In Celebration Of Fathers

Summer’s bounty has started to arrive.  Our CSA started this week, with lettuce, scallions, broccoli and some other goodies, plus a quart of fresh-picked strawberries.  Not much other than the dill that quietly naturalized in the garden is ready to eat yet here at Sithean, but in a few weeks I expect that to change.

Eli and I had an unexpected evening alone last night, and pulled out all the stops on dinner at home to make Half-baked Harvest’s Chicken Souvlaki Bowls, which were pretty delicious, and fun to eat on the weekend that we’ve finished up Whole30.

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I don’t plan to make Whole30 a lifestyle – cheese and wine are far too important to me – but we did feel healthy and lost some weight, so I suspect we’ll be having some periodic stretches of it in our future.

Today we’re celebrating Father’s Day at a bluegrass festival – us, the kids, and my ex-husband, headed off to picnic, listen to music and eat from food trucks.  That’s not probably typical, and it does occasionally feel pretty awkward to all of the adults involved, but I don’t think I would change it for the world.  As a matter of fact, when I look back on my life in old age, I think I will value that combining of us together not just as 3, and hopefully someday 4,  co-parents but as friends and as a mutual support system.  It’s intentional, and it’s actually pretty great.

And fathers – in all their forms – are hugely important.

My father had – has – a lot of mental health issues that impacted our relationship over the years.  I spent a very good deal of my childhood years wishing for a ‘normal’ childhood.  It wasn’t all bad, and I still often treasure memories of tromping around Boston on Saturdays with him and my sisters, but there’s a good deal I would rather not have happened as well.

Having a parent who isn’t a good parent is a tough thing and all too real for too many kids.  In my adult years, I’ve realized that as a parent, one of the greatest gifts he gave me is a long list of what not to do with my own children.  One of those not-things?  Ensuring that their Dad, I and Eli fully align on the really important stuff and avoid conflict about the small things.  We put the kids at the center, and every decision is a result of that.

My ex and I have carefully crafted a friendship out of the end of our marriage. We still irritate one another, but we also trust one another 100%.  We’re not always in agreement, but we always align, and we still enjoy one another’s company.   He’s helped around the house endlessly, especially in the early days, and we’re completely committed to helping one another out when it’s needed.  He’s a great Dad and a great human.  I’m lucky.

To enter as a stepfather and a partner into a situation that is as complex as that is requires a special kind of patience and thoughtfulness.  Enter Eli, who handles it with immense grace.   In some ways, I’m sure it would be easier for him if my ex and I weren’t quite such good friends.  But he makes it work, and better than that.

Moving the Chicks .jpeg

I’m not sure there’s anyone on earth who could have stepped into the stepfathering role quite as wonderfully and generously as he has.  Great with kids, committed to learning both them and great parenting, always up for a game or an art project or a Nerf battle outside, he brings not just love and support to me, but light and fun into our house in a way it wasn’t there before.  He loves us all, and shows it all day, every day, in endless ways.  He bears kid moods and meltdowns, relentlessly adapts to our traditions, and brings his own flavor of joy to everything we do – making even dinner time fun and interesting.

He was the thing we didn’t know we were missing until we found him.

Life with him is so, so much better than it was before, and if I thought I was lucky always, I didn’t know it like I do now.  It’s not perfect, and everyone is still adjusting, but even so – this is the best life has ever been, and it keeps getting better.

Add to that my children’s wonderful grandfather, Angus – whose limitless patience, candy jar and love of them is a joy to behold, someone who I adore and admire as a person and I am lucky to know, my amazing and adored brothers-in-law, who are  truly great fathers as well as visibly loving and adoring my children , and I’d say my kids are doing pretty good in the father, uncle and grandfather category.

Today as we sit on a blanket and listen to bluegrass, I won’t be wishing a thing was different – even if it rains, or there are mosquitoes, or the kids eat too much sugar and get overtired.  That’s the small stuff.  The big stuff is the 3 central adults in their lives surrounding them to give them experiences and time and teach them what it means to take a less-than-ideal situation and make it something great.

Happy Father’s Day to all of you.  May your day be filled with love.

Love

How Does My Garden Grow – June 2019

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It’s foggy this morning, but finally back to being warm, after a week of weather chilly enough that we caved and put the heat on at one point.  The outcome of the rain and chill is a landscape that is even more impossibly lovely and magical than before.  Living here in this fairy-tale landscape is a gift.

I’m giving up a day in the garden today for a milestone with my daughter – after 2.5 years of dedicated work, she’s off to her first horse show.  All week we’ve been madly prepping – an extra lesson, shopping for all the attire she needs, polishing boots and packing snacks and extra clothes for the day.  It’s not the kind of thing we can budget for frequently, but it’s worth every dime.  My daughter, who generally asks for nothing, wanted this more than anything.

We’re deep in getting the garden together, but we also took a little time out to introduce the chickens to the yard.  It’s time for them to start earning their keep by eating ticks and other garden pests.  Statler the chicken, one of our adored Polish breed, took a bit of time to explore whether tree-climbing was also a ‘chicken thing’.  We’re not sure what she

Kiera and Statler

thinks but she seemed more interested than distressed.  Her sister, Waldorf, and their other companions seemed to find the earth more interesting.

Eli and I have been hard at work on the garden.  It’s a combination of building, weeding and planting at the same time.  We need to finish up in the next couple weeks so we can turn our attention to projects on the house itself.  This is some hard work, but it’s also a labor of love.   We’ve managed to plant tomatoes of all sorts, peppers, both the sweet and spicy kind, cauliflower, spinach, Brussels sprouts, lots of herbs, rhubarb, carrots, a couple sugar pumpkin plants, and a Japanese cucumber we are trying out this year.   So far, so good.   The Thai basil is looking a bit sad, but I think a little heat will perk it up.

We’ve mostly gotten the flowers planted as well, with the only holdouts being the two climbing rose bushes that we got to train up the butterfly gate.

Still to go are more tomatoes, more greens, butternut squash, and a few other things.  In August I’ll plant some more kale and greens.  I didn’t get to tomatillos or beans this year, but 4 new fruit trees are set to arrive any day – Japanese and Iranian varieties of apricots, a Seckel pear, and a fig tree.  This year, we’ll take extra caution with protecting the new trees for winter, since the bitter cold has devastated the ones I have planted to date.

Eli has taken on most of the construction tasks while I weed, move dirt and plant.  We’ve gotten a 5th garden bed built and planted already, and next weekend at least 6th should get done, if not more.

The garden with 5 beds planted

It’s looking beautiful, and I find it nearly impossible to describe how it feels to dream of a potager garden and then see it come to life.   The old bricks I used for the first few beds will eventually need to be replaced, and there’s still a full half of the garden to build, but it’s transforming before my eyes into the paths and beds of my daydreams, complete with Hollyhocks along the front edge.

This was the beginning.  This was the daydream that became a sketched plan over tea with my neighbor, that became an almost-finished fence and brick beds that became the place where I go to play in the sunshine.  So much labor and time went into it.  Sweat equity that I treasure as much as the finished product.  When I look back over my life, it is the things that I’ve built and grown and tended that matter the most.

My children.  Eli.  And this place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Motherhood and Gardens

Sithean May 11 2019

This morning I woke up early  to cook for the Mother’s Day brunch we are hosting at noon today.  I probably could have opted to do nothing instead of making Butternut Squash Lasagna, Asparagus Tart, Deviled Eggs, and some other treats, but I take a lot of joy in feeding people, and work though it is, it’s pleasurable work to have the people I love around me.

After everyone leaves, I’ll turn my attention to the garden if the weather holds. After weeks of nearly nonstop rain,  I was able to spend some time cleaning up and working on it yesterday.  Of course, now finishing it is going to be a mad rush before I have to plant, but this is a permanent structure, with finishing it being a one-time job.  It needs a final fence section, a gate, some last bits of compost spread, and only 4 of the 11 garden beds got built before giant squash plants ran amok last summer.  I need to be done by the beginning of June, but I’m not worried this year – I’ve got some help, and the work isn’t that daunting.  And even if it is, I’ll get done what I get done.  This place is the work of a lifetime.

Spring is in full bloom here, and the rain has made everything green and lush and blossoming.  The school year is winding down with concerts and events absorbing our time, and summer planning is in full swing. Eli and I have some inside projects to do too – painting the downstairs hall, sanding and re-staining the front porch, and some work on the downstairs bathroom.  Between that and both of our jobs, we’re likely to have a very busy and exhausting summer.

But also a lush and beautiful one.  The seedlings, which are in the process of hardening off, will grow into vegetables, and herbs.  Several fruit trees will be planted, new ones and a replacement for my cold-hardy cherry that didn’t survive the winter.  More trees will need to come down, some of them because they are dying, others because they pose a threat to the house.  Pine trees are great for wildlife but their root systems are shallow, and I’ve already had one fall on the house after a windstorm.  I’m working on reducing the risk.

That’s how summer works on a farmlet.  We do our share of relaxing, and there’s few things I like better than to just go out and weed in the sunshine, but from May 1st on, it’s pretty high-energy until we put the garden to bed in November.

Being a gardener is much like being a mother.  You add food, water, attention and love and a home, and you hope that you aren’t too tired and flawed to muck up the growing process.  Sometimes you screw up, run out of time and energy, or just wish for a break.  But in the end, you hope that your children, like your garden, bloom.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the amazing mothers out there.  May you, and your children grow and thrive.

K & C May 9

 

 

 

Leaves with Purpose

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“There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”

 – Hamlet 

The town where Sithean stands is an old one, by American standards.  It was incorporated in 1650, and the miles of old stone walls and the ability to trip over history everywhere you go bears that out.

Prior to incorporation, the Annisquam Indians called it something that translates to ‘the pleasant place by the flowing waters’, and that still holds true today – it is a pleasant place to be, with meandering country roads, wildflowers everywhere, and gardens of blossoms and vegetable gardens.  

We reside in a spot called ‘Witch Hill’.  The Salem Witch trials were not confined to what is now Salem, Massachusetts.  In fact, Salem Village is now named Danvers, in one of the earliest efforts at image rebranding ever to occur – Salem was anathema after the Witch Trials, for good reason.

Witch Hill got it’s name because Mary Eastey, sister to Rebecca Nurse, came here to her son’s home after being released from the Salem Witch trials.  She and Nurse were both upstanding citizens, and married to landholders.  Even Judge John Hathorne, who presided over the trials, and an ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne, went so far as to ask if the girls accusing her if they were certain she was a witch.

It’s hard to visualize what it might have been like.  Suspicion, and not a little bit of vengeance, reigned.  Women were dragged from their beds in the night and put in irons.  They didn’t eat unless their families brought food, and then it might be stolen by their jailers.  They didn’t bathe.  They were housed in places where it was cold, dark, and bug-infested, on the words of a bunch of pre-teens and teenagers.  If you ever doubt the need for due process but also the ability to challenge it by citizens, the transcripts are worth a read.  The originals are in Salem, but the University of Virginia keeps a copy online. 

After all, the Witch trials were perfectly legal.  Moral – not so much.

For Mary Eastey, she is released after 2 months in prison, on May 18th.  She came here to Topsfield, but not for long.  2 days later, Mercy Lewis accuses her again.  She was dragged from her son’s home in the night and brought back to prison.  She was hanged on September 22nd, 1692.  Her death, along with others, was the tipping point in bringing Witch Fever to an end.  On the gallows she begged for the murders – for they were that, trial or no – to stop.

Superstition seems to be part and parcel of the human spirit.  Here on Witch Hill, the real story of Mary Eastey has long faded, and she is spoken about most typically in order to establish the historical bona fides of this place.  In some ways, the peace and beauty force that forgetting.  There is no time of year that I don’t believe I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Making it more so is one of my greatest goals.

One of the interests in the back of my mind as I have gardened over the years is herbs.  Herbs have very real benefits – let’s be clear here, there’s no magical food, essential oil, or herb that is going to change your life.  Herbs, oils and supplements have become intertwined with the idea that if we just consume cleaner, healthier and purer, we will be safe from disease, early death, etc.  It’s true that the healthier we eat, the healthier we live, sure and some exercise is necessary.  Herbs are helpers when used correctly.  They can relieve anxiety, calm a stomach, make a headache go away, and even restart a heart or kill you.  That these things can just grow by the side of the road, in nature, can feel a lot like a gift of magic, and maybe they are.  There’s much that still defies human understanding in the natural world.

Herb lore is intricately tied up in superstition and magic.  So while I diligently plant flowers to attract pollinators and vegetables and fruit to feed us, I’ll also be adding Witch Hazel, Dittany, Rue, Valerian, Yarrow, Lavender and others.  Sure, they are (mostly) edible, have medicinal benefits, and they are all lovely.  But they are also the herbs of protection.  From what?  I don’t know.  Maybe nothing.  It doesn’t matter.  But here at Sithean history incorporates both the beautiful and the not-so-much, intertwined together, and sometimes, like with magic and herb lore, the beautiful and the not are one and the same. As I grow them, I’ll post about what they do and how I use them.

Next year we will plant both a fig tree and a Rowan tree. The former will feed us, but of the two, I tend to think the latter will be more important.

Trefoil, John’s Wort, Vervain, Dill
Hinder Witches of Their Will
Betony, Dittany, Yarrow, Rue
Deprive Witches of Their Due

 

Background Music

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Our babies arrived yesterday, all 27 of them.  After several springs of co-chickening with the neighbors, and losing just about all of them to predators, this year we chose a different course, and ordered a large chicken coop with an enclosed run.  We could have given up on chickens altogether, but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to that decision.  Sithean is a place for fruit trees and gardening and chickens.

Still, this is a leap of faith for us, after burying as many chickens as we have to date.

We waited on tenterhooks for them to arrive, having never gotten chickens in the mail before.  Eli spent hours on Tuesday preparing their bin and food.  The local post office was alerted, and at 7:42 am they called us, long before they opened for the day, and we rushed to get pick them up.  Our babies are here, and the endless peeping is the background music to my day.  My children have taken to even eating breakfast in front of their bin, endlessly fascinated by their ‘chickle babies’.

Baby chicks can survive up to 48 hours in transit after birth, but we worried from the moment the shipment notification kicked off our waiting period.  Our babies were cold and alone and what if something happened to them?  There was more anxiety in our household for the 36 hours from that shipment notification to their arrival than perhaps in the history of our little family.

When we picked them up, safe and sound, the relief was palpable and the excitement was for all 4 of us.

We do have one little runt named Peep, who is smaller and not as energetic as the rest.  All we can do is watch out for her and make sure food and water are available.  ‘Failure to thrive’ is real in the animal kingdom, just as it can be in the human one.  We’re hopeful and watchful.  If she makes it, she is almost certain to be the most petted and cosseted chicken in history.

In 6 months, there will be eggs, lots and lots of them. Before that we will be able to use the chickens as the disposal point for most leftover food.  Between compost and the chickens, our food waste should drop to almost nothing.  This summer, they will be allowed out of their coop to roam a few hours a day to eat ticks and garden bugs.  Chickens are curious creatures, and I look forward to them tromping around behind me this spring as I garden and weed.

This is Eli’s first experience with baby chicks, and I’m enjoying his relative awe and wonder at it too.  Two years ago our first batch of chicks grounded us here at Sithean, turning it from a place we had just landed to a home, weaving itself around us.   It’s happening again, this time for the four of us, one little ‘peep-peep’ at a time.

Gregory Peck March 13 2019

Making Home – Sithean By Design

About 4 years ago, I went from a 2500 square foot house to a tiny apartment, with very few possessions carried with me.  I effectively started over, needing even dishes and forks, along with beds, a couch and almost everything else.  I have always loved putting together found objects, antiques, yard sale finds and hand me downs and making design from them, so it was a little disorienting to have to choose how to fill my new little place all at once.  Fun too, but more of a challenge than I thought it would be.  “What do I like?” was a question that ran through my head, over and over, on everything from plates to bedding.  What I like was of course limited by budget and practicality, but it had been over a decade since I had made those kinds of choices alone, and it was harder than I thought it would be.

When we moved here, I had a little time to start to think about what I like, and I found myself influenced by the house itself.  Built in 1850 as servant’s quarters, the house itself is not very big, and while largely modern, still carries with it a sense of stepping back in time.  The rooms are comfortably sized, but still somewhat delicate-seeming.   I decided to let the house dictate the design as much as my own taste, and the smallish people weigh in too.  Eventually some things from my previous life came back here, but each time I touch a space here, it is tailored to the house itself.  In doing so, I found myself drawn to smaller, more delicate pieces than I might have, and a touch of the fey everywhere – birds, vines and even some magic, all the while covering for the fact that shelves and closets are sadly lacking.

I add and change a little at a time, as budget, time and inspiration allows.  I don’t want it all done at once.  Making an old home beautiful again doesn’t need to cost a fortune either, it can be done slowly, a small touch at a time.

The first room to be changed was the dining room.   One of the Moms did all the work, and it is all beautiful as a result.  It is waiting for me to make valances from some bolts of fabric I found at a yard sale, hopefully by Christmas.

Dining Room

The red ceiling was my daughter’s idea, based on a picture she saw.  The table had been a hand-me-down from my older sister, and the only furniture I’ve added is the bird etagere, which goes with my antique dishes, a favorite find.

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Bird Etagere

Pretty and practical, the etagere holds things that I didn’t have a good spot for, but loved too much to get rid of.

The landing for the stairway was a large blank wall.  Up went a wallpaper mural which makes me smile every time I see it, a touch of watercolor whimsy.  At about $125 for the custom-fit paper, it was a deal, and if I ever tire of it, off it comes.  But I won’t.

Wall Mural

My son’s room was next.  The supreme act of maternal love is letting your child pick their room color, but in this case I happen to love the bright orange for his small angled room under the eaves.  His room is loosely designed around the world of Peter Pan, with a mural of the Lost Boys tree house, and the Jolly Roger as a light fixture hanging from the ceiling.  His bed is shape like a cabin, with canvas window and door coverings that roll down for playing fort.

An oddly shaped corner of my room has been turned into a desk/vanity area, a perfect resting spot for books we are reading before bed, and Kiera Dolly, my daughter’s most prized possession.  The mirror is an antique meant for a fireplace mantel.  The vanity table top opens up to a secret mirrored compartment, where I often find things the smallish people have hidden.

Resting Spot for Kiera Dolly

In the living room, a corner cabinet, found and refinished in grey and blue chalk paint, has been added for more shelving space.   I grouped things that are generally blue and white, from the tea set made by my great aunt to another teapot, found for $2 at a yard sale. along with a lone ginkgo leaf saved from our time in Florida.

Throughout the house are tiny framed prints of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies – gorgeous antique pictures of ancient flowers and trees. . Each print costs little, and they add touches of color to various corners.  When I find frames and more prints, I add them, a little at a time so as not to clutter the space.

I’m working on the guest room now, tying in birds, flowers and watercolor designs, and my daughter’s room will follow that.  There’s so much to do, but that’s the fun of it.   Just a little paint, a few spots to put things, and a touch of whimsy make me happy to be here every day.  There’s lots of stores, TV shows and websites that will make you believe that renovations are all-or-nothing, but sometimes little modifications – color, placement, style, are all that you need to make your space just a bit more homelike.