Summer House: Ch. 14

porch

Sonya and I sat at the kitchen table with a pot of tea and the ledgers, going over the figures from the first week’s sales, while the rain from a summer storm rolled down the windows.

“I think we’ve covered the expenses,” I said.

“Seriously?”

We added the columns again.

“All except the cost of sugar,” Sonya said.

“Mom!” cried Elise. “My phone’s dead!”

“Maybe it’s the storm?” I suggested.

Sonya pulled out her phone. “Crap. That’s not it.”

She switched it off as Elise stomped in.

“Mom?”

“Can I use your computer?” Sonya asked me.

A few minutes later she was back.

“Well, that’s that. He’s closed our mobile accounts. I can’t afford this right now. Honey, what do you need a phone for? I haven’t noticed you calling kids back home.”

“Duh, Mom. My clients? How do I know if I’m supposed to babysit if they can’t call me?”

“You can use my landline,” I volunteered.

“But you never answer your phone,” Elise said.

It was true. I had an aversion to talking on the phone. Anyone who lived on the island who needed to talk to me could drop by, and anyone on the mainland who needed to get in touch could email.

“But I would answer if I knew you were expecting a call,” I said. “And you could answer, anytime you heard it ring.”

“But what if it was for you?”

“Then you could take a message.”

“And tell them you’ll never call them back, right?”

“Well, yes. That goes without saying.”

“Thank you, Cathy,” said Sonya. “Again.”

We had a deal. One crisis averted.

Later that afternoon, during a break in the rain, Sonya and I put on our boots and slogged down the puddled paths to harvest mesclun greens for the market. Sonya thanked me again.

“Seriously, it’s nothing,” I said. “Might as well get some use out of  the phone.”

“You don’t know what your help means,” Sonya said. “But you might one day. You see, this is significant, what he did.”

I looked at her with my questions in my eyes.

“It means something,” she said. “It means he’s cutting us off financially.”

“Oh, that’s rough.”

“Elise suspected he’d do this all along. I was holding out hope, I guess. But this pretty much spells it out. We’re on our own now.”

She picked up her harvesting basket and headed inside to rinse and package the greens. Some people find relief when they talk, but I’d learned that Sonya didn’t. When she spoke of their troubles, the wounds opened up. Maybe in the long run, that would be the way to healing. But I could see that she felt she had to stay strong for her two kids and for herself. I guessed she feared that once she opened up, it would be a while, maybe a good long while, before she could find her way back to strength.

I finished the harvesting, mulched a few beds to keep the rainwater from evaporating, and joined her in the kitchen. She kept her eyes on the greens she was layering into the plastic bags.

“Bernard asked if he could do some painting, like you offered. You think maybe you could help him find the paints and such? He’s up on the porch.”

I passed Elise sprawled on the couch, Tiger and Crystal lounging on either side of her, an old Jean Arthur movie on the TV.

“Is that Arizona?” I asked.

“Yeah,” replied Elise. “She’s tough. She’s not taking it from anybody.”

Bernard leaned against the railing of the porch looking out over the puddles. He raised his finger to his lips when I approached.

“There’s a nest,” he whispered.

He pointed to the rafters where a pair of mourning doves had built their nest of pine needles and marsh grass.

“I know!” I said. “This is their third batch of the summer!”

His eyes widened. “How come there’s only the mom?” he asked.

“I’m not sure that is the mom,” I said. It looked like the male to me. “They both take turns.”

“Really?”

“Sure enough. They take shifts.”

We sat and leaned against the wall, looking up at the dove, who cocked his head and looked back at us.

“He’s not afraid,” said Bernard.

“Nope. He and his wife know me,” I said. “His wife grew up here, in that very nest, and so did her mom, so they know me from way back.”

We heard the whistle of wings, and the female flew up to the porch, landing on the railing.

“Hello, mama,” I said.

Bernard smiled.

The female tilted her head to see us better, took a few steps along the porch rail, then flew up to the nest. Just as she landed, the male flew out, and we felt the rush of wind from his wings.

“They take turns,” Bernard said. “I wonder maybe. The babies stay there, right? I wonder maybe, could my mom and dad do that?”

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Summer House: Ch. 13

babysit

I keep a fleet of second-hand bikes for the use of the other half of the duplex. Flat with wide country roads and little traffic, the island’s ideal for riding. Half an hour brings you to the other end, where the village sits, housing the ferry terminal, the library, the school, the Farmers’ Market plaza, and the best ice-cream parlor in the county. Two hours takes you around the island’s circumference. Once Elise discovered the bikes, she and Bernard headed off on adventures many an afternoon.

One evening, she and Bernard arrived home from a trip to the library while her mother and I were finishing our test of pie-dough recipes.

“I think number three has the right amount of butter,” I said. “One was too moist, and two was too dry.”

“Three was flaky.”

“Just right.”

“Guess what!” Elise rushed in. “I’ve got a job! It pays ten dollars an HOUR! Ten! Ten hours, that’s one hundred dollars!”

“Excuse me,” said Sonya. “We didn’t talk about this. What’s the job?”

“It’s babysitting. There was a flier. I was looking at it, and I met the couple, and they liked me! They said I could have the job!”

She pulled the flier out of her pocket and spread it out on the table.

“Do you know these people?” Sonya asked me, pointing to the contact name on the flier.

They were neighbors, a summer family. I’d grown up with the man who was now the grandfather of the children needing a babysitter.

“Do they drink?” Sonya asked.

“Not to excess,” I said. “They’re good people. He’s an architect. She’s a doctor. The kids are cute. Very little.”

“They’re two and four,” said Elise. “You know I’m good with little kids.”

“I need to meet the parents,” Sonya said. “I’m glad you’re excited, but before it’s a done-deal, I need to meet them and give my approval.”

Sonya and Elise talked in low voices as they headed towards the kitchen door. “But it’s so much money,” I heard Elise say. “You know we need it.”

The next day, the kids headed off to pick blackberries while Sonya and I made jam. The Cottage Foods application had been processed, reviewed, and approved. The kitchen next door had passed its inspection, and Sonya and I both received our food handlers permits. We were in operation and busily preparing for Thursday’s market.

“I never thought I’d wish a child of mine to be less responsible,” Sonya said, passing me a jar to fill.

“You mean Elise?”

“Yeah. She’s just got it in her mind that she’s got to take on all our troubles. She’s the one who’s gonna rescue us.”

“She’s a good person.”

“She’s fifteen. She should be hording her money for the mall–or for i-tunes or something. Not planning how she’s gonna cover our grocery bills.”

We worked in silence. The windows fogged over with steam. After we’d jarred the batch, we walked out to the back porch with our tea.

“In some cultures, the eldest daughter typically helps out, financially and with domestic labor,” I said. “And think about my grandmother’s generation, too. That was the norm. I think a lot of strengths can be developed, self-esteem, included.”

“I appreciate your putting a positive spin on it,” Sonya said, “but that’s not really the point. The point is she’s got two parents, alive and capable. And we should be providing for her. That was the deal. I can’t help it if one of us reneged, and the other–that would be me–was totally unprepared. This all helps, the jam and all, don’t get me wrong. But the point is…”

She didn’t finish.

We sipped our tea, looking out at the clouds banking over the lighthouse, and I thought of all the ways she might finish her statement. The point was, they were in need. The point was, for whatever reason, the children’s father, Sonya’s husband, wasn’t meeting their financial needs. The point was, he wasn’t there, and for all knew, from all appearances, he wasn’t coming, and he hadn’t been in touch with them. The point was, this mother, these kids, were hurting.

That was, actually, the main point of it all.

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Summer House: Ch. 12

jam

Sonya set her hat, upside down, like a basket, on the table. It was full of blackberries.

“Oh, that’ll stain!” I said.

“There are so many berries!” she replied. “Out by the edge of the woods? All growing wild. So, so many! Why, it took me only fifteen minutes to pick these!”

I poured them into a colander and rinsed them.

“Your hat, though!” I laughed. “It’ll take some scrubbing to get the juice out!”

“You think I mind a sweet-smelling purple hat? You forget I’m country?”

We laughed. I dished us each up a bowl of berries and poured coffee. We sat at the kitchen table.

“We could sell berries,” she said. “At the market. They’re ripe now.”

“We could.”

“Or jam. Why, my grandma made the best jam! They got anybody selling jam at the farmers’ market? I didn’t notice anyone.”

I hadn’t either, not this year. Last year, and for years before, Mira Simpleton sold raspberry and blackberry jam. But she moved to the mainland this past winter, to live in an independent living center, since she was getting on in years and the isolation of island living was becoming a hardship for her. Her doctors were on the mainland.

That meant no one was selling jams and jellies.

“How much you think we could get? Per jar?”

“Oh,” I thought back to last year’s prices, remembering as best I could, “I’d say five dollars for a small jar, and ten for a large?”

“That adds up!” she said. “There’s enough berries for hundreds of jars. Green berries, too, and even flowers, too! There’ll be berries through to Labor Day!”

“At least.”

“And huckleberries. I saw a huckleberry bush growing out of a stump. You ever had huckleberry jam?”

I had. It was like no other–sweet, tart, bright red. My grandmother used to make that, in this very kitchen. Grandpa would spend all day picking huckleberries. They aren’t like blackberries, growing thick all over the edges of woods. They’re forest plants, and the berries are tiny. To get enough for a batch of jam, you’ve got to know where they grow, and you’ve got to be willing to walk through the woods to find every old stump that might nurture a bush.

“You could charge a lot for huckleberry jam,” I said. “It’s such a delicacy.”

“I think I’ll go start picking!” she said. Then she stopped. “It’s all right to sell, right? It doesn’t take any kind of special permit? Since it’s home-made?”

I didn’t know. We headed over to the computer. Five minutes later, we were looking through the state regulations for Cottage Foods.

“I need a food handlers permit,” Sonya said.  We read a little more, and she nodded. “That’s OK. I can get that online.”

“Here’s the list of permitted foods,” I said. “Look, jams!”

“And pies! And breads! We can bake scones, for sampling the jam!”

“And cookies.”

“We need a permit,” she said. “And there’s a kitchen inspection.”

“We should use your kitchen,” I said. “We’ll keep the dogs out of your place. And we can sterilize everything. Really clean it up well.” I felt a little nervous about the state of the kitchen in the place next door. The appliances were old and the sink was splotched with hard water stains. But I had faith in lemon, vinegar, baking soda, and bleach.

“Look at those fees,” she said. “Well. There goes that. It was a nice dream, while it lasted.”

She turned from the computer. Processing fee, application-review fee, inspection fee–it totaled $255.00.

“I don’t have that kind of money,” she said. “Then there’s the mason jars, the paraffin, the sugar. I don’t know what I was thinking. I should not let myself dream. It’s that simple.”

“I’ll front the expenses,” I said. She darted a glance at me. “I’m serious! Look. We’re already partners with the veggies and flowers. And they aren’t near the money-makers jam is! This is a good plan. We do OK, and you’ll pay me back after the first day! Or two. Then, everything after that is profit.”

She sat quietly, looking out the window past the meadows and out towards the bay. “It’s not in me to accept help,” she said. “It goes against everything I’ve taught myself about being strong and resilient and independent. But there’s time a person needs it. Tough times make us change our codes, I guess.”

She said that more to herself than to me. I sat quietly, too, also gazing out the window. Sometimes you can be with a person, and you don’t have to look at them to connect. You can just sit together, in the same space, breathing the same air. It’s like feelings rolled off of her and into my skin.

I’d made a decision early, that first night that she and the kids showed up, that I wouldn’t ask questions. It wasn’t right. I knew there was a power differential between us: I was the landlady. I had resources. I held the bank account that had the deposit her husband had made for the summer house, and I was the one who’d received the rent. It wasn’t up to me to ask. It was up to me to listen.

I listened with my skin, with my eyes, with the way my gut felt, with my shoulders. Right now, when I listened, I felt a stinging pressure behind my eyes. There was a wide ocean of pain waiting for the tide to crest. And there was that worry. And around my shoulders, I felt the sense of something crumbling–big stones were falling off of walls in rubble all around me. This was what it was like to be Sonya.

She stiffened and shook her head.

“All right,” she said. “My pride’s got nothing left to hold onto. I will accept your offer. Thank you.”

She reached out and shook my hand.

I chuckled, surprised at the formality. And then she laughed. She laughed and said, “I will become the best jam-seller this island has ever seen! And I’ve got the purple hat to prove it! We’ll have people lining up, wanting to invest in Sonya Minor’s Famous Jams, and I will just shake my head at them and tell them all that you beat them to it.”

And that was how I became a partner in Sonya Minor’s Famous Jams.

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Summer House: Ch. 11

garden

While we waited for the soil to dry enough that we could work it, I ordered seeds, picked up two barrels’ full of well-composted manure from a neighbor who kept goats, and filed for a permit for a stall at the Farmers’ Market. To ensure local produce and stimulate island economy, county voters had passed an ordinance allowing only residents or property-tax payers to sell at markets and fairs. Filling out the form, I smiled when, this year, I was able to check both boxes: tax-payer and year-round resident. I filled out my voter registration when I was at the county buildings, too.

Island resident. It had been a dream I hadn’t even let myself realize I’d had until now that it was fulfilled. I’d wanted it that badly, to belong here, not just in soul and spirit, but in citizenship, too. A voting member of the community, a merchant at the Farmers’ Market: with the soil of this island under my fingernails, I belong.

Elise used my computer to draw up intricate plans for the garden. Her biology class included a botany unit last year, and her research project had been crop rotation and integration.  She’d laid out a bed for micro-greens, a bed for kale, one for parsley and lettuce, one for edible flowers, and one for carrots. The north side of each bed was to hold a trellis for peas or beans. Zinnias, nasturtiums, cosmos, and bachelor’s buttons were to grow along the edges.

“It looks sound,” I told her.

“It’s very scientific,” she said.

Bernard was excited when, after a few days of sun, we got out the old shovels from tool shed. We had a child-sized one I remembered having used when I’d help my grandfather with the digging. The four of us dug together for about fifteen minutes, then Elise wandered inside for a glass of water, and Bernard ran in after her shortly after “to check the dogs’ water bowls.”

Sonya laughed. “City kids,” she said.

“But you’re not,” I observed.

“Oh, no,” she said. “I’m country.”

We fell silent again, scalping the sod, tossing it in a pile, digging down the depth of two shovel-blades, laying the sod back over, tossing on the next layer of soil, spreading a layer of manure, tossing on the next layer of soil, topping it off with another sprinkling of manure, raking it all in. It was a good few hours of work, punctuated now and then with stretching, looking out over the bay, squinting at the clouds coming from the horizon, sipping the water Elise carried out to us, and laughing when we caught sight of Bernard chasing the dogs through the obstacle course.

“He’s having such a summer,” Sonya said. “He loves dogs, and you know, we’ve never had them.”

It was evening when we finished: five beds double-dug and fertilized.

“This was good work,” I said. I went in to fix supper. Sonya cleaned the shovels and put away all the tools.

While I washed green beans at the kitchen sink, I saw her standing at the edge of the meadow, looking out over the bay. Sometimes, you can see a person’s feelings in the way the stand, catch a glimmer of their thoughts through the tilt of their head. I felt it all in a wave: Loneliness, abandonment, fear, and worry. But also, pride, strength, resilience, and hope. She came inside as I was chopping the carrots, and she smiled, a real smile that reached her eyes.

“I’m bone tired,” she said, “and it feels so good. So good. I will sleep tonight!”

The next morning, Sonya and I were up before the kids. Clouds hung heavy in the sky.

“We gotta get out there and plant!” she said.

“Won’t the kids mind we’re not waiting for them?” I asked.

“Early birds!” she shouted. “Naw, they won’t mind. Elise is more theoretical, and Bernard will just be happy to help when the harvest is ready.”

I laughed to see Sonya so excited.

A few hours later, after breaking for a morning meal and coffee, we strolled back out as the drizzle fell to survey our work.

“Timing’s perfect,” she said. “Let nature water the seeds.”

It smelled delicious out there, with the soil, the piles of mulch waiting alongside the beds, and the fresh light rain.

Sonya threw her arms out to the side and tilted her head up to the sky. The tiny drops clustered on her dark curly hair and pearled her thick black eyelashes. I joined her in the gesture, and the rain ran off my eyebrows.

“I never thought,” she said. “I never thought this summer, alone like this, without him, I would end up feeling so alive. So very alive!”

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Summer House: Ch. 10

farmers

In the Tuesday morning drizzle, Sonya and I headed to the Farmers’ Market. Elise and Bernard stayed behind with a game of gin rummy, a Harry Potter video, and a plate of chocolate chip cookies, fresh from the oven.

“My kids will be so spoiled,” Sonya said as we bundled into our rain coats and slogged down the puddled road.

“It’s good for them,” I said, remembering my summer days with cousins. “Kids need vacations!”

“I suppose,” she sighed.

We stepped up the pace and as our breath puffed, the conversation fell silent. I always like it best when I can be quiet with someone.

In spite of the clouds, the market was packed. Cars right off the morning ferry lined the gravel road leading to the center park, where the tourists’ bright rain coats and umbrellas spun through the square in a kaleidoscope.

I got us coffees from the booth that serves the best light roast organic while Sonya wandered through the stalls.

“We could do this!” she said when I caught up with her at a table loaded with jars full of sunflowers, zinnias, and Shasta daisies.

“We don’t have flowers,” I said.

“No, not at home, but in the meadows! The wild flowers! Queen Anne’s lace! And blackberries. We could sell blackberries. And what about that abandoned orchard through the woods?”

“Smith’s orchard?” The Smith house had burned one winter, twenty years ago, but the orchard was unmarred, and the wild, twisted trees still bore a good crop, ready to harvest at the end of summer.

“We could make a lot of money,” Sonya said, watching the tourists shell out five dollars for every box of blueberries, seven-fifty for each bunch of garden-fresh flowers.

I filled my shopping bags with fresh greens, a jar of honey, cucumbers, green beans, and zucchini.

The drizzle stopped, the umbrellas were folded, the sun cracked through to sparkle the puddles.

Sonya took a bag from me, and we turned back towards home.

The earth smelled fresh. We balanced along the rims of puddles that filled the narrow muddy roads.

“I’ve never had a garden here,” I confessed.

“But you’re a gardener!” Sonya said.

“Sure, a winter gardener.”

“I’ve seen the lavender,” Sonya said, “at the edge of the meadow. Somebody gardened there.”

My grandfather had a summer garden. He planted it in the late spring, before our family arrived, and harvested it after we left in the fall. The lavender lined the herb garden. For years, parsley self-seeded through the meadow, and the black swallowtails drawn to it seemed like memory-gifts from him. But a cold winter thinned them out. How the lavender survived, I had no idea.

“We could garden again,” Sonya said. “The soil’s good. I’ve checked.”

“It’s awfully late in the season for planting, isn’t it? What would grow in time for you to harvest before Labor Day?”

“Micro-greens,” Sonya said. “If we planted this week, we could harvest in four. We could charge a fortune. I’d do all the work. I’d plant. I use the French-intensive method, so we wouldn’t have to waste time weeding. I’d mulch, so it won’t waste water. I’d harvest. I’ll take the crops to the market and sell them. And I’d split the profits with you. All I’d need is for you pay for the seed. It’s a reasonable deal, isn’t it?”

When we got home, after the unbounded greetings from the anachronisms, the unenthusiastic welcome from the kids, and the unpacking of the produce, we wandered out to where my grandfather’s old garden used to stand.

I dug my hand into the wet soil and smelled it. It was sweet and crumbling, full of humus.

“See?” Sonya said. “It’s fertile. It’s a shame to let it set fallow any longer. It’ll be like digging butter.”

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