Read Sylvia's Farm Online

Authors: Sylvia Jorrin

Sylvia's Farm (7 page)

My mother's kitchen on Ocean Avenue in New London, Connecticut and, earlier, on Vauxhall Street in the same town, were very much the opposite of any I've ever created. My mother was not a cook or, at least, not the kind of cook who believes you begin to make a tuna sandwich by catching the fish, and she was certainly never covered with the flour badges I inevitably wear after baking our daily bread. My mother's generation was the first to enjoy canned foods. Foods, that is, that someone else canned, someone else with a name like Del Monte or Ocean Spray. And she certainly enjoyed the advantage of it.

I remember most vividly the kitchen on Ocean Avenue. Gray marbleized Formica on the kitchen table. Black vinyl seats on the chairs. Cream gauze curtains on the windows that shut out neither the summer sunlight nor the dark of winter's evenings. And the pantry where we both spent the evening doing the dishes. I talked and she listened. Everything was in order. There was a place for everything where the everything could always be found. I remember the silence in that room as I rushed into it as a teenager, a whirlwind of joy or despair and everything in between. The silence and security and order. The love in that room was absolute and impenetrable. It
almost had to be pushed aside to walk through it. Nothing, nothing could ever cause even a ripple in that silent, thick air. The sense of security was expressed in that order. The knowledge of love was in my mother. And it filled the room in its entirety.

It was that summer morning, standing in the threshold to my kitchen, when I understood the why of it. Why is it so important to me to have that kitchen in order. Why is it so deeply satisfying when it is. My mother's solution to the problem of keeping flower vases clean was not to put flowers in them so they never got dirty. But she always let me fill them, even as a two-year-old, without a hint of reproach. And now, in January, I start to think of forcing thorn apple branches to bloom. And if I don't, a voice inside of me calls out that I am betraying my nature. And yet it's not the flowers alone, nor the order alone, that is satisfying, but the deep, still, impenetrable love and security that they both together evoked that have meaning for me.

My children, grandson, and grandson's mother arrived last week to celebrate Christmas. I have always delighted in the custom of celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas. It became even more enhanced when I married a man whose culture included a parade on Twelfth Night celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings in Bethlehem. We don't always come together on Twelfth Night, and we don't always finish making our unfinished gifts on Twelfth Night, either, but we believe we do, and we believe we will, and that is our gift to each other in this family, that Christmas isn't one big explosion of giving and one burst of loving one day a year but that our thoughtfulness toward each other and lovingness have no end. There will be a tomorrow, another day to show our love.

Christmas, for us as in many families, is spent with our own particular customs and traditions. When my children were small I had very little money to spare on gifts. But I so wanted to have abundance under the tree that their thrift-shop finery, handmade
sweaters, mittens, and long underwear became the gifts. Socks wrapped in individual pairs. Packages of bubble gum. A handmade doll and an apple green car. I remember spending my last dollar on a red Tonka truck that I couldn't bring myself to leave behind for my then three-year-old son. One week we drank only powdered milk because I bought a strand of golden bells for the tree with the last money I had.

Those very bells are on this year's tree, twenty-odd years after I bought them that Christmas Eve. And the socks reappear as well. This year they manifest as gifts from my daughter to my ex-daughter-in-law, peach colored, wrapped beautifully. And from me to my son, once more, black tube socks from Ames, all in a box that had once served quite a different purpose, and handmade ones as well from Micbet's Shearlings. Mikhael was as thrilled with a bottle of pure vanilla extract to use baking chocolate chip cookies with his Daddy-O as he was with still another John Deere tractor added to his collection. Justina took the prize for starting to shop the earliest, last January. Naomi came in second, beginning in May. Jaochim did a most creative Christmas. I, who have been known to do it all in two days before Christmas, was pleased with myself for beginning last summer at the Walton Fair, and even found a forgotten gift of a wooden shoe form left in the back of the Christmas closet.

It took the family five hours to decorate the tree. The ornaments have been gathered since Justina's first Christmas. Painted tin figures from Mexico, a tiny fuzzy brown bear, painted glass fruit, a miniature red sled. The tree was the last one to be found in the village the day before Christmas. And it fit absolutely perfectly in our Christmas tree corner.

I came home from work at nine
A.M
. on Christmas morning. Gifts were still being wrapped. Everyone helped me with mine. Once or
twice they wrapped one for themselves thinking it was for someone else. It took us a day and a half to open them all again. Flashlights and emory boards, Chinese poetry and Emily Dickinson, Bartholemew's atlas, bowl scrapers, and mittens, coffee from Hawaii via New York and coffee from Fortnum and Mason in London, white chocolate with pistachios and dried cranberries, music from the 1930s. Raggedy Ann books, corduroy shirts, beautiful soaps, a rhinestone pin, silk velvet ribbons. Each gift was thoughtfully chosen and given, each an expression of our interest in, knowledge of, and love for each other.

I try very hard to make the moment that my now-adult kids arrive home a step into a house redolent with security, order and, above all, love. I plan and make schedules in fifteen-minute units. What to dust and what to polish and what to bake and when. Sometimes I succeed more than other times. I am, no doubt, forever doomed, or shall I say privileged to have hay from the barn somewhere on the kitchen floor or a motherless lamb under the stove. But always, I try.

As I sit in the kitchen, early this morning, made peaceful and lovely and orderly by Justina and Naomi, a quiet time before everyone comes down, I understand the profound and deep sameness between this pretty, pretty room, smelling of baking and roasting and cooking, and that beige-walled room with black vinyl chairs, and gray Formica table, smelling of Campbell's soup. The love is absolute. Its assumption impenetrable. This room is the same, this first day of Christmas, as my mother's kitchen so long ago.

JANUARY 14, 1994

T
HE LIGHT
in the sky is changing. The afternoons are brighter. Winter is emphatically here. Rarely complimented, much maligned, winter brings within it light and hope. It barely finishes when it hears us say, oh, the dark days of winter. It sends not one extra blast of cold down our chimneys for our misunderstanding. It simply continues, oblivious. It is autumn whose brilliance and fleshy colors delude us into thinking winter's days are dark. Autumn, with its gleaming blue and deep purple skies. Its evenings of opal or hyacinth clouds bordered by russet and gold hills; its mornings, with shining leaves, brilliant in the sunlight. And slowly, slowly, the night grows long and the days short. Darkness thick, sharp, intense, and deep. We watch the brilliant stars. The intensity of color and light has blinded us, enchanted us, and delighted us. And as each day progresses, each one shorter than the one before, we regret the falling of the leaves and the approach of winter's darkness. But it is the day after the first day of winter that brings a half a minute of more light and that gradually leads us in slow increments toward summer.

This winter, each day seems as cold as or colder than the one before. My friend calls to ask, “Have you frozen to death yet?” The water in the house freezes from time to time. Human error (forgetting to leave the water running when it's windy), false economy, my reluctance to run up the electric bill, and not quite being prepared all contribute. I've learned how many blankets and comforters it takes to sleep warmly if I've not the time to stoke the French
ceramic stove in my room, and the little dogwood-painted thermometer reads twenty degrees on the cold wall.

I can't remember the principles of heat and cold from high school physics. It would be helpful to understand how heat moves, aside from rising. And is it preferable to put the down comforter as the bottom layer or the top layer on a pile of blankets? Some people like warm climates, consistent, predictable, even temperatures. Others need the changes, the variables of nature. Some move south after living here most of their lives, and some of those return. But those of us who do live here are consistent in our argument that our lengthy mud season, that never-never land between winter and spring, is the most disheartening. That is the time to be prepared for, to arrange special moments of sociability or entertainments of the mind.

There is wisdom in the seed catalog company's decision to send their bright colors into our consciousness a few days after Christmas. I've saved them for the rare times in front of the fireplace in the late afternoon. Shepherd's was especially wise, by design or necessity, to place their bright-colored flowers on a white background on the cover of their catalog. Images of summer juxtaposed on winter's snow. I imagine wine and dark pink roses purchased from Peggy Bolton in Walton planted around my carriage house, and call to order Madam Isaac Perrier, a classically scented rose in dark magenta. A moment for dreams.

When I was a child I spent most of my winter confined to bed and rarely attended school between Thanksgiving and sometime after Valentine's Day. I was passed from one grade to the next because of a combination of a formidable mother and high scores on final exams. I made up very strict rules about how to fill the time, realizing at the age of eight that boredom, not illness, could be the death of me. My aunt Maime or was it my aunt Katy, was cleaning out an attic one day and came across a set of
The Book of Knowledge
, printed around
1917. They arrived at my house, and what a day it was! In those twelve volumes was all that a civilized child was thought to need to know. How locomotives worked and the Laplanders lived and how to read French and make candle lanterns and who Tolstoy was and what his house looked like. They afforded me an insight into worlds that by the time I read about them two world wars and the ubiquitousness of television had altered irrevocably, but what a glorious world. And so winter became permanently fixed in my mind as a time for creativity and imagination. In January, the spirit of creativity has won and I wanted to be out in it, like the children sledding down the hill beneath my bedroom window I used to watch with envy and longing; and indoors reading a history of mathematics or an English mystery from the thirties, eating fudge in front of the fire, or upstairs in my yellow studio, designing quilted drapes for my bedroom. So many wonderful things to think about, so many wonderful things to make and do.

I found a set of that
Book of Knowledge
, a little more updated, at Ken Kelso's. The French lessons were the same, as were the literature, poetry, and drawings, but the skirts no longer swept the floor in the illustrations for science projects, and the Laplanders were gone. I bought the set for five dollars and from time to time take a volume down. Are children today expected to know as much of the world and the things that are in it as those children of 1917 or even 1932?

By spring that feeling of limitless creativity and intellectual boundlessness has left me. The gardens and the yards and the fencing and the demands of the season that draw me outside are so engaging and involving that I forget, and in doing so, in part forget who I am. The sheep have taught me hard lessons about truth. What is the truth of something? Am I loath to go to the barn in the cold winter's night to tend to them or simply loath to carry sloppy buckets of water
down the stairs into the barn? I am loath to carry the water, of course; therefore, the sheep are safe and shall stay, and all I need to do is solve the water problem. Is it the winter I dread, or the problems that come with it? Solve the problems or at least manage them better and then look at the winter in a fairer light.

This morning the sky is crystal clear and blue. The snow gleams. The sun is that much higher in the sky than it was yesterday. The day that much brighter. All things carry within them the seeds of hope and the despair of winter in varying degrees, according to our circumstances. But in my heart today is hope.

TOMATO SOUP

A
N INCREDIBLE
soup was made today. In France, when you see the words
bonne femme
, a phrase that defies translation in American and English cookbooks but is often written as “good wife,” it means that potatoes will be prominent in the dish. And so this soup has earned the designation of
bonne femme
affixed to
tomate
.

It began with the blue enamel wood stove which has an opening on its top to accommodate the large Swedish copper pot used for soups. Into it went butter, a lump the size of a pigeon's egg, and three or four onions, cut quite finely. They spent some time simmering on the stove until barely melted and then were joined by coarsely cut up chunks and diced peeled red-skinned potatoes, two store-bought chicken bouillon cubes, about four cloves of garlic, two bay leaves, some basil, and the entire contents of a one quart bag of tomato sauce made and frozen last fall for just such a day as this.

It simmered on the stove, filling the kitchen with its memories of both summer's joys and winter's comforts. Every time I came in from the barn, the smell rising from that pot was deeper and richer. Lunch. Maybe.

Life on the farm has been heading on a reckless, out-of-control course that happens only in the winter but not until February has come. Large crises blurred the edges of small details, and the barn is beginning to show the signs. Little things like a glove dropped in the press of ewes who were being given water just a little bit later than usual and whose anxious shuffling almost knocked me down, a
bottle of corn syrup placed precariously in the dark while climbing down the ladder being knocked over and broken. A young ewe lying in a favored corner with her lambs nursing, observed but not noted. An old ewe dropping a lamb in the windiest spot in the barn after breaking through a gate in an attempt to obtain privacy. The lamb being rushed to the house and soaked in the warm-water-filled sink, tube-fed egg yolk mixed with corn syrup and milk replacer, wrapped in a sweatshirt with a plastic tonic water bottle used as a hot-water bottle and having its temperature taken every ten minutes until it rose from 93 degrees to the normal 103 degrees. The ewe, in the meantime, dropped a second lamb in the very dry, very protected, crowded, comfortable corner of the barn from which she so recently escaped in order to drop the first lamb.

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