Friday, August 30, 2013

Happy Birthday, Queen of Quotes!

Today is my beautiful, funny, loving mother's birthday. She died in 2004 and would've been 97. I miss her every day and wish she were here to be a part of our lives and to see her great-grand children. She had many funny quirks, one of which was her quote-sprinkled retorts.

Whether pulling from the Bible, Shakespeare (which she attributed to the Bible), or a mash-up of something she once heard, she was a great one for tossing out little proverbs and "Catherine-isms," instilling these sound bites of wisdom (or confusion) in her children. Must've worked, because we can still recite them.

So in her memory, a few of her favorites:
True politeness is to say the kindest things in the kindest way. (Usually said to me as I headed out the door to do battle with my 4th grade teacher).
Neither a borrower nor lender be. (Always attributed to the Bible, though we all know it's Polonius' advice to Laertes from Hamlet by that Shakespeare guy.)
To thine own self be true. (See above)
I knew of a man one time . . . (insert whatever we were complaining about) . . . and he died. (Yeah, she was a cut-up. No sympathy whatsoever.)
Gad poor Aleck! (Who knows what she meant? I think it was a sign of frustration.)
Well, Albert Sprouse! (Her reaction if we kept something in it's original box or packaging; refers to an aunt's boyfriend who carried his Bible in the box it came in)
OK, that's just a sampling. I left out all the Bible verses, as well as her version of "shit," which was about 15 syllables and drawn out so long that it lost all shock value. Still, she knew how to turn a phrase. Repeatedly. The fact that I can still quote her Catherine-isms is proof that she won the quote-brainwashing game.

So Happy Birthday, Mother, you Queen of Quotes! I love you and wish you could see all your sweet great-grand babies. And I trust that God and Mr. Shakespeare have straightened you out on the Hamlet quotes by now.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Secrets of the Garden

One of the benefits of living in Spanish Harlem is that I'm 5-minutes' walk from the top end of Central Park. I spend a lot of time in one of the real jewels of the park, Conservatory Garden. Most folk hang out in the much tromped-through lower and mid sections of the park and never get up to this series of gardens tucked just inside the Vanderbilt Gate on Fifth Avenue.

Since I had the day off, I took advantage of a new offering from Central Park Conservancy, a docent tour of Conservatory Garden. It was an opportunity to learn about the history of the Garden through the eyes of its curator, Diane Schaub, and included how seasonal displays are designed, planted, and maintained to shape unique sensory experiences throughout the year. 


The tour started at 10, a time I'm rarely in the park - I'm usually there late afternoon - so I literally saw it in a whole new light. We met at the Vanderbilt Gate, which is the actual gate for the old Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue (on the site of what is now Bergdorf Goodman), and leads into the expansive lawn, fountain, and wisteria-twined pergola.

Conservatory Garden isn't original to the Olmstead-Vaux design .From 1898-1934, it was the site of glass houses (conservatories) for various park flora). By the 1930s, the conservatories were in lousy shape and were torn down. The infamous Robert Moses had a hand in getting the garden going, with help from WPA workers for the construction and planting. Fun factoid: the planting plans for the garden were created by the aptly names Betty Sprout. Conservatory Garden opened to the public in 1937.  

The garden is divided into three types: French (northernmost, with my favorite young girls of the Untermeyer Fountain), Italian (center, the lawn and fountain), and English (southernmost, or Secret Garden), with the lovely crab apple bowers dividing them. 

Diane has curated the garden for 19 years, so she was the perfect guide for its history and seasonal plantings. She described the designing and planting as choreography, since everything has to constantly showcase seasonal color, texture, fullness, and height. She shared drawings of the current season's plantings, carried out by six staff gardeners and many capable volunteers year-round.
Perennials and annuals (and bi-annuals) are used, but always removed as the season demands (yes, even the perennials). The plants, seeds, and bulbs come from nurseries on Long Island, upstate New York, and New Jersey, many from seeds and bulbs gleaned from whatever's planted in Conservatory Garden.

I can't remember the names of all the plants Diane pointed out, though I do remember a couple of things. I liked learning that the tree-lined bowers on either side of the Italian Garden is made up of crab apple trees - two different types on either side of the walkways. They provide beautiful shade most of the year, but winter really shows off their twisty, multi-branch trunks. Also (and unsurprisingly), many of the plants are edible (Swiss Chard and varieties of sweet potatoes are used in the garden for color and texture of their leaves). And I didn't know that milkweed is an attractor of monarch butterflies (though it repels most insects). 

If you get the chance to join Diane's guided tour through Conservatory Garden, just do it. Make it a point to get to the northern third of Central Park to spend time in each of the sections of the garden. It is a Quiet Zone and bikes/scooters/skateboards aren't allowed. I love that you can find a shady bench, surrounded by spectacular plants, flower, trees, and fountains, and just think or read. Yep. Right in the middle of busy ol' New York.

Join the dance of the Conservatory Garden's plant choreography. You'll be swept off your feet.


The Sights a Girl Can See From Brooklyn Heights

About a year ago I discovered "Friendly Native New Yorker Walking Tours" when I was looking to expand on my own self-guided tours of the city. Over late spring through October, our guide Linda offers a range of  topics for her Saturday afternoon/evening walking tours for a mere $15 each, and believe me you get more than your money's worth. You'll walk and learn for at least 2 1/2 hours (usually running over 3 hours), as Linda fills you in on the people, buildings, and events of the tour topic. So on Saturday, I did not hesitate to show up at Brooklyn Borough Hall for Linda's Twilight Tour of Brooklyn Heights SOUTH: War, Churches, and Real Estate!

Yes, I actually crossed the East River and ventured off the Isle de Manhattan  to lovely Brooklyn Heights! I'd been there for a Brooklyn Symphony concert in April, got a taste of the historic area, and really wanted to learn more. Our group met on the steps of Borough Hall, a lovely Greek Revival edifice built in 1848. The building was Brooklyn City Hall until 1898, when the City of Brooklyn was merged with the City of New York and transformed from a city to a borough. (Brooklynites are still bitter about that, by the way.)

We covered the early Dutch history of the area, the British take-over, and Brooklyn's place in the American Revolution, which included a humiliating loss as well as a daring retreat across the East River to Manhattan under the cover of darkness to escape the Red Coats. We learned of movers, shakers, and real estate entrepreneurs like Hezekiah Pierrepont, whose good friend Robert Fulton made it possible to corner the mechanized ferry boat market, easily linking bucolic Brooklyn Heights to Manhattan.

Almost every famous American architect left his fingerprints on the southern end of Brooklyn Heights, with the most obvious examples being the beautiful old churches. St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church (now one congregation, but old St. Ann is still standing as part of Packer Collegiate Institute), Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral (with great bronze doors rescued from the French liner SS Normandie), Spencer Memorial Presbyterian Church (now deconsecrated and a luxury residence building), the St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church on quiet Sidney Place, and Grace Episcopal (Brooklyn cousin of Manhattan's Grace Church) all have interesting histories and spectacular architecture. Don't look for high steeple on these churches.
The buildings pre-date the subway system and once had glorious steeples, which had to be brought down as dynamiting began for subway construction in the early part of the 20th century. And I learned a new architectural term: ashlar masonry, which I shall now try to work into conversations occasionally. (Be prepared.)

The shady streets, brownstone and brick row houses, gated gardens, and trendy restaurants along Montague street afford for easy (on the feet and on the eyes) exploring. But it all culminates on the Promenade. What a view! The Statue of Liberty, Lower Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge are spread out before you on this wide, tree-lined walkway. We were there just as the city lights were coming on, and, wow!

Yes, you Manhattan babies must hop one of the 2/3/4/5 trains, get off at Borough Hall, and strike out on your own. Or look for Linda to offer another tour next summer. You won't even have to slink back to Manhattan under cover of darkness to avoid the Red Coats.


Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Hopefulness of a Cigar Box Full of New Pencils

I kinda get excited this time of year. It's not just knowing that dreadful, hot old summer will soon be on its way, but it's that back-to-school feeling that's in the air. Now, I haven't been back to school or had a child going back to school in a long time, but something about the season makes me want to stock up on notebook paper, paste, and a rarely-used-but-always-required protractor.

Lots of kids hated to see the summer come to an end, but I always looked forward to heading back to school, especially the getting-ready part. In the run-up to the big day - always the Tuesday after Labor Day - we had a long to-do list to get through. We'd pick out fabric at the cloth store for a few new dresses Mother would run up on her sewing machine, then we'd hit the shoe store for a pair of new school shoes and perhaps a new Sunday pair as well. A new raincoat was usually in the offing - something with a hood, because I don't recall having to fumble with an umbrella - since we walked to our elementary school just down the street.

After the clothes were taken care of, the fun really started. School supplies! I don't remember teachers handing out a preferred list of supplies like they do today. Common sense told us we'd need new writing tablets for younger kids and a cool 3-ring binder with plenty of notebook paper for the older ones, a stash of #2 Ticonderogas (aka, pencils), a tube of paste (the kind that tasted good - oops, giving myself away, there), and a brand, spankin' new box of Crayolas (no off-brands, please). If our parents were in a good mood - in other words, if we were shopping with Daddy, we added in a pencil box or plastic pouch that fit into our binders, a box of reinforcements for our notebook paper, and perhaps a ruler.

Once the supplies were gathered, Daddy would set off to find the perfect container for our supplies, which was, of course, a fresh cigar box. I'm not sure where daddies got all these cigar boxes, but they always smelled heavenly (without the smoke!) and everything fit neatly inside. After that, we were ready to go.

The first day was a little anxious, as you checked the list to see which teacher you got and which of your friends would be joining you. But there was always that sense of a new beginning. You could start all over. This would be the year you would master cursive writing or learn all the states and capitals or conquer long division (which took me more than a year, I confess - yeah, I''m blaming you, Miss Abel). It was much more of a New Year's celebration than January 1.

From a mother's point of view,  I remember Kate's back-to-school experience as being much the same. I confess her new school clothes weren't fashioned on my trusty Singer and her school shoes were usually some kind of sports shoe, not leather loafers or mary-janes. But, still, yeah. The binders, the notebook paper and tablets, and pencils were always such fun to gather. And there was still the excitement of which teacher she'd get and which of her buddies would be in her class, or which new friends she'd have the opportunity of making.

I realize that back-to-school loses much of it's charm the farther from elementary school one gets in the educational system, but amidst increasing anxieties of middle and high school were hopefulness and new challenges to be met. Plus, always new 3-ring binders and #2's.

No more school shoes or cigar boxes full of new pencils and crayons for me, alas. Still, maybe I could use a fresh pack of notebook paper and a set of 64 Crayolas.

Now, where can I find a King Edward cigar box?