Behind the kitchen that works

One of two deep drawers under my cook top to hold pots, pans and lids right where I use them.

We remodeled our kitchen four years ago, but people sometimes ask if I still like it.

What?

Are you kidding?

Do I still like it?

I thought long and hard about every choice we made. I had more than one folder of photos and ideas I had torn from magazines. I had a growing Pinterest board.

Yes, I still like it. I like it more all the time.

The kitchen turned out better than I ever thought possible. I love it. I’m crazy about it. It is my happy place.

We live in a thirty-odd year old house in a suburban subdivision. The kitchen layout is pretty much the same as every other house here, and although we did change the footprint a bit, getting rid of a peninsula in favor of an island, what really makes my kitchen great is that it works really well. I have a professional kitchen designer to thank for that.

This wasn’t just a cosmetic update (although it certainly needed it). We thought about and planned for function. Katherine asked us a lot of questions about how our old kitchen functioned: what we liked about it and what we didn’t like (for starters, the back door opened into the refrigerator); are we avid cooks (yes); do we entertain (yes, large and small groups, often). She helped us solve some key issues.

It started with the microwave.

This is true. It needed to be replaced. Our old kitchen had a microwave/fan unit installed above the stove. In fact, we put it in. It’s a great, space-saving option. But when push came to shove, it wasn’t that great for me. I’m pretty short (less than five feet) and (1) I really couldn’t see what was going on in the microwave and (2) I was reaching high to get hot food & dishes out of there. Add to that my husband’s observation that the fan unit did next to nothing. So, better microwave placement and a functional fan were at the top of our list.

Locating the ovens for comfort and accessibility took some planning, but that was worth it. I also love the vertical storage above and the cubbies to the left. That drop zone has kept the rest of the counters much clearer.

We could have put the microwave in the lower cabinets. After we chose an island layout, we gave serious consideration to that. But I just wasn’t sold on the idea. So then Katherine suggested a built-in microwave and oven unit that could be installed at a comfortable height. We would also then trade a stove for a cooktop. A bonus for this option was that we would have an electric oven, which is more precise for baking, and a gas cooktop, which we both prefer for stovetop cooking.

That decision was a win, win, win. The microwave is at eye level for me. The oven is just below it, making it much more comfortable to access than one below a cooking surface. And, can I just say I love the cooktop. It’s wider than my stove was and has a fifth burner. That sounds like overkill to some, but it’s great for us. It’s larger for big pots and, if anything, I needed to learn to dial down the heat on it. Finally, we got a great fan that really pulls cooking fumes, smoke and heat out. It’s actually a little larger than the cook top for better efficiency.

I don’t consider any of these to be glamorous choices, but they truly improved the function of the kitchen. We made other conscious choices that I appreciate daily.

I traded off shelf space for drawers in most of my lower cabinets and I love them. I keep my pots in two deep drawers below the cooktop. They pull all the way out, so I’m never fumbling in the back of a cabinet for a pot. I keep everyday dishes, serving and mixing bowls, measuring cups, and other prep and serving tools in drawers in the island. Again, I’m not fumbling in cabinets and I can see everything in the drawer at a glance. I’m not a hugely organized person. In fact, my friends will tell you I’m a messy cook. Drawers have helped me “clean up my act.”

I also asked for — and got — vertical storage for trays, cookie sheets, sheet pans, etc. Again, it makes these kitchen go-to’s so much more accessible.

Including the kitchen sink

The sink choice was the source of much debate. There are almost too many sink options out there. I have had porcelain, stainless, and, in our pre-renovation kitchen, a solid surface sink integral to the countertop. Steve was insistent on going back to stainless, which was fine by me. I was more concerned with the size of the sink. I wanted one big enough to hold my largest pots. After lots of measuring, we settled on an oversize bowl that actually holds 12-in. by 18-in. sheet pans. (There is a smaller bowl to the left with the garbage disposal. ) I absolutely love this sink! It’s big, extra deep, and holds a big dirty pan so you can really clean it. At the designer’s suggestion, I also got a stainless steel rack that fits the bottom of the sink and protects the surface from scratches.

Is it silly to say you love your sink? Probably, but I do. When you aren’t cooking in a kitchen, you’re cleaning up. Make it easy!

We also enlarged the window over our sink. It was really dead space that we leveraged to bring in more light. Here, again, the designer hit a homerun. She enlarged the window all the way around and had casements installed instead of the traditional double-hung windows we had. The casements have the same divided lights as our existing windows, but are much easier for me to reach across the sink and crank open. Even if we’d asked a contractor for a larger window, I’m not sure we would have gotten easier access.

The renovation gave us plenty of “pretty,” including some glass-fronted cabinets to show off dishes and collectibles, a stove mantle that camouflages the fan and shows off some of my transferware, quartz countertops that work really hard and still look like new, pretty moldings, and a lot more.

The nice thing about pretty, of course, is that it comes in a range of price points. Cabinets, countertops, hardware and light fixtures come at all price points to keep you on budget. The same is true for appliances. It would have been fun to go “top of the line” but the budget just wasn’t there. In fact, we re-installed our dishwasher because it was just a year old.

Pretty is easy to add. You can readily replace light fixtures or upgrade cabinet hardware to refresh the look. It’s possible to replace solid cabinet doors with glass and upgrade countertops. We’ve all seen the gorgeous before & after’s that result from (re)painting cabinets. But making the bones work was more challenging, and I don’t think we could have done it without a professional designer.

That said, when all else fails, wipe down the countertops, add a big vase of flowers and a bunch of candles, and dim the lights. Ta da!

(I know this works because I have done it!)

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time.

 

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Sidetracked by a new recipe, a DIY and two unlikely books

It’s been hot. I’ve been bored. The blog post I’ve been planning just isn’t coming together. Like a kid getting sidetracked from a deadline on a school project, I find I’m easily distracted. And so this is what I’ve been up to.

The recipe

These are perfect conditions for me to start puttering in the kitchen. (Cooking requires you to focus on the task in front of you and take a mental break from everything else.) I had seen a recipe for Fresh Summer Tomato Sauce on Jenny Steffens Hobick’s blog, Everyday Occasions . (Her recipes are delicious and she’s generous about sharing tips for success.) I was intrigued by this recipe, because it has only four ingredients! Check it out here; I don’t want to spoil the fun.

This sauce was delicious, easy, and so fresh!! I served it with penne, some meatballs from the freezer, and beans from Steve’s garden. Next, I want to try it with homemade meatballs and polenta, a fairly hearty appetizer we sometimes share at a local restaurant. I’ve been thinking that a slightly larger serving of meatballs and a vegetable on the side could turn that appetizer into an entree.

Polishing silver

Have you ever made DIY silver polish with a quart of boiling water, a tablespoon of baking soda and a foil-lined bowl? This is a recipe I saw on the web a few years ago. I tried it out with a bunch of silver-plate flatware I had forgotten about in the basement. I dropped a few pieces at a time into the hot water bath, and the results were amazing. Although I still use the traditional paste polish when I have the time, this has been my secret go-to when I need to clean a few pieces in a hurry.

It is especially effective with this woven silver basket. (Yes, I also polished some silver.) This was a wedding gift from a special friend in my earliest basket-collecting career. It’s a challenge to clean, so briefly dipping it in this bath has been a lifesaver. My basket used to make appearances on only the most special occasions; now it hangs out on the coffee table or a side table all the time!

Connecting the dots between books

I think I already shared with you that recently one of my reading groups discussed Katherine Graham’s autobiography, Personal History. We had all loved “The Post” with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks and wanted to learn more about Kay Graham. We came away impressed with what Graham accomplished, especially with regard to the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Her father owned the Washington Post and turned it over to her husband, Philip Graham. Kay took over when Phil died unexpectedly. She make it profitable for the first time, stuck to the Post’s editorial principles and drove two of the most significant stories in the 1960’s and 70’s, making it one of the most powerful and respected papers in the country.

Hold that thought.

Next we read The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s post WWI novel that captures the essence of an era and a class of people. Jay Gatsby and Tom and Daisy Buchanan were all about money — new money and old money. But they were incredibly careless people, and not just careless with things or money. They were careless with the truth and with people’s lives. Fitzgerald’s prose is magical but these are not likable characters.

Taken together these two books share so much about power and money done right and done wrong. What an interesting dilemma for the times in which we live.

It’s finally a little cooler here. I hope it is where you are, too. Thanks for stopping by. See you next time?

The thrill of the hunt

You may have seen this on my Instagram.

There’s nothing like one great antique or vintage find to whet your appetite for more. At least that’s how it works for me. One thing just leads to another…

About a month or six weeks ago, I happened upon this blue and white pitcher. In fact, you may have seen it on my Instagram feed. There is something about both the colors and the patterns that is distinctive from the rest of my blue and white transferware. It’s hard to see the detail in the image, but the lip of the pitcher is actually scalloped!

I haven’t had a chance to really research the manufacturing stamp on the bottom, so its real value is still elusive. And I need to be clear about my “antique” hunting. Most of it is just old stuff that catches my fancy, suits my style, calls my name. I don’t have the budget (or at this point even the space) for the $1200 antique Swedish cabinet my friend and I saw last weekend, even if it was truly wonderful!

My porch cabinet, where I keep some necessities and some “fun stuff.”

I have a few more finds in my porch cupboard (a very old, not-at-all-sturdy cabinet basically held together by myriad coats of paint) where I keep paper towels and glass spray to freshen up the dining table, cocktail napkins, an assortment of small vases and flower frogs as well as a flower pot (on the bottom shelf) of hand tools for the garden. (My idea of porch necessities!) I recently added a few more vintage vases to the other pieces on the top shelf. (My husband collected the vintage fans. The larger one needs re-wiring, along with a third one on his workbench, but I thought they looked cool on the porch. Pun intended!)

But wait, there’s more!

Last week I went to the Randolph Street vintage and antique market on Chicago’s near west side. This is a monthly market in the summer and I have attended sporadically for years. Sometimes there are great finds, sometimes not so much. The merchandise is definitely more vintage (30’s and 40’s) than antique, and there are a number of vendors selling old, repurposed, industrial pieces. This is definitely the place to go for “loft-sized” artwork, kitchen islands, coffee tables and more. Last week I saw at least six beautiful, old, oak drafting tables (sorry, I forgot to take any pictures). Fun to look at, but not really my style.

I also picked up that crusty industrial wastebasket behind the print. So much more character than more current versions.

Surprisingly, however, this is where I bought many antique french linens in the past. (One vendor used to come once each summer. Her selection was amazing!) I’ve also found great prints, as well as some fun lamps. Last week I found this sweet little water color, currently residing on a shelf in the dining room.

I also found two neat baskets. One is huge — 23″ by 16″ by 13″ deep — and needs some repairs. I’m going to have to glue the leather straps back in place at the ends of the handles. It also has some loose pieces on the bottom; perhaps from being dragged? I haven’t decided how to handle that, except to treat it gently overall. it’s big enough to hold some pillows on the porch or quilts at the foot of a bed,  but I could also put it atop a cabinet to look neat and out of the way of further damage.

And since I found one basket, I picked a smaller one up from the same vendor. It’s really a nice shape and size, perfect for magazines. I don’t know about the rest of you who shop at similar venues, but if I find one thing at a booth, I often find more from the same vendor. It probably has a lot to do with companionable aesthetics. (Price negotiations are also a little easier when buying more than once piece.)

The big find…

Of course, I’m always looking for transfer ware and ironstone. Nothing last week. Lately I’ve been searching for small vintage vases like the ones in my porch cabinet. I was sure I’d find some at Randolph Street, but no. If there were any, I did not see them. However, I did spot this bistro table and four chairs early on and I could not get it out of my head. Was I looking for something like that? Not at all. Do I have a good spot for this? No!

There are actually two more chairs to go with the table, and all of them are surprisingly sturdy.

I looked at it and walked away. Then I met up with my antiquing buddy and showed her. She agreed it was fabulous, insisted I should really buy it and negotiated a better price (she knows this vendor). I still walked away. We looked at other stuff, stopped for a cold drink, and while we were taking our break my friend asked if I was still thinking about the table.

“Yes,” I said. “And I’m thinking I’d better go buy it.”

Actually, it’s really charming in the yard, propped with a plant. I absolutely love it. My husband does too. We’re just assuming we’ll come up with another place for it.

Most of us who shop antique markets have a mental Rolodex of the pieces we didn’t buy. We were indecisive, couldn’t think where to put it, or someone else snatched it up. But the best shoppers/collectors/decorators offer the same advice: if you love it, you’ll find a place for it. They’re right. That’s the way antiques (or any collectibles) are. They’re really kind of insidious, worming their way into your heart, your home, and finally into a corner of the family room.

What ever it is that you collect, happy hunting! Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

 

 

Hero Worship

What do basketball and interior design have in common? It’s actually pretty simple. 

Starting in the 4th or 5th grade and continuing for several years, my basketball-loving son enthusiastically followed the career and athletic achievements of Michael Jordan. (Who am I kidding, in the late eighties and early nineties we all loved #43!) His basketball feats seemingly had no limits. There were gravity-defying gymnastics that invariably ended with a basket. But there was also the ball handling, the competitiveness and the work ethic. (I know this because Doug watched tapes of his plays again and again and again. They were the soundtrack of my life for quite awhile.)

Hero worship is something we all occasionally fall into, and, depending on the hero, it’s not all bad. We might learn some new skills and/or acquire some new interests, etc. So it’s hardly surprising that my love of dishes, fabrics, furniture, color and design — really all the decorative elements — have led me to my own group of decorating heroes.

The essence of French country, with the cheery (and cherry) reds, the check and toile fabrics, the curvy legs on the table in the foreground, charming accessories layered into the bookshelves and on the tables.

You may recall that I wrote here about the influence Mary Emmerling had on my early decorating, but she’s not my only design hero. If you checked my bookshelves, you would see that Charles Faudree is clearly a favorite. I’m not at all sure I have ever succeeded in recreating his lush, layered designs, but I’m happy to keep trying.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Faudree, he is an American designer known for his colorful take on country French interiors and credited by many for popularizing the look. I had admired a number of his rooms in magazines like Traditional Home for some time before I realized that they were all the work of one man.

 

You may recognize this from my post on transferware. Charles Faudree is the inspiration, at least in part, behind my collection..

 

Faudree’s designs feature a lot of center tables like this one, above, in a library (often the way he referred to an office or study) and, below, in an entry. The table tops are always decked with books, flowers and other meaningful brick-a-brack. I don’t have space for a center table, but I have toyed with similar arrangements atop our dining room table and on side tables.

Different spaces, same aesthetic

 

 

One of the things I appreciate about Charles Faudree’s designs is his ability to translate his aesthetic into different settings. The image above is a very traditional dining room, but the photo below features a more contemporary, voluminous space that still maintains his country French design.

 

 

Not all Faudree rooms are huge nor are they perfectly proportioned. I love the sunroon, below, but it’s clearly a narrow space.

And what wonderful rooms, furnished with beautiful antiques, plush couches and chairs always topped by a variety of pillows in a companionable array of colors, patterns, textures and trims (always trims — elegant tapes, fringe, tassels, ruffles, etc.). So many thoughtful details.

 

No room is too small or insignificant, no corner too obscure to escape his treatment. This would not work at my house, but I love the powder room below, especially the little Napoleon on the vanity, not to mention the sconces and wallpaper. Why shouldn’t a small powder room be so completely imaginative?

 

 

This transitional space, below, which could be clumsy in accommodating a distinct change of level, is instead totally charming; with chairs and a lamp it’s the perfect place to have a cup of tea or leaf through a magazine.

 

Despite his motto that “More is never enough,” Faudree often allows  a distinctive antique or piece of art to stand on its own. I think the Swedish secretary, below, is from one of his own homes. And look how he allows the brooding Lincoln portrait to dominate the space.

 

But that “appropriateness” just one aspect of his aesthetic. For me, the real art of Faudree’s talent is in his attention to detail, perfectly placed objets d’arts, picture frames, figurines, cache pots, mementos, etc., all chosen to reflect the interests of the homeowner as well as the overall design. Many are pricey antiques, others are family pieces or flea market finds. (Truth to tell, I think the tension between high end and low end in one room or even one vignette makes a powerful statement.) In his hands, all of this fits perfectly into the greater design scheme. It’s personal, it’s layered, it’s thoughtful.

 

I’m not advocating assembling and displaying “stuff” for the sake of “stuff.” And I don’t think Faudree was either. But I do think that rooms devoid of artwork, photographs, books, collectibles from a hobby or travel tend to have a very sterile look, as though anyone could live there instead of the individuals who do.

 

This was the back entry to his own mountain cottage, but look at the style and personality he paired with function here.

I never tire of paging thru his books, reading and re-reading his comments about how or why various elements combined into the finished design. I always learn something new, about wall arrangements or color or collectibles. I also find that I am more than a little charmed by his impish personality, stories from friends and associates about buying trips in France and his prankish sense of humor. This is someone I really wish I could have met.

Sadly, Charles Faudree died in 2013. (I know, think of the rooms he could have designed, the books he could have written!) But, you can enjoy his many books from new and used sellers and even the library. Titles include: Charles Faudree Home, Charles Faudree Details, Charles Faudree Interiors, Country French Florals and Interiors, Charles Faudree’s Country French Living, Charles Faudree Country French Signature, and Charles Faudree Country French Legacy. 

What about you, who or what inspires your interests?

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

 

 

 

 

 

My everyday 10 and counting

One of the blogs I follow is Mocadeaux, another empty-nester who loves food, wine, travel and grandchildren (pretty much a kindred soul, I’d say). She recently wrote a post on her “Everyday 20,” which listed 20 things she buys and uses every day. The idea comes from an American Express ad encouraging card holders to use their Amex card for these everyday things. We traded comments on that particular post and although it turns out that neither one of us uses that credit card, she encouraged me to try the same topic.

Alas, Mo, I only came up with 10 right now, though there will be a part 2 in the near future. Some of these are one-time or occasional purchases, but they are things I appreciate every day. In the meantime I’m hoping everyone will read on to learn — in no particular order — my “Everyday 10.”

1. My iPad. Like Mo, I am an Apple fan. And though I’d be lost without my iPhone and I love my Mac, what I pick up most often is my iPad. I use it to read and write emails, for Instagram, to view photos, read the news. I even download books to it. It’s all about the bigger screen.

2. Instagram. I came late to the party on this, after my daughter encouraged me to try it. But honestly, I just love it. It’s like a new design magazine every time I scroll down. Who do I follow? Other bloggers, foodies, designers, some magazines, travelers, my daughter (she’s a great photographer). I do not follow celebrities, politics, fashion, music, or movies. I do not follow FaceBook friends. IG is simply my daily dose of the pretty that interests me most. (You can follow me here.)

3 & 4. Rimmed baking sheets and pre-cut parchment papers to fit. I use these daily, sometimes more than one for a meal, for roasted vegetables, meat and poultry browned on the stove and finished in the oven, appetizers, cookies, and more. Although I snapped a photo of them here as my husband was preparing meatballs, I also use a half-size pan that’s perfect for roasting vegetables, etc., for just the two of us.

 

 

5. While we’re in the kitchen, the vertical storage in this cabinet. I keep baking sheets, frequently used trays, cutting boards, cooling racks, and a few shallow pans in this cabinet above my oven and microwave. This is one of the custom touches I insisted on when we remodeled our kitchen and I’m so glad I did. I can see and reach everything here. (High cabinets and shelves are lost on short people like me.) In fact I wish now there was space for more of this storage in the kitchen.

 

6. Grocery store flowers. I am happiest when I can snip flowers or greenery from my own yard and  garden, but the growing season in Chicago is so short and the winter is soooo looong. Frankly the blooms and greenery in the store see me coming and call my name. If you choose well, for $10 you can bring home an armful of sunshine.

 

7. This paint color. Designers describe Sherwin Williams Popular Gray as a “warm gray,” which I thought of as an oxymoron until I tried it on a wall. I love it! Last year I used it in the upstairs/downstairs hall, the powder room and guest bath. Ditto this year in the spare bedrooms and my husband’s office. It’s a soft, neutral background that works well with assorted furniture finishes, artwork and accessories. In the past our rooms have sported a variety of paint colors (not to mention my wallpaper period) and I’m loving the uniform background. And, see #8 below.

8. White woodwork. The Popular Gray walls are awesome against the Benjamin Moore Simply White woodwork and doors. When this painting mission began, we decided to paint our dark, stained woodwork. And, yes, it’s a lot of work: sanding, priming, then painting two coats. (Full disclosure: pros did a lot of it.) But, what a difference! It totally transformed the house, taking it from subdivision 70’s to now. Paint really is a miracle worker.

9. My sewing machine. Like a lot of women my age, I started sewing in my early teens, cranking out A-line skirts and dresses. As time went on I began to sew more sophisticated garments. I like doing things with my hands, and, of course, I like clothes. Fast forward to my first apartment and then our first houses. I made curtains, so many curtains for about a decade, but sewing with active children underfoot was challenging. I finally pretty much gave it up. I made a few Halloween costumes and even sewed for my daughter’s American Girl doll, but I was rusty and not always pleased with the results. Fast forward once more to my retired self. Not only do I have time to sew, but I can take my time with a sewing project. And, I really wanted lined, white linen curtains in the living room. Not gauzy; something substantial that would hang in graceful folds. So, off to the fabric-lover/decorator’s nirvana otherwise known as Calico Corners and fifteen yards of fabric and lining plus a few afternoons at the machine and I have exactly the look I had in mind. My machine and I will be spending more time together.

10. My new soup/pasta/salad bowls from Williams Sonoma. I’m a bit of a dish junkie, not just in terms of transferware and ironstone collections, but also about what I put on the table daily. I’ve had a set of pasta bowls for years, but they were really big (and encouraging really big servings!). I wanted something that would be more multi-purpose, serving pasta, but also hearty soups, chili, even one-dish dinners like beef bourguignon. These stylish and sturdy white bowls from Williams Sonoma are perfect for all the uses I noted here, as well as an entree-sized salad. Win, win, win!

What’s your everyday 10 or 20 these days? I’d love to hear!

Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time!

Groceries, the books we read, and where we shelve them

The bag may be recycled, but this grocery delivery vehicle is not all that new. Everything old is new again.

Everything old is new again. I was talking back to the television earlier this week and my husband suggested I blog about that particular angst, so here goes…

The Today show featured a story about the growing competition among online grocery shopping and delivery services. First, I think this is awesome and I would have loved this when I had two small children. But, this isn’t new! Ordering online is new, but not delivery.

Long before the chain groceries (and I know I’m dating myself here), Chicago neighborhood grocers delivered. My grandparents lived in a modest city neighborhood. No one owned cars. They walked to the butcher, the bakery, the bank. I remember doing all these errands on foot. (Which city-dwellers like my daughter still do.)

We carried lots of stuff home with us (Grandma took her special cloth shopping bags along for this purpose; that reusable Whole Foods bag isn’t a totally innovative idea either.) But if we bought many things in the grocery, or heavy stuff like flour and sugar, the groceries were delivered later, in a cut-off carton, usually by a schoolboy who worked for tips. I’m not even sure there was a “delivery fee” involved, but I do remember Grandma making sure she had tip money. And her delivery boy knew to come down the gangway to the back door, let himself into what was really the basement, and leave the box there. (A pre-requisite, I’m sure, for getting a good tip.) In fact, my uncle’s first job was an after-school gig delivering groceries.

Instagram on my mind.

Last month while I was languishing on the couch recovering from the flu (and before I started talking back to the television), I spent way too much time on Instagram, Pinterest, and cruising various blogs. Perhaps because I was still trying to put things back in order here after the painters had freshened up the living room and bedrooms or maybe just because I’m always rearranging shelf space to accommodate books and “stuff,” I started saving photos of shelves. I grew up in a house with book-laden shelves and have always had the same in my own home, so I am always amazed at book-less shelves. I think they’re pretty, but they just aren’t me.

Here are a few of the images I’ve saved to inspire my own shelves.

From James T. Farmer, I love the way this includes plates, pictures and books stacked this way and that. Not too busy but not boring either.
Here, more books on the shelves, but still interesting accents. I love the shelf over the door AND the hats on it. Image from India Hicks posted by Blue and White Home.
I really like this book-lined background for a chair and table. From Nell Hills.

 

The books on the shelves, or a few recent reads.

If you have been reading my blog, you know it’s hard for me to mention “book” without commenting on specific titles. You also may have noticed that my reading tastes are all over the place: biography, history, historic fiction, current fiction. Do I lack focus or do I just like to read? I have no idea.

My new favorite book recommendation is Jubilee by Margaret Walker. Walker is a widely known and respected African American writer and scholar who used her own family’s oral history and decades of research to tell the story of Vyry, daughter of a white plantation owner and his black mistress. The book spans the lavish antebellum years in rural Georgia, the ruin of the Civil War, and the empty promises of reconstruction. If you liked The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, I think you might like this too.

After Jubilee, I needed something lighter, so I read Sue Grafton’s first Kinsey Milhone mystery, A is for Alibi. I love Sue Grafton and I mourned her passing here. I discovered this series a little later on in the alphabet, and I wanted to see if this first mystery was as well-crafted as number 25. I was not disappointed. These are all great reads.

Right now I’m reading The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante. It’s the second book in her Neapolitan series. My book club read My Brilliant Friend, the first in the series, and many just moved right on. I’m enjoying this book more, but it remains a tough read. This is translated from its original Italian. The language often seems clumsy and wordy, characteristics that I think better editing and translation may have improved. However, I love the story of two smart young women in an impoverished neighborhood making dramatically different choices while trying to hold on to their friendship.

Also on my list: The Other Einstein, Marie Benedict’s story of Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric; George Eliot’s Middlemarch, because I’ve never read it (and I was an English major!); and Origin by Dan Brown, because I’m a bit of a sucker for his historic/travelogue romps.

What are you up to as we wait for spring? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you.

Thanks for stopping to read. See you next time.

Three things for this week in this season

There’s so much going on this season, and when things get a little crazy, I get really indecisive. (Seriously, as in should I wear boots or shoes to the store? Cook pork chops or pasta for dinner? Everything gets to be an issue.) It’s not surprising that I couldn’t decide what to write about this week, so here are my top 3 topics: traveling wineglasses, necessary conversations, and a new book.

The traveling wineglasses came out of their boxes last weekend (you may remember last year’s post about them here) to welcome friends to our holiday open house. I hate to hang numbers on things, but this has been our holiday tradition for more than four decades. Once in a while I get a little weary of this whole thing (as in, should I really be having yet another party?) but then someone says, “We always look forward to this…” And the truth is, we do too.

Since we have had so much “practice” at this party, Steve and I have developed a routine for getting it together and we have simplified, simplified, and simplified some more. It is, after all, about getting together with friends. For the last few years I have been serving prosecco along with the customary wine and beer. I did it at first as an ice breaker. But now I think, on a Sunday afternoon, it’s what people enjoy drinking. (Back in the day we served eggnog and then for a while it was spiced wine. Talk about an evolution!) Bubbles are much more fun!)

I have learned to keep the menu simple, so I can enjoy the party. This year it was really just meat & cheese trays, some veggies & dip and Steve’s burgundy meatballs. It’s pretty easy to “dress up” the trays with fancy olives, some fruit, even little cornichons or nuts. The meatballs are the “hearty” snack and definitely made ahead. We re-heat them on the stove, then pop them into a chafing dish for the afternoon. I made two batches of cookies and bought some and, voila! we had a sweet tray.

Although we have an artificial tree, I love fresh greens. I bought three big bundles to use inside and out with seeded eucalyptus and red winterberries. They pretty much arranged themselves. Next year I may try working fresh greens into some of my artificial greenery.

And that was the extent of my party planning.

We live in interesting times.

A few weeks ago I impressed myself by getting our tree dressed early. (Step 1 in my party plan. Get it done so all the boxes are cleared away.)  The next day I was up in time to see a news message on my iPad announcing that Matt Lauer had been fired for inappropriate workplace behavior. Now Al Franken has been pushed out of the Senate, and Roy Moore came this close to winning a Senate seat.

The good news is that the women who helped launch the conversation are on the cover of Time magazine. Well done!

On the one hand, I am both uncomfortable and tired of hearing various recitations of sexual misconduct. On the other hand, the women who have come forward have shown remarkable courage. This is a singular moment in time and a conversation we need to have. We need to listen to their stories and keep listening. Sons and brothers and husbands and co-workers need to learn that this is not acceptable behavior. Girls and women should never settle for anything less than a safe work place. I can’t wait to see where this conversation takes us.

On a more positive note…

Earlier this week we heard former Vice President Joe Biden speak during the Chicago stop on his American Promise Tour. What a wonderful and refreshing evening! He sat onstage at the Chicago Theater with Leslie Odom, Jr. and talked about the purpose behind his book, Promise Me, Dad (which was handed out to everyone in the audience), his career as a public servant, the commitment he made early on to always, always put his family first, his role in the Obama administration, and more.

The audience was packed and remarkably diverse in every way. We all hung on to every word, laughing at his stories, bursting into spontaneous applause at his observations of American history and politics, and shedding a few tears as he described his son’s battle with brain cancer. My daughter looked around the packed house at the Chicago Theater and summed it up perfectly: “This makes you wonder what could have been if history had played out a little differently.”

So now you know what I’ve been up to and why I still need to finish shopping, tackle holiday cards, and maybe do a little wrapping. But, in truth, the Biden book is calling my name. And it’s so nice to sit by the tree.

Wishing you the warmth of family & friends, as well as the peace of the season as we head into the holidays!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!