Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Confessions of a Christmas Tree Nut

(Too much still to do, too little time, so I'm re-posting this four-year-old essay about my Christmas trees.  It  still applies--I've got these four trees up --3-year-old Amalia helped decorate the Real Tree in the living room.  I keep thinking of new themes for trees but try to squelch that urge.  But on the kitchen table I've  got a fake gingerbread house surrounded by little woodland creatures made out of twigs and stuff. Not made by me--but purchased at Pier One.  As for the Christmas cards, about half or them are in the mail and the other half will be late--as usual.)
Right now I should be addressing Christmas cards but I'm in the grip of my seasonal craziness which involves decorating...lots...of...trees.

I also decorate doors and chandeliers and kitchen shelves and the grand piano and of course the mantel piece, but what I do most is trees.  Each with a theme.  In every room.  Well, not EVERY room because my husband has started to crack down on that--especially in his office, despite the lovely all white (sprayed snow and icicles and pine cones) tree I did one year.  It shed.

I think this is a genetic thing inherited from my mother.  At Christmas time she decorated so much that you couldn't find a flat surface available to set down your cup of eggnog.

So far I've only put up, um, four.  And I'm going to show them to you now.

On the day after Thanksgiving came the Real Tree, which goes in the living room.  I realize that's much too early and it will soon be very dry, but daughter Eleni and her husband Emilio, with some other elves, insisted on dragging it home and putting on the lights as soon as the turkey was digested and the cranberry sauce was gone.  I usually pick a color scheme, and this year went with silver and white, with the only color coming from some crazy peacock ornaments I got from Pier One (which has great ornaments!  Have you seen the under-the-sea collection?  Squid and fish and lobsters and crayfish and mermaids.  Now there's a theme I haven't tried.)

With the peacocks, I also used lots of white butterflies (from the Dollar Store) and white birds and angel wings, so I guess the theme of the wonderful-smelling Real Tree this year would be wings.

In the dining room I always put a wire tree to show off my antique ornaments.  And I put a wire from the tree to the window latch so that it (hopefully) can't get knocked over.  You can see that we don't have snow yet in Massachusetts, unlike Minnesota, but we will soon.

Some of these ornaments are reproductions, but most are the real thing.  My grandmother had a whole tree decorated with blown-glass birds with those spun glass tails and often a metal clip to hold it on the tree.  I still have a few of hers.  I really love the fragile teapots once sold at every Woolworth's for pennies. They cost a lot more now.  The blown-glass ornaments usually say "West Germany" on the metal cap.  The  glass ornaments that were once screw-in lights were made in Japan between 1930 and 1950 and are a lot less likely to break.

In the library I always put my Shoe Tree, which started when the Metropolitan Museum in New York first started selling ornaments based on shoes in their collections.  
This became a kind of mania and now I can't afford to buy the newest ones from the Museum, but I've added lots of cunning real (baby-sized) shoes, and people keep giving me more.  My favorites on this tree are the Chinese baby shoes that look like cats and the fur-lined baby moccasins and the tiny Adidas sneakers.
On the porch I've put the  Kitchen Tree, or Cookie & Candy Tree.  This was inspired by some friends who live in a tiny apartment and decorate their tree only with cookies and candy and pretzels and candy canes.  Then, when Christmas is over, they put it all outside for the birds and other New York fauna to enjoy.
As you can see, I've cheated quite a bit--adding ornaments that look like kitchen utensils and non-edible gingerbread men and peppermints.  An authentic Kitchen Tree should have chains of real popcorn and cranberries (which we did back when I had children small enough to enjoy stringing them.)
Last year  Trader Joe's sold little gingerbread men with holes already punched in their heads so I could string them on the tree, but this year the gingerbread men are frosted but the holes are missing, so I just  stabbed them with the wire hooks and it worked fine (and any that broke, I ate, of course. They taste better frosted.)
That's four trees so far and counting--I still haven't started decorating the tree in my studio that holds my stash of ornaments from Mexico and India, but that will come soon, and I haven't  shown you my Santa Claus collection and the miniature town in the bay window in the kitchen and the many creches we have from around the world....But let's face it, I have to get back to those Christmas cards.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Finding a Third Act in Life

At 94, Stephen Richardson still competes in rowing and running.

“There are no second acts in American lives,” Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote. That may have been true in Fitzgerald’s day, but now, in the 21st century, as more and more baby boomers are transforming our expectations of old age, retired Americans are discovering third acts in their lives—life-altering experiences that happen after the age of, say, 65.

In October I wrote a blog post, “No, I don’t want to Die at 75!” in response to a widely discussed article in “The Atlantic” by a famous scientist named Ezekiel J. Emanuel.  He wrote that he wanted to die at 75 and that, after he turns 65, he plans to discontinue all his health care because the “manic desperation to endlessly extend life is misguided and potentially destructive,” as it burdens our children with the “wrong kind of memories…We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”

I should mention here that Mr. Emanuel is a youngster of 57, and that I am about to turn 74, which makes me too old even to count as a Baby Boomer (people born between 1946 and 1964.) I wrote in my post, “I submit that my quality of life in my late sixties and early seventies is better than at any previous time in my life,” and I gave examples, ranging from returning to my first love—painting—to visiting a Hindu wedding in India, a butterfly sanctuary in Mexico, sea turtle beaches in Nicaragua, and, especially, discovering the ineffable joys of being a grandmother.

After that blog post was published, I began to hear of fellow senior citizens who had achieved truly remarkable third acts in their lives at an age when, according to Mr. Emanuel, they should have been buying burial plots.

Take Stephen Richardson, who, at 94, still competes in rowing. He began rowing when he was a student at Harvard in the mid-1940’s, but it wasn’t until he turned 50 that he started running marathons as well. He ran at least 28 marathons between the age of 53-68, including a first-place finish in his age group at the London Marathon, and recorded his best-ever mile time at the age of 60.  Now, six years short of his 100th birthday, he still competes in rowing and running.

Three friends, Katherine Southworth,78, Jack Taylor, 80, and Marilyn Wentworth, 84, got together after retirement—when they were all in their seventies and living in RiverWoods  retirement center in New Hampshire--—to write and publish a book about World War II memories.  They collected 75 first-person narratives, including period photos, maps and a detailed index.  Before they ventured into publishing, Katherine was a director at a New York school, then an EMT for the North Hampton Fire Department, Jack earned a PhD in  physics at MIT in 1961, then served at the Army Signal Corps Laboratories doing research on detecting nuclear tests, and Marilyn, after working on Wall Street, entered graduate school at age fifty, earning a masters degree, then becoming a registered dietician and teaching college level nutrition.  All three became first-time authors after the age of 75.

The most unexpected third act I heard about belonged to Nancy Alcock, a native of Tasmania and a biochemist who worked for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute before her semi-retirement as one of the first women faculty members at the University of Texas Medical school.  An independent woman who had never married, the last thing Nancy expected when she quit work at 74 and moved into the RiverWoods community, was to become a first-time bride, but that’s what happened.

Dr. Henry Hood, a retired neurosurgeon who, by coincidence, had worked with Nancy at Sloan Kettering but never knew her there, had also moved into RiverWoods with his wife, who was in poor health.  After she passed away, Dr. Hood became a member of RiverWoods’ Resident Council and got to know his former colleague, Nancy, during council committee meetings.  When they were married in 2008 in the Cathedral of the Pines in Rindge, NH, Henry’s children and grandchildren were in attendance.  Later they flew to Tasmania for a similar celebration with Nancy’s family. Nancy and Henry are not a rarity—in fact, there have been six weddings at RiverWoods alone in the past four years.

RiverWoods is one of 1900 Continuing Care Retirement Communities in the United States, the majority of which are non-profit. A CCRC guarantees that their residents, who join when they are able to live independently, will have lifetime health care at both Assisted Living and Skilled Nursing levels, if and when they need it.

Because such communities provide amenities encouraging residents to discover new activities and creative outlets-- such as art studios, libraries, pools, fitness centers, gardens and access to nearby theaters, shops and sports-- it’s not surprising that many retired citizens have reinvented their lives, because they are encouraged to pursue passions they didn’t have time for earlier. In fact, it appears to me that the Baby Boomers, who basically invented their own style of being teenagers, then campus activists, then deeply involved parents, and environmentally responsible consumers, are now creating a new way of being old, boldly finding third acts in their lives instead of declining into Mr. Emanuel’s characterization of us as “feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

From Amalia's Holiday Diary

Last Tuesday at preschool we did our Thanksgiving program.  We all wore pumpkins on our head and sang a Thanksgiving song.  I'm the short one in the middle.  I'm starting to think that my future career will not be in musical theater.
On Wednesday Mommy, Papi, Papou, Tia Marina and I drove from Manhattan to Grafton, MA in a snow storm.  It took five hours instead of the usual three. I threw up in the back seat before we left New York.   When we got to Massachusetts we made snowballs.  I don't see why everyone was so excited about the first snow.
I felt better when I saw my toys and my friends that I've left at Yiayia's house.  Here I'm talking to the Christmas Mouse who sings "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and the Gorilla who sings "Wild Thing" and says he loves me.  In the back, wearing a beret, is an American Girl doll named Molly, who belongs to Yiayia Joanie.  I like to throw Molly on the floor and stomp on her when Yiayia's not looking.

The next day I liked the snow better when Papi took me sledding.  He'd drag me up the hill and then push me down.  Sometimes backwards.  Last year I was too scared to even get into the sled.

We also made a snowman.  He's about my size and, as you can see, doesn't have a very good fashion sense like I do.

I helped Yiayia make two of the five pies for Thanksgiving dinner.  I decorated the pumpkin pie with pecans, which made all the difference.  Then Yiayia poured a little caramel sauce on the pecans.
When we ate the turkey at the big table I got to wear the turkey hat and gnaw on a turkey leg, just like last year.  But the thing I liked best of all was the rolls.

After dinner Natasha and Sofie and I decorated gingerbread men.  Natasha's proud of her design.  I'm still pondering  which  cutting edge fashion  statement my gingerbread man will make.

The next day we went to the Grafton Country Store which had so many themed Christmas trees.

And we went to Hi Hill Farm to pick out our own Christmas tree.  I spent a long time decorating it--especially on the lowest branches.
When  we got done, everyone said it looked beautiful, even though it was a little sparse on top.
That night we ate at the Westboro House Restaurant and I helped Yiayia Neni blow out the candle on her birthday cake.  She only had one candle but I'm going to have four on my next birthday cake.
The next day, Sunday, before we left to drive back to New York, I put up my stocking on the fireplace--in case Santa comes early--
And I put up everyone else's stockings too.
And every night when I slept, I dreamed about what Santa  will bring me on the day when I put the Baby Jesus in my advent calendar.  So far I've asked for two things--flowers and an airplane.  I just hope that David, my Elf on the Shelf, doesn't tell Santa about when I stomped on Molly, the American Girl doll.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Trapped by Thanksgiving Traditions

  I am a firm believer in simplifying and using shameless shortcuts to take the terror out of cooking the Thanksgiving meal.  If you want to know all the ways I do this, (canned gravy?  Martha Stewart would faint into her turkey deep fryer!) check out last Thanksgiving's post:  One Grandma's Sneaky Shortcuts for Thanksgiving.

But I've noticed, since becoming a  Grandma, that any popular innovations in the Thanksgiving routine have a tendency to become suddenly a TRADITION that you're required to repeat next year and forever after.  Way back many years ago I added a Chocolate Kahlua Pie to my traditional pumpkin, apple and pecan pies. Now my family considers it as essential to Thanksgiving as the turkey. (Full disclosure--this year I've ordered the apple and the pecan pies from a new bakery that's just opened in Westborough, MA called Yummy Mummy Bakery, and her decadent pastries are unbelievably good.)

Ever since granddaughter Amalia has learned to talk, new Thanksgiving traditions have been popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm.  Last year we made gingerbread people for her to decorate with guests Sophie and Natasha.  This year Sophie and Natasha are coming back and  I learned that at Michael's you can buy Wilton kits with already-baked gingerbread people plus all you need to decorate--including the frosting piping bag and the jelly beans.  And they're on sale!

Last year Amalia told me that she wanted to make a "pink pie" and an "orange pie", so we made a Raspberry Swirl Cheesecake Pie right off of the Keebler Ready Chocolate Crust label and a pumpkin pie from a recipe right off the can of pumpkin.  Amalia's job was to decorate the pies with leftover candy corn.  So this year, she's demanding the same pies again.  It's become a TRADITION.
The paper crowns in the holiday poppers (known in England as "Christmas Crackers") have always been a tradition, but last year someone brought in a Turkey hat, which daughter Marina wore with grace and good humor.  You can bet that turkey hat will be back

And by the end of the Thanksgiving visit last year, Amalia had discovered a brand new tradition--one that has successfully driven millions of parents to distraction as they have to think up new positions every night for the Elf on the Shelf.  Amalia immediately named her elf "David", and I have a feeling he'll be back this thanksgiving as sure as that first blizzard.  After all, David is now a TRADITION.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Amalia Kicks Off the Holidays in New York


Last year Amalia celebrated Christmas in Nicaragua, touring the outdoor nativity scenes on view everywhere.  This Christmas she’ll be making snowmen and hanging her stocking over the fireplace in Grafton, Mass. at Yiayia and Papou’s house.  But last weekend in Manhattan Amalia kicked off the holidays in New York City style.

On Friday with Mommy and Yiayia Joanie she went to Rolf’s German Restaurant at 22nd Street and Third Avenue, which is so famous for its over-the-top Christmas decorations that you absolutely have to have a reservation during the holidays.

Here she is sharing the view of decorations on Mommy's phone with Papi, who's in Nicaragua for the week.

At Rolf's there are so many decorations hanging from the ceiling that you start worrying about them falling on your head.

The next day, Saturday morning, the three of us went to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular --a New York ritual since 1933.

First Santa took off from the North Pole, headed to Manhattan with the Rockettes serving as reindeer.

Next came Amalia's favorite part--where  we put on 3- D glasses to see Santa fly in over Manhattan, with gifts tumbling out of his sleigh and falling right  towards us.

Of course everyone loves the famous  Wooden Soldiers number featuring the Rockettes falling down like dominoes.

The Rockettes boarded a two-decker bus that visited all the famous Manhattan locations in their Christmas glory, including skaters in Central Park and dancers in Times Square.

As always, the finale was the living Nativity, with real animals, and as always, I cried--just as I did nearly 40 years ago when I took my own kids to the Christmas show.

Next we walked through Rockefeller Center where the skaters were skating and the giant Christmas tree was being decorated behind scaffolding.

But the angels leading up to the tree were already blowing their trumpets.

We walked to the Plaza Hotel and had lunch in the food court in the basement with Uncle Bob and Aunt Robin, then paid a visit to the store of "Eloise at the Plaza". Amalia was so fascinated playing with pretend tea things in the tea room that we could hardly drag her  on to see the other rooms, including the fashion room and the play room and the Concierge's room.  She was having a rawther fancy tea.

But we finally coaxed her into the theater, where she played on Eloise's pink piano, surrounded by mirrors.

Before leaving  to walk home through Central Park (where she fell asleep in the stroller as soon as we started)  Amalia said good-bye to Eloise's portrait and opined that she might come back in December when Eloise will be hosting rawther fancy teas with Santa as a guest.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Older Women and Long Hair—In the Olden Days.

(What do I do about my blog when outside writing deadlines are driving me crazy?  I re-post something from the past!  This post appeared in December of 2010 and has drawn almost five thousand hits since then, so I guess it's a hot topic.)

On October 21, The New York Times ran an essay called “Why Can’t Middle-Aged Women Have Long Hair? by Dominique Browning,  originally written for her blog  “SlowLoveLife.”

The subject clearly hit a nerve. The Times received 1200 comments, overwhelming its editors until they finally ordered an end to the discussion. 

Dominique Browning cited the way her own long hair disturbed people, including her mother, because she was well over 40 (In fact she’s 55).  She asked why long flowing locks were considered inappropriate for older women. “Why do people judge middle-aged long hair so harshly?” 

Passionate opinions were submitted on both sides of the argument.
Because I’m an avid collector of antique pre-1900 photographs, I wondered if some of the acrimony about long hair may have been coming from our national subconscious.   Did we inherit the attitudes of our parents’ and grandparents’ generation—that long hair was too sexy to be seen in public—and do we even today feel that sexy hair is not appropriate for women of a certain age?

In my grandmother’s day (she was married—to a Presbyterian minister—in 1896) a girl was expected to pile her locks on top of her head on the day she became a woman and entered society.  She was supposed to bind her tresses into a prim bun with hairpins, and then never let any man see her with her hair down except for her husband.

In fact the older women portrayed in my earliest daguerreotypes often wear lace mob caps—like Martha Washington—to cover their hair INSIDE THE HOUSE. (Their outdoor bonnets would be put on top of these caps.)

You don’t need to be an anthropologist to draw a parallel from the mob caps of America’s founding mothers to the hijabs of Muslim countries today.

Before 1900, no reputable woman would wear cosmetics or dye her hair.   (I once owned a Ladies Home Journal magazine from the  early 20th century that solemnly warned:  women who dye their hair will go mad.)

Today’s erogenous zones—bosom, legs, butt, thighs—were never seen in the early days of photography.  (The first photographs were  daguerreotypes, beginning in 1839 .)

In the dags in my collection from the 1840’s and 1850’s, women’s breasts were tightly bound and a flat piece of wood or whalebone, called a busk, was inserted into the corset, so that it was physically impossible to slouch.

Here’ s a definition I found on the internet:

Originally, a busk was a piece of carved wood or bone that was set into a pocket in a corset front to make the front completely straight and ridged. Busks were nearly always used in Tudor and Elizabethan corsets, and in certain styles of the 17th and 18th, and the early 19th century.
Elaborately carved busks were a common gift from a young man to his sweetheart. Sailors carved bones with Scrimshaw designs as gifts for the girls back home

So for our grandmothers, the sexiest thing they had going for them was long, beautiful hair.  Victorian advertisements  for hair-growing lotions were a sort of soft-core porn,  often featuring voluptuous women naked except for their astonishingly full and long hair.  (Like Lady Godiva.  And then there’s Rapunzel—the subject of the animated film “Tangled” which is currently a huge success.  I think long hair is definitely having a moment right now.)

Then there came a moment—in the 1920’s—when cutting one’s hair into a short, flapper’s bob was considered scandalous, daring, a statement of female rebellion against society’s mores—like smoking a cigarette in public. 

For the best description of just how daring short hair was in the twenties, check out F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” from 1922.  (You can find it on line.)  A sophisticated, popular “mean girl” tricks her unpopular country cousin into bobbing her hair in hopes of winning popularity. When it backfires, the country cousin takes revenge in kind.

Today the tables have turned again—the rebel is not the woman who bobs her hair—she’s the women of middle age or beyond (even crone-hood!) who dares to wear her gray-streaked or white hair long, even though she’s far past girlhood.  I can think of a handful of well-aged women who flaunt their flowing locks—Cher, Susan Sarandon, Diane Keaton.  Among personal friends, I immediately think of a very chic Manhattan beauty, Marina, whose cascade of white hair has become her trademark and earned her a place in a New York Times feature about people who have their own unique style.

Personally I’ve never worn my hair long—except for the period in the  late sixties when I rocked a beehive.  I’ve always taken the easy way out, with short hair, but for those middle-aged women like Dominique Browning, and even past-middle-aged beauties courageous enough to flaunt their crowning glory, I think there should be a medal of honor, say a Croix de Cheveux.