Back to School Clothes

Right on cue, the weather turned cool, the summer haze lifted, and the sweatshirts came out. People and nature fall into step for the first day of school. Squinting in the sunshine, I see the first leaves drift down, only the edges yellow and red, and I swear can smell the apples ripening even though the orchards are miles away. Labor Day is coming up and the blooms on the snowball bushes are trading in their white for pink. The boys put on their new sneakers, and I get out my hipster glasses so that I can read the tiny type on all of those forms I have to fill out with my brand new sharpies.

I have not even reached for the towel yet after my shower when a voice pipes up around the corner “Ready to go yet, Mom?” School isn’t scheduled to start for an hour, it takes fifteen minutes to get there, and I know he heard me turn off the water four seconds earlier. No, I am not ready to go. But I am glad that it is still possible for a teenager to be excited for the first day of school, so I snap it up and get him there twenty minutes early, knowing that for the first time in 10 weeks I will be returning to an empty house.

Another Glimmer of the Gilded Age, and then some

The Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, New York, is a rare find, a time capsule preserved and put on display for we, the generations that followed. What’s more, it is just down the road from Springwood, the Roosevelt home that is birthplace and burial site of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt himself was instrumental in keeping both homes intact and open to the public, donating his own home to the National Park Service upon his death and persuading the Vanderbilt heirs to do the same when it was clear that no one would buy the estate and its Italian Gardens even at a tiny fraction of its value. It was the foreclosed McMansion of its day, even though it was by far the smallest of the Gilded Age mansions built by the many grandchildren of shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, it didn’t even last through its own generation before it became impractical to live in or care for in the economic devastation of the Great Depression.

Two seasons of the above and below stairs drama of Downton Abbey (and a knowledgeable young guide) helped to bring this gently faded and stuffy house to life for us as we walked through. The windows are closed and shaded to preserve the furnishings and keep it cool, but he reminded us that the home was intended as a summer cottage and in its day the windows would have been thrown open to the sumer breeze off the river and every room filled with flowers from the row of greenhouses just across the lawn.

And while its contents are largely intact, the gardens are only now being revived. Having only come recently to gardening I understand now that it is always the garden that is the first to go when a property loses a caring, resident owner. Architecture may take time to show wear, but it only takes a single season to destroy a garden – and in a year like 2012, punctuated by drought and torrential rain, even tended gardens can be decimated. The Park Service had an interest in preserving Sara Delano’s rose garden – FDR’s and Eleanor’s burial sites are situated next to it – but the Vanderbilt’s more elaborate tiered Italian garden with it vast greenhouses did not merit thefunds for preesrvation – the current restoration is funded by private donations, and the volunteers were hard at work when we visited. I didn’t expect it to be so romantic, with heart-shaped beds of pink petunias and so many of the trees flowers I recognize from my own garden, but then I remembered that even then they had to cultivate plants that could survive in New York rather than the warmer climes of southern Italy.

I don’t know if it is a sign of the times or my own skewed sense of history that fuels my current fascination with the early Twentieth Century. Sometimes there are too many parallels, sometimes too few. From my admittedly untrained perspective, Hyde Park reflects the convergence of the styles that dominated the previous and coming centuries. The old money, sober Dutch influenced but early American style of the Roosevelts at Springwood (their walls adorned with family portraits painted by Gilbert Stuart) looked down its nose at the Gilded Age, with the decadent, new-money European obsessed opulence of the Vanderbilts (their walls covered with tapestries of the Medici family crest) and finally followed by the more eclectic, earthy arts and crafts style adopted by Eleanor Roosevelt at Val-Kill (very little fine art on the walls, decorated almost exclusively with photographs of people and events of their own time).

 

The house at Val-Kill itself is a harbinger of trends to come, a factory building converted into a home, and it’s dropped ceilings, galley kitchen and folding chairs are testament to the fact that not all progress is forward. Part of all of these styles endure, their longevity or re-emergence dictated by the changes in the American way of life. Just like the start of the last century, war and excess are steering us back to the small-is-beautiful after many years of bigger-is-better. Contraction and preservation in the face of uncertainty is not such a bad thing, if such appreciation brings wisdom and, with it, hope.

Restless in the Heat

Our heat wave is nothing compared to what they are suffering in the Midwest, but it’s been a few weeks since a good rain and this is the first time I have seen birds fly directly through the sprinkler’s spray. The early spring brought the bears out of hibernation ahead of schedule and they are showing up all over the place – the most recent within walking distance of our house. Local naturists say that the bears’ feeding schedule has been disrupted and this has somehow sent them in search of alternative sources of food. It is hard to say whether the foxes roaming the neighborhood every evening are part of the trend or the usual order of things. All I know is that I find fur and tails (squirrel, rabbit) and feathers (chicken, hawk, and mourning dove, I think) in the yard almost every day. And last weekend when I went out to see what the kids were doing down the street and it was dark, I heard such a commotion in the woods from all sides when I opened the door that I turned and went back in the house, grabbed my car keys and drove to find them. Our neighbor told me that when he takes his dog out he shines a flashlight in the woods and counts the pairs of eyes that look back.

I don’t know what it means – the drought, the snowy fall and snowless winter, the collapsing glaciers – but part of me wonders if while we are inside on our screens trying to make sense of it we can find a way to save the world crumbling outside. And so I move the sprinkler around systematically to sate each corner of the yard, standing each time for a few minutes, mezmerized by its tick tick tick, and hope that it is enough.

Edith Wharton Windows

Yesterday was a spectacular day in Lenox, MA, and we made an unscheduled stop at Edith Wharton’s home there, The Mount. A thunderhead had popped up out of nowhere and we were looking for a vista from which we could view the storm. While the storm passed south of us it provided some wonderful light for garden and interior photos, and I came away with so many beautiful windows. Wharton’s first book was about interior and garden design, and her love of light and appreciation for a good cross breeze is evident in the design of this house, which she built in 1902.

The window above is from the recently restored bedroom suite that included a sitting room. According to the literature, even though the sitting room has a writing desk, Wharton wrote in bed and let the finished pages fall to the floor, where her secretary would retrieve them and type them up. I find this detail enviable and impractical – oh, to be able to write as beautifully as she did and from the comfort of bed, but it makes my back hurt to imagine it. But it makes perfect sense to be writing while looking out a window with a view like the one below.

Visiting historic sites always seems to involve, at some point, a note that areas have been restored to reflect their original beauty based on photographs or narrative descriptions because the authentic buildings, furnishings, paintings, fixtures, frescoes and floors have been sold, lost or destroyed. I get annoyed that people didn’t think to preserve these details all along, particularly when they achieved fame in their own time. Then I think about modern times (our place in history somewhat less secure than Edith Wharton’s in 1912), and I imagine the docent saying, “The original Home Depot oak and laminate cabinets and linoleum floors are recreated here to the best of our ability using photographs and written descriptions of the home from that period.” Never mind.

Long walk.

It has been a raucous month. Graduation, orientation, parties, beach walks, visits from family, packing for camp, berry picking and even a Supreme Court decision that will go down in history. Now we venture into a July that will bring new things we can’t even begin to imagine and so I offer something comfortingly familiar – June 2012’s edition of a photo I have taken dozens of times in in every season. Few spots are more lovely than Steep Hill Beach at low tide.

On that day a few weeks ago when things were particularly crazy, we were walking up the wooded hill from the beach and as usual I was bringing up the rear, the rest of the family out of sight. Lost in thoughts of all that is to come, I rounded the corner and encountered an older gentleman making his way down the path. Long-sleeved open-collared white shirt with cuffs rolled up, khaki pants, glasses, panama hat. He smiled at me and said in a voice all too familiar,

“Long walk, isn’t it?” His voice had a bit of a midwestern accent, so “isn’t” came out like “idn’t.”

My voice caught a little as I replied,

“Yes, but a good one.”

He nodded.

I wasn’t sure if I was making it up by the time I reached my husband at the top of the path. He raised his eyebrows and said,

“Did you see him? It was your Dad.”

Yes, I think it was.

Facebook, circa 1977

Many years ago this is where I spent an embarrassing amount of time, talking to my friends on the phone. I pulled the mod white trimline phone out of my sister’s room just out of sight on the right and sat on these stairs my back to the wall and my foot on the door trim at the left – that door led to our third floor where there were more bedrooms and the eaves where we hid and concocted secret clubs with arcane rules that lasted a week, if that. Through that door and up the stairs I was a little girl, and in 1974 I moved downstairs and around the corner from this spot and became first a teeny bopper and then a teenager, talking on that phone pretty much the entire time.  I talked to the same three or four people over and over – to my best friend who lived a block away, my first boyfriend who lived three blocks down the street, or a few friends across town. I’d be hard pressed to recount anything we talked about, but I remember laughing until I cried, learning to interpret or impose stony silence, and what it meant to hang up on someone. I remember willing that phone to ring, its cord stretched out into the hall, and the receiver cord so distended it hardly curled anymore. They boy friendishness consisted of one kiss, maybe two, but then hours and hours of time on that phone long after we broke up. He remains one of the best friends who is a boy I have ever had; he set a standard for good and witty conversation by which all who followed have been measured. So none of those moments are captured on the web like the hilarious banter I see between my kids and their friends on Facebook; I am glad they allow me to eavesdrop on their exchanges and see them delight in their own cleverness. Since I don’t have a history archived on the web, this photo will just have to do.

When your birthday and Mother’s Day are always in the same week, it messes with your head a little

Yesterday one of my sisters sent me an early birthday e-mail that said “enjoy your last year of being the only sibling under 50.” Let’s just let that one sink in for a minute on this Mother’s Day. I have a lot of siblings (think Stephen Colbert) and my life has been punctuated by the rewards and trials of being the youngest in a large family (mostly rewards). Because I am the end of the line and my mother worried a  lot about being an older parent with a young child (every time she left town she would say, “Now, if I die…”), I do measure annually  how old I was when my mother was the age I am turning this year. If I were my mother, I would have an 8 year old right now. How lovely to have a sweet little second grader right now. How exhausting. I have three children and this is the first year I do not have to attend a spring concert and I am overcome with joy.  Mom, thank you for the science fairs and Christmas concerts and Girl Scout flying up ceremonies. And I want you to know that I totally forgive you for not coming to my junior high volleyball and softball games.  Most of the time I didn’t even want to be there myself so I didn’t exactly stew about this for 30 years but really, thank you for all of the stuff you actually made it to because no parent could possibly be prepared for the purgatory that is some school events – and then multiply the times you have to sit through it it by 10. You never know when one is going to count and give you that incredible moment, though, so I will be there for every one that I can get to that’s left for me. So thanks to my siblings for breaking Mom in on some fronts and making her paranoid on others and for reminding me that being the youngest is just as much of a mixed bag as it ever was. I love you all.

Look! Here is the hill I am almost over!

Roots & Bulbs

Spring is a month early and I am not complaining even though we have had precious little rain.  Having come late to the gardening party I have noticed only in recent years that each spring things sprout and bloom in a slightly different order.  This year the change is more dramatic:  the peonies are well on their way, even as the forsythia is in full bloom.  The tulips seem visibly annoyed to being pushed aside by the busy peonies; they are used to having the front garden all to themselves. The azalea, battered by autumn storms and with no snow cover to protect it from the winter wind, seems to have given up in exhaustion and pushed out only a handful of blooms from nearly bare branches.

I am always particularly glad to see the tulips. The red ones are the first to appear and the first I ever planted.  I put the bulbs in shortly after September 11, 2001.  Before then, my attempts at gardening were halfhearted and largely unsuccessful; our yard is so shady and the soil so sandy and acidic that no perennial I planted ever came back the following spring. But the previous owner clearly knew what to plant and so the garden she built always filled in nicely.  But there were a few spots near the driveway that got a little sun and seemed a little bare, and the events of that fall got me to thinking that I’d been living in our house like a renter – doing precious little to show any kind of long term commitment to a family home now buzzing with three young children. The crazy world (remember Graydon Carter announcing the end of irony?) and the empty skies of that September made me look up from storybooks and changing tables and brought me outside, and made me want to plant something beautiful, something hopeful, for the spring.

So I did.  And they bloomed, and have bloomed every year ever since (provided I remember to put out soap to keep the deer from nibbling the bulbs).  When the trees at the front of the house grew too big we had to take two of them down and that gave me more sun and soil to work with, and my perennial track record improved:  sedum, cone flowers, delphiniums, daffodils, iris, bachelor buttons, phlox, creeping thyme. A few years ago hyacinths appeared out of nowhere and they seem to be proliferating.  The original daylilies are stalwart and dependable as ever.  The hydrangea and the poppies are dubious and bloom sporadically.  The hollyhocks are a total failure. The shady areas still baffle me; the ivies are anemic and I am the only person I know who can’t grow hostas.

Last spring I took an inventory and ordered more tulips and daffodils to supplement my reds – I wanted orange.  The box showed up in late August for fall planting, at which time I promptly broke my foot and was relegated to the couch for 4-6 weeks.  My plan was to get them in just after Halloween, but when I went to plant them the box was in the recycling, empty.  My husband had come upon them and handed the box to my daughter and told her to plant them, which she did, grudgingly, with little attention to where.  So all winter long I waited to see if and where they would come up.

This week, they emerged – a few here a few there, some in groups, some in rows, some in places where the deer dined on them so I don’t even know for sure which ones they are.  It isn’t the way I would have done it – it is better, creating a haphazard path of blooms up the front walk, starting with my 2001 tulips.  Nothing at all about this whole operation went according to plan but it all seems so right – this is her senior year, and these are her tulips that she planted at the only home she has ever known. Next spring I will cry when they come up and send photos of them to her at college which will delight and exasperate her.

It is only now, as I type, that I recall my own mother hovering over her tulips in our back yard in Saint Louis, and how the entire city seemed to be swimming in them the last time I went to see her in hospice. Saint Louis sees spring much sooner than New England so that visit was, for us, like Dorothy emerging from the back and white of winter to full technicolor spring. It was an intensely sad and joyful time, punctuated by tulips. Every time the deer snack on them I swear I will not plant any more, but I don’t think I can stop. Not now.

A Hipstamatic Escape

Okay, so I’m on a bit of a nostalgia kick visiting old haunts and old friends.  A few weeks ago I had the rare and lovely chance to have lunch with a friend at Sandrine’s in Harvard Square.  It was a bitterly cold day and snow flurries whipped by the window as we stayed far long and ate far too much and marveled that the truly kind waiter in this French Bistro was actually French. It was almost too much to ask. As we lingered they began setting out the wine glasses for dinner service on the bar and, wanting not to appear the suburbanite tourist, I sneakily snapped this with my Hipstamatic setting on my phone. It’s fuzzy, it’s crooked, it’s almost too Cambridgey, but I don’t care – just looking at it is a vacation.

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