This story is dedicated to the students and guests
of professor Leslie Sharpe ,"The Personal Essay".
Columbia University October 13, 2004.
It was a joy to meet with all of you, thank you for inviting me.
Love and best wishes, Sylvia Jorrín
It is exactly the right shade of blue, this small metal can, shiny and clean, sitting on the shelf above the kitchen cook stove, with a picture of plum tomatoes, red, with green leaves and a lady, resplendent in a yellow dress, red roses in her dark brown hair, a hesitant smile, surrounded by a circle of white, black, and a paler blue on one corner. "Cora" brand announces the can, in yellow, "Tomato Paste, None Better, Choice Quality, Packed in Italy, 5 ounces. I saw it in the corner of my eye when rushing through the only supermarket worth shopping in town last week. My son was with me. Rare precious moments together. "Stop," I said. "Wait a moment. I need that." And I did. Not for the tomato paste it held, our dinner was to be chicken and mushrooms, roasted in beer, my cooking is usually French farm house, tomato paste is an infrequent visitor to my larder, but for the can itself. No paper label here to be washed off, by accident when cleaning the empty tins, new and old I like to look at on the shelf along the ceiling of their winter grime, dust, soot, ashes and the inevitable flyaway piece of straw. But, indeed, a shiny, crisp, enameled finish. Clean. Bright. And the blue I've often tried to replicate in this kitchen. Blue and white.
Who was it who said you can have any color you want for the linens in your bedroom as long as it is white? Syrie Maugham or Sister Parrish? I can have any colors I want in my kitchen as long as they are blue and white, with perhaps a touch of tomato red here and there. But just a touch. As much as is on that little can.
The dining room, on the other hand, is only allowed the color white. The food itself, and any flowers that are in bloom, provides color enough. The table, which seats fourteen, is covered with stiffly starched white linen sheets, bought in better days when I thrift shopped in Bronxville, New York, or Greenwich, Connecticut. It is laden with a mismatched collection of white china, ironstone, a porcelain chocolate pot, assorted terrines, serving platters and all manner of other objects useful in the serving of food. No color anywhere to be seen. I tried putting white curtains on the eight windows, but they were unsuccessful. However, I did buy thirty yards of heavy velvet, garnet in color, with which to make winter drapes, should I ever again have a few days to sew. The seat cushions, filled with carded fleeces, are also an impractical white. The mismatched chairs are varnished a uniform "olde maple," the same color as the wainscoted walls, and the brown aged, rich brown of the ceiling high above the table. The velvet is the same value as the walls and, therefore, looks to be almost the same color.
I've added quarter round windows above the northeast pair flanking the massive stone chimney which makes the views while sitting at the table of pastures, hills, brook and sky a particularly lovely one. Those two windows, now each measure twelve feet in height. There is an alcove in that room of windows on three sides, where I used to want to place a chair, and still another window behind it, so I could have light by which I could read awhile, some sunny afternoon. But I first thought to put another row of windows below the original ones lining the north side of the room, horizontal rather than vertical. A table once stood immediately beneath them on which the maids of the house ironed the tablecloths and sheets. The high windows afforded a pleasant view as they worked. Pasture. Hills. Ernest Westcott installed four half windows below them. And I brought down a chair on which to sit in some day. Perhaps.
Last fall, Jeff Wilcox wired the room. Electricity for the first time in its one hundred and five year existence. There is now a lamp beside the chair in front of the window yet to be. The wall behind the chair is a narrow, tall one, blocking the winter sun, afternoons. I shall love having the window there as well, in this maple brown room, white linens and table settings.
But it is the blue and white that draws me this morning, late winter, nearly spring. Not the dining room which I tentatively entered yesterday, a rare warm afternoon, to assess the winter's damages. This was originally a laundry room, tacked on in 1896, and, for me, while one of the prettiest rooms in the house, it has been the last to be addressed. Restoration or rebirth. Always slow in the country. Snow still seeps down the chimney, and between cracks in the windows. As magical as it is, it has taken final place in its use. Winters, that is. We live in it all summer. It is the one room cabin that goes by the name of a kitchen, where I spent this winter, ensconced, often cold, and often surrounded by hungry, dancing, enchanting, and maddening bottle lambs.
I've just finished polishing the inside of the kitchen windows to a crystal clear transparency, the cloth dripping the brown from the creosote covered ash created by the wood stove. From the new woodstove, the one with the catalytic converter, the supposedly efficient, expensive, latest thing in woodstoves, replacing the Danish one I bought 26 years ago, designed in 1848, by the way. The storm windows cage the spider webs and the drips of the condensation of winter. However, there is some comfort in the shine of the glass even if only on the inside of the windows of this exceptional one room cabin surrounded by twenty-five other rooms.
I've washed, as well, the tiles on the wall surrounding the kitchen sink and the walls above the cedar wainscoting as far as I can reach, the floor, and the four white enamel garbage cans that hold dog food, cat food, lamb milk replacer, and garbage in that respective order. I've cleaned the new white oven of drips, the origin which I cannot fathom, and the, unfortunately too dark blue enamel of the woodstove. Its glass doors clean themselves. A myth perpetuated by the manufacturer. So be it. I'll wash them in a moment when the fire has died down. But it is the little blue enamel can, "Tomato Paste, Italian Style, Packed in Italy, Cora, and the half smile on the face of a lady with red roses in her hair that has done it for me today. Clean, Shiny. Blue. The right shade of blue.
Sylvia Jorrín March 12, 2004
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