I am thinking daily of family and holidays, as are most. And photos surfaced of a wintry walk through Elk Rock at Bishops Close, a place about which I have posted often. It is a delight– the grounds are seamed with trails and rocky steps, shadowed with hideaways, and gentled by trickling water and a small pond or two. My last visit here was shared on WP in July this year.
The Scottish estate house always impresses a bit–it is so stolid and commands a respect. Elk Rock, its garden, is perhaps the oldest and biggest (13 acres) private garden in Oregon. It was managed from 1897 until 1957 by businessman Peter Kerr who developed his estate and grounds. It is now used by the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon.
In summer the air was bright, the plants and flowers waving in warm breezes. This time winter’s veil is lain over all. The quietude of December wandering is deeper. The air sharp, the river that wends it way below a bit more forbidding, birdsongs more silenced. Yet I am drawn to it as much in this season as any other. It is a place to think as one climb’s about and to long pause and admire nature’s work.
These photos date back to 2016, the day of Christmas. Naomi was visiting from S. Carolina where she was/is an art professor; Alexandra was visiting from CA. where she was PR manager at an arts center. And since I appreciate Bishops Close as well as my adult children here is that mosey. (Not all family like personal photos shared so those are discreet.)
On my refrigerator is a sticky note left by Naomi last year before she flew back to S.C. after Thanksgiving. I’d had the luxury of seeing her three times in 2019. On that note she wrote: “Bye, Mom! Love you! See you again before too long. XOXOXO-Na.” I left it there to enjoy looking at– never thinking it would at least a year more. But I’ve not seen her once since, nor another daughter, Cait, in VA., for an even longer period of time.
So it is that we begin a new sort of Christmas or other religious holiday. No doubt you will agree: one primarily of the heart and spirit. We can manage it, though, can’t we. Make sure to get out and take good walks, no matter wintry or other interesting weather. I will be out there with you, as well as right here.
The rain drums, a powerful watery background chorus. It is snowing in nearby Cascade Mountains, and this makes me as happy as the rain music. I am warm and dry. At my feet, a tumbling stack of magazines and catalogs. Mug of tea at hand, I sort them into save/toss piles. The magazines once read must go. I hold back on catalogs. They are an invitation to good cheer and I will sit down with a few later.
They’ve been daily stuffed into the mailbox for weeks, then made the rounds from hands to a spot along a living room wall for leisurely browsing, in good company with a select group of nonfiction books on healing and travel, brushes with death and our wilder (nature-freed) selves. By now, just over a month before Christmas, companies have launched an all-out appeal to our vulnerable selves and skimpy wallets, hoping against hope that businesses will yet profit. Online, too, they try casting the spell. We’re held captive indoors again by threat of illness–and perhaps inclement weather– so we nestle into greater security of home. We wish for something that may comfort and reassure, I’d guess. So it is alright by me that I have one more vividly colored vehicle of wishfulness in my hands. (Except for paper waste, but I recycle them all).
The fact is, I’ve a long habit of delving into catalogs and for more time than sensible. It began in childhood, as it does with many. I took them aside– usually it was J.C. Penny or Sears–kept them unmarred for the moment when I’d thumb through each page, check off items I liked best with pencil or pen, turn down each requisite corner a tidy triangle to note their placement. And then a repeat until all my hopes were noted–despite knowing that Santa Claus or family would not be indulging me much. My parent’s were thrifty to the point of penny pinching, reflecting their generation’s trauma from the Depression again.
In any case, the looking gave rise to pleasure. (I liked all the details about colors, sizes, materials, usages–it appealed to my dream of becoming a reporter, I think, like Brenda Starr in the comics; it satisfied my need for specificity.) I felt something different from greed, though as a kid I wanted that blue Schwinn bike more than anything, new white leather figure skates–such extravagances– or more Nancy Drew books plus a clean new notebook and pencil. It was a simpler thing than desire that I felt. Magic. It was being transported into a realm other than the usual, a free jaunt through a quasi-fantasy land where everyone was smiling, all seemed unbreakable and guaranteed fun. I was a kid so I could afford time away from banality of chores and pressures of life. Catalogs, then, could be gateways to possibilities.
I kept getting them in the mail as I grew up, different ones reflecting my age added to the usual family types. I’d suspected after the internet there’d cease to be “wish books” printed for customers, but no, they kept coming. And decades later I look and wonder: would those narrow-wale, pewter-colored corduroy jeans hold up several years? The teal sweater be good from fall to spring? What about that unusual woven wild grass wreath with a straw bow? And the front outdoor mat is wearing out…perhaps an abstract design in warm hues? The things that are for sale out there astonish me. How can we want or need so much? Most of it appears irrelevant to me. I glance, move on to items that hold my attention well. T-shirts. Jewelry. Art. Good cotton socks. Books.
Still, catalogs have provided a practical means to an ends. I’ve tended to shop online part of the time for Christmas in addition to perusing tons of glossy pages, and shopping in-store the other part, often at small businesses. With five children and seven grandchildren to carefully consider, I need all the help I can get. Despite being a creative person and taking pleasure in giving, I’m not the most original gift chooser. I fuss over each, hoping it’s worth the money and will give the receiver enough satisfaction. We all hope for that…nothing worse than opening a gift one doesn’t need or like. I value unique ideas from shopkeepers as well as sources like Etsy, for example, or art galleries and independent booksellers– and occasionally big box stores with dependable varieties.
But then came 2020.
As the temperature lowers, I realize more each day it’s different this year, and not only because shopping in person will be tough at best, nonexistent at worst as the virus spirals out of control. Everything has begun to feel upside down this pre-holiday season. Things have also altered since my husband’s position was scrubbed from the company hierarchy in spring; a brutal streamlining due to decrease in business. Gift shopping, then, is not a high priority. Or maybe not even on the list.
Still, I gather catalogs at the dining table or easy chair or at bedtime bed—turn pages slowly, pen in hand to mark away. This lifetime habit is not going away easily. It doesn’t seem to bother me that I can’t enjoy a little extravagance. I still study interesting options, ruffle the paper and inhale its distinctive scent, hear the light, dry whisper of pages turning, feel its cool slickness–all part of an easy congeniality that’s become harder to find. It may even be more pleasant than other years. I don’t need to worry about appropriate gifts yet still enjoy the displays, and think of each family member fondly. Okay, I do love to buy things for people. Just…Not. Right. Now.
One yearly obsession is the Harry & David catalog. I usually order with some glee. An Oregon-based business, they offer healthier if traditional snack options (good cheeses, crackers, nut mixes) and sweet indulgences. But mainly it’s their beautiful, luscious fruit. Oh, those H & D pears– unlike any other I’ve tasted, sweet and juicy, velvety to tongue. It’s been a tradition to buy a pear box for everyone–and they’re always delighted.
But the next magnetic pull is to the toddler gifts. We have a Portland store called Finnegan’s, a very good toy store. My, our girl power twins are getting big and smart. I can nearly ditch common sense trying to not buy them goodies. Especially this year. I must use my restraint; they are not even two yet.
However, it’s not just holiday shopping that lures me. It’s the weather and how it turns. From six months of bright warm days to six of darkened, chilled, sodden ones, one starts to bundle up some. Farewell, capris and sandals and filmy tops. I love my jeans and black ankle boots, the worn waterproof trail shoes (I think the soles carry a little dirt from last year).
My Michigan childhood pointed the way to the lifelong plan: the temp goes down and the hunt was on for itchy woolen school attire. Multiple layers. And boots, mittens/gloves, hats, scarves: snow gear. A new toboggan would have made me more happy. I eagerly anticipated building snow forts in high drifts, and trudging through uninhabited Stark’s Nursery behind our house with my trusty sled in tow, setting out on an Arctic exploration…how far to the ice floe? Anyway, I’d begin perusing the pages, narrowing down the best options, then (as I got bigger) my mother and I often embarked on shopping trips to bigger cities,. Another pleasant diversion from the usual daily regimen, and studying, practicing my cello and working on figures for my skating class, and doing chores. Like shoveling heavy snow.
Preparation for changes of seasonal clothing happened four times a year, more or less into my twenties. Thus, this past September when I spotted an L.L.Bean hooded Primaloft jacket slashed from $189 to $29.99, I jumped on it. (Maybe it was last year’s color or there was a slight alteration in design.) Our winters are mild compared to those in my Michigan youth–almost no snow at 800 feet–but that doesn’t mean it’s ever balmy. It hit 39 degrees once already. So I pictured myself wearing the jacket instead at the wind-howling coast or on forest hikes half the year…and gifted myself. I was so excited to wear it at the beach, I basically advertised it on social media–despite it being a basic, warm jacket…well, simple things excite me.
That’s how it happened growing up. I’ve had to alter the habit. This year, only fabulous wool felt slippers to defend my feet against this west-facing place in the trees (by Glerups)–last year my toes fought against potential frostbite by nightfall– and then that jacket. I have other jackets. But this one was better. (I am not being paid to promote anything despite how it may look….that cheesy smile and all) I was trying to say in the pictures: Enjoy what’s good for you–nature, exercise!Get outdoors and love life now! while showing off my new jacket. Not as stylish as they come, but snuggly. Since I can get cold fast, this is a primo review.
Alas, I’ve long had a small addiction to certain outdoor or sports wear brands–so, too, catalogs. L.L.Bean, Land’s End, REI, Cabela’s, Columbia Sportswear. Thank goodness for sales. And pages to study, finding anticipation for more adventures. Some day. Any pleasant image can help these days.
It may seem superficial but it’s relaxing to browse catalogs. Kids’ educational games and toys; tools; electronics of many sorts; books/book lovers’ curios; home goods (ah, good linens and towels); food goodies; flowers in bunches; spring seed packets (dreams begin with small seeds); music and movies; Vermont old country store stuff (random); varieties of flours for baking; arts and crafts supplies; sports equipment; papers and pens; art prints; clothing–so on and so forth.
And it can fuel my curiosity, especially those from, say, the Museum of Modern Art or National Geographic Society. I may discover new things such as how a rechargeable tool is multiple-use, or a newly-spotted squid moving among enchanting undersea forms and colors. Or, too, that some youth-touting facial serum made from seaweed and other “organics” can lower my precious cash reserves by $250–give me splashes of cold spring water. I admit to an interest, however, in perfumes. The unusual olfactory-awakening combinations; scents created with all natural ingredients, and how they’re described so poetically: who wouldn’t want to wear “Dance of the Moonlit Sea”? Only, in Italian. Smells that much better in my mind. (And how can I get a job making up those names?)
By far the best are book catalogs which have me riveted for several sittings. A new book by an unknown but intriguing author. Look–a whole new genre! Dare I order this or that? I dare not. I have access to a free library; we can put things on hold now and pick them up… But I can look and consider. I make a wish list, file it in a notebook for safekeeping for the day when I can wander for hours in the intoxicating maze of Powell’s Bookstore downtown again.
I admit holiday catalogs impact me in a less festive manner now. I know I won’t be ordering much. I get excited for one person or another, then remember this year is a lean one. An isolated one. But I am not that crafts-y, so what next? Local nurseries for…something pretty…I was considering a lovely birch/pine centerpiece for a daughter (or us) when it hit me harder: no one will see it in person but Marc and me this year. Well, it’s still attractive. It still would smell woodsy-delicious.
I may get it for daughter, Aimee, anyway. Family love comes to us at no price; we still can share it one way or another. But, too, the new jacket will be donned in chilly dampness for years. My new slippers will do the job. I maintain that it’s good to have catalogs for occasional supplemental semi-reading. These are neutral or amusing moments we can spend that offer us choices. They bring back a wistfulness for what we want to believe were kinder days, perhaps. It’s healthy to daydream some. And it’s a bonus to find a great sale, no matter the time of year.
I know, I know–it is not even mid-November and I dare to display this wreath! But we are bombarded with seasonal themes and items in stores and ads everywhere; I am made to think on the holidays despite my distaste of the early advancing of the madness. I write in a general protest. I am having second and third thoughts aplenty.
If I was an artist of considerable ability (not just a lazy wanna be who sketches and dabs paint now and again) I would create a spare but lovely watercolor and ink picture of a cozy, snow-laced cabin in the woods. White tapers would burn softly in two front windows, a curl of smoke rising from the chimney; a deer and fox would be peeking out from beneath frosty green boughs. A cardinal would fly by. I’d be standing in the open front door with Marc, arms opened.
Then I’d turn that bit of imagining into a card and send it off to family and friends some weeks ahead, with this message inside:
Skipping the holidays’ material madness at last, but come on by for a good hug–and a mug of something tasty–if desired.
That’s how I’m feeling about Christmas. I have given it my thoughtful attention. This may be the year some variation of that idea comes to be, rather than remain considered.
Thanksgiving is another matter, made for cooking and eating and convivial conversations around the table. Well, Marc cooks these days; I’ll toss a salad and prep veggies, make the drinks and pretty up our old oak table-and am happy to clean up. But even my long-standing love of baking has cooled. It seems to have slipped out the door with our five children, although I baked with and for grandkids here and there; even they have flown the coop. (Must wait for the six month old twins to grow up a bit and we’ll fling flour about and indulge in likely forbidden sugary delights.)
We will likely have Thanksgiving at our place until the adult children indicate they have lost interest or can’t manage it with their hectic lives and own broods. We’d be alright with someone else cooking up a feast, setting the table and cleaning up one of these years, too. Yet we enjoy the family gathering–with an occasional friend–tremendously. And this year my oldest daughter, Naomi (an art prof) is flying in from South Carolina to lecture at Portland State University and will stay on for Thanksgiving. This is a luxury visit; we are quite looking forward to it. (One thing I do love to do is talk with family– and others, the more the merrier.)
Still, then arrives Christmas. What is it that has me with knuckles to teeth as we try to determine the best way to celebrate?
That nostalgic scene I have the urge to create–cabin in snow, deer and fox, a cheery cardinal; candlelight and inviting fireplace and woods about–all enticing one indoors to see what else awaits–is just that: nostalgia. I don’t own a cabin or cottage and never experienced a Christmas in either but it sure sounds good, evokes the peace and pleasures that deeply appeal. (There are people who live out this fantasy. I have a niece whose family convenes in her Colorado mountain lodge. The photos posted are wonderful.) I did grow up in Michigan. There was often a glittering white blanket silencing the outside noise as we crowded about a festive tree. We sang around the baby grand, familiar hymns and carols; our family made a natural chorus and music was a huge part of Christmas. So maybe all that set precedents which are not now met as once before.
In any case, I have not been a child in my parents’ home for 50 years; they are gone. Christmases have long been my own–with the tradition of many gifts, good food and large gatherings. When you have a bunch of children and then they have children, it gets bigger each year. And I do like to “do” for others, to decorate, to find special gifts for the 14 (more including friends) I shop for, and most of all share this time with them, all in one spot. Or mostly. Not the entire five adult children, generally, as two live out of state and one is a chaplain with an overload of duties that time of year.
I used to host big gatherings for extended family. I loved preparations and the spread on the dressed up table and the congenial intersection of lives, the laughter. The love. But my older sister, brother-in-law; a brother and a nephew have died; my niece is not as available; my other sister and partner live in a retirement community and are not that well. All this changes the way family interacts more than I anticipated. It is a little sad, but it is the way of things and I have adapted year by year, loss by loss.
In any case, I’ve been thinking this over for many years: what would it be like to not have a fluffy freshly cut tree in the living room; to not have underneath it the usual heaping pile of presents, to not have everyone over at once for gift opening and brunch on Christmas Day? This has especially weighed on me since our daughter with the new twins confided that she almost dreads the coming holidays as there are now more family wishes to fulfill. (Her husband’s family lives in WA. state so they must travel back and forth. Though it may take only 45-60 minutes to get to WA., it is a challenge, no doubt.) And since we moved in March things are less easy for everyone to get together. Who would have thought moving from a northeastern part of the city to a southwest area would make a big difference? In part it is congested roads that complicate meet ups. Before, everyone was more or less central to one another, a short drive or even walk away.
There is also the fact that our current apartment is smaller, not so much square footage but in its spacial configuration–the old place accommodated a large family well. But one has to make decisions based on what works best for current needs and this place made sense–Christmas, etc. gatherings notwithstanding. So here we are. I can still put in two table leaves to seat 12 if needed; it just gets crowded here.
There is a spiritual component to my musings. I have long seen this holiday not so much as a genuine celebration of Christ’s Birth than a time of gentle merriment, of family, of meal sharing and gift giving more in the spirit of ole St. Nick. We would go to church, yes, but the fact is, it is really a re-imagining of a long enacted pagan holiday, also known as Yule. Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year is on 12/21 this time– which is lovely no doubt but it is not my religion. Many of the same traditions were entwined with Christmas. Yet Jesus was most likely born in the spring. In 350 AD Pope Julius I decreed that 12/25 would also be designated Jesus’ nativity celebration.
The reigning materialistic aspect has nothing to do with Jesus’ coming into the world with his revolutionary message of love, mercy, faith and forgiveness. The bottom line is, engaging in Christmas is more a secular event than a religious one even if I go to services on Christmas Eve. My faith is deeply rooted and less dependent on a ritualistic, institutional structure. So this holiday has been a broad conundrum at times: faith and tradition versus materialism and those ancient beliefs to which I do not subscribe, despite s tendency to incorporate more spiritual experiences than is typical of a traditional Christian.
I do suspect I’m not the only believer who ponders all this and yet each year follows the usual path–buy gifts, fancy up a tree, hang a fragrant wreath on the door. Even among those not of my faith yet enjoy the celebratory nature of it can discover a community bonding, sharing of conviviality, and an inclusive hopefulness. I enjoy this, too; it is heartening that many can find any common threads with which to connect us even for a short time.
Each year in the midst of hectic tasks, or as we clean up the detritus from the surrounds, my husband states with wry laugh, “Next year Hawaii!” But we choose to stay, to put Hawaii–or any adventure in December–on the back burner. Because we love our family. We love any caring intentions of this season and even pretty trimmings. The money spent–not so much. That many gifts gets very pricey. Many donation requests get filled. And I often wonder why this needs to be done when we do give gifts on special occasions and share our money all year. Also, by the time kids become preteens these days it gets very hard to shop for them. And the twins are far too young to care one bit about any of it, thankfully. Is it the lifelong habit that keeps us tied to this kind of Christmas?
Since it is getting tougher to corral everyone for a few hours, this can be a frustrating time. There are some who do not have families all in one home so must travel to have their kids part of the holidays; some who have to work up to the last minute or beyond; those who have vacation plans or partners with other ideas; and those who are feeling stressed financially.
So when all is considered, what precisely is the point? Yes, yes: demonstrating more attention and care toward family. Yet that is always available, often in more meaningful ways. Fun celebrations? I get that; it would be missed. But a growing array of gifts? How much stuff do we need? I personally need nothing more. I don’t want to tax my children’s cash limits. Marc and I don’t even care to exchange gifts, anymore.
My brother reportedly gives his grandkids gift cards and skips his children. I see the wisdom in that even if it seems less…jolly and fuzzy. He and his wife sing in a couple of choirs at Christmas church services; otherwise they travel as they do most of the year. It isn’t cash reserves but other priorities that have altered. And that works for them. I find it more refreshing than not.
This year Marc and I will decide, finally, what works even better for us. What seems reasonable yet more fulfilling. The family comes first so much of the time. Christmas is one of these. But we also matter as an older, long-wed couple. It sounds good to have less busy-ness and more relaxation as Marc takes off his holiday time from a pressurized job. I suspect we would rent a huge alpine lodge, then ask family to join us if we could; perhaps another year we will. In the meantime, we want to make sure that Christmas has meaning and magic that stays true to what we both need in our lives, not just the larger family’s. Who knows? Maybe our adult kids will let slip a sigh of relief.
Mostly-grown grandkids would enjoy a good gift card–with a special gift wrapped up pretty under the tree (I still have to have a real tree). But we sure don’t need to deluge them with things. I know for sure those baby twin girls will enjoy the lights and, of course, music. They already are held in thrall to it. Alera, particularly: upon hearing a classical choral piece, she stopped moving, slowly held her hands palms up in the air. She barely stirred the entire time, she was so entranced, her face an expression of wonder, large blue-grey eyes staring into space, head turned toward speakers. I have a photo of her that moment, and would happily share it if not for lack of approval from parents regarding baby photos on social/other media. But I do I study it, mulling over her expression, as if she is hearing angels so struck is she by the music. She loves all classical and much jazz–her sister, Morgan, enjoys it but is currently less entranced.
And music is a true and abiding joy to experience years to come. These are moments that matter, do they not? How can we forget and get caught up in holiday frenzy? Trying to make everyone happy–at least, what we believe makes them happy– we often find that happiness is not even in the places we think it was.
In my home, we will certainly share good meals, share well wishes and blessings, cheery and sacred songs. (My husband has been playing his acoustic guitar for the first time in a long while…) And how else can we demonstrate a steady, active gratitude for life and love for one another, as well as a devotion to a faith? The ways are endless– the coming holidays or any time at all. And American culture and the wide world needs much more of this, far less of the other.
Since we both love boats, a ride around North and South San Diego Bay beckoned us. Hornblower Cruises seemed the way to go. We lined up, boarded and soon plowed across deep green-blue water.
If San Diego is anything, it appears to be a boating town. Everything from various-sized sailboats, motor yachts, tall ships, small sport motorboats, dinghies, fishing boats, battleships, submarines and so on share the harbor waters. The recreational boats tantalized me more than the Naval Air Station or the history/missions/repair work of naval destroyers and frigates, but the Captain and First Mate gave very good narratives, Marc assured me as my attention drifted here and there.
We passed 50 landmarks and historic sites along the way, but I recall most of all the chug and surge, the lulling slice though vast water. There is something invigorating and soothing, both, about being on a moving aquatic craft. With that temperate breeze and clarifying sunlight, I felt carried farther than the radiant bay to a place of blithe rejuvenation. I had a moment’s fantasy of becoming a genuine, permanent boat dweller….oh, I wish! Join me in viewing many of the sights we saw.
We head to Coronado Bridge, 2.1 miles long and 200 feet tall. It links San Diego to a peninsula of land called Coronado Island, on which is the resort town of Coronado. The northern two-thirds of that land mass is the Naval base operations. A sailboat glides before a background of Point Loma, which juts into the into open ocean. Mexico is approximately ten miles from the bridge. We could just make out a blurry coast due to a lingering marine layer of fogginess. Along the southern coastline of the city are naval destroyers and frigates, one of which was dry-docked and being repaired. They are duly impressive. I hadn’t realized how mammoth they are, that they can hold a crew of around 6000 people. There is also a shot of a white NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) ship. I have a fascination with the weather so this compact ship excited me!
We passed the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier, now a museum at Navy pier, is the longest serving US carrier of the 20th century. It was also the largest ship in the world for ten years. More than 25 restored aircraft are displayed but we did not visit the museum this time. Next comes the elegant Star of India, still in use; it also appeared in the film “Master and Commander”. My husband, Marc, is seen enjoying the salt air and narration as we venture north (his jacket billows in the wind so that he looks a bit like “the Michelin Man”!), passing more sailboats. We slip close to contented California seals, a lone floating pelican. The two bright Navy tugboats are powerful, used to move gigantic Navy vessels. Next, inactive sailboats bob along a palm-lined shore of the North Bay.
We head back to the dock and onto dry land to explore more streets on our way to finding dinner. The public sculpture is “Pacific Soul” by Jaume Plensa, 2017; an admiring person can easily fit inside it. We later settled on Liberty Public Market out of curiosity. It has been a successfully renovated group of large–at first glance austere–buildings, once a part of a military complex. It now offers attractive shops and restaurants with courtyards. There is all manner of food in the Market and I enjoyed a dish of freshly made, varied vegetable pasta with a scrumptious marinara. (Another night, Argentinian chicken empanadas.) After the meal, we sat outside in a courtyard, chatted at the fire pit as others joined us. We thought it entirely appropriate when we read the colorful sign on a building near the fire! A good way to end our second full day of vacation.
I positioned myself on the worn brocade sofa and propped up on a pillow a heavy book bigger than my lap. A catalog to be specific, Spiegel, Sears or JC Penney, but it seemed a cousin to a genuine book with light, satiny smooth pages and bright, orderly pictures. The words, of course, were minimal but they had to be read to get the whole story. The entire enchanting tome was greatly valued in my youth. It provided not only indulgence in wishfulness, it educated. Within its flimsy, welcoming pages were all manner of tools, entertainment devices, machines for anything from cleaning to tilling, a variety of food preparation and serving options, clothing for all ages and shapes, toys made for infancy through adulthood, objects for every home space inside and out. It took my breath away any season it arrived.
It captivated attention from the opening moments with fresh scent of paper and soft crinkly sound of pages turned, each one rife with possibilities I’d not very often, sometimes never, considered. It meant a half hour of leisure if all chores, studying, and practicing cello were done. Sometimes it was hauled out when a friend was over. We huddled over the pages. It became an opportunity to compare likes and dislikes, to offer opinions about what was useful or interesting or not, and might evolve into a guessing game as well as a conversation extender. This could go on a very long time.
“I bet you’d like these shoes, they look like you.”
“No, I need boots and these look fuzzy-warm, neat.”
“Those are just…ugly!”
“They need to be cozy for winter!”
“You can get cozy and good-looking, can’t you? But wait, which dress-up shoes do you like?”
“This pair. They’re fancy but you wouldn’t break your ankles walking.”
“Not me–the high heels right here! Look at the pretty toes, leather bows on them.”
“Let’s check out the sleds and skates and stuff.”
“Yeah, I can’t wait to skate again on Currie pond and Central rink!”
“Wow, will you look at that great Radio Flyer? Ours is so banged up it steers kinda wrong.”
“Well, that’s what happens when you go crashing down City Forest hills.”
“Yeah…maybe by Thanksgiving we’ll get decent snow.”
“I hope so. We’ll all go tobogganing!”
But a few of our favorite pages were those we were sneaky about if my mother or siblings weren’t close by. The lingerie section. It was amazing to see what you wore when you grew up. Boys undergarments were so boring and silly to look at; I had two brothers so this was not news. We girls would one day get to use things that were both practical and pretty. I couldn’t imagine being that old, having those body shapes, needing to cover so much up. It was more than underwear– it was under clothing of mystery–a whole different life out there somehow. It all baffled and drew us. My older sisters seemed out of reach by then, busy managing expectations at home and school, moving through adolescence with bumps but lots of victory. But there were various intrigues– and they kept them to themselves. I was called a pest often enough with my endless questions and poking about, glimpsing their worlds. I knew very little about much except for what I could see, hear, read and imagine. Sleuthing with the aid of a Sears catalog made it easier.
That was a wonderful clarification of life–all by catalog. Everything had its purpose. The hundreds, even thousands of choices were pictured well and labeled, smartly described. Objects came with a guarantee, a warranty, meaning that if they stopped working right or fell apart you got a replacement–I loved that idea even though my father usually just fixed broken things.
The big family of models was smiling and healthy. Anything you needed could be had in those pages. Everything you wanted might be gotten for a price. In fact, you could get a lot of stuff you never even thought you wanted. That part shook me up, the sheer volume. How was it so many things were actually made somewhere before appearing on page 120 of a catalog? Where did that happen? Who came up with the ideas and created them? All those little pieces and parts, it was stupefying. I could barely envision a world that immense, the production of possessions so complicated, the workers that skilled. It was awesome to wonder about and a little disconcerting.
What was the actual need for a shiny red riding lawn mower, a big boxy television, unusual gadgets for kitchen and workshop, fancy bathroom products? A cashmere coat that cost a fortune?
Our house had plenty of unique and mundane items occupying surfaces, shelves, cabinets and corners; it didn’t need more from what I could see. I rarely wanted for a thing, but there wasn’t much extra cash enabling me to just point to this and that and my parents would get it. Besides, my father believed in thriftiness. He never paid for what he could manage and fix, himself. He didn’t take out loans except for a house, perhaps an occasional car though I believe he paid outright for those–he had to have a car or motorbike he could tinker with. He found bargains, and used his cash; he also saved and saved. He did not take financial risks. My mother, on the other hand, was one who might study a catalog, too, at a quiet end of day. She had a natural instinct plus good eye for design and quality, and owned a few fine things rather than a surplus of cheaper stuff. But she often browsed, and said it gave her ideas for sewing or decorating as much as for gifts or replacements of worn items.
To be absorbed in a good catalog was (and still can be) respite from troubles and demands. Recently my spouse, sister, then brother have had health challenges and I’ve tried more often to take mental or physical breaks. The past two weeks my mailbox has been stuffed with all sorts of catalogs since Christmas and other holidays are coming, ready or not. I receive them from clothing and outdoor/lifestyle companies; The Smithsonian; National Geographic; the Audubon Society; World Wildlife Federation; Writer’s Digest; Heifer International; The Vermont Country Store and more. Some of these induce me to I take a break from my daily agenda.
It might not be the old Sears Wishbook, (first published in the 1930s), which I once wore out gawking at, long before Christmas. But there is still page after page to peruse. I find a few intriguing things: two ivory Belleek claddagh mugs, weirdly cute Black Forest mini cuckoo clocks–and what about that retro classic flashlight based on a 1919 patent? Marc would like that. And in the country goods catalog, odder ideas : family matched sets of cartoon flannel pajamas, sock monkey mugs, cheese studded with blueberries or cranberries. Well, if I could happily indulge in dairy, I might try the last though I don’t think of cheese arriving with fruit installed.
I thumb through the others quickly, if at all, and toss, recycle. Wait, haven’t I gotten this one a few times already? What possibly could be of interest again? Very little. That nostalgic childish delight can also wear thin as I pile up paper wasted in an effort to try to part money from me.
The truth is, I won’t buy many gifts via mail order though it’s enjoyable at times to linger over peculiar and beautiful things, say, when listening to the radio or trying to not watch the news. Sometimes I purchase famously juicy pears or other treats from Harry& David; they please the giftees and us. I might order a dependable cotton sweater from Land’s End. But I tend to search locally for presents as we have a myriad of small businesses here to support, tucked away shops to explore. Though I may not buy much at all this year. It might be homemade candy, gift cards or a couple small things for this large family. I am trying to simplify traditions, save money rather than toss it about, worry less and enjoy more. Focus on what matters: people, my faith, my home, writing, creating, enjoying the fabulous outdoors. Oh, a few meals, which I help Marc whip up for gatherings.
But those days when there seemed fewer things to snare our attention or stoke covetousness–how sweet are those memories as I write. How soothing it was to do nothing on a rainy/sleety/snowy Saturday evening, stereo lulling me with a Dvorak symphony or–a couple of my father’s rare musical diversions from classical fare–a Benny Goodman tune or Rogers and Hammerstein song. Stretch out against that sofa with a fat catalog of nonsense and cheap dreams. It was an avenue of exit from our sort of life and somehow encouraged my curiosity to question the known and consider the lesser knowns. A way of creating a different emotional state, as well, one of superficial ease. I needed that as a kid–an experience without pressure to achieve; time when I didn’t have to be on guard for the predator who repeatedly tracked me down; activity that required nothing of me but releasing of cares, dreaming of nothing relevant. I found a small relief in the common world of neutral objects. But mostly, it was simple fun. Thinking of essentially nothing as well as making no notable gains acquire an attraction and value all their own when practiced. If you’ve forgotten how to waste a little time, see for yourself what’s to be discovered in your own pile of miscellaneous–now likely holiday–catalogs. You might find yourself comfier, even content a moment, readied for a catnap.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson