We are off to Hope and Glory Inn to celebrate the New Year and the last few days of our 30th anniversary year. I am half-dead with a sinus infection, but I’ve packed baskets with goodies and a huge tote with books. We’ll read and nibble and eat out and listen to me hack and blow my nose.
Have a great New Year’s, everybody! My next post will be in the next decade!
1. Finishing and revising my novel.
2. Writing the essay I was asked to contribute for the forthcoming scholarly Handbook of Children’s Literature (the only time you’ll ever read my name and "scholarly" in the same publication).
3. Revising my latest Lerner nonfiction book.
What I Did Yesterday:
1. Went to Michael’s 70% after-Christmas sale.
2. Made this winter wreath (grapevine wreath, $4, assorted picks, 17 cents each; I already had the vintage child’s skates).
3. Cute, huh? Only cost $8, 10 minutes of time, and 27 glue gun burns.
What I Wish I Didn’t Have to Do:
1. Blow my nose–a LOT.
2. Drag around the house with allergic rhynitis (not a cold–I’ve never had a cold–not as bad as a sinus infection, worse than regular allergies).
3. Try to work with a stuffed-up head that won’t squeeze out a single coherent thought.
What I Just Did:
1. Got a call from "Unknown Caller" with toll-free number at the obscene hour of 7:38 a.m.
2. Picked up the phone.
3. Set it down on my desk and let the guy/tape run on for 20 minutes.
What I Wish I Could Do:
1. Write a better blog.
2. Take better photos (oh! those pictures with blurry backgrounds!).
3. Journal about my everyday life in Fredericksburg as if it were an adventure like Eric Maisel did in A Writer’s Paris: A Guided Journey for the Creative Soul, but that’s hard to do when everyday life consists of trips to Target, Wegman’s, or the library, and anyway, the people in my head are more interesting than the soccer moms chattering on their cellphones around here.
What I’m Going to Do Next:
1. Order Vivian Swift’s book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler’s Guide of Staying Put (not that I ever go anywhere–I’m fascinated with illustrated journals).
2. Think more about being a better blogger/journaler/photographer.
3. Blow my nose.
1. Christmas is over. "It’s as far away as it ever was," my stepfather used to say.
2. The "Shoes" song keeps going around in my head. You know the one. Sappy lyrics that lodge in one’s brain. If I take my tree down, the song will go away.
3. We’ve had 20 inches of snow in December. Winter is over for me (yes, I know I’m in for a rude awakening the next two months).
4. I am on to the next thing. The fresh start of New Year’s, sweep out the old year, etc.
6. Yes, I know it’s bad luck to take your tree down before New Year’s Day and I never have before this year. With our luck, one tree isn’t going to make any difference (but we will have black-eyed peas and collard greens!).
Every year I say whatever doesn’t get done by Christmas Eve doesn’t matter and isn’t even noticed. But, like Santa’s reindeer, I’m pretty much on course from December 1 on. Not this year. Not with that curveball of a snowstorm last weekend. For most people, any last minute errands and shopping didn’t get done.
At first it didn’t matter to me the roads and neighborhood streets were a mess and continued that way, day after day. But by yesterday it did. I simply had to get out. You can only do so much via the Internet. The prospect didn’t thrill me. Not only did I have to haul a 16-pound cat to the vet, but our Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas Day potluck dishes to carry to my niece’s party loomed uncertainly. It didn’t help that the paper blared stories about 6 and 10 and 40 mile back-ups to get into our two shopping centers (on the same road, across from each other). That people sat through lights 8 and 9 times. That ice-covered roads were washboard speed bumps. That the police had to escort the plows through stalled mobs of traffic. That it took shoppers 3 hours to get into the mall and 2 hours to get out.
So I braved two grocery stores yesterday after Winchester’s check-up (and an emergency run to the library). They were so packed, I couldn’t remember my zip code, much less what I meant to buy. But I still had errands to run and the best grocery store to get to–all in the war zone of our shopping district.
Today I got up at 5 a.m. Performed morning chores and was out the door by 7:30 with a packed lunch, books to read, and plenty of water (I wasn’t about to sit 3 hours in traffic without a book and chocolate!) and a battle plan. I carefully chose my routes and bam! bam! bam! hit every one of my destinations successfully! (Of course, this meant driving 26 miles round trip to a post office that was in the opposite direction of the mongrel hordes pouring in).
Then I rolled home, delivered neighbors’ presents, popped Winchester’s pill down his throat (he runs now because I’m either going to stuff a nasty pill down him or shove him in the carrier), put my first-ever ham in the oven, got my family’s presents ready to take to Mechanicsville tomorrow . . . except for fixing our Christmas Eve supper, it’s all done!
There are disadvantages to not having TV: missing "Dancing With the Stars," "CSI: Miami," and real-time weather reports. Without TV, we often have no idea what’s coming our way until it’s here, or if we have a whiff of bad weather, we have to rely on rumors fed by hysteria, Internet Weather Channel stories about every place but where we are, and the wildly inaccurate AccuWeather.
Friday we had some idea snow was coming that day (I can read the sky and my bunion hurt) and into Saturday. We ran our usual errands, went to the library and the grocery store where I stocked up on such vital items as Edy’s peppermint ice cream, three kinds of put-them-on-the-cookie-sheet-to-bake cookies, our Christmas ham, cat food, Ritz cheese crackers, milk, coffee, and magazines.
Our pantry full of essentials and bedside tables stacked with reading material, we hunkered down to wait for the storm. We didn’t have long. It started snowing Friday evening, a "chicken" snow, so called because the flakes are fine and dry, like chicken feed. When I realized this wasn’t a big blustery gloppy snow, I knew we were in for it. Did I have enough peppermint ice cream? Thank heavens a friend sent us a two-gallon tin of Garrett popcorn (caramel and cheese).
Saturday we woke up to a winter wonderland and still snowing. In a burst of rare domesticity, I made Snowbound-at-Someone-Else’s House Soup, sugar cookies, and banana bread. I fixed a hot lunch and a hot supper for my husband who was in and out all day, trying to stay ahead of the storm, mostly a futile effort. He’d snowblow or shovel the driveway and walk, take two sips of coffee, and it was a white wasteland again.
It snowed and snowed and snowed and snowed. We had tickets for the "Nutcracker" in Richmond that night. These tickets are expensive and nonrefundable. Performances are never canceled. But when I called, the evening performance had been canceled. I guess even the dancers and orchestra needed sled dogs.
By suppertime I was tired of sweeping up grit, washing dishes, and listening to Winchester sneeze. Did I mention that all of our animals invariably get sick on a holiday weekend or during a blizzard or national disaster? Winchester has allergic rhinitis–yes, allergies, just like I have because of him. He needs medicine but the vet might as well be on the moon. My fleeting spell of domesticity was in full retreat.
When we woke up this morning, it had finally stopped snowing. I ventured outside wearing my husband’s boots and a pair of regular socks and three pairs of slipper socks to make my feet bigger. It wasn’t easy lacing those boots up over a plush reindeer head, plush bear head, and plush cat head (those socks are made for lounging, not snow-shoeing). The yardstick measured 15 1/2 inches, but the snow out front and to the side is deeper. I was already up to my knees.
I hope I really don’t look like this. It is a big puffy coat, but my face isn’t wearing a coat. Maybe all that peppermint ice cream, caramel popcorn, and sugar cookies are catching up.
Today everyone is outside, blinking in the bright sun like moles. I watched the little boys across the street wallowing in the snow like puppies. "It’s deeper than the ocean!" one called. It’s unlikely the plows will get to us tonight. My husband will manage to get to work tomorrow morning, though. However, I’ll be stuck here the next few days with a sneezy cat and unlimited goodies. (This is Persnickety, who is not sick, but impatient to get on with her important cat business that the Blizzard of ’09 interrupted.)
But the road is clear for my novel now. I have given myself one month to finish and revise it. I will have plenty of time, so the snow is good for something after all.
I don’t know what it is about editorial revisions and me. Even when they are nothing, only a few days of not-very-hard work, I slam them behind a mental door like shutting out a ten-foot tall ogre. It’s the same with decorating for Christmas–it has to be done and the house, like the book, will look so much better when I’m finished. But I slam decorating behind the same door. Maybe it’s all the up-front preparation:
Book–idea, nuture, notes, research, write (and write and write), revise for myself. Christmas–presents, wrapping, mailing, letter, cards, addressing, buying (and wrapping and mailing) . . . by the time I get to the editorial revision/decorating the house, I’m in a different mental place. I’m working on another book that needs my absolute attention. I’m finished with Christmas before the actual day arrives.
When I’m stuck in writing, I re-read favorite books or–little known secret of multi-published writer about to be revealed!–read craft books, preferably new ones. Yes, I turn to books on writing and even buy the latest issue of The Writer. Similarly when I need a nudge in the decorating direction, I go someplace inspiring, like Through the Garden Gate, a fabulous shop in Mechanicsville, Virginia, on Route 301.
I’d love to have a holiday-themed house like this–all whites and beiges and tarnished silver (the tarnished part isn’t hard to achieve). It’s so lovely–like a haunted house softened by snowfall.
While my house isn’t studied clutter like this shop, I did decide to decorate around our things this year, instead of clearing off tabletops and hutches and moving furniture as I’ve done in the past. Our house looked like Macy’s windows until I found myself with a December 31 book deadline nearly every year.
I have lots of bottle-brush trees, but keep them with my husband’s mother’s cardboard village, which is always displayed on the dining room hutch. Still, I like the idea of separating a few and displaying on a platinum-rimmed plate. Why did I pitch my silverplate teapot when it became too tarnished to deal with? Didn’t I know that heavily tarnished items would be in vogue?
What I learned from visiting this store is to change-up my decorations depending on my mood, which changes from holiday season to holiday season. This year I unearthed old photographs my husband took with his new Brownie box camera one Christmas day in the late ’40s. The little snaps are fanned on a postcard "tree" in our den, on an antique table that displays old cameras and clocks. The vignette creates a moment back in time, similar to this lovely tablescape in the store, and suits my reflective mood this season.
I put out my mother’s turkey-bone sleigh. These gold-painted "sleighs" were quite popular in the early 60s. I never liked it, but it was my mother’s and it needed to come out this year and be seen. Somehow it seems right sitting on the bottom of our tea cart, resting near my mother’s beloved Depression glass, surrounded by vintage ornaments and mercury-glass garlands.
The pink tree went up last night. Instead of shrouding the base in old lace curtains and tablecloths, I used vintage aprons. Change is good. So is revision. Time to shine up those words and polish those scenes in Iva Honeysuckle Discovers the World–Well, Her Part of Virginia, Anyway.
The plan was this: drive to Manassas (about an hour away) to my Aunt Irene’s house. My cousin and sister were already there. We’d drive to Strasburg (another hour and a half away) to visit my aunt–my cousin’s mother–in the nursing home where she is recovering from a severe stroke. Then we’d come back to Manassas and stay the night in my aunt’s house, which is right on the route for the Prince William County Christmas parade. My sister and I hadn’t seen the parade in more than 40 years. It would be just like the old days!
Here’s what really happened: we got snowbound and it wasn’t anything like the old days!
Last Friday was cold and cloudy. We all drove to the cemetery first . . . so many graves to lay wreaths on, so many family members gone . . . then headed for the Shenandoah Valley. My aunt was much improved since I saw her in October. We ate lunch in the gorgeous old Strasburg Hotel, a former hospital, now an inn brimming with antiques and period style holiday decorations. From there we went to the rambling Strasburg Antique Emporium. My aunt rolled along in her wheelchair, enjoying looking at things from her era. She cracked us up when she said, "If I want to see an antique, I just look in the mirror." The Emporium is where all the vintage suitcases went to rest, apparently. I gathered up three and would have bought more except the back end of the Ford Escape was already packed with a wheelchair, walker, and fall flower arrangements from the cemetery. Hours later, we drove in the cold and dark back to Manassas. The air was heavy with moisture.
We woke to driving rain that became thicker and thicker and then turned to snow. The parade has never been canceled due to weather. My sister was so excited she kept going out and coming back inside. She about wore her coat out, taking it off and putting it back on. Finally we heard the tootles of band instruments tuning up. The parade started down Prescott Avenue–the wrong way! In all our years of viewing the parade, it never changed direction! Snow nearly blinded us–wet, globby, frying-pan-sized flakes that soaked immediately. Some of the bands and dancers and floats proceeded gamely, like it was a sunny day. But some of the kids (and grown-ups) huddled miserably under umbrellas and hoods, not even looking up to wave. I enjoyed the therapy dogs and the antique fire engine (natch!). And the horses. The Redskins Marching Band was a surprise. We stood outside as long as we could, then ducked into the car to watch the rest. Just as I did when I was six and ten and sixteen, I waited eagerly for Santa to end the parade from his traditional perch on the fire engine. But he arrived on a utility truck! A utility truck?!? It was more than I could bear.
Back in the house we realized the snow was serious. My cousin and sister had planned to visit my aunt in Strasburg again. I had planned to go home. The Shenandoah Valley already measured several inches of snow. And I wasn’t about to spend the day on I-95 with spun-out cars. We were snowbound.
What would we do? We did what women do everywhere–women’s work. My aunt’s house–the house I had banged in and out of a thousand times as a kid and grownup–had been neglected. We dusted and vacuumed and threw away bags of trash. Did laundry and wrapped presents and raided the basement for Christmas decorations which we put up to make the house feel better. My sister and cousin made soup from what was in the pantry. It was delicious, though my cousin thought it should have pasta and my sister wanted potatoes and onions. Here’s the recipe:
2 cans tomato soup
4 little cans V-8 juice
2 cans corn
2 cans string beans
2 cans lima beans
2 cans mixed vegetables or peas (you get the idea, clear out the pantry!)
Simmer, add water as needed. Add potatoes, onions, or pasta, if you like. Best enjoyed with toasted bread, a sense of accomplishment, and the happiness that only comes from sharing with family.
When it finally quit snowing, it was dark. We actually went out to get ice cream sundaes! As we sat huddled in our coats in an ice cream parlor on Sudley Road, we looked like we should be in a bus terminal somewhere. Then my cousin drove us around the snowy town. I had come to visit my aunt and to see the parade with my cousin and sister but I had also come in search of the past. I couldn’t find it, not in my aunt’s house that had changed so much since we were all kids, and certainly not in Manassas. The Methodist church where I went to Bible school (for the fruit punch and butter cookies with jam centers) had been turned into a restaurant. Rohr’s Five and Ten was an art gallery. Thankfully, there were still pockets of sameness–the old Victorian houses on Quarry Street, for example.
At my aunt’s house again, we lounged in our jammies, leafed through magazines, talked, and watched White Christmas, my sister’s and my favorite holiday movie for the last 40 years (the song "Sisters" is our private anthem). The house closed in around us, content to have people talking and laughing and eating in it again. I studied my aunt’s photographs, on every wall and table, and her collection of redbirds and realized the past wasn’t as out of reach as I’d thought.
On Sunday, it was clear and bright. I swept four inches of snow off my car. Before I left, I noticed a small leatherette book in my uncle’s study. My cousin told she had found her mother’s teenage diary a while ago. It’s from 1945, when her mother first came to Manassas as a teenager to live with her older sister. I asked to transcribe the diary. The house, I could tell, did not mind when I took the diary with me.
It’s supposed to snow again this Sunday. I already have the ingredients for Snowbound-In-Somebody-Else’s-House Soup. It will be a good time to put on "White Christmas" and read about the life of my aunt as a wide-eyed sixteen-year-old.
Just after Christmas in 1993, our first cat-child, Alaric, was put to sleep. My husband and I were lost, just as Alaric was. In March of 1994, I couldn’t stand being cat-less another second and went to the Fairfax County Animal Shelter (the "pound") where we had gotten Alaric. I looked around but couldn’t see any cats! The shelter volunteer told me a kitten had just come in and pointed out the cage. There were food and water dishes and one of those two-inch-high disposal litter pans, but no kitten. He opened the cage, reached behind the litter pan, and pulled out a black and white female kitten. After having had a boisterous black male cat for 14 years, she wasn’t what I had in mind, but I held her anyway. Her little heart pounded and she tried to crawl under my armpit. She was so shy (the reason she’d been returned to the pound). A woman came in and saw the kitten I was holding. She had designs on her. "She’s mine," I said and the little black and white female went home with me.
I named her Xenia, not after "Xena the Warrier Princess," as people have long thought, or after the town in Ohio. She was named after Anastasia Romanov’s cousin, Xenia. When war broke out in 1914, Xenia and her mother were sent to England. Xenia left Russia with her clothes and a teddy bear her father had brought her back from Germany–a red mohair Steiff bear. Xenia named the bear Alphonse and her nurse made a little outfit for it. Xenia never saw her father again. He was executed during the Revolution. Xenia married an American and lived here the rest of her life. The original Alphonse was put up for auction back in the 1980s. Ian Pout bought it and Steiff created a limited edition of the bear. Years later, Steiff created a limited edition of a companion bear, Xenia, a beautiful soft white bear. Just like Xenia the cat was, soft, white, and pretty. (Yes, I have both bears.)
Xenia was the shyest animal. In all the 16 years she was with us, some people never laid eyes on her. We learned she liked to be under boxes and covers and sofas. She was a good hider. The vet who checked her over said she was not three months as the shelter claimed, but four. She was a petite cat with little springy whiskers. She got in bed with us in the mornings, crouched like a toad, and if Edward G. Robinson meowed, he’d sound like Xenia. "Maow. You dirty rat." To hear this growly voice coming from such a little thing cracked us up.
I often wondered if she had been raised by a broody hen. Whenever I bent down to get a pan or whatever, Xenia would scoot underneath me. She found the belt of my bathrobe and walked all over the house with it, stepping on it and tripping herself, and "maowing" through her teeth. I think this is related to a mother-cat-moving-her-kittens behavior. She wasn’t smart like Alaric, who kept us hopping for 14 years. It took a few years for her to learn her name. But she had smart moments, like the time she typed "xxxxxxxxnnnnnnn" on my computer. I know she was typing her name. After Alaric, Xenia was a relief. She was sweet and undemanding.
When we moved once, we drove 8 hours with Xenia in her carrier on the seat between us. She stood the whole way, joggling and teetering. We smuggled her into a motel overnight. She tried to dive under the bed but the motel beds rested on wooden platforms. The next day we had to leave early and Xenia had not done her business in over a day. I plunked her in the 8 by 8 disposable cake pan that was her traveling litter box, said, "Xenia, we’re leaving, so go." And she did.
In Fredericksburg, stray cats noticed our gate was marked (like the signals hoboes left during the Depression) and we soon added Mulan, Winchester, and Persnickety to the household. Xenia, I discovered, was also xenophobic. She did not like foreign cats. Mulan didn’t give a fig about any of the other boarders here and Xenia and Winchester gave her a wide berth. But Xenia would not, could not tolerate Winchester. Not in seven long years. It was necessary to keep them separated. This meant Xenia stayed in my office most of the time. As she grew older, her hatred of Winchester became worse. It was like living with a bitter old great-aunt in the attic.
But she still loved me and enjoyed sitting on my lap when I typed. When I scrapbooked, she often lay between my feet while I worked. She was definitely my cat. She liked my singing and loved it when I picked her up to dance and sing to the radio (the other cats ran). Whenever I pulled into the driveway, I’d look up and see Xenia sitting in the big window of my office, looking down at me. She knew my car and would "maow" in greeting.
As the years rolled on, Xenia had one stroke, then two, then she developed hyperthyroidism and chronic renal failure. I have known for a month or so that her time was getting close. Close, but not yet. Not yet. Despite numerous illness, Xenia’s spirit burned bright.
This weekend I was caught in the snowstorm and away from home for two nights. When I got home Sunday afternoon, I was itching to start decorating. All afternoon I dragged boxes in from the garage and decorated the dining room and den. I played one of my favorite CDs, a cheap Target CD that has Rosemary Clooney singing, "Happy Christmas, Little Friend," an odd, sweet little song, like my cat. At one point, I checked on Xenia. She lay right up against the small heater while my office radio played Christmas carols. Xenia had been quiet and a bit lethargic for a few weeks, but I knew something was wrong.
Yesterday morning, we made our final trip to the vet’s. It was time.
When I pull into the driveway, I still look up at my window, but she’s not there. I hope she’s looking down at me now.