Archive for Washington D.C.

A Pink Moment

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

My baby cherry tree!

These days, pink is everywhere. Millennial Pink is the official name of the soft hue that now colors chairs from Target, rose-gold phones from Apple, and yes, pink clothing for both genders. Why this soft shade now? Is it because treatment of people has become so hard? Pink is a color of childhood, whether you call it blush, petal, nude or cherry.

Cherry is a pink that simply gives me joy. The Baltimore-Washington area has a long, mild spring, and the crowning glory of our area from March through April are the cherry trees, which bloom in waves, depending on their age and variety. I grew up in snowy Minnesota reading Japanese fairytales with cherry blossom themes and books about dolls from Japan such as Rumer Godden’s 1961 delight, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. Did that set me on a lifetime love of sakura trees?

One of the old-friend cherries nearing end of bloom

My street in North Baltimore has some very large, sprawling flowering cherry trees that might be older than the 40 years I’ve been told is the average cherry tree lifespan. But how old are they?

Sakura trees were brought into the United States by an American food explorer working for the US Department of Agriculture called David Fairchild. Mr. Fairchild first shipped them from Japan to his garden in Chevy Chase, MD in 1902.

President Taft’s wife, Nellie, took to heart his idea of beautifying Washington with cherry trees. It was also a difficult time in the country, when there was popular agitation over immigration of Asians. This idea was a variation of an olive branch. Could Americans see something good about Japan?

Mr. Fairchild was tasked with brokering a deal for cherry trees in the nation’s capital with the Mayor of Tokyo, who then offered them free. The first cherry trees were shipped to Washington DC in 1909; however, their roots were found to be heavily infested with insects that could have wreaked havoc across many agricultural species in the United States. These trees were burned in 1910. The Japanese who heard about it were not angry—they were sorry to have sent a defective gift and insisted on sending more. In 1912, healthy trees were planted in Washington and celebrated ever since.

I have been to the Tidal Basin to admire this sweep of cherries and see the excitement of Washington DC’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival. I’ve also seen the blossoms celebrated this year in Vancouver, Canada. Cherry blossoms create a kind of worldwide party where we all stop and pay attention to nature. And in the 1990s when I lived near Yokohama, I’ve participated in Hanami parties, enjoying not just the trees but the special decorations throughout Japan and cherry-themed foods that go with the fleeting blooms.

Cherry blossom fans in downtown Vancouver

Entering their second century of life in the United States, the cherry blossom tree is no longer a fragile, exotic beauty. The City of Baltimore’s tree program donates all kinds of trees to neighborhoods where residents want them; not just cherry, but serviceberry, redbud, and others that are beautiful, yet support native insects. My street had suffered the death of several aged giant cherry trees, so an enterprising neighbor put together a plea for more cherries to go on any street in our neighborhood five years ago.

The green-leafed cherry in background is one of our grand dames

One early spring day, trained gardeners planted four seven-foot-tall trunks with bare limbs in front of my house. I bought water-bags and tucked them around the young trees, so they would have a slow release of water all the time during our hot summers. Now the trees are approaching 30 feet high and don’t need their waterbags, except in extremely prolonged heat waves. They flower several weeks after the street’s grand dame cherries, so we are fully blooming two weeks long.

I am grateful to our block’s seven new children, and four senior citizens, for showering me in pink every spring regardless of politics and fashion.

The Monday Women Marched in Black

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

“Wear all black,” the woman said over the phone.

Come at eight-thirty, and don’t carry too much.

Be prepared to go from the Supreme Court of the United States to the offices of senators.

Last Sunday, I learned the Women’s March organizers were a series of actions this week in Washington D.C. I wanted in. Over the last two years, I have been increasingly agitated by the attempts by male lawmakers to erase established civil rights, especially those of women and minorities. It feels like the final straw that the President’s nominee for an open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court is Brett Kavanaugh, a conservative judge alleged to have sexually assaulted a young woman during his high school days. Despite the fact that more claims have come about the judge’s sexually aggressive behavior, the President and most Republican senators don’t want an F.B.I. investigation or to postpone voting for Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

President Trump and his supporters insist Chrstine’s report must be false, or else it would have been told to the police years ago. But I know that many women who do report rapes have their stories ignored or suffer repercussions for telling.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is a psychologist now living in California. She says that when she was fifteen, a teenaged Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, forced her into a bedroom at a party. She claims Kavanaugh put his hand over her mouth so nobody could hear her cry out for help. The men fell off her, and Christine did escape being raped, but she suffered post traumatic stress disorder. Christine moved 3000 miles away to get away from her painful memories, which she had discussed with others over the years, but that became increasingly hard to ignore when Kavanaugh came onto the national stage. Some months ago, Christine wrote a letter about her experiences to her Senator, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein. Christine asked Feinstein to keep her identity confidential but to share Kavanaugh’s past actions with the F.B.I. However, information was made public, and now Christine has received death threats and left her home.

I am grateful to live close enough to Washington D.C. to reach it in an hour’s train ride. I wanted to make a physical declaration that I believe women don’t make up stories about rape. I followed the instructions the woman had given me to assemble in front of the US Supreme Court on a gray Monday morning. Rape survivors among the marchers spoke about who hurt them and how the trauma still affects them. Some of their voices were very low, because the emotion was strong, and it was the first they had told these painful histories. After each story, our voices swelled in answer. “We believe you.”

The rally started out with a few hundred people, but as we marched to the Hart Senate Office Building, the numbers swelled. Long lines of cars had to stop to let us cross the intersection, and by the time we reached Hart, it seemed like close to one thousand were marching. There were so many marchers, we had to divide up to make it into the building through two different sides. Because we had no bullhorns, messages passed through the crowd by repetition. When people in the line began holding up a hand, it meant it was time to fall silent and listen for directions.

In the Hart and Dirksen Senate Office Buildings, the police were already waiting and had stiff plastic wrist bands, the modern version of handcuffs. While it is legal for people to enter a building to visit a senator, the police told us that it is against the law to protest inside government buildings.

In the atrium, some people prayed and many others got to know each other. I met many students from Yale Law School, the alma mater of Kavanaugh, and women and men from all over America. The organizers divided us into smaller groups that lined the halls outside the offices of Republican Senators Susan Collins and Jeff Flake, as well as some others who might be swayed to vote against Kavanaugh.

I was unable to get inside any of the senators’ offices, but the people who did spoke to the senator’s staff about how the experience of rape impacted them. I did not know that during the same time, other rallies were being held around the country, that many women were wearing black as a sign of protest, and at 1 PM that Monday, many women would walk out of work for an hour to show they believed Christine.

At the Senate Buildings, 128 people were arrested in Dirksen and the Rotunda. The rest of us made it out.

As I walked through Capitol Hill, I caught sight of a protest sign about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh on a food truck, making me realize that people are creatively speaking their voices.

It was still raining when I reached Union Station, and my thoughts went back to my own social history. Christine and I came of age at the same time, and there are several uncomfortable experiences with men I’ve pushed very far back into my memory. Three decades ago, I believed that if I got away from someone without being hurt, I should consider myself lucky. Why should there be a consequence for the perpetrator?

In my Perveen Mistry series, I write about a woman solicitor battling for social justice for females constrained by the legal system in British colonial India. A century later, it is shocking that so much is still the same.

Death in the Dollhouse

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.


Dollhouses have a shelf in my life. I played with dolls and miniatures for a very long time—longer even than my little sisters. Our house had a tall, narrow built-in bookcase on the second floor landing, and I set up rooms for my tiny doll family on five “stories.” These went from kitchen to living room, dining room to bedrooms. The coup de grace of a Victorian bathroom with pull chain toilet and free standing china tub. I could play “A Little Princess” or “Borrowers” or a story of my own devising.

While I made doll clothes and tablecloths and tiny books, the home was furnished mostly with dozens of very fine wooden and porcelain furniture pieces, a long-term loan from a kind neighbor. These beds and sofas and dining cabinets dated from probably the 1940s and ’50s and were often in the nostalgic Victorian or Colonial style. Was it the dollhouse that gave me an appreciation of antiques? And was the art of playing family stories set in the past practice for later writing historical and mystery novels?

Frances Glessner Lee, born in 1878, also loved dollhouses. But she transformed a picturesque child’s hobby into a dark art. Her miniature rooms are the center of a magnificent show currently at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.

A parlor scene with victim

Frances’s path to her gory, tiny rooms was utterly original. She was a lady of privilege, the only daughter of the industrialist John Jacob Glessner, who owned the International Harvester agricultural and construction machinery company. Frances and her brother were tutored at home; he attended Harvard, but her parents denied her the chance for higher education due to her gender. It was a sad, too familiar story.

Some of the activities that filled Frances’ time as a girl were making dolls and miniatures and reading the novels of Sherlock Holmes. Her marriage to a lawyer named Blewett Lee was unhappy; she wanted much more than life as a society wife. Frances appreciated the central concept in Sherlock Holmes stories about clues being essential—and often overlooked. But her husband didn’t want her to pursue the forensic pathology work that she spoke about learning. The couple divorced, and her parents dissuaded her from trying to enter the field.

But Frances didn’t give up. After her brother died, she had access to her inheritance and used some of it to endow a brand new department of Legal Medicine at Harvard. She realized this could be a venue where she could contribute. The school was named Magrath in recognition of her lifelong friend, the doctor George Burgess Magrath, a coroner who was on Harvard’s faculty. Her idea was to take a crime, create a tiny room filled with a victim and clues, and let police and coroners study it for their own education.

Frances and Ralph Moser, her estate’s carpenter, spent between three to six months fabricating a “nutshell,” as she called these incredibly detailed dollhouse rooms. To make the piece known as “Barn,” Ralph was directed to shave pieces of wood from an aged shed on her property and put them together to be the barn’s boards. Frances knit tiny stockings using straight pins and recreated tiny newspapers by hand.

The Barn. Did the farmer suffer suicide or murder?

All the ideas for the crimes presented were hers, and often featured women at risk in domestic situations, and the poor and working class. Her dollhouses show the real world of the United States between the thirties and the fifties. Some of them are still used by the Baltimore Police Department for training.

I visited the exhibition over the Thanksgiving weekend, and it was packed with viewers, young and old, peering in at the lit-up nutshells. The line went out the door, the show was so popular. It was heartening to see a woman like Frances appreciated after her death. In her late years, she was the inspiration for some fiction by her friend, Erle Stanley Gardner. She also is said to have been the model for Jessica Fletcher in the television show “Murder She Wrote,” although Jessica was a writer, not an artist.

The exhibition, “Murder is her Hobby” runs through February 2018 and is well worth a peek. If you visit the Renwick’s web page about Frances Glesser Lee, you can take a virtual tour and also hear a podcast about the show.