The cottage

Me, sitting on the steps of the cottage

“If I died and found myself at Madison, I’d know that I’d made it to heaven.”

That’s what I said in my early 20s, speaking of the spot on the Connecticut shore where I had spent my childhood summers.   My mother sent me there to stay with two great-aunts and my grandmother for a few weeks every summer from the time I was about five .  She had spent her summers there, too, so she must have wanted me to have that special experience.  The cottage had been built by my greatuncle and greataunt in 1910.  It was a true cottage, with no insulation, and no heat.  The framing was exposed on the inside, and it had a rustic stone fireplace and Arts and Crafts-style windows.  It was a regal, cedar-shingled 4 bedroom home, sitting back from the beach road, atop a slight incline, where the beach breezes swooped on up and kept the place much cooler than the waterfront cottages across the street.

It was a safe haven.  My own mother had her hands full with four young kids and my alcoholic father.  Life at home was pretty chaotic, and I never knew what each day would bring.  Would I be able to have friends over, or would Dad be drunk?  Would Dad show me how to oil paint the way he did so well, or would he slur insults from the dark corner of the living room?

But at Madison, nothing ever changed.  The “bowl-o-beauty” rose paperweight sat on the same corner of the living room table year after year.  It didn’t move.  The kitchen beams were lined with linaments and oils that had probably been ordered from the Sears catalog in the 1920s.   My aunt could be relied upon to tell the same stories every year–stories about her marriage to her beloved Edwin that always ended with a chuckle.  All her stories had happy endings.  The only story that didn’t have a happy ending was the one she never told–about her son, John, who died of pneumonia when he was three, after it had taken her nine painful years to conceive.  I only knew about John from the sepia photograph of the small boy with the bowl cut and crisp white shirt on her dressing table.


Aunt Florence, knitting.  She was always embarrassed because the wing chair was frayed, so she would drape her sweater over it.

Aunt Florence, knitting. She was always embarrassed because the wing chair was frayed, so she would drape her sweater over it.

The daily routine was… well, routine.  And at that time, I hated it.  I’ve grown to appreciate the luxury of rising at the same time every day, spending the better part of the morning preparing breakfast, served on a six-piece place setting of Victorian rose china.  Then performing the clean-up.   Then taking the trip “up town” to buy groceries and produce.  Then going right into lunch–a large midday meal.  Then again the clean-up.  Then, and ONLY then, did I get to meet my friends at the beach.  That routine probably saved me from skin cancer, because I never got to the beach before 2 p.m., and of the few things that frustrated me about Madison, that was #1.  


Oh, I could say so much more about Madison, but it wouldn’t be interesting to anyone who hadn’t lived it.   It sounds mundane to hear about my evening walks down to the stone pier with a book or a camera or drawing pad with which to watch the sun go down.   It’s not too thrilling to hear about the afternoons which, when they were not spent at the beach, were spent learning how to sew on Aunt Florence’s old black Singer, or stretched across my bed, reading, while raindrops pitter-patted in a magnified way because of the lack of insulation in the ceiling.  Or who would care about the delight of blueberries and cream with sugar sprinkled on top, or slices of summer-ripe cantaloupe.  Or the aroma of salt-laced timber, or enamel pans filled with Ivory Snow and Aunt Florence’s soft, silky slips.

It all seems other-wordly, but at Madison, I was not completely isolated from the world.  When I was young, I was given the privilege of watching As the World Turns with the great-aunts, although they didn’t 100% approve because of the “risque” story lines.  At 17, I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon–the same moon that was reflecting in the waters off the Connecticut coast right outside our door.  In 1973, the “Summer of Judgement,” Aunt Florence and I sat glued to the Watergate hearings. 

Sometimes I become obsessed with Madison.  I wish I could go back.  I suspect my memories are hopelessly romantic, and thus, perhaps skewed.   I tend to dream about it when my own life becomes chaos-infested and unsure, and I remember that safe haven and want to go back.  

Yet, I’m not sure I’d want to go back, because the Bowl-o-Beauty would no longer be there, nor the pink Victorian china.   And Aunt Florence’s presence would only be there in ghost-like form.  I’m not the same anymore, either, nor should I be.  But perhaps I can bring a little bit of Madison to my life today–a little of the routine, the simple joys, the beauty.   I can find the Aunt Florence within–calm, and orderly, and cheerful.  If I can do that, then I can create that little bit of heaven, right here, right now.

Letting Go: 3 Ways to Just Have Fun

I know Lent is a somber time, but let’s lighten up.

Tomorrow is my birthday, so instead of trying to think of what “letting go” I should write about for my Letting-Go-Lent, I think the theme for today should be just plain Letting Go!  As in, letting our inhibitions go a little bit, not being so uptight and worried, and just having fun.   Given the current economic times, I think we need that.

So here are my top three ways to have fun—all of them free:

1)  Hang out with funny people

I’m lucky because I married one, and gave birth to four more.  They know they’re funny, too–when my son was about six he asked me, “Mom, if you never had any kids, how would you ever laugh?”

There has to be a reason when Cosmo reports on “What Qualities Do you Like in a Man?” sense of humor trumps flat abs every time.  A sense of humor can brighten your perspective in life and take the edge off of serious situations.  When people with this marvelous gift enter a room, the air gets lighter.  These people can bring out a smile in others just by being within 10 feet of them. 

And, and as my son so aptly pointed out, they make you laugh!  There is nothing more fun than laughing—even when it hurts because you are holding onto your side and you think you’re going to pass out because you can no longer breathe.   An extra benefit:  if you hang out with funny people for a while, you can reference funny moments later and reprise them, chuckles and all …  and thus the laughter is recycled.  Talk about emotional sustainability!

If you have funny people in your life, you don’t need many other diversions.   So, get yourself a few funny people to be friends with.   How can you gauge a person’s sense of humor?  He/she will probably:

  • Appear vulnerable, and may express it with modest self-depreciation.
  • Connect with you in some intangible way, letting you know that you are not alone in your insecurities and failings. This is the talent that Diana had over Charles.  This is what won an Emmy for Larry David’s HBO show, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
  • Will have a talent for observation.  Funny people notice everything, and can communicate their observations brilliantly in words and actions.
  • Be very intelligent.  True comic genius IS genius in itself.  

So look for funny people in places where people don’t mind sharing who they really are.   These folks are the glue that hold the rest of us together—reminding us that life is too short to be taken too seriously, and that laughing at ourselves can be an exercise in self-care.

And if you are a funny person, keep up the good work!

2)  Get moving for the fun of it

I’m not talking about training for a marathon, or doing 20 reps of arms curls.  I’m talking moving for the FUN of it.   Here’s what to do, and if you have a dog or a child you are so lucky—they give you license to really let loose.

  • Try to race with your dog and win.
  • Add a dance playlist to your iPod and dance with a child.
  • Go to the park with a child and swing alongside them.  Slide down the slide with them.  See-saw with them.

If there are no dogs or little ones within arm’s reach:

  • Get your bike out of the garage and take it for a spin.
  • Take a dance class (I’m not as crazy about this idea because there’s no spontaneity to signing up for a class, and “class” smacks of something too serious).
  • Speaking of spontaneity, be spontaneous.  Go out for the mail and notice it’s a nice day—just keep walking!   Hear a great Chuck Berry tune on the radio—start Twisting!

3)   Sing

If you feel like singing, sing. Tra-la-la your cares away
There’s something about giving out with a song
Makes you belong
Helps you to find a peace-of-mindful day

–“If You Feel Like Singing, Sing”  Lyrics, Mack Gordon/Music, Harry Warren 

Everyone loves to sing.  It’s just fun.  We sing in the shower, in the car, to the radio.  There’s just something so freeing about singing!

Before there was karaoke, there was the Party Piece.   One of the traditions that I married into when I married my Scottish husband was this wonderful element of every party. Each person learns a party piece—it can be a song, or a poem, or a magic trick—anything that can serve to entertain.  You bring your party piece to every party—so you never have to learn a new one—and if you go party with the same group, everyone knows each others’ party pieces.   My mother-in-law’s party piece is “There’s a Wee Hoose ‘Mang the Heather.”  My son’s party piece is “Danny Boy.”  My party piece is “Over the Rainbow.” My husband gives a very moving performance of the Kipling poem, “Gunga Din.”  

So, what you do is this:  As the party moves into the evening, people gather round, and everyone, in turn, does their party piece.  No one judges, because no one wants to be judged when their turn comes up.   At the same time, if someone doesn’t want to sing, they are not forced to.   It’s pretty free form, and supportive.  No where else can you stand up in front of a group of people, have your voice crack like a china plate left on a hot burner, and get loud cheers and applause when your piece is done. 

If you have no parties coming up, add a playlist to your iPod of songs that are fun to sing along to—old show tunes, patriotic standards, Queen classics like “We Are the Champions” and crank it up in your car on your way to or from work.   Just belt it out!

A warning:  Watch it at the traffic lights.  One time, I was stopped at a red light, seriously emoting to my own rendition of “As Long As He Needs Me”—the torch song from the musical Oliver–when I looked in the side-view mirror of the truck in front of me, and saw the reflection of the driver watching me with a smile that said that I had just made his day.  Of course, when he saw how embarrassed I was he broke into an outright laugh.  But I was only about 18 at the time.  If that happened tomorrow, I’d take a bow and go right on singing.  

That’s because tomorrow’s my birthday, and now that I’m 57, I’ve learned that I can have as much fun as I want—and I don’t care who’s watching.