Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Mute and Elegant Testimony


My pretty mother wore a grey vertical striped shirtwaist dress the day she brought my little brother home from the hospital.  As she knelt in front of us with her tender white bundle, the skirt of her dress ballooned over her knees like an upside down tulip.  I know this partly because I have a picture of that moment in time. It is no surprise that the dress became the most-requested for our birthdays when we each got to choose her outfit for one day.  It's also not hard to understand the special memory that plain and serviceable grey dress held.

But it also conveyed something about my mother and who she was at that time - a practical yet devoted young mother.  I would love to have that everyday dress and some other favorites that my mother wore and for that matter, some of my own dresses, long disappeared.

Augusta Roddis (that is her picture above) certainly understood that clothes have the power to speak to us about the past and that is perhaps why she saved, in her large Wisconsin home, more than a hundred years of family clothes.  The story of Augusta's extraordinary collection, American Style and Spirit - Fashions and Lives of the Roddis Family, 1850-1995, has captivated me and absorbed most of my winter reading time.

The text of the book engagingly gives evocative descriptions of dresses, hats, shoes and other accessories worn by the Roddis family for much of the 20th century.  The rich variety of items are complemented by photographs and letters indicating where the garments were worn and by receipts which indicate where the garments were bought.  It's a fascinating account of an interesting middle-class family that grew in wealth but somehow maintained humble middle class roots.

But this is not to say that the Roddis women were boring - the family often traveled and there was always a charity ball, wedding or party to attend.  The lovely part is that there are so many frocks and fripperies to commemorate each of these events.  The book is filled with photos of not only the clothes, but dress patterns (the Roddis women also sewed!), artifacts and supporting ephemera like ads from periodicals.  It is a spellbinding picture book with an engrossing true story to savor.

Sometime in her seventies, Augusta wrote a letter about what it was like to open trunks in the attic filled with a treasure trove of dresses amply adorned with embroidery and laces that once belonged to her grandmother. "There were her clothes, bearing mute but eloquent testimony...to her very discriminating, fastidious, elegant and feminine taste".  And isn't that exactly what our clothes do for us, whether we are in a ball gown or a plain shirtwaist - silently saying the things we cannot express?

If I were to find my mother's simple grey dress in a trunk today, I suspect it would transmit a wordless message from the past too - just as Augusta Roddis' collection does.



Saturday, January 21, 2017

In January - The Things I Didn't Write


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 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 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.  I am so sorry.

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.