Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas fern


I saw this lovely Christmas fern yesterday in the woods near Ashley Reservoir (Holyoke, MA). The day was misty and mild, more spring-like than typical of December days. I recognized this distinctive fern by its little leaflets shaped like Christmas stockings all in a row. My mother taught me that identification clue years ago in Danvers, and I've never forgotten it. 

Today I saw many other examples at the Mount Tom State Reservation, and paused along the Bray Lake trail to take this photo of a few Christmas ferns by a small flowing brook: 

The New York Times published a related article online today: The Christmas Fern, a Cold-Weather Frond by David Taft. He writes, "There is little mystery about how the Christmas fern got its name. Its timing was right; it is green when much of the natural world is brown, absent or dormant. There is, however, a more subtle reminder of the holiday season to find among its fronds. Each of the pinnae — the individual leaflets of any fern — is shaped like a little Christmas stocking, and with a bit of imagination, you can picture the little feet marching up the fern’s central stem, or rachis."  
Exactly.  Merry Christmas to all!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Sleigh bells

Old sleigh bells on leather straps hung for years by our front door in Danvers – one strap on each side of the doorway. The bells were made of heavy brass. My mother called them Russian sleigh bells, but I don't know where she obtained them, or why she called them Russian. I loved the sound and the look of those vintage bells.

Years later, when I had inherited one strap of the sleigh bells, I decided to apply some saddle-soap or leather conditioner to help preserve the very dry leather belt, which felt brittle and cracked in places. As my fingers worked along that belt, rubbing the ointment into the old leather, I encountered some lettering that had been stamped or embossed into the leather long ago. The letters were English, not Russian, and spelled CHICAGO.  I also saw the name "SEARS" so I realized these were American made. Perhaps my mother considered them Russian style bells.

I now use the bells each December in Christmas concerts played by the South Hadley Community Band, accompanying my husband Ken, who plays cornet.
This photo was taken December 4, 2015, when we played outdoors on the South Hadley Commons while families lined up to greet Santa Claus.

I stand quietly with the bells slung over my shoulders, waiting for my parts.  The best one is Jingle Bells.  I jump up and down to make the bells ring. They give a wonderful sound.

I used to shake them in my hands, but they are heavy and my arms tire quickly. I prefer to use my shoulders and legs to support the bells.  It is fun to jiggle up and down, playing these bells with the band. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Rug hooked by S.M.Morse

Here is an old photo of the hooked rug made by Sadie May Morse for my parents' first house at 120 Nichols St, Danvers. My mother gave Sadie many images and ideas to incorporate into the design. Sadie patterned the rug after a much smaller Swedish "Tree of Life" rug; note the branching structure in center. Above that, you can see a couple dancing – my parents swinging in a square dance, no doubt.

Click on image to enlarge 
Look closely, and you'll find many other representations of my parents and what they loved: my mother's horse, my father's sailboat, someone playing ice hockey, a horse jumping. The symbol for the Putney Ski Club (a duck on skis) is even included. My parents were skiers and had met in Putney, VT, though I don't know if they ever skied there. My mother, Janet Cutler, worked two summers in the late 1930's as a camp counsellor with the horses at the Putney Work Camp, while my father, Nick Nichols, sometimes stayed in a youth hostel there when he came to visit his good friend Al Green, who worked in Putney.

Nick and "Cut" married June 1940. Her initials JCN and his initials NPN can be seen in corners of the rug. Another corner shows the date 1940, and in fourth corner (not visible in the photo above) is the date this rug was made, 1942.  Sadie's last name is also included in the rug, but cleverly hidden.

The geometric patterns around the border of the rug and the big zig-zag lines inside provided structure to childhood games my sister and I invented. The lines were at times "roads" or tracks for little vehicles. Various shapes and spaces on the rug became "pastures" for our farm animals, and so forth. It was a very rich landscape for our play.

See my previous post for more memories of this rug and our little house, especially my father's Tiddlywink golf course using circles and other shapes in this rug as putting greens or "holes." I am writing my next column about that Tiddlywink golf game we so loved.

120 Nichols St

I love this old Christmas card that my father made, with his handwritten message, "Greetings from 120 Nichols Street."  That house was my first home, my only home until I was fourteen. Today I found in my computer something I had written in 2007 about this house and my experiences in it.

Memories of my first home
By Sandy Nichols Ward

For the first 14 years of my life, I lived in a little house at 120 Nichols Street, Danvers, MA. It was a small Cape Cod style house with one window on each side of the front door. As I visualize that house and attempt to describe it in writing, memories come flooding back.  Each room or feature of the house draws distinct memories. I could probably write a chapter about the front door. Let’s start there.

Once upon a time I was a little girl with my first pair of new shoes. I tripped on the front door threshold and hit my forehead very hard. So I’ve been told by my parents as they explained why I had the persistent scar in the center of my forehead.  My bangs usually hung down over the scar so it wasn’t noticeable.  I don’t remember the fall or any pain associated with it, just the story and the little scar.

Another front door story caused pain to my mother every time she re-told it.  But it was also very funny, so we loved the re-telling. The story begins with the creation of a beautiful hooked rug for the living room floor. An old woman in Marblehead hooked the rug by hand with strips of wool dyed to particular colors. My mother had specified that she loved the color that blueberry leaves turn in the fall; she wanted that color as the background for the rug. The design of the rug followed a “tree of life” pattern, but with details changed to reflect my parents’ interests. The figures of my parents dancing together could be seen, as well as their initials, marriage date, and other meaningful images. It was a lovely rug, brilliantly colored in those days. Unfortunately, a house painter added a color that was not intended. He was up high on a ladder painting the exterior of the house with white paint. He had leaned his ladder against the front door. The front door was not locked. At some point the door burst open and the ladder, painter, and can of white paint came crashing into the living-room. I didn’t witness this, but I certainly heard my mother’s disdain for the stupidity of anyone who would prop a ladder against an unlocked door. My poor mother worked hard to clean the paint off that special rug. She did a pretty good job, for the rug was attractive for years. Only as the wool worn down did we begin to see the remnants of the swath of white paint, still adhering to the base of each woolen loop. By then the rug had plenty of patches, too. My mother used sections of denim from old bluejeans (or “dungarees” as she called them) to reinforce the back side of the rug as she tacked down loose loops and stitched together places where the burlap backing had deteriorated. That rug was lovingly maintained over the years. (It is rolled up and stored in my house today – too fragile to use but too much of a treasure to discard. In the 1970’s a rug conservator told me it should be in a museum as a piece of Americana, patches and all, but I didn’t have the required funds to have it professionally repaired and cleaned.)

The size of that rug is telling. It seems very small now, but I know it filled the available space in our living room. It touched the couch on one side, and the fireplace hearth opposite. One end reached the trestle table my grandfather built for us, and the other extended to the desk that sat inside the front door. The patterns on the rug provided tracks or background for our games. Sometimes my sister and I would place our bare feet on the angular lines that zigzagged around the border of the rug, turning as we stepped from line to line to line. The challenge was to keep going in spite of the dizziness induced by the turning. At other times my father set up a Tiddly Wink golf course on the rug, using different patterns as the “holes.” He inverted a dictionary in the middle to separate two small ovals in the rug pattern. We could try to jump the Tiddly Wink OVER the book in one turn, or move around the sides in multiple turns. The final hole of the “golf course” was to land the Tiddly Wink up into a cup on the couch. My father was very skillful with Tiddly Winks and few could beat him. We had lots of fun on that hooked rug, which measures 54 by 86 inches (4’6’’x7’2’’). 

Given the size of that rug, I estimate that the whole living room was only 9x11 feet or possibly 10x12. It seemed plenty big to a child. But looking back, I realize the entire house was quite small. At first there were only four rooms: living-room, kitchen, and two bedrooms, plus a bathroom and very tiny hall connecting from living room to bedrooms and bath.  There was not enough space in the kitchen for a real table, only a fold-down ledge under one window. Grandfather Cutler built us a long narrow trestle-style table to fit in the south end of the living room. We used that as our dining table. He made a wooden bench for one side, and we used wooden arm chairs at either end. He didn’t make a bench for the other side because there was no room; the table had to be against the wall and window. The bench he made could be converted to coffee-table height by removing a few bolts and taking off the footings at the bottom. These footing pieces slid conveniently into a rack under the bench seat, ready to be used again. I have happy memories of using that bench also as a slide. We’d put one end up on the couch, and position a pillow on the floor beyond the other end, and then slide down. Whee!! We also positioned the bench in front of the fireplace and sat there to toast marshmallows, or lay there to dry our hair in front of the fire.

Eventually the house was expanded in two directions. An addition on the back added kitchen space and a back entry hall, where our dog Heidi slept. An addition on the north end split one bedroom to create a longer hall and add a new bedroom beyond. What remained of that older bedroom became my room. It measured 7x9 feet. I’m told that I used to rock so much in my crib that I banged the crib frame against the wall, chipping out a place in the wall. What I remember is the bunk-bed I slept in for years. My parents acquired it from Army Surplus, and it still had the Army drab color. It was only three feet wide, much narrower than a twin size. The frame of the bunk bed entirely filled one side of my room, eliminating 7x3 feet of space. That left 7x6 feet, just enough for the big, tall chest of drawers from my grandfather’s house, and a little desk and chair. There was barely room to swing the door open. When the door was closed, I had a small space to play in the middle of the room.  

I spent many hours alone in that room. My mother believed in “naptime” even if I wasn’t sleepy. I had to play quietly in my room while my younger sister slept in the front bedroom. My mother worked on her typewriter or adding machine in her adjacent bedroom, which doubled as her office; she had been a school teacher, but then became an office assistant and accountant for my father’s small business. The sounds of her office machinery were comforting to me. I never objected, years later in college, to the sounds of a nearby typewriter; those sounds could lull me to sleep.

Another sound I recall came up through the floor of my room. “Pah-ping, pah-pong, pah-ping, pah-pong” could be heard at night when my parents played Ping Pong in the cellar below. They liked to entertain friends there and played many rounds of Ping Pong. The cellar ceiling was rather low, and the ball sometimes got caught in the rafters, causing a rapid-fire volley right under my floor. The sound pattern would change to “Pah-ping, pah-pong, pah-ping, pah-pong, pah-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM” and then laughter as people retrieved the errant ball and resumed play.

On Monday nights I heard classical music from the radio in the living room. My mother loved to listen to the Firestone hour: Voice of Firestone, a weekly program of excellent music sponsored by Firestone Tire Company, at 8:30 pm EST every Monday for decades.

I remember the bumpy feel of the woven mat on my bedroom floor. The mat was mostly a natural tan color with thin lines of color running in two directions, creating a plaid-like pattern of squares. I used to sort things into those squares, perhaps an early indication that I would become a librarian. One day I used bright crayons to mark each square, and learned that my mother did NOT approve of coloring on the rug! Nor did she approve of my first word written in cursive style. I was so proud that I had figured out how to connect the letters, writing “trees” on the door. That crayon-red word remained on the back of my door for years.

I loved the view out my bedroom window. I could look right into the crabapple tree my mother had planted near the house. I liked to eat the bright red crabapples, even though they were quite sour. My mother made crabapple jelly. I remember sunlight coming through the jars of crabapple jelly sitting on a kitchen window ledge – a beautiful sight!

I also remember one day when I was about seven, and my friends from the neighborhood gathered under that crabapple tree and knocked on my window. Could I come out and play?, they asked. No, said my mother, it was still naptime. I didn’t have to nap, but I had to stay inside my room during that period. I felt much too old to be confined for naptime; none of my friends had such restrictions. Well,  If I couldn’t go out, I figured they could come in. I opened the window and helped them climb in. That was fun. But my mother had a fit. Apparently it was a very BAD idea to invite boys into my bedroom, but I didn’t see why. I thought it was a clever idea. I bet this incident led to the eventual ending of “naptime” for me.  

That's where my 2007 piece ended.  More could be written...   Other memories of my time in this house include playing in the attic on rainy days, the funky ladder that we had to climb to reach the attic, and so forth. Some stories have already been shared elsewhere in this blog. I know I've written about water leaking into the cellar, and the garter snakes that sunned themselves on our front door step, and my pet raccoon leaving sticky paw prints on the dark blue kitchen floor. I'm sure I'll write more stories as they come to mind. In my next post, I'll add a photo of that hooked rug.

[Note to readers: you may use the SEARCH BOX in the upper left to find any keyword within my blog postings. That search tool has been very handy when I've wanted to find a detail I know I had researched earlier, but forgotten. Try typing "spring" in the search box, or "rug" or whatever you wish to find.] 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Hand-made cards, & rug

This morning I happened upon a webpage showing Christmas cards designed and hand-printed in 1930 by Sadie May Morse of Marblehead, MA. Three of her card designs were reproduced 70 years later by owners of a bookstore in Great Britain.

Memories of homemade cards now flood my brain. My father was adept at drawing sketches that turned into cards. He also made cards using photographs he had taken of our home, or of our family. I remember standing on a tall ladder outside our little Danvers house, posing there with my sister and parents for a family photo to be incorporated into a Christmas card. I also recall his hand-drawn maps of our neighborhood and of his ski trails. He wasn't an artist; he was an engineer who could visualize things and make clear drawings of his ideas.

There were real artists in the family and also among my parents' friends, so each year we received many lovely homemade Christmas cards. The unique designs and different styles were fascinating, much more fun than commercially-produced cards. We tended to keep the artistic ones; the commercial ones we cut and recycled into gift tags for the following year. Somewhere I have a bundle of Christmas cards by Danvers artist Richard V. Ellery; Dick and my father were very close friends.

My mother had a connection to Sadie May Morse. I grew up hearing the name "Sadie May Morse" in connection with our living room rug, a hooked rug designed and hooked in 1940 by this woman in Marblehead. How my mother met Sadie May is unknown to me, and I never met her. But I feel a very strong connection through that unique hooked rug on which I played. It had geometric patterns and various colored shapes that provided structure for some of our childhood games.  

I was trying to write about one of those games this morning, and as I began to describe the rug, I decided to double-check the spelling of Sadie's name. Hence my Google search... and discovery that Sadie was an artist in many media, including handprinted Christmas cards.

How did Much Ado, a bookstore in England, come to have Sadie's card designs?  Here's one clue:
"Much Ado’s roots are in a colonial seafront town just north of Boston, Massachusetts. Marblehead, self-proclaimed Yachting Capital of the World, was our home for more than 20 wonderful years.
But we crossed the Atlantic ... years ago to open a new Much Ado in a Medieval English village."
I'm happy to learn that Much Ado "gave most of Sadie May Morse's collection to the Marblehead Historical Society."  That suggests a good way for me to learn more about the woman who created the very special rug that warmed our living room, and enlivened our games, so many years ago.

I did write something about that rug, especially the red color of its background, in a column in the Danvers Herald in 2008: The Color of Blueberry Leaves in the Fall.