The comfort of the familiar

From 1963, one of the first Canadian Inuit silkscreen prints made

By Caitlin Kelly

I love novelty and new adventures, exploring places I’ve never been, meeting people for the first time. I really crave it and miss it…Covid made this much more obvious to me since it denied so much of this, and still does.

But, like many/most people, I also take tremendous comfort in the familiar, maybe much more these days — of climate grief, political vitriol, daily mayhem and violence, inflation — than ever.

I’ve now lived in the same one-bedroom apartment for more than 30 years.

I find this truly astonishing, as I changed homes/residences between August 1982 and June 1989 so many times: Toronto-Paris-Toronto-Montreal-New Hampshire-New York. It was overwhelming and exhausting, even though my Paris year was the best of my life, still.

I hate moving!

I also was lucky enough to be able to buy this apartment with my first husband, and afford to remain in it, in a place — 25 miles north of Manhattan, its towers clearly visible from our street — where rents are routinely punishingly high. Having a fixed mortgage and maintenance costs allowed me this privilege.

Our next-door neighbor on one side moved in with a shy five-year-old daughter, now a stylish, confident 15-year-old. The other neighbor, Flo, died there, and now her grand-daughter — and 4-month-old daughter — lives there. It’s been a real joy to see new lives and friends arriving.

My maternal great-grandmother’s pastel portrait…basically life-size!

I recently inherited a few items from my late mother, including the images above, and a few smaller decorative items. It’s so lovely and comforting to have that visual continuity. I’d never inherited objects before so I’d never appreciated that element of it.

I love this 177-year-old sampler that for years belonged to my late mother. I have no idea where or when she found it, but it hung in

every one of her homes. I very lightly bleached it and reframed it in acid-free paper with special glass to protect it. Now it hangs in our kitchen.

I love our street. It’s hilly and winding, with a low-level condo complex across, only one private home and lots and lots of trees. It’s normally extremely quiet — and we have terrific Hudson River views. I can’t think what better view we could acquire.

Nor has it changed one bit in all those years.

I love our town, a mix of million-dollar condo’s and projects (subsidized housing.) It’s a mix of old school townies, born and raised here, and a stampede of Brooklyn hipsters.

I like our county, stretching between the Hudson to the west and Long Island Sound to the east.

I like knowing where things are and that some of them are still there.

I like knowing the guy who owns the hardware store, the one his great-grandfather founded. And the former commercial photographer from Manhattan, who came north after 9/11, and who first opened a gourmet store, now a thriving restaurant and whose wife added a busy BBQ joint.

I like knowing the names of the waitstaff at our local diner and hearing their news.

It’s that sort of town.

I’m also lucky to have deep friendships, still, in my hometown of Toronto, so there’s always a loving welcome awaiting, even decades after I left for good. That’s comforting.

I also find it comforting to watch some of the same movies over and over, so much so I know some dialogue and theme music by heart — the Bourne movies, The Devil Wears Prada, Almost Famous, The King’s Speech, All The President’s Men, Billy Elliott, Casablanca, Spotlight and others. I also re-watch some TV series I love, now enjoying the three-season Babylon Berlin on Netflix for the third time — Season Four starts October 8 and I am super excited! And Derry Girls returns October 7.

Not to mention my older favorite music, from my 80s vinyl and my new favorite radio station, Kiki Lounge (132) on Sirius XM, with some of the most unlikely covers — like (amazing!) Dolly Parton’s version of Stairway to Heaven.

I was deeply struck — as maybe some of you were — by the death of Queen Elizabeth. As I’ve written here, I spent two weeks covering a Royal Tour of Canada and met her. To suddenly lose her after 70 years was a shock.

The familiar is comforting. Change can be tiring and disorienting (even if welcome.)

What do you cherish in your life that’s comforting in its familiarity?

Ten treasured possessions

By Caitlin Kelly

I was touched, reading a personal essay in the weekend FT by Madison Marriage (what a byline!), that her brother Charlie died at 32 of an epileptic seizure. Marriage, pregnant with her second child, found a handmade origami mobile he left for her baby…now her most treasured possession.

I’ve lived in a one bedroom apartment for decades, so accumulating piles ‘o stuff hasn’t been an option, although candor forces me to admit to a crowded garage with artwork we change up from time to time, old books and magazines and assorted stuff we keep trying to get rid of.

But I have a few things, some unlikely and of little financial value, I treasure:

Mousie

My late mother, from whom I was estranged for the last decade of her life, traveled the world alone for years and lived in New Mexico, Peru, Bath, Massachusetts, Montreal, Toronto, Mexico, British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, then Victoria, B.C., Mousie was always there…a tiny stuffed mouse missing a bit of one ear, his string tail stained with ink. When three large boxes arrived after she died, I was so happy to discover Mousie in one of them, a sweet and happy memory of her and some of our adventures.

A pewter Art Nouveau plate

This belonged to my maternal grandmother and I loved it. My mother had it and left it to me. No idea where they found it.

A very small Stieff bear

I was at boarding school at the age of eight, the youngest. This tiny and portable bear offered such comfort — tucked into the deep pocket of my beige cotton uniform shirt, sitting stop a prayer book in the pews at yet another church service.

My passport

Even though I chose to move to the U.S., I am very grateful for my Canadian citizenship and would never give it up.

My “green card”

Which is more pink, and is my proof of admittance to live and work legally in the U.S., renewed every decade.

A professional photo of me taken during a magazine shoot about kids and cooking

My mother was a national magazine editor in Canada for a while and made sure to sneak me into a few photo stories! I have very few photos of myself as a child and teen, and almost none of me in my 20s and 30s. So I love this one. It’s of me and the daughter of her then best friend — we had been ordered (!) to have a flour fight and we’re absolutely dazed with the joy of sanctioned mayhem.

My National Magazine Award

My first husband, a physician I met when we both lived in Montreal, walked out on the marriage after barely two years. It was humiliating as hell, although not a great surprise as we were unhappy and he was clearly involved with a colleague he shortly married. OUCH. There’s no sweeter revenge than retailing one’s misery for a magazine story…but winning this award, which is very competitive, was an incredible moment for me. I finally framed it and it hangs on our living room wall.

My wedding earrings from Jose

They were a total surprise, and I wear them almost every day, everywhere.

Invitation to meet Queen Elizabeth

What a day! I had spent the prior two weeks racing all over Manitoba. New Brunswick and Ontario as a member of the massive press entourage following a Royal Tour, as a staff reporter for the Globe and Mail, of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. It was by far the toughest assignment of my 20s since, really, there’s no news and little say beyond — today she opened a highway, today she attended a formal dinner. Etc. But we were all invited, at the end, aboard Britannia for drinks and ohhhhh, all the equerries.

An Inuit Polar bear print

In 1961 when this print was made, Inuit art was a very new development in the Canadian art world…and my mother would only have been 27 when she bought it, typical of her fearless and eclectic taste. It’s become one of the most famous of these, and I long admired it on her wall, decade after decade, wherever she lived. Of all her possessions, this was the one item I hoped she might bequeath to me. I adore it — and its teal color exactly (!) echoes our bedroom blind and headboard fabric.

When my profligate and wealthy maternal grandmother died she owed a massive amount of unpaid tax — to Ontario, Canada and the U.S. government, so most of her things were sold to pay those bills; one gorgeous armoire is in a Toronto museum.

So I’d never had the expectation of inheriting “heirlooms” with a deep family connection. I did inherit a massive pastel portrait of her mother, and a small bas-relief of her, which I am glad to have. My father has some lovely things, but also has four adult children and it’s a very deeply divided group — none of us ever lived together and I’ve never even met one and don’t want to.

Our own challenge is deciding who to leave our things to, as we have no children and aren’t close to younger relatives.

What are some of the items you treasure and why?

Three movies I love

By Caitlin Kelly

As followers here know, I watch a lot of movies!

I don’t watch horror or animation or kids’ stuff, but probably watch five or more a week, mostly because I dislike most network TV and have seen most of Netflix’s offerings. We live a 20 minute drive south of an excellent indie art house, so I’m there sometimes two or three times a week to see something in the theater.

I’m going to rave today about three of my favorites:

McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The English Patient and Days of Heaven.

Maybe not surprisingly, given my age, two of them are from the 1970s, a period I think produced some terrific films.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

It’s not your usual Western — filmed in Vancouver and Squamish, B.C.

The snow scenes are real.

It includes three Leonard Cohen songs, The Stranger Song, Sisters of Mercy and Winter Lady.

It took longer to edit — nine months — than to shoot.

From Wikipedia:

The film has received critical acclaim in the years since its release and earned an Oscar nomination for Christie in the Best Actress category. The film was deemed the 8th greatest Western of all time by the American Film Institute in its AFI’s 10 Top 10 list in 2008 and, in 2010, was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.

Why does it resonate for me?

Visually, it really replicates the mud and squalor of a late 19th century frontier town and its rough and tumble economy.

Julie Christie is excellent as the lead, madam Mrs. Miller, and Warren Beatty as McCabe, trying to carve his fortune from the wilderness.

The final scene, for me, is also visually and emotionally unforgettable but also feels very much of the period…the 1970s and women’s emerging consciousness and economic power.

The English Patient (1996)

I happily re-watch it whenever it appears, bewitched by its locations (Tunisia, Italy), the gorgeous music, the passionate affair between Kristin Scott-Thomas (as Katherine Clifton, a bored/married Englishwoman) and Ralph Fiennes as Count Almasy.

It won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Score, Best Cinematography, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress Juliette Binoche, who plays a French-Canadian nurse, Hana. If you’re a fan of the TV series Lost, it also stars Naveen Andrews as Kip, a Sikh soldier Hana falls in love with while nursing Almasy, the title character, burned badly in a plane crash, in an abandoned Italian monastery.

It has, for me, some of the most beautiful images ever captured on film: Almasy and Katherine flying over the desert in a biplane; their passionate affair conducted to haunting Hungarian choral music; the desert sky at night and, the best, Kip’s unlikely way to show Hana the frescoes in a nearby church — hoisting her high into the air holding a signal flare. She sways, awed and delighted. How romantic is that?!

I love its mix of love and horror, truth and deception, the unlikely connections between a Hungarian count and a Canadian nurse and a British wife and a Canadian spy, their lives thrown together in an unfamiliar time — World War II — and places.

There’s nothing about this film I don’t love.

Days of Heaven (1978)

Every frame of this film is a painting, thanks to astonishing cinematography by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler and their unusual use of low light, natural light, firelight. Almendros, speaking to a a trade magazine about his craft, said he had to unlight every scene when arriving on location to shoot, since his Hollywood-trained crew assumed he wanted a lot more light than he did.

The music is by two of my favorites — legendary film composer Ennico Morricone and guitarist Leo Kottke.

It barely made money beyond its $3 million budget.

Yet, from Wikipedia:

Days of Heaven has since become one of the most acclaimed films of its decade,[11] particularly for its cinematography. In 2007, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.[12][13] It continues to appear in polls of the best films ever made, and appeared at #49 on a BBC poll of the greatest American films.[14]

It stars a young and ggggggorgeous Richard Gere as a worker fleeing a murder he committed in Chicago who flees with his partner, Abby, played by Brooke Adams, and his younger sister, to the plains of Texas (shot in Alberta.)

They arrive to work as farmhands for a wealthy owner, played by Sam Shephard, whose health is failing — they plan to grift him by having Abby marry and survive him.

Plot twist!

Have you seen any of these?

Did you enjoy them?

The power of edited style

By Caitlin Kelly

I loved this, a quote from the late Andre Leon Talley, a somewhat mythic figure in American fashion circles, who recently died at 73:

I grew up in a stylish family — a mother who sported silk saris in the 60s, with a glossy black mink, a father in the most elegant of shirts and shoes and a step-mother whose costly clothing filled multiple garment racks, most often described as “chic.”

So I’m deeply fond of style — but, working in an industry that doesn’t pay a fortune, acquiring it frugally.

The quote above really resonates with me.

This year, I needed a pretty winter hat, blue. Good luck! The choice was beanies, beanies and more beanies (a simple knit cap Canadians call a tuque). I despaired of finding one that was flattering and affordable. I found one this week, on sale in Greenwich, CT, and paid a fortune — because it’s cashmere, two-tone blue and exactly what I wanted. Sometimes frugal is over-rated.

At this point in my life, time really is money. I don’t enjoy wasting hours and hours shopping, whether on-line or in-store; once I find what I want, I’m doing it!

I really appreciate the discipline that editing always imposes — it may not look like it, but by the time you read any of my blog posts here, I’ve revised them many many times!

The writing is easy.

The editing makes it readable.

Scored this terrific tribal rug at Doyle auctions for $850 (including buyer’s premium and tax.)

I’ve lived in the same one-bedroom apartment (!) since 1989 in a rivertown on the Hudson, with easy access to Manhattan, gorgeous views and sunsets, and in a charming historic town. Our street is hilly, quiet, winding and completely residential, our housing costs, for this area, manageable. Moving never seemed appealing.

But sharing 1,000 square feet with my husband — and we both work at home — means very carefully editing anything we choose to bring into our home, what we keep and what we discard. (And yes, we have multiple external storage spaces, including a garage!)

We have a gallery wall of art and rotate other pieces in the bedroom and hallway and sitting room, whether our own photos, our photo collection, posters, prints.

We’re both very thoughtful about what we look at, including furniture, rugs, lighting. Less is more, and better quality always the best option — I’ve found many great things at antique shows, auctions and flea markets, i.e. for not a huge amount of money.

Our gallery wall — different art now and now the wall is pale gray (Skimming Stone, Farrow & Ball)

I do the same with my wardrobe and accessories. I find life simpler and more efficient to own only things I really love and enjoy using and wearing.

I lived in Paris at 25 and have been back many times. Classic French style — buying fewer/better quality pieces — is very much my own as well; I have a pair of monk-strap shoes I bought in 1996 that still look new (hello, cobblers! tailors! dry cleaners!)

I prefer neutrals: black, cream, navy, brown, gray, green. I own almost no prints or patterns beyond those on a scarf or maybe a sweater. This allows me to buy and keep clothing for a long time that still looks great with the addition of that season’s colors or accessories without spending a fortune or shouldering the guilt of consuming “fast fashion”, a huge burden on the environment, both in its production and destruction.

Even though I live in NY — with every store imaginable! — my go-to brands are still often Canadian, Aritizia, and Ca Va de Soi (lightweight sweaters.) Canadians typically earn smaller salaries than Americans with similar jobs, and and pay fairly high taxes — which makes frugality and selectivity, of everything we purchase, a smart choice.

I’ve also bought and worn quite a bit of vintage clothing, now more than a decade enjoying a triple-ply cashmere cardigan found in a consignment shop in…Greenwich, CT. It’s a massively wealthy town about a 20 minute drive east of us, whose designer “cast-offs” are of astounding quality as a result. I have no shame or embarrassment buying and enjoying what other women have worn and enjoyed, as long as it’s in excellent condition — and I often re-sell it later myself.

One reason I’ve always been wary of owning a house is the overwhelming potential cost of furnishing it, at least to my standards! All those windows and walls and beds and linens. Whew!

I’m not a Marie Kondo person or Swedish Death cleaner. I just hate mess and clutter and excess.

Living smaller/better/heavily edited works for me.

How about you?

The Dior show at the Brooklyn Museum. Swoon!

By Caitlin Kelly

This is really one of the best museum shows you will ever see anywhere — even if you’re not a fashionista.

Christian Dior, the French fashion designer who died so young at 52, and who was quickly succeeded by 21-year-old (!) Yves St. Laurent, left an indelible mark on fashion and fragrance.

I love the contrast here between the simple rope and layers of crisp tulle!

This show, which ends February 22, is a massive, gorgeous, mesmerizing tribute to Dior and all the in-house designers who followed him — Marc Bohan, Raf Simons, Maria Grazia Chiuri and John Galliano. Each brought a specific vision to their work, from the clean-cut elegance of Bohan to the riotous OMG-ness of Galliano.

1949, silk taffeta

The show begins with Dior’s earliest work, sober-suited dresses and coats from the 1940s, as Europe was emerging from the misery of WWII — and a fantastic tomato-red coat with deep patch pockets and a cravat-type collar is a hit of joy.

One of the many terrific elements of this show is how well it also explains and unveils some invisible design processes — like the creation, for every garment, of an initial muslin prototype, which is refined until it’s time to use and cut expensive fabrics. (If you’ve never watched the film Phantom Thread, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a fashion British designer, it’s a great primer.)

A wall of paper sketches, each with a tiny swatch of fabric pinned to each design, helps us see how designers plotted out an entire season, as do the “inspiration books”, (which reminded me of “The Book” taken home every evening by Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada.)

There’s a wall of magazine covers, vintage and contemporary, showing how the house of Dior has stayed fresh and relevant decades later.

I’m obsessed with textiles and fabric (no idea why!) so seeing the spectacular fabrics used here — in addition to the final design — was a great joy for me, like this, by Fortuny.

I loved the gallery of photos, black and white and color, of models and celebrities wearing Dior. If you know and love Richard Avedon’s classic 1955 image, Dovima with Elephants, the dress she wore is here!

The museum’s central atrium is astounding, with dresses somehow stacked all the way to the ceiling and a dazzling light show and music, leaving you happily awestruck by so much elegance. The curators also showcase a few gowns in glass cases you can literally sit beside, soaking up every detail, like a gown with embroidered tarot cards.

A detail of a French Revolution inspired gown by John Galliano
Oh, no big deal — just a skull and snake of gold lace guipure.

There are dozens of mannequins to admire and benches to sit on for a bit to just savor it in comfort.

As you finally leave, a bit drunk on beauty, there’s a room full of the dresses worn by current celebrities at the Oscars or Golden Globes or at Cannes. I’m not really a celebrity follower but I do love fashion, so it was actually a thrill to see the exquisite pale pink gown, a sort of damask with roses, worn by Jennifer Lawrence when she won her Oscar — I remember her working hard to gracefully scoop up the enormous train to climb those steps to the stage.

And — oooooh! — Absinthe, the stunning chartreuse satin cheongsam with fur trim worn by Nicole Kidman.

Why read a grim book?

By Caitlin Kelly

There are happy books and there are books you think…really?

I’m expected to get through the whole thing?

There are books, whether novels or non-fiction, about alcoholism, drug use, family abuse, that can feel like a real slog. The subject is undeniably depressing, frightening, even terrifying and most of its characters are people you would never want to meet.

I admit, I didn’t enjoy reading a huge 2018 best-seller, Educated, by Tara Westover, about the terrible family she grew up with, eventually escaping to a better life. I was (however unfairly) impatient with her for staying so long in an environment that was so awful. An earlier best-seller, also by a white woman, Jeanette Wells, was 2005’s The Glass Castle. But I did enjoy a Canadian book like this, North of Normal.

One of the best books I read last year was also emotionally difficult, In The Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado, a memoir of lesbian domestic abuse. Now that sounds appealing! But her writing is extraordinary and it’s a great book.

I recently read the 2020 Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain. As I described it to a friend, a fellow journalist, she said she just couldn’t do it. I found that interesting as journalism, with our decades of exposure to some very tough stories, tends to harden us somewhat.

I did enjoy it, but it’s rough — a young boy, Shuggie, living in Glasgow poverty with an older brother and sister and a severely alcoholic mother, abandoned by his father.

I also found elements of it painful and hard to read because my mother was also an alcoholic, and the novel is filled with his hopeless hope that someday, someday, she won’t be — a fantasy painfully familiar to any child of an alcoholic.

The author, Douglas Stuart, survived a very similar childhood, so his ability to turn such grim fare into a compelling novel is impressive. And his background isn’t the standard trajectory of writing classes, workshops and an MFA — he worked in fashion design for decades and was writing it while working as the senior director of design for Banana Republic.

From Wikipedia:

In a conversation with 2019 Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo on 23 November, livestreamed as a Southbank Centre event, Stuart said: “One of my biggest regrets I think is that growing up so poor I almost had to elevate myself to the middle class to turn around to tell a working-class story.”[22] Discussing the “middle-class” publishers’ rejections he had received for Shuggie Bain, he told Evaristo: “Everyone was writing these really gorgeous letters. They were saying ‘Oh my god this will win all of the awards and it’s such an amazing book and I have never read anything like that, but I have no idea how to market it’.”[22] Stuart said in a 2021 conversation with the Duchess of Cornwall that winning the Booker Prize transformed his life.[36]

But I also liked a very tough book, Triomf, from 1994, by Marlene van Niekirk, the most celebrated Afrikaans author of South Africa. It’s dark as hell; the family she features even includes incest.

What, then, is the appeal of such books?

For some, voyeurism….thank God it’s not me!

For some, curiosity, having never experienced poverty and/or alcoholism, or life in a cult in the woods.

I hope, for some, as a way to develop or deepen empathy for people whose lives are wholly different from their own, as — in non-fiction — the storytellers have clearly been able to survive and thrive despite a really difficult earlier life. It becomes a narrative of resilience, not despair.

I admit, I cried hard at the end of Shuggie Bain, as it brought up a lot of unexpressed and painful memories of my own experiences of being “parentified”, always worrying about my mother’s health and safety instead of my own, (even though we were not, thank God, poor), and tied to a woman who was unable or unwilling to create a larger social safety net for herself. So reading a similar book can be painful but also cathartic — someone else really gets it. And, God forbid, someone else had it much worse.

Do you ever read books like this?

Which ones?

How have they left you?

NOTE: I refuse to use Amazon for any purchases, (I loathe its labor policies), so links to these books will not connect to their site.

A family reunion, of sorts

My maternal great grandmother, Blanche Gresham, 1924

By Caitlin Kelly

For years, my late mother and I were estranged. When we were in touch, even as her only child, she almost never discussed her childhood or adolescence before, at 17, she met my Canadian father in the south of France, then left her native New York City to move to his hometown, Vancouver, where I was born six years later.

Both parents grew up wealthy — in large houses with servants, attending prep school (my mother), owning a horse and a sailboat (father). But neither childhood was necessarily calm and happy.

So their histories have remained mostly a mystery to me.

My mother died April 15, 2020 and a very large, heavy packing crate arrived a year later from her final home, a nursing home in Victoria, B.C.

For a variety of reasons — partly fear the works inside would be very damaged (they weren’t), ambivalence about owning the final items of hers and knowing we have no one in our family to leave these things to — I didn’t open it for nine months.

It took a lot of hard work to get it open — thank you Jose!!

This week, finally, we did, and my husband Jose attacked it with a hammer and crowbar and a lot of determination!

Amazingly, the four things inside were in excellent shape; only a few bits of one frame had chipped off and the glass was wholly intact on everything (having been taped.)

There were two family portraits and a gorgeous Inuit print of a polar bear from 1961 I had long admired. And a sampler, from 1845.

This is one of the earliest Inuit prints, by Lucy, 1961; ignore my unbrushed hair!

So now my maternal great-grandmother — Blanche Gresham — later the Countess Casagrande of Park Avenue — has come almost full circle, some 3,011 miles.

I only met her once, as a very old, very infirm lady in that apartment. My mother adored her. I adored my grandmother — while we both had very difficult times with our own mothers. Go figure!

These women led quite extraordinary lives, cocooned by enormous wealth, but with marital mayhem — my grandmother married six times, four in a decade. I never met any of them, long gone by the time I met her.

I think (?) the smaller image is her with my grandmother Aline, and her sister Lois

I am very curious about these women and their lives; the money came from my great grandfather, Louis Stumer, a Chicago stockbroker and developer of a gorgeous skyscraper in 1912, The North American Building, on State Street in Chicago, (since torn down):

Developers Stumer, Rosenthal and Eckstein hired one of Chicago’s busiest, and best, tall building architectural firms Holabird & Roche for the project. William Holabird and Martin Roche, along with a team of talented designers and engineers, had developed a commercial building system that was not only pleasing to the eye, but more importantly for an investor could be built quickly, efficiently, and ready for rent-paying tenants on schedule. They were instrumental in helping make what came to be known as the Chicago School world famous.

One reason I chose to move to the U.S. was my fascination with this family and their lives. One relative became an ambassador, one an archeologist, one (!) a bullfighter. My cousins had lives that included piloting their own Cessna and running a rug business from Morocco. They were all intimidatingly confident — and so much larger than life than most of the quiet, polite Canadians I grew up around.

It’s quite comforting to finally have these women in our home now.

32 terrific holiday gifts — 2021 edition!

By Caitlin Kelly

This is my favorite blog post every year — and I hope you enjoy it!

Everything on the list is a gift I think might delight the right person and I’ve worked hard to offer a wide range of prices, styles and vendors — $12 to $637.

(You won’t find — sorry! — gifts for kids, pets or tech.)

I get not one dime for this! So no one has influenced these choices and I get only the pleasure of seeing, every year, which picks you find most appealing.

I’m always most moved by gifts that clearly show the giver has thought carefully about my specific tastes and preferences — generic stuff can feel depressing, even if you think “Well, I got them something!” (I speak from experience here.)

So if you have absolutely no idea what someone would really enjoy, ask their partner or sister or spouse!

Or them.

Anything is better than the banal go-to’s of scented candles and journals, even a gift card to their favorite store or service.

A gift to a charity they admire is also a great option.

Enjoy!

I love this pretty Indian print cotton small wallet, from Simrane, one of my favorite sources for printed Indian goods — also tablecloths, napkins, clothing, bedspreads, wash-bags and more. 30 euros, $34.00

If your gift recipient, like me, spends a lot of time at the gym, they need and really value lots of comfortable bike shorts. I live in these — and very few places offer a more modest 9-inch leg! From my go-to Vancouver-based brand. Aritizia, they also come in 3, 5 and 7-inch — and a delicious array of 13 colors, like this pale lavender. $38

I love having lots of little bowls — for food prep, for butter or jam or mustard, or to hold earrings or rings. These four, ceramic in shades of blue, are $24

How boring is a Henley T-shirt? Not in all these gorgeous colors and with J. Crew quality. I think Henleys are sexy, and I bought several of these last Xmas for my husband. $45

I have a cephalopod obsession I share with a dear pal, so anything with an octopus on it gets our attention. I love these navy blue and white dishtowels, practical, but fun and stylish! $25 for two

Everyone can use a gorgeous platter, for holiday gatherings or our favorite no-cook dinner in the summer — a platter meal of meat, cheese, veggies, hummus, olives. This one, with a lovely blue floral rim, is from a new company, Caskata, with a lot of stylish offerings. $95

I wear jewelry and I travel….I bet you know someone who does as well! Having a nice small jewelry box to tuck into your purse or backpack is a simple and reliable luxury. This one comes in yellow, white or black leather. $115

If I were a very rich lady, I would buy everything from Hermes! Huge fan of their bags and scarves and their delicious fragrances…so I liked this small cord bracelet a lot; in red/orange or dark blue/black or soft pink leather, with an elegant gold-colored knot clasp. Could work for a man or woman. $300

Few daily luxuries are as affordable and pretty and unisex (and a nice gift for people of almost all ages) as a very good soap, like this set from classic American maker Caswell-Massey, $29. Or these, in rose geranium scent, from Floris London, three for $45. I dream of one day visiting the legendary Italian hotel Le Sirenuse, but in the meantime can enjoy their fabulous soaps with their signature scent, three for $55

Let’s just go for comfy and cosy and be done with it! Love these waffle sweatshirts in 11 colors, from one of my go-to brands. Aerie. $32.97

If you have never seen Inuit art (pronounced In-weet, meaning The People in Inuktitut), it’s really special stuff. I was fortunate enough, growing up in Canada, to have Inuit prints and sculptures in our home, and love them. This calendar would make a great introduction to their colorful and very distinctive prints — and a nice and practical gift for any Canadians in your life! $19.95

I love love love this carved stone owl — by a young Inuk, its beauty typical of their carvings’ simplicity and power. $350

OK, so this is kitschy — but also it’s chocolate! A basket of every possible NYC icon (yes, even the Empire State Building) made by Manhattan’s oldest chocolate company, Li-Lac chocolates. $160

We have two of these throw pillows on our sofa and I love them….this gorgeous Swedish store, Svensk Tenn, has a lot of great stuff. It may be the only retailer whose profits also support medical research. $200

How can you resist a small tray with elephants? In green, red, pale pink, black or yellow — also from Svensk Tenn. $44

Travel these days is…not much fun! A soft, stylish, warm cashmere wrap in 10 colors is a great way to cover up on chilly flights or add a hit of color to anything you wear. From Garnet Hill, $189

Do you know someone who’s highly creative — or longs to be(come) more so? This book might be a good fit. $49.95. But also my favorite, a classic by American choreographer Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit; I find it smart and inspirational, written by a tough and talented New York woman still working at 80. $20

I know, this idea is….unusual. But so gorgeous! It’s from one of my favorite vendors anywhere, selling extraordinary wallpaper and fabric, based in England — and this wall mural is amazing. You could build the most extraordinary room around it. $637

From one of my favorite jewelers, Meeka, in Pennsylvania, pierced earrings, small round amethysts in silver, $165. And these, oval white topaz — I really like the prong setting. $560. And this brushed silver ring, with one teeny black diamond, is minimal, cool and low-key, $290

Take a very close look — at binoculars! This page has 30 pair, $109 to $3299 a pair. I got a small, light good pair for my first wedding as a gift and love having them, from using them at the ballet to looking at architectural details while traveling. Not an obvious gift, perhaps, but one anyone can appreciate at any age.

I do love great tableware — and this pensive blue bunny side plate fits the bill. From a fantastic site full of great things, Wolf and Badger, $39

Definitely not for everyone, or budget, but this studded white leather, multi-level jewelry box is spectacular, $605

For the yoga enthusiast, an elegant cream and back travel yoga mat inscribed with symbols. $104

I live in scarves: wool, silk, cashmere, cotton. I love how they accessorize (and add warmth and style.) Love this bold black and cream graphic print one, in cashmere, (the site offers 29 pages of alternatives!) $178

Oh yeah! For the playful power broker in your life who rocks French cuffs, these sterling silver cufflinks — POW! and BAM! $321

And…yes, a shameless plug for my coaching! I’ve been helping other writers of non-fiction and journalism, worldwide, strengthen their skills, whether book or story idea, sharpening pitches, editing essays or long-form pieces. The hour is theirs to use in any way that’s most helpful. Booking now for December 1-20 and into 2022. $250.

This bronze octopus is spectacular as an art object in its own right — but can also hold and display a phone or tablet. $96.75

Who couldn’t enjoy this tiny cast iron bunny on their desk or shelf? Nice stocking stuffer! $12

For the person in your life who sews…a small bird whose cushion holds needles and pins. $34.60

I so love the old-school wit and elegance of British brand, Smythson, makers of gorgeous thick stationery and lovely leather goods and playing cards and this fab bright leather red little notebook, embossed on its cover in gold: “Make It Happen.” (also in pale blue and deep blue) $74.95

I bet you know a LOT of people for whom this would be a lovely gift — a leather notebook, its pages edged in gold, embossed in gold on the cover, in navy, red, black or pale blue, also from Smythson. It says “Super Hero.” $255

And, in an era of all digital, I still love being able to write a more personal physical note — in pen, on good heavy card stock — and slip it into a tissue-lined envelope. Smythson’s navy initial cards are $27 for 10, both simple and stylish. (That page offers all sorts of other styles as well, from a bee to an elephant.) Add a terrific fountain pen, like this one, which I love and use, the German-made Lamy Safari, in orange or green and three widths of nib. $25.99

Vacation! 5 Days in DC, 3 at the shore

By Caitlin Kelly

Our first long break since March 2021, which was five days upstate.

We drove south from NY, about 4.5 hours, and treated ourselves to a stay at The Willard, which opened in 1818 — the place where Martin Luther King wrote his “I have a dream” speech and where Julia Ward Howe wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Name anyone powerful in politics here and they’ve stayed or visited — the White House is a few blocks further down Pennsylvania Avenue.

It is classic old-school elegance, and our room was large and quiet.

We arrived in time for Sunday afternoon tea. What a treat! Every table was filled with people, mostly women, dressed up in their best — one table full of women wearing THE BEST HATS.

We are terrible tourists! I am never one to rush around filling my days with seeing all the official sights.

The first day I visited a favorite shop, Goodwood, in business since 1994, an eclectic mix of clothing, accessories, lighting and furniture. A block away is a fun restaurant, Ted’s Bulletin, (the 14th Street location) where I sat at the counter for lunch — repeating both times a pleasure I discovered on my last solo visit there, in March 2020, just as COVID started destroying such simple amusements as travel and eating out.

I was advised to visit the Phillips Collection and whew! It’s now one of my favorite museums anywhere, a collection of art from Renoir and Degas and van Gogh to Rothko, Diebenkorn, Klee, Kandinsky — all set within a huge old mansion. Its courtyard is also very beautiful. The staff are really welcoming and the gift store excellent. I loved the current exhibition of work by Black artist David Driskell, whose work I had never seen.

We had a long great lunch at Le Diplomate with our dear friend and ex NYT photographer Steven Crowley.

We returned — for Jose’s birthday — to one of his old haunts, the jazz club Blues Alley, for the second show. Jose lived in D.C. for eight years as a New York Times photographer, having realized his dream of becoming a member of the White House Press Corps, covering Reagan, Bush and Clinton.

Another day, Jose got his NYT staff pal Doug Mills — too busy to meet for coffee since he covers The President and all his doings — outside the White House for a quick hello. He gave us these M and Ms candies, fresh from Air Force One.

I spent a day antiquing with a very dear friend, one of our rituals, and found a homespun coverlet in pristine condition. It was such a perfect mix of new sights and discoveries, renewing some of our oldest and deepest friendships, enjoying a luxurious hotel. The weather was perfect every day, a bit cool in the evenings and sunny and (not D.C. humid) in the daytime.

We loved our meal at Jaleo, a tapas restaurant.

I was sorry not to have seen more art, as we had planned, but it was just so good to finally see our friends — Jose also caught up with another former NYT colleague.

We then drove 90 minutes east to coastal Maryland and are in Easton for three days, off to a Maritime Museum tomorrow.

It has been a wonderful and badly needed break.

We’re ready to head home and dive back into work, refreshed,

The fall zhuzh!

The summer bed coverlet

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s that time again, kids!

Our summer was terrible — the 2nd wettest July on record for New York and if it wasn’t raining, it was horribly hot and humid. Really not a good time.

So we are savoring fall, our favorite season — lots of bright sunshine, cooler temperatures, a chance to finally stop using air conditioners and fans.

Because we also live, work, eat, dine and bathe in a one-bedroom apartment, the place gets a LOT of wear and tear! And that’s without kids or pets.

And I have been in the same place since June 1989, so cosmetic upgrades are ongoing.

To get ready for fall and winter, here’s some of what we’re doing, (and maybe some suggestions for your home?)

— getting our throw rugs cleaned and replacing underpadding as needed

— getting the sofa professionally steam-cleaned

— getting the bathroom shower wall grout repaired

Our living room gallery wall, a mix of our photos, photos we have been given or collected

and a few posters.

— framing a few new pieces of art

— changing the summer cotton coverlet for the duvet; (dry cleaned and stored there all summer)

— fresh duvet cover

— a new pillow and pillow protectors

— having a nice fabric cover custom-made for Jose’s (plywood, homemade) desk

— a new desk chair for Jose

— tossing out as many unread books as I can stand to lose

— wrapping our balcony furniture to protect it after it’s too cold to use it

— doing a clean rinse of the dishwasher

— removing as much indoor clutter as possible

— making sure we have plenty of candles (votives, tapers) for the dinner table as it gets dark so early

Also consider some safety issues easily forgotten like:

— dusting light-bulbs and shades, making sure you have enough light to read easily with shorter darker days ahead

— is your fire extinguisher still working?

— smoke detector?

— carbon monoxide detector?

— shower mat?

— bathtub grab bar(s); love this one that doesn’t demand installation in the wall; a friend has one

Also, replacing things that get a lot of use and maybe it’s time for new ones, like:

— burned oven mitts

— worn wooden spoons

— cookware

— bed linens/towels

— wastebaskets

— napkins/tablecloths

— tired/old/flavorless spices

— shower mat

— shower curtain

— kettle or coffeemaker

Things to make life cosier:

— a lovely teapot and selection of teas

— pretty cloth napkins/tablecloth; love these linen ones at $6 each (on sale) in 12 colors

— a throw rug beside your bed

— fresh shams

— a vintage decanter to fill with bourbon or a smoky scotch

— some new bakeware; a muffin pan, bundt pan, tart tins

— a pair of colorful throw pillows for your sofa

I’m really glad we live in such a lovely home, and it’s the subject of much devoted care to cleaning, maintenance and upgrades.

I spent my childhood in boarding school and summer camp (home for school in Grades 6 and 7), and I have no doubt that so many years in shared spaces not of my own design has helped make me a bit obsessive!

I also studied for a few years at the New York School of Interior Design and learned a lot about how to make a place, even a small-ish one, beautiful, functional and welcoming.

I use a lot of different resources:

For fabrics, basics from Ballard Designs, Calico Corners and amazing stuff (often $$$) from Svensk Tenn in Stockholm and Fabrics and Papers in England. One of my favorite fabric sources is in (!) London, England, The Cloth Shop, who happily mailed me yardage I chose online.

I don’t use Etsy or EBay but there are lots of bargains there, and so many online places from Joss & Main to Perigold to FirstDibs to Wayfair, plus all the big stores. Consignment and thrift shops and antique shops and flea markets can offer some amazing bargains — I recently found a huge, pristine white linen tablecloth for $35.

We love Farrow & Ball paint (yes, expensive but we find it worth the price) and I splurge a few times a year on custom-made linens like curtains, tablecloths and throw pillows, all of which add warmth, silence, comfort and color.