Saturday, December 28, 2013

New Year's Eve Lesson (with pink suede and a baked potato)

The Christmas I was ten, my mother gave my sister and I our first handbags.  They were cotton candy pink suede clutches that folded in half.  All handbags given in those days contained a coin and inside these were new shiny dimes.  The theory is that if money is placed in the purse it will bring prosperity to the recipient and as it was, we did receive a windfall by way of a happy life-long memory and I, a lesson.

That was also the year that my grandmother, the arbiter of all things ladylike, decided that it was about time my sister and I had a grown-up evening out on the town with she and my grandfather as hosts.  The day of New Year's Eve we were driven to Nana and Puppy's marvelous city apartment where another surprise awaited us.  Nana had made us navy wool coats with delightful pink satin linings to match our new purses!  At the appointed hour, my grandfather was instructed to pull the car around which meant he was to take it out of the small wooden garage that was part of their lease, park it at the curb and return to gather us out into the icy crystalline night and the warmed car. 

People who live just outside the city proper of Boston, refer to a trip to Boston as "going in town" and so our little club headed in town, to the Parker House Restaurant, a place my grandmother thought worthy of our introduction to sophisticated city dining.  The Parker House is known for it's delicious small puffy Parker House Rolls and we were so excited to experience them in the very restaurant where they were created. 

The tables were laid with snowy cloths, the water glasses were sturdy rustic goblets.  The rolls were brought to the table at last and they were far better than the packaged variety we bought from the market at home.  I recall the lovely little pats of butter shaped like wee maple leaves and the heavy silverplate cutlery in the style of Paul Revere.  Everything was just so, including our new pink purses which my grandmother had advised us to tuck beside our Captain's chairs on the floor.  We felt so grown-up and it all was delightful.  That is until, Nana took a nibble of my baked potato.  "Mac, it's cold!" she wailed to my grandfather.  I also knew the potato was a bit cold but I didn't want to spoil the night knowing how intent Nana was to make everything perfect.  She and my grandfather rarely dined out because Nana had a long-standing prejudice against the quality of restaurant food.  Suddenly, she turned to me and I knew what she was thinking:  "Why didn't you say something?"  My eyes implored her not to tell our waiter.  At ten, I was shy and awkward and didn't like to draw attention to myself if I could help it.  Besides, I had put plenty of butter and salt on that potato and I was anxious to devour it.  But alas, the waiter was summoned and arrived at our table to whisk the potato away.  A new one was brought, this time wrapped in foil and steaming.  I opened it and gingerly slit it to apply one of the lovely maple leaf butter pats.  All eyes watched carefully as I salted it and dipped my fork into it and eased it up to my mouth.  I could barely manage the bite when my tongue burned so painfully that I had to grasp for my goblet of water and pour a large gulp of it into my mouth to ease the fire.  But as I put the goblet back down - my eyes watering, the glass stem hit my plate and then toppled all the remaining water onto my lap and the pink suede bag beside my chair. All was silenced for a moment until the waiter was alerted yet again and returned to mop up our table.  I wanted to melt into the floor or run from the restaurant into the cold dark night.  My grandfather picked up my purse and began to wipe it with his napkin while my grandmother fussed about me with hers. 

I don't recall the rest of the meal which is just as well.  I do remember getting into bed that night under the eaves of my grandmother's spare bedroom.  When Nana came to tuck us in, she had my pink suede bag with her and it looked new again thanks to my grandfather's wire shoe brush which she employed at the kitchen table as we were changing into our nightgowns.  As always, our bed was firm and warm, our pillows soft and comforting.  Nana laid the purse on the nightstand and drew the old rocker close to the bed.  She sat down and asked us if we enjoyed our night on the town.  I mutely nodded and then Nana reached out and gently untangled my long braid.  "You know dear, you shouldn't eat cold food", she said, "you'll get a stomach ache".  I took what she said to mean that I should try to be less shy and speak up more.  Even then, I believed that is what she wanted most for me.  To be able to ask for what I need and not be so timid all the time. 

It took me many decades to learn to speak up for myself and truth be told, I still struggle with it.  I simply don't like hurting peoples' feelings.  It took a few more years to feel comfortable dining in fancy places but now it is a true pleasure of my very grown-up life.  Recently, I sent back a dish that tasted funny.  I didn't hesitate at all and nary a goblet was overturned.  Perhaps a seed WAS planted on that long-ago New Year's Eve when, on an illuminated night, I learned a small lesson.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Woman's Christmas

Victoria Magazine's A Woman's Christmas is a lovely book that feeds the feminine soul at Christmas.  With the annual hustle and bustle, noise and confusion, A Woman’s Christmas is an oasis in a sea of tinsel.  When the world is too much with me, I retire to my chair with this simple book of glad tidings.  Victoria knew how to soothe the Madison Avenue-ravaged womanly soul.
And isn’t it true that Christmas is a feminine holiday?  After all it is the women who plan, purchase, cook, and orchestrate the Christmas we all enjoy – even those otherworldly childhood ones that now live just beyond our waking dreams.  Is Christmas a lot of work for women?  Yes!  But it is worth it.
My little book reminds me why I create Christmas for my loved ones and friends.  It is the holiest of days and the only one the world really stops for and I want to help make it singular and special.  I don’t believe in spending a lot of money but I do believe in having a lot of spirit.  Christmas holds time together like an ever-expanding pearl necklace;  each year we add another creamy ochre to attach to the last. 
One Christmas Eve, I took a private moment and glanced out onto the snow covered backyard.  I saw my loved ones reflected from behind me crowded together like magpies on my too small couch.  As I leaned against the cool glass, the scene changed to my childhood home where both my grandmothers were exchanging presents, dresses for each other.  Back further still, I saw my little girl mother climb lovingly onto her Nonie’s aproned knee to unwrap a new dolly.  If I had stayed a bit longer, I would have seen Nonie’s mother, and her mother, and hers…It is women who make Christmas and it always will be. 
Merry Christmas!  And thank you so much for visiting this year.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Emily's Party

My library hosts a birthday party for Emily Dickinson each year on her December 10th birthday.  These are quaint little affairs which include that corrupt pleasure, white frosted sheet cake, along with heaps of hot tea.  We sit with floral china tea cups and our snowy slices at a large rectangular table and recite our favorite poems and chat a bit about what we imagine or know about Emily and her quiet life.  We even sing Happy Birthday at the close!

Ordinarily, our party attracts just a few regulars and our librarian, who is an infectious aficionado of all things Emily.  I’m a rather minor participant because I don’t like to speak in public and I only have a few favorite “Emily’s”.  I find some of Dickinson sobering in her focus on mourning and death.  But I like her buoyant lines that have lingered in my head since first discovering her in high school English Lit.  One of my favorite stanzas graces this blog:  “Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door”.  Some of her poetry is filled with clever lightheartedness and it’s those I love. 
I think Dickinson was a genius.  Her twist of words bewitches and bewilders and often her meaning isn’t truly realized until several seconds after the poem is read.  It is then, when the words have a chance to hang in the air like an echo, that the implication washes over one.  And so it was at Emily's party when surprisingly, a crowd of 21 souls showed up in the bitter cold, including 8 men!

I appraised that I was the youngest by at least 10 years.  Some were retired English teachers, a retired physician and his wife, a retired accountant, among others.  The librarian thought it best to bring a microphone which we passed around at least 5 times.  Nearly everyone read outloud, including me.  Remarkably, the men were the most passionate and the grandfather beside me added charming inflections in his voice as he read his selections from a well-worn anthology.  His voice resonated inside my sleepy head like that of a favorite bedtime storyteller.   Another participant, a woman, declared her little poetry book “one of my most prized possessions”.  It was a slim abridged Hallmark book of Emily that she received from an uncle for her high school graduation in 1964.  When I inspected her treasure afterward, I saw that Hallmark used beautiful evocative watercolors depicting the Belle of Amherst with a delightful and intriguing 1960’s slant. 

One of my favorite recitations was the poem “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”  The reader prefaced it with a treatise on the propagation of reality shows in our culture.  The last line, “To tell your name the livelong day to (only) an admiring bog!” had us all chuckling.

Naturally, I wondered why so many people would turn up on cold dark winter night for such a humble library program. I decided it could not possibly be just because of the poet, however  wonderful. I believe it is because whatever is beautiful and true, knows no season or century.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Carrying Her Heart Away

During the war, it was considered un-Patriotic for a Homefront Honey not to care about her appearance.  Even Rosie the Riveter wore lipstick while she riveted.  Many of the red lipsticks at the time were called Victory Red.  The philosophy was that the soldier enjoyed thinking about his pretty woman back home waiting for his return.  It kept his spirits up.

Even while a vicious war raged, the Homefront Christmas was still romantic because of the wishes and imaginings of separated lovers who communicated only through letters that were filled with hope and longing.  I once came across a soldier's letter telling his new bride to buy a White Shoulders perfume gift set for herself and sign a card with his name.  He had tucked a five dollar note in along with his missive and instructions.

Gift sets have always been popular Christmas presents and perfume houses and cosmetic companies still create them today.  Growing up, our local Rexall carried many of them:  Chanel #5, Jean Naté, Coty.  They were always outfitted in foil boxes with clear plastic covers so that one might see the delightful offerings inside which nestled luxuriously on pastel felt or silky satin.  A bottle of scent and matching bath powder or scent with a matching fragrant soap were the gift sets I remember but today they may include matching shower gels, purse sized spritzers, or body lotions.

One of the loveliest sets I remember was Coty's Muguet de Bois with the beautiful watery fragrance of lily of the valley.  Packaged in pretty pink and green, it was the advertisement for the gift set that I loved so much.  Coty always illustrated Muguet de Bois with a lush illustration of a romantic couple and at Christmas, the pair were housed in a  snow capped gazebo holding hands.  The copy read, "Flowers for Christmas.  Wouldn't that be nice?"  Flowers in deep winter.  How very nice indeed.

Gift sets were not just for husbands and lovers to give;  they were also welcomed gifts from fathers to daughters.  My father gave me a box of Revlon's Moon Drops perfume with talcum powder and the moody scent carried away my heart during the second half of my senior year of high school.  My best friend's heart was stolen with a Charlie gift set that included a small deodorant.  And although they may be considered easy no-brainer gifts to give, they feel abundant to the receiver, especially if the perfume is a cherished signature one.

This Christmas, although still austere, seems to have some fresh bling in it.  And I love seeing all the  new shiny sets in the shops.  They can be found everywhere, even discount stores.  It's fun to check the aisles for sets of special nail colors, hand creams, and even collections of makeup brushes.  It's even more fun when the sets have touches of Christmas whimsy like frosty ribbons and bows or snowflakes and snowmen. 

I wonder if the young letter-writing soldier was able to carry his bride's heart away from such a great distance with a mere five dollar perfume gift set.  I like to imagine it was as welcome as fresh cut  flowers. In winter.