Oh, the horror!
Happy Halloween, Everybody!
And a big Happy Birthday to two terrific Halloweeners, C.J. and G.A. (you know who you are)!
See you back here in a couple of weeks . . . 👻🦇
Oh, the horror!
Happy Halloween, Everybody!
And a big Happy Birthday to two terrific Halloweeners, C.J. and G.A. (you know who you are)!
See you back here in a couple of weeks . . . 👻🦇
I hope everyone is well and happy and that my U.S. readers are celebrating a wonderful Fourth of July with family and friends!
Of course it wouldn’t be the Fourth without fireworks, would it? I enjoy them, but you won’t catch me handling them. Even sparklers kind of scare me, so I’m happy to leave incendiary devices in the hands of the professionals. You know, people like your hotshot neighbor with the umpteen cars, the go-fast boat and the ginormous house. Or your judgment-challenged husband. Yes, I’m speaking of one particular July 4th that none of us in this family will ever forget.
Long before Glen and I moved to the honest-to-goodness country four years ago, we had moved outside of the Austin city limits. The last place was a one-street subdivision with acreage lots: the sort of place where, unlike in the city, setting off fireworks isn’t illegal—provided no burn ban is in effect. Only half the lots had houses on them, which gave all of us neighbors plenty of elbow room to do pretty much as we pleased. That changed once the rest of the houses were built, but those first few years were heady times. Which brings me to one memorable Independence Day around twelve years ago.
That evening at nightfall, fireworks began to bloom in the sky above a couple of houses on the street. Glen, The Daughter and I, plus a few friends who’d come to celebrate with us, went outside to watch. Glen had bought some fireworks for us, too, and he set off several in the driveway. Then the free-spending neighbor across the street (“across the street” only in the most literal sense; he was still two or three hundred yards away from us) got into the act. He was having a July 4th party and doing some showboating, putting on a display for his guests that was calculated to impress and keep them talking about it until the next July 4th. We watched for a time, oohing and aahing, and then Glen touched off a few more of ours. This seemed to send the neighbor into an explosive frenzy.
Shrieking, whizzing, starry bursts and meteoric booms filled the night. Every time Glen sent up another firework, four or five skyrockets and Roman candles launched across the street. The wind was blowing toward us, and soon we (and our house and our yard and our driveway) were covered in the gritty remains of the neighbor’s spent fireworks—that stuff that’s such a nuisance to sweep and rake up the next day. (Katie and I should know; cleanup duty was always our job.) Some of it was still burning and we had to run to stamp it out. What had started out as an amazing display was becoming annoying.
At last there was a lull. Clouds of smoke drifted across scorched asphalt and concrete. We assumed the neighbor’s show was over; all of our own fireworks were long gone. So we brushed the paper shreds and ashy bits out of our clothes and hair, did a last check for small fires on the landscape and started to head indoors. But that wasn’t the end of it. Turns out the neighbor was re-arming. Soon, fresh volleys of fireworks began hurtling skyward, and each new blast seemed bigger and louder than the previous one. Call us paranoid, but we all felt there was a bullying, “mine’s bigger than yours” taint to his extravaganza. (Interestingly, not too long after that night he ended up in a bit of trouble with the feds over some pesky fraud charges.)
Finally, Glen had had enough. “I’m going to my truck,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” Then he vanished into the acrid haze as spent fireworks debris continued to rain down on us.
When he returned, we could see he had something small in the palm of his hand. He went to the circular parking pad at the end of our driveway and waved at the rest of us to stand well back. We didn’t retreat far enough to suit him, so he waved us back some more, and then still more. As we peeked out from behind a stone wall by the front porch, hands over our ears, we saw him put a lighter to what looked like a pencil stub and drop it to the concrete.
And then he ran like hell.
The roar that followed felt like it was going to bring the house down. It was seismic, cataclysmic, like the detonation at the end of the world when the Earth tilts screaming into the Sun. At the very least it should have blown out our windows. But amazingly, everything stayed in one piece. Even the driveway.
In the aftermath there was a deafening silence. We stood there for a few minutes—stunned, wide-eyed, gasping—waiting for the pyrotechnic barrage across the street to resume. It didn’t. There was not another . . . single . . . firework. Glen raised his arms, triumphant.
As we all went into the house, giggling like fools, I asked him, “What in the world was that?”
“Just a little dynamite,” he said. “I figured a quarter-stick should do it.”
Happy July 4th to my U.S. readers! (And don’t try this at home!)
Happy 2019, Dear Readers! I hope you all had a wonderful holiday! It’s been a rainy, grey start to the new year here, but I’m holding out hope that someday we’ll enjoy sunshine again. In the meantime, cookies will do nicely.
Do you make New Year’s resolutions? I used to, when I was young and naïve. Despite years of evidence to the contrary, when each new January rolled around I thought that would be the time I’d actually make resolutions and stick to them. Until one year I’d finally had enough of that. I decided that instead of trying to impose puritanical self-improvements, I would begin each January with an easy intention: to make something delicious on New Year’s Day, and then to continue having fun in the kitchen often in the next 364 days. No hard and fast rules. No unrealistic expectations. Finally. I’d found a plan I could stick to! *
I made these cookies this January 1st for the 2019 intention. They were inspired by Alison Roman’s “Salted Butter Chocolate Chunk Shortbread,” a recipe that my dear friend Claire M. shared with me and urged me to make. I’m so glad she did. As usual, I was incapable of following the recipe to the letter, starting with the salted butter part, but doing it my way still turned out some very wonderful cookies. I made them again a couple of weeks later, and then decided to reimagine the recipe for New Year’s Day fun. And they were delicious.
First, however, a confession of bone-headedness: These cookies never spread much. You’ll see in the pictures that this batch did, though, due to the fact that I forgot the essential step of sprinkling them with flakes of sea salt just before popping them in the 350° oven. I remembered three minutes later and yanked the cookie sheets out of the oven in a panic. And there the cookies sat, heating and spreading on the hot pans while I fiddled with sea salt for an interminable time. Plus the oven cooled a bit every time I had to open the door. But hey, it was New Year’s. Not only a day of good intentions, but also a day of facing facts—even the warty ones.
MACADAMIA-WHITE CHOCOLATE SHORTBREADS Makes about 24-28 cookies
For the dough:
2 sticks plus 2 Tbs. unsalted butter (9oz.), softened
½ c. sugar
¼ c. (packed) dark brown sugar (see Notes below)
1 tsp. good vanilla
2 ¼ c. all-purpose flour (I use unbleached)
4 oz. white chocolate, chopped into chunks
3 oz. macadamias, rough-chopped (I use the Costco dry-roasted, sea-salted Kirkland brand)
For rolling and slicing (just before baking):
1 egg, lightly beaten, OR a couple of Tbs. of heavy cream
2 Tbs. sugar mixed with 1 generous packed Tbs. dark brown sugar
Sea salt flakes to sprinkle on top (Maldon is awesome)
To mix the dough:
1. In a large bowl, cream the butter, the brown and white sugars and the vanilla until fluffy. (I like the stand mixer for this.) Scrape down the bowl sides as needed. You know the drill.
2. Add the flour and mix. It will look crumbly. But as the butter warms in the bowl, the dough will start to come together.
3. At that point, add the macadamias and the white chocolate and mix a bit more. Don’t overbeat, but it should be smooth enough to form into logs.
To form logs:
1. Divide the dough into two equal parts and roll each into a log about 7-7 ½” long. The logs should be about 2” in diameter, or a bit larger. Good luck getting them exactly even. I never can.
2. Wrap each log tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate (a couple of hours, at least) until thoroughly chilled. This is important to help keep the cookies from spreading in the oven, since the warmth from your hands as you roll the logs in sugar and then slice them, etc., will definitely hasten the spreading if they aren’t totally firm. (You can also keep the logs several days in the refrigerator, OR, if well-wrapped [first in plastic wrap, then in foil, followed by enclosure in a plastic zipper bag with the air squeezed out of it], the logs can be frozen almost indefinitely. If you can resist baking them off and eating them “indefinitely,” that is.)
1. Preheat the oven to 350° and line one or two half-sheet pans with parchment paper (see Notes below).
2. Unwrap the chilled logs and place them on a sheet of waxed or parchment paper. Brush them all over with the lightly beaten egg or heavy cream, then spoon the white and brown sugar mixture evenly over the logs and roll them in it to coat.
3. Cut the logs into ½” slices carefully, with a serrated knife. These cookies are cold and loaded with chunks, so don’t force the cutting. Let the sharpness of the blade do the work. If they’re tending to break apart on you, squeeze them gently so they hold their shape.
4. Arrange them on the cookie sheet(s) about an inch apart.
5. Sprinkle each cookie with a few flakes of coarse sea salt.
6. Bake a total of 12 to 15 minutes (my oven takes 15) until the edges are browning, and see Notes about turning cookie sheet(s) during baking.
7. Leave them to cool on the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a rack to finish cooling. Or pop them in your mouth.
• I like dark brown sugar because of the deeper flavor it has than light brown. But light brown works fine.
• No need to toast the macadamias before adding them in. If they’re roasted and salted, they’ll be great.
• You’ll notice the dough has no added salt other than what’s on the macadamias. This is the point. Then the sprinkling of Maldon flakes on top adds just the right touch of salt, hitting the palate all at once, making a heavenly contrast to the white chocolate and nuts, and the creamy, bland sweetness of the dough.
• Do try to cut ½” slices. At that thickness they’re more likely to hold their round shape without spreading. I’ve never been very good at cutting exact slices.
• I buy only extra-large eggs, and hate to waste a whole one to brush on the cookie logs. So I switched to brushing on heavy cream. It works well and it’s also a lot less . . . slippery . . .
• As an impatient person, I use two half-sheet pans so that I can bake the whole batch of cookies at once. But then during the baking, I have to reverse the pans back-to-front and change the places of the top pan with the bottom one. It may be faster, but it’s not the way to make identical-looking cookies. To do that, bake them in two batches, one sheet pan at a time, reversing the pan back-to-front when they’ve been in about 9 or 10 minutes, then finishing the rest of the baking period.
Have a blessed 2019, filled with sweet rewards!
*Actually, there was one hard and fast resolution I made that I managed to keep: I vowed never to drink orange juice again unless it was in a mimosa. Easiest resolution ever. Cheers!
Just a short one today . . .
I want to wish you all the most joyous of holiday seasons, and the hope that your year concludes with many blessings and hearts full of love. I’m going to be kicking back and having fun for the rest of the year, because . . . The Daughter’s home! And The Son-in-Law will be joining us soon!
It’s been seven years since Glen and I have had the chance to spend Christmas with Katie and Wesley. The last time they weren’t married yet. Or even engaged. So we’re taking full advantage of this opportunity. There will be days of delicious food, fabulous cocktails, abounding snarkiness, clever puns and uproarious laughter over raucous games of Cards Against Humanity (“A party game for horrible people”).
The one thing I’ll do during this time that counts as work will be reading The Realm Below. In paperback, because the proof copies arrived Monday!
This is the fifth or sixth time I’ve read it, but it has to be done. And no skimming allowed. I’m on page 150 (out of 453) and I’ve already found two errors that slipped past me before. (This is in addition to two others that one of my wonderful advance readers, author Diana Conces, found.) So, all cocktails aside, I have to be paying attention when I’m reading.
Later this month, most of you will probably receive a brief newsletter from me announcing that print copies of The Realm Below are available for pre-order from Amazon. (Not sure of the date yet for that. If you don’t receive the newsletter, you can subscribe by going to the right sidebar here where it says “Subscribe and Download Chapter One.”)
You can already pre-order the e-books, though, and some of you have done so. Thank you! The release date is only a month away: January 22, 2019.
And to everyone who has taken the time to read The Space Between and tell me how much they enjoyed it (a new person just reached out to me on Facebook as I was writing this!), I’m always, always thrilled and grateful to hear from you. And thank you for your reviews!
Happy Holidays, Dear Readers! See you in 2019!
This past Saturday I witnessed something that was I was starting to think might never happen. (When I could stand to watch the drama, that is. There were a few moments that I thought Glen would wind up as a grease spot on the driveway.) This was a milestone in our relocation to the country 3 years and 5 months ago. Yes, yes, we moved into the “forever home” in that time, and that was huge, of course. But this event marked the culmination of everything Glen has been working toward thus far in making us comfortable here.
Okay, in making me comfortable. He still has to finish relocating his welding shop and all of his equipment out here. But as far as I’m concerned, the pinnacle of his many achievements has reached its own forever home. “Forever” because he swears he’s never moving it again.
That’s right. Glen brought the smoker home.
And the day after that, he fired it up.
Here’s what I wrote about it in last year’s Thanksgiving post, “A List of Small Gratitudes, 2017”:
• That, on the smoker he designed and built, Glen makes the best Texas-style brisket and pork ribs I’ve tasted. EVER.
• For the day when Glen will finally move said smoker from his warehouse to our forever home so that we can enjoy his best-ever brisket and spare ribs at least one more time before the zombie apocalypse
He’d aimed to have it here by this Thanksgiving, but due to a driver who didn’t show up to transport it, he missed that goal by about 10 days. But that’s okay. It was worth waiting a little longer for.
It’s hard to get an idea of the scale of this thing in photographs. It’s 8’ tall from the base to the top of the smokestack and about 4’ wide. It weighs 3800 lbs., as much as my mid-size SUV. Every hinge and every handle is custom, fabricated by Glen and his friend Gene, also a welder.
The grilling side is on the left. This is the counterweight at the rear of the grill lid:
It weighs 300 lbs. It’s filled with lead. Without the counterweight, you wouldn’t be able to lift the heavy grill lid to check on your ribeyes or your swordfish. In the smoker, there are four racks that spin, making it easy to load and retrieve your sixteen sides of ribs or twelve briskets or twenty turkey breasts. There’s a thermometer built into the exterior smoker wall to keep track of the interior temperature.
As you might imagine, this thing took a long time to build. Glen (and usually Gene, too) worked late most nights every week for four or five months. Before he could even begin the cutting and welding, there had to be a thorough cleaning, because the smoker side is made of leftover drill casing pipe. There were practical design issues to figure out, like how to make the curved smoker door fit snugly to the curve of the smoker walls. Drill casing pipe is seamed like a toilet paper roll, and that caused a conundrum with the door which took days to solve. (Glen tried to explain it to me at the time, but I just nodded and smiled.) Sometimes, when he came dragging in exhausted on yet another late night, I thought he’d never spend his evenings at home again. More than once he wondered why he’d thought such an ambitious project was a great idea. But when it was finished, it added so much pleasure to our lives and opened up delicious new ways to entertain. And after doing without it for the last three-and-a-half years, I missed it terribly.
Finally Glen was ready to have it hauled out here to its new home, but with something this massive, the feat requires planning. He first hired a flatbed tow truck to bring the smoker out, and a few days later the tow truck returned with a SkyTrak, a type of small crane, which is needed to correctly lift and position the smoker on the ground. Here’s a screenshot of a SkyTrak from the Briggs Equipment website.
It’s a serious undertaking and tricky to do. Including Glen and the SkyTrak driver, there were four men outside the day it was moved into place. I didn’t take pictures because I was inside by the windows, peeking between my fingers. I was afraid I’d see someone smashed flat when the smoker tipped too far to one side. And when it finally touched down, exactly level on the concrete tiles where it will probably stay for the rest of our lives, I thought I was going to cry.
The next evening we enjoyed the result of Glen’s labors.
Please forgive the lack of artistry evident in the plating. It was all I could do to restrain myself long enough to take the picture, and you can tell I’m hovering too close to the food. Those ribs are bare not for their photo op, but because I’m a purist: no barbecue sauce. And no fancy rubs applied before they’re smoked. Just salt and lots of finely ground black pepper.
One bite told me: Glen still makes the best ribs I’ve ever tasted. And this home of ours? Now it’s forever.
Greetings, Readers! I hope the Americans among you are enjoying a wonderful holiday, and that the rest of you are blessed with delightful November weather. Everyone, I pray, is blessed with good things to eat and good people to eat them with in this turning of the year. That’s what holidays and cold snaps are for, after all. Glen and I are grateful to be luxuriating in all of the above.
Gratitude, in fact, is so beneficial for the body and the soul that I try to be mindful of my blessings every day. Some days, of course, the wheels fall off the bus and gratitude gets shoved aside. That’s life, unfortunately. But lately I’ve been feeling especially blessed and grateful. The reason is all of you.
There are masses of struggling writers working in obscurity. The number of J.K. Rowlings and Stephen Kings among us is minuscule. We don’t write because we want to be breakout stars. Truthfully, I’m not even sure that’s a desirable thing. We write because we can’t stop ourselves from writing. Once I’d written several revisions of The Space Between, I told my family I didn’t want fame and fortune, and certainly had zero expectations of either. My dream, I said—and here I pulled out a number that seemed unattainable—was to reach a couple hundred people. Strangers, who just happened to see the book and feel curious enough to read it. Never in a million years did I expect what has happened in the 14 months since the book’s publication: the paperbacks sold, the much greater number of e-books sold, the thousands of people downloading e-copies on giveaway days and the thousands of Kindle Unlimited pages read.
Sure, The Space Between doesn’t appeal to everyone. I knew that would be the case going in. It’s an intricate, quirky story, and hard to pigeonhole. But everyone who reads it is a hero to me. Even the ones who detest me for writing it and wish me in Hell.
By gosh, I have readers. I still can’t believe it.
Even more incredible? People have been asking me when Book 2, The Realm Below, will be released. Because they’re excited to read it. (It’s coming in January!)
One of them is my wonderful sister-in-law, Glen’s sister Denise. A few days ago she called me, and after we caught up on family stuff, our conversation turned to The Realm Below. Denise has the only existing copy of TRB’s first draft, taking it with her every time she’s moved for the past 7 or 8 years. Besides me, she was the first person to read it. She told me she’s been wanting to read it again in anticipation of its upcoming release (in January! Did I mention that?). When I protested, slightly horrified, she reassured me that she would wait for the real thing to come out. The problem is, Denise’s copy comes in at a bare-bones 51,000 words. The finished manuscript today is 128,000. That first draft does not even hold half of the story.
Then she said, “How’s Book 3 coming? You must have it mostly written by now.”
She was kidding. I think. The fact is, I still have work to do on TRB so that it can be properly formatted for print and e-book. When I told her I hadn’t started writing Book 3 yet, she said, “Okay, but you already know where it’s going, don’t you?”
Well, kind of, but I don’t know nearly as much as I’d like to. However, after talking to Denise, I feel much easier in my mind about it. Her belief fills me with confidence. There’s a reason that this is The Space Between’s dedication:
The Realm Below owes just as much to Denise’s years of faith and continuing encouragement as the first book does. And thanks to The Daughter’s in-depth (and persnickety) developmental edit, it’s a really good read. Katie didn’t let me slide on anything.
Neither book (Oh my gosh, I’ve written two books!) would have been possible without the aid of my wonderful editors and publicist at The Authors’ Assistant, who all helped me avoid shooting myself in the foot. Thank you, Mindy Reed, Danylle Salinas and Danielle Hartman Acee! And a big thank-you to my artist Heidi Dorey! Her marvelous covers keep drawing people in and making them want to read.
Then there’s my website designer, Sherry Scott of Resource Connection. My site needed updating to accommodate information about the new book (coming in January!). If you take a look at the updated Home page and Novels pages on susanrooke.net, you’ll see Sherry’s crisp, superbly professional work. She’s a resource, all right. Thank you, Sherry!
There’s another important step before The Realm Below’s release: advance reviews. I am hugely grateful to the terrific authors (whose names I can’t yet reveal) who soon will be reading the book. You know who you are!
I am so blessed to have all of you in my life. Readers. Believers. Keepers of the faith. Thank you all. For everything. Happy Thanksgiving!
First of all, a big thank you to everyone who told me how much they enjoyed last week’s 500-word flash fiction, “One Evening at Happy Hour.” Gracias, folks! It was wonderful to hear that and I appreciate my readers so much! (If you haven’t read it yet, find it here.)
Now, unfathomable as it is, we find ourselves almost at the end of October. 2018 has one palsied foot in the grave. And as we careen crazily toward 2019 as if we’re riding the Runaway Mine Train at Six Flags, I ask myself (again) how the year got away from me so quickly. I’m pretty sure I was here and awake for more than two thirds of it, so how did I miss it all?
I’ve noticed that the older I get, the more this time of year provokes such thoughts in me. Also, October is my birth month, so it feels as if I get a double dose of gloom. (I’m kind of over the excitement of being another year older.) However, even though these late October days bring failing light and dying leaves to remind us of the impermanence of all things, I do love them. Cooler weather, open windows, flocks of ducks and sandhill cranes crossing the evening sky, the sweet-sharp scent of woodsmoke hanging in the air . . . After the stifling misery of a Central Texas summer, late October is a gift I look forward to opening.
Oh, who am I kidding? I love October because of Halloween! The time of year when it’s socially acceptable, even encouraged, to wallow in our mortality and embrace the monstrous! To slink disguised through the darkness, to listen for that anomalous *bump* in the house at night, to carve large orange squash into frightful or fanciful patterns and then set a live flame flickering inside them! Thank heavens for Halloween! Because it distracts me from the fact that Christmas is only two months away. And that after that, 2019 will be here and then it’ll be Christmas again and then 2020 will be here and then . . . You see where I’m going with this. I might as well start singing “The Doom Song” now.
But not just yet. Because first, there are jack-o’-lanterns. And we need to enjoy them while we can because they won’t last long.
These beauties are from The Son-in-Law and The Daughter. Wesley’s is the one on top. Both so fun that I wanted to share them with you. And to point out that neither design was produced by a stencil. (Wesley is clearly putting his engineering degree to impressive use.)
And here are my two designs. I sprained my back last week, so I’m going with the bottom one. It’ll be way easier to execute. Glen is insisting that he’ll clean out the pumpkin’s guts for me, and, much as that feels like cheating, I might just let him.
And finally, here’s a little something I wrote a couple of years ago that appeared in the Best Austin Poetry 2015-2016 anthology. It took home the Trick or Treat Award (a contest sponsored by poet, writer and Halloween birthday girl Carie Juettner) in the 2016 Austin Poetry Society Annual Awards. Because, just as I love the physical trappings of Halloween—the jack-o’-lanterns, the mounds of warty squashes, the witchy yard décor, the horror movies on TV—so do I enjoy reading (and writing) stories and poems that send a thrill up my spine.
Pluck me from my bed of vines.
Cut me. Gut me hollow
as an empty boot. My flesh,
gouged. My seed, discarded.
Carve me lidless eyes incapable
of closing, that I might never
look away. My head trepanned,
you strike a flame inside me
and set my heart afire, then
call me lantern, crown me
with a circlet of my skull.
If I had hands I’d whittle you
the way you’ve whittled me,
scrape out your head to glow
through darkness until rot
snuffs you, until you are
but wind and memory, shadows
amid leafless trees, the space
between two blowing pages of a book.
Let it begin. My eyes are wide,
my rictus grin is graven in my skin.
I am the jester this unhallowed night.
Come. Smile. Taunt me.
I am Jack, in my crown of bone.
As Easter 2018 approaches, I’ve been thinking about Easter holidays from my childhood, and I realized there are just two I can remember. Probably because both had residual effects that lingered long after Easter Sunday was over. One of those is the episode I call The Year of Mislaid Eggs.
It was the early 1960s. My mother Eloise was a meticulous record keeper who listed everything she thought notable, whether it was spring bulbs she’d planted, countries she’d visited or marriage proposals she’d received. Naturally, she recorded details from each Easter egg hunt too. One year, though, after making notes of how many eggs she’d hidden and what colors they were, she forgot to note where she’d hidden them. Our house sat on a wooded lot of several acres. There were lots of possibilities.
Most of the eggs—the less determined ones—were apprehended on the day of the hunt, but a handful were not. We kept looking for them over the next couple of weeks, finally tracking down all but one. The Fugitive. That egg eluded us for a long time—months—but eventually we came upon it by accident, five or six feet off the ground in the fork of a live oak. It had been on the loose for so long that we left it where it was. We joked that we did it out of respect, honoring its long bid for freedom. Honestly, though, the egg was so disgusting by then that none of us would touch it.
And then there was the episode of The Easter Bunny Cake.
Mother was known for her enthusiasms, some of which she foisted on me. There were the ones I enjoyed: rock hunting, card games, communicating with the spirits of the dead. And there were the ones I could have done without. I was forced to collect useless memorabilia: matchbooks, antique buttons, souvenir spoons, Hummel figurines, hotel keys. I had to take sewing lessons—from several instructors, and with no regard for my spectacular ineptitude. One of her notions that still makes me shudder was the (thankfully) brief period in 6th grade, when she was determined to make me look like a British schoolgirl. That meant I had to dress in a long, shapeless skirt of houndstooth check, and a prim white blouse with a Peter Pan collar. I have no idea if that was an accurate British schoolgirl imitation or not. But imagine wearing that outfit and walking for the first time into a classroom full of 11-year-old staring strangers. The fall term has already been in session for 2 months, and all the other girls are wearing miniskirts. The only way it could have been worse is if I’d worn clothes I’d sewn myself.
The Easter Bunny cake had its genesis in another of her enthusiasms. She decided the dining table needed a special decoration for the family Easter dinner. Therefore, she would focus her considerable culinary skills on baking a realistic white rabbit cake for the centerpiece.
It was gorgeous. The rabbit crouched low on the platter, about 20” nose-to-tail, with its long ears flat along its back. She covered it liberally in white frosting and sweetened shredded coconut—two abominations right there—and gave it pink jellybean eyes. She was so pleased with the way it turned out that no one was allowed to cut into it. Which was fine with me, since I had no intention of eating that cake anyway. Then or now, endlessly masticating sweetened shredded coconut gummed together with white frosting would be one of my least favorite things to do. It’s like a scene from a Ren & Stimpy cartoon.
(And don’t get me started on jellybeans.)
To preserve it for our viewing pleasure as long as possible, the cake was subsequently sealed beneath a plastic dome and placed in the front yard. It peeked out from under a bush beside a curve in the driveway. How decorative it looked. And so true-to-life that arriving guests who were unaware of its presence would stop their cars, fearing they were about to squash the family pet. This was entertaining to watch from the kitchen window, much more fun than eating it would have been. Eventually, though, the plastic dome yellowed, and so did the coconut. Into the trash the whole thing went, never to be mistaken for a pet—much less a dessert—again.
Over the years, Glen and Katie and I have formed our own family Easter traditions, and they’re much more relaxed. We can’t always get together for the holiday any more, but we cherish the times we do. Our routine doesn’t vary much. Eighteen hard-boiled eggs for Katie. Eighteen for me. Cups filled with egg dye. Ella singing in the background (Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris” is a great choice), a modest champagne to sip and something delicious to nibble on as we while away the afternoon, coaxing the eggshells to bloom with lovely hues. Glen admires our creations, then hides plastic ones in the yard. The real eggs remain pristine until they’re eaten.
No fugitives. Not a rabbit cake in sight. Which means that when Katie’s my age, she probably won’t remember any family Easters.
Dang it. I guess I’ll have to make a rabbit cake now.
Happy Easter, everyone!
They sailed away, for a year and a day, —from “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” by Edward Lear (1871)
To the land where the bong-tree grows […]
—from “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” by Edward Lear (1871)
It’s January 4th, 2018, and I’ve just added last year’s engagement calendar to the stack in the office closet. That makes twenty; I’ve been saving them for a while now. Twenty years’ worth fits in a compact space:
As I’m shelving 2017, I decide to pull another year’s calendar at random. It’s 2011. Opening it to a week in July, I see that Glen and I had two dinners with friends and attended a Dwight Yoakam concert with two of those same friends. I had a hair appointment, a lunch date with a girlfriend, an Austin Poetry Society Board meeting, and sternly reminded myself to “pay electric @ HEB!” I glance through a few more weeks, finding notes of surgeries on family and friends, funerals, a wedding. Five minutes later, it’s back on the shelf with the rest.
Why do I hang onto these calendars? I don’t really know. They aren’t diaries. The entries are sketchy, at best. It’s not as if reading them will transport me back to the hour, to the electric energy of the moment, that Dwight Yoakam took the stage. But there is something about flipping through these pages, despite the cryptic quality of some of the entries (“PUNCH HOLES!”), that makes that time tangible again. And oddly, it’s the utter banality of most of those days, rather than the excitement or the trauma, that serves to make them even more real.
The good thing is, saving those calendars doesn’t require much room. I wish I could say the same for the family memorabilia that I’ve been saddled with since the early 1970s. No one else would take it, so I became the designated relic-keeper. It wasn’t my idea; it was my mother’s, presented to me as duty, a sacred trust. Some of it, from my father’s side, dates back 140 years or more. The very formal letters of courtship that passed between his mother and father. His mother’s riding habit. Old reel-to-reel commercially recorded tapes of popular music. (Why was there ever a demand for such a thing?) My mother’s collection of 78s. Photographs from the late 1800s, of a little boy in a dress and very long blond curls, as the fashion of the time dictated. If my mother hadn’t taped typewritten labels to the backs, I would never have believed those photos were of my father. (He’d be 125 if he were alive today.)
Why ruminate on temporality and keepsakes now? Well, in the month following Thanksgiving, I finally finished unpacking the last of the moving boxes in the “forever home” garage. I’d put off the memorabilia till the very end because the decades it spent moldering in a series of other garages meant it was in disgusting condition. What hadn’t crumbled into dust was crawling with silverfish or freckled with mouse droppings. As I wiped the pieces down before transferring them to large, sturdy plastic tubs, I was overcome with a giddy thought (probably a symptom of incipient hantavirus): Why not throw it all away? Anyone who at one time might have been interested in that stuff was long gone. Oh, it was tempting! But guilt stopped me. Someday it’ll all be Katie’s problem. Just like the sewing basket.
Among the spiders and dead moths, I found some much more recent memorabilia, though: keepsakes from Katie’s early childhood, and some drawings I’d made in the month before she was born. Mutant floral designs, which, out of some misguided notion of “nesting,” I’d thought I would embroider on a quilt:
These, in turn, made me remember “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” a favorite of Katie’s when she was a little girl. Unlike some of the books that bored us senseless after we’d read them to her countless times, it was one that Glen and I always enjoyed too. Now, after all these years and all our adventures, Glen and I settled in what we hope will be our last home, The Daughter soon to turn 30 in hers, I heard myself reciting that poem of Edward Lear’s while unpacking these final few things. The Owl and the Pussy-Cat embarked on their journey “in a beautiful pea-green boat,” with only themselves, a small guitar, and “some honey, and plenty of money, / wrapped up in a five-pound note.” I’ve never tired of the reckless, glorious enchantment of their romance, and that two such different creatures found in each other a soulmate.
And hand in hand on the edge of the sand
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
Imagine that. A “nonsense poem” as a metaphor for life.
I love Halloween and I love Thanksgiving. Those are great holidays, celebrating, in my view, mostly the simple joy of the experience. They don’t come nearly so burdened with unrealistic expectations of the perfect family moment, the ideal gift. Just good company, yummy nibblies and mutant gourds.
Most years, I enjoy Christmas too. Just last year I wrote that observing Christmas in an empty nest, deprived of The Daughter’s snarky, hilarious company (which these days she often shares with her in-laws) doesn’t make me as whiny as I’d thought it would. But this Christmas season has been different. I’ve been whining. A lot. (Just ask Glen.)
And it’s all because of Josh Groban.
I’ve written before that I’m always saddened when something triggers a memory of happy times Katie and I used to have together before she moved out on her own. The movie Legally Blonde, for instance, often makes me cry, because it reminds me of the fun mother/daughter excursions—the shopping, lunches, haircuts and pedicures—it inspired. (Just to be clear, we didn’t get matching haircuts.)
But I haven’t seen Legally Blonde recently, so I can’t blame that for my whininess this Christmas. What I blame instead is the concert Glen and I saw on TV a couple of nights ago. It featured a grand finale from Josh Groban, which triggered a memory. And of course I cried.
About twelve years ago when Katie was a senior in high school, a classmate and her mother offered us two tickets to a Josh Groban concert in San Antonio. Their plans had changed, and they knew that Glen, Katie and I were big Josh Groban fans. Would we be interested? Sparing only a moment’s thought for poor Glen’s feelings, or for the drive to San Antonio and back, I told Katie, “Sure, I’ll take you!”
And they were great tickets. Floor level, aisle seats, close to the stage, a large but comfortable venue. As we sat chatting with another mother/daughter pair next to us (who were just as excited as we were), I lamented aloud that I wished I’d brought a sign to hold up when Josh took the stage: I’D MAKE A GREAT MOTHER-IN-LAW! Then the opening act came on: Chris Botti. Well. The icing was on the cake. That night was cemented in our memories forever.
A couple of years later, The Daughter moved out of the nest. And ever since, though I always enjoy listening to Chris Botti’s jazz trumpet, hearing Josh Groban’s magnificent voice makes me forlorn. It brings on a sad nostalgia for the fun we had at that concert twelve years ago.
As I learned the other night, hearing him sing during the holiday season is much, much worse. After the TV concert was over, Glen cued up more of Josh on the stereo as I sank deeper and deeper into melancholy. I cast a gloomy look around the house and saw that we had no Christmas tree, no lights, no ribbons or ornaments, nothing that sparkled or glittered or flashed. In fact, I realized—getting whinier by the moment—we’d had no Christmas decorations for five years. We stopped decking the halls when we put our old house on the market. All to avoid distracting potential buyers, or making the house seem cramped. I used to have so much fun with it, especially on the dining table. At Halloween:
But now? “I haven’t even done a tablescape!” I exclaimed to Glen in despair. “Because everything I used to decorate with is still in boxes in the garage!” (That’s right. We moved into our “forever home” 9 ½ months ago, and the garage is still full of boxes to unpack. Mea maxima culpa. I can’t blame Josh Groban for that one.)
Glen, meanwhile, was fiddling with his phone, paying no attention to my wretchedness. Not much, anyway, because he was busy finding us a Christmas tree on Amazon. It didn’t take him more than thirty minutes, and it’ll be delivered by the time you read this.
After I finished being weepy over how sweet and thoughtful he is, I realized I was a touch disgruntled. It was disconcerting to have my whining doused so efficiently by Glen’s practical, man-of-action response. But December is young. I’ll bet I can find something else to whine about if I put my mind to it. For one thing, I haven’t found the box with the tree skirt or the ornaments yet. Or any of my tablescape materials. That’s good for an evening’s worth of whining, at least.
A footnote about that long-ago concert in San Antonio: We all know, of course, that Katie did not end up marrying Josh Groban. Possibly because I neglected to hold up a posterboard advertising my mad mother-in-law skills. That’s all for the best, though, because she married Wesley instead. Who happens to be the best son-in-law ever. And—the icing on the cake—he sings very well, too.