One of the most unlikely things that ever happened to me is a friendship with Joyce Maynard.
For starters, she went to Yale and worked at The New York Times. I went to Indiana State and work at a small-town newspaper. She has major publishing houses finance her manuscripts and two of those, To Die For and Labor Day, became movies. I self-published one small novel with another on the way.
She travels more and has more interesting things happen in a typical month than I do in … well, I’m embarrassed to say.
Yet some things are meant to be. Life is full of mystery and opportunity.
I’ve thought about Joyce a lot this week because her new book, Under the Influence, hit the shelves. And also because her husband, Jim, is in the hospital in Guatemala, where Joyce has a second home and runs writing workshops. Together, the couple has spent the past year and more battling his cancer. Things have been looking up, but he took ill last week.
Joyce came on my radar in 1987 when in Editor & Publisher I spotted a promotion for her book, a compilation “best of” her Domestic Affairs newspaper columns, in a book by the same name. The ad offered editors review copies. It was her face that reeled me in. Her eyes so wide and alive, and she was sporting these charming bangs and pigtails (pigtails!). It was as though she could jump off the page and we could go for coffee and talk about life as moms.
I was new to the mom scene; she had spent the past few years by then writing about adventures in that realm from the vantage point of a remote New Hampshire farm.
The book arrived and I inhaled it: stories about canning tomatoes, middle-of-the-night Christmas shopping, perilous, New England roads in winter, loving kids and family and life. Each essay was served up, readable, edible even, in the candor and humor. And each piece had a twist. Perhaps it was some bit of lesson learned or at least question asked. I loved it.
I started noticing her Kids in the Country column byline in Country Living, and somehow, in the days long before social media, learned about her fan newsletter and subscribed. I still have the copies in my attic. Joyce was accessible, real. In fact, she made it a part of her life and, surely, was an instinctive part of her own branding and marketing, to connect well with fans and hear their stories. I wrote a piece or two for her newsletter, coming onto her radar.
Life happened. She divorced, cared for and buried her beloved mother, moved off the farm to Keene, N.H., wrote more books. Her column ended but she had become a novelist with a bread-and-butter career as a magazine contributor. I moved too, worked for a different newspaper, birthed a second baby. In 1997, her newsletter announced that she was moving to San Francisco and if anyone was in New England on June 22, stop by her garage sale.
I took it as a personal invite. I knew I had to attend that garage sale, as unlikely and ridiculous as it sounded. I had to meet Joyce, pick up a relic from her life. So I wrote her a letter and asked about where to stay. She called and said stay with her for the weekend and help with the sale. Could I bring a friend? Sure.
And so my bestie Gay Kirkton and I did just that and had one of the most remarkable weekends we can imagine. Little did we know there would be a New Hampshire II.
It came in 2013 when Joyce invited us to her wedding to Jim. “You have to go,” said my husband, and we did. We sat among TV stars, writers, and other remarkable people on a mountaintop in New Hampshire and watched Joyce and Jim tie the knot. She had waited a long time to find this man.
We stayed in a 1700s bed and breakfast, went to church in a town the size of Brownsville with a Harvard-educated pastor; discussed The Great Gatsby with a Dartmouth English professor, and toured a gorgeous loft that belonged to a friend of Joyce’s and was featured in Country Home. We danced at her wedding along-side a famous 1960s community activist and were interviewed by a New York Times reporter.
Just a weekend in the life of Joyce.
A big weekend in the life of this fifty-something Hoosier farm girl.
We were saddened to learn of his illness just short months later. But then later, happy to hear he was cancer free.
And now, like so many times before, a new Joyce book joins the others. Once it’s read, it will reside next to its siblings in my glass-front book cabinet that holds special volumes and keepsakes.
I don’t abuse this unique—what?—relationship/fanship/friendship—with Joyce by asking her to read my manuscripts or give me advice. She is asked these things by many people all the time and as she has explained kindly to her fans, if she helped everyone who asked, she would never get her own work done. Plus, she makes a portion of her living leading writing workshops both in Guatemala and in the states. I get it. It takes a lot of time to comment on other people’s work in a constructive way. But Joyce has given me a few key pieces of advice, personally:
1. Always take the adventure.
2. Make Samantha ( heroine in Sweetland of Liberty Bed & Breakfast and the upcoming follow-up) 50, not 60.
3. Keep telling stories.
I’ve learned that adventures abound—they are the way we approach our everyday lives—and include, for me anyway, the occasional one that physically takes me away.
Samantha is 51 in the new book.
And as for stories, here’s another.
GIVE ME LIBERTY!
Since the 2015 holidays, it had been a dry spell. After two years of calls and emails regularly asking if I could give a program to this club or that banquet, things had fallen quiet, like winter snow. It’s to be expected, I told myself, realizing that Sweetland of Liberty Bed & Breakfast has been out for two years already. It’s a matter of shelf life.
Then one January day, the inbox offered an email with this subject line: Program. And sure enough, a Union County Public Library librarian offered up the magic words: Would I be available to speak to the senior REMINISCE program on Feb. 23?
Something new for the calendar! And not just something new but something more: a reason to go home; an opportunity to tailor a talk around some favorite old stories of growing up a farmer’s daughter, of the life and times of being a Union County kid. Just my cup of tea.
Today was the day and once again, going home did that thing to me that it always does. It made me homesick. If it weren’t for two major factors, Brian and I would put the house on the market as soon as we could manage, load up the truck and move to Bev-er-ly ... well, to Lib-er-ty.
The two major factors, however, are major:
1. The kids live in Indy where we can see them often (can you put a price tag on that)? 2. Our church / my life-group-turned-life friends, the Midlife Moms.
I’m also not done with newspaper work quite yet.
But make no mistake: there is that pull of home, and part of me asks myself often: so why is it again that we aren't living there now?
Today in Liberty, I’m met by my friend since school days, Beth McCoy, and her mom, Shirley. Shirley is one of my most enthusiastic supporters. Beth asks that question: when are we moving home?
I set up my dog-and-pony-show table with books and poster, and before I can get it done, despite arriving way early, folks start arriving. This is something I have learned over two years and dozens of programs: get there early. Others will.
Among them there today: a lady who rode not only my dad’s school bus but my grandfather’s; the son and daughter-in-law of my husband’s splendid Liberty landlady, Mary Snyder; two mothers of school chums; businessmen from around town, one of which booked me on the spot for a November banquet; several ladies from my childhood Brownsville United Methodist Church; my brother, Tim; the organist at our wedding; several other dear ones, besides. Home folks.
They listen well to the stories that range from reflective to historical to silly; they ask questions, they laugh in the right places, and then they reminisce informally over the library’s luncheon of homemade shepherd’s pie, fresh fruit, rolls and cherry-chocolate cake.
And over the meal, I talk with a couple. She had been a Brownsville farm girl. He went to school in Dunlapsville and Alquina. His career was an air traffic controller at the Indianapolis International Airport. But they are home now, home in Liberty. And in April, they are taking another trip abroad, this time to Belgium.
So many stories like this: small-town people who have led and still lead interesting lives doing important and “who-knew” type things. Boy do I get mad when someone from somewhere else insinuates that small-town or rural folk are dull. Just who is the uninformed, narrow-minded one there?
One of our deepest yearnings is to know God and be known by Him. We also want, deeply, to know others and be known by them. I feel these things acutely when I’m in my hometown.
The folks there today wanted to hear about the next book. I told them a bit about it, a teaser for the plot, a word or two about a pair of new characters. And I wonder: when is it too soon to say much more than that? In March I’ll start the actual publishing process and this summer, we should have books. And I hope I get to do all this again.
The home folks asked if I’ll be back.
I sure hope so. In fact, I’d love nothing better.
TAXES, BARB AND THE BEEF HOUSE
We Cronks sometimes do things a little differently.
Why would anyone, for instance, drive two-plus hours to get taxes done when there are perfectly capable people available locally to complete the task? For that matter, why would we carry our family insurance policies through an agency located two hours away in an opposite direction when we could practically walk to a local insurance agency?
Not that complicated, though.
This year our long-term tax person retired. Brian was chatting with our investment professional and happened to mention this point. She suggested her tax person. We said give us the number. I suppose the question begs: Why do we drive more than two hours to see an investment professional? The answer dates back decades. When our broker opened her agency, Brian’s folks signed on with her and had a great long-term relationship. She is a successful advisor and is fantastic at what she does. We have always appreciated the time and effort she puts into not just our paper finances, but our real lives.
For example, we’ve talked and planned in detail with her for at least 10 years to get Brian to the retirement finish line. We’ve had a plan. It’s wonderful to have a professional understand how and why we think like we do and tailor the particulars with us in mind. So that’s not only why we’ve stayed with her – but why we will probably stay with her tax person as well.
As for insurance, we signed on with a particular company where a dear friend worked decades ago and have seen no reason to change.
I’m all about shopping and buying locally. But local means a lot of things. Local to us means a variety of locations throughout the state where we have close ties, history and heritage. Local means supporting the people who have helped us along life’s path and remaining loyal to them as they are loyal to us.
In my experience, one can feel poorly served or even anonymous in a geographically nearby setting as well as feel “rah-rah local” or close. It’s about freedom, choice, and connecting with the right folks at the right time to serve the right needs.
And besides, whenever we go see our broker or our tax person, it’s a great excuse to drive a little farther and visit our friend Barb and go to The Beef House near Covington. We call that priceless.
CHECKING IN WITH MY FOX TAIL FERN
Last fall, I posted here that I was going to try something new and see how it went. I had no takers for my beautiful fox tail fern, and while I had little faith that the thing would survive, I decided it was worth a try to bring it inside and see how it went.
Well, here it is more than halfway through February and guess what? It is thriving. The fern is stationed back from the window so it doesn't get cold yet it gets a good deal of weak-ish light from the west-facing window. I give it a drink of water once a week or so AND THAT IS IT!
I keep thinking I'll walk in and find it shedding or turning brown but instead, it continues to reward me with new shoots of lovely green. It reminds me of summer. And of Jerusalem. And of my favorite garden place, Garden Thyme and the cheerful owner, Kim.
I must say, just passing down the hall and catching a glimpse of that pretty plant brings a bit of cheer. I'm reasonably certain that it's going to make it to May and a summer spent back out on the front porch.
The plant's performance hasn't put me in the mood for houseplants like I enjoyed back in the day, but I will say that come fall, I won't hesitate to try my hand at some wintering over whatever plants might respond.
Life is full of surprises. Including my fox tail fern.
Sometimes it would seem that even though we didn’t choose certain objects that we keep around our homes, they become important parts of our lives all the same. Kelly Finch, my hometown friend from Liberty, Indiana, shares such a story in today’s guest blog. Thanks Kelly!
By Kelly Finch
The bear blanket was given to me nearly 30 years ago as a Christmas gift. At that time, I had scarcely any –if any at all—extra blankets.
This certainly didn't fit my decor, as I was in my early 20s and trying to make my home look "grown-up.” But it was big and thick and warm—perfect to wrap up in and keep warm in the winter.
Soon thereafter, as my babies came along and turned into toddlers, the bear blanket became the favorite one to cuddle with on the couch while reading or watching TV.
It was the one the kids wanted wrapped up in when they were sick. No one really fought over it, and by the time numerous extra blankets had appeared in the house, the bear blanket was always the first one someone grabbed.
It went on family vacations with us or even long day trips when we might have to leave early in the morning. The kids would grab a pillow and blankets to sleep on the way. The bear blanket was a staple on all these trips.
As the kids got older and began playing sports, it went along on cross country meets. It is seen in many pictures with my kids and their friends wrapped up in it for warmth on a chilly fall morning, at track meets, football, basketball and softball games. It became well known with the teammates. It seems everyone loved that bear blanket.
The kids have grown up and left home. My husband has pretty much commandeered it and it is still a staple item, used almost on a daily basis.
Through its many washes, it has become threadbare, it's faded, and the binding has been long gone. Food and drink have been spilled on it. It has been vomited on, drug through the mud, the dog likes to lay on it. You name it; it has experienced life. It is certainly well-loved.
My baby is a senior in college this year. A couple of weeks ago she became very ill while at school and decided she needed to come home. (Asking to come home, I knew she must be very sick!)
Before I left, I asked her if she wanted me to bring her anything. Of course, she wanted the bear blanket.
It's strange to think of a piece of fabric--something you would never have purchased for yourself, something that didn't fit the idea of being grown-up-- would end up being a family favorite. And a continuing source of comfort.
DECLARED: A Snow day
I woke up this morning with nothing terribly pressing on my plate. There’s nowhere I have to be, no Big Thing I have to accomplish. So I’m calling it. Snow day!
Remember the bliss as a kid when it snowed in the night and you woke up to find that school was called off and you could go back to sleep? Bliss. We got a very pretty snow last night. It isn't technically enough to call off life out there. But I have the day off. And I'm taking it!
There’s never a shortage in things on the to-do list to cross off, and those nagging back-burner chores to address. And maybe I’ll do some of those things. And maybe not. The calendar is empty today and so here’s what I’m going to do:
1. Watch the episode of Downton Abbey that I missed in order to watch Peyton and Co. win a Super Bowl on Sunday.
2. Drink another cup of coffee.
3. Burn a scented candle.
4. Take the time to make us a nice dinner that requires some time to bake.
5. Go to bed early and awaken fresh tomorrow.
Anything else, at least for this old-fashioned snow day, will be a bonus.
Yes, this is a short blog. It’s a snow day!
A while back, I asked Facebook friends for input on buying a new dishwasher. There were roughly 25 responses and there was no singular conclusion to be drawn from the data. The comments were all over the place.
It would seem that if you had the bucks, buying the most expensive brand would get you a great machine. But at least one real-time consumer in my Facebook poll said hers was a dud. Others favored a particular brand but mixed in with those reviews were negative comments on the same labels.
What’s a spoiled person tired of washing by hand to do? What a first-world problem.
The big-bucks model was out of the question (and not because of the friend’s review but because of the price) so we looked at what was on sale and settled on the next to cheapest model in the store that day. The thing we liked most about it was that it was American-made. Evidently that is such a rare commodity these days that the dishwasher is marketed with a permanent plate on its door stating its roots.
The other thing we liked about it is that it is stainless steel—but they all are. The last time we bought a stove or dishwasher, stainless was considerably more costly so we went with black to save money. Now, stainless is the standard with other colors available by special order. I figure that can only mean one thing: stainless is on the way out. There’s probably some new color or type of metal that is The Thing. Like white, maybe.
The other way I know this is that I’m one kitchen appliance away from being all-stainless.
What I’ve learned in my snail’s-pace pursuit of a stainless kitchen is that, like chasing any materialistic “thing,” it’s over-rated. Stainless means lots of streaking, smudges and so many fingerprints, you’d think I’m working for the FBI. I don’t recall off-white (excuse me: biscuit) having a tricky surface to keep clean. And to tell you the truth, I think off-white (I mean biscuit) was probably my favorite color for kitchen appliances. Although I liked white too.
I’ve also learned while hand-washing the dishes, they get cleaner than running them through an appliance. But of course, maybe that’s because our dishwasher had been going out for a while and it was so gradual we didn’t give it a lot of thought.
Our installers were speedy and nice. Yes, they’re getting the top rating in the automated store interview that will come tomorrow. And they said they would appreciate it. Our installers gave us a priceless tip and I’m happy to pass it on to you too: They said do not use the soap pods because the plastic doesn’t always dissolve and technicians have told them that can do in a dishwasher. Yet, the mixed message followed as a free sample of the pods was enclosed.
We’ve been using the pods in the washing machine. Now I’m wondering if that is an issue as well.
I guess the bottom line is this: If I want the dishes really clean, really cheap, do this:
I remember a season a few years ago when a friend and I were discussing winter and she said she looked forward to the stillness and lack of demands of the winter months. She mentioned things like reading, sleeping well, hibernating and enjoying the fact that January was not December, a month that expects a lot from us.
I thought about that—when I got a breath—this January.
None of it applied.
January has become a demanding month at the newspaper where I work. It comes with a variety of special projects and this year, training on a new computer system was added to the mix. My Bible Study Fellowship and its related homework resume, I have to figure and pay Indiana sales tax on book proceeds by January’s end, and we had several unexpected expenses including the death and burial of Brian’s long-loved (and hated) exercise machine (which passed away one month after the much-renewed and too-often-used service contract ended).
There was the carpeting, which we had planned for, the death of the dishwasher, which we had not, and two vehicles’ worth of new tires which also took us by surprise.
Oh yes, December was nothing on the bank account compared to January.
I also worked on upgrading some social media and installing Paypal and a few other things in prep for the new book later this year. I keep asking myself: Will I make good use of the changes and more, their potential?
The month ended with a women’s retreat. And then some bad things happened. There were three sudden deaths over the past few days in families of people I know well and care about. My heart goes out to all the families touched by these circumstances and unexpected losses.
Basically, last month and the recent passings have left me feeling cranky.
But we are grateful for the good things in life, all the same. This day dawned sunny—such a treat—and I used the morning to sit down and go through all of our financial statements and expenses that are needed for getting our income taxes done in a couple of weeks. After a couple of intense hours gathering, paper-clipping and adding expenses on my business, I took a break and checked email.
There in the inbox was the subject matter of “Program” and the email from someone whose name I didn’t recognize. Sure enough, it was someone from my hometown inviting me to give a program to senior citizens at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 23 in the Union County Public Library. The topic is “Reminisce” and I’m asked to share some hometown memories. Would I consider it?
Sometimes it takes something that might seem small to improve an otherwise blah day. I needed something to brighten my outlook and while I am thankful to those inviting me, I am crediting the Good Lord for arranging it.
I’m beginning to see January in my rear view mirror as I pull deeper into February. And that is a good thing.
What winter joys do you see ahead for yourself? Or maybe you are enjoying a laid-back season of reading, snuggling and relaxing. Some friends from church are leaving today for a short-term Philippines mission trip. Some others are leaving for Florida. Some family just returned from there.
Whatever is on your winter calendar, I wish you sunshine in your spirit as well as out your window. And a sweet surprise or two along the way.