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My Christmas at Caprilands

caprilands-institute

Photo courtesy of Caprilands Institute

Once upon a time, in the little town of Coventry, Connecticut, Christmas had a fairy godmother. Her name was Adelma Grenier Simmons. She’s gone now, but there were years when one of my most eagerly anticipated days during Advent was taking a drive with my dear friend Catherine Reischer to Adelma’s eighteenth century farmhouse, surrounded by fifty acres of fields and woods.

 

Herd of Sheeps and Goats on a mountain Road at Sunset

 

Adelma was the owner of the herb farm she named for the purebred milk goats once raised there–capra is Latin for goat. As time went by, she converted the rocky land to an herb farm, and her home became a cafe and visitor’s center. She was a bit of a character, almost like a diminutive white witch, a little rotund while standing only five feet tall, and always wearing a cap and a cape. Today, the farm she loved is in the process of being converted to a non-profit organization called Caprilands Institute, and is only open by appointment.

 

A Christmas Wreath on an old Farm Wagon

 

But years ago, December was the month to go visit if you loved Christmas. Adelma celebrated every part of what she called “the glorious Christmas season,” and studied to increase her knowledge of the legends, rituals, and plant lore that informed her elaborate decorations. She loved ceremony, and made a ritual out of “touching a flame to kindling and candles, and by fire and candlelight enjoying the pungent fragrance of fresh evergreens and rosemary.” She knew the stories behind the traditions she loved. She shared many of them in the dozens of books she wrote.

 

Dirt road and trees covered with snow after winter storm

 

Catherine and I made the long drive to Coventry into a celebration of our own. We sang Christmas carols as we drove through the countryside, sometimes even in snowstorms! Caprilands was a magical place to us. It was where I I learned to cook with herbs, inspired by Adelma’s delicious recipes served at the farmhouse luncheons and lectures. In December, I learned from Adelma that having a home beautifully decorated is a way of living life to the fullest. Like Adelma, I love to pull out all the stops, whether celebrating Christmas, Hannukah, New Year’s, or the Winter Solstice.

 

christmas-greenery

 

There’s so much to do to prepare for our largest festival of the year, but I achieve my dreams by not trying to get it all done in one day. I plan for weeks in advance, and then do a little at a time to pull together the theme I’ve decided on. I know that elegance is in the details, and there was no detail too small to be overlooked at Caprilands.

 

different kinds of spices and dried oranges with christmas tree

 

One of my favorite things about the farmhouse was seeing each of the trees that Adelma decorated. Although the decorations varied from year to year, there were always six fragrant cedars, each trimmed differently for her celebration that lasted from Thanksgiving to the end of January. Her Harvest Tree was trimmed with fruit and included straw figures and a Swedish straw star to emphasize the harvest theme.

 

 

Zweige vom weihnachtsbaum geschmückt mit Christbaumkugeln, goldenen Schleifen und Lichterkette

Her Spice Tree was trimmed with pomanders and tiny bells.

 

Golden bell on the tree

She believed that evil spirits were frightened away by the sound of bells ringing, so bells were tied to the ends of the branches to disperse the evil spirits and invite the angels in.

 

Festive Christmas close up of tree decorated with gold glitter robin, tinsel and holly berries. Bokeh copy space.

 

A Bird Tree was decorated with dried sea-lavender and little birds. She thought of the Bird Tree as her “Peace” tree, so the decorations were more minimal. It was topped with a green and silver sequin star. Her Jesse Tree was decorated with cards and quotations that foretold the coming of the Christ child. along with red and gold paper roses, little harps and crowns, and a lamb and a dove.

 

Christmas decoration background with felt ornaments

 

Her Gilded Birch tree was for children, and was covered with felt and wood snowmen, doves, hearts and horses. She hung spice cookies and handmade candies for the children to take from the branches. And last, she created an Artemisia Tree, made by wrapping a wire frame with the stalks of Artemisia albula, requiring the sacrifice of at least twelve established plants.

 

Gypsophila (Baby's-breath flowers), light, airy masses of small white flowers. Shallow focus.

 

I was always inspired by Adelma’s dedication to creating magic for everyone who visited. One of my own favorite decorating ideas I borrowed from her is tucking small bouquets of fresh baby’s breath into the Christmas tree branches and along the mantel, to simulate a fresh snowfall. It’s the tiniest touches that bring this beautiful time of year to life, and I never overlook a single one.

 

corn soup with sliced bread on wooden board

 

Another takeaway from my time at Caprilands is the delicious Curried Corn Soup she served at her luncheons. It’s not for the diet-conscious, but it’s perfect for indulging yourself on a wintry December afternoon!

 

Curried Corn Soup

1 /4 lb. butter

1 tbsp curry powder

1 tsp powdered freeze-dried shallots

2 1-lb cans cream-style corn

1 1-lb can whole corn

2 cups cream, warmed

1/8 tsp ground rosemary

2 tbsp chopped chives

Melt butter in pan, add curry, stir until smooth. Add shallots, then corn, stirring slowly; then cream and rosemary. Garnish with chilves. (Evaporated milk or half and half may be substituted for cream). Serves 8

I hope I’ve inspired you with some of what’s inspired me. However you celebrate, Frank and I, along with G.G., Tuffy and Ellie, wish you a very Happy Holiday Season!

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The Story of Grace

praying hands with candle

 

There are several definitions of “grace;” they range from a sense of propriety to charming behavior, from a divine virtue to a prayer before a meal. Grace can mean a musical trill, or an act of kindness. To me, Grace will always be my mother’s name, and the legacy she left me of living a life filled with light, and love.

 

A maxi coat wearing mother, taking her little girl to school, finds room under the yards of material to shelter both of them from the icy snow flurries in London, England on November 29, 1969. (Photo by Express/Getty Images)

 

I wrote about her final gift to me one Christmas long ago in a blog post called  Christmas with Grace.  I have the love-worn and gently aging quilt that she made with her own steadily weakening hands in her last months with us. It is one of my most treasured possessions. Because we said goodbye to her in December, this month always brings the most poignant memories flooding back to me, and sometimes, more magical opportunities to remember her.

 

grace's quilt

 

On a cold Christmas Eve several years ago, I needed some last minute items from the grocery store before they closed, and had quickly done my shopping. As I was hurrying to my car, I noticed an elderly woman standing alone, holding a bag. She looked like she was waiting for someone, and I hesitated before stopping at her side. I didn’t want to bother her, but I had a feeling that something was wrong.

 

grace 3

 

“Hello,” I said to her. “I noticed that you’re waiting here alone. Is everything all right? Can I be of any help?”

She looked at me, and now I could see the worry on her face. “Oh, everything’s fine,” she told me. “It’s just that I don’t drive anymore, and I had called for a cab, and it doesn’t seem to be coming. Maybe if I just wait a little longer…”

Snow was falling, beginning to accumulate on the sidewalk and parking lot. The roads were not in good shape, and surely would be getting worse.

“I’m heading home and would be happy to drive you,” I told her. “Do you live nearby?”

She nodded, and said, “Only a few blocks, but I can’t impose on you. I’m sure the cab will be here soon.”

I started to walk away, but I wasn’t at all sure the cab would arrive soon, or at all. I turned back toward her. “Please, it’s not an imposition–at all. Let me help you. I’d like to.”

She peered at the quiet street, watching the swirling snow, then finally said, “All right, then. If you’re sure…”

I helped her into the car and soon we were turning from one dark and slippery street onto another, until at last we reached a small home in an older neighborhood. There was a light left on over the front door, but the rest of the windows were dark. I hated to leave her there alone.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

“Can I help you in with your bag?” I asked her. “I can help you get the lights on before I go.”

Suddenly I could see alarm in her eyes. She was an elderly woman, living alone, and she didn’t know me. She stammered nervously, reaching for the door handle. “Oh, no no no, I can do it myself. Really. I appreciate your help so much, but I’ll be fine–”

I knew she was anxious, so I didn’t press her. She gathered her things and had one foot out the door when I said, “Wait–I don’t know your name!”

She looked at me, and smiled. “Grace. It’s Grace.”

The walkway was white with snow, and she took her time on her way to the door. I remained in the driveway with my headlights on until I saw her safely inside.

 

Surprise!!

 

Grace. Her name was Grace. I turned on the radio, just as “O, Holy Night,” began to play. It was a peaceful night, and I felt warmth spreading from my heart all throughout my body, as if I were being held by someone, as if I were being embraced.

There are mysteries in life, things I can’t always understand, and things I can’t explain. But there are other things that I feel with a sureness that defies any logic that might explain away what I know to be true in the world:

We all have angels of our better nature, and angels by our side on earth who are our friends and family, just like the family I had waiting at home for me that night. And sometimes, there are angels around us who we feel rather than see. For me, there will always be one angel in particular who I am reminded of each Christmas.

Her name is Grace.

 

Winter snowy abstract background with pile of snow

 

Christmas with Grace

Holiday House tree large

What does Christmas mean to you? For me, it is a season of secrets, of rustling bags filled with tissue snuck into the house when no one is looking, of cookies and candy canes, and everywhere the scent of pine. As a designer, I can’t help but decorate every room, adding fresh cedar boughs and glittering lights here and a crystal bowl filled with red roses there.

christmas chandelier

As enchanting as this holiday is, it also brings with it memories, some delightful, some more painful to recall, and as the years go by, all stir my emotions, and fill my heart. My recent book signing at Holiday House in New York City brought me back to a Christmas long ago, the last one I spent with my mother, Grace.

christmas

Holiday House, a designer show house, was founded by Iris Dankner, a breast cancer survivor, in 2008. Iris wanted to combine her two passions–interior design and fundraising for breast cancer research–when she saw a lack of high profile interior design events in the New York City area benefitting women’s issues. Thanks to her vision, talented designers from across the country arrive every fall to transform the historic Academy Mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side into beautiful rooms highlighting a holiday or special moment in life.

holiday house iris

Me with Iris Dankner, December 2, 2014

I lost my mother when she was only 51, to breast cancer. I immediately knew I wanted to help the Holiday House mission in any way I could, even as my thoughts turned to a Christmas season long ago.

christmas snow

My mother was in the hospital, and realizing that her time was growing short, she was focused on me with a singular intensity. On one visit to her hospital room, she greeted me with excitement, and showed me a gift she had painstakingly created for me the night before. I walked to her bedside, and she handed me  a simple brown paper bag.

“Look!” she urged me. I saw the bag was empty, and for a moment I was confused. Then I saw her handwriting on the bag, up one side, and down the other. From memory, in the dark hours of the night, my mother had written down our family tree on the only paper she had. She wanted so much for me to remember who I was, and where I came from. I gazed down at the names written on the bag, marking marriages and children, year after year after year.

family tree

I found it hard to focus. There were tears in my eyes. We were members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, but that’s not what the bag was about. I understood that this was family, blood thicker than water, the people from whom I came, and the cousins, aunts, uncles, and other connections that surrounded me still.

I was an only child, and my mother knew that when she left my side, my world would be a little bit lonelier place. But she wasn’t finished.

“Over in the corner, there’s a gift for you. Bring it here,” she told me. I did as she asked, carrying a bulky package to her bedside.

Classic Christmas decorations on colorful background

“Open it!” she urged me.

I shook my head, imploring her. “No, not yet.  Let’s wait for Christmas. You’ll be home by Christmas, and I’ll open it then, under the tree.”

My father stood by my side, and added his voice to mine. “That’s a much better idea! You’ll be home, Grace, and Trudy will open it on Christmas morning.”

I felt my mother’s disappointment, but to my relief, she acquiesced with a smile.

Mom didn’t make it home for Christmas. She passed away on December 6th, with me and my father by her side. In my grief, I had forgotten the gift that waited for me under the tree. But on Christmas morning, it was there.

I slowly unwrapped it, wanting desperately to stop time, knowing I was opening the last gift I would ever receive from my mother. As I pulled away the last bit of paper, a soft, warm quilt tumbled into my lap. Made by my mother’s hands in my favorite colors, and in her final days assisted by my aunt, Elysa Knight, she had sewn a Double Wedding Band quilt to cover my bed. I smoothed my hands over the fabric, amazed at her handiwork, already feeling the comfort she had left behind, and the love that went into it.

grace's quilt

I always thought of my father’s family as my “artistic side.” My dad was an engineer and inventor, his brother a furniture designer, his sister an artist. I had somehow lost track of the artistry created by my mother and her side of the family: the crocheting, embroidery and hand sewn goods that filled our home all through my childhood. I knew then that I was doubly blessed with artists on both sides of my family. I was already working as a interior designer, and cherished the creative work that filled me with passion and my days with joy. Now I knew more clearly where my gifts came from.

I only have one regret–that I didn’t open my mother’s last gift to me in that hospital room, where she could have witnessed my delight. But perhaps it was better that way. Instead of letting her watch me unwrap the gift, I think I shared with her my hope that she would return home one more time, to spend one more Christmas with my dad and me.

firelight

Although she didn’t leave her hospital bed again, she was at home with me on Christmas Day. She had been with me every day since I was born, and on Christmas I was wrapped again in her love as surely as I was wrapped in her quilt. It was my last Christmas with my mom, and she taught me her last lesson. By making her final gift to me something that was unique, made with her own hands, she showed me more than I realized. As the years go by, I know that the last gift wasn’t only a quilt. It was how to live life, and how to fill it with light.

christmas candles

It was how to celebrate Christmas. But even more than that. It was how to celebrate Christmas with Grace.

mothers hand