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Vintage Pyrex bowls.

Goodness, this was a lousy week.

Even before the tragedy in Connecticut on Friday I was overwhelmed, disheartened and in need of some peace—proper peace, the kind that soaks into the bones. The song ‘Where Are You, Christmas?’ has never been a favorite of mine, but I have to admit that lately I have been wondering the same thing. Here it was the middle of December, and I should have been happily knee-deep in the fun and joy of Christmastime. Instead, stress seemed to have formed a Plexiglas case around me, isolating me from the season I love so much, allowing me to see it but not feel it. It was as if I was watching it all on television.

By Wednesday I was stretched to maximum capacity and utterly exhausted. I crossed everything off my list for the afternoon, drove to the antique district in Red Bank and walked into the red wooden shop at Front Street and Bridge. My blood pressure went down to a simmer as soon as I opened the door of the old building, a mighty garage sale on two floors. It’s a good place to step out of yourself, out of the present, into what (at least) feels like a warmer time. The place even has a calming aroma; the mix of wood, vintage clothes, books and housewares all together in one spot is what I imagine 1958 or thereabouts smelled like.

This antiques shop relaxes me because the stuff within is not so much precious as homey. There are the odd mahogany end tables and gilded mirrors, but there are far more simple things, ones that waft good memories around me like a May wind. I love seeing the type of 1960s porcelain figurines my aunt used to display on her dresser, the ones of ladies with updos, wearing broad sweeps of black liner on their upper eyelids and real dangling earrings. I love seeing the same miniature Madame Alexander dolls I used to collect, and the kind of metal lunchbox my sister used to carry to school.

The vintage kitchen stuff soothes me most of all. The nooks and alcoves piled floor to ceiling with kitchenware are quiet places where you can step in and feel enveloped by women, long-gone, who imprinted themselves on the worn goods they left behind. Here the potato masher and wooden spoons with well-used handles, there the scratched ceramic bowl in which of hundreds of loaves of bread rose. Corningware dishes that saw countless Thursday night meatloaves, birthday-dinner chicken fricassees, heaps of peas from a carefully tended garden. Within these humble, common possessions were the spirits of generations of women who worked their whole lives to keep their families well fed and protected. I felt that spirit, decades later, and felt the safety they provided transfer to me.

Depression glasses and plates are stacked by color, and they make muted rainbows on the shadowy parts of the shelves. Utensils are in spatterware buckets and inside drawers of wooden hutches. The place is a mishmosh, granted; but there IS order, there IS a layout, and I found that comforting, too. What Holly Golightly appreciated about Tiffany, I appreciate here.

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I liked these as a kid, but my mom wouldn’t let us get them because she heard a rumor that they contained lead. Was that true?

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Jadeite vases, coffee cups and bowls.

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Rolling pins.

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Enamelware soup ladle, made to accommodate a deep stock pot.

Christmas decorations are all around the shop, too, most from 1960 and earlier. I loved peering into the cabinets full of candle choirboys, never lit so they would always stay perfect, and grinning Santas. My mom has Christmas things she loves putting on windowsills every year, and so do I. I imagined the sweet-faced angel below being someone’s mom’s favorite. And once again I felt enveloped and safe, even though it was through an image of someone I had never met, from a time before my time. It didn’t matter that it didn’t make sense on paper; it worked.

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Shiny Brite tree ornaments.

Many years ago I was at this very shop and fell in love with a tiny bottle brush Christmas tree. I came back a couple of days later to buy it and it was gone. Amazing how the loss of something that cost three dollars could have made my heart sink like it did, but it did.

On Wednesday I turned a corner and saw another bottle brush tree. At just two inches, it was tinier and even cuter than the one I lost all of those years ago. Three and change. Done.

I stayed for an hour and left the shop feeling much looser and calmer. Yes, the rest of my week got hairy from time to time, and I’m sure it will again. But I have my little bitty tree right here on my desk, and it helps to remind me of the joy and peace this season is supposed to have.

I’m not sure I believe in sweeping generalizations like great joy is all around us, if only we reach out and grab it. Would that it were. At times like this it seems even more implausible, and that’s coming from a pretty enthusiastic optimist. But I don’t think that’s how it works.

Instead, I think we should seek out any bright little glimmers of joy we can find. Those are all around us, and those we should grab. It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmastime or any other time of year. Hang on to them and let them sink into your bones. They’ll fortify you. When necessary—before it’s necessary, really—I recommend taking a day, or an afternoon, or even an hour, to play hooky from the world.

And I figured this out: Maybe stress is best diffused just by seeking out anything or anyone that can help us to feel safe. Maybe that’s where peace comes from, too.

I hope you figure out a way to find it—all year long but especially now.

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I’ve mentioned that I volunteer as a theatre stage technician, which means I wear black shoes and clothes and move set pieces on and off the stage with other techies for local productions.

Right now I’m crewing My Fair Lady, and I’m also in charge of props. That’s all of the stuff that’s handled on stage, all of the envelopes and baskets of flowers and lace fans and five-pound notes that the actors use. I collect it, organize it, work with actors on how to use it, make repairs to it, and return all of the stuff to its original position on and under two long tables at the end of each performance.

Since this is My Fair Lady, which features three teatime scenes, two chocolate-eating scenes, and numerous port-drinking scenes, I also have to provide food and drink for the actors to eat and drink every night.
A word about my philosophy. I believe people see shows because they want to be put under a spell; they want it so much that they pay to be put under it. It’s our job as live storytellers to make sure what we give them—costumes, sets, dialects, props, everything—is as accurate as possible. Any discrepancy risks breaking the spell. The audience is counting on us to carry them along with us for the entire story. It’s an act of great trust. I don’t want to betray that.
On that note, I wanted the stage teatime to be as authentic as possible. The script calls for tea, plain cake, and strawberry tarts, so I made sure the actors were drinking real tea (iced, in this case), and eating plain cake (pound) and real tarts (mini raspberry, because I couldn’t find strawberry). I also added shortbread, ubiquitous at teatime. That’s the tea service for Henry Higgins’s tea above.*
Since we’re on a pretty tight budget, at first I bought cheaper milk chocolate for the actors to eat, but anything creamy gunks up their throats. Speaking like that is bad enough; singing is worse. So I gave the rest of the milk chocolate to an appreciative fellow techie and bought bittersweet chocolate, which is dairy free. No complaints.
The ‘port’ I provide is liberally drunk by Colonel Pickering throughout the show. When something good happens, he heads for the port. When something bad happens, he heads for the port. It’s really cran-apple juice, so I told the actor who plays Pickering that if he has a urinary tract infection, we’re about to clear it right up.

On to fake food, which matters just as much to me.

Lots of actors play vendors and sell goods onstage during the opening scene, and so I asked the director at what time of year the start of the show takes place. I learned it’s in early spring. Thanks to supermarkets, which offer every kind of produce on earth every day of the year, I know most people can no longer tell when a particular food is in season, when it is actually growing in our own regions, but I can. And in Edwardian London in early spring, poor produce sellers would only have access to what they had stored last fall. That meant I couldn’t use the fake summer peppers and zucchini I found in the prop room. Call me crazy to care (and you likely will), but to me it would look ludicrous. I did find lots of fake apples, pears, garlic, onions, cabbage and potatoes**, which were perfect. Then I went to Silverton Farms, bought old bushel baskets for a buck apiece, and loaded them up with the ‘produce’ (above).

The director wanted the kid who handles the garlic and onion basket to do something with them while he was onstage, to look busy with them. So I cut lengths of twine and showed him how to make garlands, explaining that that was what people used to do, and some still do, with alliums. He didn’t have great success making garlands and the director told him to ad lib something else.

So he did. Last night I watched him from the wings, rubbing onions on the front of his shirt the way you would apples, 100% poker faced. Just about killed me. After he crossed offstage, I walked up to him.

‘Saw you buffing the onions.’

‘Uh, yeah.’

‘Do you know what would happen if you buffed actual onions on your shirt?’

‘Uh, no.’

‘The skins would peel off all over the place.’

Silence.

‘Then I guess it’s a good thing they were fake, huh?’

This I was happy to let go, because I figure if it broke the spell for the audience, at least they’d enjoy it as much as I did.

*Why didn’t I fill the sugar bowl or creamer? Because the audience will never see inside them. If we were selling the balcony, I would have filled them.

**Some potatoes are made of painted Styro and some are Poly-fil stuffed in pantyhose. Now you know how to make fake potatoes. I know you’ll sleep easier.

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