Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bits & Pieces

Possum wishes everyone a healthy, bird-and-rodent-filled New Year and hopes you've made some decent resolutions. He plans to sing louder in 2012, get back to work on his movie career, and take more time to eat the roses.

As for me, I have so many resolutions in mind that I can't decide which ones to take seriously. Later. But I will pledge that we'll have a new address by 12/31/2012. And no rodents at all.

* * * 
We have new cameras! This blog should have more and better photographs from now on. We both got the brand-new Canon PowerShot S100. In sought-after silver. I've been waiting for this camera to appear in silver for months. The black version was finally released early in the fall, but I'd never be able to a little black camera in the dark, ridiculous depths of my handbag. Two of the silver cameras finally arrived at Bromfield Camera downtown on Thursday, and they called me. I'd been dropping by to remind them every time I was downtown, after all. I'm on waiting lists for this camera all over town as well as online. I've never heard of a camera playing hard-to-get to this extent. As the salesmen took it out of the box to show it to me, they waved their arms and flourished it as if it were the Holy Grail. When my husband heard that they still had the second silver camera in the window, he traded in his S95 for it. Which means I'll have 24/7 tech support for mine, which is important because I'm usually too lazy to read instruction manuals. 

We like to buy cameras at local stores, especially Bromfield, which is family owned and operated. I may be an online bargain hunter, but I also believe in supporting local, independent stores, especially those with great customer service. At Bromfield, they give useful advice and let you take your time handling different cameras and making up your mind. If you have a problem or question, you're always welcome to show up at their counter. 

* * * 
We had the upstairs dining room at the Marliave almost entirely to ourselves at lunch today. It's one of Boston's oldest restaurants, but we'd never been there. While the decor and menu are strictly up to date, the building itself has that authentic, creaky, old Boston atmosphere. We'll be going back for dinner. The Marliave makes everything fresh, including juices, pastas, sauces, breads, desserts, and ice cream, and they also serve local meats and produce. They have an enticing cheese and charcuterie menu; next time, I'm ordering a cheese plate, which comes with fig jam, spiced walnuts, lavender honey, and a choice of cranberry-walnut bread, a baguette, or toasted brioche. 

This time, I tried the Marliave's version of croque monsieur, a ham-and-gruyère sandwich topped with béchamel and more cheese. It was big, soft, and rich, served with excellent rosemary-scented fries. My husband had a pastrami sandwich with baked beans. Then he ordered butterscotch pudding with whipped cream and candied ginger. I had a spoonful; it was thick and intense, exactly what pudding should be.

* * * 
You can't have too much cheese. 

Last night, we feasted on cheese fondue with bits of ham and mushrooms at the Wine Cellar on Mass. Ave. This small dining room is pretty, romantic, and fun — especially if you like to play with your food and with fire. We like to stay in on New Year's Eve, far away from crowds and those horns, so we made our reservation for the night before. After nearly overdosing on cheese, bread, and potatoes, we threw common sense to the winds and ordered dessert: milk chocolate fondue mixed with caramel and dusted with sliced almonds. It came with a plate of fruit, marshmallows, cookies, and cake for dipping. Nirvana on a cold winter night.  I hope you find a sweet way to celebrate your New Year, too.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Home Again

I'm glad to be posting after a three-day break, but I'm too full of cheese and chocolate-caramel fondues from the Wine Cellar tonight to concentrate well.

Before we left for Bethlehem, we had to take Snicky to the vet. She kept trotting in and out of the litter box and clearly had a urinary tract infection. A small accident on the bed clinched it. Her timing was perfect; how lucky that she didn't wait to get sick until after we left. Snicky doesn't mind staying at the vet since they discovered her sadistic tendencies. They always put her in an upper cage where she has a clear view of other cat patients enduring blood tests and other procedures, and they claim she's riveted by this, glued to the gorey scene. They gave her antibiotics, discovered she's gained a half pound (a happy surprise), and kept her well fed. She's home now and doing fine.

Christmas week in Bethlehem was busy, full of family, and very well decorated. The high points were my niece's handmade potato pierogies, hanging around in my sister's house, and watching my family unwrap their presents. We made a terrific haul ourselves, of books, kitchen things, and more, but I most loved watching my dad enjoy his new Hush Puppies with handy Velcro straps that will save him lots of time getting dressed in the morning. He's 97, slowing down a bit. He claims his old shoes took him nearly an hour to put on because they were falling apart.

We also love the Morningstar Inn, a Colonial Revival mansion on the prettiest street in town. We always reserve the room that reminds of our own bedroom, only bigger and better. We pile on the quilts and pillows at night, read by the parlor fireplace, and stuff ourselves on magnificent breakfasts — homemade doughnut holes, warm and covered in cinnamon sugar; poached pears in raspberry sauce; fruit salads drizzled with pomegranate seeds; heart-shaped waffles with strawberries; oatmeal-banana-nut pancakes; cranberry-almond-cream coffeecake muffins. The place is beautiful at any time of year but the vintage-style decorations at Christmas are magazine-worthy. I love the wreaths made of masses of antique Christmas tree balls and the 1970's ceramic lighted tree that looks like one of my mother's creations.  It sits on a Japanese tansu under a Moroccan carved mirror. Worlds are colliding, but the odd thing is that those worlds collide similarly in our apartment, too. We feel the innkeepers are kindred spirits, right down to the cat stories.

Bethlehem is famous for the simple white electric candles everyone puts in each window during the holidays and beyond, especially in the olest buildings and houses downtown. From our candlelit windows at the inn, we looked out to see a 19th-century streetscape of candle-filled windows, and it was lovely, a scene to remember.

Coming home, we stopped for lunch and a visit with an elderly friend who lives up the road from Martha Stewart. He has two cooks — pretty sumptuous for a fellow who lives alone and doesn't care about food. One of his cooks has been with him for nearly half a century, and neither ventures far from an early edition of the Fanny Farmer Cookbook (or so I assume). The table is set with hand-painted Limoges and old sterling made especially for the family. Every dish is loaded with butter and cream, the vegetables are savagely overcooked, the lettuce is iceberg, your spoon will stand up straight in the heavy cream soups, the blueberry muffins are rock-solid and overbaked, and the turkey leftovers are stretched with canned cream soup, more cream, and bacon. Then there's pumpkin pie with whipped cream, ice cream, and cookies for dessert. Whenever we visit, we have the sort of meal that puts us in a dangerously soporific state as we get back on the road to Boston. We are surprised that someone actually made such a meal in 2011 and astonished that we ate all of it and can still move. It's hard to imagine this was a typical upper-class luncheon menu once upon a time. No wonder people didn't live as long back then. (The one modern concession is fat-free bottled salad dressing. But that choice also boggles the mind.)

Thanks to sports radio, NPR, and a Connecticut station that plays entire Led Zeppelin live concert recordings, we made it. It's great to be home. And I'm still full of fondue, and I'm going to bed early.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Home for Christmas

We're heading to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the Christmas City of the USA, to visit my family for a couple of days. We are sad to be leaving our heavily ornamented and cat-filled apartment:

But things will be festive and overdecorated in the CC, too.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Boxing Day

I suspect you were not so covetous nor avaricious as to visit the Anthropologie website on Christmas Day. I was, of course, and was rewarded with this charming quilled (curled paper) creation on the homepage:

This morning, I went out early on my traditional quest for half-price wrapping paper, buying rolls at Papyrus and Crane's. Then I met my husband at Brooks Brothers for their annual post-holiday sale. He stocked up on shirts and I talked him out of awful ties and into a couple of very nice ones. I'm not interested in further shopping for myself, since I lucked out at Anthropologie and Garnet Hill's great sales before the holiday. I'm already enjoying wearing those Anthro clothes and Garnet Hill boots immensely. (Usually my new things sit around for weeks in bags, with their tags still on, while I make sure I really like and want them.) I walked out of Crate and Barrel empty-handed today, avoiding the temptation of half-price sweets since we are overstocked with candy and cookies. I'll skip the annual white sales until next year, when we'll be living in a different house or condo, needing different things.

The highlight of the day was "reading" David McCullough's The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. In other words, I napped on the sofa for much of the afternoon, with and without Possum sprawled across me. David McCullough is a great historian, a fine writer, a very nice gentleman, and a neighbor, but he invariably puts me out like a light. I did manage a few pages, and it's interesting, really, but there's no way I will finish the book, at this rate, before it's due at the library.

I wouldn't mind spending much of January "reading," though, under my warm throw on the sofa. I can't lift weights with my hand injury, so why not hibernate on dark afternoons after I get my 10,000 steps in the cold? It sounds like a good plan, especially if there's a pot of soup or stew simmering on the stove for dinner. It's not exactly a righteous New Year's resolution, but it sounds fabulous. My real resolution is to  do a major decluttering of this place when the tree and decorations come down, to make things easier when we move. I've had a lot of practice lately, although it won't be as much fun without a 40-yard dumpster. And I'll get back to weight-lifting and other exercising eventually, when my hand is better. Lifting that book is enough for right now.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Snalbert and Possum enjoyed their presents with us. Snicky had hers on the bed, where she was napping. We haven't seen Wendy, but she quietly knocked over the fireplace screen in the middle of the night and helped herself to the sparkly balls in the top of her little stocking. She's having her own private Christmas under the bed.

We opened wonderful presents galore and discovered that we had filled each other's stockings with many pounds of our our favorite kinds of candy: Dove chocolate, Reese's peanut butter cups, truffles... if I want any of my clothes to continue to fit, that candy must hauled to my husband's office. Reluctantly.

We spent a quiet afternoon listening to music and reading (i.e., napping) with Possum curled up on me for his nap. A perfect Christmas in other words.

And we're about to drive to the family for the traditional turkey dinner... Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve

Two gingerbread men from Bova's took a suicide dive last night from our kitchen counter, then tried to eat their way out of the bag. I'm not sure how they managed all that since they are securely wrapped in cellophane.

I cleaned the house, polished the silver, and brought out more candles; our little place glows. But I can't wait to move! Next year, we'll have Christmas in a bigger, equally old-fashioned house, I hope, with space to entertain more than one couple at a time.

I went for a walk to Beacon Hill this afternoon. It was a beautiful, blustery day, and I was glad for the cold weather. It's winter — so it's high time the thermometer plummeted. I spotted one of my wreaths on a handsome door in Charles River Square:

When I got home, I baked a large batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies (in my family's tradition) plus a new recipe for gingerbread cookies. I think mine are technically molasses cookies because I accidentally doubled the amount in a fit of enthusiasm for dark brown goo. Frantic web research revealed that Martha Stewart once doubled the molasses a similar recipe while baking on her TV show, and they came out fine. (This is known as a "variation.") Mine aren't bad at all, if you like molasses and weren't expecting gingerbread. Each has a "thumbprint" filled with white or semisweet chocolate after baking, which melts into a little pool.

I'll be bringing the cookies to the family get together tomorrow. Today's news is that my relative has been charming and gracious since the New York relatives arrived late last night. She has even been appreciative of how nice her house looks now. She said she is sorry for disowning all of us yesterday. This sudden change of heart is as random as her rages; I know we need to get used to this and not take it to heart.

I love Christmas Eve Day, my favorite day of the year aside from all the ones we spend in Maine. We had a great dinner with friends at Sonsie tonight, came home, sat around, and ate a lot of cookies. Possum, Snicky, and Snalbert were friendly hosts. Snalbert joined in the conversation; Snicky jumped up and sat with our friend. Possum was sociable and picturesque, as always.

My Christmas present from Wendy was her voluntarily spending 30 seconds next to me as I sat in an armchair a little while ago. I was permitted to pet her; she purred. And then she was gone.

Traditionally, Christmas Eve is the night when we can understand the animals when they talk. I wonder what my cats would say. "More and better food, please!" would be a recurring theme from Snalbert.  I wish Snicky could tell me how well or poorly she's feeling. I wish Wendy could tell me how come she's still so skittish and why she hates me. I already understand a lot of what Possum has to say, but if he could make his wishes even more clearly known, I am sure they would include a request for sausages and bacon.

I wish you a Merry Christmas! May all of your animals, quadruped and biped, speak nicely to you and to each other tonight, tomorrow, and in the coming year.

A bird in the hand may be better than two in a 
bush, but what if there are 14?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Those Darn Bows

As I posted earlier, I was not in the mood this year to embellish our Christmas presents with elaborate ribbons and handmade bows. I mostly used the pre-made, stick-on kind. Some of my relatives sniff at these as inadequate while others think they're too extravagant. As far as I'm concerned, these positions neutralize each other. I bought three bags of bows from CVS.

But I had no idea that these bows behave badly. We heard a lot of ruckus in the night; I assumed the cats were enjoying some tissue paper I'd left out for them. We didn't realize it was the bows escaping from their bags and stampeding around the living room. We woke up to this:

Bows had jumped off the table and freed themselves from their bags.

Wendy herded bows that were heading for the front door.

Snalbert and Possum guard the recaptured bows.

If you're thinking about buying bows, I suggest that you avoid the ones from CVS. They are rebellious and hard to control. Thank goodness we have cats who can help us keep them in line. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Ratty Christmas Miracle

We were at the Brookline Star Market tonight, buying ingredients to make Martha Stewart's Chocolate Gingerbread Cookies. I needed fresh ginger and, lo and behold, I found this:

Other people find Jesus on a piece of toast or the Virgin Mary in the streaks on a hospital window. I got a rat. Look — it even has a little eye and ear, and there's definitely a ratty nose and mouth. After that, its body becomes more vague. But it's rodentical without a doubt. (Rodentish? Rodential?)

I'm not sure of the symbolism, beyond this: it is Chinese, as opposed to Christian, ginger. In China, the rat is one of the twelve animals in the zodiac or astrological cycle. The last Year of the Rat was 2008. Rat people, born during Rat years, are considered to have many fine qualities.

I don't know much about ginger, either, but I knew this piece wasn't fresh. I abandoned it and chose a better one. I also didn't want any rat in my cookies. At least not so much rat....

Woman: Well there's rat cake ... rat sorbet... rat pudding... or strawberry tart.
Man: Strawberry tart?!
Woman: Well it's got some rat in it.
Man: How much?
Woman: Three, rather a lot really.
Man: ... well, I'll have a slice without so much rat in it.

I would rather have found Rufus Sewall in an oatmeal cookie, but a rat is what I got. Merry Christmas.

On other local news, the teddybear is back on the tree. I don't know how the cats pulled it off. They must have realized that Santa Claws doesn't reward kidnappers. The bear isn't talking.

Annals of Stupidity: Messy Christmas

Want to spread Christmas cheer — or at least the scent of it — through your kitchen?

Try dropping a full bottle of Penzey's Pumpkin Pie Spice from a great height, perhaps your second-highest kitchen shelf, way over your head. If it explodes in a rust-colored cloud, as mine did tonight, The Smell of Christmas will be with you for some time to come.

I almost dropped a newly filled canister of flour tonight, too, which would have given us a wonderful White Christmas effect. My reflexes, developed from years of cardio-boxing, came to the rescue that time. I caught it as it was barreling to the floor. I have more baking to do; there's always next time.

Possum was unfazed the mess I'd made. He's been looking smug since that teddybear ornament vanished from the tree.

He's also relieved that I finally figured out that I have two Christmas playlists on my iPod: one that gives us the same tunes by The Roches, Jethro Tull, Jane Siberry, and the Baltimore Consort relentlessly, and the other, which has all of my Christmas music, hundreds of songs. It only took me about five days of playing our stereo morning to night to work this one out. Possum was happy to finally hear Louis Armstrong's "Christmas Night in Harlem."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Anthropologie on Sale

I took a very long break from gift-wrapping yesterday afternoon to visit Anthropologie, where all the sale items had been marked down another 50 percent. This is my idea of a great sale; I know Anthropologie does markdowns on Tuesdays, but I was surprised to see this kind of deal before Christmas. There was already a very long line at the registers when I barreled in around lunchtime. The lower level was loaded with sale merchandise, and I was inspired to try on all sorts of things I would have otherwise ignored. Those racks were emptying quickly as I made many trips back and forth to the dressing room, where a long line waited.

I think I did well.

I got this sparkly black, white, and silver sweater dress for $35 ($148). It has its own slip with lingerie straps. I own one party dress, in silk chiffon, and it's several years old. This is going out on Christmas Eve, and I might trot it out again on Christmas Day with a little black cropped cardigan and boots:

I added a crystal and silver metal belt for $15 ($48). The clasp looks like an Art Deco dress clip; I was smitten. Anyone who knows me knows that I can't accessorize or layer; I lack the gene. But this belt was hanging near the fitting rooms, and it was a no-brainer with this dress. (I'm not adding links to any items because everything here vanished off the website's sale section yesterday. But you might still get lucky at your local store.)

I fell for this cherry-red silk chiffon skirt, lined with a layer of burgundy that peeks out the bottom. This was marked down to $20 ($158). It flows as I walk in it, and Static-Guard will help it keep doing that this winter, especially with sweater tights (($7.50, down from $20) underneath for warmth. I like pairing a floaty skirt with a heavy sweater and boots. I already have a wild skirt, with several lace tiers that shade from red to burgundy from waist to hem; this one is much more sedate. It will be going out for holiday shopping and dinners this week, and it will brighten up dreary January and February days, too.

I decided to try on this merino wool knit skirt with an attached sash. It looked odd on the hanger, but it also looked like a thick, warm, fringed blanket, and I'm attracted to clothing that reminds me of bathrobes and bedclothes. Even though it was a size bigger than I need, it was surprisingly flattering — and warm.

I will probably live in it this winter, and it was a mere $35 ($148).

I also found a couple of tops, including a dusty-pink basic turtleneck and this unusual black ribbed cotton one, which has folds and pleats around the neck and on one shoulder. Each was $20 ($52 and $68). It works with both skirts and probably everything else in my closet.

And, finally, I got a leather belt that looks great with almost all of the dresses I own. I've been hunting for such a belt for more than a year, and the tiny ruffled edging on this one is just the sort of simple detail I'd been hoping for. And I am delighted to get it for $20 ($58).

Last night, I called the store and asked them to hold one of those bathrobe-like, knee-length wool cardigans I wrote about last week, which are now an irresistible $25 ($138). If I buy it, my tab still won't hit $200. My husband keeps asking me what I want for Christmas, and now I have an answer, and he won't need to wrap anything, either (or risk my wrath for using the wrong paper). And it's a present for him, too: He won't have to look at me wearing the same tedious sweater six days a week for the next four months.

Finally, there's this: Anthropologie does price adjustments even on sale items within two weeks. I always hang onto my receipts. This shopping spree might get even better.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


I love to wrap presents. It's the ribbons, bows, and tags I can't stand. I can wrap any bottle beautifully, or any odd-shaped box, including pyramids. That's fun; I've been wrapping all the family gifts since I was a kid. But I hate fussing over the ribbons nowadays. And tags just make me tired. I bought dozens of plain gold ones that work with most of the paper I have. I try to only buy gold, red, and/or green-patterned paper in a feeble attempt to coordinate paper, tags, and ribbons. So where did all these rolls of silver paper come from? And why is there never a tag that goes with whatever paper I used?

In my family, we have a thing about pretty wrapping paper. Some papers are just too pretty to use, so we "archive" them, meaning that the rolls come out at Christmas, year after year, but we don't use them for large boxes or much of anything. We just enjoy them. We all love old-fashioned holly designs; I love paisley papers, too. We might use some for a special, tiny box, or we might carefully cover a box lid and base, so it can be used year after a year (provided you coax, bribe, or threaten the recipient into returning it to you, which I do without qualms.) Right now, about 1/4 of my paper is not for normal consumption. One year, early in our relationship, my husband mistakenly used the Precious Paper to wrap some of my gifts. I can't remember how I reacted, but it must have been impressive, because he asks me to designate certain "safe" rolls every year with great caution and trepidation.

In my family, store-bought, stick-on bows are considered common. My relatives all make their own elaborate bows with little sprays of silk flowers and glittery pinecones and expensive ribbons. My in-laws, on the other hand, consider stick-on bows an unnecessary extravagance. Therefore, I use a lot of stick-on bows, bridging the two extremes and pleasing no one. I try to make more of an effort with my family's gifts, but it drives me crazy. I can't be bothered; I'm burned out from doing this stuff since I was 8. These days, parents making a kid do all that work would probably be charged with unfair labor practices.

A shiny, stick-on bow is better than nothing, and I give the excuse that the cats destroy the bows anyway. I've given many a stick-on bow with toothmarks to back up this story. I also explain that fancy bows don't survive traveling 350 miles crammed into our trunk, either.

You might think I have amassed a large collection of elaborate bows from presents I've received over the years, which I could recycle. But, no, my relatives snatch them back so they can recycle them. If I do get my hands on such a bow, I hang on for dear life.

I'm taking a break from wrapping to write this. I have only about a dozen more presents to wrap tonight; more will arrive tomorrow. Right now,  each wrapped box is marked with a little, triangular purple sticky, with the recipient's name, for when I get around to the tag-and-bow portion of this event. The stickies are crappy and keep falling off. The cats are wisely avoiding the tall stacks of wrapped boxes on the coffee table... until the lights are out and suspects can't be easily apprehended. When the stickies fall off, I won't remember what's what, so I'll have to peek or tear off the paper altogether — another holiday tradition around here.

By the way, the plush teddybear ornament is missing. It has not been seen since I turned off the tree lights last night. I doubt he fled for his safety. I suspect the Wily Possum, although Wendy has ill feelings towards that bear, too. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Wreath Rebellion

After four days of wreath-decorating to the Garden Club's exacting standards, I'm in a rebellious mood when it comes to my own wreaths. This has nothing to do with the Club or their decorating rules; I love the challenge of making wreaths that are lovely and creative enough to please the "judges." It's just my nature to be contrary. So for our bedroom, I choose a wild-looking balsam wreath with branches sticking out everywhere. Instead of pruning it into a classic, subdued shape, I trim it just until it resembles a wreath, slap an old cranberry-red cotton bow on it, and call it done. It hangs above our bed; pine needles drift down on our pillows.

In the living room, I break more rules. Garden Club wreaths are supposed to have a big, "signature" bow. I skip the bow. I skip pruning all but the nuttier outcroppings of the wreath. A Garden Club wreath is supposed to be tastefully decorated using a variety of materials, preferably natural. In recent years, I've been covering our wreath with my growing collection of pinecones until there isn't much green visible. Pinecone madness would be a Garden Club no-no. This year, because of my injured hand, I skipped putting little colored glass balls wherever a hint of green was showing. It's too hard to squeeze them into those spots and it would hurt my thumb. Instead, I added more even pinecones.

So, for a couple of days, we had a purely pinecone wreath. But as I was going through drawers looking for Christmas things the other day, I came upon my stash of bogus red berries. I'd used some of these on several wreaths years ago. They are wired to sharp little picks that stay put wherever I stick them. So, what the heck, I used them all. Here's the result. It's by no means a Garden Club wreath; it's over-the-top by those standards. But we love it.

In other news, the plush teddy bear ornament was forcibly removed from our tree twice today by marauding opposition forces. The teddy bear did not sustain visible damage. I moved it to a higher branch, but I had tried that before.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Decorating the Tree

My thanks to all of you who sent me encouraging and supportive messages during the three-dumpster house-clearing project for my relative. Like a Powdermilk Biscuit, you gave me the strength to get up and do what needed to be done.

My husband and I have been out of the Christmas loop for several days, so it was nice to crank up the carols yesterday and decorate the tree.

I don't remember packing this large, furry ornament last year, but it is nearly the same color as the box, so I must not have noticed it.

It's very important to taste the tree. You don't want to waste a lot of time decorating a bad-tasting tree. Snicky and Snalbert help out with this. Here's Snicky, chowing down on a branch.

My favorite carol of the moment is "Good King Wenceslaus," as sung by The Roches. I've always found that no one sings more perfectly blended harmony than close family members. Here's Snalbert, joining me in the last verse:

Therefore everyone, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now shall bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.
Possum has issues with my ornament placement. He doesn't like many of the unbreakable ornaments I place on the lowest branches, so he removes them and hides them around the living room, hoping I won't notice. He is particularly opposed to a certain small, plush teddy bear, which he feels is unsuitably cutesy and toylike for a sophisticated Back Bay tree. It appears that Possum has appointed himself as the Mies van der Rohe of our Christmas tree, but I don't care if my taste is not as evolved as his. This is his typical skeptical, crossy-pawed attitude when he's doubtful of my handiwork:

If he made himself useful as we put up the tree and take it down, I might pay more attention to his aesthetic judgments. But sitting on my ornament boxes does not count as help; they don't usually wander off.

Wendy, too, has taken a violent dislike to several seemingly innocuous ornaments, including a certain little Russian tsarina doll and an orange faceted plastic ball. When she's irritated, she smacks them off the tree and stalks away. Here she is, enjoying a victory nap in front of the tree after redecorating it:

So it's finally looking a lot like Christmas. Tomorrow, I am planning a marathon wrapping session if my sore hand doesn't complain. It's doing much better; it didn't object to handling all those ornaments but it didn't enjoy the light strings.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Our relative is back at home and adjusting to life in her clean, uncluttered house. We got multiple cryptic texts and emails from the family members who were with her when she arrived very late last night and are spending the weekend introducing her to all the changes we made. There were no tantrums, no grief, hysteria, or rage. Such responses are typical; her reaction was mild. She was delighted with new decorative touches, entranced by the old family photo album I'd left opened on a sofa for her, and very pleased to see clean, paper-free floors for the first time in more than a decade. But she was also horrified that certain things (numbering in the millions, if I include every scrap of paper we tossed) had disappeared or were moved or consolidated.

She's lost in her own house, in other words. It's hardly a good situation for a person with dementia; they thrive on routine and familiarity. We did our best to leave things in their original places, but almost everything was such a catastrophic mess that it usually wasn't possible. Today, she's been alternating between gratitude at everyone's efforts and profound irritation that we mucked up her "systems."

But it's still a good start; it's going better than we hoped. I suspect she will continue to have shifting moods of anger and annoyance along with the graciousness and gratitude that are intrinsic to her personality. I predict that her new toaster oven is going to become the bane of her existence even though it was the simplest I could find. Almost any kind of technology is beyond her now.

She either doesn't realize the copier is gone or she's keeping mum on the subject.

Her new daily caregiver appeared to introduce herself this morning, too. She's a college student who nevertheless has a lot of experience caring for seniors with dementia. That meeting also went better than expected, too, perhaps because our relative hasn't yet realized that this young stranger will be coming every day to look after her (and keep the house free of new clutter).

We all wish we could afford to hire caregivers round the clock instead a few hours a day. She shouldn't be left on her own in that house, although that's all she wants. It's clear that her dementia is worsening, and not only because she disoriented by her clean house.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Re-Entry Time

Our house-clearing mission is officially ended and now we are bracing for "re-entry" — my relative is currently headed back into her "atmosphere." She's currently in Framingham, en route to encounter her decluttered, sparkling clean, wreath-bedecked house. The spacecraft metaphor is apt for her for many reasons, but particularly because her re-entry could be explosive. I will keep you posted but probably not tonight.

I'm a nervous wreck like the rest of my project team, some of whom are either driving to or waiting at the landing site.

Let's distract ourselves by looking at a nice photo, shall we?

I spotted some of "my" wreaths on doors along Marlborough Street and Commonwealth Avenue today. I found seven — nearly a third of my oeuvre. They looked good, although someone who has five of them forgot to cut off the tags and ribbons the Garden Club uses to keep track of sales and deliveries. The next time I go for a walk, I'll have to remember to bring scissors.

Here's my favorite from today:

Okay. So much for that. NOW WHAT? I'm kind of a wreck. I'm supposed to be decorating my tree but I think I'd break too many ornaments in this condition.

I think I'll sign off and pace back and forth in the living room. More tomorrow. Ten, 9, 8...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tree Time

We bought our tree last night at Wilson Farm in Lexington. Something spicy was in their oven when we arrived, maybe gingerbread loaves. The scent was strong, sweet and intoxicating. We became drunk with Christmas spirit. We filled our shopping cart with wreaths and boughs and bows, and stared hard at their big, fat tubes of colorful frosting, meant for decorating gingerbread men. We wanted some badly, even though we don't plan to decorate cookies. We wanted to shoot the icing straight into our mouths. We restrained ourselves, but only because we'll be returning closer to Christmas.

Last year, we bought the first tree we were shown on the lot, and it was gorgeous in our living room, if a wee bit short. (But all trees seem too short to me.) This year, we were hopeful that we'd get lucky again. Sure enough, we found the Tree Guy. I'm pretty sure he was the same fellow who helped us last year. I've always been a very fussy tree shopper. I've been chalking up our love-at-first-sight tree success to careful pruning by tree farmers nowadays, but now I think it's really due to The Tree Guy. We encountered him in near darkness as we headed for the trees.

"Are you looking for a tree? he asked, squinting at us.

"Yes. Are you here to sell us one? I replied, squinting back.

"I can do that, but I'm kind of new at this. What are you looking for?"

"We're very difficult," my husband warned."

"Not a problem. Everyone is. What do you want?"

"The most important thing is that it still looks fresh on Christmas." I said.

"Frasier fir!" he said.

I said, "It needs to be about 9 feet tall and but not too bushy or wide. We need a tall, thin, perfectly shaped tree."

"And it has to be very smelly," said my husband."

"Balsam fir!" said the Tree Guy and my husband almost in unison. The Tree Guy looked at us expectantly. We looked expectantly at him.

"Is that all?" said Tree Guy, looking disappointed. "That's not hard. Come over here."

"No, we're really, really fussy." We told him about how we'd returned a tree to Wilson Farm a few years ago. He was unfazed.

He took deep into the lot, past a well-dressed couple surveying a tree just like the one I wanted.

"Beautiful tree!" I said.

"Make me an offer on it," said the man in the topcoat and tie. We kept going.

Tree Guy pulled out one tree from a long row and shook it out. It was perfect; we bought it.

"You're really good!" I said.

"Actually, I'm not new. I've been selling trees here for 18 years."

He really is good, because he sold my husband a $100 tree. I had no idea he'd spent that much until we were back in the bakery department. I was stunned. Normally he'd never pay that much. I blame his profligacy mostly on the smell of that gingerbread. I'm dying to bake some, although I can't mix batter with my right hand. I blame it a little on family issues and our new habit of throwing money at the myriad problems involved in clearing my hoarder relative's house and putting it back to normal.

It's nearly midnight, and the tree is sitting in its stand, still waiting for lights and ornaments.  Snalbert likes the tree just as it is. He's been chomping on it and spitting it back up since it arrived. It's his personal salad bar. We'll decorate it tomorrow, I guess. We're both exhausted these days. I spent all day putting the finishing touches on my relative's house. She comes home tomorrow night.

I finished all of my chores except for baking or buying something yummy to leave in her kitchen tomorrow and a little more Christmas decorating. The place looks wonderful to us; we're so proud and protective of it. We can't stand to see a scrap of anything on the floor, which is hilarious when we realize that we couldn't SEE the floor a week ago.

Anyone else would see the worn, shabby home of a senior, but we see a small miracle.

I don't know what she'll see, but we're about to find out....

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dumpster Gone

I saw my doctor today about my hand. My husband and I adore her. She's our age, and quirky. She's petite, with long, wavy hair down her back. She wears long, floral, Laura Ashley–style dresses with clogs, as I did in the '80s. She squints through her spectacles and chews gum constantly. Her beside manner is brisk and businesslike in contrast to her girlish appearance. But while she may not look the polished pro, she's sharp and wise, and we trust her completely. She'll do anything to get her patients the best care, knows the best specialists, and can get an anxious patient (like me) an appointment with one the next day, if need be. I often see her the same day I call. I've gotten follow-up calls from her at 6 am and after 7 at night. She cares.

She examined my hand, found the sore area, and told me I need to have a splint made to immobilize my whole hand and wear it continuously for six weeks. I tried to argue but she interrupted and told me bluntly that my injury won't heal otherwise. I tend to be persistent and eloquent, but I was reduced to muttering and growling. (I'm spending too much time with my cats; soon I'll be hissing.) She paid no attention; she was busy typing at her PC, which is what she does through most of every office visit.

I tried bargaining with her. I told her my hand was already feeling much better, and that I wasn't planning to go the gym to lift weights and do push-ups. She replied, "Of course not. That would be STUPID!" I didn't score any points. But I kept at it, and she conceded that I might find some kind of ready-made splint that would hold my thumb but let me use some fingers. She sent me off for X-rays. She'll probably call at dawn tomorrow and lecture me while I'm still asleep.

I spent the rest of the afternoon trying not to use my dominant hand. Forget it. Try it for an hour sometime. You can't do anything. The only positive thing I can report is that you get to eat pizza because you need only one hand to manage a small slice. The same is true of cookies.

After pizza, we went to my relative's house. The driveway, devoid of dumpster, seemed bleak. The cleaners have finished. They worked magic like wizards in two and a half days. I didn't think many of their accomplishments were possible. The refrigerator no longer looks like it came from hell's worst kitchen. It looks brand-new. The vile kitchen floor and shower stall are sparkling. The house feels and smells clean and inviting, and that's a small miracle. We toured each room, exclaiming at each discovery. The end of each bathroom's tissue roll was folded into a point. When I compare a detail like that with what that house was like less than a week ago, and for much more than a decade, I am stunned.

Tomorrow I'll be there with a full agenda: putting away laundered clothing, ironing and hanging new curtains, making up beds, shelving groceries, spreading out large and small area rugs, putting up wreaths — using both hands the whole time. Then the house will be ready for my relative's arrival. We won't be there for that event; we'll be at our favorite annual Christmas concert, miles away. Other relatives will be with her then and for the weekend, to help her adapt to clutter-free living again. When hoarders return to cleaned-up houses, the reaction is usually explosive; they are traumatized, grief-stricken, enraged. That's what we're expecting. She's heard about what we've been doing over and over, and we keep telling her it was necessary so she could continue in her own home. But the reality of it is going to be a terrible shock anyway. And while I organized the clean-up, I can't do a thing about that. Yikes.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Dumpster Day Off

I guess "my" dumpster is gone now. I hope I'll run into it here in the neighborhood; people are always gut-renovating these old Back Bay townhouses, ripping out graceful Victorian staircases, moldings, original floors, and carved mantels so they can replace it all with stuff from Home Depot and their ilk instead. Don't ask me... and it's not the dumpster's fault.

I didn't go to the house today; it's better to stay out of the way of the five cleaners, their sloshing buckets, and dripping rags. I'll be there on Thursday and Friday. And in the meantime, I've been throwing things out from my own medicine cabinet, my desk, my purse... It's a good habit to get into.

I've been catching up on my Christmas shopping today. In my family, most people have lists so I don't have to make many creative decisions. But if you have that opportunity, keep in mind that Anthropologie is offering an extra 30% off items already on sale, and there's good stuff. I love pre-holiday sales just as much as the January kind, because there's more inventory and some awfully good deals.

For example, for the domestic goddess on your list, here's the Snow Grid Tablecloth, in a versatile size that would fit many tables. I particularly like the tassel trim, which doubles as cat toys, making it a two-fer.

It was originally $198 and now it's $70. With its folkloric stitching and those crazy tassels, it would be perfect for somebody's Russian dacha. (If you don't have a dacha, you'd better put one at the top of your Christmas list, as I'm doing. A dacha is listed right below the 7-ton dumpster.)

If you're the type who can't resist buying sweaters as gifts (I plead guilty), including gifts for yourself (ditto), considering mixing it up with the Flared and Cabled Sweater Dress, which also comes in gold and "ivory" that's really pearl gray. But I like this rich orange-red. It's not as bright in person; it stands out without being loud.

It's wool, so it satisfies the sweater urge, and you can layer a cardigan over it. It's been getting great reviews from women of various shapes and sizes. And it's $70 now instead of $148. The website is out of most colors and sizes but the Boylston Street store still has lots.

For die-hard cardigan fans and work-at-homes, consider this Coiled Cableknit Sweatercoat, which has all the cozy, enveloping features of a good bathrobe but can go out for coffee without raising eyebrows:

This is just $35 now, a savings of more than $100. It comes in four colors, including a toasty caramel shade and this pink-red marled version. Again, you'll find a better selection in the store than on the website.

I love to give books, but hardly anyone in my family reads, and my friends all read more than I do, so they've already read whatever title I might come up with. That still leaves cookbooks, though, so I'm all set. But how nice it would be to give or receive these Embroidered Penguin Classics, with their artsy, embossed covers ($7, originally $16):

Holiday decor and gift wrap are also 30% off. I love Wendy Addison's old-fashioned Jars of Fancy. I bought one last year despite having no idea what I'd do with it. I just like having it around:

Think of it as a very special button jar, or some weird potion material from Professor Snape's cupboard ($11.20, down from $16). It also comes in a frosty silver and pearl version.

Tie these wooly Felt Pearls to packages, as the website directs, or do the right thing and make them into cat toys ($5.60, regularly $8):

Speaking of cats, Possum was looking over Anthropologie's ornament collection and noted that there are lots of owls, hedgehogs, squirrels, birds, and big goofy insects, but no cats or possums. He quieted down when I told him I'd consider splurging on this big, unbreakable Fireside Feelings Ornament that he and Wendy can safely smack off the lower branches of our tree to a location where they think it looks better, like halfway under the sofa ($19.60, regularly $28):

Keep in mind that I'm just dipping into the sale section; there are treasures at full price all over the store. While there isn't much targeted to men, you can browse their hardware collection for a statement coat hook, like this one ($48):

They have a staggering assortment of hooks, from elephants to dragonflies. If your guy is too macho for this sort of thing, give him a pack of heavy-duty iron Merchant Nails ($28):

For flannel-shirt types, there's also the Barky Turntable ($1,298):

How about giving your favorite foodie a stoneware Farmer's Market Basket ($14)? You can fill it with chocolate or gourmet treats now and it will come in handy for strawberries next June:

When you're not sure what to give and a gift card won't do the trick, think "consumables," like woodsy-scented candles and soaps. Drag yourself out of Anthropologie for chocolates and Champagne. Go to Kiehl's for superb hand lotions and posh shaving cream in tubes and tubs. Who wouldn't like good hardcover books, cashmere socks or a scarf, or best of all, something amazing from an antique shop. (If I'm on your list, I'd like old silver, please. Diamonds are great, too. I can dream, can't I, Santa?)

The glaring exceptional case on my gift list is my dad, 97, who would heartily reject all of the above, except for the chocolate, perhaps. He needs Velcro shoes with non-slip soles and Italian torrone. Time to stop fantasizing and get back to shopping.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Dumpster Day 4

I still have "my" 7-ton Bay State dumpster but it will go away tomorrow, packed to the top with paper and all the rusty, filthy, moldy, rotting, infested, or decrepit things that made one of us say "Eewww!" as we cleared out my relative's house.

I'm so fond of that dumpster. I never imagined I would fall in love with a giant, rusting container. I suppose I actually love what it represents: a relatively uncluttered, navigable house. The place now looks like the home of a slovenly, aged academic; before it looked like a human-sized hamster cage, piled deep with papers instead of shavings.

Today, a pair of gentleman trash haulers showed up and removed the big, heavy, toxic, and more disgusting things that we ordinary folk couldn't handle.  It was marvelous to see it all go. They also took away the photocopier — my relatives saw the light. It will be donated to someone who needs it and I hope it doesn't cause similar problems for her. I also gave the haulers my bicycle, which I've had since high school —my most recent set of wheels. Farewell, my orange Royce Union. How I enjoyed absent-mindedly running into cars with you....

The team of five cleaners arrived at 8 and started working their magic. It's going slowly because everything is filthy. The exterminator came and showed us many places where the mice came in. He began rattling off the species of the various infestations he'd discovered, including "acrobat ants." But not bed bugs. I was glad about that, because I got bitten five times under my clothes. He suspects spiders. God, I hope not.

Then it was time to go shopping. In the past two days, I've bought a ton of new stuff for the house. A mattress and box spring, bath towels, shower curtains, wastebaskets, kitchen tools, a toaster oven, area rugs and pads, toilet seats and toilet brushes, mouse-proof canisters, a step-stool, bed pillows, throw pillows, bedsheets, drawer and shelf liners, doormats, etc., etc. I'm still stymied by the odd-sized curtains I need for four different rooms by Friday. The idea is to spiff up the house without making it seem too unfamiliar to our relative, and to replace things that were a disgrace. There's also a grocery list that should fill at least two shopping carts.

Cleaning and exterminating continue tomorrow. And I have the day off. I'll go back on Thursday and Friday to put away dry cleaning and laundry, make up beds, and generally primp the place. On Friday afternoon, I'll get some flowers, bake something yummy and aromatic in the kitchen, put on some Chopin, and wire one of our famous Garden Club bows onto an evergreen wreath for the front door.

And then all HELL will likely break loose when my relative returns and sees our handiwork....

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Dumpster Day 3

I've loved having the giant-sized dumpster. I love watching the full moon rise over its hulking mass in the darkness. I wish it were mine, parked at my own front door, daring me to fill it up with the unnecessary accumulations of daily life.

I think everyone should be allowed a dumpster for at least a couple of days every year. Heaving and dragging things into it is so fulfilling that I can only imagine that it would be even more of a kick to be clearing out my own place instead of someone else's. And I believe that all my typical instincts to cling to my old papers and tchotchkes would evaporate in its beckoning presence.

I'll start going through closets and drawers here as soon as we're done with the relative's house. Today we continued clearing out junk and rearranging whatever was left, to prepare the place for the 5-person cleaning crew that will be working for the next two or three days. I chose to attack the refrigerator. I began by excavating the freezer, archaeologist-style. Things were labeled with dates, which I carefully noted: "cranberry relish, 1997," "scallops, 1999," and a crumply, tiny, saran-wrapped package marked "frosting 2005." (Why not just slap that last dollop on top of the cake?)

There are people, usually old people, who think a freezer can stop time, keeping food edible forever (I guess this logic is similar to the reasoning behind Ted Williams's head) and my relative is such a believer. So she keeps ladyfingers from 2003 and frozen yogurt from 1998.

I was quiet doing the freezer except for a few choice epithets. The fridge elicited involuntary shrieks and snatches of folksongs (more "Barbara Allen"). Exploding apples; a jar of transparent yellow mayonnaise; green roast beef; butter from a long-past presidential administration. At least I'd already cleared it out several years ago, so there weren't leftovers from the 1990s.

This afternoon, I spent $500 at Bed Bath and Beyond, buying everything from spatulas and bug-proof canisters to rug pads and wastebaskets. But I only paid $400 because I had hoarded kept a 20% coupon that arrived in the mail a couple of months ago. I bought toilet seats, bed pillows, and shower curtains to replace moldy items that should have had decent burials years ago. I wasn't able to find everything I needed: purple throw pillows for the living room; orange towels,  red towels, and short white curtains for the bathrooms. The house is very '60's colorful under all that grime. I still need a tiny toaster oven; hers appears to have been used as a portable fireplace. I need a grate for the real fireplace; the original seems to have collapsed to bits.

I also need welcome mats for the two porches. And just imagine: they'll finally be telling the truth!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dumpster Day 2

We made great progress with the house-clearing today. Dozens and dozens of boxes of papers were sifted through and tossed. Broken items, old furniture, dead plants, and other junk disappeared into dumpsters. Yesterday's overflowing 2-ton dumpster was replaced with a 4-ton model this morning, but to our newly experienced eyes, it looked too small for our needs. And we filled it before noon. The dumpster that replaced it was the biggest they offer. It was as big as a nice-sized room, with high walls and a door. One could walk around in it while it was still empty, which I did. I'd never been in a dumpster before. It was fun but I don't need to do it again.

In fact, I don't need to do any of this again. It's tiring and hard on the back and the psyche. The house still smells bad, not only from things you'd expect, but from a bottle of spilled, super-sweet perfume that is at least as nauseating as any dead old mouse in a bottle of oil. And I have bug bites; they bit me through my clothes.

There is a debate within the family about whether to allow our paper-hoarding relative to keep her copier. A couple of my relatives feel she relies on it too much to live without it. My husband and I consider her copier the Root of All Evil. All of us realize that the vast majority of the papers that have filled nearly three dumpsters over the past two days first poured out of that copier. Some of us hope that behavior will stop on its own, while the rest of us want to take steps to make sure it stops.

I liken her keeping it to letting a drug addict keep his meth lab. With it, she can fill up the house again in weeks or months. Just set the copier's counter to at least "100" and press the PRINT button. Scatter, toss on the floor, and repeat. Staples delivers paper by the case.

Hoarders whose houses were emptied against their will have a recidivism rate of about 100% — without monitoring and intervention, their houses fill right up again. It begins immediately. Our team of professional organizers knows this, and they feel that the copier must go. Despite the established facts and experienced opinions, my relatives remain on the fence. They want to wait and see how things go with a daily caregiver around to pick up after our relative. The head organizer pointed out that caregivers have many other things to do and tend not to be confrontational. I pointed out that it would be better for the caregiver to provide companionship or do necessary tasks like cooking than to chase after the papers our relative will spread around during the 21 hours the caretaker isn't there and the copier is.

I also believe that it will be easier on our relative, in the long run, to present her with all of these hard, drastic changes at the same time, and help her recover and adapt to them all at once. I don't want to have to wrestle the copier away from her later.

My relatives say that she will simply get another copier. I say that if the caretaker finds one, we'll take it away, too. She's miserly; she won't keep wasting her money.

If the copier stays, I told my relatives that they will be on their own. My husband and I are taking this week to clear and clean that disgusting house, and we're not going to do it again. They can deal with it themselves if it happens again via the copier. One relative said, "That's not the threat that will convince us." My husband asked, "What IS the threat that will convince you?" I said, "It's not a threat, it's a promise." We never heard the answer to his question.

I feel sorry for my relative if the copier stays. She is too scattered and confused to keep herself from drowning in papers again. She was wretched and uncomfortable in her filthy house, and while a clean house will be a shock, we're sure she'll grow to appreciate being free to sit in more than one chair, using her kitchen for making meals instead of stockpiling trash, walking without constantly climbing over boxes and piles, and living free of bugs, mice, and dirt. She was once an elegant, meticulous lady who followed the old-school principles of gracious living.

I have made my closing arguments and now I'm waiting for the verdict.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Dumpster Day

I'm right smack in the middle of my ten-day December manual-labor marathon: Four days of decorating wreaths, followed by six long, dirty days of clearing out and cleaning an elderly relative's house; she has been a hoarder, mostly of paper, for more than a decade. The house has been in horrible condition for all that time but people are free to live as they please in this country — as long as they aren't endangering others or are at risk for self-neglect. Our relative was finally declared to be the latter by her town's Council on Aging and her psychiatrist, who both insisted that she had to have a cleaner, safer house and a daily caregiver, or she'd be moved to a care facility. Finally, there was a mandate to clear out her filthy, dangerous, fire-trap of a house.

Four family members and a team of five organizers got started this morning, after the relative left to stay with family out of state. She had been told regularly about the clean-up plan for nearly two months, but chose to ignore it. She has dementia and is good at forgetting things she doesn't want to think about. The truth sank in when a two-ton dumpster appeared in her driveway yesterday. She was upset and didn't want to leave, but somehow we got her packed and into the car with her driver.

We filled that dumpster before mid afternoon. Tomorrow, we're going to fill a four-ton dumpster. We might need a third dumpster on Sunday. Then a five-member cleaning crew is coming for at least two days.

Today's highlights included the exhilarating satisfaction that comes from heaving box after box into a dumpster and watching the huge container steadily fill to the brim — trash we'd all been longing to toss for years. It was fun to finally see floors and other areas that had long been layered over with stuff. Being able to walk freely was entertaining, too. I kept forgetting; I'd go outside via one door and walk around the house to another entrance because it had always been easier to get to certain rooms that way, rather than climbing over papers. We all kept wandering around because we hadn't been able to do it comfortably since the '90s.

The house was full of dust, dirt, spilled food, mold, crawling and flying bugs, spiderwebs, and mouse droppings. Miss Havisham would feel right at home. Everything is awful in a house where very little gets thrown out. (She did throw out most of her food-related garbage, at least.)

We had an informal competition to see who could produce the most disgusting find. I found hideous, bug-infested clumps on the kitchen floor. To keep from gagging over this sort of thing, I've learned to sing folk songs from my teenage, guitar-playing years, which force me to concentrate to remember lyrics. I resorted to "Barbara Allen" a lot in the kitchen today. I unearthed a bag of liquid lettuce, but that was nothing. My relative B., who spent hours dealing with filthy, crammed countertops and cupboards, found food that had expired in 1995, cans about to explode, a box of rice that had been completely emptied by mice, apples that collapsed when she touched them, and the ultimate — an uncapped bottle of olive oil with a strange color. She told me it was a science project I might never see again, so I left my own task — sifting through tens of thousands of pieces of paper to find any of sentimental value while tossing 99.99% of it — to go see what B. had discovered.

We surveyed it with scientific curiosity. The olive oil was reddish and dark, and there seemed to be rounded objects growing and floating in the murk. It reminded me of my October visit to the Musée Dupuytren, the 19th-century medical museum at Paris's medical school, which was filled with many thousands of jars of creepy specimens (human and animal) floating in spirits and formaldehyde. I never expected to be nostalgic for that place, but it was better than the kitchen we were standing in.

I lifted up the bottle from the counter to get a closer look at what was within that cloudy, stinking red oil. Then B. said, "I'm pretty sure it's a mouse." I dropped the bottle in revulsion, sending some oil flying onto the floor, which made us both jump backwards. We began laughing at the horror of it all — the disaster of a house, the terrible changes that can happen to us as we age, at our terrible weekend job, and now... this doomed, symbolic creature. It was the most memorable moment of a memorable day.

And tomorrow we're heading into the basement, where the situation is said to be Even Worse. Wish us luck.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Wreath-Making 2011, Day 4

Garden Club wreaths are now bedecking doors and interiors of houses all over Back Bay, the South End, and further afield. With my trusty ice pack and gloves, I made six wreaths today, for a total of 23, beating my record of 22 from last year. I wasn't very uncomfortable; I paced myself.

I decided to work primarily with large-scale materials today, so I'd need fewer items to fill the wreaths, which would help my hand. I also feel that large-scale decorations have more impact from the sidewalk than delicate, intricate designs. I used scores of good-sized pinecones; I love them because they remind me of the woods in Maine as well as Christmas. 

I added a little silver-wrapped Three Musketeers bar to someone's silvery wreath-in-progress. She laughed and I didn't see the candy bar again.

This pair of outdoor wreaths has cream-and-gold bows chosen by the customer, who wanted all-natural materials. I added lots of large pine boughs and cedar sprays, pinecones, magnolia leaves, and holly.

The wreaths below will appear on the front doors of a Garden Club member who decorates wreaths herself (it's an honor to work on a fellow member's wreaths). She chose bronze-gold brocade bows, my favorite. She specified "designer's choice for the materials. I used my magic formula of large pine boughs and cedar sprays, magnolia leaves, and pinecones, swapping out clusters of burgundy rose hips for holly. 

Here's another "designer's choice" wreath; this time with a burgundy bow. Pine boughs and cones are mixed with glittered chartreuse and burgundy glass balls, and lots of small, sparkly, gold-glittered branches.

I was shocked when I saw this photo of my last wreath, which I finished around 5 o'clock, just a couple of hours ahead of our last delivery. This was another "designer's choice," but the lime-and-burgundy bow was handed to me.  By late on Thursday afternoon, materials are often scarce, but I found some massive pine boughs, to add depth and drama.  I used different kinds of pinecones plus burgundy glass balls, and more of gold-glittered branches. But it looks like the wreath is either misshapen on the lower right side, or too "furry" along the bottom. I hope it's just the photo; no one noticed it when it went through inspection and photography. It's a very three-dimensional wreath, so I'm hoping the camera distorted it somehow. I wasn't THAT tired, honest! The customer is an old friend, so I emailed her that I can come over and trim the bottom it if it looks weird in reality:

After I finished, I had the usual, post-wreath-making endorphin high. No more performance pressure! I wandered around, visiting the other decorators, who were all doing FAR more amazing things with their materials than I can ever dream of doing. The wreaths the Garden Club makes are mostly marvels of creativity and elegance. They are easy to spot, thanks to their lush, distinctive bows and beautiful craftsmanship. I'm looking forward to admiring them all over town in the weeks to come. And I'm looking forward to decorating more, and doing a better job, I hope, next year.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Wreath-Making 2011, Day 3

I once wrote an article for a health magazine about Blackberry thumb. I may be the only person alive with wreath thumb. A cold pack, Advil, a couple of hours' rest, and cotton gloves helped me finish five wreaths today. My left hand is swollen and sore between the wrist and base of my thumb, an area I've never thought about before. I think it's called the "carpal metacarpal joint," a silly name; I guess the early anatomists ran out of clever ideas. 

But, boy, it can hurt. I suppose this is what getting old is like — parts of you that you never even noticed before start bothering you, and sometimes toes and ears just fall off and are never seen again. There's plenty about getting old that no one ever tells you because it's too awful to know, and there's nothing you can do to avoid it except fling yourself from a parapet.  For example, it never occurred to me that eyelashes turn white. Whoops, I think it's forbidden to mention that.

But I digress.

One of the things I like about working on wreaths is that I'm still considered a "younger" member by much of the group, an increasingly rare, desirable thing at my age. But I felt like the senior member today, favoring my hand while everyone else raced along as usual.

I started off with indoor and outdoor wreaths for somebody who wanted traditional red and gold bows and some gold accents. Okay:

Outdoor, with holly.

Indoor, with cool lotus pods that look better in person.

Then I worked on a pair of big outdoor wreaths for my fellow juror, who requested sheer gold bows and all-natural materials — tasteful choices. These wreaths are mirror images of each other, meant for handsome double front doors. Juror #13 here loaded them with blue spruce, cedar, holly, eucalyptus pods, and pinecones.

I find that using five materials will usually make a wreath lush and interesting without seeming busy. I always tuck material along the sides, too; I don't decorate only the front. Wreaths aren't flat surfaces, they're 3D objects.

Then I went home to ice my hand and catch up with life in the non-balsam world.

The lure of cinnamon rolls at tea time drew me back.

After 16 wreaths, I finally got an order that said, "Decorator's choice bow and accents," meaning I can do whatever I want. Oh, boy. I ultimately decided against covering the wreath with all the fun-sized Halloween candy bars that someone had brought in. (I found another use for that.) Instead, I picked out my favorite golden-bronze ribbon and gathered up everyone's leftover gold pinecones. I normally love spray-painting stuff in the alley, but it was raining hard. 

This wreath has large pine sprays for a fluffy base, a zillion pinecones, plus lotus pods, some kind of deep purple grass, and glass balls in bronze and purple.

I make a mess as I work.

Wreaths seldom photograph well...

Possum and Snalbert were glad to see me when I went home. (Wendy and Snicky were hiding or sleeping, as usual.) They all can probably intuit from the smell on me that a Christmas tree will soon arrive in their living room. They like eating the needles and throwing up. When that gets old, they take turns hanging out underneath it, pretending they are Furry Woodland Creatures.