This is how it is: I’ve been in my new old-house neighborhood for over a year and I know exactly three neighbors. I do, however, know all of the dogs. I blame hats.
My neighbors and I approach each other with short, cold-weather greetings like: “Morning!” “Don’t worry, he’s friendly!” and “Which house are you?” We are covered from hat to boot with only our noses exposed.
Once, taking my English Springer puppy Gigi on a longish walk two miles up our long rural street, a woman in a sprawling colonial opened its front door and hollered from atop her hill, “Hello! Is it very icy?”
But, today I will finally be able to put the people names with the dog names and all of them into the landscape of our old logging woods neighborhood because today is the Neighborhood Christmas Party. Of course I’m expected to bring something. I only remembered this fact a couple hours ago and as I write this, my last batch of something is in the oven and the party starts in 50 minutes.
In my perfect week-before-Christmas dream I have hours to sit with my dessert cookbooks contemplating options while I drink a pot of tea. All the handmade by me Christmas presents are already wrapped, shovels are greased and ready by the door, and I know exactly what I’m wearing to every Christmas party.
In my reality none of these things is possible because I spent all my time reading Drew Magary’s Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog aloud to anyone in the house.
With the few hours before the party that I was going to work on my manuscript (memoir-in-it-seems-forever-process) instead I pulled my trusty Hershey’s Homemade cookbook from the kitchen bookshelf.
I bought Hershey’s Homemade in 1991 by sending an envelope to the Hershey Company with three cocoa powder proofs of purchase wrapped inside a check totaling $1.50 for shipping and handling. I was a newly engaged college junior with a chocolate addiction. That my fiance (now my husband, Greg) didn’t (and still doesn’t) like chocolate didn’t even enter my mind. If I was going to go through the effort to bake, I was going to bake what I liked. Today, 25 years later, my eyes fell on this recipe:
Black Magic Cake
- 2 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup buttermilk or sour milk *
- 2 eggs
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 cup strong black coffee OR 2 teaspoons powdered instant coffee plus 1 cup boiling water
- 3/4 cup HERSHEY’S Cocoa
- 1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1. Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour 12-cup fluted tube pan, two 9-inch round baking pans or one 13x9x2-inch baking pan.
- 2. Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt in large bowl. Add eggs, buttermilk, coffee, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed of mixer 2 minutes (Batter will be thin). Pour batter evenly into prepared pan.
- 3. Bake 50 to 55 minutes for fluted tube pan, 30 to 35 minutes for round pans, 35 to 40 minutes for rectangular pan or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes. Loosen cake from side of pan and remove from pans to wire racks. Cool completely. Frost as desired. Makes 12 servings.
- * To sour milk: Use 1 tablespoon white vinegar plus milk to equal 1 cup.
This was the “bring something” winner because I happened to have all the ingredients. But the presentation of the cake in the cookbook was a little wah. . . wah. The photo showed the cake baked in a rectangular sheet pan and frosted.
It was clearly a time for my grandfather’s Jell-O molds.
My grandfather was a professional baker who died when I was six. I’m lucky enough to have one of his commercial mixers as well as an assortment of individually-sized Jell-O molds. I can’t stand Jell-O so I use the molds for individual cakes.
I made Black Magic Cake as directed and poured into my molds. I greased and floured the tins which was a mistake. A good deal of the flour stuck to the tops of the cakes when they were turned out onto the cooling rack. For the second batch, I only used Pam.
The solution for the mistake cakes was to brush off as much flour as I could and apply powdered sugar through a sieve. Presto.
The remaining cakes I whisked confectioner’s sugar and milk, used the whisk to flick-drizzle it onto the cakes and added a garnish of a single blackberry and blueberry each.
Wow. These look better than I hoped. I feel very generous in a Christmas-y way, letting anyone other than me eat these. Watch out neighborhood, here I come!
I am beginning this blog post from the check-out line at Michael’s craft store. It’s a line that rivals only the infamous line at Barnes and Noble on Black Friday. My craft store line has snaked from the registers past Christmas bows and wrapping paper into the serious art isle whose shelves include empty canvases, cold-pressed papers, and watercolor paints in cabinets under lock and key. I’ve moved up and now stand next to intricately designed coloring books for adults.
Why would I put myself through this? Pinterest. It’s all Pinterest’s fault. A couple weeks ago I came across this image:
. . . and I was smitten. I’ve loved miniatures forever and used to have a dollhouse.
But my dollhouse is long-gone and a few years back, I gave the dollhouse furniture away to a friend with two little girls. My boys were more interested in other toys and I wanted the miniature beds and bureaus to go to someone who would enjoy them.
I don’t have the time for a dollhouse now, but a miniature Christmas world in a jar? I think I can swing that. The supplies are few and directions simple: pour the snow (Epsom salt) into the bottom of the jar, add figures, and ta da! It’s Christmas.
Down in my scary basement, I have about fifty old glass jars. I try never to go down there. It’s got a dirt floor and stone walls. Snakes have been known to make it home. I made my husband bring about ten of the jars upstairs. Then he cleaned them (OMG)!
So, here I am in line, holding some cute little trees, a couple reindeer, and some metal house ornaments. Finally! Once I get home I realize the tin houses are too big for the jars. No prob. I repurpose some glass vases and now, twenty hours later- it’s instant Christmas.
I have just enough Epsom salt leftover to soak my feet.
WHEN I WAS A LITTLE GIRL, I IMAGINED WHAT IT MIGHT BE LIKE TO LIVE IN A CASTLE OR A TOWER OR A MAGICAL FOREST.
I tried to imagine myself as a princess. I tried really hard, but it never worked. Somehow in my fantasies I was always the assistant to the princess. I attribute this to my peasant ancestry.
Since I was relegated to be the right hand of the princess, the position included suitable lodgings. I would be able to visit the castle or tower or magical forest as often as I pleased, yet I would live in a cottage. The cottage was my childhood bedroom.
I remember commandeering my mother’s broom and sweeping away real cobwebs. I used my cardboard kitchenette where I cooked faux dinners and drank plastic glasses full of disappearing toy milk. My dolls had bunk beds with knitted blankets that they straightened every morning before eating their breakfast. Because our house was a ranch my fairy tale cottage had two stories. I mentally placed a staircase in my bedroom closet and staged regular entrances and exits from “upstairs.” Importantly, unlike our real house, my imaginary cottage would have a fireplace, which of course, was the bureau.
I am embarrassed to say how long I kept this up. So I won’t. (I was nine.)
I have never outgrown my cottage fantasy. I have always wanted a not-too-big home. Nothing excessively showy (although a little sparkle is appreciated) and conversely, nothing too rough like a cabin. Someplace snug, but not cramped. Someplace with charm.
After living in eleven other places, my fairy tale dream came true. But in the true story, no princess bestowed it. Instead, it fell magically in my lap.
Once upon a time a couple in their forties with three teenage sons were approached by the mother of a neighbor. “Please, I want to buy your house so I can live near my daughter,” she said.
The couple felt sympathy for the grandmother and although they had no place else to go, they quickly agreed. The next day, the couple met their fairy god-mother (see: Mary the real estate agent) at a house for sale in the next town. It was white (the woman’s favorite) and had a porch, a barn, two stories, and woods that abutted a forest. When the woman entered the master bedroom she was drawn to a large window that overlooked the backyard. Nearly touching the window was a large lilac bush with a blue jay in it; two of her favorite things. She imagined a writing desk in that very spot.
“This is home,” she said. Her husband had the same idea when he saw how much fun he would have with his leaf blower on three acres. “This is home,” he said. The couple looked at no other house. The fairy godmother said, “It’s meant to be yours.”
Due to the fairy godmother, the sale went through easily despite hurdles that resembled walls and the family moved in. Then the woman held Thanksgiving and Christmas while writing a book and kept writing all the way through New Year’s while existing on cereal and red wine.
So, there you have it. I’m here and have spent the last year writing and not working too much on the house. I worked in the yard enough to get two bouts of poison ivy but that’s for another post.
The original living quarters was a Cape with one and a half stories and three bedrooms under the eaves. The front door has been replaced but the floors are the original chestnut. The children kept tearing holes in their socks requiring the regular swinging of a hammer and nail-setter. This is one of two staircases in the house.
I especially love the post-medieval English pediment details on the underside of the upstairs landing. I’ve painted nothing so far in this space. I haven’t finished listening to what the house wants.
Just upstairs are the twins’ bedrooms. Unlike my childhood dolls, this pair of fifteen year-olds don’t often make their beds.
This is a true-life fairy tale, after all.
What the hell did I do? The cliches run through my head: blaze a trail, back to square one, been there done that, or the obvious: begin at the beginning.
Not this time.
It begins, I think- with breakfast. It begins with a pen and paper and a prayer for a quiet house. To write, this is what I need. I’m not the type of writer who gets the job done in a coffee shop. No, I need silence while I contort my legs beneath me and settle to the task of untwisting my mind so the words can appear on paper.
I also need my husband and three sons out of the house. If I can achieve all of these things at once it will be a sort of miracle.
The job? The untwisting? Imagine me saying this offhandedly: Oh, I’m just writing a book.
Crazy. Even more crazy? I sold our house (that wasn’t exactly for sale) and bought another one. Not just another house, but another house in need of a make-over. This change happened in a string of changes: I closed my sewing business, my oldest started college, and I went to graduate school.
I knew my oldest would grow up and go to college, but I never imagined I would. Because I had a career, not writing but sewing. I designed drapery, duvets, bed-skirts and pillows. I loved it. Then, I left.
Then, I wanted more. It took me a little while, but I discovered that I needed a narrative that had more weight than silk. The transition to full-time writing and teaching wasn’t immediate. I spent six months revisiting my previous enchantments: I took classes in jewelry making, watercolor, and figure drawing. Then I took a creative writing class. Bingo.
By then I’d been blogging here for several years. I called the blog “Your Monday Moment,” for my mom and aunt. They were sharing care-giving of my grandmother. Week-ends were the hardest for them. I live too far away to be any regular help, so I wrote what they thought was funny: my life. I sent them the blog in their email every Monday morning and hoped I was helping. Laughter can do that.
Almost three years ago, my grandmother died. I kept the blog going because I couldn’t stop. What I began as a way to fill a need in someone else was filling a need in me. It’s been a year since I posted. Life morphs but I can’t say goodbye to this blog. So I decided to re-name it.
I’ve spent my life working in houses: mine and other people’s. All twelve that have been home and the couple hundred that my clients owned and I visited- inspire me still. The inspiration doesn’t just come from the buildings, but the people who lived or still live- inside.
When I think about home, I can feel the untwisting- my shoulders relax, I have another sip of tea and dive in, right here, on this page. Because although I am also writing a book about a house I lived in over ten years ago, a house where some bizarre and some beautiful things happened- I am simultaneously pulled to my new old house. I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s new to me. It’s old and expansive. It has stories. It’s my new beginning.
I am going to share those stories with you, here- on Mondays. But first, breakfast.
When my boys were little they used to ask me, “Mom, if you could pick, what superpower would you want?” I always said, “flying” because I knew that they would get it. What little boy didn’t want to fly? I also said “flying” because some of my favorite dreams from childhood involved me tripping near the basement stairs but instead of falling, I floated safely to the bottom. My mother was always in the basement of my dreams, doing what else? Laundry.
What I really wanted to say to my little boys was, “I want a superpower that hasn’t been invented. One that picks up all the toys when I’m sleeping, can predict when one of you kids is about to push the other or get a splinter, a superpower that can remind me to bring all the coupons to the grocery store since I spent an hour and a half cutting them out and organizing the in an envelope by isle.”
I never got those powers. If I didn’t pick up the toys or remember the coupons there was twice as much work to do the next day and it was more expensive. I am not nostalgic for that time. (Is it obvious?)
I continue to develop as a mother (I think of it as a life-long exercise in patience) and would ask for different things now. A week ago I got my chance.
To reduce stress and fit in my jeans, I like to ride my bike. Last Sunday I was on a long bike ride, The Flattest Century in the East, with a friend. At the second rest stop, around mile 50, my friend suggested we sit in the grass and stretch our legs. I grabbed a handful of grapes and sat down. Seconds later I said, “Wendy, I think something just bit me.” I hopped up and we finished the 102 miles, ate dinner together and once I got home I went right to bed.
Two days later enormous welts appeared on the back of my right thigh. The doctor said, “You’ve been bitten, many times, by a spider.” He winced when he said it. He also looked at me funny. When I got home, completely bandaged up and loaded with antibiotics, I pulled my bike shorts out of the laundry basket. There was a hole right where the biggest bite was. I presume my attacker bit me, climbed into my shorts, and attempted to eat the rest of my leg for dinner.
For the last several days I have been going outside in the dark to water my flowers and carrying around a towel to sit on. The spider bites are weeping. I’m wearing shorts rolled up to my hip bone. It’s a look I don’t recommend. After all this, I am waiting for my superpowers to show up. Spiderman was bitten and he got a cool suit and web shooters.
I don’t want practical things anymore. Like Spiderman, I want magic. I want the summer not to turn to fall, I want my boys and I to always be close, I want my parents to be healthy and for anyone with an illness to be cured. I want to remember for myself what I always tell my boys, that we can do anything. I want to laugh out loud with the wonder of being alive and if I happen to do this walking down the street, I want other people to laugh too- not wonder who the crazy woman is. I want people to stop being caught up in things that don’t matter. I could probably be more kind.
After I checked my bike shorts that day, I went in my bedroom, took off my bandages and looked at my leg. Reflected in the mirror was my bum, which was wearing a pair of black lace underwear. I laughed out loud and my laugh went out the window, ricocheted off the house across the street and flew throughout the neighborhood. My underwear looked like a giant spiderweb.
Late yesterday, after a somewhat arduous day of not writing, I opened my email. There was a message from someone I didn’t know. It began:
“I hope this email finds you well. I’m writing with what I hope is exciting news. Your story from the Boston StorySLAM “Fools” (4/7/15) has been selected for the next round of Moth Podcast episodes (this is the one you told about baking cakes).”
This is a story I wrote, a true one from my life. In April I drove an hour to Boston to tell it to a room full of slightly inebriated strangers. I didn’t win the competition that night, but all the stories are recorded and are listened to later by Moth editors.
And they liked mine. “Loved,” actually.
And just like that, all was right with the world. I forgot about my neighbor who recently put in a pool and spent the afternoon mere soaking feet from my writing room having a party with her friends. They were so loud that I didn’t write a word but instead silently fumed and tried to read.
Just like that I forgot how tired I was, forgot that I had to clean the bathrooms, brush the dog, turn off the outside light so the bugs didn’t collect in the nightly cobwebs so I’d have to sweep them down. I forgot about the eleven emails I was already supposed to have sent.
Instead, I got a chill all through my body and turned to my husband Greg and told him the news. And he did that thing he sometimes still does that makes me think how he must have looked when he was ten and his parents told him he was getting a puppy. His eyebrows went up while he smiled and flexed his feet. And I knew right away that I didn’t want to forget that feeling.
So I am writing this note to myself. How to feel when amazing things happen. There is only one rule: to not expect them, ever. Because someday, I will have been a writer for 25 years or so, and get the news that a book of mine made some nice list, or I was requested to do a reading, and I don’t ever want to expect it. I don’t want to say, “Oh- again?” Like it was Trump running for president.
I don’t want to take the truly amazing things for granted. I can forget about annoying neighbors, Lysol disinfectant wipes, and supposedly ‘urgent’ emails.
And for at least an hour, I can dance in my yard in the dark, with the moths.
It’s that time again.
You know it.
That special time of the year when you want to change everything: get a new job, a new haircut, move, and learn to speak decent french.
I don’t even speak indecent french. Although…there was that time I had some minor surgery on my leg and because I had three Valium, apparently spoke coherent, slightly indecent high school french to the surgeon.
After the surgery he said:
“Vous etes bizarre. Me aimer, je ai opere si bien sur votre jambe.”
Which I took for: “You’re stunning. I love operating on your leg.”
Luckily for all my doctors, my house tends to be where I put most of the manic energy. The desire to rearrange rooms and re-paint can lead to unfortunate hours spent on Pinterest when I should be reading Virginia Woolf’s diary for my graduate degree.
Which has lead to my current state of manic affairs: I am a neat freak and recently discovered that to get down and dirty with this writing thing I need a place to make a mess. I don’t like messes. They’re messy. They make me uneasy. They make me walk to the kitchen, eat chocolate chips from the baking jar, and with my mouth full vamp in the mirror as I pull my short blonde hair straight up in an attempt to look like Andy Warhol, but end up looking like David Bowie. You see my problem.
Also, my house is small. There are few options. My first one is a fantasy: Take over the lovely shed in the backyard. This is no problem for the delusional. My husband rolled his eyes at my suggestion, “Where would we put all the stuff?”
I then suggested a dumpster. Because, really- I need a lot of room to spread out. I’ve got notebooks, ten packs of index cards (fancy plot devices), and I need a big ass desk and lamp.
While I’m in there, might as well add a daybed, a rug, some roman shades on the two windows and maybe an electric kettle. If there is any room, an extra chair for a little french woman to come teach me the proper way to say: “No, I am not cooking dinner, this memoir will not write itself.”
Or, something like that.
It’s been a while, I know. As thirty-five years have gone by since my last letter, you might think I had forgotten you. But I didn’t forget, I just got busy.
I was busy growing up. Somewhere between 1979 and 1990 I began to believe that you were just for children. That you were mostly mall laps, a fuzzy red and white outfit and a pom-pom hat on a float in a parade. I came to believe that as an adult, I had other uses for you. Instead of writing you letters and telling you I had been good, I brought you with me and my young children. You went with us on errands in the car, to the beach, the grocery store and to church. When I said, “Spencer, don’t hit Parker!” “Trevor, come here, I need to spray on this sunscreen,” or “Let Spencer push the cart this time,” and “All of you, sit still and look at the pictures in this Bible!” I said that last one in a whisper that sounded like a yell. I finished all of those sentences with “…or Santa won’t come.” I used you, boldly, and at my discretion.
I stopped believing in the real you I think, because I thought I didn’t have to. Their father and I did everything. We earned the money to pay for the gifts, stayed up late at night putting together Bouncy Ball houses, lacrosse nets, and Optimus Prime Transformers. We baked and ate the cookies, sipped the milk (“you” left a note one year saying you were lactose intolerant and asked for Lactaid). One year “you” even went on the roof with a bunch of jingle bells from Michael’s craft store. You thumped and stomped on our old shingles so much I was afraid you would land in the attic. Trevor’s eyes were unblinking as he ran to me from his room. He had the thrill of his 5- year old life. He believed. No magical chubby guy fell down the chimney to help us.
And yet, belief is a powerful thing. Like faith, it’s gotten me through a lot. I realize I had to choose to believe that I could possibly raise three sons coming from a family of women, survive an illness that has killed millions and three of my grandparents, and become the woman I wanted to be. I believed, even if I didn’t know that’s what I was doing.
Yes, this is my Christmas wish list, but the things on it aren’t for me. They are things I want to give to my children. Trevor is in college and the twins are headed to high school soon. I don’t want them to stop believing in you. Because one day in the near future, they will leave their father and I and go out into the world, and it will happen: the inevitable disbelieving. To prepare them, I want to believe that I could pop this letter in the mail and have it land on your desk just as you were reaching for another envelope to open. You could read it and tell right away if I was naughty or nice and send me what I asked for.
My children are not boys anymore. They are nearly men. in their stockings this year will be a beard brush for one, cell phone cases for two others and under the tree, fewer gifts because what they want is expensive. No more Tinker Toys, Legos or Flash Gordon action figures. One of the 14-year olds asked for a leather coat.
If only all of us parents could write you letters and ask for the gifts our children already have, the ones within. If you could, this year- would you look down on all the parents of the world and see how hard we work for our children, how we want them to realize that everything they want is already inside them? That they, not Target hold the secret to their happiness? Instead of Ipad’s, let our children unwrap their inner fire?
While we sleep on Christmas Eve, can you put Kindness in their stockings, Gratitude under the tree, Humility in the water they brush their teeth with, and as a special favor to me as the mother of sons, sew Chivalry onto the labels of their pajama pants?
I want to show my nearly grown boys that they should believe in magic, expect the fantastic, and that goodness can appear anywhere at anytime and not ask for anything in return. Please give them the ability to see the good in others not as something separate, but as an example of our commonality.
I know I want a lot, and I might not get it all.
But Santa, if anyone can make it happen, it’s you.
You did, after all, help me raise them.