‘Walking Home’ Again

Having come to the end of Simon Armitage’s Walking Home, I want to write another commentary and revise some of what I said before. I take back, in part, the complaint about the lack of poetry. There is some but not enough. Also, the ending left me wildly disappointed. My favorite sentence remains: “A woman plays the Northumberland pipes; from where I’m sitting … it looks like she’s giving physiotherapy to a small marsupial wearing callipers and smoking a bong…” And my favorite bit of information: They played Pooh sticks!

And I share his “anxiety disorder”:  As he walked he worried about the poetry reading; as he read, he worried about the walk. Boy, can I identify!

Before I get to the long list of new words, here are some observations on British English. Besides “tyre” for “tire,” and “judgement” for “judgment,” we have pretty much abandoned “doughnut” for “donut.” I’ve never seen the word “tarmack” used as a verb, nor would I ever refer to a packet of mustard as a sachet.

Simon Armitage
Simon Armitage

Some of these Britishisms create delightful images: “posh Wellies,” which Armitage says have a buckle on the side. But the Hunter company’s catalogue indicates that all the models, for men and women, come that way now. So I guess we’d all have to be “posh” if we bought them, which I have now decided never to do.

The noun “fell” in Brit-speak means, according to the Cambridge dictionary, a hill or a rise of land. On this side of the pond, Emily Dickinson has the best usage, as an adjective: “House is being ‘cleaned.’ I prefer pestilence. It is more classic and less fell.” I prefer the E.D. version.

Here are the words I did not know that I found in the American Heritage Dictionary:

  • beck – a small brook,
  • lurcher – a crossbred dog used by poachers,
  • tup – ram (which I’ve seen before, probably in Willie S.),
  • tormentil – a plant with yellow flowers,
  • conurbation – a metropolitan area,
  • rota – rotation,
  • pipit – a type of songbird,
  • Theodolite – a surveying instrument,
  • saloon – a sedan.

Note: Spel Czech (my version of spell check) didn’t recognize recognize any of the above except “fell” and the American spellings.

Tomorrow: Definitions I had to locate in English-English dictionaries and elsewhere.

Why I Volunteer

Middlesex Hospital posted a notice that it was seeking Reiki (pronounced “ray-key”) volunteers. I had just received my certificate for this gentle-touch relaxation technique and took it as an indication that I should put my new skills to use.

100Right from the orientation, which covers things from handling an emergency to obtaining a parking sticker, I was overwhelmed by the dedication and passion of the staff and volunteers who addressed us. Everyone seemed eager for us to fit in and to enjoy ourselves.

That session was followed by nine hours of training with another volunteer on how to introduce myself to patients, how to raise and lower a hospital bed, how to complete the paperwork, and a great many other details that seemed overwhelming at the time. Sue was reassuring, though, saying that I would most certainly get the hang of it.

And sure enough, it’s six years later, and I am still going to the 500hospital every week unless I’m out of town or have a cold. I love the welcome from the staff and other volunteers. Several of them have become friends. I also love the thanks from the nurses and other staff. I’ve heard, “You make our patients feel better” more times than I can count. I love when I say the word “Reiki,” and the patient’s eyes light up. And most of all, I love when patients see me months or years later and say, “Oh, you made me feel so much better!”

Even if the hospital didn’t treat us to water bottles, shopping bags, candy, cookies, and a fabulous dinner once a year, I’d still keep coming back!


Heaven Scent


Our yard is filled with the fragrance of lilacs. The blooms arrived late this year. I normally took a huge bouquet to Ma the week before Mother’s Day. Because the spring has featured cool (OK, cold) and rain or fog with the odd hailstorm thrown in, the flowers have not yet opened completely. I gave Sharon and Debbie mostly buds on Sunday.

But they’ve opened enough to perfume the air. And each time I inhale, I have to chuckle because of a great story told by an old Yankee farmer who is actually younger than I am but knows enough farming/gardening lore to fill several encyclopedias. He said that whenever you see an old farmhouse with an ancient lilac in the backyard you’ll know that’s where the outhouse was. I thought – well that’s terrific for a couple of weeks in May. What did they do for the other fifty weeks? Anyway, it makes a good story. And I like to think that the descendants of the original shrubs are still making people breathe deep and smile wide.

I just wish I could share the scent along with the lavender-white blooms and green heart-shaped leaves.

AAUW Luncheon

I had the pleasure of addressing the American Association of University Women on Saturday. I shared the podium with Hanna Perlstein Marcus, author of Sidonia’s Thread: The Secrets of a Mother and Daughter Sewing a New Life in America. I enjoyed this marvelous book during the blog silence and will review soon. Here’s an expanded version of the comments that preceded a reading from At Home Inside: A Daughter’s Tribute to Ann Petry:

From left, Liz Petry, Domenique Thornton, Hanna Perlstein Marcus
From left, Liz Petry, Domenique Thornton, Hanna Perlstein Marcus

Thank you to Domenique [Thornton] and to the members of the AAUW. It is a true honor to be here.

I am awed to speak to the same group that my mother addressed twenty-two years ago. She read her short story “The Moses Project.” Published in 1986 in The Harbor Review, it concerns a man who has so many parking tickets he is sentenced to house arrest. He spends much of the story trying to disable his electronic monitor. The theme is, “White man invent. Black man circumvent.”

Before I begin my reading I have to take just a moment to observe how surprised I was to discover that Hanna Perlstein Marcus and I have led parallel lives. Of course we started out half a world apart and lived in very different circumstances. But I have to say that my reaction as I read Sidonia’s Thread was, “Oh, me, too! Oh, me too!”

It would take the rest of my time to explore those similarities in depth, so I’ll just note the most significant. One involves our respective books. When I wrote At Home Inside and Can Anything Beat White? I envisioned the process as braiding strands of stories together, weaving a narrative. Hanna’s images of sewing, both as metaphor and as reality, immediately captured my imagination.

Like Sidonia Perlstein, Ann Petry designed and made clothing for herself and her daughter. Sometimes she cut her own patterns out of newsprint. The contrast, of course, was that she never made a living at it, though she did earn money as a girl by sewing for the wealthy summer residents of Saybrook. (She also baked and cooked, played music, drew, gardened, and trained as a pharmacist.)

Hanna and I also come from families that kept secrets, though hers make for a better narrative with far greater personal implications. She had the benefit, too, of reaching a resolution about the reasons for the secrets. I never have.

Hanna and I also share geography. When my great-grandfather Willis James ran from slavery during the Civil War, he settled in Hartford’s North End and became one of the first black people to buy property there. My great-grandmother, whose family had escaped slavery in Alabama in the 1850s, lived in Springfield before she married my great-grandfather.

Perhaps the biggest similarity is that we both grew up in situations where we never felt completely accepted, she in a tight-knit Jewish community, and I as one of a very few African Americans in Old Saybrook. I think our outsider status helped in more ways than it hindered, but I urge to read our books and judge for yourselves.

With that I will read from the opening pages of At Home Inside and conclude with the last few pages.


homeMy brain is too full of words, words, words for the AAUW luncheon tomorrow that I can’t focus enough to post something coherent.

Maybe over the weekend while I’m thinking about my foremothers: Anna Houston, Bertha Ernestine, Adelaide Marie, Anna Estelle, Sarah Jane, Cambry, Azelima, Mary Ann, Lydia Ann, Zulma, Elizabeth, Catherine, Elizabeth. Happy Mother’s Day to you all!


RIP, Anne Sweet

Anne White Sweet was a friend and neighbor of my parents for many years – an amazing woman who made significant contributions to life on the Shoreline. She lived ninety-three glorious years and departed on April 7. I attended her Sunday memorial service at the Congregational Church. It was  a perfect spring day.

Anne Elizabeth White Sweet
Anne Elizabeth White Sweet

Her parents lived across the street from us when I was a little girl, and her daughter, Jo, and I played together. Jo was one of the few people my parents trusted to watch me if they had errands to run.

I remember visiting their wonderful house on Blood Street in Lyme, which was right on Rogers Lake and offered a cool and shady place to play.

Years later, I encountered Anne – I somehow was able to call her that even though she was my parents’ generation – at the Old Saybrook Historical Society where she contributed vast troves of knowledge, along with time, and much other support. She knew details about my family – all good stuff – and helped me sort through items that had come from James’ Pharmacy. We spent a perfectly a delightful afternoon together.

There was much I didn’t know until the memorial service.

  • She and I had mirror names: She was Anne Elizabeth, I Elisabeth Ann, though she got the royal spelling for her first name, and I the German spelling for mine.
  • Her knowledge of history also helped launch the Mashantucket Pequot’s fabulous museum and history center. I’m overdue for a trip and will look on it with fresh eyes.
  • She shared with my mother the ability to design and sew, to cook and bake, and to entertain young people and adults.
  • And she wrote poetry – apparently just for her own pleasure. Here are a few lines from my favorite, “On Finding a Dead Hummingbird”: “Gentle I hold the tiny shape/No bigger than my thumb,/Its throat a patch of ruby red./Stilled wings which gentle drummed/Soft air above bee balm…”

You kept your light under the proverbial bushel. I hold you in awe. You are greatly loved. Rest in peace, Anne.

What I’m Reading Now

Another in the occasional series. It was on the shelf in the hospital library and I’d heard mention of it somewhere.

This one should be titled “Why did I keep going?” Where’d You Go, Bernadette was dubbed one of the best books of the year. If it is, I’m not reading any other 2013 lit.

It’s a story of a teenager who is searching for her McArthur fellow mother, who seems to disappear from a ship headed for Antarctica while her TED-hit father acts weird at his Microsoft job. The plot summarized this way sounds somewhat appealing, but none of holds together because every single person in the book lacks a soul. I never cared whether – what was her name – oh, Bee, but not really – ever found her mother or whether the mother died under the Antarctic ice. The father, reduced to an adulterous geek, comes off as beyond pathetic. All others are just cyphers – collectively so self-absorbed that no one else could possibly care that much — except for the city of Seattle, which Maria Semple represents as a porous and maladjusted swamp. This account has discouraged me from wanting to visit.bernie

Jonathan Franzen said he tore through the book with heedless pleasure. Did he mean he didn’t really read it?


Least favorite line: “Did you think I woke up this morning and drank a big cup of stupid?” Oh my. The writing seemed stilted and show-offy. Funny? Maybe in the way of someone slipping on a banana peel.

End to a Perfect Walk

Once we arrived at the top of the Heublein Tower Trail, we waited because some photographer was performing acrobatic tricks taking panoramic shots from above the observation deck of the tower. Once he and his assistants were back on terra firma, Jay Willerup gave the T-T hikers our own private tour of the magnificent building and grounds.

The best feature outside, which I’d never see before, is called the “royal view.” It’s out on a ledge – not very far, or I wouldn’t have gone. Suddenly the trees and rocks fall away and one can see for miles down the Farmington River valley. It is truly magnificent. Wish my iCamera could have done it justice.

Instead, here’s the cover of Steve’s book, which really does show how the Reverend Joseph Twichell did resemble Mark Twain “only combed.” I can well imagine that the two gazed down on the royal view. joe

Once inside, we began in the dining room, which looked smaller than I remember but nevertheless imposing with a gorgeous restored floor and huge birch logs in the fireplace.

Jay asked as we went from room to room whether the proper pronunciation was “Hewblein” or “Highblein.” One knowledgeable person said both. Jay said, yes – in fact the family pronounced the name with the long “I” but the company was “ew.” And there was a third pronunciation, which our knowledgeable hiker knew as well. Apparently in the part of Bavaria where the family lived, the name was pronounced “Hoiblein,” as in “Ahoy, mate.”

This tour included the sun porch complete with wicker furniture, off Mr. H’s bedroom, which included a back stairs where he could sneak down to the kitchen to cook and to eat, thus helping to contribute to his portly frame.

The view from the observation deck was the clearest I’d seen it. We had a great view of Mount Tom to the north, and could almost see New York to the west. The most excitement, though, was finally being able to see the Sleeping Giant.

None of the photos on any of the websites does justice to seeing it in person. Now I just have to learn who first saw the profile and from what vantage point.

Our tour extended the hike by about an hour (more than worth it) so it was after five by the time I arrived home and removed my muddy shoes, which had miraculously dried over the course of the walk.

Looking forward to next year.

Dream of a Walk

The Twain-Twichell walk on Saturday was about as perfect as it can get. The weather more than cooperated. Cool in the morning as we started out from the Mark Twain House – with sun and shade alternating in the stiff breeze. Some traffic but not too much. A smaller crowd than last year with a terrific balance of newcomers and repeat walkers.

Steve did his readings at the house and then again by the birch tree on Woodland Avenue, near where the Reverend Joseph Twichell lived.

We invaded Scott’s as usual – much to the surprise of the regulars stopping in for their coco bread and patties. Then it was across the Hog River, whose name I much prefer to the Park River. It and its little tributary were running furiously.

As we passed UHart and walked past the elegant mansions on Bloomfield Avenue and then on Simsbury Road, it became glaringly obvious that spring is much delayed this year. We usually inhale the scent of lilacs and have to peer into woods through trees almost in full leaf. This year the trees were still bare, and the lilac buds have scarcely appeared. Instead, we saw daffodils, tulips, and banks and banks of forsythia.

Once we were in more shaded areas, our wild flower experts spied a small yellow flower that appeared to be spreading the way crocuses do. I’d never seen it before and learned that it is variously called dog tooth (or dog’s tooth) violet or trout lily. Bluehost won’t let me post a photo, so here’s some forsythia instead. myspot

After lunch and further readings at Auer Farm, we skipped the scratchiest, buggiest part of the trip and instead walked a mowed path to the reservoir. This year there was no mean man with an air horn, and we made good time to the piece of the Metacomet Trail and on the Heublein Tower trail. The trails retained a bit early spring as well: soggy underfoot, necessitating  detours, which nevertheless brought on the inevitable wet and muddy feet. But here again, we could see into the woods because there were no leaves. So, we saw for the first time an amazing stonewall. Before and after that, a truly frightening number of downed trees and tree stumps, some cut in the logging effort last year and some downed by the various storms.

The noises from the firing range were at a minimum — maybe because the wind carried the sound off? Anyway, the birds and tree frogs held sway.

And so we arrived at the top.

Next chapter: Why there are three ways to pronounce Heublein.

Meeting the Ancestors

Wendy Black Nasta and the other geniuses at Artists for World Peace put on the most amazing show Thursday night. I missed the beginning because I was tending to the veterans’ writing workshop. But what I saw just blew me away.

afwp1 copy

It occurred at the fund-raiser for her next project, taking a small army of eye doctors, technicians, and their equipment, and eye glasses, and sunglasses to Tanzania this summer to supply people who have never had an eye exam and may be going blind from problems that we here in the States treat with drops or a quick cataract operation.

I chatted with a couple of people hadn’t seen in a long time. First I reconnected with Patti Vassia, who introduced me to Wendy at her home in Haddam, only to have us discover that we live five houses apart on the same street. The other was the wife of a guy I worked with years ago at the Press. She said she buys almost all her jewelry from Wendy, who is designs and makes stunning pieces in silver and precious or semi-precious stones.

afwp2 copy

Wendy  auctioned some of her own pieces, along with amazing sculptures, and photographs donated by others. Other textiles and jewelry were for sale. By the time I’d finished eating and chatting, it was time for Sankofa Kuumba Dance Ensemble. This high-energy group of musicians and dancers took us from Africa, across the ocean to Trinidad, and into the American city with a hip-hop beat. The leaps and kicks and cries and ululations pretty much had people rocking in their seats – and on the floor when they led some brave souls in a very simplified dance.

But the highlight of the evening for me was the griot and elder Sister Nandi. Before I knew she was a performer, I felt an instant connection to her as I watched her regal steps as she walked barefoot around the Wadsworth Mansion. When she summoned the elders (anyone sixty-five and over) to the floor to grant permission for the troupe to perform, my respect increased.

Then during the performance, she invoked the ancestors, and something happened to me. I felt this weight on my shoulders that stayed for a while and then lifted. I felt intense sadness, which didn’t feel like my own. That lifted too, though I started to cry before it left. Then I felt supreme joy that buoyed me and kept me floating through the end the program, and until I had to ground myself for the drive home. But I remembered her words, “You are all here because of the ancestors. Honor them.”

I told Sister Nandi about my experience, and she said, “Yes, the spirits were here.” We chatted briefly, and then agreed that we would no doubt meet again.

Thank you, Sister Nandi, thank you, Wendy. And thank you most of all to the ancestors – the ones that I know and the ones I’ve yet to meet.