In Jokes

If I wrote write here: “I’m going to bed with a beer and a book,” my old friend on Bainbridge would laugh – and picture the two of us bottling raspberry jam while four crabby and bored small children flailed around us, surprised by the sudden appearance of her husband suffering a cold, and his seemingly reasonable announcement.

Some of these one-liner phrases enter the lexicon of intimates never to leave, and can live on, because they’re useful. They’re code words – replaying a chuckle or a belly laugh, or inviting the joy of absurdity when applied to a new situation.

On one of my first trips with my husband, a waiter (barely hiding his displeasure) brushed “ein noodle” from a white tablecloth. To this day any small, single, slightly icky, misplaced object becomes “ein noodle.” And many years ago on a backpacking trip, as we broke camp in the morning, a two-year old traveler, engrossed in setting up his “guys,” and not inclined to hit the trail, said plaintively, “Can’t we just poop and play army?” a phrase capturing exactly the feeling of being hassled by commitment and demands. (I really loved it when I heard Mrs. Hughes use it aptly to describe a situation.)

Lady Baby produces memorable lines now, and gets it when she is part of, or the creator of, an in joke. Sometimes she uses the more formal language of literature, words like cupboard and grandmother. One day she told her amazed mother: “I’m satisfied with you mommy.” She often asks “why?,” both in a two-year old reflexive way and in a legitimate expression of curiosity. She seems to know when the question can’t really be answered, but isn’t it fun to ask – repeatedly.

I missed the heyday of “I know, but…,” which apparently became for a time a frequently repeated, wee bit argumentative comment, as in response to a parental directive for bed time: “I know, but I must do x or y first.” And a few weeks ago, when her dad told her he loved her, her response was “I know, but I love Uncle Tutu.”

And that stuck. Luckily we all love her Uncle Tutu, so now when we say “I love you,” and she grins and replies, “I love Tutu,” then we say “I love Tutu, too.”

I recognize this as one of those jokes that may not be the least bit funny here in the retelling. But she knows we are all enjoying ourselves. She makes the joke, gets the joke, and makes us laugh.

What a gift. Little repeated phrases that are a quick laugh when reapplied or applied anew – with or without irony – I love that.

And I love Tutu, too.

Lady Baby and Tutu



Imagination Begins

In The New Yorker’s “Briefly Noted” negative mention of Hilary Mantel’s memoir “Giving Up the Ghost,” the writer called it a “bleak memoir” and wanted “a story more plainly shaped, and one that gave some sense of the growth of her remarkable imagination.” But a few weeks ago, finishing my Mantel re-read, and awaiting the release of her controversial collection of short stories (“The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher”), I thought again about the memoir.

Instead of failing to explain her imagination, for me it revealed its development in a harsh childhood – her thoughtfulness, her love of stories and belief in magic (and ghosts). You can hear the voice of the little girl who grows up to bring Thomas Cromwell and other memorable characters to life.

Not bleak, because the language animates it for me, but it is sad. Unable to bear children, through what seems near medical malfeasance, Mantel poignantly expresses a longing for children and grandchildren, who for her will never be.

I thought about her and about imagination during my recent time with Lady Baby. There’s no knowing where imagination will lodge, what inspires it, what triggers the making up of stories. But what a blessing for humankind.

While not yet making up stories like Mantel about how, at four, she will turn into a boy who can be a “knight errant” or seeing ghosts (to my knowledge), an element of the fantastic inhabits the stories we hear lately from Lady Baby, along with a very practical, rooted in the real world element – for now.

You’ve heard about Nick and Baby Boy before – and that tale’s not all told. Nick now has another little bitty baby, named Sam, who came out of his belly (just one of Nick’s abilities, along with running a chain saw and driving various pieces of heavy equipment).

On a walk we encountered Nick with his German shepherd Quesadilla. Lady Baby explained that Nick didn’t say hi because he didn’t see us. Some blocks later we saw Quesadilla again, as a corgi behind a fence, other times he appears a bulldog or a little white dog on a leash. In the most conversational way, Lady Baby will spot a dog (or a guy) and say “That’s Quesadilla!” (or “That’s Nick!”). They shift shapes with ease – always identified nonetheless.

Lady Baby’s language now makes these made-up stories (I assume they are made up) really elaborate. In the neighborhood, she pointed out Nick’s mother’s house, and we had a long conversation about relationships – Nick’s mother being also Baby Boy’s grandmother and Sam his brother. The stories ground themselves in reality (specific makes of pick up truck) and unreality (surprisingly good weather in Prudhoe Bay).

I sent a card before my arrival with a picture of her suitcase, and wrote that I was packing my suitcase. Mrs. Hughes returned a video of Lady Baby “reading” the card: “Dear Baby Boy and Nick, Monday will be your suitcase. Love, Baby Boy’s grandfather.” She reworded my letter so handily with perfect form and a huge smile.

When talking about the Nick stories, on the way to the airport as I left, Mr. Carson said he thought they were social, a way to be part of the conversation. We all talk about our friends and what they do – and that’s what happens when Lady Baby tells her stories about Nick.

Great stories. Imaginative stories.


Blistered Tomato and Lentil Salad

Fresh tomatoes and squash sit side by side on the kitchen counter this time of year – bounty that encourages cooking after a summer of flagging interest.

Our CSA arrived with beautiful tomatoes and a recipe for using them. And tomatoes padded in my carry-on, I headed north to Anchorage earlier this month.

And very glad I was to see Lady Baby! We did all our usual things – playgrounds and much, much reading – she knows many books by heart, but is quick to point to text and request “say these words” when she doesn’t.

I attended her music class, and observed with her and her mom at a preschool. We met the bunnies, Lefty and Righty (named for their cage alignment), watched children raking patterns in fallen leaves, sliding, running, digging potatoes, and pulling carrots and washing them to make soup (feeding the tops to the bunnies). It looked like great fun for next fall.

Before I arrived, Mr. Carson had cooked lentils, and a batch of Deborah Madison’s “White Bean Soup with Pasta.” (The soup provided dinner, warming lunch many days, and a reminder that soup matters in autumn. The trick to that soup is to cook for a long time.)

If you haven’t lentils already prepared, the recipe for “Blistered Tomato and Lentil Salad,” adapted from, says to soak half a cup of rinsed brown lentils in three cups of water (for at least three hours to shorten cooking time), then rinse and cook with dash of salt and three cups of water for about 15 minutes.

Blister a cup of halved or roughly chopped tomatoes by cooking on high heat with a garlic clove, tablespoon of olive oil, and salt in a sauté pan (about five to seven minutes).

Combine the cooked and drained lentils with the tomato mixture in a large bowl. Add a cup of thinly sliced kale (I’ve used all kinds in this) and quarter cup of chopped red onion.

Dressing puts the zing in the lentils and kale. Combine one tablespoon each of Dijon mustard and white rice vinegar, half tablespoon of tahini, two tablespoons of olive oil, and half teaspoon of cumin powder. Whisk. Dress the salad and serve right away or refrigerate.

I got almost this far, salad ready to dress, Hassleback potatoes in the oven, when Mrs. Hughes came home and took over while I read more books with Lady Baby. (Such a treat to have help with cooking from the other staff at Downtown Abbey.)

Mrs. Hughes sautéed zucchini (a Lady Baby favorite), roasted cut-up purple carrots with olive oil and salt, and in the perfect finishing touch to the lentil salad – fried an egg to top each serving.

Hearty autumn meal (and great leftovers the next day). I’m inspired to cook again!

Fried egg - paper

The Garden at Monk’s House

For ten years Caroline Zoob and her husband lived as caretakers and tenants at the miniature (by modern standards) Monk’s House in Sussex, longtime home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Responsible for maintaining the garden and the house and keeping them open to the public on set days, their brief from The National Trust suggested they garden “in the spirit of Bloomsbury,” “using bright colors in a painterly style.”

And now Zoob has made a beautiful book in the spirit of Bloomsbury – “Virginia Woolf’s Garden: The Story of The Garden at Monk’s House.” Along with Zoob’s text, photographs from the Woolfs’ time, and lavish contemporary photos by Caroline Arber, the book contains Zoob’s truly delightful, embroidered garden maps – a unique touch in a garden book. Zoob’s narrative of Virginia’s life serves as a good refresher or introduction, and the book also stands as a gardening book with planting recommendations based on experiences in the Monk’s House garden and descriptions of its garden rooms.

Zoob often uses Virginia’s own words to describe the garden and her pleasure in the seasons there: “The snow came down on Saturday, thick white cake sugar all over the garden…,” “the nights are long and warm, the roses flowering; and the garden full of lust and bees, mingling in the asparagus beds” – a gardening book with Virginia Wolf’s observations!

In the mid-90s I visited Monk’s House (before Zoob’s time and most of the plants quiet for the season), and was among those Zoob would call “visitors on a pilgrimage.” Thrilled to walk where Virginia walked and see the views she saw, I watched a woman pick an apple from one of Leonard’s apple trees and bite into it. Startled, I felt both dismay – should she do that? – and complete understanding of why she would want to.

The house remains much as it was a hundred years ago, and only a limited part of it is open to the public. You envy Zoob living day in and day out as the Woolfs did, with her black-and-white cats, Handlebars and Boy, at home in their garden, and morning sunshine coming down the steps into the kitchen. You also shudder at the trials – water pouring down the same steps into the kitchen when it rained, a clawed bathtub on a tilt. Both couples endured bitterly cold winters – the Woolfs with no central heating, and the modern couple a long stretch with a broken boiler.

Gardens rarely outlast their creators, so I loved this book describing its ongoing life. I think Virginia would be pleased with things, including this treasure of a book.

A little painting Arber photo