Morning, Paris

This morning (or is it still night?), I awoke in Paris, in an apartment in the 5th, where we've come to visit friends, eat, and "get lost"—hard to do with Le Duc, who has known its corners for decades. In the cobalt half-dark, with no more sleep possible, the first caws of ravens blend with the buzz of a few mobilettes; I have a several hours' wait to buy a baguette.

I will not post regularly for the next few weeks; we're here so infrequently that I'd rather walk than write.

I'm in my late sixties now, so that walking is punctuated with more pauses in a park or café. No do I pack to go anywhere that requires dress-up: black, scarves for colour.  Gone too are the days when Le Duc and I would march all day, then go out at 9 p.m. for a four-course dinner. Our endurance, our preferences and even our appetites have changed: The City of Light becomes the City of Lite.

I am still enthralled by the first glimpse of mansard rooflines and bridges spanning the Seine, a tease of shop windows' temptations, the pungent assault of diesel fuel. I'm happier than ever to be here, as our ability to travel with relatively carefree mobility is ever more precious.

In these first few hours I realize how life flows, wherever we are. All over the world, women buy groceries, walk the dog, hurry to work. Shortly, I'll slip out for a stroll in the Jardin du Luxembourg, trailing others around my age who are not, for whatever reason, synched to to the business day.

Soon, we have a rendezvous with friends; soon, Le Duc shall trace his old map of his rambles, choosing places he wants to see again and new additions. As the sun rises I shall be seduced by this city of deliberate magnificence, and I'll try to sidestep being just another tourist... yet I am.


Gifts: Ahead-of-the-game-goodies

Not talking about the stores, which whisk Halloween decor away on November 1, blow by Thanksgiving (in the US; in Canada we had ours), then fill aisles with Christmas presents. I'm talking about your kitchen, relatively placid and tidy this time of year.

So now is the time to make holiday or house gifts, before the onslaught of invitations and outings. Among my post-50 friends, no one wants a massive sweet tray, it ends up at the grandkids' or the office. So, think outside the cookie box, set aside an evening, and you're a big step closer to a serene holiday season.

Each of these recipes is just decadent enough to make it special.

Sweet chilli jam
Make from now to immediately before giving; do not freeze.

A savoury jam is terrific with meats or grilled vegetables, and thinned just a little, makes a piquant glaze for  roast chicken or pork. (This is a quick recipe but you do have to sterilize jars, which I do in the dishwasher. ) The jelly keeps three months in a cool cupboard.

Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce
Make any time now and freeze.

An alchemic recipe that's a last-minute dinner or lunch lifesaver and a break from heavy festive meals. (Don't hesitate to give it frozen.) Uses fresh or canned tomatoes (San Marzano), and don't hold back on the butter, that's the magic. You might add a hunk of parmesan, now that's a luxe gift!

There is also a Bolognese version which is more work, but pleases serious carnivores.

Lynn's Brandied Fruit
Make at least 3 weeks before giving

This deep, cognac-infused compote is a sophisticated, adult indulgence. The recipient can keep it going, adding more fruits and brandy or cognac (as long as the fruit is immersed in alcohol it will keep practically forever), or snarfle the whole thing up and hope you give it again next year.

Sleepover Cinnamon Buns
Make these up to three weeks ahead.

You are the guest, and the party went late, but in the morning, the house awakens to the irresistible smell of fresh-baked cinnamon buns. Not the kind in a package—fresh, homemade plump buns. The folks at King Arthur Flour show you how to do it. You can hide the frozen buns in your car or the host's freezer; just remember to
- thaw them the night before
- bring a cup of confectioner's sugar and a little cinnamon if you want to ice them

Other comestibles, like nuts, charcuterie, or the eternally-loved box of chocolates do not require your effort. But it's so gracious to give something made by your hand. Knowing what your friends prefer can guide your choice; not everyone likes pickled fiddleheads.

If you have your own treasures and are willing to share, please add them,

One Hundred Leading Ladies

In 2014, American photographer Nancy Honey created a photo exhibition, "One Hundred Leading Ladies: A Portrait of Senior Influential Women in Britain", whose subject is one hundred remarkable British women over age 55;  the project includes portraits and short interviews conducted by former Times journalist Hattie Garlick.

To respect copyright, I'm not posting the photos here, but you can see a selection in The Guardian article here; there were some women I knew (Karen Armstrong, Joan Burstein, Germaine Greer) and many I did not, from farmer to artist to human-rights campaigner. Different perspectives and paths, but each woman is evidently resilient, intelligent and hard-working.

The project's web site lists exhibitions only though last April, so I am hoping it will travel.

In the meantime, the book is available on Amazon. My only quibble is the use of "ladies"in the title, I suppose chosen for alliteration, but I can just imagine Greer's response.

Honey's remarks about her work, and how she chose the subjects are here—illustrated by even more portraits.

She says, "I originally designed it as a series of role models for younger women, but I think it has evolved and become more diverse. It's great to have the achievements of women outside traditional fields in the foreground." In a You Tube interview, shot at the Somerset House opening, she adds that she wanted to counter the culture of celebrity, through a different view of achievement and contribution.

The book would make a marvelous gift, and not just for younger women. These mature women are flourishing, their talent amplified by their life experience. It did me good to read every profile provided in the reviews, and I would like the book, too!

Uneven aging: The caregiver-partner

In my first post on uneven aging, I described what is happening among my friends and family in their 50s and 60s: the deterioration in the health of one partner, while the other more or less ticks along. Such unevenness can arise at any age, but as a couple grows older, the healthier partner will not have the energy he or she had decades ago.

Since that post, I have been ever more mindful of this shift, which can happen overnight. (Even friends can experience the situation; however, in a couple, dailiness intensifies the load.)

Marie, in this situation now, is suddenly responsible for all domestic chores while Al, her partner of forty years, goes through chemo. We spoke recently about what she needs. "Casseroles and hugs", she said.

Presently that's difficult, because Al insists she hide the illness from everyone except one friend—me—and I'm not nearby. After seven months of secrecy, Marie is lobbying for openness, so she's not so isolated. Besides, his pals and sisters are growing suspicious about repeated cancellations.

When a crisis hits, stress, uncertainty and fear drain even the hardiest person's energies; I have seen the caregiver exhausted, sometimes looking worse than the patient. Faced with the extra expenses of acute illness,  she may resist paying for help. At my urging, Marie agreed to hire a helper to do part of the house and yard work, and arranged for a grocery delivery service.

The healthier partner also reels as the dynamic of the relationship shifts.  Al's retirement was built around hiking, cycling and skiing with a gang of buddies; Marie had ample time to garden or run her small business. (She and a decorator friend make personalized throw pillows.) She now has a man in a bathrobe, feeling grumpy and nauseous, too weak to leave the house, underfoot all day.

There is no doubt about her love, and she knows Al is equally devoted to her. But caregivers need to vent, and if you are the friend who hears how the sick partner begged for a grilled cheese sandwich and then barely touched it, don't rush in to problem solve, just listen. Maybe drop by with that casserole and give that hug.

I asked caregivers what gestures supported them; here is a list. Please add more if you have ideas.
  • Washed my windows, regularly
  • Took my partner for rides so I could rest or clean up
  • Boarded our dog for a time
  • Lent us a La-Z-Boy so I could sleep near her
  • Sent me a massage therapist
  • Helped me deal with government subsidy application forms
  • Brought me four sets of sheets and a stack of towels
  • Helped me find the right chaplain, because my wife wanted to reconnect to her faith and was unsure she would be welcome
  • Sat with me through the night in the ER
  • Taught me some basics of home care (friend is a nurse) 
  • Edited a professional publication my wife was committed to finishing by the deadline
  • Organized a month of meals dropped off by friends (Note: She said it was equally important to not stay to dine with them.)
  • Visited his parents, to reassure them and give the attention that was now missing
  • Set up a Caring Bridge site so we could update people without answering dozens of calls or e-mails
  • Gave the ill partner "the most wonderful foot rubs"
  • Helped him plan a trip he'd always wanted to make—and would, but now with modifications
A woman whose partner was diagnosed with macular degeneration said, "I can tell you what is not helpful: people playing doctor and sending me links for all kinds of strange remedies." 

The most moving and unusual contribution came from Eliane, who said that her husband and his good friend, a professional carpenter, built his coffin together. Though Josh lived over a year after their project, he wanted to create it while he was able. His friend helped him revive rusty skills and added exquisite inlay.

Whether the partner's illness is acute or chronic, the caregiver's stamina erodes quickly, and when exhaustion sets in, stress amplifies. Marie and her girlfriends shared book club evenings and coffee chats for years, but now she hopes, once they know,  friends can sit with her while she waits for test results for the person she treasures most.

Expressions of love change, and, it's still love.

Moths: The new fluttering normal

The battle continues, two full years after I found that moths had infested a storage locker, destroyed treasured antique rugs and then somehow hitchhiked into the apartment.

Summary: Beaten back, but not extinguished.

Fighting requires a two-pronged assault: killing (in any cycle of the moth's development), and deterrence for those who elude efforts. 

To kill eggs, larvae and adults, here's what I do:
1. Place moth traps in closets and rooms. The traps kill only breeding males but it's been sobering to see how many hit the trap in places we have never seen a moth. I've been using Aeroxon with food results and just ordered another brand from eBay seller Kritterkill, who claim to have a superior product. In a 1,200 square foot condo, I use 8 traps and change them every three months.

2. Use hanging moth cakes, such as Enoz in closed closets and the storage locker.

3. Promptly clean clothing by drycleaning or washing in 60C/120F water. (I rarely hot-wash because  it's unsuitable for fine wool.)

Freezing works too, if your freezer is at least -8C/18F. (Chest deep-freezers are colder than fridge freezers.) Advice varies about how long to leave them in, between 12 hours and a week! But when worn, if any eggs are incubating in your house—eggs can live dormant for over two years—items are vulnerable to re-infestation.

4. Regularly vacuum shelves, baseboards, carpets, and furniture. (Change the vacuum bag outdoors.)

5. Squish anything we see; this is not the time to go all PETA. Moths like dim places but we've also found them hanging out on a wall in full light.  

To deter moths from attacking clothing, I:
1. Store woolens in snap-lid boxes and breathable garment bags; we secure the hanger hole by covering with tissue paper and duct tape. For things that hang in closets because we're wearing them often, I shake out and switch up the arrangement. Moths love undistrubed nooks.

2. Place cotton balls saturated with essential lavender oil in dresser drawers and renew monthly.

3. Regularly launder, brush (outdoors), and sun garments; especially those not worn often. 

What I have not done:
1. Moved built-in furniture such as closet systems to clean behind. Just too hard.

2. Used hardware-store insecticides that contain PDCB or napthalene,  or called exterminators: worried about toxicity. 

3. Tried methods that are commonly touted but have not yielded scientific evidence of effectiveness (cedar blocks, citrus fragrance).

My research turned up an exhaustive list of what incubating clothes moths will eat besides your woolens: dust, hair (including that from pets), lint, down, fur.  They munched my cotton damask napkins! They'll eat synthetics if blended with wool.

Where do they come from? No one orders clothes moths or carpet beetles from J. Crew! But think about it: the boutique owners I've talked to who specialize in fine woolens admit they, too fight moths year round, and invisible eggs can easily travel.

Here's a casemaking clothes moth near its eggs, so you can see how hard they are to spot, and eggs are usually hidden within folds or inside garments.

Moths can "ride in" even on things they don't normally like, such as a shopping bag. And they don't just come from flea markets; that cute tufted pillow you bought at the department store may harbour eggs.

I'm beginning to think of the moth problem as herpes for households: once you've got it, you can control it and that's all. For an excellent, comprehensive guide to control, read this article by Washington Toxics Coalition.

The most radical approach is Moth Acceptance. That's right: Holes? No problem. That's the tack taken by some local hipsters who buy moth-munched vintage cashmere and wear it as is. Could this be the new bra strap? The owner of a vintage store just shrugged when I pointed out holes and said no one cares.

But I don't want Swiss cheese cashmere. Our fine-fabric menders are on first-name terms with LeDuc, who has sustained more damage thanks to his more casual cleaning and storage habits.

Several mending services who accept items by mail:
Cheeseworth Invisible Mending (Toronto, Ontario)
Rave FabriCare (Phoenix, Arizona)
British Invisible Mending Service (London, England)
French American Reweaving (New York City)

Handy with a needle? You can also find YouTube tutorials for mending holes in knits, but true or even close to 'invisible' level reweaving is an art.

The photo above is from The Vintage Traveller, a terrific blog written by the talented sewer and vintage collector Lizzie Bramlett; in this post she discusses reweaving a hole in her heavy Pendleton wool, and notes that restoration of fine knits is for experts.

And so it goes, a continual, frustrating skirmish shared by many of my friends and neighbours. (Once you admit you have moths, others open up.)  At least they're not bedbugs, and I have lost only one sweater so far. But in the last two days I killed two flyers, so it ain't over.

What to do with The Stuff? An Estate Organizer's Advice

Today the Passage welcomes a visitor, Penny Schneider, The Estate Organizer.  

I invited Penny to address a topic I hear continually discussed among my friends: What Are We Going to Do with Mom and Dad's Stuff? This is always fraught. They say, "Being the executor is a full-time job!", "My sister is in tears because Dad didn't say the piano is hers", or, "It's all just too painful." One friend's parents' home remains untouched since their deaths four years ago because her sister, the other heir, cannot face the tasks.

Penny is devoted to such matters, which seems to me an almost saintly endeavour.

First, a little background about what she does: "Estate Organizing is a fairly new idea; people come to the work from various backgrounds. I am a trained Professional Organizer and will receive my Trust and Estate Practitioner designation later this year. I can assist an executor through the entire process—from gathering documents for probate, assembling the estate inventory, and organizing estate administration and distributions to beneficiaries.

I once described my work as "sort of a wedding planner for estates".  My clients are either executors or family members trying to sort out the muddle left behind. A good estate organizer will definitely reduce overall stress and the amount of time getting things done."

Penny agreed to answer several questions about the possessions that form part of most estates. My own comments are in italics.

There the family sits with the folks' stuff piled high. How do you help them decide what's worth keeping?

"There's no easy answer since there are two types of value: monetary and sentimental. I discuss why someone believes something should be kept, particularly if that person doesn't want physical possession of the item.

Does someone want to keep something because of the price she thinks it will bring, or does it represent an emotional connection? Sometimes it's both, and when these ideas collide, you are really dealing with guilt, not value.

If you believe something is valuable because Mom told you it was expensive, you may be surprised to find it isn't now. Value is sometimes a function of fashion, place and time.

Victorian-era mahogany or oak furniture was popular several decades ago, but now it's difficult to sell or even give away. Occasionally you'll see an updated scroll-arm sofa or painted cabinet in a decorating magazine, but that's it.

(I agree with Penny, and also have noticed that young adults, for whom buying furniture is so costly, sometimes pick up out-of-style settees for a song and then recover them, like this:)

Today's woods are lighter in colour and weight, with sleek lines and little ornamentation. I'm not saying antiques are not valuable, but you have to know what you have and then if and where you can sell it. If you don't love it for what it is or plan to use it in your home, then sell it—either by auction or other means—and remember that not all items will sell.

Dad's stamp collection may not contain rare or in-demand stamps, but you remember the happy hours you spent with him working on the collection, learning about the world. That's invaluable and you'll probably want to keep those albums.

If you truly want photo albums or sentimental objects, keep them. These are often the items that cause the most difficulty because they are not easily divisible. Photos can be scanned so that everyone has a copy, but you will still need to decide who keeps the originals.

When the beneficiaries don't want items, I clear them through an estate auction (like MaxSold) or, if the client prefers, I deliver them to a charity such as The Salvation Army, ReStore or Furniture Bank.

How do you help a family adjust their expectations regarding what the inherited goods are worth?

If there's any argument, the family should use an accredited personal property appraiser. The result may not be the amount someone was hoping for, but the opinion will be based on current trends and values realized.

Another way to asses value is to do a little research on the internet, and look only at items that have actually sold. The asking price is irrelevant."

(A friend who owns a high-end antique shop tells me not two days go by without someone inquiring if she is interested in estate goods. She declines unless a piece is extremely desirable and then will only take it on commission. And I saw a sign in another antique shop: The Only One Interested In What Grandma Had Was Grandpa.)

In the case of disputes, Penny notes that "the Will is paramount". Goods are either bequeathed to a designated heir, or form the residue of the estate, and if the Will specifies that those goods are to be liquidated and the proceeds distributed to the beneficiaries, that's what has to happen.

If there is no plan for liquidation, the executor can determine what to do with the residue, providing he or she acts within the terms of the Will. Options include holding an in-house auction using Monopoly money for cash, using a lottery, or providing a list of items and asking beneficiaries to rank each by interest. "

(Then there is the Sherry System, in which my friend Rachel and her sister Riva opened a bottle of sherry, spread out their mother's mass of jewellery on the carpet, and took turns choosing.)

Penny and professionals like her can enter the estate process at any point, though, as she notes, "Earlier is better, so that tax and other deadlines are not missed". Executors are allowed to get help from accountants, lawyers, or anyone that "a prudent person" might hire, such as gardeners, property-maintenance companies and professional organizers. The executor pays initially and then is reimbursed by the estate.

Penny's conclusion might convince anyone wondering whether she should place that call: "It's much better to ask for help than to drown in paperwork, and then become open to liability for not doing the job properly."

(Several of my friends swear they will never accept an executor role again. Rachel's husband spent a solid year dealing with the red tape, and he is a retired economist who understands this area. And let's structure our own Wills to reduce work and stress for heirs; several hours of a lawyer or notary's services can save heirs months of headaches.)

Thank you, Penny, for both your advice and a glimpse into a fascinating career!

Readers can reach Penny at Penny Schneider, The Estate Organizer. If you are on Linked In, follow Penny to receive her informative semi-monthly articles, or read them on her WordPress blog, here.

Pearls on the Harbor

On a recent trip to my home town and surrounding area in Northern Michigan, we spent time in the village of Harbor Springs, an historic resort community. It is there that the sliver of peninsula known as Harbor Point, accessible only by the association's horse-drawn carriage, provides a summer retreat for descendants of the old industrial fortunes who built large, gracious "cottages". Adjacent enclaves like Roaring Brook and Wequetonsing contain similar wicker-filled homes, built before the automobile.

A handful of Harbor Springs shops cater to such residents, whose idea of roughing it may be taking but one cashmere throw on a sunset sail.

It is in such a setting that we found a tiny, elegant boutique devoted to pearls, Elizabeth Blair Fine Pearls. We stopped by on a quiet September afternoon, warmly welcomed by "Dilly" Blair Kirby herself. She opened her shop in Harbor Springs knowing that pearls will carry a woman from resort to city, and also shares one of my convictions: they make any woman more beautiful.

She presents pearls priced from barely three figures to the stratosphere, displayed by theme or mood, each grouping vying with the other for one's desire. It felt as if a nacreous white cloud had rained pearl treasures on a tiny hamlet.

If Harbor Springs is not on your itinerary, drop by her online shop, WestMain, a subsidiary of Elizabeth Blair Fine Pearls, features less-costly but still alluring pieces from her trove of every pearl variety.

I didn't add to my collection—not for lack of desire, but for the simple reason of not being able to decide, and of course, there is this thing called a budget. I know I'd delight in a 27-inch necklace of mixed keshis and South Seas (price, $1,700; all prices in $US):

The casual-chic pearls I prefer are stocked on WestMain's site in a range of styles from sleek to ornate. This smart pair of carved mother-of-pearl and freshwater pearl dangles is $195.
Brooches, often neglected in fine jewellery cases, receive pride of place. Ms. Kirby showed me her photo of Tiffany's famed pearl "chrysanthemum" brooch, made in 1904 from Mississippi River pearls.

She offers an homage via the charming, classic pearl flower brooch, (price, $295), as well as edgy styles like a modern abalone piece by Sally Bass (price, $325) that can also be worn as a pendant.

Pearl rings are a marvelous choice, allowing you to see and enjoy what you're wearing. A cultured 6mm Akoya pearl and diamond-accented cuff ring set in 14k rose gold (price $425) is everyday-wearable yet striking.
And if you wish to invest in the finest, Ms. Kirby will dazzle you with some of the most sumptuous pieces imaginable.
Doesn't every woman have a fantasy of discovering such a treasure of a shop, either to acquire or simply admire—whether filled with books, bikes, jewellery or hand-thrown plates?

Should that happen, you've found a remarkable refuge from the mass-market world, whether your discovery is modest or luxurious. And if pearls are present, double luck!