Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Bag Full of Memories

I was cutting up an old shirt for rags today – a trick my thrifty mother taught me - and it brought to mind the old ragbag that used to hang on a hook inside the attic door when I was a child. I loved that ragbag. Every one of those rags had once been an article of family clothing or a piece of bed linen or an old towel. I might dust the furniture with a bit of my first-day-of-school dress with the balloons on the collar, polish the silver with a scrap of embroidered linen that was so tattered it couldn’t be used for anything else, or wipe down the woodwork with a piece of checkered toweling that once dried the dishes after Sunday dinner. I knew a story for each rag.

If you dug through the ragbag you might find a bit of lace that once decorated a pillowcase, or a length of satin ribbon cut off an old blanket. These things were just right for fancying up a doll’s dress or fashioning a tiny coverlet for an oatmeal box cradle. There were frayed jeans that couldn’t hold one more patch but could be cut into patches themselves, squares cut from flannel nightgowns that made pillow warmers for aching ears, bits of old t-shirts that were great when the car needed waxing.

In the ragbag, too, were old, discarded nylon stockings, perfect for stuffing handmade pillows or for cutting strips to tie up the staked tomato plants. I once commandeered a still healthy sock of my father’s (the other had a gaping hole in the toe and was reincarnated as a dust cloth) and stuffed it with cut up nylons. I embroidered a face on the stuffed and rounded foot, cut arms and legs from the cuffed end, and stitched on some wool yarn hair. My small son carried Sammy the Sock Doll everywhere. When Sammy got dirty, he spent half an hour in the washing machine and an equal amount of time in the dryer. Never was a sock so well worn, or so loved.

The ragbag was a bag full of memories – the satin Christmas dress Mama stitched for my favorite doll, the linen cutwork cloth that used to grace my MemerĂ©’s Thanksgiving table, the blue suit I wore the first time a boy asked me to dance, a bit of lace from my father’s christening gown, the navy and white skirt my mother wore to my high school graduation, my favorite brown sweater, worn to rags. We cleaned and dusted, mended and polished with those memories.

I carefully fold the pieces I cut today from the worn and frayed shirt, recalling my sleepy-headed daughter padding around the kitchen wrapped up in its warm, brown bulk. When I dust the furniture, I will remember how she helped me move into my wee cottage and how later, she single-handedly rearranged everything by herself to create an office space for me as a surprise for Mother’s Day.

I don’t have an attic here, but I do have a ragbag full of memories. I’ll take them out to dust or polish or mend - and remember.

Thanks, Hilary!

photo credit:

Monday, May 20, 2013

Paying Attention

All life can be found in the smallest details...
When recounting our life stories, it’s often the big things we recall, the momentous events, the victories or defeats, the births, deaths, and other significant occasions that are written indelibly in our memories. Yet, our daily lives are lived in a myriad of small ways. One woman I know collects mementoes of her days, little things that strike her as particularly beautiful or interesting – a perfect pinecone, a scarlet leaf, a grandchild’s drawing, a poem – and puts them in a box. When she opens the lid and looks at them, she says, they reassure her that her life is not hurrying past unnoticed. I keep a mental version of that box filled with the following:

Sunrises. I often wake before dawn. In those first quiet moments, as the dark fades slowly from the sky to reveal the familiar in a different light, I understand why we call it a new day. No two sunrises are the same, and everything looks slightly different than the day before. Watching the sun come up reminds me of the dual nature of life, its constancy and its change, and stirs in me a deep wonder.

Firsts. The first of anything is an occasion–first step, first tooth, first kiss, first time you drive the car alone, that first sip of coffee in the morning or of tea late in the afternoon, winter’s first snowflake, and likewise, the first shoots of green that brave our New England spring. When my days become mundane, I look for something I haven’t done yet, or some new way of doing a thing that’s become stale, so that there’s always a new first to look forward to.

Senses. I am often stopped in my tracks by the emotions certain sounds or scents evoke. Music pulls me out of myself, an unexpected bit of birdsong on a winter day can change my mood, the sound of laughter always lifts my spirits. I remember my delight as a child, coming home after church on a Sunday morning to the scent of roasting meat and fruit pie. Nothing makes me quite as happy as the smell of fresh earth when the snow melts in April or quite as melancholy as the scent of dying leaves in the fall.

ColorsThere is no season without its own colors. Spring and early summer paint with pastel palettes - lilac, pale yellow, soft blue. Autumn shines with a brilliance unmatched. Even when winter trees are leafless and all the ground is covered with snow, nature makes small places for my eyes to feast. The evergreens stand out greeny-black against the white, every shade of brown and gray shows off its luster where the snow has melted and the leaf matter is exposed, dawns and sunsets paint the sky in shades of crimson and purple. Cardinals and jays look like winged jewels in flight. And when the sun shines, millions of rainbows lie scattered on the snow. 

The unexpected. Sunshine when the weatherperson predicted rain, a card in the mail saying “thanks for being you,” a message on the answering machine that says, “Memere, I love you as much as the whole world!” fill me up until I spill over.

No doubt there will be many major events in my life, but it’s the small things, the everyday, every-moment times that fill my life with awe and wonder.

Thanks Hilary!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Life in the Country

Now that the weather has turned warmer, the dawn hours draw me out of doors. I like to take my first cup of tea and wander around the yard while the sun rises, taking stock of what's growing, watching the shadows give way to the golden light that pours down like honey over the tree tops. It spreads itself across the grass, touches the lilacs, shimmers along the trunks of the maples and pines, and sparkles on the water of the nearby pond.

My neighbor calls these my appreciation walks. Come with me, won't you? There's so much in my little corner to appreciate. My garden is shaping up nicely. Pudgy the cat, who thinks so, too, often accompanies me on my meanderings. Here she is perched on the wall of the pea patch.

This is the first thing I see when I open the door. The lilacs are in full bloom. This branch hangs over my doorstep, begging to be sniffed. At the bush's feet grow dozens of lily of the valley. I can't go in or out without being enchanted by scent.

At the far end of my yard hangs an old fashioned board swing. I often sit there to encourage the child I know still lingers somewhere inside this grownup me.

My patio is another place where I can sit and savor the day, especially at mealtime. I've not yet tackled the paving stone project...

but I have filled the annual buckets to overflowing.

I've noticed numerous flowers on the blueberry bushes near the garden as well as on the blackcaps that grow wild at the edges of the yard. The strawberries have spilled out of their bed and are white with blossoms. I wish I had room for fruit trees!

My tea cup is empty. It's time to head back inside and prep another wall for painting. My four days here are always so full they fly by, but it's been fun appreciating all I have with you.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Befores and Afters

Over the past couple of years, my little cottage has been undergoing some needed transformations.

The roof leaked so a new one was put on.

The old wooden door was warped and drafty and the windows needed replacing. The paint was peeling so a new steel door was installed, and the entire cottage got new windows and a fresh coat of paint.

Even the patio I built a few years ago...

is being updated. Next on the outdoor project list is to lift all the stones, level the dirt, and replace the pavers so everything is again level.

Now that the outside is so spiffy, the inside needs attention. I'm not a red person so down came the cabbage rose valences (catch a glimpse in upper left of photo),

and up went new ones made of pale blue, cream, and cocoa stripes.

Out went the old red countertop...

in favor of a subtle greeny-blue one,

and the old red and blue cupboard curtains...

were replaced with a green-blue check.

Now, off with the red, on with the cocoa brown as the walls and some of the furniture get a facelift with paint.

It's a work still in progress, sandwiched between babysitting and traveling. But, by summer's end I hope to be finished with all the work so I can finally sit down and enjoy it all!

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

For Mama

I wrote the following for my newspaper column years ago. Mother's Day is fast approaching. Though my mother has been gone now for 33 years, I remember her with love.

An old photograph shows her just tall enough to nestle her head on my father’s shoulder. “I’m built for comfort, not for speed,” she joked once, but she could move quickly enough with hairbrush in hand if I was naughty. Mama had a dancer’s grace. I know she danced as a child. I became a ballerina in her cast-off pink satin toe slippers, and a tap dancing fool in her black patent leather tap shoes.

“Like this,” she would say, clicking her feet against the cement porch floor. “Brush, hop, tap, step, tap.” I repeated the words under my breath until my feet could do it without coaching. My mother would tap beside me, her sneakered feet slapping the beat beside my own. Sometimes we’d stack her old polka records on the tall silver spindle of the record player and hop madly across the living room floor dodging the chairs, the footstool, the sofa, whirling and laughing until we were out of breath. When the music stopped, she went humming off into the kitchen to resume ironing or start dinner.

Mama wore her hair in a sausage roll at the back of her head even when it was cut short and the color had faded from flaxen to grey. I loved to watch her as she stood in front of the mirror early in the morning, her elbows bent, her hands reaching for the tiny hairs that escaped the rolled net that held her hair in place. On summer mornings she wore a morning coat—a thin, flowered cotton dress with buttons all the way up the front. On winter mornings she bundled against the cold in a chenille robe, thick, and belted at the waist. Not until her housework was done did she dress for the day. She was in her fifties before she traded her skirts and blouses for shorts and slacks.

When I was a small child, where she was, I wanted to be also. I would plead illness just to stay home from school and be with her. Her daily routine seldom wavered. Up in the mornings before the rest of us, she had the kettle hot and breakfast ready when we stumbled, sleep-befuddled, into the kitchen. She drank two cups of morning coffee, one standing by the stove just after the coffeepot stopped percolating, and the other sitting at the table with my father as he drank his own. Every weekday she packed four lunches, one each for my brother, my two sisters, and me. I carried mine in my much-loved green metal lunch box. Even when I stayed home she would pack my lunch in it. Then at noon she’d fix a tray for herself, bring my lunch box to me in bed, and eat there in the sickroom with me.

She sang as she went about her daily tasks, “Singing makes it less like work,” she often said, which may explain why I whistle while dusting or washing the supper dishes. Often, too, she would stop what she was doing, seat herself at the piano, and play for half an hour or so. I would scramble up on the bench beside her, watching her fingers fly along the keys. We would play together, two-part practice pieces by Bach or a madcap version of chopsticks, each of us playing faster and faster until one of us made a mistake. Then she would laugh and give my shoulders a one-armed hug.

When things went wrong or Mama was angry, she went out the edge of the garden where an old apple tree stump served as a chopping block. She’d swing the ax, thump! against log after log until her anger translated itself into a pile of firewood. If winter snow obliterated the chopping block, she’d coax us children to go skating or sledding with her. Before long she’d be having so much fun that her bad humor would simply vanish into the cold air.

I remember all these things about her as I put the photo album back on the shelf. I do a little hop, brush, step as I head for the kitchen to make dinner.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Lili's Day

Because my daughter has no particular religious affiliation, she has chosen to give her daughters a Welcome to the World party rather than the traditional christening. Lily is seven months old this month and tomorrow is her special day. This is my poem to her...

For Liliana on the Occasion of
Her Welcome to the World Day

We get used to seeing
Through our own eyes, thinking
We know the world.
Then a small child is placed in our arms
And everything changes.

Our inward eyes turn outward,
And we see the world as it is – wild and wondrous!
The green of a new leaf,
The aching sweetness of the sparrow’s song.

We can giggle at the grass between our toes,
Jump in puddles,
Weep over small hurts,
And hug with abandon.

There is at once an innocence
And a deep wisdom
In a child’s eyes that allows us to see
Our own eternity.