Search This Blog

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sheer Delight

For sheer delight, I'll take organdy. The summer before she died, my sister Sari gave me a copy of a picture she had unearthed when cleaning out her den. It shows our mother, Eileen, and her younger (her only) sister, Mary Elizabeth, known to us as "Lil."


In this photo, which I'd never seen before, Eileen and Lil seem to be in their early 20s, so the picture must have been taken around 1925. The background is an old brick building whose barred windows make it look like (but surely it wasn't?) a small-town jail.


Eileen is, of course, the taller one. Did you ever see the New Yorker cartoon of two little old ladies on a park bench, wearing overcoats and babushkas, and one says to the other, "Are you the smart one and I'm the pretty one, or is it the other way around?" According to family legend, Lil was both the smart one and the pretty one. Eileen was tall and gawky, a galumphing galoot, to her mother.


This picture could have been taken yesterday, so fashionable are the two dresses. Eileen's is the stand-out, and I'm sure she made it herself. From the low waist hangs a white organdy skirt of multiple layers. The sleeveless black top might be heavy silk. But here's my mother's talent for you: the skirt has a slanted hemline, longer on the left side than on the right. The angle of this slant is exactly echoed in the slant at the lowered waist where the skirt attaches to the bodice. And the same slant—the same angle exactly—is echoed again in the neckline of the black top. It's a masterpiece of dressmaking. NOW who is the brilliant one, the beautiful one, the sister to be watched?


I saw two sisters this morning, and it made me cry. I was crossing Quebec Avenue, and I saw them coming toward me. Early- to mid-twenties, blond, casually dressed, the pair of them so similar in body type and movement that there was no doubt that they were sisters. As they passed me I heard them speaking Polish to each other, and I envied their easy communication, their taken-for-granted closeness. I wanted to say, "Savor it! Love it! Be aware of it!" But I already have enough of a reputation as a crank; I don't need to add fuel to the fire. I said nothing, but in my heart I yearned for that easy sisterly love.


Sari and I looked alike and yet totally different from one another. It's all in the angles. But there was never any denying that we were sisters. I could answer the door at her house and her acquaintances would step back in surprise. Was this their Sara or not? (On the telephone, no one could tell us apart—nor distinguish us from our sister Mary Eileen.)


I've left Mary out of all these musings, haven't I? Mary and I are very similar in temperament (two introverts to counter Sari's exuberance). But each of us was closer to Sari than we were to each other.


That's changing now, simply because Sari is not here any longer. But no matter how close Mary and I become, no matter how much we love each other, no one will ever confuse one of us for the other: we look nothing alike. Mary is a throwback to our Irish ancestry: dark hair, pale complexion, and brilliant blue eyes. The rest of us look like the English/Irish/Scottish mongrels that we are.


Now where did I start? Let's end up with sisters: "Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters . . ."


Sisters are a sheer delight. Like crisp white organdy.

Copyright 2009 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Washing Dishes

Washing dishes is a private, peculiarly personal, activity. No two people do it the same way. And it seems to me that people are quite territorial about washing dishes. I'll let someone else do it in my kitchen, if I have to, but I don't want to be there to see them doing it all wrong.


For that's how everyone else does it: all wrong. One of my daughters used to let the hot water run during the entire time she was at the sink. Needless to say, she didn't learn that at home! I had to leave the room when she washed the dishes, even if it was in her kitchen, not mine.


So what makes my way the right way (aside from the very fact that I am the one doing it)? To start with, I never use a dishpan. Years ago I decided that a dishpan was an extraneous piece of equipment that just took up space. I do have a supply of rectangular plastic tubs that could conceivably be dishpans, but I use them for other, basement-type activities. I use them to dye small batches of fabric (larger batches I dye in the washing machine) or to pre-soak stained or really dirty things, like gardening gloves, before I wash them.


Not only do I not use a dishpan, but I never use the sink-stopper either. In my experience every sink stopper eventually allows your hot sudsy water to leak down the drain—and so slowly that you don't notice until only an inch of water remains.


Here's what I do. I fill the largest item to be washed—a mixing bowl or a three-liter pot—with the hottest water and a big squirt of liquid detergent. The cheaper your detergent, by the way, the larger the squirt you need to get you through the load of dishes. I think the manufacturers of the cheap stuff just buy the expensive stuff and water it down, five to one.


Anyway, into my bowl of hot suds I pile every little item in reach, placing the rest, the orphans, in the other side of the double sink. Gradually, during the process of washing and rinsing, I fill those orphans with hot water and soap from the Mother Bowl, so that they are soaking until I get to them. Such efficiency! Can anyone else be as efficient as I when it comes to doing dishes?


I drain my clean bowls and pots and pans on a hanging rack that I invented and installed over the sink.


We have a dishwasher. My husband, when he does the dishes, puts into the dishwasher every glass, plate, and piece of cutlery around, leaving him with only the larger items to wash by hand. I find this heartless. When I do the dishes, I like to hand-wash the dirty glasses and spoons I find, giving them a day at the spa, so to speak--a respite from the harsh detergent of the dishwasher. In addition, this is an opportunity for me to scrub them clean of the baked-on bits that the dishwasher leaves. An occasional hand-wash keeps them shining.


But why do I love this, you're still asking? How do I feel when I do dishes? I stand at my sink and gaze out the big window with a view of my neighbor's back porch and then, beyond, the little courtyards of the condo apartments that stretch on toward the north. But actually I'm not seeing anything at all. There's no view to see. No wildlife except the ubiquitous black squirrels, an occasional flock of bickering sparrows, and a glimpse of Nosey, our neighbor's Siamese, as he repeats his feline ritual of "I want in. No, I want out."


So I don't really see anything. But what I am aware of—what I sense—is the hot water, the clean feel of a glass or a pot when I rub my fingers over the surface. I love knowing that if I find a tiny flaw in the smoothness, I can use a scrubby pad or my fingernails or a plastic scraper to eliminate the flaw.


As I work through the pile of glasses and cutlery, pots and pans, I wipe the stove and the counters. I wash dishes until nothing is left on the counters or in the sink. The kitchen is clean. Well, the kitchen is at least tidy, because I haven't done the floor. Nor will I, today.


Someone's grandmother once reminded her that your after-dinner dishwashing is not finished until all the dishes have been washed, dried, and put away, and the floor has been not only swept but mopped. I draw the line at this. If I swept and mopped the floor every evening, there would be nothing left to feel guilty about the next day! Sufficient unto the day is the cleaning thereof. Or something like that.


Let me throw in a few words about laundry, here at the end. I long ago realized that I do the laundry frequently in order to camouflage my failure to clean the house. At the end of a very non-productive day, when the dust is still on every horizontal surface and beginning to collect on the vertical ones, I might say, "I did three loads of laundry today." In reality, of course, this simply means that I carried a few baskets full of dirty things from the top floor to the basement, then I transferred them from one machine to another, and then I carried them back upstairs. This doesn't take much effort. But it definitely sounds better to say, "I did three loads of laundry," than to say, "Today I did nothing but read."



Copyright 2009 Ann Tudor

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bushel Baskets

Bushel baskets symbolize the autumn harvest, which may be why I love them. My husband doesn't have a history with bushel baskets, and he seldom (oh, admit it, he NEVER) gets the terminology right, referring to a bushel basket instead as "a bushel." As in "I put the clothes from the dryer into a bushel." It drives me mad!! (Thirty years of this, after all.) But luckily I am usually cognizant of my own few failings (so very few) and I go for the trade-off. Nonetheless, I copy-edit his phrase, in my mind if not aloud.


Where was I? In my mind I was surrounded by bushel baskets full of tomatoes and red peppers. Or I was standing before our basement stack of bushel baskets, the clean ones sometimes selected for overflow laundry duty, the dirt-encrusted ones taken outside as needed to transport leaves or compost. Having a stack of six or eight bushel baskets makes me feel wealthy, ready for any emergency. (Well, not a broken arm; they wouldn't be much help to someone with a broken arm . . .)


When we remember, we take our extras back to the market, because farmers always need bushel baskets for their produce. I don't know who manufactures bushel baskets these days. They're inexpensively made—no fine edges, no sanding of their splintery wood—but strong and useful. Isn't that a goal for all of us? Wouldn't we all like to be strong and useful—and ultimately disposable, bio-degradable? (Except for the wire handles, which correspond somewhat to our own metal fillings, artificial knees and hips, and other man-made additions to our otherwise biodegradable bodies.)


Several years ago we bought a bushel of tomatoes. Together, husband and wife, we carried it from the borrowed car, up the six steps to the front door. Even sharing the load, one of us on each side, it was much too heavy. I pulled a back muscle, and ever since then, our massage therapist refers to it as my "tomato back."


Don't carry things that are too heavy to carry. Instead, here's what you do. Place the heavy bushel basket of tomatoes on the sidewalk. Go down to the basement and bring up one or two of the extra bushel baskets you keep there. Now transfer some of the tomatoes (a double handful at a time, to avoid bruising them) into the empty basket. Carry the tomatoes inside in small batches. Do not lift a full bushel basket of plum tomatoes. Do not lift even one side of such a basket. Avoid tomato back.

Copyright 2009 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, May 10, 2009

An Avalanche of Photographs

I want to talk about photographs--the unsorted and unidentified photos that sit in boxes on the high shelves in my office. Each box holds records of family gatherings. The happy moments of our children's weddings, for example, or photographs of family members around our dining room table—sometimes happy faces, sometimes faces that are smiling but noticeably unhappy beneath the smile. Quick snaps of unprepared people with closed eyes. Posed photos that look posed. Plus innumerable shots of nature: close-ups of tulips, panoramic views of an unidentifiable mountain range or a featureless prairie. And nary a name or a date on any of them.


A couple of years ago I culled a lot of the nature photos and put them in the crafts room to be cannibalized. I use them to make greeting cards—sometimes stamping out a tree-colored or flowered-bedecked moose with a moose punch (can you imagine what a moose punch tastes like?). Then I insert one of those punched-out mooses (meese?) into some other landscape photo. In this way I will, over the next ten or fifteen years of making greeting cards, eventually get rid of the hundreds of pictures of places I've been but can't remember. Is this a shot of the Rio Grande around the Pojaque Valley when Coleman lived there? Is this a picture of that state park outside Syracuse? Is this a picture of the narrow end of my friend Anne's lake? Who knows? But I've found that all nature photographs benefit from the addition of a moose to a path or a cliff or a pond.


So this will use up some of the nature photos. But what about the hundreds of candid shots of people I know and love? What to save? What to pitch? Save them all just as they are, in unmarked boxes, and let someone else deal with them when I'm gone? Or organize them (oh, no!) into albums, painstakingly adding to each one the names of the subjects and an approximate date? Now there's a project for a long snowy winter. A long, long snowy winter. All winter. No reading. No needlepoint. Just night after night of "Who's this?" or "Do I have to list every single person in this picture?" or "Was this in 1980 or in 1993?" Oh my!


Photographs. And now I have a digital camera, whose manual I must read so that I can figure out how to take—oh, joy!—more pictures. What's wrong with this picture?


Copyright 2009 Ann Tudor   

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Real Food

Not long ago I was offered some Triscuits, which are now apparently baked rather than fried and are free of trans-fats. I used to love Triscuits (a long time ago, before I knew what was in them). So I ate a Triscuit, just for old times' sake.


I wanted to gag. These Triscuits were labeled "roasted garlic flavour," and they tasted of very stale, strong, artificial garlic flavor. I know what roasted garlic tastes like: nutty and delicious and faintly garlicky. This Triscuit tasted like a collection of artificially manufactured chemicals. Not a real flavour in the bunch.


I began to reflect on the decline of the real. If a child grows up with these artificially flavoured snacks, then she never learns what a real flavour is. And it's no wonder that people overeat. Once you trick your mouth into thinking that these Triscuits taste good, you eat a lot of them—and you keep eating because you keep waiting for the moment when you feel satisfied. But you never will feel satisfied because they have no real taste.


This is the situation for those North Americans who regularly eat industrialized foods with no nutritional value and no taste. It breaks my heart.


I started this piece many months ago (just after having tasted that Triscuit). Since then, Michael Pollan has written his book-length, beautifully argued piece on the same subject, which I urge everyone to read: In Defense of Food. Among many other suggestions, he urges us to eat only food that our great-grandmothers would have recognized as food. (That pretty much lets out Triscuits.) And when you've finished Michael Pollan, you might want to read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a non-fiction account of her family's year of eating locally.


Bear with me. I don't proselytize very often. But this is important!


Copyright 2009 Ann Tudor