May 29, 2012

I only have to see the hydrangeas by the side of our house to go back,…back to my fourth year of life on the farm and the prohibition of the climb-onto-me invitation of the unsteady gate in front of the “old house.” The blue hydrangeas surrounded the porch and provided cover for my covert swings on that rickety gate – until the day that I got caught, receiving the reminder (“How many times do I have to tell you…”) and mild rebuke when that swing swung its last swipe. My last hurrah had been worth it, though, and I’m there again, with just a glance at those blossoms.

We like to go back…to simpler times, to fond memories, to those DNA-pieces of Past. It’s often what people hope to capture on a vacation, on a weekend away, or on a simple retreat, like here at the B&B, but the moments can happen anywhere, at any time. Like with the blue hydrangeas.

I’m just a businessman, not a poet. It is the poet who is supposed to see thing so clearly and to remember…I drove from my home in Lake Charles, Louisiana, to the airport in Houston, Texas to pick up my wife’s grandfather.

…She wept the night before my trip to the airport. She was very happy to have her grandfather again and very sorry that she’d missed all those years with him….’I only wish I was small enough and his back was strong enough that I could ride upon it again.’

…Mr. Chinh was enchanted with the airport, gawking about as we moved, and his interest was so intent and his pleasure so evident from the little clucks and nods he made that I did not try to speak with him. Twice he asked me a question…if I had a car. And when I said yes, he seemed very pleased, lifting his cane before him and tapping it down hard. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Don’t tell me what kind. I will see for myself.’

But in the parking garage, he was baffled. he circled the car and touched it gently with the rubber tip of his cane, …’I don’t know this car,’ he said. ‘I don’t know it at all.’

‘It’s an Acura,’ I said.

He shook the name off as if a mosquito had just buzzed his head. I thought you would own a French car. A Citroen, I had predicted. A 15CV Saloon.’

…Mr. Chinh lifted his shoulders and let them drop heavily, as if he was greatly disappointed and perhaps even a little scornful….

I didn’t understand….

I said, ‘Mai can’t wait to see you….’

He did not acknowledge this, which I thought was rude for the grandfather who was becoming the elder of our household. Instead, he looked out the window again, and he said, ‘My favorite car of all was a Hotchkiss. I had a 1934 Hotchkiss….I would drive to Hanoi at the end of the year and spend ten days and return. It was eighteen hundred kilometers. I drove it in two days…At night it was very nice. We had the top down and the moon was shining and we drove along the beach. Then we’d stop and turn the lights on and rabbits would come out and we’d catch them. Very simple. I can see their eyes shining in the lights. Then we’d make a fire on the beach. The sparks would fly up and we’d sit and eat and listen to the sea. It was very nice, driving. Very nice.’

Mr. Chinh stopped speaking…This man beside me was rushing along the South China Sea. Right now. He had felt something so strong that he could summon it up and place himself within it and the moment would not fade, the eyes of the rabbits still shone and the sparks still climbed into the sky and he was a happy man.

…I said to Mr. Chinh, ‘We are almost home now.’

And the old man turned to me and said, ‘Where is it that we are going?’

…’I’m the husband of Mai, your granddaughter,’ I said, and I tried to tell myself he was still caught on some beach on the way to Hanoi.

‘Granddaughter?’ he said…I felt weak now. I could barely speak the words, but I said, ‘…My wife. You love her.’…

…she was crying quietly, her head bowed and her hand covering her eyes.

‘I’m sorry.’ I said.

‘I put him in the guest room,’ she said. ‘He thanked me as he would an innkeeper.’ She sobbed faintly…

I had to do something…A good businessman knows when to stop thinking and to act instead…Suddenly I surprised myself and my wife, too. I stepped in front of her and crouched down and before either of us could think to feel foolish, I had taken Mai onto my back and straightened up and I began to move about the yard, walking at first, down the long drooping lower branch of the oak tree and then faster along the sidewalk …she only protested for a moment before she was laughing and holding on tighter, …and I ran with her, ran as fast as I could so that she laughed harder and…I felt her breath on the side of my face as warm and moist as a breeze off the South China Sea.
–“The Trip Back,” A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, Robert Olen Butler, 1992 (Winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize)

Coffee-Almond Granola

May 25, 2012

To 4 cups of oats, add:

1 cup slivered almonds
1 cup shaved coconut

Then mix together and add:

1/4 cup melted butter
3/4 cup honey
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp almond extract
1 1/2 tsp coffee extract

Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 min’s or more, stirring frequently (every 5 or 10 min’s), until a lovely light brown color. (Do not overbake.) Let cool. It will dry as it cools, so don’t worry about it seeming too “wet.”

Make homemade chocolate-covered coffee beans: Melt chocolate. Stir high quality beans into the melted chocolate, then spread as thinly as possible into sheet pan. Let cool or place in fridge. Break apart with fork when cool, add cocoa powder, then add to baked granola. Stir in freezer.

The above recipe was an experiment that worked. I couldn’t really find anything online that I liked for a coffee granola, so in true Amelia Bedelia fashion, I mixed a little of this and a little of that and after an early morning phone call with our daughter, it all came together. Using the usual granola ingredients (I always use butter and I usually go with honey since it’s cheaper than maple syrup), along with coffee, almond & vanilla extracts, sliced almonds, shaved coconut and homemade chocolate-covered coffee beans (since I didn’t have any commercially-made ones and these are just great). Can’t wait to serve it to guests this weekend! (But they’ll have to eat those buzzed beans at their own risk!)

“Letters From My Father” *

May 21, 2012

Breakfast was over by 8:30 because our guests had to get on the road for a day of driving and sightseeing on their way back home. They were only here for an overnight stay. But we had talked on the porch last night and again over breakfast, with the shared stories tasting sweet and savory, like the basil-flavored ice cream on top of their strawberries. The talk flowed easily, as it often does with strangers sitting together at a B&B. But it is not that way always, especially in families.

“Letters From My Father,” one of the short pieces of fiction in A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, the 1993 Pulitzer Prize winner written by Robert Olen Butler, tells one of these stiff, stifled stories so common in family relationships. Told by a young teen-aged Vietnamese girl, living in Lake Charles, Louisiana, recently reunited with her American father after spending her entire childhood in her native country, it is a story of loss lifted out of letters.

I look through the letters my father sent to me in Saigon and I find this: ‘Dear Fran. How are you? I wish you and your mother were here with me. The weather here is pretty cold this time of year. I bet you would like the cold weather.’….

Today there are no clouds in the sky. What did that have to do with me?….

Last night I found a package of letters in a footlocker that belongs to my father. It is in the storage shack in the back of our house here in America….copies he kept of letters he sent trying to get us out of Vietnam. I look through …and I find this: ‘What is this crap that you’re trying to give me now? It has been nine years, seven months, and fifteen days since I last saw my daughter, my own flesh-and-blood daughter.’

This is an angry voice, a voice with feeling….

…Not everyone can say what they feel…Not everyone can look at a camera and make their face do what it has to do to show a feeling. But years of flat words…these are hard things to forget. So I’ve been sitting all morning today in the shack behind our house, out here with the tree roaches and the carpenter ants and the smell of mildew and rotting wood and I am sweating so hard that it’s dripping off my nose and chin. There are many letters in my lap. In one of them to the U.S. government my father says: ‘If this was a ____ white woman, a Russian ballet dancer and her daughter, you people would have them on a plane in twenty-four hours. This is my wife and my daughter. My daughter is so beautiful you can put her face on your dimes and quarters and no one could ever make change again in your ____ country without stopping and saying, Oh my God, what a beautiful face.’

…I know my father will be here soon. The lawn mower is over there in the corner and this morning he got up and said that it was going to be hot today, that there were no clouds in the sky and he was going to have to mow the lawn. When he opens the door, I will let him see me here, and I will ask him to talk to me like in these letters, like when he was so angry with some stranger that he knew what to say.

Location, Location, Location.

You might notice the WAC Administration Building cupola out of the corner of your eye as you walk onto Simply Bed & Bread's brick path, since our house is just a stone's throw away from the college. Or it might be the ...
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