Archive for August, 2008

Ending Summer


It’s the last day of summer vacation for all kids in JCrewviille.  Weeeeee!!!!


Next week I take back the house.


No more scrambling to feed the neighborhood kids. No more black feet and bloody scabs. No more exhausted crying spells from back-to-back sleepovers.


Yet no more lazy mornings sipping coffee with a bed-headed, boney-butted, pj-ed lump in my lap. No more snuggling to watch a movie with a daughter who smells like popcorn and is giddy from being up so late.


Like every year, it ends bittersweetly.


I wish I could have done more with them. We didn’t go strawberry picking or ride a roller coaster. We didn’t sleep in a tent in the backyard.  We didn’t plant a vegetable garden or make homemade ice cream.


Instead I made sandwiches and beds.  I distributed Band-Aids.  I squirted bug spray. I found missing flip flops. I hung up wet bathing suits, combed hair and slathered Neosporin.


Next year, I’ll try and be one of those moms who does more with them instead of for them. But like all moms, I guess I did my best.


And next week, the house is all mine.






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So, my house…it seduced me. My husband and I were uncertain about moving here, so we’d take long drives up from Chicago and cruise the streets and poke around.


JCrewville is so pretty.  It looks like a small New England town with big trees and old houses –not a McMansion in sight. Leafy, with sidewalks (on which to walk your Golden Retriever), it has a downtown lit by old-fashioned gaslights, and a lake that hosts sailing lessons and an annual triathlon.


It’s gorgeous, but it was the house that sold me –a tall Tudor with a heaping mound of hydrangeas in front. It was one of only two for sale at the time. When we saw it I yelled out “Oooooo!! Can you imagine?” We stalked it for weeks, visited it three times and two months later, it was ours.


At least, it was ours on paper.  I learned soon after moving that houses here are often referred to by their most long-standing owners: the “Sheridans’ house” or the “Austins’ place”.  It turns out, we had bought the Carsons’ house…and the Carsons were moving only five blocks away.


Whenever I asked anyone for directions and told them my address, they’d say “Oh, you live in the Carsons’ house.” I heard this so often that after a couple of weeks, if someone asked me where I lived, I’d say (somewhat dejectedly) “In the Carsons’ house.”


And it felt like the Carsons’ house.  They had left a few stamps of their ownership behind – a growth chart on a doorway molding marked eight years of life for their three children.  Their shower curtains still hung territorily in the bathrooms.  Mr. Carson told my neighbor to ask me to look for his wedding ring.  He was sure he had lost it in the bathroom behind the radiator (which seemed a little Freudian to me).


The day we moved in, I found a big glob of peanut butter in the kitchen sink.  I was pissed and a little self-conscious about wiping it up. More proof that their bustling life had just exited the building. We received bundles of their mail that I collected in grocery bags and left on their new stoop. I found a silver bracelet on a doorknob that I threw in there as well.They’d been here a while, I reasoned. There were bound to be leftovers.   


Turns out, they weren’t sure they had really wanted to move.  I heard from my neighbor that Mrs. Carson had cried for weeks before the move. Mr. Carson had told the neighbors the eight years in the house were the longest he’d lived in any one place.


Though we had paid for it and moved our stuff in, I couldn’t help feeling like we had evicted them.  We were the intruders that had forced them out.  I wondered if the house sensed they were gone.  Did it miss them?


Everyone knew the Carsons. They were the same age as us, but in our new small pond, they were big fish. It was clear from their continuous incoming mail: they sat on charity boards, he was involved in city politics and Mrs. Carson was, of course, president of the PTA.


After our first block party, my neighbor kept talking about how much she missed them.  The “party just wasn’t the same” without them.  They were “the glue that held everyone on the street together”. 


It fueled an increasingly odd dynamic with the Carsons.  Though polite, from a distance, we could feel them eyeing us. We too, were guarded and suspicious despite our outward pleasantries.  We were the new second wife living in the first wife’s house.


Even after they moved to a bigger house on a leafier street, they were still attached to our house.  I learned after our first vacation that they peeked through our windows to see what we had done to the place.  I heard that Mr. Carson was telling people he wished he had never sold it. My neighbor told me repeatedly that the Carsons were waiting for us to invite them over for coffee.


We never did. I was getting sick of hearing about the bloody Carsons. We were the new people in town…no welcome wagon was calling me for coffee.


I was having a horrible time coping with my transition from working city mom to stay-at-home suburban mom. I was in the throes of a shattering identity crisis.  The idea that I had stolen the home of the friggin’ mayor and first lady was too much for me.


I tried to steer clear of them.  I didn’t want to invade Mrs. Carson’s territory any more than I apparently had.  I kept a distance from lovely people because they were her friends.  I didn’t join any clubs or volunteer in places where I knew she was involved.  But because she was everywhere, I ended up carving a very narrow space for my own path. In hindsight, it was stupid to feel so apologetic, but I was so blinded by transitional shock, I didn’t have any chutzpah left in me. 


It’s been seven long years now.  We’ve remodeled every room, painted over the Carsons’ growth chart and started our own. Aside from some pretty curtains in the master bedroom and our living room drapes (“very expensive drapes” according to Mr. Carson), we’ve made this house our own.  My kids know no other home but this one.


We’re still distantly friendly with the Carsons.  We have mutual friends, but we’re not in their same circle. We are ex-spouses that remain amicable because we both love the house.    


Recently I got to know a new friend, a mother of one of Elizabeth’s classmates.  She was dropping off her daughter and needed directions.  When I told her my address she said, “Oh you live in the Carsons’ house.”


“No,” I replied, “ I used to.”

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I once had this boyfriend who used to mock the contents of my refrigerator.  Whenever he’d come over, he’d make a big deal of opening the door just to see it there was anything new in there.  And there never was –just one dried-out jar of mustard, an old bottle of champagne and about 26 packets of take-out soy sauce.


“Are you sure you’re a chick?” He’d say, laughing.


I don’t know what he expected me to stock in there.  I couldn’t cook. I guess that was hilarious. But then again he dumped me.  So maybe on some level, it really wasn’t.


After we broke up, I vowed to get better in the kitchen.  I bought a bunch of pretty food. I filled up the fridge and staged it beautifully: fresh strawberries, bunches of lettuce, cheese and lemons. I didn’t need him anymore.  I had moved on.


Of course it all rotted, and I threw it out – even the cheese, which was stupid since that would have lasted a bit longer.  But what did I know?


I remember washing white onions – skin and all – and putting them (still damp) in plastic Ziploc baggies to store in the fridge.  One week later, I’d be throwing balls of blue mold in the trash. Boy, onions don’t stay fresh for very long, I’d think. Then again, it really didn’t matter. I couldn’t chop an onion to save my life.


Getting married didn’t change things. When my husband and I registered for wedding gifts, we blew the opportunity to collect the big-ticket kitchen gadgets. No Kitchen Aid mixer, no Cuisinart, no All Clad. Instead, we registered for Calvin Klein bedding, a shiny martini shaker and some random crystal vases. Le Creuset? Je ne le sais pas.  


Since we lived in a big city with an amazing restaurant on every corner. I never felt the need to cook.  When we got together with friends, it was always at a new neighborhood restaurant.  I lived in Chicago 13 years, and I don’t think I ever went to more than two or three dinner parties at someone’s actual house. 


Then we moved to Jcrewville, where dinner parties are the number one weekend activity.  


The first time my friend Jill had us over, it blew me away.  It was the week after Christmas.  There were elegant votives everywhere lined with hypercium berries. She made Thai food (yes, made Thai food) – with a starter course of lemon grass soup. Dessert was peppermint ice cream that she had hand-mixed and plated with a graceful swirl of dark chocolate sauce.


Jill was so gracious and everyone had fun, laughing and eating — all in the comforts of a loving home. It was a gorgeous evening.  I licked my plate and finished my wine. I was full and tired — of my culinary ineptitude.


I got home and decided to try that “cooking thing” again. 


I started watching the Food Network when Elizabeth was napping, and an entire education began to unfold. Ahhhh, so that’s how you chop an onion (which I learned to store unwashed in a basket I bought for the pantry), and that’s how you sauté meat without ripping it to death… 


I started slowly and stuck mostly with Ina Garten.  Her recipes are simple and so soaked in olive oil, salt and pepper they always taste good. I got some good responses at home so I kept going.


I tried more recipes. I tried winging it. I even hosted a few people over for dinner. After a while, cooking got easier, enjoyable even. A glass of wine, good music in the kitchen — what’s not to love about that?


I still have a lot to learn. I cannot produce a good ham on Easter, no matter what. It’s become the family joke. My pork tenderloin isn’t always tender, and my smashed redskin potatoes are very hit or miss (but when I do hit –mmmmmmm). But if that old boyfriend were to open my fridge now he’d be shocked –fresh herbs, flavored vinegars, chunks of real parmesan and virbrant, fresh produce. He’d see inside the fridge of a well-seasoned woman who lovingly bestows her cooking talents on someone else. That’s right, Dude, someone else.


I’d tell him I not only am a chick, I know how to cook one – with lemons, garlic and a little fresh thyme…and if you don’t like that, you can stuff it. 




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