Sunshine on a cloudy day

Spring is being to seem like the “skipped season.” Winter stalked us right through April. Since then, the temperature has been fluctuating wildly: high 80s one day, then plummeting 20 to 30 degrees the next. I hate those wild swings. They’re as hard on my temperament (sorry, everyone I love) as they are on my bones, joints, and sinuses.

But who’s complaining? Our early rhododendron were the loveliest they’ve ever been. I had to replant rosemary and parsley, but all of the other herbs soldiered through the winter and are looking just fine. The Irish yews in the back, the ones Hubby calls “shrimpies,” are bolting. The roses are budding and stretching out across the trellises. The hostas are gorgeous. Everything in the pots looks happy and stable, at least so far.

Here in the US, the second Sunday in May is Mother’s Day.

We spent it with the kids. The plan was brunch, then an excursion to see the azaleas in full flower at Jenkins Arboretum. It was raining—not pouring, not storming, but the kind of slow, steady you’d beg for in mid-July. I wasn’t overly anxious to tramp around in the rain, but the kids convinced me. We’d been there before on Mother’s Day, several years ago, and I remembered well what a lovely place it is. We pulled out the umbrellas and set out.

Azalea Hill, it turns out,  may have been ever lovelier than it is on a sunny day. First, we practically had the arboretum to ourselves. Other mothers, apparently, were not as willing to tramp around in the rain. Second, sunshine, much as we all crave it, can be a distraction. More than one gifted photographer I’ve known has expressed a preference for the subtle light of a cloudy day. The colors were not only beautifully vivid against the gray sky, but also impossible to miss.

Note to self: Even the grayest day holds pleasures. Don’t be an old you-know-what.

Note to readers: Jenkins Arboretum is a stunning, calming oasis. If you’re within a few hours of Philadelphia, check the link above and plan a visit.

 

 

 

‘I write in ink.’

Dear Frances Mayes,

The time I brought The Tuscan Sun Cookbook to you for signing in Chapel Hill, I remember saying, simply, “Can I tell you how much I loved A Year in the World?” You smiled sweetly.

I frankly never thought anything else of yours could eclipse that smashing book—which really wasn’t about travel, of course, but about how travel changes us, fundamentally. Then I read, and was surprised at, your gut-wrenching memoir, Under Magnolia. Suffice it to say that if I had thought about it,  I would have imagined your life-before-fame otherwise. We never really know what’s beneath the surface.

I finished Women in Sunlight yesterday, with tears streaming and that disconnected feeling of “What next?” that always follows on the heels of a book that knocks you silly.

You are—allow me to presume—among the best of the current crop of Southern writers, whom I have always loved for the richness of place in their work and their ability to make place a character all its own. Women in Sunlight has characters strong and multi-dimensional enough not to be subsumed in the glorious setting of a Tuscan village, or Venice, or Florence, or the Cinque Terre, or Capri. But Italy is the character, from the start, that brings them all together, in reality and in metaphor.

I love the intertwining of poetry in this book, the sense that, as in a poem, every single word was meticulously selected and weighty with meaning. I love the bits of poems interspersed here and there with the text. How brilliant—and full of gumption—to make the storyteller, Kit, a poet! One can sit on the surface, watching, or go deeper and deeper, just like Julia leaping off the cliff in Corniglia.

And there is that one stunning sentence—”I write in ink.” There is no undoing. Margaret knew that. Except, sometimes, if you are brave and your reach is wide enough, there is a chance at redoing. Camille, Susan, and Julia discovered that. Kit, too, in her new incarnation. I adored these characters, and also those in the periphery who egged them on.

How can I thank you enough for allowing me these two weeks in Italy, for introducing me to these fascinating people and allowing me to watch them grow, at a time in life when it would be all too easy not to?

Truly, you have outdone yourself.

Notes to readers:  Full disclosure: I’m a reader, not a critic, not even a book blogger. But I do like to write about books that I find extraordinary in some way, with the hope that others will enjoy them as I have.Of course, I’ve read Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany, too. Please don’t opt for “I’ve seen the movie” because the books are so much more wonderful.

#FrancesMayes
#Goodreads
#WomenInSunlight

Village views

We haven’t been north in nearly two years, which is atypical for us and much too long between trips. As I’m fond of saying, real life sometimes gets in the way. Hopefully, we’ll be back on track with a northward journey in the next few months. In the interim, the dry spell, I’ve gotten by with photos from past trips and that delightful Weekends with Yankee series I mentioned in a recent post.

Today, I’m sharing a visit to that quintessential New England village, Woodstock, Vermont. While the town has a green, multiple inns, and the expected charming shops, I prefer the “less traveled” views. Naturally, I am ever mindful of the need to preserve privacy and respect private property; the photos below were all taken from a public street or walkway.

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Note the book sale sign; we patronized it, and I brought home two fun cookbooks. A library book sale will stop me in my tracks any time!

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The flowers up north always look more vibrant to me.

Who doesn’t love a carriage house?

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Or any of these magnificent houses, for that matter?
Note: I’m a bit behind on my posts—it’s been a busy time. Hoping to catch up with some fun future musings, from grand hotels to a “biscuit test”. Thank you for following… I hope you’ll stay tuned and also share posts that you enjoy with your friends.

Growing up with Yankee

I fell in love with New England—technically, my native New England—not on those tedious trips north from Pennsylvania when I was a tiny child, but month by month, on the pages of Yankee magazine.

I’ve mentioned before that my father, a first generation Italian-American, grew up in a papermill town in Western Maine. Think Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, or Monica Wood’s stunning memoir, When We Were the Kennedys. As a kid visiting family on summer vacation, I had trouble connecting with those visits—everything just felt too different and far away. (I got over that as I grew older, of course.)

My parents loved magazines, and I absorbed their addiction, lapping up every Life, Look, Good Housekeeping, Saturday Evening Post, Mademoiselle, or whatever the minute it arrived. But one magazine was extra special, for on its covers and in its pages the idea of New England began to take shape in my imagination.

Back then, Yankee was half the size it is today, which in and of itself set the magazine apart. I still miss the old book-size format, with its distinctive original cover art. Sometimes fanciful, sometimes near photographic, the covers invited you into village life or mountainscape, stormy seas or apple orchard, lighthouse or schoolhouse. Beatrix Sagendorph, wife of Yankee founder Robb Sagendorph, was responsible for many of those inimitable illustrations, starting a tradition that other talented artists would follow in the years to come.

Between those covers, black-and-white newsprint pages bore stories of “Old Salts” and boiled dinners and folk remedies, general stores, and regional history, of famous Yankees important to history and literature. There were poems and recipes and little jokes here and there, and pages of classifieds that this school kid read from beginning to end. If you could read the tiny type, you could find anything from farm equipment to a fishing camp on a lake, a sure-fire mosquito remedy, or a priceless heirloom recipe you could call your own for just a dollar and a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Come to think of it, the pages of Yankee were probably the first virtual general store.

With the changing times, Yankee has changed as well… first adding inside color, then giving up the compact, book-size format, then developing online content. Nonetheless, there is still much to love: enough “zip” to attract younger readers and sufficient  old-fashioned sensibility to keep long-time readers like me happily engaged. Subscribers these days have access to a website that offers free downloads of tourist information, recipes, and other good stuff.

The most recent innovation has been the addition of the WGBH-produced TV series, Weekends with Yankee. The show, just now beginning its second season, airs on public stations; you will need to check your local outlet for day and time. The content has been delightfully varied thus far. If you love New England, or, if somehow, you’ve never been there, watch this show. Writer-explorer Richard Wiese and Amy Traverso, Yankee’s senior food editor, are enthusiastic yet relaxed hosts with the savvy to let the stories unfold naturally. It’s a great half hour. And if, like me, you still like something you can hold in your hand, try subscribing, and you can enjoy the varied pleasures of New England year round.

 

Cover photo: Rumford Falls, Oxford County, Maine.

Remembering another Miss Austin

No, not Austen. And not Jane. But they have books and writing in common.

It was a verdant Central Pennsylvania summer, and I was in my last term, anxious for graduation. Summer terms were rapid-fire in those days, eight weeks as opposed to the usual ten. Classes met four times a week and, as I recall, were about half an hour longer than during the regular academic year. In retrospect, a truncated term probably wasn’t the best to take on the Victorian novel. None of the stars of the period could be considered an easy or quick read, and coupled with my other classes, I easily had about 300 pages of reading a night. I won’t swear that I read every single page for my other classes, but I didn’t miss a single word of the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope, and—of course—Charles Dickens.

Deborah Austin was a Kathryn Hepburn type with a sturdy Yankee demeanor and sparkling eyes. She pulled her salt-and-pepper hair back in a twist, always with a few stray strands framing her face. She was born in Boston (like me!) and raised in  Maine, not  far from the tiny paper mill town where my father grew up. I suppose I loved her even more for that, and for that sweet whisper of Maine in her voice… not an accent, mind you, just a whisper. I could have listened to her all day long. My experience in her class shaped my reading habits forever. I learned to love, appreciate, prefer a believable, gimmick-free story masterfully told, with complicated characters, complex relationships, and revealing dialogue.

Miss Austin* was an accomplished poet whose work appeared in such worthy publications as The Atlantic Monthly and the collection The Paradise of the WorldOne of my great regrets is that I didn’t get to know her better. We had several spirited conversations about Dickens and our dogs when the term ended, but then, like hundreds of her other students, I graduated and went on to my grown-up life elsewhere. I wish I’d kept in touch.

Miss Austin loved Dickens and taught me to love him, too. Not necessarily more than Hardy, Eliot, or the others, but for his own sake and in his own right as a master storyteller. To this day I haven’t found any description to equal the aborted wedding celebration scene in Great Expectations, the heart-rending exchange between the dying Paul Dombey and his sister Floy  (which is reported to have set all of England weeping), or, of course, the lasting lessons of A Christmas Carol.

I don’t know what kids in college read today, but I do know that there are plenty of good lessons about right and wrong and managing the ebb and flow of life in the thousands of pages that Dickens turned out during the course of his writing career. If you’re casting about for something to read, I highly recommend almost anything in the Charles Dickens oeuvre.

*At my alma mater, it was considered gauche to refer to those along the “professor” continuum as anything but Mr., Mrs., or Miss, and Ms. hadn’t come along yet.

Cover photo:  Old Main lawn, Penn State iGEM 2008 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Carolina blue

Continuing an earlier theme that amounts, basically, to “sunshine on a cloudy day,” on this snowy afternoon I invite you to enjoy a petit gout of Carolina blue… North Carolina’s signature blue sky.

 

We had a house in North Carolina for a very short time, in an almost too well planned community between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro—a study in contrasts if ever there was one. Chapel Hill, home of UNC, is cool and sophisticated and well-groomed. Pittsboro, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned Southern small town, complete with a Piggly Wiggly and friendly as all get-out.

We thought we would eventually retire there, but, in the end, it didn’t take. In defense of the area, we didn’t fully commit. We weren’t ready to retire, not by a long shot; and we were constantly running back and forth to Pennsylvania—which is one thing if the drive is two hours and entirely another if it’s eight.

While our decision to give up the idea had more to do with loved ones and work, there were some—shall we say—cultural issues that helped it along.  The de rigueur coffees with the neighbor ladies felt forced, and I was downright allergic to the subtle expectation that anyone who lived there would naturally have the same opinions about everything from restaurants to books to the quest for world peace. Kind of like seventh grade all over again.

At least for me—Hubby loves hot weather—the summer heat was almost as unbearable as this morning’s 17° wind chill. Plus—and this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back—there was no escarole in the grocery store.

But more important, there was the lingering feeling that if we did retire there, new acquaintances, no matter how friendly and welcoming, would be no substitute for the kids and grands and family we weren’t seeing enough of, or the friends of a lifetime we would have left behind.

And so, we sold the house. On many of our coldest days here in the Mid-Atlantic,  Hubby wistfully recalls the balmy North Carolina winter and those spindly southern pines swaying against a stunning blue sky.  I get it. It’s a beautiful place.