Monday, May 31, 2010

Of memorials and solitary work

For the past couple of years there's been an informal memorial up at Guana Reserve, almost at the northernmost point of the beach. I've written about The Monument before. It's been called "Rodney's memorial", not for my husband Rodney, but for a man we used to call "Segway guy", an older man with long grey ponytail and a long, pointed beard, riding his Segway on the beach, looking like a biker with a really unexpected ride. When we finally talked to him we all laughed: not only was his name Rodney, too, but he is married to a woman named Angie. We haven't seen him in a few months but didn't worry because we know cold weather keeps him off the beach. But there may be another reason we haven't seen him: the memorial has been taken down. It's just one of those things, but it's kind of sad. It was, as I've said, a form of organic, living art. More than that, it was a form of dialogue, a discussion, a conversation without words. We'll all miss it. It's been gone for several weeks now.

Its voice was present this Memorial Day weekend, though. Sally, a retriever mix who barks her head off at Rodney (my Rodney) every weekend and of whom we're very fond, was there Sunday. This is their beach spot. Sally's person had marked the spot with a small American flag. It was a solitary marker, standing in the stead of that larger reminder, but it spoke as loudly.

I was thankful for solitary work being done for its own sake and for solitary work becoming less less so, as in this place. It used to be that writing a memoir or recollection, an autobiographical sketch or short story intended for any publisher who might be willing to accept it was lonely work, indeed. But here, where my voice is my own, the work is lightened by other writers, reading, calling out encouragement from their distances, implying interest by their very continued reading.
The water sparkled with diamond lights, the spilling oil kept its distance. Guana's other familiars like Sally and her person, and our friends Brian and Kathy, shared greetings and understanding, spoken and silent. The day did not end before those distant called greetings were heard: Michelle H., from the far north; Miss Jo from our own backyard, almost. And finally Mac, who started and ended the day with joy. Sleep well, everyone.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The best nest, with no dreams of darkness

Remember when I told you about the Wren Family, a couple of weeks ago? It was part of this post and included a description of the location of Chez Wren. Wrens are opportunistic nesters, known for building nests in boots you leave on the back porch or wheelbarrows left untended for more than 10 minutes or so. This particular family has once again built a nest in a sandblaster, in a very high-traffic area of our garage. And since I told you about the nest, the eggs have hatched and four perfect tiny wrens are waiting for their parents to deliver supper. In this photo you can see a hint of what Rodney tells me is more properly called a sandblasting cabinet, in which the nest has been built. The black material around the nest is where you would put your right hand if you were using the machine. Well, it's where you'd put your right hand if you were a PERSON using the machine. Clearly the Wren Children are using the machine in avian fashion.

Beginning a long weekend, Rod and I went to the beach. I took pictures and thought about people just like me along the Gulf Coast, who love a stretch of beach or brackish wetland as fiercely as I do Guana and are now almost certainly unable to think of anything but approaching darkness in the form of a black plague of oil. If I am honest with you and with myself, I have to admit to pushing away thoughts of the coming disaster. I can hardly bear to think of it. It is too horrible, too enormous, too inevitable now. My heart breaks for those people and for us, for we are all sure to feel the evil touch of this horror. But I'll leave the writing about this to better pens than my own. I am not its equal, and I know it.

Still, even in the face of the unimaginable, life does go on. Wonder of wonders, we've been given a window into its magic: look!
You can see the four small birds, snuggled into their bit of unlikely real estate, sleepily waiting for their parents to bring food. Their tiny feathers are still sprouting, their tiny wings just being wiggled, though it will only be a matter of days now before they are fledged and cheerily calling to one another as they fly between the trees and drink from the little fountain on the back porch. We had a bad moment as we set up to take a quick photo with as little upset as possible to Chez Wren. The babies were perfectly still, almost too still. Rod touched the cabinet gently, checking for signs of life and in that instant all the beaks opened widely for incoming food. How to Reach Adulthood Without Being Eaten, by Our Baby Wrens: perfect, still silence while your parents are away from the nest, balanced by immediate readiness for food when your parents return. When the movement they felt proved not to be a parent and a meal, they returned to stillness in a heartbeat and we stepped away, leaving them to wait.

Photos courtesy of Rodney Christensen

Thursday, May 27, 2010

St. Augustine sounds like a very cool place, Opus 2

I sat around a table this evening, celebrating a big new change for a work friend, and found myself talking about "St. Augustine sounds like a pretty cool place" to an interested audience. Tyrone, typically astute, said, "I don't think I've ever lived any one place long enough to understand that," and there it was. It's the living in one place, the putting down of roots, and the time invested in allowing those roots to intermingle and become inseparable...that's a key part of the coolness factor. There are other factors, hard to pin down, but constancy is part of the magic.

Here's another glimpse.

Long ago, there were only a few doctors, really, in St. Augustine. There was Dr. Norris, who delivered, as far as I can tell, just about every baby in town until we had more docs and for a wonderful moment, a real midwife. (I'll tell you more about this if you ask me.) And there was Dr. Langston, who knew everybody and again, as nearly as I can tell, was the guy people went to when they needed something to make them sleep or lose weight or calm down or whatever. And there was Dr. Devito, and here again, we are relying on my sketchy memory but I think he might have been the only cardiologist in St. Augustine. For a LONG time. He was married to Catherine, and the father of Jimmy. There might be more familial history but I only need to tell you about Catherine, who sang in the Cathedral choir, and Jimmy, who's connected to me through Big Pineapple Music (although he probably doesn't know me at all).

Catherine Devito Dixon is the only person I've known personally who had what's commonly called "perfect pitch". You could ask her for an A, the note to which orchestras typically tune, and she could open her mouth and sing one. When I was a young singer, she was probably in middle age, but she still had the gift of pitch and a fine voice, and was kind to the younger, more ignorant singers, like me. But it's the perfect pitch I will always remember.

Years went by, and I fell into the orbit of my now much-treasured friend (for the love of GOD, do NOT tell him I said that) Rocky Blaze, which took me into the orbit of Catherine's son Jimmy. Stay with me, here. Rocky is a sort of local legend, a fine designer, creative director and musician who has contributed quietly to countless bands and recording projects born in St. Augustine as a performer and a creative director. (Some sort of bell rang in the back of my head, my dears, but that is a story on its own, and I promise to tell you later.) For now suffice it to say that Rocky would once in awhile ask me to proofread CD artwork that he'd created. Over time, I put the pieces together and realized that the guy who owned the recording studio for which Rocky was creating art was Jimmy Devito, who was - guess what? - the son of my old, pitch-perfect friend, Catherine Devito Dixon. Only in St. Augustine, right?

Rocky plays now in a HIGHLY cool band called Big Pineapple, a band almost guaranteed to add years to your life when you listen. (Note to self: add footnotes referring to "some restrictions" and "qualified buyers" and "I was out of my mind" and possibly "non compos mentis", etc.) As far as I know, he still works with Jimmy on recording and engineering projects.

There's a strong voice coming from this place, dear ones. Lots of recording musicians are working with Gatorbone Studios (which I'm sure you all know and love already...I promise to tell you the story of the MadriGalz Most Excellent Recording Adventure one of these days, my loves). Many also work with Eclipse Recording Studio, home of our pal Jim Stafford. If we played Seven Degrees of Separation, Jim would be one degree from Gamble Rogers. Maybe even less, if we did fractions, which at Eat Here we SO DO NOT. Either way, Jim is one of the true Good Guys of the world; Eclipse does more good than I could begin to tell you.

But good guys or bad guys: here in St. Augustine we're all connected to each other. Sometimes we have to scratch the surface to find the connections but they always turn out to be there. I count my blessings, and head for sleep.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Pablo's Asheville

If you're not already a fan, do yourself a favor. Take a look at Pablo's Notes. You'll find something satisfyingly artistic, completely devoid of pretense, something that feeds the need for grace and simple elegance we all harbor in our hearts. Often there are photos with bits of haiku, sometimes tiny stories, sometimes miniature serial views of a place or a piece of fiction, and always beautiful photographs.

It will take you about 10 seconds to get it.

Thank you, Pablo, for the gentle, beautiful perspective from Anastasia Island.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

St. Augustine sounds like a very cool place

Because of a comment Michelle made on a post here ("St. Augustine sounds like a VERY cool place..."), I'm inspired to offer a view using points of intersection I can actually describe, many of them connected by threads of music and family history and, for me especially, Sister Patricia Eileen, the Cathedral, and the Booksmith. So: a couple of glimpses into the coolness of the place.

It's fair to say that Gamble Rogers was in many ways the godfather of modern folk music in this region. He used to come into the Booksmith, turn toward the counter where I was usually perched, incline his head and acknowledge me and visit for a bit, usually ending up with a copy of Wooden Boat magazine. He lost his life in an effort to save a swimmer in trouble off one of the St. Augustine beaches and sometimes I think this heroism sometimes allows his accomplishments as a musician and storyteller and the definitive Florida troubadour of his generation, to be obscured in shadow. But I can tell you for sure that he is the teacher to whom many current musicians in and around St. Augustine refer with affection and credit with inspiration. His wife Nancy once honored me by asking me to help her learn to sing. That ties the tale back to SPE, and my invaluable voice lessons with her. Perhaps it also manages to show you a tiny glimpse of what a cool place it is, really. For there are so many, MANY times friends and acquaintances look at each other and say, "Only in St. Augustine..."

There is a middle school here named in Gamble's honor, and for many years they've sponsored a folk festival which also bears his name. If you look at the site for the Festival, you'll see the graphic art of Joe Mark featured, Joe, who along with his wife Patty, has been a stalwart musician for many years at the all just keeps turning in on itself, you see, and is one of the million tiny reasons St. Augustine IS a very cool place. There's so much more to tell you, my little ones, but it's and endless joyful task, like trying to describe the colors of glass refracted in a kaleidoscope. Stay with me, though. We'll look at them all sooner or later.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Chapeau, a la mer

It is an image that does no justice to the beauty of the thing, but here I am in the breathtaking creation of Mon Amie Ribbonerie where they didn't make the hat but they made the hat into a work of art. Each of the tiny flowers is made from exquisite vintage ribbon, in the tradition of handmade creation of perfect decorative details, such as might have been made at the turn of the last century in an exclusive Parisian millinerie shop. I am so delighted to own such a piece of stunning wearable art that I won't be able to bear using it as a beach hat. Just for one day I was willing to risk it. I left the tag on, because even it is a carefully created thing of beauty. (If you're old enough and you dare, go ahead and call me Minnie Pearl. I can take it.) If you're smart enough to treat yourself now and then to a touch of true elegance, go shopping at Mon Amie Ribbonerie. While you do that, I'll try and get a GOOD photo of my lovely hat and put it here for you to see.

Nesting turtles, surfing dogs

This is the first sea turtle nest of the season for Rodney and me. (Grateful acknowledgement to Tyrone and Louise: his post this morning provided the inspiration). Despite tragedy (the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico), personal and professional ups and downs (everybody's got 'em) and anything else that may not be right with the world, here's something that is: turtles are still making their ungainly trips ashore in our beautiful Guana and everywhere else they have for millions of years, and laying eggs. And despite financial cutbacks and governmental balance sheet discomfort, the state of Florida with its badly paid staff and dedicated volunteers, is still managing to arrive in the early morning hours and mark the sacred places where the turtles have been. And despite the challenges these tiny baby turtles face when they hatch (lights on the beach confuse them and prevent them finding their way to the ocean, predators eat them, and old-timers will still raid the nests, for it is said that turtle eggs are 5 or 6 times richer than chicken eggs) some of these tiny vulnerable babies do manage to make their ways to the sea, and return again many years later to continue the cycle.

The folks at Guana keep such a close eye on these nests and know so well the time at which the eggs are expected to hatch that they monitor for viability, even sometimes removing the tiny new hatchlings in the evenings and returning them to the beach after nightfall. This gives the babies better odds of surviving their long trip to the water. The nests, as I've tried to show you here, are above the high tide line. Hatchlings must negotiate a wide stretch of beach to reach the water, and each of them is so small as to be able to fit easily in the palm of your hand. It's a considerable distance to cover, with all the obstacles I've mentioned and probably many more I don't even know about. It is indeed a joyful thing to see the protective markers appearing each spring, reminding us that the secret life of turtles goes on and and that in some small way, people are helping ensure this continuity.

Our other unexpected and welcome entertainment came from two nice surfers, a couple, I guessed, and their dog. We passed these folks as we stepped onto the beach this morning, exchanged greetings and commented on their dog, a medium-sized retreiver, and then moved on. We always talk to dog people at the beach, usually because it's too warm to take our own dogs. Boxers have foreshortened noses and sometimes encounter breathing or overheating issues when it's really hot out. Temperatures today were predicted to be in the high 80s, maybe touching 90, so we'd left our dogs at home. We set off on our walk, noticing that the couple with the dog moved away from the knot of people who typically cluster around the walkover. And then we indulged our passion and looked for shark teeth and other bits of bounty from the ocean. About 3/4 of a mile into the walk, I noticed the young couple headed toward the water, boards in hand, dog trotting faithfully along. Then I noticed that the guy was carrying his own board and something that might have been a boogie board. Hmm. There was a nice bed of coquina, usually rich with shark teeth, so I lingerd to look as Rodney continued on his walk.

And here's the fun part: the boogie board was for the dog. I watched as the dog maneuvered himself into position to climb up on the board, a process that seemed completely routine to the little family. Curious, I stopped to watch, my phone camera ready to take terrible pictures (which it totally did, as you can see). When they were far enough out to catch some of the ragged waves, the dog caught his, rode it, lost his board, and promptly paddled out to the guy, whose surfboard seemed to be his next objective. But the guy caught a decent wave and rode it as the woman finished a ride in. I'd lingered long enough by now, and taken enough photos, to suggest the possibility that I was just a freak. And clearly attention wasn't important to them; they just took their dog surfing and didn't invest a lot of effort in overthinking.

The photo just shows the heads of the people and the suggestion of the dog's head. But I went back to talk to them, to tell them about the blog, to ask if I might include them. Her name was Beth; her husband is Steve and the dog, Yeti, has been surfing with Steve since he was a puppy. Except Beth said, "I noticed him swimming along with me, and sort of shooed him toward my husband. But he just likes surfboards now, so he didn't mind surfing with me." She says he surfs better with Steve, but no matter who's board finds him hanging 20, it was a bunch of fun to watch. Here's to that much fun throughout the weekend.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Booksmith Recollection II: The Blue Max

In another life, I worked in an independent bookstore, when St. Augustine still had one; it was called the Booksmith and it was without any doubt a magical place. It sat in a picture-perfect spot, on the corner of St. Augustine's central plaza, overlooked the beautiful bay and Bridge of Lions, and had as a sort of back door (this has its own stories) the famous Trade Winds, where more or less everyone in St. Augustine has gotten drunk at least once. There are so many Booksmith stories that I have a list of the ones I want to tell you sooner or later, in this here blog.

But tonight's tale, my little ones, is about one of the Booksmith's frequent visitors. Like most of the other almost- or once-famous people who frequented the store, he was humble and quiet about his accomplishments and we were always glad to see him. He was the author of several books, the most famous of which was a novel called The Blue Max, which was made into a movie. Like the stupid young person I was, I never got around to reading the book, but today, I happened to see the movie. It was good. And I found I was a little ashamed of myself for not having paid attention any sooner.

When he came into the Booksmith, he was always called "Mr. Hunter" and he never corrected us or encouraged any more familiarity, though as I've said, he was quiet about his own accomplishments. He was unassuming, friendly and kind. By the time I knew him his big moment of fame had passed, I think. He'd served in the second World War and had published his famous book perhaps a decade later; the movie of the same title was released in 1966. Twenty years and more had passed, and he'd continued to write and had also re-invented himself as a fine artist, building a sort of second or third career as a painter of historic aviation. I only knew this in the sketchiest of ways. Diana, who owned the store and was (and is) a master at The Art of Detail, knew it well and understood how it all fit together. I relied on her for cues. But basically Mr. Hunter was an ordinary-looking person behind whose average face I was too young and ignorant to see. And there's a sub-plot.

Mr. Hunter was married to a sweet, smart lady named Tommie. By the time the MadriGalz began their affectionate career at The Cafe Alcazar, I'd developed my own love affair with Miss Tommie's antique shop. It was called The Blue Max and was located, along with our beloved cafe, in what was once the swimming pool of the Hotel Alcazar, around the turn of the last century. Tommie had a collection of some of the most beautiful pieces you ever saw, and most of the ones I bought came from a jewelry case at one end of the shop. She had a small lamp of the sort you might have on a bedside table, and under this magical light you could look at her collection of jewelry. She would give you the most astonishing discounts, and would keep things for you for MONTHS while you figured ways to trim your grocery budget...oh, but these are other stories, my dears: this is only a sub-plot, after all.

Completely accidentally I stumbled across The Blue Max, the movie, today. It starred George Peppard and Ursula Andress, the latter of whom was dressed in a fabulous early 20th century wardrobe, which is, admittedly, what caught my eye, about halfway into the film. I'd missed the beginning, where the writing credits had appeared; thank you, The Internet (as your Aunt Becky would say)and Matt Cribbs, for giving me According to good old imdb, Mr. Hunter's personal dream of being a fighter pilot did not come true because he was green/red color blind. Color blind. Imagine. So he became a respected writer (he continued to serve as a writing coach to local writers well into his 70s) and painter (his original work continued to sell, and he considered The Blue Max cover art, which he did himself, to have been his first sale). Beyond my imagining when I was a young bookseller was a complex life, built brick by brick and lived in fullness, and this was Mr. Jack Hunter.

It's almost a better story than The Blue Max. Almost.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The imperfect science of marking time

As seasons ebb and flow, slowly giving way one to another, we all have markers by which we measure, miletones unique to ourselves or our families or our communities, things we use to fix us in our current spot in time and space. This year's predictors and markers, however, have been a bit wobbly and uncertain. This Easter lily, for instance, has proven itself wholly unreliable.

You know those photos I've shown you of blooming things? Azaleas? Ornamental cherries? Meyer lemon blossoms, wisteria...that wonderful Seven Sisters rose whose tiny flowers brighten the spring for us? Most of them have bloomed more or less on schedule, some a little late, some in greater or less abundance than usual. The figs, as noted, appeared a week or so later than usual, but give signs of producing crops the richness of which we haven't seen before. And this is all to be expected, for we had a long, cold winter in north Florida, and some might say an even longer, cooler spring than usual. But as they sometimes say about babies who are small at birth, they usually catch up. And so it is with the trees and bulbs and other annually returning flora at our house, except for this Easter lily. Easter has come and gone, my dears.

An argument might be made that a better symbol of returning life and resurrection and timeless, beautiful cycles is the resurrection fern. Holding fast to the bark of the water oaks and live oaks, sheltered by the Spanish moss and the dappled light, it lives through all conditions, coming into glorious color when the rains come, receding into careful, dry, brown preservation mode when the weather is too hot or too dry, or both. It is always there, visible or not, rarely glamorous but steady and reliable as the coming and going of the seasons themselves.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Just down to the sea, and back again

The ocean makes its own observance of the changing seasons. At beautiful Guana right now, this translates into a great deal of sugar-fine sand being moved by the tides, new lines and ridges being created with each rise and fall, and new veins of coquina exposed. All the while the water shimmers and sparkles, lightened by silica, casting a glamour over the whole timeless process. It is at once as slow and as instantaneous as the opening of flowers, but we watch through the hours we can: the waves come to us, pushing us to the west and then recede and often render glimmering treasures in the form of shark teeth. These relics remind us of the reality of time, many coming from 3 million years ago, rare finds going back 30 or 40 million years ago, or more. In the coquina, the redshell I've shown here, I might find 10 or 20 or sometimes even a hundred shark teeth in a day at the beach. Rodney, who walks along with his metal detector, focused on the search and freed, for those moments, from the chronic pain I can only vaguely imagine, will often find even more.

Sometimes we find even more exotic relics of evolutionary pre-history. They are, for me, as puzzling and intriguing as those shape-sorting benches my siblings used to play with as teensy-pots. Shaped like a small wooden work bench with openings into which various brightly painted wooden blocks would fit, my brother and sisters learned to place the red cylinder into the right opening, the blue star into the right one, and so on. Many years on, I find myself looking at these shiny black or blue shapes, beautifully glossy and polished by fossilization and perhaps being tumbled like jewels in the waves of the ocean. There are discernible patterns into which I'm able to sort the pieces, but the identification of those patterns continues to elude me, to elude Rodney, to intrigue and entertain us both.

This one, pictured with my toes alongside for perspective, might be something like the tooth of a horse or related, prehistoric equine relative, or perhaps that of another herbivore. I'm not sure, though I'm not alone in dreaming of one day walking into the office of a prominent paleontologist at, say, the University of Florida, and dumping the whole disorganized collection on his or her desk: Tell me, I might say. Tell me what all these fascinating puzzle pieces add up to. (Get out of here, I can imagine him or her saying, you crazy person, you.) But it wouldn't matter, really. The puzzle isn't really the riddle. It's not the riddle at all.

The riddle is chronic pain, and finding some combination of medications and choices and lifestyle things that provide alleviation even for some small measure of hours. The riddle is how to continue to walk through life with dignity and peace when things we often take for granted have gone from us. For a person whose brain and capacity for logic and problem-solving have been connected throughout his professional life in his work, this is no small riddle. Most heart-rending of all? There is no real solution to the problem. There is no surgery, no treatment, no acupuncture or massage or medicine to provide a cure. There is only figuring out How Do We Live With This, a problem that, in its most basic sense, is being faced by countless people every day. And my guess is those people may have to work through without the inspiration of pals like Ms. Moon and The Surly Writer; Suldog, for consistent humor, and many others, none of whom, it should be noted, write for Inspirational Purposes (ewww) but all of whom are skilled at keeping us grounded and reminding us what really matters. And there are way too many more, my loves, than can be listed here, but their voices are beyond price at Eat Here.

And in the end, here is the man who walks down to the sea with me, in so many ways, and has walked for more than 20 years of our lives. And I walk with him, maybe now more than ever. Down to the sea, my dears. And back again.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Down to the sea in rivulets

The new moon, dear Sue reminds me, is the best time to plant seeds. It is the time for beginnings, for making wishes, for starting new work. It is one of the times the earth shows most clearly the power of its small satellite at work, for the risings and fallings of the tides are consistent, powerful and unmistakable. This evening Rodney and I were able to go to the beach for a couple of hours. Here it is, devoid of people, and infused with the subtle, sweet light of sunset, almost pink, almost golden. The river of light bisecting the image is the flow of water from what we call a slew (it makes sense, if you borrow its meaning from electronics or navigation), one of those long, temporary channels of water running parallel to the seashore, created by tidal water. In this case, the shifting tide resulted in pools perhaps 2 or 3 feet deep, heart-stoppingly clear and this evening reflecting the almost pink, almost golden glamorous sky. I thought you should see it. Honestly, I thought you'd love it.

More prosaically here's a photo of supper, minus the salad. This is a shameless ploy, designed to remind Mac of how good the food is at home, how much we miss him, how much he's supposed to miss us...well, you get the idea. It becomes increasingly clear as your kids approach adulthood that you are not as central to their lives as they are to yours. In my case this means there are no tricks at my command to which I won't stoop and since mine are generally with wonderful, albeit very ordinary, food, you generous readers are doomed to share them.

Less prosaically our Mac is serving in the Navy and volunteered for submarine duty. I'm not sure, but I bet their mashed potatoes don't measure up to ours. Nevertheless I'm equally sure that he will be pulled down to the sea in too many ways for me to count. And so will Dylan, come to that, following his own very different streams and rivers. With luck and many blessings, Rodney and I will be able to count upon the influence of a small, orbiting satellite to exercise small, blessedly predictable influences to and from the sea.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The secrets of late spring

Isn't this amazing? Fig trees burst into leaf very quickly here, at least in our yard, bare trees transforming themselves into elegantly clothed, full emerald leaf in a matter of a few days. Very quickly afterward, the tiny fruit begins to appear. Is this, I wonder, a factor in the story of the Garden of Eden? Could the rapidity of the spring emergence of fig leaves be part of the reason they're cited as the flora with which nakedness was covered? It's not such a stretch if you're lucky enough to have a fig tree in your own garden.

As has been noted by other gardeners in the southeast this year (thank you, Ms. Moon) a more abundant spring is hard to recall. The long, cold winter seems to be giving us a spring of uncommon wealth. Our fig trees are evidence of this. We have three of them, the smallest of which has never borne fruit before. This year its small branches are covered with the tiny baby figs. What will we do with this bumper crop? In years gone by, when the crop of fruit was much smaller and our Mac still lived at home, he would simply EAT the figs as they appeared on the tree. In heavier years, we would pull the ripe ones off each day and drop them into a freezer bag. A couple of times I've taken the fruit of the different trees to work, where some of my colleagues simply eat them as quickly as I bring them in, and others have taken them home to make fig reductions to serve over pork chops or grilled chicken breasts. This year, I may finally have to take out the recipe box of Rodney's mother, Helen, in search of her recipe for fig preserves. Stay tuned, Surly Writer. I can think of nothing to which fresh figs can be compared for flavor or texture. For me they were as revelatory as fresh pomegranate seeds; not similar in flavor, texture, or dramatic color, but one of those small joys you find when you taste something completely new, undreamt of in your own mother's kitchen, and full of new possibilities.

The other secret of late spring here is finding out where the house wrens will nest. They return to nesting locations they've used before, but they also find new spots, and very quickly. If you leave a bucket of gardening tools in one place for a day or so, you may come back and find an amazingly well-contructed wren nest, and sometimes here will be a seriously annoyed-looking Mrs. Wren sitting on a nest, peeking out with a severe expression. Rodney has a sanding device in the garage, which has two arm-shaped openings. If you need to sand some kind of car part, you can put it inside the sander and place your hands into these openings to sandblast safely. A couple of years ago, a pair of wrens built a nest in the right hand side of the thing, seemingly overnight, and we watched from a careful distance as the eggs were incubated and the babies were fledged.

About two weeks ago as I got into the car, I noticed wrens nervously flitting around the garage, but it was early in the morning and I didn't think to mention it to Rodney or Dylan. A few days later, Rodney asked me if I'd noticed: there was a nest in the sand blaster. He had seen Mrs. Wren, sitting on her nest, glaring out of the hand opening at anyone who dared to look in at her. I looked for myself. Sure enough, there she sat, eyebrows drawn together like an extended "v", looking deeply offended. I know, I know: anthropomorphism run rampant, but these little songbirds are not to be taken lightly when they're nesting.

So here's the nest, from which Mr. and Mrs. Wren were momentarily absent. There are four tiny eggs, carefully cradled in a typically well-built wren nest floor plan. We'll keep an eye out and try to keep you posted on the magic of late spring here in north Florida. That is, of course, until the weather takes over, and I lose interest in being outside, which time span roughly aligns with hurricane season. Until then, nesting birds and gardenia buds and gradually ripening figs will be on offer. And in the deep summer, there's time to talk about shoes and ships and sealing wax, and whether pigs have wings...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Could there BE such a thing as too many rose pictures?

Wait. Don't answer that. I'm afraid I know what you're thinking.

More than any other sight at our house throughout all the beautiful year, this is the one I cannot resist. It reminds me of the musical "Camelot", which includes a lovely tribute to the month of May. Since the movie version also featured Vanessa Redgrave, I have a perfect excuse for posting more pictures of this treasured rose bush. If you look closely at the top right of the photo, you can see the oak tree that collapsed a couple of nights ago. Mostly you can see the elegant little roses in their clusters, heralding the coming of summer. And you can see the dappled light, coming down through the sheltering oak branches. Taken together, this gives you a view of what we've been thinking about this week: the oak trees give, and occasionally without any warning at all, the oak trees take away.

Because of the way the sun shines in this spot and by virtue of the love roses have for sunshine, you can also see the blooms rising straight to the top of, and then over, our fence. They spill into the yard of our excellent neighbors, a bit more every year. Like much of the plant life, the roses seem to have shivered through the winter but also been its beneficiaries. Wait til I show you the fig trees.

My dears, two of our fig trees are covered with a bounty such as we've never seen. We have one smaller tree which has yet to reveal fruit, but it's spring. There's always hope.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Potato pancakes

Light work for this evening: Michelle H. and I have been talking recipes, in a hearty but discrete thread that started here. I've sent her a sauce recipe she may have been looking for, and she's promised me a fish recipe when it's kitchen-tested and she's ready.

Since tonight's announced side dish stopped traffic and changed Dylan's plans, at least momentarily, it seemed worth sharing. We had leftover mashed red bliss potatoes, which I made into potato pancakes Like My Mother Used To Make. These are quite different from the southern cook's version of Hannukah Latkes. I've made these before but that's a story for another evening, my loves, which I do promise to tell you when you're older. Mashed potato pancakes are easy to make.

Put about 2 cups of leftover mashed potatoes into a medium-sized mixing bowl with one large (beautiful free-range, preferably from the Land of Ms. Moon) lightly beaten egg, about a quarter cup of King Arthur all-purpose flour (no, they don't pay me, but I am a BIG fan), and some very finely chopped onion, finely chopped garlic if you like, and finely chopped fresh parsley. Season with pepper and/or salt, to taste. Mix well and ask yourself if you need anything else in there (chopped green pepper, mushrooms, or fresh herbs from your get the idea). If you like, you can add a half cup of shredded cheese. Heat olive oil in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, as you'd prepare to cook pancakes. This is the not-so-diet friendly part, because you'll need several tablespoons of olive oil to do the trick. Drop by small spoonfuls, about 6 per batch. Brown on both sides, turning once. Drain on paper towels. If you didn't have salty mashed potatoes to begin with, you can sprinkle these very lightly with coarse kosher salt.

Here comes the easy part: what's YOUR recipe? Whether it's a leftover-utilization strategy or your honest-to-goodness favorite, I'd love to know about it, and share it. After all, despite all indications to the contrary, we ARE Eat Here Eatery. And it's your restaurant, too.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The EatHere bulletin board

Stuff you post on a bulletin board: notes, schedules, updates, coming events: works in progress. I have 2 exciting works in progress to talk about, and others that seem to have emerged from their intersection.

Reminders. This is a picture of jasmine, just coming into full bloom, growing against a huge framework of thunbergia which twines itself up along a hickory tree every year, and has become an annual joy since Miss Inga gave it to me for my birthday about 200 years ago. It reminds me, as the beautiful tiny pink roses from last night's blog do, of resurgence, of spring, of my heart's sisters whose graces can't be confined to a bulletin board post.

Alzheimers. I've been writing about its effect on my family, and mean to keep doing so. Rodney's dad was badly afflicted with it. So was a much-loved uncle, sister of his mother. As hard as it is to talk about Alzheimers, it's too scary NOT to talk about when it's found on both sides of the family, and its destruction lurks too closely for comfort.

Teaching. My dear old voice teacher Sister Patricia Eileen, who taught me what it meant to find my own voice, is herself (irony of ironies) suffering from dementia. She's been retired for some years, and although remembered with energy, inspiration and laughter by individuals, she has been collectively forgotten, I think, and this small humble blog has begun to put energy behind Not Forgetting. We are using the tentative beginnings of my blog recolllections to help frame reminiscence.

What do they mean, together? For me, for my sisters, for our friends and their friends? This will come from the work we do in the next year or two, I think. And more: Michelle's own Not Forgetting (by which I mean, connections made InRealLife, outside the confines of the blog) is driving us (both) to help voice some people with Downs Syndrome, another exploratory path with its own unwritten ending.

And in the short-term, kind comments following last night's post about Mother's Day breakfast and the simple fare of the night preceding have inspired a new direction for tonight. Usually I respond to comments with comments. Last night seemed worthy of a different approach, though. Ms. Moon and Michelle were sweet enough to take pleasure in a shared Mother's Day and a new photo of Rodney and me, squinting into the generous sunlight of a May afternoon.

Dylan's gorgeous golden pancakes got the attention of our Lulu, who knows a thing or two about good food AND about serving it beautifully. I'm working on the Home Visit Pancake Man thing, Lulu. To my surprise Dylan announced his pancakes would have been better had I provided fresh blueberries. Hmm. I suspect he has listened mor closely to Miss Lis than previously believed. In any case, let's see whether he's willing to take his Pancake Act on the road. They're worth getting up early for, that's for sure. In your case, I expect pancakes might be delivered day or night.

From Suldog, there was a well-timed reminder that the image of Mother's Day breakfast will remain with me always, even without the photo. And I think he was inspired by the Mother's Day Vigil menu, plates (photos) prepared by me, as was our dear Michelle H., who asked me for the meat loaf recipe. The rest of you can stop reading here. In honor of a fine writer, an excellent friend, and a person whose livelihood has been endangered by people apparently too blind to see the value of her presence as a member of any team, here is the recipe Michelle H. requested. To the rest of you, thank you for your continued care, and lots of love until next time.

Michelle H., here are my secrets. I believe my meat loaf to be the central reason for the naming of the imaginary restaurant my family envisioned some years ago. It was one of those meals that everyone loved, one that yielded leftovers that never lasted long. So if we ever HAD a restaurant, this would be featured.

You can make it with whatever ground meat you can live with, whether turkey or chicken or bison; in its humble form at our house, I use ground beef, ground pork and ground bison if available, about a third of each. And in this recipe, we're using roughly 1-1/2 pounds of meat.

Using a nice big mixing bowl, place the meat, about 1/4 cup each of finely chopped onion, green pepper and garlic, more or less, to your taste. Add one egg, a dash of ketchup (perhaps 1/4 cup, or a little less) and one slice of bread, finely ground into crumbs. I've found a slightly stale slice of bread can be broken in half and the two halves ground against each other to make crumbs....whatever works for you, but fresh bread crumbs is what you're after. (In a pinch, you can use 1/4 cup of uncooked oatmeal, crushed crackers, or dry bread crumbs. It's Angie at EatHere cooking, so more art than science.) Add a dash of Texas Pete (or just some black pepper) and 1/2 tsp. of salt (I like kosher salt). A dash of Wocestershire sauce is good if you have it, as is a bit of dried basil and one of marjoram; some people like a touch of oregano, too. Tread carefully, as these are all things you can add. You just can't take them out. Now use one hand to blend all the ingredients together (mixing really well) and shape into a loaf. Place in pan (I prefer a cast iron skillet, and often cook on the grill outside). Bake at about 325 degrees for an hour or so.

Meanwhile - and here's the 1960s Redbook, Woman's Day or whatever women's magazine my mother read back then - becomes important. It directed he creation of a simple sauce of 1/2 cup of ketchup, 1/8 cup of yellow mustard, about 1/8 cup of brown sugar and just a touch of ground cloves, whisked together. Use this to glaze the meat loaf about 15 minutes before the end of the cooking time. Be sure you have enough to use for meat loaf sandwiches to take to work the next day.

Michelle, DO NOT TELL anyone this recipe. It's a super top-secret revelation of the 1960s but I'm delighted to share it with you. In fact, I'd love to cook it for you, so let me know when you've started to take over the world as the great writer you are. I'll be ready.

EatHereEatery bulletin board readers: thank you. Thanks for staying with us, thanks for waiting us out. Mostly, thanks for watching for what I hope will be the fine work to come, as I dredge the Alzheimers memories myself and partner with old friends and new to create a portrait of our dear Sister Patricia. Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

EatHereEatery misses the photographic mark

EatHereEatery's Evil Plan for Mother's Day: cook really good stuff that the men like on Mother's Day EVE, and don't cook at ALL on Mother's Day! A masterful plan. I did it like a shot.

Sue, Erin, and other vegetarian friends: skip this paragraph. I cooked baby back ribs, tiny red potatoes and because I dwell among carnivores, even made a meat loaf for the rest of the week's sandwiches, and as The Lord said on the Seventh Day, It was GOOD. Partly I did this because Dylan does not eat meat loaf, so there are two photos: one is Rodney's plate with meat loaf and his kind of salad, the other is Dylan's plate with ribs and a really good salad, only missing Miss Lorie's famous Tahini Dressing. For myself I made a big salad with Lorie's dressing and some feta cheese - I even made a fresh batch of the dressing. Everyone was happy, except that we missed Mac and the dogs seemed vaguely baffled that my Evil Plan didn't include Excellent Secret People Stuff for them to eat. Otherwise, things mostly went well. Rodney and I took a long walk on the beach Saturday (it was about 200 degrees, as previously mentioned) and we sat on the back porch while we cooked because there was a breeze and the Spanish moss moved in the oak trees. We talked to Mac, we ate well. We were watching TV when one of our neighbors came over to let us know that a big water oak had (seemingly spontaneously) cracked into two huge pieces, fortunately falling onto none of the three nearby houses and not interrupting electric service for any of us. We admired this as well as we could in the dark and went back inside, grateful; we have dealt with some damage from hurricanes and don't take these things lightly.

And then the morning came, bright and blue. And here's where EatHereEatery blew it, my dears: Dylan made breakfast, BROUGHT me breakfast in bed, and I was so stunned I didn't take a picture. You can all slap me now. DID NOT take a picture. I am so ashamed of myself. Here's the thing: he called us with a pretty stealthy grocery list on our way back from the beach, and it included "pancake mix", something I never buy. I said, "If you want pancakes, get the Fanny Farmer book out and make them - they're easy," and thought no more about it. Until this morning, that is, when he appeared with not one but two plates, gloriously brimming with the breakfast you wish your mother had brought you in bed, crowned with perfect, golden homemade pancakes, with Grade A maple syrup. Bacon. I am not kidding you. It was a plate of beauty. And did I take a picture? My loves, I admit I have failed you as my own concentration failed me. No picture, but my endless admiration for a kid who cooks breakfast, delivers it with hilarity and confidence, and brings all that and more to life every day. His dad managed, with equal stealth, to deliver a card so perfect that I knew he'd read every single card in the store, and then allowed me to ignore the tree and go to the beach. We walked for about 4 miles, took pleasure in our still-untouched beach, watched the Goodyear blimp hover over a local golf event, took photos and ignored all the troubles we could think of. Happy Mother's Day, Angie at EatHere. Happy Mother's Day.

Sister, mother, mother, sister

May recovers from the deranged meteorological ups and and downs of March, and prepares to leave behind the bright crystal blue skies and simple beauties of April in its determined progess to summer. The first few days of this May have been marked by stunning heat, but today has been a a lovely gift. The wind shifted around to the north, the heat eased and the humidity dropped. And the roses are blooming.

Rodney's mother, Helen, started this cutting from a thriving rose more than 40 years ago and cuttings came with us when we moved here. I'm not sure it's a true Seven Sisters rose, but we've always called it so, and certainly the small clusters of bright hopeful pink resemble close families of sisters. Although Helen died when Rodney was 17, she seems alive to us every year when the unfailing benediction of the tiny rosebuds lights our eyes and wakens our hearts. We have shared it with many of the dear sisters of my own heart, whose walls and fences and sunny spots now have their own clusters of pink roses to mark the arrival of May. My mother, Cecilia, died when I was 11, but she would have loved the marking of the changing seasons with a hearty, winter-safe rose. It would have comforted her as did the certainty of the liturgical calendar, the unending circle of routine and ritual. She would have loved, as Helen must have, the sweet blessing of the tiny roses that seem to commemorate Mother's Day each spring.

I have a silly mental image of my childrens' grandmothers, relaxing together and peering down from their shared celestial perch, watching with joy or dismay or encouragement according to the situation. My friend Tracy's mother, Jean, must surely be sitting with them, in this image, all of them smoking cigarettes and possibly drinking a beer. Perhaps Jean Herron, mother of our dear Lis, sits nearby with her sister Joanie, fondly observing the circle of sisterhood that sustains us all.

Without our mothers, Helen and Cecilia, to help me bumble through childrearing, I found my way as a mother through sisterhood. It was the sisters who walked the path ahead of me whose signs and markers and joys and heartbreaks helped me find my own way. Without Diana's peaceful reminders in babyhood, Sue's middle school years and Lis's endless encouragement as the nest is left, without Lorie's almost unspoken reminder of the wonder of both children, it is impossible to imagine how I'd have figured it out. And there are so many others, my loves; too many to name in this small space, but each bringing a unique gift. Each of them has given me a map, drawn with painstaking care, mysterious and beautiful as those made of the bravery and imagination of 16th century cartographers and illuminators. Each of these sisters of my heart has helped to light the way for me in more ways that I can tell you here. Each has made me a better mother.

If you are a daughter or a mother, and especially if you are a sister who has helped mark the way for one who does not have her own mother as a guide, may every blessing be on you this Mother's Day.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Learning like water, or Sister Patricia Recollection, Part 1A

Like the wear of water on rock over many countless centuries, great teaching changes the form of the rock forever. Water leaves its gentle worn-away fingerprints and the rock is re-sculpted for all time. If that rock is ever called upon to serve as the foundation for something unexpected, the foundation bears that imprint. And so it is with me, with my sisters, and with Sister Patricia. So it is with Part 1A: the unexpected, for it may bring us a way to never, ever forget Sister Patricia Eileen.

She was born to teach. She was born to be a musician. At the intersection of these things, blessed with sparkly good fortune, are me and my sisters. Miss Jo, Miss Tracy and Miss Judy (and in a second degree sense, Miss Lis) stood at this intersection, gathered what we could, and set off on our own roads. Many other people also stood at this intersection over the years, and I do hope to hear their stories as we go. For starters, though, just us few and eventually The MadriGalz. But I'm way ahead of my story. This is what she looked like when she graduated from Florida State University with her doctorate in music, and what she looked like when I met her. Sister is now afflicted with a form of dementia so that she doesn't remember her nearly 30 years as Director of Music Ministry at the Basilica-Cathedral of St. Augustine. She is also quite deaf. After serving as Director of Music, primary organist, director of a wide range of sacred and secular musical performances, and giving COUNTLESS voice lessons to almost anyone who asked, having played the piano or organ during those quiet improvisational moments in liturgy...she is deaf.

Here is another intersection, for me: Sister Patricia and Alzheimers. Rodney's dad, as many of you know, was afflicted with this awful thing and though Sister's dementia originates differently it's not so different, really. And though Rodney's dad is gone, the challenge today is to collect memories and recollections of Sister's life to help her own sisters care for her. Perhaps those memories will also serve to memorialize the effect she had on our lives. And perhaps those memories will give us the armor we need to defend ourselves and our dearest ones from the robbery of the disease.

So: I'm collecting. Sister R., the chaplain for my dear SPE, has asked us to collect our memories in some format and share them with her caregivers. They'll be better able to take care of Sister, and perhaps they'll be better able to help others recall her when she's gone. Are you holding a memory? Is it a memory of Sister Patricia, or is it a memory of someone you've lost to a like illness? Help me, if you will, to spend this summer collecting these memories and pictures and bits of song. Help me keep our best loved ones alive, even when they seem to be gone. I'll be grateful for the sound of your voice. Sister would be grateful, too, for after all, it was your voice, my voice, all our voices, that she strove to improve, educate and care for; that's what she did for all those years. Share your stories.

Monday, May 3, 2010

from Stephen Hawking

"The cosmos has taken its first step towards the beautiful place it is today, all thanks to imperfection and lack of order. So next time someone tells you that you have made a mistake, tell them that may be a good thing. Because without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist." -- Stephen Hawking