A Place I Loved

My cousin Dorothy recently sent me a photo of a pastel painting by our cousin Annie Heller. It shows the back of what was once our family cottage—Thorpe View—in Walberswick, Suffolk, UK.

The painting made Dorothy cry. The painting made me cry. It is so lyrical and emotional in its rendition of a beloved dwelling. The pigs lived right next door over the stone wall. On rainy days, the smell of pig manure would permeate the air. We got used to it. Thought of it as part of the aromatic atmosphere. Okay, maybe we lit out on our bicycles on “those” days, farther away from the pigs, to catch tadpoles in the marshes. We took in a different earthy smell, one with squishy grass—lots of it—and if the sun chose to come out, that grass would light up, a bright Kelly green.

At Thorpe View, when the weather called for it, which it often did, there would be a constant coal fire burning in the fireplace. When you looked out the living room windows, you could see who was coming and going in the village, there being only one main street. I liked to be in that room and hear the horses clop by, and glance out to see who was on top.

At Thorpe View there was a long rectangular wooden table in the living room where we ate meals and played games. It had all sorts of little nicks and notches in it, which gave it character. I liked to feel the grooves with the tips of my fingers, imagining how they got there.

When you went out the door of the cottage, you would find yourself exactly in the place my cousin Annie painted.

Here is her pastel painting of Thorpe View:

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Family Recipes Hit the Archives

Okay, so we’ve been vacationing with sixteen family members at the lake for a few days now, and let me tell you, we are eating very well. We are eating so well, I have chosen to pick out a few of our favorites and share them with you. (It is the job of each couple, young and old, to prepare a meal, serve it, and wash up.)

Joe and Lexi’s chicken and vegetables (voted most healthy)

  • Fresh veggies (green beans, red peppers, onions, mushrooms, and asparagus) marinated in Italian dressing
  • Skinless and boneless chicken marinated in garlic, oregano, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper

All of the veggies should be grilled (the asparagus takes longer than the other veggies, but all the veggies should be grilled until cooked through but sill crisp)

The chicken should be slightly browned on both sides, but still juicy when cut with a knife

Brynn and Scott’s lasagna (the best I’ve ever had; Brynn’s family recipe)

  • 1 package of lasagna noodles cooked in lots of water until softened but not mushy
  • 16 oz ricotta cheese with an egg whipped into it
  • 1 onion and 1 red pepper cooked with 1 pound of Italian sausage (Brynn used mild, but said she often uses spicy)
  • Good-quality marinara sauce (either homemade or from a 16 oz jar)
  • 1 pound grated mozzarella (might use just half a package)
  • Spices: oregano, thyme, basil, parsley (fresh if at all possible, chopped and set aside; if using dried, about 2 tablespoons of each)

The idea, Brynn said, is for the lasagna not to get too watery, so when you layer all the ingredients into the baking pan, starting with the noodles, you DON’T add much sauce at a time. Save most of the spices for the second-to-top layer, with the top layer being the mozzarella spread thickly and liberally.

Bake for one hour at 350°

Lynn and Paul’s blueberry crisp pie (donated generously by Lynn’s copyeditor when she knew Lynn was struggling with key lime)

Crust ingredients:

  • 1 1/4 cups of fine graham cracker crumbs
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 6 tablespoons butter

Mix crumbs and sugar. Melt butter and mix in. Press crumb mixture in 9″ pie pan (I use
deep-dish). Bake at 375 for 6 to 9 minutes, until the edges are just starting to brown.
Cool. (I sometimes make the crust the day before and put it in the refrigerator.)

When ready to make pie, preheat oven to 375.

Filling ingredients:

  • approx. 5 cups blueberries (deep-dish pie pan can hold a bit more)
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 8 ounces sour cream (reduced-fat is fine)

Put blueberries in cooled shell. Combine brown sugar, flour, vanilla, and sour cream;
spread over blueberries. (It will melt into them when you bake it.)

Topping ingredients:

  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 1/3 cup butter

Combine oats, brown sugar, and flour. Using a pastry blender (or your fingers!), cut in
the butter until mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle topping over fruit. Bake until topping is
golden brown and the blueberry mixture has set (about 50 minutes; check with
toothpick). If the topping begins to get brown before the filling has set, cover the top with
foil and continue baking.

Put some good ice cream on top and eat!

Meeting the Carvers

Last night I met the Carvers—Raymond and Maryanne—in a dream. She was tall and slim with close-cropped hair. There was a “divide” between us, which I was trying to bridge. Raymond was standing next to her leaning against a car, his arms crossed across his chest. He was wearing a soft plaid flannel shirt and glasses. He seemed approachable in a distant sort of way. I was trying to figure out how to “get close” to Maryanne, or at least make a beginning so maybe that could happen.

Maryanne abruptly left the no-happening scene and disappeared. I took off after her trying to find her. A little while later, I saw her across the street, holding up a fluffy dead cat by the neck. I could tell by her determined gait that she was VERY upset about the cat and knew what she was going to do with it.

I imagined her thinking MURDERER.

“Maryanne,” I called across the road, “I am SO sorry. What happened?” She did not look my way, but continued on her own sacred path.

I stood there for a second wondering what to do.

I Can’t Breathe

A friend up here in the Northwoods slipped me a copy of The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. I was in her bathroom and saw it on the back of the toilet. My father used to do that—read in the bathroom—but I never have.

Some days later, this friend loaned me her book. It is, as the cover says, The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.

For reference, my friend said, “It’s very depressing.”

Walter Cronkite said, “This is can’t-put-it-down history,” which is also on the cover.

Having finished the book last night, I feel authorized to disagree with Walter Cronkite. Like a husband who experiences very real pain in his abdomen when his wife is in labor, so in reading the very personal stories of people breathing in dust for five years, I experienced very real trouble breathing in the here and now. Consequently, I put the book down many times in order to go outside, take my present bearings, and breathe in the fresh air.

It was the individual stories of people and families recounted in the book that got to me. Egan lays out where they came from and why they chose No-Man’s-Land to settle in, then takes the reader through their personal experiences during the Dust Bowl. We get to know what motivates each person so that we come to understand why the farmer, the doctor, the school teacher did not get out, but stayed to endure unbelievable hardship, accepting all of its consequences.

Those consequences led to ruined lungs, thriving lives replaced by barebones existence, loss of livelihoods and land, and for many, death.

In the end, farmers stayed put even as foreclosure pounded at their doors. As one resigned farmer wrote in his diary on December 12, 1936:

“Well, there is not a great deal to report. Winter, in Inavale, is just staying, just living. But I don’t look for or expect anything going on any more.”

I am thankful to be here in the Northwoods with a view of the lake peeking through the trees, breathing clean air, fresh and scented with pine.

Are We Ready?

No!

Paul removed a single rotted board on the cabin’s deck, and then, as with a Russian doll, removed one layer after another until in the end there was nothing but air! Every board was rotted through, although not all of them appeared so to the naked eye.

It all started with a discussion about the screened-in porch.

I said, “I think we could use some new screens, don’t you?” We could see quite a few holes where mosquitoes and such were coming through.

“I don’t know. Maybe,” Paul said.

After a rash of bites covered our necks, arms, and feet, we reassessed the urgency of the situation.

Without any more talk, Paul fetched new rolls of screen, tore out the old, removed and replaced rotted boards, and fitted “the windows” with new screens.

So that you don’t think I’m lazy, I will tell you I painted the room.

A door from the porch leads to the deck. We walk out on the deck to hang our bird feeders, to replace birdseed, and to refill the hummingbird feeder with sugared water.

Anyway, when we were almost done with the porch, we noticed the shabby shape of the deck.

And thus began the board removal, which went on until there was nothing left to stand on. If you opened the porch door and stepped out, you would fall twelve feet down onto a concrete slab. Ouch!

Where are we now? There’s a new framework. Friends arrive today for a three-day stay. They’ll just have to take the cabin as it is. I imagine that when Paul talks to them about his labors—how this needs 2x4s, that needs 4x4s, this 2x6s and that ¾ rounds—they will have a better idea what he’s talking about than I do. The way my mind works, I think in terms of Russian dolls.

My Very First Pie

Soon friends and family will be here with us at the lake. I figure it’s time to expand from beer, brats, and fish fry to other menus worthy of a woman who thinks of herself as a good cook. Except for the art of dessert, that is. My sister Randi is the dessert queen of my family of origin. And when one sibling has taken hold with such surety in one subject area, my tendency has been to step aside.

So, until a few days ago, I was a cook of only two desserts: one, my mother’s strawberry shortcake, and two, Randi’s blueberry tart.

But during January, or February—anyway, one of those dull winter months—Paul and I had a dinner party. I slaved away in the kitchen and produced a credible meal, but I did not make dessert. The standard inquiry, “Can I bring anything?” was met with “Sure. How about dessert?”

The dessert this woman-friend brought eclipsed my meal. It was key lime pie, and it was the best key lime pie I have ever tasted in my life.

With friends and family coming, I thought it was time to practice a new dessert. Nudge Paul. He e-mails his professor friend. The friend’s wife sends her recipe along. We print it out. At the top of the sheet it says add 2 tbls finely chopped almonds to the flour.

I’ve never made a piecrust, so I’m not quite sure what to do. Regular flour, or graham cracker crust? Must be regular. I search through Paul’s mom’s index box of recipes and find a card that reads Oil Pastry. I’ll try that! The only oil in the cabin is olive oil, so I use that.

Here’s what Ruth wrote:

2 c. flour
1 ½ t. salt
½ c. salad oil (try less)
5 tbsp. cold water
Mix water + oil
Add to flour
Roll between wax paper

I set to work to make this pastry. One hour later (or so it seemed) it’s still just dry crumbs, nothing coming together that you could possibly roll flat. Finally, I am so disgusted with my efforts, I crunch the mess into the wax paper and throw the whole damn thing in the garbage.

A while later my daughter, Cora, calls. I say accusatorily, “I’ve seen you make pie crust with oil.”

“Yes, Mom,” she says. You’re making a pie?”

“What kind of oil did you use?”

“Olive oil.”

“You’re kidding!”

“Be patient, Mom. It takes patience to get the hang of it.”

Humph.

As soon as I get off the phone, I plunge into the garbage, find the large wad of wax paper containing my flour-nut crumbs, and begin again.

Watching a movie later that night, Paul and I dig in. “Not bad,” Paul says. I make a face. “No, really,” he quickly adds. “It’s good. Very good.”