Up on the Roof

IMG_1867 (480x640)I’m always tempted by a bargain, but I don’t always read the fine print carefully. So it was that my husband and I found ourselves on a rooftop tour at the Biltmore Estate a few weeks ago: we’re passholders, and January and February offer numerous perks to the season passholder. Turns out that the additional discount for passholders was on the Upstairs-Downstairs Tour, not the Rooftop Tour. Oops!

The nice woman on the passholder line did tell me there was no special passholder discount for the Rooftop Tour before I bought the tickets, but I decided to go for it—mostly because we went on a tour similar to the Upstairs-Downstairs one a few years ago.  The price of $20.00 per person was a little steep (pun intended, I’m afraid), but I was not disappointed in my choice. Viewing the estate from the rooftop is an experience that I heartily recommend, if you don’t mind a little stairclimbing.

 

While the sun quickly disappeared behind some clouds, it wasn’t raining, and the weather was mild for February. Happily, my husband had the day off, so I had company for the tour. Despite February being off-season for the Biltmore, there were at least 10 people in our tour group, which was shepherded up the stairs by an excellent guide.

 

Aside from the breathtaking views of George Vanderbilt’s large estate, I appreciated the opportunity to go into areas that are not on the regular tour, such as the room with a skylight and a winding spiral stair that leads to the viewing platform on the roof. Who knew that the massive iron chandelier, which hangs from the top of the house into the entrance hall, is held in place by a single bolt? I also had no idea that the shingles on the roof were wired on by hand; fear of fire was a motivation here. Perhaps I should have guessed that gold leaf had been used on the roof tiles—truly a sign of the Gilded Age!

 

I enjoyed the Rooftop Tour so much that I’d like to go back with my teenage son: he doesn’t get excited about wallpaper or furniture, but he would enjoy going up on the roof of such a magnificent building. It was fun to see the details not only on the roof tiles but on the gargoyles. Our guide, who shared some facts about George Vanderbilt and the house that even this seasoned veteran of the Biltmore Estate hadn’t heard before, drew our attention to her favorite decorative carving on the exterior: a bear who seems to be eating honey from a pot!

 

Until last fall, I hadn’t realized that financial worries were plaguing George Vanderbilt before his untimely death in 1914 from complications following an appendectomy. In September, my husband, son, and I visited the Cradle of Forestry, the birthplace of America’s first forestry school, which was headed up by Carl Schenck, one-time employee of George Vanderbilt.  Schenck had been hired to replace Gifford Pinchot, Vanderbilt’s original forest consultant, but Vanderbilt and Schenck eventually began to disagree: as I understand it, Vanderbilt needed more income from his vast woodlands than Schenck thought was good for the forests. When my husband and I heard that, we wondered if maybe George was running out of money. Construction costs aside, the Biltmore Estate was not designed with a view to economy—quite the contrary! Maintaining the house was a huge expense, and the reinstatement of income tax in 1913 was just one of several unexpected setbacks for the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

 

A  couple of weeks ago, I started reading Denise Kiernan’s The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home. While the book is rich in historical detail, it’s not a page turner, although I’ve mostly enjoyed the first part of the book. Midway through, I foolishly put down The Last Castle when interlibrary loan provided me with the sequels to Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka. Recently, my son and I listened to O’Hara’s well-known tale about a daydreaming boy who longs for a colt of his own; once I finish Green Grass of Wyoming, I plan to dive back into Kiernan’s possibly unauthorized chronicle of the Asheville Vanderbilts. I say “unauthorized” because we didn’t see a copy of The Last Castle on sale at the Biltmore Estate. Also, I’ve noticed that the letters quoted in Kiernan’s book are from associates of the Vanderbilts such as Edith Wharton, Gifford Pinchot, the wife of architect Richard Morris Hunt, or George’s personal friends William Osgood Field and Paul Leicester Ford. Missing are letters or journals of the Vanderbilts themselves. Hmmm.

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The job of transforming George Vanderbilt’s property into a well-groomed estate with vistas and lakes fell to Frederick Law Olmsted, the renowned landscape architect. Here is a view of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains from one of the balconies.

I get the impression that Kiernan doesn’t have much use for George Vanderbilt himself: “What to do with such a sum [12 to 13 million, with an annual income of about $500,000] when one had not lifted a finger to earn it? This was the enviable dilemma of many in George’s class” (13). Ouch! Kiernan does seem impressed by Edith Dresser Vanderbilt, George’s wife. I admire Edith, too: George’s choice of an intelligent, kind, and practical spouse was perhaps one of his wiser decisions. Still, I have more sympathy for George than Kiernan does. Sure, he could have used his large inheritance in a more compassionate way than in devoting it to the construction of a veritable American castle, complete with grounds, village, and church, but he was a charitable man, for his time.  I, for one, am thankful that he decided to construct what Kiernan describes as “an architectural albatross.”

 

If you’d like more specifics about the Rooftop tour, I recommend seeing it yourself or, if that’s not possible, reading Bob Vila’s account of the Rooftop Tour. My photos don’t do justice to the architecture or the views, but that didn’t stop me from seeking to chronicle our experience with my iPhone.

 

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Biltmore Does Decorations

IMG_1525 (640x480)A few years ago, my husband and I splurged on season passes to the Biltmore Estate. It’s an easy drive from our house, and we like to walk or bike on the extensive grounds as weather permits. In recent years, the Biltmore has had special costume exhibits—Dressing Downton in 2015, Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film in 2016, and, in 2017, Designed for Drama: Fashion from the Classics. So we keep renewing our passes in November, figuring we’ll regret it if we don’t. Coming in 2018: an exhibit of costumes from Titanic in February and, in the spring, Chihuly glass in Biltmore’s gardens!

My husband had a day off this week, so we gathered the children who were willing to go and went on a daytime tour of the Biltmore. There is also a Candlelight Christmas tour, but it costs extra, even for passholders, and we were already paying for our two college kids, who don’t have passes. The evening tour features musicians performing in various rooms; apparently, a Victorian-style Santa makes an appearance. Still, I was satisfied with strolling through the beautifully decorated mansion while sunlight filtered in through the windows. Happily, someone was playing Christmas music on the organ while we were in the Banquet Hall, which showcases a 35-foot live Frasier fir that is replaced twice during the Christmas season!

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Posing with the lions in front of the Biltmore is a long-standing tradition.

Since I’m really supposed to be shopping today—Christmas is in three days! Yikes!—I’ll go straight to sharing the pictures that I took on Tuesday. Cameras used to be off limits inside the Biltmore House, but perhaps the power of social media changed that ruling. Visitors are now permitted to take non-flash photos inside George Vanderbilt’s mansion. Inveterate shutterbug though I am, I have mixed feelings about taking pictures in the house: inevitably, there is a logjam in the line moving through the rooms as people stop to take pictures. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have these pictures to share with you if pictures were still banned.

In deference to my college son, who claims that as a small child he was dragged through the Biltmore House on numerous occasions, I tried to keep my picture-taking to a minimum. I will tell you, though, that every single bedroom or sitting room had at least one tree, not to mention the garlands and wreaths festooning mantels and doorways. But, at a certain point, I put my iPhone in my purse and tried to leave it there. Here is a tiny glimpse inside the glimmering magic of the Biltmore House in its Christmas glory:

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Since it was a pleasant day, we strolled out onto the Tennis Courts and down to the Conservatory. Then we headed over to Antler Hill Village, which has been gorgeously decorated with lights. On our way, we spotted some deer grazing—not an uncommon sight at the Biltmore Estate.

Fortunately, it was just starting to get dark as we left, so we got a partial experience of the lights at Antler Hill Village at night. Happily, passholders can bring non-passholders onto the Antler Hill part of the Estate after 5 p.m. Maybe we’ll make it back before the holidays are over—but maybe we won’t: we still haven’t seen the Winter Lights at the North Carolina Arboretum or gone to see the gingerbread houses from the annual competition at the Grove Park Inn this year. Asheville is an awesome place at Christmas-time!

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So Many Fall Photos, So Little Time

I take too many pictures. This is an indisputable fact. None of my children would quarrel with this statement. If I even start to say the “p” word when I’m on a walk with my older daughter, a frown creases her usually amiable face. Her brothers are more tolerant—two of my sons will obligingly take photos on request if I’m driving or lacking sufficient room on my phone. My younger daughter has a natural eye for a picture—much better than mine—so she’s tolerant of picture-taking, as long as it doesn’t make her late.

If you live in the mountains and you take too many pictures, what happens in the fall? You wind up with way too many pictures. Rekindling my blogs this fall has worsened the situation: I bet I’m not the only person out there who takes photos speculatively, thinking, “Oh, this will make a great blog post” or “I bet my readers would like to see fall at the Biltmore.”

From a statistical point of view, I thought it would be interesting to see just how many pictures I have taken this fall, but that information has proved elusive. I searched for all files in my “Pictures” library taken between 10/1/2017 and 10/31/2017; fall starts on September 22, but the date range proved difficult to set between months. The resulting search showed 713 pictures taken in October alone. However, not all of those photos were unique: I’ve started resizing (or “optimizing,” to use WordPress’s term) photos that I insert in blog posts. At first, I resisted optimizing, but I’m trying to make my storage space last; at least 50 of those files are resized photos. Some photos are scans and have nothing to do with fall color. Other photos are associated with events like my son’s birthday, the Highland Games, or Halloween. Still, my conservative estimate is that I’ve taken at least 400 fall photos this year. Wow. What was I thinking? So much frowning for my daughter cannot be good. (She wasn’t with me on most of my fall-color excursions—fortunately for her.)

Mostly, my photos aren’t that good, either. Occasionally, I’ll get out my son’s DSLR camera, and then—if I can remember how to use it—the photos might turn out well.  Primarily, I take photos for three reasons: 1) to capture the “thrill” of glimpsed beauty; 2) to capture a moment in time; 3) to have fodder for blog posts (sad but true). Occasionally, there’s a fourth, practical reason: to streamline life. It’s quicker to take a picture of a recipe than it is to write down all the ingredients; it’s quicker to take a picture of my insurance card than to copy down the info. And it’s handy to take a picture when I’m choosing between two dresses, particularly if I need fashion advice from my daughters.

I’m borrowing the word “thrill” as a reaction to beauty from L. M. Montgomery’s beloved book about an orphan girl who finds a home on Prince Edward Island. Yesterday my son and I started listening to Anne of Green Gables on our way to his out-of-town basketball game. (Please don’t tell his middle school buddies.) I may have waited too long to share this book with him; he was rolling his eyes occasionally. My eyes, on the other hand, filled with tears as I listened to Anne’s excitement about finding a home at last and to the details of her loveless existence prior to arriving at Green Gables. When I first read Anne of Green Gables, I was a child, so the pathos of her situation was lost on me.

My son came up with one of his one-liners as we were nearing home. We had to pause the book, and I said reassuringly, “You know that she gets to stay, right? After all, it is called, Anne of Green Gables.” His response? “Yeah, I mean, it’s not called Anne of Asylum.” Anne of the Asylum might be a slightly better title, but I see his point. Even Jane Eyre, part of which is set in an asylum for orphaned children, avoids the word “asylum” in its title. Authors have to think about marketing.

I bring up Anne of Green Gables because taking a picture is my instinctive response to the “thrill” that I get when I see a particularly beautiful tree or view or sight. The word “thrill” appears 37 times in Anne of Green Gables! The first time Anne uses the word “thrill,” Matthew is driving her from the Bright River station to Green Gables; Anne sees one beautiful sight after another—apple trees in bloom arching over the road, a lovely pond at sunset:

Below them was a pond, looking almost like a river so long and winding was it. A bridge spanned it midway and from there to its lower end, where an amber-hued belt of sand-hills shut it in from the dark blue gulf beyond, the water was a glory of many shifting hues–the most spiritual shadings of crocus and rose and ethereal green, with other elusive tintings for which no name has ever been found. Above the bridge the pond ran up into fringing groves of fir and maple and lay all darkly translucent in their wavering shadows . . .

“That’s Barry’s pond,” said Matthew.

“Oh, I don’t like that name, either. I shall call it–let me see–the Lake of Shining Waters. Yes, that is the right name for it. I know because of the thrill. When I hit on a name that suits exactly it gives me a thrill. Do things ever give you a thrill?”

Matthew ruminated.

“Well now, yes. It always kind of gives me a thrill to see them ugly white grubs that spade up in the cucumber beds. I hate the look of them.”

“Oh, I don’t think that can be exactly the same kind of a thrill. Do you think it can? There doesn’t seem to be much connection between grubs and lakes of shining waters, does there?”

Later, Anne uses the word “thrill” to describe how she feels about the poetry in the Fifth Reader, about puffed sleeves, about the upcoming church picnic, about having tea with Ms. Barry, about acting out a romantic scene, and many other experiences. Marilla, a spinster who has had few children in her life, is “thrilled” when Anne kisses her on the cheek. “Thrills” are few and far between as we get older, but the beauties in nature can be counted on to thrill the most stoic among us. Last week, even my oldest son, who describes himself as “not a nature person,” posted a photo of a particularly beautiful Japanese maple on Instagram.

I love Anne’s reaction to some birches she observes while at church one Sunday: “‘There was a long row of white birches hanging over the lake and the sunshine fell down through them, ‘way, ‘way down, deep into the water. Oh, Marilla, it was like a beautiful dream! It gave me a thrill and I just said, “Thank you for it, God,” two or three times.’” Last week, my son and I sang the Doxology in the car as we drove along a particularly beautiful stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It seemed the best way to respond to the “thrill” we felt.

October was a beautiful month at Green Gables, when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths.

Anne reveled in the world of color about her.

“Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill–several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.”

Now that it’s November, the brilliant leaves are fading and falling. The austere beauty of winter is insinuating its presence, although a few trees still valiantly fly the red and orange battle flags of fall. Scattered leaves tumble and scurry over the street outside the coffee shop where I’m typing. Winter will be lovely in its barebones way, but there is a thrill in autumn’s glorious colors that I’ll miss.

So long, September!

I’m going to miss September. October has just begun, but it’s getting dark earlier, so we have to scramble to get a walk in. Today, I missed that narrow window, so no walk for me. I found myself thinking about all the lovely walks I had in September.

This summer, we went on a number of hikes: for me, a hike is defined as a walk that does not originate from my house and that consists of at least two miles—preferably three and maybe more. Once September came, activities filled up the schedule, and our hikes petered out. Still, we’ve taken some delightful walks on September evenings. Even on days when the temperatures soared, things had usually cooled off by the time we left for a walk.IMG_0034 (640x480)

We walked in the neighborhood (above) and at the Botanical Gardens (below).

We tried a new walk at the Biltmore Estate,

but we also revisited some well-known haunts there.

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The first couple of days after Irma, the Blue Ridge Parkway was closed, and my sons and I reveled in walking along the road; a lot of commuters use it, so it was wonderful to have it to ourselves, aside from a lone cyclist. The next day, the parkway had reopened, which dashed my plans for riding bikes. Instead, we decided to check out the damage Irma had wreaked on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Volunteers had already cleared the trail of fallen trees and limbs.

One night in September, my husband and I drove up to the Pisgah Inn for dinner. We took a walk along the ridge to the place where George Vanderbilt used to have a hunting lodge; unfortunately, we were facing east, so we just got the faintest part of the sunset.

This past Saturday night—the last day of September—we were traveling, so our walk took us around the beautiful campus of Indiana University. It was cool that evening, but, aside from a stray tree or two, the leaves hadn’t changed color.IMG_0268 (640x480)IMG_0278 (640x480)

No doubt I’ll get excited as the fall colors brighten up the parkway, but, at the moment, I’m sad about the end of sweet September. September is the swan song of summer.

Finding Words for Spring

Baker_Street_CD_CoverIn the 1970s, I had in my possession a Broadway cast album of the musical “Baker Street.” Yes, THAT Baker Street, and, yes, there was a musical about Sherlock Holmes, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia” and featuring a romance between Holmes and Irene Adler.

Why I owned this obscure LP is the real mystery. I did like reading mysteries, so maybe that’s why my mother — the greatest of all bargain hunters — bought the record for me or my older brother? My brother initiated me into the sleuthing world with the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Encyclopedia Brown; eventually, I graduated to Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Father Brown, and the like. We found at least one use for “Baker Street”: an instrumental segment from “Finding Words for Spring” served as background music for our “radio” play, “Murder Man,” a long-term project. With our neighbors, my brother and I intermittently recorded the play on my parents’ tape recorder. (Before you get too impressed with our creativity, we borrowed the concept of the “Murder Man” play from an Encyclopedia Brown story.)

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We loved mysteries, and we loved musicals: how could the album be anything but a hit? Devotees of Sherlock though we were, the songs seemed more laughable than laudable.  Was it because we were kids? Maybe we were more discerning than I realized, if reviews of the album are to be believed. Did Broadway patrons agree with us? “Baker Street” hasn’t been revived yet, and, as far as I know, hasn’t been made into a film. The songs weren’t particularly catchy, and Inga Swenson’s rendition of “Finding Words for Spring” was the sort of soprano warbling that sent adolescents running in the opposite direction.

Even so, a fragment of this song floated into my thoughts as I admired the azaleas lining my driveway: “Finding words for spring / Is no easy thing.” Soon, I was flipping through my stash of LPs, but the album wasn’t there — which is just as well, since my turntable stopped working 10 years ago. Maybe my parents have the album? Thanks to YouTube, I was able to listen to “Finding Words for Spring,” as sung by Swenson, and a nostalgic rendering by songwriter Ray Jessel. Surprisingly, the song isn’t about spring or natural beauty; it’s about the difficulty of articulating romantic feelings:

P1080030 (800x600)Finding words for spring

Is no easy thing

Still, I’m sure I’d find a few.

What words could be right

To describe the night?

Somehow, I would find them, too.

P1080035 (800x600)How can one explain

Love’s sweet splendor?

The most tender words won’t do.

You must fall in love;

Then you’ll find that love

Will explain itself to you.

Should you want to praise

Lazy summer days,

I could find a phrase or two.

As for love, mere words —

P1080040 (800x600)Though they’re clever —

They’ll just never, never do.

You must fall in love;

Then you’ll find that love

Will explain itself to you.

Did I misremember the song? The title “Finding Words for Spring” seemed to promise a song about the inexpressible freshness of spring — not a love song. Honestly, it may be more difficult to describe a landscape than to describe one’s love.  At least you can use images from nature as symbols of love or of the loved one’s perfections. But how to depict with mere words the wonders of spring?

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It has been a glorious spring here in North Carolina. Dogwood blossoms have graced my backyard with a snowy whiteness; daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips have added brilliant colors — yellows, blues, oranges, lilacs, reds — to the greening grass. The azaleas have flamed crimson and scarlet and so many shades of pink against an even greener background. Even my teenage daughter has remarked on the abundance of chlorophyll. Now the rhododendrons are coming into their own, with purply-pinks against glossy, dark-green leaves. Soon it will be time for the roses to fulfill their promise.

Whenever I get a free moment, I find myself rushing off for another stroll at the Biltmore Estate. We treated ourselves to season passes this year, partly because of the “Dressing Downton” exhibit that runs through May. There have been afternoons of pure happiness, riding bikes alongside the river, or hiking up a gentle slope to the house, or slowly strolling through the Azalea Garden. Meanwhile, our passes to the North Carolina Arboretum are good through September, so we can enjoy the beauty of spring blooms there as well.

IMG_3971 (800x600)Why am I even sitting at my computer, when I could be outdoors? Spring in the southern United States is beyond beautiful, especially in the early evening, which seems to be the time of most of our Biltmore jaunts.

IMG_3898 (800x600)So, if anyone has wondered why I’m not writing much, I would say, “It’s springtime, silly!” Alas, I am not a gardener myself, but I can enjoy the fruits of other people’s labors at the Biltmore and the Arboretum. I’m thankful that the people who built our house planted so many azaleas, rhododendrons, and dogwoods. Benign neglect has been our policy so far, with remarkably few ill effects.

With the end of the school year upon me, I am unlikely to blog much in the next month. I’m a slow starter, but I like to finish strongly. This is one homeschooling mom who kicks into gear in the second semester, and especially in the final months. “What? We’re not going to get through the one-year American history curriculum? Says who?” Fortunately, my youngest son likes history.

Look for me when it starts to get hot again. My blogging anniversary is coming up in June: I cannot remain inactive until then. And I still have Doug’s challenge to fulfill: five stories about five photos in five days. Can it wait til spring is over?

For now, I’m off on a final April expedition. (Or not. Now it’s raining. The other side of spring.)

Ginger All the Way

My children's Hansel and Gretel gingerbread house, November 2006

My children’s Hansel and Gretel gingerbread house (November 2006).

For 22 years, the Grove Park Inn has sponsored a gingerbread house competition: these edible creations take gingerbread architecture to a new level! Many hours of planning, baking, assembling, and decorating go into the construction of each gingerbread “house” — and, usually, some heartbreak as well. Aside from the base, all components of the house must be edible.

Little House in the Big Woods gingerbread cabin (November 2002)

Little House in the Big Woods gingerbread cabin (November 2002)

Despite my lack of domestic skills, my kids have entered houses in the competition three times. I learned the hard way that, yes, you can get food poisoning from Royal Icing. My older daughter’s Little House in the Big Woods cabin even made it to the Top Ten in the children’s category one year!

As you can see from the photo taken in our kitchen the last time a Fleming entered the Grove Park Inn competition, making a gingerbread house wreaks havoc on your actual house. The kitchen chaos is more than repaid by the fun of finding creative ways to use candy, crackers, pretzels, cereal, and, of course, marzipan.

My daughter's rendition of the arrival of Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarfs at Beorn's Hall

My daughter’s rendition of the arrival of Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarfs at Beorn’s Hall from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (November 2010).

She ran out of time, so several plans for embellishing Beorn's Hall had to be abandoned.

She ran out of time and had to abandon plans for embellishing Beorn’s Hall. All 13 dwarfs are rendered with correctly colored capes, however.

Beorn's bee hives, on the other side of the hall.

Beorn’s bee hives, on the other side of the hall.

With several out-of-town guests here to see my younger daughter in The Nutcracker, we decided to make the trek to North Asheville to view the winners — and the non-winners, which are often just as impressive — of the 2014 Gingerbread Competition.

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My photos are a sampling of the teen, adult, youth, and child entries in this year’s competition. If you’d like to see even more gingerbread houses, you can watch a video of the Grand Prize winner or check out photos from the judging at the 2014 competition. The wonderful smell of gingerbread permeated the Grove Park Inn!

And now, back to wrapping those presents . . .

Which Goose Is Getting Fat?

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Double wreaths, December 2014 (iPhone 5s)

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat,

Please to put a penny in the old man’s hat;

If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do;

If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you!

Christmas Is Coming” has been playing over and over in my head lately. My sources, aka wikipedia, tell me that it is both a nursery rhyme and an American carol. Why the “ha’penny,” or half-penny, if this song is American? Maybe half-pennies were used in eighteenth-century America? I could find out, if I did extensive research, but there’s the rub: I can’t do research, because Christmas is coming, and, at our house, the metaphorical goose is looking lean.

Close-up of a Christmas wall-hanging made by my mother

Close-up of the wall hanging, made by my mother

Historically, I am the one who sees to it that Christmas cards are sent and presents are bought. Once my husband gets the lights on the tree, I’m the one, aided by my youngest son and daughter, who puts on the ornaments. This year, the strings of white lights were mysteriously missing, but putting on the lights never goes smoothly. Still, my husband got ’em up. He even put up the Father Christmas wall hanging and placed the angel on top of the tree. Despite the fact that Christmas cards have been on the dining room table for weeks, I haven’t started addressing them, nor have I put one ornament on a hook. I’m hoping that the influx of my college kids this weekend will motivate me. If I don’t buy the presents, who will? If I don’t bring up the ornaments from the basement, will they find their way onto the prickly fir branches this December?

A line from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory drifted into my head as I thought about the many responsibilities that mothers and fathers have on holidays and birthdays: “We are the music makers, / And we are the dreamers of the dreams.” I’m not sure what Mr. Wonka meant by quoting Arthur O’Shaughnessy here, but, for me, these words mean: make music for your children, and dream dreams with them. In my childhood, my mother added the sparkle to festive occasions. She was the person who ensured that gifts were bought and cakes were made. Being a parent is daunting, and there are moments when I fail, or nearly fail. This year, my blog is threatening to derail Christmas at our house.

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Season of Symmetry? There seemed to be many “doubles” in this picture of a downtown church decorated for Christmas. Closer examination reveals more triples. (iPhone 5s)

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Designed by Douglas Ellington, First Baptist Church was completed in 1927. (iPhone 5s)

For now, I must shift my focus from the blog and to the family goose, which needs fattening with only two weeks left until Christmas Day. The literal goose is getting fat, by which I mean myself. I have gained between 5 and 10 pounds this fall. I’ve heard of the Freshman 15, but is there a Blogging 10? Too much time at my laptop, too little time in the kitchen, and a slowing metabolism have proved an unfortunate combination. When I first started blogging, I was taking hikes to generate fodder for posts, but then Blogging 101 came along, followed by Photography 101. So, yeah. The weight gain isn’t exactly encouraging me to roll out the sugar cookie dough.

Of course, the point of “Christmas Is Coming” is not a reminder to stuff the goose (whoever the goose might be) but to “put a penny in the old man’s hat.” While this phrase brings to mind a Dickensian figure holding out a battered top hat, an awareness of those less fortunate than ourselves is as important now as when this rhyme was first sung. (And when was that? My desire to research this carol is growing.) Recent posts by Teresa and Kim have reminded me to think of others in the midst of merry-making. This week, my mother-in-law took my son to buy gifts for a needy child; she has done this with my children for years. Many people, old and young, struggle through cold, hungry, or lonely days while I am busy making cookies or addressing Christmas cards.

Except that I’m not mixing cookie dough or putting on stamps: I’m on my computer, tweaking a sentence here, reading a post there. I hope that you see less of me over the next few weeks! I’ll miss reading your posts regularly as much as I’ll miss writing my own. My 10-year-old tells me that I talk about other people’s blogs too much, but how can I keep silent about Lia’s apple pie encounter on the New York subway, or Dan’s reference to a Star Trek episode in his post about comment spam, or Deborah’s post about the Christmas Train in Santa Cruz? In the meantime, I leave you with a Christmas poem that I wrote “many and many a year ago,” back when I used to make Christmas cards:

Starry Night poem


The “double” photos are for a Photography 101 assignment. All text and photos copyrighted 2014 by Sandra M. Fleming. “Starry Night” poem written by Sandra M. Fleming and copyrighted © 2014.

Note: I succumbed to curiosity about the origins of “Christmas Is Coming.” While the song experienced a surge in popularity in the United States during the mid-twentieth century, it first appeared in a British publication in 1882, according to the author of TreasuryIslands.