Mother’s Day Revisited

With Jan/Taffy during her last Christmas season.

A friend recently noted on Facebook that many of us who no longer have our mothers feel as though we are unmoored.

I occasionally have that feeling—but then I remember that my mother is still with me in many ways.

On Friday, I visited my friends at Mass Appeal, the lifestyle program on which I cook from time to time. The young hosts were celebrating Mother’s Day; their mothers were also guests that day and were deservedly feted. (They have raised pretty terrific children.)

For a moment or two I felt a little sorry for myself. I had no mother, I thought, and I was no one’s mother.

Co-host Seth Stutman snapped me right out of that little bout of self-pity. As a tribute to my mother I prepared a salad that featured one of her favorite foods, rhubarb. While Seth and Lauren Zenzie tossed the salad for me I shared the words on my mother’s gravestone.

Her epitaph was inspired by an incident that took place shortly after I graduated from Mount Holyoke. I returned to campus and as an adult (finally!) was invited to the college’s weekly faculty cocktail hour. There I met a retired philosophy professor named Roger Holmes.

“I believe my mother took a course from you many years ago,” I told him. “I don’t know whether you’d remember her: Jan Hallett, Class of 1939.”

My Mother in 1939

The elderly but spry man immediately replied, “Short and full of life!”

Obviously, my mother made an impression. When she died my brother and I decided to inscribe Professor Holmes’s description of our petite, lively mother on her grave.

When Seth heard the epitaph during our cooking segment, he stated, “Well, Tinky, I’d say the same thing about you,” and gave me a big Mother’s Day hug.

He went on to note that he thought of me as one of his “show moms.”

Since I’m officially only 39 and Seth is 31, I replied that I and his other show moms (studio manager Denise and director Deb) thought of ourselves as older sisters rather than mothers.

Nevertheless, I was touched and reassured.

My mother may no longer be walking around the house, but she is present to me—not only in my own small stature, but also in every dish I cook and every song I sing. She will always be with me.

And I may not be a mother, but I am an older woman friend to lots of children (and even a few grownups like Seth!) whom I can nurture and love.

I seldom quote the Bible, but in this case I have to agree with the “Song of Solomon”: “For love is strong as death.” I also concur with lyricist Leo Robin: “Hooray for love!”

Happy Mother’s Day to all.

If you’d like to see the segment (the salad was DELICIOUS!), here it is:

One Step at at Time

leigh-in-hatweb

Leigh with her friend Tara at the March

My sister-in-law Leigh took off early yesterday morning for the Women’s March on Washington. I stayed home.

One reason for my not marching was the state of my knees. I get tired after a few hours of standing at my holiday retail job. I have a feeling walking around Washington for a day would do me in for a week or more.

I also have a fear of crowds!

More importantly, however, group protest is not my mode of self expression, particularly in this case. I got my first invitation to the march the morning after Donald Trump’s election. It seemed—and seems—to me too soon to be protesting. I would have preferred to wait and protest some specific presidential action or policy rather than the president himself.

Nevertheless, I support the right to free speech of my friends and relatives who chose to march. In fact, I happily lent my BEAUTIFUL new pink hat to Leigh to wear on her march. (See photo above.)

We all speak and protest in our own ways. I deal with things that upset me—and I have to admit that I’m not a fan of our new president—by writing and singing and talking. And staying positive.

Here’s what I want to do in the months ahead: I want to emulate the folks from Broadway’s Concert for America. They will inspire me to do creative things and to support organizations and people who can keep our country strong and wonderful and charitable and generous and (yes!) great.

I want to write passionately about things that matter. In my case, this is usually food and books—but food and books sustain life and give it meaning.

I want to sing whenever I can. In my opinion, there is very little in this world that a show tune or a spiritual can’t make just a little bit better. Music connects us as human beings. It helps us mourn, comfort each other, and then move forward and celebrate.

Above all, I want to be a good neighbor on my road, in my community, and in my world. I want to stay in contact and sympathy with all the people I know, whether they voted for Trump or Clinton or Mickey Mouse. And I want to continue to meet and converse with new people. The one thing I think Donald Trump got right in his inaugural address is the idea that our nation is about all of its citizens.

So I’ll be marching with my fingers and my voice and my smile. Not all at once but one step at a time. I hope to encounter lots of you along the way.

Saying Goodbye

Truffle on Her Final Afternoon

Truffle’s Final Afternoon

This morning I said goodbye to a loyal companion. My dog Truffle was only 13-1/2 years old, and because she was small I hoped to have her for 20 years or so. Fate doesn’t always fulfill our hopes, however.

I wrote here early in 2014 that Truffle had been diagnosed with Doggy Alzheimer’s Disease. I dealt with this challenge using a combination of medication, observation (some techniques worked better than others!), and patience.

Despite her dementia—and despite her eventual total blindness—Truffle had a lot of fun over the past year and a half. Together we walked, cuddled, shared meals, and entertained guests.

The fun had just about come to an end, however. Truffle’s unhappy moments each day increased, and her happy ones dwindled. In the past few weeks her nighttime fear and aggression worsened. And she started having trouble sleeping. She panted and paced on the bed, not certain where she was or what was going on.

Believing that her life was no longer a good one, I made an appointment to take her to the vet today. The prospect was daunting, particularly since I had never had to go through this process alone before. I reminded myself that my mother had managed alone several times with previous pets—in large part to spare the rest of us the pain of having to witness the death of an important family member. I tried to view her courage as a challenge.

I was with Truffle when she died. It wasn’t easy. The blindness and the dementia made her nervous although the vet, his dear assistant Robin, and I did our best to reassure her. It’s a good thing my current nutritional cleanse requires me to drink a gallon of water a day. My tear ducts need replenishing.

My friend Michael Collins accompanied me to my biweekly television appearance on Wednesday; he is a chef and made a dish on the air with me. Michael and his partner Tony recently had to say goodbye to their dog Spotty (a friend of Truffle).

I told Michael that Truffle’s time was coming, and he observed wisely that taking care of our elderly pets—and then saying goodbye to them—is the price we pay for the short but full lifetime of love they share with us. Truffle certainly fulfilled her part of that bargain. I tried to repay her with comfort and love as she left me.

We enjoyed a last outing together yesterday afternoon at the Dam, where Truffle spent many glorious summer afternoons sitting and swimming with my late mother.

With My Mother in Happier Days

With My Mother in Happier Days

Truffle no longer swam, but she waded into the water yesterday afternoon and lifted her nose to smell the grass and feel the breeze. For a minute or two, her blindness and dementia didn’t matter. She found herself in a familiar environment, in what my neighbor Ruth calls a person’s (or a dog’s) “happy place.”

The Dam is my happy place as well. I did swim, and the experience was refreshing. Gliding through the water, I saw birds swoop down to take a drink. Wading to shore, I noted that the tadpoles were getting bigger. And so I was reminded that life goes on.

I have taken final swims at the Dam with beloved dogs in the past, and with luck I will swim there again someday with another dog. Yesterday the experience helped both Truffle and me reconnect with nature and with each other.

I think it helped me get through today’s ordeal, to say goodbye to my old friend as gracefully and generously as I could. Predictably, Truffle was as sweet in dying as she was in living.

Truffle with heartweb

Another Birthday

My Grandmother (right) in her youth, with her older sister Alma

My Grandmother (right) in her Youth, with Her Older Sister Alma

Amid all the (well deserved) hoopla over Shakespeare’s forthcoming 450th birthday I’d like to celebrate another birth anniversary. Today my maternal grandmother, Clara Engel Hallett, would have turned 125.

According to her gravestone in Clyde, New York, she isn’t actually dead. She purchased it at the time of my grandfather’s death in 1966 and had the stone carver inscribe the dates “1889-19__” on it. Somehow or other our family never got around to having those last two numbers filled in after her death in 1988. So she seems to live on, although she is forever trapped in the 20th century.

I have written a lot about my grandmother over the years, mostly focusing on her Horatio-Alger like childhood. She was adopted by a miserly farmer and suffered in his home for years, only to be rescued by a kind, childless couple who gave her love and an education.

She met my grandfather, Hal, in a scene out of a silent film. Spotting her on the steps of the chapel at Middlebury College, he exclaimed to a friend, “That is the woman I am going to marry.”

She was frugal, dignified, beautiful, and loyal to friends and relatives. She was generally subservient to my grandfather. On one notable occasion, however, she stood up to him. One evening Hal was trying to teach his eldest child, my mother, the multiplication tables. My grandfather had many wonderful qualities, but he was often a bully. He yelled when little Janice got one of her answers wrong, and the child panicked and started guessing randomly. Her father shot up out of his chair and advanced on her, apparently thinking that a good spanking would teach her arithmetic once and for all.

Meek Clara swooped across the room, picked up her daughter, and glared at her husband. “Don’t you touch a hair on that child’s head!” she announced fiercely. Neither my grandfather nor my mother ever forgot that moment.

With Baby Janice in 1919

With Baby Janice in 1919

Despite his bouts of temper Clara was devoted to Hal. One of my favorite stories about her demonstrates her loyalty to him—and the romantic streak she sometimes tried to hide. She related it to me one evening when I was in my early 20s and was staying at her home for a few days. She was probably under the influence of the single old-fashioned cocktail she allowed herself at dinnertime.

Early in her marriage, she told me, my grandfather brought a business associate home to dinner. When she shook hands with this mysterious stranger, she felt a palpable electric shock of attraction. She spent most of dinner trying to avoid his gaze. At the end of the evening, as the associate took the train home, she informed my grandfather that she hadn’t liked the man and never wanted him invited to her home again. She valued her marriage far too much to chance another meeting, she told me.

For years she wondered what might have been. And then, at a party about 20 years later, she met her mystery man once more … only to find him old and boring.

She admitted to me that it was possible that he had been boring all along. Maybe the carpet was responsible for the electric shock. In any case, she had enjoyed her little romantic dream but was pragmatic enough to appreciate its demise as well.

Another romantic dream ALMOST came back to her late in life when, after my grandfather’s death, she received a letter from her childhood beau in Rutland, Vermont. In their teenage years she had called him King Arthur. He had called her his Guinevere. Late at night she had daringly lowered homemade fudge down to him from her bedroom window using her corset strings.

Arthur wrote in 1968 or so to tell my grandmother that his wife had died and that he would like to rekindle their relationship, then dormant for about 60 years. She appreciated the note but wasn’t ready to shackle herself to a man again.

After my grandfather’s death she had discovered a new sense of freedom and self-reliance, redecorating the house and trading in my grandfather’s big white Cadillac (he had purchased a new Cadillac religiously every two years) for a big white Oldsmobile. Personally, I found the two cars almost identical, but to her that Oldsmobile symbolized her new position in the driver’s seat of her life.

So she wrote to King Arthur and said that although she would always treasure his memory, she preferred that he remain just that, a memory. And she got on with her life.

Thinking of her combined romanticism and pragmatism always makes me smile, particularly on her birthday.

My Grandparents in the 1960s

My Grandparents in the 1960s

I Get Along Without You Very Well

Jan Hallett Web

My Mother in 1939

A colleague asked me to send her a short essay about a song from the 1930s or 1940s that meant something to me. I HATE to waste essays, so I’m letting it do double duty on this blog. (I realize I have been absent for a while.) I hope to post something original to the blog soon. Meanwhile, please enjoy this little memory of my mother.

My mother, Jan Hallett Weisblat, grew up in a house in which singing was part of daily life. Her mother, Clara, thought of becoming an opera singer. (Father Bruce called Clara “the little girl with the big voice”), and everyone in the family loved to gather around the piano and sing music from Stephen Foster to the current songs on “Your Hit Parade.”

I associate many songs with my mother, from silly ditties and radio jingles to dramatic operetta numbers. One song that always reminds me of her is “I Get Along Without You Very Well.”

The song was published late in 1938 by Hoagy Carmichael, a composer who knew his way around a meandering melody. Its full title is “I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes).” The lyrics were based on a poem by a woman named Jane Brown; that poem was titled simply “Except Sometimes.”

Those lyrics are clever, wringing the singer’s (and the listener’s) heart through understatement. The singer says that he—my mother and I would prefer “she,” of course—is doing just fine, getting along very well without a departed lover. The important part of the song comes in the exceptions to this rule.

I get along without you very well. Of course I do.
Except when soft rains fall and drip through leaves, then I recall
The thrill of being sheltered in your arms. Of course I do.
But I get along without you very well.

The contrast between the exceptions and the statement of getting along give the song a gentle pathos.

“I Get Along Without You” became popular in 1939. In that year (or perhaps in 1940, I never heard the full story!) my little mother was dumped by one of her boyfriends, Dean Woodruff.

I never gathered that Dean was necessarily her favorite beau ever. Nevertheless, Jan was used to being the dumper, not the dumpee. And she was a huge ham; she performed frequently in amateur theatricals and liked to think of her life as a play.

After she received Dean’s “Dear Jill” letter, she always told me, she spent a month or so singing “I Get Along Without You Very Well” around the house. She would pose dramatically in the stairwell and sing a few lines. Sometimes for effect she changed the line “Of course I do” to “You bet I do.” It was sung with just a hint of bitterness.

By the time I came along, of course, Dean Woodruff was a distant memory, and my mother was enjoying life with my father. Nevertheless, she would pause from time to time to sing “I Get Along Without You Very Well.”

When she performed it, she was a young girl again, living at her parents’ house before work and the war and life helped her grow up (although to tell you the truth she never completely grew up; she had a childlike qualities in 2011 when she died at 93!).

She could enjoy the pathos of the song without having to feel the pathos of her broken relationship with Dean. And she could share with me her love of music as an expressive form, as a way to unlock personal and cultural memory.

I sang it at her memorial party last summer. I took it just a bit higher than she ever did; she was an alto, and I’m a soprano. I tried to mimic her phrasing as much as possible, however. To tell you the truth, Hoagy Carmichael pretty much lays out the phrasing for the singer.

I find the song charming—lightly dramatic and whimsical yet heartfelt. Just like my mother. I get along without her very well … except sometimes.

To hear me sing “I Get Along Without You Very Well” imperfectly but with feeling, click on the “play” button below……

Autumn in New York

I know, I know, it’s not QUITE autumn. But I found myself humming the song “Autumn in New York” last weekend—even singing it at one point, to the huge embarrassment of my young nephew Michael!—as my family and I spent a couple of whirlwind days in the Big Apple. The whirlwind applied to the emotions involved as well as the pace of the days.

The main purpose of our sojourn in the city was to attend an auction at Sotheby’s. In April my brother David contacted the auction house about selling several items from our parents’ collection of Indian art. We were/are in need of money, and we were also a bit nervous about having a lot of art in our homes without being able to afford to insure it adequately.

Since our initial contact, we have spent a lot of time talking on the phone with the wonderful staff at Sotheby’s, saying goodbye to paintings (I will particularly miss the toy that used to hang on my wall here in Massachusetts), and working on the catalogue essay about our parents.

This toy (pictured on my wall) has now gone to a new home.

I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to be at the auction, watching paintings I had lived with all my life go out into the wider world, but David and his wife Leigh convinced me that it would be an interesting experience. So on Saturday I boarded the Megabus in Hadley, Massachusetts, and sailed down the highway toward the metropolis.

The bus ride was delightful, particularly the spectacular drive down Fifth Avenue when we finally reached the city. From my perch in the front of the bus’s upper story I could see women promenading in colorful African-inspired costumes in Harlem, crowds clustered in front of the Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museums, the lush greenery of Central Park, and the lively windows of elegant department stores and boutiques.

The View from the Bus

We all stayed in a tiny suite in a hotel near Times Square; the windows seemed almost brighter at night than by day thanks to the area’s signature neon. I do love New York. It’s like a giant nightlight. On Saturday evening we ate fabulous Brazilian food.

Before dinner, however, we stopped in at the reception for Asia Week at Sotheby’s. There we saw our art in a new context. We also had the opportunity to look at exquisite Chinese scrolls, fans, and furniture that were to be offered at auction later in the week.

On Sunday morning we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We’re trying very hard to convince Michael that New York is a place to absorb culture, not just shop at Nintendo World and FAO Schwartz. Being a 12-year-old boy, he was particularly taken with the displays of weapons and armor, although we did manage to sneak in a little art along the way.

Michael and David survey armor.

Sunday afternoon we saw the comedy Peter and the Starcatcher. I hadn’t seen a show in New York in years so I had convinced the family to book discount tickets in advance. When I discovered that David, Leigh, and Michael had dinner plans with friends for Sunday evening, I quickly ran to another theater and bought myself an orchestra seat (full price—ouch!) for the evening performance of An Enemy of the People. A girl can always use a little Ibsen in her life.

The auction itself, which took place on Monday afternoon, was fascinating. Most of the art was displayed via video, but a few key pieces (including a couple of ours) were brought to the auction room. Just before the auction a man in a cherry picker zoomed about the room to point spotlights at the works.

Bidders were “present” in three ways: in the room, on the other end of several phones monitored by Sotheby’s employees, and on the internet. The auctioneer, Henry, could see the web bids on a special screen in the back of the room; he was very suave and smart keeping all the different types of bids straight.

The screen at the front of the room showed a picture of the piece or pieces up for bid at the moment, along with the amount of the current bid in a variety of currencies. I was a little weepy as we said goodbye to the lovely lady pictured below, but watching the bidding distracted me from my tears.

Some of our pieces did very well, exceeding the amounts our team—Priyanka, Laurie, Jackie, and Henry—had predicted. Some attracted a little less attention (and money!) than they and we had hoped.

Apparently, the rupee isn’t doing well vis-à-vis the dollar at the moment. So Sotheby’s had trouble finding bidders for the centerpiece of the collection, a large canvas by the late M.F. Husain.

We talked to Priyanka about it just before the auction and decided that we didn’t want to lower its minimum price too much. We are fond of the painting, which my father acquired in the early 1970s because the artist wanted it to go to a good home and didn’t want to sell it to anyone else.

In the end it will come home to us, as will a couple of other pieces that didn’t meet their minimum bids. We’re actually thrilled about this. We could have used a little more money. Who couldn’t? I’m still trying to figure out how I’ll pay all my bills going forward. But we also love the art, both for itself and as a link to our late parents.

This large piece will return to David and Leigh’s house.

Happily, that link actually grew stronger through the process of consigning the rest of the art for sale. Leigh and David threw themselves into the task of doing research on the art and our parents’ reasons for collecting, and I wrote the essay about Jan and Abe that opens the catalogue. The photo below, which we found while going through boxes of old papers, illustrated the essay. We think it was taken around 1960.

Jackie, who did the rest of the writing for the catalogue, told us that she, Laurie, and Priyanka fell in love with the photo when I sent it in. (They all watch Mad Men and love the 1960s.) She ran into Priyanka’s office with the image and said, “Meet the Weisblats!”

Left to right: Laurie, Priyanka, and Jackie in front of one of our (former) paintings by Ram Kumar

As I wrote the essay and my siblings and I edited it together, we gleaned new information about our parents. I now actually know what my father did for a living … more or less. (When asked in my youth, I always responded that his profession consisted of talking on the telephone.)

We have a renewed appreciation for their energy, their openness to new experiences, and the ways in which they reached out to people all over the world.

And of course we appreciate their taste in amassing such a lovely collection of art … and in producing such a wonderful family. They were with us in spirit at Sotheby’s, and much of their art will continue to adorn our walls for years to come.

Good Food and Warm Hearts

As my brother pointed out on Saturday, our mother loved a good party. So did our father. Here they are celebrating in Delhi in 1971.

Last Saturday about 60 people gathered to remember my mother at the Play House here at Singing Brook Farm in Hawley, Massachusetts.

Up until the last minute we weren’t entirely sure how many people were coming. I did ask people to let me know … but I wasn’t worried when I didn’t hear from a lot of them. I knew there would be plenty of food–there always is at pot lucks–and plenty of good company. Of course, I was right. (I usually am.)

In the end we were missing a few people we expected (a couple of them called a day or two later and asked me to remind them when the party was!) but gained a few we hadn’t expected but were thrilled to see.

The day was pleasant enough to enable some guests to sit outside to eat lunch. We all came inside when it was time to remember Jan/Taffy officially.

Many of the speakers and guests were relatives. My mother’s siblings Lura and Bruce were in attendance, full of memories and good cheer. Aunt Lura was particularly thrilled that all six of her children had come, along with several grandchildren and even a couple of great-grandchildren.

Bruce and Lura (Courtesy of Cousin Toby David)

We also had honorary relatives—several of my childhood cohorts from Singing Brook Farm; my sort-of cousin Eric, nephew of one of my mother’s closest and most colorful college friends (We’ll always have Paris, Eric!); dear Anna, whose father went to graduate school with mine and whose children were like grandchildren to my mother; and Amy and Lyzz, childhood friends whose mother was my mother’s business partner and who looked pretty much the same as they did when they were kids. Lots of neighbors showed up—and my mother’s  beloved caregiver, Pam, brought not only herself but enough tea sandwiches to feed the whole crowd.

People spoke of my mother’s literal and figurative equilibrium, her … forthrightness (a much more diplomatic word than rudeness, don’t you think?), her brains, her humor, and her giant smile. My sister-in-law Leigh noted that Taffy viewed her as adding to the family rather than taking my brother away, a good attitude in a mother-in-law!

I didn’t speak officially, but Alice Parker Pyle and I led the group in a couple of Taffy-appropriate songs … and I concluded the festivities by reciting one of her favorite poems, “The Owl and the Pussycat.” She always performed this verse with great gusto and drama; I like to think I replicated a little of her style.

Here my cousin Pat imitates my mother’s style of oratory.

As I looked around at the group in the Play House my heart warmed. There I was, surrounded by people I loved … my own playmates and my mother’s playmates, plus people of a variety of ages down to the very young Michael, Elijah, Audrey, and Malia. It felt as though we were all joyfully eating, drinking, and talking inside a kaleidoscope of the past, present, and future.

At the center of that kaleidoscope was our mother, who as my brother pointed out early on always enjoyed a good party.

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
          The moon,
          The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

If you’d like to hear my recitation, click on the play button below. I apologize if the poem is a little hard to hear; I’m still working on recording technique!

Visit my food blog for a recipe from the day’s feast. And if you have any memories of my mother to share, please leave them in a comment!