families, Life Talk

Making Bread

I often say that there is only one thing that comes naturally to me (aside from sleeping), and that is writing. Everything else that I attempt in my life I have to work hard at if I want to gain any kind of accomplishment at/with it. Not that I don’t work hard with writing, too, but it is an instinctive kind of hard work – it flows pretty naturally from me.

I have learned in the last few years, however, that the above statement isn’t entirely accurate. Cooking and baking is something else that is fairly natural for me. Again, I have to work at it – I’m a much better cook now than I was seven and a half years ago, just ask my husband – but there is an instinct underneath the work that helps it smoothly along. In fact, most of my cooking failures in the last few years have come from going against my instinct to follow the recipe more exactly. Much of what I’ve learned in the last almost-decade has been to trust my gut when it comes to cooking, not to second-guess myself and doubt myself so much. I am by nature a pretty reserved and cautious person, especially when it comes to my own abilities, so it’s been a long, slow process to come to a place of trusting myself when it comes to anything besides writing!

I love trying new recipes, changing things and adapting them, making them my own. I love discovering food blogs and seeing how the preparation of creation of food entwines in others’ daily lives. Most of all, I love making bread.

Yeast after it has proofed. Watching this process never ceases to amaze me.

My mother made bread. My grandmother made bread. One of my uncles even wrote a song about my grandmother’s bread. Bread-making is one of those things that connects me back to past generations. I don’t know that I’ll ever get over missing my grandmother, but every time I knead a batch of bread dough, I remember her as she was when I was a kid, making bread and setting aside the small loaves as “breadies” just for the kids.

All kneaded, ready for the first rising.

My breadie pans, four little loaves ready for the oven.

We eat homemade bread almost exclusively, except for those weeks when I’m too tired or too busy to make it. It’s not a quick process, certainly, not with two risings at the very least. It’s not for the faint of heart, with the muscles and patience required for kneading the dough. But the rewards are so worth it.

Fresh out of the oven, ready for immediate nomming.

The recipe for the pictured batch of bread (which included two full-size loaves as well as the breadies) is here; the only change I made was to replace two cups of bread flour with two cups of wheat, just because I prefer a greater wheat-to-white ratio. I’ve also, in the past, replaced 1/3 c. of honey with an equal amount of maple syrup, but we’re running low on syrup right now and I don’t want to run out before we make it to a sugarhouse, so I did all honey this time. It makes the most delicious and soft bread ever; a household favorite!

1920s, Books, children, families, heroines, Life Talk

Libraries and Death Traps

Thank you all, again, for your kind words on my last post. You brought a lump to my throat more than once.

We’re still at my parents’ until Tuesday morning; Grandma’s memorial service is Monday. We’re looking forward to having much of the clan gathered together for it. Even though funerals are sad, we always manage to have something of a good time just because we’re together. Some of the aunts and uncles have only met my littles once or twice, so I’m happy (and slightly nervous) to introduce my small people to the larger family.

We also had Joy’s fourth birthday party today; I can’t wait to put pictures up on here from it. It was a woodland butterfly fairy tea party (originally, it was going to be a bird and flower and butterfly theme, but it evolved. These things happen), and even the three men involved (my husband, father, and brother-in-law) wore butterfly wings. O yes, they did. They all love Joy very much. They are also all very secure in their masculinity.

And my sister and I made sure to get them blue wings. Pink might have been carrying things a little too far.

And for a first, Joy only got one book for her birthday (and that from Carl and me). Usually books make up the bulk of her gifts. I’m sure she will get more once she receives her package from Carl’s aunt, a librarian in Maine. She always sends lots of book for birthdays and holidays. We are always very happy to see presents from G-Auntie.

This is the book we got for Joy:

No, wait. Wrong one. This one:

thanks to a recommendation from Rockin Librarian (thank you!). I’m excited to see what stories Joy concocts from the illustrations.

Meanwhile, my mom, sister and I are all sick (watching the two of them trying to tack up sheets and white lights while simultaneously hacking and blowing their noses would have been funny if I weren’t trying to slice vegetables without sneezing into them), and I am starting to go a little bit crazy from not writing at all in the last week plus – not since coming up here last Thursday. Family is more important, hands down, no questions asked and no regrets … but writing is such a part of me that I’m starting to feel starved for it.

And my characters are starting to haunt my dreams. Plus last night I dreamed that I had to scale a rickety ladder and swing from a rope to get into a library’s second story, not to mention crawling along the outside of the roof and breaking through a window (and was I ever pissed when I got inside and saw an escalator that led to main lobby, and I realized the librarian at the desk had sent me up the death trap way for, apparently, a lark, and then the escalators shut down because the library closed and I had to come down the same way and I DIDN’T EVEN GET TO CHECK OUT MY BOOKS), which I think is indication that my subconscious is telling me to not neglect books so much.

Or, you know, it could have been the rum in the tea last night. Whatever.

(Almost worse than the horrific ladder (I have a good head for heights, but I have always always hated ladders, and swinging from a frail rope to try to reach a roof window is not my idea of fun) was that I had found a brand-new, just-discovered Lloyd Alexander book in the children section (downstairs) and when I didn’t get to check my books out, I had to leave it behind. LLOYD ALEXANDER, newly-discovered book!)

I am working on the MG rewrite, but of today, Maia of the 1920s fantasy-adventure has been chatting to me, reminding me, impatiently, that I left her in Grave Danger and she needs a chance to Prove Her Worth. She is most definitely not a helpless heroine, and she doesn’t like being left a victim without a chance to take on the villain herself. So I think I need to get back to her soon. She gets very crabby when left alone for too long.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have some rum-and-tea and a box of tissues calling my name.

And some pictures of three men in butterfly wings to upload onto my computer.

families, Life Talk

We Will See You Again

She went out accompanied by a blaze of northern lights, some of the most brilliant seen around here in ages. Heaven welcoming a gallant soul home with fanfare.

Even after her breathing had slowed drastically, her heart remained strong until the end. We always knew her heart was bigger and stronger than most.

Her humor was one of the last things to go when the Alzheimer’s took over. Even when she was in the nursing home and couldn’t even recognize Grandpa, she would try to tease the nurses and aids. They all loved her.

They were married for sixty years. Two days before she finally died, I sat and watched him hold her hand as he told us the only reason he underwent chemo and fought so hard for life through the blood clots last year was so that he could take care of her, make sure her ending was peaceful and dignified, so that he could take care of her to the end. None of his kids could speak at that point, so I managed to choke out that he had done a wonderful job of it. They were an example to us all.

Of eight kids, six managed to make it home to say goodbye, only the one in Australia and the one in Arizona not able to get back. Fully half of the grandkids were able to come. No one fought, no one argued, no one tried to make things difficult for anyone else. Everyone acted as selflessly as human beings can act. Another testimony to the love and respect everyone had for her.

The hospital nurses teared up when their weekend shift ended, knowing they wouldn’t see her again alive.

There was as much laughter as tears around her bedside, as stories were shared and memories were dredged up and old jokes revived. Her fifteen-year-old grandson played his guitar, everyone sang, and her last days were filled with the music and laughter she loved so well.

She has been gone for a long time. Twelve years ago was when she was finally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, at that point too far advanced to do anything but watch and pray as it slowly disintegrated the woman we all knew. The pneumonia that took her tonight was a release from that living death (twelve years is phenomenally long for Alzheimer’s sufferers – most don’t live more than five years), and our tears were as much joy for her as sorrow.

She is whole again now. She is free. She is rejoicing and laughing with her Lord.

It hurts, still, but this is a clean hurt, one that will heal. The pain of the Alzheimer’s never went away; it would lie dormant for a time, but it was always there lurking in the background. This – already there is a peace growing from the sorrow.

We will miss her. We have missed her for years. But her legacy – the love, the laughter, the strength and faith and joy – she passed that on, not only to her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, but to all who knew her. I am proud to call myself her granddaughter, and you can be sure my girls will grow up knowing about what an amazing woman their great-grandmother was.

Rest in Peace? Maybe. Personally, I suspect she is singing and dancing right now.

And laughing.

Lois Elnina Bates, May 20, 1929 (I think, but I can’t get a solid year out of anyone right now) – October 24, 2011

families, Life Talk


I know I’ve been MIA here on the blog for a while. I had great plans to write a bunch of posts this past weekend and schedule them to be published for the next couple of weeks.

Until I got the phone call Thursday that my grandmother was in the hospital with pneumonia. My sister and I spent most of that morning on the phone, with the result that she and I got up to my parents’ house Thursday night, while Carl took the littles to his mom’s for the weekend.

I’ve spent the weekend cooking and cleaning so that the aunts and uncles at the hospital have home-cooked food and a place to sleep if they need a break. In between, I’ve been at the hospital myself, or with Grandpa at the nursing home, or making sure my father sleeps and eats (Mom and my sister had to go to a wedding in Vermont this weekend, already planned). And occasionally (FOUR times in two days) being mistaken for my father’s wife. The ones that just mistook me for Mom weren’t so bad; I already knew we looked alike. The one that didn’t even know Mom, and just asked Dad if I was his wife? SO NOT COOL.

Ahem. Irrelevant.

Anyway, Grandma is still in the hospital, but at this point we are just waiting for the end. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s twelve years ago; her body is fading as her mind did, only in a matter of days instead of years. I’m still at my parents’ house, with the littles here with me now, and Mom and Lis back from VT, just still doing what we can for the rest of the family, and praying for Grandma.

Someday soon I’ll have a post on just what a tremendous legacy she is leaving behind. But I think I’ll need more sleep before that happens. Someday soon also I hope to go back to more writing-related posts.

For now, though, blogging is rather obviously low on my priority list. I love all of my friends and readers, but family is coming first right now. Of course!

I’ll be back soon. I’ve not abandoned the blog, or all of you.

Right now though, I’m exactly where I need to be.

Grandma’s senior portrait.

Books, characters, children, families, favorites, fiction, influences

Influences: Elizabeth Enright

Another one of the few non-fantasy authors who have been an enormous influence on my writing and my life, Elizabeth Enright doesn’t get anywhere near the appreciation she deserves, in my opinion. Which sounds odd, considering she won a Newbery Medal for Thimble Summer. It’s been my experience, however, that most people get a blank look on their faces when you mention Enright’s name, and then only vague recognition comes with the mention of Thimble Summer.

I thoroughly enjoy Thimble Summer, but it can’t hold a candle to my favorites of hers – the Gone-Away books. Whether it is the close relationship between a boy cousin and a girl cousin, reminding me so happily of the friendship between my cousin Zach and me, or the idea of a hidden, old-fashioned community, or (in the second book) all the fun of renovating an old house (which, having lived through, is Not Really Fun At All, but Enright made it seem fun), and moving to the country after having lived in the city … whatever it was, the books were a delight. I especially like that, unlike so many YA and MG books, the adults are present and involved, while the children still have freedom to explore and be brave and get themselves in and out of trouble. We need to see more of that in books for young people!

Then there’s the Melendy Quartet. I’ve written in my favorites posts about this family – Randy and Rush and the family overall. I love them. I want them to be my next-door neighbors. I want to have had Randy and Rush to adventure with as a kid, and I want them all to be my kids’ friends. They are real, and delightful, and funny, and brave (and occasionally not), and ambitious, and loyal and loving.

I think what I like best about Enright’s books, and her characters, is that perfect blend of realism and idealism. While the Melendy gang have marvelous adventures and impossible luck, they also feel like real people, people you could meet any day walking down the road. Same with Portia and Julian and the rest of the Gone-Away crew. As for Garnet of the wheat-colored braids, despite living in the hardest of times in American recollection, the Great Depression (a farmer’s daughter, no less), there is no grimness in her; she still exudes the natural joy of childhood, mixed with a very real worry for her parents’ livelihood.

Another factor that has always personally influenced my delight in Enright is the friendship that exists between boys and girls, without any romance or foolishness, just very easy and natural. Garnet and Jay and Rush and Randy are, true, brother and sister, and Portia and Julian cousins, so romance would be quite ick┬áin their cases, but so many writers only seem to capture the squabbling side of boy-girl family relationships, or the exasperation each feels for the other. There is some of that in Enright’s books, as there is in life, but there is also the deep and meaningful friendship that only comes when boys and girls are friends with each other, instead of boys only being friends with boys, and girls only being friends with girls. I love that Enright shows those sorts of friendships are possible, instead of assuming there must always be this unfathomable chasm between the two. Ugh! No wonder we have such problems with gender discrimination; it is so ubiquitous, even in children’s literature!

Whenever I want to capture some of the sense of my childhood, I re-read an Enright book. And in my writing, I try to keep in mind how natural and fun her characters all are, regardless of the book’s setting. When children who were created sixty, seventy, eighty years ago feel more real than children written about today, you know something has been done right!

Are you familiar with Elizabeth Enright? If so, which is your favorite book? What are some books you can think of that feature really excellent boy-girl friendships, without any hints of romance?

Books, children, families

Reading at Breakfast

As I got up from the table this morning to carry my plate into the kitchen, I glanced back over my shoulder. Both of the littles are sitting at the table, their breakfasts half-eaten, absorbed in Little Golden Books. I’m not thrilled that they keep forgetting to eat, but I love, love, love the fact that my almost-four-year-old and two-year-old find books so delightful that they lose track of everything else.

(Apologies for the blurriness. The lighting in my dining room isn’t the best, and if I use the flash they both squinch up their eyes.)

These books I picked up at the Borders liquidation sale on Saturday. The girls had been so good about staying close to us through the crowds, and waiting for us to go through the rows of books in which there was little or no order, and besides, if Mamma and Papa are coming out with armfuls of books, shouldn’t they, too?
(Admittedly, most of the books I bought were preschool workbooks to use with Joy this fall, but I did pick up a couple for myself.)
Joy helped me pick the books out, because Grace was assisting Carl with all his philosophy books. Joy chose “Baby Farm Animals” and “The Jolly Barnyard,” and I snagged “The Color Kittens” because I remember reading that at my grandparents’ house and I want them to delight in it, too (Hush and Brush!).
My parents used to buy my sister and me Little Golden Books at the grocery store. Not every time, but frequently as a “just because” purchase. Our grandparents and aunts and uncles helped fill our shelves with more. So far, my littles have only gotten board book versions or some of my smaller ones that I’ve passed to them, so these were their first picked-off-the-shelf, carry-to-the-register, read-in-the-car-on-the-way-home Little Golden Books.
And I thrill to see them, even though they can’t read the words yet, already finding such happiness in these classic tales. I hope, in five to ten years, to have shelves full of Little Golden Books, just as I did when I was a girl. And maybe someday, they’ll have the delight of putting one of these very same books in the hands of their child and saying,
“I loved this one when I was little.”
Did you grow up on Little Golden Books? Which one was your favorite? I always love anything with illustrations by Eloise Wilkins. Does it give you a thrill to pass books that you loved as a child down to children now? Have you gone to Borders recently, and if so, did you find it as sad as I did?
characters, families, heroines

Jo March and Sundries

This was going to be a post on Jo and Laurie, and why I don’t think they would have been a good couple, but I’ve been ranting about Amy various places lately, and realized that this post needed to mostly be about Jo, with everyone else tossed in as they relate to her.

First of all:

Even though Josephine “Jo” March did not make it to my list of favorite literary heroines, she only missed it by a hair, and only because I already had twelve and couldn’t justify making it any longer. And also because Louisa May Alcott’s moralizing-on-the-brink-of-preachiness style of writing has such a tendency to get under my skin that my irritation with her can bleed into my feelings toward Jo.

But Jo is still an old friend, and someone I admire. Her growth through “Little Women,” and then as she is seen in “Little Men” and “Jo’s Boys,” is both realistic and beautiful – she becomes a gracious and responsible woman without losing any of her strength, her independence, or her individuality. Watching her learn, with the help of her mother, how to control her temper has always been a favorite theme of mine throughout the first book. Watching her as a mother to her two boys, and pseudo-mother to a whole host of other children in the later books, is almost as delightful. Her struggles to accept Beth’s mortality, and the strength that she lends her family during that time; her fierce rebellion against growing up before deciding to turn it to her advantage; her hatred of society’s meaningless conventions … she is a dear, our Jo.

And, of course, her friendship with Laurie. O, that controversial topic. Let me state my position right off the bat:

I do not think Jo and Laurie should have been married.

There. I said it.

Now, hold off on the pitchforks for just a moment and let me explain (then you can all come charging at me again, if you like).

I don’t think Laurie ever really respected Jo enough as a person. He didn’t take her seriously. He was in love with her, that much is true, but emotion alone is not enough to build a strong and lasting relationship. As Jo herself said, he would have resented her writing after a while, because it took her away from him. He would have been embarrassed by her oddities and how awkward she was in society – or worse, he would have been amused by her, and treated her like an exotic possession, to be brought out to startle polite company.

And Jo didn’t take Laurie seriously, either. She never would have believed he truly meant anything he set out to do, and would have treated him with a calm condescension that would have infuriated and deflated his ambitions. She would have sensed that he relied on her as his conscience, and would have resented that. She would try to fit into what she thought he wanted her to be, and hated every minute of it, and ended by hating him.

At least, that’s how I see it. They were the best of friends, but not all best friends should marry. I suppose it made more sense to me as a kid, because, you see, my best friend was a boy, and almost everyone around us assumed that we would fall in love as we got older and get married. We knew, though, that such a relationship would never, ever work, that our temperaments were too alike in crucial areas and too different in others, that the very things that made our friendship so strong would destroy us if we were ever so stupid to fall in love.

And life proved us right, as we are both happily married to other people now, and still very good friends. Ethan was, in fact, the one that introduced me to my husband, and he was best man at our wedding.

Having said all that, I still cannot forgive Amy for marrying Laurie. Or for existing, for that matter. I have never been able to get over the way she destroyed Jo’s book. And I know she almost drowned/froze in the river afterward, but all that did was turn it around so that Jo was the bad guy and Amy the suffering victim. If she had killed a living pet of Jo’s nobody would have let her off so easily. Jo’s book was as alive to her and important as any pet could have been!

And then Europe. If she really was a good person by that point, instead of simply having all the outward appearances of goodness, she could have said to Aunt Carrol, “Thank you so much for your offer, Aunt, but Aunt March did always promise to take Jo and it isn’t right that she should lose this chance just because she was having a bad day due to me forcing her to do something she didn’t like and isn’t good at; please take her with you instead of me.” I hate how she was portrayed so sweet and good, and yet took everything Jo ought to have had, and calmly accepted it as her due. She knew that Laurie loved Jo, and had no way of knowing that Jo didn’t love him, but she fell for him anyway, never once thinking of her sister bearing all the family burdens at home. Selfish beast!

I’ve also never really liked Professor Bhaer, though I can accept him better in the latter two books. Still, though, I get the impression that LMA tossed him in because she knew her readers would never allow her to leave Jo unmarried. Not that I wanted Jo to be alone and single all her days (UNLESS SHE WANTED TO), but the professor was just … bland. There was nothing to him. Jo should have married someone strong, to match her, but gentle where she was sharp, and calm where she was excitable, and vice-versa. Someone with a rich sense of humor and a good view of the world. Someone – and this is very important – practical and fun, who could help her regain some of the spirit she lost during those hard years nursing Beth and after Beth died (while Amy was off in Europe stealing Laurie). Someone who viewed life as an adventure, not a philosophical treatise. Basically, she married her father, and I never liked Mr. March.

Poor Jo. She got cheated by LMA in so many ways. I can understand why so many people wanted her to marry Laurie, because of how gypped she was of a proper happy ending, but I still veer away there. Not Laurie, not a character LMA ever wrote (perhaps because she never met a man like that), but someone, somewhere, had to be a match for our beloved Jo.

And maybe he would have been able to squelch Amy, as nobody else was ever able to do!

What are your thoughts on the Jo-Laurie relationship? Did you like Professor Bhaer? Is boiling in oil too kind for Amy?