Monday, May 22, 2017

The Gardening Wisdom of Ella Mae O'Neill

We moved into this house in 1969. Our next door neighbors were the Kuhns, with four children about the age of ours, and Jim and Ella Mae O’Neill.  Several years ago I wrote a post describing them and how we cherished them as our neighbors.

I came across this photo the other day in my relentless effort to clean out and cull. Here are the O’Neills at Elizabeth’s birthday party. I think it was her fourth: note the cast on her arm. She learned the hard way that if a baby sitter says “Stop climbing on the footstool”, she has a good reason for the request.

I have been thinking of the O’Neills lately, now that I can acknowledge that the days of spending hours outside in the blazing sun working in the garden are over. While I, with my British reticence, and my neighbors, with the good manners born of experience and maturity, often didn’t make eye contact when we were working in our adjacent yards, out of our sense of a kind of insularity and mutual regard for privacy, there was one time of day when I was aware of what they were doing and even watched them as they went about their lives. After lunch, with small children taking their naps, I would stand at the kitchen sink cleaning up the debris of the morning, and through the kitchen window I watched Mr. And Mrs. O’ Neill walk out of their back door for their afternoon round of errands. He would turn left, walk to their garage, then back the car down as far as their door to pick her up. It only took a minute or so, but she put that minute to good use. She would bend over and start weeding. I wondered why she would bother when her time was so limited.

Now I know. It’s the old elephant joke:

Q.   How do you eat a whole elephant?
A.   One mouthful at a time.

I will emulate the monks who spend a finite amount of work on each daily endeavor, I will follow Mrs. O’Neill who knew that a small task, repeated often enough, achieves a worthwhile result.

And those weeds between concrete slabs in my driveway? They were no match for me yesterday as I walked from the car to the back door after brunch with friends.

Monday, May 15, 2017

A Nice Cuppa

Why were cups of tea always nice? I grew up thinking that the word for the water in which tea leaves were steeped was “nice cuppa.” Now if I am correctly parsing the British Show I am ashamed to say I watch with some degree of regularity it is a mostly called a brew. A nice brew?

When I first arrived in the States in 1963 I abandoned tea and became a coffee drinker, but as the years have gone by I have partially reverted to tea. Still can’t bring myself to add milk and certainly not sugar. But tea, at least during the day, is my beverage of choice.


 All I need to make a perfect cup of tea is my teapot (though my mother would turn over in her grave if she knew that a mug and a teabag are quite sufficient) and my favorite brand of black tea. And of course, hot water. Boiling water. My family has got used to my harassing wait staff in restaurants as I repeat my mantra, “HOT water.” It is usually heated in a microwave and comes back hot but not hot enough. Panera does a pretty good job with hot water. The other problem is that even if the water is sufficiently hot enough for me to want more, if I ask for my little pot of hot water to be refilled, they never bring another tea bag. I solved that problem by taking a little baggie of tea  bags in my purse.

No one will be won over to drinking tea if they read the article in the Sunday paper a couple of weeks ago which makes it look like a good cup of tea cannot be had without these complicated (and expensive) accoutrements.


I can’t quite see the need for a programmable tea steeper for $129.99 or a $199.99 Tea Cere to make matcha tea, authentic or otherwise.

I think I will sit down now with a book and a nice cuppa.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho

I  just can’t ignore any more of the work that needs to be done around here. So I have made an attempt on the garden. Actually, I worked on it four days ago. It was a lovely day and I flitted from task to task . . .  a little weeding here, a little cutting down here, a little tying up here, all instead of concentrating on one particular flower bed. The fact is, I hadn’t felt up to putting the garden to bed last Fall, so there was twice as much work to get it ready for summer. I was  quite excited about my progress, until the next day when every muscle in my body cried out for attention. Fortunately, it rained for the next three days solid and I had a good excuse for not resuming my labors.


At Easter we had a big hand from three of the grandchildren, helping with the outside chores. Charlie was on ladder duty, going around the house taking care of windows that cannot be cleaned from the inside. Danny was in charge of removing the last of the leaves from the grass and Ellie was Vice President in charge of flower beds.

Bit by bit we are making progress. Thanks to son number 1 who came in from Virginia to get the vegetable beds turned over, thanks to son number 2 who is coming in from Maryland in a couple of weeks to mend the picnic table and mend some of the fences. We will bite the bullet and have a company do our side fence which didn’t make it unscathed through the last storm.  It is increasingly obvious that we are sliding from two steps forward and one step back to one step forward and two steps back. I have worked hard to create a garden that my family and I enjoyed. It will fall so much short this year, and next year I fear the weeds and grass will take over. As I was cleaning up my bookmarks I realized that I had kept some photos of gardens past. Here are some more.

My Flickr page seems to have fallen on hard times too, but I am glad I was smart enough to think of photographing what was growing. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Farewell to April

I have been so inconsistent about noting family birthdays on this blog. While cards and gifts do get sent off, I so frequently forget to make mention of them. So here are the April birthdays we celebrated, all in one place.

It’s easy to remember Henry’s birthday. It is April 15, the day Income Tax forms have to be filed. We usually spend the day chasing down deductions and getting the whole business to the post office. This year, however, the taxes didn’t have to be filed until the 18th, so that was the day we spent chasing down deductions and getting the whole business to the post office! Henry looks so very serious in this photo. Normally he is smiling and bubbly, but for him baseball, and especially pitching, is a serious business. It is fun to see him on the mound, staring down the opposing team. He has quite an impressive wind up and we can’t wait to watch some of his games this year. 2017 marked his twelfth birthday.

Next came Veronica, our miracle grandchild. She celebrated her sixth birthday. She is sharp and so very cute (and she knows it, look at that smile!) Now she has joined her siblings at St. Patrick’s in Rockville, absolutely none the worse for her traumatic start to life. Marcie takes her back to the NICU at George Washington Hospital once in a while to see the doctors and  nurses who took such good care of her. She’s a tremendous advertisement for their expertise and skills.

Birthday number 3 belongs to our youngest grandchild, Gladys Grace. Her first birthday and here she is chowing down on the obligatory cake. She was smart enough to know what to do with it. None of the smashing her face into the top of it for her. Her mom described her as “happy, affectionate, strong-willed and so determined.” Can’t beat that description. She is also a creature of habit, so although she ate and loved her birthday dinner she was longing for bed and  had to open her gifts the next day.

Last, but by no means least, Frederick made it through to the teenage years, giving his poor parents three teenage boys. He’s the nicest kid. Although he is one of a soccer playing family, he has decided to switch to basketball and see how that works out for him. We will be seeing him in the summer (and maybe he will switch sports again, because Eleanor is a good buddy of Frederick’s and she is sold on soccer.) We will see.

That was April. We are now into May which is exceptional in that it is the only month in which we do not have a grandchild with a birthday.  I can relax!


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

More on Easter Food

I wrote in my last post about some horrific Easter food, here’s some of the good stuff.


My son-in-law is a great cook and several years ago he decided he was going to branch out into bread. Here’s the challah bread he made this year for Easter. Over the years he has talked about the Blessing of the Easter food, which takes place every year on Easter Saturday. I have never attended this ritual, at times because noon on the day before Easter Sunday didn’t work for me, but mainly because I saw it as an ethnic custom.

This year I decided I wanted to ex-perience it for myself, so I attached myself to Ron and the kids. Yes, it is ethnic, but not just Polish as I had thought. I saw many parishioners of Italian and other European origins, all of them with large baskets containing the food that was to be eaten the next day. It was fun to peek into the baskets—lots of kielbasa and ham, decorated eggs, wine and various cakes. Some people had flowers in their baskets, some had embroidered cloths covering their food and while some attendees had candles in the basket, we even saw one illuminated by LED lights!

All the baskets lined the aisle and the priest said a prayer over each and gave it a hearty sprinkle of holy water.

Here’s another colorful offering. Ron says that next year he is going to make his bread with the eggs in it as in these little rolls.

I think I will accompany his family again. Food has always been an integral part of Easter and the blessing can only make the meal more meaningful (though I don’t think it will work with for chocolate bunnies with red frosting and plastic faces.)

Saturday, April 15, 2017

This is a No-No

I have posted this avocado-hued photo of an Easter gone-by before (I really loved that wallpaper, but glad it went shortly after this.) The kids look—well, like kids— but the star of the show was the lamb cake. Back then, however busy I was, I always made a lamb cake, pouring the batter into the bottom half of the cake tin, wiring the top half on it and trusting that I had the right amount of batter to give the lamb all its legs and its cute face without bursting through the joints in the tin. The illustration that came with the tin showed a lambkin with white curly frosting all over and a wreath of flowers piped on its head. I never quite reached those heights, but my fleeces were always suitably white, even if the jelly bean eyes gave the animal an appearance of being cross-eyed. If I felt really creative I dyed shredded coconut green to give him his piece of verdant pasture.

It has been a while since I tried to duplicate my earlier efforts. I thought lamb cakes had gone out of fashion, but as I was leaving the grocery store today, look what I saw.

This nasty attempt at a lamb cake had a whitish fleece, but a scary plastic face. There were chocolate lambs with pink fleeces. There were scarlet lambs and yellow lambs. Nary a wreath of flowers or anything that could be found in nature.

This is so wrong. Next year I think I will pull out my trusty mould and return to simpler days.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

SOAS and SSEES

Do you have an author you found at some point in your life, read avidly and then forgot about or did not for some reason keep track of?

Such a writer for me is Margaret Drabble. I recently read her name somewhere or other and remembered how much I had enjoyed her early books. There always seemed a little more of a connection than that—she was born a few months before I was, we sat for the Newnham entrance exams at the same time (she got in, I didn’t. In fact, she got “a starred First.” I don’t even know what a starred First is, though I can guess. I wouldn’t have come within a mile of one.) After graduation while I was studying the Philosophy, History and whatnot of Education, she was writing and publishing her first book. So I took a trip to the library, took out what they had and reserved some more.

The first book I read was The Pure Gold Baby. When I got to page eight, I came across this passage.

“Jess came from an industrial city in the Midlands and had graduated from a well-regarded grammar school via a foundation course in Arabic at a new university to a degree at SOAS. SOAS! How magical those initials had been to her as a seventeen-year-old when she first heard them, and how thrilling and bewitching they were to remain to her, even into her late middle age! The School of African and Oriental Studies, situated in the heart of academic Bloomsbury.” The whole page brings back memories of a part of London I too have such happy memories of. And while this is a sidebar  to my post, I found that this this book contained so many connections with my life: mention of Potters Bar and Waltham Abbey and the location of the “special” school she chose for her daughter Anna—Enfield, where I grew up and in particular Enfield Lock where my paternal grandparents lived and where my father grew up.

It was the reference to SOAS that grabbed me. Just a few days earlier I had been poring over my “University of London, B.A. Examination for Internal Students: 1962 Pass List”.
looking for the name of someone I knew. As I leafed through the document I noticed there were about two pages of English graduates and about two pages of French. About one page of students graduated in German, less than half a page in Spanish and six students in Italian. Each student had his college printed after his name—Bedford, Westfield, University  College, King’s College and so on. History and Geography followed the same pattern. Lots of History.

What really stood out was the one student who received a degree in Hausa, with SOAS boldly printed after his name. And the six students from the same college with degrees in Swahili. Where did these students come from? Was the one Hausa student the son of missionaries? I doubt any of the grads would have been accepted into their degree programs without first showing some proficiency in the language. SOAS also gave us one Classical Arabic degree, seven Classical and Modern Literary Arabic degrees, one Persian, four Chinese and three Japanese degrees.

The other outlier, SSEES, or the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, graduated eleven students with degrees in Russian.

So, what is my point? My strength has always been languages and no-one ever told me that it would be possible to get a degree in a language more esoteric than the four I knew. (Not to mention the fact that the mainstream college, University College, seems to have taught Scandinavian languages, Dutch and Hebrew.) Would I have been a good student of Hausa?  Swahili? I will never know, but I can’t help thinking that I would have been as excited as Jessica, for whom “SOAS  was a sea of adventure, of learning, of cross-cultural currents that swept and eddied through Gordon Square and Bedford Square and Russell Square.”

Footnote: just as I was about to publish this post, I received an e-mail from my daughter, linking to the book review she had written for her professional association. I guess Robert Frost made my point  better than I could! So did she.