Living in history

This is how it happens: people, places, or simply the tide of current events sweep by and my innate geekiness about history and American government go into overdrive. This week it’s the passing of Senator John McCain.

I first visited the U.S. Senate on a family vacation to Washington, D.C. in 1963. Back then when you took the Capital tour, you got to spend several minutes sitting in the visitor’s galleries of the Senate and the House. The Senate was in session the day of our tour. As President of the Senate, Vice President Lyndon Johnson was presiding, and as one Senator (I have no idea who) was holding forth on the floor, Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois (who was Senate Minority Leader and represented our own state of Illinois) approached Johnson for what appeared to be a congenial conversation. Were they trading D.C. gossip or negotiating the advance of the president’s agenda? I have no idea.

What we saw was a Republican (Dirksen) and a Democrat (Johnson) deep in conversation. I have never forgotten that picture.

Fast forward to 1970, when I was spending the third term of my junior year in college (along with 24 other classmates) in Washington D.C. Nixon was president. The war in Vietnam raged on, as did the protests, including Kent State. It was an exciting time to be a student in D.C.

As part of our political science seminar, we had passes to the House and Senate Galleries. My roommate sister Danielle and I were unabashed government geeks. We had agreed that if we were near the Capitol and saw the flag flying over the House or Senate (indicating that body was in session), we would always stop. We saw some interesting speeches and began to comprehend how those bodies worked on and off the floor. One day we visited the Senate and found the chamber to be relatively quiet. We sat briefly and were thinking of leaving when Danielle noticed the Press Gallery suddenly filling. Then senators started coming in and Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine asked for the floor, where she firmly but politely (as only the Senate can do) chastised President Nixon for publicly claiming her support for Supreme Court nominee George Harold Carswell. She had not offered her support, Nixon was being presumptuous, and she was voting against Carswell.

When the Senator concluded her comments, the press rushed out as quickly as they had rushed in. We knew we had witnessed a bit of Senate drama. Senator Smith was a Republican (and a woman) who stood up to the Republican president. Her position was not partisan, it was what she thought was right for the country.

Which takes me back to John McCain. I think he might be irreplaceable. Who else can step into McCain’s role of courageous, maverick conscience in the Senate? Who else is going to weigh what’s “right” over political expediency?

Let me be clear. I never voted for McCain, and I had issues with some of of his politics. But I deeply respect his lifetime of service to the country. His willingness to work across the aisle, to listen to the other side, to move graciously forward whether winning or losing, are characteristics we sorely need but seldom see.

The realist in me understands that this is part of the ebb and flow of our history. My friend Nancy wrote a great post here on Jon Meacham’s book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. Meacham’s point is that our country has weathered incredible low points, then our “better angels” help us pull together.

I hope those angels arrive soon. In the meantime, I’ll add Meacham’s book to my growing must-read list.

I’m so glad you stopped by. See you next time!

 

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A family footnote to history

This “avenue” of live oaks at Boone Hall was planted by the second generation of the original family. The plantation is privately owned and has been the setting for a number of movies, including “North and South.” The original house is long gone and the current house, though lovely, dates to the 1930’s.

Once in a while, if you are really lucky and paying attention, personal history meshes with the broader picture.

Our family recently spent our annual “beach week” at Kiawah Island, South Carolina. At the end of the week, when everyone else had left, Steve and I decided to linger a few more days in Charleston.

Charleston is great for history geeks like us. Although we have made annual trips there for decades, there’s always more to see. (Last year we went back to Fort Sumter, here.) This time around we decided to drive to Boone Hall Plantation, home of this legendary Avenue of the Oaks (Trust me, it’s this stunning, although the plantation was a bit of a let-down). Getting there took us past Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan’s Island, where we stopped to explore a family footnote to history.

A bit of background

Constructed to protect Charleston Harbor, Fort Moultrie was still unfinished when it was attacked by British forces in 1776. After a nine-hour battle Revolutionary forces led by William Moultrie turned back the British and Charleston was spared. The fort was seriously neglected in subsequent years, but when England and France went to war in 1793, the U.S. determined to tighten waterfront security and a second Fort Moultrie was one of 20 new fortifications. The second Fort Moultrie was destroyed by a hurricane in 1804. Congress next ordered a third Fort Moultrie, this time built of brick, completed in 1809. In 1860, Charleston Harbor was protected by Fort Moultrie, Fort Sumter, Battery Johnson and Castle Pinckney. In December the Federal Garrison abandoned Fort Moultrie for the newer Fort Sumter. A few months later, Confederate troops shelled and captured Sumter. The rest is Civil War history.

Getting personal

In 1936 Fort Moultrie was the first place my father-in-law, a newly-minted ROTC officer from the University of Georgia, was stationed. (By then the fort had been equipped with more modern weapons in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, then largely disarmed after WWI. It continued, however, to play a key role in coastal security.)

This was the office of the Quartermaster (note the sign).  We think that since my father-in-law’s duty was largely administrative, he could have worked here.
This was the Commissary, though it’s hard to see the sign over the door.

We shared this bit of personal history with the Park Rangers there, and they enthusiastically pulled out some photos of the facility in that era and directed us to the few remaining buildings, some still bearing their Army signage but now converted to high-end condos. My father-in-law would be so amused. In his day it was just a hot, humid post. I think of him walking the streets of what must have been a tiny town in a swampy backwater. Lou was from New York City. Even after those years at the university in Athens, Georgia, Sullivan’s Island must have seemed the ends of the earth.

It’s amazing to think that one army installation was repeatedly called into service for more than 175 years. At some point it changed from an Army fort to an Army/Navy reservation and encompassed most of Sullivan’s Island. Fort Moultrie was decommissioned in 1947 and turned over to the National Park Service in 1960.

We’ve spent so much time in South Carolina without really exploring this exact area. Our visit on this occasion as somewhere between accidental and spontaneous, but I’m so glad we got to look at this piece of the past.

Thanks for coming along. See you next time!

 

The heart of a garden

Sometimes writing a blog post reveals more to me than it does to you. That may be the case here. I started out to write about “Getting my spring on” and how nice it has been to get back outside after a seemingly endless winter. But as I typed I began to see that for me, this year, “Getting my spring on” meant a whole lot more.

Forget lilacs and peonies. One of the sure signs of spring here has always been moving the wicker sofa from the family room (where it “winters”) back out to the porch. Then we bring up the wicker rocker and side tables from the basement and the chairs that fit around the dining table out there, and life is good. This is where we eat most of the summer, have drinks with friends, read the paper, check our email, plan our day over coffee.

But the best way for me to get my spring on is digging in the dirt. It’s creative to coax color and texture from seedlings and soil, to pick the right plants for the right spot, to pair colors and textures for the best effect. But it’s a lot more. Planting, pruning and even weeding has always been therapeutic for me, as I think it is for many others.

The power of digging in the dirt

One of my “renovated beds,” with new lilacs and transplanted daylilies.

Gardening is a nurturing process, caring for the plants while enjoying time outside, being nurtured by nature. This is a lesson I learned from my maternal grandfather, who always had a garden. I’m sure the vegetables began as a depression-era effort to supplant the family budget. Grandpa tended the garden; Grandma canned. This morphed into a larger “victory garden” in World War II; it was one way they could support the war effort and I suspect it kept them busy and managed stress while sons, nephews and friends were scattered around the globe.

In addition to the tomatoes, beets, beans, carrots, and more, there were always flowers: geraniums, dahlias, phlox, marigolds. (Thinking back, I wonder how he squeezed so much into that tiny, 25-foot Chicago lot!) Happily he passed that gene on to me! (This totally skipped my mother, whose garden was limited to whatever Grandpa planted for her and that was totally lost on my father, who efficiently mowed down more than one rose bush without recognizing what it was!)

This year I have found my garden to be especially nurturing.

I wrote a few posts ago about suddenly, unexpectedly, losing a very good friend. Her death left me reeling and I was unable to come to terms with it until I got into the garden. I am sure time itself had something to do with it, but the simple tasks of raking and cleaning up the beds, of digging up the weeds and dividing and transplanting some perennials, of dealing with the life of the garden, brought me some peace. (This would be easily explainable if she was an avid gardener, but it’s actually her husband who has a green thumb and has mentored my gardening efforts. Sherry just loved flowers and and for her the garden was a natural source!)

So, this is the year I discovered that gardens also yield comfort.

Daylillies and coneflowers last summer.

I am, however, still left with lingering weeds, the purple coneflowers gone wild, daylilies desperate for division, herbs that need tending and some ideas to renovate tired beds. After assuming I had finally nailed the basic landscape at our house, the light conditions abruptly changed. The large ash tree that shaded our front yard fell victim to the dreaded ash borer. Not only do we miss the shade, but a bed with a number of shade-loving perennials was totally crisped last summer. In the back yard we had a bank of upright arborvitae along the southern lot line. They threw a lot of shade, but they got way too big, and then damaged by a heavy snow a few winters ago. We had them removed & replanted that area with hydrangeas last year. It looks terrific, but it’s pretty sunny now. (Aha! A new gardening opportunity!)

I’ve now spent some time moving things from sun to shade and shade to sun. (I think of this as the gardener’s version of tweaking bookshelves or furniture arrangements!) I’ve also spent two fun mornings at my favorite nursery, searching out replacement plants. I can’t wait to see how this all works out. And I’m feeling a little more at peace with the world each time I dig in the dirt.

These are the challenges gardeners relish and the rewards they reap!

Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time?

Grief in the Facebook age

One of the best friends I’ll ever have died two weeks ago. Just died.

She had been diagnosed with a serious condition about ten days before, one that would require medication and some lifestyle changes, but it would be manageable. Her death was shocking and hard to wrap my head around.

It still is.

I was unprepared, as were all her family and friends, but I was equally unprepared for this loss to be shared so widely on Facebook. Although we were among the family and friends her husband called, it took only a few more hours for her passing to appear in a Facebook feed (as had her illness earlier).

Of course, social media being what it is, and Facebook being Facebook, many people began expressing their condolences electronically and the family graciously responded. I’m sure they greatly appreciated the emotional support.

I don’t know how I feel about this.

Death is personal and private. I don’t use the same terms to describe Facebook.

Is it good that social media makes it so easy to quickly send a few lines of condolences or do our friends and family deserve something more personal? At least of course with Facebook, the comfort and condolences and even memories are shared. (That may not always be the case with well-intentioned cards and notes.) But it still seems just a little weird to me. I pretty much think of Facebook as the happy place where we post pictures of a new baby, a new graduate, a vacation. And if we have to post something more serious here, is there a way to whisper? Do these people follow up in a more personal way?

In my book, the friend who held my hand after cancer surgery and helped me empty my mother’s apartment after she died deserves more than electronic condolences. There should be hand-written notes recalling her larger-than-life personality, her sense of humor, even her preoccupation with air conditioning and avoiding frizzy hair (I think the two are related.) This is the friend who always, always used cloth napkins and with whom I shared the traveling wine glasses. She loved her iPhone, but it never replaced a hand-written note.

I suppose I should admit to a few disclaimers here. I’m sure many who responded electronically, also did so more traditionally. I’m certainly not accusing anyone of a major breach of etiquette. In fact, I’m blogging about this. 

Is this a generational thing? I think not. Even my daughter, who manages social media for a living, was uncomfortable with the way this worked. (My friend would have thought it just fine. I’m the one with the problem here.)

The real issue is that Facebook, texts, tweets, etc., are the only way some people are now communicating. Is that modern or a just an easy shortcut? Are they hiding? Writing a note, calling on the phone, or (Mercy!) showing up at the door with a cake or a casserole may seem old-fashioned, but is it more thoughtful?

Life is so much better when we reach out, live in the moment, actually shake hands. (And lately I’m all about living in the moment.)

I’m anxious to hear what you think of this. Some people agree with me that it’s awfully impersonal; others concede that it’s efficient in our modern world. Am I just being an old lady? Is Facebook okay for news like this or do we need a more personal approach?

Cooking from the book

If you follow me on Instagram. you already know how excited I was when my copy of The Cook’s Atelier Cookbook arrived. The Cook’s Atelier is the cooking school I attended last spring in Beaune, France. I wrote about the one-day workshop, here, meeting Marjorie, her daughter Kendall and the rest of the class to shop the local market for ingredients, returning to their 15th Century atelier, and preparing and sharing a remarkable French lunch.

Like that day, this cookbook is much more than recipes. It’s a thoughtful treatise on French culture, particularly in the Burgundy wine country. Ex-pat authors and cooks Marjorie Taylor and Kendall Smith Franchini share their love and appreciation of all things French and the challenges of defining a business based on their passions for cooking and wine and then launching that business in their newly adopted country.

Not only is the food scrumptious, so are the full-page photos!

First, this is a lovely book, beautifully printed on heavy paper. (So French, I’m sure.) The photos are stunning, and document every aspect of their life, from the delicious food, to the countryside, the Beaune market, the local vendors they have come to appreciate and depend on, the elegant simplicity of their shop, kitchen and dining room, and, of course, the family at the center of it all. (If you have been to their shop, then you know the integral role played by Kendall’s husband Laurent and how sweetly their two young children occasionally appear in the shop or kitchen).

Butter. So quintessentially French on its own, but then there is clarified butter, compound butter, buerre noisette. So much to learn!

Lots of cooks, restaurants and foodies publish cookbooks. There seem to be at least one or two new ones each week. But few spend time on technique and ingredients (well, maybe the likes of Alice Waters and Julia Child). The Cook’s Atelier Cookbook stands far above these latest publications. Charming sections tackle the French larder, cooking tools, burgundy wine, the French cheese course, and traditional cooking techniques like frenching and tying a rib roast and trussing poultry. Recipes are grouped by season and compiled into menus, something I especially appreciate since I am notoriously uncertain about what really goes with what. In short, this is a cookbook you can truly learn from in addition to finding great recipes.

So, you may ask, what have I made? I’ve been making the French butter cake since I took the class. It’s simple and delicious, two prerequisites for French cooking. I’ve also prepared the grilled veal we made in class (and practiced the sauce technique with a few other cuts of meat).  Now I’m working on the green garlic souffle. (Mine tasted delicious, but the presentation needs work. See below!)

Tasted delicious, but the presentation needs work.
What we made in class, served in these wonderful, individual copper pots. I need more practice!

I have added pastry tips and disposable bags to my kitchen equipment and tested them last week on gougers and madeleines. Next up? Coq au Vin. Marjorie and Kendall use white burgundy instead of red, and I can’t wait to try that.

Gather ingredients first!
Gougeres, dainty pastry puffs flavored with gruyere and served warm with an apperitif. I’m practicing my pastry bag skills for these.
Madeleines, best served slightly warm after dinner.

What have I learned? Quite a lot. Fresh — which means seasonal — ingredients make a difference. Ask the butcher for help. Make sure you understand the recipe before starting. Gather all tools, prepare pans, and measure ingredients before cooking. Have fun. The story in my kitchen and yours is the same as the story in theirs — it’s about the family and friends around the table.

I couldn’t resist showing you a few more pages from the book. The photos are really beautiful. The first is their teaching kitchen and a corner of their shop where they sell their own lovely line of copper pots, along with kitchen tools and a carefully curated selection of wine. Below that is another shot of the book.

 

As I was writing this post I went back to the original from last June after my class there. In it I said I was smitten. Yikes! I am all over again. To learn more about The Cook’s Atelier, you can visit the website at www.thecooksatelier.com. The cookbook is available wherever books are sold, including Amazon.

Thank you so much for stopping by. I’ll see you again next time.

In awe!

I’m temporarily interrupting the looks, books, cooks and occasional travels you normally read about here, for a topic I just can’t overlook.

I’m in awe of the brave, feisty, and very smart students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for fearlessly taking on the NRA, the United States Congress, the President, and the rest of the establishment that has repeatedly turned a deaf ear (at the least) and otherwise stood in the way of sensible gun control. The determination and straightforward message from the Parkland, Florida students has moved students and teachers, parents and grandparents, and so many more across the country to join them.

It would have been much easier to stage a vigil, comfort each other and privately manage their grief. What they experienced should happen to no one. But they chose to dig in and fight back. Hard.

They are focused. They aren’t giving up. And they are moving the needle.

A blog is a unique medium. It’s fun to share books and recipes and travel, but it’s also personal. And some days the elephant in the room is just too big to ignore. How can I talk about a trip to Italy or a book I just read when yet another gunman walked into a school, killing seventeen people and injuring more than a dozen others. I’m angry that it’s happened, and I’m even angrier that it’s happened so often we just pause to light candles, shake our heads and move on.

To those of us who don’t like guns, who view them as war tools and instruments designed for killing (because what else is an automatic weapon for?), time to step up and support them. Have their backs, vote, agree that this is the time. And to gun owners, who are hunters or who have a personal weapon for protection, it’s also time to think about weapons we need and those we don’t need and why registration and licensing may be advantageous. (This is a big concession for me. I’ve always lived in a gun-free home.)

There’s nothing normal about gunmen shooting up a school, or concert-goers, or nightclub patrons or any of the other hundreds of gunfire victims. Is it me or is there a real disconnect when one dog dies on an airplane in inexplicably awful conditions and Congress immediately proposes appropriate legislation, but hundreds die in schools, churches, nightclubs and concerts and the same Congress says “the time is not right”? More to the point, do we care more about guns than our children?

There are no easy answers here. This is a complicated stew of second amendment rights, lobbyists, money, mental health support (more money!), and a polarized public unable to move. I think we all have a part to play.

Whew! I had to share my thoughts. I hope you’ll tell me what you’re thinking.

Thanks for stopping by. See you 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.