Community · Uncategorized · Writing Life

Customs and Costumes, My Day with Downton Abbey

“The Castle at Park Plaza”

I have worked in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston off and on throughout my career, but I had never been in this interesting building. Now called The Castle at Park Plaza, it was originally an armory dating back to the late 1800s. On Friday, I met friends from Connecticut here to see the Downton Abbey exhibit that featured replicas from the show (the kitchen and dining rooms), character and plot recaps, and several props and costumes.

The Bell Board
I love keys like this!

One of the first things you see, once you’ve passed the welcome video of Mr. Carson, is the telegram that arrives informing Lord Grantham that his heirs have both died at sea aboard the Titanic. I was surprised that they went to such lengths with the props in that way. Then there was the famous Bell Board, and the replica kitchen with the table and the egg holders and other tools. A pot of cider or something was simmering on the stove, making it smell as if Mrs. Patmore was baking pies.

They also made up Mr. Carson’s pantry/office. Among the props were an old-time barometer, and this cabinet of keys. It reminded me of the house where I lived in Guilford; many of the doors had keys like this. Of course, once we kids got hold of them, few of them could be found, much less match to their respective doors. Such a shame. There were also servant bells set up in the house, that worked when we first got there, but were sadly disconnected at some point. The rang more like a door buzzer than the delicate bells of Downton..

There was also a replica dining room, with explanations of the various customs around hosting, entertaining, waiting upon the household and guests, and so on.

Much of the rest of the exhibit was costumes, including the various wedding dresses which I did not get pictures of, and several sets of hunting outfits including this one belonging to Mary. Of all the looks presented, this one was most my style. Over the years, I’ve had several things that looked a bit like this with different cuts and fits. Nix the tie, though.

This is my style. I was born in the wrong era.

Much of this was like wandering through a J. Peterman catalog in the early days of the company, or in the case of the hunting outfits, Banana Republic, before it was bought and sanitized by The Gap.

Dresses from Lady Edith and Lady Mary
Dresses from Lady Grantham and Lady Mary. I love the red one, but I would need some kind of wrap.

I was originally just going along “for the ride” and a chance to see friends of mine who live out of state and not near enough for me to see when I visit my mother. I really enjoyed this more than I expected to and now I find that I miss the show even though it often annoyed me with its predictability. As my friend said, “there’s some comfort in that predictability.”

There’s a Downton Abbey Movie coming out soon, and this whole experience has got me thinking about historical fiction and the writer’s ability to put themselves in another era through research. My resort project may do that, but I have to decide what era to put it in, since the real resort was visited by Mark Twain and didn’t close until the 1960s. There are several eras to choose from.

Nothing Succeeds Like Excess

Okay, back to Downton. Since I already have enough clothes that are close enough to costumes that I don’t have anywhere to wear them, I avoided buying anything in the “gift shop” they set up for the exhibit. I would have loved a hat, but I already have several, and I really can’t buy any more blank books, though I love this one with a quote from the Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley.

Community · Family · Uncategorized · Writing Life

A Memory of Geraniums

The smell of geraniums reminds me of my grandfather. He instilled a love of gardening in me and though I can’t match his work ethic when it comes to fertilizing and weeding, I have a reasonably successful vegetable garden and plenty of flower pots around the yard, including several geraniums.

They are available in many more colors now than they were in the 1970s. I remember the geraniums in my grandparents’ yard as solid red, and occasionally white, growing in a basket hung from the lamppost opposite a sign with the house’s number and a name, “Squaw Rock.” The name came from the large rock formation between the back yard and the beach and there is also another formation with the same name off the coast of a different part of town. Although Native/Indian names are common in the town and surrounding area, “Squaw” is now considered a slur and the name has vanished from the property as it stands today.

Squaw Rock in a Storm

Geraniums and salvia were part of my summers. The salvia was a treat because you could pull the red center part from the rest of the flower and suck a tiny drop of nectar from the end. These days the salvia I see at garden centers is mostly purple, and the geraniums can be peach or even a lavender.

My mother and I are not in frequent contact, but when we do talk, I have made a point about asking clarifying questions about some of the family lore. For instance, my parents both grew up in New Jersey, but stories made it sound as if my mother’s parents had grown up in Connecticut. Which is it?

My grandparents grew up in Connecticut. I believe my grandmother’s father founded the Congregational Church in their town (that’s another thing I’ll have to clarify). My grandfather worked on a farm there and the owner of the land had connections that led to a job for my grandfather on Wall Street. After the Crash, he was laid off and came back to a job at a manufacturing plant in his home town. He was bored and he hated it. He set about trying to find work back on Wall Street – during the Depression. He did find a job with a firm that sold odd lots (small orders) of stocks, moved back to New York, and eventually did quite well.

Meanwhile, my grandmother was a teacher. One summer she was taking some sort of certification classes at Yale. On the last day of the session she offered a classmate, Martha, a ride home in her Model T. Martha’s brother, my grandfather, was home for the weekend, and when he met Anne, my grandmother, he asked her on a date right then and there.

The house at 405 Stuyvesant in New Jersey

They eventually married and moved to an apartment in New York. They quickly had two sons, but when Anne was pregnant with their third child, my mother, the two of them decided that they needed more room. The story goes that my grandfather got on a train to New Jersey after work one day and rode until the train came to a stop where there were a lot of trees. He got off the train, walked around the town and picked out a house. He bought it without my grandmother ever seeing it first. They raised five children in that house through the war and beyond. They would often rent a house in the summer back in Connecticut.

As it happened, a couple of decades later, my father opened his business several blocks away on the same street in New Jersey. My mother would eventually meet him when she applied for a secretarial position there after a few years away at college.

I only have the barest details of our family history, but I have been increasingly drawn back to the towns in Connecticut where I grew up and where my grandparents had a house on the beach that is the biggest part of my summer memories. It started last winter with my uncle’s funeral, and intensified when his daughter died this past winter. I wrote about this pull earlier this year. I really can’t explain it, but a sense of place has always been important to me. Where you grow up has a huge impact on your identity, and your perspective.

I think about the books I’ve read that are based in the South, and how the climate and the culture are almost characters unto themselves. Surely, New England has some of that, in stories like Olive Kitteridge , set in Maine. But, Connecticut? What stories are there? I’m sure there are plenty, and I need to start somewhere.

Community · Uncategorized

Valentine’s Day. We’re doing it wrong.

Heart of Stone

My younger son went to the semi-formal with friends a few weeks ago. They dressed up, no dates, and had a great time dancing their asses off. There’s video. I’m not sharing.

My older son, who has a girlfriend, opted not to go. Their attitude was “been there, done that, thank you, next.” Since he is a senior, I’m guessing they’ll be more interested in prom when the time comes. I like that they made their own choices and that didn’t feel pressure to go or not to go.

I have always really hated Valentine’s Day because there is so much pressure and I see people all over beat themselves up for being alone from middle school onward. There was always so much drama over whether we would get a carnation from the right boy, even we even got on at all, and heaven help the ones who got one from the wrong boy.

As an adult, when I worked in the city, I used to see all these guys on their lunch breaks scrambling in CVS for a last minute card or a tacky pink stuffed animal. Why bother?

And then there are the folks spending a first Valentine’s Day alone after a break up. How hard that must be, and how it must seem that everyone else in the world is partnered up, even though that’s far from the truth. Torture by Hallmark holiday. So not fair.

For those of us who do have a partner, even going out to dinner with everyone else in the world creates unwanted pressure. If things aren’t perfect the occasion seems like an awful portent.

I don’t think I’ve ever really celebrated Valentine’s day. I’ve never been a really romantic person, and to start now would just make both of us laugh.

I don’t really regret my decision, but I wish now that I was able to make it fun for my kids when they were little like I’m able do with Christmas. I slogged it out year after year getting the kids to write out paper valentines for each of their classmates. They resented it, I resented it. They would come home with the little cartoonish cards or stickers from their classmates in a bag or a box and never look at them again. One year I even created handmade cards for 60 kids, but I never did anything for my boys at home. I should have. Whoever created “Galentine’s Day” and “Palentine’s Day” had the right idea (this is the first year I’ve heard of either), but they should all be on the same day.

Someone at this high school had the right idea. It’s fun, it’s inclusive and a little mysterious. More of this kind of thing, please.

My generation had to have a date to go to the Prom and there was so much drama and heartbreak and pressure around it. I’m so glad my kids are able to go with friends and just have fun. That’s the way Valentine’s Day should be.

Community · Uncategorized

Relax, it’s All Done!

I have to say this was one of the better Christmases in recent memory. Several groups we typically exchanged gifts with agreed not to do gifts this year, cutting both the expense and the frantic shopping.

The boys got along reasonably well, even buying for each other for really the first time. There were no fights, no complaining.

I finished my Christmas Eve errands hours earlier than I usually do, and L stepped in to make cookies for the neighbors’ party so I didn’t have to scramble to get home in time to do it.

We all took the week off, though it is going by faster than I anticipated. Yesterday was crisp and cold, no higher than the freezing mark, but there was no wind so it wasn’t uncomfortable to go out and fill the bird feeders, and throw a stick for the dog.

Chickadees and doves and two kinds of woodpeckers swarmed the newly-filled feeders, perhaps gathering what they could before today’s rain. Later that night a pack of coyotes howled and yipped in the distance; their calls traveling easily through the thin, frigid air to our dog, who stood on alert for nearly an hour.

Today it is raining, and though, according to our weather station, it’s warmer, the winter damp can be paralyzing. I am fighting a cold, not a bad one; sore throat, congestion. However, I have pulled something in my shoulder, so even coughing hurts. It is a good excuse for a nap, and truly, I haven’t done much else.

Life right now is about managing my energy, trying not to run myself into the ground the way I used to. I was reading an article about how much of the emotional labor of the holidays falls on women, driven to perfection as so many of us are. When my nieces and nephews were small, I put a lot effort into finding the perfect personalized gift for each of them, running around from store to store and spending way too much money. I stopped being able to do that when I had kids of my own. Similarly, we used to travel all the way to Connecticut late on Christmas night after spending the evening with L’s extended family. A few years ago, we stopped doing any visits at all on Christmas Day and it’s been the best thing.

I realized the other day that this is why I keep my Christmas decorations up as long as I do. There are those who take their decorations down right after Christmas and put everything away. I don’t like to take things down until the “twelfth day” of Christmas because I don’t have time before Christmas to relax and enjoy the tree and the lights. Christmas morning, after all the presents have been opened, is when the season finally belongs to me and I want some time to enjoy it.

Community · Uncategorized

Ham and Beans

img_0024I think I was well into adulthood before I realized that people don’t go to ham and bean suppers for the food.

When I’d see such signs, usually in rural areas, I would assume that they were targeted at the poor, who would welcome a free or low cost meal in the basement of a church. I’d think “how sad,” especially since I am not a fan of either ham or beans. But then, I was the kid who, upon seeing similar signs for “Vacation Bible School,” would think “that’s not a vacation!

I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools for part of my school career. We never did much with the church other than attending Mass and the obligatory, at least for a while, CCD. An untimely and long childhood illness meant that I made my first communion alone, in a denim dress during a regular evening Mass one Saturday night, after having attended tutoring sessions at the dining room table of some deacon who volunteered to help me catch up. For me there was no lacy faux-bridal wear and no peer cohort. No rite of passage.

When we moved to Connecticut after my father died, my mother didn’t put us back in CCD and although we did attend Mass every Saturday night, (just where a high schooler wants to be on Saturdays), I was never part of the local Catholic Youth Organization, and I was never confirmed.

I grew up with a sense of Church as authority rather than community. though I had briefly attended a Pilgrim Fellowship group at the local Congregational Church at the invitation of friends, I didn’t really experience the social side of congregation until I started attending a local Episcopal church as an adult in my adopted hometown.

It was a small church in a small town and I started attending at the invitation of some other formerly Catholic friends who emphasized how welcoming the congregation was. Not wanting my own children to experience the constant judgement and disapproval that was my own experience of church, we joined.

We did indeed find a welcoming community. People had patience and compassion for my quirky kids, and for us as their parents. It was understood that children would have a hard time being absolutely still and quiet during the service. There were often parts for them to play on the bigger holidays. We even attended a few of the potluck suppers, and it was at one of these events that I looked around at the table and the full of faces that I knew and was relatively comfortable with, that I got it.

There’s a reason that Communion is a sacrament. Several cultures have expectations and messages around sharing a meal, breaking bread together. Rituals and feast days are intended to bring us together as a community, to share with one another, whether it be food, prayer, news, or a hug. There was a time when the Catholic Church encouraged parishioners to hold hands during prayer (I cried when my father-in-law took my hand in church for the first time; so surprising was this tiny gesture from another adult). Unfortunately, they seemed to have changed to discouraging the practice as too focused on humans rather than on God. The last time I was there, I was introduced to a new practice of bowing to the priest before receiving Communion; once again reverencing authority over community. I was horrified and I don’t think I’ve been back since.

There’s a recognized tendency of people to get more religious as they get older. Whether it’s about the time that they have as their child-raising years pass, or their sense of the time they have left on Earth, it’s hard to say. I have gone in the opposite direction.

For me, the underpinnings of religion have revealed themselves to be more about man-made rules and rituals, some well-intentioned, others as instruments of power and control, than any search for, or attempt to model oneself after, the Divine. I realize that’s not true for everyone. There are many who are able to sit within, find comfort in, and practice the example of their God. I believe I understand the compulsion to do so. I may even be envious.

As humans, we use rules and rituals as instruments for connection, for communion. Even without religion, I suspect that we need them. A recent article in The Atlantic posited that attraction to Trump and his rallies, complete with uber-patriotic symbolism, stunningly offensive chants, and us vs. them rhetoric, has taken the place that church and religion once held in peoples’ lives. Like any prosperity gospel charlatan, Trump knows this need and takes full advantage of it.

As a country and a culture, we are not good at rituals outside of religion. Sure, we have Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July cookout and fireworks. We seem to be coming to take Memorial Day as a more solemn occasion than the start of summer, but those common touch points are few and far between. Some sub-cultures have rites of passage like the Quinceanera or a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  If there is anything that I miss about having been raised Catholic, it is the ritual; the knowing of the words and the gestures that make up a spiritual practice. If there’s anything I appreciate about church at all, it’s the sense of shared community. I think that may be one of the reasons I’ve been such a fierce advocate for public schools. They are the heart of the community, and whether as student or parent, athlete or scholar (or both), it is a shared experience that shapes who we are.

In this era of extreme polarization and deliberate fragmentation and tribalism, it’s clear that we need to get better at creating community outside of religious institutions. Both politics and marketing have sliced us further into strata suitable for the targeting of  (often toxic) messages. The American emphasis on the individual has inspired, but also isolated, while at the same time conflicting with the impulse to set rules for others.  This has implications for both physical and mental health, parenting and family dynamics, and creates a greater need for interactions with others that are more communion than transaction.