If you are a regular reader of this page (and if you’re not, please be) you know that last June my parents moved out of the apartment they'd lived in for 15 years to return to the neighborhood where they’d set up house when they were first married. What you do not know is that until last Friday they had yet to move into their new apartment. Given that the previous owner was 96 years old you would be right in assuming the place wasn’t in the most, or any, updated condition. So for the past eight months they’ve been living and commuting from their weekend house while waiting for their relatively straightforward renovation to be completed. Because of the hell that is the New York co-op, various rules, approvals and paperwork conspired against them and the result was a feeling of rootlessness, disconnection and the Generalized Anxiety Disorder so familiar to those of us in these parts. Yes, their circumstance falls under the "we should all have such problems" category but as any New Yorker knows, the Gods of Real Estate don't care what percentile you are in; it is their job to torture you.
You would have thought they were renovating Buckingham Palace what with all the delays and helpers gone missing and an architect who thinks it’s okay not to have email or answer his cell phone. In August my father made the mistake of stopping by the apartment/construction site. He was so traumatized by the mayhem that he vowed not to return until everything was done, leaving most of the decision making to my mother. Maybe “decision making” isn’t the right phrase. Really what he meant was, “you do the leg work and I’ll point to what I like.”
Anyway, I won’t bore you (or me) with the reports of the baby-steps and minutiae my brother, sister and I had to endure over these past months every time we made the mistake of calling our parents. I will tell you that their aversion to moving in general has infected their children and through osmosis the importance of creating a safe nest has been firmly implanted in all of us. And so it was we found ourselves pitching in to help our Aged Ps (Great Expectations reference, look it up) get settled last weekend.
I would like to pat my siblings and myself on the back for slapping on cheerful attitudes and smiles in the face of what is as anxiety producing for us as it is for Mom and Dad. Walking into their new building was more than a little unsettling. They’ve always lived in areas where young families seem to multiply. When I arrived Friday afternoon there was a woman being pushed through the lobby in a wheelchair who frankly should have been dead. No, really. She must have been 107 and honestly looked like a cadaver, albeit one wearing a fur coat and quite a bit of sparkly jewelry, but still. My stomach sank. Then walking into the apartment it sank even further. Boxes were teetering in stacks to the ceiling, the toxic smell of fresh paint and carpeting and wallpaper hung in the air, dusty paper protected the floors, furniture was shoved against walls, wiring hung from ceilings awaiting fixtures and I couldn’t find anyone I knew. Movers were grunting, work men were on ladders and I smiled wanly while yelling, “Mom?” “Dad?” Finally I heard “I’m in here!” And there was my poor mother, in the middle of the kitchen, standing on a pile of packing paper and surrounded by open cartons of glasses, dishes, gadgets, cups, and small appliances. “Hi honey.” Just looking at her made me want to cry. She seemed so alone, even though she wasn’t.
Where was my father? We all have ways of coping with stress. Some of us try to expel what is producing the pit in the stomach by tackling the issue immediately, say by opening up a few boxes and maybe unpacking. Others choose to set up a little private space on a couch in the living room with a pen and the Times crossword puzzle. You may remember that was essentially what he was doing eight months ago on moving out day. Hey, whatever works.
Ultimately when my brother and sister arrived I think Dad realized his retreat technique was causing too many exchanged glances between his offspring and he got to work in the dining room while the rest of us dealt with the kitchen. Okay, you know how one of the only good things about moving is the opportunity to purge all the stuff you know you should throw out but never get around to? Yeah, that didn’t happen in June. Again, thank God for my siblings. I don’t know what I would have done if we weren’t in this together. Here is a random list of items that were packed up by the movers on the West Side in June, stored in a warehouse in Queens for eight months, and unpacked by us on the East Side:
A bag of hooks for a pot rack that was left hanging in their old kitchen
15 empty mustard, mayonnaise, and jelly jars in assorted sizes and shapes
A small Ziploc bag containing 3 squashed dried chili peppers
A box of coffee filters for a coffee maker no one could find
A broken Rabbit screw pull
A carton containing the contents of a gadget drawer filled with mysterious items purchased for one-time only cooking projects
And, my favorite, a very large plastic container housing 10 Triscuits
The crackers just about did us in. I can’t remember laughing that hard in ages and it was so my mother not to have been in the kitchen when everything was being packed up to begin with. She tends to get vague when stress comes along and often wanders away to focus on stuff no one is thinking about. Like, “Who took my camera?” No one took your camera. We’re unpacking, and changing light bulbs, and consolidating the two practically empty jars of fennel seeds you moved across town!
When much of the dust cleared we could make out the outlines of what will be our parents’ new home. And, as always, my mother did a beautiful job. And the best was when a few days later she reported she really thought their move had been the right decision. She’d run into people she knows on the street, their best friends live three blocks away and one of their favorite couples is moving into the building in a few months. And even better, there was a recent spotting of a blessedly age spot-free female resident. So this week it is Mom’s turn for a treat. Like so many mothers she passes on dessert and “just picks.” But I think she deserves something just for her. Also, with Valentine’s Day fast approaching it feels right to honor my very first love. These bars pay homage to all of my mother’s favorite flavors, coffee, toffee and chocolate. And after tasting them she said, “How many ways are there to say divine?!” That too is so my mother. Happy Valentine’s Day Mom and welcome home.Moving Day Mom Coffee Butterscotch Bars
From Food & Wine, Flo Braker, December 2008
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2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon finely ground espresso or dark roast coffee beans
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon strong-brewed espresso or coffee
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
Pinch of salt
40 chocolate-covered espresso beans or Trader Joe's Espresso Pillows
Preheat the oven to 300° and position a rack in the center of the oven. Line the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with parchment paper.
In the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the butter with the sugar at medium speed until fluffy and very pale, about 5 minutes. Beat in the vanilla and salt.
In a small bowl, whisk the flour with the ground espresso beans. Add the dry ingredients to the mixer in 3 batches, scraping down the side of the bowl and beating just until the dough is combined.
Press the dough into the baking pan in an even layer. Spread a sheet of plastic wrap directly onto the dough and, using a flat-bottomed glass, smooth the dough into an even layer.
Remove the plastic wrap and bake the shortbread for about 50 minutes, until very lightly browned on top and firm but not solid to the touch. Transfer the pan to a rack to cool slightly, about 10 minutes.Using a ruler, cut the warm shortbread lengthwise into 8 strips, then cut crosswise into 5 rows. (I screwed this part up. This means you need to make your 8 cuts on the 9" inch side and your 5 on the 13" inch side). Let the shortbread bars cool completely.
In a small, heavy saucepan, combine the butter, brown sugar, espresso, corn syrup and salt and bring to a boil over moderate heat, swirling the pan. Boil just until slightly thickened, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes; remove from the heat. When the bubbling subsides, immediately pour the hot glaze over the shortbread.
Working quickly with a small offset spatula, spread the glaze in an even layer. Using the tip of a lightly oiled paring knife, score the glaze between the cuts, without dragging.
Press an espresso bean into the center of each bar. Let cool slightly, then carefully lift out the bars and transfer to a plate.The bars can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 week.Yield: 40 bars or squares