Archive for September, 2011

The tree was situated toward the back of the lot. It wasn’t very tall, but it grew long and sideways. Its limbs stretched out like a dancer’s arms and the apples grew at the very ends, as if holding the fruit in its palms. ~ from Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen

Our apple tree

The apple tree in Garden Spells grows apples that reveal the most significant event in one’s life. In September 2010 our apple tree offered us apples in its palms. I picked a large basketful of fruit that Labor Day weekend and made my own applesauce. It was a significant event in its own right.

I found that making applesauce is very much like writing—there are many different methods, and lots of ingredients you can add in, but you don’t know until it’s done how much it will resemble your mental image of True Applesauce. There’s a delicate balance between disappointment and delight.

The first draft of my applesauce involved cinnamon, sugar, lemon peel, lemon juice, and a dash of salt.  When it was all done I tried it, then added more cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg. Once it was cold I decided that perhaps it needed a bit more sugar and a dash of vanilla. The flavor still seemed dull to me. Disappointing.

The next day I made a batch of applesauce sweetened with sugar and Red Hots. I stirred the candies in while the apples were hot, and they melted beautifully. The applesauce tasted like a candied apple and was a pretty, glistening rose color, but I regretted the artificial ingredients—Red Hots are not organic.

On my third try at perfect applesauce, I called Mama to find out what recipe she used. “The one from the Betty Crocker cookbook,” she said. Good—I had a copy of the Betty Crocker cookbook. I looked it up, and found that I needed only five ingredients: apples, water, brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Nothing else.  And that was it: the True Applesauce I had been craving.

I’m obsessing about applesauce now because this year our apple tree failed to bloom, so of course there were no apples, either. I’m not sure why, but I’m hoping it’s a cyclical thing that will sort itself out naturally. I did make one batch this year, because Rachel gave me a dozen apples from her aunt’s orchard in Calhoun County. Here’s Betty Crocker’s recipe:


4 medium apples, sliced

1/2 cup of water

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Heat apples and water to boiling over medium heat. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered until the apples are tender, stirring occasionally. This will take about 10 minutes. Stir in remaining ingredients. Heat to boiling; boil and stir for one minute. You can use a potato masher to break the apples down more. If you prefer smooth applesauce, I pity you but you can put it in a blender after the mixture is cooled. Makes four 1-cup servings, 190 calories each.

Note: I used to make an applesauce cake from time to time using a recipe I pulled from a Martha Stewart Living magazine. I stopped making it because it was a lot of trouble and no one else seemed to like it. The batter was mostly butter and sugar, with a little flour, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, 2 ½ cups of applesauce, toasted pecans, and a thinly sliced apple. That was topped with a streusel of brown sugar, cinnamon, butter, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and a little flour. The final product, baked in a 10″ springform pan, baked for about 2 hours and filled the house with a heavenly aroma. It then had to be refrigerated overnight before it was just right—dense and sticky and thick with apples. It weighed about six pounds.

I am not making it again, though, because while it is fragrant and tasty and feels like a huge accomplishment, it is also scary-full of butter and sugar. Comparable to writing a sestina, I think.

From now on I will stick with homemade applesauce, plain and simple.

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Salon Monologue

Broadsheet Melbourne, 11/22/10

I walked into the hair salon with a long-standing, confirmed appointment and was greeted by my stylist, Heidi, telling me that she would be with me as soon as she had placed a call to the police. I’m sure I looked surprised, because she added, “It’s a long story, but since your highlights are going to take awhile, you’ve got time to hear the whole thing. Give me a minute.”

(Note to self: Find a hair salon that greets clients with a glass of sparkling water, not an announcement that the police are being called.)

Still, I sat in the chair and uttered not one word of complaint while Heidi disappeared to make her call. Instead I turned my mind to beautiful things, like the T. S. Eliot poem I had come across, La figlia che piange, that had seemed like an auspicious sign indeed for my salon day with its directive, “weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.” Yes, I would weave golden sunlight in my hair. At least Heidi would, once she finished calling the police.

Heidi returned and pumped the chair up in spasmodic bursts, without regard for my personal comfort. And without so much as a “How are you today?” she launched into her tale.

It seemed her chocolate Labrador, Sam, had learned he could jump one particular low spot in the back fence and get out. Usually he just walked around to the front yard and sat on the step waiting for someone to get home, but the neighbors had reported that sometimes Sam got into people’s garbage cans and made a mess, strowing it around.

“There have been afternoons,” Heidi said, briskly painting strands of my hair and wrapping them in silver foil, “when I have actually put plastic bags on my hands and gone out and picked up strange people’s trash. I kid you not. I’ve done that several times.”

I shuddered. Heidi wore wrinkled plastic gloves now; I had to trust that they were clean. 

“Well, one afternoon I get close to home, and I see a garbage can over on its side, and I see the rear end of a chocolate Lab sticking out, and I said to myself, ‘Sam! I’m going to kick your butt.’ I pulled the car over, jumped out, and went to grab his collar. That’s when I realized it wasn’t Sam. It was somebody else’s chocolate Lab. I don’t know whose. And who knows if it was actually Sam I’d been cleaning up after all that time? But that’s all in the past.

“What happened this week was my husband was home with the kids and the woman from next door comes over and bangs on the front door. I don’t know her nationality, but she’s banging on the front door and yelling in some language, and all Bryan understands is ‘help’ and ‘dog.’  He follows her to their back yard, where they have an inground pool. There’s a chocolate Lab that’s jumped in the pool, and now the dog can’t get out because all there is to get out is a ladder, and dogs don’t climb ladders.

“‘That’s not my dog,’ my husband tells her, but he’s a good guy and he goes into the pool—can you believe it?—and hauls the dog out.” Heidi paused, laughing.

“Do you know what I just remembered?  Couple of years ago my friend, Christy, who lives over near Bradenton—her husband worked at Tropicana, and Christy said he smelled sticky all the time—anyway, she called me, says, ‘There’s a baby manatee in my pool!’ ‘What?’ I said, ‘There ain’t no possible way there’s a manatee in your pool, baby or not. It’s not like Christy and them even lived close to where a manatee might be. But she insisted that yes, there was, and finally she went out there and took a picture and sent it to me. Laugh? I thought I’d die. Turns out a mole had fallen into her pool, drowned, and ended up in the filter.

“But back to my story, the point is that my neighbor has a fence around the pool, but the fence doesn’t have a gate, which is how the dog got in and ended up in her pool and the next thing will be one of my children wandering over there and falling in the pool, so I thought I better call the police.”

Heidi led me to the hairdryers and lowered a beehive over my head. My ears filled with the soothing buzz of wordless air, its heat activating the sunlight woven in my hair. She stuck a Lucky magazine in my hand, but I gazed straight ahead at the lavender walls and tried to meditate away the images of loose garbage, unruly dogs, dead moles in pool filters, and drowned children that Heidi had conjured for my entertainment.

(Note to self: Loyalty to a gifted stylist could only be carried so far. Heidi was a magician with the highlight wand, but these horrid monologues on ordinary life were not to be suffered. I needed a salon where I felt surrounded by the beauty I deserved.)

I closed my eyes and smiled. It was settled. This would be my last visit to Heidi’s salon, and I would not be leaving a tip.


Photo: “Oxhey & Bushey Relocate,” Broadsheet Melbourne, 11/22/2010.

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My writing group recently tackled a new challenge: writing a sestina. A sestina, I learned for the very first time, is a poem with six 6-line stanzas and a final 3-line bit. (I don’t know the technical term for the bit; I studied fiction.) Instead of rhyming, a sestina follows a specific pattern using the same six words at the end of the lines.

A sestina depends, in short, upon firm rules. I rather like rules. They often inspire me because it turns writing into a sort of puzzle-solving game. Still, this one was a challenge. I found that it was impossible for me simply to pick six words that I loved and begin writing. So, because the last three-line bit serves as a summing-up or conclusion, I decided to start with the end and then figure out the rest. (I do that a lot—begin a writing project with the end in mind and no clear idea of how or where to begin.)

I revisited my first post in February 2011, “I Know Who He Is, and I Want Him to Sing,” I am so fond of that phrase, I thought it would make a closing line that I  would want to write my way toward. And it did. From there it was mostly great fun, trying to use my grandmother’s quote as the foundation of a poem about a woman whose small church experiences an unusual level of ministerial turnover.

I recommend sestina-writing if you’re bored and cannot face another round of Angry Birds or another episode of House Hunters. The advantage is that, at the end of whatever amount of time you spend noodling over it, you’ll have something that didn’t exist before. I love that.

And now, my sestina. If you feel inclined to judge it harshly, go write one yourself and then come back and beg my pardon.

She woke up to find the morning air had turned sharp,
Buttoning a sweater with tremored hands, she thought, “I am
Not so old that I can’t get by all right.” She readied the tea,
And settled down to wait for the kettle to sing.
The cat leapt to her lap, its face as smug as the new preacher
She’d seen once in passing. “But,” she mused, “That is

Often the case with the younger ones, now. It is
Highly annoying, the holiness act as they eye you real sharp
To see are you up to snuff, judged worthy of the gospel preacher.
Well, now, Scout,” she explained to the gray-striped cat, “I am
Sure they do wrong to act like that.” She started to sing
A tune as she tipped out the cat from her lap to pour tea.

The benediction of a cup filled with rich golden tea!
A bracing draught, familiar, and sweet. Sweeter still if a friend is
Expected to come. “Now, that would give me good reason to sing”—
And remembered with intake of breath cold and sharp,
“My land, if Deacon Grove didn’t call last week, said I am
On his list for a visit today, and he’ll bring the new preacher!”

(Was there no end to this breaking-in of young preachers?
They came, then they went…. So she served them all tea
And countered their impudence: “You’re saved, ma’am?” “I am!”)
“My land, the gall of them, Scout! As if my salvation is
In the hands of a boy, who, unless we look sharp,
Will soon be gone!” She paused. “At least that last one could sing.”

It occurred to her then: She’d make the new fellow sing
Before she accepted his tenure as shepherd. The preacher
Could plead himself hoarse, list credentials, talk sharp—
But no, he must dance to her tune and sing for his tea.
She’d grown weary of being auditioned by them. It is
Written that the last shall be first: “Who’s first, now? I am!”

She savored the thought, and repeated, “I am.”
Oh, she would tell him plain enough, she would sing
Out, “This is the start of a brand new day! This is
The day I compel you to act, young preacher.
So sit up! You best take note as you swallow your tea.
I’ll not be dismissed—my mind and tongue are still sharp!”

The guests arrived at ten o’clock sharp. She greeted them thus: “I am
Glad to welcome you, Preacher. Deacon Grove, have some tea.
Oh, yes, I know who he is. Now I want him to sing.”

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Artist: Jim C. Brown

The air cooled as we climbed, and the trees began to vary like goods on the ascending floors of a department store. First we passed wild cherries, then tough-looking elms… At 7,500 feet, halfway up the mountain, we found ourselves on a sudden high plateau and stepped on to a desert of pale, silver stones. A single magnificent tree stood at the shimmering center of what must once have been a glacier. It was a walnut, the finest I had ever seen, and in its deep shade lay a whole flock of some 200 sheep. ~ Roger Deakin, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees

I marked the quote above from Wildwood a week or more ago, and was reminded of it today when we went to the St. Louis Art Fair and saw the ethereal treescapes created by Jim C. Brown, an artist from Vancouver. I didn’t understand everything Brown said about his process, which involves photography and a thin layer of plaster, but I understood this: He told us that he photographs lone trees and collects them in a sort of travel journal. Later he combines them to create what he calls “imagined forests.” They appear as soft charcoal-colored images on the eggshell-white plaster. For some, he paints the surface beneath and then chips away portions of the plaster to reveal flashes of blue in a sky. They are enchanting, just like Deakin’s lone walnut tree near Jalal Abad.

Before we left his booth, Brown showed me a trio of large pieces featuring single trees. “There are three small islands that I visit regularly,” he said. “Each island has only a single tree on it. I like to go boating, and take a picnic that I eat beneath one of these trees. I try to treat them equally, and visit each in turn.”

Trees are like that; they compel us to treat them with special respect. I think this is because they serve as architectural features outdoors, like cathedral columns, while retaining their own wild magic.

The tree in our yard that I love most is the apple. It produced tons of fruit last year, and I made batch after batch of applesauce and one apple cake. Sadly, the tree did not blossom this spring. I am hoping that this is a cyclical thing, and that it will fruit again next year. We don’t have a walnut tree of our own here, but I know one is close by because I found a green-cased walnut on the ground outside this morning, half-gnawed by a squirrel. My own imagined forest would contain several apple and walnut trees, blue spruce, and the pecan tree from my grandmother’s house with the swing still in it.

Ernesto has an imagined forest, too. Some time back he struck up a conversation at the grocery store with another shopper over the fig preserves. As I walked up, I heard Ernesto say wistfully, “I have a fig tree, but it is stuck in North Carolina.” My dad rooted the fig tree for us, but we have never taken it away because we always fly to NC.  No one at either end wants to drive 15 hours for the sake of picking up or delivering a fig tree, so it grows in Ernesto’s mind and produces a fine crop of sweet figs.  He also regrets the loss of the orange tree from his back yard in Florida.

Before we left the art fair today we bought a pot from Jennifer Falter of Springfield, Missouri. We loved the simple black-and-white carved patterns and the texture of her pottery. And in keeping with our imagined forest, it is covered with ginkgo leaves.

Artist: Jennifer Falter

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Our garage

As a child in Cuba, Ernesto didn’t have his pick of a vast selection of toys. His parents would instead go to a large gathering within their zone in Havana, where a local party official drew numbers for each family. The number received dictated when they could go to their zone’s toy store to select three toys:  A great toy (called the basic toy, for some reason), a good toy, and a common toy (optimistically called the elective). Basic toys were things like bicycles and roller skates, and each store had a very limited number of each. Yo-yos, marbles, and spinning tops were examples of the electives.

Ernesto says that he never set his heart on a basic toy in advance of the assigned day, because the odds were that it would be gone. Why set oneself up for disappointment? His favorite toys from this era were an erector set (plastic, not metal) and a set of medieval knights, like toy soldiers. He says he always placed the knights back in their box, each figure nested in its individual plastic indentation, until he went to college. At that point he passed the set along to his girlfriend’s little brother. Of course, Cuban children often used found objects to create toys, including little rolling carts they made from wood and ball bearings, with a string to steer it and old shoe soles at the front as a brake.

All of it was a far cry, in other words, from the typical American toy experience. We had an opportunity to discuss the difference between communist and capitalist toy sales when we moved into our current home, with its little detached garage. The open rafters in the garage had been used for additional storage: Several old doors were laid across the beams. It looked as if they had simply been placed up there to get them out of the way.

One Saturday afternoon Ernesto decided to tidy the garage and hang some of his tools on pegboard he attached to the walls. I left for the grocery store. When I returned, he had an unusual tale to tell. I have attempted to transcribe his words exactly:

I was in the garage, and I saw more shredded paper. Remember I told you before there was shredded paper around? You don’t remember. Well, I saw the paper was falling from the rafters. There was a box sitting on top of one of those doors, and there was a hole in the side of the box.

Now. You see, there are birds that are making nests in the concrete blocks at the top of the garage, and they have been pulling pieces, you know, pieces out of the side of a big box that was on top of the doors. And now they have pulled enough that more paper fell from the box. I looked at the paper that had fallen, and it said “Adoption Papers.” I stood on the little ladder and reached up to the box, and pulled more paper from there. It said, “Birth Certificate.”  I thought, “Whaaat?”

There were other things in the box, and I could not tell what they were.  You know that on the little ladder, on the top is written NOT A STEP?  From the top rung I could not quite see what was in the box, and I was trying to see without standing on the “Not a Step” part, and then I felt hair! I thought, “Birth certificates? Adoption papers? Hair?  What is going on here?” It was creepy, let me tell you. And then I tried to pull the box down, and it was big but not so heavy so I got it down and there were those ugly dolls that are from the Cabbage Patch and the birds have used some of their hair for the nests.

I explained about Cabbage Patch Kids, and told him that in the 1980s they were a hot item, that people fought one another in toy stores to get them in time for Christmas. He listened with an expression  of mild disgust; he is no longer surprised by the things that Americans do. But the fact that these once sought-after creatures ended up abandoned and ravaged by birds says it all, really, in a Grimm’s Fairy Tales sort of way.

So, what’s in your garage?

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