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.