Leaf-Peeping Season

Standard

Five months ago, I wrote about “Fiddlehead Season,” a time that epitomizes the fleeting nature of early spring and reminds me of the vulnerabilities of childhood. How different that time of year is compared to leaf-peeping season, which, I should note, is lingering particularly long this year. A gloriously bright foliage is nature at its most beautiful. And, if spring is like childhood, then the colors of fall reflect the confidence that only comes with age and experience.

This autumn, more than any other, I found myself inexplicably stopping to take photos of the changing trees. On my way to work, on my way home from work, en route to the grocery story — you name it, I stopped my car, jumped out with my iPhone, and tried (sometimes in vain) to capture the sunlight shimmering in the trees. I even varied my thrice weekly drive to Montpelier, in hopes that a different route might yield more trees, more mountains, and, most importantly, more color.

About a week ago, I took an abrupt U-turn in the middle of the road, just a mile from home, in order to snap a photo of the evening light dancing across Buswell Pond. After snapping the pic and jumping back in the car, I quite literally laughed out loud and asked myself, “When did you become a leaf-peeper?”

I’m not sure exactly when it happened. But, clearly, it did. I’ve come a long way since childhood, when I vividly recall thinking that the “flat-landers” were crazy to pay nearly a hundred bucks a night to stay at my parents’ inn, just to watch the leaves change colors.

I thought then that leaf-peeping flat-landers were nothing short of a danger on Vermont’s roadways, driving so terribly slowly and often stopping suddenly, usually right in the middle of the road. “What’s wrong with these people?” I often asked myself.

The drivers from Connecticut and New York were bad enough. But the ones with unrecognizable license plates from presumably more far-flung locations took even greater risks to get just the right view of the bright foliage. It was just absurd.

My Aunt Nancy tried to explain to me that the leaves on the trees back where the guests came from didn’t change the same way ours did. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. Although I could see the trees with their bright colors, I didn’t appreciate them and, I took them for granted.

Over the twenty years that I lived elsewhere, I missed my home in Vermont more in autumn than at any other time of year. It didn’t take long for me to discover that Aunt Nancy had been right. None of the other places I lived, Washington, D.C., Beijing, and Arizona, just to name a few, had a notable fall season. Maybe the answer to the question “When did you become a leaf-peeper?” is the fall of 2007, the first fall after I moved back home.

That may be, but my own leaf-peeping shenanigans really went to a whole new level last week, when I pulled an abrupt U-turn while heading north on route 103 out of Chester. The early evening sun was illuminating the mountainside behind a dairy farm and I felt an uncontrollable urge to both admire and preserve the scene. I knew I would drive by that same farm again hundreds of times, but may never catch it again with that perfect light that gave the appearance of setting the foliage on fire.

Here’s a small sampling of photos taken in the past few weeks:

Advertisements

Tante Evelyn’s Treats

Standard

My mother is a very good cook. It’s hard to replicate her cooking, because she’s one part Alice Waters, with her emphasis on fresh, local ingredients; one part Rachael Ray, with her mantra that “easy-to-do” is almost always best; one part Martha Stewart, thanks to her kitchen cleverness; and one part MacGyver, no explanation necessary. Another time, I’ll post some of her time-honored cooking and meal planning tips, such as her advice on which types of cheeses can be successfully frozen and re-served and what to do with leftover cake. This post, however, isn’t directly about Mom’s cooking. It’s about a recipe and, as it turns out, human nature.

Tante Evelyn

“Tante Evelyn”

The most requested recipe in my mother’s large repertoire, bar none, is a cookie recipe that we call “Tante Evelyn’s Treats,” which was named after my mother’s French-Canadian aunt. Like many immigrant women of her generation, it seemed that the only way Tante Evelyn knew how to show love was through her cooking. Visiting her was always popular when we were children, because she never failed to have multiple homemade sweets freshly baked in her kitchen, that she insisted we eat to our little hearts’ content.

After we opened the inn, it was likewise a treat for all of us when Tante Evelyn visited from New Hampshire to stay with us, share in the cooking chores and generally amuse us with her no-nonsense personality. When she visited near the holidays, she would make batches and batches of her graham cracker treats. A mixture of melted butter and brown sugar is poured over a sheet of graham cracker pieces and, after a mere 10 minutes in the oven, they turn into delicious, praline-type candied crackers. Tante Evelyn would make enough in one afternoon so that my mom could freeze them and have them on hand for an entire year. The days she baked these cookies were, for us kids, always the highlights of her trip to the inn.

Evelyn died many years ago, so we’ll never know exactly how she came about creating her recipe. Nowadays, you can find variations of it all over the Internet, like this one that adds vanilla and pecans and earns a five-star rating from Betty Crocker.  A look through my mom’s ancient Betty Crocker bible that’s now held together by duct tape does not, however, contain this recipe.

Betty Crocker Cookbook

(We don’t know the origin of Tante Evelyn’s recipe. We looked everywhere, including in here.)

Meanwhile, like every other industry, inn-keeping has affiliations and organizations. In the ski region in south-central Vermont where our inn is located, there was once a group called “Snowtown Inns” that was later renamed the ”Okemo Valley Hospitality Association.” In the 1980s, there were 16 inns and motels in the area that were members of this group, which, by the way, is now absorbed into the regional chamber of commerce. My mother was an executive officer of the group and still has a large drawer full of envelopes bearing the group’s logo.

The group met a few times per year and members took turns hosting the meetings. One day, in the late 1980s, it was with much “to-do” that my mother and father hosted the group. After the business was done, they served coffee with an impressive array of nut breads and desserts. I have no doubt that everything was delicious. However, everyone in the group raved about one particular cookie and wondered how my mother made them. Of course, these were the famous Tante Evelyn’s Treats.

When one of the other innkeepers asked for the recipe, my mom was so pleased that her peers loved her beloved aunt’s cookies that she immediately went into her office, printed out the recipe, and made a copy for everyone.

Tante Evelyn’s Treats

Ingredients:
1 package of graham crackers
1 1/2 sticks of butter
1/2 cup of brown sugar
1/2 cup of finely chopped nuts

Method:
Break graham crackers in half (along perforation) and place flat on a greased cookie sheet. Melt butter and brown sugar in a saucepan for five to six minutes, stirring constantly. Pour over crackers and sprinkle with nuts. Bake at 350 degrees for nine minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool. If desired, sprinkle with mini chocolate chips when cookies are removed from oven and still hot.

Okemo Valley Hospitality

(There used to be an active industry association in the area just for innkeepers and other motel and lodge owners.)

I was away at college and had no idea that this meeting had taken place, until about a year later when I received a phone call from my mother. She was crying and so terribly upset that it was difficult to understand her. After she calmed down, my mother explained that she had just received her latest issue of Yankee Magazine in the mail. In it, one of the competing inns in her hospitality group had won a recipe contest for……guess what? A delicious graham cracker cookie recipe that was remarkably like “Tante Evelyn’s Treats,” but under a different name with slightly more butter.  Otherwise, it was exactly the same!

I insisted that mom defend her honor and write to the editors. But she’s simply not that kind of person. She bore her disappointment and fury in silence and never even mentioned it to the other innkeeper, who is no longer in Vermont and has been long out of the inn business.

The story reminds me of something my mother once told me when I was a young girl. After observing my mom busy in the inn’s kitchen one afternoon, I had complained bitterly, “I don’t know how to cook!” She stopped what she was doing and put her arms around me and said, “Sharon, if you can read, you can cook.”

I appreciated the gesture, but I know today, just as I did back then, that my mother was wrong. There’s a lot more to good cooking than being able to read or following what might in fact be a great recipe. My mom will always be a better cook and innkeeper than her ruthless competitor and, no matter the variations of it that might be out in the larger world, this particular cookie recipe is best when called “Tante Evelyn’s Treats.”

Casualties of Childhood

Standard

My husband Bruce and I drove to his hometown last weekend to attend a poetry reading by one of his high school mates, the poet Tom Lux. Tom has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry in his illustrious career, including New and Selected Poems, 1975-1995 for which he was a finalist for the 1998 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and Split Horizon for which he received the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Two great online articles about Tom and his writing can be found here and here. He is currently the Bourne Professor of Poetry at Georgia Tech.

At White Square Books, a charming little book store, on a Sunday afternoon, Tom read poems that he had selected for the occasion that were autobiographical of events and people in his hometown of Easthampton, Massachusetts. Most of these poems were nothing short of extraordinary. One of his newer poems, which I believe hasn’t been published yet, is haunting. Tom called it “the most autobiographical” of all his poetry. It’s a recounting of a time as a 15-year-old, when he used his shot gun to kill a small brown bird. Through the narrative and detail of the poem, it was evident that he had researched the habitat and habits of the type of bird to show how much he had thought of this bird in the more than 50 years that have passed since the day he killed it.

The poem ends with the bird’s talons and little legs remaining attached to the tiny branch, after the rest of the bird had been blown to smithereens. Tom watched the result of his mischief and saw the talons still clinging eerily and upright on the branch and, after a bit of wind, swinging down, still attached.

You could have heard a pin drop for more than a few moments after Tom had finished reading the poem. Everyone in the room was shocked into thinking about Tom’s dead bird and then, perhaps, some casualties of their own childhoods. I briefly mourned this bird, and then recalled one my brother Billy had killed with his BB gun when I was 6 and he was 8, at our Pépère’s hunting camp in Tinmouth, Vermont.

I think it was my cousin Kelly who dared him to shoot the young woodpecker which was in the tree down behind the outhouse at the camp. In the dense fog of childhood memory, I had thought that it was my more mischievous brother, Wayne, who was the bird executioner. To my surprise, the answer to my text to Billy this morning “Do you remember at Tinmouth camp the time Wayne killed a bird with a BB gun?” was this: “That was me. A small woodpecker. I cried. It was very traumatic for me. I still think about it.” And, then, he added in a second text: “Pépère consoled me and taught me the importance of not aiming a gun at something you do not want to kill.”

I see it vividly in my mind now. Billy killed it with his first shot and it fell dead with a thump. We all ran over to it. Kelly and I immediately began crying and ran to find the adults to tell them of Billy’s mischief. I also remember clearly that Billy and Wayne both cried too, as they followed behind us up the hill. When I shared these memories with Billy this morning, he replied: “It is funny about childhood memories, I don’t remember anyone else being around. It was me. My BB gun. A live woodpecker. An excellent shot. A dead woodpecker. Me crying because of what I had done. Pépère imparting that valuable life lesson. The burial ceremony.”

The incident was so memorable for my brother that he had saved photographs from that day and knows the exact date, October 20, 1974. Incredible. A few of those photos are below.

Pepere and deer Motley Crew Hunting Camp in Oct 74 Oct 20 1974

In the moments after Tom had finished reading his poem, I thought more about the old hunting camp. More than a few of Tom’s autobiographical poems involved boys with their hunting rifles. It was easy for me to relate to these childhood stories. I had grown up in a similar fashion in New Hampshire and Vermont, although a few decades after Tom’s upbringing in Western Massachusetts.

My brother came up to Vermont a few months ago and we decided to tool around a bit and found ourselves heading through Wallingford on Route 140, on our way to Tinmouth. Billy hadn’t been out there since childhood. I, on the other hand, had gone out a few summers before with Bruce to show him the land that was a part of so many childhood memories. I used to call the annual rite of going there as a very young child, “going to Vermont.” When I was nine, we moved to Vermont. Pépère died shortly thereafter and the camp lasted just a few years following that, until Mémère died when I was 12.

When Billy and I pulled up to the old cemetery in Tinmouth, we parked the car on the opposite side of the road, jumped the gate, and headed into the field, in search of the old camp and the outhouse. The trailer was there, a caved in pile of trash, and the outhouse was nowhere to be found.

Camp as trash

Old Stories through New Eyes

Standard

A few weeks ago, my brother sent me a very interesting New York Times opinion piece that’s on topic with the “Dry Year” thread of this blog. In it, poet John Skoyles reveals how he had spent much of his graduate school years drinking heavily, and had engaged in risky behaviors as a result. In fact, he wrote a memoir about it called “A Moveable Famine” without realizing that his own alcohol abuse was a theme in the book. It wasn’t until he reflected back on his story after reconnecting with an old girlfriend that he acknowledged his alcoholism. Although I considered reading the memoir, I’m hoping he’ll write another one that looks back on that time with new eyes.

In the same email in which he alerted me to Skoyles’ article, my brother also suggested that I consider adding a new thread or two to my blog, in order to keep people interested and entertained. He felt I needed to branch out from my too-narrow focus on not drinking, dieting and running. I couldn’t agree with him more, so, as a result, I’m introducing a new thread related to the memoir section of my blog.

My two brothers and I grew up in a busy inn, in a Vermont ski-resort town. Although hard to believe given that they’re now both in their 70’s, my parents still run the very bustling Combes Family Inn. Through the years, my mom has threatened now and then to write a book filled with stories from her and Dad’s 36 years as innkeepers. Since they’ve recently begun formulating their retirement plans and even picked a tentative date for closing the doors on their business, I decided it’s time to help Mom document some of her favorite inn-keeping stories.

My parents, while in their mid-30’s, had a dream of becoming innkeepers, long before it became fashionable. My mom was always a great cook and my dad an exceptional handyman. When our original hometown in New Hampshire was becoming over-developed, they began looking for an inn in earnest. They looked for two years to find a suitable one in either rural New Hampshire or Vermont, where they could raise their three young children while creating a business.

My mom’s story doesn’t make sense unless you understand how vibrant and beautiful the inn and its property are today. The photos below give you a taste of what I’m talking about. There are two photos of the inn and the grounds today and four of the “before” pictures.

“I’ll tell you the very first inn-keeping story that I want people to know,” Mom said the other night, after I mentioned this new idea for a blog thread. She was addressing me, my father, my husband Bruce, and my brother Bill, who is visiting for the long July 4th weekend. “The story relates the moment when we all walked through that door, as we took possession of the house in March, 1978,” she said.

“The entrance way had piles of garbage and large, opened bags of large-animal feed. Wafting out of the first room beyond the entrance was the smell of animal feces. A quick look inside, revealed more garbage and a partially collapsed ceiling,” she related. “Our cat, Gimpy, was so skeptical about the place that he wouldn’t walk through the doorway. I’ll never forget that I turned to look at my eldest child Billy, after Gimpy walked away from the front door. Billy, who was just 11 years old at the time, shook his head and asked ‘What have you gotten us all into?’”

Little did any of us know then that 36 years later the inn would be still be in business. Although I have heard the story a million times, I have no recollection of the cat’s disgust or my brother’s reaction, because, in a similar reaction as my cat, I ran back to the car and refused to get out again. I just sat in the car and cried. When my parents came back to force me out, I kept screaming “I want to go to the Snow Mansion!”

I was referring to one of the handful of other inns my parents had looked at before finally selecting the ramshackle farmhouse.  What I called the “Snow Mansion” was really the Snowvillage Inn, a resort near Conway, New Hampshire that had a large pond, tennis courts, and rolling fields. It’s still around today. This is what it looks like now. When we left our home in Merrimack, New Hampshire, in my mind, the Snow Mansion was the type of place we were moving to.  In fact, it was with considerable pride on my last day in elementary school that I told everyone I was moving to the Snow Mansion.

What my nine-year-old self and my cat Gimpy couldn’t conceive of was the potential that my parents had seen in the place. According to my mother, as she reflected back on why they risked uprooting their three young children and moving to start a new life in a house that could truthfully be described as “a dump”: “It was a place we could put our own mark on and start our new business slowly. We loved the area. It was near a small town with a village center with a growing ski resort, and it had a local school for you kids. And, on top of all that, the house itself had more than 50 acres and was on a country back road with a great view.”

Once each month, I’m going to interview my mom and share her stories. Some of them are absolutely hysterical.

Fiddlehead Season

Standard

Fleeting, fragile spring.
A hunt before they unfurl.
Fiddlehead season.

Last year, I started writing a memoir and completed the first section, which is titled “Fiddlehead Season.” There’s something about the fleeting nature of this part of spring that reminds me of childhood, both my own and generally. Below is a condensed version of a small section of my memoir with an update from last weekend tacked on the end.

Image

(Only one variety of fern is edible and you have to pick them when they are still tightly wound in early spring.)

 

The father of a childhood friend has a hobby of foraging and had become somewhat famous locally because of this. He was very successful in fiddlehead season, so much so that it truly amazed me after I had moved back home and started foraging for fiddleheads myself. He was also the only person I personally knew who is an avid mushroom forager. I have always hated mushrooms, so this skill was something I had never learned to appreciate.

One spring after my husband and I moved back to my home town, I got a phone call out of the blue. My friend’s dad announced himself then said: “Sharon, let your mom know that I have a bunch of fiddleheads for her. You can come by the house any time.” Click.

The next morning, my mom and I headed over there. We weren’t even sure which house it was, despite the many times I had gone over there as a child. It’s funny how, over time, you can lose faith in your memory. Is it the white one next to the brick house or the other one in front of that? Luckily, we were saved by the lady of the house, who popped out of their front door when she saw our slowing car.  We met her at the open doorway, through which she handed us some Ziploc bags and told us to head out back to take as many fiddleheads as we wanted. We found them soaking in water in a large white bucket in the shade, under the eaves of their house.

I’ve received similar calls most springs since then, and sometimes I’d even go by the house myself and just help myself to fiddleheads from the bucket in the back.  It had become an early spring routine. But the calls stopped two years ago and I learned that my friend’s father’s health had begun to fail and he was no longer able to forage.

Last summer, I had arranged for some of my friends from out of town, who have a keen interest in Vermont mushrooms, to meet and discuss mushroom foraging with my friend’s father. He had diligently prepared by assembling several photographs of different local mushrooms he himself had taken through the years. He had also marked up several reference books with notes and tabs. Although my companions already seemed to know quite a bit about the edible mushrooms in the area, I could tell they were gleaning helpful tidbits and were thrilled with all of the preparations and visual aids.

I wasn’t really participating in the conversation, except by picking up a photo here and there, nodding, and asking a few tangentially related questions.  My mind wandered to other things and then, finally, to fiddleheads. As they kept talking about puffballs, chanterelles, and whatever else, I decided that I wasn’t going to leave that house without knowing that secret spot where he successfully forages for all of those fabulous fiddleheads every spring.

When the mushroom conversation started to slow and I could sense that my companions had learned a lot about fungi and were very happy to have a few great leads on where to look for certain types, I eased my way back into the conversation again. “Do you always say that it’s April first when you go out picking fiddleheads?” I asked. “May first,” he replied. “May first.” “And…you go somewhere along the river?” I probed further…

****

Last weekend, my husband, Bruce, dropped me off at the bridge at the end of the road. I got out of the car with my baseball cap, my iPhone, and two pairs of scissors stuffed into our spaghetti strainer, which was set inside our green plastic vegetable strainer. I carried these items in my right hand and used my left to move sticks and trees and bushes out of my path. I went directly to the river bank and it wasn’t easy going.

Young green shoots were all over the place, mostly covered with dead twigs and long, brown grass that had become matted against the ground over the long, snowy winter. I went toward one patch of green and then another and another, ruling them all out. Then I made my way methodically south, staying about the same distance from the edge of the river. After moving a ways downstream, I noticed some unfurled fiddleheads to my left, the side that was away from the river. I hadn’t expected this. I was told the ferns were on the riverbank. No matter, at least I found them.

At first, I was disappointed to see the tall, thin fiddleheads already unwound, reaching toward the sun, because I thought I was too late. After all, I was told “May 1st.” However, the winter had been long, and when I looked in my usual spots the previous weekend I could see that it was still too early to pick them.

The truth is, they come and go so fast you can’t always plan to harvest them over a weekend. I knew that. I should have come during the work week. I was berating myself with these thoughts when I saw a large tight mound of perfect, tightly furled fiddleheads. They were large, and a deep, dark green, reminiscent of the ones I bought at a local market last spring. After I cut them, I spotted several others just like them nearby.

They were there all along. I just couldn’t see them when I was distracted by the unfurled ones.

Image

(My husband and I picked more than two pounds of fiddleheads at the secret spot.)

If you ever plan to be in northern New England in early May and have an interest in picking fiddleheads, check out my “how to” guide on Facebook.

Cat School

Standard

I enjoyed putting together my last post, “My Sibs and Me.” So much so, in fact, that I have to tell one more sibling story.

As I’ve mentioned many times in the past, I am writing a memoir. In the process, I have dusted off several boxes of old books, letters, journals and photographs. The last box I opened had several reports and personal mementos from my primary and secondary school years in Ludlow, Vermont.

Among these items was a typed, untitled, one-page story with an “A-” in red ink at the top. I have no idea how old I was when I wrote it, or what my assignment was. The story, however, is one that I have told many, many times through the years, even very recently. In all of those recountings, though, I never quite told it the same way that it was typed by my young self on a nearly transparent sheet of typing paper.

The story takes place when I was four and my brother Wayne was five. At the time, our older brother Bill was six and in first grade. I was in my first year of a pre-school program, and was very worried about how my cat passed his days while I was away at school. My mother eventually found my many nagging questions about my cat—“Gimpy”—tiresome and finally told me that Gimpy also went to school. She explained that, as soon as we three kids went off to school in the morning, Gimpy went to “Cat School.”

Image

(Above: This photo was taken about the same time that the “cat school” story takes place.)

On the morning of the story, the pre-school was closed, but the elementary school was still in session. This meant that Billy went off to school while Wayne and I stayed home. Shortly after Billy had left, I looked out the window and spied Gimpy walking around outside. I ran to Wayne and told him to come with me and look, because “Gimpy must be on his way to Cat School!”

Below is exactly what was written on the typed page that I found.

___

When I was about four, my family lived in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Our house had some woods and a swamp behind it.

One day, my brother, Wayne, and I decided to follow our cat, Gimpy, around to see where he goes during the day. The cat started to head for the woods, so Wayne and I chased him. I don’t remember how long we followed Gimpy, but somewhere in the middle of the woods, we lost sight of him.

I started to cry and Wayne said, “I know how to get home from here.”

We started heading back the way we came and came to the swamp. Wayne walked right through the water and when he got to the other side, he said, “Sharon, come on, it isn’t that deep.”

I said, “I don’t want to get wet!”

Finally, I went in the swamp and got wet all the way up to my chest. After a bit of walking we reached a place we’d seen before.

I said, “Our house is this way.”

“No, stupid, it’s this way,” Wayne said.

Wayne went his way and I went mine. When I couldn’t see Wayne any more, I started screaming and (then turned around and) caught up with him. I followed him through the woods and finally we were out of the woods and in our back yard. Mom was standing next to the house yelling at us. We ran to Mom and hugged her. I think she was crying.

Mom said, “Oh, I’m so glad to see you! If you ever run away again I’ll give you both a licking!”

By: Sharon Combes

___

Finding my old school essay allowed me to see this childhood episode through my own eyes as a child. I imagine myself being too embarrassed at the time that I wrote it to acknowledge that I believed my Mom when she said that our cat went to school. Therefore, I completely left that part out, despite it being a fundamental part of the story.

This tale is a special sibling story to me, because it’s a microcosm of my relationship with Wayne when Billy wasn’t around. We had our differences, but we still turned to each other and, ultimately, bonded.

I’d love to hear other childhood sibling stories. Please comment on this post with one of your favorites.