I’ve been taking a break between book projects, in reading just for fun, rather than research. I have about an hour in the evenings, after fifteen minutes diverting Wee Jamie the Wonder Grandson, before his mother packs him off to the nursery for the night. Normally, the evening read is something on my Kindle, but for the last couple of weeks, I’ve returned to the bookshelves, to the books of a scribbler of mysteries… no, not Agatha Christie, but another English writer who was a fan of hers in turn; one Robert Barnard, who wrote mysteries ending towards the ‘cozy’ end of the spectrum rather than strictly procedural. Most of his books on my shelves can better be described as short and atmospheric novels with a mystery element. The two best – or the ones which I enjoyed the most are Skeleton In the Grass, and Out of the Blackout. The first is set in the late 1930s, focusing on a well-to-do family who are stars in the leftish intellectual firmament of the time – set of handsome, rich and glamorous parents who have all the correct progressive opinions, a son fighting in Spain with the International Brigade … and someone in the local village is harassing them with ugly pranks. The young governess for their youngest daughter slowly realizes that perhaps the family are not quite as noble in character as they seem. In Out of the Blackout, a small boy appears with a group of schoolchildren evacuated from London in 1941to a small country village … but no one in authority can find any records of him? Who is he, and where did he come from? Who put him on the train, and had he witnessed a murder, in the midst of the Blitz? As a grownup, the boy spends decades puzzling out his identity, based on a few sketchy memories.

The other Barnard books are almost as good – every mystery different, all with cunningly developed puzzles and interesting, unique characters. He only did a handful with an ongoing policeman sleuth, so there was no scope for making his books into TV series, as was the case with Caroline Graham’s Midsomer books, or Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series, which would have made his books much more widely read. But then again, with Midsomer Murders appearing to make the county of Midsomer have a murder rate to equal Cabot Cove, and Dalziel and Pascoe fizzling out after wandering too far from the book series as written – perhaps that is a good thing. Anyway – check them out; they’re good reads.

So my daughter wants to make this Christmas season memorable for Wee Jamie by going on a Christmas movie binge in the evening; a mix of movies we have watched before – Christmas Vacation and A Christmas Story; both old favorites. (A Christmas Story takes place at Christmas 1940 although an argument can be made for 1939. I know this because it must be after The Wizard of Oz premiered in August, 1939, since characters from that movie appear in the Christmas parade and Higbee’s department store scenes. There is no mention of WWII going on, which would have marked any time after December 194; no war news, no mention of rationing, bond and scrap drives, air raid precautions, etc. Not post-war, for pretty much the same reasons – all the toys, for instance, are primo 1930s-era items, including the dirigible that Little Brother hugs to himself in bed Christmas night, even as Ralphie hangs on to his Red Ryder BB gun. Am I old? I can remember Red Ryder being in the comic pages when I was a kid myself,,,)

We also explored movies that we know about but never have actually watched. We bailed on a couple of them after the first twenty minutes or so: Jack Frost being one, and Fred Claus being the other. Just didn’t feel any interest at all. As for the others that we watched so far – Home Alone and Home Alone 2 – still quite amusing, (in spite of cartoon-accident violence that would likely kill a normal human outright), especially the brief guest appearance by Donald Trump when he was just a TV celebrity and habitué of the NY gossip columns. Barely made it through Elf – an annoying main character, balanced by some very high-end acting talent in the rest of the cast. We were totally creeped out by The Polar Express. I suspect they were probably trying to replicate the ‘look’ of the book throughout the movie, but we cared nothing for the four kid characters – Annoying Girl Boss, Annoying Main Character Boy, Really Annoying Know It All Boy and Silent Boy … and who the heck was the hobo anyway, and what was he doing on the train? I mean ON the train? On the other hand, Arthur Christmas was a charmer – and I liked the visualization of Santa’s factory at the North Pole and his international distribution network – it just was much more engagingly humorous than Polar Express’s version. Can’t go wrong with an Ardman or a Pixar production, mostly. We’re currently watching A Muppet Christmas Carol, which I like, being a Muppet fan from long ago. Seeing Michael Caine chew the scenery in grand style is a nice bonus, as he is playing it absolutely straight, despite being knee-deep in puppet rats, pigs, chickens and whatever.

I don’t know if we will watch Die Hard, as the ultimate Christmas movie, although other people insist that it’s not really Christmas until Hans Gruber falls off the Nakatomi Tower. Probably just settle for Christmas Vacation again

So, call me a rebel against iron-clad tradition, but the truth is that my daughter and I don’t really care for the usual spread of Thanksgiving dishes. OK, turkey is fine. We like turkey just fine, although a whole one of the smallest available at HEB is usually way too much for the two of us, or even three if you count Wee Jamie, who is flirting cautiously with grown-up food of late. We’ve usually just gone with a breast or a half-breast – anything to avoid a whole month of leftovers, which was the case when I was growing up. Mom invariably went for a bird of twenty pounds or more, and we ate leftovers for the following month … and just as we finished the last of eternal turkey strong to save, it was time to face up to the Christmas turkey and another month of leftovers! (We avoid turkey for Christmas, these days – usually settling for Beef Wellington.)

But as for the other traditional side dishes – well, mashed potatoes and gravy are just fine, but bread stuffing just doesn’t warm over well. Baked yams with the usual trimmings of marshmallows and brown sugar are indigestible and sweet, and baked green bean casserole is just disgusting all around. And besides, all of them together are just too heavy, and even worse as leftovers. I don’t like eating myself into a stupor, and then to have rolls and cornbread on the side, and top it off with pumpkin pie…

Nope, just nope and nope again. We’ll serve up mashed potatoes and make giblet gravy with the roasting pan drippings, but for our Thanksgiving sides we’ll do oven-roasted brussels sprouts with red onion and slivers of kielbasa, and corn pudding. Pumpkin cheesecake with gingersnap crust for dessert …

And we’ll go next door to our neighbor, and her niece and her friend from California with all of this. (Our neighbor, of whom we are very fond and have lived next door too since 1995, suffers from declining health. Niece and Friend have settled in to help care for her.) That will certainly take care of the 12-pound turkey that I bought on sale after last Thanksgiving at .99 cents a pound, and stashed on the bottom shelf of the big freezer, against the expected rise of food prices this year. And that’s our plan for next week – yours?

The local HEB was absolutely insane this weekend. We will do our best not to set foot in the place until after the holiday. Yeah, like we say this every year – and still wind up running into the grocery store on Wednesday afternoon …

My daughter and I are off on a binge of watching Christmas movies, as it seems that episodes of Cadfael, starring Derek Jacobi and a cast clad in lamentably Ren-fair costumes, inspire nightmares in Wee Jamie. So to my regret, we ditched Cadfael … honestly, why is it that the top English actors are generally so ordinary, and individual in appearance? Too many American actors look like underwear models, one indistinguishable from the next, peeled out of the same mold…

Anyway, we started with Home Alone, and Home Alone 2 … although I do note that McCauley Culkin was one of those kid actors who did not ‘adult’ well as he grew. But it was sad to look back at the Home Alone franchise from a nostalgic point of view. No interminable wait to go through security at the airport, for example. And once upon a time, my children, it was possible to go straight to the gate to meet someone arriving. And Home Alone 2 was even more of a punch to the nostalgia gut – the top of the World Trade Center tower, shining and silver. The Plaza Hotel, with Donald Trump in a brief bit part, when he was just a flamboyant TV and tabloid celeb with a penchant for dating models … New York City streets without crazies punching out total strangers. No one wearing masks because they feared the Commie Crud. The first Gulf War was over and won, the Russian Iron Curtain had fallen … and oh, things weren’t perfect, by any means … but most of us didn’t fear our local cops and we trusted the professionalism of the FBI. We could be sure that our politicians and national media didn’t hate the guts of half the American population with a white-hot passion, and we were also pretty certain that kids in most public schools were learning the basics, and not being perved on by teachers and bullied by the urban thug element … well, mostly.

Life was pretty good – and we didn’t even know it.

So I was wandering though my YouTube subscription channels and noticed this one particular bit of restorage – a mid-century modern Moroccan brass coffee table on a wooden stand, which rather decayed object was being renovated and restored. And it reminded me very much of a similar table which served in my parent’s various houses for nearly four decades, until it was destroyed in the 2003 Paradise Mountain Fire in northern San Diego County. That fire pretty much obliterated Mom and Dad’s retirement house. All that was left standing was a quadrangle of conblock walls … everything else in the house burned to a crisp, unless it was a few things that Mom threw into the back of her car, or which the firemen grabbed when the fire began exploding the glass windows inwards. When all was said and done, the insurance claim paid off and the house rebuilt, I think Mom rather had fun replacing the furniture and contents to her own taste, rather than what had been a random collection of family hand-be-downs and stuff acquired because it was available and either inexpensive or free.

The Moroccan brass table that my parents had in their various living rooms looked more like this one on eBay: almost five feet across, engraved overall with an ornate deckle edge and a matching wood and brass “spider” stand, which folded flat. Mom usually had the current issues of her magazines arranged on it, with an antique globe-shaped bowl with blue irises on it in the center. When we were expecting guests, it was usually my chore to remove all the issues of Harpers, The Atlantic, American Heritage and whatever, to apply about a quart of brass polish and the equivalent amount of elbow grease and polish the darned thing, before replacing the array of magazines. But when Mom and Dad refurnished their house, the Moroccan brass coffee table wasn’t something they were fond enough of to replace. The one like it that I located on eBay is on offer for almost $900, nearly half again what it originally ought to have cost. The insurance would have paid for a replacement … if they had wanted one. And why did Mom and Dad give houseroom for so many years to an expensive, high maintenance but distinctly flashy bit of mid-century exotic modern? They didn’t pick it out or pay for it – it came as a gift from Great-Aunt Nan. And thereby hangs a bit of a family story.

I think Great-Aunt Nan worked a lot of different jobs in her lifetime – I am not entirely certain what some of them were; secretarial positions for certain, possibly up-scale retail sales, a telegraphist in the 1930s, a government job in WWII and an enlistment in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps. She might also have had income from what remained of the family fortunes established by her father, my Great-grandfather George. She lived very simply in small rental apartments, and traveled when the urge took her … anyway, one day in the mid-1960s, she was tootling around one of the high-end department stores in downtown Los Angeles. It may have been Bullocks, could have been May Co., or Robinsons. For some reason, Nan went wandering through the furniture department – and spied the Moroccan table and stand.

Holy cow! It was priced at $60, which even then was a steal! Obviously, someone marking the price tag on that table had made a howling blunder by misplacing a decimal point; it should have been marked $600! Well, never one to disdain a bargain, Nan insisted on buying the Moroccan brass table (and stand) for $60, over the strenuous objections of the salesperson, and the department head, and for all that I know, the store manager. No, (said Nan, standing her ground as only a spinster lady of independent means and irreproachable English upbringing could) – she knew the rights of retail sales. What the price on the sales floor was marked as – that was what it would sell for, and she would have that Moroccan brass table (and stand) for the $60 marked price, or else… I have no doubt that Nan would have raised the matter all the way to the Bullock’s company president and the board of directors.

Of course, Nan emerged triumphant, with the $60-dollar Moroccan brass table (and stand) in her possession – an item for which she had about as much use for as a goldfish does for long winter underwear. It was the principle of the thing, and too good a bargain to pass up. She gave it to Mom and Dad, who also appreciated bargains, even if it wasn’t for an item which they liked particularly well. Free was an even better deal than $60.

And that is the tale of the inadvertently marked-down Moroccan brass coffee table (and stand.) You’re welcome.