Wren

The small wren comes to the screened porch every morning, now that the hurricane-removed door no longer prevents her entry. She is a cheer-bringing sprite, and efficient in the extreme. She methodically investigates every single inch for screen for bugs of interest that have become stuck in the mesh. Then she flies from chair to chair, perhaps scanning for crumbs from our last night’s supper, then checks out random spots on the floor until she has completed her morning rounds.

I hear her singing now. Time to fly.

The Come-Back Cactus

When Harold and Louise chain-sawed their way from our gate to the house after Hurricane Ivan so we could drive all the way in when we returned from Scotland, they walked all around, assessing the damage.

One thing they found was a Christmas cactus plant. It had been hanging, forgotten, within the shelter of a big oak’s branches. The top of that oak was blown out, turned into a projectile that took out a nearby pine. Harold and Louise found the cactus some 200 yards away, tumbled, broken and out of its container.

They returned the plant to its pot, pressed it together as well as they could, and hung it back on a remaining branch of the oak.

The cactus bloomed nicely, but unspectacularly, last year. Look at it now.

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We who live in the path of hurricanes are the lucky ones, I think. Earthquakes and tsunamis provide little warning.

Christmas Eve and The Meaning of Life

It seemed like a good idea at the time, when Buck and I said we would go to the 3:30 Chrismas Eve communion service at Christ Church downtown. This service, called “Family Christmas Eucharist and Blessing of the Creche,” is known as the “child friendly” service amongst the four held on Christmas Eve. But as we rushed around the house all morning and early afternoon, assembling the lasagna and putting up garlands, we began to feel the press of time.

Showered up and bundled, we walked out the door just as an icy rain began to fall.

Persevering, Buck got us safely to a parking space near the church, and by hustling a bit, we made it inside just in time for the first verse of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” sliding into the spaces saved for us by Adele, Richard, Andie, Julia and Darryl. Young Alex was up front in the children’s chorus, the Canterbury Choir.

The old church was filled to the gills with children of all ages. It was noisy, with cries, squeals, coughs, sneezes and laughter, the background noise a constant drone threatening to drown out the rector. One baby, about nine months old, stole the show with her beauty and apparent joy. She was dressed in an ivory satin gown, and wore a Santa-type red and white cap. Her face glowed in that perfect way of warm baby skin. She pushed herself upright on her dad’s knee and made happy baby gurgling sounds. She was the perfect icon of exuberant possibility.

Another child, a boy of about six, felt differently about the situation. His anguished cry broke through in a quiet moment. “But I don’t want to see the baby Jesus!!” Quite naturally, an easy laugh rippled through the room.

My eyes shone, seeing five year old Julia in her soft, shiny red dress with stockings and shoes to match, and Andie was quite the young lady in her lavender and black ensemble. When eight year old Alex was called from the choir loft to assist Father Russell in his magic tricks — oh, the magic tricks done in church are the subject of a separate post! — I could feel Alex’s thrill all the way to our pew.

Buck and I looked at each other and mouthed the words, “this was worth the effort” to each other.

We all converged in the woods after the service, joined by other kids and cousins. Adele brought the marinated shrimp appetizer, Sharon a Greek-style salad, and we matched them up with the lasagna, meatballs and hot bread. Maggie was a one dog welcoming committee.

Over good talk and gift sharing by the fire, we decoded Da Vinci Chianti, and found the meaning of life.

 

Transformation

Some time between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year I went to the dilapidated looking K-Mart store on 9-Mile Road looking for a roll of wrapping paper. It’s in one of those strip shopping centers that always looks about six months away from demolition. I remember a thin, sallow young woman in a Santa suit defeatedly ringing a bell for the Salvation Army near the store’s entrance.

I wandered through the aisles of Christmas decorations, nose itching from the heavy chemical residues of spray paint and ersatz snow. I paused at a display of battery operated candles and laughed. What a silly idea! Walked on. Stopped. Returned to the display. Giggled again. Put a dozen of them in my cart. Six red, six green, all with shiny brass bases and clear decorative candle type bulbs. Their cheap price was escalated by the two AA batteries required by each.

One family member, when I told her about the tacky, battery operated candles, said “What on earth were you thinking?”

But when these ersatz candles were placed, one by one, into each window, plus two on the old piano, surrounded by magnolia leaves, the little cottage glowed in the darkness with friendliness and the promise of shelter, a warm genuine fire inside, and the transformation of self through love on this evening when the better angels of our natures rule the roost.

Just before going to bed last night, I stood in the kitchen, unscrewing the small brass rings on each of the fake candles, replacing the batteries in each one. Before we leave the house this afternoon, Buck and I will put the candles in the windows, turning them on just before we go out the door.

We’re attending communion services at Christ Church this afternoon. Young Alex will be singing in the Canterbury Choir. His mom will be a chalice bearer. It’s known as the “most child friendly” of the Christmas Eve services today, short, filled with music and a manger scene. I plan to sneak in a basket of miniature cinnamon muffins to share with our clan and those nearby just after the last song is sung.

Then we will all head for the lovely pine forest, unlatch the gate, over the creek and through the woods, to the cottage, and oh! It will seem as though grandma is waiting for each of us. See the candles in the window?

Merry Christmas, all y’all, and thanks for enriching my life. My cup runneth over, and I wish the same for each of you.

 

Wednesday Before Christmas

Landscape notes. Dark morning, drizzle of rain. The sky lightens to an oyster grey. Tall pine silhouettes become visible, their downed companions brown now, becoming the ground, feeding the babies.

The storm loosened screen walls of the porch billow in the southerly breeze. They will be coming down soon enough, as construction turns them into walls, windows and cased openings, and the porch becomes a dining room.

Three days ago, a bright orange spray-painted rectangle appeared on a tree slightly to the northwest of the flags outlining the addition’s footprint. It signifies the county health department visited and has decreed where the new septic tank must go. There is no sewer system out here in the back of beyond, but there is an area so sandy it won’t hold water, just the ticket for a septic system.

I can hear the rain now. The sky is light in patches, with dark clouds moving quickly across it. Today’s warm rain and thunderstorms are drum majors for a Christmas Eve parade of drizzly cold which may include snow or ice pellets, depending on which weather service one reads. Whatever snow may really be, a Florida Christmas with a little snow sounds more romantic and appealing than one with ice pellets.

Some children I know went to the post office with me two days ago, where my status as an “interesting person” was recertified when a package from Wales was fished out from the stack of mail. The kids, Harry Potterites all, were highly intrigued by the elegant script, stamp, and idiosyncratic address. They were downright dazzled, as was I, by the contents: a hand-crafted card and woven star from a good friend.

“The promise of light is always fulfilled on solstice morn. May you know a promise kept!”  (A portion of the text from my friend’s gift.)

The kids and I then went to a place I know where there is a pond. We ran around on the grass and scared ourselves as the short floating dock swayed. A curious turtle swam our way.

Then we went to lunch. It was “kid’s choice” — I was surprised when their number one “please can we go there” was IHOP. Somehow, I thought the International House of Pancakes had become anachronistic. Could it be the continuing lure of chocolate chip pancakes and root beer for lunch?

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The rain has ended for now. I see a brilliant red cardinal sitting in the feeder, holding court with five prosperous looking doves, a popular rector amongst his parishioners.

 

Serenity of Soup

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love soup and those whose noses wrinkle up in disdain at the mention of it. Or maybe not disdain. It might be post-traumatic childhood soup disorder, brought on by too many mugs of chicken noodle or cream of tomato out of a can from busy, well-intentioned parents.

Some of us are positively evangelical about the heart and soul-warming, body healing more than the sum of its parts benefits of a good, homemade soup.

Want to guess which camp I’m in?

Now, I’m not talking about that stuff in a can, that oversalted gloppy stuff where, if there are identifiable veggies, they are machine cut and processed into tasteless, corrupted icons. Having trashed canned soup, I had better confess up front to a love of canned cream of tomato made with milk and dusted with cinnamon — for me, it’s one of the ultimate comfort foods. I’m an imperfect perfectionist, an impure purist.

A cold front was blowing in yesterday, and for all of you who think of warm South Beach when you think of Florida, here in the panhandle we were expecting 23 cold degrees last night. Just the right time for a big pot of soup.

While it was cooking, I talked on the phone to my younger brother, my favorite niece, and several friends. Then I made meatballs (full of garlic, parmesan and parsley) for Friday night’s Christmas Eve bash. They’re in the freezer now, ready to plop into some red sauce to go along with the pesto lasagna. Sharon’s bringing the salad and Adele a shrimp appetizer.

It was a fun afternoon, chopping, simmering, rolling little meatballs, and talking with friends. The soup is vegetable beef (we call it Red Soup) and here’s the preparation:

Serenity of Soup-2 This particular pot of soup is Vegetable Beef, but for non-carnivores, I think it would be excellent without it, just substituting vegetable broth and maybe sweating the onions, carrots, and celery in a tiny bit of olive oil to deepen the flavors before adding the broth. The meat here is a chuck roast. I put in the pot with water, a chopped carrot, onion and celery, a couple of bay leaves and grind in a generous amount of black pepper. I add a tiny amount of salt, maybe a teaspoon full.

Serenity of Soup-4 I had a small epiphany and squeezed a clove of garlic along with a good-sized piece of ginger root through the garlic press and added the juicy bits to the soup pot. When they hit the steaming broth, the heady ginger garlic scent set my smile for the afternoon.

The beef broth simmered for about an hour and a half or so. Then I took out the beef, cut it into smaller chunks, and returned it to the cauldron, along with several more sliced carrots, a chopped onion, sliced celery and diced turnip root (it was a really big, crisp one). To fill out the flavors, I added a large can of diced tomatoes, plus several cups of chicken and beef broth. When the liquid came back to a boil, I added a bag of frozen corn, a bag of frozen baby lima beans, and a bag of frozen cut okra (don’t make a face — it’s a southern thang). Finally, after the whole lovely mess simmers to tenderness, break up some pasta strands into thirds — I use spaghetti — and add them to the pot. Continue to simmer for another ten minutes, and it’s soup.1-IMG_0854 Oops, I forgot to mention to include some fresh green beans. You can see them floating on top there.

And best of all, it freezes like a dream. It gives me a sense of serenity to open the freezer and see those little containers, standing ready to assist me in a moment of need, when I’m cold, tired and hungry.

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Skopelos on the Bay

Some of our favorite restaurants, like Jamie’s and The Marina Oyster Barn, were creamed in Hurricane Ivan. They have not been able to reopen yet. I ran into one of Jamie’s servers at another restaurant Saturday night, and was glad to see he was working, but it was yet another reminder of the wind-wrought displacement of people.

Another of our favorites, and really, the one that feels most like home, is Skopelos on the Bay. It was founded by Paul Silivos more than 35 years ago. Paul now spends part of his retirement at his birthplace, the Greek island of Skopelos, and some time at the restaurant visiting with guests — almost all of whom, including Buck and I, consider Paul their friend, as well.

Gus Silivos owns and manages Skopelos now. He is a graduate of the Culinary Institue of America, a highly talented chef, and — I think — the best staff trainer in town.

On a recent visit, Gus was serving a classic Greek style red snapper dish that was one of the best we’ve ever eaten. The fresh-caught thick fillet was covered with sliced tomatoes and onions. There was some olive oil, garlic I think, and maybe a little paprika and lemon drizzled on top. Then it was baked and finished in the broiler so that the onion had some good-looking brown bits on top.

We picked up a couple of swordfish steaks from the newly re-opened Joe Patti’s Seafood, thinking about grilling them. Buck saw one lonely tomato on the kitchen counter and said, “Hey, I’ll bet that swordfish would be good the way Gus did the snapper. Think you can?”

Oh, yeah. All in all, I like the red snapper better, but this was a great fish dish, too. Try it. If you like a light tomato touch, it’s scrumptious.

Marinate the swordfish in some olive oil, lemon juice, oregano and black pepper. Slice the best tomato you can find on top and add some sliced red onion. Drizzle on a little more of the marinade. Dust with paprika and baked covered with foil for about 20 minutes, then broil for 5 or 10, depending on thickness of the fish.

Quite nice with a scoop of couscous and sauteed snow peas.