What’s in a Book Cover?


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As I’ve written, I am hard at work this year editing my historical novel about travel along the Oregon Trail. I’m far enough along that I can envision its potential publication. So recently I started thinking about what I’d like the book cover to look like.

I have some experience working with a group of local authors (we call ourselves Write Brain Trust) on publishing issues. Write Brain Trust members have talked a lot about book covers, and we’ve helped each other on covers and other design issues with the books we’ve self-published.

mockupBut more knowledge is generally a good thing, so I recently attended a program on cover design at The Story Center (part of the Mid-Continent Public Library in the Kansas City area). The presenter was Aaron Barnhart, a partner at Quindaro Press.

His advice was that a book cover needs

  • One piece of art (which can be created from several elements)
  • Two fonts (no more or the cover looks too busy)
  • Three key elements
    • knowing your key audience so you design the book to appeal to them
    • a title . . . and a subtitle if desired
    • a very short description of the book for your back cover text

I’m working on all these aspects of my book cover now. (Actually, I have a working title that I’m almost certain to use, but I’m not telling yet.)

I’m not an artist nor a designer, but I know my book, and I want input into the cover design.

I’ve been frustrated in working with most of the cover images I’ve considered. Line drawings (like the wagon above) seem dated and simplistic. Paintings don’t quite portray the scenes or characters in my book, and I have to worry about copyright issues. Photographs are even more likely to have copyright issues, unless I take the picture myself, and I only have a couple of my own photos I think might work.

At this point, I’m working with a variety of images, as well as trying to decide whether to use a tag line (like a subtitle) on the cover. And, of course, writing two paragraphs of back cover text is as hard as writing two full chapters of the novel . . . maybe harder.

More information to follow . . . no cover reveal yet!

How the California Gold Rush Changed Emigration Patterns to the West


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Organic Laws of Oregon

Organic Laws of Oregon

The Great Migration of 1843 was the first significant group of emigrants to head west. That year between 700 and 1,000 emigrants left for Oregon, mostly families seeking free land. In 1843, it was still uncertain whether the United States or Great Britain would govern the Oregon Territory, but it was clear the land was good for farming.

Those settlers of 1843 formed a provisional government in Oregon and passed the first Organic Laws, which authorized male pioneers to claim up to 640 acres of free land. This policy continued until Congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850. That federal law continued to grant free land to emigrants in the West, though the terms changed somewhat.

Between 1840 and 1848, a total of about 11,500 emigrants traveled to Oregon, while only 2,700 went to California. As an example of how the settlers preferred Oregon to California, in 1846, there were about 2,500 emigrants to the west, of whom 1,500 to 1,700 went to Oregon, while only 800 to 1,000 went to California. That year, Great Britain ceded its rights to the U.S. in the Oregon Treaty of 1846. Meanwhile, the Mexican-American War began, also in 1846.

In 1847 and 1848, Mormons headed to Salt Lake added to the travelers to Oregon and California, but even so migration to the west remained small. In fact, the emigration of 1848 was less that in many earlier years.

Gold prospector, 1850, photograph from  Wikimedia Commons

Gold prospector, 1850, photograph from Wikimedia Commons

As I’ve described before, James Marshall found gold at Sutter’s Mill in January 1848. Coincidentally, the Treaty of Hidalgo was signed with Mexico on February 2, 1848. California was now a part of the United States, and gold provided an immediate impetus for Americans to head to California.

Thus, once news of the discovery of gold in California reached the East Coast, the pattern of emigration to the West changed forever. The preferred location shifted immediately away from Oregon and toward California. Approximately 80,000 people flocked to California during 1849. As I’ve described in earlier posts, they came overland on the California Trail and by ship around Cape Horn or through the Panama shortcut.

Over 35,000 people, almost all men, took the overland route to California—the famous Forty-Niners. The majority of them descended on California as voraciously as a wave of locusts. They left the East in early spring, came through the border towns in Missouri and Iowa in April and May, then all of them rushed west to beat the winter snows and stake their claims.

As we head into summer in 2015, let’s remember the Forty-Niners, those intrepid fortune seekers of 1849, who flooded the plains 162 years ago.

Would you have headed to Oregon or California in the spring of 1849?

May Is National Photo Month—Label Those Photos and Preserve Your Memories


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Craters of the Moon, Idaho, April 2015

Craters of the Moon, Idaho, April 2015

I learned recently that May is National Photo Month. Photographs are easier than ever to take and to share—with cell phones and Instagram we can record our lives by the day or by the minute. Now that Memorial Day is here and summer is beginning, you may be filling up your digital camera’s storage with holiday events, while I sit at my computer writing this post.

Cameras today can record the date and time of the picture, if the time-stamp feature is turned on. That provides part of the information we will later need to remember the occasion when the photograph was taken.

But unless we let Picasa or Facebook or some other facial recognition program determine who is in the picture, we may forget. And unless we let our GPS post our location along with the photo, that, too, could get lost.

Columbia River & Rattlesnake Mountain, from Richland, Washington, April 2015

Columbia River & Rattlesnake Mountain, from Richland, Washington, April 2015

Furthermore, the sheer number of pictures we take today can overwhelm us. I’ve been taking lots of pictures this year as I’ve traveled, from California to Idaho, from Washington to Wyoming. And even a few around home in Missouri.

Most of these pictures are meaningless to anyone other than me. Even I won’t care about many of them in a few years. But I should identify the pictures I treasure, so I’ll remember why I took them and why I saved them in the decades ahead.

I am grateful now to my parents and grandparents who labeled many pictures of generations past. And I wish they had labeled more of them.

Pasadena Boys' Choir in the Rose Parade. My father is in the choir, but I'm not certain of the year.

Pasadena Boys’ Choir in the Rose Parade. My father is in the choir, but I’m not certain of the year (1944 to 1946, I think).

As May—National Photo Month—draws to a close, take some time to label your photographs. Add a name to the generic date/time name your smartphone or digital camera gives the photo. Or label them the old-fashioned way—print them off and write on the back.

If you don’t have time now, at least add labeling your photographs to your to-do list. And for overachievers, write down your memories of the event when the photo was taken.

Though I confess, organizing photographs of my children has been on my to-do list for over twenty years.

What tasks do you put off as long as you can?

NOLA Road Trip From Hell

In May 2010, my husband, his mother, and I took a road trip to New Orleans, Louisiana (called “NOLA” by natives). My daughter was graduating from Tulane Law School. We would attend her graduation ceremony, then help her move her belongings back to Kansas City until she rented a place in Olympia, Washington, where she would start work in August.

The contents of her one-bedroom apartment in NOLA had to get to our basement in Kansas City. And her Ford Escape also needed to make the trip. We knew we would need a do-it-yourself moving truck. We’d used a Penske truck to move her to NOLA three years earlier and dreaded the repeat trip in a vehicle without cruise control.

The original plan was for my husband, his mother, and me to fly from Kansas City to New Orleans. After graduation, we would drive the truck and our daughter’s car back to Kansas City. Four drivers and two vehicles seemed a reasonable ratio.

Then my mother-in-law decided she didn’t want to fly. We had to drive. That would mean three vehicles to drive back from New Orleans—the car we drove to NOLA, our daughter’s Escape, and the moving truck. It was still doable, though not ideal.

I volunteered my car—a 2009 Mazda 5 that could seat six people and had less than 10,000 miles on it. There would be a total of seven people in our party, because my parents and my son were also joining us in NOLA for the festivities (although not for the packing and moving adventure). I figured the Mazda and my daughter’s Escape would give us plenty of room.

We headed south from Kansas City on Wednesday. On Thursday, around Jackson, Mississippi, just as the Southern humidity grew rank, the air conditioning in the Mazda went out. The car’s fan stopped fanning. We wilted, but tried to keep our tempers cool.

As we approached New Orleans, I called my daughter to ask her to find us a Mazda dealer in the area. I didn’t yet have a smartphone with Internet access. She gave us an address in the suburb of Metairie, and we went directly there.

We described the air-conditioning problem to the dealer’s service representative. He said there was a recall on the vehicle also and he could take care of both problems.

“Can you have the car ready tomorrow?” we asked. “We’ve got people to transport to graduation activities.”

He shook his head. “It’ll be at least Friday.”

We managed with public transportation and our daughter’s Escape on Thursday. We put seven adults in the Escape for one brief ride. It made for a close-knit family gathering.

On Friday, the dealer said, “We need a replacement part that’s not in stock. It’ll be Monday before we’re done.”

“We’re leaving Monday,” we said. “We absolutely have to have the car then.”

“No problem.”

“And what about transportation through the weekend? We really need another car.”

“There’s an Enterprise rental next door to us,” the dealer said.

We rented a dinky little sedan. So much for the six seats in my Mazda, but we made do with the rented sedan and the Escape.


A blurry picture of our daughter at graduation

The New Orleans weather was either swelteringly hot or pouring rain. Mostly both at the same time. We squished through puddles from the parking lot to the law school, the downpour overwhelming our Midwestern umbrellas. But we got our daughter graduated on Saturday.

On Sunday morning the three grandparents, my husband, my son, and I sat in our hotel downtown for a final breakfast before sending my son off to his flight. Our daughter was at her apartment, allegedly packing. We hadn’t seen much evidence of packing earlier in the weekend.

As we ate, we noticed a commotion in the hotel lobby. The street outside had flooded, and water oozed into the lobby. In the street the muddy sludge stood at least a foot deep.

“I’ll never get a cab to the airport,” my son groaned.

“Maybe your flight has been canceled,” I said.

He checked. The flight was on time.

So he put on his flip-flops, rolled up his jeans, and waded outside, balancing his suitcase on his head. He didn’t come back.

After a couple of hours, the flood waters receded, and we went on a plantation tour.

On Monday, our tasks included renting the truck, returning the dinky sedan, and retrieving our Mazda. As well as loading the truck and starting the drive back to Missouri.

The Penske truck

The Penske truck

First the truck. We arrived at the Penske office at 9:30am to pick up a truck promised for 9:00. No truck. We ran errands, then returned. The truck was finally available at 10:30. Off to our daughter’s apartment to load up.

As I walked toward my daughter’s apartment, I slipped in the mud, twisting my left foot. Immediate pain like I hadn’t felt since I broke that same foot in 1995. I hobbled into the apartment and examined it. “I think I broke my foot,” I said.

“You’re kidding,” my husband said, his usual sympathetic self.

“Great timing, Mom,” my daughter said. She takes after her father.

My daughter's apartment kitchen. You can see my ice bag in the sink.

My daughter’s apartment kitchen on move-out day. You can see my ice bag in the sink.

I limped to the kitchen and perched on the counter. “Do you have any ice?” I ran cold water over my foot while my daughter went to buy ice.

I stayed on the counter while my husband and daughter moved furniture. I was able to clean the stove while icing my foot in the sink. After a couple of hours, I vacuumed, moving my leg as little as possible, while they loaded the last of the boxes into the truck.

By 2:00pm, we were done. My daughter and I went downtown to get my mother-in-law. We’d left her at the hotel, afraid she would hurt herself lifting things. (Hah! I was the weakling in the bunch.)

My husband returned the rental car and picked up our Mazda. We all met back at our daughter’s apartment for a fast-food meal before our trek.

“They didn’t do anything on the air-conditioning,” my husband reported. “They couldn’t find anything wrong.”

“What do you mean they couldn’t find anything wrong?” I said.

“They said it works fine.”

“But you know it didn’t work on the way here.”

He shrugged. “They fixed the recall problem.”

So we were about to leave on a two-day drive in 100% humidity with unreliable air-conditioning. And a mother-in-law. We decided she and I would take my daughter’s Escape, leaving my husband and daughter to manage the truck and faulty Mazda between them.

At 3:30pm, as rush hour started, our caravan left NOLA. My mother-in-law driving the Escape, with me as a passenger (left foot propped on the dash), my daughter driving the Mazda, and my husband driving the Penske truck (sans cruise control).

My boot

My boot

And that’s pretty much how we proceeded for the next two days. I did insist on relieving my mother-in-law at the wheel for a brief spell, to be sure I could make the last 90 minutes from her house to mine by myself.

X-rays the day after we got home revealed my metatarsal bone was broken. I wore a boot for the next two months.

But our daughter had air-conditioning in the Mazda all the way home. We never found out what gremlins attacked it on the trip down.

What trips have you taken that turned into disasters?

The Doll I Never Played With


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My mother had a collection of Storybook dolls when she was a girl. Several of them lasted until I was a child. They were all about four to five inches tall, porcelain with painted faces and painted shoes, “real” hair stitched and glued to their heads, and dressed in beautiful costumes.

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Little Boy Blue, in the remnants of his clothing

I remember playing with Little Bo Peep, Little Boy Blue, and two or three others. They all had names, but I’ve forgotten most of them. One had a white dress with red polka dots. One wore a broad-brimmed hat. A couple of them wore bloomers, which I thought were very silly.

As I played with the Storybook dolls, changing their clothes and making new clothes with my grandmother, the dolls grew a little dingy. Their hair was no longer carefully coiffed and curled, but flew about like mine did. Some of the pretty costumes tore, and the bloomers got lost.

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The leftover doll dress

At some point, the dolls disappeared—all except Little Boy Blue in some of his clothes and one other costume that survived in the box my grandmother and I used when we sewed. I don’t know what happened to the rest of them, but they probably were tossed out during one of my grandmother’s moves.

When I was a child, there was one Storybook doll my mother never let me play with. The Bride doll.

How I wanted to play with the little doll with dark hair and beautiful white dress! My mother told me the doll wasn’t a toy. The Bride doll was special, because she carried a bouquet of lily-of-the-valley, just like my mother had on her wedding day.

I hadn’t thought about the Bride doll in years. I assumed she disappeared along with the others.

Then, when cleaning out my parents’ house, I found her with some of my mother’s memorabilia. Unlike the dolls I remember playing with, the Bride doll’s eyes aren’t painted on. Instead, they are plastic and close when she is lying down. Maybe she was a later model, given to my mother when she was a bit older—maybe when she was old enough to think about her own marriage.

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The Bride doll, still in good shape

When I found the Bride doll, I packed her in a plastic bag and shipped her to my house. I probably still will never play with her, but I will keep her safe.

Because she was my mother’s.

And because someday I might have a granddaughter. I will tell the granddaughter about my mother—the great-grandmother this granddaughter of mine will never know, the one who carried a lily-of-the-valley bouquet on her wedding day, the one who never let me play with her Bride doll.

Will I let my granddaughter play with the Bride doll? I haven’t decided yet. Part of me says I should keep the Bride doll safe. Part of me says I’ll probably let my granddaughter do whatever she wants.

What items were off limits for you when you were a child?

Twelve Lessons Learned While Doing Sudoku


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When I retired several years ago, I told myself I wouldn’t sit around doing crossword puzzles all day long. As a word person, I love crossword puzzles.

But many are too easy for me—it’s no fun to fill out the squares without even stopping. And some are too hard—namely, The New York Times puzzles on Friday and Saturday, which could take me all day if I let them. I soon discovered that both the easy and the hard puzzles were really a waste of time.

sudoku300So most weeks I limit myself to two crossword puzzles a week—those in the Friday Wall Street Journal and in the Sunday New York Times (which is published a week late in The Kansas City Star).

But although I limited my crosswords, I also knew that I should keep my mind active in retirement. I decided that learning to write novels wasn’t a sufficient mental challenge.

So I took up sudoku. I’m not a numbers person, but I’m a logical thinker. Surely, I thought, I could learn to do sudoku. And I did. Most mornings now, I do the sudoku puzzle in The Kansas City Star, from the easy one-star on Mondays to the challenging six-star on Saturday.

Here are some lessons I have learned from my pursuit of sudoku:

1. Start as a beginner and work up to being an expert.

2. One small error can mushroom into a mess.

3. No one is perfect.

4. Sometimes you have to start over.

5. There’s no shame in using a pencil. And the eraser.

6. Use whatever organizational methods work for you.

7. Trial and error works best after you have narrowed the options.

8. It’s an advantage to write small.

9. You have to look for both the forest and the trees.

10. The set theory I learned in the second grade works.

11. It’s important to think both about what must be true and what can’t be true.

12. Everything is interconnected.

These are all important life lessons. I knew them before undertaking sudoku, but the puzzles have reinforced my understanding.

There are other life lessons that sudoku doesn’t teach at all. These include

A. Not everything in life is logical.

B. Not all problems have a single unique answer.

C. Life doesn’t get magically easier each Monday morning.

These, and many other lessons, I have had to learn without the help of puzzles.

What games reinforce serious life lessons for you?

Daddy’s Date . . . No, Make that Grandpa’s Date!


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The church where my sister was married had a very firm rule that any children who were members of the wedding party had to be at least five. My son, at age six, qualified to be a ring bearer. My daughter, who would turn three just days before the wedding, could not be a flower girl, so the honor went to the groom’s five-year-old sister, who was barely eligible.

My daughter was devastated. I was a bridesmaid, and my son was the ring bearer. What would she be?

We tried to console her by telling her she could be “Daddy’s date” because my husband also had no role in the wedding party. It didn’t work. Even at three, she was intelligent enough to know when she was being patronized.

After many tears and the purchase of a pretty white dress almost as nice as a flower girl’s, we headed across country to the wedding in California. The wedding in an old church in Monterey was lovely. The reception was in a posh resort on the Seventeen Mile Drive. Pictures featured the Pacific Ocean, cypress trees, and rolling green lawns.

My daughter made a fine date for my husband, until he abandoned her at the dinner table. In fact, everyone at our table—including me—abandoned her. She was stuck in her toddler’s booster seat, unable to get down from the table where she sat all alone.

Tears came, until my father noticed her sobbing and rescued her.

My daughter and her grandfather, after he rescued her

My daughter and her grandfather, after he rescued her

I don’t have a picture of my daughter as Daddy’s date. But I do have this picture of her with my father. She stuck close to Grandpa after the rescue. In essence, she became Grandpa’s date, and he was much more attentive to her than my husband had been.

Today, my daughter turns thirty. She can stick up for herself much better now than at age three. At five-foot-nine, she no long needs a booster seat. And she is much more likely to patronize me than the other way around.

What wedding stories can you tell about your family?

A Visit to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, Baker City, Oregon


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oticEver since I began researching the Oregon Trail route for my novel about travel along the trail, I have wanted to go to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City, Oregon, run by the Bureau of Land Management. I finally had the opportunity to visit it in late April, as my husband and I drove the trail backwards from eastern Washington State to Missouri, along I-84, US-26, and I-80.

Oregon Trail wagon ruts

Oregon Trail wagon ruts

The museum tells the story of the emigrants, from the jumping off points in the Midwest to their arrival in Oregon City. It also features outdoor walks where visitors can see the remainder of the wagon ruts that pass by the site.

My husband commented that he liked the museum in Independence, Missouri, better, because it focused more on excerpts from pioneer diaries. I love reading the diary entries also, but I have read so many over the years, that perhaps they don’t strike me as “new” anymore.

At this point in my writing, I am focused on the details. For example, oxen were not driven with reins, the way mules and horses were. They were guided by someone walking next to the lead pair, or perhaps with a whip tapping their shoulder or rump.

Ox and driver

Ox and driver

Mule and driver

Mule and driver

I took many pictures of the displays, and I will pore over them to make my novel as accurate as I can in portraying the lives of the emigrants along the trail.

Camp site along the Oregon Trail

Evening camp site along the Oregon Trail

What historical details do you look for when you read historical fiction?

P.S. I wrote earlier this year that my goal was to complete my edits of my first Oregon Trail novel by June 30. I got it done the last week in April! All chapters are now ready for my critique group, and I’m now working on addressing their comments on the first half of the book. I’m hoping the novel will then be ready for a final copy-edit. I’m still pushing for a Labor Day publication, though that is definitely a stretch goal. Both the emigrants and I have been on long journeys.

Family Resemblances Redux


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My mother, about age 12

I hadn’t seen this picture of my mother until I found it in an old picture album when I was preparing a slide show of her life for her funeral last summer. I love the youth and innocence she depicts from a time long before she was my mother.

Until I saw this picture, I never thought my daughter looked much like my mother. At 5’9” my daughter is far taller than either I or my mother could ever claim. (There are several stories I could write about our height differences.) My daughter has curly hair, while my mother and I never had curls except through mechanical or chemical means.

My daughter and my mother

My daughter and my mother. At age 9, my daughter was almost as tall as my mother and me.

The one thing my daughter inherited from my mother’s side of the family was nice straight teeth (not visible in the picture above of my mother). Although many of their features are different, I’ve always thought my daughter had my mother’s smile. A lovely smile. Unfortunately, I got my dad’s too-tight teeth, though I never had braces, because the orthodontist said I had “a good bite.”

All three of us have worn glasses, and we all began needing them in childhood. My mother was far-sighted and started wearing glasses at age six. My daughter and I are both near-sighted and we each began wearing glasses when we were eight.

M spring 1995 cropped

My daugther, age 10, in a picture that reminds me of the large picture above of my mother.

But my daughter switched to contacts at age thirteen—when I gave her the choice of contacts or piercing her ears. She chose the contacts, and only pierced her ears this year . . . to celebrate her 30th birthday. I think one of the factors in her decision to get her ears pierced at long last was that she inherited a pair of diamond earrings from my mother. My mother’s earrings are not for pierced ears, but my daughter decided the screw-on kind hurt every time you wear them and piercing only hurts for a couple of weeks.

Due to the fashions in glasses, my daughter in the years she wore glasses did resemble my mother. The round lenses and cheeks made them look alike, at least for a bit.

What old pictures have made you see family resemblances you never noticed before?

A Kitchen Bargain


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My father liked to cook, but my mother did not. Cooking was required of a good homemaker, and she vowed to be a good homemaker. So she prepared the meals all the years her children were growing up, and did so reasonably well. But her heart was never in it.

My parents in their "retirement" kitchen

My parents in their “retirement” kitchen

My parents made a deal when my father retired—he would take over the cooking from her, and she would continue to clean up. (He didn’t like to clean.) It was a good deal for both of them.

During his retirement, my father prepared wonderful meals for the two of them and for any guests they had. I often phoned my parents shortly before their dinner hour, and during most calls I listened to a recitation of what he planned to fix that evening.

For the last two years of his life, my father lived alone, first for the eighteen months that my mother was in assisted living, and then for the six months between their deaths. Even when he lived alone, he continued to fix himself good meals—steak, chicken, seafood, pork. Whatever caught his fancy at the grocery store.

He seemed to go to the grocery store almost every day. He knew the butchers at every store in his area, and he asked them what they recommended. He’d get them to package up double-cut lamb chops or the best portion of the prime rib.

I’ve made three trips to stay in his house since he died in early January. His pantry was so well stocked that I didn’t have to buy anything until my third trip. And then all I bought was perishables. I continued to eat the meats in his freezer and the staples in his pantry.

Of course, I didn’t eat like he did. I didn’t spend hours making my dinner. I baked a quick chicken breast. I concocted an Italian casserole from sausage, pasta, and cheese. My primary goal was sustenance, not frittering away time in the kitchen. I have never liked to cook the way my father did.

My secondary goal was to use up the food left in the house. I hated to see any of it go to waste. So I used what was on hand, filling in with a few purchases.

One day while I was staying at his house, my brother and sister and some of their family members visited to sort through which mementos each of us wanted to keep. I fed them frozen pizza and prepared bags of salad for lunch.

I joked with my sister, “Dad would be appalled at how I’m eating here. And at what I’m serving you.” Which was true.

She responded with a grin, “But Mother would be proud.”

I laughed, and agreed.

What she said was also true. In addition to not liking to cook, our mother was Scotch in her thriftiness and odd in her eating habits. Although she made decent meals for the family when we were growing up, when she was by herself, a bowl of cereal with orange juice on it (she didn’t like milk) was plenty for lunch. She snacked on whatever was available.

I haven’t followed all her eating habits (I don’t like orange juice), but I eat some odd snacks, too. And this year at my father’s house, I’ve eaten whatever was available.

So my sister and I laughed together about our parents’ quirks. As we are supposed to do, now that they are gone.

What habits of your relatives have caused laughter in your family?


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