Pussycat, Pussycat, Where Have You Been?

The first time Jamie’s parents came to our new house for dinner, we got them comfortable on the sofa in front of the fire with drinks while we continued preparing the meal. Not ten minutes had elapsed before his mother called me from the living room. I trotted in.

“Laura, the cat’s on the sofa.”

I looked at Tuxedo who was indeed sitting on the sofa. Tux returned my gaze: She raised one cat eyebrow at me then swiveled her head and stared meaningfully at Jamie’s mother.  I turned back to my mother-in-law. “You know what she’s saying? She’s saying, ‘Laura, the old lady’s on the sofa.’”

I spun on my stiletto and returned to the kitchen.

No wonder Debbie was her favorite daughter-in-law.

The Heart of the Mouth of the South


I remember once winning a team game of Trivial Pursuit because Jamie knew that two-time America’s Cup winner Ted Turner was nicknamed the Mouth of the South. He had read a biography of him but I never knew much about Mr. Turner beyond his ownership of the Atlanta Braves and Superstation TBS and that he was a marketing genius. (TBS broadcast its shows at five minutes past the hour, ensuring that each show received its own line in TV Guide.)

I hadn’t really thought about Mr. Turner in years until the other day when I read that he is suffering with Lewy body dementia, a disease that leaves him tired and forgetful. Described as “a mild case of what people have as Alzheimer’s,” this made me sad, as Ted Turner was incredibly kind to me on one of the worst days of my life.

My grad school friend Jonathan Levin was murdered in May 1997 just a few years after we left NYU. He was tortured then shot execution-style by one of his former students who wanted to rob him. The window of time between the discovery of Jon’s body and his funeral was jammed with shrieking headlines and jangling telephones as the story dominated the national news, due to Jon’s personal relationship with media power (his father was Gerald Levin, CEO of Time Warner Inc.) and because it checked most of the significant New York City crime story boxes – black on white coupled with class disparity combined with the overarching randomness of how lives cross paths in New York.

The day of the funeral dawned hot and humid. I was thinking and feeling a panoply of things as I showered and dressed in a black and white silk Chanel suit and black stiletto pumps. I had attended funerals before but they had all been low-key, family affairs.   Judging by the news coverage of the crime, I expected this, the penultimate act of the drama, to be pandemonium.

And it was. The blocks surrounding Park Avenue Synagogue were closed to traffic so we explained to the NYPD officer manning the barricades why we wanted to drive there. Noting our formal attire, my red nose, and the damp, balled Kleenex surrounding me on the car seat and carpet, he waved us through. A dark-suited employee of the funeral home then approached Jamie and handed him a placard through the open window and told us to put it on the dashboard. If it weren’t visible we would not be permitted to join the funeral procession from the synagogue to the cemetery on Long Island.

When we were within a block of the temple, another funeral employee approached and motioned for us to exit the car, explaining that we needed to walk from here. He seemed to be explaining something to Jamie but I wasn’t listening. It was too crowded and far too noisy. Mourners from every aspect of Jon’s life thronged the wide sidewalks and spilled into the street. The nation’s media elite huddled together near small clusters of people my age. Dozens of wailing teenagers hugged one another while more photographers than I had seen anywhere except the Academy Awards snapped frantically at all of us.

Clutching hands we walked toward the surging crowd tentatively, unsure where to go. Another funeral employee approached us and, after determining our relationship to Jon, directed us to an area of the sidewalk that appeared to be reserved for graduate school friends because immediately I saw Rachel, Patti, and a few other former classmates.

The entire event ran with the precision of a military maneuver. Friends from each segment of Jon’s life were catalogued and ushered into the cool building in a particular order and seated together in one location. I have no idea how the social status of each group was determined but somehow Jamie and I ended up next to Jane Fonda and Ted Turner.

After wiping my eyes with a tissue, I poked Jamie. “You know if Jon could lift the lid of that coffin and look around he’d be embarrassed at all this fuss. And when he caught sight of our seat mates, he say, ‘Holy shit! Jane Fonda is at my funeral!’” Jamie stifled a snicker as the cantor began his song and Jon’s family started their long and sorrowful progress to the front of the church. The siblings and step-siblings clung to one another so tightly that they seemed to move as one undulating entity. Carol’s face was ashen but her head was high. Keening in agony, Jerry staggered, leaning on his bodyguards for support. Filled with my own anguish, I barely noticed the service.

Exiting afterward the hot sunshine seemed almost cleansing after the grimness of the sacrament. More dark-clad factotum led us to our car and instructed us to observe the traffic patterns carefully and not become disconnected from the procession as we would probably be unable to find the cemetery on our own. Pointed north on Park Avenue, Jamie steered his car into place and soon we were following the screaming sirens of the NYPD as it escorted us to the city limits.

Eventually, the long, sad, parade turned right through enormous wrought iron gates into a cemetery. Regretting my shoe choice, I stumbled over the dry and clumpy ground to the graveside.   While much of what the rabbi said that day has receded into the mists of my memory, I do remember his calling upon each of us to toss a shovelful of soil onto the coffin as a way of sharing the labor and saying a final goodbye to the corporeal remains of Jon, but to do so holding the spade backward so we never forget the unnaturalness of the act.

Jamie and I joined the line snaking forward listlessly. Funeral home employees handed a series of shovels to mourners as they approached and soon Jamie and I were separated and pushed to opposite sides of the grave. Crying so hard I could barely see and feeling rather than seeing the wooden handle shoved into my hand, I approached the mound of dirt trepidatiously. Time after time I attempted to dig a bit onto the curved head of the shovel but I couldn’t make it work. Suddenly, standing in the burning sun in a pencil skirt and five inch heels while clutching an uncooperative garden implement seemed like the nadir of my life. I couldn’t even say goodbye to my friend properly. I began to wail and if I could have handed the spade to the next person without looking like a bigger fool I would have done so. Staring shamefacedly through my tears at the mound of dirt in front of me, I realized that two indistinct but shiny cowboy boots had appeared next to my pointy toes. A gentle baritone wafted into my ear. “Let me help you.”

Two strong arms went around mine and guided them to the dirt, gracefully scooping a large portion, and then helped me toss it into the grave. That finally over, I flung the shovel and stumbled to the safety of the pavement where I could nurse my humiliation in private.

I felt Jamie’s presence and, looking up, blew my nose into an already-sodden Kleenex. “Well, that didn’t go well,” I muttered. “I feel like an idiot.”

Jamie cocked his head. “Why?”

“Because I couldn’t make the damned dirt stay on the shovel.”

“No one could. That’s the point of the exercise.”

I stared at him wide-eyed. “You did.”

He shrugged. “Not much. No one got very much.”

“That man who helped me did. He was really strong and knew what he was doing.” I blew my nose again.

“Do you know who helped you?”

Digging in my handbag for Kleenex I shook my head. “Some guy wearing cowboy boots. That’s all I saw.”

“It was Ted Turner.”

My head snapped up. “Really?”

Jamie nodded. “Yup. He owns a pretty big ranch so I guess he has had some shoveling experience.”

It wasn’t his shoveling ability that impressed me. It was his kindness to an emotionally shattered young woman at one of the most horrible moments of her life.

I have never again met Ted Turner; I have never even seen him except in magazines and Internet news stories. I doubt he thought twice about what he did that day, but it has remained with me forever.

Acorns Without Hats


I have returned to work. Yanking the blind cord reveals only a square of sooty darkness.   When I open the back door for Spencer, he slithers into the invisible nip of thin, crisp, air. There is a two-pound package of butternut squash in the refrigerator. It must be fall.

Jamie bought the squash partly for a Roman pasta recipe that he enjoys cooking, but he could have bought a smaller package if that were all he wanted. No, the unspoken request emanating from one-and-one-half pounds of Trader Joe’s quartered squash on the middle shelf in the refrigerator is for soup, my soup, the rich and creamy soup I make nearly every autumn weekend.

This shocks me. Jamie has rarely desired any food that he or a restaurant didn’t prepare. Oh, sure, once he threw a temper tantrum shouting something to the effect of “How come if I want anything to eat in this house I have to cook it myself?” (prompting me to look up from my book and remind him that the take-out menus lived in the far left kitchen drawer) but generally he avoids like the Black Death anything I cook and he has done since our earliest days together when, thinking that I might have inherited the Cordon Bleu gene from my mother and using my grandmother’s recipe, I made a huge pot of chicken noodles (uncooked, they absorbed all the soup).

I have always bewailed my inability to prepare the food I love and remember from my childhood – the savory pot roasts and tangy lemon meringue pies my paternal grandmother made; Aunt Grace’s lasagna and wedding soup, both crafted with tiny, identical meatballs; my maternal grandmother’s German chocolate cake baked lovingly for every cousin’s birthday.   It’s not that I didn’t try but, to paraphrase my husband, my gifts lie elsewhere, usually in a book or a classroom or a jam jar. Even my mother, usually gently persistent in things she believes that I should know, surrendered after a particular grocery-shopping trip with me years ago. I don’t recall what she wanted to make but it required hazelnuts. We wandered through the produce aisles desultorily, unable to find them.

“I don’t think there are any, Mom,” I volunteered, bored.

She wandered past me, staring at the display, murmuring, “That’s just not possible. Peanuts, almonds, walnuts, chestnuts . . . “ She froze directly in front of me at an enormous cardboard bin filled to the top with small, medium-brown nuts. They were chubby yet oblong with one pointy end and one flatter, slightly discolored, one. Looking from the box to me she asked, “Didn’t you see these?”

I followed her gaze. “These? Yeah, I saw them.”

“Then why did you say there were no hazelnuts?”

“Are those hazelnuts?”


I blinked. “I didn’t know that.”

“What did you think they were?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Acorns without hats.”

My mother’s lips parted slightly and her right eyebrow lifted farther than I had ever before seen it. “Acorns without hats,” she repeated.

I ran my tongue over my teeth and nodded slightly, having just realized how idiotic that must have sounded.

She tore a plastic bag from the roll and held it aloft. “Here. Fill this with two pounds of acorns without hats while I go get the butter.”

I have never managed to live that down. When I bought a contorted hazelnut tree to plant in the garden, my mother observed that soon I could harvest my own crop of acorns without hats.

“It’s ornamental,” I replied snarkily.


That squash will not turn itself into soup so I had better get to Wegman’s for the rest of the ingredients. Maybe while I am there I will pick up a pound or two of acorns without hats for my mother.





Hollywood Squares – Foreign Edition


When I was at Trinity College, Oxford University, we had all sorts of ways of passing the time when we should have been writing and relieving the stress that we brought on ourselves for not sitting at our desks and writing. We walked or biked to Marks & Spencer’s for snacks then took the long way home by the Isis – really just an alternative name for the Thames which derived from its ancient name, the River Tamesis – snapping photos of nervous punters in wobbly rented boats as we complained about the grad school work load. Every Thursday we went to karaoke night at The Bulldog Pub. On Friday afternoons Staircases Five and Six were filled with the sounds of whooshing slamming doors as we rushed about collecting toiletries and clean laundry and paperbacks, hoping to reach the rail station in time to catch a decent train to London, one that would allow us to buy show tickets and have dinner at a pub on the Strand.

On regularly scheduled sunny weekday afternoons, the porters opened the enormous black wrought iron gates and allowed tourists in to view the quad. Often on these days, we chose to avoid writing by playing Hollywood Squares.

To play the game, people who lived in Staircase Six whose rooms faced the quad hung out their windows on the first, second, and third floors – like the stars in the boxes – and Jon Levin played Peter Marshall asking idiotic literary questions of whoever walked past (from dons to Japanese tourists) who was willing to play with us. Because we had no light boxes under our windows we had to remember whether we were X’s or O’s and some of the most raucous laughter ensued when Patti or I forgot our letter and leaned dangerously far out the jamb to shout “airhead – how did you get in this school, anyhow?” insults at one another. If we liked the looks of the “contestant” we would just lie so he or she would “win.”

It barely mattered as there was no prize for the victor, anyway. And since I lived on the first floor, my room was one of the ones that tourists most peered in after shoving aside the hydrangea bushes so now I was there to explain the velvet-covered window seat, the narrow bed with a stuffed Eeyore on it, a gas fire that only worked with the insertion of pound coins, and the desk piled precariously with books and an open laptop whose cursor cursed silently at me for my sloth.

I left Oxford well over twenty years ago: I had forgotten all about playing Hollywood Squares until I came across a photo of myself framed by the casement window of my residence hall room, dusty velvet drapes shoved to one side and a pale blue wall behind me. The memory makes me laugh even as a lump fills my throat. It was such fun being a grad student. We didn’t know that the future held the breakup of the group of friends, destroyed partly by the responsibilities of adult life – marriages, childbirth, distant employment opportunities – and mostly, by the crack of the murderer’s bullet as it entered the base of Jon’s skull.

But I don’t want to think about that now; I want to smile at the young woman with the tangled blonde hair, wearing a white Gap button-down, framed by pink hydrangeas as she waits patiently to spew forth a comedic answer to Jon’s silly question about Pyramus and Thisbe.

Sir Kenneth, You Really Were a Great Olivier.

8BDDF64A-930C-40E2-AB1D-785CC8789212I have been a fan of Kenneth Branagh since going with our downstairs neighbors to see Dead Again in 1991. His agility impressed us – he played two parts, each from a different era, and directed the film. In 1994 I took my ninth grade class on the subway to a theater to watch his filmed interpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Jamie and I also spent New Years’ Eve 1996 at the Paris Cinema on Fifty-eighth Street watching a midnight showing of his filmed version of Hamlet. I read interviews with him and slowly he became one of those actors that you feel – mistakenly – that you know. That was why when the 84th Academy Awards screeners began filling our mailbox I especially looked forward to seeing My Week with Marilyn. Yes, I knew Michelle Williams was America’s Sweetheart and Eddie Redmayne was an up-and-comer but I wanted to see Branagh play Sir Laurence Olivier. Despite the New York Times’ critic claiming he was miscast, I thought Branagh did a terrific job bringing Olivier to life, enunciating his consonants crisply and standing as upright as a toy soldier as he evinced his displeasure with Marilyn’s theatrical slovenliness.

As we dressed for the annual The Night Before the Oscars Party at the Beverly Hills Hotel, I mused aloud to Jamie what actors and directors might attend the party that night. It was an incredibly strong year for films and performances – The Artist, The Help, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, Warhorse, The Iron Lady, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Hugo, The Ides of March – and I was hoping that I would get the chance to speak to some people whose work I admired. Mostly, I wanted to meet Sir Kenneth Branagh.

Even as I dropped my cellphone, lipstick, and drivers license into my tiny, red, Kieselstein evening bag, I tried to keep my excitement in check. Rather like Lucy Ricardo, my introductions to movie stars had rarely gone well; completely unwittingly I had pissed off both Kitty Carlisle Hart and Rosemary Clooney. Helen Mirren had once looked me up and down at a party and said, “Nice jacket.” At an East Hampton antiques fair Sarah Jessica Parker grew snippy when I refused to sell her a 1940s Bakelite purse I was carrying. The only ones who had ever been remotely nice to me were older men like Roger Moore and Christopher Walken. Well, I thought snapping my purse closed, Kenneth Branagh is older than I am and a man so maybe I could coast a little farther on the minuscule amount of luck I had.

Perhaps because the films were so strong that year, everyone was in a good mood and chose to attend the event. It took four red light series to turn into the hotel’s drive and another half hour to make it to the porte cochere where the valets ran about madly.

There were more photographers than usual and a longer line at the attendance checkpoints than the year before. Even after providing our identification and receiving our admission packets, we were checked again by armed security and ushered politely but firmly past the horde hanging around the lobby scanning the crowd for famous faces.

In the crush of the first vendor room HP employees attempted to stuff flash drives into everyone’s hands and whoever accepted one was herded into a velvet-roped area filled with laptops. Squashed against each other, each participant was led to a laptop and instructed to insert the flash drive. If the screen lit up, you won. Since Jamie has no patience for things like this, he had shoved his admission book and flash drive into my hands but remained behind me in the crowd, probably because it was so dense he couldn’t find his way to the bar where his friends waited.

When my turn came, I faced the laptop and inserted the flash drive. “Ask about the new HP Envy!” flashed across the black screen in kelly-green letters.

“Aw, sorry,” mumbled the HP employee attempting to push me out of the way so someone else could try.

“Wait!” I exclaimed shoving his hands away. “I have my husband’s; he hates to do this kind of stuff.”

Sighing, the HP man pointed me toward the flash drive portal on another machine and upon connection the screen lit up with purple letters exclaiming “Congratulations! You win!”

I turned to the grumpy employee. “I won! Did I really win?”

He peered at the screen. “Yeah, you did,” he said amazedly.

“So what did I win?”

He pointed to the shiny, new, black, all glass HP Envy laptops. “One of these. Here is your voucher. Pick it up on your way out.”

I was delighted and all but overcome with excitement. “Really? That is so cool! I never win anything!” I spun around and faced Jamie and began to jump up and down and beat on his chest singing, “I won! I won! Can you believe it?”

An crisp English/Irish accent responded, “No, I can’t but I am delighted for you.”

My head snapped upward. It was Kenneth Branagh. Overcome with shock and embarrassment I grabbed both of his upper arms and began babbling. “Sir Kenneth? Oh my God, I am so sorry! I thought you were my husband. He was right behind me and all of you are in tuxedos and look alike.”

He pressed his lips together and stared at me.

I was mortified. “Yes, well, I should probably be going . . . Good luck on the Oscar . . . We really enjoyed the film . . .” Feeling like an idiot I released his sleeves and began to turn my burning face away then felt myself stop. No, I had wanted to meet Kenneth Branagh and meet him I had, so I wasn’t going to miss my chance. I turned back. “Sir Kenneth?”

He turned his graying blonde head to peer at me with dark brown eyes.

“I am sorry I pounded on your chest but I am not sorry, too. I have been a fan of your work since Dead Again and I’ve seen nearly everything you’ve done. I really hope you win tomorrow night. You truly embodied Olivier for me.”

He smiled and patted me on the shoulder. “A fan since Dead Again? That’s a long time. Thank you for your good wishes and I am glad you won.”

I was, too. The next night, however, I felt bad because he didn’t win Best Supporting Actor; Christopher Plummer did. Despite this or maybe because he was so gracious to me, I still watch every film Kenneth Branagh makes.




Good Night, Uncle John; Thank You for Your Service.

3B1C1EA1-7DE7-4D50-B5C6-0BDF1700794AA few years ago I was in wandering through Fortnum and Mason collecting goodies for Jamie and me and decided to send some treats to a distant relative living at the Royal Chelsea Hospital, a retirement institution for honorably discharged veterans. During World War II, he had been stationed in Egypt as a sapper, a member of the Corps of Royal Engineers whose duties included breaching fortifications, building and demolishing bridges, laying or clearing land mines, and building/repairing roads and airfields. While wandering the aisles, I phoned Jamie to ask what he thought would make a nice gift hamper, then filled my basket with biscuits, cheeses,  and an excellent single malt Scotch. It soon became heavy and after plonking it next to a till and digging out my wallet, I said, “This is actually two orders; one for me and one for my grand-uncle. I would like the gift delivered, please.”

“Certainly, madam,” the clerk replied as she began ringing up my purchases, now organized into neat clumps on the counter.

After my own biscuits, tea, and cheeses were packed neatly into my reusable burlap carrier bag, the clerk slid a small pad of paper toward me. “Please write your uncle’s address for shipping.”

I pushed the pad back. Everyone knew where the Royal Chelsea was located.

“Oh, it doesn’t need to be shipped, just messengered. He is only in Chelsea.”

Her clear blue eyes met mine. “But that’s only two or three miles away, ma’am. For what the delivery will cost, you could pop into a taxi and take it there yourself.”

I shook my head. “No, he is elderly and I want him to receive a gift. Having me take it isn’t special but your sending it over gift-wrapped will make his day. His week, in fact.”

The clerk began shifting uncomfortably. “Ma’am, I don’t think our delivery department will accept this small an order to go such a short distance.”

I don’t surrender easily. “Oh, please,” I pleaded opening my large, dark eyes even wider. “He is a Chelsea Pensioner and . . . “

Her eyes snapped to attention as they met mine. “He is a Pensioner at the Royal Chelsea Hospital?” she verified.

“Yes,” I affirmed tentatively wondering what exactly that had to do with it.

She reached for the pen and paper previously abandoned on the counter. “What is his name, ma’am?”

I told her and she wrote it on the paper followed by at least fifteen lines of instructions. Then, after tucking half of my groceries neatly back into the basket, she rang a shop bell just like the one that had rested on the counter in my grandparents’ store. Within seconds a floorwalker appeared. She handed him the parcels and instructed him to read the note carefully before packing.

She tilted the handles of my neatly-arranged sack toward me then accepted my credit card for payment.

Curious about what had just occurred, I asked whether she included the delivery charge for the whiskey and cheeses that were headed to Chelsea.

“Oh, no charge for delivering those, ma’am. We value our veterans and if he is a Chelsea Pensioner he has already served his country with distinction and deserves our gratitude.” She smiled and pushed the bag toward me.

“Really?” I was flummoxed since I am from a country that treats it veterans like spoiled food, something once needed but now past its sell-by date.

“Yes, ma’am.”

The package arrived at the Royal Chelsea promptly that afternoon. I know because I received a phone call from my relative thanking me and recounting gleefully how jealous all of his friends were at his good fortune and the envy in their eyes when the messenger handed him the paper-wrapped and beribboned box.

He didn’t live long after that box was delivered, just a few months, succumbing to advanced and inoperable lung cancer. Although he made quite a dent in it, he never got to finish the Scotch but left it to his closest friend, another Pensioner who wrote to me in New York to tell me so, wanting to be sure that I had no objection to his inheriting the Scotch.

I wrote back to him, assuring him that if John wanted him to have the Scotch it was fine with me. It seemed the smallest of thank yous for all he had survived in his life.

I wish that the US veterans who daily risked their lives were treated with such deference.



Passeggiata is Italian for a leisurely evening stroll along a promenade or through the streets of a town or segment of a city. Although I have travelled extensively throughout Italy, the first place I really became aware of it was in Forte Dei Marmi, a lovely seaside village on the Tuscan Riviera. Every night, sometimes before dinner, but generally after, everyone – visitors and locals alike – go out for what my grandfather called an evening constitutional, a meandering wander through the cobbled streets of the town center, peering in shop windows, meeting friends, admiring new outfits, exclaiming over babies, petting dogs, and licking Principe’s homemade gelato coni. It’s easy to do because cars are blocked from streets, allowing the entire pavement to become a pedestrian zone inhabited by people of all ages.

The shoe stores are stuffed with young women trying on new stilettos while their boyfriends stand, smoking, laughing, and jostling each other outside the movie theatre marquee. Nonne e nonni sit on benches placed conveniently under the trees around the pony cart track or near the Museum of Satire and Caricature, gossiping as they watch their nipoti run freely, chasing each other or weary pigeons. Some of the elderly locals prefer to sit or stand on their tiny balconies overlooking the restaurants on the square, sipping small glasses of homemade wine and watching the show, occasionally poking one another and pointing at an especially interesting scene. Others laugh and call down to friends and family, enjoying the opera della strada as much as the participants.

Italians get dressed up for passeggiata – short, tight dresses with sky-high heels and lots of gold jewelry for the women and colorful silk or linen shirts for the men. The tourists are easily spotted since they are usually wearing shorts and sensible shoes accessorized by colorful, polyester fanny packs or rucksacks.

After six knee surgeries I can no longer toddle around in my highest Louboutins all evening, so I usually wear flat sandals. Other than that we do as the Italians do. We walk slowly into town from our hotel by the Tyrrhenian Sea, dawdling at shop windows and chatting with other visitors and locals. We often head to our favorite pizzeria where the owner always squeezes a dime-sized table onto the pavement for us and begin our evening of eating and watching everyone else doing the same. Sometimes we eat outdoors at someplace fancier, like Il Gatto Nero, where the food is different but the process remains identical. After dinner we begin our progress, wandering slowly through the streets, stopping at the newsstand for OK and Hello and The Wall Street Journal, then hoping to be lucky enough to snag a little table at Principe for dessert before we pass by the pony track, silent now of equines and children, then cross the main road and wander home on the ocean side, hand in hand, under the canopy of stars, while the incoming tide sings in basso profundo on the sand.

The Corner of Fifth and Forty-Second is Where the Magic Occurs


“When I think of [my childhood], the picture always rises in my mind of a summer evening . . . and I sitting on my bed, reading . . . “

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

In 1971, during a uniquely sweaty New York City summer when my eleven-year- old whininess appeared to have reached its apex, my frustrated mother arose from the sofa where she was attempting to embroider, strode down the hall to her bedroom, and returned with a well-thumbed paperback that she held out toward me.

“Here. Read this.”

“What is it?”

Forever Amber.”

“I never heard of it.”

My mother raised her right eyebrow in the expression she sometimes got when I unwittingly said something that amused her. “That’s the point,” she commented wryly.

“What’s it about?” I sniffed.

“Read it and you’ll find out.”

Accepting the book with an air of misunderstood martyrdom, I skulked to my bedroom and heaved myself onto my bed. Flipping open the book’s cover with the loudest sigh I could manage, I read:

“Prologue: 1644: The small room was warm and moist. Furious blasts of thunder made the window-panes rattle and lightning seemed to streak through the room itself. No one had dared say what each was thinking — that this storm, violent even for mid-March, must be an evil omen.”

Immediately I was sucked into the life of Amber St. Clare and the world she fought to thrive in. I remained spellbound for days, swiping the thin pages eagerly until there were no more. Bereft, I placed my new best friend on the mattress and stared out the window at the apartment house opposite, completely spellbound by British history. I didn’t move until I heard the locks on the front door slide. Leaping from my bed and skidding along the hall I faced my mother the second she opened the door.

“Is that book true?” I demanded.

“What book?” she asked as she tossed her shopping bag on the bench.

Forever Amber.

My mom took off her shoes, rubbed her feet, and sighed happily. “Yes and no. It’s fiction.”

“I know Amber isn’t real but is all that other stuff real? The English civil war and Charles II and pirates and highwaymen. I know the tobacco in Virginia is real but is all the other stuff?”

My mother considered. “Pretty much. Why don’t we go to The Library this weekend and find out?”

The Library was the main branch of the New York Public Library on Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue with the immense staircase and lions out front; the one that had captivated me since age three when my mother first took me there; the one with the cool, marble entry with split and curved staircases and an aura of worshipful, silent, scholarship so vast that I had trouble distinguishing it from St. Patrick’s farther uptown.

“Yes, can we?” I followed her into the kitchen and dug cereal from the grocery bag. “There must be other books about England, right? Other characters like her? Let’s find them: I want to read them.”

Thus my mother unwittingly began my relationship with the literature that has become my life’s study. From the much-derided (but guilty pleasure) of Kathleen Winsor I moved to Charlotte Bronte, Oscar Wilde, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, William Thackeray and – my personal favorite – Charles Dickens.

I have read all of his books, some multiple times, allowing the stories to permeate my life. As I packed to leave home for college at age sixteen, I likened myself to Pip.   I named a starving stray cat Oliver, as she never seemed to get enough food. Just last week while discussing a family real estate issue wending its way through the New York court system, I asked my father whether his file had grown as large as the Jarndyce’s. While studying at Trinity College, Oxford, I spent hours wandering around Bethnal Green, Limehouse, and Liverpool Street, Spitalfields searching for the lost London of Great Expectations, trying to determine where Fagin’s den must have been, and looking for the inspiration that sparked Our Mutual Friend.

Although I doubt she intended to my mother made books my life. I was the child who bought every book every month shown in the Scholastic Book Club newsletter. My husband knows that a sure way to cheer me is a trip to Bergdorf Goodman’s shoe department followed by tea at The St. Regis and a mosey through a book store. Stacks of books fill our house, so many that I have used the hardbound ones to fashion bookcases to hold the paperback ones. I have multiple editions of identical ones just in case one contains something in a Forward or Afterward that I didn’t know. I have a few autographed ones, a couple of first editions, and several mangled Children’s Book of the Month Club editions of my childhood favorites like Harriet the Spy, It’s Like This, Cat, and Primrose Day. I even have the sweat-stained copy of Valley of the Dolls that my sister swiped from my grandparents’ bookshelf and read under the covers with a flashlight.

Books are among my dearest friends. They are the past, the future, the journeys we long to take, the people we have been, and those we might yet become. They are the people we will never meet and the places we can no longer visit. They are one of the most satisfying reasons for life.

Thank you, Mommy. I love you for lots of reasons, but mostly for teaching me how to read.

Cat Food the Mouse

07804109-4FE6-4BD6-B108-B21A19435A21When you buy an old house it comes with lots of charm – which you wanted – and other things, surprising things, that you either didn’t know you wanted or you don’t want at all. Jamie’s and my lovely Dutch Colonial came with hand-leaded windows, chestnut floors, 2 acres of land, a stray cat, and a family of mice. We kept the cat intentionally and named him Taffy after his beautiful coloring, but wanted the family of rodent squatters to leave.

For starters, it wasn’t a Beatrix Potter, nuclear family – widowed Mrs. Mouse and her adorable, fatherless children; it was as if every relative Mrs. and Mr. Mouse had left back home sailed from Mouse Island to the New World searching for a better life in my basement. Taffy viewed it as a challenge to which he rose like a Hemingway character but he soon grew bored and slithered through the cat door in search of bigger game.

“Get snap mouse traps,” my mother advised matter-of-factly when I told her about all of the extra mouths to feed. “It’s quick.”

“Ohhhhhhh, I don’t think so. I don’t want to kill them. I just want them to leave.”

“Well, they won’t leave on their own. Get traps and don’t be so squeamish. They are vermin. I’ll come over and bait them for you.”

“Bait? You mean lure them in under false pretenses and then kill them? That sounds like something the Mafia would do.”

She sighed and hung up the phone.

“Get glue traps,” the man in the hardware store suggested. “No little decapitated corpses with them.”

“Glue traps?” I asked.

“Yeah, they walk across and get stuck and starve to death.”

I fled from the store in horror. I refused to behave like the Commandant of the prisoner-of-war camp in Bridge Over the River Kwai, rodents or not. I called PETA who sold me tiny, plastic Havahart traps which I baited with peanut butter crackers. At first it worked and I caught two or three, but like a Merry Melodies cartoon, the mice soon figured out that if one held the door open, the second could grab the cracker which they could then share.

Jamie came home one day with the advice that we put Mason jars of Karo syrup around. The mouse would smell it, fall in, and then drown.

“Drown them?” I gasped.

“Well, yeah, but they drown in sweet stuff which they love.”

“That sounds like something Mengele would do. Who suggested that?”

“My sister, Margot. She said it works great.”

“She would,” I muttered not quite under my breath.

As I couldn’t bring myself to do anything proactive I ignored the problem for weeks, hoping it would resolve itself. Then one day, opening book boxes, I found a cozy mouse nest created by shredding my autographed copy of Karl Lagerfeld’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. Furious I ran upstairs where Jamie was watching the news.

“The little bastards ate my book!” I shrieked to him. “Now they are going to die!” Jamie muted the tv and tilted his head to face me. He was pursing his lips and looking unconvinced. “You won’t kill them,” he said.

“Yes, I will!” I assured him. “When they start chewing books they have come to the end of the line.”

In my fury, I poured Karo pale corn syrup into a Mason jar. It came about halfway up, enough for a mouse to swim in and then get stuck. I put it in the basement pantry cupboard and closed the door.

By the next morning, however, I regretted my rash actions. Before I left for work I checked the Karo but no one had fallen in. “Good, Margot is wrong. It probably doesn’t work,” I said to Taffy. “I will wash out this jar after work just in case.”

But that night I forgot to check; I didn’t remember at all until a few days had passed and I opened the pantry to get paper towels. Immediately I knew something was wrong. Pushing aside the peanut butter I saw a tiny face with panic-stricken dark eyes staring at me. A mouse was caught in the syrup.

“Oh, no!” I howled, dropping the roll. I pulled out the jar and the tiny grey animal struggled to no avail in the sticky mess. “Oh, I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” I exclaimed to the mouse. “I will get you out of there right away.”

I dashed up the steps to the kitchen and grabbed a spatula from a drawer then opened the back door. I thought I would release the mouse outside in the driveway.

I sat on the curb and ran the spatula around the edges of the jar in an attempt to free the mouse’s tiny pink feet, but the syrup had begun to dry and he was stuck fast. I couldn’t slide the spatula between the paw and the glass and I feared cutting off his little foot. Imagining him with a Lilliputian wooden cane like Tiny Tim, I immediately stopped scraping to think of something else. Watching the terrified animal stare at me punched holes in my heart and I knew I had to save it. Putting down the jar, I returned to the kitchen and filled a pitcher with hot, soapy water. Returning outside with the pitcher and rubber gloves, I poured water a tablespoon or so at a time into the jar hoping it would melt the rigid syrupy rime.

Eventually the mouse’s struggling, combined with the softening syrup, yielded results. He was free. I spilled him onto the grass just as Jamie pulled into the driveway. I didn’t look up as I watched the mouse attempt to flee; he wasn’t going anywhere because the dirt was sticking to his syrupy feet and making Mafia-like cement shoes. I picked him up by the tail and dipped his feet into the hot soapy water.

Jamie sauntered across the tarmac and peered over my shoulder. “What are you doing?” he asked then seeing the pitcher and the rodent he exclaimed in shock, “Are you washing a mouse?”

“Yes, I have to,” I snapped. “Your stupid sister’s stupid idea nearly killed him.”

Mercifully Jamie refrained from stating that killing him had been the point and sat down on the curb next to me and petted Taffy who had sat down next to him and watched me intently. “Look, Taf, your mother is washing cat food.”

“Don’t tell him that! I am trying to save this mouse not prepare an appetizer for Taffy.”

“Why are you washing it?”

“When I released him from the jar the syrup was still clinging to him and it picked up so much dirt it’s like he’s wearing snowshoes. He can’t get away. Take Taffy inside. I don’t want him catching this mouse.”

Jamie picked up the cat and disappeared into the house. In about ten minutes I heard the screen door slam, then  footsteps and felt Jamie’s shadow over me.

“How is Cat Food?” he asked, gesturing to the mouse, still frozen in fear or, more likely, still stuck to the ground.

“He won’t go away. He’s frightened and stressed. I am afraid something will kill him out here.”

“Hold on.” Jamie turned toward the back door and entered the house. He returned in about ten minutes carrying a plastic shoebox. “Here,” he said handing it to me.

I looked inside; it was filled with shredded newspaper and a crumbled Chips Ahoy. “Put him in there and stick it in the garage. He can rest until he feels better then he will leave when he is ready.”

It was the best idea I could imagine. “Come on, Cat Food,” I said lifting the mouse by his tail and placing him gently into the pile of newspaper. His whiskers twitched as he smelled the cookie.

I handed the box to Jamie who walked down the sloped driveway into the garage. He placed the box gently on the work bench, turned, and closed the door.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go get burgers. Cat Food will leave when he’s ready.”

“What if he doesn’t?” I asked slamming the BMW’s door.

“Then he’ll live out there with all of the other critters,” he replied starting the ignition.

I never saw Cat Food again. Looking in the box a few days later I saw that both cookie and mouse were gone. I haven’t trapped a mouse since. We had the house’s foundation dug away and restuccoed and the mouse problem disappeared.


Mrs. Cella Builds Her Dream House or Okay, So I’m Not Mr. Green Jeans


Jamie and I bought our 1929 Dutch colonial farmhouse in 1994, just before I graduated from NYU with a Masters degree in British Literature. We had to buy a house; there were so many chairs in our apartment it looked like the back room of Christie’s the week before a nineteenth century English furniture auction.

We approached the home-buying endeavor the way you would expect two city kids who had watched This Old House would do . . . with no sense of reality. No problem was too large to overcome, no repair too great to be considered. As our friend, Joseph Verlezza commented wryly, “You two are going to end up with a half-million dollar Handyman’s Special.” I chewed my thumbnail and considered his remark; I hoped not since Jamie wasn’t handy. In fact, when it came to domestic chores, he was damned near useless.

While Joseph wasn’t exactly right, neither was he completely wrong. Elements of the house we chose were beautiful – hand-leaded window panes inside and out, including in the garage windows; hand-laid chestnut floors; two acres with a pond, fruit trees, and a two hundred year old oak tree shading the roof – and it was these that prompted Jamie to bid before we had ever seen the interior.

I poked him as he leaned over the trunk of the real estate man’s Rolls to sign the paperwork. “What if the inside is horrible?” I hissed. He shrugged. “We’ll gut it,” he replied as though I should have known that without asking.

After our January closing, we grasped the keys in our sweaty palms and, pushing open the solid oak door, we finally noticed that his flippant remark might prove prescient and Joseph may have been more correct than he knew. There were lots of awful things inside our outwardly charming house. Parts of it looked as if the original owners had lost interest in maintenance around 1968. The living room walls were covered in green flocked wallpaper. At least it had been green flocked at some point; now it was mostly fleur-di-lis shaped dust bunnies that matched the ones created by the rapidly decomposing sage-colored carpet. The dining room contained three doorways, leaving what little wall-space there was papered in Wedgewood blue dotted with gold metallic birds in trees. Sadly, the woodwork was painted to match.

The impressive curved staircase had a huge Palladian window on the landing but we hadn’t noticed it because it was smothered by graying sheers, heavy green and white brocade thermal drapes, and a massive wooden valance. And the bathrooms . . . oh, the bathrooms. The one on the first floor was completely mint green, tile, fixtures, floor, ceiling – and none of them the same mint green – but that one could have been a contender for an award from House Beautiful when compared to the one upstairs. The second had the same styling (all one color with no identical shades) only it was pink from floor to ceiling. Enclosing the tub was a shower door with a swan etched into the glass. I called Jamie and pointed to the door. “This has to go.”

He stifled a grin. “I thought you liked swans.”

“I do like them in the pond. This is ugly.”

Eventually we did as Jamie had predicted and gutted most of the house. A series of dumpsters entered and left our driveway over the next year as the wallpaper and carpet exited in strips and the painters and floor refinishers trundled in laden with supplies. We ordered Raymond Enkeboll crown molding in the oak leaf and acorn design for the living room and in egg and dart for the dining room and entry hall. We closed some walls and broke through other ones. A specialty company covered the dining room walls in buttery yellow Italian cotton.

While the interior was undergoing its transformation by experts, I began digging in the garden. Some daffodils peered out at the chilly spring weather and fat, glossy leaves unfurled on ancient peonies. Every day a few other things poked their stems hopefully through the soil.

Attached to the back of the house was a cold frame so I bought some seeds and, after planting them in peat pots, placed them inside. Spears of something red were coming up in the bed around it, so I mixed some Miracle-Gro with water and fed them along with everything else reaching for the sun.

One afternoon Joseph, a florist, visited to help me with the garden. Catching sight of the now robust and green spears by the cold frame, he mumbled, “Dear God!” under his breath.

“What?” I asked swiveling my head.

“That!” he pointed. “It’s huge.”

“I know.” I beamed.

“I have never seen it so big before.”

“I have been feeding it,” I answered proudly.

It was Joseph’s turn to snap his head back to stare at me. “Why?” he cried.

“So it’s big,” I replied lamely. “What is it, anyway? It looks like some kind of bamboo. Will it get flowers?”

“It’s a weed!” Joseph shouted. “It’s a noxious weed! It broke through the poured concrete floor of the garage in my weekend house in Hastings-on-Hudson.”

“What?” It was my turn to shriek. “It’s a weed? Why would a weed be growing so close to the house?”

“I don’t think it knew that was where it was coming up but we need to dig it out before it breaks through your foundation!”

Grabbing spades we began digging in the soft soil. After four hours had passed and we had dug down about three feet for the entire length of the house I collapsed next to the trench and wailed. We were still nowhere near the bottom of the plant.

“Joseph!” I howled. “Where is the root cap on this thing?”

Joseph wiped his hand across his forehead and peered into the trench. “Melbourne?” he suggested.

“I cannot do any more,” I whined pitifully. “Let’s just pour bleach on it and bury it. Maybe it’ll die.”

“I doubt it. It’ll probably get bigger. It’s relentless.”

After breaking off all that we could and sprinkling the remains with Clorox, we buried it. I would’ve given it the Last Rites but I suspected it wasn’t really dead.

I was right; it has been twenty-two years and descendants of my bumper crop of Relentless Weed continue to snoop stealthily through the soil every year. And every year I try to dig it out but I dig less and give up sooner. It’s gonna outlive me.