Plum Pudding

How to make plum pudding:

First go to the store and beg the butcher for a lump of food grade suet. Grind it up. Soak raisins and candied fruit in dark ale. Mix together brown sugar and eggs until they are frothy. Sift flour and spices and baking soda–cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg. Mix it all together and pour into a pudding mold–or a coffee can if you can’t find a mold–and steam for many hours.

Prepare a month before Christmas so you can soak it every few days in brandy. Resteam it for a few hours before Christmas dinner. Serve flaming, with buttery/brandied hard sauce.

My sister taught me to make this concoction using a recipe she clipped from the Cincinnati Enquirer. Her English husband claimed it was as good a plum pudding as anything his mother ever made and for many years it was a highlight of our family’s Christmas dinner.

After my sister and her husband moved back to England, I took over the plum pudding duties, working from an ale and batter stained recipe card. I chopped and soaked and stirred and steamed and proudly served the flaming result to our ever dwindling family gathered around the Christmas table. A rich, dark, spicy link to her, serving the same pudding to her English family.

But then my parents died and cousins moved away and I stayed in New England for Christmas with friends. Suet rich plum pudding didn’t really fit most of my friends’ food preferences. For many years the recipe card sat in the card file and the pudding molds sat on the shelf, sad and unused.

But a few years ago, my sister and I spent Christmas with relatives on the west coast and I brought a plum pudding, which was such a hit that I left a copy of the recipe and an empty pudding mold behind. I made it again last year to share with friends and my sister, who was once again visiting. I am looking forward to digging into the rich fruity goodness again this year, happy to see this tradition revived and pudding molds out of the cupboard. 

Photos and vases

I love to look at the mantelpiece—strange thing to say, but the objects arranged there please me. Two photographs taken by a friend, a lithograph of a black cat looking out a window, a collage of family photos, brass candlesticks that have been in the family for several generations, two small wood carvings. And vases, several vases.

–A raku vase made by a former pottery teacher. She’d studied in Japan and taught us that beauty lives in imperfection, in irIMG_0074regularity. In her class I learned to throw quickly, lightly, maintaining just enough control to pull the walls of the pot up. I have a set of small bowls I use all the time that I threw “off the hump” working with a large chunk of clay—center a small piece on top and quickly pull it up into a vase or open it out into a bowl and cut it off then center the next small portion.

–An old blue vase that’s been in the family a long time—
I love the color and the simple clean lines–and the knowledge that it’s been held and at some point used by mother and grandmother.

–A small wooden vase I bought in Australia, delicate as a seed pod, and a wooden bud vase from New Zealand.

I like to handle all these objects, look at them, use them when I can but they also—and more importantly—evoke memories of lessons I’ve learned, places I’ve travelled, people I love.

Red fox

A frosty Monday morning. I’m sitting at the table by the picture window, feeling sleepy, sipping coffee, eating toast—the weekday morning ritual. The slight bitterness of coffee, the sweet honey on the toast. I’m waking slowly, glancing at the online newspaper and alternately checking what’s happening in the yard. I put bird feeders up last week and birds are swooping in, nibbling, swooping away again.

The world is brown and green and grey. I look for beauty in the bare branches against the sky, which is gradually getting light. I’m brought out of my half awake revery by the sight of a red fox emerging from the trees at the back of the yard and trotting across the yard, pausing periodically to look toward the house—does it hear me moving or is it simply checking out the bird activity? Its coat is thick and glossy, tail bushy. It disappears into the trees again and I begin my day.

Fiction on Friday

I have a lot of snippets of fiction stashed in my computer or in notebooks–beginnings of stories or simply stand alones where I’ve played with voice or character. So, from time to time I’ll post a short piece. For today, meet Gladys–a woman of a certain age.

*******

A morning when I sleep until 6 is a luxury for me. 4, 4:30, 5–I’m awake so why not just get up and get going? What do I do so early? Well, there’s always something to do isn’t there? I sometimes hear people talk about being bored. Just the other day, in fact, I was in the checkout line at Stop and Shop and this woman behind me was talking on her phone–one of those little flippy things– my niece wants me to get one–for safety she says.

Anyway, there I was, using my time in line to try to remember the lines of a poem I’d memorized earlier–I do that to keep my brain agile–so I’m running the lines in my mind but I keep getting distracted by this one way chatter about nothing. What brand of tomato soup she was buying, what she’d done over the weekend or hadn’t done and how boring it all was. Well, I thought, you just lack imagination. No excuse to ever be bored.

This morning I got up at 4:30. It was just starting to get light so I made my tea and sat on the back porch watching the sun come up. I can just see it off to the right through some trees–not as nice as watching it come up over the ocean–oh that’s a treat–but still it’s nice to punctuate the day with a sunrise.

There were lots of birds around. I took a class once to learn bird calls but I got them all mixed up so I just listen and don’t worry about who’s saying what to whom. It’s all just mating anyway isn’t it? Hey chickie chickie look at me!

I made a little breakfast–a piece of toast–and then I went for a walk–a slow walk these days–just around the block but I’ve got to keep the joints moving. My niece worries about me. “Gladys,” she says, “someday you’re going to go out for that morning walk and it will be dark and you’ll fall and then what?”  So I’m supposed to stay inside for the remainder of my days? I don’t think so. If I fall and break a hip, so be it.

At 6 I went to Susan’s place down the road to have my hair done. Every Thursday she fits me in early like that before her family gets up and gets her going. Susan does it nice–simple, not a lot of goop–just the way I like it. Course the hair is getting kinda thin these days–if I live to be a really old lady I’ll be bald! Imagine that!

By 7 I was at the diner for a real breakfast with my friends Hannah and Marie–the biddy’s breakfast we call it. Twice a week. The waitress knows our orders–a poached egg for me and more tea. We like her because she treats us like friends not wrinkled up babies.

There’s a lot I still want to do. My great niece is learning to play the guitar and I thought that looks like fun, playing an instrument. But not the guitar. I want something peppier.

I thought maybe the accordion but that would be too big–I’ve shrunk you know–happens when you get older–all your body parts just start to shrivel up. I went to the music store down on Spruce Street and asked to try an accordion on for size. Ha! Should have seen the look on that fellow’s face. “This is for you?” Well, who else?

But soon as I put those straps over my shoulders I knew it would be too big. “Don’t you have something smaller?” I asked. So he showed me something called a concertina–just the ticket–but it sure does cost a lot.

I let my niece know that if she’s looking for a birthday present for me, well maybe my birthday could come a little early and everyone could chip in. She thinks I’m nuts. I think I’m a good role model. That’s what I tell her. You’re middle aged now, I say, but pay attention–old age is just around the corner.

“Can you bring winter slaws?”

“Can you bring winter slaws again?” Sure I said, slaws it is. Food assignments for the annual Thanksgiving get together have gone out. For over 30 years a group of friends has gathered at Beth’s house for Thanksgiving. In the beginning it was a group of young adults, then children arrived, and grandparents joined in, and then parents became grandparents themselves. One year there were four generations present.

In recent years it’s an older, smaller gathering—10 of us rather than 25—as adult children have established their own family Thanksgiving rituals and there have been a couple of deaths and illness that makes travel difficult for some. But still there will be hugs and catching up and laughter and some sadness as we toast those who are absent. And food—lots of good food.

The hostess provides the turkey, which she buys from a local farmer. Applesauce, made with apples from her trees. She also bakes pies—pumpkin, walnut, apple. One couple brings the winter squash dish—fragrant with ginger. Someone else is on mashed potato and gravy duty.

Winter slaws have been my assignment for several years, ever since the year I was assigned “salad” and made a citrusy, cabbagy slaw in addition to the standard mixed greens. For many years my assignment was green beans and I’d spend a couple of hours on Thanksgiving morning watching the Macy’s parade and prepping green beans.

This year I’ll do a lot of the slaw prep the night before—the slicing and dicing—so that all I need to do on the day is make the dressing and mix it all up.

One recipe I got from a friend—I think she clipped it out of the paper—cabbage and nuts and dried fruit with a lemony dressing. The other recipe I got from one of my favorite food blogs, Cookie and Kate. Its base is sliced up Brussel sprouts (and thanks to Trader Joe’s shredded sprouts all I have to do is open a bag or two), mixed with nuts and dried fruit and a honey mustard dressing. Both are light and tangy and a perfect complement to some of the heavier fare of Thanksgiving.

This is one of my favorite holidays, with its good companionship (and good food). And I know how fortunate I am to have an abundance of both. We had our monthly staff meeting at work last week—over 30 of us sitting in a circle. We always begin with a structured greeting of some sort and this month we went around the circle, greeting our neighbor and saying something we were thankful for. The room filled with gratitude for family, health, the basics of shelter and food, safe neighborhoods that we live in, meaningful work we do. I echoed all of that and added that I was grateful for the continuity of long term friendships.

November musing

“Are you embracing the time change?” a friend asked me teasingly when we turned the clocks back. Well, embracing is probably too strong a word but I am working on letting go of grumpiness. I find it so easy as the dark season approaches to sink into complaint, to moan about the early darkness and the cold temperatures to come, the snow, the ice. 

I’m trying to center down into the moment. To find small quiet islands to rest on when things feel tumultuous, serendipitous moments. I was driving to work the other morning–an overcast day and a sleepy brain that was skittering around through a litany of “things to do” and “things to fret about.” It was a typical November landscape with trees mostly bare except for oaks with their browned leaves when all of a sudden I noticed on a hillside one bright yellow-leafed tree and for that moment I was just…there, not planning, not fretting, just noticing. 

Although I’m not religious I sometimes stand in awe, feel a need to praise. Here’s a poem by Barbara Crooker that speaks to that need:

Murmuration

Cold morning, November, taking a walk,
when suddenly, up ahead, the trees unleave,
and thousands of starlings lift off, an immense
river of noise; they braid and unbraid themselves
over my head, the gray silk sky embroidered
with black kisses, the whoosh of their wings,
their chattering clatter, patterns broken/formed/
reformed, a scarf of ragged ribbons. Dumb-
struck, mouth open, I say holy and I say moly.
And then, they’re gone.

Holding on–letting go

IMG_0226Early in the morning. I’m sitting on the couch. Raven, the cat, is prowling around, hoping for space in my lap. She’s an old girl—she was 10 when I adopted her from the shelter in January 2011. So far she’s been healthy but recent bloodwork indicates her kidneys are starting to deteriorate. She’s lost some weight, seems to be drinking more water. Other than that, she’s her usual self.

But I know what might be coming—I’ve been here before with other cats, most recently my cat Sam who died in 2009. When the vet called to tell me the results of Raven’s blood tests, I told her about my experience with Sam—the nine month passage from mildly elevated blood values to a very sick cat and euthanasia. She reassured me that not all cats go that route; some live comfortable lives with chronic disease. Perhaps.

This is the bargain we make when we adopt these animals—that we will love them, care for them—and usher them through their last days, leaving us with holes in our lives.

Raven has been sitting on the dining table, gazing out at the backyard, which is slowly getting light on this next-to-last day of daylight savings time. She now makes the leap from the table to the arm of the couch and bulldozes her way onto my lap—I’m typing now at a slant with the laptop off to one side. Ergonomics be damned when a cat wants to rent space in your lap.

Bringing animals into our lives, opening our hearts to them, forces us to confront the duality of loving well and letting go. We rehearse this over and over, with each furry death. I know I’ll have difficult decisions ahead—when to treat and to what extent, whether to administer sub Q fluids, when to end it. Cats are stoic creatures; by the time they let us see their pain, they’re usually suffering.

In 2009-2010 I had to make that decision for 3 cats. Albert was first—acute kidney failure and a trip to the emergency vet hospital that resulted in his euthanasia. Then a few months later, I had Sam put to sleep after his chronic kidney disease grew severe. Indigo, the oldest of the three, lived for another year of declining abilities, aching joints, and a wonky heart. Each death taught me something about what to look for, when to treat, when to let go, how to keep the animal’s needs foremost, put their welfare above my own need to hold on.

Raven has abandoned my lap—this is often the routine, she nestles in for a time and then leaves for more important feline business—a daily ritual of attachment and letting go. The sky is light now. and I need to start my day. 

Frost and dark mornings

I woke early this morning—5:15—and lay in bed for a while with the cat curled up on my stomach, the heavy weight of her both comforting and painful. Life’s like that, right? Comfort and pain, beauty and loss. This season inspires such thoughts–the flame of leaves with winter quickly following.

We’ve had two hard frosts and all the annuals are now dead. I have one last rapidly fading bouquet sitting in a vase on my table. Mornings are dark—that seemed to happen suddenly—one moment I was still being wakened early by daylight and then wham, it’s dark until almost 7.

Winter rhythms. It’s not winter yet of course, in spite of snow flurries a few days ago. We still have days of mild weather to come, walks in the sun, leaf raking and yard clean-up, and there’s still some daylight when I get home from work but I can feel myself pulling in, settling onto the couch in the evenings, sipping my hot milk.

My eye just fell on the painting on the living room wall, Pleasant Valley in the fall, brilliant leaves and a purply sky, fields turning brown. It’s that time of year. Mid-afternoon on Saturday a friend and I drove up into the hills to our favorite orchard, our chatting interrupted by oohs and aahs as we noticed a particularly brilliant tree. Later I got my camera out and wandered around the yard snapping pictures of the last flowers in anticipation of the frost.

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Dahlia destined for a vase

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Late Stella d’Oro

October garden report

The long weekend is winding down. The weather has been October at its best–clear, mild, cloudless sky. Leaf color is approaching peak. It’s that time of year when I drive around, doing errands, going to and from work, in a state of awe. Every year. Without fail. Astonishment at how beautiful it is, especially on a bright day when the light shines through the scarlets and yellows and oranges.

The garden is winding down. No frost yet so there are are still some aIMG_0054nnuals blooming–a few dahlias, the nasturtiums, which have taken over the raised bed, the potted up New Guinea impatiens are all still in bloom, although not all very enthusiastically. Asters are starting to go past and the phlox are finally ending after blooming most of the summer. Soon it will be time to cut things back but not quite yet.

Tom and Lily cleared out the back bed this summer. They left one small area of perennials–some cat mint, a few transplanted roses, some Japanese anemones. This all surrounds the spot where I buried my cat Sam a few years ago and I didn’t want their digging to exhume him–so, the Sam memorial garden.

IMG_0059Today, Tom planted a kousa dogwood at the front edge of the dug out bed. I think the white bracts will be stunning against the tall evergreens at the back of the yard.

I’ve been thinking about what to plant in the raised bed next year–more zinnias in a range of colors, maybe some marigolds and snapdragons. No cleomes–they dominated all summer until I tore them out–and fewer nasturtiums.

And that’s the report from the garden.

New Harbor and Pemaquid

 My sister and I spent the week of September 12 – 19 at Thompson Cottages in New Harbor, Maine. When we turned off Route 1 and drove down the hill into Damariscotta and then headed down the peninsula to New Harbor, I felt like I was coming home. This is a bit odd since this was a vacation destination for my family rather than a permanent home but it’s a place with many layers of connection and history for me as it was for my parents. My mother’s faimagemily spent summers near Boothbay, at the end of a neighboring peninsula, and she and her siblings came regularly to Pemaquid. I have pictures of her with her brother and later with my dad and friends picnicking and playing on the rocks.

Every time I make this trip, memories ride along—my first visit with my parents after a long drive east from Ohio when I was 9 or 10, subsequent visits with parents in my late teens and throughout my 20s when they owned a cottage for a few years and then came for extended summer/fall stays in various rentals and I’d come for regular weekend visits from my Massachusetts home. In more recent years, I’ve come up every few years, sometimes alone; sometimes with friends or, as in this vacation, with my sister.

My sister and I rented one of the Thompson’s Back Cove cottages, which was wonderfully private and quiet, especially at this low season time. One of the best features of the cottage, which was overall a comfortable home away from home, was the screened porch that overlooked the cove.

I got up early every morning, made the coffee, then wandered out to thIMG_0410e porch, where I read, watched the birds, wrote a bit in a journal. Later in the day, B and I sat there together, after whatever adventures the day had taken us on. We’d watch the light glow on the trees across the cove and then slowly diminish. Unidentified birds swooped and chittered, crows called loudly, a blue heron waded by daily. (We wished we’d brought binoculars and a bird book!)

Five miles further along, down at the end of the peninsula, is Pemaquid Point, a big pile of rocks spilling into the sea, a lighthouse, a small cafe.

Pemaquid has long had power for me. I remember sitting for long stretches huddled against a sheltering pile of rocks, shutting out the sounds of other visitors and letting myself sink into the crash of imagewaves and the smell of salt and seaweed. I came there one evening when I was in my 20s and caught up in some sort of tumult—there was a full moon and a high tide—magic, an easing of spirit. I came again the spring that my dad died and 10 years later, the summer my mom died, needing the touchstone of a place that has echoes back in family history, remembering childhood picnics on the rocks and imagining my parents there in their younger, newly married days

And I still gravitate there. If I’m in Maine, I make sure to stop at Pemaquid even if it’s not my primary destination.On this trip I made daily pilgrimages to the point, trying to reconnect with that power. And it was beautiful and the waves crashed and the air smelled of brine but the power was diminished. I suspect it’s partly because I’m more cautious than I used to be about clambering around on the rocks and so I felt more distant, a viewer from afar.

But I think it also says something about being in a calmer, more reflective time of life. What held power for me on this trip was the cove. The stillness, the light, the heron wading, the light. That’s the stillness I look for when I meditate, when I sit to write, when I sit with morning coffee looking out at the garden, not thinking, just being.