Thursday, January 31, 2013

Shout Outs!

Every writer, whether just starting out or a veteran of many years, has people to thank along the way. My own list is approximately ten feet long, unfurled along the ground and loaded with praise.

For instance.

Jennifer Brown-Banks – Without this incredible woman you would not be reading this. She designed this blog for me, helped me to understand how it works, and regularly comments on it so I don’t feel like I’m writing in a vacuum. A treasure.

Christine – A soul mate writer if there ever was one. We’re about the same age, each have three children, began writing about the same time and have shared so much. Like our high hopes for publication, our prayers for our children, manuscript critiques, and even pictures of family and projects. Without her encouragement and friendship you wouldn’t be reading this either.

The “Muskies” – My online writing group calls themselves The Musketeers or “Muskies”. Over the years we’ve grown to five of us who bolster each other’s efforts. Besides Christine and me there are Marion, Pam, Marilyn, and Christy, the newest. I met everyone except Christy through Dolly’s (Marilyn) newsletter to which I contributed for  a couple of years when I first began writing children’s stories. That newsletter gave me an idea of what other writers were like, offered critiques for subscribers, and noted markets where we could submit our work. Many of you have writer buds like this, but if you don’t go get some!

Karen – This woman is as much a sister to me as any of my blood relatives. We’ve known each other for over 30 years and have been through thick and thin together. I’m thick, she’s thin. She once spent a whole day critiquing my second Minnie manuscript and handed me pages and pages of notes. She’s the most detail oriented person I know and doesn’t let me get away with anything. I think she might be an angel in disguise.

Okay, that’s just the beginning of my list and not in any particular order. If you've read this, you know of at least one other to whom I am especially grateful. All have been put into my life by Someone who loves me like a Rock. There are dozens of others, like Cindy, Rhonda, Linda, Steve, and (another) Karen, who come here, read, comment, and regularly lift me up. "Thank you" seems so inadequate.

God bless you all.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Traveling in Winter

Over the weekend I indulged in a little globe trotting. It began unexpectedly when I snagged a  friend at church just as he waltzed through the kitchen where I was dropping something off for a meeting later.

“How was your trip to Haiti?” I asked Mike. I was surprised when he told me he’d only been gone for a week but he put it quite clearly when he answered my question.

“Eye opening.”

Then he told me of the conditions under which people there live. Huts only a quarter the size of the kitchen we were standing in with only half of it roofed. He mentioned the number of people, 220K, killed in two minutes when the horrible hurricane struck. Lots of woe and lots of work left to do there. Without having to mention it we both understood how much we have here. I hope to talk to him about it again.

Later that day I went to Las Vegas. Our son, his wife and girls visited. They will be traveling there for a wedding at the end of March. Heather shared pictures of the flowers she’s making for the wedding party. Friends and family from New Jersey and Texas will be going, too. It brought to mind my visit there a few years ago when my family treated me for one of those birthdays with a zero in it (never mind). Food, fun and frolic. About as far from Haiti as one could get, I suppose.

At nine o’clock Sunday evening I snuggled into my recliner and made the trip I’ve been waiting a whole week to take – England. Yup, I’m a Downton Abbey fan. The era in which Lord and Lady Grantham play out their lives for our viewing pleasure all comes to me as I watch, fascinated with the loves and lives of these imaginary characters. Maggie Smith as the dowager countess is a stitch. Sunday’s episode included an unexpected death that proved to be a plot twist full of angst and heartache. Made me wish I could write like Julian Fellowes! I just love it. I hope the series lasts a few more seasons.

But it was over at ten. Now where do I go? Ah – that’s right. Botswana! My friend, Marie, has loaned me books 11 and 12 in Alexander McCall Smith’s series, The #1 Ladies Detective Agency. I turned off the telly (still in England a little) and opened up on yet another world. I got so engrossed I stayed in Africa for another hour and a half. I used at least six tissues dabbing away tears of laughter while reading of Mma Ramostwe and Grace Makutsi traveling into the wilds in a canoe. Water nearly came over the sides as Precious, a "traditionally built" woman, and Grace got in. Oh, my. It was worth reading almost to the end to get to this part. Fuuunnyy!!

So today I got up and wondered if anyone else globe trots like this. All snug in your winter habitat, dreaming of far away places and traveling there in a mind trip. How about you writers? Where do you attempt to take your readers when you pen your excellent stories? Are you able to impart a strong sense of place that will take your reader into distant lands – or, even – the local mall? Inquiring minds want to know.

And the rest of you?

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Friday, January 25, 2013

What You Say and Do

“Is Sue here?” he asked.

I was just coming out of the ladie’s room and my head popped up when I heard my name. He stood at the service counter in the small computer shop my husband and I owned.

“Hi, Jim,” I said, smiling and walking over to see what he wanted.

“I’d like your permission to use your children’s story for the Sunday after Christmas.”

I’d dropped the story off at our pastor’s office the week before and told him it might be suitable for that Sunday. It took all of my courage to do so and I hoped he wouldn’t think I was full of myself supposing I could write anything worthwhile. In other years he'd read real books, with glossy covers and beautiful artwork. Mine was on just a few sheets of paper. But here he was asking to use it and I was so pleased. Of course I gave him my permission. It took me quite a while to calm down after he left the shop.

That was the first sign. The secomd sign came from the same man in a sermon I’m sure he’s forgotten.

I barely remember, okay, I flat out don’t remember, the scripture passage for the day, what was going on in the world or church at the time, or even how long ago it was. Probably twelve years, at least. But his voice was gentle as he strode back and forth delivering the day’s message. The context of his sermon (I think) was our perception of our lives and how we could best serve the world and each other. Heads nodded and some of us smiled. But, among all the many words that he’d worked so hard to give us, these eight came at me like a pillow filled with goose down. Whoosh.

“Go ahead and have a dream for yourself.”

My world stopped for a beat. I can’t remember another thing he said after that, but I knew I had been touched. Not ordained by God for any grand purpose, but messaged. You know? Like a note from on high, long awaited. To give blessed assurance of where you probably thought you were headed.

You never know when something  you say or do will have a profound affect on someone’s life. I’m guessing Pastor Jim Slater has no idea of the role, subtle though it was, he played in the dream realized by this lowly parishoner. But there you have it.

One of the reasons I write – is because of him.

PS: That children’s story was Mary’s Sparrow, one some of you have read. 

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Time Out

 This one is for all you Grandmas out there who have had the joy of being chief caregiver for  an afternoon. Sam is ten now so this happened a while ago. But I've taken my own advice for the past several years and have recorded some of the antics of my grandchildren for posterity. I probably won't inflict any of these recordings on them until - oh - maybe at their wedding receptions, but you might enjoy reading this one now. I've even included an appropriate Bible verse.

When I was a child, I talked like a child; I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. I Corinthians 13:11

Grandmothers like me are worry warts, a condition handed down to me from my own mother. I just can’t help it. I worry about the mind numbing effect of television, video games, the Internet and peer pressure on my grandchildren. But helping them to learn the benefits of thinking for themselves is a goal worth reaching, and I do my best to insure that their own imaginations get plenty of stimulation whenever they’re in my care. We’ve made forts from couch cushions and chair throws, battled dinosaurs in the wilds of Montana and had tea parties on the living room rug. I always hope I’m doing my part, but still wonder how much of their developing minds are helped along by this.

One busy afternoon, I had to give my four-year-old grandson a time out for shoving his baby sister. He sat with his arms crossed, pouting, on a dining room chair where I’d told him he had to sit for five minutes. Of course, for the first three minutes he bargained and begged for a reduction in his sentence, but I would not give in.

I ignored his yowling while I soothed his sister in the adjoining room, until he suddenly grew quiet. I was relieved that he’d settled down to wait out his time, but then he spoke. In his best boy voice he said, “Grandma? You know, everybody has to listen to their legs, and mine are telling me I need to walk!”

His ability to reason and use his imagination no longer concerns me. I can't wait hear what he'll dream up when he's a teenager!

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Time to Diet - Again

For some of you this will be a re-read, but since I'm having a devil of a time getting rid of my holiday 5 pounds, I thought it was time to re-visit the situation. I guess I could blame it on being a fairly good cook. Or the fact that my family is always happy when I make yummy desserts or keep the cookie container full. Or - well, anything. Maybe you can relate? This was first blogged in May of 2012.

Have you ever been bebopping down the aisles at the grocery minding your own business and suddenly you feel like you’re being followed? But you turn around to look and realize it’s just your own big behind? Ugh. Okay, you know you’ve packed a few onto the old caboose, but holidays, birthday parties and special celebrations, weekend getaways – they seem to crop up every week and it’s tough to deprive yourself of the abundant and yummy food that goes along. Then one day it hits home and you know – it’s time – to do something.

My hair and makeup were done and I’d picked out the skirt and top for church that morning. I sat on the edge of the bed control top pantyhose in hand. As I rolled them onto my legs I had to twist and turn a bit, but I managed to get them up. Hmmm – I thought – this waistband is a little stretched. The big toe on my right foot was bent up slightly, too, but I stood,  re-adjusted a bit and felt all snugged in. Good. Off I went.

I hopped out of the car in the church parking lot and had to do a little hitch up. I slid my hand between my skirt and top and tugged. There – should be good for the next few hours. I ignored the slight burning sensation where the pantyhose met between my thighs and went to choir practice hoping no sparks would fly from the friction. We didn’t need That kind of fire at the service.

I can’t remember what our choir anthem was, but it included some four measure phrases. This required breath control and when I filled the old diaphram I felt my control tops cry out. I was momentarily alarmed, but the waistband held. Then just before the service I did another little  hitch up. Okay, now. That should do it. I went to find my pew.

In the Lutheran church there’s a lot of standing, sitting, and kneeling during the service. We do the standard stand to praise, sit to learn and kneel to pray thing. Well, around about communion time ol’ Chubs here reached the pinnacle of her struggle with the pantyhose. I rose from my pew, waited in the aisle, walked to the altar rail and kneeled. Sacrament received, I stood to return to my pew and about halfway there I felt that stinkin’ waistband just give up on me.

With each step back up the side aisle I felt it roll, and roll and roll – when sorrows like sea billows roll – from the old hymn bipped through my head. Down went my taupe pantyhose, relentlessly, over my lumpy hips and heading for the  floor. Eeek! I tried to keep the panic off my face. How could I do a hitch right here in front of God and everybody? I tried to control my walk so the rotten L’eggs would stop rolling but the sea billows were winning. I walked past my pew, my eye on the double doors at the back. With as much dignity as I could muster I waddled straight into the narthex and down the stairs to the ladies room. By then they were almost at my knees and in their death throes.

I couldn’t help the giggles as I removed the poor taupe colored traitors right there in the stall. With a resigned sigh I returned for the remainder of the service bare legged. The poor pantyhose had only just lived through the challenge of a lifetime and were balled up in my handbag. I was witness to their last gasp; a huge sigh of relief.  

My ‘one day’ had come and shortly thereafter I began my diet (see Susan's Extras). I lost twenty two pounds and have kept most of it off these past two years.

Oh - and another thought ladies. You must rely on Jesus for your salvation because even the best pantyhose will eventually let you down! Let mine be a cautionary tale.

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Books Series to Love

I have high hopes that my mysteries will become a string of books that people enjoy reading. While working on the second book in the Minnie Markwood Mysteries, I began a list in my head of all the book series I’ve enjoyed reading over the years. Here are a few of them.

The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – Author Alexander McCall Smith created these little gems. How I love reading about the charming African detective, Precious Ramotswe. She is a “traditionally built,” woman who, with the inheritance from her father, opens a detective agency in Botswana. Here we learn of African ways, get to meet the love of Precious’ life, the mechanic J.L.B. Matekoni and chuckle at the antics of her secretary, Grace Makutsi, who received 98% on her secretarial test and wants everybody to know it. Full of love, laughter, charm, and poignancy – you’ve gotta love this series. And, lucky me, I still have two to read.

One For The Money – Is the first in the Stephanie Plum bond agent mysteries created by Janet Evanovich. I just finished Notorious 19 so you know she’s been around for a while. A couple of books in the series were real bombs, but 19 was pretty good. Stephanie is young, torn between two lovers, Ranger and Morelli, and gets into all kinds of trouble with her sidekick Lula, who, in Africa, would also be “traditionally built,” which is code for fat. Evanovich has branched out with other series, but the Plum books remain on top.

All Creatures Great and Small – This series is only four books, but I’ve read them all three or four times. I first read them many years ago (they were written in the 70's) on the recommendation of my mom and sisters. I will still pick one up if I’m feeling in need of a visit to the Yorkshire countryside where James Herriot, aka Alf White, lived and practiced his veterinary skills just before and just after WWII. His third and fourth books lacked some of the appeal of the first two, but are still worth the read especially if you love animals. At times I found myself laughing so hard the tears ran down my leg. One chapter in particular about the Raines Ghost triggered this reaction. And this vet's romancing of Helen, whom he eventually married, is not to be missed.

There are others, but I don't want to drive you away. I’d love to know about some of the book series that have kept you coming back for more. Care to share?

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Monday, January 14, 2013


Popcorn. Don’t ya just love it? It’s great with the grandkids, not too messy. It’s great at the movies in spite of the over-the-moon price. Leftover popcorn goes out in the yard for the crows and squirrels, who peck and claw at each other over it. Great stuff.

Unless . . .

It’s the source of your extreme mortification.

It was mid-summer and hotter than blue blazes (or Bubbles Le Tour – your choice). It was also Saturday and in the evening we almost always play pinochle with two other couples. I rarely cook supper on those nights because we’re pretty snack heavy while we bid, trump and gather tricks. We have yummy things like dill dip and chips, carrot and celery sticks (yes, yummy – with lots of dill dip), cheese, crackers and pepperoni. Stuff like that. No need for supper – nosiree.

So this night I decided to treat everybody and take along a big batch of my famous caramel corn. The recipe can be found in Extras just in case this story doesn’t turn you off to it altogether.

Anyway, we played and munched and laughed and drank iced beverages on into the night. Everyone enjoyed the caramel corn which Marie had placed in two of her oblong plastic snack bowls.

Did I say it was hot out? Clothes sticking to your back hot. Skin from your thighs making a ssstttt sound when you go to stand up. Yeah, that hot. No air conditioning at our friends home, either.

About ten thirty we decided to call it a night and everyone got up (sssstt) to help clear the table except me and Ed, our host. In front of me on the table was what remained of the caramel corn in one of the oblong bowls. I chatted with Ed and reached for the bowl. As I pulled it towards me I noticed none of the corn in the bowl moved. I jiggled it a little – still not moving. It had become very attached to that bowl – in love with it, in fact. Caramel is like that.  

“Wow, look at this,” I said to Ed. “It’s – like – stuck.”

Please Do Not Ask Me Why I Did This Next Thing.

I lifted the bowl and turned it upside down, leaning in and peering up curiously at the contents. For about a nano second time stopped and that popcorn hung on desperately. I could almost imagine a sort of Les Miserable’s song going on in the bowl . . .do you hear the caramel cling . . .

And then . . .

Crash! That stuff hit the table like marbles on asphalt and skittered everywhere! Everywhere, I tell you. Ed and I jumped back like startled lab rats and beheld the carnage.

I gulped. “Who would have thought it would do that?” I asked, kind of hunched over, stricken in my mortification. I’d messed up our friends table, floor, chairs, the dog food dish, under cabinet area – you name it. My husband just shook his head.

I looked at Ed with saucer eyes and he burst out laughing. Holding his sides in hilarious mirth. Much to my relief the others looked on and laughed, too. Thank God for small, sticky favors!

After my profuse apologies, we cleaned up the table, swept up the popcorn (dang!) and called it a memorable night. We have spoken of it since when conversation lags or if there’s a new friend or two to entertain. And if Ed, himself, seems kind of down, all I have to say is, “Remember that time with the caramel popcorn?”

He cheers right up. Wouldn’t you?    

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Friday, January 11, 2013

A Lovely Lady

The following story is the result of an interview I conducted last year with one of the senior members of our church. I was prompted to do so by our pastor's wife, Christa. She'd been to visit Marietta and marveled at the Christmas Cactus you see in the picture on your left. I've been unable to sell the story elsewhere, but it's worth telling so I've decided to place it on my blog. St. Luke's members who read this will appreciate the details.
Nana's Plant

Marietta Dreesen will soon turn ninety two and so will her Christmas cactus  When I visited her in her tidy home in mid-December she ushered me into the presence of that ancient succulent, and I was stunned. It was still mostly in full bloom, but Marietta assured me had I come a day or two earlier, I would have seen it in its full glory. But you could have fooled me. I thought it was magnificent.

“The cactus is probably older than I am,” she told me. “My mother, Marie, gave it to my grandmother, Alma, on the day that I was born. That’s why we call it Nana’s plant.”

That was in Brooklyn, New York in the year 1920. It has been in Marietta’s care for the past fifty years. I had to ask what she’d done to it in all that time to keep it so vigorous. Did she give it special plant food? How often does she transplant it?

“It’s only been in a few different pots that I know of,” she answers. “I don’t feed it and it gets plain tap water.”

I was stunned. The stems of the plant are so heavy they droop over the sides of the planter, and the blooms hang down like crystals on a great chandelier. To all appearances it has thrived on ninety plus years of benign neglect. That’s a recommendation you probably won’t find in a posh gardening book, but it seems to work just fine for this cactus.

Part way through our conversation Marietta held up a finger. “Wait,” she said. “I have something to show you.”

She disappeared into a back bedroom and returned with one of the “babies,” a hearty and smaller version of the mama behind me. It was nearly done blooming but was a very nice specimen in its own right. She placed it on a low table so I could see the comparison with the larger plant. The difference was quite pronounced and I began to see how the older plant had come to be revered.

The cactus was given to Marietta in 1963 when she and her husband moved from Westchester County, New York to her current home in upstate New York. Sons Nicky and Paul where charged with transporting Nana’s plant.

“They were very careful with it,” she said. “It’s really a family treasure.”

The cactus first resided in Marietta’s real estate office where it sat in the same room as her clients.

“It was near a huge window on the side of the building that overlooked the Catskills,” she remembers fondly.  

Nana’s plant is moved outside in the summer months and drinks in the rainwater while sitting on a stone bench in Marietta’s yard.

“One year I had it out there and began to notice it didn’t look quite right.”

On closer inspection Marietta discovered that rabbits had been making a meal of the lower branches which almost reached the ground. The cactus is forty two inches across the top and the branches are thirty six inches hanging down. Easy pickings for hungry bunnies passing by. Once the nibblers were discovered a board was laid across the bench to keep the branches higher.

In all of the cooler months Nana’s plant occupies a special place in the mistress’s living room enjoying the sunshine streaming in from the picture window. Then it receives only tap water and admiring glances from the lady who has loved her Christmas cactus all her life and from those of us lucky enough to be invited into the presence of this majestic specimen.

Another surprise Marietta had for me was a beautiful calilily plant, apparently also in full bloom, sitting in a corner of her small dining room within view of the living room.

“This is just beautiful,” I said. There were even dew drops on the velvety white petals.

Marietta grinned. “Look at this,” she said and pulled the fake stem from the pot. The dew drops were plastic and the petals some kind of fabric! It looked so real because the plant itself is real and just as greeen and healthy as the many others in her care. We had a good laugh over that.

Marietta and I belong to the same church and if anyone wants to know where the huge white poinsettia in the narthax came from – well, that was on loan from Marietta. It graced the area in all its glory for the whole Christmas season. She truly believes in sharing God’s gift of plants with family and friends. Her kitchen window sill is lined with small vases and cups laden with slips from various plants around her home. She gives them away.

I stood up, reluctant to leave this pleasant oasis in the first days of winter. She ushered me slowly to the door and I took one more look at Nana’s plant.

“Come back anytime, dear,” Marietta said. “I’ll have blueberries again this summer.”

You know, I’m going to take her up on that!

Thank you for such a pleasant afternoon, Marietta. God Bless.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Tough Questions

So there we were watching a Harry Potter movie, The Prisoner of Azkaban. That’s the one where Sirius Black and Harry get into a whole lotta worry with the Dementors out in the woods near Hogwarts (among other perilous situations) and we were all glued to our seats. Grandson, Sam, is currently in the thrall of the wizardly Harry. Sam’s sister, Anna, who is 7, sat next to me on the sofa. She’s not so much in thrall, but more in shivery awe of all things high drama.

We had our jammies on and a blanket over our knees with a big mixed bowl of bite sized chocolate pieces for comfort. A perfect stay over at Grandma and Grandpa’s, right?

Well . . .

At the crux of one scene where a Dementor swoops in to suck the souls from Sirius and Harry, Anna only just peeked out from the blanket all popeyed. But she was listening – I could tell. And right there in mid-horrible movie scene, she turned to me and asked . . .

“Grandma, what’s a soul?”

Ho, boy. How is it that children can blindside you like this? Somehow they ask a universally difficult question and with complete confidence in you, the beloved elder, they expect the right answer.

I sent up a swift prayer and said . . .

“Your soul is the essence of who you are.” I tapped her lightly on the cheek. “It’s the life force deep inside of you that makes you Anna. It’s a gift God has given to you – just for you. It’s what you are in your heart and it never dies.”

She smiled and let out a little sigh. “Oh.”

And then Harry and Sirius were rescued and we snuggled back down under the blanket and had another bite sized Snickers.

That conversation made me think of how and why I write. A soul baring of sorts, a bit at a time. So that others can know me better and relate to me as a fellow soul. It’s how we understand what’s unique about each other and, conversely, what we have in common. It helps us live together.  

I have things to tell that are different from what you have to tell. My say is different from your say in a way that draws me to you – or not. There’s that, too. But all together it makes for a wonderfully interesting world of sights, sounds, and experiences.

What little bit of your soul do you share with others? Not just you writers, but all of you. Do you have your say as often as you’d like?

How would you have answered Anna?

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