the shadows crossed the line this week. the equatorial line that cinches the earth’s belly at the waist. those of us on the upside of that line, we’re in shadow now. minute by minute, inch by inch, we’re tipping away from the sunlight, into the deepening, lengthening shadow.
it’s autumn, season of molasses light. season of hauling out the sweaters, putting seed back into the feeders, hauling out cook pots we’ve not seen maybe in months. it’s the season when deep-down parts of me come humming back to attention. everything about it — the scents, the slant of light, the goosebumps of early morning — seems to me a call to begin the in-burrowing.
i was home alone all week so autumn’s call had little distraction. i did as instructed: sifted through the bins of bulbs, cut back the ramshackle runaway garden, plucked the last of the bright orange tomatoes off the vine (it’s a game of where’s waldo, really, rummaging through the tangled vines in search of the ones so certainly orange, i know their time has come). inside, in the kitchen where i ply my alchemies and my otherworldly ministrations, i glugged olive oil, chopped fennel, carmelized onions. i invented things to do with figs.
today i amble to the airport, to fly back to the corner of the jersey shore, tucked between a pond and a river, where my husband is sifting through the decades of his family’s home, the 19th-century house where untold stories are being resurrected every day: a wedding album never seen (not by me or my husband, anyway), a dashiki worn on a south american concert tour, a baseball bat commemorating willie mays’ 600th home run. i am eager to be alone in the house of the woman i am very much missing, while my husband is out attending to the thousands of things on a list when you are closing a chapter of lives fully lived.
my job is to sift through her kitchen, to pull from the shelf the mug she always shared with her husband of sixty years, each one taking a sip of the morning’s coffee, passing the mug back and forth across the maple table, all to the quiet tune of news pages turning. the sort of sacramental moments that unfurl across the span of a lifetime, of a marriage of decades. i will sift, too, through her cookbooks, the ones i hardly think she ever cracked, for cooking to her — a woman who came of age as the feminism of the 1960s was tearing down the eastern seaboard — was pure distraction, and dinner was apt to be a thawed-out Tastee burger (bun and all tossed in the freezer after a run through the drive-in, especially if selling on discount, and i’m told the pickle never really warmed in the toaster oven that served as her main kitchen appliance). i hear there’s a Settlement Cook Book, circa midcentury, i’ll add to my jewish cookery shelf. i’ve reason to believe it will be in pristine condition, not a single splatter of schmaltz (unlike the one already on my shelf; one given to me when i married my jewish beau). there will be pangs that hurt, and moments that make us laugh till we cry. and moments, too, that do both.
all of it — the days home alone, really alone, and the somber-toned trip to new jersey, where a for-sale sign is now staked in the yard — has drawn me deep down more swiftly than in most autumns. i’m finding i need to work a little harder, tread more vigorously, to keep from going under, into the darker shades of the shadow. once again, there’s little to distract me. so i’m listening to the wisdom of the season. i’m surrendering to the call to burrow in, to put the garden to bed, to stock the cellar for winter. to batten the hatches, throw a thicker blanket onto the bed. to not get in the way of the work of the lengthening shadows.
in which we momentarily leave behind the otherwise crushing worries of the world and the piled-high nail-biters of the day-to-day, and turn instead to contemplations of the wilds of suburbia. most especially the stinky ones….
a tale of one impregnable fortress and how and why it came to be…
he broke ground eight weeks ago, back before the last of the snows fell. he’d come quietly in the night so i took no notice. it was the tree guy who’d ambled into the back yard who first alerted me to his, um, efforts. “got something i need you to see,” the tree guy grumbled in that way that strangers sometimes deliver not-so-good news. then he walked me round the corner of the house, to the skinny walk that shimmies between our house and the next-door fence, and i saw a heap of dirt that someone must have shoveled there. i was confused.
“you’ve got a digger,” the tree guy pointed out. i wondered why someone would’ve tried to pile dirt in a heap beside the house, wondered if it was evidence of someone trying to break in through the underground, or rather to dig up some hidden treasure. (the suburbs, i’ve found, are full of surprises, so hidden treasure wasn’t exactly beyond the realm of possibility. heck, we had an across-the-alley neighbor who bought the losingest team in baseball and wound up winning the world series, so i’ve learned that anything can happen here in this strange neck of the woods.)
turned out, the heap of dirt was the former of my two choices: evidence of someone breaking in. or trying to anyway. but that someone didn’t stand on two legs; rather, it scampered (or waddled, depending on its mood) on all fours. my digger, it would soon be made known to me, was a striped and furry skunk. i wouldn’t have guessed between raccoon, possum, or smelly skunk, but i was informed by my tree guy that skunks are the ones who are decidedly notorious diggers, their front paws and claws as adept as any front-hoe loader.
and, mind you, this four-legged, cloud-spewing specimen was trying to dig not just anywhere but directly below the floorboards of the room in which i sit. RIGHT NOW. and all day every day. and late into some nights.
this room, once an old garage, was long ago tunneled with a coal chute, and the coal chute apparently makes for a cozy curling-up place for a skunk and all its kin. gender at this point remains unknown, so i like to think of him as Mr. Skunk, for if it’s a Ms. she might be looking to outfit this year’s obstetric ward, and i have no interest in being the chambermaid to a litter of smelly babies. no matter how adorable i imagine the little fur balls might be.
thus began the now-months-long escapades that have pitted me against the wiliest of the wilds; so far, the wilds are winning. especially if you measure in nights i lay awake listening for the telltale scritch and scratch. or the dollars spent at the hardware store fetching the latest in my litany of armaments.
i started with coyote urine, a curious place to begin, but i was following instructions of field experts. and when those who are fluent in these things point you to coyote urine, it is coyote urine to which you turn. in ample supply, mind you. i could only wonder how in heaven’s name one goes about collecting coyote urine, but i decided to trust the label and not go too deep in my picturing of that endeavor.
next up was a spotlight, the one i spiked into the ground, in futile hopes that it would chase away the night-prowling interloper. all i did was keep the night bugs awake. and spike my electric bill.
there was ammonia, too, as i was told it worked twice as good as mothballs in out-stinking the stinker. skunks, curiously sensitive to smell, apparently plug their noses and run for the hills when you douse a rag with pure ammonia and stuff it down their would-be entrance ramp.
for a few days it worked. but then the skunk dispatched with my ammonia-sodden rags, the light bulb burned out, and the coyote urine didn’t do a darn thing.
so i called in the Skunk Trapper, a lovely fellow i’ve come to think of as the fearless superhero of our dynamic duo — Skunk Man to my Robin — in this nightly endeavor in sisyphean critter catching. Skunk Man’s actual name is shawn and we text each other every single day, sometimes several times a day, with the latest advances or retreats in skunkdom. if you ever need a skunk trapper, check with me, and i’ll give you shawn’s name and number. he’s the A-1 best at pests here on the north shore of the great lake michigan.
so far, shawn has set not one but two traps. we’ve reinforced the side of the house and all but a narrow opening with cement and bricks (the last thing we’d want to do is permanently seal the coal chute before we were 1,000-percent certain no skunk was left behind, right beneath where i dangle my feet while typing). we’ve pounded in rebar spikes, nailed boards to the have-a-heart trap (we’re releasing him to the best woods around, so fear not, we’ve got this skunk’s best interests at heart here), and wrapped the whole thing in wire mesh and caging. i’ve hauled every heavy object from my garage: sacks of river rocks, sand bags, wire planters, metal buckets, even a 50-pound bag of fertilizer. looks like someone’s junk yard in what was once my soothing secret garden.
my beloved lifelong mate, away for weeks of this adventure (in new jersey attending to his beloved mother), came home the other evening, took one look at my rube goldbergian doings, and pronounced it “The Impregnable Fortress.” i do like the ring of that, makes it sound more upscale. someone else might simply call it “Junk Pile.” i’d not realized before that i’d married the man for his propensity for putting flourish to humble heaps. although he is the architecture critic. i now wear the pronouncement proudly. “may i show you my impregnable fortress?” i ask of any passerby. no wonder i get looks.
but back to the story, cuz it’s extra delicious in what comes next. the other night, shawn pulled out his best effort yet: on his way here to set another trap, he swung by the house, sliced a wedge of his sister’s taco pie, wrapped it in foil, and — voila! — he set the bait. he left a chunk of it on what amounts to the trap’s front stoop, and tucked the rest deep inside, hoping the skunk would slither in and the trap door would click shut behind him.
it worked! well, sort of…
night before last we caught something all right, and all the clanging woke up the next door neighbor who leaned out her bathroom window to ask if we were planning to keep the poor thing in the trap all night. i promised to ping shawn to see if he was in the midst of any midnight run, but alas, we had to wait till dawn. and that’s when brave shawn peeked inside and saw, not the wily skunk, but a big ol’ possum who must have a taste for taco pie. for shawn’s sister’s taco pie, specifically.
and once again this morning, there is digging aplenty but no sign that my impregnable fortress has been impregnated. once we’re 1,000-percent sure that no fur balls are furled inside, we’re hauling out the wheelbarrow and the cement. and that, i hope, will be the end.
and so it goes here in the heart of the heartland, where skunks outsmart the humans on a nightly basis. and where this critterly distraction has turned out to be something of a welcome diversion from the host of other worries piling high and mightily this long, cold spring.
while i cook up yet another ploy in my skunk-chasing escapades, i thought i’d leave you a recipe, should you suddenly find yourself hungry for a slice of taco pie.
if you’ve any leftovers, i am still deep in my efforts to catch that smelly skunk before he sets down impenetrable roots in my old coal chute….but for now, i offer you…
Should-You-Need-to-Catch-a-Skunk Taco Pie.
from the Betty Crocker kitchens…
1 pound lean ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped (1/2 cup)
1 package (1 ounce) taco seasoning mix
1 can (4.5 ounces) chopped green chiles, drained
1 cup milk
1/2 cup Original Bisquick mix
3/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack or Cheddar cheese (3 ounces)
1 Heat oven to 400°F. Grease 9-inch pie plate. Cook ground beef and onion in 10-inch skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until beef is brown; drain. Stir in seasoning mix (dry). Spoon into pie plate; top with chilies.
2 Stir milk, eggs and Bisquick mix until blended. Pour into pie plate.
3 Bake about 25 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. Sprinkle with cheese. Bake 8 to 10 minutes longer. Cool 5 minutes. Serve with salsa and sour cream.
what tales from the wilds do you have to tell? have you built impregnable fortresses in your life, literally or metaphorically? and if so did it serve its purpose? (a question for contemplation only, especially if a metaphorical fortress…..)
this morning’s meander is dedicated wholly and heartfully to shawn o’hara, my skunk-chasing boss and ally. the best there ever was…….A-1 Pest Control in Highland Park. five-star best.
i slipped back in as if gliding my arms through the sleeves of the oldest soft-knit sweater from the back of my closet. the sort of sweater you reach for when it’s the end of the day, and you want the goosebumps to go away, but even more you want woolen threads that breathe against your skin, woolen threads that whisper to your soul, “here we are, home.”
that’s pretty much how it felt to unlock the door after a few days away, to plop the duffel in the front hall, to wander about in that way that one does, to check for what’s happened while you’ve been gone. i saw right away that chipmunks must have upturned a brick or two at the steps that lead down to the garden. and the old house all but hollered to please open the windows, to let the hot dry air back out where it belonged.
wasn’t long till i found the note left on the kitchen counter, the note written by a dear, dear friend — the one who’d stayed at our house while we were away, since she needed a place to sleep and we had one. she wrote:
“in this house, one is always aware of time. the ticks and tocks, the chimes of multiple clocks evoke shared joys, episodes of comfort and sorrow, presences long gone but still close to our hearts. the rhythms of those machines wake me in the mornings, lull me to sleep…and call me to return.”
it’s a fine thing to hear your house through the ears of a friend, a soulful friend, a friend who has always put words to page with more grace than nearly anyone i know. my blessed friend’s words only amplified what i already know. what i know every single hour of every single day i live here.
coming home — even when there’s not a note to remind you — sharpens your ears, and all of your senses. wakes you up once again to this place you’ve spent your life making — making home.
home, for those of us lucky enough to have one, is that place that over time has come to hold the living breathing narrative of perhaps your most essential essence, those threads in your life you hold to be sacred.
my old house is one layered with story upon story. each old clock tells a story. the sounds that ooze in through the windows — the fact that i almost always leave a window open at least a crack — the birdsong, the breeze rustling the leaves, the faraway train whistle, the dog down the block. those are the sounds of home to me. i know its gurgles and burps so intimately that if one is off-kilter i know it’s time to call the plumber or the fellow who stokes the furnace. i am the guardian of my old house, and my old house returns the favor: my old house guards my heart and my soul.
and so coming home to it was coming home to a friend i’d left behind. we’d gone off to see the boy we brought first into the world. we’d packed a two-week visit into four short days — whirled our way through the hottest days DC has seen in a mighty long time (and lived to tell the tale, though for a while there we were gasping for air and long, tall quenchable waters). i’d be lying if i didn’t admit to wiping away a tear (or more) when we said goodbye to the sweet sweet legal-scholar-in-the-making, the one who was working so hard he couldn’t even take in the fourth of july fireworks. and while i wouldn’t trade a single one of those days away for anything, the sweet joy of finding myself back in this place where i most belong made the absence more than worth it.
i’ve come to know my particular custom for coming home: right away i dump the laundry down the chute, i gallop off to the grocery store, tear through the stacks of mostly-junk mail. i’m a madwoman restoring order. and then the puttering comes: i pour drinks down the gullets of my garden. i reach for the clippers and snip here, there, and yon. i stuff the old pitchers again, and tuck a fresh batch of cookies under the shiny glass dome that sits atop the pedestal (my nod to the ’50s diner).
i always take time to listen. to breathe in the ticks and the tocks and the chimes and the rhythms. to be quelled and lulled by all of the quirks of this place i so know by heart.
by the time i plop my creaky bones atop that old familiar mattress, perk my ears to the night sounds seeping in through the screens, whisper my litany of thank-you prayers, i am thoroughly deeply home. and more than grateful to call this old friend by that most blessed of names — home.
thank you, sweet home.
what’s the thing you relish most when you come home? and, just because i’m curious, do you have a quirky way of reacquainting yourself with the place once back from where you’ve roamed?
here’s a little extra morsel, a link to a story about retro and vintage cookbooks i wrote for the chicago tribune. it ran on the fourth of july, a day not too fit for browsing through the news pages. it’s a story whose reporting made me swoon — for the fine cast of characters from the literary kitchen, tamar adler, graham kerr (the famed “galloping gourmet”) and a very fine baker with a yen for updating retro pies, cakes and confections.