My mother called me Silver. I was born part precious metal, part Pirate.
I have no father. There's nothing unusual about that — even children who do have fathers are often surprised to see them. My own father came out of the sea and went back that way. He was crew on a fishing boat that harboured with us one night when the waves were crashing like dark glass. His splintered hull shored him for long enough to drop anchor inside my mother.
Shoals of babies vied for life.
I lived in a house cut steep into the bank. The chairs had to be nailed to the floor, and we were never allowed to eat spaghetti. We ate food that stuck to the plate — shepherd's pie, goulash, risotto, scrambled egg. We tried peas once — what a disaster — and sometime we still find them, dusty and green in the corners of the room.
Some people are raised on a hill, others in the valley. Most of us are brought up on the flat. I came at life at an angle, and that's how I've lived every since.
At night my mother tucked me into a hammack slung cross-wise against the slope. In the gentle sway of the night, I dreamed of a place where I wouldn't be fighting gravity with my own body weight. My mother and I had to rope us together like a pair of climbers, just to achieve our own front door. One slip, and we'd be on the railway line with the rabbits.
"You're not an outgoing type," she said to me, though this may have had much to do with the fact that going out was such a struggle. While other children were bid farefull with a casual, "Have you remembered your gloves?" I got, "Did you do up all the buckles on your safety harness?"
Why didn't we move?
My mother was a single parent and she had conceived out of wedlock. There had been no lock on her door that night when my father came to call. So she was sent up the hill, away from the town, with the curious result that she looked down on it.
Salts. My home town. A sea-flung, rock-bitten, sand-edged shell of a town. Oh, and a lighthouse.
Ever since glimpsing my great-grandmother's pale aquamarine satin chaise longue through the barely-opened doorway of her perennially darkened boudoir, I have always been fascinated by these whimsical inventions. (I once entered the room and pressed a small hand down on the cushion, eyes widening as my chubby fingers vanished into a soft quicksand of down.) According to the dictionary, there are several types of these lovely long chairs:
The Duchesse brisée(literally Broken duchess in French) is divided in two parts -- the chair and a long footstool. Or two chairs with a stool in between them. The origin of the name is unknown. (Perhaps it has to do with a magician, his assistant, and a "sawing in half" act that went terribly wrong...?)
A récamier has two raised ends, and nothing on the long sides. It is sometimes associated with French Empire (neo-classical) style. It’s named after French society hostess Mme Récamier (1777-1849), who posed elegantly on a couch of this kind. (Is there any other way to pose on such a thing?) She had her portrait painted in 1800. The shape of the récamier is similar to a traditional lit bateau (boat bed) but made for the drawing room, not the bedroom.
A méridienne has a high head-rest, and a lower foot-rest, joined by a a sloping piece. Whether or not they have anything at the foot end, méridiennes are asymmetrical day-beds. They were popular in the grand houses of France in the early 19th century. Its name is from its typical use -- rest in the middle of the day, when the sun is near the meridian. (So much more elegant than "napping post".)
A fainting couch (my personal favorite) has a back that is traditionally raised at one end. The back may be situated completely at one side of the couch, or may wrap around and extend the entire length of the piece much like a traditional couch. However, fainting couches are easily differentiated from more traditional couches, having one end of the back raised. (And the comatose woman draped over one end must give it away as well.) Fainting couches were popular in the 19th century, and were particularly used by women. This was because women in Victorian-era societies almost universally wore corsets which put substantial strain on the wearer's midsection and restricted blood flow. When a woman would ascend stairs in a house or other structure, she would often feel faint -- and a well-appointed home or building would have a fainting couch at the top of every set of stairs for her use. Some houses would take this to the level of having separate fainting rooms where these couches would be the featured furniture. (Apparently one had to time the spell carefully to coincide with the proximity of said fainting room, or make sue there was some hale and hearty fellow nearby who could carry you there.)
Somewhere in the attic there is a frame very like this one that I long to have upholstered and put to good use for mid-day naps or long afternoon reads. (Or perhaps artfully placed on the 2nd floor landing so I can rest after each arduous ascent.) But as charming as this might be, my penchant for tables, chairs, bookcases and writing desks has reached critical mass and I'd be hard pressed to find anywhere in the cottage where a chaise longue would fit. For now, the frame will remain in the attic, and I shall continue reading (or napping) on the couch. And collapsing as needed on the top stair with an eau-de-cologne soaked hankie pressed on my brow.
As the warm August days passed, Pollyanna went very frequently to the great house on Pendleton Hill. She did not feel, however, that her visits were really a success. Not that the man seemed not to want her there—he sent for her, indeed, frequently; but that when she was there, he seemed scarcely any the happier for her presence—at least, so Pollyanna thought.
He talked to her, it was true, and be showed her many strange and beautiful things--books, pictures, and curios. But he still fretted audibly over his own helplessness, and he chafed visibly under the rules and "regulatings" of the unwelcome members of his household. He did, indeed, seem to like to hear Pollyanna talk, however, and Pollyanna talked, Pollyanna liked to talk--but she was never sure that she would not look up and find him lying back on his pillow with that white, hurt look that always pained her; and she was never sure which--if any--of her words had brought it there. With all the strength of her loving, loyal heart, she wished she could in some way bring happiness into his (to her mind) lonely life. Just how she was to do this, however, she could not see. She talked to Mr. Pendleton and he listened, sometimes politely, sometimes irritably, frequently with a quizzical smile on his usually stern lips.
And so it was toward the end of August that Pollyanna, making an early morning call on John Pendleton, found the flaming band of blue and gold and green edged with red and violet lying across his pillow. She stopped short in awed delight.
"Why, Mr. Pendleton, it's a baby rainbow—a real rainbow come in to pay you a visit!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands together softly. "Oh—oh—oh, how pretty it is! But how did it get in?" she cried.
The man laughed a little grimly: John Pendleton was particularly out of sorts with the world this morning.
"Well, I suppose it 'got in' through the bevelled edge of that glass thermometer in the window," he said wearily. "The sun shouldn't strike it at all but it does in the morning."
"Oh, but it's so pretty, Mr. Pendleton! And does just the sun do that? My! if it was mine I'd have it hang in the sun all day long!"
"Lots of good you'd get out of the thermometer, then," laughed the man. "How do you suppose you could tell how hot it was, or how cold it was, if the thermometer hung in the sun all day?"
"I shouldn't care," breathed Pollyanna, her fascinated eyes on the brilliant band of colors across the pillow. "Just as if anybody'd care when they were living all the time in a rainbow!"
The man laughed. He was watching Pollyanna's rapt face a little curiously. Suddenly a new thought came to him. He touched the bell at his side.
"Nora," he said, when the elderly maid appeared at the door, "bring me one of the big brass candle-sticks from the mantel in the front drawing-room."
"Yes, sir," murmured the woman, looking slightly dazed. In a minute she had returned. A musical tinkling entered the room with her as she advanced wonderingly toward the bed. It came from the prism pendants encircling the old-fashioned candelabrum in her hand.
"Thank you. You may set it here on the stand," directed the man. "Now get a string and fasten it to the sash-curtain fixtures of that window there. Take down the sash-curtain, and let the string reach straight across the window from side to side. That will be all. Thank you," he said, when she had carried out his directions.
As she left the room he turned smiling eyes toward the wondering Pollyanna.
"Bring me the candlestick now, please, Pollyanna."
With both hands she brought it; and in a moment he was slipping off the pendants, one by one, until they lay, a round dozen of them, side by side, on the bed.
"Now, my dear, suppose you take them and hook them to that little string Nora fixed across the window. If you really want to live in a rainbow--I don't see but we'll have to have a rainbow for you to live in!"
Pollyanna had not hung up three of the pendants in the sunlit window before she saw a little of what was going to happen. She was so excited then she could scarcely control her shaking fingers enough to hang up the rest. But at last her task was finished, and she stepped back with a low cry of delight.
It had become a fairyland—that sumptuous, but dreary bedroom. Everywhere were bits of dancing red and green, violet and orange, gold and blue. The wall, the floor, and the furniture, even to the bed itself, were aflame with shimmering bits of color.
"Oh, oh, oh, how lovely!" breathed Pollyanna; then she laughed suddenly. "I just reckon the sun himself is trying to play the glad game now, don't you?" she cried, forgetting for the moment that Mr. Pendleton could not know what she was talking about. "Oh, how I wish I had a lot of those things! How I would like to give them to lots of folks"
Mr. Pendleton laughed.
For a moment there was silence. Then a low voice from the bed said unsteadily:
"Perhaps; but I'm thinking that the very finest prism of them all is yourself, Pollyanna."
"Oh, but I don't show beautiful red and green and purple when the sun shines through me, Mr. Pendleton!"
"Don't you?" smiled the man. And Pollyanna, looking into his face, wondered why there were tears in his eyes.
Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company by James R. Mellow (Praeger: 1974)
On almost every Saturday of the first half of the twentieth century, Gertrude Stein would open her door to the likes of Picasso and Matisse, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Cocteau and Apollinaire, welcoming them into a Parisian salon alive with vivid avant-garde paintings and sparkling intellectual conversation.
In Charmed Circle, James R. Mellow has re-created this fascinating world and the complex woman who dominated it. His engaging narrative illuminates Stein’s writing—now celebrated along with the work of such literary giants as Joyce and Woolf—including her difficult early periods, which adapted cubism and abstraction to the written word.
Rich with detail and insight, it conveys both the serene rhythms of daily life with her devoted partner, Alice B. Toklas, and the radical pulse and dramatic upheavals of her exciting era.
Spanning the years from 1903, when Stein first arrived in Paris, to her final days at the end of the Second World War, Charmed Circle is a penetrating and lively account of a writer at the heart of modernity.
Avant-garde Paris comes to life in this “meticulous and loving reconstruction of the period”
[The New York Times Book Review]
I'd nearly forgotten about this book until a conversation with a friend today provoked the memory in me. A wonderful -and colorful- view of life, art and eccentricity in fin de siecle Paris.
In Shakespeare's time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes when you pulled on the ropes the mattress tightened, making the bed firmer to sleep on. That's where the phrase, "goodnight, sleep tight" came from.
The sentence "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." uses every letter in the alphabet. (developed by Western Union to test telex/twx communications)
The only 15 letter word that can be spelled without repeating a letter is uncopyrightable.
When opossums are playing 'possum, they are not "playing." They actually pass out from sheer terror.
The Main Library at Indiana University sinks over an inch every year because when it was built, engineers failed to take into account the weight of all the books that would occupy the building. [So that's why my house seems to be listing slightly...]
The term "the whole 9 yards" came from WWII fighter pilots in the Pacific. When arming their airplanes on the ground, the .50 caliber machine gun ammo belts measured exactly 27 feet, before being loaded into the fuselage. If the pilots fired all their ammo at a target, it got "the whole 9 yards."
The phrase "rule of thumb" is derived from an old English law which stated that you couldn't beat your wife with anything wider than your thumb. [Unfortunately, this could include a nasty length of rebar]
An ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain. [As opposed to human eyes which we know are generally bigger than the human stomache]
The name Jeep came from the abbreviation used in the army for the "General Purpose" vehicle, G.P.
The cruise liner, Queen Elizabeth II, moves only six inches for each gallon of diesel that it burns. [Presumably the Queen herself moves along at a slightly brisker pace]
Nutmeg is extremely poisonous if injected intravenously. [Note to self: despite the temptation, do not do this when baking at Christmas]
No NFL team which plays its home games in a domed stadium has ever won a Super Bowl. [Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gon beat dem Saints?]
The first toilet ever seen on television was on "Leave It To Beaver."
Only one person in two billion will live to be 116 or older.
In Cleveland, Ohio, it's illegal to catch mice without a hunting license. [Why does this sound like a Tom and Jerry episode?]
It takes 3,000 cows to supply the NFL with enough leather for a year's supply of footballs.
In English pubs, ale is ordered by pints and quarts. So in old England, when customers got unruly, the bartender would yell at them to mind their own pints and quarts and settle down. It's where we get the phrase "mind your P's and Q's."
Thirty-five percent of the people who use personal ads for dating are already married.
There are an average of 178 sesame seeds on a McDonald's Big Mac bun.
The world's termites outweigh the world's humans 10 to 1.
The 3 most valuable brand names on earth: Marlboro, Coca-Cola, and Budweiser, in that order.
When Heinz ketchup leaves the bottle, it travels at a rate of 25 miles per year. [And if you're pouring it while sailing on the Queen Elizabeth II ... ??]
Ten percent of the Russian government's income comes from the sale of vodka.
On average, 100 people choke to death on ball-point pens every year. [What is WRONG with these people?]
In 10 minutes, a hurricane releases more energy than all the world's nuclear weapons combined.
It was the accepted practice in Babylon 4,000 years ago that for a month after the wedding, the bride's father would supply his son-in-law with all the mead he could drink. Mead is a honey beer, and because their calendar was lunar based, this period was called the "honey month" or what we know today as the "honeymoon."
Many years ago in England, pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the rim or handle of their ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they used the whistle to get some service. "Wet your whistle," is the phrase inspired by this practice.
And with that, I'm off to wet my whistle with a cup of tea.