Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Alicia, Sue and the Comfort of Old Friends

Alicia deep into color at Penland.
Before I left home to begin married life, my mother gave me lots of last minute advice, including this: “Hold on to your friends. There will come a day when you’ll be grateful for the people who knew you when…

By the time I met Alicia in 1986, I was wearing only sensible shoes with white anklets for the warm weather, and black, brown or navy knee socks for the rest of the year. I’d always dressed carefully, choosing matching or harmonizing sweaters and jewelry but the color palette of my wardrobe was conservative. She changed all that, and had a profound influence on my life in other ways.

I was writing and producing catalogs on contract for Penland School of Crafts. Desktop Publishing had just been introduced and Penland’s director Verne Stanford was eager to give it a try. He knew Alicia’s work and wanted her to design the publications and produce them in-house. A graphic designer and an artist, she had been working in magazine publishing in New York. We formed a bond almost from the first handshake, and even though she is in the age bracket of my children, we have been close friends ever since.

After a few trips to North Carolina, she moved to Penland, eventually becoming a resident artist. We worked together for seven years, several of them after she moved to Petaluma, CA. Twice I did as much as I could on the summer catalog and then flew out there a for a week so we could put it all together. During one of our California marathons, she declared we needed a break and took me to a spa in wine country where she introduced me to a mud bath. Whether we were working, going shopping or cooking a meal, everything we did was fun. To do my part of the work, I was forced to keep pace with rapidly evolving computer technology. Alicia virtually inhaled all the innovations, but for me it was a struggle. She boosted my confidence, kept me laughing and eventually I learned each new thing. In her work she is a perfectionist, and over the years as I learned to do more copy formatting, I also absorbed her attention to detail. In spite of her exuberant personality, she is a private person, and when she suffers, it has the same kind of intensity as her joy. A few times she revealed something painful to me, and I felt like she had given me a gift. I was also grateful to be there along with my husband Bill to share her happiness when she married her Billy.

Alicia is a colorist whose work with textiles and rugs reflects her exuberant zest for color. I came to believe that she got up every morning and designed herself. She always has a perky haircut to which she may have applied some color theory, and her clothes are a burst of vibrant textural hues that seem to increase the energy level in the room. Without really commenting on my dowdiness, she made pronouncements or suggestions that made me, for example, start thinking about socks as a fashion statement. Now I have a large drawer full of different colored knee socks, some with bold designs, and both white and pastel anklets for summer. I expanded the color range of my sensible shoes and bought a purple raincoat. As I loosened up about wardrobe, worked intensely with this graphic perfectionist and enjoyed endless conversations about everything, I not only expanded my skills, I also lightened up.

Last week Alicia was part of an artist’s retreat at Penland and I was able to spend four hours with her one afternoon. We had not seen each other for ten years although we kept in touch by email and phone. During that decade, Bill died and more recently Alicia’s mother and soon after that, her brother. I wrote and published my book. She started a business designing and overseeing the production of carpets. But as we sat at a brightly painted table in Penland’s coffee house, we didn’t feel the need to catch up. Alicia is the personification of what it means to be present in the moment. I asked about Billy, her sisters and some mutual friends. Then we just talked as we always have about the things that are currently occupying or captivating either of us.

Off and on all summer I have been in touch with my college friend Sue. We both married DePauw alums soon after we graduated and she was my Matron of Honor. She has lived in Iowa ever since, while Bill and I moved many times before establishing our permanent home in Celo. Sue and I exchanged Christmas letters, had a few phone conversations and saw each other a half dozen times over the past 58 years. Strangely, there have been many parallels in our lives, including her husband Ward’s medical history, which altered the second half of their marriage, as Bill’s illness changed ours. Luckily Ward is still going strong.

She called me last June, just before my knee surgery, to say that her book club was going to read Decrescendo in September; she hoped I could come out and be there for the meeting. As the time drew near, I worried that a trip involving two stops and three different commuter planes would be difficult. Sue pointed out that when you’re almost 80, perhaps it’s not a good idea to take chances. So instead, she emailed me questions and I sent her answers and we had a great time in the process. After the meeting, Sue called me and we had a long chat with Ward chiming in now and then. Just before we hung up, she commented that old friends are just great. I heartily agree.

Photo by Wes Stitt

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Green Hydrangeas: Thoughts about Classism in Plants


As I sit on my deck and look up the hill at my lime green hydrangea bush, it reminds me of a bunch of helium-filled balloons When I was a child I went to a few circuses, and as we left after the shows, I loved looking at the balloon bouquets in the air above the hawker who was shouting, “Take home a balloon”. I never wanted one because I knew it wouldn’t last and might pop and scare me. But my hydrangea balloons have been basking in the sun each afternoon for the past two months and not a one of them has popped.

My garden is full of bargains. I read sales flyers that come in the mail, go to seasonal plant clearances, and even look over the poor bedraggled orphans sitting out on a hot sidewalk in front of a chain store and marked way down. The lime hydrangea bush was a promotional sale, and it loves the fence corner where it now thrives. I have other hydrangeas (blue, oak leafs, dwarfs, an old-fashioned cream-colored tree), all bought on sale.

At first I was a little embarrassed to plant them and examined myself to figure out why. Then I realized that my mother had never approved of hydrangeas. She made a sort of face that communicated they were a lower class bush. I knew that Mother paid attention to social classes and the strictures that accompany them. As an adolescent I became more aware of how her perception of class affected both her own comfort and her attitude toward others. I understood that you were to be nice to those of a lower class than you, and especially respectful of those above you.  But since the Golden Rule was taught and valued in my home, class didn’t affect behavior much because we really were to treat everybody how we wanted to be treated. It wasn’t until I began serious gardening and landscaping that I realized that perhaps Mother had also sensed a stratification of flowers as we walked around in various neighborhoods.

White Flower Farm once offered a really good deal on a mixed batch of hostas, called “The Emerald Island”. The idea was to plant all of them under a large tree so you would have this lovely green circle. As I contemplated ordering it, I found myself thinking, “Mother wouldn’t like them.” When I was ten we moved into my favorite childhood home. It had a lot of landscaping in place including many hostas, named funkia. Mother curled up her mouth and made a little distasteful noise in her throat as she looked at them and said, “Ugh, funkias”, and then asked my father to dig them up.

There weren’t any funkias in the Emerald Island collection but there were many others with green, blue and variegated leaves and surprisingly pretty flowers. The island part didn’t work so well, but I now have them all over my garden beds and have given away scores of starts to other gardeners when I divided them.

In my mother’s social register of landscaping plants, roses were on top. But one year she discovered and planted flame-colored cosmos, which grew in abundance and were quite glorious when they bloomed. As she stood admiring them, she said, “I would like to be known as the flame-colored cosmos lady.”  She did not feel kindly toward the zinnias and sweet Williams that I planted that year on the edge of my father’s Victory Garden. But mock orange bushes and Rose of Sharon shrubs were highly approved of.

My Dutch friend Marty has two green thumbs and can make anything grow. She grew up in Holland but spent most of her adult life in Indonesia or Central America. For many years she propagated and cultivated orchids and ornamental plants in Honduras. After she sold that business and the land, she spent a number of years back in Holland. The first summer of her stay she wrote me a wonderful letter about her life there which included a little meditation on weeds.  She began looking closely at all the flowering weeds when she went walking and ruminated about what made one flower a weed while another one was recognized as a proper garden plant. There were many of these rogue flowers in the yard of her house there, and she began to tend them, writing me that they would be her garden. Her letter was such a joyous acceptance of those weeds that it changed forever the way I look at roadside flowers as I take my daily walks. It also made me wonder where the line is between wild flowers—which seem to have a higher status—and weeds, which are definitely a lower class, but still above kudzu, multiflora roses and poison ivy. As for the social register of cultivated gardens, I suspect those flowers that come out on top often need special care and attention—for example, roses, orchids, gardenias and some lilies.

So here’s what I ponder as I luxuriate in my glowing lime hydrangeas: how are the subtle signals communicated to children about class, social status, good taste or other value judgments about people or plants. My mother believed in hospitality and welcomed people of all stripes into our home, and I was also influenced by that behavior. She was born in 1897, the seventh child of parents of English descent, born in the1860’s. The ambience of her home was probably Victorian and certainly religious; she grew up to be opinionated, concerned about right and wrong, and attentive to what behavior was appropriate. Although I valued her high standards and generosity, I questioned a lot of her attitudes as I became an adult. Even so, I hesitated ever so slightly before I planted hydrangeas, hostas, begonias or impatiens, all of which have subsequently given me joy.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Celebrating with Simone and John: A Well Planned Wedding.


During the long drive to northern Virginia on Labor Day weekend I was sustained by my excitement. My son Robin, his wife Tammy and I were on our way to the wedding of my great-niece Simone at the home of her parents, Joel and Adrienne (my late brother Don’s daughter). They live in an old farmhouse on many acres in Broad Run, VA not far from Washington. Although remodeled and added on to, the house retains its character, and the lawns and gardens around it were sufficient to handle the many tents required for the event. They have lived in that house for 26 years and raised two daughters there: the bride, who now lives in Seattle, and Evie, a college senior. I had never met John, the groom, but I’d been hearing stories about him for four years and liked him already.

The weekend began with a Friday night Welcome Dinner for the wedding party and out-of-town guests, hosted by John’s parents. Before dinner, we were all urged to sit with people we didn’t know. In lieu of the usual toasts, the parents of the couple took turns using six words each to describe the bride, the groom and the event. It was the beginning of three days of learning about John and Simone. They are bright, committed, hard-working young adults determined to do things that matter in this world. I already knew that John is finishing an advanced degree, and Simone is currently working at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on the malaria project. But through those six-word descriptions, watching the couple interact with their guests and, listening with my heart to the ceremony, and the speeches by the groom’s brother and the bride’s sister during the reception, I came to see them as a couple enlarged by each other and loved and admired by this community of friends.

We arrived at the house early for the wedding and were greeted by a cadre of young men in red tee shirts who were offering valet parking down a hill in the generous space around a power cut. In front of us was the large tent for dinner and dancing. The long tables were set up ranch style and decorated with candles, pots of herbs and just-picked garden flowers. As we walked down the path to the house we passed smaller tents ready for buffet service and one already staffed and provisioned with a variety of drinks. On the far side of the house I could see the neat rows of even smaller pop-up sleeping tents that awaited those who accepted the invitation to bring a sleeping bag, party hard and sleep safe that night. Down the hill beyond the drinks tent there were rows of white chairs on the gentle grassy slope of a natural amphitheater.

A careful wedding weekend timetable posted on the refrigerator in the house ended with a note that there would be no toasts, cake, garter or bouquet tossing. As I experienced the weekend I felt that the intentions of the bride and groom were visible in every detail. I knew they had planned it all themselves, and clearly they threw out the bridal handbooks and created their own celebration. Writing their vows and planning the ceremony were central, but no less important to them was the comfort and involvement of the guests: the usual mix of families, close friends of the couple, and contemporaries of their parents who had been part of their lives growing up. Adrienne told me the bride and groom were eager to have plenty of time to visit with the gathered community. The bridal party dressed early, and the ritual photographs were done before the guests arrived.

Many volunteers had helped create borders of birch trees to mark a grassy aisle. The birches were prepared and delivered by a friend from Minnesota, and the bird nests in their branches had been rescued earlier from fallen Lombardy poplars by a neighbor. The aisle led to a garden arbor lined with a chuppa (hand-knit by Evie) that framed the ceremony. Once the three groom’s men and the three bride’s ladies were in place, Simone, beautiful in her simple but elegant gown, walked in, flanked by Joel and Adrienne, to the accompaniment of a single violin. Jesse, the officiate, is a close friend of the groom and made a few comments in addition to guiding the ceremony. Three readings added to our information about what was important to the couple, and Simone’s godfather John (a Jesuit priest who had been Joel’s housemate at Notre Dame) brought the message to the assembled guests that we were Simone and John’s community. He asked us all to pledge our support to the couple by answering “we will” to a series of questions about providing wisdom or help as requested in the future.

The most revealing information about the couple, their values, personalities, and intentions, came from their ample individual declarations of love. Their statements were passionate, funny, endearing and serious They included vows that they would continue to love and value each other in the ways they’d just described, make each other laugh and be happy, travel together and have a big dog. At the end, because they liked this particular tradition from John’s heritage, he smashed a glass under his heel.

Then the party began with hors d'oeuvres, followed by an excellent buffet along with beer and wine from Washington State. We visited not only with our own relatives, but also with folks we were meeting for the first time. As twilight turned to night, the Japanese lanterns overhead in the tent began to glow and scores of candles on the tables and outside the tent in the garden were lit. The wedding world turned into a fairyland. Following short speeches, Joel serenaded Simone with a Kenny Loggins song, “The House at Pooh Corner” (inspired by A. A.Milne). Then the band began to play. I don’t think anybody missed a wedding cake because just as folks began to dance, an ice cream truck arrived, headlights piercing the dark, and a line quickly formed for sundaes, sodas, banana splits and shaved ice.

At the continental breakfast the next morning, older guests who stayed in nearby motels looked slightly more rested than the gypsy tent crowd. The bride and groom had plenty of chance for mellow visiting with the remnants of the wedding community. Abundant laughter mixed with serious conversation. It was hard to say good-bye.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Wedding Sidebars: Things Ancillary to the Main Event


The Road Not Meant to Be Taken
My son Robin, his wife Tammy and I went to a family wedding (my great-niece) in Broad Run, VA, just outside DC, over Labor Day weekend. It was a long day’s journey from Celo especially for someone (me) with a newly revised knee. After about nine hours mostly in the car on Friday, we gratefully made the turn off the highway to the motel but as luck would have it, we turned the wrong direction. As we looked in vain for the Comfort Inn sign, we spotted instead a Borders with many signs saying Going Out of Business Sale. Too tired to stop then, we all agreed to put it on the weekend agenda and turned around to try again for the motel.

That night there was a Welcome Dinner—in lieu of the traditional Rehearsal Dinner—with delicious food and drink and a chance to visit with our relatives and meet the groom’s family and friends. The wedding was not until 5:00 on Saturday, and several local attractions had been recommended for the day. Heavy morning showers ruled out the Manassas Battle Field and opened up time for Border’s 80% off sale. Here was this iconic event with significance for both the general economy and the future of books just down the road from the motel. I’ve had many happy times in various cities in Borders Books, hunting a particular title or browsing at the bargain table or drinking tea. I wanted to celebrate those memories a bit in addition to one last foray for a good bargain.

We spent a happy hour perusing books according to our taste. Robin headed straight to the photography section. Tammy started at the front with displays of fiction and mysteries, then worked her way through the store. I went first to biography, then history and wound with up in the cookbooks, after a short stop at the mysteries. Each book that tempted me was met with my test question, “Will I really read this?” The Presidential and First Lady memoirs of the Clintons and various Bushes did not meet the test, but a couple of food memoirs cum recipe books did, along with some wrapping paper and a stunning gift bag. Robin and Tammy made judicious choices and also found a few things for their gift shelf. Ciao Borders!

Taking My Knee for a Test Drive
I am ten weeks out from my total knee replacement surgery and have just graduated from thrice-weekly sessions with a physical therapist in the Burnsville Fitness Center. I have written instructions with stick figure pictures for a home practice and am starting four weeks of transition work in the therapy pool at the Fitness Center. I am, however, many months away from full recovery and still have occasional need for pain medicine, ice packs and elevation. The therapist  recommended that we stop every hour of the drive for me to walk five minutes. This made a long trip longer, but did get me through the day without swelling.

Parts of the route were on curvy roads and the slight swaying and automatic bracing of my knees was painful whether my legs were at a 90-degree angle or stretched out on the backseat perpendicular to the forward motion of the car. I was quite tired from the trip and both stiff and sore when we arrived; fortunately a pain pill and a 45-minute nap restored me enough to enjoy the evening. I did continue the exercises each day in the motel room and took a walk in the mornings. The wedding itself was outdoors on uneven ground and the house had steps without railings. So the environment required a cane and careful attention. I didn’t mind because I was having a wonderful time at an idiosyncratic, nontraditional wedding; I considered it well worth the effort.

Welcoming a New Baby
We extended our return trip by a day so we could have another chance for family visits during the morning-after gathering at the wedding site for a continental breakfast and relaxed conversation. It’s a good thing we stayed because one of the band members called in to say he was in Harrisonburg, VA where he had another gig. He had discovered that he had left his suitcase behind. He hoped someone would be heading south on Interstate 81 and could bring it to him. We were the only ones who were, and we all have a soft spot for musicians. Happily we had decided not to drive home in one day and spent the night just south of Roanoke.

After we picked up my dog Nigel from the kennel, we didn't head home. Instead we drove on for another hour to Asheville to meet my great-grandson Karik. He was born in Charlotte on July 27, and I was not ready for a car trip then. The new parents, my granddaughter Maya and her husband Wes,  were spending the holiday weekend in my daughter’s getaway house in Asheville. Karik has a beautiful face and at nine pounds, still looks tiny and new to the world. What a perfect coda it was to an extended family wedding weekend as Robin, Tammy and I took turns holding the newest member of our clan. A cup of tea, the ritual photographs and then I experienced in a brief moment the amazing circle of life that binds a great-grandmother to a tiny infant as each studies the other's face.

Check back next week when I plan to write about this wonderful, yet simple wedding and some thoughts on such events.