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You can always tell when a store is offering a promotion that benefits them, not you. A few years ago, it was Costco. They came up with their “cash back” American Express card. Now, for anyone who wanted another credit card, I’m sure it was a THRILLING DEAL. But for those of us who don’t like plastic and who have enough already, it was not attractive.

The thing is, Costco would not take no for an answer. Their AmEx “specialists” aggressively chased me across the store so many times that I finally left written complaints in BIG LETTERS on feedback cards every time I shopped. Once I went lawyer on one of them and threatened to file a complaint for a PC 422. I hadn’t the slightest intention of course, but I was tired of being chased and harassed. (And it wasn’t a PC 422, it was a PC 245, but 422 sounded more intimidating and came out of my mouth first because I was working on one of those cases.)

Eventually Costco penned up the AmEx Card hustlers (I like to think it was because I complained), and I could just avoid them. For a while.

But then they started a campaign at check out for those of us who were holdouts on the GREAT DEAL. We still had the tell tale white membership cards. Put one of those babies on the checkout conveyor belt, and your fate was sealed. You were going to get a talking to from the cashier with all the fervor of a Southern Baptist street preacher who suspected Jesus Christ was NOT your lord and savior. Finally, I paid Costco an extra $60 bucks a year for a black card that is not a credit card, but that entitles me to a paltry rewards certificate every January. It’s enough to buy a couple of good bottles of wine, and so far it has been a stake in the heart of AmEx vampires.

Having lived through the Costco AmEx campaign, I was not thrilled when some baby B-schooler created JUST 4 U at my local supermarket. I mean, the title was an instant give way. It was definitely NOT 4 ME.

The whole thing began pretty innocuously with tables just inside the entrance doors where pleasant-faced employees gave out little flyers telling us how sign up on our computers at home. Ever obedient, I did just that. But I went no farther. Why, you ask? Because the object of the exercise was to get me to decide what I wanted to buy BEFORE I went to the store, click on a bunch of e-coupons and somehow magically have these on my cell phone to be scanned at check out. Do you see where this is going, Highly Intelligent Reader? Yep. You got it. The store was sneaking up on paper coupons and trying to make them extinct.

Now back in the days when all four of us were home, I did clip coupons like paper dolls from the glossy Sunday inserts. I had one of those cute little coupon organizers with wallpaper patterns on the front that I wagged with me every weekend. In those days, I often did plan my meals for a whole week in advance, created shopping lists, and executed them (in every sense of that word.) Only problem with this activity: it killed the whole weekend, EVERY WEEKEND. (Another form of execution.)

But as my children grew up and left home bit by bit, I had little need for an elaborate food plan every week. And, as a foodie, I love to roam the aisles and Impulse Buy. I may know three things I want before I hit the supermarket, but I don’t know the other ten. It is just not fun to sit at a computer and pretend I’m putting tunes on my iPod when in fact I’m hunting for paperless coupons for the Android for things I don’t even know I want yet.

Being Southern and polite, I just decided to silently drop the whole thing. But not the supermarket. Oh, no. The employees behind the tables now began to shout at us as we entered, DEMANDING we sign up They came armed with laptops to do the deed ON THE SPOT. They pushed free cookies and coffee to waylay unsuspecting victims. (That was an easy one for me to ignore, but no mom can get a kid past a plate of free cookies.) Still even if a shopper managed to run the entrance gauntlet, he or she still had to face to the Sign Up table in back across from the meat counter. (I guess vegetarians escaped this one.) And finally, the fresh-faced cashier would smile and demand the JUST 4 U info at check out like some sort of Free Mason hand shake that if I got right, would allow me to take the food home. Masonry went extinct in my family in my father’s generation. So, faced with leaving the groceries on the counter or finding a new place to shop, I learned to cleverly hand over my store club card and say, “This is all the discount I wanted for today, thank you.” (I mean the whole club card thing is a pain, too. Why can’t they just give you the low price to begin with?)

Lately, like the AmEx herd that got bullpenned, the JUST 4 U pushers are fewer and farther between. (I think the moms complained about the free cookies.) There are still plenty of customers with cute little coupon savers at checkout, handing over wads of rainbow-hued clippings. I actually haven’t seen a single phone scanned. I’m thinking the baby B-school genius who visited this plague upon us is Looking For Another Job right now. B-school genius has learned the hard way no one is going to deprive me of the extemporaneous fun of being an Foodie Impulse Buyer. Absolutely no one.

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My Golden Retrievers, Melody and Rhythm, were also happy to see the last of the painter on Friday. Melody, my eight-year-old female, likes to spend the day sleeping in my bedroom. Rhythm, her seven-year-old brother, likes to sleep downstairs in my office. But the painting repairs disrupted their peaceful canine lives because on the days the downstairs was painted, Rhythm had to stay upstairs. And on the days the upstairs was painted, Melody had to be evacuated downstairs. And worse than that, they had to be child-gated into the kitchen for a few hours on the next to the last day because of all the coming and going. It wasn’t as bad as being whisked off to a strange hotel room for a weekend, but neither liked being denied his or her favorite sleeping spot even for a short time.

My dogs remind me of my children when they were small. They are comfortable within the confines of their routine, but they don’t like disruption. In Melody and Rhythm’s world, the food is supposed to be deposited in the bowl at approximately the same time every morning. Then as soon as Rhythm has finished inhaling his, he expects his daily medication. Immediately after that he is ready to go on his morning walk to see the ducks at the pond. Melody, who is notoriously lazy, has to be bribed to join us. After all the pond smells have been exhausted and after I have told Rhythm repeatedly not to eat pine cones, we come back home where they insist on one last treat before retiring to sleep off their breakfasts. I find the utter predictability of this routine day after day reassuring.

Goldens are amazingly sweet, loving, and patient animals. They make fabulous therapy dogs. During the tragedy at Newtown, I discovered the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dogs. They are Golden Retrievers trained to provide comfort and support; and they travel to disaster sites as well as to schools, hospitals, and hospices to offer love and comfort. They were the chief reason that some of the children were willing to return to school after the December 14 tragedy. Recently some of the Comfort Dogs headed out to Boston to comfort the Marathon bomb victims. Each Comfort Dog has a Facebook page, and they hand out their business cards to the people they comfort. One of the little Newtown survivors made a special box to keep all the dogs’ cards in and brought it to school to show the dogs her treasures. This morning the dogs and their handlers were given well-deserved special recognition and assistance on Good Morning America.

I adopted my first Golden from rescue after we babysat a friend’s Golden for a few days. Back then, the children and I lived in a house that had a small concrete slab for a back porch. Within an hour of our canine guest’s arrival, I found my then-three old sitting beside her on the slab, his arm around her neck, pouring out his heart to her as if she understood every word. And she sat and listened as if she, did, indeed, understand. Those were in the early black days of the divorce. and we all had heavy hearts and needed comforting. I called Golden Rescue that same afternoon and put us on the list for the first available retriever that needed a home.

A few months later, we adopted six-year-old Sasha, an adorable female Golden who lived to the ripe old age of fifteen. Really old for a retriever. She was so special it too two to fill her shoes: Melody and Rhythm.

Melody is stubborn, but doesn’t do much to get herself into trouble. She’s a small retriever and happy to do her dainty walk to the pond twice daily once she’s received a suitable bribe. Rhythm on the other hand, likes to live on the edge. He once got away from me and jumped into pond leash and all. And woe is me if he comes across a dead bunny. It is spring now, and bunnies are plentiful. They tend to become road kill or coyote kill. And sometimes bits and pieces get left behind. Rhythm has been known to go native on me and consume a whole bunny carcass while I watched in horror. All I can say is, dead bunny does things to a retriever’s digestive system you don’t want to know about.

My children and I have been blessed in many ways, not the least of which is the presence of our beautiful Goldens. Our personal Comfort Dogs.

Some of the LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs in New York on their way to Boston

Some of the LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs in New York on their way to Boston

Our Goldens, Melody and Rhythm

Our Goldens, Melody and Rhythm

The Pond - Our Daily Destination

The Pond – Our Daily Destination

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It all began on Wednesday morning when I found a large water spot in front of the vanity in the bathroom just off my bedroom. After sticking my head into the dark depths of the vanity (and living to tell the tale), I discovered a leaking cold water valve under the sink. Another piece of original 1978 hardware had failed in my condo.

About that time my son called from downstairs, “Mom, did you know water is dripping onto the living room floor?” Soaking wet myself from my shower, I dashed down to see the sodden ceiling just under the dripping sink. I grabbed a bucket and old towels and summoned the plumber.

Two hours and two hundred dollars later, the leaking valve was a thing of the past. But the fun was just beginning with the ceiling. The “Restoration” service attached to the plumber called to schedule an appointment and cheerfully announced they were going to tear out my wet ceiling “just in case.” Of what, I wondered. I suppose their theory was an absent ceiling can’t grow mold. But an absent ceiling isn’t much to look at. And how does tearing out my ceiling qualify as “Restoration”? I quietly and firmly informed them that, although I had telephoned my claim in to my insurance company and they agreed I was covered sans deductible, the Nuclear Option was not going to happen that afternoon. Couldn’t they just bring over some big fans, please?

Not long after that, a cocky “Restoration” specialist arrived to tell me they would bring fans, but the fans would sound like 747’s taking off, and they would run 24 hours a day. Mind you this is the area where I compose my unbrief briefs 24/7. Appellate work is a quiet scholarly activity. You do it in libraries, not on airport runways. And Mr. Cocky Specialist also informed me that if the errant ceiling didn’t dry out (and he fully expected it wouldn’t) they’d arrive on Monday to tear it out. I said, No thanks. And summoned someone associated with my insurance company for a Second Opinion.

Mr. Second Opinion was a very nice, quiet Hispanic gentleman who spoke a soft waterfall of Spanish to his female assistant. His peaceful demeanor was reassuring. He and the assistant measured and studied and figured and eventually informed me the upstairs wall between my bedroom and the bathroom was also wet. Mr. Cocky in his fixation on demolition had missed that. They said the 747 fans were unavoidable, but they didn’t think they needed to tear anything out.

I surveyed my options. Only I didn’t have any options. Large noisy equipment was going to have to take over my bedroom and living room, including where I work, until Monday. And I had deadlines in the Court of Appeal and I couldn’t just go on “Water Vacay” while I waited for it to be over. Plus my Golden Retrievers, who hate loud noise, and my son’s cat would never last two minutes with the 747’s in the house. Not me mention me, who hates loud repetitive noises.

So here I am on Saturday morning evacuated to a hotel that allows pets while the fans have rendered the house uninhabitable. The hotel is actually quite nice, but I would rather have skipped the ordeal of packing and taking everything down in the condo that the 747’s could damage. I was up really late on Wednesday night.

And then, too, there is the problem of uprooting dogs who never go anywhere except the vets and the groomers. You can explain to a toddler that the family is going to stay in a hotel for a few days while the house is fixed, but you can’t take two Golden Retrievers into a hotel room, turn on TV, and plug them into Cartoon Network for the duration. Melody and Rhythm are better today, but on Thursday they would not let me out of their sight.

This morning thoughtful Mr. Second Opinion informed me we can go home tomorrow. And he installed Hepa filters yesterday because I mentioned I was having trouble breathing from the dust the fans are blowing around. What a change from Demolition Man!

This whole experience has stirred up the homebody in me who loves to live peacefully surrounded by her little treasures. I see why I dream about traveling and then just stay home.

What looks like a fan and sounds like a 747

What looks like a fan and sounds like a 747

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Jimmy Carter left the Southern Baptist Conference after more than sixty years. He had been a deacon and a Sunday School teacher, and he is a profoundly and sincerely religious man. But his reason for leaving the Southern Baptists: the church’s increasing rigidity over the equality of women. Relying on certain passages of scripture, the Southern Baptists insist upon a wife’s subjugation to her husband. And they no longer allow women in the ministry.

Southern Baptists are the United States’ largest Protestant denomination, with 15.9 million members. I doubt that people who have not lived in the South understand what a powerful presence they are in Southern society and culture. My own grandfather was a rigid Southern Baptist who believed in eternal damnation for setting foot in any other church. As a child, I was bundled off to Sunday School and kindergarten at the Southern Baptist church that literally sat on our doorstep. (Eventually they would buy the house I grew up in and turn it into a parking lot, an act of destruction that has always left me profoundly sad.)

I was lucky that my early contact with the mighty Southern Baptist conference had nothing to do with doctrine and everything to do with my parents not wanting to go to church themselves. They shuffled me across the street, Sunday after Sunday, and then went home to put their feet up, read the paper, and drink coffee until it was time to pick me up. The perfect example of “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Eventually, though, being Southern parents, mine were forced to decide about their children’s Religious Affiliation. Southerners have to have some sort of Religious Affiliation to use on Easter and Christmas. And to get married and buried.

Since I had not been baptized as an infant – a practice my Southern Baptist father would never have agreed to and my Methodist mother had no opinion about – I necessarily would have to be baptized as a pre-teen or teen. But the point was, I was a daughter of the South and so I had to be baptized somehow, to avoid going to hell, of course. (Hell at that point was thought to be populated by Northerners, at least unreconstructed Southerners thought so. I didn’t give it much thought since I never planned to wind up there. And it did seem to me that the Civil War had been over for quite some time.)

My parents eventually lit upon a sect of Presbyterians who conducted services as if they were Episcopalians minus kneeling, the sign of the cross, and robes on the minister. For some reason, these Presbys were taken with the beauty of the Anglican liturgy (me, too, by the way) and they adopted it as their own. My father quit being a Southern Baptist and my mother quit being a Methodist, and I got baptized and turned into a Presbyterian by having a red carnation dipped into a bowl of water and squashed on top of my head. Whew! Eternal Damnation avoided! (I fully believe God has a sense of humor because He gave me one.)

By and by, to the absolute horror of my parents, I became an Episcopalian. This required yet another baptism for technical Episcopalian reasons. In their world, water on top of the head doesn’t save you. It has to cross your forehead. So to make absolutely sure I was good and baptized for all time, the priest poured water from a silver shell over my forehead. Killed the hairdo, but now Nothing stood between me, Saint Peter, and those Pearly Gates.

At first, I wanted to be an Episcopalian so that I could walk into any Anglican communion anywhere and hear the beautiful words of the liturgy. I loved that feeling of community when the priest intoned that gorgeous subjunctive phase, “The Lord be with you.” And we answered, “And also with you.” If I went to a Presbyterian church, other than the one I grew up in, I would not hear the liturgy. Then, by and by, my first child turned out to be a daughter. And I wanted her to grow up in a church where women could be priests if they wanted to be. I couldn’t see the point of a religion that told women from the get-go, you’re not good enough.

I have admired Mr. Carter always. He is a man of integrity in a world where integrity is in short supply. And I know what a hard decision he had to make. A Southern Baptist heritage is like being bound by tentacles.

For me, I chose well. You can be anything, anyone, anybody and be an Episcopalian. We have women priests, men priests, gay priests, lesbian priests, and yes, married priests, hetero and gay. Oh, and Bishops, too, come in all varieties. We are the ones the Catholics come to when divorce makes them ineligible to be Catholics anymore. We don’t have to stand on street corners and preach (Southern Baptists did this when I was growing up) and we don’t condemn anyone else’s religion. We are pretty sure God doesn’t either. And we are absolutely sure that women are equal in this world and the next. Back in the day, the Baptist Sunday School taught me to sing this song, which doesn’t say anything about having to be a male child to gain the All Access Pass to Heaven.

Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Black and yellow, red and white
They’re all precious in His sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

Love Comes in All Shapes and Colors

Love Comes in All Shapes and Colors

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The Easter Bunnies eyed me from the front door this morning and said they are not ready to come down. Normally on the first of April I would be putting them up, not taking them down. The green shamrock wreaths always rule the month of March. But the calender played a trick this year and stuck Easter on the day before April Fool’s, leaving me with some unhappy leprechauns who didn’t get to come out of their boxes in March.

In my last post, I explained how my neighbor Lenore inspired my monthly door decorating sessions. Her whimsical greenhouse window displays reminded me that each month has something special to celebrate. I also was inspired by my southern roots, particularly the years I lived in Virginia where I first noticed wreaths displayed on doors year round.

California entrance doors don’t seem to need decorations (except at Christmas) because front doors aren’t used. Most Californians enter their homes through the garage. They pull up in their expensive European sedans, hit the garage door opener hidden in the car’s sun visor, and vanish into the depths never to be seen again. Or at least, never to be seen until the next time the garage door goes up, and they pull out once again in their expensive European sedans. (At Four-Way Stop Intersections in California, the first car to go is not the first one that stopped; it’s the most expensive. Heaven help the Mercedes driver who encounters a Lamborghini.)

When I first came to California in the mid 1980’s, I noticed that the houses here don’t look out on the street the way houses do back east. Where I grew up, and throughout the South, houses have front windows that seem to look outward like eyes. And backyards don’t have fences; or if they do, they have the chainlink ones that let you see into the yard next door. But in California, houses more often look inward toward a pool or courtyard. And people here put high wooden fences around their yards, so you know you have a neighbor, but you cannot see hide nor hair of him or her. I came to wonder if this modern-day residential phenomenon could be attributed to the history of California because people from back east arrived to live on isolated ranches and to fend for themselves. When they urbanized, they continued to keep their neighbors out of sight as much as possible.

At any rate, I am a cultural anomaly here because I both use and decorate my front doors. (Yes, I have not one, but two. And I saved them from the vicious Homeowner’s Association over a a year ago and vanquished a male chauvinist bully on Yelp while I was at it. But that is yet another story.)

To keep the peace, I promised the bunnies they could stay until Saturday. Then they have to go back to their boxes until next year.

Can't It Stay Easter for a While?

Can’t It Stay Easter for a While?

Cheeky Bunnies

Cheeky Bunnies

I refuse to leave:  squatter's rights.

I refuse to leave: squatter’s rights.

Cheeky Bunnies Demanded Their Close-Up

Cheeky Bunnies Demanded Their Close-Up

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I went to an estate sale on Saturday and acquired some
items that mean the world to me. No one knows why. Here’s why.

A few years ago, the woman who gave birth to me had a stroke that
changed her personality so drastically that I found myself an
orphan in mid-life. She had always been a difficult person, and I
had labored for my whole life to have a place in hers. I had
acquired all the academic bells and whistles, had become a
respected professional, and had done a sometimes heroic job of
raising three children as a single mother. But nothing I ever did
impressed her or was enough for her; and in the end she showed me
the door because I was, in her terms, a poor specimen of a human
being.

She survived the stroke; but our relationship did not. And
that is enough said about that. I found great freedom in accepting
my situation and moving on with my life. She wanted me gone; I gave
her what she wanted. For the first time, there was no voice whining
in my ear that I wasn’t good enough.

A few months later, a story on Good Morning American snagged my attention.
A lovely young woman in her mid-thirties, also cast out by her birth family without
justification, had actually put herself up for adoption. And she
had found a lovely second family. I considered the ad I would have
written. “Lovely little family of four, all outstanding over
achievers, seeks parents and grandparents. Looking only for love
and companionship, holiday celebrations, loving phone calls.”

It was only a fantasy, of course. But fantasy has often gotten me
through some of the harder places in life.

Perhaps the central difference in my birth mother and myself is the ability
to nurture. I’m not quite sure how an Earth Mother like me sprang from an Ice
accept her as she is.

Queen, but I did. I don’t fault her for what she didn’t have. I
But as a born nurturer, I have to have someone or some thing to take care of.
Of course there were my children when they were little. And even now they
are adults, I can still give them some nurturing, although not as much.
But now they are on their own, my days are bracketed by the need
to care for my two Golden Retrievers, Melody and Rhythm. Every morning
and every afternoon, I feed them and walk them to the enchanting
little pond that some of the condos in our development back
up to. And this routine was especially comforting in the days
when I was still hurting from my mother’s ultimatum and
wishing I could advertise us for adoption.

The path to the pond winds through a grove of lacy
eucalyptus trees, past a condo in our development with a greenhouse
window facing the path. Now all these units are rather old. They
were built in 1978 when greenhouse windows were quite the “in”
thing. As Melody and Rhythm and I passed by day after day, month
after month, I noticed that this particular window’s display
changed with each month and often featured ducks, a tribute to the
mallards that inhabit the pond. At Christmas, the window had
caroling ducks in tiny Dickens outfits holding tiny song books. At
Easter, there were ducks and bunnies and pastel eggs. For July,
teddies dressed in red white and blue and lots of those .99 cent
flags. At Thanksgiving the window held a blend of pilgrims, ducks,
and autumn leaves. Then Christmas and the web-footed carolers would
come round again. In between, the window defaulted to a display of
tiny lighthouses, rustic bears, bald eagles with spread wings, and
a pair of tin lanterns. And now and than a new trinket appeared.

The person responsible for this fascinating whimsy was a tall,
thin, grey haired woman, well over eighty. Just about the age of my
former mother. She lived alone, dressed elegantly in expensive
subdued slacks and blouses, and always wore pearls. There were skis
in the garage and a set of golf clubs. In those days, she still
drove. Her regular routine was a trip to the grocery store around
four o’clock each day to decide what to cook herself for dinner.
She first noticed me because she loved my beautiful Goldens, and we
often passed by just as she was beginning or ending this daily food
shop. She’d wave when she saw us and would smile and say something
sweet to Melody and Rhythm.

I learned that her name was Lenore. I caught glimpses of her mahogany Windsor
chairs in her dining room as I passed each day. I saw the tiny beautiful
antique table in the perfect spot in the hall, the tiny spoon
rack above her miniature sideboard, and the glass-fronted
curio cabinets in the living room. I guessed she was a collector,
and that she was not from California. Her condo was an exquisite
blend of Williamsburg-style furniture that few people in
California are drawn to. But I, of course, loved it.
She was just the sort of mother I would have chosen.

Her monthly displays inspired me to decorate my own front
entrance each month. I didn’t have a greenhouse window, so I made a
front door wreath for each month and hung appropriate wooden signs
and ornaments on the tree by the door. Even the grumpy Homeowners
Association wrote me a letter complimenting my charming entrance.
Little did they know it was all because of Lenore and her
greenhouse window.

Lenore seemed to draw people to her. Most afternoons when the weather
was nice she would put off the store trip, and she would sit at the table
on her patio with several of the ladies who lived in the condos. They
would sip white wine from thin-stemmed crystal glasses and chat.
Their ritual included feeding the ducks who would come up to
her patio, flapping their wings if Lenore was late throwing
out their food. Often, Melody and Rhythm and I would be
walking by about this time, and Leonore and her friends
would wave as they threw food to the ducks.

Then, a couple of years ago, Lenore had a stroke. A widow from Connecticut,
she had moved to San Diego when her husband died to be close to her
children living here. So she had plenty of support from children
and grandchildren. She recovered enough to go on living in her
lovely condo with a live-in care giver; and even though she no
longer drove, she steadfastly maintained her old routine. Store in
the afternoon. Friends and duck feeding on the patio. Waving at me
and the retrievers. Church on Sunday. Always beautifully dressed
with pearls, but now she used her ski poles for support instead of
a cane. And the window changed each month just as before.

I came to count on that window. Her creative additions were mini surprises in
my day. Sometimes a new duck. Sometimes a single flower in a vase.
She was obviously a woman of great charm and creativity. Then, this
October, a month after she turned ninety, she died. I didn’t know
for a long time because nothing changed at the condo. There was
even a Christmas tree at Christmas. And the window displays went on
as before.But in early January, I began to see lots of picture
frames in the trash and a woman in the garage going through albums.
Eventually, I learned that these were her children deciding what to
keep and what to let go of.

I was profoundly sad, but her daughter staying at the condo kept
up the old ways. Window decorated. Afternoons with the ladies and
white wine on the patio. Ducks fed. I half hoped Leonore wasn’t really
gone but was on a long visit and coming back. Silly fantasy.
But the day I saw the blue glass vases were no longer in the window
in her bedroom, the truth became very real to me. She and I had loved blue glass vases.

This Saturday, I was one of the first to arrive at the estate sale. I knew exactly
what I wanted. And there they were, still in the greenhouse window,
with tiny price stickers on each one. I don’t know where the
caroling ducks went, or the bunnies or the patriotic teddies, but I
bought the default bears and lighthouses and lanterns. And a tiny
little Limoges heart box to remember her by.

Lenore didn’t really adopt me. But it was a fantasy that got me
through a sad time in my life. I don’t have a greenhouse window,
but I rushed happily home from the sale and arranged my treasures on
shelves in the guest room. And I go in often to stand
in front of them and smile. They mean the world to me.

And something else came from the estate sale, too.
I met Lenore’s son and his wife, and I got to tell them how
much Leonore inspired me. Yesterday I was out walking the
retrievers at the usual time, and they were leaving after closing
up her house for the last time. They made a point of waving to me
just as she would have done.

So prayers are answered. A part of my own family reconnected with me
after my wish went out to the Universe to belong. And now I will always
be able to look at Leonore’s little treasures and remember how
much she inspired and cheered me during a sad time in my life.
The ducks, too, are being looked after. One of her friends comes
by each afternoon about four to feed them as Melody and Rhythm and I go by on our walk.

Lenore's patio just as she left it

Lenore’s patio just as she left it

The ducks and the pond

The ducks and the
pond

The window empty for the first time.

The window empty for
the first time.

Lenore's eagles and lanterns


Lenore’s eagles and lanterns

The light houses

The light houses

Her bears

Her bears

Her January cardinals

Her January
cardinals

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Last week, on the day before Valentine’s Day, my son called home from college.

“Mom, I need the fudge recipe.”

Now here was a bit of family lore that had drifted silently into dry dock, and I’m not quite sure if I can say when. Back in the day when all three kids were home and fairly small, fudge at Christmas was our special family treat. Even in the years when Christmas had to be celebrated on a shoestring, fudge was always affordable. It was our go-to gift for their friends, for their teachers at school, for their music teachers, and for anyone else who happened to cross our paths at the holiday. And it was blissfully appropriate across all religious lines as long as I remembered to buy only “Happy Holidays” tins at Walmart. (None of the kids’ friends had a problem with the ones with Santa Claus on top, either.)

Now, candy was an interesting subject at our house. I do not know if modern Southern mothers raise children who are forbidden to have candy, but I was not raised that way, and it never occurred to me to banish candy. Perhaps because it was so available, my children were never particularly interested in it. The miniature candy bars in the toes of the Christmas stockings became petrified wood by the time I remembered to throw them out at Easter. Similarly, the pastel foil wrapped chocolate eggs thoughtfully provided by the Easter Bunny languished into melt down as summer approached. And my children would politely nibble an ear off a chocolate rabbit and then wrap it up forever more. At Halloween, they counted their loot and put it away until Christmas. It is amazing that we didn’t have more ants in the house more often.

So because candy was never forbidden, it never made anyone’s heart beat faster. On the other hand, when the children who were being raised Sugarless came over, I’d find the little jars of Hershey’s kisses on the kitchen counter empty by the time they went home. Which was fine. The kisses were there to be eaten, and we probably weren’t going to eat them. And I would never inform the Sugar Police on our little visitors.

But fudge at Christmas was a different story. Maybe because fudge is creamy, gooey chocolate like none other and maybe because it appeared but once a year, every fudge crumb ever concocted on our stove was consumed.

When Michael called last week, I panicked. Where was the recipe? I had once known it by heart, and for a full ten minutes I could not even think where the written version was. Losing it would be like losing the baby teeth the Tooth Fairy had taken out from under their pillows and hidden in my jewelry box. Some parts of family lore are just too precious to lose.

“I’ll have to hunt for it and call you back,” I told him. (Southerner’s “hunt” for things; we do not “look for” them.) As soon as I got off the phone, I sat quietly and tried to think it through. I had no idea where the written version was because I had made it so many years by memory. Yet I knew it was written down. I am careful to keep important things like that written down.

I closed my eyes and thought about how ordinary things are no longer ordinary when they are woven into the fabric of a family’s life. There are the special ornaments that have to be on the Christmas tree each year. There is the Thanksgiving stuffing that must contain sausage and oysters, but no mushrooms. There is the one and only birthday cake with chocolate butter cream to paste the layers together, and vanilla butter cream on the outside. There are the Easter Bunny footprints stealthily stenciled on the front walk at midnight with flour. There was our first dog’s birthday on July 4, and now our current dogs’ birthdays on February 2 and March 3. These things and these dates and these memories are sewn together to make the quilt of our unique family story. And each is important and never to be lost or forgotten.

So where, oh where was the fudge recipe? Of course, in the binder of family recipes that I had put together over the years. Within fifteen minutes, I had typed it into an e-mail, and it was on its way to my son who called shortly thereafter.

“Thanks, Mom.”

“No problem. Glad you reminded me where it was.”

“Well, I’m being cheap. Instead of buying chocolate, I’m making it for her.”

“Oh, no. That’s not cheap. Any gift from your own hands, of your own time, is never cheap. You guys have a very Happy Valentine’s Day!”

And so a bit of our family lore was recovered, renewed, and passed on.

Holiday Tin

Holiday Tin

The Good Stuff

The Good Stufff

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Happy New Year

Happy New Year

When I was a child, New Year’s was a sad holiday. It was the day the now shabby and wilting Christmas tree came down; the day we were forced to eat black-eye peas swimming in bacon grease for luck; and the day before the dreaded Return to School. Whereas December had been filled with class parties, cookies, gift exchanges, singing carols, and a Christmas play that the entire elementary school presented, January was a bleak, cold month in Tennessee filled with homework and early bed time. No magic allowed.

New Year seemed an even more hollow celebration as I grew older. Even though by high school the December lead up to Christmas no longer carried even the slightest celebratory trace of magic, still the idea of two whole weeks without six periods each day, homework to match, and avoiding the Popular People in the halls was anticipatory nirvana. But New Year’s once again marked the end of freedom and the return to drudgery. Nothing joyful about that.

After I graduated to career person, I used to hang out at various New Year’s parties, trying to feel festive and not sad. I never developed a circle of close friends, so I always shouted “Happy New Year!” among strangers. Despite being happy to be included, a holiday with people I didn’t know just reminded me I was pretty much rowing my little boat alone in the big wide ocean. No magic there.

But after I became the mother of three, I began, at last, to see New Year’s differently. It all changed about the time my oldest hit preschool, and I encountered the hurdles that face a Mom with Kids in School between October and January 1. First came Halloween, and sewing costumes. Three children, three costumes, a night of trick or treating, and then scraping my exhausted little ones off the bed and back to school on November 1. Then came Thanksgiving and preparing a feast alone while making sure three children under the age of five did not vaporize themselves while I shopped, chopped, baked, served, and counted the silver forks when it was over to make sure I hadn’t thrown one out. Next came Christmas. More sewing: matching mother, daughter, and sons outfits to wear to church on Christmas Eve. Decorating the house, including hauling a tree home on top of the car. And last, but not least, doing Santa’s work for him – and realizing that Santa Claus was just another way to keep women from earning credit for their own hard work. (On Christmas morning the kids never knew not only had I bought the toys, I had spent the night assembling them!)

When New Year’s rolled around that first year of being a Mom with Kids in School, I took a big breath (after the Christmas tree was down) and realized that no more holidays were in sight until Easter. Yipee! Suddenly New Year’s was not the drab little elf sitting on my shoulder after all the glittering Christmas fairies and angels had departed for warmer climates. No, New Year’s was the well-deserved break I had earned! Thankfully, Valentine’s and Easter were fairly minor holidays in the yearly pantheon, leaving me time to rest up before the onset of serious Birthday Season in our family: May, July, August, and September. Followed, of course again, by Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and – at last – the well earned rest New Year’s!

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Thanksgiving is almost here. The turkey is defrosting in the refrigerator. The sweet potatoes are looking at the bags of marshmallows across the kitchen. Tomorrow I will bake pumpkin pie and chop veggies to put into the stuffing on Thursday. I will bake cornbread and tear up white bread, also for the stuffing. I will chill sparkling cider and champagne. I will count the sliver place settings, dust off the Waterford, and decide which dishes to use this year. (I’m a dish lover. Only cabinet space limits my yen to bring more home like lost puppies and kittens.)

On Thursday morning, I will be up with the sun to get my hands messy mixing stuffing, putting it in into the bird, and getting into the oven. I will baste the bird and check its internal temperature at intervals, mindful that the difference between a perfectly roasted turkey and an overcooked one can be just minutes. When I was a child, I watched the women in the family do these things. Now it is my responsibility.

This cooking ritual, year afer year, is as satisfying to me as the liturgy of the Anglican mass (back in the days when I shepherded the kids to church, Sunday after Sunday). On the rare holidays when we have chosen a restaurant for our feast, I have missed my personal culinary rites of thankfulness.

The basics of the meal haven’t changed much from the first Thanksgiving I cooked in November of 1985. In that year, I had been in California for all of two weeks. I went to the now defunct K-Mart to buy a hand mixer to cream the sweet potatoes. I had no children then, but I wished for them. That November afternoon, I saw a car with a Fulton County Georgia plate in the K-Mart parking lot. I cried because I was homesick. I started to leave a note on the windshield asking the driver if he or she felt as marooned in a foreign land as I did. But I lost my nerve, and so I will never know the answer to my question. Now all these years later, the foreign land has become home. The K-Mart is shuttered and empty.

We rarely traveled at Thanksgiving, but our few trips were memorable. In 1999, we flew to Tennessee to be with my family for the holiday. It was the only year my children ever experienced more than the four of us for the feast. They raked leaves for the first time in their lives and jumped into the piles with their cousin. They discovered southerners put giblets in their turkey gravy. Ugh! They learned that pecan pie with chocolate chips in the bottom is so rich, a tiny bite will do, even for the most avid sweet-lover.

On another holiday away from home, my daughter and I walked through a cold Chicago rain to a delightful restaurant, formal enough to have a coat check room and bottles of Pellegrino sparkling water on the table. The chef accompanied his perfect roasted turkey with butternut squash ravioli in brown butter sauce. We missed the boys, who were with their father that year. But it was a special time for the two of us, alone is a wold class city.

Now the years of being divided at holidays are over. The ritual food preparation has expanded to included a ritual housecleaning before my adult children come to stay for the holiday. Although I miss the days when we all lived under one roof, it is exceptionally exciting to have my grown ones coming back to share their adventures in far places. Like many things in life, when one thing goes away, another even more wonderful something comes along to take its place.

Although the holidays for those of us who create them for our families are a lot of work, I personally love the run-up to Christmas. From now until January 2, I will be planning food and gifts and decorations to create a festive world for me and the ones I love. I thank the Universe every year for giving me so much love and joy and for giving me wonderful souls to share it with. We are entering the Magic Season! Let the Magic Begin. Happy Thanksgiving!

The Four of Us

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PROLOGUE

Mid-April 2010, Paris

In the gray spring rain, he stood in the Place d’Alma staring down at the tunnel where she had vanished from his life on the last night of August 1997. He came here whenever he was in Paris. He counted the pillars until he reached number thirteen, the one that had taken her life. Tears formed behind his eyes, as they always did in this place. But he refused to let them overflow. Instead, he took a long breath of fresh rain mixed with the exhaust of cars speeding through the tunnel.

When the big black Mercedes had entered its skid that horrible night, his last living link to Deborah had been taken from him. Diana and Deborah, West Heath girls, friends forever. Deborah had been dead since 1994, but he had lost her long before she had become his wife just two years after Diana had married the Prince of Wales in 1981. How many nights had he spent talking to Diana about his marriage, about her marriage, about his guilt over Deborah, and about the impossibility of being in love? Too many to count. He ached to tell her now how empty his life had become without either of them.

He stared down the long, gray tunnel, wondering as always, what she had felt as she had slipped away from everyone who loved her. Had she struggled against it, as Deborah had? Or had her torn and broken heart quietly accepted its fate? No, he doubted that. She’d have fought to stay with her boys. Diana hadn’t gone into death quietly. That January, she’d had a warning of what was coming. She’d recorded a video tape naming her assassins and had given it to someone in America for safekeeping. But she would never tell him who it was. Too dangerous, she always insisted. If you had it, they’d come after you, too. Leave it alone, Nicholas. The tape is safer out of England.

His phone abruptly interrupted with a text message from his assistant. He was late for a meeting of the Burnham Trust at the Trust’s Paris headquarters, and everyone was waiting. Well, they could wait. All day and all night if he wanted. He was the Eighteenth Duke of Burnham and the second richest man in England after the Duke of Westminster, and he’d be late if he decided to be. He hadn’t wanted to be a duke, but having been forced into the job, he was going to enjoy every possible perk.

As soon as the news of Diana’s death had reached him, he’d vowed to find her tape and make it public. No luck for the last thirteen years, but his latest operative had just come up with a stellar lead at last. It was so stellar that not only was he pretty sure he was going to find the tape, he was also going to have the opportunity to unload the decaying family seat in Kent and exact his well-deserved revenge upon his father, the Seventeenth Duke.

Hever Castle as the Model for fictional Burnham Abbey

Tunnel, Place d”Alma, Paris

Diana’s Funeral

West Heath School for Girls

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