Sugartown

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Tomatoes

I’m really excited about tomatoes right now.

For the last ten years, since the first year we lived together, Dennis has been planting tomatoes. The first few years, when we had a spectacular garden behind our little rented cottage in Rockridge, the tomatoes were amazing and plentiful. The next several years, we moved a lot, and the tomatoes really never ripened as well as those East Bay stunners. This season brings our first crop of tomatoes in our Sugartown house. And they are scrumptious.

I’m so inspired by the taste of this fruit, by the fact that, when I pick one in the heat of the day, I can taste the spirit of the California sun in each bite. So I’m going to make sauce. Lots of sauce.

I called a local organic farm that is expecting a bumper of San Marzanos later this month.

Zoe from the farm is going to call me when they have the tomatoes that won’t sell at market because they are too ripe or less than perfect. I’m going to drive up and get those tomatoes, and with a little advice and equipment borrowed from Leigh’s chef friend, Ingrid, I’m going to jar sauce. This way, I can feed the family on the California sunshine all winter long. How pioneerish, right? Like I said, I’m excited. I’ll let you know when the call comes from Zoe and take pictures of the process.

In the meantime, I want to share a sauce recipe I made up the other day.

I went out to the tomato vines with my bright red colander and picked a handful of Super Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes (vine selected and planted by Dennis) and a few Early Boys (selected and planted by Little J). I pulled off the greens and put the tomatoes right into the slow cooker. I drizzled olive oil and about a quarter cup of red wine over them. I added some sauteed onion, garlic and red pepper. I sprinkled on salt, pepper and oregano. Then I cooked them on low for four hours.

When Little J and I came back from the pool, the house smelled heavenly. The tomatoes had released a lot of liquid, but were still whole (!?). I smashed them up with a wooden spoon and added a small can of Muir Glenn organic tomato paste. Then I let them simmer for another hour. The smell was intoxicating.

I blended the sauce with my Braun immersion blender, which is the best cooking tool ever because you don’t have to transfer hot contents to a blender. Then, I pressed the liquid through a fine mesh colander to separate out all the skins and seeds. The result was a creamy, delicious sauce that looked like a too thick tomato soup and tasted like  a balmy evening in southern Spain.

We dined alfresco that evening as it was the hottest night of the year. Little J ate shirtless and shoeless. He devoured a plate of ravioli smothered in the sauce made from the tomatoes he grew. Then he played in the back yard while Dennis and I ate the sauce over shredded spaghetti squash (which looks like pasta. Have you cooked this? It’s amazing).

I’d added some fresh basil during the last ten minutes of cooking and a little chevre to gild the lilly. Wow. What a satisfying meal.

A little bit of heaven from a little red fruit and a gorgeous end-of-summer night. Dennis and I sat outside later with a glass of wine and drank in the stars for dessert. Perfection.

Hugs,

Jennifer

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On the way home from post-treatment-then-post-healthy-five-yr-check-up for J,  we stopped for our usual frozen yogurt. After that, Little J was tuuuckered. “Daddy WHEN are we going to be back in Sugartown?”

“By the time you count to thirty, we’ll be off the freeway,” Dennis answered.

Immediately and predictably, Little J started to count as fast as he could. To get the off-ramp there faster.

When he realized he was going to finish before the off-ramp came, he slowed down. When he realized he couldn’t control how quickly the off-ramp was going to come, he let it go and started to do something more fun. “Let’s all count to one hundred.” We were home before we knew it. The kid’s been in kindergarten for three whole days, but he already knows the most important lesson of all, one that Joan Didion taught me: “Play it as it Lays.”

Speaking of Kindergarten, here’s Little J on the first day.

We agree as a family that we’ve accomplished our goal set back in May to have a great summer in spite of the cancer treatments. The last few weeks were no exception. With my birthday celebrations followed by a super-amazing blood-transfusion, and James tearing it up at summer camp, how could they not be great weeks. Here for you, the five senses tour:

Taste

Uncle Mike turned 50 two days after I turned 41, so he treated us all to brunch at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc in Yountville. Yum is not enough. Family-style delicious fare shared with Coopers, their BFFs, their lovelies, and their little ones is about as much perfection as one can take. Then there was the local pub for Fish ‘n Chips on my actual bday with my Sugartown girls. Finally, Central Market with the BFFs Mari and Carolyn.

Watermelon salad with feta cheese and lavender-infused honey. MMM.

*Romantic dinner in SF with Dennis after quick jaunt to Tiffany left out to preserve sweetness and mystery.

Smell

Chlorine, spray-on sunscreen, and victory as Little J and his swim coach Mason engage in a smile-off. J has just swum half the length of a full-length pool.

Sound

The crunching and slurping and satisfied mmms of the long-awaited last-day-before-school-homemade ice cream sandwiches. There were even some bees buzzing nearby. And maybe a cat yawning in the sunshine.

Touch

The last hug and kiss before school.

Sight

Before this happened:

Sixth sense?

Well, the last thoughts of summer leave us so grateful for my successful treatment and our healthy, happy kid. I have one more round, possibly two (if my bone marrow can take it, visualize strong marrow!) but I’m not counting the seconds to the off-ramp, either. I’m walking to school each day with J and D and playing “I spy with my little eye” and secretly fantasizing about being a part of the PTA when I have the strength. Playing it as it Lays.

Hugs,

Jennifer

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I’ve been thinking a lot about angels lately. The invisible ones are my little secret. The ones that walk this Earth are my friends and family. And they fluttered all around me this weekend. All the messages, cards, and presents, from a bottle of Holy Water from Lourdes, to a pot of a succulents for my garden, touched me deeply and left me feeling so loved.

The ones I want to share with you are from the tiny angels in my life. A card from Little J:

And two from the little cherubs of Sugartown:

I’m so lucky.

Hugs,

Jennifer

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Blossom Umbrella, Erte' (1892-1990)

Alright. I’ll admit it. Sometimes it’s hard, even when overall, things are going really, really well.

Last time I was in treatment, Little J was three. He couldn’t express how he felt about what was happening to me, so when he was scared, he would hit me or refuse to leave my side. This time, he can verbalize his fear, and it comes out as anger.

“Mommy, get OUT of bed and come to the fair! Mommy, I am mad that you are sick. It is YOUR fault.”

Heartbreaking as it is, this is actually a good thing. The fact that he knows he is mad and why, and isn’t afraid to say it, means that he is processing his emotions, not stuffing them down somewhere. In these moments of fury, he’s a little storm that has been brewing and, when it finally hits, leaves you feeling relieved,  if drenched and little sad.

After his outbursts, I pull him on my lap and hug him and kiss him until his tiny fists unclench. I tell him that it’s okay he’s mad at me, that I’m sorry I’m sick, and that I WILL get better.  He presses his cheek on my forehead and hugs me, then brings me his favorite stuffed dog, ruff-ruff.

He and Dennis had an action-packed fourth-of-July weekend. They went to the Sugartown parade, the Company picnic, the fair, swimming, the neighborhood cook-out, an outdoor movie-night, even bowling. Dennis sent me pictures of  Little J having a blast: on the Finn’s float, riding a horse, on  a carnival ride, watching fireworks, and we texted constantly,  saying how much we missed each other.

I made it to the parade and the cook-out, but missed the other events. This last round of chemo, my red blood cell count was really low, so I have weakness, fatigue, and heart palpitations. I think this might be adding to my sense of vulnerability. I was going to avoid posting until it passed. But taking a lesson from Little J, I figure it’s good to get it out, to share.

Thanks for being here.

Hugs,

Jennifer

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Photo by Monica

The Sugartown Gang was in full effect yesterday. They swam in Heather’s pool from four until after nine, with one tiny break to nibble on food.  Their energy is out of this world, their laughter, vervacious™ enough to keep the planets in alignment, their goofiness…there are no words, not even made-up ones.

Heather hosted a bbq at Summer Central on one of what I’m calling my “furlough” weekends. It’s one of the four weekends this summer that follows a full week without chemo. That means it’s a weekend for as much fun as can be packed in. This weekend past was a furlough weekend, and I’ve got two left before kindergarten (omg) starts.

This weekend was one for the record-books. On Saturday I watched England lose (completely unfairly) to Ghana while the boys hunted for bugs in the garden. Then we went to John and Eddy’s in the East Bay and spent most of the day on the deck, gazing across the bay at what might have been San Francisco underneath all that fog. They’re babysitting a gorgeous little puppy, whom I was so worried Little J would fall in love with, but instead, I fell in love with. How could I not? He fell asleep right in my arms.

On Sunday morning, we took Little J to his swim lesson. It was the first time I’ve been able to go. Believe me when I say that sitting in the shade and watching little J have a lesson, then swim with his daddy for an hour is nothing less than full-on bliss. Just that. Just sitting and watching, comfortable in my body, loving them so much.

It’s tricky, this summer. There are eight weeks left. On the one hand, I want it to last forever. After all, did I mention Little J starts kindergarten at the end of it? And on the other hand, if when things go right as planned, I’ll be done with chemo by September 8th. So I kind of want it to go quickly.

Luckily, the only thing I can do is stay right in the moment, because each one is so different. Perfectly happy and energetic one day, curled up in pain and fever and oh-my-God-are-we-going-the-M*A*S*H* unit-ER-the next.

Today is happy, healthy, strong and grateful. And now I must go. I hear the vuvuzelas calling me. Go Braziiiilll! (Sorry Jon in Chile. Please forgive me for that one).

Hugs,

Jennifer

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Shelter

Our neighbor, whose name sounds like Darren, is an artist, a musician, a man who is connected to nature, and a master builder. He builds things for his work and also from his heart.

Last spring, when I was finishing up with chemo, he offered to build us a redwood pergola off of the back of our house. He didn’t like the idea of  us going through another Sugartown summer without a little more shelter from the sun. So he and Dennis discussed the design, and Darren got the wood, cut it, and got to work. He and Dennis built it together in a day. The pretty structure has changed our lives. We live outdoors once the heat comes to town.

As you can see, the structure’s  got  good legs for the luscious and showy passionflower vines to climb on with wild abandon.

Yesterday was  a typical Sugartown afternoon. The kids were playing outside, and the adults were milling around, catching up, asking me about my chemo treatment (which was fine, by the way). Darren pulled up and announced he’d seen a baby crow that had fallen from its nest. He walked back to where the bird was, cupped it gently with his hands, and showed the kids how to hold a bird that was hurt. His working hands, toughened by the years of his art, calmed and soothed the bird instantly. The little thing held its mouth open, so Darren fed it some water, using his fingertips while J and Princess T looked on.

The kids’ hearts were all a-flutter. So was mine.

Then Darren went into his house and got little bites of food for the bird to eat. The kids tried to feed it turkey bits and raspberries. Meanwhile, the adult crows (its parents?) circled madly overhead, squawking. So Darren found a safe, quiet place to set the bird so it could try to eat in peace, and where the concerned birds overhead could see it and know their baby was safe.

The kids and D went to another neighbor’s house to celebrate a birthday. Pizza, cupcakes, laughter and chatter filled the house. At one point, Little J pulled his daddy aside and asked him to please take him outside to make sure that little baby crow was ok. Dennis obliged. But when they got out there, the bird was gone, as were the adult birds who’d been circling before.

Dennis said, “It looks like the baby bird is back with its mommy and daddy.”

“No, Daddy,” Little J laughed. “Those birds couldn’t carry that bird and fly away.”

Daddy replied, “You’d be surprised. Parents can do just about anything for their little ones when they need to. Anything.”

The little ones give you the strength. And the neighbors, with their open hearts, the shelter.

Happy weekend.

Love, Jennifer

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My week off from treatment has been awesome. I’m so happy to report that about a week after the last treatment, around Wednesday, I started to feel so much better and even felt normal. One tiny setback was that the “bone crusher” marrow-stimulating shot kicked in on Wednesday making sitting or standing suddenly really painful. But that passed in a day. Since then, it’s been ahhh.

On Tuesday, Little J got to spend the afternoon with his pal Lil’ Salty.

On Friday, we had a sleepover with Princess T.

On Sunday, it was back to the fishing hole, this time with mom.

Then later that night, it was dinner and movie with Princess M.

And finally, yesterday, we went for a swim in the neighbor’s pool.

We’re packing in as much fun and together-time as we can as we have big week ahead. Tomorrow is the surgery to put in the chest port for easier administration of the chemo, and Thursday is dose 1 of round 2. Friday is Little J’s graduation from preschool, and we’re all planning to go.

Hope your week is off to a great start!

Hugs,

Jennifer

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Heather in Mary's hands

It’s not even noon and today is about thanking so many people for just making today so good.

Thank you Mari for your company and buckets of pho.

Thank you Sandra for being one text away, always.

Thank you Christina and her Mama for authentic Austrian bone marrow soup for Monday.

Thank you Amy for your delish bone soup today.

Thank you Lori for being there at the ready, all the time.

Thank you mom and cousin Esther for your prayers, and everyone else.

Thank you Debbie for taking our little J today who’s got a day off from preschool.

And thank you Monica for sending this picture along to show that the day is already off to such a good start.

We are all three feeling so cradled and cared for by everyone. It’s a good day.

Hugs,

Jenn

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The weekend in the trenches is best left un-discussed. Let’s just say if discomfort is any indication, the ditzels are turning to empty, burned-out craters. But thanks to D, who did EVERYTHING this weekend while shouldering a rucksack of concern the size of Montana, Little J had an awesome weekend.

Ice cream Friday (above) was followed by Hot Tub Saturday:

and Gardening-with-Daddy Sunday:

We are hanging onto these sweet smiles while battening the hatches for dose two tomorrow.

Hugs,

Jennifer

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image from from surflikeagirl.net

The sun’s out today, which puts a smile on all our faces. Also, the pain and nausea mean that stuff is working. The pain means the ditzels are getting annihilated, and the nausea means the chemo is doing its thing. Thank God D was here to dash out and get the strong nausea drugs so I could eat yesterday.  It was a long and hazy day fueled by saltine nibbles and an “America’s Next Top Model” marathon.

By the afternoon I felt swell enough to watch little J and his friend we call ‘Lil Salty, tear up the driveway on their scooters while I sat and had tea with Salty’s mom.

In the evening, I had an email from my big brother. It said, “You can do this.”

I felt a quickening when I read this. The same sentiment, coming from everyone around me, takes on a certain added umph when I hear it from him. In fact, I feel a few more ditzels perish as I read it again.

When my brother says I can do something, there is a mandate, a no-other-option implied. Like when I was ten and he finally agreed to let me skate with him at the skate park. I was not to embarrass him by wimping out. I stood at the lip of the concrete bowl, my tube socks pulled up to  my knees, my glasses, braces, scraggly hair: embarrassment enough. The concrete slopes rushed up at me.  And off he went, smiling, laughing, tucking his body, and with a little swagger, assuring me it was the easiest thing imaginable. And then I followed. I did it.

Or the time we kicked on our boogie boards way too far out, past the coral barrier, toward the “really big waves” on Oahu. “We’re too far! We have to go back,” I’d yelled, barely audible across whitecaps, salt on my lips.

“The only way in is to ride one. I’ll get this one. You take the next. You can do it.” So I did. There really was no other option.

Or the time we floated in the blazing sun down the American River for hours. Two skinny, tanned teenagers in bathing suits on inner-tubes. Not. A. Care. Floating.

After too long of a while, I realized how far we’d have to walk back in bare feet along the brambly side-water, in the fading sun. In the land before cell phones.

“Whatever. You can do it.” And I did.

Not to say I wasn’t terrified, hurting, and sometimes a little mad. But I just did it, because he said I could, and because there never was another option, except maybe to sink into a puddle of tears and defeat. Instead, I just pushed on. As a consequence, I felt stronger in myself and trusted him more.

I like to think of this challenge as no different, though he’s not going first to show me how laughably easy it is. I know he would if he could, if not just do the whole thing for me.

Hugs,

Jennifer

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