Treasures from Home, Part Two (The Red Chairs)


These chairs belonged to my grandmother, and they dominate my memories of visiting her house. The red chairs seemed stern, like Grandmother (we weren’t allowed to call her anything less formal than “Grandmother”). Sitting on them reminded me that I was expected to be still and quiet during our visits.

Despite the chairs’ lack of comfort, I admired them. They were, for me, irresistibly exotic. Ornate to the point of absurdity, designed for beauty instead of utility. Only now, when it’s too late for curiosity, does it occur to me that the chairs were different from the rest of Grandmother’s furniture, which was all very sturdy and practical. So why did she keep them? What did she see, when she looked at the chairs?

I never asked Grandmother about the chairs, just as I never asked about the years she spent as a single working mother. I never asked how she managed to raise a daughter, alone, during World War II and the decade that followed. How she managed to raise a daughter, alone, while working full-time.

Time hasn’t softened the chairs, which are so uncomfortable that even the cats refuse to sit on them, but it has softened my memories of Grandmother. She wasn’t a kind, cozy grandmother, but neither was she as stiff and disapproving as I imagined. Her truth, like the chairs’ truth, is an unsolvable mystery.

But now the chairs have come to me and I have the opportunity to create a new truth for them. I keep them in our living room, one on each side of the room. As I sit between them, they remind me to be still and quiet, to listen more carefully, and to understand that some stories are told in silences, rather than words.



Like most of my enduring interests, this one started with a book.

The Dragon's Handbook

I don’t remember exactly when The Dragon’s Handbook came to me, though I have vague memories of tugging on Mother’s purse in a used book store, begging for “this one.” Because of its odd shape, the book never fit comfortably on a shelf with my other books. So I propped it against my mirror and treated it more like a piece of art than a book, making it an integral part of my room’s decor.

While The Dragon’s Handbook held some of my favorite illustrations, my favorite stories featured horses and dogs. The Black Stallion series, 101 Dalmations, and Lad: a Dog. King of the Wind, Lassie Come Home, and Where the Red Fern Grows.

Then I found The White Dragon on a library shelf. Its cover featured a much fiercer dragon than Barbara Rinkoff’s Culhane, and I was suddenly ready for fiercer stories. I read Anne McCaffrey’s entire Pern series, and, from then on, I devoured any book with a dragon in its pages.

Books 1

The horses crowded closer together and shared their shelves with dragons. Today, dragons lurk in every corner of my office.

Dragon 3

Dragon 2

Dragon 1

I suppose this might explain why my favorite flowers are snapdragons.

Snapdragon April 1

Snapdragon April 1

And why I take so many pictures of dragonflies.

New Dragonfly 4s

Halloween Pennant

It certainly explains why my first complete manuscript is a literary fantasy. There’s a dragon, of course, but there are also hounds and horses. Because I couldn’t resist combining my two loves: my younger preference for stories about animals (especially stories that made me cry) and my teenage quest for adventure and magic and peril…

Dragon Oct 24

Botanical Garden Oct 24

The Horses

Horses Jan 8

Horses were the only pets forbidden on our acres. My oldest sister tested Daddy’s rule from every conceivable angle, but was no match for his resolve. Leaving the battle in her capable hands, I consoled my own longing with Breyer collectibles. My herd grew with each Christmas and birthday, multiplied between as my allowance allowed.

Horses Jan 8

I didn’t play with my horses as I played with other toys. Instead I lavished them with furniture polish and imagination, displaying them on shelves high beyond the reach of rowdy kittens and teething puppies.

Horses Jan 8

I left them behind when I moved into college, but Mother knew better. She waited until I graduated and married, until my husband and I bought a house of our own. Then she forwarded the herd to Virginia, where I welcomed them with tears and furniture polish, with new shelves beyond the reach of rowdy kittens and teething puppies.

Horses Jan 8

And last fall my oldest sister sent her horses to join the herd.

Horses Jan 8 8s

She never knew, until a chance conversation brought it up, that I had coveted her horses in our youth. As she has real horses now, and as she understands how much I treasure my plastic herd, she packed up Misty and a Clydesdale and gave them to me. So we have added two to the throng, though an unpracticed eye might never notice the newcomers.

Horses Jan 8

The Sewing Machine

Sewing Machine Dec 23

To my knowledge, my grandmother never purchased a single item of clothing. She made everything by hand, including many of the patterns for her clothes. Mother continued this tradition, except she felt more comfortable using commercial patterns. I have fond memories of our trips to the sewing store. I loved the tall stools set in a row before thick catalogues of Butterick and Simplicity patterns. I loved flipping through the books, admiring line-sketched dresses and pantsuits and cloaks. Mother often let me choose patterns and material, though she steered me away from the complicated constructions and animal-themed prints that captured my young imagination.

I was the youngest of five children (two boys and three girls) so my closet was the final stop for most of our clothes. Every so often, a coveted item landed in my wardrobe, and then I was thrilled with the arrangement. But for the most part I resented being “forced” to wear shirts and skirts made from patterns and material chosen by my sisters. Additionally, I was pudgier than either sister, so my memory is dominated by clothes that were a pinch too tight.

Mother began teaching me to sew when I was in elementary school. We started with handkerchiefs and headscarves, then moved on to simple patterns for pillows and stuffed animals. Eventually, I was making some of my own clothes, and I quickly discovered why Mother preferred simple patterns and prints. I also discovered that it was easier to wear something made for my sisters, even if it was too tight, than to make something new for myself.

When I graduated from ninth grade, I got my first “store bought” dress. Mother let me pick it out, and I ended up with an ill-fitting froth of thin cotton, itchy lace, and uneven elastic. I loved the idea of my dress, but hated the reality of it. I don’t believe I ever wore it again, after our graduation dance.

Life sped up in high school. My parents divorced. Mother started working and went back to school for her master’s degree. My sisters went to college and worked and dated. I got better at picking out store bought clothes, and the sewing machine grew dusty with disuse.

Several years ago, Mother gave her machine to one of my sisters. Then she helped me load Grandmother’s old Singer into my car, even though it no longer worked. I put off getting it repaired until I almost forgot it existed. Last month, in a frenzy of cleaning up and clearing out, I called the closest repair shop and took Grandmother’s sewing machine to be fitted for a new motor.

A few weeks later, new motor in place, it’s ready to go. I have a list of projects in mind, but, for the moment, I’m happy just looking at it…

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Growing up, katydids were my summer lullaby. On hot, still nights, I would move my pillow to the foot of the bed and sleep with my face inches from the open window. I remember the night air’s damp smell and the moonlit silhouette of silver maples. I remember the hollow calls of barred owls in the swamp across the road. And I remember the rhythmic, echoing chorus of katydids. Mother told us they were saying katydid katydid katydid… katydidn’t… katydid katydid…

I never imagined that I was leaving katydids behind, when I moved to Virginia. The closest thing I’ve seen, since moving, is the greater angle-wing pictured above. (Photos taken in 2011).

The yard does have a thriving population of small katydid cousins, meadow katydids, but they sound nothing at all like my childhood.

Check out this web page for recordings. Click on the common true katydid, to hear the call I grew up with, then compare it to the common meadow katydid. You might also listen to the greater angle-wing, which solves one of my ongoing yard mysteries. I’ve spent many a night creeping around the yard with a flashlight, trying to figure out who makes that repetitive click…

While I was hunting katydids today, trying unsuccessfully for a video clip, I kept hearing what sounded like a sneeze. A tiny, high-pitched bird sneeze. This mockingbird seemed embarrassed, when I traced the sound to it. I wonder if birds suffer from allergies, too?