Thursday, September 27, 2012

Carrying on the Sisterhood

She's been there for almost every birthday I've celebrated. Including the one I had last week. My sister. Two and a half years younger than I am, she shares in the largest chunk of my life. The slices. The fragments. And the scraps. She is the eyewitness to the history of my life. She’s seen me at my best and at my worst. And despite plenty episodes of the worst, she continues to be my biggest cheerleader, my staunchest supporter, and my closest friend. I almost know what she’s going to say before she says it. And when something strikes me, I glance her way and know we’re both thinking the same thing.

We’ve never been competitive. If she tells me I need to revamp my hair, lighten my lipstick, change my outfit, it’s only because she has my best interest at heart. She puts up with my crazy demands and takes my many moods and mini-dramas with good humor. Except for once. When she tried to surprise me with a party for my 40th birthday and I had a hysterical fit. At the party. In front of everyone. After the dust settled, she wrote me a lengthy, scathing email and didn’t talk to me for a week. Well-deserved, I filed the email in my “10,000 Ways to Improve Yourself” folder and I read it when I'm looking for a bit of self-help. 

When I made my maid-zilla of honor demands for her wedding to wear a different dress from the rest of the wedding party, she willingly agreed. Until I drove her crazy shopping for dresses. Looking for perfection. Until she yelled at me to pick something. Anything. She said she didn’t care if I wore a bikini to her February wedding. But the day of the wedding, the bridesmaids wore dresses of black velvet and white. And I wore black velvet and red.

Growing up, we had lots of unofficial little sisters. We babysat our neighbors, worked in Vacation Bible School, and taught kids’ church, acting as big sisters to a gaggle of little girls, who looked up to us, wrote us letters in college and who we’re still in touch with today. They all say that they never forgot the interest we took in them, the attention we showered on them and the guidance we gave them.

Though I have just one sister, I am called to a community of sisters. I can offer this unique kinship in a myriad of small ways and through deeper connections. To the trio of 13-year-olds who help me teach my church class, watching what I do so one day they too can lead. To the neighbor I don’t know very well whose face brightened when I suggested we grab a cup of coffee sometime. To the dear friend who asks for a bit of decorating help for a new house. I can carry on the sisterhood.

The birthday presents are opened. The birthday dinner at Maggiano's Little Italy restaurant is festive. The birthday dessert of profiteroles is scrumptious. For almost every birthday of my life, I’ve been lucky enough to have my best friend at every candle-blowing celebration. Here’s to many more.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Face in the Frame

“Smile. It can’t be that bad, can it?”
“You really should smile. You look so much prettier when you smile.”
“Why do you look so serious? Can’t you try to look happy?”

I’ve heard these lines from the time I was a little girl. From strangers. From well-meaning adults who must have thought they were encouraging a child to smile more. But it only made me feel scrutinized. Self-conscious. I worried what others would think my face is saying. Because although my serious face might have communicated that I was a reserved child, I wasn’t unhappy, angry or unfriendly. I was just thinking about something. I tend to think a lot. I always have a lot of chatter going on in my head. Most of it directed at myself. Wondering what others are thinking about me. And my face.

So I’ve tried to make a concentrated effort to affix a friendly smile to my face as I walk. Tried to remember to turn up the corners of my mouth in a congenial expression. But without fail after a few minutes of smiling, something captures my attention and I’m all of a sudden deep in thought. And the tiny smile is gone. My eyebrows are knitted together again in an unfriendly expression. I’ve thought that maybe it’s my eyebrows’ fault. Their dark and threatening image contributes to my stern facial expression. I’ve tried thinning them so that when knit together in thought, they look less imposing. I’ve tried raising them in a look of wonderment. But this is a difficult expression to hold steady. I’ve considered plucking my eyebrows out entirely. But that might look more alarming than welcoming.

More than any other type of art, I like portraits of ladies to adorn the walls of my home. I study their faces. I wonder what they’re thinking. In some of the pictures, they look happy and pleasant; some look mysterious; some look like they have faraway thoughts on their minds. One of my favorites is a fashion drawing of a woman whose profile looks a little sharp. She’s not drawn as softly as she could have been. But I like her. She’s looking down and you’re not sure what she’s thinking about. 

In Paris, I spent Saturday morning at a flea market, where I found a charming tiny watercolor of a girl. She looks a little wistful. I also found an illustration from a fashion costume book with a scrap of fabric attached to the page. The picture shows the woman from the back so you can’t see her face, but her heavy eyebrow is visible. I like that her eyebrows are a strong feature. 

But no mater what my facial expression may convey about me, it doesn’t say who I really am. I don’t wear the labels unsmiling, angry or sad when I think about how God sees me. Smiling or not, God invites me into his presence with the same compassion, mercy and understanding that he offers to everyone. There is not a hint of judgment that I don’t meet his expectations. I’ve found a refuge where nothing more is asked of me except that I ask him to come alongside me as I live out my life. And that brings a smile to my face. Maybe even a beaming grin. From ear to ear.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Familiar Taste of Home

While I was sampling the delectable specialties that Parisians enjoy every day, I still wished for a little bit of home. A big cup of coffee in a to-go cup. A tall iced tea, heavy on the ice. A toasted and buttered English muffin with my omelette. I’d always heard that French food is notoriously five-star. French pastries are the finest. French baguettes are superb. Coffee in Paris may not be what Americans are used to, but it’s also top-notch. And if you don’t happen to share these same gourmet opinions, then maybe your taste is a bit second-rate. So I couldn’t wait to sample French culinary creations. I expected to be wowed. Bowled over. I thought I might go home dreaming of bread and pastries only available in Paris. But I think I just might prefer the familiar. Even if it is a little ordinary.

I had a chocolate croissant from the French chain Pomme de Pain, and one from the award-winning Eric Kayser Boulangerie, where I was scolded for taking a photo. (I suppose they were worried I would be able to recreate their intricate pastries at home just by looking at a photo.) However, maybe my American tastebuds are so low-brow, but I couldn’t actually tell a difference. I thought both were equally good. At another bakery, I ordered a chocolate éclair. It was also marvelous. At a tea room in the Louvre complex, I ordered two mini macaroons. It certainly wasn’t the world-famous Laduree’s, but these macaroons were very tasty.

I tried the tiny cups of very strong bitter coffee that the French drink, but much preferred the Breakfast in America diner, where they promoted American-style coffee with refills and English muffins with omelettes. When my English muffin arrived untoasted, the server said I was welcome to toast it myself, pointing to our table’s individual toaster sitting in a corner of the booth. The French do seem to have a knack of charmingly asking their customers to do half of their work. At every meal, crusty French bread was served but we always had to ask for butter. I think I love soft Italian bread just a little bit more, with a nice dab of cold, delicious butter.

I enjoyed all the food I ate in Paris. Everything was scrumptious. I was afraid that after acquainting myself with what Paris had to offer that I’d pine for pastries I could never taste again. But maybe I am just a typical American who likes my everyday favorites. I don’t really want to spend my days craving croissants, baguettes or éclairs that can only be found in Paris. Because yearning for what I can’t have only makes me notice that I’m discontented. Not enjoying what’s nearby. Failing to savor what’s right here in front of me. So I’ll relish what’s around the corner, not across the world. I’ll gladly enjoy a cranberry-orange scone from SuperTarget, a grande coffee from Starbuck’s and a Thomas' cinnamon raisin English muffin. And when I want a little taste of Paris, I noticed that there’s a sign in the plaza down the street that says a French bakery is opening soon. Croissants and baguettes available just down the street. I can't wait to swoon over the sweet treats. Right here in my own neighborhood.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Pen Pals Rendezvous in Paris

Gail is quite possibly my oldest friend. But in the more than 30 years we’ve known each other, we’ve only seen each other three times. 

We were teenagers when we became pen pals. Hoping to meet girls from other countries, Gail submitted her name and address to a newsletter distributed to Avon product representatives, which my mother sold at the time. Gail and her mother sold Avon in Cheltenham, England, an hour outside of London. 

My mother handed me the newsletter and I wrote my first letter to Gail. The first of many over the next 30 years. Gail calls us “pen-friends” in that charming way that the British turn a phrase.

When she made plans to meet my mother and me while we were in Paris, I was over the moon (as they say in Britain). 

Gail and I are similar in many respects. Neither of us has gotten married, our faith is important to us, and we enjoy art, culture and history. 

But Gail adores travel. She’s always off to explore a new destination. The first time we met, she was embarking on a year-long trip around the world that started at my house in upstate New York and ended in Australia. 

She got off the plane carrying only a backpack for a year’s journey. Out of this bottomless Mary Poppins-like bag, she pulled hostess gifts that included a glass vase for my mother and a large photograph book of Prince Charles and Princess Diana for me. 

She stayed with us for three weeks that fall and she was amused at how much Americans like pumpkins. She remarked that we decorate with pumpkins, we eat them in pumpkin pie and we even call our children “pumpkin,” as an endearing nickname.

Through the years, Gail’s letters have included numerous articles and newspaper clippings of the British royal family, which she knew I enjoyed. 

I always looked forward to her holiday and birthday cards, thoughtfully selected with her exquisite taste in beautiful artwork. 

We’ve celebrated personal milestones of graduations and first jobs, and commiserated over the shocking world events of Princess Diana’s death and 9/11. 

But when we saw each other in Paris, it was as if no time had passed since our last visit, when she came to Florida almost 10 years ago. 

As always, we settled into easy conversation. I’m entertained by her dry British wit. Her most amusing stories revolve around her aversion to technology. She carries a cell phone for emergencies only. She hates Facebook. She checks email only from her computer at home, which she just upgraded with an offer for a free modem. Her story of trying to install it herself since she knows nothing about technology had me laughing til my sides hurt.

In Paris, we took an evening cruise on the Seine River to enjoy the Eiffel Tower by night. 

We toured Notre Dame and stopped for crepes afterward. 

We strolled the Jardin des Tuileries between the Louvre and Place de la Concorde, and toured the Musee d’Orsay to see the art of the impressionists. 

Gail suggested that we experience an authentic French meal so we had a three-course dinner at a café on Boulevard St. Germain. I had a fantastic vegetable salad with fresh green beans, flaky salmon baked in butter and for dessert, crème brulee. C’est magnifique! It was by far our best meal in Paris, thanks to Gail.

As she returned to London aboard the Eurostar, Gail joked that we see each other once a decade. 

I don’t know how long it will be until we meet up again, but I know we’ll always keep in touch. Our letters have turned into emails, accompanied by the occasional note or holiday card. 

But I’ve saved every one of Gail’s letters and cards just as she has saved all of mine, because someday when I’m very old, I’ll enjoy reliving our friendship. 

Somehow even separated by an ocean, the friends you have the longest mean the most.
Gail, my mother and me at the Place de la Concorde.