Friendship lessons

vernelillI’ve been thinking abut this post for some time. Last spring I reconnected with two old friends. It made me think about the friendship between my mother and her best friend and what it taught me about friendship.

My mother first met her best friend when she was just 3 or 4 years old. At the time, Mom spoke English, and Lil spoke only German. (Not at all unusual in their pre-depression era Chicago neighborhood.) But you know kids, a doll is a doll and pretend is the same in any language and they became friends. Lil moved away for several years, before moving back across the street in time for them to be high school buddies. They were best friends until my mother died at age 89. Mom used to say that their friendship as adults was helped by the fact that their husbands and kids got along, and I’m sure she was right about that. But I also think it was a long, shared history, a healthy respect for their differences, and their determination to not let the friendship ball drop. (That’s Mom, left, and Lil, in a WWII-era photo. )

I learned an important lesson from them. Friendship has to be elastic to accommodate changes large and small throughout a lifetime.

This spring I had lunch with a high school girlfriend I had not seen in decades. We rekindled our friendship on FaceBook in a group for an upcoming class reunion (it’s a whopper!) and that in itself is amazing since I am terrible at FaceBook. It turns out that we both have adult children and grandchildren living in the same  city. (Which I guess means we also could have run into each other in a Columbus, Ohio, Barnes & Noble!)

As sometimes happens with old friends who knew you best and knew you when, time stopped and we picked up our conversation as if it was never interrupted by husbands, children, and careers. This is someone I went to Sunday school with and to algebra class, we sewed together and worked on the year book, and eventually we began to shape what would become our adult lives.

We didn’t waste time reminiscing; we were too busy filling each other in on the last few decades. As we recounted the joys and challenges of raising children, working inside and outside the home, and negotiating life with our aging parents, we realized we had traveled parallel paths and operated with the same values that had launched us years ago. There are some things that just never change.

So, Pris and I sat in a Panera Bread, talking for four and a half hours. Even then we only stopped because we had long drives home. And it got me thinking about the friends we leave behind however unintentionally because we get busy, move away, have babies, take another job.

Sometimes life just gets in the way of friendship.

A few weeks after lunching with Pris, my friend Barb and her husband were in town to visit family and they met us for breakfast. Barb is my Lil, my friend who lived down the street the whole time we were growing up. We spent as much time at each other’s houses as we did at our own. We have moved off in different directions any number of times, but always manage to reconnect. We just resume the conversation.  (Which sometimes requires a marathon phone call!)


(Here we are, in late grade school I think. I’m on the left. And since neither of us has ever had a naturally curly hair on our head, I’m sure that was taken shortly after our mothers had worked their “home permanent” magic!)

Barb and I don’t just know each other well, we know each other’s extended families, and family histories. We understand, without asking questions, the little mini-dramas that play out. We share and laugh over memories that even our husbands can’t appreciate, because after 40-odd years of marriage to our spouses, Barb and I have known each other longer. We mourn each other’s losses as our own (Our breakfast together was all the more heart-warming since our last meeting had been for her father’s memorial service) and share our joys (we became grandmothers at about the same time).

There really are friends with whom you can lose touch for many months, then pick up the conversation as if it never ended.

Friendship is so quirky. Some friends pass in and out of our lives easily. We work together but then one moves on to a new job, or we have kids in the same class or on the same team, but then they grow up. And that’s okay, because I think we are  enriched by any friendship.

But then there are the others, happily, that are with us forever. One of the real rewards of retirement, for me at least, has been the opportunity to spend more time with friends and nurture the friendships old and new that I often just didn’t have time for during those demanding career years. It’s a wonderful and surprising bonus!

See you next time!

The party, the painters and an empty nest

Was it just last week that I was blogging about our “Annual Open House”?

The party was fun for us, and, I trust, for our guests. We ate, we drank, we toasted, we kissed hello and good-by. We told stories and jokes. We made promises to get together more often in the New Year. Yes, it was good.

In fact, we had so much fun that I never did get a chance to snap any pre-party or party photos. I did, however, think to get a few post party shots. If tables and countertops littered with empty wine bottles, glasses and platters are any indication, this was a successful event.


But wait, the week gets better.

The morning after the party, the painters arrived at 7:30 to paint the upstairs and downstairs hallways, the stairs, the bathrooms, the master bedroom and related woodwork (which had been stained a dark walnut, necessitating sanding and priming before moving on to two coats of white paint). They’ve done a beautiful job and we love the colors and the new white woodwork. We’ve also trashed the house, emptying the master closet and the linen closet into a spare bedroom, along with miscellaneous lamps, artwork, and accessories. We can’t find the laundry. The power cord to my laptop was missing for more than a day. You know how this works. Maintaining any sense of order during a project like this is hopeless for us.

Friday, they finished up by painting the ceiling in the kitchen and family room. So, that morning we cleared the counters, took down the mantle decorations, and I took another picture of the same island countertop.


Actually, I think this picture (below) says it all. New paint job, Christmas angel and artwork re-hung in the hall amid the painters’ gear. Not the schedule I would set, but as my husband, a.k.a. “the scheduler,” pointed out, we’ll begin the new year with all this freshened up. And sometimes you just have to roll with it…


Which brings me to the second half of this post.

The holiday season always delivers an emotional mix. There is joy in the unvarnished excitement of children awaiting Santa, the good cheer of family and friends savoring the season, the music, the traditions large and small, and, if you are so inclined, the Christmas story itself. For me and for many others there is also nostalgia for holidays past.

My mother and father and my grandparents before them absolutely loved Christmas. We had no exotic traditions and some Christmases were leaner than others, but there were always festive trees and tables and visits with extended family and friends. Lots of laughter and story telling. And that is what I think of when I think of holidays past.

Steve and I did our best to carry those traditions forward with our own family, sharing the holiday with my mother and aunt and uncle, and, when they could join us, cousins, and friends. There was always a harried dash to church on Christmas Eve that ended with the magic of singing Silent Night in a candlelit sanctuary. (Never mind that my daughter once attempted a short nap in the midst of the live creche scene and my son came this close to singeing the hair of a fellow acolyte as they walked down the aisle.) And that was just Christmas Eve.

Although my mother, aunt and uncle are no longer with us, we now have a pair of grandsons who bring a whole new kind of joy to the holiday. So we travel to Ohio to celebrate with our kids there and my daughter-in-law’s family. And our traditions morph with theirs. And I am so very gad we are part of it.

Like dealing with the painters, sometimes you just have to roll with it…

Being an empty nester is not always easy. You have to learn to share your kids with their adult lives, careers, new cities and new partners. You can’t always have everyone at your holiday table or even preside over your own table. If you’re going to let change taint your holiday, well, I really think that’s your fault.

Yes, I want my kids to call me, visit me, invite me and still need me. Once a mom, always a mom. But I think my kids also deserve my respect: to live their own lives, make their own decisions, raise their own kids. (And if, as my friend Jill says, I have to sometimes bite my tongue, I can learn to do that too.)

We’ve been empty nesters for more than a decade, and I’ve come to the conclusion that to succeed in these multi-generational times, we need to bring a little more to the equation. We need to continue to grow ourselves. It’s pretty easy to get stuck in “I was…” or “We always…” when we should really be working on our flexibility gene. What difference does it make if we have turkey and all the trimmings or ham and hash brown casserole? More importantly, perhaps we need to stop worrying about the empty nest and start feathering its successor.

It’s something to think about when we’re done wrapping packages, addressing cards, baking cookies, and recalling those Christmases past…

I wish you a wonderful, joyous, overindulgent holiday however you spend it!

Unpacking the traveling wine glasses

WGlassesBoxes2Remember when I wrote about my traveling wine glasses, here? Well. Time to get them out of storage.

Every family has their own holiday traditions, and one of ours is to host an open house for friends and neighbors. This began innocently enough 40-odd years ago when Steve and I lived in Peoria and wanted a Christmas celebration at our house before we headed to Chicago to spend the holiday with family.

Then we moved to Chicago and reinvented “the party” a bit around our own young family. The kids got older, our careers got more demanding and still we hosted “the party.” In fact, it grew to include our children and those of our friends. Then the children grew up. But “the party” continued.

Sometimes people would ask how we did this with two full-time jobs and a busy family life. (By now we were also hosting the extended family holiday anyway.) I just said the party had a life of its own, which it has. And forty-odd years of parties has taught us a few things.

First, entertaining two or three dozen people is definitely a two-person project. We could not do this if Steve and I both did not enjoy it. However, when it’s “tradition,” you get to do some things the same each time. And that makes it easier.

The week before the party I start by “inventorying” supplies on the dining room table.

Our party has always been on the same Sunday afternoon in December and is a true open house. People come and go over the course of 3 or 4 (or 5) hours. I used to send snail mail invitations (I think they are fun to get), but now I send electronic invites. They’re easy, economical, and – best of all – guests seem to find it much easier to respond electronically. Who knew? We have always invited a close circle of friends, neighbors, sometimes people we wanted to get to know a little better. (This is fun. Friends from one group meet another, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.)

Our guests are the heart of the party, but they expect food and drink. Food can be complicated or simple, and I have done both. Lately I opt for simple. This is not a party to impress a client or anyone’s boss. It’s getting together with friends.

After years of busily pushing trays of appetizers in and out of a hot oven (in a hot kitchen) and missing much of my own party, I avoid anything that requires much in the way of last-minute prep. Cheese platters dressed up with fruit, olives, nuts, are go-to choices. Since guests are drinking, I like to serve something a little on the hardy side: store-bought meatballs in my husband’s burgundy sauce, beef tenderloin on baguette slices, or ham on mini rolls. (After one experience with a fairly expensive platter of shrimp that a friend’s eight-year-old planted himself beside and devoured a significant portion of, I didn’t serve it again until all the children were grown.)

I try to vary the menu a bit from year to year, and I like to occasionally introduce something new just because I get bored (so what must my guests think?). But my bottom line is borrowed from Ina Garten: buy some, arrange some and cook some.

Steve is the drinks man: red and white wine, beer, and soft drinks. Last year we found some well-priced prosecco at a wine tasting and it was a big hit. I offer coffee towards the end of the party (though almost no one ever drinks it).

Like food, decorating has grown simpler. A while back it occurred to me that the more I put up, the more I have to take down. We start on Thanksgiving weekend. (I have never been able to bring myself to do this any earlier. I enjoy that holiday too much to confuse it with any other.) I focus my decorating on a few strategic areas — the mantel in the family room, the buffet in the dining room, the tree in the living room, and some greenery and candles in the entry to welcome guests. Anything else is just frosting.

This angel greets guests in the entry. I used other angels on the mantle this year.

Did I say candles? I rely a lot on candles, tapers in every holder I have and an army of pillars. I am the lucky beneficiary of a substantial stockpile of pretty plates and platters that belonged to my mother and my aunt and I use them! (Even when I order deli platters from the grocery store, I re-plate them on my own serving pieces – casual or fancy.) A little glow, gleam and sparkle looks festive and makes guests feel special. And I think my guests deserve a bit of fussing.

2016treeI was one of the last holdouts for a fresh tree, but when we began spending the actual holiday with the grandkids in Ohio, I was uncomfortable leaving a potentially dried-out fire hazard in an empty house. Switching to a pre-lit artificial tree was a no-brainer. (Yes, it is different from those Fraser firs I used to water, decorate, and water some more, but different is not always a bad thing.) It’s easy to set up, we don’t have to string the lights on it, and I can concentrate on hanging my collection of glass ornaments.

As I’ve simplified the party I’ve realized more than ever that enjoying the time together is everything. I really do try to spend time with my guests, because that’s the whole point.

I’ve also learned that some of us like to give parties and some of us don’t. And that’s okay. But I do think your comfort level with entertaining shows. (For example, the birthday party where we all stood in the kitchen balancing paper plates of carry-out pasta while the hostess’s dining room was dark!) So if you aren’t comfortable having people at your house, if you worry about spilled drinks, tracked in snow, whatever, for heavens sake, don’t do it. Plan to meet friends at a favorite restaurant, for drinks after a play, or tailgate before the big game.

But I’m throwing a party today and totally looking forward to it.

See you next time!

Christmas in miniature

12th Century French Hall from the Thorne Collection

I know I’m a nerd, but who can resist history and design wrapped up in the charm of a miniature space?

Last week I took the train into Chicago visit the Art Institute’s miniature Thorne Rooms, a number of them decorated for the holiday season.

I have always loved dollhouses! Miniature rooms with miniature furniture, people and details that you can arrange and rearrange at will, the more tiny details the better. Add to this the historical accuracy of the Thorne rooms, depicting the interiors of upper-class homes from England, the United States, and France from the late 13th to the first half of the 20th Century. It’s impossible to ignore the precision of the miniature spaces, but it’s equally important to recognize the bits of history each displays.

English Drawing Room, the Thorne Rooms

The Thorne Rooms have quite a history of their own. Narcissa Niblack Thorne (1882-1966) created her meticulously detailed rooms on a scale of one inch to one foot. She became interested in miniatures as a child and pursued that interest as an adult. This was not uncommon for middle- and upper-class women of her time. If you have visited Windsor Castle outside London, you probably saw Queen Mary’s dollhouse, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens between 1921 and 1924.

Mrs. Thorne’s work was first exhibited in 1932. Though most exhibitions were privately held for charity, her works were publicly shown at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition in 1933. Because she was a woman of means (her husband was James Thorne, an heir to the Montgomery Ward fortune) and because she began this work during the Great Depression, when it was possible for her to readily hire highly specialized artisans, her projects flourished. Her work was in considerable demand, including a commission for a miniature library depicting a room at Windsor Castle in honor of Edward VIII’s coronation. Although the coronation never occurred, Mrs. Thorne’s miniature room was displayed at the Victoria and Albert museum in London.

More than 60 of the Thorne Rooms are now the property of Chicago’s Art Institute.
One of the charms of seeing the rooms that are decorated for Christmas is seeing how the holiday is depicted in each scene. The inspiration for this Victorian Christmas scene was a widely distributed image representing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with an early Christmas tree, a tradition the prince brought to England from his native Germany.


And I love this version of an 18th Century Virginia foyer with the kissing ball hanging from the chandelier and the greenery lining the stairs.



And then there is this one of a ladies’ dressing room in antebellum Louisiana, with tiny gowns ready and waiting for a holiday gala.


Although I am particularly drawn to the 17th and 18th Century rooms, there are a few that are quite modern, duplicating interiors from the 1930’s and 40’s. If you are interested in deign or architecture, these rooms are a lesson in both. I’m not sure if the time period matters as you work thru the glass-enclosed rooms that are arranged somewhat chronologically. I think it’s the execution of these miniature marvels that’s so enticing!

This was a fun escape, but now I’m back to decking halls, shopping, and wrapping. I’ll be back, soon because I’m unpacking the traveling wine glasses!

See you next time!


I didn’t like the book

bookcoveroveYou know I’m an avid reader and belong to more than one bookclub. Often the challenge (and joy) of any book group is reading something you would not necessarily pick up or even something far outside your comfort level. Some people equate this with assigned reading from their school days and just can’t bring themselves to do it. Personally I appreciate the intellectual push I get from reading something beyond my normal choices. And often, you discover something that’s just plain wonderful.

You may recall I talked about reading Erik Larson’s Dead Wake here. I had every reason not to like it, but I loved it. Last winter my kids challenged me to read The Martian, which they had really loved, and although I am not a fan of science fiction, for me it was a real page turner.

Furthermore, if one of my bookclubs had not chosen The Invisible Bridge or Nights in Shanghai, I would have missed a pair of great reads.

Earlier this fall, two different reading groups I belong to chose A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Admittedly, my first thought was purely adolescent: cool, one book for two groups. (That never happens!) Then I thought, hmmm, this book is everywhere: on the prominent racks in the bookstores, on internet and magazine reading lists, even in the movies. There must be a lot of buzz about it that I’ve missed.

So, a few weeks ago I picked up a copy and started reading. I am willing to concede that it could be because A Man Called Ove was not as exciting as the Chicago Cubs’ World Series win or as stunning as the outcome of the presidential race, but I really had to push myself to keep reading this book. I just didn’t enjoy it.

Maybe my timing was bad?

Ove is certainly likeable in a curmudgeonly way (face it, we all know someone like him) and parts of his story are heart-wrenching. The characters are well-drawn, and some of the dialogue was genuinely funny. I was not offended by Ove’s treatment of the cat, nor did I take the author’s continuing description of Jimmy’s girth as socially and/or politically unacceptable. (One reviewer I read ranted on about both.)

I just found this book to be remarkably predictable, in a Hallmark-made-for-TV movie kind of way. Parvaneh and her charmingly wacky family are a fine counterpoint to Ove. Anita and Rune are the perfect friends for Ove and Sonja and their absent son and Rune’s dementia are straight from today’s headlines. I knew as soon as she appeared that newspaperwoman Lena would help Ove save Anita and Rune from over-reaching bureaucracy. Every bit of the story is predictably resolved at the end.

But here’s the rub.

Everyone else loves it! I looked up the reviews, and they’re all positive (except for the reader who didn’t appreciate the author’s treatment of the cat or Jimmy).

And this is okay. Rule #1 for bookclubs is (or should be) that everyone does not have to like the book. In fact, a difference of opinion makes for a more interesting discussion.

I stand alone on this one.  I don’t regret reading it, but it’s definitely not on my list of favorites or recommendations. I think the author took a familiar character, threw every cliche at him (orphaned teenager, solitary worker, tragic love, etc.), pushed him into a world with more cliches and then neatly tied up all the loose ends. I also think some books are pushed commercially as “bookclub reads” with plot lines too thin for discussion (but that’s another post).

Am I being too Ove-like and curmudgeonly? Have you read A Man Called Ove? I’d love to hear from you about this or a similar experience with another book.

See you next time!

Two Weeks

roostersurpriseI feel like my favorite rooster. Yikes!

Just ten days ago Chicagoans were celebrating the Cubs’ magical, improbable World Series win. Though a south sider by birth and therefore genetically destined to be a White Sox fan, my kids and husband won me over years ago. (And if you have ever been to a game at Wrigley, you have some idea why.)

And this was so much fun! A lovable, young-but-talented team falling behind in the series then winning it all with a game-clinching double play. It’s the stuff baseball dreams are made of! No wonder the city went wild, dyeing the Chicago River Cubbie blue and then millions (yes, millions with an “s”) lining the streets and filling Grant Park for a home-grown celebration. Whew!


Then, this week, stunning election results no one saw coming. Wow. Again. Quieter, this time.




It takes a while to change course.

I’ve been hiding out, binge-watching “The Crown.” It’s wonderful and I’m loving every minute of it: the Queen, who thought she would have far more time as a wife and mother before assuming the crown; the Prime Minister, who struggled mightily to retain his position; the former King, who relinquished the crown for the woman he loved, exacting personal and public prices for all the family for years to come.




I’m having a dinner party.

My husband is making his beef bourguignon (comfort food seems appropriate) and we’ve invited some equally stunned friends to join us for dinner. Hopefully, good food, good wine and good company will nudge us in the right direction.

Maybe next week will be simpler.

Rick Steves…again!

Travel as a Political Act is the name of Rick Steves’ latest book. It’s also the name of a thought-provoking talk we heard him give last weekend.

You may recall from an earlier post here that we ran into public TV travel guru Rick Steves twice while we were in Italy this spring. (Of course, we were following the restaurant recommendations from his book while he was coincidentally in Italy taping a new season.) We are big fans of Rick. For independent travelers like us, his books, shows, tapes, travel forums, etc., have been the backbone of more than one trip abroad. So, we were very excited to learn that he was speaking at the local junior college.

And, we were not disappointed.

Though his books are full of savvy travel advice, this was not a discussion about about itineraries, European train travel, the best way to get museum tickets or any of those nagging questions would-be travelers have. It was a talk about traveling with “purpose,” about choosing to be open to new experiences.

Personally, I think travel, especially to other countries, is a leap of faith. You may not know the language, the food will be different, and so will the money. You may find yourself somewhat humbled. People do things differently.

The first time I went to Europe was a trip to Paris with my then sixteen-year-old son. We hopped into a cab one evening and, in my Chicago way, I brusquely gave the driver a restaurant address. The driver didn’t make a move. Instead he patiently greeted us, “Bonjour madame, bonjour monsieur.” I had totally forgotten the essential niceties always observed in so many other countries. (So, we all exchanged greetings and then we proceeded to discuss our destination.) It is, however, a faux pas I have never forgotten.

It’s easy to travel checking things off your bucket list but not always really seeing and savoring what’s around you. In all honesty, Steve and I are not hugely experienced travelers, but we do try to make personal connections whenever we can. On our first post-retirement trip, we took a train from Edinburgh to London, chatting with a wonderful man who had retired after serving as the major general of the Queen’s bagpipe regiment. He talked about his many experiences and gave us a running commentary on the countryside and towns we were passing. He added a personal view of Scotland (not to mention Scottish view of the U.S.A.) to our trip.

1On the same trip, we were working our way through the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh when a giggling, running, skipping pack of what could only have been kindergarten or first-graders swarmed into the gallery. The little boys hopped astride some small canons and the girls spied a memorial, exclaiming “Look, look, it’s Mary Queen of Scots!”

Then they managed to swarm around the effigy, patting her hands and her dress. While their somewhat mortified teachers tried to gather and shush them, we joined the museum guard in a good chuckle, happy to realize that kids are kids no matter where. For me, it is one of the singular moments from that trip.

Rick’s talk was 90 minutes, but the time just flew as he moved seamlessly from point to point. Among them: the importance of being open to new experiences, taking history seriously and overcoming fear. He points out that these are all things we grapple with to varying degrees and with a range of success.  And, he says, that’s okay.

Some trips take you farther out of your comfort zone. As an editor I traveled on trade missions to both Istanbul and China. Despite being with co-workers and clients whom I knew well, along with charming guides charged with making sure we had a memorable time, both destinations were far afield from anything I had experienced. And while touring the Forbidden City or climbing the Great Wall in China and shopping the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul or visiting the Blue Mosque are travel moments to treasure, visiting factories, often in tiny towns, added a whole new dimension to those trips. On one hand, this is a way of life that’s totally different from ours. On the other, we’re all very much alike, working hard to lift ourselves and our families to the next level of security and safety. And that’s important to remember when we are sorting international friends and enemies.

1-copyUnfortunately we live in a scarier world these days. Is it sad or strangely reassuring to see armed soldiers at popular sights in Rome and London? I’m not sure it’s any different from this country where we walk thru metal detectors and have our purses and backpacks searched to enter a museum or a ballpark. This is the world we live in. (Sometime I’ll tell you about the first time Steve and I traveled to Paris and both lost our wallets to pickpockets on the same day!)

Finally, I’ve been pondering this post all week, and I think the concept of traveling with a purpose applies as much to domestic destinations as it does to foreign travel. My family will tell you I am the queen of hunkering down in a beach chair with a new book and happily tuning out the rest of the world. And I think that brand of travel has a well-deserved place in our busy lives. I also think that stepping out of line to talk to a museum docent or engaging the sweetgrass artist in the fine points of his craft are more than worth the effort. What about you?

I encourage you to read a text version of Rick’s talk here or to check out a copy of his book by the same name.

See you next time!