Drawing out your self

Before we were told to color between the lines, what did our art look like? I remember kindergarten and I got the tough teacher — was it Mrs. Timmons? When I told friends that morning at Trinity School which room I was in, they sighed shaking their heads relieved they hadn’t wound up in there. She assigned what felt like piles of homework that first week while the rest of my friends with easier teachers got to play outside until bedtime. The piles amounted to scribbling a picture of our family on a sheet of paper or determining a food we liked and getting our mom to help us write down its word, but still, it was homework.

Mornings we sat at rectangular tables with rounded corners coloring, with fresh crayons and beige ruled paper in the middle. Mrs. Timmons walked around the room, peering over our shoulders and inspecting our progress. As she circled the room, she reminded us to color between the lines, a simple methodic instruction that stuck, such that I never considered there could be another way.

She reminded us to color between the lines, a simple methodic instruction that stuck.

Self-expression made me nervous. I chose Halloween costumes from Elmore’s already boxed up and figured out, or I went as a ghost (simple sheet with cut outs), a witch (black cape, pointy hat, creepy mask) or cat (drawn on whiskers, headband with ears, black leotard and pinned on tail). I could qualify as a trick or treater eligible for as much candy as the next kid, but I didn’t have to build my character from scratch, hoping people “got” my costume. Because, horror of all horrors, what if they didn’t? I wanted to sail along house to house unnoticed, filling my pumpkin pail with Three Musketeers and Milky Ways. The goal was candy, the costume the ticket. All the attention on whether I measured up could ruin the fun and was an unnecessary distraction for the evening I’d anticipated all year. Looking back, I’m fairly certain I was the only one measuring me.

Growing up, one of my good friends lived in-town near Peachtree Street, and on weekends I’d spend the night there and we’d sleep in, hanging out upstairs in her sunny bedroom. Her brothers often brought in their hamsters and we’d play with them and let them run loose, and they’d eventually wander off where no one could find them. They’d always turn up, though, and I know this only because I would ask.

Later, we’d make cookies, and if they happened to be out of chocolate chips, it would be sugar. Flour and crumbs dusted the counters and floors of their large sunny kitchen and, unlike at my house, no one seemed to notice. There was nothing wrong. Colorful art hung on the walls and leggy plants spilled over sunlit window sills. Her mom would come in and inspect our rows of cookies cooling (instead of our mess), sample one and rave, making us beam, and then move to the sunroom to open mail and read or paint. Hours later after we’d ridden bikes in the rain and gotten an ice cream at Baskin-Robbins, we’d come in soaking wet and trailing water, the kitchen mess still there, and remarkably, still producing zero stress for anyone. I learned years later that her mother was an artist, and I can still picture her in that sunroom seated before her easel and stacks of mail.

I’m fairly certain I was the only one measuring me.

Sometimes I feel like a beautiful songbird who wants to sing, but I’ve taken the liberty of taping my beak shut, eliminating my voice so no one can judge it. As a child, in the privacy of our den, I blasted my favorite albums, singing into my tall tapered candle microphone Marilyn McCoo’s Wedding Bell Blues or Barbra Streisand’s Queen Bee — and every other song on the A Star is Born soundtrack. Years later, I found the nerve to try out for a singing role in my school’s Academy Awards production, and stood weak-kneed in Westminster’s chorale room before Mr. Spence, who patiently waited at his piano for my cue. I nodded and it started, the unremarkable audition from the shy, shaky singer, nothing resembling that sparkling performer I seem to have left at home. I wanted to explain and get a redo, but I left as soon as it was over. I didn’t get the singing part, but they gave me instead the part of presenter, decked out in fancy clothes announcing nominees into a microphone, not the substantive, courageous role I was after.

Years later I wanted to try out for an acapella group with some Atlanta Botanical Garden carolers I’d seen at Christmas time. They were amazing and for me, far outshone the holiday lights. I wanted to join them then and there, and it was all I could do to not sidle up beside them, blend in and start singing, but my family had moved on to see more lights, so I hustled to catch up. Still smitten, I found them online and signed up for an audition, only to cancel when my cold morphed into a sinus infection, killing my high notes and my courage to try again.

After college, having worked a few years in admin and marketing, I was itching for more, for something creative. I applied to The Portfolio Center, an advertising school which, true to its name, required a portfolio to get in so you could then develop a real one. I savored the hours I spent creating mock ads, and much to my surprise and delight, I got in. A few months later, juggling full-time school, a full-time job and the full-time work of caring for my aging parents, I was overwhelmed and needed to drop something. I chose school before giving myself enough time to hone what I’d later realize was a budding talent. If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned this: Don’t cut out the fun stuff, the things that get you thinking, the stuff that brings you to life. You’ve got a lifetime to handle responsibilities, but it’s your job to infuse your life with life.

If money or time or circumstances were no object, what would you do? I asked my niece this question and her answer surprised me. It turns out she loves making furniture, and her boyfriend has given her tools to support this hobby, and also she’s found a course to learn more. I could hear her excitement as she came alive describing what she loves, but less so when I asked about her day job. This question can reveal telling things if you ask yourself, especially if you move in that direction at whatever pace you can muster.

Don’t cut out the fun stuff, the things that get you thinking, the stuff that brings you to life.

What if I’d kept writing ads or singing or taking more risks? What if I started now? Why have I allowed hesitation and trepidation to be my guides instead of fascination and exhilaration? I’ve taken personality and career tests to uncover what I might be naturally good at or with which careers my interests align, and the results haven’t propelled me in any one direction. A test isn’t going to fire me up, but letting my curiosity wander and refusing to let anyone, myself included, stamp it out or push me back in between those damn lines, very well might. That time my friend’s mom spent in her sunroom, quietly reading or sitting or creating art, is sacred. It’s not finding the time, it’s making the time to slow down so you can notice new paths to explore.

Why have I allowed hesitation and trepidation to be my guides instead of fascination and exhilaration?

I haven’t spent nearly enough time looking and listening and far too much of it coloring inside the lines, creating very little. I do still have a couple of clay pots I made in high school, and one of them cracked in the kiln from that day I forgot to wrap it. Other than it’s ruddy glaze, I think that mistake is what I love best. I also made a beautifully shaped coil pot, and glazed it a cream color, painting its rim a pretty blue. Later I added Sharpie chevrons around its edge, a junior high school choice I wouldn’t repeat today, but I love that 8th grade girl trying something, marker chevrons and all.

It’s not finding, it’s making the time to slow down and notice new paths to explore.

It’s not the mess, it’s the exploration. It’s not the mistake of coloring outside the lines, but trying to play with colors in the first place, and seeing what happens. Because something always happens. We can either encourage it or we can suppress it, but if we accept the rules as the Rule, we can’t expect to discover something new about ourselves, our world and even more important, what we might be capable of. If the mess distracts or derails us, we are completely missing the point. Lift the brakes, sing, dance, paint, let it out. Because that song? It’s gonna be sweet.










connection, hope, loss, Uncategorized


IMG_4356The day is done. I woke up early this morning and went outside and saw the start of a murky sunrise, a smeared light-polluted attempt at dawn. Bats circled overhead and a nearby train whistle sounded, as a few jets criss-crossed the sky. It’s September 11th  again, a day studded with sorrow and remembrances, what ifs, and what nows, a day so many shared but now wished hadn’t come at all.

Eighteen years ago and four months pregnant with my second son, I had a busy career and on this particular morning, a meeting with an important TBS creative director. The Techwood Drive office lobby was bustling as I stood waiting, staring up at multiple TV monitors. One news clip showed tall towers in Chicago – Hancock and Sears – with a breaking news ticker scrolling along the bottom. Nervous enough about this meeting I’d worked months to get, what on earth was happening in my sister’s city? With no time to learn the relevance of the story on various steel towers’ breaking points under the duress of heat, I was called in and began my spiel presenting our portfolio of logos and brochures, annual reports and point of sale. The TV was on in his office, like everywhere in the building, and I noticed him pulled into the screen as I was, both of us realizing something enormous was unfolding. There was a knock on his door and a female colleague said people were asking if they should go home. He motioned yes but said he’d be getting with her in just a minute. Horrified and now with the sound turned up, we looked at each other unable to speak, and I started to pack up when he directed me to continue. I tried for a moment, but it felt terribly wrong, clamoring for business here, now a ridiculous idea with the relentless evil that was surrounding us, taking over.

A day studded with sorrow and remembrances, what ifs, and what nows.

Petrified driving home, radio on with accounts of planes crashing and towers falling, I was concerned more still was ahead. Atlanta of course would be next on this random hit list, and I worried my route home on Dekalb Avenue was a mine field. What kind of monster was this new world that my innocent baby would soon join? No streets felt safe, but somehow, I got myself home to my toddler and husband, quickly getting inside, shutting the door behind me. The next day as if on autopilot, I drove to Sak’s to find a bathrobe, and left with something beautiful, a soft charcoal grey with a scalloped shawl collar. How bizarre and inappropriate to be shopping the day after, but I must have needed this soft wrap to envelop my baby and me, a cocoon to be safe inside. It would be years before I could part with this safety blanket, and only then when it began to noticeably fray did I finally.

Everyone remembers where they were that day as clearly if it were last week, yet I know my story isn’t unique. Our own memories combine with the reel of news broadcasts and over the years they weave a changing mix of sadness and strength and hope we carry forward. If our thoughts of this day fill us with fear and sadness, can you imagine what it’s like for the families of the thousands lost? It must be an unfathomable deeply private and personal layer to wrestle with, on a day that is forever public, the mourning of that morning we together share.

Son #1, in New York

My older son, at the time not even two, now lives in New York. I imagine the makeshift memorials, the candles, the music and memories, and wonder if he notices, his head full of school work and subway schedules and college sophomore stuff. The younger son I carried that day is himself headed to college in a year, and for them both, 9/11 is something they didn’t feel but rather grew up knowing about, from us, their parents, and even learned a little in school in APUSH class, studying the United States’ response to 9/11.

Son #2, senior proof



When we visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum years ago, I worried about how this sensitive topic would be treated and hoped there wouldn’t be any hint of commercial flavor to this ticketed experience. When we arrived, we immediately felt the striking architecture, bold yet sensitive, and found the way finding minimal and helpful. If you could somehow gather every burnt, broken and twisted artifact left behind to tell the story of this unprecedented tragedy, this museum had done just that. Every detail, display, recorded voice, everything down to the varied lighting installed on different floors created a serene silent scene, and carefully, respectfully led you through that long dark day. Our tour docent spoke in a measured voice and presented a vivid account of this monstrous attack on US soil. Afterward, I thanked her for providing such detail that made it almost seem as if she herself had been there. She paused a moment, and then softly replied, “I was.” Tears rushed into my eyes and knowingly, she put her arm around me, comforting me, the New York tourist and she, the one who’d made it out of hell. I leaned into her for a moment, full on crying now, and then left to go outside in the sun.

Edgar Woody, pictured with a bourbon (and his dry humor)

My own September 11 started ten years earlier in 1991, the day my father died, so this day holds something additional. This year, I’m realizing, marks the halfway point. I was 28 then and now at 56, I’ve lived as many years without him as I have with. It doesn’t intensify the loss or anything, but interesting for me to realize nonetheless.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s this: you’re here today, so keep going, keep building, keep learning and loving. Stay in touch with people and make plans. There’s lots still to do.

I leave you with a timeless poem published in 1844 and sounds from the memorial bell tower erected a year ago in Shanksville, PA.

Peace and love.



The Day Is Done

The day is done, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.
I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sadness comes o’er me
That my soul cannot resist:
A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.
Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.
Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of Time.
For, like strains of martial music,
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life’s endless toil and endeavour;
And to-night I long for rest.
Read from some humbler poet,
Whose songs gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start:
Who, through long days of labour,
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.
Such songs have power to quiet
The restless pulse of care,
And come like the benediction
That follows after prayer.
Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.
And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.

 -Henry Wadsworth Longfellow






Six, Two, One, SUMMER!

I’ve always loved June 21, the day you can officially call summer, and my grandmother “Gammy’s” birthday, too. Most years after school let out, we’d pile in our yellow Ford country squire wagon and head down to Vero Beach, Fla., where Gammy and Gampete (Marie and Scranton “Scrip” to their friends) lived. We usually stayed over her birthday, so it was particularly fun. Gammy was summer’s carefree spirit, reliable optimism and nourishing energy rolled into one. My mom’s parents left New England years ago for Florida, stumbling on Vero, a lovely beach town at the start of the tropics, where they’d happily stay.

Before Vero, our beach was Madison, CT. Gammy’s holding my cousin Anne and me, flanked by my mom and her twin, Uncle Pete.

Gammy was a delight. She put you in a summer mood even when it rained, which being Florida, was most afternoons. We’d play jacks on the floor and nibble brownies, two kinds, with nuts for the grownups and smooth for us. They were always cold, perfectly cut, and neatly stacked in floral tins between sheets of wax paper. Beach days we’d walk to Gammy’s swimming hole, where she would extend her hand so I could brave the patch of seaweed underfoot, and she’d steady us as our slight bodies broke the waves crashing to shore. To reach this place you had to step way down and then back up to a sandbar, which we could find surfacing at low tide. The swimming hole felt like ours alone, as the endless summer did.

Gampete, in contrast, was prone to being grumpy. He’d played a round of golf that day maybe, and I’ll bet his back hurt, or his score was lousy. Or both. In from the beach, he was the gatekeeper. You had to stop at the door, clutching the molding for support, so he could inspect the bottoms of your feet. Tar that washed up on the beach would usually end up there, and Gampete was ready with a mineral spirits soaked paper towel. The house’s beautiful white carpet once again was spared.

Today was the longest day of the year, and I noticed little bits of summer seeping in all day and yesterday too, more than I can remember even from multiple summers combined. I made some of them happen, but others just showed up, feeding off the summery vibe. How I got this concentration of summer for two days straight, and spilling into a third, I’ll never know. You don’t question a happy convergence of events like this. Yesterday in particular was summer at its finest. If you asked me what I did, I could have truthfully responded: Planted flowers with children. Ate cupcakes outside. Watered plants. Laughed.

May I present Summer in a glass: light rum, simple syrup, fresh lime juice, club soda, muddled mint and a big sprig stirrer. Shaken and strained over ice. Cheers!

Later I walked my dog and ended up in a newsy catch up with a good friend along the way. Back home, I cut mint from a pot on my deck and made mojitos, which I’d been craving for weeks. (Note: If you’re going to muddle mint, go easy or it’ll tear, and you’ll end up with wonky green bits in your teeth. And if you’re going to try and grow mint, don’t skimp on the water, as I’ve usually done. This year is my first producing a tall deep green bushy plant, and I have water to thank. That and sun of course, too.) Instead of back inside for A/C and TV, I took my glass outside to the hammock where I sat and sipped, feet grounded to the earth, and I looked up to bats circling the sky. At the edge of the yard, I noticed a few rabbits had stepped onto this idyllic summer set, nibbling clover as they tracked my position.

Ina Garten’s pesto. Superb, like everything she makes.

As the sky went dark, I went inside, and on the way cut basil from the other planter (see previous note on water which also applies to basil, or anything you want to grow strong, yourself included). In minutes I made a big batch of pesto for supper and to share, this time adding walnuts, which cut the bite of the basil and garlic with its buttery texture. I drained hot spaghetti and coated it with the pesto, and washed it down with diluted mojito remnants, tasting summer.

With the longest day on my hands the next day, I ended up driving to South Carolina to pick up my son and his friends from their week-long university science program. Three hours of open road and sparkling lakes out the window shifted my mind into neutral. Puffy child-drawn clouds floating ahead reminded me of summers past and gave the atmosphere an innocence it desperately needed, far away from disputes over air space, missiles, global warming, and Washington.

I recommend traveling to another state on the longest day of the year — you experience the day differently, and instead of feeling like a spectator, your own path stretches out and moves in time with the day’s.

Out of habit, I turned on the radio only to hear POTUS defending another one of his idiotic moves or comments, and in an instant, it was radio off, back to music and summer scenery. You can just choose to turn it off, I’ve discovered.

Tonight, our town held its annual summer solstice beach party, drawing kids carrying pails and shovels, pulling red wagons and pushing dump trucks and diggers to the square where blocked streets are piled with (literally) tons of beach sand. Every year, parents and their children flock to Decatur’s Beach Party, where couples sway under palm trees to beach music holding frozen margaritas, or play on the ground sifting sand through their fingers while their kids do the same, and move and mold sand. The best summer block party you can imagine delivers happy exhausted kids at bedtime, and offers free sandbox sand for the taking the next day.

beach party
Beach Party 2019, Decatur, Ga.

I keep wondering how I can dial up summer’s brightness to shine louder than the day’s usual sobering news, and I’ve found it’s quite simple. Turn off your tv, your radio, your negative distraction and go to your kitchen or outside and find or make a new summer memory. I know you’ve got one. Is it spitting watermelon seeds, or stubbing your toes in a neighborhood pool where some nice mom patched you up with a Band-Aid, squirting Bactine on the wound? Or catching lightning bugs in pickle jars with perforated lids, holes your parents made with their split wood handled ice pick? Or maybe walking on your gravel driveway re-callousing your feet all over again, or on a prickly lawn in bare feet to get to your neighbor’s trampoline. Do you remember the smell of earth under your fingernails as you dug for worms in your yard? Maybe you didn’t catch any fish that trip, but still, you came prepared. Did you used to loll under ceiling fans slowly turning on hot sticky Georgia nights?

It’s now the 22nd and I’m still up, not yet ready to let go of this day. I know the ones ahead are already shortening, and I still haven’t been to a pool. I did stop at a lemonade stand the other day, however, and the boy who sold me a $1 glass reported $60 for his day’s earnings! A lot has changed yet so much hasn’t. The lemonade was better than I remember, but the beads of sweat forming on his face from a day at it, were exactly what I remember from my own years ago. There’s really no excuse to not stop and drink the lemonade.

Sitting here in the AC, hints of winter are blowing across my barely tanned legs, and this house’s thick plaster walls have drowned out the bugs’ song outside. Like that tube of toothpaste you refuse to discard before reaching for another, the one you flatten and roll, and repeat flattening and rolling until you get it all out, after these last few summery days, I don’t want to waste one bit of what’s left. Summer’s a lovely cheap date, maybe one of your best.

Reliable zinnias return from last year’s seeds. They’re the best cut flowers or just leave them alone and watch how tall they get.





Three’s a Crowd

Yesterday we had a couple of visitors. The first, a woman who’s made a few trips over here before and starting to seem like a stalker. On her initial visit (or at least the first I’ve witnessed), she drove up the driveway and from her car answered my craned neck Can I help you? gaze from my deck explaining she was, “looking at the house,” adding, “I own this house.” I didn’t think I heard her correctly so I asked her again, at which point she got out, stood beside her car and said it over and over, as if still trying to convince herself. She instructed me to simply look online and I could see this obvious truth for myself. She kept asking me if I was the renter of the house (she now owned), and I stuck with the only answer I knew: “No, we own it.” I pressed her on the address she was looking for, and she flashed a stuck on smile reserved for folks who don’t seem quite right, and replied, “Thank you!” Again and again, we did this question and smiling thank you dance until she drove off, taking five or six turns to get down the drive. Bless her heart, she can’t remember where’s she’s going, what she has or hasn’t purchased, nor can she execute the simple two turn maneuver it takes to leave.

That was last weekend. Yesterday’s visit was again short but not what you’d call sweet, her zooming up the drive in her trusty Maxima, and me, iPhone weapon in hand shooting her Fulton Co. plates. Both sets of police, my town’s and the college’s across the street, are on to her. Her perseverance is impressive, and her reverse turns have improved, too. It looks like the internet was wrong this time, though, and damn if we don’t still own the place. Us and the bank, that is.

Clark2018This lady with twisted hair and mind to match stayed with me all day. She made me think of my boundaries and the house I live in, vowing to protect them more fiercely than ever. I’m home a lot as is my protective German Shepherd, and this wonderfully old historic home needs us to protect it just as we need the same from it. It may be old, but it’s strong.

So I’m rolling along last night fashioning leftovers into what I hope will be a tasty dinner. That spaghetti I dusted with parmesan and pats of butter a few days ago joined up with rotisserie chicken and broccoli, and ginger and garlic, too. A few shakes of sesame oil, rice vinegar and soy sauce christened it a stir fry, and a surprisingly damn good one at that. Sriracha gave it its kick, and we hovered over our bowls, savoring the spicy finish.

Next on the menu was a call to Google Wifi to hopefully help our spotty internet and tv connections. The nice lady on the phone was doing her best to work with the vacant space in my brain where tech savvy is supposed to reside. I bought Google Wifi extenders at Costco who proclaimed them idiot-proof: plug them in and go. Liars.

The lady is hanging in there with me, but seems I’ve now checked out, and am scanning the cluttered counters, the remains of the day, stir fry dishes, clean dishes to put away, paperwork and assorted stuff. Each item seems miles away from its respective home, and several items don’t have one. And then I saw it. Like a quick flash in your mind when you’re not sure if you’ve got a large floater orbiting your eyeball or a good-sized mouse roaming your counter. It was door number two, I’m afraid. We didn’t lock eyes; there wasn’t time. She cowered behind the stove instead while I insisted Ms. Google Wifi and I talk another time.

stoveSo twisted lady is thankfully out of the drive, but now I’ve got Mrs. Tittlemouse hanging around my kitchen. The cats and dog did a few laps in here, which I hoped was for catching her scent for the cat and mouse game scheduled for later on. I cleaned up the kitchen still eyeing the stove’s left edge. With dishwasher now running and papers ready for me at the table, I surveyed the room again, as I’d done repeatedly since our first meeting a half hour ago. She reappeared, hoping the coast was clear, and when our eyes locked, she wore an oh, shit! mouse in headlights expression, and decided behind the stove was where she’d actually meant to go. She was adorable, nothing like the rats I’ve met over the years, though thankfully not at this house.

In ten years here, I’ve only seen one other mouse, this one entering through a hole in our dining room baseboard. I went to corner it so it would exit where it came in, and we paused to look at one another. He (I have to assume it was Mr. Tittlemouse this time) stood on his tippy toes offering a Please dear God don’t hurt me! plea. His sweet face combined with my own fear, and I didn’t dare. I shuffled him along gently, like the Grinch sending Cindy Lou Hoo back to bed. We closed in that hole and never heard from him again.

The cat is exhausted and still keeping watch in his spot above the kitchen cabinets. I’m left wondering if my guests have checked out once and for all. I love company, but these two strains just aren’t my cup of tea. On with the day. Peace.









London Calling

airportThere’s nothing like the nudge of a book a flight or lose your Sky Miles standing to get out the door and across the pond for Christmas. Using miles and buying one ticket, the four of us left Christmas Eve for London. The Virgin Atlantic flight attendants greeted us in red skirt suits, with matching nails and heels, their long blonde hair tucked into big neat buns, each brandishing her own strain of English drawl and cheeky disposition.

Dinner was capped off by a doll-house sized dessert, a 200 calorie 5-bite wonder, cakelove (cakelove.com). The tiny jar, no bigger than a hotel marmalade, contained the most fabulous cake and salted caramel icing. Afterward, I drifted into a delicious sleep waking in a few hours to a British version of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” The only thing missing on our flight were those hot towels you get sometimes, the ones that wipe off the day.

cabCHRISTMAS DAY: Back on the ground, we got a cab and made our way down the dark pre-dawn Christmas streets toward the hotel. Taxis here look like a mini Rolls Royce, taller and with fancy grilles, and inside they’ve got a cushioned bench running the cab’s width and three fold-down seats opposite it for six people and their things.

The hotel was tucked away down a cobblestone motor court, a fairyland of lights and trees. The front reception counter had a wide mouthed jar of candy canes and next to it, a bowl of tangerines, simple old-fashioned Christmas treats straight out of The Little Engine That Could for good little boys and girls. I don’t think that book was referring to jet lagged surly teenagers, but nevertheless, those candy canes caught their eye and their hands went right in.

The reception told us the mini bars were free, and in ours we found two bottled still waters and a KitKat. Originating from York, UK, KitKats here tasted different, strange with less sugar and more cocoa and fat, but free chocolate, nonetheless. These bars are made by Nestle and those in the U.S. by Hersey, and each has its own distinct recipes and branding. It was a delight to return to our room each day to beds made, towels replaced and the mini bar, once again stocked with two still waters and a KitKat.

piesWe were settling into our double room when I heard a knock on the door, and a jolly bellman appeared carrying mince pies wrapped in cellophane with purple ribbon. His eyes, how they twinkled, his dimples how merry! Wait, wrong story. He wished us a merry Christmas, and then he was off, certainly a spring in his step, but I didn’t wait at the door long enough to look. Exhausted, we hunkered down for a long winter’s nap.

We woke hungry and headed out to find a snack. Red double decker buses snaked around the streets as dusk fell, and we found a pub with a table by the window. Shepherd’s pie came with sweet glazed yellow and orange carrots, and fish goujons, with chips and mushy peas, and a half lemon wrapped in white mesh, an intriguing first for Evan, the lemon and goujons.

phone booth

We left the pub and walked around passing Westminster Abbey, Big Ben (covered in scaffolding), Buckingham Palace, and Parliament, and I was surprised to find each iconic giant so close to the other, a mile walk if that. Red phone booths were everywhere, as if placed on this London set, and thatched rooftops silhouetted the grey sky. In the distance you could see the London Eye, a cobalt blue Ferris wheel at first, and closer up, a slow-moving London observatory.

Back at the hotel, we dressed for Christmas dinner. Black pants from five years ago barely fit, but determined, I zipped them up. I imagined the dining room from Hogwarts, with hurricane lamps over glowing tapers, and berries and garland framing windows. Servers dressed in tails and tall hats carrying trays of Yorkshire pudding and popovers, roasts and chestnut stuffing too, and pouring red wine into pewter goblets.

christmas dinner

Instead, the dining room was low key, light and festive with all kinds of people seated and eating, some wearing gold paper crowns, one of the party favors rolled at each placemat. The multicourse menu was sophisticated, but our picky eaters managed to (somewhat) dig into their Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. After dessert we fell back into our beds, jetlagged as we would be for days.

tablesBOXING DAY: Our room came with two buffet breakfasts so each morning two of us ordered off the menu and two got the buffet, which had everything — eggs and pastries, yogurt and cereals, and sausages and grilled meats. I’m amazed how much food these hotels prepare, and hope the leftovers end up in needy hands or at a food pantry. My omelet was perfect and garnished with a lively nest of watercress, as is most everything here. Small carafes of milk were on each table, and if you preferred half and half in your coffee, you could request double cream, and they’d bring you the heavy whipping kind.

Today was Boxing Day, a day of giving and reflection and celebration. It was noticeably quiet, and we headed out walking through St. James Park, which had a pretty lake with ducks and swans, and apartment buildings along it, and home to the fattest squirrels I’ve ever seen. I wore my new velvet fedora hoping to up my style. At the very least, my ears stayed warm.

fish n chipsWe stopped in a pub and Evan ordered the fish ‘n chips, large fillets this time, and they came with “mushy peas”, which vary in presentation: some are mushy like baby food, others al dente, cut in half and seasoned with mint, and some just regular ‘ole green peas. Back outside, I noticed a refreshing absence of lit wreaths on doors and instead, they were fashioned from pine cones and plaid ribbon or simple greens and a bow. Walking through the park, we saw the London Eye and its reflection on the lake, moving so slowly it looked perfectly still.

lemon slicesTucked into a cozy drive, our hotel was a comfortable place to return. The trees outside were decorated with gold and silver balls and luscious dried orange slices, hanging from simple wires, a nod to war time decorations when many had so little. Inside, the ornate lobby was painted white top to bottom, and overhead, crystal chandeliers with cinnamon drum shades sparkled. A table by the window held two wooden trees with real handmade white and milk chocolate ornaments.

DECEMBER 27: The next day walking toward the Tate Modern museum we noticed a sliver of blue sky, rare for London. I packed umbrellas for this trip, but over the course of the week we never once opened them. Back in Atlanta, we heard it rained every single day, not showers, but epic, monsoon soakers. Oh, the irony!

With Christmas and Boxing Day over, the streets were full of people again crossing the bridge over the river Thames and past a stout bagpipe player, who posed with passersby dropping coins in his case. The river was choppy with boat traffic and along its edges pop up shops sold bric-a-brac.

Outside the Tate’s entry was the “Ice Watch” installation, two dozen Greenland blocks of ice, detached from an ice sheet, a reminder that more ice is melting, sea levels are rising and global warming is no hoax, but sadly, all too real.

The Tate’s exhibits inside sparked interesting conversations, which infused our day with a new energy, a welcome connection for parents and their teenagers.

churchWalking along the Millennium Bridge at night we saw London bridge, which is actually Tower bridge, but everyone confuses the two. In the distance St. Paul’s cathedral loomed large and majestic, its dome lit up at night, and we went inside in time to light candles and sit down for holiday hymns. Leaving, we walked past an enormous tree outside decked with blue lights. Simply beautiful.

DECEMBER 28: We explored Westminster a little more, window shopping while Ben got a haircut, and then stopping at an Italian place for lunch, fried prosciutto and chicken salad, pizza and risotto. By 4pm dusk was falling, and we walked along Victoria Street and then toward Harrods, its blazing lights pulling us in. Harrod’s was spectacular, if not overwhelming, and after an hour or so we left for Hyde Park where we came upon Winter Wonderland, a traveling holiday amusement park. Its happy energy was contagious, and we got in line to ride the München Loopin, a loop to loop coaster. Tempted to stay longer, but most rides had long lines, so we headed out, my three blokes and I, and found ourselves another pub. Boys had really good burgers, and my baked camembert with onion marmalade and toast hit the spot.

tea potDECEMBER 29: We woke Saturday and headed to Portobello Market, Notting Hill’s outdoor version of Atlanta’s Don Scott’s market, throngs of people minus the big furniture, and with loads of silver vendors. Ben saw wonderful potatoes, and we bought a serving, rich with cream, brie, garlic, onions, chives and parsley, and pastéis de nata, too, the to-die-for Portuguese custard tart. We branched off in different directions and I stopped for some mulled wine and walked with it browsing vendors’ booths. I found a pretty teapot for 20 pounds, which I bought from a lady, also mom to an 18-year-old. We chatted about our sons and her ceramics as she carefully wrapped my new teapot.

Next up was the Victoria and Albert Museum’s fashion exhibit, which was interesting albeit brief, and directly across from it the Museum of Natural History, where we peeked into the dinosaur exhibit housed in a grand lofty space. London museums are free and easy and don’t eat up your day, as some can.

We headed to Kensington Park and the Serpentine Gallery and Arcade, an architectural exhibit that changes annually, but unfortunately had been disassembled for the season a few months earlier. We walked through Kensington Park, expansive and home to Diana’s memorial fountain. Loads of songbirds were performing as if just for us, but the fountain was quiet, turned off for the day 20 minutes earlier.

Years ago, I remember waking in the middle of the night with my mom and sister to watch Lady Diana’s wedding on TV. Her life ending so abruptly gave pause to my own and its possibilities ahead. Her sons no longer having their “mum,” I felt particularly grateful to be here with my boys. The park’s large swaths of green space, the birds’ sweet singing and the hint of sun trying to appear combined to make this place full of grace and beauty and hope, a legacy I’d think anyone moving on past this world would want to leave.

Later we took a cab to Shepherd Market, and our friendly driver had a fabulously exaggerated British accent, the only one I heard up close all week. I could have lingered longer here as it was quiet and the dark streets resembled Italian piazzas, but we left to get to a store, Selfridges, that was closing soon and which Ben wanted to see. I stayed on the main level killing time with a glass of wine at the champagne bar, and the boys shopped with Ben.

We reconnected in an hour, our energy sapped in the way only a department store can sap it, overwhelmed by aggressive shoppers with too much money to burn. On our way out, we saw a bizarre sushi bar with a rotating display, like airport luggage carousels, but substitute sushi in plastic domed containers parading out on a catwalk. I never did see someone grab one in motion; maybe they were too entranced by the spectacle to reach one in time.

rum babaDECEMBER 30: It was our final full day and the boys took the buffet breakfast vouchers since Joe and I were saving up for our high tea reservation at noon. What a treat tea was, especially the rum baba with Chantilly cream, and the small perfect scones and homemade jam and clotted cream. Afterward, we all walked by Westminster Abbey, the bagpipe player and across the bridge over the Thames for the afternoon London Eye boat tour, where a lively guide pointed out interesting bridges and buildings.

Next we walked to Trafalgar Square, and saw street performers and ended up at a great pub, The Admiralty, Ale and Pie. It had a good mix of lively people and high ceilings, delicious food and a guitar player, just the pub experience Joe had been looking for, the bee’s knees, you could say. I had rarebit and a mini steak and mushroom pie with thyme and onions – divine! – and a pint too. Kids had burgers and Joe, a pint and a Thai inspired pie, and he nibbled on boys’ food they didn’t finish. We later rode the London Eye. One revolution took 30 minutes, and being inside an enclosed car with 20 people (complete with crying child) made me a little impatient, but the expansive city views were impressive.

barBack at the hotel and in no rush to pack, Joe and I went to the bar for a drink. The Sardinian bartender was fun and chatty, and we talked about all things Italian. I charged his dead iPhone for him so he could share pics of his very much alive and adorable 1.5-year-old son, Valentino. Grateful to get a few bars on his phone, he kept refilling my prosecco. We ordered calamari, amazing, flash fried and with an Asian twist, and the boys came down later for a final fish and chips and Caesar salad. Then it was time to pack and sleep as we had to be up before 6.

NEW YEAR’S EVE: We silenced our alarms through a few snoozes but managed to get up and out, showered and packed. The car was on time waiting for us outside in the dark. We loaded our things in back, climbed in and made our way toward Heathrow, passing the queen’s house, darkened but for two silent lit Christmas trees flanking the entrance.

I will remember this Christmas week as magical and exhausting and new, and will recall the many walks exploring London together, all of us now carrying new memories. I held on to the water bottle from the mini bar and keep it filled by my bedside at night. I’m planning a high tea at my house, too, and will try my hand at Devonshire cream and scones, and maybe even a rum baba. As for those daily KitKats, those I left back in 2018. Cheers!