Category Archives: Memoir

Corfu Adventure, Part 4

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When my family and I arrived on Corfu in 1973, we were part of a long line of blow-ins. For a small island, it has a blockbuster of a history, and not surprisingly, features in Greek mythology. Homer’s hero, Odysseus, washed up on it’s shores after being shipwrecked. It’s strategic location between the Adriatic and the Ionian seas made it a great location for trade and an excellent naval base, and it’s turbulent history reflects that. The Corinthians founded the ancient city of Kerkyra around 734 B.C.E., while many others over the millennia, sought to exploit the island including the Romans, Goths, Venetians, French, and British. Interested to read more- http://www.greecetravel.com/corfu/history.html

My sisters and I were lucky enough to see, first hand, evidence of Corfu’s earliest settlers. With Dr. Augustus Sordinas, an expert on Corfu’s early human inhabitants, we explored the cave where he excavated the bones of wild cattle, deer, and hyenas, and flint tools dating from the Paleolithic period, about 25,000 years ago.

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At Sidari in the north of the island we were not the first to camp by a small river leading down to the sea. In the sandy cliff face we studied the layers of fossilized shells left over from Stone Age clambakes, and shards of flint, chipped into workable tools. I still treasure the finely worked flint spear tip I found poking out of the mud. We visited a man who lived in a remote coastal area. His home was built from marsh reeds, and inside, his bed was a raised pallet of earth. We watched in awe as he caught his dinner of sardines using a net weighted down with rocks that he cast into the shallow bay. He then offered Mum and Dad wine made from his own foot-crushed grapes. His lifestyle had probably changed little from that of his ancestors, hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago.

Some of the strongest memories of living on Corfu revolve around food. At first, my seven-year-old palate craved cornflakes and peanut butter, a throwback to home. I soon saw the light, and a pan full of fresh-caught sardines, fried to a crisp in olive oil was a treat—eyeballs and all. I even came to like the chewy texture of octopus.

Our favorite place to eat was on an unprepossessing backstreet in Corfu’s main town, Kerkyra. The tiny neighborhood restaurant had two tables outside and the same number inside. Grilled lamb kebabs, Greek salad fragrant with oregano and olive oil, and slivered potato fries—that’s all they made, but that’s all they needed to make. Afterwards we wended our way through the labyrinth of narrow, cobblestone streets of the old town, little changed since the Venetians laid them out five hundred years earlier.

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At Spianada square, overlooked by the ancient Citadel and moat (also courtesy of the Venetians), we joined in the passeo of Corfiots strolling along the esplanade flanked by its arched colonnade filled with cafes and restaurants. Sometimes we’d sit and enjoy a bottle of the local ginger beer, or lick ice cream and listen to the brass band playing in the bandstand. On Sunday afternoons, we watched the strange sight of cricket being played, a reminder that Corfu was a British colony in the 19th century. On our way home, we had to stop at a tiny dairy shop for a dessert treat. They served the most delicious, cinnamon-topped rice pudding. As soon as Easter was over and the restrictions of Lent, they switched to serving equally wonderful rich, creamy goats milk yogurt.

Another one of our greatest pleasures on Corfu was swimming. In addition to the small tourist beaches, surrounded by hotels, there were plenty of remote swathes of sand with only seabird footprints. Mum and Dad kitted us out with snorkels and flippers and we entertained ourselves for hours while Dad fiddled with his leaky underwater camera. Tourists would sit up and gawk as three small, blonde children swam in, often from half a mile or more offshore, and trouped out of the water like ducklings.

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Some of the best beaches for snorkeling were the rocky coves reached by a steep cliff path. The water was crystal clear and teeming with life. After a morning of swimming, we’d picnic in the olive groves: hunks of fresh bread doused in musky, green olive oil and topped with slabs of salty feta and slices of sweet tomato, and a handful of pungent little olives. Desert might be a juicy peach, or a square of sweet halvah made from crushed sesame seeds and honey. Heaven!

When it came time for my 8th birthday in the middle of July, I knew exactly what I wanted—a watermelon. I had fantasized about that watermelon for months, keeping my eye out for it every time we went to the market. The Irish climate precluded growing anything more exciting than cabbage, potatoes, and the rare zucchini in the early 70s, so this would be a first. On the morning of my birthday, my excitement knew no bounds at the sight of that huge, dark green globe. I carried it around the neighborhood showing it off to all my friends. Just as I staggered home with it, my arms gave out. Splat! It landed on the cobblestones in a pink, mushy mess. I was heartbroken—until Mum took me down the village to the watermelon man and I picked out another from his huge pyramid of ripe fruit.

To this day, nothing says summer and Greece and birthday quite like a slice of sweet, crisp watermelon.

Fifth & final installment coming soon

 

Greek Island Adventure, Part 3

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Have you ever daydreamed about something, and then that daydream came true? When I was seven years old, that happened to me.

It all started one grey, rainy January day on a family walk in Ireland, the country where I grew up. As my sisters and I splashed through muddy puddles, Mum and Dad said to us, “How would you like to go and live on the Greek island of Corfu?” The first picture that popped into my head was of a deep blue sky, a dusty white road, and an orange tree, heavy with fruit. In my daydream, I reached up on tippy-toe and picked one of those warm, juicy oranges. I couldn’t imagine anything more magical.

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In early April shortly after our arrival on Corfu, as we explored the island in our red VW van, we stopped on a deserted country road. Coming over the brow of a hill, I looked up and there, against the blue sky, were my sun-warmed fruit. The smell and taste of a fresh orange is a memory dart that will always recall that moment.

Spring was a busy time in the village of Kinopiastes. Everyone was cleaning and whitewashing their houses and streets for Orthodox Easter. This was nothing like Easter back home, and my sisters and I were eager to see everything. Instead of stores filled with chocolate eggs, we soon added a new word to our expanding vocabulary, kokkina avga. These were dyed red hen’s eggs. At the time, our Greek didn’t run to the explanation of their symbolism of the blood of Christ and the renewal of life. But we got that they were special. They were even baked into an Easter sweet bread.

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When the day came for the family we lived with to butcher the lamb for the Easter feast, we watched the gory details with fascination. The lamb was strung up and its throat slit, before being skinned and disemboweled. The blood was smeared in the shape of a cross on the fresh whitewash around the front door of the house. When the Easter procession passed through our cobblestone yard, led by Straggly Beard the village priest, we leaned out the bedroom window to watch. And then we ran outside to join our friends following the flower bedecked icon of Christ, carrying special white Easter candles. The narrow streets were lined with people, holding their lit candles and waiting for the procession, which would eventually wind it’s way back to the church.

On Holy Saturday, we were allowed stay up extra late to attend the special ceremony in Kekira, the main town. We could feel the excitement building all around us as we stood waiting in the dark. Finally, the priest held up the eternal flame and announced, Christos Anesti—Christ is Risen. All hell broke loose: bells tolled, guns saluted, and to our delight, fireworks exploded in the sky, illuminating the fort above the town. Soon a sea of well-wishers and flickering candlelight surrounded us.images-2

There is nothing like the smell and taste of lamb, slow grilled on a spit of charcoal. The Easter feast, like so many of the saint’s days and special occasions on Corfu, was a wonderful excuse for everyone to party. And of course that meant great food, and drink, and dancing. Grown ups sipped ouzo and retsina and laughed and joked. We were even allowed to have some watered down wine, though we preferred Gazoza, the local fizzy beverage. The village kids introduced us to a new game they played with the special red eggs. The aim of it was to crack your opponent’s egg without cracking your own.

Spring turned into early summer. The pace of life on Corfu took some getting used to. People rose early and headed out to work the fields before it got too hot. If you had shopping to do, you did it in the morning at the open air markets, or the bakery, haberdashery, and grocery stores. After lunch shutters were closed and shop doors bolted as everyone went for their siesta. vlcsnap-2013-10-14-22h17m04s10For a child, this was both the most frustrating and most wonderful time of day. How could grown-ups possibly sleep when it was hot and prickly under the sheets and the cicadas were making an ungodly racket in the walnut tree? Ah, but you could tiptoe outside and sit on the cool stone steps and watch the tiny lizards that ran up and down. You could go and steal a peach from the tree in the yard and eat it with the juice running all the way down to your elbows. You could explore the old cemetery and pick bunches of wild, magenta roses. And there was always the cooling relief of the village pump. Not everyone slept. Many of the older men—probably because they didn’t work nearly as hard as the women—preferred to sit in the shade and play backgammon or dominoes. I can still remember the sound of the click of the tiles and the tumble of the dice. And then, like the castle in the Grimm brother’s Sleeping Beauty, slowly the village would come back to life as evening came.

The village square was a nightly focal point for young and old. On weeknights, people brought chairs and gathered to watch episodes of the wildly popular General Hospital. Passeo started after dinner when the villagers came out to walk and talk. Arm and arm with our friends, we’d wander the streets sucking on ice pops and taking in the sights. Older folks would sit, gossiping, while groups of teenager girls and boys giggled and flirted under the watchful eyes of the grannies. We were amazed to discover that many of our playmates would be married by the time they turned sixteen. On weekends and special occasions, speakers were set up around the square and there was traditional Greek dancing. Eleni delighted in showing us the steps, and, arms laced around each other’s shoulders, we joined in the fun.vlcsnap-2013-10-14-21h24m12s14

We soon learned that children were considered the lifeblood of the village. New babies were carried around for everyone to admire. And chubby toddlers were considered fair game for squeezes and tickles from grandfathers to school kids alike. We couldn’t walk the streets without being hugged and pinched. In a small village everyone shares the daily joys and sorrows. During our time in Kinopiastes we were lucky enough to see a wedding, thrilled at the sight of grown-ups smashing plates on the ground, and a baptism where the naked baby was dunked under the water and came up dripping and squealing. Sadly, we also witnessed the communal grief when a young man was killed in a motorcycle accident. Over night his young wife joined the ranks of the black-garbed widows, clothes she would wear for the next seven years. But in that close-knit village we knew that she and her toddler son would never be alone with her grief.

When we had first visited, my sisters and I had been horrified by the hordes of curious people who had turned out to see the unusual sight of an Irish family invading their village. However, I will always be grateful to my parents for making the decision to live there, and to the community itself for embracing us and sharing their lives with us. It was a truly formative experience for a young child.                                                                 To be continued.

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Greek Island Adventure, Part 2

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Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals is the reason my parents loaded their three young daughters and camera equipment into the back of a red VW camper van and drove across Europe to go and live on the Greek island of Corfu. The book is an uproariously funny account of the years Durrell spent as a young boy living on Corfu. He wove such a magical picture of the island and its inhabitants and his eccentric family that my parents chose it as the perfect spot for their honeymoon. They too had a wonderful adventure and vowed to return. So there we were, a decade later, rolling of the car ferry in the main town of Kekira on a chilly March morning.

Our first weeks were spent searching for a place to set up house. Spiro, a friend who worked for the island’s tourist board, showed us around his home village. Kinopiastes, a traditional village, far off the tourist track, sat in the hills looking out over fields and cypress groves to the sea and Greek mainland. My sisters and I were horrified by the ever-increasing crowd of school children that followed us, giggling and shoving to get a good look at the three Irish kids. Even though the simple three-room villa set in a family compound on the edge of the village was a good fit, we thought we’d die if we had to be exposed to that kind of scrutiny on a daily basis. Luckily, my parents didn’t heed our moans.

We’d left damp, chilly Ireland in early spring, dreaming of azure skies and sun-drenched days. In late March when we moved into the villa, with its terrazzo floors and drafty green shutters, Mum dressed us in every layer of clothing we’d brought with us. We looked like strange mummified bodies, but then most of the kids in the village did too. Young children were kept swaddled in woolly layers, like plump, cocooned moths, long after the April sun had made us shed out sweaters.

We were rather spooked by the outhouse that consisted of a wooden box perched over a hole in the ground, and especially the thought of the scorpions that lurked there, just waiting to pinch our bottoms. But we soon got used to the little pink geckoes that clung to the ceiling, illuminated by our flashlights.

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It didn’t take long for us to find our niche in the village. The Gardigotti family who owned the villa and land around it had moved into a cottage on the far side of the cobbled courtyard with their three daughters. Angeliki (16), Eleni (12), and Yianoulla (4) became our constant companions and our guide to village life. Eleni and I made luscious mud pies under the giant walnut tree in the center of the yard. We chased the chickens and gathered their eggs. She showed us where the best Naspoli trees were, and how to harvest the delicious yellow fruit (throw a stick up at a clump).

Angeliki had finished school and her job was to help out with the household chores and keep an eye on things while Katerina and Tatsi, her mother and father, were off working the fields. I loved to watch her scrubbing the family’s clothes into a sudsy lather on the wooden washboard over a tub in the yard, all the while making sure her little sister wasn’t getting into too much trouble. Yaya, in her black widow’s weeds, was never far away and was always ready to wag a disapproving finger, or show her wonderful toothless smile at a good piece of gossip.

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After school let out for the day, Eleni and a small crowd of village children in their sky blue uniforms would lead us through the winding backstreets of the village, stopping to introduce us to shopkeepers, family, and friends. We soon learned to find our own way around, picking up useful Greek phrases along the way.

One of my favorite jobs was to fetch the bread from the bakery with my sisters. Before breakfast we’d gallop down the whitewashed side streets. The baker and his wife would be taking the fresh bread out of the oven on long wooden paddles. The whole place was shrouded in a fine layer of white flour. If you got up extra early, before the roosters started crowing, you could walk through the silent streets in time to catch the baker before he put the loaves in the oven. Then he would give us a lump of pale, yeasty dough to take home and fry in olive oil and sprinkle with lemon and sugar—the best doughnuts in the world. But on a regular morning, we’d fight over who got to carry the hot loaf. It never made it home intact. We’d gouge out fistfuls to gnaw on our return trip, while running the gauntlet of the grandmothers sitting on their steps wanting to pinch our cheeks and stuff lemons in our pockets.vlcsnap-2013-10-14-22h02m50s148

Mum and Dad wasted no time in getting down to the serious business of touring the island in the van to record the signs of spring that were everywhere. In the olive groves women picked the remaining olives from the new grass under the trees. Meadows were full of spring flowers and peach and almond blossom. Families worked together planting potatoes and tilling the soil around the vines. The last of the oranges and lemons lay in the ditches, free for the picking. At the end of the day, a procession of heavily laden donkeys, attended by their owners, would return to the village burdened down with sacks of olives and mountains of fodder or fresh-cut horta (dandelion greens).

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We set up camp beside a pond where the percussive croaks of the tree frogs kept us awake all night. With nets and collecting jars, we waded through the shallows, exclaiming over each new find. We scooped up newts and turtles and water beetles to examine at home.

Outside the villa was a long stone table set beneath a knotty trellis of grapevines, still bare of leaves. Here, our morning lessons took place with Mum, which largely consisted of recording in our diaries all that we had seen. Dad set up an aquarium so he could film and we could study the pond life before returning it to the wild. We examined each creature, reading about them in guidebooks, and then drew pictures of them. The village children were cautious at first. But when they saw us handling the toads and newts, they soon lost their fear. They would tell us the Greek names and we would tell them the English.

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Much of the fauna we encountered was new to us. Our squeals of joy were earsplitting when we found our first tortoise. Soon we had a temporary pen full of them under the mulberry tree, whose fruit they adored. We would watch the females being literally turned turtle by sex-crazed males, eager to mate.

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We tagged along with Angeliki when she went to tether the sheep and goats on a fresh patch of spring grass, charmed by the their newborn lambs and kids. And we were eager to help feed the plump baby rabbits. Little did we know we were helping fatten up the Easter feast!

All images from Yassu, Corfu by David & Sally Shaw-Smith

                                    To be continued.

VW Bus, Our Hippie Adventure, Part 1

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I know I must be hitting middle age because tsunami’s of nostalgia keep washing over me. The latest was prompted by the news that Brazil, the last remaining country to produce the Volkswagen camper van, also known as the hippie bus, is to end production after 57 years.

My seven-year-old excitement knew no bounds when Dad roared up the avenue in the second-hand, red VW bus. Our family was preparing to leave soggy Ireland to go and live on the Greek island of Corfu for six months. The bus was to be our home during the drive across Europe. Once there, it would become a mobile production unit while Mum and Dad made a series of documentaries on the people, history, and wildlife of the island. This was 1972 and I didn’t even know what a hippie was, but Mum and Dad with their three little girls packed into a VW bus must have fit the mold.

Mum set to work sewing bright orange curtains for the windows. Soon, with the film equipment stashed under the seats, we were off to catch the ferry to England. London in the early 1970’s was a psychedelic experience. I remember sleeping on the floor of a musician friend of my parents. It was all Indian prints and sitars and smelly incense, and it blew my provincial Irish mind. I lay on a makeshift bed on the floor gazing, transfixed at the first lava lamp I’d ever seen. But that was nothing compared to the thrill of driving up the ramp into the hovercraft that would take us across the English Channel from England to France, and feeling the airbags inflate beneath me, before skimming across the sand flats and splashing into the sea.

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We were on a very limited budget, so, even though it was March and freezing, all five of us spent our first night in Paris squished into the back of the van. To pee, we had to get out and squat in the gutter, much to the horror of the early dog walkers—their dogs got to poop on the sidewalks! Not surprisingly, after that we graduated to cheap hotels, at least one of which doubled as an up market brothel as my older sister later informed me.

In France my sisters and I discovered bidets, fizzy water, and Nutella. Who knew you could eat bread and chocolate? Surely an invention of the gods. Bolsters, on the other hand, were a form of torture, only good for annihilating your sisters in a pillow fight.

The van chugged valiantly across France and into Switzerland, where the heater conked out. By now it had truly become our mobile playground, filled with books and sketchpads and colored pencils. Entertainment was never hard to find. When my sisters and I got tired of squabbling, we could sit for hours gazing out the window at the passing scenery, marveling as we climbed up into the Alps at the snow-filled valleys. Until then I had never seen more than a dusting of the white stuff. Once we had driven through the Great Saint Bernard Tunnel and crossed into Italy, we begged to stop so we could sink, up to our uxters, in the snowdrifts at the side of the road.

On the outskirts of Turin, the driver’s window of the van got stuck, allowing in icy blasts of air. While it was being repaired, we spent a night at a wonderfully old and creaky hotel, undoubtedly haunted. Much to our delight, several black cats slept in a basket on the wooden counter that served as a front desk.

Riding the vaparetto through the canals of Venice, I felt like I’d stepped into a Richard Scarry book. They had water taxis, water ambulances, water police, and of course, gondolas. In St. Mark’s Square, on a chilly March day, the pigeons were more numerous than the tourists. We giggled as hordes of them descended on our outstretched hands to nibble the corn kernels we offered them. I still have the miniature glass goose I watched the glassmaker swirl out of yellow and black glass.

On the outskirts of Rome, my parents looked up an acquaintance. Unfamiliar with the eating habits of small children, he took us to a fancy Italian restaurant and plied us with Parma ham and slivers of dolphin meat. My devious seven-year-old brain went into action. At one point my mother turned and praised me for trying the unusual food. Little did she know there was a pile of discreetly rolled Parma ham deposited under the chair of the corpulent Italian gentleman at the next table.

My sisters and I fell in love with the Botticelli’s in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. From the windows of the museum we looked out over the Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio and marveled at the golden carp swimming below us. Whenever I see a Botticelli, I think of those golden fish.

Arriving in Rome late at night, we huddled in the backseat while Mum and Dad fought bitterly over the frustrating one-way system. When we finally found a hotel room, it was well past midnight and all the restaurants were closed. The owner, a cranky old English fart, said, ‘I hope your children don’t wet the beds,’ much to our indignation. We sat in bed eating handfuls of raisins and sipping watered-down whiskey. (I suspect that my parents merely wanted a bit of peace and quiet, but it’s possible that that is where I first acquired a taste for the smoky, burnt caramel flavor.) The next morning we began our Roman adventure with breakfast on the roof terrace of the hotel, overlooking Roman ruins, filled with cats dining on spaghetti provided by little old ladies.

The van roared past Naples and Mount Vesuvius in a hell-for-leather attempt to catch the ferry at Brindisi for the island of Corfu—our new home for the next six months.

It’s funny how of all the amazing ruins and sights we must have seen, these are the ones that stick in the crevices.                           Untitled1                     To be continued.

The Thrill of Twilight

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Do you remember the childhood thrill of playing outside at nightfall?

I was sitting in the hammock bemoaning the fact that it was only 7pm and the dusk was rapidly turning to darkness. From down the road I heard the excited shrieks and squeals of children playing outside, and the memories flooded back. Often when my parents had friends over for dinner, the grown-ups, distracted by free-flowing wine and conversation, would leave us children to our own devices.

Out into the twilight garden we tumbled, the dewy lawn cold underfoot and the wet grass sticking to our bare feet. A pale rock suddenly took on a ghostly hue. The silhouetted woods sent a delicious shiver of fear down our spines. Surely there was a witch lurking in there, or a wolf? All it took was one sudden creak of a bough, or croak of a crow coming home to roost to set us running, running fill tilt, arms outstretched to ward off shadowy objects. Our exaggerated shrieks of terror filled the air. Each circumnavigation of the garden ratcheted up the excitement until someone stopped to spit out a gnat, or scratch an itch, or wail over a stubbed a toe.

Cheeks flush from the chilly air, we’d sneak inside to run our fingers around the remnants of the grownup’s pudding bowl, sure that our giddiness was due in part to the rum in the chocolate pudding. Whispering and giggling, we’d shove snacks for our midnight feast up our sweaters and head out into the full-blown darkness. Flashlight bounced across the garden ahead of us, adding an eerie shadow-filled glow to our surroundings. We all knew that fairies were lurking in the roots of the hawthorn tree, or under the weeping willow, waiting to spirit us away to their magical world. Clutching each other, we’d creep into the vegetable garden and raid the raspberry patch to complete our feast.

We were never ready for it to be over, but at some point the adults would call us in to bed. No tooth brushing, just under the sheets with muddy soles, sticky fingers, raspberry and chocolate stained cheeks, and magical dreams.

The Stolen Child

WHERE dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

–William Butler Yeats (excerpted)

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Mellow Fruitfullness

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There’s a turkey gobbling in the woods behind the house, and condensation on the windows. There’s a low-slow cricket trill coming from the stone wall, the blue jays and crows are serenading the first frosty morning, and the squirrels croon to themselves in the black walnut as they fuss over their nuts. And so the slow countdown to winter begins. It seems like only yesterday I was marveling at the new foliage, fresh and hopeful, like clean laundry. Now the leaves of the maple outside my window are curling and faded to an anemic yellow. Melancholy is a good word to describe the feeling of September. Seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness, as the English poet John Keats wrote. It leaves me with an ache in my heart for the glorious, carefree summer days, real or imagined.DSCF0528

Yet at the same time a steady candle flicker of excitement burns in me. It’s time to refocus my energies on new projects, and reenergize the old ones. My brain that gets muddled by the soporific heat of July, and lazy in the enervating humidity of August, has clicked into gear. The days and night aren’t long enough for all the things I want to do. Like the birds and the bees, I have replenished my store of energy over the summer and am ready to get my fingers stuck into a cool, damp lump of clay and see if the magic happens. I’m itching to sketch up a new design to knit, and experiment with the bounty of the season in the kitchen. I feel ripe to bursting with ideas. I’m chomping at the bit to crank out the outline of a middle grade novel I’ve been dreaming up, and research a new picture book. My new camera is begging to be to taken for a hike. There are friends to visit, and trips to the city to take my freshly minted college student out to lunch. I think I’ve caught the squirrel fever—Quick, get it done. Get it done. Now if only the dwindling morning light would make it a little easier to get up in the morning.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
-John Keats, excerpted from To Autumn, September 19th, 1819
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Golden Moments

Yesterday was one of those crisp September mornings you could bite into like a perfectly ripe Macintosh apple. My youngest son, having started first grade the day before, was off for the Jewish New Year holiday. It was too good an opportunity to miss. We grabbed our cameras and headed out to our local stretch of the Appalachian Trail.DSCF0381DSCF0377

Our first leg of the trail runs alongside a dry summer meadow filled with purple aster and golden rod. My son marveled at the insect orchestra. I pointed out the different pitches and rhythms of the grasshoppers and crickets. We watched goldfinches flitting from seed head to seed head, stuffing their beaks. Trios of cabbage white butterflies danced around a mud puddle. A monarch flapped and drifted, seeking out the last flowering heads of milkweed. The air was sweet with the scent of virgin’s bower, the native wild clematis.

When we reached the woodland, the dirt path was packed, dry clay. But pushing up through the leaf mold, we spied several species of toadstool. When I told Milo about the extensive mycelium network that spreads underground from a mushroom colony, his imagination ran riot. He began inventing Rube Goldberg machines powered by mushrooms that sent secret messages down these connecting tubes.DSCF0370

We reached the boardwalk over the marshes and marveled at the variety of late summer flowers—turtleheads, purple loosestrife, jewelweed, bursting pods of milkweed fluff. At the suspension bridge we gazed down into the slow moving depths of the Pochuck Creek, looking for small trout. I think the herons had got there before us, but we did find an owl pellet stuffed with hair and delicate mouse bones.

At Turtle Bridge we counted nineteen Eastern Painted Turtles, and a water snake.DSCF0367

As we walked back through the woods, it dawned on me that at exactly this spot, six years ago, it had finally sunk in that I was going to have a baby—my youngest son. At 41, with two almost teens, the thought of another baby had been far from my mind. And yet, here he is, six years later, my late summer golden moment. What a gift.

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Mud Season

Mud-Wrestling

You’re a write eejit when you love to play in the mud.

It’s that time of year where I live. A few days of rain and sleet have melted the foot or so of hardened snow and ice and turned the top layer into a gelatinous, brown mess. I didn’t get out early enough for my run through the woods and the icy ridges that I can usually balance on had turned into a mushy quagmire. I came home up to my uxters in mud.

There’s always a stage in a project where it turns to mud. Each direction you look you’re wallowing in muck. How did you get here, and more to the point, how are you going to get out?

It’s all a matter of perspective, folks. Once upon a wet, misty day in Ireland—yes, that could be any day, but this one was particularly memorable—I was six and my eldest sister, eight, and our parents took us for a hike up a mountain in Connemara. (In Ireland you don’t sit around waiting for the rain to stop, otherwise you’d never go anywhere or do anything.) So there we were, the four of us, being pummeled by gale force winds on the top of a craggy peak, the car was a tiny speck far below us with acres of steep, godforsaken bog and sheep tracks between us and the chocolate bar I’d left stashed under my seat. My short legs were already aching, and my Welly boots full of sludge from falling in one too many bog holes. What’s a girl to do? As we slipped and slid our way back down the mountain, rapidly becoming more and more covered in mud and soaked to the skin, my mother gave up trying to keep us upright. “All right, girls, go for it!” That was all the encouragement we needed. My sister and I rolled down the rest of that mountain, bumping through tussocks of bog cotton and cushiony pillows of heather. By the time we reached the car we were beyond saturation point. My mother stripped us off and wrapped us in scratchy wool blankets, and we sat grinning all the way home, munching chocolate.

You see, sometimes you just have to embrace the chaos, not wallow in it. As the gardener and the potter and the writer knows, if you’ve got mud, you’ve got substance. It’s ripe for growing. But first you’ve got to play a little. Revel in the chaos, and then slowly, slowly, let it take shape.

Letting Go

You’re a write eejit when you treat your manuscript like your baby.
I’m not the overly sentimental type—or at least I do a good job of hiding it. I wasn’t the one blubbing like a baby at “Mary Poppins” (not looking at anyone in particular, man-mate!) But I confess, when I put my youngest on the bus to kindergarten for the first time, I did feel that mother-child bond stretch out like an over-zealous rubber band, and it brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye. That wee one that had been clamped to my hip and shin for five years, had just blown me a kiss from the other side of the road and hopped merrily on the bus without a backward glance.

Okay, okay, I hear you groan—not another Mommy blog. Well, yes, but just this once, and only to make my point. (I’m not above exploiting my kids.)
So it’s with trepidation that I prepare to send premier child off to college. What if I didn’t get it right? What if I read all the wrong child-rearing books? (Actually, I don’t think I read any.) But what if I didn’t feed her enough kale or Vitamin D. Maybe I shouldn’t have had her vaccinated, and maybe all those fluoride treatments were a mistake. I didn’t teach her to ride a bike. I didn’t talk enough about sex, or maybe I said too much. I showed, but didn’t tell. Maybe I suffocated her character—didn’t let it evolve naturally. Should I have insisted she not swear so much?

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And then I pull myself up short, because I’m being as neurotic about my parenting of my daughter as I am of my books. Can you parent a book? I hear you ask. Yes, most definitely, yes!
You have sleepless nights while it’s in the newborn phase—lying awake for hours wondering if you’re doing it right. You can’t imagine how your baby can ever grow up and demand less of your attention. And then slowly you hit your stride. Sometime you’re cruising along taking every corner like a pro. Other times you’re flailing around like a one-legged roller skater. Sometimes you get to the stage where you just want to throw up your hands and yell, “I quit!” But you can’t. You’re in it for the long haul. And then there are those few and far between days when every, just every little thing, is bloody brilliant.
And as with parenting a child, there comes a time when you have to push that offspring out of the nest. No more editing, looking for stray commas, dangling modifiers. You’ve given it a good talking to and told it to do its best, and never go home with a guy who’s weirder than its brother, and . . . It’s all about giving it wings and letting it fly.

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Photo by Peter Barron

 

Cotter Pin

1bike2 Old Bicycle

You’re a write eejit when your cotter pin takes a hike.

One summer I was waiting tables in Montauk, Long Island. I bought a cheap bicycle to get from my flop pad to the beach to the restaurant. It worked, barely. Some sage person advised me that the reason items of machinery (the names of which I am not privy to) clicked around and around when I pushed down on one of the pedals, getting me nowhere fast, was because my cotter pin was missing. Well, today, the cotter pin that keeps my brain from banging around in my skull failed to report for duty. You know that feeling when your gears are spinning but not engaging?

I faffed—don’t you just love that word—around for the day. I poked at my latest query letter. Godricks jockstrap, they’re hard to write! Why are there fifteen ways of saying anything?

The clichéd: When Miranda loses her boyfriend to sexpot Lavinia, it can only mean one thing—she must discover her inner diva and fight back.

The colloquial: Miranda goes apeshit and swears she’ll get her pound when Lavinia, the local ho, jacks her two-timing piece of sh*@ fella . . .

The businesslike: Miranda’s boyfriend cheats on her with the popular girl in town. Miranda takes up pole dancing and swears revenge.

Okay, lame examples, but you get my point. Not a task to be undertaken when your cotter pin is slipping.