Saturday, March 27, 2010

Washing the Crystal

When my brothers and I divided my parents' estate five years ago, my portion of the legacy included the wedding china that had been stored in a mahogony breakfront in their dining room. I did not inherit the breakfront, but I did receive a curio cabinet in which my mother used to display a collection of porcelain and bisque figurines in her living room.

Within that same year -- a sad year of deaths in my Louisiana family -- I received the wedding crystal that had belonged to a favorite aunt, who died a widow and childless sixth months after my mother. Transported to New England, my mother's curio cabinet became the new home to her own china as well as to what had survived of her sister's crystal.

It has been important to me the past two years to have those family pieces in my suite of rooms. Ready to move within a month to an apartment nearby, I took time this weekend to wash and pack the delicate contents of the cabinet.

It took a number of trips to carry everything down a hallway to the shared kitchen where I do dishes. A quieter weekend than usual in the house, I had space to lay things out. As I leaned over the sink and washed each saucer and soup bowl, each cordial and sherry glass, I remembered the small New Orleans homes where my mother and my aunt would have done the same thing.

No recent entertainments would have required this kind of washing on their part -- just the normal year-to-year care for what these two women had wanted on display from their suburban lives.

Most of the stories about losses and disappointments and nagging problems and habitual heartaches that punctuated their daily phone calls to one another have stopped being told by anyone. Silence descends more and more finally on what had been their discreet litany of sorrows.

I recall details but nothing that bears repeating or recording.

Their wedding china, their wedding crystal was what they wanted on display. A little elbow grease -- to use my mother's expression -- was all that was needed to make a life gleam again in someone's eyes.

These family pieces catch again the sun of a March sky this New England weekend. I can look forward to washing them all again in a new home a year from now.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Pleasures of Travel

I have hunted maps of Venice, and I am fairly sure that it was Studium Libreria. The bookstore had suddenly emerged amid a row of shops in the shadow of San Marco. I had not expected a bookstore there, much less a bookstore that carried some titles in English. My only purchase at Studium Libreria, though, ended up a book in French.

It was startling for me, standing in those crowded midday aisles in 1996, to hold in my hands a book about Venice written in a French that I could understand. The author, Michel Mohrt, was a member of the Academie Francaise, and he had written a book about Italy. He was an Italophile. A French Italophile. I had not understood up to that moment that such a category of Venetian visitor could exist.

In the delight that comes from being able to read something that might hitherto have seemed inaccessible, I discovered something new about the pleasures of travel. Beyond memorable meals, beyond museums, beyond tours, each destination initiates you into a community of visitors whose minds and whose words deserve a Baedeker's all their own.

Exploration can take the form of memoir.

Investigation can occur in paragraph after fertile paragraph as well as in dogged footsteps.

I do not recall at what moment it occurred to me to search beyond English titles in my quest for verbal images of the Munich I would shortly find in my travels. A "Munich" search in brought me up against the French translation of a collection of short stories by an Italian author, Giorgio Pressburger.

I read an excerpt from the short story that gives the book its title:

Ne pensez pas à la célèbre horloge de l'hôtel de ville de Munich, ce mécanisme qui, toutes les heures, fait défiler de gracieuses silhouettes, dans un carrousel très fidèle à l'esprit de coquettes villes allemandes du XVIe siècle.

Enjoying what I read, I thought of what I wanted to try. It did not take me long to pull out my credit card and arrange fairly inexpensively for a copy of the Pressburger book to be waiting for me at my hotel when I arrive in Munich next Friday morning.

I get to indulge a new kind of adventure. Like a scene from some old black-and-white movie, a hotel desk clerk will inform me that there is a package waiting for me. I will thank the receptionist, take the package into the hotel bar, and begin to read the French translation of an Italian short story named after the Glockenspiel that I had first seen during a Munich visit in 1974.

Does travel get much more fun than that?

Photo of Michel Mohrt from Revista Literaria Azul Arte

Photo of Giorgio Pressburger by Danilo de Marco

Friday, March 12, 2010


It is eight o’clock on a winter’s night and I am heading to my car.

Twice a week for seven months I have made this trek through an elegant old residential neighborhood. The windows of brownstones allow glimpses of bookcases and mantle pieces and lamps. It is a neighborhood I could never afford, but this part of the city feels more familiar with each evening I walk from my German class to the nearby public garage.

It is not a time for the residents of these buildings to be outside. I have never seen them standing in their lamp-lit doorways bidding guests goodbye. Even on warm early fall evenings I have not seen neighbors, arms comfortably folded, conversing at yard's edge. The quiet of these sidewalks has belonged to me, month after month.

I walk abuzz. I may be happy to be heading home, but my brain has been stretched for an hour and a half. I have not been passively absorbing information; I have been practicing even when comfort might have preferred quiet note-taking. I have answered out loud, strained to listen, copied dictations, interviewed classmates and reported my findings.

I may have initially simply wanted to read a poet like Rilke in the original from time to time. I have ended up knowing afresh the benefits for my fifty-something-year-old brain of a regular work-out.

The academically unfamiliar has become less daunting.

The intellectually daunting has become more familiar.

A friend who has heard me talk of these walks recounts a time in his life almost twenty years ago. Fresh from evening classes at NYU, he used to run to his train, sometimes through snow, his mind floating, buoyed by the possibilities opened up by that night’s learning.

I pass a public garden at one point in my walks every week. I inevitably look up at the sculpture in one corner of that park. A spotlight hidden in the shrubs outlines the wings of a monumental angel. Another era’s symbolism for intellectual courage and spiritual confidence seems then to be watching over my trek homeward.

And maybe my trek onward.

Photo from Hooked on Houses

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Saturday Chores and the Last Glacier

There is no one way Saturday mornings have to look if you live by yourself. The routines of any household, though, take their cue from habit and example and practical realities. The inevitability of a load of laundry makes Saturday morning feel lazy and a bit self-absorbed unless there is a serious date ahead with Tide and Clorox and Bounce. A cat may slink under the bed at the sight of the vacuum cleaner, but you know that you have to pass it at least once a week, and Saturday feels right for that chore too.

What were Saturday mornings like after "the last glaciar scoured the New England countryside"?

Devastatingly peaceful.

The early March sun was out, the skies were blue, and temperatures were forecast to hit the fifties today in New England. The language of the Property Guide I had recently received as a new member of The Trustees of Reservations made the drive to Ravenswood Park in Gloucester, Massachusetts, take on its own inevitability. The caption of one photograph: "Lichen-encrusted glacial erratics are strewn throughout the woodlands of Ravenswood Park."

Be careful of the things you read at the breakfast table with your second cup of coffee! The distance might not have been negligible, but I pledged to be on the road when the first load of laundry emerged from the dryer. That plan also gave me time to unwind and rewind the vacuum cleaner cord the one essential time of the week.

I won't hide the fact that a significant part of the lure of the drive to Gloucester lay in its utter newness as a way for me to "do the weekend." That newness had been key in my applying for membership to The Trustees of Reservations -- the chance to have places to walk and muse and mull and savor during this coming year in a way that I had not given myself permission to do earlier in my life.

Would the walk through the woodland paths, some of them still snow-covered, have been more enjoyable with a companion this morning? There were certainly couples with dogs and new families enjoying the weather in Ravenswood Park. The truth, though? I thought through my first walk along those paths that the ideal companion for me would have been some other person who would not balk at the notion of a solitary introduction to this post-glacial quiet and lichen-covered history.

In time I turned back on my footsteps and made my way to the park entrance on Rt. 127. I found the interior of my car warmed by the strong afternoon sun. It was time for lunch, and a clam place that I have visited every summer for years and years was thronging with other people stunned by our unusual March weather.

A later detour to the rocky Atlantic coast gave me a final chance to sit and ponder the day. I spoke out into the air -- still winter air -- and said "Thank you" for being entrusted with this life of mine.

You know, I think I am doing all right with it.