Beware of Bear

Bear at DoorI consider “Bear at Door” an excellent reason for not delivering a package!

My most exciting wildlife encounter at the front door has probably been a moth, which is hardly the stuff of urban legends. My mom once had trouble opening her door and thought the corner of the mat had flipped up — turned out to be a king snake. And our family’s St. Bernard ran away one 4th of July (spooked by fireworks) to huddle, growling, on my best friend’s porch. But no bears. Not even a cub.

What’s the most interesting critter you’ve ever found at your front door?

You can read more about the note left at Canadian Matthew Vane’s mailbox.

Cheekie Was Here

Mom's cardDad always addressed his cards for Mom to Cheekie (or Cheekee — spelling was malleable). She signed hers to him the same. I never asked where that endearment originated. Perhaps there was a story to it, or perhaps it just “happened,” becoming part of their lives without their awareness of an origin point.

No one else ever used that nickname for her. I love how it speaks of a time before me, of their courtship, marriage and life as a couple.

Although married nearly 63 years, they almost weren’t a couple. My parents met on the east coast, but Dad had a bad case of California fever and wanted to relocate to the Los Angeles area. Mom didn’t want to leave behind her family in Baltimore. He courted her long distance by letter, even proposing by mail, and eventually she accepted.

Mom's card insideI don’t know when Mom started to sign her name, “Cheekie.” I have a pile of her love letters to my dad, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to read them. It still feels too intrusive. However, I did find this wonderful card that she made him in the early 1950s, years before I was born, and the nickname is already in place.

Did Dad ever call her Cheekie out loud? Probably. Perhaps. I don’t know. It’s sometimes hard to imagine parents having lives as people apart from being…well…parents.

Over the decades I saw dozens of birthday cards, Christmas presents and anniversary gifts addressed to Cheekee, and I always knew who they were for and who they were from.

Mom and Dad

A Walk Through Windsor

windsor postcardI sent my parents this postcard of Windsor Castle. Its caption reads: H.M The Queen and H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh, The Garter Ceremony, Windsor Castle.

I told Mom and Dad how they changed the guard with a “…pipe band marching up the road and even a man leading a wolf hound,” and closed with, “It’s wonderful the way the castle dominates the town high upon its hill. A sunny day, too. What could be better?”

The castle’s roots extend back nearly 1000 years to William the Conqueror, who began building fortifications there a few years after he invaded England. Kings and queens have been adding to, tearing down and rebuilding the castle ever since, and Windsor remains a royal residence to this day.

windsor guidebookWindsor has also been attracting visitors for centuries. The first tourists turned up in the 1740s when the castle’s keeper was only too happy to throw open the doors to well-heeled ladies and gentlemen who could afford to pay an admission fee. Savvy printers produced the first guidebooks by the 1750s, and have continued updating them for 250 years (the example on the right dates from 1926).

Tourism went on hiatus when King George III decided he preferred Windsor to Hampton Court Palace and moved in, restricting public access. But by the 1800s, the castle was back on the day trippers’ map.

I am drawn to antique souvenirs because I feel a kinship with travelers who wanted to hold on to the magic of their journeys by bringing home tokens from each trip. That’s led me to build a small collection of Windsor Castle memorabilia, such as guidebooks, stereoptic views and — my favorite — an 1848 (or ’46) admission ticket to tour the State Apartments.

windsor ticketwindsor ticket backSomeone scribbled a shopping list on the back of the ticket. I can’t make out most of the items, and am guessing at those I do identify. Ribbon? Peas powder?

Whoever wrote that note rode in horse-drawn carriages, snuffed out candles and lamps before bedtime and wouldn’t have dreamed of technology that threw a picture of the list on a screen for strangers to read. And yet, saving a ticket and using it to jot down a reminder mirrors my own do-lists on scraps of paper, a tangible connection across the years.

Despite all of our differences, and I should definitely add corsets to that list, we share the same curiosity about the rarified lives of royalty and so queued up in our respective centuries for a walk through Windsor.

Windsor Stereo

Windsor cropped

Depredators of the Mail: 2

Mailbags rampantI think it’s time for another serving of the wit and wisdom, of P.H. Woodward’s The Secret Service of the Post Office Department, so herewith is a condensed version of Chapter Two.

Woodward opens the second chapter with his opinion of his fellow special agents. Not high. “An exceedingly small percentage of the men, commissioned from time to time as special agents of the post office department, grow into efficient and valuable officers.”

On the other hand, Woodward’s requirements for a special agent are a wee bit lofty: “In addition to a kind of clairvoyant insight into the operations of a guilty soul, a master in the art of detection must possess a keenness of attention that permits nothing, however minute, to escape its observation…and often courage that triumphs over danger by a quality of transcendent heroism.”

But if such a man exists, will he even deign to work for the post office? “A character so well furnished with the essential attributes of a detective usually finds more congenial and remunerative employment.” As a superhero, perhaps, or technical security for a software giant. Sorry, wrong century.

Fortunately for the continuation of our story, one such remarkable man occasionally bubbles to the surface. In chapter two, that man is John B. Furay of Omaha, Nebraska, appointed special agent in 1870.

A modest man, Furay describes his early unsuccessful attempts to apprehend wrongdoers: “Although I had plenty of opportunity, a perfect surfeit of good cases, and my district full of good thieves as active and saucy as mosquitoes, and although I worked hard enough, still I could not not capture anybody.”

mail robber 4But Furay soon learned the ropes. His first big break concerned 50 registered packages that went missing on the mail routes of three brothers. Which was guilty? Let’s just say it was a family affair. Caught red-handed, one brother showed where he had dumped the mail: “The rifled packages, hidden in hollow trees and under old stumps, were scattered along the road for the distance of 35 miles…”

Although two brothers were convicted, they escaped from prison and joined the third as outlaws in the Lone Star State — where, no doubt, the Texas Rangers entered the picture.

The second case dealt with more registered mail shenanigans, this time involving a postmaster’s assistant named Smythe, who cooked the books.

smytheBecause that investigation consisted primarily of examining ledgers and lacked action, Woodward spent a lot of ink on the inner turmoil Smythe must have felt as the net closed and he “seethed like the caldron of Macbeth’s witches.”

He also described Smythe and his “diminutive repellent eyes that sparkled with a peculiar snakish luster…”

Dealing with such a character, Furay “thanked God that he was there to protect the right and unmask the wrong.” And once he unmasked Smythe, the law forced the villain to surrender his personal property to pay back the stolen money and sentenced him to ten years in jail. Take that, Snake Eyes!

Remember, I read the book so you don’t have to!

Film Friday: A Letter to Three Wives

Letter 2I do love a juicy 1950s soap opera, and if A Letter to Three Wives were any more sudsy, you’d have to pop it in the dryer for a spin!

Three young women meet at the town dock to take a boatload of underprivileged children on an outing. Just before the boat pulls away from the dock, a messenger delivers a letter to all of them from Addie Ross, the local femme fatale. She taunts them by writing that she left town with one of their husbands, but doesn’t say which.

Each wife flashes back to what is wrong with her own marriage, imagining why her husband may have run off with Addie.

Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain) is the naive small town girl, who has married into the country club set where she flounders in her husband’s social whirl.

Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern) is the career woman — aren’t we modern? — who writes schlock for radio dramas and earns more than her school teacher husband. Despite his wife’s pushing him to enter a more lucrative occupation, he prefers to remain in the classroom.

And of course we have tough-as-nails Lora Mae, played by Linda Darnell, constantly battling with a husband who was once her boss. Lora Mae is not just from the wrong side of the tracks; her house sits right next to them, and it’s a hoot to watch everyone and everything vibrate in the kitchen when a train thunders past the window.

Letter 1Although the movie seems a little dated to modern sensibilities, it won Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay. The suspense of which husband ran off will keep you guessing until the end, and sometimes even past that point. Is the story told the true one, or was it said to spare the feelings of one young wife? Watch it and decide for yourself!

Film Friday: Do you give A Letter to Three Wives your stamp of approval? 

Visit Film Friday’s Pinterest pinboard, Lights, Letters, Action!

I Remember Vegas

postcard004My dad loved Las Vegas. We only took a few family vacations while I was growing up, but nearly every trip passed through Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, with Las Vegas the first stop on the itinerary.

We left home around 2:00 am, climbing into the car beneath starry summer skies. My sister Sherrie and I slept in the back seat while Dad raced the sunrise across the California desert. I remember waking up once when we were driving past the great basin that contains Death Valley. The warm air blowing in the windows blew hotter for a few moments, like a sleeping dragon exhaled in the darkness.

slotsMy 1960s postcard of showgirls at the Stardust unleashes a flood of memories of a time when casinos stood open to the sidewalks, spilling cold air onto passersby. While dad played craps for a few hours, Sherrie and I urged Mom to try her luck on cheap slot machines where we could watch the action. Our favorites? The ones shaped like cowboys with spinning wheels in their chests.

Golden Nugget coffee shopI’m not sure why I have a postcard from the Stardust because the Golden Nugget was Dad’s favorite. As soon as we pulled into town, he took us there for breakfast in a restaurant decorated with western-themed murals. Years before casinos added gaming centers and amusement parks, dining was the only reason kids could walk through all that flashing, clinking excitement.

In today’s child-centric world of play zones and hand held electronics, can you imagine a less kid-oriented vacation than standing on the sidewalk while your mom fed pennies to a slot machine? But Dad never spent more than a few hours at the tables before we hit the road again, driving until we stopped for the night at some random motel that had a vacancy sign — and a pool if we were lucky.

The Stardust casino is long gone. The Golden Nugget has been revamped and remodeled. And nothing costs a penny anymore in Vegas. But I can look at my old postcard and conjure how it felt, waking up to the very first day of vacation as Dad parked the car in the Golden Nugget parking lot. Las Vegas, here we come!golden-nugget-casino-576x362

Listen Up!

lord chesterfield ovalLord Chesterfield was a master of the pithy.

Take this: “A light supper, a good night’s sleep, and a fine morning have often made a hero of the same man who, by indigestion, a restless night, and a rainy morning would have proved a coward.”

Or this: “Advice is seldom welcome, and those who need it the most, like it the least.”

Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, was a member of the House of Lords, a Secretary of State and a Viceroy for Ireland, but he is best remembered for the letters he wrote to his illegitimate son, Philip. Chesterfield’s son predeceased him by a few years, and after Chesterfield himself died, his son’s widow published a collection of more than 400 letters from Lord Chesterfield entitled, Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman. While some of the advice, such as how to wear a hat and to never laugh out loud, may seem outmoded, much is still useful today, especially on job interviews!

Rangers House

Rangers House, Lord Chesterfield’s residence in Greenwich

“I here subjoin a list of all those necessary, ornamental accomplishments (without which, no man living can either please, or rise in the world) which hitherto I fear you want, and which only require your care and attention to possess.

  • To speak elegantly, whatever language you speak in; without which nobody will hear you with pleasure, and consequently you will speak to very little purpose.
  • An agreeable and distinct elocution; without which nobody will hear you with patience: this everybody may acquire, who is not born with some imperfection in the organs of speech. You are not; and therefore it is wholly in your power. You need take much less pains for it than Demosthenes did.
  • A distinguished politeness of manners and address; which common sense, obser-vation, good company, and imitation, will infallibly give you if you will accept it.
  • A genteel carriage and graceful motions, with the air of a man of fashion: a good dancing-master, with some care on your part, and some imitation of those who excel, will soon bring this about.
  • To be extremely clean in your person, and perfectly well dressed, according to the fashion, be that what it will: Your negligence of your dress while you were a schoolboy was pardonable, but would not be so now.
  • Upon the whole, take it for granted, that without these accomplishments, all you know, and all you can do, will avail you very little.”

Read more about Lord Chesterfield’s Advice to His Son here.

Film Friday: The Lunchbox

LunchboxWhat a lush and luscious film The Lunchbox is. In this 2013 import from India, neglected wife Ila (Nimrat Kaur) tries to inject romance back into her marriage by preparing an elaborate lunch for her husband that the dabbawala messenger system will deliver to his office. This complex system employs men to bring meals from households and restaurants to office workers, moving 200,000 meals a day in Mumbai.

While the real dabbawala system is world-famous for rarely making an error, the premise of the The Lunchbox is that it does, delivering Ila’s carefully made meal to lonely accountant Saajan (Irrfan Khan). Saajan simply thinks his restaurant order has improved in quality, but Ila, questioning her husband, realizes that the meal ended up with the wrong person. She sends a note with the next lunch, and a correspondence blossoms between Ila and Saajan.

Lunchbox 3Kaur and Khan give restrained, yet wonderfully sympathetic, performances. And even though I would probably burn off the roof of my mouth eating some of those highly spiced dishes, the food throughout the film looked so yummy I wanted all my meals stacked in tin cylinders.

For someone like me who has never visited India, let alone lived there, life in the city was a revelation: dabbawalas delivering lunches to workers’ desks, Ila calling out her window to “Auntie” upstairs for cooking advice, the two women passing ingredients back and forth in a basket on a rope.

Lunchbox 2The dialogue is primarily in Hindi, but subtitles are easy to follow, and much of the film’s depth is conveyed wordlessly.

While The Lunchbox is an Indian film, it is not a Bollywood production of songs and twirling dancers. Instead, it’s a timeless story for anyone who loves letters, food or a change of pace from the standard run of  films.

Film Friday: Do you give The Lunchbox your stamp of approval? 

Visit Film Friday’s Pinterest pinboard, Lights, Letters, Action!

Great Grandmother’s Autograph Book

autograph book 2An autograph book is not technically a letter, but it can be the next best thing with pages of notes and jokes from the owner’s friends. My great grandmother Alice’s book from the late 19th century is a treasure trove of exquisite penmanship, humor and sentiment.

I never met her, and my mother remembered her only as a tired old woman. She was at least 40 in the earliest photo I can find, corseted and unsmiling in black bombazine. And frankly that’s what most of our ancestors seem, men and women who passed directly from a line of type stating birth to stern, unapproachable adulthood.

AliceBut one of Alice’s friends called her Little Buttercup, no doubt after a character in that frothy new operetta H.M.S. Pinafore. And another painted bunches of blue forget-me-nots around his name.

However, my favorite entry is from Hannah B, who penned a warning on June 23, 1881 against men with “suspect” facial hair. Reading that, I can imagine passing notes to Alice in homeroom and giggling together on the walk home from school.

Autograph Book