Sunday, June 26, 2005

Aprons R Us

One of the many things I collect are vintage aprons. I especially like the long, bib style that cross in the back and am also partial to the cobbler-style "jam" aprons. Anything to cover comfortably and loosely. There are also so many half-aprons out there, clearly designed for wasp-waisted corset wearing surburban housewives of the post-War era. Aprons came out of the maid's closet and were soon made in a florabundance of patterns and colors and fabrics: from sheer to organza, cotton to crinoline, even simple linen. Aprons were now acceptable to be worn by the uber-housewife who did everything while looking her best. Forget wearing an old pair of jeans and a T-shirt: aprons allowed our well-coiffed mothers to be dressed for anything while doing dishes or polishing silver or dusting the mantel. Then, if the door bell rang, you could unfurl your apron strings in a jiffy and check your lipstick in the hall mirror. So what if it was just your best friend coming for coffee? You were still meant to look "put together". Housewivery, when embraced with this kind of passion, was not for lazy slobs. I watched my mother go through these rituals and dances. It was what was done.

While the frillier half-apron evokes such 50s and 60s suburban nostalgia, the hardy bibstyle apron was for the workhorse farm wife. This was a serious, roll your sleeves up in the kitchen kind of apron and can three bushels of peaches and make 10 pies kind of apron. The farmhouse apron was longer, usually falling mid calf, and no doubt designed for we who are more amply endowed. A bib with loosely fastened arm holders kept the apron from falling down your arms but also provided ease of movement and agility. I also go nuts for rickrack, especially when found on vintage clothing items like cotton bib aprons--the farmhouse kind they wore on the WALTONS. Long and loose and made with floral patterned cotton and often embellished with rickrack. [Rickrack also reminds me of homemade dresses that my mother made for me in the 1960s--something about its carefree meandering in so many colors and widths. It is cute and just squeals 'homemade' it screams 'vintage'.]

Waty Taylor was one such farm woman. She lived across from my grandparents farm, in her Greek Revival Cape-style house, painted pink, "because I like pink!" she always said. She was an incredible cook and once did much of the baking at the Woodbound Inn just up the road and through the woods a few miles. Whenever we visited her she was always in her kitchen and usually baking pies or baked beans--the very best. When she sat, she kept her apron on always over a tidy dress and comfortable shoes. The only time I ever saw her without her apron on was when she came to my Grandmother's memorial service and reception. She seemed out of her element some how.

So now I stock pile these domestic memories, collecting them here and there for a song or even the occasional eBay find. Aprons are truly affordable antiques from another time and are representative of so much: our mothers, our grandmothers, of a more kitchen-centered domestic life. On other levels they could probably be viewed as anti-women/anti-feminist but I'm not going there. I never wear them but I probably should--perhaps I'm afraid I'd get them dirty and mussed up, thus tarnishing an image long held in my mind.

It can be difficult to imagine who wore a particular apron and even harder to place them on girlfriends or family members today. They are, perhaps, the most iconic representation of all of the good things about women and mothers, of hearth and home.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Longest Day The Best Day

Ok, it really was perfect. The balmy, not too humid weather (and sun for a change!), the chorus of our two boys swimming in our blow-up pool from Wal-Mart with their two friends, the sheltering shade of our Martha Stewart patio set from K-Mart on the cool bluestone tiles of the patio, my friend Edie making us laugh. Later on, post pool-side (well pool view) hamburgers on the grill and pasta salad and other fixings, a nice hour-long loll on a floating thing around the 18 feet of the 3.5' deep blow-up pool! And nice and brown and rested at that--I could feel the Vitamin D penetrating my pores.

Then off to Casey J's for dinner (see April archives) where we feasted on a number of things (make mine Lobster Roll!) and took some Key Lime Pie to go**, then a quick toot through Wal-Mart for summer items (more boys shorts, flip flops, pool lozenges or something which I'll let the hubby handle), and a ride home as the sun was setting, frogs were croaking, and dew beginning to fall and cool the land.

A great orb of orange moon rose in the sky and followed us home. The boys gleeful in the chase, the realization as we hit the driveway that it was indeed the longest day of the year and the first day of summer with promise of many more days like this one, perhaps, to come. A time for less structured days, no school, visiting friends and being out in the world, out of doors, in the garden, at the pond...less a time for writing and reflecting.

Welcome Summer! Delicous summer! Please stay a while...

**Imagine, one woman sent hers back because it wasn't green! Has anyone ever seen green lime juice? Especially from Key Limes? I don't think so...this was a marvelous thick and custardy pie with the right tart bite of key lime juice and sugar, supported by just the right thickness of graham cracker crust. Delightful...

Friday, June 10, 2005

The Best Day The Worst Day: Living & Dying With Poets

I have just finished poet Donald Hall's memoir of his life with Jane Kenyon--THE BEST DAY THE WORST DAY (Houghton Mifflin: 2005)--alternating with chapters of their last few years wrangling with her leukemia until she died in 1995 at the age of 47. Both accomplished poets (he was her writing professor at University of Michigan/Ann Arbor), they returned to his maternal grandparents' Danbury, New Hampshire farm in 1975 (where he had many happy childhood memories--read also his memoir about that farm, written well before he would return to live there, STRING TOO SHORT TO BE SAVED). What began as a sabbatical from university life became a decision to stay, prompted by Kenyon's falling in love with the place and reinforced by Hall's own legacy there. For over two decades they spent the days of their marriage mostly writing, reading, gardening, and tending the farmhouse they both loved, and involving themselves in their rural community. Sometimes they would travel, alone or apart, but usually they were together. Kenyon was about 20 years Hall's junior and eventually developed her own strong presence in American poetry.

Donald Hall writes with great ease and effortlessness but often I had the guilt of a voyeur, perhaps the underlying reason for reading a memoir in the first place. Few details are spared of their physical life--at least it would seem so in his descriptions of some of their intimate moments, and improvements upon, in several descriptive passages--or the physical deterioration that accompanies a chronic illness. [My own husband, who is understandably private about the recent non-elective surgery to his nether regions said, "He wrote about that!"] I also wonder if I would want the details of my cancer battle so plainly spoken after my death. [Poignantly, Kenyon could not look upon the many bouquets of flowers that arrived near the end, nor listen to the music that she had so loved in life. She could not bare to take in the beauty of what she would soon lose.] Hall also details to some degree Kenyon's continual battle with bipolar illness but there seems to be a levity that sustains them, despite what must have been a difficult climate at times. Yet beyond the elements of mental illness and the cancer that overshadowed their last years together--a year or so after Hall's own bout with cancer that, ironically, they thought would be fatal--I found myself envious of their lives together. They seemed to have led the lives that poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes could have had if they had been able to fuse in a way that transcended their mutual demons and temptations. Hall proves that it is possible to blend two creative and literary minds in the same household, including the unseen but jarring presence of bipolar disorder (once more commonly referred to as manic-depression) harbored within one of them.

Hall has also written several marvelous children's books, including the Caldecott-winning OX-CART MAN, illustrated by Barbara Cooney, a rewrite of one his poems. My children have always loved that book: how the farmer loaded up the oxcart with knitted mittens, handmade tools, crops grown on their New Hampshire hill farm and other things to trade, and then walks all the way to Portsmouth and sells everything, including the cart and the ox, whom he kisses goodbye and for luck. Then he walks home again. There is a rhythmic quality to the book and an easy plot: the bustle of family work and activity leading up to the farmer's journey and framed by the round of the year on their self-sufficient farm. He also wrote LUCY's CHRISTMAS and LUCY's SUMMER, both illustrated by the same person whose name I can't recall but they seem to be woodcuts. Both books talk about events in his grandmother's life, growing up at Eagle Pond Farm in Danbury. Like my grandparents' New Hampshire farm where I grew up, the place has infused Hall's being to the core, even when he makes it his own and perpetuates the legacy of building and memory.

So between their poetry, and his children's books, and their poetry readings (which seem to be the bread and butter of a poet's existence--that and teaching), and their translations or editing of other works (Hall also wrote an excellent student textbook called simply ON WRITING for which he receives annual royalty checks--I still have my college edition of twenty five years ago), they were able to make a go of it. They had no children to support (his two children from his first marriage were in college when they did marry) and could live a life uncomplicated by the many demands of growing children and soccer games and saving for college tuition. They also "fought" over who would make dinner--you have to like that in a man. In their last few years together they enjoyed several grandchildren from Hall's children and always there was the presence of several cats and a beloved dog.

Hall also wrote about "the third thing"--that otherness in marriage which often keeps it glued, a commonality of purpose and interest that is shared. Their found church life together, for example, and gardening, their love of India and extensive travels there, and a preference for certain writers, even their pets. These are all "third things" and, one realizes in the objective sense, important for the life of any marriage or coupledom. Sadly, so were Kenyon's bipolar illness and their mutual struggles with cancer "third things". But what could have driven them apart brought them even closer.

The book leaves the reader with the sense, despite the candor about the physical aspects of dying, of the real purpose of living: to embrace every day, to find the rhythm and special moments in those days, and if we're lucky, to find the person with whom we are truly meant to spend them. Fortunately for published writers and poets, and people of letters, like Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, their commitment to their craft in their long purposeful days has left a legacy of words that few attain. They also had a marriage and true kinship that few are fortunate to ever know. I'm glad to know of theirs.

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Six Degrees of Separation (or how to get paid for what you love to write!)

Here is the part of the blogsite where we reflect on "how did we get here?" to quote the TALKING HEADS from "Life During Wartime".

Several years ago, about eight actually, so longer than several, I started writing for a great magazine, OLD-HOUSE INTERIORS. Patty Poore, who used to co-edit OLD-HOUSE JOURNAL back when it was more of a newsletter for historic homeowners out of Brooklyn, launched the glossy, informative OHI ten years ago from Gloucester, Massachusetts. It is better than most "shelter" magazines in that it offers the historic homeowner, and others, an opportunity to learn about period styles from "real" houses, with a few museums and other focus articles thrown in. It is immensely readable and great to look at.

My first article for that magazine was about my house in Hancock (rule #1: write about what you know). It happened to be photographed by my friends Susan Daley and Steve Gross (photographers and creators of "shelter" books like OLD HOUSES, AT HOME WITH THE PAST, OLD FLORIDA, CATSKILL STYLE and others) whom I had met way, way back when I wrote my first article ever published (on Gibson House Museum for VICTORIA Magazine, now sadly no longer, the magazine that is--the museum is alive and well and doing better than ever--see website link at right).

Last year, I contributed an article on pantries to OHI. Patty was enthusiastic about it and it was all I could do to not appear like a complete obsessive pantry FREAK! Franklin & Esther Schmidt, who also contribute regularly to OHI, happened to see it and wanted to use elements of it for their book, VICTORIAN KITCHENS & BATHS (just out by Gibbs Smith). I offered, instead, to write a chapter on Victorian pantries for them. They were delighted. I was delighted. I had always wanted to pitch an entire book on pantries as there are none out there--so I spent the few weeks before Thanksgiving 2004 compiling a book proposal. Gibbs Smith had expressed interest after my pantry chapter and offered me a contract this spring.

Soonafter signing that contract, I started this blog. Then, shortly after that, Patty at OHI e-mailed asking if I had any essays or personal memoir pieces in the hopper that she could plug into OHI? I gladly told her about my new blog and brazenly offered that perhaps she might find something of interest there/here. She did. The result? A smooshed version of several of my blog postings on this site will appear in essay form in the July 2005 issue of OLD-HOUSE INTERIORS. The essay will also mention my IN THE PANTRY book and blogsite. Not bad for a day's blog, I said, waving the promise of a good-sized check at my husband who thinks I spend hours of unaccounted time in front of my computer! (I think he is beginning to grasp that the computer is a black hole for creativity and compressed energy...not missing time...but he is a slow learner!)

And while on the note of pattern and progression and the good cycle of karma, my photographer friends Sue and Steve are going to do most of the photography for my IN THE PANTRY book. This is one of those days where you look at the order of the universe and say to yourself, it all just fits, doesn't it?

Now back to the eternal question: "What's for DINNER!?!?!"