Happy Home, Dirty House


My mother grew up on a Maine farm where dirt was what made plants grow. I imagine her mother taught her something about cleaning. Otherwise, the farmhouse kitchen linoleum would never have been a place for me to be seated in my toddler overalls, a box with muffin crumbs between my chubby, outstretched legs and a chicken in my lap, waving one finger at Dad’s camera as if I was practicing to preach. Still, cleaning was never high on Mom’s list of priorities.

One of my vivid childhood memories is of Mom standing on a scaffold, six or eight feet off the ground, holding a wooden clapboard in place as Dad nailed new siding on the back of our house. I remember vividly another day before we owned a house. Six of us lived in a cramped singlewide near the military base where Dad worked. At the moment I recall, Mom was wrapped in her apron of the era: cream, patterned with tiny men and women formed of yellow and black triangles, almost certainly hand-sewn. The four children, all aged 6 and under, were playing in the “dining area” while she worked. She turned toward us, lifting from the oven a pan of hot, freshly baked cream puffs.  She set the pastries on top of the range to cool, then began pulling out milk and eggs for a from-scratch vanilla custard filling.

Who bakes cream puffs with four little children crowding her feet?

It could be a woman driven by her generation’s version of Pinterest shaming. Cream puffs are listed among “50 Basic Recipes for Beginners” in that era’s Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking-School Cookbook. (Other “basic recipes” included mayonnaise, fruit jam, doughnuts, chicken timbales, and “Canning Fruits and Vegetables.”) But my mother’s intense engagement with the kitchen could also represent the drive of a woman who took great joy in her own competence. I tend to think that my capable mother took the Fannie Farmer list as a challenge that she expected to master, easily and with pleasure.

Mom mastered many challenges during my childhood. Raising five children to capable adulthood is challenge enough for many. Doing it within a tightly constrained income, so that “shopping” was mostly done at the Navy Relief thrift store, was another. Still another challenge was renovating the old farmhouse we bought, that came with knob and tube wiring, an antique coal furnace, and a kitchen whose “upgrades” to date mostly consisted of replacing the 1913 hand pump with running water.

I don’t remember Mom falling under her burdens. I remember her pressing into a blackberry thicket to collect colander after colander of fat, finger-staining fruit. I remember her peeling and slicing entire sacks of fall apples to cook into chunky, cinnamon-scented applesauce that we ate warm with vanilla ice cream before she packed the rest into the freezer. I remember how hot brown molasses would billow and foam when she added baking soda, just before stirring the sloppy mess into a giant vat of popped corn for holiday cornballs. I remember Mom leading her five little ducklings on summer bicycle rides down country roads, and I can imagine her sitting beside the farm pond of her childhood home as we swam and rowed and capsized the unfortunate “boats” we built ourselves. I remember her fingers endlessly knitting yarn into hats and mittens – first for all of us, then for local charities.

I have almost no memory of Mom with mop or dust rag or vacuum cleaner in hand. I can’t remember Mom polishing furniture. I can see her cleaning up thrift store furniture finds and repainting them. I can remember the formula for her homebrewed paint stripper. But I can’t see her dusting. She must have cleaned floors, especially during the early spring weeks that we in Maine call “mud season.” I just can’t recall it.

Nor can I recall any significant lessons about housekeeping at her hands. When I was a young bride, I purchased a couple of paperback books that taught me how to clean my house. A little later, I subscribed to a website that encouraged me to create at least one small vision of order in my generally chaotic home. That wasn’t a new idea to me. Mom and I both had our little ordered visions. We both created 3D still life arrangements on mantels and in china cabinets and on bookshelves and on side tables. We hung our arranged histories on the walls of our homes. Neither of us looked past those lovely spots and imagined our homes “chaotic.” We both thought of our homes as “busy” places where “creative” people had “projects underway.” As for the floors … of course the place you walk gets dirty!

But during the years when my sisters and I were young single women sharing apartments with other young single women, each of us stumbled across a startling revelation. One day in each of our lives, after living with women who knew how to keep house, each of us returned to our mother’s home and discovered a thin gray film we’d never seen. Our house, we realized, was unkept. We each remarked to ourselves:

“This house is dusty!”

Each, on her own day, grabbed a rag and a vacuum and sought to correct the failings of the family home. Each returned to her own adult home and either trained herself in the habits of our time’s hygienic housekeeping or relapsed into the busy, disordered – even dirty – way of life we learned at our mother’s knee.

There are no “dust bunnies” in my home today. Dust gathers itself into ferocious gray wolves, trumpeting elephants, and charging rhinoceroses, ready to burst from the caverns they’ve found under furnishings and thunder across the savannahs of my floors. Accumulated neglect would like to overpower my day, my time, my mind. “Dirty!” it roars. “Unsanitary!” it shouts. It bellows at the last, “Bad housekeeper!”

Like a powerful incantation, a single sentence from memory holds back the hostile judgments. The words come in my mother’s voice, issuing from under merry brown eyes:

“If your floor’s not clean enough to eat off, don’t eat off it.”

I won’t, Mom. I promise.

Today, instead of trying to eat off my floor, I’ll probably bake something yummy. I’ll finish sewing curtains for the dining room and repairing the side table that has loose joints. I might break up the ice that slicks the driveway or make soup from the bone broth that has chilled to gelatin in the refrigerator.

After all of that, I could decide to hunt a dusty gray elephant or a rhinoceros. But probably not. I don’t plan to let beasts made from dead dust eat up my life. I plan to consume my own life, nourished by what gives me joy, unafraid of the kinds of wild things that dissolve into clouds at each footfall.

You can keep a house or you can make a home. Mom taught me which was most important.

Originally published in the 2017 anthology Cherish Her, edited by Alnita Montague Johnson.

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Joyfully Chasing the Wind

For Redbud Sailboat2 db-316-philippines-066-3842Ecclesiastes didn’t make a lot of sense to me as a teen trying to understand the refrain, “Vanity! Vanity! All is vanity!” A few decades later, I have started to understand what it means to live “chasing the wind” of ambitious goals … Check it out in this month’s Redbud Post.

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Banned in France: ‘O Holy Night’

“O Holy Night” is one of my favorite Christmas songs for its beautiful melody. After I read the original lyrics, I loved it even more.

Like many of our favorite Christmas carols, this was written for seasonal worship. A parish priest in Roquemaure, France, asked a local wine merchant, known for his poetry hobby, to write a new Christmas song. Placide Cappeau was not a regular church-goer. Nonetheless, he opened Luke’s gospel and found inspiration for a poem.

Cappeau then asked a friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, to set the words to music. Adams was a highly regarded composer, conservatory-trained in Paris, whose work was regularly performed in symphony halls and for ballet companies throughout the Western world. Adams didn’t allow his own Jewish background to keep him from helping his friend. The new song was sung for the first time during the Christmas eve midnight mass in 1847.

The French lyrics speak powerfully to me of our God, what he did for us, and what he deserves from us. See if you don’t love them (in translation) as much as I do.

Midnight! Christians, this is the solemn hour
When God as man came right down to us
To wipe away Adam’s sin that stained us
And put an end to his father’s wrath.
The whole world trembles with anticipation
Upon this night on which her savior’s given.
People! On your knees! Await your liberation!
Noel! Noel! See him now! Redeemer!
Noel! Noel! See him now! Redeemer!

Our faith provides the heartfelt light that guides us
Each — one and all — to the child’s resting place.
As in the past the brilliance of a star
Led to that place the Oriental kings.
The King of Kings is born in humble manger,
You powerful, proud of your great renown —
It’s to your pride that this God preaches right now
Bow down your heads before the Redeemer
Bow down your heads before the Redeemer

The Redeemer has shattered all that binds us.
The earth is free and the heavens open wide.
He sees a brother where we saw just a slave
His love unites us with those whom irons bound.
Who will tell him we see and we are grateful?
For us he’s born, he suffers and he dies.
People! On your feet! Sing your liberation!
Noel! Noel! Sing of the Redeemer!
Noel! Noel! Sing of the Redeemer!

I love these beautiful and challenging words exactly as they were written. I don’t begin to understand why we have buried then under a 19th century American minister’s translation that fails to explain the greatness of God’s liberation and the great honor God deserves.

Words matter. And sometimes the words found by a person who knows words — but comes fresh to the Good Word — can speak more clearly than the best efforts of those who are more familiar with God’s message. I’m grateful to the French wine merchant and his Jewish composer friend who gave us these profound truths in such beautiful form.

Read more of the story of O Holy Night, including the decades when it was banned in French churches as “entirely lacking in theological value” after its author left the faith and became a socialist. And remember how truly God can speak through all of us confused, flawed and prideful children … on this holy night and all year round.

Enjoy any of these wonderful recordings of the English lyrics:

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Advent: A Long Journey Toward a Surprising Light

My father’s childhood train trip from California’s wartime blackout to the brilliant lights of Las Vegas provides a different metaphor for our Advent quest.

We call wartime “dark days” and in the 21st century we tend to focus on the emotional and spiritual darkness of a war.

But for my father, just 11 years old in February 1942, World War II’s darkness was literal. Southern California, as a potential coastal target for the Japanese, lived under a nighttime blackout starting almost immediately after Pearl Harbor. The fear and caution intensified in February after a Japanese submarine fired on an oil refinery near Santa Barbara.

Then an unidentified object was sighted hovering over Los Angeles. The photo shows searchlights converging on the mysterious object, which was never identified. (Image: unretouched Los Angeles Times photo, retrieved from the LA Times online archives).

Hundreds of military shells bombarded the floating device. And every home not yet blacked out swathed its windows in thick curtains to prevent any evening illumination from escaping to provide a target for alien weapons. Automobiles – which were considerably fewer than today – moved cautiously if they moved at all, without streetlamps or headlights to guide them. During those literally “dark days,” no outdoor lighting of any kind was allowed.

Dad’s family were divided at the time. Dad and his younger brother, Jim, were living with grandparents on a two-acre Southern California “farmette” while their Mom, Dad, and toddler brother, Jeff, got settled into brand-new “company” housing near the brand-new company town of Henderson, Nevada. Henderson was where a magnesium mine and refinery was located, producing a “miracle metal” essential to bomb casings and aircraft parts as part of the US war effort. Grampa had taken a job there and Grammie carried her littlest to Nevada with her while she set up housekeeping.

But eventually the moment came for Dad and Jim to join the rest of the family. Their grandparents put them on a train for what was expected to be an 8-hour ride to the station in Las Vegas.

The eastward journey toward home and family stalled repeatedly as the train pulled onto sidings to allow westbound troop transports the right of way. Dad, just 11 years old, minded Jim – then 8 – through all of what turned into a 15-hour trip.

What Dad remembered as the train neared Las Vegas was seeing the light – first the distant glow of a city, then the lights that surrounded the train and blazed along the city’s streets. The Strip in 1942 didn’t look much like what we know as Las Vegas today. But unlike California, it had lights at night.


From California blackout to Las Vegas light! This view was taken from near the train depot where Dad and his little brother arrived in Las Vegas in 1942. (Postcard image appears on the website classiclasvegas.com)

Fremont Street in Las Vegas isn’t exactly my vision of God’s light that awaits me. But like Dad and Uncle Jim on that extended rail trip east, we live as children caring for children on a long wartime journey that is often side-tracked. At the end is a place we will call home, heralded by an unfamiliar light and entered by way of a loving Parent’s warm embrace.

Advent lasts a lifetime. Ride expectantly.

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Mary, Martha, and My Holiday Kitchen

That Mary and Martha story can be SO frustrating. Martha is busy in the kitchen. Mary is hanging out with Jesus. Martha wants her sister’s help. And Jesus says no. According to Jesus, Mary’s got it right.

Since I just finished baking 50 dozen holiday cookies (35 dozen for a charity fundraiser), I’m feeling a little irritable on Martha’s behalf.

I like to bake. Sometimes I say — only half joking — “I bake, therefore I am.”

I bake therefore I am

If I find myself with half a Saturday free, I’m likely to fill the house with the yeast and molasses scent of fresh-baked oatmeal bread. This year, I finally learned to make wonderful shortbread (thanks Ronda Swaney for the recipe!). I used to make wedding cakes as my wedding gift to couples I knew. Since I don’t have grandkids to spoil, I made Easter cupcakes for my brother’s grands one year.



My Easter cupcakes were embellished with coconut nests, jellybean eggs, and marshmallow Peeps.


And when the nonprofit where I work needs food prepped for an event … well, I like to play with food. The colors and textures of sliced red peppers, glistening black olives, crunchy wheat crackers, and green-skinned cucumbers are just a different palette than our artists use.


reception Spindleworks

As you can see, I love playing with food … ironing the tablecloth is a different matter!



“Martha, you are worried and anxious about many things, but only one thing is necessary,” Jesus tells the busy sister.

Most of us hear that as: “Chill! Sit! Stop doing already.”

What are the many things Martha is worrying about? If we drop her into our century, it might be a roast and a chicken on platters, a fresh-baked loaf on a cutting board with some homemade herb butter in a Depression glass dish, a couple of vegetables, a Pinterest-worthy dessert or two on the side table … and that’s one amazing table setting she’s got underway. Someone needs to Instagram it! Where’s Mary? Wouldja take a few pictures, Mary? … Mary?

Mary chose the better part, Jesus said. In the 21st century, we tend to hear that as an order to sit. Stop cooking. Stop serving. Stop doing. Be like Mary. Focus on the relationship with the guests. It’s not all about making a dinner that your friends will admire when you post the picture. It’s about the people you’re feeding.

And to feed people, someone does have to make food. So what was Martha’s mistake?

Someone told me once that when Jesus told Martha only one thing was needed, he could have been saying that the guests didn’t need a feast of many dishes. A casserole would have been fine. Just one dish. Much less hassle. And much more time to spend with the company.


That doesn’t mean that it’s bad to cook, even passionately. That doesn’t mean that sitting is always better than preparing a meal. It just means that Martha got out of balance. She got focused on showing off her mad kitchen skills instead of on making her guests welcome and enjoying them.

I totally get Martha. I’m way more comfortable doing stuff than just hanging. Take today. I spent five hours in the kitchen baking 15 dozen cookies for a fundraiser (and starting a crockpot cacciatore) before I hauled a carful to the landfill and drove the cookies to the event. I got to the event, I did a lot of arranging and rearranging of cookie trays, photographing a holiday parade, and chatting about business with a studio owner and the president of the downtown association. Plus I made a quick run into Reny’s (“A Maine Adventure”) to pick up gifts for the holiday party in two weeks.

I had fun.

I’m the kind of person your grandmother was talking about when she said, “Idle hands are the devil’s playground.” If I’m not busy doing something useful, my brain starts sliding down an icy slope and an emotional crisis will hit like an avalanche before I know it.

Sometimes I’m busy doing something for a local charity. That’s what my mom did a lot. She took the 5 am shift five days a week at a local thrift shop, hauling in (or hauling to a dumpster) whatever had been dropped outside the doors overnight. She knit endless hats and mittens for Christmas charities and homeless children.

Sometimes I’m busy with a hobby I enjoy. That’s what my dad did a lot. He built things out of wood: toys and furniture and clocks. He could spend a full day standing in the same spot outdoors waiting for the right clouds to blow into the landscape he was photographing.

Sometimes I’m busy making something I need. My brothers are way better at this than I am. I make things like cat beds and table runners. They make cherry tables and truck beds.

My family likes to do stuff. One brother told his in-laws this Thanksgiving that they’d join the dinner if they were allowed to “work it off.” So while his wife weeded through a 100-foot greenhouse with her mother, he helped his father-in-law with some heavy chores. When one sister wanted the other to visit, she said she needed help with a project.

I suppose that many people would describe my family as a bunch of workaholics who don’t know how to enjoy ourselves. We describe ourselves as New Englanders — thrifty and hardworking. We have more fun raising your barn than raising a glass.

So are we Martha? The problem with Martha isn’t just that she works but that she works when she doesn’t need to. She creates work for her sake, not for the sake of those who receive it.

And Mary … are her hands truly idle? Or are they working hard at learning, when that’s the most valuable task at hand.

The story of Mary and Martha reminds us that at every moment, God has good work for each of us to do. We’re not called to do too much of a good thing, like Martha, trying to drag others into our frenzy of excessive activity. We’re not always called to sit and listen (although when Jesus is speaking, it’s certainly wise to listen!).

The story of Mary and Martha tells me not to stop doing, but to do only what matters.

I bake, therefore I am. And as long as God allows, I will keep baking.


Merry Christmas!


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