Years ago, when Sadie’s hair was toddler-thin and Rosie was remarkable in her resemblance to a potato (I say that lovingly, of course, but anyone will tell you that it was true), I worked as a governess to three girls.
I think I’ve told you about them. I don’t know what stories I have told you. Now, nearly four years into this site, I sometimes feel like an old lady who is telling you that same story again. But they’re on my mind these days, those three girls, and so I’ll take my chances. If you’ve heard this, please forgive me as you would that old lady (because after all, she is kind, and she means well, and she made you cookies).
At the time, these girls were 11, 13, and 15. Each had a name like poetry, first and second names that blended into each other as if their names were meant to be announced. Not one of them looked like another–each with hair half way down her back, one white-blonde, one nearly black, and the eldest, red.
You think I’m making this up, or at least embellishing. But I’m not. Anyone who knows these girls will tell you that it’s true.
I started as their math tutor, as I often did with families during this time of my life when I hired myself out to relieve weary homeschooling parents. Math was usually the gateway. We’d start with algebra, classical geometry, a little bit of enticing flirtation with calculus (which in the end was all I could really handle), and then we’d start talking about religion and philosophy and literature. It worked for me–I could leave little Rosie in a basket on the floor while I served tea and talked about books with kids. It was a good set-up.
Their mother was an extremely lovely woman, I think at that point in her mid to late thirties. She was willowy, also with hair halfway down her back, dark, like the middle of the three girls, who looked just like her. They had all spent a considerable amount of time romping around India, and maybe as a result, she was a woman who really pulled off a scarf, especially a large pashmina that wrapped around her all the way. She was often barefoot with black jeans that matched her hair and never a bit of makeup. She also had a baby from a second round of child bearing, and he was just the same age as Rosie.
So when she asked me to come work for them- really work for them, it was easy to say yes. Three days a week I would go to their converted barn of a house in the middle of the village next to my town. The garden was filled with little English flowers, and instead of a stroller, she had a rickety beautiful pram. The girls would fight and steal one another’s clothes and books, and I’d sit there by the borrowed grand piano, turning it all into a novel in my head.
But of course, I didn’t have fiction in my future. It would have to be food.
There was always a dietary theme going on in that house. Raw foods, homemade French pastry, black tea, raw milk, nutritive broths, a mint tea bag ripped open for the salad dressing, a teenager making croissants, butcher knives hacked into young coconuts–all these things I encountered for the first time. And as I taught the Pythagorean theorem and Rousseau, I had one eye on the kitchen. I would have dishes here and there, snacks that the girls would bring to me in mismatched china or ceramics from a far-off friend, or I’d come at 9 to start our lessons and they’d still be eating breakfast. Then the first 30 minutes would be tea and sourdough toast with some sort of flower-scented jelly.
I had no idea that I was even interested in food more than just eating it, but I’d always walk away with the taste in my mouth of something I had seen or had a bite of, and one by one, I learned each one of those new skills and tastes, just by being around them.
It was there that I saw my first broccoli raab. One day, as we were finishing up our lessons, I watched as broccoli raab was roughly chopped and thrown into a pan with a bit of water and a hunk of butter. A few minutes later it was on a plate, served heaping and on its own with nothing but a hefty slice of cheddar cheese. It seemed strange, even a little forbidden to eat nothing but a pile of steaming bitter greens for lunch. It seemed like it should have been a side dish. But I asked what it was, and before I knew it, I was home recreating this simple lunch with the vegetable that was so new to me.
I love broccoli raab. No one else in the family does (except, I think, my sister, who shares my adoration for bitter greens). I often eat a whole bunch of broccoli raab in one sitting, steamed with a slice of cheddar cheese along side.
The girls are nearly grown now, and they are scattered around the world. One is in Santa Fe (continuing our studies), one in France, and one in India. I hear from them every so often, or one shows up on my doorstep for tea. I think they will always be part of me, as they (with all their extraordinary qualities and loves) helped to weave the fabric of the grownup I was becoming. I only hope that I taught them nearly as much as they taught me.