Stories I Couldn’t Tell Before: A Nice Part-Time Job

I told one story recently that I couldn’t tell until after my parents were gone. Here is another:

Two kids are much harder than one, even when they're cute

Two kids are much harder than one, even when they’re cute

I’ve described before how my mother was a stay-at-home mom. I, by contrast, worked as an attorney when my kids were little. It wasn’t too difficult with just one child, but the years right after my second child was born was one of the roughest of my life. I didn’t like the cases I was working on—they teemed with corporate politics and antagonistic opponents. It was far harder than I had anticipated to have two children instead of one. (Think about it—the ratio of one child to two parents is far better than the ratio of two children to two parents.)

There were many nights that year when I left work choking back sobs. Late one afternoon in the summer of 1986, I found myself escaping into a back corner of the law library to shed a few tears after my boss assigned me to another major lawsuit, when I already was handling one big case and a couple dozen smaller ones. I thought seriously about quitting my job. How could I manage any more than I had on my plate already?

In a conversation with my parents a week or two later, I bemoaned the fact that I had too much to do at work. I wanted a little sympathy from them, and I wanted some coaching from my father. He had always been a workaholic—at the office before dawn many mornings, traveling on business a lot through my school years, focused on his job while my mother focused on the house. Surely he would have some good advice on what to do.

“What you need,” my father said, “is a nice part-time job.”

This from the man who paid for my law school education!

Dad in the "nice part-time job" era

Dad in the “nice part-time job” era

I don’t know what I was expecting from him—maybe some ideas about how to prioritize assignments, or how to work more efficiently, or even how to push back on my unreasonable boss. I was not expecting my father to tell me to back away from work. He had drilled it into me throughout my college and law school years that after I graduated I would be responsible for myself. And now he wanted me to leave the career that would allow me to do that?

I knew darn well that no one where I worked—including myself— thought the job I had could be done on a part-time basis. There were part-time lawyer jobs, even in the mid-1980s, but I would have to find one elsewhere, and it wouldn’t offer the same intellectual satisfaction as the job I had.

And raising two kids is messy

And raising two kids is messy

And, damn it, no one was telling my husband he should find a nice part-time job. The kids were his as much as mine. It wasn’t fair that I should be the one to cede my career progress.

So I stuck to my guns, and my job, out of pique more than wisdom. I worked for another ten years in that job—continuing my 50-plus hours/week schedule—and then another ten years in other departments in the same company.

I never told my father his comment made me mad or that it provoked the stubbornness that kept me at my decidedly not part-time job. Somehow, my kids and marriage survived, as did I.

When has stubbornness kept you going?

Hospitalized for Homesickness

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I wrote in my last post about my son’s first experience at summer camp. When I was eleven, I went to summer camp myself for the first and last time.

It was 1967, the summer after my sixth grade year. Three fellow classmates and I—girls I liked, but not close friends—signed up for a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) camp somewhere in the Cascade Mountains outside Leavenworth, Washington.

Leavenworth, WA, a Bavarian town in Washington State. Picture from city website

Leavenworth, WA, a Bavarian town in Washington State. Picture from city website.

I remember the bus ride through Leavenworth, but I cannot remember the name of the camp. I tried recently to find it on Google, but I was not successful. It might have been Camp Field, which CYO operated from the 1950s to the early 1990s. This location is now a resort called Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort, and the resort’s website mentions that it used to be a CYO camp. But I honestly don’t remember anything about the location beyond driving through Leavenworth.

All I remember about the camp was a lot of references to Okanogan, a National Forest in the region

All I remember about the camp was a lot of references to Okanogan, a National Forest in the region.

On the appointed day, my classmates and I met at our school for the bus ride to camp. We sat together on the bus, which was full of other girls from the Tri-City area (the Tri-Cities are Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco, Washington). The kids in our school tended to stick pretty much with just classmates, without much contact even between one class and the kids in the other class of the same grade (two classes per grade, at that time). I recognized a few other girls from our school, but the only kids I knew were my three classmates.

When we arrived at camp, they called us by name to assign us to cabins. My three friends were placed in one cabin. Because I was a year younger than everyone else in my grade, I was placed in a cabin with younger girls. I knew no one, other than one girl from my school. All I knew was her first name—Joanne. And since she had just completed fifth grade, she seemed like a baby to me, though we were about the same size.

And the camp was near the Wenatchee Forest, I think.

And the camp was near the Wenatchee Forest, I think. But I wasn’t much focused on the natural beauty around me.

My heart sank at being placed with strangers. But I gamely took my pillow and my suitcase off to my cabin, claimed a bunk, and headed to archery practice with everyone else.

I had never shot a bow and arrow before. I was lousy at archery.

For dinner we had hamburgers, which shouldn’t have been objectionable, but they put ketchup and mustard on every burger. And pickles. At the time, I didn’t eat ketchup or mustard. And I especially didn’t eat pickles.

I choked down some baked beans, ate a s’more at the campfire, and went to bed.

The next morning we had cereal for breakfast. That I could handle. Then we trooped off on a hike through the woods. It was hot. Blisteringly hot.

Back to camp for lunch. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I liked peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

But one look at the peanut butter, and I gagged. The oil in the industrial-sized jar of peanut butter had separated away from the creamy nuts. I’d never seen separated peanut butter before. In my family, the jars of Skippy peanut butter my mother bought never lasted last long enough to separate.

I rushed out of the dining hall retching.

A counselor followed.

I cried and said my stomach hurt, which it did by this point.

I was taken to the nurse’s station. A nurse took my temperature. Slightly elevated. I said I felt sick. The beds in the nursing station were full (on the first day of camp—go figure), so I got taken to the local hospital. I hadn’t been hospitalized since I went home after being born.

I was diagnosed with the stomach flu and put in a hospital room with another girl, who turned out to be Joanne from my school. She also had the flu. She had a real fever and was definitely sicker than I was.

I hated the hospital, which was really boring. I didn’t have a book. There was no television in the room. I think they gave me a couple of issues of Seventeen or something, or maybe a child’s book I’d read at age seven.

But at least I didn’t have to eat oily peanut butter. Or hamburgers with pickles. They fed me Jell-O and chocolate milk.

Two days later, a counselor from the Tri-Cities had a family emergency. The powers that be at camp—presumably with some consultation with parents—decided that Joanne and I should be returned to our homes. The counselor drove us back to Richland.

And that was the end of my summer camp experience.

Did I have the flu? Doubtful. Did I need to be in the hospital? Definitely, no.

I probably just had a bad case of homesickness, the problem of a young girl who had never been overnight with anyone but grandparents or close family friends, trying to adjust to a world where she couldn’t satisfy her finicky appetite.

That wasn’t the last of my homesick times. When I went to Europe on the People to People program, I spent my first night sick. Ditto when I went to college. On those occasions, however, I had to adapt. No one was there to let me go home. I learned to survive, and am happier for those experiences.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if the counselor hadn’t been driving to the Tri-Cities. Would I have been sent back to camp to muddle my way through the remainder of the ten days? Maybe that would have been good for me.

When have you had difficulty adapting to a new experience?

Mud: A First Experience at Camp

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One morning earlier this month I read Emily Parnell’s column in The Kansas City Star, entitled “Letting Out the Wild Child Within” (July 14, 2015). I laughed at her humorous account of her son’s time at summer camp, which she compared to Lord of the Flies. Her story took me right back to my son’s first experience at camp.

I think he was nine that year, though he might only have been eight. My husband did legal work for the YMCA of Greater Kansas City, and we were members of the local Y, so it seemed natural to investigate YMCA camps in the Midwest. We found Camp Wood, outside Elmdale, Kansas, about a two-hour drive from our home. Camp Wood had a week-long residential camp that sounded about right for a kid our son’s age.

Camp Wood today

Camp Wood today

The Camp Wood website today says:

“Campers participate in life-changing, outdoor experiences that foster healthy decision-making, lasting friendships, skill development, and strengthened values in a safe, friendly environment.”

Camp Wood describes the residential camp for grade-school kids as follows:

“Traditional resident camp is an unforgettable adventure designed for making new friends, learning new skills, and trying new things!  Campers live in cabins and choose their own programming from choices offered, while developing independence, confidence and a greater awareness of the world around them.”

Camp Wood 2I’m not sure what Camp Wood espoused in 1990 or ’91, but it was probably something similar.

My husband had loved his summer camp experiences as a kid. I had only gone to summer camp once, and my time there had not gone well. But I didn’t want my lack of enthusiasm to limit my children.

We signed our son up.

On the appointed day, our whole family drove to Camp Wood to drop him off. The camp was in the middle of nowhere atop the Flint Hills of Kansas. The site’s central grounds were barren and dry—just a little dead grass covering a think layer of cracked dusty earth. Dark brown buildings surrounded by light brown fields.

“It looked like a German prison camp,” is my husband’s recollection.

Camp Wood today

Camp Wood today

I think the cabin where our son was assigned had four bunks for kids and one for a counselor. Seemed like a good ratio. We toured the camp, finding the dining hall, the creek and swimming area, the crafts building, and other typical accoutrements of a kid’s summer adventure. I seem to remember a zip line and archery, and maybe some stables. And our tour guide mentioned a mud hole by the creek.

With some trepidation (but no tears) on the parts of both parents and child, we left our son behind.

A week later my husband returned alone to pick our son up. The kid had had a blast. He and his new cabin-mate buddy proudly conducted my husband around camp on their own, showing him all their haunts and favorite activities. They’d shot arrows and tie-dyed shirts and held snakes.

They pulled my husband to the mud hole, where the crowning achievement of the week had been to stick their heads completely into the mud.

My son brought home the Camp Wood t-shirt he’d worn for the mud-dunking feat. I washed it several times, but it never lost its dingy brownish-gray tint. My son kept the shirt—and wore it—long after he outgrew it. He was always proud to describe the time he’d stuck his head in the ground.

Despite the wonderful time our son had at Camp Wood, he never went back. He attended other camps, which were less pleasant experiences, and somehow Camp Wood never rose to the top of his summer to-do list.

Many years later—enough years later that our son had graduated from college—my husband and I decided to detour to Camp Wood on our way home from Wichita. The camp looked much better than it had when our son attended. The YMCA had put some money into sprucing it up, and the grounds and cabins displayed more hues than brown.

Today, the Camp Wood Facebook page shows kids having a lot of fun. They still sport tie-dyed shirts. There’s a climbing tower and tennis courts, nature walks and a lake, and an outdoor amphitheater. And a lot of smiling faces.

I wonder if the mud hole is still there.

That week at Camp Wood was the best summer camp adventure our son had. It allowed him the same “wild child” time that Emily Parnell described for her son.

But maybe all boys react the same way to freedom from parental controls. I remember my mother exclaiming when my 11-year-old brother came home from camp, “He wore the same pair of underpants FOR TEN DAYS!” Which both she and I, as girls, thought was disgusting.

What do you remember about summer camp as a kid?

Sacramento in July 1849

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Sacramento Waterfront, July 1849

Sacramento Waterfront, July 1849

As I searched for a topic on the California Gold Rush to write about this month, I came across issues for the Sacramento Placer Times in July 1849. At that time, Sacramento was a burgeoning outpost at the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers. It still was not an incorporated town. The location had been established where John Sutter had built an embarcadero on the American, and it had become the gateway to the gold fields.

Placer Times p 1 7-7-1849Gambling houses and saloons were just coming into town in the summer of 1849. The issues of the Placer Times that July trumpet the wholesome nature of the town. The July 7, 1849, edition, describes the recent celebration of Independence Day:

The Fourth of July. — The Anniversary of our country’s independence was duly observed by the citizens of Sacramento City. — There was the usual display of fireworks and salutes in honor of the Day. At half past 1 o’clock a respectable audience assembled in the edge of the beautiful grove of oaks skirting the plain and in rear of the city, to listen to an address from Rev. Dr. Deal, recently from Baltimore. The exercises were opened with prayer by the Rev. S. C. Damon, from the Sandwich Islands; next followed the reading of the Declaration of Independence by Mr. McClellan, of this city. The address or Dr. Deal was highly appropriate and delivered with eloquence. As the audience was expecting the exercises to conclude with remarks by the Hon. Mr. Gwynn, the speaker very judiciously made his address quite brief. The remarks of Mr. G. (formerly U. S. Senator from Mississippi.) were designed to urge upon the citizens of California the importance of immediately organizing a State Government. The day passed off with order and quietness. As succeeding years roll away may a goodly number of patriotic American citizens be found, in this growing city, who will duly honor and becomingly celebrate the anniversary of our county’s independence.

And such were the hopes of the editors for the growing town of Sacramento City. A week later, on July 14, 1849, the paper describes the town’s growth and prospects in a series of paragraphs:

Our City — Our little city is growing with a rapidity unequalled by any modern town save San Francisco, in Alta California; and one can scarcely keep trace of the daily improvements which labor and genius are exerting to raise a magic city, where a few months ago the deer and buffalo grazed unmolested upon the banks of the beautiful Sacramento. And ours is a real city too, not a paper town, like many we could name; not a 36 Buffalo water lot speculation, but a genuine timber and canvass city, replete with industry, enterprise, trade and commerce;—and so thoroughly Americanized are we, in all our customs, that already one fancy’s himself in the states. You may purchase your breakfast at the Washington Market, dine at Sweeny’s, and drink your glass at the Shades. You will meet with but few or no idlers, each seems intent on making his fortune and that speedily. Loads of Yankees are arriving hourly, and the retail trade established by the new adventurers will almost rival Chatham or Catharine streets.

Morality in the Mines — We will venture to affirm that the standard of morals among the miners is much higher than in any town in the states south of Boston. We speak from knowledge of the mines tributary to the Sacramento; of those on the San Joaquin we learn that quite the reverse exists; but on the branches of the Sacramento every man’s rights are scrupulously respected. Very seldom you meet with a drunken man, less often with gambling or quarreling. Indeed, the good order and respect for rights is a theme of general admiration by all new comers.

Turning Rivers. — Large companies of miners are engaged in turning the course of streams in which gold may be found. On the North Fork of the American river the stream is being turned at four points. Also on the Middle Fork, and at Mormon Island. The probability is that the companies will reap large rewards for their outlays, but the chances may be against them—in which case they will loose their whole summer’s arduous labor.

Sacramento waterfront, circa 1849

Sacramento waterfront, circa 1849

Such, then, is what the editors of the Placer Times wanted to see in Sacramento. Yet, on July 21, 1849, the paper was obliged to print a less positive view of the area, in a notice submitted by John Sutter himself:

Notice to squatters

All persons are hereby cautioned not to settle without my permission, on any land of mine in this territory: said land is bounded as follows; [detailed description of the property] . . . JOHN A. SUTTER

It seems, then, that the people around Sacramento were not quite as wholesome as the Placer Times editors led readers to believe.

Moreover, there was dissension among the residents of the city, as one resident sends a testy letter to the editor in response to an earlier article. This letter was published in the July 21, 1849, edition:

Mr. Editor: Sir—In No. 10 of the Placer Times, the author of the article signed ‘ L ‘ complains of the free trade principle as injurious to his individual interests, (touching his most sensitive point,) and I presume to say that no candid man in this community will deny his sincerity. But as to his having purchased a lot and house and intending to become a permanent resident of this city being an argument for complaint against other men’s right to buy and sell goods as best suits their individual interests, is no argument whatever; and I ask, is ‘L.’ an intelligent citizen of the United States and ignorant of the fact that what he considers, as he expresses himself, (against natural if not legal right,) is and has been permitted on the Atlantic side of this republic since its foundation? Yours, LAR.

Perhaps the editors of the Placer Times in July 1849 were determined to be civic boosters, touting the benefits of their town in terms more laudatory than truth and human nature deserved.

I am always amused when I turn to the pages of these 19th century newspapers and see how little has changed in the past 160 years.

When have you noticed conflicts between news accounts and truth as you knew it?

Boating and the Moon Walk

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Al on boat

My husband’s boat, July 2015

My husband recently bought a boat. It’s a very functional patrol boat that he plans to use with his Coast Guard Auxiliary unit on local lakes and rivers. But it is available for our personal enjoyment as well. Last week I drove our boat for the first time—I’ve rarely driven a motor boat for the last forty years.

My dad had a boat when I was in junior high and high school, and I drove it years before I learned to drive a car. The thrill of speeding across the water, sitting in the baking sun as we skim toward the horizon—those were familiar sensations last week, bringing back memories of many good times during my teenage years.

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Our family on my dad’s boat, Coeur d’Alene Lake

For several years, my father kept his boat primarily on Coeur d’Alene Lake in Idaho. We took it to our cabin in May, and it stayed there until Labor Day. But when he first got it, when I was in junior high, we used it mostly on the Columbia River near our home. The Columbia near Richland, Washington, is wide and deep, and there are several islands where boats can be beached. We waterskied on the river, then stopped on an island for a picnic lunch and sunbathing. When the required thirty minutes after lunch had passed, we resumed skiing.

I remember we taking the boat out on July 20, 1969. I can recall sitting on a rocky gravel bar in the Columbia, drinking Pepsi, and listening to the radio coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was hot and sunny by the river. Its swift, cold water flowed past me endlessly. I couldn’t imagine the stark lunar surface that Neil Armstrong was about to encounter.

Apollo 11 - First step (from NASA website)

Apollo 11 – First step (from NASA website)

The historic moon walk didn’t take place until evening local time—about 9:00pm, I think. By that time, our family was back home from our boating adventure. In fact, I was out babysitting some neighbor kids. This family had two of the orneriest grade-school boys I’d ever known, plus a toddler girl. After the little girl went to bed, the boys and I watched the grainy black and white television picture as Neil Armstrong took his giant step. A short while later, we saw the film Armstrong took of Buzz Aldrin touching down.

From a new boat to an old boat to the moon. Memory flows more swiftly than the river, and forty-six years slip away in a moment.

What recent experience have you had that brought back old memories for you?

Hanford Reach: History Preserved by Accident

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View of Columbia River toward Rattlesnake Mountain near Hanford Reach Museum

View of Columbia River toward Rattlesnake Mountain near Hanford Reach Interpretive Center 

In January 1943, the U.S. Army selected the town of Hanford, Washington, as the site for plutonium production on the Manhattan Project. Beginning in February 1943, the Army acquired vast amounts of land around Hanford pursuant to the Second War Powers Act. The three hundred residents of Hanford were evacuated and relocated.

The land condemned for the Manhattan Project ultimately became the Hanford Engineering Works. Although much of the land was contaminated by radiation because workers of the 1940s did not know how to manage it adequately and were more interested in winning World War II, the land has also been preserved because it has not been occupied for over sixty years now.

reach museum photo

Hanford Reach Interpretive Center

That, at least, is the premise of the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center in Richland, Washington, which I visited earlier this spring. As I’ve written before, I grew up in Richland. Although I knew a lot about the region’s history, I learned some things about my hometown and the surrounding area during my visit to the museum in April.

Hanford Reach is now a National Monument, operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Monument protects the species that live along the Columbia River and preserves the history of the region. Both nature and technology are featured at the Hanford Reach Museum. Part of the museum features the wildlife and Native American history along the Columbia River. And part of it shows the development of the Hanford Engineering Works.

Hanford B reactor

Hanford B reactor

Several plutonium reactors sit on the Columbia’s shores from Hanford’s time as part of the World War II Manhattan Project, when Hanford developed the plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Now, these reactors are being dismantled and the area decontaminated.

I drove past the Hanford area with my father several years ago, and he told me about the area’s significance in the development of nuclear energy. I asked why there wasn’t a museum out near the reactors.

“It’s hotter than a pancake,” he told me. And he didn’t mean the sunshine’s heat.

But without the forced depopulation of the area and the restrictions on its use for any purpose other than nuclear development during and after World War II, this region’s unique vegetation and topography could easily have been destroyed. Instead, geographic features, traditional Native American sites, and early development by white settlers have all been preserved.

And now, the National Monument and the Hanford Reach Museum educate the public on these resources and history.

Hanford Reach, photo from Wikimedia Commons

Hanford Reach, photo from Wikipedia

Hanford Reach is now the most natural stretch of the Columbia River, undeveloped for more than sixty years. It is the last place one can see the undammed beauty of the river—the only section of the Columbia in the United States that is not either tidal or part of a dammed reservoir. It is located where the Columbia bends northward in its generally southward course from Canada.

For hundreds of years, the Cayuse and Nez Perce tribes lived along the Columbia and Snake Rivers. They fished in the rivers, hunted in the hills, and built their nomadic culture primarily around horses and salmon.

Lewis and Clark were some of the first white explorers to pass through the region. They reached the confluence of the Columbia and Snake Rivers just south of Hanford Reach and continued on down the Columbia to its mouth. David Thompson of the Northwest Company, an early fur trader, passed through the Hanford Reach in 1811 on his way down the Columbia River.

Permanent settlement began in the 1850s, and a ferry at White Bluffs opened in 1859. The town of White Bluffs became a transportation center for both river and overland distribution from British Columbia to Montana. Gold was discovered in the area in the 1870s.

While not quite the Oregon Trail or the California Gold Rush, the Hanford region received its share of Western progress. Farming and cattle ranching weren’t far behind the transportation and mining developments.

And once the Hanford Ditch irrigation system was built in 1907, followed by the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1913, the areas around White Bluffs, Hanford, and Wahluke all prospered until the Great Depression.

I’ll discuss the development of the Hanford Engineering Works in a later post. In the meantime, I hope you are as impressed as I am with the history behind what appears to be a desert. And let’s not forget the accidental preservation of the area because of WWII and its aftermath.

What do you know of the history of the area where you grew up?

Writing Historical Fiction: The Research Is Never Done

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Bierstadt Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail, by Albert Bierstadt

A month or two ago I was working on the cover for my novel about the Oregon Trail. I found a wonderful painting by Albert Bierstadt, called “The Oregon Trail.” It is in the public domain and the beautiful image evokes the era of my novel. It works well cropped for the front cover for the ebook, and it works as a wrap-around for front and back covers for the paperback. So I mocked up a book cover using this painting.

Then I did more research and learned that Bierstadt’s painting has been used on seven or eight book covers already. Maybe more; I quit looking. Most of the books using this image were non-fiction, and wouldn’t compete with mine, but a couple of novels used it also. As a result, I ruled it out as my book cover.

But along the way, I checked out a couple of the books using Bierstadt’s painting on the cover to see what they were about. And I found a treasure trove of interesting information.

“I’m trying to polish my novel, not still research!” I whined to myself. “I don’t need more information.”

Still, because I discovered the information, I will use it here, if not in my novel (and a few odd facts will sneak their way into the book, I promise).

51mOz3xVmHL._UY250_ mclynnWagons West, by Frank McLynn (2002), is a wonderful account of the annual wagon companies to Oregon and California in the 1840s. His chapter on 1847 focused on the Mormon emigration to Salt Lake, which was not too relevant to my novel. But most chapters quoted from diaries and letters that provided details I can add to add verisimilitude to my novel.

Almost every detail I concocted in my novel—secret stashes of alcohol, for example—actually happened somewhere in history. As a result, I’m not too worried about my novel being unrealistic. McLynn’s book showed me that even in the 1840s, truth was stranger than fiction.

McLynn also quotes Emerson Hough as follows:

“The chief figure of the American West . . . Is not the long-haired, fringed-legged man riding a raw-boned pony, but the gaunt and sad-faced woman sitting on the front seat of the wagon, following her lord where he might lead . . . That was the great romance of all America—the woman in the sunbonnet.”

There are many women in sunbonnets, often sad-faced, in my novel. Each one, like the woman James Clyman wrote of,

“. . . showed herself worthy of the bravest undaunted pioneer of the West, for after having kneaded her dough, she watched and nursed the fire and held an umbrella over the fire and her skillet with the greatest composure for near two hours and baked bread enough to give us a very plentiful supper.”

Stewart coverThe California Trail, by George R. Stewart (1962), focuses on the wagons that traveled to California before the Gold Rush. The paths of the Oregon and California trails were the same until they reached Fort Hall, but Stewart’s book provided less information for me than McLynn’s. Still, Stewart’s book provided a detailed description of how oxen and mules actually pulled the wagons up mountains and across streams, which I had only imagined prior to reading his account. (I wasn’t too far off.)

These books were fascinating discoveries, brought on by my search for a book cover. I’m still searching for the perfect image for my cover, though I have a very good option in mind. Once I land on the final cover, I’ll share it on this blog.

When have you thought you were done with a project, only to find you had much more to do?

KLWN Radio Interview and Cooking on the Oregon Trail

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MTH on radio 2

Me on KLWN, June 20, 2015

Those of you who follow me on Facebook might know that on June 20 I was interviewed by Jeremy Taylor on his program “About The House” on KLWN AM-1320 in Lawrence, Kansas. It was great fun! Jeremy had prepared well for our discussion of the Oregon Trail and my forthcoming novel. We had an excellent conversation about why emigrants set out for Oregon, the dangers they faced, and their preparations for the trip. As a Brit, Jeremy had a refreshing perspective on some of these issues.  We Americans forget how much Western lore and myth we absorbed through our education and constant exposure to television and movies.

Not only had Jeremy prepared, but he brought in a chef for the latter part of the program to talk about the food that the emigrants ate along the western trails. With samples!

The chef!

Chef, Jeremy Taylor, and me

My fellow writer (Write Brain Trust member Pamela Boles Eglinski) and I were treated to some wonderful food, including a rice pilaf dish (more frequently seen along the Santa Fe Trail, but the Oregon emigrants often did take rice along), spider cake (more on that below), spotted dog, and a rice pudding. If the pioneers always ate this well on the trail, they might not have cared if they ever reached Oregon.

Spider cake is not anything that should alarm arachnophobes like me. “Spider” refers to the type of skillet the cake is cooked in. A spider dish is a cast iron skillet on legs to sit about a campfire. But this cake can be made in any cast iron skillet. With a little syrup over it, it was my favorite dish of the day.

Here is the spider cake recipe from Food.com.

Spotted dog (and, no, Diet Coke was not on the menu on the Oregon Trail)

Spotted dog (and, no, Diet Coke was not on the menu on the Oregon Trail)

The spotted dog recipe was also wonderful. For those of you who have never heard of spotted dog, the “spots” refer to raisins. This dish is like a bread pudding, but in addition to bread, apples, raisins, and eggs, the version that Chef offered me had onion and bacon in it, so it was both savory and sweet.

I didn’t want much lunch after sampling all these dishes.

Although we ate well on this summer Saturday morning in 2015, the emigrants didn’t always have such feasts. Sometimes they had plenty, but often they scraped the bottom of their barrels well before they reached Oregon and had to live off the land.

Frankly, I had expected venison and buffalo meat when I first learned that Jeremy and his chef planned to feed me. But Chef told me the Lawrence authorities frown on killing deer that pass through the yards in town.

What old-fashioned foods do you enjoy?

Distraction: Magnolia Blossoms in July

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20150703_081751For the past week or two, the magnolia tree in our front yard has been blooming again. Not as many blossoms as in the spring, and not as noticeable because the leaves are fully formed. But still a treat.

I don’t know what has caused the profusion of blooms. Is it all the rain we have had? The changing temperatures?

Usually the tree blooms in March or April—one of the earlier harbingers of spring. Sometimes it is tricked by warm days in January, only to be cut short by the next freeze. Rarely does it have many flowers in the full of summer, even though it is supposedly a southern tree.

But the blossoms are welcome whenever they come. For me they are a symbol of abundance and promise.

20150703_081743So I sit this morning at my desk writing, and my view is full of hope. The fully-leaved magnolia obscures all neighborhood activity, though I hear a power saw across the street and a lawnmower down the block.

All I see are the huge pink flowers surrounded by gaudy green foliage. Occasionally, a bird lights on a branch, or two squirrels play hide and seek (or other games) and shake the tree. A profusion of nature in my suburbia.

And a welcome distraction from writing a blog post.

What distractions keep you from writing?

A Year of Firsts: On Losing and On Finding Again

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My mother died on July 4 last year, so I am completing a year of firsts—the first Thanksgiving without her, the first Christmas, her birthday in early March, St. Patrick’s Day (a big holiday for her), Easter, Mother’s Day, and now the anniversary of her death.

In many ways, I lost her several years ago, because of the long, slow deterioration that Alzheimer’s causes. When I sent her cards and phoned her on holidays and other occasions after her diagnosis, we didn’t really communicate. She didn’t write back to me. She didn’t speak well on the phone, making our conversations very brief. So the firsts this past year often have not felt like firsts—just more of the same, but with less effort on my part.

For the past several years, the only times I felt we communicated were when I visited in person. Even then, she didn’t talk much. And once she moved into assisted living, we had only an hour or two a day together when my father and I went to her facility, usually over breakfast.

On one visit about a year before she died, I sat with her after breakfast in a lovely sun room in her facility overlooking a bay on Puget Sound. She stared at me.

I remembered my mother’s stares well from childhood, when she glared as she chastised me. That morning in the sun room, I was uncomfortable with her hawk-like gaze fixed on me, just as I had been when I was five.

“What are you looking at?” I asked her.

“I don’t want to lose you,” she said.

I laughed. “You won’t lose me,” I said. “I’m right here.”

She kept staring.

Later I wondered whether she knew she was losing her memories, one by one, and was trying to imprint my image on her brain so she would remember who I was. (I think she knew me all the way through my last visit to see her just a few weeks before she died.)

With her death, of course, we have lost each other, at least for the time being, even if the “firsts” have not always hit home with me.

But through this past year, I have found my mother as well. Her laughter has sounded in my head like I hadn’t heard it in years, and I have felt her contentment, her freedom from Alzheimer’s.

My mother giving me an early reading lesson

My mother and me in my “Boom-Boom Bunny” days

I’ve read what she wrote in my baby book and those of my siblings. What she wrote seemed silly to me—she filled out my baby book from the point of view of me as a baby:

“. . . my very special pleasure was to laugh and ‘talk’ to the bunny rabbits on my bedroom curtains. Mummy named them for me: the yellow bunnies were ‘Sunny Bunny’, the pink were “Honey Bunny”, and the blue were “Funny Bunny”—but I was the fourth bunny—“Boom Boom Bunny”.

But then, she was just 23 when I was born, and still 24 when she had her second child, so I suppose she was entitled to be silly.

My youngest brother told me our mother used to sing “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” with him when he was a preschooler. I never knew that—or had forgotten, and I was glad to know she still had some silly left in her when he came along in her mid-thirties. My memories of her in those years were of the glaring disciplinarian, so I found her silliness again through my brother’s story.

I have also found her this past year in the travel journals she kept and in the paper she wrote on Eleanor of Aquitaine for her Questers group. I found her in notes she left in books. I found her in sympathy cards from her friends after her death, in which they wrote about how much they always loved getting her letters. I found her also in the stories my father told between her death and his, and in the many pictures of both my parents that I pulled together for first her funeral and then his.

So this year, a year of loss, has also been a year of recovery. As will be the next year and the next. I imagine I will feel both loss and recovery for many years to come. If some friends are correct, perhaps for the rest of my life.

How have you recovered from the losses in your life?

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