Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A "Meg" Winter

Imagine my thrill after reading Little Women at age 10, to be told that the March sisters resided a mere 20 miles away in Concord, Massachusetts.  But then, Orchard House was not open in the winter and I had to wait until spring to visit their fascinating abode.  It was the first of nearly annual jaunts to my favorite 19th century historic site.

I love the 1994 movie version of the Louisa May Alcott book and watch it faithfully each Christmas season but two years ago, Mom gave me "her version" of the film, the one starring June Allyson. Now I view them back to back.  Most girls identify with outspoken, fun-loving, tomboy Jo, but I've always been a "Meg" and proud of it.  She was the March girl I most wanted to get to know, be like, emulate.  Pretty, older, wiser than Jo, she was traditional, wanting home and marriage over adventure.  Perhaps it is because I had such wonderful homecaring role models in my mother and grandmother, or perhaps it is because like Meg, I covet lovely things, which was such a hardship for her during the March's hungry years.

"Meg Goes to Vanity Fair" is my very favorite Little Women chapter because although Meg laments about not having the proper clothes, much is described about the delightfully modest wardrobe her sisters put together for her to take to Annie Moffat's party. It may not have been the most stylish but they were fine garments embellished with love from her sisters' sewing baskets.

This winter, my plan is to return my home to its organized "well-oiled machine" splendor.  I've been neglecting some things and I need to purge.  I will also take a gimlet eye to my closet and update and fix some items in a Meg-like way.  I'll find new ways to put things together - will my faux fur collar look nice with that oldish caramel cashmere sweater?  Can I polish my classic black leather platform pumps back to just-bought splendor?  I'll have a care, take time, embrace frugality, and settle in for the long winter spell.

And so now I must ask, which March sister are you?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Assembly

In the 1960's, every public elementary school in my town held a Christmas assembly each year on the last school day before the holiday vacation.  These programs took place in the dark old basement auditoriums for the benefit our mothers, some of whom came with toddlers in tow, and an odd grandparent or two.  Fathers were usually not torn away from their important jobs for the schools’ little daytime performances and yet, the audience was always filled to capacity.  Each class was required to learn and perform a Christmas carol accompanied by Mrs. Ambrose, the soft spoken grey-haired first grade teacher who played the old piano with enthusiastic flourishes.
In third grade, I had the good fortune to have a fresh from college, hip teacher named Miss Donnelly.  She became known for her innovative method of teaching mathematics, and the shiny new car she drove to our school from Boston each morning, a blazing blue Mustang convertible. Along with the spiffy car and pioneering math instruction, Miss Donnelly was kind and we very much wanted to please our pretty young teacher who in turn had high expectations for us.
Before Christmas, Miss Donnelly told us that we would not only be singing at assembly but we would perform a short dance as well.  She paired us up randomly and I was instantly dismayed by her choice for my dance partner. Earl was much taller than I and was most commonly known for the spit balls he regularly crisscrossed across the classroom from his hollowed out Bic pens.  I had been his beneficiary once or twice and because of his stealth, even eagle-eyed Miss Donnelly had yet to catch on. I groaned inwardly.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, each class was given an hour a day to practice with Miss Ambrose at the piano. The excitement was building as our choreographer, Miss Donnelly, included several pirouettes in unison to match the lilting Christmas carol we were learning to sing. Surprisingly, Earl attended to me rather well, with his alert watchfulness over errant dance partners whose pirouettes threatened to overlap ours. I stopped fretting  until Miss Donnelly gave us our final instructions on the morning of the assembly.
We gathered together in the hallway outside the auditorium, all looking festive in the required costuming: girls in red skirts and white blouses, boys in black pants, white shirts, and green and red ties. But Miss Donnelly warned us darkly that there were to be several lit Christmas trees dotting the stage that had been empty during our rehearsals and woe betide to any pair that caused a tree to topple over during the performance.  As I clasped my icy cold hand in Earl’s, I could not imagine how the trees fit onto the old wooden stage that also included two heavy velvet stage curtains of peacock blue, which already erased a good chunk of dance space.
Soon Mrs. Ambrose called us to the stage.  Our mothers’ faces were open with anticipation as Miss Donnelly stood on the cement floor below the stage, her arms raised in directorial fashion. We began. The further along our performance got, the more we relaxed helped along by the encouraging crowd of family watching from below.  But it was then that Earl caught the heel of my shoe which caused a tumble which edged me precariously close to one of the trees upon the stage, the branch of which scrapped my shoulder.  I felt my heart skip a beat, I heard the audience gasp, and I watched the tree teeter totter in slow motion on its stand.  But just then, I felt Earl’s flat hand on the small of my back and I steadied, quickly catching up after only one missed dance step. In a moment we were back in sync, the tree stopped its terrible quaking and remained upright, and the performance was over.  I looked down at Miss Donnelly.  She was beaming up at us, eyes brimming with tears, hands clapping wildly.  The audience was on their feet with collective relief and laughter.  Our bow to them was deep and well-earned. 
When we returned to school after our long Christmas vacation week, Miss Donnelly thanked us for our performance. But then we took out our times table workbooks.  We were to begin 1965 with the number eight.  I stole a glance over to Earl.  On the top of his desk, the new Bic pens he must have received in his Christmas stocking were lined up like soldiers.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Why don't you.....wear a tartan skirt?

 The inimitable Diana Vreeland included a column called "Why don't you....?" in Harpers Bazaar when she was at the magazine's helm.  Her little suggestions were at times audacious as in, "Why don't you rinse your child's hair in champagne to make it blonder"? (I would have used a lemon), or "Why don't you wear fruit hats"? (no thank you).  But some of Vreeland's suggestions were charming and stylish, i.e., "Why don't you travel with your own wool raspberry throw"?, or "Why don't you tie a dozen silver balloons to your child's bed post on New Years Eve"?  My own "Why don't you....?" for these weeks leading up to Christmas would be "Why don't you wear a tartan skirt?" And I wonder why more women aren't wearing plaid skirts as they are so traditional, so festive, so cute!
There are great ways to make them work in today's world.  For a younger woman, I suggest a shorter skirt, something flippy and reminicsent of a school girl but with edge.  Perhaps a pair of bootie type shoes and tights.  I wear my red plaid skirt with a black cashmere turtleneck and a faux fur scarf.  Long tartan skirts are so hostessy and elegant on Christmas Eve.  Add a large crimson silk flower to your shoulder and keep the rest simple:  simple black velvet slides, a crisp white blouse, soft leather belt.  Tartan pencil skirts are librarian chic.  Why don't you make yours look like an heirloom garment from a great aunt with a shetland cardigan and large marcasite brooch?

Don't rule out tartans that are not red.  Black watch plaid, blues, greens all look pretty with dark tights and with boots.  This is the perfect time of year to get out those plaids.  Why ever don't you???

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Whispered Presence

December 3rd is my maternal grandmother’s birthday. She would have been 95. When I close my eyes I still hear her voice, although she has been gone for 34 years. I was blessed with two lovely grandmothers but I often write about my father’s mother. This grandmother was dear too but in different ways.

Soft spoken and quiet, she loved us unconditionally and expected very little from us in the way of good behavior. Because of that we sometimes ran roughshod over her as children will do. But she took it all in stride and spoiled us and I think she enjoyed it.

As far as the woman goes, she was petite with pretty green eyes, the only ones in a family of browns. Always ladylike, she was well-dressed and told me once buying new clothes gave her “a lift”. She was talking about a lift in spirits because I do think she was sad at times.

With a husband in a TB sanatorium, she had to work during the war. Her only child, my mother, said that because my grandmother did war work full time, she was the original latch key kid. But my grandmother taught her to fend for herself and when she was home from work, she was a great mother who loved her daughter.

She was first generation and at a young age, her father died suddenly, and as was the custom in the old country, her uncle, my great grandfather’s brother, stepped up to the plate and married his sister-in-law. So the last five children in the family had a different father than my grandmother’s. Still, she remained very close to her sisters, all gentle and sweet women like my grandmother.

My grandmother spent several weeks in the summer with us and helped out any way she could. If I went looking for her, she would be in the basement folding clothes and ironing or doing other tasks for my mother. Those weeks were precious to me because no matter what happened in our boisterous household, my grandmother was a leveling influence. She broke up fights, rubbed backs and soothed bruised feelings. She told us over and over that someday we would all be best friends and today we are.

Recently, I found a letter in a box of her old photographs that I wrote to her in 1966. I thanked her for spending her "strike" with us, a bonus month off when her company shut down. She saved every letter and card we ever sent as if they were treasured documents. The real treasure, however, was her. She was never cross or demanding. Just a lovely creature who believed in the good in all of us and did what she could to make us more comfortable. I often think of her as one of life's innocents, a beautiful whispered and wistful presence on the edge of our lives.  She only wanted to help.  Happy Birthday Nana Millie! I think of you with love still…

Thursday, November 15, 2012

What dreams may come...

A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.
~Albert Camus

My dear friend Kay sent me this quote and then we experimented to see which early memories have shaped our lives. I adored one of hers: quietly studying her parents from beneath the dining room table as they washed dishes together in companionable rhythm.

One of mine was seeing the long stretch of our backyard in the moonlight with deep crusty snow sprinkled over with snow dust as our car pulled into the dark driveway late on a winter night.

These are very early memories that become rooted in our hearts and may explain why just one picture on Pinterest will find us softly gasping or sighing with sudden emotion, even if we are not sure why. My sister played along later and I discovered some images of hers I had forgotten. We both recollected the snow dust vista – which speaks to the power and beauty of that image in both our lives.

I love the idea of my heart opening to things now because I bore witness to them once upon a time. Here are a few more images from both Kay, my sister and I:

A lamp in my parent’s bedroom depicting an 18th century couple (Kay’s passion for the American Revolution)

Rubbing my finger across black-as-midnight, velvet Maryjane’s (my sister's love of texture and design)

The Barbie doll box with heart-stopping illustrations of mid-1950’s outfits (Kay’s work as a costumer and image consultant)

The top of my grandmother’s dresser, a jumble of pearls, beads, perfume bottles, handkerchiefs, and gloves (my constant appetite for all things feminine and pretty)

Stained glass windows in church lit from the outside by the sun (my sister’s fever for bright colors and light)

As we draw close to Thanksgiving, recall the images that first opened your heart and please share them in a comment or two.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Brief Spell of Perfect Weather

I've always been friends with books. I credit my mother who often had a book in her hands and would read on the couch in her apron as she waited for dinner to finish cooking. My sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Hibbert, told me that to rip a page out of a book or destroy it, was a crime.  I believed her and always felt that books should be cherished and taken care of and given to someone else to love when they are not wanted anymore.  Mrs. Hibbert also helped me be discerning in my reading material as the books we chose for book reports had to receive her final approval. She vetoed my book choice only once, saying it was too pedestrian.  She didn't have to belabor it - I knew the book was poorly written and a bit sensational.  Her comparison stayed with me though, and I believe she gave me a pretty good eye for books.

Today I rarely see a woman reading a book.  Not even an eBook.  When someone has free time, they're usually texting or on the internet.  It's sometimes hard to let go of connections and let oneself become immersed in a book.  But it's such a great feeling to get lost somewhere else for a time and a good book can take you to so many places.  Finding just such a book is harder and harder and that's why I often reread the classics.  But I long for that great new read, that holy grail of a book that takes me away and then drops me back at the end into my real life, changed and better.

I recall easily the long winter nights of childhood when I curled up on the love seat in front of the fire, engrossed in Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and The Wind in the Willows.  Home from college, there was the blizzard that lasted five days, just long enough to devour Anna Karenina.  If the book made me cry, all the better. 

Reading a book is good for the soul and sometimes when the world is too much, I comfort myself knowing that a book is waiting and I can escape for a bit, get lost in someone else's world or best of all, feel less alone because someone on the page has also overcome tribulations. I "awaken" from my book altered and even if challenges await, the respite from my travels sustains me for what is to come.  Like a brief spell of perfect weather just before winter.

Recent Holy Grails:
Ladies of Missalogni
Diary of a Provincial Lady
A Stopover in Venice
High Wages


Ed. Note:  I almost changed the title of this blog post.  It was written several days before we lived through a very frightening hurricane that nearly took the house down.  How did I survive the tumult?  I read under the covers by flashlight and candlelight!  The most important thing is that everyone is safe and I continue to pray for those who lost their homes.
(Me, reading on the love seat by the fire.)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Miss Sarton's Postcard

When I was living near Boston, I found a gentle read at the library filled with references to my favorite city. “The Education of Harriet Hatfield” by May Sarton is a sweet story of an elderly woman who opens a small Boston bookshop when her lifelong companion dies. Being lesbian, she is subjected to suspicion and harassment but receives support from a new collection of unlikely friends. I was especially intrigued with a young couple whose age Harriet had long left behind, and since reading the book, I like to collect grandmothers when I can.  I was so enamored with the book’s gentle story, I decided to write Miss Sarton and tell her. Without the internet, I only knew that she lived in Camden Maine so I addressed my fan letter “Miss May Sarton, Camden, Maine”.

Not long afterwards, I received a simple postcard from Miss Sarton but unfortunately, it was indecipherable – the handwriting was illegible, scrawled and shaky. I placed the card for safekeeping in my letter box along with other meaningful cards saved through the years.

On Valentine's Day last, I came across an essay written by May Sarton about the holiday. She never liked it until one year, near her death, when a secret campaign was begun. She found herself flooded with dozens of pretty valentines from old friends, great nieces and nephews, former agents and colleagues. She described how going to the mailbox turned into such a delightful adventure, how each card was more beautiful than the last. She fanned them out and admired them over and over, and then wrote, “I am a spoiled and greedy old valentine now.”

Recently a friend came to visit and with her eagle editorial eye, she efficiently transcribed Miss Sarton’s postcard for me:

April 1993
Dear Emily,
Thank you so much for your note about Harriet. I enjoyed bringing her to life. You know, I never got much fan mail. One needs to hear that the masses at least in some approximation like what you’ve done. It takes another writer to write I suppose. I am so glad that not only did you love my book but that you told me! Good luck with your writing. You may not hear from anybody at all. But perhaps, one day in the future someone will write. Write for HER.
Miss Sarton has been gone a while but her encouraging and dear response is as charmingly fresh as if it had been dropped into my mailbox yesterday morning. And there’s no living with me now as I find myself feeling rather spoiled and greedy.  What can I write for YOU dear reader?  Anybody?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Fields of Gold

At the end of the summer, I began to worry that I had run out of stories for you but autumn is an endless field of gold, and now that the weather has turned a corner, I am filled with nostalgia - images and spirits haunt me anew. I shouldn’t be surprised – autumnal renderings always find me as soon as the air turns apple-picking crisp and billowing clouds sail quickly across the sky before me. Once the swallows begin their eerie wire to wire dance at dusk, I am lost once more to sweet yesterday.

I have wistful fall memories of being a young mother and happy school memories. But fall recollections always begin and end with my mother. I see her now in her wool plaid Bermuda shorts, white peter-pan shirt, navy knee sox and penny loafers. She grabs a sweater from the back of the closet and runs out of the house to make a quick dash to the corner store for something suddenly and urgently necessary for Sunday’s roast. When she turns the key of the station wagon, she sees that a co-pilot has slipped in beside her. She smiles. “Sneaky”, she says.

Now she’s in a blue 60’s patterned shirtdress, her light brown hair shorn and windblown, her legs tucked under her in worn summer espadrilles, the ones she wore on the sharply pebbled beach in Scituate on our summer vacation. She’s waiting on the front porch steps for her litter to return from the first day of school. After a touch, a kiss, a smile, we bound into the kitchen for cupcakes. If one of us is lucky enough to think of it, there’s still a beater or two in the sink dripping with batter.

I see her this time in cropped sage pants, white blouse, a grey Shetland sweater with a grosgrain ribbon sewn along its placket. She’s running in front of me in a race to retrieve the mail but soon she stops short and lets her competitor win. The wind nips at our faces and the scent of burning leaves fills the air. She tucks my corduroy jacket under my chin. I am wearing a piece of her costume jewelry, a sliver of a gold bangle and soon I will lose it jumping in a pile of leaves. When I confess, she’s talking on the pink wall phone, leaning against the kitchen door jamb while dinner cooks in two saucepans on the stove. She’s not angry and holds the phone away from her ear long enough to kiss the top of my head. I skip off down the hall to read before supper.

It’s Halloween and I’m crying. I don’t want to be a monster - I want to be a princess. “How about an Indian Princess?”, she asks. Within minutes, feathers are plucked from a brother's long dead head dress, an old skirt becomes a sack dress, a brown tie becomes a sash. My tears dry just in time for war paint that comes from a weathered basket hidden on the top shelf of the linen closet. In the end, I decide that no princess should be without mascara from a cake and Cherries in the Snow.

Tonight is parent teacher night and a half moon is hanging from a black sky. The brass lamp above the kitchen table is dim as we finish our soup. She tells us to be good as she reaches for the car keys from the hook by the door. She’s in her chic cranberry boucle suit and brown alligator pumps with the alarmingly pointed toes. She tugs off a long navy cotton glove to wipe a smudge from a face. “I hope I get good reports tonight”, she warns. The scent of Arpège wafts behind her as she shuts the door. At breakfast, she tells all, and we beam before her from the compliments. And soon, just beyond the kitchen window, the fields beside our house will turn to gold in the early morning fall sun.

Photo Credit:  My own.  My mother, my twin and I.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mrs. Carlton

I was thrilled that my 7th grade American History teacher was to be Mrs. Barbara Carlton. My older brother had her the year before and told me that she was great. Where we lived near Boston, Revolutionary War history permeated the region. We had already been to Paul Revere’s House, the Bunker Hill Monument, the town green at Lexington – all courtesy of our schools, scout troops, and my own family, where my history loving mother led the way.

Mrs. Carlton was a vibrant teacher and charismatic lecturer and her wide smile and breathless tone of excitement inspired us.  Mrs. Carlton also charmed my impressionable 13 year old self with her 60’s mod style, which was in contrast to her passion for history - I learned that a girl could be both brainy and pretty. She wore her shirtdresses and A-line skirts with square toed slingbacks and printed tights, her swingy blond hair pulled back in a neat low ponytail, often with a red, white, and blue silk scarf tied around it. One of her dresses had petite brass buttons which matched her earrings and a gold coin charm bracelet. I loved when she wore her hip brown leather skirt with a mustard gold blouse, this time her long straight hair down on her shoulders and held back by a tortoiseshell clip on the top.  I realize now that she resembled a young Catherine Deneuve, and was never without her warm powdery perfume which filled the corners of our classroom. She wore simple makeup and frosted lipstick in a tawny tone.  Mrs. Carlton had feminine, gentle mannerisms and a modulated voice and yet still commanded attention in the classroom.  She was practical, pragmatic, and no nonsense and most of the boys were smitten, even knowing that she was a young wife with a husband in Vietnam.

For his part, the unseen Mr. Carlton supplied our classroom with a monthly tape recording of himself.  Mrs. Carlton used these tapes to complement our history lessons with current events and then drew parallels for us to discuss. The tapes became an anticipated treat and we sat attentively when our beloved teacher set up the large standard issue green tape machine. Soon we would hear Mr. Carlton’s young friendly voice boom out “Hi students! I hope you’re behaving for Mrs. Carlton”, and then he would launch into a one sided discussion about his location and give snippets of life as a GI stationed near a war zone. We enjoyed his tales of funny bunk mates and terrible food rations but we knew his life was dangerous. It was hard to fathom, with us tucked safely away in our cozy classroom and Mr. Carlton a world away in a jungle with biting mosquitos.  We knew why he was there and so we often supplied him with care packages of books, music, photographs, and cookies in thanks. The recordings always ended with him asking us to turn off the tape machine as "the rest was for Mrs. Carlton's ears only".  Being girlishly romantic, I imagined all the tender things a faraway husband would say to his beautiful young wife at home.

A week before Good Friday, she quietly asked me if  my mother would allow her to take me to an art museum when school would be closed for that day. She picked me up in her lovely sedan and drove me to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was the first time I had been to an art museum and she intuitively led the way through the galleries, showing me the museum’s collection of Renoir’s and Childe Hassam’s. But mostly she wanted to show me the Revolutionary era paintings of George Washington, Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, etc.  I was overcome to be so up close and personal to all the historical figures we had studied in class.  That trip fostered a lifelong love of art that possesses me still. We had an early dinner before she dropped me safely at home. I preened under her attention and chatted nonstop about what I saw and learned.

That Mrs. Carlton shared her husband’s experiences with us in a real way speaks to her love of teaching but also to her generosity.   She was generous in other ways too and has remained one of my favorite teachers.  She occupies a pedestal alongside my other style muses.

Friday, September 7, 2012

September Song

In the unlikely event that I own a boat one fine day, I will name her "September Morn".  September is a gentle month and it inspires me in many ways: the refreshingly cooler temperatures and lower humidity, the reawakening of happy school days memories, and most of all, the excited feelings of new beginnings - more so than New Year's, when my resolutions usually fall unseeded by Epiphany.

Ernest Hemingway thought about such things too.  Having come out of a protracted period of sadness and depression, Hemingway went away to the seashore where he ordered a plate of oysters at a cafe.  After slipping one down, he tasted the sea.  Suddenly, life had possibilities.  A few more oysters and he wrote, "I began to make plans again".

I too, am making plans this September...to leave a job that has long become too small for me, to find time to do more creative writing for publications that really like me and appreciate my "voice", and to spend my precious hours only with special people who are honest and caring.  These are my oysters...and my September song.

September is the time to begin again.
In the country, when I could smell the wood smoke
in the forest, and the curtains could be drawn
when the tea came in, on the first autumn
evening, I always felt that
my season of good luck had come.
~Eleanor Perenyi
More Was Lost (1946)

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Two Gentlemen

This portrait stunned me at Newport’s Rosecliff Mansion.  The hypnotic blue eyes looked deep into mine as if casting a spell.  I felt I knew him.  There was no identification on the wall next to the gentleman, so I did a little research later at home. His name was Richard Thornton Wilson and he made his fortune in finance.  His promising beginnings were in Georgia but he later lived among the moneyed elite in Gilded Age New York City. It was a bit of a mystery to me how he ended up on a Newport wall so I dug deeper and discovered that his children were called "The Marrying Wilsons" having all "married up" into Newport society (think Vanderbilt’s and Astor’s).  By all accounts, he was a gentleman, kind, and very generous.

Indeed a handsome man, Margaret Mitchell is rumored to have used Mr. Wilson as the model for Rhett Butler in her novel Gone With the Wind.  I can see why but I realized that this portrait really reminded me of a tall, handsome, polite but very shy boy I went to school with.  My classmate was so silent and mysterious that I cannot recall ever hearing him speak although we shared an English class.  I wondered about him, as I secretly watched his long lanky steps, his reserved politeness. Always unobtrusive, yet one of the few boys who held doors for the girls and teachers. He never made any trouble.

Almost three years ago, I received an email from my classmate out of the blue.  He said hello and then asked, "Did you go to the principal’s office the day I was struck in the face?"  Slowly, the memory came back to me in rolling waves.  Our high school was infamously overcrowded and traversing the hallways was almost impossible with wall to wall bodies, clumsily lumbering together, trying to reach a myriad of locations at once.  One afternoon sophomore year, as I struggled to reach my class, I heard punches being thrown over my shoulder and saw the handsome classmate fall to the floor.  The school’s arrogant bully, a hockey player, for no reason that was apparent made a flash decision to attack with three fierce punches.  I hesitated but soon my righteous indignation overtook me and I ran to the school office.  Breathlessly, I reported what I saw and was made to sit in a wooden chair by the door.  In a few minutes, the gentle classmate and the bully were brought in together and told to shake hands.  I shot up from the chair like a rocket, "You don't understand!  He wasn't doing anything!  It was unprovoked!".  But the principal thought I was impeding progress and ordered me to class.  The next day when I saw my even more subdued classmate, his wounds were evident, inside and out.  I spoke to him but don't recall what I said.  I'm sure I tried to convey that I felt sorry about the act of violence put upon him.  He nodded, turned away from me, and we never spoke again. I could see that he just wanted to be left alone.  Two years later on graduation day, a picture was taken of our class in caps and gowns.  My classmate and I were photographed just feet apart, our young faces forever recorded on a grainy picture for the yearbook.  Over time, I forgot the terrible incident and the sweet Gentle Ben classmate, until the email.  I answered, "Yes, it was me".  Soon a reply, "Thank you - I knew you were there and I knew why.  Thank you." 

And so, when I came face to face with Mr. Richard Thornton Wilson, my amazement was profound.  I called my gentleman friend, the aforementioned classmate, to my side.  "Look!  It’s you!  The beard but especially the eyes – they’re yours!"  Astonished, we both stared at the portrait...but it was my own gaze that Mr. Wilson seemed to knowingly hold in his.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Married women will still have their favorites...

Letter from Sarah Haley, Newburyport to Nabby Angell, Boston  ~ June 2, 1777
Dear Cousin Nabby,
May I flatter myself, My Dear Girl, that a letter from a sober matron, quite removed from all the polite amusements of the times, and who has very little consequently to say for herself, can be quite acceptable to you?
You desired me to scribble you a few lines and I am willing to think you will deal as sincerely with me, as with others.  If not, you have only the poor consolation of answering this letter, as I am determined to accept nothing less from you.  Make no excuses that you have nothing to write back, as such an evasion will not do, as I am sure Headquarters can easily furnish something worth communicating, especially when embellished by your able pen.  As for me, I can only say that I love you as well as ever – which perhaps you will say is of little consequence and that my own pen grows cleverly and looking like a little Indian which may be still.
Has any of the lasses secured themselves a gallant among the Independents or did they think them not worth the trouble?  Cartwright is here recruiting and drank tea with me the first day he came to town.  He told me that Miss Corliss had represented to some lady in Boston, that he was the author of a song, which upon his honor, he says he never wrote!
Some of the lads in their letters to their friends, exclaimed against Providence, and with their great warmth upon the whole, I think they were in general, much neglected.  I was half in love with one of my partners, a Captain Brown, a much agreeable well behaved man, of about three and twenty and with the addition of a handsome face made him one of the principle figures in the room.  My next favorite (you see, married women will still have their favorites) was one of the homely agreeable.  Mason, with a broken nose – but no matter for that!  So, I hear as well, the redoubtable Colonel Russell is writing to your brother’s late flame and Cousin George has at last got married – was not you a little surprised?  I think it is my sister Polly and Corliss’ next turn.
Your situation begins to be pleasant and you are never at a loss for company, or I imagine you spend time gaily.  And so Mrs. Tilston, a lady of my acquaintance has come to spend an hour which obliges me hastily to subscribe myself and so,
Your Affectionate Cousin,
This letter was given to me by a friend who collects such things.  He also collects Revolutionary War pay vouchers which are interesting to look at until the tenth in a row, and then one finds oneself screaming for something about bonnets and ribbons instead of lead and ammunition.  And so, this amiable little letter was dropped into my hands and now I find myself with a new passion for women’s letters.  Recently, I bought one written by a woman to her seamstress in 1869.  It is full of buttons and bows – just the kind of feminine fluff I like.  This letter, however, is appealing too.  It’s authored by a married woman, Sarah Haley from Newburyport Massachusetts, to her cousin, Nabby Angell in Boston.  “Nabby” was a girlish nickname for “Abigail”.
Nabby had requested a letter from her cousin, and Sarah being married (and older, I presume), laments that she is not sure she will have anything of interest to tell her single cousin.  But here, she tells Nabby many things and paints an alluring snapshot of  life in a coastal village during Revolutionary War times.  Apparently, Sarah has attended a party where she “partners” (dances?) with a handsome Captain who is her “favorite” among the soldiers and she asks Nabby if  her friends have also met any attractive soldiers.  The rest of the letter is filled with bits of happy gossip about love, courting, and anticipated unions and marriages.  The missive ends when another friend interrupts Sarah for a short visit and perhaps tea.
Women’s letters are notoriously scarce and so I have imagined that this one was tucked away by a beloved granddaughter or niece who found it equally charming.  It’s a simple domestic letter written by a young wife during an extraordinary time.  But for me, a woman possessed by the past, what I read between the words was as satisfying has having watched a full length Merchant Ivory film.
Picture Credit:  Henrietta Johnston 1674-1729. Subject: Mrs. Pierre Bacot  

Friday, August 17, 2012


"It's not personal", we were told when a few good friends were laid off this week at work.  It will be personal to me Monday morning when I walk by one friend's empty cubicle.  I will miss his kind and funny ways.  It occurred to me that life is strangely divided between the time before the film You've Got Mail was made and the time after.  It's not surprising that 9/11 was just a few short years later.  It's a Mason Dixon line  - a great divide where we crossed over from hope and gentleness to something else.
You've Got Mail is the most perfect of movies. What's not to love about Meg Ryan's Kathleen Kelly - her sweet naivete, her adorable wardrobe, and great west side apartment?  It has Tom Hanks as the flawed Joe Fox, rich heir to a big bad bookstore chain.  The most violent scene in the film is when  Kathleen absentmindedly holds up to Joe's head the carving knife she's using after discovering he is the person threatening the demise of her charming children's bookshop, The Shop Around the Corner. The nostalgic music includes hits by Roy Orbison, Harry Nilsson, and Stevie Wonder. We see the very best of New York City which is as much a cast member as Jean Stapleton, the ever faithful Birdie, bookeeper for Kathleen's shop. And even though the film is about the new marvel of email, there isn't a single cell phone moment, nobody texts or tweets during dinner, there's no swearing, no meaningless sex.  Just intelligent banter, books, a few conundrums and then, a comforting and tender ending.  It entertains and makes me feel good, makes me laugh outloud, makes me think.  Since You've Got Mail, there have been few films that have left me feeling that way.  And that's why the intervening years are on this side of the great divide, where life seems harder, edgier, and impersonal. I liked Kathleen's response to Joe's admonishment not to take it personal that his company devoured alive her independent bookshop, "Just what does that mean exactly?", Kathleen demands. "Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal".  I could not agree more.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Fall Issue

Vogue has yet to give us a glimpse of the cover of its September issue but we do know that Lady Gaga will grace it. This is the much anticipated thick as a brick issue that has hundreds of pages of fall advertising. I love it but I do wish Vogue had models on the cover again and I really wish that the celebrities they select would at least be put in seasonally appropriate clothes and not the pale slinky gowns they wear on the covers now. In September and October I want to see burnished reds, nut browns, burnt oranges, cashmeres, tweeds, and wools. And what about red tartans?

I know where the gorgeous plaids and autumnal textured knits are, however. You can find them on my vintage Seventeen magazines of yore. How I anticipated the huge August Seventeen issue that arrived in my mailbox the first week of the month. My sister and I would take it to the beach and spend hours upon hours of prime sun tanning time pouring over the Bobbie Brooks ads for wide leg window pane plaid pants with cuffs and simple Shetland sweaters in primary colors. The surf couldn't pull us away from the lovely Berkshire hosiery ads, Bonnie Doon knee socks, and Bass shoes. The pictures were always fetching and romantic, with a boy-next-door model to set off the clothes and imply that an after school tailgating picnic was happening. We especially loved the Ladybug ads with capacious illustrations of menswear inspired clothes; plaid pantsuits with ruffled blouses, argyle sweaters, chunky heeled shoes, newsboy caps and Breton hats, all matching and coordinated. We dreamed of school starting and what we would wear and bring along on the first day. We made lists which, including lingerie and makeup, loose leaf notebooks, colored pens, "baby" barrettes and it all began with the opening of that big August Issue. The girl on the cover enticed us to enter her world, with her happy smile in her happy clothes and it made leaving behind our summer loves and friends almost painless. Seventeen made us feel it was alright that time was passing – because there was plenty of it and summer, if not endless, would at least return again and again. But not until after a shining new school year filled with the latest flicks, clothes, and the Boy Trap Sandwich #51.

Seventeen told us that Herbal Essence Shampoo would give us "the most beautiful shampoo experience on earth" and our hair would smell like the Garden of Eden. We were told that Wrangler jeans were the only jeans to wear to school and that "3 out of 3 girls preferred Yardley's Watercolor Eye Shadows" in the new applicator compact. We bought every color and shared them between us, along with a bottle of Chanel #5 which was selling for just $5.00 at the local Rexall. Seventeen also told us Danskins were not just for dancing and so we put the new bodysuits on our list too. And maxi coats and miniskirts and leather tooled handbags for each of us.

It wasn't just the ads that we loved so much - the editorial staff at Seventeen knew just how to talk to us. There were articles about careers, the Peace Corp, boyfriends, and the generation gap. The magazine's optimism made us feel that anything we imagined was possible and the future was our oyster.

So now, when my September Vogue comes in the mail, I may sniff at bit at the skimpy frock the celebrity du jour is wearing on the cover. But I know when my sister and I crack open that massive tome on our beach blanket Labor Day weekend, we'll be plotting our next moves.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Desk of One's Own

Growing up I shared a desk with my sister that my mother refinished and painted to match our bedroom décor. We used it for everything but its intended purpose, homework. It held a round psychedelic orbed makeup mirror and the bottom drawer was large enough to file record albums upright if kept open. Many a toe was stubbed on that drawer, ours and our mother’s. Being a scribe all my life, I always wrote sprawled out on my bed but noticed one day, a friend’s writing desk. A single mother like me, she used a small kitchen table and with the back leaf down and a chair pulled close, her makeshift desk was charming with baskets for organizing and a Mason jar of wildflowers. I began to want with a focused passion, a real desk of my own.

I imagined all the pretty boxes of notecards I would keep in the top drawer, the special place I would have to record things in my daughter’s baby book, and the ample pigeon holes that I would fill with bills and receipts. It would be the headquarters for my life, a place to each lunch and work.  I decided on a secretary style that would be both feminine and functional and I wanted one with a shell motif carved into the front if possible. These dreams and imaginings led me to the ancient family furniture store in my town.

I was warned that the owner was gruff and disagreeable but since I believe in “entertaining angels unaware”, I stopped by the store one rainy afternoon where I soon found a lovely secretary in burnished oak abounding with ladylikeness and shell motifs. Each piece, the desk part and the mirrored shelf above, was $1000, I was told by the crusty owner who was living up to his reputation.  I feebly explained I was a writer and could only afford the writing part of the desk. His eyes narrowed as he bellowed, “Look Kid, what the hell am I going to do with a desk shelf and no desk?!” A silence ensued and his glare challenged me for an answer. He muttered as he pulled a sawed off pencil from the top of his ear and a yellowed receipt pad from his pocket. Faintly, I dared, “May I have it on timed payments?” More cold silence and then with disbelief and a shaking head, “Kid, KID, you’re killing me! KILLING me!” as he scribbled, “TERMS - Base Only - $50 a month until PAID IN FULL. NO DELIVERY UNTIL!” and double underlined his words emphatically.  I would not have expected to have the desk before paying for it but explaining would have meant more time in this odious man’s presence. I could have believed that the adorable baby on my hip softened  him into selling me half a desk, but I know in my heart it was his considerably nicer wife who called out from the payment office, “Oh let her have it, Frank!” I caught her wink as I headed out the store and back into the dark afternoon.

My payments rolled along for over a year until I received an unexpected bonus at work and sent a final larger payment to the furniture store. A phone call later, I had a delivery date. My daughter and I were both excited when the white truck pulled up outside our apartment which had a perfect nook for the desk. My lovely secretary was brought in and just as I began to retrieve those pretty notecard boxes I had been squirreling away, the truck driver banged on the door again. Bewildered, I noticed a folded note taped to the side of the mirrored shelf he had on his trolley. The scrawled words read, “Kid, desktop is GRATIS...write a book about me sometime”. I haven’t written his book, but I think I told his story.

“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
~New Testament, Hebrews 13:2
Credit:  A Girl Writing," Henriette Browne (1829-1901)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Summer of '42

A band of hot days came in long succession, Italian ones with low thick air. I had a rare free day with my daughter and we decided to visit an outlet store in Massachusetts that would surely have air conditioning and get us out of the uncomfortable house. My mother joined us. After the shopping part was done, we drove close to the coast for a bit when suddenly my mother called out from the back seat, “We’re near Nantasket Beach!” I knew that Nantasket was where my mother spent her summers as a small child during the war years.  She had already told us stories about not being able to use a camera on the beach (apparently, the edict wasn’t obeyed – we have several photographs), her favorite game of searching for submarine periscopes out on the sea's horizon, the long sultry nights in a cottage without air conditioning, endless carousel rides, startlingly large waffles at a boardwalk eatery, the perils of consuming too many salt water taffies before bed, and all manner of wonderful beachy memories. And so we had no problem continuing with our ramble down the coast on this stifling day until we reached Nantasket.
The first clue we were there besides seeing a blue cove dotted with sailboats, was a large round carousel at the entrance to the downtown area. Mom sat upright, “The carousel!"  My daughter slowed the car so Mom could peer into the old weathered wooden building to glimpse the dancing horses. “They’re playing music! Listen!”, she said.
Around a bend, we found “her” house on a small hill that led directly down to the beach and with her finger she pointed up at the bedroom where she had slept as a little girl, with hair plaited by my grandmother and streaked by the sun.  There was an alarmingly small window at the top of the modest bungalow and we were in awe of being able to sleep in such a place without air conditioning. “It looks the same…the exact same!”, she marveled. As we turned onto the old boardwalk; more calling out and then, “There’s Joseph’s! It’s the waffle place!” Today Joseph’s is a honkytonk clam shop/arcade combo and not a waffle was to be found listed on the giant menu hanging outside. Only the name of the establishment remained. But Mom’s dark eyes were dancing with delight when we passed The Fascination, the real arcade of her childhood summer.  My heart swelled with tenderness and I caught my daughter's own misty eyes under her dark glasses.  We were told even more stories about  how when fathers were gone, mothers still took their children out of the city to swim and play at the beach in a time when sunburns were nothing to worry about.  And even though there was a war on, grownups made sure life was about breakfast at Joseph’s, small tin pails and shovels, sand in shoes, and eating cheese sandwiches and dripping orange popsicles on an old scratchy wool blanket borrowed from the landlady’s parlor. 
We left Nantasket behind us and although waffles were also not on the menu at the quaint seaside restaurant we found on the way home, my daughter and I dined with a lively sun soaked little girl in braids.
(Above is my mother and grandmother on the sand at Nantasket Beach, 1942)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Memory's Muse

Can you forgive one more perfume post?  Fragrance is on my mind these days because of a newspaper gig I have where I get to write about perfume a lot.  Attached at the bottom are a few of my offerings.

It may seem odd to be so possessed by fragrance, yet wear only two different scents.   But I know it is the lore, history, and imagery of perfume that really possess me.  Recently, I read "A Scented Palace, the Secret History of Marie Antoinette's Perfumer", by Elisabeth de Feydeau, which beguiled me to no end.  The story is about Jean-Louis Fargeon, the personal perfumer of Marie Antoinette and the fragrance purveyor to the Court.  De Feydeau draws upon the papers of Fargeon to paint the scented world of Marie Antoinette including her beloved Parfum de Trianon, a tuberose with a rich floral bouquet. 

Many of my forever muses lived in scented worlds of their own and it is that part of their lives that helps me recall them so intensely. My grandmother's Lily of the Valley as well as the lemon scent of her hands instantly take me back to her 1930's painted kitchen table where I am perched on a stack of Boston telephone directories watching her wrap the last piece of my age six birthday cake, my legs dangling between the chair legs.  I am convinced the memory of these precious details would be forever lost without the conveyance of her special scents.  And when they happen to find me, they whisk me to a vivid yesterday because perfume is Memory's Muse.




Saturday, July 7, 2012


I met Miss Mary Sears last Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  She becharmed me so much that I have been googling her as well as the painter of her portrait, Léon Joseph Florentin Bonnat, who considered this his finest work.  There is little information to be found on Miss Sears, later Mrs. Francis Shaw, but of some interest is her sister, Miss Clara Endicott Sears, the donor of the portrait.

It astonishes me over and over again, how here in New England, so many artists, writers and historical figures are interconnected - the Sears sisters were decendents of the Peabody sisters of Salem.  What is really interesting to me is that Miss Clara Sears built a home in Massachuetts, not knowing that the the property had once hosted Bronson Alcott's (father to Louisa May) utopian community. By 1914 she had established one of America's first outdoor museums, Fruitlands, themed to the Transcendalists ideology that Alcott was passionate about.  Clara was also a romance novelist and authored many New England historical publications.  She remained unmarried.

But I sure wish I could find out more about Clara's lovely sister.  Having one myself, sisters keep me spellbound.  This pair, one married and obscure;  the other, a single and popular philanthopist, make me wonder if they were close.  What did they share?  What was their girlhood like in their protected Brahmin world?  Was Clara a madcap maiden aunt to Mary's children?  Until I find out more, these things will remain a mystery. As a fashionista, I will content myself with enjoying this extraordinary portrait of a young woman in a pretty navy suit with a red rose nosegay pinned just below her heart. 

Here is a portrait of an older Clara.  And as sisters often do, she imitates...with a floral nosegay of her own.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Scents We Left Behind

Does anybody remember the perfume Charlie? I baptized myself with it in college. I loved the ads with the leggy future Charlie’s Angel, Shelley Hatch, strutting her stuff. Somehow I felt if I wore Charlie, I’d maneuver through my uptight college campus the same way. I even remember the theme song sung by Bobby Short. But really, I hated the fragrance. It was way too strong. It wasn’t me.

But there were other perfumes of yore I really miss and long to try again. Some conjure up boyfriends who are now just sepia images in my memory. One liked my Chantilly but asked me to wear more of it. He also asked for more of other things I wasn’t quite ready to give. A friend sent me a vintage Chantilly ad recently that read, “There is enough Chantilly in this innocent pink spray to shake your world”. Those words are enticing...but...

What about Sweet Honesty? I wore this Avon scent for a while. I loved the innocent, flower child-teenage girl that was photographed in the Avon brochure. Recently, I ordered a 99 cent Sweet Honesty antiperspirant. It shot me from my bathroom back to 1973. Suddenly, I saw myself in a peasant blouse and Landlubbers.

I tried in turns, Emeraude, L’Aimant, and L’Origan, Coty’s three graces. I fell in love with L’Aimant when I was summering with a friend whose great aunt wore it. It had just the right softness and sweetness my fifteen year old heart craved. The aunt gifted me her bottle, telling me I was young and beautiful and she was old and a recent widow. Sadly, she died later that year of her broken heart. I never forgot her or her kind gesture.

Perfume can draw halos around certain times in our past. The most popular girl in high school wore Shalimar. I took a page from her and wore it too for a while. It never really made me popular except with my grandfather who loved it. Smelling it now, makes me think of him and fences off that time when his life still overlapped mine.

Later, I wore Coty’s Musk, Ylang Ylang, and Patchouli which came in a large white compact with solid stripes of each fragrance. My sister and I painted them on our arms and mixed them up. The result was heady and warm until I developed a skin rash that itched like mad and can still be seen in the pictures from my Junior prom.

Did you wear Ciara? That conjures up my disco days when going out at 9:00 pm was way too early. We wore Qiana dresses and suntans. Ciara ads were everywhere in 1976 and so was the perfume. The local Rexall had plenty of it, most of it purchased by my sister and I. We loved Ciara’s spokeswoman, Lauren Hutton and her gap toothed grin.

I was at the perfume counter the day White Linen hit the selling floor. I had read about it in my Bazaar. A newly minted working girl, I wanted something crisp but pretty for work. I was devoted to it and my young man told me he could smell it on his rag sweater for days after being with me. I loved being associated with a particular scent and once I tried to enhance the connection by spraying it on his duffle bag. Whether he noticed or not was never clear but I received an engagement ring not long after.

Fragrance has always possessed me in a special way. And as the soundtrack of my life could never include just one song, there are a blend of scents that trail and waft around the people and events that were meaningful to me, like halos of windblown ribbons.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


When my daughter was a small child, I gave her a book called The Little While Friends, about pals that she would meet and enjoy briefly but never see again. I was thinking of the friends found on the playground and in waiting rooms at the dentist but, in hindsight, I have come to realize that Little While Friends have appeared throughout my life too.

Such it was with Vicky, a darling young woman (we were really girls at the time) that I had a short and heady friendship with.  A kind acquaintance introduced us, knowing that Vicky and I, both newlyweds with traveling husbands, were meant for each other. Our “blind date” occurred in a dear little museum cafe where we chatted non-stop over tuna melts and iced tea.

Vicky and I were the same height which I loved.  We also wore our hair in a similar chic bobbed style - hers, however was a striking auburn which I admired very much. Vicky was a bright crayola crayon and I felt like a chalk pastel. She wore one of those great Asian designer outfits that were popular at the time, all brilliant red and turquoise. I was in a pink chiffon blouse and gray skirt. Over the next two years, Vicky taught me how to dress more vibrantly and also how to live a connoisseur’s life.

Sometimes, when both our husbands were away, I would spend the night in the attic bedroom of her small and pretty Dutch Colonial home. I slept under the eaves in what was her “wrapping room” which one night was filled with beautifully wrapped Christmas gifts to be sent to far away nieces. To have a wrapping room seemed to me the height of luxury, with ribbons and colorful papers in a joyous tangle. Vicky would bring me black coffee (only Hawaiian Kona) on the mornings I slept over and when I asked about milk and sugar, her knowingly wise-beyond-her-years reply was, “One day you will have to switch to all black coffee for health reasons, so you may as well learn how to like it black now”.  And she was right. Vicky was discerning in everything from her beautiful cobalt blue London Fog trench coat and her special handcrafted jewelry, to the blow dryer she used and her velveteen couch.

Together, we discussed not just coffee, but hosiery, lingerie, winter gloves, as well as where to find the best croissants, blueberry muffins, wine. Nothing that Vicky wore or consumed was less than the best she could afford and she taught me how to search for these things and how sometimes it was best to save my money and wait for the best to show up. We had so much silly fun together. One summer night we went on a wild goose chase to four drug stores searching for a mascara we saw in the latest Glamour magazine. The mascara was not to be found but later, the adventure over, we split an ice cream sundae while sitting on the top of an old picnic bench under the stars and chatted about our favorite perfumes.

On an icy cold and lonely night, Vicky made me a special home-cooked meal of Chicken Divan, from her grandmother's recipe. An old fashioned dish, we ate it in her dining room with the built in oval china cabinets filled with all her cherished things. It was one of the most unforgettable meals I've ever had, the ingredients were fresh, the chicken succulent - and it was lovingly made just for me by a hostess who said she didn't cook. We felt so grown up at the candlelit table with Vicky's wedding dishes and a bottle of wine.

When Vicky became pregnant, I had a ball helping her find cute maternity clothes, nursing nightgowns and then later, baby items. Together, we made lists of what she would need for the hospital and to bring the baby home in. Just weeks before her due date, we finished turning the wrapping room into a sweet little nursery. Sadly, Vicky's baby girl died before birth.  I remained silent the night I visited her in the hospital having just found out I was to be a mother too. There were other friends expecting as well and this was a source of deep sorrow for my friend and it changed everything.  Soon her protective husband took her to live on the opposite coast near his family.  I missed her terribly.

Vicky's inability to spend time with me and her leave-taking felt like a disappearance.  But our Little While friendship remains a sacred gold thread on my life's tapestry. She left behind my final girlish memories before life became serious with motherhood.  The day she moved, she generously dropped off an exquisitely wrapped and lovely baby gift for my newborn daughter.  Inside the sparkly pink card was a handwritten recipe for her grandmother's Chicken Divan.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Some Enchanted Evening

Unexpectedly, life will turn a corner and it’s abruptly sadder and not as much fun, at least for a while. The phone that rang with good news of babies being born, new houses being built, and voyages taken, now rings with news that someone beloved has died, a home has been lost, or an accident has altered a good life that was being lived vividly.

I was having just such a period when a dear friend asked me go to a country-western bar with her. “You need a good time”, she implored. I implored back, “Have you MET me?”. My life is about Bronte, Austen, Keats, theater, ballet and not about cowboy boots, beer, and fiddles. All mistaken stereotypes, I know....

After much cajoling, I realized that perhaps I did indeed need a good time, even if it was in a saloon with a flashing neon “Bud Light” sign.  I told my friend I would go for two hours only.

Soon after entering the darkened place, we were both asked to dance. My partner turned out to be a darling older gent in a cowboy hat whose day job was repairing flagpoles. He was a true gentleman who patiently taught me the two step and was interesting to talk to (how else would I now know that flagpoles break? A lot.) Being significantly older than I, we had no expectations of seeing each other again. My friend was luckier, however. Her partner had pulled me aside a minute after stepping through the door and asked for an introduction. He was smitten at first sight and they danced together for the entire evening.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the other dancers take to the scarred wooden floor in a happy rhythm. I learned that the lyrics of country music can be poignant to the point of tearful tenderness. I picked up the chorus of a few twangy numbers and sang along with a beer mug in my hand. My dance partner put his arm about my shoulders and sang with me. My friend and her new man were enchanting to watch under the strangely modified disco ball that sprinkled stardust across the dance floor. I saw that the female guitarist is actually the corporate attorney on the third floor of my office building. I couldn’t remember when I had such a grand time. It was a jovial night filled with new friends, music, stars and even romance.  And for a time, while we were there, nobody died.  Not one person.

PS ….and dear readers, my friend married him. She really did!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Girl I Used to Be

I saw my younger self today…while I was shoe shopping. I gasped inwardly and stopped dead in my tracks for a moment. It wasn’t just the long straight brown hair with the center part and the shapely legs. It was the profile, the great tip off that it was indeed me at 19. I followed her for a step or two. She was unaware that I was glancing at her from the corner of my eye. I was mesmerized to see myself in the flesh, younger, prettier, lovelier.

A slight ache … why exactly? Her unsuspecting beauty, her naive allure? At that age, I let others dictate my worth, my value, my attractiveness. It was the age I simply did not know how beautiful I really was or more importantly, who I really was.

I shrugged the ache away and meandered the aisles but when I reached the check out, there I was again, directly in front. I became aware that my lovely self was trying to make a choice between two pairs of sandals, just having been informed that her credit card could only pay for one. The clerk was barely hiding her impatience, the line was queuing. Quietly, I offered, “The taupe snakeskin will be more versatile”. My younger self looked up gratefully, relieved, and for a moment her brown eyes held my brown eyes. She snorted, a short uneasy giggle escaped, and then a barely muttered “Uh...thanks”.

Through the store’s plate glass window, I watched my younger self fade into the vast parking lot. My reflection in the window came back to me suddenly with a tender smile upon my lips.  Bless her little heart.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Spring Dance

For spring, Valentino has done some gorgeous party dresses. There’s a navy chiffon short number with embroidered flowers and a full skirt, some beautiful fitted lace sheaths in exquisite colors. Sweet feminine fluff that would never allow for wall hugging at a spring dance and I do love a nice spring dance. There are many on film that enchant me with their voile dresses, tuxedoed dance partners, strains of orchestra music. My first spring dance was a bit of a trial though. It was 8th grade and I wanted to wear a hip dress like the polka dot one above. Mini-skirts and fanciful dresses were everywhere, as well as bright happy colors, patterned tights, and square toed patent leather shoes. But my grandmother was still making all my special occasion dresses and she created a lovely simple white pique dress with a baby blue satin sash around its empire waist.  The sash ended in the back with a big floppy bow. I didn’t love my dress.

The school gym was hot and very crowded. I spent the evening hugging the wall, hoping I wouldn’t be asked to dance and hoping I would. I cannot recall if I danced or not – mostly likely it was with a pal. I do remember studying all the fashions that were swinging and twisting across the dance floor before me though. The striped dresses with chain belts, the lace blouses tucked into dirndl skirts, even a few pairs of white go-go boots. The girls, I noticed, looked like they were models right out of the latest Seventeen magazine tossed on the floor beside my bed. I could see the Yardley Slicker-ed lips, the frosted eye shadows, I even think I detected Wind Song, most likely pilfered from an older sister’s dresser. As I stood observing, I made a plan to ask my grandmother for more upbeat clothes in the future and knowing how she loved me, a trickle of guilt infused my fashion reverie.

It’s funny, I had dinner recently with an old school friend I haven’t seen in over 30 years. We both recall being at that same dance and yet we never noticed each other. He spent the night leaning up against a massive throbbing speaker grooving to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”, a song I abhorred. His primary memory is that he walked home completely deaf in one ear. Our recollections made us laugh, my first experience as a wall flower and my determination for more exciting clothes, his favorite song and his strange and muffled toddle home.

The next morning, my friend telephoned to say he enjoyed my company. “I couldn’t stop thinking about something though”, he said. And then..softly, “The white dress with the blue satin sash. It kept me awake”.

Great spring dance scenes can be found in these films:
Mrs. Miniver, American President, Houseboat, Since You Went Away, To Sir with Love

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Paris in Love

I read a short story once about a lonely pioneer wife whose husband went to greet a wagon he heard traveling in the distance of their homestead. The couple had been living alone in the wilderness for years with the exception of a small camp of workmen on their property. The pioneer wife had not seen another woman for a very long time. After the woman’s husband alerted her that there was a female on board the wagon, she immediately took down from the cupboard the one remaining unbroken china tea cup she had from her own hard journey west. She could not wait to sit before the fire and have a chat with another woman about all manner of things dear to the feminine heart. And of course, the new friend would drink from the unblemished tea cup and keep it as a remembrance of the visit. I tell you this story because I just read a book that left me feeling that I just had a long chat with a new woman friend, a kindred spirit passing through.

“Paris in Love”, by Shakespearean professor and romance novelist, Eloisa James, is a wonderful little gem of a book. Using short vignettes or Facebook-like posts, it tells the story of Eloisa’s family’s sojourn to Paris for a year. There are a few longer “posts” and a recipe or two as well.

The book is easy to read as it meanders through the year of living Parisian, describing all the lovely little things one imagines about actually living and setting up residence in the City of Light. I also love it when authors try to crack the famous Why are French Women so Attractive Code and Eloisa James gives us some interesting insights. The post about her Italian husband’s gift to her of a French bra with a sewn in locket made my heart sing with joy. Parisian women love lingerie!

But I also enjoyed the stories about her children’s adaptation to Parisian schools, their visits to museums and the French shops, and their kindly acquaintance with a nearby homeless man. The stories are like little pearls, smoothly gliding down a silken thread until sadly, the last one passes through. I simply did not want the book to end!

I enjoyed visiting with Eloisa James and I almost want to send her my own tea cup in gratitude for the satisfying visit. My gift would be the solitary unbroken one, from one woman to another.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

On the Nightstand

My nightstand is covered with good books because I want choices for my just-before-bed reading. Sometimes that time is a mere few minutes and I want the last things that fill my head to be uplifting, hopeful, or at least helpful to me. Often I will reach for passages in an old favorite such as Madame Bovary. Sometimes I choose meditations from Simple Abundance. Whatever I select, it has to be as warm and comforting as the good night wishes from an old friend who is visiting from afar.
One can tell something from a person's nightstand and if I happen to be in the vicinity of someone's, I will peek to see if I have missed a good book and also to see the words of wisdom others require to be lulled to sleep. My sister's nightstand is covered with faithful companions in the form of small meditation books, highlighted from years of use. A friend's is a repository of Civil War diaries, which are his passion. The books are piled high, about fourteen total, all previously read and absorbed. He slips one from the tower every night for those last words of comfort and joy.
I always try to catch the books actors in films are taking to bed with them. You would be surprised how often this scene occurs in movies and I am certain the books that are selected are no accident. Sarah Jessica Parker went to bed in the last Sex and the City movie with Nancy Mitford's "Love in a Cold Climate", a romantic and charming story perfect for her Carrie Bradshaw.
My nightstand holds children's books, a book of poetry, and a book of prayers. But more often than not, I will choose an old friendly novel. One that delivers the good night promise lately is "Lantern Hill" by Lucy Maud Montgomery. "...that she was Jane again and no longer a lost wind...was it her laugh or a chime of bells"? Or this, "Watch the stars whenever you are worried, Jane...they will steady you, comfort you, balance you". What we choose to read before sleep is a grown up lullaby really, and one we can sing to ourselves.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Life Wins

Don't hate me but I don't like spring. I am an autumn girl - I love the tension of blue sky and falling leaves, sunshine coupled with crisp air. Truth be told, something terrible happened to me on a May 1st, twenty or so years ago, and I've haven't quite forgiven spring yet. It was an innocent day that started happily and ended horribly. The memories have lingered each spring since. I've tried to erradicate them with the help of two dear friends who went out of their way to bring light and beneficence into the season for me. It worked a bit and I was grateful. But nothing helped like a sermon I heard a minister give last year. Her words were simple and I believed them. She said, "Spring means Life Wins".
Since that May 1st, I always thought of spring as a death...the golden sunshine was a reminder of how innocent I was the morning of that date, how hopeful, how blissfully unaware of what was to come, how I was cruely blindsided. The minister's words, stayed with me last year, however, and I tried somehow to see the earth's changes in a different way. Perhaps the golden sunlight would envelope me like a prayer shawl, lovingly stitched by a dear friend. Perhaps I could imagine the flowers as friends too, an audience looking up at me and applauding as I make my way through April, May, and then to the relief of June, when my mood naturally lifts on summer's doorstep.
I began listening to uplifting show tunes, I bought colorful cotton pajamas to wear to bed, I reached out to my friends who tried to help me so lovingly. But mostly I meditated on the minister's words that Life Wins, that the earth's changes mean that humanity is always moving toward the light, and that no matter what horrific thing happens, the spirit tries to balance on the side of happiness and joy, sometimes without really trying.
Evenso, May 1st will always be a secret anniversary of the heart. But now the negative memories are only in my peripheral vision. Spring means Life Wins, and so will I, one spring at a time. Will you help too?