Wednesday, February 24, 2021

An Ode to Snail Mail (and Blogging!)

As a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester MA (where I earned my BA in English in 1980), I have a subscription to Holy Cross Magazine that comes quarterly in the mail.  The latest edition, for Winter 2021, included an article that brought back so many poignant memories for me.  It was called “Ode on a P.O. Box,” and I found it as I flipped through the glossy pages and came upon an image that stopped me in my tracks: a picture of the vintage bronze-gilded Holy Cross P.O. boxes—the very same ones that lined a hallway in the Hogan campus center at HC back in my day. 

Sadly, there has been a relatively recent change at the Mount St. James Station Post Office at Holy Cross, and those old-time beauties have been retired after about a century of service.  These days students receive less traditional mail and more packages that don't fit in the slender P.O. boxes that were "once essential," as the article points out, but in these modern days of texts, emails, and Amazon deliveries had "become anachronistic."

Anachronistic!  As in "pertaining to or containing an anachronism [which is something or someone that is not in its correct historical or chronological time, especially a thing or person that belongs to an earlier time]."  Oh my, no wonder I feel so sad hearing that those P.O. boxes known to so many generations of HC alumni are gone now.  (They are gone, the article says, but "remain beloved.")  I, too, have become a bit anachronistic, I fear! The times, they are a-changin', so swiftly that it makes my head spin. And I find myself feeling deeply nostalgic for an earlier time to which I belonged, a simpler time.  A time when people routinely kept in touch via hand-written letters.

I don't remember my P.O. box combination, but I'll never forget my number: 981.  That was my postal address for all four years that I lived on that bucolic college campus in New England, atop what was always called simply "The Hill." I can remember being filled with anticipatory excitement every time I went down that hallway lined with old-fashioned-looking, ornate little bronze boxes, hoping against hope that when I opened mine I would find a letter from my boyfriend (my high school sweetheart who was far, far away during those years, out at Notre Dame in South Bend, IN—now my husband of 40 years).

Nothing beat getting a letter from that guy.  Nothing.  I would be walking on air as I closed and locked P.O. Box 981 and found a quiet place to read it.  Who could blame me, though, when his letters were so sweet?  He was already kicking around the M-word in a joking, roundabout way when we were just freshmen in college, in a letter dated March 15, 1977: "Right now I couldn't think of a better life than one with you.  I wouldn't care if the prettiest, most desired movie star or the most famous girl in the world was dying to marry me, I'd say 'no' before she even finished talking if you wanted to marry me, too."  And here is perhaps my favorite passage from any of the letters he wrote when we were apart at school: on March 22, 1977, after visiting me at Holy Cross on his spring break, he wrote " looked over and smiled at me and that look drove me wild.  It was the prettiest and nicest look I've ever seen anywhere.  All I could do is just stare at you.  I'll never forget that look."  (Sigh...I loved what he said so much that I wrote "the look" into Tom and Grace's story in my novel Finding Grace.)

We did talk on the phone, of course (probably more than we should have!); but remember, that was ages before anyone had a cell phone.  We did have land-line telephones in our rooms, with long, coiled cords attached that limited our freedom of movement when using them; but if we wanted to talk for any length of time, we had to wait until the rates went down at night.  There were a lot of late-night phone calls, let me tell you.  But even with the lowered rates, it could get expensive; therefore, we had to rely predominantly on letters to stay connected.  In one of his letters, dated Oct. 6, 1976, my husband tells me that he's sending me some money.  I'd called him the night before, and he says, "I kept the time on my clock and it was exactly 85 minutes.  I figured it out on a calculator and it came to $11.96.  It was worth it though."  My hero!  He was on a Navy ROTC scholarship and had a $100 monthly stipend, and he would often send me checks to help defray the cost of my phone bill.  In a letter from Feb. 22, 1977, he told me that we were going to have to take it easy for a bit, because his most recent phone bill was a whopping $53.67 (more than half of his stipend money for that month!).

I don't have all the letters that my husband wrote to me during our four years apart at college (some were lost when my parents cleaned out their attic and moved from my childhood home), but I do have many of them.  I keep them in a treasure box and can’t imagine tossing them out (yet, anyway), even though I have actually re-read them no more than a couple of times over the decades I’ve been married to that extremely handsome young letter-writer—who could be pretty romantic when he wanted to be!

Hand-written cards and letters are nicknamed "snail mail" these days, and people act like you're some kind of dinosaur if you still correspond that way.  But I feel sorry for kids in this modern age...they'll never know the kind of exquisite joy I felt when I opened my P.O. box and pulled out a letter addressed to me in my boyfriend's inimitable bold penmanship and postmarked "South Bend, IN."

When our oldest son began his freshman year at Notre Dame in the fall of 2002, I was determined to print out each and every email he sent home; but before long, I gradually stopped doing so.  It just wasn’t the same as saving letters. By our firstborn's sophomore year in college, the dorms didn't even have land-lines anymore, and most of our contact with our five boys when they were away at college happened via texts, emails, and Sunday calls from their cell phones.  I was absolutely fine with that, because I just wanted as much contact with them as I could get, any way I could get it...but it is a truth universally acknowledged (as Jane Austen might say) that texts and emails are just not the same as letters.

I’ve gotten off social media recently, and I’m determined to use my newfound free time—the time I used to spend scrolling Instagram and Twitter—to get back to my first love, writing here (at what was always called "String of Pearls" until just recently, when I tweaked its name a tiny bit to give it a bit o' Irish flair).  And it just occurred to me that snail mail (which I miss) is to texts and emails what full-length blog posts (which I also miss) are to Instagram mini-blog posts, kind of; so I guess this post can be considered an ode to blogging, too.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Welcome to the Church, Quartus!

There's a new little Christian in town!  Yesterday, the youngest of our 17 grandchildren officially entered into the Body of Christ through the sacrament of Baptism.  He was, as his oldest brother (5-year-old Junior) said, "very brave."  He didn't cry a bit, even when the water was poured over his head, and he was his usual adorable self throughout the proceedings. 

What a beautiful thing to witness, and how blessed we feel to be living close enough to be present for these momentous occasions in our grandchildren's lives.

I haven't named this newest Pearl (who has not just two but three beautiful saints' names) here at the blog yet; but his daddy took four years of Latin in high school, and he used to joke about naming his children Primus, Secondus, Tertius, Quartus, Quintus (as in First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth) since this almost 4-month-old little guy is the fourth-born in a line-up of four boys, I hereby dub him "Quartus."

There was a lovely family party afterward at Quartus's house.  His parents made the cutest bunting to hang as a decoration, with pictures of his adorable little noggin sporting priestly headgear, and his mom joked to me that she hoped it would be used at his ordination party someday.  (Is that a good Catholic mama, or what?)

It was a grand day all around.  Welcome to the Church, Quartus!

(Now head on over to Rosie's--to see what's shaking, and well, just because it's time for a Just Because Link-Up!)

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Bible in a Year: Be Still

My husband and I are participating in Ascension's "The Bible in a Year (with Fr. Mike Schmitz)", a daily podcast that will take us through the entire Bible during 2021.  I have never read the Bible cover-to-cover, because that was an undertaking that always seemed incredibly daunting to me.  In fact, I'm ashamed to admit how little time I have actually spent reading the Bible at all in my 62 years of life on this glorious planet  God gave us to inhabit--a planet that I appreciate even more now, as a matter of fact, after journeying through Genesis with the help of the most cheerful and insightful travel guide imaginable.  (You've gotta love Fr. Mike!) 

We first heard about this Bible study daily podcast from our middle son, who started it on January 1 (he is also doing an Exodus 90 program of physical and spiritual exercises, growing stronger in mind and body and stronger in his Faith).  We were about two weeks behind when we decided to join in, so we doubled up on the podcasts until we caught up with everyone else.  Today is day 47 of the Bible in a Year program, and we are in the process of working our way through Exodus, Leviticus, and Psalms.

I told my husband last night that just with what we've covered so far, I believe that I am starting to know God our Creator better, and I'm developing a deeper love for Him.  I've always felt that I could picture what Jesus was like, because He was not only divine but also spent 33 years here on earth as a flesh-and-blood man; it seemed easier to know and love Him, a fellow human being, than His all-powerful Father in Heaven.  But the Old Testament is giving me a whole new appreciation of God, a deeper understanding of His love and mercy; and each day I look forward to the time spent following along in my Bible as Fr. Mike reads aloud, and then afterward, listening to the lessons he has to teach about that day's passages.  If you had told me beforehand how very much I would look forward to this activity each and every day, I would not have believed you.  

Considering the mess that the world is in right now--considering the widespread fear, anger, and violence, the ugly divisions that are literally tearing us apart--I could not have picked a better time to stop reading Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds (my husband and I have both deleted our accounts) and start reading the Bible instead. It has been a balm for my soul.  Just when I start to feel utter hopelessness about the current state of the world, the Word of God gives me hope. Just when I think that the future is dark and bleak and wonder what kind of world my beloved grandchildren are going to inherit, The Word of God gives me peace.  And I need to believe that it will all turn out okay, because I have too many precious people in my life (like this 16-month-old angel, #15 of our 17 grandchildren) who deserve a beautiful future. 

Hope and peace, that's what I'm finding in the pages of the Bible.  I absolutely loved this recently read passage, and I intend to make it my mantra:

The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still. (Exodus 14:14)

Wow... Wow, there's so much to unpack there (as Fr. Mike might say).  What a relief!  I can put my worries in God's hands and be assured that all will be well, because He is fighting for me, for all of us.  How do I know this?  The Bible tells me so.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Just Because: An American Girls Dinner, Granddaughters, and Living Dolls

A few weeks ago, one of our oldest son's daughters (an almost 8-year-old little lady whom I've dubbed "Little Gal" on this blog) handed me a handwritten invitation addressed "To Papa and Grammy."  A few days prior, her mom had asked me if there were any nights that weekend that we would be available to come for a "special dinner."  I figured this invitation had something to do with that, and as a matter of fact it did: we were being invited to join their family on either Friday or Sunday night for dinner, to enjoy drinks and dishes that the four girls (aged 5-9) were planning to prepare themselves--with a little help from their parents--using recipes from their American Girl cookbooks.

Since we all try to avoid eating meat on Fridays, we decided that we would come over on the following Sunday (January 24).

I tell you, this meal lovingly prepared by my very favorite American Girl enthusiasts was truly delicious, with each granddaughter picking out two items to prepare (from scratch!) from their Felicity, Molly, Kit, and Samantha cookbooks.  There was pretty china to eat on.  And there were even place cards hand-lettered by the 9-year-old twin known here at the blog as "Cutie Pie."

We started with deviled eggs for an appetizer and fruit tea to drink; for the main course there was a green salad and homemade bread, and beef hash with green beans on the side; and for dessert, applesauce cupcakes (and also lemon ice, but it had not frozen fully in time to have it that night).  I could do a real photo dump here, because I was so impressed by the spread that I took pictures of everything.  But instead, I made a little collage that would take up less space on this post.
Each serving dish had a little sign nearby telling what that recipe was called.  There was more 
information about all the dishes and their historical origins on the backs of the signs--but I only took pictures of the fronts.

Speaking of granddaughters: they are delightful creatures!  Living dolls.  I raised only boys (five of them), but those boys have given me nine little girls to love (so far!), and I am enjoying things I never got to do before I became a Grammy, among them sewing special occasion dresses and giving baby dolls as gifts.  Not to mention getting invited to American Girl dinners.   There's a lot more pink and purple in my life these days, a lot more hair bows and painted fingernails.  And it's a whole new kind of fun for me.

Here are my five youngest granddaughters--from two different families--wearing the matching dresses their Grammy gave them to wear this past Christmas (bought at an after-Christmas sale a year earlier, and thank goodness they fit!). CAN.  YOU.  EVEN?!

I can't.

On the subject of things that my boys didn't care about but my granddaughters do, let's talk DOLLS.

In the mid-'90's, when our youngest son was a toddler, I spent a couple of years enjoying a weekly porcelain doll-making class, attending when my airline pilot husband was not on a trip and could be home with our boys.  At the time, I thought that if I was blessed with a daughter in the future, the dolls I made would be for her  Alas, I did not have any more babies after our fifth boy was born; so then the plan became saving my porcelain beauties for my future granddaughters.  (Enter future granddaughters!  But more about that in a minute.)

The first doll I made was from a mold by modern doll artist Boots Tyner, and it was called Sugar Britches. It was the size of a real newborn infant (you could put a newborn diaper and outfit on it, and they fit perfectly!), with a porcelain head and hands and a weighted cloth body.  After I made a blond one for me, I made a dark-haired one as a gift for my mother-in-law, who was as crazy about dolls as I am.  After my mother-in-law died, my husband's sisters said that I should take the Sugar Britches I'd given Mom back, in case I wanted to eventually hand it down to a granddaughter.  

This past year, I decided that our oldest son's girls (the American Girl-girls I told you about above) were mature enough to play with the porcelain babies, on a limited basis: when they were the only ones at our house, and when we could keep their rambunctious 2-year-old brother elsewhere occupied!  Since I only had two of the Sugar Britches models, I let the other two girls "adopt" a couple of other porcelain babies I'd made back in the day.

As Christmas approached, I decided that maybe it was time to pass these heirlooms on to these sweet girls who would treasure them.  Sure, they have breakable parts; and sure, they're supposed to be decorative collectibles rather than playthings.  But as my mother-in-law used to say, "A doll's purpose is to be loved."

In order to make it "fair," however, I decided that I needed four of the same doll...but where was I going to find another Sugar Britches, not to mention two of them?  Was I going to have to find a doll-making class here in VA and make them myself?   Not to worry, it was eBay to the rescue!  I found two reasonably priced dolls on that site: one with no wig and badly in need of a whole new cloth body; and the other in great shape, other than needing to have new eyelashes applied.  

I got the eBay dolls refurbished, I made all four babies matching velveteen bonnets and bought them some adorable newborn sleepers.  Once I saw them all grouped together, looking for all the world like living, breathing babies, Christmas couldn't come fast enough.  I could hardly wait to pass them on to their new "mamas."

You know when you're really excited to give a gift, knowing that it's going to be absolutely perfect, but then the receiver doesn't seem all that thrilled with it? Well...THAT DID NOT HAPPEN!  Those darling girls were beside themselves with joy.  And of course, seeing their reaction was the best Christmas gift they could ever give their Grammy, who'd been holding onto those two original dolls for years, imagining the future granddaughters who might play with them one day.  

Okay, that's it for me today.  I just love this link-up, don't you?  It makes me feel like blogging is back, baby! For more blog goodness, just because... head on over to Rosie's.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Happy Birthday to Son #2!

There are so many birthdays in January and February in this family!  The latest was yesterday, when our second-born son turned 36. 

36?!  I would like to know how this is even possible! Because to repeat myself here at the blog for the umpteenth time, yesterday is about when it seems like he was born!  Just the other day, he looked like THIS (he is the one who probably resembles me the most, as you can see from this side-by-side comparison picture, which I've shared a number of times here at the blog already).

And now he's a married father of four adorable young boys to whom I am not "Grammy," but "Ree Ree" (their own unique derivative of my grandmother title that I kind of hope they never decide to stop using).

My husband and I are so happy that our move south to VA means that we now live close enough to son #2 (and three of his brothers) to drive over on a weeknight to have a celebratory birthday dinner with him at his house, like we did last night.  We sang Happy Birthday, along with his boys, and then enjoyed the cake I'd made to his oldest son Junior's specifications.  (For some reason, Junior knew that the ideal cake for his dad would be a rainbow cake--and when he saw how it had turned out, he pronounced it "perfect!")

Son #2's wife Ginger and I talk often these days about our similar experiences as boy moms.  She gets a lot of the same kind of "Poor you!" comments I used to get from people who didn't understand the inexplicably awesome enterprise of raising all male children.  She once said to me, "I feel sorry for people who feel sorry for people who have all boys!"  Well said, in my opinion.  My boys always were, and still are, such a joy to me.  And this husband of hers has always been an extremely special boy (I'm not just saying that because I'm his mom!).

Our second-born has always that "it factor," that thing that drew others to him, even when he was a little guy. He's the best storyteller ever, and he can take the most mundane event and turn it into a crowd-pleaser.  He makes us laugh, and there's almost nothing more satisfying than amusing him enough to hear his deep, booming belly-laugh. My husband and I love to watch him roughhousing, joking, and playing with his boys, who clearly adore him.  He has a serious side, too; ever since he was very young, he's had an ability to sense emotional undercurrents and inherently know when someone is sad or upset.  (He even reads into my texts sometimes, when I think they seem pretty normal, and gets in touch to find out if something is bothering me, because he doesn't think I sound like myself.  I won't say how often he's right!)  Because of this, he is often the one his brothers contact when they just need to vent about something; he's understanding, gives great advice, and just has really broad shoulders to lean on.  I could go on about how brilliant he is--a former high school math teacher, now a data scientist--but I don't want him to get a big head.  (Ha ha!)

I can't imagine my life or our family without this guy in it, and I hope he knows just how much he is loved  He likes to joke that he's my favorite child, even though he knows that I don't have favorites.  (You do know that, right, son?)  But on their birthdays, my boys get to be the favorite for a day; so yesterday, son #2, you had the top spot!  

Happy Birthday, and here's to many, many more!

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Happy Birthday, Princesa!

One of our granddaughters--son #3's bright-eyed cutie pie, whom I call "Princesa" here at the blog--turned 5 yesterday. It's kind of hard to believe, because this whole past year that she's been 4, I've had to remind myself that she wasn't 6 or 7 yet, because in so many ways she seems way ahead of her years. She's the second oldest in her family, with a 6-year-old brother and two younger sisters.  But if she wasn't so petite in stature next to her big brother, you might guess that she was the firstborn.

Our Princesa is a sassy little firecracker who is über-girly: she is constantly stashing away her precious "girl stuff" (that is, anything pink or purple or sparkly, anything princess-related) in secret little nooks and crannies for safekeeping.  She says that she wants to be a mommy when she grows up, and she's learning the ropes by tending to her baby sister and carrying her all around the house.

Princesa has a bit of tomboy in her too, however; she's fast-running, high-jumping, and athletic, a whiz on a bike or a scooter. She is no shrinking violet and seems tough as nails at times, as if nothing could faze her...but then she has this soft, very sensitive side that comes out, just when you least expect it.  It has been infinitely interesting watching her develop into the little lady she has become thus far, and I can hardly wait to see what this next year brings.

My blog handle for this granddaughter (the Spanish word for "princess") was on point, because she is about as Disney princess-crazy as you can get, with her favorites currently being sisters Anna and Elsa from Frozen and Frozen II. 

So obviously, that was the theme for the birthday party her parents planned for her special day.  And obviously, that was the theme for the birthday cake I baked and decorated for her to celebrate this milestone birthday.

Happy Birthday to our darling princess-loving Princesa, who is now 5-going-on-12.  We love her to Arendelle--actually to the moon--and back!

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

An Open Book (Feb. 2021): Two Inspiring Stories of Hope and Resilience


How wonderful is this link-up for all of us inveterate bookworms?!  Thank you as always, Carolyn Astfalk, for hosting it.  I'm grateful to have the opportunity to discover titles that I might not have heard of yet, and which have been vetted already by writers and bloggers whose opinions I value so much.  I may not be one of those folks whose opinions are particularly valued...but I'm going to give you my two cents anyway! :)

First up, When We Were Young & Brave, a Novel, another fantastic work of historical fiction by Hazel Gaynor, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors of all time.  Her books are meticulously researched and her prose is truly a thing of exquisite beauty.  Sometimes I have to re-read a sentence, just to experience once again the way Gaynor has arranged the words in a manner that utterly sets my soul on fire.  (I am admittedly in love with words, and in awe of those who have the God-given talent to use them so wisely and so well!) 

I was at Walmart shopping recently and did a quick fly-by through the book department--you know, just "to look" (because I can never help myself, it's a problem!)--and this lovely cover jumped out at me for two reasons: by the artwork, I guessed that it was a story set in WWII, and that is always an irresistible draw for me; and it was written by Gaynor, an extraordinarily talented writer of whom I had become a big fan in the past year, after reading some of her other historical novels (The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter, a Novel and The Girl Who Came Home, a Novel of the Titanic, both of which I've previously shared here at the link-up).  I flipped the paperback open and started to skim the prologue, and I was almost staggered by a few simple words said by one of the main characters, a woman who is reminiscing about her childhood years spent in a Japanese internment camp in China during WWII 30 years ago. Before she and her fellow schoolmates, American and British children of missionaries and diplomats, are forced to leave their comfortable boarding school and endure the horrors of being prisoners in a crowded, filthy camp overseen by often cruel Japanese guards, she says they complained about little discomforts and inconveniences and were "wildly ignorant of our privilege and of how much we were about to lose."  

Those words really struck a chord with me, considering the violent upheavals taking place in our country right now and how very possible it is that we will all be facing unforeseen sufferings and deprivations in the future.  So I bought the book.  And after reading it, I can tell you that the money was well spent.  Now that I'm finished (and still thinking about the characters and all they endured with tremendous fortitude and grace) I plan to share it with my oldest son's wife, a book enthusiast like myself.  And I will no doubt re-read it at some point in the future; it's that good.

The novel is told in first person, alternately from the perspective of young Nancy Plummer, the daughter of Protestant missionaries working in China and a boarding student at the Chefoo Mission School, and Elspeth Kent, the no-nonsense but tender-hearted teacher, mentor, and Girl Guides troop leader who becomes a mother and more to Nancy and the other schoolchildren under her care during a harrowing six-year period following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Overnight, the school loses its protected status and its teachers and students become civilian enemies of Japan.

This is an aspect of the Second World War about which I knew nothing prior to reading When We Were Young & Brave--just when I thought I'd read every story, fiction and non-fiction alike, about every possible locale and every possible manner in which seemingly ordinary people showed extraordinary bravery, kindness, and faith during that awful period of history.  Based on the true events surrounding a group of schoolchildren and their teachers who were taken from their Chinese mission school to a Japanese internment camp in China during the war, Gaynor has brought the story alive through a large cast of very believable characters whom you will grow to love and whose triumphs over unimaginable adversity will make you feel like cheering out loud.  In spite of all the tragic and often terrifying circumstances in which the teachers and students of Chefoo School find themselves, they never lose hope and strive every day to make the very best of an impossibly awful situation.  The actions of the teachers, especially, with their determination to keep life as "normal" as possible for their charges, brought tears to my eyes as I read.  They were heroes, in every sense of the word.

This is not a book populated with Catholic characters, but the themes are undoubtedly Catholic.  It's a story about human kindness, perseverance, and hope; it's about overcoming fear and trusting in God's plan for our lives, no matter how desperate our situation seems; it's about having faith in God no matter what happens, turning to Him in prayer, and trusting in His boundless love and mercy. And it shows that even in the midst of the most unthinkably terrible circumstances, the human heart can flourish and love can bloom.  When We Were Young & Brave is a page-turner that will keep the reader on the edge of his or her seat; it's powerful and moving, and jam-packed with inspirational messages.  Just a warning: you might want to have some Kleenex handy when you're reading.  I recommend it highly--five stars!

Sunflower seeds, and the cheerful, resilient sunflowers that grew from them, played an important symbolic role in When We Were Young & Brave.  Thinking about sunflowers reminded me of another novel I read quite a while ago, written by an online author friend I made back during the years when I was more involved in the world of Catholic fiction writing and reviewing.  So I decided that I wanted to re-read this wonderful novel of hers. And that is my brilliant segue (if I do say so myself), leading to my second book recommendation for this month: Sunflowers in a Hurricane, by Anne Faye.  I posted an Amazon review for Sunflowers in a Hurricane, back when it first came out in 2016.  With the novel fresh in my mind again, however, I decided to write a revised edition of that review to share here today.

Sunflowers in a Hurricane, by talented Catholic fiction author and blogger Anne Faye, is a short novel, at about 50,000 words; but it is by no means short on substance.  If you are able to clear your calendar for an afternoon, you could devour it in one sitting--which is exactly what I did!  I dare say you won't be able to put it down once you start it.

As I was reading along, I could clearly picture every scene of this sweet and uplifting novel, and the thought occurred to me more than once that it would make an excellent Hallmark Channel movie.  Faye has woven a compelling tale here, with engaging characters whose flaws and struggles are so painfully real that any reader can relate to them.  She is particularly adept at illustrating the awkwardness of adolescence, and also the agony and thrill of first love, through the voice of 13-year-old Ruth.

The writer's tools of first person narrative and time shifting are deftly employed by Faye in this novel.  Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the three main characters: mildly rebellious Ruth; her wounded single mother, Cheryl; and George, the kind-hearted elderly neighbor with a tragic past who changes both of their lives in amazing and unexpected ways.  Aside from having alternating narrators, the story bounces back and forth in time from 1935, to 1972, to 1986, and back to 1935 again, which allows the reader to experience all the events that drive the plot right along with the characters who are experiencing them.

In my original Amazon review I called this book "wholesome," and another reviewer said that description was a bit misleading, because the situations in the book (teenage date rape, adoption, death, and alcoholism) are so serious. And that's true; there is indeed a great deal of pain and family brokenness in this novel, and it's definitely not all sunshine and roses.  But the serious topics and situations are handled carefully and compassionately, without any gratuitous descriptions that would keep this from being an excellent book for your teen reader.

Although George is a daily Mass-goer, and he hopes to bring his young friend Ruth (whom he considers the granddaughter he never had) back to the Faith, he is never preachy or pushy.  There are beautiful Catholic messages in Anne's words, but a reader of any faith could enjoy this book.  It touches on the themes of sin and redemption, of human frailty and the need for divine help; and ultimately, through the actions of its well-drawn characters, it shows the true meaning of sacrificial love.  This novel illustrates so beautifully how God can draw straight with crooked lines. It illustrates how just like hardy sunflowers that are still standing after a hurricane, the human heart can survive even the fiercest, most destructive storms and positively flourish.  I highly recommend this book for any reader, YA to adult. 

What an honor it is for me to review the books of my author friends!  "Meeting" Anne (not in person, unfortunately, but through online correspondence) was definitely one of the many unexpected blessings that came my way during the years I was immersed in the world of Catholic writing.  I will always be grateful for the many contacts I made during that period of my life, the many people who have enriched it in countless ways.  And I will always treasure my signed copy of Sunflowers in a Hurricane, a thank you gift from Anne for being a beta-reader for the novel before its publication and giving her my feedback.  

That's it for me.  Hopefully, I'll be back next month, with more good books under my belt to tell you about.  Happy reading!  (Now head on over to Carolyn's for more recommendations.)

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Mardi Gras Celebration 2020

Mardi Gras is just around the corner, on February 16, with Ash Wednesday the following day; and thinking about that made me reminisce about where we were--as a family, as a country, as a world--at this time last year. How much life has changed!

Just before the beginning of the first US lockdown (you know, just before the whole "two weeks to flatten the curve" so that our hospitals wouldn't be overrun), we had a big Pearl family Mardi Gras bash on Tuesday, February 25.  Of the four VA sons who live close-by, only our oldest and his gang couldn't make it, due to illness (not Covid).  So we had sons #2, #3, and #4 at our house, along with their wives and kids.  At that time last year, between the three of them they had 11 children ranging in age from four months to five years (son #2 has since added a fourth son to his all-boy household).  So we were a party of 19 altogether.

I planned an early dinner, since it was a [Fat] Tuesday and that meant a work/school night.  I bought a traditional King Cake at our church's bake sale to use for the event, but I supplemented that with other desserts, among them cookies and a berry trifle.  I wanted plenty of the sweet stuff, since the next day we would all be starting our Lenten sacrifices; in this family, desserts are especially popular and are often one of the things we give up for those 40 days.

Determined to make at least one "authentic" New Orleans dish, I found a recipe for chicken and shrimp gumbo (but I left out the shrimp, because my husband is allergic) to put over rice.  I made some breakfast foods and snack trays, too, because those are always popular with the littles. 

I get such a kick out of party planning for my family. NOTHING makes me happier than having all of our chicks (and their chicks) gathered together with their dad and me in our nest.  Looking through recipes in preparation and deciding what to serve is truly one of my favorite activities.  However...I also have an unfortunate tendency to look back once everyone leaves and think of ways I could have made the party better, foods that would have been tastier to serve, games we should have played, but forgot about in all the chaos...

But apparently, I need to stop worrying; for it appears that my grandchildren approve of the family parties.

It gets a little crazy, but in a good way.  And somebody always seems to get naked, or nearly so, as the festivities come to an end...

Not to worry, dear readers!  You will never find anything inappropriate on this blog!  Only yumminess and cuteness and such-like.  

God willing, we will have good times again.  And when they get here, we're going to let them roll--right?  I would love it if those good times started two weeks from today, so we could party like it's pre-Covid 2020...but regardless, I hope y'all will have a Happy Mardi Gras!

P.S. I just realized that I blogged about this party already last year in this post!  But what's interesting is that old post was mostly about giving up Instagram for Lent and how hard it was for me.  And now, a year later, I have deleted my IG account (along with FB and Twitter) for good! What a difference a year makes indeed!