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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Scents and Sensibilities

I thought I would miss the routine of a daily blog but what I found I really miss is Allen Cass and the roads he walked down each day.  I have that lonesome feeling one gets when a visit is over, the bags are packed back up and the intimacy of sharing quarters with a friend is halted as abruptly as it began. 

What saddens me most is that I probably know all I will ever know about Allen and Alice.  I have the extent of his written remains. I have read them; transcribed them and committed them to heart.  Allen can't tell me any more news.  I didn't understand how much I enjoyed following him around each day. 

This past Christmas we were in England in a lovely Georgian cottage made new by style, taste and a little bit of money. But one still knew the building's true age and when I'm in old houses I can't help but imagine the people who must have passed through the very doors I do now.  I suppose it is more a parade of fashion through the years.  At one point, a woman with a powdered wig would have received visitors in the front room I watch "Eastenders" in.  Another woman would have had her corset tied tight in the bedroom I sleep in or a baby would have kept his nurse up all night there.  A man would have waxed his moustache, brushed the dander off his dark wool coat and looked out through the rain splattered window to the fields below before heading into town.  From the empire waist dresses of girls in the 1700s, the multiple layers of the Victorians, the rising hemlines of the 20th century and the polyester boon of the 1970s, that house has seen them all. 

I mention this because this particular Christmas my thoughts turned to the nuptials of Allen and Alice in 1900.  While I know many facts, details are left for me to dream up.  As I snuggled down that night I began to imagine what that day would have been like for them. The week leading up would have been full of Hattie and the girls bustling around, cleaning, baking and decorating their modest farmhouse.  Evergreen boughs would have been laid across the mantel, fresh candles placed in the holders and holly tied with red ribbons would have hung from the front windows of the house. Fresh green and sweet red would have been the colors at hand and Alice would have fashioned herself a posy of such plants.

I believe Alice's dress was a pretty woolen suit of dusty blue to match her eyes trimmed with a darker blue velvet on her collar and cuffs. On the top button of her blouse she wore and opal stickpin given to her by her parents upon her engagement.  Alice would have worn new button up patent leather boots and had her hair swept up and covered with a length of Swedish lace.  Allen wore a new dark suit and silk tie not to mention an expression of slight panic transitioning to joy as he realized "it was not half so hard as we expected".

A fresh snow had fallen making the fields fresh and white between the Cass farm and Warn farm as Allen, Rollie, Grandma, Nora and Frank rode their sleigh over.  The group would have been happy and laughing trying to keep Allen at ease as we all do for each other when we know everything is about to change forever.  Butterflies would have taken flight in Alice's stomach as the Cass sleigh bells could be heard approaching.  Her little sisters would have burst into their shared bedroom and gleefully shouted "Allen is here!" making her catch her breath and close her eyes for a brief moment before turning to see herself in the full-length mirror her father had moved into the room for her just the day before.

The young lovers would meet in front of the mantel and the bright burning fire at noon to marry.  The windows would be moist with condensation from the breath of the guests filling the sitting room to capacity.  The house would be aglow with love, joy and happiness.  The smells would be ginger, evergreen, coal and nerves.  The two said "I do" and a kiss pronounced the start of the celebration to follow. Christmas Wedding Cake and a hearty feast to share.

It was right about there, looking into my imagined, dancing fire from my perch on a wooden table chair off to the side of the festivities that I was suddenly transported back to the present.  I sat bolt up in bed in a slight panic.  I was certain I was smelling the burning coal of the Warn fire.  Impossible.  I looked about me but could see nothing in the pitch dark room.  There was no coal fire in this house.  I lay back down but continued to sniff the air suspiciously for a time.  Then I thought just maybe, the ghost of a Victorian housemaid came into our little bedroom in the Georgian Cottage with the thought to light us a fire.  I'm sure she did once for somebody--maybe that's what I could smell. I fell soundly asleep.


Friday, January 6, 2012

How I Learned to Talk to Strangers

How I Learned to Talk to Strangers

Somewhere outside of Buffalo New Year’s Day 1973 or 1974, Richard, Jennifer and I were on a Greyhound Bus bound for Syracuse. It was the end of what today would be called “visitation” but what we referred to as “the week after Christmas at Dad’s house”. The road we were on looked out over Lake Erie from a little bit of a height advantage. There were big chunks of ice bobbing in the water and it was truly magical. Wind was blowing up fallen snow and making it dance over the fields as we passed. There were not many buildings around and those that were seemed nondescript. Suddenly, we stopped in the middle of nowhere to allow two ancient nuns waiting by the roadside to get on. Just before the second nun took her seat, she paused at the front of the bus and turned to all of us.  In a beautiful voice she proclaimed “Happy New Year to you all,” smiled and took her seat.

I went through three intense emotions in the space of a few seconds that only an eight-year-old-heart could withstand: shock; embarrassment; inspiration. I didn’t know that strangers were allowed to talk to other strangers or that you could wish someone you didn’t know a “Happy New Year”. I had been so embarrassed for the nun in choosing to address the entire bus. I thought she must have felt stupid afterward. Yet, I couldn’t help but notice how it changed the mood of us fellow holiday travelers. For what is more lonesome than to be relegated to a Greyhound bus full of strangers on a day that should be a snowbound sabbath of family and friends? This nun had broken the silent sadness and fearlessly reminded us that a fresh year was upon us and we should make it happy. And that we should never be afraid to tell each other so. That is how I learned to talk to strangers.