Night falls gently as my husband and I walk the dogs this evening: The last of the lightning bugs flash lazily. Clouds gather thick and close. Water rushes along the sides of the street, but for now, the rain has passed. From the trees, the katydids sing and respond; sing and respond a harsh percussive three note tune while the crickets offer a gentle lullaby from tall grasses.
Autumn is a time of gathering up: a time for the bringing in of the harvest. It’s a time for shaking the sand from one’s feet and for folding up the beach towels; a time for exchanging flip flops for sturdy shoes and backpacks.
Autumn is a time to gather in one’s family; to sit extra long at the dinner table, exchanging stories of the day; a time to see the yellow glow of lights in the windows of other houses and know that they, too, have gathered together.
The sun reels in her arms of gold a bit earlier every day; lazily casts them out a bit later; a bit closer every morning. But it’s too early in the season to tire of the darkness: the change is welcome; comforting; new.
I gather some acorns from the sidewalk and am reminded of the chestnut trees: every autumn, two miles from my house, families meet beneath the trees to gather up the chestnuts fallen to the ground. They will come with plastic bags and broom sticks; kneeling in the grass or banging sticks against tree branches, filling their bags with nature’s bounty.
I must confess feeling both admiration and jealousy at this sight. I admire the knowledge of these people. I admire their independence and the wisdom passed down through the generations. I want to fill my bags with chestnuts. I want to join these people living off the land in this preserved place where bikers ride and walkers brisk by and parents stroll with babies beneath the cool billowing clouds. But I drive on and head to the grocery store to gather what Squints needs for his week of cooking.
* * *
“I’m Crazy Chef now, Mom.” Squints said, consulting his list, a list grouped by recipe rather than by category:
Back and forth, we wheeled the cart, from bread to produce to dairy and back again. I was exhausted.
“Squints,” I said, out of breath, “you go get the steak. I’ll get the halibut.”
He glanced at his list. “Two pounds, Mom.”
“Gotcha.” I headed to the fish counter. And you know? I really ought to get out more. I stood there, stunned.
“May I help you?” The man behind the counter asked.
I pointed to the fish. “Is that price for real?”
“Think I can get away with half a pound for a family of five?”
Again, he laughed. “Two and a half pounds, minimum.”
“Two pounds.” I held up two trembling fingers to be sure my message got across and felt my debit card lighten in my back pocket.
Squints came up, holding a ten dollar steak.
“Look at the price of this fish!” I pointed.
“Halibut,” I said, tossing the package into the cart. “I’ll tell you what’s Crazy, Chef. Paying twenty dollars a pound for fish is crazy. Don’t tell your father.”
He grinned. “OK, Mom.”
“It better be good,” I warned.
* * *
Squints’ first meal was Pioneer Macaroni and Cheese. I’m not certain what pioneers have to do with macaroni and cheese, but it seemed an appropriate recipe with which to launch his first solo venture into the kitchen. He filled a pot with water and dumped in two pounds of macaroni before turning on the stove. “Go away, Mom.”
“Professional chefs don’t have their mothers hanging around in the kitchen.”
I went to the basement.
“How do I make a cheese sauce?”
“Brown some flour in some butter. Add some milk. Add cheese.”
“But how much cheese? How much milk?”
“Just guess,” I said. I inherited from my father a healthy disdain of directions. There’s something about figuring something out on your own without having to consult pages and pages of directions and warnings written in tiny script. Success without directions is that much sweeter. Independence is sweet.
Squints ignored my bare-bones instructions: He threw all the ingredients into the pot and turned the gas on high before heading out to take the dog out for a walk.
Ten minutes later, he called down the stairs again. “Hey, Mom!”
“This tastes great! I bet this is the recipe Kraft uses!” He came down the stairs with a spoonful of stringy white cheese suspended in orange, greasy milk. “It looks kind of funny, though. Want to try?”
“I think I’ll just wait for dinner.”
“No, try it.” He persisted with the spoon until I took the tiniest of tastes. “Isn’t that good?”
Squints folded cloth napkins and set the table and filled a glass pitcher with water and thick slices of lime. That night, we gathered around the table and ate mushy macaroni with stringy cheese and pronounced it delicious.
Squints was his biggest fan.
For the next night, Squints decided upon cheese steaks and homemade popsicles made of a concoction of hand-squeezed lemons and oranges and limes mixed with a box of gelatin and then frozen. Squints took that ten dollar steak, sliced it and fried it with onions. He cut open crispy buns and put the meat and onions on top before covering it with a couple of slices of provolone.
“Need any help?”
“I’m good, Mom.”
I headed upstairs to fold some laundry. A few minutes later, I smelled something funny: I smelled something burning. I went back down the stairs; glanced at the oven: The timer was set for eight minutes.
“Why’s that timer set, Squints?”
He grinned and gave me a thumbs up. “Put the cheese steaks under the broiler, Mom. Think ten minutes ought to be long enough?”
We enjoyed our cheese steaks well done that night. And the popsicles? Well, by ten o’clock, they hadn’t frozen, and so we drank them instead.
* * *
The other day, a friend of mine asked me if Squints would like to participate in a cooking competition. “He’ll just be my assistant,” my friend warned. “And he’d have to be in period costume.”
There’s a thrift store not too far from my house. “No problem.”
“Come on over so we can talk things over. I can help you with your costume.”
* * *
“I have some pattern books,” she said later, pouring Squints some iced tea.
Horrible images flashed before my eyes: All that cutting and pinning and those funny notches (do you cut them in or out?). Interfacing and buttons and ironing. Oh, that ironing. There had to be a better, faster way. And when I was twelve, I thought I had discovered it: All I had to do was put the iron down on one area of the fabric, let it sit there for awhile—ten minutes or so—grab a snack and return to relocate the iron to another wrinkle. Genius!
The hole in the yoke of my dress brought my sewing career to a sad and brutal end. Today, I only sew when pressed: a crappy Halloween costume; a shaky hem; an unconfident tuck of needle into fabric; a tentative foot upon pedal until the tension on the machine gathers up the threads in angry knots on the underside and I find I’ve stitched through three layers of fabric instead of two and I want to drop it all and shout out, Hey, Mom?” and hope that my mother will drive three hundred miles to fix it for me.
My friend must have seen the look on my face. “Do you sew?”
“Infrequently and very badly,” I said, thinking of the curtains hanging—embarrassed—from the windows in my house, their white lining peeking out from under the fabric like underpants beneath a dress.
Her eyes twinkled. “You’re in good company. Most people from that time period felt the same way about sewing.” She handed me a book. “This should help.”
I opened it. “But…But…” Sewing directions didn’t begin with “Dear friends,” before launching into a description of the weather and the crops. I scanned the page. At the bottom was a sketch of a rectangular piece of fabric with the explanation that this was a rectangular shirt, common to the times. Each piece of the shirt was a square or a rectangle: Rectangular cuffs and neck; rectangular front and back, square gusset. Gusset? What was that?
I wondered whether it was too late to back out.
“You’ll be fine,” my friend assured me as we walked out the door.
At home, I made myself a pot of coffee and sat down to read. Make the shirt fall to mid-thigh or knee, the directions said. Measure the arm and add six inches depending upon where you want the sleeve to fall. Make the collar four inches or maybe six; it’s really up to you. I longed for a pattern to cut away; for those stilted, straightforward no-nonsense directions a person like me needs in this situation. And then, I realized: I’ve spent nearly all my life looking over my shoulder at the past, but when suddenly confronted with it, I wanted to run away.
I sneaked off to the fabric store to buy a pattern. “It’s close to Halloween,” I told Squints. “They’ll have something.” We turned to the costumes in the back of the books. Devil. No. Ghost. No.
“Can I be this for Halloween?”
I glanced at the picture. The costume, some sort of a ghoul, required massive quantities of sheer fabric. I frowned. “We’re not working on Halloween.”
Frankenstein. No. Cheerleader. No.
“Would this pirate outfit work? The pants look about right.”
I left the fabric store in despair.
“Call a historical site,” my husband suggested, knowing how my mood suddenly changes when I’m confronted by a needle and thread. “Just order something.”
“Are you kidding me? She gave me bone buttons,” I said. “She’ll know it’s store-bought the minute she sees it.” So that night, an archaic sewing manual to my left and Google to my right, I began.
I sewed and I groused and I cut and I ripped out seams too many times. I researched gussets and the best way to insert them. I gathered the neckline and attached the collar. Finally, except for the bone buttons, I had finished. I emerged from the dining room holding up a lopsided shirt for my family to admire. “What do you think?”
I was my best fan.
I started on the pants the other day. I studied the sketch in that book, wondered how in the world I would ever manage to make the butt curved. And then I noticed another gusset in the crotch. So I went online and Googled Revolutionary costumes boys and ordered a pattern.
Because sometimes a little independence is good. But sometimes you need a bit of direction.
* * *
Squints made deep dish pizza for dinner. And when everything was in the oven and the kitchen mostly clean, he came into the dining room and plopped onto a chair.
“Today is the last day of the Crazy Chef's kitchen for a tiny while.”
“That’s OK,” I said.
My bank account—and my stomach—could use the break.
Oh, and the halibut?
It was delicious.
Labels: Automation, Boys, Consumption, Cooking, Family, Independence, Sons