Monthly Archives: January 2011


If Candlemas be fair and bright, winter has another flight

If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, winter will not come again.

The coldest part of winter lies ahead, but each day the light lasts a bit longer. Candlemas falls on February 2, midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and is a celebration of the return of llght. It is the time to get rid of the old and make way for the new.

Several winters ago when we were going to camp for the weekend it happened we would be there on Candlemas Day, a not obscure, but not commercialized holiday. It has always intrigued me, and this was the perfect time to learn more. We made crepes. Candlemas is also Pancake Day, or la Fete de la Chandeleur. Round foods, including crepes, are a Candlemas tradition, as they are symbolic of the sun, source of our lengthening days. We also made a pot of cock-a-leekie soup on the woodstove and invited all the neighbors. We ate by candlelight, perched on chair arms, and crowded on the couch. All glowed with affection, shared food, good spirits, a bit of wine, and so a tradition was begun. We have celebrated Candlemas every year since.

When Candlemas falls on a weekday, we celebrate here in Otter Creek. We could move it to the nearest weekend and continue to celebrate at camp, but Candlemas is a quarter day, and it just does not seem right to celebrate a quarter day plus two, or minus one.

This is a holiday that has mysteriously escaped Hallmark. It has so many marketable, appealing traditions: candles, food, bonfires, and plenty of superstitions and lore. It is another chance to make resolutions, to make a clean sweep of bad habits, to look forward to the coming spring. We burn our old Christmas tree and any decorative greens, light candles throughout the house, and invite people over to eat round food, and toss their own offerings into the bonfire.

Candlemas is the holiday that in America became Ground Hog Day. Before it was Candlemas, it was Imbolc. Its traditions are rooted in prehistory, and carry a strong sense of ritual and connection with our past. From Pagan to Christian to whatever Ground Hog Day is, there is underlying connection between them all. A German saying goes:

If Candlemas brings wind and snow,

Then spring will very soon show.

But if it’s clear and bright,

Then spring won’t come so right

It is not difficult to see the ground hog and his shadow in that.

But Ground Hog Day doesn’t have candles, pancakes or bonfires. Ground Hog Day, Imbolc or Candlemas? Another tough decision. Do I want the speeding ticket, or the car detailing? Here in Otter Creek, Candlemas it will be.

Many traditions associated with Candlemas and Imbolc:

community Dramatis Personae

Hughie Wright, houseman and whisker maker

Hughie Wright with Freckles (the beagle) and Missy (the Weimaraner)

in Seal Harbor, Maine courtesy Jackie Davidson

Hughie Wright was a Seal Harborite, fly fisherman, loyal husband, maker of whiskers and Edsel and Eleanor Ford’s houseman.

One does not hear the word houseman very much any more. There are caretakers and estate managers, but houseman is rarely used. Yet it was a respected profession only a generation ago. A houseman was a trusted and essential employee. Most of the families that summered in the neighboring villages of Seal Harbor and Northeast Harbor would have a houseman. Hughie Wright was one of the best.

There is no trade school or correspondence course for houseman. It was a profession frequently passed on from father to son, and always learned on the spot. Hughie was self-taught. His job was, quite simply, to ensure the family he cared for had a perfect stay. He molded his skills to the desires of his employers Edsel and Eleanor Clay Ford during their stay at their summer home, Skylands. This was not demeaning, but rather a matter of pride. It takes keen observation, real affection, and a wide range of skills to be a good houseman. The bond between Hughie and the Fords, who he referred to as his “family” was the best of a master and servant relationship. Together over fifty years, Hughie called Eleanor Mother Ford and was devoted to her, even bringing her shoes home to clean at night. The Fords in turn depended on him, and took care of him.

At Skylands, cool Maine evenings were commonly warmed with a birch fire. Birch burns with snaps and cheery crackles, looks clean and pristine, gives off a lot of heat, and is the wood of choice for open fireplaces. One of Hughie’s many responsibilities was the building of the fire. And so the whiskers.

Whether it was Hughie’s grandfather or the Ford children who coined the phrase whiskers is uncertain, but old-timers still talk about Hughie’s whiskers. They are referring to his fire-starters. Every winter he would take clear pine, a beveled jack knife and make whiskers. He would spend close to half an hour on each one, shaving eighteen-inch lengths of pine board into thin curls. He then put them in a vise and used a drawshave to smooth their spine and drilled a hole hang them for storage.

Whisker, or pine fire starter c. 1960. Hand-shaved by Hughie Wright

Hughie learned to make the whiskers from his grandfather, starting when he was five years old. By the time he was a teen, he was allowed to make the whiskers not just for the kitchen fires, but for the living room as well. When Hughie started work at the Ford home in 1926, he introduced the fire starters and they at once became a required element in laying a fire. There were nine fireplaces in the house, and it took all winter to create a supply for the following summer. When stainless steel pocketknives became the only kind readily available, Hughie had a blacksmith hand-forge a beveled edge knife for him, so he could continue to shave the thin curls of the whiskers. Wood became more difficult to find too, but Hughie sought out clear pine, as pink was not acceptable in the Ford house.

There are only a few of these whiskers left. We were given one by Jane Smith, my mother-in-law, who is not sure how she ended up with it, and there is one in the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. When Margaret, Hughie’s wife, died, she believed there may have been a few still left in the whisker closet of Skylands, now owned by Martha Stewart.

Skylands, where Hughie Wright was Houseman

Hughie lived the life he wanted, and being remembered for his whiskers would please him. They epitomize his quiet quest to make life good for his family. He was never one for glory, but was well mannered, professional and dignified. Married over forty years to Margaret, he went to work every day. A familiar sight in Seal Harbor with his long-billed hat and cigar in hand, he was a man of routine. He went home for lunch every day, and Margaret would make a large and hearty meal. Every evening he would shave a few whiskers. Every year he and Margaret went to the annual Wayback Ball, a social gathering held after the departure of all the summer folk. He fished in the spring, raised Springer Spaniels, and in the winters sometimes had a nip or two with friends. Not given to jokes, a rare example of his humor is the sign for their dog kennels, designed to emulate the signs of the wealthy cottagers. Small and discrete, it reads Dogterd Ridge.

Sign from Hughie and Margaret’s Kennel in Seal Harbor, Maine

Collecting the mail was part of Hughie’s routine, and all summer long without variation he would stop at the post office after lunch.

On one of those summer days, no different from any other, he dropped dead outside the post office. Margaret had made her fried clams, each individually dipped in batter and tenderly browned, and sent him back to work. Jackie Davidson, a family friend, says “Margaret said it was a terrible shock, but that Hughie would have hated being sick, he’d have made a terrible patient.”

The art of shaving whiskers is gone, too. Hughie tried to show others how to carve them, including directions for the hand-forged knife, but was never able to pass it on. We will keep ours in a safe place.

Thank you to Jackie Davidson, Rodney Smith, Jane Smith, and David and Muriel Billings and for sharing their recollections and photos of Hughie.

Dramatis Personae is a series of portraits of Otter Creekers, and other local characters.


Simple Pleasures: My Sister’s Washcloths

Washcloths are fairly uniform in size and shape, but their qualities beyond that are sometimes overlooked. They can provide an invigorating, sensual ten minutes of eyes-closed, skin-tingling pleasure. Or a dismal, nose-wrinkling moment when picking up a stretched and frayed cloth headed for the trash.

Call them washcloths, facecloths, or flannels, these simple woven or terry-cloth squares have a remarkable diversity. And the choicest, most sublime in texture, symmetrical and intricate in pattern, perfectly balanced between rough and soft, are the hand-crocheted washcloths from my sister. These simple white squares are the epitome of modest perfection.

The linen aisle of any department store has stacks of rainbow-hued washclothes. Some years back they were dark forest green, chocolate brown, deep navy blue, claret and white. Then spa colors reigned. Seafoam, aqua, sage green and white were the colors of choice. Now we are back to chocolate brown, but we call the same color espresso, aqua has become deep turquoise, paired with orange, and, as always, there is white. My sister has gifted me lime green, mango and ivory cloths. But it is a pure white one I select when I want to escape into my leave the world behind personal spa.

I have enjoyed mineral massages and vigorous salt rubs, been wrapped in seaweed, spread with mud, and dozed sleepily in eucalyptus-scented steam. I love the complete abandon of a spa visit. My mind is on hold, and the most effort required is to roll over. Even for that gentle hands are there to help. I will continue to indulge in these self-absorbent delightful treatments when time and budget allows. But a few minutes in a hot shower with my sister’s pure white squares are every bit as satisfying.

What a simple, wonderful pleasure. I stand under steaming hot water, a bar of homemade, not too sudsy soap in hand. It is redolent of pine or grapefruit, or something slightly astringent and not too floral, as is my preference. And I scrub. This wonderful cloth goes between toes and behind ears. It makes my skin tingle, wakes up those surface capillaries. It is invigorating and deeply relaxing at the same time. It is gentle and thorough.

In between scrubs I look at the cloth and marvel. Why does it feel so different from a store bought washcloth? It is the texture? That rough but soft cotton? That contradictory combination of invigorating and soothing? I never felt this until sister Kathy gifted me with two of her washcloths. I think one was white and one green. Color should not affect the feel, and yet it does. I stand under a pounding rain of hot water, in my shower of seafoam colored tiles, and I want the white cloth.

There are no hands to roll me over, knead and massage. I have not had to travel or lay out big bucks. I simply take a perfect white crocheted cloth and step into the shower. Simple. Pleasure. Thank you, Kathy.

Day to day

Last bites and button boxes.

The corn honey from Mexico is dark amber, with a creamy sweetness made sweeter since each spoon carries memories of a week in the Yucatan Peninsula. I pulled it from the shelf to scoop a spoon into my yogurt, but there was only one spoon left. “I’ll save it,” I said, loathe to see the last of the sweet memories used up.

Hoarding isn’t a pretty word, saving is better. It was a way of life for our family and many of our neighbors. It was also practical as well as economical. When we lost a button from our pants, we would sift through the square tin button box to find a suitable substitute. The button box made sense on many levels. It might be seven am, and stores wouldn’t be open, and who wants to take the time to drive to a store just for a button, anyway. Even if you did, you would have to buy an entire set of buttons. Chances are those buttons would not match as well as something found in the maroon and silver hinged box where we tossed our odd buttons.

We saved old clothes too worn to pass on and cut them up for cleaning rags. I recall astonishment at finding you could pay to buy a bag of rags. We saved boxes and bags and wrapping paper, which made it easy at anniversaries and birthdays to gift-wrap a present. If something needed fixing, since we also fixed rather than bought new, the necessary screw or bit of copper or right-sized cork seemed to be always at hand. It was also easily found, as everything was in a logical place and neatly organized and labeled. Nails were in jars and sorted by type and size. Fabric was folded and stacked, similar colors together, plumbing parts went here, drawer pulls and knobs in that bin. The brass hinges from an old door were at our fingertips when we needed to fix the wood box hatch. When I broke the handle on my jewelry box, a far more beautiful ceramic knob was found to replace it.

Saving was practical and economical, and it was also entertaining. When we spilled that button box onto a tray to find a new button for our pants we would find a large ivory fish button with scales carved in its sides, and a set of big, two inch wide discs of shiny bakelite set with rhinestones. Some of these buttons had stories. The tiny seed pearls were from grandma’s gloves, and the pink linen-covered buttons from one of my mother’s elegant city suits. Most, however, had lost their histories, and we would make up our own stories for them, and contemplate what dress or shirt we could possibly use them for.

When I acquired my own home, I continued to save and sort, though not as neatly as the previous generation. I have only moved once as an adult, and that makes this habit of saving something, because you never know when it will come in handy, quite easy. Perhaps a bit too easy. Somewhere in the recent years it has shifted to a compulsion to hold on, to keep that last two feet of green and orange silk ribbon, or the last of that set of homemade paste-paper note cards. Saving them, but for what? In the way I once pulled out odd buttons and enjoyed their history, real or imagined, I save odd bits to tell me tales. I see them when I open a drawer, or hunt for a nail, and seeing them causes me to reminisce. The olive jar from Spain now holds paperclips, and the carved wooden box where I keep stamps stood for many years in my grandfather’s kitchen. These objects have a new and useful function.

But saving to use is different from saving to save. My practical trait of saving has morphed into to a compulsion to hold on. Yes, that was the last of my cool neon markers from Scotland in the drawer. I used the other three with delight about six years ago, and saved the last one, because I didn’t want them gone from my life. Recently, when looking for a pen to jot a note down, to my dismay it was the only thing available. I decided just this once to use it. The ink was dry, it no longer wrote. I tossed it out, without ever having the pleasure of writing with it.

The beautiful tightly fitted white linen jacket, a gift from a long-gone friend, was only worn rarely as I did not want to stain it or ruin it. And now I cannot get it buttoned.

It was hoarding the last shot of Celtic Crossings for years, and opening the cupboard to have it fall out and smash, that has made me reassess. Would I ever have sipped the last drops of that sweet and heady liqueur? I realized the answer was no. I was saving it until it broke, or was wasted. I was no longer saving it to use at a future date.

A new year is here, and it is time for a new approach to saving.

The corn honey from Mexico is dark amber, with a creamy sweetness made sweeter since each spoon carries memories of a week in the Yucatan Peninsula. I pulled it from the shelf to scoop a spoon into my yogurt, but there was only one spoon left. I scraped it into my bowl, and paused in enjoyment over each mouthful.