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Expecting their mother's friends to arrive later in the morning to make jam for their school's bake sale in the fall, Nora Banks's children, Thomas, Nicholas, and Charlie, aged seven, five, and three, had set out to collect as many raspberries as they could after first filling and staining their mouths crimson with them. Their nanny, Beatriz, had tried stringing prunes over their little torsos—a technique she had learned as a girl to leave both hands free, one to lift the thorny branches, the other to pick the plump fruit—but, no, the boys had wanted to use their Halloween buckets, the child-sized orange plastic ones with the black handles to match the jack-o'-lantern print. Past the barn, across the stream, and along the twenty-six-acre property's old stone walls the boys in their protective jeans and long-sleeved shirts had stumbled and giggled and jostled for prime place, Beatriz leading the way ably to the thickest clusters.
Now they were all headed back with their loot just as their mother's perfumey friends were stepping down from their cars as high as crane-elevated director's chairs. The women greeted the boys effusively, priding them on their spilling buckets, though none acknowledged Beatriz. Each probably would have done so and felt good about it at a play date, when it was just another mother or two and the children and their nannies. Those were perfect opportunities to show off your Spanish, never mind that almost all the nannies understood English. But in such a crowd as this it was better to seem preoccupied with balancing your hundred-dollar platter of sandwiches and pastries ordered by telephone in the morning and picked up en route from Bedford Gourmet. Though they all knew a sumptuous lunch would be provided, it was not the done thing to arrive empty-handed. The outcome of the platters was given little thought really, except in a roundabout way on garbage-collection days, when these women wondered how their households produced so much trash.
Appearing on the porch to greet her guests, Nora made the perfect picture of a young Bedford wife and mother. Behind her for a start was the 1890 crown-pedimented homestead she had restored. When her husband presented the house as her wedding gift, he had joked that the real gift was the "tender loving care" it required. It would save her facing empty days into the horizon while he worked long days back in Manhattan. She had given up her fledgling career in banking. Working just no longer seemed worth it. She would bring home just pennies relative to how her husband's newly founded hedge fund was performing. She threw herself into renovating happily and understood only later that this was what Bedford women did: renovated. Renovated and volunteered. But she had not been part of the community long enough back then to expect invitations to join boards of prestigious local preservation organizations such as the John Jay Homestead or the trust to preserve the Bedford Oak—Bedford's five-hundred-odd-year-old white oak tree—and so she had renovated. Well, baked and renovated, baking having been a passion since childhood Friday nights braiding challah with her Jewish father, Humbert Rosenfeld, or Hum, as everyone called him on account of his being a trombonist in the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra—Rhode Island being where she grew up. Her father had taken as much pride in his challah as in his music and his only child.
It was by accident, too, that Nora looked just the part in this community. If she inherited her father's love of baking, she looked every bit her Scandinavian mother; glowing skin and high cheekbones, her long blond hair pulled now artfully out of the way in a French twist atop her regal five-foot-seven frame. The only aspect to her appearance that might have betrayed her humbler origins was the apron tied around her neck and hourglass waist. She had spent the morning stacking crates of cherries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, figs, and early apples. Her famed supplier trucked them in yesterday just after daybreak from the Hudson Valley, the region's bread basket a little west of Bedford running north along the Hudson River. Heavy lifting, getting messy—it was all simply a part to Nora of the deep love she had for working with her hands in the kitchen—an oddity in a community that expected that everyone had enough domestic help, though her affluent circumstances were otherwise incontrovertible.
Her summer kitchen played no small part in the women considering her affinity for baking an adorable hobby. There were not many still standing of these kitchens once designed for the privileged to keep the heat of preserving in the summer away from the main house. Hers was just why her estate was registered as a historical property. She had started the property's renovations inside the barnlike outbuilding, to make a place for her growing collection of pastry-making antiquities. But once the antique shelving had been restored, the latest baking equipment installed, and antique rugs were spread, the space soon enough become a salon of sorts for charities needing a fresh luncheon venue.
The sun was now at its zenith and bright in her eyes. Nora cupped her hand over her brow, her almond-sized diamond engagement ring glinting so that her forehead appeared bejeweled.
"Good morning, ladies! Welcome! I hope there was enough room for you all to park. I've been meaning to talk to Evan about having our landscape architect pave a parking area for parties, but you know how it is: One just never has the time."
"But you do have little escorts for us," quipped Pamela Hanson.
Nora smiled down at the tiered blond heads of Thomas, Nicholas, and Charlie, the sudden creases around her eyes the only sign of her thirty-six years. She looked behind the boys to Beatriz. It was no surprise that Beatriz was still neat in her usual skirt, blouse, stockings, and heels, not a single hair straying from the intriguing braided bun she created daily with her long, black hair. The women laughed on occasion that Beatriz was a fashion victim of the fifties, acknowledging in the same breath that she was the Mexican Mary Poppins of nannies and wishing she worked for them. They would never have hired her, though, in the circumstances she had, Nora knew. She had never mentioned this aspect of Beatriz's past for Beatriz's sake, which if truth be told, amounted to her own: for it reflected well to be envied for your nanny.
Nora found herself reminding the women again now of her luck.
"And a fabulous escort for the little escorts in our dear Beatriz," she added.
Clearly preferring not to be the center of attention, Beatriz began herding the boys around the house to wash their berries.
The boys hardly needed the encouragement and skittered ahead.
"But where are my manners?" Nora stepped inside to hold the door. "Please, come through, come through. We're heading out back, of course, to the summer kitchen."
As the women filed through with their platters, chattering of their summers so far and their plans for the summer still ahead, Bonnie Taggart complimented Nora's apron. "I absolutely love it," she gushed in the powdery voice that tried to belie the power of her tall, broad frame and flaming red hair.
"I'm glad you like it. I thought the design with all the strawberries was so thematic I had the store make forty, one for everyone to use today and take home."
"How novel! I can't remember the last time I wore one."
As they crossed the garden out back, the women thrilled to its lemony beauty, and to the delicious fun ahead. Each felt there was no place in the world she would rather be. These gatherings were addictive that way, and once addicted, there was no way a woman of Bedford would contemplate going back to work and missing all this midweek fun. Many had been in their twenties, and some even in their early thirties, employees on Wall Street, television reporters, marketing directors, models, but like Nora they found few reasons to keep working once they married their multimillionaire husbands or their husbands clearly on their way to a great fortune. Then came the babies and entry into the life of nonworking Bedford mothers and they were out of reasons altogether. Besides, their type A industrious natures were not wasted here, only put to different endeavors, like making jam to raise money for a multimedia room at the school.
To that end they eagerly took up, once lunch was cleared, the tasks Nora assigned, cutting circles of gingham fabric, washing berries, squeezing lemons, measuring sugar. All chatted in their aprons as might Southern women gathered to quilt a bedcover.
"You know, Nora, you're a Martha Stewart clone," ribbed Lacy Cabot. "You're a self-taught and exceptional pastry chef, you think of things like gingham hats for jam jars, and just look what you've done with your summer kitchen and house and garden!"
"You're much more Martha than Martha," Pamela corrected. "You not only also have a gorgeous husband—but you're not under house arrest!"
The homemaker magnate lived one Bedford hamlet over from Nora's, Martha being in Katonah and Nora in Bedford Hills, around the corner from actress Glenn Close's estate. The third hamlet was Bedford Village. Well, Martha had yet to properly begin a life in Bedford, but she had still become another billionaire neighbor to Ralph Lauren and George Soros. She had purchased her 150-plus-acre parcel back in 2000. Contractors had since been renovating the dozen or more existing buildings on the estate. They were also building a greenhouse, a henhouse, and a house for her collection of horse-drawn carriages. Hammers kept banging even through her surprise incarceration from last fall to this past spring of 2005 on charges to do with obstructing justice on an insider-trading investigation, though the pace had picked up through her almost completed subsequent home confinement in the main house.
"I was over at Martha's the other day," Gina Cushing interjected through the laughter. "Everyone has to go to her, of course, since she can't leave the house because of that ankle thingy. She's putting together her new TV shows. There were teams of people passing through, and her private chef was cooking for everyone, and it was really funny, because she made everyone, everyone, take off their shoes. Everyone was barefooted!"
The laughter heightened.
"What's more weird," said Caitlin Maynard, "is that nobody cares."
"About being barefooted?" queried Gina.
"Noooooo . . . that she's on house arrest!"
"Why would we?" quipped Pamela. "She's still rich. Richer than any of us."
"Imagine having that much money," pondered Bonnie, who had just returned from a month with her family and nanny in the South of France.
"She's lucky she didn't lose it," said Pamela. "Charlotte's brother-in-law in the city lost almost everything when the State Attorney General started an investigation into his insurance company earlier this year and he was ousted as CEO."
"Ned says it all the time," Lacy chimed in about her husband, "says he wonders whether he should have accepted partnership last year after all. He says the buck stops with him now and if he does just one thing wrong—"
"Bonnie, would you please pass the lemon juice?" interrupted Nora. Her tone hid her budding boredom. The women often repeated their husbands' raw talk of money. Lately the men of Bedford were forever talking about the changed climate on Wall Street. She was tired of hearing of the new, intense legal scrutiny of the white-collar world.
The fruit was now peeled, sorted, and washed, and Nora stirred through the acidic juice to prevent browning. After mashing the fruits in their ready-to-boil pots, she tipped in packets of dry pectin, the trick to turning out set jam every time. She needed to move fast now. The steps came in rapid succession. It was easier to do the rest alone.
The women loved watching Nora move about her kitchen, handling everything with such expert ease. It was like being on set at a cooking show.
"Okay, girls, now the fun part," Nora said. "If some of you could set out the jars from the dishwashers—be careful, they're hot—we can all start filling them."
There was suddenly much bustling in the room. Glass clanking against marble sounded like percussion. Fruity steam rose like a dry-ice fog. Filled and lidded jars were passed along. Some women stuck on hand-decorated name labels. Others secured gingham hats with ribbon tied above skirted brims. Nora stood back to sip water from her tumbler. Conversations about the room layered over one another. Jenna Newhouse was sharing ideas for where to hold the next annual Boys and Girls Club Humanitarian Award Dinner, Caitlin Maynard told of how cute she found the tennis coach who filled in for her regular one that morning, Lacy of the vacation home she and her husband had just purchased. Nora was happy just to listen, to take in this scene in her kitchen. How happy she felt . . . yes, she was. She was happy. Of course she was. How did she even hesitate? It was not possible for life to be better. She had it all, the Bedford estate, the Manhattan pied-a-terre, the private school, the home numbers of the most heavily booked contractors on speed dial. She could not think of another thing she wanted, well, save a paved parking area. How ridiculous then to feel once more that none of it was right.
And everything did feel right again when Thomas, Nicholas, and Charlie ran into the kitchen ahead of Beatriz.
"Look what we've made, boys," exclaimed Nora, gesturing to the jam jars.
"But where are our berries, Mom?" asked Nicholas.
"In the jars, darling. We turned them into mixed-berry jam." Nora crouched down to their level and took them all into a communal hug. Drawing back to look at Nicholas, she asked, "Can you find the labels that say'mixed-berry jam,' Nicholas?"
Nicholas and Thomas both pulled away and started running around the bench, trying between seated and standing women to spy the sought labels. Charlie joined the dodging, thinking it a new game, not realizing it had a purpose, squealing with glee, stopping occasionally to wonder if he should hide, if this game was hide-and-seek.
In their rush, one of them shouldered out of alignment a reproduction on the wall of one of Nora's most beloved paintings, Freedom from Want. The original hung in the artist's eponymous museum in Massachusetts. Nora set down her glass. As she straightened the image of a kind-faced family happily gathered around a table to enjoy a turkey, Bonnie asked over the racket, "Who painted that again?"
"Oh, yes, of course. It's a very, well, simple Thanksgiving they're having in the picture, isn't it? When I think of our table at Thanksgiving—" Bonnie's face took on a rapturous expression. She went on, "Our herringbone-weave tablecloths and napkins, the oversized fine china, the silverware with the braided-design handles, the lead-crystal champagne flutes, the artwork and antiques around the walls—"
"That's entirely the point," Nora interrupted, her back turned still while she tilted her head one way and then the other to ensure that the painting was hanging square again. "Rockwell once said, ‘The commonplaces of America are to me the richest subjects in art.' His paintings depict the dignity of everyday people, like the books of Charles Dickens, who in many ways was like Rockwell, appreciated by the masses in his lifetime, but not until after death by critics, and they were both the most fabulous storytellers. . . ." After a few minor alterations the painting was square, and Nora turned back to the women. Wide-eyed silence met her, a silence that heightened the boys' whooping and the squelching of muddy boots and sneakers.
She had become carried away and had forgotten that discussions of art and literature were as welcomed in this private-school-mother world as books. It had shocked her to learn that there was no bookstore in Bedford. She had always read voraciously and trips to bookstores brought her as much joy as a bowl of fresh-picked strawberries and vanilla-bean-touched cream. Even the tiniest out-of-the-way New York towns had bookstores! The one in Millerton was a favorite, in fact. But the Bedford-mother life of volunteering, renovating, entertaining, and gossiping about high-end local real estate transactions left no time for reading—and the men could not even think of books between long hours on Wall Street and time on the golf course—an understanding of the community potential owners of bookstores had evidently arrived at before her.
Excerpted from The Summer Kitchen by Karen Weinreb.
Copyright 2009 by Karen Weinreb.
Published in July 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.