itching for them to have a sense of all that was caught up in those two words. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi was it. We spread the viewing over a couple of days, typically 30 minutes after dinner. There was so much to discuss. Joe and I almost choked on our food when one of the girls said, “His words were his weapon.” Though the film has been criticized for portraying Gandhi as saintly, I would argue the moments when that didn’t happen–in particular with his wife–were just as powerful to them. Not to mention the beautiful shots of Indian landscape and cities and music. I’ll have to wait for the remarks that come out in the weeks to come to see if we made a mistake.

Photos from neighborhood early October walks. 

whittling

After scouring the internet for recommendations, I finally ordered the predictably! French model of a whittling knife for the girls. The soft curls drift across our floor every day now. Afterwards there is a small trial in sweeping them up into a pile, they would rather sink gently into the floor crevices or let socked feet sally them into distant corners. But they make like a pile of feathers to start a fire. Lit with a match they burst into hearty hot flame, encouraging even the most dismally-built fire to glow. I can always use help starting a fire myself if Joe happens to be in the city (a phrase I use now) or working in the other room.

So far the only human injured in the whittling hobby has been an adult. The girls seem to mostly make sharp pointy objects, nibs of arrowheads scattered around the living room. I’ve suggested something softer and rounder–like a wooden stone? A gentle bird at rest in the hand? They’ll get there. One evening the two-year-old came up to me with a piece of wood in hand: “Mama, I need a knife. I want to whittle.” Sorry kid. Mama already screwed up one child by blessing her deft precocious hand too early, and scaring her away from mandolines forever. You’ll have to wait till you’re…four?

Speaking of future opportunities, the girls have been busy assigning ages to things that I may have murmured to them at one point: earrings, age 12. Cell phones, age 13. Mothers should never utter age ultimatums out loud. An excellent parenting book would include a chapter of stalling techniques. “I’ll have to check with your grandmother.” “That one might be legislated by the state, we’ll look into it, shall we?”

Last night I was on Ambleside online, browsing again, the intriguing world of Charlotte Mason homeschooling. In the realm of homeschooling curriculums, Charlotte Mason comes across as the mysterious ancient prophet of it—espousing her own unique ideas like narration, nature journaling, dictation, and the power of a few things done perfectly. Like some sort of Gospel epistle writer of erudition there are six volumes of her writing on the topic of homeschooling, rife with words like obedience, perfect execution, fresh air and weak literature.

Wouldn’t mind a Virgil to guide me through it. Meanwhile I’ll pick back up with Consider Thisa book that discusses the melding of classical and Charlotte Mason ideas.

House projects abound. We nearly stumble over them on our walk to the breakfast table, so many things we’d like to do. Here’s a nook in the kitchen that I hoped would be a spot to keep the cook company–lounge before meals, curl up with a book by the light of the baking bread, nursing a baby and a glass of wine, and that’s just what it’s become. The previous owners had a big antique dish cabinet that filled up the space, and it looks like before that it had a wood stove.