On my last day of vacation, I helped Mom and Mark weed the big, circular raised bed at the front of the driveway. It took about an hour with the three of us going on it. We kids can often be found helping out with that chore when we’re at the cottage; it’s the least we can do. Mom and Mark feed us lasagna and take us for ice cream, they encourage book reading and napping, and there’s a moped up there. We weed.
It was hot the other day and there’s no shade out there. My stepdad was working pretty quickly because he hates weeds. “Filth!” Mark bellowed, throwing a particularly gnarly one into the big bucket. “These damn weeds! I went over this entire thing not but six weeks ago, Marianne!”
Mark and Mom are master gardeners, which I think means they have a certificate and field questions when anyone decides to plant a shrub. Being a master gardener does not make a person automatically organized and awesome when they go about their gardening, but Mom and Mark just naturally are. Case in point: Mark had divided the bed into “zones” and we each had our own zone to weed.
“There’s your zone and there’s your zone,” he said. “And Marianne, there’s your kit, and there’s your kit, Maru,” Mark said as we walked over to our worksite. The “kit” he made included a bucket, gardening gloves, a trowel, and a mat or towel to kneel upon. I love my stepdad so much. A weed kit? In a delineated zone? Who does that?? Mark. Mark — otherwise known as The Cap’n — does that. He’s also great because he says things like “Filth!” when pulling pesky weeds.
“Hey, guys,” I said, wiping sweat from my brow, “I have a great idea for a horror movie. It would be called The Gardener or The Weed Killer. I mean, look at these implements. They’re so scary!” I held up a tool Mark had put out in case we needed it, some sort of terrifying small rake-claw.
“This one would work, too,” Mark said, showing me a truly frightening-looking blade. “I call it my scalper. You could do some damage with this.” He stabbed the knife into the dirt and cursed at whatever green bit he vanquished.
Mom brought out some cups of water. A butterfly flew by. I was happy.
Alexa, Echo, Google Home — I don’t care which mega-conglomerate made it or how soothe-saying the device’s (female) personality sounds: They’re no damn good.
Do you have one of these? Have you, like Nick, welcomed an unblinking, all-seeing eyeball into your home that watches you and listens to you and records your data and sells it to [insert mega-conglomerate here]??
“Alexa,” Nick will say to the cylinder that lives and breathes in the corner of his room, “What’s the temperature?”
“The temperature is 80-degrees,” Alexa “says.”
It sounds so civilized. It even sounds helpful. Alexa may be, in certain cases. I understand there are arguments to be made for folks with limited mobility; I know certain tech gadgets can assist those differently abled. But for the majority of folks out there, these things are unnecessary. Just because we can have them does not mean we should! The whole thing is dastardly. Sick, even. These devices listen to and watch people in their homes, gathering data about citizens’ private lives for Lord knows what! “They” are watching our activity online already. Isn’t one mode of home surveillance enough?
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. After all, there is one home assistant I’m okay with. Have you heard of her? Her name is …
See, my mom and my stepdad and I were talking about this “home assistant” thing and got to joking around, shouting out questions to no one (and no device) in particular, asking things that couldn’t possibly be answered by Siri, Alexa, or anything without organically-grown brain matter.
“Verushka!” Mark yelled from the porch. “When did I learn to ride a bicycle?”
“Verushka!” Mom called. “What color of blue do I need in the quilt I’m working on?”
We started asking Verushka lots of questions — she didn’t answer a single one! — and while Mark and I were laughing about it, Mom, because she’s hilarious, actually fashioned a Verushka. A mini-monolith, an analog wonder, really just a cardboard box with a wifi signal drawn on with a Sharpie, Verushka is the best “home assistant” money can’t buy. She isn’t hooked up to the internet. She’s not collecting data. She’s free.
“She’s like a dog, except less expensive,” my mother said.
“She’s my new pet rock,” said Mark.
We ask Verushka all kinds of things. We ask her about the weather, but then we just look outside. We ask her if we have eggs and then, when she is silent as the grave, we ask the person closest to the fridge. We ask her about the meaning of life, obviously, but I happen to know the Siris and the Echos out there have a programmed answer for such “silly” questions. If you ask Siri, “What is the meaning of life?” she’ll say something like, “To think about questions like this” or “42.”
This is where Verushka pulls away from the pack. Because Verushka answers that question the only way a robot/invasive species should answer: She replies with silence. And in that silence, the people in the room can either talk to each other about it or, if, the woman is by herself, she can sit for awhile and think about it.
ATLANTA, Ga. — Choosing flowers is tough. There are many options for photography. But if you’re getting married in Atlanta in almost-July, the wedding party favor is easy: Give ’em paper fans.
At half-past four in the afternoon, with the temperature in the high 80s, around 100 stylish guests on wooden chairs fanned themselves, waiting for the backyard ceremony to begin. Then, as family and close friends snapped a few more pictures of the lavish chuppah constructed entirely from twigs woven together with ribbon and fresh flowers, the three-piece band quietly closed out their rendition of “Love Me Tender” and switched gears.
All eyes turned toward the upper patio. And the bride descended the stairs.
Resplendent in an elegantly tailored, bone-colored peplum gown, it was confirmed by several official science sources that the bride was actually “glowing from within.” Ruddy-cheeked and radiant, her mane of thick, dark hair was worn pinned back on one side and topped with a feathered fascinator. Several official fashion sources said that her look was “pitch perfect,” and “timeless, but with sass for days.”
The bride’s mother (ageless!) and father (peerless!) greeted their daughter there in the family backyard and helped move her toward the aisle. Tears were shed by all members of the family and every single person in the tent, including the author, was blubbing and sniffing and sticking to our chairs in that heat and it was magical and perfect.
The groom — an adorably rumpled, Swedish artist — wore a powder blue linen suit and looked in wonder as his flawless bride approached the altar. Several official relationship sources confirmed that he looked like he was definitely taking this seriously and that he was “a good one.” The rabbi leading the nuptials hit just the right note in those remarks he gave in English. (As the author does not speak Hebrew, all remarks given by the rabbi in Hebrew cannot be confirmed as hitting the right note, but an official religious source was overheard to be saying that everything went just fine.)
Once the vows were spoken and the ceremonial wineglass was stomped, the band played a jazzy rendition of Guns n’ Roses’s classic, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” as the newlyweds made their exit. As the wedding party sat for portraits off-site, guests were treated to glasses of champagne and small, nibbly things like chocolate-covered strawberries and fancy cheese on fancy toothpicks. It was confirmed by several gastronomically-inclined sources that “the canapé situation [was] excellent, just excellent.”
Then it was off to the country club for dinner and dancing. And the author had an allergy attack (or something??) and had to leave early. But everything was so perfect. And you got married, Bari. And you got married, Magnus. And I got to see that, and see all the people who love you.
While I wait for my various moisturizers and creams to do their work on my face and legs, I shall recline on this bed and, with my laptop balanced on my knees, tell you about my friend Bari, because Bari is getting married today and she’s all I can think about.
Come back with me to the turn of the 21st century, to the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
Everything was leafy and exciting. I was a sophomore undergrad. I finally had a handle on the school and the city, a Big Ten college town with beer cans in the gutter — but also a vibrant arts ecosystem! (There was more overlap than you’d think.) I was 19 years old, studying theater, something I could hardly believe I had permission to do.
The Theater department produced a lot of plays in a year. Probably 25 or something. Because visiting artists and tenured faculty cast shows with both grads and undergrads, there was some cross-pollination at the Theater Building, but not much. Grads were mostly older than we were. They were usually cooler, simply because they had been more places, and they had definitely done more theater. Grads were in classes that sounded scary and hard, like “Suzuki Seminar IV”, while we undergrads were just happy to get a spot in Voice for the Actor.
Bari was a grad student. She was probably in her late twenties? I don’t know for sure, and I don’t recall the first time I saw her on campus, but I remember the first things I felt about her.
Bari was beautiful and glamorous. She had rosy cheeks and mounds of jet black, corkscrew curls that cascaded down past her shoulders. She would often pull it all into a topknot thing and it would bounce around when she laughed, which she did a lot; this throaty, full laugh. I liked to be within 10 feet of her when she laughed because of the hair bobbing around but also she had the whitest teeth I had ever seen inside the mouth of a person. I could see those white teeth from 25 feet back, which was about how far I allowed myself to get to this Bari person because she was amazing and I was lame.
Bari had the best clothes! They were usually black. Bari wore cool, black clothes. She was from Atlanta, I learned, but she studied theater in New York. She wore a Tiffany necklace around her neck and lots of pink lip gloss. Bari was not from my world. Bari was glamorous. She twinkled, but she was deep. Word on the street among the underlings — I mean undergrads — was that Bari was in plays, sure, but she really wanted to direct.
It didn’t happen often that an undergrad would get a good part in a mainstage show. But my junior year, I did. I remember the play: It was José Rivera’s Marisol, and I played a character named June. Bari played Marisol, and we became friends. I think she noticed me because I worked my tail off, which I did, simply to keep up with the rest of the cast and crew, all grad students.
We got so close, Bari and I lived together one summer there in Iowa City before she left to do life after graduation. I drove with her to St. Louis to take some of her stuff to her grandmother’s house. Bari told me about her life; I told her about mine. Life is beautiful and it’s hard and it’s complicated, so we had a lot to talk about.
I visited Bari’s family here in Atlanta, once; I had never seen a house with two staircases before. That’s where the wedding is in about an hour. I’m assuming the lady will come down the front stairs, but you never know: Bari is utterly enthralling in her glamorous way, but she also loves silliness for silliness’s sake. She might surprise us.
Bari did direct, by the way. She is a theater director. She has been working professionally, steadily, with honors and accolades, ever since she graduated. I am so proud to know her. I am so honored she invited me to her wedding today.
Bari, may your wedding dress be as white as your perfect teeth; may your happiness know no boundaries. Like that hair!
There’s a pattern here — and I’m not talkin’ fabric. Look!
I write a blog post –> my mother reads my blog post –> my mother is compelled to comment –> the crowd goes wild
Now, my mother reads my blog every time I post, but she doesn’t comment every time. Clearly she should, though, because you love it. You love my mom! I love my mom, too.
After making an egregious mistake in my summer reading list posts, my mom pointed this out (in a comment.) And everyone was so tickled by it, I thought I’d just call her up and interview her about my mistake and put the whole conversation up for your reading pleasure. It’s fun and informative!
PAPERGIRL INTERVIEW WITH MARIANNE FONS, JUNE 20, 2018
PG: Do you realize how much people like it when you comment on the blog? Do you see their comments on your comments?
MOM: No, I didn’t realize that! I’m delighted. I’ll comment more.
PG: Please do. As you know, I made a mistake when I went over my potential summer reading list. I credited Tender is the Night to Ernest Hemingway, but Tender is the Night was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Since you were one of the people to kindly point it out — and since you have a B.A. and an M.A. in English — I thought I would get your comment on this and perhaps learn a thing or two about those two egomaniacal jerks. I mean “brilliant geniuses.”
MOM: Sounds fun, sweetie, fire away.
PG: By the way, where are you right now?
MOM: I’m sitting in one of my favorite spots in the whole world: the rocking chair on the front porch here in Winterset.
PG: Lovely. So, first things first: Tender Is the Night. What’s it about?
MOM: I read it a long time ago, in grad school. It really has been a long time, but I recall thinking that it was a better book than The Great Gatsby, which is still considered sort of the gold standard American novel. Now I’m worried I’ve got it wrong, but I think Tender is the Night has to do with mental illness. And beautiful, tragic people. The female character … I think she’s institutionalized in the novel, and I’m pretty sure she’s based on F. Scott’s wife, Zelda.
PG: That sounds about right. Poor ol’ Zelda.
MOM: All these years later, I might find the tale less appealing, but when I read it I would’ve been around 32, and everyone in that F. Scott Fitzgerald world seemed to be these glamorous, tragic figures.
PG: It’s a little different in Hemingway’s books, right? I’ve read The Sun Also Rises and … something else. I remember lots of sunshine and bullfighting and drinking while bullfighting in the sun.
MOM: I did an independent study on Hemingway in grad school and read all his books. I read a lot about his life and because of that, I read a lot about Fitzgerald, too, because they were pals.
PG: Of course they were.
MOM: I remember learning that Fitzgerald had money but was cheap, while Hemingway was poor but generous.
PG: Wow! That’s a really interesting thing to know. Hm.
MOM: Hemingway’s belief was that you should be good to people like waiters and busboys, bell captains, people working service positions, basically, where Fitzgerald was rude to so-called underlings. There’s an anecdote I remember: F. Scott Fitzgerald was ill with a fever and very sick —
PG: Probably hungover, right?
MOM: — probably, and Hemingway put him in the tub and was trying to make him well. He apparently was able to get a thermometer and maybe some medicine or something from a bellboy and Hemingway said, basically, “Look, you need to be good to people in service professions because when the chips are down, they’re the ones who are really going to be the people you need to ask for help.”
PG: I agree completely, though it sounds a little transactional. But I know what he means and I waited tables for 10 years of my life, so like, go Hemingway.
MOM: Well, yes, Fitzgerald was a snob, but I think Hemingway was a real a**, too. He was horrible to women and then he got cancer and couldn’t take it and he blew his head off with a rifle.
MOM: His father committed suicide, too, I think. His father was a doctor.
PG: “Got cancer and couldn’t take it.” I’m still processing that one, Marianne.
MOM: Well, he really changed fiction, I think. Hemingway did. Oh, and honey, good luck reading Henry James. I’m an educated person, but I think Henry James is hard to read. His sentence structure is so dense and long … One sentence will be an entire paragraph. I read Turn of the Screw and I tried to read The Ambassadors and I just couldn’t do it.
PG: Well, if we’re talking about the other books on my list, how about the Donna Tartt novel, The Goldfinch?
MOM: I heard about Donna Tartt when Goldfinch came out. Her novels are … what are they called?
PG / MOM: Southern Gothic.
MOM: Southern Gothic, yes. I started that last one and it was just so … I don’t know. Southern Gothic? Everyone was just just runnin’ around in red ditches, catchin’ rattlesnakes. And something horrible happened but what don’t know whatit was and it’s gonna take a loooooong time fo find out what it was and it was just … unsatisfyingly dark. I didn’t finish The Goldfinch, and that is unusual for me.
PG: What about David Foster Wallace?
MOM: Did he write Confederacy of Dunces?
PG: No! Well, I’m not reading that one, yet, even though if I had chosen on my own, I’d have probably picked it. It’s okay. I’m going with 1984 because the people have spoken and I love the people. Orwell is one of my top-five authors, so I’m happy. Have you read 1984?
MOM: I’m sure I have, but every time I picture it, I just picture Animal Farm.
PG: Hey, you wanna read it with me??
MOM: Sure! That sounds fun, honey. But I think … Yes, I’ll have to get it. When should we start reading?
It has come to the attention of The Management that some folks are having trouble accessing this blog. Unacceptable! I’m sure it’s got something to do with the mischievous internet goblins who know that I’m thinking of deleting my Facebook account. More on that later. Anyway, I’ve got a call out to my brilliant web wizard, Julie Feirer. I’m sure there’s something she can do. She must not fail!
A N N O U N C E M E N T N O . 2
I am writing thank-you notes to the folks who donated during the First-Ever PaperGirl Pledge Drive, but I’ve got a problem. You see, if you donated via PayPal, I could simply email you a thank-you, but this is not my style. Your PaperGirl is, perhaps not surprisingly, super into paper. The problem is that I don’t get a person’s mailing address with a PayPal donation, so I am going to have to ask for it. It will be a slight nightmare keeping everything straight, but I can try:
If you donated will you please email me your mailing address? (If you haven’t donated, why, there’s still time!)
I’d like you to use my school email, since it’s separate and it’s funny how after you graduate from a school, you don’t have to really send emails about school anymore. Here’s that address:
m f o n s @ s a i c . e d u
Use no spaces, of course, when you enter that address into your “To” field; I’m just trying to keep the spambots away. (Robots crawl the internet looking for email addresses to spam. You know that, right? If you have a website or a newsletter or anything, don’t put your email address on the screen without funky spacing. I think it’s supposed to help.)
The thank-you notes are being written. I have a huge bag already. It’s going to take time, but it’s important to me that I send you a proper thank-you note. My mama raised me good.
We are running through a field of tall grass at Meadowlark Farm, in Iowa, in summer. It is fun. I am happy. I am happy because it is summer and I am small and I am running across the field of my home, right where I should be: behind my big sister Hannah.
Hannah taught me everything. She helped me learn to read. We played imaginary games with stuffed toys and figurines for hours, days, years, crafting ideologies without realizing the intricacy in our methods, architecting whole galaxies together out on that farm that never had any animals except perfect dogs and cats. Maybe we were the animals: me and my two sisters. Maybe it was a farm where you grew three great kids, at least for a little while.
My sister Hannah is singular. She was always different from everyone else because (let’s face it) she was smarter than everyone else and cooler than everyone else. But she was different in another way that no one could identify, exactly, not even her, for awhile. I never had to identify Hannah as anything. I just loved her. I love her more than ever, partly because I haven’t followed her through a field in a long time. Nan, let’s go jogging soon. Like, now.
My sister gave a TED Talk recently about her experience as a person who is gender non-binary.
Ladies and gentlemen and everyone, everywhere: My sister, my family, Hannah Fons.
Mom and I filmed three (excellent) episodes of the PBS show today. It felt great to be back on the set as a guest. What can I say? My mother and I work really well together and I miss working with her so closely.
I also miss Gramma, my mom’s mom. The house where I’m sleeping tonight is across the street from the apartment building where my gramma, Dorothy, lived for some years before she passed away. When she died at 92, she was of sound mind and was in relative good health: A case of pneumonia took her to the hospital and she didn’t come back. I had just graduated college when she died and it was sad because I loved Gramma and I love my mom. And it was said when my sisters’ and my gramma passed but it was also sad because my mom lost her mom.
But this is a happy post!
Because I keep thinking about Gramma and all the wonderful things she used to say. Dorothy was born in Mississippi and she had a lovely, if subtle, southern accent. She kept Fun-Size Snickers bars in her pantry. She played Go Fish with us for hours. She started the paper in the small town in Iowa where she lived. She loved us. She told the same stories over and over again but a) she earned the right to for Lord’s sake and b) repeating stories runs in the family, so.
Did I ever tell you how my gramma told the same stories over and over again? Oh. Okay, well how about a short list of some of the great things she used to say. I’d like to think on those.
THINGS GRAMMA SAID
When me and my sisters were squabbling (or worse): “Don’t talk ugly to your sister.”
When my hair was a mess, which was always: “Mary Katherine … Let me give your hair a lick.”
When she was surprised or alarmed, usually by something innocuous: “Oh, me!”
When she was telling us a story about being mad at someone (male): “I’d like to jerk a knot in him!”
When I was a teeny kid and we would be reading on the couch together and we’d both get sleepy, Gramma would turn to me and say, “Let’s just conk out.”
Whenever I or my sisters wanted a quarter, or a peppermint, or a stick of Dentyne gum: “Go get me my purse.”
Like most women — not all, but most — I am in a constant battle with my hair.
I could soften that and say with a thoughtful look, “I am in a constant conversation with my hair”, but that hip-sounding statement — aside from sounding pretentious — is simply not true. A conversation is defined as “a talk […] in which news and ideas are exchanged.” Believe me: No new ideas have been exchanged between me and my wimpy hair since the 2nd grade when Mom let me perm my bangs. Now that was a conversation! But that was a long time ago.
These days, my relationship with my hair is absolutely a war: It’s my wimpy hair vs. me. The war is my wimpy hair trying to be its wimpy self and me, doing my best to eliminate the wimp release the tousled, volumized woman within me just dying to get out.
The good news is that lately, I’ve been winning. I’ve got a round brush and I know how to use it. I have a great curling iron. I like my shampoo. And it’s exciting, because lately, four or five days out of the seven-day week, I have at a Decent Hair Day. Sometimes, it’s an actual Good Hair Day, and last week, I had a Great Hair Day … until I went outside.
Oooh, was I mad!
My hair, which looked so boss when I rode the elevator down to the lobby, was toast within five minutes of being out in the city’s early spring weather. Wind, mist, more wind: My hair didn’t stand a chance. And as I walked to class, trying to turn my head with the wind (as opposed to against it) in order to keep at least a few carefully-combed strands in place, I thought of my grandmother, Gramma Graham, and her plastic bonnets. In an instant, I finally understood what I always saw as so old-lady-ish, so old-fashioned. No, no, I thought, as I tried to hold down the awesome “swoop” thing I had achieved with the back of my hair, she was right. Gramma Graham was so right.
I thought, “I need a plastic bonnet. Any bonnet. Bonnetsmake sense.”
And they do. They protect your face from the sun; they protect your hair from the elements. They can look rather beguiling if you want them to. Bonnets are cross-cultural, too, as many cultures feature bonnet-like headwear. The bonnet, man. The bonnet! Let’s bring it back. I like my hair right now. I’d like to see it live longer than 20 minutes.
I think about my Gramma Graham and I miss her. She was a good woman to the core. Ethical, loving. She loved my mother and she loved me and my sisters. And she had great hair, too; not wimpy at all. Gramma actually went prematurely gray at age 30, and no one has ever looked more beautiful, I think, than my gray-haired, thirtysomething grandmother did in the 1950s.
The bonnets she wore are long gone. But practicality is easy enough to find, and reasons for connecting with your family are everywhere, if you’re looking.
I’m back from Los Angeles, back from QuiltCon 2018. What an incredible show, what an incredible quilt culture we have in America. Just think of all the people and art and history and innovation and fun that comes together at a show like that. Incredible. Thank you to all who had anything to do with QuiltCon this year, from the people who made quilts in the show to those who just enjoyed the scenery from social media. We need everyone.
Things I did at QuiltCon included but were not limited to:
delivered a lecture on the AIDS Quilt (one of my best ever, I am satisfied to admit)
gave a tour of the AIDS Quilt panels I curated for the show
was interviewed by Angela Walters for Craftsy (thanks, Walters!!)
gave a lecture on the modern quilt and the future of it (*this also went well and I’ll return to the topic of the lecture in a future post)
interviewed people for Quiltfolk
meet’ed and greet’ed quilters at the BabyLock booth
saw amazing friends, fans, colleagues
drooled on quilts (not really, but close, okay maybe a little actual drool, oops, saarrry)
Things I did not do:
take many pictures
The funny thing about a big show is that you think you’re going to have time away from the computer and therefore be free, somehow, to “take it all in” and then — if you’re me — write about it as soon as you get back to your hotel room. But that’s never how it works out for this one.
Conferences like Quilt Market and QuiltCon are so totally packed with activity, so totally frenetic with action — to the point of being almost manic — that when it’s time to shut my hotel door at the end of the long day, doing much of anything is highly unlikely, especially since my “anything” frequently involves thinking thoughts, crafting them into halfway-well-written sentences, then posting them for public consumption. Historically, I’m just not able to do anything that complicated at the end of a “show day.”
For example, one night I got into my room, ate some cheese popcorn and fell asleep with the lights on with a faint cheese powder ring around my mouth. The next night, after two celebratory margs with the Quiltfolk photographer (I’m telling you, I crushed my lectures; I deserved to tie one on), I got into my room, washed my face, and proclaimed, literally out loud, “Who needs pajamas?” and fell asleep in my shirt.
Thank goodness QuiltCon is done until next year because a) I don’t need to be eating cheese popcorn alone; and b) everyone needs pajamas. Besides, if I neglect my blog, think how many wonderful, interesting, hard, tricky, beautiful, strange, funny, frightening, and surprising stories and anecdotes and observations will never reach you? I have to reach you with these things; otherwise, where will they go?
For example: On the way to Los Angeles, the Southwest flight attendant got on the PA and said:
“Welcome to Southwest Airlines, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Rick, your head flight attendant this afternoon. Joining me today is my daughter, Bethany, in the back of the aircraft, and my son-in-law, John, is here at the front with me today!”
Isn’t that wonderful? The flight family! A family of flight attendants had all been able to arrange their schedules to be on the same flight. I thought that was really nice. I had a nice feeling about that.
Some months ago, my sister told us a story about a very special sweater.
It’s one of my favorite posts of all time (perhaps because it’s in my sister’s voice) and it had a life outside the ol’ PG, actually; I shaped the text into proper monologue form, tweaked/polished it, and then shared it in a writing seminar last semester. Just like you, my cohort was charmed by my younger sister’s fashion concerns.
Well, there’s more where that came from.
The other day, sifting through WikiCommons (the site where I get all the strange-but-free images you see on PaperGirl), I found the above picture of a white shoe. I think it’s a terrific picture on its own, but it’s really terrific because it made me think instantly of my sister Rebecca, because Rebecca loves a white shoe. In fact, that’s how she said it to me one day:
“I love a white shoe.”
Now, that’s a thing we say. We say, “I love a white shoe.”
What you have to know is that my sister didn’t say this in a dreamy, effusive kind of way. She didn’t see a pair of white shoes and go, “Oh! I looooove a white shoe!!!”
It was more matter-of-fact. Rebecca spied a pair of white shoes — I’ll get to what kind in a minute — and said it like it was a foregone conclusion, like it was a truth held to be self-evident. “I love a white shoe.” And then she probably pursed her lips, shrugged, and respectfully put the shoes back on the rack. Because that particular white shoe? At that particular time? Hm. Maybe not.
But it wasn’t just the tone, the inflection of her “white shoe” comment that made it so meme-y for us. There was intriguing syntax going on, as well. My sister didn’t say, “I love white shoes.” She said, “I love a white shoe.” There was something awfully aristocratic about it. Very landed gentry. She said “I love a white shoe” as though we all have so many pairs of the same kind of shoe (e.g., Red Shoes, Paisley Shoes, Pom-Pon Shoes, etc.), that when considering an outfit, it makes perfect sense to say, “I think a white shoe. Don’t you? I do love a white shoe.”
What’s crazy is that for my sister, saying this does make sense. Not because she’s a wealthy landowner in 19th century Britain who lives off the rental properties she owns (see: landed gentry), but because she has this incredible style and the most extraordinary luck finding cool white shoes. Rebecca’s white shoe is a cool white shoe, the kind of shoe I do not even notice when I’m looking for “shoe.” Rebecca doesn’t wear white pumps (eek), or bright-white sneakers. No, my sister finds cool shoes in her shopping excursions and these shoes are frequently white. The shoe is often canvas/leather and has a touch of hardware on it, but never much; maybe a clasp. Maybe a small clasp. The shoes she finds are minimalist, you might say, designed by Opening Ceremony, or Jason Wu, or some obscure Italian footwear designer no one has ever heard of. She gets everything on sale, too, and usually on clearance because not everyone can pull of a white shoe, so they languish on the rack.
Rebecca wears a white shoe with dark clothes. I can’t figure out how she manages to make it so chic, but she does. Dark sweater, dark pants, neutral jacket … white shoe.
“Rebecca,” I ask her. “How do you do it? What’s your secret?”
My sister just makes the “What can I say?” gesture. She puts on her Ray-Bans. She takes a sip of her beverage and her beverage is something sparkly. “I love a white shoe,” she says.
Remember Quilty? Like, original, vintage Quilty? Good times, my friends.
Jack C. Newell, my brother-in-law, directed Quilty for the five glorious years we made the ol’ girl If you loved the show — how it was lit, the pace of it, the edits, the music, the mise en scene, the sound — that was Jack’s work you loved because Jack called the shots on Quilty, literally. It was an honor and a pleasure to make that project with my sister Rebecca and Jack, who were dating at the time but not yet married.
Well, I’m thrilled to tell you that my brother-in-law is becoming kind of a big deal in the world of motion pictures. He’s running the Harold Ramis Film School at Second City, which is like, seriously huge. He’s winning awards for his films: feature-length; short; documentary — he does them all so well, these crazy opportunities keep coming his way. He’s being screened at major film festivals, and though Jack said I can’t spill the exact beans about a big thing that is coming soon for him/the world, he gave me permission to say “big things are coming.”
The “big things are coming” comment may or may not have to do with his latest doc, “42 Grams,” which is now available to watch on Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo, and Google Play. All of those links will take you to a page where you can watch the trailer and then the film, however each site handles that. (You know I only link to outside things when it’s really worth it to me/you. It’s worth it.)
The movie follows the meteoric rise of Jake and Alexa, two Chicagoans who started a restaurant out of their apartment a couple years back. The restaurant, “Sous Rising,” had critics and diners in Chicago and beyond freaking out all over the place. I actually remember hearing about this “underground restaurant” that was the best place to eat in the entire city. Well, that was just the beginning of this truly entertaining, truly suspenseful, truly heartwarming story …
… that my brother-in-law got on film. Jack was there with Jake and Alexa for years, documenting one of the most exciting, stressful, you-can’t-write-this-stuff time of their lives. That’s what “42 Grams” is all about and it is a gorgeous movie. You don’t have to be a “foodie” to love it, but if you’re into food, you’re going to love Jack’s movie even more.
And now you can watch it on real-life screens! Like, right now, after you read this interview! Yes, we’re so proud of Jack around here, Pendennis and I interviewed him for you. It has to be done! How often do you get to talk to a real-life director about making a real-life movie? I mean, Pendennis has that kind of access. But he’s family.
Interview With Jack C. Newell, a Big-Time Movie Director Who Is Also My Brother-In-Law
PG: I have to know … You made a documentary about an incredibly talented Chicago chef: Did you eat amazing food all the time?
JN: Yeah, I got to eat stuff pretty regularly. The way that this level of cuisine works, when [the kitchen] makes meals for, let’s say, 10 people, they’ll have enough components for 12. If the color isn’t right or something’s a weird shape, it’ll go onto a little plate and thrown in back.
PG: And it was Jake’s food that started the whole thing off, right?
JN: Yes, Rebecca and I went to eat at Sous Rising.
PG: You guys were dating at the time and now you’re married!
JN: That is true, yes.
PG: I just thought I’d point it out. Tell me more about how the documentary project began.
JN: I was just wrapping up a feature film — a fictional story — titled “Open Tables.”
PG: Which is also available on iTunes, Amazon, and Vimeo.
JN: That’s right. “Open Tables” took place in the food/restaurant worlds of Chicago and Paris. Because of that project, I had eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world. Then Rebecca and I went to Sous Rising and this guy was turning out better food out of his apartment kitchen than some Michelin starred restaurants I had been to. I thought: There’s something here.
PG: Was it ever awkward? Was Jake ever looking at you guys with like, dagger eyes to get out of his way?
JN: The point of documentary is that it captures humanity, and not all of life is sunshine and flowers. You have to be there for all of it. You can’t look away when it gets hard/bad/weird/awkward.
PG: Pendennis is very sad that life is not all sunshine and flowers.
JN: Sorry, Pendennis.
PG: You told me that from the time you had the idea till now, when the movie is debuting everywhere, it’s taken three years to make.
JN: Documentaries. Take. Forever.
PG: Feature-length films, like talky-picture-movies are faster, right?
JN: That’s fair, yes. Talky-picture-movies?
PG: Jack, I’m wondering … Why make a documentary? Why not turn this into one of your feature films? It sure is a great story.
JN: No one would believe this story if you made into a fiction film.
PG: Let’s see: “Young, struggling couple in love start restaurant out of their tiny apartment and become the toast of Chicago …” Yeah, it’s too perfect to be true. Except that it is true. That really is amazing. Were you just marveling that you had this tale unfolding before your eyes? And it was real?
JN: I have to say that I’ve fallen in love with making documentaries. It takes so long and is so hard because you’re totally out of control. But when you capture a real human moment, or bear witness to something amazing, or you can illustrate an idea and you can deliver that to an audience I think that’s really special.
PG: Pendennis would like to know how many people it takes to make a film like this. I think he’s interested in working with you again. [Pendennis was a fixture on the Quilty set bookshelves, as fans will recall.]
JN: Our crew was myself, my director of photography, editor, and sound [engineer.] Nick “Takénobu” Ogawa did the score. For this particular film, shooting in close quarters like this, small is sort of mandatory. And I don’t like having a large crew when it comes to documentary, because I want to try to be as invisible as possible when filming so people feel comfortable. If there’s all these people standing around and taking up space, that becomes hard.
PG: I have to ask you about Alexa. Jake is the superstar chef, but man, Alexa is amazing.
JN: Without Alexa the film wouldn’t work. She acts as a foil to Jake as a normal, non-culinary genius entry point for the audience member who is not a world class chef. She also provides a lot of the pathos.
PG: On opening night of the “real restaurant,” it’s seriously tense. As a viewer, I was really on the edge of your seat.
JN: It’s a roller coaster ride. We really take you on a journey. I think the first 30 minutes, when Jake and Alexa are “underground,” you’re like, “Wow, this guy is sorta … crazy.” Then we see him create a menu and it’s like, “Wow, this guy is crazy talented!” But then the cracks start to appear and it looks like, yeah, he’s got the skills but can he keep it together?
PG: Exactly! You did such a great job with this whole film, Jack. “42 Grams” is so cool.
JN: It’s incredible we were able to document this story. When you watch the film you get to go on this journey with these two passionate people who have a dream and you enter the film at the dream state and it goes from there all the way to the end. I can’t really spoil the ending here, but it’s a very special thing to see something full circle, I’ll say that.
A few years ago, a rule in our family changed. First, let me explain what rule I’m talking about.
Most families have a version of this rule. It could be called the “Do Not Touch That Pie Until After Dinner Or You Will Sorely Regret It, Now Get Out Of My Kitchen” rule. Other versions of the rule may include: “If You Eat One Cooky Off That Tray Before We Sit Down To Eat, So Help Me God”; “If You Have Any Sense In That Head Of Yours You’ll Step Away From the Fudge; “You Are About To Meet Your Maker If You So Much As Breathe On Those Scotcharoos”; or the simple-but-effective, “Getcher Mitts Off That Cake” rule.
Well, a few years back, on either Thanksgiving or Christmas, at some time in the day that was not appropriate pie-eating time (e.g., 9 a.m. or 12:30 p.m.), I was in the kitchen trying to pick off a gooey, sugary, perfectly toasted pecan off the top of Mom’s famous pecan pie without being noticed — and I was failing spectacularly. But that day was remarkable, because there was a time when I would’ve gotten caught sneakin’ pie and gotten slapped with the ol’ “Getcher Mitts Off That Pie” rule. But on this day, the opposite happened.
“You know,” my mom said, “just have a piece of pie if you want it. It’s okay.”
A pecan that was halfway to my mouth fell onto my blouse and stuck there. My mother is not a sarcastic woman, nor does she tease her children or have fun at our expense. If she was saying I should “just have a piece of pie” if I wanted to, she was saying … that I should have a piece of pie. A piece of the pie she baked for a special occasion. The pie we were planning to eat after Thanksgiving dinner in like, six hours.
“Mom, are you serious? You’re joking.”
My mom shook her head and threw up her hands. “I mean, why not? Eat it! That’s what it’s for!”
“Yeah, but — ”
“You know,” Mom said, “I had a friend whose mother-in-law was a wonderful candymaker. She was great at making it. She’d make candies for the holidays every year and put it all out on doilies on these beautiful milk glass plates: caramels, toffees, fudge, brickle. Just gorgeous.
“When you came over to the house, you’d be drawn, as if by magnetic force, toward all the candies. But she’d see you get within 10 feet of it all and she’d say, “Nooooooo! That’s for later! Don’t eat it! Don’t you dare eat it!”
I nodded and eyed a ragged piece of crust on the side of the pie, begging to be broken off and eaten. I liked where this story was going.
“Childed, you would back away from the candy plates,” Mom continued. “And then, of course, everyone would eat dinner. You’d eat the turkey and the dressing and the yams and the cranberry and the rolls and the butter and the ham.”
“And you’d drink the wine,” I said, and popped the crust into my mouth.
“Oh, this lady didn’t serve wine. But you get the idea. All that food, and then pie and ice cream! And then, once you had wiped up your piece of pumpkin pie or pecan pie and you had patted your mouth with your napkin, she’d come around with these heavy candy plates and practically force you to eat the candies. If you said, ‘No, no, I’ve had enough,’ she’d be offended. I ask you: Does this make any sense?”
“No, mother,” I said, “no, it does not.” It looked very possible that I was going to have pecan pie for breakfast in front of God and everybody.
“In my opinion, do it. Look, it’s the holidays. If you’re lucky, there’s all this beautiful food! Why save and save these things for some point in the future when everyone’s too full, anyway? We’re adults! No one cares if there’s a piece taken out of a pie when it’s time to eat it, do they? Do they really? If you’re hungry for it, eat it.”
“Yeah!” I said, already dislodging an entire sticky slice of what is truly my favorite food on the Earth. I had to do this before she changed her mind.
But my mother didn’t change her mind that day, nor any day thereafter. If there are Santa cookies in the kitchen or an apple pie cooling on the counter, this stuff is available for the snacking. Mom will say, “That’s what it’s for!” and we are all willing to oblige.
I obliged today, in fact, when I had cheesecake for lunch. Here’s hoping everyone had a sweet Christmas today or, at the very least, a good Monday. I love Mondays. More on that later.
My last class for the fall term was today. I am officially one semester away from completing my Master of Fine Arts in Writing (MFAW) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC.) I feel really good. I know the ol’ PG takes a hit sometimes, with the coursework, but you know and I know: I’m never far. I won’t ever be far away.
When I left the newspaper office this afternoon and I realized the term really was actually complete, I thought, “Hey, I should celebrate.” I considered going for some Netflix, maybe picking up a fancy bottle of wine (by which I mean a $20-bottle of wine.) And if Netflix n’ drinkin alone strikes you as being kind of a sad way to celebrate something, you must understand that I am very, very tired.
But I didn’t get the bottle of wine (too many calories) and I won’t poke around on Netflix, either (too many choices.) The good news is that I found a better way to celebrate on the way home: I bought a Christmas present for a kid!
My friends S. and Z. have the most incredible daughter. Let’s call her Squirt. Squirt is around five, though I’m terrible at gauging/remembering the ages of anyone over about one week. What I do know about the child is that she is almost too smart and adorable to be believed. The kid bats her eyes and twirls around and you’re toast, just totally in love with her and her Squirt Way. But then she opens her mouth to say something genius and you think, “Please, please Lord, let this person use her powers for good.” Because she’s scary advanced, human-wise.
For example, about a year-and-a-half ago, I was hanging out at the pool with Squirt and her mom and Squirt fell and got a bad scrape on her knee. Of course, Squirt was really, really upset and crying; it hurt! We were all doing the boo-boo kiss thing and trying to make her feel better, but it was a tough one. At one point, between sobs, Squirt wailed to us, “I’m n-not d-doing very well … !”
I‘m not doing very well??
The kid was three. This is what I’m talking about.
Anyway, Squirt loves to make art. The last time I saw her and her, we made art together, and that was a blast. Drawing and coloring with this kid made me remember just how very, very much I loved “doing art” when I was wee. Oh, man. It’s really in the blood, you know, the art stuff. Some kids are just art kids. As Squirt and I scribbled together that day, I made a mental note that when Christmastime came, I was gonna blow that kid’s mind with a big haul of art supplies from Chicago.
So there I am, headed away from the office, trying to figure out how to mark this not-insubstantial milestone in my grad school existence, when it hit me: Go to Dick Blick! Of course! I could go into Dick Blick and buy Squirt her art supplies!
And indeed, I went into the art superstore there on State Street and knew it was just right. I looked over papers, markers, glitters. I picked up pens, cardstock, poster paper. My eyes loved the colors everywhere; I let the smell of canvas and glue and paint carry me away.
That kid is gonna freak out. I got her some good stuff, and I’m not even sure I’m done, yet. At the heart, I suppose I did retail therapy tonight, except I got the therapy and Squirt’s gettin’ the retail.
When my mom and my sister Rebecca Fons embarked on the project of the movie theater renovation in our hometown, I knew a few things for sure.
I knew they would do it “right,” aesthetically-speaking. I knew they would deal fairly in all business matters. I knew they would work hard. And I knew they would complete the project. None of this was ever in question.
And though I anticipated that, due to their approach, this non-profit movie theater/performance space would be financially viable, and though I hoped the whole project would be a success, I couldn’t know for sure if those things would come to pass. Well, the theater has only been open since late May and it’ll take at least a calendar year or two to understand how all this is rolling along, but so far, The Iowa Theater appears to have wind in its sails. The reason for this brings me to the third thing I didn’t anticipate:
The power of a well-run movie house in a small town.
To drive this point home, I need to tell you about Winterset’s annual “Festival of Lights” up on the town square.
The Festival of Lights is a kind of pop-up holiday fest that takes place the day after Thanksgiving around 7 p.m. A few shops stay open for business; vendors sell kettle corn and cider on the courthouse lawn (though you can be sure some grownups have something stronger in their cups); Christmas music is piped through the speakers; a horse-drawn trailer takes kids around the square; and various businesses, veterans groups, school groups, and cityfolk participate in a parade where candy is tossed to the crowd. The parade culminates in the appearance of … Santa, of course! And then Santa lights the Christmas lights on the square. It’s wonderful.
I was present at last year’s Festival of Lights when my sister and mother were neck-deep in theater renovations and plans, driving hundreds of miles back and forth from Chicago to Winterset and beyond, sourcing popcorn oil and dealing with studio screening contracts. The monetary and time investment was big. The work was intense. It was all happening.
My two sisters and I stood up on the square during the 2016 Festival of Lights last year, cheering for the parade floats as they went by, huddled together in the cold. Last year, The Iowa, which is smack on the square, was dark.
“This time next year,” my sister Rebecca said, shaking her head. “This time next year, we’ll be open. It’s gonna be awesome.” Then, in typical Rebecca fashion, she added, “I really hope there’s not some alien invasion before then or a global flood or something.”
No aliens, sis.
Last night, at the 2017 Festival of Lights, the cider was there, the kettle corn was there. Santa was there. And now, at the party, the Iowa Theater’s marquee blinkled and twinkled* and that beaut’ was there, too, open for business. Well, open for charity: If you brought a canned good or personal item, you got to see the 8 p.m. movie for free. Once Santa lit the lights, the theater was flooded, so many people on the square pouring into the Iowa with their food drive items and holiday spirits high. (I was working the door: I saw it, myself.) We ran out of seats way before we ran out of merry townspeople.
“We’ll do it again next year,” I said to the folks who got there too late. “Promise.”
So yeah, the Iowa is real. The community is responding to what they helped build. The theater couldn’t exist — nor can it continue to thrive — without all the support the community has given and continues to give, whether that’s approving grant proposals, buying pre-show ads, or simply showing up to watch the live performances or the movies.
“Wayback Wednesdays” are super popular; I went to see “Grease” the last time I was home and the place was packed, many attendees dressed up in Pink Ladies jackets and poodle skirts. At the screening of “Gone With the Wind,” a lady in her nineties stood up and said that she used to work at the Iowa as a teenager and when “Gone With the Wind” came out, she’d sneak in and watch it night after night, then go home and sob with love for Rhett Butler.
The “regular” movie nights are popular too, though some movies play better than others. Whatever the movie, with the Iowa Theater open again, Date Night is back in Winterset. Girls Night Out is back, too. Families come out together. Folks who need to get out of the house can get out of the house and come see a movie instead of … whatever else they had to do when the Iowa was dark.
This holiday season, there are a lot of good reasons to visit the Iowa; last night was just the beginning. The ballet group is doing “The Nutcracker.” The community players will present “The Gift of the Magi” later this month. You can see “Miracle on 34th Street” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” And since the theater will be on this year’s Winterset Tour of Homes, Rebecca’s planned to have”A Christmas Story” playing on a continual loop from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. — just drop in and out at your leisure, Ralphie.
Seeing my mom and Rebecca — and Steve and Marla and all the board members and the Chamber folks and everyone who has purchased a ticket or will in the years to come — seeing these people build this thing has taught me a lot. Namely, that it really is what you do locally that makes a difference in the world. It really is about our neighbors, about our backyards, about our communities.
Well, all that and lots of butter.
*blinkled and twinkled = a term I have just coined
And now, an interview I conducted this evening while sitting on the hardwood floor in the hallway, a few feet away from where serious jigsaw puzzling was taking place. Present and puzzling were my mother, my step-dad Mark, and my brother-in-law, Jack; my sister Rebecca sat on a bench nearby. There were glasses of wine on the table, as well as a bowl of Cheetos. My questions in boldface.
Note: In my family, we have a reception desk bell we put out when we do a puzzle. Every time someone finds a piece, they get to ring the bell.
So, gang: What do you like about puzzles?
JACK: For me, a puzzle is appealing because it’s a closed system. It has an answer. Most things in the world move toward entropy and chaos. Puzzles are the opposite. They’re one of the few things in the world that start off as chaos and become whole.
MOM: With a puzzle, you get immediate gratification with every little piece, every bite — and zero calories!
JACK: Well, if you’re eating Cheetos, it’s different. (Ding!)
Do you have a particular method or approach to beginning a puzzle?
MARK: Well, sure. (Ding!) Most people approach a puzzle the same way: Do the frame first. Because the straight edge pieces are easy to find and fit together. And having the outside edge then gives you a structure. After you get your edge in place, you move to your subassembly: Pick a color or shape within the puzzle and take it one bite at a time.
JACK: “Subassembly.” I like that.
MOM: I pick up a piece and find the location on the picture, then I place it in that general vicinity. If it can’t fit anywhere … Well, then, sometimes I put it back down.
Mother, you said earlier today you didn’t like puzzles.
MOM: I think they’re a waste of time.
JACK: The plot thickens. (Ding!)
MOM: One could be making something useful, like a quilt. Putting a puzzle together is the antithesis of making quilt. But I will admit, it’s nice for a little relaxation during the holidays. You sit together and eat salty snacks and drink alcoholic beverages. It works.
REBECCA: I hate puzzles.
You hate them?
REBECCA: Make ’em and break ’em. That’s all they are!
Can you say more about that?
REBECCA: Puzzles are boring, for one thing. And the satisfaction of finding a piece is never enough, it never lasts long enough. Besides, there’s this weird … Like, everyone’s searching all the time. (Ding!) Then, when you finish a puzzle, you’re like “Cool, we made something that looks exactly like the picture on this box. Now let’s break it.” And if you’re doing a puzzle on the dining room table, it’s like, “Oh, we can’t eat at this table because there’s a puzzle here.” And then there’s the horror of finishing a puzzle and seeing there’s a missing piece.
MOM: I found a puzzle piece up at Sunrise Cottage. I couldn’t figure out which puzzle it went to, so I taped it to the puzzle cupboard with a sticky note. One day when I’m dead and gone, a grandchild of mine, maybe a great-grandchild will find where it goes and they’ll say, “Oh, Gramma Fons. She was so caring, so thoughtful! Just think, she cared about where this little puzzle piece would end up.”
JACK: Yeah, like, “Gather ’round, kids. Do you know what OCD is?”
(Everyone laughs. Ding!)
Last question: How many puzzles do you think we have in our family?
MOM: Oh, we give them away. We never do a puzzle twice.
But like, over time.
MARK: Probably a hundred. Probably more. (Takes sip of beer and then almost spits it out.) Geez, what’s a puzzle cost? Twenty bucks? Think of that money! My grandfather thought puzzles were the devil’s work. He just couldn’t stand them.
MOM: That was his mother’s side of the family. His father’s side of the family — what a bunch of no-counts!
MARK: Honey, that side of the family was no good. Horse traders, every one of ’em.
Can I put that in the interview?
MARK: (Ding!) I don’t care.
MOM: Mark’s the first to say it!
I’m glad we had this talk, you guys.
MARK: Yeah, puzzles. It doesn’t make much sense. But it gets in your blood.
It started this morning. Each Thanksgiving, my family helps prepare the free holiday meal at the Methodist Church. We’ve done this for a few years, now, and I love it. It feels good to be around other people, it feels good to help those less fortunate, it feels good to work in a kitchen. (I know my way around one, remember?)
This big holiday meal, which includes all the staples (i.e., turkey, pie, cran sauce, etc.), is served at noon in the basement of the church. But the food is also available for delivery for those who are homebound for medical reasons or who can’t drive for one reason or another. With the exception of Jack, who often helps with the gravy in the kitchen — and my step-dad, Mark, who makes the deviled eggs, grody — my family is usually put on delivery meals. We post up in the back room and get our little assembly line going: pie, roll, broccoli salad, cran sauce, egg, close the box. Stack. Repeat dozens and dozens of times.
Last year, I was on baked apple duty and even though it was a very sticky job, scooping all those hundreds of baked apples into cupcake foils, I secretly loved it. I really perfected my wrist maneuver by the end of the shift, made sure the cups didn’t squish and each apple had a good amount of sauce. The church organizers didn’t put baked apples on the menu this year, but I’d like to think I did a pretty good job with the rolls. I go with the flow.
My sister Rebecca and my cousin Greg and I went out to deliver some meals as it got closer to noon. The doors we knocked on were shabby, worn. One lady opened the door and frightened us: She had some serious sores all over her face and arms, and the apartment absolutely reeked of cigarette smoke. But she was so nice.
“Happy Thanksgiving!” we said to her, and she said, “Happy Thanksgiving!”
We went to another house where a lady sat watching TV all alone. A large doll had been placed on a chair in her living room, facing the TV, with a tea set spread out next to her. Yeah, it was spooky. It was also sad. Everyone needs friends.
Last year, there were more meals to box and more deliveries to make. I’m not sure why this year was lighter. But even if one hungry person was fed today by that church, I reckon that’s a victory for humanity, and I was glad to be there for it.
After our time with the meal, we came back home to get our own underway. My brother-in-law Jack outdid himself with the turkey this year; that is high praise, indeed.
We did the whole “go around the dinner table and say what you’re grateful for” thing.
Do you ever have a task that just sits and sits because you don’t want to do it, so you don’t prioritize it, and then you finally do do it, not because you suddenly become excited to do it, but because you’ve just had it with yourself and can’t stand to not do it anymore?
Today, because I couldn’t stand another day of avoiding doing so, I finally hand-washed my stockings, pantyhose, and nylons. I don’t know if those are all slightly different things or essentially the same things, but I have more to get done this evening and can’t go look it up at the moment. All I know is that what I own in this wardrobe category lives in a single drawer in my closet but has been living in a small laundry basket for probably two months while I go about not dealing with washing it all.
Now, I don’t wear stockings too often and really never in the summer, but that’s just the point: Since I don’t need these items right now, it’s a great time to wash them and have them all nice when the weather turns. I’m not sure what was keeping me from doing it, honestly. I can think of a bunch of chores I dislike way more than handwashing (e.g., rinsing out a garbage can, dealing with that container of hummus in the back of the fridge that may or may not date to the Pleistocene Era, writing enormous tuition payments, etc.)
But today was the day that I completed the task and it was great, not only because now I have nicely-washed ‘tockins, but because I remembered the cutest story and thought of my Gramma Graham.
“Mary,” you’re saying, “I’m excited to hear a cute story and I’d love to know about your grandmother, but you’ve got a typo. It’s ‘stockings’, not ”tockins”.”
Oh, it’s no typo, my friend, though I do appreciate your eagle-eye. Indeed, I meant to say ‘tockins — and I’ll tell you why.
Dorothy Graham was my mother’s mother and she was the best. She had a graduate degree in English and taught high school English for many years. She had three children, one of which was my mother, so good job there, Gramma. She was honest, hard-working, and kind. She always had Fun-Size Snickers bars in her pantry and all my friends loved her, especially my friend Annie, who would just go hang out with Gramma, even if I wasn’t around. Oh, and by the way: Gramma started the town newspaper in Norwalk, Iowa, when she was sixty years old, people. That local paper is still going strong today, though my gramma passed in 2001. Dorothy shows up in my dreams, sometimes, and I love that when it happens. Remind me to tell other stories about her, okay?
Anyway, it’s years ago and I’m playing at Gramma’s house in Norwalk. I don’t know exactly how little I was, but I was darn little. Gramma was doing the laundry — and what do you suppose she was handwashing in the back bathroom? Her nylons and such, just like I did today. But back then, I knew exactly one thing about nylons/pantyhose: that I could not touch them or pull on Mom’s or Gramma’s because these strange garments were very, very fragile and delicate. Think about it: No one in pantyhose wants a four-year-old putting her grubby mitts on her stockings, so it’s a good strategy to say they are basically made of gossamer filament and pure air. And to a four-year-old, that’s totally what a sheer pair of pantyhose looks like: weird thread and air.
So, as the story goes, I walk into the bathroom and I see my Gramma washing nylons in the sink. And I see several pairs hanging up on the shower rod. And my eyes get big as dinner plates. And I cannot believe what I’m seeing. And I say, in shock and extremely concerned:
“Gramma! You can’t wash ‘tockins!!”
My gramma thought this was great. She explained to me that yes, ‘tockins were delicate, but that they were strong enough to wash, that they wouldn’t disintegrate in water and in fact could take a lot of wear, if a person was careful.
All my ‘tockins are hanging up on the shower right now, drip-drying. I shouldn’t have waited so long to do the task; I love being a woman with ‘tockins in the bathroom, and I loved my gramma, and really, all humans are all alike.
I drove over to Iowa City on Friday to attend a wedding with my pal Sevy, who handles the art direction for F Newsmagazine.
Even though I had never laid eyes on either the bride or groom before yesterday — I was Sevy’s “+1” for the occasion — I could just tell Danny and Cate had never looked better. It’s always like that when people get married, especially if their names are Danny and Cate.
And speaking of beautiful people: My mom is prettier than Princess Diana.
I bring it up because last night, after I kicked off my strappy sandals and plopped onto the bed with my guest gift bag (there were Bit-O-Honeys in there; total score) I turned on the dumb TV and there was a terrible, quasi-documentary on Princess Diana. And even though it was all sensational/sentimental, even though the show had non-experts and hangers-on talking about Diana like they actually knew her or had anything of actual value to say on the subject, I kept watching. Because Princess Diana reminds me of my mom. She always has. Always did, I guess.
You see, when Diana was at the height of her fame and beauty and power, it was the 1990s and I was in high school. No one in my family or friend circle was “into” Princess Diana, per se; Iowa folks don’t get too excited about the Queen of England or her court, because who does she think she is, the Queen of England?? Still, Diana was a big celebrity back then, so she was in our lives whether we liked it or not. I remember being at the Barnes & Noble in Des Moines and I bought a magazine with her portrait on the cover. I think it was Vogue or Time. I don’t remember the magazine but I do remember Diana was absolutely stunning in a black turtleneck. I bought the magazine because the woman looked familiar to me.
Diana had kind of a wide nose. She had fluffy, curly hair, cut shortish; she wore high-waisted shorts with a belt and, when she wasn’t rocking the turtleneck, she often wore blouses with shoulder pads. She seemed tall; she was a mom; she was supes pretty, and she was smart. Oh, and her husband was a jerk. That was important.
Guess who also fit that exact criteria? Marianne. From the fluffy, curly hair to the shorts to the hard work to the maddening husband situation, Diana Spencer and my mom had a lot in common in the mid-1990s. And I swear, they really do share some facial/physical characteristics. It’s the build? The brow? I don’t know. I should ask my sisters.
Or maybe I just think my mom is prettier than a princess and stuff.
“Shirley Temple Wong sails from China to America with a heart full of dreams. Her new home is Brooklyn, New York. America is indeed a land full of wonders, but Shirley doesn’t know any English, so it’s hard to make friends.
Then a miracle happens:baseball! It’s 1947, and Jackie Robinson, star of the Brooklyn Dodgers, is everyone’s hero. He proves that a black man, the grandson of a slave, can make a difference in America. By watching Jackie, Shirley begins to truly feel at home in her new country, and that America really is the land of opportunity — both on and off the field.”
That’s the synopsis of In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. Do you remember this book?
We read it junior high school, all of us kids there in Winterset Middle School sixth-grade Reading. And even the kids who weren’t super hot on reading — the same kids who I was jealous of as they kicked butt in gym and/or chemistry and/or woodworking, I’ll have you know — well, we all dug In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. It’s about baseball, yes, but Betty Bao Lord’s story is also about crying and then smiling your face off because Shirley Temple Wong is so real and trying so hard. Just like we were, all of us kids. It’s the same now, too.
The school system in Winterset is small but mighty. Hometown of John Wayne! And as if that wasn’t cool enough, they knew — they knew — this was an important book. “They” were right.
The book is better, even, than the fact that after all the achingly excellent crowd-stashing suggestions re: my mom’s fabric — all of them incredible but ultimately leading to not-quiiiiite-enough yardage or yielding the brown version of the fabric instead of the black — Anna Griffin herselfheard about the whole thing and sent some to Mom so she could finish her quilt. Could you die??
I know. Me, too. But don’t die. Live, my loves, live! Live, and get to the library. Read In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson like you’re just a kid.
Remember that time that car drove into a crowd of people in Berlin? It was Christmas.
It was awful. A terrorist drove a van into a market in Berlin and I thought of Claus, of course, because Claus lives in Berlin. What I never got around to mentioning is that when I went to visit Claus in January, my hotel was practically on top of the site where that man did that. It was just a few weeks later, when I walked past for the first time. There were still many lit candles. There were still framed pictures of people who died, pictures of those injured irrevocably.
Ruin and death.
Last night, I had dinner with Heather in River North. We had tacos. Afterward, I walked her to the bus stop at Watertower Place. I blew a kiss to my friend as she boarded the bus north and after we waved to each other through the window, I turned to walk the 1.8 miles home, straight down Michigan Avenue. It was obvious that’s what I’d do; I had seen the news. I needed to be around other people. The air was fine, I was physically fine, and I was wearing my hat.
Baby, you should’ve been there. The world was out there. Families. Couples in love. Teenagers. Older folks. Babies in strollers. All of us, on a mild summer night in one of the greatest cities in the world, walking along the sidewalk to get across the great Chicago River, all of us together there on the DuSable Bridge.
It would’ve been be so easy to plow a car through us all.
Michigan Avenue is a sitting duck, really. So many people to hate, and for endless reasons. All it would take is a head start, maybe followed by throwing the car into reverse to catch a few more of us. You know I’m on that bridge all the time. I’m on Michigan Avenue probably 300 days out of the year. So are many children, young lovers, old folks. Last night, we got across.
As I approached Polk Street, almost home, I heard music. My heart leaped when I realized Summerdance was going on.
Summerdance is this sublime summer series in Grant Park, right here in my neighborhood. Every week, pretty signs are stuck into the grass and a modest stage is set up in the clearing for a band or DJ. And every night, Summerdance celebrates a different kind of music. Like, one week it’ll be salsa, the next week it might be swing, or Calypso — really, any and every kind of music you can dance to gets its turn from summer to summer. There’s more: Professional dance teachers come and teach you steps from the stage! Some folks who come to Summerdance are incredible dancers and some people have two left feet, but you have never seen so many smiling people together in your life.
After the lesson, for a couple hours, the band or the DJ plays music so people can dance their news steps, under the trees, under the stars, together. There are usually about 400 people there. There is no racial demographic. All are welcome. All come.
Here is what is true:
I’m not doing enough to help protect the people on the bridge on Michigan Avenue. I’m not doing enough to keep Summerdance safe. It’s good to write to you, my friends, about how beautiful it is to be among all of my American brothers and sisters. But the internet is not enough.
If I don’t do more than I’m doing right now, the bridges will burn. The music will stop. And that’s just not gonna work for me.
The picture isn’t big enough. I need an IT person. But nevermind that! There’s no time.
To begin with, if you haven’t read yesterday’s post, you must. You just have to. Go and read this, then come back. Trust me. Would I lead you astray? Are you back? Great.
So there we are, at the lake house. It’s like 2 p.m. on Sunday, smack dab in the middle of the anniversary of my birth. I’m already in a terrific mood because Claus sent me the most enormous bouquet of Door County field flowers and my sister Rebecca asked me before we left Chicago what kind of cake I wanted and I said “funfetti” (duh) so that Mother could make the cake before we arrived on Friday because, as she told us, and I quote:
“Why make a birthday cake on Sunday when you guys have to leave Monday morning? I figured I’d make it so we could have cake all weekend.”
Marianne Fons for president.
Okay, so it’s Sunday afternoon and I’m reading a book upstairs. It’s likely I had just had some cake, but I don’t remember. I do know that I was not planning to leave my comfy recliner until I was done with my book, so when Mom called up to me to “come downstairs for a minute” I was rawther displeased.
“Mom!” I yelled back. “I’m reading! This is vacation! I’m reading!”
La Marianne did not yield.
“Mary, I need you for five minutes. Come downstairs, please.”
In my best six-year-old whine, I replied, “Don’t make me dooooo anything! It’s my birthday!”
Then, from the kitchen, a firm, “Mary. Come downstairs.”After that, a pause — because the woman knows gifts are my love language: “It’s a birthday surprise.”
Greased lightning. Down the stairs.
Suddenly finding myself on the first floor of the house, my eyes darted around. What was happening?? Was someone coming to visit?? Claus’s flowers were there on the bar. A truly ridiculous thought popped into my head. I gasped and grabbed Mom’s shoulder.
“Oh my god. Is Claus here??”
My mother shook her head. “Come outside.”
She led me to the water and we took a seat on the table rock. On our beach, beautiful, wide, big, flat rocks separate the water from the land and you can run and leap across them and you can sit and bask in the sun on them and nature must love that line because she is always changing it, working with it, bestowing beauty on that line. We sat down on that very line and suddenly, I knew what was going to happen:
Charlie was going to play “Happy Birthday” for me.
And so he did. From far, far down the beach, almost too far to hear but not too far to hear at all, came the sounds of a world-class trombonist playing a world-class trombone.
I flapped my hands and jumped up and down and chased my tail and indeed, Chuck played on! The tune came once more. I didn’t know if that was because he wanted to make sure I heard it or what — I heard, I heard! Do it again, Charlie! Do it again. And now we know: If anyone out there has the ability to play “Happy Birthday” to someone on an island beach from a half mile away, take it from me: Play it twice. The first time you play it, the recipient is freaking out too much to even, like, understand her life. The second round is when it really lands.
When the second solo was over, I jumped up and down like a madwoman, waving like I was stranded on the rocks, hoping Charlie could see my flailing and understand it as ecstatic gratitude. Then, I scrambled up to the house to call the Vernon residence and thank them for making possible one of the most delightful moments of my entire life. I’m deadly serious about that. And if you think it’s odd to pair the words “the most delightful [moment] of my life” and “deadly serious” in the same breath, you have never had a Chicago Symphony Orchestra musician perform “Happy Birthday” to you across Lake Michigan on a perfect August afternoon on your birthday. (By the way, I know a guy.)
A few summers back, Mom was up at the lake house with Mark.
One perfect afternoon, Mom went down to the shoreline with Scrabble, who surely wanted to rustle up some seagull jerky. There at the water, from waaaay down the beach, at the bend about a half-mile south of our place, she heard what sounded like someone playing a horn.
Yes, it sounded to Mom like someone playing some kind of brass instrument, though she couldn’t place which kind. It wasn’t a trumpet. Maybe a French horn? This wasn’t the first time Mom had registered the sound, either. As she went to fetch Mark for a second opinion, my mother looked back once more and saw a golden flash of sun glinting off metal. It was a horn! But it wasn’t on shore. Was the player standing in the water?? Playing a horn while wading?
That’s how we met the Vernons.
You see, Mom was right. There was a dude out there practicing music in the water. But it wasn’t just any dude, and it wasn’t just any music, either. Our Island neighbor turned out to be none other than Charlie Vernon, one of the world’s most celebrated trombonists, a man who has graced the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) for over 20 years and counting. Charlie’s wife, the luminous, whip-smart, first-draft-pick-in-the-zombie-apocalypse Alison Vernon, is a musician, too. Her lilting soprano voice would stir even the iciest of hearts, and that’s when she’s singing on an actual stage. I haven’t heard her singing while standing in Lake Michigan, but I want to.
I tell you all this because the Vernons had a huge hand in this terrific recent birthday of mine. This post is in two parts because there are two equally terrific sections to share and I don’t want anyone skimming!
Jack, Rebecca, and I arrived at the Island on Friday. Mom had made reservations for five at the perch fry at Findlay’s restaurant that night. It was pretty much non-negotiable when we decided we were coming “up Island,” as Mark likes to say; the perch fry is not to be trifled with. The longstanding Island dinner only happens Friday nights; you have to have a reservation; you have to tell Mrs. Findlay when you call if you want baked potato or fries; you get cherry pie at the end, and if you’re local (or close enough, like us) you know to ask for your pie a la mode. The Friday night perch fry has been happening in this exact manner since the Pleistocene era because if it is delicious, please do not fix it.
We had just been seated when who should walk into the dining room? Charlie and Alison Vernon!! We immediately scooted so they could sit with us and it was cozy and perfect.
Toward the end of the last platter of fish, Mom asked us kids if we had ever heard the story about how Alison and Charlie had been integral in the campaign to get Maestro Riccardo Muti, the world-class, virtuoso conductor, to come to Chicago and lead the city’s symphony. We sort of knew about that, but no, none of us knew the full tale.
Now, I’d like to think my family has a catalog of great stories, but Friday night we were delighted to be out of our league, big time. The story Alison and Charlie told of how a community of musicians in a major metropolis fell in love with a conductor and wrote him personal letters to get him to Chicago — and how these two dear friends of ours were so committed to helping the whole process because they believed, to their core, Muti was The Man — kept us utterly in thrall. Oh! That story is a tear-jerking, nail-biting, heart-swelling, gloriously triumphant tale and two of the lead actors were our personal storytellers. Heaven.
Anyway, the next day, there were more gifts from the Vernons. And you won’t believe what I have to tell you. You just won’t believe what happened.
My birthday this year was so good, it’s going to go down as one of the best in my life. I don’t make such a statement lightly. Birthdays can be just the absolute pits, some years. This one wasn’t at all.*
There were so many perfect things that happened. I think the first thing I’ll tell you about is the flowers. So there I was, sitting in my jim-jams and robe yesterday morning, reading a book at the kitchen bar, idly chatting with my family, sipping tea; you know, all that strenuous Island work.
There was a knock at the door. Deducing that we had company (it seemed logical) and that it was sub-optimal for me to receive guests in my ‘jams, I leaped up and scrambled into the shower.
Shower complete and dressed like a person should be dressed at that hour of the day, I peeked my head out of the bathroom to see who had come to call. But there was no guest. Instead, Mom, Rebecca, and Jack, the three of them there in the living room, turned my attention to an absolutely enormous bouquet of the most gorgeous flowers I have perhaps ever seen: Black-eyed Susans, crown vetch, lilies, tiny-purple-flowers-I-don’t-know-the-name-of, mini-cattail thingies, lush greenery, and more. In its generous vase, that bouquet measured about as tall as I am from my waist to the top of my faux-blonde head.
I was confused. What? How did —? Did they come from my aunt? That was nice of her, but… The peanut gallery flapped their arms and pointed and said, “Read the card! Read the card!”
Slowly, I turned back to the flowers and inspected. There, tied with a ribbon wrapped around the glass, a simple message on a small, white square of paper: “Happy Birthday, Mary — With Love, From Claus. xoxo.”
Me, I made a little squeak and blinked back the tears instantly springing to my eyeballs. I had a towel around my shoulders to dry my wet hair and I kind of pulled it up and over my head. I needed to hide for some reason. I still peeked out from the top of my head-towel burrito with big, wide eyes, scanning every petal.
“Claus sent me flowers?” I said, and a big, fat tear rolled down my cheek. I looked over at my family. My heart was like, foofing around, doing some sort of foofing maneuver.
“Nice guy,” Jack said, and went back to the newspaper. “I always liked Claus.”
“Rebecca helped him arrange it all,” Mom said. She kind of sing-songed it. “Flower delivery, on an island, on a Sunday morning. Not baaad.”
I looked back at the flowers. They just didn’t seem real at all. My sister Rebecca was at her laptop on the couch. I asked her if it was true, if she worked on this with Claus. She nodded and said, “Sure did.”
Later in the day, Claus and I skyped. We’ve been doing that a lot lately, video chatting across continents. It’s so hard to love a person so much and they’re not here and you remember the last time you saw them wasn’t so great but that person is great so then you think you’re nuts but then you just feel so sad when you’re in contact but have no semblance of any next step, exactly, except/and then you remember how this person is not perfect but then you remember you’re not, either, Mary Fons oh my good lord in heaven, and then you feel like throwing up your hands and then you just feel like throwing up and then you get flowers, on your birthday, across an ocean and a lake. And that person sent them.
There’s no florist shop on the Island. Claus and Rebecca worked with the lady who simply “does the flowers” up there. That means that all those perfect blooms and blossoms were culled from fields and gardens on Washington Island. They were all local. They were of — and in — the moment. Just like me. And Claus.
That’s the flower story.
*There’s even more birthday to come. Sophie, the World’s Best Birthday Celebrator, has plans for me on Friday. Zounds…!