Resurrecting a Few Grammatical Stalwarts

The demise of certain grammatical stalwarts began, I believe, when classical journalism started to wither with the advent of the Internet age.  Éminence grises, like The New York Times, began losing writers and editors as newspapers began to shrink with their readerships.  Granted, some of the grammatical uses I eulogize here were waning long before the Internet stranglehold tightened, but the last 20 years has seen the decline of others, due no doubt to the loss of the editorial denizens of the newsroom who kept usages immortalized by Strunk and White alive.  (Who are Strunk and White?  Click here, dear reader:  Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.)

The Elements of Style imageDorothy Parker on the Elements of Style

In the olden days, for instance, one occasionally saw the now nearly extinct object of the preposition.  What, you might ask, especially if you were born after 1990, is the object of the preposition?  Well, it’s simple really.  Just like sentences have verb objects, “He shooed the cat,” cat being the object of the verb “to shoo,” prepositions, too, used to come armed with objects in their own right.

Objects of the preposition

I’m not sure who, how, or when the world started stripping prepositions of their objects, but I can say that William Safire was still alive, and I can’t figure out how he let this happen.  Wikipedia reports that over time  he became less of a grammatical nitpicker, so perhaps that is the simplest answer.

I can say without reservation that prepositions did nothing to deserve this.  Esteemed, older writers got it right.  Hemingway, for instance, did not entitle his book, “For Who the Bell Tolls,” and rightly so.  He properly penned the title, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” since the pronoun in question is the object of the preposition “for.”  (Please, gentle reader, tell me that you were aware that ‘for’ is the preposition in that phrase.  After all, you had a 20% chance of guessing it right!)Common prepositions

The object of the preposition is so rarely sighted these days that I can hardly keep track of when to use it and when not to.  (Alert readers no doubt noticed that I ended the preceding sentence with a preposition — formerly a phenomenal faux pas!  In this case, however, I think what looks like a preposition is actually just the short form of the infinitive “to use.”  But abler grammarians than I will have to sort that one out.  But that last sentence — you guessed it! — is definitely hosting another pesky preposition to close out an otherwise respectable sentence.)

In times past, prepositions were treated more honorably and hence phrases would read:  “to whom is this letter addressed,” “for whom is the phone call,” or — more directly — “whom is the call for?”  The latter is so seldom the way folks phrase it today, although that is the correct way to say it, that is sounds downright anachronistic.

It’s simple, really.  You would never say, “The call is for he,” right?  You’d say, “The call is for him.”  ‘Him’ in that version is the object of the preposition and folks get that right all the time, but replace a gender pronoun with the interrogative pronoun ‘who,’ and everything gets bungled up.  It’s like someone buried the word ‘whom’ without any mention of a memorial service, which leaves writers like me (more correctly, ‘I’) carrying around an errant ‘m’ which simply swoons to be reattached to its grammatically correct partner-in-prepositional-crime ‘who,’ for a more traditionally married and historic ‘whom.’

who vs. whomchild with frog on head

Then there is the absence of agreement between the subject and the verb when it comes to the word ‘none.’  ‘None,’ you see, is singular —  a contraction of ‘not one.’  And we all know that one is singular, hence requiring a suitable singular verb, like ‘is,’ as in, “Not one person is coming to dinner on Saturday.”

Over the years, however, ‘none’ has routinely become paired with plural verbs which results in sentences such as, “None are coming on Saturday.”  Who knows when ‘none’ somehow morphed into a negative form of ‘some,’ but the fact is that these are different words with different meanings.  ‘Some’ means two or more.  None means not even one!  Here too, my erstwhile reliable editors at The New York Times have forsaken their duties as guardians at the grammatical gates, and they routinely get it wrong in print.  It’s an affront to the masthead, if you ask me.

Finally, I close out this Quixotic post with a reference to the Oxford comma.  I may be one of the few persons on the planet who still indulges in the Oxford comma, which was apparently born, raised, and still survives in usage at Oxford University Press in Oxford, England.  (Yet, Oxford University’s PR department no longer uses it.)  I do know that I found some Google images of it which leads me to believe that rumors of its demise may be premature.    Indeed, according to Wikipedia, some style guides still mandate its employ.  (For a fulsome review of the serial comma, try this Wikipedia post on the Oxford comma.)

The Oxford comma sets off a series of items after ‘and’ or ‘or’.  It is usually misplaced by modern writers, leaving one to confusing mental images of merged, mangled or mixed-up items that were intended to stand alone.  So, for instance, I use the Oxford comma when I write:  I like dogs, cats, elephants, and lions.  Others write:  I like dogs, cats, elephants and lions which creates a mildly confusing mental image of a morphed version of an elephantion, whatever that might be.  These graphics, courtesy of Google Images, illustrate the confusion:

we went caroling with our dogs, grandma and grandpawhy I use the Oxford comma

To put it bluntly, although William Safire may have died, certain grammatical niceties have not.  They’ve just fallen into disuse.  And why do I feel compelled to resurrect them?  Well, because there’s a right way and a wrong way to grammar — a whimsy I cling to at least as long as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style remains in print.  The editorial staff of The New York Times might be having the vapors, but Strunk and White stand firm and speak from beyond the grave.  So, let’s honor the object of the preposition, reassign a singular verb to the singular ‘none,’ and write to the standards of Strunk, White, and indeed Safire, by embracing that Oxford comma!

As they say in the English Book of Common Prayer, “it is meet and right so to do.”  So, let’s do it.  Let’s get it right.  If for no other reason than it’s the right way to write.

Let's eat grandpa
The right way to write!

Are We Ambassadors or Just Traveling Through?

When traveling, are you an ambassador or do you just travel through?  More importantly, have I been an ambassador or have I just traveled through the many glorious villages, towns, and countries I have been blessed to visit?  I started to wonder about this as my niece, Charlotte, prepared for her long-anticipated semester abroad in Granada, Spain.

US Passports

I got to thinking about what has made for all my fantastically memorable travels over the years.  In sum, I think it’s because I travelled — unwittingly at first, but later as I got the knack, more consciously — or perhaps I should say more conscientiously — as an ambassador rather than as just a traveler passing through.  While true ambassadors have many formal duties, we traveling ambassadors du jour have a somewhat simpler task, and that is to accept graciously the gifts that come our way as we travel through parts unknown.  This means having the power of discernment, the ability to perceive as special gifts the experiences that masquerade as everyday fare.

I realized what made my own travels great had a lot less to do with me and what I did, than what others did, expressed, or offered me and how I received these delectable offerings.  In short, what attitude did I bring to this ‘moveable feast,’  to borrow Hemingway’s phrase?

For instance, I think of the gift (a double edged sword, perhaps) given to me the very first day I landed in Paris with 16 year old school chums bound for a summer with French families. Much of our group had collapsed to rest at our youth hotel after the overnight flight, but Polly Stowe and I were too excited with our arrival in Paris, so we set off to walk the environs of the fourth arrondisement –back then a sleepy quarter with an open air market.

map of 4th arrondisement
Paris’s 4th Arrondisement & St. Paul where the market and our lettuce vendor plied their wares

Somehow, we wound up in avid conversation with a Tunisian lettuce vendor — our French fractured, his fluent, languid, and flirty.   We — reluctantly — turned down an invitation to “boire un coup,” or have a drink, since we were due back at the youth hotel for dinner with the group.  By the time we got back, the orientation talk was well underway and was, at that very moment, cautioning us to be wary of North African men flirting with young American women as they could be purveyors of Paris’s white slave trade.

Polly and I exchanged wide-eyed looks.  Who knew that contemplating the chance to “boire un coup” could have actually meant our “coup de grâce” at the hands of a slave trader!

How then was this brush with disaster a gift, you ask?  Oh, my gosh.  Incalculable!  Polly Stowe was a tall, lithe, long haired beauty, yet the Tunisian lettuce vendor had improbably flirted with me!

Do you think I cared that he was perhaps the 4th arrondisement’s  ringleader of the white slave trade?  Not on your life!  I was thrilled that the white slave trade had targeted me, not Polly. More accurately, I had been flirted with by a Parisian!  My time in Paris was as yet too brief for me to know that a bona fide Parisian would have considered a North African Arab as little better than a pied noir — or beneath contempt.   As far as I was concerned, I had been flirted with by someone in Paris which made him a Parisian, and which made me a goddess of newly minted proportions!

Then there was the summer I spent in Jordan.  I was showered with gifts as the Jordanians are an exceedingly generous people — so much so that I quickly learned not to express too much admiration for anything in a Jordanian’s home, because they would insist you take it as a gift.  The Jordanians I met lived simple lives — we would call them poor, although the generosity of their spirit gave them the graciousness of old-moneyed millionaires.  So the many gifts I am referring to here were the gifts of friendship manifested in so many smiles, so many opportunities not usually made available to any women, least of all a Western woman , so many gifts of goodwill from the heart.

There were breakfasts taken seated in the tents of the moktars, or village elders, whose own wives would never have breached the tent flap to enter in.  Yet there I sat, eating breakfast with them from communal plates delivered by their wives, using our fingers as utensils.  There were mansafs or ceremonial dinners that again, no women were permitted to attend.  Yet there I stood, helping myself to handfuls of succulent lamb drenched in yoghurt, laced with pine nuts.  There were wild, galloping rides on Arabian horses with bit-less bridles in pink sandstone Petra, camel races in Amman, and shopping expeditions with locals.  All these experiential gifts were conveyed to me by generous Jordanians for no other reason than they liked my ambassadorial attitude.

Traveling as an ambassador is simple, really, if one affects the proper attitude.  An ambassadorial attitude is one of curiosity, good manners, a sense of humor, and an openness to new experiences.

I found a ready smile to be a more marketable currency than any dinar, franc, drachma or deutschmark in my travels, and the exchange rate on a smile and twinkling eye never weakened, no matter the fluctuations of world currency markets.

A firm handshake and a consciousness of local customs transformed good manners into great ones, and often replaced tortured foreign phrases that were not getting their meaning across into eloquent understandings brokered by body language alone.

And while my ear for languages stood me in good stead in Romance language countries, I was sorely stumped by Serbo-Croatian, got by gamely with a bit of Greek, and gave classical Arabic my very best shot.  The point is, no matter how hard the language, you must try.  This is indeed an area where “A for effort” is the name of the game.  It matters little how well you acquit yourself in a foreign language, but there is absolutely no excuse in my Baedeker book of Travel Do’s and Don’ts, for not learning a few simple words in the language of your host country without fail.  “Please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” are the bare minimum, and learning to say, “That is so beautiful,” will open many hearts and doors to you as you travel the world.

baedeker book
A Baedeker Guide to Great Britain

That said, you must also be prepared for your linguistic efforts to go occasionally awry … like the time I thought I was telling a liquored-up, very large Russian a firm “good night!” when I later learned I was actually telling him “good evening,” which likely accounted for the foot he had  planted in my bedroom door.  Then there was the time I nearly precipitated an international incident ordering a peach in a Serbian deli, not realizing as I cast about unsuccessfully for the Serb word for ‘peach,’ and hence just saying ‘peach,’ that this was a slang term for a part of the female anatomy, quite vulgar in derivation, and definitely not the type of thing to order in a deli, jam-packed with Yugoslavs seeking lunch.

Suffice to say that when, as ambassador du jour, you deliver a monumental faux pas, the diplomatic thing to do is to wallow in contrition, apologize profusely, and never return to the scene of your ambassadorial boo boo again.  It’s about all you can do.  Well, that and learn the Serbo-Croatian word for “peach,” or order an orange instead.

Peaches — or at least what I had in mind when I ordered a peach in fractured Serbo-Croatian.

One last tip for memorable travel.  Try everything and anything as long as it’s not too dangerous.  Looking back, though, I realize that this caution is one I sometimes ignored.  I personally, however, draw the line at bungee jumping.  Others think bungee jumping is a lark.  So, as you can see, there’s wiggle room on what is and is not ‘too’ dangerous. Me, I’d rather swim in croc infested waters than throw myself into a ravine attached to a glorified rubber band!

The “try everything and anything” dictate is especially true for local food.  The delicacies you will discover are a pleasure to the palate.  The best food I had in the Dominican Republic was bought for me by a local from tiny street stands, and to this day, I have no idea what I was eating.  Timid travelers tend to avoid such experiences for fear of stomach woes, but their experience is the lesser for it.

Once I set off for a dinner with Arab pals in Paris to a favorite haunt of theirs known for grilled meats, and I happily left it to my Lebanese friends to order.  The mixed grill was delicious, but nothing was as superb as a grilled delicacy, small and round, totally tender and mildly sweet.  After scarfing several down, I finally asked what the delicacy was and was surprised to find that I had fallen for grilled lamb testicles.  Delicious!

mixed grill
A mixed grill

I do draw the line at horsemeat, although candor compels me to admit that this line got drawn some time after I had ‘seconds’ of what I thought was roast beef at a French friend’s Sunday dinner table.  That realization went down hard as I am a great fan of horses on the living hoof.

So when packing your passport for travel abroad, tuck in a few additional items to ensure a memorable, indeed ambassadorial-quality, sojourn:  a ready smile, a twinkling eye, a firm handshake, a trove of linguistically-correct local phrases, and an appetite — indeed a craving — for adventure!

Your weltanschauung, or to put it auf Englisch fur die dummkopfen amongst my less traveled readers — your world view — will be the richer for it.  More importantly, the lives you touch will have precious memories of the joy you bestow as a veritable ambassador — a bearer of good will, traveling through.  Happy travels!

Bon voyage 2

The ‘After Party’ Party

It was here in Pennsylvania that I developed the tradition of the ‘After Party’ Party.  What, you might ask, is the ‘After Party?’  Well, it is just what it sounds like.  It’s the second party, held the day after the Party in Chief (‘PIC’).  The ‘After Party’ is held after you clean up the biggest mess of the PIC, but before you tidy up everything and put all your nice things away for the next year or two or five before you throw a really big party again.

silver platter of party napkins

Now, you may wonder, whom does one invite to the After Party?  Well, that’s very simple.  Anyone who couldn’t make it to the Party in Chief or who was not inclined to attend the main event.

For me, the After Party began as a way to invite my friends in the more senior reaches of age, who don’t like to drive at night, and thus, for whom the Party in Chief is not such an attractive option anymore.

In my world, however, this generation used to throw the best Parties in Chief (although they may not have bothered with an After Party).  In fact, many of my best party recipes have been bequeathed by them, many of the tips for how to entertain 50-100+ folks came direct-shipped from them, and the all-important advice for how to remain calm in the face of a major party event (a stiff drink before the first guests arrive, natch!) was passed down from them in my early years of learning to give parties.

So, when the Old Guard got to the age that they began to turn down invitations for Parties in Chief, I started to muse on how I could properly even throw a party without having them around for the all-important Party Post Mortem.  When I realized I couldn’t possibly have a party without the Party Post Mortem, and that the Party Post Mortem could not be competently accomplished without the insights of the Old Guard, the After Party was born, and the Old Guard of Parties in Chief became the backbone of the After Party circuit.

Thus, in my home at least, the After Party is a daylight affair, sort of a brunch-ish, lunch-ish leftovers feast with all the fixin’s, polished silver, party napkins, and left over glog or soft drinks affair.  The After Party is when you can properly conduct a Post Mortem worthy of the Party in Chief and warble over who wore what, who drank too much, who left far too early, and who perhaps a bit too late, although to me the later the hour a party ends, the more certain it was a great success!  In short, the After Party at my house has become the sine qua non, the proper finale to the Party in Chief into which you put so much thought, care, and culinary preparation.

Some of you may wonder why one should have an After Party at all.  After all, the PIC can be a heck of a lot of work in its own right, and plenty of folks are content to put their feet up the day after and just relax before setting everything back to rights.  But, in addition to accommodating a favored crowd who could not make the main event, the After Party helps solve the problem of what to do with large quantities of leftovers.

“No leftovers,” you say?  That is, quite frankly, a heretical thought.  My family is from the South.  Both the patrilineal and matrimonial lines were born and raised in Florida, with Southern roots snaking up into Georgia and all the way back to the House of Burgesses in Virginia centuries ago.  So, I know this right down to the marrow of my bones or the stuff of my corpuscles.

In the South, when having a party, one stocks enough food to accommodate platoons of foot soldiers who might wander through on their way to or from some important Civil War battle.  I’m not sure why this is.  I don’t know whether the warring Union and Confederate forces had time out’s to take in a local party or two between battles.  I just know that having ample food, which should actually be rendered AMPLE food, is a genetically prescribed, teleological imperative if you’re from the South.

platters of food
AMPLE food is key to a successful party, at least if you’re from the South!
No party is complete without ‘sweets.’
Finger food is my personal favorite.

Otherwise stated, your kitchen is likely overflowing with leftovers.  Indeed, the host and hostess have likely not even had a chance to try some of the food laid out for the party, so they will happily munch on leftover biscuits and honey baked, spiral cut ham, slathered with champagne mustard during the After Party with the second set of guests.

Platter of ham

And when was your silver polished to quite such a shine … or even polished at all, let’s be real, in today’s world of stainless steel?  When did you last bring Aunt Becky’s decorative china dish out of the sideboard cupboard and clean it enough to see the pretty raised flower pattern ringing the pats of butter arranged just so on its gleaming surface?

It makes no sense to put all this away before giving it a second run while the floors are still relatively clean, the tables Endust-ed to a bright luster, and the flowers still upright, lively, and fragrant.  After all that work preparing for the Party in Chief, give it a second run for the money.  The After Party’s relaxed, casual ambiance is sometimes almost more fun — and certainly less taxing — than the Party in Chief.

But perhaps the most important reason for the After Party is to accommodate that most important rite of party passages, the Party Post Mortem.   The Washington Post’s incomparable Style writer and socialite, Sally Quinn, wrote a slender but seminal book, The Party, A Guide to Adventurous Entertaining, that reads like one delightful and self-deprecating Party Post Mortem.  It’s a must read if you haven’t already read it.  The year it came out, I gave copies to everyone I know who throws a great party as this is an art and a gift that not all possess.

Without the Party Post Mortem, you really can’t gauge how successful a party has been.  How else to enjoy (in a post-mortem glow of forgiveness) the fact that one guest actually thought it would be cute to return with Lady Jane Gray’s seven week old kitten, which I rescued from near certain trampling by restoring it to Jane’s sage babysitting care in the office upstairs while the party raged below, until the party-goer left, late in the evening?

How else to giggle over one guest’s alcoholic ways as he kept chugging bottles of costly micro-brew rather than contenting himself with tastings from the modest-sized sampling cups as the brew-meister tried to maintain a sense of order?


How else could Granny, and her partner in Southern drawl and caustic wit, Momma Ruth, otherwise have sufficient time to opine on corollaries between measures of over-weightiness and time spent installed in front of the chafing dish of seafood Newburg and accompanying pastry cups?

silver chafing dish

In short, how else can you have a party … a proper party, if not with a Party Post Mortem?  And what better way to enjoy the Party Post Mortem than surrounded by a core of casual friends, in shirts and jeans, picking at succulent leftovers, in a clean albeit disheveled home that is now happily imprinted with yet another chapter of festivities with friends.

champagne flutes toasting

What Imprints a House with “Home”

One of my nieces — the one who asked me to be her God mother rather than being saddled with me in that capacity, so a very special God girl indeed — has recently moved into her first apartment.  It’s been so exciting that you’d think it was I, not her, making the move.

Remember that special feeling?  The huge question marks posed by your first home?  What to do with furniture — if you have any to begin with, and if not, where to go to affordably get it?  How to stock a kitchen?  What’s enough to get you through, but not too much to break the bank?  What to dress those endless white walls with, picture-wise?  And the all-important question of a bed … to move that single adolescent bed from home or go for the queen-sized splurge of adulthood?  (Was there ever any doubt about the answer to that particular query?!)  Can the budget sustain a designer coverlet and matching pillow  set, or do finances dictate a more modest bed spread beginning?

It got me to thinking.  What exactly is it that makes a house a home?  How do we imprint a house with “home?”  The home where I grew up, known affectionately as May’s Madhouse Motel, was steeped in stories, parties, hauntings, and hangers on.  Hard to match or beat that ambiance and attitude.  But what of my own homes?  How had they assumed their distinctive personalities?  What role did I have in impressing them with their distinctive monograms?

Flowers gave the front a welcoming feel long before I had the courage to hang pictures on the virgin walls!

I faced this question head-on in the house where I am currently living, when I moved in twelve years ago.  It was so new that the builder’s white-painted walls had hardly even dried and not a single nail hole marred the fresh wall board walls.  The nails had not even settled enough to pop and dimple the new coat of paint.  It felt like altogether too much responsibility to ‘dress’ such a new and virgin place.

For six months, not a single picture hung on the smooth walls.  What if I placed a picture hanger in the wrong spot and had to yank it out?  There would remain a blemish on the otherwise perfect wall.  So I moved in the furniture I had and left the walls bare until I could stand the field hospital look no longer.   A good third of the house was bare of furnishings as this house was nearly two and a half times as large as the one bedroom condominium I had left behind in Brookline, MA.  It would be awhile and a few pay checks before rooms could be furnished, and I was in no rush.  I was still awed by all the space I had, feeling almost like I rattled around everywhere but the kitchen where I, my cooking gear, and recipes fit each other perfectly, like a lady’s hand in a long-sleeved opera glove.

Looking back over this house’s history, I am struck by how much of it is defined by parties and people that graced its walls.  The house where I lived before this one held far fewer parties.  It was an elegant Victorian building from the 1890’s, and I owned three rooms that were the original first floor but had been converted to a one bedroom condo.

I hosted countless intimate dinners in the parlor, which doubled as both dining room and living room.  Most gatherings were graced with a fire in the marbled fireplace.  But New Englanders, in my experience at least, don’t party much whereas here in Pennsylvania, having friends means having parties!

The Brookline condo, instead, was more a house measured in dog lives rather than by parties.  There were the years of Gil, the yellow English lab who consumed everything and anything that was left on the counter.  He learned to open the fridge whose ancient door seal left it vulnerable to an enterprising, cast-ironed constitution Labrador retriever’s food forays.  The later years of my time there were marked with Hannah’s reign — the Rottweiler whose signal duty, in her eyes, was to protect me, hearth and home, and who thus kept a careful eye out for anything amiss either inside the stately Victorian windows and doors, or outside the house, walking by.

This Pennsylvania house has been a place of parties, large and small, casual (almost all) or formal (one or two), and all strung together with fun and entertaining people as if on an opera-length pearled strand of delightful memories, delicacies, and drinks.  Each party marks a passage of time, the beginning or end of an era or more simply, a holiday.

One party, which was geared towards the neighborhood youngsters, I threw in self-defense.  Shammie, my pit mix who was rescued from Fairmount Park where she had likely been dumped with loads of other pit bulls, tested negative for pregnancy when I brought her home, and then hatched out 14 puppies in a flurry of birthing activity that took place between 3:30 a.m. and noon the next day a few weeks after I brought her home.

The neighborhood kids, especially the girls around 6-8 in age, were beside themselves with joy and every day appeared at my front door after school to ring my bell and ask if they could see the newly minted  puppies.  Needless to say, this cut into my work time considerably, and I had to think of a way to fend off the assaults on my door bell that were driving me nuts.

My vet — a conscientious D.V.M. who appeared at the house to preclude me from having to transport this veritable bevy of puppies — insisted on names for each pup so he could accurately track their medical treatment and shots.  But the puppies had burst forth so quickly and regularly during Shammie’s protracted labor, that my Mom and I (Shammie’s attending midwives) had not been able to keep up with names so we were left with a passel of black and white, adorable, similarly marked puppies who needed names.

Minutes-old puppies crowded their midwife’s leg for warmth as Shammie hatched out more babies.

Thus I came to host my first, last, and only — highly successful, I might add — ice cream social.  I bought three large tubs of ice cream, a handful of sundry toppings and sauces and invited the neighborhood young to come over and make themselves ice cream sundaes and to name Shammie’s numerous offspring.


Shammie was a supremely proud and gracious mother, and allowed two well-instructed youngsters at a time to come into her whelping area (the laundry room), sit quietly cross legged amidst the squirming mass of puppyhood, and add to the list of puppy names, cross referenced with identifying details for the relevant pup.

Shammie’s brand new brood

The vet, his children, and his assistants arrived to add to the fun, and I was quite proud that the vet tech said she had never witnessed as clean a puppy territory as the one I provided Shammie and her pups!  As for the ice cream, who knows?  I didn’t have time to have any, but everyone else had ample helpings of ice cream and puppy love!

Reciprocal puppy love and joy!

The Name-That-Puppy Ice Cream Social was neither the earliest nor the largest party I have had in Exton, but it does rank among the most popular.  The little girls (and if memory serves, it was almost all girls and just a couple of boys in that era) who attended the shindig are still telling the younger generation of kids who move into the neighborhood about Shammie, who tested negative for pregnancy and then had 14 babies that required names.  Two girls, perhaps as a result of getting a bit of dog-imprinting on their budding psyches at a tender age, have grown up walking dogs and feeding cats in the neighborhood and are now old enough to be getting driver’s licenses and pets of their own.

In short, it was both a party and a pet that launched the Shammie & her Puppies Era that imprinted this house further with the warmer word, “home.”  It is an era Shammie still presides over although the puppies have all long since moved on to other loving homes.  Other parties blossomed over the years, and they are the subject of upcoming posts since they too imprinted this virgin house with fulsome hominess.  And one of those parties also marked the intersection between festivities and new animal offspring, although this time of the feline variety.  But more on that later … Lady Jane Gray, like Shammie, deserves her own party post!

Home Sweet Home picture

The Imperative of a Christmas Tree

I just love my Christmas tree.  Its diminutive 5’4” height matches my own and its proportional girth fits nicely between the sofa and my “chair and a half” which means I can admire the ornaments up close each evening when I stretch out with Jane, the Dowager Cat, on my ample armchair and matching ottoman.  It makes me wonder why I have gone so many years without a Christmas tree.  In part, perhaps, because of the sadness this season sometimes also brings.


Eleven years ago, for my first Christmas in my new house, Mom bequeathed me her ornaments.  It was a very special gift although, true to Mom’s fashion, she made it seem like a small gesture.  Mom had not had a Christmas tree in many years.  Old age makes Christmas trees one of those undertakings that become too much to bother with, I suppose.  But the season had always been very special to her as were the ornaments she collected and received as gifts over a lifetime.  A couple of the ornaments I now have are so old and faded that they harken back to my earliest childhood years, the pigtail years when I was a little girl with long pig tails trailing down my back.  Somehow they have survived the in between years intact.

Between leaving my home in Massachusetts, and finding a new home here in Pennsylvania, I lived back at the home where I grew up, which had been known long and affectionately as May’s Madhouse Motel both for all the frenetic activity always underway there and for the constant stream of visitors and lodgers who passed through.  Oddly, it didn’t seem to be the least bit strange to be 40-something and home living with Mom until a job and home in my new state aligned themselves like recalcitrant planets.

We had fun.  Mom was a facile and easy going cook who could, in her heyday, whip up a three course church supper for 250 in an afternoon or assemble an elegant dinner for eight at the drop of a hat.  While I stayed at Pugh Road, we took turns cooking dinner at night with one of us acting as chef, and the other as sous chef, conversation percolating along as simple fare bubbled atop the electric stove.  It was before Alzheimer’s took hold and sapped the life, memory, and laughter out of her.  It was the EBA.  The “Era Before Alzheimer’s.”

That year, in 2003, we put up a well-chosen Christmas tree.  With Mom, the shape, size, and species of tree always had to be perfect – picking the “right” one (read:  “perfect” one) could take 40 minutes in freezing temps with a Christmas tree lot attendant tilting up, holding straight, and twirling  any number of candidate trees for full inspection, before the perfect, fulsome evergreen tree emerged the winner.

We put the tree up in the only place a proper Christmas tree belonged, the room we called the “playroom,” known today as the “family room.”  It was a garage my mother and father had converted by hand into a perfect facsimile of a revolutionary period great room, with a walk-in fireplace adorned with cast iron cooking arm, a cast iron soup pot, a dutch oven and a built in bread baking oven.

Exposed, hand-hewn beams lined the ceiling, and sofas benched the massive fireplace that was rarely in winter without an impressive blaze.  The fireplace had absolutely pitch perfect draw, and rarely smoked, no matter how massive the fire sitting deep against its back wall, beneath the ample flue.

The favorite place for both two legged and four legged critters was a massive floor pillow Mom had sewn that was half as wide as the fireplace’s yawning opening.  It was the place to be toasty warm – indeed beet red with fireplace heat – on a cold winter’s night – no night better than on December 24th when the tree was being trimmed and Mom was heating up the cast iron soup pot of Christmas Eve soup over the fire.

Thick, marrow-rich beef shank bones simmered among seasoned stewed tomatoes, with green beans, lima beans, corn, peas, and okra added in the night before to steep overnight above the smoking fireplace embers, to be heated up over the fire, and eaten hot, rich, and redolent on Christmas Eve with crusty French bread slathered in butter before Christmas Eve’s candlelit caroling service.

That year I was living at home again, it seemed right to re-live Christmases gone by.  Being together, the two of us — even only two of us — created the critical mass that all but demanded it.  Especially since Roberta Sheldon was also Mom’s housemate at that time – she who had formerly been the next door neighbor in what was the May-Sheldon compound and had spent countless holidays at our dining room table with the whole Sheldon clan.  Now, older and without her adored husband, David, she lived in my old room, sharing Mom’s house.  I had settled into the guest room for my extended stay.

So, despite the crippling pain of Mom’s scoliosis-twisted spine, we hauled out the big box of Christmas tree ornaments.  Each ornament spurred recollections of where it had come from, who the giver was, what the era was — the handmade raccoon ornament for instance, no doubt from the year Mom raised an orphaned raccoon from infancy to adulthood and liberated it eventually into a nearby wildlife sanctuary.  The blue astronaut recalled my brother Chris, to whom it was given, the colorful wooden tiger, my brother Blair, while the lovely wax ornaments, were given to me and recalled Mom’s trip to Austria or Germany that year.  The Snoopy ornament, with the letter C, was no doubt a gift for my sister, Caroline, who had a bedraggled, beloved, and graying stuffed Snoopy that she had had since childhood.

Mom and I recreated Christmases past that 2003 and were enjoying their renaissance until my once in a lifetime dog, a Rottweiler named Hannah, died days before Christmas.  Something twisted in her gut, and there was no choice but to have the vet put her down.  Others later told me that I was the only person blind to her increasing frailty and old age, so much did I want her to live forever.  My grief was immeasurable and raw.  I had anticipated moving into my new home with Hannah on January 1, the day after the closing, and now she was gone.  Wisely, Mom had seen this day coming and that Christmas, my cherished gift from her was a portrait of Hannah by a local photographer who captured her molten, loving eyes perfectly in a print that hangs today in pride of place here at my “new” home.

There are Christmases like that.  Like the Christmas “After Dad Left.”  You could have cut Mom’s grief and depression that year with a knife.  My childhood and indeed Christmases are bifurcated by the “After Dad Left” demarcation.  There is the “Before Dad Left” era, and the ADL era.  In fact, we moved Christmas from the formal living room to the family room sometime early in the ADL era, perhaps in part hoping that a change of venue would mean a change of memories.  That’s the tough part about Christmas.  It can become hitched up on hard memories too, not just the happy ones.

Like the Christmas Hanny died.  Or the first Christmas after Tim Sheldon died in an avalanche at age 21.  His body was found a day or so before my birthday by a German Shepherd K-9 rescue dog that reminded me of the German Shepherds that Timmy grew up with.

This placed Tim’s death a scant seven weeks before Christmas which had always been cause for one of the biggest, best joint holidays in the May’s Madhouse Motel/Sheldon compound.  That is what our neighboring households had become – a compound.  It was sort of a natural merger, despite the privet hedge between the houses, of two households with boys and girls of like age and tightly formed friendships.  Bible studies formed the bond between Mom and Roberta Sheldon, “Daddy” Sheldon became a surrogate dad to younger May’s in the ADL era.  Christmases, Thanksgivings, and Easters were all celebrated together at May’s Madhouse in a dining room that seemed to elastically provide a table suitable for 12 or 22, depending on the event and invitees.  And I’m sure that the Mays and Sheldons still in Pennsylvania gathered that year as well for Christmas dinner despite Tim’s death.  That’s a Christmas I’m glad I missed.  The one after Timmy died. The funeral was grim enough.

This is how Christmases get overlaid, embroidered if you will, with sadness.  Tiny, nearly invisible sequins of grief screw up that jolly old St. Nick-looking Christmas tree and spirit.  Suddenly that joyful season of happy childhoods, if you had one of those before a parent left, or before, as a friend of mine recalled at Christmas dinner this year, before your dad got drunk and violent, or before, before, before the age of innocence and happiness was shattered by some other event that creates a demarcation line.

That’s where the Christmas tree ornaments come in, I’ve decided.  Hence, the Christmas tree imperative – the reason it’s important to have a Christmas tree until one is simply too old to bother with one anymore.  Even then, perhaps it’s really time to have a pal or child or cherished friend help you put one up and take it down even when it seems like just too much bother.  Because you need to gaze on each of those lovingly collected ornaments over the 12 days of Christmas.  It’s a necessary advent to welcoming a new year of hope.

Each ornament is a small, individual, joyful antidote – a happiness inoculation – a pretty, funny, evocative, memory yarn of Christmas glee.  Ornaments are the aggregated, accumulated bits of beauty, smiles and belly laughs, warm connectedness that insulates the season against the tough, cold moments that dare to punctuate Christmas and indeed, puncture our seasonal joy with heavy sadness, sometime even cloaks of grief.

So even when it seems silly to go solo with a tree, as it did to me this year, go find a diminutive evergreen and erect it just as if you had 5 children gathering round it Christmas morning.  After all, Jane, the Dowager Cat, does seem to totally get it even though she’s just a cat.  She reserves her batting of the tempting ornaments for only the indestructible ones that skitter and slide harmlessly across the floor without breaking.

Shammie, too, despite the fact that she’s just a dog, understands the season.  She respectfully inspects the array of wrapped gifts beneath the tree twice a day for a week without actually tearing into any until The Day … Christmas Day … when her present (which she somehow picked out unerringly from all the rest from the very first) is centered on the floor, and she is told, “Good girl, Shammie.  Go ahead, open your present, girl!”  And with that, she paws open her present and hers alone.  Who’d have thunk it?!

In the days leading up to Christmas, and especially on the day itself when no children gather in my household to squeal with delight and rip into presents with little regard to enchanting paper and well-turned bows, and the little-bit-of-a-let-down-days after Christmas leading to New Year’s, the ornaments say it all.  Each brings a quiet, steady, and incorrigibly stubborn happy reminisce, a fragment of joyful memory, the shard of a smile, while tiny white lights glitter on irregular branches and the air is fragrant with evergreen smell.  What could be better than this?  O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, for all these happy memories, and even the sad ones cloaked softly in your bountiful green boughs, I thank thee.  I thank thee, oh little Christmas tree.  I thank thee!

It ended up being a beautiful and happy Christmas.  And to think I almost didn’t put up a Christmas tree!