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Blog will take a mini break as I plot next steps on the film For Dear Mother’s Sake: The James Family Letters That Shaped Ann Petry.

That’s our great-grandmother, Anna Estelle Houston James.


What I’m Watching Now


I took an hour or so to come up for air in planning the various pieces of the film project to watch Iris. It’s a documentary about the world’s oldest starlet, Iris Apfel was 93 when Albert Maysles filmed her and her husband, Carl. She has reigned as a goddess in the pantheon of royalty in the worlds of fashion, interior design, art, and jewelry, etc., etc. for sixty years. Her taste veers from bold and gorgeous — antique Chinese robes — to pure kitsch. Three-foot Snoopy, anyone?

Even those who don’t know of her will recognize her signature, those huge round eyeglasses.

Maysles captures all of Iris – the worship of the young fashionistas and the museum curators – even the adoration of her “beloved” housekeeper. She maintains her fascination with up-to-the minute culture.

Iris is most definite in her opinions – color is required. She thinks the black NYC uniform is boring. She haggles with brio. She opposes plastic surgery because of the risk of horrible results. She even draws Maysles into the action by telling him that women adore him.

At just under ninety minutes Iris barrels along, keeping viewers entertained and enlightened with video, still photos, interviews with Iris and Carl. It includes film of his hundredth birthday party.

I disagree with one IMDb critic that she comes across as an empty human shell. The opening montage of her offering fashion advice to young women of color gives us an Iris who is compassionate and engaged. When she haggles, she’s lively and sharpminded.

The dimension most explored is her desire to collect. And that raises a major concern. I lived with a lesser version of Iris. She’s never received treatment for hoarding syndrome. There was  one room in her Florida residence so crammed with “stuff,” much of it obviously expensive, that it’s impassable. And the closets jammed with clothes. She either has an eidetic memory, some major cataloguing system, or several devoted assistants to keep track of all that. She did remember the provenance of every item, so I’m betting on the memory.  And then there’s the warehouse out on Long Island, filled with statuary, furniture, and I don’t know what all else. Scary and intimidating.

Iris Apfel remains of life and joie de vivre, a role model in that respect at least.

Sushi Friday


Kuyi Sushi 34 Shunpike Road Cromwell, CT 0641

(860) 788-2801 www.kuyisushict.com

Two new sushi places have surfaced in the past couple of months. This one opened two days before I walked in.

It’s my new, new favorite, though Tisumi, my favorite from last month, will remain high on the list.

What I like: plenty of free parking. Close to groceries, the highway, etc. Gorgeous entrance with a waterfall that changes color. An uncluttered décor. Excellent, attentive service. I took special note of the staff member who came in and noticed that the front door squeaked. Before I left, he was busy with drill and oil for the hinges. CNN playing on the TV above the sushi bar had muted sound.  Classical music formed the backdrop to a relaxing time. The chopsticks are the real deal, not the balsa-wood disposable kind that absorb flavors. It’s the difference between eating with stainless flatware and dining with sterling.

I had ordered and was enjoying the savory miso – not too heavy on the broth with a bit of tofu, ditto scallion, and enough wakame to create a salad. There appeared a large white dish with a deep bowl, filled with a mound of something – it had all the visual elements, green lettuce leaves, pink tobiko, straw colored panko, drizzles of what I call hoisin but isn’t. It formed a perfect globe. The sushi chef and the waitress chorused, “On the house.’ The chef said it was the house special. Special indeed. It had an outer layer of thin-sliced cucumber. The next layer featured avocado. Kani filled the cavity. It was warm! And delicious! All the contrasts expected of Japanese food were there: sweet and umami and spicy for the flavors;  textures, smooth and crunchy and chewy. It was also huge! I wasn’t about to leave a single morsel and thought,  well, I won’t be eating dinner tonight.

The sashimi arrived as a bit of a letdown only because of the explosion of the appetizer. Nevertheless the two escolar and three each of tuna and salmon tasted absolutely fresh. The ginger lacked dye (a good thing), and the wasabi offered a proper bite and freshness. I took a few nibbles of rice but can’t comment — I was too full.

The hostess brought a little silken pouch with the check. It looked like a scabbard. Inside were two sets of chopsticks. She said they were giving them to their first one hundred customers. I was honored! It brought back memories of a friend in Philadelphia. A group of us had a traveling Chinese restaurant gathering. Each time we sat down, Carl reached into his backpack and said, “Have chopsticks. Will travel.” I plan to do the same.

What I don’t like, which isn’t really a negative: It’s a little too close to home. That special has to be an occasional thing.

Menu photo next time. Here are the chopsticks. Scabbard is above.


Happy NP Day


It’s rolled around again, so Happy National Punctuation Day!

My own personal bête noir is the sign in front of a residence: “the Phillip’s.” Problems abound. The last name is Phillips, so there’s the matter of where the apostrophe should go. Plus, more than one person lives in the house, so it should be at a minimum “Phillips’.” Or omit the apostrophe and use “Phillips.”

Good quote: “New Jersey reporter searches for missing apostrophe in Toms River.” Sounds like an Onion headline.

So much for apostrophes, on to commas. In praise of proper stylings, here’s a take from “Holy Writ” by Mary Norris, which appeared in the February 23-March 2 issue of The New Yorker. She was inveighing against dropping the serial or Oxford comma and used these examples:

  • “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
  • “… the country and western singer who was joined onstage by his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.”
  • “We invited the strippers, J.F.K. and Stalin.” To which someone asked, “who had the better outfit, J.F.K. or Stalin?”

Ms. Norris would be pleased with this headline from the NPD blog: “Punctuation Man breaks with Associated Press, endorses serial comma.”

And for a good laugh, listen to this  [ending punctuation omitted on purpose]



Work has begun on the planning for the film. I had to go to Old Saybrook today. Everything was fine until I headed back up Route 9. Now, I’ve made this trip countless times since my parents died and I sold the house. Today was different.

Maybe it was the way the light slanted across the highway in late afternoon. That was the time I used to leave after visiting Mother and Daddy before I went off to my night editing job. Maybe it was talking to about “how it used to be” with a couple of people. Maybe it was seeing places that hang on like Johnny Ad’s, or mourning the demise of Emerson’s bookstore.

I’m thrilled to be back in town but approaching with trepidation the emotional visits to my family’s past.






For a day that started with a quiet half hour of journal writing, it sure turned chaotic fast. I was driven from the house somewhat later and landed at Wesleyan’s Olin Library. It was a shock that many of the tables and carrels were occupied, and it wasn’t even 11 a.m. The last time I went, at about 1 p.m., there was one sleepy guy in PJs. I assumed he had spent the night. Despite today’s crowd, blessed silence reigned.

Then it was back out to the steady thrum of phone calls. I avoided the emails and texts by leaving the computer home and escaping to my volunteer gig at the hospital. It always feels wonderful, but today was special.

For whatever reason, people thought I wouldn’t be coming any more. The outpouring of gratitude and dismay restored me from a spiral of self-doubt, negativity, and depression. The patients completed the process.

Thank you to all. You make all of us volunteers feel special.


Wish I was there
Wish I was there


I spent most of the past five days wrangling various projects:

  • exploring ideas for a new book
  • creating new material for the veterans’ writing program
  • planning for the documentary
  • sorting out rights for books – mine and Mother’s
  • chasing down the guy who is supposed to do our conversion to natural gas
  • reading the FOUR HUNDRED emails that piled up while the computer was in the shop – I’m down to two hundred or so
  • excavating the office floor so I can make it from door to desk without jumping

What Is This?


There’s a mystery in a nearby yard. Here’s a photo of the leaves. The tree is probably 40 feet tall. There are fuzzy green nuts or seeds hanging from some of the upper branches.

I first thought it was a horse chestnut, but the leaves don’t match. It’s closer to black walnut but those leaves aren’t quite right, either. Plus the walnuts come in  clusters. This tree has a single “fruit” hanging from each limb.

We have someone going to the Extension Service. In the meantime, any ideas?

Black Walnut
Black Walnut


Harlestons in Our Lives


As noted yesterday, my family had a connection to Edward Ball’s black relatives. This is from p. 13 of At Home Inside: A Daughter’s Tribute to Ann Petry. Helen Chisholm’s was Mother’s first cousin. Her parents were Helen James and Frank Chisholm. Mother often thought that Cousin Helen didn’t take care of the incredible heritage that her parents left her.

In the drafts of her fiction and in her journal [Ann Petry] revisited events that had happened weeks or even years before. She might record an incident the day it occurred, but she almost always returned to it a few days later and embellished the narrative. Our cousin Helen Chisholm arrived at our house one day in 1981 with a relative of the artist Edwin Augustus Harleston. Mother wrote that Gussie, Mrs. Edwina Harleston Whitlock, wanted to write a book about him and his art work. “Among other things [she] said that the black Harlestons in and around Charleston were descended from a white Harleston – William Harleston – who never married – and who left his estate to ‘my colored woman Kate, formerly my slave.’ ” [Journal July 1, 1981] The next day Mother wrote, “ ‘My colored woman Kate.’ Incredible! Charleston, 18th century.” Ten days later Mother noted that Mrs. Whitlock was traveling across the country to locate Harleston’s paintings. She came to Saybrook “because Cousin C’s parents had known ‘Teddy’ Harleston. … I can’t remember whether he was best man at their wedding … any way Harleston gave them one of his paintings for a wedding present. Then left some paintings with them.” [Journal July 11, 1981] About a week later Mother addressed whether Mrs. Whitlock should write a book about her trip and in August made notes about the paintings. Mother reminded herself in September to ask Helen if she had heard from Mrs. Whitlock. Almost two years later the subject arose again. “Gussie … Whitlock who came here – not this past summer – but the summer before – to see Cousin C to arrange for the loan of paintings by Harleston – for a travelling exhibit – which was to begin in Detroit – sent a truck to pick up Cousin C’s paintings – belonged to her father and mother – and Cousin C sent 4 of them.” [Journal March 3, 1983]

Slaves in the Family


One of the highlights during the days of computer madness was a talk by Edward Ball, author of the magnificent Slaves in the Family. The winner of a National Book Award, it is an account of his search for descendants of the enslaved men and women who toiled on the huge and sprawling Ball rice plantations in South Carolina.

Aside from the dreadful racket of the air conditioner and confusing directions to the talk, which was supposed to be free, the event was a smashing success.

Professor Ball (he teaches English at Yale) framed his lecture and PowerPoint around the stories his father told – of their ancestors, the vast land holdings, and Civil War service – with those that they didn’t, most especially about “the Negroes.”

He explained how he came to begin the work, following a reunion in which no one uttered a single word about the people the family had enslaved.

There are so many echoes of Faulkner here – the convoluted family stories with white privilege at the forefront, but there’s also an Old World aspect. The colonial-style “big houses” on the plantations pre-dated the structures of the Cotton Belt by fifty or sixty years. Those South Carolina houses did not look nearly as elegant or Tara-like even before they fell into disrepair.

Professor Ball appeared more than grateful for the welcome from the most of the descendants of the enslaved, including his distant cousins. He was modest about the subject, but it was obvious that he had as much to offer them as they did. In many cases he was able to provide details about sales and punishments and births and deaths of their ancestors.

He also recognized how fortunate he was to have a trove of information that was prepared over three centuries and preserved in university archives. There’s an essay about how the descendant of the enslavers has to access a written record denied to the enslaved.

Professor Ball melded humor and southern charm and combined the best of college teaching and journalism. Wish I could take one of his classes. We think he survived a Civil War re-enactment from the Union side without mishap.

He was mobbed after the talk, as he sold and autographed books so I didn’t have a chance to tell him about my family’s connection to the subjects of The Sweet Hell Inside: The Rise of an Elite Black Family in the Segregated South, concerning the Harlestons.

Professor Ball’s distant cousin “Gussie” Harleston (Mrs. Edwina Harleston Whitlock) makes an appearance in Slaves in the Family and features prominently in Sweet Hell. She visited my parents in the early 1980s. Her father was the illustrious painter Edwin (“Teddie”) Harleston who knew my mother’s aunt and uncle, Helen and Frank Chisholm who owned a number of the paintings.

When I was computerless, I looked up what Mother wrote about the family in her journal, which I reproduced in At Home Inside. I’ll post it tomorrow. It reveals much about my mother and a bit about Mrs. Whitlock.