Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Beach Read, Matriarchs, and Cheez-Its

Summer House by Nancy Thayer (2009)

Unlike most beach read paperbacks that I donate when through reading them, this old book is one I've kept. 

It was a pleasant read one night recently when I could only handle a beach read kind of book. I've also held onto another of Thayer's very early books, 1981's Three Women at the Water's Edge that was beautifully layered, about two sisters and their mother as their lives change dramatically. 

In Summer House, the family gathers at their Nantucket home to celebrate Nona's 90th birthday. I love summer books that take place on Nantucket and on Cape Cod, even more than beach reads of the Lowcountry authors of South Carolina, although I've read and enjoyed many of them in years past. 

Rather than talk about the multi-layered family generations in Summer House, I'll only focus on Nona who I connected with when reading this.

Something rather strange had been happening to Nona over the past few years, and it worried her...The older she grew, the more she seemed to love people in general.

I find that to be so true of myself, especially before this cursed Pandemic was unleashed upon the world. I had to watch myself when out in public--now a thing of the past. I would see children with their parents in stores and want so badly to talk to them. 

But I didn't want to be the weird old lady smiling like a lovesick goose at all of them and gushing, "Oh, they're so cute! Y'all are so lucky and I hope you know these are some of the best years of your life!"

I never did for fear of the parents suddenly moving their children away from the crazy lady. But it wasn't just the children. I had the notion that people were pretty wonderful, even with their quirks and idiosyncrasies, ordinary people who just wanted the best for their loved ones.

I am drawn to a matriarch like Nona in Summer House, but then I'm particularly drawn to books where there is at least one grand dame, an older woman with a certain amount of sass and independent spirit. Even when caregivers are necessary.

And if I reach Nona's age, I hope I will have someone as kind as Nona's caregiver, Glorious. She understands that sometimes older people don't necessarily need a balanced meal, they just need something to tempt their appetite.

While Nona's daughter who is visiting there is now set on mothering her aging mother, pushing healthy meals on her, it is Glorious who adds "a china bowl filled with Cheez-Its" to the tray. "About all Mrs. Nona will eat in the morning."

Before her 90th birthday party, when Nona's daughter-in-law suggests a pot of tea and a cheese sandwich for her, thinking it will be late in the party before she will be able to eat supper, Nona counters with, "How about a nice big Scotch and some Cheez-Its. I'm old. They settle my stomach."

 Cheez-It's are verboten in our house now, an item I can't resist. When I called RH to ask him to pick up some Cheez-It's on the way home so I could use them in my pictures, he mistakenly brought home Cheetos, a product that is even more verboten! 

The next day he brought home original Cheez-It's, as I did not think Nona would want the hot and spicy ones, and at last my pictures were taken.

Isn't the little crab dish holding them cute? 

And even though I would prefer a ginger ale with my Cheez-It's if my stomach is queasy, who knows, if I'm Nona's age someday I might just want a Scotch. 

The other books shown above are old Cape Cod books that I hope to review in a post at Dewena's Window soon. What about you, dear reader, what kind of book is gentle on your mind during these days of a hopefully never to be repeated Summer of blasted Pandemic? And would you tell me what snack is verboten around your house now?

Note: after reading Melanie's comment below, I realized I didn't clarify my question about your own verboten foods. I'm curious about what food do you not dare bring home because you know you can't resist it. And if you say that you have perfect self-control and willpower over every tempting food, then I have to say that I admire you but I doubt we could be friends!  😀



Thursday, July 9, 2020

An Eternal Optimist Struggles

In Jan Karon's In This Mountain, Timothy's first bishop tells him...

"Timothy, stop this nonsense of preparing

for the worst 

and spend your time preparing for the best!"

Like Timothy, I am "seldom able to follow it" but as an eternal optimist I believe in its wisdom.  

I wonder, if In This Mountain took place during a Pandemic, would Timothy have had a chance in Halifax? 

On a beautiful July morning I can almost forget there is danger lurking. How could such a normal summer morning hold anything other than good things? 

And then I turn on the news and it all comes back, the danger that is obviously lurking everywhere. I turn off the news and get busy with my day to keep the monster of worry at bay.

As long as I lose myself in what is around me, meals to prepare, laundry to be done, pets to take care of, watching a movie with RH that we both enjoy (there are some!), reading a good take-to-bed book at night, I can honestly say that life is good in my little pocket of the world--if my big family are all okay, that's a given requirement, but then it always has been.

There still come those 2 a.m. thoughts occasionally--you know, those thoughts that overwhelm the mind like the Dementors in Harry Potter that suck every good thing from your mind. A few Bible verses quoted at them usually makes them vanish.

And now while I've been writing this post here I've received texts from a daughter-in-law giving me lots of encouragement and healthy advice. I'm making a list and checking it twice! And you know what holiday that makes me think of. 

I'm going to take the bishop's advice and prepare for the best but also use common sense and try to prevent the worse, as much as I am capable of doing. 

When I sat down to compose this post I was going to stop with Halifax. The rest just kind of came from nowhere so please forgive me for any incoherent ramblings.

I wonder if I have struck any chords with you? Am I the only one with these thoughts on a beautiful July day?


Friday, May 29, 2020

Nelia Gardner White's The Merry Month of May

Whew! I'm barely squeezing this book review in before May ends. 

On the flyleaf of Nelia Gardner White's The Merry Month of May published in 1952, I wrote the following many years ago:

This book is the heart of women, or at least it's me. Scary how much it is me. Are many women thinking these same things? I thought I was alone but now know I'm not as odd (as I thought). 

Nelia Gardner White is my favorite woman United States writer of the 1940s and 50s. The Merry Month of May is actually three short novels, the first and last one hauntingly beautiful and masterfully written in the piercing and sometimes acerbic manner that White does so well without being the least depressing. 

The first novel in it, The Doctor's Wife, stunned me because I identified so completely with the main character that I realized for the first time that there were other women like me, had to be. Maybe sometime I'll find enough courage to review that novel, but today I'm writing about the novel the book takes its name from, The Merry Month of May.

I felt such compassion for Ann Bogan in this novel. Her days are spent trying to keep a nice house for her family, her penniless but brilliant artist husband Mort whose few paintings rarely sell, and her young adult daughter Hitty who is falling in love with a man not worthy of her--in her mother's eyes. 

Ann also takes care almost single-handedly of her bedridden father-in-law Hillary, an irascible and irreverent man who seems to delight in making her thankless job impossible. Ann has good intentions every morning not to let the old man ruin her day. 

One morning when she has finished changing his sheets and given him his breakfast on a tray while enduring his taunts, she escapes outside to take down the storm windows on a spring day when the sun finally shines. 

She came to the old man's bedroom...At the bottom of the storm windows were little round holes, three to a window, to let in air. She bent and peered through one, straight into the old man's good eye.

"Peekaboo!" she said.

It was a triumph of nonsense, of spring. The astonishment in Hilary Bogan's eye stayed with her all morning, making laughter run around under her skin, making the job of lugging the widows to the barn nothing at all, making everything shimmer with light, making her strong as a lion. Why, he was just a sick old man, just a sick old man--you couldn't think of him as accountable. Lots of women had to wash sheets and carry trays.

Ann desperately wants to be a better housekeeper, desperately wants to bring beauty into her house. Not that her artist husband would notice, lost in the imagination of his mind and his current large painting, never really present when in the middle of a painting.

He would be drunk on light, drunk at this hour of the morning..."If I knew how, I might get drunk on housekeeping," Ann said. "Some women know how."

That article--she had torn it into small bits, so angry that she was cold. It was all about women being the great artistic solvent that made humdrum tasks beautiful. Tripe. Pap to keep women contented with their lot.

Ann badly wants to be close to her daughter Hitty, as close as they had been when Hitty was a child. What had gone wrong? Only that morning Hitty had been cheerful but she couldn't respond in kind.
She heard Hitty moving about in her room above. She felt far away from Hitty, though a fraction less than yesterday. "I was horrible to you in the rain," she said to the sound of Hitty. "You wouldn't gray down to match. I'm as bad as Mort."

She wore raspberry-colored sweaters, tied ribbons around her hair, called out "Hi, Gramp!" as if she loved the hideous old man.

But Spring was here and again Ann determins to be better, even to once again invite a friend to supper as used to be her habit in days long past, to do her part to mend the strained relationship with her husband.

So she moved about the house, through birdsong and sun, through clean air, planning to rake away the leaves, fix the wire on which the wren house hung crookedly, planning to be sparing on eggs for a little and buy Hitty a really good round-necked blouse, planning to ask Mort about his pictures, to let him talk and talk till he was dry of talk instead of turning from him coldly when he started off, planning supper for Keturah Crumb, supper with candles and the best yellow mats and yellow sprigged dishes and Mort being lively and full of laughter as in the days before the old man had his stroke and fastened himself on them like a limpet. 

This novel is not a Pollyanna story and Ann struggles to the end, but Spring does bring new hope and better communication in the family. Ann even learns more about her father-in-law's story that brings some compassion towards him.

The end of the book is just right for this story.

She put the flowers into a bowl, walked with it through the rooms to that room, set the bowl down. "Hi," she said, "isn't it a wonderful morning?"
"What's wonderful about it?" said Hilary Bogan. 

Our merry month of May during the time of Pandemic ends soon. There have been good days and not-so-good days but they were all days--and I think that is a thought that has come to me from all the years I've read dear Gladys Taber's books. I still want to be Gladys when I grow up and hope to always let her mentor me. 

So I will remember the good things about May and the end of winter and give you a picture from yesterday when the sky here was as glorious as a van Gogh painting. 

Best wishes and a happy weekend from our house to yours,

View from Our Front Porch




Tuesday, May 19, 2020

May Is Galloping By

And I don't want it to!

I never do since May is a favorite month but even more so now when time has taken on new importance.

The calendar above is one my daughter Christy has given me for years, its easel refilled for the coming year as an annual Christmas gift. It is by Karen Adams and each month is an artistic jewel.

This month a white mouse is the jockey on a happy dog, standing in, I think, for the Kentucky Derby in May. 

Postponed: the race, the hats, mint juleps, My Old Kentucky Home.

Later on in my pretty calendar there is an illustration featuring the Olympics.


Just as so many other events are being postponed or greatly altered. Mother's Day dinners...

 Beautiful flowers and cards still came...

 And even a lovely and careful visit. 

But as I turn to other months in the calendar I see a month of mermaids, newly sharpened pencils, jack-o'-lanterns...

And so 2020 speeds by.

Do I want it to? In hopes that better news is ahead?

Or am I afraid for it to? 

Regardless, each month has a way of galloping by. 

What do I do with it, the time that is ahead in this month, in June, July, August?

Surely it ought to be different than it was in 2019... or 1961.

I can't just kill time until a better day comes. 

Whenever I hear people say "This will help pass the time away," I wonder at them. We all have just so much time and just "passing it away" is rather like throwing jewels down a well.
Gladys Taber
The Stillmeadow Road

What jewels will I not throw down the well, even in the months of a pandemic? And I confess I threw hours down mindlessly during the first fearful weeks.

Dear friends who visit here, what jewels are the most important to you now? Have they changed since our world slowed down (or is it speeding up)?

Are you anything like me, full of vim and vigor and determination one day, fed up to the ears another, bursting out sobbing when you least expect it? 

Do you ever get tired of hearing "we're all in this together"? Has it ceased to be comforting? Are you mad or sad or both, all within 20 minutes? 

That's all of my venting. I think.  


Friday, May 8, 2020

Exit Driveway; Turn Right

Does anyone take Sunday drives anymore?

I was a part of the generation that grew up taking Sunday afternoon drives. First church then home for either a fried chicken or roast beef Sunday dinner. Dishes done and Sunday paper read and maybe a short nap in their chairs for our parents, then there was often time for a drive.

Drives through the country were a big part of RH and my marriage--even when we moved to the country in 1990. And we explored the surrounding country roads when we moved here three years ago.

But we had never turned Right out our driveway since we moved here. Always it has been Left turn, towards the small suburb outside Nashville where we do all our shopping. 

After I had stayed home the first month of this time of pandemic, only taking walks around our 2 1/2 acres and down to the pond, I was desperate to Go somewhere and asked RH to turn Right out of our driveway to see some of our neighbors' houses.

Want to go along with us? Hop in the backseat!

Here are our neighbors.

Pretty soon we come to a house that catches my notice.

If you know me, you know that I love Red!
And I love quirkiness. This house has both and I feel they surely must be kindred spirits. Even their garage is red.

We're seeing many horse and cattle farms and lots of fencing on our long road.

 But it is always the touches of Red that I snap pictures of. 

Slow Down, RH!

 I would love to stop and visit these neighbors. Should we knock on the door?

Better not, they might be napping.

We have miles like this between houses so we are surely in the country now.

I always wanted donkeys but could never talk RH into them or llamas or sheep or the Toggenburg goats I badly wanted. Now that goat cheese is the only cheese he can eat, maybe he should have listened to me.

We're seeing miles and miles of fencing.

Aha! Now we know where our train sounds come from at night when we have windows open. Don't you love the sound of a 🚆 at night?

Another cattle farm. Black Angus?

Now our road circles around to the tiny hamlet near us, high in the hills, where Nashvillians built summer homes at the turn of the 20th century. We'll save that little village for another day and continue our drive on a country road that I often take when I'm coming home from shopping (in pre-Corona days) to avoid traffic on the state highway

This house is much older than it's style looks.

I dearly love this style of flat log house and the pale gray color with white.

Here's a rounded log cabin and more power to them if they still want Santa Claus and Frosty on their front porch. Maybe there's a story there, as Dolly Parton's character said in Steel Magnolias; I hope it's not a sad one.

 Okay, I have to show you a stone post that I would absolutely love to have in our yard. Don't you love this?

 Here's a nice old farmhouse that's been fixed up but it's the other building in their yard that I want to show you.

 How would you like to have your own personal Country Store? If we see someone out in the yard we should ask them if it's open to the public.

 Want to see where RH and I vote? It's in this sweet little country !

Now we have to pull back out on on the state highway our road runs off of. I wrote here about our new neighbor across the street from us who lives high on a hill in this gated neighborhood. 

It's much more charming than these first ones built, I think. 

This next one is way too imposing for our neck of the woods.

 I mean, do 50 people live there?

We turn Left by it onto our street and soon are home again, to where two people and two dachshunds fit very comfortably in a 1935 cottage that was the farmhouse for what was once only farmland.

 Our drive through the country did me so much good. I hope you enjoyed riding in the back seat!

When was the last time you took a Sunday afternoon drive?


Saturday, April 25, 2020

Swim, By Golly

Have you cooked any meals during this Safer At Home time that left you unimpressed? I have. Most of mine have been well thought out and planned because there is no chance of saying "Honey, I don't feel like cooking tonight so can we go out to eat?"

Although there was that lunch I had where I microwaved a package of Seeds of Change brown rice and topped it with a can of sardines, mashed it all up and stirred in green Tabasco sauce and lemon juice when there were no leftovers from supper the night before. I got it down.

Canned sardines--that ever-present help in slight emergencies and when the imagination runs low.
 Richardson Wright 
The Bed-Book of Eating and Dining (1943)

I agree with my hero most of the time. I use the best canned sardines I can find in an Orzo Sardine Salad, Rotini and Sardine Pasta Salad, in cream cheese spreads, and with Trader Joe's wonderful Garlic Basil Linguini with capers, scallions, chicken broth and herbs. And I love grilled fresh sardines. But I hope never to repeat that one quick lunch.
One night a couple of weeks ago, totally uninspired for supper plans, I stared into my pantry (a former coat closet that RH turned into a pantry a few days after we moved in) and hoped it would send me a message. I spotted a box of macaroni and remembered a recipe idea that I had recently come across in another one of my old Richardson Wright books.  

Richardson is my man from the early mid-century and I remembered he had a frugal recipe called Swim, By Golly that called for macaroni and ground beef--or hamburg steak as he called it. I loved the By Golly part of the name because I grew up saying it and one day in 5th grade got reprimanded for it by my teacher. Major blush that I still remember.

The Swim, By Golly looked nice when I dished it up for supper with some steamed broccoli and Bridgeford rolls.

The only clues Richardson had given me for his red-haired Texas sister's Swim, By Golly was:

Hamburg steak cooked with a rich and spicy sauce served on a big round platter on a bed of macaroni. It is, as you can readily appreciate, a simple dish, inexpensive and filling."
Richardson Wright
A Small House and A Large Garden (1924)

I chopped an onion and garlic and sautéed it in olive oil, added 1 pound of lean ground beef and browned it. 

I added salt and pepper, cumin, and oregano, red pepper flakes, a can of Muir Glenn fire roasted crushed tomatoes and cooked it for 10 minutes, then added some Worcestershire sauce, a dollop of Calabrian Chilies in Oil, beef stock, red wine and minced parsley and let it simmer about an hour. I cooked the macaroni (the whole box, big mistake) and stirred it in with some of the pasta water. 

It should have at least been okay, but it wasn't. We were hungry so ate it and I saved the leftovers for lunch the next day, thinking it would improve with age. It didn't and by then the macaroni had absorbed even more liquid and felt like giant pasta shells in my mouth. Trash can time.

Richardson, I know you were Editor-in-Chief of House & Garden magazine for half a century and had impeccable taste in house and garden and wine, and every other recipe of yours that I've tried was delicious--not to mention that I simply adore you--but this recipe is not a keeper.

My dear small group of readers of Across the Way, have all your meals during this time at home been yummy or have you had any failures? It's okay if you tell me all your meals have been award-winning. 

You won't be able to see me crying here.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Dogwood Winter

In Tennessee we have 5 Spring Winters:

Redbud winter in early April
Dogwood winter in mid to late April
Locust winter in early May
Blackberry winter in mid-May
Linsey-Woolsey Britches winter in late May

We've had Redbud winter already and the worst of Dogwood winter when we had three nights of freezing temps, one night down to 27 degrees.

We learned our lesson years ago and don't plant now until May 1st and even that can once in a blue moon be risky.

But all our trees and bushes, large or small, have some blackened tips where there was tender green growth. 

Our pretty little Japanese maple planted last fall, the fourth one RH has planted here, is no exception.

  That sweet little baby! How I hope she snaps back.

While the 10-day forecast doesn't predict more frost, it looks like we have another week of Dogwood Winter. And that's fine by me. We'll have to keep the heat on at night a little longer but no air conditioning in the daytime. And I have no doubt that summer, when it comes, will be long and hot so why long for it too soon.

Do you have these odd winters where you live? Is it summer one day and winter the next? Or do you typically stay deep in winter until Memorial Day? Our daughter in Montana had snow last June!

I've been reading the April 1951 issue of Ladies' Home Journal this week and they printed a few lines from Robert Frost's New Hampshire. It reminded me that I don't have any of his poetry books on my poetry shelf and made a note to order this famous collection. 

I never know exactly how to handle quotes from poetry--do you print them exactly how they are printed in a book or magazine?--but here they are, just like the Journal printed it, simply because after reading them I said to myself, "Isn't it God's truth!"

You know hot it is with an April day:
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle
         of March.

Robert Frost in New Hampshire