Priorities and Stumbling Blocks

Blake & P

A Top Priority – Bonding with the Newest Grandbaby

Drat! That is not nearly as strong a word as I wanted to start this with but I am trying to clean up my act so it will have to do. I am suffering frustration and lack of control. I have a Very Important Piece on our National Parks I am stuck in the middle of after a striking beginning and I am really very cross that after all this time, I still can’t get it right. Thoughtful analysis (not to say worry – are my blogging days over?) has found two reasons for my acute bloggers block. The first is that, having been to many parks and had many wonderful moments and memories while doing so, I simply can’t make up my greedy mind as to which ones to mention. If I give too many, you will pass out from author’s verbosity virus and never read me again. The bigger reason – although that first one is what stopped me in mid-paragraph! – Is that my creative gene has been overwhelmed. 

I have been strenuously helping my visiting son panic about getting online and errandy things done in time (plus packing!) before an extended trip to Mexico and points south. I do not mean to say that my rising total panic actually helped my son. I tried hard not to let him know about it. However, this is a really awful gene he got from me which makes me feel guilty when I see it in action and, even worse, I relate so totally to it that part of me thinks it is I with all these goals and decisions on me and I am useless, a veritable basket case. I resorted to sitting on my bed reading catalogues by the score and falling asleep over them and doing nothing productive or helpful at all. Meanwhile, the true traveler soldiered forward, meeting all personal goals, getting everything squeezed in as we both knew all along would happen. That’s the real kicker in this problem. Long experience has taught us that we CAN DO IT but somehow doesn’t lessen the whole being panic an iota. Please do not tell me how smart people prepare and pack for trips. I’m smart enough to know the right way but incapable of doing it. So I once left all my clean bras drying at home and the cat sitter had to FedEx them to me – no big deal! 

That felt really liberating, to tell posterity, strangers and the World all that! We will say it was to make similarly cursed individuals feel less stupid because other smart people do it too. This son scored perfect 800’s on two of his college admission achievement tests – one two years after taking the physics course – but is still prone to this pre-trip trauma. I think my only other child who has inherited this foul gene was a National Merit Scholar so it may take brains to be so dumb. Bad news: age neither heals nor lessens it – I’m worse than ever. 

This sad similarity started me ruminating on familial differences which can be even more disturbing. I was reinforced in this by a younger friend telling me how hard she works to bring her family together over a good dinner as their one chance daily in their busy lives to share news, discuss and laugh together. To do this, when everything is ready she calls the family, puts the hot food on the table and leaves the kitchen “as is” to wait upon this important priority. Her husband, however, oblivious or unsupportive of his wife’s efforts to make this time happen at the food’s best moment, often pushes insistently to re-refrigerate the left out foods. If this happens, the hungry children speed into the meal before their parents can join them. My friend confesses to shouting “Not NOW!” nearly nightly but so far has resisted kicking her clueless mate. 

Howdy and I had a similar difference in priorities. Ours emerged after family dinners when he would go to his desk and I upstairs for bedtime reading to our young instead of into the messy kitchen to clean up. A short reading time might have been accepted but we have five children of different ages and reading preferences and, again nearly nightly, I fell asleep over the last child’s book and had to be wakened and, escorted groggily to my bed, usually by Howdy. He then had the charming choice of attacking the kitchen or breakfasting next day in last night’s squalor. This did not endear me to him.

Howdy was a trustee at my old school and every year or two the trustees gave a festive dinner for the faculty. Spouses were invited but not seated at the same table with their trustee mate. At such a dinner during this period in our lives, Howdy was seated with the head of the Religion department, a former Head of the English department, a history teacher, and both a seasoned math and a new young Phys ED instructor. The Religion teacher began serious talk by saying how easily she could tell which new students had been read to as children and how disturbed she was to see the number growing smaller almost annually. Every one at the table chimed in, citing not only a lack of familiarity with reading for pleasure but a lack of knowledge of  such characters as Ruth and Naomi, Cain and Abel, but of David Copperfield, Icarus, Ulysses, Joan of Arc, Rembrandt, et cetera, et cetera and so forth. “How is this a problem for you as a teacher or for the student or is it one?” Howdy asked. Innocently he claimed but knowing the deluge it would trigger. When he next had a chance to speak, he asked our Big Question. “Then you’d agree with Penny that reading to each of the children every night is more important than putting the food in the frig, and cleaning up the kitchen and getting set-up for breakfast?” A unanimous outcry greeted this and Barbara Jones, the Religion teacher whom we knew at church, scolded him. “Howdy, how could you not know she had her values straight? They’re your values, too. I can’t understand you of all people  getting  hung up on kitchen clean-up!” Howdy admitted he’d “been brought up to complete one job before tackling another” and guessed he had “really never factored in the kids’ early bedtime and our late dinner hour which is based on when I get home to eat it.” He then muttering something about “the kids would all be asleep by the time Penny finished the damn kitchen” Tidying as I go is not one of my virtues.

But my beloved was a generous, loving and honest man. Driving home from the dinner he apologized to me for all the hassles over my nightly reading and leaving the kitchen to him. He said he had never really thought it through and was sorry. He shared the dinner conversation and then wistfully asked if “some times he could read to the kids”, making the amazing statement that he was both jealous of that time I had with our children and that “the damned office work could wait!” and wickedly reminding me he could do his work while I “finished up the kitchen.” I still feel, 68 years after I said “of course” I would marry him, that of all the many blessings in my life, he is the one I am most blessed by and thankful for. I hope he knows it.

Also hope to be back with you, my pen pals, soon. Happy Thanksgiving!  p


When Ants Morph Into Grasshoppers

Ant & grasshopper

The Ants and the Grasshopper

The Fables of Aesop, a wise and ancient Greek, c. 620 – 564 BCE, have been on my mind this week. This is an unusual place for them to be although several were quoted at me in my youth. I think some may also have been in My Bookhouse. I grew up with a complete set of the six volumes of My Bookhouse (hard bound in fake leather according to Amazon.) Book 1 was nursery level, Book 6 appropriate for about age 12 or older. Together the six volumes were a collection of age-appropriate classic fairy tales, fables, poems, stories and even a few book excerpts if I remember correctly. I adored my Bookhouse and miss it, but have clearly slid off subject so … Aesop told cautionary tales which tersely illustrated a truth one would do well to learn. The Grasshopper had been busy making music all summer while the ants prepared for winter industriously. Come cold winter, he begged food from the ants who, learning he had sung the summer away, told him he could dance to bed hungry.

The Northeast, by which I mean Maine, had what my father would have referred to as “a helluva storm” last Sunday night. By the time I crawled into my cozy bed about ten we had light rain, blustery wind and the ocean was roaring. I woke up one-ish to tumultuous rain and howling wind and consulted my iPad WeatherBug app to find that we had a red triangular warning for big rain and winds peaking in 50 to 60 mile per hour gusts. The warning extended from 7 PM Sunday to 11 AM Monday but the storm was to taper down slowly until late afternoon. There are several tall trees rather too near the corner of the house occupied by my bedroom and as they bent and twisted furiously in the gale, I turned on a light and settled down to watch them so as to bound nimbly (what an optimist!) out of bed and danger’s way when one began to fall on the house. They remained upright thankfully but at 4 AM the power and my lamp went out, beaten down by the number of other people’s trees that did go down taking power lines with them. Day, when it theoretically came, was only faintly light, making our adjustment to a powerless life even more depressing. We eventually learned that Central Maine Power had something like 430,000 customers out and regarded this unheralded mini-hurricane as equaling the challenges of the 1998 ice storm I was happily out of town for.

Sitting up in bed, morning coffee-less – electric stove! – I tried to remember the day’s plans. Several business related calls to be made. Reaching for the phone, the absence of dial tone reminded me my regular phone was wireless. Smugly congratulating myself on my foresight, I extricated the landline relic I keep plugged in tucked under my bed ready for just such moments but it was equally dead for the next three hours. EVERYTHING I thought of doing had an electric component. It seemed appalling.

Having been a resourceful and ingenious ant in my prime, I next applied myself to remembering the emergency supplies I had on hand, trying to remember when and where each had last been seen and their role in navigating cold and dark. A basketful of working flashlights sat on a table near the front door for years. Their purpose was dual: to assist elderly friends heading for their car on my rural dark street after dinner here and beyond the reach of my outside lights, and for emergencies. The basket has been repurposed to hold spare pairs of eyeglasses, especially varying depths of dark glasses, but who did what with the flashlights? I know my bright lantern light one that lived fully charged died and went to dead flashlight land and I knew where the expensive Very Bright light I bought two months ago was and is but what of the five or six guest lights? I own two radios with hand cranks able to charge a cell phone as well as operate when power is out but where are they? I haven’t seen them in a coon’s age. The expensive charging station I bought because a daughter liked hers is somewhere in my office but I can’t even remember what it looks like let alone whether it’s just for central convenience or holds a big charge it will dispense to cell phones, iPads, etc. Candles, candle stubs, my line-up of short, sturdy, non-tippy candle holders – these were findable but Oh what feeble light they produce! My intentions to find and buy a battery powered lamp or two like most of my good and smart intentions remain just that, i.e. unaccomplished. So, though I have not exactly been dancing my days away, I have been feeling very grasshopperish and stupid. (I will hate anyone who agrees with me but I know a truth when I stumble on it!)

Where I have been stupid is in allowing so much of the cleaning up, putting away and organizing of storage to fall on the sturdy shoulders of my wonderful Colleen. Colleen comes twice most weeks for two hours at a time to make it look like a neat clean adult lives here. My disdain for domestic duties and a growing lazy streak both exacerbated by lousy vision and aching, arthritic joints prompted this negligence but it was stupid and careless of me not to have cared more. As the storm left phones on the blink, and my cell phone scares and mystifies me so is always dead, I could not even call Colleen to ask where everything is and she could not come when the power first went out because of downed trees and power lines blocking roads. I have always felt faintly superior to my mother for her neat streak and control freak tendencies. There is little chance that I can turn myself into a neatnik but getting a little more control over my life and living space seems worth some sustained effort. Along with walking more and using my cane in the house and even in the correct hand for the side that hurts most, I am embarking on an arduous reform routine. Pray for me!

This, like Aesop’s blogs, is meant not as a “woe is me” tale but as a cautionary one. If some of what I have said reminds you of yourself, bless yourself by smartening up. I personally am planning to find a splendidly attractive large basket to be my Emergency Center, located on the first floor in a permanent, findable spot. I also aim to morph good intentions into done deals before I actually turn 90 which is coming sooner than I will be ready for, of course. Chins up, plow forward steadily, and happy light filled days! “See” you soon! p


Remembering the Depression


William Powell, Carole Lombard and Jean Dixon in “My Man Godfrey”

We have been happily watching old movies recently “to cheer us up” before a late night dose of news. I am blessed to have at least one child who loves old movies as I do – not necessarily the same ones I do – but enough that we have been catching up on old favorites plus some new ones that he has introduced me to while he is visiting. Last week we watched four romantic comedies filmed during the Depression, all showcasing high living, great wealth and a good bit of zaniness. These all star actors that old souls like me adore: Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, Katherine Hepburn, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and William Powell. It Happened One Night (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), Holiday and Bringing Up Baby (both 1938) are all classics of their vintage. They led up to 1939’s bumper crop of excellence that included The Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington but I, of course, diverge!

My family was mostly spared by the Depression but we were far more aware of it than the characters seemed in these movies. Only My Man Godfrey showed us “forgotten men”. They were sought as items on a scavenger hunt for charity and found living under a bridge on the lower East Side of New York. Meanwhile, my father had a seemingly secure job and we were comfortable but never remotely as carefree, unconcerned and untouched as the families depicted in these films. I suppose their frivolity was intended to lift viewers’ spirits but they struck me last week as nearly callous in their almost total absence of references to the Depression and the plight of millions. I guess such extreme wealth did endure in pockets but if I were pinching pennies and desperately praying for more of them, I think seeing these films would make me despise the rich forever!

My parents never owned a house until Daddy retired in 1955 and took his family back to Wheeling where he launched a new career as a stock broker. My parents bought a charming older house in the same neighborhood where they started life together and where their first married friends still lived. But at least two of our rented homes, the one in Hagerstown and one in Pittsburgh, were available to rent because in one case the architect / builder and in the other the new owner could no longer afford to live in their own homes. People weren’t buying new homes freely as their earnings plummeted or disappeared with their jobs and businesses. Everything cost substantially, incredibly less than today but salaries were tiny, too. Those who had jobs helped less-lucky family members, so life was lean for most. Even John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s children were known to receive weekly allowances of only thirty cents of which one third was spendable, one third given to charity, the final third saved and every penny accounted for weekly. This was based on principle and education not privation but their friends all had bigger allowances!

When we were living in Pittsburgh in the early 1930’s, we grew used to “gentleman callers” arriving at our back door. I use this flip phrase from a college singing group song because it describes the men who came begging for work they might do to earn a solid meal. They “ate out” to save family money to feed their wives and children and bartered their free time and willingness to work for a sustaining meal. They were clean, neatly dressed, well spoken and polite. They were men accustomed to working but almost certainly not in physical labor. They weeded, washed windows ,cleaned porches, walks, garages and cellars, chopped wood and pruned overgrown bushes and trees. My mother was a cautious woman who felt uneasy inviting them into the house and most of the men would, I think, prefer it that way so they could not be blamed for theft of mislaid items. At our house they ate their meals on the back porch steps, I remember, whatever the weather. At first I was forbidden to sit with them or bother them but gradually I would join them with my peanut butter sandwich and non-stop chatter. All were kind and friendly but did not linger over their meals. Once or twice we had two at the same time, but one had the sense that they tried not to overburden their chosen “employers”.

I remember overhearing my mother virtually wailing to my father when he came home from work one night that she had run out of jobs for them and they would not accept a meal they had not earned. Daddy changed into his grubby clothes and messily undid the recent jobs, spilling things, upsetting things and deciding with Mother what bushes needed uprooting and moving, what could be bought for planting or replacing. It was a time when those who had did their best to help others get by but in a way that would preserve pride, dignity and a sense of worth. I think few felt entitled, most knew that “but for the Grace of God” they might be the one needing a helping hand.

As the stock market soars to undreamed of levels, I remember the spirit and values of those lean times and of the hopeful fatter years that followed the second World War ,and I wish them back. I feel that as a nation we are so much poorer today in values, morals and attitudes and the other intangibles of spirit and character while remarkably rich in things, some of which are separating us, offering a false sense of connection where once there were real and caring connections. Thinking about the Depression has depressed me, just another Oldie remembering the Good Old Days. Please join me again to revisit the past. It’s lunch time and I’m STARVING! I’m infinitely cheerier when I’m full. p

Declaration of Independence


Many irons in the fire, branches in the water, pursuits in a life  – whatever!-

IN ONE OF THE BARNS at the Trolley Museum at Kennebunkport, ME is an ancient trolley car, recently refurbished and cycled through visitor ride duty as deemed appropriate. It is a car from the Wheeling (WV) Traction Company which went into receivership c. 1930. Shortly after its renewal, staring at a logo emblazoned on its side, I felt a piece of my past click into clarity. The logo, that of the West Penn Power Company of Pittsburgh, explained why my father, who headed the traction company when it went into receivership, moved us to Pittsburgh where he took on a different job with West Penn Power. Inside the car, though, is what I really treasure. Framed and hung on the walls of the car among the usual ads are about four pieces of institutional advertising on Wheeling Traction Company official stationery touting privately run utilities. My father, Clint Spurr, wrote these. They are not signed but, as one who grew up hearing him passionately voice this point of view and who knows his writing style and vocabulary, they are unmistakably his. Sometimes, when I am feeling alone in the world, and far from my roots and heart’s home in the West Virginia hills, it both tickles and thrills me that there is a little bit of Daddy so near. (Having moved to Maine to be a burden to his look alike namesake, his presence is my constant comfort and joy but it is truly unique to find letters from your dead father alive, well preserved and totally unexpected in a new home.)

I bring this up because I strongly suspect my writing genes are his. Writing easily, which is entirely different from writing well, but wins you lots of practice, is a useful gift. It has enabled me to pull my weight and sometimes wield a little power in many volunteer roles and two paid jobs. It has almost always been fun and taught me lots about the organizations I did it for. When we first moved to Maine, I found myself concurrently secretary/clerk of two vestries, 3 local boards, and one committee. New blood in a small community is viewed as a gift to be sampled at once. The joke and fear was that I would bring the wrong minutes to a meeting. I never did that, but at the first two Land Trust board meetings after my term as secretary ended, I diligently took notes until someone asked me why I was doing that. Habits die hard!

This one began way back. I edited an extremely short lived class news sheet in 6th grade, was secretary of the student council at my boarding school, had a story in the yearbook, and in college was managing editor of a weekly newspaper. Fresh out of college, I wrote ads and commercials and an occasional speech for a local utility and was secretary of the Children’s Theater Board.

Looking back on the variety of ways I was useful as someone who wrote without undue trauma, I remember having fun writing brief histories of two garden clubs, becoming a bit of an authority once I’d done so. Doing garden club and other charity public relations was, I think somehow least fulfilling, although it did earn me four years on the Garden Club of America’s national PR committee, two as vice-chair. This was all heady fun as I met talented women from all over the country. Recent attic cleaning here has revealed that I was also apparently secretary or PR chair, or both, of the Westchester Cotillion committee, and still have some of their valuable archival material to prove it as it appears to have been my least memorable assignment. (When I figure out where to send the ancient scrapbooks, I will repair that embarrassing oversight.) I felt brightest when writing and putting into understandable language bylaw revisions for two garden Clubs, and two church vestries. Editing my boarding school’s quarterly Bulletin, my Maine garden club newsletter and Conservation Watch, the quarterly national Conservation news magazine of the GCA, I probably was most independent but also most stressed, as getting things out on time (sometimes including me!) seems to be a major challenge.

However, the two most rewarding moments in my volunteer writing/editing career came through editing GCA’s ConWatch for four years when it was a physical publication. The first was that the then-current president of GCA, Kitty Ferguson, told me she loved all of ConWatch but always read The Editor’s Watch column first. As Kitty was a discerning, smart, much loved and admired leader, this was approval from On High and a Very Big Thrill, especially as Editor’s Watch was often the only bit in each issue that I had written, and my own invention for ConWatch. The second salute was more public and extremely head-swelling. Well known horticultural writer and designer, Ken Druse, prefaced his keynote address at a large area meeting by asking if the ConWatch editor was present. I stood up nervously, having no idea what was coming. He said that while waiting to speak, he had read most of the latest CW, which he had found on a table, outside the auditorium. He declared it impressive, most informative, and a pleasure to read. (OMG!). He pronounced further that the cover story on urban sprawl was the single clearest, most informative, enjoyable, and persuasive article on the challenges posed by sprawl that he had ever read. He would like to talk to me about reusing it over lunch! I didn’t write it – Betsy Brown of Virginia did – but I thought it wonderful myself and was excited to feature it. This triggered an enthusiastic round of pleased applause and I floated several feet up through the rest of the day!

Nearly Ninety is written for my personal goals and pleasure. It benefits no valuable cause although I do try to pass on accumulated wisdom. It is fun to do. The stories, often told before, write themselves. Posts like today’s take forever. Likes encourage me, the fact that even people who don’t know me read or even follow it thrills me, and appreciative comments make my day. I occasionally feel almost sure that you all might wither away if there were no Nearly Ninety. But I personally am only one or two pages deep in seven new books by my favorite writers. I can’t read anything but news and catalogues. I begin to think I can’t focus on others’ plots because I am so wrapped up in what next to write myself. I worry that no creative input may result in no nourishment of my own mind and spirit. And that matters hugely and stresses me.

Having just last week told you to wake up joyfully every Monday and Thursday when you could count on seeing a new post, I am now saying Forget That! Nearly Ninety is going to appear randomly, very possibly once weekly but no promises. Sorry it took me so long to say this. Go well, enjoy October and know that writing this is far too big a happening in my life for me to give up on it. Particularly now that I know I have enough lively grey cells left to figure out (with lots of help) doing the tech part myself. When Christopher Robin, whose hair cut made me feel like his twin, started school , he put a sign on his bedroom door, “Gone Out. Back Soon. CR” I say it this way. “Done in. Back soon.    P”

Name Calling

Mr. and Mrs. at last

Mr. and Mrs. J. Howard Marshall, Jr.

Name calling is a phrase I have not heard in ages. “Political correctness”  has made name calling a bigger no-no than ever.  There were two levels of name calling when I was growing up, ‘neighborhood’ and ‘global’. The first involved things like calling playmates or neighbors derogatory names: Loudmouth, Cheater, Pig, Fatso, Dumbo, Hick, Cheapskate, Slob, Liar. Calling people these names to their face was clearly rude and mean (even if accurate) but calling them these behind their back, which probably happened more often, may have done more damage. Global was on a bigger scale, like calling Canadians “Canucks”, Irish people “Micks”, Italians “Wops”. This kind of name calling feels demeaning, superior and insulting. My parents didn’t use these when I was growing up so my global slur vocabulary is slight. My father occasionally used “Micks” but always fondly so maybe the tone, context or speaker is all important.

Anyway, this piece is not about name calling in that sense but the phrase sprang to mind and pleased me so there it is! I found myself thinking this morning of how bright I had been to devise names for Howdy and me as grandparents before we had any grandchildren. Our eldest was about to marry and bring us an enchanting little instant granddaughter who called her mother’s parents “Mommop” and “Poppop”. I didn’t care for those terms of endearment, so I dreamed up “Grandhowdy” and “Grandpenny” which I could live with. These work well as names our grandchildren’s friends, our in-laws and others can use as well.  “Grand” attaches nicely to many names so if it appeals, adopt it. I consider it my invention but heartily doubt it is original.

I think I’ve told you I was to be named Penelope Isobel Stewart Spurr until my beloved Aunt Helen focused on my future monogram / initials. Isobel was scrapped and Helen added before Penelope but the state of West Virginia registrar, even with the name Helen Penelope Stewart Spurr in large print a line above, still identified me as MALE on my birth certificate. (Have I already told you this in a previous blog?  If I have, you can call me a repetitive old bore or smile quietly to yourself as my local friends, when treated to repeat performances, do.)

My grandmother Spurr, born a Stewart in Valley City,  Stewart County, ND, was asked to introduce the new Methodist minister in the receiving line at the reception welcoming him as she knew more townsfolk than anyone else.  All was going smoothly but when there was a break in the line, the new minister turned to her and said, “Mrs. Spurr, I admire your system, I use it myself, but my name is Cotton not Batting.” In my innocence, I have always assumed the word was actually batten and meant “bale” rather than the cotton strips or wadding used in quilts. I was told Belle blushed, laughed and apologized  and became fast friends with Rev. (formerly Batting) Cotton.

Sometimes it’s not the name that’s so bad, it’s who is saying it. When I was in sixth grade,  Carl Fay Hawkins thought warmly enough of me to call me “Precious Penny” to his friends. One morning, as I climbed the stairs to our classroom, a group of sixth grade boys leaned over the encircling railings above and chanted “Here comes Precious Penny” over and over in singsong tones. I was embarrassed and furious. I was deeply in love with Bernie Sampson who was deeply in love with Doris Stoetzer. How dare Carl insert himself into my romantic life! I hated the nickname Penny for years because of this, finally giving up to be Penny Spurr as a Smith freshman.

Today’s photo, my first as Mrs. Marshall, catches pretty well my pleasure at being called that new name by young Mr. Marshall. I also liked hearing him refer to “my wife”, or calling me “darling”.  As for me, I spoke so often of “my husband” that my mother tartly told me that, as she recognized the name Howdy, I could just use his name!

I called my aging, nearly deaf, dog Gilly “Sweetie Pie” this morning when I greeted her, which launched me on this quirky train of thought. I think ones’ pets are the loved ones who probably most appreciate their own names as terms of endearment and approval and one should skip the “Sweetie Pie’s” and “Toots”. A new insight for me but on target, I think. Hope to be back on Monday, possibly wiser and less quirky. Till then, feast on all things pumpkin and glory in the foliage as it starts to color up.   p






Christmas Alert!

Mountain Cabin by President Jimmy Carter, The Carter Center

Mountain Cabin by President Jimmy Carter, The Carter Center

Panic, coupled with stress, overtakes me sooner and more often than it used to. Discussing this distressing development with friends of similar vintage, we attribute this to the decline of painless speed, strength, agility, flexibility, adaptability, digestive efficiency, good eyes and working ears: physical resources we have counted on for years to pull us through challenging situations. The decline of all those –ity’s has resulted in the ascendance of another, vulnerability.

Now that you recognize that state of affairs and mind clearly, I will move to my main point. Now that we are into early October, it is time to think about Christmas. What I really want to share here, at a date early enough to make it work well, should any of you be young enough to use it or impressed enough to pass it on, is probably the single greatest ploy I used as a stay-at-home mother of five. Working mothers and fathers can also use it – that admission was in the cause of total honesty/full disclosure, a practice my parents worked hard to instill in me. Actually I think it was embedded in my DNA.

But first a Christmas story. (My kids tell me readers prefer stories to advice or preaching.) Our Irvington friends the Johnson’s had three daughters and gave each of them beautiful weddings including at least one a few days before Christmas. Brucie, a talented hostess and meticulous planner, called the wedding department manager at Saks around October 1 just to confirm that all bridesmaid dresses had been ordered and would arrive in ample time. Being very thorough, she also checked to see that the sizes of the bride’s two sisters’ gowns were correct and found, to her horror, that a size ten had been ordered for her size eight already married daughter. Expressing her distress at the ghastly mistake, she was gently informed by the tactful manager that as her daughter had personally altered the original order, perhaps Brucie should herself speak to her daughter? Post-wedding, Brucie had a marvelous time regaling her closest friends with the fact that she and Bill learned Wendy was pregnant from the Bridal Manager at Saks White Plains. Being a loving sister, Wendy had hoped to keep her news from overshadowing her sister’s wedding and her admiring and excited parents had faithfully honored her wish.

When my children were very young, the early October arrival of the Sears Roebuck and FAO Schwartz catalogues triggered lengthy Christmas wish lists in the two oldest which they dictated to me. Distressed at the single minded and whole-hearted enthusiasm for getting gifts, I conspicuously started and publicly worked on my list of what to give to family, closest friends, favorite baby sitters and my cleaning woman. This led to some budding interest and awareness of the giving side of the equation and, should one want to give anyone a present, questions of where money to buy gifts might come from. It took a day and checking my blossoming plan with Howdy but here is my proposal. I would buy and use a special little notebook with several pages earmarked for each child old enough to want to participate. For some reason this purchase, participated in at Becker’s with the two eldest, lent dignity and weight to the whole project! I would invent and have ready to hire at virtually a moment’s notice a child to perform a number of helpful tasks around the house. Kitchen drawer tidying, waste basket collecting/emptying, collecting dirty towels/clothes for the wash, entertaining a younger sibling, tidying one’s own room and scratching my back were popular tasks.

Desperation spurred invention. The very youngest specialized in back scratching, a soothing and relaxing treat I couldn’t get enough of. Jobs were paid for at embarrassingly small prices even considering these were the 1960’s and early 70’s. Dates of service, task done and money earned went in their personal pages in the notebook. Sometime early enough in December to assure their purchases could go in boxes going to out-of-town family (if they had “made” the children’s lists!) we went shopping at a wonderful privately owned and managed Five and Ten in Dobbs Ferry. The owner quickly caught on to my goal and the pittances the children could spend and used to hover near my intent little shoppers. Finding lively but hesitant interest in certain items, he became adept at finding that “Oh dear, my assistant failed to mark that down to half price, so stupid of her” or “Drat, I told Elsie to mark those down to 60% off when we had fewer than ten and there are only six left” and miraculously, it was in price range. Whatever a child had earned, I matched prior to the shopping trip, so we shopped with hard cash in pocket. It was understood if they ran short, I could cover it and they could work it off the rest of December. The presents were petite, and siblings seemed to get the best ones and occasionally someone would give everyone but siblings a 10cent comb, or a pack of gum. When Mother died, her Christmas decorations included a tiny battered paper box with a miniature crèche (about two and a half inches wide) labeled in Mother’s handwriting “Darling wee C gave us this”, a “closeout special” I have one of those, too. C bought them all at five cents apiece.

The only really tricky part was my firm belief that they should each be allowed to decide whom they wished to gift while Howdy felt siblings and grandparents should be Absolute Musts. The year after H’s mother told C she would give him whatever he most wanted for Christmas and, upon hearing it was a cowboy belt with two plastic six shooters from Sears, refused to keep her promise, she was summarily dropped “forever” from his list. I knew this was probably unacceptable but completely sympathizing with the reasoning, had to turn the issue over to Howdy to deal with. My mother knew better than to break promises to that stern character or ever to make one in the first place!

I don’t know how my kids feel about those shopping trips but in my heart they are the very essence of both the joy of Christmas and of my highly satisfying life as wife, mother. I tear up just remembering those trips. I must have done something really noble in a previous life to have been so blessed in this one!

My twice a week blog plan is morphing to Mondays and Thursdays rather than Tuesdays and Fridays. Early mornings when things run smoothly, later in the day at other times. Hope you’ll stick with me – your company and comments are a delight. Happy October!  p

Five Generations of Gem Lovers

Three generations

The family passion for jewelry began (at least on this continent!) on the left and moved right infecting at least two  future generations still to be hatched.

My youngest granddaughter (“T”) and I were roommates at the cottage in Muskoka for several years when she was roughly seven to ten years old and I was not. When the weather was fine we spent little daylight time in our sunny corner room but we loved reading before we turned out the light at night and talking in the dark before we went to sleep. These were cozy, bonding times and I remember them with joy and wistfulness. One summer, the night before her family was heading home to Massachusetts, her mother came in as we were reading. After checking on the status of T’s suitcase, she suggested turning our lights off as their start the next morning would be an early one.  “I’m  at a very exciting spot,” T pleaded, “Can I just get past it first, please?” Anne gave me a questioning look. “So am I,” I admitted .”Maybe we could promise your mother to turn our lights off as soon as we feel settled about what’s happening?” Giving me a pleading but stern look, Anne nodded, kissed us both good night and departed. We read perhaps ten minutes more, agreed we could happily   stop and doused the lights. Silence, then out of the darkness a sleepy voice announced, “You know, Grandpenny, we’re really a lot alike. I still love dolls and so do you and we both love to read and read a whole lot. And we both like to act in plays and there’s something else I can’t think of.”You’re right, darling, isn’t that fun?” I agreed. “Hm-m-m” said the sleepy voice. Then I heard a rustling of covers and an excited young voice caroling, “Oh, YES, Pei Pei, and, you know, I just love jewelry, too!”

Sharing this memory recently, I was reminded of my three year old self.  I was in bed in Wheeling with one of the nasty colds that so often felled me before my tonsils and adenoids were removed when I was five. My grandmother was entertaining me and knowing my fondness for her small hoard of “dewels”, she asked if I would like to look at them. “Oh ,YES, “ I squealed, clapping my hands, “please, please!”. Turning her back to me, she unpinned the little chamois bag holding her treasures which she wore pinned to her “shimmie” (chemise).  Handing me the soft little fawn-colored bag to open, she sat down on my bed to watch the familiar routine.

Untying the strings, I dumped the bag on my blanket covered lap. I organized them across my lap, pins first, then rings then a fragile gold chain and a string of small pearls. Next I lifted each item, examining each carefully. ( Looking for flaws or damage since the last inspection? Memorizing or just admiring?) This over, I began to adorn myself. I passed over the little crescent pin of seed pearls, but worked to pin on the large oval amethyst circled in gold, often asking for help from “Glammother”. Her beautiful diamond solitaire engagement ring got a quick try-on and viewing but was quickly traded for the star of the show. It was a beautiful ring, of wrought gold  with a large central oval sapphire set off on either side by good sized diamonds. I admired it prodigiously and coveted it with all my greedy little heart. I tried it on every finger, holding my hands up to admire the effect of the large ring dangling from my stubby little fingers. This would be the last time for many, many years that I tried it on.  “Who gets this ring when you die, ‘Glammother’?” I asked. Admiring the ring, I did not look up to see the result of my question. “Your Aunt Helen,” Gram replied briskly beginning to gather up her treasures, her hand outstretched for the ring. “Who gets it when Aunt Helen dies?” I pursued. “That,” said Gram,“is none of my business and most certainly none of yours, Miss Nosey,” as she scooped the ring off my hand and into her safe bag. “Those are very rude questions, Penelope. They are hurtful. You make me feel you want me dead so you can have my ring.”  She left the room looking both angry and as if she was about to cry.  Tears were running down my cheeks already and having raised the possibility of losing Gram, I felt as if it might be imminent and wept in earnest and alone.

Nearly 45 years later, in Muskoka at the cottage which now belonged to me and my siblings, Aunt Helen, in Gram’s cottage next door, called to ask me to come see her after breakfast, please. I obeyed the summons, curious about what was up.  When I walked in, after greetings, Helen picked up a balled up Kleenex from the table beside her, and said “I want you to take this, darling,” depositing the lumpy tissue in my hand. Mildly curious but still unsuspecting I pulled the hard little lump out of the tissue and found I was holding the longed for ring. Helen and Lee laughed at my befuddlement.  Helen explained. “I never wear it. I have never wanted much jewelry, and I adore my engagement ring but for sentimental reasons. I don’t want you waiting for me to die just to get something I don’t give a fig for. Wear it often and in good health. If Mother had left this to your mother, you would already have had it two years ago.”

It is a truly lovely ring. I loved owning it and wearing it and never wore it that I didn’t feel special because I could see it on my finger. I wore it for occasions when I wanted to feel I’d made a special effort for a special occasion. Armed with the right spirit and outlook, one finds there are many such times. I passed it on a year or two ago to a daughter who feels about it as Gram and I did. I have developed a great passion for handmade Native American silver and turquoise jewelry, my December birthstone when I was born, now changed. I don’t wear gold jewelry much any more, preferring the casual feel of silver. And, like the days of September, the number of social, fancy dress events I attend has nicely trickled down to a precious few, possibly more enjoyable because in shorter, less demanding supply.

Meet you here in October? Hopefully, the 3rd?  Meanwhile, if you love jewelry, deck yourself with your favorites and have a great time !   p