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Monday, June 27, 2016

Gardens I Have Loved

As I take my evening bike ride, I am delighted to see and smell the many gardens that bloom in our neighborhood. On warm evenings there's often the scent of sweet petunias, languid lilies and spicy marigolds on the breeze. There are so many kinds of gardens along my five mile route but there is one that I like particularly... What I think of as "The Man Yard”.

I've been lucky to know a couple of really good gardeners. Perhaps my favorite is my German aunt who has the most enormous garden filled with perennial borders, roses, raspberries and countless little “rooms”. It's a garden in the true European style – expansive, overflowing and abundant. It looks effortless in its informality, which is perhaps the hardest thing of all to achieve. It's a place to get lost in and a perfect idyll on hot summer days. I have the happiest memories of playing in that garden and of eating raspberries, Concord grapes, apples and dusty Italian plums that were such fun to polish to a shine.  In the autumn I was sometimes allowed to help with burning the leaves which was a great treat, and a chance to spend time alone with my wonderful aunt.

My late grandfather was another kind of gardener entirely. He was a bachelor for his first forty years and a widower for the last twenty. But this fact never took away from his commitment to perfectly clean and well-kept surroundings.  His was unapologetically what I'd call a “Man Yard” and I think of him each time I see others just like it.

A "Man Yard" is, first, exceptionally tidy with every shrub clipped, every blade of grass equal in height and hue.  It also contains only flowers and plants that one can easily buy at the local hardware store. The scent of fertilizer and barbecue smoke are often present, and early in the morning sprinklers can be heard. There is almost always a fence of some sort – certainly separating the front from the back yard and sometimes all around the property, front lawn included. The fence must be simple white picket or, equally acceptable, chain link. There is no pretension to this yard. The keeper of the "Man Yard" aims for beauty, yes, but also order and organization. It is an extension of the rest of the man's life which will likely include a spotless garage that smells of gasoline and oil and some sort of workshop in the back yard – rock polishing in my grandfather's case.

My grandfather's yard surrounded an equally tidy and well-kept home. The house itself is was a compact mid-century ranch style. It had shutters, as all such houses must, and it was air conditioned. There was a “front room” used exclusively for “company” and a perfectly kept 1950's kitchen with a giant white range with which my grandmother made Friday night fudge and Sunday afternoon roasts. It's the kind of house where you would find powdered sugar donuts, coffee and plenty of packs of playing cards.  You'd also find an ashtray and book of matches always at hand because, despite an almost slavish devotion to cleanliness, smoking was a way of life.  In fact, I can't even picture my grandfather without a cigarette or a cup of coffee.

My grandfather's yard was the epitome of "The Man Yard".  There were always hedges. Tall, deep green laurel and, for good measure and added work, perfectly clipped boxwood. (There is nothing like the scent of recently clipped boxwood to make one think of simpler, happier times that probably never existed.) The front yard contained several large hydrangeas, the blue of which astonished and delighted every year. The pathway and porch were always swept. There were deep red geraniums in clay pots – they seemed to grow larger every year – and there was sweet alyssum and sky blue “Crystal Palace” lobelia planted with them. There were also huge, drooping fuschias in impossible colors hanging on the front porch and, every evening, the front door was opened and a light breeze carried the noise of the children playing in the street through the aluminum screen door. Along one side of the front yard there were rows of some sort of show flower – blazing dahlias in every color and shape from pom pom to dinner plate or the tall and tropical looking gladioli that would make one think twice about their designation as “funeral flowers”.

The back yard was nothing less than a slightly more utilitarian version of the front. Utilitarian only because it contained, along with more flowers, the vegetable patch. The back yard and its toolshed had a place for everything and everything truly was in its place.

Along the fence - sturdy chain link in the back - there was a line of roses.   And what roses they were!  There are bright red “American Beauties”, pearly pink “Queen Elizabeth” and peachy, glowing “Peace” roses. There was also a silvery white “John F. Kennedy” and a brilliant yellow variety of unknown origin that produced the most aromatic blooms on long, deep red stems.  The leaves on these rose bushes were uniformly shiny, the deepest green, and would never dare to be weak enough to fall prey to blackspot or any other mundane disease. These were champion roses, and the man of the house knew it. The roses were a source of conversation for my grandfather and his longtime neighbor – the one who never seemed to have any luck with his roses or tomatoes or strawberries.

The vegetable patch was laid out in neat rows along the opposite side of the yard. The side that edged against “the other neighbor”. The neighbor with the enormous, constantly barking Doberman. The neighbor who mowed his lawn, but only on every third Sunday of the month and, generally, at around 6 a.m. Despite this lack of neighborly harmony, the vegetable plot remained a constant source of pride. There was no place in the yard that had richer soil or fewer weeds. The very idea of a weed would have caused my grandfather to crawl, on hands and knees, between the rows of green beans, sweet corn and Beefsteak tomatoes, daring the tiny invaders to show their green shoots. From this vegetable garden he produced bushels of carrots and radishes, lettuces and beets, baskets of tomatoes and endless barrows of squash and zuchini. There was more than enough to see my grandfather through to the next summer, and neighbors up and down his block were welcome to take what they liked from the cardboard boxes and brown paper bags marked “FREE” that sat along the curb in front of his tidy house with that square of emerald green lawn. If you asked him what he used to produce this bounty he'd likely answer humbly, “Nothing special.  Oh, maybe a little Miracle-Gro.”

The back yard also had beds that overflowed with petunias in patriotic plantings of red, white and deep purple. There were marigolds in perfect rows, arranged by height, with the huge, tall, yellow varieties at the back and the daintier gold and rust colored blooms in front. There were snapdragons and plots of cosmos and hollyhocks which appeared every year in places that they were never intended to grow.  In that shady spot under the bathroom window there was always a solid mass of pink and white impatiens carpeting an area a yard long.   And, on the shaded cement patio, among the ancient, white-painted Adirondack chairs that would have to last another year, were clay pots of red geraniums and blue lobelia and white alyssum, just like those that lined the front porch. Finally, providing just a hint of the tropics, more pink and purple and red and white hanging fuschias that swayed gently in the early evening breezes so sweet in the hot summer.

My grandfather himself appeared in the early mornings and early evenings to survey his masterpiece. He would look to the left and to the right and consider the height of the corn and the redness of the tomatoes.  He would stoop to pick out an invisible weed from the perfectly smooth expanse of green, green grass and, for a moment, he was content.  The whole property was a mirror of him: simple and straightforward and calming. It exuded silent, uncomplicated competence and strength.  In fact, most of things he did in his life were just like that - quiet and invisible to others, but always reliable. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Queen Focuses on Fashion - Excerpt from New Story by Jake Gariepy

“Mummy!  Granny has curtains just like her dress!”
The little girl couldn’t have been more than five, and she’d done a commendable job of presenting her little bouquet to the Queen.  Smiling as the child walked back to her mother, the Queen couldn’t help but overhear the girl’s comment.
Now, as she looked back over the day in Coventry from the comfort of her sitting room in Buckingham Palace, the monarch pondered her wardrobe choice for a moment.  She thought of the lovely silk dress, with splotchy flowers in violet, magenta, yellow, spring green and orange.  Really, it was colorful, and no one could possibly miss her diminutive form in a crowd.  And wasn’t that what being the Queen was all about?  Being seen?  “Silly child,” thought the Queen.
The next morning as she was prepared for the day, Elizabeth asked her dresser to bring out something new, something a bit more “fashionable”.  Caroline was at a loss.  The Queen’s style had evolved into an even more rigid pattern of simple dresses in rather shocking fabrics.  Her Majesty’s figure had also changed somewhat.  It was a bit fuller than it had been, leading her to sometimes appear more upholstered than dressed.  It was not that she looked badly, in fact she was the world’s idea of what “the Queen” should look like, but it was hard to find anything that one could term “fashionable” in the royal wardrobes.
“Did you see Dame Shirley Bassey’s hair at the last Royal Variety Performance?  I thought it was rather nice…  for her, I mean.   And that dress!  It was quite low-cut.  Lots of beads and sparkly bits.  Rather like Norman used to make.”
The Queen was referring to her late couturier, Norman Hartnell.  A man known for elaborate, and costly, beading on his fabulous ballgowns.  Shirley Bassey’s gown was certainly sparkly, but bore little resemblance to anything that Norman had ever made for the Queen.
“You know, she’s in her late sixties now.  I think she’s been at every Royal Variety Performance for the last forty years.  Maybe longer.  I certainly do like her better than some of the new ones.  I don’t quite understand that girl, what was her name?  Lady Goo Ga?  Does her father have a peerage or something?”
“Lady Ga Ga, your majesty.  I don’t believe that her father has a peerage.  She’s an American.  Sings or something.”
“Mmm.  American.  Of course.  Did you see her in that dress?  It looked like it was made of a deflated, red balloon.  I’m sure it squeaked as she curtsied.  Those American singers certainly do dress oddly.  Barbra Streisand in that long silver cloak.  Had the fabric been different she really would have looked rather a lot like Philip’s mother when she was a nun.”
“Yes, ma’am.  I remember when Cher performed once.  She was only wearing some sort of thin leather strap that barely covered her…  er…  that barely covered her person.  I think there was a feather, too.”
“Caroline, I quite remember.  That was the year Andrew came along for the first time.  I am sure that had something to do with his penchant for rather unsuitable female companionship.”
The Queen frequently spoke of her favorite son.  The most robust of the boys, Andrew treated his mother with a sort of boisterous respect.  Charles was forever moping, those droopy eyes and constant complaints about how, ‘Mummy never did this, Papa never did that.”  What did he really expect?  She always read those lovely books about horses and corgis to him, and she would watch the racing results with him whenever she was able.  And Philip had done his best as a father.  He didn’t really yell all that much, and the boy was so tiresome talking to those plants and things.  Charles could never seem to forgive his father for the cold showers he had to endure at Gordonstoun.  Imagine how much better things would have been had he taken a few more cold showers rather than meeting up with that dreadful Mrs. Parker-Bowles.  She had to remind herself to think of her daughter-in-law as anything else.  Diana had been just as tiresome as Charles, but at least she didn’t look like a bulldog in a big hat.  Of course, she was quite fond of the Duchess of Cornwall now that she’d got to know her.  But what a lot of trouble the 1990’s were!  More of a “decade horribilus” if she was being honest.
Anne was a dutiful daughter, and a great support, but she was so forceful.  The Queen didn’t like the way she barked back at the corgis, or the somewhat too strident way she spoke to the staff.  She also wondered at her fashion sense, ironic really, but there you have it.  She might have worn the same dress she wore to Charles and Diana’s wedding to Charles and Camilla’s had Philip not pointed out the error, if that’s what it was.  Anne never really did like any of Charles’s women.
Edward.  Well, poor Eddie.  She really should have known better than to give him that name.  Her ancestor, the Duke of Clarence was also known as Eddy, and he had his own problems.  Some suspected him of being Jack the Ripper.  Her own Eddie didn’t have such serious issues, but she never understood why he was always trying on her tiaras as a child.  Even now he seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time modeling his wife’s hats.  But, he had those two lovely children and that charming Sophie.  If only she would stop trying to sell invitations to the Garden Parties and State Dinners.
“Ah, well, this will have to do, Caroline.  At least it’s new, if not exactly modern.”
Considering her reflection in the mirror, the Queen seemed resigned to her appearance.  At least she was living up to people’s expectations, but it would be rather fun to surprise people after all these years.  She remembered looking at her late and much beloved mother’s wardrobe after her death.  Every dress was exactly the same, as were the hats, shoes and coats.  The only difference was the fabric and the color.  Was she becoming like that?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Spring, Lovely Spring

Autumn, I often say, is my favorite season.  My birthday falls toward the end of September and from there the celebrations and holidays of the fall and early winter promise plenty of interest and excitement.  The weather is, at long last, friendlier, and the harsh light of summer fades to an altogether more flattering glow.  It is, to me, a magical and welcome time.

I am not sure how I forget about Spring, though.  Each year I am somehow surprised at the joy I take in the first signs of new life as they push their way through the hard, gray earth.  Little piles of old, dead leaves are no match for the strength of even the tiniest purple or bright yellow crocus as it seeks the sun.

Although each Spring I anticipate filling my somewhat empty flowerbeds with bulbs when Autumn arrives, I either don’t have the money or the time to put this plan into action.  And so, every year, I am impressed by the golden yellow swathes of daffodils in neighboring gardens and wonder why I didn’t just get on with it in October.  Yet, my own yard is never entirely bereft of color and flash and I find myself delighted at each new bloom.

First, there are the tiny crocuses that I bought almost twenty years ago from one of those catalogs with all of the showy bulbs.  They range from the lightest lavender to the deepest purple with a few cheering yellows to brighten things up.  There aren’t many of them, but I rather like that.  Just little hints of what’s to come here and there.

The next to bloom is the deep pink camellia at the corner of my front porch.  When I first arrived at this one hundred year old house, the bush was no more than three feet high and barely as wide.  It didn’t bloom for years when, quite suddenly and with no urging from me, it was covered by thickly petaled flowers with canary-colored centers.  The dark, glossy green leaves are the perfect foil for the showy pink blossoms.  Today, my camellia towers at nearly eight feet in height and is, again, nearly as wide.  If I want to pick a bower of its abundant flowers I don’t even have to leave the sheltering dryness of my old porch to fill vase after vase.

Soon other bushes are making their presence known.  Tall spikey branches of bright yellow forsythia are next.  I cut them just when the buds start to fatten so that I can force their bloom inside.  A bunch of them in a tall, blue and white Chinese vase is almost a cliché, but for good reason.   They seem to last for a very long time, providing a springy touch with absolutely no fuss.  That’s one of the lovely things about blooming branches.  They look terribly elegant and dramatic yet one needn’t do a thing to them.  Even arranging them is easy as they look best when artfully shoved into the narrow mouth of tall containers.

Flowering currant, originally bought because I liked the name (“King Edward VII”) is another timeless favorite.  With leaves that are the shape, if not the texture, of strawberry leaves, its branches drip with pendulous carmine blooms.  The whole of the bush looks like it’s been decorated with the most marvelous Christmas baubles, expertly spaced for maximum effect.  Like forsythia, flowering currant can also be forced inside and are wonderful when mixed with any other blossoming branches.

We have several other flowers around the yard, many of which were unwittingly placed there by birds on the wing or seeds floating in the wind.  My favorites are the cornflower blue Forget-Me-Knots with their cheery tulip yellow centers.  Forget-Me-Nots are exquisitely flower-shaped.  By that I mean that, if instructed to “draw a flower”, nearly everyone would draw something with a lovely yellow center and five or six perfectly shaped petals surrounding it.  Every year my little patches of these lovely flowers seem to spread and I have to be careful to look out for them as I trim the lawn.

Johnny Jump Ups are another delightful little volunteer that pops up in interesting places.  One tiny patch is in the very center of my lawn.  I wouldn’t mow over them for anything.  Another larger bunch makes its home at the bottom of my front steps, just beneath my box hedge.  They even take over part of the crack in the pavement.  Like the Forget-Me-Nots, I never disturb them.  Their unexpected appearance only increases their charm, their lovely purple and yellow faces looking up to the sky hopefully.  When the breeze touches them, they really do seem ready to jump up!

In a week or two the very best of my Spring blooms will start to appear in my woodland garden.  “Procured” from a forest of unknown ownership across the street from my house, my beloved English bluebells come in shades from snowy white to deep azure.  These little, cheerfully nodding bells on their perfectly postured stems of bright green never fail to make me feel happy and a little nostalgic.  I well remember being a little boy and taking bouquets of them, wrapped in tin foil with a damp paper towel in the bottom, to school as gifts for my teachers, Mrs. Parker and Mrs. Lobb, on Teacher Appreciation Day.  I recall how the stems seemed so satisfyingly crunchy when I cut them and how sweetly they smelled. 

And so, when I am next asked what my favorite season is, I will still say Autumn, but I’ll give an appreciative nod to the lovely, cool months of Spring with their heavenly scents and days of watery sun or blustery rain. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Art of Doing Nothing

"What are you doing, Max?" I asked my five year-old son as he lounged on my bed.


And indeed, he was doing "nuffing".  Well, nothing but sprawling on the bed, gazing at the ceiling and singing a nameless tune.  And, he was being happy.

Recently, someone I follow on Instagram posted a picture of himself, wrapped in a blanket, binge-watching cooking shows.  He proudly noted that he had spent his entire weekend thus.  Doing...  You guessed it...  NOTHING!

Doing nothing is entirely different from laziness.  Laziness seems to have a moral component.  It's about constantly doing nothing, even if you REALLY should be doing something.  It's about avoidance, not enjoyment.  Doing nothing is an essential part of life, or at least it should be.  And it's a part of life that I seem to be very, very bad at.

For the purpose of making my point, perhaps I should define what "doing nothing" means to me.  Of course, it could mean the obvious - a total absence of activity.  Or, it could mean doing nothing but reading, chatting, listening to music or watching television.  Doing nothing implies a blessed lack of productivity.  It's end result is a feeling of peace, not of accomplishment.

My children can judge how much I will get done in a weekend when they hear me respond, "Absolutely nothing," to the question of what my plans are.  For me, making that declaration is a prelude to sudden activity such as weeding, raking and mowing the lawn, painting and entire room in an afternoon or a day spent on the town.  It will also likely lead to a baking marathon and several hours of drawing or writing.  You see, like a dieter who proclaims that they will never eat another carb, only to be found huddled in a corner with a loaf of hot french bread, the more I declare my intention to be still, the more I end up doing.

Before you think I am somehow fishing for a compliment about my amazing energy or commitment to "doing", let me assure you...  I am not.  Sympathy would be more appreciated.  Or a really good idea on how to dial it back.  For some reason, when I am not actively doing something, I feel like I am going to miss the boat.  If I don't draw that picture, write that essay or send that email NOW, someone might get to it before me!  Of course, since I am thinking of such projects as my poster featuring the gowns of Queen Mary, it's highly unlikely.  But, I digress.  There is rarely a time when I am not doing at least two things at once.  When I am reading I am listening to music.  When I am watching television I am drawing.  When I am trying to get to sleep, I am frantically planning the next day.  Oh to lay on the bed and do "nuffing"!

My wife children know how to do nothing.  They know how to take a break from the world and allow themselves to drift.  To think or not.  To listen to music and do nothing else.  To read a book and block everything else out.  They are SO Zen...  And then there's me. 

I'll blame "society".  Like "The Man" they are an easy target for anything that ails us.  Of course, since we as individuals actually comprise "society", the responsibility inevitably comes back to ourselves.  As a people, we seem to be under the impression that to be "busy" is an asset.  It means we are important, engaged and productive.  If we are "busy" we are valuable.  Ironically, we probably get less of real use done now than ever before.  We fill our minds with false deadlines.  We project our own unrealistic expectations of ourselves onto others.  We are forever envying those who seem to have and do it all.  In fact, what we need...  What I need... more than ever is a little more "nuffing" and a lot less activity.

Now, as soon as I check my Instagram, post to my Facebook, tweet to Twitter and take those selfies...  I'm doin' NOTHIN'!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Note in Favor of a Commercialized Christmas

I know.  It's not popular to be in FAVOR of the commercialization that surrounds today's Christmases but, if we're all really honest, most of us will admit that it's almost as fun to receive as it is to give.  And, to that end, all that goes with the idea of gifting and glitter and fun has a special appeal at holiday-time.

We're often told that there's a war on Christmas.  If there is, the other side's losing.  Not only does the day itself stand as a beacon in our collective year, but we give over a whole season to its decorations, its special foods and its music.  Whether specifically religious or not, there's little doubt that most of America stops for about a week each year to bask in the warm glow of the Yuletide period.  In fact, so successful has this holiday been that it practically knows no single religion, culture or creed.  Rather, people from all backgrounds and faiths, or even no faith at all, can jump on the bandwagon of good cheer and giving that surrounds December 25.

So, just what's so great about the commercial side of Christmas?  I suppose it depends on what you consider the "commercial" side to be.  For the purposes of my little essay, I'll say that the commercial side of Christmas is the outward and seemingly frivolous part from visits to the mall to brightly wrapped gifts under the Christmas tree to the seemingly endless array of calories we can consume in a 30 day period.

On our local radio station, Christmas music is played from the week or two before Thanksgiving through New Year's Eve.  Not only does it serve to put one in a special frame of mind - a friendlier one, usually - but it also reminds us of the happier things in life.  "Oh by gosh, by golly!  It's time for mistletoe and holly!" or "I'm dreaming of a White Christmas..."  or, "Can I buy these shoes, for my mam..."...  ( well, maybe not ALL Christmas music is equal...)  Many of us take a step back from the workaday cares of our lives and make a little more of an effort to be, well, jolly!  When was the last time you were jolly in, say, February?

There's a dark side to this Christmas radio, though...  There are little segments where random listeners share their ideas about what's important during the season.  For the most part, one gets the same, positive answers...  the birth of Jesus Christ, family, giving, helping, food, music...  But there's one short clip with the kind of lady you'd probably wouldn't want to spend Christmas with.  In it she says, as spitefully as possible, "The spiritual side (is important) not JUST Santa..."  She practically spits the jolly old elf's name out.  Tell me, when did SANTA become such a downer?  I can only imagine what's under Granny Crabb's Christmas tree on Christmas morning...  I'll bet she even puts oranges and nuts in the stockings...  If there ARE any stockings...  And that's just the kind of Christmas attitude that I so dislike.  The sense that the spiritual and the frivolous can't exist together and that to enjoy one is to, somehow, forget the other.

Christmas shopping gets its own set of jeers.  How many people do you know who lament the yearly task?  "Oh, ALL those gifts one has to buy...  All that MONEY!  Why, in my day, we didn't give so many Christmas gifts," they'll say.  Well, newsflash...  They did.  And Christmas is really no more commercial now than it's ever been.  In the 1940's, that heyday of simplicity and goodness (except for that whole World War II thing) the President of the United States rescheduled Thanksgiving to give Americans more time to shop for Christmas!  And, as for commercialized product placements, don't think for a moment that Macy's and Gimbel's minded their star turns in "Miracle on 34th Street" (in which the main character got a daddy AND a house for Christmas, I will remind you...  how's that for "simple"!?).  Don't forget, too, the brightly colored holiday ads in your favorite magazines!  Holly and ribbon bedecked cartons of Lucky Strikes just ready to hand off to good old Uncle Joe!  A wreath-ringed bottle of Old Grandad for Aunt Clara...

The fact of the matter is that, for many, Christmas is a wonderful time of year in so many respects...  'Tis better to give that to receive, I agree.  What fun it is to have an extra reason to be thoughtful, to remember our loved one's and friend's interests, to make those special foods that we trot out only once or twice a year.  What fun it can be to be a little less concerned about our expenditures, or to be a little foolish and fun!  And don't forget the boost you're giving to the economy, especially if you are shopping local.

And to receive?  Well, that takes a special kind of thoughtfulness, too.  If it weren't for the receivers, the givers would be out of business.  Showing thanks, taking a genuine delight in the efforts of another, enjoying the element of surprise - all of these things are a gift in and of themselves.  And it doesn't really matter if you even LIKE the gift.  While things I've REALLY wanted have been most appreciated in the moment, it's those gifts that leave one shaking the head that will be remembered for decades to come.  In our family such gifts bring yearly gales of laughter as we recall underwear embroidered with the days of the week (too bad it was only a six pack), tights found at secondhand stores and giant summer sausages given to the same recipient each and every year because he LOVED them!  Actually, we later found that he detested them...  It was the thought that counted?

I know, I know...  all of this is rather shallow.  There are people who are alone on Christmas.  People who can't afford to take the time or make the effort.  People who are sick.  People who are depressed.  The list goes on.  But, guess what...  YOU and I can take the opportunity to embrace that "commercial" side of Christmas in an effort to lighten their load.  Invite a friend, an acquaintance, maybe even a perfect stranger to your Christmas celebration!  GIVE!  Give cookies, give gifts, give cards, give hugs!  Turn on those Christmas lights!  Crank up the Burl Ives!  And, if it's in your power, do anything you can to make this the most wonderful time of the year! 

I don't care if people celebrate a Christmas based on their religious beliefs or simply because it's an important event in our collective culture.  Because they love to shop and wrap gifts and bake cookies or because they take comfort in the special and deeply meaningful services and rituals of this time of year.  The fact that people celebrate the season at all through their giving of time, effort, beauty, friendliness and even gifts, that's more than enough for me.  At the very heart of it, THAT is the central part of that age-old story of Christmas.  It's about a gift given freely and in some desperate circumstances.  And, it's about a gift received, one that we may not be able to be adequately thankful for, but that we can enjoy and appreciate all the same.  When we apply it correctly, with joy and with gratitude and with willingness, all that we do during this period, commercial or otherwise, really does go back to the "real meaning of Christmas".

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

On Discovering Old Books...

I'd been looking at the book for months.  On a shelf with countless other old, used volumes, there was something about the title and the cover that intrigued me.  For no particular reason, I passed it by each and every time. 

A light gray hardback, its cover was stamped with a red and green illustration of a sleigh slipping away between a snowy avenue of trees.  The title, "Journey Into Christmas", gave me a warm buzz as most references to my favorite holiday did.  Finally, I broke down and paid the $1.98.  What did I have to lose?

This has been my experience with more than a few old books.  I love scanning the "Vintage Books" section of my local thrift store, hoping that I'll find a title that captures me.  Something that will give me that warm, secure feeling that comes from somewhat simple stories that speak to my love of domestic life from the early and mid-sections of the last century.  After a lot of research I've come to recognize some specific author's names but, more often than not, it's been the previously unknown writers who've given me just what I've been looking for.

"Journey Into Christmas" is the perfect example.  Written by Bess Streeter Aldrich, a long forgotten Nebraska author from the 1920's through the 1940's, it's comprised of several short stories from throughout her career.  Originally turning to writing following the early death of her husband, Aldrich expertly captures the highs and lows of American domestic life of the most ordinary type.  Free from grand drama but full of homespun wisdom, her stories have enough humor to keep them from being saccharine, but also highlight the kinds of challenges that many of us experience.  A recurring theme throughout the book is one of loneliness.  The kind of loneliness that parents feel at the absence of grown children or upon reflecting on the past.  Aldrich doesn't let us linger too long, though, reminding us that there is plenty in the present to appreciate.

That $1.98 was a good investment.  I've read the book each December for the past five years, and have even given away several copies.

Another book that was discovered in just this way has also given me hours of enjoyment.  "Mama's Bank Account" by Kathryn Forbes was the inspiration for the marvelous Irene Dunne movie, "I Remember Mama".  It's impossible not to imagine Ms. Dunne as one reads through the charming and endearingly funny stories of early 20th century life among Norwegian immigrants in San Francisco.  Dealing with financial ruin, health disasters and long-standing family rivalries, "Mama's Bank Account" transports one to another time where the problems were just as severe as those we face today, but the response was often one tempered with understanding and humor.

I love books that challenge and educate.  I love books that surprise and shock!  But, there are many times, when I want a book that will simply entertain and uplift me - a book that will inspire gentle laughter and nods of understanding.  In fact, these are the kinds of stories that I love to write.

So, next time you are digging through old, used volumes that might look a little dull, take a moment and take a chance...  You might discover a hidden treasure!