Uneven aging: When a lovely flame dies

My in-laws, who here I'll call Roger and Rosalie, were models of happy marriage; the devotion and contentment of "Ro and Ro", as they are known, cast a glow on family and friends.

When the kids were small, Roger made their breakfast and got them off to school so Rosalie could sleep longer and rise to a peaceful house. Ever a romantic, he wrote love poems for her and did not mind if they were read aloud to anyone. She, in turn, supported his dream of early retirement and  travelled for fifteen years as an "RV gypsy" with Roger, even though she deeply missed the family events that took place during the six months each year that they were on the road.

They explored North America for fifteen years, carefree, content and deeply into velcro (which holds things on RV walls), until Roger's deafness made driving unsafe and the rig aged out. In their early seventies, they swapped the RV for comfortable apartment in their home city, where family outings and renewed friendships replaced the pleasures of travel.

Roger's deafness deepened despite a cochlear implant. Once gregarious, he steadily became less social, but remained an unmitigated optimist. Rosalie was the extrovert, always available to help older neighbours, kind and friendly to all.

Le Duc and his siblings began to see a shift in her manner by her mid-seventies, a decade ago. Gifts were never right, former pleasures did not satisfy, and she became critical of Roger, driving him to tears on occasion. A move to a retirement home three years ago brought welcome relief from grocery shopping and meal preparation, and many of their friends already lived in the building.

Eighteen months ago, Rosalie became vocal about her escalating discontent. She announced to all that she "wanted to throw him in the river". Her symptoms—uncharacteristic aggression, forgetfulness and some obsessive behaviours—were diagnosed as early-stage dementia.

"In sickness and in health", they once vowed, but debilitation had overtaken a close, loving marriage, and she no longer wanted the job. Roger's response was that this was "a phase" of hers. Because he now had Parkinson's, he moved to a long-term care facility adjacent to their retirement home just before Christmas. Rosalie shares their assisted-living suite with a new roommate.

While everyone agreed Roger needed skilled care, what shocked her children was her insistence that, whether he would be in the same building or not, she was done with caregiving. The "and" was excised from the two Ros.

It seems that love is tied to the brain as well as the heart, and that its associated virtues, devotion and duty, are similarly eroded by cognitive impairment. Uneven aging may last for decades, while the same partner, always healthier, is willing to take care of the other— but in some cases, a late-life form of leapfrog sets in.

I have also seen the healthier partner up and leave, but that is often a reflection of years of a less-than- happy relationship. No one saw Rosalie's resignation coming.

When her dementia recedes, as it will at times, I wonder whether Rosalie misses those close and passionate years. I suspect so, because I have saved cards she sent on our wedding anniversaries, in which she wrote of the strength of a couple's love, and its importance to family life. She enjoined us to take care of a precious gift.

Her personality changes are more difficult for their children than the sight of their father's infirmity; her inability to summon a once-intense love distresses them. She needs their love precisely at the time she is unable extend it herself. Her two sons and daughter are attentive and sensitive to her plight, but they hope that absence truly makes the heart—even one dented by time—fonder. On a recent good day, Rosalie admitted that she missed Robert.

After my father's death, I found a note in his jacket pocket on which he had written, "Old age is an unkind thief; he takes what we value most."

At no time has that melancholy metaphor seemed more apt.

Home again

One of  last summer's jaunts was to my hometown, in Northern Michigan, a place I had not visited in twenty-two years.

For several years, I had thought of returning to the small town where our family lived for 65 years. In mid-August, a high school classmate contacted me to say that a few of them had decided to throw together a 50th reunion. We bought tickets within the hour.

Nearly half of "The Cats and Chicks of '66" met at the historic Terrace Inn in the summer colony of Bay View, at the edge of our town, Petoskey, Michigan. The planning committee had negotiated a reasonable price for a casual dinner dance ("Even we don't know how we did it!"), one of the 'boys' DJ'd, and everyone caught up.

After fifty years, people were willing to talk; they had lived a life. Perhaps the deepest secrets were not unveiled, but much was shared, succinctly. The attitude seemed to be, Here I am.

"Annabelle" became a nun, but left the order. When I asked why, she said, "They worked me to death. I became a nun to be with God, and all I did was cook and clean." She now lives in a small trailer on a country road. Three days a week, she visits a local retreat center to care for the founding order's sole remaining nun, age 86.  The rest of her time is spent in the contemplation she craved.

"Joanne" was such a quiet girl in high school that I can't recall her stringing thirty words together. But there she stood, chic in an aubergine blouse and striking crystal necklace, greeting everyone. When I asked if I could adjust the necklace, she said, with heartrending gratitude, "Thank you, Kathy!" I realized that I, and the other extroverted girls, had ignored Joanne in high school. There was no bullying or even dislike, but she was not invited to sleepovers, not scooped into the booth for a gossipy Coke. She was thanking me for finally seeing her.

"Bud" grew up on a farm; his brother still runs the place. In high school, Bud fell asleep at this desk, never dated, and bore the stigma of a definite barn odor.  Fifty years later, Bud was funny, warm, and happily married. He owns an auto and farm equipment repair shop and spoke with such confidence that I kept asking myself, This is Bud Sterling?

They say people don't change, and for some, that seemed true. The class Romeo (who had somehow managed to go steady with three girls at the same time) was still full of BS until we spent a few minutes talking in a quiet corner. John, with whom I've been friends since the sandbox, remains low-key but brilliant; it was he who negotiated the price of the venue from $3,500 to $350.

No one had become famous. One boy was rumoured to have made many millions via tech investments (he didn't attend). But not one life felt small, as if fifty years had layered each person with a richness beyond anything material.

And then, of course, we acknowledged those who had died. Heads bowed, led by our classmate Father John, we prayed (or at least assumed the position), and thought of the years we had shared when everyone had a future.

I'd been to the tenth, twentieth and thirtieth reunions, which were fun enough, but this one was different. We were looking back over some distance, and everyone knew it. Near the evening's close, we danced to a Beach Boys song that took on special poignancy:

"I sailed an ocean, unsettled ocean
Through restful waters and deep commotion
Often frightened, unenlightened,
Sail on, sail on sailor."

2017: Reasons to be cheerful

The association that is the Canadian equivalent of the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) has a better acronym, CARP. It's probably my all-time favourite acronym, because if there's one thing age 50-plusses do with abandon, it's carp.

You meet a positive senior, you think, Must be the meds. Optimism is as rare as an unfurrowed face, content is kept to a discreet murmur, and the present cannot compare to times gone by.

A bookstore manager told me, "We've had great response from the customers, except for one type who complain about what we carry, how we display the books and our return policy. That's fair, but they take so much time making their point." I knew what she would say next: "They are all retired folks."

Being older is like being in a relationship: you'd better pick your spots, and if you whinge about everything, no one will want you around. Recently a friend complained that she always gets offered a seat on the bus or subway. Below her complaint was chagrin at being seen as an older person. She said, "I always turn it down." For me, the offer is a gesture of civility, and I have no problem being seen as someone who might need it. Stand or sit: to each her own.

But I carp plenty, sometimes here: clothes aren't made as well as they once were, fair employment practices have eroded, and don't get me started about the rise of personal debt. But as 2017 rolls in, I am grateful that two friends and a nephew who have faced harrowing diagnoses over the past year are doing well thanks to advanced medical treatment that didn't exist forty years ago.

I'm grateful for the access to information, and especially to culture, provided by technology. When I visited my home town last fall, the present owners of my childhood home spoke of their delight with their recent move. I, however, remembered an isolating—if beautiful—place, which I ached to leave so that I could see a ballet or professional theatre performance. The Internet would have helped.

Fleece-lined socks, the ubiquity of recycling programs, Greek-style yogurt at the corner store, jeans with stretch, safer cars, more acceptance of diversity: these are welcome differences from "the way things used to be" when I was around twenty, anticipating adult life. And I must add: the FIT test, which screens a segment of mature adults so that not everyone requires a periodic colonoscopy? Brilliant.

I am grateful for things that were beyond my imagination (my nephew's bone marrow transplant, which used cells from a donor in Germany), the trivial (nail-buffer blocks), and social movements that keep us moving toward a better world, such as efforts to register voters and resettle migrants.

If I focus mainly on what has changed for the worse, I can easily slide into that peevish-elder mode, the one many younger adults expect, the caricature too often validated.

So, I invite you to help me. What's come along in the last thirty or forty years that has made life better for you or your community?

I want to dress like Arnold Palmer

The great golfer died this year, prompting accolades, and not solely for his athleticism. GQ editor John Jannuzzi appreciated his style, writing: "... his clothes were in constant harmony, perfectly well fit and classic, polished, nothing ever too loud or crazy.”
“He was not second-guessing what he was wearing, and that’s what a lot of guys are still after, knowing what works for them and owning their own style.”
Ignore the pronoun, and that's a terrific M.O for a woman, too. If you replace the adjectives with their antonyms, you'd get jumbled, sloppy. trendy, loud: in other words, most of the inventory of the fast-fashion empire.
Last year, I said that, as I age, I want to dress like Queen Elizabeth. Now, Arnold joins the list of elder exemplars, but I am not getting into golf wear any more than I'd choose HRH's hats.  

But I do want his focus and polish; despite that, Palmer didn't look stuffy. He'd lighten his game with sky-blue pants or a pink sweater (which most men avoided like a Zika-carrying mosquito), and all of it was of high quality:

What would I buy, following Arnie's lead? A few things:
Maggiore houndstooth charcoal ruana, $275:
J. Crew lace-panel skirt (detail shown), sale price, $320— which I'd wear over tights, but the pretty contrast of lace and geometric print would still show. (Mostly sold out now.)

Jewellery: Real + vintage looks effortless, and has workmanship unmatched by most of today's mass-market designer goods. 

I might wear Beladora's retro rose gold, diamond and ruby bracelet, while enjoying an Arnold Palmer. (Price, $1, 850 and worth saving for.) The marquise diamond is a discreet 80 points, so daywear-able.

A splurge of classic tailoring: Lafayette148 "Ellington"cashmere coat with mink pockets: luxurious, clean, calm; sale price $1, 408:

As I searched for representative pieces, I realized that many are costly, even on sale. Palmer and many of his generation understood buying clothes that last. And if I'm buying for longevity, they better be things that suit me!

In a 2011 interview, Palmer said, "I’ve always felt you have to develop your own style. You can’t take it away, and you can’t give it. It’s something that’s there, and that’s what I’ve worked on through all my life. To whatever success I’ve had, I contribute it to the fact that I developed my own style. It’s how you look, how you think…everything you do is in some way connected to that style…the way you shine your shoes!”

Fast, disposable fashion diminishes that ability. When we slip into thinking, Oh it will only last a season, but that's OK, or (my personal sand trap), I need something new and I don't want to spend a lot, we actually de-skill ourselves. 

By all accounts, Arnold Palmer lived his life with joy and grace, and what he wore was hardly the defining characteristic. But how he looked meant something to him, and he would use his fame to at times improve others' game. 

Apparently he'd cross a clubhouse floor anywhere to request that a man remove his cap indoors.    

Happy New Pearls!

Warm wishes for a wonderful and especially, for a pearly New Year!

Following our tradition, the Passage reopens with a pearl post. Because I've recently received inquiries about what to do with 'not quite you' pearls, I've dressed the windows in reno ideas.

Traditional akoyas

By far my most frequent inquiry concerns Mom's or your own necklace of 5mm-6mm akoyas, the classic wedding strand, now too short and small. Why not restyle, provided Mom won't pitch a fit?

Not all the pearls may be salvageable; body oil, cosmetics and especially perfume may have degraded the pearl's surface.

Left:  Pick the best five or six pearls and combine them with beads; this example from Jan Logan shows white freshwaters combined with lagoon-blue Amazonite rounds and ovals, a graceful way to incorporate sentimental pearls into a new piece. (Amazonite is very reasonably priced; this piece is $AU 585).

Centre: Combine the pearls with new freshwaters and the more contemporary wire-wrapping. Example: Kojima Company's "Winter Blossom" necklace, which combines not only sizes but varieties and colours. This style is also a good solution if the pearls were originally a graduated strand.

Right: Here's an idea for the woman who finds a necklace too heavy, or prefers a casual piece. The example is Mallory Marks pearl collage necklace: sapphire beads—some tumbled, one faceted—with one Tahitian 11mm pearl (but you could use any pearl variety), and several small pearls; 18k chain.

Seed or rice pearls

Another reader wrote, "I have my mother-in-law's torsade of seed pearls, bought on a 1981 cruise. They are not 'me' at all... but it seems a shame to discard them." 

You can still find such pieces still sold by mainstream jewellers, and they do carry a retro whiff. But tiny, lustrous seed pearls have a distinct charm, and if good quality, can live again in a hipper new design.

Left, the original cruise souvenir; right, the seed pearls treated as 'chain', with baroque Tahitians added. The piece shown showcases 8.5 mm Tahitians, from West Main Pearls.

"Oh! You shouldn't have!"

Perhaps the most mournful e-mail: "My husband bought me beautiful pearls for my birthday, but did not think about the colour. Now I have these yellow South Seas, not great with my skin tone. They just seem to wash me out."

Ah, this is a delicate matter—and I would take the reno road only if an exchange is not possible. (But I would not wear unflattering pearls because you did not want to have the conversation.)

Assuming these are natural coloured gold South Seas, that's a costly misstep. Though you can't dye pearls like a pair of shoes, you can tweak their effect through artful composition, by breaking up that swath of gold with other coloured materials.

Two takes on restyling gold pearls: left, some of the golds mixed with Tahitian baroque and keshis, example from WestMain Pearls. Grey leavens the 'goldiness' and varied shapes make the necklace less formal.

Right, a multistrand necklace of brown and white crystals, white pearls, gold (dyed) pearls, and gold seed beads by NewJulianasCreations.The cost for adding crystal strands would be modest, and I would get top grade glowy freshwater whites for the contrast colour.

Where to get more pearls?

You can consult a good jeweller, or look yourself among these or similar web-based vendors. Below, examples of the company's goods that I might use in the renos above.

Ehret Design Gallery
Pearl dealer Carolyn Ehret sells on eBay, but the cautions of buying on eBay do not pertain to her store, which specializes in high-quality pearls and gemstones. When mixing the classic akoyas into a wire-wrap, five circled Tahitians that flash multi-colours would be one of the varieties to add; the lot shown is about $US 35. Also great for findings such as gold spacers.

Kojima Pearl Company
Kojima carry a selection of unusual pearls from singles to lots of five or so, and you can contact them for larger lots, or a mix. For those gold South Seas, I'd use these dyed grey keshi (just over $100)... and maybe scatter in a few rondelle beads for fun.

Augustus Collection
This eBay seller, from whom I have not bought pearls, but where I routinely look, has 100% positive feedback. You can also find gemstone beads, like these tanzanite rondelles, which would look terrific in that akoya "collage" restyle.

Framed, with love 

If your pearls are sentimental, but you would never wear them, consider framing! This example is from LoveLightSparkles on Etsy, but you could play with your own design. Visit a craft store to buy a shadowbox, mount the necklace with pushpins, perhaps against a backdrop of an old photo or striking patterned paper, and you'll have a gracious memento.

Buying jewellery: Is it really "handmade"?

Just back from our largest artisanal craft show, the Salon des métiers d'art de Montréal, and though I didn't buy anything, one thing stood out like a 10-carat diamond: the increasingly broad interpretation of the term "handmade".

I could get into technical weeds here, no fun for either of us, and besides, I'm not a jeweller— so I'll use an analogy. There are various ways a piece of jewellery can be made, something like making a bakery cake.

Level 1: Mass-produced
This is like commercial cake that's sold at Costco, so a cake bought Montréal is identical to the one in Ft. Myers, and thousands are pumped out.

For jewellery, all components of the piece's production are made by machine, and in some cases, assembled robotically.

Advantages: Each piece is exactly like the rest of the run. The producer realizes economies of scale and may pass this on to the consumer.
Disadvantages: Because the production is often by the hundreds or thousands, some of its character is eroded. Settings tend to be lightweight to maximize profit, and fine details are far less often used, but 3D printing does allow for some dazzling effects.

Example: 14k bar necklace, Amazon.com:

Level 2: Hand-assembled from mass-produced elements
The piece is like the commercial cake above, supplied to a neighbourhood bakery by a commissary and then is hand-decorated by writing "Happy Birthday Mitzi" on it.

Advantages: The craftsperson can shop for the elements that personalizes the piece or reflects her brand's look. Though the elements may be mass-produced, the designer can combine them in novel ways.
Disadvantages: Still looks anodyne unless the craftsperson has unusual sources or collects unique, often vintage elements; a good example of such elements is the work of Grainne Morton, like these mismatched earrings:
This is the level you'll see at many craft shows, where you might notice the same feather charm or arrow on several sellers' items. Jewellery at this level can be expensive; price is not a reliable indicator of how it was made.

Some jewellers order "blanks", mass-manufactured ring settings, in which they set stones. At a craft show I heard one vendor say, "We set this by hand", as if that was really somethin'.

Level Three: Hand-cast jewellery
That's the cake baked on the premises, either displayed in the case, or available by order. You won't find that cake anywhere else unless someone copies it.

The jewellery equivalent is a piece created from elements made by the artisan. She may make these in quantity, but they exist nowhere else, or, if it is a more generic element like a seashell,  she has cast her own version.

How does she do it? Here's a good, short description of the lost-wax casting process from the zine, Make. (Machine casting is increasingly common and found in both Levels One and Two.) Hand-casting is a demanding process with nerve-wracking moments. There will be a higher price when the hand-cast piece is custom-made.

A cast piece may be delicate or organic, geometric or baroque; the style does not reveal the process. The designer/jeweller may use many other specialists such as setters and polishers to produce the finished piece.

Example: Polly Wales cast 18k yellow gold, sapphire and diamond Lily Pad shield ring:
Advantages: A kind of "best of both worlds" that allows for the designer to execute her vision, but is not as labour-intensive as Level Four. Most jewellery sold as artisanal today is made this way.
Disadvantages: Quality is dependant on the many hands involved. If a mold is used many times, its details can become coarser.

This is the level most often represented as "handmade", but jewellery made by CAD/CAM modelling, metal-printing, wax models and casting should be, according to many jewellers, more accurately described as "hand-finished", as should jewellery assembled with machine-made elements that are then treated (pierced, engraved, hammered, etc.) by the jeweller.

Level Four: Handmade, also called "hand-wrought", "hand-fabricated" or "hand-forged"
The cake is individually made using the baker's intensive skills, for example, using cherries soaked in her proprietary infusion, or icing it with a ganache she has developed and makes from scratch every time.

Advantage: The piece is made by hand from start to finish, using metal-smithing techniques like hammering, tempering and rolling, which alter the molecular structure to make the metal stronger, denser and more resistant to bending. That's a real benefit for something you will wear every day or want to keep for many decades.

Disadvantage: A less-skilled bench jeweller might produce shoddy work. If a piece includes stones, it may be handed to a setter, so both stages need to be done expertly.

I've just visited a craft show where I saw at least a eight young women producing nearly identical tiny 'stick' type earrings. Though handmade, there is neither refined design nor advanced workmanship in these. Why are they everywhere?

Example of an organic hand-forged piece: Dita Allsopp pink tourmaline and sterling silver cuff ring:
But hand-forged does not have to look "earthy"; diamond dangle earrings by Victor Canera are delicate beauties that feature hand-engraving:

Most salespersons do not intentionally lie, and there are blurred boundaries. For example, only a handful of jewellers will hand-fabricate the chain from which a pendant hangs, but might make the pendant entirely by hand.

How do you know?

When you inspect a handmade piece, you will not see mold marks or rough spots that post-casting polishing could not reach, such as the underside of settings.  If there are several of the same items on display, look for tiny variations from one piece to the next.

Ask how the piece was made. It is not essential that a jeweller make a handmade piece entirely herself. Some of the best-known prestige jewellers have not done any bench work since their school days, but they are stellar designers who know how to enlist the talents of the jewellery trade.

Vintage jewellery is far more likely to be handmade, and that is part of its allure. I've often written that "they don't make them like this anymore", another reason to at least visit antique and vintage jewellers and auctions in person or online. (Shown, Edwardian opal and diamond brooch, ca. 1905, from Beladora.)

My last word for 2016: Delightful handmade jewellery can be found for the price of mass-produced, if you explore the work of independent artisans and the world of luscious—but not precious—stones and pearls. (There, I ended the year with "pearls"!)

Time for the Christmas break! I hope you, too, will enjoy the festivities, warmth and friendship of the season. 

The Passage re-opens on Tuesday, January 3, 2017.

When designers depart, why should we care?

In a late-July article in the New York Times, Vanessa Friedman reported that Peter Copping, who recently left Oscar de la Renta after not even two years, was the eighth designer to engage in such a quickie divorce from a major house. My first thought was,"Who cares?"; my ladies-lunch ensemble is usually jeans and a tee.

But then, I thought, Coherence.

Time was when Chanel was where you counted on bouclé and braid, Pucci's signature was a swirling, audacious colourway, and even prêt-a-porter designers like Holly Harp delivered an identifiable aesthetic. Clients were loyal: Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy, Catherine Deneuve in Yves St. Laurent.

When the alpha dogs rotate by the year, the house looses its focus, but more significant for average consumers is that our entry-level designers, so "influenced" by the big names, are cut adrift, their North Star dimmed. The racks end up crammed with trousers cropped at odd lengths and limp, long sweaters that make women look egg-shaped.

Few department store labels show coherence, save exceptions like Eileen Fisher's relaxed rectangles, and in the loftiest reaches, Phoebe Philo's disciplined luxury at Céline.

You might think, "Not my problem; I just want a camel v-neck I can wash." But one day, you might be in a bind like my friend Jill, who enlisted me to shop for a dress for her daughter's informal daytime wedding this weekend.

Jill, 64, doesn't enjoy shopping (which may be why she left it to the week before?); she's happiest in her garden in swimsuit and wellies. She ruled out sleeveless, dislikes prints, and has problem feet which require flats.

At the department store, those criteria disqualified 85% of everything. Jill was utterly unmoved by the four dresses she tried: "What if I just wear my black palazzo pants and a top?" Daughter on phone: "NO". After an hour and a half, we gave up.

On the drive home, we noticed the 60% off sale sign at the George Rech boutique, and I asked her to make one last stop. Triumph! Here's her dress, a sapphire silk which matches her blue eyes exactly!

She said it would not be a one-occasion numbershe'll wear it to a New Year's Eve fundraiser party, and pack it for an upcoming trip to Napa Valley to celebrate a brother-in-law's 70th.

She will wear it with a thin white gold bangle and sparkly "diamond" hoops borrowed from her daughter. I also mused about a pair of cuffs, which could be (in our dreams) these pearl beauties from Beladora:

For shoes, she already owns heels for a brief photo session and ordered Badgely Mischka jeweled flats for the restaurant reception:
Jill also considered this silk dress in soft red, on double markdown, but thought the blue was better for her peach skin tone.

Rech, characterized by a clean-lined but feminine style, good fabrics, and that little extra detail, offered coherent, chic and well-priced (given the sale) choices. (Womens' sizes will find similar at Marina Rinaldi.) Coherence reduces time and prevents the error of choosing 'the best of the bunch' from among a dizzying array, even though nothing is really great.

Next time that I'm the friend riding along, I'll suggest we go to one or two boutiques who provide a certain perspective, and skip the department store sea of dresses.

It's not so much that individual designers should stay put, I realized, as that their brands need an identity, so women know where to head. All those style books say "figure out what's you and what's not"; designers should follow that principle for their clothes.