Who is Elsie Lenore?

The fourth book I have available at the Christmasland Writers of the Wheat event is a sequel to Sundrop Sonata, the 2020 suspense novel Sonata of Elsie Lenore.  Released just before COVID shut everything down, Elsie had a rough launch, but she’s hanging in there.

The story begins fifteen years after Sundrop concludes. Izzy anticipates the birth of her first grandchild. Daughter Melody has married a Cuban pianist, Stefano Valdez who was stranded in New Orleans (or what was left of it) after a horrific tropical storm battered the area.  Mel’s interest in relief work dates to the time her mother compromised the family’s safety to help an orphan girl.  Her work takes her to disaster sites from coast to coast in a world increasingly plagued by intense storms.

With his career thriving and a baby on the way, life looks good to Stefano Valdez until a postcard from the past shatters his world. Days before the expected birth, he heads south to find the author of the card, a sister he long believed to have perished in the storm that left him a refugee in New Orleans. Trailing her to Cuba, he unwittingly places his Kansas family in the sights of the crime ring that destroyed his sister. Will he discover the hidden message in her hastily-penned words in time to save his family?

Sonata of Elsie Lenore is Stefano’s story, from southern Kansas to Cuba and back again, where he discovers that Mel has left him to work a tsunami disaster site on the west coast.

Chapter One

LENA VALDEZ CRINGED when her husband hammered the Steinway piano lid with his fist.

His rage growing, Enrique’s knuckle bones threatened to burst through his skin. “I told you,” he said, “no more of this Lecuona crap. Do the jazz. Tonight we want the best Cuban jazz.”   The youngest of the three Diaz brothers punctuated every other syllable with his fist until the piano’s heavy bass strings vibrated with a rising cacophony.

She shrank from every blow.

“Understand?” he yelled.

, Enrique,” she said.

“Get to the jazz. I’m counting on you tonight. ¿Comprendes?

She looked down, her fingers rubbing the familiar ivory ridges of the piano keys.

“¿Lena?” he said.

She felt rather than saw his arm rise and spoke with haste. “Please, Enrique. Don’t hit the piano.”

“Jazz then. Hear me?”

She nodded. Yes, she heard him. How could she not? She could hardly recall a time he spoke to her without yelling. “, I will play jazz.”

“One hour. Then we dress for the show. No more Lecuona.”

She flexed her fingers, took a deep breath, and leaned into the keys. A recent island melody by Jorge Marin swelled from the piano. Swinging with the beat, Enrique danced out the door of the Caribbean Breeze, a nightclub in New Orleans.

Her hands flew over the keys as she coaxed melodious rhythms from the worn Steinway. It wasn’t that she hated jazz. After all, jazz expressed Cuba’s heart and soul. It sang of the courage and beauty of her countrymen. She loved jazz, but she loved classics more and she needed Lecuona right now. Their mother raised her and her brother on Lecuona, embracing classical Cuban tradition.

Lena completed the Marin number and stifled a sob.

“You okay Señorita?” Roberto, the bartender and manager of the nightclub, peeked in from a back room.

She nodded. “I will be fine.”

“I heard some yelling,” he said  and  cocked his  head,  inviting her to say more.

She forced a laugh.  “Enrique. He’s always yelling,” she explained away the outburst. “It will be fine.”

“If you’re sure.” He turned back into the storage room.

She waited a moment,  gathering her nerve,  her fingers silent on the piano keys. In a timid voice, she said, “Roberto?”

When  he  didn’t respond,  she  tried again,  louder.  “Roberto?”

He stuck his head through the swinging door again. “You say something?”

“I just wondered if you would tell me where I could mail a postal card.” She fished a postcard from her handbag.

“Sending greetings from good old New Orleans?” he said with a smile.

Sí. I want to contact my brother.”

“Stefano? How is he anyway? I heard he’d tied the knot with a beauty from up north somewhere.”

She nodded. “I just want to let him know I am here. Where could I mail the card?”

He extended his hand. “Leave it with me. I’ll make sure it goes out tomorrow.”

Gracias, Roberto.”

The bartender disappeared into the back room with her card.  Lena took a deep  breath before she  continued  her  rehearsal. If only Stefano would meet her here. Would he even get the postcard in time? He didn’t know she was booked at the Caribbean Breeze, their old favorite nightclub. Maybe he wouldn’t even believe she was here, set to perform on Mama’s piano, “Elsie Lenore.” He sure didn’t know she’d married into a family of drug smugglers or that she was miserable.

He didn’t know.

She launched into another Marin number. At its close, she whispered into the keys, “Elsie—Elsie, what will I do?”

Unexpectedly, her mother’s voice whispered in her mind. “We do what we must.”

In a flash of recollection she visualized the lewd sneer of her former stepfather as he appraised her youthful body and her mother stepping between them— “Not my daughter, you bastard!” Her mother had split up with that man before the next week passed.

A year later a new gentle suitor presented her mother with the same Steinway she’d lost after the Revolution. A gift from her father when she was young, she had fondly dubbed the piano Elsie Lenore. It was offered as a wedding gift for the woman  he’d loved all his life  and Lena’s mother could not refuse his proposal. Lena and Stefano had grown to love that piano as much as their mother did.

Her mother’s voice whispered again. We do what we must.

“Yes, we do.”  Lena’s  hands  teased  the  keys as she pondered her limited options. Elsie Lenore and her brother Stefano offered one thin thread of hope. Surely he would understand. He had to.

Her fingers caressed the keys and cajoled an Afro-Cuban piece from the belly of the piano. The melody grew, and then waned. She dropped her left hand and allowed her right hand to sketch a rhythmic melody up the keys as she diverted her left hand to the piano case.

Following the melodic sequence, she ran her fingertips to the treble end of the mahogany trim at her waist and pried upward. With a full-keyboard glissando, she moved to the bass end and inched up the trim until the keyslip was free of its mounting screws. She placed it across the music desk without the slightest click.

The music soared again when her left hand joined in. She strummed repeated staccato chords, lifted her hands at the finale, and froze, listening.

Silencio.

Roberto must have gone out for a few moments. Nobody remained inside the club.

She retrieved a set of dining utensils and a paper napkin from the nearest table and spread the napkin beneath the bass keys. Slipping the knife tip underneath a key, she scraped against the key frame, teasing a fine white dust to the edge. She repeated the process under four keys, and scraped the powder onto the napkin. Tossing the knife to the floor, she lifted the napkin’s corners, cradled the powder into its middle, and with a sigh folded it into a tiny envelope. Her brother would have been proud to know she’d learned some intricacies of piano construction. She, for her part, was grateful for his fascination with the technical side of the instrument.

Gracias, Stefano,” she whispered.

She tucked the parcel securely into her cleavage, replaced the trim, and lost herself in the music.

 

To find out what happens next, drop by the Christmasland Event with Writers of the Wheat December 3, 4:00 pm until 9:00, at the Sunflower Plaza, 417 East Gilbert in Wichita. There will be something for every reader’s taste.

Writers of the Wheat is a loosely organized group of Kansas authors who support each other in writing, as well as marketing, their work.

 

 

How About a Little Suspense?

After completion of the memoir in 2014, I plunged into crafting a tale of fiction. Using personal expertise in the field of music, piano teaching, and piano tuning, a story based on abandonment and revenge wrote itself in my head. Today’s featured book is my first suspense novel, Sundrop Sonata, published in 2016. It was a lot of fun to write, and has gathered several awards and great reviews, which launched my plan to write a few more piano suspense tales, the Sonata series.

What is this Sonata about? With her passion for helping people, piano tuner Isabel Woods loves her job–but passion can be a dangerous thing. Reluctantly agreeing to harbor a client’s autistic daughter, Izzy’s good intentions unexpectedly expose her own family to a fiend with a chilling agenda. Human trafficking and bio-terrorism are no longer just buzz words from the nightly news. For Izzy, they have become terrifying and real. As the deadly Sundrop Sonata begins to play, Izzy has one chance to save the people and the country she loves armed with nothing more than courage, intelligence, and her esoteric knowledge of pianos.

Sundrop Sonata will be available at the Christmasland Event with Writers of the Wheat December 3, 4:00 pm until 9:00, at the Sunflower Plaza in Wichita. Writers of the Wheat is a loosely organized group of Kansas authors who support each other in writing, as well as marketing, their work. Join us at the Sunflower Plaza, 417 East Gilbert in Wichita,  December 3. There will be something for every reader’s taste.

Chapter One

IZZY

A chill shot down my spine the instant our eyes met. Nola Pack looked ten years older than she had a week ago when we met in town. She stood in her open doorway, clenching its frame. Her red eyes sought mine as a breeze teased her disheveled hair. The ranch wife I remembered from previous meetings would never have appeared with even one stray hair on her immaculate swept-up bun.

I smiled and greeted her, but her grave face stole the sunshine from the bright spring morning. I no longer heard songbirds sing in the nearby flowering orchard as I searched for clues to her distress.

Nola didn’t return my smile, nor did she speak. Her bloodshot eyes narrowed as she studied my face. She stepped aside, still clutching the ranch house door with a grip that raised veins on the back of her hand. I stepped into the picturesque entryway, put my tool case down, and stooped to remove my shoes.

“No. It’s fine. Come in,” she said.

“You don’t want me to remove my shoes?”

“Not today, Mrs. Woods. Come in.”

“If you’re sure,” I said, wiping my shoes on the entry mat before I stepped onto her white carpet. “And please call me Izzy.”

Awash with sunshine, the music room issued a warm invitation. A sofa and two chairs faced the walnut grand piano across the room, its lid open on full stick. A violin leaned against a matching walnut music stand that filled the piano’s graceful curve.

“What an improvement over the old upright,” I said. “When did it arrive?”

“About ten days ago.”

“Anything I need to know before I begin? Problems? Concerns?”

Her brow narrowed. Still unsmiling, she shook her head and looked over my shoulder to the window beyond the piano. I set my tool case against the wall and tucked a stray curl into the hair clip on the back of my head. “I’ll get started then,” I said over my shoulder.

“Wait, please,” Nola said. “I need your help.” She closed her eyes. Her voice almost a whisper, I strained to understand her words.

“You don’t want me to tune your piano?” I asked.

“No. Not now.”

“A few minutes then? Or did you mean not today?”

“Not today.” Her voice carried unmistakable urgency. “Please. Come with me.” She turned and walked into the hallway beyond the living room.

Another chill raced through my body. I stood rooted to the white carpet. Nola turned and looked at me from the other end of the hall. With a frantic wave she beckoned me to follow.

I walked from the music room, past four closed doors. Two doors displayed a child’s colorful paintings. I knew there were children in the house, or at least a child. During an earlier call a girl had peeked at me for a moment before Nola scolded her. I had never been invited beyond the music room though, until today.

The hallway opened into a glassed-in dining room aflame with spring sunshine. Nola led me outside to a redwood deck extending over a pond, water slapping the rocks beneath us. In the far corner of the deck, a slender girl slumped on a lounge, her arms wrapped around her chest. She stared at the blue water, humming in a split voice that sounded as if she sang in two pitches at once.

I tilted my head toward Nola and narrowed my eyes.

Nola met my puzzled gaze. “She’s talking to herself. She does it when she’s under stress.” Her voice was devoid of any emotion, fear still in the undercurrents.

Nola brushed aside a tree branch bursting with fragrant blossoms and knelt at the girl’s knees. In a soft voice she said, “Laura, this is Isabel Woods, the lady I told you about. She’s our piano tuner.”

The girl didn’t move. If anything, she hugged herself a little tighter.

“Look at me, sweetheart,” Nola said.

The girl turned to her mother, but her gaze shot beyond Nola toward me. Her eyes didn’t appear to focus. I offered a tiny smile, but Laura didn’t respond.

LAURA

Laura Pack squeezed herself, as if tightening her grip on her own shoulders could wring the stench from her mind. All morning the awful smell had overwhelmed her. The pungent odor of putrid diapers drove her mad. Baby poop. Hour after hour, the reek of excrement filled her mind. She couldn’t sleep. She even tasted the stuff. She swallowed, desperate to stop the bile rising in her throat.

Why this happened, she didn’t know. Every time she faced her fears, every time her world went wrong, this same awful odor permeated her nostrils and filled her brain. Mama didn’t believe her. She would shake her head and say she made it all up, that there was no rotten smell because Mama couldn’t smell it.

But after that awful phone call, Laura sure could.

And it grew stronger and stronger until it filled her mind. Mama had decided to send her away. So she’d be safe, Mama said. She didn’t think it would make her safe. She didn’t think she’d ever be safe without Mama.

Laura heard her mother call her name. It sounded so far away. She turned her head, dazed. The awful smell – why wouldn’t it stop?

I can’t see you, Mama. I can’t see you. Don’t look at me. I don’t want to see you. Can’t see you. Can’t see you. Can’t see. Why do I have to go? Why? Why? Why? Don’t want to go. Won’t go. I won’t. I won’t see you, Mama. Don’t look at me. No. No. Baby poop. No.

No – wait. Look at me. I want to see you. Look at me. I see you. I see you, Mama. I’m scared. I’m so scared. It smells so bad. I hear you. I hear your voice. You say I’ll be safe. I’ll be safer. Why? Why? Why? You come too. Be safe. Be safe, Mama. Be safer. Look at me. I can see you. I see you. I don’t want to go. Don’t want to.

Laura’s gaze focused on the piano tuner. The strange woman’s frizzy gray curls struggled to escape from the loose clasp on her head. Laura found no comfort in this stranger. Not even when the woman smiled.

I don’t know that lady. Who is she? I’m scared. Scared, Mama. I see you. I see you, Mama. I see her. She’s looking at me. She’s smiling. I see her. Okay. If you want me to go, I’ll go. I see her. She smiles. She’s kind. She’s kind of – not you!

Don’t want to go. Don’t want to, Mama. Don’t want to. Don’t want to. Don’t want to leave you. Baby poop, Mama. It’s baby poop. You come too. Be safe. Safer, Mama. Come too. Come with me. I see you, mama. I see you – I see you – I see you. I love you, Mama.

Nola clasped her daughter’s hands in her own. She pulled the girl to a stand and pressed Laura’s hands together over her heart. Their eyes met.

IZZY

After a few silent seconds, Nola nodded once. She turned to me.

In a shaking voice she said, “I don’t know how to ask you this. We need your help. Could you – please – would you take Laura for a while? We’re desperate.”

Oh, my God. I don’t believe this. I coughed, choking on my response.

Laura pulled away from her mother.

“She could be in danger and I need time to sort things out,” Nola said.

I glanced from mother to daughter. The girl’s shoulders shook as she sobbed, her head buried in her hands.

What was I to do? I couldn’t take a strange child with me, drive out the driveway, head toward – head where? My appointments filled the day’s schedule. This would never work. What in the world was happening here?

But, I’d never been one to turn down a plea for help. What could I do?

“Please.” Nola’s whisper screamed in my ears.

I shook my head. “I need to think.”

“We don’t have time.”

“Are there no family members? Grandparents? Aunts or uncles?” I asked.

“My family lives in New York. They’re too far away. I need help now.”

“What about neighbors or friends?”

“I don’t know anyone around here. Except you. ”

That I could believe. The Pack family was a mystery to their neighbors. Hints and stray comments dropped when I tuned pianos a couple miles up the road confirmed nobody knew these people. They had no local friends. Just the piano tuner.

Incredible.

“Ranch hands?” I said. “You must have hired help.”

“I don’t trust them.”

“Is that why you think Laura’s in danger?”

“Please. There isn’t time to explain.”

I scratched my head through the mess of curls. Frizzy Izzy. I was living up to my childhood nickname, the hair an outward manifestation of my inner turmoil. “Have you called the sheriff?” I said.

“No. I can’t call the police.”

“Maybe you should.”

“Please. I can’t involve them.”

“This is crazy,” I said. “I can tell you’re desperate. But you haven’t told me why. You want me to pack up your daughter, the girl you’ve never even introduced to me on prior visits – load her up and take her away. But why? ”

“It’s an emergency. I need Laura to leave for a while.”

“I kind of want to leave too. In fact, you’re making me want to race from here as fast as I can go. But I don’t know why.”

“Just take Laura with you. Please.”

She had me. Could Nola read people enough to guess I’d find it impossible to refuse? My passion to help others usually served me well. I was, after all, in a service profession, traveling all over the countryside to tune pianos for people. Service with a smile, was the homily I always told myself. Make harmony from discord. And I loved the work. I loved the people. I found pianos fascinating, each one a variation on an ingenious theme.

This, however, was a first. This was different. Not a discordant piano today. This time, I was being pulled into a desperate situation.

Nola, should I tune your life?

A knot of anxiety hardened in my stomach. I didn’t know how to refuse. “For how long? How long is a while?” I asked.

“Might be only an hour or two. Perhaps a couple of days. I’ll call you when the crisis is over. Don’t call me.”

Chills raced through my body. “Why not? What if something happens?” I said. “What if I need to get in touch?”

“I’ll contact you as soon as I can. Just don’t call me.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Take the girl. No police. Don’t call Nola.

Laura wilted into the deck lounge and wailed.

In a soft voice, Nola said, “Izzy, believe me, if there was any other way, we would never put you in this position. The situation blew up on me this morning. You’re the miracle we need right now.”

“Please tell me why you’re so afraid,” I said.

She shook her head. “There’s no time. You need to go now.”

I touched the girl’s trembling shoulder with my fingertips. “Laura, are you okay with this? Will you come with me until your mother calls?”

Still sobbing, Laura ventured a tiny nod and turned to her mother. They grabbed each other in a desperate embrace.

Nola gently pushed the girl away. Taking her hand, she said, “Let’s go.”

She pulled Laura through the open doorway and gathered a few bags from the dining table. We dashed down the hall and into the music room, the bags in Nola’s arms brushing Laura’s artwork as she ran. I collected my tool case and hurried out to the waiting Blazer.

After I tossed my tools on the back seat, Nola handed me a briefcase. “Don’t lose this,” she said. “These things can’t be replaced.”

What does she mean? Another wrinkle.

I scrutinized her for a moment before I set the briefcase behind the driver’s seat.

Nola deposited Laura’s bags on the back seat and tucked her daughter into the passenger seat. She leaned inside and kissed the child.

“God be with you, Laura. I’ll see you soon.” A tear dropped into the girl’s stringy blond tresses.

Nola wiped another tear from her cheek and glanced at me. “Now quickly – go!”

I turned the Blazer onto the long gravel drive and spun the wheels as we left.

Accelerando, Isabel. Step on it.

We jiggled across the pasture lane. Laura shrank against the opposite door and wailed. Her thin voice vacillated with bumps in the road. At the end of the long driveway, we rumbled across the cattle guard and through stone pillars. The remotely controlled gate surged to life as soon as we cleared it.

“Your mom must be listening,” I said.

Laura’s strange two-tone whine rose a notch in volume.

I braked enough to navigate the turn onto the deserted county road. Heading south, I floored the accelerator. Less than two miles later, we met a two-ton flatbed pickup. It raced toward us, engine roaring.

“That guy’s in a hurry,” I said.

Laura gasped. Mouth open, eyes wide, she clung to the door, her gaze riveted on the truck. She ducked, hiding her eyes behind her long hair.

“Laura?”
The truck aimed straight for us. I swung the steering wheel right and braked hard. The farm truck thundered by as my Blazer crept along the shoulder. “Dang, take your half out of the middle,” I said.

Laura dissolved into hysterical sobs.

I pushed our speed again. We sailed along the road, sunlight streaming through the windshield. The bright morning mocked the grim mood inside our cab. Tears streamed across Laura’s cheeks. She reached up with her right arm and wiped her face with her sweatshirt sleeve. I reached over and squeezed her rigid hand.

“That was a close one, wasn’t it? You recognized the truck. Did you know the driver?”

Laura nodded. Her chest heaved. She worked her jaw, as if trying to speak, but her words didn’t form through her wail. She screwed up her face, knotted her hands into fists and managed to blurt in her strange split-tone voice, “My dad.”

“Your dad?”

She nodded and shrieked heart-wrenching sobs.

Her dad?

Was he the source of Nola’s panic this morning? Were her urgency and desperation because her angry husband headed home? Why would Laura’s life be endangered at her father’s hands?

I wished I could have stolen a look at the truck driver. I’d never met Laura’s dad. In all the previous service calls, not once had he been home. Did he look into my car? Did he recognize Laura? The thought horrified me.

“Honey, do you think your dad saw you as we passed?”

She shook her head. She must have watched his face, even if I didn’t get a peek.

“Is your dad the reason your mom sent you with me?”

A hesitation. Then a quick nod. This was a family dispute.

Nola’s words echoed in my mind. Her life is in danger. I shuddered.

In danger from her dad. Something she failed to mention.

No police, Nola had begged. Why not?

“It’ll be all right, Laura,” I said to reassure her.

Would it though? I was unconvinced.

 

To find out what happens next, drop by the

Christmasland Writers of the Wheat event!

December 3, 2021, 4:00 – 9:00 pm.

Sunflower Plaza, 417 East Gilbert in Wichita.

Holiday Cooking with Grandma Georgia

As I prepare for our Thanksgiving dinner today, I am drawn into memories of Grandma’s kitchen. That were her habitat. Queen of her kitchen, she was in command of all the fixins. I recall helping to roll up the butterhorn rolls, a favorite task for granddaughters. Nobody went hungry at Grandma’s house. After the clean up, folks stretched out for a nap before we all drove the seven-mile journey to the family farm for a walk through the bare winter trees. It’s amazing how just cooking something from the past makes me feel close to family that is gone.

Today I will feature the latest publication that will be offered at the Christmasland event with Writers of the Wheat on December 3, 4:00 pm until 9:00, at the Sunflower Plaza in Wichita. Writers of the Wheat is a loosely organized group of Kansas authors who support each other in writing, as well as marketing, their work. Join us at the Sunflower Plaza, 417 East Gilbert in Wichita,  December 3. There will be something for every reader’s taste. It seems appropriate on Thanksgiving to share a cookbook.

Foreword

Georgia’s Recipe for a good life:

Work hard.

Love deeply.

Laugh often.

Georgia Wells Harris was born in southern Missouri October 3, 1891, the third child in a family of 5 children born to George Calvin and Edith Malinda Wells. By 1900, the family had moved to Kansas, utilizing covered wagon and train transportation. They settled in Skiddy, and later Dunlap. Georgia married Charley Harris on November 20, 1912. They raised four children, Frances (born 1914), Lester (1918), Wallace (1925), and Paul (1935).

No stranger to hardship and heartache, Georgia struggled to keep her family fed during the 1930s. Her farm kitchen remained stocked mostly with things produced in her garden or on the family farm.

Her oldest son Lester, an engineer on the USS Gherardi in WWII, was killed December 2, 1942 in a violent storm off the coast of Rhode Island. Charley died ten years later, and cancer took daughter Frances in 1959. Through it all, Georgia opened her heart and her home to family and became a role model in resilience, generosity, and compassion for others. I have precious memories of her hearty laughter, which was easy to trigger and very contagious.

She was an excellent cook, and queen of her kitchen. Many holidays the entire family gathered at her round dining table to feast on exquisite cuisine.

She died June 25, 1990, well on her way to her 99th birthday.

Her meager possessions passed to various family members. After her son, my father Wallace, died in 2010, her worn pink recipe file came into my possession. The lid had long since disappeared and it was stuffed full. Many tabs of the various sections were almost torn off, but I felt a connection to my grandmother, reading those recipes—most written in her own familiar handwriting.

I suspect the file is far from complete as a collection of the dishes she served, but it’s a nice collection. Some I have specific memories of. Most I do not. Some must have been given by friends, as the handwriting was not her own. Perhaps she gained several in recipe exchanges at her women’s “72 Club.”

I long intended to divide up the cards and share them with my sisters and cousins, but time got away from me. In 2020, the year that COVID stalled many usual activities, as October rolled around I pulled out the file and started studying the recipes. Who should get which ones? It was impossible to decide. That’s when the idea of constructing a book was born. We each will have access to every single recipe in her recipe file. Each of her living grandchildren will still get a selection of her hand-written cards, but with this book, we’ll all be able to use and enjoy her recipe collection.

Several recipes were incomplete, listing only ingredients, or confusing instructions. I imagined she was standing behind me saying, “Well, you ought to know what to do with those.” After all, she knew. Where I tried to add suggestions, my words are in italics.

In places, I have transferred her exact notes, regardless of punctuation and spelling, just like they are on the cards. I find them endearing. In other places, I did a search to clear up some uncertainties. I didn’t always find answers, but where I did, I shared them.

Some ingredients are unfamiliar to me, and may be pretty hard to find. Thus there may be recipes that are not practical or useful in today’s kitchen. But they are interesting.

In many ways, recipes are heirlooms. The people she credited with some of the recipes are different than those I think of when I make the same concoction. Names in ( ) are her referrals to the sources of the recipes, but they don’t always match the credits in my own recipe file.  The cookies I think of as Grandma Georgia’s brown sugar raisin cookies, she credited to her younger sister, Ola. I wonder who Ola thought of when she baked them?

The evolution of our table food is an unending process. Special dishes remind us of gatherings, good times, and laughter. Others help us remember people we love who are no longer living. Those we favor tend to get passed around.

During the COVID seasons, I was drawn to the family favorites and felt comforted by memories of loved ones long gone as I shared their culinary delights with my loved ones today.

Mixed into the section headings is a sprinkling of wisdom as Georgia viewed life. It seems appropriate to include some thoughts she left in letters and recorded conversations, as seasonings for the book, just as her principles seasoned her life. Let your mind roam back over the decades, and just try to imagine the earlier days. She would be thrilled if we applied some of her shared thoughts to life in this century.

For more holiday food ideas, be sure to stop by the Sunflower Plaza in Wichita December 3. Visit with talented local authors. Browse the book selections. Find something special for everyone on your Christmas list.

 

Plastics and Me

Trash in the forest

Sometimes I am so overwhelmed by a glut of information on a topic, the immensity of a problem or a challenge, that I quite literally don’t know where to begin. Plastic pollution is such a topic. Plastics and me have had a decades-long feud. Though I grew up in the early days of the plastic boom, love for the natural world and wilderness led me to associate plastics with everything cheap and shoddy. The preponderance of the growing available products—from cheap tourist souvenirs to Tupperware (remember the parties??!)—helped me associate the word “plastic” with things that lacked authenticity: cheap imitations, counterfeit, false, fake, superficial, synthetic, and MAN-MADE.

As I moved from my parents’ home, my older sister gave me a set of dinnerware; four each of plates, bowls, and cups—a generous gift to start my adult life. But I was horrified because they were PLASTIC! I’m sure she felt conflicted and confused by my reaction, but the plastic set was returned to the store and traded for a couple pieces of cast iron cookware. (I later settled on a set of ceramic dinnerware.)

Shortly after that, I discovered No More Plastic Jesus by Adam Daniel Finnerty that became a guide book for life. Once again here, plastic meant fake, artificial, and superficial. It has been my lifelong passion to seek genuine things. Some of those are indeed crafted by human hands (take pianos, for example, or the handcrafted furniture in my office made in my father’s woodworking shop), but they use what Nature provides, not what chemists can create by manipulating petroleum into indestructible other stuff.

Having studied a science discipline in my undergraduate curriculum, (geology, a “natural science”) I get testy when people sneer at science and scientists in general. I recall a class I took in preparation for a secondary teaching certificate in the physical sciences. It was called “Science, Technology, and Society” and was a forum to examine ethical questions behind scientific exploitation of Nature’s gifts. Just because we CAN do something, doesn’t mean we SHOULD.

Chemists are scientists too. Just because we know how to re-form the molecules in petroleum and natural gas into long, indestructible polymers, doesn’t necessarily mean we should. Discarded plastic products pile up in waste streams and emit the toxins added somewhat secretly by petro-chemical companies to enhance product qualities, clog waterways and swirl in our oceans. It’s becoming clear that even though we humans discovered how to make cheap single-use plastic products, we should not be inundating our planet with the stuff.

Environmental writers around the world note that some plastic products are very beneficial. In the medical field, plastics save lives. In transportation, they help make our vehicles more fuel efficient. On a piano keyboard, plastic saves the lives of elephants whose tusks formerly were used to cover wooden keysticks.

Piano keys

Most of the beneficial plastics are meant to endure for decades. Those we encounter on grocery shopping trips are meant to be thrown away. Single-use plastic products, packaging, and shopping bags have become a huge global problem. And that’s got lots of people riled up, justifiably.

This month of July has become the month of plastic trash awareness in my house. YES! Magazine issued an invitation to join their team for a “Plastic Free Ecochallenge” through July. On the website are hundreds of ideas to cut or eliminate personal plastic consumption in areas of food, personal care, life style, pets, family, and community action. There are campaigns against single-use plastic around the globe. Break Free From Plastic lists campaigns by the groups Beyond Plastic, City to Sea, GAIA, Greenpeace, People Over Petro, Plastic Free Seas, Plastic Pollution Coalition, Plastic Soup Foundation, Recycling Network, Friends of the Earth, Surfrider Foundation, and others. GAIA offers a “Zero Waste World Masterplan.”

I’ve been reading Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage by Heather Rogers, Turning the Tide on Plastic by Lucy Siegle, and Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth Terry. In addition, there are numerous blogs addressing plastic pollution with ideas for each of us to make a statement–and a difference–in various ways.

The pictures painted by each of these authors show a global emergency. If we don’t curtail the production and use of single-use disposable plastics before the plastics industry is a century old, there will be more plastic items in the Earth’s oceans than ocean life. No form of animal life –not even humans—will be free from synthetic polymers in the organs of their bodies. (Discover Magazine, “Microplastics are Everywhere, But Their Health Effects on Humans are Still Unclear”, Jillian Mock, January 11, 2020)

Plastic pollution is a global crisis and it’s driven by the petro-chemical industry. In my hometown, every year a group of volunteers cleans our beautiful park of plastic trash as an April, Earth Day project. How disheartening to see the confounded stuff return before May 1! Some trash blows in, other items are carelessly littered, still more is “harvested” from appropriate trash receptacles by roaming nocturnal wildlife.

Our homes are filled with the indestructible polymers. With daunting names like low density polyethylene, (LDPE), high density polyethylene (HDPE), polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene, (PS), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), polychlorotrifluoroethylene (PCTFE), nylon, or thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), these “poly-mers” are found in items from children’s toys to floor coverings, to toothbrushes, to water pipes, to cookware and grocery packaging to nearly everything else.

The Story of Stuff organization has produced a documentary, The Story of Plastic. This film takes a sweeping look at the man-made crisis of plastic pollution and the worldwide effect it has on the health of our planet and the people who inhabit it. Spanning three continents, the film illustrates the ongoing catastrophe: fields full of garbage, veritable mountains of trash, rivers and seas clogged with waste, and skies choked with the poisonous emissions from plastic production and processing. With engaging original animation, archival industry footage beginning in the 1930s, and first-person accounts of the unfolding emergency, the film distills a complex problem that is increasingly affecting the well-being of the planet and its residents.

Locally, we’ve been given a chance to view this highly acclaimed film as part of Marquee’s Green Screen summer film series, Saturday July 24, 7:00 pm in the lobby of the theater. Local residents are invited to come to the screening. There is no admission charge. To view the film’s trailer, check https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37PDwW0c1so. Bring questions and ideas about combatting the local glut of plastic trash. Be sure to RSVP on Marquee’s Facebook event page so organizers can plan accordingly.  For a five-minute animated condensation of the documentary, see https://www.storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-plastic-animation/

Landfill trash

Grandma Georgia’s Recipe File

With a sense of blissful excitement, I am pleased to announce the arrival of my latest book project, Grandma Georgia’s Recipe File. A divergence from my previous endeavors–hardly suspense fiction–there’s not a single piano in its pages, but it’s still ripe with story.

1984

Georgia Wells Harris was a quiet woman, but she opened her home and her heart to everyone. Each of her family members loved her dearly. She lived a devout faith, slow to anger, loving through dissention, refusing to judge others. Born October 3, 1891 in the Ozark hills of Missouri, her family migrated to central Kansas before the turn of the century in covered wagons, and by rail. She lived through the depression, two world wars, birthed four children, and buried two of them before her own last breath. A farm wife, her realm was home and garden. She kept everyone fed through good times and bad.

Quilting lessons, 1979

She spent her free time crafting quilts and gave them away to each of her children, grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren that she knew. She socialized with clubs of neighbor women at church and in a one-room schoolhouse auxiliary called “72 Club.” She delighted in simple things and her easy laughter was contagious.

Georgia blowing bubbles in the timber one Easter in the early 70s.

My grandmother’s dilapidated recipe file came to me a decade ago after my father passed away. Though I always knew I would share it someday, the time for sharing was postponed by the bustle of a busy life. I wanted to share the cards with all my grandmother’s living grandchildren, my two sisters and a cousin and me. But the project got tabled, and mostly forgotten.

1971

Then a year ago, that busy life came to a standstill due to the COVID restrictions. I am not the only person who discovered that one blessing of the COVID time was to open the chance to catch up on long-overdue projects. This was one of them. In fact, the slower pace reminded me of Grandma Georgia and how I appreciated the slower pace of her life.

1976

Visits to her in my young adulthood always slowed me down and I relished the peace of her quiet life. Last October I pulled the little pink recipe file box from my hutch and began to catalog the cards. It didn’t take long to realize that there were very few duplicates. I would have to split them up. How could I possibly divide them into 4 equivalent batches? What if I sent the wrong recipes to people? Then there was the valid possibility that maybe–just maybe–we’d all like the entire set of recipes.

The idea of making a recipe book was born the moment I realized it would be impossible to split up the cards and be sure that the right granddaughter received those appropriate for her. Why not make them all available to all of us? I began to type the recipes into word documents on my computer. As I typed, it became clearer how much of our lives are told by the food we eat, those favorite dishes we share with our loved ones.

1985

She had noted names on many cards, to remember who provided those recipes to her. Some people I knew. Many I barely knew. Some were total strangers to me. Her dear daughter, and some of us grandchildren were noted, but there were other family names I had only heard about, including Mabel and Florence Ethel (Pete) whom you might recall from the story “High Courage.”

I became doubly excited about this booklet idea. In addition to creating my grandmother’s recipe book, I would use this project to learn how to format manuscripts for publication. The project took on multiple objectives.

I intended to surprise my sisters and cousin at Christmastime.

Well, some things just can’t be rushed. Christmas came and went, and I was still working on designing the cover with the help of my computer-savvy stepson. What’s wrong with Valentine’s Day, I thought? Often in past years, our “Christmas” greetings became Fellentines. This could fit right into that.

But Valentine’s Day came and went also, while waiting on the printing process.

However, I am happy to announce that the project has come to a very successful completion. Last week, I received my first order of the recipe books, and I packaged up several to send off and surprise family members. The unexpected books by now have reached every destination, so the secret is out!

When chatting about this project in December with some friends, I mentioned that I didn’t expect anyone beyond family to be interested. But some friends insisted that they would like the opportunity to have one of these traditional family cookbooks. I felt quite honored by that declaration. My proof-reader sister asked if I’d autographed all the books, and I replied, “I autographed NONE of them. I don’t really feel like it’s my book. It’s Grandma Georgia’s.”

Spring flowers blooming at Georgia’s house.

With satisfaction, I can report that I did manage to work through the steps to format this booklet without assistance. Very cool. No need to shy away from that process in my future endeavors. And with love filling my heart, I can say that the opportunity to read through some of Grandma Georgia’s letters was incredibly rewarding. I had kept every one that she sent me before she died June 25, 1990. The correspondence allowed me to season the book with bits of her life philosophy. In this blog’s new “Comfort Foods” category, I will share a few more recipes, as well as snippets of philosophy, in coming weeks. There will be recipes from Georgia’s kitchen, but also some from other beloved friends and relatives. Stay tuned!

My heart is full. I offer the recipe book with love to anyone who needs a lift.

Georgia’s Recipe for a Life well-lived:

Work hard.

Love deeply.

Laugh often.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B08T85DXDQ/

 

 

Day 3: Of Love and Wind, Two Recurring Themes

Dear Tanna,

Considering the power of love, scattered on the Wind of the Spirit, there was John Lewis, another hero who passed from this life on July 17 this past summer. All the publicity since George Floyd’s murder in late May–the demonstrations against police violence, Black Lives Matter, racism, and white privilege–bring social inequities front and center. With each successive generation, the wounds re-open. We were all reminded of John Lewis’s struggle to grant basic civil rights to all American citizens when he died. Our local library selected his memoir as part of the adult summer reading selection. With a Zoom meeting planned that included Lewis’s co-author Michael D’Orso, a man Lewis claimed was like a brother to him in the book’s introduction, I wanted to participate.

The book itself was daunting, 503 pages of relatively small print. But the metaphor in the prologue hooked me, a description of a wind storm Lewis experienced as a preschool boy. The wind blew so strong it lifted a corner of the shack his sharecropper aunt and uncle lived in. Harboring in the shack with his aunt and fifteen cousins, they held hands and walked from corner to corner, bringing the house down to the ground when the wind began to lift it. That became the metaphor for his life, and provided the title for his book, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.

Lewis was a teenager by the time I showed up in the world. I remember the events of the civil rights struggle of the early 60s as a child overhearing her parents discuss the nightly news. It was not until I read this book almost six decades later that I fully realized what had occurred during those years.

The chapters in the memoir flowed, easy to read. It was like sitting with John Lewis over coffee and listening to him tell about his life. And what a life! He personally knew the key players. John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr.

He told of the first time he heard MLK give a sermon on the radio. It was titled, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.”

Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, to read King’s words? An online search for his sermons produced a website—www.kinginstitute.stanford.edu—that includes his entire collection of sermons. So I did read “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” in the year 2020.

Lewis was a key figure in all the civil rights actions: the restaurant sit-ins, freedom rides, marches, Selma’s Bloody Sunday, the efforts to safely register black people as voters. His premise was aligned with Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, a non-violent protest. Love your neighbor, even those who beat on you.

Why? We may ask.

Because they are victims of this unjust system too.

Imagine the strength of character needed to love someone who was busting your head open with a wooden club. How could a person manage that?  Lewis shared one of his secrets. You imagine the oppressor as an infant, a precious child of God.

I was struck by the uncanny parallels to today’s social and political climate. Lewis, a genuine and unassuming man, shared lessons he’d learned from MLK. “People who hunger for fame don’t realize that if they’re in the spotlight today, somebody else will be tomorrow. Fame never lasts. The work you do, the things you accomplish—that’s what endures. That’s what really means something.”

Does this remind me of anyone in the spotlight today? Absolutely.

What rights are guaranteed by the Civil Rights Act of the late 60s? 1) The right to vote. 2) The right to a fair trial. 3) The right to receive government services.  4) The right to use public facilities.  and 5) The right to a public education.

Sounds pretty basic to me, but for ages, a significant portion of our population was denied these rights. After the legislation, new practices skirting the edges effectively denied the same people basic human dignities others take for granted.

Has this changed in the 200 years separating you and me, Tanna? I desperately hope so. I hope that your generation experiences the blessings of Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community. Lewis never lost sight of the vision—one people, one family, one house, one nation. As a congressman from Georgia for the last years of his life, he answered to his conscience and worked toward policies that would benefit all people.

The last chapter in his memoir was a summary and a wish. “Onward” described the challenges he faced during the time when he wrote the book—1998—but it could well have been written during this last summer of 2020. The struggle for civil rights, for civility itself to be extended to all citizens in our country, indeed to all of the world’s inhabitants, seems never to end. Each generation must carry on and must learn and appreciate the sacrifices and struggles of the generations before. Slowly we may approach an equitable society, a new global economy that values not only human players, but the finite resources provided by our planet.

John Lewis devoted his entire life to a movement he firmly believed continued decades beyond the demonstrations of the 1960s. “I came to Congress with a legacy to uphold, with a commitment to carry on the spirit, the goals and the principles of nonviolence, social action, and a truly interracial democracy.

“We must realize that we are all in this together,” he said. “Not as black or white, Not as rich or poor. Not even as Americans or ‘non’ Americans. But as human beings. . .The next frontier for America lies in the direction of our spiritual strength as a community. . . It is not just materially or militarily that we must measure our might, but morally. . .”

“It does not profit a nation to gain the world if we must lose our soul—which includes our compassion. . . ”

“The alternative to reaching out is to allow the gaps between us to grow, and this is something we simply cannot afford to do. . . ”

“That sense of caring and sharing that makes us a society and not just a collection of isolated individuals living behind locked doors must never be lost, or it will be the end of us as a nation. . .”

I wonder, Septanna, how healthy is the nation in your day? How healthy is the planet?

John Lewis, a great man, concluded his final chapter with these words, “Talk is fine. Discussion is fine. But we must respond. We must act . . .  As a nation, we must move our feet, our hands, our hearts, our resources to build and not to tear down, to reconcile and not to divide, to love and not to hate, to heal and not to kill. In the final analysis, we are one people, one family, one house. . .”

Tanna, this is what’s at stake even now, two decades after Lewis published his memoir. This has been a hard chapter for me to write. I have struggled with it for weeks. How do I, an ordinary grandmother living in conservative rural Kansas, attempt to share what this man’s life has planted in my own heart? It’s too important not to try, though. So I offer these thoughts in honor of John Lewis. I desperately hope that he and other notable leaders we lost during the last few months—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg,—will lend their essences to our continuing struggle for securing human dignity and basic rights for all.

And, Tanna, I hope that, two hundred years from now, you will realize the results of our efforts.

With enduring hope and love,

Your seventh-generation grandmother

Sundrop Sonata: First Chapter

IZZY

A chill shot down my spine the instant our eyes met. Nola Pack looked ten years older than she had a week ago when we met in town. She stood in her open doorway, clenching its frame. Her red eyes sought mine as a breeze teased her disheveled hair. The ranch wife I remembered from previous meetings would never have appeared with even one stray hair on her immaculate swept-up bun.

I smiled and greeted her, but her grave face stole the sunshine from the bright spring morning. I no longer heard songbirds sing in the nearby flowering orchard as I searched for clues to her distress.

Nola didn’t return my smile, nor did she speak. Her bloodshot eyes narrowed as she studied my face. She stepped aside, still clutching the ranch house door with a grip that raised veins on the back of her hand. I stepped into the picturesque entryway, put my tool case down, and stooped to remove my shoes.

“No. It’s fine. Come in,” she said.

“You don’t want me to remove my shoes?”

“Not today, Mrs. Woods. Come in.”

“If you’re sure,” I said, wiping my shoes on the entry mat before I stepped onto her white carpet. “And please call me Izzy.”

Awash with sunshine, the music room issued a warm invitation. A sofa and two chairs faced the walnut grand piano across the room, its lid open on full stick. A violin leaned against a matching walnut music stand that filled the piano’s graceful curve.

“What an improvement over the old upright,” I said. “When did it arrive?”

“About ten days ago.”

“Anything I need to know before I begin? Problems? Concerns?”

Her brow narrowed. Still unsmiling, she shook her head and looked over my shoulder to the window beyond the piano. I set my tool case against the wall and tucked a stray curl into the hair clip on the back of my head. “I’ll get started then,” I said over my shoulder.

“Wait, please,” Nola said. “I need your help.” She closed her eyes. Her voice almost a whisper, I strained to understand her words.

“You don’t want me to tune your piano?” I asked.

“No. Not now.”

“A few minutes then? Or did you mean not today?”

“Not today.” Her voice carried unmistakable urgency. “Please. Come with me.” She turned and walked into the hallway beyond the living room.

Another chill raced through my body. I stood rooted to the white carpet. Nola turned and looked at me from the other end of the hall. With a frantic wave she beckoned me to follow.

I walked from the music room, past four closed doors. Two doors displayed a child’s colorful paintings. I knew there were children in the house, or at least a child. During an earlier call a girl had peeked at me for a moment before Nola scolded her. I had never been invited beyond the music room though, until today.

The hallway opened into a glassed-in dining room aflame with spring sunshine. Nola led me outside to a redwood deck extending over a pond, water slapping the rocks beneath us. In the far corner of the deck, a slender girl slumped on a lounge, her arms wrapped around her chest. She stared at the blue water, humming in a split voice that sounded as if she sang in two pitches at once.

I tilted my head toward Nola and narrowed my eyes.

Nola met my puzzled gaze. “She’s talking to herself. She does it when she’s under stress.” Her voice was devoid of any emotion, fear still in the undercurrents.

Nola brushed aside a tree branch bursting with fragrant blossoms and knelt at the girl’s knees. In a soft voice she said, “Laura, this is Isabel Woods, the lady I told you about. She’s our piano tuner.”

The girl didn’t move. If anything, she hugged herself a little tighter.

“Look at me, sweetheart,” Nola said.

The girl turned to her mother, but her gaze shot beyond Nola toward me. Her eyes didn’t appear to focus. I offered a tiny smile, but Laura didn’t respond.

LAURA

Laura Pack squeezed herself, as if tightening her grip on her own shoulders could wring the stench from her mind. All morning the awful smell had overwhelmed her. The pungent odor of putrid diapers drove her mad. Baby poop. Hour after hour, the reek of excrement filled her mind. She couldn’t sleep. She even tasted the stuff. She swallowed, desperate to stop the bile rising in her throat.

Why this happened, she didn’t know. Every time she faced her fears, every time her world went wrong, this same awful odor permeated her nostrils and filled her brain. Mama didn’t believe her. She would shake her head and say she made it all up, that there was no rotten smell because Mama couldn’t smell it.

But after that awful phone call, Laura sure could.

And it grew stronger and stronger until it filled her mind. Mama had decided to send her away. So she’d be safe, Mama said. She didn’t think it would make her safe. She didn’t think she’d ever be safe without Mama.

Laura heard her mother call her name. It sounded so far away. She turned her head, dazed. The awful smell – why wouldn’t it stop?

I can’t see you, Mama. I can’t see you. Don’t look at me. I don’t want to see you. Can’t see you. Can’t see you. Can’t see. Why do I have to go? Why? Why? Why? Don’t want to go. Won’t go. I won’t. I won’t see you, Mama. Don’t look at me. No. No. Baby poop. No.

No – wait. Look at me. I want to see you. Look at me. I see you. I see you, Mama. I’m scared. I’m so scared. It smells so bad. I hear you. I hear your voice. You say I’ll be safe. I’ll be safer. Why? Why? Why? You come too. Be safe. Be safe, Mama. Be safer. Look at me. I can see you. I see you. I don’t want to go. Don’t want to.

Laura’s gaze focused on the piano tuner. The strange woman’s frizzy gray curls struggled to escape from the loose clasp on her head. Laura found no comfort in this stranger. Not even when the woman smiled.

I don’t know that lady. Who is she? I’m scared. Scared, Mama. I see you. I see you, Mama. I see her. She’s looking at me. She’s smiling. I see her. Okay. If you want me to go, I’ll go. I see her. She smiles. She’s kind. She’s kind of – not you!

Don’t want to go. Don’t want to, Mama. Don’t want to. Don’t want to. Don’t want to leave you. Baby poop, Mama. It’s baby poop. You come too. Be safe. Safer, Mama. Come too. Come with me. I see you, mama. I see you – I see you – I see you. I love you, Mama.

Nola clasped her daughter’s hands in her own. She pulled the girl to a stand and pressed Laura’s hands together over her heart. Their eyes met.

 IZZY

After a few silent seconds, Nola nodded once. She turned to me.

In a shaking voice she said, “I don’t know how to ask you this. We need your help. Could you – please – would you take Laura for a while? We’re desperate.”

Oh, my God. I don’t believe this. I coughed, choking on my response.

Laura pulled away from her mother.

“She could be in danger and I need time to sort things out,” Nola said.

I glanced from mother to daughter. The girl’s shoulders shook as she sobbed, her head buried in her hands.

What was I to do? I couldn’t take a strange child with me, drive out the driveway, head toward – head where? My appointments filled the day’s schedule. This would never work. What in the world was happening here?

But, I’d never been one to turn down a plea for help. What could I do?

“Please.” Nola’s whisper screamed in my ears.

I shook my head. “I need to think.”

“We don’t have time.”

“Are there no family members? Grandparents? Aunts or uncles?” I asked.

“My family lives in New York. They’re too far away. I need help now.”

“What about neighbors or friends?”

“I don’t know anyone around here. Except you. ”

That I could believe. The Pack family was a mystery to their neighbors. Hints and stray comments dropped when I tuned pianos a couple miles up the road confirmed nobody knew these people. They had no local friends. Just the piano tuner.

Incredible.

“Ranch hands?” I said. “You must have hired help.”

“I don’t trust them.”

“Is that why you think Laura’s in danger?”

“Please. There isn’t time to explain.”

I scratched my head through the mess of curls. Frizzy Izzy. I was living up to my childhood nickname, the hair an outward manifestation of my inner turmoil. “Have you called the sheriff?” I said.

“No. I can’t call the police.”

“Maybe you should.”

“Please. I can’t involve them.”

“This is crazy,” I said. “I can tell you’re desperate. But you haven’t told me why. You want me to pack up your daughter, the girl you’ve never even introduced to me on prior visits – load her up and take her away. But why? ”

“It’s an emergency. I need Laura to leave for a while.”

“I kind of want to leave too. In fact, you’re making me want to race from here as fast as I can go. But I don’t know why.”

“Just take Laura with you. Please.”

She had me. Could Nola read people enough to guess I’d find it impossible to refuse? My passion to help others usually served me well. I was, after all, in a service profession, traveling all over the countryside to tune pianos for people. Service with a smile, was the homily I always told myself. Make harmony from discord. And I loved the work. I loved the people. I found pianos fascinating, each one a variation on an ingenious theme.

This, however, was a first. This was different. Not a discordant piano today. This time, I was being pulled into a desperate situation.

Nola, should I tune your life?

A knot of anxiety hardened in my stomach. I didn’t know how to refuse. “For how long? How long is a while?” I asked.

“Might be only an hour or two. Perhaps a couple of days. I’ll call you when the crisis is over. Don’t call me.”

Chills raced through my body. “Why not? What if something happens?” I said. “What if I need to get in touch?”

“I’ll contact you as soon as I can. Just don’t call me.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Take the girl. No police. Don’t call Nola.

Laura wilted into the deck lounge and wailed.

In a soft voice, Nola said, “Izzy, believe me, if there was any other way, we would never put you in this position. The situation blew up on me this morning. You’re the miracle we need right now.”

“Please tell me why you’re so afraid,” I said.

She shook her head. “There’s no time. You need to go now.”

I touched the girl’s trembling shoulder with my fingertips. “Laura, are you okay with this? Will you come with me until your mother calls?”

Still sobbing, Laura ventured a tiny nod and turned to her mother. They grabbed each other in a desperate embrace.

Nola gently pushed the girl away. Taking her hand, she said, “Let’s go.”

She pulled Laura through the open doorway and gathered a few bags from the dining table. We dashed down the hall and into the music room, the bags in Nola’s arms brushing Laura’s artwork as she ran. I collected my tool case and hurried out to the waiting Blazer.

After I tossed my tools on the back seat, Nola handed me a briefcase. “Don’t lose this,” she said. “These things can’t be replaced.”

What does she mean? Another wrinkle.

I scrutinized her for a moment before I set the briefcase behind the driver’s seat.

Nola deposited Laura’s bags on the back seat and tucked her daughter into the passenger seat. She leaned inside and kissed the child.

“God be with you, Laura. I’ll see you soon.” A tear dropped into the girl’s stringy blond tresses.

Nola wiped another tear from her cheek and glanced at me. “Now quickly – go!”

I turned the Blazer onto the long gravel drive and spun the wheels as we left.

Accelerando, Isabel. Step on it.

We jiggled across the pasture lane. Laura shrank against the opposite door and wailed. Her thin voice vacillated with bumps in the road. At the end of the long driveway, we rumbled across the cattle guard and through stone pillars. The remotely controlled gate surged to life as soon as we cleared it.

“Your mom must be listening,” I said.

Laura’s strange two-tone whine rose a notch in volume.

I braked enough to navigate the turn onto the deserted county road. Heading south, I floored the accelerator. Less than two miles later, we met a two-ton flatbed pickup. It raced toward us, engine roaring.

“That guy’s in a hurry,” I said.

Laura gasped. Mouth open, eyes wide, she clung to the door, her gaze riveted on the truck. She ducked, hiding her eyes behind her long hair.

“Laura?”
The truck aimed straight for us. I swung the steering wheel right and braked hard. The farm truck thundered by as my Blazer crept along the shoulder. “Dang, take your half out of the middle,” I said.

Laura dissolved into hysterical sobs.

I pushed our speed again. We sailed along the road, sunlight streaming through the windshield. The bright morning mocked the grim mood inside our cab. Tears streamed across Laura’s cheeks. She reached up with her right arm and wiped her face with her sweatshirt sleeve. I reached over and squeezed her rigid hand.

“That was a close one, wasn’t it? You recognized the truck. Did you know the driver?”

Laura nodded. Her chest heaved. She worked her jaw, as if trying to speak, but her words didn’t form through her wail. She screwed up her face, knotted her hands into fists and managed to blurt in her strange split-tone voice, “My dad.”

“Your dad?”

She nodded and shrieked heart-wrenching sobs.

Her dad?

Was he the source of Nola’s panic this morning? Were her urgency and desperation because her angry husband headed home? Why would Laura’s life be endangered at her father’s hands?

I wished I could have stolen a look at the truck driver. I’d never met Laura’s dad. In all the previous service calls, not once had he been home. Did he look into my car? Did he recognize Laura? The thought horrified me.

“Honey, do you think your dad saw you as we passed?”

She shook her head. She must have watched his face, even if I didn’t get a peek.

“Is your dad the reason your mom sent you with me?”

A hesitation. Then a quick nod. This was a family dispute.

Nola’s words echoed in my mind. Her life is in danger. I shuddered.

In danger from her dad. Something she failed to mention.

No police, Nola had begged. Why not?

“It’ll be all right, Laura,” I said to reassure her.

Would it though? I was unconvinced.

Why is the girl afraid of her dad? How long will Izzy have to look after Laura’s well-being? To find out, order your copy of Sundrop Sonata at these suppliers, or come to Art in the Park October 3 in Winfield.

https://www.watermarkbooks.com/book/9781530303830

https://bracebooks.indielite.org/book/9781530303830

In the Shadow of the Wind: Prologue

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master,

Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;

To be understood, as to understand;

To be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

And it is in dying that we are born again into eternal life.

St. Francis of Assissi

Lord, make me an instrument.

If it be Your will, use me as Your pen.

Make my mind like a blank piece of paper

And write upon it Your truths and Your wisdom.

Lord, make me Your instrument.

                                                             Ann Christine Fell  1985

 Prologue

“It’s okay, Daisy Pup,” I said. The small spaniel whined. I drew her to my chest and we cuddled together. Thunder exploded in the air above our little tent. The after-rumbles faded. Seconds later rain pelted the nylon roof of my fair-weather shelter. Daisy shivered in my arms. “It’ll be okay.” I tried to convince myself.

I felt foolish. How could I have thought this was a good idea? How could I have dreamed that I would be able to withstand forty days in the wilderness? The rain turned my plan into a futile effort that bordered on the edge of insanity.

A drop of water stabbed my forehead. In the gray afternoon light, I saw hundreds of droplets hang heavily from the inside of the tent roof. The threat of a cold shower hovered inches away.

“Good Lord, Daisy—it’s going to rain inside the tent.”

There was no escape from the chill in the air. No escape from the fingers of cold that crept up from below. No escape from—“Oh, my God, the sleeping bag is wet.”

I shifted sideways in the orange tent and discovered we huddled in a growing pool of water, now about an inch deep. “Oh, God, this is crazy.”

My canine companion stood and shook.

“You need to go out?”

She wagged her stubby tail and shook again. I unzipped the door and she jumped into the deluge. I grabbed my boots and began to pull one over a damp sock. On second thought, I tied the laces together, removed my socks, and backed out of the low-slung tent. I pulled my backpack into the soggy afternoon, zipped the tent door shut, and stood barefoot in black ooze.

Daisy splashed through standing water. She located a slight rise, squatted, and relieved herself. I glanced at the sodden landscape. Water stood everywhere, and I was already soaked to the skin in the downpour. What were we to do? I turned in a circle and searched for shelter. An old railroad boxcar, the only farm structure that remained on the abandoned farm, stood behind the tent.

I stooped to look under the boxcar. We could wiggle under it. I quickly discarded that idea. The prospect of lying in muck was no better than sitting in a wet tent. Though padlocks secured the sliding doors of the boxcar, the aged wooden sides looked weathered. One ragged gap at the leading edge of the north door panel appeared almost large enough for me to wiggle inside.

I slogged to the side of the boxcar and grasped the lower edge of one wooden slat. Frantically, I tugged on the worn end. I put my entire weight behind my efforts and ripped panels, inches at a time, until the opening had grown twice as large.

“Come here, Daisy. Let’s check this out.” She was instantly at my mud-covered heels. I patted the dark floor of the boxcar, which stood forty inches off the ground. Daisy leaped. With an assist from me, she scrambled into the dark interior. I stuffed my backpack behind her, slogged to the tent and pulled my boots and the bedding into the storm. I struggled to maintain balance as I slipped back to the hole in the door and crammed the bundle of blankets inside. Then I leaned into the darkness of the abandoned car and jumped. On my stomach, legs dangling out the opening, I snaked forward a few inches. With flailing arms, I reached into the darkness in search of something to grab.

There. Something metallic. Perhaps an old piece of farm equipment. I didn’t know. I could see very little. But it didn’t budge, so I was able to pull myself into the relatively dry interior of the old boxcar. Across the car, Daisy explored the darkness through her nose. She snuffled and sneezed a couple times. I stood and felt my way around the area. After locating a pile of old shingles along the south wall, I propped the backpack on the floor beside them. I shook the bedding. All of it felt damp. My clothing was soaked through, so I wrapped the blankets and sleeping bag around my shoulders. I sat on the shingles and leaned against the wall of the boxcar.

Daisy jumped lightly onto my lap. We shared each other’s warmth as the deluge continued outside. Moments after we both settled down, I heard scratching noises inside the boxcar. Light-footed creatures scampered about the interior now that we sat still. I hugged Daisy a little tighter. I could see pinpoints of light here and there, small eyes that reflected the afternoon light filtering in through holes in the wall. Oh, my God.

Rats. Lots of them. I screamed.

“I am such a fool, Daisy. Why do you put up with me?”

She licked my chin.

I spoke to my husband Craig. “What am I going to do? I can’t do this. I can’t live without you.”

He didn’t answer. I was on my own.

Time is a funny thing. To a child, a year seems a long time. Ten years, an eternity. To a grandmother, those same ten years are but a blink of an eye. For Craig and me, a young couple in love, ten years before us was hard to visualize. But the decade passed too fast, too soon. If we had known that all our joys and memories, our plans and dreams, would have to be packed into one decade would we have spent our days differently? Would our choices have been laced with more love and wisdom, or with desperate lunacy? Based on the law of averages, we had every reason to expect several decades together.

Yet there was barely one.

“It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” I railed against the universe.

Daisy whined softly and licked my chin again as if she understood. The storm mirrored the anguish in my heart. The entire universe wept with me. “What are we going to do, girl? I don’t know where we’re heading. I only know where we’ve been.”

 

Following a series of tragic losses, at age thirty the author struggled alone in a strange and frightening world.  The young widow and bereaved mother retreated to the wilderness for comfort and healing. Planning to stay forty days, she set up a solitary camp on the river bank of her family’s abandoned farm homestead. Marooned by rising flood waters after only a few days, she faced her own mortality.

There is life after loss. Through a sequence of extraordinary events, In the Shadow of the Wind tells how one ordinary woman learned to dance on the threshold of fear, to cherish every moment of life, and to believe in her inner resources to conquer adversity.

To read more, order from these book suppliers or come to Art in the Park in Winfield, October 3.

https://www.watermarkbooks.com/book/9781502478375

https://bracebooks.indielite.org/book/9781502478375

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1502478374

This Whirlwind Called Life

Do you ever feel like we’re caught up in a whirlwind? Daily disasters headline every news source. Everyone feels like we’re doomed if “the other side” wins the coming election.

(And we are, aren’t we?)

I am overwhelmed with topics to consider for posts on my blog. Book reviews of memoirs written by significant characters in the 2020 dramas, highlights of critical climate situations, hopeful solutions to drawdown the carbon/greenhouse gas levels in our atmosphere, life issues, family issues—the list is so long, I am paralyzed with indecision about where to begin.

What’s a writer to do?

Maybe we need a breather. Let’s step back for a few precious moments and just think about something else. Indulge our frantic minds with something trivial and entertaining. Perhaps through perusing something unexpected, something less dire, we might actually come out with new ideas and readiness to continue onward with renewed hope and a glimmer of optimism. I hope so.

There is a weekend approaching that offers some refreshing diversion. The first days of October bring two opportunities to take a break, go a different way, rejuvenate and refresh with a bit of entertainment and social interaction of a different sort.

2019 KAC convention in WIchita, Kansas

I refer on one hand to the annual Kansas Authors Club convention, often the first weekend in October, as it is this year. For the very first time ever, the 2020 convention was planned for District 7, out in Colby, Kansas. I was looking forward to that, since my childhood years were spent in Colby. I still have good friends there, not to mention many fond memories from my early life. But when COVID hit, the convention plans switched to an online format, another first for KAC.  It’s not too late to register for this online convention. Check it out here: https://kansasauthors.org

While disappointing in one way, I am enthusiastic in another. Since online access to virtual events can be found anywhere, I can be in two places at once. The second place is the annual Art in the Park event in Winfield, which I have missed for several years. But this year, I plan to set up a table for my books.

The layout will be a little different this year due to the COVID restrictions. More space than usual will be allowed between booths. Though this is an outdoor event and the park is spacious, vendors and visitors will wear face masks.  Amble among the booths, allowing plenty of space between families and small groups of art lovers. It will still be fun–and a much needed activity during this difficult time.

Come to Island Park on Saturday, October 3, to amble through the displays. Stop at my book table. Perhaps you are someone who needs a break from the disastrous news headlines. Look to find diversion through fictional stories. Lose yourself in a book, or two, or three.

In preparation for both events that celebrate the arts and literature, I will share the introductory chapters of my three books in the next few days. In blog posts, take a look at what you might find in the virtual KAC bookroom, or at my table in Island Park.

On that first Saturday in October, don your favorite facemask and head to the park. Drop by my table to say hello. Practice your smeyeling! Perhaps a mask contest for the most unique or artistic creation is in order. Details coming soon.

 

That Open Window

Sheltering at home has not prevented or even postponed any adventures in life. Maybe it changed the route a bit. But like the proverbial door versus the window, my window opened onto an international stage and increased my exposure to international connections. And THAT, friends, is a most exciting adventure.

About a month ago, I received an email invitation to join a virtual book launch, London time! You know me and books, not to mention book launches. This book spoke to my heart, Every Woman’s Guide to Saving the Planet, by Natalie Isaacs. I had to make that Zoom launch.

With no clear recollection of the date I first learned about Natalie Isaacs and her Australian-based environmental group 1 Million Women, I do remember being intrigued and I signed up to support the mostly Australian project in my Kansas grandmother’s heart. We all recall the horror felt in the sights and sounds of the rash of bush fires in Australia last January, as well as the bleaching of coral reefs off Australian beaches. Climate change has no boundaries on the planet. Go for it, Aussie friends!

I wanted to participate in this book launch. It had an international, boundary-ignoring appeal. So I dragged myself to my office early in the morning of August 18 to meet faces from Australia, the UK, and other nations around the world, (Spain, Philippines, Germany, Canada) as well as a few other participants in the states (Illinois, California, Arkansas, Ohio). The organization Natalie founded in 2009 has received international awards at the UN Climate Conferences.

On that Tuesday morning, at 6:30 am, Natalie Isaacs launched her book to the UK. She herself, and many other participants, spoke from Australia where it was evening already. In London, it was 12:30, lunch time, and it was morning in the west.

With a youthful countenance that belies her grandmotherly status, Natalie opened the meeting with the notion that we are talking about profound behavior changes and how to make them stick. A cosmetics manufacturer for 24 years, she had heard about the climate challenge, but believed there was nothing she could do about it. Then came 2006, and the release of the documentary An Inconvenient Truth. The problem became hers and she set out to learn what she could do about it.

“When you don’t know enough about something, it’s easier to do nothing,” she said.

After 2006, she did something—something simple—but she saw an amazing result and it changed her life. She discovered ways to reduce her family’s electricity consumption by 20%. She realized that climate change wasn’t somebody else’s problem. “It was about me, and about living a different way of life.”

A lot of personal witness and encouragement was shared in that one-hour Zoom call. Towards the end, she offered a few minutes of break-out time with other participants. I was thrilled to be paired with a 30-something woman, Anna, in Melbourne, Australia. How invigorating to share perspectives from opposite sides of the planet!

Wrapped tightly in a warm robe, Anna was preparing to retire for the night. Her window already revealed nighttime outside. I was first a bit puzzled why she looked cold—it’s so warm here—until I remembered that it’s winter down under!

We returned to the main group moments later to wrap up the session. Natalie Isaacs gave two important take-away thoughts.

#1: We must understand—in our hearts (the woman’s realm) as well as our heads—that everything we do shapes the world. Though individual actions and choices seem inconsequential, we must realize we are a collective! Just do something. One small act leads to another.

#2: We need to nurture a relationship with Earth, just like we do with our families and friends. When you truly love something, you fight for it. And it’s a reciprocal relationship. Earth provides everything needed for our healthy, satisfying life. “Don’t take without giving back,” Natalie said. It’s as simple as that.

I just had to have one of her books. Clicking on the links provided, I ran into the same roadblock every time. The book suppliers and outlets do not yet have delivery options in Kansas, nor I suppose, in any of the states or countries in the western hemisphere. On the Amazon website, I learned that the US launch on Amazon will occur late this month (September 2020.) However, the e-book is already available.

The book’s prologue on my Kindle described the history of 1 Million Women. I learned the organization was launched in 2009. It is the story of individual women taking on the climate crisis by changing everyday “behaviours” (habits). Sections in the book give “Toolkits” for addressing consumerism and overconsumption, food, energy, plastic use, fashion and cosmetics, economic power, the burgeoning waste stream, and travel.

There is a free app you can download on your smart devices to help discriminate between choices. (Search: 1 Million Women app).

There is no time to waste, Natalie reminds us. “No time to talk about guilt or scold ourselves.” Just do something. With action from a million women—a million women on every continent, I would add—“Together we can literally change the world.”

The Zoom meeting concluded with more music from a previous Australian Love Earth festival, Katie Noonan singing “I Am Woman” and it brought back memories of Helen Reddy’s voice: “I am strong. I am invincible.”

What are you waiting for? Please share this post. Order one of Natalie’s books. Connect with your friends. Make some new friends. Take action.