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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Reading Round-up: December

December was so jam-packed with activity that my reading time suffered.  Hence I have only a few titles to share with you, but they were all great reads.

The Anxiety Disease by David Sheehan 

was first on my list.  I have several family members who suffer from anxiety.  Some suffer only occasionally, others suffer greatly and frequently.  I wanted to learn more about anxiety, so that I could be more understanding and maybe even be of help.  Though this book was written in 1983, I found it to be so very insightful and helpful. It looks at anxiety, not as a psychological disorder, but rather as a disease.  As such, it can then be treated and controlled.  Dr. Sheehan discusses the various stages of the disease, and believe me, he is spot on.  He also offers hope and suggestions for dealing with the disease.  If you or someone you love is trying to deal with anxiety, I highly recommend you read this book.  It gives you insight into the helplessness of the victim, and helps you gain empathy.  The disease is not as simple as "just get over it", anxiety is as real as any other disease and should be treated as such.

Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella

is also connected to the theme of anxiety.  Audrey, the main character, is trying to gain control of her severe anxiety and panic attacks, brought on by severe bullying incidents in school.  Audrey is in the midst of recovering through the aid of a good therapist, a very supportive family, and a new accepting friend.  Audrey makes a complete break from the hurtful incident and is home for now, but hopes to soon attend a new school.  Though she still has setbacks ( she hides from anyone who comes to the door) she is bravely taking steps to re-enter the real world.  She wears sunglasses 24/7 in order to feel comfortable around people; she needs this bit of symbolic distance to feel safe.  The book provides a great look into the anguish  and struggles of one who is dealing with severe anxiety and of the effects it has on those who love her.  In this age of social media that seems to promote a callousness brought on by a feeling of anonymity, it is important to remember that words do hurt and can do immense damage.

Two Across by Jeff Bartsch

This book made my list this month because I've become intrigued by crossword puzzles. Every morning since we have been retired, Bob complete's the Star Ledger's crossword puzzle as we sip our coffee and munch on some breakfast.  I tend to check emails while he works the puzzle but am sometimes called in as back up to use my computer, when when he gets stuck on a stubborn clue.  So when I saw this title in the library, I snatched it up.  A good choice - a very different plot and engaging characters.  Stanley and Vera, two brainiacs, meet at the National Spelling Bee, where they end up as co-winners defeating the list of most challenging words. The two form a somewhat weird bond as they meet again and again at yearly reunions.  Their relationship takes a even stranger twist when Stanley talks Vera into a "fake" marriage.  The relationship is often tortured by unrequited love and the two spend more time apart than together communicating through complex crossword puzzles they write and which are published in major papers such as the NY Times and Washington Post.  Besides the presence of interesting characters and a clever plot, Two Across taught me quite a bit about the construction of crossword puzzles.

Vintage by David Baker

was by far my favorite book this month.  This book has much to endear the reader to it:

  • a onetime bestselling author who has lost his way
  • two devoted daughters who adore their father 
  • a father who brings his daughters love and warmth along with the lovely meals he teaches them to prepare
  • a love for great wine
  • a scoundrel who indulges in excess of drinking and womanizing  
  • a mystery of a legendary spectacular vintage from 1943, stolen by the Nazis and a frantic search to find it
  • a search of a lost soul to finally find what is truly important in life (hint - he finds it!)
  • one of the best endings I've read in a long time
That's it for this month.  What books would you recommend for starting off a new  year?  I'd love to hear some suggestions so I can start a new reading list for 2016!  Happy New Year every one.  May it be the best one yet.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Keeper of the Past

As you age and enter that lovely winter era of life, when the aches increase along with the wrinkles and white hair, believe it or not there are some perks. One of those perks, in my opinion, is that you become the keeper of your family's history.  You are called upon to remember traditions, to remember family members long gone, to keep the family's history from slipping away into oblivion, to pass it on to the next generation.  The Christmas season is the perfect time to step up and fulfill this responsibility.  Reminiscing is delightful, but also, as you can imagine, a bit bittersweet.

As our parents died, Bob and I inherited a few items from each family.  One of those items was a collection of Christmas ornaments.  A few years ago, I decided to dedicate a special tree as the "vintage tree". This tree would be where we placed the ornaments from our parents' trees.

As we hung the old ornaments, tender memories of Christmas's past were shared between us.  Our girls, however, were grown and were not around when we decorated this tree, so they missed many of the stories.  So, this year, inspired by a Pinterest post I had seen, I added vintage family photos to the tree.  I was hoping these photos of long ago family members, some of whom they never met or even heard of, would inspire the telling of Christmas's past and loved traditions, and the stories of beloved relatives.

Now, along side some of our favorite ornaments from our childhoods, there are photos of some of our favorite people.

And even our beloved pets:

I'm hoping these photos will trigger fresh conversations about our family, rekindle dormant memories, and encourage my girls to cherish that constant, unquestioning love that only comes from family.

Enjoy the blessings of the season!  I'd love to hear about any new traditions you are starting.  What ways do you try to honor your family's past?

Friday, December 4, 2015

November Reading Round-up

"I'm late! I'm late! I'm late for a very important date!"  What the heck happened to November?  I was just making preparations for Thanksgiving and the next thing I know it's December. YIKES!

So, I apologize for getting my November reading list out late, but truly, someone must have wiped a week out of my calendar. I'm sure everyone is feeling the same  at this time of year. So much to do; so little time to do it all.  And to top it all off, half of the books I read this month were duds.  Here's my review:

The Mapmaker's Children by Sarah McCoy

This historical fiction book was one of my favorite reads this month. The story flips back and forth between Civil War era and present day America.  It follows the story of Sarah Brown, daughter of John Brown of Harper's Ferry fame. Sarah was a talented artist who painted secret code maps for the Underground Railroad--a little known fact. These maps were thought to sometimes be hidden in the heads of dolls to be carried by the children of escaping slaves.  As Sarah's story unfolds, so does the twin plot line of Eden, a modern day woman who is emotionally ravaged by years of failed attempts to conceive a child.  Eden and her husband try to restart their life in a new home in West Virginia near Harper's Ferry.   This Civil War era house just happens to be the very home where Sarah stayed while her father was executed after his attack on Harper's Ferry.  When Eden unearth's a doll in a secret root cellar in the home, the secrets of the house begin to unravel.  I loved the coincidences the author creates between the two time periods and how the author shows that the actions of one generation can affect the lives of many generations to follow.

Bed and Breakfast by Lois Battle

I chose this book because of the title.  I just love bed and breakfast places. Bob and I have a favorite B&B that we patronize whenever we visit Cape May.  It's called Inn at the Park, and it is owned and operated by two very lovely people, Jay and MaryAnn.  Unfortunately, they just announced their retirement and will no longer be hosting their B&B after January.  Just wanted to give them a shout out and to let the blogworld know what truly welcoming and sweet people they are.  Here are just a couple of shots of them and their beautiful Victorian home:

MaryAnn, an avid tennis player at age 70, was dressed for a big tourney that was to take place immediately after breakfast.  You go girl!

The parlor where hors d'oeuvres are served to guests every day at 5:00.

Back to the book... the setting for Bed and Breakfast is Hilton Head, South Carolina.  The main character is Josie, a close-to-seventy-year-old woman who tenaciously runs a B&B that she insisted she and her husband buy after years of nomadic wandering as her husband "Bear" pursued his military career.  Josie has been widowed for many years when the story opens and the reader can see how much the B&B gives meaning to her life.  The plot is complicated by the sibling rivalries of her three grown daughters. Life is never dull when you have nosy guests, and even nosier friends, not to mention a sister who lives next door.  A fun read.

Ruth's Journey:  the Authorized Novel of Mammy from Gone With the Wind by Donald McCaig

This sounded like a fascinating story, but was such a disappointment.  I couldn't get past the first two chapters.  The setting begins in the Caribbean Islands of the slave trade days where the French are unsuccessfully trying to quell a slave uprising.  The graphic violence and history book reporting was too much.  I wanted to get into the mind of Mammy and hear her thoughts of Tara and the O'Hara's but that never happened...I peaked at the ending (Oh Horrors, yes I did)
 and still didn't see any glimpses of the Mammy of Gone With the Wind. 

Lesson Plans by Suzanne Greenberg

This one also made the loser list. I thought I would be so interested in a book whose characters decided to homeschool their children, but the two families who were the focus of the story were so messed up and dysfunctional, I just couldn't stand reading any more about them! The main character was a father who mourned the loss of his liberal, activist lifestyle of his youth after being forced to do the adult thing, like go to work and support his family. So, since wifey made big bucks, he decides to quit the workforce and homeschool his three girls in a completely free environment.  Just imagine what that looks like...Montessori in hyper-drive!  Kids with no limits, no schedules, no plans!!! comment.  Then there was the other homeschool novice, a mother (recently separated from hubby) who has become so overprotective of her highly allergic and asthmatic daughter that she might as well have put the girl in one of those John Travolta Bubble Boy glass domes.  This woman seriously needed help, and hubby just walks out because he can't cope with his wife's phobias.  Hello?? there is a child here in need of an education and guidance...Step up man and take charge!  I had to leave these guys to muddle to the end of the book alone. I just don't have patience for irresponsible adults. I was especially disappointed because I really think homeschooling can work for many kids and was hoping this book would paint that picture for me...alas not to be.

That's it for November...gotta get shoppin'...Let me know what you have been reading.  Take a stab at reading my two duds, maybe you can change my mind.  Any disagreements about my reviews are welcome too.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

You Want To Change What?!

Retirement is all about change. It's much like changing jobs, except the new job isn't really work at all.  Many people struggle with change. Change is uncomfortable.  My husband, for example, hates change.  If I rearrange a room or even a drawer, he grumbles around complaining...things were fine just the way they were.  I have to smile because these changes will soon become the familiar and all the newness and strangeness will dissipate. I enjoy change, and I guess I have my mom to thank for that.  When we were growing up, we moved thirteen times.  One year, I changed school three times!  It was a tough year, as I was learning the times tables and every school was in a different place.  But, I quickly learned you either go with the flow or be miserable.  So, I grew to embrace change.

Change touches every aspect of our lives, not just as we enter retirement.  As the holiday season has begun, I again am faced with opportunities to embrace change.  My small 4-person family has now morphed to include two wonderful sons-in-law.  Our family traditions at holiday gatherings needed to be adjusted. At Thanksgiving, my youngest daughter and her new husband would not be able to share the main meal with us.  So, in order to include them in part of the Thanksgiving dinner I started a new tradition I called The Blessings Jar.

 Instead of going around the table and sharing what we were thankful for, I gave everyone little slips of paper to write down their blessings and then they were to fold them and place them in the mason jar that was the centerpiece on the table. We wouldn't tell what we wrote, at least not yet.  When my daughter and her husband arrived for dessert, they were able to jot down their blessings and add them to the jar.  I think we will read the blessings on New Year's Day or whenever we are all together at the start of the year and exchange our blessings for New Year Resolutions!  Thus a new tradition has begun.  See...change can be fun.

Right on the heels of Thanksgiving is Christmas Tree time.  When my girls were little we always had a great time picking out the tree.  Sometimes we would go out into the fields of a tree farm and cut our perfect tree down ourselves, and sometimes we found freshly cut ones at the local tree farm up the road. It was always a fun family time. But now that my girls were picking out their own trees, it was time to reinvent the tree ritual...well kind of.  We've decided that the weekend of Thanksgiving is the perfect time to get our trees and the perfect way to get them is TOGETHER.  My newest son-in-law brings the truck and all six of us meet at the tree farm to choose our trees.

Of course we give advice freely:)  Once the trees are in the back of the truck we start the drop offs.  It's nice to see the trees going in the stands and centered and watered. Of course we give advice freely again :)

I'm thinking next year we need to expand the tradition a bit more.  We all didn't get to go to everyone's house because as the trees were dropped off we left that couple behind to start their trimming.  Wouldn't it be fun to have a progressive dinner?!!! GENIUS! The first drop off point could be appetizers, the second the main course and finish the drop offs with dessert at the third home.  Meanwhile, trees would be in their stands, lights would be on their trees, and fun would be had  by all.  I love change don't you? I can feel my family's eyes rolling right now.  They don't embrace change as happily as I do.

As the year rushes to its end, it's a good time to think about change and how we greet it when it finds us.  I've found it not such a scary prospect if you try to find ways to welcome the changes around you, even if you liked the way things used to be.

Have a blessed and joyous holiday season as you go about your family traditions.  What are your thoughts on change?  I'd love to hear other perspectives on the subject.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Saying Goodbye to Autumn

I'm pretty certain that there are cold and snowy days right around the corner.
Thanksgiving is next week.  November is flying. Christmas is coming up fast.  So this past Monday when the weatherman predicted warm and sunny, Bob and I hitched the bikes to the back of the Jeep one last time before we dismantled the bike rack and tucked the bikes into the garage until spring.

We wanted to try a new venue and settled on Duke Farms, (as in Duke University and Doris Duke).  Her estate covers 2,700 acres, and is populated by lush landscapes  and nine man-made lakes such as this one we stopped to view along our way:

JB Duke, Doris's father, made his millions in tobacco as head of the American Tobacco Company.  But JB Duke also had a love of nature and a special soft spot for creating dramatic landscapes and using hydro electric power.  He had the nine lakes dredged on his vast property and even installed huge waterfalls. As we tooled along the narrow roads that wound through the park-like farm, we spied quite a few of these lakes and even one waterfall.  The farm is no longer a private residence but has been opened to the public and is run by a foundation for preserving the pristine land.

 During the Dukes' lifetimes the farm was run by dozens of workers both inside and outside of the mansion.  The staff actually had their own residences on the farm.  Bob and I passed many of these cottages on our tour.  In fact, Bob use to work with a guy who lived in one of them when his friend was a security guard for the Duke property. I sure wanted to get a peak inside one of these sweet looking cottages.  Some are still occupied by workers, so I settled for a quick picture from the front lawn.  Looks like something out of a fairy tale!

Some structures have suffered the ravages of time, like the Hay Barn.  Only the stone walls were left after a devastating fire, but Doris turned it into a sculpture garden.  She loved the arts and we got to reap the benefits of the lovely views she created.

The most stunning surprise on our adventure was the orchid conservatory.  Doris Duke was quite an eccentric lady.  Later in her life she became a horticulturist.  She was devoted to growing hothouse orchids. Luckily, the greenhouse is open to  the public and it put on a spectacular show.

Inside, the variety of orchids was amazing.  Take a look!

Spanish moss dripped from the branches that housed the potted flowers, and the fragrance was so sweet and intoxicating, I didn't want to leave.

What a lovely way to end our biking excursions for the season.  Bob and I can't wait to return to Duke Farms again in the spring when everything will be blooming and coming to life.  I know it will be spectacular and almost an entirely different experience.

Now the question is....what do we do in the winter?  Any suggestions?  What do you do for some extra fun when the snow starts? (PS.  we don't ski, skate, or snowboard!)  We old folks!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Walk with History

One of the nice things about being retired is that you can change your plans and it doesn't really affect anyone.  After 39 years of living by schedules and bells in the classroom, I found myself really uptight about breaking routine, but the other day I found the courage to just go with the whim of the moment.  It was a great decision and lead to a fun-filled and fascinating day.

Bob and I had gotten into the habit of biking along the dozens of miles of bike paths along the Delaware.  Don't get me wrong, that activity is amazing, but the
other morning, I just felt like I wanted to do something different.  Have you ever felt like that? Of course you have.

And, even though we had planned to go biking again, I made the very daring proposition to do something altogether different.  My Bob is a creature of habit and it is quite wrenching for him to change mid-steam, but using my feminine wiles (he's also a real softie) I convinced him it would be fun to take a history walk.

I had just finished reading a book set in the Civil War era and the setting evolved around the safe houses of the Underground Railroad.  I thought it might be cool to see if there were any such houses in New Jersey.  With a brief bit of research I discovered there were a few, but it would be a drive to see most of them.  The day was going to be gorgeous and I really wanted to be out of doors, so I switched plans again.  Revolutionary war sites were plentiful and close and I love that time period, so I thought, why not start there.  I decided to restrict our tour to our own county - Hunterdon. One should know about the place where they live, don't you agree? To my surprise there were so many sites we couldn't fit them all in on one day.

We started our tour in our town of Flemington, five minutes from home at the site of a skirmish where colonial minutemen overpowered a troop of British dragoons led by Cornet Geary who confiscated food and arms from a local warehouse.  His real mission was to see if there would be any resistance from the locals.  He got his answer and during the battle, Geary was killed.  A stone monument marks the spot of the skirmish.

A brief drive down the road led us to the spot where Geary's ancestors commemorated his death.  It is a lovely half-mile walkway called Cornet Geary Trail that ends at his memorial, approximately the spot where he was buried after the battle.  The odd thing about the spot is that the lovely path is in the middle of a modern McMansion development and winds in between two or three private properties.

It felt very strange to see a British memorial but, of course all soldiers who die for their country deserve to be honored. I think of all those WWI and WWII American soldiers who were buried in places like Normandy across the pond. It's comforting to know their grave sites are marked and kept by locals. I'm sure Geary's family was proud of his service.  So here we were, two hundred plus years later remembering Cornet Geary, saying a brief silent prayer, and thinking on the events of his demise.

As we made our way back from the memorial site, I couldn't help but gather up some of the beautiful acorns and oak leaves scattered along the path.  I pressed the leaves in waxed paper, just like when I was a child (so silly) but now I can use them for decoration on my Thanksgiving table, and I will have a story to tell my kids as we eat!

After that lovely walk, Bob and I drove another five minutes to the next town on our list, Ringos.  Both historical sites in Ringos were private homes, so we couldn't get up close and personal.  Below is the Landis House, built in 1750. Marquis de Lafayette stayed here while he was a patient of Dr. Gershom Craven.

A few blocks down the road, we found Ringo's Tavern.  The tavern was owned by the Ringos family from 1738 -1779.  The Sons of Liberty met here in 1776.  It became a local political center during the revolution.  I'd love to get a peak inside that home! A bit of irony...can you see the political poster on the front lawn?

Next, on to Lambertville which was called Coryell's Ferry back in revolutionary times, as it was a colonial river crossing village.  During the revolution the Continental Army crossed the Delaware River from Pennsylvania to New Jersey and camped here under the command of George Washington enroute to the Battle of Monmouth NJ, the longest continuous battle of the war.

Above is Holcombe House, where Washington made his headquarters while waiting for word of the movement of the British fleet.  Below is a small cemetery attached to The First Presbyterian Church.

First Presbyterian Church Cemetery contains the gravesite of George Coryell, a lieutenant in the Revolutionary War and pallbearer of George Washington.  Also buried in the cemetery Elijah Holcombe and Sam Holcombe, one of George Washington's spies.  So cool!!!

Last stop of the day was Rosemont and the Rosemont Cemetery.

Here we found the grave site of Captain Daniel Bray.  Capt. Bray led a party of men along the river to gather enough boats for General Washington, in order to make the famous crossing of the Delaware on December 25th 1776.  I could almost feel the men slinking along the river's edge and feel their sense of urgency and exhiliration...not to mention hear the chattering of their teeth in the freezing cold!

Rosemont Cemetery was our last stop of the day. I couldn't help but reflect on the awesome debt of gratitude we owe our forefathers who imagined and acted on a glorious idea that became our nation.

There are still 22 more historical revolutionary sites just in Hunterdon county that we didn't check out.  I think we will have lots to keep us occupied whenever the whim hits me again!

What's the history of your area?  Have you checked out any of the local sites?  I'd love to hear about them, leave me a comment.