I don’t know why March gets all the hype, when anyone with kids can tell you that in September madness abounds. There’s the getting back into school rhythm, the ceremonial synching of the calendars, the myriad of forms to fill out, the continual washing of soccer clothes (and hunting for soccer socks) and lots and lots of driving.
We’re affiliated with a new school and a new swim club, which means new faces and names to remember and new “opportunities” to become a part of these new communities.
For every event on my September calendar, there were one or two competing or bookending events, making it hard to get into the natural flow of daily life.
A few weeks after school started, we hosted a Japanese exchange student and had the opportunity to show her how a normal American family lives. I thought it would be a good idea to make homemade pizza for our first dinner together.
Later that evening, our intrepid friends the Canadians unexpectedly showed up. They were camping in their nifty house on wheels
which they parked on the normally quiet street in front of our house. All day I had noticed an unusual number of cars parked on our street, including one with a woman in the front seat engrossed in a book. Two hours later, she was still there. Four hours later, she was still there. At 11:00 p.m. she was still there, still reading. It reminded me of that famous scene from When Harry Met Sally.
Flanked by Jeff and the Canadians, I knocked on her window to make sure she was okay and to get a look at the book that had held her attention for so long. She explained that unbeknownst to us, our neighbor across the street had died earlier in the week and there was to be an estate sale beginning the next morning. “They provide entry to dealers based on a list. I’m number one on the list, so I’m spending the night here in my car to protect my spot.” She went on to explain that it’s not unheard of for people to sneak out at night and remove estate sale entry lists, which are posted outside the property. “Actually,” she said indignantly “you are supposed to remain near the premises to hold your place on the list, but I’m the only one still here. At 5:00 tomorrow morning, everyone else will show up.” I did ask her about her book, but neither it, nor the prospect of being the first person to get the chance to dig through an old man’s stuff, seemed worth spending the night in a car.
The Canadians wisely decided to move their vehicle to our driveway, rather than risk being awakened by treasure hunters. At 6:00 a.m., when I took the dog for a walk, there they were and their numbers grew throughout the weekend. I imaged trying to explain the reason for all these people to our visiting Japanese girl. Was this how normal Americans lived and died?
I decided we should stick to sight seeing.
The visitors left, the month wore on and I kept waiting for things to calm down. Over dinner, I spoke authoritatively about putting “systems in place” and established menus and job charts to keep us all on track. Whenever the opportunity to restore order presented itself I grabbed it, collecting the apples that had fallen from our tree to make applesauce (using a James Beard recipe which admonished that, because different varieties of apples vary in sweetness, it would be “folly” to add sugar until the apples were cooked.) and catching up on laundry in between the first and the second time the dryer broke.
One such night I wanted to cook, really cook and so I decided to make maqluba, a traditional Middle Eastern upside down dish of rice, eggplant, cauliflower and chicken, using the recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi‘s new book Jerusalem. The timing may have been bad – just as I was frying up cauliflower, Daughter No. 2 needed help with her math homework. I know I’m not alone when I say that answering any questions about math requires me to sit down and breathe deeply before I dive in. But when I brought the steaming platter to the table and adorned it with garlic-infused yogurt, I could imagine that one day, life would feel normal again.
As we moved into October I had two encounters that gave me pause. One was with a former neighbor, who came by to tell me that a member of her family had died. I was rushing to dry my hair, take the dog for a walk and zip to an appointment when she appeared and so could not fully express my condolences or share memories with her. The other was a telephone conversation I had with a woman I had interviewed for an article I’d written. She’d lost her teenaged son unexpectedly last Christmas and recently her family met the man who had received her son’s donated heart. Our interview the day before had stirred up memories and now she wanted to tell me all about her son, not so that I could write about him, but so that I could know the person he had been. I listened, wanting to help her keep his memory alive, but I was distracted. I had ten minutes to chop and brown pork and put it into the Crockpot so that we would have time to eat dinner after school and swimming and before soccer practice.
One evening last week, in the brief available interlude after dinner and homework and before bed, we watched snippets of the documentary Half the Sky, which aired on PBS. Even my daughters, who were riveted by what they saw, realized that our challenges are First World problems of our own making.
Still, I know it would be folly to expect that September will ever be any different, at least as long as I still have kids at home. Just as I once designated a night of the week as European Chicken night, I’m thinking of designating September as Topsy-Turvy month and cooking maqlaba and tarte tatin and other upside down dishes until life, and our priorities, right themselves again.
It’s been a year since I started Slice of Mid-Life and I want to thank all of you who have read it and commented. Even though work and life and puppies sometimes interfere with my best-laid blogging plans and I have to find stolen moments to write (like tonight, when I typed in my car while waiting for our Cuban Roast pork sandwiches to be ready), I’m always glad that I did.
- Flavours of Jerusalem: Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s new recipes (telegraph.co.uk)