27 November 2013

Giving Thanks

A Wooded Path in Autumn by Hans Anderson Brendekild
“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy;
they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”
— Marcel Proust

There is so much in life to make us happy,
so much abundance, and all of it so simple,
that it gives one the sense of being unworthy.
Those who make me laugh. Out loud.
Those whose caring and generosity is unconditional.
Music that brings me to tears. Or makes me want to vacuum.
Train rides that carry me off onto landscapes that hold me captivated for hours.
The alchemy of making the perfect cup of tea.
The birds who nest on the house each spring.
The call of crows each morning as they leave their roosts in the cemetery.
The song of robins at twilight.
The first glimpse of paint-box colored primroses pushing through earth.
The scent of dried seedheads in the fall.
The aroma of bacon in the house on Saturday mornings.
The sound of the postman at the mailbox and the discovery of a letter from a friend.
The heft of wool in my hands as I knit,
and the slow emergence of a sock, mitten or hat.
The way the wind howls in the hemlock at night.
The way the rain pelts the window panes.
The way the snow robes the garden arbors.
Being on time for the bus.
Getting entirely lost in a good book.
Dozing in a chair in the garden on a summer's day.
Opening packages from far away loved ones.
Sending packages to far away loved ones.
Sawing tree branches into firewood.
Building a fire on the grate.
The scent of the Christmas tree in the house.
Making soup on Sunday afternoons.
Opening a new bottle of wine.
Baking bread.
 Family dinners, family drives, and family sleep overs.
Being with family.
Having a cat wind around your ankles.
Having a dog rest his chin on your knee.
The scent of lavender water and steam as I iron.
Starting off on a road trip with a loved one.
Finding a package of Twizzlers in my purse.
Getting Chinese take-away on payday.
Having enough rainfall to fill the rain barrel in August.
Smiling back at people in your favorite paintings.
The transcendent sound of Church choirs.
Looking at old photographs.
Observing family traditions and rituals.
Learning family history.
Watching squirrels in the back yard.
Eating cookies warm from the oven.
Kissing and hugging my family and friends.
Eating waxed-paper wrapped sandwiches on the beach in summer.
Drinking thermoses of hot tea on the beach in winter.
Sitting on a bench by the bay and watching the boats sail past.
Watching football or hockey games on television.
Going to hockey games and eating cheese fries.
Riding the merry-go-round with my mother.
Eating ice cream cones with my daughter.
Coloring with my granddaughter.
Riding go-karts with my grandson.
Watching my grandchildren at the lake each summer.
Spinning wool on my wheel.
Watching "A Muppets Christmas Carol" each year. 
Reading "Wuthering Heights" each Autumn.
Putting my socks and nightgown on the radiator on cold nights.
Listening to crickets under the porch window in late summer.
Waking up each morning.
For all this and so much more I am heartily thankful.

15 November 2013

Domesticity: a personal history

Yes.... I keep my ironing basket under the kitchen table.

Not surprisingly, the Matcher book on Domesticity provoked my own memories of when and why I came to enjoy the skills most associated with 'nesting'. 

Remember these?
When I was six years old, I was given a square metal loom on which I would stretch colored loops to make pot holders. Numerous trips up the road to McClellan's Five & Ten would result in more and more bags of the brightly hued loops. Using the small metal hook to pull them in the "in and out" pattern, I would sit for hours and make the waffle-grid squares. I doubt if any of them still exist in my mother's kitchen, but for several years she received them from me by the gross.

By the time I was eight years old I'd been taught how to knit and crochet. My humble projects were nothing like the spider-like lace my mother summoned forth from impossibly small crochet hooks, or the flower garden afghans that tumbled off her knitting needles. But I did my best and had several crocheted doll hats and knitted hot pads to show for it.  (One of those hot pads did manage to survive and although it became slightly felted over the years, it is pressed into service now and then on her table.)

Still knitting, after all these years.
At the age of 12 or so I was taught how to embroider.  Another trip to McClellans yielded my first embroidery hoop and a set of white pillow cases with a pale blue design stamped along the edge. Elementary cross-stiches led to more challenging ones: french knots, silk stitch, and tiny loops that became daisy petals. Although my embroidery skills were fairly decent, my grandmother, who lived with us until I was a teenager, had the exasperating habit of checking the back of my work which invariably looked like a labyrinthian transit map. I was sent back to start again until the back looked as neat as the front.

My local fabric store.
Throughout my teens, I continued to embroider now and then, adding crewel to my needlework repertoire. (My mother still uses a small pin cushion I made for her in those days.) Around this time, I also ventured into the world of sewing, having watched my mother make clothes for us and herself for so many years. Her big brown Westinghouse machine—which perported to be "portable" but took both of us to heft onto the kitchen table—became my new plaything as I produced Hallowe'en costumes, coat-dresses, skirts, and peasant dresses. I adored our trips to the fabric store where the walls were filled to the ceiling with bolts of materials and you could stand for hours perusing cards of beautiful buttons, or rows of colorful zippers, and wooden spools of thread in a rainbow of shades to match whatever fabric you'd picked. And oh the hours I spent flipping through the enormous Butterick, Simplicity and Vogue pattern books.  (Project Runway, eat your heart out....)

By way of complete disclosure I must admit that despite all this flurry of needle plying, my chief love during my teen years was actually barricading myself in my bedroom to read ... and then writing my own poetry and short horror stories. In high school I pressed an English teacher into being the advisor for a writing group and we published our own poetry on the school press, allowing the public inside our hearts and minds for a peek at our very private and very angst-ridden work. Ah, youth...

I'm a baker so I always have eggs at the ready on the counter.
In my twenties, my domestic experiments brought me into the kitchen where I routinely baked my own bread, made my own soups from scratch, tried my hand at fying doughnuts,  picked fruit at a local farm to make jam, and learned as much as I could from Julia Child  about cooking with wine and from Gaston Lenôtre  about pastries you had to waken at 2am to put together so they'd be ready to consume by lunchtime.  I was also schooled by a friend as to how to make a mean dry martini and received an invaluable lesson on opening wine with an antiquated corkscrew which I still own and affectionately refer to as Monsieur Chaque fois [i.e., Mister Every Time] since it has never failed me, even with the driest most recalcitrant corks.  That same friend also taught me how to open champagne: not with a vulgar bang but with a lovely smothered *pop*, by cajoling the cork from the neck with a crisp white napkin. Both were lessons I took to heart.

My Ashford spinning wheel from New Zealand.
When I was in my thirties, a close childhood friend was responsible for my foray into fiber arts.  She owned a spinning wheel and a loom and I was besotted with the look, sound and meditative quality of it all. I enrolled in lessons, starting on the maddeningly difficult drop spindle and graduating to the relatively easy wheel.  I say relatively easy because the first few tries were very like rubbing your stomache and patting your head at the same time. But soon the rhythm felt just right and I was confident enough to send away for my own wheel, amazed at the size of the box when it arrived and further dumbfounded at my being able to put it together by myself.  On weekends in the spring I would visit a local farm to help with birthing the lambs or to watch wide-eyed while grown sheep were flipped unceremoniously on their backs to get shorn.  I would lean over the fencing and point to the fleece I wanted, and within an hour or so the beast would be divested of his lanolin-soaked coat, springing happily into the nearby field and no doubt feeling quite light on his feet after the sheering.  The fleece would be weighed and soon I'd be heading home with 18 lbs of wool to scour, comb, and spin into soft dark brown balls of yarn.

The first year in my own garden.
Within months of purchasing my cottage I spent an inordinate amount of time turning the front, side and rear property into the gardens of my dreams.  While I have never presumed to call myself a gardener-with-a-capital-G, I do enjoy all the pitfalls, joys, despair and successes inherent in amateur gardening and have found comfort in the rhythmic progression—and attendant chores—that the seasons bring.  Cleaning up in Spring, preparing soil, starting seedlings indoors, and then tending, weeding and enjoying them throughout the Summer; putting the beds to sleep in Autumn and then waiting and planning for the next year during the long Winter months.  Around this time I became more and more interested in drawing and painting, thanks to the inspiring images throughout Edith Holden's Edwardian diaries, and I enrolled in a watercolor course. Soon I was sketching and coloring humble representations of my own flowers, placing them in my journals to keep track of my garden's progress.

As I think back on this reconstructed history, it becomes clear to me that I have my mother and grandmothers to thank for imbuing my daily life with their mastery of these skills, and introducing me to so many of the tasks I still love... ironing, knitting, gardening, cooking. Observing them as they worked, benefitting from their advice, seeing the results of their patience and talent, were the inspiration for how I tend to spend my leisure time. By their example they showed me what pride and pleasure can come from a well wrought dress, a well cooked meal, a beautifully knit scarf, or a vibrant fecund garden.

My 'career', I'd decided early on, was to be content. (Not the answer your average guidance counselor wants to hear, but there you are.) And over time I came to realize that the pathway to this contenment was to hone the skills and feed the interests that gave me the most pleasure.  I did go off to work, of course, in order to support myself, and my employment history runs the gamut: from industrial photographer to church secretary to librarian to professional singer. I even body-sat for a local mortician when he and his wife needed a night out. But my heart was always in my home, wherever that might be at the time: a basement apartment, a rented bungalow by the bay, the upper floors in a friend's Victorian house, the ground floor of a two family tenement, or my own little cottage.

Wherever 'home' might be, when I walked through the door I feel I can breathe again and let my creativity express itself in ways that not only comfort me but also make the most sense in terms of my personality and interests.

And that is what domesticity is to me, really: the art of making your home the place you most want to be.

11 November 2013

Autumn is in the House

I was looking around here the other day and realized all the little ways
Autumn fills the house at this time of year.

Not the least of it is the abundance of root vegetables
that seems to overload my weekly market share.

Squash, Swiss chard, onions, shallots, garlic bulbs, potatoes...
all find their way into stews and soups and casseroles,
filling the kitchen, indeed the entire house, with a rich scent of "Harvest".

Pots of herbs are also spreading their aromatic spell,
tucked safely into my kitchen planter
where they'll find shelter from the frosty nights.
Whether I can keep them alive until Spring is another story.
Fingers cross't.

And then there are the apples!
Cortland, Macoun, Macintosh

Every week I gather more, unable to resist their scent, color,
and the memories they trigger when I see them arranged in bowls:
School days, kicking through leaves, the aroma of cinnamon,
and the warmth our stove would spread throughout the kitchen.

There are bowls of them on the table, bowls on the sideboard, bowls everywhere.
But they won't be a still life for long.
Soon enough they'll find themselves inside all the delicious
seasonal recipes I love to bake this time of year:
Apple Crisp, Apple Nobby Cake, Apple Sauce.

Autumn is in the house, and it could not be a more welcome guest.

09 November 2013

Friends bearing gifts

Each Autumn I fill a lovely Flow Blue bowl on the dining room table
with a delicious assortment of fruit.
Both were generous hand-me-downs from dear friends.

 The fruit arrived one day in a plastic bag.
"Do you want this?" she asked.
I peered inside, thinking for a split second that it was real.
"Sure!" I said, happy to have all that luscious fruit in the house.

It was only after I reached in the bag that I realized what it was:
Vintage Waxed Fruit!
The fruit is so life like it's amazing.
(My grandchildren once tried to eat some of the grapes....)
Who knows how old it is... she didn't say and I didn't ask.  

The bowl made its way across the road one day,
cradled in the arms of my neighbor and friend.
"Do you want this?" she asked.
[My reputation for taking in cast offs is, apparently, widely known.]

She'd been cleaning out her attic and came over with the bowl,
and the large Flow Blue pitcher that matched.
Stunned, happy, disbelieving, I of course said yes.

And so, every year, these two beautiful gifts
come together — a symbol of generosity and friendship —
adding a lovely Autumnal touch to the cottage.

08 November 2013

Remnants of Hallowe'en

Time to take down all the little cards and masks....

 All the silly "Nevermore!" crows...

 All the mischievous witches...

And all the little pumpkins....

 ...that seem to find their way around the house at this time of year.

[Perhaps I'll keep the tiny green one around awhile longer...
we'll call her a Thanksgiving pumpkin for now.]

01 November 2013

Morning Rambles

When weather permits I always prefer walking the two miles
to my office each morning 

I'm fortunate that I live in a colonial town with countless streets, alleyways,
and homes that hearken back to the 17th and 18th centuries.

 Despite taking this walk nearly every morning, there is always something new to see,
always a fence I haven't peered over before....

 or a secret garden or rear dooryard that's hitherto gone unnoticed.
I love to mark the seasons on these morning strolls.
The appearance of pumpkins, bright foliage, and pots of crysanthemums in Autumn;
the bare trees limned against grey skies and snow-capped iron fences in winter;
the sudden emergence of green shoots, spring bulbs, and budding trees in Spring;
and then the heavy canopies of green overhead and the scent of flowering gardens
throughout the summer months.

But now? Now my path is littered with leaves of all colors,
some of them matted to the slick brick pavement with last night's rain

 Some eddying in whirls in front of doorways
as they get caught up in the blustery wind.

 The street I walk along is at a comfortable midpoint of a very long hill,
and so depending upon which way you look....

 you are either at the bottom of a steep cobbled path...

 or at the top of an even steeper road.

 The houses are built along the pavement,
with only the pedestrian path separating them
from what was once a dirt carriage road.

 The narrowness of the road becomes all too apparent when cars are parked along one side, and you try to drive one way whilst another car is approaching from the opposite direction. The inclination is to inhale and squint your eyes and hope you can pass safely without brushing against one another!

 There are lovely architectural elements to each home.
My favorites are the dormers that jut out over the pavement.
Easy enough to imagine myself having a chair in one of the bay windows
... a place to read or to simply watch life on the road below.

 There are favorite houses that make me pause and sigh a little.
A dear yellow cottage...

A grey house, sloped on a hill...

And a row of houses I call the Four Sisters.... 
all identical, save for the color of their dresses!

Occasionally I'll be bold and peer through a window.

Or imagine myself living in rooms in this old hotel.
(The climb at night would be a detriment!)

But how lovely to be lost in its labyrinth
of walkways and railings and to call it home.

There are houses on hills...

And grand houses set back a bit from the road...

And old street lamps to light the way on dark mornings.

It's a calming way to start the day, affording me a barometer of the seasons,
and a glimpse into a vanished past.