Last night we gathered at my parents’ house to celebrate the three husbands’ birthdays – my father, my brother-in-law, and my husband. Their birthdays, in that order, cover almost a month – and, interestingly, all three are Aquarians.
Anyway – the group was made up of both the usual and newer members of our little family: my parents, my sister and her husband and their kids(Meredith, Jacques, Calvin and Natalie), my little group (me, Bill, and Alex) and my cousin Steve and his new family – his wife Colleen and the kids, Jake and Amelia. All the kids (except Alex) are around the same age, so they had a great time playing together and running around demonstrating karate kicks and patiently including Alex from time to time.
We all arrived within minutes of each other – Steve first, then Bill and Alex and I, then my sister and her family, and then Colleen and Jake and Amelia. Everyone congregated in my parents’ huge living room, with Mom periodically returning to the kitchen to check dinner’s progress.
At dinner there were two tables – the adult table (plus Alex) in the dining room, and the kids’ table in the kitchen.
Dinner, at my father’s request (being the senior birthday boy, he gets that privilege), was Cornish Pasties.
And that’s pasties with the “a” like the “a” in “cat”, not like in “paste.”
Cornish Pasties are basically hand-held pies that contain, traditionally, mostly vegetables and little or no meat. They are filling and cheap, and were easily carried to work and eaten by hand. My Dad’s mother was from Cornwall, England, and she used to make these for her family in America. My mother has carried on the tradition, and pasties have been a commonly requested birthday dinner for my father over the years.
Very simple to make – this is the version we usually had:
You make a batch of pie dough – not sweetened – and roll out some of it into a circle around a quarter of an inch thick. (Any size you want – depending on how much you or other people can eat at a time.)
Next, you slice some potato and some onion and some beef (all in small pieces) onto one half of the circle, add some salt and pepper, and then fold the other half of dough over to cover. You seal the edges by folding or curling about half an inch of the dough over and over around the perimeter, pressing to seal…or you could smash the two layers of dough together with a fork – whatever you’re comfortable with.
Then you’ll need to cut a few slits in the top so the steam can escape. Place the completed pasties on a baking sheet, an inch or so apart, and bake in a 350 degree oven until golden brown.
My mom used to make little letters out of some of the excess dough and “label” each pasty with our initials. This was mostly so no one would end up with hers, which also contained turnips. Dad’s mother liked turnips in hers, too.
Anyway, these can be eaten right out of the oven or you can let them cool to room temperature.
And now we veer off the path of tradition onto a little side road…
When I was growing up, we had them for dinner, and we’d all pretty much eat them the way Dad did – he sliced them around the perimeter, flipped the upper layer open, and added bits of butter to the steaming meat and potatoes inside. And then he poured some milk over all of it.
Bear with me – it sounds weird, but it’s pretty tasty.
I never knew, until last night, why we did this, other than because Dad did.
It’s certainly not the traditional way of eating them.
Apparently this all came about because when Dad was a kid, and his mother served them piping hot from the oven, she poured some milk (or cream) over all of it to cool it down quickly so Dad could eat. I think the butter was supposed to serve the same purpose. (I have a tiny memory of eating saltine crackers with butter on them in my grandmother’s kitchen, years and years ago – I must have been 3, as Dad’s parents moved to Arizona right around the time I turned 4….)
So anyway – that’s how our little family has eaten pasties over the years.
Mom sent us home with some of the leftovers, and Bill put ketchup on his at lunchtime today. I stuck with the butter and milk.
I remember my mother making pasties – or anything else that required working with dough – on the top of the dishwasher. The top was a thick piece of wood – a cutting board/chopping block type of thing which was extremely handy for kneading bread dough or rolling out pastry or cookie dough. The dishwasher was (and still is) on wheels – not the built-in kind – so when not in service for baking, it was rolled back to its place beside the refrigerator.
Yesterday, when Bill and Alex and I walked into my parents’ house, the smell of the pasties cooking was intoxicating. Dinner couldn’t come soon enough.
I remember when I attempted to make them for my father’s dinner for the first time. I wasn’t a kid – but I felt awkward and incompetent the whole time. They turned out okay, as I remember, but I was a wreck throughout the whole process. I felt like I had so much to live up to….yes, it’s only a meat and potato pie, really, but it’s family tradition and history and my mother’s seemingly effortless handling of dough that I was torturing myself with at the time.
Since then I have calmed down a bit and have also made pasties without having a nervous breakdown. I’ve made them wilth leeks and potatoes too, which is very good.
Last night Mom made several pasties, but in pie form – it was easier to feed a crowd that way and less time-consuming than making a bunch of individual ones. But she did, however, make one individual one for Dad.
Dessert was grapenut pudding (also Dad’s request) and chocolate pudding and a small Carvel cake for anyone not interested in the other two selections. A Carvel cake is an ice cream cake with little crunchy cookie bits in between the layers of chocolate and vanilla. Carvel is/was a chain of ice cream stores that offered soft-serve ice cream, probably hard ice cream too, and all kinds of ice cream cakes. They advertised on television at different times of the year and offered such celebratory-themed cakes as “Cookie Puss” and some sort of whale…I don’t remember…I think they offered a football-shaped one around Super Bowl time…
Anyway, I made the grapenut pudding and the chocolate pudding, both from scratch, and for some reason the chocolate pudding didn’t really set, so it was more like gravy. Some people poured it over their ice cream cake, which worked out okay. Alex gave himself a goatee of chocolate pudding and decorated much of the front of his shirt with it as well. He ate the ice cream cake.
We sang “Happy Birthday” as the little ice cream cake was paraded in, and after dessert came the traditional opening of the presents. After that Alex performed a wild almost-naked baby dance in the living room before my sister changed his diaper and wrestled him into his jammies. He was a little blond whirling dervish, and at first I thought he would surely throw up all of his dinner and dessert – he just kept spinning around and around – but then I realized – he knows what he’s doing! He was spotting, just like dancers and ice skaters do – whipping his head around and focusing on the same spot on the floor every time. He staggered a little now and then, but miraculously kept his stomach contents to himself.
Pretty soon after that all the adult kids and their respective younger kids said their goodbyes and drove home. It was a typical birthday or holiday gathering at Mom and Dad’s.
And it’s the last one.
My parents are moving.
After nearly 40 years in that house, they have purchased a smaller home about ten minutes away and by this time next month they will be living there instead of…at home.
It’s taken a long time – years – to get to this point. My mother did not – and does not, despite her resolve to think positive – want to move. Dad has been the one ready for this. The house is over a hundred years old and much bigger than they really need at this point. Dad has been logical and patient. Mom has been emotional. They are a good balance for each other.
And I have been sympathetic but also of the opinion that yes, maybe it’s time to down-size. There’s a lot to be done in caring for that house and yard…and after all these years, maybe it would be a good thing to cut back. At the same time, I’ve been telling my mother that I understand what she’s going through, at least from my perspective of having lived there my entire childhood.
But last night it really hit me for the first time. Really hard.
Bill and I were driving down the street toward my parents’ house, and I saw the sign out front, which has hung there, in various incarnations, forever. It was the sign for my Dad’s photography studio. The sign is red with white letters (it used to be white with black letters) and it is the first thing you see when you approach.
And then there is the house – huge and white, with a red front door (to match the sign) and an enormous maple tree in the corner of the front yard…a stockade fence blocking off the back yard. I used to climb that maple. We used to have a tire swing tied to one of the branches.
The house is on the corner of Main and Prospect. The Prospect side of the house is hedged in and slightly woodsy looking with some thin trees and towering lilacs and a wide variety of bird feeders. The kitchen faces both streets. You turn onto Prospect and then take a right into the driveway.
But before we did that, before we got to the corner, after I saw the sign, and then the big white house loomed in the darkness – I started crying.
It finally, finally hit me. And it hit very hard last night, and this morning, and now. And oh my God, even though it is the smart thing, the logical thing, the sensible thing to do – and the house they’ve bought is a nice “homey” house with a fabulous back yard that includes a great hill for sledding – this is my home. They can’t move.
But they can. In a few weeks. And I’ve tried to be positive and cheerful and supportive (the new house is a nice place) – but I’ve been ignoring how I really feel deep down because I didn’t want to turn into what I was a few times last night – a big bawling baby.
I wiped the tears away and took a bunch of deep cleansing breaths as we pulled into the driveway. We were right behind Steve, and he hadn’t seen my new car, so that proved a good distraction for me.
But later I made the mistake of going upstairs. Well – it was necessary – the bathroom is on the second floor and my bladder doesn’t have the space it used to.
I went into the bedroom that Meredith and I shared for years. I was there last weekend too – Mom has been offering us bits and pieces of things as they attempt to get rid of anything they won’t need or have room for in the new house. (Do you want any of these baskets? Anything from on top of the hutch? Anything in this room? In that room?)
So – our room. It doesn’t look like it looked when we were kids. It’s mostly a guest room now. But there are still things there from our childhood.
And they attacked me. From all directions. That framed, embroidered “Now I lay me down to sleep” used to hang on the wall…Dad put those shelves up…in that corner is the little wooden bear hanging from two strings that meet at the ceiling – you pull on the ends of the strings (just under his paws), one side then the other, and the bear “climbs” up the strings. That has always hung there….
And in the closet – up on the wall in the corner, is the fuse box and the breaker switch. I’m not sure if I’ve written about that before…but it’s a very scary part of our childhood. When Meredith and I were little, Dad told us that if we pulled the breaker switch down, the house would blow up.
I’m sure that was his way of ensuring that we wouldn’t suddenly cut the power to everything on the second floor…and it worked. To this day we won’t touch it.
…and there on the bureau are two framed black and white studio portraits – one is me, one is Meredith. We are little girls in white tights and dresses, perched on a footstool, smiling at the photographer – aka “Daddy.”
And those little girls shared this room from when they were both in diapers and slept in cribs.
When I was little, but still in a crib, I climbed out of my crib one night and painted the mirror with Desitin.
When I was little, the room was covered with grey wallpaper that had some kind of floral pattern in white with bits of green (I think). I thought I’d spruce it up a bit and was caught taping or gluing cut-out birds (which I had probably drawn) to the wallpaper. Soon after that the wallpaper was steamed off and the walls were painted. Dad put up those shelves and also put up a huge bullitin board for any artwork we felt inspired to create to improve the decor….
I remember crawling under Meredith’s crib occationally to retrieve the bottle she’d dropped during the nap or at night.
I remember when were were in twin beds that were positioned parallel to each other with a little night table in between…and one year we each got our own flashlight for some holiday. We’d lie in bed at night and point the yellowy beams of light at the ceiling and pretend they were bees flying around….
I remember when I was little I would have to sleep with all of my stuffed animals in bed with me, and it was important that they all be facing up so they could breathe. (How well they’d breathe stuck under sheets and blankets didn’t matter, as long as they faced up.)
I can’t type fast enough to keep up with this flood…and there’s a similar flood that comes close to drowning me in every room, every hallway, every staircase (there are four) in that house. Everywhere I look there are layers and layers of memories….
I took some more deep breaths and went back downstairs. Saw Dad in the dining room and said happy birthday and gave him a hug. A long hug, longer than I’ve given my father in years. And – there I went again. And he smiled at me and said “It’ll be okay.” And, with so many “its” swirling in my head at that moment, I asked “what will?” and he smiled again and said “whatever you’re upset about.”
And I think I stared at him for a minute before I realized that he’s right. It will be okay. It will.
And then my mother saw me. (I thought I had mopped up my eyes pretty well, but no.) And she asked what was wrong and I told her “nothing” and she told me she didn’t believe me, and I couldn’t speak any more and I just tapped on the door frame between the kitchen and the dining room…and she didn’t know what in the world I meant right away…and then she did. And I was five years old and she was telling me it was okay. And I pulled myself together again and met her eyes an nodded…and then told her it was hard to stay upset with her standing there wearing a cowboy hat. (A straw one that Dad wears sometimes in the summer when he works in the yard. I have no idea why she was wearing it, but it helped break the spell.)
I had this strange notion of taking a bit of time off from work when the actual moving day arrives…but now I don’t know how wise that would be. I don’t think I’d be much help, bawling as the movers cart out box after box of my childhood. I don’t know what it will be like to see those rooms empty. They have never been empty in my lifetime. They are not supposed to be empty.
And even empty, they won’t be empty enough for me, because I’ll still see – and hear and smell and taste and feel – layer upon layer of memories.
And I suspect I won’t handle myself well the first time I encounter this. Hell, I’m not doing very well now and the house is still full.
But after the shock and the tears and the sadness – no, I don’t like change all that much – Dad is right. It will be okay. Because the memories are only triggered by that house – they are not in that house.
They are in my heart and in my mind. And I can summon them up whenever I want to.
Right now, though, I kind of wish they’d go away. There are too many, and they are crowding me.
And I can’t take any more of them today, thank you.
So I’ll end this incredibly long post. And I don’t plan to proof read it, because I don’t feel like rehashing this experience. So forgive the typos and mistakes.
Time to go stir the tomato sauce and then go see what my husband and my son are up to.
Time to create another layer of memories here.