Archive for ‘Traditions’

July 6, 2016

Remembering Bill Cunningham

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My husband died on November 3, 1989. I was invited to the opening of Jenny Holzer’s landmark show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum that December, and it was my first outing. I struggled to get there from the Berkshires. I ran out of gas driving to the Albany train station. On the train, I spilled my Coke and dissolved into tears (a kind train conductor saw what happened, and replaced the Coke, but that’s another story). It was the first time I put on lipstick in six weeks.

I wore a rust-colored Issey Miyake dress as big as a pumpkin, as flat as a pancake. There were slits for my arms and head. (It was the perfect dress a decade later when I was nine months pregnant.) I could hide in the trademark pleated swath fabric, which rolled up like a diploma when it sat on my shelf. I had no idea how to clean it, so vowed not to sit down.

I walked into the rotunda and saw someone I knew: Count Giuseppe Panza. I didn’t know a lot of fancy people, but he had been kind to those of us working on MASS MoCA in the early days, and he greeted me warmly. I chatted with him and his wife Giovanna, and suddenly Bill Cunningham was swarming around us like a bee, snapping away. Assuming that he wanted to photograph the Italian Count and Countess, I left them and headed up the ramp of the rotunda. To my surprise, Bill Cunningham followed me. He photographed me as I walked (pretty self-consciously) up the ramp. It was the dress, of course. People stared. I was embarrassed and flattered. And for a moment, just a moment, I was transported from my misery, my psychic confusion, my pain.

I don’t recall exactly what happened next. I do remember that Tom Krens, totally out of character, appeared and took my hand, engulfing my fingers in his large palm as he escorted me to dinner, his tuxedoed figure towering over mine as he seated me at the head table. It was a kind gesture I appreciate to this day. It was an evening that Bill Cunningham captured, and created. I remember it 27 years later.

May 13, 2015

Little Dancer

Degas

He was already a well-known painter when he started having eye problems at age 36.  He first thought it was due to the cold weather and later the bright sunlight to which he was exposed while serving in the National Guard.  Eventually he found that working indoors was more soothing; he loved the dark environment of the theater, and his paintings of the ballet and opera became famous.

“I still have a spot of weakness and trouble in my eyes,” he wrote to a friend in Paris.  “It made me lose nearly three-weeks being unable to read or work or go out much, trembling all the time lest I should remain that.”

Within three years, he believed he was going blind.  The tell-tale grey spots of macular degeneration were appearing in the central part of his vision.  Small and cloudy at first, they gradually increased in size. Painting became difficult.  He couldn’t see the colors on his palette, and asked his models to identify them.

By the time he was 57, he could no longer read.  “Whereas you in your solitude have the joy of having your eyes…” he wrote to a friend, “Ah! Sight!  Sight! Sight!…the difficulty of seeing makes me feel numb.” He abandoned painting with oils and turned to pastels, which he found easier to work with and requiring less precision.   As his artistic options diminished, he increasingly turned to sculpture.  Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.  Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot.   Little Dancer.

Today Edgar Degas is regarded as one of the greatest artists of the 19th century, and one of the founders of Impressionism.

Degas’ courage and resourcefulness as he coped with a debilitating disease is inspiring.  But today we know so much more about how to prevent and slow the progression of eye diseases such as macular degeneration, and while there is no cure, we do know that eating certain nutrients can stave off or slow the progression of this disease that is the #1 cause of legal blindness in the United States in people over the age of 55.

Baby boomers, here’s something to ponder: in just ten years, there will be six times the number of baby boomers in the U.S. as there were in 1990.   You’ll hear a lot more about age-related macular degeneration – which has been in the media of late with news that Roseanne Barr and Judi Dench are afflicted – as it reaches what some fear might become epidemic proportions.

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” wrote 18th-century French lawyer turned epicure Brillat-Savarin.  Nutritionist Adelle Davis picked up the torch in the 1960s and ‘70s  in the U.S. with her slogan “you are what you eat,” advocating for unprocessed foods and vitamins on the road to good health.  Johanna Seddon – a coal-miner’s daughter from Pittsburgh– was encouraged at an early age by her father to take a holistic approach to nutrition and health.  He showed her an early news article concerning a Canadian doctor who was testing vitamin E as a treatment for a specific eye problem. She went on to become the first ophthalmologist with a graduate degree in epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

At the Harvard School of Public Health, colleagues gently ribbed Dr. Seddon as she researched nutritional studies of macular degeneration and cataracts.  They didn’t laugh when in 1994 she reported that specific antioxidant nutrients, along with omega-3 fatty acids, could reduce the risk of macular degeneration.   You are indeed what you eat.   And what’s good for your eyes is also good for the rest of your body – your eyes, lungs, heart, and circulatory system.  While I don’t have macular degeneration (and there’s no history of it in my family), I teamed up with Dr. Seddon to write EAT RIGHT FOR YOUR SIGHT, I was so impressed by the findings.

So, in a nutshell, what should we eat?   If nothing else, try these simple steps:

  1. Eat three colors of vegetables and fruit every day. The nutrients for your eye health come from the pigment in vegetables and fruit – the deep reds of beets, the gorgeous yellow of bell peppers, the eye-popping blue of fresh berries.  Mix it up.  In the ‘60s we served a meal of meat, starch, and vegetable; the new holy trinity is three colors of fruit and veggies – daily.
  2. As a rule of thumb, when it comes to eye health, the darker the better. Go for an orange pepper over a yellow one, kale (now there’s a superfood!) over lettuce, blueberries over cantaloupe.
  3. Get the yolk? The dark yellow marigold of an egg yolk is packed with nutrients you need.  Fresh eggs from well-fed hens produce darker yolks than the insipid yolks you’ll find in ‘factory’ eggs from grocery stores.  Go for the best, and eat them often.  Eggs are loaded with protein, vitamins, and minerals; the yolk also boasts carotenoids, including lutein and zeaxanthin – which are just fancy words for nutrients.
  4. Sometimes the sum is more than the parts, especially in food, where certain foods help you absorb nutrients more readily. Good food combos include iron and vitamin C (make a spinach salad and add orange segments), vitamin D and calcium (found in fortified milk and canned salmon), and vitamins A, D, E, and K (found when you pair an avocado with grapefruit, salad dressing with greens, or broccoli rabe with pine nuts).
  5. Look for foods with vitamin C, which fight those free radicals and are powerful antioxidants: red and green peppers, fruit, cauliflower, green cabbage.
  6. Incorporate vitamin D3 into your diet: fortified milk, mackerel, sardines, egg yolks, beef liver
  7. Omega 3 fatty acids are important to healthy development of your brain, nerves and eyes: they are found in salmon, sardines, mackerel, flaxseeds, walnuts, squash, tofu
  8. Deep-colored antioxidants charge directly to your retina: eat blueberries, grapes, pomegranates, cranberries and other dark foods

Other factors contribute to eye health as well.  Summer’s almost here – don’t forget your  UV sunshades (for yourself and your kids.)  Exercise regularly.  Don’t smoke.  Maintain a normal weight.  All these factors can help slow the progression of eye diseases such as macular degeneration.

This Memorial Day weekend, try out this tasty smoothie.  After all, we only get one pair of eyes.

Banana-Blueberry-Pomegranate Smoothie

This drink sneaks in a lot of bang for the buck—carotenoids from the kale, lutein from the blueberries, vitamin C from the pomegranate juice, and potassium from the bananas, plus fiber.

1 ripe banana

2 kale leaves, stems removed

1 cup blueberries

2 cups pomegranate juice

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and purée until smooth, about 45 to 60 seconds.
Chill briefly if desired. Serve immediately.

Serves 2

Recipe from Eat Right For Your Sight: Simple Tasty Recipes That Help Reduce the Risk of Vision Loss from Macular Degeneration by Jennifer Trainer Thompson and Dr. Johanna Seddon. Available wherever books are sold.

I'm Blogging for Eye Health, #EatRightforYourSight

May 5, 2015

Our Guardian Angel

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I always thought my mother’s mother was the closest thing I’d know to a saint.  Of course, kids have a limited perspective of adults, and there are many types of grandmothers — loving, adventurous, remote –and even the shrewdest of women can melt into a maternal dumpling when presented with a first grandchild.  But I was not alone in this opinion: everyone who knew Betty Burnett thought she was preternaturally patient, non-judgmental, and kind.

When my grandfather died from a stroke at age 73, we moved in with my grandmother.  It made sense all around: we’d just moved back East from Indianapolis, my father was starting a business, my mother was in graduate school, I was an only child in 8th grade, and my grandmother didn’t like living alone. Plus, none of us had much money.  A year later, when my aunt Natalie came down with cancer and decided to fight it the Christian Science way, my grandmother invited her to move in, too.  When one of my mother’s other sisters died, my cousin Sue moved in as well.  The household consisted of 5 women, a female dog, and my father.  He jokingly threatened to get an old male tomcat.

We cherished our grandmother.  She smelled like talcum powder, baked the best brownies, sewed our rising hemlines, and truly cared about all our victories and tribulations.  When we came home from school, she’d sit in the living room, overturned library book on her lap, legs crossed at the ankle, listening to Sue and me recount our days.  My cousin Sue, who wasn’t a touchy-feely kind of gal, would roll up her sleeve and have Grandma  run her fingers gently up and down the inside of her arm, stroking it in a way that Sue – who’d lost her mother at age 15 — found incredibly soothing.  We’d three sit in the late afternoon sun, talking, content as cats.  Grandma wore wool hounds tooth suits in the winter and cotton dresses cinched at the waist in the summer, pearls from Filene’s around her neck.   She hailed from stock that arrived from England in 1634 (her ancestor Nicholas Easton governed the Rhode Island Colony in 1672 after being banished as a rogue minister from Massachusetts Bay) but,  like many swamp Yankees, she was long on heritage and short on cash.  When she died, she left a few antiques, first edition books that you’d expect from someone who had graduated from college in 1913, and a moral compass that guided the ship of her six children, ten grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren who remain close to this day.

I still marvel that my father, grandmother, and I played Scrabble at least 3 nights a week.  My father loved her, and would joke that if he and my mother ever got divorced, they’d have to fight over custody of her.  In many ways my grandmother was the opposite of my mother, who while loving, smart, and attentive, never baked a dessert, couldn’t sew a stitch (she stapled the badges onto my Girl Scout sash), and liked to tell the story how, during World War II, after knitting socks for soldiers as part of the war effort, she was asked whose side she was on when she turned them in.

Unlike many in our family, Grandma didn’t have a nautical bone in her body.  She mistakenly referred to my father’s Herreshoff  Beverly Dinghy as his Beverly Dinghus, and he hooted with laughter when – after she overheard us discussing an upcoming sailing trip and making the tricky passage through Quick’s Hole to the Vineyard –later asked how our trip to Martha’s Hole turned out.

The only time I ever saw her perturbed –it was a subtle but angry pursing of lips – was right before her husband’s funeral.  My grandfather (an interior decorator who during the Depression resorted to selling Fuller Brushes door to door) had a business partner in his interior decorating business: Flora Porter, a coiffed older woman with brocade suits, rouged cheeks and heavy perfume.  When my grandmother said in a hushed tone that she didn’t want “that woman” at the funeral, her five daughters crowded around her like bees and shut us grandchildren out.  When years later I asked my mother – a direct straight-shooter who always answered my questions honestly – about it, she said, “Jenny, it’s just too painful for me to talk about.”

That was that.  We moved (she came with us), and just as we took care of her, she took care of us. She asked my father to take her canoeing on the Nemasket River (which he did forevermore every spring, she in the bow in her wool suit and stockings, our dog midship, he in the stern).  She was always being visited by her children and grandchildren, and, like a silent winking star, was the center of the constellation around which we spun.  With her deeds and traditions – Christmas together, summer family parties, making grape jelly in the fall – she had subtly stitched the fabric of our big multi-generational family.

When she died, I think it’s fair to say that we all thought a saint had died.  It wasn’t veneer; she had such nurturing kindness and love in her heart.  I adored my other grandmother, but she was so different – irreverent, proper, scotch & soda in hand, bracelets jingling at her wrist, travelling and making room for you when she could.  When I became a mother and tried to model Grandma Burnett’s behavior (falling short of course), I didn’t regret that I’d never see my grandmother again; rather, I considered myself lucky to have been blessed by her presence and example.

Years later, when my mother died one June after a lengthy illness from cancer, within six weeks my father was dating one of my mother’s good friends.  My mother had suggested it –my father had a frail ticker and she wanted him to be happy – and, as he said to me, at his age he had a shortened timeline.  I really liked Peg – she was kind, sensitive, and loving — but she wasn’t my mother, and both Sue and I had difficulty with the relationship at first, and we felt guilty about that, too – we could see my father was so happy, and there was absolutely nothing to dislike about Peg.  When he told me in October that he wanted to marry Peg, and asked what I thought (I so appreciated his doing so), I told him I just didn’t want him to marry in the year of mom’s death.  So he waited until January 2.

Peg is a marvelous baker.  My father would rave about her desserts, and though my brain knew my father had loved my mother, silently I’d grouse that he never raved about my mother’s cooking like that. They clearly were in love.  They kept both their houses (3 miles apart) and Sue’s daughter Lee and her young son moved into his house, continuing a bond our family has of taking care of one’s own.  I became so close to Lee that it felt as if she too were a sister- cousin.  The three of us – Lee, Sue, and I – wrapped ourselves around my father’s failing heart and Peg’s love like strands of a braid, intertwined with caring and concern.  They were the sisters I never had.  We hovered over my father as he got frailer and frailer from congestive heart failure and came to deeply appreciate how Peg took care of him, loved him, was loved by him, and kept him happy until the end.  I hated calling her my “step-mother” because the Cinderella connotation didn’t do justice to this warm, intelligent woman.  The mother of three sons, Peg joked she married my father and acquired three daughters.

Last month Sue learned she had kidney cancer.  Silently our minds zeroed in on the fact that Sue’s mother had died at age 43 of pancreatic cancer.  Two nights before Sue’s surgery, Peg, Lee, and I had dinner with her and reassured her and ourselves that she had caught it early, and the prognosis was good.  And it was.  Back in the Berkshires this week, I waited for the call, knowing that Lee and Peg were at the hospital during the 2 hours of prep, the 6 hours of surgery, the minor complications that resulted in them not seeing Sue until 9 pm.  I got the call from Lee that all was well – Sue is now cancer-free – at 10:30 pm.

In conversation, Lee told me that when Sue came out of surgery, Peg – age 90 – sat by her bedside, stroking her forehead gently, pushing the hair away from her brow.  When the heart monitor clip fell off her middle finger, Peg gently held Sue’s hand, reached over, and put it back on her middle finger. Peg’s hand lingered on Sue’s arm.  I felt so comforted by that.  I knew she’d be OK.

This morning it dawned on me that Peg is Grandma Burnett reincarnated.  We’ve been blessed with two saints in our lives. Two guardian angels.  How did we get so lucky?

April 3, 2014

Ode to Hobie

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Hobie Alter died Saturday.

Known as the Henry Ford of surfboarding, he designed the Hobie Cat, the ultra-light fiberglass catamaran that put sailing on another plane.

I first sailed one in 1969. I was just a kid, but my older cousin Lynn (who drove a powder blue Mustang and was in college) let me sail her Hobie 14. It took off like lightning on the WeWeantic River where we summered, skimming the surface like a firefly. We all cracked up on the shore when she later took it out with her dog (a black lab mutt named Bufferin) and the webbing came loose on the trampoline-style deck and she and her startled dog fell through the canvas while the boat kept sailing on.

“Leaping over a breaker in the Southern California surf,” Life magazine wrote in 1970, “this lightweight catamaran looks more like a kite on takeoff than a boat.” I didn’t realize until a few years ago that Hobie was the first name of the guy who said he wanted to make a living without wearing hard-soled shoes, and whose philosophy of designing a new boat was to take it out in screaming 30+ knot winds, see what breaks, then fix it. Unlike the more august Hinckleys, Herreshoffs, or Bertrams, the right foot of the H on his logo underscored his first name with zeal. This was a rock n’ roller at the regatta.

It turns out my father, who knew his way around boats, once met Hobie Alter. An engineer, my father moved to Southern California in the late ‘40s, where he built kayaks in his spare time. He’d take them down to Laguna Beach to launch in the surf. Those were heady days, with other guys on the beach too who loved water and woodworking and were launching surfboards they’d built in their garages. One was Hobie, who built balsa boards for his friends. But then my dad got lucky that way – he once rode the train home to Boston and sat next to a guy who told him all about the polarizing technology he was developing – it was Edwin Land, working on his first Land Camera, which became the Polaroid.

Growing up, we lived by the sea and had more boats than family members, and when I eventually moved to New York City and then western Massachusetts, I mourned my land-bound lack of boats. The gravitational pull of clanking halyards and swells of the sea are strong. Then a dozen years ago, my husband and I were walking through the Minneapolis airport – of all places – and saw this spectacle that looked like a nautical bird on display, its sail flapping at the confluence of Terminals A and B. It was a Hobie Mirage Adventure Island: part kayak, part trimaran sailboat, part paddle boat. It could be loaded on top of a car and transported anywhere.

We bought it.

My father was skeptical (it was ridiculous looking) but it sailed like the wind. We can take our Hobie wherever there is a breeze – Shaftsbury Lake in Vermont, Somes Sound in Maine, Buzzard’s Bay in Southeastern Massachusetts. Slung low in the molded cockpit, inches from the waves, you feel free and fast as you skim across the water, your leeward ama chiseling into the water while the windward one goes airborne. You surf, you sail, you sing (well, I sing), you soar – you just can’t believe your good fortune to be out on the water, so close to the water, so influenced by the wind, on such a beautiful day.

It’s a blast.

Keep sailing on, Hobie.

May 30, 2012

Sleep Away Camp

ImageI’m sending my kid away to sleep away camp this summer, and it seems a bit weird to me.

I didn’t grow up in a camp culture.  I don’t know the Keewaydin camp song, or the Grand March at Camp Lincoln.  I can’t imagine putting my kid on a bus in midtown Manhattan and waving goodbye for 8 weeks.   Growing up in Indianapolis in the ’60s, I spent one week at a day camp where we caught crawdads in the creek and sweated it out in the 100 degree heat.  I didn’t think it was terribly fun.

When I was in third grade, my parents — both Yankees who had only known Cape Cod summers — feared I might turn into a Hoosier so decided to ship me off to my aunt’s for six weeks on the Cape after school got out in June.  I vividly remember my mother taking me to the airport to say goodbye, and walking across the tarmac with her to the jet, the words Pan Am looming large and scary in the shimmering heat.  When I kissed her goodbye and my eyes welled up, she looked at me and said “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”  Those words set me free.  I boarded the plane in stride, took a seat next to a stranger in my new matching outfit from Sears, chatted with her the entire flight, enjoyed the attention of the stewardesses and the pilot (those were the days), and looked my six week adventure dead in the eye.

I spent the next five summers at my aunt’s.  It was a blast.  My cousins were 4 and 6 years older, but they’d appear when it was time to go water skiing, which we did every day that the weather was good to middling (sprinkling rain was ok) and the tide was up.  I lived in three bathing suits: the one I was wearing, one that was wet on the line, and the one that was dry on the hook on the back of the bathroom door (the cottage was too small for me to have my own bedroom; I slept on a cot on the porch (coed, of course).  At low tide we played hours of canasta with the kids next door (one stormy summer using  8 decks of cards so it would last all day), made walkie talkies out of cans and string, and got slightly bored until my cousin and I figured out adventures in the eel grass and mud flats.  Weekends were exciting — Uncle Jack was home, more cousins came, and there’d be fishing (which I did only once, because it required arising at 5:30 am and scaling my own fish), sailing, picnics, and family cookouts.  There was no TV, and on Sunday nights my aunt Peggy would break out her guitar, and we’d spend the evening singing.  Calling them ‘hootenanies,’ we sang Broadway show tunes and folk songs that are now dubbed ‘roots music.’  It was plenty indie.  They were some of the best summers of my life.

I want that feeling — a deep love of summer, the water, the outdoors, and no schedule — for my children.  But kids just don’t hang out much anymore.  Driving in my small rural town on a weekday morning in the summer, I don’t see kids (or dogs, for that matter) running across lawns or playing games in the driveway.  At the beach, you see renters on a mad dash to squeeze everything into a two-week vacation, but few kids hanging all summer at the beach with no commitments.  They race home to squash camp, theater camp, and summer enrichment.  I wonder if those hazy crazy lazy days still exist.

A friend of mine suggested Camp Dudley, an old fashioned sleep away camp, for our boys this summer.   It’s different from what I’ve known, and it took me a while to wrap my head around the idea.  But my son was game.  The camp is old fashioned – there’s no ‘theme’ and kids choose from a multitude of diversions– but they are expected to pick a few activities daily, and I’m wondering what kids do if they simply want to retreat under a tree and read for 5 hours.  Maybe they let them.  I love the ‘no electronics’ rule, but I’m also mindful that, when I calculate what this camp costs per week, it’s the equivalent of an Ivy League education for us to achieve such simplicity.  On the other hand, I’m intrigued that they have a quiet time every evening — 15 minutes or so when a cabin counselor leads the boys in each cabin in a thoughtful discussion before bed.  When I was a kid, our most meaningful discussions were whether we could talk Aunt Peggy into taking us go-karting or the Kool Kone after supper. 

Last month, driving home along route 91 through the Adirondacks from Montreal, I noticed that I was about to pass the exit to the camp.  Excitedly, in the dead of winter, I pulled off and drove two miles to Camp Dudley.  The camp director was there and greeted me warmly.  Even with snow, you could see what the place was like — fantastic rustic cabins along a lake, a big welcoming field for all sorts of activities, and an ancient ‘mess hall’ hung with banners that looked right out of a Harry Potter movie.  The boat house was buttoned up tight, but looked ready to spill out onto the lake.  I checked out the cabins and was in awe; they were clean, cozy, and cheerful, with water views and a fireplace, which the director said they gathered around each night for their talks.  (Mental note: pack sweatshirts and pants.)  Icould envision the boys talking around the fire about where they most wanted to travel, or what they would do if faced with a particularly difficult challenge.

I could imagine that maybe, just maybe, this was a place to make a friend for life.  Or at least for the summer. That was as good as life then.

It wasn’t bad, not bad at all.  Just different.

March 30, 2012

Were you fooled?

If someone tells you on Sunday that you won the lottery, beware.

In the 1500s, King Charles IX moved from a Julian to a Gregorian calendar, and New Year’s Day changed from April 1 to January 1.  Word of the new calendar spread slowly, and after several years, rural folks still hadn’t heard that they were supposed to celebrate the New Year on January 1.  They were backward rubes to the city slickers — April Fools.    My favorite trick is when Taco Bell issued a press release that it had bought the Liberty Bell and renamed it the Taco Liberty Bell.  The National Historic Park in Philadelphia got thousands of angry calls, and Taco Bell issued a second release revealing the joke, but not before the White House said the Lincoln Memorial had been auctioned off and would heretofore be known as the Ford Lincoln Mercury Memorial.

What are you doing for April Fool’s?

March 25, 2012

Traditions

Best time to plant tree, one hundred years ago.
Second best time, today.

– Chinese proverb

The search for meaning through ritual is ancient, though perhaps more important now than ever before.  Family traditions do so much more than commemorate a milestone; they can serve as guideposts along the way, helping us to shape our daily lives and foster values—indeed, they can be an oasis in an increasingly hectic and busy world.  Traditions can help us grow and flourish; they reflect and inspire the way we parent and how we honor the passage of time, achievement, and meaningful moments in our lives. In a society that is increasingly chaotic, wired, and weird, they offer a way to connect with a spiritual dimension, a way to feel the embrace of a quieter world, and a chance to teach your children well.

Traditions are comforting and predictable. They also involve a sense of history, sometimes generational, that affords a strong sense of self and one’s place in the family and the world, both morally and spiritually. They ground us. They are a way to mark passages, be it a birthday, holiday, marriage, or death. We impart them to our children, but we also partake for our own sake.  Plus, they’re fun!

What Shall I Leave My Children?

The open sky, the brown earth, the leafy tree,
The golden sand, the blue water, the stars in courses
and the awareness of this.

Birdsong, butterflies, clouds and rainbows,
Sunlight, moonlight, firelight.

A hand reaching down for a small hand,
Impromptu praise, an unexpected kiss, a straight answer.

The glow of enthusiasm, and a sense of wonder,
Long days to be merry in and nights without fear.

The memory of a good home.

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