Tis the season…

Christmas is just around the corner and Mr. Smith and I are again on the road, off to visit family and friends, some family that are also friends and some friends that are family. The weather forecast predicts temps in the mid-40s with zero chance of a white Christmas.  And while I have vivid memories of the magic of snow falling on Christmas Eve when I was a child, as a traveling adult I am thrilled with the gift of dry, safe roads.

The planning, shopping, baking, wrapping, packing and mailing are all done and now it’s time to relax and celebrate the season.  This past week, I hosted some old friends for a holiday happy hour, appreciating the comfort of those who have known me for years and still love me!  On another occasion, I shared a dinner out with newer friends, getting to know them better over a glass of chardonnay and tasty crab cakes.  And now it’s on to the main event.

Mr. Smith and I were up early this morning to pack up the sleigh and hit the road.  The long hours on I-80 with our festive holiday beverages from Starbucks and holiday tunes on the stereo provide plenty of time to discuss the week ahead of us with eager anticipation.  We are particularly looking forward to a visit with our bubbly granddaughters.  It is enchanting to enter their mystical world of girliness and camaraderie.  It is my grandma hope that when they are in their sixties they will still get together at the holidays and share heartfelt memories of a Christmas visit from Slick Grandpa Nick and me as cherished as those I have of Christmas visits from my beloved Aunt Ruby.  

And before we hit Ohio, I-80 becomes Memory Lane and we ponder the decades of Christmases with our three sons. Like Emmet’s second Christmas.  During his afternoon nap, Mr. Smith and his brother Pete went out to get a tree. When Emmet woke up there was a tree in the living room complete with holiday lights.  He was overjoyed.  Or the year we were stunned to remember late on Christmas Eve after the boys were in bed that their gifts were still in the closet of Mr. Smith’s office out at the printing plant.  Luckily, he remembered how to turn off the alarm system.  Our precious memories are a treasure trove of cookie decorating, messy tree trimming, noisy holiday meals and fun Christmas movies.

When Mr. Smith and I take a break from our discourse, my stream-of-consciousness mind drifts back to my own childhood Christmases.  There were always colorful gifts under our simple tree and stockings stuffed with candy and an orange, but my most vivid memories are of the anticipation of family coming home and the meals shared.  One year in particular was when I was in high school and working at an Indiana toll road restaurant.  My usual shift was 6:00 am to 2:00 pm.  For Christmas day, the shifts had been split and I was only working 6:00 – 10:00.  My younger brother thought we should get up and open gifts before I went in at 6:00 am, but thankfully my parents put the kibosh on that.  When I got home from work shortly after 10:00, my wonderful Aunt Ruby and Uncle Ike were at our house, having driven up that morning from Illinois.  It was my sweetest Christmas surprise ever!

My mother always decorated for Christmas, made cutout cookies that we frosted, and baked date nut bread.  She baked it in Dad’s empty beer cans after he had carefully removed the tops. This created little round loaves.  It was moist and delicious and it is what we always left out for Santa on Christmas Eve, along with a can of beer (Dad’s idea).

ZELLA’S DATE NUT BREAD

  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4-1/2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 4 T. soft butter
  • 3 eggs well beaten
  • 2 tsp. soda
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 cup chopped nuts 
  • 2 cups chopped dates
  • 2-1/2 cups boiling water (pour over dates and walnuts and baking soda and let sit for 30 minutes)

Cream the butter and sugars and add the vanilla. Combine the flour and salt, then add the flour mixture and the date mixture a little at a time, alternating between the two. Fold in the eggs at the end.  Don’t overmix.

Grease cans (6-7) and fill ½ full.

Bake 55 minutes at 350 degrees or approximately 1 hour for loaf pans.

Of course, you don’t have to bake your date nut bread in beer cans, but I can attest that Santa never left any behind.

C’est la vie.

As a woman, I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world. Virginia Woolf

Reading my post about a solo trip into New York City prompted my sister Jeanne to think about her many solo adventures over the years. Below she shares her thoughts on the advantage and pleasures of traveling – and being – alone.

Jeanne and me in Paris.

The Wrinkly Duchess looks at Oneness…

I believe several situations contribute to the preference of being alone.  First, you were an only child and have grown up with that paradigm.  You comfortably function as an ‘only’ with no need of constant reassurance.

Or perhaps you were one of a brood, lost among busy personalities and a hectic household, who longed for quiet moments away from the crowd.   I suspect the third type might be the folks who have crazy busy intense people filled jobs, whose eight hours are crammed with decisions and who long for quitting time and the quiet ride home. 

I’m part of number 2 and number 3. The oldest girl of seven siblings whose working mother was single for many years, so she depended on the oldest daughter to hold the fort and who’s after school and summer hours were spent wrangling the young ones while starting dinner prep and other assigned household chores like ironing and floor scrubbing. 

Sounds a bit like Cinderella but not really. Times were tough and I had to pitch in. Mom worked two jobs to feed us. It is the reality of many families.  Later as an adult I had one of those intense jobs which necessitated coming home late. My four interesting kiddos were my escape.

So now, as an senior, I find I treasure solitude.  It’s a treat to sit in a lovely café, peruse a menu and pick my favorites. No…”What are you having dear?” God forbid we chose the same entrée. Why? 

Traveling alone is really fun. I choose where, when and for how long.  I read up on interesting places or sites and jump in with both feet, discovering exotic cafes, adventures and friends along the way.  Curiosity and imagination are the very best traveling companions. Staring out windows of planes, trains and automobiles I wonder about the lives of those in towns and villages we pass and perhaps chose a future destination. 

Oneness doesn’t dictate always alone. It simple suggests you do not fear solitude and function quite well on your own. When a friend or relative comes to share my life for days or weeks, they are welcomed.  But my alone days are often filled with projects, reading, writing, volunteer hours, even movies and shopping. My brain is my friend, my companion and playmate.  I remember stupid old jokes my brother told me decades ago and I laugh out loud. I remember loved ones who I can no longer call to gripe about some insane political occurrence. I remember sweet moments in my very long life that still warm my shriveled up old heart. I realize that no matter that we lose in this life, perhaps the saddest is memory. They are the compendium of our experiences. Memory can be the best roommate. 

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks…

People who know me well would never describe me as a relaxed, go with the flow person.  I prefer a plan and a schedule.  This past Wednesday I had scheduled a much-anticipated Christmas trip into New York City.  I planned ahead and bought my ticket for the “Curb Side Express” back in November.  This route picks up passengers a short two blocks from our apartment.

Wednesday morning, I arose earlier than usual and was ready and waiting at the appropriate spot five minutes early.  It was a chilly morning, so I was delighted to see my motor coach approaching.  I wasn’t delighted when it drove right past me without stopping!  As a planner, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be at exactly the right time.  I watched to see if he might circle the block to pull up on the side street, but no, to my horror, he was gone!  Frustrated and confused, I called the bus company and kept getting transferred and cut off, so I stomped over to the bus station a few blocks away to tell them my tale of woe.  There I was informed that I was supposed to “wave the bus down”!!!  I tersely –  but politely –  explained that information was nowhere on their site and that I had been at the station previously to check precisely where I should wait for the bus and no one said a word about needing to flag down my ride.

I was put on the next available bus into the city, but that robbed me of the time I would have been there by a few hours.  Needless to say, I had a prepared itinerary for my visit, so the first part of my trip was spent grumpily reviewing my list and deleting some things.  Yet as soon as the New York City skyline came into view, my grumpiness disappeared to be replaced with sweet anticipation of the day’s adventures ahead.

My first stop with the festive Winter Village at Bryant Park located behind the New York City Public Library.   This European inspired open-air market features over 175 vendors offering tasty treats and unique artisanal boutiques, as well as a skating rink that offers the only free skating in the city!  This market always sparks my Christmas spirit.  It seems to have that effect on others too as everyone seemed particularly jolly.  I was charmed by the negotiations between the hot chocolate vendor and the cheese stick folks, trading their wares with each other.  While I didn’t sample the hot chocolate, I can attest to the tastiness of the cheese sticks!

After some time perusing the village, I headed up busy, bustling Fifth Avenue towards Rockefeller Center.  My first glimpse of the Rockefeller Christmas Tree makes my heart happy each and every year.  It is always crowded, but even an introvert like me considers it an absolute must this time of year.  I love every sparkle on this 75-foot masterpiece.

And as always in the city, you never know who you are going to run into.  Although Mr. Smith says the fellow in the photo below is an imposter and insists that he is my personal ole St. Nick!

When I’m in the city for the entire day, I like to plan a break mid-afternoon to revive my energy and decide on how to spend my remaining time.  I received a gift card from my grandsons that has been calling my name, so I had scheduled a couple of spa treatments at The Red Door.  While they may have rebranded and changed their name, the pampering remains delightful and I emerged rejuvenated and eager to press ahead.

On to Bloomingdale’s!  I know that department store shopping is time-inefficient, but it still holds a huge appeal.  Attractive, well-dressed people want to spritz me with perfume, well-groomed folks want to give me a make-over, and one of Santa’s elves in the Christmas section wanted to know if I fancied a visit with Santa!  I am a kid in a candy shop with the vast selection of finery and frippery.  I made a couple of purchases, noted some things to think about, and soaked in the sparkly holiday décor.

It was now time to think about navigating my way back to arrive at the bus station in time to catch my ride back to Pennsylvania.  I walked down picturesque Lexington Avenue and cut up to Fifth Avenue, admiring the shop windows and all the holiday decorations.  This simple window stood out to me amongst all the opulent ones.

My bus connection home went smoothly, we made good time, and I was home sipping a cup of tea with Mr. Smith by 10:30.  Many friends are surprised that I am happy to spend the day on my own in the city.  Without a traveling companion, it is easy to settle into your routine and not venture out.  But a day in the City reminds me it’s a big world – I love hearing the different languages spoken and seeing fashionable New Yorkers.  I also like the sense of accomplishment I get by doing it on my own.  I still remember how I felt over a decade ago on my first solo trip into the City when I was able to easily locate the Sephora where I had an appointment. Over the years, I gotten to know myself better and acknowledge that life can be an adventure if you learn how to flag down the damn bus.

C’est la vie.

Who let the dogs out?

This past Saturday I popped out of bed and jumped in the shower, eager to get the day rolling. We loaded up the car, braved the local Starbucks, and headed down I-81 for an early Christmas visit with our three grandsons and their parents.  It was a beautiful sunny day for a drive and Mr. Smith indulged me with Christmas carols on the car stereo, even singing along with a couple of his favorites.  He gave Elvis a run for his money on Blue Christmas.  When we pulled up to their house, what to our wondering eyes should appear, but three little grandsons offering to help us carry things into their house!  Despite their trying to be coy, Mr. Smith and I both knew they were checking for Christmas loot.  

We had scheduled this weekend for a visit because Glen Echo Pottery where Emmet takes classes was having their annual holiday pottery sale. Emmet, Mr. Smith, Eli and I loaded up to go to lunch and the sale while the rest of the group went off on their own adventures.  After a quick yummy lunch at Cava, we were off to the sale.  We meandered through room after room of ceramics.  I had a superb grandma time helping Eli with his Christmas shopping.  It was fascinating to listen to his thought process of who would like what and why.  It’s always a treat to get a little one-on-one time with a grandchild.

When we rendezvoused back home, it was time for Christmas fun.  I had brought Wilton Build it Yourself A Puppy for Christmas Gingerbread Doghouse Decorating kits so building those was our first order of business. The boys are no strangers to a craft project and did a great job.  Sam was a bit more interested in eating the candy bones than using them to decorate his house, but we all had fun.

The rest of the evening was spent playing a rousing game of Apples to Apples, devouring a platter of tacos and opening Christmas gifts.

As part of Christmas, the boys had received Barnes and Noble gift cards so Sunday morning the three amigos and I headed out to redeem them.  After a quick stop in the adjacent Starbucks for a latte for me and a sandwich for Sam, it was up the escalator and on to the toy section of Barnes and Noble. While I was hoping they would want to peruse the book selection, the visions that were dancing in their heads weren’t of sugar-plums or books, they were of toys! They spent a lively half hour selecting their purchases. Then it was back down to Starbucks for hot chocolate and checking out their purchases.

For any grandma in need of a little Christmas cheer, I advise getting a little old driver so lively and quick, loading your sleigh with toys and heading off to visit your grandkids!

C’est la vie.

My old house.

I miss my house.  Most of the year I’m amenable with our downsizing lifestyle.  It’s a luxury to be able to close the door and take off without any thought of mowing the yard, shoveling snow, or electrical failure.  But when the holidays roll around, I miss my house and all that came with that rambling old homestead.  We spent over 20 busy years there, raising our three sons.  Mr. Smith sanded, stripped, painted, and wallpapered every square inch of the place, creating a lovely home from a diamond in the rough.

I reveled in decorating for the holidays.  Trees, garlands, Santas, angels.  I would spend a week transforming the place, devoting one night each to the dining room, living room, kitchen and TV room.  Mr. Smith would hang fragrant fresh garland and lights on the outside.  It was a wonderful Christmas house, lots of bedrooms and plenty of space for everyone.

I miss being the hostess queen.  I loved planning the meals, treats and activities, as well as dinner parties for family and friends using Christmas china and candles, and bottles of wine and great company.  One year for Christmas, my son Elliot gave me a dinner party journal in which I would record the menu, the wines, the company and seating charts.  I was able to document the table decorations and party favors.

Perhaps it’s because of all the changes this year that I find myself particularly melancholy. The loss of family members, moving and leaving a job have left me at loose ends. And it’s the end of the year and time to reflect on things you’ve done and things you’ve left undone.  Goals reached and projects left undone.  

Luckily Mr. Smith and I have a bit of yin and yang in our relationship.  When I start to look at the past through rose-colored glasses (that old house had its issues), he’ll remind me how much our life has expanded by letting go of the past. It’s easy to think all would be perfect if we were back there, but it’s our todays that we should value and so I will.

C’est la vie.

The Butterfly Lady

This past Saturday morning I was packing away Thanksgiving decorations and bringing out the Christmas trimmings when my phone rang.  It was my sister Jeanne calling to tell me that our sister, Suzi, had died that morning.  It was unexpected and left us both stunned.

Me, Suzi and Jeanne – 1985.

Ours is a fractured family and I hadn’t seen Suzi in over 15 years.  We had sporadic contact at best, not truly part of each other lives, so I was taken aback by how sad I felt.  After the initial shock wore off a bit, my mind was able to drift to better times and those memories made me smile.  I thought about her letting me dress up in her prom formals and spritzing me with cologne. I thought about her coming home from school, turning on American Bandstand and dancing.  And I thought about my mother’s excitement when Suzi won a regional oratorical contest during high school.  My mother, who never showed much happy excitement, was jumping up and down screaming “That’s my girl, that’s my girl!” Suzi was ten years older than me and I saw her through adoring little-sister eyes.  Despite our differences as adults, she was a special part of my childhood.  

When I started high school, we were living on the same block.  But before I graduated, she moved out-of-state with her husband and three sons and we never lived in the same state again.  That marriage ultimately ended in divorce.  She went on to marry twice more, both ending in divorce. She experienced more than her share of tragedy, losing two of her three sons. And while she sometimes floundered in her overwhelming heartache, she somehow managed to get on with life.

For over the past decade, Suzi had been living in Texas where she made a life for herself.  She developed an intense interest in monarch butterflies, planting gardens for them and following their migration, earning the nickname The Butterfly Lady.  She made wonderful friends and did some traveling with them.  And she died surrounded by love, with her daughter-in-law and her best friend at her side.  Her friend held the phone up to her ear so her son, Todd, could say goodbye. 

The loss of a sibling leaves a hole in your life whether you had a close relationship or were estranged.  Suzi’s death means the loss of years and all the life events that mark that time which can never be recovered.  I will remember Suzi through my little sister lens, wonderful memories that were never lost.

C’est la vie.

And what a time it was…

Thanksgiving came to be my favorite holiday when my sons were in college.  Their arrival home on Wednesday would fill our home with renewed life.  We would feast on chicken enchiladas and decorate turkey cookies.  On Saturday, we would put up the Christmas tree together and Mr. Smith and I would try to persuade our sons to watch It’s a Wonderful Life with us.  We were never successful.  

My friend, LouAnne, turned us on to turkey cookies. The Smiths have devoured dozens and dozens.
My three sons.

Many Thanksgivings were spent with family, some with friends and one was spent just Mr. Smith and me.  Our first year out east, we spent the holiday on our own in the love nest 1.0.  Then on Friday morning, we hit the road for NYC and Mr. Smith made one of my childhood dreams come true when he took me to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular.

It was amazing!
Uncle Pete and Adam.
Hannah and Elliot. Everybody always wanted to sit by Elliot. I bet Rachel is on his other side.

It’s hard to recall all of the Thanksgivings over the past years.  However, the last two seem to accentuate the persistent drumbeat of time.  Last year we were with my mother-in-law in Cass City, Michigan.  We made dinner for her and her dear friend Mimi and Mimi’s husband, Dave.  There was much talk of Thanksgivings past and of course, Pat had many memories of the family over the years. 

Thanksgiving circa 1960.

Pat has since passed away so for the second time in three years, we shared Thanksgiving with our youngest son Adam, his wife Hsin Yi and their beautiful daughter, Eleanor Patricia.  Eleanor filled our apartment with giggles, energy and joy.

Helping make the whipped cream for the pumpkin pie!

It is sobering to reflect on all that has transpired from our early childhood through today and it is with a sense of wonderment that we look to the future.  By the time Eleanor is 18, we will (with any luck) be in our 80s.  I hope we are still making memories.

Long ago…it must be… I have a photograph Preserve your memories They’re all that’s left you.

Paul Simon, Bookends

C’est la vie.