Tag Archives: Hand-me-Down Bride

A long ago 4th In German’s Mill, PA


At the Letort Springs July 4th celebration, the young Widow Sophie slips away from her hateful in-laws and finally meets the notorious Dawnie Mcnally.  An excerpt from “Hand-me-Down Bride.”

On the “Glorious Fourth,” Sophie went with the Daniels to Letort Springs.  Here they watched a parade, with bands and soldiers marching.  Although the uniforms were simpler than the ones she’d been used to seeing in Germany, Sophie recognized military pomp when she saw it. One long-bearded, frail veteran of the Revolutionary War came first, seated in a wagon and sheltered by a great-grandchild holding a parasol.  Next came platoon after platoon, marching in uniform while flags flew, bands played, horses pranced and whooping little boys ran along. 

        Among the marchers she recognized Karl Joseph.  Only Vandy Van Veeder, the blacksmith, had a larger, more muscular presence.  Karl passed her solemn and erect.  He looked wonderfully brave in his dark Union uniform.  

        As soon as she saw him, Sophie experienced an unaccountable flush, one which tingled from her cheeks, to her bosom, and right through to her toes.  He looked especially handsome, particularly now that he’d shaved… 

        After all the trouble he’d gone to raising the beard, he’d gone to the barber as soon as they got back.   At the little white house of Mr. Kreider, right across from the store, he’d had the golden brush expertly and completely removed.

        She’d been amazed when he’d come into dinner, his cheeks clean and his blonde locks trimmed.  When Divine had teased him about his change of heart, he’d just looked embarrassed and then muttered that a beard “was a damn nuisance in this hot weather.”


        After the parade, the Daniels took their children and went to their Church picnic in Frogtown.  Sophie was unhappy to find herself alone in the company of George and Sally Wildbach.

        She perched uneasily in their open carriage, accompanied by two of Sally’s girls, Leopoldine and chubby Vicky.  Teddy had managed to escape into the crowd, a situation which upset Sally, but which George dismissed with “boys will be boys.”

        As usual, once Sally had taken possession of Sophie, she did not bother to speak to her.  Sophie sat sadly, watching other young people laughing and strolling along a stone path which led to the shady, forested banks of the Conestoga. 

        The gorge here was part of the same long, steep gorge which lay below German’s Mill.  A cool walk under the trees from Letort Springs would eventually lead them to the tonic waters and then to the delights of the hotel, situated just above.

         Sophie had been hoping to visit this locally famous watering spot today.  Instead the Wildbach’s went to a broad field which was set up with a speaker’s platform, tents and banners. 

        As they drove, she wondered where Karl was, and wondered if he would join them.  He had talked about doing so, but with an increasingly martyred air as the day approached.  She knew he hated being with his brother and sister-in-law as much as she did.

        A strong sensation of unhappiness accompanied the thought that she would not see him for the rest of the day.                                                             

        “Herr Wildbach,” she asked, “will Herr Karl join us?”

         George arched a brow in an expression which managed to be both quizzical and patronizing.  “I doubt it,” he replied, replying in German.  “Karl Joseph usually spends the day–reminiscing–I suppose I shall say for the sake of propriety–with his comrades-in-arms.”

        “He means getting drunk with that shiftless Resolve McNally.” Sally sniffed.  It was not the opinion which surprised Sophie, so much as Sally’s excellent command of German. 

        Sophie had observed that Resolve did not have a great appetite for work, but she thought that “shiftless” was far too strong a word. He had taken on his brother’s children in a way which proved he was a generous man. Generosity, however, was a virtue with which Sally was—obviously–unacquainted.

        A black wave of disappointment followed George’s reply.  Sophie sighed, folded her hands, and resigned herself. Meanwhile, the poorer folk were settling down in the patchwork shade of the willows by the river.  The upper crust, the Wildbachs among them, presented tickets and were assigned seats at tables under tents.  These, their sides hitched up to admit the breeze, were pitched in a locust grove.

        Men began enthusiastic games of baseball and horseshoes on the green.  Lines formed for the Lady’s Societies’ offerings of chicken, biscuits and coleslaw.  A band played, the music punctuated by boys whooping and shooting fireworks along the edge of the field. 

        Judge Markham and his sister, Widow Cox, joined them.  Sally began to talk across Sophie, and the Widow Cox answered. Sophie might as well have been invisible.

        Another, larger group arrived.  Everyone stood and began to mill around, the cream of local society busily meeting and greeting.  Here were Coxes, Greenes, Hamiltons, Fassbenders, and Schmidts, all well dressed, either kin or business associates. A babble rose on every side.  For a few minutes, Sophie sat patiently, but discontent had swollen to out-and-out rebellion. 

        On this day celebrating liberty, when everyone else is having a wonderful time, I refuse to be left out!  

        She would not sit one minute longer, allow Sally and George to pretend they cared about her.  She’d seen the Eby’s and others from choir practice going into another tent.  They had waved and smiled, and she had waved back.

        Just as she began to edge away from her in-laws, a stunning strawberry blonde, wearing a low cut and form-fitting dress in a shocking shade of pink sashayed up the center aisle.  As soon as she appeared, the head of every man in the tent whirled around. 

        “The nerve of her, to even set foot with decent folk.”  The words, spoken loud enough for all to hear, were Sally’s.

        The red-gold head turned, and the woman fixed the entire group with a mocking blue stare.  Then, with a swish of her many flounces, she walked past their table and then out the other side of the tent, languidly swinging a pink parasol in time with her hips. 

        As she passed, Sophie realized the gown had seen better days.  Stains blotted the hem.  Nevertheless, the woman inside the dress was undoubtedly a long-stemmed American beauty of the first rank. An adolescent voice filled with awe broke the silence which followed her passage.

         “Wooo-ee! Dawnie McNally!” 

        Sophie’s interest swelled.  So! This was Resolve’s wayward sister, the one Karl had been warned not to talk about on the night they’d had supper at the farm!

        Meanwhile, Sally rushed forward and clamped her hands over the boy’s mouth, as if he’d uttered a curse.  The speaker was none other than her precious Teddy, who’d appeared in time for dinner.  Sally seized his thin shoulders and jerked him around to face her. 

        “What have those terrible ruffians done to you?  Oh, George!”  Her voice rose.  “Blood! Look!  His nose!”

        The boy’s dandy’s clothes were rumpled and grass-stained.  Fighting, Sophie thought, is probably all he got to do with children his own age.           

        The entire group drew into a clucking circle around the now thoroughly mortified Teddy.   Sophie stepped behind a very wide black woman in a yellow calico dress who was slowly serving from a gigantic tray of fried chicken. Behind this ample cover, she slipped away.

        She was emerging from the tent, when a good looking young man appeared in her path.  Politely, he tipped his hat.  “No doubt, Ma’am, you want to be over there.” 

        The speech was accompanied by a gesture, as he pointed at the tent she’d seen the Ebys enter.  Instead of the gay colors worn by Sally and her friends, the men and women over there were severely garbed in black.  The women’s faces were obscured by bonnets, the men’s by beards.

        “Thank you,” said Sophie, careful to use English.  She walked past him and into the sunlight, feeling a little resentful at the pigeon hole into which he had so easily thrust her.

        Outside, in the glare, she adjusted her bonnet and glanced around.  Although she knew where she was going, she did not immediately start in that direction.  Something about the stranger directing her to the tent full of German speakers made her feel rebellious.

        Perhaps she would simply wander for a while, see what she could see of this festival.  Perhaps–the notion skimmed through her mind like a flat stone across the mirror of the pond–just perhaps, in the crowd, I will meet Karl Joseph.

        Sophie crossed the field, looking for him, trying to do it in a way no one would recognize as something so completely immodest.   Suddenly, as she past the shady screen provided by  a flowering shrub, she came upon the strawberry blonde in the pink dress.  With her now was a slender man with long black hair and shocking green eyes. 

        “I’ll be there with bells on,” the beauty said.  The man lifted her fingers, gave them a kiss, and appeared to murmur something.

        Sophie was surprised when next he suddenly flashed a warm, cheerful smile in her direction. Before he walked away, he paused to sweep a low, old world bow, flourishing his hat. 

        As Sophie wondered about his abrupt departure, the bright blue eyes of the woman met hers.

        “Are you the Wida Wildback?” The blonde stepped briskly forward.  Long fingers, emerging from slightly soiled pink palm gloves, came to rest familiarly upon Sophie’s arm.


        “Well, pleased to met you, Ma’am.”  Forthrightly, Dawn seized her hand.   “I’m Miss Dawn McNally.  Hildy sure talks plenty ‘bout your visit.”

        Sophie shook the offered hand, “I very much enjoyed supper with your brother and good sister-in-law, also to meet your nieces and nephews.” 

        Dawn responded with a radiant smile.  “Poor Hildy! Guess I ain’t around much as I ought to be.”

        When she impulsively tucked Sophie’s arm inside hers, Sophie felt a strange surge of exhilaration.  She did not resist or hesitate, for she knew that she, prudent, cautious Sophie, was on the edge of an adventure.  Perhaps it would even match the excitement which drenched the air on this gaily celebrated Fourth of July holiday!

        “Who was that gentleman?” Sophie asked.  The man had been dressed in black, very neat and clean, but somehow, there had been something indecorous about him.  Perhaps it was the length of his shiny hair or the twinkle she’d noted in his shocking green eyes. 

        “Oh, he’s a friend of mine.” It was as if, once gone, the gentleman did not much matter.  “Look!” she cried, abruptly turning Sophie around, “there’s Hildy and my sisters and their old men over there.”  She pointed and Sophie saw the gaunt figure of Hildy and two other tired farm wives stolidly taking food out of hampers and setting it on crazy quilts laid on the ground in the shade. 

        A crowd of children, screaming and chasing, circled them.   Husbands stretched out side by side, hats over their eyes, apparently sleeping through the commotion.

        “Some mob, ain’t it?” Dawn’s grin flashed pearly teeth.  “Come on,” she said, squeezing Sophie’s arm.  “Let’s get out of here afore they see us.”

        Sophie found herself towed towards the wide green playing field.  Baseball occupied the center.  To one side was a busy line of horseshoe pitches.        

        “But, should you not be with your family?”

        “Naw! Come on! Let’s wade and get acquainted.”

        “Wade?  Where?”

        “Over there.  It’s so darned hot I’m all ready to melt, and I’ll bet you are too, wearin’ that sorry black.”

        Dawn had a point, but Sophie had reservations.  She asked, “Are there–crawdads–in the water?”

        “Crawdads?  Sure, but we’re bigger than they are.  They’ll scuttle when we come.”

        “But–but–” Sophie stammered, as she was pulled along, “do they not bite?” 

        “Only if you step on ’em.  Can’t really blame them for that, can you?”

        Stares followed them, the beauty in pink and the neat German widow in her black dress and face-obscuring bonnet.  Nearby games came to a halt, and men turned.  There was an expression on their faces which Sophie didn’t like. 

        All at once she began to have doubts about what she was doing.  By walking arm in arm with Dawn, it appeared she had crossed some line, left the genteel world far behind.

        Blessedly they soon crossed a grassy lip and entered welcome coolness, where willows bordered a lazily moving shallow creek.  Sophie felt easier here, even though they were still not alone. 

        Families–of the poorer sort, maybe, but families–relaxed in the dappled shade.  Fathers dozed while mothers watched their little ones splash in the green water and throw stones.

        Even though some looked up with unwelcome curiosity at Dawn, the predatory gleam of the men on the playing field was absent.  All around, children whooped and splashed.

        “Bet you’re glad to get away from that stick Sally.”

        “Yes.  She is not–gemutlich–um–not kind.”

         “Funny, ain’t it,” Dawn said, suddenly plumping down under a tree and kicking off off her shoes, “how rich folks are?  I mean, Sally’s got everything a woman could want, but instead of enjoying herself, all she does is worry that someone’s going to steal some bitty little thing away from her.”

        She unrolled her stockings, clambered back to her feet, and then splashed bare-legged into the creek, a new smudge of mud across the seat of her dress.  “Come on, Sophie!”

        Well, this wasn’t proper at all, but Sophie was intrigued.  After tucking her shoes neatly side by side against a curling root, she slowly, shyly, reached beneath her hot black skirts and unrolled first one stocking and then the other. 

        Not long after, she joined Dawn.  Sophie was careful, however, to stay in the gravel and away from the mossy rocks, where she now knew the crawdads made their home.  The water was cool on her bare feet, a simple blessing on this blazing July day.

        Suddenly, five boys, pants rolled to the knee, came whooping along the bank.  Their leader, a tall skinny kid, took a long look at them. 

        “Dawnie McNally!” he hooted.  “Dawnie McNally, Dawnie McNally!  How I’d like to be down in the valley with Dawnie McNally.”

        This didn’t make sense to Sophie, but she didn’t have time to think about it, because another boy came racing into the water.  Without pretense of anything but malice, he and the first boy kicked water on them.

        “Stop!” Sophie exclaimed.  Unable to come up with any more English, she added, “Ich werde dir helfen!

        “A Kraut!” 

        “Yeah.  Is your Kraut friend a slut too?”  Vicious grins blossomed on every side. 

        Sophie knew “slut” and she knew “Kraut.”  She’d had the last word yelled at her once when she and Aunt Ilga had been speaking German on the train.  Now, so furious she couldn’t think, she lunged forward and grabbed the speaker by ear and squeezed so fiercely he screamed. Beside her, Dawn was not idle.  She bobbed down and then up again, her hand a blur as it splashed in and out of the water. 

        “Hey!  Jimmie Black,” she cried.  “Got a present for ya!”

        Chasing the ringleader onto the bank, she grabbed his collar and dropped something inside his shirt.  As he began to yell, she slapped him hard on the back, which set him screaming even louder.                                                                  

        The rest of the boys beat a hasty retreat up the slope, the leader howling and yanking at his shirt.

        Dawn gave a war whoop.  “Yee haw!” she cried.  “Good for you, Sophie!  That’ll teach those shits to mind their manners!”

        “What did you do?”  Sophie, her cheeks flushed with the elation of battle joined and won, was eager to learn.

        “I mashed a big fat crawdad on his back.”

        Sophie clapped her hands. 

        “Say,” Dawn cried, splashing back into the creek, “You got a temper on you, lady!  I figured I was gonna have to take ’em all by myself.”

        “Well, that is no way for children to speak to grown persons!  I hear it often, children in America–so rude.”

        Dawnie laughed and seized her hand.  “Come on, Sophie,” she said.  “Let’s get out of here.”

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Bringing in the May

May Day


We’ve just passed through another May Day. Although it isn’t an American holiday currently, I think it used to be, before politics got into the act. My mother  told me about gathering apple sprays and those little violets which will grow in an natural yard, making bouquets for the house. She said it was something she learned to do when she was little, although I’m not certain who taught her. As my Grandfather Liddle’s family were Upstate New York dairy farmers, I’d imagine the notion came from that side of the family.  A tradition of “Bringing in the May” requires country around you.

I had also read all about Greek gods and goddesses, so it was a short step from there to the notion of May Day. When Persephone is released from her captivity in the underworld to be united with her mother, Demeter, Goddess of the Earth, Nature is said to express their joy with flowers.  That’s what happens, every year.  It’s a blessing in the truest sense, because it shows that down at the nitty-gritty, Nature is in working order. It’s her promise she’ll continue to feed us.

It was especially fun to get up early, before Mom and Dad, and to go down to our ancient seven tree orchard. Even if it was New York State, famous for long, cold winters, by May 1 the trees were usually offering  pink-tinged buds. I knew they’d look lovely in Mom’s old blue and white pitcher, and that they’d open and bloom soon after coming indoors. There was a tender, delicate scent as I reached into the branches.  Back then, in quiet early a.m., the only sounds in our country yard would be wind and bird song.  If it had been a warm April and the bloom had already opened, bees and other pollinators would be at work, humming and turning within the flowers, packing those satchels on their back legs with yellow grains.

As I walked back to the house, I might find a few late tulips still standing, to add to the bouquet.  In memory, perhaps I’ve got May Day conflated with Mother’s Day, which follows soon after. Perhaps, however, a very long time ago, these celebrations were one and the same.

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(I first thought of calling this “Let Me Tell You About My Grandchildren,” but figured everyone would simply turn and run like hell.)

I’ve just returned to cyberspace from a) a trip to the great sprawl of Atlanta where my kids and grandkids live and b) a major computer crash. Both experiences are somewhat out of the norm for this screen-and-home bound senior. I treasure my visits south, getting to see the changes that have occurred up close and personal. My oldest son is always engaged in his workshop/basement, tearing old computers apart, studying academic papers posted on arcane post doc websites and building new software. He’s the 45 year old version of the little boy I caught sticking a hair pin into an electrical socket, because “I knew there was electricity in there, and I HAD to get it out.” His one and only child is just finishing her second year in college, so there are no little feet pattering in this house. When our son was small, it was the days of “Mork from Ork” and we sometimes imagined our gifted boy was from another planet. (Would he start seeing through walls or something?) Neither of his parents are as intelligent as grounded or focused as he has grown to be.

In the home of my younger son, things are far less geek-monastic. There are two daughters, one eleven and one nine, and lots of colors, clothes, dolls and a Wii, and all the other trappings of modern childhood. The youngest girl in this house also lives on another planet, but her other-worldliness is a prison. She is autistic, and appears to be pretty firmly stuck there, although, when she was small, we were given the hope that she’d be one of the lucky ones and “come out of it” because sometimes girls on the spectrum do. So little is understood about this modern epidemic of disabled children. Like every autistic child, PJ is a unique world unto herself. It’s tough to have a grandchild who does not appear to know who you are, and who does not meet your eyes. In short, unless PJ needs you to perform a task for her–make supper or get milk from the locked fridge–you might as well be invisible. This apparent lack of empathy, of the warm social bond normal between people, makes life hard for both her parents and for her big sister.

If PJ appears to love anything, it’s the computer–her Daddy has set up one for her, with appropriate links, so she can obsess on whatever kid’s show she currently enjoys. While I was there, she was interested in running the television, because she’s deep in Ponyo, an entirely hand-drawn, fabulously beautiful piece of animation from the Japanese master, Miyazaki. PJ drives the remote like a champ, finding the scenes she likes best and repeating them without difficulty. She can replay for hours, so grandmother simply sat down and watched her watching. Ponyo is a mermaid story. The fish daughter of an undersea magician wants to become human because of her love for the little boy who rescued her. Sitting there, watching, I thought the appropriate age group for the film was probably rather young, as the protagonists are very young–perhaps about 5 or 6. PJ’s favorite scene concerns Ponyo’s accidental release of her father’s potent magic, which sets off a chain reaction of wild creation. Enormous schools of fish leap from the sea, almost drowning ships; a tsunami roars in upon the land. Ponyo, riding the leaping fish, grows feet, hands, a belly button, hair and teeth. Hurled upon the land by a great wave, she becomes a “real girl.” This climactic scene, with triumphant Wagnerian music–she’s a connoisseur of music–was PJ’s favorite. Sitting on the couch in the dim room, I experienced the rush of transformation in the visuals and in the grand and celebratory music.

It wasn’t until later, back home, that it occurred to me that this latest “obsession” was an expression of hope, a prayer from a child so locked inside herself, so unable to reach out to others, to belong to family or make friends. For a few minutes, PJ saw herself as Ponyo, riding the giant fish, leaping upward toward the sun, surfing a wave onto the land, growing the feet and hands–and the all important ability to speak–of a “real girl.”

Juliet Waldron is the author of Hand-Me-Down Bride, available from Second Wind Publishing.

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In Like a Lamb

Snow Geese Landing

That’s what March just did, thank-goodness! We have had our fill of snow this year, even here in warm and windy Central Pa. I know you folks in the Southeast have really been clobbered, but this year seems to have been your turn for ice, snow, wild wind and all varieties of unpleasantness.

My oldest granddaughter, at college in southern Maryland, is a Georgia girl. To her, snow was mysterious, magical, a thing you saw on television, looking clean  and sparkling.  She hadn’t expected three huge storms during her sophomore semester, but she got them anyway.  At first, of course, she thought it was neat, made snowmen with her friends and had snow ball fights, but by the second storm, one which acquired a nasty ice coating, resulted in canceled classes. Now she was clearly not so pleased. By the third enormous storm, snow had become what it is to most of us old people–a stone drag.

However, it is March, and there is reason to hope for a time of putting away the shovel. The days are significantly longer; the sun feels warmer, even if there are still wide patches of white on the ground. Male cardinals are doing their spring act in the beech across the alley, fluttering at each other and singing stridently.  (The cartoonist Gary Larsen became my idol forever when he explained that what they’re really saying to each other is: “You and What Army? You and What Army?” closely followed by a chorus of “Hey, hey, Babeeee! Hey–Babeeee!”)

Our star winged visitors are in residence, too. Snow geese and the rarer Tundra swans are aking a pit stop nearby at Middlecreek Wildlife Refuge. It’s a sight, one which might become uncommon if the surrounding farmland, where the birds graze on harvest leftovers, continue to become developments.

I noticed these birds the first spring after we moved here,  a V against a torn gray sky. Both snow geese and Tundra Swan have a distinctive call, both sweeter and sadder than that of the far more numerous Canada Geese.

A shaft of light interrupted the clouds to illuminate them. Sun blazed through their wings, and, for an instant I was elsewhere. It was as if the German culture of the valley had, through sympathy, brought old stories of the old world to life, right here in the mundane Susquehanna Valley. I remembered swan legends, those about enchanted humans. In others, the really old Teutonic ones, these white birds represented souls, winging their way to a Summer Land rebirth.

Their arrival is a truly magnificent event, and one of the best things about an otherwise shabby, road grit covered month.


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Groundhog Ruminations


I remember when there were only a few members of the “inner circle” with top hats, Victorian black coats and silly, fake aboriginal names like “Thunder Maker” and “Cloud Rider” up on that stage. This thing has really taken off since the “Groundhog Day” movie back in 1993.  The ever-growing numbers in the “inner circle” and yearly attendees prove that.

The custom comes from German settlers, who, in the old country, may have looked for bears or badgers to awaken as an indicator of spring. In southeastern PA, you can still find a few “Grundsow” Lodges, where for the day, Pennsylvania Dutch only is spoken. (English results in a fine!)  The dawn celebration includes speeches, skits and traditional foods. I’d be willing to bet the original attendees waited at the burrow to see if the hibernating creature (whatever!) would emerge. If the critter was awake, the weather had likely been warm enough to rouse it from sleep. An early spring—a signal to get ready for planting–could be safely predicted.

Today’s Phil is, according to Punxsutawney legend, 120 years old, but anyone can see he’s been recently replaced. His newest incarnation is a slender, gentle young groundhog who first appeared on stage a few years back. (He had a runny nose yesterday, and I hope he’s feeling okay!)

This youngster replaced an earlier, massively obese old fellow who probably reached the end of his decade-in-captivity life span. The older groundhog was far less human friendly, and did wonderfully entertaining things, like peeing on his handlers and chewing on their gloved hands. To me these acts of defiance were an important part of the show. After all, they’d dragged the poor beast out of his nice warm cage in town and brought him out in the middle of fireworks, flashing cameras, TV lights and a host of enthusiastic people (many of them, I’m sorry to report, drunk) screaming at the top of their lungs: “Phil-Phil-Phil!” Heck, such treatment would unnerve anybody, not to mention a poor, overweight groundhog. Of course, not being eaten after being dragged out of your warm burrow is a definite improvement over the treatment many groundhogs received in the protein-starved  mid-winter past.

February 2 is also Candlemas on the Christian calendar, a/k/a The Feast of the Purification of the Virgin. In medieval times it was one of the “cross-quarter” days on which bills were paid, workers hired and contracts drawn, important in every market town. Both the religious observance and the business deals go back even further, into pagan times. Even the most casual observer can see that the days are growing longer now, and of course, the ancients, who were formidable astronomers, had noticed this fact.

February 2, known as Imbolc in the Celtic calendar, was sacred to the red-haired Mother Goddess Bridget, who tended a magical cauldron, and who was patroness of poetry and all the “arts of civilization.” Weather prediction was part of her festival, too, as the time of the spring planting was of vital importance.

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One Cat Over the Line, Sweet Jesus!

Kimi's Stitches

Like the 70’s song, I fear, our house has reached capacity. In fact, as of Thanksgiving, we’ve got one too many cats.

This all began when our beloved resident ex-stray and tough guy, Bob, disappeared in wintry weather. Four days passed. It was very cold, and he did not return. I’d rather keep him in like the others, but there was no way Bob would submit to being a full time housecat, so my husband and I had made the best of his wandering. Now we mourned for him, thinking that even his superior street smarts hadn’t kept him safe.  In fact, I was so worried I checked in at the township police station, even though I knew a wandering cat was “in violation of township regulation” and subject to a fine.  

Into this emotional turmoil came my best buddy, Patti, who feeds a few of the local strays. Onto her porch, in the twilight, had come a starving orange kitten, attracted by the dish of Purina she put out every night. She could count every rib, every bump in her little kitty spine. The kitten looked up at her with golden eyes and chirruped sweetly.  Patti knew she had to rescue her.

The next day, Patti came to me with this sad little creature in a carrier. She was, Patti said, to fill the hole in our house left by the death of Bob. My husband wasn’t thrilled, but Patti bravely offered to pay all the vet bills, and to get her tested for all the kitty plagues. The first thing was to flea treat her because she was polluted. I made a place for her in one room, with box, food, bedding and water. I sat down cross-legged, and the kitten promptly climbed onto my knee, purring.  She proved to not only have fleas, but a host of dog ticks which had to be removed. Later I’d discover an infected wound on her left flank. When my other cats looked in at her, she hissed and growled, imitating, I think, the meanest cat she knew, the one who had bitten her.  Integration of this fierce little mite into the existing peaceful feline kingdom inside our home was going to be difficult. 

As people with a multi-cat household know, behavior problems erupt if there are changes of any kind, particularly at the introduction of a new cat.  Hissing and fighting—even between cats that were friends—happens. It’s “the new baby” problem in spades, with jealous “siblings” and the added difficulty of interspecies communication. (I try, but sometimes I just can’t think like they do.) Now I had the new kitty—a semi-feral survivor with a septic wound and PTS who needrd lots of special handling—as well as the other three who were undergoing an emotional adjustment to the new reality in the house.

Of course, you can guess what happened next. One day after the arrival of the kitten, I opened the front door and Bob walked in, with his customary loud “MA-WOW, MA-WOW.” He rubbed against my legs, and then headed toward the communal food dish. As I watched his striped backside recede, I spoke aloud. “You didn’t call. You didn’t write. WHERE the hell have you been?”

 Of course, I’ll never get an answer, but I’m too darn glad to see him to be cross. I sat down beside him and patted him while he chowed noisily, dropping food all over the floor and purring like mad. I figure he lost some lives, and I sincerely hope he will be more careful of –whatever—in future!

 So things continue here with one more cat than I can easily handle. The kitten has been very sick, and to the vet for surgery. She’s begun to grow nicely, but she’s still paranoid and hissing. My days are full. I’m a little old lady cat patter, vet tech, and feline psychiatrist. The patting I’ve got down pretty well. That’s a pleasure. The rest takes time.  The refrain of the old song goes round and round in my head while I scrub water bowls and cat boxes. We’re “one cat over the line.”


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Major Household Appliances


The big bucks ones! As a woman, who has been for long stretches of her life, a housewife, I don’t take appliances for granted. In fact, not too long ago, “housewife” was shorthand for drudge, and we pampered modern ladies forget this at our peril. Living in an area where I can still see Old Order Amish woman slaving from morning till night—in between dropping babies—and as a writer of historical novels—I’m keenly aware of the comfortable life we modern women lead.

I’m not ashamed to love my appliances. I name them, too, because they are my “serving girls.” I feel lucky, rather like a Jane Austen heroine, to have married well enough to afford them.   😉

The washer came first, while we were still in college. As I had been lugging baby + clothes + diapers to the laundromat for over a year, this was a real joy. I earned it, too, this trendy looking brown Sears appliance, while working as a waitress, picking up the quarter tips which were standard in the early 60’s diner, while my husband  minded our son, Miles, and did his college homework.   We’ve got pictures of me bringing in frozen diapers from the line during a harsh Massachusetts winter, though, and it was a good while before we managed to get the space and the dollars for a dryer. 

I’ve just graduated to a front loader, a Bosch. Her name is “Ursula” because she has a bearish, blockish look. She is German by design, though the salesman  carefully explained she was manufactured at a plant in Ohio.  I love her dearly, because she is already saving us money on water and electricity. More than that, she does a ton of laundry at a time, and has a way with deep cleaning the ground-in dirt that men are champs at producing in a way the top loader never did.

A dish washer arrived at my home only a few years ago, so the thrill of loading it up and then unloading clean dishes has not yet gone away. Her name, (christened by my husband) is “Heidi,” and she is also a Bosch, thrifty and blessedly quiet. I was the dishwasher for years, and vividly remember many Thanksgivings and Christmases at which I spent literally hours at the kitchen sink, washing endless coffee cups, plates and silverware for our houseguests—my husband’s brothers and sisters. I dearly loved being the “Mom” and their lively company, but sometimes it got to be a bit much, and I’d have to go into the living room, turn down the rock’n’roll, and drum up some relief.

One beneficial side effect of not having a dishwasher for all those years was that both my sons were trained early to do dishes, dry them, and put them away. They were sent on to their wives quite domesticated—at least, for boys!

You notice I haven’t said much about dryers. The fact is they aren’t very interesting. They are simple creatures and don’t develop personalities the way the other appliances do. However, I thank my stars to be a woman here in the 21st Century during winter or during weeks of rain like we had last summer, as I dump Ursula’s prodigious output into the gaping mouth of faithful, careful Molly the Maytag.


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Hex Signs–folk art or mystery?

I was fascinated when I first saw hex signs on PA barns, shortly after moving to Central PA about 25 years ago. As I’ve been interested in myth and folklore for my entire life, I thought I saw a recognizable system in those repeating star patterns and sun wheels which decorated barns in Berks, Lehigh, Schuykill and Lebanon counties. Back into the distant past, all over Europe (and Asia, too), these symbols were used for luck, for fertility and for warding against evil.

 Among scholars there is ample disagreement on this subject, but on balance, I think it’s safe to say that these signs arrived with early German settlers. Perhaps they were North Germans or Silesians, not Rhinelanders or Austrians, but it’s not clear whether all or only a few groups brought the hex sign to the US. It certainly wasn’t the Mennonite Amish, (who passed through Switzerland) although, sometimes, in travel brochures and on restaurant placemats, the Old Order Amish and hex signs are pictured together. In fact, the AmishHand-me-Down Bride forbid ornamentation, so you definitely won’t see hex signs on their barns.(Not for nothing are they called: “Plain People.”)

Most likely, ordinary Lutherans who had been farmers in the Old Country brought the symbols with them as part of a hoary rural tradition. These Volk loved to decorate just about everything, from chairs to doorsills—and they did. At any rate, many believe these symbols were an ancient German artistic tradition—aesthetics–rather than some underground religion. In the old country, “hexes” appear on everything from chairs and hope chests to beams, from birth certificates to gable end panels.

After the Civil War, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania attempted to complete assimilation of the persistently German speaking communities by requiring “English only” in the public schools. In the book “Hex Signs” by Yoder & Graves, the authors claim that in reaction, hex signs were even more widely painted upon barns and incorporated into architectural details, such as decorative trim, during this period. Psychologically, during a time of stress, it became a necessary form of self-definition for German descendants.

Many surviving barn signs appear to have been painted in the post civil war era. In modern times, the hex sign has grown in popularity, and in familiarity, too. The use of the signs is far more wide spread than in the last century. This is partly due to the efforts of regional tourism and partly due to a widely renewed interest in folklore and myth.

Many stores in Lancaster County sell hex signs, and many new ones–obviously not traditional–for instance one which incorporates shamrocks–have been devised for the tourist industry.

A brief guide to hex symbols

 Five pointed stars = goddess symbols Goddess equals fertility and protection So if you multiply the angles, you are multiplying the magic and therefore, the protection.

The Rosette is perhaps star and flower combined

Sun symbols—swastika—for motion, the never-ending cycle of seasonal nature. Sun light is preeminently important to a farming people who live at high latitudes, like the Germans.

Rain—raindrops appear in spirals or circles Sun and Rain = fertility and prosperity = many crops, food, animals Sprigs of wheat are a direct representation of what the farmer wants.

Hearts- traditionally for affection, unity and love, and also the Tulip, a symbol which must have slipped across the border from Holland for prosperity, and perfection.

Birds—the ancient love bird symbol, a happy marriage symbol For my cover, Lejoy Rothke and I decided to create our own hex sign, incorporating all the old time elements. In fact, these days, many craftspeople have copyrighted their own versions of the originals. We didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, so we created one and made it part of the story. At the end of “Hand-me-Down Bride,” the young hero asks a local barn painter to make a hex for his door. He’s not only embraced the young woman of the title, but is also reconsidering his relationship to his own immigrant heritage. It seemed to be a suitable ending for this very American story.



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Bookcase Adventures

Ogden St. George

Ogden St. George

My mother had a charismatic English friend named Rosemary, whose home we visited during several school holidays. She lived in an rambling old stone house in the evocatively named small and ancient village of Shipton-Under-Wychwood.

In memory, my image of Rosemary has merged with Julia Child’s. Mother’s friend was a tall, fair, big-boned Englishwoman, forever engaged in day long sessions with French recipe books, standing in an enormous dim kitchen filled with arcane culinary devices and dangling copper pans. Her children were much younger than I, so they weren’t very interesting to me, a solitary teen. She also kept 6 or 7 (they milled in a group, so it was tough to count how many there actually were) long-haired Dachshunds, a breed of dog I’d never met before. They were charming dogs who liked to lie in heaps on the couch, like a fluffy, smiling pile of black and tan pillows.

Rosemary had terrific bookcases, which I was turned loose upon while she and Mom sipped sherry in the kitchen. These were full of historical novels from the 30’s and 40’s—some earlier. Here were Norah Lofts and Elizabeth Goudge with their mystical and yet oh-so-grisly- vision of the romantic past. Between those covers I discovered a burning love for the genre, and learned what a mesmerizing time travel experience a good writer can deliver. The most exotic of all the books Rosemary owned were the ones by Joan Grant: “Winged Pharoah,” and “Lord of the Horizon.” Mrs. Grant always said her “novels” were, in fact, recalled past lives. So brilliantly realized were they infected my subconcious; I dreamed of them for many years. Those books also kindled a keen interest in topics which were considered totally wacko in the ‘50’s, but are now Cable TV staples: past lives, auras, astral projection, Egyptian gods and ghosts, Atlantis, and so on.

Rosemary was also an expert in all these new and fascinating topics, and seemed to like to talk to me. After a few hours, I found I could enter the kitchen and talk with her about all the astonishing things I’d read. The ladies, having imbibed several glasses of sherry and had their grown-up chat, were quite welcoming, even Mom, who was proud of my geekiness. I remember sitting on a stool in that imperfectly lighted kitchen, watching Rosemary turn a perfectly delicious bird into a pate, which to my kid taste buds didn’t taste half as good as plain turkey.

Meanwhile, ever more dishes piled into the big sink. Spoons and sharp knives littered the counter. The dachshunds were underfoot, begging for thrown treats and getting them, their long ears dragging across a slate floor accumulating an authentically medieval patina of grease.


Filed under books, musings, writing

Cicada Time


Bob was sitting on the picnic table the other morning, smiling and pleased with himself. He’d been out dancing in the moonlight all night. I was sitting on the bench, patting him. He seemed entirely happy, kneading air with his paws and showing me his spotted belly, playing at being a Domesticated Animal. 

The first cicadas are starting in our area, the genetic misfits who awaken on the far edge of their particular Bell Curve. They don’t sing much and flame out early. When one fell from a nearby maple, buzzing like a clockwork toy unwinding, Bob leapt from the table with a bound which would have done a cougar credit and made short work of it.  

(It’s humbling, the way he can tune me out. Snap! Gone on cat business!)  

I suppose he ate the poor confused thing, like he does everything else. Cicadas, with heads that are pure fat, are one of Mother Nature’s most sought-after crunchy snacks. Birds adore them. I’ve even seen squirrels eat them, these winged, green-armored Doritos of the insect world.  I would think the wings and feet would make for an over-ridingly icky mouth feel, but not coming from an insect-eating culture, I can’t really judge. 

I love cicadas. When I was small, some imaginative family member told me that their wings–see-through, gossamer, etched in green–were fairy wings. I guess what I really love is their deafening song, which can be as loud as 120 decibels up close. They are one of the few noisy things in which I take pleasure. They are Nature, after all, like waves crashing on the sea shore. The males on my maples start; the neighbor’s cicadas shout out an answer. With the trees arching green overhead, it’s my favorite sort of chorale.

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