All those ships; and all those seas

Note: At about 6:30 a.m., British time, on July 7, 66 years ago, a brand new ocean liner set a speed record by steaming across the North Atlantic in just three days, 10 hours and about 40 minutes. It was the maiden voyage of the SS United States. The return voyage to New York Harbor set another record. It was a feat never to be duplicated. 

My love affair with ships and with the sea began a long time ago. It continues. 100_9713 (2)

Ships old and new, large and small; sailing ships and historic steamers; lobster boats and shrimp trawlers; pirate ships and submarines, military ships and cruise ships; private yachts and fast powerboats all find treasured places in my mind and memory. And, by extension, so do airships and spaceships, classic automobiles, muscle cars, locomotives, freight trains, and the Orient Express.

If you note the recurring theme in this blog, it’s not by chance.

On May 8, my husband and I had a unique and wonderful experience. We joined a group of ship enthusiasts on a cruise to Bermuda. This group, however, was not just any old band of ship-lovers. Termed the SS United States Legacy Cruise, it was conceived and planned by the SS United States Conservancy in cooperation with the Pollin Group (travel planners) of Chevy Chase, MD. The 70 or so individuals who participated all have a connection — in one way or another — to the last of America’s flagships, the former ocean liner that now sits forlornly at a Philadelphia pier awaiting an unknown fate.

The ship that set the Atlantic speed record sailed the seas for only 17 years. The record-setting Atlantic crossing commenced in New York City on July 3, 1952. The SS United States arrived in England only three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes later, breaking the Eastbound speed record formerly held by Cunard’s Queen Mary and capturing the Blue Riband Trophy. It was an achievement never thought possible by a ship of that size, and it is still unsurpassed today.

Read about that crossing, and watch a video about that historic voyage.

What became her last Atlantic crossing, in November 1969, was an unexpected event.  Indeed, a 16-day cruise of more than 8,000 miles was on the schedule for the 1969-70 holiday season. Passengers would have enjoyed an exotic itinerary including Madeira, Tenerife and Dakar, as well as a New Year’s visit to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands on the Atlantic round trip.  Since then, a series of owners has alternately explored plans to put the ship back in service or threatened the scrap heap.

The Conservancy, led by Susan Gibbs, granddaughter of the ship’s designer, is the current owner, with a mission to see her restored and rejuvenated — not to carry passengers — but rather to assure that succeeding  generations of ship-lovers will be able to explore her cavernous interior and learn her unique story.

It is quite a story

For six days on board the Celebrity Summit, a modern cruise ship, our group heard stories of the SS United States. The ship was built in Norfolk, Va., as a luxury liner in the heady days of mid-Century Modern style. She was aluminum, fast, sleek and lightweight, powered by state-of-the-art propulsion, and said to be unsinkable.

She was, however, a heavyweight in terms of performance, function and appearance. The ship was fully capable of serving as a troop carrier, built during the height of the Cold War era. The illustrious British-flagged “Queens,” Cunard’s luxury ocean liners, ferried troops admirably during World War II. Had the need arisen, the vessel could also have been converted to a hospital ship.

The SS United States was built in Newport News, Va., funded by both the U.S. Navy and the privately-owned United States Lines. She sailed under the American flag and performed exceedingly well as a passenger ship, carrying presidents and dignitaries, film stars and “common folk.” She brought immigrants to the United States and also  carried her share of military families, along with their household goods and vehicles, to and from European duty stations. She had speed and agility, numerous luxury features, a fully-equipped operating room and a modern pet kennel with a resident veterinarian.

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Today she sits with peeling paint at a pier in Philadelphia, her interiors stripped and her props missing, awaiting her fate. One of her caretakers, Mike Wolfe, who says he is familiar with “every inch” of the old ship, notes that she still has a grandeur and mystique about her. He is protective of her because, as he says, she is still beautiful. “This ship has a soul,” he insists.

Heading to Bermuda

We watched the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline recede from view as we made our way out of Port Liberty in Bayonne, N.J., finding it impossible not to think of those long-ago embarkations and arrivals. It is said that William Francis Gibbs never missed the chance to see the SS United States as she departed and returned to pier, watching silently from shore. With two massive stacks and a distinctive color scheme, she must have dominated the view.

The ship was in many ways the designer’s obsession, although he only sailed on her once, on that record-setting maiden voyage. It had been Gibbs’ long-standing dream to design a ship that was 1,000 feet long. The SS United States measured 990 feet in length; from keel to the top of the forward funnel, she rose to a height of 175 feet.

By the end of the week, those of us on this first Legacy cruise had become “old friends.” Steeped in the lore of the ship, we shared our individual reasons for wanting to save her, and those who had sailed on the ship enthralled us all with their memories. Among our group were former passengers and crew members, friends and family, movie-makers and ship designers, scuba divers and armchair travelers, young and old.

In addition to the formal presentations that kept us all busy, we dined together and met informally, bound by joint commitment to this iconic ship. We spoke as well of other ships and other seas, and found we shared other common interests. Once we arrived in Bermuda, our group enjoyed a special tour of the National Museum of Bermuda and its park-like grounds. We enjoyed a lunch at the well-known Frog and Onion Pub at Royal Naval Dockyard. We had ample time for private exploration and time to enjoy welcome sun and warmth after rainy days at sea. Bermuda’s beaches are stunningly beautiful, its island ambience delightful, and its people welcoming!

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Serious Efforts to Save a Ship

Current work to assure a bright future for the SS United States continues in earnest. According to Susan Gibbs, it is bearing fruit. Even though she declined to discuss specifics, she noted that solid opportunities exist.

One of the highlights of this Legacy cruise was the presentation of a sizable check to the Conservancy. Dockage at the current pier in Philadelphia is expensive and there are ongoing preservation efforts. If you’re interested in learning more about the SS United States, or about ways to help assure the ship’s preservation and redevelopment, visit the Conservancy website or follow SSUSC on Facebook and get involved.

There are many ways to help: I would love to hear from anyone who has any sort of personal connection or recollection to share. In future posts, I’ll write more about the  people I met during this cruise to Bermuda and tell more stories about the SS United States, interspersed with more stories about the faraway places that the ships, planes, trains and automobiles that so spark my imagination can tell us all.

Meanwhile, if you’re traveling to New York between now and August 3, don’t miss the exhibit currently at the National Lighthouse Museum, Staten Island.

 

Independence . . . a few thoughts

Fireworks over the water are a traditional part of July 4th celebrations in many parts of the country. Fire risk seems lessened, and exploding colors and sounds seem magnified by rippling water below and starry skies above. We have enjoyed such displays many times, watching with as much awe as any child.101_3074

A bit of background

Several years ago, as we made our way by boat across Chesapeake Bay and into Baltimore Harbor, we noticed an unusual buoy — not the normal red or green of navigational markers, not a warning orange — but rather red, white and blue.  At the same time, we couldn’t help but see the flag fluttering in the breeze at historic Fort McHenry, situated on a peninsula that intrudes into the Patapsco River not far away.

We later learned that the U.S. Coast Guard sets a ceremonial marker annually to mark the approximate spot where the words to the Star Spangled Banner were first written.

Gypsy-new camera-NJNYMDDC 517 (2)The unique buoy and an oversize flagpole brought home to us that year the reality of the battle that shaped the destiny of a young nation. History is like that — it sometimes takes being there to make it real.

The War of 1812, which began because of trade disputes and issues surrounding westward expansion, escalated when ongoing battles between Britain and France waned. It was a devastating time for a young country, and there were serious doubts about the ability to survive as an independent nation.

Much of New England never joined the fight. And, by the time it was over, the “second War of Independence,” as it is sometimes known, resulted in the deaths of 15,000 Americans, nearly as many as perished during the Revolutionary War. The War of 1812 actually lasted for two years and eight months.

Putting it in perspective

The fighting at Fort McHenry took place September 13, 1814. By the time the battle was brought to Baltimore, the war was all but lost. Washington, D.C., including the White House, the Capitol and other government buildings, had already been burned. Gypsy-new camera-NJNYMDDC 519 (2)

This past May, on a trip to Bermuda, those events of 1814 became even more real. It was from this Atlantic island some 600 miles offshore that a fleet of British warships was launched on August 1, 104 years ago, carrying 5,000 British Army and Royal Marines troops. Even though the colonies had declared independence nearly 40 years earlier, the British had not yet given up.

It was at Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor that the tide of war changed; defenders fought off the British during more than 25 hours of intense bombardment.

During the fighting, a young attorney was detained on a British ship in the harbor, along with a physician whose release had been promised. Francis Scott Key, sometime poet as well as a lawyer, had negotiated a prisoner exchange with the British, set to occur after the battle. As the fighting ensued, he was inspired to write the words to a poem which was set to music, with the title Defence of Fort McHenry. Later Francis Scott Key added three more stanzas, all but forgotten today.

The Star-Spangled Banner, although popular, was not used ceremoniously for another 75 years. In 1890, it was adopted by the U.S. military for play during the raising and lowering of the colors.

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Touring the Royal Naval Dockyards this spring on the island known to its residents as “the Rock” or “Gibraltar of the West,” we actually thought little about Baltimore or the War of 1812. Instead we were focused on British history and maritime supremacy, until a chance remark brought back the memory of Fort McHenry, the flagpole and the buoy.  We toured the grounds of the British naval compound, walked the ramparts, and imagined those ships sailing towards Baltimore to quash yet another rebellion. With that clarity of perspective, we realized once again that we are still a very young country!

And so we celebrate . . .

It surprised me to learn that Independence Day was not even a holiday to celebrate until 1870, nearly 100 years after the Declaration of Independence was drafted, and long after its authors had passed on.

It surprised me equally as much to learn that the song written by Francis Scott Key  National Anthem was adopted by presidential order in 1916, barely 100 years ago. Congress made it official only in 1931. The anthem made its official debut at a sporting event, a baseball game played in Chicago in 1918, during the turmoil of World War I.

And the fireworks? Well, that part of the celebration was added only after the poem was written and the song was performed.

None of that, however, diminishes the fun — or the spectacle. No matter what else occurs on the 4th of July, whether there are parades or solemn ceremonies, barbecues or backyard picnics, swim parties, bicycle runs or Days at Six Flags, it’s the fireworks that encompass the spirit of the celebration.

But, lest we forget, independence had a cost. It still has. So, as we celebrate, perhaps we should also consider just what independence means, and what price each of us is willing to pay to preserve it.

Stay safe, everyone, on this 4th of July, and enjoy your celebration, no matter what it is!

 

If you’d like to learn more, here are some resources:

http://www.sacredclassics.com/keys.htm

https://www.history.com/topics/the-star-spangled-banner

https://www.constitutionfacts.com/us-declaration-of-independence/fourth-of-july/

https://www.bermuda-attractions.com/bermuda_0002c2.htm

https://www.bayjournal.com/article/us_anthem_flag_arent_the_only_stars_at_fort_mchenry

 

A long time ago . . .

No, it was not in a galaxy far away and, measured by most standards, it was not even so very long ago. But five decades is a long time for two people. That milestone just seemed to beg for special recognition.

So it was with a sense of wonder and mixed expectations that my husband and I set off in late January to revisit the city where we met some 51-plus years ago and married a year and a half later. As it turned out, our wedding date fell on the same day of the week as it had 50 years previous. We were astounded.

Paris, France

Oh, yes. Mais oui! It was Paris that brought us together, Paris that we loved, and Paris that was the destination for our anniversary celebration. Even though we have traveled abroad over the course of our 50-year togetherness, even to France, we stubbornly refused to book a trip to Paris, although we had repeatedly considered it. We were concerned that, after years of absence, it would somehow disappoint.WP_20180125_15_56_05_Pro

We held to the mantra: We’ll return for our 50th anniversary, although it was often in jest.

But return we did!

Paris has changed a great deal in the intervening years. As have we. Paris has changed not at all. And perhaps we are not so different either.

We visited the city as tourists on this trip, because even though the city felt familiar, and much of it looks the same, Paris felt different somehow. No longer home, we viewed the monuments and the avenues, the food and the traffic, the rainy mist and the sparkling lights through different eyes, and heard the sounds of a language we no longer felt quite proficient in. But we were nonetheless entranced.

The Essence of Deja Vu

I now know with certainty what Thomas Wolfe expressed. No, you can’t go home again.

Revisiting a place once so familiar and well-loved is always a new experience. It can be wonderful. And Paris does not disappoint.

Returning to the synagogue where we exchanged vows was an emotional experience. Rabbi and Cantor welcomed us, complete strangers congratulated us, and we were greeted and embraced by a community we did not know at all, but somehow knew very well! We will treasure the memory of that evening.

We drove past the Mairie in Boulogne Billancourt where our union was solemnized and recorded under French law. We barely recognized it.

We engaged in numerous “Do you remember” conversations, walked back streets and photographed favorite Parisian landmarks from afar.

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We felt no need to pay admission fees to revisit them. Nor did we set foot in any museums, pay the price for a gourmet meal at a renowned restaurant or spend a night “out on the town.”

Just as we had when Paris was our home, we savored the simplicity of life. Corner markets and flower stalls, changing light patterns, simple foods and table wine, parks and playgrounds are every bit as impressive as grand boulevards and monuments!

The Familiarity of Change

We did, however, make our way to Au Pied de Cochon, a landmark restaurant in the former district of Les Halles. WP_20180128_15_36_52_ProIt was once a regular late night gathering spot, and it has been open 24-7 since 1947. Onion soup and moules with frites are still good, but perhaps no better than at a local bistro. What is worthy of note is the redevelopment of this busy formerly bustling market area. It’s been a long time coming, but today the city’s major transportation hub has been transformed into an oasis of contemporary urban culture. It’s impressive to the max!

We stood in awe in the chilly dusk to hear the chimes of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and then we hailed a cab to return us to our hotel near the Etoile. WP_20180127_21_33_36_ProWe enjoyed a simple  dinner and a sinfully rich dessert at a small neighborhood eatery, charmed by the friendliness of everyone there: Italian chef, attentive server and fellow patrons alike. A couple at a nearby table could not fathom why we chose to stay away from Paris for 50 years. In the warmth of the moment, we didn’t understand it either.

We fell easily into our old appreciation for the cadence of life in this city. We walked in the drizzle, admiring the juxtaposition of centuries-old architecture and modern design. We marveled at the cleanliness, and were confused by the automation, of the modernized Metro system. We were impressed again by how small the core of historical Paris really is, and by the ever-expanding sprawl of the city and its suburbs. We were amused by the streetcorner sellers of crepes with Nutella fillings.

Memories to Hold

We photographed idled Bateaux Mouches excursion boats tied along the swollen Seine, picked out stairs, riverside walks and signs barely visible above the water line, and noted sandbags stacked to keep floodwaters out of nearby basements. Parisians flocked to the bridges and promenades to witness the swirling, fast-flowing water.

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The Louvre relocated some of its priceless collection as a precaution. Ten days later, the city was paralyzed by record snowfall, and the Eiffel Tower was closed to visitors for safety reasons. We witnessed — and felt the effects — of both flood and snow! There was, in fact, some doubt that we would be able to drive back into the city after the blizzard! We flew out as the city still lay blanketed in white.

100_8385We visited the artists still painting caricatures and uniquely original art at Place du Tertre in Montmartre; the paintings we bought 50 years ago still hang in our home. We ducked out of the drizzle and into out-of-the-way brasseries for a warm cafe creme or a quick aperitif. The weather was damp, the skies were mostly grey. We were cold. And we loved every minute of the time we spent in the City of Light.

After three days, we left the city to explore new highways and byways in Normandy and Brittany. Yes, we’re happy we returned to Paris after all this time; we’re not sure why we waited so long.

But it was time to move on.

 

1,000 Words

Being on home turf again after 28 days abroad — 27 of them spent at sea — has been a bit disorienting. It’s always good to return home to the familiar after a journey, but it takes a bit of “settling in” to feel completely comfortable. This time the holidays also contributed to my lethargy.

I have, however, procrastinated far too long, so the time has come to share some of the delights of the Mediterranean countries we visited in late October and early November.100_6811100_6313100_7149100_6719100_6176The main reason for going away in the first place always seems clearer after returning. There are new insights to process, memories to savor and a filled rucksack of delightful experiences to catalogue.100_5961100_6249100_6370However, they’re all time-consuming, and the crush of daily life intrudes. There are so many stories to tell; sometimes they don’t come easily!

I promised more “elevator philosophy,” as well as tales of good times, good food and wonderful places. Now, time is ticking down to another planned trip, and I’m feeling a bit frazzled — in addition to feeling cold. (The outside digital thermometer read “Error” this morning; local news reported outdoor air temperature at 8 degrees!) This is Texas, however, and Saturday is predicted to hit 70 degrees. I’ll like that!WP_20171021_13_56_05_ProWP_20171022_12_38_41_ProWP_20171023_12_57_52_ProWP_20171027_11_51_18_ProToday, as I get serious about packing for next week’s departure , I decided to post a few photos from the previous trip — the stories will come later, I promise. But the photos show sun and warmth, something I need today!

These are just some of the ones that make me smile — I hope they brighten your day as well, even if just a little bit! They are in no particular order.WP_20171024_23_22_43_ProPlease check back to read some of the stories that go with them. I’ll  look forward to sharing the memories.

Venturing beyond borders . . .

101_3594Have you ever taken the time to read your passport?

I hadn’t — not until today, when on a whim I checked its expiration date, and was struck by the fact that there are so few visa stamps on its pages.

I remember my first passport! Its pages were nearly filled with stamps before its expiration date rolled around, and it was only valid for three years if I remember correctly. Today, I am happy to report, I have several more years of traveling left before I have to think about a renewal.

But, sadly, I doubt that those pages will be nowhere near as colorful nor evocative of adventure as my original passport’s were. The world’s borders have, in many cases, been erased over the preceding decades.

In the past two years or so, I have set foot on three continents, visited several island nations and spent time in a score of different nations. I have nary a passport stamp to show for the miles, save one from Amsterdam Shiphol, earned because of a plane change that entailed only a leisurely stroll from one airline gate to another!

Traveling

Customs and immigration agents are not nearly as concerned about stamping a page as they once were. After all, all the information now needed is computerized and captured by security cameras! How comforting.

How disappointing! As the world shrinks and becomes more homogeneous, does it become less interesting?

There is something about crossing national borders that was once thrilling and unique.

I always found it exciting to arrive at a national border, even while crossing on a train in the middle of the night; I did not resent the delay, nor the inconvenience. Instead, it seemed a rite of passage, a confirmation that I was about to embark on another venture that would broaden my understanding and fill my journal with memories.

I cannot adequately express the disappointment I felt when I first drove across the border between Italy and France with nary a road sign to note the occasion. It was only when I stopped for coffee that it became obvious: café rather than caffè.

I still have not reconciled euros with traveling through vastly different European nations; I found it refreshing last October when prices in Croatia were quoted in Kuna, the local currency, even though the Euro is accepted and residents seem to have little trouble with the exchange rate!

But I digress . . .

I checked my passport’s expiration date because of upcoming foreign travel plans, but passports are in the news for another reason as well. Residents of some states may soon be required to show better identification than a local driver’s license in order to fly even domestically. Today, only slightly more than one third of Americans possess a passport. But that may change, as soon as January.

American passports are little gems of home-grown philosophy. As one turns the pages, the boundless pride and enthusiasm of a country full of optimism seem evident — through stylized graphics of distinctly American scenery and the quotations that appear at the top of each double truck, passports express what is, somehow, the essence of American pride and determination.

A sampling: Pages 16 and 17 depict a paddlewheeler making its way along a mighty river; I’m guessing the artist had the Mississippi in mind. A formation of geese fly overhead, and homes and hills stretch out in the distance.

The written words:

“This is a new nation, based on a mighty continent, of boundless possibilities.” Theodore Roosevelt

There are other drawings and words of note in this little book that offers me the opportunity to freely travel the world, both in my mind and in reality:

“We have a great dream. It started way back in 1776, and God grant that America will be true to her dream.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.” George Washington

John F. Kennedy: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.”

The stuff of dreams:

It’s not only the words of leaders and presidents that speak from passport pages, though.

The words inscribed in 1869 on the original Golden Spike at Promontory Summit, in Utah, echo through time: “May God continue the unity of our country as the railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.”

And, then:

 “Every generation has the obligation to free men’s minds for a look at new worlds . . . to look out from a higher plateau than the last generation.”  Ellison Onizuka.

This is the final page of the little blue book, along with a stylized depiction of two worlds together in vast space, along with a circling manmade satellite.

If you don’t know him, Onizuka was an American astronaut aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger when it exploded in 1986. He dreamed bigger and traveled farther than most.

As Americans, we have always enjoyed the ability to cross state borders without worrying about foreign currency, unfamiliar signage or a different language. If a passport becomes required to do that, it will be a new experience for many of our citizens, but it will not change our ability to travel freely in this country.

Across the globe, it was not so until just recently. It still is not the norm in many parts of the world.

Take the time to read that little book, and to think about the implications. It offers a new perspective on the world, whether it’s full of visas and border crossing stamps or not.

 

Grandmother’s lessons

Thanksgiving was low-key at my house this year. Not that there isn’t an abundance of things to be thankful for, but our small multi-generational family had an abundance of plans for the extended holiday. We gathered Thursday for what was to be a simple midday meal, before scattering in different directions to enjoy the long weekend.

What was to have been a small turkey breast to serve five (with enough left for a few sandwiches) became a 12-pound turkey. (The market had no fresh breasts available, and we had not built thawing time into the schedule; the option was a “smallish” fresh bird.)

The rest of it? A mix of traditional and easy prep. One large — overly large, as it turned out — fresh from the garden salad that boasted tiny boiled potatoes, green beans and dried cranberries. Roasted yams and wild rice stood in for mashed potatoes and cornbread stuffing. Savory pumpkin gratin, recipe courtesy of Jacques Pepin, homemade cranberry-orange relish, and a freshly-baked Challah, as pretty to look at as it was good to eat, kept kitchen prep time to a minimum.WP_20171123_14_01_38_ProAs usual, “simple” morphed into too much!

Friday, we were content with turkey sandwiches, salad and television movies. Saturday was a quiet day, with only a few must-do’s, and no plans for a “real” meal. Snacking at will was the order of the day.

When faced with options, make soup

I am grateful that my grandmothers were good cooks, and that I had a chance to hang out in their kitchens many years ago, not only during holiday preparations, but afterwards as well.

I learned the truth of “Waste not, want not,” and I learned to “make do” and make meals out of what was on hand. I also learned that simple meals are best!

Those were lessons well learned.

So, for Saturday supper, soup it was. Pan drippings and turkey parts that would have become gravy had we served mashed potatoes and dressing on Thursday became the catalyst. Leftover wild rice added heartiness. Fresh celery, carrots and onions, constant staples in the refrigerator crisper, are the basis of any good homemade soup, right? And leftover Challah is still delicious!

It was a large pot of soup, enough to feed son and daughter-in-law who stopped in unexpectedly Saturday evening, with enough “left over” for Sunday lunch.

No pie, you say? Well, not exactly!

It bears repeating that our Thanksgiving was pared down and simplified in many ways. There was no pie — not pumpkin, not apple, mince or pecan. No brownies, no ice cream. Apples and oranges, yes, but even they went untouched. None of us suffered from a lack of food; desserts were not missed.

However, I had purchased pie crusts, just in case. (No, I do not see any reason to make my own!)

So, for tonight’s dinner, the plan is to have Turkey Pot Pie. Actually, I can picture it already: Colorful carrots, peas and potatoes joining small bits of turkey meat, oozing with creamy goodness and threatening to bubble up through the golden crust. Chilled (leftover) cranberry sauce will add color and tart flavor to the simple dinner. With a green salad, it will be nutritious and more than ample.

Will one pie suffice to clear the refrigerator of leftovers? I am not yet sure, but if there’s enough turkey to make two, I will be happy to have an extra to pull from the freezer.

On this weekend, especially, I am thankful to have the blessings of home and family, a warm, comfortable hearth, good health and good food.

And those leftovers!