A gun in the family

Sometime around 1980,when we were visiting my parents, my then-husband said that he was going to take a gun to the police for disposal. I remembered the rifles, kept in a basement cupboard. My parents had shot skeet; my brother hunted game birds, which Mom roasted and we ate even though we had to discreetly spit shot out of some bites.

But I was astonished to see W. unwrap a towel to show me a sleek leather holster. He opened its brass snap to remove a an ominous-looking pistol that suggested noir detective movies. The barrel was long and slim, the stock, carved wood.

The gun, a prized Nambu semi-automatic, had been given to Dad by a Japanese officer at the end of World War II, as a gesture of thanks for saving his vision. (One of the terms of surrender was care for Japanese officers; my father was part of a team of medics posted to Tokyo for months following VJ Day.)

He also gave Dad a Japanese flag, inscribed with his name, the date, and his wish for peace. The gun began as an instrument of war, but ended as a symbol of amity. I had seen the flag, a war souvenir I carried to show-and-tell at school, but had never known of the other, more disturbing gift.

"Where was it?" I asked W., figuring it had been buried in the attic among ratty fur stoles and crumbling scrapbooks. "In his bedside table", W. replied. "There have been some break-ins in the area, and he was scared."

W. saw how Dad's fear of an intruder made the gun seem a workable idea. W. told him that given its age and condition, the gun could misfire, and that it was far likelier to be used against him than to protect.  He offered to turn it in, sparing Dad questions about what he was doing with an unlicensed firearm.

This memory rose when I read my friend Beth Adams' post, "On Men, Guns and Fear", on her blog, The Cassandra Pages. In her searching piece, she quotes from an article that captures the characteristics of the kind of man who stockpiles guns.

Other than being white, my father fit none of the criteria, nor was he stockpiling. However, he, a life-long pacifist, kept that pistol at hand, loaded. I still wonder how he reconciled the Nambu and its purpose with his beliefs. The distance from fear to bullet is shorter than I ever imagined.

In December, 2012, when the memory of the Nambu was all but lost, Dad's great-granddaughter was born, less than a week after the Sandy Hook shooting. Her father, an elementary-school teacher, and her mother named her Grace, in memory of six-year-old Grace McDonnell, one of the children killed.

Uneven aging: Bright moments

One of my friends quotes Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who said to his audience, "People, you got to have those bright moments."

When uneven aging invades a couple's life, bright moments seem to recede, because health challenges drain all concerned. I was reminded of this when sitting in J.'s antique store. A woman of about sixty came in with a friend; they puttered about until a stack of vintage linens caught her eye.

She took over forty-five minutes to choose two hand towels for her kitchen, using a wonderful old French-Canadian word to announce her choice: "Celles-ci sont moins maganées" ("These are less destroyed".)

While paying, she told us that her husband had cancer and was presently unable to go out, and added, "So I buy myself things, to feel better—because we do not know what is going to happen."

I understood immediately, because I've seen friends do the same, whether on a grand scale (major landscaping) or small (buying the expensive oranges). Uneven aging means one person needs more support, even if temporary. Promises are often made for the life that will be resumed "when I am better", or "if the doctor gives the go-ahead".

Sometimes the less-afflicted partner knows that recovery is not possible. A neighbour cares for both her chronically-ill husband and 93-year-old father, who still lives alone in his own apartment. In past years, she was restored by an annual three-week get-away, travelling with a small group of women friends. No more, she told me last week. Her husband can't be on his own for even a full day. She takes a book to a café to read for an hour and a half.

 "Je fais mon deuil maintenant", she told me: I am doing my mourning now.

She is calm, but still exhausted. If I could wave a wand, I'd do that Oprah move: every person giving abiding care would receive bright moments, from the free—a glorious, colour-shot sunset, time to listen to a favourite podcast—to those that can be bought: real hot chocolate, a new lipstick. I'm Oprah? Everyone gets a free massage every month!

Eyebrows might be raised (typically by heirs) should big-ticket options come into the picture, but it's the couple's business. I confess I'd probably say something if the bright moment meant serious debt.  And "moment" is relevant. Rob took his infirm wife on a trip that was too ambitious. He said a week would have pleased her, or even a long weekend, but the two-week journey, with long flights, was a mistake.

As  J. wrapped the towels, I glanced at the customer's girlfriend and saw that she had tears in her eyes. I read her face: not great odds. The customer took her package, squared her shoulders and walked out to the winter-weak sunlight, her friend at her side. It may have been but a moment, but that moment carried her back into her home and the tasks at hand.

Pearls: The unconventional coin

In the windows today, coin pearls, the shape of a luminous, full moon. Unusual, not that easy to find in the finer levels, and capable of stopping traffic with their nacre extravaganza.          

Coins—round, flattish, sometimes smooth, sometimes rippled—are Chinese freshwaters implanted with a disc-shaped  rather than a round, bead-type nucleus. Though most are exactly as the name implies—some are as thicker than others. "Baroque coin" refers to coins with irregular circumferences, like this strand from Pacific Pearls:

There's a glut of dull white coins in the bead-store market; like lifeless, grayish diamonds, they share nothing but the gem name.

Look for lustre; as Pacific Pearls explain, "Coin pearls exhibit some of the hardest lustre seen in pearls, simply because a flatter area of nacre reflects light more intensely, like a mirror, rather than scattering it, like a convex or irregular shape."

Choose the coins with overtones (the noticeable play of shifting colour on the surface), from subtle soft  rose to rich bronze or metallic pink.

The surface may have bumps or wrinkles but the finest are smooth, to show off that iridescence. For a knowledgeable summary, read Pacific Pearls' article on the composition and history of coin pearls

Sometimes, one side will have excellent lustre, but not the reverse. This matters if you buy a design where both sides can be seen, so inspect the pearls closely, or if you order online, ask the vendor.

Reader Royleen owns a coin with all those qualities, and graciously permitted me to show it. Thirty years ago, her husband gave her a delicate white pearl pendant, but it was never her style, so though sentimental, it wasn't worn often. Royleen took it to Kojima Company's studio in San Rafael, CA, where she and Sarah Canizzaro played with an array of pearls. (Jealous! Someday, I'm going too.)

Below, the new pendant (not on Royleen): a huge coin set in gold, accented by her thirty-year-old round pearl and diamond. Now that's a gorgeous example!

The main thing is, you want big ones, to show off that swath of nacre. Oh stop that! I mean the pearls. Let's window-shop some lush coins.

To tune your eye, two pairs of white coin earrings from Gump's. Here is quality: overtones, smooth surfaces, perfect match—what you'd expect from a status merchant's house brand. (Prices are high, but they do have sales.)

Left: 10mm white coins set in 14k gold, price, $150. Super-wearable.
Right: 17mm white coins in 18k gold; you're wearing some luxurious real estate for your $1, 500. And they are made in pierced or clip.

My eye is drawn to colour, maybe because the season's turning, and colour shows brilliantly on the coin's surfaces.

Check this 18.6mm Kojima strand; shown, a section of its lavender and peacock hues. The pearls are dyed, which I don't mind when the colour exists in nature (not red! not teal!) and the rippled surfaces give them an organic look. The 16" strand will string up to another inch, at least, and a rectangular clasp such as a bean or s-hook will maximize length. Price, $108. Free stringing and simple clasp included in the price.

Stacked coins: a graceful mix of all-natural pink, peach, gold, lavender; 11-12 mm size (diameter). An spring bouquet of shades wear yourself, or for a special gift; they are June's birthstone. Price, $209 from Pacific Pearls.

Coins set with with stones make best-of-both world pieces; I love this style.  I've seen "I'm not a pearl type" woman have an instantaneous change of mind when she finds these.

"Inner Petal" ring stars a very large 25.4mm (one inch) pink coin. The green, pink and gold overtones on the pearl echo the deeper pink of the rubies. Rhodium plated silver band. Price, $243 at Kojima Company.

Ring of 20mm coin pearl inlaid with a 7mm rectangular peridot, on a very cool printed silver band: a one of a kind, casual piece I'd wear with everything. By Marc Gounard; price, about $US 200.

Let us pause before parting to ogle a Russell Truro diamond-inlaid coin-pearl necklace. He has made his signature diamond and pearl pieces using many varieties, but I especially like the starry twinkle of diamonds in coins. Over four carats are sprinkled here, so you'll need plenty of coins in your pocket, too: $16, 250 at Gump's.

I want to dress like Robert Mueller

Adroit readers might have noticed that last Thursday, I put up two posts, by mistake. The Passage was in disarray. Several weeks ago, a longtime client called, ignored my retired status, and asked me to work on a project.

The old skills clicked into place, but so did demands on my closet; he said that I would attend several meetings. That meant formal business attire, not business casual. I had to shop, in the middle of tight deadlines. Even under pressure, I did not want to buy something I'd never wear again.

One evening, I read Troy Patterson's New York Times piece, Robert Mueller, Style Icon, which parsed the image of the current Director of the FBI. Words used for his "uniform" (white-shirt-with-American-cut suit) included, "elegant in their reticence", "an unostentatious grace in its polish", "compromise of poise and ease", and "smart without seeming excessively smooth". My most-wanted list!

If you told me I'd draw style inspiration from the Director of the FBI—well, book me! Now, those words would serve as my shortcut for business-world re-entry.

Something died within when I thought of buying a skirt suit. A dress felt more capable of that "poise and ease". I had additional criteria: no big bucks for something I wouldn't have needed if not for this gig. I wanted sleeves at least elbow-length, and a long-enough skirt for my height.

I gave myself one hour, two max, to find something that could be delivered quickly. I was sailing straight into the Perfect Storm of Shopping Mistakes: out of one's zone, pressed for time, tired.


Left: Boden Kassidy jersey dress, shown in navy-white pattern but also comes in a red version of the print, or solid navy, and black. I could full-Mueller in a dark, but I liked the pattern. (Hey, Mr. Mueller wears a foulard tie.) I fretted about the jersey's weight: would it look flimsy in early spring, here?

Centre: I also liked the Siobhan ponté dress, probably more substantial. Biggish baroque pearl earrings, navy shoe: done. I preferred it, though, in green and pink, so much more fun—but wait, this not for a garden party. And what shoes do you wear with pink and green? I don't own them, that's for sure.

Right: Lafayette148's Tory dress would be perfect: a simple shape and elegant smocked-sleeve detail, shown. But I'd get limited wear from it, and wondered, Why make a synthetic that mimics wool crepe (one of the best fabrics ever), in dry clean only poly-acetate? I suppose g-men in their wool suits don't care, but I do. It's twice the price (on sale) than the Boden dresses and looks it.

My plan: order the Boden dresses first, then, if I had to, the Lafayette148. But the next morning, my client said that I wasn't required to attend the meetings. I dropped this investigation.

Still, the praise for Mueller's unvarying, perfectly-suited style struck home: resist the "wearable art" (which is never, ever artful), the badly-cut, the indifferently-finished.

I will testify: finding your look and sticking to it is no crime!

Polymer clay jewellery: Not just kid stuff

I got so excited about announcing the draw winner that I mistakenly published this on Tuesday. Here it is again... but I still posted twice today! Oh well, worse luck.

In the windows today, polymer-clay pieces, which in certain hands becomes very cool, and very affordable. Yes, there are a miniature ice cream cone and cute puppy earrings out there, but polyclay can rise above juvenile themes and twee miniatures.

In the hands of a talented maker, the clay or gel-like material (a form of plastic) transforms into gorgeous beads. It is fairly light, durable (given proper finishing and care), and allows effects impossible with minerals or glass.

The trick is finding adult pieces; for some reason, European designers make some of the most striking grown-up designs. (Prices shown in approximate $US, and do not include shipping and handling.)


Left: From Madrid, an exuberant one-of-a-kind necklace by Silvia Ortiz De La Torre, in Madrid; price, $120.
Centre: Grey, white and mustard bead necklace by Melbourne-based Rubybluejewels; price, $30. What a whimsical gift this would make!
Right: Turquoise, grey, black and gold barrel pendant on 25-inch cord, about $15 from Wildchild708, in New York.


Left: Stretch bracelet of carved beads; different colours available. Price, about $35 from MomentoComplimento, Almeira, Spain
Right: Wide dragonfly bangle by WildOnionArt, Omsk, Russia; price $50.


Left: Polymer clay and tassel earrings by Rubybluejewels; $18 (sold); similar here.
Right: Silkscreen-print earrings, about $15 from Couquetteriecreations, Loury, France.

Beads: Easy DIY project

Left: Beginner
You can make a simple necklace in under an hour by threading a single focal bead on a silk, linen or leather cord, making sure the bead's hole is big enough for the cord. (2mm is standard.) This carved and hand-painted 37mmx25mm focal bead from TalaruTribu, Brisbane, Australia, is $15, and makes an intriguing accent for a tee or dress.

Right: Just beyond beginner
Feeling more confident? I keep returning to admire JBDRusticOrganic, in Norwich UK, who transfers his own images onto the polyclay to make earthy and original beads. String these tube beads (price, about $12 for six beads) with a smaller bead at each end (as shown in the centre necklace above). It could be for yourself or for a gift—and expect more requests.

Polyclay pieces are are some of the best jewellery bargains out there; I don't understand why more boutiques don't carry them! But we can buy from these exceptional makers, or venture into beading, which has a way of blooming into a creative passion. Worse luck!

Learning a language: Seeking that 'second soul'

I tease Le Duc that I pay a man $35/hr to do for me what he should be doing. No, not that! But the cheeky implication is not missed by my husband.

Charlemagne said, "To have a second language is to have a second soul." My nascent second soul is being built by my tutor, Hugues. I imagine it as a pearl, forming over time, luminous, imperfect, but there.

Even though French is Le Duc's mother tongue, and he speaks it daily, he doesn't with me. I wish he would, because attaining a solid, intermediate level of fluency is important for life in Montréal, and it's also fine exercise for my brain.

The problem is, my efforts mean work for him. When I skid to a halt while my brain tries to navigate three tenses (I would have bought linguine, but I saw they were out of it— so next time I'll make sure I stock up), he loses patience, as would most mortals. Also, Le Duc is hearing-impaired, so listening to anyone is difficult; when I mangle irregular verbs, that burden increases exponentially.

Hugues speaks slowly and clearly, listens closely, and has gradually nudged me from simple declarations to more complex expression.

I have a new neighbour. Mike moved here from Pennsylvania last fall, and thought he spoke "some French". (Always a shock to those with university French learned some forty years ago to be greeted by our Quebec French.)

Mike said he wanted to take a class and learn "about 50 useful phrases". I pointed out that he could learn those, but when he uttered them, all he would hear back is "blah blah blah, non?"  Fifty phrases is for a visit, living here takes continual study, exposure, and wine. I made up the last one, but Mike seems onboard.

(If you're not in the workforce, you can live in Montréal without speaking French, especially in certain areas of the city. If you work, fluency is essential for nearly all jobs.)

For adults,  learning any new language is not an ascent up a climbing wall, but a long trek over hills. "One day" teachers have told me, "there's a 'click' in your brain". After six years, I'm still waiting for my click, but sometimes an entire French conversation enters with sunny, sparkling clarity. That's intensely rewarding, but then someone else speaks and I can barely make out a word—and both events can happen in the same day.

Next month, I'll visit another American friend, K., who spends part of the year at a language school in Quebec City, and the rest in the US, where she and her husband, both retired, live in the country. She's learning French for the love of the it, and inspires me to keep plugging. She doesn't have someone to speak to her daily, either, so hires a Skype tutor and commutes about forty miles to a regular practice group in the city. "Come on!", I tell myself, slogging thorough my devoirs, "K. has made major trade-offs to do this."

Are you learning another language? Tell us about it: what drew you to it, what does it do for you?


Winner: Kim! (Kim @ Feb. 27, 9:43 a.m.)

The winner of the perfumeniche draw for the Passage des Perles "Naturals" decant pack is Kim!
Kim, please e-mail me with a postal address so that Gwen and Kay can send your package. (My e-mail addy is under my photo at the right.)

Winner: Frances McDormand!

"We all have stories to tell and projects we need financed."
For her remarkable performance, for teaching millions of viewers the term "inclusion rider", and, when acknowledging the other nominees, for inviting Meryl Streep to stand first, in a c'mon, sister move that was at once both respectful and adroit.

Winner: You! Me!

I wish I could just keep giving goodies away! We can have the "Naturals" fragrance pack anyway, by ordering from perfumeniche, here. As they say, we're worth it.

Spring means indulging in new beauty bauble or two (and throwing out the funky old stuff.)

I get that itch as soon as the light changes, so a shout out for a New York Times article on the best drugstore makeup. I am a huge fan of drugstore products, ever since I worked with fashion editors who had a lot to say about the quality vs. price for the luxury level.

Off to buy a bunch of tulips, see you Thursday!