Saturday, January 21, 2017

In January

There are so many things I wanted to write about in January.  I really wanted to tell you about the quintessential snowy New England weekend I spent many years ago at a old and lovely brick manor house in the middle of a Western Massachusetts forest and how each room was decorated with a dash of woodland magic.  I would have described the china bowls of wild berries and moss, the baskets of pinecones, and I would have written that every room had a hissing fire in the grate.  But then we had an extended January thaw and I lost all passion for the story and so I almost wrote a story about a commonplace book I kept for a season long ago and forgot about until recently, and how in its pages I found a girl I wished I cherished more because I think she was pretty neat.  And then, I had a blog post nearly written in my head about my hero, Col. John Glenn and his honorable life and for-the-ages love story with his beloved wife Annie, and how, although I mourned in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the story evaporated in the holiday rush.

I also wanted to write about a dear yellow house that is for sale in the neighborhood I grew up in and how my reveries turned rapturously fantastical one morning as I drove to work and imagined myself buying the place, decorating it and actually living there even though it would mean I would have to move out of state and leave my family and job.  I would have also told you that as long as I could remember, the house was yellow and that if I were to ever be its mistress, it always would be...

And I wanted to tell you about all the new books I am reading these days especially the one about a woman who saved a century of family clothing including everyday dresses from the 1940's and enchanting ballgowns with the dance cards to match.  And speaking of books, I almost wrote about the oldie-but-goody cookbook my grandmother gave me long ago and how I have been revisiting it for comfort food cooked from scratch and how I have come to realize that sometimes the old ways of cooking are the best ways.

And I thought you might like to read that my very favorite junk shop was closing and I had special permission to shop the "attic" and all the treasures I found there for practically nothing including a beautiful etched crystal pitcher and how I brought it home and filled it with white lilies that cheered me with the scent of hothouse days to come.  And I would have written that I also found a brand new Ralph Lauren white ruffled flat sheet for pennies which now graces my bed (seen in the picture above).

I also meant to write about music and how I have re-discovered the lilting and ardent voice of Susan Boyle and how I now believe she is the archetypal woman's songstress whose personal compositions will positively possess you on dark January nights.  I wanted to say something too, about my new bottle of the indie Chanel fragrance, Chanel 1932, and how it compares to my other winter favorite, Chanel No. 5 (it has a lovely jasmine "bite").

Yes...these are the things I wanted to write for you in January.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Bird On A Wire

Ever since I visited the Warner House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire a few years back and saw the evocative portrait of Polly Warner, I've been intrigued with 18th and 19th century paintings of women with birds.  And there are plenty of them.

In art, women are popular subjects especially attractive women in elaborate dress.  But I was unprepared for the number of paintings of women holding birds - even exotic and dangerous birds.  I wish I could say I discovered a reason for this but there seems to be very little said about the phenomena except to mention the deep connection between women and nature.  I never pretend to be an art expert but I believe I could imagine a few reasons why - one being that birds represent the freedom that often eludes women in life.  I would also say that it is in women's nature to protect small things, especially things that are vulnerable and frail.

The portrait of Polly directly below, appears both wistful and melancholy to me.  There is but a half-smile on her lips and the landscape behind her seems changeable and moody.  Yet a delicate thing rests upon her graceful upraised hand - unencumbered except for a long loose thread - where it seems quite content to be in her presence.

The Color Inside My World

Yesterday the color was snow.  White and pristine, missing at Christmas but present for my daughter's birthday on Epiphany, another holy day.  We took the train to Boston along with my sister in icy cold air and soft flurries to celebrate my daughter.

And oh the things we did ...a companionable lunch high above the city streets, a little bit of shopping, people-watching and then home to join husbands and family for cake and iced cream.  A full day of bumping shoulders with my daughter and sister and taking inspiration and energy from the city.

This is an annual trek which signals my personal end of the holidays - once January 6th passes, I finally store the ribbons and paper that clutter my wrapping corner.  We do indulge in some of the sales - I found an irresistible ballet-pink wool muffler, two small lacy gold picture frames, and a box of snowy candles that will look lovely in the crystal candlesticks on my mantel which have been vacant since the red ones burned to stubs on Christmas Eve.

My joy was watching my daughter's blond head hovered above the crowd in her attractive chalk-white down coat -  she was the picture of winter.  And as all of her birthdays do, they make me feel a little nostalgic with a stark reminder that time is passing really fast now.  Last year marked the "crossover" birthday which means she has been a presence in my life longer than the years I lived before her.  That says something, doesn't it?

Daughters are a fine thing - sons too, I am assured by my sister.  But may I just say that my daughter's chroma is from vivid kaleidoscope hues that transform in ever-changing sequences?  Her chic look yesterday may have mirrored the day's fairy-scape, but she is the color in my world.


I know a girl
She puts the color inside of my world
But, she's just like a maze
Where all of the walls all continually change
And I've done all I can
To stand on her steps with my heart in my hand
Now I'm starting to see
Maybe It's got nothing to do with me
Fathers, be good to your daughters
Daughters will love like you do
Girls become lovers who turn into mothers
So mothers be good to your daughters too ~ Daughters, John Mayer

Photo Credit: Volk Clarke Galleries

Monday, January 2, 2017

A Crystalline January

"Your holiday guests have departed and the house at last, is still.  A piano sonata is gently tinkling from the stereo and the fragrance of flowers fills the air.  A fire simmers in the grate... You wander upstairs to draw a soothing scented bath.  A thick towel hangs from the hook next to your soft new robe.  A glass of wine awaits...  At last, the time is nigh for the lady of the house to have her due rest".


I wrote those words for an ad I embellished a few years ago.  I like to re-read them on January 1st to remind myself that there is life after the holidays.  And many embellished things to look forward to.

Instead of taking my little Christmas tree down completely, I followed advice from my friend Kay and kept the tree up but only with the white fairy lights on it.  It looks charming and so I spread the word throughout the house that I'm creating a beacon for when the light has a mind to return on its own.  I kept the white tapers on the mantle and strung mini-lights across the hutch's top shelf.  Three stems of white lilies, when opened, will fill the house with the promise of spring.  The frost outside colludes with what is taking place indoors - I want everything to be crystalline.

Even in bleak winter, nature can be breathtakingly beautiful with elements of wonderment not to be missed.  And although January is a wonderful month for hibernating there are still those of us who must brave the elements to get to work each day.  Returning to an incandescent home with whispers of silvery frost can be energizing and may even help with seasonal moods.   With that in mind, I tossed a cream wool throw on my couch for coziness as well as for Netflix-binging and laid out an old tole tray on the kitchen table, chock-full of teas, tea cups and saucers, all nestled on a snowy cloth.  I fluffed my bed after adding an extra layer and splayed white votives about my bedroom like candy. My private rebellion against the dark unforgiving sky above.  Even the bathroom shower curtain got a reboot with the addition of plush coordinating towels I forgot I had, found in the recess of the linen closet when I went on a search and destroy for the humidifier.  Christmas is over but my home is ready for winter, come what may.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Sister's New Year

For last year's words belong to last year's language;
And next year's words await another voice;
And to make an end is to make a beginning...

T.S. Eliot


The new year beckoned all week and finally arrived right on schedule.  My friend Patty, a closet astrologist kept telling me all through December that things would be changing in 2017.  So many people seemed anxious to see the backside of 2016.

Last night I went to a lovely little party given by my sister.  She had a nice smallish crowd and I met some new people.  My sis has had an extremely trying 2016 which began with a frightening health scare and surgeries.  It malingered and then morphed into other issues that left her unbalanced with scars I wasn't sure she would ever recover from.  She's doing great now and it was so nice to see her relaxed and enjoying herself.

New Year's has many myths and superstitions.  I try not to buy into the perceived momentousness of the calendar turn and the resolutions that inevitably follow.  I think if one is motivated to make changes in life, they can do it just as easily on June 1st as January 1st.

But I do believe it is helpful to begin as we intend to proceed and so it was with some surprise as I drove home last night that I began to weep.  I thought of my sister and the expectations she had for her 2016 and how abruptly her dreams crashed.  I thought about her enduring suffering and her constant worries that continued unabated all last year.  But I also remembered the bright moment on Christmas Day when my niece said grace at dinner and how then the entire table raised their glasses to my sister in thanks that she is well.  "To Debbie", we all chanted in unison as eyes brimmed over.  It was an inexpressibly tender moment...

So as I clutched the steering wheel on the dark road just after midnight, I called up my sister.  Through my tears I croaked out, "Happy New Year to you most of all"!  However, the tears were not a portent of things to come - they were merely the first blessing of the new year.  And that is how I intend to proceed.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

On the Twelfth Day of a Feminine Christmas

This young woman reminds me of a Grace Livingston Hill heroine.  Maybe it's because of the lovely church in the background.  Grace's protagonists were all believers.  If the old Victoria magazine had lasted long enough, I'm sure it would have found Livingston-Hill a worthy subject for its marvelously feminine periodical.  I can only imagine the clothes they would have put the models in:  fur-trimmed wool suits, floral dresses with rustling skirts...I could go on.

Every year I take a peek at Victoria's book, "A Woman's Christmas".  I've used it as a mini-journal, recording various details about my Christmas'.  Yesterday I found a sentimental entry I wrote a few years ago and I'm going to share it here.


"I get misty and giddy when I think of all the happy holidays I had at Nana's, the wonderful little things my mother did for us, the neighbors we always visited on Christmas Eve, the majesty of our Catholic church, the carols I sang my heart out with the Girl Scouts.  All these things were part of my childhood and they live on inside of me...

Then there were the years with HIM.  I decorated our houses with abandon and had the money to do it.  Those trees and homes live on inside too.  As well as the small teddy bear he gave me one Christmas morning with the pearl earrings I still wear today pierced into its furry little ears.  And the challenging but glorious years I was a young single mother of the most darling little girl.  She sang in the choir at church, made cookies with me in her bunny slippers and I especially cherish the Christmas morning she pulled her first real doll out of the box and exclaimed with awe, 'She looks just like me, Mommy!'  I hold dear the day I took my good friend Karen to Orchard House the week before Christmas and watched her face from the sidelines as she first laid eyes on Louisa May Alcott's wreathed front door.  All these Christmas memories may live on Yesterday's shelf but they are a part of me for always.

And my reminiscences of yore, in no way means that I am closed off to the bright new gifts of the future.  I have more Christmas' in store for me.  And as I await them, I know the real spirit dwells within...alongside the memories."  ~ December, 2010


Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

On the Eleventh Day of a Feminine Christmas

This illustration is feminine Christmas at its best.  Her chic red dress and winter-white coat make a beauty mark on the snowy landscape.  But it's her serene and peaceful face that brings the real grace to the image.

Yesterday I was feeling pretty full of myself - my packages are wrapped, my baking is all laid out, and I planned everything so I didn't have to leave the house today.  But on the way to dinner last night, the car slowed to a stop in front of a bus stop near the restaurant where I was to have supper.  Since I was a passenger in the car, my eyes scanned for a long while at the bleak grey shelter where riders sat to wait for buses.  Standing in the cold were a man and woman who were obviously together.  I wondered for a moment where they were going outside the city and surmised they had both left their jobs and were heading home.  They were nearly elderly and looked tired.  As we sat in traffic, I saw the woman take a single powdery donut from a paper bag and heartily bite into it with her back towards the street.  Then she turned and gave the rest to the man.  I was close enough to recognize the paper bag from a bakery about 3 blocks away - a long walk with dual crossing lanes in heavy traffic to the bus stop.

Now I know nothing about the couple at the bus stop and everything I have written is supposition.  Yet somehow, I felt a tenderness for the pair and wondered what their Christmas would be like.  All through dinner, I couldn't stop thinking about them sharing that donut in the dreary bus stop surrounded by trucks and car horns and exhaust fumes.  And it made me wonder if I had done enough this season for others.  I was involved in making baskets for an organization that helps families and I contributed to a Secret Santa drive at work but I could have done more.  And while I ate my meal, I thought about that too.

Last night I found a local church that is still accepting donations of canned goods.  Today I am doing a market run for them.  I've already talked to the woman who runs the program and since I've been to the church before I plan on finding out what kind of outreach they do the rest of the year too.  It's the least I can do and it's pitiful.

I have made some other suppositions regarding the picture I chose for this post.  I have concluded that the lovely lady's face in my Christmas image comes from knowing deep inside that she made a small difference this season.  As she runs off in the snow in her head band of holly and ivy to whatever festivities she has planned, she knows she did her best.  And that's why she's so beautiful.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

On the Tenth Day of a Feminine Christmas

This woman hasn't quite finished her shopping yet.  I felt like her yesterday as I finally crossed the last person off my list.  I'm curious, do you buy as much as you used to?  I don't.  I no longer believe in going overboard at Christmas but I do spend a lot of time thinking about the right gifts for those I love.

I delight whenever I come across a list of Christmas gifts in a novel. Many diarists documented their presents too.  And generally, their accounts were of humble things such as a box of chocolates, a journal, hair combs, etc.  Their tallies remind me it's not the amount of money you spend or the size of the gift, but the care and consideration that went into its selection.  And not surprisingly, those are the kinds of things I want to find under my tree too.


So many of you have emailed me to ask for my grandmother's pudding recipe.  Consider it my Christmas gift to you.  And a big thank you for your lovely comments.  I always find the female perspective on Christmas to be a unifying thing.

Chocolate Bread Pudding with Hard Sauce

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

4 oz baking chocolate - preferably semi-sweet
2-1/2 cups whole milk
2 eggs
3/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter
1 loaf stale white bread, cubed

Butter well an over-proof casserole
Add bread cubes

Melt chocolate in milk
Add butter - stir and take off burner

Beat eggs until foamy
Add sugar
Add vanilla

Pour chocolate milk over bread cubes
Add sugar, egg mixture
Mix well

Place casserole in shallow pan of water
Bake 50 minutes to 1 hour

Hard Sauce

Mix 1 stick of softened butter with 1-1/2 cups confectionery sugar and a drop of vanilla
Sprinkle nutmeg on top
Refrigerate until hard

Serve pudding individually with dollops of hard sauce

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

On the Ninth Day of a Feminine Christmas

The cover of this Seventeen has effervescent colors and a darling imaginary tree.  It is dated 1956, a time when Christmas meant formals and ballgowns.  I especially like the soft cream colored one on the left with the pretty green bow.  The dress reminds me of Anne Shirley's Christmas dress with her beloved puffed sleeves - the one that Matthew gave her.  However, wearing shorter sleeves and sweetheart necklines were part of the charm of a formal dress in the 50's.

I attended a small party last Saturday night and typically, the attire was informal.  I noticed that the women did add a little panache to their leggings and tunics with fanciful shoes and sparkly necklaces. The clothing was merely a backdrop for ornamental accessories.  But I think some of the fun in going to a large dance or formal is the chance to fret over and then select the perfect dress to wear.  A high school boyfriend called the girls' formal dresses "whoopee dresses".  I never realized how important a dress was to a man's imagination until then.  Somehow, it makes me long for those fussy important dresses and the events to wear them to.

Recently I was flipping through dress images on Pinterest when a friend stopped me at a sapphire blue silk number.  "Stop..stop", he said.  "The blue one?", I asked.  "Yes", he replied, "My mother had a dress that color".  And then softly, "I never forgot that dress.  She wore it to a Christmas party".  I asked him how old he was at the time and he replied, "Maybe five".

Nearly sixty years later, he was still able to recall his mother in a sapphire blue Christmas dress...

On the Eighth Day of a Feminine Christmas

This image was once made into a darling Christmas card which my sat on my grandmother's mantel throughout the holidays.  Even as a child, I knew what was going on.

I believed in Santa Claus until about age eight when my older brother finally pulled the wool off my eyes.  But it was time.  I was beginning to suspect that it was my mother who was the real Santa at our house especially when I found her shopping list peaking out of her handbag one day.

My mother's Christmas lists were legendary...she made sure that we four received the same amount of presents so each item on the list had a number beside it.  And somehow she knew whose wrapped present was whose.  That was a secret I later learned about the lower right hand corner of each box was a letter that she assigned to each of us.  The code for the letters was on her funny shopping list.  Elaborate but it worked.

My mother still plays Santa at our Christmas but no longer uses her secret system - she uses gift tags.  But those are elaborate too and often have small glittered flowers and bows attached to them.  They're pretty enough to hang on the tree the following year if they don't get scooped up in the detritus left behind from all the unwrapping.  Her gifts are fewer in volume but they are endearing and very thoughtful.

When it's over, I see everyone kissing Santa Claus.

Some of my mother's wrapped gifts, circa 1964.