Ghosts of Holidays Past

ghost linens

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.

Summer Abecedary: Ps and Quiet

This summer has been brought to me by the letter P.

Piquant: As always, summer is the season of grilling and barbecue. My husband has taken to making his own barbecue sauces—my favorite has 25 ingredients. And there’s the piquancy of knowing that so many summer flavors, and experiences, are available only briefly, and more beloved because we wait all year for them.

Pesky: For all the perks of summer, we still have Japanese beetles, red lily beetles, crabgrass, chickweed and . . .

Poison ivy: The peskiest of pests, brought home as oil on the fur of cats I love to cuddle.

Predictable: Summer in our neck of the woods and lake means certain obligatory outdoor décor—Adirondack chairs, lighthouses, and day lilies. Being over-achievers and highly competitive, we have all three.

Pellucid: Summer is the only time of year I use this word. And it is the only word that really describes the satiny smoothness of the water ripples, on certain summer evenings.

Pellucid waters

Pellucid waters

Poignant: Summer is a time of so many cherished traditions, involving family and friends. Sometimes I can’t help but think, how long can this last? Can I just freeze this moment in time, with these people, forever? Please?

This photo I took several years ago sums up “poignant” for me—it captures a perfect summer moment.2008 em tess-05

But the ball dropped and splashed. The dog has since passed on, to the big lake in the sky. The girl has grown and is heading to a new stage in her life. The sun set.

The moment passed.

Yet summers continue to roll over us, and catch us up in their charms. We turn our thoughts to new moments to be lived and memories to be made . . .

. . . periods of perfection to be pondered, and exulted in.

That’s my summer—pretty and perfect and Ps-full peaceful.

Has your current (or most recent!) summer been sponsored by a specific letter? Here’s hoping you’ve found it letter perfect!

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It’s Official . . .

yellow glass E&JIt’s official. Summer is over.

What? Does that not come as a news flash to you?

I know we’ve all been talking about fall and, really, the signs are everywhere here in upstate New York. Even the calendar says, unequivocally, that autumn began three weeks ago.

But emotionally, for me, summer ended a couple of days ago, when my mother and her husband (E & J) closed camp and left for Florida. Like all the other snowbirds, they trade winter for an endless summer.

I wrote earlier about “opening camp,” and how it looms large in North Country culture. “Closing camp” is equally fraught with meaning.

E & J spend the summers here, in a seasonal “camp” just 250 steps down the road from us.

Just yesterday (or so it seems!), I went down to E & J’s little cottage and threw open the doors and windows, to allow spring to blow through and chase out the winter chill. My husband turned the water back on and mowed the lawn. The rhododendrons out front burst into bloom, to say, “Welcome back!”

E & J arrived and summer had begun.

Summer means garage sales, just my mom and me, driving the familiar back roads and yakking. Summer means the four of us, gathering at water’s edge in the evening for cocktails and a campfire, with my husband’s guitar providing a well-loved soundtrack. Summer means endless hands of pinochle, played with idiosyncratic rules and varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Summer at camp has meant so much to us over the years. My husband and I were married during a summer at camp, almost 25 years ago. My mother and her husband were married during a summer at camp, 3 years ago. Small children have learned to build s’mores and sing along during summers at camp. Crafts have been taken up, explored, and abandoned at camp. Family members and friends have gathered and partaken in the camp rituals of concerts on the seawall, bike rides to the soft ice cream stand, and day trips to Lake Placid.

The summers at camp are almost a cliché. But not quite, because they’re ours and they never lose their originality or become commonplace when we’re lucky enough to live them.

E & J are somewhere on the road right now, heading to the year-round summer they prefer, in Florida.

During winter, they trade wild heron and osprey flying against a twilight sky for a heron who shows up at their house daily, for hot-dog handouts. They trade Saturday evening campfires and wine in big yellow plastic goblets for Saturday morning coffee hour at the clubhouse. They trade kayaking into the long grass at the end of the bay for barefoot walks on the beach in January.

My husband and I are firmly ensconced, now that summer is over, in our autumn home, heading for winter.

We trade the bonhomie of family time for the cozy solitude of couple time. We trade a view of rippling waves and heeling sailboats for wind-sculpted snow drifts. We trade the grill for the slow cooker, the campfire for the fireplace, summer for winter.

We’ve made very different decisions for the part of the year that is Not Summer At Camp. We’re happy, all of us, with our choices and the trade offs.

But there’s one thing we agree on—we wouldn’t trade next summer, together at camp, for anything! Summer has ended. Long live summer!

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How about you? Is there a moment when you know that summer is officially over?

Made on the 4th of July

IMG_8143What do your “hands at home” make for a special celebration? The decorations? The flower arrangement? The bread? The ice cream?

One day a year, on America’s Independence Day, we go a step further.

We make music.

IMG_8178Two of us have sung together for over 30 years. A little girl grew up singing and joined in. Two of us married and brought new musicians to the group.

We play and sing only a couple of times a year but always, always, on the 4th of July. Most of us never pick up a guitar at any other time.

Because we play together only once or twice a year, we play with no finesse. Self-taught, we play really easy songs and try to avoid F-chords (or those F-ing chords, as a wit among us calls them). We have trouble finding enough capos, let alone the same key. We drink beer and complain about how much the guitar strings hurt our fingers.

We sing songs you may know—of green alligators and long-necked geese, of times that are a-changin’, of Charley on the MTA.

We have loyal listeners who never find fault (mostly because they are related to us!)

Every time we get together and play, I think we should do it more often—there’s something about making music, even not-very-good music, that seems to be at the core of what it means to be human.

When we sit by the campfire and sing, it’s hard not to think of other fires, other songs, other singers who have found warmth and community and harmony through making music.

It may only happen once a year for us, but the feeling lasts. That feeling always makes me think of one of my favorite songs, by John McCutcheon:

And I wish you songs to speed you through the evening,
And I wish you rest at the close of the day,
And a harbor safe till the morning light,
And I wish you good dreams, good morrow, and I wish you good night

So gather `round, you friends and lovers,
Let the darkness come for the fire is bright;
Though the road is long, love makes us stronger,
And I wish you good dreams, good morrow, and I wish you good night.

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Spring Tradition: The Pancake Breakfast

IMG_6492In my continuing celebration of spring and all things maple, we spent yesterday morning at a very special place—a pancake breakfast!

My cousins own and operate a sugarhouse that has been going strong for three generations. For 44 (!) springs, they have worked with the local square dance club to host an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast that is a tradition for people all over the North Country.

IMG_6488 When we arrive, the rural road is lined with cars and trucks, and folks of all ages are streaming toward the sugarhouse and the smell of pancakes. IMG_6538

We pass by an avenue of ancient maples wearing their battered sap buckets; I like the contrast of this symbol of spring and rebirth and newness contrasted with the cemetery beyond.

IMG_6488 - Version 2 IMG_6481It’s cold and rainy outside but the inside of the sugarhouse is warm and steamy and noisy. We greet family members and neighbors get caught up with neighbors.

IMG_6490The evaporator dominates the scene inside—this is where the syrup is made. The process needs attending to, hence the rockers, to provide the tenders with comfort and companionship.

IMG_6496 IMG_6493A huge mural by the family artist honors the way the sap was traditionally collected.IMG_6501

Today, though, it’s all about the food.

Pancakes and sausages are really only a vehicle for maple syrup.

IMG_6514Young runners keep the pancakes coming.

IMG_6507Almost no one leaves without getting some syrup or maple sugar or maple butter to take home.

IMG_6519The sugarhouse also serves as a museum of sorts, with lovely old artifacts of the history of sugaring down.

This fragment of an old maple shows signs of having been tapped many times over many, many years.IMG_6525

We eat our pancakes, we visit with relatives, we commiserate about the winter, we welcome spring.

The pancake breakfast is over and we immediately begin to look forward to next year!