The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Rambling through red

Rachael Conlin Levy


It’s two in the afternoon, sunny and cold, and the kitchen door is open wide to the backyard. I’m wearing a fleece jacket as I scrub bits of cooked oatmeal from a pot. My one-year-old climbs the back steps and stands at the doorway in his red hat, strings together gibberish, grins and toddles off again.

Heating the outdoors for 20 minutes is a small price to pay (I think), for chores without a toddler’s interference. Another five minutes pass and I glance up, spot the flash of crimson against drab greens and browns. He’s fine, giving me time to get dinner started before the older kids get out of school.

I love my son in this hat, intensely red and oddly shaped, with its two small hills resembling the top of a heart. It’s a complicated thing, loose enough to keep him from yanking at it in irritation, yet securely attached by long ties that cross under his chin and clasp in the back of his neck with Velcro. He wears it everywhere, and as spring approaches, the thought of packing it away makes me a tiny bit sad.

I imagine all mothers must feel sentimental for innocuous items their children wore. I know my own did. When I had my first child, she pulled out a box of small clothes, my clothes, carefully folded and waiting more than two decades to be worn again. There was a blue flannel plaid (“Your camping shirt,” my mom explained), so soft and worn it quickly tore. My mom took it back, patched it and returned it to me. But after the fifth child, even the patch needs patching.

A shirt, a hat, they symbolize a time, a place, a child, a mother, they are our madeleines, and the thought of tossing an outgrown snow hat into a thrift bag feels sacrilegious, a rejection of these chilly spring days in the kitchen and the flashes of red as my own flightless robin hops about the backyard.


I’m happy when the robins visit my yard. They pinch the last of the shriveled berries off the Hawthorne trees and stab the grass for worms. The robins’ arrival means that the worms, huddled deep in the earth below the frost line, should be uncurling and tunneling upward.

“When spring comes and frost leaves the soil, the earthworms become migrants again,” naturalist Edwin Way Teale wrote in his 1951 book “North With the Spring.” “At the same time, the robins return from the South. This is part of the endlessly meshing gears of nature’s machine — the appearance of both earthworm and robins when the thermometer rises to a given point. All over the North, the return of the humble earthworm, the completion of its vertical migration, is a symbol of the arriving spring.”

The robin’s song is the only bird call I know, a recognition made from desperation now eight years stale. I was pregnant with twins, so swollen and heavy that I could not roll over in the night without holding my belly and a kind push from my husband. Usually, I gave up and slept on one side, only to wake stiff and sore at 4:30 a.m. to the sound of a bird. One bird, singing loudly and happily in the cold dark of predawn. As night disappeared, so did its call, and I would drift back to sleep.

Burnt Orange

Here is a recipe for a beautiful soup to honor the red of the tulip, the toenail ready for a sandal, the robin’s breast and my son’s hat.

In the bowl:

Masoor Dal
Red Lentil Soup with East Indian Spices

Masoor Dal
Adapted from Feeding the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair

Serves 4

2 teaspoons butter
1 onion, chopped
1-2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cumin
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1 cup chopped tomatoes (I substituted tomato puree)
1 cup dried red lentils
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon each cumin and mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon butter
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

Heat butter in a large pot. Saute onion and garlic until brown. Add spices and stir for a few minutes. Add tomato and cook until they begin to brown. Wash and drain lentils. Add lentils and water to pot. Simmer for 45 minutes, stirring often. Stir in salt. Heat 1/2 teaspoon butter in a small skillet and fry seeds until they pop. Stir fried seeds and cilantro into soup.

2 responses to “Rambling through red”

  1. mamapease says:

    the recipe sounds so yummy as usual. Is this your art Rachael? The first picture of the boy and red hat is so great. Happy Weekend to you all.

  2. […] Did you hear it? Yes? A bird flies past and all heads turn to follow it, identify it: “Only a robin,” one birder said. Somebody stirs the dust with a boot, two begin a conversation about last […]

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