I remember when my kids were little hearing again and again the advice that they needed to have a routine. Routines were the mantra of experts, parenting magazines, and well-meaning friends. Of course if you skipped a nap or missed a meal there would inevitably be a parental price to pay (often in the form of a spectacular meltdown), but looking back what I recall from the months of baby and toddlerhood is not how we found and stuck to a predictable schedule, but rather how incredibly flexible my kids were. We had all sorts of adventures when they were little which ceased not because I suddenly bought into the idea that a regular regime was the best way for them, but rather because there were such rigid expectations at school. I’m not dismissing the benefits of routines, but in my experience they aren’t everything. Kids are, in my experience, pretty darn resilient – basically the humanoid equivalents of silly putty. The irony of this dichotomy between communal wisdom pointing towards regulated patterns and my personal experiences raising two kids is I now find myself gravitating towards the rhythm of a grown-up routine. Though perhaps what I seek is more rut than routine.
As Indian summer has slipped into fall Shawn and I started to find our new regime as empty nesters. Nothing radical, just a gentle morphing from two plus decades of parenting into a new pace of just us and the dog. It’s not that we stopped being parents because to be honest you never stop being a parent, but we were no longer expected to be part of the day to dayness of our children’s lives. We had to trust in the job we did of raising them to be independent, kind, curious, resilient young adults. There are no do-overs when it comes to raising kids. Once they are off to college, heck once they are in high school, you are essentially done with the teaching portion of parenting. For better or worse. As we gradually adapted to this new reality of empty nesthood and started to not only find different patterns, but to enjoy life sans teenagers, it all evaporated with fall break.
Perhaps evaporate is too strong a word, since it wasn’t as if we were back to doing the dreaded bus run. For the span of a week and a weekend we found ourselves living with people who wanted to borrow the car, needed to be driven to doctor’s appointments and who were capable of consuming 3,000 calories a day. Trust me when I say that no empty nester I have ever known needs or is able to consume 3,000 calories per day. It was simultaneously glorious and overwhelming. There was lots of cooking, which meant there were also loads of dishes. I got hugs every time someone walked past me, which was wonderful. We heard details about classes, roommates, and professors which never made it into letters, texts or Skype calls. Comfort food was made and inhaled including Chicken Pot Pie Goo (basically chicken pot pie without the topping), Matzoh Ball Soup, Arlene Sullivan’s Molasses Snaps, Crêpes, and Carrot Soup. As much as I am figuring out how to enjoy this new phase of my life it was fantabulous to have both kids home for the break.
Then of course the vacation culminated, as they always do, with everyone packing up and returning to their real lives. First there was the 5-mile-per-hour snail ride past an accident clean up on the Massachusetts Turnpike as Russell and I headed back to Simon’s Rock. We debated the merits of getting out and walking versus staying in the car and poking along (we opted for the second option since there was so much stuff to carry) as we crept along. This two hour slow down was even more spectacular when we later learned it was caused by a three truck pile up which had occurred two days prior! Once Russell and I were past the clean up, off the thruway, and had fortified ourselves with some hot cider donuts at Taft Farms we unloaded his things and then I zipped over to the Amtrak station for one last hug from Isabelle. She and Shawn took the now very familiar, and thankfully this time quick, trip to the station in Springfield so she could pop back down to UNH. Then we parents got back in our vehicles to head back north to our very quiet house and our newish routine.
In our little corner of western Massachusetts fall is at the stage where it transitions from colorful, crisp and autumn-y to oceans of crinkly leaves underfoot, Canadian geese honking their way south, and snappy mornings which border on frost most days. I was craving something hearty and filling so I made a pot of Mushroom Barley Lamb Soup. As I puttered around the stove I realized that this soup is as flexible as my kids were when they were little. It is open to endless variations and can be adjusted and tweaked to please most (though unfortunately not all) palettes. For my vegetarian friends I would leave out the lamb chops and chicken stock and boost the vegetables and mushrooms. For my brother who abhors mushrooms I would delete the dried mushrooms, or because I am that kind of big sister I might leave them in, but chop them up so finely that there were no discernible mushroom bits for him to find and complain about. I love thick soups so there is a generous amount of barley in this recipe, but for people who want a bowl of something that is more of a soup than stew I could cut back on the barley. Do those people really exist? Nah, probably not. I guess the barley stays as is.
I used a combination of mushrooms which had been given to us as gifts. There were some wild Alaskan mushrooms our friend Eric had picked and dehydrated as well as handful of the Porcini my friend Rick brought back from Italy. Both had that delicious concentrated smell of earth and fall that I associate with dried mushrooms. This soup is one that gets better once it’s had a chance to meld flavors, but honestly it is great the first night too. Every time I make it I wonder why I don’t do so more often. Obviously it should be part of the new routine.
Mushroom Barley Lamb Soup
2-4 Tablespoons olive oil
1/2 – 3/4 pounds lamb shoulder
1 large onion, chopped (or you can use leeks)
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
3 ribs celery, chopped
1/2 – 3/4 cup dried mushrooms soaked in 2 cups boiling water
4 cups chicken stock
1 cup barley
2 teaspoons thyme
salt and pepper to taste
Start by pouring the boiling H2O over the mushrooms and allowing them to rehydrated in a small bowl. While they are plumping up and making mushroom broth, sauté the lamb chops and olive oil in a large heavy soup pot until they are browned on both sides. Add the carrots, onions, and celery and sauté a few more minutes. Pour in the chicken stock, sprinkle on the thyme, cover and simmer for half an hour. When the mushrooms are ready pull them out of their soaking water (which you will save) and chop. Carefully pour all but the last few teaspoons of mushroom soaking water into the soup pot (the last little bit will have a smidgen of dirt that clung to the mushrooms and trust me when I say you don’t want dirt in this soup) then add the chopped mushrooms. Throw in the barley, cover and simmer another thirty minutes. Give the soup a stir every so often, but if you don’t no worries – it will take care of itself. Add salt and pepper to taste before ladling out a few bowlfulls.
To end I offer you my last fall flower – a nasturtium snuggled against the porch wall and a haiku to fall.
The trees have disrobed
Orange, yellow and brown leaves
Cover the dog shit.