Ghosts of Holidays Past

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An older post that I dust off every couple of years to encourage you to dig out your grandma’s vintage table linens and USE them this holiday season!


This is the time of year that we all start thinking about setting a nice table for whatever holidays we celebrate. Thanksgiving, Hannukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa—you name it, it involves a meal and we want the meal to be special in both the foods served and in presentation.

It will surprise no one who has been following along, that I like to use vintage linens on the table at these big holidays. A few of the items I have belonged to one or another ancestor but, mostly, I’ve accumulated my linens second hand.

Over the years, I piled up dozens of damask linen napkins to use at parties and many tablecloths as well.  Good-quality damask is like no other fabric—it is heavy and crisp and has a beautiful sheen. It looks good in any setting and doesn’t compete with the rest of your serving items.

Another benefit of these beautiful linens is that you can find superior quality at very good prices—just take a look at Etsy or eBay and you’ll find tablecloths in all sizes and napkins ranging from cocktail size through the huge size that some people call “lapkins.” The lapkins were often as big as 25 inches square and were used both to cover expensive clothing, in a time when laundry was a lot more difficult to do, and as a display of wealth and refinement.

One problem with buying vintage linens, though, is that most of them have been used and, if they were used for meals, they probably have some sort of spots or stains.

In my time as a purveyor of vintage linens, I’ve learned a lot about getting stains out; most of the techniques involve patience and a willingness to let the items soak, for long hours, in hot water and whatever concoction I’m using.

I’ve also learned, though, with my own linens, to leave the spots alone. I see it this way—the spots on the cloths came from a family having fun. They were sitting around a holiday table, maybe the only time all year they’d all be together. The men, at least in my family, were talking about the farm and the herd and the women were talking about how they shouldn’t have another piece of pie but maybe just a sliver . . .

The kids were at the “children’s table” in the kitchen and, mostly, glad to be there because the grown-ups sat around the big table FOREVER, talking and talking and drinking coffee and talking.

And in all of that family time, things got spilled on the tablecloth. Maybe it was when the gravy boat was going one direction and the cranberry sauce headed the other. Or someone was laughing and sloshed the coffee.

And the spills left the shadow of a spot. The proof, really, that a good time was had and people weren’t worried about the furnishings when there were stories to tell and relatives to get caught up with.

So I pretty much think of the faint spots on my table linens as the ghosts of good times past. Good times that left little marks on the linens but made a far greater impression on the people around the table.

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Rituals of Spring, When Summer is Short

We were small. Winter was long. Summer would fly by.

We had to be ready.

The rituals of spring for my sister and I were often tied up with being ready for what came next. We wanted to rush summer!

As soon as the snow was off our driveway, we would start walking barefoot on the crushed stones, in order to toughen our feet up for going barefoot all summer. A long winter in socks and boots had made our feet soft and we’d lost the calluses. We needed to get ready!

We would wait, in the bedroom at the back of the house. Outside the window there was a thermometer. Our mother, tired of hearing us nag, had told us we could go without jackets when the temperature reached 60. We stared at the mercury, willing it to rise, so we wouldn’t miss a moment.

We spent a good deal of our summer time at the “little beach,” a pond 6 or 7 miles from our house. We knew we needed to be ready for the cold water of early summer so we took cold baths at home to prepare ourselves. We squealed and shivered in the tub, but we knew it would be worth it.

Even on cloudy days of iffy weather, we wanted to go to the little beach. My mother, tired of hearing us nag, would tell us to go away and, if we had 15 minutes of sunshine, she’d take us.

We would sit on a big stone by the road and, when the sun came out, we would start to count—one-thousand, two-thousand–as the seconds and minutes passed and the sun stayed with us. Then, when it deserted, we’d wait for it, and start again. Some days we were lucky and we’d get our 15 minutes of continuous sun and mom would drive up to take us to that little beach.

Now, I don’t know how long it has been since I’ve walked barefoot outside or gone swimming in water so cold.

But, even as adults, winter is still long and summer is short, so we get ready.

A lot of spring activity at my house now involves doing chores–get the deck furniture out, clean the glassed-in porch from a winter of using it as storage space, rake leaves off garden beds. These chores don’t feel so onerous in spring. Even as we shoulder the load, we have that sense of thrill . . . we’re getting ready for the short, intense summer ahead.

And we still rush summer–the first campfire of the season will be lit when it’s still way too chilly outside. The first trip for soft ice cream will be on a day when eating the treat gives me the shivers. We’ll buy annuals long before it’s safe to plant them outside.

We are all big now. But winter is still long. Summer will fly by.

We have to be ready.

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Advent, My Way #10

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One missing piece changes everything.

A pub with no beer. Just an empty room, kind of smelly.

A clock with no tick. Just another tchotchke, if it doesn’t tell time.

A fireplace with no flame. Just a cold hole in the wall of a room.

We’ve been looking at a cold hole in the wall of our living room for a couple months now but last night we got a wonderful Christmas gift—we have our flame back!

Our fireplace is powered by a gas insert and, when we had it serviced this fall, they found a warped section and a hole in the firebox. That meant that carbon monoxide could, possibly, leak out. And that meant we could, possibly, wake up dead.

The good news, other than the fact that we didn’t wake up dead, is that the fireplace was under warranty. The bad news was that there was no telling when it would be replaced. No promises were made.

We had a pool, Don and I, guessing when we’d have it functional again. Don was the optimist and guessed, “before Christmas.” Pessimist Kerry said, “end of January.”

Just this once, I am so pleased to have been wrong!

I do love a fire blazing in the fireplace. I love it all winter long but especially at Christmas.

It’s cold here in the North Country of upstate New York. The winter wind comes mostly from the north and bangs right up against our living room windows. That fireplace dispels the chill that can get into one’s bones.

But, of course, the fireplace is more than simply a practical way of getting warm. It brings back those memories I cherish so much of early Christmases on the farm. The “good” parlor was where the Christmas tree stood, next to the fireplace that would be lit Christmas morning, for the frenzy of unwrapping gifts.

In the frenzy of unwrapping gifts, the gift wrap would be added to the flame. Some years, when power cords and cash went missing, it was acknowledged that they, too, had probably been added to the flame . . .

A fireplace sums up what I want my holiday to be at this stage of my life as well. Warm, cozy, bright. Quiet, simple, understated.

Now that our fireplace has been mended, we will finish our simple decorating. The Santa contingent can take their places on the mantle and a few special linens will be added, and we’ll call it done.

On Christmas Day, while others are going over the river and through the woods to visit relatives, we will hang out in front of the fire, just us two, with a warm drink, a good book, a little hand sewing.

The cats will jostle for position in front of the fireplace. With luck, a light snow will fall outside the windows and we will welcome the North Wind to blow.

The spot formerly known as a “cold hole in the wall of the room” will blaze with color and heat. The room will get, maybe, a little too warm.

But, really, can a room, at Christmas, ever be too warm?

Advent, My Way #7

It’s time to decorate for Christmas!

You bring out the ornaments—the ones your kids made when they were little, the ones you were given the year you bought your first house, the ones you made from something you saw on Pinterest.

You find the wreath and tartan ribbons and lights for the tree.

You dig out every candle you own and the candlesticks and that special plate for Santa’s cookies.

Of course, you’d never forget the special Christmas stockings, to be hung by the chimney with care.

But what about books? So many of you love books—do you have special books that come out just for the holiday season? Books to re-read, books that are beautiful, books that, for you, are the essence of what the season means?

In our usual minimalist planning for Christmas, I don’t think about this kind of detail. But there are three books that I will run across occasionally during the year that make me think, “Damn. I should put that out at Christmas—I love that book.”

And this year, I’m remembering!

The book I love the most is this one.

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My sister and I grew up in that era when it seems that every kid took piano lessons.

I didn’t care much for the lessons and never learned to play the piano very well—it seems one was expected to practice between the weekly lessons!

But this little book of Christmas music moves me no end.

It sort of captures what Christmas looked like in the early 1960s. I swear, in that era, Santa and the reindeer were not as plump and cutesy and cartoon-ish as they have become.

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It has my grandmother’s handwriting on the cover. I love seeing the unique handwriting of people I’ve lost from my life.

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It has the songs that I loved best then and the ones that still hit me in the solar plexus now. They’re all here: Silent Night, Away in the Manger, The First Noel, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

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And it has a few that make me smile now, even though I paid no attention to them then.

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It also displays my incredible artistic talent and vision, as I used it as a coloring book. I liked coloring better than playing the piano. (That got me in trouble when I colored the libretto from my mother’s recording of Carmen . . . )

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So, the music book will sit out this year, on a music stand because we don’t have a piano any longer. Seeing it will remind me of a simple time, loving family, the moving melodies of Christmas, and of my sweet, magical childhood.

And, I’ll ask it again. What about books? You love books—do you have special books that come out just for the holiday season? Books to re-read, books that are beautiful, books that, for you, are the essence of what the season means?

Advent, My Way #3

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Were you brought up a Christian?

Were you ever in a Christmas pageant?

Did you plan and produce them in your home on Christmas Eve?

Did you force your relatives to gather and sit and watch and applaud?

I don’t know how widespread this behavior was—maybe it was just engaged in by nerdy little farm girls in strict Evangelical Protestant homes, suffering from a high need for attention. I just know that it was an absolute, nonnegotiable staple in my family.

Four cousins.

A farmhouse.

Generations gathered.

A bright fireplace, pies baking, a couple of dogs galumphing around.

The stage is set. The audience sits in hushed anticipation. Or perhaps they are just waiting to get it over with!

The angels walk in, with their robes made of bed sheets and their belts made of tinsel, and their cardboard halos.

Not known for their singing voices, they sing.

Not known for their acting talent, they play out the Christmas story.

The oldest, the bossy one, reads from Luke:

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.


And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.


And the angel said unto them: Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy . . . For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

Fifty years later, I can call those words, unbidden, to mind. I can recite them without referring to the small white Bible I was given by my grandmother.

Fifty years later, those cousins all remember and laugh about their antics.

Fifty years later, many of those who gathered are gone from this earthly coil and others feel removed from the religious aspects of the holiday.

But the memories remain strong and they still matter.

Tell us—do you have Christmas pageant memories?

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The Living Was Easy

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It’s summertime.

Look at those self-satisfied faces.*

They know.

Those girls know, even though the oldest is only 9, they know how lucky they are.

They are lucky to spend their summer days on a farm, a farm where they have the freedom to roam, to sit in the haymow and dream, to chew a stalk of hay.

Four cousins, together for only the summer months. They are lucky to play together with absolutely nothing to worry about except breaking a plastic flip flop or getting sticky drips of Popsicle running down an arm.

School doesn’t start again for a month. Their moms will take them to the “little beach” down the road and their bathing suits will never completely dry out all summer. Their dads will call them away from the TV in the evenings, to help corral cows that have wandered beyond the fence line.

Later they and a dad and a dog or two will make the trip for soft ice cream. The ice cream shop has not yet gotten the technology to make a twist of two flavors so the hardest decision of the day will be chocolate or vanilla.

These girls were so lucky to have this childhood. They knew it then and they are even more convinced now.

Every year, when summer arrives, the scent of new-mown hay or the taste of the first corn off the stalk transports them back to those days, and they smile those self-satisfied smiles and remember how it was summertime and the living was easy.


* I just saw this photo of my sister, my cousins, and me for the first time (that’s me on the left, then cousin Paula, sister Kathy, and cousin Jill). Paula gave it to me a couple days ago and I’m not sure I have a photo I like better! Do you have a photo that sums up your childhood? Shouldn’t you write a blog post about it?!

A couple of bloggers took me up on this!

Deb at SevenCub’s Blog

Deb at A Daily Dose of Fiber

“It’s All About Me” Monday: The Balsam Pillows

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Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.
–Vladimir Nabokov

When I was a child in upstate New York, I took naps on a sunny glassed-in porch at the farm. On my couch was a special pillow. It was small and floppy and not soft. In fact, it was lumpy and sort of scratchy but . . . it had the most amazing smell.

The smell was faint, just a hint of something special remained. If I squeezed the pillow, I could coax a stronger breath of it out but just for a moment. The fragrance was of all outdoors and mountains and pine trees. It spoke of my grandmother’s house, of the farm, of the region, that place of my birth.

The small pillow was filled with needles of balsam fir. Then, and still now, these small pillows can be found all over the northeast, and especially, it seems, in the Adirondack Mountains of New York and in Maine. They were, and are, sold as souvenirs of a particular kind of wilderness.

I’ve had a thing for these balsam pillows all my life. I wander around my house and can count at least 35 of them—some are vintage, with corny sayings, like “I pine for yew and balsam, too,” printed on the pillows. Some are newer, made of bright Pendleton wool, embroidered cotton, and even one of velveteen.

Of the pillows lying around, probably 10 or more are ones I’ve made over the years. I can buy balsam needles locally for $5.50 a pound. It’s fresh and aromatic and condenses forest-mountains-lakes-sun-breeze-summer into one sniff.

I have usually made my pillows using a quilter’s technique called Cathedral Windows. A solid-colored fabric is folded and sewn in a particular way, until small bits can be turned back to frame an inserted scrap of special fabric, which is featured like the glowing pieces of stained glass.

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A Cathedral Window quilt. Photo by Kristen

Over the years, my featured fabrics have been of Adirondack images—apples, acorns, and pine cones—but my most recent pillows are a little different.

Of all the vintage linens that go though my hands, some of my favorites are classic, hard-working, striped linen dishtowels. They look tailored and efficient and elegant in their perfect design for a job of work.

But some of the towels I handle are damaged by a big hole or dark stain. It pains me to throw such a towel away so I use scraps to decorate my balsam pillows. Some plain muslin fabric, a small square of dishtowel, a random old button—together they make a perfect envelope for that special fragrance.

These are very small pillows, less than 4 inches across. I can use them as sachets and tuck them almost anywhere so that, unexpectedly, I’ll walk through a room and get a hit of that astringent fragrance, evocative, not too sweet, full of memories.

When I smell balsam, it’s always summer and the sun is always shining onto fir needles. I’m a small girl again, taking a nap in a cozy, secure place in the country. When I smell it, I smell home.

But, enough about me! Let’s talk about you. How do you like my balsam pillows? If you craft and make things, is fragrance a part of the making? Is there a smell that transports you back to childhood?

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