Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Happy Birthday to Son #2

It's a two-fer today!!  Yes, we already had a "meeting" of the Grace-filled Tuesdays Book Club this morning  here at the blog, but I'm back again (even though lately, I can hardly get myself to produce two blog posts in one week, let alone one day).  Because this Tuesday, there are more important people to celebrate than fictional characters in a novel. 

On this red letter day, 31 years ago, I gave birth to my second son.

There are not enough words to express how infinitely improved and enriched my life has been because he's been in it.  From the time he was very small, he had the gift of reading the feelings of those about him and having empathy for others, when often so many of those subtle vibes go over the heads of spirited little boys careening through rooms like speeding cars or flying superheros.  Although he was just as rough and tumble as any little fella, he also was--and is to this day--so very in tune with what's going on in the hearts and minds of those around him.  (Here's a tidbit that could have been added to today's book club post: the character of J.D. Kelly, one of Grace's older brothers, was very much inspired by this particular son.)

I know these traits have made him a wonderful son.  They also make him a wonderful high school teacher.  And now a wonderful husband and father.  I love him so much that when I think about him, I feel as if my heart will burst.

He's a new daddy now, with a son of his own; and my dearest hope for Junior is that he grows up to be as fine a man as the one he was named after.
Sr. and Jr., rocking the same sailor suit--31 years apart!

Happy Birthday, to the son who is my favorite on this date! 
He gives the best bear hugs!
I think we're practically twins.
Love you to the moon and back.

Grace-filled Tuesdays (Book Club "Meeting" #14): First of a Four-Part Series

Back in 2013, long before I decided to start an on-line book club, I wrote a four-part series called "When Real Life and Fiction Intersect," wherein I discussed different aspects of my first novel, Finding Grace.  Since it's Fat Tuesday today, and I plan to spend most of my free time preparing a special dinner feast for my husband and myself, I thought I'd resort to re-posting the first segment of that series today.

(Originally posted in July of 2013, about a year after Finding Grace was published.)

An author e-friend of mine named Amy M. Bennett* (who was kind enough to leave an endorsement of Finding Grace on my Amazon page) recently posted the above quote on her Facebook page, and I just had to share it here.  It's so true! Although there can't help but be some autobiographical elements in works of fiction (particularly in an author's first novel), my main character, Grace Kelly, is definitely not me, and her story is not my story.  I'd tell you one glaring difference in the way our stories turned out right now, but that might spoil the book for those of you who haven't read it yet.(Hey, if you haven't read it and you'd like to get your hands on a copy, e-mail me and we'll talk.  I can send you a signed copy for lower than the Amazon price and I'd love to hear from you!)


I thought it might be kind of fun to do a little series here on the blog, outlining the characters who were inspired in part by people I actually know or knew, but over the course of the four-and-a-half-year writing process completely took on a life of their own, as well as the places, events, and other elements in the book that come from true experiences I've had, versus the things that are completely made up (as well as the things that sort of happened, but were tweaked and used in a different way to fit my story).

It can be like one of those "The Making of" extras that come with DVD's sometimes--those short films that give the viewer a better idea of the process the writer, director, actors, and producers went through to create the movie.  It will be a "The Making of Finding Grace" blogumentary (is that a word?), in installments, for those of you who are interested

Would you like to keep reading?  If so, click here for the full post.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Supreme Gift of Marriage (Welcome, Princesa!)

Here's what the Catholic Church teaches about the sacramental nature of marriage:

Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents (Vatican II).

It couldn't be more clear that the primary purpose of marriage is to bring children into the world, and to raise these children--who are a gift from God: the supreme gift!--to become future saints.  That's not to say that new life is the only purpose of marriage; spouses are also called to help each other grow in holiness, and to be a light for Christ in the world.  But the supreme gift of marriage is not the earthly happiness that comes from being madly in love and going through life with your perfect "soul mate" (as wonderful as those aspects are); the supreme gift of marriage is children created from that love--created in God's image and likeness.

Our middle son and his wife Preciosa have answered a hearty "We will!" to the question of whether or not they would accept children lovingly and willingly from God.  Married in December of 2013, they welcomed their bright-eyed, round-cheeked, funny, spunky, sweet, and adorable G-Man (who is all boy, let me tell you!), into the world only 10 months after they exchanged their wedding vows.  And on Saturday, G-Man (now 16 months old) became a big brother to a stunningly beautiful baby sister, whom I've decided to call "Princesa" here at the blog.

Grammy's being a bit biased, you say?  "Stunningly gorgeous--are newborn babies ever stunningly gorgeous?"  Ummm...yes, yes they are.  This mild-mannered little lady (who came into the world a good deal smaller than her big brother and thanks be to God, gave her mommy a much shorter and less painful birth experience) has the tiniest face, with the tiniest, most perfectly proportioned features.  She looks like a porcelain doll come to life, she really does.

But why tell you when I can show you?
The hospital provided the hat, with the bow added for the
little girl babies.  Don't you love it?!
Preciosa is glowingly happy, totally in love with her
new daughter.  (Her new favorite hashtag: #2under2.)
Daddy is besotted as well.
I hopped on a plane early in the morning, about the same time Princesa's mom and dad got checked into the hospital.  I two-legged it down to VA, and when I landed just before noon and took my phone off airplane mode, she'd already arrived.  I went straight over to son #3 and Preciosa's house to take over for son #4 and his wife Braveheart, who'd been babysitting for G-Man since dawn.  So I got to spend some time with my little buddy; then I was able to go over to the hospital that evening to meet my newest granddaughter when Preciosa's parents arrived from FL to take over.
A family of four now!
It was a whirlwind trip!  Sunday morning I went to an early Mass and then visited Princesa and her giddy parents at the hospital for a little bit, before heading to son #4's house for brunch and then back to the airport to catch my first flight north.  I ended up getting stuck in Atlanta for almost as many hours as I spent visiting down in VA (such is the life of a non-revenue stand-by traveler); but luckily, I did catch the last train out of Dodge last night, and was back home a couple of hours after midnight.

It was a lot of traveling for just a few precious moments of holding that wee angel and staring at her perfect little face.  Was it worth it?  You bet it was!
Preciosa is on cloud 9.  Her cup runneth over, she said more than once, with the birth of this second child.  I'd say mine does, too.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Grace-filled Tuesdays (Book Club "Meeting" #13): Reader Feedback, with Some Spoilers

Okay, before I begin, I thought I'd share a new meme that I'm working on for the book club.  I've still got some kinks to work out (because I don't really know what I'm doing!), such as inserting the blog address into the image.  But for now, this is how it looks.
Many of you who read this blog are probably well aware that this is Catholic Schools Week.  So in honor of celebrating these fine institutions and the good work they do in helping to form the minds, hearts, and souls of our youth, I thought I'd share some snippets from an email I received from a young Catholic school student not too long ago.  She is an 8th-grader at one of the Tampa Catholic schools I visited in January.  She was able to get in touch with me because I handed out some business cards with contact information on them, in case any of the kids wanted answers to any questions that hadn't been asked during my presentation.  (I wrote briefly about the experience of speaking to my nieces' and nephew's--the triplets'--class, as well as several other 5th through 8th grade classes, here, if you'd like to read that.)
The incredibly articulate young lady who wrote to me had read Finding Grace, devouring it during a four-day stretch, and deemed it her "favorite book by far"--something that was both gratifying and humbling to hear.

I have been fortunate to receive a good deal of positive feedback since Finding Grace was published in 2012--people have in general been very kind.  But some of the comments from this satisfied reader touched me more than any I'd heard before; her insights were so sharp and so well expressed, especially coming from such a young person.  (Reading through her email just made me more convinced than ever that Catholic schools are doing an amazing job and are worth every penny that parents sacrifice to spend on them!)

My young pen pal aspires to be a writer herself, so I was especially thrilled to be able to correspond personally with her, and to share a bit of information about how the story and characters for this novel came about and then evolved over the years that I worked on the book

[Before I proceed any further, I should warn you that there are some spoilers for my novel Finding Grace coming up.  So if you plan to read it and don't want any hints about how it ends, you should probably stop here.]

I loved her comments on the various characters, who had become dear friends to me during the writing process.  It pleased me enormously that she not only liked Grace, Tom, and Jimmy, who aren't perfect, but are basically very good and relatively uncomplicated teens who never go too far astray; but she also identified with/had empathy for Irene and Kate, two sisters with very human flaws who commit the same grave sin, but then make different decisions afterward--with life-altering consequences.  Although I loved Grace, with her shyness, lack of confidence, and desire to mimic the saints, I loved the misguided Pomeroy sisters, too.  Kate changes so much in the course of the book that in the end, it appears she has won the heart of one of Grace's brothers.  (And I couldn't love those Kelly boys more, as they were definitely inspired by my own five sons!)  Of Kate, my young reader had this to say: "As she matured into a responsible adult, I felt pride, because she became selfless and accountable for her actions."  Yes!  That is exactly how I felt about Kate, and the way the book ended for her was almost as important to me as the way it ended for Grace.

One of my favorite comments in this young reader's email was, "Don't get me started on Tom and Sully!"  She said that they were the type of friends she hoped to make in high school next year, because "They were able to have fun, but follow God's teachings at the same time, a true talent!"  She loved those "two trouble makers," and I did, too.  I always knew which one Grace would end up with (that much, at least, never changed, even though the plot ended up going in different directions than I'd thought it would at the outset); but it was funny to me how many readers early on (including my publisher!) said they secretly hoped she was going to end up with the other guy.

My husband and I have always been strongly Team Tom.  If you've read the book, do tell: which team are you on?  Team Tom, or Team Sully?
Tom My husband (also my high school boyfriend) and I, on his 16th birthday.
As I typed away in my basement office, from August 2007 through December 2011, I kept telling myself (and my husband) that if this book helped even one impressionable teen to grow in the Faith or to make a better decision than some of my struggling characters, then I would die a happy author.  "In a way, it has shaped my decision making and thoughts on the Church as I've read it," wrote this young reader.  "Subconsciously, I found myself asking, 'What would Grace do in this situation?'" Thank you, God, for this concrete evidence that the one goal I had in mind when I set out to write my first novel has been accomplished!

In closing, this thoughtful 8th-grader told me that Finding Grace is "a model for what I want my novels to do: impact young readers and bring them closer to our Father."   The idea that someday, this budding future author will write novels with that purpose in mind, and that she will do so in part because she was inspired by Finding Grace...well, dear readers, my heart is so full thinking about this.  I feel that any purpose for my own books has already been fulfilled--and then some.

I thoroughly enjoyed corresponding with this reader, and I would love to answer any questions you have for me as well.  Just look for the "EMAIL ME" button on the side bar, and send me a message.  I promise I'll get back to you!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Oyster Haven: The Little Cherubs Room

Yesterday when I blogged about Oyster Haven, the lakeside house we're setting up as a VRBO rental, I told you all about the largest upstairs bedroom.  (If you haven't seen that post about "the Norman Rockwell Room," complete with before and after pics, click on over and take a peek.)

Today, I'm going to show you the smallest upstairs bedroom, which we have dubbed "the Little Cherubs Room."  In the online real estate listing, it was shown as a nursery.
As you can see in the before picture, there's not a whole lot of square footage in this room, so the challenge for us was to figure out how to make it sleep as many as possible without being claustrophobic.

We decided to paint this room with the same light gray ("Lunar Surface") shade we used in the Norman Rockwell Room.  And I decorated the walls with ceramic angels, gifts from my late mother-in-law that I'd used as part of my home décor for many years--items that I love, but knew I wouldn't miss too much.  (In my "real" home, I'm trying to reclaim wall space to make room for portraits of my earthly angels: my grandchildren!)  I also hung several pieces of artwork portraying cherubic little children, including a favorite of mine titled "Taps," by Besse Pease Gutmann.  It used to hang in my living room, but it seems to be right at home here in this Oyster Haven guest room.
To adorn the main bed in the room, I brought an angel-themed tapestry throw pillow that had been languishing in our attic at home, and then made a coordinating bed scarf with--what else?--fabric from my mother-in-law's attic!  (Attics are the best places to find treasures!)  The floral velveteen just happened to match the colors in the pillow beautifully.  I've felt Mom's help so often on this journey, and know how tickled she would have been about this lake house we've bought just a stone's throw from the beloved home where she raised her eight kids.

Again, we went with a minimalist approach for the furnishings: new metal platform beds (a full and a twin) and new mattresses, and pristine all-white bedding with pops of color.  Since the room is so small, I kept the window treatments very simple.  The previous owners left the shades and curtain rods, and I found a pair of sheer white valances at Walmart, for next to nothing.  The bedside tables were secondhand furniture store bargains.

Okay, then.  Enough chit-chat.  Without further ado, here are the after pictures.
It's pretty cozy in here--not much room for a dance party or anything.  But with two windows, there's plenty of natural light (which you would see if I'd thought to take these photos in the daytime!).  Overall, we think it works.

Then the icing on the cake is the sign on the door that tells you you're about to enter this heavenly little space.
As a little girl, the Little Cherubs Room might have been my favorite bedroom out of the four in the house: a snug little haven to curl up with a good book.  And even as a big girl, I find it utterly charming.

Now if only vacation-goers find it (and the rest of the house) as charming as I do...

To be continued!  There's plenty more to show you.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Oyster Haven: The Norman Rockwell Room

I have always been a fan of Norman Rockwell's artwork.  I can't look at any of his endearing illustrations that depict patriotic, family-oriented, small town life in America without smiling and being filled with the warmest of fuzzies. 

So when my husband's younger sister, who has experience owning a VRBO house, said that it might be fun to have theme guest rooms--complete with signs on the doors--at Oyster Haven, I knew right away that one of the bedrooms was going to be called "the Norman Rockwell Room."

A quick aside: If you haven't been here before, Oyster Haven is the name we've given to the updated circa 1830 Colonial on the lake in upstate NY that we bought last fall, hoping to be able to list it on VRBO for a spring 2016 opening.  My hubby and I have made many trips to NY from our home in NH and stayed at the house (so we can attest that the first floor master bedroom is mighty comfortable!  Really, it is!).  We've been working our fingers to the bone--deep cleaning, painting walls, overseeing repairs, hanging curtains, refinishing furniture, clearing brush down by the beach, and completing a host of other projects.

Okay, then, back to the Norman Rockwell Room!

The biggest of the three upstairs bedrooms in the house had lots of potential, but was painted a rather hideous bright yellow (actually, it just might be the same shade I chose for my boys' nursery back in the early 80's).  It didn't look too bad in the real estate listing photos we saw online, but in person, the color was a bit garish and the walls weren't in the best shape.  However, the room itself was charming, with wood floors and lots of natural light flooding in through four windows.
It's amazing what a coat of paint will do for a room.  I found a shade of light gray called "Lunar Surface" that totally transformed the space.  Then I added some framed Norman Rockwell prints.  (One is a wedding gift from a childhood friend that I've used in my own house since I was a newlywed, and the others are glossy pages ripped out of an oversized Norman Rockwell coffee table book that my baby sister and her husband found at a thrift shop not too long ago and passed on to me.)  There was already a white wooden shelf on the wall, left by the previous owners, so I filled it with some little Norman Rockwell figurines and a Norman Rockwell collector's plate.  I'd had these knickknacks for years, and they really did need a new home anyway.

We went minimalist for the furnishings: new metal platform beds with new mattresses, and pristine all-white bedding, except for "pops of color" (as they say on HGTV) from the bed scarves and throw pillows.  Lucky for us, the previous owners left the curtain rods, along with simple sheer white curtain panels that suit this room perfectly.  The rug is one that had been in our basement at home but wasn't needed there anymore.  The bedside tables were bought for a song at a secondhand shop here in NH.  (This house came together with hand-me-downs galore, I tell you!)  And we splurged on nice luggage racks for our guests.

So, are you ready for the big reveal?  I give you the Norman Rockwell Room!  Ta da!
I made the bed scarf with fabric from my mother-in-law's attic.  I wish you
could see how pretty it is--the photo doesn't do it justice.  It's  velvety black
corduroy with a golden, green, and brown paisley pattern on it.
As you can see, it's a big room!
This room sleeps four comfortably.  It's got a queen and two twins in it.
We could have added a third twin bed without even crowding the room,
but decided against it.
I wanted a Norman Rockwell pillow.  So I went to my favorite online site:
Etsy! There I found this tapestry panel, perfect for pillow-making, with the iconic
NR image on it.No matter what you're looking for, you can always count on Etsy!
Once we had all of the bedrooms named, I decide to have small brass plaques engraved to put on the doors.  I went to a place in the mall and put in my order, and I was appalled to learn that to have four plaques made, it was going to cost me close to $100.  (Whaaat?!  For four tiny pieces of brass with a few letters on them?!)  I almost cancelled my order...but then I thought that it just might be worth it after all.  A scene formed in my mind, and it went something like this: a family gets to the house to begin their lakeside vacation, and their kids scamper excitedly upstairs and go running up and down the hall; then someone calls, "I get the Norman Rockwell Room!"
I'm hoping that, like the cat door (remember that story?), this will be one of the endearing quirks about Oyster Haven that will keep people coming back, year after year.  And if so, I will consider those brass plaques to be money well spent.

I hope you've enjoyed the tour!  There's more where this came from, so stay tuned.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Little Boys in Short Pants...and Grown Men Who Tower over Their Mama

If I'd been blogging regularly lately (which I have not--and I have a million excuses, but we won't get into that right now!), I would have told you that my two youngest sons recently celebrated birthdays.  Since I was last here at String of Pearls, son #5 turned 23, and then exactly a week later, son #4 turned 28.

If you're a mother, then like me you've wondered how it is possible for time to move at warp speed when it comes to the maturation of your babies; and you'll understand me when I ask, "HOW IN THE WORLD DID THIS HAPPEN?!" Because, oh, about YESTERDAY, my two birthday boys looked like this.
My heart is bursting here.  I mean, have you ever seen a cuter pair of wee brothers?

But that photo was not taken yesterday, my friends; it was taken over two decades ago, when we were all a lot shorter in the tooth than we are now.  (Why, son #5 didn't even have any teeth at all yet!)

But as tough as it is to come to grips with the fact that it has been a very, very long time since my beloved sons have needed me for almost everything (boo hoo!), it is a unique joy and blessing to have been able to watch them morph into the tall, handsome, hardworking, responsible, kind, faith-filled, thoughtful, and loving men they are today.  (I would use more glowing adjectives, but you get my drift.)  This is what those little boys in the photo--who now tower over their mama!--look like now.
Son #4 and his mommy, at a Notre Dame football game
a few years back.

Son #5 and his mommy, out in South Bend his junior year in college.
When my boys were little, I liked to dress them in short pants and knee socks, with round-collared shirts.  I had a weakness for that classic, old-fashioned style that was part British prince and part John John Kennedy.  It was almost sad when they got too old to wear that sort of thing anymore.
Son #3 sporting a seersucker suit made by his mommy.
For our 1985 Christmas card, I bought a pattern and made matching red corduroy rompers for my two oldest boys.  (They subsequently got passed down to my younger sons over the years.)
The wreath embellishment was added later; it was on the romper when son
#4 wore it for our 1989 Christmas photo.
Not one to get rid of anything with the least bit of sentimental value, over 30 years later I still have those red rompers hanging in a closet, ready to be borrowed by my grandsons, and I also have the pattern.

Recently, my daughter-in-law Ginger, who is married to son #2 and is the mother of two-month-old Junior, showed me a website she liked called the Beaufort Bonnet Company--and a navy blue romper in a style the company calls the "Jon Jon" that she dearly wanted for her little guy (for a couple of weddings he'll be attending this year) but thought was too expensive.
I immediately noticed that the Jon Jon romper looked an awful lot like the red rompers I'd made for my boys back in the day, and luckily, I still had the pattern!  So I offered to make a knock-off for her, using some navy blue velveteen that came from the extensive fabric collection my late mother-in-law had in her attic (as I've been given carte blanche by my sisters-in-law to use anything from Mom's stash for my sewing projects).  Ginger was thrilled, but wasn't sure what size to "order," since the weddings are months away and there's no telling how big little Junior might get in the interim.  This romper pattern is one of the easiest I've ever used, so I decided I'd just go ahead and make it in two sizes.
I can hardly wait to see my little grandson in this romper.  But my advice to Ginger is to savor every minute that he's small enough to dress like this, in short pants and knee socks...because before she knows it, he too will be a grown-up man who towers over his mama.

That's what happens, but it's all good.  It's all MORE than good.  You miss your babies when they grow up, leave the nest, and start families of their own; but then along come brand new blessings (some of them are called daughters-in-law and grandchildren!) that fill the empty places in your mother's heart.