Wednesday, September 28, 2016
I got a lucky break one early fall morning when a working mother from a nearby town called to see if I was available to watch her two little girls everyday. It was a referral from a referral that somehow panned out and yes, I was available to be a "nanny" to her girls as long as I could bring my own daughter along with me.
It was perfect because her eldest, a four year old moppet with red hair would be big sister to my child and her youngest, a sweet toddler, could be baby sissy. Mom was a nurse who fled out the door each morning for the early shift. Dad was around renovating their beautiful old home and I was to be cook, chief bottle washer, and babysitter.
It's amazing how quickly I fell in love with my new charges even though the oldest could be a handful. But it's not hard to become fond of small children whose fingernails you clip and baths you oversee. I ushered the three girls outdoors as much as possible and fortunately the big old house was located on the expansive and ancient town green. We spent hours upon hours that fall in the public gazebo playing games, having picnics and putting on plays. I taught the girls my favorite rhymes and songs and read them hundreds of nap-time stories. The hardest thing about the job was getting up early and putting my sleepy child in the car to drive the long country road to their place. It's probably the reason why one of my daughter's first words was "silo" given all the farms we passed on those quiet misty dawns.
When colder weather settled in, Mom filled a trunk with old clothes, hats, and endless strings of beads for dress-up. The girls played so many imaginary characters that once I thought other children had entered the house. One day, the oldest was sporting a very pretty black onyx ring set in rose gold filigree on her finger. "Where did you get that?", I asked. Apparently, it had been left on top of the toothbrush holder in the bathroom. She balked loudly when I asked her to place it in my hand and when she finally did, I couldn't help but notice how lovely and unusual it was. I gave it to the mother later that day and was told that it had belonged to the deceased Edwardian lady whose son the house was purchased from. He didn't care to have the ring and so somehow, little hands pilfered it and then set it to rest on the holder in the upstairs bath. During the year I cared for the girls, the ring would periodically show up on various small fingers only to be handed back to Mother again.
As a new fall approached, our days together became numbered - the eldest was to begin school and the work on the house was finished which meant Dad was free to take over the girls' care. The timing was perfect because my house had finally sold and I was ready to move with my daughter to a distant place so I could work in the city.
On my last day, the girls and their mother had a party for me. They made Wacky Cake in a flower pot from one of their favorite stories and gave me a small present wrapped fussily with bright yarn and covered with stickers of shiny blue stars. Inside was the onyx and rose gold ring. But you knew that.
What you may not know is that I don't have to wear the ring to think of them. In my heart's eye, where time forever stops, I see them playing in the blinding sunshine that comes only with fall's most splendid days.
They are with me still...
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. 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 full of 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 sleep with me like my little girl and her paper roses, but 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 but quickly 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.