14 May 2011

Of May and Mothers

"Just stop the car for a minute so I can get a picture of the virgin," I begged my husband as our rented Mini Cooper hurtled down what was surely the wrong road away from Montcuq, southwest of Cahors.

There was road work everywhere - not unlike Wisconsin - and we had gotten lost. The tight little voice inside the Garmin (I swear it's Joan Holloway from Mad Men) was nearly shouting "Recalculating! Recalculating!" but I wanted to photograph this charming little village and the pristine statue of the Virgin Mary.

Like every little Catholic girl of my era, I was taught to revere her. Because my name is Mary Virginia, I truly believed for a time that we had a special bond. Perhaps for a time we did.

May when I was a child meant great ceremony at church, much singing, and dozens of little girls in white dresses - all to honor the memory of Mary.

It was, of course, my mother who took the care to make sure my dainty little white dresses were ironed and crisp, who plaited my hair and made sure the blue bows were fresh and perky. And then after raising two sons, she did the same things for my sister.

This week, my sister and I had the sad and bittersweet experience of placing our mother in assisted living. We looked at the best facilities in town, and finally settled on one near the hospital, in our own doctor's park neighborhood.

My mother has Alzheimers Disease, which I have learned in the past 18 months, is so commonplace that you can be in a business meeting of 10 people, each of whom have parents or grandparents with this slow, killing disease.

It has broken our hearts, even though we know this is best for her: That she is around people, has on-site care, healthy meals, gets her medication on time and has few opportunities for catastrophes, like falls, now that she is no longer so steady on her feet.

The confusion in her eyes grabs at our hearts. We want to hug her and hold her and we do. She is now so tiny and vulnerable, this woman who once strode down luncheon catwalks, modeling dresses and hats for women's clubs and Rotary wives; who gamely played in the backyard wading pool with the neighborhood kids, and who served potato chips and beer to their mothers at late-night gab fests in 1960.

She is safe now, if not from the ravages of age and disease, at least from some of the frightening possibilities that have kept P and I from sleeping nights this last year.

It is finally spring. Winter here in northern Wisconsin extended into April, and was followed by rain, rain and more rain.

The air is sweet. The forsythia blooms outside my dining room window and the flowering crab may well bloom by May 24, as it always does.

Life goes on.


26 February 2011

A Kind and Gentle Memory in Cruel Times


I often dream of Grandma Annie's house in Frenchtown, and I still drive past it when I need reassurance in these crazy times. My heart catches and I whisper that I miss her.

I miss her wisdom, which she probably never knew she possessed. She judged no one, understood boundaries, and knew her place in the world. She was light a light that we all rallied around in darkness.

Here she is with me. As she is now.


08 January 2011

Snow like Cotton

The snow fell like cotton early this morning and when I left the house for Saturday errands, the day was bright and pure.

January days have a clarity like no others in Northern Wisconsin. The sunlight reflects off the snow and brightens everything, showing only that which is necessary and true.

Today's light was not flat, but intense and sparkling.

Our moods are lighter today, and my husband and I joked while folding laundry. We are growing older together and taking pleasure in small everyday tasks. Our life together is simple and clear.

Our Saturday night supper will be simple, too: Small tenderloins with herbs de Provence and mushrooms and a salad of lettuce, tomato and olives.

There is a contentment in January, and an optimism in the young year.

I hope this is true for you, too.


03 January 2011

Kalyn's Pulled Chicken Salad with Green Olives and Celery


The start of a new year holds more charm for me than the winter holidays.

I like starting over.

This year, I am once again trying my luck with the South Beach Diet, which in 2007 kept me from rolling into Paris and instead strolling about that magic city feeling, if not slender, at least not fat. And that's essential in a city where all women are apparently slim and beautiful. The men aren't bad either.

You may already know that the first two weeks of South Beach are bread, pasta, potato and beet, pea, corn and carrot free. It's no easy feat avoiding at least a taste of those foods, but I can do anything for two weeks, right?

Right, but the absence of carbs and sugar (especially fruit) can get a bit boring.

So I turn to Kalyn's Kitchen for assistance. And Kalyn never fails me.

A few days ago she provided a roundup of Phase One recipes, using the photo for this particular salad. My mouth started watering immediately, but our house was full of holiday treats  and I am always meticulous about eating up what is on hand.

Besides, who wants to start a diet on Dec. 30 or 31? Only a seriously deranged person.

It should come as no surprise to Kalyn's fans that this salad was wonderful. I added lightly toasted almonds, but otherwise followed Kalyn's recipe to the letter. I used dehydrated green onions because I was unable to force myself to leave the house in frigid weather.

But oh, this was tasty! Preparing the salad got me through a rough spot and eating it was a treat.

I posted a new photo of myself above left - taken after a spa visit but before starting SBD - as a way of goading myself into weight loss. I was born with those cheeks, by the way.

02 January 2011

Kitchen Tools: Mortar and Pestle

For as long as I can remember, I have tracked the color of the sky once winter solstice has passed.

I don't need to remind those of us in the Northern Hemisphere that the lighter the sky at, say, 4:30 p.m., the closer we are to spring.

(And I love spring more than any other season. No reason to list a litany of reasons. You know what I mean: buds, birdsong, the angle of the sun.)

Observing the sky at a given time helps me to remind myself that winter, which can be beastly here in Wisconsin, is a temporary condition.

I am pleased to report that the sky was still medium blue at 4:30 in Northern Wisconsin. As I looked out my window to check, a bird flew across the tree tops, heading south against the coming night perhaps: One of those small moments that never fails to enchant me.

While we wait for spring, we spend winter nights and weekends experimenting in the kitchen. Most of the experiments never make it to the pages of this blog, but they provide a welcome distraction from snow and cold.

Inevitably there is a Christmas gift from my husband that makes my kitchen time fun and sometimes challenging. I'm still experimenting with the mandoline he bought me a few years ago. My back and feet thank him daily for the chef's floor mat he bought me a bit more recently.

This year's gift may be less comforting to my back. The mortar and pestle is one I chose myself from a little shop in a neighboring city that sells books and finely-crafted furniture and other household or decorative items. As you can see from the photo, this is no ordinary mortar and pestle.

It's heavy, too, something I did not consider. I only looked at its aesthetics.

My husband jokes that it provided traction during the month it spent in the trunk of his car.

I swear it's a lethal weapon.

07 November 2010

Comfort Food, Comforting Places

Along with concerns over the health of family members during the past 12 months, came some disturbing personal challenges.

No, I did not overcome an addiction (Do they even have 12-step program for Internet surfers?). Nor did I get myself arrested, lose something of value (a job or a friend or a loved one). No, nothing like that. Let's just say I ran across more than my share of people with issues who challenged me and created obstacles and unpleasant situations.

In other words, life was normal.

I found myself craving the little things that comfort me: Scented candles, naps on our cloud-soft sofa, mashed potatoes, rice, walks, books set in quiet villages and soft music. I've been spending a good deal of time on islands, at resorts, and at health-food stores.

Late Friday morning, I drove to Door County, Wisconsin's answer to Cape Cod and the coast of Maine. This time of year, the leaves are mostly on the ground - save for some stubborn oaks - and the lovely bones of this island-cum-peninsula are obvious. On a sunny way, this glorious spit of land jutting into Lake Michigan and Green Bay, these orchards, farms, fields, beaches and villages are awash with an amber glow. On such days, the sky is azure and the berry-yielding trees and bushes are crimson. Driving up hills and down lanes, one sees charms not evident in high summer or peak color season.

I spent no time in the kitchen this weekend, but instead took a few photos of the land and water I wanted to share with you.

23 October 2010

The Scene from the Kitchen Window

After a spate of golden days with that lightness in the air that only comes in fall, our weekend has begun, cold and dreary. No matter: For the past three weeks, we have awakened to the sound of gunshots from the marshland to the west and fallen asleep to the honking of geese along the river to the north.

It is time to turn away from the glories of Indian Summer to the gray and gold days that make up November.

Since Labor Day, we have eaten our share of caramel apples, sharing them after the hearty dishes we prefer in the fall. There are pumpkins on the red bench near the side door, and a display of fall flowers and gourds in the garden. I look out at the horse barn and see a riot of color.

Every season brings its small moments of delight: Mine came on a quick trip to a resort, when the managers treated me to a sunset pontoon boat ride up and down a meandering river. The islands were reflected in clear water, looking as though they were suspended in liquid and air.

Then there were the simple, seasonal delights that have sustained me for more autumns than I care to reveal  online.

I have driven down country roads on sunny days, past fields of haystacks and farmyard pumpkin stands. I have left work to the chatter of starlings in the ancient oak and maple trees in the park behind my office. I have returned home at dusk, walking up my little hill and breathing in the aroma of woodsmoke from my neighbor's fire.

My home has been a silent witness to 115 autumns now, and if I close my eyes and I can imagine the sounds and aromas of all the years that have passed: The clip clop of horses' hooves, the tinny horns of Model Ts, the rattle of souped up jalopies. The wine-rich smell of dying leaves, the crisp nose-tickling feeling on fall mornings as the season wanes - all these are a satisfying part and parcel of this lavish season.

The sun is angled now, and it washes the old buildings in our town with a coppery light. I love this time of year and hope that my work load lightens up so I can spend some time in the kitchen.