Back story: Over lunch with friend Irene, Femme Banale groused about all the weddings and big birthday celebrations on her banal calendar. A bit of silence … Irene processed a gracious response. “May there always be simcha.”
PASS OLD CLOTHES ON—Clothes that you are not wearing will do someone good if you pass them along to those who need a little help. Don’t keep them thinking you will have them remade, only to find that you kept them so long that they are way out of date and not much use to anyone. —Janet D. Myers, 2002 Household Helps (1941)
Funny how this advice from 1941 could have easily appeared in any of today’s myriad books helping us get rid of our stuff. Femme Banale likes Janet D. Myer’s advice because it is straightforward and practical…period. No therapeutic talk of liberation, leave-taking rituals, or the psychology of why we hang on to old blouses with shoulder pads.
It’s Spring. Time to clean. Let’s start with our clothes. Femme Banale applies what she calls the “Oprah rule”—if you haven’t worn something in a year, it’s time for it to go. (This is based on an Oprah episode in which an organization expert helped Gayle clean out her closet.) Go ahead try it. Maybe set a goal for yourself: I’m going to fill 2 shopping bags, or I’m going to get rid of 10 items.
Of course, there are special pieces that you’ll want to keep. But be careful on the slippery slope of rationalization. I could wear this to an ABBA party! I don’t think so.
Anna McNeill Whistler, aka Whistler’s Mother, is in Chicago for a short stay at the Art Institute.
“I don’t think he liked his mother much,” a visitor says. But he did! James McNeill Whistler was close to her and relied on his mother to help with his business affairs. She entertained Southern-style his coterie of Bohemian friends. When Anna moved from America to James’s London home, he dispatched his mistress to another apartment. Ma Whistler was clearly the lady of the house.
Art historians talk about how this painting of an older woman in dark Victorian garb became an enduring symbol of motherhood. More than 150 years separate her and me but we share this: our adult children are still our children.
Mothers are forever there in either the foreground or background.
May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.
Excerpt from Upstream, Oliver’s2016 collection of essays.
Is anyone named Betty anymore? Maybe the name will make an ironic comeback, but when my Aunt Betty died at the age of 102, the last Betty left the world.
102 years old! She got there with all the right cards stacked in her actuarial favor: no husband, no booze, strong faith, walked to work every day, the presence of a large network of family and friends. Her modest life as a factory worker in a Midwestern tavern town was the flipside of the urbane aunt with a martini glass in hand. Yet, to me—a girl growing up in the 1960s—Betty presented possibilities. She had a job and drove a Rambler.
Was she a feminist? Such a label had little meaning in her world. But Betty, with steady determination, made a stand for what was hers. When her parents were in arrears with tuition payments, the Catholic high school she attended said that Betty wouldn’t receive her high school diploma upon graduation; the school would, however, award a diploma to her twin brother. What’s a girl need a diploma for anyway? How little they knew of her will. With steely resolve she saved her factory job earnings, later returned to the school to pay her tuition, and received her diploma. I like to imagine the scene of her handing a money order over to a startled clerk in the school office who would likely defer in hushed consult with the priest-administrator. Betty settled the score.
Quiet. That was her style as she walked through the noisiness of life. If one of her brothers or sisters was in a tough spot, she was always there to help. She paid her own way, never bragged, in fact, she didn’t talk much at all.
Once in a while she would open up. In her nineties, she surprised me with a story about the long-ago boss who would invite young girls to his office and sometimes to his cabin. Betty knew what he was up to and wasn’t going to have any part of it. This was the closest she ever came to talking about sex or men within its context. Men were generally brothers or nephews or priests—some simply tolerated, others admitted to the circle of her kindness.
Childless, Betty was the matriarch to many and fairy godmother to generations. Every new baby in the family received a hand-knit blanket, followed in time by hats, sweaters, ponchos, stuffed animals, slippers, and one-off pieces of her own invention. A 3-by-5 index card with our birthdate assured us a place in her permanent record, which meant at least a birthday card and Christmas box of treats. I received a birthday card with a five-dollar bill well into my fifties.
The furious abundance of her “Maker” skills extended well beyond knitting. Betty grew and canned tomatoes and green beans. She made her own fruit jam. Before Christmas, her small kitchen became a production site yielding commercial proportions of cookies, candy, and popcorn balls—all to be packed in tins and shipped to scores of relatives local and far away. The arrival of Betty’s Christmas box via UPS was cause for uncontained excitement when my sons were little.
They are mostly gone now—Betty and her generation of women who crafted ornaments out of clothes pins and walnut shells in the church basement. Who lit candles with whispered intentions for someone’s safe travel or a deeper secret appeal. I miss them. I miss her.
Even experienced home cooks face the what-to-make-for-dinner block. Baked potatoes have long been a go-to answer at my house. They are the perfect vehicle for your favorite toppings or leftovers. Plus they offer a menu item easily adjustable to household size. Make a party out of it with a toppings bar.
My husband prefers sweet potatoes, but I’m a straight-up Idaho lover. No matter—they bake well together. Below is a recent take on baked potatoes using leftover beet and bean chili.
Several years ago I sat at a large conference table with the CEO of our organization and new hires like me as part of our orientation. The CEO asked us each to share with the group our name, title, and passion. Passion? It was one of those tired icebreakers that made me want to curl fetal. What if you don’t have a passion?
There were the usual passionate travelers and marathon runners. The most interesting answer came from a young woman whose passion was building wood furniture with her boyfriend. They had just completed a headboard. When it came my turn, I said that I did not have a passion but did have many interests, which I listed. (CEO thought bubble: “trouble.”)
If you have a passion—a deeply focused interest in something—that’s wonderful. If you do not, that’s okay too; you don’t need a passion to be happy or fulfilled or accomplished or any of those things you’re supposed to be. There’s so much out there in the world to enjoy. Here’s a list of my interests or things that bring me satisfaction and happiness: sharing a good meal with my husband and kids, practicing yoga, learning to play the guitar, and wandering an old city neighborhood.