(Why yes, this post was — once again — written on a tiny phone screen, this time while lying in a soft, comfy bed at a friend’s childhood home. Expect typos and silly word substitutions. Also, this is a long one, in three parts and using two previously published pieces. Not sure I’m going to have time to write again until Sunday. We’ll see how things go.))
Part 1. Something about mothers and daughters in a kitchen.
We got on a plane at 7 a.m. and landed on the other side of the country, 12 hours later. Then we drove.
The reward for a full day of travel was a short but rejuvenating stay with a friend’s mother (who is also my friend, because that’s how adulthood works) and a bonus gift that my friend was also in town, visiting and staying with her mother.
The four of us, two mother-daughter duos, stayed up too late laughing and telling stories at the kitchen table. My friend and her mother bickered playfully. My daughter and I bickered playfully. We laughed and laughed.
At one point my friend’s mother said, in a particular voice, “Now you girls….” I’d completely forgotten she was a teacher until I heard those words, spoken softly yet clearly enough to cut straight through our loud carrying on.
“Yes!” she said, “Fourth grade.”
“That’s the best grade!” I said.
She looked surprised. “You know, most people think it’s second grade. But it isn’t. It’s fourth grade. Children are brilliant in fourth grade.”
Which is almost exactly what the late Harriet Alperin, the wonderful neighbor who lived next door to us when my children were young, said when my son started fourth grade.
We finally headed to bed, in the wee hours of the morning. “You have some big changes coming up,” my friend’s mother said to me as we headed upstairs.
So I went to sleep thinking about transitions, and Harriet, and mothers and daughters, and coming of age, and fourth grade.
And I woke up still thinking about all of those things, how we’re all always in some kind of transition, even though we often think in terms of getting to the other side of whatever that is, instead of recognizing that (trite but true) change is the only constant in our lives, if we’re very, very lucky and willing to see it that way.
Part 2. Something about Harriet.
(Originally published with the title, “Starting Over,” in January 2013. The version below has been lightly edited.)
They met at Duke, years ago. Later they would tell different stories about their early romance, but the common narrative was that they married other people, had families, lived lives apart and then rediscovered one another, each newly single, during a reunion weekend.
By the time I met Harriet and Alfred I was 38, and they’d been married longer than I’d been out of college. When we moved in next door to them our fledgling family was struggling to cope with the recent loss of my mother and an accelerated move into a century-old home with its renovation only half complete.
A respectful few days after we unloaded the last boxes, they knocked on our door with a warm welcome and firm set of instructions: Our children must play in their front yard. The children who ran circles in the yard when they first moved in, Harriet explained, were now grown. Ours would have to take their places because, she said, nothing was more enjoyable for old people than watching young ones frolic.
We wandered over tentatively at first, but we quickly realized they meant what they said. To prove it they routinely rewarded the children’s arrival with sleeves of Thin Mints, pitchers of lemonade and loads of ice cream sandwiches.
We had landed on the block in February, when the peppermint camellias were just beginning to bloom. Harriet taught us how to care for those camellias and later, in the early summer, she did the same for our oversized gardenia. Her only request was that she might take a cutting here and there, as camellias and gardenias were her very favorite flowers.
Alfred became my son’s first employer, not knowing the child was only three at the time and perhaps too young even for the task of daily newspaper retrieval. Every Sunday afternoon Alfred lumbered through the yard to deliver the child’s weekly pay, complete with a handwritten note of encouragement on the envelope.
They took great interest in the children’s schooling, asking about their studies and sending special congratulations for good report cards. They brought us See’s candies for Christmas, and we cooked them brisket for Rosh Hashanah. Their social and travel schedules made us dizzy.
One Halloween morning Harriet awoke to discover that Alfred had taken his final rest. In the days after his funeral we promised her children, who lived far away, that we would watch over her so she wouldn’t be afraid living alone. In truth it was we who were terrified of her moving.
In the spring, having inherited the newspaper delivery employment enterprise, Harriet announced with great flourish that she was promoting our son to CEO and appointing our daughter CFO, responsible for coming next door every Wednesday to collect. Their new positions came with increased wages. When the children told her they would gladly bring her paper to the door each day without being paid, she became indignant. She looked me squarely in the eye and said I should never forget that a job well done must always command a fair salary. “Your mother has some things to learn, but she’ll get there,” she told the children with a wink.
By summer she was traveling again, taking classes and going out with friends when she was home. The part of her that withered when Alfred died took on a new sparkle, like she wore both of their spirits together.
One evening she came over unexpectedly to tell me she was going on a cruise, leaving in less than a week. She hadn’t told anyone any sooner because she was afraid someone would talk her out of it or make her afraid or somehow spoil the fun. She was nervous and excited, and her excitement was so contagious that I forgot I’d left a skillet full of butter on the stove, and I almost burned the house down. “Oh, my dear, I’m rubbing off on you!” she exclaimed, and I thought what a wonderful thing that would be if it were true.
Harriet returned from her long trip in time to wish my son good luck at the start of his fourth grade year. She had been a fourth grade teacher and said emphatically that fourth grade was the best year of all. Within a month he was furious that she had lied to him, furious that fourth grade was, in fact, the very worst of all possible years. She laughed and promised by the end of the year he would see she’d been right. And then she took to checking on me, not him, every few weeks. By the end of the year he would be a different child, an older and more mature child, she assured me.
He was. They all were, my son, my daughter, and their contemporaries on our block. They’d graduated from sprinkler chasing to street tennis, bike riding, school sports and the much-dreaded video games. They were little people who went to sleep-away camps and summer programs and on out-of-town trips with friends.
In November Harriet told us she was moving. Her granddaughter was expecting a baby, the first great-grandchild, and she wanted to be there. Her people, her real tribe, were all in California. She wanted to join them while she still felt energetic. In a matter of weeks the house was swept, prepped and sold, ready for transfer early in the new year.
The Sunday before she moved away, Harriet had everyone over for cake and ice cream. A few years later, my son and I visited her in California, where she told me lipstick made gray hair sparkle and that life begins at 50. Harriet died a year later. Part of her lives on in every soul she touched, including mine.
Part 3: Something about fourth grade.
(This section originally appeared in July 2014 with the title, “Tales of 4th Grade Everything.” The version below has been lightly edited.)
Fourth grade was my favorite year of school either because Mrs. Rutherford, whom I adored, was my teacher or because Mrs. Rutherford read to us, among many other books, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, one of my favorite books of all time, ever.
Looking back, I should have loved fourth grade for its being the last year of a certain elementary innocence. 4th grade then, and mostly still now, was the final room in the house of childhood magic, where dollhouses weren’t yet fully shuttered and Santa Claus still visited most of the occupants.
Romances were starting to look interesting in fourth grade, but in a faraway sense. Boys were still icky and gross, mostly. And we were still silly girls who signed each other’s yearbooks with notes like, “I hope your life is as long as toilet paper.”
The most significant rite of passage for me in fourth grade was receiving my first “F,” given for a music assignment on which I failed to use a ruler to draw the treble clef. I was crushed, inconsolable. My mother, after a quick conversation with Mrs. Rutherford, said something to the effect of life has some real nut-jobs, and you should do your best to ignore them.
One day in late spring, near the end of the year when fifth grade and health class became looming realities, an enterprising classmate scribbled the word fuck on a table in the back of Mrs. Rutherford’s room. I asked a friend the meaning of that word, a word I wouldn’t hear spoken aloud until college, and she drew me a picture that I wish I had kept.
A 4th grade view of adulthood is most entertaining indeed.
What I did keep, or rather what my mother kept that I would later inherit and also keep, was the cookbook my classmates and I made that year to give our mothers for Mother’s Day. We each submitted a favorite recipe, careful that there were no two entries for popular fare like tuna casserole, meatloaf and Tang Tea. Our resident gourmets contributed family secrets for preparing chocolate pots de crème and mayonnaise. I’d share those treasures with you here, but some things must remain sacred.
We diligently cut, sorted and assembled the fragrant mimeographed pages, finished with hand drawn illustrations, all under Mrs. Rutherford’s watchful eye. It must be written: Even then Mother’s Day presents were largely dependent upon teachers.
We wrapped the books carefully, in white tissue if I remember correctly, and waited excitedly until the day we could deliver our labors of love.
“Oh! Are you going to be a chef when you grow up?” my mother exclaimed, feigning surprise as she opened her gift to which she’d knowingly contributed.
“No, I’m going to be a movie star and live in Hollywood in a house with white carpets and white furniture and a swimming pool the color of the ocean. But you can live in my guest house and be my cook. That way we can still be together.”
And that, in a nutshell, is what fourth grade is about.
(For entertainment, here’s what I was cooking the week I wrote “Tales of 4th Grade Everything.” As you’ll notice, tomatoes and I have had a thing for a long time; this past summer was no anomaly. What appears below is unedited from the original post.)
Food | Week of July 14, 2014
In keeping with the leftovers theme, this week I’ll be using some leftovers from last week’s farmers market haul, namely the delicious onions. Tomatoes are at their peak for the spring/summer planting, so we’ll have two different pasta dishes, one of which (the one with fresh tomatoes) is also good cold.
This recipe fromSaveur calls for more onions than many other recipes do, which is why I like it. If you want to save time, you can use frozen puff pastry dough instead of making the dough. The trick is not to rush the onions when cooking, or they’ll end up bitter instead of sweet. An arugula salad is good on the side, if you can still find arugula. Add some figs, if those are available yet.
Fresh Corn Soufflé
We like corn just boiled and buttered, right from the cob. But it’s also good in baked dishes like this soufflé, which has the added yum of bacon. Steamed green beans with a mustard vinaigrette makes a good accompaniment for this rich dish.
Pasta with Roasted Tomatoes
Roasting tomatoes gives them a deeper flavor and enhances their sweetness. If I buy too many at the market, I’ll roast, bag and freeze so they don’t go to waste. This simple dish is easy to prepare and also easy to modify if you prefer a different herb (or combination of fresh herbs) instead of basil.
Fresh Tomato Pasta
You’re thinking: “two tomato/pasta dishes in one week? really?” Yes, really. This recipe from Williams-Sonoma tastes good cold, so you can eat leftovers for lunch the next day. I also like to substitute feta for the Parmesan, which gives it an entirely different flavor.
Grilled Sausage | Refrigerator Pickles
This dinner may have to wait until the following week, if you don’t have a stash of refrigerator pickles handy. We have been making a jar or two each week for the past several, and we vary the recipe from week to week. If you’re never made refrigerator pickles (so easy – not at all like traditional pickling and canning), then here’s a good place to start. Serve with some grilled sausage and sharp mustard