Ma Barlow

Ma Barlow


One of the disadvantages of living in an earth sheltered house is that a lack of planning can cause unusual conundrums.

Today was the the perfect example.  I was pulling things out of the fridge for dinner and noticed that we were out of propane. It is fall, and in our old colonial farmhouse I would have automatically fired up the woodstove and made a stew.  Our current woodstove is even better for these situations – its massive oven and cooking surface make me feel like Ma Ingalls whenever I start it – but wasn’t the perfect solution in this house in this weather.

It’s jacket weather outside, but between the low-hanging sun blasting our house with heat and the three feet of earth on three sides keeping it in, the house was already 71 with no additional help.  Lighting a fire hot enough to cook with would not have made the place more comfortable.

So now it’s 6:15 PM, and I’m standing in the kitchen of our earth-friendly, earth-sheltered house trying to decide between making sandwiches or doing the ultimate ‘un-green’ thing by opening all the windows and building a fire.  I’m rationalizing – it’s going to rain tomorrow and the fire will give us hot water, so it’s not a total waste.

I’ve stopped pretending that our off-grid lifestyle is as environmentally altruistic as it is self-serving, but we do like being green when we can .  Sometimes, though, figuring out how to do the green thing and still get dinner on the table and homework checked can be a real head-scratcher.  I was still scratching my head when the Big Guy waltzed in the door and announced he had finished switching the tank on the stove.  Tonight getting dinner on the table without wasting our wood heat became the green thing.

Patchwork Season

Patchwork Season

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Have I mentioned I love the light at this time of year?  Every time I head out our dirt driveway, I have to slam on the brakes to catch it as it bounces off the mountains in their increasingly flamboyant colors.  The tableau only gets better as I head  towards the horse farm at the bottom of our road, and the wooden fencing recalls an earlier era.

I know the first settlers to this area saw these same mountains, but sometimes I wonder if, in the struggle to survive, they had the chance to marvel at them very often.  For us, autumn is beauty, but it is also a time of stacking wood, clearing out the garden and mulching, and getting fall cleaning started (sometimes done).  And, as our action-packed to-do list dominates our calendar, I sometimes have to remind myself to stop and look around.  It begs the question, was stopping to stare at the scenery anywhere on the priority list in 1763 (that’s the year carved into a ceiling beam in our old house)?

About a year after we moved to our neighborhood I got my answer.  When we moved to Vermont, I found a group of women who were avid quilters.  They were true artists, but my knowledge of the art was very basic, and I headed to the library (there weren’t many quilting websites back then) looking for inspiration, instruction, and easy patterns.

What I found was a chronicle of thrift and creativity interwoven by women.  I still look at early examples of the craft in Vermont, amazed at the designs conceived by women who often had less than an eighth grade education.  But what was most interesting was the way many surviving patterns so beautifully mimic our shared landscape.

I was on this journey of discovery on the months following 9-11.  As world events unfolded, our nation considered how to protect simultaneously its citizens and its identity,  and sometimes it seemed as though we were all just focusing on surviving.  I realize now we were all in an extended state of shock.  At the time, however, as the feeding of our collective soul became an afterthought, I often worried that the national hyper focus on security had eliminated everything but utility from our consciousness.   And, it became even more important to me that these people I had never met had been able to do something more than just survive.

Today as I drive up the road, watching the colors climb down the hill to meet me, I am connected to the women who were here before; whose homespun legacies suggest lives that were inspired and not just mere existence.  And, as I have come find in my own life, that inspiration may have fortified their strength when survival became more challenging than usual.

Letting Awe In

Letting Awe In

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This morning the purple clouds against the orange trees filled me with awe.  It was a perfect blustery fall day, tailor made for a fire – even if I didn’t need one.

As the day wore on, however, I learned of friends who were now enduring health issues – some temporary setbacks, some life-threatening.  I learned of friends losing friends and almost losing friends.  And the day outside my window seemed to mirror theirs, and I forgot about awe for a while.  And then I learned of a friend whose life has just been forever changed by the suicide of a loved-one, and I quietly broke down.

I walked out to look at the sky and trees again, thinking of the day almost thirty year ago, when a close friend changed – forever – the lives of everyone in our group of teenaged misfits by taking his own life.  Already trying to cope with mental illness that had plagued me from early childhood, our friend’s death sent me into a nearly-fatal tailspin that was only halted when a dear friend forcefully intervened.  You know who you are, and I don’t think I’ve ever said, “Thank you.”

Thank you.

That event coupled with Olympian denial on my part led to a sustained, sometimes intentional, retreat from meaningful interaction with family and friends, and any emotions that required honest reflection.  I found my highs in dangerous places and people, and crashed often.  And only when I stopped to let awe in – watching a sunset or enjoying a celebration as a spectator – did I ever admit how meaningless life was becoming.

You can keep barriers up in a marriage – not for long if you want it to be successful – but you can for a while.  You can’t, however, have barriers of any kind if you want to be a good mother.  Giving birth completely obliterated mine, and I have never had a chance to fully reconstruct them.

Surrendering my defenses, opening up was the scariest, best thing I did.  It let romance with my husband become real love that endures the worse and the poorer.  It let me completely subvert my wants and needs to another human being and be happy doing it.  And, today, it let me cry thinking of my friends, hoping their healing will be swift and complete.  And, as I went outside again at the end of the afternoon, it let the purple sky and orange leaves still fill me with awe.

Mom and the Apple Pie

Mom and the Apple Pie

It’s the Big Guy’s birthday, and I’m making apple pie.  He and Thing1 eschewed birthday cake in favor of pie a few years ago, so after a day of excavating our mudroom (perfect birthday activity), I pulled out the Joy of Cooking and started making the crust.  I go back and forth between the Joy of Cooking recipe – is it possible to use that and not think of your mom – and the one in the Good Housekeeping Cookbook, but, as I was peeling apples, I remembered I was out of the lemon called for by both of these recipes for ‘Classic Apple Pie’.

It’s amazing how your mind wanders when you’re peeling apples, and mine usually has a good head start anyway.  I was on the 3rd or 4th apple I started wondering, not if  I should make a dash to the country store – but how Classic Apple Pie became a classic.  It’s the quintessential New England dessert in fall – every year we get so many apples that we sometimes have pie or apple-something every night for a mont.  But, almost without fail, most Apple Pie recipes call for lemon juice.

Now, I know Joy of Cooking has been around for a long time, and it was certainly possible to find lemons in urban areas of New England even a century ago, but our town had year-round residents living the original off-grid lifestyle just 50 or 60 years ago.  There was a country store – the one we still shop at – but it’s hard to believe lemons were a commonly stocked item then, and certainly not 100 or 200 years ago.

Now, I’ve learned not to use dinner guests as culinary lab rats, but I figured the Big Guy might want to eat adventur – I mean, authentically – on his birthday.  I started thinking about what the earliest European settlers would have used for their Pie.  I planned to google it later, but it was getting late, and I opted for experimentation over transportation.

I figured a mountain mom who made it to the country store every few weeks or so might have kept flour, sugar, and molasses, and maybe some kind of spices on hand.  They would have had milk and butter, of course, and probably some kind of lard/shortening.  But not a whole lot of lemon.  Now, Julia Child’s mantra may be ‘Keep Calm, Add Butter’ (an admirable outlook on life), but in Vermont the rule is, ‘When in doubt, add maple syrup’.   I figured that tradition was probably established early on and decided it was a good substitution.

Later, as I sat on the couch smelling the results of my experiment bubbling in the oven, I did a quick google and found that Apple Pie goes back in history as long as apples and flour were in existence.  Some old recipes call for champagne in place of lemon, others were just apples mashed with flour.  Apple Pie a la Mode made its first appearance at the Cambridge Hotel in Washington County New York in the 1890s, and the phrase ‘American as Mom and Apple Pie’  was coined in World War II.

But whether it was mom or the cook in the castle kitchen, experimentation was the most common component.  The pie pan emptied quickly, and in the end, the family decided that it was also the most delicious ingredient.