Saturday, December 31, 2005

The year is going, let him go;*

Time to say good-bye to 2005. It was not a great year and one that I am glad to bid farewell to. We have had a tradition in the last few years of going to Kate and Ron’s for Chinese food on New Year’s Eve and then playing games. That is what we did today and the team of Ron and Lynne handily trounced Kate and Ernie and Lucy and me.

Lucy will leave in a couple of days and I can get Christmas photos sorted and the last few belated Christmas cards written. Best wishes to everyone for a bright and satisfying New Year.

* That’s the last question in the 2005 cultural literacy competition. Your answers?

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas Eve, 1947

That’s what is written on the back of this photograph in my mother’s handwriting. That’s me, striding along in my lisle stockings and my sensible shoes. And that’s Garby down the Lock. Both sets of my grandparents lived close. My mother’s parents lived about a mile away in Mandeville Road. They were “Nana and Garby round the corner.” Enfield was divided into several districts: there was Enfield Chase, Enfield Wash, Enfield Town, Enfield Highway and Enfield Lock, named for the lock there on the River Lea. My father’s parents lived in Enfield Lock, about two miles away. Hence “Nana and Garby down the Lock.”

Garby round the corner died when I was young. I mostly remember his moustache. But Garby down the Lock was very much a part of my growing up. He had served in India and then worked at the Royal Small Arms Factory. I remember his fondness for walking through the fields near the Lea and picking mushrooms, his love of jellied eels and his dachshund, Carlie. I remember vividly the combined living room/dining room of his little house and the picture which dominated one wall: a gondola moored on a canal which suggested Venice. I reframed the picture and now it hangs in my house.

This photo was taken in London, on Oxford Street. Then, and maybe still, street photographers would take photos of passers by. Garby must have purchased one as a memento of the day. I wonder what we did on that Christmas Eve. From the look of the objects under his arm, we must have done some shopping, probably in Selfridges or John Lewis. Did we have lunch in a Lyons Corner House? Did we travel up to the West End by bus or train? I don’t remember. I do remember that coat. It was a cornflower blue and made for me by my Auntie Doris, the cloth presumably bought with carefully hoarded clothing coupons. If you look carefully, you can see the deep hem. That coat was meant to be worn for years.

So many years, so many miles, so many Christmas Eves. To everyone reading this, best wishes for this Christmas Eve, for Christmas Day and for many years to come.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

All I want for Christmas is a Sausage Roll

With every passing year I miss England more. I have even been experiencing nostalgia for the English food of my youth.

My mother was not a great cook. How could she have been, when shortly after her marriage she was forced to cook with things like Spam and Snoek, and everything was rationed. There is a special place in my heart for her blackberry and apple pud, a mixture of blackberries and sliced apples placed in a suet dough-lined basin and covered with more dough and greaseproof paper all tied down with a pudding cloth and string, so that the whole business could be steamed for hours in a saucepan of water to mouth-watering goodness. And dripping. How can I explain dripping?

I have great memories of Sunday lunches after the war. Perhaps the cabbage was a bit over-boiled, but her roast potatoes were scrumptious (I can do those) and her roast beef, lamb and pork were delicious. Especially the pork. The joint always had a topping of the most tasty and crunchy, and probably heart stopping, crackling. Producing crackling seems to be a forgotten art, even in Britain, though I am delighted that a Mr. James Waghorn , suitably inspired by a bath and a few gins, has come up with a formula for crackling. The fact that the formula can also be found in the New Scientist is a little alarming.

Birthday parties, and special teas such as Christmas, had a predictable formula: jelly (that’s jello in the US), canned fruit with evaporated milk, trifle, celery sticks (don’t ask) and sausage rolls. I am longing for a decent sausage roll. I tried a few weeks ago to reproduce the sausage roll of my youth. They were a dismal failure. I am sure it helps to have a good English sausage, but I ought to be able to come up with something more appetizing than Jimmy Dean sausage surrounded by soggy puff pastry.

I have been getting much pleasure from an English food blog, Jam Faced . His photos are marvelous, and what a sea change there has been in British cuisine. My parents would not have given the time of day to bubble and squeak transformed by anchovies. Today’s post is adorned with a mince pie. Dare I hope that by Christmas he will have moved on to sausage rolls?

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Away in a Manger

One of our traditional destinations when we are entertaining guests is the town of Frankenmuth, home of Bronners, where Christmas items are on sale 365 (well, actually 361) days of the year. One area I love to visit is the crèche department. There is something for everyone. Personally, I will not be buying the White Marble Lighted Plastic Nativity Collection (marble? plastic?) but that is for outside use and mostly sold out “due to high demand.” Many of the traditional crèches are beautiful and expensive. They come from Russia and India, Italy and the Philippines. Each reflects the diversity of the country from which it comes.

I would like to collect some of these sets, but the sheer number of small fingers exploring every reachable flat space in our house makes it impractical. We have two nativity sets which I pull out every Christmas. The first came with us from California almost forty years ago. Los Angeles was a treasure trove of Mexican pottery. The figures around the manger are solid and reassuring. The colors are muted yet rich. Mary looks like she just had a baby. I find the spots and the whirls attractive and wonder about the meaning of the other designs.

In stark contrast is the crèche from Rwanda that was a gift from Gody. All the carved wooden figures are tall and slender, their faces finely chiseled. The animals are realistic and delightful. I love the detail of Mary’s hair and the king’s crowns, and the sheen of the dark wood.

Next time we go to Bronners I must visit this department again. Maybe I have room for one more . . .

Friday, December 09, 2005

Keep this Man out of my Kitchen

(My thanks to Ernie, who pointed out this article in the December/January edition of WOOD magazine.)

The author is proposing that the woodworking aficionado fabricate a “simple serving accessory” which “holds your taco shells upright so you can put (and keep) the fixins where they belong.” This article is so wrong that I don’t know where to begin.

  • Consider the materials. Cherry wood! Admittedly this is a project for scrapwood, but cherry is a bit over the top for holding tacos. When it is finished, it is to be sanded to 220 grit and finished with three coats of a food-safe topcoat. The dividers are to be angled at 15° from vertical and the edges bevelled. I don’t think there is much furniture in my house as fancy as that. And how did he calculate the average angle of a taco at 15°? Has he nothing better to do?

  • Next, consider the math involved. The whole article looks like one of those questions on the GRE where you have trains rapidly approaching each other from different directions at different speeds while water is gurgling down the sinks in the bathrooms. I quote: “To make a longer divider, determine the length of the divider (B) blank by dividing the number of tacos to be held by 2, then multiplying by 41/4”. For example, the length of the jumbo taco holder blank equals 251/2” (12/2=6x41/4”=251/2”). Reader, forgive me, I can't figure out how to type fractions into Blogger. The author of the article did a better job with superscripts.

  • Form! Function! Anyone who knows anything about serving tacos (and I am a veteran of many a taco dinner, including Andrew’s never to be forgotten sixth birthday when all these little boys wiped their greasy fingers on my brand new apple-green brocade dining room chairs) knows that the hard part is NOT filling them. Especially since taco shell manufacturers are ahead of the game and now make shells with flat bottoms. The hard part is passing around all those little bowls of shredded and diced lettuce, onion, tomatoes and cheese and keeping them moving so everyone can take a turn. Sir, you cannot imagine the mayhem if everything had to come to a stop in front of the person who was sitting with a container of rapidly cooling tacos in front of her while selecting her fixins.

Heaven only know what the author of this article would have us do with a wet burrito!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Two and a half Weeks

No, that's not the title of an abridged Kim Basinger movie, it's the length of time our contractor told us it would take for him to remodel the basement. Today, nine weeks later, we bade him a fond farewell. He did pretty good work, his price was reasonable, but he put in very short days and occasionally did not turn up at all. I believed the story about taking the dog to the vet for stitches in his paw. The broken whatever in his car seemed reasonable. We've all had toothaches. At least he didn't try the grandmother's funeral story. Ernie saw that one regularly when he was teaching. Some students had a couple of grandmothers die. Every semester.

There's still a lot to clean up and some painting yet to be done. But with any luck, we'll be ship-shape for Christmas.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Sis Boom Bah

A certain kind of writer would have described Jane Smith as a tough broad. She was somewhat north of forty, a chain smoker, with a face weathered by the California sun. She was a fellow student in my first graduate seminar in America and she was compassionate enough to realize I was suffering from culture shock and needed a friend. So she invited me to a college football game. I had no inkling that the university in which I was enrolled, the University of Southern California, was—and still is—one of the powerhouses of American College football. I didn’t realize that the stadium to which we casually strolled on a beautiful day in September was the Los Angeles Coliseum, which housed the opening and closing ceremonies for two Olympic Games. I didn’t know that all over America football fans were settling down on their couches with a six-pack of Bud and a bag of Cheetos. I would have been amazed to learn that most of them would give their next paycheck to have the opportunity to sit in the stands for the game.

It didn’t take me long to be astounded by the sight of all those cheering students. But who were these Gidget look-alikes in short skirts jumping up and down on the sideline and getting tossed in the air by so many Troy Donahues? And what was the point of the guy in fancy dress who came cantering out on a white horse? It seemed that Jane was compounding my culture shock rather than ameliorating it. Before the start of the game, the crowd rose to its feet and for the first time I heard the power of The Star-Spangled Banner being sung by 100,000 voices. That was a pivotal moment in my introduction to the United States.

Then the game began. Jane tried to explain what was happening, but it was a far cry from the Tottenham Hotspurs and Manchester United. Over the years I have finally figured the game out. Most of it, at any rate, but even the TV commentators have problems with some of the more arcane rules.

So why am I thinking about football now? The college football season is ending and once again I have failed to watch a single game from start to finish. I no longer had to watch children, I didn't have to take them to practices, games and meets, I didn't have to cook huge meals. There was nothing to prevent me from taking my place on the couch with my six-pack and my Cheetos. Except, perhaps, the realization that no game could ever measure up to my first, enjoyed in the company of a tough and kindly broad.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Spirit of Thanksgivings Past

There are three Thanksgivings which stand out in my memory. One was in the 80’s and involved my nieces Shannon and Charlotte, Kate’s friend Li King, buses from Milwaukee arriving at 1:00 a.m. and much laughter over Wesley and Buttercup. But the memories are - not surprisingly - blurred. It was fun, I know that, but what we actually did, besides eat turkey, is shrouded in the mists of time.

I have much clearer memories of two earlier Thanksgivings. The first was in 1967. That’s John Theobalds standing with Albert and me on the balcony of the little apartment we rented in Detroit, just over the city limit from here. I had stood on that balcony a few months earlier and watched fires spreading out along a main artery from the city as the Detroit riot got underway. I had been at John’s wedding a few years earlier. He married my classmate Rosemary and by this time they had three or so of their eventual seven children. John was working for Proctor and Gamble and had been sent to work for a while at the company headquarters in Cincinnati. Later the whole family lived in the States for two years and we were able to visit back and forth, but in 1967 John was on his own and we were delighted when he accepted our invitation to visit Detroit.

After the Theobalds returned to Hexham, just outside Newcastle, John left Proctor and Gamble. He felt that he could make a bigger contribution to the world by passing on his love of science to children who didn’t have the best start in life. I lost touch with John and Rosemary for a while and when I finally contacted Rosemary three years ago, I was shocked to learn that John had died of a heart attack seven years earlier while his youngest sons were still in school and living at home. Rosemary has filled me in on the events in her children’s lives. All have been academically outstanding and all the boys have become scientists of various kinds. Rosemary, too, has devoted her life to caring for the less fortunate.

Thanksgiving 1970 involved another guest, Ernie’s aunt Sr. Marie Charlotte who traveled to Detroit from the Visitation Convent in Dubuque. I suppose Vatican II influenced the order to tell the sisters to get out and see the world and we were happy that it was our part of the world she decided to see. Staying with us and a three year old, a two year old and a one year old probably convinced her that she had been fortunate in her vocation. That was also the year that our next-door neighbor had an extra ticket for the traditional Thanksgiving Day Detroit Lions football game. Since that was in the days when the Lions actually won games, Ernie snapped up the ticket. That was one long afternoon, waiting for Ernie to get home so we could sit down together for our turkey.

That little girl sitting between Sr. Marie Charlotte and me is Kate. Today she and Ron cooked a magnificent family Thanksgiving dinner. I hope the baton will be passed on to their children.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Sugar and Spice

The cupboard to the left of my stove is a tribute to the indomitability of the human spirit. The triumph of hope over experience. It is the cupboard I set aside for my baking supplies. I am not a baker. I do not like to bake. I once stayed up half the night baking Christmas cookies, because that’s what I thought good mothers did, but they were not very good. I can manage an occasional batch of peanut butter or oatmeal cookies, but that’s it. But I get enthused by words like ganache, and stock up with six kinds of sugar.

Today I cleaned out my cupboard, because Kate, full of optimism and short on memory, has made me Vice President in charge of Desserts for Thanksgiving. I unearthed (and discarded) packets of yeast that became inactive during the Clinton administration, and a couple of packages of Belgian chocolate dessert cups from Trader Joe. Filled with chocolate mousse, they would have made a good dessert, but although they have no sell-by date, the instructions urge storage at or below 70°, and I suspect they have weathered at least two summers with temperatures in the nineties. I also found about six packages of baking soda, a reminder of my trip to the grocery store last Christmas when I unpacked and realized that the cashier had given me a sack of groceries that was not mine. Some poor shopper was minus her baking soda and honey and quite a few other ingredients for her Christmas cooking. I called the store, but no one had yet reported the missing items. I left my phone number, but never heard anything. I felt really bad about that.

Well, I suppose the choice of pumpkin pie is a no-brainer. Homemade pate brisee or store bought pastry? I’ll wait to see how indomitable I feel tomorrow.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Dear Pottery Barn

I don’t buy much from you. I like your catalog: the rooms look nice, but I kind of feel you are overpriced and a little on the flimsy side. I did like your “Chelsea” rug, so when we decided to pull up the carpet in the study and refinish the floor, we decided to treat ourselves (hefty shipping cost and surcharge for heavy item included.) We placed our order in August. The large package sitting in the hall has been our comfort through weeks of moving books, schlepping bookcases, waiting for the finish to dry, moving books back in and various other inconveniences. But tonight, we were ready to get the room into shape for Thanksgiving. We opened the box with the pad and spent a long while getting it just where we wanted it. Then we opened the big box. The one with the shipping label stating it contained our rug.

It contained a large, black, CD cabinet.

Thank you, Pottery Barn, for cheerfully agreeing to return our money (shipping surcharge included.) But I won’t be buying from you again.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Just blew in from the windy city

Chicago lived up to its sobriquet. We visited this dynamic city to attend the wedding of the son of two of our oldest friends, Pat and Larry Szura. We spent Friday night in the western suburbs with Ernie’s sister, Mary Ann, and her husband, John. On Saturday we made our way downtown on the Eisenhower Expressway, which during the week is chaotic and congested. On Saturday afternoon it was . . . chaotic and congested. The wedding mass was at the exquisite church of St. Clement in Lincoln Park. Afterward, since we had a couple of hours to kill before the reception, we decided to drop into a nearby Starbucks. This is an area of Chicago that has everything: bustle, ambience, quaint shops, interesting people . . .but no parking. We eventually found a spot in the general area of a Caribou Cafe and fortified by a couple of lattes, we braved the traffic on Lakeshore and Michigan Avenue. We arrived at the reception at the same time as the limo with the bridal party and just in time for Ernie to chase down the street in hot pursuit of Inga’s veil, which the wind had snatched from her head and sent flying.

The reception was on the 66th floor of the Sears Tower, with a fantastic view of lights snaking down skyscraper-lined streets to the Lake. I was mesmerized by the sight of radio towers on a neighboring building swaying in the wind, until I realized that the structure in which I was standing had to be swaying too. Thankfully we could not feel it. The reception was elegant, but the warmth of Pat’s family (she is the oldest of twelve) overcame any stuffiness that might be expected at the wedding of two Chicago attorneys!

The rest of the weekend was spent with Mary Ann, and it was wonderful to see all four McCluskey boys, gathered in a bar to celebrate the end of the baseball season. Before we left town on Monday, we made a point of stopping by the visit Pat’s wife, Theresa, and their new baby, Andrew Jerome. Young Jack showed us his trucks, and Mary Ann got her fix of grandson hugging. We will all be together again at the end of January for Megan’s wedding and we can’t wait to return to that toddlin' town.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Ten Years Ago Today

November 10, 1995 was a watershed day in my life. Not because that was the day on which Kate and Ron were married, but because it was the last time I wore nice shoes. They were black suede, Liz Claiborne pumps with a fairly high heel and they were the most expensive shoes I had ever bought. I wore them throughout the ceremony, I wore them in the receiving line, but somewhere around the salad course I took them off (having had the foresight to bring other shoes with me.) I looked at some wedding photos today. I am smiling. I do not seem to be in pain. But something told me that my days of fancy shoes were over.

For the past ten years I have walked in comfort in shoes which are for the most part unattractive, but which accommodate my spreading feet and various protuberances which are now part of my foot structure. For fancier events I actually found a pair of black fabric shoes which work because they had lots of straps and room for my feet to spread. But this weekend I am attending a wedding in Chicago and decided it was time to buy some new shoes. What a performance that was. Eventually I found and purchased a pair of German shoes. The workmanship is wonderful, the leather is soft and the cost was phenomenal. I am delighted with them, though there is a part of me which regrets that I will never be part of the world of Manolo Blahnik. If I hadn’t spent my money on these shoes, perhaps I could have drawn comfort from Eric Boman’s new book Blahnik by Boman: Shoes, Photographs, Conversation.

This seems a good time to introduce you to my new best friend, Lady Bracknell . In her post of November 9, she laments the paucity of “wide-fitting orthopaedic shoes in a variety of attractive styles and funky colors.” However, one doesn’t have to read much of “The Perorations of Lady Bracknell” to realize she wouldn’t be delighted with a pair of shoes emanating from Germany.

I leave you with two more ideas for accessories. The BBC News is anxious to introduce us to the heated bra, while MIT has an insidious line of aluminum foil helmets. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Gales of November

We were living in Detroit in 1975 when the Edmund Fitzgerald went down in Lake Superior off Whitefish Point. The tragedy immediately became part of Michigan lore, celebrated in song by Gordon Lightfoot. Every year on November 10th the bells of the Old Mariners’ Church in downtown Detroit ring out 29 times to commemorate the crew of the freighter. Andrew has a large framed print of the Edmund Fitzgerald on the wall of his family room in Maryland, and the now-closed Great Lakes Maritime Museum on Belle Isle used to be high on the list of places to take visitors.

Until this past weekend, the lower peninsula had not felt the violence of the gales of November. On Sunday we were lashed by violent winds, maybe from the north, maybe a byproduct of the tornados, which hit some mid-western states. A number of people in Wayne County were badly affected and lost power. Damage locally was slight. We had the awning over the dining room window torn loose and our neighbor Dave lost some of his siding.

It was a day to stay inside with a cup of tea. The worst the storm could do to us was blow the carefully raked piles of leaves out of the gutters and back onto the lawns. There is comfort being inside a house, warm and secure, when the winds blow outside and “the witch of November” can’t harm you.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Friends and Neighbors

The time: the mid-seventies. The place: our front yard. The situation: a water main break, decreed by the city council to be on our property. Our property = we get it fixed. Cast of characters: assorted family and neighbors gathered to offer suggestions, observations or help as we tried to locate the actual break.

That’s David Saunders standing behind Dan and Joe Scicluna, Albert pointing out something of interest, Joe Saunders and Jimmy Morris and Ernie, looking surprisingly unconcerned about the whole mess. The guy in the hole who looks like he is about to audition for a revival of The Village People is our former neighbor, Don Corbin. Note that Don is the only one actually doing anything. He was a great neighbor who could always be relied on for practical help. One of my most vivid memories of him is the time he jumped into his car at 3:00 a.m., then chased and stopped the drunk who had ploughed into our car, which was parked on the street in front of our house. We slept through the whole thing!

This is another photograph I came across recently which took me back to the past. The boys in the photograph are approaching forty and Joe died a couple of years ago. I see Don once in a while. Serendipity played a large part in this story. Not two days after I found this photo, Don was visiting his old house and walked into our kitchen. I’m not sure what to make of that, but it was good to see an old neighbor again.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

It's Evelyn's Birthday!

Evelyn is three today. Elizabeth's older daughter is quite a giggler when she is tickled, but photographers have a hard time eliciting a smile from her. We celebrated with this Mona Lisa of granddaughters on Sunday and it is clear that the dinosaurs on her cake were a resounding success. She is such a gentle little girl and it is lovely to think that every year she will celebrate her birthday on All Saints' Day.

As each grandchild celebrates a birthday, I usually add just one photograph. But I couldn't resist adding another; Miss Evelyn in her disguise as Angelina Ballerina has learned the power of accessories from her Aunt Lucy.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Ghosties and Ghoulies and Long-legged Beasties

The rain held off until we had turned off the lights and most of the trick or treaters had gone home. Not a very elaborate Halloween for us: the highspot was probably the magic show performed by Count Wakula at the library.

I have been involved with Halloween costumes since the kids were little. Back then it was pretty basic, usually involving a cardboard box and some wire or a couple of yards of cheap fabric. The PreTeena caroon by Allison Burroughs hits the nail on the head. There are more indoor parties these days, which demand fancier and fancier costumes. The fabric store is a riot of spangly, glittery and colorful material, but, amateurs beware! These same fabrics tend to be slippery and treated with all kinds of gummy substances, which can play havoc with a machine. Liesl’s butterfly wings last year were decorated with sequins, which were glued onto the fabric and my thread frayed every inch. And this is the time of year when the soccer mums descend on the fabric store the week before Halloween. “Halloween costumes,” they think, “how difficult can that be!” An assistant at my favorite store was telling me about the woman who bought an elaborate pattern, opened it up and asked what all the sheets of paper were for.

This year I made two very simple costumes. That was just as well as my sewing room is full of books and my machine and iron are crammed into one end of the bedroom. Liesl was an angel (infinitely easier than her earlier request for a rock costume. Not as in Christine Aguilerra, but an honest to goodness geological specimen.) And for Manny I made a king’s costume. Kate made her kids costumes and the others passed around costumes from previous years.

I also found a photo of the armor I made last year for Emmanuel, but haven't been able to find photos of the costumes I have made in the last few years actually being worn. I did manage to find a photo from 1973. It is blurry and faded, but it brought back memories of dying a mophead for Kate's wig and cutting up sacks for the Indian chief. Again I vow to make an early start next year and have costumes made and ready by September. Let's see!

Friday, October 28, 2005

Another Birthday

Happy Birthday to our oldest grandchild, Emmanuel, who is eight today. It was great to have him here this summer. I think he had a good time too, especially when he and Nonno got together for their daily Dove Bar treat.

Manny was born in Italy and can hold his own in a conversation with Nonna Patrizia. And now he is attending a bi-lingual English/Spanish school in Virginia. Quite the renaissance lad - and a pretty good soccer player too. Hope to see you again soon, Manny.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Garden Frou Frou

I enjoy gardening. For me, it is a journey, not a destination. Sure, I am happy when the outcome is attractive in terms of color, texture and variation of height and shape, but what I really love is playing in the dirt. I like to transplant, dig, and work compost into the soil. My gardening outfits tend to be cotton pants or sweat pants, t-shirts or sweatshirts, all of which fit my criteria of comfort and garments easy to throw in the washing machine while I jump in the shower to remove sweat and mud.

It appears that, once again, I have missed the sartorial boat. According to an article from the Cox News Service, I should be clothed in pieces from Garden Frou Frou, the brainchild of Amanda Brown-Olmstead (didn’t a guy called Olmstead design Central Park?) Her garments “are available in suede look-alike and synthetic blends that feel like cashmere...Prices for jackets are $220-$350; jumpers $250;overalls, skirts and knickers, $150-$250.” I point out to any English friends and family reading this that the exchange rate as of today is £1=$1.776, so you can work it out for yourselves. Not that you can buy this stuff in England: you will need to pick it up in Canada, Bermuda or the British Virgin Islands. Remember, too, that “jumpers”, means pinafore dresses, and as for knickers, we’re not going there.

Guess what? These clothes are versatile and can be worn “beyond the flower beds. For a night out, the quilted floral jacket would be the perfect topper for velvet trousers and a silky camisole.” That’s more than I can say for my “Chicks for the Cure” t-shirt.

My only question is, why didn’t Martha Stewart pick up on this earlier?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The State of the House Address

Life as I know it is seriously disrupted. Nothing that can’t be rectified with a bit of hard work, but annoying nonetheless.

Just before I left for DC, a contractor started work on the basement. In the spring, the waterproofer had fixed the large crack that was sending water into the room and since we had messed up the paneling trying to locate the crack, we decided to redo the whole room, in part as a retreat for visiting grandchildren. As the contractor removed the rest of the paneling, he discovered another crack, this time in the wall at the front of the house. Re-enter waterproofing man, who suggested we go through the whole procedure again. But this time, instead of digging up the driveway, he had to dig up the shrubs and flowers in front of the house. I had spent a lot of time out there this fall. Two years ago the roofers had sent three layers of old roof crashing down and I had finally cleared up most of the evidence of their destruction. At least we weren't expected to dig up the shrubs. Or re-plant them. I am such a trusting person. We had to run errands the day the crew turned up to re-plant and I believed them when they said they had placed markers to indicate where the plants belonged. Maybe they had, but they had failed to indicate which shrubs went where. I returned several hours later to find everything in the wrong place, planted too high and gasping for water. Probably by spring the picture will be brighter. I will go out this week, plant some bulbs and wait to see if Mother Nature can help me out.

Meanwhile we have had the fence people replace the rotting posts in the backyard fence, the gutter people install shiny new gutters and downspouts and the window crew put glass block windows in the basement room. We are getting somewhere, at least with the infrastructure, if not the cosmetic stuff.

I forgot to mention that we moved between two and three thousand books from the basement. They have now taken over my sewing room and are scattered throughout the house. And in one week we are having the study floor sanded and re-finished, which means another fifteen hundred or so books are slowly being moved to the dining room. Then we have to move the furniture. That has to be done in between continually cleaning the house as the dust rises up from the new drywall in the basement. Am I complaining? You bet I am.

At least the saga of Ernie’s hand is gradually coming to an end. For the second time he spent several hours at St. John Macomb Hospital. Some of the area where the hematoma had been drained was not healing and yesterday he had a skin graft. So he is back in a hard cast for a while (try moving books and furniture when you can’t bend your wrist.) Then there will be therapy. The surgeon suggested he stay out of the workshop and write a book instead!

So there we are. Order will be restored, but it helped to get this off my chest.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Welcome, Linus

Marcie and Andrew greeted Linus Albert on October 11th at the George Washington Hospital. Liesl and Theodore and I had been waiting for the phone call, which came about 10:30. After Theodore's nap, we jumped into the car and made the trip into DC so they could meet their new brother. It was fun to watch them with him. Theodore's vocabulary is limited, but "baby' is a word he has mastered. Of course, I took the opportunity to hold Linus as much as I could. A lovely little boy. By chance Lucy had the day off, so she joined us at the hospital and accompanied me back to Rockville, which was helpful since I got lost twice and it was way past dinnertime.

Marcie stayed in the hospital until Friday and I looked after the children while Andrew taught. The staff at his school delighted him by volunteering meals this week. Things stared to fall into a pattern over the weekend and when I left on Sunday, Marcie's mother arrived to lend a hand. It was a great week for me and a chance to get to know Liesl and Theodore just a little better. So, while it was good to get back, I miss my little guys in Maryland. More photos on the Williams/Ament photo page.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Theodore is two

Another birthday today! This time we are celebrating Theodore's birthday. He and I became good buddies this summer when we traveled to Iowa with Andrew and Liesl. We became roommates and I got to know him well.

Two years ago I was in Maryland helping to take care of Liesl when Theodore (seen in the picture with his big sister) was born and in two days I will be flying back to help look after the two of them while Marcie is is the hospital for the birth of their new brother/sister. I can't wait to find out about our new grandchild and to spend time with these two. Watch this space.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Where the bee sucks . . .

I can tell you exactly where the last bee with whom I got up close and personal sucked. My arm, right below the elbow. What’s more, I was simply standing on the sidewalk. I was not wearing bright colors or perfume, I was just standing there. And so yesterday, for the second time this summer, I was stretched out on an examining table, while the doctor dug around with a scalpel, extracting remnants of a sting. Again the question was, “Was it a bee, a yellow jacket or a wasp?” I phrased my answer as politely as I could. It also explains why my arm is swollen, red and throbbing and I am taking steroids and antibiotics in the hope I will look halfway normal before I get on the plane on Sunday.

So forget all that merrily, merrily business and find me some hydrocortisone.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Thirty six today

Happy birthday today to Elizabeth (seen here with Henry just before his baptism.) When I phoned her today she was a bit groggy from too little sleep (Caroline had a rare restless night) and indignant that Benjamin and Caroline should chose today for a couple of other lapses, which caused her to spend part of her birthday with a bottle of Lysol!

Elizabeth is a great mother, a loving wife and daughter and a talented cook. She has many other attributes she spent her teenage years hiding from us. It brought back so many memories as we cleared books out of the basement in preparation for some remodeling: there was Elizabeth’s Sociology text book (from college!) with the bold inscription inside the cover “Elizabeth Ament. I love John Cougar Mellencamp.”

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Another Birthday

Daniel was four today and we celebrated with a trip to Thiessen's Apple Orchard in Leamington, Ontario. Daniel is very easy to buy a present for these days. He enjoys-in fact, he is obsessed with-Thomas the Tank Engine, so a Thomas shirt and hat was an easy choice for our birthday gift to him. It was a glorious day: beautiful weather and a most enjoyable picnic in the orchard. There probably won't be too many days like this left in 2005.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

From Rhoda to Golda

I am not a great devotee of television series. I am faithful to a few, like The West Wing, which I have watched from its inception, and even though I think it is getting a bit lame, I will probably watch it until the whole bunch of them get voted out of office. But if I miss the first episode or two of a series, I never become a convert. I have never seen Friends or Desperate Housewives or (sorry Elizabeth) Seinfeld.

There was one exception. In the early seventies I read such good things about The Mary Tyler Moore Show that somewhere around the third season I jumped onto the bandwagon. Not an easy thing to do, since it aired (I think) at 8:00 pm on Saturday and I had a number of small children to feed, bathe and get into bed. What a truly delightful escape from reality that show was, with its vibrant protagonist and an outstanding supporting cast. It was impossible not to love Mary: she was pretty, talented and endearingly klutzy. But you had to empathize with Mary’s friend, Rhoda Morgenstern, who played Ado Annie to Mary’s Laurey. Rhoda’s dates were disasters, her diets never worked—in short, she was one of us.

I’ve heard odds and ends about Valerie Harper, who played Rhoda, in the years since the show ended: she dabbled in show business politics for a while. It was a shock to open the entertainment section of the paper on Sunday, and see her in her new role, as Golda Meir. Looks like Valerie has traded the role of a feisty young woman for that of an feisty older woman.

I think if you gave me a bouffant wig and a good tweed suit, I could pass for Margaret Thatcher.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Benjamin is four

Happy Birthday to Benjamin, Elizabeth and Jeff's oldest. Four years ago today I was in the waiting room at St. Mary Mercy in Livonia. Kate arrived shortly after me: she and Elizabeth were due on the same day, though Daniel didn't come for another six days. But since he was a twelve pound baby, Kate looked like she was in the maternity wing for reasons other than supporting her sister. We sure got a lot of attention!

We will celebrate birthdays for the two cousins on Saturday. I think that will mark the third celebration of this birthday, Benjamin. Enjoy it while you can.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Down yonder green valley . . .

How I hated music lessons at school in the fifties. I was totally tone deaf and I remember having to stand and sing this “Traditional Welsh Air.” It continues—

. . . where streamlets meander
When twilight is fading, I pensively roam
Or at the bright noontide in solitude wander
Amid the dark shades of the lonely Ash grove.

The song has its fair share of streamlets and o’ers, a twas or two and even a bosom. The British have a whole cadre of songs like that. My theory is that they are the byproduct of the Industrial Revolution. Tell-it-like-it-is poets like Blake dared to write of “dark satanic mills”, but the rest of them hid their heads in the sand and ignored the impact of iron and steel by clinging to a bucolic vocabulary of banks and braes, and including a lot of sheep and plenty of trees, often enveloped in doubtful syntax:

To where for me, the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea. (Do? Whatever happened to doth?)

The ash tree in the photograph has never seen a grove of other ashes: it stands in front of our house, planted on the strip of city property by the local council to replace one of the magnificent elms that succumbed to Dutch Elm disease in the seventies. Now we are threatened by the emerald ash borer, which has destroyed large numbers of trees in Michigan’s lower peninsular, and was reported last week to have crossed over into the upper peninsular.

I don’t think our tree looks too good. I remember still the sadness of waking one morning to find a big red cross sprayed on the elms, indicating they had to come down. So I will watch the ash carefully, humming an appropriate air as I do so.

But sorry, Miss Benjamin, I still sing flat.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Don't tell the kids

There was a segment on the news the other night highlighting research from some fancy university which indicated that children who eat dinner with their families are statistically less likely to use drugs or take part in other self destructive behaviors. I don't want a medal for this, but I can honestly say that for us family dinners were the norm. Even if someone had basketball practice, or a choir concert or some other pursuit which meant he or she missed dinner, the rest of the kids were expected to sit down together, eat dinner and make some attempt at conversation. There was the same expectation for Ernie and me. So many times there was the end of a football game, or Wimbledon or something which drew us to the TV (what are those TV trays for anyway?), but we never caved in. I think I was the weakest link, but Ernie, in spite of his love for golf, the Olympics or the national conventions, made everyone toe the line. Did this contribute to the behaviors, or lack thereof, validated by the research? Who knows?

But of late we have been letting our guard down. Dinner has been consumed in front of the television. The Senate Confirmation hearings have taken precedent over our inhibitions. We seem unscathed, but don't tell the children.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Dear Hand Surgeons' Office

Never in my life have I seen so many forms in a medical office. Family medical history, insurance details, personal habits and the beginning of a litany of blame. Clearly they expect workman's compensation to be on the mind of every patient and they are assembling fodder for the ambulance chasers.

BUT the majority of the patients walked in with casts, bandages and useless hands, so since one can logically expect 50% of them to have injured the hand with which they write, couldn't there have been some indication of how they were supposed to complete their forms? Just asking.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Put tab A into slot B

I have recently made four purchases. (Why does purchasing something seem a lot fancier than actually “buying“ something?)

So what did I buy? I bought some sippy cups to make life easier when Frederick was visiting. I bought a microwave to replace the one which died on us shortly before we realized that the transformer in the back yard was dying a slow death, which may or may not mean that the microwave was covered by insurance, but if it was, they would put up our premium anyway. I bought a new scanner (actually, Ernie bought it as a 39th wedding anniversary gift, although I later realized it was a clever way of making me responsible for the care and feeding of yet another piece of technology), and I bought a beautiful new Husquavarna sewing machine.

Can I figure out the microwave? Well, it presupposes that all I want to do is reheat “Pasta Sauce, Soup, Pizza, Dinner Plate, Beverage and Rolls/Muffins “, (I quote from the Sharp Microwave Oven Manual.) There’s a nice paper manual and it is pretty much the same as my old microwave, so I will manage.

Then we come to the scanner. Every morsel of instruction is on-line, thanks to the “Help” page I managed (somehow) to download as part of the installation procedure. Some of it defies comprehension, although I am having some success with photos and no luck with downloading documents into editable text. But give me time.

As far as the sippy cups go, I was pretty upset when I realized that the cups I had painstakingly filled with water and juice prior to our trip to the mall had suddenly got lost, but Ernie reminded me that we had raised five children by shoving liquids down their throats from regular cups and no-one had come close to dying from dehydration. Nevertheless, I made a late-night run to CVS and bought some (rather expensive) cups from Avent. And for these, I need instructions?

The sewing machine? I love my new machine, although it will take me a while to feel confident with its workings. It is the third machine that I have owned.

The first was a Singer straight stitch, a Christmas gift from Ernie when I lived in my Los Angeles apartment. Over the years, fancier machines were marketed, but that was a workhorse of machines.

My second machine was a zigzag, and could do a lot more (but I hated the button-hole system.)

My newest machine has different bobbin winding mechanisms and comes with a booklet showing Scandanavian ladies in fancy jackets. There is a video (video?) and the advertising proclaims the machine can perform “heirloom” machine sewing. Isn’t that an oxymoron? I mean, you either use a machine, or you hand sew heirloom embroidery. My grandmother would have a lot to say about this. But that is a subject for another day.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


This Elderberries cartoon came from today's Detroit Free Press.

OK Ron, you get the beer. "Don't suppose I'm eligible, being family and all, but it's from As You Like It. (All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players...)" I doubt if more than three people read this blog, so let's put the others out of their misery.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

I miss these guys

Hard to believe, a week ago we were on the outskirts of Washington, enjoying Andrew's hospitality after the road trip from hell. We had taken care of these little boys for ten days and it was time to get them back to their parents. We were going to meet up at Andrew's so Al could take them home to sleep and the next morning they would all meet Gody's plane. They had been so good during their stay, but the little two were in need of some big parental hugs.

We took our own kids on many long road trips, but back then we threw a mattress in the back of a station wagon, threw the kids in on top of it and let them roll around like puppies until they fell asleep. We passed some food back once in a while, made the occasional stop to change diapers and rolled on. So the five hundred mile trip from here to DC with three little kids held captive in car seats was quite an experience and one I don't want to repeat in the near future. How Al did it three times this summer on his own defies my imagination.

Frederick was unbelievably cheerful, greeting me every morning with a big grin. Last time he was here, he ate virtually nothing except cheese for every meal. This time he was much less choosy and showed a great affection for cherry tomatoes. Like a minor bureaucrat, he does everything in triplicate and I soon learned that "Apple, apple, apple" meant any kind of fruit, and "Bread, bread, bread" would keep him happy for while. How I miss Frederick's enthusiastic "Gamma, Gamma, Gamma."

Alex, on the other hand, seen here wearing his grandpa's gardening hat, has changed from eating anything to being a serious consumer of peanut butter. That was fine by me. He adores his big brother. He had a ready answer when offered something he didn't want, as in "Do you want some potatoes, Alex?" Answer, "I've got potatoes at home."

Emmanuel is nearly eight, and he had a great time with his cousins Patrick and Charlie. Kate and Ron had him sleep over several nights and he got to go on a number of outings with their family. Manny's secret? He and his grandfather ate Dove bars together when the little guys were out of the picture.

As for us, we turned around next day and drove another five hundred miles home to Michigan and a quiet and empty house.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Then the . . . school-boy, with his satchel and shining morning face . . .

Today is one of my favorite days: the day when the kids in the community go back to school. I got up and took my coffee onto the front porch to watch the steady stream of children passing by the house to go to the local elementary school. It's called Trombley and it is the school all of our children attended. Nowadays there are many parents who drive their children to school, citing fears of child molesters and obviously I can't blame them, but I have such happy memories of the days when our children all walked to school, together with Brenda and Leslie, Billy, Ian and Sheila, Joe and Chuck and Daniel. At one point we had eighteen children under twelve in four adjacent houses, and the friendships far outweighed the fights. The picture below is a little faded now, but it was taken on the first day of school in 1978 and shows the neighborhood kids congregating on our porch on the first day of school. That's Lucy peering through the door, wondering when she could be part of the action.

The photo at the top of the post was taken in 1976. Andrew was starting kindergarten, Elizabeth was going into second grade (where did I get that dress?), Kate was starting third grade and Al, already too tall for the photo, was enrolled in fourth grade. We took a photo like this every year.

Ours is a fairly good school system: not all school systems are run as well. I draw your attention to a book that will be published on October 7, although there will be copies in some stores starting September 15. The book is Cheating Our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education (St. Martin's, $24.95) and the author is Joe Williams. Joe wrote about education in Milwaukee and now covers that beat for the New York Daily News. He is also Marcie's brother. His book was reviewed in this week's Washington Post (see middle of page) and can be ordered at a pre-publication price from Amazon. Teachers and parents will find it interesting and pertinent.

No winners in the Cultural Literacy test #1. The answer was Twelfth Night, Act II, scene III.

So the prize is still unclaimed and will be given to the first person to identify the title of this post.

Monday, September 05, 2005

What we have here is a failure to communicate

Today is Labor Day. We did our family celebrating on Saturday with a dinner at Kate and Ron’s and we are spending the day quietly before taking Lucy to the airport tonight to get her plane back to DC.

Naturally all the news sources, along with the thoughts and prayers of the nation and, I am sure, the world, are focused on New Orleans and the Gulf states. The scope of the disaster is incomprehensible, but those who have made it so far are beginning to get meaningful help.

Here in Michigan we have over the years faced little of the ravages of nature. I vow to be less oppressed by the brief periods of heat and humidity and cold and ice, which are usually causes for my complaints.

In the seventies we were twice without electricity for extended periods of time as a result of ice storms, and the major blackout of 2003, which affected Ontario and the entire NE region of America, is still fresh in our minds. The biggest frustration was not knowing what was going on. We have all become so dependent on TV, radios, and computers. After the initial shock - and there were few people who did not immediately assume a terrorist attack – we were inundated by practical concerns. No way to know which gas stations had generators to pump gas, which pharmacies were open to dispense vital drugs, if there were cooling centers for the sick and the elderly, whether the water was safe to drink, or even where there were supplies of batteries or food.

But electricity was restored in a little over 24 hours. We were somewhat comforted by the hope that this emergency was a rehearsal for a future disaster here or in another part of the country. These omissions of communication could be addressed. Solutions for dispensing information didn’t seem overly complicated.

Now we read accounts of total breakdowns in the passing on of information. Was the National Guard supposed to report to regional police authority or vice versa? Individuals took control and personal websites became sources of information, specific sites were set up to pass on news of survivors. There are sites for volunteering money, services and other help, but on the whole they are maintained by individuals. I am sure there are countless on-line journalers and bloggers who have personal tales to tell. Over the years I have linked to Eliza, who is not writing a lot, but who is playing a role in helping friends. I hope she writes more, but she is busy doing her bit.

The ripples are reaching Michigan. The governor is preparing to accept refugees from the south and the president of the university for which I worked for sixteen years and where Ernie taught for thirty years has offered to accept students who were enrolled at colleges in the afflicted areas. I smiled a little as I read the announcement that students who had already paid their tuition would receive a full waiver of fees. The scenario is all too familiar: “Sir, Mr. President, um Irvin, how do they prove they have paid their tuition?” “Just make it work.”

And they will make it work, they must make it work. But how happy I am that I am retired and can sit here imagining Steve, Barry and Cheryl and the rest of the gang in the Advising office facing weary students asking, “What courses can I take at Wayne State that will satisfy my requirements in the Electrical Engineering program at Xavier?”

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

Freddy and the Dreamers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, even the Beatles: I could relate to them. They looked liked boys I could have gone to school with, groups who might have played a gig at the church hall. But the Rolling Stones, they were something different. A little darker, a little more worldly wise.

Who knows what happened to Freddy, and Gerry probably has a pacemaker now. We all know about the tragic deaths of John and George. But forty years later, Mick Jagger, the Energizer bunny of rock, is going strong.

Tomorrow night, if our trip to Washington goes well, we will be tucked up in bed in Andrew’s house in Rockville, MD and the Stones will be in Detroit, performing at Comerica Stadium. You look a little worse for wear, Mick, but don’t we all?

The sixties, now those were the days . . .

Monday, August 29, 2005


At the risk of appearing shallow and frivolous, I confess that one of my favorite timewasters is Manolo's Shoe Blog. I chuckle at his caustic comments on style and admire the shoes he sprinkles over his pages. In his August 24th entry, he cites other shoeblogs of which he approves, including, for you British readers, Shoewawa.

Why does this make me feel left out? Just about everyone I know in my age group has already lost the battle of the bunion and we have all opted for comfort. Even my stylish friend Lynne, as she entered her eighties, stacked up a large number of boxes marked Louis Ferragamo, size seven, narrow, and is now thinking about selling them on eBay.

Nice shoes won't work for me any more, but I have been introduced to the magic of the pedicure. A couple of weeks ago, I was reading the wedding reports in The New York Times.(Shallow? Frivolous? Moi?) The groom quoted his aunt as saying, "A woman with clean toes is a woman who's well-rounded, well-mannered and well-presented."

If that's good enough for Apratim Dutta's aunt, it's good enough for me.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Dear Grosse Pointe Public Library

When you hire a children's librarian, don't you think it would be a good idea to make sure he/she has taken a course in child development as well as requirements in dinosaur literature and Harry Potterography?

I took Alex and Frederick to the library this morning. For a kid who is not quite sixteen months, Frederick has a good vocabulary. He tends to say everything three times, and I admit he is pretty loud, but anyone who knows anything about children that age knows they yell in church, they yell in libraries and if you tell them to be quiet . . . they yell even louder.

Yours truly,

A GPPL patron for thirty six years.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Did you ever see the picture of we three?

That's the cultural literacy quiz for today. I'll buy a beer for the first person who recognizes the quote.

It is a quote that came to me as I responded to the giggling from the room across the hall the other morning. They each had their own bed, but these guys know the value of a good snuggle.

Ten days ago Gody left for Rwanda. She has one sibling remaining in Kigali, her brother Jean-Baptiste. This is the week of his wedding, and as the senior remaining member of her family, Gody flew over to represent them all. Patrizia is there too, so this will be a reunion for them, as well as a chance for Gody to spend a little time in her native country.

Normally, this would present no problem. But, as luck would have it, Al will start teaching in a new school after Labor Day and the 152 new employees of the South County Secondary School in Fairfax County, Virginia are being brought together for two weeks of orientation. I had volunteered to go out and look after the boys, but wiser heads prevailed and suggested that Al bring them here, where I am more familiar with the parks and libraries and ice-cream stores. They have been here for nine days and so far things are going well.

I'll add to the report and post some more photos before we leave on Wednesday to take them back home. By the way, that's Emmanuel (seven), Frederick (sixteen months) and Alex (just three.)

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Happy Birthday, Jeff

Birthday wishes go out today to my son-in-law, Jeff. Elizabeth and Jeff met at John Carroll and have been married since 1992. Often when Elizabeth came home for college breaks, she would ask us to drop her off at the Ambassador Bridge, where she was going to meet "this guy who is driving back to Cleveland." It was a long while before the penny dropped!

For the first years of their marriage, whenever they were over for dinner, I would always know where Jeff was: up to his elbows in soap suds, doing the dishes. Now they have four children under four, so he is usually up to his elbows in diapers. It won't be that way for ever, Jeff.

The photo was taken in July at Henry's baptism. Love from all the family.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Maisie Dobbs

Maisie Dobbs is my new best friend. We were introduced a few weeks ago by my son-in-law, Ron, who in addition to being a copy editor at the Detroit Free Press, reviews mysteries for the Sunday edition. "Pardonable Lies" is the third book in Jacqueline Winspear's series about a remarkable young woman in post World War I England. Her card reads "Psychologist and Investigator", and although the level of psychological training available to her at that period has hardly given her skills we expect of the flamboyant profilers who are the product of modern criminal psychology classrooms, Maisie is a dab hand as a investigator.

She is a worthy inspiration for the likes of Kinsey Millhone and V. I. Warshawski. Under stress, however, they tend to run for miles, jump in the shower, pull on a t-shirt and jeans and get to work. Not our Maisie. She understands the restorative powers of hot water (A bath had been drawn for her, and the vapor of lavender lingered in the air), but when she sets out for France to sift through the physical and emotional debris of war and to confront her own demons, she wears "a gray-and-blue tweed jacket with a pale gray silk blouse, light gray woolen trousers, black shoes, and, to top off her ensemble, a dark gray hat with a broader brim than usual, a black band and a dark blue feather on the side, which was attached to the band with a deep blue stone in a sapphire cut. . . The clothes were not new, though she had retrimmed the hat herself recently."

There is much more to Maisie than a snappy outfit and the account of her adventures is both exciting and thought-provoking. Ron's point about the perspective of past history making comments on modern war more palatable, or at least less critical, is worth pondering.

Here's his excellent review

I look forward to going back to read the earlier books which introduced our protagonist and I await further Maisie Dobbs books from Ms. Winspear. I'm also wondering whether Kinsey and V.I. need to sharpen their images with a bit of creative hat-trimming.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Great Foxglove Glut of 2005

This is the time of year when people usually barricade themselves behind doors, avoiding the parade of neighbors arriving and announcing, "We grew a few extra zucchini and we thought you might like some." My surfeit is foxgloves. I don't quite get this biennial business, but I do know that I had three foxgloves growing this year. Last year, however, I had a lot of them and they clearly did their thing. The garden was awash with little seedlings this spring and they are now growing large, ready to form rosettes, take all the ice and snow the winter throws at them and become the stars of next year's garden. I am trying to find a home for them all. This happened to me once before and I vividly remember taking an offering to my sister-in-law in Chicago. She decided to plant them in her garden on the first Saturday of the college football season. The cable connection for the TV ran right under her flower bed and anyone who knows John can just imagine his reaction when the spade dug right through the buried cable.

As for zucchini, we only planted a few cherry tomatoes this year, so slicing tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini will be gratefully accepted.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Gardening can be dangerous

Fibrils. Now that's a word you don't hear often. In fact it's a word I had never heard of until this afternoon, when I was stretched out on an examining table and the doctor was removing some from my hand. With a scalpel. The dictionary defines a fibril as a small, slender fiber and in my case they were material left behind after several hornets attacked me.

I was completely unaware that hornets had built a nest in the compost heap. A week ago, on the first cool morning for a long while, I went out and removed some of the lush vegetation that had sprung up in the heat and humidity and decided to transplant a few items. So I went over to the compost heap, plunged a spade into one side and found myself the object of several hornets' rage.

Benadryl and a topical ointment seemed to be doing the trick, but over the weekend the swelling and itching returned worse than before and I decided it was time to get medical attention. A few nicks of the scalpel later I was off, clutching a prescription for antibiotics and steroids.

Just a few weeks ago I had gone to the doctor with an unrelated problem and mentioned I couldn't get rid of a painful sliver of wood in my finger. Out came his trusty scalpel and in seconds that problem was solved (as the bill said: removal of foreign object from finger, $172.) Fibrils are much smaller. Let's hope it cost less to remove them.

Friday, August 12, 2005

What's your major?

The concept of a college major being something of a movable feast is a strange one for the English. At least it was. In my day, and that phrase alone indicates that I am "of a certain age", we applied for a place at university directly into a specific department. And we never took a class in anything else. I can defend that system, but I also admit that I am woefully ignorant in vast areas of knowledge. I have never been able to remember the order of the planets, or why plants need sunshine and I was actually relieved, rather than insulted, when my doctor presented me with a booklet purporting to explain cholesterol, in which the illustrations included a rather cute liver, complete with eyes and a large nose.

I just received my latest university Alumni magazine (the concept of Alumni, or in my case, alumnae, didn't exist "in my day") and I was quite amazed how majors have proliferated over the years. In the 30's through the 60's, people had traditional majors like History, English and Zoology. In the 70's I begin to see some combined degrees, like Mathematics and Music, Biochemistry and Psychology and a shift to "studies": Classical Studies, Management Studies, Drama and Theatre Studies. The degrees of the 90's are more esoteric. We have Quaternary Science, Basin Evolution and Dynamics, Victorian Art and Architecture and Geography of Third World Development.

I hope I live long enough to learn which majors my grandchildren elect and I hope one of them can explain why the liver has a nose.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

And Ernie is . . .

. . . well, let's say he had another birthday. It turned out to be a glorious day and we had a picnic at the Woods park. Good food and delightful guests. Most everybody went swimming at least once. Happy birthday Ernie!

Friday, August 05, 2005

And Lynne is 85

This remarkable woman is going to be upset because this photograph doesn't do her justice. There is a beautiful photograph that accompnied the article Lucy wrote for the Grosse Pointe News in their "Pointers of Interest" section. There are countless other photos where every hair is in place (and bright red.) But this photo of Lynne and Henry captures her as a nurturer.

Lynne, I found this profile of a Leo:

"You are an out-going person basically and have a wide circle of friends. You are a well-loved person since you speak attractively and have good manners. You can't tolerate your failures because you want to rule and you are impatient to reach that level. You don't let anyone come in the way of achieving power. You are brave and don't spend sleepless nights on major or minor worries provided you have been sincere and just. Basically an extrovert, you reach out to people in all walks of life. "

I think this says it all. Thank you for your friendship, your tolerance and your generosity.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Alex is three today

Happy birthday to my grandson Alex. He is a total charmer, with a big, ready smile and a great sense of humor for a little kid. I enjoyed having him and his two brothers here for a week this summer and I hope to be back in Virginia with him again soon. Like most small children, he loves to make funny faces for the camera, so I was fortunate to get this shot with his beaming smile. Little did he know when I took this photo that he was about to get into the car for the long ride back to Washington.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Scott of the Antarctic

I can remember only one occasion when my parents went to the movies, or the pictures, as we said in England. They took me (and I presume my brother, I don't remember that part) to see John Mills in "Scott of the Antarctic." It was after the war and we were still in need of heroes. The snow was pretty and really didn't seem menacing, the protagonists looked a little chilly, but there were no graphic shots of frost-bitten extremities, and when Titus Oates left the tent, uttering his famous farewell, "I am just going outside and may be some time," there wasn't a dry eye in the place.

Since that time, I have read many biographies of Scott. He has been described as everything from a great leader and a visionary to an ignorant amateur who failed to appreciate the value of skis or understand the relative merits of dogs, horses, machines or manpower to move the vast quantities of provisions. There was always a justification for these judgments, but the authors seemed to have their own agendas as they deified or vilified Robert Falcon Scott.

This latest book by Sir Ranulph Fiennes is a pleasure to read. As a polar explorer himself, Sir Ranulph evaluates Scott's decisions and strategies with an eye to the realities of the situations and compares Scott's expeditions to those he has made. We even get to see photos of what frost bite really looks like! It is a first class book. I recommend it.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Sissinghurst Revisited

Vita Sackville West would be proud of me. At least until she realized that all those white flowers in my garden were not selected for the diversity of their petals, the contrasting green of their leaves, their fragrance or any of the qualities I once read were important in the design of her White Garden. In fact, design and and garden are two words I never use in the same sentence. The David phlox somehow multiplied and the nicotiana just returned as it always does, a welcome visitor.

It was so cool in the garden today that I finally moved a bunch of flowers and decided that rather than wait until Autumn, I would make some major changes now. I had intended to take photos, draw diagrams etc. to help me make some adjustments later, but by the time fall comes, the flowers have faded away and I forget what is what and no longer feel any urgent need to act. I find it hard to justify my style of gardening to other people, but it gives me great pleasure and that's enough for me.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Didn't quite mean to do this

Those of you who have been receiving my e-mails and newsletters know that I have been talking for a long time about setting up something to publish up-dates on Bedford College Classics Alumnae or family news. This set-up is something I was contemplating. So I thought I would check it out to see how it works. Before I knew it, here I am and I am using this opportunity to establish a placeholder. I have no idea what to do next, so hold on to something, it's going to be a bumpy ride!