Joye l’amour feu

My hometown of Montague celebrates Independence Day with a bonfire. This extravagance has taken place for approximately the last 75 years (I vaguely recall, but could be corrected). Preparation visibly begins in mid-June with the appearance of wood-to-be-burned in the town park. This is no small fire that a sports fan could leap over. The most enthused Tar Heel fan could not clear its flames. This is a serious bonfire.

Bonfires are the focus of agrarian European celebrations of Midsummer, or the longest day of the year. This is within two weeks of our Independence Day. Yes, I know that our national holiday is held on the Fourth of July to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It is not purposely aligned with old European holidays. Still, I do find it thought-provoking that our celebrations are still fire-oriented (fireworks, barbecues, and bonfires).

On July 1, 1776, John Adams himself suggested that we would celebrate our independence with fire:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

This year, I prepared for our celebration with an afternoon of errands on the second day of July: collecting vegetables, strawberries and a bouquet of flowers at Riverland Farm, selecting a variety of Victory beers (for our Victory in Independence), picking up Mole Hollow light blue candles and a large bag of jasmine rice, as well as chicken breast and the makings for marinades (teriyaki and tandoori).

On July 3rd, we welcomed friends and family to our home for grilled chicken and other delectable dishes. After supper, we headed down to the expertly-lit bonfire.

Our strawberries
Our strawberries

Strawberry memories for me are under blue, blue skies with billowy clouds. Chamomile flowers and hay underfoot. Berries like gems under dark green leaves. Late June is the time for strawberry picking in the Pioneer Valley. When my girls were small, Nan and I took them picking at the end of every school year. I still see Meghan and Chella dancing in the rows, and Chella’s little feet landing in the tray of berries we had picked. The laughter of grandmother and mother/aunt. Those little blond heads and round bellies.

Back home to boil and boil and boil pots of water. The needlessly anxious moments of measuring, stirring, pouring, sealing. The ping! sound of jam jars. Stashing away summer sweetness for Christmas gifts.

Magic for 2009, well, as we all know, these holidays are times of great magic, and I am handed a few choices. Traditional wisdom holds that a small piece of coal from the Bonfire protects against being kidnapped by the Good People if sewn into your clothes.

Alternatively, storing the coal in your home will protect you from lightning strikes. Given the storminess of this summer, I opted for fire protection. Ed and I walked down to the site of the bonfire in the morning of July 4. Heat still pulsed from the center. I scooped up some remnants that were cool to the touch. We wandered around town, headed into the Montague Book Mill for coffee and book-browsing before heading back home. I placed my coal on the shelf by the woodstove.

I guess that still leaves me vulnerable to the Good People.


The Feast of St. Martin of Tours

The Feast of St. Martin of Tours falls on November 11 or Veteran’s Day in the United States. Veteran’s Day is the time wherein we honor those who have served our country. In agrarian Europe, Martinmas was a time to honor the foods we harvest. And, St. Martin? My favorite piece of information states that he is the patron saint of drunkards and outcasts. He is also the patron saint of vintners and shoemakers.

554332_3007383624104_604803569_nNovember in New England is the time to rake leaves. All but the most stubborn oaks and beeches have dropped their leaves. I remember my dad raking leaves onto an old sheet, gathering up the ends and hauling it over his shoulder into the woods. We would “sneak” onto the sheet of leaves, and listen to his groans and complaints about the heaviness of the leaves before tumbling us out. I loved this game until a neighborhood kid suggested that there were snakes in the leaf piles. Kids can be so mean.

This year, Ed and I raked leaves into our compost pile (no kids around to toss in as well) and brought in the deck furniture. We gazed out at the grey, skeletal, Novemberish woodlands, and I commented “that’s our landscape for the next six months!” Our recent relocation from North Carolina made this concept stunning. “Well,” I amended, “maybe five months.” Ed looked dubious, but I held my ground. “By May 1, the apple trees are blooming!” I insisted.

Martinmas is also the time to load up on root vegetables and squashes. Over the weekend, Ed and I went to the Smiarowski Farm and purchased beets, parsnips, rutabagas, carrots, potatoes, leeks, and onions. For squashes, we picked up delicata, acorn, buttercup, and butternut. We couldn’t bring ourselves to purchase a head of cabbage as big as a giant’s head (only $1.50), but we did get a 1/2 peck of Cortland apples.

The Martinmas Feast is traditionally tied to harvest, slaughter and wine-making activities of Europe. Pork is a common choice, and one year we did prepare a roast. Earlier this year, we were inspired to make an incredibly delicious brined pork roast. The recipe, published in Bon Appetit, is from a Durham, NC restaurant. We served it with garlicky spinach and mashed potatoes–which would certainly work for Martinmas.

This year, we opted for beet soup and dark rye bread. I boiled two large beets for an hour, let them cool, and then engaged in the sensual experience of removing the skins. Holding those warm beets in my hand, with the magenta cooking water splattered about, was akin to holding something alive. The bread was outstanding (if I do say so myself). I knew by the way the dough was responding to kneading that it would be moist and dense.

The Soundtrack for Martinmas has endless possibilities if your aim is to recognize the contributions of drunkards and outcasts. Tom Waits featured heavily in our 2008 celebration. Consider the lyrics of November…

No shadow no stars
no moon no cars
it only believes
in a pile of leaves
and a moon
that’s the color of bone
No prayers for November
to linger longer
stick your spoon in the wall
we’ll slaughter them all
November has tied me
to an old dead tree
get the word to April
to rescue me
November’s cold chain
Made of wet boots and rain
and shiny black ravens
on chimney smoke lanes
November seems odd
you’re my firing squad
With my hair slicked back
with carrion shellac
with the blood from a pheasant
and the bone from a hare
Tied to the branches
of a roebuck stag
left to wave in the timber
like a buck shot flag
Go away you rainsnout
Go away blow your brains out

Entertainment for Drunkards & Outcasts is best served by reading poetry aloud. We pull out some books…the Beats are an obvious choice…and read at random.

Here’s a short one from The Basketball Diaries author Jim Carroll:

Some detectives in worn suits slide at my door.
They told me Eddie was dead on Lexington and 103
stabbed in the jugular at mid-day
outside two automated hospital doors.
He often walked East Harlem after dark, high
on reds, calling out the black man. Before the sheet
on his eyes he grabbed the nurse’s wrist
to check the blood was real, he signed one last paper
to donate properly his eyes.
And I salute you, my brother.

Fiona McKee

Last night, Fiona died peacefully. I will miss her sweet face. She was nearly 18 years old.

I first brought Fiona home to Montague during the October of Niina’s first birthday (that’s how I remember how old she is). Meghan was 2 1/2 years old. I thought Meghan would like having a kitty, but Fiona chased her ankles, and Meghan did NOT like that! Fiona grew out of that phase, and then became the Huntress of the Woodlands and the Keeper of the Hearth. She was quite content until we had the nerve to get another kitty, Sebastian, in the fall of 2000. Sadly, Sebastian disappeared one winter’s day. He was a dear soul.


Ivy the Rascal came to live with us in February 2001, and she soon became Fiona’s tormentor– lying in wait to attack at any opportunity. Fiona would hiss just upon seeing Ivy. Ironically, when the two cats traveled down to North Carolina with Natalie and me in July of 2004, Fiona fared better than Ivy. Ivy stayed curled into a ball in the upstairs hallway for a week while Fiona stood in wonder outside. She was amazed at the sweet, heavy air and noisy cicadas and tree frogs of the South. As an elderly cat, she loved lying in the sun year-round. She rarely ventured off of the porch, but she was visited nearly daily by the postman who (much to my amusement) would have little conversations with her.

Taimse tuirseach
Agus beidh go neal,
Mo bha ar bhruinne,
Is mo phadraic bán.

I am weary now
And soon it will be
My scent on the branches
And my strength in the bark.

(from a traditional Irish folksong)

Fiona was losing weight and slowing down. Several days ago, she went outside and disappeared into the woods for the entire day. In the evening, I opened the door to call her in. She sat in the middle of the driveway and turned her head slowly at the sound of my voice. Then, in a manner that appeared to be for my benefit rather than for her own, she slowly walked to the door and entered the house. The next day, she went outside again. At sunset, Ed and I went to look for her. We were returning home when we saw her at the edge of the driveway, her paws muddy. She gave a sorrowful meow, and I gathered her to me and brought her in. I did not let her outside the next day.

Yesterday, after dropping Natalie off at school, I returned home to find Fiona alive, but lying in the litter box. Poor thing, she did not have the strength to get up. I placed her on the Nana Blanket (a soft, pink blanket that I brought home from my Nana’s apartment after her funeral), and set a small statue of St. Francis of Assisi next to her. I asked St. Francis and Nana to watch over her while I went to work. When I came home, she lifted her head and meowed again. I spent the evening with her on my chest as I lay on the couch reading while Natalie did her homework.

At 10:30 p.m., Fiona arched her back and coughed. Her movement scared me, so I wrapped her in the Nana Blanket and set her down on the floor. She coughed several more times and then was still. I was too scared to see if she was dead, and even more scared to see if she was alive. I didn’t want her to suffer anymore. Natalie went to bed, and I camped out on the couch. In the morning, she was clearly dead.

Tonight, we will bury her in the red clay of North Carolina. I will sing to her “Fiona’s Lullabye” (from The Secret of Roan Inish)

Inionaí, Inionaí
Codailigí, Codailigí
Inionaí, Inionaí
Codailigí, Codailigí

Codailigí, Codailigí
Cois a chlé mo, cois a chlé mo
Codailigí, Codailigí
Socair sásta, socair sásta

Little one, little one
Sleep, sleep
Little one, little one
Sleep, sleep

Sleep, sleep
Beside my bosom, beside my bosom
Sleep, sleep
Peacefully serene, peacefully serene