Looking for bouillabaise recipes, I pulled out my worn copy of Julia Child the other day, and in the fish soup section found a folded page clipped from the New York Times. It was this: a Molly O'Neill food column from the Sunday magazine section, showing a "winter chowder" of mussels, sea bass, and small red potatoes. At the bottom, there was a note in my mother's handwriting, written with the same red ballpoint she often used for the Sunday crossword: "You can get all these ingredients, so try! Sounds delicious." Of course, she didn't need to add the inflection or additional words, but I heard them quite clearly on this second reading, as well as the first: "You can get all these ingredients (but I can't, and your father probably would turn his nose up anyway), so please try it and tell me how it is."
I looked for the date on the clipping, and saw it was part of the heading: the 24th of December, 2000. Christmas Eve in the first year of the century, the day before the calendar took its fateful turn into 2001, when all our lives would be changed. And I sat back, with the thin smooth paper in my hand, and tried to remember what life felt like back then, a decade ago: before 9/11; before I wrote a book about homosexuality and the church; before Afghanistan or the Iraq War; before Homeland Security; before my mother-in-law, or my mother, or my father-in-law became ill and died; before I started this blog; before I got to know any of my Muslim friends; before I got to know any of you; before menopause; before I ever started to feel old; before we even considered moving to Montreal; before I found out I could deal with a whole lot of things I'd never anticipated. It felt like half my life ago, and I was so stunned by the enormity of what that decade had held that I simply sat there for an unknown amount of time, unable to move, with the paper in my hand that had been sent, I felt, to an entirely different woman, while the world continued to pass by in front of the windows.
But then, today, I decided to dig into my archives and see what I could find about her -- that woman, that other self who seemed so far away. She's always left traces, and I wasn't disappointed: I found a letter written to an older British friend-of-the-family (and fellow gardener) three days before the date of the clipping. (Of course, it was printed out and sent in an airmail envelope.) (The political context becomes clear in the letter, but here's a little more personal background: J., his brother, and his father had traveled to Damascus, Syria that spring but he and I had cancelled a planned trip back there together because of unrest due to the Palestinian Intifada. As it turned out, we never went, and haven't been back to England since then, either, because of family and work concerns, and then the complexities of moving to a new country. A decade later, though, life is changing once again, and we have plans for travel in the future.)
December 21, 2000
The sun is just ducking behind the hills at about 3:15 pm on the shortest day of the year. I imagine it has gone down already in England, and despite my memory of those short hours of daylight I’m finding myself quite nostalgic for your country this season. The election debacle has drained all of us; everyone is a little more out of sorts than usual, if not because of the holidays, then in anticipation of the rancor that will emanate from Washington in 2001 and 2002. Nothing to be done but drink an extra glass of wine and escape into some music and a good book! However, your invitation to visit a chad-free though soggy England is pretty compelling! All we can offer in return is a worry-free roast of beef with the family clan on Christmas Day!
J. and I made a quick trip to Montreal last week to buy “provisions” for the Christmas season. Montreal has not only marvelous French bakeries and European groceries (not to mention restaurants), but a large and varied ethnic population including many Middle Easterners. We’ve discovered a Persian market filled with exotic spices and the largest pistachios I’ve ever seen; a family-owned Syrian grocery with everything from tiny dried okra strung on twine (this is the best, my in-laws assure me – do the British even eat okra? We northerners think of it as a “southern” food and therefore suspect) to beeswax-colored olive oil soap from Aleppo, and Moroccan sardines. Then there is a huge Arabic “super-marché” where you can buy freshly-baked flatbread (we bring it home and freeze it), coffee, olives of every variety, grains and legumes, pastries, pumpkin seeds for Mounir to sit and crack to his heart’s content. We have gotten to like Montreal very much. It is only 3 – 3 ½ hours from us by car, an hour more than Boston, and feels like a world away.
It was a pleasure to be out of the country, actually, if only for a couple of days, and read something else in the papers! We woke there last Tuesday to a blizzard, the first of the season, and a foot of snow on the ground. The hardy Canadians don’t seem to miss a beat; they were all up and about digging out their cars and tramping through the drifts, and J. and I quickly joined them. Montreal is a funny mixture of French culture, ethnicity, and a sense that the New World wilderness of Eskimos and polar bears is just out of sight – which it practically is. One finds excellent baguettes next to shops selling Inuit soapstone carvings and fur slippers; the legacy of the Canadian fur trade is still very much in evidence. J. said it was great to be in a place where people take snow in stride and don’t even complain about it: here we are increasingly infiltrated by “flatlanders” from the dreaded plains of Massachusetts, Connecticut and –horrors—New Jersey. People like my dear husband, born with skis on his feet, have a hard time dealing with those who can’t drive in the snow and are overjoyed by the first robins. No, we are not moving to Glacier Bay anytime soon – but it is nice to have some snow for Christmas.
Everyone here is fine. My mother-in-law seems to have recovered her health and spirits, which is a blessing for all of us. She is definitely more fragile, physically slower and more unsteady, but her current state is a huge improvement over what felt like a downward spiral for most of last year. Mounir continues to amaze all of us with his vigor, humor, and enormous appetite. He has followed the election blow-by-blow and is dismayed; in fact he took to his bed for two days after Bush was finally declared the winner because he was so depressed by the partisan and political Supreme Court; he seemed to take it as a personal affront. Maybe I told you that he has been writing to Clinton regularly for the last year or so; each letter is a small essay composed over a week or two. This has been his main intellectual occupation. As the Clinton presidency winds down, Mounir has turned to art instead. For the last month he has been obsessed with the construction of a multi-page collage that’s a sort of summation and commentary upon Clinton’s finest and worst moments. I think it’s extremely clever and amusing – even though I think he takes scissors to the library and secretly clips their current periodicals. We took them both with us to my parents in central New York State for Thanksgiving and it was good for them to have a change of scene. J. and I stand back in amazement, watching these two entirely different sets of parents not only getting along but seeming to like each other. Maybe they are all play-acting for our sakes, but it seems genuine.
This was a difficult gardening year but, it sounds, not nearly as challenging as yours. We had a very cold spring and early summer. Vegetable seeds came up but the plants just stayed small until the weather suddenly turned scorching hot in July. Everything shot up, flowered, bore fruit all at once, and then the plants expired, exhausted. We had a lot of tomatoes, for example, but all at once whereas usually they start bearing in mid - late July and continue until frost at the end of September. There was fairly even moisture all season, and the perennials did well except for being pretty much spent by mid-August. It was not a good year for roses, but they are always chancy here, and prey to infestations of aphids and Japanese beetles. What a hobby! I should have my head examined.
Music has been a little more satisfying. Our choir has been preparing and performing for the Christmas season; we did our annual Lessons and Carols service the evening of Advent III and will be singing special music at the midnight service on Christmas Eve. I’m continuing to take voice lessons and my singing slowly improves; it’s not a terrific instrument, I’m afraid, but I do enjoy it so much and am lucky to have an excellent teacher. It’s good therapy, and I’m happy to support her opera career…I gave up my piano lessons after being elected to the vestry at church last January, and without the dread of facing my formidable teacher every two weeks I find I don’t play nearly as much, and certainly don’t polish anything. Are you playing that wonderful new piano?
I’m not sure being on vestry is a fair trade at all – have you ever done it? I am learning a lot about my fellows but I can’t say I’m enjoying it – and there are two more years to go. We are having a lot of trouble with our Rector, which is painful and difficult politically within the congregation; and at the same time plans are proceeding for a major building project and capital campaign. Aargh!
J. is much more sensible; he goes skiing! It’s been a good year on the slopes so far and he looks fit and tan. We celebrated his 50th birthday in September with a party of old friends and family that was a feast and very happy occasion for all of us. He didn’t seem to mind the half-century mark a bit, and why should he, he never seems to age in spirit and grows more handsome every year.
Since the Middle East continues to feel off-limits for American tourists, we are planning to come to England this spring, probably in late April or early May. If we can, we hope to stay a little longer than two weeks this time, and we certainly hope to come to Sussex and visit you there if it’s convenient for you. Please let us know what your travel plans are, if any, and we promise to keep you posted as ours develop. We send our very best wishes for a Happy Christmas, and for the New Year – in which we hope to see you either here or there, or both!
with love, Beth