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Welcome to the Jones Home!

Visit my About page, where I introduce ourselves, or just scroll down for the most recent wit and wisdom and… well, just whatever I decided to post about today. Glad you’re here. Leave a comment, and “Follow” the blog to keep up with the Joneses!

— SJ

Welcome Back, Back Yard

DJ remarked to one of our kids a couple of weeks ago, “It’s really springtime — Mom is working on the back yard.”

Over the years, I have put in a lot of effort to “get the back yard in shape” for summer. We like to hang out around the fire pit (which, as a reminder, is literally a pit we build a fire in), roast marshmallows, and have friends over. Here’s an evening in 2018 when DJ led a D&D campaign around the fire.

But the past two years haven’t been this way.

In 2019, we’d just lost E, and no one really wanted to hang out in the yard where he and my kids used to play all summer. I did some half-hearted trimming and clearing-out, but we just stayed inside a lot of that summer.

Then came 2020 and all its weirdness. I didn’t want to deal with the back yard. I started fantasizing to DJ about having a house in town with a tiny yard that I could mow with a manual push mower. What with the broken trampoline, various other junk, an overgrowing fire pit, a defunct sand pit, and weeds around the fence and deck… the yard just wasn’t welcoming anymore.

This year, however, I took notice. Not only was the back yard a sad remnant of the summer haven it used to be, but my body was feeling the effects of slowing down. My lower back hurt for a week just because I’d bent down to clean the dining room floor. I’ve never been a paragon of fitness, but all of a sudden I felt creaky and weak, and I didn’t like it at all.

I hate mindless exercise, but when I have a purpose — such as getting the back yard in shape — I can go for hours. I mean, I hate yard work too, but at least I accomplish something that way. I decided I’d tackle the yard again this year.

The first thing I did was disassemble the broken trampoline. (I saved one of the springs in memory of E.) The desolate late-winter light gives the whole thing a post-apocalyptic vibe.

Once the accumulated junk was hauled away, the trampoline left a tidy circle of bare ground. I briefly considered planting vegetables or flowers, and then hauled away that junk thought. A garden is like yardwork that needs a babysitter. No thanks.

What if, instead, I used that pre-cleared ground to make a new fire pit area? One that didn’t constantly grow in on itself, or fill up with water for two days after every rainfall? (I referred to it as “the elemental pit — sometimes a fire pit, sometimes a water pit.”) In lieu of landscaping cloth, I laid out some of the hundreds of paper grocery bags we’d collected since the grocery store stopped taking returns during COVID. Then Darren and the kids carried a couple dozen bags of gravel and sand to the site. We got a firebowl, and I gathered twelve baskets-full of broken edging and paving stones I’d accumulated over the years. Meanwhile, I cleaned up the sand pit. And spring came, making the back yard look less like something out of the Hunger Games.

Last night we inaugurated our new fire pit area.

I wish it were bigger around, that the gravel were deeper, that I could string lights above it… any number of Pinterest improvements. But as it is, it’s good. The kids enjoy playing in the sand pit and talking to each other, DJ and I enjoy the fire, and the physical labor has helped with the creaks in my middle-aged body.

The back yard is welcoming again, and it feels good.

Mundania: Getaways and Grown-up Kids

It’s spring, at long last. You know what that means! It means that the Joneses are living their same ordinary lives, illustrated by whatever random photos I decided to take at any given moment. Here’s one to open with:

“Hey, y’all, hey look at me, I’m a tree! I’m a tree!”

(In less than a year, this ambitious little cloud would branch out into snow business.)

Elsewhere, this plaque caught my eye because… well, 2020 was just a hard year for everybody, wasn’t it?

Mom gave me this tablecloth. It’s pretty, but it had a few stains I didn’t know what to do with. So I dyed it. I chose pink, which went on very dark, and at first I was afraid I’d created a Murder Holiday Tablecloth with dramatic bloodstains. It all evened out in the wash. I was miffed that the polyester lace squares took the dye way better than they should have, but overall it’s… cheerful, anyway.

This picture features the tablecloth that my mom gave me, paired with the china that DJ’s mom gave him. The unironed wrinkled look is all mine, though.

I don’t like it when parents refer to their grown children as “babies.” This is completely my opinion and shouldn’t in any way decide what you want to do. But my kids aren’t babies anymore, and in fact I enjoy them a lot more now that they’re not. So I don’t call them babies.

I mean… seriously. This is a young man — with a beard that he’s spent many years cultivating.

And we no longer have to lift up this one so he can reach this spinning-wheel thingy at the park. (Wow. It wasn’t that long ago, either.)

Yet… my children can still fall asleep in my lap. Only they’re way bigger now, and it’s because they work all week and are also doing two classes.

Springtime does bring one change to the household — it’s conference season. And this year, there are actually a few conferences. DJ has several lined up, which of course eats up our weekends. So he took a couple of days off last week for a quick little getaway. We can do these overnights now that, you know, we don’t have babies.

DJ searched AirBnB and found us this little schoolhouse built in 1888.

It was renovated and improved, of course, but they preserved the look of the schoolhouse. The ceiling and floor appeared to be original — or at least old.

I was particularly impressed by how they created “rooms” by putting the bed on one side of the divider and hanging the TV on the other side.

AND EVEN BETTER was the creek just a few feet away from the house. It was a fast, happy, rushing creek and I loved it.

Also, I assume this was where the outhouse once stood. We, fortunately, had an indoor, enclosed, tip-top modern bathroom including a toilet with a small nightlight.

The little schoolhouse and the remains of the community around it gave us a lot to look at and think about as we drove. But none of the 19th-century farmhouses and mid-20th century postwar houses caught my eye quite like this round house. My mom said it looks like a very substantial yurt.

Back home, I visited my friend in her new home. She said that they discovered they have a lilac bush at the side of the house, on account of it suddenly bursting into purple blooms. She sent a cutting home with me because DJ loves lilac; it reminds him of growing up in New Hampshire. Looking for a vase, I pulled out this little pitcher that someone gave me for a wedding present. So we put this New Hampshire flower in a Mississippi vase, and had our Virginia daughter hold it for the picture. I think that’s a nice wrap-up for a Mundania.

Well, actually, I need to point out how the rabbit is keeping an eye and ear on me, hoping for a treat. (He got one.)

Unkovering Historikal Postkards

While trying to track down information on an old building in this area, I came across vintage postcards on eBay. I love vintage postcards, especially ones that have messages on them.

(Although I would like to pause here and complain a teensy bit to those who have gone before us, leaving only words in fading ink: why didn’t you ever write something interesting?

Most old letters are almost exclusively concerned with who is sick and who is well. One letter I found said, “I had a good time touring Europe with Betty this summer. Roger’s ankle is bad and you may have heard that Mother was in the hospital again, but I’m feeling much better since September.” In a book when someone discovers an old letter full of explosive, plot-altering news, rest assured that it’s total fiction. Instead of revealing that the babies were switched at birth, Mabel would have just talked about how her cold is getting better.)

Anyway, as I browsed, I found the logo above. There’s so much about it that annoys me. Let’s discuss.

  1. I don’t know when the postcard was printed, so I’m not sure if “Triangle K” carried the association that blares out to us. I mean, considering the post-Civil War atmosphere in Virginia (where this postcard is from), they probably wouldn’t have minded the KKK association; but I don’t know whether it was deliberate or not.
  2. The logo on the left has 4 Ks. Not 3.
  3. In the center logo, why did they spell it “Korrect” and “Authentik” but not “Historikally”? That would have given them a third K.
  4. Because of the placement of the Ks in the words, the center logo does spell out KKK. And they sure do lean heavily into the idea that they provide authentic and correct history. Except that they spell it to suit their own purposes. Can’t deny the parallels here.
  5. “Always ask for Triangle Kards because they are korrect & authentik.”

I’m konvinced!

New Short Story Collection: A Bowl of Pho

A Bowl of Pho: very short stories by [Sara Roberts Jones]

I’ve written some short stories for your reading pleasure. Well, to be honest, I wrote them for my writing pleasure. But I hope you like them too.

A Bowl of Pho is a collection of ten very short stories. When I say “very short,” that’s what I mean. The whole project began with a challenge to write a 300-word story. Since I recently had to shelve my 131,000-word novel, telling any kind of story in 300 words seemed both trivial and impossible. I was half-wrong — and fortunately it was about the impossible part.

It turned out that writing these vignettes was therapeutic. I let myself go beyond the 300-word limit, but I still kept them all short. It was fun, low-pressure, and got me excited about writing again.

As my catalogue of “mini-stories” grew, I wanted to prove to myself that I can still bring an idea to completion, despite the smoking wreckage of a novel behind me. So I did it. I didn’t overthink anything (as in, I’m pretty sure the art on the front is ramen, not pho). I just I wrote the stories, designed a cover, and put the collection up on Kindle Direct Publishing.

The stories are similar in style to Go Right: they’re warm, fun, and perfect to read over a cup of coffee. I didn’t tackle anything very weighty. I wrote what I liked and called it done.

It’s currently available on Amazon for $2.99. A “pocket-book” size paperback will be coming soon. I hope you check it out!

A Happy Day in Littletonville Town America USA

Sometimes I do things that make me laugh a lot, while everyone around me is just mildly amused. Since this is my blog, I get to laugh at my own jokes. The rest of you can smile politely.

I was reading a puzzle catalogue and found a series of puzzles that I thought were hilarious. Normally I don’t pick too much at clumsy art, since even clumsy art is better than anything I can create. But I’ve got it in for this type of puzzle. It’s a genre that plays heavily on nostalgic Americana, presenting a version of the past where everyone lives in a small town, smiles a lot, and is white. Seriously, after browsing a hundred puzzles, it starts to look like an eerie Aryan dystopia. Where are all the people whose skin isn’t a cheerful pink and white? Why are all these people so happy all the time? Why do they always own a red or blue truck?

Then I saw these puzzles, where as a stylistic choice the artist gave everyone elongated limbs and odd bodily proportions. I started laughing. And then I got inspired. I created an entire photo essay, giggling as I went. My family looked over my shoulder, smiled a time or two, and said, “Um, why did you do this?”

Because it’s an entire town of androids who are living like humans based on all these nostalgic puzzles they’ve seen. That’s funny.

So for your mild amusement, I present:

A Happy Day in Littletonville Town America USA

1.

Here in Littletonville Town, we live like the happy humanfolk that we definitely are! Here are Betty Mo, Dianatha, and Mary June selling quilts they make daily, as most female humanfolk do in small American villages.

Oops, Dianatha’s electronic eye fell out of place… quickly, look at the happy cats! Happy like everyone here!

2.

Miss Ammie Smarth, the teacher in Littletonville Town, helps the children humanfolk work in the community garden. See the pretty flowers! They will make a nice salad sandwich!

Miss Ammie notices little Bully’s hands and briefly considers the subtext that the only non-pale skin in the whole town is because of literal dirt, but quickly resumes her normal programming way of thinking.

3.

After a vigorous morning harvesting puppies from the dog patch, it’s time to let the happy humanfolk take some home. Puppies bring happiness and friendship to us.

Oh, no! It looks like Travy and Cornea Jombs are arguing about Mr. John Coop’s blue truck. They need to adopt a puppy ASPIC!

4.

Only the best animals bring enough joy, so the Littletonville Town Mayor and Assistant-Mayor periodically inspect all the pets.

Mayor Amadama Full is part octopus (on her paternal side) so she is pleased with little Flissa’s goldfish.

Ha ha! It looks like Sussy put on the wrong torso when she got dressed that morning!

And oops, Binnie Roo forgot half her pony! Such comic episodes at the Pet Contest!

5.

It’s everyone’s favorite day at the Littletonville Town Welcome Kids Rodeo! It’s hosted by Mayor Full and her family. Little Binnie Roo is singing the National Anthem, “America The Great and Beautiful Land of Liberty and Justice for All.”

Twins Patty and Ratty forgot that real horses aren’t on sticks, ha ha!

Everyone is happy except for Bully and Bob who have to wear the Red Stripe Socks this time. Everyone knows that ponies will attack red stripes. Next time Bully and Bob won’t steal half of Binnie Roo’s pony!

6.

At the end of every day in Littletonville Town, the humanfolk gather in their own family units for a happy picnic. Everything is as it should be, with smiling animals and a blue truck. The family unit sits at the table together and eats salad sandwiches.

Miss Ammie Smarth, the teacher, watches her unit with happiness from the porch where she lives.

It is a very happy place here in Littletonville Town America USA!

*

(And here is the photo essay, literally cut-and-pasted, with the original handwritten captions. As my family said: “Why did you do this?”)

Mundania: The Thirteenth Month

So how was Winter 2021? Or, as we all affectionately referred to it, The Thirteenth Month of 2020? (All of it. From January to now. It’s all been the thirteenth month.)

Well, I figured we could start with how Ranger won the award for “Most Thoughtful Random Gifts.” I present: my new t-shirt:

It’s Minecraft-themed and personalized, and that’s funny because I don’t play Minecraft! But he did spell my name correctly, which is good because otherwise I’d have had to send him back with the shirt.

As random as a Minecraft shirt is, it’s got nothing on the Kyle Mug:

It’s a picture of a typewriter with the words, “Who is this Kyle person and why has no one told me about him?!” You might be racking your brain for this reference — is it a video game? A show? A YouTuber who plays Minecraft (good guess, anyway!). No, it’s much more obscure than that.

In his math book, a reading problem referred to “Ranger” (using his real name, of course) and “his brother Kyle…” I wrote underneath it, “What?! Who is Kyle? Why didn’t anyone tell me about him?”

Well, as you can imagine, this was high comedy. So funny, in fact, that when it came to ordering a gift for me, Ranger knew exactly what he wanted to immortalize. Hence the Kyle Mug. It’s a favorite.

As this winter crawled past, we had brilliant moments:

And mysterious moments:

And a whole lot of gray in between.

The Valentine’s Exchange, despite Ranger’s reservations at the idea of sending love notes to nine strangers, was a success for both him and Sparkler:

This long winter did at least have animals in it. Here’s Gamerboy with our neighbors’ cat, Snickers, who never ever gets enough cuddles:

And Bookgirl with Cosmic, who isn’t so much cuddling as tolerating.

It’s kind of like Gamerboy and Bookgirl are posing with their personality mascots, to be honest.

Let’s see, what else happened this Thirteenth Month? Well, Sparkler and I saw an eagle:

And I put up string lights in the living room in a battle against winter.

I’v noticed that my living room always looks overwhelmingly brown in all these pictures. Shortly after this photo was taken, that old recliner finally broke, and the new one is a light beige. The difference that made to the overall brightness of the living room was surprising. One of these days we’re getting new carpet, but I’m going to avoid choosing it during the winter or we’ll end up with white with white highlights with an undertone of white.

You can see our Game Shelf to the right. I cleaned out all our games and managed to fit all of these on one shelf! Not pictured is the additional three-foot basket full of games, plus the top of the closet. It’s not that we have a problem with buying too many games; we’re actually quite good at it.

DJ treated himself to an expansion of his current favorite game, Terraforming Mars. It took the boys and us three evenings to finish the whole thing.

Here’s DJ dressed to the nines for Thirteenth Month.

But spring is almost here. Good riddance to another winter.

A Taste for Ghosts

You know how, when you look at your shelf of cookbooks, something seems to be missing? And then when you realize what it is, you feel kind of stupid for not thinking of it sooner? Yeah, that’s how I felt when I got my hands on Beyond Delicious, More than 100 Recipes from the Dearly Departed. I was missing a cookbook full of recipes transmitted by ghosts! Duh!

I picked up this unexpected gem at a state park gift shop. Written by Mary Ann Winkowski, a self-made “ghost whisperer,” and David Powers, the book is exactly what it purports to be: lightweight fictional stories to give extra color to a collection of very standard recipes.

No, wait. That isn’t what it claims. Mary Ann presents it as straight nonfiction — a few of her many real-life encounters with “earthbound spirits” that she’s helped to “cross over.” I suppose this conceit would heighten the experience for some readers, but I don’t feel bound to believe it. The stories are very obviously fictional, and are perfectly entertaining as such.

Not that it’s well-written, mind you. It’s slapdash. It’s also dated: although published in 2011, all the stories feature middle-aged people named Bob and Bettie and Gale and Ed. (In 2011, middle-aged people were more often named Suzanne, Kim, Rich, and Steve.) The one story so far that features a cell phone also features a boy named Zach, which places it in the late 90s. This doesn’t detract from the stories, except to give them all an air of having been in use for a long time. No matter their stated ethnicity, every character in these stories feels like somebody you’d see at the grocery store in Ohio in 1964.

On the other hand, I enjoy the “lore” that Winkowski presents. In this world, ghosts aren’t terrifying or vengeful. Usually they chose not to cross over because of an undue attachment to a person, an object, or even an idea. Sometimes the ghosts inhabit the places they once lived, but other times living people can “bring home” a ghost with a secondhand cookpot, or pick up on on vacation. While the ghosts aren’t malevolent, they do drain energy and interfere with electricity. Appliances go haywire, and people and pets tend to have headaches and constant colds. So it’s always best for a spirit to move on, and in this book they usually agree to do so after passing on a recipe of some sort to the living.

But what about the recipes? That’s part of the hilarity. Winkowski obviously found recipes with titles like “Swedish pea soup” or “Spanish zucchini” and then thought up a story involving ghosts of those nationalities. But the recipes themselves sound like something out of that 1960s Midwestern church cookbook.

The story of the Swedish pea soup involved an American named Nancy who married a Swedish man. His family had wanted him to marry someone else, so they didn’t like Nancy at all. Only Aunt Helga tried to be kind. Then Nancy had a baby, which meant that The Family was going to come visit in their home — and by this time Aunt Helga was dead. Nancy was in a panic. She didn’t know what to do to make her in-laws like her. Well, after many odd incidents around the home, Nancy called the author. She came in and immediately saw the ghost. It was Aunt Helga! Helga had stayed earthbound out of concern for Nancy. Her advice was to make her special pea soup, which would show the family that Nancy was really trying, and would soften them toward her. Helga recited the recipe to Winkowski, who passed it on to Nancy; and then Winkowski “made the White Light” so Helga could cross over — an ability that Winkowski never actually explains in the slightest. A month later, Nancy called to report that the soup was a big hit, and had completely transformed her in-laws’ attitude toward her.

So what was this authentic and special Swedish recipe? Well, it includes onion, celery, carrots, leeks, butter, green split peas, chicken stock, a ham hock, bay leaves, thyme, potato, salt, and pepper. Admittedly it sounds like a really good soup… but also kind of like Helga Nilsson of Newville Baptist Church included it in the cookbook, but Irene Martin also contributed a pea soup, so they called Helga’s “Swedish” because of her name.

All of the recipes are like this. All of the stories are, too — but that’s the book’s redeeming quality for me. I’m still in the middle of the book, but so far the stories have featured:

  • A man who is frustrated by the way the neighborhood guys grill steaks
  • A woman whose sister married the man she wanted, and after her sister died and crossed over, the sister stayed behind in a last-ditch attempt to gain his affections
  • A nurse who died of breast cancer, so was anxious to remind her co-workers to get checked in good time (ouch, that one poked me)
  • A man who was frustrated that the current living tenant didn’t know how to cook a good tomato dish
  • A woman who had outlived her entire family, then never left the house she died in, interfering with a renovation
  • A woman who had been the second wife for a mere six months before her husband died, and now couldn’t cross over for fear that the family would forget about her entirely

These are the warm, ordinary-people stories that I like to read and love to write, with the addition of benign ghosts. That’s why, despite its lackluster execution and complete lack of research or authenticity, this book has been a lot of fun to go through.

Let me know if you’re particularly interested in knowing the ghostly history behind [opens book at random] “Blanche’s Braised Beef Short Ribs” or “Simple Loaf Cake with Strawberry Sauce” or “Tennessee Corn Fritters” or “Dottie’s Date-Nut Bars.”

Now, if you don’t mind, I need to get back and find out why Herman is haunting the antique car that Brian just had delivered to his home. I know he won’t leave until he’s passed on the recipe for “Herman’s Secret-Touch Veal Paprika.”

Grandma Jennifer

In 1991, when I was 14, I read a novel set in the far-flung future of 203Something. It was the usual teen story of a girl whose family was moving, so she had to leave her friends and her school for a new place. But in 203Something, people now lived on the moon. Yes, that’s right, her parents moved her to the moon. Ugh. It’s so unfair. Are there even boys on the moon?

I don’t remember a lot about the book, but I do recall that there was a Grandma Jennifer. That, to me, was one of the most exotic details of the worldbuilding. I could hardly imagine a world where grandmothers were named Jennifer.

As a teenager, I was surrounded by Jennifers. We had to resort to nicknames to keep them all straight. Jenny was a distinct person from all the other Jennifers. Jennifer Oliver’s friends called her by her initials, Jo. Another Jennifer, whose middle name was Katherine, answered to JenKay. By high school, many of the Jennifers just went by their last names. The ubiquitous name practically defined youth and energy.

Could it really become a grandma name? I knew it could, because I also read old books — written in the 50s and 60s, twenty to thirty years before my time. I saw what passed for cute and energetic names then. Judy, Bob, Larry, Linda… all talking about who was going to the senior formal and drinking Coke with lemon, when in my experience they should be worrying about mortgages and getting thirty minutes of exercise in a day.

Then one day I read a short biographical sketch of Shirley Temple. She was even older than Judy and Linda, born in the 20s. Her curls and dimpled smile captivated moviegoers of the time, and they latched onto her name. Shirley! What a young, energetic name! Hundreds of Shirleys were born in the 1930s. It was the 1930s version of Jennifer.

To teenage me in the 90s, growing up among Jessicas and Blakes and, yes, Jennifers — Shirley was a stale, dusty name that nobody would seriously think of giving to a baby. But people did once. As hard as it was for me to accept, the same fate awaited all of our names as well.* Even Jennifer.

My point here is that I felt like writing about this. But also, that it’s interesting how today’s young and bubbly name will be tomorrow’s old-person name. Only ten years away from 203Something, all of the Jennifers I knew are in their forties and most have children who are almost grown up. “Grandma Jennifer” is no longer unthinkable.

But Grandma Kayley, now, that’s a different story.**

__

*Except my name, which strikes that rare balance between trendy and classic. Thanks, Dad!

**This punchy little closing actually isn’t very accurate. Kayley isn’t a brand-new name anymore; many Kayleys are in their thirties now. But brand-new babies are being named things like Charlotte, Liesl, Elijah, and Devon. They’re now “young” names but they’ll also age gracefully. Which is nice for the kids but not so much for my post. Parents these days!

Love and Friendship

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?

The Vintage Book Club #5: The I Hate to Cook Book

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.'”