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Going, Going But Not Quite Gone

In Maine, what a difference a week can make. The snow is nearly gone from the backyard, and we can see the garden and some of the patio. The area by the clothesline is free, and I long to start washing blankets so that I can hang them outside.

The backyard
The backyard

 

“Not quite yet,” Clif has advised. “The ground is still too soft, and the weight of the blankets will pull the line over.”

He is right, of course, and I’ll hold off washing the blankets for another few weeks. But now and then, I look longingly out the window at the line.

The waiting clothesline
The waiting clothesline

 

Yesterday, in an extreme case of Pushing the Season, Clif and I went outside and mucked around for a bit. I mean this literally. Our shoes left footprints in the mud, and where it was shady—this includes the whole front yard—we left footprints in snow that is as soft as a coconut slushy.

The front yard
The front yard

 

I had originally gone out to pick up sticks in the backyard. When you live in the woods, there are always a fair number that fall during the winter. I gather them and put them in a large garbage can, and we use them in the firepit in the summer.

The ground was really too soft for this chore, but Clif soon found another that was more appropriate. That is, removing usable wood that had been trimmed by the power company and left in an untidy clump in our front yard. While he was at it, he brought out the ladder and sawed some branches that were hanging too low. We saved what we could use, and the rest I hauled into the woods, where I made a little brush pile for the creatures who live there.

All in all, we spent a good couple of hours at our task, and when we were done, the front yard looked much better.  We came in with wet feet and a sense of accomplishment. I popped some popcorn and we settled in the living room to read and to eat our snack. The dog, who had been supervising outside, jumped on the couch so that he, too, could have some buttered popcorn. All was snug and cozy.

I’m going to conclude with a wood metaphor. Going out on a limb, I’m predicting that winter is over, and we are on the cusp of mud season, early spring in Maine. The days are ever so much longer, and yesterday I heard our resident cardinal singing his spring song.

Naturally, this winter I did not accomplish anywhere near as much as I wanted with my inside chores—the perpetual cleaning and decluttering.  Never mind! On bad days I will work on those projects. Right now, I am itching to be outside, even if it’s only to muck about in the yard.

Of course, Mother Nature might give us one her little surprise March snowstorms, which will cover all the bare ground and make everything even wetter and soggier. But the snow won’t last long.

Spring is edging her way in, and how welcome she is.

Snow dog
Snow dog

One Cold Valentine

The headlines in the Sunday paper got it just right—“Caution urged as teeth-chattering cold moves in: Wind chill temperatures could hit 35 below in parts of New England.”

The cold has certainly come to central Maine. When we got up this morning, there was ice on the inside of the windows, which melted as Clif stoked the wood furnace and brought the inside temperature up to something approaching warm.

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Clif, intrepid soul that he is, still took the dog for a walk up and down the road. When he came back, he snapped a picture of our outside thermometer. As we Mainers might say, it was a little brisk outside.

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On such a cold Valentine’s day, we both decided that a special breakfast was in order, and Clif made eggs and toast.

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To celebrate Valentine’s Day, we had originally planned to go to a movie and then out for gelato afterwards. But the cold changed our minds. Instead, we decided to stay home, where we could tend the fire in the wood furnace. We do have back-up heat—propane and electric—but nothing warms a cold house the way wood does.

This evening, I’ll be making a quiche with smoked cheddar, a rich dish for special occasions only. We’ll have a couple of rum and cokes and listen to music. We’ll watch a movie at home.

In the next few days, the weather is supposed to be significantly warmer. Then, we’ll venture forth for that movie and gelato.

Until then, we’ll stay in our own snug house.

Creature Comforts in Deep Winter

Yesterday, I wrote about the spiritual comfort that books can bring to us during hard times. Today, my mind is on creature comforts, and no wonder because in Maine, we are in deep winter.  The days might be getting longer—it doesn’t get dark now until 5:30—but they are cold, clear, and crisp. Unless it is snowing, of course.

This morning when Clif took the dog for a walk, it was dead calm and zero degrees. (Fahrenheit). At that temperature, the snow squeaks underfoot, and the warmest of winter clothes is needed—heavy coat, heavy gloves, hat, scarf—or neck warmer—thick boots. In deep winter, all sense of fashion is abandoned. The chief thing is to stay warm.

In the house this morning, the temperature was just below 60 degrees. We heat with a wood furnace, and in February it doesn’t quite make it through the night. This is why we sleep with piles of blankets pulled up to our noses so that we have a little tent for warmth.

This cold morning, it was very hard to get out of our warm bed. When we did get up and raised the shades, we found that the windows were frosted.

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But soon Clif had the furnace going, and it wasn’t long before the house was a balmy sixty-four degrees. Throughout the day, the wood and the sun will raise the inside temperature to a little under seventy degrees, which is plenty cozy for us.

For this time of year, chicken soup is just the thing. One day, I cook a chicken, and we eat some of the meat. The next day, I make chicken stock using onion, garlic, carrots, whole cloves, peppercorns, a bay leaf, salt, thyme, and sage. Into the stock pot go the bones with the leftover meat. I cover them with water, add the other ingredients, and bring everything to a gentle simmer. I let the stock bubble for hours, until the house is fragrant with the smell, and Clif and I can hardly wait until dinner.

After the stock has simmered for hours, I strain the stock into a big pot, and let the bones cool before picking the meat. More carrots go into the stock, and because we are Mainers, potatoes often go in, too.  The vegetables simmer until they are tender,  and then I add the picked meat. A variation on this is to leave out the potatoes and instead go with pasta or rice. The pasta and rice and are never simmered into the soup because if they are, whatever is leftover will swell into alarming proportions. Instead, we cook pasta and rice separately, put them into the bottom of our bowls, and ladle the hot soup on top.

What to serve with chicken soup? Homemade bread is good, as are biscuits, but Clif and I seem to prefer cornbread, which from beginning to end takes about thirty minutes to make and bake.

When the soup is ready, when the cornbread is done, we settle into the evening with our steaming bowls of comfort. “Pretty darned good,” Clif pronounces, and he always goes back for seconds.

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However, the last word of comfort must go to Sherlock because no creature knows comfort the way a cat does. Unless, of course, it’s a hobbit.

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The Horror of March: The Battle of the Boot and the Mud

Yesterday, the day was so drippy, the road so wet, and the snow so hard packed and dirty that Clif remarked, “Are we going to have two months of March?”

Drippy window box
Drippy window box

 

Dreary yard
Dreary yard, wet road

This statement made me catch my breath. For a Mainer, there could be no greater horror than having two months of March, the dreariest, longest, most miserable month of the year. It is the month where we become restless and cranky, and even those of us who love Maine desperately wish we were some place else, where spring was showing its pretty face, where flowers and leaves were beginning to bud, where the air was soft and warm.  (Who, oh who, decided that town meeting should be in March? The sour mood makes Mainers quarrelsome, and the meeting stretches for hours and hours.)

Instead, we have our March, a month of endurance. Gone are the brilliant days of January and February, punctuated by soft snow. (All right. I will admit that last year there was a little too much snowy punctuation, an exclamation mark rather than a comma or a period.) In March, the snow melts in fits and starts, and this melting brings something all Mainers have come to dread—mud.

I’m not talking about a bit of mud that clings to the bottom of shoes and can be stamped off when it’s dry. I’m talking about mud so thick that a small boy could get stuck and need some help getting out.

Indeed, such a thing happened one March. I was walking the dog, and I noticed a small boy—Joseph—struggling in the mud in his driveway. One of his boots was stuck solid and would not budge, no matter how hard he pulled his leg.

Naturally, the dog and I went over to help. By then Joseph had yanked his foot out of the boot, and his little stockinged foot gingerly touched the cold ground.

I tugged on the boot with one hand—the other was holding the dog—but the boot remained stuck.

“Could you hold the dog?” I asked. Joseph looked doubtfully at me and the dog. He was, after all, just a little boy.

“I need both hands,” I said, and Joseph nodded, taking the leash. Liam loves children, and he stayed perfectly still as Joseph held him.

With both hands, I gripped the little boot and pulled and pulled. With a loud glucking sound, the mud released the boot, and I triumphantly handed it to Joseph, who in turn gave me the leash and put on his errant boot.

“There!” I said, but I could not resist adding in my best adult voice, “Don’t play in the mud.”

But Joseph didn’t hear the admonishment. He was running toward the house, away from the sucking mud that had taken over his driveway.

And who could blame him? It had been a close call with the battle of the boot and the mud.

So it is no surprise that Clif’s gloomy remark about two Marches filled both of us with dread.

However, overnight, the snow came, and this morning, when I woke up and looked out the window, February was back. How glad I was to see it.

The return of February
The return of February

And with any luck, the March-like weather will stay away for a month or so. One Maine March is definitely enough.

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The Frosty Days of January: A Perfect Time for Afternoon Tea with Friends

This morning, when Clif took Liam for a walk, it was, to borrow from Dick Proenneke, dead calm and zero degrees. As this was Fahrenheit, not Celsius, the walk was a little brisk. But this temperature is far more typical of January in Maine than the freakishly warm weather we had in December. (On Christmas day, it was 61 degrees, and records were broken.)

Accordingly, this morning the view out the window by my desk was a little frosty.

One frosty window
One frosty window

 

Later today, when it’s a little warmer, we hope to go for a walk in the woods. Cold, snowy woods provide many opportunities for photographs (as well as nippy fingers). We will be sure to bundle up in our heaviest jackets and gloves. Liam, on the other hand, is always bundled up, and as I’ve mentioned before, he is a dog who loves the snow.

Liam, all bundled up, on a previous frosty walk
Liam, all bundled up, on a previous frosty walk

 

This cold weather is perfect for one of my favorite things—afternoon tea (or coffee) with friends. Over the holidays, we had afternoon tea with two different sets of friends, and each time, on the way home, I reflected on how much I enjoy these get togethers, and, in truth, I like hosting them as much as I enjoy being hosted.

Now, let me hasten to add that it is lovely to be invited to someone’s home for lunch or dinner, and I accept such invitations with what might called an unseemingly haste . In turn, it is very satisfying to cook a meal for friends and family.

However, nothing can beat an afternoon tea for its casual yet friendly atmosphere. Getting ready is a snap. Muffins or a quick bread are easily made ahead of time, and tea and coffee are simple to prepare. Then, after the guests have arrived, we can sit around the table and enjoy the conversation, which usually ranges from books to movies to politics. All is relaxed. There is no more fussing to do.

Clean-up, too, is easy, which means that from beginning to end, afternoon tea is a complete pleasure.

When I was growing up, there wasn’t a week that went by when friends or family didn’t stop by for a visit with my mother and father. Most of the time, it was for coffee—in rural Maine, tea hadn’t really caught on then—and some kind of dessert, usually homemade as my mother was a fabulous baker. We lived in an old farmhouse, and everyone settled around the kitchen table. Both my parents were great talkers—they were Franco-American, after all—and the kitchen was loud with laughter and conversation.

This January, February, and March I am hoping to regularly get together with friends for afternoon tea—once a week, if I can manage it, but at least every other week.

Such a simple, frugal pleasure to look forward to.

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On Vacation Until the New Year

How warm it has been in central Maine! No snow, plenty of rain, and not surprisingly, the lawns are still green. (Clif jokes that he’s going to have to haul out the lawn mower.) But the days are short, and the nights are long so it must be December. Clif, Liam, and I have resigned ourselves to being inside far more than we like, and we console ourselves—at least Clif and I do—by calling this time of year “cozy.”

The leafy trees are mostly bare, but a few stubborn oak leaves cling to the branches, and I love the way they look against the blue sky.

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We are one week away from Christmas—my favorite holiday—and there are so many things to do that I hardly know where to begin. Cooking and cleaning are the prime activities to get everything ready for the big day. This Sunday afternoon will be devoted to wrapping presents. Our Christmas is modest but merry, and we take great pleasure in what we give and receive. We like to stretch Christmas morning as long as possible, with each person opening one present at a time while the rest of the family watches.

In addition to all the holiday folderol, Shannon and Mike will be moving the week after Christmas, and we will be helping them.

Therefore, I’ll be taking a two-week vacation from the blog. I’ll still be checking my email so that I can keep up with the goings-on of my blog friends. I want to note that this past year, when I have made so many new blog friends, has been a delight. It’s wonderful to read about the happenings of folks far and near—in England, Ireland, Australia, Virginia, Ohio, Alberta, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Illinois, and Maine, of course. I feel as though I am part of a warm and creative virtual community, a wonderful addition to the community where I actually live.

So happy holidays to you all! I’ll be back in 2016. And may the force be with you.Christmas

After the Lashing Rain

IMG_0091-1Yesterday, we had a lashing rain and discovered there was a leak around the chimney. As soon as it dries, Clif, like Santa, will be up on the rooftop, but instead of coming down the chimney, Clif will be patching the leak. (And a good thing, too, because the chimney leads directly to the wood furnace that heats our home.)

But we in central Maine should be grateful. In northern Maine, instead of a lashing rain, they had a wintry mix, a term that chills the heart of any Mainer, as freezing rain is usually part of that mix. However, I haven’t heard of any widespread power outages, so the wintry mix couldn’t have been too bad.

Quiet has returned to the little house in the big woods. Yesterday, Somara and Holly went back home with Shannon. (How thrilled they were to see her!) My cold, finally, is going away. (I’ve had ten not-so-merry days of coughing myself silly.)

Time to roll up the sleeves and start with the Christmas cooking. The new convection oven works like a champ, and I’m ready to make peppermint-frosted shortbread and thumbprint cookies. Homemade ice cream pie. Peanut butter balls and chocolate-covered pretzels. Many of these goodies will be going out to the various elves who make our lives better.

Ho, ho, ho!

 

Short Days and Long Nights: The Accounts Are Now Balanced

In our latitude we know that each year brings the time when not only the candle but the hearth fire must burn at both ends of the day, symbol not of waste but of warmth and comfort. It is for this time, if we live close to the land, that we lay up the firewood and the fodder. Now we pay for the long days of Summer, pay in the simple currency of daylight.  Hour for hour, the accounts are now balanced.”
~Hal Borland, This Hill, This Valley

In Maine, in December, the accounts are certainly balanced when it comes to daylight. By 4:30 p.m., it is fairly dark. By 5:30 p.m., it is as dark as midnight. This is the time of year when we hurry to take the dog for his afternoon walk—no later than 3:00 p.m.

But as Hal Borland points out in his beautifully written This Hill, This Valley, “[T]he short days provide their own bonus. The snows come, and dusk and dawn are like no other time of the year.”

At the little house in the big woods, all is cozy when night falls by late afternoon. The wood furnace is going, and there is no more comfortable heat than wood heat. Although we have back-up, wood is our primary source of heat. It is indeed a lot of work to stack and haul wood, but Clif, who does all of the stacking and hauling, thinks it is more than worthwhile. So do I. Wood heat would not be sustainable everywhere, but in Maine, with its small population of about one million, it is still possible to harvest wood for heating and not destroy the forests.

Around 4:00, we start pulling down the shades. I put on the kettle to boil, and soon we are settled on the couch for tea and snack. Often, I read The New Yorker, and Clif reads on his tablet. The dog nestles beside me, and he hopes he will get an occasional treat.  Need I write that Liam is seldom disappointed?

It takes a while for us to get into this comfortable rhythm. At first, when the time changes, and the days are ever so short, we are restless. Night seems too long. But gradually, we ease into the short days and long nights. While we will not be sorry to see spring, with its longer, warmer days, we also appreciate the time to slow down, to read, to take stock.

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4 p.m. at the little house in the big woods

First Dusting of Snow

This morning, when I got up and pulled the shades in my bedroom, I looked out the window and said, “Oh, my!” Over night, we got a dusting of snow.

“I thought you’d be surprised,” Clif said, and he had the camera ready for me.

Before tea, before toast, out I went to take some pictures. I had purposely left some of the garden ornaments in the yard so that I could get photos of them in the snow.

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This angel, I think, will make a good Christmas card with the phrase “Glad Tidings” at the top.

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Like this:

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The sun is shining, the trees are dripping, and by afternoon the dusting of snow will be gone. Nevertheless, it’s time to bring in the last of those yard ornaments as well as the chairs, the fire pit, and a few other things we left outside.

Winter hasn’t come to Maine yet, but we felt its touch. How good to know the wood is stacked, and the leaves are raked.