Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Winter's Tale

I changed my banner several weeks ago, before we actually had any snow. I took the photo a couple of years ago: I had my camera with me while I was driving around and saw this woman in a red coat taking her dog for a walk. I couldn't have composed it better.

This photo I took today—a neighbor's house , taken through our car window. Somewhere in the midst of all that snow, armed with a shovel, is the young man who lives next door. Jared had started by clearing our driveway, front path and porch and had moved on to this house. I wrote about Jared in an earlier post. He was much younger then, and he has grown into a charming high school senior, still delighting his parents who attend the hockey tournaments in which he is playing and impressing his father with his golf score.

Shortly before I left the house this morning I was reading an article on Putin's proposed ban on Russian children being adopted by Americans. How sad that under this policy not only would Jared's parents and sister, all his family, friends and neighbors have been deprived of this outstanding young man, but he himself would have been deprived of a comfortable, meaningful life—and maybe even life itself. My daughter's fiancé has a brother who together with his wife brought not one, but four, children home from a Russian orphanage.

Mr. Putin, please change your mind.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Holiday Time: Cherish Time with Family

That's the title of an editorial written by my daughter on November 17, 1993 while she was in High School. It is framed and holds a pride of place in our dining room and I think it worth preserving here.

My house is full of ghosts.

Occasionally, when walking past the cubbyholes which line the backdoor stairs, I will hear the sound of small hands scrambling for footballs and baseball mitts, followed by the pitter-patter of tiny feet running out into the yard. When I wake early on Sunday mornings, I can hear the laughter of familiar voices in the kitchen, though a quick glance reveals the room is empty.

The greatest center of this "supernatural activity" is the dining room. There is a lot of wood trim in my house—beautiful, dark walnut—but it is most prominent there, where the rich floor boards are covered only by a rose colored rug beneath the walnut table, and the fine walnut china cabinet and buffet line the walls. I think this is why my earliest childhood memories of the house are of that room.

The walls are broken by leaded windows, and the light which flows through them make the room just a bit brighter than others in the summer, and just a bit cozier in the winter.

I cannot recall all the gatherings which have taken place between those four walls. The room has witnessed a continuous cycle of dinners celebrating New Year's, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, not to mention the birthday parties, baptismal gatherings and graduations. When I think of happy times, shared with good friends and family, I think of that room.

Recently, I was looking through college literature with my parents, and we concluded that if I went to school out east I would  probably come home only for Christmas. It was strange to think that I would not spend such times at the table with my family, and I realized that the history of my family was rapidly approaching its third era.

The first of these eras was our childhood. Those were the days when we were all together under one roof, my two brothers and two sisters and me. When Christmas morning found us scattered throughout the house with our various toys (probably to ensure that no one else would play with them), the sound of the dinner bell would round us all up again. When given to bouts of temperament, as children sometimes are, we would come to the table surly, grouchy or pouting, but the room soon worked its magic and we were happy again.

Even when my brothers and sisters gradually began to fly off to their respective universities, they always found their way back to the table for the holidays. The conversation became more interesting, more diverse, as my siblings shared their experiences with different people in different places, and put their "higher education" to use. Even I, many years away from college, would occasionally find a little glass of wine by my plate, a promise of the maturity that awaited me, too. I don't believe we ever realized how special it was for all of us to be there with each other. We never said, "Enjoy this time together, it won't last forever." People never do.

Last year we entered our second era. My sister married and moved to Ohio, and my other sister moved into a nearby flat. Our meetings at the table now are more important. We sit together, boyfriends and husbands included, in great spirits: our company is precious.

But nowadays not everyone is always present—I celebrated my 17th birthday this year without my sisters, who can no longer always be around for such occasions, and a place will be empty this Thanksgiving when my sister spends the "alternating year" with her in-laws.

Two years ago when my brother returned from his first two-year stint with the Peace Corps, we welcomed him home with posters and balloons and, of course, dinner in the dining room. But this August we we had dinner there again to send him off to Madagascar, and I realized that we would be incomplete for two years until he joined us there again.

Our dining room then, is a barometer of sorts, indicating the climate of our family; a full table reflects that we are united, blessed. When I say my prayers at night, I ask God to protect my family, but then, as if such a factual request lends no light to its importance, I invariably add, "Please let the coming years grant us many more meals around the dining room table."

But those meals, at least consistently, cannot last forever. When did my father stop going home to his parents' house for Christmas? When did he begin stuffing the stockings of his own young ones, instead of leaving his on a little nail above the fireplace to be filled? My mother was 24 when she left England for America and within two years she was married and had a little boy. She saw her parents and her brother every three years on average.

And so the third era is upon us; a time when, though we will always love each other, my siblings, my best friends will have our own families to feed in our own dining rooms, and we, the limbs of our family tree, will branch out in different directions.

In my room there are two photographs. One is of a blond-haired boy in a sailor suit—my mother's father, and in the other are the ancestors of my father, fresh off the boat from Germany. They have watched the many gatherings of their decedents through the years, and, God willing, I will watch those of mine.

And when I watch my children, or the children of my children's children, whether in the flesh or peering through the glass of a musty picture frame, I will know that they are the product of a room with magnificent walnut trim and a rose-colored rug, and hope that the wealth of happiness which found me there will find them as well.

I thought I was posting this for my children who had asked for a memento of their sister's writing as she embarks on another era of her life.

I found I posted it for me.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Past

If the Ghost of Christmas Past had been doing his job properly, I would have an enormous archive of memories of over seventy years of Christmases. But there are significant gaps and perhaps that is just as well.

As a child I remember walking around Woolworths with my saved up pocket money and finally selecting for my grandmother a brooch shaped like a bird and studded with "diamonds" and "sapphires." I remember waking up on Christmas morning in my cold bed-room and opening up the pillowcase on the end of the bed. It invariably contained classical books and Oh how disappointed I was. I later came to appreciate these books which formed the basis of my library, though I never managed to read Pilgrim's Progress. And I never will.

What do I remember of my childhood and teenage years? Not much. Sometimes we had Christmas dinner with Nana-round-the-corner and then we had her over for Boxing Day. (That's December 26 for my American readers.) But mostly I think my mother cooked. Surprise, surprise, I just found another post I wrote on this subject when my memory was a little sharper.

 By the time I was approaching my graduation from high school and for most of my years at university I had a Christmas job delivering mail. None of this union business: the Royal Mail handed over the Christmas cards to us untrained workers and off we went.

Then I found myself in California. I was house-sitting (and I think some animal was involved) for a faculty member in the hills above Los Angeles while he went home to South Carolina with his housemate. Marvin had a blue and green tinsel tree and lots of Johnny Mathis records, but the significance escaped me at the time. I remember so clearly sitting on Christmas Day, waiting for the phone call which I had booked to England—that's how it was done in those days—to come through, and then I was picked up to enjoy Christmas dinner with my beloved Trapp Family (no, not that Trapp family.) The next year I was on a train for two days and a night (or was it two nights?), on my way to Iowa to meet Ernie's family. We stopped at Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and then made our way across the great plains to Cedar Rapids. My California wardrobe was quite unsuitable for the snowy mid-west, but it seems the family approved of me.

So next year we were married and living in Detroit and I think we drove to Iowa for Christmas. I am sure we did the next two or three years, taking along small children who combined with Ernie's sister's children who were about the same age. Then came the Christmas of the flu and Ernie drove us all the 500 odd miles home in his dressing gown/robe—I couldn't yet drive. After that we stayed home, forging our own Christmas traditions. I remember wandering desperately around Toys 'R Us late at night, but most of all I remember shutting myself in my bedroom wrapping . . . and wrapping. There was the Christmas we bought Lucy a desk and put it in the garage: we forgot to give it to her until much later in the day. When I was working I usually sent the staff home early on Christmas Eve and stayed at my desk to answer the phone—which rarely rang. I never attempted Christmas pudding, but trifle went down well, and after eating turkey for Thanksgiving, we usually resorted to roast beef.

Before we knew it, the children were going to college and Christmas was heralded by Midnight Mass with all their friends greeting each other loudly in church. There were years when they were not all home: Al spent five Christmases in Africa and Lucy spent one in France and one in England.

Then they began to marry and share their holidays with other families. Babies accompanied them to our house and I still feel ashamed for getting a little upset with Emmanuel who got up on Christmas Morning and opened all the packages in the hope he would find gifts to his liking. Soon the girls took over the task of entertaining and cooking and there was the year we flew out to Washington, where the custom of everyone getting sick was resumed. However much things change, I just pray that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has plans for us for a while.

Happy Christmas, everyone.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Take Back your Mink . . .

 . . . take back your pearls—though I think that Miss Adelaide was referring to largely solicited gifts. It is three kinds of unsolicited offerings I want to mention  today.

See Ronald Reagan on a first class stamp on the left of the window.
The first kind arrived in the mail regularly during the  weeks running up to the primaries and the election. The philosophy behind this mail is "make the recipient feel indebted to you" and there will be another example at the end of this post. They were not sent altogether randomly, but were always from the candidates in the party they had good reason to think my husband would support (and always addressed to him, not me.) The candidates sent us a gift! Usually a stamp, sometimes a nickel and on one occasion a dollar bill. The text book for Marketing 101 obviously said the gift should be visible so the designated recipient (and presumably any potential pilferer who could get his hands on it) could identify the Judas role he was being tempted by, open the envelope and act accordingly. I have often wondered if Ernie appeared in the database as an especially generous and ardent supporter, or mailings would have been an enormous drain on the campaign budget.

Next we come to catalogues. I have just filled in an e-survey from Paper Direct (yes, I am going to mention you by name) and told them to pay attention to their data base. If they did that, they could see that I order 125 sheets of paper with matching envelopes once a year for Christmas letters and an odd package of 25 seasonal papers for letters. I think most of the Paper Direct clients are commercial and order in large numbers. So why does this firm send me a catalogue virtually every week—and then says there are more designs on-line. If I want paper, I go straight to the website anyway. I won't list the other companies that send me catalogues way out of proportion to the amount I spend with them. I must look up the rationale in the afore-to-mentioned textbook. Anyone of you who has nothing better to do at this time of the year can enter "marketing" in the search feature of this blog and you will see I have written several posts on this subject before. My, my, I had quite forgotten Keith.

Last, but not least, we come to address labels, the other "make them feel indebted to you" product. Several years ago I received a big package of return address labels and stickers from a worthy charity and I sent them a check. I immediately received another package and this ping-pong relationship has been going on ever since. I don't always send them money, but they don't give up. Their product is quite tasteful, which is more than I can say for many other charities. (This Christmas we received a package of Christmas cards from an order of brothers which had a picture which looked exactly like Mary about to change a dirty diaper—and looking a little like she was feeling "What, me?" I would have love to include a photo in this post, but I think the good brothers deserve a little respect.) Even if I wrote 10 letters a day for the conceivable future, there is no way I could use up the return address stickers I have just from this one charity. My son once subscribed his father to a magazine and, as a joke, told National Geographic that the recipient would be one "Aristotle Ament." Now return address labels come into the house by the hundreds bearing that august name.

I will have to complain more. I have always wanted to emulate Miss Adelaide and say in her immortal phrase, "Take back your fill-in-the-blanks to from whence they came."

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Vindication of Gillian Belchier

When I was a teenager I hated my hair. It was thick, but straight. Straighter than straight. I once confided to a classmate that I was envious of her pretty, reddish curls. Gillian replied that she disliked them, because it made it impossible for her to "do anything" with her hair. The years went by and Mr. Teasy Weasy gave way to Vidal Sassoon. Good hairdressers insisted that a good cut more than made up for curls.

The years passed and I really didn't pay much attention to my hair:  I was way too busy. I do recall a rather dubious perm, but for the most part my hair was short—until it got long, then it was cut and we started all over again.  As it turned more and more grey, I decided that the days of shoulder length hair were over. But for some reason last spring I made one last effort to grow my hair. Not a very intelligent thing to do in one of the hottest summers on record. It wasn't long enough to tie back or short enough to allow my neck to breathe. So I had it cut and voilà—curls, springing all over the place. And I can't "do anything" with them.

Problem is, the curls are just on one side of my head.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Sign of the Times, Part II

Daughter number one, she of the neatest handwriting, and I spent a couple of evenings sending out wedding invitations for daughter number three, who was busy with a project on content analysis or some such. I had done this twice before, so I was familiar with the intricacies of outer and lined inner envelopes—our lining was a lovely midnight blue.

As far as the invitations, we followed american etiquette which lapses into Brit-spell. The invitation requests the "honour " of the guest's presence along with the "favour" of a reply. The invitations had all been printed nicely. Blue on white.

I thought I needed to refresh my memory about titles, so I did refer to a few sources. My, how things have changed. If a married same-sex couple is invited, apply the alphabetical rule for listing different last names, along with titles (i.e. Ms. Joan Fox and Ms. Mary Keenan or Mr. James Ace and Mr. Mac Black). If the couple shares the same last name, then refer to them in the plural as "Messrs" or "Madames," followed by the double first name and common last. (i.e. Messrs. Bob and Gary Gilbert or Madames Jane and Kathy Ames). Er, OK. Since we hang around academics, I was prepared for Drs. Smith, or in one case, Drs. Smith and Jones. But one source said you can only do that with medical doctors and common or garden PhDs remain Mr., Mrs., etc. That doesn't seem right. In the case of an un-married couple living together "Both names should be included on the envelopes, but each name gets its own line."  The groom's brother is married to a medical doctor, and although he is a hot-shot lawyer, he has to give way to her and their invitation should read, "Dr. Ann and Mr. John Groom'slastname." Thank heavens we didn't have to deal with Captain, Lieutenant, Rabbi or Imam.

Actually, we decided to follow the advice we saw somewhere, loosen up and just use names and no fancy titles at all. But it got me thinking about the problems of the poor Lord Chamberlain last year.

He probably didn't have too many PhDs, but he must have had a Serene Highness or two. And what about all those annoying Pretenders? Pretender and Mrs. Pretender? Actually, I think this fill in the blank invitation looks a bit tacky for the Royal Family. Surely they had enough printing presses or at least Macs to insert printed names instead of lines.

But they probably had a palace calligrapher. I hope they didn't put labels on the envelopes. That's definitely a no-no and I thank daughter number one for her work (in blue ink.)

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Very Special Day

Today is the birthday of number fifteen in my lineup of grandchildren. Nathaniel is six today. This photograph was taken at Thanksgiving when Nate and his three brothers were here to eat turkey. His dad has promised to get a digital camera so I can keep up to date with these lovely little boys. Nate seems to have grown up the most since I last saw him and he was so much fun to have around.

All my grandchildren's birthdays are special. So why is today "very special?" It's my birthday too!

Friday, December 07, 2012

Sign of the Times, Part I.

I was making coffee yesterday morning when phone rang. It was Lucy's fiancé calling from work. He had left his Blackberry at home and was without information for his contacts. He didn't know Lucy's phone number! I understand, of course. I couldn't tell you the phone number of most of my children, or their addresses. Strangely though, I can tell you that when we first had a phone installed when I was a child, my number was Waltham Cross 24645. That is over sixty years ago. I told Peter and he agreed there were a few numbers that came to his mind, but not that of the girl he has been calling habitually for over three years.

I remember cleaning out a drawer many, many, years ago and throwing out an old address book because I would never again need to contact the people whose names appeared between those red covers. Of course I didn't, but I think a few memories would have been awakened by those bygone names, addresses and phone numbers.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

That's my Boy!

How I enjoyed last weekend's production of "Seussical the Musical" performed by the Grosse Pointe Children's Theatre.

Many years ago I directed a performance of "Free to Be", based on Marlo Thomas' record, which my kids loved. Or maybe I loved it and they just had to listen to it, but who can forget songs like, "It's all right to cry" and "Parents are People," PC expressions way before their time? My cast were mostly the children of friends and it was all rather like herding cats, but it gave me such an appreciation of this performance based on the books of Dr. Seuss.

This is an extra-wide photograph and difficult to see (try clicking on it), but the actor in front, on the left, in a red shirt is my fifth grandchild, Daniel, who is following in his father's footsteps as a thespian. Daniel played the role of Jo with a wonderfully expressive face. The scenery, lighting and costumes were way beyond what young actors usually get to work with.

Can't wait to see you on stage again soon, Danny.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

It Crept up on Me

And by "it" I mean the annual celebration of Holidailies. There's a description of the purpose of Holidailies here, but basically it is the project which encourages blog writers to up-date their blogs every day from December 1 to January 1. It seems to me a great idea and a way to instill in bloggers the  discipline of regular writing, giving us all the chance to improve quantity if not quality. For many years I have played with the idea of signing up—but it won't be this year. Maybe the thinking is that if they chose the busiest time of the year we will all work to squeeze in one more chore. But wouldn't January 1 to February 1 work out better?

I had long realized that if I do sign up, I need to do some preliminary drafts before the beginning date, but, as I said, it crept up on me. I will take as much time as I can spare to read other people's entries, so if you'll excuse me, I'll go to see what some other better prepared writers have to say.