Monday, January 30, 2012

History Pulling on my Heartstrings

A Betty lamp in the Dutch Out Kitchen of the Bergen County Historical Society.

Who am I? I love a great many things from different eras: 1920s and 30s music and films; 1950s and 60s architecture and clothing, campy 1970s sitcoms like the Brady Bunch and the Partridge Family. My teen years were in the grunge rock music era of the early 1990s so I still for old times sake put on Pearl Jam's Ten and some alternative rock like Lush, James and other bands on 120 Minutes that I'd tape on my VCR when MTV still played music. I'm drawn to many things Irish, British and French. But above all else, I find the strongest heartstring pull toward early American history. I'm not sure if I lived during these times. I'd rather read pioneer diaries than Facebook updates. Yes, I dream about going back to Paris, but I'd love to go to Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, see Jefferson's Monticello and Washington's Mount Vernon, visit Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House sites. If I had my dream yearlong American road trip, I'd see all of these. Steve and I are hoping for a few days in Philadelphia this spring, since my third grade self really didn't appreciate the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall when I was last there. I think my 36-year-old self will see it in a different light.

I attend many events at the Bergen County Historical Society in River Edge, New Jersey, which is very close. They recognize a lot of old festivals related to the seasons. This time, as last year, we celebrate Brigit's Day and Candlemas. View my post, Cause for Cheer, Midwinter is Here, for last year's festivities. Here, Mary in the Dutch Out Kitchen with a batch of homemade beeswax candles.

From their web site,

"Brigit's Day and Candlemas come midway between the winter solstice and spring equinox, when snowdrops, the first flower of spring, make their appearance, signaling nature's awakening from winter's sleep. Candlemas is named for the blessing of candles, used to protect homes from lightning, evil spirits, and for procession through farm field and orchard.

As evidenced by Groundhog's Day, weather prognostication was commonly practiced in anticipation of spring sowing. Good weather at Candlemas is taken to indicate severe winter weather later. Hence, the saying, If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, there'll be two winters in the year. Another old English proverb proclaimed, If Candlemas be fair and bright, winter has another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, winter will not come again.

Rush crosses, woven on Brigit's Eve, were believed to protect the house and livestock from adversity. The feast was celebrated with a supper of pancakes taken from a plate laid on a rush cross."

Candlemas fare: apple crepes and mashed potatoes.

The Black Horse tavern. Wouldn't it be wonderful to gather here to discuss our thoughts on the State of the Union address? I sure have some. The future of the country? What so concerns us as America's sons and daughters?

I couldn't help think of the Little House series when I saw this wooden slate in the gift shop.

A harpist and fine storyteller performed in the Steuben house. I had no idea Mary Malone was about a girl who died in the plague, or that Danny Boy was about a father who longs for his son who he sent abroad for a better life. As I gazed out the window I felt a sudden chill. A ghost? Just the cold January day?

Watching this historical reenacter cut potatoes for a potato cheddar corn chowder, my blood pressure went down the same way it does when I pet the family dog Scotty.
There's something almost meditative about cooking a pot of soup or stew from scratch on a cold winter's day. Do you know what I asked for as a birthday gift? The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic Stories by Barbara M. Walker. We devalue tasks like cooking in modern life. I think we've become far too disconnected. Walker writes, "There was...a strong movement spreading westward to give recognition to housekeeping as a profession requiring scientific training. Catharine Beecher, with help from her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, not only wrote outstanding housekeeping manuals but also founded schools where women studied domestic arts along with academic subjects."

The "domestic arts." I love that term. There's something to be said for the domestic arts, and also how financially empowering they are. In modern life many of us don't or can't do much or anything our fore mothers and fathers did. Woodwork, making our own clothes or even simple sewing, gardening. Think how heavily we (I include myself in the we) really on convenience foods. We don't have any widespread festivals hoping for a good crop. The local ShopRite or Trader Joe's is a short drive away.

Maybe it's that connection to these things that so pull on my heartstrings. Do you feel a heartstring pull toward a certain time in history? Where would your time machine stop?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Thrifty Time Traveling at Estate Sales

"Welcome to the time warp," the man running an estate sale in northern New Jersey said to me seeing my wide eyes. I didn't want to come out of it.

I was in love: with a kitchen. This fabulous retro kitchen. I've fallen in love again and again: with bathrooms of the mid-1900s in those classic colors: pink, robin's egg blue and avocado green. With cheerful wallpaper. Shag carpeting. Wood paneling. Linoleum flooring. The word "dated" has a positive connotation to me. If you show me a "before" and "after," I usually prefer the before (not with minor paint updates, but major renovations ripping out cabinets and such). I think "dated" is a conspiracy to get you to spend thousands of dollars updating perfectly good rooms.

I blame the estate sale obsession on Steve. He planted the seed this year, and now we wake up weekends and the first thing on our minds is checking! Oh the vintage clothes, oh the vintage small sizes why I need to a) lose weight, b) make my own clothes, or c) just be grateful vintage scarves, jewelry and bags fit any size.

A collection Mrs. Bucket (that's Bouquet) on my favorite Britcom Keeping Up Appearances would adore! Now I hope poor Richard says the right thing when he sees her in it.

How cute is my "Good Morning! Toast?" toaster cover? Needs to be ironed still. For just $3, it adds a touch of whimsy and cheer.

I haven't purchased any major pieces, just some clothes, vinyl records (like Edith Piaf, John Denver, Judy Garland), a book on 1930s films, dishes, and such. We did get a vintage Singer sewing machine that folds into a side table for free when we inquired about the price. The women reflected sentimentally on the home economics classes which taught them needed sewing lessons (something I've bemoaned doesn't exist really now).

I had no idea what estate sales were. I kept picturing when Richard and Hyacinth take a country drive to one of those huge manors, but really it's just when the whole contents of a house are for sale, usually when someone has passed away.

It might sound morbid to some. But I love the idea that people's possessions are being put to good use by someone who will love them instead of going to the landfill. It's also time traveling and bit like going through someone's diary. They're a snapshot to how we lived.

If all goes according to plan, Steve and I will be moving to another two family house in the next town in a month or two (he'll keep the two-family home we're in now as an investment). My favorite part of the home which was built in 1970: a pink retro bathroom! The inspector said it's dated. What does he know? For Keeping Up Appearances fans, we now live in very Daisy and Onlsow like quarters and even are starting to emulate them. Steve watching television and drinking beer in a recliner just like Onslow's, me reading a book from the library in complete denial about our mess and overall horrible cramped living quarters like Daisy. We even have more chipped crazy mugs than I care to admit. Oh how I long to drink tea out of the Royal Doulton instead and have a nice putter in the garden. I don't need a Mercedes or room for a pony like Bruce and Violet, just a nice, cozy home.

I wish I could say I was a minimalist who would be happy with 100 possessions or less and finds contentment solely in a beautiful sunset. But admittedly, brashly, I declare it: I like stuff. I do. Clothing, more books than I can read, pretty plates, artwork, candles. Homey stuff mostly. Things that give a house a soul. I couldn't in good conscience nor could I afford to buy these things traditional retail. I'm glad estate sales are in my life.

Have you gone to estate sales?

Clothes: Free. Guilt: None. Better Fashion Culture: Wanted.

One jade green Ann Taylor Loft top, made in China, one Anna Belen headband with yellow flower, and one Alba Hawaiian jasmine-scented moisturizer, $0.

One Banana Republic Italian wool sweater, made in Hong Kong, and scarf, country of origin and brand unknown, $0.

One Reflections Images of You silk houndstooth blouse, made in China, and black cashmere-silk Jones New York sweater vest, made in China, $0. Kind of Mad Men-ish, right? When I wore it a woman told me I looked "retro-y."

One cashmere Garnet Hill raspberry colored sweater, made in China, $0.

The feeling I get knowing that I haven't given any of my money to corporations using cheap foreign labor, kept things out of the landfill, and am empowering myself and others financially: priceless.

I co-hosted my seasonal clothing swap recently at work during our lunch hour, and for winter we've been including unwanted holiday gifts. I highly recommend it for frugal fun when everyone's bills are arriving in January, and we donate the leftovers to local charitable thrift shops.

I did spend some money on refreshments (ours were all Trader Joe's fare: guacamole, pineapple salsa, maple cookies, clementines, etc.) Some swaps have rules, but ours is very casual: give and take what you like.

As for the stigma against secondhand clothes, I'll never understand it. If people want to spend $90 at Banana Republic for a Chinese made sweater, go ahead.

Like hang drying laundry or park cleanups, clothing swaps (or any kind of swaps) are a grassroots thing. They just need one person to say, hey, let's hold a swap! Maybe that person is you! Have you ever attended a swap, or would like to organize one? I'm talking to more and more parents who are swapping baby's and children's toys, clothes and furniture.

A 1950s dress at The Family Jewels Vintage Shop in New York City, from an era of great style.

An observation on clothes today: I regularly visit thrift shops and attend estate sales as a hobby, and come across clothing spanning many decades. I have a lot of items with the union label on it (like Francie's father in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I wear it proudly, like a rose). Aside from the fact they've shifted 90 percent being made here to 90 percent now abroad, the quality, like many things, leaves a lot to be desired. So much of this cheap fashion is disposable.

I love clothes and fashion. I get almost all of it now through swaps, thrift shops and estate sales. I wish I could make my own clothes (still on my life 'to do' list). Maybe since I've time traveled so much through films and television shows, but also through old photo albums and what's offered at estate sales, I look at the style now and don't think there's much of one. I wish fashion would be more inspired and creative than UGG boots and Chinese made logo bags (if someone can explain the appeal of a bag with MK all over it, please do so). I think part of the draw of these bags is they are a safe accessory since almost every woman I know has body insecurity issues. I do too, that nagging voice is often there, wouldn't you look better if you lost a few pounds?

I look at photos of my grandmother and even at the end of her life she was dressed to the nines. Nice jewelry, her good perfume (Chanel), gloves, a handbag. Her generation wouldn't be caught dead wearing pink fuzzy pajama pants with Tweety bird on them in public (spotted at a Hackensack, New Jersey Barnes and Noble, but really I see this everywhere now and it's totally inappropriate). I was at Housing Works trift shop and picked up a pink Anne Klein suit the other day for $23 because I realized I didn't have one in my entire wardrobe. No special occasion like an interview. I just felt it was a welcome addition to a wardrobe of a 36-year-old woman. I'm proud of my age, I don't want to dress like a teenager or obsess over lost youth.

Maybe we don't have any great fashion role models today. Who were and are yours? In addition to the women in my family, I remember watching I Love Lucy reruns as a child and loving Lucy's cute hats and gloves, nice dress suits, black ballet flats. I cannot wait for Mad Men to come back on the air in large part for the fashion. During awards season, I'm always looking for Michelle Williams on the red carpet. In My Week With Marilyn, she showed as Marilyn how alluring a woman can look in just a white blouse and beige pencil skirt.

I definitely think women should start questioning more. Where is this made? How is this made? Is it a "good" bag or other item just because the retailer is charging $200 for it? What makes certain things so coveted? Since we've stopped questioning, all those manufacturing jobs slipped overseas, and fashion seems really boring and way too casual. Jeans are now too dressy or too much work to put on? There's some loss of civility in our "living room" culture (where to me so many act and dress like they are in their living rooms and not in public).

What are your thoughts on fashion in 2012 in America?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Letter on Nothing and Everything

Dear readers,

I'm writing you in letter format again, since I love writing and receiving letters and want to keep up the lost art form as I did last year. E-mails are faster, but they're always less thoughtful somehow than a good old fashioned letter. Do you write letters?

I'm at one of my most favorite places right now - the library. The Internet has been down for the past several days at my place which means no blogging from there, which I've intended to do since I haven't posted lately. Sweetheart keeps saying he'll look into it, but every spare moment I catch Steve trying to master the Rubik's Cube I got in one of my mystery bags from Cinema Verite thrift shop. Hmph!

I went to read my blog roll this morning and couldn't believe how Cate summed up exactly what I was feeling in her post, "Moments of Doing Nothing" on her blog, Liberal Simplicity. While I'm not on Facebook or Twitter, I've realized how much time I spend surfing when I did have access. My mind feels cluttered too, my creativity sapped. Cate writes,

"I need those moments of doing "nothing." I need to stand stirring a pot of soup for a little too long, or hide under blankets with [daughter] Simone just because, or gaze out the window while petting a cat behind the ears. Without them, something in my imagination breaks loose.

I think I'm going to go do nothing now, and savor every second of it."

Winter to me is very much about these cherished "nothing" moments.

My friend Kristin pens a beautiful poetry blog, Wordfall, and in Windchill, she considers,

"Winter forces us
to center ourselves and prepare.

We need the vigil of oncoming snow or ice storms
to set us to establish some sort of reality, a surrender."

Savor. Reality. Surrender. Aren't Cate and Kristin so right?

Speaking of savoring, I recall many years ago Ann Wells wrote a moving story about a stunning, expensive piece of lingerie her sister bought on a trip to New York nearly a decade earlier but was never worn. She was saving it for a special occasion. Her brother-in-law was unwrapping it and taking it to the morgue. He said, "Don't ever save anything for a special occasion. Every day you're alive is a special occasion."

Wells reflects,

"I'm still thinking about his words, and they've changed my life. I'm reading more and dusting less. I'm sitting on the deck and admiring the view without fussing about the weeds in the garden. I'm spending more time with my family and friends and less time in committee meetings. Whenever possible, life should be a pattern of experience to savor, not endure. I'm trying to recognize these moments now and cherish them.

I'm not "saving" anything; we use our good china and crystal for every special event-such as losing a pound, getting the sink unstopped, the first camellia blossom.

I wear my good blazer to the market if I feel like it. My theory is if I look prosperous, I can shell out $28.49 for one small bag of groceries without wincing. I'm not saving my good perfume for special parties; clerks in hardware stores and tellers in banks have noses that function as well as my party-going friends'."

So those are the words inspiring me on this very cold winter's night, when sometimes my own voice feels muted. In the new year I've been reading more and surfing less, and my life feels richer. I'm tapping into simple joys in my day, like the smell of an apple cinnamon candle, the coziness of cinnamon tea on a brisk day, the security I feel under a blanket.

I'm off to enjoy some potato leek soup, followed by a hot shower and a good book. I suspect Steve will be working on the Rubik's Cube when I get home, but somehow, that thought is comforting too, knowing he's there, enjoying his own moments of "nothing."

Nothing is sometimes everything you need. Happy nothingness to you.


Thursday, January 5, 2012

New Year's Day: The Brooklyn Bridge and Little Italy

History, great food, adventure, walking, reflection, my sweetheart: my New Year's Day was filled with some of my most favorite things.

"What should we do today?" Steve asked. "How about a walk, across the Brooklyn Bridge perhaps" I said. Off we were. But this visit would be different. I wanted to know more about the bridge than just admire the sweeping views and the architecture.

There's a plaque dedicated to Emily Roebling. Who was she? She was the wife of Washington Roebling, who at 32 took over the project after the death of his father, German immigrant John Augustus Roebling, who designed the bridge. John Augustus had a crushing injury to his foot leading to his death after a ferry hit the pier he was standing on while conducting surveys.

But Washington too fell ill, enduring a paralyzing injury from decompression sickness just after construction began on January 3, 1870. First called "caisson disease" by the project physician Andrew Smith, it afflicted many of the workers working within the caissons.

Emily Warren Roebling would study higher mathematics, the calculations of catenary curves, the strengths of materials, bridge specifications, and the intricacies of cable construction, according to Wikipedia. For 11 years, she would help Washington supervise the construction. Meryl Streep was interviewed on 60 Minutes and spoke of plans for a national women's history museum in Washington, DC, and I think we need one. These stories need to be shared. Today I'm sharing Emily's.

I haven't read it yet, but David McCullough penned a book, The Great Bridge. He is my favorite historian, and appears in this video. As I watched this clip, I thought about all the grumbling I heard in New York City about the bitter cold (I grumbled too) this January of 2012, but really how little the weather impacts us other than an unpleasant commute. No real "tyranny of the weather" for most of us except those without homes. I also considered the infancy of the city. At the time of the bridge's building, the skyline was just four stories.

Off to Little Italy.

Consider this from a February 2011 New York Times article,

"In 1950, nearly half of the more than 10,000 New Yorkers living in the heart of Little Italy identified as Italian-American. The narrow streets teemed with children and resonated with melodic exchanges in Italian among the one in five residents born in Italy and their second- and third-generation neighbors

A census survey released in December [of 2010] determined that the proportion of Italian-Americans among the 8,600 residents in the same two-dozen-square-block area of Lower Manhattan had shrunk to about 5 percent.

And, incredibly, the census could not find a single resident who had been born in Italy.

Little Italy is becoming Littler Italy. The encroachment that began decades ago as Chinatown bulged north, SoHo expanded from the west, and other tracts were rebranded more fashionably as NoLIta (for north of Little Italy) and NoHo seems almost complete....

Even the Feast of San Gennaro, which still draws giant crowds to Mulberry Street, may be abbreviated in size this year at the behest of inconvenienced NoLIta merchants."

I've quoted it before, but I recalled Colum McCann's observation in his novel of New York City life, "Let the Great World Spin,"

"It was a city uninterested in history. Strange things occurred precisely because there was no necessary regard for the past. The city lived in a sort of everyday present. It had no need to believe in itself as a London, or Athens, or even a signifier of the New World, like a Sydney, or a Los Angeles. No, the city couldn't care less about where it stood."

I think of how much city life changes, sometimes for the better, like the lack of mafia life that once ruled the neighborhood. Although it's also the dual edged sword of the American dream: to assimilate, but how do we balance our cultural heritage and maintain a piece of it? Whether we like change or not, change is happening.

The Italian American Museum was sadly closed when we passed by it. A display of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. On March 25, 1911, 146 souls were lost, mostly young immigrant women of Jewish and Italian descent. From Wikipedia,

"Because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits, many of the workers who could not escape the burning building jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors to the streets below. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers."

On the way into New York we stopped by a garage sale where I got a vintage dress with a union label on it. I think of all the gains unions and laborers made for better working conditions, only to have jobs disappear. Really, we've just outsourced the poor conditions elsewhere. Some might blame unions for excessive demands, but it seems Americans have been conditioned to not think about and worse, not care at all, where their clothes and other goods are made. I find it telling that in the worst economic crisis since the Depression the main fashion accessory I see women carry are corporate logo bags, many, if not most, made in China, that are marketed as a "luxury" item.

I'm in the midst of reading Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and I thought of the great pride little Francie's father took in the union.

"A thought struck him. "The Union label on my apron!"

"It's right here, sewn in the seam. I'll iron it out."

"That label is like an ornament, he explained, "like a rose that you wear....Before I joined the Union the bosses paid me what they felt like. Sometimes they paid me nothing. The tips, they said, would take care of me. Some places even charged me for the privilege of working. The tips were so big they said, that they could sell the concession. Then I joined the Union...The Union gets me jobs where the boss has to pay me certain wages, regardless of tips. All trade should be unionized."

I love black and white photography. What were their stories? Francie would stay up listening to her father tell her mother about the night's events at his singing waiter job. "The Nolans just couldn't get enough of life. They lived their own lives up to the hilt and that wasn't enough. They had to fill in on the lives of the people they came into contact with."

So we can't leave Little Italy without a glass of Chianti, $7 and gnocchi with a mascarpone cheese sauce, $9.75, at Buona Notte restaurant? Just walking through Little Italy made us reminisce about our cherished trip a few years back to Italy (Rome, Venice, Florence, Bologna, Capri). We loved it all.

A cappuccino and cannoli at Caffe Palermo. I can't relate to the American food guilt syndrome which mostly focuses on vanity issues of how thin one looks. I love eating. No apologies.

I'm so excited for another year. Stress and personal upheaval of some kind will always be a certainty. But as Francie felt "pleasant anticipation" going into the library (as do I), I'm feeling that way about 2012, and what other adventures await. I'm grateful you are joining me as my American Dream Finder blog enters its second year.