Last day of November! Like Jama at Alphabet Soup, I’m on the countdown, too. My sister decorated the outside of her house in one manic day. I can’t face decorating yet, not while I’m finishing up handmade gifts. This year I’m giving the gift of words–mine or other’s people’s. Yes, I’m giving lots of books, but also things to encourage people to write, take pictures, and journal.
In the introduction to A Dixie Christmas, editors Charline McCord and Judy Tucker wrote:
"The stories in this collection were e-mailed and snail-mailed, FedExed and UPSed, left in mailboxes, tossed on front porches, and left propped up against unsuspecting garage doors. Finding and experiencing each story, regardless of its packaging or mode of delivery, was like being the undeserving recipient of a gift involving great sacrifice, a gift unselfishly bestowed by one intent on stretching well beyond the comfort of his or her means to offer only their absolute best.
For the best kinds of gifts are words–spoken or written. The right words in the right order at the right time will always exercise a magical charm over their recipient. Long after the festive decorations have been returned to the attic, the mountains of unwrapped boxes have been dragged curbside, and the unadorned tree has been hauled off for recycling, the words of these stories–unaltered by time, undiminished by brevity of event–will continue to enrich their readers."
I can’t hope to write a story as wonderful as those in A Dixie Christmas, but I wrote a personal essay for our annual holiday letter and a funny short story featuring the characters in my Iva books. I also made presents to capture words, pictures, and memories–journals, covered pocket folders, picture frames, photo collages, calendars, little chipboard mitten "fill-in" albums, scrapbooks, and a "stashaway" to tuck tags, letters and special photos.
This weekend I addressed my holiday letters (while watching DVDs of "Miami Vice"). I have one present to finish–one that I’m enjoying creating. My friend Connie Van Hoven spent this fall signing her first book. She has sold out of the entire edition already and still has more autographings coming up! Her album will be a memory book of friends and family who supported her.
This week I’ll start wrapping presents. I don’t believe in those gift bags, even though they can be recycled. I don’t buy holiday-themed paper and I pitched my last bag of crumpled stick-on bows years ago. I wrap all my presents in tissue paper–any color–and belt with real ribbon. I tuck vintage photographs in the ribbon or add tags made from my collection of 1920s Christmas cards (they are like announcement cards and don’t open), which I color copy and adhere to cardstock.
Don’t you love that little ironing board? It’s only 22 inches long, probably handmade. Instead of clogging the big-box stores the day after Thanksgiving, I was in an antique mall, far from the maddening crowd. I picked up this ironing board and a bigger red metal child’s ironing board that will be pressed into service as a side table in my office (when it’s redecorated), and the first of many vintage suitcases that will hold books.
My little workshop will run another week or so and then I’ll mail gifts and letters far and wide . . . my absolute best efforts, off to friends and family who will find them in their mailboxes, or tossed on their porches, or leaning against unsuspecting garage doors.
Grilled cheese and soup on Thanksgiving? Of course not. But we had that last night and it made me think of all those Friday-night-paycheck suppers when my mother would fix grilled cheese and tomato soup after we’d come back from the bank and the grocery store. The older I get, the more I crave simple foods: grilled cheese, pie dough roll-ups, chipped beef gravy over toast and home fries, fried squash (yes, I do love anything fried) and brown-and-serve cloverleaf rolls. This week I went to four different grocery stores trying find Pillsbury frozen dinner rolls or brown-and-serve cloverleaf rolls. Today’s stores are too tony for such common fare. Sometimes I don’t want artisan rosemary and dill flatbread dipped in extra-extra-virgin olive oil. Sometimes I want plain old brown-and-serve rolls!
I’ve been in a swivet over the rolls for days. I know . . . relax, breathe. It’s just bread. But it isn’t. I told my husband last night if I had the funds, I open a grocery store that carried all the stuff from the old days we can’t find any more. Pecan twirls. Brown-and-serve Parker House rolls. Ice milk and sherbet (not sorbet). Date nut bread in a can. Those little Washington cake mixes (white and chocolate) so you can make a single layer cake or a half dozen cupcakes. Popover mixes. Potato sticks in a can. Dream Whip. Chicken breasts with the ribs–boneless fillets get boring after a while. Fresh bologna. Chef-Boy-R-Dee pizza mixes in the box. You get the idea. Add your own lost favorites. We can have a great store and without a sprig of rosemary in sight!
My sister and I agree that we can skip a lot of products in the stores. The only thing that’s vastly improved since our day is ice cream. Our choices were limited to vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry or van-choc-straw if our mother was feeling generous. Unlike me, my sister is a real cook. I’m a fixer, as in, I’m fixing supper (open can, jar, box, etc.). Last week she made a fabulous soup that she made up. If I made up a soup, we’d have to dial 911.
You see, I failed ninth grade home ec. I confessed this before my husband and I got married and he was brave enough to go through with the ceremony. In home ec., I couldn’t seem to grasp the fact people used recipes. My mother didn’t. She just went in the kitchen and came out with fried chicken, mashed potatoes, cream gravy, creamed peas, biscuits, cole slaw, butterscotch pie . . . So when I was assigned to make tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches with my hapless partner, I said, "Who makes tomato soup? You just open a can." But there wasn’t any Campbell’s in the cupboards. I opened a can of tomatoes and poured the tomato water in the pan. Meanwhile, my partner was making our grilled cheese sandwiches in the toaster. No wonder we both got an F and our teacher a migraine.
So when my sister told me she made up the delicious soup I was eating (with grilled cheese), I asked her to send me her recipe. Here it is:
Patricia’s Famous Lip Lickin’ Chili
1 pound ground beef or turkey
1 pack sliced fresh mushrooms
2 small cans Mexicorn
2 cans petite diced tomatoes
1 can navy beans
1 can kidney beans
1 can pinto beans
1 package Chili-O seasoning (mild)
sugar, salt, pepper to taste
Brown meat and mushrooms, add seasoning mix. Dump other ingredients in and simmer till yummy.
Serve with grilled cheese sandwiches (made with American cheese, nothing fancy) and fond memories of the good ol’ days.
It was one of those trips that started off awful and ending up great. The awful part was my own fault. On my way down to Virginia Beach, where I was scheduled to speak to two schools and a reading council conference, I decided to stop at my sister’s in Richmond so she could do my hair. From there I whizzed down I-64 to Williamsburg. Instead of going on by, like a normal person, I located (love the GPS!) an antiques mall. I promised myself I’d only be in there 20 minutes. (I can’t even be honest with myself when it comes to antiquing.) One hour later I was at the cash wrap with three items I didn’t need. The line was too long and so I left empty-handed. Next I went to the Prime Outlets in search of shoes. Anybody with half a brain knows you can’t shop for shoes at a big huge outlet place in 20 minutes. By that time I didn’t have a quarter of a brain. I looked and tried on but found no shoes. Nowhere. By then it was 4 p.m. and I had a long way to go. No one warned me that Virginia Beach at rush hour is insane.
Up at 3:00 a.m. the next morning, probably too keyed up from all my lollygagging and driving the day before. I visited my first school, Thoroughgood Elementary, and spoke to all the kids, K through 5. The kids were wonderful! They asked such great questions. I had a blast eating lunch with the PTA presidents (past and present) and the librarian. What struck me the most about this school was watching the kindergartners and first graders file in the cafeteria/auditorium. They are so small, so earnest, so sober. They sat down and stared at me. I noticed the purplish circles under their eyes. They are so fragile, these little people, so precious. I know if I came back at the end of the year I’d find bigger, sturdier children, more confident, starting to become themselves. One boy in the front with messy blonde hair grinned at me and said "HI!" His name was Ben, he said. Naturally all the kids beside him and behind him and in front of him had to tell me their names too. It was a charming moment.
The next day (up at 4:00 a.m. this time), I went to Old Donation Center for the Gifted and Talented. In this wonderful, inspiring school, students from grades 2 through 5 spend their days in enrichment programs such as strings, ballet, and art, along with learning academics. The kids were astonishingly bright, funny, stimulating. They kept me on my toes! In between presentations, I peeked into the dance classroom and gazed at sweet little girls with their hair in buns, exercising at the barre. I popped into a third grade class and was amazed at the words on their blackboard, like "rubric." They were studying the structure of economics! In third grade, I was barely able to grasp simple arithmetic.
Most gratifying about this school was watching the kids with their books. They took their library books everywhere. They wanted to read during lunch, but the teachers were concerned about getting food on the books. So the children take their books to the lunchroom, drop them off in baskets, and when they are finished eating, they sit on the carpeted stage steps and read. They read sitting on the floor in line on bathroom breaks. They read. In that third grade classroom, the kids kept their library books on their desks within ready reach. I saw Eragon, Hotel for Dogs, and my own Finding Day’s Bottom. The parents supported their kids’ love of reading–I signed books and bookplates (for books ordered but not yet arrived) until I thought my fingers would drop off, but it was a good kind of tiredness.
The person who coordinated my Virginia Beach trip asked me if I’d speak to an after-school book club at Old Donation Center. Of course I said yes. I sat on the floor with about ten 8- and 9-year old girls from three different schools. The girls had met at field hockey and when that season was over, they formed their own book club. Mothers bring food, but stay in the background. The girls devised a system of speaking with two colored tennis balls: whoever had the green ball could talk, whoever had the yellow ball was next. They had read my books in preparation of my visit and asked really good questions. I loved them so much, I told them a couple of true ghost stories, just for the fun of it. They applauded! There are pictures of me with these girls. I look tired, but my smile is genuine. I adored these girls!
The next day (yes, I was up at 4:00 a.m. again), I attended the Virginia Beach Reading Council annual conference, held at Larkspur Middle school. I gave the keynote address, a speech I wrote called "Good Morning, Virginia." I took the title from the first line of a board book coming out next year entitled Hello, Virginia. As I signed books, I talked to reading teachers from the vast Virginia Beach school district. They bought books with their own money, an indication of their dedication.
When I hit the road again Saturday afternoon (this time I went straight home), I felt energized. Yes, I’d missed sleep and I spent 3 days talking and signing, but I was with kids and teachers and books. I write the books at home in my (mostly) quiet house. But I do it for them. It’s wonderful to have a glimpse into their world.
About once a year I get a notion to completely redecorate a room over the weekend. I blame this in part on HGTV. When I’m teaching at Hollins in the summer, I have a TV in my apartment. We shut down off our cable 7 years ago when I was in grad school the first time. Although we say we don’t miss TV, I turn it on the second I’ve moved on campus. Mostly I watch HGTV. I’d call my husband and say, Listen, we can add 8 extra square feet in our bedroom just by changing the swing of the door! It only takes a second (in HGTV time). My husband would say it’s more complicated than that–you have to buy a new door and doorjamb. Most of my projects turn out like that.
Two weekends ago I decided it was time to create our Beatix Potter bathroom, based on fashion colors from the movie "Miss Potter," cream, robin’s egg blue, moss, dark brown, and an old Victorian poster called "Rabbits on a Log" by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tate. For more than a year I’d been acquiring a new shower curtain, candle holders, an old mirrored medicine cabinet-type shelf and other decorative touches. I bought the paint on Thursday and began painting the plain white walls robin’s egg blue. If anyone has ever seen the sequence on "Frasier" where Niles is ironing his pants to get ready for a date with Daphne–7 minutes or so of physical comedy–that was me painting. I thought painting would be soothing. I’d think about my book while making over the boring bathroom. I didn’t think about anything except painting the walls without getting it on the floors, tub, sink, toilet, and my hair. It took me an entire day. The next day I bounced up ready to tackle the woodwork and install all the new hardware. Did I mention it was 80 degrees that weekend? And that this bathroom has no window? I slapped paint on the inside of the door, eager to get out and get some air. But . . . I’d locked myself in and that was after I unscrewed the doorknobs! My husband came to my rescue. Finally.
The next day, Sunday, was installation day. (See previous post–all we did was shop for and take back light fixtures). My two-day miracle actually took five days. But . . . I transformed the ugly mirror with this nifty framing stuff called Mirr-Edge.
We ditched the ugly chrome hardware and installed bronze, even the knobs on the vanity. I hung the cabinet and added vintage toiletries (Cloverine Salve, anyone?).
I found an old telephone stand about 6 inches wide with a cute pull-out notepad shelf that makes a fun tp holder. Put vintage oversized Golden Books in the phone book slot because you always need something to read in the bathroom.
Last, I cleverly had my husband install the towel bar behind the door so it’s mostly hidden. This isn’t really one of my "arty" shots–I’m in a heap on the floor after climbing and stretching and painting and scrubbing for five days straight. And the wall isn’t really green, but robin’s egg blue. Light reflected in the mirror and the huge poster, but you get the idea.
When the room was finished, the rains came. Hurricane Ida’s last laugh. It rained and rained and rained and rained and rained. Tuesday night through Saturday morning with no break. Wind and rain. Rain and wind. I don’t drink but I was ready to down tumblers of vodka.
This weekend found me giving a library program on Pony Island at a library in North Stafford. I had mostly little kids and I loved watching them color cut-out paper ponies afterward. Made me want to grab a crayon and join them! On Saturday I attended the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference where I critiqued manuscripts most of the day. In between I chatted with friends from the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C., Vermont College, and Hollins. And on my way home, I could see a line of–was that light?–on the distant horizon, peeking beneath the glowering clouds that sat over us for four days.
Yes, we have sun again! And temps in the 70s! Wednesday I leave for Virginia Beach for two days of school visits and then the Virginia Beach Reading Council conference, where I am the keynote speaker. Better go pack…
Never have your house built by Bambi. When we moved to Fredericksburg in 1996, we wound up with Bambi, an"up-and-coming" general contractor who had sweeping eyelashes and was so young he still lived with his mother. Bambi was very sweet, but had an affinity for hiring low-bidder subcontractors like our electrician who cheerfully announced he was "on the wagon" (I still wince when I turn on a lamp) and the drywall man who actually made his wife hang the drywall (she told me she cried as she hung the drywall over the closet stud where I had written a secret message about what the house meant to its owners).
Our house was built in an astonishing four months. I made a lot of decisions quickly, like cabinets, chandeliers, carpet, vinyl, appliances etc. But then I fell asleep at the switch and let the builder choose things like towel rods, light fixtures, outlet covers, faucets and so forth. He used "builder’s grade"–the cheapest of the cheap. At first all those things were bright and shiny and I didn’t mind them. But as the years have worn on, so have those builder’s grade items. I began a campaign to replace every single light fixture, outlet cover, faucet, and bath hardware. So far we (meaning I blithely buy the fixture and my husband installs it) have replaced all the fixtures downstairs. My husband replaced three upstairs hall light fixtures last month while I was in Colonial Beach, not telling me he was nearly electrocuted because of faulty wiring until I got home. I wouldn’t ask him to install any others for at least a year, figuring light-fixture-installation is on a par with childbirth. One needs time to forget the pain.
Last week I decided to make-over the middle bath. It still wore its original boring builder’s grade whitewash. I’ll tell the rest of the story of the makeover–and my undoing–in the next post. When I announced my plans the first thing my husband said was, "I’m not changing the light fixture." I’d already bought the fixture. But as I studied the large, hospital-type fixture installed by the builder, I figured the base of the fixture I’d bought wasn’t big enough. The electrician had probably chopped a big hole in the wall with an ax. I went to Lowe’s, where I’d bought the first fixture, and studied the offerings. Yes, that big fixture with a large bronze base would cover a hole the size of a football field. I went home and told my husband about it. Okay, he agreed, sounding like Custer saying Little Big Horn was a fine place to fight.
Sunday, I said, we will get up and go to Ryan’s for a buffet breakfast. Then we’ll hop over to Lowe’s, return the fixture I’d already bought, and buy the big one. The instructions said it only takes 30 minutes to an hour to install! Sunday morning found us sitting in the parking lot of Ryan’s at 7:30. The place opens at 8:00. We sat there a minute or two, one of us in dire need of coffee, the other wishing she had checked the restaurant’s hours. So we went to McDonald’s, a poor substitute for the dazzling array of breakfast at Ryan’s, but the coffee injection came quickly. Then we hopped over to Lowe’s to return the first fixture. I skipped back to lighting aisle and pointed out the large beautiful fixture about 40 feet above us on the display. But none were in stock. It’s the perfect fixture, I said, disappointed. Nothing else would do.
My husband drove to the other Lowe’s on the far side of town. Yes! The light fixture was there! We took it home and he pulled off the old hospital fixture. The hole was not gigantic as I expected but the electrician left us a surprise anyway–the box that holds the wires was not embedded in the wall. It was stuck on the outside of the wall like a lichen. My husband held up the heavy new fixture. It wouldn’t work. Not only that, I decided the fixture was too big for the bathroom. It had four ponderous glass globes that weighed about 10 pounds each. We would have to return it and get something else.
We went back to Lowe’s. I frantically scanned the displays of bathroom fixtures. Too big, too small. Didn’t like the globes. I found one and this time we opened the box and took it out. It might work, my husband said. Might. The word loomed between us. It was 2:00 and we had done nothing all day except run to Lowe’s and fret over fixtures, our own personal "Groundhog Day." The new light fixture looked easy to install. For hours, my husband crouched on the vanity in a hot, windowless bathroom lit by his worker’s light, twisting wires. He needed different screws and went to Home Depot to get the right ones. When he got home, he found the right screws in the box the fixture came in.
Tests showed the wiring wouldn’t work any more. He re-wired. Then the fixture, finally attached, wouldn’t work. He took it down and re-wired the fixture before realizing I had given him a burned-out bulb to test with. If I had connected a wire to my husband’s head, he could have lit up D.C. At last the fixture was up. Only the three glass globes had to be screwed on. Except we learned that only someone with fingers ten inches long, a quarter of an inch wide, and made of titanium could manipulate the sharp rings in a ridiculously tiny space. We both sweated and fumed until my husband stuck the rings on the burned-out lightbulb with Scotch tape as a makeshift turning device.
At last, it was done. The new light fixture is a world of improvement over the old one. It gives the bathroom (almost, but not quite, completely made-over) the right ambience. But, oh, what a price! An entire day our lives. While I watched my husband twist wires, I thought about all those remodeling stories I’d read about in magazines. Wives who had happily fixed dinner in the bathtub for months and slept in a cardboard box while they and their husbands rebuilt their houses with their bare hands. How did they do it? How did they manage to stay sane/married/out of prison?
All I know is if we build another house (and in a way, we are rebuilding this house from the inside out), I’ll be on top of things and choose every single element, down the last outlet cover.
When we last left the author of this blog, she had been junkin’ with her sister in Mechanicsville, Virginia (see previous post). She ended that entry by implying it was okay she didn’t get the inspiration board because there wasn’t any room in her house and she didn’t really need it anyway and we don’t always get what we want, etc. Well, she big fat lied. She did want that board! So bad!
When I came back from my week at Bell House, a blissful week of writing, eating, and walking along the river, I walked into my office and nearly burst into tears. Xenia, our 16-year-old cat who has three terminal illnesses, lives in my office during the day. She has never gotten along with Mulan (a previous cat) or Winchester and has always had to be separated from the general population. My office seems more like a hospital ward at a vet’s than a place to create. After more than 7 years of having sick cats in residence, my office is depressing.
Very soon, I hope, my new website will be up. I had wanted to include a photo album of my office to let kids see where I work. Then I wondered what angles I’d take photos that didn’t show the litter box, water bowl, and numerous paper plates sitting on a plastic painter’s cloth. Or the enormous mauled carpeted cat tree. Or the unused exercise equipment. Or the higgledy-piggledy piles of books and papers. Or the beige wall-to-wall carpeting stained with pet accidents that resemble countries on a giant map (upchucked breakfast June 8, 2003–Argentina).
When we built our house in 1996, I finally got a real, not-in-a-bedroom office. 400 square feet over the garage with two dormer windows and a big double window. I wasn’t going to clutter the room with books (!). I’d keep it pristine and business-like. Pfff! In 2002 the first sick cat moved in. That would be Winchester who tested positive for feline leukemia. I had two choices–put him down or keep him in total isolation from Mulan and Xenia. Forever. He was a stray, about a year old, with a winning personality. He moved into my office. For ten months he grew and gained weight and demanded constant attention. I could barely write my own name, much less books. We had him retested and again it came out positive. I bought the big cat tree, which Winchester proceeded to shred with is big saber-toothed cat claws (visitors still wonder if we have a cougar somewhere). Months later I had him tested once more, a more complicated test. The instant it came back negative, I let Winchester out. Mulan dealt with him in two seconds and he learned his place.
Then Mulan got irritable bowel syndrome, treatable in humans but fatal in cats. She had full run of the house and often spent time in my office. She left her mark, as well. After Mulan died in 2007, I brought Xenia into my office. She spent most of her time sleeping in the top bunk of Winchester’s cat tree (when she wasn’t plotting to kill him). Two strokes later she now spends her time yelling in demented agitation (cats get mental problems just like people) and having illness-related accidents. I keep a can of Spot Shot and a roll of paper towels within reach on my desk.
So what does all this have to do with that inspiration board? While I was cruising my house, looking for a square inch of wall space, I walked into my office. No place here and it wouldn’t go anyway, I thought. It’s a vintage piece and my room is, well–a mess. And then I thought, I could hang it in here as inspiration to change this room. When Xenia goes, I’ll have my room back. I’ll declutter and completely redecorate! I could put swatches and lists and photos of how I want my room to look on the board.
I gazed out the window. My husband was outside raking. I had mentioned the board to him, but did not resort to my usual whining and wheedling. In fact, I never uttered another word about it. But when my husband came in from raking, he said, Let’s go get that board you wanted. And so we did. My husband has always been like this. If I want something, no matter how foolish, he gets it for me. Even if we don’t have the money. Even if we don’t have room for it. Somehow he finds the money. Somehow I find the room. Somehow it works out. [On the board now: photo of my great-uncle, photo of my sister’s dog Sugar in her purple princess costume, painting/card created by my good friend, children’s book illustrator Linda Shute.]
Yes, Reader, I married this man a little over thirty years ago. And I’m so glad I did.