Reflections by Katie Butler Johnson
Awhile back, I was invited to a “Paint and Sip Wine” event at an upstairs art studio in downtown McKinney. I’ve always enjoyed viewing artists’ works but claim no apparent artistic talent. What I do have in abundance is - curiosity. So, off I went.
Seated in front of the easel supporting my blank canvas, with helpful prompts, suggestions, encouragement and cheering from the roving staff (plus a swallow or so of merlot), I managed to paint a flower. The quality of this masterpiece could be summed up by my daughter’s response who, when she first viewed it on my kitchen wall and didn’t know I was the artist, said with disdain: “Where did THAT come from?”
I may not have the talent for art, but my friend Marie Renfro has that talent in spades. She’s an artist who was born wired with a passion for art. From a child with crayons, to a teen with a keen eye for drawing, to a grad student painting canvases and firing ceramics, to teaching college level art - Marie never wavered from her dream of being a professional artist. Her works span many types of art. She’s in love with color and lines and spheres and textures. Though her early work produced some representational art, her current works are contemporary. She paints with strong emotional expression - in oil, acrylic and water color.
I met Marie in a water aerobics class at the Allen Natatorium over a dozen years ago. Splashing around in class at the Allen pool and scurrying about after to towel off, we’d snatch moments to chat and share bits about each other. We began as acquaintances and have completed that journey to friendship. Over the years I keep discovering more about my friend.
Marie’s list of achievements is long. She has a Master of Fine Arts Degree from Texas Woman’s University in Denton; studied in Switzerland, France, Holland, Italy, England and Russia; taught art at Collin Community College for 8 years; has works published in Southwest Art Museum and in books: “Translating the Prairie” and “Journey’s to Abstraction” by Sue St. John. She won the title Plano Profile Artist of 2010 and just recently captured the Contemporary Watercolorists of Arizona Award in the Western Federation of Watercolor Societies.
If you’re curious about her work, check her website: marierenfro.com. You can see her paintings for yourself. They’re displayed locally at the Richardson Public Library, Texas Woman’s University, Presbyterian Hospital of Plano and the Allen Public Library. You may already have seen her pieces if you were in to Gallery VIII in West Plano between the time it opened in 1982 and closed 21 years later. She was one of the founding members. Or, perhaps you were in one of the art classes she held at her home studio or went on one of the November studio tours she used to hold.
Years ago, Marie lost her 15 yr. old son to a tragic car accident. She shared with me that painting helped her soldier on through that period of loss. Her paintings have emotional depth because Marie has emotional depth and she paints her emotions.
As to my lack of artistic talent - just because I’m convinced I have no artistic ability doesn’t mean I won’t give it another try some day. We’re never too old to head off in a new direction.•
There’s something many of us have missed this past year - traveling! Whether it was in Texas, to California to visit family or to a bucket-list location, I canceled all my travel plans when the pandemic arrived. But, that didn’t stop my travel dreams.
I felt my life was in a holding pattern while time was slipping away. I was eager to get that elusive vaccine and start traveling again. Now fully vaccinated, I’m ready to go - but only if I can go safely. Travel companies understand this and are planning trips that require participants to show proof of completed Corvid 19 vaccinations and of being Corvid-free at the start of the trip. So, if there’s somewhere you’ve been eager to go and you find a scheduled trip that fits your wants, now’s the time to make a reservation. Due to the pent-up demand for travel, trips toward the end of 2021 and all of 2022 may fill quickly.
Where to travel? For me . . . possibly a river trip? . . . .a paddleboat float down the Mississippi?? . . .a sail on the Danube?
What got me thinking about river trips was a book my book club read this past January: “River of Doubt.” It took us along as Theodore Roosevelt made a daring expedition in 1913/14 down one of the uncharted, tributaries of the Amazon. That 472mile headwater was officially renamed “Roosevelt River” to honor Roosevelt and for his courageous feat.
The book’s author, Candice Millard, is a journalist and was an editor for National Geographic. She researched the Roosevelt expedition and wrote a well-documented and suspense-filled account. Check a map of the Amazon river system and you’ll see just where the Roosevelt River is. I won’t spoil your reading adventure by revealing the intrigue and missteps that occurred, but will tell you that you’ll feel you’re right there among the explorers as they deal with all they encounter.
My husband and I traveled down the Amazon in 2002. The trip was on my husband’s to-do list. I’m glad we got to do it as he passed away in 2003. Our Amazon experience was vastly different from Roosevelt’s. Our trip was thoughtfully plotted, well provisioned and expertly guided by a seasoned travel company. I’ve 4 scrapbooks with pictures reminding me of it all.
We encountered pink dolphins in the river; Made jungle excursions both on the ground and on elevated walkways; Enjoyed a symphony in the elaborate Manus Opera house which was built by the rubber barons; Encountered monkeys who stood nearby ready to snatch our food at remote picnic spots; Visited a native Amazonian family living on the river and watched them play in their front “yard.”; Experienced an elaborate Carnival in Parintins. Both the trip and the the memories of the Amazon were well worth enduring the heavy humidity, random showers and endless bad hair days!
Did you know there is a canoe trip down Dallas’ Trinity River? I didn’t until my friend Marietta invited me to join her and her friends on one. She jokingly described the trip as “4 canoes and a hippy” but neglected to say that “hippy” was actually a knowledgeable naturalist. I learned much about North Texas native plants and animals and was amazed at the beauty that hidden and waiting for me to discover just a stone’s throw from downtown Dallas! That trip is still available should you want to check it out.
If you want to travel but can’t, why not travel through the pages of a book? It’s what our Book Club did with the “River of Doubt.” There are libraries filled with books that will take you to all sorts of places without you having to leave home.
I wish you all Happy Trails on your next trip - whether that trip be real or virtual. •
Last winter, when just whispers of a new virus were in the air, I traveled to Central America.
I didn’t know at the time, but that would be the last time I stepped out of North Texas.
When I returned in mid-February from the trip, there was a seismic challenge barreling toward us: Covid19. It arrived with more unknowns than knowns. One of the big unknowns was how to respond to it. I felt I fell down that rabbit hole and each time I’d try to climb out, I got “whack- a-mole(d)” back down.
After about a month of self-indulgence, I figured I wouldn’t get anywhere just bemoaning what I couldn’t do. I set out to do what I could. I could use this time-out Covid had forced on me to get into shape. I cut out sugar and began brisk walking in my neighborhood. At first, I couldn’t make it more than a mile. But, I kept pushing. Today, 8 months later, I’m walking up to 5 miles most mornings. I’ve gained stamina and lost 18 lbs. And, best of all, I‘ve made new neighborhood friends- both human and canine- along the way.
Many families include a pet dog. Unlike their human counterparts who don’t want to be stuck at home for long stretches of time, these dogs are loving all the extra time they’re getting to be with their people. It’s been fun to meet them out walking together and see which dogs own which humans. Let me introduce you to just a few.
There’s Skye, a gorgeous Weimaraner. She never met a person she didn’t like. She’ll slobber you, as she did me, with kisses. Her owner looks like, if you sent a description down to central casting for a chairman of the board type, he’d be sent up. The two of them together, Skye and her guy, seated side by side, would ace a classy Vogue ad.
Then there’s an interesting collie mix, Tanner. Like many of the neighborhood dogs, he’s a rescue. His owner, a woman, always dresses in black. Tanner is easily distracted and swivels at the end of his leash as he assesses dangers in all directions. It’s as if his job is to detect any threat within 100 yards. His owner has to stop and encourage him to keep moving forward. Tanner reminds me of that dog in the Pixar movie “Up” that constantly pivots and shouts: “Squirrels, Squirrels.”
Then there’s Ginger, a dainty little hot house flower rescue, part chihuahua and the rest?? Her owner looks like an affable grandpa. Ginger, clothed with a colorful knit coat on cold days, has been caught finishing her morning “walk” cuddled in the arms of her human. She’s trained him well!
Then there’s the human I call Flash who whizzes by at top speed on his racing bike while he holds the end of the leash as his dog Jack races in front pulling Flash even faster. I’ve never witnessed that dynamic duo travel slower than warp speed.
And I mustn’t forget to mention two special dogs, not in my neighborhood, who enthusiastically lift their “pitch perfect?” canine voices to greet the morn. I was moved by seeing and hearing Max and Marley’s duet on Debra Saxon’s Facebook page! They sang out in full and passionate harmony- all A CAPPELLA. (I’m just glad their concert was performed in the confines of their humans’ family room and not outside my bedroom window at 6am!)
To sum up my ramblings: During the complicated times we’re trudging through, I find it soothing that, even though we humans may think it’s one of the worst of times, our canine family members may consider just having their humans more available to them to be their very best of times.•
December 2020/January 2021
I love energetic people. They bring out the best in everyone. Let me introduce you to one such person: Ira Carol McGill.
I met Ira during rehearsals for the 2016 Spectacular Senior Follies. While backstage awaiting my number, I got to visit with many of the cast members including Ira. She was a soloist that year; I was a member of the chorus. She was very upbeat and I thought to myself – “I would like to get to know her better.”
Several years slipped by before I saw Ira again. This time it was in 2018 at the Drumba Studio in Allen. (My 60th high school reunion in NYC was approaching and I wanted to whittle down so there’d be less of me when I arrived!) Ira and I began chatting before Drumba class. When I told her about the Evening Stars Tap group, she mentioned she was interested in learning to tap. (Now that I know Ira better, I doubt there is any form of creative endeavor she wouldn’t be interested in pursuing.) She joined the Evening Stars.
Ira and her husband Demarre moved to Allen from the South Side of Chicago in 2014 when her older son, Demarre Lavelle, accepted the principal flutist position with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. He has since moved to the same position with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Her other son, Anthony, is currently the principal clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic. It’s very unusual to have two children that both are world class classical musicians. That was all I knew about the family. Oh, and I’d been told that Demarre, a retired Chicago Fireman, had recently published a book “A Father’s Triumphant Story -Raising Successful African American Men in
Contemporary Urban Times.’’ He’d been asked to write that book because so many wanted to know how he and Ira managed to do it.
Ira bubbles with energy. She suggested we be duet partners and sing “Bosom Buddies” for Evening Star’s fall and winter 2019/2020 performances. Joseph Jones, our director, choreographed our piece and rehearsed us. I took the Bea Arthur part; Ira was Carol Channing. We practiced together several times in my living room and performed twice before covid shut down performances.
With the deadline for the next “Reflections” approaching, I thought I’d write a column about friendship. My friend Ira is such a positive person that I wanted you to meet her on the pages of “Celebration.” When I asked her if I could write about her for “Reflections,” she said yes and that she’d send me a copy of Demarre’s book to give me some added background. I read the book cover to cover. I WAS TOTALLY BLOWN AWAY!!! If ever there was an inspiring story, it’s theirs.
I’ve known Ira for several years, performed with her, shared grandparenting stories and hamburgers at Scotty P’s in Allen, but never knew the depth of her story. It could and may yet be picked up by a screenwriter and turned into a blockbuster movie.
Both sons are world class musicians who’ve garnered a multitude of musical awards. Both appeared on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood as teens. Anthony was awarded the Sphinx Award of Excellence by Ruth Bader Ginsberg at a ceremony in the Supreme Court building and the 2020 Avery Fisher Prize- considered the Pulitzer Prize for music. He also performed along with Yo-Yo Ma and for Obama’s first inauguration. The list of awards for both young men is lengthy. They are detailed in Demarre’s book. The McGill’s list of rules for raising children and the obstacles the family overcame are also in the book. I won’t spoil their story. It belongs to them and is beautifully told by Demarre.
I treasure my friendship with Ira as I treasure all my friendships. We only get to live one life, but through our friends, we can vicariously experience paths we didn’t get to take. We get to trumpet our friends’ successes and soften their disappointments.
Friendship is a priceless gift. The older I get, the more I realize this and appreciate my friends. They are the “family” we get to choose. And there’s always room for one more member in that “family.”
Remember that old Girl Scout song: “Make new friends but keep the old. One is silver the other gold?” Even though I’ve only known her a short time, I think Ira is 24 Karat Gold!•
Do you ever set out to do something only to be distracted and go off on a tangent? The older I get, the more I seem to do that.
My Daughter Norah had called asking for “my” Sand Tart cookie recipe. I know whose recipe it really is and where to find it - on page 312 of “Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook.” My husband’s Granny gifted me a copy of that book in 1961.
Back in the 1950’s and 60’s, Helen Corbitt was considered the Grande Dame of Texas Cookery. Stanley Marcus had recruited her to Dallas to run Neiman Marcus’ Zodiac Restaurant and dubbed her “the Balenciaga of Food.” I think Granny gave me that cookbook so that I, her Grandson’s Yankee Bride, would know how to fix his Texas favorites. (And I wonder if Granny ever knew that Corbitt was actually a native New Yorker - like me.)
When I located the cookie recipe, I saw that a photo from a trip to Mexico was bookmarking the page. My mind started to churn with memories from over a decade ago. I put down the cookbook and went to find the album with the rest of the pictures and mementos from that trip.
In October of 2007, Lee Ford, Dot Sanders and I took a Tauck tour on the Sierra Madre Express to Copper Canyon, Mexico.
We boarded the Sierra Madre Express in Nogales, Mexico, and followed the route of the Chihuahua-Pacific Railroad to Copper Canyon. Climbing from sea level to 8000 feet, we passed through 83 tunnels and rolled over 35 trestles. The scenery was magnificent. Unlike the Grand Canyon which is more accessible but crowded, Copper Canyon is remote with fewer visitors. The beauty of Copper Canyon is most striking at sunset when the entire landscape is copper colored.
I hadn’t known anything about the indigenous people who’ve lived in the Sierra Madre Canyons for centuries. I learned they were ultra-marathon runners who call themselves Raramuri - “runners on foot.” Christopher McDougall chronicles their athletic ability in “Born to Run.”
How did the Raramuri get the name “Tarahumara?” It was given them by the conquistadors in the 16th century. The name comes from Raramuri spiritual beliefs. Tarahumara means “where night is the day of the moon.” That sounds confusing until you learn that Tarahumara believed the soul works at night while the body sleeps. They believed it’s during our night that both the spirits of the dead and the souls of the living become active and move about.
There were two unsettling things about that train trip. Why did we need an armed guard to be posted on the caboose? Was traveling through Mexico’s remote terrain in 2007 that dangerous? Being guarded reminded me of the escorted trip I took in Egypt with sharp shooters poised in our cars to protect us going to and from the Valley of the Kings.
At one point, we encountered the Mexican Army’s Police. They boarded our train and detained us, herding us into a lounge car while they searched the train’s compartments for smuggled guns. They found none. The whole episode lasted about an hour before we were allowed to continue on our way.
After sifting through all the mementoes of my Copper Canyon adventure, I got back on task and finished what I’d begun earlier. I copied the cookie recipe and emailed it to my daughter. It takes a lot longer to do things these days. Memories seem to surface all the time. I know I was blessed to have made those memories. I also know I’m blessed today to have the time to spend with them now.
Oh . . . .and that recipe for Sand Tarts . . . . I thought you might like to have it. It’s quick and easy. I better give it to you now before I take another trip to my yesterdays.
½ lb. butter
½ cup sifted confectioners’ sugar
2 cups sifted cake flour.
1 cup chopped pecans.
1 tsp vanilla
Cream butter; add sugar. Stir well and add flour, nuts, and vanilla. Shape into balls or crescents and bake on ungreased cookie sheet for 325 degrees for 20 minutes or until light brown. Roll in Powdered sugar while warm. Enjoy!•
Though Covid 19 puts a damper on current travel, it gives us ample time to research, plan and schedule interesting trips for the after-pandemic.
I love to travel. But, that wasn’t always the case. I didn’t catch the travel bug till I was over 55. I was too busy being busy to think past how
busy I thought I was. That changed abruptly when my husband learned he had a rare disease which would shorten his life. He wanted to travel and see as much of our world as he could while he could. So, travel we did. He’s gone now, but somewhere along our journeys, I caught his travel fever. I’ve filled over 40 albums with photos and mementoes of trips taken. I’ve never regretted one of those trips nor the hours it took to document them.
If you’re thinking about places to visit after Covid, I’d like to suggest two great destinations I’ve been to for you to mull over. Not only is each a beautiful location, each sponsors a world class cultural event: Oberammergau (Germany) presents “Passionsspiele Oberammergau”
every ten years; Laguna Beach (California) produces a huge art fest each summer which includes “The Pageant of the Masters.” Both events
were postponed this year due to the virus. So, if they interest you, get on the waiting list for their return.
When I was growing up, my mom told me about her 1930’s trip to Oberammergau, a Bavarian Village set in the foothills of the Alps. The
village’s famous passion play - “Passionsspiele Oberammergau” - had made a big impression on her. I found out just why when I saw it in
The Black Death was decimating Europe in the Middle Ages. The people of Oberammergau prayed to be spared the brunt of it. They were.
Every 10 years since 1634, for a total of 386 spring/summer runs with the exception of the WW2 years and the current Covid hiatus, hundreds of people from the small village staged and acted out the passion play in thanksgiving for the end of the plague. The presentation is stunning and the village itself - a gem. Many buildings are adorned with frescoes of fairy tales, religious scenes and architectural trompe-l-oeil . . . and a bevy of artisans craft intricate coocoo clocks and impressive wood sculptures in studios where you can watch them work.
Since I have family in Laguna Beach, I get there several times a year. When visiting in summer, I always go to the city’s “Festival of the Arts.” From a modest start as a simple art show on the beach in1932, it has grown over the subsequent 88 years into a massive summer arts extravaganza. The featured event is “The Pageant of the Masters.” Hundreds of local volunteers are cast in “tableaux vivants” (living pictures) of great works of art.
The Festival itself encompasses many art forms. There’s a juried art exhibition; a “Sawdust Festival” where crafted pieces are for sale; classes available in various art forms and many varied musical performances. Last time I was at the Festival, I took a pottery class with my daughter and two of my grandkids. (I now possess one quite “interesting?” vase to remind me why I’ll never be a potter.)
If you’re in Laguna Beach in summer, make a reservation for early breakfast at Crystal Cove Beachcomber Café on Newport Coast. It’s the
perfect place to start your day. You’ll enjoy a gourmet meal on the beach as the sun rises. Then spend mid-day browsing the Sawdust Festival
for souvenirs. Have dinner at Splashes (Surf&Sand Resort) where you can watch the sun set over the Pacific from a palm-shaded patio. End
your day under the stars in the amphitheater as the cast of the Pageant recreates Michelangelo’s “Last Supper” signaling the end of the Pageant and the end of your day . . . . a day that will live on in your memories!
Remember that old saying: “May you live in interesting times?” We’re there right now - soldiering through - one day at a time.
Future generations will study the Covid 19 Pandemic and wonder what living during it was like. Books will be written about us, about how our first responders rose to the challenge and about how the world changed.
We never had total control over our lives. But, like many, I assumed I’d get to live my carefully planned tomorrows. This Pandemic has shaken up everything. It’s like we’re spinning in the whirl of a snow globe. I wonder what life will look like when it settles down. Until then, I’m learning I have to be flexible to get through it all.
Instead of trips away, I plan treks to Kroger; Instead of sharing a meal with friends at Cheddar’s, I meet them on Zoom for face time; Instead of exercise class, I walk the neighborhood; Instead of days filled with activity, I’m settling into periods of reflection.
I’m challenging myself to see just how long I can postpone grocery trips to Kroger. I’m making it 3 weeks! By then, most meals are composed of orphan frozen foods and leftovers.
Yesterday it was Christmas leftovers - sweet and sour meat balls – served on riced cauliflower with that remaining half bag of steamed Italian veggies. Not bad! I’ve discovered generous amounts of butter and cheese plus a dash of Kroger’s Mild Tomatillo Salsa Verde greatly enhances random combos. (Unfortunately, the addition of a generous amounts of dairy is also greatly enhancing ME!)
Before the virus, I did water aerobics and Drumba for exercise. Both are on hiatus. So, I’ve started walking in my neighborhood. Seeing the dappled sunlight filter through the leaves of massive oaks that meet above as I walk beneath makes me feel I’m walking down the center aisle of nature’s cathedral.
It had been years since I walked those streets. Neighbors have changed and houses look different. I’ve noticed many of the red brick houses have been painted white with dark brown trim. I feel kind of like a Rip Van Winkle – waking up to familiar yet altered surroundings.
At first, I would huff and puff as I approached the mile mark. Then I made it two miles. Now I’m almost up to 3.5. I’m getting in fighting shape in case I have to battle the virus!
The Internet has been a blessing during this time. I play bridge on the computer each afternoon. If you’re a bridge player, I hope you’ve discovered Bridge Base Online. I’ve also been meeting to socialize on Zoom with the Evening Stars - my performance group, with my book club and with family members.
Speaking of the book club, I’ve a recommendation for you: “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek!” It’s a novel, set in the Kentucky hills in the 1930’s, about a woman with a rare genetic condition that turns her blue. She brings library books to the rural people through Roosevelt’s WPA in the 1930’s. It’s well worth the read!
As I live through these days, I’m trying to adjust to what is. When I can’t do what I’d planned, I’m planning to do what I can! It’s the same basic advice Dolly Parton gave us, but she said it far more poetically: “We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”
I’m trying to adjust those sails!
How about you?
Does the name Frank Gehry ring a bell?
He’s the architect whose projects - like the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain - brought world acclaim.
On a Smithsonian trip in Panama City last February, I visited one of Gehry’s newer buildings - a museum called “Biomuseo.” He designed it to highlight Panama’s biodiversity and to please his wife, a proud Panamanian.
Panama’s vast variety of plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms can be traced back to around three million years ago when the isthmus of Panama rose from the sea, connecting the North and South American continents. That geological bridge allowed biodiversity to flourish: animals and plants passed between north and south; ancestors of the opossum, armadillo and porcupine emigrated to North America; forerunners of Llamas, raccoons and horses traveled to South America.
Gehry’s Biomuseo houses a three-story cube-shaped theater which has screens covering all sides including the glass ceiling and floor onto which video is projected. When you enter the space, you become immersed in a virtual rain forest experience. You see leaf cutter ants walking beneath you; a lush jungle trail open before you; birds fly above; and waves break on a Pacific beach. It’s amazing!
The Biomuseo is different from the Gehry buildings I mentioned above. Instead of the smooth, shiny metallic finish they have, the Panama Museum has brilliantly-colored roof panels jutting out at all angles. The vivid primary colors are a striking reminder of the colorful animals and plants found in Central America.
The same day we visited the Biomuseo, we also stopped at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Dr. Matthew Larsen, the director of that institute and one of the Smithsonian experts accompanying us on our trip, welcomed us and introduced us to his researchers who showed us around.
One research project that Larsen himself described caught my interest – a possible cure for breast cancer! Apparently, there’s a substance found on fungus that grows on the fur of sloths that holds promise in the fight against breast cancer. With the abundant number of those languid critters hanging out in trees throughout Latin America, there shouldn’t be a shortage of research material.
After leaving Panama City, we boarded our ship, Le Dumont D’Urville, for the trip east through the original or “classic” Panama Canal.
At the end of our voyage, we took a bus from Colon to the Panama airport - but made a brief detour to the Panama Canal Expansion Observation Center/Agua Clara Locks Visitors Center. We watched a gigantic cargo ship inch through the expansion canal. There wasn’t much wiggle room between the sides of that post-panamax ship and the edges of the canal. The tug boat assigned to guide it through looked like a child’s toy next to the huge container ship. Somehow, that tiny tug ramped up its energy and slowly pulled the overstuffed behemoth through the locks.
It’s been a couple months now since I traded the first week of February in Texas for a week of warmth and sun in the tropics. I got to see a tribe of monkeys swing through the trees in Costa Rica; negotiate for molas with the Guna people under the coconut trees on a San Blas Island; learn about biodiversity, volcanoes and plate tectonics from Smithsonian lecturer Dr. Kirk Kempter; climb on and off a Zodiac (never gracefully) during wet landings; survive several hours of hiking in Costa Rica’s Curu National Wildlife Refuge (my knees complained loudly about that one;) and arrive home safely with a deeper knowledge of that part of our planet.
My trip was like what I imagine “semester at sea” might be - except it lasted nine days rather than several months and the “students” were grandparents not college kids. Happily, there were no exams to white-knuckle through at the end. Instead there was just a deep appreciation for where we had been, for the things we learned, for the people we’d met and the memories of it all that we carry with us.•
Remember when most people kept in touch through handwritten letters?
Sadly, those times are past.
These days, we hardly ever find a handwritten letter embedded in our bundles of mail. It’s just bills, magazines, newspapers, and that ever-increasing stack of ads.
Before computers, we used to take pen in hand to communicate with each other. We’d share our thoughts and dreams - one on one. Today, we get typed messages on various electronic screens. They’re no substitute for the personal touch of a handwritten letter. Handwritten letters are one of a kind creations that can be savored for years.
I’ve been doing a lot of that kind of savoring recently. You see, while cleaning out the attic, I found a large box containing all sorts of letters my late husband sent to his wide range of correspondents: his family, my family, friends, teachers, business contacts, “gals who came before me” and me. It also includes responses written to him from all those correspondents.
The box doesn’t actually hold the original letters he sent. It holds carbon copies of those. He wrote so many letters that he started carbon copying them early on so he’d remember what he said and not repeat himself. His letters read like conversations and those conversations are often humorous, definitely entertaining and at times quite emotional. I’ve been eavesdropping on all those conversations between him and all his correspondents – including me.
Remember that movie starring Christopher Reeves and Jane Seymour: “Somewhere in Time?” I feel like that when I read his letters to me, like I’m a time traveler. The letters transport me back to when I was a college student in New York and my guy was in grad school in California. We wrote each other long letters nearly every day for more than a year. When I hold his letters to me and read his words in his distinctive handwriting, I can hear his voice in my mind telling me, once again, how deeply I am loved.
Not only have I been reading our letters, I’ve been reading all of his other correspondence to and from his family, my family, his friends and those “gals who’d come before.” I have read what he told his friends and old flames when he met me and what he thought about this new girl. In a nutshell, I’ve been reliving our beginning. He was very ill for many years at the end of his life. I remember how difficult those years were. Now I get to paint over that time with fresh memories of our golden beginning.
Ever wonder what a handwritten letter might bring at auction? I have. If it were a letter between world leaders, or perhaps a love letter between notables, I’d guess it might bring a hefty sum. I looked up which letter had sold for the most at auction. The answer: a letter written in 1953 from Francis Crick to his son Michael. It sold to an anonymous buyer on April 10, 2013 for $6,000,000! Why was it worth that much? And just WHO was Francis Crick? Well, Crick, together with his colleague James Watson, discovered the DNA molecule. He wrote that letter to his son just weeks before announcing the DNA molecule discovery to the world. In it, he told his son: “My dear Michael, Jim Watson and I have probably made a most important discovery.” Then he went on to describe the working of DNA and include a rough diagram of its structure.
I can understand why Crick’s letter went for so much, but that doesn’t stop me from declaring my letters are worth so much more than that to me.
My take away from all this rambling is to encourage you, for Valentine’s Day this year, to pen heartfelt letters to your special people. Those letters will be gifts only you can give that may very well outlast you.
Your letters probably won’t wind up at an auction house going for millions, but they will wind up in the hands of those you treasure and be considered by them to be... priceless. •
December 2019/January 2020
When we moved to Fairview in 1987, we stored several old cardboard cartons in the far corner of our attic. Those boxes stayed there - taped shut - for over 32 years. I thought they each contained outdated periodicals and old financial records.
Over the years, both our attic and garage had filled with “stuff.” Those old cartons got hidden behind subsequent boxes and forgotten.
This past September, my son Clay and his wife volunteered to clean both the garage and the attic, separating the contents into “keep, donate and toss.” Clay ordered a dumpster and the purge began.
I wasn’t to help for fear I’d “second guess” their decisions.
Towards the end of the process, Clay came and told me: “There’s something you should see.” One of those cartons was labeled “packed in 1969.” It held files of old letters, news clippings and a moisture damaged photo album. That album was filled with Polaroid pictures of Claiborne and my first year together – pictures of us at the Grand Canyon on our 1961 cross-country honeymoon, of our new friends at UC Berkeley and our firstborn, Beth. The pictures were stuck to their plastic covering which may be why the album was packed away – too damaged to display but too precious to toss. I don’t remember that album or how it got damaged. I do remember our Polaroid Camera. It was a wedding gift. We’d used it to capture the moments in time that album holds.
Edwin Land invented the Polaroid Camera in 1944. He always said he got his idea from his three-year old daughter. She’d asked him why she couldn’t see the picture he’d just taken of her right away. That sent him on the quest to create a camera so she could.
Land had dropped out of Harvard to set up a research operation in a Cambridge garage. (Sounds like Steve Jobs and Apple.) From that beginning, he went on to build his Polaroid business into a billion-dollar company.
The first consumer Polaroid Camera was sold at Boston’s Jordan Marsh for Christmas 1948. It promised to deliver a “picture in a minute.” Remember Steve Allen’s TV ads for those cameras in the 50s?
Picture taking has changed dramatically since those days. We’ve gone from analogue to digital. Today we whip out iPhones to capture full color snippets of our everyday life.
Photography always fascinated my friend Kay Griffith. With five children at home and a job in finance, she had no time to pursue it. But, she knew there would be time when she retired. As she began to think about her eventual retirement, she started to prepare for it by taking photography classes at Richland College.
Kay stood out at Richland in the 60’s - the only senior citizen in a class of youths aspiring to be the next Ansel Adams. She took all the photography classes Richland offered; went on photoshoots and field trips; joined the Heard Nature Photography Club; displayed her photographs at artist galleries and showcases; sold many pictures; and won many awards.
We spend years in school preparing for the first part of our lives, but how many of us spend time preparing for that second chapter? It may last as long or longer than the first did. Kay had the foresight to prepare herself for her retirement. And today, at 88, she is, as Joseph Campbell would say, “following her bliss.”
As for that damaged photo album, I treasure it. it holds images of who I was and what my life was like over a half-century ago. What advice would I give my 21year self as she looks up at me from that album? I’d tell her life can be like a roller coaster. Hang on and enjoy your ride.•
My in-laws inherited a section of timberland in East Texas.
Family stories say my husband’s grandfather won the deed to it in a poker game!
Each fall, when the temperature dips, I remember our long-ago camping trips in those piney woods. October always brought great camping weather and the woods offered a whole new world for our family to explore.
My father-in-law loved to drive his sedan on the property’s bumpy roads. The fact he didn’t have a four-wheel drive never deterred him.
One day, when he and my mother-in-law were there, alone in the middle of the nowhere, they ran over a large tree stump. It punctured the gas tank. Gas began leaking onto the red clay. They brainstormed how to stem the flow. Then it came to them: MONTEREY JACK CHEESE! It was right there in their cooler. They carved a plug out of it, stuffed it in the hole and drove miles to the nearest gas station. I wish I could have seen the auto mechanic’s face when they told him the engine needed to be flushed to get the cheese out! That engine survived the cheese and my in-laws added another anecdote to our family’s story.
We seniors are the keepers of those family stories. Over our lifetime, we’ve heard dozens of family anecdotes. With our help passing them on, they become part of our family lore - adding color to our family history while helping the younger members of our tribe get to know those who came before them.
Did I ever tell you the story about grandfather and the black pearl? Grandfather McManus passed away long before I was born, but I got to know him well through family stories. He was a diamond trader and a jeweler. In the early 1900’s, he’d acquired a large black pearl. When he showed it to his fellow jewelers on West 57th street in NYC, they said it was probably dyed. To prove it was real, he sliced the pearl in half. It was black to the core, but cutting the pearl sliced off much of its value.
When a wealthy man came looking to commission a significant piece of jewelry to present to his wife to commemorate an important anniversary, granddad thought of that broken pearl.
He suggested making a unique broach using the half pearl as the centerpiece, surrounding it with diamonds. He placed the other pearl half in the vault and left it there. The man was delighted with it as was his wife. She wore it for years.
Many years later, that same man returned. His wife was distraught. She’d lost the broach. Could Granddad search and find another pearl to duplicate that broach? That client never knew the second half was just resting in the vault. As a result, the woman was overjoyed with an identical copy of her cherished broach and grandfather made more from that pearl than he would have had it not been sliced and just been just a single . . . perfect. . . . black. . . . pearl!
Enough of those past stories. I have a new one I want to add to the family list.
About nine years ago, my California daughter Norah and I were visiting while her daughter, Meghan, about 4 at the time, was playing quietly in the next room - a little too quietly.
Norah went to investigate. Meghan had found my new lipstick on the bathroom counter and had taken a piece of copier paper from the printer. She made lipstick blots all over that sheet. When Norah asked what she was doing, she immediately responded that, since they lived so far away, she wanted to give Grandmommy (me) enough kisses to last till she visited again.
And that’s why I treasure a piece of copier paper covered with random lipstick blots. To me, they are Megan’s thoughtful. . . . beautiful. . . . lipstick kisses.
Have you ever been to Tuscany?
If you’ve read Frances Mayes’ memoir “Under the Tuscan Sun” or seen the movie based on it, you have some idea of the area’s beauty and charm.
The movie version spins a romantic tale of a woman, played by Dianne Ladd, who travels to Tuscany to recover from her recent divorce. On a whim, she buys a dilapidated 16th century villa (symbol of the shambles of her current sad post-divorce life?) and takes us along as she transforms that villa into her own Valhalla - finding love and happiness in the process.
When my daughter Beth called last winter and asked me if I would like to go on their family trip to Tuscany and stay in an actual restored Tuscan villa for a week of Italian cooking lessons, memories of Mayes’ book and the movie played in my head. I said “YES!”
On June 9th, we drove from Rome to Tuscany and Torre Del Tartufo - our home for 7 days.
Torre Del Tartufo sits at the top of a long, narrow, twisty, dirt road through the forest and just past a strand of stately Cyprus trees banking the entrance. The whole place could be a movie set: ivy covered villa with storybook tower; roses everywhere; and lavender beds poised to burst into purple blooms.
We were met by a gracious lady, Lena, who welcomed us and showed us to our rooms. Granddaughter Eden’s room was in the Rapunzel-like tower at the top of a flight of narrow winding stairs. Daughter Beth and her husband Lowell were on the second floor with a spectacular view of the infinity pool and the distant hills with their olive trees. Grandsons Logan and Trevor roomed next to me on the first floor. All the rooms were beautifully appointed.
After meeting fellow guests and our Chef at a welcome dinner, we retired to our rooms. I opened my window which overlooked a rose bed and breathed in the fragrance. Then laid down on the bed. Last thing I remember was looking through that window at a slice of moon and stars scattered across the night sky. Next thing I saw was daylight. I’d slept longer and deeper than I had in years!
We had 4 days of 4-hour lessons -16 hours of Italian cooking instruction. We gathered around a massive black marble slab that topped our work table in the center of a fully equipped kitchen. There was an impressive herb garden steps outside where we picked herbs for recipes and eyed luscious strawberries just begging to be tasted. We even went on a truffle hunt with trained truffle dogs, not pigs as I thought were used. Seems pigs make a mess of foraging and then often eat the truffle before their trainer can get it. Dogs aren’t that keen on truffles and prefer the trainer’s treat to the truffle. We collected 7 truffles that were added to that evening’s risotto.
Our Chef taught us how to bone a duck, a chicken and a fish as well as how to prepare la rack of lamb. We made many Italian dishes: pizza in a brick oven, ravioli and pasta by hand, limoncello, saltimbocca, tiramisu. . . . . .
Four hours might seem long for a cooking class, but it was so packed with fun and activity that time sped. We had much to learn from our Chef, Franko Palandra.
Palandra had retired as Chef with Cunard Cruise lines where he’d traveled the world and found his Paola. She assists in the classes. We got all sorts of tips from our Chef who always had a twinkle in his eye, a great sense of humor and a gracious manner.
During lessons, we made our lunches and dinners for the week. Each dinner course was perfectly paired with a different Italian wine. By the end of the week, the guests and the staff had bonded into one happy family. And we got to tour around the Tuscan countryside in our downtime.
When I left Tuscany after my week of gourmet meals, not only did I take home my course textbook (the 3lb “Tuscookany” cookbook) and the memories of a special week with family and new friends, I also took home seven extra pounds that were . . .very . . .deliciously . . acquired!
Did you know reading books may lengthen your life?
I just stumbled across a recent Yale University study of the reading habits of 3,635 seniors which determined those of us who read books, especially novels, appear to outlive our non-book-reading peers by as much as 23 months!
The study never deduced that reading books CAUSES longer lives, but, that, perhaps because it keeps the brain active and helps one develop emotional connections to others, reading books leads to longer life.
Here’s what I find most intriguing: 3.5 hours of book reading, essentially a sedentary activity and sedentary activities usually aren’t associated with longevity, was found to be as beneficial to long life as 3.5 hours of EXERCISING!
I dare say many of you out there would rather be cozy on the couch with a novel in hand than dripping with sweat on a treadmill - especially if the benefits were a swap!
Along with getting to meet diverse characters and experiencing the thrill of traveling through time and space on an author’s words and with our imagination, it can now be said that books not only bring life to our days but also add days to our life!
Do you remember the first book that mesmerized you? Mine was James Mitchener’s “The Source.” I envision Mitchener in his Doylestown study in the 1960’s. I can almost hear the rhythm as he pounds the keys of his manual typewriter while documenting the epic story his characters are dictating.
Then there was “Clan of the Cave Bear.” Did you ever read that series? I discovered it in the 80’s. I’d tuck the latest volume into my carryall so I could sneak in reads whenever time allowed.
I never thought much about what life must have been like before recorded time. I’m glad Jean Auel did. She introduced me to her vision of it as she spun her tale about Ayla and possibilities in the age of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons.
If you’re a “bookie” like me, you have both a stack of books you’re eager to devour plus a stack you’ve read and just have to share with others.
There are many venues in Dallas for great book reviews. If you are new to our area, you may not have discovered the following two.
The programs at Highland Park United Methodist Church are free and open to the public. All you need to do is ask to be put on their email list to get notice of the lectures. Contact Richard Stanford: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The HPUMC 2019 Rejebian Summer Series starts in June and will feature our beloved Rose-Mary Rumbley on July 31st. Don’t miss Rose-Mary! She’ll review “The Library Book.” (If you haven’t read it yet, it’s well worth the read. it’s a fascinating history of the origin of libraries and their far-reaching programs plus a well-researched account of the disastrous 1987 LA library fire.)
The Dallas Museum of Art sponsors a series called “Arts and Letters Live” which brings in well-known authors for ticketed events. A while back I heard Salman Rushdie speak at one such event. He was under a fatwah. There were police guarding the cordoned off perimeter of the Museum as well as two burly body guards on the stage and some in the back of the room to protect Rushdie. All that added a touch of danger to an already exciting evening.
Just days ago, I attended an Arts and Letters Live program co-sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Dallas /Fort Worth held at Temple Emanu-El. It featured David Brooks, the NY Times journalist, and his book - “The Second Mountain.” Brooks’ book is inspirational. It’s waiting for me on my bedside table right now.
I could go on and on about books, but, I’m running out my allotted column space. So, I’ll end by saying: When you’re at Celebration’s “Love, Laugh and Learn” this July, come say hello and bring along some titles to share. I’m always on the hunt for my next great read.