Archive for February, 2014

Hen, Wrens & Blackbirds

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014



Hens, Wrens & Blackbirds


I’ve had it with every woman in the Northeast dressing like hens, wrens and blackbirds.  It’s winter, dammit. Not a Daguerreotype. I was out much this week with my sister “birds” in social situations –– at the symphony, at restaurants, at a play. Every woman I saw was dressed ‘tastefully’ (read — in neutral, gray and black), and looked chic if tedious. Nary a color that Benjamin Moore, Pantone, Crayola or even Martha Stewart would have any fun naming.

I’m not even touching the concept of the ubiquitous and very comforting black sleeping bags masquerading as coats we are all wearing from November to March. Those are just practical. But the clothes under the coats? Boring. I was in LA recently, out to dinner at an hot urban spot and I kept wondering what made the room seem so lively. And then I got it: women were wearing colors! Fun colors. Unsafe colors. Even, (heaven forefend), lively prints! And a few months before I was in India where women who would consider our worst day a moment of Nirvana were gorgeous in hot pinks, shimmering purples, brilliant greens and blues as they trudged back and forth on their exhausting daily rounds.

I qualify as a wren too. I feel safe and reasonably chic, and certainly in uniform when the most exciting hue I am wearing is a daring shade of charcoal. And I also acknowledge that as a somewhat clunky adult woman, black is the most flattering, slimming “color” I can wear. You know what I am talking about. You know that the black dress in your size never hangs on the rack long enough at a boutique or department store while the reds, greens, purples and blues are always available as a markdown.

Somehow we women are have become as stuck in our uniforms as the men! But most men aren’t like women about clothes. As an example: I’ve asked many men if they feel weird when another man shows up at a meeting in exactly the same khakis, blue shirt, blue blazer and whatever tie they are wearing. The universal (though anecdotal) answer is no. They feel like the got the dress code right. But if two women discover that they are wearing the same black, gray, or whatever dress, it’s an embarrassment requiring some kind of ironic, “you’ve got good taste” joke to vaporize the awkwardness. I personally think that is the secret behind Eileen Fisher’s success. There is an unspoken agreement among women of a certain age, that it is okay if we all wear the same basic, boring, safe clothes as long as we wear them with some tiny whimper of fashion panache – a scarf, earrings. Just a touch of personality layered over the easy-going invisibility. Just enough to let the three of us clustered together at the lunch or the cocktail party feel like we belong in the same frame.  I get it. I’m not a fashion plate; I’m not even a fashion saucer. Being in uniform makes me feel safe. And seems to say to any one who sees me, “okay, she read the rule book.”  It is sad that all feel most secure and taken more seriously when semi-invisible.

The Hen, Wren & Blackbird fashion rulebook will be hard to change. Maybe it will require some sort of game theory revolution where everyone decides all at once that wearing all black head to toe isn’t cool. Not chic. Not sophisticated and New York-y.

So here’s my plea. We are heading in to March and spring isn’t far behind. Welcome the return of color. Stand out a little. In India they say that pink is the Indian navy blue. (Even navy blue would help.). Start with a scarf if a top or a dress is too big a step. Welcome back the wonderful world of color.




A Day of small accomplishments

Saturday, February 1st, 2014


A day of small accomplishments

I started the day so well. Before nine, I finally ironed off the candle wax on the tablecloth that had been in the laundry basket since October.  For good measure I ironed the cotton dress from August and the 12 linen napkins from Christmas dinner too. Time is short, finished projects are few. That’s the beauty of ironing. It can get done.

The real task of the day was harder. I am beginning the process of removing my mother’s treasure trove of furniture from her home. Partitioning it here, and there, and to nowhere at all. It hurts me that my mother’s wonderful tall chest-on-chests and armoires, her dark walnut dining tables and Sheraton occasional tables have no true market value in today’s era of minimalism and IKEA mobility.  Today was the first day the moving men came and actually started breaking up the careful if idiosyncratic symmetry of my mother’s 60 years of antique and whimsical curation.  Gold mirrors galore and Persian rugs. Masks from Kenya, stacks of Antiques in America and a pretty complete collection of The New Republic. And every single kilt and Fair Isle sweater my sister and I ever wore. I found a whole drawer of gray knee socks left over from our school uniform days. Right next to the drawer that still had each of her three kids report cards, starting with kindergarten. (Revelation: my first grade teacher’s comments tell me that I was doomed to be a problem from the get-go. “Frequently talks out of turn”.) 

We’ve done all the right things so far as a family. Our wonderful new professional friend, Doug Stinson who seems to know what to call every finial, and who painted every odd picture, has appraised all. The five grandchildren have come in and marked their choices with a rainbow of painter’s tape.  My tape color is new-grass green. My nephew Henry’s is powder blue. Katie is purple; Evi is evergreen, Nick is yellow and Carter is orange. Trash and give-aways are red. There is a lot of red.

I’ve been rationing the time I can spend in my mother’s apartment. She never moved from the day my father and she came back from WW II with my brother as a baby. Over sixty-plus years, she collected and collected, and never edited. Which means that her house is sort of archaeology of what people liked in the second half of the 20th century.  I can sit in the living room and remember how we kids played jacks on the rug. The painful piano lessons and the family trios and quartets, supervised by our mean music teacher, Miss Irma Clarke. My sister and me with our Ginny dolls on the floor of the library. The time my brother fired a Beebe gun through the window by mistake. I remember my mom gold-leafing the mirror over the mantelpiece and taking down the huge portrait of FDR, which had dominated the room before the mirror came to stay. I look at the ashtrays and can smell my father’s after dinner Garcia Y Vega cigars.  My job was to keep the little thing in the cigar box moist so the cigars didn’t dry out.  That and washing the table after our noisy and messy family dinners. I’ve been mourning and remembering for the last four months.

But today was different. It started to be okay. And my mother’s passing is helping me through a passage of my own. I decided that I’d rather reclaim some of the “priceless/worthless” antiques and bring them to my house. So, I bit the bullet. My grown daughters aren’t coming home. They visit and are generous with their time. But there isn’t much need to maintain their bedrooms as shrines. They don’t work so well as shrines anyhow now that king long ago replaced the chaste twin beds sized whoppers that accommodate husbands, lovers and children. A king bed looks a little funny with a toy chest at the foot. Like an anklet on an elephant.

So back to today.  I spent last week tearing out all the white IKEA-style built in desks and armoires in each kid’s room, and discovering how much painting and patching needs to happen when you unbolt built-ins that have been in place for a couple of decades. Everything my kids have left behind is piled on the aforementioned king beds. Painting is underway and white and pink and powder blue are giving way to warm sesame and summer melon.  One room is getting the peachy velvet-y fainting couch and a tall dark walnut chest. The other bedroom is getting an elegant white settee and my father’s leather topped bill-paying desk.  (Okay, I’m not so sure about the desk. We might go with the French inlaid secretary bookcase instead.)

But that’s not the point. Furniture can play musical chairs. The house is big.  The point is: I am moving on and so is the furniture. New rooms for guests and my girls when they visit. A new look at the objects my mom loved so much. Thank you mom. For all of it and for the big ugly chest-on-chests that I promise to try to love.