These days

Our first island day begins with blueberry muffins. The children, who chivvied my mother out of bed at six, helped mix them and are eager for me to try one from each batch. I’m late to come downstairs, sleeping until seven and then polishing off a quick work assignment while still abed, and they can’t wait any longer so I pull on yesterday’s clothes and go down unwashed, hair ahoo, for muffins and coffee and scrambled eggs. The sourdough starter we brought with us from Portland has bubbled out of its mason jar overnight, so I mix up the sponge and set it to rise.

After a shower, it’s off to town for the farmers’ market, origamied into the back of the Jetta between the car seats while my father drives so we don’t have to take a second vehicle. The children eat croissants and whole cucumbers and choose jam and flowers and fresh pasta. We play at the tiny playground beside the gazebo in Sunken Park before we have to go home for more food and a rest.

While Jolyon finally takes his nap (not in his bed, not in my bed, but on a stack of quilts on the floor in the closet), Ada plays with the dogs and trails her grandparents as they hang up the swings. I bring my knitting outside and proctor the dogs’ rumpus down at the wallow that was meant to be a pond but never quite filled. It’s a big deer print of shallow water in the woods, with real deer prints all over the muddy isthmus between the pools.

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Ada joins me to watch the dogs run and splash. The sun is strong and we make for the shade of the rising ground beyond the wallow. I’m barefoot and I follow gingerly, avoiding the thistles, the trailing blackberry, and then the baked ridges where the interstices of dog toes have printed the clay and dried hard and sharp.

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A tiny flash of movement on the ground I’m watching so warily—it’s a tree frog and I’m calling to my girl with such urgency that I can see she doesn’t know whether there’s wonder or trouble. She hops after the tiny frog and her quick fingers dart to encircle him. It’s her first time catching one and she’s deft but gentle, aware that he’s fragile and as keenly alive as she is.

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The dogs are stampeding around the east wallow so she releases him at the edge of the western pool, which is full of his tadpole cousins, some already sprouting hind legs. She is fizzing with excitement—we both are—and suddenly there’s another tiny froglet leaping just ahead of her sandals. They’re sheltering in the deep cracks in the clay, down where the mud is still damp and cool, and we marvel at their wee black eyes and pert snouts and extraordinary tiny toes.

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We wash the muddy dogs. I manage two more rows on my lace shawl before I hear wailing from the closet upstairs. I carry my sweaty, dozy boy down to view the installment of the see-saw, newly improved with handles.

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We play outside. We go for a walk down the hill and back again, sampling salmonberries, thimbleberries, trailing blackberries and blackcaps. I give a lecture on nettle identification. (The dog doesn’t listen and suffers for it.) These are the bones of an education for island childhood. There are all kinds of delights if you know where to look, and one or two things not to touch.

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Home again, we make salad and cook the pasta. Dad mixes gin and tonics. The kids play with the napkin holders carved in the shapes of African animals. And then it’s bedtime. We read Paul Bunyan and Horton Hatches an Egg. We sing “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir” and “The Marvelous Toy.” We kiss the grandparents and try to wind down for the night.

The yawning windows admit the purling gyre of thrush song, the insistence of robins, and the occasional breath of cooler air wafting upslope through the trees. The children are a welter of damp curls and sticky limbs, still too hot and full of the day for sleep. The light lasts here at midsummer; not as it does in the simmer dim of Shetland or the neverdark of the highest latitudes, but longer than my little ones’ internal clocks can compass.

I lie down with them in turn on their twin mattresses, lightly stroke my girl’s bare arms in the way she likes. She murmurs and nuzzles and then collides with sleep, plunges abruptly into snoring, slobbering slumber. My boy is wide awake, owl eyed in the cool blue light. He makes room for me in his bed. We lie face to face and I close my eyes, setting a good example.

He whispers things into his memory bank: shards of song and science, snippets of myth and hypothesis. Some spiders live in spider webs and other spiders live in the dirt. Once I saw a tiny spider web and it had a black spider. His body was black becept his feet was dark brown. Spiders don’t have a tail. A frog doesn’t have a bottom, so how does he pee?

I peek and he is staring out the window at the sky. The divided lights and madrona branches are reflected in his wide pupils. I remember this. He has slipped backward into my own childhood and we are one three-year-old, awake long after bedtime and watching the cast of the summer evening in the woods on a little island surrounded by the sea. Quarters of hours sift by and still he’s whispering. Tickle, fickle, pickle. Dog and frog rhyme. I’m a big girl and I can help him dig a lot of clams fast so we can hurry up and go to Buck’s Harbor. Every set of utterances is stoppered with his thumb.

An hour has passed when he surrenders, drifting gently into stillness and quiet. Mt. Baker is beginning to slough the abalone colors from its flanks and the sea and sky are about to meld in the queer precise evenness of twilight. I put the heavy blue Dutch ovens in to bake the sourdough loaves for tomorrow, sit in the gathering dark in the living room and watch the lighthouses wink on across the strait. All is not really well, not with all the trouble in the world and the claws of cancer once more reaching for people I love. Perhaps this summer idyll is my way to push back against the helplessness. There’s so much I can’t do to keep my folk and other people’s equally cherished folk safe. But I can give my little ones this remarkable place, these ordinary blessed days of frogs and thimbleberries and homemade bread and the summer sea. And maybe that’s enough for right now.

Midsummer’s Day


 “Now I’m three! But my bellybutton is FOUR.” – Jolyon, who isn’t exactly wrong

(Psst, Mom (thanks for the birthday banner!) and Dad (Happy Father’s Day!) — that Baby Jolly picture in the Instagram feed is the beginning of a slideshow if you click through.)



Here’s what I never set out to be: domestic. Home Ec had been almost completely phased out in my public school; we had Wood Shop instead. My dad was a woodworker and I’d spent many happy hours in his shop, knocking together small projects like tool boxes to hold brushes, hoofpicks, and other equestrian necessities. I thought Wood Shop would be swell. It wasn’t. There was this premise that the class would operate as a student-run business, from product development to sales and marketing. We made camera-shaped picture frames for Father’s Day, against my arguments in favor of something useful, like birdhouses. Guess which half of the class was assigned to the technology side of the “company”? Guess who got to be in charge of ideas for decoration and marketing? Yeah. Even at twelve, I sniffed the sexism. So they also let a couple of us females use the Dremel tool to inscribe “You are a #1 dad!” on all the frames and then color in the letters with permanent markers. We were not encouraged in the direction of the band saw or the drill press. It’s possible I’m just still sore because my application to be VP of Engineering was rejected in favor of a less competent boy’s, but I swear that class deepened my resolve to wave a flag for equal rights and power tools for women. And like most adolescents I was living in a black-and-white world, so I thought it made my feminism stronger to reject the traditional female domains entirely.

One of the things I didn’t bother to learn was cookery. My parents put home-cooked food on the table every night, but they did it out of devotion to raising healthy children and not really for the joy of cooking. The dinner menu was balanced and tasty—apart from Roman Beans and Rice, which contained the twin evils of cooked carrots and cooked green pepper, and was thus palatable only with liberal applications of cheddar cheese—but it was only about five standard items deep, with an occasional excursion into a stupendous 1950’s casserole book for cheese soufflé or beef stroganoff. And I didn’t attend very closely to what went on in the kitchen, apart from helping to chop carrots for the salad and admiring my father’s precision in judging the exact moment when the pancakes were ready to flip. Still seeking vengeance for seventh-grade Wood Shop, I took summer jobs working construction instead of waitressing, so I didn’t stray into the orbit of any of the fancier restaurants in our little town. (Meanwhile, my brother learned to bake a mean loaf of bread in a local café.) It wasn’t until my vegan period in college that I got interested in preparing food; when I was home for summer vacations and demanding special treatment at meal times, it seemed only fair to pitch in with new recipes and to learn to cook them myself. And it turned out to be thoroughly enjoyable. I got confident and even creative.

When my future husband and I struck up together and moved to New York City, we regularly cooked together. (This seemed to be a rarity in Manhattan; takeout is ubiquitous and, at the time, well-stocked grocery stores were usually several subway lines away. Most young people we knew seemed to be using their ovens for shoe storage.) After we married and moved to Portland, we joined a CSA. My husband was soon too busy with his start-up to spend time cooking and would have been happy to subsist on cereal and yogurt, but I had standards, and keeping up with boxes of farm produce encouraged me to experiment in the kitchen. The first solid food our baby daughter swallowed was a roasted brussels sprout from the farm. She was thrilled to eat whatever we ate, and happy enough to sit on the kitchen floor stacking and unstacking plastic containers or building towers of vitamin bottles, so the cookery fizzed on for awhile.

I think it was the second child that did in my enjoyment of the kitchen. With two kids and three jobs between us, there isn’t often time for anything more elaborate than pasta with fresh greens, veggie sausage, and parmigiano. (Good cheese is always the saving grace.) I find I’ve sunk into preparing the same handful of one-dish meals. Some days I seem to be mother birding it, spending every moment fetching more food for one hungry mouth or the other, so I don’t even want to look at another comestible when dinner rolls around. We supplement with the same two takeout orders at the same two restaurants. We go to the child-friendly brew pub just up the street where we toggle between the same two options, time after time. Boring! I’m bored! I want food to be fun again!

Part of my aim for our kitchen remodel was to create a space I’d want to be in. I talked about it at a practical level—about opening up the space so we wouldn’t all pile on top of each other around the kitchen island during breakfast/lunch prep or trip over the dog as we clambered across the open dishwasher door. But what I was privately hoping was to rekindle my enthusiasm for cooking. It’s working, I think. Slowly, but perceptibly. I’m using our embarrassingly deluxe oven to bake bread every week. This afternoon the spark was strong enough that when I got the daily “What should we do for dinner?” text from my husband (one of us always sends it, and it’s probably our most passive-aggressive communication because what it actually means is “I hope you’ve got this, because I don’t want to be in charge”), I wrote back that I thought I could conjure a carrot soup. I knew we had too many carrots in the fridge and a loaf of sourdough in the freezer and I figured I could invent the rest with whatever was lying around.

Whenever I’m in this mode, I reach for Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. That book is my kitchen bible. I can start with a vague idea like carrot soup, look up the main ingredient, and see how Deborah would bring it off. Then I make substitutions as necessary. In this case she plumped for a red bell pepper. I had orange and yellow slices totaling about half a pepper. (Full disclosure: I filched most of them right out of the kids’ unfinished lunch bags. I believe I actually shouted to Ada, who was snacking on her remnants, “Don’t eat that pepper! I need it for the soup! You can have the radishes.”) Deborah said flat-leaf parsley and dill. I didn’t have either, but I did find a healthy rogue cilantro in the winter container garden and I plucked a few precious leaves from our baby sorrel plants in the new kitchen garden. Ada reckoned maybe ginger would be a good addition, and I reckoned she was a pre-K wizard genius. Verdict? Best soup I’ve made in ages. Dancing, sparkling, sumer-is-icumen-in flavors.

Spring Carrot Soup

8 large carrots, thinly sliced

1 large yellow onion, diced

1/2 (use a whole one if you’ve got it) orange or yellow bell pepper, cut in 1″ chunks

2 Tbsps white rice

1 tsp salt

Sauté these in 2 Tbsps butter, then cover and cook on medium heat for 10 minutes, until onion is soft. Then add:

a few grinds of freshly milled pepper

2 tsps sorrel, chopped

2 tsps cilantro, chopped

1 tsp fresh ginger, minced

zest and juice of a large orange

4 c vegetable stock

2 c water

Bring the soup to a boil, then turn the heat down low and simmer about 25 minutes, until the rice is cooked. Cool for a few minutes and then purée with an immersion blender (or, as we call it in my house, a soup squizzer). Garnish with a dollop of yogurt if you like.

We added a side of roasted asparagus and the homemade sourdough. Delicious. And even if I serve pesto pasta three times later this week, it feels like the mojo is back.