It’s that time again!

Calling all you procrastinators out there, its that time of year again. I don’t mean its time to put away the Halloween decorations, that can be put off until after Thanksgiving, when you have to go up into the attic, the basement, the garage, to haul out the Christmas stuff. No folks, I am talking about BULBS.

For those of you who crave instant gratification, bulb planting is just not much fun. In fact, it has to be called a “labor of love”, with the emphasis on “labor” because digging holes in hard soil is just toil. (No pun intended!)

There is no question that the daffodil is one of my favorite flowers. Despite adverse winter conditions, the daffy peeks out of the ground, then pushes itself upright, and opens up its glorious yellow head to pronounce itself Queen of the garden and boast that it beats the tulips every time.

I know there are hundreds of different varieties, some with white petals and delicate orange centers, others with pointed leaves, or white in their middles, but I go for the old fashioned King Alfred daff which has a big trumpet and large petals. If I am going through all that work to bury the bulb in the soil, I want big bang for my buck.

Very often I think our preferences for various things come from memories instilled in childhood. That’s certainly true of iced buns, for example, which around here appear commercially as “hot cross buns” at Easter. I remember as a child growing up in post war Britain, going to the bakery and for tuppence you could get a round bun, gentle brown on top, sprinkled with sugar crystals and inside would be bits of glace fruit. Delicious just like that, but cut in half and toasted, butter melting into the holes, it was sublime.

These are Hot Cross buns, but very similar to my childhood memories

So it must be with daffodils. Not that I ate them of course. But every proper English student is obliged at some point to learn Wordsworth’s famous poem about daffodils. Apparently Wordsworth was inspired to write the poem after a walk with his sister one stormy day in the Lake District of England.

In her journal entry for 15 April 1802 his sister Dorothy described the walk with her brother and “ how the daffodils ‘tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake.’ ” Wordsworth wrote the first version of the poem in 1804.

I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o’er Vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of dancing Daffodils;

Along the Lake, beneath the trees,
Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.
The waves beside them danced, but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee: —

A poet could not but be gay
In such a laughing company:
I gazed — and gazed — but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the Daffodils.

So back to planting my daffodil bulbs. You would think by now I wouldn’t have to plant any more bulbs. They are supposed to propagate themselves and multiply but truth be told, whoever started that rumor didn’t have gophers in her garden. While deer rather disdain the yellow flower, whatever the snails don’t get, the gophers will certainly enjoy. So every year I go to the nursery to buy my King Alfreds. Then it’s the usual dilemma. Do I buy the big sack of 50 bulbs to save money, or rationalize that I really don’t need 50 and should perhaps just settle for 20. I am now in my seventies and you would think I could avoid this annual dilemma by simply going up to the bin, grabbing the sack and be done with it. But no, it’s always a question: perhaps this year I should try a different variety of daffodil? Or no daffs at all but crocus, or hyacinth or some other exotic?

The rains stopped yesterday so I knew the earth was ready for digging. Last month I knew there was no point going to the nursery because the soil was like cement. What a relief!

Out to the site this morning but wait! Where is my trusty digging tool. I cannot be expected to dig holes without my special tool. Oh, there it is, but wait, I don’t have any bone meal. A daffy cannot be expected to be plopped into a hole without bone meal. Down to the shed and there is a half empty bag, holes all over the top from some animal gnawing at the plastic. Ah well, it will do.

Now expert gardeners say you should simply throw your bulbs out helter skelter and plant where they rest. That’s okay if you have a castle with big grounds and plentiful rain. But I live in California and we have drip irrigation. You have to be respectful of black plastic pipes and then there are the roots from other existing plantings. So I ignore that advice and make my holes judiciously.

Now we come to depth of hole. Look at the chart on the back of the sack and it very clear that it instructs the two inch bulb to be buried FOUR TIMES the size of the bulb. “Get real” I say to myself. I mean, that would mean a hole that is more than eight inches deep. No way is that going to happen. I get that sucker into the hole with its head buried and that’s it. It seems to have worked in the past but perhaps that is why I am not getting them to multiply.

More decisions. What to do when I chop a worm in half. I felt really bad, and hope it wasn’t in pain. I remember back from biology class that they grow a new body part so perhaps he will be survive and do whatever he does to improve my soil. The next decision is what to do about the little rocks and large pebbles? Are they supposed to stay in the hole for drainage? Should I collect them and dispose of them, or toss them to another part of the garden and hope I never have to plant anything over in that spot. The last option works best!

Of course there are weeds growing just where you want to dig your hole. I tried to pretend the weed wasn’t there and judiciously avoided that spot, but then guilt kicked in and I knew I would have to make theeffort to remove it and all those I within my peripheral vision.

Digging a fresh hole, I encountered another awkward moment when I came across a bulb from last year and killed half of it. Its little baby stalk that was growing so well was chopped off the mother bulb by my long silver blade. Prince Charles is laughed at for speaking to his flowers. Just as well no one was listening as I apologized to that poor little bulb.

Fifteen bulbs into the ground, marked with popsicle sticks, only thirty five more to go. The weather forecast predicts rain in the next day or so.  What a shame, now I won’t be able to plant those other 35 bulbs until later….

 

 

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The cream rises to the top

Lately I have been reading the memoirs of famous people. It is quite amazing to me just how much minutiae of their early life they seem to be able to recall. Me? I find I am quite fuzzy on much of my early life and seem to have big voids where there should be all sorts of fun, funny, and not so funny things that happened that I should be able to remember.

I do however, remember the Mitford-Colmer Seminary for Young Ladies in Belgravia, London, described as “ a private school where the daughters of well-to-do families are prepared for their eventual emergence, alongside other well-heeled daughters of well-to-do parents, as society debutantes.” I was about eight or perhaps nine (see, I cant even remember how old I was) when I first attended this private school housed in a Georgian style building in Eton Square, London. This “Square,” along with Sloane Square, Grosvenor Square, Bloomsbury Square and other squares that early twentieth century writers love to set their scenes around, is one of those residential areas of London where embassies now like to position themselves. (Today the average price for a house in Eton Square is upwards of seven million dollars!!!)

Our school was in one of those look alike Georgian homes with white pillars and steps leading up to the front door. At street level were wrought iron railings and steep narrow little steps leading down to the basement where, in earlier days, tradesmen would make their deliveries and where the kitchen was often situated. Today, when you peer down through those railings, you often see these spaces now converted to offices. If you are in one of those offices, the view out the window is an ongoing parade of feet and legs up to the knees.

The Mitford-Colmers were two spinster sisters. Tall, thin, always dressed in grey skirts and loose grey sweaters. Their grey hair was pulled back into buns and on their hands they wore those woolen gloves with the finger tips cut off. I never did figure out which one was a Mitford and which a Colmer.

School was serious business. No one thought to make learning fun. The day began with all students assembled in one large room. It probably was a ball room in the “old days” with tall ceilings, a wood floor and tall windows with their wooden shutters folded back. We sang a Christian hymn, said the Lords Prayer and listened to whatever announcement the Sisters had to make. The teachers (they weren’t called instructors in those days) were lined up in front.   The only empathetic one among them in my opinion, was Miss Westbrook. Miss Westbrook was my favorite. I think she felt empathy for us “rich” kids, perhaps knowing that any other school would have been far less regimented and perhaps allowed a little more levity during the school day.

Wooden rulers were used to enforce rules. A rap on the knuckles if you were caught talking out of turn or to remind you of correct decorum. Perhaps that is why they are called “rulers?” And talking of decorum, I  remember we had to practice walking with books on our heads and rulers placed behind our shoulders secured under our arm pits.  We were young ladies after all, and we had to learn to walk correctly with shoulders pulled back, head held high. (Later, at my next school, we were instructed on how to curtsy before the Queen, in preparation for being presented at Court – but that’s another story.)

At exactly eleven o’clock each morning we would line up and walk down the stairs to the basement where we were each handed a 8oz bottle of milk from a crate. I remember how wickedly cold it was in winter. Ah, the milk. That, and the uniform, are the memories I take with me from my days at that school.

Bottles of milk with sealed foil caps

 

It was milk in a glass bottle, warm as if straight from the cow when the weather was warm and in winter it would be almost frozen. Each bottle was sealed with a silver foil cap and right below that was the cream. I want to gag even now as I think back on that milk. It was so utterly horrid. It was probably milk that hadn’t sold in the past few days and was being foisted on us. I have never liked drinking milk and this was whole milk with this almost solid cream on the top. Of course that cream is a delicacy when poured onto a bowl of raspberries or something, but if you don’t like milk, then you certainly don’t like drinking straight cream. Empty bottles had to be deposited back into the crate.  Sadly, there was no where to tip the unwanted milk but occasionally I found a student willing to drink two bottles instead of just one! I remember we had to save the tops “for the war effort?” Rationing was still in place so perhaps the aluminium was used to rebuild the country?

Lunch was not much better. I was raised a vegetarian and so stringy grey meat swimming around in some brown stuff, had absolutely no appeal whatsoever. No provision here for vegetarians and no one had heard of vegans, gluten free, paleo diets. You had to eat what was put in front of you. Or, if you were me, you carried a hanky and secreted it off the plate, piece by piece, when teachers weren’t watching. Dessert was tolerable. It was inevitably semolina pudding or tapioca.

Our uniforms were grey (now that I think about it, they matched the sky that seemed grey most of the time.) Grey with pleats. Our blazers were grey with some embroidered motto over the left pocket.

A Mitford-Comer girl would never be seen without her grey felted hat with school colors in a band above the brim. In summer, we wore boaters with the same colored band. A boater is a flat brimmed straw hat with a flat top. It was popular in the nineteenth century and worn mostly by men when they went boating.  Perhaps that is where the name came from? Like everything else at Mitford-Colmers’, they seemed to have forgotten this was now 1952 and fashion had moved on.

The Mitford-Colmer Seminary for Girls was no doubt an excellent school.  However, when I learned that other schools rewarded their students at the end of the year with prizes for achievements, I begged to be removed and sent to one of “those” schools.  After three years at the school in Eaton Square, my constant begging, pleading and sulking paid off.  I was transferred to another school where indeed I was awarded prizes for excelling in certain subjects.  Awards Night, was a gala reception held at the Dorchester Hotel.

The Dorchester is one of London’s finest hotels, with a doorman to open your car door and a carpet leading to the entry. The event was held in a large wood-paneled room, embellished with gold and lit with sparkling chandeliers. I even remember I wore a green net dress with little gold dots all over it.

Despite this brief moment of glory, I knew in my heart that I had made a big mistake in leaving the sisters.  Mitford-Colmer was a far superior school educationally, those horrid bottles of milk not withstanding. It would be many years and another continent before I could return to a school with academic excellence.

 

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“To meet the Queen, you must wear a hat”

 

The Queen, her hats always made to match her coats.

“ I say,” said the gentleman in his pin striped grey pants, tails and  top hat, “Would you happen to be interested in two tickets to attend the ceremony at Windsor Castle this afternoon?”  It was a warm June day in Windsor, just outside of London, and my husband and I were touring around in our little rental car. On the spur of the moment, we turned off the highway following signs to Windsor Castle. Something was obviously going on because ladies everywhere on the streets were in frocks, hats and little bags dangling from their arms, while the men, despite the heat, were in three piece suits or tails with top hats.

The distinguished elderly gentleman whom we had approached to learn the reason for all of the festivities, explained “Oh, don’t you know?  It’s the Order of the Garter Ceremony with the Queen up at the Castle.”  Then he asked if he could have a lift to the back of the parking lot where he had left something in his car.  He pushed aside all the clutter on the back seat of our little rental, climbed in and we drove around the lot, looking for his car.

It was a big lot and it took a while to locate his vehicle, and find a place for our own little car  In the meantime, we chatted and he seemed rather fascinated that we were from America, and thought perhaps we might be curious to see the Queen. “Look here,” he said, reaching into his inside pocket, “I don’t suppose you might be interested in two tickets to the ceremony this afternoon? Two members of my family aren’t able to attend.” We both turned to face him, astonished, eyes wide in surprise.  Not waiting for my husband to protest, I said eagerly “Oh, that would be wonderful.  Thank you so much.”  He paused for a moment, still clutching the tickets and said, “You, madam, will of course need to wear a dress, hat and gloves…. and you sir, will need tails or at the very least, a formal suit.”  “No problem!”, says me, images flashing in micro seconds through my head as I see us heading over to Moss Bros. to rent a suit for hubby and a trip to Marks and Spencer’s for a dress for me.

Tickets securely put away in the back pack, we parked the car and went in search of clothes suitable for meeting the Queen of England!  I gathered what I needed in no time.  Dress, check; gloves and bag; check.  Hat, well that was a whole other problem.  I don’t look good in hats.  Never have.

Winter hat

Hiking hat

Flapper hair piece

Ascot Hat?

To meet the Queen?

So truth be told, any old hat would look as bad on me as any other.  I don’t seem to remember being too fussy but at least I ended up with something on my head. Sadly I don’t have a photo to remind me how ridiculous I looked (hopefully not quite as silly as this Valentine’s Day get up)

I mean, wearing the right hat is serious business when it comes to the Royals, even if they themselves can verge on the ridiculous at times.

Order of the Garter 2011
Camilla and Kate

Finding a man’s suit was much more of a challenge than I realized.  No rental suits to be had anywhere in town.  Resigned, we then switched to thinking we had better purchase a cheap suit. Back to Marks and Spencer’s in search of suits.  None. How about second-hand charity stores? Nope, no luck there.  We were getting a bit anxious.  It was already noon and we had just two hours before we had to walk the red carpet in “formal” attire.

As we walked along the street, my eyes searching for any sort of store that might possibly sell cheap suits (not exactly your most common type of store in Windsor), we passed a real estate office. Being a realtor, I was naturally curious as to what a real estate office in Windsor looked like.  The window was open, and there, hung over a chair, was a jacket, beige or camel in color, a nice contrast to the slightly darker brown pants my husband was wearing. Without a thought (I do have a spontaneous streak at times!) I went inside. “Can I help you” asked a young lady.  “Yes, please, I would like to speak to the owner of that jacket”, and I pointed towards the window.  “That would be Brian” she said and called over a young man in his thirties.

“Brian, we have to meet the Queen this afternoon and we need a jacket and tie.  Would you mind loaning us yours”, and I pointed over at the chair.  A big grin spread across his face and I think he was rather tickled by the idea that even if he couldn’t personally meet the Queen, at least his jacket could.

My husband and I popped into a cafe for a quick bite and changed into our clothes.  Leaving the jeans and tops in the car, we joined the other “toffs” and headed for the Chapel.  Those of us with tickets were led into a “holding area”  where we briefly waited before beginning the procession. Finally, there was a fanfare of trumpets, a band started playing, and the group began to move towards the roped off walkway leading to St, George’s Chapel.

First in the procession were the Knights wearing their blue velvet robes, hoods of red velvet over the right shoulder, and on their left shoulder, the large emblem of St George surrounded by radiating silver beams.  On their heads, were black velvet hats with white plumes.

The Order of the Garter

Behind them were various other officials and dignitaries, followed by distinguished guests (including us).  Music from the military band wafted through the warm air, dismounted squadrons of the Household Cavalry dressed in ceremonial uniforms lined the route, and hundreds of people crowed along the path.  It was all very British and very thrilling!

We proceeded to walk the red carpet, shoulders back, noses in the air, while the “ordinary folk” lined the path on the other side of the ropes .  I had watched the Oscars enough times to know how to do this walk.  You take your time, smile nicely, gentle nod of the head, don’t let the bag swing, and perhaps a gentle wave of a white gloved hand held in a condescending way, as if to say “I am one of the chosen few.”

We left the warmth of the street and entered the coolness of St. George’s Chapel, our eyes adjusting to the dim light.  A footman checked our tickets and we were positioned next to our generous benefactor who had already arrived.  Oh dear, if looks could kill! He glanced over at us, my husband not in tails (not even in a formal suit), and me in my department store dress and cheap hat. He turned his head completely in the other direction and never said a word to us the rest of the afternoon.  No worries because at that moment, the Queen and the Royal Family arrived.

Incredible!  There they were, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip and Prince Charles. Had I had a longer arm, I could have reached out and touched the Queen.  It was a most remarkable experience to actually view a ceremony that has been going on for seven hundred years.  The Order of the Garter is bestowed on those men (and now women) chosen personally by the Queen to honor those who have held public office, or who have contributed in some way to national life, such as Sir Winston Churchill.

After the service, which is relayed via loudspeakers to the crowds outside, there is an open-carriage procession back up the hill to the main part of Windsor Castle.  We decided to quietly slip away without embarrassing our host any further,  feeling a sudden responsibility to return the jacket to its rightful owner.  At the real estate office, my husband slipped a 20 Pound note into the pocket of the jacket as a thank-you to Brian, the agent.   As for my hat, it got left in the rental car along with a pair of white gloves.  But the memories of that day will be with us forever.

 

 

 

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A visit with Agatha – that would be Christie!

 

Agatha Christie as seen on the flyleaf of many of her books

You could say I grew up with Agatha Christie. Well, not exactly with her because she was born in 1890, considerably before my time. But growing up in my Gran’s house, it was almost as if Agatha Christie was part of our lives. Every one of her Crime Club books sat propped up against the wall on the little table where we took our meals. It was small table with a lot of books, bound in paper, some fraying and looking a bit tattered. I would read the titles as I chewed on my vegetarian meatless patties.

My Gran was a bit of a health nut and we were vegetarian, unless we were dining “posh” at Peter Jones in Sloane Square, in which case I was allowed a poached chicken breast. Gran did not go out very often and so when we did, she dressed up in her cloche hat and a fox fur she wore around her shoulders and attached at the neck.   She was pretty old fashioned, even in the 1950’s, and I think that is one reason the Christie novels had such appeal. Christie wrote so often of life in grand houses, before the war, when there were servants and butlers (who never did the deed! ) My Gran spent her childhood in such a home and so the writings must have brought back fond memories of a less complicated life.

While Gran liked the Miss Marple mysteries, she was a huge fan of crimes solved by the little Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, with his brilliantined hair, carefully manicured moustache and his “little grey cells.” I think that perhaps Hercule, despite being Belgian and not French, was a thin link between my Gran and her sister who was obliged to live out her life alone in the south of France.

They were separated at a young age, when her sister, my great aunt, had eloped as a young girl to France with the French chauffeur. It was a real Upstairs Downstairs sort of thing, and my dear Aunt Violet, having dishonored the family, was strongly discouraged from returning to England. The relationship between upper class and working class English life in the 1930’s is a thread that runs consistently throughout Christie’s work.

I started reading at a relatively young age – beginning with Enid Blyton and “The Famous Five” who set out to solve mysteries of a less sordid nature. It was an easy and yet exciting transition into Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.

Fast forward some sixty years and I recently found myself in Dartmouth, Devon, in the southwest of England. Dartmouth is a picturesque town on the River Dart, famous for being the port from which Sir Francis Drake set sail for the new world, and, as it turns out, is also well known for the house that overlooks the river, the summer home of Agatha Christie. Of course as soon as I heard that my heroine actually had a home just ten minutes away, I wanted drive over immediately. But no, you can only arrive by train, or boat. To arrive by car you have to make arrangements with the National Trust!

No worries, arrangements were made, and the next day my sister and I in great anticipation set out to visit the summer home of Agatha Christie!

Greenways

When we arrived at the gates, the attendant consulted his clipboard, noted we had special permission and with a big smile and small bow, waved us in. We felt very special, almost as if Agatha were waiting for us and had the kettle on for tea!

“Greenway Estate” is what one might call a substantial home but certainly not remarkable in any way. It is Georgian in style and built in the eighteenth century. It was purchased by Agatha and her second husband Max Mallowan in 1938 and she enjoyed retreating to this home until her death in 1976, which just happened to be on the same day as my Gran’s birthday, had she lived that long. Upon her death, Agatha Christie’s daughter Rosalind Hicks and her husband lived in the home until their deaths in 2004. The National Trust actually took possession of the home in 2000 and have maintained it exactly as it was.

We were invited to sit on Agatha’s couch in her living room.

So many of Agatha Christie’s novels drew inspiration from this home and her other properties, as well as from the surrounding villages and the River Dart. In “Dead Man’s Folly” for example, a murder occurs in the boathouse at the bottom of the gardens and another of the characters is pushed off the dock to drown in the River Dart.

Boathouse – where a “murder” took place

Old photos of Agatha and her family show them lounging on white canvas deck chairs on the lawn out front.  Today the Trust has provided these same chairs for visitors to bring a picnic and to sit and watch water craft on the river below.

View from Agatha Christie’s lawn – the River Dart below.

As a woman who wrote mysteries, Agatha Christie also had a few personal mysteries of her own. In 1926 her first husband, Archie Christie, had an affair and took off one weekend to be with his lover. Distraught, Agatha left the house late at night in her car and disappeared. The car was found, clothes strewn about, but no Agatha. For eleven days, a nationwide search failed to uncover the whereabouts of England’s most famous writer. While some claimed she was faking her disappearance as a publicity stunt, it is quite possible that she had a nervous breakdown insofar as her mother had died just a few months previous. She was located in a hotel some distance from her home, and she had registered using the last name of her husband’s lover. She never discussed those missing days, even in her autobiography.

Then there is a bit of mystery surrounding her brother Louis Montant Miller. When we visited her home, there were two oil paintings on the wall, one of her daughter Rosalind and the other of her brother. Louis or “Monty” is shown as a young, rather vulnerable sort of person, arm raised, cigarette between his fingers.  Its an odd pose and I found it rather intriguing and asked the guide for more information on the brother.

Agatha Christie’s brother, Monty

I found it rather intriguing and asked the guide for more information on the brother. “Oh, we are not allowed to talk about him,” she said. “The family has forbidden it.” Perhaps Monty and Oscar Wilde had something in common, I thought to myself, and if that was the case, back in the 1930’s, it would be something the family would have wanted to have kept private. Furthermore if any such suspicious were rumored, it might possibly have affected sales of his sister’s books.

Her own mysteries aside, Agatha Christie went on to write sixty six detective novels and other short stories and romances. She was knighted Dame Agatha Christie in 1971 by the Queen. Her spirit is alive and well at her summer home on the banks of the River Dart. Discovering her home purely by chance, was just another delight in the serendipity of travel. Let the journey unfold!

 

 

 

 

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Foibles of Youth (Part II)

There we were, three young women, floundering around inside a VW bug that had come out of a skid and landed upside down.  It was 1962, over fifty years ago, and many of the roads of Australia were not yet paved, nor was the Outback much populated.  My friends and I had been traveling for quite some time and on these back roads, with nothing but endless vistas of scrub land, rich red soil, termite mounds and eucalyptus trees.  We rarely saw a car.  Gas stations were few and far between and always a welcome sight when we could turn on the water hose at the pump and wash our hair and dirty bodies.

Once the shock of finding ourselves upside down in the car subsided, we checked that no bones were broken, and knew it was up to us alone to get out of the car.  Reality quickly set in and there was mild panic when it became obvious that we were not going to get the doors open.

As stories go, this must seem anti climatic, when I tell you that at that moment and out of nowhere, an old beat up truck came down the road.  It was a miracle!  Harold came to our rescue!  He heaved open the door and helped us climb out.  I think we were all ready to hug him at that point!  Together we were able to turn the car up the right way, but the ordeal had been too much for the car and it wouldn’t start up again.

Turns out that we were not too far from a small town (more like a truck stop if truth be told).  Harold told us that his buddy owned a garage in town, as well as the hotel, so we were in luck.

Climbing up into the back of his truck, we left my little car looking quite forlorn, on the road.  Harold promised to get the right gear and get the car hauled to the garage.

Today I am a good sight more wise than in those days.  Really, I mean, what a coup for Harold – bringing three young pretty (I say modestly) young girls back to a hick town with a 9 to 1 ratio of men.  Remember, this was Australia back in the days when Australia was looking for emigrants to come settle the country and England was shipping out those willing to go for just a mere ten pounds for the ship passage.  (About $15)

The Outback was all about copper mining, sheep raising and shearing and a lot of beer drinking.  This was the Wild West of the Outback.  Wood houses were built on raised platforms with metal caps at the top of each riser to keep out the rats and torrential rains.   No one had heard of Betty Freidan and her book “The Feminine Mystique” was yet to be written.  A woman’s place was in the home. Women were put on earth to take care of men.  That at least, became pretty apparent soon after we arrived at the so-called “hotel.”

We were housed three to a room behind the saloon.  The shouts, laughter, taunts, yelling became louder as the evening wore on.  But we were exhausted and fell asleep despite the raucous sounds on the other side of the door.

Then it happened.  There was laughter, drunken laughter and the handle of the bedroom door turned.  We were awake in a heartbeat.  If we had watched enough movies and if there had been a chair in the room we would have known to put it against the door and under the lock.  Instead, we all leaned on the door to stop anyone coming in.

“Go away. Leave us alone.” we cried.  More laughter, more pushing on the door.  We were in dire peril. Hearts beating fast we looked around at our options.  The window had bars on it and there was no bathroom in the room (in movies they climb on toilets and out little windows).

Then a loud commanding voice was heard above the drunken belches and lascivious jeering, “Get the hell outta here. Leave those young ladies alone.  Show some respect, won’t ya.”

Our savior was Eddie, owner of the hotel, owner of the “restaurant,” owner of the saloon and yes, owner of the garage.  Basically Eddie owned the town and people listened to Eddie.  You mess with Eddie, you might find yourself out of a job.  Or worse.

Eddie also owned cotton fields outside of town. Who knew cotton fields were in the outback? Certainly not us.  So Eddie had a proposal for us.  We work in his cotton fields, doing a second picking, and we would be paid for our cotton which would pay off our hotel and garage repair bill.

Seemed like a decent plan. I mean, what other options did we have? (No, don’t go there with those other thoughts….) So the next morning we were directed to the bar where we were each given breakfast before we were to get back on the pickup truck to be taken out to the cotton fields.  Breakfast that day, and every day thereafter was the same.  T-bone steak, two fried eggs, lots of bread and cups of strong tea (British style with milk.)

Cotton picking is just not fun.  You grab these balls of white stuff, pluck, stuff into the burlap sack tied around your waist.  It was hot, it was dirty, it was darned right uncomfortable. It was not easy to even find those damned cotton balls because this was a second picking. The first harvest had been pretty thorough.

By the third day, the proverbial light bulb came on.  We were getting paid just enough, only just enough, to cover the hotel bill and not enough to pay to fix the car.  We were slaves! We were being held hostage.  Well, Cynthia and Peaches had had enough. “Its your car. You fix it. We’re leaving.” And they did. They got someone from the bar to give them a ride back into Townsville where, presumably, they got on with their life.

Once again a guardian angel came to my rescue.  After a few more days of slogging along on my own, feeling very bereft, hopeless and frankly, very unhappy, a regular at the bar, a farmer said to Eddie that his wife could use an extra hand on the farm.

So that’s when I went to work with the Showalters, their son Chris and hired help Ashley. There were no extra bedrooms so I shared a room with the boys, my privacy created by a thin curtain strung across the corner of the room by my bed.

For the first few weeks all went well.  I swept the kitchen after every meal, washed dishes, helped prepare meals, collected and cleaned eggs for market, harvested food and prepped it for sale, and generally did everything asked of me.  But then it happened…

Chris, good looking Chris with a mop of blonde hair and ready smile, got a crush on me.  But my heart had gone out to Ashley, rugged, brown eyed, swarthy dark hair and strong muscles.  I rejected Chris and had a fling with Ashley.

Talk about a woman scorned, Chris was beside himself.  Here was his family helping me out and I had the audacity not to return his affection but choosing instead to hang out with the hired help.  I was given my final payment and asked to leave.

I had saved enough to pay off the car and the two of us, my little blue bug and I, high tailed it back to civilization and the next chapter in my life!

 

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Foibles of Youth! (Part 1)

“ Slow down,” I screamed, as the car careened from left to right, rushing headlong down the road, spewing up red dust in its wake. “Use the break pedal – it’s to the left of the accelerator.” By now there was panic in my voice. Cynthia had never sat behind the wheel of a car before and hadn’t a clue how to drive

It was 1962 and the three of us gals were on a road trip around Australia. Well, not exactly around Australia. We were not going over to Perth on the west side. The plan was to drive into the Outback from Adelaide in the south, across to Melbourne, up to Brisbane , then north through Townsville and inland to Darwin, and finally down to Ayres Rock and Adelaide. We reckoned this round trip would be about six thousand miles all told.

We were doing all right chugging along in my second hand blue VW bug. I was the driver (experienced, since I had now been behind the wheel of a car for four months) and there was Cynthia and Peaches. I have no idea where she got that name except that the name suited her well. Blonde, clear skin, full breasts (to match the rest of her that was not skinny and flat chested like me) lovely bright teeth always ready to be on show, and alluring eyes. She didn’t know how to drive either.

We had managed to get as far as Townsville on the northern coast, above Brisbane. For days Cynthia had been nagging me to let her drive. It began as a plea, then begging and then became downright assertive and well, positively irritating. Its not as if there was much traffic on this dirt road from the coast to Darwin.  Apart from copper mines around Mt. Isa and a few very small townships, there was nothing much but red rock, red dust, eucalyptus trees, ant hills and car tracks. Occasionally we would pass Aborigine settlements of family groups around huts made out of branches and native shrubs. Today I would stop and make contact, curious to learn how they live in such seemingly inhospitable surroundings, but we were young, on a mission, and drove past. (Just for the record, most of these nomadic people now live on reservations or have migrated to large towns. Their treatment by the government is not dissimilar to the conditions now existing on Native American reservations.)

We rarely saw more than a car or two a day. What harm could come of letting Cynthia take the wheel? It would shut her up anyway…. so I did. You could say that decision ultimately changed my life. I suppose all our decisions change our lives in one way or another, but that particular moment at least changed the course of our journey, and our relationship to one another was never the same.

The car was completely out of control. Cynthia found the brake pedal, pressed down hard. Too hard. The car spun around, it careened from one side of the road to the other, as if it couldn’t make up its mind whether to tip over on its left side, or its right side. It was a scene from the cartoon, “Cars”. Unable to come to any decision, the car simply rolled and turned completely upside down. Now it resembled its name sake, a Bug, on its back, its wheels turning helplessly in the air and three young girls flung about on the inside.

Reflecting back on this memory, still vivid in my mind, it’s a wonder none of us was injured beyond bruises, hurt pride (that would be Cynthia) and anger (that would be me.) Peaches, who was in the back seat, legs over her head, found it all rather amusing and there were those teeth, in one big grin. I mean really, this was not the time to be smiling. My car, my beloved little blue bug, was lying on its back, in the middle of the Australian outback, and here we were, stranded, miles from anywhere.

What on earth were we going to do?

 

(See Part II)

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Pass the S’mores!

The other night I invited my British friends over for our monthly get together. After dinner I thought it would be nice if we gathered around the wood fire with our cups of Tetley tea.IMG_1732.jpg

 

When I brought out the graham crackers, bag of marshmallows and slabs of chocolate there were giggles of delight from some of the gals. Memories of days in Brownie Scouts, or Girl Guides back in Britain, were told along with camping tales that strayed from the roasting of marshmallows to animals in the wilderness. My dog Hannah barking at seemingly nothing in the darkness, reminded us that coyotes live just a few hundred yards below our garden in the arroyo and mountain lions are never far away either. A little chill ran up our backs.

 

But tonight the only movement we could see were far away lights of planes following each other at even distances as they came in from the south, headed to the airport at San Jose. or San Francisco.  They looked like shooting stars. An off-the-cuff comment was made that perhaps it was planes such as these that led the Three Kings to the stable in Bethlehem (an idea resulting from more empty bottles of wine left on the table than two hours previously).  This reminded my friend Nikki of a complaint made by an American tourist in Windsor, England, who observed, “what a shame that they built the castle so close to the airport!”   More giggles all around.

But I digress! Back to the S’mores.There were nine of us and two had never ever tasted a S’more. Now I ask you, how can you live in America for sixteen years and never have roasted a marshmallow? Furthermore, why on earth are they called S’mores? Wikipedia points out the obvious, that it is a contraction of the phrase “some more.” The first recipe seems to go back to around the 1920’s where it was already popular with scouts and camping.

Not one to be left out, the Guiness World Record book shows the largest number of people making S’mores at one time was 423 in 2016 in Huntington Beach, California. Trivia fans, you never know when you might need that fascinating piece of information!

Back around the fire I handed out the one “correct” marshmallow stick (handle, long metal round skewer thing with a “fork” at the end) and a bunch of coat hangers that I save just for this occasion. Over the years, with four grown kids and four grand children, I have purchased any number of manufactured marshmallow sticks over the years (now you can purchase a telescoping kind through Amazon for a mere $20 for four)….but they have mostly disappeared.

How can I end up with just one? Where did all those other marshmallow sticks disappear to? Nothing wrong with a coat hanger or if we were in the forest, a twig. That’s America for you, always marketing something to us consumers. Remember those funny little yellow corn cob holders (Williams Sonoma 8 for $19.95!) that we used once and then they rattle around in that kitchen drawer, poking you every time you search for the apple corer or that gizmo that slices hard boiled eggs.

Marshmallows secured, my friends …..impatient to relive their childhood,….poked the marshmallows into the flames. “No no” I urged, “you need to wait for the coals. “ Poof! They caught fire and there was a lot of huffing and puffing and burnt fingers. Pure bliss spread across my friend Jane’s face when that gooey melted mass oozed out of the graham crackers and made a sticky mess in her fingers. My friend Anita said how she somehow always ended up being the one roasting the marshmallows at boy scout events and never seemed to have the opportunity to make a S’more. So she was very content to make S’mores just for herself.

However, my friend Anita is a vegetarian and I feel simply awful that I did not think at the time to purchase vegetarian marshmallows. Gelatin is the main ingredient of marshmallows (and is also found in gummy candy, yogurt and ice cream). It is an animal protein coming primarily from pigskins and the bones and hides of cattle. Perhaps if more people knew the ingredients of commercial marshmallows, they might want to think twice about popping one in their mouth.

But who knew all this? Anyway, there is actually a National S’mores Day celebrated annually on August 10th. Boy, I must put that on my calendar. I wouldn’t want to miss that big event.   Had better order some more of those fancy skewers!

 

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