Friday, September 9, 2016
I love discovering sweet things that wind up capturing my imagination if only for a few weeks. And it was thus, when I happened across the image above in a cookbook I found at my favorite rare book shop on a Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago. Yes, I bought the $3 book which isn't really that old or rare and then discovered to my delight that it is actually quite marvelous and inspiring. But I initially bought it for the image which I later thought would be perfect for this end-of-summer post.
I didn't net much information about the portrait online - only that it was painted by Armenian artist Charles Atamian who is also responsible for some of my favorite seaside art. I believe this picture is just an unframed canvas that was probably owned by the author of the cookbook and may have been gifted to him (a picture of the book is below). It perfectly captures a beautiful moment by the sea just before summer slips away. I love the colorful summery dress on the model and the bright turquoise ring on her left hand. And I can almost smell the ocean tide and feel the sand under those waves stinging at my legs.
As for the book, I only ask myself, "Where has Roger Verge been all my life?" Apparently in France, where he operated a few beloved restaurants which serve to this day, lovely Provencal cuisine. There is much for me to learn about Verge, although I was sad to read that he died last year at age 85. Still, he left behind heirs to manage his restaurants with the same passion he had and he left behind some terrific French cookbooks I have yet to explore at my library. I have been cooking from the book all week and the menus are loaded with farm-fresh foods - perfect for end-of-summer.
For now, I'm content with my book which has gorgeous photographs, easy recipes, and a charming text which I am finding enormously engrossing as I laze about on the patio with the last batch of frozen lemonade. I may not be taking my new cookbook to bed with me and when not in my lap, it sits opened on the cookbook stand in the kitchen. There, the beautiful image reminds me that some of the best simple pleasures are found when one is not looking. And it reminds me to enjoy the warm waning days of summer.
Friday, September 2, 2016
Jo hired me based on a reference from a former male boss. I wasn't a bit surprised that she and Bob hit it off but that's for another blog post. It only took me a few days to see that Jo could be tough. Exacting in her standards, she required exemplary performance and held each member of her staff accountable. At first, I was petrified. But over time, I came to see that Jo was soft inside the tough cookie exterior.
Willowy and blond, she was a throw-back to 60's prim cool, although her hair was loose and natural and often threatened to fall across one blue eye. But with an alluring head toss, the fetching errant wave would land back into place. Her clothes could be a touch old-fashioned but were trim and tailored and fit her small waist and athletic form perfectly. Her favorite pieces included nubby wool pencil skirts with coordinating silk blouses, and wool jumpers that were fully-fashioned and with real pockets. She wore beautiful hosiery with kitten heels and in winter, black tights with ballet flats or boots. A few times, a personal shopper would show up at the office with nylon zippered wardrobe bags from Brooks Brothers filled with lovely clothes such as crisp white shirts with ruffled jabots or neat French cuffs, a peacock-blue boucle wool pantsuit, colorful cashmere cardigans, and full bespoke skirts cut on the bias. She had trust-fund style and a mysterious but tragic romantic past.
We knew Jo once had a husband who was killed in a car crash early in the marriage. He worked for a certain presidential candidate who was killed too. That was all we knew but of course, we also knew that she never married again. She lived in the heart of the city and after I stopped quaking in her presence and perhaps after she trusted me, she invited me to her apartment for lunch one day where we discussed whether or not she should have her bedroom walls painted yellow. I remember that we also discussed how late in the month of September she could comfortably host a cocktail party outside on her cobblestone patio. I was so busy trying not to show that I was hanging onto her every word that I could barely eat the wonderful little lunch she prepared for us.
I felt important to be allowed into my boss' inner sanctum but I never took it for granted. Jo was the superior who authorized my paycheck so the line of demarcation was never blurred and I never tested it. If the others tried, she cannily showed them their places. But this didn't make her an unkind boss - on the contrary, she was very kind. One extremely hot summer she suddenly interrupted my work to ask if I had an air conditioner at home for my small child and when I said no, an unmarked pick-up truck showed up at my place the next Saturday morning bearing a brand new window air conditioner for my 2nd floor walk-up. The driver revealed nothing stating only that my boss had asked him to deliver and install it. She called in favors a lot because she did so much for others. If an extra mile needed to be taken for a child whose care we oversaw at our non-profit, she took two. She simply cared.
Since Jo was senior to me by nearly 20 years, I was able to learn about life from her. Like an exotic aunt, she advised me to read a newspaper every day and I often saw the Boston Globe spread out on her office floor in the morning. She told me to always have a bottle of Champagne in the refrigerator as well as a bottle of perfume in the summer. When I complimented her on the scent she wore - an inexpensive Elizabeth Arden spray that had to be asked for specifically at the counter because only a few hold-outs still wore it - a wrapped bottle appeared on my desk the next day. Jo also taught me to buy good underwear, stating "Never make friends with cotton panties" - an axiom I still live by. Jo also believed that the first day back to work after a long Labor Day weekend was the perfect time to wear something autumnal. Our line of business ran parallel to the school calendar and to keep the back-to-serious-work blues at bay, she believed in wearing a chic fall-forward outfit no matter how balmy the early September breeze was. I practice this by replacing my summer bag for my cognac one and my sandals for pumps. Jo once wore a navy printed two-piece silk dress on a first Tuesday back to work and I often choose navy for that day too. It has just the right amount of change-of-season essence for one of the busiest work days of the year.
Another trait that Jo was known for was her natural ability to make us feel truly special and not just a cog in a never-ending bureaucratic wheel. When her sharp blue eyes were fixed upon me, I felt she cared very much about my ability to do my job well enough to advance on to better things. She gave me confidence and modeled good office behavior that I still draw on today. Looking back, I realize it was actually she who was special.
Over the years I have had many bosses: the good, the bad, the ugly...and the indifferent. But never have I had a boss as fair, kind and intriguing as Jo. She was a bit strict and precise but tempered it with an acerbic self-deprecating wit along with a big heart of gold. She was by far the best boss I ever had.
Tuesday, August 30, 2016
Back before the proliferation of fast food restaurants, families carried their lunches in picnic hampers and baskets and merely stopped on the side of the road for a mid-day feast without long lines, spilled milkshakes, and assembly line food. And picnic fare was much healthier and cheaper because it was Mom-made.
Several years ago on a lunch hour from work, I happened across a gorgeous coffee-table book about picnics. Page after glossy page showed the many ways one could craft an enchanting picnic. The woven baskets were overflowing with delectable foodstuffs as well as bottles of wine and lush flowers. Some of the pages showed Sharper Image-level technical picnic props such as pop-up tables and chairs, and some more fanciful spreads had real crystal, china tea cups and silver cutlery. I was enchanted by a blanket-strewn picnic that included a candelabra replete with dangling prisms!
As I poured over the recipes, I had a revelation: instead of spending $35 on a book about picnics, I should just have them. So I returned the book to the store rack, speculating that I already had the recipes for a nice picnic right at home in my grandmother's recipe box. One needn't have fancy pretentious food - just thoughtfully prepared provisions that are fresh and in season. Soon I found out how much fun it is to creative outdoor repasts for friends and family. Adding a requisite plaid blanket for sitting upon and a book makes for a delightful day that can begin in the morning and with enough refreshments, end only when shadows cast.
The picnic book did teach me one good lesson - sometimes instead of reading about how to do something, we should just do it. And while picnics may be old-fashioned, they hearken back to simpler times when life was slow...and humble tables beckoned from every roadside.
Favorite picnic fare:
Chicken salad sandwiches with spinach leaves
Cherry tomatoes mixed with olive oil and chopped basil with ricotta cheese as a dip
Celery stuffed with cream cheese and sprinkled with paprika
Homemade chocolate chip cookies
Grapes, apples, and pears (fall)
Watermelon, peaches (summer)
G. Dunning, S. Allen
Do you have picnics?
Thursday, August 11, 2016
A pretty diamond ring was placed on my finger on a cold November day too many years ago to count. We spent the afternoon rolling out grass sod in our backyard. The house wasn't really mine - he bought it with his parent's help, but the ring held promises of a life to come...and I loved him.
I discovered I also loved diamonds and began studying other women's fingers. But no matter how large, none compared to the spitfire on my finger. Although smallish, its sparkle made up for its stature. I was so proud to wear the ring of his great-grandmother's - a European hand-cut stone in a simple platinum Tiffany setting, about 70 years old and nearly flawless. It was all mine after his grandmother excitedly took it off her finger for him to give to me. That tender story enriched my ring and like a gently waving ribbon, encircled itself around that brisk November afternoon as we stood inside the broken glass of a decrepit greenhouse freezing, with mud on our hands but tender smiles in our eyes. With this ring...
Unfortunately, one of the lasting memories of our union was the day his father casually remarked, "If you ever get divorced, you had better give that ring back". In the end, there were other lasting memories too...missing beach towels from the linen closet of our home - the very space we built together to hold our new baby's diapers and bath toys. And the horrible memory of the weekend he disappeared to be with her, leaving me frantic and alone - an infant in my arms. With this ring...
Fast-forward and I decided to alter the ring to appear less marital and more single-mother. I had it reset and added two identical birthstones on each side but the diamond seemed to lose more than its luster - it's spark was dulled too. Perhaps it was altered as much as I was...from joy to the difficult task at hand - raising a child to wholeness on my own, a serious business I took seriously. And so the ring silently sat, all its fires out for nearly 29 years. Until last week...
I brought my diamond to a surprisingly boyish and kind man who runs a small jewelry business near where I work. He examined the stone and exclaimed that it is indeed special and advised it should be set in gold to enhance its glimmer and glint. Together we played with designs until I selected a perfect platinum setting in a hefty gold band. We added two smaller diamonds to nestle alongside the stone which made the end result look far different than the ring that was first placed on my finger so long ago. It still retained the traditional look I wanted to keep yet, it could stand all on its own too - a splendid ring for a still-single woman.
While I waited for my jeweler's call that the work was finished, I began to investigate diamond rings online. I was particularly enchanted with a series of ads that were commissioned by the large diamond mining company De Beers. Unable to sell directly to the US market because of antitrust laws, De Beers asked an ad agency to produce advertisements that made nearly every engagement end in a diamond ring. The woman behind the ads was Frances Gerety, a pioneering "mad (wo)men" who came up with the slogan, "Diamonds are Forever". The print advertisements included captivating artwork by Picasso, Dali and others. The copy that accompanied the art was filled with the bewitching sentiment that can make my money and I easily part ways and suddenly I wanted diamond earrings, diamond necklaces, and diamond bracelets. I couldn't help but note that the ads were portraits of lone women who were the recipients of diamond rings - no men. And they appeared positively biblical to me painted with landscape settings, beatific faces, swan-like necks, and swaths of robes. I was entranced and the research made me joyously anticipate the day I could finally see and wear my "new" ring.
That day came at last and naturally I examined the ring in the shop but it wasn't until I was alone in the car that I had a really good look. I would have known that diamond anywhere. The fire I had forgotten for so long flashed and flickered as I turned my finger towards the sun streaming through the car window. It winked back knowingly at the moment I finally realized that the ring was truly mine now and didn't have to be given back to anybody. And I could not have rebirthed it at a better time. Although the ring had lain in repose like a butterfly's chrysalis, it burst forth just in time to represent the life I grew into - the one I live right now. Small perhaps in the great scheme of things, but a life with meaning, hope, strength, and some bright and happy sparkle now and then. Yes, with this ring...
(De Beers Diamond ads, 1950's)
Sunday, August 7, 2016
As I drove home from work the other day, I noticed that one lone tree in the center of town has a smidgen of red on its top. Instead of making me sad, I decided to redouble my efforts to wring dry every drop of summer. Also in response, my August Seventeens went back to storage and I bought a stone-colored denim skirt to wear with my relaxed tee shirts on the weekend. It's unusual for me to buy something new this late in the season but I am determined to live this summer to the very end. In stone-cold January, I will thank myself.
I am guessing this image was taken in the 60's. I adore the crisp white pants, the bright print shirt, and especially, the whimsical bow hat. Our model pulled out all the stops to go painting on the beach. Making summer last means pulling out some stops too - making salads with native tomatoes and corn, eating ice cream, and drinking gallons of homemade iced tea. As much as my new skirt sounds rather dull, don't expect me to settle into pre-fall drab right now - I'm all about my colorful dresses, white jeans, jeweled sandals and my beribboned beach hats.
Last night at our summer theater, I spotted a fellow believer. She wore a delightful sleeveless vintage gown in creamy mint sherbet with a chiffon overlay that trailed behind her. Around her waist was a belt made of tiny seashells that matched the two bracelets on her left wrist. And tucked behind her ear was a huge tropical lily. Talk about embracing the season - she was not a day younger than 91. And although she needed help walking to her seat, a few glimpses her way told me she enjoyed the show very much - the smile never left her face.
In the winter of life, she is still wringing summer dry.
Saturday, July 30, 2016
My dream cover-up was at Nordstrom last year for only $189. It was merely an inverted table cloth with a hole at the top for one's head. I loved the feminine scrolled lace that connected to create the arms and the crisp batiste cotton. But in the end, not only would I not spend my hard-earned retirement money on a scrap of material, I couldn't stop thinking about my grandmother's lace tablecloth whenever I looked at it on my online wishlist.
Instead, I found a very nice light-weight and simple white tunic that doesn't require ironing (who irons beach cover-ups?). But if you want to find something really pretty and girly, there are plenty of cover-ups to choose from. Seen this season:
Drop-dead black lace sheath with bell sleeves
Mini-dress in watery turquoise print
White tunic with embroidered gold medallions
Maxi-dress in gyrating red stripes
Tuesday, July 26, 2016
Summer sun dresses were staples in my wardrobe as a child. Many were made by my grandmother who was a skilled seamstress. Rick-rack, daisy chain trims, pretty buttons, and deep hems were some of the lovely features of those dresses. And because I am a twin, Nana made two of each!
I still remember some of my little-girl dresses: a white pique with a hem-full of bright flowers and verdant ferns, a soft sorbet seersucker in creamsicle. My mother had excellent taste. She knew that there is nothing prettier than a little girl in a sweet summer frock. I knew that too, when I ordered a pink and grey Liberty print sundress from the iconic London clothier for my daughter. It cost a pretty penny but it is lovingly and carefully stored in tissue paper and boxed alongside her Christening dress awaiting potential future inhabitants.
For years, I never wore summer dresses. I simply couldn't find many styles I liked. But the last few seasons there has been a plethora of selections and I have been able to amass a new little collection. One of my favorites is a periwinkle blue number with coral blooms in crisp cotton broadcloth. The ease of pulling on a perfect summer dress cannot be underestimated on a torrid summer day. Of course, I no longer wear the traditional sundress but there are dresses out there for women of a certain age too. And if one doesn't want to show off arms, a fitted coordinating cardigan over a sundress can be very '50's elegant and tres charmant!
Sunday, July 24, 2016
Every mother who dropped her child off at our town's lake for morning swim lessons had a straw or rattan handbag balancing on the passenger seat of the family station wagon. Even if mom's summer consisted of nothing more than carpooling, making endless batches of potato salad, and refereeing fights over the pool floats, a neutral woven tote beckoned seaside adventures with whispering beach grasses and lapping waves on sandy shores.
Woven raffia and straw make a fairly durable summer purse especially if it includes leather straps and handles. Many of yesterday's straw bags were embellished with cherry bunches for additional whimsy and charm. Some straw handbags from the late 1960's were glazed and painted navy or white for nautical-esque appeal. They were also made with brass or metal hardware and were as impervious as a good leather bag.
I don't pretend to be an expert on straw bags but I am certain there must be collectors and dealers who have written about the evolution of the basket to handbag. I do know that at the height of summer, when I get out my straw handbag, I suddenly feel more relaxed and beachy. Today there are a multitude of styles including designer versions. A few years ago, I bought a Michael Kors rendition that included heavy gold-plated chain handles that made the bag so cumbersome, I called it "my appliance". It felt like a toaster oven with a handle. It was just simply too big a commitment for summer so I was lucky to find a rattan "Kelly Bag" style with a black patent leather strap. Occasionally, a piece of the straw will come undone at the bottom but I reattach with glue and my bag goes merrily on its way, looking carefree and chic. For dressing up, I tie a colorful chiffon kerchief around the handle to match my skirt or top.
As your summer evolves, look for straw totes at farmer's markets and boutiques. The bespoke Nantucket lightship basket purse is always an option for a few hundred dollars but there are many less costly adaptations if you want a petite basket bag for evening. A black linen shift looks elegantly chic with a small woven bag.
Our mothers knew that straw handbags could certainly venture beyond the seashore. They looked just right in the middle of a suburban backyard summer too!
My grandmother with my sister and I. I believe those are cherries on her rattan tote.
Christmas gift (Nantucket lighthouse basket-inspired).
Tuesday, July 19, 2016
Trailing scarf ends picked up by soft summer breezes look so feminine especially if your head scarf is in an appealing pastel print in chiffon. If hair is too short or the scarves too slippery, try one with an attached hidden headband. Tuck the ends under before you whip them off to one side to tie in a floppy bow. Some of the newer head scarves can be found in good accessories departments where you will see them with pieces of elastic to hold them down or pre-bowed for ease in slipping on.
Here's more inspiration for this quintessential summer look:
Monday, July 18, 2016
The little tree I sit under at lunch each day provides me with shade and a welcoming perch - my "spot" has has a wooden bench that is a cool summer oasis in my busy work day. I often get lost in a few book chapters or some lilting music. But I no longer feel safe under my tree and although there is no obvious threat, I just don't feel sure of anything anymore.
Even my most optimistic and cheery friends are feeling blue these days. It seems that everyone is down an octave or two on the happiness scale. How can they not be? Our phones bleep nearly everyday with horrific things and despair knows no bounds. Yet, the world only pauses a moment and is off and running again, yanking us right behind it.
I've been thinking about how I can continue to live with serenity in troubled times of fear. I believe if I am serene and calm then I can be a beacon for others. If I feel anxious I can still act as if I am composed because scientists have proven that once you get the body moving, the mind follows. That's a fact.
Having peace of mind when the news is horrible has been done before: consider Rosie the Riveter and the women of the Homefront. They too, lived with fear and after all, WWII was a global war. They worked hard, creating Victory Gardens and going to work to make the goods and services they hoped would bring their men home sooner. Rosie the Riveter really was rosy and also a little workhorse. They dug in their heels and tarried in dirt and factories. They painted bedrooms and fixed faucets. They opened up their homes and fed friends and family.
I believe Rosie the Riveter had a choice - she didn't have to step up to the plate - she chose to. Working hard, staying busy, helping others was more than the best she could do. Rosie saw it as duty, to herself and others...come what may.
So let's make a choice just like Rosie did. Let's choose to be compassionate and hard-working. Every day. Let's preserver despite the bleating phone messages. And when we can, we'll break the day with a rest on a bench under a fearless tree. Because we at least deserve that.
PS: I bet our Rosie's above are wearing red lipstick too - Victory Red!