Finding My Roots

Last year, I decided to take a commercial DNA test out of an idle curiosity about my ancestry. I was pregnant and thinking a lot more about family roots and traditions. The results were interesting, though not entirely surprising — mostly British with a little German and Eastern European mixed in — but I was intrigued by the level of Scandinavian ancestry. So this year, I decided to work on exploring my genealogy. And in honor of my efforts, my mother decided to add to my tea cup collection with this cup from Herend Hungary, as a relatively recent part of my heritage is from Hungary.

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Now, I want to pause here and acknowledge two things. The first is that I’m extraordinarily privileged to be able to find records of my ancestors coming over to the States from their birth countries. Not everyone has this luxury, as not all crossings were recorded with details of all travelers’ names, given that not all crossings were by choice. The second is that I fully acknowledge that I am in the grips of an American’s desire to be seen as not American, but somehow connected to my “culture of origin.” I know this is often viewed with amusement by others, and I can see that. But, given that some of my non-American heritage is rather recent, there are still traditions that play into my modern life from some of them. So I wanted to explore it. Plus, a haughty relative once determined that our family is qualified to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, and I was intrigued by that, given what I knew of our more recent immigrant history.

But on to my discoveries. The first is that one of my most recent immigrant ancestors came over in the 20th century, from Yorkshire, England. I had always assumed that my Catholic grandparents were of Irish descent, but it was fascinating to learn something that happened to correspond with my interest in Tudor-era history, given that Yorkshire was a pocket of Catholic recusancy during the Reformation of the English church. I also had ancestors on another side of the family from Derbyshire. And I was already aware of the relatives that emigrated from Hungary in the early 20th century. Interestingly, while my ancestors would now be considered to be from Hungary and Romania, when they were born, the whole of their birthplaces would have been part of the Kingdom of Hungary. It was particularly interesting to see the variations on names as records sprouted spelling errors and the like.

And on the other side, I was able to trace all the lines of the family back to their original crossing and found that the Revolutionary heroes largely traced their origins back to colonies that were founded by Dutch settlers. In fact, one ancestor came over shortly after the original founding of New Amsterdam. Still another line traces back to Denmark. So far, I’ve been able to find three different ancestors who found in the American Revolution, two of whom survived, not including the ancestor claimed by my great grandfather’s stepmother, whose records helped launch my own research.

So this has been a fun project. I’m not entirely sure what to do with it. I suppose I should find a way to make a hard copy to store and pass on to Elliot so he does not have to do the same work, should he be so inclined. I used Ancestry.com for most of the research, which does charge a membership fee to actively look at records, and charges additional to look at international records (hence, only tracing ancestors back as far as their original crossings to the States), but the interface is nice, and you can view your tree for free. Perhaps in the future, I will return to it to collect it into a genalogy book, to go with the book my father-in-law made for my husband’s family.

The Joy of Jars

Last week, I talked a little about some of my sustainability and simplicity efforts, but my most consistent attempt to reduce my footprint has got to be my love of reusing glass jars. Sadly, my husband (who, admittedly, does most of the dishes) does not share my love of jars and has even insisted that I curate my collection a bit in recent years. But I love a good jar, and trying to be more sustainable and low-waste has certainly reignited my desire to keep every jar I come across.

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First of all, I try to find things in glass or metal packaging where possible because the bulk of a jar can be more easily recycled than plastic. I’ve been quietly switching things over to glass packaging where possible in most areas of my life. But the other reason I love buying things in glass is because I love to save jars. Recently, our store started carrying a new brand of French custard, which is delicious (and comes in chocolate, rice, and salted caramel!), but also comes in the most adorable tiny glass jars that are the perfect size for my own homemade pots de creme. Of course, my husband, who does most of our dishes, has a slightly less glowing view of my collection of jars and made me get rid of all but the number of jars that fits one batch of custard.

Jars are so useful, though. Lately, since I’ve been trying to shop in bulk more, I’ve found even more use for my collection of jars. I throw a couple into our reusable bag each week when do the shopping. It’s simple enough to take them to customer service to get a tare weight, and then I can get nuts or pasta or beans or rice or any number of things without any wasted packaging. Our store even has bulk honey, olive oil, and vinegars available, so I can get those (the olive oil goes into a bottle) without having bottles that will need to be thrown out. And since the honey is local, it’s the most sustainable way to sweeten. I’ve been using bulk hazelnuts, bulk salt, and bulk honey (and tap water) to make a milk substitute for my morning beverage lately, without any extra waste.

But jars are also not terribly bulky, especially when I save smaller jars, like the jar I got some beans in a few years back. It’s the perfect size to carry some home-blended tea to work, or pop into the shopping bag to get a treat from the bulk bins instead of a wrapped candy or trail mix. And I even recently used one of my tiny custard jars to bring some loose-leaf decaf Earl Grey to a brunch at a friend’s house because I know my mother prefers that and my friends didn’t have any decaf tea on hand.

The one tip for life with jars that I have is this: Know that standard mason jar lids are not stainless/rust-proof. This was never an issue for years (except for the one time I tried to store vinegar in a mason jar) because we hand-washed everything, but since moving to a house with a dishwasher, we’ve realized that the lids that came with our mason jars have started to rust. So the one new jar-related purchase we’ve made is to buy stainless steel mason jar lids. The fit is a little fiddly, and they’re not appropriate for canning, but it’s nice to not have two pieces of lid when I’m trying to pack up pumped milk or bring a jar of soup to work.

What about you? I’ve started up multiple conversations recently with friends and acquaintances who share my love of jars, so I’d love to hear about your favorite jars in the comments.

On Simplifying and Civilized Sustainability

The other day, while walking out of a meeting, my coworker commented on how “green” I was because I hadn’t printed out the meeting document, in favor of bringing an electronic copy on my tablet, along with my notebook for any notes I needed to take. I showed him one better and showed that I’d also brought my own cloth napkin to have a treat during the meeting (this month’s treat was cupcakes) instead of using a paper plate and napkin. It was nice to have these little efforts recognized because over the last several years, I’ve quietly tried to make small changes towards a less wasteful, more sustainable lifestyle, including bringing cloths with me to work instead of using so many paper towels and napkins.

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Probably the biggest change to my life that I’ve been trying to make, with varying levels of success, is my attempts to reduce my overall consumption. Whether I’m changing my buying habits of new (or new-to-me) clothes, reducing the way I use personal care products, or making small changes to how we eat, simply buying less is always going to be the most sustainable thing a person can do. Rather than buying new linen towels (linen is very eco-friendly, didn’t you know?), we’re using the towels we have until they’re no longer serviceable. Rather than buying new clothes, I’ve bought second-hand or even taken castoffs and loaners from friends. And my beauty routine is slowly creeping towards something very different from the sprawling, globe-circling routine that I’ve shared in the past.

Really, there is something very civilized about simplicity sometimes. I’m not Kon-Mari-ing anything (although we have been doing some of the decluttering that should have happened before we moved), but I’m trying to make steps towards reducing the need for such a chore. And, really, I’d rather wear the same two skirts for work all week than spend more than a little time on the weekend doing laundry or clearing out my closet. People view it as “strong personal style” rather than “wearing the same thing every week.” Plus, I’ve been quietly transitioning my wardrobe towards entirely natural fibers, and then towards more sustainable fibers (like the aforementioned linen). It’s expensive, so the process will be slow anyway. I’m less engaging in minimalism as I am asymptotically approaching it by bringing less into my life.

And that’s the crux of it, and part of why this is a quiet effort and not one that I would really recommend to anyone, because it’s part of a very personal value judgment. For me, I know I can “get away with” wearing as much of my pre-pregnancy wardrobe as possible, and buy a few necessities, so that if I spend more money to buy from a seamstress who makes all her pieces herself and charges accordingly out of sustainably-grown fabric, it doesn’t matter that I can really only afford one new piece of clothing every month or so. Or if I decide to make my own new skirt for the coming cooler months, I can choose to order my fabrics carefully and spend a month sewing it by hand, rather than needing to get a fall and winter wardrobe all at once. But not everyone has that luxury.

Or in the case of my skin care. I’ve already spent years honing my skin care routine and determining my skin’s general likes and dislikes, so I can buy products with relatively confidence online, so when I want to transition from less plastic packaging, I can try a new facial oil or cleanser or hydrating serum without as much of the unknown looming. And it helps that my skin has calmed down incredibly since my pregnancy (touch wood). So far, I’ve transitioned most of my skin care to simpler products that are largely produced by small companies (or people I know somewhat personally, through social media) and are mostly packaged with less plastic. There are a couple things I know I cannot swap out, despite their plastic bottle, but I know where I can recycle those containers now. Once I’ve tested the last new potential product, I’ll do a skincare update, I think.

And I’m fortunate to have the support of my husband, who has made great strides in reducing his use of papers towels and coffee filters. We’ve now almost entirely switched over to using cloth towels instead of paper ones, especially for our napkins. Somehow using cloth paper towels was an easier leap than trying to use our stock of gifted cloth napkins because the napkins seemed fancier. Now we have an eclectic pile of napkins and towels that we use at meals or for small spills. And Dan uses a cloth coffee filter in his coffee cone every morning. It seems very civilized, but really, it’s just a way to make less trash. Like using a fountain pen: I see a way to generate less waste in the form of discarded pens because I can simply refill the cartridge, but also, it’s a fancy pen and I look fancy using it.

Of course, the quintessential civilized sustainability swap for me is my tea. Now, I don’t pretend that my tea is at all a sustainable habit. I get most of it shipped from halfway around the world in single-use packaging, despite my attempts to save tins and reuse them. The fact is that tea has to be sealed to prevent it from going stale. But using loose leaf tea with my tea ware (much of which is either handmade or secondhand) offers a bit of an offset, as I don’t create any additional bits of litter in the form of teabags. And I can have several cups of tea from one serving of leaves, rather than using many teabags per day. Plus, as far as hobbies go, sitting quietly and enjoying the outside with a cup of tea is far simpler than many others, and helps to quiet my mind so that I can find contentment with what I have, which is the ultimate sustainability.

My Historically-Inspired Morning Routine

I’ve written before about my vintage-inspired routines, but lately, I’ve been finding myself going even further back in history for inspiration. Because the summer always makes me yearn for airy muslin dresses, I’ve been stuck in the Regency period lately. And because I never just limit myself to fashion or beauty, I’ve found the practices of the Regency period bleeding into my morning routine.

Since having a baby, the early morning is often the only time I get entirely to myself, and adding childcare to my morning routine has meant that I have to rise particularly early. While my hours may be more akin to that of a Regency servant, I’ve taken some inspiration from Regency middle and upper classes to carve out a few quiet moments to myself in the morning.

I rise between 5:30 and 6 a.m., and wash up. I shower every morning, although it is often a very quick shower to wash my body and face, while I keep my hair protected in a cap or turban. I spritz my clean skin with rosewater and apply a few drops of facial oil, put on a robe, and go into the kitchen.

One thing I’ve learned is that I no longer wake ravenous, so I don’t need to make a full breakfast immediately upon rising. In true historical fashion, I’ve started eating my breakfast around 10 a.m. in my office. But I need something to get me through my commute, so I’ve been making a cup of drinking chocolate. I’ll share more about my particular recipe a little further on, but while my chocolate boils, I usually have enough time to prepare the few things I need to bring to work for my breakfast and lunch: some sliced bread and cheese, a couple boiled eggs, some fruit, and a salad.

To make my chocolate, I bring water to a boil, add chopped chocolate, spices ground in my mortar and pestle, and sugar. I stir until the chocolate melts, and then bring it to a simmer. Then I remove it from the heat, add cream, and whip it to a froth. This is poured into a cup or mug and enjoyed with a chapter or two of a book. I’ve lately tried to keep myself from opening up my devices too early in the morning (although I often fail to resist temptation), and instead have been reading classic books. I recently finished Jane Eyre and enjoyed it immensely.

By the time I finish my chocolate, Elliot and Dan have usually woken up, so I sit and nurse Elliot while Dan takes his shower. Once both have finished, I can make the final touches to my skin care by applying sunscreen, and then dress my hair, dress my body, and put on a little makeup. Then, I can gather my things and leave for the train station, my little oasis of calm having thoroughly prepared me for the day.

Regency-Inspired Drinking Chocolate
(inspired by this post)

1 oz. unsweetened chocolate
2 cardamom pods
3 allspice berries
1 Tbsp. of sucanat (unrefined sugar)
1 cup of water
2-3 Tbsp. heavy cream

Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Break open the cardamom pods and empty the seeds into a mortar. Add the allspice. Grind the spices to a powder with the pestle. Chop the chocolate. Add the chocolate, spices, and sucanat to the boiling water. Stir until the chocolate has melted and blended with the water, then bring back to a simmer. Remove from the heat and add cream. Whip to a froth and serve. Makes one generous cup.

Notes from Moving House

Last week, we packed up and moved to a new house. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that I arrived at the new house to find the yard an absolute riot of roses in full bloom, which I took as a sign that this was the right place for us. We’ve spent the last week settling in and learning how to feel at home in this new place. And also unpacking. It’s the first time I’ve moved in nearly 5 years, and the first time Dan and I have moved together, so I had forgotten what it’s like to be thrown into a new environment. Add to that the unique challenge of sorting out two houses while caring for an infant, and suffice to say, it’s been an interesting week.

Getting out of the Dirty Work

Because we have Elliot, one of us always has to be around to watch him when he’s not at daycare. We wisely scheduled our packers and movers to come on Thursday and Friday so we could take him to daycare, and then return to help with that. It was very smart. Unfortunately, there was enough left to be done over the weekend that we had to decide which one of us had to stay at the new house with Elliot and which went to the old house to scrub five years’ worth of grime out of the crevices that had been hidden by furniture. Because I have the milk, I got to stay at the new house and got out of all the cleaning. In case anyone thinks this was unfair, Dan decided on this arrangement before I had even thought about it.

Luckily, our former landlady was immensely understanding of the fact that we were moving out of a house that had been continually rented without totally turning over for years before we even moved in, and Dan didn’t need to spend too much time cleaning. Unfortunately, our mulberry tree decided to fruit and drop berries right on our front walk the week we moved, so the movers tracked mulberries everywhere, so he did have to clean that up. But he easily finished by Sunday evening, which left us most of Monday to decompress (before he left for a trip!).

You Live Among Boxes Now

Our new place is quite a bit smaller than our old place. Now, we didn’t have as much stuff as would normally fill a three-bedroom house, so moving to a two-bedroom wasn’t too difficult, and we were able to get rid of a lot of old things that we didn’t need, but it’s still a bit cramped since we haven’t fully unpacked. I’ve given us the reasonable goal of being unpacked before the end of June. The first room I unpacked was the office/tea room so that we have a nice place to sit in the mornings, with a relatively clear floor space for Elliot to play. Which is nice because our living room is currently the repository of empty boxes. Sophie has eked out a spot on the back of the sofa that isn’t covered in packing materials so she can rest and look out one of the many beautiful windows.

But for the most part, we are still living out of boxes and with boxes as our primary decor. We’ve cleared a sort of pathway through the boxes in the living room so we can walk from one end of the house to the other. And I still haven’t found the box that has my dirty laundry in it so I can have the clothes I wear most often. I was able to find one last work-appropriate dress this morning, hidden under a sweater in my drawer, but this weekend, finding and washing laundry will be necessary.

New Things and Old Things

I think the most exciting thing (for me) about the new house is that I have a more-or-less dedicated tea room. Yes, Dan’s desk is in the same room, but for the most part, our second bedroom is a space for me to enjoy tea, meditate, and do my yoga. Because we had to purge all the clutter that littered our old spare room, it’s going to be clear (as soon as we get rid of empty boxes!). We decided that it was best to put my tea things in a separate room so that we can close the door and keep Elliot out once he starts pulling himself up on the furniture. It also has an east-facing window, so it gets beautiful morning sun.

We also have a beautiful new kitchen, with more counter and cabinet space, a gas stove, and a dishwasher for the first time in years. Dan is particularly excited about that one, since he’s been on dish duty for the last five years. But I’m excited to start using my new kitchen. We’ve been eating takeout for the last week or so, so the first thing we’re going to do this weekend is sort out the kitchen so I can start cooking again.

But of course, the more things change, the more they remain the same. One of the things that saddened me a little was leaving all the neighborhood cats that I’d gotten to know over the years. So what do I see the day we get to the new house? A cat lounging behind our house! There are two cats that I’ve seen who like to lounge in our yard or sun themselves on the fence. I believe they live at the house behind us, since they look much too well-fed to be strays.

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So that’s where we’re at moving. It’s been an exciting and terrifying week, but the new place is starting to feel like home. I can’t wait to see what it looks like when we get everything unpacked and decorated!

Happenings and Updates: A New Family Member

A lot has been going on over the last week or so. I’ve continued to plan our wedding, although there’s been a bit of a lull in that. I’ve also discovered a new-to-me television show and because it’s The Great British Bake-Off, that means I’ve also found myself inspired to bake more often. But the biggest news is that we have a new addition to our small family.

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This is the TweedCat. That’s not her real name, obviously, but she’s a rescue and we plan on changing her rescue name anyway. Right now, we just call her “cat” most of the time, and she seems alright with that. She came home on Saturday and has settled in pretty completely.

Her likes include not sitting still, especially for photos, food, and cuddles. Her dislikes seem to include doors, stairs, and when we don’t let her into a room. She’s a very small cat and young enough that she bears being picked up and held with admirable patience, but will let you know when enough is becoming enough. And watching Fiance play with her is a joy. For not-a-cat-person, he really loves her.

So the next few weeks will involve a lot of settling in on all sides. I’m still learning how to cook with a cat constantly coming in and trying to investigate or steal the food. And I think she’s still trying to get used to having as much space as our house affords, but not being allowed to go outside.

Weekend Crafting and Historical Exploration

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I had a lovely, relaxing weekend, this weekend. I started off on Friday evening by having some friends over to play board games and share a nice fall meal. I made my standby butternut squash pasta casserole, along with mini cheesecakes to celebrate a friend who had a birthday last week. It was simple, but delicious and certainly fortified us for an evening of fun games. It also served to soak up some of the cocktails we poured.

And then on Saturday, I went to my aerials class, and then just relaxed. I puttered around in the kitchen with some crafts. I recently ordered all the butters and oils and beeswax I need to make lip balms and lotion bars for holiday gifts, but I receive a small sample of cocoa butter in the order. I also recently bought some babassu oil for soaping, but discovered it could be a lovely balm ingredient as well. So I mixed up a couple of experimental batches. The cocoa butter was just enough to make one tube of lip balm. I mixed it with beeswax and some hazelnut oil to make a chocolate-hazelnut lip balm, although it smells only lightly of cocoa butter.

Then, I mixed up a slightly larger batch of babassu oil, mango butter, and beeswax to try out as both a lip balm and a lotion bar. I poured most out into an empty deodorant container (clean, of course) to use as a body butter, and then also was able to fill five lip balm tubes. The babassu oil melts at just below body temperature so it rolls on smoothly, but soaks in rapidly, so the skin is not left feeling greasy. I used some of it after shaving last evening, and found it left my skin feeling velvety, not oily. Boyfriend especially appreciated it, as when I use a soft balm in a jar, I tend to apply too much and my lovely smooth legs get a little greasy.

From there, I decided to make another batch of soap. This one used tallow, coconut oil, and olive oil to make a lovely, simple bar. I increased my super fat just a tad, as I’ve found my recently-tested first batch to be a touch drying. And I added oatmeal and calendula to the soap batter for an extra skin-soothing touch. They rested in my craft room for a couple days and I unmolded them this morning. My crafting room shelves are certainly filling up with soaps and balms!

I also used Saturday to just rest and relax and make a big batch of butternut squash and sweet potato soup for my lunches this week. The soup comes together quickly, simmers for a while, and blitzes up in the blender with very little effort. And soup and a cheese sandwich will be a nice early-fall lunch.

After such a relaxing Saturday, I went out on Sunday. I went downtown and spent the day at the National Museum of American History, where I browsed their new Innovation wing. There, I learned about all the inventions we take for granted that really changed the world. I was fascinated that they chose to include things like alarm clocks and deodorant along side exhibits about televisions and computers. And they had an entire exhibit about how ready-to-wear clothing changed the way people dressed and how the poor could move upwards in society. A truly neat look at how the early 20th century changed our social structure.

But the day spent on my feet meant I was particularly glad to come home to Boyfriend’s vegetarian chili and a nice hot bath for my Sunday evening beauty ritual!

The Ghost in Our Room

This is a bit tongue-in-cheek, as I don’t actually believe our room is haunted. You see, for the last year, I’ve noticed that the light coming through our bedroom window shines on the far wall, near the door of our bedroom, and takes the vague shape of a person standing there. It startles me in the middle of the night.

But I don’t want to put up dark curtains or a shade to block the light because I like having sunlight in the morning. Also, our bedroom light fixture burned out shortly after we moved in and we’ve never been able to find a replacement bulb that fits. So I like having a lot of natural light; I just don’t like the streetlights shining in.

And in some strange way, it’s almost like this false ghost is becoming a real comforting presence. Whenever I start in the middle of the night, I can remind myself that anything I think I saw or heard is probably nothing, like the ghost. We’ve even taken to calling the reverse-shadow “the ghost.” As in, “we have to go something about the ghost,” or “it’s just the ghost” when I wake up panicked.

So now I wonder, what if I were to come up with a story about the ghost who watches us benignly from the doorway of our bedroom? I’ve always said that our room might have originally been meant to be the children’s room because it is large enough to house a couple of bunk beds. Perhaps the gentle presence is some long-forgotten mother who wanders our little historical town and peeks in the doorways of bedrooms to make sure those inside are safe. It’s a nice thought, and somehow turns a ghost from a frightening presence to a comforting one.

It is foolish, I realize, to make up a story about a patch of light reflecting on the wall. But it’s there every night as I try to fall asleep, and ghost stories are ultimately stories about history, which are so interesting.