Setting Up for the School Year

I suppose there are people out there who didn’t thrill to buying new school supplies at the end of the summer, when they were kids, and teenagers, but those people were never friends of mine.

I have vivid memories of my mother taking me to the Dartmouth Bookstore in Hanover, NH, where I would carefully, carefully, select the notebooks and pens and pencils and erasers and the pencil case that I would use for the next nine months. Some parents would have probably just taken the kid to the local five and dime and said, “Come on, let’s get this crap and get out of here,” but my mother is the sort of person who understands the importance of notebooks, and so is my father, for that matter: basically, everyone in the household grasped the importance of having the right tools for the tasks facing us. I remember that my father even had opinions about which protractors were good and which ones were mere mediocrities. It was difficult when we couldn’t find the right color Trapper Keeper notebook, but I survived; and some of the discoveries of that era (Le Pens, for example) are gifts that keep on giving, all these years later. I still go to Hull’s Art Shop on Chapel Street to stock up on my preferred colors of Le Pens (and I get ticked off when my daughter nicks them to draw with — because they are a pleasure to use — and ruins the pen tips). When my daughter needs school supplies, I do the right thing: I insist we take an inventory of what she already has that’s good, and then I make a list of what gaps need to be filled.

This year, I’m told, she needs to have two highlighter pens. I don’t think I had a highlighter of my own until I was in high school, but whatever. We did inventory and then wrote up a list of what gaps needed to be filled in, and we went downtown.

The pleasure of stocking up on new erasers, new notebooks (two composition notebooks required, in addition to the looseleaf binder with five labeled, tabbed, sections of fresh looseleaf paper), new pencil case (to supplement the old pencil case, which is to hold colored pencils exclusively), new pencil sharpener! What colors should the composition notebooks be? (Because these days, you don’t have to settle for just black and white. My daughter opted for teal blue and a shade of purple I think of as Chiclet Purple.)

The joy of laying everything out on the dining table when you get home to examine it all and assemble it and decide which things will be embellished with zebra striped duct tape and which will have leopard print duct tape! We didn’t acquire any Trapper-Keeper folders, but there was joy in the house nonetheless.

My daughter is very pleased with herself to have everything all set up. I made her pack it all away into a brown paper bag with handles so that her special new school supplies wouldn’t wind up scattering around the living room and dining room — the temptation to have it merge with the chaos of the papers that are piled high on the kitchen table is vast — but last night she unpacked it all to show her father. “Look, Papa,” she said. “Look at my new green pencil case!” He admired it dutifully. “Looks good,” he said. “Should hold a lot of pencils.” He then glanced at me. “When does school start?”

“September first,” I said. “And we are all ready.”

We are ready….. if you don’t count the fact that I’ll have to sharpen all those pencils before we head off for the first day of third grade. This reminds me: I should really ask my husband, “Can you install that pencil sharpener that’s been sitting on the kitchen table for a few months now?”

On Being That Pretentious Jerk of a Parent: Suddenly, I Kind of See

In general I am as lazy a parent as I can get away with being. I ardently want my kid to entertain herself and bother me as little as possible. I don’t want to play with her most of the time; I am her mother, not her playmate, after all. But it’s difficult for her, as it is for us: she’s an only child, and one can only play alone in one’s room for so long. And right now we’re in that horrible long phase of the summer where there’s no summer camp, there’s no nothing to break up the days, and I am on my own with the kid 24/7.

Tensions are running high. We are both very deeply sick of each other. It’s been ugly. And yet, she cannot leave me alone; when we’re in the house, she insists on being in the same room I’m in. She cannot stop chattering at me; I want it to be quiet so that I can think. I can’t focus enough to even pay bills online, my daughter so consumes all the air around me. I mean, the bills are getting paid, but I don’t actually have confidence I’ve done it correctly, and I guess I’ll find out come September if we suddenly have no electricity or cooking gas.

A lot of parents in this circumstance go to great lengths to Do Things with the kids. I guess the idea is, you wear the kid out, outside the house, such that when they get back home, all they want to do is lie on the couch quietly. For various reasons, I’m not game. I’m not taking my kid to water theme parks, to the Pez factory, or even to the playground — normally I wouldn’t mind the playground, too much, but it’s 100 degrees and humid outside. Neither of us wants to be outside; we want to be indoors. The problem is that it’s just the two of us rattling around in here.

I decided last night that the smart thing to do today would be to shake up our routine. Instead of waking up and making a pot of coffee and spending a bit of time reading the papers and drinking coffee while my daughter lolled on the couch watching Mr. Bean cartoons on YouTube, I announced that I had another plan for how the morning would go. I informed my daughter of it to get her ready for the shock to her system. “Tomorrow morning,” I said, “When I get up, we’re gonna get ready to leave the house immediately and we are going to go out and get coffee at East Rock Coffee.” This was a big deal. I almost never go out for coffee, and even less often do I go to East Rock Coffee. I resent spending money at cafes, particularly when I’m with my daughter. Going to a cafe should be a relaxed luxury but instead, going with a child, it’s just stressful and annoying. I resent paying money to be stressed and annoyed; but for the change in routine, and save myself the effort of making a pot of coffee, I was willing to chance it. Predictably, my daughter reacted to this news with excitement and delight, and I thought, “There is hope.”

This morning we washed and dressed with astonishing speed and assembled our supplies to take with us to the cafe. I had three days’ worth of unread newspapers — newspapers have piled up at an appalling rate since my daughter’s stopped going to camp — and my daughter had two ancient issues of Cricket Magazine. In her tote bag was a board game, too: a moment of inspiration had led me to suggest we take my ancient travel Scrabble set with us. We got drinks (a lemonade for her, a tall iced latte for me), I paid a criminal $8 total for them, and we found a nice place to sit outside. There were many people at the tables around us: retired men with their dogs, workmen having breakfast sandwiches before heading to renovate nearby houses, and grad students complaining about the crap grad students complain about. So many grad students. This is why I don’t go to East Rock Coffee. So many grad students.

But I was not going to be brought down by the presence of so many grad students. This is my neighborhood, I feel, more than it is theirs. We imperiously arranged ourselves. My daughter read her Crickets and I read three days’ worth of Wall Street Journals. And then, around ten o’clock, I was the incredibly pretentious annoying parent sitting outside at a cafe table playing Scrabble with her daughter and demanding that she calculate the scores and add them up.

I disgusted even myself. I suppose it could have been worse. I could have been sitting there teaching her to play Bridge or Backgammon. But Scrabble is bad enough.

A woman with two children, aged maybe five and three, came over and sat down at the table next to ours. Her children looked at us and said loudly, “Are they playing Scrabble?” My daughter looked over at the five year old, a girl, and said, “Yup! It’s Scrabble!” and I think she was proud to be doing something as grown-up as playing a real, grown-up style game, not some baby game — which is fair.

The mother, having given her children pastries to eat, took out a notebook and began to write a letter to a friend. While she wrote, her children ran around loudly singing nonsense songs to each other. She didn’t pay much attention to them, and while I understood the desire to not pay much attention to them, obviously, their hubbub made it difficult for us to play our Scrabble game. “I can’t concentrate,” my daughter complained, whispering into my ear, “because those kids are making so much noise.”

“I know the feeling,” I said. I was sympathetic, to put it mildly.

Long, annoying story short: We played about half a game. When my daughter’s attention span had dwindled to the point where she would just shove her rack of tiles over to me to figure out words for her, I gave up. It was eleven o’clock. “Let’s just go home,” I said. “We’ll go home and you can scrub potatoes so that I can set up the potato salad we’ll have for dinner.” “Okay,” she said.

I now theorize that part of why we see parents pretentiously playing grownup games, or doing stretch your brain type exercises with children when out in public (“is the font on this package of Oreos sans-serif or not? Come on, you know this one, Spencer!”)  is not merely that they’re trying to make their kids better prepared for applying to Harvard; they’re trying to keep themselves from losing their minds altogether.

It’s not going to work, folks. But I’m now marginally more sympathetic toward those parents, who, till now, I’ve mostly regarded as pretentious twits. Staying home with a child can make you do weird things. It took me eight years to get this weird.

In the afternoon I posted to Facebook, wondering if anyone would be willing to babysit my daughter for a couple of hours sometime on Thursday or Friday. I explained that we really needed to get out of each other’s hair for a tiny bit. I said I couldn’t really justify the expense of paying a sitter, but that I would, because I can’t legally kick her out of the house yet, and I didn’t feel it was wise to just leave her alone. My friend Eliza, who is much more good-humored than I am, but is also spending far too much of the summer with her own only child (a nice little boy who my daughter enjoys hanging out with), said, “Have your girl come hang out with us for a couple hours. We have to go to a farm to pick up tomatoes for canning. She can come with and feed some goats.”

I said, “That would be awesome,” and told my daughter that she’d be going to this farm with Eliza and her son. “You’re not coming with us, are you?” she asked darkly.

“No, I’m not,” I said. “So you will be on your own. Please help Eliza if she needs help carrying boxes of tomatoes.”

“I will!” she said cheerfully. “Thank god I’m getting away from you.”

Eliza has sent me numerous photos and videos of my daughter horsing around with her little boy. At the farm, she fed goats and crawled around on a tractor. Back at their house: She’s got an Incredible Hulk mask on. She’s jumping on furniture. She’s having a grand old time. Soon, she’ll be returning to our house, and I’ll feed her lunch and we’ll fold some laundry. She’ll grouse about how boring it is at home. I will try to not argue with her about it. This afternoon we’ll go swimming; this evening we’ll eat sandwiches for dinner. Tomorrow will be another day. I promise I won’t make her play Scrabble. And soon it will be September.


Florence Foster Jenkins, Please Save Me: Wholesome Mother-Daughter Activities When the Weather Isn’t Cooperating

When the summer was mapped out, we knew that there would be a rough patch in August. We signed up the child for three weeks of summer camp, which were staggered through June and July, and we joined a swimming pool club a couple miles away so that there’d be someplace for us to go cool off now and then. But we knew that there would be long weeks of my having to come up with Things to Do with My Daughter, and that the worst patch would be in August, when there would be two solid weeks of just the two of us together, day in and day out.

What I didn’t anticipate was that there would be so much rain. There’s been incredibly fickle weather here in Southern Connecticut and it’s made it difficult for us to take advantage of the swim club. As a result, we’ve gone to the movies several times this summer, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it does get rather expensive after a bit. And I do feel guilty about it, because, let’s face it, going to the movies is awesome, but it’s hardly a wholesome, enlightening, get-you-into-Harvard kind of activity. But it’s all I have the strength for; I swear to God, I’m doing the best I can.

Yesterday morning, I was sitting in my comfy chair reading the New York Times online when I noticed, looking out the slider doors to the balcony, that the floor of the balcony was unusually cruddy-looking. There’s been construction going on behind our apartment, and I think between the usual crud that accumulates there (leaves, cat fur) and construction filth flying around the air, the balcony floor had come to look especially vile. The air was solid humidity and my daughter and I were both feeling fussy, obviously dreading the day ahead. There would be no swimming — we knew rain was coming — and the only thing on the calendar was a plan to go to the public library at 3 p.m. for a crafts program on how to make pop-up books. But it was seven in the morning, and we were a long, long way from three o’clock.

“Hey,” I called down to the first floor, where my daughter was sitting at the table reading a Diary of a Wimpy Kid book. “I’ve got a really stupid, crazy idea, you wanna hear it?” She answered in the affirmative.
“What if we fill a bucket with soapy water and go scrub the floor of the balcony out here?” I said. “It’s pretty gross and it doesn’t have to be.”

This was such a weird suggestion that she leapt at it. In five minutes we filled a big bucket with a mixture of dishwashing liquid, vinegar, and water; we got some scrub brushes in hand; and we laid a towel out just inside the balcony’s slider door. “Ok,” I said. “Let’s do this.” In our nightshirts, we went outside and started scrubbing. The cat sat just inside the door and watched us skeptically.

“This is fun!” my daughter crowed. She and I cleaned the short drain pipes that go from the balcony to a gutter below — which had to be done anyhow — and we got an incredible amount of schmutz loosened from the floor. About five minutes after we started, it began to rain. “This is good!” my daughter said. “The rain’s gonna help rinse the floor.” “Sure!” I said. “And it doesn’t matter if we get wet, ’cause we can just take a shower afterwards and get normal again.” Two seconds after I said that, the rain shifted from a gentle, warm rain into a cold, hard, pounding rain. It was the kind of downpour that ruins your shoes and trashes umbrellas, and there we were, scrubbing the balcony floor.

“This is awesome!” my daughter laughed. We scrubbed more and then she dumped out the bucket of soapy water to rinse off the last of the crud. Years of schmutz went swirling down through the drainpipes, and I leaned over the balcony to see it land in the gutter and funnel down to the ground. It was very satisfying.

The rain began to let up and we actually started to feel cold. “We better go clean ourselves up,” I said. We got onto the towel inside and the cat watched us peel off our disgusting soggy clothes and then I hustled us through warm showers. It was all very relaxed and enjoyable and I thought, “Maybe the day won’t be so bad. This was a weird start to the day, sure, but it wasn’t a bad start.”

Little did I know that by two o’clock we would be glowering at each other, sick to death of hearing each other’s every move, tired of the sound of our voices bickering.

Today we awakened to sunshine and ridiculous heat; unfortunately, there is also, still, the ridiculous humidity, and I suspect rain will come sufficiently soon to make going to the pool a non-option for us. It’s iffy — could go either way — but since we get to the pool by bus, and it’s a small project to get there, carrying our traditional two tote bags (one for food, one for swimsuits and towels and so on) this isn’t a chance I’m willing to take. As such, I have devised a Plan B for today, which my daughter is dreading, but which I actually have great hope for. We are going to go see the new Florence Foster Jenkins movie, which is screening downtown at 11.30.

She may or may not like it. I may be burning some bridges here. But I am optimistic. My daughter is a big fan of The Devil Wears Prada; she knows who Meryl Streep is. My thinking is, watching Meryl Streep play The World’s Worst Opera Singer might just blow her tiny mind, and she’ll remember this day fondly for the rest of her life. The other possibility — and it’s a real, likely, possibility — is that she will never forgive me for today, and hate Meryl Streep and costume movies for the rest of her life because I took her to see this movie.

It might be wise for me to soften the blow by shelling out for a tub of popcorn. Update TK.

Timing is Everything, or, Why We Need Another Thermometer

It’s a long story but usually once a summer my family goes to Cape Cod for several days. Most people would regard this as ‘vacation’ but I don’t, exactly, and it’s hard to explain but you just have to take my word for it. It’s vacation for my husband and my child but not for me. And even my child: after four days, she’s had her fill of Cape Cod and needs to get back into a place where she can be walked to a playground and find other kids to play with. She needs to not be in isolation. I need to be prepared for dealing with living in a kind of isolation that does not come naturally to me, to put it gently. We stay at my father in law’s house, and while he lives in the middle of a village, it’s the kind of place that WalkScore would describe as “car dependent.” In other words, if there’s something I think I’m going to need while there, I’d damned well better bring it with me from Connecticut, or be prepared to shell out for a duplicate of it at an overpriced Cape Cod shop, under duress. I pack accordingly, very carefully; this time around, I remembered to pack our thermometer. There’s been a summer cold going around, and I thought I’d be wise to pack the thermometer. Just in case. Just in case.

So, a few days ago, my daughter and I went to the Cape. My husband was already up there. We spent four days doing the sorts of things we do. It’s a challenge to fill the days, now that we have a child who requires activities. We can’t just loaf the way we did in the days before we had a child. Playing is my daughter’s default position,  not reading; and neither my husband or I are big on playing. As a result, when she’s the only person her age around, we have to come up with big plans to fill the day. It’s true there’s a certain amount of sitting around the house, but there’s also lot of driving around. We are not really beach people, so it means coming up with Plans B, C, D, E., F, and on through Z. It kind of wears thin, but we all do the best we can. This can mean Driving to a Children’s Museum, or Driving to a Playground Where There MIGHT Be Children, or Driving to a Movie Theater, If It’s Raining. There’s a lot of Going to Used Bookstores, if I’m lucky. There’s a lot of discussion about what to eat. We do a jaunt to Martha’s Vineyard with a friend from college, who comes to the Cape from Providence, Rhode Island, specifically to go to Martha’s Vineyard with us: this is actually the highlight of the whole trip for me and my daughter.

For my husband, the point of going to Martha’s Vineyard is being on the ferry; for me, my daughter, and our friend Susan, the point of going to Martha’s Vineyard is eating apple fritters the size of our heads, and I highly recommend those apple fritters, by the way. You get them at Back Door Donuts, which you can walk to from the Oak Bluffs ferry landing, easy. You’re only allowed to buy six at a time unless you call in an order ahead of time. Buy one more than you think you want, because you will want more than however many you bought, and if you need more than six, call ahead.

Once those big activities are done, there’s not much for us for us to do. We ate lots of scallops and clams and oysters and some of us ate plates of pasta because we don’t like seafood.

Thursday morning we went to the beach for an hour: this was our first visit to a beach, en famille, since we’d all met up on the Cape. Out of four days, we allotted a maximum of 90 minutes for beach-going. The beach adventure was cut short by my realization that my daughter would require serious bathing in order to prepare her for our trip back to Connecticut. Ninety minutes became sixty minutes plus a shower. Susan, who had to go home, too, drove us back to Providence, and dropped us off at the train station.

My daughter and I are fairly good traveling companions by now. I know what makes her nervous, she knows that I am not to be messed with while we’re on the road, as long as we both have stuff to read or doodle with, we’re in good shape. (I attribute this to our habitual getting around town on buses.) We got a sandwich at the train station (veggie pesto panini) and a lemonade and boarded our train. It was almost 2.30 in the afternoon when we left Providence; we arrived in our hometown at ten minutes after 4, and my daughter rejoiced. “We’re gonna go see our CAT!” she told me. “And be HOME!” “I know,” I said. I was pretty happy, too.

We caught a bus downtown, and transferred to another bus that would take us to our neighborhood. We stopped by the apartment of the friend who’d been housesitting for us — she had my house keys — and while there I helped her move a mattress onto a new bed and got instructions on watering her plants, something I’ll be doing this coming week. Then we went to Romeo’s, a block away, and picked up milk, a tomato, a cucumber, and a head of garlic. These were the things I knew we’d need to feed us for the next couple of days: I don’t need anything more elaborate than that, if my husband’s not in the house.

By the time we were really home, it was five o’clock. There was much cat-petting, much putting milk away in the fridge, much flinging of selves onto the couch heaving sighs of relief. I thought of all the laundry that would arrive home on Sunday, when my husband came back from the Cape, and realized that there was no point in being stressed out about the inevitable mess of unpacking all that stuff, because there was truly nothing I could do about it until Sunday night. “We’ve got two full days ahead of us with nothing to do, except I am going out Friday night, tra la; the sitter is lined up, tra la,” I thought to myself. Feeling cheerful, if tired, I began to make dinner.

My daughter had requested an old favorite: noodles with Parmesan cheese, egg, and peas. Just before I drained the pasta, a bit before seven o’clock, she came over to me, and said, “Mama, I feel funny.”

“What’s wrong,” I said, all  mental tra-la-ing coming to an abrupt halt.

“My nose is runny,” she said. “My throat hurts.”

I pressed my hand to my daughter’s head. It felt warm. I began to say, “Where’s the –” and stopped. The thermometer was in my toiletry bag, which I’d left on Cape Cod, because there was (I’d assumed) nothing in it I’d need once we got home. I don’t need travel size shampoo when I’m at home, or the little travel-size packet of Q-Tips, or the extra nail clippers.

But I only own one thermometer. And my daughter was sick, but the thermometer was on Cape Cod.

I had a moment of optimism: maybe, just maybe, I’d slipped the thermometer into my tote bag, which has many pockets, and not into the toiletry bag. I searched my tote bag: no thermometer. In the meantime, my daughter sagged on the couch. I texted my husband: “Is the thermometer in the toiletry bag?” He wrote back with uncharacteristic speed. “Yes,” he wrote, “Who’s sick?”

I explained that our daughter appeared to be ill. “Excellent timing,” I observed. “If she has to get sick, it’s better to get sick at home.” My husband agreed. There’s a lesson for me here, which is this: no matter where you are, the thermometer is not in the place where you are when you need it. Peg Bracken had a plan, longtime readers will recall, in which every room of the house has a box that contains a few things you always need at random moments: a pair of scissors, some safety pins, a pencil and some paper, etc. To this list, I should probably add: a thermometer. Keep one on each floor of the house — one in the kitchen drawer (perhaps next to the Thermapen, which I suppose you could use to take someone’s temperature if you had to, but boy would that be an uncomfortable experience), one in the second floor bathroom, and one in the third floor bathroom.

I made dinner. We ate. At 7.30 on the nose, my daughter set down her bowl and looked at me with tears in her eyes. “I want to go to bed now,” she said. I put her to bed. The next day was a wash. She was sad, feverish, not herself. We spent most of the day curled up on the couch watching the entire “Back to the Future” collection, streaming on Netflix. I cancelled all the plans I’d made for Friday night and sighed: I had scheduled our early return precisely so that I could go do these things on Friday night, and it was all down the toilet. Tra-fucking-la. “At least she got sick after we got home,” I said to myself.

All was well come Saturday morning. My husband returned home on Sunday and I opened the toiletry bag he unloaded from the car and looked at the thermometer. “I should really get at least one more thermometer,” I said dolefully. My husband, who finds my tendency to buy things in duplicate inexplicable, said, “yeah, maybe you’re right.” And then I commenced doing laundry.


The Book Gods, and the Cruel Jokes They Play

We have too many books in our house. I know this is the case because we still have books stored away at our old house. Like, hundreds of them. So a few months ago I decided to assemble a bag of books that I believed, earnestly, we no longer needed, and I assembled said bag with all good intentions of taking it to a used bookstore nearby where I could get some store credit for them.

It took me maybe fifteen minutes to cull a dozen titles from the shelf, and four months to get them to the used bookstore, which is less than two miles from our house.

With $20.50 in store credit, I searched the store’s shelves once more for a few things I’ve had my eye out for. One of the novels I’m always hoping to find used is a novel that came out a little more than ten years ago — it was a bestselling novel called The Book of Salt. It’s about the person who cooked for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. You’d think it’d be easy to stumble on a cheap used copy, but apparently not. I could have bought it new, sure. But I haven’t ever been confident enough that I’d like the book; I was merely curious about it. And I didn’t want to spend $15 on curiosity. So I’ve just had it on my “find it for cheap” list for ages now. I struck out again at the store where I had $20.50 in credit, but then later on, at a second used bookstore, I found a copy for $4. This, I was willing to live with, so I picked it up. I also picked up a wonderful book called America’s Kitchens, published in 2008, which I’d never heard of. It’s quite delightful, I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of American domestic design or American cooking.

My husband was also on the hunt for a specific title, when we were out and about: he needs the next title in the Maturin/Aubrey series. At the second bookstore yesterday, he found it, and when I suggested he pick up the one that comes after the one he needed, while he was at it, he scoffed. “I won’t get around to this one for a few months anyhow,” he said. I didn’t quibble. He went and paid for our small stack of books (The Book of Salt; the kitchen book; a paperback of Colwin’s Home Cooking, which I always need spares of; a big hardcover, gorgeously illustrated book of sheet music for Gilbert & Sullivan’s greatest hits; the Aubrey/Maturin book; an a Garfield book for our daughter) and we all headed home satisfied with the day’s enterprise.

It was the next day that my husband held up his Aubrey/Maturin book and said, “I’ve already read this one.” I laughed. “I’d be really ticked off if I did that,” I said. He was sanguine about it. “I’ll find the one I need somewhere and trade this in,” he said. I said, “I’m glad to find my novel,” and explained to him how I’d been looking for it for so many years. He said, “So, the Book Gods were smiling on you.”

Later in the morning I took our daughter to the playground near our house, where there is a free book box. It’s operated by New Haven Reads, which is a wonderful program that promotes literacy — they run a book bank, which is kind of like a bookstore, except all the books are free; and they operate a massive tutoring program that serves dozens and dozens of kids across the city. While my daughter’s zooming around the playground, I poke idly through the book box, and what’s sitting there?

The Book of Salt. Price? No price: it’s from New Haven Reads, it’s free.

I cursed under my breath and picked the book up and held it in my hand, furious, for a moment; then, resigned, I put it back in the box. I missed my chance; let someone else have it.

The incomplete history of some cobalt blue mixing bowls: Yvette, and the Hausfrau’s Set

In the early days of my life as an adult my brother gave me a set of blue nested mixing bowls: bright, clear, blue glass. Cobalt, people call it. I have lugged them from apartment to apartment and used them as mixing bowls, as bowls for dough to rise in, as bowls to eat dinner out of, to serve salads from at potluck suppers, as serving bowls for more dishes more elegant than noodle salad, and, last but not least, as punch bowls. I’ve had them for almost thirty years now and they show almost no wear despite nearly constant use and a lot of being packed up and relocated. They are miracle bowls.

This weekend, I went to an estate sale in a house where my brother lived, as a housesitter, for a few months, circa 1989. This was a very well-appointed house that, once upon a time, was the home of a good friend of my mother’s. He was a professor, and he lived there with his wife. The professor died two decades ago, and his widow has decided to downsize, finally, and she organized an estate sale. I saw a sign for it (“Estate sale: Friday, Sat., Sun., 9-1”) and thought, “I should go to that.”

I couldn’t convince my daughter to go with me late Friday morning — she was too hot, too cranky, too in need of lunch — but I did manage to convince her to come with me on Saturday morning. I went to the estate sale expecting to see good housewares and a lot of books. I was not wrong. While I could not justify taking home all the pieces I wanted — the well-designed white plates and pasta bowls; the little Fiestaware plates; the darling Pyrex refrigerator boxes — I kept my eyes peeled for things that I knew I could use and things that deserved to find a new home either with me or because of me.

I noticed, on a kitchen counter, a set of cobalt blue mixing bowls identical to the set my brother gave me. The moment I saw them, I realized that my brother had seen them, back in the day, and thought, “This is what I’ll get my little sister for her birthday.” So in that sense, they had a kind of sentimental value to me. And I had a strong sense that I should take this set home, even though I obviously don’t need them, because, duh, I have a set. I couldn’t justify buying them. It wasn’t the money — they were well priced. I just knew that my husband would think I’d lost my mind if I brought them home and put them on the shelf next to our other set.

At the same time, I really wanted them to go to a good home — to the right person. Instead of buying them, I did what seemed like the responsible thing. I went home. When I got home, I unpacked my haul (two flat linen sheets, one nicely printed 1950s cotton tablecloth acquired for a friend who likes these sorts of things, and two men’s handkerchiefs, one of which appears to have been picked up while traveling on SAS (airlines no longer print their own promotional handkerchiefs: a shame)).

As I was saying: I unpacked my haul. And then I did the right thing: I got onto Facebook.

“Nice estate sale at [location redacted]. Anyone who’s ever ogled my blue cobalt mixing bowls should head over there posthaste and snag a set for themselves.”

Within about six minutes a long thread had grown. A friend who grew up in Pittsburgh and now lives in the Bay Area bemoaned hysterically the fact that she’d moved to the West Coast: apparently, out there, estate sales are a different thing entirely and tend to lack lovely things like cobalt blue mixing bowls. Another friend, a dearest pal from college, who lives in Virginia, asked more calmly, “How much?” I honestly couldn’t recall what the price tag said. It wasn’t more than $20, I remembered. I tagged a few locals who might have been at the sale after I left. I thought, “Someone will notice those bowls and let us know if they’re available.” One woman said she was there half an hour ago,  and didn’t notice the bowls. But another woman reported that she was just there, and she’d bought the little Pyrex refrigerator boxes, and the blue bowls were there when she left. $10.

It was about four in the afternoon on Saturday and I had no way to ask for a definitive answer to the question “Did the blue bowls sell?” All I could do was hope that the bowls hadn’t sold, and go back on Sunday morning, as early as possible. The last day of the sale was Sunday, and it would close at 1 p.m.

I awoke at 6.30 Sunday morning thinking, “Estate sale.” I showered and dressed and announced to my family, “I’m going back to that estate sale so I can see if I can get those blue bowls.” My husband and child looked up at me, not too interested, and said, “Okay.” I walked down to the house — not quite a mile away — and as I turned the corner I could see a woman leaving the house carrying the blue bowls. My stomach lurched. Some random person had the bowls??? And then I realized that I knew the woman carrying the bowls. She is a neighbor of mine, she lives about five blocks away, her name is Jo, and she is a peach. I thought, “Well, if someone else is going to score those bowls, it’s good that it’s Jo.” I called out, “Jo! You got the bowls!” She laughed and asked, “Did you come for them?” I said, “I did!” I caught up with her on the sidewalk. “I don’t know if you saw,” I told her, “But I had a whole Facebook thread going on about those bowls.” She said, “I did see the thread! And I was coming to work this morning and I thought, “I should stop in and see if the bowls are still there.” It turned out that she had bought them intending to get them to me so that I could get them to my friend G.

I was, you might say, bowled over.

I reimbursed Jo for the bowls, then and there on the sidewalk, and thanked her about a million times. She said, “It’s funny, I have a set just like these, except red.” I thought, “She gets it,” and told her that her small action would make my friend in Virginia very happy. Jo went off to work, and I put the bowls into the big tote bag I’d brought with me, and all was right with the world, at least when it came to blue glass bowls.

On coming home, I unpacked the second set of bowls onto our kitchen counter, and we dashed off to do the things we had planned for the afternoon. IMG_6933In the evening, when I moved the bowls aside so I could start making dinner, my husband ambled over. “They really are handsome, aren’t they?” he asked. “They are,” I agreed. I told him how I’d actually done a little research about these blue bowls, and how they were apparently manufactured by a French company called Arcoroc. There was a time when you could get these blue bowls easily — they seemed to be ubiquitous in housewares shops, high and low-end, but now they were a little hard to find. “EBay?” he suggested. “Etsy?” I said, “Even there! I only found one set for sale, and they wanted sixty bucks for them, which is pretty much what they cost if you bought them new, I think.”

I look at the two sets now, side by side, and remember something else. The set my brother gave me came with three bowls. I acquired the fourth bowl years later. The fourth one in my set, which is significantly smaller than the “small” bowl in the original gift, is smaller than the “small” bowl in the Estate Sale set, which I will name Yvette. What we have are two slightly different sets of four. In other words, I suspect that to have a “complete” set of these Arcoroc bowls, you’d have to have five bowls. But I’ve never seen a set of five for sale anywhere. I don’t know where Yvette came from. Was Yvette originally made up of five pieces, but the smallest Yvette broke? I will never know. My fourth bowl, I remember, I found in a housewares shop in the Hartford area ca. 2001, and I got it not because I needed it but because it was so obvious that I should have it and give it a home with its siblings. (My mom was with me at the time and she immediately saw that this was the right thing to do; I think she paid for the bowl, actually. It was the same shopping trip where we acquired two beer steins, for my then-boyfriend, now-husband, and we were also gifted with a basket for our newly-acquired cat to sleep in. The cat loved that basket. He wasn’t much of a beer drinker, though.)

If I were a perfect person, I would find another one of the really small blue bowls, and add it to the set, and then present it all to G. I would also find a bowl like the smallest Yvette I have in my possession now, and add it to the Hausfrau set. But this is a little crazy, and I think I should just be content with what I’ve acquired through chance and happy gifts.

I’m worried about shipping these bowls: their scarcity means that, if I ship them, and something bad happens, they’ll be difficult to replace. As luck would have it, I am going to be seeing my friend G. in about a month. So I’m going to wash these bowls, and pack them up carefully, and bring them to her in person. Don’t thank the Hausfrau, either, G. — thank Jo.

You Don’t Need a Tattoo, but You Should Really Get a Paleta.

About a year and a half ago, I was made aware of the existence of something called a paleta, which is a Mexican popsicle. I was on a food tour of a neighborhood in town that’s the residential and cultural base of the Central and South American communities here, and we had stopped into a restaurant where, I was told, there was a freezer case of paletas. “They’re wonderful,” the guide advised us. I didn’t have time to sample one just then, but I made a mental note to go back and try one later. As luck would have it, I’ve not gotten back to that particular restaurant, but I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about paletas.

I spend a lot of time downtown at a place called The Institute Library, which is located on a somewhat rag-tag block of Chapel Street. Chapel Street is, like so many city streets, variable, block by block. Some sections are quite high-end, with shops catering to the Yale community, and some are, as the phrase goes, low-rent. The Institute Library, which has been in its unassuming building since the 1870s, is in what is currently a low-rent district (but rents are definitely going up). This distinguished and strange Library has been, for decades, surrounded by retail storefronts selling inexpensive goods to New Haveners who are decidedly not part of the Yale community. You can find beauty supplies, wigs, flashy jewelry, dollar store stuff. You can get a pair of Nikes, a pair of Chuck Taylors, bars of black soap. And right next door to the Library is a tattoo parlor. As the Hausfrau is not a big fan of tattoos, I’ve never been inside the tattoo parlor (though I’ve logged many hours in the beauty supply shops and the dollar stores). As I was walking to the Institute Library, I noticed suddenly that the tattoo parlor next door, of all places, had a sign in their window announcing that they had paletas for sale. “Well, isn’t that interesting,” I said to myself.

Then I found myself engaged in a long Facebook conversation with a friend who had also seen the sign and wanted to try one. She, like me, found it hilarious that the tattoo parlor was hawking popsicles.  What got me was that there were so many flavors. I wrote, “I want to try — I think the sign said there’s a caramel one. Also coconut. It’s like a Crayola crayon 64 pack list of flavors.” We had this conversation in February, when, frankly, eating popsicles was no one’s highest priority. But we stowed the information away for future reference.

Well, last week, the future came. L. and I made plans to meet downtown and scoop up a paleta or two. First we met at the English Building Market, a delightful shop selling various vintage items, mostly housewares, and I picked up an Ice-O-Matic there (more on that later). Then we went to the tattoo parlor.
The paletas are kept in a freezer case by the front window. Depending on the time of day, the way the light hits, you might not be able to see into the freezer case while standing on the street — glare can be a bitch. But you can read the sign in the window that lists all the flavors. L and I strode into the tattoo parlor with, really, no idea what we might be iIMG_6382n for. Neither of us had ever been inside the tattoo parlor before. What we found was a very clean, orderly shop, with rows of chairs for people to wait in, like at a doctor’s office, and signs advising clients to please keep their children under control. Along the left wall was a long glass case displaying jewelry for sale, and we perused the selections while the woman working the desk (the owner, it turns out) helped a client. The jewelry was a surprise — I’d never known they had jewelry in there, and to be quite a honest, I rather liked a lot of it, and none that I saw at first glance had hideously high prices. I mean, I’m in the market for a new ring, and it may well come from there.
Once the clerk had finished her transaction, she turned to us and I said, “Hi, we’d like to buy a couple popsicles.” She came down from behind the desk and walked over to the case with us. She unlocked the case, and we scanned the case: What would be seriously good? What would just be a novelty item, worth a couple of bites but possibly not worth finishing? This was a MAJOR DECISION we were making. “I’m kind of leaning toward the rice pudding,” I said to L. She said, “That’s what I was thinking about, too,” she admitted. I said, “We should really get two different flavors. You get the rice pudding, I’ll get something else.”

Not all flavors are available at any given moment, it appears; of the ones I could see quickly — I didn’t want to waste too much of the clerk’s time — there were two contenders I could take seriously, one of them coconut, one of them an old favorite of mine, lime. Lime isn’t a very unusual popsicle flavor, but on the other hand, I find that I don’t see it around much these days. And I had a suspicion that if I got one of these lime popsicles, it would be exponentially more lime-y than whatever crap I’d be likely to get from an ice cream truck or in the ice cream novelties section at Stop and Shop.

We paid for the paletas and unwrapped them quickly. The clerk very sweetly handed us each a paper towel — she didn’t have to do that, it was very motherly and kind of her — and we thanked her and took our soon-to-be-messy paletas out in the street. We walked over to Pitkin Plaza, sat down at a cafe table, and talked and ate our popsicles.

L. declared hers weird but delicious. “The rice has a kind of chewy quality,” she said. I reported that the lime was sharp and sweet and just the right thing for a hot summer day. Sitting at the table, we ate the popsicles quickly — we had to — and discussed the oddity of going to a tattoo parlor downtown to buy popsicles. “Did you see you can get a rum raisin one?” L. asked me. I said, “Rum raisin is very mysterious.” “I don’t think they make rum raisin ice cream anymore,” L. said. “I never see it anywhere.” I told her that there’s a shop in my neighborhood that carries it, and explained my theory that they stock it for one elderly customer who lives nearby. “I think they keep just enough of it around to keep her happy, and then when it runs out, they order more. But it’s only for her.” “That sounds entirely plausible,” she said, nodding.

“This is just so New Haven, though,” L. observed. And she’s right. New Haven has all kinds of places that are, ostensibly, one thing, but then are beloved for some other thing entirely, or are known to have some specific product that you just can’t get anywhere else in town. Sure, there are pizza places that are pizza places and movie theaters that are movie theaters. But there have also been bars that were really places we went because the jukebox was so great. It wasn’t that the drinks were so great; it was that the jukebox was great, and the drinks were at least cheap enough that you didn’t mind if they were sort of badly mixed, because the jukebox was awesome. There are bars where you go because they have really good French fries. There is a felafel store where you can buy cheap pomegranate molasses and this brand of tea that is, otherwise somewhat hard to find, I am told. (This is Ahmad tea. I’m not a tea drinker, but my husband is; he got turned onto the stuff by a co-worker who gave him a tin of it as a gift. Hooked, he started ordering it online because he couldn’t find it in shops. Then it turned out that the felafel store around the corner sells it very affordably.) There’s the little Asian grocery store where, sure, you can pick up your sushi rice and your sweet soy sauce and your Pocky sticks, if that’s what floats your boat, but the real gold there is the bi bim bop, a big bowl of wonderful food for about five bucks. This is why it pays to keep your eyes open all the time. Jewels everywhere, if you’re willing to find them.

We left Pitkin Plaza and headed for Church Street: I had to catch a bus, and L. was going to head home. “I think I’m going to go make some rice pudding,” she said thoughtfully.

I like to wander around town with my daughter and take her into places like the grocery store with the secret bi bim bap and the felafel store with the hidden stash of pomegranate molasses and pickled turnips. I would never have guessed that it would be on my agenda to take my daughter to a tattoo parlor, but with popsicles as good as these for sale — $2.50 a pop — I see no reason why I shouldn’t take her there for a treat. We actually went by and peered into the freezer case through the window yesterday as we were walking to the Institute Library. “I’m gonna take you here soon, we’ll get a popsicle — think about what flavor you’ll want.” She said, very firmly, “I think blackberry.” We’ll see how many time she changes her mind once we’re in the store. But we’re definitely going. Maybe tomorrow. We had ice cream sundaes for lunch on Monday; ice cream sodas on Wednesday; today I taught her how to make an egg cream; next up, tattoo parlor paletas.