Saturday, December 3, 2016

On the First Day of a Feminine Christmas


No matter how far away you roam...there's no place like home for the holidays ~ Perry Como

~

I love the moody darkness of this illustration.  And this was me tonight as I tried to find a spot to anchor my wreath in the cold dusky twilight.  I debated whether or not to put a small nail hole in my new front door.  I waited a long time for this door and painstakingly chose its color - Velvet Rope - a deep Delphinium-blue that even the painters got excited about.  In the end, I nailed it under the lantern and left the door pristine and perfect.

There really is no place like home for the holidays and more and more I am reading about "hygge", the Danish phrase that represents the notion of living with profound contentment.  Many of the concepts of hygge are things I am already quite familiar with and have written about on this blog.  

But I will take it a step further and say that being at home for Christmas is particularly rewarding and full of hygge opportunities for women.  As we set the Christmas stage for loved ones, it's important to remember the Dane's approach to wellness and deep comfort.  I am certain the lady of the house in our illustration has a warm bath, cozy slippers and an absorbing book waiting for her - just as soon as the last pretty ornament is hung on her tree.  

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Thanksgiving



I thought this was a lovely image for Thanksgiving.  The guest comes bearing gifts - straight from the tree.

Aside from the turkeys we constructed in elementary school with multi-colored paper feathers, the Pilgrims were never far from our lessons.  We were taught the reason for the first Thanksgiving meal was thanks for the harvest which would provide bounty for yet another harsh New England winter.  Many centuries separate our holiday from the Pilgrims' benediction and now the main theme of the American Thanksgiving is family, home and gratitude for both.

This year, my daughter is entertaining us for the first time and in her new house.  And she's very nervous.  My mother asked her what kind of stuffing she planned on making.  "There's more than one kind???" she nervously queried back.  I will be there early to help her and will be bringing pie, wine, and a carrot soufflé.

I think the hardest part of the Thanksgiving meal is making sure everything is hot at the same time.  It's not an easy feat.  My mother did it in her suburban home even while longing for a separate dining room.  One year, the week before the holiday, my father finished turning a bedroom into a real and permanent dining room.  It was so beautiful.  My mother's perfect wished-for Thanksgiving at last came to life born of my father's gift.

When I was married, my husband and I traveled to his parents' ski house in Vermont each year.  There was never a snow-less Thanksgiving there.  But it wasn't the snow that made it cold.  The first year I was a fresh new bride who came bearing gifts too.  I went to a crafts shop and purchased all the materials to make petite dried marigold corsages with chestnut-brown silk ribbons replete with pearl-topped fastening pins for the women who would be at the table. But when I saw how relaxed and casual ski-holiday entertaining was, my bestowal seemed out of place and silly.  I wanted so much for them to like me.  But my mother-in-law's weak smile told me everything I needed to know.  Instead I worked as a quiet servant, staying in the background helping bring chairs up from the basement and peeling potatoes at the sink.  When one of the non-relative guests looked me in the eye and seemed interested in getting acquainted, it was a revelation - someone noticed.  Sadly, these Thanksgivings continued for a few more years and they were never warmer - or easier, not even the year my "gift" was a first grandchild.

Last week, I delighted in hearing my hairdresser's story about how she searched online for the perfect brown "left-overs box" and how she decorated each one with a guest's name in gold and a raffia tie.  Her excitement was infectious and charming.  Unlike my corsages, I know her gift will be a welcome touch for her own wished-for Thanksgiving experience.

Maybe it was the married Thanksgivings that make me so very thankful for the ones I now enjoy with my family and friends.  And even though my new son-in-law is carving this year, I will still have a hand in crafting my holiday.  I will break bread with those I love and those that love me.  My own wished-for Thanksgiving.

I cannot end this post without thanking my sister and brother-in-law for their many years of Thanksgiving-hosting.  The light in their pretty home drew us all to their doorstep and I'm happy they can take it easier at my daughter's this year.  But like our young miss in the picture above, I know they will arrive bearing gifts and whatever they are, they will be accepted with gratitude and love.  That's how we roll...


~


Note:  Have you tried "Google Image Reverse" yet?  I fell in love with the above image and uploaded it into Google's new search engine which gave me similar pictures as well as the source of this one - a British clothing catalog.  And speaking of British clothing, you may want to check out Marks and Spencer's new Christmas video where Mrs. Claus offers a modern-day version of a cherished ideal.  



Sunday, November 13, 2016

Bright April (or Fringed Placemats)


"It's a book about Girl Scouts", said the book dealer as I lightly turned the pages of Bright April, a children's book by Marguerite de Angeli.  "Actually, it's a book about diversity", I quietly responded.

I am well-acquainted with Bright April as it is a story I read often to my daughter when she was small.  I spent a lot of time selecting books for my child's personal library.  If even one illustration seemed "off" to me, the book went back on the bookseller's shelf.  But Marguerite de Angeli's books filled up prime bookshelf real estate in my daughter's bedroom and she left them here for me.  For the time being.

Bright April had me at the fringed placemats in the illustration above, so enchanted was I with the details of the picture.  De Angeli's work is so vivid and cheerful and her stories are often about things dear to my heart - like home.  But in Bright April, she tackles a serious issue and she does it gently and with honesty.  Admittedly, the book is just a bit politically incorrect -  but there is only one line I would alter for today's audience.

I did purchase the bookdealer's edition - it is in much better shape than the one I have at home.  The spine and the boards of my copy have frayed and broken apart and are only held together now by strings.  But when I brought the new book home I found not one but two copies of Bright April on my shelves.  One was the 1945 edition that was falling apart and the other one, had a stamp on the inside cover from a church I regularly attended when my daughter was still a pre-schooler.  Suddenly,  I remembered I borrowed the book from the church's library and did not return it in the flurry of moving to a new state.

Right now, my old copy is at the bookbinder's being repaired - I discovered from the bookseller that it's a first edition and therefore, should be preserved.  When I collect it, I plan on sending it to the church as a gift along with their missing copy.  It will be dispatched with a note of apology.  Mine, I will keep on my nightstand to dip into for pure beauty and for the comfort of a bedtime story.

It will also remind me to resume my lifelong search for fringed placemats.

~

More beauty from Marguerite de Angeli:





Saturday, November 12, 2016

Tea and Sympathy

  • "Isn't it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back everything is different".  ~C.S. Lewis


A shy classmate in my kindergarten class admitted at circle time that her mother let her drink tea.  Our teacher gasped and looked askance and said that little children should never be allowed to drink tea.  I stayed silent as tea was the beverage of choice at our house every Saturday at breakfast and always when one was sick in bed with a cold.  Both my grandmothers drank tea - one - the indulgent one, gave us "tea time" every Saturday at 3:00 when we gleefully spoiled our dinner with tea, potato chips and M & M's.  My brother was also allowed ten consecutive teaspoonfuls of sugar into his delicate bone china tea cup.  This I know because I counted each out loud. One...two...three...four...

With my other grandmother, tea was more refined.  We sat at her table with silver spoons, cloth napkins and small sandwiches.  But at both houses, tea was always sympathy...and love.

I drank gallons of tea this week.  The stress of the election coupled with too many, too-early signs of the holidays bearing down, had me reaching for the tea box regularly, even at work.  One simply cannot help but slow down when there is a warm brewing cup in the hand.

I have friends who visit often for a chat and a cup of tea.  As soon as I see my "tea-friends" car, I put the kettle on.  And when I visit them, they have my favorite mug heated and waiting.  Tea time is our text, our email...our network.  It is the way we touch hands and receive understanding for life's inevitable speed bumps.  In the time it takes to drink just one cup, we sort through the tough week at work, an elderly father's unexpected fall, or a grown child's move to a distant town.  We nod in communion over tea, offering each other something as warming as the fragrant elixir in our cups.

My kindergarten teacher may have believed that tea stunted children's growth or something similarly old-fashioned.  But I believe tea along with sympathy makes us grow -  in strength, if not in stature.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

In The Night Kitchen


I've been having some work done on my house these last few weeks.  And it's been stressful.  I haven't been home for the noise and mayhem but there are plenty of new chores when I do come home.  And extra emails, texts and phone calls during the day from the contractor.  He's a nice man but I'll be glad when it's all over.

I had no intention of emptying the dishwasher one night last week.  The early darkness has been unnerving me a bit as I still get used to living alone.  I wanted to put my glass in the sink and escape back to my safe room with the warm and cozy light stream and pretend I didn't see the leftover screws on the floor.  But I did see some crumbs near the toaster and brushed them down the sink with my hand and then a towel left on the microwave needed to be smoothed and hung.  Before long, I was sweeping up the screws and dust from the day's booted feet...and emptying the dishwasher.  Slowly a calming peace came over me. The atmosphere was quiet and still and I was alone with my thoughts.  Before long, all felt right with the world again.

One of my favorite wartime films, Since You Went Away, is about wife and mother Anne Hilton whose husband Tim departs for war, leaving Anne to tend the home fires alone.  One night, while her girls are bickering upstairs, Anne remains in the kitchen doing what grown-ups do:  clean up.  As I worked my way through the kitchen, I thought of Anne making lunches, filling the percolator and setting it on the stove, and generally tidying up in her apron in the darkened kitchen.  And even though a war raged across the ocean and at home there were frightening black-out nights, mounting chores and responsibilities never slowed down.  As the grown-up, Anne was on first.  

There is something very adult about taking care of business in the night kitchen.  It's a way of taking care of yourself too.  Work left undone in the kitchen makes for chaos everywhere.  And when the heart of the home is tidy, the rest of the house seems tidy too.

~

Note:  The picture above was forwarded to me by reader and pen pal, Judy, who clipped it from her parent's Readers Digest as a girl and saved it for the time she would have her own kitchen.  Look closely and you will see our pretty homemaker is not performing her nighttime kitchen tasks alone ;)




Thursday, November 3, 2016

Bubbly Melon's Italian Pie


One of my first jobs after college was working for a cutting-edge tech company.  It was 1978 and we were making computers for the airline industry.  It was a blast with a Mad Men atmosphere without the bad stuff.

Single but longing for Mr. Right, I admired a sophisticated Kate Spade-esque "older" woman (age 30) who was the wife of one of the rising-star engineers.  She was the top secretary to the firm's owner and wore elegant wool tweed sheaths with matching jackets and black patent leather pumps.  The rest of us, although appropriate, were embracing the new folkloric style of the decade and somehow our long floral skirts and knit vests paled a little next to our lovely office-mate's allure.

My new friend kindly took me under her wing and before long I saw the off-beat side of her that she kept hidden from office eyes.  Her close friends called her Bubbly Melon (Beverly Mullin) because the parties she and her husband gave in their city apartment often began cultured and refined but morphed into rollicking affairs that ended with a lot of water cooler banter the next day.   So I was thrilled with a touch of trepidation the morning I found an invitation to her legendary Christmas gathering on my desk.

Two things stand out about that party.  One, my friend and her husband were called to a downstairs neighbor's apartment for quick holiday toast.  Once they were gone, another guest suggested that we all pile into their massive water bed, exposing our upper arms and chests to give the illusion of being naked.  I was shocked but did my best to roll up the sleeves of my sparkly sweater and pull the neck down low.  One guest took pictures while we grinned and saluted with champagne glasses held high, about 9 in the bed. Later, when the pictures were developed, they were sent to our hosts anonymously for a good laugh.  It was my introduction to café society.

The second thing that stands out from that party was the dish that Bubbly served, a savory delicacy she called Italian Pie.  As I was leaving that night, she squished a small index card into my palm tied with a festive ribbon and a candy cane.  She told me I would make the pie for the rest of my life and she had typed it up especially for me.  At the bottom in red, she wrote the word "Voilá!" and even though it wasn't a French pie, I thought she was infinitely cool.

I still have the recipe card and have made the pie hundreds of times.  I've added some of my own flourishes and I think it is perfection, whether for company or comfort.  The magic is that it appears to be a dish that takes hours but is quite simple.  I gave the recipe to a co-worker a few years ago who was looking for a kid-friendly meal idea after a harried day.  That night, her husband called to thank me!  It was hit.

I have lost track of Bubbly Melon forever.  I do, however silently thank her whenever I have to bring something scrumptious to a potluck supper or need an easy dish to make on a cold Sunday night at home.

~

Bubbly Melon's Italian Pie


Pie crust bottom only (you can use your favorite pie crust recipe, a store-bought one, or in a pinch, Crescent Rolls pieced together in the pie plate)

1.5 pounds ground beef

1.5 small cans tomato paste

2 cloves garlic minced

1 green or red pepper diced

1 large onion diced

Italian seasoning to taste

Pinch of dried hot pepper flakes

Pinch of salt

Parmesan cheese

Shredded mozzarella cheese

Olive oil

Freshly washed and dried spinach

***

Saute garlic in fry pan with olive oil.  Add onions and peppers and cook until softened.

Add ground beef and break up with a spatula.

Add tomato paste (the unused 2nd can will freeze well in the can with a plastic wrap covering)

Add Italian seasoning and hot pepper flakes

When beef is cooked thoroughly, drain off oil.

Pour beef into pie shell.

Cover with cheese.

Poke several holes.

Lightly grate Parmesan cheese on top

Sprinkle just a pinch of salt on top and a little more Italian season for color.

Bake 30 minutes in 350 degree oven or until cheese melts and crust browns.

Let sit for five minutes and slice.

Plate on top of spinach drizzled with olive oil

Voilá!



Sunday, October 30, 2016

Better Than Their Betters


The title of my post comes from one of my favorite films, Mrs. Miniver.  I never paid much attention to the line until it came to mind this weekend.  Mrs. Miniver, played by Greer Garson, nearly misses her train home from London because she runs back to the milliner's to buy a costly and frivolous hat she fell in love with earlier in the day.  In the train car with her is Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty), the town's wealthiest resident with the longest most ancestral history to her name.

Now, Mrs. Miniver is quite lovely but to Lady Beldon she is merely middle class and so, Lady Beldon has a mini-rant on women "running to and fro", buying up expensive and impractical "bits and bobs", and acting "better than their betters".  By "betters", Lady Beldon's meaning is crystal clear:  she means herself.

It's laughable really, because most of us have never lived under a true caste system which was apparently still evident in rural England before the war.  But wars are equal opportunity tragedies, as Lady Beldon soon discovers.

One of my favorite days of the year occurs on this weekend - I travel by train to Boston for an antiquarian book and paper show.  My friend and I have dinner afterwards at our favorite hotel restaurant and then take a long walk in the fall sunshine down tree-lined boulevards dotted with sparkling shops.  I usually try to pick up a few Christmas gifts, especially if I find something unusual.  But I also like to visit a particular lingerie shop to see what's new and finger a few pretty things.

I don't have to buy to be inspired.  I so enjoy looking at the way things are put together - the new colors and styles.  I always walk away from this day wondering if I should take more risks with my wardrobe and pondering more creative possibilities is always fun.  What was not fun was when I entered the lingerie shop that I was so excited to visit, I was first ignored and then insulted.  Perhaps if I were wearing a shiny black down jacket cinched at the waist with $500 sleek black riding boots along with designer hair and handbag, I would have been treated better.  It doesn't matter what was said or done but I did feel diminished in my new forest green sweater coat and attractive black suede loafers.  And that's just silly...

A friend told me today that she simply doesn't frequent stores where she is made to feel less than.  I may adopt her approach.  But for now, I took the time to write an email to the shop's manager who was not there when I was.  And I've already received a kind and apologetic response with a warm welcome to return and meet with her personally.

Now that's better...

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Richness of Apples


"I miss the apples", a grade-school friend said to me recently.  He lives in Florida now and was referring to the apples that practically paved the roads and sidewalks, the fields and hills in my hometown each fall. Having been a pastoral place of farms and orchards, only the trees remained but they filled the autumn air with the honeyed scent of apples.  One needed only to bend over and grope beneath the dusty leaves to pluck a fallen specimen to munch on during the walk home from school.  Tart though the fruit was, the atmosphere was sweet with the apples, burning leaves, and wood smoke.

This ad is for Yardley's Pot-o-Gloss lipgloss.  The model, Evelyn Kuhn's cheeks are fever-bright and I bet she's wearing the McIntosh Red gloss or perhaps Winesap.  Her features are strong enough to carry off the orange sweater along with the Buffalo plaid jacket in red and although the stylist may have created a mild cliche with the look, I love it and as a teenager I embraced it entirely.

Our little drugstore carried Pot-o-Gloss and buying a new color was the first rite of passage in fall.  Even if it was still too warm to wear woolens, a new apple-inspired lip color would promise things to come - late afternoon soccer games and Friday night lights, crisp Saturdays at the movies with friends, and sunshiny times outside and when we would not even think about diving into that chemistry homework or covering our text books with brown paper bags.

So now that we are all grown-up, how can we bring apple-richness to lives drawn by responsibilities?  What do we do when our heartstrings draw us back to blue skies, home fires, and long-ago friends?  We can start with an apple-red lip gloss...







My apple-polisher suggestion:

Mac's Fresh Moroccan, a deep apple red softened with gold glints- perfect for crisp days as well as warm Indian Summer ones.  Your fall orchard, re-imagined.

Monday, October 3, 2016

A Birthday Letter


Tomorrow is a big birthday for me.  I  know.  I can't believe it either.  I am not 17 as I am in the picture below (follow the blue eyeshadow trail).  That girl had no idea what she was doing.  If I thought she would have stopped long enough, I would have written her a letter:

~

Dear Donna,

Don't be in such a rush.  Enjoy just being you for a while.  The big things like love and marriage will take care of themselves.  If you can't go out for a night because of studying, don't worry.  You will have plenty of nights to go out.  And after the studying, just be...or read a book.  There won't be much time later for reading books and many other things for that matter.  Life, work, and family will encroach.  It may be years before you can read a book in one sitting again.  Do it now.

Call Nana more.  Someday you will lull yourself to sleep with remembrances of her.  You will reach beyond your memory to search for the very things you can see right now by spending more time with her.  Really look at the way she lives, decorates, dresses, cares for Gramps.  Study the things that will be gone one day.  Ask her about what life was like during the 1920's.  And ask her to show you how to make her pie crust.  Her stuffed peppers too.  You'll never be able to do it if you don't ask her soon.

Have more confidence in yourself.  See the things that others see in you and nurture them.  Your smile, your tenderheartedness.  Embrace those things.  Embrace who you are.  Don't be like the others.  Don't be afraid to stand out.  And while you're at it, defend yourself - speak up when someone steps on your toes.

Don't marry the first person who asks you.  Step back and think about it first.  Would he make a good husband?  Would he be committed?  Will you mind eating on a TV table next to him one day?  What kind of father would he make?  I know he thrills you now but when the baby has croup and dinner isn't made, will he step up to the plate?  If not, wait for the next bus.  And remember, buses come along every few minutes.  Choose the one that's going in the direction of YOUR dreams.

And when you do marry, don't do or be everything.  Keep a part of yourself for yourself.  You'll be a better wife in the long run.  And a better mother.

When you have your babies, sleep when they sleep.  That's a hard one.  But try.  Let the housework go because babies don't keep.  They grow up faster than you know.  You will miss the way the nape of their necks smell and the way they fold into your arms.  Don't worry about the dirty clothes hamper so much.

Have more fun.  Let loose.  Don't take things so seriously.  Dance more.  Laugh.  Be silly.  Be ridiculous.

Ask your mother for advice.  She wants to tell you what she knows and someday, you will be glad of it.  All your life, you will think back and hear the things she said.  Know that she really is wiser than you. You will need her strength on playback until the end.  Get it while you can.

Buy the boots you love.  Yes, they're expensive but you'll be glad you did.  The cheaper ones will never leave your closet floor.

Trust your gut.  It won't fail you.  But be still enough to hear what it is trying to say.

Bloom where you're planted.  Sometimes life takes you in a new direction.  Don't fight it.  Instead, lay the tablecloth and light the candles.  While you are there, you might as well be happy.  And remember that living well is always the very best revenge.

Make a friend of Change and you will make a friend for life.  Nothing is stagnant.  Life is ever-flowing in ways that will soon amaze you.  Be open to the possibilities that come with change.

Be less afraid.  You are resourceful and will land on your feet.  Pink-slips come to all of us.  The landlord that wants your apartment for his son and new wife.  The young boss who cleans house at the office.  It's what you turn the pink-slips into that matters.

Wait three days.  If you're heartbroken or just broken down, three days will make all the difference.  Don't panic. Draw on what you know.  I swear it's magic.  Just 72 hours and suddenly, it won't matter about the new haircut that was too short or too weird.  Or the haircut the kids gave each other.  Or the dishwasher that leaked on the new hardwoods.  Perspective takes only three days.

Appreciate your youth, your endless energy and stamina.  But don't be afraid to get older.  Every decade has its joys.  I know that's hard to believe but its true.  Each age brings new jewels.  You will get smarter. Keener.  More savvy.  You'll choose better friends.  You'll discover companionship can be just as wonderful as love.  Sometimes better.

And know that someday, you will be very glad you are not 17 any longer.

(You'll just have to trust me on that one.)


Love,

Me





Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Golden Fall


I got a lucky break one early fall morning when a working mother from a nearby town called to see if I was available to watch her two little girls everyday.  It was a referral from a referral that somehow panned out and yes, I was available to be a "nanny" to her girls as long as I could bring my own daughter along with me.

It was perfect because her eldest, a four year old moppet with red hair would be big sister to my child and her youngest, a sweet toddler, could be baby sissy.  Mom was a nurse who fled out the door each morning for the early shift.  Dad was around renovating their beautiful old home and I was to be cook, chief bottle washer, and babysitter.

It's amazing how quickly I fell in love with my new charges even though the oldest could be a handful.  But it's not hard to become fond of small children whose fingernails you clip and baths you oversee.  I ushered the three girls outdoors as much as possible and fortunately the big old house was located on the expansive and ancient town green.  We spent hours upon hours that fall in the public gazebo playing games, having picnics and putting on plays.  I taught the girls my favorite rhymes and songs and read them hundreds of nap-time stories.  The hardest thing about the job was getting up early and putting my own sleepy child in the car to drive the long country road to their place.  It's probably the reason why one of my daughter's first words was "silo" given all the farms we passed on those quiet misty dawns.

When colder weather settled in, Mom filled a trunk with old clothes, hats, and endless strings of beads for dress-up. The girls played so many imaginary characters that I once thought other children had come into the house. One day, the oldest was sporting a very pretty black onyx ring set in rose gold filigree on her finger. "Where did you get that?", I asked.  Apparently, it had been left on top of the toothbrush holder in the bathroom.  She balked loudly when I asked her to place it in my hand and when she finally did, I couldn't help but notice how lovely and unusual it was.  I gave it to the mother later that day and was told that it had belonged to the deceased Edwardian lady whose son the house was purchased from.   He didn't care to have the ring and so somehow, little hands pilfered it and then set it to rest on the holder in the upstairs bath.  During the year I cared for the girls, the ring would periodically show up on small fingers only to be handed back to Mother again.

As a new fall approached, our days together became numbered - the eldest was to begin school and the work on the house was finished which meant Dad was free to take over the girls' care.  The timing was perfect because my house had finally sold and I was ready to move with my daughter to a distant place so I could work in the city.

On my last day, the girls and their mother had a party for me.  They made Wacky Cake from one of their favorite stories and gave me a small present wrapped fussily with bright yarn and stickers of shiny blue stars. Inside was the onyx and rose gold ring.  But you knew that.

What you may not know is that I don't have to wear the ring to think of them.  In my heart's eye, where time stands forever still, I see them playing in the blinding sunshine that comes only with fall's most splendid days.

They are with me still...