We spend a few days in Annandale at the Bard College Family Weekend. It is nearly three months since we've seen Spuds. Despite a post-Katrina dorm room he is intact. We are stimulated by mini-courses which we attend along with other New Yorker reading-NPR contributing parental units. I shop at a farmer's market and cobble together a meal for Spuds and some of his friends in a little rental we've taken a few miles from the campus. It seems to me that in attending a college like Bard, and having a group of genial, witty friends, our eighteen year old has won the lottery. Knowing how clueless my own parents were about my own state of mental wellness, at least it seems that the boy is very happy.
In twenty five years of traveling together we've done California and Ireland voraciously. We've dipped into bits of Europe and I've probably seen more medieval altarpieces than most Jewish girls from the Valley. The East Coast is fresh territory. We visit the Montgomery House near the Bard campus. Janet Livingston Montgomery purchased 242 acres in the late 1770s, shortly after the death of her husband, General Richard Montgomery who became the first casualty of the Revolutionary War at the Battle of Quebec. The house was in the family until the 1980s and it appears always under the aegis of strong women. The restoration captures a little bit from each era in tribute to this family. We stop by the Berkshire Museum which is old school, sort of woebegone and full of taxidermy. I indulge Himself in some Herman Melville tourism and he reciprocates by escorting me to The Mount, Edith Wharton's impeccable homestead. We encounter George Montgomery several more times in our wanderings and Melville, Wharton, Benedict Arnold and Ben Franklin also pop up unexpectedly in multiple locations. I overdose on colonial furnishings but start to drink in the flavor of places that began to flourish so much earlier than my own stomping grounds.
It is not too hard to say goodbye because Spud's flight home for Thanksgiving has been long booked. We set out from the Hudson Valley with a rental car and Himself's determination to avail ourselves of the contracted unlimited miles to the fullest extent possible. We hit the road to Montreal. We stop en-route in Saratoga Springs to sample the water (putrid) and meet up with our friend Jerome (hilarious) for a quick lunch. During a brief walk through the town I spy my dream dog, a chocolate brown standard poodle. When I have to rationalize my twenty five year bond with a man who is my polar opposite, love of dogs is high on the list of commonality. When we run into this spectacular poodle a second time I cannot contain myself. I extend my hand palm down for her to sniff, the correct way to connect with a canine for the first time. Miss Poodle rears up and growls. Female poodles are often shy but Jerome quips, without missing a beat, “Show us on the doll where the bad lady touched you.”
We bid Jerome adieu and continue north. For nearly two weeks, it occurs to me,we'll have no contact with friends or acquaintances, just each other. It been years since we were stuck alone together like this for an extended time. I am self conscious about my need to eat three meals and a few snacks every day. Even though I am in pretty good physical condition, Himself's legs are longer and unless I make a big fuss, he walks ahead of me, leaving me in his dust like an endomorphic geisha. I can tell he dislikes it when I see him exercising each morning. I'm happy listening to crap on local radio but when Jack and Diane comes on for the umpteenth time I fear Himself is going to blow a gasket.
I am impressed by underground Montreal, 20 miles of interconnected walkways underneath the city. Himself dismisses the feat as simply a huge shopping mall but it pleases me that there is this vast refuge from winter cold. It's Halloween and raining hard when we arrive in Quebec City. The Museum of Civilization provides a typically balanced Canadian viewpoint of the county's evolution. I still resent Himself's refusal to indulge me, decades ago, in a carriage ride through Central Park on a Valentine's Day. The horse-drawn carriages in Quebec City are covered and after a bit of inveigling, Himself agrees to a Halloween spin through the town. The rain is fierce and the driver's French accent is nearly indecipherable. We are given blankets to cover ourselves but they are damp and down by the river my toes begin to go numb. Nevertheless, Quebec is picturesque and charming and I finally get my romantic horse and buggy ride. A drunk lady in a restaurant wears devil horns. This is the closest thing to a Halloween costume that we identify. The large bowl of candy at the reception desk at our hotel is untouched until we make a huge dent in it.
Gasoline is more expensive in Canada and we coast into Maine on fumes. We are blessed with unseasonably warm weather in Bar Harbor. The fall color has lasted longer this year and Acadia National Park explodes in orange, red and yellow. I drive into Boston which I hope I never have to do again. We take a spirited walking tour of the Freedom Trail, the climax to our Colonial immersion. At the Boston Museum of Fine Arts we marvel at John Singer Sargent's spectacular murals which adorn the rotunda. A large collection of his watercolors are on display. Sargent is known mainly for portraiture but he created over 2000 watercolors, mainly during travels through Europe and the Middle East. In one of the works, Corfu, A Rainy Day a couple share a sofa. The woman sleeps, most of her face eclipsed by a pillow. The man reads. The woman's bare feet rest in his lap. Her shoes are strewn carelessly on the floor. We are reminded of ourselves.
We spend a night in Newport Rhode Island at the Grace Vanderbilt Mansion, now a spiffy hotel, within our reach off season and thanks to a Restaurant Week package. The room is giant, with high ceilings and 19th Century oil paintings. The famous mansions close early in the autumn so the only tour we manage is of the local historic museum. But a night in our hotel certainly conjures the zeitgeist of the Gilded Age. Our trip ends anticlimactically in a huge sterile corporate hotel in Jersey City. We do spend a few hours in Greenwich Village, joining our friend Rosemary for a cozy Indian dinner before we dump the rental car and take to the air.
I return home and by the time I've unpacked the “what am I going to do with myself now that the kids are gone” malaise creeps up again. I read a collection of short stories, the first published work by Southern writer Jaime Quatro (I Want to Show You More). I am blown away and humbled. Quatro evokes favorites Alice Munro, George Saunders and Flannery O'Connor but her works are truly original. The bio indicates she's been married twenty four years and has four kids. Even if she was a teen mother, Quatro is no spring chicken. I notice that a number of the stories have been previously published in obscure literary journals. My own writing success has been particularly disappointing recently. It occurs to me that Quatro has worked harder both in honing her writing and particularly in pitching it than I have and she has twice as many kids. I admit I am jealous of her talent and work ethic but it is comforting to see an older writer's first publication and the astounding quality of her work.
During the big epiphany about what the writing requires, an opportunity arises to do something else that I am ostensibly good at. Nancy, my friend the realtor, asks me to prepare some baked goods and appetizers for a realtor caravan and open house at a home they're selling. Unfortunately, Joe College and his retinue have returned on the weekend leaving an empty refrigerator and cold germs. I am sick. I do some baking but I forget to use a ruler when cutting and the result is bar cookies of irregular size. I plan some easy hor d'oeuvres that I've made a million times before. Slices of baguette brushed with butter and toasted until crisp topped with a spread and then garnished. I opt for par-baked bread to save on slicing elbow grease but the result is rubbery and tough, unlike the nice crisp results achieved with fully baked bread. I am behind schedule on assembly and ask Himself to spread some hummus on some of the crostades for me. Often I get comic mileage from Himself's ineptitude at various manual tasks but with my little hummus appetizers he has outdone himself. They look like a crime scene. I decide to redo them at the event and pack up the car. Actually, Himself packs up the car while I change my dress only to discover hours later that I am wearing it backwards. I am late. Ice spills. A dozen blue cheese toasts end up in the gutter.
I make a prototype and assign Nancy the task of reworking the hummus platter. I am shocked when she too has Jackson Pollack-like results. “Do you want me to put these on the table?” she asks. “NO!” I shriek and confiscate the tray. Visitors are starting to arrive. I make a sticky mess assembling a jug of Sangria. The house has been carefully staged and it is essential that all of my paraphernalia be stowed in the car. It occurs to me that I am literally (in the correct usage of the term) running. I am not doing the quality of job I'd hoped but there is something satisfying about running. I confirm to myself that I have high standards and I take my responsibilities seriously. I manage to revise the hummus and visitors seem to enjoy the offerings. Nevertheless, everything is a bit off kilter to my eye. Nothing is cut quite precisely enough and it is clear to me that my efforts are amateurish.
I tell Nancy that I'm not thrilled with my results. I don't chide her about the hummus debacle but she can tell by my interception of her work that her efforts are substandard. She explains that her parents didn't entertain. Like Himself, no one ever came to her childhood home for dinner. “I never learned how to do any of this,” she explains. I feel chastened and reminded what a haughty bitch I am but neither Nancy nor Himself will ever again be engaged by me for help in food preparation or assembly. Both however are useful for loading, unloading and cleanup.
I like my own writing better than a lot of what I read and my own cooking better than much of what I eat. But there are better writers and better cooks. I rationalized my dilettantism for years because mothering was always so demanding. Perhaps this blog will be my only published work. I may never have the chops to be a professional caterer. But it feels good to demand of and for myself. It is satisfying to try hard and expand my identity beyond motherhood. I am gradually becoming accustomed to the quiet of the house. Himself reads. I doze on the couch. That part is easy.