Archive for April, 2010

84, Charing Cross Road

84, Charing Cross Road was recommended to me some years ago by the wife of one of my employers. Nancy was a lovely lady in a later-in-life marriage in which I had the privilege to attend. She and Carl had a beautiful wedding mass and then guests were wined and dined at a charming restaurant no longer in existence called Biggs, a converted mansion in downtown Chicago. Nancy was classy, interesting, and always well dressed and I admired her. She was in one day and knew that my co-worker, Esther, and I loved to read. She wanted to tell us that there was a book she just read,  84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. She thought we would both enjoy it. Some time went by and there it was, the half sheet of paper with the title and author mixed in with grocery lists and PTA newsletters waiting patiently for me to discover just when I needed it. I have travelled a good many mental miles since then, not to mention years. I still think of Nancy and her thoughtful recommendation of the book.

Helene Hanff was a poor playwright who wrote a letter in 1949 with a list of books to Marks & Co., an antiquarian bookstore located in London on 84, Charing Cross Road. Rare, clean, and some very old books, some bound in leather, followed that first letter, as well as a 20 year correspondence, mainly between Helene and Frank Doel, the store’s buyer, with sprinklings of Frank’s coworkers and family penning their thoughts from time to time. The letters lead a literary trail of English writings, as well as a chronicle of post war England with rations and scarcity of goods – and gifts of food and nylons from the States.

It is was a literary love affair between two very different souls across the wide breadth of the Atlantic Ocean.

The book eventually became a British television feature, then a play and finally a movie. I read the book before knowing a movie existed, but I admit that I would have cast Anne Bancroft for the role of Helene for I think she played it to the hilt.

Just under 100 pages, the book consists of letters beginning in 1949. The letters from Helene are witty, provocative and demanding, and from Frank somewhat formal and terse, but grows warmer through the decades. My copy is a newer copyright date and has an intriguing introduction from Anne Bancroft. The book, you see, was recommended to her by a stranger on the beach at Fire Island while Bancroft was relaxing there. He actually returned the next day with a copy for her to read . Mel Brooks, her husband, as you may well know, later bought the movie rights as an anniversary gift.

The scene above is from their last letters to each other. The movie is told mostly in the words of their letters as well. I love the scenes of Helene typing with a vengeance, her constant companion a cigarette or martini, which is said to be true to form for her. I think that if Helene Hanff were alive today she would relish the internet and all the “conversations” about books and English literature and the state of the country and world as we know it. I enjoyed the movie when I saw it and I still enjoy the book whenever I feel a need to pull it down from a shelf.

So, here I sit, ignoring my own rules of reading engagement, showing you a movie clip before telling about the book, and hoping you will have time one day to read 84, Charing Cross Road.

Book cover for 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff


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We took a little walk around a favored path a few miles from home. It was a cool but sunny day and the woodland path was mostly  dry, making for a nice stroll.

We had not walked very far when something caught my eye.  Something I’d not seen before in the schoolhouse woods we frequent. Then, again, I’m not sure we ever walked this path in spring. Life is like that sometimes. A path quietly opens up and there you find yourself , suddenly, miraculously being filled with new surprises.

I stopped, and looked, and for a moment wasn’t sure what these little bits of green were that were earnestly poking through the leaves on the forest floor.

So, camera in hand, I looked further  .     .     .

and further still,

and bowed my head with a prayer of thanks for the tender walk we were taking, as Jack, himself,  led his a congregation in a solemn spring service and colleagues stood tall in their pulpits along the woodland path.

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Kezzie’s Moon

Tom phoned from the car while out on an errand to tell me to look outside at Kezzie’s Moon rising. Could a month have already passed since the night we drove home, exhausted and exhilarated and in awe of our newborn granddaughter? There, again in the early spring sky rose a full moon, almost as bright and orange as the one we christened Kezzie’s Moon a month ago.

Of course, just looking out a window wasn’t enough. A cool and breezy 50° and a night sky already in view, I grabbed a jacket and the camera and off I went to harness the moon.  Not an easy fete. It gets dark faster here on the cutoff. The many trees and a forest preserve tone things down a little sooner than a mere mile up the road.

There it was, round and bright and another month old. Just like our Kezzie. I took some pictures, but my camera just couldn’t capture the moon.Of course, I won’t be trotting out to take pictures of rising moons month after month and there will be other ways to mark the time – so many other ways –  but, you know, this grandparent role is a new for us. We are a bit like children ourselves reveling in this new little miracle. When you are miles and miles away and can’t wrap a new baby bundle in your arms, you go out and try to rein in the moon instead.

Failing at a lunar landing, I pointed the camera down at something else that shined and there I stood and aimed and clicked and I must have looked the strange, odd, and eccentric fool in our darkened garden just off the beaten path, taking pictures in the dark.

The funny thing was that Tom arrived home and drove right past me.  He never saw me standing there in my purple coat and Mary Janes, clicking pictures and humming Moon River. It must have been the silvery spell of little Kezzie’s Moon.

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Did you ever see a laddie?

A few years before we moved from our old house, I planted a peony called Laddie. The first year, all leaves. The second year, one or two buds. The third year. Well, the third year we moved and I never did get to see what Laddie would do . . .

. . . that is, until we moved here and I got to watch with childlike amazement as plants started to emerge in a garden I had not seen the spring before. I was so pleasantly surprised to find, early that first spring here on the cutoff,  this dwarf peony, Paeonia peregrina, bursting forth one fine, crisp April day. It has performed well each year we have been here, a few more buds each year.

It started to bloom on Monday.

Did you ever see a laddie?

I saw its vivid color as I drove up our long driveway. It was all I could do to put the groceries away before rushing out, camera in hand, to see if I could catch its fleeting beauty. The sun was caressing it just so, illuminating not only the opening buds, but the feather-like leaves that are so wispy and fern-like.

This type of peony tends to die back in the heat of summer and its luscious blooms are fleeting, but the colors are so vivid and so appealing that I think  it is well worth the effort to encourage it to grow for a few years and then enjoy the blossoms for the short time come spring that they fairly kiss the earth with color.

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On a soapbox

Today I am on my soapbox! Well, several actually. I love pretty soap boxes as well as scented bars of soap. I keep a bar in our most used bathrooms along with a pump of some sort of liquid soap. That way a visitor can have a choice – and so can I!

I like the feel of a circle of soap in my hands and the lingering scent of a favored bar on hands softened by milled soap.

A few years ago, the summer of the cicadas, I bought a few glycerine soaps with the image of a cicada inside. I gave one to each of our grand-nephews for fun – and kept one for myself. One of the grand fellows was visiting right in the middle of all the racket of locusts and mess this 17 year phenomenon brought, and came out of the washroom looking confused.  Children today use liquid soap in a pump. Poor Scott was quite young and curious, but didn’t know how to use a bar of soap. We all chuckled over this and then Aunt Penny showed him how. What fun it was as the soap lathered up and slipped and slid round about his little hands, onto the counter, and into the sink. He needed to wash his hands quite a bit that summer day. With three grands in the family now and my very own granddaughter just recently born, I think that they all will enjoy what they will likely consider a quaint feature of visiting us here on the cutoff.

As much as I love using scented hand soaps, I love the boxes they often come in. The soaps last forever it seems, and the boxes are so pretty I have been known to slip them onto a shelf to use as a decoration.

This is a box of Tuscan Lavender, made in Italy, $4.99 at T.J.Maxx & More.

I wish I could transmit the heavenly scent of this lovely soap through the internet. I imagine it will be possible some fine day soon.

Though not in a box, a bag will sometimes do. These were the ends of bars of soap that a small local company made. The bars went into a these bags, which display rather nicely, have a soft scent and last forever.

I think I’ll get off of my soapbox now, go wash my hands and get back to work!

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Christmas in Connecticut

Image from Hooked on Houses

There is a delightful blog called Hooked on Houses where there are a good many posts about houses on the market – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and a really fun feature the writer, Julia,  does about houses used and seen in movies and on television. When you have an hour or two with nothing to do, or if you have more self-control and can pace yourself, go to hookedonhouses.net , then click on the link to the tv and movie houses, pop some popcorn, and enjoy.

Here’s the thing.  I love to peruse the houses in movies. When we saw Must Love Dogs, I became fascinated with the several houses and fixated on the little nook with a couch at the top of the stairs. Did you see it? Am I the only one?

Here’s the other thing. Just as I was discovering the Gladys Taber books of yesterday’s blog, I discovered Hooked on Houses. I was, well, hooked, and not being selfish and wanting to spread the fun, I sent the site to many of my friends who didn’t talk to me for about a week. I don’t know if it was because they, too, were hooked, or they were mad at me for encouraging them to spend their time looking into the windows and through the doors of the big and little screened houses of fame.

But, wait, here’s the REAL thing. Christmas in Connecticut is one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies. I love the bantering and the silliness and I especially love the house where most of the action takes place in Connecticut. Just after I started reading Taber’s book, I read Julia’s piece on the movie Christmas in Connecticut, and there, at the very end of this fun post, was a line that stated that the movie was based on the columnist, Gladys Taber and her house in Connecticut. Now, Taber was not like the Barbara Stanwyck character in the movie, the house I am sure was not hers, and she was an accomplished writer,  a good cook, a breeder of dogs – but there was her name and it was such fun to discover at the same time I was reading Stillmeadow.

I keep telling you about those circles in life and how they keep going around and around.  Wait. Come back. Read my blog. You can look at those houses later.

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Stillmeadow Farm

Gladys Taber. Image from http://www.gladystaber.org/

One blustery day in early winter, restless and not quite yet ready to hunker down, I wandered to Jackson Square Mall, a mid-sized antique mall in downtown La Grange. It is a comfortable antique “haunt” in the western suburbs of Chicago, housed in an old factory near the railroad tracks, with small booths and a homey feel. It is fun to go to with friends, but I’m equally comfortable roaming by myself, especially on blustery days when I need a just an hour or two to wander around previous decades.

There are a few dealers at Jackson Square that specialize in books. Most are not antiquarian, instead gently used books in all genre. This is where I easily get lost. Where I have found some old friends between gently worn covers just sitting on shelves waiting for me to find them, like a game of hide and seek.  I have made some pleasant discoveries in the closeted recesses of Jackson Square. Books I didn’t know I would like and authors I had never read.

On this particularly blustery day, I came across a title that seemed to call to me. Stillmeadow.

The book was mine from the first paragraph as I stood in the little book nook and read the introduction.

“The way we bought our house in the country would have turned the blood of any expert in home-buying to glacial ice. We had read some dozen books of advice and hundreds of pamphlets, it is true, and we did know that a place advertised as having deep maple shade had no plumbing. Old colonial with five fireplaces, Dutch oven, old hardware, usually meant the roof was falling in and dry rot eating the bones of the timbers. Trout stream indicated half the yard was a swamp.”

With a 1948 copyright date (earlier dates for portions that were printed in magazines like Family Circle) this book actually predated my birth – yet I felt right at home with Gladys Taber’s wit and her charm, her love for the woods and the flora and fauna and for family and cooking and for watching out for the other guy. I found her to be a graduate of Wellesly in 1920 and a creative writing teacher at Columbia University. I learned she wrote some 50 books and countless more newspaper and magazine articles.

Stillmeadow took me through each month of the year at the 1690’s Connecticut farmhouse that Taber’s family and the family of her friend purchased together for a summer retreat, and eventually made it their permanent home.

The illustrations by Edward Shenton helped clinch the deal.

Did I tell you the book was a steal at $7.00 and took me month by month, with a great deal of self control on my part, through it’s chapters, which started in November, which is when I bought it?

I returned to Jackson Square, with  some friends, after Christmas, on a  bitterly cold Saturday. There, sitting,  in the same booth, atop of the shelf,  the very same shelf,  was The Stillmeadow Road, just waiting  for me,  and then I opened it the book and it  fell to this page.  

Did I have any choice but to plunk  seven more singles down just to travel this country road for yet another year? Click on the picture and you will understand why this literary wanderer knew it was hers.

I returned to the mall.  Each time I would go to the booth. I would play a game with myself and approach it a different way each time. Gladys and I would just have to work to find each other. Ah, but she was craftier than I, and there she would be, again in the cranny with a few more words for me, on the same shelf, three more times. Stillmeadow Seasons, Another Path, and then the last, at least for now, Especially Dogs.

Collectively, they all cost me less than the latest bestseller and they have all kept me company this long, hard winter.  Gladys Taber has a comfortable writing style and though these books were written mid-twentieth century, they are relevant today as she talks about gardening and breeding her dogs and of child rearing and the importance of family. She frets over housing developments taking over farms and orchards and of chemicals on crops and of a splintering society and she writes much of it in an bygone era most of you reading this now have longings to return to.

There is often a recipe or two peppered among the stories as well.

I suspect these books were bought in an estate sale and brought to the shelves I love to return to by the booth’s owner, who realizes she has snared a return customer, and who sets the books out like little crumbs of bread for a flittering chickadee that happens by now and then to stop for a bite of good words.

I’ll wander in to Jackson Square Mall as time goes by – and I’ll be on the lookout for Gladys Taber’s other 45 books.

In the meantime, I snared Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag. Guess who the author is.

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