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Part of my growing-up was Valentine’s Day exchanges at school. Everyone would decorate paper bags, which the teacher would line up around the room. On Valentine’s Day we’d all go around and drop store-bought, hastily-addressed cards in every bag. Then we’d tear into our stash, hoping that some people were extravagant enough to include candy with theirs (which was more than Mom and I ever did for mine). It was a little embarrassing to address heart-shaped cards to boys in my class — once I corrected a boy’s Valentine by adding a note to explain that I actually hated him. Sadly, I didn’t hate him; we’d been good buddies the year before and I’d been teased mercilessly about “liking” him. It was classic overcompensation and I’ve regretted it ever since. Come to think of it, Valentine’s Day has never been a favorite holiday. DJ and I don’t even bother to celebrate it nowadays.
But I was obviously not the only person who considered it part of a growing-up experience. When I got into playgroup and then homeschooling circles, the more social souls always set up Valentine’s exchanges among our children. The romantic teasing wasn’t as virulent in those circles, but my kids were only tepidly enthused about the process. Still, at least the older ones got to experience it, and that was important. For some reason.
The entire cancelled year of 2020 weighed heavily on the more social souls of this world. This year, someone set up a Valentine’s exchange by mail through a state homeschool organization. DJ and I decided that Sparkler and Ranger would enjoy it, and signed them up.
When I presented the idea of exchanging Valentines to nine other people on a list, Ranger utterly balked.
He didn’t “feel comfortable” sending something to people he didn’t know. If he’d actually met some of them, that would be different. At least if he’d seen their faces. But not total strangers, not with his real name, not his personal information.
Some of this stemmed from the Internet security that we’ve drilled into the kids since they were very young. You never reveal your name or where you’re from. Some of our kids are more diligent about this than others, but Ranger is on the receiving end of three older siblings who make sure he knows the rules. I explained that it was overseen and approved by parents, that people sent letters to unknown people all the time… but Ranger insisted that he just didn’t want to do it. However, we’d already signed him up, so we couldn’t withdraw him from the exchange. I was completely at a loss. I dropped the subject while I tried to figure out a solution.
A few days later, Ranger received his first Valentine in the mail. I broached the subject again, hoping that he’d gotten more used to the idea this time. And it turned out that he had done a little thinking.
“When I said I wasn’t comfortable,” he said, “I was thinking that Valentine’s Day was, you know, for love and stuff.”
In other words, Ranger thought his mother was sitting him down and pressuring him to send love notes to nine people he’d never met before.
No, no, NO. It’s just a “hi, it’s Valentine’s Day, hope you’re having a good day, friend!” I practically sprained something as I fell all over myself trying to correct the mistake. And sure, now that he understood that it was strictly friendly, he liked the idea. He’d be happy to send Valentines. The Minecraft ones I’d found on Etsy looked fun. He wandered away, cheerful again.
I think Friendship Valentines are a good modification to traditional Valentines and I’m glad the kids get to participate in an exchange. But all in all, Valentine’s Day is a bother. And also — Dear Paul, I’m sorry about that one Valentine in the fourth grade. No hard feelings?
Welcome to today’s meeting! Today we have a wide variety of cookies — brownie bites, chocolate chip, raspberry shortbread, and also some gluten-free almond and gluten-free lemon ones that I’ve eaten at my friend’s house which are decidedly not bad. We do, of course, have milk to go with the cookies. In the spirit of today’s book, all the cookies are store-bought. No fussy homemade stuff here, although gluten-free cookies do strike a pretty alien note against the solid midcentury backdrop.
Not that this book goes in for store-bought food. It’s full of recipes to cook from scratch, including “cooky” recipes. But there’s no question that if given the choice, Peg Bracken would definitely feed her guests pre-packaged desserts.
The I Hate to Cook Book by Peg Bracken, published 1960.
On the flyleaf: Rachel Bellamy [in pink ink, scratched through with black ink] from Marianne [scratched through with the same pen] Michelle L. Washington
When I posted the picture of my VBC lineup, at least two people remarked on this Peg Bracken book. I’d never heard of her until my friend Karen recommended the book to me. Cooking isn’t my favorite thing to do, but I don’t mind it; still, this book sounded fun. As soon as I began the introduction, I could tell it wasn’t going to disappoint.
It’s written for women who “have learned through hard experience, that some activities become no less painful through repetition: childbirth, paying taxes, cooking.” Bracken elaborates on this theme throughout her introduction — and indeed, throughout the book. She never expects her readers to be excited about any recipe whatsoever. For instance, her chapter titles include:
Potluck Suppers, or How to Bring Water for the Lemonade
Canapes and Heartburn Specials, or Who Started This Business?
Little Kids’ Parties, or They Only Came for the Balloons
Last-Minute Suppers, or This Is the Story of Your Life
She explains that this book is everything a hate-to-cook woman needs because it contains over 200 easy recipes not tested by experts. “But even we can make these taste good.” She admits in her first chapter of thirty day-by-day entrees that some of the recipes are boring, just like in other cookbooks, “but the other cookbooks don’t admit it.” She warns her readers that they won’t find any magic that will allow them to serve gourmet creations in ten minutes; but she does promise that the recipes included in the book all taste good, are easy to make, and not one calls for a bouquet garni.
In fact, her major concession to haute cuisine is to garnish everything according to this rule: “Put light things on dark things (like Parmesan on spinach) and dark things on light things (like parsley on sole).” She ends with, “The important thing is contrast. I once knew a little girl who often made herself Cracker Sandwiches. That’s right; she’d put a nice filling of oyster crackers between two slices of white bread. I think she grew up to be a hospital dietician.” This is how the entire book reads.
Bracken’s directions are very casual. They don’t say things like “pour mixture in a 2 1/2 qt saucepan” because women who hate to cook have no idea what size their saucepans are beyond “big, middle-sized, and little.” Readers are instructed, for instance, to “add the carrots and saute them about ten minutes, stirring so that all the strips get well-acquainted with the sauce.” In her recipe entitled “Dr. Martin’s Mix,” she calls for browned hamburger meat and several more ingredients. The directions then explain, “Dr. Martin then puts the lid on and lets is simmer at the lowest possible heat while he goes out and sets a fracture. When he comes back in about an hour, his dinner is ready.”
As promised, there are a lot of helpful recipes in this book. And there are also some classic midcentury offerings such as “Maxie’s Franks,” which involves hot dogs covered in ketchup (“catsup”) and brown sugar and sauerkraut and baked like a casserole. Her recipes also feature lamb pretty heavily; apparently that was a frugal choice in the late 50s? Lamb is much too expensive now to warrant a place on the “day-to-day entrees” list.
It’s the wry commentary, though, that makes this book fun to read. A few chosen at random:
“Your husband won’t take you out for enchiladas if he knows he can get good enchiladas at home.”
“Suggesting this Whiskey Cake is a shrewd move, too, because you can make it six months ago, it’s easy and very good, it’s cheap as good cakes go, and as good cakes go, it goes a long way.”
“Volunteering to bring the children home [after a birthday party]… enables you to end the party. When the little ones start throwing the birthday cake instead of eating it, and before the little Bates boy has time to wreck any more of the birthday gifts, you clap your hands merrily and call out, “Party’s over!” Then you hustle them into their coats and home.”
This piece of advice gives rise to so many questions. How many kids can you fit into your car? Do you take them home in shifts? Obviously we’re not worrying about seatbelts or carseats here. I guess I got taken home from parties sometimes, but it seems strange to think about now. Also, Bracken wrote a second book — not quite as sparkling at this one — called The I Hate to Clean Book. I wish she’d written The I Hate to Throw Parties Book because I’d be all over that one.
“[Food experts know that vegetables simply don’t taste as good as other things do]. You can tell they do, from the reliance they put on adjectives whenever they bump into a vegetable. ‘And with it serve a big bowl of tiny, buttery, fresh-from-the-garden beets!’ they’ll cry. But they’re still only beets, and there’s no need to get so excited about it.”
“Never make the mistake of combining two rather repulsive vegetables in the hope that any good will come of it. Two wrongs never make a right. Once I knew a lady who cooked big carrots and hollowed out their middles and filled the resultant canoes with canned peas.”
A bonus feature of my copy of this book is that someone — probably mostly Michelle L. Washington — made occasional notes in the margins. For instance, the recipe “Sweep Steak” has “Sylvia Daers!!” written next to it. “Read to Mary Lee” floats next to a section about kids’ birthday parties. The chapter entitled, Luncheon for the Girls, or Wait Till You Taste Maybelle’s Peanut Butter Aspic carries the penciled note, “Read to Barb.” I like to think that Shelly read it over some lamb chops while Barb laughed into her jello salad.
And Shelly wasn’t the only person making notes. The anecdote above about the pea-and-carrot canoes is marked off with pink ink — the same ink used to write “Rachel Bellamy” on the flyleaf — and the remark, “Wow!!”
This book is very much of its time. Cooking and cleaning are entirely up to you, the married woman. If guests come over, you are the one responsible to make sure there are refreshments or dinner. The book also deals with social expectations that pretty much don’t exist now. For instance, there’s an entire section on how to finagle invitations to other people’s homes so you don’t have to cook, and then what to do when it’s your turn to return the invitation. Back before 2020, DJ and I invited people over regularly (at least every couple of months), and very rarely did we get a return invitation. We learned to not expect one. People just don’t do this anymore.
Anyway, this book more than just a cookbook. It was probably fresh and a little startling sixty years ago, and it’s still fun now. I love the handwritten notes that show me what caught the eye of the women who came before me. And the book itself has that vintage 1950s vibe that comes through no matter what, proclaiming things like, “We who hate to cook have a respect bordering on awe for Good Cooks Who Like To Cook. [We say to them] ‘Invite us over often, please! And stay away from our husbands.'”
Another meeting, another book! Come on in and help yourself to today’s refreshments: homemade tortillas spread with hummus. It’s one of my favorite snacks. I ought to be drinking a Coke in the spirit of this book. Fictional teenagers in the 50s spent about half of their disposable income on Cokes.
Four-Party Line, “a junior novel,” by Dorothy Gilman Butters, published in 1954
Written on the flyleaf in lovely cursive: To Betsy, from Nanna and Daddy Karl, Christmas 1955
I love midcentury teen novels. (Here’s another one I enjoyed.) My niece sent me this one, and it was all kinds of promising. Not only do we follow the storyline for four different girls, but they all work as switchboard operators for the town’s phone company.
By the time this book came out, human operators were already being phased out for mechanical switchboards. I’m very grateful to Butters for capturing this now completely obsolete part of life.
Francine reluctantly sat down on the stool before the fake operating board and stared coldly at the row upon row of infinitesimal holes, each of which was supposed to be a telephone number. There was the 00 bank, the 01, 02, and 03, right on up to the 45 bank above her head. It was incredible to realize that so much work went into connecting a number…
While the switchboard is only the backdrop to the actual stories, the author shows the girls at work and gives you some feel for the pressure that came from sitting in front of a board of incoming calls. They have to memorize exchanges, make note of long-distance charges, alert the fire department in case of emergencies — and do it all quickly, accurately, and politely. It even includes details like how every fifteen minutes, the operators were shifted to a new position, allowing some of them to take a break for a Coke. I was so happy that “going for a Coke” showed up in the very first chapter.
Anyway, we meet our four girls.
Francine Carter is a rich girl with an acute sense of her own social standing, who has taken this piddly summer job until she leaves for Wellesley College in the fall. Francine isn’t exactly sure who she is or where she’s going in life. Everything falls apart when she doesn’t get accepted into Wellesley, and she meets Tom, a soldier a few years older than she is who opens up a whole new world to her.
Mary Zilachi is a Polish-Italian girl who lives, literally, on the wrong side of the tracks. The only prospects in front of her are that of her mother, who scrubs floors; her sister, who married young and also scrubs floors; and her brother, who married a woman who doesn’t do anything at all. Mary is being clumsily courted by Big Mike, but in him she sees only the same future of poverty and soulless work. She has finished high school with the sole ambition of getting a job as a telephone operator — a job with a steady income, no layoffs, and that allows her to sit down. As Mary learns more about her own abilities and making her own way in life, her ambition grows. She wants to make a life full of beauty that will give her and her mother joy and purpose.
Peggy Botts is an adventurous soul who finds herself up to her neck in cares and concerns. She and Andy married young and left their families back in Utah so they could strike out for the East Coast. Peggy was sure that Andy would make it big as a photographer — she was willing to put in the work to make it happen. As young people often don’t, they didn’t take a baby into account. Then Andy gets very sick. He’s hospitalized, leaving Peggy without family or even friends to try to work, find childcare, and pay for all their new expenses with her operator job. Peggy wonders if she and Andy did a little too much leaping before looking.
Tippy Selwig is a sunny, down-to-earth girl who is always happy to help. Possibly too happy, in fact; she’s Good Old Tippy who always makes things easier for other people. No one realizes that Tippy herself would like something out of life… specifically, young Dr. Talbot, her dentist, on whom Tippy has a smothering crush. Tippy can’t seem to find a way to see him socially. When they do finally have something like a date, Tippy ruins it by impulsively offering to watch Peggy’s baby, therefore dooming her first date with George Talbot to be an awkward and boring game of checkers in her living room. Then, when they manage a second date, the situation is repeated on his side because he’d offered to babysit his brother’s children. Gradually, the two of them learn to make room for themselves in their own lives.
(Everyone in this book is, of course, white. Mary is the closest we get to diversity, and she’s trying to escape her life. Everybody in the 50s was white.)
The storylines have satisfying crossovers (most notably when Tippy invites Peggy to live in her apartment rent-free until Andy is better), but the book doesn’t force the girls to become BFFs. For the most part, they remain work acquaintances. Years later, they’ll probably recall each other’s faces and say, “There was this girl I worked with one summer…” It felt real, and I liked it.
I also really liked the way Butters added some weighty elements to a light teen novel. She deals with poverty in a sympathetic way in Mary’s journey, including showing how the rich, educated, purposeless Francine is impressed by Mary’s mastery of three and a half languages (Italian, Polish, English, and some Hungarian) and how Mary knew what she wanted and accomplished it. The story allows Francine to discover a calling for the nursing profession. Tippy learns that even good family and friends can ask too much if you don’t set some boundaries. And through Peggy, the author deals honestly with the problems that a loving married couple can face.
Of course, the novel is of its time and genre, so we hit a few rough patches. None of these girls are older than eighteen, but as soon as they accept romantic overtures from someone, they’re already thinking about lifelong commitment. And age doesn’t seem to be a real consideration. One romantic interest is twenty-one, and the other is twenty-six; each makes a couple of sheepish remarks about the age difference, but it doesn’t change the fact that they look at these teenagers as viable prospects. Maybe it wasn’t as weird back then… or maybe it’s just the gloss of fiction. Our stories today aren’t exactly gritty realism.
The roughest patch is Francine’s love story with Tom. She’s dazzled by him, but in the long, distressing tradition of women’s romance, Tom is jerk. I littered their chapters with indignant notes. This scene, for example, with my notes added:
“So you’re going into the Army,” she said, with an attempt at gaiety.
“What’s the matter, Francie?” he asked softly.
“I suppose you’ll be gone for two years?”
“I said, what’s the matter, Francie?” he repeated gently.
She looked up at him, and all her reserve crumbled as the tears welled up in her eyes. “I think I’m in love with you,” she admitted miserably.
Good move, Tom, compelling her to say it first!
He took a deep breath. “So that’s it. Love is a rather important word to bandy about, don’t you think?”
She nodded sadly.
“I suppose you’ve said it before — to other young men?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“But doubtless, being seventeen, you’ll say it again many times.”
And good work checking her credibility before you commit yourself.
She looked at him with hatred. “That’s a cheap thing to say.”
Hatred is an important word to bandy about, dear author.
“Yes — it is,” he admitted soberly. “But I’m not seventeen. I’m twenty-one and it’s different.”
Life’s just not the same for us big grown-up men.
“Do you think you mean nothing to me?”
She hesitated. “I don’t know. And I don’t enjoy guessing games.”
“That’s a cynical remark,” he told her.
No, it was an attempt to get you to be forthright and meet her halfway. You’ve extracted a confession from her without committing yourself.
“Francie, do you believe in love at first sight?”
She shrugged. “It’s been known to happen.”
[Tom talks about his Sad Backstory, how he’s “a pretty grim fellow” whose mother is a widow and how he’s had to be serious about things since he was in his teens which was only two or three years ago but who’s counting. But now he reveals that last year, in college, he gave a girl his fraternity pin.]
She couldn’t take any more. She stood up and said bitterly, “You’re full of bombshells today, aren’t you?”
“Sit down,” he said roughly. “We’re getting to know each other.”
Stop telling her what to do!
“I don’t think I want to know any more,” she said, tears rising to her eyes.
“I said, sit down,” he told her. “Because I asked for my fraternity pin back the day I met you.”
“What?” Francine whispered.
[He goes on to say that although he and the girl had a lot in common and got along well, it wasn’t like what he felt for Francine.]
“They used to tease me about being a brain, they used to say I’d never fall in lvoe with a girl who didn’t have at least three degrees after her name. And here I am, an engineer, hopelessly crazy about a girl who flunked math in school. It doesn’t figure, does it?”
“Oh, Tom, I had no idea you were so repulsive!” Francine cried.
No. No, she doesn’t say that, alas.
He finally gets around to saying that he loves her more than he thought it was possible to love anyone… and finishes with, “For me this is it, but I can’t be sure about you.” Which — since Francine doesn’t seem to be keeping track — is another insult.
[He said] “It means we have to play this differently. We’ve got to keep it casual so if you ever change your mind — if you meet somebody else while I’m away — you won’t be afraid to tell me.”
What Francine doesn’t realize is that this goes both ways. He can ask for his fraternity pin back at any time and say, “We talked about this, remember?”
This story doesn’t improve. Tom begins their relationship being condescending and overbearing, and he continues to be so until he boards to the train to leave for the Army. He calls her “silly little goose” and never lets her forget how much older he is. At one point he even orders Francine to look him in the eyes and tell him that it’s fine that he’s going away. Francine is in love, but it isn’t a warm, sweet feeling; it’s a bruising ache, a hurt she didn’t expect. That’s because she fell in love with a jerk.
The thing is, the author knows what a warm, respectful relationship looks like. Tippy’s story with George is quite charming. I like both of them. It makes me wonder how aware the author was of the contrast. After all, she herself divorced her husband of 20 years in 1965 (eleven years after this book). She knew that not all marriages played out beautifully.
My impression of this novel is that the author had to conform to the standards of the time. Peggy’s hardships keep being laid at her feet. She got married early. It was her idea for Andy to try be a photographer. She wanted to move away from home. Her storyline wraps up with them returning to Utah to be near their families, which I think it a great idea; but also Peggy has realized that Andy and baby Debby are all she needs to be happy… which the entire book as proven to be emphatically untrue.
And Tippy, despite seeing firsthand the perils of rushing into marriage as a teenager, wraps up her story by informing her mother that she and George are getting married. Meanwhile, Francine is going to become a nurse, but she’s also waiting loyally for Tom’s return.
Mary is a little different. She declines the conventional security that Big Mike offers her, and instead is determined to continue working and build a life for herself. But it’s only to be a telephone operator, not something threatening like a professor or an engineer, so I guess it’s okay.
After her divorce, Dorothy Gillman wrote the long-running Mrs. Pollifax series. I haven’t read any, but several of my friends have and they like the books. Judging from this early book, I can see why.
This book wasn’t great literature, but I do read it with extra interest. Considering the details that the author included in all of the girls’ stories, I wonder if she was kicking against the restraints of the times, and telling her own story within the accepted formula. If so, I hope many girls heard that story.
Welcome to another meeting of the Vintage Book Club! Please, come in and help yourself to some spaghetti and meat sauce. It’s not a conventional book-club snack, but I love spaghetti and I need all the fortification I can get while reading this book:
The Chorus Lady by James Forbes, a novelization of the play by John W. Harding, published in 1908.
Written on the flyleaf, in pencil: Hiram Klock
It can’t be easy to novelize a play, which communicates everything through dialogue and onstage action. James Forbes was up to the challenge, however. He took a look at the script and said, “What this thing needs is more WORDS.” Here’s how the novel opens:
Morning was breaking under a cheerless November sky athwart which a wind blowing strongly from the west sent the low-hanging clouds scurrying as though it sought to block the gates of dawn and retard the coming of day. A cold rain slanted on to the sodden ground and dripped monotonously from the eaves of a lone wooden shed which, dignified with the title of station — or, rather, in the vernacular of the natives, dee-po — marked the stopping-off place for Maple Grove.
That’s the first two sentences. But no time to rest — we still have fourteen pages of narrative ahead of us. I can’t tell if the first chapter is summarizing part of the actual play, or just filling in pre-Act I backstory. Either way, it’s boring to read what happened before I got here, especially in such overblown prose.
Forbes does stop to sprinkle in some dialogue occasionally. I assume the lines are taken straight from the play. The narrative style and the dialogue style don’t mesh in the slightest. Most of the main characters speak either in Irish dialect or New York slang, so you get weird tonal shifts like this scene involving Dan Mallory and the O’Briens, who have taken him in as family:
Dan was rather fond of airing [his disparaging views of marriage] at the evening reunions of the family and of expatiating upon the advantages of bachelordom and his imperviousness to feminine wiles. Which notions, after a few sharp passage of arms when the subject was first broached, were invariably treated with silent scorn by Mrs. O’Brien, but never failed to call forth from O’Brien (under the eye of his spouse) a perfervid panegryic of the home and family.
“Phwat,” he would demand triumphantly, holding himself up as an example in support of his own arguments and a crushing refutation of those of his lodger, “phwat would Oi be without me woife?”
And Mallory would acquiesce readily in the old fellow’s answer to his own query:
“Oi’d be a lost pup!”
Dan recants his marriage-hating ways when he meets the older O’Brien daughter, Patricia, and they fall in love. Patricia lives in New York City, and shocks her family by announcing that she’s going on the stage. When Dan expresses his fear that the stage “ain’t no place for a good girl,” Patsy says that if they’re going to get married, he has to trust her judgement. They seal their mutual trust with this beautiful exchange:
He returned her gaze steadily.
“You’re all right, little one,” he answered at length, very gently and very slowly. “I will never raise that question again. I will trust you at all times, in all things.”
“It’s a deal,” she said. “Cinch it. Give me your mitt on it.”
And against this uneasy pairing of narrative and dialogue, the trite story unfolds. The principle character is Patsy’s younger sister, 17-year-old Nora. Nora has a weakness for betting and finds herself in debt, but a charming man named Mr. Crawford generously lends her the money to pay it off. Now in debt to Crawford, Nora decides that she needs to join Patsy on the stage in New York City. No one likes this idea, because Nora isn’t as worldly-wise and shrewd as Patsy. But Nora prevails, and they leave the little town of Maple Grove for the glittering, dangerous city.
Early on, I realized that the author liked new chapters because he was unburdened by the demands of the script. He was at his most high-flown when opening a chapter. Well, the arrival to New York City stirred something within him. He spent four pages describing the view of New York City at night. He gets a partial pass because this was in 1908, and electric lights were still dazzling. But not eleven paragraphs’ worth, especially ones like this:
A trail of amber planets, surmounted by a meteor of blood-red garnets, shimmers and undulates, as though shrinking from the kiss of the passing breeze.
A triple tiara of topazes stands high and clear in space above a triangle of jacinth. Other topazes, in ropes, form festoons wreaths, and pillars, rippling cascades and worlds.
In the east two rows of magnificent, diminishing pearls arch the night, their clasps lost to view in the setting of jet; and, seeming to have dropped from their melting splendor, a few scattered jewels glimmer faintly.
I mean, nice imagery, but since the entire point was to say that Nora was dazzled and seduced by the big city, it’s a tad overkill.
Anyway, Nora gets a job in the chorus line with Patsy. She discovers that it’s a lot harder work than she expected. Yet she finds some excitement with Crawford, with whom she sneaks a few lunches here and there behind Patsy’s back. She also sets herself up among her fellow dancers as a bookie, taking their bets on horses and betting herself using tips from Crawford. A few bad bets, however, leave her deep in debt again.
There’s a whole scene with the other chorus girls that I think was chock-full of betting jokes and admiring expensive clothes, but I missed most of it because I know nothing of horse racing and I don’t care about clothes. Even though the author assures me that:
The other purchases were passing from hand to hand, and her colleagues were inspecting them in detail, critically, and judging them mentally or audibly, after the manner of women for whom the new garment of another woman seems to possess an interest, the intenseness of which is not understandable of mere man.
Oh, this book is full of casual misogyny, FYI.
Anyway, I’m a little fuzzy on the rest of the story because I didn’t like any of the characters and I hated the author’s way of talking about them. I started skimming. I think what happens is that Mr. Crawford gets Nora to forge her father’s name promising to pay back something like $300 — a serious amount of money in 1908. When she realizes what she’s done, she runs off to get the note back from him. She’s too naive to realize that he’s a sleazy womanizer, despite his entire decor being reproductions of saucy art, autographed photographs of women, and a bookshelf full of salacious poetry. He sits her down for a private little dinner and gets her to drink a lot, but before he can enact his nefarious plan, Patsy arrives in search of Nora. Nora hides, Crawford says he hasn’t seen her, but Patsy insists on waiting for Nora to arrive. I did catch this wonderful exchange as I flew past:
[Crawford asked], “What will it be, a glass of champagne?”
“Nix with the wealth water,” Patsy refused.
For reasons I’m not sure of, Mrs. O’Brien shows up at Crawford’s. Patsy has to hide at this point, and discovers Nora. THEN, who should arrive but Patsy’s own fiance, Dan! And when it looks as though they are going to find out that Nora is indeed there, Patsy herself bursts forth out of the closet, taking the brunt of her fiance’s and mother’s ire, allowing Nora to escape unseen. Or something. This probably worked much better onstage.
Dan thinks Patsy has cheated on him, and instead of explaining everything, Patsy denies she’s done anything wrong and bursts into hysterical tears. Then they find out about the forged note and Dan realizes that Patsy was merely protecting Nora. I’m not sure how; I guess it was a leap of logic that my womanly brain failed to grasp. The debt is paid, the women’s virtue is intact, and after such a harrowing brush with ruin, Dan says that it’s high time that Patsy comes back home. She agrees.
The family is in dire straits, though, because the men kept making bad business decisions. Now they don’t even have the income from the steady job that both women held. No fear! One of their old stablehands comes into some family money and goes into partnership with Dan. Not only that, but he’s always been in love with Nora. So the novel ends with the men saving the day, the bad guy ruined, and the women safely married off.
This book is all about having your cake and eating it too. It preaches that marriage is good, yet portrays its married man living subservient to a griping, critical wife. It disapproves of betting, yet treats the audience to plenty of discussion and drama revolving around betting. It disapproves of the revealing costumes worn by the dancing girls, yet makes sure that its characters wear them for the second half of the play.
By the way, here are some pictures from the play, showing the women in their dancing costumes. Nora’s is described as “rather short,” and that her “arms were bare… she was in deep decollete [showing cleavage], and that her neck and bust were exceedingly shapely.” I notice that the cleavage has been airbrushed away:
The story is fixated on sex — specifically, whether the women are getting it — without ever naming it. Instead, it talks about how some women enjoy expensive gifts and lifestyles from men, or hints at the dark ruin that could befall “a good girl.” You have to understand the implication or else you’ll think that there’s something immoral about nice clothes and going to dinner with a man. (Ever watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s without understanding that the two main characters are prostitutes? It’s baffling.)
Twice Patsy asks Nora if she’s “gone to the bad.” One of those times is when they’re both hiding in Crawford’s home. Patsy realizes that Crawford was trying to seduce Nora, and is frightened at how close he came. These stories treat sex like an easy step from a dinner and drink, even though it takes time and effort just from a mechanics standpoint. The overwhelming concern for the status of Nora’s virtue leaves me to wonder… did it matter whether she participated willingly? Or did it just matter whether she’d had it done to her? A dark speculation, but inspired by the thread of misogyny running through the narrative.
Anyway, none of these elements is original to this story. There’s nothing original about this story. Well, except possibly this…
The sun-flooded air of Maple Grove was once more redolent of the awakening fields and woods. Beneath the glowing fruit-buds violets that carpeted the ground between the trees sent up sweet incense that passing zephyrs bore through open windows. Peace and a great felicity were upon the homestead.
… which is the purple-prose way of saying “they lived happily ever after.”
Oops, I got spaghetti sauce on Nora’s shockingly short hem. Good thing she gave up life on the stage and didn’t have sex until she was the wife of a rich man.
Well, hi! Welcome to the Vintage Book Club. Today’s refreshment is ham and cheese on toast, with sweet tea to drink. (Be sure to put a dab of yellow mustard on the melted cheese. Yum.) Today’s book selection:
Old McDonald Had a Farmby Angus McDonald, published in 1942.
Written on the flyleaf, in pen: GW Grosso
The introduction explains: “This book is about my father, James Angus McDonald, and how he labored to make a good farm out of a poor one. I lived on this farm with him and my brother, sister, and mother from 1912 to 1922 near Sallisaw, Oklahoma.”
These two sentences sum up the memoir brilliantly. They lay out exactly what the book is about, while the detached tone hints at the ambivalence that the reader will feel for old man McDonald.
The book opens with the author, then about nine years old, standing with his father overlooking a washed-out, ruined farmland. The deep gullies that scar the land is, in particular, the obvious work of the devil. His father — whom Angus refers to as “the old man” throughout the book — is a Scottish Presbyterian preacher, but has always wanted to return to farming. This land will go for cheap, and the old man is convinced that he can turn it into a real farm. Despite all advice to the contrary, including from his brother who owns the bank who lends him the money, the old man buys this “rock and air” farm and sets out to improve it.
I enjoyed the descriptions of how they improved the land. I’m not sure why; I don’t like yard work, much less gardening, and far far less actual farming. I suppose I love stories of redemption, even if it’s just for dirt. I enjoyed reading about farm life over a century ago, even when Angus would fall into jargon that I only vaguely understood: “The old man turned the ground and harrowed it three or four times so it would be pulverized. Then he laid off rows with a Georgia stock and a bull-tongue.” I liked reading about how they constructed dams in the gullies, which kept the topsoil from washing away. I hadn’t realized that a good working farm allowed everyone in the family, even the children, to make money — whether from selling crops, eggs, animals, or fruit. Not that this income came without hard work, but they had more opportunity than my suburban kids do.
I really would have preferred the book to just be about the farm, maybe even year-by-year as the old man made it into something special. But Angus had more to do in this book than reminisce. I think he was trying to come to a peace about this man who was his father.
He wasn’t a bad man, old McDonald. When I read an old book like this, I try to discern what the original audience would find most important to know about a person. The old man was a dedicated, tireless worker. If something needed to be done, he did it thoroughly and with excellence. He was also fiercely loyal to his Presbyterian faith. He supported his family by preaching at three different churches. He never missed a Sunday, learned everyone’s names, and earned the trust of the Cherokee who lived around them. He forbad working on Sundays — a major sacrifice for someone like him. His family might have to work hard, but they never lacked water, wood, or food. I think that all these qualities weighed heavily in his favor to a mid-WWII audience.
He had other virtues that a 2020 reader would have appreciated knowing earlier in the story. For instance, the old man gave a withering response to someone who claimed he didn’t mind blacks (obviously he used the different word) except that they “smelled so bad.” The old man pointed out how shocked this man would be to find “Negroes” in heaven. When the man doubled-down on his despicable claim, the old man then suggested that he would find very comfortable company among other “snobs” who also didn’t make it to heaven. It was an interesting exchange and definitely highlighted a good side of the old man’s rugged obstinacy.
And he needed all those highlights he could get, because by page 4 I already disliked him. He was stubborn, “asked advice of everyone and took it from no one,” and frequently his family had to face dangerous consequences of his decisions before he would reconsider. He didn’t treat his wife particularly kindly. Not so much that he was abusive, but because he’d made up his mind early on about the kind of person she was, and never bothered to check with her as to whether he was right. (He insisted that his wife was “a city woman” who spent extravagantly, and Angus goes to pains to point out that his mother was a very capable farmwife who hardly ever bought herself anything new.) The old man grew angry when his children questioned his opinions. He was constantly diagnosing the problems that were “driving America to rack and ruin,” which included greedy bankers, farmers who grew cotton for profit instead of food for life, railroads, Republicans, and — especially above all — lazy men.
He was sort of like Siegfried Farnon (All Creatures Great and Small) or Frank Gilbreth (Cheaper by the Dozen), men who tore through life with big ideas and energy and expected everyone to fall in line with them. But this book was written without the overlay of affection and comedy that made the reader smile at Siegfried or Gilbreth. As Angus sums up in his laconic way late in the book (emphasis mine):
“Death [of the old man] would come in a few years, and I shuddered when I thought of the interim. I felt that the old man would never accept old age. He had always seemed old to me, not in the sense of decrepitude but in the sense of permanence. He was one of those unchangeable things in our lives which, like the hills and the land and the sky, would always be there. I had no great conscious affection for him …. yet I could not imagine life without him, because he dominated me and every living thing with which he came in contact. Without him none of us would have direction. There would be no use in living.”
I suspect that the family got along just fine without him, once they realized that there was a world beyond the old man and his opinions. Angus seemed to have reached a peace, or at least resignation, regarding his upbringing. It’s obvious that whatever else he thought, he did admire the way his father turned that “air and rock” farm into one of the most prosperous homesteads in the county. He concludes with,
“The funeral services were held in the old church in Fort Smith where he had once been the pastor. The minister told what a good man he was and how many souls he had saved. He didn’t mention the soil he had saved.”
Welcome to the first meeting of the Vintage Book Club! This isn’t your ordinary book club. Oh, no, in this club we read obscure old books that nobody else does. Also, I say “we,” but that’s misleading because I’m the only member.
I’m not good at actual book clubs. I either don’t like the selections or the discussion irritates me. But as the founder, president, and member of the VBC, I get to choose any random old book I’m interested in and talk about it the way I like to. Plus I get to serve refreshments that only I like. This meeting’s menu includes chocolate chips and maraschino cherries with milk poured over them, which I eat like a deconstructed chocolate covered cherry cereal. See, it’s all for the best this way.
Anyway, let’s get this book club going. Pictured above are the five old books I’m going to talk about. The logical choice is to start with the oldest. But that’s The Chorus Lady, published in 1908, and I’m actually still reading it. So let’s jump to the next one on the list.
Knock About Notes by John J. Cornwall, published in or around 1916.
Handwritten on the flyleaf: Ada Mae Hawse from Mr. Sewell (?) 1915 –
I found this little book in a thrift store, sitting on an antique school desk. The introduction explains that Cornwall was the editor of The Hampshire Review, a turn-of-the-century newspaper for the community of Romney, Hampshire County, West Virginia. The book is a collection his column, Knock About Notes, in which he wrote down random thoughts, original verse, and observations for seventeen years.
I bought the book in high excitement. Here I could lose myself in a long-gone world and see what the people there considered to be entertaining or inspirational or, I hoped, funny.
Well, I had to give up on the funny part really soon. Cornwall appears to have been of a melancholy, poetic turn of mind. Additionally, this book is dedicated to “the memory of an only son, John J. Cornwall, Jr., who died February 10, 1914 in his 18th year.” So the man who wrote and compiled these observations was, I think, a sad man. The tone of each short sketch tends to be sentimental (if not saccharine), with a dark edge of grief.
For instance, the first sketch is entitled “A Lady’s Scrap-Book.” Cornwall writes that he “chanced upon an old scrap-book, the property of a good woman gone nearly a decade ago,” and was taken by the “history of the human life it so aptly portrayed.” The first few pages, he explains, included poems and recitations from her early school days — poems whose very titles bring back memories of Friday evenings at the schoolhouse. But as he turned the pages, the schoolgirl poems gave way to ones which “breathe love and tender sentiment.” Profuse illustrations included one of a young man “in a wooded glen, carving the image of a heart onto the bark of a maple, while a maiden gazes wistfully over his shoulder.” Yet still the pages turn, and now the poems and illustrations are filled with “the spirit of motherhood,” speaking of lullabies as the young mother sings peace and happiness over her firstborn baby.
But then this scrapbook takes an unexpectedly dark turn. The next pages are full of verses of sorrow and heartbreak as the mother is mourning the loss of her child.
The rest of the sketch dwells on the bleakness and sorrows of life. He mentions that the end of the scrapbook was filled with clippings that the woman meant to paste in, but she died before her work was done. He concludes with, “In every life there comes shadow as well as sunshine, invisible to others, perhaps, but dark and sombre, nevertheless that shuts out light and hope and leaves one groping onward for a time in utter rayless night.”
Well, okay then. I think I’ll go crawl up under my grandmother’s old quilt for the rest of the day. Wow.
Not every sketch is so sad. Sometimes he rouses up a fiery spirit against the young people of the day who are abandoning the good and lovely songs like “Annie Laurie,” “The Last Rose of Summer,” or “Silver Threads Among Gold.” Instead, he hears that popular “rag-time” style: “…a jangle and a jerk and a slash and a bang, music for and from the dancehalls and the cabaret shows where painted cheeks and glassy eyes dominate.” He rues the loss of the former music, which stimulates clean, pure thought and reflections, for that new sound that is both a symptom and a cause of the general moral decadence among the young people of the day. Apparently generations past used the same script that we still use today.
The entire collection goes along in this vein: repeating what are obviously fictional setups (scrapbooks, overheard conversations, interactions between people he’s watching) to make an observation and a point. And it being written when it was, the purple prose is richly hued:
“We are thrice glad to have news, always, for the task of making a local newspaper interesting to two thousand subscribers and five times as many readers, in a quiet community, where sensations are few and killings have gone out of fashion, is the task that would tax the brain of a genius though he worked on a handsome salary and was not compelled to keep one eye on the wolf all the while, lest the snarling, sniffling brute come scratching at the door.”
I’m too late to the party to enjoy this much. But obviously enough people appreciated it at the time to warrant a whole book. I think many people still would. In fact, I could take any one of these little sketches, pare the sentiment down to about 10%, and make a meme out of it. I guarantee it would get shared — maybe even two thousand times, with five times as many readers.
So that’s Knock About Notes. Join me next time for whichever book I decide to talk about next. And help yourself to the cherries and chocolate chips, really!
As I sit down to write this, Gamerboy is flopped over a giant stuffed narwhal (his gift from Bookgirl), watching stupid funny videos with Sparkler. It’s hard to believe that it’s been this long since I held that 7-pound baby tightly wrapped in a striped hospital blanket; but listening to his laughter makes me appreciate the stage where we are now.
Gamerboy has always had the ability to brighten up the household with his silliness and wit. He was finding reasons to laugh and make jokes almost as soon as he became aware of his world. These days, his conversation is a bewildering mix of memes, internet slang, Shakespeare references, song lyrics (from bands nobody’s heard of), and the occasional deep philosophical or theological thought. Gamerboy is a deep thinker, but finds that territory overwhelming and doesn’t dwell there.
In person, he can come across as brusque because most social niceties are beyond him and he has a deep dislike of insincerity. However, he’s also one of the most physically affectionate members of the family. I’m not one of those moms who wistfully remembers the bygone days when her son would hug her. Gamerboy envelopes me in hugs at random but fairly frequent intervals.
His blog name is Gamerboy for a reason. He loves playing games, modifying games, and hopes to develope games one day. As has been for many years, one of his favorite ways to while away an hour or two or six is playing Dungeons & Dragons. At our last co-op, he led a weekly campaign for the younger boys. When all that shut down, he found online friends and spends Sunday afternoons in high adventure and mayhem. It’s been fun for DJ and me to listen in (we don’t have a choice; the computer is in the middle of the house) and note how his skill at leading the game and playing characters has improved.
When he was young, he surrounded himself with a crowd of imaginary friends — most taken from the computer game Age of Mythology but given decidedly pedestrian names. He’d talk about Pretzel the Promethean or Organize the Mountain Giant. Kamos the minotaur had a better name, but from all reports couldn’t fit in our minivan so had to drive his toy car behind us when we went to town. Now, as a young man, he often immerses himself in an intricate story which he’s never written down, but will discuss occasionally with his siblings. He misses his friend E, who was one of the only non-family people that Gamerboy felt completely at ease around.
This year he’ll get his license, graduate from high school, and then we’ll figure out where to go from there. He’s not excited about becoming an adult, exactly, but as with many other challenges he’s faced, he squares his shoulders and does what he needs to.
Now he and Sparkler have relocated (with the narwhal) to watch The Muppets Most Wanted. We’re all on break from school this week, it’s his birthday… so what else to do, but find something to laugh at?
Happy birthday, Gamerboy. You’re pretty poggers and not cringe at all. We love you.
[Picture to come. They need my laptop to stream the movie.]
Yesterday I looked at my calendar. Normally when I flip to a new month, I fill in upcoming events, when credit card payments are due, and note birthdays or holidays. But November stared back at me, completely blank. Why hadn’t I filled it out, I wondered?
Oh, right. Because October ended and November began with the Renaissance Faire, Halloween, and a surprise visit from DJ’s mom!
The Ren Faire was a small affair (seems like that should be a joke but I can’t figure it out). We went last year and enjoyed it. Then it got canceled this spring. So when they announced they were holding it on Halloween, well, even DJ and I got into the spirit of things.
DJ said, “I’d like to have a cloak to wear to the Ren Faire. Could we, like, get a curtain and cut holes in it like a poncho or something?”
“I might could rig something,” I said, with the confidence of someone who doesn’t actually know how to make clothes.
It took me a week and a lot of fudging. I wouldn’t say the transformation from curtain to cloak was, you know, total, but DJ has enough dignity to carry what he’s given.
My costume was that of a cross-century cross-dresser because it was mostly male clothes from some indeterminate medieval era, and I carry it off a lot like a middle-aged Keebler elf who’s trying to dress like the young folk. But it was comfortable.
The kids had costumes as well, of course. We bought Gamerboy’s mask, and I put the rest together with various fabric and a whole lot of hot glue.
Ranger’s simple costume, made very unsettling by the mask that DJ found for him, is an homage to the multiplayer computer game that’s all the rage among GenZ right now, Among Us. If you don’t know what it is, well, I guess you’re pretty sus. And that’s the limit of my ability to reference that game.
The rule is that if you put real thought and work into your costume, you can go trick-or-treating no matter how old you are. Bookgirl rushed home from work to become a fey queen.
“Hey, Sparkler,” she said, “I decided what I am. The Queen of Ravens.”
“So you’re a YA novel?” Sparkler replied.
Sparkler and her friend, meanwhile, displayed two different interpretations of the theme they’d agreed on.
Our kids are old enough to “go around” by themselves now. I’ve gladly given up chaperoning duties. DJ always preferred handing out candy . This year he accommodated current health concerns:
The trick-or-treating crowd was much smaller this year — although still bigger than last year when we got a Noahic deluge throughout most of the evening.
It was a fun weekend. And then we discovered that DJ’s mom, who had visited her sisters in Florida, had a layover at the Baltimore airport on Tuesday. She asked if she could possibly fit in a visit with us before returning to Canada.
The answer, of course, was of course. The border between Canada and the U.S. has never felt like such a barrier as it has this year. DJ’s dad, in fact, was not able to cross as a Canadian citizen. Bookgirl and Ranger and I drove to the airport and fetched Nana. DJ couldn’t do it because he was serving as an officer for this election that was held recently, don’t know if you heard about it.
Nana is a big favorite with her grandkids, although all of them are bigger than she is.
She also took a few gems while she was here.
Me and my boys:
Bookgirl at work:
(And I got this more cluttered but fun picture of Nana thanking Bookgirl for pausing to get a photo)
Nana taught Ranger how to play the card game Back Alley. He won the first time, but the second time he found out that Nana might be small and sweet, but she’s no slacker when it comes to games.
She also caught this action moment when DJ, Ranger, and I were playing my new favorite game, Dialect (I’ll do a whole post on it, don’t worry). I’m not sure what we’re discussing, but my character obviously does not agree with whatever nefarious scheme that DJ’s character is insisting on.
And in case you were worried, the bunny is fine. In this picture, Sparkler was hungry and wanted to get up to get some lunch, but was forced to wait until Cosmic was done with… whatever Cosmic was doing.
Nana packed in a lot of visiting in a few days. She’s now safely back home with Grandpa — a thousand miles and one international border away. Alas.
It’s funny how a blank calendar could remind me of what was actually a very busy and fun week.
But I do want to take a moment, before I fill in my calendar for November, to reveal what I’m pretty sure will become a new hot trend in bangs fashion. Why wouldn’t it?!
“It was a great time, but I forgot to take pictures.” This statement accurately describes not only our 20th anniversary getaway, but also our 20 years of marriage.
It’s not that I don’t take any pictures. Where would Mundania be without interesting wall-shadows and lamp posts with nametags on them? But intentional, memory-keeping photos tend to be in short supply. Likewise, when DJ and I finally got to go on a true three-day weekend away together, I forgot to take pictures of our cozy little place, forgot to take pictures of the streets with golden autumn leaves drifting down, even forgot to take pictures of the food we ate! Well, except for this pizza:
But that was just so I could send it to Gamerboy. When he was young, he politely turned down a mushroom pizza with, “No thanks, I don’t prefer plants on my pizza.” Well, this whole dang thing was plants. My kids said it was “cursed.” It was actually very tasty.
DJ and I didn’t go very far away. But that was okay, because the way we got there was on the train. I love riding the train.
He chose our destination based on some important criteria, considering that this was a special anniversary for us. 1. It had a lot of shops and restaurants within walking distance of the train station and our AirBnB because we wouldn’t have a car. Well, that was basically it. I guess it was based on criterion.
We stayed in a little suite called “The Attic.” It was inside a bland brick house and up a steep flight of steps carpeted in pale green. When we opened the door and stepped in, however, it was as if we escaped into our own little honeymoon world. The space was very small, but jam-packed with art and books and knick-knacks. We sat on the little couch in the tiny living room and pointed at stuff. “Is that painting… Buddhist?” “Hindu, I think. And I saw Jewish stars in the hallway. Oh, look over the window, that’s… Star Trek figurines.” “There’s a plastic Hawaiian hula dancer on top of the fridge.” “Did you notice the quilts on the bed?” “I was distracted by the books on the bookcase.” We never ran out of things to look at and look for. I even spotted a Littlest Pet Shop kitten perched on the ceiling fan.
A small kitchen gave us a coffee maker, toaster, and a loaf of bread. A tiny dining table gave us somewhere to play games. We could relax in the same room, or we could disappear into the second room if we needed a little solitude. (After twenty years, we have a deep appreciation both for each other’s company and for being by ourselves.) Obviously I forgot to take any pictures, but you’re welcome to picture just how cozy and otherworldly it felt.
The Attic was within walking distance of the walking mall in town. DJ and I aren’t big walkers, but we enjoyed the mile-long trek through old neighborhoods to get to the mall. The weather was perfect — brilliant blue autumn sky, temperatures hovering around 60, and trees just changing or losing their leaves. There was lots to look at, like Halloween decorations:
And a graveyard. Cemeteries are a longtime pastime of ours; we stopped at one on our honeymoon. Not only are there a vast variety of names to browse, but we frequently happen upon little puzzles. For instance, why would this woman have been identified in death as “sister of”? Maud was buried next to her. She was 29 years older than Jamie and died twenty years before. We wondered if Jamie were a much-younger sister whom Maud raised… or if Jamie were actually Maud’s illegitimate daughter.
Lots of half-told stories to be found in a graveyard.
The walking mall was lined with interesting places like chocolate shops and game stores. We’d eat a meal, browse a while, then return to the Attic to eat chocolate and play games. And I won sometimes (not pictured).
We wore our matching Anniversary shirts. But one of us is always colder than the other one of us, and it was a breezy fall day so one of us had to wear a sweatshirt. Never mind that one of us was born in Canada.
We checked in with the kids regularly. They checked in with us… pretty much never. At least we knew they weren’t too anxious. Bookgirl was in charge, but she had to work two of the days. So she left instructions for emergency procedures: “If [A] is hurt, [B] messages me and [C] runs to get the neighbors.” It was all excellent until the very end where she advises that if someone breaks into the house, to hit him with “a schoolbook — one of the heavy ones” and she admitted to me that it was late at night by the time she was writing that scenario.
At length, we had to bid goodbye to The Attic and return to the train station. The train was only about an hour late, practically on time!
And we got home to the kids, who greeted us excitedly… because I’d mentioned that we had new games and some chocolate. Otherwise they were pretty casual about us being back home.
Until a few hours later when I found myself surrounded by four goofy kids who maybe did miss us a little after all.
It wasn’t the grand getaway we’d talked about back in January. But it was fun, special, and we made a lot of good memories. Despite the way 2020 pushed everything sideways, our anniversary was good. I might even say it was better than we pictured.