Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Tapestry Of …..


The Fabric Of…

There’s an old Norse saying that the fabric of our lives is woven by the Fates but that we color the tapestry as we wish. Since anything that has to do with fabric fascinates me, I have been giving this interesting idea some thought. If it were possible to color my personal tapestry, how would I go about it? What colors would I use? What textures, what values, and which patterns would I choose?

Colors, first. Stacked in my closet are bins of fabric sorted more or less according to hue. So, ignoring the fact that the bins are a jumble of prints, solids, bits and pieces… in short, an awful mess, I pull out the bin that is full of blues. Blue can be soothing and soft or vibrant and exciting, but for my tapestry I choose an ocean-blue needed for calm and sparkling seas. Now, a boat is needed to navigate these waters, so I dip into the ‘red’ bin. Red to me is the color of courage and determination, of a jaunty je ne sais quoi that will carry my boat through calm and storm alike. And yes, I should add a little orange to the mix for humor’s sake. A sense of humor is critical, after all.

On to the yellows. Who can exist without sunshine and joy? A yellow sun matches the sunflowers scattered on the meadowlands adjacent to the sea, and I’ll throw in a golden finch or two. Here are children dressed in shades of yellow playing with a fuzzy duckling and then those same children climbing onto a yellow school bus. And, look, there they are again striding out into the world to design buildings with pale-gold stone, to heal or sculpt or create wonderful things that will gladden the world. And since none of this can exist in a vacuum, there needs to be grass green meadows and fields and a mountain or two. So much for green.

In the warm sunshine
Children’s laughter fill the air
And gladden this heart.

Tapestries need dark colors, too. Purple shadows are required for rest and sleep, and I’ll throw in these dark blues for moments of introspection… All fine and good, but then there is the box in which I house the black fabrics. I would like to pass by these ominous hues of struggle, pain, and loss, but I know that even these I need, for it is the darkest hours that shape and hone and strengthen. So, black there must be–but not too much– and I move quickly on to the bin marked ‘white.’

Silvery white for moonglow and stars in a night sky. Excellent. White damask for inspiration……marvellous. White satin for the kind of incandescent joy that is almost too great to hold. Add a touch of white for the seagull soaring over my ocean, and I am done. But wait a minute, what about the sky?

Skies are necessary. They soar above us and show us that we can achieve anything that we dare to do. They set the tone for our days and nights. So, a sky, but what kind? Blue with flecks of cloud? Tinted with the exquisite mauves of sunset? Midnight blue? Skies portending storm or rain or snow? All these are needed in my imagined tapestry, and I am not sure which to choose.

Perhaps I will have to leave that up to the Fates, after all.


Considering Monkey Grass


My friend is giving away her monkey grass. “Take it away,” she tells me. “I have too much of it—I don’t want it!”

So the monkey grass has been dug up and transported to our garden where the sturdy clumps stand around looking as unruffled as if they’ve always been there. They remind me of that fellow who used to leer at us from the cover of MAD MAGAZINE. “What?” the plants seem to be asking, “us worry?”

Far be it for me to become sentimental over bunches of monkey grass—also called liriope, mondo grass and snakesbeard— but I have to confess that there’s something endearing about these plants. I mean to say, here is this scrubby mound of verdure that is not really attractive except when trimmed and properly spaced (which isn’t going to happen anytime soon in our yard!). Still, it’s green, and it is going to survive everything: the Raleigh clay and rocks, the heat, the drought, the rains, the cold, not to mention neglect.

No matter what you throw at it, old money grass keeps trucking. It survives shade. It thrives in the blazing sun. Not much maintenance is required, either—you need only to plop a clump into a shallow cavity, water, and walk away.

In fact, monkey grass puts me in mind of ordinary folks like us who’ve put in our time and raised our families and taken life as it came—or tried to, anyway. Our feet are planted not in rich humus and rarified topsoil but in the hardscrabble clay. We may not get ourselves onto the cover of TIME, but we are out there doing our best to make a contribution. We pay our taxes and wait patiently at doctors’ offices. We vote for the candidate of our conscience and yet try to remain open to everyone’s ideas. We are bread and butter at life’s table, plain as salt and as necessary to the general order of things.
If at times we get discouraged and wilt, cool water will revive us. And—here’s the best part—we periodically send up surprisingly pretty clusters of lavender flowers.
You go, monkey grass!

So ordinary…
But from such mundane grasses,
Surprising flowers!

Making the Case For Books


While trying to reorganize my bookcase the other day, I chanced upon a very old volume of Tennyson’s poems. I’d almost forgotten I had it. The book fell open to “Ulysses,” a poem that my uncle had liked to read out loud, and… wait… a sepia photograph of my father smiled up at me.

I smiled back at the glint of mischief in my father’s eyes, the sparkling hint that life, though difficult at times, was also full of fun. Even when he was old and failing, my father never lost that quality of joy, and now, here he was reminding me of all that he had been. I held the thought of his smile close and remembered the sound of my uncle’s voice reading from the poem: “…To follow knowledge like a sinking star/Beyond the utmost bounds of human thought.” When I carefully replaced the book—with its memories and precious bookmark—I was still smiling.

I have always loved books. When I was too small to read, I used to take down the heavy old volumes of my uncle’s collection—the collected Shakespeare, Les Miserables, the Idylls  of the King, Ivanhoe, and open them, running my fingers down the pages that were yellowed and spotted with age. When I was of reading age, I would find a spot which was sunny and quiet and curl up with two or three books which would carry me to worlds beyond worlds. Mind you, not only the words but the books themselves held magic. The weight of books, the crisp feel of their pages, even the scent of them hinted at adventure. Add an apple and a handful of cookies, and I was in heaven.

These days, many people prefer electronic books because of their portability and ease of use. Kindle, they tell me, is a preferable traveling companion to the five or six pocket books I choose to lug around when I’m on the move. My friends shake their heads when I say that I want to take those books. They pronounce me a relic of another age, and of course they are right. A book can’t hold a candle to a kindle which can be read in bed and which, at a flick of a finger, can produce a hundred books to audition. And yet…

And yet! Anachronism or not, I vote for books for, look, a visit to my book case is an experience! First of all, I can never find what I came looking for, so this necessitates a goodly amount of time muttering and squinting and poring over books that are arranged helter skelter, the Tolkiens cuddling up to Adams’ Watership Down and Kipling’s Kim rubbing shoulders with the Ranger’s Apprentice series which my grandson and I love. There are serious books and funny novels and romances and poetry, the glorious and the mundane lined up and awaiting my pleasure. And, oh, what comfort it is to pull out Llewelyn’s How Green Is My Valley after a long hiatus, or re-read passages that my father and I read together from David Copperfield.

Books are time machines, conservators of memories. “Sure,” I can hear you say, “but you can read an e-book and get the same memories, can’t you?” Ah, but can you open a kindle and re-discover that wonderful card your friend sent you when you were exiled with the flu? Or the valentine your grand daughter made for you when she was three? Or a love letter or… in one memorable instance… the twenty dollar bill that I forgot I’d left in Moby Dick?

And this, too— no kindle yet made can offer me something as priceless as the memory of my young father’s smile.

Reading with grandchild,

Listening for that other voice

Loved so long ago.

Welcome Home


So, we are home.

Mind you, it took a long while before I could call this house ‘home.’  Home was not Raleigh, North Carolina, but Sharon, Massachusetts, where we had lived for almost thirty years. Home was near the lake where our boys had swum and sailed, near friends with whom I had shared every nuance of life.

Yet, here we were in the south and in a new house, a house where each room echoed my own loneliness and where the Carolina moon, shining through tall, unfamiliar Carolina pines, looked pale and doubtfully down on us all.

Bloom where you are planted; home is where the heart is. Though these aphorisms are all very well and good, they do not heal a homesick heart. But the tide of life sweeps on and takes us with it… sink or swim, it is up to us.

When does a house become a home? The process is slow, incremental, cumulative. There may be a family gathering, a visit from old friends. There could be a birth with all the joy and discovery that a new life brings. There could come new friends, good friends, who gather to rejoice, to help, to bring laughter into the mix. And there will be memories sweet and bittersweet, for here is the room that was my mother’s while she lived with us, and the vases which she used to fill with flowers. And in this room, later, came baby Kate’s small crib and her toys. And there, in the sun-splashed living room where Kate sometimes does her homework now, our grandson Ben once took his first baby steps. And, look, there… there is where little Alex and I played when she was only a year old.

But it is not only the past that warms this house and makes it ours, for the present and the future are busy, too. Spread in a jumble on the kitchen table are recipes for next Thursday, when my quilt group comes to lunch, a reminder that I am to bake a pie for our next family gathering, and a colorful travel brochure hinting at our next adventure. On the computer upstairs in my work room is a schedule of books to be read by my Sharon book club. And on the floor are spread the multifarious fabrics for my latest project.

Home is where memories live and where hopes for the present gather close to dreams for the future. And it is this complex weave of light and shadow, of growth and loss and love and anticipation that come to meet us at the door to welcome us home.

All Roads Lead to Rome


We aren’t sure how it happened.  The route to the train station seemed so simple and we have even made a dry run. Yet here we are… lost in Foligno. When we stop to ask for directions, they have a familiar ring…La statziotione? Ah, bene. Va destro, e poi gira sinestra… Finally, in desperation, I call out to a lady in her car.

“Mi scusi, senora, dove e la statzione?” I cry, and she tells us to follow her then proceeds to lead us through a maze of back roads and side streets until—eccola! There is the railway station. We want to express our gratitude, but the lady merely waves and goes on her way.

All right, then. Here we are on the station, tickets ready, tension slowly ebbing and waiting for the train. Inconceivable, unbelievable… but the beastly thing is late. Ten minutes pass, twenty, thirty…the pleasant young woman near us mutters darkly that it is Berlusconi’s fault. Finally, the train pulls in and we are on our way.

It is said that all roads lead to Rome. It certainly seems as if the people of a thousand and one roads have landed at the statzione termini. There are people everywhere speaking a dozen languages and dialects and moving purposefully about… but then, we are used to the quieter, gentler place of Umbrian life. Rome is wide awake, edgy, and somehow modern in spite of its antiquity. We check into our room, which is small but has a pleasant, little balcony boasting chairs, a somewhat uncertain table and a quamquat tree full of fruit.

The great dome of Santa Maria Della Maggiore is not far away, its marble glistening under the hot, bright sun. Walking further on, we visit an old friend… the stern marble Moses, brought to life by Michaelangelo, in the piazza San Pietro in vincoli.

There in the church, sitting in one of the pews and gazing fixedly at the alter is a young man with a tee-shirt that reads, “Never give up, always attack, vigorously and ruthlessly.”  I wonder why he is there and what in his life has caused him to wear such a shirt.

There are so many other sights, but we are tired and hot and opt to settle at a coffee bar in a pleasant street full of shops and eateries. The proprietor adds a plate of cookies to our drinks as well as a cheerful invitation to stay and rest. We do.

In the evening we eat at the Ristorante Sciarico, which is on via Pauline and has a wide garden shaded by Roman pines. Our table sits at the head of a small piazza which is soon full of little girls who are attending someone’s birthday party. As bright as butterflies they dance and jump and play tag… entertainment for the evening while we feast on the thinnest of pizzas topped with cheese and prociutto, the specialty of the house. The little girls are still at it when our pasta—calamarelle (calamari) for Mike and fresh tomatoes with basil for me.

While we eat it occurs to me that we have done a great deal of eating in Italy. For one thing, the Umbrian food is hearty and very tasty. For another, tramping about on steep hills and climbing ferocious slopes tends to give one an appetite.

Eating here is a ritual, a comfortable, prolonged stay at the table during which anything, from football (soccer) to family matters to politics, goes. The menu starts with appetizers, of course, and the one that most stays in my mind was savored in Spoleto— a beautifully roasted zucchini flower, stuffed with ricotta cheese and eggplant.

There are three courses on the menu but I rarely made it past the first… pasta.  What can be more Italian than pasta? There are so many choices, as regard the wonderful linguini with little clams and another with shrimp and tiny scallops, so tender and sweet as to melt in the mouth. There was also another linguini tasting of fresh tomatoes and herbs that seemed so simple and yet was so delicious!

Only twice did my stomach and I progress to the ‘second’ course on the menu. Once, in Civita Nova by the sea, there were oh-so-tender calamari sliced into long, slender ribbons, sautéed with the lightest breading, and served en brochette. Then there was the surprise Chicken Marsala, a recommendation at our beloved neighborhood trattoria. This dish was not our stateside version flavored with light, sweet Marsala wine but chunks of chicken, served bone, skin and all,  in a thick, salty sauce.

And then… but, of course this is the important ‘then’— the dolce or dessert. Who could live without dessert? Whilst others sipped their capuccino or their espresso, I did justice to the chef’s crowning achievements. There was a caramello so smooth and elegant that it was like downing sweet satin. There was the tarte al albicocca, an apricot tart that Mike found at the local bakery. There were the multivarious gelati that we slurped along our journeys. And the apple tart… but, basta! really, I am starting to drool,  so I must stop.

Perhaps I am writing about food because I am thinking of the edibles we are likely to get on the plane tomorrow.  In the morning we must leave and fly homeward, taking with us so many memories. And among those remembrances will be that of Umbria’s poppies opening their bright hearts to the sun, and dusky green olive groves, and distant church bells echoing across the hills and fields.

Tomorrow,  poppies

Will blow crimson in the wind…

But we will have gone.



Buon appetito, amici!


Along with good food,

Laughter and remembered talk..

Spring in Umbria.

Visits and Revisits


It has rained through the night, and yet we wake to find the sun pouring through the windows like an unexpected gift. Since we can’t let such largesse go to waste, we decide to head south to Arone and sample the sights there. But our car seemingly has other ideas and we find ourselves on the road to Spello. Who are we to question fate?

It seems fitting that on our last day in Umbria we revisit a town with which we fell in love. And, indeed, this second visit is even nicer than our first. The flowers are vibrant because of rain and the people are just as friendly as we climb higher and higher on the narrow stone steps and finally reach the crest the town. From there we can see the ancient Roman Arch and below us the panorama that is Umbria.

We even eat at the Bar Giardino again and sit in the same spot in the garden and are waited on by the same cheerful waitress. As we await the cooked ham, mushroom and artichoke flatbread sandwich, I wax philosophical and wonder whether we leave a part of ourselves in a place we love or whether we take a part of that place with us. Perhaps we do both.

We said as much to Mike’s niece yesterday when we met for lunch in Colfiorito. We had chosen this place because it is halfway between Annita’s home in Civita Nova Alta and Sig. Ettore’s farm, but we had no idea what to expect as we drove the by-now familiar zigs and zags of the ‘little mountains’ until we suddenly and unexpectedly arrived onto level flatland. We had reached the top of a mountain!

So we had lunch on the top of a mountain in a small hotel in Colfiorito, and if the place was calm and peaceful, our conversation was animated. Annita is passionate about politics—i.e. Berlusconi. He is anathema, a man of no morals, a disgrace to Italy. “Thirty percent of our young people are unemployed because of the policies set by that man,” she told us. “He has stolen money from the government, cut services, weakened education.” In short, Berlusconi must go.

These views were echoed by everyone we met during our trip in Umbria. Young people have begun a conversation by asking what we thought of Berlusconi. Others simply shake their heads and say that, hopefully, he is on his way out. But politics in Italy seem to be as confusing as politics are anywhere in the world, and nothing can be done immediately.

In the mean time life will go on. We will take the train to Rome tomorrow and from thence homeward. And once we are back on familiar soil, we will, I know, look to our right every morning hoping to see Trevi sitting high on the crest of the hill.

Of Ancient Lineage


Gubbio is another of those wonderful towns which can be reached by a long highway journey capped with a short trip through the Apennines. By now, we are becoming used to the savage twists and turns of the narrow mountain road, but always there is the curl of apprehension that keeps one on the edge of the seat. Even so, the scenery is beautiful. The high hillsides drop sharply into valleys golden with broom and soar over peaceful farmlands. Between being breathless over the scenery and holding our breath because of that car that is attempting to pass a motor scooter on a curve, we become very short of breath.

Gubbio is a large town boasting 33,026 inhabitants and is also very old with roots in the Paeolithic. Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Lombards, Guelphs, the Counts of Urbino and many others have ruled this town.

We are anxious to see as much as we can before the inevitable shutdown during the 1:00 to 3:00 period, but first we must find a parking place. The town is teeming with cars that seem to be going in all directions and—oh, no! a police woman is telling us in no uncertain terms that we are going the wrong way. “Dove e il parcheggio?” We wail… where is the parking area? She eyes us, then nods and motions for us to go all the way around and come back down the street the correct way. We do so and behold! Not only has the wonderful lady found us the only free parking spot in the whole town, but she is actually standing on the spot and refusing other cars entry! We call all sorts of blessings down on her as we walk away to sample the joys of Gubbio.

There are many sights to see, but the sun is blazing hot and the steps leading to these sights are steep. We gratefully accept the use of the public elevator which takes is to the Piazza Grande where we see a wedding party emerging from the doors of the Palace of the Podesta. A crowd has gathered with cameras at the ready, and we all applaud as the groom kisses the bride.

From here we walk up countless steep stone stairs and, completely out of breath, stop at the Museo Diocesano where artifacts of Umbria are on exhibit. We’re told that Bronze Age artifacts have been discovered close to the town and that Gubbio’s written history goes back to the 1st century. Frescoes, wall paintings and ancient coins are some of the items that have once been used by people long ago. And…look, here is a little terra cotta pomegranate. Who owned this small beauty? I wonder. Was it a gift? A toy? An offering to some god?

Did a child once laugh

Playing with this small, round fruit?

Clay pomegranate.

After a while we leave the past behind us and walk back into the blazing sun to climb more steps to the Cathedral of the Duomo. This center of Gubbio is a majestic place with paintings and stained glass windows set high above the alter. The equally imposing Palazzo de Ducale is directly across the way, but by now we are tired and thirsty and decide to forego magnificence for something to drink in the small café nearby where we meet Roberto and Julia. We talk about cars and politics and life in general… a young couple and an old one enjoying something cool in the heat of the day.

From thence to lunch. The food in Italy bears mentioning if for no other reason than that constant walking makes one hungry! Our meal in the outdoors garden of the elegant Taverna di Lupo consisted of a pasta with summer sauce (me) and a wonderful polenta with asparagus and mushrooms (Mike) and was followed, of course, by cappuccino. We wonder what daily life is like in Gubbio. Apparently, according to some people we met at a restaurant in the mountain town of Colifiori, a condo in Gubbio is quite cheap. It is the parking that makes life difficult… one must (or so we hear) park each night at the foot of the hill!

When lunch is over it is past three thirty and storm clouds are starting to gather. Dreading a crossing of the ‘little mountains’ in the rain, we hurry to our car and prepare to leave Gubbio. But before we do, I turn around and look up at the Duomo, a guardian set high above this ancient town.