Sunday, March 2, 2014

Slow thaw

Rosed sunrise

March came in without ceremony.  No lion or lamb marked the passage of days, rather the simple flipping of a calendar page.  Sunrises to sunset remain the same.  At dawn, a glow of apricot or berried red edges the eastern sky, and then in evening, the day brisk and cold with the persistent wind, and then a red fireball smearing to orange and ruby as the sun slips beyond the horizon and night creeps in.  The back fields is mantled in white, here scoured smooth and glossy, there scalloped in waves by the wind from the north.  The roads are narrow and bounded by bankings taller than a car, the leeward sides blurred with snow that settles in thick drifts across the dark pavement.   The rivers and streams are sheened solid or rubbled with ice that hides the fast black water below.  We are beyond cabin fever, impatient for the change in the air, the subtle softening that singles the approach of warmth and light, new growth, new beginnings.  It is slow to come.
Back of the garage
And so we busy ourselves still with indoor tasks: emptying and organizing closets, bagging clothes for the thrift store, sorting and filing papers in my office, rearranging the baking pantry.  It is busy work with a double purpose: to keep us from an early burst of spring fever and to establish a new routine, a new moving forward since my mother moved to assisted living.  Her absence is palpable, marked with both relief and regret.
For the past seven years, our life has been marked by my mother’s aging as she fell victim to all the slings and arrows that inevitability brings.  She has been through cancer, two surgeries, increased immobility in large measure the result of a work injury a quarter century ago, and the nasty creep of losing her memory.  As her abilities diminished and her life narrowed, ours did too, but so imperceptibility, in such small increments that we missed it happening, caught up in simply trying to support her as best we could.  The past week, as she has settled into her small apartment, made new friends, our lives have expanded too. I still visit her each day, call her every evening – a practice begun long before we all moved here – and we take her for appointments to the doctor, the hairdresser, but we have begun to reclaim the things that are important to us, reveling in the time we now have. I could feel guilty if I allowed myself, and there are those moments when I do, but we now are able to plan for and do those things that make our lives happy and full.
Each month, a flurry of catalogs arrive in the mail, and most are consigned to recycling, but others, especially as we wait for spring to arrive, provide a good diversion.  A new catalog came from King Arthur flour in yesterday’s mail, and I set it aside carefully for future viewing.  Kasey and the boys were coming for a winter supper of our homemade split pea soup, complete with simmered ham bones, and Kasey’s honey wheat bread, and macaroni and cheese and hot dogs for the boys who turn up their noses at the thought of pea soup, much as their mother did years ago.  That Kasey now likes this simple and satisfying dish is a joy to me.  So the catalog was tucked into a safe place for later.
It was a terrific evening.  A warm fire was burning, the smell of pea soup and cheese filling the house, the two boys delighted in separate turns in the bath tub, the original Cinderella on the TV, time together around the spool-legged table, laughing and talking, and surprise root beer floats as dessert for two delighted boys.  Of course, one ended up spilled under the table with the bigger boy down on hands and knees with a roll of paper towels, but it all ended well.  And then the house was quiet, dogs snoring in their chairs, maple and beech snapping on the hearth, and I turned to King Arthur.
I have long been a baker and I have long loved King Arthur flour.  I have multiple connections to the company, so every catalog is a delight.  I use nothing but KAF in my baking because it is consistent and reliable.  Rarely do I have baking surprises. It’s also in Norwich, Vermont, right near Dan & Whit’s General Store, a short drive from Wilder where we lived for much of my childhood, right next door to the Norwich Inn, and just up the road from the combination town green and school yard where the annual fair was held and I rode horses in the parade, and a host of other happy memories.  Dan & Whit’s was and appears to remain a classic general store that sold everything from penny candy to sturdy school shoes to home baked beans and terrific minute steaks from the butcher counter.  We went there for everything and I loved roaming the narrow aisles perusing the merchandise.
At that time, Norwich was a sleepy, little Vermont town just across the Connecticut River from Hanover, New Hampshire, home to Dartmouth College. Although doctors at the then Mary Hitchcock Hospital and professors from Dartmouth all made Norwich home, it was at heart rural and unpretentious, the perfect place for a company with the integrity and commitment to quality that it takes to win my loyalty.  Every time I open the catalog from King Arthur, I am transported back to that time and place, and thumbing through it last night was no different.  After two times through, I came up with a list of “wants” that a month ago I would have ignored.  They include both recipes and products, and I see some busy baking days ahead.  
With spring coming, the pages are filled with items and recipes built around both St. Pat’s Day and Easter, along with the usual terrific breads and rolls.  High on the list of must-makes is Chocolate Stout Cake: King Arthur Flour that calls to my Irish and my chocolate-loving sides.  What could be better than combining a dark beer and chocolate!
Scouting the voles
Then there are the Easter Cookie Wreaths: King Arthur Flour , nearly a copy of my Aunt Iva’s recipe.  Aunt Iva, my dad’s sister and gone now for more than a decade, used to amass huge platters of Italian cookies of every variety at Easter and Christmas. Aunt Iva married a first generation Italian American and embraced the culture, especially the food.  From her came many of the recipes I use now, but this one, although very similar to several I have, includes one new ingredient: King Arthur’s Fiori di Sicilia, a flavoring described as a “special blend of citrus and vanilla” which, along with the glazed icing characterizes this type of cookie.  The elusive balance of citrus and vanilla that I managed has never quite satisfied me, so I’m planning on ordering a small bottle to try it.  And while I am ordering that, I’ll likely get more glazing sugar, and mini cinnamon chips to make Snickerdoodle whoppie pies (also a KAF recipe), and perhaps some almond flour, and so it goes.   There will likely be a whole lot of baking going on here.
The gardening catalogs are also coming in now. Not the ones that offer seeds; those were ordered and received back in January and are waiting now to be popped into flats or sown directly in the garden come true spring.  These are the kind of catalogs that offer cold frames and irrigation systems, greenhouse coverings, pruning shears and boots, pots and plant markers.  They too absorb my full attention and make me peevish about the two-foot deep layer of snow still hiding the outline of the garden.  If the melt doesn’t start soon, I could break the family budget getting “ready” for the planting. 
But there are some subtle signs that winter is loosening its grasp, especially if one is watching carefully.  On the distant hills, the stands of beeches and birches, popples and maples are tinged with the faintish blush of pink, brought on by the increased hours of sun, the swell of sap through the once-frozen limbs.  The roadways into the sugar bushes that I pass daily are plowed where snow once lay deep, opened in preparation for tapping and gathering the sap that will become golden and amber maple syrup.  The voles in have begun to move beneath the snow, sending Monty into frenzied tunneling to search them out.  And, around the base of the trees, the snow slumps and settles in ever widening circles, a sure sign that warmth, although still fleeting, is not far away. When my mother calls, there is a new lilt in her voice as she tells me with delight that today they had a full turkey dinner at noon and she met two more people. I throw another log on the fire, pick up another catalog, and settle onto the couch. 

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