All posts by Mara

I’ve created Entertaining Family to document the things that inspire me as an art historian, business woman, mother, wife, hostess and writer. I am an aesthetics enthusiast who loves color, texture, pattern and light – you will see it play out in almost every post regardless of the topic. For me, life is about finding the beauty and joy in daily living. It is making art out of the ordinary and cultivating a creative life.

The Joys of a Pen Pal

I was eight years old when I was introduced to Mrs. Jenkins. She was a teacher from Manchester, England who had come to my elementary school in Milwaukee to participate in a cultural exchange. Mrs. Jenkins was warm and engaging, and she had many interesting stories about life in the UK.

As a third grader with a vivid imagination, I was pretty sure she was the sister of Mary Poppins and had a purse full of magic.

Before she left our school, Mrs. Jenkins asked if any of the students in our class would be interested in having a pen pal in England. My hand shot up immediately. The thought of writing to a child who lived on another continent was thrilling. So on a piece of construction paper, I scrolled my name, age, interests and home address in magic marker. Mrs. Jenkins put it in her magic purse and promised to find me the perfect match.

Some months later, an envelope arrived from overseas from a girl named Sarah. She sent me a short letter and a few photographs. She had blonde hair and a brother, just like me. In third grade our letters were rather simple, filled with questions like, What is your favorite food? Do you also find your brother annoying? Do you have a favorite song? And every letter ended the same way: Please write back.

I remember going to the mall with my allowance in hand so I could stock up on stationary and stickers to make my letters special.

In elementary school we wrote about friends, books and Michael Jackson. In middle school our letters were about the boys we had crushes on. In high school we shared our thoughts about the Gulf War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was no Skype, Facebook or email back then.

Having a pen pal made us better writers, and it made us more curious about the world. I loved reading Sarah’s thoughts and opinions, and I dreamed of meeting her in person.

Then high school ended.

When college began, life got hectic and I moved to another city. My childhood was boxed away in my parents attic, and finally, one of us forgot to write back. That was two decades ago ago.

I still think about Sarah often, and wonder how she is doing. Is she still in England? Is she a mom? Has she been to the United States? I have tried to find her on social media, but no luck so far…

I am grateful that Mrs. Jenkins found my perfect match all those years ago. And I am thankful to Sarah for being such a faithful friend for so long. Our letter exchanges were a very special part of my childhood.

This summer my daughter turned eight. One day, as I was telling her about my pen pal, she asked if she could have one, too. I was delighted! I got right to work investigating websites that pair writers based on age and interests.

Then I remembered that I had a more direct route to a pen pal!

One of my friends is a teacher in London. I messaged her on Facebook and asked if she could help me find a match for my daughter. Well, within a matter of days, we had a name and an address. Today, 35 years after being introduced to my pen pal, my third grader is writing to a friend overseas. In fact, she just sent a letter in the mail last week. This wonderful tradition continues…

“MOM, she loves cats, just like me!”

I don’t know how long they will write, but I am glad that my daughter has this experience. And this summer our family is stopping in London on our way to the Baltic, so perhaps these girls will have the opportunity to meet!

This will be my first time in England, though I’ve been dreaming of it since Sarah’s first letter arrived in 1983. For me the experience will be bittersweet.

So many of us have friends in other parts of the world. If you are interested in pairing your child with a pen pal, those connections are a great place to start. If you have questions about the pen pal experience, don’t hesitate to ask!

 

Collecting Art, An Entertaining Family Tradition

When my husband and I married in 2004, we established an early tradition for our family…collecting art.

We are both creative people, and we love to fill our home with unique items that help to tell the story of our life together.

On occasions like birthdays, holidays, Valentine’s Day and our wedding anniversary, my husband and I do not give each other gifts. No flowers. No diamonds. No chocolates. No cards. No ties. No gizmos. This has always been our way. Instead, we purchase a piece of art annually. It is a gift with no shelf life, and something that we can both enjoy.

Throughout the year, my husband and I attend art shows and peruse galleries and coffee shops looking for that one special piece that speaks to us. Sometimes it is a sculpture, sometimes it is a painting on canvas, and sometimes it is a five-inch by five-inch photograph.

In February we will celebrate our 14th wedding anniversary. It is so wonderful to be in our home and look at the art that lives in our space. Each piece has a special story. Each piece is a special memory. These works are deeply personal and meaningful to us.

So what do we do to mark all of the special occasions in a year? We give hugs, and write love notes, we cook special meals together…and we always spend quality time as a family.

 

Entertaining Family Favorite, Peggy Guggenheim

Today, we are revisiting one of our favorite posts about a trailblazer, tastemaker, trendsetter, and entertaining inspiration.

I’ll never forget the day I was introduced to Peggy Guggenheim.

It was an October morning in Venice in 1999. The weather was lousy. It was cold and damp – the kind of day that chills your bones. Venetians were out and about, wrapped in fashionable trench coats with the collars turned up to defend against the wind. I stood along the Grand Canal in my college-chic GAP hoodie, entranced by gondolas slowly bobbing on the steely water. Jagged waves lapped against sinking plaster buildings and everything was eerily gray, like a pastel drawing that had been washed away with a sponge.

At the time, I was an art history student living and studying abroad. For weeks I had been traveling throughout Europe visiting the most important works of art from antiquity through the Baroque. This journey had taken me to the Louvre, the Prado, the Venice Academy, and more. Quite honestly, all of the masterpieces were beginning to bleed together and I was tired. In fact, I wondered if I wasn’t having some sort of allergic reaction to old art, as I seemed to lose my energy every time I entered another museum. On this particular day, I was excited to be changing things up and visiting a museum of modern art, The Peggy Guggenheim.

I turned away from the cold air along the Grand Canal and entered her museum. Once inside my eyes grew wide as I took in the scene. It was as if I had entered another world. The Italian palazzo, which was had been her home from 1949-79, felt alive – it was breathing with bursts of vibrant color, undulating lines, splatter marks, and wild textures. The rooms did not feel “over stuffed” as some galleries do. Instead, each piece of art was given room to shine. I felt true joy as I examined works by Picasso, Dali, Kandinsky, and Klee.

An eccentric heiress from the United States born in 1898, Peggy Guggenheim’s interest in avant-garde art developed while she was living in Paris in the 1920s. It was there that she was introduced to writers and artists who were challenging social norms of the time. Peggy, who as a teenager shaved off her eyebrows to shock those around her, found kindred spirits in Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Samuel Beckett. It was because of these relationships that she began acquiring works of the Dadaists, Cubists, and Surrealists and abstract expressionists. Not an artist herself, this was Peggy’s way of becoming a central figure in this world of original, innovative ideas.

Peggy ran galleries in Europe and America. During World War II, she shipped a huge number of paintings out of Paris to New York City, protecting them from the Nazi war on Modernism. She gave Jackson Pollock his first exhibit, as well as several other artists whose work would influence modern culture. She had a terrific eye for spotting talent, anticipating the next “big thing”, and was happy to give her muses an international stage.

After visiting her museum, I became a huge fan of Peggy Guggenheim. I quickly devoured her biography Art Lover by Anton Gill. In 2015, a documentary film on her life was released: Peggy Guggenheim Art Addict, which features intimate interviews with Peggy.

Today a photograph of one of her cocktail parties hangs in my living room, reminding me to savor the simple pleasures in life.

Peggy loved being surrounded by creative people with creative ideas, and she was well know for hosting parties for her friends. It is said she usually served horrible food and bad wine, but people always attended her gatherings because they celebrated life. And that is what people loved about Peggy.

So often these days, if you pick up a book on entertaining you’d think you have to be a Michelin star chef in order to host an event. What if we just served mediocre food and cheap wine, and instead focused on building deeper friendships? Wouldn’t it be amazing to skip the fancy name cards, cloth napkins, and menus scrolled on chalkboards? Would the world fall apart? That is why Peggy is one of my entertaining heroes. Let’s celebrate idiosyncrasies. Instead of being shallow, let’s go deep where the most interesting connections happen.

Spending time with family and friends is one of the greatest pleasures in life. This year, I resolved to host more gatherings for the people I love, and to create more family traditions. It is time display my favorite pieces of art, serve imperfection on a platter, and spend quality time with the people who bring joy and laughter into my world.

Party at Peggy's House

Fabulous Peggy

Peggy Guggenheim in Venice

Simple Vacations Are Rewarding, Too (no matter what your Instagram feed tries to tell you)

We’ve just returned from a vacation in New England. Over the past week we wound our way from Kennebunkport to Portland, Maine and then on to Boston, Massachusetts. Our vacation was simple and included fresh sea food, trips to the ocean, and long family walks.

While we were away, I saw many of my friends posting photos of their adventures, too – from Mexico, to Florida, to Italy – families are taking this time to get away, explore, and unwind. Travel is a wonderful way to bond as a family, gain an appreciation for the world around us, and learn about different cultures. In an increasingly global society, travel prepares us to work with colleagues, customers, and collaborators from other lands. And as Saint Augustine said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”

However, to reap the rewards of family travel, you don’t have to take an elaborate or expensive vacation. Jet setting families look pretty on Instagram, but many of us don’t have the funds or the time to set off on an around-the-world tour. In fact, a “staycation” or short trip can give us the same benefits. So friends, don’t fret about keeping up with the Joneses. Create a special experience that works for your family. This is something I know a thing or two about.

When I was a kid, my family couldn’t afford many long distance vacations, but we did have one fabulous getaway each summer. One of my favorite family traditions! My parents would cram sleeping bags, pillows, food, games, drawing pads and a box full or markers into our 1980s station wagon and we’d drive three hours to a placid lake in northern Wisconsin. There we would pitch a tent and cook our meals over an open flame. At night we’d lay near the empty country road that ran along our property and watch stars shoot across the pitch black sky. And before bed, we’d tell ghost stories with flashlights under our chins while munching on Jiffy Pop.

At the lake, my brother and I lived in our swim suits and always smelled like a mixture of Coppertone, Off!, and algae. There were no cell phones, no flush toilets, no showers, and we were in heaven. Those rustic, “roughing it moments” – as my dad referred to them – are some of the best memories of my childhood.

Tent camping taught us to appreciate nature. My dad would take us on hikes through pine forests in search of deer tracks. We would catch grasshoppers and learn how to tell time by watching the sun. On the shores of the lake, we would find snails and my mom would tell us about the escargot served in France. My brother and I would wrinkle our noses.

Those long summer days were filled with teaching moments. It was where I learned about the glaciers that once covered Wisconsin and the importance of freshwater lakes. We learned about the logging industry in our state and toured paper mills. If we ever complained about being bored, my parents would hand us the drawing pads and markers and tell us to make art.

Next time you’re planning a trip, think about something simple and close to home. Head to a museum, a State Park, or go camping in the woods. Encourage your children to put down the electronic devises and spend time with their imaginations. Help them expand their understanding of the world through fun, hands-on learning. Make it an annual trip, and start a new family tradition.

Happy traveling! -Mara

Tips For Air Travel With Small Children

My husband and I have been traveling with our daughter since she was a baby. She’s flown domestically and internationally – most of the time it has been delightful, and other times, meh….

There was the day she projectile vomited on a plane from Milwaukee to Detroit. The turbulence was awful and she lost it…literally…

Then, on a flight to Vermont she spiked a 104 degree fever. I had nothing to make her more comfortable or relieve her fever.

And most recently, on a trip to San Francisco she got her head stuck in the telescope handle of my suitcase (don’t ask).

These unfortunate events have happened for one reason…to ensure that I have experiences to draw from when doling out advice for traveling with children. So here goes dear parents, here goes…

Practical tips for plane travel with small children:

1.) Make a list and check it twice! Keep a paper or electronic list of everything that you need to pack and check it off as you go. Take the list with you so that you can use it again at the conclusion of your trip.

2.) If you’re lucky enough to be traveling with a partner, put one adult in charge of taking care of the little one’s needs (potty breaks, snacks, tantrums) and one adult in charge of luggage, ticketing, security, and gate navigation. Don’t rely on one person to do it all.

3.) Dedicate specific pockets in your carry on bag to keep IDs, passports, boarding passes, car keys, and credit cards. When you are stressed, these are the first things to be misplaced.

4.)When packing your carry-on bag, make sure that you have at least one change of clothes for your child, a travel bottle of Children’s Tylenol, and a small blanket to keep your little one warm and cozy (planes can get really cold).

5.) Allow your child to pack a little “carry-on” that has books, toys, coloring supplies, and an iPad loaded with parent-approved games, movies and TV programs. Keeping your little one occupied will help make the trip go smoothly.

6.) If you drive to the airport, make sure to send yourself a text with the location of your vehicle – it takes two seconds. Parents, you can get easily distracted when you arrive at the airport and have to unload luggage and children. It’s easy to lose track of your surroundings. And believe me – when you get home from a long trip, the last thing you want to be doing is wandering around the parking garage.

6.) Once you have made it through security, purchase a small snack and beverage for your little one. Then, if the airport has a kids play area let your child run around and burn off some energy.

7.) Before you board the plane, make sure your child uses the bathroom – even if they tell you they don’t need to! I’m convinced that kids have a physiological response to a plane’s takeoff which makes them have to go potty. “Mommy, mommy, it is an emergency! I need to use the bathroom now.”

8.) Once you are on the plane, ensure that your child’s seat is equipped with a disposable bag (a.k.a. “barf bag”), and take time to locate the nearest bathrooms. Remember, it is best to seat your child in the middle seat or next to the window. If there is turbulence and one of the luggage compartment opens, you don’t want anything falling on your child.

9.) Get your child situated with their blanket, iPad and a toy or two. Let them take of their shoes and get cozy. And remind them of the universal airplane rule: no kicking the seat in front of you.

10.) At some point during cruising altitude, make sure your child uses the bathroom – even if they tell you they don’t need to. Because, you guessed it…there is also a physiological response to a plane’s landing that makes a child have to go. And there is nothing more disgusting than using a plane’s bathroom after you have landed. I was once stuck in this situation – the air circulation fan had been turned off, the lights wouldn’t turn on, and the faucet wouldn’t run.Oh, the memories! Oh the horror!

11.) When you have gotten off of the plane and are waiting, and waiting, and waiting…whether it is for luggage, for a rental car, for a taxi… involve your child in little games like “I spy with my little eye” or “find the shape”. Anything to prevent boredom. When kids get bored, they get their heads stuck in luggage handles!

In the end, if your child did a relatively good job on the trip, compliment them for it. It is tough work for a kid to spend a day in airports and on planes following instructions, paying attention and sitting quietly.

I hope these tips are helpful. I could write a book about air travel with kids…this just scratches the surface…

If you’re looking for more ideas, check out this post from My Treks and Travels!

Bon Voyage!

A Stunning New Orleans Wedding

Hi Friends! I’ve recently returned from my brother and sister-in-law’s destination wedding in the Big Easy. It was a beautiful and memorable affair that perfectly celebrated these two artistic wanderers. Rather than writing a long post about it, I thought I’d share some photographs that captured the spirit of this perfect day. I hope you find some inspiration:

The Bride

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Ceremony

Happy Faces

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Liz singing

Married

Our Family

Lovers

Happy Moms by Bryan Patrick Photography

Lovelies 2

The First Dance

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The guys

Sparklers

Jumping In by Bryan Patrick Photography

The Bride and Groom by Bryan Patrick Photography

Commitment Reading of the Pueblo Indian

Before we met, you and I were halves unjoined except in the wide rivers of our minds. We were each other’s distant shore, the opposite wings of a bird, the other half of a seashell.  We did not know the other then, did not know our determination to keep alive the cry of one riverbank to the other. We were apart, yet connected in our ignorance of each other, like two apples sharing a common tree.  Remember?

I knew you existed long before you understood my desire to join my freedom to yours. Our paths collided long enough for our indecision to be swallowed up by the greater need of love. When you came to me, the sun surged towards the earth and the moon escaped from darkness to bless the union of two spirits, so alike that the creator had designed them for life’s endless circle.  Beloved partner, keeper of my heart’s odd secrets, clothed in summer blossoms so the icy hand of winter never touches us.

I thank your patience.  Our joining is like a tree to earth, a cloud to sky and even more. We are the reason the world can laugh on its battlefields and rise from the ashes of its selfishness to hear me say, in this time, this place, this way – I love you best of all.

For more on the wedding, check out To My Brother, With Love.

(Thanks to those friends whose photos I may have used to complete this post! Also a huge thanks to Bryan Patrick Photography and Race and Religious in New Orleans.)

A Note To My Brother, As We Celebrate His Wedding

This past weekend in New Orleans, my brother married a woman who is by all measures his perfect match – artistic, glamorous, well-traveled, loving, and generous. Their ceremony was stunning and I will share all of the details in an upcoming post, but first I wanted to take the opportunity to share a reflection about my brother, Seth.

One of the reasons I love writing about family traditions, is because of all of the fun and magical moments I shared with my brother growing up.

For as long as I can remember, Seth has been the most influential and inspirational person in my life. Though he is two years younger than I am, his emotional maturity far surpasses my own – and it has always been that way.  As youngsters, I was the loud one – the child who defied authority, was careless when sharing my opinions, and lived to have fun. My brother was introspective, thoughtful, and always sensitive to the needs of others. As we grew, we each found greater balance – his seriousness rubbed off on me, and conversely, I’d like to believe that my irreverence helped him laugh a bit more freely.

In college, I would return home on weekends to find my brother reading the collected works of Emerson, Thoreau, and Krishnamurti. He would tell me how inspired he was by philosophies that encouraged aligning ones life to the needs of the world. That is why I was not surprised when, after completing his degree in architecture, my brother fit his belongings into a backpack and moved to Africa to spend a year living, learning and volunteering abroad. An artist, Seth would share his experiences traveling across West Africa through exquisite pen and ink drawings. He also captured the sounds of his journeys, recording the noises of traffic, birds, drums, and voices.

That same year, I married the love of my life and began my own adventure. Our childhood was over, and my brother and I were venturing out on different roads.

As adults, we have spent more time apart than together – but wherever he happens to be, a piece of my heart is there too. And though we travel unique paths, I am grateful that our roads converge at the most important times. This weekend, as I watched Seth marry an extraordinary woman who shares his joie de vivre, my heart was full. You want the best for the ones you love most in the world, and I know that in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have imagined anything better for him.

Congratulations, my dearest friend. What a beautiful life you have created.

seth-and-masha