Thursday, December 31, 2009

For Auld Lang Syne, My Dears

New Year's Eve, 2009. The last blue moon of the year happens this very night. Somehow that seems apropos. This has been a remarkable year for me. A year of transition and metamorphosis. I moved from the subtropics to the subarctic. I left behind the family I created from among friends over the last 26 years to return to the family that ancestry and DNA connect me to. I'm having to reinvent myself all over again. It's an opportunity to attach the 'New and Improved' label to my resume.

How do I feel? I haven't the slightest idea how to put the swirling emotions into any kind of order let alone into words.

I am sad not to be among the people who gifted so much of themselves to me in Texas. At the same time I am glad to be among people who want me to be a part of their lives here. As I look back at this past year and ahead to the one coming, I feel like a poster child for the definition of oxymoron. I want to have what I had and want what I've got. I am a walking dichotomy. Anyone who's known me would tell you that that's nothing new. I guess I'm just more conscious of it tonight than usual.

I take comfort in a passage from Jonathan Livingston Seagull that seized my heart all those long years ago when I read it for the first time. It has come to mind every time there's been a parting of one sort or another in my life. Please forgive the inaccurate paraphrasing that follows.

Jonathan says to Sully:

".....Take away space and all we have is here. Take away time and all we have is now. And somewhere between here and now we shall surely see one another again......."

I've heard the strains of Auld Lang Syne throughout the day on various TV programs. Auld Lang Syne--Old Long Since. I've always taken it to mean 'for old times sake'. I will indeed raise a cup of kindness yet to all that's gone before. And raise it again to toast what's to come. In the end it's all one and the same. It is life. And it will draw breath for as long as it is remembered.

I lift my cup, overflowing with optimism, to all humanity and especially to you, my Gentle Readers. May we always be as close and never farther apart.

Happy New Year and may all your dichotomies find happy resolutions!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Fire Up The Brass Monkey

For the benefit of my Gentle Readers, what follows is Lord Wellbourne's Temperature/Comfort Equivalence Guide. It may come in handy for comprehending future posts.

95 & up degrees----------Just Freakin' Shoot Me
85 t0 94 degrees----------Hot
75 to 84 degrees----------Balmy
50 to 74 degrees----------Perfection
35 to 49 degrees----------Brisk
25 to 34 degrees----------Cold
00 to 24 degrees----------What The Hell!?
Below 0 degrees----------Just Freakin' Shoot Me

It is currently 22 degrees below zero outside with the wind chill factored in. So while I am waiting for some compassionate soul to come along and shoot me I have been beading yet another table linen and reveling in a primordial daydream beside the fire.

In this daydream I am hunting woolly mammoth up, down, and all around the glacier I call home. Eventually the critter I've been pursuing slips on the ice and fatally impales himself on an icicle stalagmite. Very fortuitous since I had forgotten to bring a spear. I then proceed to free him of his woolliness and a few hundred pounds of tenderloin and pot roast and return to my grand but tasteful cathedral ceilinged stone condo. After a meal of steak done to perfection with some veggies from the Hunter-Gatherer market I whip out my bone needle and sinew thread and sew that mammoth hide into an A-1 sleeping bag--woolly side in. I snuggle down with my four saber-toothed kitties for the next three months or until the day comes when there's at least 10 hours of daylight--whichever comes first.

The wind is moaning through the snow-laden pines around the house and it has become apparent that no one is going to drop by to render a mercy shooting tonight. Figures. In the meantime I am typing away in my studio which resembles a medieval knight-crusader's long hall adorned with his plunder of the Middle East. A fire in the hearth casts a glow on the tapestries and the mother-of-pearl inlaid chess set, the air filled with the scent of sandalwood incense, and a quadrillion beads glittering in their containers.

Now that I consider it, it's really too nice a night to be shot. Cancel my order.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


Ghosts of Christmas' Past

I wasn't thinking about Christmas when I was packing and loading the truck for my return to Maine this past May. I did give a passing thought to what I would do with the prize money from the Guinness Book of World Records for the amount one can put into a 24 foot Budget rental truck. I could easily see myself hosting my own show on HGTV demonstrating how you CAN take it with you.

But Christmas came, and it found me far less enthusiastic than in years past. Even though the outdoor world looked like something Currier and Ives dreamed up for a collector plate I was not inspired. For many of the years I was gone from home my mother had done Christmas sparingly. The manger, an angel figurine here and there. and the hand-crafted holiday kitsch. I surprised myself by being content with letting it go at that. Then my 91 year-old mother was diagnosed with colon cancer and would be facing hospitalization and surgery over the holiday week. The idea that this could be our last Christmas together gripped my heart and stomach like a frozen iron claw. The claw released my innards and reached up to slap me out of complacency and into action. Up went the tree, out came the ornaments--hers and mine--collected from everywhere for generations. Out of the boxes sprang Father Yules and nutcrackers, reindeer and snowflakes. They all gathered on the tree vying for prime real estate amidst the glittering garland and icicles. While the cats viewed it as a smorgasbord of opportunity my mother and I were patiently waiting for dusk to plug it in and have that 'oooh-ahhh' moment together. You only get to experience that once per season and it had taken on such a poignant urgency for both of us. We shared that moment--each of us knowing that the other was thinking the same thing--this could be the last time. Nothing was said--everything was understood.

Since 1994 I had hosted what came to be known as the Annual Christmas Refugee Party--hereafter the ACRP. I was a single person without family living in Texas. I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings by choosing to spend the holiday with one friend over another so I declined all of the invitations. After their respective observances came to an end, several friends came to my home to bring gifts and samplings of their culinary offerings and to bring cheer into what they considered my lonely existence. I ended up having a houseful of people and a veritable feast spread upon the table. It was the most fun any of us had had at Christmas. That's how the ACRP was born. The mission statement was simple: if you don't have anywhere to spend the holiday-come here. If you do have somewhere you HAVE to be, then after you've done the obligatory 'family stuff' and are yearning for the freedom of fun--come here. No one will ask you when you're going to settle down, provide grand children, get a better job, finish school, cut your hair etc... The primary rule was "It ain't about the gifts". Year after year they came back and year after year it was the best part of anyone's holiday. Traditions of food, games, and enduring friendships were spawned. I got to be the uber-host and see to it that no one left empty handed (I have never been good at following my own edicts)--or empty bellied. This would have been the 15th annual gathering and I was 1800 miles away--a lonesome little refugee on the tundra. I was feeling pretty cheated. I really needed a good swift kick to the pants to get over my cheap, imported self. Cue the frozen iron claw.

Standing in front of the most beautiful tree I've ever decorated, next to my mother-- arm around her frail little shoulder--the one I used to cry on, I flip the switch and have the oooh-ahhh moment with her again. In Texas I was blessed with the love of some extraordinary people. In the here and now of Maine I am equally blessed by the love of this extraordinary woman. Her presence in my life before I went away made what came after more priceless to me now. And an old tradition is precious anew. May you all have abundant oooh-ahhh moments.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Different Kind of Gift

Becoming a parent at my age isn't something I would have put on a top 10 "Things I Hope To Achieve" list. Becoming a parent to my own parent, however, has forced the issue and I am skeptical as to how it will play out against the panoply of previous successes.

Perhaps a wee bit of background would be in order. December 23, 2008: my 90 year-old mother stumbles over her considerable pile of knitting projects. Hits her head against a venerable piece of furniture on the way down to the floor. Result: fractured skull and hip. Surgery to insert 'pin' into hip. In the course of dealing with skull fracture it is discovered that she is completely blind in one eye and macular degeneration is claiming the other. Her son, living in Texas (and his brother living in Illinois), are not informed of the event until weeks later--at her command.

Easter 2009: Mom, now 91, elects to have her right knee replaced to counteract painful arthritis. Son living in Texas decides to return to hearth and home in the land of his birth. Liquidates thriving antiques business and prepares to say goodbye to 26 years of life well lived in the Lone Star State.

May 2009: Son returns to the still-frozen North with an extended truckload of treasures from around the world and the unable-to-part-with merchandise from his antiques shop. Thus begins the legendary meeting between the immovable object and the irresistible force.

To say that my mother is a force of nature to be reckoned with would be a gross understatement. Every drop of her Austrian blood is called into play whatever the occasion. This is a woman who endured the Nazi occupation of Paris so my 'coming home to put things in order' objective was a minor blip on her radar. I will willingly and proudly admit that she and I are cut from the same cloth. A blend of burlap and silk. The weft: independent, headstrong, determined, and stubborn. The warp: sentimental, compassionate, empathetic, and generous of spirit. In my experience, two people who are so completely alike will either really like one another or really dislike one another. My mother and I are navigating the choppy waters between those two shores. Love is our lighthouse beacon and we rely on it to guide us.

I should say at this juncture that there is positively nothing amiss with her cognitive powers or her ability to communicate. Her mind and her tongue are as sharp as ever. Our difficulty stems mostly from her inability to recognize me as a fully functioning and capable middle-aged man. In her mind I am still 12 years old. She has a prodigious talent for telling me what, when, where, and how to do anything and everything as though I just fell off the turnip truck.

The past seven months have been a mixed bag to say the least. I am truly glad to be back in Maine. It is an amazingly beautiful place no matter what the season. I am awed by the house I grew up in now replete with my bric-a-brac and furnishings. My mother and I have dynamics to work through. She is finding it hard to accept that her body isn't living up to the demands of her willpower. I am having trouble grasping the concept that she has been my age but I have never been hers. Several times a day I repeat to myself the line from 'Desiderata': "Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth." In a home where two industrial-grade individualists live under the same roof, it can only be considered 'graceful' if you believe alligator wrestling to be a form of ballet.

This Christmas finds my mother in the hospital yet again. Two weeks ago she was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent surgery the day before yesterday to remove the greater part of that organ. It has been a sobering experience for both of us and has played a major role in reorganizing our priorities. When she is able to return home there's going to be a significant realignment of our daily routines. We both know it and yet are exceedingly grateful that her surgery did not result in a colostomy. Hers is a positive prognosis and her recovery will be slow and steady moving forward.

I believe that between an immovable object and an irresistible force there is adequate room for immeasurable admiration, and boundless love.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Winter Recipe For Warmth

Half package of graham crackers
Lemon or orange frosting

Separate each graham cracker into four quarters
Spread the frosting on two of the quarters
Place remaining two quarters on top of iced quarters
Repeat until all quarters are accounted for.
Place in refrigerator for 30 minutes to an hour before serving.

(Other icings can be used according to preference. The flavour of citrus when it's below freezing outside gives my taste buds the will to go on living.)

Earlier today a very dear friend of the family called to ask if we might like a bit of company. We were very pleased to say yes. She is a very busy lady--a CEO, wife, and mother so this was a rare occasion indeed. She indicated she'd come by a couple of hours from the time she called. There was the usual flurry of putting things where they belonged and a gingerly sprucing up. My mother made the remark she wished we had some nibbles to offer her when she arrived. My mind went into immediate 'host' mode.

As much as I would have loved turning on the oven if for no other reason than heat, I just wasn't in the mood to conjure up a figgy pudding or flaky pastry. I looked in the pantry and saw the graham crackers and the frosting. Voila!! Instant 'poor man's lady fingers'. I made a pot of tea the old fashioned way--loose leaf in a 'Brown Betty'. While waiting for the kettle to boil I brought out the pretty, delicate hand painted English bone china cups and saucers I brought home from Texas. Bright happy flowers inside the cup and out. The Austrian porcelain cookie plate, equally resplendent in florals, came out of exile. I poured the water from the kettle into the Brown Betty and added the leaves to let them steep. I prepared the 'lady fingers' and arranged them on the cookie plate. A mis-matched German lustreware cream pitcher and sugar bowl joined the botanical United Nations on the table. There are distinct benefits to having been an antiques dealer!!

The tea I chose to serve is my own blend of Earl Grey (for body) and Summer Berry (for crispness). After it had steeped adequately I poured the tea into a pre-warmed English pot--yes, decorated with cabbage roses--through a strainer. A quick wipe and the sterling tea spoons and sugar tongs were gleaming. Our friend arrived a few moments after the final flourish and we all sat down and lost ourselves in conversation and reminiscences.

Just a little aside for anyone hosting a tea or get-together over coffee: Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people. Make of that what you will.

When the time for her departure came she thanked us for going to so much trouble to recreate Springtime and for taking the chill out of a bitterly cold day. For the time she was here I'd forgotten it was Winter and 20 degrees outside. It was no trouble I assured her. It was a pleasure. A warm and welcome pleasure. All gold-rimmed and cheery. No, no trouble at all. It was the least we could do for giving us pause to appreciate her warmth, too.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Things We Do For Snow

Last night, the meteorologist said that snow was imminent. I went to bed repeating the mantra 'tomorrow I will be industrious' the subtext being: 'I will get off my lazy butt and do what I've been putting off'. Apparently I am my own best subliminal motivation technique because I woke up uncharacteristically rarin' to go. I gathered all the trash and recycling, bagged and canned it, and had it on the curb by 8 am.-- a good twenty minutes before my industrious neighbour. That was a very satisfying feat.

I finished my morning coffee and moved on to turning last night's scrumptious pot roast extravaganza into a delectable soup perfectly suited to the observation of this evenings snowflake ballet. Then it was off to the litter box to play archeologist sifting through the sands of ancient civilizations. This was followed by a thorough spa experience for each of my four felines--combing, brushing, new flea collars and pedicures. Divinity is hard to maintain without proper grooming.

Then I moved on to the vacuuming which included doing over the doorways (thanks, Mom) and the stairway down to my studio. Swept the porch, the garage, and the walkways. While out of doors I gathered up branches that had fallen, mulched flower beds, replaced fallen rocks from the stone wall and stacked a few more bits of firewood.

Came back in and did the dishes, the laundry, and some needlework. I stirred the pot o' soup and answered emails and finally got around to voting for the next happy California cow. It has been a full day and the soup was worthy of the appetite I developed.

I wish to thank the Gentle Readers who have sent me very gratifying emails regarding my syntactic virtuosity. I owe it all to my education in England, my years on the stage, and all the authors who've invited me into their books.

Now I must ascend the stairs to the card table where I will ignore my mother's skill at stacking the deck and allow her to kick my butt at a few games of Spite and Malice. It's an old family tradition. My grandmother's daily routine revolved around cleaning everything in sight and devotions to her bible and rosary. At night she cheated at cards like a pagan. I adored that woman!!

I believe that certain traditions should be maintained for the preservation of contentment. Besides, if Mom wins big at cards tonight, she's less likely to insist on replacing the shelf liners tomorrow. A home should be clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy. I'm shooting for bliss.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

This Bears Repeating

It is never to late to be what you might have been.---George Eliot

Why I Like Housework

I like housework. I probably don't do it as often as I should and certainly not as often as my mom would like. It's not that I take any particular pride in having an immaculately spotless home or I am hyper-allergic to dust or cat hair. I have always considered dust to be a natural protective covering. No, I do it for purely selfish reasons. Housework is a spiritual journey for me--an exercise in humility and gratitude.

While washing up after company leaves I look at every plate, utensil, and cup as a representation of people who like me and enjoy my company enough to take time out of their hectic schedules.

Whenever I dust I think how fortunate I am to have so many beautiful things to move. Some are heirlooms and some are souvenirs. They remind me of where I come from, where I've been, and who I met along the way.

When I go from room to room with the vacuum cleaner over those beautiful, old hard wood floors and carpets, I think how fortunate I am to have a roof over my head and walls to keep out the cold. There are multitudes who don't. And more will lose what they have.

When I feed the washer and dryer with load after load of winter woolies and flannel, linens and towels, I think about the folks who are chilled to the bone in threadbare clothing. They don't have a bed let alone linens.

When I reorganize the pantry after grocery shopping I think how lucky I am that I don't have to worry about where my next meal is coming from. A lot of folks can't remember when they ate last.

When I'm outside in the bracing Maine air picking up branches that have snapped in the latest wind storm I think about the folks who'll be sleeping tonight in far colder air than this and wishing they had these bits of wood to burn.

Housework for me is an inventory of everything I have to be thankful for. I am a chronic pack-rat. I often find it necessary to rein myself in and survey the accumulation with a subjective eye. Then I get out the boxes and start a clean-sweep from one end of the house to the other, upstairs and down. Drawers, closets,--no cubbyhole is exempted. That includes the cream corn and cream-of-whatever soups from the pantry as well. It all goes where it will gain new life and meaning in someone else's inventory of gratitude. I purge the house of all that doesn't need to be here or isn't part of what makes this 'home' for me. In the process I purge my heart of ambivalence. The house gets roomier and my soul becomes fuller. It is an alchemy that is its' own reward.

You don't have to 'give til it hurts'--just til it makes a difference. It doesn't take much.