2 minute read There’s so much pressure on a person these days. I was born with a Victorian mind, I think. At least in some respects. Making a Valentine from a lacy white paper doily, a cut-out red velvet heart … Continue reading
5 minute read It was mid-December, and I needed money to buy Christmas presents. I was seventeen, and had found a Saturday job at Russell & Bromley, the most exclusive shoe shop in the London suburb where we lived. In … Continue reading
There’s a photo of Jay in a garden – not ours, but the one he had with his first family. A hint of autumn is in the air, a rusting around the edges of the photo, though it could just … Continue reading
4 minute read 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 bake her own bread. And it would be healthy bread, … Continue reading
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 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.
A year ago my husband Jay and I were going to sell the house on the lake in New Hampshire. It’s really too big for us. Mostly, there are only the two of us there, and the house will actually sleep 10 or more, so you can see the logic. I don’t really want a house that will sleep 10 or more – because then the ten people show up and need feeding.
So I was pleased when Jay finally decided that it might be fun to sell and a bit less thrilled when he decided we’d build something new. I remember the last time we built a house. I say we, but actually it was Jay who designed it, which is why I only have a quarter of the single closet we ended up with. Jay turned the other closet into a sauna when I wasn’t looking. (There’s a whole earlier post about that.) Anyway – what really made the prospect of a new house appealing was the fact that there was a piece of land further down the lake with that most highly prized feature: a beach. And not just any old beach but a long one with white sand, where in summer Jay would be able to lounge around reading a book under an umbrella and in winter he’d be able to drive his snowmobile out without (much) chance of falling off it and breaking something.
So we cleaned up the house and put it on the market. People liked it a lot, but the price was too high, they said. (Jay never prices a house to sell – he prices it to keep.) And, they said, they wanted a lawn, not the ecologically correct wildflowers and ferns that graced the back. And the horseshoe pitching thingy that was a long alley covered in mulch, which had never been used (why did I buy him those horse shoes?) was an eyesore. Plus, the house really needed power washing, and there were a couple of little things that needed fixing here and there…You get the picture.
After brooding for a few days, Jay decided he’d give it his best shot and immediately hired someone to do the power-washing, someone to fix the master bathroom shower (it came off in his hand, Jay said, about a year ago), someone to touch up the paint, and someone to turn the back garden into a lawn.
But once he’d started, he couldn’t stop. He had three huge bushes moved into the wilderness near the garden. He hacked down shrubs and tiny saplings that threatened to block the view (in 2037, if they’d lived). He and our middle son built some stone steps and a wooden railing down from the terrace to the new lawn. Jay bought a lawn-mower. (It seems like only yesterday, but it was actually 1984 when he swore he’d never touch one again…) Our house was ready to go back on the market. And then came the news – the beach property that we liked had been sold. To someone else.
After brooding for a few days more Jay made a decision. We didn’t need to buy a beach. He would make his own. We have the falling apart remains of an old stone jetty that joins the shore at the bottom of the garden. It was strewn with rocks and boulders, but this didn’t deter Jay. He press-ganged two of our sons into removing the rocks that were making this so unsightly (and, quite possibly, holding the jetty together). This took a couple of weeks. And then came the sand. Eight tons, I think he said, in a huge pile at the front of the house. It all had to be taken to the back by the wheelbarrow load. That took another day or so. And the result?
I’m not sure it’s quite big enough for the 10+ visitors that will descend on us as soon as the news gets out. But Jay will think of something.
I know you’ve all been pining for an update about Ernest and Mabel, the two marble lions that my husband Jay bought in a mad moment in Vietnam. (Click here to read that post if you missed it.)
When last seen, they were standing among a forest of other white marble flora and fauna (not forgetting the odd Venus or cherub) in the showroom of the marble factory in Da Nang. We took it on faith that they would indeed be sent to us via freighter. And in December, we finally got word that they were in…Los Angeles.
But, said the man, we’ll be trucking them over to you as soon as we can. It was the day before we left for the Panama Canal and Peru that the call came through…from Arizona.
They’re here, said the man. In Arizona, we asked. “
No that’s just my cell phone. They’re in Boston, and we can deliver them soon.”
“Not today then?” asked Jay hopefully.
“No, but we can do it next week,” said the man. Luckily we had Fred and Bertie still at home before they returned to their respective studies. Jay briefed them on where the lions should go and we left for points south.
It wasn’t long before we started receiving irritated emails from Fred (and he insists I quote these word for word, because he’s not impressed by my (occasional) lapses into poetic license. (I don’t know what he means.)
“Firstly, the lions. No one has contacted us about them yet. Either on the home phone or one of our cell phones. I thought they were supposed to have done so by now. We have no means for contacting these people, so if you do, maybe you could pass it along to us.”
I suggested he leave it for a couple of days. A couple of days later:
“The freight people… want to bring the lions in on a tractor-trailer. Which Bertie and I are both skeptical about. We don’t think the vehicle will be able to safely get down the driveway and back out again without hitting trees, rocks or some other obstacle. If I remember correctly the cab is 12′ and the trailer is 48′.” (And Fred always remembers correctly…)
A day later:
“The lions are evidently in two separate crates on a single skid. The skid weighs a total of 800 lbs. We assume the crates are about 400 lbs each. Making them probably unmovable by us. The person I spoke with today suggested we could meet them somewhere and they could put them in our truck. I’m not really sure, so I thought I’d see what you thought.”
I suggested the freight people might have a fork lift on the back of the truck. Jay suggested they back down the quarter mile distance from the main road to our house (with a bend in the road).
All the suggestions failed, and eventually Fred threw up his hands in disgust (figuratively, Fred). We arrived home from our travels to find a message waiting for us from the freight man. He was about to charge us for storing the lions, since we hadn’t arranged for delivery. Jay soon sorted him out.
And the lions arrived. When I first saw them, they were standing in their wooden cage listing drunkenly to one side exactly where the snowplough would hit them. (Luckily snow has been rather thin on the ground, literally, this winter.) Jay had phoned our snow-ploughing guy, Matt, who was looking for work, since there wasn’t any ploughing to do, and Matt was due to arrive within hours to unpack and place the lions where we wanted them.
Jay paced around the outside of the house, trying to decide where to put them. Finally he called me outside to see what I thought.
“What about here?” he asked, pointing to the spot where they were already standing. I wondered whether to let them be run over by the snow plough. But I knew they meant a lot to Jay, so I hinted that perhaps they should be closer to the house.
“There,” said Jay, pointing to the path closer to the house.
“I think they might block the path unless we turn them sideways. How about on the porch?” I suggested. “Then they’d be out of the rain.” (As if that would do them any damage…)
We agreed on the porch, and Matt and his team of three muscly guys managed to get them there. Here’s the picture to prove it.
There is one thing, though. Jay decided we should name the lions something other than Ernest and Mabel. That was fine with me. I’d only been joking about the names.
“How about Leo and Lucy?” he suggested. “Or Lenny and Louise?”
I was looking at the lions as he said this and a sudden thought occurred to me. You’ve probably spotted it already. Both our lions are boys. I pointed this out.
“Never mind,” I said. “I’m sure two gay lions would be great for our Chi.”
They still don’t have names.