We Have Bluebirds !

A family of Eastern bluebirds -- parents and three fledglings

A family of Eastern bluebirds — parents and three fledglings. Hopefully, a family like this will appear in our bluebird box.

UPDATE: We had a pesky pair of wrens last year that made a nest in the eave of our covered porch.

They are noisy, irritating birds whose small size belies their chutzpah. They take on all comers, even humans! Wrens were the culprits that destroyed the bluebirds eggs laid in a cunning little grass nest a few years ago inside my bluebird box.

So last year, I removed the wren nest, which contained a clutch of five eggs. A few days later, another wren nest appeared, with three eggs. I removed that too. Then the female wren used a bird box close to the house, made a quick nest out of sticks and detritus (they are not an artful species!), and laid two more eggs. Out it went, nest and eggs, into the nearby brush.

The wren then desperately laid a single egg on the bare floor of the bird box, which I promptly removed. She did this several times over the next few weeks, after which she finally gave up.

So far this year, it is now April 15, there is no sign of a wren anywhere near our house or the two bluebird boxes on our property. I guess they got the message: NOT Welcome!

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WE HAVE BLUEBIRDS !!!

OK, we didn’t get the snow on Wednesday. Yay. But it was c-o-l-d, 16 degrees cold that night.

Now, it’s Saturday, warmer and rainy. So rainy that many rivers are flooding roadways. The rain is supposed to continue through Monday.

I actually love the sound of rain, so soothing, and it is a pleasure to open a window after four months of living in a sealed house because it has been so cold this winter.

This is one gorgeous guy!

This is one gorgeous guy!

Yesterday, it was warm enough to sit outside, and I watched varieties of birds racing all over the slope of our backyard. A gorgeous male bluebird pounced on a female and mated with her on the ground right in front of me. I simply held my breath for 5 seconds so as not to coitus interruptus. For the next hour, he swooped to and fro from the branches of several trees down to the bluebird box that I installed a decade ago. I hope the female got the hint — especially after the male’s bold introduction!

So far, the bird box has only attracted one bluebird couple, about 5 years ago, the female of which built a lovely grass nest and laid eggs — oh, joy! — only to have the eggs destroyed by a goddamn wren. I was so mad. Ever since then, I have been keeping my eyes peeled for blue wings. Finally, they have arrived. Let’s hope they stay.

And, if another bluebird lays her eggs in my box and a wren or any other varmint threatens, I’m going to wring its neck!

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OLD NEWS: Bye-bye, snow!

SnowSnow is expected—again—tomorrow and the next day. Ugh. This has been an exceedingly tough winter in the Northeast, and I’ll be glad to kiss it goodbye.

The Weather Channel say that temperatures will warm by Thursday. Yay! If and when they do, I’ll turn off the “snow.”

I might even start posting again …

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Sacred Music for the Holidays

NativityListen to my favorite version of “O Magnum Mysterium” by Morten Lauridsen.

At 3:21, the G# introduced during the word “Virgo” (Virgin) is probably the most breathtakingly beautiful moment in sacred music. It happens again at 3:46, and will send a chill up and down your spine.

I love listening to this piece at this time of year. But it is particularly moving to listen to it now because of the tragedy that occurred in Sandy Hook, two towns away from mine, last Friday.

Letting this indescribably beautiful music and choral voices wash over me brings me as close to heaven as I can ever hope to be on this earth.

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Order Out of Chaos

When I was growing up, my mother used to iron my father’s shirts and the family’s bed sheets (before no-iron percale), while watching “The Million Dollar Movie” at four o’clock in the afternoon. She preferred comedies and tear-jerkers and, whether laughing or weeping, could iron two Oxford shirts to perfection in 15 minutes.

One in a million.

She could have brought everything to the Chinese laundry on Arcadia Street in downtown Old Greenwich, but her Scottish blood wouldn’t allow it. Besides, she took pride in doing the job herself.

If the weather was too inclement for a fresh-air fiend like me to be outside playing, I’d watch those classics with her, lying on the dining-room floor (where our TV was) with a couple of pillows from the couch, while the smell of spray starch filled the air and steam clouded the windows.

It was on those afternoons that I absorbed the nuanced performances in Brief Encounter; Random Harvest; Now, Voyager; Notorious; Rebecca; Wuthering Heights, Dodsworth and Roman Holiday; the witty, sophisticated badinage of stars like Clifton Webb in The Razor’s Edge; Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Woman of the Year; Myrna Loy, Cary Grant and Melvyn Douglas in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House; Kay Kendall and Rex Harrison in The Reluctant Debutante; and Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Indiscreet.

“I’ll have some of that.”

The décor of the London apartments created for the latter two films would rival anything found in Kensington today, and my mother simply reveled in their luxurious digs. Every interior shot of a barrel-vaulted foyer where Kay delivered rapid-fire repartee to Rex through her long patrician nose; or the cunning breakfast nook, where Ingrid served Cary scrambled eggs, elicited from my mother a deeply indrawn breath. I’d hear it over the thump of her iron, and I’d sigh in pleasure with her.

What I enjoyed most, and think back on often, was the emotional journey we took together, a journey that lasted no more than 90 minutes but whose after-effects are still with me today, some 50 years later.

Those movies evoke a simpler time (or at least the illusion of a simpler time—debatable if I can clearly remember practicing “duck and cover” as a third-grader in case of nuclear attack). And, in light of the three major storms in the last 14 months—including Hurricane Sandy—when we lost power, water, heat, cable and Internet for a total of 20 days, simpler times seem more precious than ever.

I find I am so grateful for small things, like a bedside lamp by which to read. Or a warm bed. Or a kitchen. (Ours may be old—I’m talking 1957 old—but it works.) While a privacy fence suffered some damage, our house was untouched. We still have a roof over our heads. More to the point, we’re alive.

“Honey, that’s good coffee.”

Yes, there were inconveniences. During the outage, we needed to warm ourselves in front of the fireplace before jumping under ice-cold sheets. My husband woke each morning, donned winter clothes, and trekked out to the patio to boil water over his propane-fueled camp stove (the Pocket Rocket) so we could have oatmeal and coffee. (My hero.)

Now, with power restored, I am experiencing the unadulterated joy that comes from re-establishing order out of chaos. I revel in seemingly simple things—a hot shower, a flushing toilet and enough running water to wash the floor or brush my teeth. I sing while vacuuming. It thrills me to do the laundry, to plug in the leaf blower, to hear the furnace click on and the doorbell ring.

After ten days, on November 7, the day after the election, our cable and Internet were finally restored. (Read about what we did on Election Night, here.)

Talk about order out of chaos. All day long, we watched TV and reveled in every bit of post-election news and exit poll. And that night, we slept more peacefully than we have in a long, long time.

All’s right with the world.

 

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Election Night, 2012: Historic Inroads

On Election Night, at around 6, my husband and I walked along our town’s Main Street, as we do every evening. (After Hurricane Sandy left us without power, heat, water or cable, we tried to maintain as much of our regular routine as possible. We also made sure we voted that afternoon.)

GOP Constituency

We passed the Republican Party’s local office and peered through the window. Fox News was on the TV and the room was filled with a crowd of (I swear this is true) old, white men. They were a morose-looking bunch. One of them turned and we smiled. He returned our smile with a stern, nasty frown. We continued on our walk.

In the next block was the Democratic Party’s local office. We stopped to peer through the window. There were tables filled with various, tasty-looking hors d’oeuvres and chocolates, a cooler full of soda, and somebody was walking around with a bottle of wine, offering to fill any empty glass.

Do Unto Others . . .

The crowd was diverse and colorfully dressed—teens, women, singles, couples, elderly, children.

Everyone was smiling (though at the time the polls showed Romney in the lead). Someone waved to us through the window and another opened the door. We knew no one but were welcomed heartily, and were grateful to watch the results on TV after being in a media void after the storm.

Boy, did it feel good to be included in that group of well-wishers, uplifters and thoughtful citizens who represent the real backbone and future of this country.

And the times, they are a-changin’                    OBAMA: 332      ROMNEY: 206

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Transit of Season

“. . . slipping the surly bonds of Earth.”

YESTERDAY, the first full day of fall, was my last day of swimming at our nearby pond — for this year, anyway, barring an Indian summer. The day was breezy and overcast and I nearly told my husband he’d be crossing the pond by himself. But the temperature, even at 5 p.m., held at 70 degrees. Too tempting to pass up.

Not having swum for the past week due to various constraints like work, weather, power outages and ferrying my commuting daughter to and from college, to name a few, I’d begun to feel a little depressed at the change in my daily summer routine and was itching to enter the water once again.

The pond, considerably cooler since the last time I’d been in, hovered just north of the mid-60s and nearly took my breath away—and I was only ankle-deep. I braced myself and strode in up to my waist, anxious to feel weightless one more time—for that is the sensation, a heavenly weightlessness as one’s body “slips the surly bonds of Earth,” to borrow John Magee’s phrase from his beautiful ode to flying. It is an apt description for the way I feel when swimming out of doors, across any watery expanse—free, unencumbered and light as air.

I glided quietly across the pond in a leisurely breast stroke, a huge circle of sky above, as a pair of cormorants flapped energetically while circumnavigating the pond, looking for a place to land. I smiled at their efforts and did my own circumnavigation—turning on my back, my side, my front, my side again—to watch them and to gaze at the sky.

The pond’s water is silken—everyone who swims here describes it that way. Even as my toes and fingertips began to tingle with the chill, there was something hypnotic about the rhythm of pushing and gathering the cool water away and to me, away and to me—as if my limbs had a mind of their own and I was merely along for the ride.

Easy crawl.

My husband, made of sturdier stuff, his head immersed in the cold water, moved to his own rhythm—by season’s end a strong, relaxed free-style—and was lost in his own thoughts. Perhaps he was pondering the woods at our town’s state park, for his hiking days are just around the corner once his swimming season ends—sometime around mid-October!  The wooded trail he’s carved for himself, with its dozen various exercise points—“Stations of the Cross,” I call them—includes pushups on the roots of a hundred-year-old oak and a frog stand on the granite ledge where a freshet of spring water trickles year-round. The regime limbers him up and gets his blood going, he says. I’ve always envied how easily he makes the transition from swimming to cool-weather pursuits.

Darkening afternoons and wintry pastimes.

I continued to paddle to the big rock on the other side of the pond, thinking of nothing at all. No, that’s not quite true. I noticed a slight yellow-orange tinge to some of the surrounding trees, and caught a whiff of wood smoke from somebody’s chimney. Those two sensations have a magical alchemy for me that always produces the same result—effectively putting summer to bed and, ironically, turning back the clock. I am once again a child heading off to school, to sweater weather, to darkening afternoons and wintry pastimes.

It happens every year around this time. Ah, well, such is life.

 

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Pond Life

Summertime view of the quiet private beach from the crowded town beach.

My husband and I and our two children have been swimming at our local pond since 1994. The pond, three-quarters of a mile in circumference and rated the second cleanest in the state, has two adjacent beaches, one for town residents, the other for private members. It is surrounded by a rolling hillside of deciduous trees and evergreens, all protected land. Not a single house is visible.

View of surrounding pristine hillside in autumn.

For years, 11 to be exact, we were members of the town beach, with its playground, four floats, roped-off shallows for swimming, outdoor shower and updated bathrooms. A snack truck arrived daily with the usual fare. Lifeguards patrolled the water with loud whistles and a bullhorn. The park closed at 7, but every afternoon, beginning around 4:30, the lifeguards raked the sand with a tractor that blew dust everywhere, hurrying lingerers out and tamping down any pleasant impressions of the day.

View from the private beach to the unimpeded other side of the pond, 1/4 mile across.

 

While our children were toddlers, the town beach served its purpose adequately. They learned to swim as effortlessly as the sunnies that nibbled their legs, built sand castles and dams, made friends on the trapeze bar, raced each other to the float and ran to the arriving truck when it rang its bell. A throng of mothers seemed impervious to the endless games of Marco Polo. I was not one of them. In fact, I couldn’t wait for those days to end.

When my husband joined me after work, we’d look longingly at the private beach next to us. They had no snack bar, no swings, no running water, no electricity. There was one float and no lifeguard. Members could swim out as far as they pleased—a quarter-mile across, if they wished. We wanted to be among them, but how? We made inquiries and were told the waiting list was long. Members lived as far away as Anchorage and never retired. We resigned ourselves to dealing with the confines of the public domain.

Then in spring 2005, my husband saw an ad for a local summer soccer camp. He advised our son, who was by then 14 and had been playing soccer for years, to call the coach and ask for a job. Turns out the coach was on the board of the private beach association and the club was looking for new members. Bingo! My son got a job and we got a membership.

Now in our eighth year at the pond, the thrill of swimming unencumbered, where we want and when we want, has not waned. To us, it is a veritable Garden of Eden, a huge bowl above which the sky is a changing panorama. Here’s some of the wildlife we see, hear and swim with on a regular basis.

Great blue heron.

Muskrat, quite shy, is rarely seen.

The graceful Northern water snake, non-poisonous and quite beautiful.

 

A family of bluebirds — parents and three fledglings.

 

 

 

 

Scarlet tanager, male, in a poplar tree.

Goldfinch pair perched near the pond.

 

Cormorant drying his wings while perched on the remains of an old dock across the pond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Common raven, not so common in these parts.

 

 

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The Quiet Life

“Snowtober” in Ridgefield, Connecticut, 10-30-2011.

THE WEATHER this past year has been decidedly strange.

In August 2011, a storm wreaked havoc over New England and we were without power for five days. It was annoying not having water to flush the toilet but other than that, no real harm was done. Temperatures were ideal for roughing it—80 during the day, 60 at night. We bathed in the clean pond down the road, ate fruit or takeout, and read outside under our fat maple while birds and butterflies flitted about. My husband used his laptop, recharged at the library or the recreation center, to do his work. I loafed.

The day before Halloween, a mightier storm blew in, downing trees, telephone poles and roofs all over the Northeast. Early snow blanketed trees still in full leaf, covering them with a cement-like substance whose weight made everything snap like fragile chicken bones or sink in distress. Emergency crews arrived from as far away as Phoenix. Our town—Ridgefield, CT, smack-dab in the middle of the storm’s path—took it on the chin. Many people, including us, were unable to get out of their driveways. Even if we could, there was no place to go. No on had power—not even the rec center. Fortunately, temperatures were mild for that time of year. Still, by nightfall, houses were dark and cold. No fun.

Snowfall totals during “Snowtober” storm of 2011.

It took a week for our insurance agent to show up, so inundated was she with disaster. The day after, she okayed a stay at the only motel whose power had been restored. My husband and son took one room, thrilled they would be able to take a hot shower and watch Sunday night football. My daughter and I took another, thrilled we would be able to take a hot shower and watch “Masterpiece Theater.” Two hours later, power was restored to our house. Naturally.

During both storms, two of our neighbors on our four-home lane used diesel-fueled generators—the kind that sit outside the home and make a lot of noise. They ran them 24/7. Turns out the generators only had enough juice to power one refrigerator and a light bulb. We wondered what was the point? All told, we figured each of them spent $500 to save $100-worth of food—ridiculous. Whereas we simply used coolers stuffed with ice (replenished from emergency supplies) for the few staples we wanted to keep cold.

Then again, these neighbors normally spend their weekends firing up power tools and leaf-blowers, oblivious to—or wallowing in—the noise they like to make. Inexplicably, one of them had the nerve to tell my husband he was going to give him the Worst Neighbor of the Year Award for mowing on a Sunday when the neighbor had guests. My husband, bless him, obligingly postponed his mowing but pointed out to this jerk that he, in fact, was the noisiest neighbor on the lane, reminding him of the noisy generator, the ATV he drove in endless circles around his front lawn, turning the grass swale into a mud track, and countless other assaults to the human eardrum and bucolic nature of our neighborhood. Amazingly, the guy looked not only stunned but sheepish. My husband’s triumph was short-lived. The next day, Mr. Toolhead had his metal saw going full throttle.

Anyway, after the bruising we got from “Snowtober,” we enjoyed a reprieve with the mildest winter on record for these parts. Not one snow day. Even our ancient furnace got a well-deserved break.

By May, we were swimming in our delightful pond. Aside from the early season’s pesky snail larva, whose bites itch and ooze unless you towel off immediately, the joys of summer had begun.

June proved the point and July has followed suit. We added a brand-new window air-conditioner to our daughter’s bedroom—a wise investment. Four wouldn’t be enough to cool the house during what has been one of the hottest summers in a long time.

Aaaaaaargh!! Shoot that dog!

And a good thing, too. While I love sitting outside under the aforementioned fat maple, reading a book or watching the birds, my reverie is daily broken by a neighbor’s barking dog. His yelp literally makes me jump. I can feel my blood pressure rising to a boil. So annoying is this animal’s sound of alarm, I have fantasies of putting a bullet in his head—and I am a devoted animal lover.

Thankfully for me, to say nothing of the dog, I simply retreat indoors, out of the heat and away from the noise. There, all is peace and quiet—even if it comes from the unnatural hum of an air-conditioner.

 

 

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“Mulberry Pie” or A Father’s Day To Remember

OVER THE YEARS, my husband and I have lived in a variety of places. Our first apartment was the second floor of a three-family house in Norwalk. Two coronary-care nurses lived upstairs on the third floor; the landlord, his wife and their two small children downstairs on the first.

Down the street and around the corner was a flophouse, at least that’s what we called it, though we never actually saw anyone dealing drugs or turning tricks. It was a working-class neighborhood of upstanding people, black and white, and older homes in various states of kempt. We had a balcony front and back where we watched the goings-on, such as they were, which suited us fine.

Behind the house was a detached garage, and behind that the spur to Danbury, a single track for the commuter train. The few cars that toddled along during rush hour hooted pleasantly at the intersection a little ways up, and we’d sit on the back porch looking at the western sky and listen to the fading sound of the whistle as it moved up and down the line.

A mulberry tree grew on the bank of the track, gangly and misshapen from years of trying to maintain a foothold. Van Gogh drew one, between bouts of epilepsy, in similarly inhospitable terrain, painting what he considered his best rendition. In spring ours made a lovely arch over the eaves of the garage, and by June it was heavy with fruit — fat, black and juicy.

I made a mulberry pie for Father’s Day that year, 1977, and brought it down to my dad. Blueberry was his favorite, so I figured he’d go for this ersatz variation. He always appreciated anything handmade.

He had just gotten home from playing golf and he and my mother were out on their flagstone terrace. The house was new for them, close to the country club and purchased after we five children had flown the coop. My father was 59, near retirement, a successful stockbroker who now worked out of a local office after nearly 30 years of commuting to Midtown Manhattan. Instead of an hour-long slog on the train, he enjoyed a leisurely ten-minute drive to Merrill Lynch’s Stamford branch office, often remarking that he didn’t know how he’d stood the former all those years. He was approachable now, his demeanor softened and relaxed from the brusque, forbidding father I’d grown up with.

It was one of those perfect days unique to late spring and early Sunday evenings. Dad beamed at my present, took a bite, and declared it delicious. Even my mother was impressed. “Better save the rest,” he said, ever conscious of his good looks. “Don’t want to ruin my girlish figure.”

I drove home thinking of all the things I could do with mulberries. Jars of jam topped the list, individual pots my father could pop open over an English muffin in the middle of coming winters. At home I picked as many ripe berries as there were and stuck them in the freezer. I’d have to find out how to make preserves and locate the little glass jars I had in mind. I could hand-print and illustrate the labels myself, something my dad would appreciate since he was not at all artistic.

By season’s end, splotches of purple stained the driveway and the tips of my fingers. I had enough fruit to last my dad for years.

Then, that August, one early Friday morning, my mother called me on the phone. She was nearly breathless and I knew immediately something was wrong. My father, up at seven for his morning run, had collapsed in the garage, falling face-first onto the cement. He was dead instantly.

When I got there, two EMTs had already loaded his body into the ambulance. One of them was using the garden hose to wash away the blood, the place where my father had smashed his handsome profile, but never got all of the stain out.

I stayed with my mother that night, and before we went to bed she paused by the dresser she and my father had shared. On top was a cut-glass bowl they’d received as a wedding present almost thirty-two years earlier to the day. Inside the rim was a half-chewed Chiclet the size of a pea. My father had stuck it there before his run, one of his tidy habits, ready to retrieve when he returned. Surprisingly, it still had plenty of flavor left, as my mother discovered.

Posted in Honor Thy Father | 4 Comments

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY or “Great Expectations”

One form of communication . . .

MY DAUGHTER, 15, takes great pleasure in teasing me about my youth, a period she calls the Ancient Times.

“Was that the Stone Age, Mom?” she asks. “Before fire?” “Did they have electricity back then?” “The wheel?”

Forty years separate us, two full generations by some measurements, an eternity by hers.

The first time she sat at a computer, she grabbed the mouse and never looked back. She was five. When I was five I played with clay.

When she was eight, PowerPoint was an integral part of her third-grade curriculum. At that age I had the latest technology, too: a Sheaffer cartridge pen to practice my Palmer script.

On 9/11, her school and our town were in emergency mode within minutes of the first plane crash. About 40 years earlier, when President Kennedy was shot, I heard about it the old-fashioned way. A neighbor told me the news as I ambled home from fifth grade.

My daughter, child of the new millennium, is always connected — to her iPod, her computer, her DVDs, her favorite TV shows. If I were bombarded by that sort of nonstop noise, it would surely be the seventh level of hell.

But then summer comes around and the buzz dies down. We play badminton. We read. We have actual conversations, often outside under a fat maple, about the kinds of things human beings have time to think about when they can hear themselves think. Apropos of an afternoon like this, my daughter said: “I was just thinking about something really weird. I was thinking that I’m a person, and someday I’m going to die.”

I believe I burst into song — Oh, sweet mystery of life at last I’ve found you — not quite on topic, but you get the point. I was thrilled at this philosophical opening, all set for a tête-à-tête about self-realization and the meaning of life, when she cut to the chase:

“So — then what happens?” she asked.

As a family, we have no religious affiliation. I am a lapsed Catholic, my husband is a former Unitarian, and our daughter and her elder brother have formed whatever belief system they have from their parents’ somewhat eclectic view of existence.

She knows, for instance, that whenever I hear the wind chimes on our porch, I imagine it’s my mother or father, long dead, saying hello. She also knows that my mother was orphaned at age eight and that my father died suddenly at the same age her father is now, so maybe she fears a similar fate. All I could do was assure her that I had no intention of dying anytime soon, and when I did, I promised to let her know what followed.

. . . and another

During most of June it poured continuously. Thunder struck and lightning cracked, my favorite kind of weather. Rain fell in sheets while we snuggled in bed and read. It was heaven.

I flipped through an old copy of Holiday magazine, all about Europe in 1962, a year after my parents made the grand tour. They were dreamy-eyed for months afterward, reminiscing about the new-style bikini on the Côte d’Azur, and of rubbing elbows with Eva Gabor and Oleg Cassini at the Hotel de Paris casino in Monaco.

When the power went out, my husband, who works at home, took a break and joined us girls. We spent the afternoon talking about where we’d go if money were no object. Not surprisingly, Europe was at the top of my list. He played along, suggesting we could retrace my parents’ footsteps, especially the bikini and casino parts.

Finally, the skies cleared and my daughter and I resumed our outdoor puttering.

We sat in the shade of the maple, watching a pair of resident groundhogs graze our hillside clover. A mother blue jay splashed in the birdbath, teaching her fledgling how to bathe. A ruby-throated hummingbird hovered by a tube of nectar hanging from one of the maple branches, and a chipmunk perched on a glacial erratic, surveying his domain.

My daughter announced that she wanted to go to a nearby amusement park for her 16th birthday in August, and hoped her friends would give her gift cards toward a new iPod, one that held more songs than her current model does.

I stared up at the sky. A few clouds were heading east, and a silver jet, quite high, was heading God knows where.

“Mom? Did you hear me?”

“I heard you.”

“Well, can I do that?”

“If that’s what you really want.”

She jumped up and headed inside.

“Hey, kiddo, wait,” I called.

She answered by making the buzzer sound that tells me my time is up.

I knew our reverie couldn’t last forever; I just hoped it would last another day. I closed my eyes and listened to the birds. About fifteen minutes later I heard the wind chimes playing and opened my eyes. There was my daughter ringing them, very softly.

“So — there really is some … place?” she asked.

“I’d like to think so,” I said.

My daughter waited a moment before she finally asked, “And will you be there?”

Posted in What's on the Other Side? | Tagged | 8 Comments

Stalking the Wild Celebrity

Breakfast at Tiffany

IN THIS LIME-LIT neck of the woods, it’s not unusual to stumble across the odd celebrity, some impressive personage one knows from the big screen or the small, a Robert Vaughn, say, or even a Meryl Streep, going about his or her business without turning so much as a head.

But years ago, crossing paths with an actual legendary lion, or in this case, lioness, as I did on a trek into New York City, was at the time an uncommon thrill. It was in the wilds of Manhattan, at midday, and my mother and I had just exited Tiffany’s, that savannah of female desire and pre-dawn breakfasts.

I must have been 12 or 13 at the time, though I felt years wiser, having spent untold hours studying the elusive habits of celluloid creatures that played out on the “Million Dollar Movie” every afternoon. The theme music swelled, the grass-cloth curtains of our living room rustled, and I lay motionless on the chesterfield in front of the TV, observing whatever drama unfolded.

On that memorable afternoon in Midtown, Fifth Avenue was crowded at lunchtime, the ebb and flow of the bon ton jostling the rarified atmosphere of that particular neighborhood with as much dignity as noses in the air allowed. I, too, was looking up, if only to keep from crashing into a calf-length leopard, being trampled by a herd of wingtips or gored by an alligator pump.

In this sea of strange fauna, I saw one I recognized. I was sure my guide had, too, though she showed no reaction. “Mom,” I whispered. “There’s an Ingrid Bergman.”

My navigator halted instantly. “Where?” she shot, head jerking right and left. I pointed and she executed an abrupt about-face, plowing neatly upwind of our prey with me in her wake.

Our prize slipped into Tiffany’s blue shadows, and we did likewise, adjusting our mien to the hushed depths within. It took only a moment to spot our target as she brushed past baubles dating from the Carboniferous Period and skipped over remnants of the Bronze Age. None of them interested her. She was on the prowl for something special, some tender carat she could secrete from its guarded den.

We glided soundlessly toward our trophy, close enough to gauge the set of her brow, then paused at a safe distance to stare at a shelf of turquoise as if it were the most fascinating thing we’d ever seen. Our female, mistaking our subterfuge for some tasty morsel, crept over to investigate. Within moments her hot breath was upon us.

Hearts pounding, beads of sweat arising on our brows and upper lips, we cooed over booty we wouldn’t be caught dead in. Suddenly, as if hitting some invisible mark, our lioness deftly poked her head between us, sniffed disinterestedly, and padded away, leaving behind a distinct scent of derision.

“Well! That was exciting,” conceded my guide. “Better than the time your father and I were in Rome. We were headed to a watering hole just below our lodge when around the bend came a Mel Ferrer.”

I gasped. “Didn’t he run with—”

“Yes,” she said, her eyes wide. “But he was alone that day. No Audrey.”

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BACK GREENWICH: Hired Help on Byfield Lane

"Happy Hanukah, honey!"

Back in the ’80s, when I was a practicing artist, a Byfield Lane resident saw my work and asked me to do a rendering of her husband’s pride and joy, the Southampton contemporary they’d just built. It was to be a surprise Christmas present for him, though he was Jewish, from his goyim trophy wife.

The house, a corporate monstrosity of steel and glass, had a raised wooden walkway over the beach grass and dunes to the shore, not unlike Gwyneth Paltrow’s recently purchased property. That was the nicest thing about it.

Steel and glass and what a view!

I went outside and took pictures, while über-wife (they’d met at Morgan Stanley where he was a trader and she was a wannabe) busied herself with calling the nanny back in Greenwich to tell her to pick up things like “ ’shrooms” for dinner.

(During our drive, I discovered that in between shopping and lunching with the girls, she played tennis with the girls and lifted with a personal trainer at that year’s training zeitgeist, some muscle joint near the railroad bridge.)

Blond, fit and full of herself, she kept up a mindless chatter on the phone while I cooled my heels in the foyer. When the doorbell rang, she waggled a finger at me to answer it. I remember guffawing. A realtor was at the door, stopping by to pay homage.

After an hour or so, Housewife of Fairfield County and I finally drove back to Greenwich, me with a splitting headache. Pulling into the driveway, she muttered, “Whose is that?” forgetting that the early-model Honda Civic parked there belonged to me.

Two weeks later, I delivered the house portrait. As I unwrapped it, the look on her face could have soured milk. But when she viewed the finished product, she had a visibly hard time controlling her features. Clearly, she was pleased, “overwhelmed” was how she put it, but, boy, was it painful for her to say so. Whatever, she paid me my fee on the spot.

A man's home is his . . . whatever.

I heard the couple divorced about ten years later. He’d left Morgan to open a boutique brokerage firm on Sound Beach Avenue in downtown Old Greenwich in the ’90s — when that was all the rage for Masters of the Universe. It tanked and he hied it back to Morgan.

He has since remarried and still lives on Byfield. Don’t know what happened to “Sand Castle,” their manse in the Hamptons. Probably sold for child support — they had four kids. Don’t know what happened to her either. Good riddance.

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Being a Genius in One Act

Apples and Idiots

Act I

I went to the Apple store yesterday, a chore I was not looking forward to, but my daughter needed a new charger for her laptop, and it was still under warranty.

I was greeted by a cheerful Genius with bad skin and the worst case of halitosis I’ve ever encountered. He wouldn’t shut up as he escorted me for the hand-off to the Appointment Genius.

The teenaged Appointment Genius took all my particulars down on a neat-looking tablet, scheduled me for an appointment and said I needed to check in in 20 minutes.

The 3 Stooges: Hefty, Geeky and Hairy

He suggested I get a cup of coffee. I already had one and suggested Apple hook up with a java shop so they’d be a more authentic cyber café. He laughed his ass off at that one.

I sat my ass down at the Genius Bar and watched the glossarized product videos above my head, finally pulling out my cellphone to text my husband at a conference in NYC to ask him how he was doing and to pretend that I knew how to do things like text.

Around me, the place buzzed with customers who liked to hear themselves talk and Geniuses who liked to do the same — and a motley crew of Geniuses it was. Fat, acne’d, hairy and generally unattractive. Is this what the artistically bent Steve Jobs had in mind for his New World order? Yikes.

Would you rather have this with your hard drive?

Or this?

 

 

 

 

 

 

To top off the experience, there was a group of new hires at my elbow, still in civvies (and, I’m guessing, all degree’d in computer science), who hadn’t yet earned the right to wear those darling blue T-shirts, size XL. They moved as a single unit from shelf to shelf along the side of the store, while a Genius tutor regaled them with product knowledge. Can you say, Boring?

Other Geniuses kept flitting behind the Genius Bar where I sat, to do important things like open a drawer, tap a screen, scurry to the exclusive backroom “For Employees Only” and look incredibly officious. Every one of them kept up a running dialogue of Genius drivel for all us non-dweebs to overhear: “God, where’s that thumb drive?” “How many G’s is that file?” “No, they’re not compatible.”

Humorless homunculus hits one out of the bar

One customer around my age asked one of the fattest Geniuses, “Is it always like this?”

She looked up very importantly and, without cracking a hint of a smile, said, “Yes. And when we enlarge the store, it will still be like this.”

The customer looked impressed.

Score another one for Fat Genius!

Denouement

Finally, a hairy Genius named Tim showed up for our 12:45 appointment. He was late but low-key and pleasant and treated me with a gentle bedside manner. I didn’t even have to take off my coat.

I hadn’t registered my daughter’s computer, but I had the packing slip. Tim, however, was unable to pull up my record without a serial number. He was clearly stumped.

Fortunately, another Genius, female and younger than Tim, came to the rescue and told him how to find the serial number using a workaround to “fool” the system.

Tim, shown up as momentarily less than a Genius, was clearly embarrassed. I overheard him mumble, sotto voce (that means: under your breath, Tim),  “How long has this fix been around?” — as if his failure to be updated were somebody else’s fault.

Hard at work

Poor Tim. He had fallen behind by countless nanoseconds, but he gave me a brand-new charger anyway.

I guess being a Genius is really, really hard.

 

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Bathsheba Unbound

Bathsheba Beach, Barbados

Bathsheba Beach, Barbados

A Bajan holiday

IT IS MARTIN LUTHER KING DAY today, the third Monday in January and the first Monday holiday of the year. First observed in 1986, two decades after a significant holiday of my own, MLK Day represents a step forward in race relations here in the United States.

In keeping with that warming trend, especially for those of us living in northern climes, the day often coincides with thoughts of getting away—from the old, the cold, the less-than-friendly business of getting ahead. In fact, no matter one’s ethnicity, leisure travel is a common bond; jetting away to someplace warm a common desire.

Unfortunately, the chilly economy has persuaded me to travel by armchair this season, which, on the whole, has proved a not-unpleasant way to escape the snowbound New England outside my window. I laze on the couch, stare into the orange glow crackling in the fireplace and think of warmer places, like the first time I saw the Caribbean . . .

It was 1966, I was twelve, and my father surprised us with a family vacation to Barbados. This was unusual since, after a trip by car to Florida some years earlier to visit our grandparents, my father vowed never again to subject himself to such close quarters with his brood of five for such a long spell, without escape and especially without air-conditioning.

Yet several years later, after my eldest sister had married and begun her own family and my next-eldest sister was away at college, my father wondered where the time had gone and put his familial reservations aside. This time the drive was shorter, to Queens and JFK Airport—Idlewild, my father continued to call it (he had not been a Kennedy supporter)—the 727 we were to board a considerable step up from the Country Squire we’d sardined ourselves into those many years before.

Typical chattel houses

Typical chattel houses

Landing at Grantley Adams Airport, the first thing we noticed, other than the blast of tropical heat in the middle of April and the whimsical, pastel-colored chattel houses flocking the runway, was that everyone around us was black—not the variegated shades of “colored” inhabiting the welfare projects back home in Connecticut, or of porters and washroom attendants we came across in New York City, but a black-as-ebony black, the matte black of piano keys. Curiously, it was white tourists who were sweating, squinting in the Tropic of Cancer sun as they moved in a thin, anemic rivulet through the rich loam of Bajans.

“Good afternoon, sir. May I see your passport?” came the lilting Queen’s English of the customs officer from behind her grille. She peered benignly over her glasses at the rest of us, all the way down to my towheaded sister. “And milady’s?”

My mother, startled by the appellation, looked to my father for proof of her sudden, elevated status, and in no time we were waved into the country. After a longish left-handed drive through lush landscapes, we were soon settled in our cottage, a charming respite on a slope of Bermuda grass cropped close as a fairway and surrounded by low shrubs of rose mallow and bird of paradise.

Well-to-do friends of my parents were staying with their two girls at Sandy Lane, an exclusive resort on the calm, upper-crust side of bell-shaped Barbados, a place out of reach for us despite the very good living my father made. Instead, he had booked the five of us—my parents, my younger brother, sister and me—into an old British homestead on the wilder eastern shore, a former pirate’s castle that had been converted into a hotel. We occupied one of the newer guesthouses perched on the surrounding cliffs, where waves crashed in spectacular fashion against the coral hollows, and just as fearsomely along the nearby beach. It was our first exposure to a tropical island, and the water’s rough surface didn’t quite live up to what any of us imagined a Caribbean shore to be. My father scoffed at our timidity. “Good for the character,” he huffed.

Sam Lord's Castle, as it once looked, before a suspicious fire destroyed it.

Sam Lord’s Castle, as it once looked, before a suspicious fire destroyed it.

Our first night, we walked up the hill to the castle like good serfs and dined on dolphin fish, plantains, and Edwardian splendor, served up by a white-gloved staff with the same bespoke accent as their airport counterparts. By dessert, we felt like revered guests. My parents enjoyed a couple or three after-dinner drinks before we descended to our seaside abode and comfortable beds hard by the jalousied windows. Within minutes, my father rousted all of us with complaints of the noisy air-conditioning units squeaking incessantly.

Calls were made to the front desk. “I’m paying all this money to listen to this racket?” my father grumbled in ever-louder tones. Immediately, a surfeit of startled staff appeared in our cottage to attend to the matter and smooth ruffled feathers. Meanwhile my mother, brother, sister and I watched with increasing embarrassment our father’s tirade at our accommodating hosts, who, after about fifteen minutes, assessed the problem: Tree frogs—melodious, chirping tree frogs singing their nightly lullaby. My father was immediately placated, apologized profusely, and slept like a man endowed.

Adjusting to Caribbean life was by turns smooth and bumpy. Sweetening the adventure were the sugar birds that fluttered marvelously around our heads at breakfast on the castle’s porch, brazenly dipping their beaks into sugar bowls filled with local cane and sipping the maple syrup, imported from Vermont, that covered our pancakes.

Equally pleasurable, every afternoon my siblings and I sized up the churning Atlantic and dove fearlessly into the breaking waves headfirst. We had the steep white beach to ourselves save for a boy my brother’s age, a native of the island who watched our antics with some interest. He didn’t know how to swim, he told us matter-of-factly despite our wide-eyed inability to square the incongruity of a land-locked existence aboard this island Eden.

Less pleasurable, our second night introduced us to our first luau, a Hawaiian-style pig roast and barbecue complete with flaming torches, limbo contest and steel-drum band, whose leader exhorted guests to join him on the sandy dance floor. No one did—certainly not we three youngsters, shy enough at school dances at home and not about to come forward on a beach, no matter how alluring the swaying palms or distance from school friends.

But our father was of a different temperament. Never one to waste good music, he’d sweep my mother onto any available dance floor at the first downbeat. On this night, for some reason, he chose to spectate, to be entertained by the ersatz Polynesian flavors drifting his way. Moody in the best of times, he suddenly ordered the three of us to get out there and dance, the edge in his voice making it clear that any dissension in the ranks would not be tolerated.

Our stomachs lurched with humiliation as we shuffled to the center of the circle, the lone performers. Hopping side to side to the unfamiliar musical currents, our sunburned limbs bobbing awkwardly, we trembled under the ever-louder drumming until, finally, the sound of plinking steel crashed over us in one gigantic wave. Bowed by the onslaught, we scurried back to the table, holding our ears in relief and shame at our poor showing.

The next morning only extended the difficulties. Purposely, our father had left his golf clubs at home in order to reacquaint himself with his remaining progeny and the customary threesome that was my brother, sister and I became, somewhat uncomfortably, a lop-sided foursome. Our father, it seems, was attempting to recapture a youth about which we knew little except that he once played something called stickball and frequented a place called Ebbets Field when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. Of course, such travel back in time is quite impossible, and after fending off one too many of our cannonballs poolside and the same number of scratch shots at the snooker table, he abandoned us to our mother with evident relief to tool around the parishes by himself.

Left to his own devices, he headed north to explore the coastline, keeping a windward view of the Atlantic out the driver-side window while remembering to pilot his compact Dodge left. This kept him on his toes, a place he often found himself, for as a self-made man by happenstance and a stockbroker by trade, it had been his experience that relaxing one’s guard invited all manner of unwelcome surprises.

The two-lane affair known usefully if not very picturesquely as Highway 5 led him around the rim of the island’s “bell” to the village of Industry Hall and Highway 4B, which in turn led him inland and, making right turns where he could—tricky in this topsy-turvy country—onto various highways that put him in sight of the sea.

Somewhere in the vicinity of Supers he noticed a local native, a tall, thin man dressed in suit clothes elegantly thumbing a ride. In those days there were few cars to clog the roads, and in the nearly non-existent traffic, my father pulled over to give the man a lift. This would have been unthinkable in suburban Connecticut, but here in this former English colony, somehow the sons and daughters descended from slaves seemed not to bear any grudge against the descendants of their oppressors, and in fact had such grace, openness and dignity about them that my father lost any inhibitions he might otherwise have had.

There was no hesitation on the hitchhiker’s part either. He climbed in next to my father with a nod to the driver as if he were boarding a bus he’d been expecting, and folded his slim build and neat dress into the passenger seat with equal economy. He seemed to my father the picture of intelligence, and as a sign indicated Codrington College was just up ahead, my father asked his passenger if he happened to be associated with the institution.

“No, sir, I am not,” replied the traveler—Livingston turned out to be his name—and informed my father that the college was a seminary for Anglican ministers, and that he tended the grounds of Andromeda Botanical Gardens.

“And you’re headed there now, Livingston?”

“I am.”

The two men sailed along under cabbage palms and blue skies, alongside fields of sugarcane climbing hillsides and bandbox cottages painted aquas, pinks and mint greens, pretty as Easter bonnets all the way through New Castle. My father had no idea how long a drive it might be and didn’t care. He was a stranger in a strange, beautiful land and had all the time in the world. Finally, at Foster Hall, he pulled over at the gardener’s gesture.

“Thank you,” said Livingston.

“Glad to oblige,” returned my father. “Say, Livingston, know where I can get a bite?”

“Bathsheba,” came the answer, a long, thin arm pointing back toward the shore. “She’s a pretty spot.”

Dead-end beach road near Bathsheba

Dead-end beach road near Bathsheba

At water’s edge my father was unable to find any sign of an eatery, only a dead-end beach road and a few houses set back on the bluffs. But as he was hot and sweaty, one thing led to another, and he took up the ocean’s invitation to bathe, which proved sustenance enough. Long, lazy waves curled across the wide shallows and settled themselves benignly on the sand, their approach broken by several rocks of immense size, as if left behind by some Gulliver grown tired of playing ninepins-by-the-sea. My father shed shirt and shoes and stepped gingerly between stones slippery with moss until he was fully immersed in an Atlantic a far cry from the one he’d known off Brighton Beach.

He swam out quite a ways, perhaps a good quarter-mile. From this vantage point he could almost imagine what buccaneers and slave traders to the New World had first seen as they arrived at this most eastern of the Lesser Antilles, still pristine. Naturally, things had changed since then, for the hand of man was visible everywhere, in the checkered fields of sugarcane and the road not yet taken. His gaze followed the pavement’s switchbacks up the hillside, disappearing behind verdant foliage until it was resurrected at a promontory wide enough to accommodate a church the color of warm stone that looked down upon him with similar mien and across an ocean that went all the way to Africa.

It was the Saturday following Good Friday, which got my father thinking, and that night we were all shooed straight to bed, my father even forgoing his customary after-dinner stinger. The next morning at dawn, he awakened my brother, sister and me, told us to get dressed, make haste, we were going to church.

In the early light he drove through a tintype landscape while the three of us nodded off in the backseat. Our mother roused us when we arrived at St. Joseph’s, and we stumbled groggily across a jumble of low walls and cemetery stones to assemble ourselves inside.

St. Joseph's Church, high above Bathsheba Beach

St. Joseph’s Church, high above Bathsheba Beach

There, a sea of primary colors flowed from stained-glass windows and spread across the black congregation like a benison.

We had arrived late and I noticed that my mother, sister and I were the only hatless females, though that was the least of what set us apart. The Anglican hymns weren’t familiar either but we followed along as best we could; our father did, too, which surprised all of us a little, as he took a dim view of religion, particularly the Catholic one in which he and we had been raised. I’m not sure what he expected to find amidst strangers so wholly different from us, people who didn’t know him from Adam. Maybe he was grateful for so much beauty and the means to enjoy it. Maybe this was his way of giving thanks. It felt that way to me.

The wide, ruffled skirts of Bathsheba Beach

The wide, ruffled skirts of Bathsheba Beach

Following my father’s usual fashion, we didn’t dally after the service, nor hobnob with the congregants, but went about the business of leaving as unceremoniously as we had arrived. By then the sun had risen and the sea below looked liked burnished silver, sparkling and dancing in the light. From the hillside I could just make out a bather, featureless as a stick figure, wading into the trembling waters off Bathsheba, whose wide ruffled skirts embraced him that Easter morning.

 

Posted in Chance Encounters, Honor Thy Father | 8 Comments

The True Meaning of Christmas

A time of giving

My 18-year-old daughter, a freshman at a local university (who just made Dean’s List her first semester of college!), works part-time at Stop & Shop as a checker. She lives at home, commutes to school (I drive her since she doesn’t have a car), and in between, works at the grocery store three afternoons a week and every weekend.

On Christmas Eve, she worked the closing shift, 12-6 p.m.  All day, lines were long and customers were stressed out. Fortunately, my daughter enjoys chatting with people — she’s like her father that way — and I’m always amazed when I watch her work, a smile on her face despite her tedious job.

As closing time neared, an elderly woman in my daughter’s line discovered she didn’t have enough money — $35 in cash for $81 worth of food. Clearly embarrassed and flustered, the woman began eliminating items from what had already been tallied, my daughter subtracting each item and chatting away in her usual pleasant manner as she did so. Meanwhile, customers in her line started tapping their toes and rolling their eyes.

My daughter’s bagger, a woman in her 60s named Ron, walked down the line to explain what was happening and to soothe frayed nerves. More sighing ensued, until one 30-something customer quietly asked, “How much is she short?” About $50, Ron told her. “I’ll take care of it,” the young woman said.

My daughter then proceeded to bag up all of the customer’s original purchases, while the bill was taken care of at the courtesy counter. The elderly woman, by now somewhat awed and speechless, left the store with everything she wanted — and $35 still in her wallet.

When I picked up my daughter at the end of her shift, Ron told me the story of the Good Samaritan and how patient and cheerful my daughter had been during a tense afternoon. It brought tears to my eyes, not only because of the generosity of one customer, but because my daughter played an important part in the drama simply by being her kind, sweet self. Without realizing it, she’d added her own true spirit of Christmas.

What a gift.

Posted in Chance Encounters, Small Pleasures, Working Life | 2 Comments

Sonnet to the Sound

I grew up on high ground but close enough to Long Island Sound to ride my bike to the beach for a swim or a ride around Tods Point in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. I learned to swim in salt water and, like Proust’s madeleines, whenever I get a whiff of it, I am carried back to childhood.

Long Island Sound and seagull

Now, married and a mother, I live a good distance from the shore, but every now and then, when the wind is right, I can smell the sea air. Whether or not it is truly salt spray from the Sound or merely a sense memory, the effect is no less powerful. So powerful, I was moved to scribble a few lines and ended up with this sonnet.

To the Sound

Night rolls up the house. Through windows, wet sheets

are tossed back, damp shadows swell, and the few

dry spots are slowly covered. On the street,

dark waves skid along dark sand. Facing due

east, a distant fan of sea spray forms and

dries on the wind. Most of those days at Tod’s

I chose high ground, a sturdy arm of land

away from everything, somewhat at odds,

I suppose, with the rest. I love the Sound—

the cold green, Long Island’s comforting stretch,

the gulls complaining as they wheel around

the white caps—leaving bits of salt that touch

the air and sky and clouds above the surf,

and inland, sometimes, trees and hills and earth.

Sunset over the Sound

 

Posted in Small Pleasures | 4 Comments

A Fine Old Vintage

Jasmine, a flower used for perfume

I have just had an email from friend Ravi (see this blog’s last post: “A Summer Place”) and he tells me of a new venture he and a former college chum—another chemical engineer like himself—are pursuing. Something to do with perfume. Sounds quite profitable.

I will say no more, other than it prompted me to dig out my parents’ diaries of a trip they made to Europe in July 1961.

It was the first time either my mother or father had been on a plane, no less a Pan Am jet, and they dressed for the occasion—my father in his best sports clothes, my mother in her highest heels. My father had connections with Juan Trippe, then head of Pan Am, and so my parents had entrée to the VIP lounge at Idlewild, including the fine scotch served gratis therein.

Pan Am terminal at Idlewild Airport, New York

Descending into Heathrow after nine hours in the air, my father described the incandescent beauty of endless, rainbow-colored clouds. My mother’s entry, VIP status aside, gave away her “commoner” status as the housewife she was. “I feel as though I’m being swallowed up in a giant, over-sudsed washing machine,” she wrote.

However, the part of their diaries that intrigued me, vis-à-vis Ravi, was a day trip they made to Grasse, France, then the center of perfume making.

Here’s what my mother wrote [brackets are mine]:

Travels to Europe, 1961

July 20, 1961
Théoule-sur-mer, France [My parents were staying at a villa on the Riviera with wealthy friends, the Wylie F. Tuttles—he developed the Tour Montparnasse, then the tallest skyscraper in Paris.]

Went to Grasse which is a town across the bay in the hills that we can see at night like a million winking fireflies.

This is the world center for essential oils for perfumes and we visited the Fragonard factory.

We were escorted by a Dutch girl who is working her way through Europe.

We saw the process whereby the fragrance of jasmine is absorbed in fat. The blossoms are placed on trays of fat 18 x 24 inches approx. and the blossoms are replaced every 24 hours. This is repeated for 3 months until the fat has absorbed a sufficient amount of fragrance. Then it goes through the usual process of distillation [whatever that is!]. And the fat is used for soaps, while the distilled essence is used in perfumes.

Bought some Joy, Chanel No. 5 and Rock Garden [Fleurs de Rocaille].

 

" Pee - Eww ! "

Personally, I am allergic to most perfumes, particularly modern ones that all seem to have the same nasty base—Lauren, Giorgio, White Diamonds, among others, and anything developed for JLo, Brittany and Mariah. Perfumed magazine inserts give me an instant headache, as does riding in an elevator with anyone so unfortunately endowed.

Call me a scent snob, but I prefer classic fragrances of yesteryear: Shocking by Schiaparelli, Arpège by Lanvin, Quadrille by Balenciaga. Since many are no longer made, I’ve had to hunt them down online. A mistake, it turns out, as perfume, like wine, however fine, has a shelf life. What arrived in the mail was the perfume equivalent of vinegar. Nonetheless, I was glad to have the original bottles, labels and stoppers, now grouped together in my bathroom, reminders of a younger, better time.

Quadrille cologne, by Balenciaga

While in the Bahamas with my husband some years ago (pre-kids, meaning I had disposable income for fripperies like fragrance), I was able to buy a new bottle of Quadrille, a thrill since it was unavailable in the States. I wear perfume, even cologne, infrequently (my husband prefers me au naturel, bless him), and the bottle is still nearly full, 25 years later, but, alas, unwearable as it, like its owner, is past its prime.

Shocking cologne by Schiaparelli

I also have a vintage bottle of my mother’s perfume, Shocking, and a mere whiff of it or the classics her friends wore and, Proustian moments later, I am transported back in time to a cocktail party filled with tinkling laughter and manly guffaws. I feel mink, sable and fox on my cheek as I place guests’ stoles, jackets and wraps on my mother’s bed. Later, to strains of Girl from Ipanema, I peek through the railings at the top of the stairs where a thin fog of cigarette smoke lolls at ceiling height. A heady mixture of Kent, gin and tonic, lime and cheese puff distilled by the attractive gathering below rises . . . envelops me . . . and I am in heaven.

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A Summer Place

An Indian child swims in a lake to beat the heat in Bangalore

FINALLY, AFTER WEEKS OF COLD, interminable spring showers, summer arrived here in Connecticut in late May, not with Mayflowers but with temperatures worthy of Bangalore, India.

I mention Bangalore for an acquaintance, a pen pal, an online friend who has become a treasured correspondent since he first stumbled on this blog some six months ago.

Ravi resides with his wife and two daughters—Suju, Inky and Babli (one daughter is a literature professor, the other a dental scholar)—in the southern Indian city of Bangalore, and because of his kind comments on one of my blogs, an email back-and-forth has sprung up between the two of us. He has brought many a ray of sunshine into my life during this past winter (dreadfully cold and snowy) and spring (did I mention the endless rain?).  Fittingly, his name means “sun.”

I should mention this period was perhaps the most trying of our life for my husband and me, for a number of reasons. We were caring for my in-laws, who were dying; grappling with a dismal economy, with everything we owned on the line; and preparing our daughter for college—if we could figure out how to pay for it. Ravi lit joss sticks for us, sent comforting words from favorite poems and lightened my outlook with sunny stories of his charming family and vagabond life.

For instance, Ravi talks about the scorching heat in Bangalore at this time of year, and in places he travels to for business—Cambodia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, among others. (He is an engineer for a Chinese agribusiness, who advises companies on a wide variety of issues including organic farming of cashews and rice. Yum.)  Below, he is at a cashew factory on the Mekong Delta.

Ravi at a cashew factory on the Mekong Delta

And at lower right, he is amidst rubber trees where latex is harvested, also on the Mekong Delta.

Ravi amidst rubber trees

I can only commiserate with him and his daunting, non-stop schedule as he endures endless plane rides and hothouse climates, while I enjoy my somewhat cooler sanctuary in lower Fairfield County.

As summer arrives in the Northeast, schools will close and our town will become a shadow of its busier self as an exodus to Martha’s Vineyard, Down East and the Outer Banks ensues. Like my friend Ravi, travelers will make their way amidst clogged highways, ferries, planes and humanity to their destination, in this case, summer homes. Countless gallons of gas and endless hours of people-moving are sacrificed in the drive to find the perfect summer place.

Meanwhile, my husband and I wonder: Why? What’s so great about getting away?

For us, summer arrives with the weather and when it does, we are on vacation. We simply change into bathing suits and head down our quiet lane to a pristine pond—actually, it’s a small lake—for our daily half-mile swim and communion with nature. No motorboats are allowed here and no home impedes the pastoral view.

Wildlife abounds at the pond. A great blue heron alights on a log for lunch. A scarlet tanager swoops overhead, flashing red among the ash trees. On the far side of the pond, a two-foot water snake, lovely in its black and orange geometry, suns itself on a rock before paddling away as we close in. Nearby, a muskrat munches his salad of grass—using his tummy as a table—inside the fallen, hollow tree swimmers like us use as a dock. A pair of red-tailed hawks circle and keen in the blue above, or, as often, turkey vultures, broader, darker but no less impressive for their aerial display.

“Louis” the swan arrives, so named by us for E.B. White’s title character in The Trumpet of the Swan, a children’s book my husband read to our daughter years ago. Louis plies the water in lone, silent splendor, his profile describing half a heart, as if he knows something is missing. And then one day his other half appears, the courtship begins, the design is complete.

Louis and friend

I describe all this to Ravi and he writes to me of the history of Indian tribes and of Brahmins (of which his wife is one), the contradictions of his country’s traditions with those adopted from its former oppressors, the British, which Indians nevertheless fully embrace. He is knowledgeable about arcane tidbits of history, religion and power in the Middle East; fond of Egyptian Arabic; and working on his novel of a love triangle during Saddam Hussein’s reign. He is a practicing Buddhist, though he was raised a Hindu.

I email him about one of our own traditions, a summer one—cooking organic chicken over Cowboy Coal for its delicious flavor—and he sends me a photo of his youthful-looking wife (in her 50s, as am I) who is vegetarian. Perhaps, I am meant to rethink my habits.

At 64, Ravi is an intrepid traveler, at home anywhere, with many miles and languages under his belt. His is a generous spirit, ready to give to anyone, including a rather prosaic housewife who takes vicarious pleasure in his worldly doings but is perfectly content to stay at home.

Namaste, my friend.

Posted in Chance Encounters, Small Pleasures | 1 Comment

Spring Break

Signs of life

My father-in-law died last September. My mother-in-law died last month. My eldest sister died last week. They say things come in threes, so maybe I’m done with death for a while. I hope so.

As an antidote, during this week leading up to Easter, I am turning my attention toward life — resurrection, if you please — and the pleasurable aspects thereof.

Here’s what I’ve found to buoy the spirit:

  • The gray, gloomy weather here in the Northeast is the perfect backdrop for the bright-yellow daffodils skirting the yard (and better than sun for my Irish skin).

    New England or Old England?

  • My husband and I may not be able to get away in this economy, but walking along Main Street in a heavy mist, surrounded by old churches and older homes, we fool ourselves into thinking we are meandering through a Cotswold village.                                  (Added benefits: No airport security to molest us, no discomfiting pretzel positions in coach, no uncomfortable beds, strange bathrooms or weird food to upset our digestion—hey, at our age, that’s important! Just our own comfort food and sweet pillows to come home to at night, and the lovely patter of rain on the roof.)
  • Stop & Shop is virtually empty, as if the entire store is open only for us.
  • Ditto the library, with every popular DVD that’s always out, in.
  • While waiting for his new tires to be aligned, my son bought one of those impossible-to-do, 1,000-piece photo-jigsaw puzzles of “Peanuts” characters (for peanuts, $6, at Walmart) — and it has turned out to be a challenging, fun pastime for all of us. It’s spread out on the dining-room table and we eat dinner around it. I’m considering making “Snoopy and Woodstock” a permanent centerpiece.
  • My daughter was recently accepted into the Professional Writing Program at a wonderful, local state university. She wants to be a fiction writer (though she’s wisely minoring in biology) and we are thrilled for her. Then we got the bill for enrollment: $200. Double thrills.
  • My daughter’s high-school and extracurricular activities, on hiatus for the week during final exams, of which she and all interning seniors are exempt, allows me to stay up late reading and to sleep late in the morning. I burrow under the covers. Bliss.
  • I am so relaxed, it’s no bother to repaint the bathroom and a pleasure to make my mother’s complicated brandied chicken.

Primary colors

  • I get to putter outside, picking up sticks and windfall, talking mother-to-mother with the house wren nesting in our porch eave, having a heart-to-heart with the forget-me-nots.
  • With all this rain we’re having, I won’t have a tan by Easter but I bet I’ll look years younger than I did a week ago. I already feel it.

 

Posted in Small Pleasures | 2 Comments

Out Like a Lamb

MY MOTHER-IN-LAW DIED THIS PAST  Sunday, March 27, in a nursing home, in her sleep. The last, at least, a blessing.

Marian was 82 and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for a number of years and the attendant paranoia that comes when reality jars with one’s version of the way things are.

She was Friday’s child—loving and giving—born on the autumnal equinox in the same decade as my own mother. Her only brother, a couple of years older, was born on the other side of the calendar, at the vernal equinox. They made a fitting pair of opposites—he, a thoughtful, feet-on-the-ground sort of boy who later in life became a lawyer and judge, his sister’s protector in their younger years when she was a dreamy, out-of-body sort of person.

I first met her in 1975 when I began dating her son. I was 22, she was 47 and stunning, her modeling days far behind her but her beauty still going strong. Her thick mane of hair was done by Kenneth, in NYC, whose waiting room she once shared with Jackie O.

She was working on her first master’s degree, in philosophy, a changed woman since her lackadaisical days in high school. Ironically, her second master’s, in gerontology, and her one-course-into-a-PhD in the same field didn’t help her when the vagaries of old age struck.

I loved her for many reasons, but she won my heart from the start by siding with me in a disagreement I was having with her son. About what, I can’t remember. Like most petty arguments between couples, the matter was insignificant and I’m sure my view was just as silly as my boyfriend’s. To my future mother-in-law, it didn’t matter. She stood up for me then and forever after. Not at all insignificant, that.

Yesterday my husband and I gathered what was left of her clothes and pictures of her wedding, her grandchildren, her modeling days, and her many framed degrees. We went for our usual walk downtown, two miles from the library and back. It was bitter outside and felt much colder than the 38 degrees registered. I was glad I had a new wool hat to wear. My husband said it made me look like a model. Of course it did. It was Marian’s.

Posted in Honor Thy Parents | 7 Comments

Pilgrimage to Paris and the Middle Ages

Hiker along the Camino de Santiago

IN SPRING 2001, MY HUSBAND decided to fly to Europe, an area of the world he had never seen, and, it being April, chose Paris as his destination.

His decision to go coincided with a friend’s, a fellow-hiker who was flying to Paris in order to embark on a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, the well-trod route that crosses France and Spain and ends in Compostela, the place where St. James is purportedly buried.

But I knew other forces were at work, forces that had nothing to do with hiking or camaraderie or pilgrim’s progress. And, no, my husband isn’t gay. He had, however, turned 50, a signal event for any man (and any woman, I might add). Unfortunately, our two children, seven and ten at the time, needed close parental attention and I was the designated driver. Alas, my husband would have to see Paris without me.

He and his friend, Dean, former roommates when both were footloose bachelors and well familiar with one another’s habits, stayed in an inexpensive but very nice hotel — the Acacia* on the Rive Gauche in St.-Germain — in a room on the 6th or 7th étagère (story), whose casement window overlooks church spires across the Seine. Dean spent the next full day arranging his backpack in preparation for his trek and, in between, the two guys saw something of Paris, a city Dean had never visited before either.

My husband reported that Parisians, all of whom spoke more than passable English, were very helpful as long as one attempted to communicate in French. As he has never studied the language, his only acquaintance with the guttural “r” and nasal “u” is from French films I borrow from the library. Understandably, his accent is atrocious; but his manner is winning. As a result, he was never at the receiving end of the oft-reputed Parisian form of disdain. Then again, my husband is curious in new surroundings and has an open, friendly demeanor that mirrors his approach to life and to people.

This approach doesn’t always serve him well. That first night, while Dean conducted a survey of his backpack, my husband, a jazz lover and feeling restless, ventured to un quartier ombresque (a shadowy neighborhood) in search of music. Lured by the sound of saxes emanating from hidden boîtes, he found himself in an unfriendly Arab section, where his unthreatening manner only seemed to provoke menacing glares from the Maghrébins (Arabs from North Africa). No translation was necessary and he hightailed it vitement, with the hairs on the back of his neck at full attention.

By contrast, once they left Paris, the pair of friends delighted in the amitié of people they met in the campagne (countryside), many of whom spoke no English and weren’t the least offended that their visitors spoke nothing but. (An interesting note: My husband recently finished reading Rolling Stone Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life, and was amused at Richards’ remark that the only group whom Parisians are more disdainful of than tourists are countrymen who are not Parisians.)

The duo headed southwest along the excellent roads — sans the perennial highway construction so ubiquitous in the States — to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, a few miles from the border of Spain and the launching point for Dean’s hike.

“The Way of St. James” through France and Spain.  St. Jean-Pied-de-Port is on the border, along the northern route.

Friend Dean would traverse the Pyrenees and the nearly 500 miles (780 km) to Compostela over the succeeding five weeks, overnighting with fellow pilgrims in the ancient refugios along the trail. I have since learned that St. James (Sant Iago in Spanish) is the patron saint, oddly, of hatmakers, rheumatoid sufferers and laborers. He nonetheless attracts devotees of every stripe and capability, proving a catholicity of tastes.

From St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, my husband hiked with Dean as far as the border, waved an ecumenical adieu and adios to him before stepping back into France, then drove due east to spend a few days on the Riviera, whence he flew to Paris and then home.

My only experience of Paris has been vicarious — obtained through my parents’ diaries when they made the Grand Tour in 1961; Irène Némirovsky’s account of Parisians fleeing their city as the Germans invaded in 1941 (Suite Française); and the 2006 film Paris, Je T’aime, among others.

Pont Neuf in front of La Conciergerie, in Paris

This secondhand experience became almost firsthand when my husband called me his last night in the City of Light, somewhat overcome with beauty and loneliness.

He was standing on the Pont Neuf, the stunning Conciergerie behind him, the exact spot, he has reminded me since, where Jack Nicholson, falling in love late in life, is overcome by similar emotions because he thinks he has lost Diane Keaton to Keanu Reeves, in Something’s Gotta Give. The lesson being, I remind my husband: Don’t go to Paris alone.

My husband turned 51 a few months later (shortly after 9/11; he experienced highs and lows that year), and the trip represents for him a milestone of that half-century mark, a rather prominent one on life’s meandering path, fully glorious as the singular view he had from la Tour Eiffel, even when viewed solo.

*The Acacia Hotel, housed in a centuries-old Beaux Arts building, is named for Paris’ oldest inhabitant, an acacia tree near Notre Dame Cathedral. Parisians have dubbed the tree Robinier for the gentleman who planted it; perhaps it attracts robins to its branches. Our daughter, Robin, would like that.

 

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