Home Renewal

New China

The pretty new-to-us china set

I would never say that I am as house-proud as Granny Dodie – whose home was always immaculate, scrubbed clean, everything polished to an inch of its life, all bits and bobs put away in a proper place, and whose garden was a marvel – groomed of every stray leaf, the gravel raked and the shrubs trimmed. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, likely Granny Dodie has been brought back as a USMC drill sergeant with particularly stringent housekeeping standards. Me, I never had the time for that degree of Better Homes & Gardens/Martha Stewart perfection. Full-time work and single parenting will do that to you. You couldn’t eat off my kitchen floor, but I could almost guarantee that nothing would bite you on the ankle as you walked through.

However, things did descend perilously close to slum-hood a couple of years ago, inside and out. A very bitter winter and temporarily sheltering a pair of particularly destructive half-grown dogs did for the garden. But slowly, slowly, I began to make it work again, and some of the plants which had gone dormant either recovered or re-seeded. Planting vegetables helped as well. It’s mid-winter here, so the garden is not currently at its best, and all the delicate plants are crammed into the back porch – which is hung with plastic on two sides, so as to make a temporary greenhouse.

As for the inside of the house; the territory of cats and dogs. One of the now-deceased dogs was

Painted and landscaped, with fresh gravel - The Glorious Shed!

Painted and landscaped, with fresh gravel – The Glorious Shed!

insensately fond of piddling on rugs and she was sneaky about it; eventually the rugs were cleaned, rolled up and banished to the garage. Two of the geriatric and now-deceased cats were also very fond of making deposits in unexpected and hard to find places, and making them faster than they could be discovered and cleaned up. Eventually, we despaired of ever banishing the smells of such accidents from Blondie’s barracks-inherited armchair and one of the household sofas – a cheap find anyway, and the last bulk trash day out they went.

Between profits from the Tiny Publishing Bidness, sales of my own books, and the sale of the California land – I could afford to do some serious and long over-due repair and replacement of household stuff. Totally renovating the HVAC system was just the start. Having the shed built out in back provided a storage space for garden and kitchen things, as well as the items needed for participating in the gypsy markets. Over last winter, the curtains in all windows but the sliding glass door were replaced as I could afford them, with wooden blinds, which gave the place a whole new look. Daringly, I replaced the every-day china with an extensive set found at a flea market, giving mealtimes another whole new look. A new dining area table (new to us – a vintage number from my daughter’s favorite thrift shop) helped reclaim that corner. The original table was a pedestal style, and one of the legs loose beyond repair, and the resulting sudden tilt pitched the cats regularly onto the floor, in their own version of the sinking Titanic. Replacing various rush chair seats last month with cowhide was another step towards reclaiming a livable and attractive space – and also one which is a little more pet-proof.

Chair Seat close-upThis month we advanced another big step: getting the love-seat/sleeper sofa, two chairs and a tuffet all reupholstered – in heavy leather-look vinyl, replacing the original fabric – and making them all look as if they are in a set. This is an aesthetic improvement, and offers a higher level of pet-proofing, in that accidents can be readily sponged away. The upholstery shop will have the first piece done by next weekend, and the rest completed two weeks later. Two rugs returned from exile in the garage; so far, so good; the surviving cats don’t seem inclined to make messes anywhere but in the small area around their litter-boxes. The cat-tree has a couple of sisal-wrapped columns which they seem to prefer sharpening their claws upon, so there is hope for the furniture to escape unscathed. So far the cowhide seats have done so. The final element in renewing the house involved accommodating oddments from Mom and Dad’s house; a few pieces in silver and crystal, a framed stained glass panel, and some kitchen things which no one else wanted … so, some things had to be put away, others Goodwilled, and some of them just plain thrown away in the interests of space. But the den and the main room look quite good now – better than they have in a while, if not quite as spic-and-span as Granny Dodie would have had them.

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Another Chapter From Sunset and Steel Rails

Sunset and Steel Rails Mockup Cover Pics with titles(I was inspired by reading a recent post about how Fred Harvey brought fine dining to the far wild west, as essentially, the food and hospitality concessionaire with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. What better method of bringing a venturesome heroine face to face with her destiny in the far West!)

Chapter 2 – In Doctor Cotton’s Care

Freed at last from the worried and fond concern of friends and relations, Sophia leaned her head back against the high chair and let her mind wander. She was rendered uneasy by uncertainty which had overtaken her life. As a Vining and a Brewer of Beacon Hill, she had always had her future set out for her, in short and decorous steps; the same path that her mother, her grandmother, Phoebe even – had paced in their turn. All but Great-aunt Minnie had gone on that path. Girlhood, some kind of education, then matrimony, motherhood, the rule of a home, good works, a constellation of children and grandchildren … but now all that was cast into doubt, uncertainty. There was no room in that path for deviations, or even for uncertainty, but without any fault of her own that she could see – she had strayed from that path, and had no idea of how to return to it.
At half-past the hour of two o’clock, she put on her every-day bonnet and mantle, and walked to the school on Bedford Street where Richard’s older son, the pride of his life attended school. No one in the house took any apparent note of her departure – not that she had expected any. This was one of her regular duties about the house – to walk Richie home from school, and attend to any small errands required by her brother and Phoebe along the way.
Richie attended the Boston Latin – nothing less than the very best would do for a Brewer than the oldest and finest Latin school in Boston, housed in a fine stone building in the old-fashioned classical style, with four tall windows on every one of four floors and some archaic adornment on the shallow gable-end facing Bedford Street. She waited by the railings what marked off the school grounds, until the flood of pupils – boys and girls alike – had emerged from every doorway and scattered like a burst milkweed pod sending threads of silk and seeds in every direction.
Richie stood out among the dispersing students for the fair hair which he had inherited from Phoebe, and the height inherited from Richard. He was very well-grown for a seven-year old. Fortunately, he appeared also to have inherited Richard’s features and temper; a good thing, as Sophia had often reflected. Phoebe’s like translated into small-boy form would have been bullied endlessly, even among his fellow students, who numbered among them the scions of the very best Boston families.
“Hey! Auntie Soph!” Richie now shouted, and Sophia winced.
“Hay is for horses,” she reproved her nephew, when he was close enough to her that she could speak without raising her voice. “You should raise your voice like that in the street. And my proper name is Sophia.”
“Yes, Auntie Soooophia,” he answered, with exaggerated meekness. Sophia laughed. She was rather fond of Richie, for all of his small-boy bumptiousness. There were times when she thought she had more of the mothering of him than Phoebe. Now he skipped along at her side, swinging his book-bundle without a care and chattering away nine to the dozen at her – telling of daily woes and penalties imposed by teachers, of small yet ferocious encounters and battles of wits with them and with other students; classroom triumphs and schoolyard tragedies. Sophia listened without listening, a skill she had long ago learned and practiced – the art of seeming to pay attention with part of her mind, but with much of the rest given over to her own thoughts. Finally even Richie noticed her distance from his conversation, and said impatiently,
“Auntie Sophia, aren’t you even listening to me? I just said that the State House dome looked as if it had all crashed in, and you said, ‘Yes, Richie; that’s altogether possible.’”
“I did?” Sophia looked around – they had walked halfway through the Public Gardens, and she had never even noticed they had gotten to hers and Richie’s favorite part of the walk home. And this was her favorite time of year in the Public Garden, too – with all the massed plantings of bulbs in bloom, scenting the air with delicate perfume, and all the young trees putting out pale green leaves – for the Garden was still so new that most of the trees were young and lately-planted. For Sophia, this was one of her reasons to love Great-Aunt Minnie’s residence in the old Vining mansion on Beacon Street – the front windows overlooked the Gardens and the Common.
“You did.” Richie affirmed, and Sophia sighed and confessed, “I am sorry, Richie. My mind was intent on other things.”
“What things?” Now he had to run, in order to keep up with her.
Caught up in her own distress, Sophia had begun walking faster and faster. “It seems that I am not to marry Mr. Armitage,” she answered at last. “He came and told me today that his – our promise to marry is broken. He will not marry me, as his father has forbidden it.”
“Why is that, Aunt Sophia? I thought he was a … a nice chap. And that you were in love, or something goopy like that.” Richie’s sunny countenance looked as if a cloud had suddenly floated in and darkened it.
“I suppose it is because we are too poor now for the high-and-mighty Armitages,” Sophia answered, feeling a wholly unexpected bitterness. Richie flung his arms around her waist in an exuberant hug.
“Well, I love you, Auntie Sophia! If you can’t get a beau to marry you by the time I’m grown-up, than I will marry you myself!”
“Thank you, Richie,” Sophia returned the embrace. “For that is a kindly thought and I love you, too – but you can’t marry your aunt, and I will be too old for you by then, anyway.”
“Well, then I will just have to find you a beau in the meantime,” Richie said, with an expression of great determination. “My quest for my lady fair will be to find her a proper knight and love…” He suggested the name of an older brother of one of his schoolmates, in all seriousness.
“You have been reading too much Walter Scott,” Sophia laughed, her good humor restored somewhat. “That gentleman is a confirmed bachelor. He has spots on his complexion – at the age of thirty, no less – and has never had a good word to say to, or of a woman. Burden me not with the name of another elder brother, or uncle, Richie. I know them all, by family connection or by repute. And none of them will suit. Of that I am certain.”
“I will think of someone,” Richie answered, his countenance expressing determination. “Someone brave and handsome, with deeds of derring-do on his ess—escrutchon…”
“Escutcheon,” Sophia laughed, fondly. “Do you even know what an escutcheon is, Richie? It’s a family banner, a shield – it means the good name or repute of the family which has one as a patent of nobility …”
“And rich,” her nephew added, as if he had not heard. “Rich enough not to care.” They walked on, in good humor, Sophie reflecting that of her family, only Richie and Great-aunt Minnie restored her soul with faith in herself; one a child and the other an octogenarian.

There was an unfamiliar carriage drawn up before the Brewer townhouse, with a clearly-bored coachman sitting on the box. Sophia usually recognized the carriages and horses of those of their regular callers and friends; perhaps this was one of Richard’s business associates.
“Is that one of Mama’s friends?” Richie asked, as they went up the steps, pausing in the grandly-pillared portico, while Sophia opened the door.
“No – she received callers earlier … and they have been gone for hours.”
As soon as Sophie stepped inside the hallway, Richard called from his study.
“Sophia, my dear – is that you and the lad? Come into the parlor. Dr. Cotton took the time to make a call on us, at my request. Fee has told me of what happened – I knew you would be distraught, so I sent for Dr. Cotton at once. He is in the parlor, with Phoebe, waiting for you.”
Richard emerged from his study, and Sophia’s heart warmed at the sight of him; a tall and handsome man in his early middle years. Richard Brewer was at least a decade past being in the full bloom of youth and beauty, but those years had only refined his features with an attractive burnishing of age and experience, transforming youth into sober maturity. To Sophia, he had been a father at least as much as a brother; the head of their family in all things. Mama had leaned on him and the child Sophia adored him – the central sun of the constellation of family – just as did Phoebe. Sophia had been ten years old when Richard and Phoebe married. She supposed that she had been jealous at first – Fee was so silly! – but nothing had really changed in the family, until Mama’s protracted and final illness. This occurred almost at the same time as the failure of the Marine National, which spelled an end to Brewer prosperity. Agnes occasionally talked of something called a geas … a curse upon the house. Sophia often wondered if Agnes were right in that. They had all been happy, life had been pleasant … and then Mama died, and happiness fled from the Brewer house.
“I am not distraught in the least,” Sophia insisted. “More disappointed in Mr. Armitage than anything.”
“That’s our brave little Sophie,” Richard averred fondly. “Making a brave show of concealing a broken heart … I know that Mama had intended from childhood that you two ought to marry.”
“I do not have a broken heart,” Sophia insisted again. Really, this was becoming an annoyance, how everyone seemed so certain of her feelings on the broken engagement. “I grieve at the loss of a friendship! If anything, I am angry at being cast aside after all this time, merely because Mr. Armitage thinks we are poor…”
Richard took her hands, pleading in earnest, “Dear little sister – we are not poor. We have lost some of our investments, which is quite another thing. We have this house, our affection for each other as a family, an affection which bids me consider your health and happiness with every care. Allow Dr. Cotton to examine you in his capacity as a physician, and relieve my mind of a burden of worry.”
“Of course I will, “Sophia yielded, still reluctant, but of course – Richard bore so many cares on his shoulders. It would not be fair for her to contribute to them by continuing to argue. Instead, she went to the parlor, where Fee sat, occasionally jabbing an inexpert needle into her Berlin wool-work and chattering to Dr. Cotton. The good doctor himself stood before the fire, with his hands behind his back. Sophia rather suspected that he was doing as she had with Richie earlier, listening to Fee without really listening, absorbed in his own thoughts while delivering an occasional noncommittal response. He was a lean and saturnine man, a contemporary and a friend of Richard’s. Sophia did not particularly care for him, although he seemed competent enough as a doctor. It was old Doctor Hubbell, whose practice Dr. Cotton had inherited, who had seen to all her childish ailments, and who had attended Mama in her final illness, who had her confidence and trust.
While Fee attended, still ignoring her embroidery, Dr. Cotton inquired into Sophia’s state of mind and general health. Sophia repeated the same answers she had made to everyone else this day, feeling somewhat as if she were a parrot. Dr. Cotton looked into her eyes, listened to her pulse with his little patent ivory and patent-rubber listening horn, and finally delivered himself of his judgement.
“You are anemic, my dear Miss Brewer. I shall prescribe a tonic, which you must take every morning without fail, in order to build up your blood and your strength. I will compound it myself, and send over the first bottle. I shall visit next week to assess your condition, and adjust the dosage accordingly.”
“We shall take every care, Dr. Cotton,” Fee promised, with enthusiasm. Sophia repressed a small sigh; Fee was hopelessly enamored of potions, tonics, powders, and pills – cures for every ailment which she had fancied afflicted her. Sophia had most often refused those doses which Fee urged regularly upon her; now Fee was backed by Dr. Cotton’s authority. Unless Sophia missed her guess, Fee would redouble her efforts.
When Dr. Cotton had finally taken his leave, Sophia climbed the two flights of stairs, feeling as if she were as old and tired as Great-Aunt Minnie.
“I am not heartbroken,” She asserted to her reflection in her dressing table mirror. “And I am not distraught.”
In all this long afternoon, her reflection was the only being which did not argue with her.

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Tales of the 19th Century Road Warrior

220px-Fred_Harvey He was the entrepreneur who came up with the bright idea to bring fine cooking and peerless customer service to the rowdy far West, and do so on a grand scale … and as a sidebar to that feat, also supplied thousands of wives to settlers in an otherwise female-deficient part of the country. He was a Scots-English immigrant from Liverpool named Fred Harvey. He arrived in New York at the age of 17, early in the 1850s. He took up employment washing pots and dishes at a popular restaurant of the day, and within a short time had worked up the kitchen ranks to waiter and then line cook. He only remained there for a year and a half – but in those months he had learned the restaurant business very, very well. He gravitated west, but only as far as St. Louis, where he managed a retail store, married and survived a bout of yellow fever. The restaurant business called to him, though. On the eve of the Civil War, he and a business partner opened a café. Which was successful, right up until the minute that his business partner, whose sympathies were with the Confederacy, took all the profits from the café and went South.

Nothing deterred, Fred Harvey went to work for the Hannibal & St. Joseph railroad, which eventually was absorbed by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. He rose as swiftly in the corporate structure of that railroad as it existed in those freewheeling days as he had in that New York restaurant. His work necessitated more or less constant travel; he was in a way of speaking, an early ‘road warrior’. As such, he couldn’t help but notice that customer service in station restaurants was almost non-existent and the food available usually explored those limits between completely inedible and totally vile. The Western road food experience had not appreciably improved in the fifteen years since Mark Twain had so memorably described it in Roughing It.

“The table was a greasy board on stilts, and the table- cloth and napkins had not come—and they were not looking for them, either. A battered tin platter, a knife and fork, and a tin pint cup, were at each man’s place, and the driver had a queens-ware saucer that had seen better days … The station-keeper upended a disk of last week’s bread, of the shape and size of an old-time cheese, and carved some slabs from it which were as good as Nicholson pavement, and tenderer. He sliced off a piece of bacon for each man, but only the experienced old hands made out to eat it, for it was condemned army bacon which the United States would not feed to its soldiers in the forts, and the stage company had bought it cheap for the sustenance of their passengers and employees … Then he poured for us a beverage which he called “Slum gullion,” and it is hard to think he was not inspired when he named it. It really pretended to be tea, but there was too much dish-rag, and sand, and old bacon-rind in it to deceive the intelligent traveler.”

Fred Harvey suffered along with every other traveler – but as it turned out, he was the right man, with the right background, in the right place, and with the right friends to be able to do something about it. In the Centennial year of 1876, he struck a handshake deal with the superintendent of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad to open and manage restaurants and lunch counters at AT&SF stations. The AT&SF would not charge Fred Harvey rent, or haulage for necessary supplies. Originally chartered to connect Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory, to the settlements in Kansas, the AT&SF cleaned up in hauling Texas cattle to the stock yards of Chicago. They would eventually connect reach the Texas gulf coast, reach into Mexico to the port of Guaymas on the Gulf of Carpentaria, connect up Albuquerque and El Paso, and service Los Angeles over the route which had been favored by the ante-bellum South when the prospect of a transcontinental railroad was first suggested.

And Fred Harvey’s restaurant establishments were everywhere that the AT&SF ran. There would eventually be nearly 50 Harvey House restaurants, fifteen resort hotels and thirty dining cars, attending to the needs of the traveling public. Harvey establishments were spotlessly clean, the food expertly prepared and served by staff trained to the highest standard … or else. Fred Harvey was a hands-on manager; he was noted for whipping out the tablecloth of a badly-set table, sending the plates and silverware crashing to the floor and leaving the chastened wait-staff to re-set the table correctly. But he was also passionately interested in hiring and training the very best personnel available, promoting the able and the loyal, and in providing for their welfare.

Another Fred Harvey innovation – and likely the best-remembered in the 20th century – was the wait-staff force itself; all-female, generously-remunerated, and strictly chaperoned. The Harvey organization was a respectable institution, and wanted no breath of local scandal attaching to female employees, many of whom worked in towns geographically-distant from their families. It was a sad reality that quite often in Western boom towns, those single women who came to work in eating establishments and dance halls were suspected (often with good cause) of being prostitutes or just promiscuous with their favors. Fred Harvey wanted none of that. He was going to run respectable, middle-class places. It was one of his site supervisors who first suggested hiring young women. It seemed that many of the waiters at his location were black – and too many customers who were white and Southern males were picking fights with the staff, absconding without paying for their meals and otherwise wreaking havoc. This would not do; it was bad for staff morale, hell on the profit side of the ledger and hard on the furniture.

So Fred Harvey opened an office in Chicago to interview potential employees, and advertised widely in the eastern and mid-western newspapers: young unmarried women between the ages of 18 and thirty, who would sign a contract to work for a set period of time (usually a year). They would have to be literate, well-spoken and accustomed to hard work – and willing to go west, to wherever they were needed. Some estimates have it that over the next thirty years, 5,000 women worked as Harvey Girls, everywhere from Kansas to California. Their working uniforms were plain black dresses with narrow white collars, black shoes and stockings, with white aprons, and their hair tied with a white ribbon. They were not allowed to wear makeup – which likely only became a real trial in the 1920s. Fred Harvey paid wages of $17 monthly; generous indeed at a time when laborers were lucky to earn $11 a month. The Harvey Girls lived in company-provided dormitories, their uniforms were often provided to them, and they were entitled to perks like free transportation on the AT&SF, and after a period with the company could request a specific location. Seniority in the Harvey organization could be accrued – unless a Harvey Girl chose to marry, as many did – she could work her way up to senior waitress or even manager.

(to be continued.)

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A New Book!

Sunset and Steel Rails Mockup Cover Pics with titlesYes, it’s the start of another adventure … and yes, I am still working away on The Golden Road … but for some reason, I am temporarily stranded on a metaphorical sand-bar in shallow water. So what do I do, when I am stuck on one plot … why, write on another, until the feeling passes. Honestly, I was writing Quivera Trail and Daughter of Texas in alternate chapters, in the early stages.
The spark for this new adventure came about, upon reading a post by another western-romance author, who inadvertently suggested a means for how a properly-brought young woman of respectable family could go west … without having to be a schoolteacher. Since I was locked into the ‘properly-brought up young woman of respectable family … the more I thought about it, the more fun it seemed. And so here we go again…

Behold – a new adventure and a new heroine. The tentative title for his is Sunset and Steel Rails, but that may change. Or not. And as a sort of literary Easter egg for those who have read Daughter of Texas – the heroine will be Race Vining’s granddaughter by his wife in Boston

Chapter 1 – The Ending of a Life, Unobserved

Under the dour painted gaze of her great-grandfather, Lycurgus Saltinstall Vining, Sophia Brewer’s life ended on on a mild and sunny spring afternoon, on a day when the tulips were already in bloom in the Public Gardens, down the hill from Richard Brewer’s fine new Beacon Street mansion. The tall windows of the study stood open to the fresh spring breeze, barely stirring the curtains, and the bouquets of yellow tulips and blue hyacinths, which filled the tall blue and white Chinese export vases placed just so on the parlor mantel, and on the table.
“What did you say?” Sophia demanded, utterly startled out of all manners and countenance, but her upbringing and schooling was such that she quickly added, “I am sorry, Robbie – Mr. Armitage – did I hear you correctly? That you wish to break our engagement … at this moment?” Sophia gazed upon Robert Armitage with an expression which briefly mingled disbelief with horror. How could this be happening? She was a Brewer, and even if her family had lately come on hard times – they were of an old and highly-respected lineage in Massachusetts. She and her affianced had pledged to each other long before the passing of Sophia’s mother. When required period of mourning for the widowed Sophia Vining Brewer’s mortal passing was ended, it had been understood and acceptied that her daughter would marry Robert Armitage with all proper ceremony. With a year and more passed, the younger Sophia had gradually put off mourning black and donned garments of grey and lavender, as much as the sparse allowance from her brother had allowed. The anniversary had passed – and yet no wedding date had been suggested. And now this … With an effort, Sophia disguised her shock and disappointment; a marriage to Robert Armitage was her only escape from her older brother’s household and rule. She was barely 21 and no reigning beauty, being slender and small in stature, with hazel-grey eyes set in a fine-boned face, and light-brown hair so tightly-curling that her childhood nurse had claimed that combing it was like carding wool – but she possessed every particle of that fierce intelligence so notable in senior ladies of her family, sharpened and refined by as an education at least the equal of any young Bostonian of means, female and male alike.
Robert Armitage, lanky and awkward, with a brief mustache and an ambition towards fashionable whiskers which nature had not favored him to fulfill with any grace, regarded Sophia with alarm. “My father has forbidden our marriage,” he answered, in tones of misery. “Absolutely. He says that … I cannot be allowed to marry for love, not unless there is a generous inheritance attached to the settlement.”
“I have a small bequest from Mother,” Sophia replied, although behind the tight-laced corset and grey merino bodice, her heart was already breaking. She had expected so much better from Robert. “In her will … I had thought that sufficient for a marriage portion, small as it is. We are both of age … we can still wed…”
“My father forbids it,” Robert answered, his countenance a landscape of pure misery. “He will cast me off, if I go through with an elopement without his blessing. I am sorry. Your inheritance is insufficient for me – for us – to live on in any kind of respectability. I won’t ask for return of the ring with which I pledged to you, Soph. You may keep it – a gift.”
He sketched an awkward bow and blundered towards the half-opened study door. Not fifteen minutes ago, he had presented his calling-card to the Brewer’s maid-of-all-work. Tuesday was at-home day for the Brewer ladies – Sophia and her sister-in-law Phoebe received calls in the parlor. But on this morning, Robert had appeared, made limping conversation for some with Phoebe and Great-Aunt Minnie Vining, Minnie’s companion Miss Phelps, with Sophia’s old school friend Emma Chase and Mrs. Chase her step-mother, before asking if he might have a word in private with Sophia.
How the parlor of women had all beamed on Robert! Sophia’s mouth tasted of ashes and gall, recollecting that Emma had whispered behind her hand, “Now he will set a date, dear Sophia – remember how we promised to be bridesmaids for each other!” and that Emma had quickly squeezed her hand. Out in the hallway, Sophia heard the heavy front door open and the treble voice of Agnes Teague – the household maid of all work – bidding him a good morning and closing the heavy door after him. Then there was naught but his quick-fading footsteps outside in Beacon Street, and the brief pause of feminine conversation in the parlor.
Sophia’s vision briefly hazed, her brother’s study – the walls of books, the tall windows, the fireplace with the Chinese vases and the portrait of Great-Grandfather Vining all blurred as if obscured by a veil of fog. She reached out with a shaking hand, found the back of one of the tall chairs set before the fireplace, and sat in it until the fog cleared – hands folded demurely in her lap and back as straight a posture as had ever been encouraged by the deportment mistress at Miss Phillips’ Academy for Young Ladies. She sat and breathed deeply until her vision cleared. The sweet scent of hyacinths hung in the room, barely overlaying the odor of her brother Richard’s pipe tobacco.
“Miss Sophia?” That was Agnes Teague’s voice. Sophia lifted her head and forced a smile upon her face, more to reassure Agnes. Such a child, Agnes – and an impoverished childhood in a famine-stricken land made her appear even more childlike, for all that she was fifteen or so. The hand-me-down black maid’s dress that Agnes wore when tending the parlor in the afternoon was too large for her, and made her appear even more childish, even swathed in a starched white apron which hitched in the too-wide waist. Sophia was very fond of Agnes, all things considered – her only intimate in the household, and certainly her only ally. “Are ye all right, noo? The gentleman left in such a rush…”
“I am,” Sophia breathed deeply, and once again. The last of the grey mist cleared. “Mr. Armitage has seen fit to tell me that his father has forbidden our marriage on account of my impoverished situation. Our engagement has ended … just now.”
“Ohhh…” Agnes Teague’s eyes rounded in her peaked countenance, increasing her resemblance to a small pale owl. “Miss … what shall ye do, now?”
“I don’t know, Agnes.” Sophia made herself to stand. “Make my excuses to the ladies – but I think I shall go up to my room just now. This has been a … a horrible disappointment to me. I think that I need to lie down for a while.” To her secret relief, she no longer felt wobbly in her lower limbs, although she did feel slightly sick in the pit of her stomach. She had been counting on Robert for so long, seeing in him an end to a little-rewarded place in her brother’s household.
“Yes, miss.” Agnes bobbed a brief and proper curtsey – a gesture entirely ruined by her owl-eyes overflowing with tears. “Oh, miss – I am that sorry. ‘Tis like that awful Captain George throwing over Miss Amelia Sedley when her own Da went bust! Oh, miss!” the tears began spilling down Agnes’ cheeks in earnest. “Tell me … they won’t have to sell all of the household goods to settle with Mr. Brewer’s creditors, will they? And you and Mrs. Phoebe come to live in a boarding house on Beacon Hill…”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Agnes,” Sophia answered, at once touched and braced by Agnes’s sympathy – and also diverted at how swiftly Agnes identified her own lamentable situation with the novel which Sophia was reading aloud to her, in an attempt to remedy the girl’s sad lack of any kind of education save in Papist pieties. “You live in a boarding house … and Miss Minnie and Miss Phelps live on Beacon Street.”
“Aye so – but we are poor, Da and Seamus and Declan and my sister Siobhan. We have two small rooms, wretched as they are … and Miss Minnie may live two streets away so we are neighbors in no small way – but she has the entire house, which was your Great-grand-da’s, in the day … By your counting, Miss Minnie might no’ have any great estate, but compared to us … we are poor indade. Ye may have no money, Miss Sophia, but you will never be poor.”
“You may be correct in that, Agnes,” Sophia replied, touched and yet amused at the comparison. “For I do have that bequest in my dear Mother’s will, small as it may be … and our family includes many kin and friends of some influence.” She sighed a little. Perhaps she had not been quite so much in love with Robert Armitage as custom seemed to expect. It was … extraordinary how calmly she seemed accept withdrawal of his formal affections once the original shock had passed. From everything Sophia observed as a girl and young woman, if she were deep in love with Robert, she should have been almost incapacitated with grief, weeping helplessly and prone on the hearthrug by now. Possibly it was the prospect of freedom in a small household of her own, upon which she had set her hopes; not the charms and marital attraction of Robert himself. Certainly she was tired of dancing attendance on Phoebe, and on hers and Richards’s grotesquely-indulged small sons. The fact that she had overheard Richard and Phoebe in private conversation only the other evening only increased her general dissatisfaction with her situation. Richard expiated at length over the fact that he had been spared the cost of a governess; by taking his sister into their household had only increased their household budget by the cost of her keep and a tiny allowance. He had sounded most revoltingly smug about this. Sophia had stolen up the staircase to her own little room, wondering if there was a way for her to set aside the expectations of everyone in their circle of acquaintances. She would rather live in Great-aunt Minnie’s aging mansion, in the poor side of Beacon Hill, than here in the house which her father had purchased, back when the Brewers were well-to-do. It appeared that if she was going to be one of those grim old bluestocking spinsters, she might as well get it over and be done with it. Father had died in the War, an officer in a Massachusetts regiment, Sophia could barely remember him at all. Her brother, some fifteen years her senior had been the man of the house for as long as she could recall.
“I’ll make you some ginger-tea,” Agnes promised in a whisper as Sophia moved towards the hall door. “And I know that Mrs. Garrett kept back some of those seed-cakes she made for the ladies’ tea. I’ll bring some to your room, if ye have an appetite at all.”
“Thank you, Agnes,” Sophia replied with honest gratitude. Mrs. Garrett and Agnes were their only servants these days, the two women and sometimes Agnes’s crippled oldest brother Declan, on those few days when some task which demanded manly strength was called for. Declan might have had a wooden foot, to replace the one of flesh and bone lost to gangrene, but he was fit enough otherwise. Declan worked as a night-watchman at a shipping warehouse near the river, and was not adverse to occasional work during the day
Sophia climbed the stairs to her own room, resolutely ignoring the sounds of excited chatter in the parlor – which hushed and then broke out again, redoubled. Obviously Agnes has delivered her message. She closed the door behind her, regarding her bedroom with a feeling of bleak despair totally at odds with the pretty room – papered with flower-sprigged wallpaper, and furnished with old-fashioned furniture in pale-wood finishes. A fresh spring breeze ruffled the muslin curtains on either side of the tall window which faced out into the garden behind the Brewer mansion. Dear and familiar a refuge, it might well be a prison, she thought, savagely. What was she going to do now that Robert had broken their engagement? They had known each other from earliest childhood, frequent playmates, since their mothers were the dearest of friends.
She looked into the mirror over the washstand, seeing again her own familiar countenance; no, she was not unpleasing to the eye, or disinclined to male flirtation or to society in general; just that in the present day, what with the Brewer family’s straitened circumstances, her opportunities to meet an eligible and acceptable suitor might well be fatally limited.

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The Iconoclast WC Brann

WCBrannIf ever there were a 19th Century journalist more deeply wedded to the old mission statement of comforting (and avenging) the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable with energy and fierce enthusiasm, that person would have to be one William Cowper Brann. In the last decade of the 19th Century, he possessed a small but widely-read newspaper called the Iconoclast, a reservoir of spleen the size of Lake Michigan, and a vocabulary of erudite vituperation which would be the envy of many a political blogger today. Born in 1855, in Coles County, Illinois, he was the son of a Presbyterian minister. Upon losing his mother when barely out of diapers, he was placed with a foster family. At the age of thirteen, he ran away from the foster home and made his own way in the world, armored with a bare three years of formal education. He worked as a hotel bellboy, an apprentice house painter, and as a printer’s devil, from which he graduated into cub reporting. He and his family – for he did manage to marry – gravitated into Texas, settling first in Houston, followed by stints in Galveston and in Austin, working for local newspapers as reporter, editor and editorialist, and attempting to launch his own publication – the first iteration of the Iconoclast – terming it “a journal of personal protest.” For William Cowper Brann had opinions – sulfurous, vituperative and always entertaining, even for a day when public discourse not excluding journalism was conducted metaphorically with brass knuckles – and he despised cant, hypocrisy and what he termed ‘humbuggery’ with a passion burning white-hot and fierce.

The first launch of the Iconoclast failed, but nothing discouraged, Brann sold the name and the press to another writer – William Sidney Porter, who much later became well-known under the nom-de-plume of O. Henry. Brann knocked around between big-city Texas for another couple of years, which makes one wonder if a) his wife ever entirely unpacked the Brann household goods, and b) what she said in private to her peripatetic spouse at hearing of yet another move. At the start of 1895, Brann – now working as chief editorialist for the Waco Daily News – re-launched The Iconoclast as a monthly periodical. Eventually, he had a subscription list for it of over 100,000, a fair portion of it national and even international. Which is quite understandable, given his talent with a well-turned phrase and a savagely telling choice in description; in this century he would have been a blogger, and a very well-read one at that. A selection of his pieces (linked here) are readable and highly entertaining, very much on par with luminaries like Mark Twain, in my opinion. (He had written a couple of plays, and at the abrupt end of his life was working on a novel.)

Brann had his list of favored targets – and in what his near-contemporary Mark Twain termed ‘The Gilded Age’ (and Twain did not mean that as a compliment, but rather as something cheap and nasty, all tarted up to look rich) he was rather spoiled for choice in the targets of his broadsides. His remarks on one of the signature social events of the decade – the notorious Bradley-Martin masquerade ball are one of the most savagely-slashing preserved.

Mrs. Bradley-Martin’s sartorial kings and pseudo-queens, her dukes and DuBarrys, princes and Pompadours, have strutted their brief hour upon the mimic stage, disappearing at daybreak like foul night-birds or an unclean dream—have come and gone like the rank eructation of some crapulous Sodom, a malodor from the cloacae of ancient capitals, a breath blown from the festering lips of half-forgotten harlots, a stench from the sepulcher of centuries devoid of shame. Uncle Sam may now proceed to fumigate himself after his enforced association with royal bummers and brazen bawds; may comb the Bradley-Martin itch bacteria out of his beard, and consider, for the ten-thousandth time, the probable result of his strange commingling of royalty- worshiping millionaire and sansculottic mendicant—how best to put a ring in the nose of the golden calf ere it become a Phalaris bull and relegate him to its belly.

In a word, he detested Europeans, particularly British, the new rich of America, vulgar excess, excess of every sort, the deviousness of cows, cant and hypocrisy of every stripe, and Baptists – of which last he opined, “I have nothing against the Baptists. I just believe they were not held under long enough.” (It has to be admitted here that he detested blacks and didn’t think much of women, either.)

Since he was living and working in Waco – the home of Baylor University, which Brann described as “that great storm-center of misinformation” – and thus a kind of Vatican of Southern Baptists, these openly expressed and published remarks regarding Baptists did excite considerable local comment and resentment. Brann paid a price, personally – in being occasional apprehended and assaulted by partisans. His popularity, locally and elsewhere, soared, however. Local anger became especially marked when he published accusations that college administrators and their family members had imported orphaned female child converts from missions in South America … and not only exploited them as domestic help, but sexually as well. I am given to wonder if this didn’t hit Brann in several personal ways, having been given up by his own father, the Presbyterian minister, into the care of people who cared so little for him that he ran from their tender care the minute he was able to do so. But Brann was just getting warmed up. Next, he alleged that male faculty members were pursuing female students sexually. Any father contemplating sending his daughter to Baylor as a student was putting her at hazard of being raped; the university was nothing but – in his words, “A factory for the manufacture of ministers and magdalenes,” – magdalenes at that time being the socially acceptable term for ‘whores’.

A Baylor supporter – the father of a female student there, one Tom Davis who dealt in real estate in Waco and the surrounding country – took personal insult from Brann’s choice of words, simmered over it … and rather than writing a fiery letter to the fiery editor, took his own gun, emerged from his office on downtown Fourth Street, and ambushed Brann as he walked past with a friend in the late afternoon of April 1, 1898. Davis shot Brann in the back, mortally wounding him. The sound of bullets sent newspaper vendors, passing innocent citizens, street musicians and trolley-car motormen, policemen and simple citizens going about their business on a busy Friday evening darting for cover. First escorted to the local police station and then carried home by his friends, Brann died the next morning. He was buried in Waco’s Oakwood Cemetery; the monument marking his grave is a square dark stone pedestal with his profile in white stone and the word “Truth” engraved on it, topped with a Brobdingnag-sized stone lantern … which since appears to have been stolen, if the comments on Find a Grave are anything to go by. The publication of the Iconoclast itself was in the hands of Brann’s long-suffering wife, who subsequently sold it … again. The new owners removed the publication to Chicago; likely it sank shortly thereafter, since it was Brann himself whose corrosive genius in print carried it all on his back.

And what of Tom Davis, who chose to ambush and shoot his bete noir in the back? He didn’t last any longer than William Cowper Brann … who in the best tradition of the Wild West – upon being shot in the back and holed through his left lung, drew his own personal Colt revolver and emptied all six shots into Davis … who fell into the doorway of a tobacconist’s establishment. Back in the day, the city fathers insisted that Waco was the Athens of the West … but the locals all called it Six Shooter Junction, for the disagreement between the newspaper editor and the real estate man was only one of many.

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Oh, Hey … Hi There

New year already – which arrived with a rush, it seemed like. Here everything seemed like it was on hold for the holidays, and now the holidays are over and … everything returns to normal with a rush. I have two books for Watercress which are just about ready to push out the door – I had hoped to get them done before Christmas, but what was that which Robert Burns said about best-laid plans of mice and men going aft agley, or words to that effect? Yeah, the final approval of proofs was put off until after the holidays. And now it’s after the holidays. The good thing, from a purely economic standpoint, is that sales taxes on one will be deferred until 2015 … which reminds me that I have to sort out the sales taxes on mine and Blondie’s Christmas market effort which are due to the bounteous and beautifully independent state of Texas by the 20th  of this month.

After I finish the layout for the Big Book Project, of course; this is an autobiography, and quite professionally written … mostly because the subject hired an excellent ghostwriter to perform the heavy lifting, word-smithing-wise. But the subject – who actually has had a pretty long and interesting life, and lots of  … interesting friends – has about 150 photographs that he wants included in the book, and some of them are … well, family snaps. Out of focus, or with eccentric centering, or scanned at least once, and the newer ones in color, which have to be converted to black and white, adjusted as to light levels and sharpness, cropping so as to accentuate the subject … yes, I’ve been putting in a lot of hours on Photoshop for the Big Book Project. Perhaps now I am at last getting all the good out of that DINFOS shake-and-bake photojournalism course over the late winter of 1978. Anyway, that’s the top priority at this particular time. But there are other matters to attend to.

Blondie is in California for the next few weeks, attending on Mom and family concerns. Mom is recovering, but will never be able to return to hers and Dad’s house. She will be in a wheelchair for the foreseeable future and living in an assisted-living residence. The house is now on the market; it has been cleared of personal possessions, a few of which will be kept as family heirlooms – mostly those few things which survived the fire – and the rest disposed of at an estate auction. I feel at least a few twinges at the heart about this; it was Mom and Dad’s place, which they made and decorated in their own way. But Blondie was the only one of us who actually lived there … and the fire in 2003 destroyed all the furniture and just about all those bits and bobs of personal sentimental value to us. So there is that.

There has been enough taken in from various book projects and sales to do this and that as regarding my own house. Like … sorting out the home office. I bought a pair of wooden file cabinets off Amazon over the last week; very nicely made ones, originating from Vietnam. They replace one battered, crushingly heavy, non-functional (the upper drawer jammed and stuck fast about two months ago) and rather nasty oak-veneer file cabinet (it smelled of mouse-dirt and mold when I got it) inherited from Dave the Computer Genius… well, it was free, mouse-dirt, mold and all, and I was not in such an economic position at that time which allowed me to look down on such an item. But now I can, and so I bashed it all to pieces, put it in the trash, and transferred all the files to the new cabinets. I can recommend them, BTW. The units are attractive and very beautifully designed – every individual piece is labeled with a number corresponding to the instruction sheet, and even the screws and knobs are sealed in a numbered blister-pack. Best of all, it looks like a nice bit of classic furniture when assembled, not just like an office filing cabinet.

And then there is the new idea for the book after the next … another western adventure. A proper but orphaned and relatively impoverished Bostonian young lady takes her future in her own hands, and decides to go out west … as a Harvey Girl. More original than a schoolteacher, I think. I’ve sent away for two books on the various Harvey enterprises in the last quarter of the 19th century. And that’s my week.

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The Turn of the Year 2014-2015

About this time last year – mid-December of 2014, I tallied up my score from December of 2013 on those things that I wanted to do, or ought to do during 2013. I took stock on what I had managed to accomplish – what I had done and left undone. Now on this New Years Day 2015, I am looking at what I did manage to complete from that original 2013 list, and examining those things to work on, and either accomplish, or to try harder on in 2015.

#1 – Switching over to a Texas bank for personal business; done and this year also opened business accounts with the same bank for the Tiny Publishing Bidness. I am very happy with Frost Bank, BTW. The staff at the local branch recognize me now.

#2 – I did finish and bring out Lone Star Sons in time for the Christmas season of this year. It is a short book, and more or less written off the cuff. But – I have also committed to bringing out at least another six Lone Star Sons adventures – tentatively to be called Lone Star Blood, in time for the holiday season of 2015. I think that I can get ‘er done in double quick time. But this project is also in addition to The Golden Road – the adventures of young Fredi Steinmetz in the California Gold Rush. I’ve got about seven chapters into The Golden Road; another eleven or so to go. Goal – have them both ready and published by November, 2015.

#3 – A vow to redouble the efforts for a lavishly-productive back-yard truck garden sufficient to provide all our fresh vegetable needs. Flat fail across the board. The raised beds were a bust, and I don’t think we got more than a handful of ripe tomatoes and peppers. We did get a nice small crop of perfectly exquisite potatoes; which tasted like vegetable velvet, when lightly cooked and served with butter, salt and a dash of meat-based gravy. The apple, plum and peach saplings did take hold and provide some hope; that hope which springs eternal in the breast of the ambitious gardener. Two of the heirloom tomato plants also reseeded themselves. One of them is thriving in a pot, moved into the back porch – which has been shielded from the mid-winter icy blast by plastic sheets stapled all around. A number of potatoes in the raised bed also re-seeded themselves, although the bed is in such a scramble that I have no notion of they are red or white potatoes. This item is turning into a repeat goal.

#4 – Better track of readers and fans … still a work in progress. Book sales this year are down, total, from the year before. Apparently, so are the sales of other writers – those who have been moved to say something in regard to this. Again – resolved to work harder, or smarter on this. More book club events, more author events… sigh.

#5 – Management and recruitment of business at Watercress Press; done. I bought out my business partner, when her health deteriorated to the point where she was unable to work productively on anything. I’ve been working gainfully on books for her old clients, on my own existing clients, and have a chance at picking up more with two of the biggest projects. I have improved my Adobe Acrobat and Photoshop skilz, and the Watercress Press website is updated. But keeping the business going is a continuing goal.

#6 – Stockpiling staple foods. Progress achieved with being able to keep stores of staple foods on hand. Part of this came about through revamping the pantry closet, and through purchase of a back-yard shed, wherein to store some of the food-prep impedimenta, like the canning kettle and extra Ball jars, the cheese- and wine-making things, and imperishable bulk supplies.

#7 — The last of the creditors are paid off – even my business partner’s heirs have been paid for the business. All the outstanding bills I have are the regular monthly ones for utilities, car insurance and the mortgage. I’ll do my best to never, ever have credit card debt again. For this coming year, I’d rather set aside money for something and pay for it up front. Like – the project to get the kitchen renovated.
Which brings me to … the only really new goal for this year…

#8 – Renovate the kitchen and dining area; new cabinets, new sink, and new hood over the range … which will be the practically pristine Chambers stove which Blondie inherited. There is already a new-to-us table in the dining area, and I have recovered the chair seats in cowhide.

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A Random and Joyful Act of Culture

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Slightly Warped Christmas Humor

Courtesy of a link from an old FEN-Misawa co-worker –

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Another Kind of Fruitcake

It’s too late – with Christmas only a few days away – to make this Caribbean black fruitcake for this year – but it isn’t too early to start on a couple of them for next Christmas …

(This is for a different sort of Christmas fruitcake, for those who didn’t like chewing on lumps of fossilized glace fruit, which was published (re-published?) in the European edition of the Stars & Stripes sometime in the mid-1980ies. I copied it out into my personal recipe book, but did not keep or recall any information on its source. A very dear friend of mine loved the resulting cake very much, and kept several wedges in her deep freeze, where it remained soft and un-frozen, due to the incredibly high alcohol content – she called it Celia’s DWI Fruitcake.)

Moisten with a little rum from a 1-quart bottle of same;
1 lb dark raisins
1 lb dried currents
1 lb pitted prunes
1 lb glace cherries
Put the rum-flavored fruit through a meat-grinder, equipped with a medium blade, and combine with remainder of the quart of rum in a glass jar or other sealable container, and allow to steep for at least two weeks or up to one year.

Cream together:
1 lb butter
1 lb brown sugar
1 lb eggs (about a dozen)
The ground and steeped fruit.

Combine in another bowl, and stir into the butter/sugar mixture

1 lb flour
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg

Add 3 oz burnt sugar (melt sugar until deeply caramelized, or nearly black, and dissolve with an equal amount of water to make a dark, thin syrup)

Grease and flour 2 10-in spring form pans, divide the batter half into each, and bake in a pre-heated 350° oven for two hours, or until cake-tester comes out clean. You may need to cover the cakes with tinfoil to prevent burning. Remove cakes, and allow to cool. Poor ½ of a 1-quart bottle of tawny port over each cake, and allow to absorb. (You may need to take a bamboo skewer and pierce cakes about an inch apart all over to facilitate absorbing of the port.) When absorbed, pour on remainder of port onto each cake, wrap tightly in plastic (not tinfoil!) and allow to age at room temperature for at least a week or even longer to let the flavor develope. The resulting cake is very heavy, and dense, rather like gingerbread, and might be considered a sort of “pound” cake, since it calls for a pound of just about everything but the spices. Drive at your own risk, after consuming a slice or two.

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