16. November 2023 · Comments Off on Good Times, We Hardly Knew You · Categories: Domestic, Memoir

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.

Seeing this article, about the auction of original art for the Church Mice book series brought back memories of the first Church Mice books, which I bought from an English book catalog when I was stationed in Greece with my then-preschool-aged daughter. There was a Stars and Stripes bookstore on base, and a tiny children’s bookstore in Glyphada then, but for anything else, I had to order by mail. I think I had a subscription to the Hatchard’s catalog, or some book service which specialized in providing books to English-speaking readers scattered far and wide, in localities without books in English. I bought regularly, for myself and for my daughter and we loved the Church Mice series for the very witty and lavishly detailed illustrations of the adventures of Sampson the cat and his mouse friends, who lived in a church. The illustrations were every bit as charming as Beatrix Potter’s little animal paintings. It appears that all the original paintings are to be sold at auction – the author wished to benefit a charity with the sale of his art, and his art kit, too.

When my sisters’ children were small, and I wanted to get books for them, I looked for the Church Mice series – and they weren’t available in the US, since this was before Amazon went in for UK children’s books. I had to give money and a list for the Gentleman With Whom I was Keeping Company, so that he could buy them in Britain for me, and mail them to my sister. Most of the series are available now on Amazon, albeit mostly at a hefty price. I’ve been looking at them for Wee Jamie, now, the ones that I didn’t have for my daughter. I’d love to have one of the original art pieces, but it looks like having a few more of the books is slightly more doable in these economic times.

13. August 2023 · Comments Off on Misty, Watercolor Memories · Categories: Domestic, Memoir

Misty, watercolor memories of Hawaii, have been brought back by news of the awful, catastrophic fires on Maui; memories of the Girl Scout troop that my buddy Esther T. and I moved into for our senior high school year did a camping trip there in the summer of 1971. My memory has the trip being two or three weeks in duration and hitting all four main islands by local puddle-jumper airline transport and inexpensive rental cars. There had been two senior Girl Scout troops in Sunland-Tujunga at that time – Esther and I had gone to Europe the summer before with the most enterprising troop, but because we were a year younger than the other girls, we had to fill out our last year in Scouting with the other troop which was … well, better than not being in a troop at all. Esther and I had much reason to suspect that the leadership of that second troop was in fruitless competition with our first in organizing trips to interesting destinations. That leadership was also dead keen on camping and backpacking, and not really good at it, which hardships Esther and I and the other girls endured stoically. One of our weekend expeditions put us at a campsite in the San Bernardino mountains, early in spring, before the snow had melted. The snow melted in late afternoon, soaking our bedrolls and freezing at night – I had a whole new appreciation for the hardships of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, after that experience. I was usually sick for several days after one of these excursions, but that is by the by. Hawaii for a couple of weeks wasn’t a patch on Europe for the whole summer, but it was doable from money that I saved out of my allowance, lunch money and babysitting … and anyway, Hawaii was temperate and tropical. No hazard of frostbite from camping out at Little Jimmy Spring with a thin sleeping bag and no tent. And we all had read James Michener’s Hawaii and watched Hawaii-5-0 on TV, so we had some vague idea of what to expect.

There would be four drivers of the rental cars to tour the first three islands; Hawaii, the Big Island, Maui, and Kauai, with a final stop on Oahu, and a stay at the YWCA’s hostel on Waikiki beach: Troop Leader, Troop Co-Leader, Troop Leader’s Husband and Co-Leader’s Husband, with the twenty girls parceled out among the rental cars. Esther and I did privately decide that we would do our best to ride in the rental driven by Troop Leader’s Husband; in our judgement, he was the one sane adult of the lot. And so we winged our way Hawaii – first stop, Hilo on the Big Island, which was everything that we had expected of a lush green tropical paradise; palm trees, plumeria, frangipani, ginger, jasmine, fields of pineapples, and stands of thick undergrowth tangled with passionfruit vines. Most houses that we drove past on the outskirts of Hilo on our way to where we were camping were single story cottages, with verandahs open to the sea breeze, and shallow metal hipped rooves that gleamed like tarnished old silver, nestled among lush greenery.

And oh, the beaches – every one of them spectacularly beautiful; white sugar sand and blue, blue water, like blue satin trimmed with foaming white lace as the waves broke. The only exception to this was a black sand beach, sand worked up from black volcanic lava – that beach was at Hana, on Maui, where we went the whole twisting way of the coastal road, and I was probably vilely car-sick most of the way. We went to see the volcano, of course; it was not active at the time, and frankly, looked more like an open pit made of rough black lava stone. The fern grotto on Kauai was a bit of a disappointment, though – the ferns were mostly dead and dried up.  I don’t have any particular memory of Lahaina, although we might have passed through. I have a better recollection of Kailua-Kona, an old whaling station on the Big Island – a modest several blocks along the waterfront, with an old missionary church and the remains of King  Kamehameha’s royal fishponds, where the owner of a little souvenir shop along the waterfront picked some fresh bananas from the tree by her shop and gave them to us – and they were about the best that I had ever tasted. There was an older gentleman with his family, camping near us at one of the beaches who told us what to do if we stepped on a broken bit of coral and it embedded in our foot, the tour bus driver who explained to us how the missionaries who came to Hawaii did an enormous amount of good, early on – it was their descendants who turned out to be somewhat less of an ornament to society.  There was a Navy retiree who had actually been at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked – he had been on his bicycle, on Ford Island, on his way to duty at his post when all hell broke out. I have good memories of all the people we met along the way, although honestly it is hard to imagine anyone being deliberately hostile to a group of earnest and friendly teenagers who were basically doing a modest budget trip to the Islands. I’ve since drawn on such memories in my own books, mostly for My Dear Cousin, and the short Luna City story, Radio Silence.

We had one slightly more luxurious stay at the Kaheely Mountain Camp – likely again on the Big Island, where room-sized tents were set up on masonry foundations, and there was a hot-tub under the stars, surrounded by a hedge of fragrant tropical plants. That was sheer heaven, basking in the warm water, in the twilight – but even nicer was that a member of the staff came around on a little electric golf cart of an evening to collect the dishes and pots that we had used to fix supper; they had a central dishwashing facility. We finished out the trip with three or four days at the Waikiki beach club, which was on the second story of a tall modern building overlooking Fort DeRussy, the Army’s recreation center. The beach was gorgeous – especially the sunsets, and we did the usual tourist things – a venture to Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial, an evening luau at the LDS-sponsored Polynesian Cultural Center, and spent some little money at the International Village Marketplace, which was within walking distance of where we were staying.

The last few days were slightly marred, when three of the girls slipped the vigilance of Troop Leader & Company and went out partying and got disgracefully drunk with some soldiers at Fort DeRussy; two of them were caught by Troop Leader in the wee hours of the morning throwing up in the bathroom of the YWCA, to be sent home early in disgrace. (The main disgrace being that one of the girls was Troop Leader’s own daughter.) I slept through the ruckus – Esther briefed me the next morning, as we stood waist-deep in the surf and out of earshot of anyone.

And that was my misty-water-colored memories of Hawaii, brought back to me by the horror of the Maui fires – you’d never think of such a thing, when Hawaii is supposed to be a soggy tropical jungle, but in point of fact, large parts of the Big Island and Maui are basically high-altitude desert, once away from the coast, and terrifically vulnerable to brush fires. But a firestorm such as blasted through Lahaina is a particularly awful disaster, akin to the mainland fires like the great Hinkley fire which obliterated whole communities without much warning, more than a century ago.

20. June 2023 · Comments Off on A Reprise Post from 2005 – The Chalk Giant · Categories: Domestic, Memoir

Granny Jessie, tiny and brutally practical, was not particularly given to fancy and fantasies. When she talked of old days and old ways, she talked of her girlhood on her fathers’ ancestral acres, a farm near Lionville, Chester County, Pennsylvania; of horse-drawn wagons, and cows and cats, and how pigs were cleverer than dogs. Of how she and her sister and brother would have to stop going down to the pig-pen early in the fall, lest they become too fond of an animal whose fate it was to be butchered for ham, and bacon, roasts and sausage and scrapple to last the winter through. Of how she played on the Lionville boys’ baseball team, since there were not enough boys, and she was a tomboy and skillful enough to play first-base, and how her grandfathers’ house was once a fall-back way-station on the Underground Railway. (It was the inn in Lionville itself was the main way-station, with a secret room and a concealed access to the woods, or so said Granny Jessie.) It was all very prosaic, very American, a breath away from the Little House books and so very familiar.

Granny Dodie’s stories, even if she did not have a spell-binding repertoire, were touched with fire and enchantment because of the very unfamiliarity of the venue… a row-house in Liverpools’ Merseyside, a few streets away from there the Beatles had come from, where Granny Dodie had grown up the youngest of a family of nine, sleeping three in a bed with her older sisters. “The one on the side is a golden bride, the one by the wall gets a golden ball, the one in the middle gets a golden fiddle, “she recited to me once. “Although all I ever got of it was the hot spot!” All her brothers were sailors or dockworkers, and her ancestors too, as far as memory went. Even her mothers’ family, surnamed Jago, and from Cornwall— even they were supposed to have grafted onto their family tree a shipwrecked Armada sailor. Granny Dodie insisted breathlessly there was proof of this in the darkly exotic good looks of one of her brothers. “He looked quite foreign, very Spanish!” she would say. We forbore to ruin the story by pointing out that according to all serious historic records, all the shipwrecked Spaniards cast up on English shores after the Armada disaster were quickly dispatched… and that there had been plenty of scope in Cornwall— with a long history of trans-channel adventure and commerce—to have acquired any number of foreign sons-in-law. She remembered Liverpool as it was in that long-ago Edwardian heyday, the time of the great trans-Atlantic steamers, and great white birds (liver-birds, which according to her gave the port it’s name) and cargo ships serving the commercial needs of a great empire, the docks all crowded and the shipways busy and prosperous.

One Christmas, she and my great-Aunt Nan discovered a picture book— John S. Goodalls’ “An Edwardian Summer”, among my daughters’ presents, and the two of them immediately began waxing nostalgic about long-ago seaside holidays; that time when ladies wore swimsuits that were more like dresses, with stockings and hats. They recollected donkey-rides along the strand, the boardwalks and pleasure-piers full of carnival rides, those simpler pleasures for a slightly less over-stimulated age. But the one old tale that Granny Dodie told, the one that stayed my memory, especially when Pip and JP and I spent the summer of 1976 discovering (or re-discovering) our roots was this one:

“There are places,” she said, ” Out in the country, they are, where there are stone stairways in the hillsides, going down to doorways… but they are just the half the size they should be. They are all perfectly set and carved… but for the size of people half the size we are. And no one knows where they lead.”

Into the land of the Little People, the Fair Folk, living in the hollow hills, of course, and the half-sized stairways lead down into their world, a world fair and terrible, filled with faerie, the old gods, giants and monsters and the old ways, a world half-hidden, but always tantalizingly, just around the corner, or down the half-sized stairway into the hidden hills, and sometimes we mundane mortals could come close enough to brush against that unseen world of possibilities.

From my journal, an entry writ during the summer of 1976, when Pip and JP and I spent three months staying in youth hostels and riding busses and BritRail… and other means of transportation:

July 9- Inglesham
Today we started off to see the Uffington White Horse, that one cut into the hillside in what— the Bronze or Iron Age, I forget which. We started off thinking we could catch a bus and get off somewhere near it, but after trying quite a few bus stops (unmarked they are at least on one side of the road) we took to hitch-hiking and the first person took us all the way there. He was an employee of an auctioneering firm, I guess & I guess he wasn’t in a hurry because he asked where we were going (Swindon & then to the White Horse) & said he would take us all the way there. It was a lovely ride, out beyond Ashbury, and the best view of the horse is from the bottom, or perhaps an aero plane. It’s very windy up here, very strong and constantly- I think it must drive the grass right back into the ground, because it was very short & curly grass. We could see for miles, across the Vale, I guess they call it. After that we walked up to Uffington Castle, an Iron Age ring-embankment, & some people were trying to fly a kite-it’s a wonder it wasn’t torn to pieces.
We sat for a while, watching fields of wheat rippling like the ocean & cloud-shadows moving very slowly and deliberately across the multicolored patchwork.
The man who brought us out advised us to walk along the Ridgeway, an ancient track along the crest of the hill, and so we did. It was lovely and oh, so lonely. Nothing but the wheat fields on either side and looking as if they went on forever.
We looked at Wayland’s Smithy, a long stone barrow in a grove of trees & when we got to Ashford, we found the Rose & Crown pub and had lunch. It was practically empty, no one but an elderly couple and their dog, a lovely black & white sheepdog, very friendly. Then we set off to walk and hitch-hike back to Highworth, but we picked the two almost deserted roads in Oxfordshire to do it, because it took nearly forever to get two rides. One got us from Ashbury to (indecipherable) and the second directly into Highworth. Both were women, very kind and chatty; I wish I knew what impulse people have which make them pick up hitch-hikers. What I do know is that the loveliest sight is that of a car slowing down and the driver saying “Where are y’heading for?”

Thirty years later I remember how charmed we were by the people who gave us rides— the auctioneers assistant who was so taken in by my reasons for seeing the White Horse that he decided he had to see it himself, and the two women— both with cars full of children— who were either totally innocent of the ways of this soon-to-become-wicked-world, or had unerring snap-judgment in deciding to slow down and pick up three apparently innocent and apparent teenagers. (I was 22 but was frequently and embarrassingly informed that I looked younger than the 16 year-old Pip, and JP was 20, but also must have looked innocent, younger and harmless.)
With their assistance, we spent a lovely day, in the sun and wind, in the uplands along the Ridgeway, examining the form of a running horse, cut into the turf on a chalk hillside, an ancient fortress, a legendary dolman tomb, and an ancient highway along the backbone of Britain… always thinking that just around the next bend would be the stairway into the hollow hills, and the giants and fair folk of old… Adventure and peril just as Grannie Dodie said it would be in the lands of our ancestors… always just around the corner.