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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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DSCN4267It was a rather spontaneous decision. Leaving our house on Sunday morning, I mentioned to Tom that we should take a quick ride after church, Chatting with my dear friend Pat after church, I said we were thinking of driving over and she said maybe she and Rick would follow us. Before long, there we were, exiting our cars and walking up to the doors of the historic Oak Park Conservatory.

Sometimes, we don’t realize how much we have missed until it rises to greet us.

So it was on Sunday morn as we opened the glass door to the historic greenhouse, a mecca amid concrete, bordered by traffic. We inhaled all the scents that winter had robbed us of. Ah, the blissful joy of fragrance and chlorophyl and peat, basking in windowpane sunshine.

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It was good. Very good, indeed!

Visit the Oak Park Conservatory here.

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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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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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WLS_Silver_Beatle_SurveyIt was a wintry Saturday afternoon; sunny and just warm enough to walk the six or seven blocks to  the bustling business district in Broadview. My friend, Nancy, walked the two blocks to our house on Harrison Street in Maywood and we started out, eastward,  past the corner store, Fred & Ed’s, over the low bridge spanning the Eisenhower Expressway, past Zanoni’s, another corner store, down blocks of mid-century brick bungalows to the shops on Roosevelt Road. We swirled on stools at the the soda fountain in Woolworth’s and ordered cokes and fries, went into the Ben Franklin, where anything and everything could be found, checked out what was “cool” at the clothing store, then crossed over Roosevelt to look in the window of the local record store.

“Those are the Beatles” said Nancy, pointing to a poster.

“Who?”  I queried.

“The Beatles. They’re the new singing group from England.” I stared at the poster of the four cute boys from across the pond, wondering. We went inside and picked up a copy of the WLS Silver Dollar Survey, browsed, giggling, then headed home, chatting away in the silly, companionable way of eighth grade girls with nothing else to do on a Saturday afternoon.

Sunday night, February 9, 1964, my family sat in front of our black and white Zenith television set, just months before it exploded into hundreds of tiny pieces, Daddy and Yia Yia sat on the plastic covered chairs (the plastic covered the slip covers which covered the French Provincial furniture, whose actual being I would not actual witness for several more years).  Ma flitted back and forth from the kitchen. My dad’s cousin, George, and his wife, Athena, were visiting. They were sitting on the couch (also enshrined in plastic). My sister and I sat on hassocks. It’s funny sometimes what we remember, isn’t it?

We were all waiting for Ed Sullivan and yet another “really big show” to begin - and it did, with what became known as the British invasion. Paul and John, George and Ringo;  the boys on the poster in the record store window in Broadview. There they were,  singing  “All My Loving” with all that hair, and all those girls screaming, and grownups wondering aloud what was happening that memorable night, 50 years ago.

I sure wish I had kept that Silver Dollar Survey, and I sure am grateful I still have this picture of the 5th Beatle, also known as Pete, whose story can be found here.

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His name defines American folk music. His songs and words are as easily recollected as our own family reminisces. “If I Had a Hammer”, “Where Have all the Flowers Gone”, “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” . . .  they roll off the tongue of so many of us. We know the lyrics well, for we sang along with him, and the many artists who recorded his songs, for as long as we can remember. I thought about Pete Seeger, his music and his legacy as I wandered the internet, looking for something to post in honor of him at his passing this week. There are so many songs, but, the one song, a simple tune that Pete Seeger put to music from the book of Ecclesiastes, that I think embodies him and his music in the final season of his life.

Thank you, Pete Seeger, for making the world a little bit of better place through your music. Rest in peace.

(Source of this version for YouTube here. Thank you.)

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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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Several of us, eighth grade girls, spent our lunch hour decorating the bulletin boards in our classroom. Our teacher, DSCN3509Mr. R, who didn’t like doing bulletin boards, would let us take turns arranging seasonally appropriate boards for the classroom.

As we finished tacking cutout shapes and letters to bright construction paper on the wall, the  bell rang, signaling the start of the afternoon lessons. June was the first one into the room. She was crying. “I hate those boys for saying such awful things”. We questioned her. “They are pretending to shoot guns and saying the president was shot!”.

In tumbled the boys, looking sheepishly as if they were just disciplined in the hall. They went right to their seats and Mr. R came into the room, sat on his desk chair, and put his head in his hands.

We waited in silence.

Something was wrong.

I remember feeling as if a fog had settled around Roosevelt Grade School. A fog had, indeed,  settled; not just on our little classroom, but, on the entire country.

Miss L’s voice came on the public address system. She was crying. Our principal never showed emotion, except on that November afternoon. As she pulled herself together, Miss L sadly said in a voice we had never heard before,  “President Kennedy is dead. He was shot in Texas a short time ago. Let us all bow our heads and pray”.

I was just a few weeks shy of turning 14  on that November 22, 1963 afternoon. I was very young and naive, full of young hope and far-reaching dreams. I admired Mrs. Kennedy, with her sense of style and sophistication, and I respected our young president. It was his energy and speeches and challenges that made me feel as if I could do something good with my life, maybe even something in politics.

I don’t remember being dismissed from school, or walking the six blocks home. I do remember the sadness that settled on our house, and that long November weekend in front of our black and white Zenith television set. Like most Americans who had television, we watched the terrible events play out, much of it live, in our small living room. If we were in the car, the radio talked to us in hushed tones. When I went to bed, it was through a fog that I slept.

That Sunday, my dad, sister and I were just leaving church, which was just across the street from Roosevelt school. The mood was somber that Sunday. Voices were hushed in that fog of grief we collectively navigated. As we walked to the curb to cross the street, a car pulled close, the driver rolled down the window and said to us and anyone else who would listen ” someone just shot Oswald in the police station in Dallas”. Those words spread through the parishioners faster than the fog that was upon us. Like Daddy, Dottie and me, they scurried to their cars, anxious to get home.

When we got to our house, my grandmother, Yia Yia, was softly crying in the living room. She had just seen Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald with a gun, in real time, on television as she sat watching.

We spent that Sunday watching television, crying, talking softly, staying close to each other. We spent Monday, November 25, along with our grieving nation, putting a president to rest. It was the first funeral I ever attended. I will never forget it. Ask just about anyone aged 60 or older what they were doing when they heard that John F. Kennedy had been shot, and they will tell you.

I think that the events of that November framed a generation or more in ways still emerging.

How did you hear about President Kennedy’s assassination? What were you doing? If you are a bit younger, how have you come to know of Kennedy’s murder.

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There are two momentous occasions that are being commemorated  this month in the United States. Just a few calendar days from each other, they occurred 100 years apart. The first occasion, yesterday, was the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s  Gettysburg Address. The second commemoration, November 22, is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I hope to find time to write about President Kennedy’s assassination in a few days. This morning, however, I felt a need to share President Lincoln’s address.

Many of you, growing up in the United States and of a certain age, know of the Battle of Gettysburg. The devastation  that battle wrought. The lives lost on that battlefield. The carnage. Many of you were required to memorize the Gettysburg Address, especially if you lived in Illinois. Less than 300 words in length, it was probably spoken by Abraham Lincoln in less than three minutes. It remains burned in our minds, still, and I hope that students are still learning of it.

It is one of the most memorable speeches by any U.S. President.

The photo, as well as this version of the speech are from the National Portraits Galleries site, Face-to-Face. It is a wonderful website and can be found here.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. November 19, 1863

metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/22.207

Winslow Homer

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We call it Veteran’s Day, though our elders, who were children during World War I, may still call it Armistice Day. You might call it Remembrance Day. Whatever the name, these are moments, brief moments in time, set aside to remember and honor those who have fallen in war.

Have you seen Masterpiece Theater’s My Boy Jack? It was aired here in the States on public television a few years ago. It is the story of Rudyard Kipling, and his boy, Jack, who went off to war, and never came home. This is the final scene with a poem so haunting. So poignant. So memorable on this day of remembrance.

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