A Week Down Memory Lane

Once the school year begins, and the “train” leaves the station, it seems like I don’t have any time, inclination, or energy for a big project around the house. For ten months I struggle with the enormous piles of essays, tests, and quizzes that befall a middle school language arts teacher.  About all I can manage around the house is cooking dinner each night and doing the laundry on Sunday evening while I do my lesson plans for the next week.

At the start of my eight-week summer break, I wander around in a daze unable to commit myself to much of anything, even the laundry, other than reading (for pleasure as opposed to reading for school), cooking, and baking, three things I find truly relaxing. Eventually, however, it dawns on me that the summer is slipping by and I buckle myself down to tackle a project.

bookshelvesBecause we are a houseful of avid readers, and by avid I mean obsessed, one of my first projects last summer was to make room for the overflow of books that is the result of (a) one college graduate moving back home with her boxes of books and (b) the whole family’s favorite weekend forays to the two excellent used bookstores in our neighborhood. We all regularly give and get books as gifts, and we actually use Amazon gift cards to purchase, surprise, books. Unpainted planks and concrete blocks from the local hardware store and voilà, an entire wall of bookshelves. I know it would have been nicer to purchase bookshelves, or hire a carpenter to build some, or at the very least, to sand and paint the planks, but once the shelves are filled with books, the beauty of the spines of the books and their jackets seems to take over and elevate the whole thing to an acceptable point.

My next major project was to go through my closet. This is a much more monumental task than finding shelf space for books. Books are my friends, and no matter how old they are, or how many times I have read them, I can always pull them out and read them again. However, some of my clothes stopped being my friends years ago. Some items were impulse buys, and once home, decided they were loners and did not wish to see the light of day.  Other items were once cherished BFF’s, building me up and making me shine, and now they taunt me instead, unwilling to zip or button or match with anything that does zip or button. This surliness has even spilled over onto my shoe racks. That beautiful pair of bone pumps, with the pretty kitten heels and the stylish brushed nickel buckle across the rather pointy toes, has turned into a mean and spiteful set of twins who tease me by taking nips out of my little toes every time I wear them. It was time for me to “unfriend” some of these hangers-on and free up valuable closet space for new friends.

This seemed like a one day job: take everything out of the closet, inspect it, try it on, and either hang it back up or fold it for the donation box. Ha! One day my foot. Speaking of feet, the shoes alone took a whole day.  So many painful decisions. I finally decided on the only reasonable method of deciding to keep or pitch: could I survive a day teaching in that pair of shoes? Strappy sandals, no way! Red clogs purchased in Holland (but ironically say “Made in Sweden” on the bottom), uh-I don’t think so. This made all further shoe decisions extremely easy.

Brooches and PinsDay two: jewelry. Seriously, you would think I was a member of the British royal family with all the pins and brooches I have collected over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I love my pins and brooches. I wear one almost every day. Some I have had for thirty plus years. Others I bought because they reminded me of a particular piece of literature and I wear them when I teach that book or short story. What? You don’t understand? Well, in a thrift store I once found a burnished gold brooch in the shape of a marlin, as though it were leaping from the water, back arched and scales glistening in the sun. I just had to have it, I mean, for goodness sake, I teach Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize winning novella The Old Man and the Sea. So you can see how sorting and organizing my extensive collection of costume jewelry would be a day in itself.

silk scarfDay three: scarves. Okay, now you probably have an image of someone your grandmother’s age, or older, swathed in some smelly old Victorian printed piece of gauzy material, but I can validate how my love of scarves began. Years and years ago my mother’s great uncle died and when her family went through his belongings they offered my mother one of his ancient leather suitcases, embellished with his initials in gold leaf near the handle. When we got the suitcase home and opened it, we were surprised to find inside items left behind by his wife, not him, a small sandwich baggie filled with costume jewelry, some of it marked with well-known names such as Monet, Napier, and Sarah Coventry, and a collection of silk scarves. My mom gave it all to me and gave the suitcase to one of my cousins who had been named for this great uncle. And so my love of scarves began. A plain knit top becomes an outfit with the addition of a scarf and a brooch.  Perhaps not as fashionable as in the past, I still love to accessorize with these items, and my collection of both scarves and brooches has continued to grow.

closet renoDay four came and finally it was time to tackle the clothes. This was undoubtedly the hardest day as some items have such sentimental memories attached to them. There’s the knit top purchased at a Gap store on the day it first opened, and I had negotiated the legal documents between the landlord and the tenant for the build-out of the store. As a result of my work on the deal, I was given an employee discount card for one day and was able to shop in the store before it opened to the public. I loved that shirt. I wore it all the time. I have a charming picture of my family taken on a summer vacation to Williamsburg with me wearing that top.  It has seen its better days and frankly, doesn’t fit anymore, but for years, when I attempt to organize my closet, I just can’t bear to part with it. There are other items like that. A brown denim maxi-skirt appliqued with bits of corduroy and plaids in a swirly pattern down one side is another example. During the two years we lived overseas I didn’t purchase much clothing in the stores on the local economy as we were able to have shipped to us American goods via the APO system as well as being able to shop at the PX and commissary near Brussels. In addition, the European tight-fitting clothing didn’t quite agree with my all-American (for better and worse) body-type. But, one day, in a mall in Brussels, I found this brown denim skirt and by some miracle, the largest size fit me. I absolutely adore that skirt (still) and wore the daylights out of it until it turned on me and decided not to zip one morning as I was dressing for work. I can’t give that skirt away, even though it has betrayed me; I just can’t. So, on that day I made a decision to make a small stack of clothes like the Gap shirt and the brown denim Belgian skirt, and pack them into a box marked “Keepsake Clothing”. Now, they can’t taunt me from their never-touched coat hangers and I actually have room in my closet to see what does fit!

About halfway through the clothing process I stumbled upon a black zip-front cardigan that had been my mother’s. She wore it all the time as she was always cold as she grew frailer from the illnesses that plagued her for the last fourteen years of her life. In 2007 when going through her closets after her funeral, I found that cardigan and had a good cry while holding it close to me. That day I packed it in my suitcase and hung it in the back of my closet when I got home. Seven years later, I was overwrought with emotions once again as I took it from the closet. I had to sit on the edge of my bed and hold that cardigan, and yes, have a good cry. It was shabby from much wear, and one shoulder seam had become frayed. It wouldn’t fit anyone in my family and looked so dated I am sure it wouldn’t be worn by someone that it did fit. That cardigan is not my mom; it can’t bring me closer to her or do anything other than make me sad when I look at it. So I did something my mom would have advised: say a Hail Mary, wipe my eyes, and put it in the donation box. Just before I did that, though, I checked the pockets and there I found two clean tissues, a packet of Equal sweetener, and the balled-up wrapper of a Hershey’s Kiss, with its little paper tail sticking out. There you have my mom in a nutshell. Tissues always at the ready, and because one of her medications had brought on Type II diabetes, she used Equal in her coffee and tea. Type II diabetes, however, wasn’t strong enough to ward off a little bit of chocolate here and there.

Sadly, after four days I was still not finished with the reorganization efforts in my bedroom. I still have a large drawer crammed full of socks. Oh the stories those socks could tell if they had tongues instead of toes. But, I have run out of steam on this project, and it is almost “back to school” time for me. The remainder of my time off will be devoted to cleaning and decorating my classroom, organizing my teaching materials, going through my school library, throwing out student work not collected at the end of the year- -a lot like organizing my closet at home. Besides, in the dead of summer, who wants to sort through matched pairs of socks, mismatched pairs of socks, and sock widows and widowers? I think the stories from my sock drawer will have to wait until next summer.

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Preserving Old Traditions

Recently I was rereading for the umpteenth time Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin and its sequel, More Home Cooking. In her inimitable style, Colwin describes her amazement at the moment that she realized that her husband was indeed a European: she found him eating paper-thin pancakes smeared with jam instead of butter and syrup as Americans do. She devotes a chapter to her decision to make jam, and decides upon plum jam due to it being more difficult to purchase in a store. She made it seem so easy, which is one of her special talents, taking a recipe which to the normal home cook would seem daunting if not impossible and make it seem like something we can successfully take on. Then and there I decided I would make jam.

Even though my mom never made jam or jelly or “canned” anything, I grew up with these homemade items. We were regularly given things by friends and family members like strawberry jam, fig preserves, and other items that had been magically cooked in a normal pot in a normal home kitchen and then sealed in a jar so that it could sit on a pantry shelf for an indefinite period of time. Fig preserves is one of my favorites. When I married, my husband’s godmother started sending us jars of her preserves at the holidays, accompanied by some of her famous Italian cookies. Once she sent us a jar of pear preserves and it was unlike anything I had ever tasted before—delicious.

I approached this project much like I do anything that I am attempting for the first time: extensive Googling and research via my own considerable library. First I reread Colwin’s chapter on plum jam. Knowing that canning jars were either “Mason” or “Ball” brand, I checked their websites for information. I spent quite a bit of time on Pinterest and found new links to explore, including several YouTube videos that indeed made it seem doable.

During this exploratory period, I happened upon an episode of the Food Network television show The Barefoot Contessa. This particular episode featured Ina Garten making orange marmalade. My decision was made. I would begin with Garten’s recipe for orange marmalade. It gave exact measurements and time frames, which unlike Colwin’s (as with most of her “recipes”), was really a well-told story about how to make plum jam.

My husband, the family grocery shopper, or “logistics officer” as he once called himself, picked up the short list of ingredients: sugar, four navel oranges, and two lemons. He also managed to find a dozen half-pint canning jars on sale at our local grocery store. From my research I knew that I would need canning supplies such as a jar lifter, a canning pot, tongs, and a funnel. So I called some of my more domestic-oriented friends to see if I could borrow these items for the weekend. Finally, I had everything I needed, my Googling had sufficiently given me the courage I needed, and I was ready to begin.

That’s when I realized that this recipe was a two-parter. I guess in my excitement when watching the episode I didn’t realize that the sliced oranges and lemons had to soak overnight in a water and sugar bath. This was embarrassing, a rookie mistake. Always read the recipe all the way through before beginning!

The next day, with my oranges and lemons having spent the requisite time in the simple syrup mixture, I read the recipe again and started the process of jam-making, or in this case, marmalade-making. Apparently the difference between marmalade and jam is the inclusion of both the rinds and the flesh of the fruit, which means that all marmalade is made from citrus fruits.

01d5213900a61ed607a38d8e02561c2ef4c1c05910Because Garten’s recipe does not call for pectin, this process was quite time-consuming. The cooking process took about three hours but finally, the “jam temperature” had been reached and when dropping a bit of the marmalade mixture onto a saucer that had been placed in the freezer for a while, it puddled up in a little glob when pushed with my finger. Then the scary part began.

014ca32e7cfd96f54aa4c81d51d66c5632e36fe8d3For the safe preservation of foods, everything that comes into contact with the food must be completely sterile and then the sealed jars have to be “processed” for the prescribed amount of time. I tried not to think about the possibilities of screwing this up and bringing botulism upon my loved ones, but since preserving foods has been dated back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, I plowed on.

Using my largest pasta pot with the insert, I placed the half-pint jars in boiling water for ten minutes, along with the rings. The lids with their little rings of sealing compound were washed with warm soapy water and then placed in a small pot with very hot but not boiling water. I removed the sterilized jars one at a time with the jar lifter (a miraculous device which actually does what it claims to do and is quite indispensable to jam-making). Using the funnel I filled each jar to the top leaving a half-inch of head space as stated in the recipes. Then, on goes the lid and the ring. Finally each jar is placed back into the boiling water for ten minutes. The jars are removed and set aside to cool. That’s when you step back and wait…for the magic ping. As the jars cool, a vacuum forms inside the jars and the lid, which had raised slightly in the center while being processed, becomes concave and makes a pinging sound as it snaps into place. That sound means you have successfully preserved your jam!

019a2dcaca3197b1429a1528d4052d54f711122f87As thrilling as hearing the ping was, cracking open a jar of it several days later and spreading it on a toasted English muffin was astonishing. I had made orange marmalade on my own. And, it was good. Really good. Passing out jars of my hard work was equally amazing. When returning the canning supplies to my friend, I bestowed upon her a jar of orange marmalade and a jar of grapefruit ginger marmalade, a slight variation of the Ina Garten recipe using grapefruits and crystalized ginger.

A few weeks later, I ordered my own set of canning supplies and then tackled strawberry preserves and strawberry-balsamic-black pepper preserves. When given a bag of garlic scapes, I made garlic scape-flavored vinegar, both white wine and apple cider varieties. 0135f7ef950e43082132349758335c6a75abccbdbcTwo weeks ago, thanks to my older daughter’s shopping spree at a farmer’s market in Pittsburgh, I pickled five quart jars of okra, something that any 01797a93804afc5198857faa3a39760ab2dfeb5e85transplanted Southerner would love to get their hands on!

Jam-making, as both Laurie Colwin and Ina Garten pointed out, is very satisfying. First of all, you know exactly what is inside that jar of jam or jelly as you spread it on your breakfast toast (or your pancakes if you are European). You can control the amount of sugar or use a sugar substitute if you are so inclined. You can create jam or jelly or marmalade out of any fruit that you can find at your local grocery store or farmer’s market. And, the bragging rights that go along with those pretty jars of jewel-colored yumminess are out of this world!011aa7150d939c85f369ca0b763049013d2a341adf_00001

Bibliography

Colwin, Laurie. Home Cooking. New York: Knopf, 1988. Print.

Colwin, Laurie. More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.

Garten, Ina. “Anna’s Orange Marmalade.” Barefoot Contessa. Barefoot Contessa, n.d. Web. 18 July 2015.

“Historical Origins of Food Preservation.” National Center for Home Food Preservation. University of Georgia, n.d. Web. 18 July 2015.

A Love Letter to Laurie Colwin

Everyone has a list of people, either alive or deceased, that they would love to have dinner with. I’m sure there is a BuzzFeed list of the top candidates for those lists, chock-full of celebrities and famous people. For me, however, at the top of my list, is Laurie Colwin.

Born and raised in Manhattan, Colwin was a writer and foodie who left us with a small repertoire: three collections of short stories, five novels, and two collections of essays on food, family, and entertaining. She died in 1992 at the far too young age of 48, leaving behind a husband, Juris, and an eight-year old daughter, Rosa. It’s that part that eats at me, the eight-year old daughter. I’ve had two eight-year old daughters in my lifetime, and I can’t imagine what life would be like for them if I had not lived to see them become nine, or nineteen, or someday in the very near future, twenty-nine.

In the late 80’s, I moved from Louisiana to the Washington, DC, area, taking up residence in a high-rise apartment in Bethesda. Unsure of how I would afford both the sky-high rent and a parking spot in the basement garage, I sold my car before I moved, knowing that my new job was a fifteen minute walk from my future apartment. On the way home from work in the afternoon I would stop in the little shops and markets along the way as I was exploring and getting to know my new neighborhood. One of my favorites was a bookstore just a block from my apartment. They frequently had an outdoor table piled high with books for sale. That’s where I found Laurie Colwin.

laurie colwin books 2There was something about the cover of Home Cooking that made me pick it up. Much like Laurie Colwin who was one of a kind, the cover of Home Cooking (as well as its sequel) was taken from a monotype by artist Janet Yake. To create a monotype the artist first paints the image on a flat surface like glass or Plexiglas, and then while the paint is still wet, transfers the image to paper by hand by pressing or rubbing—producing a one of a kind print, not leaving much room for error.

That night, I read about half of Home Cooking in one sitting. I carried it to work with me the next day so I could read it while I ate my lunch at my desk. I was intrigued by her writing style, her homey attitude towards entertaining, and her very palpable love of her family. How I wished I could be invited to dine in her NYC apartment and sup on one of the dishes detailed in Home Cooking. I later discovered some of the essays found in her books originated as articles for Gourmet magazine. Again, at a used bookstore, I managed to hunt down several old issues with her work. Eventually I discovered the sequel, More Home Cooking, which was published after her death. Recently Laurie Colwin has been in the literary news, with the release of some of her work as e-books. I immediately purchased the e-book of Home Cooking, even though I have owned a print copy for over twenty years.

I know these two books very well; they are like old friends to me, friends I would gladly have over for a lovely cup of tea and a freshly baked scone. Each August, when I return to my classroom after a nice summer break, I begin literature class with my new 7th graders reading “Lemons and Limes” from More Home Cooking. It is the perfect example of descriptive writing, writing that truly appeals to the senses. As you read Colwin’s descriptions of the many things she does with lemons and the zest from their bright yellow peels, you can feel your mouth puckering, your tongue tingling. While the class discusses Colwin’s talented use of descriptive writing, we talk about their favorite foods and what their family dinners at home are like. It’s through these classroom discussions, under the guise of studying a piece of non-fiction literature, that they get to know me as a teacher and I get to know them as students. The fact that they also get to know Laurie Colwin is just a bonus.

I love trying to recreate the dishes from Colwin’s books. They aren’t so much recipes as they are narratives. Apparently, there are cooking clubs that meet periodically to cook and eat an entire meal from Colwin’s books. A cursory search on Google produces quite a list of articles and blog posts about Laurie Colwin’s writings. In her short life, she made quite an impact on many, some of whom weren’t even born when she died. And, she did that without a computer, a tablet, an iPhone, a show on the Food Network, or a blog.

It’s hard to imagine Laurie Colwin living and writing about food in today’s gourmand-crazy and technology-frenzied world. If you read even just one or two of her food essays you will see that she was a no-nonsense home cook, not a fancy haute cuisine multi-ethnic fusion type of chef. I read a 2014 article on the The New York Times website by Jeff Gordinier who interviewed Colwin’s daughter, now a grown-up foodie and writer herself:

“In some ways, Ms. Colwin prefigured a lot of what the food world is obsessed with now: organic eggs, broccoli rabe, beets and homemade bread, yogurt and jam. ‘She was so ahead of her time with the organic stuff,’ Ms. Jurjevics said. ‘That was so hard growing up, I’ve got to say. I was the kid with the weird lunch.’

On the other hand, the surge in food media might have befuddled her. ‘I wonder what she would have made of so many things,’ Ms. Jurjevics mused. ‘Would she have a computer? Would she email people? She was so particular about everything. Would she blog? I wonder, would she compulsively Google herself?’”

I’ve always imagined Colwin sitting at her kitchen table with a cup of steaming coffee and a yellow legal pad, writing away, while stopping periodically to stir something on the stove or to read a book to her daughter. So, it’s a little difficult to see her, she of the bread-baking, jam-making, beef-stewing variety, sitting hunched over a MacBook Pro, sipping a chai latte, tapping away at her latest novel or food essay. I have an easier time visualizing her blogging, casually spinning out one of her food stories, drawing us in, making us want to rush to our own kitchens and roast a chicken stuffed with a lemon.

Whenever I am writing about food, whether it is a restaurant meal or one I’ve prepared at home myself, I hear her voice in my head. I know, however, that what comes out of my printer is not even close to the quality of what she herself would have written.  She was a master story-teller; she brought you into her kitchen, or, as she recounts in Home Cooking, into her kitchen-less studio apartment during her early days on her own. Even without a kitchen she cooked and entertained regularly, cooking on a two-burner hotplate and draining pasta in her bathtub. I’ve been told by family and close friends that I am a good story-teller, so I keep trying to tell a food story the way she would have. I don’t know if I will ever accomplish that, but until then, I will keep re-reading her stories, and as I write, I will keep listening to her voice.

Bibliography

Colwin, Laurie. Home Cooking. New York: Knopf, 1988. Print.

Colwin, Laurie. More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.

Gordinier, Jeff. “Laurie Colwin: A Confidante in the Kitchen.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 01 Apr. 2014. Web. 09 July 2015.

“Printmaking Methods.” Fitch-Febvrel Gallery. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 July 2015.

Obsession: Calvin Klein Has Nothing on Me

Obsession: ob·ses·sion (əbˈseSHən) noun; plural noun: obsessions; (1) the state of being obsessed with someone or something. Ex: “she cared for him with a devotion bordering on obsession”; (2) an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind. Ex: “he was in the grip of an obsession he was powerless to resist”. Synonyms: fixation, ruling/consuming passion, passion, mania, idée-fixe, compulsion, preoccupation, infatuation, addiction, fetish, craze, hobbyhorse.

I have a long history of becoming obsessed with a topic and holding onto it until I have sated my appetite by reading every single thing I can about it. This “condition” sometimes comes at the expense of attending a social obligation, having clean underwear, putting food in the refrigerator, taking even a modicum of exercise, and of course, engaging in real conversations with real people.

An analysis of my book bag after a trip to my public library would reflect one of two extremes: (1) 15-20 books, about half being non-fiction with each on a different topic or subject, and the other half being a mixture of classics, contemporary fiction, and young adult fiction; or (2) 15-20 books all on the exact same topic or subject. A quick glance at the bookshelves in several rooms of our house will also verify this.

When under the spell of one of my obsessions, it is all I want to talk about over dinner with my family, while in the car with one of my daughters, or while out with my husband walking the dog. It matters not at all that no one else in my family shares the obsession du jour or is in the least bit interested. Because they love me (or because I am very persuasive in wanting to talk about it), they listen and ask questions as though they cared. I love them for that.

Sir Arthur Conan DoyleWhile taking undergraduate and graduate courses to become certified to teach English (as my second career), I was taking an undergraduate class on world literature. My advisor for the certification program suggested I take it at my local community college, for convenience and cost savings. So, I was, by far, the oldest student in the room, and older than the professor as well. After reading a plethora of short stories and two novellas, all by foreign authors, we were given our final assignment: choose any international author and do a presentation on them. My husband strongly suggested I choose an author I was already covering in my middle school classroom to cut down on the research involved in the project. So, I did. I chose Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of the great Sherlock Holmes. I was already quite familiar with Conan Doyle as a writer but I felt to do the project justice I should do a “bit” of research to round out his life story. Twelve books later I had my story: born in Edinburgh, went to medical school, worked as a ship’s doctor on a cargo ship, served as a medic during the Second Anglo Boer War, vehemently opposed to the atrocities committed by King Leopold in the Belgian Congo, became very interested in the occult and faeries, and yes, after being bored by his mediocre practice as an ophthalmologist, was the inventor of the great Sherlock Holmes. (My PowerPoint was well-received, and the afternoon tea of scones, cucumber sandwiches, and piping hot tea made to order in a college classroom didn’t hurt.)

Russian_Imperial_Family_1911When I first learned of the fate of the Romanov family, I spent months reading everything I could find at the public library. I was absolutely horrified at the thought of an entire family being executed en masse in 1918. The long-standing rumor that daughter Anastasia (Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia) had survived the brutal execution of the family kept the story alive for decades until finally, in 2007, her body was found and identified using DNA from England’s Prince Philip, who was a great-nephew of the last Tsarina. This did not stop me, however, from reading books written by the two famous Romanov imposters, Anna Anderson and Eugenia Smith, both of whom were confirmed to be unrelated to the Romanovs using the aforementioned DNA tests.

"The British royal family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace" by Carfax2 - Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“The British royal family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace” by Carfax2 – Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons”

As for the British royal family, well, that obsession is long-standing and shows no sign of slackening. With Prince William and his wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and their now two beautiful children, the monarchy, and my obsession, is safe and secure. Within the boundaries of my obsession with the British royal family lies a specialized “sub-obsession” with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the “love story” that nearly brought down the monarchy but in doing so paved the way for the current monarch, Elizabeth II. An earlier essay also documented this obsession, How We Changed the World.

Since obsessions for me frequently spin-off these sub-obsessions, the Romanovs also “hatched” a sub-obsession with Fabergé eggs, the beautiful and intricately decorated and bejeweled “eggs” the Russian Imperial Family gave and received as presents at Easter time. I’ve read extensively on the eggs, jewelry, and other priceless art pieces created by PeHouse_of_Fabergé_-_Rose_Trellis_Eggter Carl Fabergé and his company. Only forty-eight eggs were made and of those forty-three remain. One year for my birthday I requested a jaunt to Richmond to visit the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to see their collection of twelve. A documentary on the eggs and their creator, Faberge: A Life of Its Own, is currently touring movie theatres across the country, and I hope to have the opportunity to see that soon.

Along with millions of others, I am currently obsessed with Downton Abbey, the glorious creation of Julian Fellowes, whiDownton Abbey costume exhibitch dramatizes the upstairs and downstairs of life on an exquisite country estate in England. The series, with its sixth and final season (insert quiet sobbing here), will air in the US this fall. Since I also have an obsession with the Victorian Era, which gave me reason to study British country homes and the lives of the nobility, I was enthralled with this costume drama from the first five minutes of the very first episode, where Lord Grantham learns of the sinking of the Titanic and the loss of the future heir to his estate. For Christmas this past year, I asked for a trip to Wilmington, Delaware, to see an exhibit of costumes from the television show. Thank goodness my husband is tolerant of these road trips to feed these obsessions.

Books on Kennedy familyLest you think all of my obsessions emanate from across the pond, I have also been obsessed with the Kennedy family for most of my life. Aside from the political dynasty, there’s something about the highs and lows of that family, replete with its glorious successes and grave tragedies, which has always intrigued me. My collection of books about the Kennedy family takes up its very own shelf. I’ve traced Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy’s family history and that of the patriarch of the family, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. While President John F. Kennedy and his dazzling wife Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis would garner enough material for a lifetime of reading, I’m equally as interested in JFK’s eight siblings. I’ve studied Rosemary Kennedy’s life story, including the tragic lobotomy which was supposed to have cured her of her mental disability when instead it institutionalized her for the remainder of her life. There’s the sad love story of Kathleen Kennedy Cavendish, widowed at the age of 28 when her husband, of the British nobility, died at the hands of a German sniper in 1944. She herself then perished in an airplane crash in France in 1948. With nine children and many, many grandchildren, the Kennedys have entered into many different arenas of public life. Their stories are fascinating to me.

In preparing for this essay I made a list of things that I have I’ve been obsessed with and read extensively on in search of knowledge and mastery of a subject: gardening; many, many different authors; cooking in general with jam-making being my current obsession; luxury yachts with Aristotle Onassis’s Christina O, in particular; tennis “grand slam” tournaments and some of that sport’s superstar players; Persian cats; famous gems and precious stones; royal families of Scandinavian countries, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and others; and many other things that I researched and devoured and moved on. I don’t necessarily have a shelf-full of books on all of these topics but I’ve read so much on them I am a dangerous opponent in several categories of the board game Trivial Pursuit. And don’t get me started on Jeopardy. That’s another essay entirely.