Rock maple and dovetailed joints.


 

32235_398975950898_543400898_4765939_6508281_nMy Dad could do anything with his hands. When we were little, he used to spend a weekend taking apart a car engine, cleaning everything, then putting it back together again.

He could fix leaky pipes, he could paint walls and trim. My Dad could lay down carpet, strip wallpaper, rewire lights, plane the bottoms of doors so they wouldn’t stick.

Most of all, though, my Dad could bring out the life and the beauty of wood.

He made shelves, and little stools and steps and work sheds.

My Dad made my sons tiny wooden train sets that fit together perfectly. Each car had one of the boy’s names on it.

They are still here, in our house. The golden stained wood still gleams. The pieces still fit, 25 years after he made them. They are still beautiful.

Last weekend I drove two hours out to the small city in the Berkshire Hills where my boys live. I got a tour of the classic Victorian house where my son Matt is living.

As soon as I saw the old wooden floors, and the built in shelving, and the gorgeous dark wood bannisters on the stairs, I though of Dad. He would have loved that house!

We went up into Matt’s room, and there I saw his bureau. An old, golden hued wooden bureau, in Matt’s bedroom.

And it was if Dad was standing there beside me.

I started to laugh, but there were tears in there, too.

“Oh, man! I forgot that you have this bureau!” I said, running my hands across the smooth top.

“This is rock maple.” I said it reverently, although I have no idea what “rock maple” is. I could hear Dad saying those words to me, and they were filled with respect and pride when he said them.

So I repeated them to my boy.

This old bureau had belonged to my husband in his childhood. He doesn’t know where it came from, but he grew up with it. When we got married, it became our bureau. It was in our first apartment in the corner of the bedroom. It travelled with us to grad school in New Jersey, and then to our first apartment after graduation.

When our baby was born, we moved for a while back into my parents’ house. We needed to save money and we needed a safe, clean place to live. So back “home” we went.

And that’s where my Dad taught me how to refinish furniture. We took that old bureau, scratched and dinged and dirty, down into Dad’s garage workshop. And he stripped the old stain off, and sanded it, and sanded it again. I learned about the grades of sandpaper, and the use of a good “tack cloth”. I learned to use mineral spirits to clean up every speck of dirt and sawdust.

I learned about the proper use of stain, and how to smooth it on evenly. Dad pointed out the dovetail joints in the bureau drawers, telling me that you don’t see those very often any more.

Together we chose the stain, a very light golden oak that brought out the warmth in the hard, hard wood. Dad showed me every grain in that wood. He showed me how to be sure that every rough bit was smoothed away.

“Like a baby’s bottom,” he’d say when we got a drawer face perfectly smooth.

It was so special to work there beside him. He never got impatient. He never seemed in a hurry. I saw how the wood came to life under his hand. I saw how he was able to coax beauty out of something rough and old and stained.

I had wanted to toss out that old piece of furniture as soon as we could, but Dad was horrified at the thought.

“This is rock maple!” he’d said. “Those are dovetailed joints!”

Together we worked on the old wooden bureau, and I learned that my father was an artist, though he never described himself that way. I learned to be patient when polishing the top of a refinished piece of furniture with wax.

I learned how to listen, to watch, to imitate. I learned how to see the strength and the beauty under the rough exterior.

I learned how much my father loved a job well done, and I learned how much I loved my father.

Last week, standing in that bedroom in that old Victorian house, I caught sight of that beautiful bureau, with my son’s belongings sitting on top.

“This is rock maple!” I told him seriously. I pulled out one of the drawers. “See?” I asked him and  his bemused friend, “These are dovetailed joints.”

They agreed that the bureau is a real beauty. They were smiling at my earnestness.

We left then, turning off the lights and leaving the old rock maple bureau in the dark, in that old, old house.

It’s hard to say how much I love the thought of my son sleeping every night beside that wood that had felt my Dad’s loving hand.

I hope Matt keeps that bureau. I hope he gives it to a child of his own one day.

I hope that he tells that child, very seriously, “This is rock maple, you know.”

 

 

Giving Her “Grit”


There is a new buzzword in the world of education, and its a real eye roller.

The word is “grit” and it means the ability to handle difficulty; to persevere, to deal with opposition. It’s actually a fabulous idea, and one that a whole lot of parents need to learn. But I guess its an eye roller because so many parents of my generation already know this stuff.

Anyway, the idea of giving a child “grit” means that as adults we step back and let the kids struggle a bit. Its the idea that unless the child has worked hard and struggled at least a little, his success won’t feel like anything much.

I agree.

I was a teacher for a long time. I raised three kids. I grew up in a family of six kids with two busy, working parents.  I know about grit.

I know that too many children are rescued by well meaning parents when their social lives run into conflict. I know that too many kids are celebrated when they haven’t actually achieved their goals. I know that stressed out families try to shield their children from any anxiety or struggle, in a misguided belief that those are dangerous emotions.

But I also know that when I was a child, I didn’t feel particularly excited to get good grades in reading or writing. Ho, hum. I could ace that stuff with my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back.  But I was thrilled to get a C plus in chemistry, because THAT was some serious crap.

Grit.

Years ago my youngest son, Tim, was learning to play hockey. Early in his skating life, he came across a mean spirited, nasty coach. I remember that I picked my little boy up from practice one night. On the way home, I noticed that my 9 year old was in tears in the back seat. When I pressed him, he told me that his coach had called him a “baby” because his wrist shot was so weak. I was outraged, of course. My very best Mamma Bear self reared up to defend my cub. But he was much smarter than I was. When I expressed my outrage and told my boy that I planned to talk to the idiot coach, he said, “Don’t, Mommy.  Just let me think bad words about him in my head. Don’t talk to him.”

So I didn’t.

A few days later, my Tim came home from school, put on his skates and his hockey gloves and headed out to our backyard rink. I didn’t know exactly what he was doing, but I kept peeking out the window at him as the afternoon wore on.  Finally, just at dark, he came in the front door.  Throwing down his gloves, my sweet little boy looked up at me and said, “There! Now I have a damned wrist shot.”

The coach never teased him again.  Grit.

Now I am taking care of my sweet baby Ellie. She is a serene, happy little thing. Up until now, she has rarely cried.

But she has suddenly hit a point in her life when she desperately wants to MOVE! She can scoot on her butt and turn herself around. She can roll over and back again.  But she can’t quite get herself propelled forward to reach her toys. She can’t yet pull herself up.

So I sit with her on the floor every day. I watch her reach for the stacking cups, and pick them up. I watch as one rolls away and I watch her struggle to stretch herself out to pull it back.  She grimaces, she groans.  Sometimes she squeezes her eyes shut, shakes her fists and howls.

I sit beside her. I tell her “Keep going.” I smile and I nod.  I say, “Ellie, you can do it!”

Sometimes she fails.  But sometimes she manages to lean herself forward so far that she is almost on her knees, and she hooks one determined finger around that errant cup and she pulls it back and picks it up.  And then I breathe a huge sigh, and I cheer her on. “You did it, honey! You got it!”

Grit.  I hope that I am giving her a sense that she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to accomplish.  I hope that I am giving her, even at this tender age, the realization that she doesn’t need Nonni to do what she wants; she can do it all by herself.

I hope that I am giving her grit.

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“I got it, Nonni!”

A Warm Spring Night


It was a warm, wet, humid spring day today.  There was a low overcast all day. The wind was strong, and the clouds were racing from South to North.  Not a usual New England pattern on April 1st. Not at all.

I took Ellie outside. She sat in her stroller, watching me with her wise dark eyes as I raked up the straw and pine boughs that had covered my perennial beds. The wind blew strong and the pines creaked and moaned. Ellie watched. She watched me stoop and scrape and gather up the winter coat of the garden. She watched the birds darting back and forth and up and down. She tipped her head back and watched the tops of the trees as they swayed back and forth above her.

Tonight, after I had taken Ellie home to her Mom and Dad, I stood on my deck. The night was coming on fast, and rain threatened to fall.  There was thunder in the distance, making my old dog Sadie shiver and quake at my feet.

I looked out, across our property, to the wetlands beyond.  I strained a bit to hear what I so wanted to hear.  And there it was.

The spring song of the “peepers”, the tiny green tree frogs whose voices fill the evening air of New England springtimes.  I smiled, remembering all of the years when my children and I had stood in this same spot, waiting for that springtime call of love and hope.

I thought about Ellie. How funny, I thought to myself.  This is her first spring time!

I thought about the rhythms of life. About Ellie hearing and smelling spring for the very first time in her life. I thought of myself, remembering so many springtimes in the past.  I thought of my Mother, feeling and hearing spring in her 86th year, wondering how many springtimes are still before her.

I stood on my deck, in the damp warm evening. I breathed in the smell of the leaves and the warming smell of the earth. I listened to the peepers in the marsh, seeking love.

Ellie has so much to look forward to in this beautiful life.

Ah, Miss Ellie……


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Rockin’ her Daddy’s hat.

Way, way back, in the dawn of my history, when Paul and I were very young, we used to think about the upcoming weeks and tell ourselves, “I’m glad there is something to look forward to!”

Which means, of course, that there were times when we’d look at each other and think, “Ugh,  there is nothing to look forward to!”

I look back now, at my 22 year old self, and I think, “Are you kidding me? You’re twenty something, and you don’t think you have something to look forward to? You only have your ENTIRE LIFE, you idiot!”

But at 22, I wasn’t thinking that way. I was thinking, “What wonderful adventure is out there for me in the next week?”  I was young. I was foolish.  I didn’t really get it.

And then, at the wise old age of 29, I gave birth to my first child.  My wonderful, beautiful daughter Kate.  And everything changed in an instant.

Suddenly, I knew that I had “something to look forward to” for at least 20 years.  Every morning with my baby was a new beginning.  Every bath time was a treasure. Every meal an adventure.  I was enraptured, enamored, in love, entranced, enthralled.

Life was very, very good.

And then it went on.  Kate’s brothers were born, and the rhythm of my life was set.  I was a happy, busy Momma, and every passing week meant something new to look forward to. There were milestones and holidays and vacations and camping trips.  Birthdays and new schools and sports and plays and music.  Life was one big streak of “something to look forward to”.

And then they all grew up. And they moved away and started their own lives.

There suddenly wasn’t quite so much to look forward to, you know? Life was still happy and full, but the magical moments were gone.

And now, here I am, the full time day care provider for my little Ellie.  Now I am back to the days of making pancakes for someone who will light up with joy at the new taste. I am back to singing brand new songs, and reading exciting new books.

Tonight, when supper was over, I put our leftover coconut rice into a bowl.  I added an egg and some cream and cinnamon. I baked it for 20 minutes.  It smells fantastic.

I will go to bed tonight with something to look forward to.  I will give my beautiful Ellie a bowl of rice pudding for her breakfast tomorrow.

Life is a very beautiful thing.

Something to look forward to


When my husband and I were very young, in the very beginning of our life together, we often found ourselves saying, “I’m so glad we have something to look forward to!”

Of course, we were young, in love, starting our lives.  We had friends and jobs and an entire future ahead of us.  Still, sometimes the weeks seemed to stretch out ahead of us with nothing but work, classes, work and more classes.  We used to need “something to look forward to”.  Something to get our excitement up, our adrenaline rushing, our moods lifted.  It could be a party, a trip, a concert….it didn’t really matter, as long as we could hold it up in our immediate future and get a lift out of the anticipation of the event.

I remember Christmas of 1985.  I was very pregnant with our first child. We didn’t know yet who this child would be.  Male or female?  Dark eyed or light? Happy? Cranky? Healthy or not?  We didn’t know.

But I remember one night, just a few days before Christmas and perhaps two weeks before my due date.  Paul had fallen asleep, but my back was hurting, and so I was still awake.  I lay on the sofa in our little run down apartment in one of Boston’s seedier neighborhoods.  I had a blanket over the mound of my stomach, and my hand was resting on the place where my baby moved.

I had turned out all of the lights, leaving only the Christmas tree illuminated.  I lay there, looking at each ornament, watching the way that the lights reflected off the garland.  I felt myself breathing, and listened to the imagined heartbeat of my baby.  I looked at the lights.  I waited.

“You know what?”, I whispered to my big gray cat, who sat beside me in my midnight vigil.  “I’ll never ever have another moment with nothing to look forward to.”  I smiled to myself, the palm of my hand feeling the gently rolling movement of my firstborn inside of me.

And I was right.

Twenty nine years later, I am lying on my couch, my eyes taking in the color of the Christmas lights.  I can see the pile of wrapped gifts with my granddaughter’s name on them.

“You know what?”, I whisper to my old dog. “I have so much to look forward to!”

STOP telling me what we think!!!!


Whoah.

I seem to have stumbled upon a blog post that can be trotted out every few years.

Cool.  Or not.

I first posted this one, titled “We the People” in October of 2011.   I trotted it out again in June of 2012.

And tonight, as I studiously try to avoid the FIFTH Republican debate of this cycle, I just have to pull it out again.

Enjoy.   And vote.

 

“We the People”

….the American people,  are a really big group.  There are lots of us.  We tried, but we couldn’t all fit around the table at Dunkin Donuts.  There are so many of us that we can’t even fit in a big conference room. Or Yankee Stadium.   Or the Grand Canyon.

Do you get it?  We’re a big, big pile of folks.  We come in a whole bunch of colors, shapes and sizes, too.  If you could somehow manage to cram us all into one place, we would hardly recognize each other!  Some of us are chubby middle aged white women with plastic bifocals on.  Some are tall, skinny black men wearing three piece suits. We’re brown, we’re pink, we’re young; we’re old enough to remember when Truman was in charge.

We like baseball, except for those of us who don’t.  We adore country music, except for the huge group of us who hate country music and only listen to metal. We have PhD’s and we dropped out of the eight grade.  We have ten different words for a big cold cut sandwich on a long piece of bread.

We all live within these borders. That part’s true. But we are NOT a club. We aren’t all Democrat or Republican.  We aren’t all liberal or conservative.  We don’t all agree about the best way to solve the debt crisis, how to tax big corporations, how to fix Social Security, who will win the next election or the World Series, or how to grill the perfect steak.  Hell, a lot of us don’t even eat steak!!

So…..American politicians.  Please pay attention.  You really, really, really have to STOP saying “The American people” in sentences like “The American people understand that the Conservative plan put forth by the House is the best way to go forward.” (Yes, I did just hear those precise words on CNN.)  Or, “The American people agree that we need to increase revenues.” (I heard something just like that from the President yesterday).  Stop trying to quote us.  Stop trying to convince us that we agree with you.  We can’t agree on one single thing!!

Wait, that’s not true.  Here is one statement that you can use in any setting, no matter which party you belong to:

“The American people are sick and tired of the sniping, moaning, name calling and finger pointing. The American people, the whole big noisy bunch of us, are overwhelmingly in favor of having government officials act like grown ups who actually know what they are doing. The American people want the government to stop shouting, start listening, make some compromises and get the damn job done.”

Sincerely,

Karen, self appointed spokesperson for the American People.

And another thing….


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I’ve been talking to some very smart, very thoughtful people lately who just happen to be gun owners.  And I have had to adjust some of my thinking a bit.

That’s good, though, right?   I complain so often about those who are closed minded.  I don’t want to think of myself as one of them.

Here is one thought, from my very reasonable, thoughtful nephew Jon.  He grew up with guns, and is totally comfortable with them. He’s a hunter. He comes from a rural setting and he pointed out that some of my anti-gun thinking stems from a lack of knowledge. I’m afraid of guns. He says that some of my fear comes from lack of education.  He’s right.

He also says that a big part of our issue in this country is attitude. We need to learn that guns must be respected. They have to be treated with great care.

I’m with him on that!

But the conversation also covered the desire of so many people to own guns in order to protect themselves.  As I said in my last post, I understand the impulse.  But there are facts that get in the way of that thinking.

I’ve already talked about the statistics, all of which show that owning a gun makes you less safe, not more safe.  That’s just a fact, but people who are afraid are moved more by feelings than by logic.

So I turn to these two questions for those who keep a gun by the bedside in case of an intruder:

  1. If we didn’t have so many guns in this country, would you still feel the need to own one? If you didn’t feel that every one out there was armed and dangerous, would you still need to protect yourself with a gun?
  2. What do you own that is worth more than a human life?  I mean, if it was me, and someone came in to rob me, I would hand them the laptop and the wallet and say “good luck.”  I don’t own anything that valuable.  I am also not above running like hell right out the back door.  I can’t imagine how it would feel to shoot at another human being, even one who was trying to find oxycontin in my house.  If I somehow managed to kill a human, I don’t think I’d ever be the same again.

I think that Americans watch way too many episodes of NCIS and Bluebloods and Homeland.  We have an image of inner city gang members and terrorists storming into our suburban neighborhoods.  The truth is, where I live at least, the most likely intruder would be a young man with a huge drug problem, looking for medicine or money.  If one of them came in my front door, I’d be scared out of my mind, and traumatized for sure.

But not as traumatized as I would be if I fired a gun and had to watch that man bleed to death on my kitchen floor.

I understand the desire to protect ourselves. I do.  But for me, the most compelling desire is to protect myself from become just another killer in a land where there are already too many.

 

Magic Words


Magic book with magic lights

Oh, don’t you wish that there were magic words?

Wouldn’t it be just wonderful to have magic phrases that could bring peace, healing, love, rest?

I wish that our world contained real wizards.  Men and women of such wisdom that they could simply say those magic words and hearts would be made whole again.

In a world that seems to have gone so wrong, I wish that there were special words to make things right.  I wish that I could open an old and dusty book, placed high on a wooden shelf in a long forgotten shop.  I wish that I could turn those ancient pages, slowly, and so carefully.

I wish that I would catch my breath in wonder, and run my finger slowly and carefully under those magic words.

Don’t you wish that with me?

Don’t you wish that somehow we could turn to those around us who are in pain, and that we could whisper those special words that would mend the terrible wounds in their hearts?

I do.

I wish that there were magic words.

I wish that I knew them.

Wishing all of you peace and safety and laughter and love. Wishing you a home without strife, a country without war, a kitchen without hunger, a group of loving friends and family to embrace you.

Wishing you magic words to heal you.

 

Chaos on the door


  Buttermilk and Sriracha?                   Really?

Buttermilk and Sriracha?
Really?

The funny thing about vacations is the way they bring out my inner neat freak.  I mean, the luxury of all this time around the house inevitably has me cleaning closets, bleaching the under-the-sink cabinet, and scrubbing out the fridge.

And all this cleaning and organizing can lead to some interesting self-reflection.

For example, earlier this morning I found myself contemplating the door to my fridge.

Wow.  You wanna talk Chaos Theory?  Here it is in all its glory.

I think that the door of my fridge is like the junk drawer of my inner life.

All the important stuff (milk, chicken, cold cuts, goat cheese, apples, eggs…..) is in the main part of the fridge.  Some of them (like the fruits and veggies) even get their own special drawers and shelves.  I know where to go when I need to grab the yogurt or the bread or the salad ingredients.

The same can be said for the rest of my kitchen. I know exactly where to go to locate the flour, the sugar, the paprika.  I know where the bags of rice are stored (arborio, jasmine, brown).  I can find the peanut butter, the Nutella, the tea and coffee and the chocolate chips.  There is a set place for the pasta (spaghetti, rotini, ditalini, farfalle,orzo,lasagna,ziti, mostaccioli). There is a shelf for the canned foods (crabmeat, clams, tomato paste and beans) and a shelf for the snacks (cookies, crackers, rice cakes, popcorn).

Don’t even get me started on the spices.  Grouped by type, arranged on tiered shelves.  A place for everything, and everything in its place.

Until I look at the door of my refrigerator, and all bets are off.

What does it say about me that the bottom shelf of the fridge door contains a bottle of white wine, a half full quart of buttermilk, a jar of martini olives and three kinds of mustard? Move up a shelf, and you’ll find a squeeze bottle of Sriracha, a jar of pickled ginger, some hoisin sauce, a tube of harissa sauce and sweetened lime juice.  There is small jar of olive tapenade, a plastic bottle of horseradish, real maple syrup, two jars of yeast and a quarter bottle of Worcestershire sauce.  There’s butter (salted and sweet) and jars of strawberry, raspberry and apple jam.  A rolled up, halfway dried out cream cheese packet and three kinds of pickles.

As I looked it all over, I decided that I should throw some of it away.  So I spent the next hour taking things out and putting them back.  Blue cheese stuffed olives? You never know when I might crave a dirty Vodka martini!  Hot mustard, sweet mustard, horseradish mustard?  Well, we do have sandwiches for lunch most days.  Harissa…I hardly ever use it, but it reminds me of Tunisia. I want it!

Eventually, everything was cleaned up, the shelves were wiped and cleared and it was all put back.

So.

Does this…….creative display of oddball food items mean that I am an exciting chef?  Or a food hoarder?  Does it mean that I hate to waste or that I love to be adventurous in my eating?

Am I a slob, or a bon vivant?

I don’t know!  But as I make myself a lovely snack of olive tapenade with cream cheese on rye bread, I’d invite you to check out your own fridge door.  If everything is up to date and enormously useful in your daily life, please don’t tell me.  But if you find an interesting combination of pickled onions and maraschino cherries, drop me a note, will you please?

 

It’s all in how you look at it.


 

When I was a little girl, my sister and I watched a Disney movie called “Polyanna”.  In the movie, a little girl (played by Hayley Mills, how’s that for a good memory?) comes to live with a grumpy old lady.  I don’t remember much about the story, except that there was a scene where Polyanna notices a prism hanging in the old lady’s window, and makes a big deal of the beautiful rainbow and all the colors.  The old lady notices the beauty for the first time, and the two of them take apart all of her lamps and hang prisms all around the house.

Not the most subtle of metaphors, but it stuck with me.

This morning I woke up to yet another school cancellation day. I have nothing to do, having prepared my lessons and done my corrections yesterday.  I have baked brownies, made meatballs and sauce, walked the dogs, done laundry, read a kids book for the class.  I am bored. And cold. And crabby.

I want sun!  I want warm breezes!  I want to barbecue, but the grill is buried in four feet of snow.

I look out my living room window, and see nothing but white.  I’m sick of watching snow fall; its making me dizzy.  The garden fence is almost buried.  My walk is only a foot wide, with five foot walls on either side.

The window is filled with icicles, handing down from every inch of the gutter.  Sharp, jagged, icy teeth, making me shiver just looking at them.

I decided to lie down on the sofa so I could fully indulge in my misery.  I wanted to look at the icicles, those threatening, terrifying blades clustered together, reminding me that I am falling farther and farther behind in the curriculum, and that the kids will be distracted little cyclones tomorrow.  I wanted to use the image of the ever growing ice daggers to help me enhance my total crabbiness.

But guess what? When I laid myself back on the pillow and looked out the window, I found myself looking through the beautiful fused glass wind-chime that my son and his girlfriend gave me for Christmas.  All of a sudden, the icicles were shining through the brilliant colors of the glass, and the little bit of sunlight that was leaking through made them gleam like rainbows.

My plan was thwarted; my crankiness went away.

I felt like Pollyanna!

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