The Sweetness Of May

Posted May 1, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Customs

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A lovely French custom is to offer people sprigs of lily of the valley on this day, the 1st of May. It’s a custom that is said to go all the way back to the Renaissance, falling in and out of favor over the centuries, but always signifying good luck and good fortune.

Normally France has at least as many bureaucratic restrictions as any other country on earth, but on this day anyone may sell muguets on the street, not needing a permit, which I think contributes greatly to the public good and general happiness quotient. I remember that my first year in France I bought a handful and handed them out to the butcher, the baker, and pretty much everyone who made my life there more pleasant. It was only later that I learned that you usually only give them to friends, but by that time, those people had become my friends, so I chalked it up to the power of the sweet little flower.

This year, my new garden is full of them, and the corner where they grow smells intoxicatingly sweet. I bring them into the house, admiring their creamy white and oh-so-delicate bells, and think of France, about how I’d love to wander my old neighborhood, handing out little sprigs of happiness.

But this year it will have to be virtual, des muguets virtuels, and I offer some to you. From a cool, fragrant little corner of my life, a symbol of friendship and good luck, please accept them with my hopes that you have a lovely May Day, with just a soupçon of la vie française.

Spring Has Sprung

Posted April 16, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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I know that some of you are still suffering through the last dreary days of the year, so I thought I’d cheer you up with the things that really cheer me up – my garden, and Minou. Both are in fine fettle these days. Here’s a little peek at my garden.

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The entire foreground  used to be lawn, but I had it taken out last fall and replaced with drought-tolerant plantings. It’s just starting to come to life. The gorgeous dogwood tree was already there

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and I love its extravagant showiness. At first I thought it was a rare treasure, but now I see that the whole neighborhood is full of them, the exact same variety – there must have been a big sale on them about 20 years ago.

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Tulips have such a short life, but such a radiant one.

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I planted a cool little tree, a Forest Pansy, which is a kind of redbud. This is its first season to flower.

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Every day I inspect the garden for new flowers, and Minou almost always accompanies me on my rounds.

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At the end of the day this is a sweet spot to sit with a glass of wine, reading the paper, or grilling something for supper, maybe doing a little homework. You can think of me there in just a couple of hours, wine in hand and something on the grill, although definitely minus the homework today. The forecast for today and tomorrow is “sunny and delightful” and I’m taking full advantage of that gift.

From Darkness, Light

Posted April 6, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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I awoke expecting to feel gutted, on this, the second anniversary of the day Shel died, which was the worst day of my life. I had long envisioned misery, had prepared for it as for an arduous journey. As part of that, I decided to take the advice of hospice, which I had previously scorned, that alcohol and drugs make grief worse, and hadn’t altered my consciousness with anything but the scent of my plum tree in bloom for the past three days.

In anticipation of sorrow, and also because my back was sore from raking in the vineyard, I had slept in my recliner, which always feels like sleeping enveloped in a giant hug. Minou slept in my lap, on the fuzzy blue blanket that Shel used to wrap himself in, and instead of waking me up by knocking random things off my desk as he normally might, he snuggled and purred gently until I felt ready to face the day.

I got up slowly, waiting to feel fragile. I had thought about not going to school, lest I burst into tears in the middle of answering a question about soil micronutrients. I solemnly made myself a comforting breakfast.

And then, I found myself washing dishes, making phone calls I’d been neglecting, doing a little homework, dressing for a warm day, zipping up my backpack, and letting my car follow the well-worn path between my house and school, where I spent an absolutely normal day.

Coming home to a lovely warm afternoon on the patio, I was so tempted by a bottle of rosé in the fridge. And I thought two things about that. One was that maybe they were right, maybe I felt better because I hadn’t been drinking at all. And the other was that I should be feeling worse, that it was unfaithful of me to be spending this day without dissolving into a puddle of sadness. And so I tried, I really did. I thought about all the things that usually tear me apart, about everything I lost on the day Shel died, about how profoundly shattering it was to watch his beautiful light go out. For the first time in two years tears didn’t come to my eyes at the thought of it all. I’m staying away from that rosé though, just in case.

Perhaps later, as darkness falls upon me, grief will accompany it, although I don’t feel it lying in ambush. I wish Shel were here to see the new life I’m slowly making for myself, how I’ve navigated living alone for two years with only Minou for constant comfort, and even to see my tearless eyes on this momentous day. I think he’d be really proud of me.

Blue Screen

Posted April 3, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Becoming A Winemaker

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When people ask how I came to be here, a student at my age, so far from home, I always reply with some version of “after my husband died I needed to re-boot my life, so…..” But although it’s convenient and universally understood, that’s really the wrong image. Usually when you re-boot, all goes back to normal, to the beginning, as it was before. You turn it off, you turn it on again, et voilà, all is as it should be.

But that doesn’t happen when someone dies. You turn it off, you turn it on, you sleep, you awaken, they’re still gone, you’re still here. The processor is still humming away, but the program is lost, suffered a fatal error. It’s the blue screen of death, each and every time you look at it.

Perhaps in times past people faded more quickly from memory. But now, with digital images, slideshows, videos, audio recordings, the face and smile and voice of the lost one remain here on earth, ever present. A beautiful picture of Shel sits on my desk, just next to this keyboard, and he’s looking right into my eyes every time I dare to glance that way.

It will be two years this week since he died. Two of the longest and shortest years of my life.

 

Across The Divide

Posted March 29, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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If you don’t live in Washington you might not realize that it’s two, two, two states in one. Yesterday I crossed the great divide from the dry side to the wet side, from the Red side to the Blue side, from my new life to my old, sort of.

I left Walla Walla on a cool day and drove across the eastern part of the state where the wind was whipping hard enough to make gripping the steering wheel tightly a necessity. Then I crossed the pass over the Cascades, where the snow was piled high, but the roads were clear and dry. Descending towards the west, there was a little rain, until I arrived in Seattle where the sky was blue. It was a big transition, a some-of-everything sort of day, and it gave me time to think about how I was traveling back in time from my new home to my old, and what I might find there.

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The ferry gods smiled on me, and my car got the coveted front spot. I was dumbstruck by the beauty, and wondered how I could ever have left all this to move clear across the state to such a different life.

I came back to the island because of death, yet again. A dear friend died a couple of weeks ago, and I wanted to keep her husband company, and cook for him, stock up his freezer, and do anything I could. They were both 81, married for 56 years, and I knew he’d be lost without her, especially in the kitchen. I began cooking for him practically the moment I arrived, wanting him to gain back the fourteen pounds he’d lost in the three weeks since she died. I so much do not want him to disappear too.

As a wholly unanticipated bonus, the sweet guy who’s been renting my house offered to let me stay for a couple of nights, while he’s out of town. So now I sit in my old home, which feels half-unknown. His shared-custody teenagers’ stuff is everywhere, homework, school books, sports jerseys. Some furniture has been rearranged to make for easier TV watching as a family. My stuff is all still here, but now it’s intermingled with heaps of other people’s belongings, in a way that I find quite jarring. A welcome bottle of wine that I left for them seven months ago sits on the counter, unopened. Credit cards and checks (wow, he really trusts me) sit on a glass tray that I made last summer. The fridge is pretty bare, as mine never would be. The heat is on but the windows are open. But still, he put clean sheets on the bed for me. My bed, nominally, although now I hesitate to sleep in it.

The weirdest thing is that the island feels so beloved, so familiar, but the house itself feels alien. It’s about 2000 square feet bigger than my little Walla Walla home, it feels huge, although it never used to. It’s so quiet here, no sound at night but the ferries plying the waters in front of the house. My wine cellar hums away, cooling the hundred or more bottles I left behind. Men’s clothes hang in my closet, but they’re not Shel’s. My apron and knives are still in the kitchen. The cat door is closed. The plants by the front door need watering. Are they mine to tend?

An Easter Birthday

Posted March 27, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Posts Containing Recipes

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You know how it can be, the kids are grown, there’s no reason to fill an Easter basket or cook springtime food. No chocolate bunnies hop your way, ho hum, just another day.

But today my classmate Kelly was kind enough to have an Easter birthday, and to tell me that her Mom always used to make her an angel food cake with confetti color dots inside. Yippee, an Easter project! I wasn’t too sure whether the color would run all over the cake or stay in nice dots like it used to do in those long-ago funfetti cake mixes, but lo and behold, it worked just as it should. I can’t show you the inside of the cake, because between the squishy nature of angel food, and the billowy soft frosting, the cut slices were a mess. but you can make it for yourself, and you’ll have a fun and fluffy cake to serve when whimsy is called for. I used this angel food recipe, omitting the chocolate and adding 1/4 cup of colored sprinkles instead. Then I used this recipe for fluffy pink frosting, a recipe unlike any I’ve used before. It remained very soft and never set up, although it looked like a sort of unicorns-and-rainbows confection on the cake so that didn’t matter.

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It wasn’t a total sugar-fest, though. Guests brought a beautiful fruit salad and fragrant raspberry sour cream muffins, which, derelict hostess that I am, I neglected to photograph. I made an egg casserole with asparagus, artichoke hearts, cheeses, and ham, that was pretty darn good and used up the 10 extra egg yolks left behind by the angels. But the star of that plate, to me, was the salad.

A composition of bitter leaves, endive, radicchio, and arugula, it had a beguiling preserved Meyer lemon and crème fraîche dressing that will definitely become a staple in my kitchen, and went exquisitely with a rosé of pinot gris made by one of the guests. The salad recipe is here,  and although I always make preserved Meyer lemons when they’re in season, if you don’t have homemade, you can buy them in a jar. To add to the merriment, we had three different wines made by guests, the rosé, a chardonnay, and a cabernet sauvignon, a definite perk of living a life surrounded by winemakers.  I look forward to the day when every wine on the table is made by one of us, and I thank Kelly for requesting such a delightfully eccentric birthday cake. It’s one of the most fun treats I’ve baked in quite a while, and I recommend it to you as a sure-fire cheerer-upper.

Over The Rainbow

Posted March 20, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags:

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Yesterday was a luxuriously warm, dry day in the country, until it wasn’t. To celebrate the first day of spring break, I drove through miles of emerald green winter wheat, and dusty dry-land wheat fields waiting for seed, and went to the stunning Palouse Falls, with these guys.

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Eric and Jessica are intrepid climbers and hikers, and we all wanted to get to the bottom of it all. But it’s a really, really long way down.

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See the teeny tiny colored dots in the bottom of the photo, like just a bit of scattered confetti? Those are hikers. Really brave and stalwart hikers, because there’s virtually no way to get down there, for a normal person.

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People had also managed to get themselves here, passing all understanding and numerous bright red warning signs,

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that cautioned that all evacuations of injured persons would be at the idiot’s own expense. I wanted to be there, on the edge of all that violently streaming water,

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and even more I wanted to swim in the undoubtedly frigid waters at the base of the falls. The descending terrain, through, was not my style, and the ascent, should one survive the downhill climb, was sure to have been brutal.

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This guy could have done it in a heartbeat, but even he was staying up where we were, on the sunny and dry plateau, not too close to the perilous edge.

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It’s a treasure, this place. A castle built by time and floods, breath-taking even if you don’t brave the climb,

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refreshment for the hot and dusty traveler. Because yes, on the day before the first day of spring, there we were in shirtsleeves, drinking rosé and picnicking on assorted fresh green foods, right on the edge of what the Missoula floods of 12,000 years ago had wrought. And it was very good.