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0688155847Sometimes, the best summer read doesn’t mean the latest best seller. It isn’t the glossy beach read at the checkout aisle of the grocer’s or the week’s  best picks from the Sunday paper. Sometimes, the best summer read is hiding in the library’s stacks, featured on a special shelf in a library, or on your own bookshelf - just waiting to be discovered.

I have been meaning to read something of Mary Stewart’s since learning of her recent passing in May. Although I have seen some of the movies that were made from her books, especially The Moon-spinners (did you go through a Hayley Mill’s phase when you were young?), I am sorry to say that I had never read anything by Mary Stewart – until now, that is.

“Rose Cottage” was displayed with a few other Mary Stewart books on top of a shelf highlighting recently deceased authors at the La Grange library. I already had four books, three magazines and an audiobook in my arms, but, how could I resist this cover? Of course, I couldn’t, and it came home with me, where it languished on my bedside table until one day last week.

I was “down for the count” with a bit of an upper respiratory bug, had just finished “Those Who Save Us”, by Jenna Blum, and I needed something a little lighter to read. It was obviously time to visit Rose Cottage.

From the very first paragraph, I was quietly drawn in to the post WWII English countryside. This is a gentle mystery as Kathy Welland, now the war widow Kate Herrick, goes home to Rose Cottage to clear out a few of her grandmother’s things from the home Kathy grew up in. Specifically, Gran wants the contents of small box in the hidey spot, papered over near the fireplace.

Kathy is welcomed back to the village with open arms and is instantly surrounded by warm comforts of home. She quickly realizes, however, that someone has been inside the cottage when she finds the box, but not the key. Once pried open, the box is empty. The ladies from the “Witches Corner” have their own opinions on what has occurred, and Kathy gets help from Davey, a childhood friend.  Long held secrets of Kathy’s missing mother are eventually revealed as the story unfolds much like the petals on the old rambling roses in the quiet English countryside.

“Rose Cottage” was a soothing balm for my weary, cough-wracked body and just what I needed to while away the time spent on the couch, looking out at the last of the summer rose blooms. I have learned that this was written later in Mary Stewart’s life. Not considered her best, it was the best one for me at this juncture.

Have you read Mary Stewart? Do you have a favorite to suggest?

 

 

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002008There I was, walking around Jackson Square Mall in downtown La Grange with three of my very dear friends;  antique sleuths, each and every one. We were talking and teasing, “Penny, you really need to have this” or “my mother had one of these” in the companionable way of old friends.

As we walked toward my favorite booth crammed with used books, nestled in a nook that was probably a closet in a previous life, I squeezed in and I glanced up at the cookbooks. in the far corner.  What should be staring back?  “The Stillmeadow Cookbook” by Gladys Taber. Well, dear reader, Gladys’ book jumped into my greedy little hands like a puppy who’s been left home alone all afternoon. Squeaking like a mouse, I gingerly opened the pages of this well-preserved, hard bound edition – and promptly declared it was mine, all mine!

You may recall that I adore Gladys Taber and her writings about Stillmeadow Farm. My introduction to her was at the very same Jackson Square Mall where this cookbook emerged, on the same shelf where my first introduction to Gladys Taber’s words was.  When I wrote that first post, I quickly learned through generous comments of others that there were more than 50 books written by Gladys Taber and that there was well-establish organization of Taber fans;  aptly called the Friends of Gladys Taber. I keep meaning to sign up for their newsletter, which I understand is quite wonderful.

Since that first discovery of Gladys Taber and her common sense wisdom and wit and words that are filled with the simpler things in life and country living, I have acquired a baker’s dozen worth of her homespun books, filled with stories and articles that were published in the likes of Good Housekeeping Magazine and other periodicals. How I miss those days of short story installments and serial essays that used to be in women’s magazines. Ah well, dear friend, those days are past, but, we can still find words in books, some of which sit patiently on shelves in used book stores and booths, just waiting to be discovered.

 

 

 

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Arbor house stained through snowball bushI worked alongside Esther. She worked for the father, I for the son. Almost 20 years older than me, she was my mentor and confidante. I was a fledgling in commercial insurance with two young daughters and the tug of pulling my load as Tom started up a business. We worked hard, laughed often, cried occasionally and danced the rhythms of life and work for almost six years.

We shared a love of family and of books. She delighted in hearing of the escapades of our daughters, especially Katy, who loved playing softball and disliked wearing dresses. In all the time I worked with Esther, I never saw her in a skirt or dress – and this was the era of padded shoulders and the hit television series,  Dallas!

I had the first lunch hour, sometimes eating in the small break room or downstairs in the cafeteria, more often than not running errands or tending to motherly pursuits. Several summers had me driving home, dropping the girls off at the community swimming pool, then eating in the car as I returned to work, checking in with Tom before I got back to my duties (this was before cell phones).

Esther had the second lunch hour, usually eating a sandwich she brought from home and the purchase of a bowl of soup from the cafeteria. Esther ate soup for lunch almost every day. When she returned to her desk, the first thing she did was call her elderly mother to see how her day was going.

Esther, as the story was told to me, once had a prestigious job downtown, in the late ’60s/early ’70s. Her father developed a life-threatening illness needing surgery, a long recovery, treatments – and had no health insurance. Esther resigned from her position, cashed her pension, and used it to pay for her father’s health care, then she started her work life all over again. She never complained, never felt sorry for herself, and carried on.

She gave me comfort and encouragement in those six years; when my mother died of cancer only two weeks after being hospitalized, when my uncle Joe died a few months later, Jennifer becoming ill for a spell, then Katy losing part of finger, and Tom’s long battle with his first bout with diabetic retinopathy and his mother passing away. I gave her big hugs, books, home baked goodies and as many doses of encouragement  I could while she battled shingles, then cancer and a long series of chemotherapy treatments.

I thought of Esther today, and of the afternoon, not unlike this afternoon, shortly after the 1993 inauguration of Bill Clinton, when she came back from lunch, called her mother, then looked at me and said, “Penny, I want you to read this book I just finished. It is by Maya Angelou. I know you appreciated her inauguration poem and now you must read  this book she wrote a long time ago,.”Why the Caged Bird Sings” . . .  and so, I did.

I thought of Esther today, as the news broke of the death of Maya Angelou, and felt a wave of gratitude that they both entered my life, each in their own unique way.

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There is no cure that I know of for the seasonal malady commonly called garden fever! It starts with an itch to be outside at first light and ends toward evening with dirt under one’s fingernails, hat hair from a wide-brimmed hat, and a worn out feeling around one’s knees.

There are so many distractions in spring, like the swirling confusion of ferns

 

DSCN4604and more blossoms from the tree peonies than Penny knows how to ooh and ahh over!

DSCN4646Should I mention a little jaunt in the jalopy to nearby Maple Lake and a sit-upon moment watching children fish? DSCN4662Then, there were several days of staining Penny’s Arbor House (with Penny even taking up a paintbrush for a spell – but, staying off of such a tall, tall ladder). DSCN4629Midnight, the marauding, milk-loving cat, came by for a visit at the arbor. We don’t know as yet if he approves of the fresh look.DSCN4617This chippy little chipmunk was contemplating the newly potted plant near the door. Click onto the photo to see how cute this ground imp is.chiipmunk on stepOur Community Garden was bustling with activity all weekend . Our plot is now planted with cucumbers and tarragon, several varieties of tomatoes with basil nearby and a row of bush beans. I left some space for zucchini and, well, I’ll just have to see what else whets my gardening appetite in the next few days.  DSCN4659

 

It has been a busy few days here on the Cutoff, but, we did take some time to watch the Memorial Day Concert in Washington DC on PBS, fire up the barbecue grill for some brats, and now I am going to snuggle up with this month’s read for our book group, M. L. Stedman’s “The Light Between Oceans”.  I am having a hard time putting it down.

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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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