Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Cold mornings


It's not easy sitting out in my sunporch/office in the morning typing on the computer these days. It's dark and cold in the morning! In fact, its hours before that rooms heats up because I'm trying to conserve energy as much as possible and leave the door closed - the wrap-around windows make it hard to keep the warm air in. But I'm drawn to the computer because it's like my lifeline to the outside world. Then when I'm typing I can only stand to stay for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, at which point I have to go back into the heart of the house so I can feel my hands again.

But - at this point in the year we are heading in the other direction and within a few short months we'll be talking about spring. Amazing how the time goes by! Season to season, year to year - we just keep rolling along in life and when we stop to look back over our shoulder we think "Where did it go?". All the more reason why we need to savor our days.

A headline recently declared this "The Worst Christmas Ever" because of the economy. What a sad commentary on the state of this society that just because we can't buy as many toys, or own as many cars, or enjoy as many trips, we somehow feel that we are "suffering". We're spoiled and fat from our wealth and our plenty and suddenly we're faced with coming to grips with what the truly important things are in life. If nothing else, I hope this economic downturn serves to remind people that our friends and family, our communities, our rich and full lives are what its all about, not how much money we have to play with. Perhaps the year 2009 will be one of discovery for us as a nation. I think if we have food on our tables and roofs over our heads we are wealthy beyond most standards.

So far I still have both, so I'm not complaining.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Blogging


I'm still learning the dangers of blogging. It's a strange thing to sit and type your thoughts - usually just a stream of consciousness for me - and put them out there into cyberspace. I know for myself I forget that once I push the "publish" button my thoughts are there for whole world to see if they want to. I guess in my mind I seriously doubt anyone would be interested enough in my thoughts to actually read this blog, so I don't think much about what I'm saying. But then every so often I get an email or a comment from a family member about how I offended them with something I said. Oops! You mean you actually read what I wrote??? Amazing!

It's the same false sense of privacy that our children have with the internet, I guess. Why else would they publish such personal information and photos on websites like facebook or myspace? I'm sure they assume no one other than their intimate friends would care to look - but surprise! Things seem to catch up with us pretty quickly here in the modern world of the internet.

That said, I'm going to attempt to be more careful in the future about what I say. Even my most sincere attempts to hide identities and alter facts enough to make them unrecognizable to those involved have not always been successful.

I'm thinking a disclaimer might be in order. How many remember the old Dragnet series from the early 60s? "The names have been changed to protect the innocent" That might work...

Monday, December 29, 2008

Old friends


I received an email from an old friend on Christmas morning. He said "I have the greatest memories of East Hampton at this time of year...do they still put the Christmas trees up in the village?...what a great place to grow up....". This friend moved to California when he graduated from college, married, and now has grown children living on the west coast so he'll most likely never come back here. And yet on Christmas morning, he was thinking about East Hampton.

I think East Hampton has a tendency to get under your skin like that when you grow up here. It's almost like a mythical place you remember - a Brigadoon or Shangrila. The hardest thing for people like my friend is in the coming back, because like every other place in the world, East Hampton has changed in the last fifty years. Those of us who stayed here still find it to be the wonderful place of our childhood - different but still special. But those that moved away, unless they come back often, tend to lose the connections that make it special. They think they don't know anyone here anymore - because they don't realize that the person who waited on them in the local restaurant is the grandson of one of their father's best friends. Or that the police officer who directed their car out of the parking lot is the son of one of their old buddies from high school. The precious threads that connect us as a community are lost when one moves away, because they can no longer follow the lives of those that stay - their marriages, their children, their grandchildren. It's different for us who are here - we watch the changes as they occur and we know the children of our friends because they went to school with our children - familiar names and faces that continue through the ages. We know that East Hampton is still full of connections because we live them. And for us, the community is in that way still as it was twenty, thirty, or forty years ago.

I miss those old and dear friends that I spent the first eighteen years of my life with - growing up, attending school, playing sports, dating, and learning to drive. There will always be a special place in my heart for them all. It's so nice to know that occasionally, even though they are far from here, they still think about us here in East Hampton with the same fondness.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Disbursement


Today is the day the family disburses and it brings a mixture of sadness and gratitude. I'm so grateful that everyone was home for Christmas this year - and so sorry to see some leave. Even those that live here are traveling now, off to visit other relatives in other places. So it will be an especially quiet week in East Hampton. Many people are traveling - and the holiday is over - so a peaceful calm will settle in.

I like the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. If we need to travel we can, and if we don't need to travel we have time to do things we usually don't - like walking into the village to see a late afternoon movie, or going to a restaurant for a quiet dinner. It's like the calm after the storm, when it's a pleasure to just sit back and survey the world. Even a walk along Main Street is a pleasure

I loved having children and grandchildren in my house for Christmas this year. It was memorable in so many ways. I hope they'll hold those memories in their hearts the way I will. I know they're memories that will warm me during Christmases to come - some not as much fun as this one was, no doubt. I miss my family when they're not here, and yet I know they have their own lives now, apart from us. It's as it should be. I'm happy that they are all grown and making their own way...but I miss them.

For my children, the best years are right now. (Not that I'm not enjoying life now, but I look back fondly at the years when my children were small - it was a magical time!) And when you're in those "best years" you tend to be so distracted that you miss a lot.

When I think back I'm amazed at the things I assumed I knew about my parents and their lives. As someone who is now the age they were then, I realize I really didn't know much of anything. I thought I understood their relationship and knew the way they thought. And I really guessed that I knew them - - and what they wanted in life, pretty well. Now I know better. I wish I'd taken the time to ask more questions when I could have. Because I would love now to know more about the dreams they'd had, their goals and desires, and how they felt about the way their lives evolved. What did middle-age feel like for them? Were they content with their lives or were there great regrets? So many unanswered questions. I was way too critical - and not as understanding - as I should have been.

When I think of my mother now I envision a young college graduate moving to a strange town and knowing no one. What was that like for her? Was she terrified? Was it stressful? Was she excited? All of the above? And at the end of the day was she happy with the choices she'd made?

Life is such a puzzle. Maybe its better we don't know the solutions to the puzzle - but I am by nature a person who wants answers.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Nice and easy


This year Christmas fell on a Thursday which makes for an especially nice long weekend. Pretty much everyone had Friday off so that means at least four full days to spend with family and friends, which is unusual for people like us who own businesses. It's a rare treat and makes for a nice, easy transition back to the work week on Monday.

Yesterday was all about recouperating from Christmas overload - too much trash and way too much food - and it was nice to have a day to recover. Today is about enjoying whatever family we have around us and anything interesting going on around town. I look at it as a "free" day, with no obligations, no schedule, no responsibilities. What a gift!

I'm not sure what the day will bring. I know tonight we'll be getting together with extended family - an opportunity to see neices and nephews and others from away - to catch up on their lives and remark at how much the children have grown. I welcome the time together and look forward to a fun evening. I hope the younger generation enjoys it as much as we do, but looking back on my own younger years I doubt it very much. Somehow the march of time does not effect us quite as much when we are still busy with little ones. It's in the looking back that we realize we need to cherish these times. Some lessons we learn later in life - too late for some but soon enough for others to make the most of whatever time we have left.

May I never be too old to learn such lessons...

Friday, December 26, 2008

The morning after


One of the funniest things to see the morning after Christmas is the local dump. Mounds of wrapping paper and ribbons being thrown into the bins and more cardboard toy boxes than imaginable going into the recycling containers. Wow. Did someone say the word "recession"?

It seems to me that as bad as the economy gets, we still are not suffering as a nation the way many others are around the globe. Hunger, cold, and the quest for clean water are things that many people deal with every day of their difficult lives - and yet we take them for granted. Times may be tougher than usual around here these days, but life is not depressing by any stretch of the imagination and the need to cut back on the number of luxuries we enjoy is not a real hardship.

Of course there are some in this country who are in the midst of hardship and I don't want to diminish them in the least. But for most of us, there is a roof over our heads and running water to drink. And we can find food to eat. We are blessed beyond words.

It is the morning after Christmas and we need to count our many blessings.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas


Today is Christmas and I hope for everyone who reads this blog that it is a wonderful holiday. When I think of the first Christmas I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the first, most amazing Christmas gift in the history of mankind. A tiny baby - sent to earth as an ambassador for God. It's such a crazy idea that it would have been impossible to make it up. And yet, for over 2000 years we've been celebrating this amazing day. It is truly one of the mysteries of life. And life needs more mystery as far as I'm concerned.

Merry Christmas to everyone reading this. And may this year be the one we truly do see the angels' prophesy come true: peace on earth and goodwill toward men. What a wonderful idea that is. I think it was more of a goal that God was setting before us than it was a proclamation. And it is a goal worth striving for.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve


When I was young Christmas Eve was a time of such exquisite anticipation that I could hardly stand it. I clearly remember one year when I swear I saw an elf peeking though the keyhole of my bedroom door while I was trying desparately to go to sleep. After a day of thinking about what I hoped to find under that tree when I woke the next morning I'm sure my brain was so frazzled I could have seen pink elephants if someone had suggested to me that they were in the room. I had a vivid imagination...no doubt about it...but still I can remember seeing something that night. It was probably my brother, but then - who knows?

When my children were little we didn't push the Santa thing too hard - like my parents before me, I talked about Santa as more of a wonderful fantasy we all loved. I would point to him at local shopping centers when we saw him and say "Oh look-a Santa Clause", but only one gift under the tree was said to be from Santa - the rest were from the people who had taken the time to buy and wrap them. We told the kids that Santa was something that even grownups liked to pretend about. So my kids were never overly crazed about Santa - and yet I clearly remember one beautiful clear winter night Christmas week many years ago when I looked out the front window with my three-year-old son and pointed to the sky. "Look - I think I can see Santa's sleigh right there" I said to him as I pointed skyward, and his eyes widened in awe as he "saw" it too. It's one of my favorite memories.

Our imaginations are wonderful things but as adults we don't make full use of them often enough. Christmas is a time when we can all be children in our hearts and our minds - we just need to open ourselves to the magic.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Entertaining III


Today I'm entertaining at home - I'm hosting a Christmas luncheon for the office staff where I "work". I enjoy the work I do so much I don't much think of it in terms of work, but I do get paid a small salary so technically it is.

Because I'm only there part-time, I depend on the very able full time staff to assist me in so many ways that I like to thank them at year's end by having them for a holiday lunch. Of course, someone has to stay back and answer the phones so in this case we leave the men to do that work and the women come to my house for an extended lunch hour. (Since I traditionally serve mimosas I'm not sure they're much good when they do get back to the office, but hey - it's the holidays!)

For me, entertaining is my way of showing people how special I think they are. I'm not a person of means so I can't just hand out Christmas bonuses or buy extravagant gifts. What I can do is treat people like royalty and make them know they are very much appreciated. And that's what I do. Taking them all to a restaurant might be simpler and easier, but it's not an option for me. And besides - I like making a fuss. It gives me an excuse to decorate a pretty table, get out the good china, and just enjoy the time together. I think everyone likes being fussed over - at least I know I do!

So the linens are washed, ironed and starched - because nothing seems as luxurious to me as crisply ironed linens! The table is set, the food is prepared, and they'll be here in a few short hours. As someone once said, any excuse for a party!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Friends and family


This past weekend was full of friends and family. Because its the weekend before Christmas, there were parties to attend and deliveries to be made and all in all I am tired today. But then, the best part of the holidays is time with friends and family so I'm not complaining!

Friday night we attended a retirement party for a friend whom I've known since Kindergarten - maybe before - but Kindergarten is where my first memories begin. It's hard to believe that I'm old enough to have friends who are retiring, but there it is, impossible to deny. She and her husband are planning to spend their winters in Florida so in some ways this was a farewell party, although they will be coming back here in the spring. The first "snowbirds" of my generation. Wow.

Saturday night we spent with a couple dozen friends - eating, drinking, and laughing together until the earliest hours of Sunday morning. It was a boisterous, joyful, fun night with people I truly like and reminded me somewhat of an updated version of the holiday parties we see on various movie versions of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol". Warm and happy times, simply celebrating life.

Sunday morning was the Christmas pagaent at church - always a highlight of the season - and then Sunday lunch at my neice's house. Spending time with my extended family is the most gratifying of all the holiday madness because it grounds me and causes me to focus on the heart of the season. Later Sunday afternoon we attended an Open House, again with friends, and again we enjoyed touching base with so many people and having the opportunity to wish them all a Merry Christmas.

Throughout all this weekend the weather was abysmal. Friday night it snowed and sleeted, Saturday it rained and sleeted, Sunday it rained and made a slippery, slushy mess of every walkway and road. But somehow I didn't mind it a bit. Because going out into the nasty weather is a small price to pay for being with the people I love.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Entertaining II


Writing the other day about my mother, who was the consummate entertainer, really produced so many memories. I loved watching Mom prepare for a dinner party when I was growing up - partly because she enjoyed it so much but also because entertaining in the late 50's and early 60's was so different than it is today. This was an era of real home entertaining, with participation games like "Charades" all the rage. It was a time before television took over our lives.

For me the best part was watching her get all dolled up. She'd slip into a pretty sheath dress - my favorite was the bright green knitted one with the big cowl neck collar - and then the real fun began. I was fascinated with her drawer full of costume jewelry, like over-sized enameled pins and drop earrings that were so popular at the time. And the bangle bracelets - how I loved those bangle bracelets! (Of course there were also the jangly charm bracelets and the strangely popular "pop-it" beads...a topic for another blog I think!) After the jewelry was in place it was time for the make-up. I coveted the little pot of cream rouge that made her cheeks so pink and pretty, and the lipsticks in colors that I haven't seen in over 40 years - like orange and hot pink - oh my.

When my mother got herself dolled up for an evening out with my father, or to host a dinner party, I thought she was the most glamorous thing in the whole world.

And it didn't end there. If she was entertaining at home, after she got dressed to the nines she went downstairs and reached into her apron drawer in the kitchen. She had a collection of aprons like none other - I still remember the drawer where she stored them by the back door. She'd made most of them herself because she was thrifty above all and the apron was as iconic in the 1950s as the boomerang table and melamine dishes. For special occasions she made special aprons and her Christmas aprons were my favorites - made from holiday fabrics with holly and poinsettias, or my favorites - the ones made from sheer red or green fabric and trimmed with giant rick-rack that could not really have been much help if she spilled anything, but they looked simply fabulous over those black sheath dresses. She was the very picture of the 1950s housewife in those fancy dresses and frilly aprons.

Ah yes, those were the days. Not that I'm ready to get the sewing machine out - I much prefer the ease of our washable fabrics which have pretty much done away with the need for fancy aprons. But there was something so welcoming about her home and I think it's sad that the era of entertaining like that is over. When I pull my linens out today and iron them people look at me like I'm insane....but I love to think there's a little of my mother left in this 21st century woman...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Snow...


It snowed yesterday and it was beautiful. It was such a nice snow - with very little wind - and it came down pretty heavily for most the afternoon - but oh it was so pretty!

Once darkness fell I happened to look out the front window and saw the tree my son had covered with white lights for Christmas this year. It's not a pine tree, just a maple, so the light strands are wound around the trunk and branches. With light bouncing all around, reflected in the snow which covered all the bark, it was stunning. It almost looked as though it were a painting, with each tiny branch outlined in white and then dotted with sparks of glitter. I remember thinking it looked almost too good to be real.

Unfortunately we had to go out in that snow in the evening as an old friend was celebrating her retirement with a party. So we pulled on our boots and headed into the cold to enjoy some time with friends. And it was worth the effort. Driving through the snow-covered streets and seeing the Christmas lights illuminating the now-white bushes and hedges was a treat. I was glad we had to venture out because it was tempting to sit at home in front of the fire. We would have missed a feast for the eyes...and the spirit.

The snow rarely lasts long here. I think seeing it when its fresh and lovely is a gift. Last night I opened that gift with joy...and was so grateful to the giver.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Entertaining


I am one of those people who really enjoys entertaining. I think I was always destined to be the "Martha Stewart" type because my mother was one and I loved watching her put together dinner parties and other things at her house.

Mom practiced an "open house" policy to the extreme but then she had the right house for it. Her feeling was that there was always room at the table for a few more people and always a bedroom if needed for a visitor. She didn't even have to know people to invite them into her home - often they were entertainers who were performing on a local stage or missionaries speaking at our local church. It didn't matter to her, they were all welcome. And they were treated like royalty while they were there. She fed them well, made it look easy, and always made them feel at home.

I wish I had the space that she did in her house. With her eat-in kitchen, a large living room, family room and den, she could seat forty if she was so inclined. And if seating was not an issue she had no qualms about having many more.

But alas, my house is a bit more humble than hers and try as I might I cannot manage to squeeze too many around tables without making it so impossibly tight that no one can visit the powder room.

Nevertheless, this is the season for entertaining and I enjoy doing it. I like the crisply ironed linens, the smell of good food cooking, the over-the top decorations, and the conversation with friends. And I have a husband who is a good assistant, which helps a lot!

Now if only I could find someone else to do the cleanup...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Shelter Island


I was lucky enough to be on Shelter Island yesterday for a luncheon meeting. I always enjoy going on the island and I've done it a number of times in the last few months. Somehow I've had reason to head north more than usual lately and it's been fun to use the ferry in various types of weather. I've never made that trip when its extremely rough and have no desire to do so, but I did get a little spray on my car a couple weeks ago crossing the bay. It's beautiful when the water is choppy, and the wind and strong tides make crossing more of an adventure in the winter.

Yesterday I had lunch at the Mashomack Preserve. I'm ashamed to say that I'd never been there before because it has to be one of the great gems of the east end: over 2000 acres of natural, untouched land taking up about a third of the entire island. It was bought in 1980 for 10 million dollars, which seems as though it must have been a bargain even then. The property includes a beautiful manor house that sits on the high point, overlooking Coecles Harbor, surrounded by a lovely clearing. It's extremely modest by today's standards (which are the ridiculous McMansions which obscure the landscape all over the east end) but it's still grand.

Built in the 1890s it features beautiful Arts & Crafts style woodwork, large french and dutch doors that open to the outside from every room, and fireplaces galore. In my mind it's the perfect example of how the well-to-do used to live out here: comfortable but not ostentatious - enjoying the land but not raping it. I understand that it's used now for retreats and fund raising events, and the Nature Conservancy (which owns the property) holds an open house for the residents of Shelter Island every December. What a great idea!

It was simply but elegantly decorated with nature-themed boughs of greens and feathers, dotted with seashells. Simply beautiful.

For years I've driven by the sign at the entrance to this property and yet I had never been there before. This one is going on my list of places to see on the east end. And I'm going back next summer to see it in it's best-dressed glory.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Dark mornings


We are back to those dark mornings I was so anxious to get rid of when it was time to turn the clocks back in October. It's 7am now and still pitch black out there and feels as though it's the middle of the night. Next week is the longest night of the year and then we should start to see things improve - slowly - throughout the next couple months. I just like to get up with the sun and dragging myself out of bed when it's this dark is not easy.

It did help with Christmas morning though when the kids were little. We used to tell them they couldn't wake us until it was starting to get light outside. When they were a little older we actually put an alarm clock on the floor outside our bedroom door on Christmas Eve and told them when the clock went off they could rush us. Of course, by 6:15 Christmas morning we could hear the four of them outside our room giggling and talking so it really didn't help us get any more sleep after a long night of stuffing stockings and getting gifts under the tree, but it was funny anyway. We would lay in bed listening to their conversation, the excitement in their voices so electric it was bouncing off the walls. There is nothing like having kids around on Christmas morning.

I think the best thing that kids do for us is remind us of our own childhoods and those feelings of exquisite anticipation that we felt every Christmas. We are blessed to have those memories and I know not everyone is so lucky.

We will have children in the house this Christmas morning and I'm looking forward to it, however early the day may start. Because there is wonder to be found in the eyes of a child and we need to be reminded that it's the wonder that makes life so worthwhile.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas food


What is it about certain foods that make them so identified with with the holidays that we barely even think of them at any other time of the year? The classic is, of course, fruitcake, which is universally loved or despised, depending on who you're speaking to - but who ever hears any mention of fruitcake in March? It's something that seems to appear in December and then go into hibernation until the next year rolls around.

And then there's ribbon candy. I've never seen ribbon candy anywhere at any time other than Christmas. I remember one Christmas when I was very young and someone gave my parents a box of beautiful ribbon candy for the holidays. I had never seen it before and the colors and shape were so intoxicating it nearly killed me. I must have eaten half the box before I felt physically ill. I haven't touched it since.

The same can be said for non-edibles like poinsettias, which are perfectly lovely flowers for any time of the year but somehow are only thrust upon us for the holidays. Why is that? And the fact that they are in such an abundance at Christmas makes us not really want to see them the rest of the year. And if we should be lucky enough to travel to some tropical island we see them looking extremely incongruous, blooming along the roadside in hedgerows in the heat of the day and it's startling, to say the least.

My favorite Christmas specialty is the iconic Christmas cookie. Some of my best recipes are ones I make only at Christmas (the cookie press Christmas trees come to mind) and I have no idea why. I could make them in another shape at any other time of the year and enjoy them equally well, but somehow they just aren't the same so I never do.

I guess it has to do with the fact that Christmas is a state of mind as much as anything else. It reminds me of that wonderful Hawaiian print muu muu you had to buy on your trip to Honolulu - somehow it's just not the same once you get it back to the mainland.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Lost weekend


My well-planned weekend turned into a wash out when I came down with a nasty case of food poisoning early Saturday morning. Instead of tackling the long list of things I needed to get done, I spent the entire day on the couch - between trips to the bathroom of course. I cannot remember when I felt so miserable before - I don't often get sick and I don't think I've spent a day sleeping in over twenty years. Since it was "only" food poisoning (as opposed to the flu or something more sinister) I was up and around and feeling much better by Sunday, but losing Saturday really hurt.

I'm a person who makes lists. I live by my lists, actually, and if something isn't on my list, chances are it might not get done. As my memory has deteriorated my lists have gotten longer because I realize I can no longer trust even the simplest things to be accomplished otherwise. My list for Saturday was a long one. This is not a good time to get sick.

Well, sometimes life throws us these little curves and the best we can do is work around them. I managed to get a few things crossed off by Sunday night and hopefully the others will be done by the time they're required. And if not, well - that's life! I know that the earth will not stop turning if I don't get everthing on my lists done.

It's going to be a busy week though as I combine what's left of my Saturday list with the lists I already have for each day coming up, and then work everything around my meetings and other business activities.

Suddenly the holidays just got a bit more hectic for me!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Decorations


Last Friday I made my regular trek to Hampton Bays to get my hair cut and it was fun to go so close to Christmas because I enjoy seeing how the other hamlets decorate for the holidays. Each community really has such a distinct personality and at this time of the year it really shows! In Hampton Bays they have these wonderful lampposts - acorn style I believe they're called - like we have in East Hampton on Main Street. But since their sidewalks are so narrow there's no room for lighted Christmas trees so they wrap each lamppost with greens and white lights. It's quite pretty and charmingly right for their tiny Main Street. I'd like to see it at night - it must be so nice.


East Hampton's trees have taken on a slightly different look this year. In an effort to "go green" and conserve energy wherever possible, the village has begun to replace worn out light strands with LED lights. Interestingly enough, the LED lights are much more dominant in the blue and green range as opposed to the regular lights which are more orange-red dominant. The result is that every other tree along Main Street and Newtown Lane is clearly different - some more orange and red, others more blue and green. Eventually, as the old lights wear out, they'll become more consistently the same and no one will notice the difference, but this year there is no doubt about the change and I'm sure it has some people wondering what happened. But either way, East Hampton always looks really nice at Christmas.

And then there's Sag Harbor. I haven't seen it at night yet this year but for many years they've been decorating their trees along Main Street in an oddly haphazard style, making them look a bit as though someone walked along and tossed strands of lights into the air and never checking exactly where they landed. It's not quite my style - I tend to go for a bit more order in such things - but it does sort of fit the Harbor somehow. And that's all I'll say about that.

Overall I love the lights at Christmas. White, blue, multi-colored or gold - I love them all. And winter always seems so much darker when they come down in January.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A wonderful life


Tonight I've planned what I consider the perfect holiday evening at home. After a couple weeks of being out every night, and attending so many different functions, we've made the decision to stay in tonight. So - after checking the TV schedule I know what we'll do. I'm going to make a big bowl of popcorn and we'll sit close together on the couch in front of the fireplace watching my favorite holiday movie, "It's a Wonderful Life". I know its dated and I know there are many other really good Christmas movies out there, but I have yet to find one that hits the mark the way that old classic does. Perhaps because the fact that its set during Christmas week in the final scenes is really anecdotal. The real story has to do with bigger issues of the human race and our connections to one another, and the way we can and do affect one another's lives in both positive and negative ways. It's a story of community - and the brotherhood of the human race when we are at our best.

I never fail to watch that movie without shedding tears. And I also never fail to walk away from a viewing without vowing to be a better person, to reach out more to my fellow man, to make sure that I am making the most of the resources that I have, and to make my life count for something. To me, that's what a good movie should do - not just entertain, but challenge us to be better.

When my children were small we watched "It's a Wonderful Life" every year while we set up the Christmas tree, or as soon thereafter as it would appear on TV. Now that we are in the age of DVRs I realize I could watch it any time I want to, but for me its all about a Saturday night close to Christmas, watching with people that I love.

So tonight my husband will humor me one more time and I'll make the popcorn. Because it really is a wonderful life!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Christmas countdown


It's now less than two weeks before Christmas. I have to think that this year, from Thanksgiving to Christmas, went more quickly than most. I have no idea why, because according to the calendar we actually had more time this year than some. Regardless, I felt a little rushed.

This is a melancholy time for me, as it is for so many other people. We miss our loved ones when they are gone, and yet life goes on and we need to be "in the moment" as well as in the past. It's a delicate balance. But I really miss my Mom - this is only my second Christmas since she died.

Mom loved Christmas. If not for her we wouldn't have had very happy holidays at my house because my father, for whatever reason, was not a big fan of all the fuss. I like to think it had something to do with some unhappy memories he had of his own past Christmases - either from his difficult childhood or the years he spent in the freezing cold on the front lines during WWII. But my brother would no doubt say it was just because Dad was tight with his money and watching it being spent so freely on things like gifts and decorations was not his idea of fun.

Whatever the reason, his negative energy was counteracted by Mom's unabashed love of all things Christmas. She decorated the house with taste and entertained with abandon. She wrapped gifts and hid them in the attic for weeks ahead of time, all with no real participation from Dad. When I think of the things she accomplished every Christmas in the course of a few short months I am amazed. Especially with four small children and no help from anyone else! I may not have appreciated her efforts then, but I do now.

So Christmas is, in many ways, all about memories of Mom for me. Fortunately one of Mom's greatest gifts was the appreciation she gave me for family, and that's what will get me though the sad times coming up. She knew the secret to happiness, my mother. It was faith, family, and a sense that everything in life has a purpose. I'm hanging fast to those ideals because I want to be as content and at peace as she was when she left the world.

I miss you a whole lot Mom! But thanks so much for everything.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Lighthouse


We took a drive down to Montauk Sunday night to check out the newly decorated lighthouse. This is the first year that they've done the Christmas lights and we wanted to see how it looked. It is, in a word, cool. They have totally outlined the entire place, the keepers house, the tower, the walkway - it's beautifully done and when you first catch a glimpse of it through the trees as you approach you realize that photos really do not do it justice.

We stopped first at the front gate and took a good look at it, and then we drove up to the upper level parking lot to see it from that angle, which was really the best viewing area. From there you could see it all and it stood proudly against the black night sky. I know that the lighthouse is a huge draw for people from all over Long Island, but I think when you grew up in East Hampton it is especially significant. It's one of those constants in your life - a stronghold against the storm. It inspires just by its presence - still standing vigil over 200 years since it was built.

I'm so glad they decided to give that old lighthouse a little extra dressing this year. What a sweet addition to an East Hampton Christmas.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

My Christmas sweater


I pulled my Christmas sweater out last week. About 5 years ago I gave away all Christmas sweaters, vests, and blouses with the thought that they were becoming a sort of "overdone" thing. When I'd bought them they'd seemed festive and pretty. Unfortunately I wasn't the only one who thought that way and they seemed to crop up on every other person walking down the street so I tired of the whole phenomenon. But then, two Christmases ago my thinking changed again.
That was the year my mother was dying of cancer. She was given 2 to 6 months to live when she was diagnosed in July of '06, but she was determined to shop for everyone that Christmas and kept asking me for ideas: should she get gift certificates? where would everyone like to shop?, etc. Then the Lands' End catalog arrived in the mail with their Christmas sweaters and I asked her what she thought and an idea was hatched. She bought 41 matching red and white sweaters from size 6 months to XXXL. On Christmas morning she held them until everyone was at her house and then had everyone open at once. The living room became a sea of red and white as everyone pulled their sweaters from the boxes. Suddenly we were united in a unique way. We all put them on - including her because I bought her one too - and we walked out to the back yard where a friend had been pre-booked to snap a photo - the same photo we all have in an extra large format now, hanging in our homes. It was a Christmas I'll never forget.

Mom died two weeks later. The Christmas sweaters became a touchstone for us as we worked our way through the grief - some of her grandchildren wore them throughout the visiting hours and funeral. I still have little sticky notes in my home office with her handwriting on them: "Duane - L; Dan - XL; Kim - M" which she handed to me in the weeks leading up to the holiday, suddenly remembering a boyfriend or girlfriend that she wanted to include. I can't bring myself to throw them out.

My Christmas sweater will never be thrown away. It may very well be in tatters one day but my children are going to have to deal with this one...

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Monday night

Monday night East Hampton proved to me yet again that it's a great place to live. We met at the church to pack up the boxes with all the donations we've received for the two Marine units that an East Hampton boy is serving with in Iraq.

When we put the call out a few short weeks ago for donations I never expected the amazing response that we'd get from the community. For three weeks people have been calling, e-mailing, and stopping by my house to find out what they could do. Donations of candy, socks, games, books - all kinds of things - poured in. As the pile in the church grew I looked on in amazement and wondered how we were ever going to get everything boxed up and ready to mail. I even received a call from LCpl. Jordan Haerter's father (Jordan was from Sag Harbor and was tragically killed last April in Iraq) who wanted the Jordon Haerter Fund to pick up the mailing costs. Businesses, like White's Pharmacy and Kahn's Sporting Goods wanted to make contributions. The Town PBA wanted to know what they could buy for us. And offices from as far away as MTV in NYC called to see what they could bring. Most gratifying of all were the dozen or so knitters who offered to knit a special glove/mittens pattern out of the wool the church had purchased. Amazing, all of it.

Then last night we met in the church sanctuary to sort the piles of donations and pack them for mailing. I assumed there would be about ten of us doing all the work. There were about thirty people who came - some church members, some strangers. With very little instruction they all jumped in and worked for over two hours, sorting, bagging, boxing and labeling the nearly fifty mailing boxes we eventually put together. Then, because a volunteer from the post office had come to help, we loaded the boxes into trucks and took them over to the Wainscott Post Office at 9:45 and offloaded them so the staff there could get them ready for pick up today.

At the end of the evening we lit candles and sang "Silent Night" as we stood around those packed boxes, each with a photo of LCpl. Jordan Haerter stuck onto the side with a notation that they were being mailed out in his honor. As the pastor prayed for the boxes' arrival and the safety of those that they were destined for, the tears flowed freely all around.

Just one more reason why I love East Hampton.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Christmas pageants


Yesterday afternoon I rehearsed for the annual Christmas pageant at church. My daughter, the director of the program, asked me to do a small speaking part and I was happy to oblige since I've been involved in this annual rite of passage my entire life.

In my earliest memory of being in a pageant I played the angel Gabriel - I must have been about 5 or 6 years old. I loved the beautiful wings I wore and I still remember my lines like it was yesterday. It was a huge moment! I had to come out of a door on the right side of the platform and climb a small step ladder to make my pronouncement from "above" the assembled shepherds "in the field".

In later years I was chagrined to discover that my grandmother, who was always in charge of the Christmas pageant at my church, had this strange notion that Mary had to be blond. (I guess she didn't quite get the geography of Bethlehem...). Since I was not even close to being blond I would never be considered for this role. I was crestfallen. Even in those days I had visions of grandeur and imagined myself a great thespian. How could I not get the lead role in the biggest "show" of the year? Grandma did her best to make me feel important by always giving me a solo to sing, but it just wasn't the same. And, of course my younger sister - my major rival in life - was a blond, which just rubbed salt into the wound because SHE eventually would get to play Mary! (When I was directing Christmas programs in later years I made sure that the Virgin Mary was different every year - blonds, brunettes, redheads - they all had an equal opportunity shot at stardom!)

We have only a few more weeks of rehearsals left and then the magic happens for these children - the costumes and the performance. My grandson is already talking about the angel wings he's going to wear.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Party time


Last night we attended two parties and that's pretty typical of the holidays - too little time and way too much to do! For many weeks, throughout the rest of the year, we'll go without so much as a decent movie to go see on any given weekend, but during the holidays we have to make all these choices about what we can actually manage to do. We're double and triple booked most weekends and making choices about which event to attend can be hard!

Mind you it has nothing to do with being particularly popular or anything - it has much more to do with the fact that we're both active in many community organizations. Most of the events are offered by local charities and non-profits, so we try to prioritize according to how personally involved we are. If it's an invitation to a friends' home that always takes precedent over something like a charity event. But sometimes its fun to visit the charity parties because you get to rub elbows with people you wouldn't ordinarily see. And, as I mentioned last week, we were able to see inside a beautiful home on Main Street by attending an event sponsored by the Historical Society. Those are unique opportunities I like to take advantage of whenever possible.

I just wish I could take all this activity and spread it out over the winter - say from December through March. The darkest months would be so much brighter if we were able to get out and socialize a little more. And how beautiful would it be to have those Christmas decorations up just a little longer?

Maybe we can start a trend: Celebrating Christmas for three months instead of one!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Lantern tours


One of the most enjoyable things I do in the fall is assist with local lantern tours - walking tours of the historic district in the village. Our tour guide is a man of great wit and humor and is a wealth of information and I learn something new on every tour. My role is very small - I start it off with a little explanation of the founding of the town and how the Puritans ran things for the first 200 years or so. Then the participants take their lanterns, each an authentic reproduction lit with a candle, and we all walk along the sidewalk as our tour guide entertains and teaches us with all he knows about the history of East Hampton. Its a lot of walking and I'm tired when I get home, but I enjoy it nonetheless.

I think the thing I most enjoy is the opportunity to step out of the present day and travel back in time for a couple hours, glimpsing life in the early days here. We wear costumes - tonight they'll be complete with heavy wool capes - and as I watch the lanterns bobbing along in front of me I really can imagine East Hampton in another era. It's a little bit of magic - and I love the magical things in life.

Now, if only we could do something about all that traffic noise....it really doesn't do a thing for the ambiance...

Friday, December 5, 2008

Choir


Last night was choir rehearsal and we worked on music for the Lessons & Carols service this coming Sunday. I have to say, I love Christmas music above all other seasonal music, sacred or otherwise. There's so much joy in every piece, which makes them fun to sing. Every melody is uplifting and I actually look forward to the work that's involved in practicing.

A choir in a small town is an interesting thing. One Sunday there may be 12 people singing - the next 20. Or in the case of some churches, 8 one week and 4 the next. Choir directors have my greatest sympathy because I 'm sure it's not easy trying to plan ahead when you have no idea who'll show up any given Sunday. It's the nature of the beast and there's no way around it - there's only so much we can demand of volunteers, but it's a gift to be able to participate in music at any church - it's the best kind of worship for me. Perhaps not always the greatest for those listening, but for the participants at least, it's heaven on earth!

Sunday will be wonderful - an entire service of scriptures and music that tell the Christmas story from beginning to end. There's a lot of preparation that goes into such an endeavor, but the end result is worth the effort.

May we learn our "lessons" well and sing our "carols" with gusto. What a great way to spend the first Sunday in December.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Decorating the house


Yesterday the Christmas decorations started going up around the house. I've found that in 30+ years of marriage I've accumulated way too many seasonal decorations, and never put them all up anymore. So this year I'm weeding them out and tossing some. Which sounds great, but isn't easy.

The biggest challenge for me is the handmade angel swag which I sewed together the first year we were married. I'm sure my children think it's quite ugly and can't imagine why it's survived this long. It is looking very sad these days - and truthfully it's not my taste anymore (too 1970s country style) but it evokes memories that are so dear that it breaks my heart to think about getting rid of it. I think about our first place together, of sitting at the sewing machine working with those scraps of material I managed to beg, borrow, and steal from relatives and friends because I couldn't afford to go out and buy new, and of hanging it up in our tiny little house when it was finally done. I remember it so well-the satisfaction I had in that completed treasure and the sense of peace and happiness in that house. Our first Christmas together as a family - with a tiny newborn baby of our own - and it was a magical time.

Sometimes items become so much more than the sum of their parts. I will probably throw it out - it's on the floor in a pile of other things that are going to the dump. But every time I pass it I feel a little tug at my heart. There it is, all of maybe two yards of fabric - with embroidered angel faces with bright green calico gowns, red bows, and white angel wings, all strung together in a long doorway swag. There are stains on the fabric and the bows are crushed, and its not much to look at. I can never bring myself to hang it anymore. But to me it represents the love and commitment that lived in that little house all those years ago, and hours of time spent at the sewing machine in an attempt to bring a little Christmas spirit into that house.

It may not look like much but it speaks volumes to me.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Guilty pleasures


One of the most enjoyable guilty pleasures during the holidays is sitting down on a comfortable chair, putting your feet up, and doing nothing. Because there's always something that needs to be done somewhere around the house or the yard - lights to string or cookies to bake or gifts to wrap. And that's just at home.

Honestly I think we should stop thinking about rest and relaxation as a guilty pleasure. Somewhere along the line we've gotten the idea that just stretching out and doing some mindless TV watching - or settling in with a good book - is not "doing anything" and I beg to differ. I think letting the mind rest from the constant barrage of demands - and the body rest from the non-stop running around is probably one of the best things we can do for ourselves.

So...I am declaring that from now on everyone should have at least one hour of rest and relaxation every day. Regardless of whether its reading or napping or doing a craft project, everyone needs to do something that makes them happy and rests their souls.

It's my holiday gift to the world.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Around town


I can see that the highway departments are busy these days getting the decorations up all over town, and I can't wait until they're all done. We attempted to go out to the Montauk Lighthouse Saturday night for what we thought was going to be a quaint little small-town lighting ceremony, only to have to turn back when there was no place to park. I was disappointed in that - but we'll make a drive down there again this week to see the place all illuminated for the first time.

I love the Currier & Ives feel that East Hampton and the surrounding communities take on at Christmas. From my house I can see two large evergreen trees and the Hook Mill all dressed in lights, and that's such a treat. Since the grand kids are going to be here this year we're going to get the snow village down from the attic and get that put together. It's been a few years since we made that effort, but I know they'll be awed by it when its lit up at night.

I'm not sure where the whole holiday lighting tradition came from other than the tiny candles that used to be placed on Christmas trees, but I love it. Even more so since they started producing those tiny lights that we use now. Throughout my childhood we had those huge multi-colored bulbs on the tree, but these little ones just twinkle and sparkle in a magical way - I'm thrilled every time I see them.

I love the holidays. I love the decorations and the parties and the atmosphere. Mostly I love the reason for it all. Peace on earth. What a wonderful goal.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Another Monday


Another Monday with so much to do. Now that we're down to crunch time for Christmas I have a long list for the week that includes trips west or north in the car and decorations to get down from the attic.

At this time of year I'm especially jealous of those people lucky enough to have lots of storage in their homes. Because mine was built in the 1920s we have tiny little closets and an attic that's difficult to access. Combine that with a basement that's prone to getting wet and the result is very little storage at all. Which is most inconvenient at this time of the year. Because decorating the house for Christmas involves pulling down the attic stairs and forming a human chain from attic to second floor to pass boxes full of decorations down to the end. And it means decorating the house and then shlepping all those boxes back up the pull-down stairs until we take all the decorations down in January, at which point we drag everything up and down again. I'd give anything for nice storage areas on the first or second floor where I could stash all those things!

At this point in my life I find myself thinking more and more about how we'll be able to do it all in another ten or fifteen years. It's not as easy as it used to be and I know we won't be able to do it forever. But I love dressing the house up for the holidays and as long as I can I will.

Mondays are good days because the whole week is ahead of us. It seems that there's plenty of time to get things done. But I need to get busy if I want the house decorated by the weekend...