This is my symphony

What I read & what I lived …

What I read

This month’s book club read is Jessica Francis Kane’s Rules For Visiting. And just as the back cover blurb states, the novel is “a nourishing book, with its beautiful contemplation of travel, trees, family, and friendship”–“a perfect antidote to our chaotic times.” I couldn’t agree more. And come Monday when five women discuss women’s friendships in light of this novel … what’s not to like?

May Attaway is forty, single, and living at home with her aging father. She is a landscaper for a local college and her life is cramped, hemmed in, as May says in the very beginning, because she had “reached a point where the balance of the past and all it contained seemed to outweigh the future [that] I no longer understood how to move forward.” May has no hobbies, nor does she want any. She reads books, but doesn’t finish them. She barely knows her neighbors, though she has lived in her house for her entire life, not a stick of furniture or photo on the wall changed from childhood. And she has few–if any?–friends. Sure, she is friendly with her co-workers, but those relationships don’t lend themselves to late night heart-to-hearts.

We suspect May is living a life interrupted–but interrupted by what, exactly?

May begins to think about the long-neglected relationships in her life after she reads a magazine feature about a young writer who died in an airplane crash. The online comments were a testament to friendship and May immediately realizes what she lacks. She also becomes drawn to eavesdropping on friends’ conversations in the coffee shop and sees friendship quotes displayed everywhere on all manner of household kitsch: mugs and tea towels and decorative signs.

Friendship is sweet beyond the sweetness of life.

St. Augustine

As happens in many a good novel, May receives a serendipitous gift which, of course, just might change the course of her life. Because her landscaping work has gained the college some publicity, she is rewarded with five weeks paid leave to use in any way she chooses. So May sets off to see those long-neglected friends, planning overnight visits in much the same way that Jane Austen’s characters visited friends: for a fortnight. (In fact, May inadvertently starts a hash tag trend #fortnightfriends.) There’s Lindy, her girlhood friend, a young mom whose house is Instagram perfect, and Vanessa, a middle school friend, who lives in New York City, and is step-mom to twin eight-year-old boys. There’s also Neera, her college friend, whose marriage has crumbled, and Rose from graduate school who lives in London.

May visits each friend for several days, armed with Emily Post’s Etiquette, her road map to being a house guest. She follows the rules, buys a suitable hostess gift, and reconnects–some visits more easily than others. Until her visits, May’s conversations and observations sound hollow–detached–and so I was taken aback by how kindly her friends welcomed her. Compassionately, even. As if there was some great sadness hanging over her.

And there was.

Emerson said, “Happy the house that shelters a friend” but I think it’s really we who shelter each other.

What I lived

I so related to May. It was clear from the beginning that trauma had frozen her. If you’ve ever lived with someone whose trauma ran so deep they played defense 24/7, you know it does not lend itself to healthy relationship. My life turned upside down as a result of that trauma–and I came to recognize my own trauma stemming from their often unpredictable and erratic behavior. So I understand why May pulled in. When the pain runs deep, it’s often easier to isolate than reach out.

It’s good friends, the support of my children, and these Littles that keep me going.

Alexis turned six and she was one excited girl. The middle child, she is stuck between older brother’s outgoing nature and little sister’s cuteness and so she delights in being the center of attention. When she was a toddler, her favorite book at my house was Betty Bear’s Birthday and I read it over and over and over again. We all had that book memorized. (In fact, I would sometimes hear her brother whispering along as he played Legos on the floor while I read it for the millionth time.) When she turned four I had the first ever Betty Bear’s Birthday tea, replicating the last page of the book where Betty Bear celebrates with her animal friends. They eat nuts and berries and cookies. It’s become a thing. This year, Lexi helped me set up and was delighted to use NeeNee’s real tea set. We did have a little cherry juice incident when the kids tried to squeeze cherry juice into their lemonade–but, hey! We were outside, so no harm, no foul. (Just cherry-stained fingers!) Because we used my mom’s tea set, tender-hearted Jonas wanted NeeNee to join the tea party, too: he ran inside, got his framed photo of her, and put it on the blanket. Natalie proceeded to talk to NeeNee in heaven and in some strange way, it felt like an oh-so-perfect way to celebrate Alexis Elaine, her namesake.

What I read and what I lived

Chef Boyardee pizza mix – strawberry Kool-aid – chicken and biscuits – smelt – hot water bath canning – strawberry picking – bread and butter pickles – Jell-0 – Swanson TV dinners – Coney Island dogs – hot German potato salad – Ernest & Julio Gallo wine – dumplings – stewed tomatoes – orange juice concentrate – bologna sandwiches

Kathleen Finn’s 2014 memoir Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good brought back growing up in the sixties and seventies more vividly than anything I have ever read. It’s got to be the food. Her story is not a flashy one. Finn’s parents were hard workers from the east side of Michigan whose paychecks never quite stretched far enough to feed and clothe a family of six. Mom gardened, canned fruits and vegetables, and shopped for the children’s clothes at St. Vincent de Paul’s. The men in the family fished and hunted. The big treat on Friday night was popcorn and Kool-aid. There was plenty of love to go around, but children weren’t coddled–nor did they expect to be. Birthdays were one gift events. Daily chores were a fact of life. Even Grandma Inez brooked no nonsense–if she sensed an tiff brewing between the cousins, she’d say, “You got time to argue? Then you’ve got time to sweep the kitchen. Here’s a broom. And you, here’s a rag. Go dust the living room.” Girls wore knee socks and Mary Janes; dads smoked Kents and drank Old Milwaukee beer. TVs sported rabbit ears.

If you grew up in the sixties and money was tight, Kathleen Finn’s Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good is sure to stir up some memories.

It was, in many ways, my own story. My mom, too, worked on and off throughout my childhood and, like Kathleen, I was a latch key kid before latch key kids were a thing. Until I was eight, my dad was a college student and worked part-time at any number of jobs. To say money was short is an understatement. We moved nearly every year–to a cramped ticky tacky ranch, a drafty old 3-story house, a newly constructed duplex in a subdivision–our housing choices dependent on how much money was coming in. Mom shopped for school clothes at Sears or “Monkey Wards” and then only on sale. (I remember being ecstatic when she came home with three pairs of new play pants, only to have my happiness dashed when we realized that they were ‘husky’ sized. I wore them anyway, waistband practically up to my armpits!)

I guess I’m finally of an age where hard times have turned into the good ol’ days.

After the elementary school carnival

So after reading Burnt Toast is it any wonder I wondered what my own children would remember? Like the Finns we had some hard times, too. After their father and I divorced, I was right back where my own parents were when Dad was in college and starting his business–always a dollar short and robbing Peter to pay Paul. I scrabbled together work as best I could while I commuted to class at a university fifty miles away: I cleaned houses, an office, and worked in a bookstore. Dinner was sometimes pancakes and sausage–a treat! the kids thought. In reality, it was a cheap meal. I made a dish I called caterpillar, biscuit dough jelly-rolled with browned ground beef and slathered before eating with ketchup. I added little biscuit dough eyes and antennae which is how the dish got its name. We ate Kraft macaroni and cheese because it was fifty cents a box. There was a time or two when I arrived home and found my mom had left a bag of groceries in the kitchen. We laugh now, but I marched my kids down to the local convention center each winter where a local grocery store held a food fair–an extravaganza of vender booths giving away food samples and pre-packaged portions and coupons. I bought them each a $3 “under 12-years-old” ticket which entitled them to fill up a grocery bag with as many free goodies as we could find, treats for a month or two depending on how I rationed them out. If I worked a little extra or had some birthday money to spend, nothing felt as extravagant as a Little Caesar’s $5 pizza on a Saturday night.

Surely nothing evokes memory like the food we eat growing up.

Stove Top stuffing – tuna and noodles – Little Caesar’s $5 pizza – grape juice concentrate – frozen peas – Kraft macaroni and cheese – sloppy joe – grilled cheese and tomato soup – ‘breakfast’ cookies – crescent rolls – 19 cents a pound turkey legs – hot dogs – Hawaiian Punch – chicken pot pies – baked beans – SpaghettiOs – fish sticks

What I read

In June 2020 when the world was still shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a group gathered on the piazza in front of the Cathedral of St. Andrew to hold a vigil for racial justice. George Floyd had just been killed. Peaceful protests during the day turned violent at night. Tensions ran high. We weren’t even holding in-person services, yet nearly one hundred people showed up, lawn chairs in tow, masked and socially distanced. The Cathedral intern that year was seminarian (now Fr.) Mike Crukshank and I’ll never forget his message. He urged the largely white gathering to stand with our Black brothers and sisters in the fight for justice, but to stand behind them. He urged us to be wary of co-opting a movement that was not ours and emphasized that our work in this fight was as allies. We needed to listen, not lead.

So listen I have.

If you haven’t read All That She Carried by Tiya Miles, you’re missing a powerful story. Miles writes about a sack found at a rummage sale and now housed in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The sack was embroidered with this message:

My great grandmother Rose

mother of Ashley gave her this sack when

she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina

it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of

pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her

It be filled with my Love always

she never saw her again

Ashley is my grandmother

Ruth Middleton, 1921
courtesy Middleton Place Foundation

Miles traces the lives of those three Black women–Rose, Ashley, and Ruth–and lays out for us the realities of enslaved women and a first generation free woman. The writing is not meant to entertain (it is at times academic), but rather to reveal the “the creativity and fierce resourcefulness of people who preserved family ties even when official systems refused to do so” (link). Yes, it is a story of the inhumanity of slavery, but at its heart it is a love story.

As I was finishing All That She Carried, I heard an NPR interview with cookbook writer Nicole A. Taylor about her new cookbook Watermelon & Red Birds, the first Juneteenth cookbook ever published. The book is a compilation of recipes that are Taylor’s “spin on the traditional African-American food table,” but I found myself just as interested in her chapter intros and the book’s sidebars, both of which gave a cultural context to the food and Juneteenth celebrations.

Shhhhh. Listen.

What I lived

We are smack dab in the heart of summer. Fireflies flash at twilight. Sprinklers hiss in the afternoon. I’ve got sheets on the clothesline and iced tea in my glass. No cicadas yet, but they will be coming soon, bringing with them the beginning of the end. (Of summer, anyways.)

I’m reading as though my life depended on it. Last week was the first anniversary of the end of my marriage (or at least the acknowledged end) and I’m comforting myself with books, slow stitching, and an occasional sweet treat. My favorite escape-read last week was Hillary Clinton & Louise Penny’s State of Terror. You know a plot is compelling when you finish the book in thirty-six hours! Another Bowl of Mending is in progress (I’m calling this one Sun, Moon, and Stars) and I’m fairly certain I’m stitching it for my granddaughter Luna. The Littles finally finished Lexi’s donuts puzzle and the kitchen table is my own again.

Yesterday I walked up to my brother and sister-in-law’s. (They bought Mom’s condo after she died.) We went through stacks and stacks of old recipes and I brought home quite a few which I plan to frame.

Speaking of recipes, here’s a new one I found on Instagram for blackberry syrup. Simmer and reduce 1 pint blackberries, 1/4 cup of sugar, and 1/2 cup of water, then strain. I’ve added this to my iced tea and tonic water (with maybe a splash of gin?!) and you can be sure I’ll freeze some for a taste of summer in January. I have another recipe for Amish garden tea (sweet mint tea) and planted a whole bunch of mint last spring for that little experiment. I’ll report back on the garden tea once I’ve tried it.

What I read

Writer Ann Patchett’s husband said of her idea for Run, “Dump that opera book [Bel Canto] you’re working on, and go to that really, really great idea you had for a book.” I couldn’t agree more. Because while I’m an Ann Patchett fan, Bel Canto, despite the award winner it is, was not my favorite. But like Patron Saint of Liars and Dutch House and State of Wonder, this engaging and thought-provoking novel checks all the boxes for me.

Former Boston mayor Bernard Doyle raised his boys alone after his young wife died. They were only fifteen, five, and four and Doyle did the best he could while pursuing his political ambitions. Eventually, family roles are assigned: Sullivan, the bad boy; Tip, the smart one; and Teddy, a saint. What might seem like an asterisk here is the fact that Tip and Teddy are adopted African-American birth brothers, but it’s the pivot on which this story turns.

When the story begins, Tip and Teddy are in their twenties, fussing and fuming that Doyle has–again!–insisted they accompany him to a speech by Jesse Jackson (Doyle has political aspirations for at least one of his boys) and the reception following. While they walk to the car after the rally, an East Coast blizzard is raging, and as Tip steps out into the street, he is pushed out of the way of an SUV bearing down on him. Tip is only slightly injured, but the woman who pushed him is in serious condition because she took the force of the impact. The police take Doyle, Tip, and Teddy to the hospital–along with the woman’s eleven-year-old daughter Kenya.

And that’s where the plot gets interesting. Because Kenya knows a lot about the Doyle family. She is also utterly alone: no relatives or family friends to call for help. And so Doyle reluctantly takes the girl home. The rest of the story reveals just who the woman–Tennessee Moser–is and why she acted to save Tip. As luck (or a good plot twist!) would have it, big brother Sullivan adds even more conflict to the plot when he shows up on Doyle’s doorstep just as the family returns from the hospital, Tip on crutches, and a young Black girl in tow.

In true Patchett fashion we get incredible insight into so many facets of life: trans-racial adoption, the priesthood, precocious athletes, politics, birth mothers, poverty, and wealth. Run is one of the best novels I’ve read this summer.

What I lived

Now this is the good life.

It’s the peak of strawberry season. We wait eleven months for these few precious weeks in Michigan, and I’m making the most of it. I went strawberry picking with my daughter and three grand Littles (their first time picking) and I think it’s fair to say we made some memories. The seven and five-year-old caught on quickly and picked like champs. Three-year-old Natalie insisted that Grammy pick the berries, then hand them over so Natalie could put them in the quart container. Of course a lot of strawberries were eaten in the process–just look at Lexi’s strawberry juiced chin!

I don’t know about you, but I am definitely team shortcake over here–and that means biscuit shortcakes. Not pound cake, not angel food cake, and certainly not those spongy little yellow round things that store bakeries like to claim are shortcake. Nope. It’s crumbly shortcake biscuits and smashed berries with real whipped cream. (No ice cream, God forbid!) I think there’s something about the buttery biscuit and the sweet berries with the fat from heavy whipping creme that makes it heaven. I eat shortcake as a meal in June and I used to tell my kids that was okay because it has nearly all of the food groups: bread, fruit, and dairy.

I also made my first Bowl of Mending thanks to Arizona artist Tonia Jenny. Oh, my heart, this one was slow stitching at its finest. I’ve already got bowl #2 cut out and designed. It’s so good to see my sewing room floor spread with fabric again.

What I read

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi is set in India. The year, 1955. Thirteen years before, Lakshmi Shastri escaped her abusive husband Hari, and over the years makes a new life for herself as a henna artist–and an herbalist who helps wealthy women prevent (and abort) pregnancies. The life she establishes in Jaipur is a far cry from the one she left where her parents’ fortune was ruined after her father was accused of siding with the Separatists. An incredible artist, Lakshmi’s henna work is remarkable in its intricacy and the hidden images she adds to give her clients good fortune. Like many women who step outside the life that society has established for them, Lakshmi walks the fine line between dishonor and respectability.

But on the whole, life is good. Lakshmi is building a beautiful home of her own, although she sometimes struggles to keep her account with the shifty builder Naraya up-to-date. She could afford to hire eight-year-old Malik as her errand boy. Lakshmi had saris and salwaar-kameez to spare. Her upper class clients sometimes gave her lavish gifts.

But that all starts to slip through her fingers when Radha arrives. Radha, the sister born the year Lakshmi left her husband. Radha, the Bad Luck Girl who tried to pick up the shameful pieces that Lakshmi left behind. Radha who, from her earliest memories, had been the target of the Gossip-Eaters. At thirteen Radha is headstrong and romantic. She does not suffer fools gladly. Custom and class mean little to her, and she balks at Lakshmi’s many rules. It is Radha’s naiveté–and headstrong nature–that threaten to destroy the life that Lakshmi so carefully built when she falls for the son of one of Lakshi’s wealthy patronesses.

Sometimes stories of India fall into a trope of the exotic. And while The Henna Artist will transport you to a time and place that is lavish and extraordinary, it is also the story of one woman’s realization that maybe the hustle necessary to commission an intricate mosaic tiled floor is less important than being true to oneself. At the end of the novel, Lakshmi says, “I would no longer call myself a henna artist but tell anyone who asked: I healed, I soothed. I made whole … I would leave behind the yearning to rewrite my past.”

Lakshmi is a rich woman indeed.

What I lived

I’ve felt a little like Lakshmi in the past couple weeks, running from one thing to another: child care, tutoring, yard work, cleaning to-do’s, exercise. I have to admit that I didn’t think my retirement would fall along these lines. And while I worry about money, I am considering reducing my work days next school year from three to two. There are days I don’t have much time at all to do nothing. But friend Denice and I did manage to squeeze in a day of fun in Shipshewana last Friday. She had never been to my beloved E&S Foods, and I had never been to Yoder’s and Lolly’s for fabric, so we both saw something new.

Denice is a wonderful photographer as anyone who reads her blog knows. And while traveling by car, it’s usually her patient husband Bruce who is Master of the Three Point Turn when she calls out “STOP!” for a photo opportunity. As Denice tells it, he ‘lovingly’ turns around, backs up, or whatever else he needs to do so that she can point and shoot–all the while muttering a few well-chosen expletives as he does. Reader, I’m not ashamed to say I channeled my inner Bruce on the trip with some of his favorites. Let’s just say dadgummit and goldarnit will have to suffice here, but the photos below are testament that the turn-arounds were worth every minute.

I said in my Holmes County post, I might be the only person I know who considers food and fabric appropriate souvenirs. I was wrong. Denice does, too. She hooked me on the tiny pretzel balls and animal crackers at Yoder’s Meat and Cheese, and I had her at the mini-M&Ms at E&S where we wandered the aisles to the background chatter of Pennsylvania Dutch. We both bought some fabric, except Denice was on a mission for a quilt background, whereas I just sorted through fat quarters until I found something that called out to me. I came home with cinnamon rolls and oatmeal and pickles. (Remember my “Life is Delicious” post?!)

We chatted there and back about books and family and death & dying and betrayal and heartache and growing old. Denice is a darn good listener and I hope I’m the same for her.

I might always worry about money, but I am rich indeed.

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There’s a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

What I read

I’ve made mention before of my love for all things Three Pines and Inspector Gamache, but Louise Penny’s ninth Gamache novel How the Light Gets In has got to be my favorite. I settle into these novels like a long awaited homecoming. That quaint village,Three Pines. The scones and licorice pipes and scotch and bacon. Neighbors through thick and thin. And all those heady references to literature and history. Fairy-tale like, to be sure. But like fairy tales, the books are familiar and I return to them again and again.

In How the Light Gets In we have the murder of the last remaining Ouellet quintuplet. (The Ouellet’s were, Penny tells us in an end note, inspired by Canada’s famous Dionne quints.) Constance Ouellet visits Myrna shortly before Christmas to reconnect with her former therapist and promises to return. Instead, she’s found murdered in her small Montreal home. But we also have the culmination of Gamache’s battle against his immediate superior Chief Superintendent Francoueur, who, previous novels revealed, has taken up Pierre Arnot’s vendetta against Gamache. We witness the extent to which Francoueur has turned the homicide division against their Chief Inspector and how he has fallen in their esteem. Exhausted by the conflict and all but admitting he has been bested, Gamache goes so far as to tender his resignation.

Or does he?

Of course, part of the charm of the Gamache mysteries is the resolution–and Penny outdoes herself in How the Light Gets In. I spent the better part of a rainy day racing through these pages, curled up in my recliner, blanket tucked around me: a little slice of Three Pines right there.

What I lived

It should probably come as no surprise that right about now, I’ve got an irresistible urge to plant three pine trees somewhere in my yard.

Used book with a message

But I have a city lot and I’m already trying to rein in my yard as it is. I need to make it more manageable so that I can continue its upkeep on my own for as long as possible. (Professional lawn care is so expensive.) I’ve spring-cleaned the beds and borders, and I’ve got a landscaper coming to reposition some plantings and remove some brush. (She’ll also add a much longed for raspberry border behind the garage!) The raised beds are planted, albeit much more conservatively this spring. Heck! I even seeded over some bare spots on my lawn.

For years I’ve told myself the story that I don’t have a green thumb. (“I can’t grow a darn thing!,” she lamented.) I ceded all that to my ex-husband a decade ago. But I’ve been trying to rewrite some of the stories I’ve allowed to limit me. Because really? Yes, my peas might be straggly–my herbs might need more sun–the mulch I used might not work … but what have I lost, really? Some time. A little money. Ok, a lot of work. The question might better be what have I gained? And the answer to that question is simple. I’ve learned. What not to do. What to do differently. My vision just might take some time.

Now that’s some kinda metaphor for life right there.

Last week I also read the much-talked-about Midnight Library. I had been hesitant to read it because the novel seemed to oversimplify a pretty heavy idea: what if you could try out the many different lives you might have lived and choose from among them? My used copy arrived with this sticky-note attached and I was almost ashamed of my book snobbery. But, alas, I’ve not reviewed it because I wouldn’t know what to write. From my perspective, the novel takes a meaty stew of a concept and reduces it to jello: crystal clear and much too sweet.

As I read I couldn’t help mutter to Nora Seed as she agonized over her choices, “There’s no magic bullet, no perfect world. Just deal with your shit, girl, and get on with life!”

I guess all this is to say that that’s what I’m trying to do with this life I have that I never expected. Rewrite the stories I’ve told myself that no longer fit. Dream of Three Pines. Plant some tomatoes. And get on with it.

What I read

Every so often a book comes along that meets you right where you are, one that stares straight into your heart as you sit nose-to-page. This week, that book was All the Children Are Home by Patry Francis.

Dahlia and Louie Moscatelli have a houseful of foster children. Their rag tag family has already expanded and contracted several times when arrival of an ‘Emergency’ one afternoon changes their lives profoundly. Agnes Juniper is a tiny six-year-old Native American girl who knows nothing of her mother or her heritage. She arrives traumatized by abuse in her last foster care placement where she was kept in the attic and beaten. When she arrives at 100 Sanderson Street, Agnes knows nothing of toys or the outdoors and she speaks like a two-year-old.

Dahia and Louie are unlikely parents: she, haunted by trauma of her own and crippled by agoraphobia; he, a quiet giant of a man who eschews emotion and is most comfortable under the hood of the cars that he services at Louie’s Texaco. But as improbable as these parents might be, Agnes is transformed in their care. She immediately attaches herself to eight-year-old Zaidie’s side–Zaidie, who perhaps mothers the little girl better than Dahlia herself is capable. Foster brother Jimmy, just thirteen, is the first to fall in love with Agnes and it’s his “I love you” a few weeks after her arrival that cracks open her heart–and his. The Moscatelli children are all too familiar with loss and abuse–and it’s their unconditional love for Agnes that causes her to thrive.

As might be expected, their life is not easy. Money is scarce and there are no extras. (Truth be told even the basics are hard to come by.) Dahlia’s dark secret makes the family a target of harassment in their small town. Social Services interferes, moving children around like checkers on a board, never mind the damage that results. Substance abuse. Assault. Incarceration. It would be cliche for me to to call the children resilient or to claim that it’s love that changes everything. Except that it does.

I wonder, sometimes, at the praise books receive. Last week I read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, which was “a literary miracle” according to NPR. Now don’t get me wrong–it was a fantastical romp of a story that moved from the studios of Hollywood to Oregon and Italy. It was a great read: well-written with some significant insights into the human condition.

But All the Children Are Home? It touched me.

And that’s the best literary miracle right there.

What I lived

I’m slowly getting used to my new reality. Sometimes grief over Mom’s death sweeps over me and I lose an afternoon or an evening to tears and doubts. Did we do enough to make her comfortable at the end? Did she truly know I loved her? Was there something I could have said or done to ease her mind? Sometimes I worry and fuss about house repairs and yard work now that I’m on my own. Who do I call to skim coat the damage to the living room wall? When will the tree guy grind the willow stump? How will I ever keep up with the yard work?

But you know what? At the day’s end, life is a miracle.

Last week I cared for my grandson when he was sick with strep, even managing a trip to the pediatrician for the first time in over twenty years. He stitched and painted and lego-ed all day. This week my daughter and I took the Littlest to story hour at the Gardens. I’ve put in hours of work clearing out borders and beds and the yard looks pretty darn good if I don’t say so myself. I ordered two polywood Adirondack chairs for the deck–and put them together without a hitch. My morning coffee never tasted so good as when I sit on the deck watching the orioles feed. Today Friend Mary and I had lunch in Grand Haven and walked along the channel. And the cherry on top of it all? The weather has been a delight: blue skies, gentle breeze, and eighty degrees. (I think it’s finally safe to say that winter is a distant memory.)

Maybe Ma Moscatelli said it best when she thought about the murky future: “What could I do but put on my shoes, start down the street, and see where the day might lead?”

What else, indeed?

What I read

If I ever need a quick pick-me-up, I’ll choose a novel that exalts all things food. And since I read–and loved–Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone, when I saw her debut-novel Delicious! on the shelf, I thought it deserved a chance. I wasn’t disappointed: a food magazine, New York City, an ugly duckling heroine. What’s not to like?

Billie Breslin dropped out of college and ran away from home to conquer the Big Apple. Billie, baker extraordinaire, lands a job at Delicious!, the Grand Dame of food magazines–and as assistant to managing editor Jake Newberry, so less.The test kitchen and offices are housed in Timber Mansion, a Greenwich Village landmark. And, yes, there’s the food: braised duck hearts and cheese souffle and Anzac biscuits and chicory salad and wine, of course. Lots of wine. But there is also a luscious cast of characters. Sal and Rosalie, proprietors of an old-school New York cheese shop where Billie moonlights. Sammy, the magazine’s travel writer, whose arcane diction is as flamboyant as he is dapper. Mr. Complainer, a hunk of a customer who just might steal Billie’s heart. Her dad, who phones her weekly to beg her to come home. Mrs. Cloverly, the reader who calls Delicious! weekly to complain that a recipe is inedible. And Billie’s sister Genie, who never answers the letters Billie writes.

Billie and Sammy discover a secret room in the mansion’s library–and hidden treasure: correspondence from a twelve-year-old fan to the chef James Beard during World War II. First merely captivated by the young girl’s story, they soon realize the historical significance of the correspondence. But the magazine has been shut down, Timber Mansion is on the market, and time (as they say) is running out.

It can be a bit of a gamble to read a non-fiction writer’s first novel, but Delicious! was a pleasant surprise.

What I lived

This much is true. I had a week. A week that involved the city’s tax department, unpaid taxes, and an ex-husband. I’ll leave it at that, except to say that I never imagined a tax bureaucrat could be as sympathetic and understanding as I experienced. But that was the last straw. In the past several weeks, I lost my mom, contracted COVID, and paid a whopping federal tax bill. I needed a distraction. Something far from the madding crowd, but still close enough that I wouldn’t spend an arm and a leg–especially since I had already given one leg to the U.S. Treasury.

Holmes County Ohio–Amish country–was just what I needed.

I slept like a baby. I stayed at a comfy little B&B. I wandered antique stores. Shopped for crafts. Visited a fabric store. And walked through more gift shops than I have in the past several years. (A shopper I am not.) I ate chicken pot pie. Had my first-ever whoopie pie. And went to as many Amish grocery stores as I could fit into my day. You heard that right, dear Reader. This gal brings home groceries as souvenirs. I got pickles and jam and whole wheat flour and raspberry cobbler and barbecue sauce and Trail bologna and snack mix and another whoopie pie, stashed in the freezer for when I need a little bit of escape right at home.

Life is truly delicious, yes?

What I read

If you–like me–need a novel that draws you in and keeps you on the edge of your seat, Laura Dave’s The Last Thing He Told Me fits the bill. I’ve had a bit of trouble staying focused enough to read over the past several months (more on that below) but this story held me fast. Newlyweds Hannah and Owen seem like the couple who has it all: she’s an artist, he works in Silicon Valley, they live on a houseboat, and their love story has a sweet Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks vibe to it. Except for the fact that Owen’s sixteen-year-old daughter is less than enthusiastic about having a stepmother, their life is just about perfect.

Until one afternoon Hannah gets a single sheet of notebook paper delivered to her door, scrawled with a note from Owen: “Protect her.”

And then, dear Reader, we are off and running. Quite literally.

Because Owen has disappeared. His Silicon Valley boss is arrested for cooking the books. And the FBI is on Hannah’s doorstep. (Oh, and Owen stuffed a duffel bag of money in Bailey’s locker at school.) Hannah quickly discovers that “Owen” was not who he said he was. Nor, it seems, is Bailey. Based on a snippet of memory that Bailey has about her life before moving to San Francisco with her dad after her mother died, the girls are off to Austin, Texas–hoping to solve the mystery of who Owen was, and why he disappeared.

Hannah might be in over her head. But our heroine is scrappy and determined and has a big heart–she loves her unlovable stepdaughter and if she can’t find her husband, Hannah is determined to unlock the secrets of Bailey’s past. It’s quick and satisfying and just. plain. fun.

What I lived

It’s quite fitting that I’ve not posted for nine months. Because in that time I’ve birthed a new life. I’m on my own at sixty-something, the life I thought I would have shattered by fallout from addiction and financial infidelity. I lost my nest egg. I got a part-time job. And as if those changes weren’t enough, I spent five months caring for my elderly mom after she entered hospice care in her home last October.

So focusing on much of anything other than getting out of bed and putting one foot in front of the other was often difficult, if not impossible. I’ve learned to give myself grace and not make too many demands. Blogging was just one of the things I set aside for a while.

But although I am alone, there’s no despair here. For now I’ll just leave it at that–but not before I share with you a poem that says everything I care to say about the sorrow of carrying on while living with loss.

New Moon

How much it must bear on its back,

a great ball of blue shadow,

yet somehow it shines, keeps up

an appearance. For hours tonight,

I walked beneath it, learning.

I want to be better at carrying sorrow.

If my face is a mask, formed over

the shadow that fills me,

may I smile on the world like the moon.

Ted Kooser

What I read

I put off reading Lisa Genova’s Still Alice (or seeing the movie) because Alzheimer’s disease is everyone’s worst nightmare, am I right? And I just didn’t know if my heart could take the Big Feelings I knew the story would stir up. But I’ve got to say, Genova handled a sensitive topic with incredible grace and never once gave in to the maudlin. Alice Howland is a Harvard linguistics professor who comes to realize, at fifty, that something is terribly wrong. She loses a word or a face here and there, misplaces names–but don’t we all?! Then one day she gets lost in her neighborhood on a run she has done daily–for years. None of the landmarks look even the little bit familiar, and she struggles to regain her bearing. Within days she is referred to a neurologist and it’s not long before her fears are confirmed: early onset Alzheimer’s. When the story focuses on the response of Alice’s family, friends, and colleagues it’s much as one would expect: anger, aversion, pity. But the writing soars as Alice’s memory fades and we see the world through her eyes. Her daughters become “the mother” and “the actor.” Her granddaughter’s playroom is “the room with all the loud seats.” When Alice follows her caretaker on a walk at the novel’s end she “didn’t want to leave, but the woman was going, and Alice knew she should stay with her. The woman was cheerful and kind and always knew what to do, which Alice appreciated because she often didn’t.” There is a kind of peace in Alice’s world–and while there may not be hope exactly, the fear of this horrible disease loses a bit of its sting.

My book club read this month was The Other Americans by Laila Lalami. We try to alternate reading fiction and nonfiction, and last month’s book was Jose Vargas’s Dear America about living undocumented in the United States. As its title suggests, immigrants are front and center here. The story is a multi-layered crime-mystery, love story, family saga. Driss Gerroui, who immigrated from Morocco thirty years ago, is killed in a hit and run late one night as he leaves the diner he owns in small town in the Mojave desert. His daughter Nora, a struggling musician, comes home to bury him and help settle his affairs, and in the process discovers a shattering family secret. Nora’s ambitions collide with her mother’s aspirations and she must decide to stay or go. Turns out there’s more than one way to immigrate–that sometimes our most difficult journey is coming home to ourselves.

Dystopian climate change novels don’t usually catch my eye. My all. time. favorite. is the young adult novel The Age of Miracles which I wrote about nearly ten years ago. (If you haven’t read it, you must–it’s that good.) But the blurbs for Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy were pretty compelling. “Instant bestseller.” “Poignant.” “Tantalizingly beautiful.” Franny Stone is on her way to Antarctica on a fishing vessel, following what might be the last of the arctic terns. Most bird species are extinct. The oceans are barren of fish. Even mammals in the wild have vanished. It’s us. We humans. Our greed finally destroyed the earth. An interesting premise, for sure. And while the writing is beautiful, I found it difficult to stay with this one. Franny is difficult to connect to. And unbeknownst to me when I chose the title, there’s the fact that the novel takes place (for the most part) on the ocean with all its endless tossing and turning and waves and storms and cold and …
“Thank you, Moby Dick,” she said with resentment. “You’ve ruined many a fine book for me.”

What I lived

There is no better time of year in my Great Lakes state than June. Days are warm; nights cool. My perennial garden is in full bloom and the pots of annuals haven’t yet gotten tired as they will in August. Birds. Fireflies. Oh my! I’ve got ‘summer’ on my menu and it’s chicken salad and asparagus and steak on the grill. And strawberries are in and there’s nothing better than a berry that is just a few hours–or minutes!–picked.

“The whole world is a series of miracles, but we’re so used to them we call them ordinary things.”

Hans Christian Anderson

Last week I went camping in a new spot: Sleepy Hollow State Park. What they say about the pandemic and RVs and campgrounds is correct: there’s not a spot to be found and if you do find one, be prepared to park cheek to jowls with big rigs and trailers. I was lucky enough to get a reservation the last week of school, so the campground was quiet and only half full, if that. I hiked and read and walked to the beach. I found a cute farm market and bakery. I read some more.

Close enough to heaven for me right now.