Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Beauty

What makes a Christmas Beauty? That’s what my 1942 Woman’s Home Companion asks me each year.

A favorite Christmas Beauty has always been Anne Hilton, played by the lovely Claudette Colbert, in the 1943 classic wartime film, Since You Went Away.

Anne is faced with managing her household during WWII after her husband reenlists for service. Somehow, she always manages to look chic and composed despite her heartache over her missing in action husband. Christmas falls during this bewildering time and yet she fills her Christmas Eve with a charming mix of characters from her year alone on the Homefront and creates a new Christmas for herself and her two daughters.

The girls wear their pretty Christmas finery of velvet and chiffon with Anne in her green wool fitted dress. Brig, played by an older and adorable Shirley Temple, wears what I imagine is her first pair of grown up pumps, suede with flower pompoms. Both she and older sister Jane, played by Jennifer Jones, wear gold heart lockets, most likely given to them by Tim Hilton, their father (at least in my heart it is so).

Anne quietly reflects on her Christmas Eve while sitting at the foot of her Christmas tree after her girls retire to their beds. It is here that she opens the romantic powder box her husband sent to her before he became lost. It tinkles out their song and comes with Tim’s handwritten wish to Anne.

Loretta Young as Julia Brougham in The Bishop’s Wife, teaches us much about Christmas beauty. The scene where she falls in love with and must have an enchanting little hat is worth the price of admission. I also love the scene where she runs a brush through her glossy hair while sitting at her dressing table in her robe. Reverend Brougham (David Niven) takes this moment to tell his wife how beautiful she is.

I love the elegant “girls” who toil away in the research department in “Desk Set”. Christmas finds them decked out in full dresses with underlying crinolines. Katherine Hepburn who plays department head Bunny Watson knows how to work a red wool cloak at the office Christmas party. Her holiday organization is very apparent in the scene where she fetches a man’s robe in her already wrapped and stacked Christmas presents for Spencer Tracy’s Richard Sumner. The only problem is the robe was wrapped for another man. Things come to a head while Bunny is in her own elegant white robe and Asian inspired pajamas and entertaining both men at her table!

Let’s take a page from these beauties and embrace a little planning and organization.

If you've been given some lovely new bath and body products, take some time to try them out before getting dressed.

Wear something really festive and dress up a little. Create a tradition with a special pair of "Christmas" shoes or a sparkly brooch. Outfit yourself in luxurious fabrics such as charmeuse or velvet. Wear grown up pumps - you can change into slippers after dinner. Pull out some stops and don a crimson silk flower or strands of pearls. Red and green are merry colors but so are pinks and golds. If you have an heirloom piece of jewelry in your collection, now is the time to wear it. Tie on a clean apron for protection in the kitchen. By the way, nothing says serious cook like an apron.

Plan to sip water or mineral water from a crystal goblet during the day. This will keep you hydrated and help you avoid headaches. A houseful of guests along with alcoholic spirits is very drying.

Collect a few touch-up items such as lipstick and powder in a pretty basket close to a mirror. Add a comb and a small atomizer of fragrance and your quick grooming moment will be a snap.

Before your guests arrive and while dinner is underway, take a power nap if possible. Curl up under a warm throw and close your eyes. Don't allow yourself to enter a deep sleep cycle - a cat nap will do the trick nicely.
Don't bother too much with clean up. Organize the tasks if you must but leave the bulk of it for the morning when you will be more energized. I promise it will all be there unless there are any elves still about.

Put on your pretty new pajamas and robe and marvel at your favorite parts of the day.

When you do clean up the next morning, play some classical music or carols on the stereo. Refresh the flowers, replace the used candles. Neaten up the tree and carpet sweep the stray needles caused by exuberant gift opening.

Enjoy every minute!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Waiting for Christmas

For many years I have said that my mother was Christmas to me. The wonderful things she did for us during the holiday season, the way she decorated our house with abandon, the thoughtful and plentiful presents she wrapped just for a child's heart. She created holiday glamour in a small ranch house that rivaled any Gilded Age mansion. My mother made sure the anticipation was deliciously excrutiating as our excitement built with the daily opening of the Advent calendar that was tacked up on the kitchen wall.

I don't have those feelings of eagerness any longer. My run up to Christmas is rather quiet. I never promised to provide extravagant Christmases for my daughter even though I learned from the best Christmas arbiter there ever was. Yet, it remains the happiest of seasons for me and always will. Christmas is the keeping place of memories and my mother gave me more than thrills and gifts - she gave me Chistmas joy that visits my heart each and every year..

It's what I have done with these memories that create my holiday today and I find that it is the simpliest of things that give the greatest glow of happiness: a dusting of snow to make everything just white enough, my grandmother's handmade Christmas ornament, the sound of church bells in the village where I live.

It's true that when my mother waved her magic wand on our Christmas, everything became gold and glittered. My wand performs another trick and makes everything soft. And as I stand at my window and keep vigil for the arrival of Christmas this year, I will recite to myself that great Agnes Pahro quote that satisfies all types of Christmas sensibilities: "What is Christmas? It is tenderness for the past, courage for the present, and hope for the future..."
And just what is Christmas if it is not that?

Monday, November 15, 2010

When a Man Loves a Woman

My favorite painting is the one you see at the right above my profile. It’s called “At Breakfast” and was painted in 1898 by the Danish artist Lauritis Andersen Ring (1854-1933).

There are many reasons to like this painting for a “Victorian” woman such as myself: the gentle dining room scene where a lovely woman sits at a table reading the daily newspaper, her sweetly floral morning dress, the green potted plants indoors as well as the green woods beyond the plate glass window, and of course, the well-laid breakfast table. All of these touches remind me of the placid way of taking breakfast that many of us still enjoy on unhurried mornings at home. But after doing a little research on Andersen Ring, I uncovered a very charming love tale about this very favorite work of art.

Ring appears to have been a romantic man having taken for his own, the surname of “Ring”, after the beloved village in Denmark where he was born as simply Lauritis Andersen. He became known as the preeminent painter of Danish symbolism and “At Breakfast” appears filled with subtle symbols of love for the woman reading the newspaper, his wife, Sigrid Kahler.

Married just two years when Ring painted “At Breakfast”, he was unafraid to show his affection for his wife by the use of the myrtle branches above Sigrid’s head. According to Ancient Greeks, myrtle is a symbol of Aprhodite, the goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality, and was often used to adorn Danish brides on their wedding day.

The blue dining set has been said to be a symbol of the couple’s bedroom as blue was the most common color in that room and rare in the dining area. The snowy cloth, a symbol of Andersen Ring’s bride and yet, her pink dress an indication that the marriage had been happily fulfilled. The plants, emblems of an exultant growing love.

Sigrid Kahler’s somewhat untidy hair depicts tenderness for a woman who perhaps had just risen from the marital bed.

For all these reasons, it is hard not to think of Andersen Ring as a sweetheart of a man, a lover of women, in particular his lovely wife at the breakfast table. How rare to find a man who is willing to show his love for his woman in such delicate and quiet cipher, perhaps revealed at the time, only to her.

I am not an art historian or connoisseur – I just know what I like. This painting appealed to me because of its harmonious domestic scene that seemed created just for a woman’s heart. Gladly, I discovered that there is much more to “At Breakfast” than its charming breakfast scene. There was a man behind the painting who adored a woman so and then in his own quiet way, told the world how much.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

And I shall tell this with a sigh...

Once a year in autumn, my thoughts turn back to a small town I once lived in and my life there. It is true, the town was not my heart's desire and my time there ended sadly and abruptly.

Still, when I catch a tall pine piercing a cobalt sky and the weather gauge hovers between temperate and crisp, a slight catch forms in my throat. For a brief time, the town was mine, too.

Autumn begins its work on the gum trees. Their tips turn gold as if they were artists' brushes swept across a child's open paintbox. Soon after, the oaks at the town center, the ones framing the churchyard, began burnishing followed up by the maples and poplar.

I could always hear the branches rustling from my bedroom window at dusk especially after the wind picked up in the afternoon. The trees scraped against the house and each other. They creaked too. An owl sometimes hooted, a lonesome sound, reminding me of how far away from the city I had come. These were beautiful but poignant days as my child and I were newly and unexpectedly made into a smaller family. They were also sweater days of the finest order and we often spent them in hand knits I had made on the hot summer afternoons my daughter splashed in the local pool. If I was ambivalent about this place, I hated it in summer because it was much too hot for a spot so far above sea level, and its thunderstorms were always muted and unsatisfying.

But the town in fall was different when we climbed the expansive incline of the village green that led up to the old library; a booming brick building with an arched doorway that four men could enter shoulder to shoulder. Once inside, the tiny wooden chairs and the scent of ancient books told of a special children's hour. We spent most of our fall afternoons there lost in books and puzzles, singalongs and little friends.

We took advantage of these high weather days and after the library and a visit to the tiny market, we wandered outdoors, our cheeks becoming warm from exercise. My daughter's fine hair whipped around even inside the red hood I knit for her. The scent of burning leaves penetrated the stitches of our sweaters which I could still smell hours later as I folded them and put them away.

We left forever in spring. A friend shot a final picture of us on the front steps of our home waving goodbye. We have never been back. Don't care to. But every fall, I allow for one imaginary visit where I again feel my child's small hand in mine and the trees light our path to the library in burnished red and gold.

http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.re-nest.com/uimages (image)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Snow Globe

I learned to knit at my grandmother’s knee. She handed me thick white wooden needles with red tops and began teaching me the knit stitch. Knit's cousin, the purl stitch, would come much later in my lessons.

To teach someone to knit is not easy. The teacher must be patient and kind and most importantly, approving and reassuring about all the mistakes a young student will invariably make. I have been both a student and a teacher.

On winter afternoons, just after lunch, the knitting hour began. My grandmother would switch on her transistor radio to opera and this would signify the slowing down of our day and our shoulder-to-shoulder quiet work would begin. Soon, our breathing would be in sync and although I would see her quick stitch movement out of the corner of my eye, I knew that my slow steady stitches would evoke the praise from her that I so craved.

I made scarves and blankets for my dolls while Nana worked on intarsia sweaters for my brothers or mohair cardigans for my sister and I. The winds would whip around the edges of her large Boston apartment, rattling the massive old fashioned sash windows of clear glass. The snow flit down continuously, but we two were our own little snowglobe, snuggly encased in crystal and floating in serenity.

“Keep a rhythm going,” Nana would say. “Don’t hold on so tightly.” “Remember, this is supposed to be fun.”

Today, I still listen to opera whenever I knit alone on Saturday afternoons in the winter and although Nana’s life has long ceased to overlap mine, I still feel her presence whenever I pick up my needles. I have yet to find the special knitting companion I had in her but, through the years, have met and knit with many women.

One group of knitters and I gathered every Thursday night for eight years. Newborns who were brought in small baskets grew into toddlers and the knits we made for them were passed on and on again. Knitting friends can be found whenever a woman pulls out her needles and yarn, whether it is at hospital bedside, a waiting room, or on a train. A knitting woman is a magnet that garners comments such as “My aunt use to knit,” “I still have a sweater my grandmother knit me,” or “I wish I could learn.... (Oh, but you can!).

Knitting is a woman’s pastime, as to knit a garment is an act of love and hope. Love for the person one knits for and hope for the future. Each stitch is a blessing, a wish that the loved one will wear the hand-knit in health and happiness long into the future. A bonus gift of immortality for the knitter too, if the item is passed down through the years, as so many of my grandmother's knits were.

I wish more women knit. It’s good for one’s health, as the steady rhythm is calming, encouraging a healthy heart. I wore a Holter monitor once (a device that monitors heart rhythms) and the next week the cardiologist asked what I was doing for the hour I was knitting. He said my heart rate was perfect during that time.

Knitting is not always as economical as it used to be. Yarns are dear now, but the creations that can be made are immensely more stylish than in my grandmother’s time. Almost all the large fashion houses have knitwear designs now and the garments are very contemporary. In fact, the knit world will often usher in a new style first, as it did a few years ago with a swinging cable knit jacket that later appeared on several runways.

Knits will always be in style because they are so practical and warm. As comfortable and dry as microfibers have become, babies always look cutest in a lovingly made hand-knit.

I have passed along my love of knitting to my daughter, who when she knits, does finer work than I. I hope she passes the skill down to her daughter and hopefully, on and on. I saved her first scarf, a holey affair with curved edges that drop off in points. Whenever I hold it, I am reminded of our own private snowglobe on winter afternoons, when the opera played softly in the background and I heard my grandmother somewhere over my shoulder, telling us to keep a rhythm going and not hold on so tight.... And it was fun, more fun than I can ever tell it here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Her Style

A slew of new images of my grandmother have come into my possession recently. I haven't seen these photographs, in dare I say it??? Forty years!
Some truths, which I suspected about her particular brand of style, have come to light. And even while she lived from 1904 to 1987, she seemed to have a "brand", however unawares she may have been or nonchalant. Her style still measures up today in every way. There is little in the photographs that could not be worn today by a stylishly classic woman.
I love her glen plaid cotton dress on a summer day with her basket tote. Sometimes with her dark sunglasses, her hair smoothed back. She cut her own hair, I remember that. Her beauty routines were of her own design: Pacquins handcream, talcum, tar soap instead of shampoo, olive oil for conditioner, lemons for everything. She did not read beauty manuals but used old fashioned remedies and common sense. She had the softest skin I've ever touched.
Her turquoise shantung silk suit on my uncle's wedding day could easily be remade with a tighter line and worn today. It's a stunner and would cost a pretty penny in a shop now. Most of her clothes were made by her own black enamel Singer. The sweaters tossed casually and chicly over her shoulders were her own designs too.
The shirtdresses with self belts, sleeveless shifts in Liberty print patterns, leather handbags, chiffon scarves and a silver cuff for adornment. All standing the test of time in photos. And all on a furniture salesman's salary. The lovely pearls were never real.
Nana was not a traditionally beautiful woman, but she had chicness, style and je ne sais quoi. If you were lucky enough to spend your childhood with her, you would have experienced her lemon scented hands brushing stray strands of hair from your face, the Lily of the Valley scent of her handkerchief, and you could have leaned against her crisply starched dresses on hot summer days.
She had an approach, self-created and perhaps not fully aware. Yet it worked and it is why these photographs have become a style notebook all their own.
Look for more postings on my grandmother in the future.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Let's amble this Michaelmas...

I arrived at work late today and was forced to park quite far from my building. I haven't seen much of this section of the parking lot and was struck by how rural it was. I could no longer see the large glass and steel box where I spend my waking hours. I pulled my car into a space that gave me a perfect view of a worn wooden gate and stone wall. Beside it was a massive gnarly tree that appeared to be a hundred years old. Its top branches were swaying in the light breeze and I could hear the rustle of leaves just now turning color. I stared at this seemingly bucolic scene and imagined I saw Anne Shirley leaning against the gate being teased by Gilbert Blythe. Or was that Jane Eyre holding Mr. Rochester around the waist as he limped toward Thornfield after Jane frightened his horse? No, I think I saw Elizabeth Bennett with a small brown novel, etched in gold, and Mr. Darcy, a shadow in the background.

Our literary heroines spent a great deal of time outdoors. I think they realized that they were more in touch with themselves when they were in touch with nature. Walks were part of their daily rounds and a form of entertainment. And, since many of my favorite heroines were quite penniless, walking was a blessedly free activity. Great rambling walks were marvelous exercise and a way to blow out the cobwebs and put things right in brains that were often plagued and and provoked by love.

Many of us have had unfufilled seasons, those times that flatly pass, when we are unhappy, grieving, or so busy that we do not realize the calendar has turned the page to the next season. I won't let Fall and the romantic Christian feast of Michaelmas, the season of plenty, to be stolen from me in any way. I intend to ramble the way my literary friends did. I'm not talking about powerwalking but great big ambles across the beaches and into the woods. I will put things right in my head, plan a Fall dinner party, dream a little dream or perhaps I will just pretend that I am walking with Anne and Diana along the Windy Poplars. Will you join me before Michaelmas has passed? I promise we'll sort it all out.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Labor Day

I can't let today pass without a few words about Labor Day...
Labor Day in America is not just the symbolic end to summer and the last chance to wear white shoes. It is a real holiday instituted to pay tribute to the American worker.

Most of today's workers are far more beleagured than ever before. If one works for a public company as I do, then one knows the sacrifices that are being made in the offices of today. Most companies are worshipping at the altar of the bottom line. My company, which 15 years ago use to provde such amenities to its workers as an on-site physician and dry cleaning service, has just taken away our personal printers from our desks. We now share one printer for 45 people in my department. Many of my co-workers have been forced to train employees from other countries with the knowledge that when the training ends, their trainees will have their jobs. The ax falls alot these days and we've had to say goodbye to many friends.

Raises are non-existent and although we are extremely lucky to have jobs in this terrible economy, our paychecks must stretch more and more. No one in my office has taken a vacation, bought a car, or worn a new outfit in a long, long time. I hear my co-workers on the phone with mortgage companies, banks, creditors, car repair shops trying to renegotiate their lives. I hear the fear in their voices, their worry about their futures, their concern for their children's lives.

So today, we have one lovely holiday to continue our rest, spend time with friends and families, enjoy a final barbequed meal. I also hope we raise a glass and toast the American worker, the Monday Mavericks - those faithful, hard working souls without CEO lifetime guarantees, who everyday manage to stay calm and carry on as they hope for better days ahead.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

September my love....

A hurricane is charging toward my area and preparations are certainly being made. What may be lovely, however, is that the heat's back will at last be broken - it has been an oppressively hot and humid summer. Even for those who love the warmth, this summer has been almost too much.

But September will reign supreme and bring us her queenly gifts - fresh air, high days of sunshine and wispy clouds that tend to tug at one's heartstrings, the remembrances of days gone by, the hope of days to come, and the beginning of the delightful run-up to Christmas. September is always a love...

Each year, I long for the first sweater day and in honor of that, I have begun to knit again. I am also planning to finally make an apple pie in apple pie order, buy a new lipstick, bake something savory, and drink hot tea once again.

September days are gentle-warm with deliciously cool nights. Windows will still be cracked but we will feel the comfort of blankets on our shoulders again.

And as September rolls along, I will quietly put summer to bed: the outdoor things will be stored, the linen closet will be tidied, and I will bring my magenta geranium indoors and try yet again to winter a plant that brashly lives for summer only. I still hope that this will be the year flowers bloom at my winter window.

Everything seems possible when September draws close again - as when a love comes home at last....

Saturday, August 28, 2010


This is the first in a periodic series of essays on women I have encountered who have lit a style candle for me....


One fall, I helped my sister pack her belongings into a small Volkswagon for a trip to college for her senior year. Because she was going to be living off campus in an apartment, I was interested to see her new home and roommate.

A smiling young woman delightfully charged towards us as our VW pulled into the parking lot of what turned out to be my sister's standard issue flat. Beth had a charming smile and waves of auburn hair shorn in a becoming short hairstyle. She was wearing white socks with a pair of Ked's and I thought it made her look romantic and girlish with jean cut-off shorts and cotton bastiste camisole top. She looked like a little China doll with her apple red lipgloss, and greeted us warmly as we were led into my sister's new living quarters.

I became enchanted immediately by a sweet floral scent and noticed that Beth had placed baskets and containers all over the apartment filled with something I was unfamiliar with - a delicious rose potpourri. I knew what potpourri was but I had never seen it actually used before. The scent was delicate and rare and permeated the apartment like a sunbeam, giving everything a graceful feeling. Soon it became clear to me that Beth was the most feminine woman of my own age that I had met up until that point in time.

We were shown the bedroom Beth had selected for herself, which was thoughtfully, the smaller room. It was already set up and decorated as if she had been occupying it for years. There was a bed with a brass head and foot board, a few well-loved petite wooden dressers, a desk, and a low bookshelf. The bookshelf contained the complete novels of Jane Austen interspersed with dried flowers and glass containers of ribbons and buttons. The bed was fully dressed in white lace, like a bride in all her wedding finery. Lace runners covered the dressers and on top were small china dishes holding bits and bobs of jewelry, a silver comb, a few lovely hair accessories, a crystal perfume bottle. A cup of freshly made tea was on the nightstand in a delicate bone china cup and saucer, a paperback book open on the bed. I had never seen such feminity, such fluff and frippery, such fun! Drapped quiety in waiting across the brass footboard was a beige silk camisole with lace cutouts shaped like shells across the top and matching silk tap pants. This was the late 70's, when most young women were still wearing unisex army jackets, frayed jeans, and the no-makeup look. Beth had clearly embraced another way of being in the world and I was her rapt and watchful student, spellbound.....

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

August Issue

I was lucky in that my father paid for my subscription to Seventeen magazine until I came home from college and had my first job. The first Seventeen I ever read, which signed, sealed, and delivered my fervent wish to have this magazine in my life for always, was the August 1969 Back to School issue. We lived within walking distance of the local market, and having just enough change one day, I snatched the magazine off the rack and skipped home with it.

I was still a tween, so I was slightly wary of showing my mother this purchase. I had an inkling she might not approve of my reading what seemed to me, such a grown up periodical. If she disapproved, she didn’t prevent me from keeping it and I stretched out on the grass and cracked it open that hot summer afternoon. Like Alice, I fell through a rabbit hole and I still haven’t found my way out, although my one remaining tour guide is now Vogue.

Back then, Seventeen was an extra long magazine. It was the same size as my mother’s McCall’s and Ladies Home Journals. Magazines were forces to be reckoned with. The August Seventeens were thick and heavy too. There was plenty to say in August to a young school girl wanting to put her best foot forward in September. The paper was shiny and slippery, the spine hard and taut. But the smell of the magazine! I could smell the ink and paper, certainly chemical, but oh so exciting and full of promise.

Each turn of the page brought a new fascination. I poured over the ads for Bonne Belle Ten-O-Six Lotion, Windsong perfume, Sears Jr. Bazaar department, and Modess. Each page showed me the young lady I wanted to become. With Seventeen’s help, I got there.

In the privacy of my bedroom, I tried pinning loops of braids on each side of my face like the Bobbi Brooks models. I experimented with “baby” barrettes, red nail polish, chunky wooden beads. I made lists of back-to-school items that suddenly became necessities: Maidenform bras, tights, a plaid raincoat.

One fall, Seventeen introduced me to the maxi coat and I wanted one with the military styling and buttons just like the one on page 72. I also wanted the boyfriend on that page too. Seventeen showed me pictorially how to comport myself if I were to have a boyfriend. I was dreamily transfixed on the images of Colleen Corby, Cheryl Tiegs, and Cybil Sheppard. When the boyfriends appeared, at least I would know how to dress for it.

The articles were of some use to me but my real concentration was Seventeen’s fashion, the ads and the beauty advice. I pounced on my issue month after month, year after year and saved them in a makeshift tower that was eventually tall enough to hold my makeup mirror at eye level.

The magic, the glamour, the hope, the wish - that’s what Seventeen meant to my pre-teen self. The August Back to School issue told me it was time to fold the beach blanket with a snap, dust off the sand and head back home. Did Madison Avenue have a hold over me? You bet they did and it enriched me in ways that still make me hopeful when the calendar turns a corner and heads toward fall.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Powder Up

It has been hot as heck in New England which is unusual. Does anyone remember the opening lines of To Kill a Mockingbird? Grown up Scout recounts the hot as Hades summers in Alabama and how the ladies of Macon turned into tea cakes by late afternoon; their talcum powder like melted icing mixed with rivulets of perspiration.

I’ve been intrigued by powder boxes and their contents since I watched Since You Went Away last Christmas. Anne Hilton (Claudette Colbert) receives a powder box from her missing- in- the- war husband which was wrapped and sent months before his disappearance. Husband Tim’s accompanying note tells Anne that the powder box is not “so fair” but it can't be resisted because it is also plays their special song. She weeps over this lovely, heavy, round and footed box with a hinged top. I started looking for a powder box for talc but they are hard to find and the ones on eBay are much worn. Most likely, Anne's box is for face powder.

My grandmother introduced me to talcum powder in her 1930's bathroom. Among the things that captivated me in that fascinating room was the built-in water goblet holder, a claw foot tub and a square pink box on top of the commode. This box contained fine, fragrant talcum powder and lying on top of the powder was a snowy hand mitt placed on a small net screen. It smelled divine and I know more than once I made a bit of a mess with it. No one minded about messes at this house, however. My grandmother often gave me boxes of talcum powder for Christmas and birthdays and they always had a soft hand mitt.

While doing clinical work in a nursing home one summer years ago, I noticed how common it was for the female residents to have talcum powder in pretty tins which were sprinkled on them as part of their bedtime toilette. In fact, the halls reeked of the stuff but it was a pleasant smell that I came to expect as I performed my duties each night as much as I expected the music of Lawrence Welk in the background from every TV set. This led me to believe that the use of talcum powder was a thing of a certain generation. I imagined these lovely elderly women in their younger days, dressed in tea or afternoon dresses and smelling of lilac, lily of the valley, and especially, of roses.

For me, I love Crabtree and Evelyn’s Nantucket Briar. And, I wish I could find a talc box with a mitt like the kind my grandmother gave me years ago. Those are hard to find today. I’ld also love a real nice old fashioned or vintage powder box. I did find a round faux shell box with a butterfly motif that I keep my sparkle powder in. There is no scent to the sparkle powder but I like to powder puff my arms and décolleté when I go out in scoop neck or sleeveless dresses on warm summer evenings.

But there is something nice about keeping myself sprinkled before bed on these very sultry nights. Talc fell out of favor because of certain health risks and there are some non-talc powders available. They just don’t have the same soft fineness of real talc. I continue to use my talcum with a conservative touch this summer as I await for blessedly cooler temperatures.

Is anyone else using talcum powder during this hot, languid summer? What kind?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Summer Visit

I visited my first best friend and her mother at the seashore last week. I drove to their summer home, the house where I was a constant guest as a girl and teenager. My friend, Paula and her mother, Rosemary, were my second family. Rosemary is my other mother (see my Second Mothers post).

We only see each other from time to time and that's really a pity. But we take up right where we left off - a natural ability of true good friends. They make me feel I belong to something, to them perhaps, or to the past we share. Who else in one's life remembers a field trip to the zoo in kindergarten? I know every book Paula read, every outfit she wore. I remember her grandmother, her dog, her dolls, her boyfriends. I was there the day her father died. Our only children were born the same year.

I toured their great old cottage on my arrival. It smelled the same - the nostalgic scent of pine walls and the sea and it instantly lodged an aching lump in my throat that didn't disappear until I arrived home at 2:00 am. I lingered on the curved stairway, sat on the double bed Paula and I shared in the back bedroom. The rooms seemed smaller but they were windswept with the white billowing curtains I still see in my dreams. The same faded mirror hung on the wall and I almost glimpsed our 15 year old selves reflected back, our cheeks reddened from the wind and sun and every bit of us the height of loveliness.

We walked to the beach and I found I had forgotten how beautiful it is. Memories flooded back of girls on blankets playing cards, searching for seashells, dabbling with first loves. Poems and songs began to swirl in my head with words and phrases from long ago. It was 1968, 1971, 1973, 1978... the years flipped by like a calendar in an old black and white movie.

At last, Paula took one of my hands in hers and traced her finger over my knuckles. "You have the same hands", she whispered and I suddenly became aware that she does this each time we see one another now. We were as close as sisters and I guess we still are if she feels comfortable enough to perform this sweet gesture on another middle aged woman.

I am so blessed to still have Paula and Rosemary. I am blessed to have a keyhole to peek through from time to time when I want to visit the young girls we once were. I am certain it is heartshaped.

Ah, friends, dear friends, as years go on and heads grow
gray, how fast the friends do go. Touch hands, touch hands, with those that
stay.. Strong hands to weak, old hands to young... Touch hands! Touch hands!
-William Henry Harrison Murray

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

At the Beach....

I am at the beach this week. Off from work and trying to cram a year of wishes and desires into one short week. Yet, mostly I am catching up with books under my pink beach umbrella. Here are some of the things I am reading this week:
Jane Eyre - I just completed Charlotte Bronte's novel for the 6th or 7th time. It never fails to soothe and it teaches me that perserverance can offer rewards. Jane is a heroine for all centuries (more on Jane in another post).
Getting the Pretty Back - I am really enjoying this book by Molly Ringwald. It's a take it or leave it read as I'm picking and choosing the chapters that offer me something. Molly is all about taking care of oneself - a great lesson for vacation week.
Good Evening Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Painter-Downes - This is a Persephone Books feature. I grew up hearing my mother and grandmother's homefront stories and this book cuts right to the chase. Painter-Downes wrote these short stories for The New Yorker during WWII and they are both poignant and history-rich and almost all from a woman's perspective. I am really enjoying them after having the book in my possession for over a year.
Is anyone else enjoying beach reading?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

On Bandboxes and Lingerie....

I often think I should have lived in the 1860's. This view was born of a great love of the novel by Louisa May Alcott, Little Women. Reading this book led to a life-long obsession with bandboxes (the March sisters each had one) and the fripperies they contained. A young lady's bandbox held ribbons and bows, lace collars, snippets of trim, all the things to adorn a frock and make it fetching. "She is as pretty (or as neat, or as trim) as a bandbox" is an expression that has merit. If a young lady had a bandbox of such things, then she must have cared about her appearance and making herself attractive.

Gradually, a lack of frippery has pervaded fashion (notwithstanding is this summer which is fashionably notable for its ruffles). But I do know something that still gives a frippery lover her due - lingerie. How else can a woman still wear laces, bows, wee silk flowers, sumptuous fabrics everyday day but on her unmentionables?

If you've been to a lingerie department (a good one), you know how lovely underwear can be. The colors, cuts, styles, fabrics, trim are all exceeding my dreams these past few years. I'm speaking of quality lingerie, not the fall-apart-after-one-wash kind. And it can be costly to have things that last but the investment is almost always worth it if only to feel pastel stretchy lace that doesn't itch under ones arms or a beautifully trimmed strap beneath a plain cotton t-shirt.

It is said that Frenchwomen will spend over $100 on a bra. Some have them custom made for $800! To have a bra measured to fit precisely, to be able to choose between organza trim or lace, silk charmeuse or silk noil, and whether one wants a tiny crystal or a rosette handsewn in the center, must be the ultimate luxury. Imagine the feeling of wearing such a bra to work under office-appropriate attire. It would be a private secret, a reminder of the dreams of a girl who fantasized about bandboxes and their feminine contents.

I adore taking care of my lingerie, mending it, washing it in suds in the sink, wrapping it in towels and hanging it. Knowing that I am protecting my investment and that these things are made to last in today's throwaway world makes me feel good.

I read once that all women are gypsies at heart; that if any woman is given a feather boa to wear, she will begin to dance and move in just the right way. I think the same can be said for lingerie. When I put on a lovely set of lace and trim I find I begin to move in the just right way too and suddenly, I feel pretty as a bandbox.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Perfume Love

The quickest route to sweet yesterday is perfume. Each spring when I bury my face in fresh picked lilacs from the backyard, it is suddenly Flag Day at Hildreth Elementary School and I am outside under the flag pole reciting Flanders Field in ankle socks that have slipped down inside my shoes. The sky is always blue, the day is always perfect. Of course, in a New England spring, lilacs have long passed by June 14th but that is the special gift of fragrance; it elicits a place and evokes feelings and emotions that once existed for an entire span of a season, a full year, or a brief and shining Camelot of one's own.

An actress of a certain age that I admire said that she wept openly upon entering a cab in New York which was filled with evidence of a prior unseen occupant - the perfume scent of her beloved and long departed grandmother. Perfume creates time travel with far more horsepower than music or old photographs. If you want to know who you were once upon a time, open a bottle of yesterday and you will soon be wearing the shoes of your younger self. It's a poignant pull and one of the many reasons why I love fragrance.

My introduction to perfume was the day my grandmother pulled down a cobalt blue bottle of Evening in Paris from a shelf in her linen closet. It had been a gift she detested and was about to pour it down the sink when she let me sniff it. I thought it had an intriguing scent but because she clearly disliked it, I wrinkled my nose in support and then enjoyed watching it disappear down the drain. My grandmother always smelled fresh, like lemons but when she was dressed to go out, she wore the single flower scent of Lily of the Valley.

My next foray into the perfume world was when I would secretly open and smell my mother's Woodhue. It was a warm fragrance which was very different and more complex than my grandmother's. I haven't smelled it since but I'm sure if I did, it would remind me of my longing for my mother's closeness and how beautiful she was to my little girl's heart.

My maternal grandmother lived in a city apartment and took buses to her job and exposed to me the power of Jean Nate splash. It made a hot day bearable. Her regular scent was White Shoulders and anytime I smell its heady violets now, I am transported to her bedroom with the 30's style vanity and round mirror and the hot sunlight edging through the slats of closed venetian blinds.

A former chic boss sprayed her office everyday with Elizabeth Arden's Eau Fraiche. It had become a cult favorite only asked for privately at the counter and drawn from a cabinet in the back. It's not really a perfume but a form of toilette water that lingers just a short while and is meant to be a cooling refreshment. My boss bought me my first bottle of Eau Fraiche and advised me to keep it in the refrigerator for summer spritzing. I always have a bottle on hand and share it with a friend who brings an empty atomizer to my house every summer for a fill-up. Eau Fraiche takes my friend back to her "disco days" of yore. I'm glad I can help her make that trip.

As a teenager, fragrance was always tucked into my Christmas stocking and I began to feel the power of perfume as a feminine tool. For a time, I wore Chantilly and my high school boyfriend loved it and begged me to wear more of it. I was conservative then and afraid of overdoing it or afraid I couldn't handle the reaction of my boyfriend to even more of what he liked.

With perfume, we have supernatural powers. We can "haunt" people we love or more specifically, people whom we want to love us. I was at Jordan Marsh in 1978, the day Estee Lauder's White Linen hit the selling floor. It was fresh and clean and people began to associate it with me. My ex said he smelled it on his sweaters after our dates. This time I used more.

With perfume, we can become immortal, at least for a time. Our scents may linger in our closets and on our clothes long after we are gone. How dear to pick up a scarf that belonged to a beloved relative and smell her scent one last time. Another friend of mine experienced this and kept her mother's scarf in a plastic bag until she found the perfume online. Now she wears both the scarf and the perfume whenever she needs her mother.

Today, I am fickle when it comes to my perfume choices. Chanel # 5 is my go-to fragrance, especially in the winter. It's warmth and comfort envelope me like my favorite wool boucle coat. It's familiar and soft and I know I am always right when I have it on. But I am not true to #5. Lately I've been cheating with a new love, Balenciaga's latest, shown above. It's been my favorite thing to wear this summer, as much as my well-loved linen cargo pants, my silk Pucci headband, and my rattan tote. The bottle is lead crystal with a charming cracked egg stopper. It feels great in the hand and meets all esthetic requirements, a very important perfume criteria for me.

I don't know a lot about base notes, dry-downs, etc. but I do know that Balenciaga begins as a symphony on my skin, with brass trumpets and horns. Soon, it turns into a delicate harp where it floats until the next day. There's a flute of a peppery note in the beginning but if I wait just a half hour, it melds into a soft ethereal ever-present delicacy that cheers me during a tough day at the office and reminds me of who I truly am. I cannot be without it right now even at bedtime. It's that good. Perhaps the violet in it calls out to that 30's style bedroom where I am able to find my grandmother once more dabbing on her White Shoulders and smiling at me from her vanity mirror on a hot summer day. Or maybe perfume is just water that smells nice. When you find the fragrance that does what Balenciaga is doing for me this summer, perhaps you will know the truth.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The American Mitfords

I have been intrigued for some time by the six English Mitford sisters, the darling and energetic sisters who caused so much controversary and interest in the 1930's and 1940's. Sister Nancy Mitford wrote novels that recall a lost world of elegance and endearing eccentricity. Her book, "Love in a Cold Climate", is my favorite story of sisterly love and friendship and I reach for it again and again. By the way, the film is terrific too and I was charmed to see Carrie Bradshaw reading "Love in a Cold Climate" in a scene from the latest Sex in the City movie.

Now allow me to introduce the American Mitfords, more commonly known as the Cavallo girls. They are American because they grew up here in the USA but were a collection of Italian sisters who lived and loved near Boston Massachusetts during the same time period as the Mitfords. My grandmother Anne was born in 1904, the same year as Nancy Mitford and both had a sense of high spirits and gaity about them that infected the other sisters. As the oldest, my grandmother led the way in marriage, motherhood and a life well-lived.

My comparison of the two sister groups does not imply that the Cavallo sisters were as prolific as the Mitfords. None of them wrote books, (Nancy and Jessica Mitford), were friends of Adolf Hitler (Unity and Diana Mitford) or married wealthy aristocrats (Debora and Diana Mitford). But the Mitfords and Cavallo's were groups of sisters that were passionate about each other and they had long enduring relationships with one another that served as a bulwart against life's hardship.

There were six Cavallo girls. One lives still, Laura Cavallo Russo; age 94 today. It amazes me constantly that these sisters remained close and loving all their lives, visiting with one another, helping to raise one anothers' children, traveling as a group, and generally cavorting through life together. It is a tribute to their immigrant mother, Rosa Cavallo, who must have kept her girls in line and taught them to love and lean on each other.

The sisters, Anne, Perry, Helen, Meme, Laura, and Flossie grew up in a large wooden house in West Newton, Massachusetts. Several years spanned between my grandmother, Anne, and the youngest sister, Flossie (and who wouldn't want a baby sister named "Flossie"?). Their lives were not always easy as this was a first generation brood of children (there were also five boys) whose parents did not speak English.

My grandmother told me her mother, Rosa, baked 34 loaves of bread each Monday morning in a cast iron oven. This began a grueling week of cooking, baking, knitting, sewing and cleaning for a family which totaled 13. The sisters, upon necessity, were taught many domestic skills to help out as best they could. Anne (my grandmother) became a gifted seamstress and knitter and while she lived, I was a happy beneficiary of many of her creations. All the sisters could cook and bake and their recipes survive in the hands of granddaughters and greatneices now.

I marvel at the closeness of the Cavallo girls throughout their long lives. None really moved away, and as far as I could tell, they respected and enjoyed one another with no drama, fighting, or cattiness between them. For further clues to my belief, I recently asked Aunt Laura about their early life together in West Newton.

Since the sisters were separated by several years, the older ones often found themselves taking care of the younger ones. According to Aunt Laura, this created a bond similar to what a mother would feel for her own children. Also, without much money, the family had to rely on its own members for fun and games and the sisters pulled from memories of family closeness to fuel their later relationships with one another. They spun a thread of connection and love.

For the most part, the sisters resembled one another but each had their own special "look". All the Cavallo girls were interested in fashion and in the family archives, there are many photographs of chic young women, stepping out in handmade dresses and coats, peep toed pumps, scarves, and sunglasses. I remember Aunt Laura's perfume, Guerlain's L'Eau Bleu, Aunt Helen's butter soft cream leather jacket, Aunt Meme's signature rings and bracelets and my grandmother's leopard scarf that I proudly wear nearly once a week. They were feminine and lovely women. Each sister was unique in her wardrobe choices but all loved unusual jewelry, well-made leather handbags, pearls, and cardigans tossed elegantly about their shoulders.

The sisters also loved children and delighted in one anothers. I am so lucky that Aunts Laura, Meme, and Perry were able to meet my own child and revel in her. I love the picture I have of my daughter on Aunt Meme's lap at 6 months with Aunt Laura smiling in the background. Nothing gave the sisters a charge like a new baby in the family.

Every year, the sisters would meet on Cape Cod for a weekend of togetherness. They would celebrate their birthdays, cook together, have evening tea and even play dress-up well into their 70's. I've learned from Aunt Laura that playing dress up was a common activity among the sisters when they were small. They developed great funny bones and played tricks on one another; my grandmother never wore pants but surprised her sisters on one of these weekends by wearing her nephew's clothes to dinner. Aunt Laura said their laughter rang out!

Aunt Helen was the first sister to go; sadly, in a tragic car accident. My grandmother said "We are apples falling from a tree, one by one" and she was right. Now there is only spry, lovely and ever fashionable Aunt Laura. We are so lucky to still have her and lucky that she doesn't mind talking about the six sisters who enjoyed playing dress-up and entertaining each other nearly a century ago. They were never famous but grew up hand in hand long into the twilight of their lives, playing and supporting one another.... very much like the other group of sisters, the just as intertwined and faithful-to-each-other, Mitford ones!

(Above photo, l to r, Aunt Laura, brother Jimmy, sister-in-law Belle, my grandmother Anne, brother Albert, Aunt Helen with Aunt Flossie in front of her, Aunt Meme, brother Tony, and Aunt Perry. All the sisters are here and missing are brothers Russell and Charlie).

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Linoleum, Glamour, and Mother's Day

My new husband had sent me upstairs to an obscure little room off the dining room. He told me my job while he was at work was to rip up the old linoleum in the room so he could sand and bring back to life the hardwood floor underneath. This old house we had bought was to be made into six apartments (from three) to pay for itself and earn money for the big dream house in the country.
The old chalky linoleum was in a 1930's style abstract pattern of dark black and grey. It was ugly and hard to pull up but upon removing just a few broken shards, I found page upon page of lovely white-as-the-day-it-was-printed newspapers from the 1940's, all Mother's Day ads from a large department store, long gone, that was once in the same city. Most of the ads were post WWII, when men were home from war and shopping for their women again.
I began to pour over these papers, picking them up gingerly so as not to rip them. Yes, they were almost all "women's pages" as if the husband who laid them couldn't bear to part with the important news or the financial sections.
It didn't really matter; I was just tickled to have the chance to see a bit of female life well before my time. There were illustrations of pastel colored gloves in salmon and baby blue. Women in hats with nets, spring coats in navy, two by two they stood together looking off at something in the distance. Perhaps, their husbands or children.
I saw illustrations of all manner of female frippery such as lace collars - just the things to transform plain dresses for mother's special day, handkerchiefs which the store would embroider for free with Mother's initials, lovely perfume bottles with rubber atomizers, small purses with handles of Lucite; even shoes for Mother, if one wanted to take a chance on size; most with heels and cut-outs on the toes. Everything considered elegant and ladylike.
For days and days upon days, I looked at these wonderful illustrations, turning the pages carefully as I sat on the linoleum, ripping up pieces of flooring as I went along. I saved a pile to look at when I broke for lunch. Soon, it became clear to my husband, the job was going much slower than he had hoped so he gave me a better tool to wrench the linoleum from the gummy glue underneath. But the tool only made me slower because I had to be extra cautious not to rip through to Mother's new leather slippers in cardinal red or her new apron with hand embroidered cherries and patch pockets.
I spent many happy hours alone in that room and eventually, the job got done and the wood floor gleamed to its old shiny brilliance. The apartment with the room was rented to a tenant who put a piano on the floor and never knew what glamour with its lovely display of consideration for Mother, once lied beneath....

Monday, April 26, 2010

Second Mothers

I had a second mother - the mother of my first and only childhood best friend. Paula's mother even called me "my second daughter". I have a dear wonderful mother but my best friend's mother's influence, molded me as well. I have been sending my second mother a Mother's Day card every year since I left home. So does my sister. We know one day those cards may not make it into Rosemary's lovely hands. Perhaps they will then become Daughter-of-Second-Mother cards.

Last year my 2nd mother and my best friend came to my home for a summer visit. I had not seen them in 25 years. When the car pulled up, I stepped out onto the porch smiling. My 2nd mother stepped out of the car with her arms opened wide. Our three way embrace caught each of us off guard as we found ourselves suddenly weeping.

The Mother's Day cards I send to Rosemary each year have many ways of saying Happy Mother's Day but they all have just one meaning: Thank you for including me in your circle of love....

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Tea Tray

I've never forgotten a tea tray I received while staying at the Copley Plaza Hotel about 20 years ago. I called room service for a cup of tea in the afternoon and received the most lovely tea tray. I'm not sure what I was expecting - a stoneware mug of tea with a hanging tea bag? It was afterall a venerable old world and expensive hotel. What arrived was a silver plated (or sterling?) tray lined with a snowy white cloth. The short but rotund silver tea pot was hot to the touch with matching creamer and sugar. Stacks of teas lined up, a bone china floral cup and saucer and a matching plate with wedges of sliced oranges arranged around it like the numbers of a clock. In the center of the plate were water crackers and small slices of cheese, perfectly round to fit the crackers. The entire tray was garnished about with red and green grapes. A crystal bud vase held a perfect stem of a violet colored freesia. It was enchanting and I've been trying to replicate it ever since.....

Monday, February 22, 2010

Belles Lettres

Email is very convenient. And it's great to hear from pals during my work day but I love a handwritten letter. I love writing them and I love receiving them. My only regret is my penmanship has changed over the years and I no longer think my "hand" is as nice as it use to be. Wonder why that is.

When I was thinking of buying a desk for myself as a newly single mother, I imagined the top drawer would be filled with boxes of cards and stationery, little notebooks for gift giving, a stash of golden paperclips. I found my desk - a mahogany secretary and for 20 years it is still the best money I ever spent. And yes, the top drawer is filled with notecards collected from everywhere. Alexander Stoddard remarked that she keeps the final notecard of a boxed set for herself and I do too. I can’t part with some of these beauties. For me, one of life's pleasures is selecting a special card for a special friendand sitting down at that desk and writing a note. I am a woman of letters and love reading books that contain letters others have written - famous or not. When something is finally put down on paper, an emotion especially, it comes to life. It becomes real. We can imagine that someone said something or did they? But once it is in black and white, it is there for all to see, especially ourselves. Someone DID care. I WAS thought of. I WAS loved! It is written!

I don't save all my letters. I wish I had the stack of letters my high school boyfriend wrote me from college - they included some charming sketches (alas, he was not so charming I discovered). I framed a note from my grandmother last year. It came with a folded $50.00 bill and was written with "Now you can start your dishes!". My nana's handwriting is lovely as she was. Is there anything better than coming home from work after a long day and among the annoying flyers and bills a note from a friend drops out? Last week, my old train friend sent me a note asking me to dinner. I sent a friend a letter on stationery from Boston's Trinity Church. Another friend sent me a postcard with a picture of a child holding a bouquet of flowers bigger than his head.

I especially love when men write. My neighbor sent me a card addressed not to Emily but to my license plate number as that is the view he has outside his window. Peculiar? No! Dear, rare and special.

When I sit down to write, I am in communion with all women of letters from the past. I am Jane Austen writing to her sister Cassandra. I am Sido writing to daughter Collette. I’m putting pen to paper but really it is heart to paper.

Long live the scribe....

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Home at Last!

After some grueling afternoon meetings and fighting a virus all day, I pulled into my driveway and heard the voice of Fanny Dashwood saying to my heart, "Oooh, a cottage! How charming. A little cottage is always very snug." My little place is still snow covered and with my penny candle lit in the front window to welcome me, I was never so grateful to see my front door! Such as it is, I love this place, warts and all. So I trundled in and heated up potato and fennel puree (recipe from Victoria, November '98), popped chicken in the oven and made myself a dinner tray. Now I am about to sew together a moibus ring/scarf I finished knitting last night. I thought about Anne Frank today and her savior Miep Gies and how Anne made a home in that attic despite fear, cramped quarters and odd roomates. The world is off its axis right now but we do have a safe place to go to every night as we wait for better days.....