family, Home

A Horse Named Willard Scott

Where it all began

Sometime in the early 1980s my Dad took the train from NYC to visit his younger brother, who lived in the harbor section of downtown Baltimore. Daddy was an avid walker, and on a whim, (between card games, probably), they strolled over to Pimlico racetrack for an afternoon’s amusement, as Uncle Larry and Aunt Katie would do on occasion. None of them were schooled in the vagaries of gambling on the ponies, but noticing that a horse named Willard Scott was set to run, my dad placed his first bet; the odds were 20 to 1, Willard Scott won and my dad went away $150 richer.

Willard Scott – yee-ha!

He never looked back. The Sport of Kings took over; it became a passion. His lifelong enthusiasms (books, records, acting, writing, movies, playing ukulele, banjo, guitar, etc.) all took a backseat as he worked tirelessly perfecting his handicapping “system”. Sometimes he would win, but mostly he’d lose. Then he’d go back and make further adjustments.

His namesake didn’t earn as much as the clown/weatherman, but all told, the horse did okay!!

All of this constant tweaking would need to be shared with his loved ones as he puzzled out the permutations… with brother Larry, of course, who had gotten him started – and each of his daughters in turn, none of whom had ever expressed even the slightest interest in his methodology. He wrote out his theories (and even got some published!). He spent countless days taking the subway+bus out to Aquaduct or Belmont Park where he could place his tiny 1-dollar bets (to test out his theories), and spend time with his fellow gamblers. If he felt tired, he’d just go downstairs and place the minimum 2-dollar bets at the corner OTB storefront. Nonstop daily study and research of the racing form was a given.

“Like to see some stuck-up jockey boy sittin’ on Dan Patch?”

Once when Larry and Katie were visiting him in NYC, my dad insisted on showing off Belmont Park. After a winning afternoon, as they drove back from Queens into Manhattan, instead of calling it a day, Dad decided it would be a good idea to keep going on out to the Meadowlands in New Jersey, where they could engage in nighttime sulky racing. None of them had a clue what made that sport tick, however, and they lost all they’d won earlier in the day. I don’t think my dad ever bet on a harness race again.

pretty as a picture!

Having grown up with the idea that he was an intellectual fellow, I never understood my father’s fascination with the ponies, and why the ravenous hunger to WIN!!! took him over. I was glad that this desire was kept in check to the degree that he didn’t borrow money from the mob to feed his habit, though – and I loved watching him get SO excited about it, even if it never made sense to me. All I know for sure is that it engaged his mind, heart and soul – it made him happy – and happy is a good way for a Harris to be!

March 1995 at Aquaduct
Excerpt from CELEBRATIONS by Richard W. Harris
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Home, self-acceptance

Baby with the Bathwater

JoySpark

I read both of Marie Kondo’s books when they were first published in English and I’ve noticed her publicist has been working overtime, increasing her visibility since her Netflix TV episodes began airing earlier this year.  While I adopted some of her ideas right away – (folding and storing so that all socks, shirts, etc. are visible just makes sense!) – I find her “throw everything in a pile” approach to be unnecessarily violent and even punitive; there are kinder, gentler ways to sort through and discard clutter without shaming ourselves. I find I need time to process tender feelings, especially dealing with unfinished business and items with sentimental value.

DeCluttering

What we choose to keep says a lot about who we are, and releasing our possessions can be a spiritual as well as physical and emotional journey. Even going through “junk drawers” in the kitchen takes more time than I would’ve thought – what to do with half-dead batteries?  My collection of twist-ties and tired old rubber bands reveals how hard I try to “keep it together” – and my willingness to sort through and discard such detritus tells me I’m ready to release a lot more stuff I don’t need.

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value of the purge

I agree with Gil Hedley (above), who champions the spiritual nature of sorting through, examining and recycling our “stuff” – knowing that while it doesn’t literally define us, it’s still a potent force to be reckoned with – in his words; “psychically and biologically active”.  Dietitians have been saying, “you are what you eat” for decades – perhaps now is a good time to entertain the idea that “you are what you keep!”

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I’ve been noticing how certain items DO seem to carry an energetic charge – and that broken items are somewhat distressing to me; they cause a disconnect of sorts. As I become more aware of how my possessions actually make me FEEL, I’m hoping to release more than STUFF these days – I’d like to think I’m ready to let go of old habits and attitudes that don’t fit and/or don’t work for me any more – maybe they never did!?

Both of my parents were minimalists and left behind very little by way of clutter; they purged their belongings periodically and I wound up inheriting one office-sized storage box for each of them, the contents of which I scanned and shared with my sisters and other relatives. Knowing how my friends have grappled with their own parents’ possessions, I’m grateful my folks left such a small footprint.  My dad’s box contains his plays, reviews and indecipherable diaries, written in his own secret shorthand, along with a beret that stopped smelling like him many years ago, alas. My mom’s box has her drawings, writings, paper pop-up experiments, letters and cards.

The items of theirs that I’ve kept remind me of the REAL treasures they shared – the time they lavished on us, their artistic flair and aspirations, their love for us.  What else is worth cherishing?

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Home

Once a New Yorker, Always a New Yorker

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Although NYC was Mecca for my family, I moved away permanently almost 35 years ago. Still, some things about living in the city have stayed with me; my visceral reaction to the energy on the streets of “the city that never sleeps”, the memory of the sounds and smells, the incredible amounts of noise and traffic, and, like a true New Yorker, my inherent distrust of strangers when it comes to handling my purchases, bags, etc.

One of the things besides classical music that made 2017 survivable was that throughout this past year I received The New Yorker magazine in the mail. Frankly, I was puzzled, because I had only signed up for a brief 6-issue special subscription, and yet… it kept arriving! I knew that I hadn’t paid for it, and I was slightly tempted to bring this apparent snafu to their attention – but I was enjoying the writing so much that I really didn’t want it to stop coming! While I’d always enjoyed the cartoons, I experienced a deep satisfaction from the stories and articles about life in general as well as commentary on our current political climate. With all the sensationalism of these events, compassion and insight have been absent in much of the media reportage lately, and it’s comforting to read about how people are coping in these tumultuous times.

My benefactor was revealed today; a dear friend who also had moved away from New York in the 80s – and I thanked him profusely for the generous gift. Even though neither one of us was originally born within the city limits, once you’ve claimed NYC as your home, at heart you are ALWAYS a Native New Yorker , with all the privileges such sophisticated status bestows! Screen Shot 2018-01-07 at 12.54.02 AM

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growing up, Home, politics, self-acceptance

Why Can’t a Moose be President?

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I became aware of the “double standard” pretty early, but I was stunned when my dad explained dating once I hit puberty; he told me that many men see women as “pieces of meat”, as that had been his experience growing up and especially while serving in the US Marine Corps during WWII. In my early teens, I had a great deal of resistance to this idea; having read a lot of magazines, my head had been filled with romantic notions, aided and abetted by pop songs of the 50s and 60s. Even back then, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” sounded pretty innocent and non-threatening.

It often takes me a while to process difficult emotions, and this past year has been especially challenging in that regard. Like every woman I know, I’ve been sexually harassed, and although such abusive treatment has diminished in my advancing years, it’s still a fact of life which grieves me deeply, as I’d hoped we would have made more progress as a society in regards to treating ALL people equally and equitably. Alas, that has not been the case – a fact that has been rubbed in our collective faces, especially since Election 2016 when DT became PussyGrabber in Chief.

I almost wish I could just point the finger at “toxic masculinity” and leave it at that, but I think that having the inequities of our society in such bold relief, in regards to race as well as gender, has encouraged intolerance and contempt for one another. It’s no surprise to me that more people are coming forward these days with their stories of being molested – there have always been “dirty old men”, but as I feared, these men have become emboldened by the so-called leadership of our country. It’s now officially Open Season  on the female gender. What else can we do besides #metoo ?

I’ve recently taken comfort in revisiting YouTube videos featuring kinder, gentler men from my youth, the cadence of their voices and the kindness in their demeanor – men like Art Linkletter, (whose warmth and humor reminds me of my uncle Larry), Mr. Rogers, who liked you “just the way you are”, and my favorite, Captain Kangaroo  The Captain sang, told sweet stories, dealt with challenging cohorts like Dancing Bear and Bunny Rabbit – he even did his own housekeeping! And he featured the absolute BEST political candidate: Mr. Moose – whose campaign promise, “if you elect me, every American will have antlers! (or uncles!?) … and all of our friends will be bunny rabbits!”

Sounds a lot better to me than promoting pussy-grabbing.

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growing up, Home, Uncategorized

Where I Go In My Dreams

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Just as many people I know return to the classroom in their dreams, (usually for a test for which they haven’t studied!?!), I go back to places, real and imagined, when I’m dreaming;

NYC apartments where I may or may not have actually lived, that turn out to have additional secret rooms where I’ve never ventured.

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In my dreams I inhabit the extreme left side of this floorplan and have no idea of the existence of the rooms in the middle and on the right side… until I open a door and… there they are! Wow!

The Japanese garden in East Hartford, that turns out to still exist!

And my Aunt Helen’s house in Houston

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– as well as the house where she and my mother grew up in Rye, NY. The former is HUGE, on many levels, with beautiful sunlit rooms everywhere – and in my dreams, I can never find a bathroom!  The latter is remembered here, drawn by my mother’s hands and memories.

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This house was HUGE in comparison to the apartments where I grew up! I remember warm summer evenings after dinner; the swing on the screened-in back porch – large enough for at least a couple of us kids at once. And the backyard, so green and lovely, seemed to go on forever.

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The cellar was earthy, dark and mysterious, with lots of secret nooks.

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It’s not on this floor plan, but for ME, the MOST important part of the house was on the first floor – the baby grand PIANO!!  I love that my mother remembered where the marigolds and lilies of the valley were planted! She was a surprisingly impressive companion walking through a park or Botanical Garden – she knew a lot more about flora than you might expect!!G-House-2ndFloor

I haven’t figured out the significance of these locations, but they touch something deep inside me when I wake and remember where I was visiting during dreamtime.

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growing up, Home

Lunch at McPrison

Screen Shot 2017-10-25 at 1.16.23 AMLike most people, I grew up with McDonald’s. The first one we visited was probably in 1963 on the Berlin Turnpike in Newington, CT. The novelty of cheap, fast food was thrilling to the Harris family; prior to McDonald’s’ arrival, we’d rarely eat out, and when we did, it was Howard Johnson’s, or the luncheonette counter at Kresge’s or Woolworth’s 5-&-10¢ store. So the economical menu appealed to both of my Depression-era parents, and even though we all knew it wasn’t exactly the most nutritious meal, it was such a treat!!  Long before the “you deserve a break today” jingle hit the airwaves, there was ♫♬”McDonald’s is our kind of place – it’s such a happy place! A clean and snappy place!” ♫♬ YOUR kind of place!

While I never made it a habit to eat at McDonald’s, I generally enjoyed it when I did, remembering fun times with my dad and sisters (Dad loved their coffee and was a real fan of the Filet o’Fish). Over the years, it became more of a “road food” option, especially on long trips; I stopped at a lot of McDonald’s on my cross-country road trips: FUTURE STREET tour ROUND TRIP tour. I did best ordering the “side salad”, which could be consumed without dressing while driving. As one of the Dollar Menu items, I felt okay ordering 3 or 4 at a time and skipping the sandwich and/or fries… (tho I always had a weakness for their hot apple pies.)

A lot has changed at Mickey D’s over the years – and not just higher prices and a more varied menu! I noticed the decor making a quantum shift from the familiar yellow/orange/red palette a while back when the corporation attempted to turn their outlets into “McCafes” complete with Wi-Fi.

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And then the backboard menu “came alive” with a frantically changing video menu featuring huge photos of the food in fast rotation with the names and prices of same, which made it much more difficult for economy-minded folks like me to figure out what we wanted/could afford to order!

The latest wrinkle appears to be in response to the rising minimum wage paid to fast food workers; the closest McDonald’s to our house has remodeled their outlet to a new design which apparently necessitates employing only half of the former staff. This remodel has an “industrial” look, to put it kindly; dark gray cinderblock walls interrupted by hyper-busy mostly black wallpaper surround the public area. There’s no background music, only the mechanical hum, buzzing and clicks of unseen machines. Frankly, the ambiance is dystopian, unfriendly and feels like… McPrison.

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Electronic kiosks shaped like giant iPhones stand like Stonehenge, available to take your order. In fact, this is the ONLY way you can order. Walk up to the counter and you’ll be turned away, directed back to the kiosks by the attendants, whose forced-cheery greetings sound desperate and reminded me of the little waitresses working at Raisins on TV’s “South Park” Since transactions cannot happen thru any other means than these kiosks, heaven forbid there’s a glitch and the computer ever crashes?! (We all know that NEVER happens, but if it does… well, No Soup For You!)

McDonald’s is probably not the first place most people think of when trying to lose weight, and yet the menus list the calorie counts for each food selection in large bold numbers, mostly obscuring the prices which don’t show up until another few click-thrus on the kiosk. Said prices on the big board (if you’re quick enough to actually see them while they flash around in a frenzy!?) don’t always match the kiosk prices. And, as you might expect with all this technological “progress”, ALL of the prices are substantially higher; a small hot fudge sundae that used to cost $1 is now close to $2.

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The acoustics of the room are weird; while many customers were buried in their smart phones, the ones who spoke to one another were clearly audible to everyone – so much for privacy. Every conversation we overheard was about how much they didn’t like these new, streamlined “improvements” to their McDonald’s experience.

I have to agree. While it was never a substantial part of my diet, I didn’t think that I would ever completely “age-out” of McDonald’s. But apparently that day has come.

New wall signs now limit customers’ visits to 30 minutes – then you’d darn well better vamoose! Lunch time is OVER! Back to your cell!

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P.S. Forgot to mention: GERMS!!! Consider all the HUNDREDS of grimy paws that will be using those giant touchscreen ordering kiosks each day… how many of us order and pay for our food and then run to the restroom to wash our hands BEFORE we pick up that hot burger or sample a few fries? Brother-in-law Dr. Tim Wolfram wrote this little ditty, and he should know – he’s a DOCTOR!! http://markwolfram.com/MrSUDzFrameset.html

UPDATE 8/10/18 – Sorry, it’s still McPrison to me!!  McPrison in Chicago!

UPDATE 12/25/19 – Don’t look now – there’s PRISON GARB for sale!!

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Chicago Trib 12/24/19

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growing up, Home

Mamala’s Last Week

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In the early 90s I had a steady gig on the 15th floor atrium lobby of the Merchandise Mart Holiday Inn in Chicago and one evening while I was on a break, (hiding in the Ladies Room reading a book,) the concierge burst in, in tears. She began telling me about her mother’s cancer treatments, and how all of her siblings and their spouses were taking care of her, staying with her every night, cleaning up after her and keeping her as comfortable as possible. And something told me to pay attention! You will need this information later.

The concierge was a lovely woman in her 30s, whose face stayed calm and beautiful as the tears slid down her cheeks. She told me how her brothers and sisters all lived nearby their mom, in a downstairs apartment or 2 doors away down the street. How it wasn’t a sacrifice for any of them to be there, tending to their beloved mother who needed them now so much. How they’d worked out a schedule so that no one was overwhelmed by the burden of being a caregiver. How easy it actually was to clean her up after she’d soiled herself, and how grateful they all were to have one another, and the time to talk to and comfort each other and pull together at this time of crisis.

It wasn’t easy to return to the piano after that break. I didn’t really know the concierge and I felt humbled that she shared so much of herself with me. I treasured the idea of a family who lived that close, who trusted one another so deeply, and who could come together so solidly for their mom and one another.

My only experience with death in the family had happened suddenly a couple years prior to this, and the memory still haunted me; how words had been said and feelings had been hurt, how family members had become estranged. It wasn’t just that we hadn’t had the chance to say “goodbye”, altho that did factor into it. I think it was more that we weren’t prepared and were unable to muster our “best selves” consistently. It didn’t help that the clergy hadn’t brought their A-game, either.

When my mom was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, she seemed almost giddy as she called to tell us; “It’s Sayonara, baby!” She’d made arrangements decades earlier to donate her body for scientific research and she opted for the barest minimum of treatment, in an effort to remain mobile and not become a burden. On one visit to NYC I accompanied her to the hospital for a treatment and since we couldn’t catch a cab back to her apartment in the drizzle, we slowly walked home down 5th Avenue and across 57th Street, stopping to warm up in the Steinway Building, where I commandeered a grand piano and showed her my latest song. In hindsight, it might have been better to wait for a cab, but she’d always seen herself as a very sturdy person, and she didn’t complain. And I had really wanted her to hear that song!

After a few months, it was obvious that her body was failing rapidly, and my sister and I were summoned from California to help our other sisters care for her in her final week.

We stayed in a hotel down the street from mom’s apartment and traded off every 12 hours, so that our mom was never left alone. For the first few days, she was fairly lively, receiving visitors and phone calls, showing interest in conversations, food and music. But as her body began to run out of steam and the pain worsened, she napped more and more of the time. The last few days when she’d wake from a nap, she’d be so pissed off that she was still alive! But then she’d heave a resigned sigh and settle in.

She gave me a profound gift, letting me care for and be there for her and my sisters that final week of her life.

I think of you and miss you every day, lovely Mamala.

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Home, politics

My Undumpy White House

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As accustomed to the frequent barrage of BS from the current administration as I’m becoming, I confess to being more than a little taken aback by #45’s critique on Tuesday of his current digs; “That White House is a real dump.” Over the past 196 days, #45 has said and done some doozies, but something about dissing The White House itself, a spectacular home which is paid for by our taxes, just boggles my mind. I picture him leaving his dirty socks all over the West Wing, littering the White House with greasy fast food wrapping, the way he’s been littering our country with trashy hate-filled speech and Twitter tweets.

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The comment kept coming to mind the past couple days, until it occurred to me to consider my own concept of “home”. And I realized with a start that MY home is my body – where I live, the physical manifestation of my being – and that in the past I have been treating MY White House as “a real dump” – every time I don’t take care of it. Every time I overindulge in food or decide to stay up too late or make myself jittery with too much coffee. Every time I blow off exercise and fritter away hours window-shoppping and doing stupid puzzles online. I’m offended at #45’s lack of respect for his home because I’ve been disrespecting my own home.

I’m actually grateful for the wake-up call. I can only hope that #45 will tune in and hear himself as clearly as I am hearing him now. Because where we live is NOT a dump, unless we make it so. You don’t have to be a billionaire to figure that one out!

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growing up, Home

Touchstone: Sculpture

One of my dad’s favorite sayings was “watch the feet”, because, after all, talk is cheap, whereas my mother’s favorite piece of advice was “keep marching!” Mom was more proactive than Dad, especially when faced with adversity. He’d sit back, observe and eventually come to some conclusion he could live with, whereas she’d jump in and try to fix things with her bare hands, whether it was changing her own flat tires or replacing burnt-out bulbs in the exterior light fixtures atop her multi-story apartment house (she was acrophobic).

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As soon as she saw it, my mother HAD to have this sculpture. She’d spied it in a furniture store on the Berlin Turnpike and put it on lay-away, driving however-many miles round trip from Hartford. She got paid every two weeks and allocated $1.50 every paycheck for this piece – I know because I made the trip to the furniture store with her more than once.

There was an undulating white fake fur lounge for sale there, too – but the lounge was “dream-stuff” – something to be desired but never actually purchased, since it cost 10 times what the sculpture cost, and wasn’t what she really wanted.

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I think the sculpture only cost $20, but back in the late 1960s, that was a lot of money to my mother – hence the lay-away. I figure it took almost 6 months for her to get it. She never claimed to be a patient person, but this was special.

At the time, I didn’t understand the appeal of this piece; an old lady walking with a small boy, against a strong wind. It sure spoke to my mother, though – and she wasn’t one for tchochkes or keepsakes. She’d periodically purge her home of anything deemed unnecessary or frivolous. This sculpture was a rare exception. She told me she liked the set of the old woman’s jaw, the carefree gait of the little boy, the disparity in their ages, the intensity of the wind they’re up against.

A decade later, it burned up – along with a coffee table, a sofa she’d reupholstered (in white fake fur!) and the chair the sculpture’s occupying in this photo. The fire blackened the walls of her apartment and the smoke smell didn’t fade for many months afterward. Since I’m pretty sure the sculpture is one-of-a-kind, I’m glad I took this photo before the fire happened.

“Keep marching!”

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growing up, Home

Stand Facing the Stove

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The original edition of The Joy of Cooking apparently began with this instruction, the self-evidencial nature of which encapsulates for me the profound ambivalence I’ve always felt about spending time in the kitchen. While I have a great appreciation for well-prepared food, I also, like my mother, eschew most domestic duties.

She managed to put food on the table on a regular basis, but it didn’t come without a price; not just her iffiness about parenting in general, but a real ennui in regards to cooking. When she’d over-broil the 3 half-chickens for dinner, she’d laugh that “instead of Shake’n’Bake, we’re having Turn’n’Burn!” Unfortunately I adopted her habit of abandoning the kitchen in the middle of meal preparation and have scorched many a pot and burned many a pan of vegetables.

One evening when we were young girls my mother showed my older sister and me how to wash dishes after dinner. We did a pretty good job scraping, soaking, rinsing and drying, and then putting the dishes away, so I recall being surprised when our mother told us to do it again the next evening. “But we learned that already, yesterday!” Seeing the little smirk on my mother’s face, I was a bit horrified at the idea that I might be expected to do this every night for the rest of my life.

“Woman’s work is never done.” I think that was the hopelessness that pervaded my mom’s take on all housework – and one of the reasons she divorced my dad. She told me more than once that the moment she recognized that she was “done” with being married, she was on her hands and knees scrubbing the downstairs half-bathroom floor, realizing that, even though all of her daughters had weekly chores, nearly all of the daily domestic duties fell to her.

I recently purchased a new 6″ chef knife, to go along with my other knives – and I remembered that my mother never had ANY knives that look like these. And she never got the ratty old knife she DID have sharpened. She resisted housework tooth-&-nail, and could never bring herself to make it any easier – as if purchasing the right tools might be a show of weakening in her resolve to hate “woman’s work”.

I love my knives. They’re a gift I’ve given to myself. I’d have them even if I wasn’t married.

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