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“On January 12, 1888, a blizzard broke over the center of the North American continent. Out of nowhere, a soot gray cloud appeared over the northwest horizon. The air grew still for a long, eerie measure, then the sky began to roar and a wall of ice crust blasted the prairie. Every crevice, every gap and orifice instantly filled with shattered crystals, blinding, smothering, suffocating, burying anything exposed to the wind . . . Montana fell before dawn; North Dakota went while farmers were out doing their early morning chores; South Dakota, during morning recess; Nebraska as school clocks rounded toward dismissal.  In three minutes the front subtracted 18 degrees from the air’s temperature. Then evening gathered in and temperatures kept dropping steadily, hour after hour, in the northwest gale. Before midnight, wind chills were down to 40 degrees below zero. That’s when the killing happened. . . ”  From the Prologue of “The Children’s Blizzard” by David Laskin

So it was that, from this first paragraph, I was mesmerized by the horrific blizzard  on the Dakota-Nebraska prairie in 1888.

I have always been fascinated with the pioneering spirit that helped shape the United States, particularly of the stories of the determined settlers of the vast prairies. From Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House Books to Willa Cather’s My Antonia, and Lauraine Snelling’s books about Norwegian immigrant settlers in the Dakota Territory, the great western migration fascinates me. . .

. . . and so it was that while browsing Cornerstone Books, a used book store in Villa Park, that “The Children’s Blizzard” caught my attention. With two other books in my hands, I sat at the big, round, wooden table and peeked under the covers. It was David Laskin’s book that captured my attention and followed me home, with change in my pocket from the five dollar bill used for the purchase.

I think I am a homesteader of prairie books. I often wonder why I am so fascinated by this time and place in history, especially when I know of how difficult the life was for these pioneers. I could never have endured what these pioneers did. I admire their grit, their faith, their determination to bequeath a better life for the children they bore.

“The Children’s Blizzard” is non-fiction and covers the great and ferocious blizzards of the 1870/80’s in the upper midwestern prairie, particularly the blizzard that became known as the Children’s Blizzard of January 12/13, 1888. It is so-called because so many schoolchildren died or were seriously maimed by this blizzard, which came up suddenly, on a rather balmy day, while they were in school. The book is filled with the children’s stories; the horror, the fear, the bravery . . . and it is filled with relevant weather facts, conditions, and of how weather was predicted in the 1880s.

I will confess that I skipped some of the weather facts. What I did read was fascinating. I don’t think of weather forecasting in the 1880′s. Of course, it did exist. It was the U.S. Signal Corp, which was part of the army, and its indications officers (forecasters), who maintained the department and predicted weather. This storm was actually predicted. It was a series of human errors and the often “iffy” systems in place for weather warnings via telegraphs that made for a perfect storm of snow, ice, winds and a populace unaware of the danger ahead. Many of the terms used in the book, such as polar jet, are terms that are still used and were used repeatedly through our long winter here.

I closed the book haunted by the tragedies I witnessed through reading and grateful for the advances we have made in weather prediction. My cabin fever and discomfort this winter were nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to the deprivations and tragedy of over 100 years ago.  It is good, is it not, to be reminded of the blessings in our lives?

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Tree:Morton Arboretum:Shadows #2I am fortunate. I was raised in a family overflowing with love. Although they were strict, I appreciate having grown up with parameters in a home whose occupants were loving and loyal to each other, beyond measure, and who held a respect for education. Mine was a childhood full of colorful characters, on both sides of my family, who added to the recipe that became my life story.

I am unfortunate in that my parents died at fairly young ages. Daddy died when I was 19, Ma when I was 38. Both died after brief illnesses. He died in mid-April, she mid-March. Spring brings hope here on the Cutoff, along with a mini-dose of melancholy.

I am fortunate. I was raised in a family with a good sense of humor. It comes mostly from my father’s side, as my cousins from that arm of the tree can attest to, but, Ma, well, Ma had a special part in the family humor. She was the Gracie Allen to Daddy’s George Burns. She was the constant foil. My dad would set her up for the punch line, and she would fall for it, hook, line and sinker. Like Gracie, my mom took it in good stead.

I think of them both as spring comes around the bend. I make mental notes, sometimes paper ones, to stop by the cemetery and say hello. The first time I mentioned to Tom, the young man I was dating way-back-when, that I stopped to say hi to  my father, he looked at me, puzzled.“I thought your dad died”. “He did, but, I sometimes go to talk to him.” Eventually, Tom got used to me and my humor, though he’s careful not to trip in front of me, but, those are references to stories for other times.

With spring slowly emerging, and a wistful feeling in my heart, I once again made a mental note to visit my parents at Elmwood Cemetery. Then, I picked up Billy Collins’ “Nine Horses”, letting the small volume of poems open where it chose to, which ended up being page 101, with a simple poem that brought a fortunate smile.

No Time, by Billy Collins

In a rush this weekday morning,
I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery
where my parents are buried
side by side beneath a slab of smooth granite.

Then, all day, I think of him rising up
to give me that look
of knowing disapproval
while my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.

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DSCN4343It wasn’t until I was immersed in the task of writing a short informational piece several years ago for our garden club’s garden walk guidebook that I learned what a trace was. I had heard the word, knew it had something to do with the outdoors, which was mostly a contextual guess. This is my own photo, taken several years ago, of Wild Meadows Trace in Elmhurst, Illinois.

A few taps on the keyboard led me to descriptions and examples and so forth, and I came to know that a trace is a path or trail, worn through time by the passage of animals and/or people. These trails tend to connect places along the way;  settlements, waysides, towns, parks, etc. They are like ink on parchment, tracing places where footfall has landed, connecting the dots of time-worn travel.

It was, with more than mild curiosity, that I embarked on an adventure on the Natchez Trace. It was an adventure filled with bits and bobs of history, a legendary explorer whose courage and skills stretched a young United States from “sea to shining sea“, a precocious little girl fleeing from a pack of thugs to find her beloved father in Nashville, a sinister New Orleans judge with a duplicitous and century bending nature, not to mention a host of characters from the distant past and the book’s 1977 setting,  all along the infamous Natchez Trace.

DSCN4186Andra Watkins has masterfully woven a tale as dense as the forests along the Natchez Trace and as simple as the spirit of a child in her genre bending novel, “To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis”. This is a book that defied me to put it down; which I did, only because I kept veering off the Trace to look up the likes of Hector de Silva, Bear Creek Mound, encampments along the Trace during the War of 1812, governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory, John Wilkinson – oh, I could go on and on with the chance encounters and mysterious travelers who appear in this amazing journey of Andra’s. but, I won’t, because if I did, I would rob you of your own pleasure in the reading of  “To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis”, where you will come to know Merry and Em (Meriwether and Emmaline) as you flee with them from New Orleans to the notorious haunts along the Natchez Trace. (I just left this as a review on Goodreads - you might want to click and see what others are saying about this book at Goodreads and Amazon.)

Andra is currently walking the 444 miles of the Natchez Trace, with her own personal cast of characters cheering her on along the way. You can read about her own personal journey here, read back to the beginning of the walk, listen to Andra answer her question of the day along the Trace, browse photos of her along the walk, and, well, get caught up in following Merry and Em’s footsteps in this afterlife journey.

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A Cat's Life Dulcy's Story by Dee ReadyWhen I introduced you to my two left feet last month, I had every intention of spending some time showing you some books that fellow bloggers have written. This is still my intention, but, good intentions sometimes go astray. Eventually, I show you some very good and varied reads, or, at least, tell you about them; just as soon as life quits getting in the way.

I do, however, want to talk to you about a cat, named Dulcy, and how she came to train and then love her human, Dee.

Do you know Dee Ready? She writes an insightful blog, filled with personal memoirs about her early life and childhood, her years in the convent and as a nun, her teaching and activism, and her gently peaceful approach to life. Coming Home to Myself is posted every week or so, depending on what is happening in Dee’s life. It is always inspiring and thought-provoking reading.

It is from reading Dee’s blog that I came to know of her published writing, particularly of her book, “A Cat’s Life: Dulcy’s Story”.  Quite some time ago (was it over a year now?), I acquired Dulcy’s Story. As often happens to books and plans, the book proceeded to sit in a pile, waiting, patiently, for me to turn its pages. Finally, I did. These long, hard winters open up opportunities, don’t they; especially for reading books?

This compact book is a tome of wisdom and feline love, its ninety pages filled with vignettes, told through Dulcy’s voice. We learn how Dulcy come to be with Dee, how they learn to live together, and how Dulcy trains her very nice human in the ways of a cat. We wander with Dulcy as she explores the outside world and tremble with her at the vet. We mourn losses with her and understand jealousy when other cat’s enter Dulcy’s world.

What we really learn in “A Cat’s Life . . .” is about unconditional love.

This little gem is filled with nostalgic illustrations by Judy J. King, whose renditions of Dulcy remind me of our first cat, Zoe. Zoe, who was a wedding gift from a friend, was a calico cat, who graced our lives almost as long as the 17 years that Dulcy graced Dee’s. I imagine them together, kinfolk in a heavenly kingdom of cats.

Thank you, Dee, for this peacefully gifted story.

The back cover of your book says it all. “At the end, all that matters is love . . . “

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There is only one kind of love, but there are a thousand different versions.  

La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)

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DSCN4104Good things really do come in small packages.

Case in point. As I motored down our long drive driveway, which currently looks like a luge, I  thought to check the mailbox before turning onto our road. Skidding to a stop, I bounded out the door, up a mini-mound of packed snow left by municipal street plows, leaned down into the mailbox (for the mound is currently higher than the regulation mailbox height) and burrowed in to see what the postman left. There I was, Queen of the Mountain, balancing on two of the only remaining petite portions of my physique, discovering a box, addressed to me. “Oh, goody” says I. I love, Love, LOVE getting packages in the mail.

Tumbling back into my mochamobile, I noticed the name on the return address, Michael Maher, and wondered what my friend’s husband could possibly be sending me. Showing uncharacteristic self control, I set the box and mail on the car seat, and went on my errand packed way.

Home again, I set about seeing what was in the box, still pondering what Michael sent. As soon as the box opened, I  chuckled with childish glee, realizing that the package was from a different Michael Maher, which I would have known first off had I looked at the Charleston address. The box was from the ever-delightful author, Andra Watkins, and she had used a return address of her talented architect husband, more commonly known to readers of Andra’s blog, The Accidental Coochie Mama, as MTM.

My childish glee, however, was over the contents of the box. Penguin sock #2 copy

Some time ago, Andra did a  post displaying a pair of penguin slippers, which I commented on, mentioning my own pair of Mary Jane slippers which are, sad to say, a mismatched set of two left feet.

Yep. That’s me. Two left feet; fitting for someone who is always taking a tumble, like that ill-fated day we went cross-country skiing and I landed in someone’s cup of Campbell’s tomato soup!

Back to the box. There, snuggled inside the box sat none other than the pair of penguin slippers!

But, wait . . . also in the box was the official announcement of the upcoming release of Andra’s novel, which is about to be released in paperback and e-reader, “To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis”, which I am most anxious to read.

Friends, I have a stone in my slippers, those of the two left feet, that I mean to rectify asap. While I await deliverance of Meriwether Lewis, which I have just ordered from Amazon, I would like to spend time highlighting a few of you who have also written books, some of which I have sitting right at my elbow and have not yet gotten to. I blame my two left feet and I mean to rectify this as soon as I get my toes sorted out.

In-the-meantime, said toes are cold,  so off I go, to put Nick and Nora (the brand on the soles) on my feet, and to think happy feet thoughts of my friend Andra.

Thanks, Andra – and best of luck as your launch your book and as you soon set out on your trek, walking the 444 mile Natchez Trace, following Meriwether’s footsteps.

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The Country by Billy Collins15798111

I wondered about you
when you told me never to leave
a box of wooden, strike-anywhere matches
lying around the house because the mice

might get into them and start a fire.
But your face was absolutely straight
when you twisted the lid down on the round tin
where the matches, you said, are always stowed.

Who could sleep that night?
Who could whisk away the thought
of the one unlikely mouse
padding along a cold water pipe

behind the floral wallpaper
gripping a single wooden match
between the needles of his teeth?
Who could not see him rounding a corner,

the blue tip scratching against a rough-hewn beam,
the sudden flare, and the creature
for one bright, shining moment
suddenly thrust ahead of his time—

now a fire-starter, now a torchbearer
in a forgotten ritual, little brown druid
illuminating some ancient night.
Who could fail to notice,

lit up in the blazing insulation,
the tiny looks of wonderment on the faces
of his fellow mice, onetime inhabitants
of what once was your house in the country?

The Mice Hear Simpkin Outside circa 1902 by Helen Beatrix Potter 1866-1943

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Calla lilies and greens in vaseChristmastide flowed gently here on the Cutoff, and we now find ourselves at Epiphany. I’m sure the three “wiseguys” would not have travelled through so many feet of snow and double digit, negative, temperatures to bring their honorable gifts. I started this post nearly a week ago, and here I am, revising it yet again before it goes out on the virtual waves of blogdom.

Our Christmastide activities were somewhat restricted as Tom recovered from surgery, however, we were gifted with more time to enjoy our decorations, holiday music,  movies and the gentle solitude for much of the season.

Personally, I have had more time to read mid-afternoon, teacup in hand, a Christmas cookie swiftly disintegrating into crumbs down my sweater. Somehow, the trappings about me seemed softer, my angel collection sweeter, and the smallest moments crisper.

I had time to peruse my collection of Christmas books at a more leisurely length, enjoying lush volumes with holiday decorations and traditions, reading the treasures of children’s books accrued, and revisiting longtime favorites, such as “One Christmas”, Truman Capote’s memoirs of a childhood Christmas and Philip Van Doren Stern’s “The Greatest Gift”, upon which my favorite movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life”,  was based.  If you haven’t discovered either of these gems, you must put them wherever all good book lists go, perhaps in abeyance for next December.

M. C. Beaton kept me entertained, as only she can, with a light Hamish MacBeth Christmas mystery, “A Highland Christmas”,  and I managed to rip through Alan Bennett’s delicious novella, “The Uncommon Reader”, which was a Christmas gift. Have you read this charming and funny story about how the Queen upsets the well-ordered royal apple cart when she starts spending all her time reading? Not known for literary pursuits, her staff, the prime minister, and the Bishop of Canterbury don’t know what to make of her and measures are, um, taken.

I’ve also enjoyed Bess Streeter Aldrich’s collection of short stories, “Journey Into Christmas”, which I first discovered through Nan’s blog, Letters from a Hill Farm. You can find her post about it here. Do wander around her blog where she writes about books, poetry, life on their farm, and often posts the best recipes.

Journey into Christmas

“Journey Into Christmas” was a present one Christmas. I enjoyed some of the stories then, but this year I delved deeper into this collection of homespun stories of simpler times and the soul of Christmas. I was so moved by one of Bess Aldrich’s stories about a family’s hard times at Christmas on the prairie and how the characters made “the best of it” that off to the library I went on New Year’s Eve day to check out her novel, “A Lantern in her Hand”. I ended up returning home with four of Aldrich’s books, which include two volumes of her short stories and essays.

The novel, “A Lantern in her Hand” is based on Aldrich’s own family stories of homesteading on the Nebraska prairie. It $(KGrHqQOKosFG-BUOBtpBR4)r(3JIw~~60_35brings to mind the Little House books, which you know how much I love. As I sit here, finishing up a post that has taken a pilgrimage of time to publish, I am warm and safe in our home amid this deep freeze we, and much of the United States, are in. Our shelves and freezer are full. We have any number of ways of communication at our fingertips, one of which I am employing right now. These are factual stories of a time that seems simpler, but, of course, really were not. I can only imagine the loneliness that must have hung over so many during the devastating winters of the early 1870′s, and truly admire the determination and pure grit that came to be known as the pioneering spirit.

I’ve not minded this gentle flowing Christmastide, with my Tom and my books and my comfort. I’ll hang on to it for a few more days.

Have you read any stories by Bess Streeter Aldrich?

Do you have a favorite or new Christmastide read?

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DSCN3567Come late afternoon, as dusk floats in like moats off a dust mop, I fill the teakettle, set out a cup and saucer, then rummage for a bit of a nibble to tide me over until dinner. It is often  the best time of day. The hours have settled in, the evening’s meal is simmering, and the soft glow of lamps glow from within. This is an opportune time of day to nestle into my latest book, a magazine that just arrived, or to take the time to appreciate the holiday cards that are arriving.

On one such afternoon, I settled into a small book I picked up at the library. It was one of those books marked as “staff picks”, displayed among other recommendations. I often find little gems amongst these suggestions. Such was the case as I opened “Evenings at Five” by Gail Godwin.

godwin_coverChristina, a writer, and Rudy, her husband of nearly 30 years, work on opposite sides of their home; he composing music, she crafting words. Promptly, at five, they come together, she on the leather sofa, he in his Stickley chair, sipping cocktails while discussing each other’s day’s work.

The reader realizes, not  far into the book of some 114 or so pages, that Rudy has died, suddenly. Although he had been ailing, the death was unexpected. Christina reflects on their long life together, trying to fit the pieces of her new one into a new order.

A woman who relies on visuals in her writings, Christina’s ghost of Rudy is one she hears rather than sees. She imagines conversations with him, hearing his voice, several octaves “lower than God’s”.  It is a poignant, revealing, sad and sometimes funny journey as she copes with the loss of all she has known and begins to settle into the new  life Rudy’s death has played to her.

“Evenings at Five” is based on Gail Godwin’s long partnership with composer Robert Starer. The story is rich in the music of language, told from the heart and soul of a woman who has surely known grief.

I read “Evenings at Five” in two sittings. It is a small book, more a novella, that can be read in a few hours. I found it hard to put down, both for the poetic prose, the story line, and the charming, simple line drawings that are used to illustrate the objects of Rudy and Christina’s life.

This was a gentle and sensitive book for me to read, on two evenings, at five.

Do you ever pick up a staff recommendation from the library or bookstore?

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920“I often get up in the night and add to my list. Somehow the main function of a list is to make me feel well organized. Practically speaking, they aren’t much use as I invariably mislay them. I make careful grocery lists and leave them behind when I go to the village. But it is nice to know that when I get home, I’ll know what I forgot because it is under the coffeemaker right where I left it when I unplugged the pot. I put it back on the counter by the door and add to it. There is hope that I may once catch up with just one list for I notice they are smaller than they used to be. They are only one page. This is because I have discovered if I walk slowly down all the aisles at the market, ideas come to me! I look with interest at the soap shelves and I think SOAP, and get it.”  Gladys Taber. “The Stillmeadow Road”, November. page 246

I had just returned from a marathon of grocery shopping for our Thanksgiving dinner, settling the turkey in the refrigerator, piling sweet potatoes into a basket, placing a can of pineapple on the counter with an orange, an apple and cranberries for the relish. Turning around, there it was; the grocery list I’d forgotten! It was, of course, sitting right where I had placed it; that perfect spot where I wouldn’t forget it.

While waiting for water to boil for tea, I pulled out “The Stillmeadow Road” and turned to the chapter entitled November. I soon came upon the passage I quote. It was as though Gladys Taber was writing about me when she penned this more than 5o years ago. Gladys Taber‘s words still ring true today. I love it when prose is everlasting, don’t you?

It snowed today. Not much. Just enough to set the evening rush hour in a spin. Supper is in the oven. The table is set. Tom will be coming in the door in a bit. Until then, I think I’ll settle in a chair and see what else Gladys has to say about November – and maybe start a new list of all that I forgot.

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