It was already dark when Husband picked me and the girls up at the Cleveland International Airport after our summer vacation in Serbia, and drove us to our new house in the western suburb of Strongsville. There was a hint of autumn chill in the late August night. The kids were tired and drowsy, cranky and hungry, but maniacally excited as we pulled into the driveway. He unlocked the burgundy-colored front door and turned all the lights on. We walked into the foyer gingerly, as if trespassing, gaining courage as we recognized the furniture.

Sensing the commotion, our cats, Macey and Dixie, appeared silently from the basement and the Beasties rolled on the carpet with them, squealing with joy. The future College Kritter ran up the winding staircase and claimed one of the four bedrooms. I walked around the boxes in the living room, touching the wall-papered walls until I reached the kitchen. I opened every empty cabinet, caressed the yards of counter space, peered into the oven, and stood mesmerized in the entrance of the walk-in pantry. The French doors lead me to the huge deck overlooking the yard, sloping towards the lake shimmering under the late summer moon.

There was a real wood fireplace in the family room, and the wet bar decorated in a very cheesy 80s style. I circled around and around, opening doors, still caught in a surreal this is not happening to me moment. By that time all three of the girls were running up and down the stairs, screeching and jumping, energized by the excitement of our new home. I crumbled in Husband’s arms, unable to speak, and I cried for a long, long time, not from exhaustion, but from unimaginable happiness. That night we all slept together, snaked around each other, holding hands and linking arms, comforted by the warmth of our bodies.

The next morning we went exploring, accompanied by the soulful cooing of the mourning doves and assertive splashing of the Canadian geese who ruled the little lake. There was a sour cherry tree off the deck stairs, and lily-of-the-valley covered the incline underneath the deck leading to the walk-out basement door. There was a big patch of mint along one side of the house and violets at the bases of the canadian maple trees. There were decorative bushes and trees, lazy susans and chrysanthemum, rose bushes and wisteria. In those days just before school started, I spent a lot of time on Google, trying to find out what treasures we had growing in the yard.

We settled in and felt the house opening to us, welcoming us, becoming ours. I lined the deck with plants and flowers and threw the seeds into a patch right next to the stairs. We bought a charcoal grill and a big table with an umbrella. Father came and pulled the tall weeds that flanked the fences towards our neighbors, turned up the clayish dirt, and prepared a square area for the garden. I exchanged small talk with the nice elderly black couple whose yard I thoroughly admired, and kept on trying to elicit a “Good Morning!” from the two reticent people to the south.

One evening a man showed up at our door with his kindergartener in tow, welcoming us to the neighborhood and inviting us to the clam bake at the community center, just around the corner from our house. We started going to the parties, meeting the neighbors whose children knew ours, playing games and watching movies with them, trying to get ourselves firmly rooted in the area. We walked every morning, taking different routes, learning the names of the streets surrounding ours, and meeting the people walking their dogs, jogging, or working in their gardens.

I made crepes and took them across the lawn to the neighbors on the other side, knowing only their black lab and their son’s red truck. Food speaks a thousand languages, and we became friends, sharing wine on our deck, or cocktails huddled around the fire pit on their patio. I got Kay into gardening, and she dragged me out to garage sales. I showed her how to make home-made hummus and guacamole, and baked chocolate chip cookies for her son Sam, after he plowed our driveway. She took the Older Beastie shopping for her birthday and treated her to her first salon hair-cut.

They invited us to their annual Christmas bash, and it took more then five minutes to walk in heels from our house to theirs, daring the icy sidewalks and avoiding the snow-covered lawn, grabbing the Husband’s arm and holding the still steaming loaf of bread filled with melted cheese, trying not to drop it. We shook off the snowflakes sticking to our coats, and joined the crowd congregating around the chocolate fountain and a martini bar. The whole house was decorated with several sparkling Christmas trees. We met people from the neighborhood. We connected. We started to feel a sense of belonging. And our new house became our home.

Warmed up by the spirit of holidays and new friends, I decided to send home-made presents to several families that welcomed us into the neighborhood. On Christmas Eve, Husband and I drove around, depositing the bags at their thresholds unobtrusively. Nestled in the tissue paper were all the necessary ingredients for making mulled wine: a bottle of Argentine Malbec, an orange, and a tulle sachet containing several small cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, and a star anise. Tucked aside was a card with the warmest holiday wishes and the recipe, inviting them to battle the icy Ohio winter with this warm and spicy beverage.

Several years have rolled by. We have lost our beautiful house in Ohio and moved to California. Our neighbors back east are battling the snow storms, shoveling the driveways, and scraping ice off their windshields. It is another holiday season, and even though there is no snow on our patio, we make mulled wine. When the  aroma of cinnamon and orange warmed up in barely simmering fruity red wine spreads through our tiny kitchen, we remember all the friends we left behind and wish them another year full of happiness and joy.

MULLED WINE

Ingredients:

  • 750ml red fruity wine, like Zinfandel or Argentine Malbec
  • 3-4 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 orange, peeled, cut in slices
  • 3-4 whole cloves
  • 1 star anise (optional)

Directions:

Combine all of the ingredients in a stainless steel pot and heat to boil on high. Turn the temperature to low and simmer, covered, 20-30 minutes. Serve in glasses with a piece of cinnamon and a piece of orange peel.