It’s been an eventful year, as always. To begin with, a few hours after I sent out last year’s letter, my son Adam had a TIA (mini-stroke), followed by a couple of others, and was barely out of hospital in time for the Christmas festivities. Much drama followed in the New Year, with recurrences, diagnosis of an unusual condition, talk of brain surgery and the like. All this concentrated my mind wonderfully, as you can imagine.
Adam continued to improve, so in July I wandered off to Poland for my cousin Stefek’s wedding. He and his bride are in their seventies, and I could only watch in amazement as they danced for ten hours on and off (mostly on) through the day into the evening. They met at a dance class and will obviously live forever if their current state of health is anything to go by!
It was a wonderful chance to catch up with other cousins and their children. And to my amazement and delight, Stefek gave me the small perfume bottle, shaped like a watering can, that had contained Violettes de Toulouse. My father had bought for his mother in France in 1939. It’s mentioned in a post on my website. If you’re reading this online, you can find it here.
I travelled on to Krakow, where I’d booked a night in a hotel, not realizing that it had formerly been a residence for priests visiting the city. I was eleven years old when I (and my twin sisters) first visited Poland. My uncle, a priest, took us to see Krakow, where we lodged with some nuns, but he stayed at this hostelry. I wondered if I might be sleeping in the same room he’d used, but decided I probably wasn’t — I feel sure that even so many decades later, I’d have been able to detect a lingering trace of eau de cologne, his favorite aftershave.
I took the train from there to Zurich, to meet up with my friend Liz, who normally lives in Carmel, California. We spent a few days exploring the city and eating far too much chocolate. (At least, I did…). I found out how much I enjoy traveling by rail. As the train rocked me to sleep in my little bunk, the memories of my first long-distance trip – London to Warsaw – many decades ago, flooded back.
I squeezed in a three-day writers’ conference at Wesleyan University, to get some feedback on my memoir, which I did. “Clean writing” said a famous writer for the New Yorker. I’d been hoping it might be a bit risqué, but apparently not… Also got a crick in the neck from sleeping in my own luxurious dorm room on a dauntingly firm bed, with the air-conditioning blasting as if it were cooling the dairy section in the supermarket.
Only a few weeks later, my daughter, Helenka and her two daughters traveled to London with me, and suddenly I was longing for the air-conditioning, even if it came with a crick in the neck. The temperatures were around 95F (35C) during the day and 80F (27C) at night, and the flat I’d rented hadn’t managed to provide a single fan! We found ourselves entering any establishment that looked air-conditioned – and taking boat trips along the Thames to cool off. At least Helenka and the girls reconnected with all their cousins, and Helenka treated me to tea at the place where she was born. Yes, that’s right. The former hospital, a lovely Regency building at Hyde Park Corner, is now an extremely luxurious hotel, with an English afternoon tea so lavish that we didn’t need to eat again that day.
Back home in early August, Amanda invited me to join her and her family in a house she’d rented on the shores of Lake Sunapee, where we used to live. It turned out to be delightful, and we found time to attend the local barn playhouse, for old time’s sake.
But I needed to focus on writing. I finished the memoir (because I’d made a bet with a writer friend and wasn’t about to lose!) and got the manuscript edited by two editors, one English and one American (two countries divided by a common language, as you know). Then I began researching publishers who might want it, only to discover that the market for memoirs is in a slump. So I’m considering plan B: a small independent publisher or plan C: publishing it myself.
I rashly agreed to help organize the first literary festival in the neighboring town of Westport, which turned out to be great fun. And at the same time, I was asked to contribute a short story on a time travel theme to an anthology, When to Now, which was published on October 1st. I knew nothing about sci-fi or speculative fiction, so of course I said yes. You can find it on Amazon… And throughout the year I kept running my monthly writers’ groups, meeting other writers, taking a class or two, and generally soaking up the culture round here.
Wishing you all a very happy Christmas and an excellent 2019!
I’m sitting at my desk, here in Connecticut, looking out at the icicles hanging from the living room roof as yesterday’s thick layer of snow, begins to disappear. The sun is out and the local birds are feeling quite encouraged, I can tell.
Almost a year ago, in January, my friend Liz and I were in Tahiti. And Huahine, Bora Bora, Rangiroa and Moorea. Just the names make one feel warmer. I understood why Robert Louis Stevenson and Rupert Brooke, two of my favorite authors, were captivated.
The cloudless sky visible through my window today is nothing compared to those of Tahiti. In fact, the place turned out to be a riot of color, from the thirty-eight shades of blue counted by a local photographer, to the many tints of Tahitian pearls, which make white ones look as though they haven’t really tried. I managed to restrict my shopping to one or two single black ones, imperfect in shape, but striking just the same. I could hear Jay nagging me to buy more. He would probably have come back with a freckled fistful of them, delighted at the thought we’d all have a string to wear.
As if to make the transition to Connecticut easier, winter wasn’t making much of an effort this year, so we had hardly any snow, but I went down to Florida in February to visit several old friends. I made my royal progress from Sarasota (West coast) to Palm Beach (Atlantic side) and back to Naples (on the western shores) studiously avoiding the topic of our new president, except to agree with Palm Beach locals that the man and his entourage were an infernal nuisance whenever they visited Mar-a-Largo. Funny, I thought he was more of a nuisance in Washington…
My peripatetic friend Liz called me in March, to say a fellow traveler had dropped out of a projected stay in Tuscany – would I like to take her place? I’d never been, so I said yes, of course. Only to find, about two days before departure, that a twinge of muscle pain in my left leg was turning into sciatica. “Ouch!” was putting it mildly. I exchanged travel plans for a bottle of prescription pain killers, and settled back in my only comfy chair by my new picture window to watch the garden slowly coming to life with spring bulbs and flowers. I barely walked anywhere for about five months, and decided if something like this could cramp my style without warning, I would do the things I wanted to do while I was feeling fit. (Which I can now, thank heavens, as though I’d never had a problem.)
I did manage to limp to my daughter, Helenka’s, graduation in May, where she received her master’s degree in education. Sitting under a big tent, with rain and thunder pounding down outside, I thought about the teenager who had rebelled against school and was now a (highly qualified) teacher.
In an extraordinary turn of luck, other old friends asked me to join them in Tuscany in September, but I still wasn’t confident I could walk further than a mile, especially up the hills. So I watched all the movies ever filmed there, and admired the countryside from afar.
As autumn approached, I decided to practice traveling again. I started with a car trip to Boston – three hours each way – to check in on the children and grandchildren who live up there. I stayed with Amanda & Co (Jay’s daughter) who organized a wonderful lunch with sons Freddie and Bertie and their girlfriends. Much hilarity ensued as we played a board game which depended on some skill with words. I turned out to be hopeless at it.
Progressing from driving to flying, I crossed the country to Carmel, where the smell of smoke hung in the air, from the forests burning 200 miles further north. There had been a similar fire as I drove across Florida in February. It seemed the whole country was going up in flames. Still is. Nothing to do with climate change, of course, which officially doesn’t exist.
My final trip was to a very sparkly London in late November with my son Adam. My apologies to those of you I didn’t manage to see, but this was Adam’s vacation, mainly, since he hadn’t been for twenty years or so, and wanted to revisit his roots.
Being virtually immobilized for so many months gave me time to write, and I’ve been adding memoir pieces to my blog (you can find them on the right). My cousin John, who lives in South Africa, has become my de facto editor. This is terrific, because not only is he an author himself, but he remembers some of the people in my stories. These are largely about my childhood, that don’t fit into my longer book about Jay and me, which has far too many pages, so I’m working on making it shorter. I’m encouraged by the fact that some memoirists I’ve talked to have taken ten years to publish theirs, and I’ve resolved mine won’t take that long. I started a monthly group for writers to come and read something they’ve written, and am still running the one I’ve had for a few years now – the one where I promise those who come that we don’t actually write anything at all – we just encourage each other.
I’ve had an extremely short story published, and won a couple of contests (or, more accurately, been one of the winners) and those stories will be in an anthology next summer. And I’ve been asked to read my Christmas story (the one about Jay trying to fit into a Santa suit…) at an evening called Dickens by the Fire, next weekend. No doubt Charles himself was unavailable, which is why they asked me.
Oh, and in my spare time, I attended a large rally of women on Fifth Avenue in New York in January (with Helenka), and a couple of demonstrations about gun control later in the year. Unlike my mother, I’ve never been particularly political, but I’m fed up with apologizing to my friends abroad for That Man.
Right now, though, I’m getting ready for Christmas. I’ve put my own twinkly lights up. I might have overdone it, since the house now looks like a fairy grotto, inside and out. My sister Jane will be here from England, and I shall be on an expedition to make sure I see all the family. Luckily, they’re clustered near Boston and in Connecticut, which makes it easy. This is something of a rarity in America, where families tend to be spread out, so I’m grateful.
I didn’t want to write the Christmas letter this year. But I don’t want to skip a year, either, just because it’s been a tough one. So here goes. As most of you know, Jay died from pancreatic cancer at … Continue reading