Uneven aging: The Brickendens light a path

Photo: The Globe & Mail

Sometimes an obituary grabs your heart. The Brickendens, Shirley and George, were such persons. Remarkable from their first meeting to their joint and chosen medically-assisted death, they illuminate a path some of us are just beginning to discern.

An interview given less than a week before they died, in which they explain their decision, is here.
The couple was a classic case of uneven aging in advanced old age: Shirley, 94, obtained approval for assisted death over a year ago, but for one of the two doctors required to approve the procedure,  George did not meet the criteria. Then, at 95, he caught up.

After nearly 73 years together, they "flew away", as they always put it, holding hands in their own bed.

Their way is not for everyone, but it resonates for me because I saw, during the years when I worked in two large hospitals, that when a patient was in an advanced state of irreversible decline, unbearable suffering ennobled no one.

I am beginning to witness the end of life more frequently, among my own friends and family. Some endings are graceful, some are fraught. One day, I would like to be able to make certain decisions, difficult though they may be, and want my wishes to be compassionately respected. My beliefs allow the possibility of euthanasia, so I am watching as Quebec carefully tests this newly-acquired right. Over three hundred persons were approved for the option in 2017.

The Brickendens left after loving farewells and good champagne. I am grateful to them for publicly describing their poignant, entirely informed, and now legal act.

Right as rain

There are many more pressing matters, but few things bend a woman out of shape more than needing something and not being able to find it.  

For around four years, I looked for a functional "city" raincoat. I searched from boutiques to department stores, e-tailers to eBay. Some looked good but didn't breathe. When I walk in a non-breathable raincoat, I feel like I'm in a Ziploc bag.

Last spring, I gave up. Then I remembered advice from Geneviève Dariaux in "A Guide to Elegance": Don't buy a raincoat; wear a light coat and carry an umbrella. (In case of a deluge, just nip into Ladurée and wait it out.)

I bought a can of Scotchguard, sprayed my J. Crew cotton twill peacoat, and voilà! If you have a soft field jacket or light cotton coat that you already own and enjoy, you might do the same. Re-spray after laundering, or once a year. (Similar fabric waterproofing products are made by Nikwax, Wood, and Rust-Oleum.) I was thrilled when raindrops fell off the peacoat.

The peacoat suits our cool Montreal spring, but for upcoming jaunts to milder locales, I needed a light, breathable layer to stash in a day pack. I found some useful choices by Montréal-based performance-wear label, Lolë.

Lolë's "Piper" is light (like a softshell), breathes, packs into a pouch: ticked all the boxes. I chose "Riverstone", a luminous pearl grey. The "Rainey" has a partial overlayer  at the chest and upper back, so it's warmer, and has a two-way zipper, too.  (It would fold into a suitcase but I wouldn't want to carry it all day.) I also tried the jacket length, the "Lainey", sportier but packable.

Sizing runs from XS to XL; the cut is not skimpy and tight. I also like Lolë's quality zippers and fastenings. Free shipping and returns, too.

I looked at many candidates, including two hip Swedish brands whose pieces cost two to four times Lolë's, but they were too heavy. Several models were "unisex" cuts which make me look like I'm in those raincoats provided on the "Maid of the Mist", to chug right up to the Niagara Falls.

When I visited the boutique on a quiet Monday morning, a woman about my age was buying a capsule wardrobe for a mid-May trip. I could see the sense: everything co-ordinated and washable. She told me about her walking tour in Italy; seventeen days of easy hikes, great meals, charming hotels, shoe shopping.

I wanted to book on the spot and test that raincoat in Ravello!


Jewellery reno: Moons, shining

Laura had inherited one of the two diamonds from her mother's engagement ring, but this avid gardener is not a "ring person".

She had earrings in mind, and because she lives in my former home city, Toronto, I suggested she visit my favourite jewellers there, Artwork by Collins and Chandler, as a start. Habituées of the tiny shop on Avenue Road call it "Pam and Don's".

Laura seemed a match for their designs, which I consider world-class.

When thinking of a commission, the first thing to do is take a close, leisurely look at a jeweller's work. Ask yourself if you'd wear much of what's on display, because that is the sensibility from which she will create. Laura liked what she saw, so she returned with her mother's diamond, a pair of earrings she received from her parents when a young adult, a small diamond from her maternal grandfather's bar tie pin, and some old gold to recycle.

I was intrigued by the shape Laura wanted: two phases of the moon. She explained, "The moon had a special significance to my late husband. I also used the crescent moon as the basis for my garden design—there are two moons facing in opposite directions. So the earrings are meant to reflect those two very important parts of my life."

Here's Laura's garden, with one moon in the foreground:

She treats me to close-ups of her beautifully-conceived and maintained beds as they move through the seasons. When she travels, it is often to visit renowned gardens.

When Pam sent the cast, Laura was uneasy; she thought that largest diamond was... big. (Laura may be the only woman I have ever known who fretted about a diamond being too big.)

Cast of setting

She sent me the photo above to ask what I thought; the diamonds are not yet set. (At the top are other Artwork earrings, which made me want to get on a train immediately.) Tricky, because she'd be wearing them, not me—but I had a hunch and offered it to her.

Laura loves colour, but she's understated. Like her garden, she's lovely in a natural way. Placed centre stage on the crescent moon, the largest diamond (about .60ct) had a presence Laura wasn't accustomed to; it looked as if it were saying, "Well HI THERE!"

I said, "Now is the time to deal with any reservations, and it's not too late." I mentioned  the phenomenon of diamond shrink. What seems like a honkin' big stone calms down; it literally seems to shrink before your eyes. You get used to it, in a good way.  I thought she'd find it perfect once she wore them awhile.

She wanted some time to think, so called Pam to ask her to hold off on the setting.

If still uncomfortable, Laura had some options: move the biggest stone to the full-moon earring, which would then mean buying new diamonds for the crescent; recut it (resulting in a smaller diamond with a more modern cut) or use a mix of diamonds and other stones. Any option would have to be carefully considered to retain balance in the design.

She decided to go ahead, though understandably felt both anxious and excited. First, there was matter of handing over family heirlooms for melting. She wryly mentioned "WASP guilt". But having inhabited WASP families, I've seen that while they revere tradition, they also abhor waste, and those stones and fiddly gold chains had no life as they were.

The scariest part, she said, was in trusting Pam and DonLaura is a world traveller, but with this project, she was in uncharted territory.

Instead of making drawings, the jewellers used other pieces as reference points, and discussed details. For a deliberate and detail-oriented person, this is a leap—but she made it, and says she's glad. And, she added, she would not have wanted to do it with someone less experienced.

Laura's moons honour her husband, mother, grandfather, and reflect her abiding connection to nature; they are really "her". She enjoys how she can move them around, with the full moon on either ear, and the crescent turned to either direction.

I'm looking forward to doing a little moon-gazing when Laura visits Montreal in May!

Customer service: The watch experiment

In need of a battery change, I entered a jewellery store in my neighbourhood with two non-running watches in hand. I was not drawn to the store before; its fortress-like façade plastered with big-brand advertising didn't reassure me about their bench skills. But, watch batteries, how hard is that?

Someone buzzed me in, none of the three saleswomen on the floor made even eye contact. (Two were with customers, one was on the phone.) I waited, and passed a dozen minutes surveying cases of mediocre jewellery. After a quarter hour, tired of being a ghost, I left.

Have you ever been invisible in a nearly-empty store? 

I found their behaviour misplaced. There are few more pathetic attitudes than snobbery issued from a merchant who offers nothing distinguished. I was reminded of our Parisien friend Roland's parting words when he ran into such treatment: "You have too much money; you don't need mine."

I have been served warmly at haut de gamme boutiques like Fred Leighton and Cartier, so was flummoxed by this freeze. Why did I not merit even a be-with-you-soon nod? I wondered: Was it my jeans-and-car coat outfit? My age? The fact that I was unaccompanied by a (wallet-carrying) man? I'll never know, because I shall never enter Crèation Paul H again.

At that point, I thought I'd try an experiment. I walked a few blocks to the chic Bijouterie Italienne, whose windows gleam with Rolexes, Pomelatto and Gucci rings, ropes of South Sea pearls. Let's see how the high end serves the grey-haired woman with two watches she had not bought there.

A young Italian salesman received me like a duchessa. The replacement would cost more than a standard installation, because, as he explained "the design of one watch means the change is not simple." (I knew that.)  As I left, I noticed a small sign indicating that the boutique was open sur rendezvous on that day. "Oh, I didn't realize I should have called first", I said. "For you", he replied with a wide smile, "we are open!"

Oh, charm the grandmother. But I actually look forward to picking them up.

I told the story to my neighbour, a man familiar with the best. He said,"I took Lou's watch to (a luxury downtown jeweller), and said, 'Please show me your diamond rings, I want to buy one for my wife. She showed me some, and I said, 'Do you have anything bigger?' She was falling over herself to serve me. Then I said, 'I have to go home and talk to my wife, but in the meantime, can you change the battery in her watch?'"

"And when you returned?", I asked.

He said, "I told them, 'Oh, she tells me she doesn't like diamonds!'"

Chub Chat: Shedding an old reflex

Spring's tiptoeing in on little rainboots here in Montréal. You'll see women's bodies again, not just a head above a muffler and puffy parka.

When I meet Paula without my winter gear, she says, "You look terrific! Have you lost weight?"  I reply, "Paula, I've been the same for five, six years." This ritual is such a sure thing that I'd bet $500 on it.

Paula cycles up or down a size or two, depending on whether she takes daily walks or burrows into her business. She's a conscious eater, but an unconscious Chub Chatter.  She means well, but there's something in it that, uh, eats at me.

Chub Chat is either self-initiated criticism, e.g., "I'm an elephant in this skirt!", or a call-and-response, the compliment ("That top looks fabulous on you!)" answered by deprecation: "Yeah, but look at my back fat."

A paper published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, and reported on Time.com, studied university women and found that "nearly all women engaged in fat talk with their friends, and over a third did so frequently". (The Time.com article did not define 'frequently'.)

Over-50s have not left Chub Chat behind like a tattered poster on the dorm wall.  We just smoosh it together with Old Talk, so now we say, "Oh god, I can't wear shorts anymore, my butt is the size of Cleveland".

But it's not just us, it's also

  • The salesperson who tells you that dress makes you look slim—and even if you like the other dress better, guess which one you're going to buy?
  • The friend who mentions her weight every time you see her, so you automatically mention yours—even though you'd rather not
  • Your sister: sees every ounce and will tell you so
  • The bloggers who posts their OOTD and wonder, Does my (fill in body part) look big in this?  I have only once read a commenter who had the candor to say, So what if it does?

Is that chat really about weight? For mature women, I believe the focus on the number (scale or hang tag) is a diversion. We evade the examination of losses more troubling than our waistline: the shift of our identities as our work selves step off the stage, the infirmity of parents or beloved elders, or our own health concerns unrelated to body size, and a lot scarier.

Chub Chat is the woman's "How about those Canadiens?", a conversational gambit called "passtiming". And it's reflexive. I watched a film awards broadcast this winter and heard myself saying that Elizabeth Moss looked chunky in her red-carpet dress. Guilty!

I want to change. I'm not gonna snipe about someone (famous or not) who's bigger than she used to be, or envy the star who has remained sleek as a seal for forty years primarily for her stunning figure. (You're right, that's Helen Mirren.) Not gonna make self-deprecating remarks about my size or shape, the Girl Guide badge of Chub Chat. We learn early to put ourselves down.

In 1993 I read an essay, originally published in Harper's by Sallie Tisdale, "A Weight Women Carry" that changed my life, but obviously in a more minor way that I wished. Near the end, Tisdale writes, "The pursuit of another, elusive body...is a terrible distraction, a sidetracking that might have lasted my whole life long."

That's why I'm dumping Chub Chat: there is not all that much time left. Why be co-opted into anxiety about the precious, glorious, and inescapably imperfect human body?

Spring Hermès scarf sale

Today, the windows are dressed with authentic Hermès scarves for sale. Three are 35-inch (90cm) silk twill carrés, three are 16-inch pochettes. No snags, stains or sale stamps; from my smoke and pet-free home. The hand-rolled hems are plump. 

1. Sale is open to buyers with US or Canadian postal addresses.
2. Payment: Prices are in $US and do not include shipping and any applicable duties and import taxes.
US buyers: Payment by PayPal. 
Canadian buyers: Interac also accepted and I'll convert the price to $CDN. 
Final sale; payment due within 24 hours.

2. To buy a scarf, use the e-mail address under the "Welcome" sidebar at right to contact me. Sorry, no holds.

3. Shipping is via Canada Post XPress insured and trackable, which is $25 to most US locations for the carrés and $20 for the pochettes. (Quebec and Ontario by Canada Post is $CDN 15.)  UPS option available.

CARRÉS: 35-inch (90cm) silk twill squares

1. Vol Amoreux des Azures; SOLD
The essence of spring: butterflies flit through blossoms and branches. This luminous scarf lightens any neutral. The design extends right to the border, as shown top left. In mint condition with care tag still on.
Colourway: Emerald green border, off-white ground; orange, green, robin's egg blue, pale blue, buttercup yellow.
Designer: Laurence Bourthoumieux, signing as "Toutsy"

SOLD to P.!

2. Les Cléfs; SOLD
One of the iconic scarves, a feminine assortment of antique keys and locks. The corners have key detail; the centre is a large pink medallion with tassels. You can see another view of the same colourway here
Colourway: Ivory ground, soft pink, greys, bronze.
Deisgner: Cathy Latham

SOLD to L.!

3. Grand Apparat; SOLD
Parade horses in their magnificent saddles and livries, an hommage to Hermès' history as a renowned French sellier
Colourway: Off-white ground with deep red-burgundy (top left looks most accurate), gold, and a touch of navy. Very versatile and fresh, ideal scarf for spring if you do not care for pastels.
You can see the colourway here.
Designer: Jacques Eudel

SOLD to R.!

POCHETTES: 16-inch (42cm) silk twill squares
Use for neckerchief, pocket square, or tie on a bag.

1. Musée; SOLD
A musuem's trove of nautical and equestrienne treasures, look closely for the cheeky model-ship coiffure (centre photo)! "Musée" is framed in a rope motif in mid-blue.
Colourway: Camel border; lighter camel ground with pink, ivory, soft blue.
Designer: Philippe Ledoux

SOLD to D.!

2. Belles Amures; SOLD
A nautical theme; the centre compass with four of Brittany's heritage lighthouses points to eight ships in full sail. The corners have detail of ships' tackle. 
Colourway: Soft mauve-pink ground; a light teal border encloses seascapes of lavender, celadon, dark teal, mauve, a touch of grey and blue-gray; black.  
Designer: Loic Dubigeon

SOLD to S.! 


Spring tees and the colour problem...and Hermès sale notice

Spring means fresh tees or tops, or at least a look at what the Pantone prophets have decreed as current colours.

Women for whom "budget" is not just a car rental company choose their price point and hope for colours they like, but the butter yellow tee offered last spring may have been replaced by nearly-neon lemon this year.

The hardest thing to find in mid-priced clothing is appealing colour, which is created by good dyes applied to good fabrics. Many women stack black, grey and white into drawers in a default strategy generously called a "neutral base".  We do love neutrals, but hey, it's spring.

And besides, if you have sensitive graydar, even that colour is suspect. You may long for luminescent dove grey or that mysterious grey-with-a-wisp-of-blue, but 90% of mass market retail delivers Parking Garage.

Some women wear the spring 2018 colours below superbly, but to me, and therefore on me (since colour is potently psychological) these dyes look either harsh or flat. If you like cool hues and colours more on the desaturated side, you'll have to search this spring.

Left to right:

  • Talbot's scalloped-neck tee in "Deep Periwinkle": I actually like periwinkle, but this is more towards a blue on steroids.
  • Talbot's Everyday tee in "Nectarine": pretty colour, especially on a blonde, but when I saw it in person, dull—maybe because it's a cotton blend.
  • Land's End tee in "Burgee Blue": muddy turquoise with none of the island appeal.

Private-equity firms own these companies, and they use jobbers for fabric for all their lines from super-cheap to mid-priced. I think they don't care about colour and cut corners every way they can. Do you have an alternative reason for the glut of harsh magenta?

So,  is it another one in... navy? You might find an interesting green at the Gap, or 'your purple' at Target; that's luck. I'd like to find a refined, interesting colour selection in one place, and then, refresh every year or two without a search.

Clockwise, left to right, some vendors with a decent colour choice (but not always provided in a range of styles and sizes.)

Three Dots
Very good colours, but too often sold out. The reds are impressive, because most makers offer only one. TD have several, from claret to tomato. Above, their "Tide" tee, less strident than the "Burgee Blue".

Boden have been called "a kid with a box of crayons, run amok"; there is a fondness for harsh primaries, and some of the prints look juvenile—but this is not Etro. Even so, they offer some non-generic hues, like Rosebay, shown in a boat-necked tee.

Their men's polos have always incited my craving for the same choice for women. No such luck, but they offer eleven colours in a tee, if you can wear the narrow cut. Above, Lacoste tee in a washed-out red they call Sierra, which you can sometimes find at LL Bean, too, in a boxier cut and more sizes.

ça va de soi
Expensive, but of elevated quality. The colours, always subtle, purr on fine fabrics. Shown, "Tatiana" tee, Egyptian cotton and raw linen, in Palmier. Now available online.

If you love saturated colour but in unusual hues, such as twilight blue-purple, or that pink like the inside of a brick, you are doomed to being a colour sleuth, hunting all over the place.

Just give me a scarf!
I hear you.

On Thursday, April 5, 7:00 a.m. EST
 I'll offer a selection of spring-y 
Hermès carrés and pochettes for sale*. 
These are my from my collection—and the colours are sublime.

*for buyers with Canadian and US postal addresses