Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Christmas Carol, and a Minor Christmas Miracle to Boot

Before I get started and tell you about the special way I spent this past Sunday, the second Sunday of Advent, I wanted to take care of a bit of business.  I haven't blogged in almost two weeks, and in my last post I announced that I'm running a giveaway here.  I got a few comments on that post, and I just got around to replying to those yesterday (sorry for the delay!).

If you didn't see that original post about the contest, I wanted to say again that I am giving away one copy of Finding Grace and one copy of Erin's Ring, two Catholic novels with appeal for readers young and old (I hope!), to be mailed out in time for Christmas gift-giving.  If you want more information on these books, you can click on their cover images, over there on the sidebar, and it will take you to their Amazon pages.  I will be choosing a winner at midnight on the 15th, so leave me a comment if you're interested in having your name thrown into the hat.  Let me know which title interests you more, and you'll be entered to win it.

I've been at this blogging business a long time now, since March of 2011.  I was already four years into writing Finding Grace when my first daughter-in-law Regina (wife of son number one) mentioned that I might enjoy being a blogger.  I hardly knew what a blog even was back then; I had only read Pioneer Woman's--and I'd only found hers because I'd seen a link to it at the end of an article in Redbook or Good Housekeeping or some such women's magazine.  (Does anyone even get subscriptions to those anymore, or is online reading the only way to go?)  Apparently, though, there was already a thriving Catholic blogging community out there--who knew?  So I tentatively dipped my toes into the blogging pool, and bam!  It was pretty much love at first sight.  Or first word.  Or whatever.  During those first few years, there was a new post up here at String of Pearls pretty much daily.  A day without blogging was like a day without sunshine.  (Or coffee!)  

Little did I know how much starting a blog would change my life.   It's hard to even describe how many blessings blogging has given me over the years.  I have come in contact with so many wonderful people, most of whom I may never meet in person, but who feel like true friends nonetheless.  It's like having a whole list of endearingly familiar pen pals: people you come to really care about; people who pray for you and your family when they know you're in need, and you pray for them right back.  It's the most amazing thing.

One of these special people I'd met through blogging is a young girl named Sarah who was still a student back when we first started corresponding via the comboxes on each other's sites.  I was impressed by what a sweet person she seemed to be: a hard-working, deep-thinking, devout Catholic pre-school teacher, writer, and maker of cord Rosaries.  In fact, I have ordered numerous Rosaries from her, for my grandkids and for my husband and myself.  He always carries his Notre Dame blue-and-gold one with him in his pocket, and I carry my Irish-green one in my purse.  (We had them with us on Sunday, and I think Sarah was touched to see that her Rosary-making ministry has had a big impact on the Pearl family.  But I'm getting ahead of myself here.)

Sarah very generously read and reviewed Finding Grace about five years ago (you can read that review here).  In the years since, this young woman graduated from college, embarked on her teaching career, and got so busy with other projects that she gave up blogging.  But we still keep in touch sporadically.  I'm old enough to be her mother (she is actually about the same age as the youngest of my five sons), but I consider her a friend.

I knew Sarah lived somewhere in Northern VA, and she knew that we'd made the move to the area not too long ago.  Well, out of the blue she emailed me a couple of weeks ago to let me know that she was playing the violin in a community theater production of A Christmas Carol, opening on Dec. 7, and she wondered if now that I'm a local, I might like to come to one of the shows.  It was playing in a community center just a little over an hour from where we live, and this past Sunday my husband and I had the opportunity to attend a matinee of the performance.

What a delight it was!  (If you live in NOVA, you might want to check out this creative take on the Dickens classic: set in the Depression era with accompanying Bluegrass music, it's a play within a play--and the cast is terrific!  The show will be playing again this weekend, Dec. 15 and 16--get your tickets now!)

My sweet and talented young friend, with the playwright who wrote this particular adaptation of  A Christmas Carol.
The thing that was so cute and sweet was that when the cast had taken their bows at the end of the show and started to come out to talk to audience members, Sarah made a bee-line right over to us.  After all those years of blog friendship, she had no trouble finding me.  
See those fingers of mine on the left?  I kept patting her shoulder in a motherly (grandmotherly?) fashion while my husband snapped our photo.  And I was nervous and excited, so I might have babbled a bit...

But the most wonderful thing about meeting Sarah IRL (as they say) is that I truly did feel like she was just the person I already "knew" through her writing.  We were not strangers at all.

I can only speak for myself, though.  I hope she got the same feeling when she met me.

I'm considering having the opportunity to meet Sarah a minor Christmas miracle; not as big a miracle as Scrooge's conversion in the play, of course--and surely not of the magnitude of the miracle that is the Reason for the Season!!  All right, maybe it wasn't quite a miracle; but it was certainly a gift.

God bless us, everyone!

Friday, November 30, 2018

Office Space (Just What a Writer Always Wanted!); and a CHRISTMAS GIVEAWAY!!

Once upon a time, when I was writing novels, I would have given my eye teeth to have an office space to work in like the one I have now.  That is one HUGE plus of our new house in VA, where we moved in March of 2017 in order to be closer to our grown and married sons and their families.  We did downsize considerably when we moved here; but one thing our old house didn't have was an office.  Oh, initially we did carve out office space in our basement, which was mostly finished off thanks to the DIY skills of my hard-working husband.  But after our boys got older and outgrew the desire to hang out together down there, playing with their toys and video games, heading down to the basement to write or do filing or paperwork felt like being banished to the dungeon.
I eventually fashioned an office space for my husband, behind the couch in the family room, where he could keep up with the family finances without getting a bad case of FOMO.  I did write most of Finding Grace down in the basement, because I was using an ancient (and finicky!) tabletop computer for the first few years I was writing it, and that old girl couldn't be moved to another room.  But after my husband saw that I really was going to do it--I was going to finish that novel!--he got me my first laptop.  And so by the time I was writing Erin's Ring, I either worked at the dining room table or went off to Barnes and Noble for the afternoon, where I ordered one Starbucks coffee (and maybe a pastry to go with it!) and sat at a little table in the café area, happily pounding the keys of my laptop until my battery started to run out.

In our new house, one of the four bedrooms upstairs had been used as an office by the previous owners.  Since we no longer have any boys living under our roof with us, and that means every bedroom other than the master is now a guest room, we decided to follow the previous owners'  lead and continue to use the fourth bedroom as an office.
His work area.

And hers.

More hers.

Full disclosure, dear readers: those photos were snapped shortly after we moved in and set up the room.  Almost two years later, the office has seen a few changes.  (And it is much messier than it was back then, especially on my hubby's side.  Wink, wink.)
I love that our grandchildren's artwork now decorates my side of the office.

My desk is crowded and messy...but I don't dare show you his!

I cannot tell you how absolutely wonderful it is to have a place where my husband and I can both work so efficiently.  We each have our own desk, our own printer, and we sit in matching faux leather rolling office chairs.  We have two filing cabinets and plenty of storage and shelving.  It is everything I ever wanted in an office, and as I said, it makes it so that in some ways, we are better set up than we've ever been--even though we loved our big Colonial in NH, where we spent 26 of the best years of our lives.

It's almost too bad that I don't really write anymore, now that I have a great place to do it.  I don't even blog as much as I used to.  (See above: we live near a small army of Pearl grandchildren now...and time spent with them and their parents trumps time spent at my laptop!)  I'm so happy that before life became too hectic to do it, I fulfilled that long-held childhood dream of becoming an author, of writing just one novel that might make some infinitesimal difference in the life of even one reader.

Well...Hopefully, that has already happened.  Because I recently was given the rather discouraging news that because Finding Grace has not sold well enough in the six years it has been in print, after the end of 2018 it will no longer be available to the public in the paperback version.  It will still be available as a Kindle download, however.  Erin's Ring has not exactly sold like hot cakes either (my husband, who makes me laugh every day, jokes that it's more like "lukewarm cakes").  For the coming year 2019, it will still be available in paperback from Amazon.  But after that...I'm not sure.  It was never formatted into a Kindle book, and unless my husband and I decide it's worth investing whatever it takes to have that done, it will probably not be available at all.

In our correspondence over the years, my publisher (Cheryl Dickow of Bezalel Books) often comments that although I have been blessed in so many ways, having my books be financially successful just isn't one of them.  But I do believe that there is a reason for everything: I fully believe that I was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write my first novel; and I also believe that it was not meant to be a best-seller, but had some other purpose (which I may never know in this life).  So I am a bit sad that the paperback version of Finding Grace will no longer be available for sale on Amazon; I much prefer it, personally, because I use a lot of dashes in my writing and they look the same as hyphens in the electronic version of the book, and I worry that it's confusing to the reader.  But at least it will live on in Kindle.

I vacillate between not even believing that anything I've ever written is of any real worth or that I am even a real writer at all (instead of just "sort of" a writer), and hoping beyond hope that my books will find their way into as many hands as possible--particularly the hands of young adult readers whose lives might be changed, even in some small way, by these Catholic works of fiction. I trust that God knows what he's doing, and if Finding Grace  and Erin's Ring are meant to go the way of the dinosaurs, there is a very good reason for that.  But I have to admit that in my heart of hearts, I'd love to see those books available for my grandchildren's children.

In the meantime, I have plenty of copies in the office to share with my family.
And you know what?  I think in the spirit of Christmas giving, I'd like to give away one copy of each novel between now and Dec. 15. 

Leave me a comment by Dec. 15 and tell me which one you'd like to win and whom you'd like to give it to, and I'll toss all of your names into a hat (one for each book) and choose two winners randomly.  I will mail the prizes out to the winners the next day, and hopefully they will arrive in time for Christmas gift-giving.

I think I'll head on over to Instagram and post the contest there as well.  Thanks so much for stopping by here--and maybe I'll see you over there?

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

ABC Book Update: An Homage to Two Mothers

I have been working rather feverishly lately, trying to finish up the ABC Book project started long, long ago--back in 1993, when the youngest of my five boys had just recently joined our family.

This is what he looks like now.
That "Motherboy" selfie was taken a few weeks ago, when we met up with him at Notre Dame to watch them beat Florida State, giving the Irish 10 straight wins (and to my two daughters-in-law who went to FSU: sorry-not-sorry!).

As you can see, the boy for whom I started an ABC picture book in 1993 is a little too old for it now.  He's a tall, fair, and handsome 25-year-old Army LT who just returned from a 3-year stint in Germany.  Not a baby anymore.

But there are a lot of other babies and wee children on Team Pearl these days, so a few years ago I picked up where I left off and decided to finally finish what I'd started for him.

If you've been coming here lately, you know that along with all the original artwork I've done, I've been re-purposing old artwork (cleverly sneaking it into the rhymes whenever possible!), with a two-fold purpose: to preserve it for my kids--who will never hang these pieces up in their homes, but still might like to have them--and to save valuable time!

Once upon a time, I painted acrylic portraits of both my mom and my husband's when they were little girls, and I gave these framed canvases to them as gifts.  When my mother-in-law died in 2009, her painting came back to me.  And when my mother sold her house and most of her belongings and moved in with my baby sister a year ago, her painting came back to me as well.

These two canvases now hang in the "potty room" in our master bathroom.  (I don't know what else to call it!  It's a special little room, with a door, where you can get some privacy when Mother Nature calls.  Someday I've got to give you a tour of this bathroom, which is so roomy and well-appointed it's almost embarrassing!)

Here is the artwork my husband and I can study while we're in that tiny room, doing...whatever.

I have completed the pages for the letters V and W, and at the same time honored both my husband's late mother and my mom in the process by incorporating those two paintings.

Each letter has two pages of illustrations.  Here is second of the V pages, featuring my husband's dear mother.

And here is first of the W pages, featuring mine.

I do sometimes worry that there isn't enough unity of style in this book: some of the illustrations are relatively muted colored-pencil drawings, while others are vibrantly-hued acrylic paintings.  But then I remind myself that it's really just a gift from a Grammy to her grandchildren.  And in some ways, the fact that there is a lot of history in it might make it an even better keepsake for them.

I recently completed and scanned the N and W pages, so I'll be sharing those soon.  Now I'm down to 6 pages of illustrations left to complete, and one of those is about half-finished already--so really 5 and 1/2.  I can see the light, as I emerge from the tunnel after 25 years!  And I am so excited!

Feeling thankful, readers!  And I hope you have a blessed and happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Dusting Off the Blog

When I first started blogging in the spring of 2011, I could hardly wait to sit at my laptop every day to write about favorite family memories, or about what was going on in our household at the time, or just to do a bit of mindless navel gazing.  It was a joy to me to exercise my writing muscles on a daily basis.

For a good number of years, those muscles were in pretty good shape.  Now...well, they might not have atrophied completely, but if I don't start using them more often, they will.

If you come here much, you know that the Pearl family has been growing by leaps and bounds in the last few years.  When I started this blog, I had only one married son and his wife was a few months away from giving birth to twin daughters.  Since then, 3 more daughters-in-law have joined the family, and the grandchild count currently stands at 14 (with the addition of a new grandson just last month).

I have had so many great topics to explore here--so, so many--but ever since we moved down to VA so that we could see our kids and grandkids on a regular basis, it seems like I've been too busy living life to write about it.  I mean, here are some of the things I've wanted to write about, from the deep and serious to the frivolous and mundane:

1. My dad's amazing last week on earth and his beautiful passing into eternal life, about which I have not been able to write in full (and the second anniversary of his death is fast approaching)

2. My mother's trials since losing her husband of 60 years, her frightening health decline, and the astounding (practically miraculous) way she has bounced back recently

3. My saintly baby sister and her husband, who lovingly took my mom into their home a year ago and are more responsible for the improvements in her health than any of the medical procedures she's had done 

4. Pearl family birthdays and anniversaries (there have been many which I have not gotten around to documenting)

5. The births of new Pearl grandbabies (we got a new grandson in June, named after my husband's dad, and another one in October, named after my husband!)

6. Family parties (including a fun shower I hosted for my daughter-in-law when she was about to have a boy after 4 girls in a row--and which I thought was practically Pinterest-worthy, but I might have been giving myself too much credit!)

7. Notre Dame football weekends this fall, with our boys

8. More installments of the house tour, wherein I show you some of the rooms of our new house in VA (which I am slowly but surely starting to consider HOME, after leaving a beloved Colonial on a quiet street in NH, where we'd lived for 26 years, about a year-and-a-half ago)

Those are just a few of the things I imagine blogging about...and then before I know it, it's time for a bone-tired Grammy to go to bed and another day has passed without a new blog post.

Sometimes, I really do wonder if the whole blogging phenomenon is about to die off and go the way of VHS tapes (and even DVD's).  I mean really, who needs those anymore, now that there are new-fangled smart TV's that allow you to stream just about anything you want to watch?  And who wants to bother to visit a blog, when so many former bloggers are on Instagram, offering much-easier-to-digest posts that don't take quite as much time out of our busy lives as a full-length blog post does?

For whatever reason, however, I'm not quite ready to leave the blogosphere, a place where I've "met" so many amazing people who seem like friends.  I've been blessed in countless ways since I set up shop here in 2011.  So instead of giving up, I think I'll just dust this blog off and spruce it up a bit, and maybe find the mojo to keep at it.

I'm not sure if I'm ready to give my site a whole new look (even though I've heard that it's best to have a mostly white background...and mine is, as you can see, very GREEN).  But there are a few improvements I can make.  After my most recent book club post, which was all about writing, I got to thinking that perhaps it was time to update my "author photo."  The one I've been using for a long time now--here at the blog, on Goodreads, on my Amazon author's page, etc.--is one that my husband took of me back in 2012, shortly after the publication of my first novel, Finding Grace.  We thought I should be sitting at my laptop, with my trusty cup of coffee at my side, looking very "writerly."  So, this was the pose I assumed.
That picture was taken 6 years (and at least as many pounds) ago.  I was only 54, and I'm not that young anymore.  (It's amazing how when you turn 60, 54 seems young to you!)

Also, I have a smaller laptop now and bigger glasses.  I have 14 grandchildren and back then I just had 2.  And I no longer live in NH, where the photo was taken, so I no longer have that spacious dining room with the red walls and outdated-but-I-still-love-it wallpaper border.

On Halloween, 11 of our 14 grandkids and their parents came over to go Trick-or-Treating in our new VA neighborhood (which is just about the most perfect neighborhood for that activity I have ever seen: it's flat and well-lit, with hundreds of houses situated very close together, wide sidewalks, and minimal outside traffic).
A cute pair of Trolls: G-Man as Branch and Princesa as Princess Poppy 
(these are the two oldest children of son #3 and his wife Preciosa).

Pumpkin as the Cowardly Lion, Paquita as Dorothy, and Peanut as the Scarecrow, along with 
the parents of those adorable triplets--son #4 as the Tin Man and his wife Braveheart 
as the Wicked Witch.

Before they got here in their killer costumes, I wanted to test out the expensive digital camera my husband gave me as a gift years ago.  I'd lost the battery charger for it, and for ages now I've just been snapping photos using my cell phone.  I'd finally gotten it up and running again, and I wanted to see how pictures turned out using the "smart portrait" mode.  So I took this picture of my favorite guy while he had a "Why are you doing this?" look on his face.

And I took this selfie.
Those are the new (kind of ridiculously large!) glasses.  Those are the stairs of the new VA house.  I like that you can see my Miraculous Medal, and that along with my orange and black Halloween ensemble, you can see part of the white apron I was wearing while I made the mac and cheese for the grandkids who would be arriving soon--and then never got around to taking off.  This is real life, folks; I have an apron tied around my waist about 75% of the time.  One of my boys insists that I even wear it when I sleep, but that's pure exaggeration.

Okay, maybe not.  Here is a photo of my apron collection.

And that doesn't include my newest apron, this buffalo plaid flannel number that I was wearing when I took the picture of the others!

I have gotten so used to the old picture up there at the top, which I associate with anything having to do with my writing activities.  And I really love the Irish-green color of the sweater I'm wearing in it.  But I feel like it's not really "me" anymore.

So what say you?  Should I use the selfie-on-the-stairs pic here at the blog--or perhaps get my husband to take an updated one for me?  Or should I just leave well enough alone and be forever 54?  Should I change my blog's background, get rid of the green?  Your thoughts?  (I realize your thoughts might be something along the lines of, "I don't care!"  But you guys are so nice, you probably won't say that!)

Dust blog: check.  Stretch blogging muscles: check.  Let's see if I can keep this streak going!

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Grace-filled Tuesdays (Book Club "Meeting" #35): Austen, Writing Fiction, Etc.

I was looking through some old saved documents on my computer yesterday, and I came across something I'd forgotten I'd even written.  I believe it was the beginning of a presentation I was going to give to the Daughters of the American Revolution at a meeting in Dover, NH, in October of 2015, when I was going to be their guest speaker and receive that year's "Women in Arts Recognition Award (for Contributions in the Field of Literature)" from the local chapter of the DAR.  I was nervous about speaking in front of a crowd, and I thought maybe I should have a speech prepared and try to memorize it (but also have a printed version there in front of me to fall back on).

I never finished writing it; I remember now that I told my husband I had decided not to go in with anything prepared, because the few times I'd spoken to young readers at schools, they seemed to like the Q and A format best.  And when answering particular questions, having a sort of "conversation," I felt the most at ease.

So imagine my panicky feelings when the woman who introduced me began by saying, "Here to speak to us today..."  Oh, no.  I fought through my nerves, wishing after all that I'd brought a typed-up speech to present; but somehow I got through it.  Most of the listeners were older women, but there were a few young granddaughters of the Daughters there, who were delighted to have their books signed afterward and were just delightful in general.
Anyway, yesterday when I stumbled upon that partially written speech, I thought, "Hey, I see a blog post brewing!"  So I decided to tweak it a bit, and since this is Tuesday--and that's Book Club day--I thought I'd share it here at the blog.

Jane Austen is a 19th-Century novelist whom I greatly admire.

She once observed that "the best authors have often been the worst talkers."  And I'm not trying to imply that I count myself among the "best authors"--not by a long shot!--but I do believe that I express myself much better on paper than I do in person.  So forgive me if I stumble a bit up here.  I'm a little nervous talking to you all--I'd do better writing you letters!  [See how I was preparing them for having to listen to a sub-par speaker?  Classic me!]

Okay, let's get down to it, shall we?  How does one go about writing fiction?

In his biography Becoming Jane Austen, Jon Spence wrote this of the famous author: "Jane wrote her early pieces for the amusement of her family and friends, and she put in shared jokes, teasing jibes, and allusions to real events in their lives."

In my case, this did not happen as much with Erin's Ring as it did with my first novel, Finding Grace; but in Erin's Ring,  for instance, I just HAD to have a reference to dinosaurs, because all five of my sons were completely obsessed with them growing up.  But I wasn't sure I could use that term in 1870, when I wanted Michael Kennedy to use it while he's talking to Erin Finnegan at the Halloween dance, on pages 170-171.  So I looked it up and was thrilled to find out that in 1842, biologist Richard Owen had given that name to the pre-historic creatures whose bones he'd been studying in England.  So I could use it, and it would be historically accurate.  (And that reference  to dinosaurs--that was totally for my boys.  Like a secret shout-out.)

Also, because of those five sons whom I adore, I knew from the get-go that in Finding Grace, title character Grace Kelly had to have five older brothers (who are loosely modeled after my boys, of course).  In Erin's Ring, Molly McCormick has four brothers and a sister, but her mother is pregnant with a 7th child and in my head, I've decided it will be a boy.  Because I think any work of fiction I ever write will have to include a household with five brothers in it.  (Brothers who are handsome, intelligent, kind, faith-filled--and who treat their mother like a queen!)
[Pause here for raucous laughter of the crowd!  Ha!]

In Becoming Jane Austen, Spence also wrote: "Austen is never autobiographical in the crude sense of recording what happened to her or to people she knew.  But a real situation was sometimes her starting point and developed in her imagination as something quite separate from the 'real.'"

That is definitely the way I went about writing my first novel, Finding Grace.  So much of the story is reminiscent of my own experiences growing up: the Catholic school I attended; the house where I lived in Plattsburgh, NY and the houses by the lake where my best friend and my boyfriend (now husband) lived; the kids who were my girlhood classmates and friends; but even people and places that were initially inspired by my real life took on a whole new life of their own through the writing process.  I recently read a book by a modern novelist whom I also admire, Elizabeth Berg [who writes popular, mainstream works of fiction that actually feature positive Catholic characters and families--huzzah to that!!], and she alluded to this very thing.  In an answer to an interview question at the end of The Art of Mending, she says, "The truth is, writing fiction is for me a magical and largely uncontrollable act: the characters create themselves, as does the story."  Before I wrote a novel, I would have said that that statement was just a load of artsy nonsense, because books don't write themselves; after, however, I knew for a fact that it was absolutely true--at least it was for me.  I thought I knew where both of my novels were going at the outset, but they changed course on me (and the characters did and said things I hadn't planned on them doing and saying) as the story progressed.

Austen called Pride and Prejudice "my own darling child," and it's true--when you're an author, your books are your "babies."  You become very attached to the characters you create, and then you sort of miss those people when you finish writing the book.  And you are like a worried mom when one of your precious babies goes out into the world alone, without you, and is now open to criticism and judgment.  There are some people who will not like your baby at all, and that makes an author feel unspeakably vulnerable.  I'll tell you what, I had stomach cramps for about two weeks at the end of the summer of 2012, when Finding Grace went to print.  During most of the close to five years I had worked on it, it was my happy little secret, shared only with my nearest and dearest; I kind of wanted to keep it close to me forever--the way a mom feels when she gives birth to a new baby and can hardly fathom that this child will one day grow up and leave her.  You would think that seeing a book make it to publication would be thrilling for an author, but it's actually pretty terrifying.

Anyway, I read once that a niece of Austen's who wanted to become an writer, too, asked her what advice she could give.  And the esteemed author told her, "Read, read, read!"  So--if any of you think that one day, you might like to be a writer, the best thing you can do now is to read as many works as you can, by people who are good at expressing themselves with the written word.  Reading good writing will help you to become a better writer yourself.

Reading this essay over again, I'm wondering if this was actually something I was working on in preparation for one of the school visits I did (the invitations came from two sweet relatives of mine who taught at the middle school level--a niece and a sister-in-law).  That ending part seems more like something I would say to young people who might be aspiring writers than to a group of DAR ladies.  Especially since I think the Daughters' focus was Erin's Ring, which was filled with historical information about the town of Dover.  If I'd been writing something to say to them, I think I would have focused specifically on the process of incorporating that fascinating local history into the novel.  Either way, it makes a pretty good book club blog post, don't you agree?

Well, I guess I should wrap up the meeting now.  I'm not even sure I should continue to host this online club, because it's not as if my humble little books have been read by too many people.  I have a rather large collection of copies of both novels in my office right now, because I stocked up on them for a holiday craft fair at our church last December and sold only a few copies.
There are lots more in boxes...
I would be happy to sell signed copies through the blog, for the same price as Amazon sells them--but without the shipping costs.  Email me if you're interested.  But please, dear readers, do not feel like this post has been one big commercial, trying to get you to buy something!  I just thought I'd offer that.

Okay, before I go, here's today's discussion question: do you prefer Jane Austen-style 19th-century fiction, or are you more interested in the offerings of modern-day novelists?

Thanks for stopping by.  Now get your nose back in a good book where it belongs!  (Sorry.  Bookworm humor.)

Monday, October 22, 2018

#postcardsformacron--and Happy Birthday to The Boy Who First Made Me a Mother

I'm sure that unless you live completely off the grid, you've heard what French president Emmanuel Macron said not too long ago during a speech at a Gates Foundation event: "Present me the woman who decided, being perfectly educated, to have seven, eight, or nine children."  As you can imagine, this misguided comment unleashed a firestorm on the Internet (from those whom I consider to be the true feminists among us: women who strive as much as humanly possible to follow the example of Our Blessed Mother, the role model for feminine perfection).

"Educated women would never choose to have big families?!  What?!  Oh no, he did NOT just say that!" cried scores of educated women who work both inside and outside the home and who also happen to be loving mothers to large numbers of children.  It is so wonderful to see so many 21st-century women embracing the gift of their fertility and being open to having the number of children God meant for them to have, whatever that number might be. These women are modern-day heroes, if you ask me.  They are counter-cultural (which is exactly what one has always needed to be in order to follow Christ).

Catholic University professor and mother of six Catherine Pakaluk was the first to post a picture of herself with her children on Twitter using the hashtag #postcardsformacron.  Pakuluk, who has a BA from the Univ. of Pennsylvania and both a Master's and a PhD from Harvard, urged on her fellow mothers by saying, "Let's flood Macron with beautiful postcards from educated women with large families born from their own loving choice."

Since then, I have been reading the most beautiful testimonies, mostly on Instagram (my favorite social media platform these days), written by women who are both well-educated and mothers to many.  Some are stay-at-home moms who homeschool; others balance careers outside the home with caring for their large families; many of them are Catholic bloggers and Instagram celebs whom I follow regularly, but this hashtag campaign has introduced me to some new people as well.  Some of these postcards are so beautifully worded, they bring tears to my eyes.  I'm sure you 've seen them, too, but I thought I'd share just a few of them here.

Here's Kendra Tierney's postcard (don't you just love her?  She is an incredibly inspiring Renaissance woman and mother of nine).  And here's one from lovely artist/homeschooler/blogger Carolyn Svellinger (I feel a kinship with her, as she is a fellow mom of five boys--although she's very young and I suppose that means there might be more babies in her future).  And here's another short-and-sweet message for Macron from Jessica Thornton (a mother of six gorgeous offspring whose Housewifespice blog used to host one of my favorite link-ups, What We're Reading Wednesday).  And here's just one more, from blogger (Sole Searching Mama) and fellow mother of all boys (seven!), Susan Husband. This is my favorite part of her post: "I am defined by the reality that I am a woman of God, and it is for His glory and by His grace that I am both educated and blessed to accept the calling to raise 7 young boys into men."

Yes, exactly!  Substitute a 5 for the 7, and Susan expresses just how I feel about my vocation, but she does it so much more eloquently than I ever could.  There are many more phenomenal #postcardsformacron, too many to post here.  But check out that hashtag if you haven't yet, and you are sure to be touched and inspired.

Until today, I hesitated to add my two cents to the collection of postcards I've been reading, written with keen insight by well-known women with lovable personalities, deep faith, superior intelligence, enviable wisdom, sharp humor, admirable holiness (and the list of accolades goes on and on).  What could I possibly contribute that hasn't been said (and said better) already by these fine ladies?  And besides, Macron singled out mothers of "seven, eight, or nine," and I have "only" five children. When our boys were in grade school and high school, that was a fairly large number in our neck of the woods, even within our local Catholic school community; we knew very few families that had more children than we did.  On our street in NH, one or two was the norm.  But within the Catholic blogosphere/Instagram world today, it is not uncommon to see families of seven or more.  Indeed, it seems like every other week, there is yet another joyful pregnancy announcement.  As a mother of five, I feel a bit like a slacker!

But it's not about the number.  It's about being open to life, to building a domestic church within your home.  It's about knowing that a woman can be many things and do many things and also be a mother.  It's about accepting the reality that motherhood is a vocation for which God has endowed the female of the species with unique qualities--physical, spiritual, and emotional--that make her perfectly suited for the job.  It's about understanding that fertility is not a curse, but an amazing gift that should never be taken for granted.  It's about knowing that having the ability to assist God in the creation of new life is a miracle--how humbling that He would even give us any role at all in the process!

So I'm adding my two cents, via Instagram, after all.  I'm a little late to the party, but that's okay.

The reason I felt emboldened to write my postcard for Macron today is that on this date 35 years ago, I first became a mother.

That teeny tiny one-week-old baby in those pictures is now 10 years older than I was when he was born.  How did that happen?!?!  (I've got news for you, young mamas: it does happen!)

I was 25 (which seems impossibly young to me now!), bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with dreams of what our family life would be like.  And then this 7 lb.-1 oz., scrawny-legged little boy came into the world after a difficult labor, with the sweet face of a porcelain doll and downy strawberry-blond hair sticking up all over his head, and I fell totally, completely, madly in love.  I had been head-over-hells in love with his daddy since we started dating (when we were both 15) and I thought I knew what gut-wrenching, soul-sucking love felt like; but this was different.  Oh yes, this sort of love was a whole other ball of wax.  Right away, I imagined the speeding trains that I would jump in front of to protect this tiny human, the bullets I would take.  When he got jaundiced and they took him from me to keep him under the UV lights in the hospital nursery, the separation was so painful I felt as if there were a thousand knives slicing through my heart.  That boy came into the world and taught me what it means to be a mother, to know a love that is bottomless and selfless and pure.  There is no greater love--except, of course, for the love Our Father in Heaven has for each of us.

Here I am with my first baby boy in a recent picture.  We've both changed quite a bit since 1983!
I have written two novels, fulfilling a childhood dream of becoming an author. I have seen those books--incredibly!--go to print.  But when I think of who I am and how I define myself in the world, the title of writer is well down the list.  I am first of all a wife and a mother.  (Now a Grammy, too--and what a joy that is!)  On my deathbed, if someone asks me, "What did you do with your life, what was important to you?", my answer will be simply this: "I was a mother."

So thank you, son number one, for giving me the role of a lifetime 35 years ago.  And thank you to your four younger brothers, who taught me just how much the human heart can expand with the birth of each new baby, to the point that you would think it would burst at the seams, yet somehow it doesn't.  I love you all so much, you simply have no idea...

No; actually, that's no longer true--at least for the four oldest of you, who are fathers now.  You know now.  You truly know, finally, the depth of the love your mother has for you.

Friday, October 19, 2018

7 QT: Refinishing Bigfoot's Chair

I thought I'd join the 7 Quick Takes link-up today, because I don't have time to write anything lengthy these days but here I can be quick!  Also, it's fun to attend a "get-together" (in a virtual reality sense, anyway) with other gals in the Catholic blogosphere whom I admire and whose writing I enjoy.

The link-up, as you probably already know, is hosted by Kelly Mantoan, of This Ain't the Lyceum fame.  (Kelly recently signed a book deal with Our Sunday Visitor.  Congratulations, Kelly!)

Okay then, here we go: I'm going to tell you a tale about a dining room chair that was once owned by Bigfoot.  That sounds like a tall tale, I realize, but I assure you it's absolutely true!  That is the nickname by which my dad was known, and what all of his grandchildren called him.

When I was in junior high, my mom found a treasure at an estate sale: an enormous antique oak dining room table with 10 matching chairs, and if I remember correctly, she got it for about $200.  She refinished the top of the table, but as a busy working mother of 5, she never got around to refinishing the chairs. Despite that, it was a beautiful set--solidly built, with exquisite carved details, packed with history.

This dining room set was used for many a family holiday dinner when I was growing up, such as this Thanksgiving (circa 1973 or 1974, when I was 15 or 16).  This is my dad, affectionately known as Bigfoot, toasting with his eldest daughter.  Dad is sitting in the only chair with arm rests, the only one big enough for a giant of a man such as himself (he was over 6'3" with size 13 feet).

When my parents downsized to a condo a number of years after that photo was taken, their tiny dining room could not accommodate such a large dining room table.  By then, I had 4 children (which was more than any of my siblings at that time) and a new house with a huge dining room, so Mom decided that the set should go to me.  (Woo hoo!  Just one of the many perks of having a big-ish family!)  I got the table, 9 chairs, and a matching sideboard.  The only piece of the set that I didn't get was Dad's man-sized arm chair.  He just couldn't part with it.

For the 26 years we lived in our NH house, this dining room set had a perfect home in a space so oversized that there was plenty of room to spare.  I eventually refinished the 7 chairs that still had their cane seats intact--which was perfect because we eventually had a 5th son, so there were enough chairs for all 7 members of our family.

When we moved to VA and experienced a downsizing of our own, however, I was worried that I wouldn't have room for my parents' dining room set.

But I made room!  It's a little more crowded than it used to be, but I think it works.

My dad, God rest his soul, died almost two years ago, and when my mom sold their house about a year later, she took what she wanted for the assisted living room that would become her new home and encouraged her kids to take whatever they thought they might use (before the rest was sold in a giant garage sale).  Everyone agreed that I should take Dad's chair, because it belonged with the dining room set.  So I did.

Dad's chair has been sitting in the basement ever since we moved to VA, because I have been too busy to deal with refinishing it.  Well, yesterday I decided that it was time to get it spruced up so that it will be ready to use at our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners this year.  It will become my husband's head-of-the-table seat, just like it was Bigfoot's.

To refinish an aged beauty like this, I find that stripping the piece with Formby's antique furniture refinisher and then rubbing Formby's tung oil into it afterward gives the best results.

I actually love doing this.  I find it so satisfying to see the old varnish melt off to reveal the beautiful grains of the wood underneath.

This before-and-after comparison shows how dark and dingy the wood looks before Formby's works its magic.  What a difference!

Here is what Bigfoot's chair looked like, after I'd stripped off the old finish but before I'd rubbed in the tung oil to give it a protective glow.  It is so much more beautiful now!  It still has imperfections in it, like any piece of furniture that has been around this long; but what an improvement from the first picture up there, taken before I started the refinishing process.

The after picture!
Bigfoot's chair now has a home in our VA family room, providing extra seating in there when our large and ever-growing brood comes to visit.  And it can be easily brought into the dining room when needed for special meals with our kids and grandkids.

I am so grateful to have this piece of my family's history--and a reminder of my dear dad--in my home.  I'll be toasting Bigfoot this Thanksgiving...with fond memories of the guy with the 70's sideburns and the full head of brown hair, who used to call me his "Ickle Aurie-Do" (which translated means "Little Laura-Do").

They weren't that Quick after all, but those are my Takes.  Now head on over to Kelly's for more!