Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Ritzes v. The Hobos

Disclaimer: The following events are true. Some names and details of this story have been altered to keep people I love from getting pissed at me. If I didn't care about them so much I'd rat out all the poop-heads who deserve outting.

Once upon a time my mother-in-law remarried a wonderful man named Russ. His mom, Namie (pictured above at the wedding) and her husband owned a lovely yellow lake house (YLH) in New England. They bought the former hunting lodge ages ago and when Namie's uber wealthy brother-in-law, Mr. Ritz saw it, he and his kids also bought properties along the same neck of land. But the way they acted, you’d think they had been the first humans to settle the lake and condescended to let Namie and crew visit it as well. Every summer all the Ritz clan descend. Over time they bought up all the lots in that area to accommodate their ever growing families. For as long as I’ve known him, Russ has taken Namie to the YLH each August. Given our close proximity, we started going up in 2001 and have come to dearly love Namie and our time at the YLH.

The house is huge, charming and drafty and sitting on the best spot of the entire lake. Each stairrailing is intricately carved, the bathroom fixtures are antique, the back porch is to die for. But the kitchen floor also slopes, it gets mice (and chipmunks) and needs lots of expensive upkeep. A Ritz cousin, Ellen & husband Don, wanted to buy the place from Namie. Russ & sibs agreed to sell it but the contract stipulated that as long as Namie lived, she and her kids could use the YLH every August. She was already old and frail at this point. The Ritz's agreed, thinking within a year or two she'd kick the bucket and they could tear down the place and built a lovely McMansion for their Ritzy offspring, and in the meantime they rent it out during June & July at a hefty price.

Years go by and Namie is not dying. My mother-in-law provides such excellent care that Namie thrives. She has a stroke and dementia, but dammit, come August she's desperate to get to the Lake where she sits on the back porch facing the lake, flips thru magazines, and imagines she is with her husband and all her kids and grandkids. The ritzier Ritz's always visit, but to us Sundahls, there seems to be an air of condescension in it all. Like this wing of the Ritz's isn't Ritzy enough. When they come over, they don't knock; just waltz in like they own the place (which I guess they sort of do, but come on!). When we wonder onto their side of the neck, they slow their cars down, ask us who we are and their neon blond children look at our kids like they might have lice. Or scabies. Year after year this happens no matter how many times we are introduced.

Two summers ago we departed for the YLH with heavy hearts. Within 24 hours my dear friend Lisa has just escaped dying in childbirth, Millie almost caught her bed on fire, Russ got a call that his grandson has been diagnosed with a tumor, and the local cops phoned to say that Namie had escaped our house at 5am, wandered down our street and was trying to get to "a lunch appointment with her bridge club." We all drove to the lake in a bit of a stupor. While my in-laws stopped at the market to get supplies, Steph & Cece & Ousie, Aunt Sue, and I & my four made our way to the house as Millie had started hurling and needed to lie down.

We pull down the long drive and see that there are cars in the garage. There are bikes on the lawn and we can hear laughter in the house. We call Russ and meet on his cousin Ellen and Don's front lawn. We suspect we've been screwed. We talk in hushed voices as Russ calls Don at his home a few states away and Don informs Russ that he's rented the YLH. You can see Russ go thru several of the stages of grief: shock, denial, anger. "But it's AUGUST, " he says. "The house is ours in August."

Don goes on some tirade about how this year August first is on a Wednesday and if they hadn't rented it for that whole week, they would be out $3000. Plus, Don said Russ was supposed to call and say whether or not they intended to come and no one had called. Russ is trying so hard not to lose it. "Don, my brother told you that was a silly formality. He told you that long as mother is alive, we'll be there. She's alive. We're here. This is NOT acceptable." Don is getting snotty now and says there's nowhere to move the people, even though they own all sorts of properties around the lake.

Steph, Sue and I are agog at all this. These people are bagillionaires and they are willing to screw family and break a contract over 3k? Russ is losing it. Losing patience, losing face, losing dignity as we are all sitting on a front lawn, sweating and tired and in Millie's case, hurling into a zip lock bag. Steph and I nurse our babies on the grass.

At this point Ellen's mother Margaret, Namie's sister-in-law waltzes over from her 8000 foot mansion to greet us. Well, Namie and Russ. The rest of us are treated as lawn gnomes, best ignored. Dava says, diplomatically, that there must have been a mix up because Don & Ellen have renters in Namie's house. "That's odd," Margaret replies. "Ellen mentioned to me that you were arriving on the first as usual." So they KNEW we'd be showing up but just didn't care?

It is the hottest day of summer so far and we are all desperate for shade and water. We are praying that Margaret will notice this and offer a little help. As if on cue, she says,
"My goodness. Why are you sitting on the lawn? Come on over to my house." Russ demurs a bit. We have babies and pukers. "Well," he pauses, "there are so many of us..." "Oh my no. I didn't mean for you to come into my house--you can use the porch."

Sue elbows me and says, "We rank somewhat higher than gypsies, but lower than hobos. This is getting good!" Stephanie is fuming. I can see her pissed-o-meter getting higher and higher. Stephanie does not take crap. And because she is registering our collective outrage, it means I don't have to. Sue doesn’t enjoy crap, but will let it roll off her back most of the time. Sometimes I push back, but on this day I was numb. I kept picturing Lisa in the hospital bleeding out and that kid with a tumor and Namie miraculously being found wandering around a busy street with no ID on her and I felt like I was having an out of body experience, like it was all happening to someone else and I was watching it from a few feet away. I did not rise above (when do I ever do that?!), I was in a state of shock that looked like Zen.

Meanwhile Dava takes Namie to Margaret's and Russ wanders over to talk to the caretaker of the Ritz's properties, Jed, a man in his early 50s who seems not surprised at all by the turn of events. Many phone calls are made. Margaret has better things to do so she makes Dava and Namie come back to the lawn. The house is unlocked and uninhabited, but we are not yet green lighted to wait inside.

One idea that is floated is that we stay in Juliette's house. Juliette is a cousin to Russ and Ellen and has a huge manse just a few houses down. Russ confers with someone and we are told that we will be permitted to stay at Juliette's place until Saturday when the YLH guests leave. We are a bit surprised at this since we couldn't even go in Margaret's house. Then it comes out that Juliette's house is slated for demolition. We think this is because her younger sister Maren just built a brand new huge monstrosity down the road and so Juliette needs to tear hers down and start over so that she too can have a shiny new house. Russ relays to us that since the house is going to be torn down, they said we can stay there since we can't really hurt it. So are we hobos, or an 80s rock band set to smash furniture and punch holes in walls?

Whatever the case, we are so relieved to have things settled and a place to stay that we pile back in our cars and head over to Juliette’s. Just as we start to pull away, Margaret comes RUNNING out her house, flags us down, and informs us that Juliette has changed her mind and would prefer if we did not stay at her place. We are not good enough for a condemned dwelling? I start to giggle.

Back to the lawn. More phone calls. I start chanting "I hate rich people" because it all seems so ridiculous, so petty and so pretentious and so stupid for people to act like this. And the only reason I can come up with for them to feel justified in their behavior is their wealth, like that's a license to crap on people. Russ is a Ritz after all, but clearly not the same category of Ritz, perhaps because there aren’t enough zeros in his bank account, or perhaps because he’s married into a non-Mormon-blue-blood-clan. It’s like they are the white meat Ritz’s, and we are the dark meat version, related but clearly inferior. Internally I am starting to feel again and but it's still more shock than anger so I am able to maintain a calm facade for the kids who are getting hungry and very grumpy at this point. "I hate rich people."

Meanwhile, Namie is getting more and more agitated. Remember that her day started at 5am. "Where is my house? Why won’t' you people take me to my house? Give me those car keys and I'll take us there!" Dava, the queen of kindness is starting to lose it too, going on this endless dementia loop with Namie over and over.

Once again we are told that things are settled, that we can stay at Don and Ellen's until Saturday when the other guests leave. It was always such the obvious solution but after spending 2 hours on someone's lawn you start to realize they really really really don't want you in their house. So we move our stuff in and clean it first. Don't ask me why. I'm not sure.

A half hour later as we are on the back porch Jed informs us that Don has arranged to move the YLH people to another location starting tomorrow, Thursday (so there WAS an alternate rental after all). They'll get cleaners in once they go and then we can move in. We order Chinese and wait for the next installment because at this point there have been so many plans we know more are coming.

Sure enough, Jed and another guy arrive and approach me, Steph, and Sue with the very creepy proposition, "How'd you gals like to earn a little extra cash?" And he says it with a lude smile on his face, like he's picturing Sue doing a pole dance. None of us can think of a response to that but he goes on anyway because of course we are the kind of "gals" who'd do anything for extra cash. His bosses don't even want us in a condemned house so we must be desperate. "The people at the yellow house are packing up as we speak, but there's no way we can get cleaners in tonite, and maybe not even tomorrow. But if you ladies wanted to make some good money you can go clean it yourselves right now and move in tonite." He smiles really big like he’s offered a kid a lollypop.

I thought that Stephanie had reached her limit on the lawn, and then on the deck when her daughter pooped and we are all desperately cleaning it up as if it's a symbol of our defiling the Ritz fancy pants home, but those were just warm ups to what I could see about to boil over. I leapt up and said to Jed, "Sue and I would love to go clean right this minute." Sue and I ran to the car and speed to the YLH. We knew this whole thing had to be over. For furious Stephanie. For confused Namie. For humiliated Russ. For barfing Millie. For angry but I'm not going to show it Dava. For exhausted beyond belief me who just kept thinking about Lisa's near death and I just need this day over so we can start fresh the next day NOT at the Ritz's where every finger print must be instantly erased lest we taint their abode.

So we clean. We wash. We launder. We scrub and wipe and finally were actually able to get the kids and Namie settled not too much past bedtime. Namie was delighted to be back in her home. She may have forgotten who we are, but she knew that yellow house the minute we pulled into the long drive.

Namie died this last week at 92. She held out that long due in good measure to the loving care of Dava & Russ. She passed in her sleep and while most of us were reflecting on the great life she’s lived, I’d bet anything that a certain faction of the Ritz family is jumping for joy that they can finally tear down the old lodge and put something garish in its place. I just hope they build a big porch so that if we hobos ever go up to visit they’ll have a place to put us.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Millerific Millicent

My sweet Camille turns 7 today and is still as snugly as the day she was born. She was so thoughtful too in timing her arrival. I was teaching some writing classes at BU and my last day was December 10. I came home, filed away the grades, painted my toes and said to my huge belly, "Okay, NOW you can come," and went to bed. The next morning I awoke in labor and we raced to the hospital, leaving Joe & Georgia with Sande. Dave was so used to going to the airport that he nearly missed our exit. I looked up from puking (I hurl during transition) and screamed "FENWAY!" I closed my eyes as he skidded two lanes across Storrow Drive to just barely make our exit.

Nicknames: Millie, Mills, Judge Mills Lane, The Judge, Mildred, Millicent, Mao-Mao, Mao-ey, Chairman Mao, Me-Too Millie, Dolphin, Turtle

Here she is at Lake Winnepesauke trying to steal my Coke. She has always had a thing for bubbly brown water. She is like me in other ways too.

Millie has a huge gap between her front teeth and for years she told everyone she had lost a tooth because she is so determined to be like her big sister. Now those two teeth are loose and I know it'll break my heart a little when that Dave Letterman gap goes away.

Despite some fighting, Georgia & Camille are best friends. They share a room and sometimes get mad at each other and one leaves to sleep elsewhere. But within 20 minutes, one or both begs for a reunion. "I just can't sleep without Millie in here," Georgia will sob.

Millie is a superstar with Bea. Jonah will babysit, Georgia will roll her eyes and bring me a diaper if I threaten her, but Millie is truly a friend to Bea. She is solicitous and inclusive (mostly) and willing to do things Bea wants to do. It's been so hard for Bea and me to have Mills in school full day. Bea would give her last M&M to Millie. And Millie would deserve it.

I love this picture of Millie. She has always been so at home in the water and loves spending time at the beach. She swims like a fish and dives like a seal and isn't afraid to get filthy and gross. She kicks butt.

Funny story: Recently Millie has been bringing home a series of books about Rainbow Fairies. The books are simple, two girls have to find all the fairies to restore the rainbow so the whole book is just the girls searching for a fairy. After we finished, our conversation went like this:

Georgia: Mom, when they found that sparkling stream? I kept thinking, the fairy must be in there.

Me: Me too.

Georgia: And when they saw that Queen Bee, I was thinking it was the yellow fairy in disguise.

Me: Me too! And then when they saw the golden honey, I thought the fairy was hiding in there.

Georgia: I thought the same thing.

Millie: Know what I was thinking during that whole book? Nothing. [she smiles smugly] Absolutely NOTHING.

I love this girl. She brings our family such joy.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Belmont Ward Prom: The Supremacy of Cookies

Before I had even completed the move to Belmont 12 years ago, I had heard about the annual wreathmaking party and what a huge deal it was. It is such a big deal that the chair of it is sometimes released from any other calling; it is such a big deal that it takes months to prepare for and has hundreds of sub-committees; it is such a big deal that one woman made a 4 foot replica of the Boston Temple out of gingerbread and even had melted candy to replicate the stained glass; it is such a big deal that disagreements over it has created animosity between former friends and the Belmont and Arlington wards. It is such a big deal that Dave has dubbed it Belmont Ward Prom.

Every year we are told we must scale back and make it more simple, and every year people try to do it, only what part do you cut back on? It's like a hostess' Sophie's choice: do you cut back on food, or decorations? Last year the fire department even tried to rein us in, making us take out a live Christmas tree and hanging lights. But wreathmaking, like charity, never faileth and this year's was as big and beautiful and fun as ever. My take is, nobody MAKES you go coo coo bananas in your part of the party. If you decide to write a new Christmas carol for it, fine. If you have to cut out life size silhouettes of the Nativity, go right ahead. (But I do draw the line on edible temples.)

Take me for example. I enjoy the pomp and circumstance, but I also am happy with mini quiche from Costco so I can go either way. This year I was in charge of setting up the gym which involves miles of rosin paper rolled and taped to the floor and onto 25 table. I thought I was doing an awesome job until one of my OCD committee members informed me that my tables were not aligned and could something PLEASE be done about that or it might reflect poorly on all of us. So I sighed and straightened the outliers but left it at that. Go rock in a corner if it bugs you that much.

But I was also asked by Coco, who headed up desserts, if I'd make some cut out shortbread cookies. I did research on what kind of royal icing to use, made sure I had 3 lbs of the right kind of butter (sweet cream unsalted), and made 10,000 gorgeous little snowflakes. (Did you know that dragees, those little edible silver balls are practically outlawed and can only be bought from shady dealers on the Internet? Hoard them if you have them.) Decorating alone took me 7 hours. Nobody made me add piping and sugar crystals etc. etc. It might be because I am such a mediocre cook that I am so uptight about my cookies. (Please let my one superior area shine!!!) But it's more likely that I just love cookies so darn much.
Cookies are the appetizers of dessert. A little bit of this and that you can try without feeling guilty if you don't like it. So you take a bite of a cookie, discover it has walnuts (nasty!), and you casually set it aside. Plus you get a variety of flavors without having to OD. And there are so many possibilities. Tonite there were carrot/orange cookies, lemon shortbread, carmel/chocolate, meringue, ginger-molasses, spritzer, Snickerdoodles (yum!), pumpkin, and on and on. I didn't try them all but even if I had, I'm still convinced it would be less calories than say, cheesecake. Finger foods rock. I enjoy bars, but again, after two bites I'm ready to move on and feel stuck. Don't get me wrong. I love me some cake. But my friends, cake is a commitment. I cannot in good conscience take a piece of cake (which are usually pre-cut and larger than I want), have a bite, decide it's not going to do it for me, and move on to a different cake. That's just bad behavior and so wasteful (says the daughter of parents raised during the depression). I am happy to practice monogamy in love, but not with dessert. And as far the environment goes, cake requires a plate and a fork that need washing or tossing. But a cookie my friend? No utensils required. Maybe not even a napkin. Now that's living.

Whipped Shortbread - Coleen M. Low via K. Low Burns

1 lb butter at room temperature
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup corn starch (yes, corn starch)
3 cups flour

Mix w/ mixer. If using cookie cutters, be generous w/ flour for rolling pin & surface. Don’t roll thinner than ¼” or they’ll get too crispy.

Cook for 24 min at 300. Watch for bottom edges to turn brown.