Last week’s post was about my father – here’s one about my mother… My mother was always looking for ways to save money. Although she had little spare time, with a job and five girls to feed, she decided to … Continue reading
My father was stranded in England after World War II. So he wasn’t an immigrant, exactly – he hadn’t made a plan to leave Poland for better things. I suppose, technically, he was a refugee.
What he had done, before the world went to war, was to leave his homeland in 1938 to work in Toulouse, in south-western France, for a year. He was an agricultural economist, and at 25, had no ties to prevent him from going. He worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, and they assigned him to the Polish consulate in Toulouse, to give him some gravitas. His French is excellent, although the regional accent of that corner of the country can be hard to understand.
I have a couple of photos of him from that time. Here he comes, strolling along a French street, sporting a beret, hoping to blend in. But the camera Continue reading
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
My friend Sally Allen at BoooksInK challenged her readers recently to produce a list of their ten favorite poems. I thought this would be simple, but when it came right down to it, I found it hard to choose. Still, I did, and this post explains my choices, since I notice that I chose them for various reasons that include: if I ever learned one by heart, if it says something about a certain time in my life, if it makes me laugh, if it makes me cry…so many reasons. Anyway here they are:
1. Some one by Walter de la Mare
This may be the first poem I learned as a little girl. It’s a great poem for kids, because the metre, repetition and rhyme make it easy to remember. And it tells a story with a mystery at its heart. It’s got everything.
This poem I love because it reminds me of my mother, who knew parts of it by heart and would recite it in lieu of a bedtime story. It’s very visual and the parts she remembered were about how the Lady, imprisoned in the Tower of Shallott, becomes desperate. Good stuff.
3. Morning has broken by Eleanor Farjeon
Who couldn’t like this one? I know it’s a hymn, but it’s also a poem, and it makes me happy to recite it to myself. Or sing it, Or listen to Cat Stevens sing it. All good.
4. I remember, I remember by Thomas Hood
We had a wonderful cleaning lady who used to teach me poems as I followed her around while she tidied the house. I must have been a pest, but she never complained. This is a very sentimental poem, but it meant something to me when my grandparents’ house by the sea (see left), where I was born and spent my summer holidays, was sold. Mrs Ryder taught me another one but I can only remember the title and the first 4 lines. Harry and the Cake: Run off to school, Harry/Why do you wait?/ Nine o’clock striking/And you will be late.
5. When icicles hang by the wall by William Shakespeare (from Love’s Labours Lost)
This I learned in high school, and it’s so very evocative of the perishing cold winters we’ve been having recently that I’ve remembered it again. It cheers me (somewhat) to know that winters were hard four hundred years ago, too.
6. The Conway Stewart by Seamus Heaney
This is a poem about a pen, the brand name – Conway Stewart. I had a fountain pen in high school, because we had to write everything by hand. I think my favorite was a Waterman, because they were also my mother’s favorite, but I went through more than one including Parker and the eponymous Conway Stewart. Hopeless show-off, I used turquoise ink, which if it ever leaked, was a disaster because it wouldn’t wash out, unlike the Royal blue washable used by sensible people.
7. Granchester by Rupert Brooke
Another sentimental poem. Written just before World War 1, in which the poet died (unsentimentally, of dysentery). Rupert Brooke was beautiful to look at, and I read him at an age when romance was all. The poem ends with the famous lines: Stands the Church clock at ten to three?/And is there honey still for tea? In the late sixties, British comedian Peter Sellars wrote and performed a fake travelogue: Balham – Gateway to the South. (Balham was a very boring suburb of London.) The final lines are: Stands the Church clock at ten to three?/And is there honey still for tea? To which a waitress replies: Sorry honey’s off, dear. (Meaning there wasn’t any.) Perhaps you had to be there…
8. Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen
On a much more serious note, this poem, written by Wilfred Owen was a devastating indictment of World War 1. Owen was killed just before the end of this war, and we studied the war poets in High school. The impact on me was extraordinary. When I won a prize for English they asked me which book I’d like and I chose Men Who March Away. At about the same time, the BBC was showing a 26 part series called The Great War. Using archival film footage and interviews with the survivors, they retold the story. As a child in the fifties, my sisters and I would see the veterans sitting in wheelchairs outside the Star and Garter Home in Richmond. My mother would explain that they had been gassed in World War 1 and would have to live there all their lives. I have never been able to look at war with any shred of romanticism since then.
9. The Lanyard Billy Collins
Back to the cheerful. When I first heard Billy Collins reciting his poem, I was entranced by the deadpan way he managed to capture a relationship between a boy and his mother. It’s funny and serious. Just listen to it.
10. Mrs Icarus by Carol Ann Duffy
As for this, it’s only five lines, but it makes me laugh out loud. A pillock, for my American readers, is a fool. Surely I’m too young to be cynical? Helena Bonham Carter reads it with aplomb.
Are any of these your favorites?
All is forgiven. Read on to find out why…
My crime writer friends Ben & Beth Oak were kind enough to send me the Police Blotter of the crime of which I was suspected. Here it is, courtesy of the Minuteman newspaper:
I have no idea why I’m not in jail right now. It was a close shave, it really was.
I was walking down the street at about 6.15 on Friday evening, when I noticed a police car driving slowly towards me. It pulled up to the kerb, and I experienced a small frisson of excitement as a 20-something policeman leapt smartly from the car and bounded up onto the sidewalk. I was brought up to believe that the police were on my side, and, as a frequently demonstrating student in the 60’s and 70’s never felt able to yell “pigs” at them like the rest of my friends. I lost some street cred thereby, but…
Which is my way of saying that I was perfectly prepared to help this policeman if I could. He looked me sternly in the eye (he wasn’t very tall).
“Ma’am, were you at the Citgo station earlier today?”
He must have noticed my blank expression (I was trying to remember which of the many local gas stations was the Citgo) because he pointed in a westerly direction, and said “The one on the corner of the Post Road and Pine Creek.”
Mais oui, I admitted. I had been there at around 12.30 earlier that day, walking through the forecourt as a shortcut to my hairdresser’s where I had a 12.30 appointment. My women readers will understand that no matter how late I may be for other less important events like plane trips and oil changes, I wouldn’t dare be late for my hairdresser.
I explained this to the policeman, who began to look a bit distracted after a few minutes of my clarifications. He cut me off suddenly.
“Do you smoke?”
“Not for 40 years,” I said, wondering whether he was going to offer me a cigarette.
The policeman didn’t offer me a cigarette, nor did he look particularly convinced.
“Would you like to sniff my coat?” I asked. “If I smoked you’d be able to tell.” I was trying to be helpful. He shook his head.
“I need to see your ID, please. The point is, that a woman matching your description was seen stealing a packet of cigarettes from that very same gas station at about 12.40 today.”
I opened my mouth to explain again about the 12.30 appointment and the hair but he suddenly changed his interrogation tactics.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
I pointed down the street.
“Paul Place,” I said.
“Oh, ho,” he said, or he would have if he’d had proper training. “That’s pretty close to that gas station.”
I tried to be patient.
“Which was why I was walking to my hairdressers, which is right next door,” I said, and I tossed my head in what I hoped was a convincing way to show him my new haircut (which was great, if I do say so myself).
Looking rather alarmed, he took a step back, but he persevered.
“Thing is, ma’am, this person was wearing a tan coat like yours…”
I put my hand up to stop him right there. “My coat is pink,” I said firmly. It is well known that a lot of men are color-blind, and in any case the street lights were orange so I couldn’t entirely blame him for getting it wrong.
“Furthermore,” I went on. “Earlier today I was wearing my fur coat. It was colder then, and…”
I paused. He was beginning to look a bit tense.
He pulled out a notebook. “I’ll just take your name.”
I gave it to him. And the address. And the phone number.
He seemed rather discouraged as he wrote it down.
He looked up. “Could I take a picture of you?’
My, I thought, it must be some haircut. I smirked as he raised his phone and took a photo.
I wondered if this orange light was making me look younger than I am. My reverie was interrupted.
“I’m going to take this round to the gas station and show it to them in order to eliminate you from our inquiries.”
I know what that means. He thinks I’m guilty, but he can’t prove it.
And so it’s time for the annual update. I closed last year’s letter by saying that we were expecting my sister Jane and her friend for the holidays. What I didn’t mention was that because we were having so many people to stay, all arriving and departing on different dates, that I resorted to creating a chart which showed each bedroom (color-coded, of course ), who would be in each one on what dates, and how many people I’d be feeding on any particular day. I adore my family, but honestly – I can’t do that chart again. Next time they’ll have to fight it out among themselves. I will be in the local inn… But in the meantime, this year will be much more sensible, with everybody arriving at carefully regulated intervals.
It was only in January that I managed to get out from under the pile of sheets and towels and pack a bag for our house in Phoenix AZ. Jay and I decided to take a few days and see what we might need if we were going to use it as a holiday home. To get us started, Jay insisted on packing a huge suitcase with household paraphernalia, including various serving dishes and knick-knacks. Since the beds hadn’t been delivered when we arrived, we spent the night in a hotel, but Jay left the suitcase in the house to save having to carry it around. Much to our surprise, it was gone when we arrived at the house the following day. Apparently this is the first burglary in the area for over three years…Well, Jay bore it stoically and added serving dishes and knick-knacks to our ever-expanding shopping list. One forgets that a new home needs everything from knives and forks to furniture, but we had a good time visiting the consignment (OK, second-hand) shops, where Jay bargained to his heart’s content.
We’d barely come back from our visit to Phoenix when it was time to leave for Australia. I had visions of kangaroos and koala bears, but in fact, Australia turned out to be much more interesting than that. We snorkeled around near the Great Barrier Reef (my favorite thing). I mean that I swam, towing Jay behind me. I think he liked it…Then we took a tiny plane to a luxury camp in the middle of nowhere, where noises in the very early morning turned out to be wallabies waking up underneath our cabin. If only the tiny plane company hadn’t gone bankrupt while we were there… Still, we did manage to get to our next destination, the aptly named Kangaroo Island. About 100 miles long with a population of 4,000 people and about 10,000 animals. All the kangaroos, wallabies, koalas and emus you could wish for. And then it was on to check out the wild life in Sydney…
Just to remind us of our trip, I got us tickets for the Australia exhibition that was showing in London when we visited in September. We were on our way to Prague, to meet friends. Prague and our friends were delightful, and Jay was particularly pleased, because our enormous bedroom (in a former mansion by the river) had a balcony from which he could give speeches to the population below. He was going to try it, too, but I managed to distract him with the promise of some souvenir shopping nearby.
After that we took one of those Danube cruises from Budapest, via Vienna and Linz to Passau (on the German/Austrian border). Very relaxing. So much so, that Jay immediately went home and booked a cruise on the Volga River (Moscow to St. Petersburg) for next summer. Yo-o heave-ho. Or something.
We returned to New Hampshire in time for the end of a beautiful fall. It was too late for Jay to sit on his beach (see last year) but he was quite happy with his new lawn (did I mention that he’d had someone plant a lawn last year when we were thinking of selling the house?). He, Freddie and Bertie had spent most of the summer perfecting this, with Fred and Bert doing most of the work (heaving huge boulders out of the ground) and Jay ‘supervising’. From the beach.
The boys really didn’t need to do this, since they both graduated from university this year. Moving rocks hardly seems like fit work for a biomedical engineer and an astrophysicist, but Jay can be very persuasive…
And what of our careers? I hear you ask (don’t I?). I’m still writing; there’s a memoir of my mother based on her wartime diaries and my blogs keep me busy. Next weekend I’ll be telling my story of Jay and the Santa suit at a couple of Christmas concerts at a local inn. Jay will be there to
heckle cheer me on. Meanwhile, he’s still very busy with his usual pursuits, to which he has added the position of board member at Colby-Sawyer College, a small liberal arts school (liberal? Jay? Surely not…) in our New Hampshire hometown of New London). The board seems to like him, even though Jay spends most of his time “suggesting” ways they could be more businesslike.
I was beginning to think the whole idea of building a new smaller house had died down for good, when the house next door to us came onto the market. Last weekend (bear with me here) we were supposed to be visiting houses around town that had been decorated for Christmas. Instead I found myself being shown around a characterful (read: not enough bathrooms) 100-year-old house, with Jay murmuring things in my ear, like: “we could put the other bathrooms over here”, and “what about extending this wall and making this into a new bedroom?” I should have let him do more shopping in Budapest, so he got it out of his system.
Just for now, we’re still in the house with the beach, the lawn and the gigantic fireplace, so I’m going to ignore the future and enjoy the present. (I think Jay got me a present?)
Wishing you a very happy and peaceful Christmas, and an encouraging New Year
It’s that time of year again – With Thanksgiving speeding towards us, my husband Jay wanted to talk to me about the menu.
I was surprised, because we always have the same Thanksgiving meal: turkey, stuffing, roast vegetables, asparagus, pumpkin pie and a pecan pie for Jay. But this year there were only going to be five of us for Thanksgiving. And I’m a vegetarian.
“So, what should we do about ordering the turkey?” he asked one evening last week.
Being a seat-of-the-pants type person, who leaves everything until the last minute, I hadn’t really thought about this, but his question made me reflect.
“Well,” I began. “They usually say about a pound per person for turkey…”
Jay interrupted me.
“So we should order a 4lb turkey?” he asked brightly.
“We could,” I said, “but it would be called a chicken.”
“But a chicken’s not the same is it?”
I had to agree.
“I mean, there’s nothing like the smell of turkey cooking on Thanksgiving.”
He had a point. “We could buy a turkey breast and roast that,” I offered.
“But then I’d have nothing to carve.” (I do the carving but I let it pass.)
We discussed the options. Duck? Too small. Goose? Too greasy, and anyway a goose is a Christmas bird. Lamb? Easter. Roast pork? Too pedestrian. I could see that Jay was going to find reasons why none of my suggestions would work, so I sat back and waited for him to make the choice I wanted him to. It took a while, but, you’ve guessed it, we’re having roast beef (and Yorkshire pudding).
In case you’re wondering about the title, no, I’m not illiterate. But I was in Europe recently, and this is the medical term for what happened to me…
Naturally, one expects some sort of chocolate temptation while you’re over there. In London its good old British-made Cadbury’s, which tastes so much better than the pale imitation preferred by American palates. (The stuff they make here has less milk in it, I think. At any rate, it’s not the same.) I managed to restrain myself somewhat in London, helped by the fact that our very swanky hotel (now relegated in my preferred accommodations list to a camping facility) did not leave any chocolates on my pillow. But that was helpful in a way, since I was trying to keep my blood sugar levels where they’re supposed to be.
I survived Prague. All was well until we embarked on our Danube cruise. When we entered our ‘stateroom’ (otherwise known as an underwater hideaway, since we only managed to get the last cabin available, so when we looked out of the window, we saw the river lapping gently against the glass…) provided a glass jar full of chocolate goodies. There are several things wrong with this. First of all, the jar was made of glass, so I could see the darn things staring at me seductively. Second the jar was full. And third, chocolate. There were some of those adorable tiny individual chocolate bars, as well as soft nougat ‘enrobed’ (read dressed seductively) in chocolate… I’m harping on about seduction because I was a fallen woman by the end of the evening. I had to leave a note in the jar asking the maid not to refill it. Then all I had to do for the next seven days was to slide by the huge bowls of mints, toffees and what-have-you by the reception desk without disgracing myself.
And then came Bratislava. I was minding my own business, having just seen a beautiful collection of Mortlake tapestries in the old cardinal’s palace, now a museum. Sashaying down the enormous staircase and imagining myself in a long bright pink dress (oh wait, that’s a cardinal’s outfit isn’t it? Oh well…) I met a slender Australian woman (a new friend from the cruise) coming up. She grabbed my arm, gave a furtive look around and hissed, conspiratorially: “I just had the hot chocolate. I’ve gained 3 kilos…it was worth it!” Her charming French husband shot me an apologetic look and helped her up the rest of the flight.
Curious, I decided to investigate further. In the charming central square, a cosy café beckoned roguishly from one corner. My feet were killing me by this time, and a brisk wind was making me feel chilly, so I suggested we sit for a minute and maybe have something hot to drink. “Excellent idea,” said Jay. “I’ll have a latte.” I cast an eye over the eight page illustrated menu of hot drinks. Jay ended up with a hazelnut praline latte with extra cream on top. I ordered hot chocolate and was congratulating myself on my steely willpower when my bright yellow cup arrived. The chocolate was so thick that I’m pretty sure that if I’d turned the cup over, the contents would have remained inside. I sniffed it. When I returned to my senses, I found myself sitting with a spoon in my hand. Someone had licked the spoon clean. Apparently that was me. I would simply have to try again. By this time the women at the neighboring tables were staring at me curiously. “Chocolate,” I blurted out and pointed at my cup. The Slovakian women simply shrugged. They’d seen this kind of weak-willed tourist before. But the American women around me were edging their chairs closer and closer.
I nodded regally and told them to help themselves. There was a reverent silence as the hot spreadable chocolate hit their tongues. We worshiped at the chocolate shrine together.
I wonder if that’s why that cardinal was hanging out in Bratislava in the first place…
It seems like less than a year since I wrote my last Christmas letter. Oh wait – it is less than a year. In fact it went out last January, which makes me realize how well-organized I am this year. When last I wrote, Jay and I were off to South America with friends. We took a ship through the Panama Canal. It’s not so much a canal as a series of very large locks which take a very long time to navigate, largely because the ships that go through it these days are designed with about a foot of leeway on each side – going through it reminded me of trying to put my jeans on after last year’s Christmas dinner. But I digress.
It was a wonderful trip. We went to Cartagena, Colombia, and though I looked around for drug cartels and similar miscreants, all I could see were pretty houses and ladies in traditional costume who wanted a dollar if I took a photo of them. Then on to Ecuador, where the port cities sat glumly under grey skies and tried to look enticing, rather like streetwalkers who’d been at it too long and had lost hope. But Peru made up for it all. Beautiful country with lovely people and a lot of potatoes. Some 300, sorry 3000 different kinds, and it seemed every one of them was to be found in a local vegetable market in Cuzco, high in the Andes. They even had a freeze-dried potato, pure white and weighing next to nothing, which you can store for years until you need it. (Frozen on a glacier and then left in the sun to dry – amazing). Cuzco is the jumping off point for Machu Picchu, at least I was jumping, and Jay was proceeding at a stately pace with his bionic knee. We took a train to the site, and I told Jay not to wear any clothing that gave him away as a Yale man, since a hundred years ago one such Yale man ‘discovered’ Machu Picchu and walked off with a huge amount of swag, which the Peruvians are now demanding back. Quite right, too, but I didn’t want anyone demanding it from Jay or his friend Tom (another Yalie who was traveling with us).
In late February I was planning a trip to England to see my mother, when she had a stroke. I spent most of February and March over there, and at the end of March, my mother had a heart attack and did what she always said she would, and left this world when she decided to. She also said she’d never go into a nursing home and by golly, she never did. She was an amazing woman who lived through some of the most important moments in history, grew up rich but learned to manage on very little, brought up five daughters and helped bring up sundry nephews and grandchildren. There were a hundred people at her funeral representing all the different interests my mother had. Nephews and nieces came from South Africa, Poland and Italy, as well as her grandchildren from the United States, Geneva and elsewhere. It was quite a party we gave her. I’m sure she was sorry to miss it.
And speaking of parties, later in the year we got together with more former Yalies and their wives, Jay’s old classmates, in Charlottesville Virginia, where we sat around and chewed the fat for 72 hours straight. We also talked quite a bit.
Moving right along…Bertie our youngest, was lucky enough to be able to go to Geneva to study for his Spring term. Geneva is home to the CERN Hadron Collider, which…um…collides atoms or something to make even tinier particles. Point being that Bertie was there when they discovered something they’d been looking for for a while, the Higgs Boson… I have always told the boys that if they can’t find something, they should move something. (Whatever they’re looking for is always beneath, or behind something – usually their dirty clothes.) Apparently this works in astrophysics as well. So Bertie is becoming an astrophysicist. Scary, I know. But if anyone can find a way to live on Mars, Bertie can. So be prepared.
Fred is one credit short of graduating as a Bio-medical engineer with a side order of electrical engineering. The course starts in January, and so in the meantime he’s working for Sears, a huge department store company, unloading the trucks full of household appliances that wives everywhere are going to get for Christmas instead of cashmere and perfume. He’s also on an organizing kick, so their filing cabinets have never looked so good…
As a reward for the boys sterling academic work and because they didn’t go on last year’s Caribbean cruise, Jay and I decided to take them on a cruise round the Adriatic this summer. It was either that or travel around Europe with them, which sounded like hell on earth to me (trying to make them get out of bed and see the sights, trying to make them do things when we wanted to etc). The cruise was a great compromise, since it visited a lot of places they wouldn’t have got to on their own, and gave us all a bit of space while sailing so that we weren’t tripping over each other all the time. We went back to Istanbul where the smashing guide we had 4 years ago was persuaded to take us around that fascinating city. The boys loved it, partly because Ziya is such a fount of knowledge and could answer every one of their questions, of which they had many. We almost lost Jay in the Grand Bazaar, where he was being welcomed by the stallholders with open arms and cries of “Effendi!” which I believe means “Sucker!” in Turkish. They may have recognized him from our last trip…
Ephesus, Montenegro, Santorini, and a few rugs etc later, we ended up in Venice, just before it flooded. It was my first ever visit to Venice, so of course I loved it. Jay had a wonderful time at Murano where the glass-makers understand the art of haggling as well as they do in Istanbul. With the result that we ended up with a glass model of an Americas Cup yacht (practically life-size) and a Picasso head of a woman with two noses. Really, we need a bigger house to store all this stuff in. But weren’t we planning to downsize last year?
Yes, we were. And yet, once Jay started fixing all the little things that tend to go wrong with houses (like no beach, for example) he decided he loved it so much we would stay. So he put in a beach. Of course. (If you’d like to know more about the beach, check my blog here.)
This encouraged Fred to begin putting in a lawn, creating new stone steps in the garden and generally beautifying the place. Once all this had been done, there was no point in moving. Having run out of things to buy abroad, Jay decided to buy a house in Phoenix, Arizona. Now there’s a place with a beach. Actually, more of a desert. A friend was looking to sell his house at a bargain price, and so… About six months after we’d bought it, I actually got to see it, and allowed Jay to buy two tiny lions to grace the front doorstep. It’s delightful, of course, and the weather in the winter there is pretty much perfect – it’s just that I don’t know when we’ll have time to visit, because we have so many other travel plans. I fully expect we’ll be the proud (or possibly suicidal) owners of a kangaroo by this time next year, because we’re going to Australia in April.
Our Fairfield home, for those of you with less than stellar geography skills, is about a mile from a real beach, which proved to be interesting when Ultra Storm Sandy arrived in October. The water came up to the end of the driveway and then evidently thought better of it and retreated, but we were without electricity for 5 days, which wasn’t as much fun as I thought it might be. I finally had a ceramic sign in the shape of a lemon made for the front of the house. It read: 33 – The Lemon. Naturally, it was doomed, and, true to the nature of the house, fell down during the storm and smashed into several pieces. But to console myself, I was able to read Tangerine Tango by flashlight. It’s a small pocket-size anthology of women writers, in which three of my memoir pieces and a poem were published in October. It’s selling quite well (considering) on Amazon. (Thank you to those of you who bought copies. And those of you who didn’t, will be buying them soon, won’t you? All proceeds to benefit research into Huntington’s Disease.) Now I’m finally revising the novel I wrote last year with the help of my writing group, and writing Christmas letters in my spare time.
We’re expecting my sister Jane and her friend Sheila to arrive for Christmas any day now, and once again we’ll be hosting the hordes over the holidays. Here’s hoping you’re planning a restful and happy holiday season.