Sunday, June 26, 2016

Mock orange for real life

I was unpacking toys from boxes in Chloe’s new playroom when a warm, sweet-smelling breeze floated across my face through the open window. It smelled so good that it stopped me in my tracks, and I looked out the window to see where it might be coming from.

I got the answer right away: A tall, flowering shrub with delicate white blossoms that was blooming right outside. I hadn’t noticed it until then. Had it just flowered? I wasn’t sure, but it was beautiful, and it smelled so good, like a pure, clean summer perfume.

I know nothing about plants except how to swiftly kill them, so I asked everyone who came to visit what these gorgeous flowers were called. There were lots of guesses, but I finally got the answer from my mother-in-law, Sharon, a gardening whiz who could grow plump, voluptuous roses in a cardboard box filled with gravel. The beautiful mystery flower was called was mock orange.

Over the next few days, I found myself just standing in Chloe’s playroom, hoping to catch that heavenly smell on a breeze again, or else standing outside in the front yard, burying my face in the flowers. I couldn’t see the flowers from inside the house unless I was standing right in the playroom window, and it made me a little sad.

Meanwhile, Chloe has been getting prodigiously filthy every single day the backyard, where a wooden swing-set sits in a little sandy clearing under some pine and maple trees. Every day she plays outside, and every night, she comes into the house with her sneakers filled with sand, and with dirt ringed around her neck and ankles and caked under her fingernails.

Her crutches are taking a beating, too, and it shows. They’re being sprayed with sticky, smelly mosquito repellant, and carrying her over grass, dirt, sand, puddles, mud, and all other manner of messy terrain. In a week or two, they’ll make their first appearance on the beach, first at a local lake, and then later, at the seashore, where the sun and saltwater and sand will continue to bleach away their already faded hot pink hue. The crutches’ rubber tips (which I’ve already replaced once) will get worn flat again and again, like old, bald tires on a car. A plastic piece of the crutch cuff recently snapped off in my hand, too.

Strictly speaking, actually, her crutches aren’t meant for this sort of thing. They’re not supposed to get dirty or filled with grit and sand, and they’re certainly not supposed to get wet. They’re made of metal and plastic. They’re meant to be kept clean and dry, used on safe, flat, surfaces. In school. At the library. At physical therapy. At the mall. To get in and out of the car or the house.

In other words, quiet, clean places where not too much happens. But what almost-7-year-old kid wants a life that’s quiet, clean, and boring? I want her play in the hot sand and jump through frothy waves. I want her to stomp in puddles and squash her feet through mud. I want her to pick her way down a pine-needle carpeted path in the woods.

What I don’t want is to follow her around chanting a chorus of “don’ts:” Don’t walk there, don’t get dirty, don’t get wet. Her crutches are meant to open up the world to her, not take her only to the edges of all the places she’s not allowed to go. What’s the point of having crutches at all if she isn’t going to use them to really live?

And so she gets them wet and dirty and I don’t care. Which brings me back to those lovely mock orange blossoms.

Chloe, my mom, and I spent Saturday morning at Canal Street Antique Mall, an old, brick former mill building that's filled with two cavernous floors of dusty antiques: Stacks of doors, windows with rippled glass, heavy black typewriters, cracked teapots, wind-up bell alarm clocks, ornate sewing machines, wire bird cages, violins with broken strings, porcelain dolls with lacy collars and dirty faces, a brown mink hat. Anything you can think of. I was looking for stuff for the new house, and fell in love with a rustic black metal planter. I knew exactly what I would use it for.

When I got home, I pulled a pair of heavy duty sheers from a kitchen drawer and walked right outside to the mock orange blossoms. I clipped three of the woody stalks, shook the blooms free of a few nectar-drinking bugs, and arranged them in mason jars in the planter. They filled the kitchen with their beautiful fragrance, and every time I look at the centerpiece, I smile. 

Maybe you’re not supposed to clip the flowers from a decorative shrub. But who is it there for, planted in the front of the house where I can’t see it or smell it? Is it only for the benefit of neighbors or for strangers driving by? Or is it for our pleasure, too?

Like Chloe’s crutches, I choose to use them. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Strawberry shortcake and new beginnings

I have been—and let’s face it, probably will be again sooner or later—the kind of hostess who sometimes can’t be bothered to dirty a bowl, and will instead stoop to phenomenal laziness to avoid doing dishes. Once, I opened a bag of salad and dropped it unceremoniously, with an ugly cellophane-sounding splat, onto the kitchen table in front of my brother and his lovely fiancĂ©, who truly deserved more effort from me than just ripping open the bag and calling it a night. After an evening of cooking, it seemed that I just couldn’t bring myself to empty one more thing into one more bowl.

But here, in this new house, in this miraculous new kitchen, even cleaning is fun, and every snack and meal deserves a beautiful and thoughtful presentation, as though each morsel we put onto our plates and set out onto our table needs to live up to these lustrous blue-gray granite counters; this thick, golden wood butcher block slab; this gleaming six-burner, commercial-grade stove that hisses to life with gas and fire and cooks to absolute perfection. I would live in a tent if this stove were in it (and of course, the tent would promptly burst into flames, but, you know).

Last night we had my mother over for a simple dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. It was not an occasion that warranted fanciness. After all, you can let it all hang out with your mother, and I certainly do. I’m not above running through the house in my ratty underwear while she’s visiting, or sniffing my armpit and wondering out loud whether that stink is from forgetting to put on deodorant or just power-sweating through it.

But this night was different. It was the first meal she was having with us in this house, and Chloe and I had just come home from Cider Hill Farm where our farm share bounty of eggs, jam, cider, lettuce, scallions, and berries waited for us in the cool, dusty barn.

We left the farm that afternoon with fat, ripe, still-warm strawberries that heaped out of their green paper pint box like deep red jewels. The sky opened up just as we were leaving the farm, washing the yellow pollen dust from my car’s windshield. But by the time we got home, the rain clouds were blowing away to another neighborhood. Chloe and I ate grilled cheese sandwiches and cherry tomatoes for lunch before turning our attention to our evening’s dessert: Strawberry shortcake.

We spent the rest of the afternoon cutting butter into small cubes, measuring flour and sugar, and patting dough onto the floured countertop. I handed Chloe a biscuit cutter, one that had belonged to my stepmother’s Southern-born grandma, Mildred, and showed Chloe how to dip the edges of the cutter in a little mound of flour, push it straight down onto the dough, and give it a little jiggle before pulling it up and out again. I told Chloe that she was the fourth generation—or maybe more—to cut biscuits with that little circle of metal. Her hand fit around it just right.

We put the sticky biscuits onto parchment-lined baking sheets, and I slid them into the oven. As I did, Chloe snatched up the dough scraps and balled them up. Almost instantly her fingers were stuck together, glued by a dough that she quickly discovered was too sticky to play with. 

The afternoon rain shower had given way to a bright blue evening sky and radiant sunshine, so I dried the leftover puddles off of the picnic table with an old, faded dishtowel and moved our dinner things outside.

After dinner on the deck, it was time for dessert. The shortcakes and macerated strawberries were in utilitarian storage containers with plastic covers, but for once, my instincts for avoiding dish duty were silent. I piled the biscuits atop a turquoise glass cake stand with delicately fluted edges and a hobnail base, and spooned the strawberries into a deep, aubergine-hued Fiestaware bowl.

We ate those summer strawberries on the deck as the sun dipped below the tall old pine trees that ring our new backyard, and I snatched the whipped cream away from Chloe before she could plop an even more obscene mound of it into her bowl. 

I sank back into my chair and sighed with happiness.

This. This is where I was meant to be.