Christmas at the White House

photo courtesy of soulofamerica.com

photo courtesy of soulofamerica.com

Politics aside, the White House is pretty magnificent, don’t you think? While you are frosting cookies or wrapping presents, listen to this story about what it takes to make it shine for the holidays! Click here.

 

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“ONE dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies.

ONE dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.”

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That is how the story “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry begins. My memory of this story is being in a long flannel night gown with my mom and her big Norman Rockwell Christmas story book. Even today I get caught up in the story– the lovelorn feeling of wanting to give the very best to the one you love when your pockets and purse are empty—especially when you forget that the very best you can give is yourself.I still love to get caught up in the bustle of the season and purity of the love between Jim & Della. I hope you will too.

You can read the whole story below, or you can download it to a reader for free by clicking here.

ONE dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”

The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling—something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. Her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: “Mme. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”

“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.

“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”

Down rippled the brown cascade.

“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.

“Give it to me quick,” said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation—as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value—the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends—a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do—oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty-seven cents?”

At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit of saying a little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.”

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two—and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again—you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say ‘Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice—what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”

“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.

“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”

Jim looked about the room curiously.

“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.

“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you—sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year—what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs—the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims—just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”

And then Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.

“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”

The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

Sing Choirs of Angels: Enjoying Trinity Choir from Home!

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When I was 20 or so I was an apprentice at the world-renowned Spoleto USA arts Festival and it was a pivotal experience for my life and my career.For a handful of jam-packed months I rode a rented bike all around the Charleston peninsula ferrying keys to festival artists and  taxi-ing myself to all of the incredible events and performances that I got to attend for free.   I got glimpses of dressing rooms and the hidden corners of historic theaters and performance spaces I was in the midst of beautiful parties, astounding talent, and the inner workings of America’s preeminent performing arts organization. I learned from the very best teachers at the top of their careers how to expect perfection and make it happen. This has served me well and I look back on the experience so fondly.  

My wheels were complete with a bell and a basket.

My wheels were complete with a bell and a basket.

I would return as an apprentice the following year and as a patron for many years after that. One of the most special part of the experience were the friends I made–some of them have gone on to  dedicate their lives to their art. One such blindingly talented person is Luthien Brackett. When we met she was a member of the Ryder College Westminster Choir.  Today, Luthien and a legion of other powerful, angelic voices now make up the choir at Trinity Church in the financial district in Manhattan.

Through the power of the internet, you can get swept up in what really sounds like a choir of angels singing while enjoying this very snowy day. I know I am.

Click here to hear the Trinity Choir performance of Handel’s Messiah.

Happy St. Nicholas Day!


2012-12-13 18.42.59Happy St. Nick’s Day!

When I was in elementary school I remember coming back into our warm classrooms after eating lunch and leaving our little shoes in the long, marble corridors (this only works in arctic climates, like Buffalo, NY where kids reach for boots instead of their shoes to go home) . We would walk to our desks in stocking feet and full of excitement. We giggled about being barefoot at school. The boys slid across the slick floor when they thought no one was looking.  When were ready to go home at the end of the day, all of the girls were sent to the coat closet to get their things. Then all of the boys. And as we all wiggled our feet into moon boots or plastic bags to waterproof our feet before stepping into rain boots, there was a murmur of anticipation. Did he come? Did St. Nick come to SCHOOL? It was almost more than a six year old could stand. When we were buttoned into our coats with hats on our heads and mittens on our hands we were lined up in two neat lines at the door. And Miss Pat, my intensely stern first grade teacher waited for our silence. She opened the door, and let us out to our shoes! They were filled with treasure from St. Nicholas: Jesus stickers (the kind you had to lick to make sticky), an orange, two foil wrapped chocolates and a (be still my art supply loving heart) a can of Play-doh.  That still feels like the magic of Christmas to me.

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Who wouldn’t want to find chocolate in their shoe? Well, as long as it is wrapped, of course.

At home, my Mom took on the role of  St. Nicholas, filling our whole family’s shoes every December 6th that we all lived at home. And now, I carry it on in my house.  St. Nicholas Day is is also a special day for my family another reason–it’s my Dad’s Birthday. My Dad, like St. Nick, helps everyone. If you are stranded with a flat tire, my Dad is the person you want to drive by. I won’t embarrass him here by listing his kind acts, but there are many and I am so glad for me and for the whole world that he was born.

A lot of different countries claim St. Nick as their own. I am not sure where it started, but the legend is just about always the same, a man of God who gave to those in need; and he did it in secret to preserve their dignity and to their surprise.  You can be St. Nick to someone today. It could be as simple as Jesus stickers and an orange or as huge as making dinner and emptying the dishwasher. Give of yourself in a way that makes everyone feel good. Think of the smiles you will create.

The picture above is from the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, VA (sorry to the artist, I couldn’t find a signature). You can look for it at the Torpedo Factory’s Holiday Open House tomorrow night. The event is free and open to the public and they are giving away thousands of dollars in prizes–including art and art supplies!

You can learn more about the history of St. Nick at the related articles below.

Adventures in Limoncello

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2013-11-22 18.16.01It all started with the black plastic bag that screams: “Hey world, I just came from the liquor store.”

Actually, it starts a mile before I got that bag. When I was in Italy a few years ago, a serendipitous turn of events landed me and Lola in the beautiful coastal town of Sorrento. Sorrento is far and away one of the most magical places I have ever been. The whole coast captured my heart, from Amalfi with the pebbly beach and strings of lemons hanging from the door frames and painted on every flat surface in homage. It is the stuff books are written about.

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Sorrento, on the other hand, is the kind of place where you could see yourself living. The winding streets and hidden alcoves of frescos and streets lined with vespas—the passages leading to hidden courtyards and the open town square complete with a bright yellow church and a glimpse of the rocky cliffs above the Mediterranean which is just a small swath of blue between Sorrento and the island of Capri. When we were there one rainy late morning the weather broke one and we took a walk. We wandered around and tried on backpacks and purses in deep greens, indigo, and jet black. We sorted through silk scarfs and fine linens, and we bought lace hankies tatted by nuns.  When we were though shopping we followed my patented method for avoiding tourist trap restaurants and getting an authentic meal—pick a street, then make the first right and the first left. Your restaurant will be right there (this method has never failed me—and you can never get lost). We walked down three stone stairs and sat at one of four tables in an empty restaurant. There were cruets of olive oil on each table. We stacked our packages to the side and we waited for whoever was rumbling behind a curtain like the Great and Powerful Oz to come out and take our order.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAWhen a man with salt and pepper hair emerged, he had a carafe of red wine and a basket of warm bread in his hands. I am sure we squealed. We ordered in Italian and the bashful man disappeared behind the curtain again. When he came back he was all apologies…”signora, no Bolognese.” Bummer. He was out of what I wanted. I touched his hand to stop the flow of “Mi, dispiace!” and I told him to bring me whatever he wanted. The bashfulness cleared and his face erupted in a smile. When our food came, it came with a vengeance. There were so many bites to try. I don’t remember all of it but I remember the lasagna. Mmm Mmmm. Lola and I talked and ate and revived.

We started to make a move for the check when our waiter, the owner it turns out, came out with a stout carafe filled with a vibrant yellow liquid. He poured us each a sip and one for himself. We all clinked glasses, said “cin cin!” and tapped our glasses on the table before taking a drink. It was an icy burst of lemon followed by the warmth of the alcohol sliding down your throat. When we out on our coats our host walked close to me and I held out my hand (such an American). Lola said, “Aw! He was going to ciao you!” And with that we did traditional kiss on each cheek and it felt like we were leaving lunch with an old friend. Lola and I still refer to giving a good bye kiss as ciao-ing someone 🙂

When I was first dating T I told him this story. This led to a Godfather movie marathon where he would wow me with caponata and I showed off with my ancient cannoli recipe, and of course we had to have limoncello, which I promised to get. The only problem was I couldn’t find it anywhere. I searched high and low and couldn’t find it. That is when I placed a forlorn call to Lola to tell her this tragic tale of woe. How? How could we possibly watch The Godfather without the limoncello?  We wouldn’t!  I got bottle in the mail a few days later  (three cheers for Lola!). It contained a tall frosted glass bottle of Limoncello and two tiny glasses with cherubic babies riding lemons with wings on them. It still makes me smile to think of sipping out of those glasses. Now we never have to have it delivered because we can make it at home!

On to the bowl of lemons…

I started with a recipe but I made some changes as I went:

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Start with ten washed lemons and a vegetable peeler. Peel the lemon skin (just the yellow, not the white). This part took a while. I actually ended up doing it in front of the TV (see my remote?). The long skinny, vertical peeler did the best job (I tried three).

2013-11-22 22.56.25When you have a bowl full of peels, cover them with 750 ml of vodka. I have read that a higher proof vodka (100+) does a better job of extracting the lemony color and flavor than a standard bottle of vodka. I don’t know if this is true, but what I chose (a triple filtered 80 proof, unflavored potato vodka) worked just fine.

Then you cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave it out at room temperature for four days.

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On day four, strain the peel from the vodka. It will now smell like a lemon grove and have a pale yellow color. In a heavy-bottomed sauce pan combine a cup and a half of sugar with two cups of water and melt over medium heat. The goal is to create a simple syrup here, so if you want it more or less sweet, follow your bliss.

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Pour the COOLED simple syrup over the vodka and lemon mixture. Cover and let stand overnight.

The last step is to strain out the lemon peels and pour your limoncello into a pretty bottle. It tastes best and is traditionally served ice cold.

You will notice you now have ten peeled lemons and it would be a shame to waste them. Stay tuned for my next lemony adventure in the kitchen. Until then, ciao!