Tuesday, January 25, 2011

My napery and chandlery

I thought we “downsized” (and I was pretty darn pleased about it), but last week we purchased an “entertainment center” (translation: oversized slabs of shelving configured in the shape of a bookcase) on which to perch TV and Comcast’s mandatory “box,” as well as DVD player and stereo. What were we thinking!

By introducing a new unit of furniture into a room with limited space, we have succeeded in overcrowding it. Thus far, the only nominee for elimination is “the mahogany chest”—a four-drawer chest purchased by my mother early in her homemaking career. Because I can’t remember life without it, I am momentarily traumatized by the idea of giving up this piece.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, the chest housed candles, wrapping paper, and a stash of activities for when the children were sick. If either my sister or I stayed home from school because of illness, Mother would fish around in one of the mahogany chest’s drawers until she came up with a “could-you-please-amuse-yourself-for-a-little-while” item: a new coloring book, a book of paper dolls, or a creative activity box of some sort. One time it produced a ‘make your own jewelry’ kit chock full of seashells, pin-clasps, wire and glue. In the length of a two-day bout of asthma, I produced a variety of jewelry resembling the stuff sold in Hawaiian drugstores. I threw away the last of those seashell pins before I started college.

Since 1969 when the mahogany chest came into my possession, it has been my main repository for table linens and candles. In nineteenth century British terms—per Bill Bryson’s recent book, At Home—it serves as my napery and chandlery. I am not sure I can bear to part with such an essential piece of furniture.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Letters from another era

World travel as we know it today would be a source of shock and awe for someone whose travel ceased in the early sixties. My father would faint—I’m sure—if he could see the sweat-suits, the shorts and tees, the floppy, sloppy clothing we Americans travel the world in. Not to mention the lightweight wheeled suitcases we drag. He used heavy leather luggage (almost heavier empty than my current suitcase full) engineered to endure the trials of plane and rail travel, and he wore a suit, starched shirt and necktie on every segment of his three-month journey.

He toted his business supplies, too: paper, pens, business cards, stationery, English dictionary (for spell check in reports mailed to his office), and note cards to organize his fact finding. A bit heavier and more difficult to travel with than a laptop.

His luggage contained a week’s worth of starched white shirts, an array of ties, several silk and seersucker suits, plus a straw hat for the tropics; a wool suit, overcoat and felt hat (for the Aleutian Islands refueling stopover); a sport coat and un-starched shirts for leisure sightseeing. In addition to the usual accoutrements, such as shaving supplies, tie-clips and cuff links, handkerchiefs and belts, not to mention underwear, pajamas and even slippers, he lugged gifts for the wives and children of associates who invited him into their homes, and gifts for the businessmen who entertained or hosted him on sightseeing trips. He took small amounts of currency for each country, in case the banks were closed when he got there (no ATMS), and letters of credit in case more currency was needed. Remember, this was before Visa cards!

I find my jaw dropping occasionally, as I read the letters written by my dad during his first out-of-the-country business trip. He spent three months and visited Japan, Korea, Okinawa, Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand. He had done his homework about each country—its culture, its highlights, its business climate—all without the benefit of Google or Wikipedia. He was curious, gracious, and remarkably open minded. In that first trip, he saw as much of each country as he could squeeze in, made acquaintance with hundreds of people in his field, deftly accomplishing his business goals.

And then, every two or three nights, he sat in his hotel room and wrote, in longhand, letters—each one between 1,000 and 1,500 words—to share with his family his experiences. Thirty-two letters are in my possession, and he mentions other letters and cards he wrote to friends, as well. It makes texting and tweeting and phonecards seem almost ludicrous in contrast.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Hey, Dad, like my blog?

Currently, I am transcribing longhand letters written by my father in 1959 while on his first trip to the Orient. These three-and-a-half dozen, multi-page letters, written while away on a three-month trip, were tucked away by my mother, who--I'm quite certain--anticipated his enjoyment of them in his old age. Trouble with that plan was his premature death just four years after he wrote them. At that point the letters became sacrosanct--and have been carted around, first by my mother, then by me, for the past fifty-two years.

Now I'm finding them enormously fun to read from my viewpoint as an old woman, almost twenty years older than he was at the time of his travel. Plus, fifty years later, the world has changed aplenty. Plus, tourism has changed aplenty. Add to that our vast culture-bleed and access to all things foreign via Internet, and I might as well be reading Lewis and Clark's letters!

I have wondered in the past couple of years what my dad would have thought of my blog. Oops--think I might have found a clue in this excerpt of his May 10, 1959 letter, in which he is telling Mother in the letter that he declined an invitation from an American business associate to socialize with some American friends living in Tokyo:

" . . . I told him I was busy and could not join him, as I get damned sick of conversations limited to the first person singular, and I have all I can stand of that without having it inflicted on me on Sundays, as well."

What is a blog if not a one-sided conversation revolving around the first person singular?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Enduring friendship

When my husband and I relocated from Milwaukee area to Seattle in 1986, one of the reasons to celebrate was being nearer to many dear friends we had left behind when we moved away from Seattle fourteen years earlier.
Among those friends were Pat and Patsy O'Brian. Pat and Hubby had become friends in graduate school and continued an especially close relationship. Pat had informed us of his leukemia when we were living in Milwaukee, but he'd been holding his own and had seemed fairly robust the several times we had seen them in the prior two years.
When we arrived in Seattle in September of that year, it was apparent Pat was losing ground to his illness. We invited them over for dinner at Christmastime so our kids, who were "home" for the holidays, could visit with them. The O'Brians were among our kids' most favorite adults. When Pat and Patsy departed that evening, Hubby and I walked them out to the car. Pat turned to us and said, "You know, I won't be seeing your kids again. They have become lovely adults, and you can be proud."
He died in April of 1987.
I recently came across this poem, which I mailed to him a few days after I wrote it. Reading it brought back memories of our friend, one of the nicest human beings you'd ever want to meet. Here it is, offered in Pat's memory.
            To Pat O’Brian
I wanted you to be behind me
on the road, so I could stop to wait
for you whenever I needed to.
You always know what to say,
like “cackleberries,” “geegaw,”
and “You’re beautiful, Sal.”
You make me laugh.
But I’m not entirely sad,
knowing you will be standing
in the light, smiling, welcoming,
when I finally catch up.
I know how to talk with you.
I’m never shy with you.
Except now. Now I don’t know
what to say, except, “Damnit,
I wanted you to stay behind.”
I would play hostess and
welcome everyone. And when you
finally caught up you’d tell me,
“You’re beautiful, Sal,” and hug me.
And we’d laugh.
Three months isn’t even a season.
It isn’t even deep breath, nowadays—
just a shallow intake. I take some small
comfort knowing you’re ahead of me
and I will catch up.
And when I do, you’ll be smiling,
and you’ll probably say
“You’re beautiful, Sal.”
and then I’ll laugh.

© 2011 by Sara J. Glerum
All rights reserved. Electronic version published 2011

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Resolved: No resolutions

If I were a New Year’s resolution maker, I would already be feeling guilty six days into the 2011. No doubt about it, I wouldn’t have been as strict or disciplined as I’d intended and I’d be beating up on myself over failure to eliminate undesirable behavior.

Many years ago I learned that when I’m ready for change, I change. The two most significant and painful changes I've ever made happened on Sept. 29, 1989, and March 16, 1991, when I gave up drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes, respectively. You can conclude correctly, without any help from me, that new year’s resolutions played no part in those personal makeovers. I believe until the right time comes along--prompted by an interior change--there’s nothing to gain by superimposing big personal plans on self.

So the new year has arrived, and I am doing nothing differently. Well, maybe I'm cursing a little bit more in parking lot at the YMCA, as I try to find a space for the car. A lot of people out there obviously make resolutions to be more fit and active. Apparently they're all members of my Y and need to show up there precisely at the same time as my aerobics class. By February, if my observations in the past four years remain consistent, there’ll be plenty of parking spaces again.

Meanwhile, I take this moment to congratulate myself for skipping the resolutions.