To Do or not to do, that is the question

“To be or not to be, that is the question” Hamlet is famous for pondering. For me, it is always “To do or not to do” – should I take in my reusable bag or leave it in the car.

Grocery shopping during the pandemic has become quite the challenge. It used to be so simple. You went into the store, loaded the cart with things you really didn’t need but were too weak to resist, put the little divider behind the groceries of the customer in front of you, unloaded them onto the conveyer belt and went back to reading up on the gossip of people in Hollywood you didn’t even know in magazines you would never buy. Once the groceries were scanned, you paid and a nice young man or lady perhaps attending college, or not, arranged it carefully into paper bags and put them in the cart. One of the stores at which I regular shop, insisted then on pushing the cart to my car and lifting them into my trunk.

Several of my friends, also in their “Golden Years” (what precisely, does THAT mean?) barely venture out of their home and wouldn’t dream of entering a grocery store until everyone is vaccinated.  They have friends or family members who shop for them, or they order online to the grocery store and have their groceries delivered by the store or through one of these new- fangled services such as Instacart, Uber Eats and let’s not forget Amazon.  

If they don’t want to be bothered to make a shopping list for grocery delivery, then there are over twenty companies such as Hello Fresh, Home Fresh, Blue Apron, Sun Basket who deliver all the ingredients and the recipe in a box and all they have to do is chop and cook.

Supporting local restaurants and their employees is a civic duty and a pleasurable one at that.  It is also encouraging entrepreneurial  young companies such as DoorDash and GrubHub who pick up your order at the restaurant and bring it to your home.

I like to cook. Cooking is another hobby to fill the hours and to try out new recipes.  A trip to the grocery store is my one big social outing of the week.  I even wear lipstick under my mask and brush my hair. But as soon as I leave the car to walk towards one of my four favorite stores, a sign, looking at this point rather bedraggled, reminds me to bring my reusable bag.  It is then I have to stop and think now, is this the store where “I do, or I don’t?” You see, some stores now will not even allow your reusable bag into the store.  The groceries are placed back in the cart which you then take out to the car and load everything into bags you hopefully have remembered to place there. Or of course, you could pay 75 cents or a dollar for three or four bags and then they will bag them for you.

I don’t know about you, but I already have about a hundred brown paper bags stuffed inside my pantry. I rarely have a use for a brown paper bag but I just cannot throw them away.  Each one is worth .25 cents after all.

At another store you can bring in your bag, but you must store it on the lower level of the cart and then you can pack it at a special table set up outside with sanitizing sprays and wipes.

Then another store allows you to bring in your bag but you must pack it yourself while the cashier is helping the next customer.

Then there is the store that happily packs your bags for you while carrying on a pleasant conversation and you feel despite masks and social distancing everywhere, grocery shopping really hasn’t change that much after all.

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Thanksgiving in the Year of Covid

It’s Thanksgiving in the year of the Covid. For most everyone, that means this special day will be different to any in years past. For starters, fewer will gather around the table to partake of a large meal in the company of family and friends.

This year there will just be the three of us – me, my husband and our son.  Perhaps this year we could have skipped the turkey dinner altogether. Then it was “well, let’s just get a turkey breast. We don’t really like the dark meat anyway.”  Then the next decision was what to make for side dishes.  Sure, I could do the usual or, I could experiment!  I could make each dish something I have never tried before.  That might make preparing the meal a little more exciting and goodness knows, I could sure use more of that right now.

On the shopping day, list in hand, I headed out, checking that I had lots of bring-your-own-bags in the back seat of my car.  One of the items I planned was Baked Acorn Squash with “vacuum packed chestnuts.” When visits to my two name-brand stores failed to deliver “vacuum packed chestnuts” I realized I needed to check out the fancy store downtown with higher prices but speciality items. 

First I met up with a girlfriend for coffee at a nearby bakery.  I should have known right then that this day was not going to go as planned.  We both spied these huge, thick bear claws, encrusted with toasted almonds. We looked at one another, “shall we share one?” and turned to wait our turn to order.  Smiling, we asked for a bear claw and asked if they would be kind enough to cut it in half?   “I am sorry”, the server said, “the gentleman before you purchased the last of the bear claws.” We had to settle for something with raspberry jam…and it didn’t even come close to a real bear claw.

While the server was cutting our raspberry treat, I found myself asking if they had any pumpkin pies or if I had to order one.  My husband loves pumpkin pies and while I am not fond of them myself, thought I should have one for Thanksgiving, for tradition and all that.  “I am so sorry but we just sold out. But, wait a moment, I think they are baking more.” She dashed off and then came back with a big smile, and a modest sized pie.  “It’s still hot from the oven” she said. How could I say no?

Actually, hubby loves the pumpkin pie from Costco. Its huge, feeds a dozen people and costs around $8.  Here was the bakery pie, less than half the size and frankly, costing three times more than the Costco pie and four times what it would have cost me to bake. He had better like it, that’s all I can say!

Then it was time to do the grocery shopping. I went to the entrance of the speciality store and I should have known there would be a line.  Out the front of the building, down the side and around the back.  What choice did I have but to join the end of the line and wait.  At least surely they would have the vacuumed packed chestnuts.

As soon as I entered, I asked if they had them.  “No I don’t think so but I will ask my supervisor” said the young girl, dressed in black, black apron, black hair, black makeup and a black mask. “ I am so sorry but we don’t have vacuum packed chestnuts but we do have fresh chestnuts. Let me show you.”

There they were, no ordinary chestnuts though.  These were large, shiny, brown and imported from Italy. At $16.99 a pound they had better be good.  I purchased half the amount called for in the recipe.  Next on the list was acorn squash.  But where were the squash? Back to the young lady in black.  “What’s an acorn squash?” she asked.  We found a crate of squash and among all the butternuts, crookneck pumpkins, kabocha, and turban squash there were several acorns.  These were enormous, much larger than I usually buy. Normally I pay per squash but the cost of these were “per pound.”  Two squash weighed almost the same as my third newborn and cost about as much!

Then it was time to buy the turkey breast.  I was rather taken aback.  Seems you pay more for just a part of the turkey than you do for a whole one.  So now what to do. I had already spent so much money on the pie, the chestnuts, the squash and now it was the turkey breast dilemma. I moved over to the other case.  A 15lb turkey went with me to the car for a whole lot less than just a breast.

Once home I thought I would begin with those chestnuts.  I googled what I should do with them. First task is to score them horizontally with a knife. I don’t know if you have tried pulling a sharp knife across a curved hard surface toward you but you are in a serious position of getting your palm split open.  Another suggestion on google is to take a pair of scissors, rest one point on the counter and the other on the chestnut and close the scissors.  If it doesn’t scoot off the counter and onto the floor, well done!  The You Tube video then directs you to “soak them in water for two hours or you can use wine!” Then she continues “ After two hours boil the chestnuts for two minutes, then dry them off in a towel, before tipping them into a hot pan for another few minutes. Then its back into their towel for a few more seconds. “Peel them while hot “ using some special gloves.  “There you have it” says the lady in the video. Oh no no, what I have are some Italian chestnuts obstinately refusing to open their jackets allowing themselves to be peeled.  I even tried microwaving them and still they refuse to cooperate.  I’ll show them – they won’t be on my Thanksgiving table this year. I will substitute hazelnuts instead.

Next year I just might think twice about cooking at all.  I hear you can purchase an entire cooked turkey dinner that serves six to eight people for $49.99 and it includes pumkin pie!

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Pole Hugger

I recently reread a copy of “Me Talk Pretty One Day” by David Sedaris.  This collection of short stories was originally published in 2000 and I think it was around then that I first discovered this author with his humorous take on the world and deprecating examination of himself and his family.

I am particularly fond of his writings about his nine months living in Paris and his efforts to try to learn the language.  In “Picka Pocketoni” he describes an experience on the Metro.  It is summer and Paris is packed with American tourists, all of whom seem to fill the Metro and make themselves known with their loud voices and tactless remarks.  On one such train, an American couple in their late forties is described as “hugging the floor-to-ceiling support pole.” He goes on “ There’s no sign saying so, but such poles are not considered private. They’re put there for everyone’s use. You don’t treat it like a fireman’s pole; rather you grasp it with one hand and stand back at a respectable distance. “

“Oh dear,” thought I.  I am guilty to being a pole hugger.  Whenever I get on the Metro, Tube or Subway, and there is no empty seat, I finangle a way to that pole and hold on as if my life depended on it, full body contact.  I always thought I was being considerate of others, making myself as flat against the pole as my large backpack, now worn on the front because we all know there are pickpockets on trains, would allow. 

I mean, really, who knew about this “rule” of grasping with one hand and then standing three feet away.  Do little French kids get taught this by their nanny? Is it addressed in schools? Do they do this in New York?  I must go back to New York or London and check it out. 

To be honest, I do have a sort of thing about poles.  I remember being at a party a few years back and there were poles holding up a canopy.  The live band was playing my sort of music, I was celebrating something or other and well, before I knew it, I had gravitated to one of the poles.  At first I just grabbed it as a support. It was a warm day, the wine was so cool and clear and delicious . Then something happened. It wasn’t my fault really, but the music, the wine, and the pole… before I really knew what was happening, the pole and I were having a good time moving and gyrating and sliding up and down and leaning back and… you get the picture. It was only when the music stopped that I looked out and I had an audience.  Everyone around had stopped speaking and were looking or ogling, I am not sure which.  I would like to say I immediately felt embarrassed but all I could do was to give them a very big grin and quietly remove myself to a dark corner.

Obviously I am not the only pole hugger out there.  There is a bar in Whitefish, Montana (well, actually, there are a lot of bars) but this particular one had two or three poles on raised platforms in their disco room. It was a favorite among young people – people a lot younger than me that is.  When I discovered that room (I was drawn to the throbbing coming down from the floor above) I saw these girls shamelessly rubbing, and sliding, and caressing these poles. Of course the guys were loving it. “Yeah Go Girls” I thought, secretly wishing one would notice me salivating at the edge of the crowd and invite me up there. It didn’t happen.

I have been a realtor for a number of years and have been in many hundreds, even thousands of homes over a forty year career.  You think you have seen it all when you enter a vacant home and in the upstairs bathtub is a huge koi looking up at you with soulful eyes.

Then there was this little tract house sitting on an average sized lot in an ordinary neighborhood.  As I approached the front door I already was forming an opinion of value and feeling pretty confident I knew what to expect inside the home.  The lady of the house came to the front door and welcomed me in.

Bang wham ma’am, there was the pole, right in the middle of the living room.  You had to walk around it to get to the kitchen.  My eyes popped out of my head, my jaw dropped and the owner howled with laughter. “Oh everyone reacts that way” she said.  I think I was still searching for words when she went on “It’s what I do for exercise.” When she offered to let me try it, there was a moment when I felt the magnetic pull, but, no I was in my professional realtor mode so I stepped back and said it would be nice if I could see the rest of the house.

The pole had to go.  It was not easy for the owner to do this, but the home needed several improvements and some finishing touches.  She was happy when we sold the home with multiple offers and over listed price.

I have not had a relationship with a pole for quite a few years.  I know I will never look at the pole on the Metro, Subway or Tube again in quite the same way.  No, it is with a nostalgic sigh that I will grasp with one hand and stand back to allow some other American tourist the chance to snuggle up close.

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There’s color in them there hills!

It is early morning in mid October.  The air is surprisingly fresh considering the fires of just a few weeks ago. The sky is a ridiculous intense blue without the hint of a cloud. I find myself on a stretch of road in Northern California with no other cars in sight.  Suddenly, I have entered what seems to be a magical place. The road is lined with trees of dazzling gold.

Gasping at the incredible display of brilliance, we park the car and almost reverently approach these splendid guardians of the forest.  Their leaves all aquiver, it is easy to understand where the quaking aspens get their name.  Each little golden leaf is twisting and turning in the gentle breeze as if trying to break free. 

I was reminded of silk worms as they frantically turn their heads back and forth creating their cocoons of silk.  These sentinels of the forest are spectacular at this time of year. The trees are twenty to fifty feet high and while some are narrow with a spread of around just ten feet, others are much larger. The white to grey bark is living artwork with all sorts of dark patterns forming abstract patterns. Behind them, as a dark backdrop, are the cedars and pines that will shortly be decorated with the first snow.

 Emigrants from the East coast often complain that we don’t have seasons in California. Not so!  I recommend anyone wanting to experience the beauty of autumn to travel to the High Sierras, to Ebbetts Pass and Luther Pass and the Hope Valley. 


A few days of intoxicating color, picnics at small lakes with rustic cabins, 

  a little fishing out on the water or from the edge,

   a hike or so from Carson Pass to Frog Lake, Winnemuca Lake or Round Lake, 


Stopping at small creeks and streams that meander throughout this area carrying water out of one lake and on to another, 

a walk around old gold mining towns  –


all this can restore the soul and during these Covid times, we can all use a little of that!


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No SIP here!


Here at our house there is definitely no SIP. That would be no Starving in Place. No Sirree, daily life now revolves, to a very large extent, about food and what we are going to eat each day.


We have been exploring the freezer, taking out something hard, misshapen  and indistinguishable and waiting with bated breath to discover what it is and if we could eat it. If we think we just cannot risk it, we give it to the dog. If she doesn’t like it, then it gets tossed.

Last night we gave the freezer a break and went vegetarian.  Time to search the pantry shelves. A can of garbanzo beans, can of coconut cream, half a cauliflower, some rather squishy tomatoes, ginger (also about to expire, ) garlic and lots of spices like coriander, turmeric and cumin. I even had some red lentils that I threw in for good measure.  Served up in a bowl with yogurt and cashews, it was totally delish!

I start thinking the day before what our menu will look like the following day. While foraging in the pantry for the lentils and garbanzo beans for last night’s dinner, I came across a bag with white little globules in it. Curious, I lifted it down off the top shelf and read that the bag contained tapioca.  Really? When on earth did I buy that and more importantly, why did I buy that?


The price tag said 99 cents, so I am willing to bet it was rather too long ago. Better use that up.  So tonight we will have dessert of tapioca made with the remainder of that coconut cream and on top will be a sliced banana before it turns completely brown

On the lower shelf of the pantry are three very large onions that are a bit soft to the touch.  Hmm, what will it be for lunch? Onion tart or French onion soup?  Whichever I decide,  I shall imagine I am at a table, on a warm day, under the shade of a leafy tree, on the little street in Paris where my sister and I rented an apartment. It was a favorite place to eat.


Then there is that can of  garbanzo beans left off from last night’s vegetarian dinner. . I’ll go into the garden and pick a lemon off the tree, add some garlic and there must be a jar of tahini somewhere on the shelf marked “Asian.”


Then, Bob’s your Uncle as they say  – we  have an appetizer for tonight.  Tonight? Oh you want to know what we plan for dinner tonight (besides tapioca pudding?) Pork shops from the freezer, one left over potato which I will saute in olive oil, and we have fresh broccoli purchased from the produce stand at the end of the street. (Its just five minutes away so that makes it safe, right?)

Now that breakfast is over (we used a box of Krusteaz dated 2018) it is time to get cooking.  This SIP (that would be Sheltering in Place) really isn’t so bad after all.

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Shelter in Place



What a strange phrase.  Why not just say “Stay in your home and don’t go near anyone else.”  Why am I having such a hard time with this?  There must be something wrong with me.  Aren’t I that person whose calendar is filled each day with real estate appointments, classes, meetings, physical activities, choir, rehearsals, charity events, theater, dinners, grandchildren activities – the list is endless.  Now I look at the blank pages of my Day Planner and feel totally adrift.

My scheduled activities anchored my life. Oh, there were times when I might wish I were not so busy so that I could clear out those drawers of little used kitchen utensils, reorganize the pantry, sort the old photos, tidy up closets, attend to the garden.  I might even have been known to exclaim, “Stop the world, I want to get off.”

Well, the world has stopped and now I want back on. Quick.  I read that there is anxiety out there, people afraid of the virus. Personally, I am less concerned with catching the virus or spreading it since I am avoiding being around anyone except my husband and dog.  What I am suffering from is mild panic. I am a person who needs structure. I need to know what, when and where I am at all times each day.  The chores and fun activities revolve around and outside of those entries on the daily calendar.

Today is my fifth day at home. It is also St. Patrick’s Day.  I hear the pubs in Dublin are closed. I feel guilty about my silliness when the Irish cannot celebrate their greatest day of the year. In Italy, many people don’t have a garden, as I do, but only a balcony. Yet, they are not letting the enforced home stay quieten their spirits. They are out on those balconies, serenading the world. In Spain, if a big Fiesta is cancelled, bring your instruments onto your balconies and make music anyway!  I think if I were to open my front door and start singing I would be politely asked by those walking their dogs past my house, to perhaps go inside and shut the door!

This morning the local paper reported that there has been a spike in the sales of gun and ammunition. Good golly, have we come to this: “Stay away from my toilet paper or I shoot!”

Of course I realize this feeling of being adrift, mild panic if you will, is entirely in my head.  I try to tell myself that I need to slow down, to take stock of my life, to literally, stop and smell the roses.  All those chores that have been waiting for my attention are still waiting.  I feel lethargic. I want to be doing other things and not have to deal with those projects.  The drawers of my desk are total chaos, my art closet is a disaster,


the pantry’s shelves are in disarray, clothes not worn for at least a year need to be culled, the freezer (three freezers to be totally honest) are stuffed with misshapen packages of unidentifiable food. Here at least, we can have the daily thrill of defrosting two bricks and making a meal out of whatever materializes.


Perk up Sally.  Besides cleaning, sorting and reorganizing, there are creative things I can be doing for the next few weeks. I could paint pictures, I could paint a chair and cover the seat with fun fabric, I could mosaic one of our garden pots, I could learn a new song, practice songs from our Chorale class, read one of the books from shelves stacked with books picked up at garage sales.


Heck, I could open up my Introduction to the Piano text book and start at the first page and try to remember my two years of piano class.. That keyboard has not been touched for over a year. What a great opportunity to remind my fingers and brain how to hit notes. There are dusty art books sitting patiently on shelves waiting to be savored once again.  Then there is the garden.  Always the garden with constant reminder that weeds need to be pulled, bushes trimmed, trees fed, and best of all, to be enjoyed.


In the meantime, I will probably gain considerable weight since I seem to be eating more, have had to become intimately familiar with my toenails since I cannot get a pedicure, and am spending way too much time on Face Book. As a disclaimer however, I can safely say that I am not alone spending time on my phone insofar as I can report that I had thirteen comments on a recent post in less than an hour!

Enough of this moping and sitting endlessly at the computer writing blogs that probably no one will read. Time to go walk the dog and check on those weeds.




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I am a Dollar Store junkie


“My name is Sally and I am a Dollar Store junkie.”  There, I’ve said it. Let me be perfectly clear from the outset that I can perfectly well afford to purchase holiday wrapping paper, ribbons, dog squeaky dog toys, parchment paper, pens and so forth, at full retail. But I love walking the aisles at my local Dollar Store, looking at just how much you can buy for only one dollar.  Why, for what I would pay a single cappuccino, I can walk out with FOUR items for the same price!

I am also a bit of a ham. I love to dress up for the weekly office meeting preceding a special holiday such as Valentine’s Day, St Patricks, Halloween and so forth.




Where else could I find the trimmings to add to a large hat, a boa, fun eye glass frames (that actually fit over my regular glasses,) stickers, patterned socks, battery operated miniature lights to sew onto clothing or to hang around my neck, glue and all kinds of little glittery items.



Serious shoppers like me know you MUST shop at least a month to six weeks ahead of any special holiday because by the time the event is just a week or two away, nothing is left and the store has already stocked its shelves in anticipation of the next big holiday.When I heard in January my friend was throwing a Mardi Gras five weeks hence, I immediately stocked up on masks, beads, boa, wrapping paper, ribbons and birthday card.


I am all set for Easter that follows quickly thereafter.  What fun to set a table (ideally a picnic table out in the fresh air someplace where the kids can run wild) with a spring tablecloth, matching plates, cups, napkins, a center piece.  The grandkids can search for colored eggs filled with candy and nickels. The adults get their little decorated boxes with adult goodies.

This is the go-to spot for stirring my creativity. I can find styrofoam shapes that I glue together, cover with cement and use as a base for mosaic work. (see top of totem) In fact, the red, yellow and green ceramic pieces are plates from the store that I smashed to bits!


Two weeks ago, someone stole our street sign. OK – off to the store for supplies!


Time for my dog to have a squeaky toy? It doesn’t matter if I pay $8 at the pet shop or one dollar at the Dollar Store, the toy is demolished in eight minutes anyway (yes, I have timed her ability to rip open the casing to reveal the little white plastic squeaker hidden inside.)


Balloons? It’s a love hate relationship.  Helium balloons come in around 30 different designs for all occasions at the Dollar Store.


But the person who checks you out at the register is the same one who blows up the balloons.  The checkout lines can be long so I always take a look to see which registrar appears to be moving the fastest. Recently, my arms loaded with treasures, I decided to stand in what seemed to be the fastest moving line. All went well until the person in front of me, having had all her items scanned said “Oh, and I need eight balloons.”  She and the checker then had to move to the balloon counter and we all waited while she looked over the selection, changed her mind several times and, after what seems like a very long time, finally got her eight balloons . It’s the trade off for scoring some fun stuff at a cheap price.   Just for the record, our family works diligently to make sure no balloons get released into the air to later collapse into the ocean to add to an already polluted situation.

Continuing on that note, with few exceptions, everything in this store comes from China.  I recognize the American consumer has, over the past twenty or thirty years, built up the Chinese economy to such a point they are now a major power.  On the other hand, I could argue our purchasing of those items has provided incomes to those who most need it. On the other hand, China’s record on the abuse in the workplace of women and children in particular, is poor.

When I spy the bin with the Weekly Specials front and center as  you enter the door, I have to take a look.  Will it be a solar light for my garden, a plate and matching mug in a lovely shade of green or orange, or some cute little animal or person that bobbles its head when the sun hits a minute solar panel as it sits on my kitchen window ledge.  I have quite the collection now – the Easter bunny, flowers in a pot, Thanksgiving Pilgrims, Santa Elf, Snowman…

Oh, I am feeling the pull. There must be something I need today that means I must make a trip to the store. It has been at least three days since I went and a lot of new stuff has probably arrived. I had better get in there quick before it is gone!






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A Tale of Two Sisters


From L to R : Violet, Nellie and daughter Pamela

Seventy years ago, two sisters, Nellie and Violet came into my life. Such sweet, old fashioned names for two charming, well bred upper class English ladies. Nellie was my grandmother and Violet her sister. They grew up in Sussex, England, in a large Tudor-like house with land and cottages inhabited by those who worked for the family, such as the cook, gardener, the man who took care of the pigs, the groom and house servants.

Bolney Grange, Bolney, Sussex, England

Nellie the youngest, was born in 1886. Their lives were privileged with a Governess as tutor and meals cooked and served by servants. Sewing, reading, painting, riding and attending balls filled their days. Nellie went on to marry a man named Sydney whose business interests lay in the diamond mines of South Africa.

It is my Great Aunt Violet (whom I always called Aunite V) that I write about. I look at photos of her and I see myself. While Nellie appears young and innocent, in Violet I see a certain defiance and independence. Violet was fun loving, flouting social mores of the time and unconventional in her thinking.

In those days, before WWI, the upper classes in Britain did not mix socially with those who served them. There was, as portrayed on popular BBC television series such as “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey,” an understood arrangement whereby those living upstairs did not concern themselves with the lives of the staff who worked in the kitchen, scullery, laundry and so forth, located in the basement.

Watching Downton Abbey, I have always had a suspicion that Julian Fellows must have known about my great aunt Violet. It was Violet, you see, who disregarded those social rules insofar as she became quite friendly with the family chauffeur who was from France. More than just friendly, they eloped! They didn’t just pop over to the local Magistrate for a quickie wedding. No, they eloped to France!

Alas, poor Violet. Upon arriving in France, the French paramour promptly dumped her. Here she was, this product of a privileged society suddenly on her own. She could not return home to England. She had embarrassed the family name and efforts were made to keep the scandal to a minimum.

The family supported Violet financially and she eventually found her way to Mougins, a little village up in the hills above Cannes in the south of France.

Auntie V with two of her many dogs

It was the circumstances of marriage that brought me into the lives of Nellie and Violet, Nellie’s husband Sydney died when their daughter Pamela, my mother, was about fifteen. The grand house was sold and Nellie and her daughter moved to London. It was WWII in London with bombs falling, sirens wailing and food rationing. These were hard and dangerous times for residents of London. Back in the south of France my maiden aunt continued to live alone and took in a few stray animals for company. Then she took in more. The war left many dogs, casts, pet marmoset monkeys and birds without homes. She took them all in. There were two houses on the property and one became the rescue shelter.

After the war, as a young girl, my grandmother and I, along with my mother and her new husband, would travel by train to visit my Auntie V. We traveled on the renowned Pullman steam train known as the the Golden Arrow from Victoria Station, through the English countryside, across the channel by boat and then caught the elegant overnight train, Le Train Bleu (The Blue Train) to Nice. I remember the cabin I shared with my Gran and the little private bathroom. To this day I am carried back to that memory whenever I spy a small shiny stainless steel sink!

How different it felt to be in my Auntie V’s village of Mougins. There were wonderful scents unknown to me in England – lavender, rosemary, citrus blossoms and outrageous colors of purple bougainvillea and scarlet geraniums. I had never seen cactus before, especially the very large ones that were twice my size.

When we were not at the beach in Cannes or Juan les Pins, I hung around the kitchen door while Jacque, the resident cook made stews for all the animals.
Auntie V was delightfully eccentric. Not only did she house more than a dozen animals (seventy two animals were living on the upon her death), she dressed to suit herself and not the fashion of the times. This was the late 1940’s and early 1950’s but Auntie V’s clothes were stuck back in the 1930’s fashions with cloche hat, calf length plain dresses, “sensible” sturdy shoes and if we went into town for an ice cream, she dressed up by adding her real fox fur complete with beady eyes, thrown over one shoulder.

I lived alone with my grandmother until she died when I was eleven years old. I did not have many close friends and my Auntie V became my confidante. I poured out my feelings, thoughts and opened my heart to this woman through very long letters. She, bless her heart, took the time to reply. Those letters were a lifeline, especially after my grandmother’s death and I went to live with my mother, her husband and their two children, my half brother and sister.

These two sisters, one widowed, one a spinster, shaped my life. Nellie helped me see the beauty in simple things – a small vase of yellow primroses on the kitchen table, the pleasure of getting lost in reading books, the importance of good manners, etiquette and respect for history and tradition.

Auntie V always strikes a pose in photos!

It was Auntie V and my memories of her that showed me I could break away from my grandmother’s more austere Victorian upbringing and that I should never be afraid to follow my dreams and above all, be true to myself. To those two sister, long gone, Nellie and Violet, thank you.

Posted in England, Family, France, Memoirs | 10 Comments

A Little bit of Crumpet

This morning I opened the refrigerator for milk for my morning cup of tea, and staring back at me was an unfamiliar package. “Ah, husband has been shopping at Trader Joes again” I thought to myself. I looked closer at the bag and it said “Classic British Muffins (Low Fat).” As if to really push home their authenticity, there are portraits of Prime Ministers Disraeli and Gladstone on the package.

Of course in Britain, we don’t call these round discs of dough Muffins. No, in Britain we refer to these as crumpets. They have a somewhat hardened top often with bits of loose flour and very uneven highly textured and crumbly inside.

Feeling a bit peckish, I decided I would give one a go. I was expecting to be very disappointed. I mean “Low Fat” to me is a sure give away that it will be tasteless and certainly not authentic.

Pulling the two halves apart very carefully, to preserve the crumbly texture, I popped them into the toaster. It is important to get them really crispy for the flavor to come through. Then I added butter and creamed honey and waited.

Oh my, suddenly I had a flashback to when I was thirteen years old and spending a day with my best buddy.  I remember it was winter and was one of those overcast Sunday afternoons and there was a break in the weather so we could go out exploring. On this particular day, we went down to the mud flats of the River Thames. When the tide is out, you could walk below the walls of the Embankment and slosh around with your Wellington boots on, kicking up all sorts of treasures. It was not uncommon to find many glass beer mugs intact lying in the mud from a habit that seemed prevalent at the time, of tossing your mug into the river when empty. Since many pubs lined the Thames, there was lots of tossing. Broken smoking pipes, lots of rusted bits of iron and all sorts of broken glass and pottery. I don’t remember us finding any treasures but it was certainly a lot of fun.

When we were thoroughly muddy, cold and hungry we returned to the flat of my friend’s grandmother. She had tea all ready for us.  The  teapot was snug under its hand crocheted cosy and the plate of muffins lay waiting for us to spear them on a long fork to toast them over the electric fireplace.

Then came the butter, smeared heavily over the crispy hot surface until it ran down our fingers and we licked it up quickly as if it were a melting ice cream cone.

The ritual of afternoon tea in Britain may vary from one home to another, even from one part of England to another but that particular act of toasting a crumpet over an electric heater is one of the best rituals ever. But don’t trust me, give it a go. Remember, if Disraeli and Gladstone have their names and faces on the package, it had better be authentic!

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Hoarder of Memories

It happens every year. I cannot help it. As soon as December 25th has passed, I am itching to get everything Christmassy put away. I am just so over it by the time Boxing Day arrives (that’s the day after Christmas and no, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the sport ) that I am irritable, restless and short tempered.

The big plastic bins are surreptitiously brought in from the garage and I quietly begin the process of removing themed items from around the house. I don’t want to make a big deal of this because my husband grew up in a family that left their decorations up until past New Year’s.   As it is, I have managed, after forty seven years, to persuade him to honor my British tradition of opening presents on Christmas Day and not on Christmas Eve.

The tree is the last to go out and once that is done, I can breathe a great sigh of relief that the turmoil, chaos, stress and hard work of the previous four weeks is finally over. I mean really, let’s face it, try as you can to ignore the upcoming holiday, it is hard to get away from Christmas when you see trees and ribbons for sale in Costco in September, stores are decorated in October and then you have Black Friday in November. It seems to go on forever.

This year the clearing out and cleaning up fever did not abate as it usually does. I took a look around my office/workshop and realized that for the past year items have been accumulating on the long counter top. Time to clean that all off and put those items away in the closet where they belong. Oh, but wait, there is absolutely no room in the closet and I can barely open the door because of the big box of wrapping paper, (how many birthdays would it take to use up all that paper?) easels I never use, a banjo I never play, boxes of decorative papers I think one day I will use in collages, bags of knitting wool (who has time to knit any more) and shelf upon shelf of open shoe boxes, each stuffed with slides and photographic prints. Thousands of prints, still in the envelopes as they came from the store.

I have traveled a good deal the past fifty years and have always taken photos. For quite a long time when you took your roll of film in to be developed, you were given an extra set of prints. What was I supposed to do? Toss perfectly good prints away? Of course not, I put them into shoe boxes and up on the shelf – in the other house.

Yes, those prints lived in our other house for thirty four years and then were transported four years ago to the new house and shoved onto shelves in the new closet and have never seen the light of day until now. Thousands of prints, and I don’t exaggerate (thirty six prints to an envelope and hundreds of envelopes) had to be looked at, considered, and then either they get saved or tossed. The saved ones are now categorized and in clear plastic boxes. Whether the blue lids will eventually go on top, remains to be seen!

Then there are the slides. How shocking to go through those and see the younger me as a seventeen year old riding around in the boy friend’s Bull Nosed Morris (that’s a 1923 open car) or climbing Ayres Rock in central Australia as a 19 year old. There were photos of my student life in Berkeley, my M.A field work in India , our wedding photos from 1971 and our first child.

Around 1974 I made the switch to prints. Most are of places I have visited with a few family photos scattered among them. Apart from family photos, I don’t know why I feel I need to keep the images of cathedrals, countryside, canals, cafes, twisting old stone streets but I just cannot let all of them go. A little part of me is saying that perhaps one day I will sit and just slowly savor each one and relieve the journey. The other more practical part of me says “Don’t me ridiculous. You already have 46,783 photos on iCloud!” Its true. I am obsessed with trying to capture the present and to hold onto it for as long as I can, at least until “death do us part.”

This obsession if that is what it is, has led to my keeping a diary since I was a teenager. That’s the other thing that is taking up space in that closet – dozens of journals of scribblings. But I ask you dear reader, wouldn’t you like to read your diary dating back to 1965? It was the year I came to America and traveled for 99 days for 99 dollars around the United States on a Greyhound bus. Now that makes for a good read!

If I wasn’t a hoarder of the past, all my shelves would be clear of shoe boxes of slides, photos and diaries. Goodness, then I would have no excuse but to clean up that counter top once and for all!



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