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.