Saturday, January 25, 2014

Rock Paper Scissors...

     I attended a pinewood derby recently to cheer on three of my grandchildren who were competing in the race. With 68 heats to watch, many of the younger children became bored. My oldest granddaughter began playing rock-paper-scissors with a school chum. Traditional games often take on a new dimension when playing them with our Girlybird, so I wasn’t surprised when "black hole" and "dynamite" became part of the routine. I suspect she was influenced by Little Alchemy, a computer game my husband introduced to the kids over Christmas break. I watched the girls play for a while and then suggested they add fairy dust to the lineup.

     Girly’s face lit up. “Fairy dust beats all!” she declared with delight.

     “Yes,” I said, “because it's magic.” Rock, paper, scissors, dynamite, black hole, fairy dust...No contest there. Glitter in any form is an eight-year-old girl’s swank. It definitely beats all.

     Punkybean, another granddaughter, won a shiny, gold first-place trophy for her racecar in the three and four-year-old division. I suspect we owe the win to fairy dust.

Thursday, January 16, 2014


     My father worked as a caretaker in a castle for a few years. Actually, he was the senior custodian in a high school, but the building looked remarkably like a castle and my imagination needed no further prompting.

    Stadium High School was built as a château-style luxury hotel in the late 19th century but was never opened. Just over a decade later it became a school. When my father worked there in the 1960's, he would sometimes prowl through the dusty attics to see what had been cast aside and forgotten and to rescue bits and bobs that would otherwise have been tossed onto the rubbish heap. My brothers, sisters and I became the recipients of stacks of old lunchroom plates that had never been used, the thick, heavy china ones used in diners. I used those plates daily for years and years.

     When my girls were young, my father gave me an old oak desk he had salvaged from the school attic. It was more of a table really, with a single small drawer. The drawer had been damaged and repaired badly, so my husband made a new one when we refurbished the desk. It sits in our family room now, beneath a gallery of pictures. I finished writing my first novel sitting at that desk.

     Dad was a caretaker in many ways—of people and of things. It takes a certain kind of man to make a good one. He was that kind. He passed away a year ago, and I spent much of today gazing out my windows and into the past. It gives me a pang of pleasure to think of him rummaging around the attics of a faux castle like a benevolent Argus Filch at Hogwarts.

Sunday, January 12, 2014


     Yesterday, I saw a bald eagle drifting over the forest preserve that shoulders up to our neighborhood. Even though they are supposed to favor these parts in the winter, I have never seen one in my neck of the woods. It made me feel giddy, like a child who has been given a lollipop, like the time I sighted a toucan flitting through the treetops while visiting friends in Brazil.

     What makes you feel giddy?

painting by Robert Bateman

Monday, January 6, 2014

Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak mid-winter

Frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron,

Water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow,

Snow on snow…

     I woke early this morning with the frosty wind moaning around the corners of our house. Outside, it was -10º F with wind chills making it -30º F. Inside, the furnace had come on and was slowly heating the house. It was too early for the harsh realities of electric lightbulbs so I lighted candles instead and sat down to a cup of tea and leftover berry muffins—it is never too early for tea and muffins.

     Outdoors it is truly bleak, even dangerous if one does not heed the advice of veterans or have the means to do so. I worry about them, the ones without the means; we haven’t had cold like this for twenty years. I think about my sister who lives further north with temperatures 10 to 15 degrees lower than ours. I wonder about the birds that haven’t flown south in recent, milder years.

     Inside my house it is cozy, and we are hunkering down for the day. I will be making cinnamon rolls later for tea; I make them for holidays and bleak weather. Two years ago I made them during a blizzard and had just finished baking them when the power went out. We ate the rolls by candlelight and then went to bed early to read and stay warm under down comforters.

     I look outside my kitchen window. There are no deer or rabbit tracks this morning. A lone brown leaf slides across the surface of the unbroken snow, pushed by the wind. A marigold sun the color of summer slides into the bleak midwinter sky to make mockery of the stone-colored water and iron earth. But there isn’t anything bleak about the glory of sun halos, diamond dust or the feathers of frost on my windows. Is there a poem some gifted writer framed in words to capture these wonders? My words are too paltry.

     I wrote a post last spring about the cold—something voluble about it being relative. Three hours later with the furnace still chugging along without a break, and the house still chilly, it doesn’t feel relative.

art by Norman Rockwell, poem excerpt from Christina Rossetti

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Auld Lang Syne

     I sat on the edge of her tapestry sofa listening to the clocks—there were no less than twelve of them in the front room alone, most of them antique. Small pocket watches sheltered under glass domes on the bookshelves, with individual heartbeats that could not be felt; but their collective ticking whirred softly through the silence like insects in summer. The grandfather clock, standing next to the sofa like an attentive butler, cleared his throat and growled a familiar tune every fifteen minutes—indecorous for a butler, perhaps, but perfectly natural for a clock. I was tempted to hum along. The massive oak regulator hanging on the wall between the sitting and dining rooms dominated the space with its size but possessed a singularly mellifluous voice. And every hour on the hour a chorus of chimes burst forth from all over the house.

     She had married an horologist from Persia. He was older than her by well over a decade, but was so lean and active he always seemed younger than all of us. They’d had no children together so, apart from the clocks and her infectious laugh, the house was quiet. He kept a modest shop on Main Street where he sold and repaired clocks and watches. They lived behind the shop in a cozy, two bedroom flat—wood floors, small doorways, pitched roof with alcoves upstairs and a basement she would never let me see. In summer when the windows were left open, you could here the church bells echo the hours across the river valley as though they were trying to set a good example for the indoor timekeepers; in autumn the maple on the parking turned the light to gold in the sitting and guest rooms.

     It was winter now, and I sat on her tapestry sofa listening to the clocks and watching her make tea for us in the kitchen. She made it the Persian way and served it in little glass cups with pink-flowered demitasse saucers. She always made scones and jam when she served tea, sometimes with currents, sometimes with whipped cream. This time she had made shortbread as well. She sat down opposite me with the tea things laid out on a low table between us, a small woman with red hair, fair skin, sweet voice and a laugh as big as her soul. Outside the large picture window behind her sofa, it began to snow and she spoke poetry to me:

Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow
Descends the snow.

     She refilled my teacup and brought out a book to read to me. She always chose her passages well, but even if she hadn’t, it wouldn’t have mattered. The way her hands held a book, the sound of her voice as she read, the very act of sharing words that had vibrated within her own frame are what mattered to me. It was a rare and exquisite pleasure she offered as she read aloud, and she could not have bestowed her gift on a more appreciative listener.  

     A few years ago, the horologist retired. He sold his shop, packed up his wife and his lightbulbs and moved to a climate without snow. The shop is a day spa now, and no one quotes poetry or reads to me anymore, but those hours of fellowship over tea and scones and stories still tick inside me with the constancy of an old and cherished clock.

poetry excerpt by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow