Monday, September 15, 2014

within spitting distance

I’ve been listening to Johnny Cash even more than usual this week; I’m going to Nashville (!!!) over the upcoming weekend for a family wedding. I inherited a love of country music from my granddad (or maybe television, or, I suppose, both); visiting my brother in Music City - where he went to law school, and then stayed - is as good as it gets.

After he retired from farming, my granddad spent his time at home vacuuming and watching TV (never at the same time). He didn't miss an episode of Hee Haw or Wild Kingdom, or a chance to see what Vanna White was wearing. I found it more interesting to examine the pattern in the shag carpet underfoot. I sort of enjoyed his reruns of Gunsmoke and Bonanza, but truly loved watching Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters with him; I fantasized about my own future career in country music during their show. We all know how that worked out; still, this weekend, Country Music Hall of Fame, here I come!

I can’t quite believe I have the good fortune of seeing my siblings, niece and nephews twice in one month. Or that my brother and I will be able to celebrate our birthdays together for the first time since we were kids, as we’ll be within spitting distance of both our birthdays this weekend. I’m thinking about baking my best birthday cake to bring along.

North Douglas Chocolate Cake
Adapted from The Fiddlehead Cookbook

The best old-fashioned birthday layer cake around.

Preparation time: 30 minutes
Baking and cooling: 1 hour
Completion time: 30 minutes

1 cup water
¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter
½ cup canola oil
3 ½ tablespoons sifted Dutch process dark cocoa
2 cups unbleached white flour
2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 eggs
½ cup buttermilk (preferably Bulgarian)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ pound plus 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 cups confectioners’ sugar
½ cup Dutch process dark cocoa
3 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoons vanilla extract

To prepare cake:
Preheat oven to 375F. Butter and flour two 8 or 9” cake pans.

Combine the water, butter, oil, and cocoa in small pan and bring to boil.

While the mixture is coming to boil, sift together the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Set aside. Whisk the eggs, buttermilk, and vanilla in a small bowl and set aside.

When the butter mixture comes to a boil, pour it over the flour mixture and stir until just combined. Add the egg mixture and fold together gently. Pour the batter into the prepared pans.

Bake for 20-25 minutes (8” pans will take slightly longer), until a cake tester comes out clean. Let the cakes rest briefly in their pans (no more than 10 minutes), and then turn out onto racks to cool completely.

To prepare icing:
In a stand mixer, beat the butter until smooth. Add confectioners sugar and cocoa, and mix until partially combined. Stir in the milk and vanilla and beat until smooth and spreadable. Additional confectioners’ sugar may be necessary if the mixture seems too soft.

To assemble cake:
Place one layer, top side down, on the bottom of an inverted cake pan. Spread with ¾ cup of the icing. Place the second layer, top side down, on top of the first. Spread with 1 cup of the icing, allowing a little to go over the sides. Using a straight-sided metal spatula, ice the sides of the cake, filling the cracks between the layers with icing. Smooth out the top of the cake and use the remaining icing to decorate the cake as you like. Chill the cake briefly to firm the icing.

Using a large spatula, transfer the cake to a cake plate. Serve at once, or cover and store at room temperature.

Yield: 1 8- or 9- inch, 2-layer cake.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

September 11

I don’t know whether I was more surprised to learn that Cal’s school library is phasing out the Dewey decimal system, or to realize Abbott assumed I was coming in with him as I took him to the seventh grade dance tonight (parents weren’t, of course, invited, but it’s the first dance he’s attended and he didn’t know what to expect). He is lovely. I haven’t yet decided how I feel about what’s going on in the library.

The only grandfather I ever knew was born 99 years ago today on a farm his family homesteaded in Indian Territory; Oklahoma, by the time he was born. Alexi and I were supposed to go visit my grandparents the day after his birthday in 2001, the year the day became infamous, but no flights left Seattle the rest of that week. So instead, I spent the days walking, aimless mile after mile, disbelieving, grief-stricken, enraged. Day after day, my legs propelled me through my neighborhood and into the next one and the next, taking in the flags on porch after porch through my tear-blurred vision. I was a sister who was lucky not to have lost her sister in the World Trade Center. I was a beloved granddaughter who was missed; a bride who wanted to be visiting her grandparents with her new husband; a cancer survivor who approached life looking for hope and joy. I needed to keep hope alive in myself.

Abbott just finished reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for his humanities class; I love that book for many, many reasons. (The audio version is also fantastic.) I thought about it a lot today. A few favorite excerpts:

“I had to add my hope to somebody else’s hope. I had to multiply hope by hope.”

“Life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.”

“I realized that I might be a lonely Indian boy, but I was not alone in my loneliness. There were millions of other Americans who had left their birthplaces in search of a dream. I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian – that I belonged to that tribe – but I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants, and to the tribe of basketball players and to the tribe of bookworms, and the tribe of cartoonists….and the tribe of teenaged boys, and the tribe of small town kids, and the tribe of Pacific Northwesterners, and the tribe of tortilla chip and salsa lovers, and the tribe of poverty, and the tribe of funeral-goers, and the tribe of beloved sons…”

Best wishes for all of us this September night.

Monday, September 8, 2014

September 8

We’re back to the days of catching up on sleep over the weekend; homework, and trying to remember enough math to complete it; voracious appetites after football and hockey practices staunched by hurried bowls of granola and milk in a dark kitchen. The boys seem to be taking it all in stride. I sometimes forget where they are during the day; in the back of my mind they’re reading in their rooms. I worry there will come a time when I forget to pick them up from school.

We're going through flat after flat of peaches while we can. Every day some teeter on the edge of overripe and become smoothies for snacks. Pears are beginning to make an appearance at the market, but I don’t have an appetite for them, yet.

Bedtimes, Cal has been on a “making” jag: paper snowflakes and paper chains, mostly. Abbott gets under Cal’s covers and one of us reads to them while Cal cuts, tapes and colors. And then, after talking, talking, talking, the house settles and its already time to think about tomorrow, which will be some version of today. At least I certainly hope so.

Peach-Banana Smoothie

1 medium banana, cut into chunks
1 medium-sized ripe peach, pitted and sliced
1 cup vanilla yogurt, preferably European-style
¼ cup orange juice
optional: 1 cup small ice cubes

Add all the ingredients to a blender, and blend until uniform.

Yield: 2 servings

Thursday, September 4, 2014

here and now

Cal lets me walk him all the way into his classroom on the first day of school. Yesterday, as his teacher introduced herself to him, he extended his hand for her to shake. It was such an adult thing for him to do, unprompted; it made my throat constrict and my chest tighten. Changes, little and big, are constant, but you don’t usually know you’re experiencing the last time of something until it’s already over. One day they don't need your prompting to make a proper introduction; another, you realize you aren’t holding hands anymore when you cross the street. You won’t know in advance the last time your sons will sit on your lap; you’ll just find yourself grieving the loss one day. (I hope that never happens to me.) I suppose if we could remember every last time, we’d be paralyzed by heartache.

In my time alone the past couple of days – the first in months – I’ve had my hands in butter and flour, listening to Jose Gonzalez radio with nobody to ask me to turn it off or put something else on; I’ve worked in the yard, and then, afterward, inhaled the scent of tomato plants clinging to me as I fixed and then ate my lunch, reading my book. I’ve clipped and arranged hydrangeas without help or input.

Cal is wickedly hungry and tired when I pick him up from school; that hasn’t changed. I’ve insisted he eat the remaining contents of his lunchbox before having more than one of the oatcakes I've brought for after-school snacks. He doesn’t want the apple slices or the cheese that were meant to go with the oatcakes, or the leftovers in his lunchbox: he just wants MORE OATCAKES.

I can’t imagine anywhere I’d rather be than here and now.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

September 2

When did it start getting dark so early? It seems we time traveled during our journey back west; I now make my way toward sleep in astounding pitch-blackness. And why are there suddenly so many spiders? As I tied my shoes this morning I watched one drag around a wad of dog hair like toilet paper stuck to a shoe. It’s still warm but the breeze is cool.

Begrudgingly, the boys submitted to haircuts this afternoon at our neighborhood barber shop (run by three Vietnamese women). We all seem sanguine about school starting in the morning. The day ended with a thunderstorm followed by hail and then rain.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

August 30

I feel like a tourist whenever we visit my sister, who splits her time between Manhattan and Connecticut. It isn’t my New York of the early 1990s; I don’t recognize the city I lived in as a student.

We’ve spent the past week, our last before school starts, with my sister and her family, taking the train from Connecticut to see Matilda and museums, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Yesterday, enroute from the subway to the Tenement Museum, we walked down Houston Street, blocks from my college apartment.

I lived in a building full of elderly Italians who inhabited their apartments the entirety of their adult lives. A cheese shop on the ground floor – Joe’s Dairy – made fresh and smoked mozzarella, occasionally giving the building the appearance of being on fire. I kept time by the bells of St. Anthony’s, across the street; my living room faced one of its massive stained glass wheel-shaped windows. Most of my neighbors were parishioners there. Women from the building sat on the stoop and on folding chairs they set up on the sidewalk for portions of every day. Verdi, Puccini, Rossini – heard faintly through the ceiling in colder months – came in the open window like a living presence on warm days. The scent of Bolognese sauce was everpresent, simmering along with my hours of studying and writing. That crumbling, mice-infested apartment was one of the best places I ever lived.

One of my nephews is a student in the city, with very different sets of experiences. My boys have accumulated a mental image treasury of their own that they draw from when New York comes up in conversation: weapons and armor at the Met, vanilla soft serve cones dipped in cherry from Mr. Softee trucks, Washington Square’s fountain on a hot day, the craziness of Times Square. They associate New York with lightning bugs; with pizza and movies with their cousins and a babysitter while we – their parents, aunts and uncles – head into the city for dinner, a cloud of perfume and lipstick, high-heels, silk ties and freshly shaven men.