Archive for December, 2007

The treat…

December 28, 2007

We celebrated Christmas day with Renaissance Man, Glasgow Girl and Mousey. I was so excited to be able to bring the dessert, a Mont Blanc, and had readied the ingredients days in advance. Rumpole cautioned me to phone ahead to find out if such a dessert might be welcome.  “You know how Glasgow Girl is weird about food; she may not like this dessert, and all your labours will be for naught.” He did have a good point. Glasgow Girl hates nuts, and chestnuts are nuts, even if somewhat unusual ones. Naturally, she said, Thanks, but no, thanks. So there went that plan to provide pleasure for RM and a new treat discovery for Mousey. I was temporarily disappointed, but then realized that there are more Christmases ahead in the future, so one of these years I can make this for them.

Martha had invited Rumpole and me to a Boxing day celebration with her son, Davide, cousin Etienne, brother Richard and his wife Louise. Rumpole said to Martha, “We will bring a Mont Blanc to dinner as dessert.”

So, after we returned from Christmas dinner with RM, GG and Mousey where Mousey had been wild with enthusiasm for the poached pears I had provided for dessert, Rumpole and I began preparing the chestnuts after donning our pjs and housecoats. He wielded the small sharp knife and cut crosses in the flat sides of the chestnuts. He worked so hard that he wore through the skin of his guitar picking forefinger. “I hope this heals by time for the New Year’s gig,” he moaned. “How do I explain being a disabled bass player?”

“Just say to the guys in the band ‘I got injured in Operation Dessert Storm’,” I giggled, choking on my tea. “Surely they can relate to helping your wife in elaborate kitchen preparations.”

There sure were a lot of chestnuts in the pile, but he did a yeoman’s job of crossing their bottoms with little Xs. At One a.m. we staggered off to bed, after Rumpole bandaged his finger with a bandaid.

Boxing Day morning, while many citizens were lined up at Future Shop and Best Buy for the big sales, we began our culinary labours. While I made coffee, Rumpole set the chestnuts ,covered in water, to boil on the stove. Then while he sipped his morning cup, I began to hull the chestnuts. man, was this laborious. My left thumb became, sore, then numb. But the pile of naked nuggets grew, and we sampled them for taste. Yum, but still needing further cooking.

“Do we have two quarts of milk?” I asked Rumpole. “Please check in the fridge.”

“There’s only a quart,” he replied after checking. ” I’ll run out and get some more.”

I still had half a big pot of chestnuts to shuck, so as he left to get more milk, I continued to make inroads on the never ending pile. By the time he got back with the milk, there were still a couple of handfuls of chestnuts to strip. Once those were finished, he poured the mik to cover the chestnuts, and set them to heat on the stove. We drank another cup of coffee as we waited.

“What’s the next step?” asked Rumpole while I cast a critical eye on the pot to make sure the milk didn’t boil over.

“Check the recipe, and tell me what needs to be done next,” I said to him.

“We need to make a syrup of sugar and water, next, to cook the chestnuts further.” He brought out the sugar and measured the right amount of sugar and water in a big glass measuring cup. He heated it in the microwave to make a solution.

While I went off to dress, he decanted the milk from the simmered chestnuts, after tasting for doneness, and poured the syrup onto them and set them to cook and reduce the liquid. That took a good half hour.

Then he watched with interest as I poured in a splash of Kirsch, a spoonful of vanilla. He crumbled the almond paste over top and let the whole mess cool. Meanwhile, I fished out my German, hand-cranked food mill, assembled the parts and set it over a bowl for the next phase of production. Rumpole inspected the food mill and admired its simple workings. “This is like something my Mother would have used – really old-fashioned.” He gave it a few turnings, and announced, “How simple and effective this is, – amazing.” We waited for the chestnuts to cool.

For the next hour, I cranked the chestnuts and almond paste through the mill, twice, and with the second pass through the finer extruder built up the mountain on a shallow crystal bowl. Rumpole hovered and tasted. He said it was heavenly. I had worked up a good sweat from the milling, and went off to have a shower. He covered the mountain and put it into the fridge to chill. He grated chocolate shavings and packaged them into a covered bowl.

Soon, we were ready to drive to Martha’s house. Rumpole carried the mountain out to the car, with infinite care. I snagged the Whipped Cream from the fridge, and took a thimble full of Kirsch to fortify myself, and locked up the house.

At Martha’s, Rumpole carried our offering into her house. Company had assembled. Martha’s Jack Russel terrier, Murtaugh, and Richard and Louise’s large old Shepherd, Bogart, milled around looking for food they could smell but couldn’t access.

Dinner was fabulous; the company of friends, scintillating. We told stories. Martha and her brother, Richard, are great raconteurs; very entertaining. There was much laughter at the table. The dogs, hovered, looking for hand-outs. In inimitable Martha fashion, she had once again outdone herself as a hostess, and had provided a feast not only for the senses but also for companionship.

I dressed the chestnut mountain with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. Martha did the honours and scooped spoonfuls onto the tiny Japanese dishes with chestnut leaf decorations. Richard, Louise and Martha had never before eaten chestnuts. But, Etienne exclaimed, “Ah, creme de marrons – heaven!” (He had been a server at one of Vancouver’s finest restaurants before retirement.) “If there are any left-over of this, I want them to take,” he purred as he took a third helping. Rumpole and I had small helpings; we had laboured so hard at producing this dessert that neither of us felt like eating more then a tiny portion. The mountain disappeared; only a couple of spoonfuls were left. We repaired to the living room and sprawled, sated and watched a really bad James Bond movie starring Roger Moore. It was the one with the interminable chase scenes on cigar boats in the bayoux of southern Florida. This movie was not exactly conducive to good digestion, but it provided an occasion for some wicked movie critiques from the men.

We had a lovely evening together. On the way to drive Etienne to the Sky Train station, Rumpole expressed how much fun he had being a part of dinner preparation, even though the process was so labour intensive and resulted in war wounds.

“But, then, it was really ‘Operation Dessert Storm’, and surely injuries are par for the course,” he chuckled.

Art Can . . . « Sexuality in Art

December 23, 2007

Art Can . . . « Sexuality in Art

This wonderful post is one that deserves attention – it so clearly expresses what art does. Thank you, Onemoreoption.

A Year…

December 22, 2007

It has been a little over a year that this blog has been in existence. During this time, writing daily, whether in blog posts or in my journals, has become my primary outlet for expression of my wonder about how my life which is increasingly more limited  yet has opened up so many possibilities for which I am grateful. The most profound change for me has been the gradual diminishment of my eyesight, of difference in how I now “see” the world. With this change of perceptual ability have come amazing benefits, the foremost of this is a realization of the tremendous riches, almost an unbearable hoard of gifts, available to an individual within a given span of life.

The gift from the world of blogs has been discovering the individual voices of many persons – their remarkable personal expressions in word and image, their opinions, their permission to peek into the unique lives they lead, their passions and knowledge. My world which has grown increasingly narrow in scope has been given great breathing room, has expanded from the blogs of many of you and I have thereby continued to be able to keep learning new things. The varied points of view have caused me to pause and review many of my own opinions and beliefs.

Thank you all for your generosity of spirit and action, encouragement and comments. May your celebration at this time of year, whatever form it takes, provide you and yours much pleasure and satisfaction. The Solstice is upon us; revel in the longest dark and anticipate happily the growing light days. Cheers; G

Cement Plant…

December 13, 2007

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In 2004, on an August summer evening, Rumpole took me to take reference photos of the local cement plant. I planned to do a painting of the plant for a fundraiser for the local municipal art gallery the theme of which was – “Paint the Town.” To my thinking, local historical buildings and scenic views did not represent our town of suburbs, downtown core of cement buildings, malls with their massive concrete parking lots, the hard paving that we travelled on daily and were surrounded by, everywhere. For some reason, the cathedral of cement, from where all this suburban skin originated – the local Lafarge Cement plant – seemed an appropriate icon for ‘our town’.

So there we were, the two of us, at dusk. We wandered around the plant grounds. It felt abandoned, with a few cement trucks parked, ready to resume their next morning’s labour of moving wet cement to add yet more hard surface to the steadily encroaching spread of our community – bridges and overpasses, house basements, driveways and walkways, streets, mall parking lots – all multiplying like a grey mold. Rumpole didn’t seem to be as excited as I was by this place. He was more interested in making sure I took “The Proper Picture” and followed me around, taking the camera from my hand to see what the photos were like, and giving instruction on how best to take pictures. After all, it was his camera that was being used, and he has strong ideas as to what constitutes “good photos”. I was pretty pig-headed, myself, as to what kind of reference I needed to work from, so as we walked about in the failing light, we engaged in our usual heated discussion. Finally, I growled at him to back off and let me do my visual note-taking by myself.

There was something engaging about the persistence and vigour of the tall evergreen that flanked the plant. It suggested the power of nature to endure, to reclaim its primacy over any attempts to supress it. Thus it was this picture which I felt the most useful to work with and from.. It also approximated my idea of what constitutes the notion of “picturesque”.

This cement plant sits alongside a road many townies take regularly to access the ferry across the river. It is a landmark that goes largely unremarked, I suspect, not of as great importance or noteworthiness as the mountain that looms over our community, and which has been painted and photographed innumerable times. And yet, there it perches, this amazing structure, and has persisted in its peculiar architecture for over forty years. In terms of time, this is not so long a period, and yet as far as history of our town goes, its presence has been pivotal to the steady growth and spread over this region. So, how could it not be an important landmark, of sufficient interest to be used as an image representing the specifics of our town? I went with it, whole hog!

The painting, in oils on canvas, was three feet square. The scale was an important consideration to me. The painting grew apace, with a lurid and angry reddish sky. I delivered it to the gallery, still slightly tacky, as reds take a longer time to dry. It sat among the rest of the fundraising paintings and photos, like quite an odd man out. The mountain was represented at least in ten works; the parks, the dykes and historic buildings, nostalgia inducing, made up the rest of the images on offer. I could see that my painting might be a hard sell – not many people could live with a painting of an industrial subject, say, above their floral couch or looming over their dining room table.

At the fundraising auction, my painting did not incite vigorous bidding. A lady picked it up for $300. Well, at least it got some money for the art gallery, so that was fine. One thing though, I never took a picture of the painting for my own records, but that’s not so big a deal – it’s out there somewhere, even if it takes up a spot under someone’s bed.

A year ago, I was browsing through a second-hand store in town. Tucked in a corner, between a bookshelf and a ratty armoire was my painting of the cement plant. No price tag on it. I hunted down the clerk and asked him how much was being asked for the painting. $350, he said, “and it’s by a well known local member of the Mountain Club. It’s an original, you know – a real steal.” Later, that evening, I casually mentioned to Rumpole that my painting ended up in the second-hand store.

He studied my face, looking for signs of disappointment and dismay. “I’ll go buy it back. I like that painting.”

“Nope,” I said. “Once a painting is done and out in the world, it needs to find its way on its own. It has its own legs; let it end up where it ends up.”

“But, aren’t you feeling somewhat sad about it being remaindered?” he asked.

“Well, this is a good lesson about ego, self-importance, preciousness, letting go – it is a good lesson for me to think about.” I said.

Come to think of it – all those men who make roads, foundations, cement buildings do so in anonymity. I have my funny little signature appended to a part of my painting of the plant. The painting is one of many out in the world a mere speck of colour on a stretched sheet of canvas. It has served its purpose for me as its maker. It may, in its small way, cause people seeing it to wonder why someone might have lavished so much time and attention to crafting such an image. If it makes anyone, just one more person than myself, see the meaning, and importance that a cement plant has in our lives, my labours will have served their purpose.

The gift from afar….

December 10, 2007

Ildiko, me and Anna

 This photo arrived in the mail a month ago.  This is an unexpected gift from afar; a gift of memories. A picture of Ildiko, me and Anna, taken a year before we left Hungary, forever. Anna sent it to me a month ago, with a letter she had a cousin, now living in Scotland, translate into English for her to send to me. It has been over fifty years we had last seen each other.  We had run across the street to the park, to hang out and play. Ildiko had her “Kutya”, her stuffed dog, which had been the previous year’s Christmas present. She was really missing the family dog, Rex, a German Shepherd dog for whom  Apu had to find a new  home the previous fall. Rex had been overly friendly and ruined many lady patients’ stockings in the waiting room. Apu found it hard to keep up with expenses, at a time when stockings were greatly expensive, and women had to know how to mend them by themselves. Ildiko loved Rex, and was devastated when he no longer was in our house. Anyu gave her “Kutya” as a non-destructive stand-in she might cuddle and pet.

I am the one in the middle; the one ready to jump up and run off. I am holding “Elefant”, the gift Anyu and Apu had given me for the previous Christmas. I was wild about things African. I had asked Uncle Imre, who was in the French Foreign Legion serving in Africa (Algiers) to send me a live monkey for my previous birthday. Imagine my shock of opening the brown-paper wrapped birthday present, to find an inanimate stuffed toy monkey. I was heart-broken. How was I to be so ignorant as to not know there were no monkeys ranging wild in Algeria, wasn’t it in Africa after all? “Elefant” was Anyu and Apu’s nod to my obsession with Africa. It was unfortunate that he was a plush toy, and nothing like elephants I had seen in the zoo in Budapest – they had wrinkly parchment-like grey skin that shifted and looked like saggy leather clothing when they moved.

Anna is the relaxed girl with the soft smile, sans animal companion. She was close to Ildiko in age and they were close, to the point of excluding me from their play. Ildiko thought me a pest, and her tolerance for me only went so far as to allow me to tag along with whatever they were doing. Usually I went off by myself to find things to be nosy about and when I thought about what they might find fascinating, they would come along to see what was what.

The park across the street from our apartment building had wonderful paths and shrub and tree areas. Whenever I came across young couples kissing in the bushes, I would alert the rest of the gang, Ildiko and whoever else was hanging around with us, and we would hide in the shrubbery and throw pebbles at the canoodling couples, much to their dismay. Usually we drove them off, but not very quickly.

One day, Ildiko and Anna were lurking in the bushes. They came upon a vantage point from where we could watch the young men’s handball team playing on the court adjoining the park. “Come and see the beautiful young men,” called Ildiko. So, I took up my post in the shrubbery and watched the handsome young men playing. It was as good as seeing a performance of ballet, I thought. There was one young man who caught my eye. He was graceful and athletic, and moved with economic grace. He had blonde hair, tan skin and played forward on the hand-ball team. The other players called him “Kigyo”(snake), and sure enough he moved with the suppleness of a snake. He was beautiful.

These were summer evenings that we mucked around in the park, until it got so late that Anyu’s voice could be heard summoning us indoors at twilight. We were playing hide and go seek in the shrubbery, using a handkerchief to thoroughly blind the designated seeker. I was hiding, feeling very secure I would be hard to find. Some boy’s voices were raised in jovial banter behind me somewhere. I decided to investigate and crept around to find the source of these voices. The sounds seemed to be coming from a building next to the handball/soccer courts. I crept closer. Sure enough, soon I caught sight of boys naked and showering through a window. There was “Kigyo” in all his naked glory, gorgeous and trailing rivulets of water. I forgot I was hiding, and ran out of the shrubs, calling to Ildiko and Anna, “Quick, come see…. naked boys.” They found me right away, all curious. I led them a merry chase through the shrubbery, prolonging the first sight of these bathing boys. We lay on our stomachs, peering and looking. Anna was shocked. She had never seen boys naked before. Ildiko and I were not terribly surprised. We had gone to naturist beaches with Anyu and Apu many times before. No big deal on this particular sighting, except these boys did look a lot better than middle aged men with paunches.

“Say nothing of this to Anyu,” said Ildiko to Anna. “we will get into trouble. You don’t want to get us into trouble!” We made a pact to mention nothing of this to our parents.

As we walked home down the twilight path, Ildiko agonized over having to mention having looked at naked boys at the upcoming Friday night session in the confessional. Anna did not go to confession, coming from a good Communist family, as she did. She didn’t seem bothered by Ildiko’s ruminations about her desire and reluctance to confess. I was quite a pragmatist, I think, for I decided that nakedness was not a sin, nor was seeing other people naked. After all we ran around naked at the naturist camps; women moved about naked, dressing at the local outdoor swimming pool; and there were plenty of indulgences handed out after confessions which showed the baby Jesus totally naked. We also had that picture of Io, completely nude, being embraced by the cloud-formed Jupiter, on the wall above the dining room table at home. So, what was the big deal in looking at a bunch of naked youths? Ildiko kept insisting we had to tell mother.

So here we are in this picture, complete innocents, and remaining innocents. but what stories do pictures hide – those snapshots one receives after fifty odd years? Who could ever guess?

A conundrum, a decision inevitable…

December 8, 2007

Memory: 1973 Beginning of December.  There we all are; sixteen grade nine and ten adolescent boys and me, their very green art teacher. Rocky, Joe, Moose, Pipsqueak, Mark and Matt are the ones that I have clearer remembrance of. Rocky, for sure I will never forget – he pulled a switchblade on me when I asked him to take his feet from the desk. “Make me!” he said with a snide smirk. Joe is indelibly firmed in my memory. After he was kicked out of school for truancy, he came by my classroom every afternoon, knocked on the ground level window and handed in all kinds of interesting junk he had dumpster dived for. He appreciated the fact we had few materials to work with, so these were strange tokens for his feeling of comfort and belonging in this motley group of juvenile delinquents in a special art class.

“Joe, this stuff better not be stolen,” I cautioned him through the window, as the other boys dragged in and pawed through bits of tangled wire, a length of barbed wire and miscellaneous interesting rusted gizmos of a mechanical nature.

Mark and Matt were brothers, one year apart in age. They had been wards of the government since the age of five and six, and had been moved from one foster home to another. They were tall, thin, white haired, blue eyed ghostly wraiths. Their skin was almost transparent and they moved very slowly as if operating in an unfamiliar ether. They said little as they took up whatever I proposed by way of experimentation in class and gamely carried on explorations as if fascinated by the materials and what they could make with them.

I wondered how these boys would respond to colour, selecting, mixing, expressing reactions to them. I had been reading Johanness Itten’s The Art of Colour and was fascinated by the colour exercises he had given students at the Bauhaus. It occurred to me that perhaps for these boys an exercise where they selected colours they individually found attractive and explored through colour mixing to arrive at personally satisfying pallettes might give them something of a  meaningful discovery.  I was somewhat doubtful that these rough and tumble, somewhat resistant fellows would respond to this exercise, but they took to it as if there was nothing else they would rather do. They were so excited by discovering hue mixtures from the combination of two or three colours, by the addition of black or white or grey, and most especially by having to ask of themselves if the colours they invented were to their own taste. The key reminder for them was, “If the colour you have mixed is yummy and delights you, and you are convinced it is a colour you would love to have around you, then use it – put it into a square.” They were so excited; silent for long periods of time as they mixed like studious alchemists, at other times callling out with great excitement “Hey look what I found!” They talked to each other about how they arrived at some curious combinations, why they were or were not to their taste and what colours reminded them of.

Joe, who during this project skipped out of most of his other classes, arrived on time and handed out materials and equipment. The boys cleaned up as if the art room was an operating theatre. They relaxed around me and talked freely amongst themselves. I listened and watched and marvelled at how engaged and at home they seemd to be. Discipline problems arising were quickly resolved, they monitored each other’s behaviour toward me. Even Rocky, who had pulled the switchblade on me at the beginning of the year behaved as if he cared about what went on in the room and stopped challenging.

Shortly after the beginning of November, after the boys completed their colour exercises and pinned them in prominent spots in the class room, Mark stopped coming to class. When Matt was asked if his brother was ill, he said Mark ran away from the foster home where they were living. But where did he go to? Someone else’s house, maybe to a friend’s? “We have no friends,” said Matt. “He ran off into the bush.” He was reluctant to provide further detail.

I could not wrap my mind around how he could possibly survive in the bush. It was cold. There was snow on the ground. How did he keep warm, what did he eat and drink? Daily I bugged Matt for details. He withdrew from me after announcing he was helping Mark by sneaking him food and blankets while he was supposed to be doing barn chores. I talked with the principal and counselor, wanting to know what was going on in these boys’ situation. Kept bugging Matt. Three weeks went by and then Matt also stopped coming to class. Boys did not just disappear into thin air, in my limited experience. The other boys in class seemed to know more than any of us adults in school did. They said Matt also ran away from home, but the two were managing. Managing? How the hell could anyone manage in sub-zero weather living rough? I pestered those poor kids in the class room.

Then, in the first week of December, Mark and Matt showed up in class and resumed as if they had never been gone for so long. They looked shaggy and even more translucent and frightfully thin. I did not dare question them about how they had got along, just simply said it was a relief to see them again.

The following week, Mr. V., the principal called me,  from my prep-break, on the staff-room blower. “We need to discuss some students at a meeting in my office, right now.”  I had been running off some drawing assignment work-sheets on the Gestetner, and my fingers were nicely purplish-blue, there was no time to clean them completely, so I nipped over to Mr. V’s office with my hands in my pockets.

He and Mike P. the counselor were there, and also a man who didn’t belong on staff, a complete stranger. As Mr. V. did the introductions, this fellow held out his hand for a shake. I presented him my bluish hand along with an explanation and apology for its unladylike appearance. We sat, the stranger, a social worker from the local Government office brought up the sublect of Mark and Matt. He explained the circumstances of their difficulties within the current foster home from where they had run away. He related how the boys now were in a temporary foster home, but didn’t want to go to any of the available foster homes, where they had previously been. They asked to  be  fostered out for a long term, that they would prefer that to any more temporary fostering situations. They had named me as the person they would like to foster them. The social worker thought that it was proper for him to give a rundown on their difficulites in the past, meet me and seek my interest  in involving myself before embarking on all the record checking required of foster parents. He asked how I felt about the situation.

I was flabbergasted. How could a twenty-seven year old single mother with one child under five have the wisdom and wherewithal to presume to sensibly parent two midteen boys who had a history of being moved from one foster home to the next? I posed that question to the social worker. In response, he said there was ample help available locally for foster parents to deal with issues with children. As well, he pointed out that the boys were motivated to have the situation work for them, that they made a choice based on what they obseved about me as their teacher, that they had already expressed a degree of trust roward me.  Would I at least think it over for the next week, and then let him know my decision. He then left me with Mr.V. and Mike P.

I was completely stunned and went through a series of reasonings with these two very sensible cohorts. They listened, posed questions for me to consider in arriving at a decision, and said to not feel pressured one way or the other, that whatever choice I eventually made would be the correct one in the circumstances. Mr. V., father to two boys of that age group, said I could always rely on him and his wife for the necessary support if I chose to foster Matt and Mark.

I went back to the staff-room Gestetner machine and continued running off work-sheets in a daze. The rest of the school day, I looked at my pubertal charges with curiosity – how would it be like to be mother to any of them.  I had not had any experience in parenting a child beyond four years of age, even then there were mistakes I was making, no doubt, but then the process of growing as parent along with a growing child laid a foundation of experience with that individual child’s perceived needs, capacities to allow for more confidence in being his caretaker as he reached his teens.

In the end, after a week of considering possibilities, I arrived at the conclusion that at my particular stage of life, I had not the wisdom, experience, knowledge, confidence nor emotional strength and resilience to be of adequate service to these boys. They needed careful, patient affection; intelligent decisions about the limits to their behaviour and to their increasing needs for autonomy. No matter how much I wished to have an illusion of capacity for care and competence, these boys did not need me to practice with their lives. So, one afternoon, I went to Mr. V’s office and told him my decision would have to be a no. Mike P. called the boys to his office, and I told them with difficulty how I had arrived at a decision to say no to their request. Then I called the social worker, and gave him the news. He didn’t seem surprised, but thanked me for my honest evaluation of the situation.

Mark and Matt continued on in my class room until Easter. They didn’t seem to hold my decision against me. After Easter, they no longer attended my school. They were fostered with a family in another northern town. I never saw them again.

I think of them often. This year they would be forty-eight and forty-nine years old. They were so close and supportive to each other as boys. Maybe they live near other still, have families of white-haired children of their own.

That was my conundrum, with an inevitable decision. I still believe it was the right one under the circumstances; yet I can’t help wondering how life has been for Mark and Matt.

Mont Blanc at Christmas…

December 5, 2007

Memory – It is December. I am eight years old and am carrying my violin case while walking with Apu to my evening half-hour violin lesson. Stalin Utca is covered by a layer of freshly fallen dry snow; our footsteps squeak as we walk along. Apu smokes a cigarette; in the cold air he sends up great plumes of breath, like a tall dragon. Like a baby dragon, but one weighted down with a hard violin-case, I belch little plumes of moist breath as I struggle to keep up with him. Apu is accompanying me instead of Anyu for the violin lesson tonight. He will sit in while the teacher, Mr. Peterfi, puts me through my paces. Anyu does not do this; she always sits in the waiting room to keep a closed door between my schreeching sawings at the violin and her ears.

Soon, the smell of roasting chestnuts permeates the crisp night air. Up ahead is a man, swaddled up in a cloth coat, standing by a brazier of burning coals. He rubs his mittened hands together and gives the perforated iron roaster a couple of shakes. Apu strides up to him, takes a deep appreciative snort, turns back and asks. “Gabi, do you want some?” I nod, yes, and watch the man as he lifts the lid and scoops a ladleful of split, steaming dark-brown nuggets into a folded twist of newspaper. He hands me this, as Apu seaches in his pockets for a couple of forints. The exhange made, we fish a couple of chestnuts out and begin to strip the scorched skins away from what we know is a delicious treat. This seasonal delicacy is only available at the beginning of winter. Forever after, smooth feel of  chestnuts’ outer skins, the hairy nap of the inner skin, the scent of them roasting, the heat of them in the palms and the undescribable deliciousness, I will always associate with this time of year.

Its 1974. Renaissance Man is four years old. We live up north in a little town where I teach high school to support us. We have a routine on Friday evenings. After coming home from school and day-care, we eat dinner, then, depending on weather conditions we either walk downtown towing RM’s red wagon, four blocks away from our basement apartment, or, if there is snow on the ground, I pull RM on his little sled. This is our weekly provisioning foray to Safeway which is the only big grocery store in town.

Outside the store, we leave the particular vehicle parked by the front entrance, and walk about inspecting and selecting from whatever fruit and vegetables, staples and meats are available. Around the end of November, the Japanese oranges suddenly arrive in the store. RM loves these and happily bags some after carefully unwrapping each green tissue-paper wrapped orange. Then on an early December shopping trip, we come upon a bin of shiny dark brown conkers. This is a huge surprise to me. Chestnuts, with their flat bottoms and curving mounded bodies, the little point at one end, the slightly lighter colour of the skin at the kernel end. He has never before seen these, and is instantly fascinated. We run our hands through the bin. He picks one up and sniffs at it.

“Are these food?” he asks. “It doesn’t smell like anything. What are these?”

“Chestnuts,” I say. “They are the seeds of big trees. They taste very good, but only when they have been roasted or boiled. Do you want me to get some so you could try eating them?”

“Let’s get some. Have you eaten these before, Mom?” He starts to select some and places them into a paper sack.

Slightly distracted with calculating just how much these might cost, because the cost per pound listed is so high, I take some time to answer him. “These were my favourite thing to eat in the wintertime when I was your age. I was always so excited when they came into season. You’ll just have to try them and see if you also like them.” I scoop more chestnuts into the bag, figuring that we can try to roast them, and maybe I can make us that very special, my absolute favourite, way of eating chestnuts – as gesztenye pure (pureed chestnuts) made into a dessert like little mountains with whipped cream and chocolate shavings, what Anyu always called Mont Blanc whenever she had made it for us on winter occasions.

After we finish our shopping, RM is too tired to walk home in the snow. He sits in his sled and hangs onto the  few paper sacks containing our weekly food. I pull him him home. He sits back, a small snow-suit clad pasha, and sings  as we go along on the snow covered sidewalk. I am ruminating about how I plan to prepare the chestnut puree tomorrow.

Later on, after RM has gone to bed, I take out my dog-eared copy of “The Joy of Cooking”, my cooking Bible. Sure enough, there is a section on how to prepare chestnuts to make puree. It seems really involved and time-consuming. It also requires one to have as an addition sweetened almond paste amd Kirsch. I read the instructions and determine that tomorrow we will have to go back downtown to get the almond paste and Kirsch.

The next morning, Saturday, we get an early start to head back downtown to get these two ingredients. Safeway has almond paste; the liquor store next door has no Kirsch. So Cointreau has to do as a substitute. To buy a whole bottle of Cointreau for a couple of tablespoons needed for the recipe seems a waste of money. I decide, the small bottle I buy will do as a little treat for visiting friends during December. Back home we schlep through snow.

At home, as RM goes off to build some sort of construction in his room, I begin to simmer the chestnuts in water for a couple of hours, then take off the softened outer skins. The inner hairy membrane refuses to come off. Back go the chestnuts into milk this time to be simmered for yet another hour. RM comes to the kitchen and asks why its taking so long to get this treat ready. We decant the milk from the chestnuts, let them cool, and begin the unpleasant process of pulling the hairy membranes from them. He gives up after a while and lets me finish this by myself.

According to “The Joy of Cooking”, one is supposed to take the softened cooked chestnuts, pass them through the fine sieve of a food mill, then mix in the almond paste, add the Kirsch and then, pass the whole thing through the food mill twice more. After the second milling, one is to let the puree tendrils snake onto a plate and form a mountain. My problem is that I don’t have a food mill in my kitchen. On the other, hand, I do possess a metal sieve. That has to do as a stand in. I spend the next hour patiently scraping the ingredients through a sieve with a rubber spatula.  This is hard work, very laborious. I have sudden appreciation for Anyu’s kitchen prowess and labours  to provide delicious food to our family throughout the years. My mountain of puree grows by very slow increments. By late afternoon, it’s getting dark, and I have exhausted my enthusiasm for cooking, and RM needs Dinner. It will have to be grilled cheese sandwiches tonight, followed by a fabulous dessert of Mont Blanc and an orange.

Rm comes back to the kitchen and watches as I make the grilled cheese sandwiches, and between turnings of these from one side to the other attack cream with the rotary hand beaters. I ask him to grate a bar of Jersey Milk chocolate. We top the mountain of chestnut puree with whipped cream. He sprinkles chocolate shavings on to decorate it. Our wonderful dessert is ready.

We make short work of eating the grilled cheese sandwiches, both of us eager to get to the high spot of tonight’s menu.

Finally, it is time to ruin the mountain, dig out a portion, test it on the tongue and declare it the most wonderful dessert to be had. RM does the honours. He sticks his spoon into the mound, tastes, looks very serious.  Is he going to like this, or say it’s awful? I watch him with great anticipation. He starts to grin. “This is sooo good. Can I have a lot of it to eat?”

I did eventually buy a manual food mill in the German deli downtown. This winter, the food mill is 33 years old, still serviceable. It has done yeoman service to make “Mont Blanc” for us at Christmastime during the years. It’s chestnut season right now. Almond paste is also commonly available for Christmas baking. I plan to make a “Mont Blanc” as a surprise for Christmas dinner. Renaissance man will be delighted, and maybe Glasgow Girl will be encouraged to take over a tradition of treating her family to this delicious food-stuff. I suspect the gods on Mount Olympus also feasted on a similar dish in the cold of a winter’s night. It is a dish fit for the gods!

Flash Fiction…Postcard Story…

December 4, 2007

The prompt is to use – George, Venice, bee, catastrophe, sweater – for a written piece that fits a postcard.

I, George Obbligato, otherwise called Giorgio in my hometown, Venice, am lying on the terrace on my chaise longue and recalling what happened between Orazio and me in the reataurant last night.

As you know, Orazio is the chef at my restaurant “Le Falerne alla Fiamma”. Last night, all of a sudden Orazio felt chilly. He put on his moth-eaten sweater, the one that trails loose threads from holes in the elbows. I was quite irritated to see him dangling some of these in the “zabaglione” he was whisking with vigorous strokes. I yelled at him. “If you are dressed so warm against imagined cold, I, myself am sweating from all the steam generated by the cooking pasta.”

I threw open the door leading to the alley, and went on separating radicchio leaves, washed these carefully, quite comfortable and busy, when suddenly Orazio starts yelling at the top of his lungs. “What a catastrophe, there’s a bee in my Zabaglione.”

This was a list of words given to my writing workshop to use in a ten-minute exercise. This is what I came up with from off the top of my head.