No flower captures my idea of the essence of carefree summer quite like the hydrangea. Once the hydrangeas are flourishing, the school year and its unforgiving routine have ended. There is time once again for the leisurely enjoyment of a sunny morning.
The big, bobbing heads of hydrangeas feature prominently in childhood memories of my grandparents’ Kentucky farm, especially of July 4th family gatherings at the old house on the banks of the river. And some of the most magnificent hydrangeas anywhere adorn the little cottage complex that becomes our home for a while every August in Cape Cod. Hydrangeas mean summer, past and present.
Hydrangeas were among the first flowers we planted when we moved into our house eighteen years ago. We added more when we undertook our backyard renovation. The hydrangeas around our house remind me of the days when my daughter’s idea of a grand adventure was splashing in her little inflatable pool on the lawn. Hydrangeas mean warm sunshine and happy, uncomplicated times.
I didn’t have much hope for our hydrangeas this year. After the heavy snows of our frigid winter melted at last, much of the early foliage was black and shrunken. The buds appeared stunted. But as the weather warmed, the flowers rallied. Right now, on this July 2, they are more beautiful, and more widely varied in color and depth of hue than I can remember.
Hydrangeas are likely to wilt soon after they’re cut unless given special treatment. To prolong their freshness considerably, follow this method:
Immerse the stems in water immediately after cutting. Heat a cup of water to boiling. As you arrange the flowers, and just after you recut each stem to the chosen length, hold it in the hot water for thirty seconds. Add the stem to your arrangement in a container filled with room temperature water. The flowers should look beautiful for several days and perhaps up to a week.
The official last day of school is finally here. And it’s about time, since only one little week of June remains.
My daughter’s dreaded junior year is behind her now. As she used to say as a baby after finishing a meal in her high chair, “All done, Mama. All done.” Our family breathes a collective sigh of relief.
She’d expected the year to be tough, and in this respect it did not disappoint. It included challenging AP courses such as Chemistry and BC Calculus. It required discerning ever so subtle differences in rhetorical devices in AP Lang. There were decisions to be faced: which comprehensive exams, SAT or ACT? And if SAT, which version: old or new? And which subject tests? Then there was the actual taking of the tests, one of which had to be rescheduled because it occurred during our winter blizzard. On the lighter, but still stressful side, there were drama performances, including One Acts, Putnam the main stage musical, and various class productions.
There were college visits to be worried over, planned and accomplished and then worried over some more. We devoted spring break to touring the icy gray campuses of various northeastern schools from Rhode Island to Vermont. From this trip we drew one conclusion: we were very cold.
There was fun to be had, as well, with good friends, many of whom our daughter has known since elementary school and before. Another Homecoming, another Sadie Hawkins Dance, another Prom, with all the prefatory to-do those events entail. Those of you who are parents of high schoolers know that the actual dance takes a back seat to the lead-up of pictures, dinner and more pictures, and the follow-up of the after party. There was our daughter’s greater freedom resulting from a driver’s license and an available vehicle. (She has a car to drive, but, as my husband emphasizes, it is NOT her car.)
And now the summer is upon us, as is the pressure to enjoy it fully, yet use it wisely. That’s a tall order.
What will we do today? We’re not sure. The day is half over.
Looks like we’re already behind in the game.
To me, he’s Daddy.
To my daughter, he’s Papa.
He’s always been there.
As I grew, and as she grew,
For as long as she and I can remember,
And for as long as we live,
He has been, and will be,
A warm, strong, loving presence.
If I had to, I could bet the world on my father’s love.
As our daughter learned to express herself, family life became far more harmonious. H and I were learning to understand our baby. She seemed to be starting to see us as fellow living creatures, not simply as a means to answering her needs. Nearly every day with my baby brought a novel development: a new sound or expression, a new use of her little fingers, arms or legs, an interest in a previously ignored toy. During those first years, when age is measured in weeks and months, things change mighty fast. My husband envied the hours I spent with our daughter while he was at the office. He hated knowing that he might miss some crucial milestone: a first step, a first word. I no longer felt lost and alone on the front lines of parenting during the day. Instead, I considered it a pleasure and a privilege to be a so-called stay-at-home mother. Had it been necessary for me to leave our daughter in the care of professionals, no matter the quality of their credentials, I would have felt bereft. I was glad that despite many years of higher education, I had managed to avoid a career.
One thing became clear as our new family was getting acquainted: our daughter was no one’s clone. She was her own person, with very particular likes and dislikes, intensely experienced, perhaps even more intensely expressed. Her personality seemed to be already formed; she wasn’t a blank canvas awaiting artful parental manipulation.
Maybe my ego is outsized, but it took me several years to grasp that my daughter wouldn’t eventually, gradually, take on most of my interests. It wasn’t simply a matter of time; not all my passions would become her passions. Those early visits to DC museums didn’t seem to ignite a love of art, but I hoped the embers were slow-burning. Despite the pictures I encouraged her to draw for the near-constant stream of homemade cards we sent to friends and family, she won’t be painting any murals with me. She expressed mild interest in my doll house when it anchored the alcove in the upstairs room of my parents’ house. But once we brought it to Virginia, it lost its allure. Still, it remained in the back of my mind that one day we’d repaint the siding together, replace the yellowed wallpaper, make tiny fruit, vegetables and baked goods from bread dough clay for it. As for the dolls from my childhood packed away at my parents’ house, what to do with them now? They’re no longer in danger of being too enthusiastically handled by a younger version of a daughter that no longer exists. And my answer to many of life’s problems, a brisk walk (with the dog, if possible), holds little appeal for her.
When visiting her grandparents, D showed occasional interest in some of my beloved old toys.
I guess I’ve slowly realized how little I care that my daughter doesn’t share all of my interests. We have plenty in common. I don’t mourn a second me that never was. Thank goodness my husband supplied half her DNA. Our daughter is thoughtful, funny, kind, and compassionate, and she continues to be the original she was created to be.
She’s the ideal link between my husband and me. The three of us are better together than any two of us. We’re compatible. Complementary. Some of her most keenly felt interests she shares with my husband, such as their love of adventurous sports. They’re ski buddies. When they put on wet suits to ride the Cape Cod waves at dawn, I’m happy to stay in the cottage. She may even yet become his windsurfing partner. But she enjoys slowing down sometimes, and that’s when she and I are at our best together. I love unhurried summer breakfasts on the screened porch, when we talk (just as my mother and I have always done) about anything and everything: books, TV, movies, history, or life in general. And we laugh a lot; we have similar sense of humor.
Some of our daughter’s talents are uniquely her own. In recent years she’s concentrated on her singing, and this spring she earned a lead role in her high school musical. My husband and I were about as overcome with parental pride and emotion as it’s possible to be when we saw her up on stage killing it as Olive in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. That her character has absentee parents made watching her performance all the more poignant. During the I Love You Song, as she harmonizes beautifully with her imagined Mom and Dad, wishing they were really with her as she competes in the bee, H and I both wanted to yell out: We’re here! Right here on the front row! And we do love you so much! Just as Olive’s mother says, We love everything about you, dear!
Onstage in Putnam, as Olive
We do. And we’re so glad our daughter is her own strong young woman. I often marvel at how grown up she looks. Yet, when I try, I can always see in her the baby that confounded and amazed me, as well as the little girl just finding her own footing. It’s a joy to love her and be her Mama during every stage of her life. But it’s scary, too. Before long her journey is likely to take her away from us.
Our daughter never has to imagine, as Olive does, that her parents are present and devoted. We’re here. Cheering for her. Right on the front row. We hope she’ll let us stay there.
This past weekend, with my daughter away on a trip with friends, my husband and I wandered the quiet house and marveled at the fact that our baby turns eighteen on her next birthday. That ongoing refrain, “Where did the time go? ” must get tiresome to non-parents. Still, we can’t help thinking it, can’t help saying it. Because it does seem almost like yesterday that we gazed at her nightly with wonder as she slept in her crib, her chubby arms stretched out above her head in luxurious abandon. It doesn’t seem like that long ago that she was learning to talk. Her first word was “ites.” For lights. What a relief it was, for all of us, as she began to learn to express herself.
Seventeen years ago, our daughter was nearly five months old. Our baby was, by and large, still a mystery to my husband and me. We hadn’t yet discovered what made her cry, although it seemed to be most everything. The motion of her baby swing generally made her happier, and sometimes it eased her to sleep. This was good, because she tended to fight sleep with an all-consuming ferocity. The sensation of wind in her face, produced by fanning her energetically with a book as she swung in her swing, was one of the few things that made her really laugh. The sound of her giggles was magical, like the silvery jingling of tumbling shell fragments in a rain stick, like elf laughter. What bliss it was to see and hear her giggle. But in so many ways, she was an enigma. A demanding alien presence in an exquisitely endearing little package, as I described her in an earlier post. (See Thirteen Years Ago: Home with our new Baby, January 2012.) Our inability to comprehend most of her commands filled her with fury. She was a Four-Star General in the body of a tiny non-verbal ET. Despite our lack of understanding, we loved her absolutely. But we were often fatigued and frustrated. (See also New Motherhood: An Uphill Climb, January 2012)
I looked forward to the days when my daughter and I had come to understand one another. My interests, I hoped and expected, would be her interests. I pictured her delight in discovering my favorite childhood toys, which I’d saved in anticipation of rediscovering with my own child. She’d love building with the colorful wooden blocks I got when I was two. She’d appreciate the beautiful dolls I’d treated with such care: Susie Sunshine, Winkie, Baby Lynne, my Little Women Dolls, Alice in Wonderland, Scarlet O’Hara. And of course she’d be a dollhouse and miniature enthusiast. How could she not be?
For some reason, I expected this contrary, then unknowable creature to evolve into a smaller, younger version of myself. A cheerier and improved mini-me, of course, unburdened by outsized anxieties. No OCD please, no repetitive, exhausting worries. Wouldn’t my little clone and I have fun together one day, some day? Isn’t that the hope of most new parents? I probably wouldn’t have admitted it, but I know that seventeen years ago, it was among mine.
Rumors of sunshine today in the Northern Virginia rainforest prompted me to take a closer look. Could they be true? By all official weather reports, it’s been raining here forever. Could it have actually stopped, however briefly?
Kiko managed to locate a sunny, less-sodden patch of grass for his morning squirrel and fox watch. I think I’d better follow his lead and get out there.
Thunderstorms are expected this afternoon.
With the old box of doll furniture rediscovered and my interest reignited, I went online. I’m not sure what I thought I’d find. I didn’t expect to discover that just about every piece of the collection was available from various sellers on ebay. It amazed me. I’d never met anyone who recalled the furniture from childhood. I thought it was obscure stuff. But as the internet repeatedly reminds us, any claims we might make to being unique are vastly overblown.
So, wow. There it all was. Most were pieces I already had. I found it reassuring to see traces of age on many items for sale, similar to those on my furniture. The gold and white curved Salon Sofas were consistently missing a strip of fabric on each arm, just as mine did. Some pieces reminded me of odds and ends I’d lost or broken. There were the tiny horsehead bookends, the pink and white “bird” lamp reassembled, and the “oil” landscape paintings, rather in the style of Fragonard. Years ago I glued an image from a Christmas card over my sole remaining painting.
There were only a few items that I didn’t own, for one reason or another. I remember not liking the look of the Fantasy Telephone set. The big red rose embossed on the phone box struck me as an uncharacteristically heavy-handed touch. The Salon Drum chair, upholstered in a choice of lamé colors, was not appealing. But the Rolling Tea Cart, in brass–that was charming. True to the Petite Princess lifestyle, it held a wine bottle and goblets. Not a single tea pot or tea cup for this tea cart. The short brass candelabra “for table or mantle use” could be a nice addition. I own only the tall Fantasia Candelabra.
But among the offerings, one stood out: the Royal Grand Piano, a tiny assemblage of fabulousness. I don’t know why the piano wasn’t in my collection. Was it not available at Allen’s 5 & Dime? Was it too expensive? It’s white, of course, with gold accents. The undulating sides and back, as well as the underside of the lid, are decorated with gold-framed panels. Again evoking the frothy style of Fragonard, they show 18th-century aristocratic types frolicking in lush landscapes. There are 88 three-dimensional keys and three foot pedals. The delicate white bench is upholstered in red velvet. Sheet music and a metronome are included.
As I browsed Petite Princess furniture on ebay, it seemed to me that the images on the small white packages, more so than the items they contain, summoned the acuteness of childhood longing. The years fell away and I was a six year old in Allen’s, transfixed before the display. Holding the box that encased, say, the Treasure Trove Cabinet, examining the photo, comparing it to the piece on display. Imagining the absolute, if temporary happiness that would accompany the opening of the box, the unwrapping of the tissue paper. Suddenly I knew how my daughter felt, at the same age, as we stood in a toy aisle at Target, her desire for something or other, the Polly Pocket limo or a certain Fairytopia Barbie, blazing fiercely in her big blue eyes. Don’t you have enough Polly Pockets, enough Barbies, I’d ask, wearily? Do you really need more stuff for me to move around, I’d think? I’d judged her too harshly, with the gaze of jaded, self-righteous adult hypocrisy.
With some alarm it hit me that my interest in “Petite Princess” had morphed from one of nostalgic sentiment to a real yearning to possess. I didn’t simply want that piano. I needed that piano. It spoke to me, repeatedly. One ebay seller claimed to offer a large cache of virtually untouched “Petite Princess” furniture. The boxes were unmarked by use or wear, the items within never roughly handled by small clumsy fingers and still wrapped with the original tissue paper. The piano was among these treasures. That did it. Because it was the opening of the package, not the actual ownership of the item, that so pulled at me. I wanted, no, I needed, to experience that childhood thrill again.
That piano was my first-ever ebay purchase. I remember worrying that I’d be outbid at the last second; my husband coached me on bidding techniques. But I was successful. I think it cost me $16.
When the package arrived in the mail, my daughter and I eagerly opened it together. Her excitement fed into mine, and the unwrapping, the unveiling, was indeed amazing. I really did feel like a first-grader, her peer. The box containing the piano was pristine. So white. Not yellowed with age. There was that familiar tissue paper, clean, crisp, unwrinkled. The piano itself was the delicate treasure I’d expected. The paintings were so fresh and bright, the red upholstery of the bench immaculate. The metronome, the sheet music, all there, all perfect. My daughter’s admiration was real and exuberant; she wasn’t simply performing to humor me.
An added bonus was that included in the lot with the piano was another box containing the Occasional Table set and all its accessories. I already owned the table, but the clear plastic ashtray and cigarette had disappeared decades ago. Like the piano, this set arrived in mint condition in a box that looked brand new, not forty plus years old. My daughter by my side, I saw the table, the brass Buddha, the lighter, ashtray and its cigarette (still encased in a plastic envelope), as though for the first time.
Be forewarned, then: totems for time travel may pop up unexpectedly in an old toy box. For a truly extraordinary trip, take along a favorite child, and enjoy the ride.
If I felt an overwhelming need to put my hands on the vintage crayons I mentioned in my last post, I could order them through Etsy from a collector in Australia. But it’s enough to see the box again. I don’t need to touch or to use the crayons. I felt differently, though, about another childhood toy I rediscovered eleven years ago.
My daughter and I had been rummaging through my parents’ attic, a treasure trove of miscellaneous stuff. D was six at the time. Nearly hidden in the shadows, on a shelf atop a stack of early-80s National Lampoons, I found a box I hadn’t seen or thought about in years. I’d purposely kept it out of D’s reach, to protect its prized contents from chubby, clumsy toddler hands. The somewhat misleading hand-scrawled label read “Plastic Doll Furniture.” No big deal, you’d think. But this was “Petite Princess Fantasy Furniture.” It’s special. And the older I get, the more special it becomes.
I first saw the furniture shortly after we moved to Atlanta, when I was five. It was on display at Allen’s 5 & Dime, a store now long gone, but then across from North DeKalb Mall. I vaguely recall a glass or plastic-fronted castle-like display showing various rooms of furniture, artfully arranged. Items available for purchase were stacked in small white cardboard boxes. This was long before the advent of clear plastic heat-sealed packaging that requires professional cutting tools to open. Each box bore a photograph of its contents, such as the “Palace Table Set” above. I remember carefully comparing the photos on each box with the items on display. I remember most particularly the excitement of choosing a new piece.
Inside each box was a tiny catalogue with photos of all the furniture and a list of every item in each set. The collection was limited; it easily fit on the twelve pages of the pamphlet. I would pore over the booklet in anticipation of future trips to Allen’s and upcoming purchases.
As I’ve learned in recent years, the furniture was manufactured by the Ideal Toy Company for one year only, in 1964. Although produced primarily of plastic, the quality is excellent, the detail intricate. It’s a far cry from the generic sets of mass-produced molded plastic furniture dating from the same period. The style is pure glitzy 60s: swanky elegance suitable for an updating of the grand old chateau. Picture Sean Connery-era Bond girls swanning around in palatial digs in Paris and Rome, and you get the idea. The scale is ¾ inch to a foot, so the furniture is smaller and more delicate than typical wooden doll furniture intended for children. Chairs, sofas and beds are upholstered in satins, brocades and velvets. Drawers open and close with minuscule brass knobs.
The décor was very much of its time, down to the last detail. The Princesses at home with this furniture were stylish sophisticates who liked to party. The marble-topped occasional table set pictured above includes, in addition to a Buddha statue and framed pair of photographs, a brass cigarette lighter, clear plastic ashtray, and even a teeny-tiny cigarette with a glowing red tip.
The Palace Table set in the earlier photo includes a porcelain decanter, three wine goblets, and a brass leaf-shaped ashtray.
My wine goblets disappeared years ago, but the decanter and leaf ashtray remain.
As a child, I relished the thrill of acquiring each piece of Petite Princess furniture. I appreciated its delicacy and the fineness of detail. But in all truthfulness, I found it too slick. It veered toward tacky. In my early 60s world, home décor was considerably more subdued: a mix of colonial American reproductions and old family antiques. All that white, gold and glam–that wasn’t Mama’s taste. So it wasn’t my taste, either. Like a woman dressed in a long slinky gown at a baseball game, the furniture looked uncomfortably out of place in my plywood Cape Cod doll house.
Now, though, looking back through a haze of nostalgia, I see more clearly. I realize the appropriateness of the name: Petite Princess Fantasy Furniture. Its realm is the early 60s as seen through a rosy Hollywood lens: an airbrushed, carefree, consequence-free world of the wealthy, healthy and eternally young. Of lunchtime martinis, cigarettes in elegant silver holders, Dean Martin songs. What once struck me as tacky now heightens the appeal. Of course the stuff is over the top; that’s the point.
Decades later, these little pieces of fancy plastic are much more than toys to me. I’ve turned them into talismans of an imagined era long past. You’d think they’d be heavier now that they carry the weight of memory.
Once I rediscovered my Petite Princess furniture, I knew I wanted more of it. I wanted the anticipation before the purchase.
I wanted the excitement of opening one of those little boxes again.
To follow soon: Pursuing Petite Princess