Once upon a time.

For my fortieth birthday 40 years ago my then-significant other, now husband Peter, surprised me with a trip to England. He’d planned the trip in minute detail. All I had to do was get a passport and bring my own spending money. A lifelong Anglophile, it was a dream come true.

This year, for my eightieth birthday, daughters Carolynn and Leslie planned a special weekend in Washington, D.C.  Granddaughter Samantha, who lives there, was tour guide, arrangement-maker, Uber-getter, personal chauffeur and laugh-inspirer. The three of them planned everything perfectly. All I had to do was pack my bag. I wasn’t even allowed to spend my spending money for anything!

From Friday check-in at a pretty boutique hotel to check-out Sunday afternoon the weekend was perfection. While my daughters got the room keys at the desk, I made friends with a miniature golden doodle named Bronx on the opposite side of the lobby. Suddenly, Look at our mom. She’s eighty today! echoed across the marble clad lobby. My raised left eyebrow didn’t shush them, but they are now 57 and 55. My evil eye hasn’t worked in years.

Our room, indeed the entire hotel, was sleek, sophisticated and so comfortable. I felt like a princess sleeping in a bed so soft. The bathroom mirror even seemed to have similar properties to Snow White’s magic one. Such luxury was a far cry from the motels we stayed in years ago where we shared towels and took our own soap.

Our early dinner, at the Kennedy Center’s Rooftop Restaurant, prior to seeing the New York City Ballet, was golden. No, really, I swear, the light was liquid gold infused with pink. Helped that Carolynn and Leslie, unbeknownst to each other, both wore shocking pink. They glowed. Our waiter, a sweet little man with an eastern European accent, took special care of me, probably cued by Samantha. Not only did we get an extra bottle of champagne, but he brought me a chocolate confection with a candle.

The curtain-up lights were blinking as we dashed through the crowds to the Opera House and our third row orchestra seats. The performance was an eclectic program that featured music from Bernstein to Chopin to Kanye West and Jay-Z. I loved “The Night” danced to Chopin. Though I am a traditionalist balletomane, I shocked myself, my daughters and granddaughter when I actually enjoyed “The Runaway,” featuring the two rappers’ music!

Saturday morning during a walking tour of the D.C. neighborhood near our hotel, we ogled beautifully refurbished old houses, strolled quickly across Meridian Park, then zipped off to a tasting and tour at the Guinness brewery in Halethorpe, Maryland.

Nearly ten years ago, I developed a taste for Guinness when Peter and I were in Dingle, Ireland. Samantha, who loves Guinness too, organized the trip to the brewery. That creamy delight, stored and poured the way it should be, was the perfect accompaniment to my brunch entree, avocado toast with a poached egg. Carolynn enjoyed the same entree, but with a tiny glass of Guinness Garnet, an experimental brew.

That evening the four of us, plus four of Sam’s good friends,Lydia, Clare, Hannah and Bridget, met for an earthy Ethiopian meal in Georgetown. Carolynn and I opted not to join the others for after dinner drinks at a nearby wine bar. It was already after eight, nearly my bedtime!

A cherry blossom pink Sunday.  After brunch and books at one of my favorite places in the D.C. area, Kramerbooks & Afterwords, we “Ubered” to the National Mall to bask in warm pinkness. The cherry blossoms did not disappoint, nor did seeing the Martin Luther King monument for the first time or one of our favorites, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial,again. Goosebump-making! We were four among thousands enjoying the perfect April spring day.

That once-upon-a-time fairy tale April weekend had a happily ever after vibe. Turning 80 wasn’t so bad after all.

Thanks to Carolynn and Samantha for the photos. For a woman who has always taken hundreds of photos on trips, I was too agog, and possibly too old, to take many on this adventure. Thanks, too, to grandson Miah who called, as he’s done for years, to sing “Tommy Turtle” to me. Maybe you’d need to be there, but he makes my day.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Light last August.

New York State’s snow belt is known for its winter white layered look, wind-driven drifts, and lake effect snow. We lived there 17 years and I loved every minute of those deep, cold winters. But the miracle of that region’s brilliant summer days reside in my memory too, like the summertime pages on a new calendar.

Last August, when we visited daughter Carolynn and husband Bill for a week we lucked uponone perfectly stunning day — warm with a whiff of autumn cool. Carolynn had planned the day trip to western New York for Peter and I and her friend Robin. (With Bill at work Peter had to put up with three gabbling women by himself.)  The day was so August-bright that our eyes hurt. Our destination was Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park in Canandaigua.

Now western New York State is as unlike Mississippi as a moose to an alligator. Yet, when we arrived I thought immediately of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County even though that’s a fictional place and I’ve never been to Mississippi. I’ve read Faulkner several times over but can’t recall any connection between Yoknapatawpha and Canandaigua Counties.

Certainly Sonnenberg Gardens that day had nothing in common with steamy Mississippi in summer. It was so cool in the shade that we popped in and out of the sun to warm up. Who would have thought to bring a sweater in August?

The enormous mansion evoked what today would be called “shabby chic.” It invited lingering, but it was the gardens that captivated me. The early Victorian glass houses hadn’t been modernized. There were no automatic windows or sprinklers, no obvious plant maintenance, or  new plantings. Everything looked decades old, plants way overgrown, yet all healthy enough and lush. The horticulturists and groundskeepers were attentive to their jobs even with diminishing funds to pay them.

Genteel privilege overlay the grounds like a scent, lavender perhaps. I could imagine Victorian ladies strolling the paths, then settling on the mansion’s enormous porch with mint juleps, laughing and gossiping the afternoons away. I envisioned myself in an organza gown — pale blue — tripping the light fantastic in my silvery satin shoes. Peter, a ballroom dancer in his day, would wear linen trousers with a white shirt and collar starched so stiffly that he couldn’t turn his head.

Snow falls outside my window today. Just enough to make me happy, and light enough to shovel easily. People in the snow belt up north have likely had enough of winter for this season. Now is the time to sits by the fire and plan a summertime trip to Sonnenberg Gardens, or even to Mississippi.

In The Tangled Fire of William Faulkner (University of Minnesota Press, 1954) William Van O’Conner wrote that Faulkner borrowed a sense of everything in decay from Victorian and  fin de siecle literature. Did that thought rub off on me when I read his books? I may have to read Light in August yet again.

‘Gardens and flowers have a way of bringing people together…’

We’ve been lucky enough to visit some of the most famous gardens in the world including Kew, Sissinghurst, and Kensington in England, Netherlands’ Keukenhof at tulip time, the National Arboretum in Washington, DC, Montreal’s Botanic Gardens, to name a few.

On July 8 we toured seven outstanding gardens right here in Montgomery County, Virginia, during the 22nd annual New River Valley Garden Tour, the best yet. I emoted all the way home.

They are different from each other, each enviable in unique ways, but if I had to pick just one, it would be the one where rust prevailed. Yup, rust.

The Angle-Relf garden is tucked away on a narrow winding road, set on a hill hidden from view if you headed east. The couple bought the rundown 40-year-old house in 1976 and set about taming its weed-covered four acres that was overly populated with locust and cedar.

To call their creative idyll imaginative is to beg a look at a Thesaurus for better adjectives to do it justice, perhaps fanciful or inspired or quixotic. The pair reclaim and recycle with humor and vision, and always with rusty overtones.

 

This year’s seven gardens, the Angle-Relf’s, plus the Golden’s, Hagood’s, Hammett’s, Ryan-Plunket’s, Schnecker’s and Wickham’s all all provided multiple chances to fall in love with gardening. It was an absolutely picture-perfect, weather-perfect day.

 

With apologies to Doctor Seuss.

Oh! the places we go
for a view, for a bite,
to see something new,
some special delight.

We’ll shop for a widget,
or bag of birdseed,
sometimes a beer,
and a burger we need.

Sometimes a movie,
or maybe a drive,
a stroll through a garden
glorious! alive!

In springtime flowers
need consideration,
colors and scents,
Mother Nature’s perfection.

We searched at the market,
we looked at Lowe’s,
the most unusual we spied,
was “nested” at Crow’s.

A surprise we found
in a big brown pot,
a cat was inside
very grumpy, we thought.

He would not be moved
nor enticed away,
he liked his pot
on that warm spring day.

Among flowers we bought,
were red geraniums tall
to plant in my pots,
no kitties at all!