Sunday, September 16, 2012

To the greater glory…

            I go to church to sing.
            There it is. I know I will be struck by lightning. For our family, God does not work in mysterious ways at all. Nope. He acts quickly and clearly.           
            Example:  My mother and my grandmother (her mother-in-law) were never very fond of each other. My father’s sudden death at age 54 left my mother, in her grieving and upended state, to be the one to keep a daily eye on my grandmother since my father’s sister lived 1,000 miles away in Florida. My mother religiously visited Grandma, who lived only minutes up the street from us. This was hardship duty, but she did it without a whimper. I was in college at the time and what I heard most often was how much my mother admired (not to say coveted) one of Grandma’s china lamps. After 3½ years, at the age of 82, my grandmother died in her sleep. My aunt came up from Florida, the estate was settled, my grandmother’s house was dismantled, and my aunt was fine with my mother taking the china lamp. By this time, I was home following graduation and my mother enlisted me to drive while she cradled the base of the lamp in her lap, with the lampshade, protected by a blanket, sitting safely behind us on the back seat. Not having decided yet the best placement for the lamp, my mother put it down in the basement on the floor so that there was no danger of its falling off a table. Less than two weeks later, a freak storm of nearly hurricane intensity sprang up and a mighty gust of wind blew open the cellar door. SMASH went the lamp. My mother told this story in a matter of fact way: it was not mysterious at all that God would frown on her taking possession of this coveted lamp once owned by a woman she did not like. A devout Episcopalian, my mother understood the message immediately and had no hard feelings toward God.
            Now back to me and church…
            I have been singing Episcopal hymns in Episcopal churches since I was old enough to stay “up” in church for the service instead of going “down” to the undercroft (read “basement”) for story time. And for decades I was singing from the choir stalls. Choirs, especially good choirs, are regularly reminded that they are not performing. Choir music is part of the service. No applause, no encores, no “bravos.” (Even if you happen to have done a fine job as soprano soloist in Schubert’s “Mass in G Major.”)
            But that was okay. During those decades, concurrent with singing in church, I had other singing opportunities that were performances. Applause welcome. (Plus any individual words of praise.). At Hollidaysburg Junior High I starred in the 9th grade operetta, “The Man from Venus.” In high school, the Baldwin Trio were featured at chorus concerts. (See “Harry Goes to Hollywood.”) In college, my rendition of “When I’m 64” was preserved for posterity in the first recording of my women’s a cappella group. As an adult, I sang with a number of organizations, from 150-member volunteer choruses that performed Verdi’s “Requiem” with the Philadelphia Orchestra to a 16-member professional chamber choir that performed Thomas Tallis in local churches.
            Once our children were both old enough to stay “up” in church, I stopped singing in the choir. I had all those other singing outlets and I wanted to sit in the pew with my family.
            About 13 years ago, I gave up even my extracurricular singing. Kids’ school events and our work schedules were just too tight to jam in any rehearsals. My only outlet for singing was from the pew on Sunday mornings--and that is not performing. I confess that sometimes I would get carried away, especially at Christmas, as I knew by heart all the fancy descants which I would then belt out with gusto. This led to embarrassment on the part of my children, but also, often enough, to someone turning to me and saying, “My, you have such a lovely voice.”
            Then the kids grew up. Going to church on Sunday has become less compelling then doing the crossword puzzle.
            However, when we were last up on the Cape driving to dinner in a new area, Jon pointed: “Look, there’s an Episcopal church!” He had struck a chord. I had been feeling like I was missing something. So the Sunday before Labor Day I went off to church. Seating no more than 125 souls, the building was a small jewel, with white-washed walls, dark wood beams, and brilliant stained glass windows. And they had a great music program. At the 10:00 a.m. service I was so happy to be chanting the liturgy and singing the Navy Hymn and “Come, Labor On” (hymns, coincidentally, from my father’s 1970 funeral that still make me tear up). When the service concluded, two people sped toward me, one still in her choir robe.
            “I heard you from the choir stall. Next time you are here, please come join us.”
            “Oh, that’s what I was going to say! You should be in the choir!’”
            And from the trim gray-haired woman in the seersucker suit who had been sitting in front of me, “My, you have such a lovely voice.”
            Ah. That’s what I’d been missing. Adulation…of me!
            I am a vainglorious creature, and fully expect to be a pile of ashes momentarily.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Blue Moon

August 31, 2012: Cape Cod, MA

The end of August really annoys me.

It’s not so much that September is around the corner and the next step means back to school. Although I do work for a university, I’m on an administrator’s schedule, so September is no different for me than July. And I genuinely enjoy the changing of the seasons. It’s just that the end of August is so sudden about it.

Consider the transition from fall to winter. When does that happen? No set time. There can be snow on Halloween and t-shirt running weather on Christmas. The leaves take forever to come down. Week after week of raking. The township makes leaf pick-ups from November 1 through December 10. There’s a gradual building up to the holiday madness from September on; the winter solstice doesn’t take anyone by surprise.

And consider February. I’ve always thought that February gets a bum rap as the dreariest month. In fact, February has as many daylight hours as October. It’s just that nobody notices. And the first snowdrops come up in February to make way for crocuses in March. All giving us time to prepare for April and the early forsythia and daffodils before there are even any leaves on the trees. So when did winter end?

In late April we might put in the screens on the side porch and get out a couple of chairs. Three weeks later we might retrieve the grill from the garage, then wait another week before planting the impatiens. And we can even wait another week or so before we buy the hanging baskets for the front doorway. Summer comes that gradually.

But the end of August slams into summer like a hurricane making landfall. No subtlety about it. Almost overnight the world seems to go from daylight and birds chirping at 5:00 to dark silence as late as 6:00 a.m. In my morning run, I’m loping past the tidy landscapes of Plush Mill Road when I smell it: the pungent odor of decaying leaves. The impatiens that were perky just a few weeks ago now look sallow, with snubbed nodes on their stems instead of incipient buds. Recognizing the inevitable, I’m tempted to stop my rounds of watering. Why bother? Can’t stop the decline now!

Take the last couple days. We arrived on the Cape Thursday afternoon, having left only 10 days before. The end of August had done its damage here as well. 

Our planters and baskets of flowers that had thrived all summer through extended absences and benign neglect now look like props for the Addams Family, dead stems collapsed over the sides of their containers. Our neighbors returned to Albany only a week ago, yet their black-eyed-Susans that had reigned in glorious sunny gold for three months now stand stiff with nothing left but charred tops. Although the thermometer said it was 82°, an undercurrent of chill raised the hair on my forearms and Jon wanted to know if he could build a fire. The scrub trees edging the pond are pock-marked with leaves the color of dried blood, and at our favorite farm stand pumpkins are pushing aside the peaches. There is no more reading on the deck until 7:30 p.m. -- we can’t see the pages of our books. And we have to turn on the lights to eat dinner.

All of this change in 10 days.

In defiance of the end of August bearing down on us, tonight, August 31, Jon and I put a steak on the grill, boiled up some corn, and had a salad with native tomatoes. Afterwards we walked down to the landing of the pond. The breeze was now soft and the moon was shining so brightly that the water shimmered silver and we could see our shadows.

The moon wasn’t really blue, but we were. Good-bye, summer. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Vexatious Security

            I have just gotten back to sleep after my usual middle-aged late night walk-about when my cell phone rings. Only half conscious, I’m thinking it’s awfully late for “Rachel the Automaton Voice” to be calling from Oregon to assure me that there’s nothing amiss with my credit card, but boy does she have a deal for me. The phone now in my hand, I see that it is 2:23 a.m. and the caller is Vector Security.
            I am on my feet and wide awake.  “Yes?”
            “This is Vector Security. We are getting a burglar alarm from your house. Are you at home?”
            “No, I’m not at home.” (I am on Cape Cod, 350 miles away from home.)
             “Would you like us to call the police?”
            For some reason I take a second to silently review that Jon is in the Adirondacks with his siblings, Annie is in Seattle with her college roommate, and Jay is unlikely to have traveled from Brooklyn to arrive home at 2:23 in the morning.
            “Yes, please call the police. Will I get a follow-up?”
            “If the police find anything, they’ll call us and we’ll call you back.”
            Well, so long sleep! I sit straight up in bed for a full hour, spending the first 30 minutes getting my heart rate back to normal. At 3:23 I figure I’m not going to hear anything, so I turn out the light.
            While driving home the next day I call Vector Security. Did they really not hear anything, as I was not eager to walk into a ransacked house?
            “No, we heard nothing from the police.”
            “What sensor sent you the alarm?”
            “The right living room exterior door.”
            Ah. The usual suspect.
            We have not had good luck with our security system. In our old house, the converted livestock barn, we had nine, yes nine, “exterior doors” on three levels. None of the doors had locks and we had no alarm system. We lived there for 16 years, and the only breaches were in-laws who sometimes wandered through the kitchen when we weren’t expecting them.
            When we moved to our current house, our insurance company not only insisted on covering us at two times the purchase price (“We have to go with replacement cost!”) but also insisted on a central station alarm system.
            The previous owners had used Vector Security, and the remnants of the system were still in the house. So we called Vector. They sent a salesman who was exceedingly proud of his literary name. To protect the guilty, I won’t give his real name, but it was the equivalent of “Shelley Melville.” He told us that we would need all new sensors (doors, movement and fire) throughout the house, to the tune of thousands of dollars. Luckily Joe the technician said that “Shelley” was nuts. Joe replaced a couple sensors, added a few new ones, and reactivated what remained.
            The system was intimidating. The User’s Manual was (and still is) 120 pages long. The main panel has three rows of seven buttons each. The “fobs” for turning the system on and off from a key chain have a complicated pattern of how many times to press which icon for what outcome. We never turned the darn system on. We did lock the doors, though, since having the ability to do so was such an interesting novelty.
            Election Day 2007. Jon and I are heading home early from our respective offices in PA and NJ so that we can all vote together as a family for local school board representatives. I’m 20 minutes from home when Annie calls. She has arrived home from school (she was still in high school at the time) to find the kitchen door bashed in.
            We had been robbed.
            The only thing the thief took was Annie’s jewelry box, which was worth more in sentiment than cents. But we were stunned.
            As for the local constabulary, Annie could only marvel at their tramping and shouting through the house with flashlights at 4:00 in the afternoon, slamming doors and talking to the cats, while looking for the perpetrator(s). The lead detective was also puzzled by our quixotic housekeeping: Jay’s TV on the guestroom bed, for example. But they were especially censorious about the fact that we hadn’t had the alarm turned on. They didn’t recover Annie’s jewelry box, but they did give us a lengthy lecture.
            So we began using the alarm system. And so began the false alarms.
           June of 2009. Jon and I both had our cell phones off so we didn’t even know it had happened until we got home and listened to all the voicemail messages. We also got a nasty note from our township office threatening fines for false alarms. (How this squared with the lecture about always turning on the alarm system I do not know.)
            The summer of 2011. Jon and I were heading into Philadelphia, looking forward to a movie at the Ritz Five and a light supper afterward at Zahav, when my cellphone rang: Vector Security. Burglary alarm.
            My heart racing, I tell Jon to turn around (well, get off north I-95 and then back on south I-95) and head for home. The police are still there. They could find nothing. They said, with some disdain, that the cats must have set off a motion alarm. But we hadn’t turned on the motion alarms. Vector said it was the right living room exterior door.
            And now the alarm has interrupted vacation rest instead of movie-going. (Plus, earlier in the summer Annie had arrived home to find that the panel buttons wouldn’t work to turn off the alarm. When she couldn’t tell Vector the password the local constabulary arrived at the house again. They and Annie were old friends by now.)
            So something is wrong. I’ve called Vector to come out and check the whole system. Who will they send?
            Joe or “Shelley”?

Monday, April 2, 2012

From the Back Seat

When Jon and I first met in 1980, we uncovered some uncanny childhood coincidences—in spite of the fact that his father was a Philadelphia lawyer raising his family 25 miles north of the city and my father was a doctor delivering babies in the Altoona Hospital halfway between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh and raising his family in Hollidaysburg. Perhaps most astonishing, Jon and I figured out that we could have crossed paths at the Grand Canyon in the summer of 1962. How many East Coast fathers decided that the summer of ’62 was the time to take a family trip across the country?

There were differences. Leaving the older sisters at home, Jon’s mother drove Jon and his brother in the family station wagon to Taos, NM, where his father met them after taking the train. (The Broadway Limited to Chicago before changing trains.) They spent most of their extended trip at campsites or rustic ranches. They even walked down into the Grand Canyon and the next morning rode mules back up.

Not for us the “roughing it” version. My parents packed all four kids and four weeks of suitcases for hotels and motels into our white four-door Sedan de Ville. My brothers were 17 and 14; I was nine and my sister was seven.  Since brother #1 was practically a grown-up, he shared the driving with my mother and father. To have any chance at extended peace, it would not work to have the 14-year-old brother in the back seat with his two elementary school sisters. So through complicated calculations that kept some configuration of grown-ups and brother#2 in the front seat as much as possible, my sister and I saw the U.S.A. not in a Chevrolet but from the back seat of a Cadillac.

And what do I remember from that trip? The first morning we left very early, driving to Bedford to get on the Pennsylvania Turnpike heading west. Our goal was a motel on the outskirts of Chicago. My dad, an avid golfer, talked about a PGA tournament due to start that same morning. Not long after the comment, we could see in front and above us a walkway over the turnpike. Sure enough, overhead and through the mist appeared a number of men in pastel pants on that walkway, followed by lackeys lugging golf clubs. It was almost too good to be true.  (Jon tells me that it must have been the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh, Jack Nicklaus’ first win.)

The car clocked mile after mile, every AM radio station in the country playing Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You” or the spooky space music of “Telstar.” Through the back windows we saw abattoirs, buffalo, and twisters, things as alien to us as pagodas, volcanoes, and windmills. Billboards were our reading material. (We never visited anything that started with “World’s Largest…” nor did our pleas result in a stop anywhere that ended with “Caverns.”) But we did hit more highlights than I can list. In addition to the Grand Canyon (where I may have passed my future husband in a gift shop?), we saw the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest. We stayed overnight in Las Vegas, where the temperature was 107° and we went to a grand hotel to see Victor Borge, who made us laugh while he played the piano. We toured Beverly Hills and Fisherman’s Wharf.  We visited Knots Berry Farm, and at Disney Land I was allowed to go on the scary rides with my brothers, as long as I could keep up with them. (To this day, I walk very, very fast.) We saw Lincoln’s home in Springfield, IL, and Route 66’s home in Springfield, MO. We gazed in awe at the Hoover Dam and we crossed Lake Michigan on a ferry. (The trip was so rough I still avoid ferries— and as a result have never set foot on Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket.)

Over the course of four weeks surprisingly few things went wrong, although we each had our difficult moments. My dad found a Rotary Club lunch to go to in San Francisco, where the president of the club mispronounced my dad’s name when introducing visitors. (No mean feat that, mispronouncing “Taylor.”) When we were in Jackson Hole, WY, my mother had an unhappy time on a trail ride when she would kick her horse as she also pulled back on the reins, saying “Whoa!” (The horse probably had an unhappy time as well.) At the same stop, brother #1 went to a “hoe-down” at the Lodge and the girl he had his eye on danced with someone else. Brother #2 left his prescription sunglasses on the roof of the car when we stopped to take pictures in the Badlands and for the remainder of the trip had to wear clip-ons over his regular glasses. (Not cool.)  Because my mother liked to buy us matching outfits, on several occasions I had to put up with people mistaking me for my sister’s twin. (Also not cool: I was 21 months older!) And my sister was never allowed to pick the radio station.

Nevertheless, we arrived back home without much incident in mid July, and summer settled back to normal, with swimming during the day and catching fireflies in a glass jar after dinner. The trip out West became a collection of photographs.

That was 50 years ago. Impossible.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Swanning Around

I have no memory of ever seeing a real live swan when I was growing up. Swans existed only in books and music. And they were always something out of the ordinary in those books and music. In fact, swans were so out of the main stream for me that I didn’t even understand the significance of “The Ugly Duckling” when I first heard it. I don’t know who was reading it to me, but she must have had dim hopes for my intellectual development when she came to the end of the story with the words, “He looked at his reflection in the pond and saw that he was… A SWAN.” I sat there dumb, uncomprehending and unmoved. She had to show me the pictures of how cute the little ducklings were and how dull the little protagonist of the story, until the last page, when he was now a glorious specimen, glowing brilliant white with elegant curves and clearly far superior to all the brown ducks paddling about in the pond.

Later on I read the story of Leda and the Swan. Now the swan was not only gorgeous but also powerful and liked to get his own way (to put it politely). This myth gave a whole new meaning to “swanning around.” About the same time, “Swan Lake” introduced me to female swans. While they may not have been powerful, they had come into being through magic. So I got to my 20th year with only myth and magic associated with swans.

The summer before my senior year in college I went to England for the first time as part of a summer program geared to English majors and hosted by Trinity College, Oxford. I saw live swans for the first time. I might as well have been seeing unicorns; swans still seemed that unreal. Of course there would be swans and unicorns in England, which was (and, if I am honest, still is) the magic kingdom for me. Kings and queens. Castles and moats. Sherwood Forest. They’re all there! As for swans, in England they are royal in addition to being magical. The Queen annually counts her swans at the July Swan Upping ceremony. Twelve years later, when Jon and I did our first trip to England together, we stayed at the Swan Inn in Bibury, in the heart of the Cotswolds. At the Swan Inn, which is right at the junction of the B4425 and the county lane going up to Ablington Grove, we could look out our window to see swans gliding around in the River Coln. But that wasn’t real either, because we had clearly been dropped into a Constable painting, or a postcard, the long, low dwellings dripping with honey, the green swards the color of smoky emeralds. Soon we were back at Heathrow, heading home. (Note: There is nothing magical about the mess at Heathrow.)

Then…last year we had a stroke of good fortune, and we purchased a small cottage on Cape Cod, our vacation destination on and off for 30+ years. The cottage is on a narrow dirt lane that runs between two ponds before dead-ending into a summer camp for city kids.  The first weekend that we owned the cottage I walked down to the nearer pond with one of our new neighbors and—there they were. A family of swans just meandering about the pond. Our pond! Our swans! I was dumbstruck and stared and stared at the magnificent mother and father, with their trail of “ugly ducklings” close behind, gliding next to the shoreline, heading our way. I didn’t even need binoculars!

We’ve now been going up to the cottage for nearly a year and I’ve learned that there are swans all over the place on Cape Cod. How I missed that for the previous 30 years, I do not know. If you Google “swans, Cape Cod,” you get 2.8 million search results. I am not kidding. Just within a 6-mile radius of our cottage we came upon Swan Lake and Swan River. There is even a Swan Inn. In its February 24 issue, "The Cape Codder" ran a front-page photo of two grown swans literally necking, looking silly, while their nearly grown cygnet stood behind them, looking embarrassed. (Typical teenager.) And I have learned that swans can be a royal pain in the neck, especially if you are trying to take a swim and they think you’ve gotten a little too close to their territory.

Nevertheless, when I walk down to our pond’s overgrown landing early in the morning and the mist is still rising and all is quiet and I see gliding along the far shore “our” swans – they are still magical to me.

Swans, at summer's end...

Thursday, March 15, 2012


I had a good piano lesson on Monday.

Yes, a piano lesson. I have been playing the piano since kindergarten, when I would pick out nursery tunes by ear. One of my most vivid kindergarten memories—next to the time I ate the crayoned cut-outs of fruit that we made—was the day a very large blind man came to our classroom and played “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” I am not being politically correct when I say that his size was inconsequential. What awed me was that he sat there at the old upright piano in the basement of the small Methodist Church with his tawny dog sitting next to him and he played big chords without mistakes and he couldn’t even see the keyboard.

I started piano lessons in 1st grade with Miss Leighty. Not only had she taught my older brother, she had also taught my father. (My grandmother liked to say that “the Taylors put Alma Leighty on the map.” I don’t know what map that was.) I took piano lessons with Miss Leighty for nine years, up until I went away to school. Every year was a roller coaster for Miss Leighty and me. I hated to practice, and week after week Miss Leighty graciously hid her disappointment about what I had not accomplished. Then Spring would come, bringing the annual certifications by some national musicians’ organization followed closely by her pupils’ recitals. Would I get through them? The certifications involved proving that I had mastered the appropriate levels of technique, arpeggios and the like. The recitals meant performing a piece of music.

A harbinger of term papers to come, at the last minute I would work like mad and pull off an A-/B+ production. Good enough for the little pins the certification organization awarded (tiny gold-plated pianos I still have in an old jewelry box) and the applause from the parents gathered in Miss Leighty’s living room. Of those recitals I can recall only one piece, the last one: Carl Sinding’s “Rustle of Spring.” Much more clear is the reward after each recital: We (my father, mother, little sister and I; my two older brothers were excused from attending the recital) would go to Seward’s Drugstore on the way home and I could order a chocolate soda.

And then I was the one with children. It must be the curse of parents that they perpetrate upon their children the very things that they themselves had dreaded as children. We insisted that both Jay and Annie take some kind of music lesson. After a disastrous try at piano, Jay took up guitar lessons. Annie took up piano lessons. After several false starts for Annie with less than satisfactory teachers, we found Miss Priscilla. Annie settled in contentedly—practicing only 24 hours before each lesson. Like mother, like daughter.

Annie at 11, looking pleased
Of course, there were recitals. How to reward the effort of recitals became a question. Stopping at a drugstore for chocolate sodas wasn’t going to work. For one thing, you can’t get a chocolate soda at a drugstore anymore. Not to mention that anyone can get a metallic-tasting chocolate soda anytime at a fast-food emporium—an opportunity that (blessedly) did not exist in 1960’s Hollidaysburg, PA.  So I watched. For Annie, I saw parents bringing bouquets. And that’s what I did. I’d sneak away the morning of the recital to buy a lovely bunch of flowers, which we would hide in the car. Once at the recital location we’d get Annie situated, then I’d again sneak out to the car to collect the flowers to present at the end of the program. She always seemed pleased.

For Jay it was a different story. He was learning electric guitar that, in sharp contrast to his sister and mother, he practiced diligently. His teacher was in a band. Recitals featured “Sweet Home, Alabama.” He was a boy. We went through a couple recitals when the reward was that he could pick what we ate for dinner. I finally did hit on an equivalent of flowers. For his last two recitals, I wrapped up a family-sized bag of Doritos Nacho Cheese chips (Jay’s favorite) and presented them like a bouquet at the end of the recitals.

Now for the past three or four years I have been taking piano lessons from Annie’s teacher, Miss Priscilla. My lessons are every two weeks, and I am doing much better than when I was a kid: I actually practice three or four times between lessons. I recently nailed Chopin’s Prelude in B minor (Opus 28, No. 6). I grinned like a maniac when Miss Priscilla praised me, and I almost said, “I could do this one for the recital!”

There aren’t any recitals for 59-year-old piano students. But that’s okay, I guess. Anyway, where would Jon take me to get a chocolate soda?

Mendelssohn's next...

Friday, March 2, 2012

Unmovable Objects

Not long ago an envelope appeared in our mailbox from a realtor. It was addressed by hand—really by hand, not “by hand” by a machine. The writer identified herself as a local agent working with clients in search of a “special home” in our neighborhood. She designated the preferred streets and noted the desired square footage, the hoped for excellent condition, “nice back yard and unique character.” Gosh. What a coincidence! Their “special home” description sounded just like our house! (Especially the part where she allowed that if the house had “unique character” but wasn’t in excellent condition the clients would feel comfortable making moderate updates.) 

I recognized this maneuver, as years ago my sister-in-law wrangled her dream house by going straight to the owners, who initially had had no thought of selling. (My brother and his wife have now been living in that house for over 25 years.) I confess that I was flattered that someone might want our house that much; it confirmed that I was an excellent judge of houses! Moreover, it was heartening, in this vale of depressed housing prices after having purchased our house at the peak of the market in 2005, to see the proposed price range. The offer would be very attractive-- if we had any interest in selling.
But we don’t have any interest in selling. More accurately, we don’t have any interest in moving. At least, I don’t. The last time we moved it almost did me in. And I thought we had been so organized. I had even contracted with a “moving manager,” someone who specialized primarily in helping “older folks" downsize from their rambling piles in Chestnut Hill into their new cottages in Main Line retirement communities. Our situation wasn’t quite like that, of course, but I gauged that I was going to feel the same trauma level. She sent her minions to help us pack up 225 cartons of books and unnumbered boxes of our mix-and-match glassware and the various sets of Wedgewood and Lenox handed down to us from various branches of our families. Everything she scheduled went off as planned. But I made a significant tactical error: I left too many odds and ends behind to deal with after the main move. We didn’t have a deadline to get out of the old house, so I thought, “Why push it if we don’t have to?”
Well, you push it so that everything gets done in the old house at the same time that you are ready to settle in and recuperate from the move in your new house. So there we were, one toe still in our former home, with kitchen drawers filled with rubber bands and paper clips, shoeboxes full of loose photos, clothes trees with two out of three legs toppled onto empty bedroom floors, and more. All in a house of dust once hidden but now painfully apparent and inducing sneezes and itchy eyes.  For four long weeks after our move, every day, after work and on the weekends, we went back and forth between the houses, loading things out of the old place into the back of the Jeep and hauling them over to the new place. Finally, in a fit of desperate exhaustion, we rented a dumpster and just started throwing things away. We swore we had learned our lesson about stuff.
We have now been in our current house 6½ years. The 225 cartons of books are still in the garage, and down in the basement we have box after box of old vinyl records, Annie’s artwork from lower school, files of W-2’s going back to Jon’s and my college years. A fine film of dust covers gym bags containing Jay’s lacrosse gear from upper school, which he last used in 2003. Under the ping-pong table is a duffel with roller blades and kneepads purchased for a 2001 trip to Key West. (Neither ever came in contact with asphalt—in Florida or elsewhere.) Against a crumbling wall lean towers of stereo equipment so old that the components are a turntable, tape deck, and tuner. A T8200 Vision Fitness treadmill, purchased in 1999 and broken since 2009, blocks the way to the old bureau whose drawers house VCR tapes of Disney movies. There’s no way we could move with all that stuff down there.
Scary stuff
Last fall we were visiting with my brother and his wife when, over drinks, she turned to him and wailed, “Don’t you dare die before I do! I couldn’t possibly clean out the basement by myself!”

I know just how she feels.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

My New Year's Countdown

Thursday, January 5: A dingy day, a dull gray that just won’t lift. To break the gloom I go into the living room to plug in the lights on the Christmas tree and into the dining room to plug in the lights that lace through the pine roping draped over the hutch. Only two more days (and counting) that the lights will be up, so might as well take advantage of it. The first floor comes to life, and I take a couple minutes to count up all the things that “had to be done” to create the holidays…

...starting the day after Thanksgiving with making the Christmas pudding with 17 ingredients. Then December is upon us. We get 120 copies of our Christmas photo to go into the cards that I don’t get around to sending until December 20. I spend 60 minutes at the computer ordering food gifts from Williams-Sonoma for four families. (It takes so long because I can never remember my “log in credentials” from one year to the next and can’t use Express Check-out and have to recreate the recipient list all over again.) Off to Wedgewood Nurseries for two large poinsettias for the front windows, eight small poinsettias for the dining room table and two mantels, and three wreaths. On the way back, pick up more boxes of 100-bulb strands of Christmas lights since the August hurricane flooded the basement and we lost some decorations. A week later we pick out the tree. It goes up for seven days without decorating so that the cats can get acclimated to it. Annie gets home and we decorate the tree – an exercise that takes hours in itself: in fact, the 2½ hours of Handel’s Messiah, all three parts. Part I is devoted to the lights; Part II to determining the correct placement of the 30-year-old strands of gold beads and musical notes and clef signs (“Hallelujah”); and Part III to the glass ornaments, cardboard cutouts of the kings and queens of England, miniature scrolls with scores of carols, and any sparkling non-breakable balls to fill in the empty spaces. (Jay tops off the tree with our angel when he arrives home for Christmas weekend.) Handel winds things up with “Worthy is the Lamb” and we plunk down on the couch with glasses of wine to admire our handiwork. Worthy is the tree.

Then the three traditional holiday dinners. On December 18 it’s Chicken Marbella for 12 for our former neighbors. On December 23 Boeuf Bourguignon for 12 for a longstanding group of friends and family. On December 25 roast goose and Brussels sprouts for the four of us.

I’ve made myself cranky again by thinking of all the hours spent on all of the above, and I go back up to my office to get in a better mood.

Friday, January 6: But we’re not done yet. It’s Twelfth Night and I am off to fetch the galette des Roi – Kings’ Cake. We are not French or even of French extraction. Nor do we observe Epiphany in any liturgical way. But when Jay and Annie were little they had a babysitter from France who introduced us to the puff pastry with almond paste and to the tradition of the little plastic trinket embedded in the cake. Whoever gets the piece with the trinket gets to wear the cardboard crown that comes in the box! So of course that became one more item that “had to be done” as part of the holidays. In contrast to yesterday, today is beautiful, a lovely day for the 20-minute drive to the authentic French pastry shop where I plunk down $17.00 for an eight-inch cake. During the drive, my mind frets over the things that we had left undone this year. We ran out of time for Annie to visit her childhood piano teacher. I baked only two batches of chocolate chip cookies, never getting around to a batch of peanut butter cookies. And I completely forgot about making the hot buttered wine. I guess the list could have been worse.

Saturday, January 7: Two more things that have to be done. The easy one is baking a pan of monkeybread to snack on while we do the hard one: “un-decorating” the house. Start time is 2:30. For this chore we need some hard, thumping music to keep us moving and our tradition is the soundtrack of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Starlight Express.” We turn up the volume to 11 and away we go. Off come the outdoor lights; down come the wreaths; out go the small poinsettias to the compost. The Dickensian figures get packed in plastic boxes for the attic; the fake pine roping entwined through the bannister spindles gets jammed into a big plastic bag for the basement. And the tree? The cats have already helped us by knocking ornaments off the lowest 18 inches. Off comes everything else in the opposite order of the decorating. (We discover that Good Queen Bess is missing in action.) Annie and I pack up the empty liquor boxes with all the strings of lights. Jon drags the tree out to the curb. We do a quick sweep of the dry needles. “Starlight Express” has seen the light at the end of the tunnel and the hall clock chimes 4:00.

90 minutes. 90 minutes to undo how many hours of work? Two hours later we wave good-bye to Annie as she walks off to the commuter rail station on her way into Philadelphia for a friend’s birthday party. She’ll go back to school straight from there on Sunday.

Sunday, January 8: The only traces of the holidays are the two big poinsettias in the front windows. They are still in such good shape I didn’t have the heart to chuck them onto the compost pile. The house is quiet. The old year is over.

Happy New Year.

January 2012