The Duchess was inordinately fond of animals. Though her courtiers would never dare say so to her face, they imagined she ought to have been born a zookeeper, or at the very least a farmer. This idea was strengthened, especially, by the fact that it always fell to the housekeepers and servants to make the palace tidy enough for Her Ladyship’s dainty passage through life and to freshen the air when the royal menagerie had pranced, prowled or otherwise paraded through its rooms and left unseemly gifts along the way. The Duke, who was as allergic to all things animal as the Duchess was attracted, considered for some time whether he oughtn’t to have a team of expert taxidermists and artisans solve this problem once and for all, creating a large display of preserved zoological beauty that might be both lower maintenance and less powerfully scented than the living creatures populating his estate indoors and out, day and night.Unfortunately, the Duchess’s sisters who lived in the east wing of the palace did not support the Duke’s enthusiasm for the design, making noises of disapprobation at least as loud as the Duchess’s favorite dogs’ barking or donkeys’ braying. Perhaps, the Duke thought, he had been a little incautious in discussing this artistic concept with his secretary while within earshot of the sisterly ladies-in-waiting, for they both appeared quite ready to dash off squealing with rage to their unsuspecting sibling, or at the least, to imitate the household fauna in some other impolite fashion.As it fell out, the Duke, however incautious he may have been in heat of the moment, was not without the wit born of hard experience. Working swiftly with his retainers, was able to resolve the situation quickly and suitably merely by shifting the subject of the new art to a slightly different one featuring the Duchess and her sisters. As an added benison of this resolution, it was discovered that he wasn’t allergic to winged or four-legged pets after all. The palace staff found maintaining the menagerie surprisingly less onerous afterward as well, even with the added curatorial duties of dusting off the Duchess and polishing her sisters from time to time.
Being good and doing well make us just a little bit more like angels. Making good food and treating guests well is just that much better. It’s a feeding not just of the stomach but also of the spirit. It puts one in a state of grace that can be earned, but at the same time is the richer for being given without thought of such recompense. A simple cup of hot coffee proffered with kindness becomes through this transubstantiation the elixir of joy.
Today I woke up thinking of such hospitality as I was remembering a time thirty years ago when I was the fortunate beneficiary of it. I was a recent college graduate, working for my uncle’s construction company while I paid off undergraduate loans and contemplated the prospect of taking out more for grad school, and I was sent out with a couple of fellow workers to spend a few days laboring on the repair and renovation of a hundred year old farmhouse out in the country. The weather was pleasantly warm and the house only moderately shaggy for its vintage, and the owners were friendly on our arrival.The work, still, was dirty enough–removal of and repair from exterior dry rot and moss that was encroaching on the northerly upper story window frames and trim, and some interior rebuilding that the lead carpenter on the team would start framing in as a new arch between living and dining spaces as soon as the group effort of tear-out was finished on the second story outside. It was a pretty and classic old farmhouse, with a wraparound porch hugging it so that we were able to set up on the porch roof’s venerable cedar shakes to do our second-story work without having to run our ladders the full height from the ground. But therein lay the problem: by the end of the first day of demolition, the aforementioned carpenter was almost demolished too when the footing he’d installed on the roof for his ladder gave way, the ladder went flat with its top end spearing through an upstairs window and its base making a perfect slide for said gentleman to go shooting straight, if uncomfortably, off the roof.
The other guy and I were close by on either side of Chuck, but neither Jake nor I could, in the split second it took for this to happen, stop the ladder or him from going straight down into the gloom below. There was a terrible moment of near-silence while we scrambled over to the gutter to see whether we could get to him; the first thing we could see was the steel post of the truck bed spearing upward menacingly right about where he’d fallen, so we were breathless with horror as we peered over the edge into the dusk. To our immense relief, Chuck was lying in the spiny shrub next to the truck bed, where he’d slid instead, and though he had some impressive bruises afterward, he’d neither been impaled nor broken a single bone. Needless to say, there was a different wrap-up to the day than we’d planned, what with boarding up a broken window for the night and assuring the owners of the house, who’d come running at the crash, that all was going to be fine. No deaths, no lawsuits from either side, and an even better-repaired window, since we’d now rebuild the thing and re-glaze it rather than just scraping and painting.
Perhaps it was a bit of bonding brought about by the emergency that made them adopt us afterward, the homeowners, but whatever the cause, our next few days were among the most pleasant I ever spent on the job (along with those spent working in the house of the lady who afterward became another uncle’s life partner!), and the sweetness of it lingers in my memory. The second day was such a benevolent spring day that I opted to stay on the roof and eat my lunch while reading an Agatha Christie novel. That worked out remarkably well, for when the man of the house came out to see why I hadn’t come down with the others, he chatted me up about my enjoyment of British mysteries, disappeared, and reappeared later with a grocery bag crammed with said delicacies. It turned out that he was an English professor at the University and taught a course in this very topic, and that along with the house’s ‘issues’ for which we’d been hired there was one of steadily decreasing bookshelf space thanks to his and his wife’s reading habits.
The next day, there was to be no reading on the roof. All three of us workers were summoned into the house at lunchtime and seated at table. While the Professor expressed his kindliness in the gift of books, his wife expressed hers in culinary largesse. I had already thought her a very beautiful woman, with her elegant and mysteriously foreign-looking features, deep-set warm black eyes and smooth brown skin and all, her patrician carriage that belied a gentleness of manner, and her sleek black hair, but I think I fell in love with her more than a little when she put the food in front of us. It wasn’t terribly complex, perhaps, this meal, but it was heavenly. She served us robust bowls of satin-smooth potato-leek soup with slices of dark pumpernickel bread covered in rich Brie. When we thought we might be entirely filled up, we made room for more, because she came back to the table with a freshly baked, perfectly spiced apple pie.
It may be that these things have long since disappeared from the minds of all of the other players (though I find it hard to imagine Chuck has forgotten his scary adventure entirely), but the beauty of that meal so suffused me with happiness that I find it coming to me intermittently still, after all these years. I have no idea who the Lady and the Professor were and don’t even know precisely what became of Jake and Chuck, so I can’t check my facts let alone repay the kindness. I can only hope to pay it forward. I do have some of my home-brewed chicken broth in the fridge; might have to fix someone some soup soon.
Potato-Leek Soup (as remembered)
Boil a few medium-sized potatoes in enough well-seasoned chicken broth [vegetable broth, if you're not a meat-eater] to cover them fully. While the potatoes are cooking, saute a bunch of sliced leeks in butter with a little bit of salt until melted. Deglaze the pan with a hearty splash of dry Sherry or brandy or whatever dry white wine happens to be handy.
(If you have to open the bottle for the occasion, why then you’ll probably have to have a sip whilst you cook. This is all the better if you have a friend or acquaintance standing by for the meal; you’ll enjoy the visiting all the more.)
When the potatoes are cooked and softened through, add the leeks to the pot, along with (optionally or–if you ask me–optimally) a splash of cream. Using a stick blender, puree the lot until as smooth as possible, adjusting the thickness with any of the three previously introduced liquids as desired, and tasting for seasoning. If you don’t have a stick blender, a regular blender will do as long as you take the necessary precautions against blending hot foods–or just use a potato masher and have a more rustic soup. This soup won’t lend itself perfectly to chilling like a Vichyssoise, because the butter and cream can curdle or separate, but warm or hot it should certainly be filling and definitely warm the spirits.
It’s not your standard condition, that of being born loving to clean and tidy things. Some of us, as we get older, build up our own versions of tolerance and even gradually, a craving for neatness and blissfully shiny-clean stuff that grows strong enough to not only require that we do the work to make it possible but even, sometimes, to teach us to like it a bit. I’ve been fortunate to meander my way into the latter category, but of course the journey wasn’t without its bumps and twists. Because I was born with a natural aversion to Effort. Besides which, I figure if something is not actively imploding, it probably doesn’t need all that much help from me.
No surprise, then, if I looked at the laundry basket with something like loathing, even in my extreme youth when it was my mother who had done all of the labor of collecting, washing and folding all of the dirty clothes and filled the basket with them before I ever laid eyes on it. The mere idea of what it had taken to get from Point A (filthy kid coming in from playing in the woods) to Point B (pretty basket of neatly folded clean clothes) horrified me. The very thought of all of the tedious drudgery it would take to remove the neat and clean things from their current attractive assemblage and put them into the proper drawers and closets exhausted and demoralized me. And seeing Mom poised over the ironing board, sweeping at lengths of unforgiving wrinkled stuff with iron in hand–ohhhhh, don’t get me started! I had to dash for the nearest fainting couch at the slightest whiff of laundry. I will tell you right now that I never recovered fully enough to become friends with an Iron, and have not allowed one in my home or vicinity for lo, these many years since.
But laundry; well, if I don’t exactly go door to door begging my neighbors to let me wash their linens, at least I have learned to simplify and organize my laundry days to the point where there’s a sort of easy rhythm to putting a load of clothes in the washer, going off to prepare a little something and tuck it in the oven, putting the clothes in the dryer and second batch in the wash, going over to organize my desk, taking the food out of the oven, checking the dryer, and so forth–and I don’t find I’m quite so bogged down by the immense weight of one task when it’s sandwiched rather innocuously between several others. By the time I’ve got clean things to fold, I rather like the reverse-zen mindlessness of being very methodical and fussy about putting creases just so and stacking like with like and sorting shirts by color and any other silly pattern that lets me quiet my thoughts or just free them to wander where they will.
Dusting has always seemed so futile as to be nigh unto ridiculous. If I don’t make a mark in it, it’s practically invisible, right? [I heard that!] More importantly, any dust stirred up–and you know some will stir up even if you use a duster coated with super-glue–is going to settle somewhere as soon as it can. Where? Directly below your duster, where it came from, of course. Don’t tell me that isn’t simple physics telling me I shouldn’t bother to try dusting. My elders, of course, have never had any particular respect for the laws of physics (as witness, trying to convince this square peg she would be happy learning to fit into any number of round or even triangular openings, at least until said Peg got too full of herself to fit any pre-drilled holes). So there was a regular expectation that I ought to better acclimate myself to the concept of dusting and do it anyway. Not only did I, however churlishly, do it then, I now own a duster as a fully independent adult. Only for the direst emergencies, mind you: I can still recognize the menacing beast’s mane at the end of a duster’s handle, thank you very much. Those jokers can kill you with one wheezy breath.
I did finally succumb to the duster-buying pressure when I spent a little time contemplating what emerged from my dryer’s lint trap. Because it seemed to me that if freshly washed clothes gave off that much accumulated dust and hair and assorted dismembered insect components and stuff in one short tumbling exhibition, there might actually be a pretty fair amount just casually drifting around right under my nostrils and landing willy, nilly, hither and yon if it didn’t go straightaway into my lungs. Call me a pessimist. [Yes, I heard that, too! Cheez, people, cut me a little slack. I'm trying to keep a clean house here.]
The other answer to the dust problem is of course the bigger beast, the one that can eat larger quantities of dirt and disgustingness with wide slurps of its massive maw. There’s no wonder at all that pets and small children scatter in fear before the ‘Transformative’ power of a vacuum. Have you really looked at that scary mechanical menace lately? Every time I open up the closet and see that grimacing Succu-Droid glaring at me I get a little queasy thinking it’s about to drag me all over the house, growling fearsomely the whole time. Talk about being hauled on the carpet! Making me trudge all through the dark corners of every room, yanking my arms out of their sockets and working me up into a grubby sweat in an eyeblink, but seeming to take forever every time. And for what, to pull up enough loose grit so that it uncovers just how worn and stained and discolored the actual carpeting under the dirt is in the first place? That’s just plain mean.
I still end up evading the vacuum for longer periods than is strictly optimal, keeping it in an intermediate parking spot outside of the storage closet so that it’s in brighter light and can’t pull its scary-face stunts on me so easily, so I can work my way up to grabbing it by the neck and hanging on for dear life until the rodeo’s over again. After all, I’ve got plenty of other things to do. The outside of the windows I can make less of a big deal because I can just jet-wash them with the garden hose while I water the flowerbeds–in Texas the heat dries them so fast they don’t have time to streak much. But the dishes, I’ve yet to find that hosing them down on the patio has quite the same desirable effect as actually putting them in soapy water in a sink or dishwasher. And we don’t have any pets that will lick them clean for us. So I credit any time spent immersed up to my elbows in bubbles or loading up the ol’ dishwasher as time I don’t have to spend vacuuming. It’s not like we have to eat directly off of the carpeting anyway.
I do like my food to come into and out of a reasonably sanitary place, whenever possible, so I’ve been known to get seriously aggressive from time to time when it comes to kitchen cleaning. Once the food’s prepared, it may be that all bets are off, because hey, I already swept the floor, so how many cooties can already have occupied that little spot where I just now dropped a bite? I’ll take my chances. ‘Thirty second rule’, that’s nothing. I’ll give it a good thirty minutes if I happened to be on my way to another chore and can’t get back to pick up that morsel until the return trip. No wonder I dropped a bite anyway, when my hands were so full of the Good Deeds of good housekeeping! And it all came through a supremely safe and clean kitchen. I’m almost sure of it. I’ve even been known to clean the oven, though of course that’s only likely to happen by virtue of living in a house with a self-cleaning one, so I only had to figure out the arcana of its antiquated workings.
All in all, I like to think we live in a relatively toxin-free, moderately tidy home and that the various arrangements I’ve made to survive the chores more sensibly contribute to a place that, if not up to royal standards, isn’t utterly slouchy either. When you come to visit me you can go ahead and put up your heels on the coffee table, because we’re big on ease and comfort around here, but I won’t let you stick them on the dining table. If your pants get direly dirty with our dusty red Texas clay, I’ll happily wash, dry and fold them for you, but ain’t no bucking rodeo bull gonna get me to iron them for you. You can fold them under your mattress for the night or even go find an iron and press ‘em yourself, but there are some demons of the homemaking variety I’m just not willing to battle any more. I’ve seen enough of that combat in my time.
It’s why I have my relaxed attitude toward weeds on the property, too. If they’ll stand up and look pretty and behave sweetly toward me, I’m certainly not inclined to cut them down just because they showed up uninvited. Why, it’s what I’d do for any good guest.
It’s true, I’m among the horde of cruel people who put the onus for all our Monday growling and grumpiness and grunge on the day itself. Many of us see Monday as the End of All Things Fun, coming as it does on the heels of any sort of weekend respite or recreation we might have enjoyed. I’ve long had that nasty habit of looking in the mirror on a Monday and seeing monstrous presence there, only thinly veiled by the black cloud of my ill-humor.I think perhaps it’s time to take a little responsibility for the ogrish attitudes myself and reclaim Monday as the Beginning of something fresh and new–by making it that, if need be, by force. The end of one thing is almost inevitably the beginning of another, and if the follower isn’t to my liking, then who’s to change that but me? Isn’t it just possible that in the open spaces between my crotchety complaints and snarky remarks, there could be room for the tiny wedge of reinvention to be driven in for a start? I think I should see what I can accomplish in this. No need to keep glowering at a meanie in the mirror morosely.One of the first things, I suppose, is to make sure that my Mondays hold something that I look forward to eagerly, something to start my week with a measure of pleasure. So I am taking that step in a small way already: Monday is my day for planning and for clearing the decks. As an inveterate list-maker and lister-of-lists, it’s my day to ‘walk the fences’–and since my Spread (no, dears, my Texas ranch, not my posterior measurements) consists of a house on a typical city-sized lot, it’s not too hard to accomplish that part, at least in temporal terms. But I must do so with eyes wide open for details that need attention so that I know of all the things that require mending, tending or improving. Those light switches that are going to be replaced. (The replacements have already been bought–check!–so it remains only to install them: Note!) The wood handles on the washtub need a preservative oiling. The seed starters are lined up as kits in the garage work area but need to be assembled now. And with the Must Do list is the ever-mutant list of how-abouts: would the window coverings in the reading/TV room be better insulation and easier to open and close if I redo them? Can I put a more comfortable seating angle on that chair by shimming the front legs? Do I have all of the supplies from my shopping list for finishing that little art project? Is the grocery list for Tuesday complete?
There is a surprising amount of satisfaction in not just being able to cross little things off those perpetual lists as Finished but being able, as well, to refine the remaining items so that they are more clear and purposeful and prioritized, and give shape to the rest of a busy week for me. It’s just the way I operate. It also makes me feel a little freer and lighter about what pleasurable things I can do while accomplishing my list-work, how I can distribute things in the short and long term, and when I can break up the flow of Projects with Fun–this latter being an essential thing and not, then, needing to feel like a disruption of the flow but rather a welcome island in the stream. Me, I like a wildly numerous and exotic archipelago of what others might admittedly think purposeless delights in my life’s flow.
So I am on a campaign of making Mondays a favorite day for me by turning my old attitude on its ear. I always had a fondness for forcing a change in point of view by whatever literalistic or foolish means necessary, after all: if I can’t see my artwork with enough objectivity to make intelligent editorial decisions about it, I need to shift how I look at it in order to adjust how I see it. Stand on my head. Come into a dark room and turn on the light on it suddenly. Imagine I’m a six- or ninety-six-year-old looking at it and how I’d describe it.
In the case of Mondays, I’m guessing many a 96-year-old with healthy feelings toward life would simply be delighted at being alive for another one. And six is an age when everything is still new every day, and electric with possibility. Why shouldn’t I adopt both of those attitudes?
For now, I intend to arrange at least one additional Fun Thing to be included in my Mondays on a regular basis, but perhaps a different kind of fun each time, so that I can’t get jaded and lackadaisical about it. Certainly it should have elements of silliness included, because that’s something that never does grow old with me, and perhaps is part of the reason I expect I shan’t grow old myself any too soon. Looking out my window, I see that the bare-branched trees of winter are suddenly covered with black lace, that the intermittent wind gusts have kicked up a ballet of curlicued oak leaves in the corner of the patio, and that the cardinals stopping by for a nibble of grain have somehow taken on a much deeper and brighter hue of red. Is it a change of seasons coming on? Perhaps it’s just that I’m letting the seasons change within me.