THE LUCK O’ THE IRISH

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Are you sober yet?  If you’re like millions of Americans you celebrated St. Patrick’s Day last Friday by consuming some spirits in honor of the occasion.  Some of us are genuinely of Irish extraction but on St. Patrick’s Day everyone is Irish.  Simply donning a green hat or sporting shamrock underwear gives the wearer some implicit permission to get toilet-hugging drunk.  There actually are a lot of Americans with Irish bloodlines – 37 million to be exact.  That’s 12% of the population, ranking just behind Germany in most frequently reported ancestry.  Heck, we have eight times the number of Irish than Ireland itself!   Which is probably as good an explanation as any as to why the holiday is so much more popular here than in Ireland.  Twenty years ago my husband’s cousin from Scotland came to San Francisco on business and we met him for dinner near our workplaces.  Unfortunately, the only night he had available was St. Patrick’s Day and to further the problem, we worked right around the corner from Harrington’s Bar and Grill.   We met at a nearby restaurant that required our cousin to walk from his hotel right by Harrington’s front door.  Or as close to the front door as he could get.  There are a lot of Irish in San Francisco and they seemingly all gather at Harrington’s each year to celebrate the patron saint.  When he finally navigated his way to the restaurant he was wild-eyed and I think just the tiniest bit shell-shocked.  He stammered, “What is with you Americans and St. Patrick’s Day?”  Well, it turns out, we practically invented the holiday.

 

 

Since around the ninth or 10th century, people in Ireland have been observing the Roman Catholic feast of St. Patrick on March 17.  But the first parade held in honor of St. Patrick’s Day took place in the United States.  On March 17, 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City.  The parade, along with their native music, helped the soldiers reconnect with their Irish roots and fellow countrymen.  Over the next three decades numerous groups formed to celebrate Irish heritage, each sponsoring a parade on St. Patrick’s Day.  By the mid-1800s the groups combined forces into what is now known as the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the largest in the country and the oldest civilian-sponsored parade in the world.

 

Of course, all that marching is exhausting so finding a good pub to quench one’s thirst became part of the day’s tradition.  Some people take pride in finding good Irish pubs wherever they go, regardless of the time of year.  In fact, although I won’t mention names, someone I’m related to that also writes for this blog fashions himself a connoisseur of Irish drinking establishments.  He is the only person I know who could trek all the way to Machu Picchu and find an authentic Irish pub in which to have a Guinness.  But he is far from alone.  What is this obsession so many have with the Irish?  I’ve read more than one article claiming the Irish are the most beloved ethnic group in the world.  Of course, part of that affection is tied to the “happy drunk” reputation, but in fact it goes further than that.  The Irish are deemed to be some of the most sentimental souls on Earth.  One need only read the famous Irish poets to understand the truth of that.  The Irish are also known world-wide for their sense of humor and dry wit.  Oscar Wilde, the noted Irish writer, filled our world with his bon mots.  One of my favorites is:  “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad.  People are either charming or tedious”. George Carlin was perhaps one of the funniest comedians ever with his wry observations of everyday life and Melissa McCarthy is a talented entertainer (come on, that bathroom scene in Bridesmaids is a classic!).  The Irish also have the ability to write lyrically and capture an audience, despite sometimes playing fast and loose with the facts.  One of my favorite sayings, told to me by an Irish friend who was wound-up in the middle of a fantastical yarn, is “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”.  My brother and I have at times adopted that as our motto.

 

There’s also the famous saying “Luck of the Irish”, although I have discovered that the phrase started as a derisive jab at the Irish immigrants who came to America in the late 1800’s.  It originated in the gold and silver mines to describe the Irish who found their “pot of gold” and became rich and successful.  The Irish were never given full credit for their accomplishments.  Instead it was widely believed that the “Irish fools” had gained fortune only by sheer luck, as opposed to brains and hard work.  Our only full-blooded Irish ancestor, Julia Stack Billiou, came to America during this period but as you might recall from my last post, she was not lucky in any sense of the word, having been shot by her Chinese cook.  Nevertheless, her immigration gives our family claim to Irish heritage and provides cover for our love of good writing, a stout beer, and a strong Irish Coffee.  I call that lucky indeed!

 

 

 

THE FLOOZIE, THE FELON AND FAKE NEWS

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Last week I was researching the history of Pulga, a small town in Northern California, for some copy I’m writing for their website.  As it happens, this town is very close to Willows, where our dad’s family settled in 1829.  Our dad was born and raised there and the land is still owned and ranched by members of our extended family.  When I wrote our family history six years ago I discovered that we had something of a colorful past – our great-great grandmother, Julia Billiou, was murdered while sitting at her dining table.  That’s not something you find on Ancestry every day.

When I was writing our history I was lucky enough to connect with a third cousin (I think twice removed but I can never keep that stuff straight) who had a treasure trove of information about Julia and her husband, Joseph Billiou, including copies of the newspaper accounts of her murder.  The local papers in Oroville and Chico reported that the Billiou’s 16 year-old Chinese cook, Hong Di, burst out of the kitchen on the night of April 7, 1887 and in a drunken rage, shot the ranch foreman, William Weaver, in the shoulder.  He then shot Julia as she rose from the table, striking her directly in the heart and killing her instantly.  Our great-grandmother, Annie, was shot at three times, but by that point Hong’s aim was a bit off and he missed her each time.  Hong ran from the ranch, hiding in the brushes near the local creek for three days until he was caught and brought to trial.  The jury found him guilty, but instead of the normal death sentence for a murder, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

It would be a vast understatement to say that the verdict did not go down well with the local townspeople.  Before the judge and jury had even left the courtroom there was shouting from the gallery calling for Hong’s lynching.  The mayor called out the posse to guard the jail that night but a raucous band of 200 vigilantes stormed the facility.  They found the cell in the basement where Hong was detained and demanded a full confession.  This confession is what was reported in the local papers – that he’d imbibed in too much whiskey and that he didn’t mean to kill Julia as she had been kind to him.  Nevertheless, the vigilantes dragged him down the street to the train turnstile and hung him.  According to the papers, there was great celebration that night over the “justice” that was carried out.  None of the vigilantes were ever arrested for their actions.

Joseph Billiou – jerk or jilted?

Fast forward to last week when I was doing research on Pulga.  I decided as long as I was studying the local area I’d Google Julia’s murder to see if there was anything I’d missed.  It turned out to be a lesson in “be careful what you wish for” because there was new information and it did not reflect well her.  A recently published book about lynching in California has a full page devoted to Julia’s murder and Hong’s hanging. The author wrote that both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee published the FULL account of Hong’s confession while the local papers chose not to run the full story because it “impinged on the good character of one of the town’s most beloved citizens”.  To say the least. It turns out that a couple of months prior to the murder, while Mr. Billiou was in San Francisco on business, Hong stumbled upon Julia and Mr. Weaver in a “compromising position” up in the hay loft when Joseph was out of town.  Mr. Weaver threatened Hong with death if he told Mr. Billiou about the affair when he returned to the ranch.  Hong’s full confession also stated that his real target was Weaver and that he had great affection for Julia because she taught him to read and write English.  So in that spring of 1887 I think it’s safe to say that tensions were running a little high in the household.  Julia was cheating on her husband, the ranch foreman was fooling around with the boss’s wife, and the cook was scared of being killed at any moment.

These new revelations have me taking a second look at Julia.  Her track record for fidelity wasn’t so great to begin with.  Shortly after she arrived in Willows from Ireland she was engaged to Joseph’s brother, Michael.  When Joseph arrived in California to join Michael, Julia broke off the engagement and married Joseph.   That had to make for an awkward Thanksgiving.  Then at age 50 – which was like 100 in 1887 – she has a fling with the ranch foreman.  Maybe Joseph was a real jerk and she could only find true love with Mr. Weaver.  She took her secrets to the grave, not even leaving a photograph of herself behind, so she’ll forever remain an enigma.

All I know is that I will never again look at all those prim and proper women in my family tree in the same way.

 

MY HOBBY IS … SLEEPING?

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

I have been knitting since I was 14 years old.  It is a passion that has held me in good stead through my youthful dating years (more sweaters knit for undeserving boyfriends than I can count), marriage, divorce, singledom again, and re-marriage.  I have turned to knitting in good times and bad and the craft has not only provided me warmth and some Zen-like moments, but a whole host of friends with like-minded interests.  Only someone who also has a passion can understand the joy of immersing yourself in a hobby and learning everything you can about it.  I came to that realization a few years ago when I hosted a dinner party with people who also had a passion for something.  One guest was having a long conversation with a man about her horse show experiences when she suddenly said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.  I’m sure I’m boring you to death with this stuff.”  To which he replied, “No, I get it.  I love racing cars.  So while I don’t understand the horse show particulars, I can relate to anyone who has a passion.”  I’ve never forgotten that moment.  It was when I realized that it was less important what my hobby was than the fact that I had one, even if some people think of it as a “grandma” sport.

As I gave more thought to hobbies I decided it might be interesting to see how other people choose to spend their time – what tickles the imagination or gets people wound up.  I found the latest Harris Poll on the subject and the answer is so discouraging that I wish I could “un-know” it.  First of all, there is a wide definition of what constitutes a hobby.  For example, the number one hobby in the United States is reading.  Okay, I get that reading could be a hobby, especially if you are researching or have a particular interest in a subject matter.  But “reading” also included romance novels and magazines which, frankly, sound more like something one would do in the bathtub or while waiting for the clothes to come out of the dryer.  But at least “reading” has some virtue to it which was comforting because the second most popular hobby is “watching television”.  Wow.  Under that definition everyone who sits on a Barco lounger eating Doritos and drinking Miller Lite is taking part in their hobby.  I know people who have gotten divorced over one spouse spending too much time with their “hobby” during football season.

Gardening and fishing are also very popular, depending on the region of the country you live in, but “Computer” beat them both out.  I’d like to think that some people listed that as a pastime because they are learning about programming or graphic design.  I think the reality is that people are watching cat videos on You Tube or playing endless games of Candy Crush.  “Shopping” cracked the Top 15 in terms of hobbies but that also seems like cheating to me.  I think shopping falls into two categories:  1) things that are necessary like work clothes and groceries or 2) stuff we don’t need but buy because we’re bored/lured by a sale/haven’t hit the limit on the credit card yet.  Housework and sleeping were also on the list, which again, seem to be skirting the real definition of a hobby.  For many years my former company asked people to list their hobbies on the employment application and I can tell you that not once did anyone list “sleeping”, although we later found out the hard way that it was, in fact, their strong suit.

I’m glad that I have my knitting to sustain me.  I have a walk-in closet full of yarn and feel quite confident that in the event of a nuclear holocaust I will be able to remain in my home and entertain myself for weeks on end.  I have recently purchased a knitting machine which, despite how it sounds, is an entirely different craft and is keeping my feeble brain exercised in trying to master it.  Another reason I’m glad I knit is that I also golf.  As any golfer knows, the very act of swinging the club wreaks havoc on just about every body part.  So, as my knitter-golfer friends like to say, golfers who have no other passion are just one bad back – or rainy day – away from having nothing to do.  Maybe those guys on the PGA should learn how to knit.

WE PLAN, GOD LAUGHS

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

This blog was supposed to be about Santa Fe.  I had planned a trip there last weekend to attend a birthday bash for one of my closest friends.  I planned to eat a lot, drink too much and soak in the sites.  I planned to roast her with a birthday tribute and re-connect with old friends.  Those were my plans.  But on the Tuesday prior to the event the honoree’s 45 year-old daughter died of a pulmonary embolism. Suddenly, our plans changed.  Instead of flying off for a fun, celebratory weekend in Santa Fe, we were boarding a plane to Chicago to attend funeral services.  Oh, how quickly our lives can change.

As we reach “senior status” it becomes more common to experience loss.  In the last five years both my brother and I have lost our mother and our childhood best friend.  Numerous friends have lost spouses or are supporting them through life-changing illnesses.  Somehow we expect to encounter these events as we grow older.  But losing a 45 year-old, in the prime of her life, happily married and with a 12 year-old daughter just seems so wrong.  It is wrong.   And it is a good reminder that tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us.

That notion was hammered home to me many years ago when a friend lost her husband to cancer at an early age.  After his diagnosis she lamented, “I think about all the hours I stayed at the office doing busy work when I could have gone home.  I wish I had those hours back.”  Her sincere regret about her prioritization had a profound affect on me.  After that I never spent more time at work than I needed to.  I resisted the “how late did you work last night?” competition that seemed to pervade every workplace.  I had seen first-hand the downside of that game.  It was a good – if painful – lesson on making sure those around us know how important they are.  It’s why, as sappy as it sounds, I never leave the house without telling my husband that I love him and I end each day by telling Dash the Wonder Dog how much I appreciate all that he does for us.  Dogs don’t live nearly as long as they should.  But then again, neither do some very good people.

My friend’s life is forever changed and those who care about their family are also struggling to make some sense of it.  I think most people when faced with these horrible events take some stock.  It’s a good reminder that we can’t take anything for granted.  All of our checklists, day planners and to-do lists can be just wishful thinking.  And it’s a wake-up call (at least for me) on how we spend time.  It’s too easy to get sucked into surfing the internet on the iPad or watching dog videos.  It’s also worth remembering that not all things – or all people – are worth our time.  We need to make each day count, spent with people and activities than enrich, rather than detract.  For me the only small way that I can think of to pay tribute to a life lost too soon is to cherish every day I’m given and live it to the fullest.

Rest in peace, dear Staci D’Ancona Levy.

 

ONCE UPON A MATTRESS

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

 

We bought a new mattress last week.  For those of you who have not ventured into the nightmare that is mattress shopping I have one piece of advice – DON”T.  We put off buying one as long as we could but my aching back required some relief.  Thus began the “mattresses shopping experience”.  I have to admit, a lot has changed since we bought our last mattress 17 years ago.  The Mattress Manufacturers Association suggests you buy a new one every 8-10 years.  So we were a little overdue.  We did buy one of those foam mattress toppers about eight years ago which over time has developed a decidedly large hump down the middle.  It looks like we’re trying to hide an elephant.  My husband has been perfectly comfortable with this situation but I think “the hump” was getting to him too.

So on a rainy Sunday afternoon we traipsed down to our local mattress store.  I did a bit of research ahead of time – I was not going to let some slick salesman bamboozle me into buying more mattress than I needed.  I was under the naïve impression that reading Consumer Reports would protect me from being the lamb going to slaughter.  I was wrong.  The first thing I learned is that there is a very wide variety of mattresses out there – coil, hybrid, foam, pillow top, gel, water, memory foam, and latex.  If you’re interested in buying a horsehair mattress for $100,000 that’s available too.  It’s a dizzying array and then to make matters worse, once you decide on the type of mattress you then have to zero on the “firmness”.  Ah…and there’s the rub, so to speak.  What is firm to one person is soft to the next.  What is firm for one brand is medium-firm for another.  We found ourselves flopping down on mattresses like flounder on a ship’s deck.  And this is probably the place to mention that lying on a bed with your spouse, trying to replicate your actual sleeping positions while a salesman looms over you, is quite awkward.  Only to be outdone when the salesman puts you on a mattress with a moveable foundation.  There we were, lying on the mattress with him at the end of the bed wielding the remote control like a mad scientist.  Our legs and feet and shoulders were moving all over the place.  Then he started the massage feature.  I hated it.  It had all the soothing qualities of those massage beds you used to find in cheap hotels where you inserted a quarter and the mattress jumped around for five minutes.  But I must say I loved the idea of being able to sit up while reading in bed.  And the salesman, assessing our age, also noted helpfully that if one of us was ever incapacitated the mechanics of the bed would help us get out and on our feet easier.  We could choose from dual mattresses with individual controls or one big mattress.  And that’s where we ran into problems.  How would we handle Dash?

Despite my early intentions that our dog would never sleep on the bed, Dash and my husband conspired against me.  Dash now has a full-size pillow right between us at night.  I have to admit, I love hearing his breathing and he is always cuddling so now I wouldn’t think of kicking him out.  My husband has gone so far as to say he’d kick me out before the dog.  It’s always nice to know your station in life.  But…back to the mattress.  The problem with dual control is that there is a huge split down the middle of the bed – right where Dash sleeps.  The one big mattress with one control is – in my opinion – just another way to fight with your spouse.  Since everything moves at once you have to be in perfect agreement about when to stop reading so you can lower the bed.  I don’t know about your house but in ours we seldom turn off the light at the same time.  So all I could envision were endless arguments about bed raising/lowering and we have enough trouble just agreeing on the thermostat setting.

After trying out so many beds we were as confused as when we walked in.  I discovered that testing mattresses is a lot like wine tasting – after a while you have a tough time distinguishing between them.  Finally, we were, in fact, bamboozled by the salesman’s pitch and purchased the Tempurpedic mattress that can sense our body temperature, understand our pressure points, and adapt to our weight (good luck with that, buddy!).  It was twice the price of my first new car.  They will be delivering it this week and all I can say is – I hope Dash is happy.

 

 

THERE’S A GADGET FOR THAT

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

This past weekend the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was held in Las Vegas.  It’s a major event for high tech companies; an opportunity to showcase their latest innovations and launch trial balloons on some pretty goofy gadgets.  I love technology, although the relationship is not always reciprocated.  My language while trying to fix our computer, iPad, Direct TV or cell phone systems would make a sailor blush.  But still, I am fascinated by gadgets so it is with more than a passing interest that I follow the CES each year to see what’s on the horizon.  For those of you who are sensible and don’t pay any attention to this stuff let me give you a bit of background.  CES was started in 1967 in New York and featured such marvels as pocket radios, the Scottie record player (pictured) and the first TV’s with integrated circuits.  Integrated circuits meant that TV’s no longer had those blasted tubes, which invariably blew out right before the Ed Sullivan Show or Gillette’s Cavalcade of Sports.  Each time a tube faded out it required the services of a repairman to come and replace it.  Or at least it did in our house because our dad could barely tell a screwdriver from a hammer.

                            Kuri – the nag

Over the years the CES has become the place for companies to showcase their latest inventions.  It has featured such advances in technology as the cordless phone (remember when we had ONE phone in the house and it was attached to a wall?!)  and the cassette tape, which eliminated vinyl records from the mainstream for decades.  This week I’ve been reading about the trends for the coming year.  They range from the scary to the ridiculous.  First, virtual reality seems to be huge, with phone attachments and special glasses that can sweep you into another dimension.  I guess given all of the drama of 2016 maybe a little “virtual” in our reality isn’t such a bad thing.  The other popular trend is robotics.  There is the Kuri, a home robot that has a cute little face and will perform tasks or provide information at your command.  It can autonomously patrol around the house and – get this – has its own unique personality.  Somehow that seems just the slightest bit creepy.  Maybe I’ve watched too many episodes of Westworld but I am highly suspicious of a robot with personality.  Oh sure, at first it’s bringing me my newspaper and giving me the answer to who starred in On the Waterfront, but what stops it from telling me that I shouldn’t have that second helping of chocolate cake?  Or that I really should clean up the mess in the kitchen before I sit down to read.  With my luck I’d get a Kuri that had the “personality” of a nag.   I think I’ll stick with Dash the Wonder Dog getting my newspaper for now.

There are all sorts of “connected” gadgets this year – ones that hop onto your wireless network and interact with each other or with you, even in your sleep.  The Sleep Number company has a new bed that can sense what you’re doing all night long and make adjustments.   It will automatically adjust if you snore, add an automatic night light on the bed if you get up in the middle of the night,  and pre-warm the mattress to toast up your feet on a cold night. It also connects to an app to offer information on how you’re sleeping.  Do we really want a machine “sensing” what we’re doing all night long?  Just imagine if your local neighbor’s 15 year-old hacked your system and sent that information around the neighborhood?  Or worse, if somehow the Sleep Number bed and Kuri teamed up.  Maybe a robot’s idea of fun is to goof around with the Sleep Number elevation system.  You’d be bobbing up and down all night.

The Vacuum Shoe

I think I’ll stick with lower tech gadgets for now.  The best thing I saw come out of the show is the Shoe that Vacuums.  Yes!  You can buy a pair of shoes that will pick up dust and crumbs as you stroll along your carpeting.  Now that is innovation!

 

HAVE YOURSELF A FIZZY LITTLE CHRISTMAS

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Music, in all of its forms, always seems to evoke memories of times past.  That is never more true than at Christmas when emotions run a bit higher and hearing a carol on the radio can make even the most hard-hearted a bit sentimental.  I have been listening to the “Holly” station on my satellite radio and find myself drawn back to some wonderful Christmas memories.  Here are just a few – and to make sure you read until the end – I am also including Pop’s Christmas Ice Cream Fizz recipe.

“Silver bells, Silver bells, it’s Christmas time in the city.”

The City of Paris tree

The City of Paris tree

“Silver Bells” was our mother’s favorite Christmas song.  I remember back in the 1950’s we had a record player that was roughly the size of a modern day refrigerator.  I thought it was a miracle of engineering that we could stack records on top of each other and they would drop in succession.  At Christmastime our mother couldn’t get enough of “Silver Bells” so each time it concluded she rushed to the record player to keep the next record from dropping so she could hear it again.  The song was our anthem; every year during the Christmas season we got dressed up, including gloves and hat, to make the 22 mile trip into San Francisco.  We had three destinations:  the Christmas tree in the City of Paris rotunda, the windows at Gump’s, and getting a sundae at Blum’s on Union Square.  Only Gump’s has managed to survive.  Blum’s closed in the 70’s and Neiman Marcus is now in the City of Paris building.  The magic of the City of Paris Christmas tree was not only its 40 foot size, but the decorations – tricycles, dolls, trains and all manner of toys, bright lights, glass bulbs and a huge star on top.  Each year it was a bit different and each year I stared at it in wide-eyed wonderment.  When Neiman Marcus bought the store they tried to carry on the tradition but judging by this year’s effort – a metal, blue spiral cone hung upside down – they have done an abysmal job of it.  Where is the magic in that?  Makes me glad I grew up when I did.

 

“Silent Night, Holy Night”

Our grandmother was in her 50’s when our grandfather died in 1948.  She never re-married.  She referred to him constantly and loved to keep his memory alive through stories.  She had a full life but was always a little sad around the holidays when she missed him most of all.  His favorite Christmas carol was “Silent Night”.   When all of our relatives would come on Christmas morning our mom would always have Christmas albums playing (by now we had graduated to a “console”).  The problem was that “Silent Night” would bring our grandmother to tears.  Unfortunately, of the approximately 87 Christmas albums our mother had, “Silent Night” seemingly appeared on all of them.  So my job was to remember the various “cuts” on the albums where “Silent Night” was placed and then race to the console to skip over the track before grandma dissolved into tears.  I can’t hear that song today without thinking about her and about the countless times I practically tripped over the Christmas tree lurching for the record player.

Through the years we all will be together, if the Fates allow…”

A jolly man indeed!

A jolly man indeed!

This will be the 15th Christmas without our dad.  I miss him just as much this year as I did that very first one.  He was a happy, joyful guy, always kind and helpful to others.  He was also one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.  All year long he embodied the Christmas spirit and when I was very young I thought he even looked like Santa,  with his twinkling blue eyes, rosy cheeks and a stomach that shook like a bowl full of jelly.  He loved the holidays, welcoming friends and family alike into our home.  Our whole family misses his loving spirit but we also recognize we were very lucky to have him as long as we did and are grateful that he left us with so many cherished Christmas memories.

“…So have yourself a Merry Little Christmas now.”

One of Pop’s hallmarks was the Ice Cream fizz he served every Christmas morning.  Oh sure, most families had hot chocolate and cider while we were drinking gin.  But don’t judge – it has given a roseate hue to many a Christmas morning.  So this year we are once again sharing his recipe so that you and your family might also enjoy this wonderful tradition.

 

 

POP’S CHRISTMAS ICE CREAM FIZZ

Fill a blender 1/4 full with ice cubes

Add 6 jiggers of gin

Add 4 scoops of French Vanilla ice cream

Add 1 small bottle of soda water (the size you get in a 6-pack)

My brother Bob adds an egg so the white adds some froth, brother Jack doesn’t add an egg.  Personally, I’d add it just because you can then claim it’s a protein drink.

Just blend it well and – voila – you have a concoction sure to put a positive spin on everyone and every thing!

Our mom served them in a wine glass with a dash of nutmeg.  As we got older we would conspire with Pop and ditch the wine glass for  a chilled beer mug from the freezer. Saved having to go back for seconds…or thirds.

 

We wish everyone a Happy Holiday season – we’ll be back in 2017!

 

THE CHRISTMAS CARD DILEMMA

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

christmas-cardI love everything about Christmas – the decorations, the tree, the festive spirit that seems to permeate the air.  Of course, all that egg nog and hot buttered rum helps.  The only Grinch to my Christmas spirit is the dreaded Christmas cards.  Don’t get me wrong, I love to receive them, I just hate sending them.  So while our house is now ready for Christmas (my husband has opined that it looks like an elf vomited in here), I have put off my decision on cards until this week – do I send some out or just forget the whole thing?  Christmas cards just seem so 80’s to me – the 1880’s, which is when Christmas cards became popular in America.  The sending of cards is reminiscent of a time before the internet, when you didn’t hear from people except for the annual Christmas card.  Social media and email have completely changed that; today I can tell you what my friend down in Texas had for breakfast because she posted it on Facebook.   I know of every birth, death, marriage, divorce and trip to the mall.  So I don’t really need to get a Christmas card or worse yet, a Christmas letter, to know what my friends have been up to.  I know what my friends are doing right down to their scrambled eggs.

My Christmas cards seems to fall into four major categories.  First are the corporate cards.  You know, the ones from the banker or  insurance agent.  The first card we received this year was from our attorney, which seems only fitting since we bared our souls to him a few months ago while drawing up new life and death documents.  I don’t know whether he’s sending genuine greetings or he’s just checking to see whether the card gets returned and he needs to start filing paperwork.  The second category are from distant friends – people that we don’t see all year long but somehow the need arises to wish each other the very best for the holiday season.  Mostly they are old neighbors or workmates I couldn’t pick out in a crowd.  Am I morally obligated to continue this exchange of well-wishes?  The third group are the true friends – some of whom we see or keep in touch with all year long.  Heck, some of us are golf partners or good friends with whom we socialize every week.  We will be wishing holiday greetings in person, some of them several times.  Do we really need to send cards too?

christmas-letter

The last category is the Christmas letter.  There are some that are really well done.  Some.  But most seem to have turned the Christmas tradition of wishing others a happy season to one giant “let’s talk about me” exercise. Generally, people just don’t know where to stop.  Johnny got into Harvard?  Great.  Snookie was elected president of her third grade class?  Good for her!  But too often it goes into such minutia that it borders on the ridiculous.  My parents used to receive one that was so full of trivia and self-aggrandizement that our mom used to wait until we were all gathered on Christmas Eve so that one of us kids (by this time adults and full of “cheer”) could read it in dramatic fashion, everyone breaking into gales of laughter.  Each year my husband and I receive one from one of his former co-workers that last year had me going from the start.  In addition to a litany of the various trips taken, there was a review of golf handicaps (they went down, of course), a tabulation of their granddaughter’s Girl Scout cookie sales and the net worth of the company that their son-in-law went to work for, along with its employee count and various office locations.  Seriously.  As they’re writing this tome do they really think anyone cares about the headcount in Poughkeepsie?

christmas-ornamentPerhaps the best take on Christmas cards was from a friend of our parents back in the 60’s.  They kept every card they received the previous year.  Then they re-addressed it to the sender inserting a note that read “We liked your Christmas card so much last year that we have decided to give you the pleasure of seeing it again this year.  So, we’re sending it back to you.”  Now that is clever.  And it beats using old cards to make ornaments.  As for all the Christmas letters?  They could be shredded into bird cage liner and the circle would be closed.

So, here I sit in mid-December still trying to weigh the pros and cons of sending cards.  Mailing cards has become exponentially easier with the advent of computer-generated mailing labels so I don’t have that arthritic wrist to provide an excuse anymore.  And since I do like to see photos of people’s kids, grandkids and dogs I feel like I need to somehow reciprocate.  After all, who am I to deny the world of one more cute picture of Dash the Wonder Dog at Christmas?

 

 

 

GROUCHO MARX MAY BE RIGHT

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Thanksgiving

I’m betting they didn’t have Jell-o salad

Well, here we are, launched into the holiday season.  “Holiday season” being a euphemism for “gain five pounds”.  Like most people, I consumed more food than normal last week, further endangering my cholesterol numbers.   I dove into mashed potatoes, gravy, pies and whipped cream like I was going to “the chair”.   In my food stupor I also gave some thought to the original Thanksgiving – the one where people actually got along and shared stuff.  Can you imagine?  The Pilgrims have been on my mind lately because earlier this year I applied for membership in the General Society of Mayflower Descendants.  To say that the requirements for entry are stiff is an understatement.  These people take their mission seriously; one can imagine hunched-over researchers with green eyeshades taking delight in stamping “Reject!” on the hundreds of applications they receive.  Actually, there is ONE man who is the gatekeeper to the organization – it is he alone who makes the decision as to whether your documentation is up to snuff.

I’ll spare you the details but let’s just say this research is not for the faint of heart.  One must provide birth, marriage and death certificates for every person in the descendant line, including spouses who aren’t even a blood relation to the original Mayflower passenger.  I don’t know about you but I can’t even find my own marriage license.   I asked myself several times during the research and collection phase of this process why I was going through this effort.  I’m not sure I ever satisfied myself with a great answer except that I am a history buff.  I love not only the facts and figures but the people who lived before us and shaped our world.  No detail is too small.  I am the type of person who goes through the National Gallery, looking at the portraits wondering what the subject had for breakfast that morning.  In the case of the Mayflower passengers I have also been looking for any hints of DNA that might have trickled down to our generation and I have been pleasantly surprised to find some similarities.

The very serious William Brewster

The very serious William Brewster

John Alden, for example, was our forefather and was a “cooper” – or barrel maker – in England before setting sail.  I immediately saw a connection; our brother Jack works for Fess Parker Winery and has great knowledge about barrel-making, not to mention his excellent ability to consume their contents.  We are also related to the Elder William Brewster, the religious leader of the Plymouth Colony.  No relatives I know of inherited his pious devotion, but prior to becoming an elder he worked as a postmaster and an English teacher.  Brother Bob also worked for the post office during college and then taught high school English upon graduation.  Finally, Priscilla Mullins (who later married Alden), was the spinner and weaver for the colony.  And anyone who has seen my vast collection of yarn or knows me as president of the local knitting guild would see an immediate link.  So who knows?  Maybe there are some genetic traits that filter down.  So far I haven’t found any horse thieves  but we are descended from several rabble rousers and a heretic burned at the Salem witch trials.  Anyone who knows my brothers or me would testify that that apple didn’t fall too far from that tree either.

It’s also been interesting to see which famous people are related to Mayflower passengers and, by extension, us.  John Adams, Dan Quayle and Marilyn Monroe are also related to John Alden.  I’m not sure about John or Dan, but I know I’m related to Marilyn because, as my brother can confirm, every year on his birthday I do my best Marilyn Monroe to Jack Kennedy version of the “Happy Birthday” song.  William Brewster’s descendants include Bing Crosby, Cokie Roberts and Julia Child.  I’m questioning my relation to Julia – I think the gene pool mutated somewhere between her and me.  But I can carry a tune and I love history so I figure two out of three isn’t bad.

mayflower-descendants

As I say, it’s a long and laborious process.  I submitted my application on June 1 and I have yet to hear the status of it.  I’m hoping that I catch the man who is the arbiter of all things Mayflower in a good mood the day he reviews it.  Otherwise I may have to adopt Grocho Marx’s philosophy – “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member”.

 

DASH, THE CANINE BOB HOPE

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

dash-croppedWell…it’s been quite a week.  I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to discuss something – anything – other than the election.  Luckily, there are two events that have my attention – Veteran’s Day and Dash the Wonder Dog’s fourth birthday.  On the surface there wouldn’t seem to be any connection between those two events but this week I discovered that my beloved pet is the Bob Hope of dogs, ready to entertain the troops at a moment’s notice.  As you may recall, Dash began his working life last spring when he got a job at a local care center.  Each week he trots into the facility like he owns the joint and cuddles up with the residents.  He shamelessly begs for treats, which many of them readily provide.  He is especially fond of people who have poor hand-eye coordination because the floor around their bed or wheelchair is a veritable treasure trove of crumbs and shattered crackers.  Fortunately for Dash, such people are in plentiful supply, plus they have the added attraction of fawning over him as he roots around for their droppings.

pets-on-wheels

This week Dash was lucky enough to call on several men who were celebrating Veteran’s Day.  Most of them are former dog owners so they especially appreciate being able to pet and hold Dash.  I have observed that most of the veterans’ walls are adorned with photos of themselves in uniform, American flags, and commemorative awards and medals.  This week the center gave them special recognition at a Veteran’s Day celebration, replete with music from the ’40’s and a special memento plaque.  One of my favorite veterans is a 97-year-old man whose mental acuity puts me to shame.  The first time we visited I remarked on a photo of him in a WWII fighter plane.  “Oh yes”, he said, “I was 19 years old when I enlisted.  It was a good time to be 19 because I was too young to have the good sense to be scared“.  That said, he wheeled around and pulled a sheet of paper out of his drawer.  On it was a typed list of the FIFTY missions that he flew in Europe.  That is an extraordinary number of missions – the maximum allowed by the Air Force at the time.  He is still quite proud of his accomplishment, as well he should be.  Last week I noticed that he had the book “Killing the Rising Sun” on his bed.  There is a picture of General MacArthur on the cover so I mentioned to him that my husband and his family were rescued from a Japanese internment camp by Mac Arthur.  “Humph,” he said, “I think there’s only one word for MacArthur – pompous!”.  As I said, he’s as sharp as a tack.   We discovered last summer that this wonderful man and I share a birthday.  I can only hope that portends I will be as engaged and dynamic as he is at 97.

wwii-womenAlso residing in the care center is a retired four-star general and a man who fought in the Battle of the Bulge.  I love talking with these men, not only because they love being entertained by Dash, but because I have such unbridled admiration for their service and frankly, the dedication of their entire generation.  I read just enough sociology books to be boring at parties, and one recent phenomenon that worries me is the rise of the “cupcake” or “snowflake” generation – young people who are easily offended, shrink away from any opinion that differs from their own, and seek the constant reassurance of hearing “good job”.   I think about the “Greatest Generation” by comparison, whose work ethic and approach to life was forged by the Great Depression and World War II.  Most, like my own parents, didn’t have the money for college.  Their families “made do” during the Depression and when war broke out they volunteered and did whatever they could to contribute to the war effort.  That generation knew a lot of sacrifice and hard work.  They didn’t expect anything to be handed to them and learned how to face adversity with renewed resolve.  The World War II vets are dying at a rate of 1100 a day, and it is estimated that by the end of the decade almost all of them will all be gone.  We will be the worse for it.  So it was a privilege this week to wish the men in the care center a happy Veteran’s Day – we need to cherish them while we still have them.

As for Dash – we will celebrate his special day on Wednesday with treats and – if my husband isn’t looking – a cute little birthday hat.  I can’t believe how quickly the past four years have passed.  Our lives are forever changed by having this sweet and loving dog in our lives.  He makes us smile every day and his kisses, which he so lavishly dispenses, act as a salve to mend any cracks  in our hearts.  I have to say he really is a wonder dog.  Last week a nurse at the care center asked us to visit a new patient in the memory unit.  Dash crawled up on her bed and she stroked and cooed for five minutes.  When we left the nurse said it was the first time in three days that the woman had smiled.  In short, he makes everything – and everyone – better.  Maybe I should send him to Washington.