I’m still awake because of the baker’s version of a watched pot never boiling: a watched cake tester never comes out clean. I remembered in the middle of dinner that tomorrow is International Day at Abbott’s school, and I signed up to bring a snack reflecting my culture. So while Abbott was at hockey and after reading to Cal and putting him to bed, I put together my grandmother Louise’s apple cake, my favorite family recipe. Tonight isn’t going to help with my weeklong build-up of fatigue; yesterday afternoon I fell asleep on the couch. I will always remember how Abbott woke me, turned on the light as the autumn darkness fell against the windows, and asked, “Mom, can I bring you breakfast in bed tomorrow?”
I practiced English with a biologist from Korea early in the week. I learned that before our class, while I made oatmeal and drove to and from school, he planted garlic (Me: “When will you be able to harvest it?” Him: “109 bulbs.” Me: “Um, when will it be ready to dig up?” Him: Polite smile, silence). I really wanted to know his take on the Ebola virus disease and the gene repair tool in the news, but I was pretty sure those topics were beyond the scope of our conversational abilities. I remain excited about the possibility of fresh garlic at some point in my future.
I continued to think about my ESL student, a visiting scholar, all week as I read about the Ebola virus and listened to an interview with Jennifer Doudna on NPR. And I thought back to my graduate school days. Whenever I was immersed in basic science I’d see something along the lines of life-sized versions of T-cells in my dreams, and I'd do something like scurry after them breathlessly. “Excuse me. Who are you? And what are you doing?” Maddeningly, none of them ever answered. I could only study their behavior to get at their essence. I wonder if my student dreams about, say, practicing the past perfect tense in English.
While Jennifer Doudna was trying to figure out how bacteria fight the flu she discovered they can kill a virus with an enzyme, something she wasn’t expecting at all. Then she wondered, could the enzyme be used as a tool for editing human genes? Lots of information is available because of the genome project, but what isn’t known is how to fix or replace problems. Some of these will be hammered out with the tool she discovered, and the future may be as straightforward as removing a person’s blood cells, editing for an unwanted disease or genetic condition, and then putting the cells back in.
I have a BRCA1 gene mutation that probably would have caused my death already if I were a generation older. Mary-Claire King proved the genetic basis for breast cancer a handful of years before I had it the first time. After getting a second cancer I found out about my mutation; I don’t know if I would have survived a third. So my life may have been saved by the information, but at the fairly barbaric price of all my potentially cancerous organs. And now I have to hope not to die from sequelae of the surgeries meant to save me, like heart disease related to the premature loss of my ovaries and estrogen’s protective effect. If gene repair can be done in a customized manner the surgeries I, and so many others, have had will look like the equivalent of blood letting from the future, and the harmful nature of BRCA1 in my family will stop with me. I hope so.
For some reason or another there was no school on Friday, so after breakfast I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, found boots that fit all of us, and drove the boys and a neighbor to a farm we visit every fall.
After thirty-five miles on the interstate we exited to another world entirely, as if we had flown a day's distance. I put my window down and rested my elbow on its edge, taking in the pastures of cattle, sheep and horses, the flower farms resplendent with dahlias. We listened to Boys in the Boat, set in the Pacific Northwest of the 1930s, as we drove through the bucolic landscape.
The boys’ chores include tending the flowers and tomatoes on our deck – Cal particularly likes pinching off the sticky dead heads of the petunias – still, they’re city boys. They forget that corn grows toward the heavens, that pumpkins hide along the ground. They have to be taken to the country every so often.
They took turns pushing and riding in the cart we borrowed for hauling as we discussed the merits and disadvantages of various shapes in relation to jack-o-lantern carving. Eventually, we wandered off in separate directions to pick out our pumpkins.
Abbott took charge. He picked out three – one for himself, one for me and one for Alexi – before I realized what he had done. When I went to put the large apple-shaped selection I’d made into our wheelbarrow he stood in front of it, arms folded. “We already have three. Cal is still choosing his.” I wondered if I’d get to carve my own this year.
We bought the pumpkins and some delicata squash – my favorite variety to eat – and then entered the corn maze.
As always, towards the end I started to panic that I would never find my way out of the fifteen acres of paths; then, suddenly, I did.
Roasted delicata squash
The outer skin becomes soft and sweet when it’s roasted, so no peeling is necessary.
2 delicata squash (2 ½ to 3 pounds), halved lengthwise, seeded, then cut into ½ inch slices
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Heat the oven to 400 F.
In a large bowl, gently toss the squash with the olive oil, salt, a couple of grinds of freshly ground black pepper, a good pinch of red pepper flakes, and the thyme. Arrange the squash on a rimmed baking sheet, and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the squash is tender when pierced with a knife and charred along the edges.
Our recent days have flowed, one to the next, with the sense, the sweetness, of no beginning or end.
After sending Abbott off to school in a chill, steely fog, Cal and I raked our deck together. He stopped to pick up a bright red leaf, pointing out its star shaped perfection. I find half the woods – leaves, twigs, acorns – under his bed. We paused to watch two men unload a truckfull of firewood down the street, stacking it like a gigantic Lincoln Log configuration.
A classmate of Cal’s joined us for their school-free day. In between Lego construction and X-Box Madden 25 they raced about the thick and tangled woods that surround our house, their sweaty bodies as healthy and pure as the crisp autumn air. I made Ed Fretwell soup and roasted our surplus of Italian plums.
After eating our fill of soup and plums we took one last walk to the end of the street, past silvery applewood logs soon to become firewood and a plastic wading pool on its way to storage. In the waning light a foghorn sounded in the distance - a harbinger or an incantation - interrupting, then part of, the evening's quiet joy.
Roasted Italian Plums
3 pounds Italian prune plums, halved and pitted
¼ cup sugar
2 tablespoons melted butter
crème fraiche, for serving
Preheat the oven to 400F. Toss the halved, pitted plums in a large bowl with the sugar and butter. Place the cut side of the plums down on a rimmed baking sheet, and roast until the plums are cooked through and caramelized, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, and serve with a dollop of crème fraiche.
Currently, I can’t lie on my right side; doggedly, habitually, I try every single night. Pain ousts me off it even in my sleep. A decades-old volleyball injury seems to have flared up, maybe due to repetitive stress in barre class; somehow, my shoulder became injured or re-injured. I can use it, mostly without discomfort, but I can’t lie on it. I also can’t run for more than a few minutes. I develop a burning sensation in the inner aspect of my right ankle when I do, and sometimes, running also makes my right knee hurt.
A longstanding reality has become glaringly apparent to me over the past few months with these escalating minor medical problems: I fastidiously avoid doctors (except for my husband, of course, and Henry, but they don’t count). I only see my gynecologist because I want my estrogen prescription renewed, and usually manage to stretch the yearly visits to every 13 or 14 months. (My sister was recently diagnosed with osteopenia; I’m really hoping to avoid it. Like me, she has a BRCA1 gene mutation and has had her ovaries removed to minimize her cancer risk, but she doesn’t take any hormone replacement.)
My shoulder will get better or it won’t; maybe I’ll get used to sleeping on my left side. I’ll run for exercise when I can, and otherwise, I’ll walk Nelly instead. I am done being a patient. The metallic taste of saline floods the back of my mouth the instant I hear the swish of the medical center’s automatic doors, whether I’m there to take the kids to an appointment or pick up Alexi. You go along living your life, and then something happens, and something corresponding snaps inside.
Or maybe I’ll see about physical therapy. Maybe I’ll look through the seed catalog that came in today’s mail and order bulbs to plant, for the first time ever, when I’m through tending the last of our tomatoes. Their smell, residual from dinner, reaches me still; sweet and familiar, it tugs at some ancient longing.
cherry tomato-goat cheese cobbler
slightly adapted from Huckleberry by Zoe Nathan
For the biscuit topping:
3 tablespoons whole wheat flour
¾ cup (100g) all-purpose flour
3 ½ tablespoons cornmeal
2 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
1 ½ tablespoons granulated sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon (130 grams) cold unsalted butter, cubed
3 ½ tablespoons cold buttermilk (preferably Bulgarian)
For the tomato filling:
5 cups (900g) cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 thyme sprigs
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
1 large egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon water
6 ounces (170 grams) soft goat cheese, crumbled
To make the biscuit topping:
Combine the flours, cornmeal, baking powder, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter, working it into the flour mixture with your fingertips until the pieces are pea-and-lima bean sized. Add the buttermilk and stir gently; just until the flour mixture is evenly moistened.
Place the dough on a clean work surface. Firmly press down on the entire surface of the dough with the heel of your hand. Toss and squeeze the dough to re-distribute the wet and dry patches until it begins to hold together, being careful not to overwork the dough. It should stay together, but you should still see pea-sized bits of butter running through the dough.
Press the dough into a disc about 3/4 inch (2 centimeters) thick. Using a biscuit cutter or a small glass, cut it into 9 or 10 biscuits. Transfer the biscuits onto an ungreased baking sheet and then freeze for 1 to 2 hours.
Make the tomato filling:
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
Combine the tomatoes, olive oil, thyme, and kosher salt in an ovenproof skillet. Cover the skillet and cook the tomato mixture over high heat until the tomatoes begin to soften, 2 to 3 minutes. Uncover and continue cooking until all of the tomatoes have burst slightly.
Remove the biscuits from the freezer and generously brush their tops with the egg wash (egg/water mixture). Arrange them on top of the tomato mixture in the skillet. Bake the cobbler for 25 minutes. Briefly remove the skillet from the oven and quickly dollop the goat cheese between the biscuits, covering any exposed tomato mixture. Return to the oven, turn up the heat to 475°F (240°C), and continue baking until the top is nicely browned, about 10 minutes more.
I visited a synagogue for the first time today. Cal lost his first canine tooth. His sweatshirt was blood-splattered when I arrived to accompany his class for a part of their study of world religions. The paucity of church (synagogue/mosque/temple) goers that I perceive in my community chronically saddens and worries me; by and large, people must not be deriving any real comfort from this communal aspect of life. We all depend on small intimacies to stay afloat, whether vis-a-vis a religious community or the cashier at our grocery store who asks how hockey is going for our boys in their absence. Today's experience left me feeling like I'd moved into a warm pocket of air.