As I’ve written before, my parents and I came to the U.S. when I was nine, entering the States by car in Bar Harbor, Maine and then driving across country to California, where I was to live until I was in my early twenties. In the year of my twenty-second birthday I once again found myself crossing the country in the opposite direction this time in an old yellow station wagon accompanied by my husband two young children. Twelve months later with a year on the road under our belts, we found ourselves parked on a tree-lined street in Lynn, Massachusetts somewhere in the late summer months. With little lining our pockets but lint, and, other than the wagon’s roof, nothing much else over our heads we reluctantly gave up our nomadic lifestyle and made plans to settle down. Six months later we’d both secured jobs in Boston proper and had leased a house on the lake in Wakefield.
My husband took a lead position with the software group of a large hotel chain, and I went to work for the American Cancer Society as an area rep. Arriving in the state in those early days there were no familiar faces but our own to be found. After we’d settled we eventually met people in our neighborhood, and formed friendships with associates in our jobs thus expanding our group of friends.
Most of the couples we associated with were still in the process of saving for their first homes and still paid rent every month. The first of us to be able to purchase a home was a young software tech that my husband worked with and his wife, who were our closest friends. Naturally excited, they invited us to take the tour with them and their realtor before they were handed the keys. The house was a lovely two-story home nestled on a huge lot in a beautiful seaside community. There was little need for sincerity about how wonderful the house was, because, in truth, it was absolutely oozing with New England charm. Vast gardens surrounded the property, obviously well-tended over the years, and seemingly stretching forever in every direction. Arbored archways covered with pastel lilacs and flowering shrubs marked entrances to the rose gardens towards the back and what appeared to be an enormous vegetable garden virtually dominating the center of yard. The house itself had been originally built in the eighteenth century. Exterior walls were decorated with irregular stones and creeping fingers of ivy gripped the sides of the building. Doorways, as the realtor explained, had been remodeled by later occupants because people were shorter back in time the house was built and a man of average height these days would have had to bend in order to travel from room to room. In the living room a huge stone hearth equipped with a metal rod stretching from one end to the other was the focal point. Original occupants used the rod to hang their pots over the fire to cook their meals.
Upstairs, the corner rooms were built with slanted loft-style ceilings. Under each were window seats , and all had closets of cedar to protect your clothing from insects. Fascinating place. We spent many weekends there with our friends, often packing a huge picnic basket and walking the mile or so to the beach for an afternoon swim weather permitting. Beaches on the northeastern coast always seem, to me at least, to be a bit more stark and windblown looking than their counterparts in the west. Dunes decorated with contrasting reeds and brush, stiff afternoon breezes, and water of a temperature that is easier to dive directly into than to get to know slowly. I loved it there.
Lily, our hostess, was appropriately named being the original “earth mother”. Lily never wore make-up, or not when I was in her presence. Her considerable mass of straight chestnut hair hung down to just above the back of her knees and was usually held in check by a handkerchief or hastily placed clip. The vegetables and fruits evident in the colorful bowls and baskets strewn liberally about her sunny kitchen were grown in the rich soil beyond her back door and the pantry shelves were lined with jars of preserves, tomatoes, pickles and whatnot lovingly put up by her two hands. Some might have called her “plain”, some did, but I found her anything but. A book could always be found perched on the arm of her couch with a bookmark indicating where she’d left off. My grandfather would have found that telling of her character. The little interest she had in whether her clothes decorated the pages in the current fashion magazines was evident in the assortment of coveralls that were her trademark attire. None of her fingers displayed any jewelry except her left ring finger which sported a plain gold wedding band. I found her colorful and extraordinarily real. For Lily, her family was her focal point, cooking her passion, and this girl could grow tomatoes the size of cantaloupes in a meager inch of potting soil. To sum her up, some wildflowers growing unadorned in the field are far more beautiful than those blooming in the hothouse.
A self-professed “fish freak”, she was an excellent fisherman or fisherwoman as the case might be, and it was served often and with great flair at her dinner parties usually accompanied by a fresh salad from her garden. Many times we sat at the end of the pier and cast a line together. Hailing from a family of nine children, her father had taught them all as youngsters to be self-sufficient and the necessity of sometimes having to provide your own food to put on the table. I learned a lot from her during that three years. Surface things I thought were important, seemed to fade into the background in the lovely little house on the hill.
Field Salad with Feta Cheese
1 tsp. olive oil
1 cup leek, thinly sliced
2 cups mixed spring greens
1 cup arugula
1 cup mixed mushrooms (I like a variety)
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion
1/4 of a yellow pepper, seeded and sliced thin
1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/4 cup thinly sliced Kalamata olives
1/2 cup grape tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons white sugar (I use Splenda)
3/4 teaspoon dried dill weed
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon onion powder
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1/8 teaspoon dry mustard
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup plain yogurt
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Spray cookie sheet with cooking spray. Spread leeks on sheet and cook until browned, turning once. In large mixing bowl combine leeks with remaining salad ingredients. Toss with chilled dressing and serve with crusty bread. Yum.
For dressing whisk all ingredients in medium mixing bowl. Chill for at least one hour to marry flavors.
Drizzle with dressing and toss gently to coat. Serves 4.