Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving and Relish Trays

My older brother played football in high school so those four years, Thanksgiving dinner was not at my grandmother's house but at ours. There were some things we could count on at our Thanksgivings: all three of my grandparents would be there, we would have cider, a relish tray, and at the end of the meal, my maternal grandmother would make the same announcement, "Pete (my father), you will have to roll me back to Boston tonight". We loved it. We also loved that because our kitchen was so tiny, it was impossible for us to help clean up. So everyone underage got to watch TV with my grandfather or read by the fire until the all clear was rung and dessert was finally laid out with the coffee on a fresh snowy cloth.

At the time, cheese and crackers were not yet fashionable so Mom kept to the tradition of having a "relish tray" for our first course. I'm not sure where the name came from, but a relish tray was really about celery and it wasn't really a tray but an old fashioned  divided dish that was filled on one side with celery stuffed with cream cheese sprinkled with paprika, and on the other side, with black olives. I remember we kids put the olives on our fingertips, which for an odd  reason was allowed. Perhaps because it was irresistible for children and both my grandmothers knew something about children, having both been raised in families with more than 10 siblings each. 

Dad would put the leaf in the dining room table which then took up the entire dining room. We didn't have enough chairs so a bench on the side of the table took care of at least three of us. Mom bought cider from a farm in town that we drank with the turkey and she made all the traditional fixings and vegetables. Dessert was pies - apple, pumpkin, mincemeat. 

Thanksgiving at my house is going to be quiet and small this year. Just one brother, my mother, and my daughter. Last night I called Mom to ask her to bring along her electric knife. We reminisced about Thanksgivings of yore and then she said something unexpected I won't soon forget. Mom asked if I remembered a coat she bought me one fall - moss green tweed with an attached scarf to wear on Thanksgiving day when I was six. "Yes. It itched", I replied. "Well", she said, "I keep seeing you in that coat tonight". Nothing could be sweeter to have with the turkey and all its fixings, the cider, the pies, and that marvelously plain relish tray with the celery and black olives.  I may even pop a few on my fingertips.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Gardener

An old Greek Revival house came into my possession by marriage. Austere, dark, and vacant for over 20 years, it was a place I would never have chosen myself to live as a new bride. I rolled up my sleeves and began helping with the renovations that lasted five years. We tore up and then rebuilt the house room by room, following the mimeographed guidelines I had written to the National Historic Resistry for. The house was in the inner city and we had no intention of staying there - we only wanted to turn it into a money maker and then build a country home and start a family. As a newlywed, I didn't have much time to properly nest or to use the new wedding presents still packed in boxes. As we peeled wallpaper, sanded and painted, I began to see the charms of the place. I was helped along by a large sepia photograph of a little boy in a dress that I found in the basement.
I determined the photo was Mr. DuBois, the man whose house we bought. His son, a physician, took back the mortage so that we could afford the place. I called Dr. DuBois and asked if he wanted the photograph and told him I would ship it to him in thanks for being our bank. He said no, the gold framed photograph of his father belonged to the house. So I hung Mr. DuBois on the dining room wall with the hope that one day I would be able to have at least one dinner party under his gaze and perhaps use the pretty heirloom silver we were given as a wedding gift.
It did not take long to realize that Mr. DuBois was an amateur horticulturalist when he occupied the house. A roll-top desk in a spare bedroom was filled with jars of old seeds and more than a few ancient manuals on plants and their uses. The garden was decrepit but it told me it was designed by someone who knew what they were doing. It was easy to see its bones in the row of boxwood and the snarled rose bushes placed in each corner of the postage stamp backyard. The trellises leaning up against the house had dried vines woven throughout but there was an enchanting archway with a built in bench, still strong and sturdy. Also well-built was a small glass greenhouse filled with ornamental terra cotta pots of all sizes. This garden was loved into existence and it must have been a lovely city oasis.
We completed the renovations and it was time to sell the house so we could build that dream home. I did not leave it reluctantly and was glad to see the work behind us. However, I paused when I removed Mr. DuBois from the dining room wall. I had always planned on taking the young Mr. DuBois with us when we moved. I wanted this elegant reminder of the house and what we had accomplished. But on moving day, I found myself placing the photograph back on its perch. The new owner promised to look after him for me. Mr. DuBois did indeed belong to the house... and to the garden.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

So nice to come home to...


Please forgive me for indulging myself here. We lost our beloved Buddy, our cat, a few days ago. Even though he was 17, it was sudden and we only had about two hours to say goodbye.

When my daughter was small, I, being a single working parent, was advised to get a kitten to keep my child company. I didn't like cats and didn't want one but one day at a farm stand a little runt from a large litter was left alone in a steel cage. I agreed to take him home and instantly became annoyed with the litter box, my chewed fresh cut flowers, and the constant yelping he elicited when my daughter was overzealous.

However, time passed and Buddy was with us through every traumatic event as well as every milestone. He happily posed for pictures with a Christmas bow every year and then a pirate suit on Halloween. I began to see the benefits of having him around; he was cozy and comforting. No matter what happened out there in the world, we came home to Buddy, his eyes glowing from the front window as he waited for us. The people who say cats are aloof never had a sheathed paw reach out and touch their face while they were weeping.

My daughter loved away the fine ears Buddy had by rubbing them too much. The new curled ones gave him character, my neighbor said. A friend looking for my house one day, spotted Buddy with the curled ears inside, and knew she had found the right place. He was not the most handsome feline, always small, but he made up for it with a big personality every day he lived.

We were comforted by his rituals and set the clock by them. In the morning, he scratched at my bedroom door at 6:00 am. I never needed an alarm. He sat quietly on the bathroom rug while I dried my hair and then trotted off to the Wedgewood bowl in the living room, the home of his cat treats. His favorite thing to do was lean up against my daughter's leg as she did her homework every night. He never said a word, ever. But his closeness told us how much he cared. Being the only male in the house, he liked to show off once in a while and performed a series of antics that kept us in hysterics. He was neat and clean, proud and gallant. He was a prince.

Today the veterinarian sent us his paw print with a card. I called to verify that it was really his print. We have his collar with the tinkling bell too and we will frame them together as soon as we can bear it. For now, the house is quiet and still and we really miss him. We look for his tiny face around every corner. He always greeted me when I closed the door and followed at my heels until I was settled after dinner. That was his time to jump up on the couch and wordlessly crowd beside me - his warmth felt through my clothes. He's just not here anymore.

We had no idea he was sick until the day he died and despite his age, we weren't really ready. But we kissed him and thanked him, stroked him through our tears. He really was never any bother even at the end. We will miss our Prince, the man in the fur pajamas. For me, my grief is palpable - it stings. I will especially miss how very nice he was to come home to. Rest in peace, dear little Buddy. Thank you for 17 years of love of laughter.