I had planned to talk about the to-be-read and to-be-cooked lists I’ve been compiling for the new year, along with a few stabs I’ve made at de-cluttering and the other ways in which I was planning to entertain myself while we wait out the pandemic. (In the county were I live the Health Department describes the risk of infection as “substantial.” I don’t know what that means but it doesn’t sound good, does it?
Then, on last Wednesday afternoon while I was on a Zoom call, my husband passed me a note that read, “The protesters have breached the capitol, and Congress is under lockdown.”
When my call was over and I joined my husband in front iof the television, we both watched, jaws dropping, at the sight of protesters over-running the Capitol Police inside that space. What a stunning violation in the seat of our democracy!
My husband and I have personal connections to the Capitol. Steve grew up in suburban Washington D.C. and spent a fair amount of time working summers on The Hill. I spent a semester off-campus in Washington, where my roommate and I had little blue passes that got us into the House and Senate visitors galleries whenever we wanted. As political junkies we spent a lot of time there. Obviously security has necessarily grown tighter since then, but Steve and I have visited with our son and daughter more than once. On our last visit, my daughter actually led the tour as a summer Senate intern.
I can’t explain the sinking, sick feeling I had when sign-carrying protesters, some of them wrapped in flags, wandered on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, sat in the Speakers’ chair, and pushed and shouted their way thru Statuary Hall. I can count a number of friends from both political parties who I’m sure had the same gut reaction. It was so out of time and place. But that was just the beginning.
Sadly, as the news continues to unfold, the dark, dangerous intent behind this protest becomes darker and clearer. And that raises even more questions. It’s heartbreaking, infuriating, ugly and frightening.
This blog is intended to weigh in on life’s lighter side — on looks, cooks, books, and occasional travels — and I’ll certainly get back to that soon. But January 6, 2021, is a seminal moment in American history, as stunning as 9/11. This time the enemy came from within. That it was endorsed by a sitting president makes it unspeakable.
I realize we all have a lot to unpack and sort out here. I just had to pause.
The reading app that I use on my iPad gave me a remarkable report the other day: I’ve read 27 books on my electronic sidekick this year! Trust me; I’m not a numbers person. (I can’t even tell you what a loaf of bread or gallon of milk costs!) I don’t think I’ve ever tallied my reading before. This number just popped up, so I went thru the list. Yep, it’s right.
Most of this has been what I would call my “pandemic reading,” more than a dozen Louise Penny mysteries and, when I ran out of Louise Penny, I went thru the Sue Grafton alphabet mysteries that I had missed along the way. No surprise this worked for me. There are some similarities: both series feature likable detectives and charming casts of returning characters. I find them remarkably easy to slide into and escape current events.
But there’s more: I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I usually downloaded these books late at night when I really needed new reading material and found the $6.99 to $8.99 price tag a bargain versus looking for a sleeping pill. (Have you suffered from insomnia the past year?) Of course, there is the chance I got so engrossed in the books, that I read longer than I should have. But that’s another post.
These were the books I read when I couldn’t concentrate on anything tougher, and I make no apologies. Like so many others, I found that the pandemic, civil unrest and the charged political atmosphere made for some very unsettling times. I have often thought of reading as an escape or the roadmap to information and answers. My iPad reading list reveals just how much I needed to escape!
On the other hand, as you may recall from other posts, I did truly enjoy some meatier reads in 2020. The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir by Ruth Wariner is one of those books that has stayed with me. I wrote about it hereOne of my favorites was The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson. This book was based onreal events and had an especially meaningful message about about racism and bigotry. I wrote about it here I wrote about three more great reading choices here, Check them out.
I think, however, my favorite was Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile recounting Churchill’sfirst year as Prime Minister. Larson’s writing seamlessly marries the details of aircraft, strategic planning and internstional diplomacy with lively details of everyday life drawn from his impeccable sources. Churchill surrounded himself with a colorful cast of characters, and his family was equally entertaining and plays a significant role in the book. For history nerds like me, it was totally engrossing. (A member of my book group confided that she was only permitting herself to read a limited number of pages per day, to make the book last longer!)
I just finished The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict. Like The Sound of Gravel and The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, this story of Hedy Lamarr’s (Yes! That Hedy Lamarr!!) role as a scientific inventor (with composer George Antheil) of a “frequency-hopping” radio communication technology that eventually was linked to the development of our wifi is a well-layered tale. Before she was Hedy Lamarr actress, she was Hedy Kiesler, young Austrian actress and then Hedy Mandl, married to Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy, pro-fascist Austrian arms dealer and munitions manufacturer.
Lamarr’s escape from Nazi Austria to Hollywood stardom is more than enough to make for a good read, but her struggle to be accepted for more than her beauty and glamour makes it a contemporary tale as well. Author Benedict has a talent for telling the story of women who broke the rules of convention by moving well-beyond their expected roles. The Other Einstein recalls the life of Mileva Maric, a brilliant physicist who just happened to be the first wife of Albert Einstein, and Lady Clememtine, wife of Winston Churchill, both of them also often “the only woman in the room.” (These last two are also both good reads.)
Looking back at the year in books, instead of what I missed because of the pandemic, I realize I am genuinely lucky to enjoy the riches I’ve found in reading. Hopefully you can look back with a similarly thankful heart. Looking ahead, I sincerely wish you a healty and happy new year. And plenty of good reading material!
How are you doing? Isolation is hard, but I honestly can’t complain. We’re healthy and so is our family. Right now, that’s everything.
I am struck by the challenge of balancing the practical (stay in, stay safe) and the emotional (stay sane, keep busy) in every day living. Life right now, I think, is made up of small victories. Here are some of the things saving me these days.
Obvious, right? But maybe we’ve been relying too much on texts and emails. I have long suspected that personal conversation is so much richer, and the pandemic has proven me right. Phone calls from old friends and family members are golden, the highlights of the day. Those other voices really are reassuring. And then there’s FaceTime, Zoom and all the other platforms that allow us to meet face-to-face. In addition to our usual FaceTime adventures with the grandkids, we have been enjoying grown-up, cocktail FaceTime with friends.
On Friday my book group met via Zoom to discuss The Lake is on Fire by Rosellen Brown. Fifteen of us logged on to talk, check in with each other, share a few war stories about life in a time of social distancing, and then realized we really could not talk all at once. (This happens even when we meet in person!)
These women are challenging readers (as well as some of my oldest friends) and we did dive into the book. We got side-tracked by the history of Jews being re-settled on midwestern farms. And then there was the matter of Chicago’s colorful history on the near South and West sides. This was a challenging read, and it shared a wonderful slice of Chicago history.
Many of us thought it well worth reading. We agreed we’ll do this this next month when we read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, and perhaps even in June when we meet to determine our reading list for next year. Thank goodness for books, and my never-ending list of what I want to read next and then after that.
I learned long ago that tackling a new recipe in the kitchen is — for me — a great stress-reliever. When I’m concentrating on measuring ingredients and following directions, I am able to put other cares in a better perspective. Like so many of you, I am cooking a lot. Our dinner repertoire now includes Frying Pan Spaghetti, my name for our version of a New York Times recipe that combines dry spaghetti, halved cherry tomatoes, a generous pour of olive oil and a quart of boiling water in a large, shallow pan for a five-minute simmer. Add a little green with a handful or two of fresh spinach or kale, short pieces of asparagus or green beans or even peas. Spice it up with fresh parmesan, parsley, and/or basil. It’s a great “hip pocket recipe,” one that adapts to what’s in your pantry and fridge.
And speaking of your pantry and fridge, how are you keeping them stocked? My husband and I are learning the ropes of “click list shopping” online and then picking up our order in the parking lot. It is easy and feels much safer than braving the store, but it definitely requires much more organized list-making than Steve and I are used to doing. We’re making it work, but between our accidental omissions from the list and the grocer’s need to sometimes substitute, we’ve come to realize flexibility is key.
Long before I fell in love with cooking, I found sewing and other needlework to be equally engaging. When I started shopping vintage and antique markets, I was quickly drawn to the vintage tablecloths and fabrics available. (And by this I mean I seem to have an inner sensor that detects barkcloth draperies, 40’s tablecloths, antique French grainsacks and linen towels before I even see them!) This explains the bundles of vintage and new fabrics I have stuffed in a cabinet downstairs. So, I opened the cabinet doors where I keep this stash, and I’ve been measuring, cutting, sewing and letting the creative juices flow. I have no finished projects (except for a few homemade face masks), but I’m having a terrific time. And I will share what I eventually have to show for this effort!
Like so many of our friends, my husband and I try to get in a walk outside most days. And as the weather has improved here we have found ways to putter in the yard and garage, cleaning up the inevitable “winter residue” and settling on some space for vegetables in our yard since we aren’t sure when or if Steve’s garden plot at the park district will be available. This life is full of unknowns, isn’t it?
Too much news is just too much
I can be a real news junky, but I have sworn off much of what I used to watch. I still flip on the Today show first thing in the morning. It’s my check in with the world, to make sure we’re all still here. And I try to catch local news to get what’s happening in Chicago. But I don’t let it run on all day.
I have mixed feelings many of these days. I miss simple pleasures like coffee with a friend or guests for dinner. I miss my adult children, self-isolating in their own homes. Although I’m keeping busy, like everyone else I also wonder: How long will our isolation last? When will we be able to have friends over for Sunday night supper or take a trip? And then there are the big questions. Will we all stay safe and healthy? How different will life be in the post-pandemic?
As so many if us have said lately, “This too shall pass.” And, I would like to add, “We live in interesting times.” What about you? How are you spending your days in these social-distancing times? I’d love to hear from you!
Lately I have found myself on a bit of a culture course. And while I’m certainly not complaining, I am amused at how things sometimes come together. The last few weeks are a good example.
One of the advantages of living in a big city is the access to cultural and entertainment venues. And while that is certainly true, it’s also true that making the time, getting the tickets, and all the other requisite details often get in the way of what the city has to offer. Our suburb is twenty miles west of downtown Chicago, and while we have easy access to the city by car or commuter train, it’s more than a run to the grocery for milk.
My binge started with tickets to see The King’s Speech at Chicago Shakespeare. Perhaps you have seen the movie about Prince Albert, the Duke of York and his struggle overcoming a crippling stutter at the same time his brother, the Prince of Wales, was about to abdicate the throne, making Albert the king as Europe was going to war with Hitler. (Talk about pressure!) The play was enjoying critical acclaim at Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater. Everything I have seen there has been first-rate and this production did not disappoint, including the appearance of Harry Hadden-Paton, of The Crown and Downton Abbey, as Albert. My husband and I totally enjoyed the evening.
But then, less than a week later, I found myself at Symphony Hall. I am joining a girlfriend this season in a series of five concerts. She has been a subscriber for years, but her partner in this venture decided not to participate this season. The seats are good, and the cost when you subscribe ahead of time is do-able, so of course I said yes. Well, these seats are more than good; they’re in the fourth row. I can watch the violinists finger their instruments. We park in the garage across the street, grab a bite to eat and sit back and enjoy. I may be hooked!
But, wait, there’s more!
My usual cultural destination in the city has always been the Art Institute. (I’ve written about various visits here, including the Thorne Miniature rooms, John Singer Sargent and Gauguin in my Miscellaneous File. ) A year or so ago friends introduced us to a monthly lecture/discussion series at the AI. We are all retired, so when schedules allow we meet there to attend the series and enjoy lunch after. Last Friday was especially appealing, because a new Andy Warhol exhibit has just opened. We met early to see as much of Andy Warhol-From A to B and Back Again as possible before the regular lecture. But we may need to go back, because this is an extensive exhibit that takes the visitor well beyond Warhol’s prints of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy.
I wish I had done a little AW research before we went (Note to self: next time do a little homework.) Warhol’s much more than just a pop icon of the sixties, although that certainly describes much of his work. Unlike other artists, Warhol began his career doing commercial art. His first commission was drawing shoes for Glamour magazine in the 1950s, followed by work as a shoe designer for manufacturer Israel Miller.
Much of Warhol’s later work continued to be based on commercial art, like the Campbell’s soup cans and the Brillo boxes. He was well known for his silk screen process. Many of those pieces, including the famous and familiar Marilyn Monroe image, were based on commercial photos that he copied and successfully turned into iconic images using a silk screen process. (The Marilyn Monroe image was originally a studio publicity shot for her last movie.) The silk-screened portraits, in fact, became so popular that movie stars, public and private figures came to Warhol for what he referred to as “commercial business.”
In addition to the individual portraits, Warhol often produced multiple versions in one work, sometimes with slight variation in color and/or shading.
This oversized portrait of Mao Zedong (it’s about 125-feet tall) is part of The Art Institute’s permanent collection. The Institute’s archive notes that Warhol’s portrait displays some irreverence towards the image that was widely displayed in China: “Flamboyant brushstrokes compete with the photographic image, forming color splashes on Mao’s clothing. Red rouge and blue eye shadow resemble graffiti.” Some art historians view Warhol’s treatment here as commentary on similarities between Communist propaganda to capitalist advertising media.
Like so many artists, Warhol’s artistic muse went well beyond the canvas. He spent most of his later years exploring videos and movies. Warhol died at only 58, so it’s interesting to speculate on where his art would have taken him. Like many gallery-goers, I’m more drawn to Renoir and Monet than Warhol. But there is no denying the impact Warhol has had on the art world. He used techniques like silk screen and video and blurred the lines between commercial art and fine art. And that alone is saying a lot.
What about you? What kind of art are you most drawn to?
So much for my culture binge. It’s time to take a deep dive into holiday prep, a.k.a. oven cleaning. Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon?
This year as we were planning a beach trip to South Carolina, I also wanted to re-visit Drayton Hall Plantation. Although we had visited years ago, before social media and blogging, I have been following them on Instagram for some time. And in my mind, the folks behind Drayton Hall have been doing a fabulous job of teaching history.
Briefly, Drayton Hall is an 18th-century plantation on the Ashley River about 15 miles from Charleston, and its history and architecture are notable. Historically, Drayton Hall is the only plantation to survive the Revolutionary and Civil Wars intact. Additionally, it is a remarkable example of Palladian Architecture in the United States, built by John Drayton Sr. and designed without the benefit of professional architects. Instead, like many other other wealthy and well-educated planters of his time, Drayton relied on British “pattern books” that detailed classical architecture.
The first time I visited Drayton Hall I was sorely disappointed. As someone who loves historic homes and had visited the likes of Mount Vernon and Williamsburg more than once, I loved seeing these buildings restored and renovated as necessary and filled with the appropriate furnishings. In fact, for me that was a big part of their allure.
Not so at Drayton Hall.
Drayton Hall is a preservation, not a restoration. So, it’s empty. What you see are the architectural details of a building that was inhabited by Draytons from the 1740’s until it was turned over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the 1970’s. It has never had electricity or indoor plumbing. The preservation philosophy at Drayton Hall was to stabilize the house and maintain it as it was when acquired from the family. This was radical at the time, but it has resulted in considerable technical and scientific research into the original building and the people who lived there. And the lessons learned have given me a whole new appreciation for the role of historic preservation.
For example, historians originally believed construction was begun on Drayton Hall in 1738 after John Drayton Sr. acquired the property. However In 2014, scholars examined the wood cores of the attic timbers and determined that they were cut from trees felled in the winter of 1747–48. Because the attic would have been framed well before the remainder of the house, scholars now believe Drayton Hall was not occupied by the family until the early 1750s. This is just one example of the kinds of data the building continues to reveal.
Expanding on plantation history
Today the plantation includes an Interpretive Center and Museum. The Interpretive Center traces the history of the property, the Drayton’s, and South Carolina. This history includes that of the enslaved people who built the house, planted the crops, tended the fields and served the family, all of which made plantation life possible. This reality is nothing like Gone With the Wind.
One of the things Drayton Hall has done very well is to reveal more about the enslaved people who lived there. Plantations like Drayton Hall and its counterparts throughout the South would not have been possible without the labor provided by the enslaved community. It’s important we understand the economic impact of slavery on the South, the North and even Europe.
During our visit we attended a presentation, Port to Plantation: Slavery and the Making of the Early Lowcountry Economy. The presentation takes visitors back 400 years to the beginning of the Triangular Trade Route (from Europe to West Africa, to the Americas, and back to Europe), paying special attention to the middle passage which carried slaves from West Africa to the Americas. Slaves were traded in South America, the Caribbean and North America, but their role in the American South is now under increasing scrutiny thanks to additional historic research like that at Drayton Hall.
Portugal, Great Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands all participated in the slave trade, sending ships to West Africa, where they loaded slaves for the Americas, then after selling the slaves, reloaded their ships with valuable cotton and rice to return to Europe. The passage itself was gruesome, with hundreds of Africans packed onto ships. Many did not survive the journey, and those who did were often crudely “warehoused” at their destination until they regained their strength for the auction block. This was, after all, business, and the factors or agents responsible for the slave sales depended on top-dollar transactions,
Drayton Hall is not alone in re-thinking how it presents slavery. The McLeod Plantation on nearby James Island, and the Aiken-Rhett House and Nathaniel Russell House, both overseen by the Charleston Historic Foundation in Charleston have also re-cast and expanded their interpretation of slavery. They have traded the term “slaves” for “enslaved people” to more clearly recognize them as people rather than property. To read more about this, including the controversy it has generated, see the recent feature in the Post & Courier by Robert Behre.
Not everyone is a fan of this revised history. Guides at these and other sites report visitors who complain that this history is “depressing” at the least. Some are more outspoken than others. (A sign of these outspoken times, perhaps?) But as hard as some of this is to see or hear or read (I find myself speechless over the child’s handprint in the brick), I think we are very fortunate to continue to learn more about this chapter in our history. This historic site visit pushed me to consider how little I know and how much more there is to learn.
It’s also a reminder that one of life’s great gifts is the opportunity to re-think, re-write, re-imagine, and grow. What if we gave similar license to other life experiences?
You may recall that I belong to a book club that’s been meeting on the first Friday morning of every month for more than 50 years. Okay, I’ve not been a member ALL that time, but many of us have been members for decades. We joined when our kids were toddlers and we could send them into the hostess’s basement with a sitter and enjoy adult conversation for a few hours. Now we are grandmothers, we drift in and out of the group with moves and job changes, members come and go.
But still we meet.
And because some things never change, we take one meeting a year to choose eleven books to read for the coming year. We’ve developed an efficient email system for nominating books using a brief description and the number of pages. We limit our choices to fiction. (There is a companion non-fiction club.) In our meeting we briefly discuss each nominee. After all discussion we vote using hatch marks on a whiteboard listing all the titles. (Old-school but it works for us!) Typically there are a few ties and we vote again on those books only.
This selection routine says a lot about this group of women. Sometimes there are as few as a dozen attendees, at other times 25 show up! Membership includes teachers, college professors, lawyers, business professionals, a few nurses and a doctor. Some have been members for decades, some just joined upon retirement and some, like me, were members, dropped out to pursue a career, and returned after retirement. We all share a love of reading, but also a quest to push our reading a little farther than the Best Seller list. Certainly it’s social, but we spend most of the morning discussing the book and the author. Often when we reject a book in these selection meetings, it’s because we don’t think it will make for a good discussion. I feel very fortunate to have found a group like this, that challenges my reading and my literary juices.
Back to the list…
Practice makes perfect, I guess, because although we considered 29 terrific nominees last Friday, we boiled them down to 11 choices in short order. Since many of you are readers, I thought I would share some of our list. See anything that interests you or that you have already read? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones are on just about every list I’ve read lately. I’m interested to see for myself what the buzz is about.
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey is a mystery about a Scotland Yard inspector and a British Museum researcher investigating Richard III. Too curious to miss.
Swann’s Way (aka Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust is long, but our nod to the classics.
There There by Tommy Orange recounts the travels of 12 Native American on their way to the Big Oakland Powwow and their realization of their interconnections. I’ve also seen this on some “recommended” lists.
The Lake is on Fire by Rosellen Brown is the story of Jewish immigrant siblings who run away from a failed Wisconsin farm to Chicago in the 1890’s. It’s hard to turn down a book set in Chicago.
I’m looking forward to One Amazing Thing by Chitra Divakarunis, in which twelve people are trapped in the office after an earthquake. To stay calm they agree to tell one amazing thing about their life.
We’re also reading Transcription by Kate Atkinson, White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lyn Bracht, The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton, A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum, and The Overstory by Richard Powers.
Two that did not “make the cut” but I’m adding to my own list are Shanghai Girls by Lisa See and TheMuralist by B. A. Shapiro. I loved The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, also by See, and The Art Forger by Shapiro.
I don’t know about you, but I need a list of books, fiction and non-fiction, some long and some short, some light and some with more substance, so I know what I can read next. Like spare paper towels in the pantry or ground beef in the freezer, I need to be prepared.
With the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion this week, I wanted to share our tour there when Steve and I traveled to France last fall. Normandy was at the top of our list of places we wanted to visit if we returned to France. We had missed it on previous trips, but, as I wrote in a short blog post here, “If I had a bucket list, the D-Day beaches would be on it. This is a piece of the American experience that I wish everyone could share.”
Our geographic base for this leg of the journey was Bayeux. On the way we stopped in Arromanches, where the Allies assembled a temporary, artificial harbor immediately after D-Day. I consider this one of those remarkable feats of military engineering. The Allies needed a place to unload tons of heavy equipment after the initial invasion, so they built one!
Arromaches was close to the D-Day beaches, but spared the heavy June 6th fighting. The British built huge concrete floating caissons which they then towed into place and assembled as the walls and piers of the artificial port known as Mulberry Harbor. Floating pontoons linked it to the land. According to Wikipedia, by June 12, 1944 — less than a week after the invasion — more than 300,000 men, 54,000 vehicles, and 104,000 tons of supplies had been landed. During 100 days of operation of the port 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tons of material were landed.
We visited the museum here that detailed all of this engineering and advance planning. My husband knew some of this; I must admit I was clueless before I saw it all diagrammed. (I’m not sure, do boys of a certain generation just know this stuff and the rest of us learn it later?) Arromaches gave us a taste of both how lovely these beaches are, but also how formidable.
The next day we were up early and walked the half-block our so from our hotel to the departure point for the various D-Day tour operators. Ours was a small group tour, maybe 12 of us in a van. The guide was a young man from Wales who told us he’d become fascinated by all aspects of WWII as a young boy when his grandfather began taking him to some sights. His knowledge was encyclopedic; clearly he was a very good student.
Our first stop on the tour was the German cemetery. (Yes, kind of a surprise!) As our guide pointed out, the German soldiers were not that different from the Allies. They were draftees called to serve. They weren’t all Nazis or particularly political. They were doing their job. And they died in battle, far from home, just like the Allied soldiers.
We stopped next at Angoville-au-Plain one of the tiny towns behind the beaches where paratroopers landed during the night before the invasion. Terrible weather meant hundreds of soldiers were dropped off course, totally missing their targets. Two of these paratroopers were young medics, 19 and 20 years old. Robert E. Wright and Kenneth J. Moore had been given two weeks of medical training. They jumped carrying packs of first aid supplies which they lost when they landed off course in swampy fields flooded by the Germans.
Undeterred, they made their way to the 11th Century church at Angoville-au-Plain. Using medical supplies they had recovered along the way, they hung a Red Cross flag on the door and worked for 72 hours straight on 82 patients, Allied and German, and lost only two men. They had only one rule: weapons must be left outside the church.
Their story really resonates with me. (I originally wrote about it here.) It says everything about soldiers doing their job, handling adversity, never giving up.
Utah Beach, Sainte Mere Eglise, & Pointe du Hoc
Utah Beach was the first actual landing site we stopped at. On a cool, windy fall day but with sun and clear blue skies, the broad beach seemed quiet, despite a number of small groups visiting. I think there is a sense of awe, knowing what happened here, and it doesn’t take much to imagine the beach and water teeming with men and equipment. And noise, it must have been deafening.
This was especially meaningful for Steve and me. My uncle had been assigned to a Patrol Craft, bobbing around in that rough water on Utah Beach, their job to pull injured soldiers out of the water. One of the few times Bill talked about it, he told us that at day break, the water was thick with all kinds of boats. Then the assault and the fighting began. He said that hours later, when they finally had a chance to look around again, the boats that had been on either sided of them, and many of the other vessels, were gone. “Just gone,” Bill said.
I stared out at that water for a long time.
Sainte Mere Eglise is the tiny village in the middle of the route Germans would have likely used counterattacking the Allied troops landing on Utah and Omaha beaches. In the early morning of June 6th mixed units of the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne occupied the town, making it one of the first towns liberated in the invasion. The events that unfolded, including one in which one paratrooper was caught on the church spire and forced to hang limply as though dead, were dramatically (though not accurately according to our guide) portrayed in The Longest Day.
Lunch was a quick sandwich and coffee stop at a crossroads cafe that had once served Allied soldiers, as well as decades of French locals before that. The stop kept us “in 1944.”
Pointe du Hoc was the highest point along the coast between the Omaha and Utah landing beaches. In 1943 Germans troops built an extensive battery here using six French WWI artillery guns and early in 1944 began adding to the battery. D-Day plans included an assault by specially trained Army Rangers to breach the steep cliffs and disable the guns. The cliffs are formidable here and the ground atop them is pock-marked by bombings and gun placements. It’s rough to walk today, particularly in a sharp wind, and impossible to imagine how challenging it was on D-Day.
The American Cemetery & Omaha Beach
Our guide timed our visit to the American Cemetery for the hour when the flag is lowered at the end of the day. Walking to the cemetery I was tired. Despite lovely clear skies and fair weather, it was a very windy day, and we had already walked a lot. But I think I was also feeling emotionally spent. It’s not possible to walk these roads and towns without thinking of the people who came before. And not just the soldiers. But the brave French citizens who loved their communities and way of life, who were totally upended by the German invaders, many of them risking their lives working with the French underground, and who in the end so gratefully welcomed the Allies.
If you have been to the American cemetery, you know it is a heart-stopping sight. As a friend advised before we left, I walked down several rows of crosses. So often the men buried there would have died on the same day, or within days, and then there would be a few who died much later but whose families had chosen to bury them with fellow soldiers. If it hurts your heart to see so many losses, it also warms your heart to see them buried with their comrades.
We ended the day at Omaha Beach, and our guide took the time here to diagram, using a stick in the sand, exactly how the landings unfolded and how they fit into the great scheme of the entire D-Day invasion. (Again, he was just so knowledgeable!)
This tied things together for me. D-Day was a huge, complicated effort. A lot of things went wrong, but when that happened the soldiers on the ground readjusted and pushed on. That’s the story that stays with me.
I know this is a long post, but I honestly couldn’t figure out how to make it shorter. Thanks for reading through to the end. See you next time?
This week has been a lesson in the highs and lows of the human heart. On Sunday morning in Chicago we awoke to mid-April snow. Not flurries, not a dusting, but inches of wet, sloppy, slushy white stuff. In November we would have found it fun. But in April, on Palm Sunday, I didn’t get the joke at all.
In fact, I wanted to pull the covers over my head.
Instead we drank coffee, read the papers, and my husband turned on the Masters Golf Tournament. We got caught up in the drama of the last hole and Tiger Woods’ amazing finish. If you saw this, you know what I mean: sheer joy in every fiber of his being. The crowds and his competitors were equally jubilant. This was a moment Woods was afraid would never come. But it did. A testament to the simplest work ethic: never, ever, ever give up.
What an emotional high. If you watched him hug his children and his mother without feeling tears come to your eyes, you might be missing a heart.
I was in the car on Monday when I heard that Notre Dame de Paris was on fire. How is this impossible? Architectural icons don’t burn; they weather revolutions, plagues, World Wars and Nazi occupations. But this was real. When I got home my husband had the news on, and he said, “This is awful. It’s like Katrina. You can’t stop watching.”
He was so right. We watched it off and on throughout the afternoon, waiting for the firemen to somehow get on top of the blaze, to get it under control, but instead the fire kept growing, and we watched the spire fall. The news commentators talked about the added tragedy of this happening during Holy Week. And we looked at each other and recalled a family story.
Our Notre Dame story
Seventeen years ago Steve and I made our first trip to Paris together. It was a little earlier in the spring and we got back in time to celebrate Easter with my mom, her brother & his wife. (Our kids were away at school.) This was well before smart phones and selfies and so we took along a stack of printed photos (remember them?) from the trip to share over dinner. And as the five of us poured over the iconic sights from Paris — the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph — my uncle studied one of Notre Dame and remarked that he had been there for Easter in 1945.
What? How could he not have told any of us this story?
Bill was a Chicago kid in the Navy who spent WWII on a small boat escorting much larger ships back and forth across the Atlantic. He spent a lot of time in England and then in Le Harve, France. It was hazardous duty, and like so many WWII vets, he had never shared much about it. But back to Notre Dame…
When we found our voices, we asked what he was doing there. Well, he said, he and several shipmates had leave for Easter and they ended up in Paris. On Easter morning they headed for church. They didn’t know about Notre Dame or go looking for it, it was just the church they found (as if you could miss it, right?) The locals welcomed these young sailors warmly as “Yanks” and led them to seats right up front. I suppose they represented the liberators.
I can only imagine Bill’s blue eyes and his Evangelical and Reformed heart taking in the majesty of Notre Dame: its cavernous space, monumental pillars, stained glass, row after row after row of seats. How can you even take it all in?
Since hearing Bill’s story, I have been to Paris on a handful of additional visits. Notre Dame is simply part of the city, part of the skyline, we’ve walked by it a hundred times (often noting the crowds waiting to get in and said we’ve been here before and we’ll come back at a quieter time), we had breakfast with friends in a cafe just behind it, we’ve admired it up close and from across the river. We’ve picked it out of the skyline from the Musee d’Orsay and Sacre Coeur.
Notre Dame is Paris.
And clearly it will be repaired and rebuilt and continue to play its Parisian role. In the meantime, it hurts the heart to think of its blackened walls and collapsed roof. At the same time we’re heartened by its resilience. Icons can be fragile, it seems, and that should give us pause.
What about you? Do you have a Notre Dame story? I’d love to hear it!
Lately I’ve been obsessed with forcing these cherry branches I found at Whole Foods. Normally, I’m not big on forcing branches to flower, mostly because the forsythia that’s usually available just doesn’t “do it” for me. However, I had not seen the cherry branches before and one bundle had a few soft pink blooms already open. They certainly looked like spring to me!
However, I picked a different bundle because it was bigger and hauled it home. Then, because there were no buds open yet, I started worrying that they may not open. Yikes! So, I started checking the branches — several times a day, worrying over them. I eventually realized that the buds had to fatten up a bit and then they started to open. Whew! Mother Nature is amazing. The bundle is taking over one end of our living room, and I may have to move some branches elsewhere (not a bad thing), but I’m loving the look.
Do you re-read books?
If you follow me on Instagram, you know I have been re-reading Reflected Glory, Sally Bedell Smith’s biography of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman. Pamela Churchill Harriman, as she preferred to be called, was married briefly in the early years of WWII to Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph. Although the marriage floundered from the start, Pamela was a favorite of the Prime Minister and rubbed shoulders with an endless stream of notable figures including Harry Hopkins (Roosevelt’s right-hand man), Eisenhower, and even Edward R. Murrow. It was also how she initially met Harriman, a U.S. envoy to Great Britain at the time.
Pamela Churchill Harriman was a 20th-Century courtesan who enjoyed long-term relationships with a number of powerful — often married — men. She knew the right people, did favors large and small, and helped people make the right connections, often at her own dinner table. (The Churchill name and connections went quite far in London and Europe.) She even famously kept a small pad and pencil beside her plate at dinner to jot down notes about her guests, everything from their favorite cigar to questions about international policy. In many ways, Pamela was in the business of details, details to please those around her and details she could use to her advantage. She reinvented herself several times over.
Back to the re-reading thing. I first read this book in the early 90’s when she was the American ambassador to France, appointed by President Bill Clinton. Then, a few weeks ago, @markmcginesswrites on Instagram posted her photo (If you aren’t following him, you should. His comments about people and places, most often in Great Britain, are just wonderful.) His post piqued my curiosity and I rummaged thru my bookshelves to find her biography (yet another reason I’m not giving up any more books, as I posted here). I thought I may just skim a bit of it, but I’ve never been good at that. I’m rereading the book and enjoying it just as much the second time around.
In the great scheme of reading, when there are “so many books and so little time,” reading purists might say this is not time well-spent. I disagree. In the case of Reflected Glory, I had been to France for one quick trip the first time I read it. Since then, I have been fortunate to return several times and made a handful of stops in Great Britain. I have a better sense of that slice of history and place. As reading whet my appetite for travel, travel has also whet my appetite for reading. In the case of this book, I am reading it from a different perspective.
Sometimes, however, re-reading is just simply fun. Gone With the Wind was one of the first books I re-read. And I did so more than once. I loved the romance/drama of Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie and Ashley. It was a wonderful escape until I began to realize what a carefully polished view the book was of a genuinely terrible chapter in our history.
There are other guilty pleasures I’ve re-read as well, often “beach reads” like Anne Rivers Siddons’ Islands and Peachtree Road. Last fall I re-read Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I read and enjoyed it a few years ago but my book group was discussing it, so I dove back in. I was glad I did because there were some characters and plot twists I needed to review. In short, there was a lot more substance than I had initially given it.
Sometimes I get so caught up in “the story” that I just go with it instead of perhaps doing the more careful reading, following themes and character development. I can’t decide if that’s good or bad. As an English major, I spent so much time taking notes on everything I read, reading for pleasure was an activity I had to re-learn.
So, what about you? Do you ever re-read a book? Or do you just move on? I’d love to hear what you think!
In thinking about this blog post, it occurred to me that though I never thought of myself as a “French Riviera kind of girl,” after our visit there last fall, I’d go back in a heartbeat.
The French Riviera is incredibly beautiful. Blue skies, even bluer Mediterranean water, sunsets that defy any camera to adequately capture them. Turn away from the water and there are hilltops covered in the tiled roofs of villas and, beyond that, mountains.
We included the Riviera on our “great French road trip” because getting that close and skipping it would be foolish, and we wanted make at least some some stops on the “art trail” in the South of France. (You may recall we had been making our way along the western coast of France, beginning in Rouen, then Normandy and Mont St. Michel, before heading to the chateaus in the Loire and then wine tasting in Bordeaux.)
After a beautiful cruise thru the French countryside, with the occasional walled chateau or abbey along the road, we found ourselves navigating in bumper-to-bumper traffic on ridiculously narrow streets, lined with parked cars on each side and street vendors selling everything from sunglasses to take-out dinners. Bikes and pedestrians criss-crossed our paths. What had we done?
But wait, it gets better.
As we motored our way thru the congestion (it was Friday afternoon, the last Friday on the last weekend of the season as it turned out), we were trying to follow Google’s directions to our hotel in Juan les Pins, across the street from Antibes. Google meant well, but when she said turn left, she meant at the intersection we passed 20 yards ago. After a series of ridiculously convoluted detours, we finally pulled into a “parking space” on a sidewalk among a number of other cars and walked to the hotel. Then, having a somewhat better grasp of where to go, Steve moved the car to the underground garage where we happily left it until Sunday morning! (This park nd walk maneuver is one of our best tips. Sometimes finding someplace on foot is easier.)
Our room was large and lovely with a tiny balcony from which we could see the Mediterranean. We would be here for four nights. I don’t think we’d fully appreciated how much we had been “on the road” until now, stopping only for one or two nights along the way. And what a place to take a break. We walked down to the beach, found an empty cafe table, a glass of wine and just enjoyed the sunset. The next morning, after a leisurely hotel breakfast, we walked — yes, walked — about eight blocks, a little uphill and then down, and we were in Antibes!
The French Riviera is a string of cities like Nice and Cannes, and smaller cities and even villages along this lovely coast. We chose Juan les Pins/Antibes as a base because it was smaller than Nice and not as “high end” as Cannes. We could stay close to the water for a reasonable price. All of these cities are connected by a train line than runs frequently throughout the day, like a commuter rail. In fact on Monday, we walked to the station and took a short train ride to Nice.
This is Picasso country
Antibes was a fairly busy place on a Saturday morning, but we easily found our way to the Old Town with the usual tangle of charming, narrow streets and interesting shops. Our destination was the Picasso Museum. (Actually, there are Picasso Museums all over France it seems. I have also been to one in Paris.)
This was on a Saturday morning and we had been taking our time, ooh-ing and aaah-ing over the Antibes waterfront and wandering thru the old town. We arrived at the ticket office just before noon. We walked up to the ticket wndow along with some other visitors only to have the ticket-seller (who on this day was apparently also the ticket-taker) announce to all those around, that it was his lunch time and he would be closing until 1:30.
This is so quintessentially french, you just have to go with it.
So, we wandered back to a food market complete with a cafe, ordered a light lunch, and did some people watching. I checked out a brocante market and we got sidetracked by two wedding parties celebrating along the way. Back to the museum.
This particular museum is housed in the Chateau Grimaldi, a 14th Century Roman Fort turned museum in which Picasso enjoyed a work space in 1946. His time in this space was short, from September until mid-November, but his artistic output was remarkable. He produced 23 paintings and 44 drawings during this short time. Interestingly, he donated all this work to the museum, which eventually acquired much more, including sculpture and ceramics.
About Picasso. Although I am not a huge Picasso fan, I have come to genuinely appreciate his work and its evolution, as well as his influence on generations of artists. The range of his work extends from painting, drawing and sculpture to include set design and ceramics. I wish I pictures of his ceramics, they were stunning. (This is what happens to me. I get so busy looking that I forget to take photos!)
The next day we dared to take the car from the garage to the outskirts of Nice to visit the Musee Matisse.
After a predictably adventurous drive, we arrived at the museum, where interestingly (ironically?) there was a substantial exhibit recalling the friendship and rivalry between Matisse and Picasso. (Did I say this is Picasso country?) Matisse and Picasso met sometime in 1906 at Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon. (Americans Gertrude Stein, her brothers Leo and Michael and Michael’s wife Sarah were important collectors and supporters of Matisse.) Picasso, who was 11 years younger, and Matisse were artistic contemporaries. One of the most interesting displays in the exhibit was a pair of black and white films of each of them at work on similar pieces.
Matisse was 48 and a successful artist when he first came to Nice in 1917. Initially he wrote that it rained every day for a month. He was about to leave when the sun came out and he was hooked by the light. He never really left.
After Matisse we headed further inland to St. Paul de Vence, hoping to at least have a drink at La Colombe d’Or, the restaurant where so many artists paid their tabs by offering a painting or drawing in lieu of money. Did I mention this was a Sunday? On the last weekend in September? Everyone in France goes out to lunch on Sundays, especially beautiful September Sundays. The views on the drive were breathtaking, the town was packed, and the restaurant was unapproachable even for a drink without a reservation.
We knew better, but in our “carefree vacation” mode we just assumed they would throw open the doors for Janet and Steve. Happily, we found a table in an outdoor cafe and enjoyed a delicious lunch and some serious people watching. But we found the town too crowded to enjoy. C’est la vie.
On our last full day on the Riviera, we took the train from Juan les Pins to Nice to explore the old town. It took less than 30 minutes and, once in Nice, there is a handy tram a block from the train station that runs down to the water, making several stops along the way. This was a day to walk and enjoy. Nice is very old and so close to Italy, that the influence is striking. Look at these pastel hued buildings, so different from the neutral stone in the rest of France.
This streetscape of fountains and park amid more substantial buildings is in the heart of the town near the water. Note the clouds: a change in the weather was on the way. Although the sun shone all day, it was much cooler by the time we went to dinner.
This is the Promenade des Anglais. We walked here for several yards before I realized this is the idyllic spot where terrorists drove a huge truck into the crowds celebrating Bastille Day on July 14, 2016. Today the promenade is lined with bollards, but the horror of that night is hard to imagine in the midst of sun and sea.
As luck would have it, we were in Nice on the day of their regular antique market, which in this case was blocks-long, winding from one square to another. I was in heaven, Steve not so much. One of the most striking aspects of these markets is the age and provenance of the goods. There are chandeliers and gilt mirrors, confit pots, textiles and more that I have just never seen in a market in the midwest.
Despite our “longer stay” on the Riviera, we left the next day, promising ourselves to come back. In fact I would call this our “preview visit” to the Riviera. There is so much more to see on the art trail, we never got to Monaco or St. Jean Cap Ferrat or Cannes.
This is the mantra of our travels. And it is, I suppose, why we are totally unapologetic about returning to places that we love. There’s always more to see. What about you? Are you willing to make a return trip to a destination you really liked? Or do you feel each place you visit — in this country or around the globe — needs to be new? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Thank you so much for stopping by. See you next time!