The Reluctant Curator

LOve can make you do crazy things.

LIKE when your mother asks you to come over because she and your father are selling their house and downsizing. Only love can make you ignore the overwhelming feeling of a boa constrictor squeezing the reluctant yes out of your body when she says she has a collection of boxes from the attic with your name on them.

I speak metaphorically. The twenty or so boxes had other names on them. Old names. The names of my dead relatives: I knew what was in those boxes: china teacups and old silver. Formal objects no one uses anymore.

I’m part of the IKEA generation. We’re comfortable breaking things. My favorite mug has a giant chip in it.  My desk is full of scrapes and gouges. I once forgot a stainless steel teapot on the stove and it melted. Just the teapot–but the stove would have been soon to follow but for my late-but-timely skill turning off the burner. When I chip all the mugs or need a new teapot, I take a trek to IKEA: Scandinavian Land of the Allen Wrench where they design the packaging of a dining room table for ten to fit inside a Mini Cooper.

I admit to being seduced by IKEA’s international Marketplace. It’s chock-full of cheap chic dishes and orchids that always make me think I can keep one alive more than a week. IKEA is what our grandmothers called the Five and Ten, but updated and with Swedish meatballs.

But some things just can’t be replaced. Like mothers. There I was, face-to-face with mine in one of two rooms that were my parents’ newly downsized home surrounded by my family tree in boxes. The no I had mentally constructed as a shield on the drive down dissolved into air. She’d seen resistance on my face and was pouting.  I was a good daughter, wasn’t I? Was that a tear in the corner of her eye?

So, I packed my Mini Cooper with all twenty boxes and when I wasn’t looking, my father wedged in an Arts and Crafts chair with a seat in need of re-caning. When I reminded him I had a two hour drive home and now I couldn’t see out the rear window he said, “Don’t go backwards.”

Excavating the boxes’ contents on my dining room table the next day, it hit me that what used to be someone else’s functional object, was now mine, a broken object in need of fixing. Including: a fully crazed set of 1910 bone china, one ton of threadbare linens, forty floral mismatched teacups and saucers, and one doll with a cracked head.

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I won’t tell you what happened to the floral teacups because my mother has spies everywhere. But I kept the mostly unusable crazed china, washed the linens, and made plans to have the chair re-caned. I must have felt really guilty about the floral teacups because I felt a bizarre flush of excitement at the idea of restoring the doll with the cracked head. This was weird because 1. I saved no dolls from my own childhood and 2. dolls can be creepy.

Which is exactly what my 18-year-old twins said when I took her out of the box with my name on it. There she was in her creepy glory: a 117-year-old 14-inch leather-bodied doll with frozen joints. Her head was wrapped in a linen napkin. Peeling away the napkin revealed a yellowed face held together with Scotch tape. Placing her carefully on the table, I reached into the box and pulled out an entire Victorian wardrobe of handmade, doll-sized custom clothes. I was smitten. I reached into the box one last time and unwrapped a velvet hat. If I wasn’t already committed to restoring the doll, the hat did the trick. The size of my palm, it was moss green and accented with jaunty feathers.

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Love can make you do crazy things, like drive to a doll hospital in a downpour. While I drove I imagined the doll hospital lady removing the doll from its bag, cradling its cracked head and saying “How wonderful, she’s worth thousands!” I imagined selling the doll and buying my parents a bigger place where they could keep all their heirlooms.

I was still engaged in my fantasy once I arrived. I snapped photos of the doll hospital lady, a diminutive woman with meaty hands, removing the doll from its bag and zooming in for a close-up—photographic proof for my mother that I am a good daughter—that I was not prepared for what came next. She swiftly grabbed the doll’s face with one hand and cracked it like an egg shooting its eyes out onto the counter as if they were a pair of yolks.

I almost fainted.

While holding my doll’s eyes in her hand, the doll doctor spoke on the phone with her sister in Florida, a collector of antique doll clothes. With her other hand, she held the velvet chapeau up to the light. “You should see the hat. You’d die.” Then my doctor looked at me, the phone attached to her ear with her shoulder and said, “You wouldn’t consider selling the clothes, would you? The doll isn’t worth very much. The head was an early example of plastic–celluloid. She’ll need a new head.”

Then she held the doll’s eyes up to the light and said, “But we can re-use these—they’re hazel, like yours.”

I felt a little nauseous. I swallowed and stared at the broken doll on the counter.

“She was my great-grandmother’s,” I said. Adding the new refrain to my vocabulary since my mother downsized and outsourced her heirlooms, “I want it restored.” Then I said something I never imagined saying for any reason whatsoever:

“I’ll take a new head and I’m keeping the clothes.”

My doctor sighed and hung up the phone and I felt the potential of paying my parents to keep their heirlooms fly out the window.

But because of love, I did as I was told. While the doll was being operated on, I went home and soaked all her clothes for two days in a bucket of hot water and Oxyclean. Afterwards, I air-dried the clothes on a towel and ironed them. But because I’m part of the IKEA generation, first I had to buy a new iron. I paid the $150 doctor’s bill, photographed all the doll’s Victorian clothes, packed them in tissue, and attached the tag the doctor gave me, to the doll’s foot, detailing its age and details of restoration.

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I never showed my mother the eye yolks on the table photos. Just the restored doll herself, with her new head and original eyes, the same color as mine. A long time from now, my sons will just love inheriting her. Because love can make you do crazy things.

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Expert doll repairs by Calling All Dolls in Cobalt, CT

 

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Morning Room Makeover

I’m a romantic, I can’t help it.

The sun rising in the morning, peaking through the trees, brings out the poet in me. This small room at the front of the house, I’ve named the “morning room.” Facing east, it enjoys bright sunshine for several hours. In winter, this is where I want to be with my tea, a book, and my dog. Originally, this room had a door and would probably have been referred to as a sitting room or a parlour.

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Three years ago, when we moved in

a hodge-podge of furniture and books from various rooms in our last house ended up here. When Greg or the kids asked me where they should put the small grey chair, or the giant box of photos, or the clocks I’d inherited, I directed them here. Charming as the room was (and is), when dusting and cleaning all the shelves that first week, I discovered an alarming electrical burn the size of a dinner plate where the last owner had plugged in a stereo. This had me wanting to drink something stronger than tea.

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my kids refuse to call it the “morning room”

probably because they think I’m being pretentious and inaccurate, since whenever they are home, regardless of the time of day, this is where they can be found-  playing video games. Hardly the sort of parlour games the Victorians had in mind. Despite my dislike of charging cords and large TVs, we are a 21st century family living in a part 19th century, part 20th century house. Adjustments, such as built-in cabinetry, were made for the sanity of the previous lady of the house and I take full advantage. The boys can play in here, in the afternoon and evening, heads full of computer generated graphics, as long as I don’t have to look at anything but books and the sun when it’s my turn.

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besides the sun, I needed color

All paint is by Benjamin Moore:

Carolina Gull for the trim, bookcases, and cabinetry

Grey Cashmere for the walls and Decorator’s White for the windows

it took a year and a half to paint because. . .

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I painted the whole room myself

like a crazy person. But I find painting to be therapeutic and vaguely hypnotic.

And sometimes, if you’re a mother raising sons, you need to be hynotized.

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greg and our oldest son built the daybed from paneling

and I sewed the roman shades. Purchased at the famed Brimfield Antique Show, the paneling cost less than $100. In a pinch, this room can double as a guest room. I found its original door in the barn and am considering re-installing it.

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Greg got the clocks ticking in near-perfect synchronicity

Both clocks are from my father’s side of the family. The mantel clock is a New Haven Clock Company model owned by my recently immigrated Hungarian relatives in the 1920s. The model on the bottom is older and aptly named after its shape: bullet clock. My father remembers it sitting on a table in his German grandmother’s living room.

(The gentle dual-ticking of the clocks was soothing but the double chiming was a bit over the top.)

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I love formal rooms that can adapt to a casual life.

Everything on the daybed is machine-washable cotton from the down-alternative pillow inserts to the ivory coverlet. Which means that only half of my dog’s hair shows after a morning of her curled beside me in the sun.

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Time Travel

I bought a house, but I also bought an archive

Before installing a new access panel to HV/AC ductwork behind a closet, I found a cache of newspapers and two periodicals from 1951.

Of course, I only thought I was buying a house. To be precise, an old house and a rural house, but just a house- empty of furniture and the lives that once inhabited it.

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The photo above is from Folklore and Firesides of Pomfret, Hampton, and Vicinity, self-published by local resident Susan Jewett Griggs in 1950. Shown from the road, visible is the length of the house’s 1900 Cape Cod design. Not visible is its 1830s original stone foundation.  An awning over the front door protects visitors but the covered porch shelters the family’s most-used entrance which lead to the kitchen. In the back, a shed for a car or tractor and cold storage.

I’ve inhabited eleven houses. Three of those houses were new, built either for my grandparents or my parents. The rest were previously someone else’s, often sold, as houses are, to close an estate after the death of the owner. So, I’m not unconscious of a house holding history. The baton of my present house’s ownership, in what I think of as a relay if not a race, was first handed from the Trowbridge family to the Pecks, followed by the Platts-all farmers- to the Sweets: horse people, and now me and my family. We own no plow, no horse.

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In the cellar, caked with mud, were thirty-odd glass canning jars. Some dated back to the late 1800s.

Despite its age, my house isn’t listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There is no plaque by the barely used front door.  Despite my house being listed in Griggs’ Folklore and Firesides, she lists neither in regard to my house. Historic New England isn’t interested. Obviously, George Washington didn’t sleep here. Beyond my family and friends, no one comes to visit.

But my house’s archive is telling its story anyway.

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I saved a few.  

Last year, my neighbor bought a dog, a very enthusiastic Brittany spaniel named Jasper, who would bark at the window whenever he saw Gigi and I walk past their house on our morning walks. Soon Dave and Jasper were joining us. While Dave and I chatted, the dogs leaped all over each other, sprinting in black, white, and tan streaks through the woods. Dave told me he and his wife had moved back to Pomfret to be with his father in his elder years.

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Jasper and Gigi

On our short walks I learned that Dave’s father’s house is on land once belonging to my house. I learned that Dave is a great-great-grandson of my house’s original Platt family. Dave also told me he was cleaning out his father’s house, going through old papers and letters.

But for those morning walks, Dave and I barely knew each other. He didn’t know, for example, that my husband and I have a tendency to move. That after about four years in one place, I get itchy. Dave also didn’t know that my mother had recently bequeathed to me three generations of maternal china and linens. He didn’t know how heavily the responsibility to protect these objects weighed on me and how that responsibility was in direct opposition to my impulsive desire to take it all to the Goodwill.

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The new main entrance is where the cold storage and shed had been.

Dave only knew what I told him: that I am a writer and I love houses, and I have three sons-one of whom is grown and moved to Newport and the other two nearly eighteen. It seems that was enough. On a walk a few weeks ago, Dave asked if I would like a collection of letters.

“They’re quite old. My father never throws anything out.”

“Yes,” I said quickly without even knowing what they contained. “I’ll take them.”

I said this even though my dining room was unusable due to fifteen boxes of antique china to be unwrapped and no idea where I was going to store the stuff.

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That afternoon, Dave dropped the letters off. They were bundled carefully by year and retained their original envelopes. It is a complete collection of letters from his great-great grandmother to her son Nelson-Dave’s great uncle. The letters reach back as far as 1909. They include farm news: cows born and neighborhood news: babies born. They are full of hope and fear-especially when Nelson left college in Maine during WWI and was stationed overseas. Mostly, they are letters from mother to son and written in my house.

Somehow the odd collection of newspapers I found in the duct-work access in my bedroom, the canning jars in the cellar, the Griggs book left for me by the Sweets on a bookshelf in the morning room,  the letters returned to their place of origin, and even the 35mm film camera I discovered on the top shelf of the laundry room closet last week-have created an impulse for me to stay.  My archive is rich with life and reminds me that my house is a living breathing thing.

The baton has been passed and I hold it tightly.

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8 Things To Be Thankful For

1. I’m thankful that I didn’t kill my teeny lemon tree so now it’s a small lemon tree.

And it actually has lemons.

2. I’m thankful for mammogram technicians with warm hands.

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3. That Christmas is coming and with it the requirement that my sons appear in a photo with me.

4. I am thankful that this snapping turtle didn’t eat my dog.

5. Extraordinarily thankful for Bowl-sized margaritas.

6. That I get to live in a place that looks like this. . .

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. . .and this.

 

7.  That my dog is an excellent reader with exquisite taste. Also, that she is a feminist.

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8. Finally, I am thankful that I am married to this man, who helped me raise those three sons, makes a mean margarita, and lets the dog sleep on the bed.

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Old Hollywood in the Woods

It’s fall. It’s beautiful.

About to fall backward a luxurious Daylight Savings hour into a cloud of leaves, I wake just in time from the summer-haze:

there is a big, time-consuming, messy project I’ve neglected.

As a recovering professional seamstress, I have the problem of sewers everywhere: hoarding fabric. I could have given it all away except I bought this nine-room farmhouse that’s begging for glamour. Soon after moving in I told my hairdresser, “The look I’m going for is old-Hollywood in the woods: Sexy Farmhouse.” She laughed, but in that totally serious way of hairdressers applying highlight foils to your head.

Since then, I’ve been busy. You know, with STUFF.

Three years later, the Sexy Farmhouse living room is painted but 40 yards of decadent  pale green velvet is stacked on the leather sofa in my office, NOT whipped into the opera-pleat panels of my dreams.

NOT hung on Lucite rods like these from one of my favorite drapery commissions:

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Once upon a drapery-past, I had a spacious studio to do the messy work of sewing. And it IS messy. Drapery interlining fuzz floats around the house, there are glass-headed pins all over the floor, and now that I have to sew at home, the worst: no using the dining room table for weeks.

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Once I closed the studio I closed my sewing past into a closet of down-filled pillows and drapery lining. It’s finally starting to bug me. I used to run a business and take care of the house while raising three children. Can’t I write, take care of the house, hike with the dog, college-shop with my twins, AND make the living room into the sexy farmhouse of my dreams? I used to do it all-can’t I do it all, again? Can’t we just eat standing up?

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once a seamstress, always a seamstress.

STAY TUNED. . .

My Town, My Twins

BLUEPRINT FOR DAYLIGHT, my award-winning memoir of infidelity, cancer, colicky twins, and the flood in my basement

has recently been excerpted. . . twice!

The print publication, Connecticut’s Emerging Writers:  an Anthology is available HERE

LARK BLOOM, a blogsite devoted to essays on disability, creativity, and family, is available HERE

I am extremely grateful to Z Publishing and Lark Bloom.

XO

A Nook of One’s Own

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” So said Virginia Woolf in 1928.

Ninety years later, this quote from A Room of One’s Own, Woolf’s extended essay from which it famously derives, is as relevant as ever-especially to me.

I write non-fiction and poetry. But does that preclude me from having a room of my own to make a writerly mess in?

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Woolf is a hero of mine: my English Springer is named after her and I believe The Waves to be one of the greatest accomplishments in novel writing history. My devotion is unmovable. . .unlike my furniture. Which resided in a very messy bedroom writing nook of one’s own.

One being me.

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One in a house of six, five: one husband, seventeen year-old twins (our older son recently decamped to Rhode Island), and the previously mentioned Woolf namesake. Writing anywhere other than a designated spot was at best inconvenient (the dining room) and at worst impossible (on the living room sofa).

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The nook I settled on is at the far end of our bedroom. Yes, it has a staircase to the main entry right behind it, and yes, it’s above the laundry room (ding!) but, the staircase is the fastest way to the tea kettle and the sound of laundry running gives this “one” a sense that all is right with the world.

Here is how my nook looked before:

(see previous post HERE)

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It’s amazing how unaware I was of the space. Given my design background, I should have been mortified. But, the eye sees what the eye wants and I decided to turn a blind eye in favor of being left alone. It was almost too much to ask that my space look nice. I mean, I’ve still got two sons at home, one of whom has yellow flower-patterned wallpaper on his bedroom walls that I PROMISED to remove. Three years ago.

The problem was, once I noticed my nook’s shabbiness, I couldn’t un-notice it. I stopped writing in favor of moving piles of paper and furniture around. I became counter-productive. The tipping point in favor of a nook makeover was that the son with the flowered wallpaper only uses his bedroom to sleep in and with the lights off. Also, my nook remodel expense was minor: we did the whole room for less than $1,000, including the floor. Also, I’m the mother and I’m in charge.

Coinciding with the finishing of the nook of my own,  I’ve had two ideas for novels-and I wrote them down.

Thank you Virginia Woolf. . . I love you.

Have You Ever Seen the Rain?

 

Back in the summer of 1985 I was a ballet-studying, boyfriend-less high school junior living in Virginia. The last thing I wanted was rain. Even in Virginia, where it got so hot people don’t even say the word, it’s like a hex.

At sixteen, I wanted sun, sun, and more sun. I did the sun-dance. All the better to lie beneath while coating my extra-white legs with baby oil for that elusive tan that was never to be mine.

But I had hope.

New Englanders have a saying, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.” Well, I don’t know about the rest of New England, but here in Connecticut it’s been seven days of unrelenting sun. No longer a sixteen-year old after that sweet-spot of the almost-burn: skin that wouldn’t peel and settle into what we all thought of as the Base Tan, I’m older and wiser and discovered bronzer.

And I discovered the beauty of rain.

Finally, after our Connecticut all-sun heat-wave had me taking cold showers a couple times a day followed by drying myself in front of a fan. . . they say that rain is coming. And, oh, how I’ve missed it.

Even if the sweet peas taking over my mailbox don’t seem to miss it.

Or, the grapevines taking over the abandoned ladder don’t seem to miss it.

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They say rain is coming, but when I look up, all I see is sun.

Dude, You Won’t Want Your Lady to Read This. . .

Unless you want to up your game in the love department. But if you’re looking for some inspiration, by all means, you can both read on. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The romance bar has been raised. By this man:

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Meet Greg. Greg is my best friend of thirty years, husband of twenty-five years, and father to our three sons. Which is already super-star material. But he’s also the kind of guy who will buy me Tampax and chocolate at the pharmacy and has been by my side through one aggressive disease, four home remodels, three careers, and ten thousand cans of hairspray.

I know. Pretty f$cking amazing. But just wait.

Earlier this month I was headed here:

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I would be attending inspiring, one-of-a-kind Writer’s Hotel workshops, but I was also invited to serve as teaching assistant to the fantastic Marion Winik. I would be doing all sorts of cool and fun things like introduce Dana Isokawa of Poets & Writers Magazine and Carey Salerno of Alice James Books to attending poets on publishing and lead a Humor in Poetry workshop. Besides all that, along with the other 100 or so attendees, I would be reading at a famous NYC literary location.

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When I found out, a couple weeks ahead of time, that I would be at this NYC landmark, I told Greg, “The Red Room is SO cool, too bad you can’t come.”  Greg was at our kitchen counter, watching me put flowers I’d cut from our farmhouse property in a vase. Greg works in Boston, we live in northeast Connecticut, and Manhattan is out of the way of both. “You’re going to miss me reading and I’m going to miss the peonies blooming.” Spring in the Quiet Corner had been cool- our lilacs peaked two weeks later than usual and the peonies, my favorite flower, would be in full bloom all over the yard while I was in New York.

Greg said nothing. I didn’t even know if he’d heard me.

I arrived in the city on a Wednesday and by Friday, the day of my reading, I’d been so busy with the conference I barely had enough time to run to my hotel room, change, and print out my reading. I threw open my hotel door and saw this:

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Those are peonies. They look like my peonies. From my yard. No. They couldn’t be. Hey- that’s my vase!

I called out into the tiny hotel room, “Greg? Are you here?!” Then I looked under the bed and in the shower. No one. I shrugged and got changed quick. Just before I headed out the door to catch a taxi, I tucked a blossom behind my ear and took a picture.

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I texted Greg from the cab, “Are you in NY?”

“No- What are you talking about?”

“Um, there’s a bouquet of peonies in my hotel room and they’re in my vase from home!”

“I’ve got friends in high places. Enjoy your reading tonight, wish I was there!”

I’ll admit, a peony behind my ear provided more than perfume. I felt magical. Everything started to take on a fuchsia cast.

I climbed out of the taxi, walked up the steep (kind of crooked) stairs at KGB Bar and guess who was there? You guessed it.

Greg drove down to my hotel with the peonies strapped in the passenger seat and convinced the clerk to deliver them to my room. Then he hauled down to the Village and waited for me to show up. (Of course I was late.)

What can I say? I’m a slave to fashion.

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All the ladies loved Greg’s surprise. Scott Wolven, fiction writer, co-organizer of the conference, and newly engaged, said, “Great. That’s a smooth move that’s gonna be hard to beat.”

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The next morning, I was still seeing with peony colored glasses.

From the dogs swimming in Central Park. . .

The rowboats outside the Loeb Boathouse. . .

The promenade. . .

So, get on the stick gentlemen. . .do something nice for your lady.