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I often speak of my dad’s sixty-acre spread on Meadowbrook Road with a certain amount of pride and wonder. This is where I lived when I attended First School. It was a place where my young-boy dreams began and my imagination took hold. Dad grew field corn, pickles, potatoes, and had a pear orchard with a mix of Bartletts and Kieffers. Our pears sometimes had scars on them from being “nipped” by the frost, but that didn’t seem to keep anyone from buying or eating them.

I liked the field corn because it grew so tall and attracted deer and pheasants, and was like a jungle for an eight or nine year-old kid to explore. Unknown to some, field corn tastes very good on the table. Somewhat starchy but I prefer it to sweet corn. In addition, Dad also grew several rows of popcorn for us to enjoy during the winter.

I remember my dad telling me that when he was plowing or cultivating, a flock of bobwhite quail would often follow his tractor to get at the worms and insects that had been disturbed.

I hated picking pickles because they were “prickly” like a cactus on tender young hands, and it always seemed to be hot and humid when it was time to harvest them.

The potatoes are where the organic farming part came in. Dad would give each of us kids a clear glass fruit jar with a little gasoline in it and send us to walk up and down the rows of potatoes to pick off the potato bugs (called Colorado Potato Beetles). They had round, shiny, creamy white striped backs and were found crawling along side their red worm-like larva. Their tiny yellow-orange eggs were found on the underside of the potato leaves and also had to be destroyed in the gasoline. This was Dad’s version of organic farming.

Today, someone might have called the authorities on him for making his kids learn some character by working on the farm this way. Great times, though, and great memories.  –MLJ

 

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It might be too early for a Christmas story. Unless, that is, you part of my family.
One particular Christmas morning when we lived on Empire back in the sixties (I was not yet in high school); it had not snowed for several days and actually was kind of warm. Dawn had just broken and I was taking armfuls of wrapping paper, freshly shredded from that morning’s harvest of gifts out to the burn barrel.

The sky was gray and overcast, and I was privately bemoaning the “un-Christmas like” weather, wondering if there would be any snow that December. Suddenly and unexpectedly, it began to rain. Rain? On Christmas day in Michigan?

I started the paper burning and as it began to smoke due to the moisture, I ran into the house to get the last load. It was raining pretty hard by then and as the intensity increased, a loud, bright volley of thunder and lightning rang out. Several more times it crackled and flashed as the rain increased its intensity.

Then all at once, a swirl of snowflakes began to blow in among the raindrops and within a few minutes, the rain stopped and the snow came down hard.

The turkey and dressing my mother made for dinner that day was delicious with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and turkey gravy, brussel sprouts, candied sweet potatoes, and hot buttery rolls. There was pie and cake for later.

Mid-afternoon found us all in “tryptophanic” shock! My dad was napping in his big chair as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by the Hollyridge Strings played softly on the radio. Gazing out the dining room window, I noticed there was almost seven or eight inches of snow on the ground, and it was still coming down. The only thing I can surmise is that a whole lot of kids had cried out to God that morning for a white Christmas and He obviously heard them all!  A VERY EARLY MERRY CHRISTMAS!  –MLJ

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One Christmas Eve many years ago (1965 or 66 I think), us kids were getting ready for the annual service at Calvary Bible Church in Benton Harbor. Pastor Roger F. Campbell, a very talented author, always wrote the plays that the older kids performed and the memory verses to the programs in which the younger children participated.

I remember looking into the brightly lit kitchen of our home where we lived at 1642 East Empire and my dad was very busy baking bread; he had worked as a baker before going into the army and displayed his talents. Large coffee cakes, some filled with poppy seed, others with brown sugar, butter, and nuts to make butterscotch, sought out places to rest themselves and cool in the large kitchen.

He made éclairs filled with custard, and cinnamon rolls drenched with white icing. My favorites were his white bread and oatmeal bread. The large loaves, hot out of the oven, were brushed with melted fat to keep the crust soft. The first slice burst forth with steam and was quickly slathered with butter. The house smelled so good.

My mother who was a registered nurse was working at Mercy Hospital and would be home in a few hours.

Uncle Jim Amundson came by in his black 1959 Ford sedan with Lois. It was snowing hard, of course! Sharon was at home with Aunt Maxine because she was just a toddler at that time.

So, off to the Christmas Eve program we went: John, Nancy, Lois, and myself. At the close of the evening service, the kids would be given gifts of oranges, candy, and boxes of animal crackers.

Later at home there would be a table full of treats and delights, my mother would be home, and the Christmas tree in the living room stuffed with presents to bring us joy the next morning. –MLJ

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One of the most important things when writing fiction is your setting. When you show your characters interacting and speaking with one another, you must describe to the reader what they are doing, and where they are doing it. Failure to do this leaves you with a certain boring blandness, sometimes referred to as “white space”.
When I write, the weather is like an extra man on the football field during the game. Technically, he is not supposed to be there but can affect the outcome of the game. I treat the weather as another character in my story. You can do so much with the weather to add color and depth. Do you want your character to appear warm and cozy in his log cabin? How about a snowstorm or a cold north wind, howling in the background?      Autumn weather brings the shortening of days, cricket chirps, cold drizzle, frosty nights, and warm afternoons. You can make a short walk to the mailbox seem like a journey to the arctic if your character must walk through drifts of blowing snow that cut at his face like sand from a sandblaster. Think of yourself as a painter, filling in the background and places where your characters must live, move around, and exist.
The following is a short excerpt from one of my new books yet to be published. I endeavored to use the weather as another character, a protagonist and antagonist to the person called Cadan:

  The sun was particularly bright that morning, and Cadan was thankful that it would be at his back for the duration of his ride. A stiff breeze raced down the hills in the distance his way, causing him to press his hat down snugly on his head. Baring something unforeseen, Cadan figured that with Jim’s gentle lope, he should have the hamlet of Refuge in sight within an hour or so.
  However, the late summer morning ride with blue skies, serenaded by the melodic twitters of meadowlarks perched on branches and bush, and kestrels hovering above, ready to stoop upon their prey hiding in emerald patches of meadow soon changed. Low dark clouds moved in from the northwest, and soon, gusts of cold wind began to blow, and large heavy drops of rain like silver pellets struck his hat and horse. —MLJ

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The title of this post is from a poem by Emily Dickinson, describing her encounter with a snake. I recently read an article about a Michigan woman bitten by a snake in her backyard, which turned out to be the species massasauga, a small rattlesnake indigenous to Michigan. It is somewhat rare, shy, and is not aggressive, but it evidently felt threatened and did bite this woman.  I have spent much of my life in Michigan, camping, hiking, exploring, etc., and have never encountered one, on purpose or by accident. This lady wasn’t so fortunate.
Another young girl near Detroit tried to pick one up and was also bitten. The lesson is, don’t “mess” with a snake if you don’t know what it is, especially in the Great Lake State. The following excerpt is from one of my books GRACE IN OLD SODUS, chapter FINDING GRACE:  
     As the rain fell steadily, Sam spun on his heels to find Karl and felt something strike against his right leg just above his boot line. A sharp, tingling pain, like a wasp sting or salty sweat in an open wound, stabbed him. Sam lifted his lantern and caught the glimpse of a small, dark snake hanging from the cuff of his blue jeans. Quickly grabbing it, he slung it away into the invisible darkness of the flowing river. Pulling up his pants leg, he squatted down on a wet, mossy log and held the lantern close. There was only one bite hole with a trickle of blood, but it was unmistakable. Sam was sure he had been bitten by a massasauga rattler, a small species of rattlesnake and the only venomous snake indigenous to Michigan. This swampy, undisturbed woods was just what it liked when seeking places to hibernate for the winter. Sam had never seen one in the flesh, as they were normally shy and bit only if harassed or stepped upon. Well, it seemed he’d stepped on this one.
     Sam felt his ankle for swelling but there was none, and the expected intense pain from the snake’s venom did not come. His head remained clear, and after sitting for several minutes, he was sure that the short-fanged snake had given him a “dry bite.” Rattlesnakes can control their venom and sometimes will bite for defense but not inject their poison. Pulling down his pants leg, Sam grasped the handle of his lantern and headed in Karl’s direction, thankful and hoping that Billy had not met with one of these “narrow fellows in the grass,” as the poet called them. –MLJ

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THE GIBSON GIRL

I recently purchased a mint condition postage stamp depicting the image of the so-called Gibson Girl.  As indicated on the reverse of the stamp, “The Gibson Girl” was created by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. This iconic image and others like it set the “ideal” of what the perfect American woman should look like around the turn of the century (1900’s).
In my most recent book, THE NEW BADGE,  I mention this phenomenon in the chapter JUDITH, page 41:

Stopping in front of Granfield House, the driver opened the stage door and announced that hot victuals could be obtained at the hotel, which was a mere “stretch of the limbs” down the boardwalk. Hearing the driver say “limbs,” the word used in polite society in place of “legs” when ladies were present, Alice grinned. It would seem there was at least one woman aboard.
  Sure enough, a young lady not yet twenty years old, with blonde hair and a stylish hat, stepped out of the stage door and looked about her. She was fashionably attired with her hair done up in the latest updo reminiscent of the so-called Gibson Girl. Alice greeted her and asked her to take a seat inside and she would see to her trunk and room.  –MLJ

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ONLY A BREADBOARD?

Many years ago when I was a lad of about seven or eight, my dad purchased an old sixty-acre farm on Meadowbrook Road in Pipestone Township. There was a red barn, a silo made of baked-clay blocks, and several outbuildings on the property. The only thing left of the old house was a set of concrete steps leading to nowhere.

My dad set out to build our new house on this same spot, and as a young boy, this gave me plenty of opportunity to explore the ancient treasures left behind by the previous owners, that in my young mind were just ghosts. I found an old wooden oxen yoke (which I still have) and other things, particularly an old wooden board about two feet square. It wasn’t just a board, but had been constructed with some skill, pieced together using mortise and tenon joints.

Not sure what it was, I showed it to Dad who promptly identified it as a breadboard. Some farmer’s wife of days gone by had apparently used it quite often to make her family’s bread. Stained with fat and oil, it had old flour in its joints and cracks that probably acted like plaster.

Coming from a family that grew up with good homemade bread, I can understand how the mere sight of “mom” taking this board out from behind the kitchen door and setting it on the table was enough to make mouths water in contemplation of hot brown loaves from the oven. Thick slices of steaming bread slathered with freshly churned butter went quite well with bowls of creamy tomato soup, fragrant with celery leaves.

Was this breadboard just another vintage kitchen tool to this farmer’s family or was it more like an “altar”, storing up many sweet memories to recall?  Bread baking was usually a weekly thing in those days, a duty and a charge like laundry and canning, done with the love of a mother for her husband and children. How many mountains of dough had been mixed and kneaded on this board over the years?

Do you have something in your home from days past that elicits dear memories every time you look at it?  Tell your kids about these things so they don’t just toss them out when you’re gone. Teach them the value of remembering.   MLJ

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