The Country Mouse Goes to Boston Town

Rackham_town_mouse_and_country_mouseMy husband and I are country mice. We’ve both lived in city settings but we currently have a quiet rural life that we love.

Except once in awhile, we crave a little more excitement, bright lights, a great museum, good food.

We spent the last few days in the city of Boston, in the state of Massachusetts, in the USA.

Boston is the perfect city for country mice. It’s a big city that feels small, it has tons of beauty, indoors and out, and there are buildings and monuments everywhere that feel familiar and comforting to all Americans, even if they’ve never been to Boston before.

I want to show you how beautiful Boston is in autumn by focusing on three highlights of the trip—a farmers’ market in Copley Square, a beloved team winning the big game, and our ramblings around the green spaces of the city. Whether you’re a country mouse or a town mouse, there’s something in Boston for you!

All Americans and maybe many folks in other countries, too, know that Boston has had a sad, sad year. The bombings that tore apart the Boston Marathon, and many people’s bodies and lives, continue to leave their marks on the city.

For months, Copley Square, in the heart of the Back Bay area and very near the site of the bomb attacks, was given over to an impromptu memorial to the victims of the bombs, where Bostonians and visitors to the city could add a tribute and share their sadness and determination to be “Boston Strong.”

IMG_2736 IMG_2734_2Now, the sad memorabilia has been moved to the city archives and Copley Square is back to hosting a weekly farmers’ market that brings a healthy, life-filled beauty to the city. And the country mice felt very much at home here! We have apples where we come from!

Boston has always been mad about their sports teams and, especially, their baseball Red Sox. The Red Sox had a magical year this year that culminated when they won baseball’s World Series on Wednesday night.

I know a lot of people don’t really get how a sports team can bring a city up off its knees but, trust me, Bostonians feel that their Red Sox did just that. The players made “B Strong” their motto and worked to give the city a happy distraction from the troubles but also worked tirelessly in charitable ways to ease the pain of the victims of the attacks.

So, their win in the championship was a storybook ending. It didn’t take away the pain or give back the lives lost, but it still mattered, a lot, to the city. A happy city is a beautiful city. And a happy city is very welcoming to country mice, as long as they cheer for the home team!

Boston is a city to walk in. It’s not huge and it has so many beautiful parks and green spaces that it invites a slow pace and appreciation. We saw pocket gardens in the Back Bay Fens and in the tiny spaces in front of the brownstones on Beacon Hill. The beautiful cemetery in the Boston Common creates a still spot for contemplation right next to one of the busiest commercial streets in the city.

The Public Gardens and Boston Common provide city dwellers with huge spaces to admire nature and just hang out and have fun. One of the prettiest areas is along the Charles River, which runs between Boston and Cambridge, into the Atlantic Ocean. Right next to traffic tearing down busy Storrow Drive, joggers jog, dogs frolic, crew teams row, little boats sail, and a busy city rests.

The country mice found this all very reassuring when they got a little overwhelmed by the rich food, flowing wine, and bright lights of the big city!

The country mice are home now, fat and happy, with fine memories of town. We’d recommend Boston to any of you who love a small big city, history, and beauty! Are you a town mouse or a country mouse?

Loving Hands of Friends: Grandma Van’s Quilt

IMG_2079In an era where young women show their affection for friends by posting blurry photos of them on Facebook, the traditional practice of making a friendship quilt seems incredibly “old school.” But I’m an old-school kind of gal and I love being the current caretaker of a Depression-era friendship quilt, a lasting and lovely example of the power wrought by “loving hands at home.”

This is Grandma Van’s quilt.

grandma van quiltOrvada Hartman Van Landingham was my husband’s grandmother. She made wonderful quilts but she didn’t make this one. It was made for her by the women of her Texas community, as she and her husband prepared to move to California during the Great Depression.

Imagine how hard that must’ve been for a young woman, to leave everyone and everything she knew and move into the unknown. And she wasn’t moving because she had a great new job waiting, or because she’d always wanted to live in California. She was moving to escape, like so many others, the Dust-Bowl-ruined Great Plains, and just hoping she and her husband could make a better life in the mythical West.

Friendship quilts have been popular since the mid-1800s in the United States and probably evolved out of the pastime of the communal quilting bee. Some of the quilts are more properly called signature quilts, because they were made to raise money for a church or charity; people would pay to have their signature on the quilt and sometimes made their block or sometimes just signed it. These quilts could then be raffled, to raise even more money.

Grandma Van’s quilt is pretty typical of friendship quilts of the Depression Era. I know it was finished about 1931, since one of the blocks has that date embroidered on it. Each woman would’ve made a block and written or embroidered her name on it. Then all the blocks were sewn together and quilted by the members of the group.

According to very good website, Hart Cottage Quilts, typical fabrics in the late 1920s and early ’30 were heavy on new “sherbet pastels.” Because manufacturers had limited dyes to work with, the different shades of any given color coordinated well, meaning that, for Depression-era quilters, it would’ve been hard to make a “wrong” fabric choice!

Grandma Van’s quilt must have been cherished—it came to her grandson and me in wonderful condition. The names embroidered on the quilt fascinate me. My New England ancestors were Ruths and Kathleens and Lydias. Orvada’s friends were Effie, Ona, Novis, and Melia—such exotic names! And the older women who participated maintained their dignity and social status by signing themselves as “Mrs.” And “Granny.”

So, Grandma Van and her husband Guy took their quilt and their other meager belongings and left Texas. We don’t know how their journey went, whether it was fairly uneventful or pure Tom Joad. They ended up in Tuolumne City, California, where Guy found work in a lumber mill and he and Orvada raised three children.

I can just imagine Orvada bringing this quilt out at times she felt lonely or frightened in her new world. Maybe she wrapped it around her shoulders and thought of her old friends and, in so doing, found comfort.

To call a quilt like this a metaphoric hug may be a timeworn cliché but, hey, the quilt itself is time worn . . . and that just adds to its beauty. Sometimes the old ways are the best ways.

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A Paean to Black-Eyed Susans

blackeyed susans-1Do you love black-eyed Susans? Or do you think they’re so common as to be basically weeds? My attitude has changed dramatically in the past few years; I used to think they were okay, but a bit of a nuisance. Now I see that they meet my basic specs for a great flower AND they have deep symbolic meaning for me!

We live in far upstate New York, closer to Montreal, Quebec, than any sizable American city. Summer here is pretty short so we may appreciate our gardens more than people who live in more temperate climates. Spring is downright exciting, when we can catch the first glimpses of growth!

We need flowers that are hardy and put on a show for the time we can enjoy them. And, as descendants of frugal New Englanders and French Canadians, we like perennials because they come back and we don’t have to buy new ones every year! And, if they spread and give us more flowers for free, even better!

I’ve written elsewhere about the historic flooding of Lake Champlain that occurred in spring of 2011. We had owned our house on the lake for a few years and had been working to fix up the house and gardens. We had all kinds of pretty things—lots of hydrangeas, mature lilacs, coneflowers, coral bells, foxgloves, and more.

Spring arrived. All the plants looked great. Then the water rose. Not a flash flood, like could happen on a river, but an inexorable, slow increase and a much slower return to normal.

Our lawn and gardens were underwater, not just soggy but under inches of water, for 6 weeks. And, as you can imagine, almost everything died. The lilacs bloomed above the water for one last time, and died. The climbing hydrangea, which had finally started to take off, died.

Everything died. EXCEPT three kinds of plants. Day lilies, hostas, and black-eyed Susans. Three plants that I had never given much thought or appreciation to before but that have, since that flooding, achieved a special place in our landscaping.

All three of these kinds of plants are easy to love but the black-eyed Susans make me the happiest. They spread like crazy so we dig up big spadefuls and plunk them down anywhere we want more color. They bloom for a long time, in late summer, when so many other flowers are looking tired and faded. They are so relentlessly cheerful that it’s hard to not to smile when they smile at you.

Two spadefuls, newly plunked.

Two spadefuls, newly plunked.

And they made it through the flood and flourished. And so did we. After a lot of hard work, our home looks better than it ever did.  I used the word “paean” in the title quite intentionally. I don’t know that I’ve ever used that word in a sentence before but, meaning a “song of praise or triumph,” it seems most appropriate here.

I praise the humble black-eyed Susan because it triumphed. It was resilient and patient and came back strong and cheerful. Who could ask for better attributes in a flower?

Or a person.

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