Monday, December 28, 2015

My Best Christmas Gift

Last week I blogged about the best gift I ever gave. This week, in the afterglow of the holidays, I want to tell you about the best gift I ever received.

The Christmas when I was five, Santa left me a mama doll. Mary Ann originally had curly light brown hair and wore a pale yellow silky dress. When I turned her over, she said, “Mama.” Her eyes opened and closed, and two tiny teeth and a red felt tongue showed through her open mouth.

She soon became my best friend. She went everywhere with me. I kissed her so often I wore all the pink from her cheeks. Her hair fell out from too much brushing, and eventually, her wig came off altogether. Unfortunately, my younger brother got to her. He bit the tips off some of her fingers, pushed her eyes back into her head, and did the same to her teeth. Of course, I cried with each loss, but I never stopped loving her.

The night before my seventh birthday, I realized Mary Ann wasn’t in my room. I asked my mother to let me look for her, but Mom insisted I go to sleep. She promised she and my father would find her. I cried myself to sleep that night.

The next morning, I awoke to see a new doll at the end of my bed. I ran to the kitchen to thank my mother. She gave me a strange look and asked, “Don’t you recognize her?”

When I looked closely, I realized the ‘new’ doll was my own Mary Ann. During the night, Dad had refurbished her, including a new wig and all new clothes. He had re-positioned her eyes and teeth. Once again, she opened and closed her eyes. The only give-away was that the tips of her fingers were still missing. But she was my special baby. And she looked even more beautiful than I remembered.

Many years later, I took Mary Ann to church with me and told the story of her refurbishment to illustrate how God gives us not what we think we want (a new doll) but what we really need (getting something beloved back even better than before).

My mother met me afterward with tears streaming down her cheeks. “Thank you for telling the story. I always felt guilty because your dad had been hospitalized, and we had no money to buy you a birthday gift. He worked for a department store, and between his employee discount and the pile of items to be discarded, he was able to find the wig and doll clothes at practically no cost. He stayed up late in order to repair your doll, but we both regretted not being able to get you a new one.”

I reassured her nothing could have been better than to have my precious ‘baby’ restored.
When my daughter was small, she was allowed to play carefully with Mary Ann only when she was ill. She knew how much the doll meant to me, and she loved her, too.

For my Christmas gift when Kim was in her teens, she located a fancy doll dress at the thrift shop. Since Mary Ann’s old clothing was worn out, she needed something new.

My beloved doll still wears the ‘new’ dress, and once in a great while, a visiting child is allowed to hold and hug her. She now lives in the guest room closet along with a couple of teddy bears. And when I see her, I remember how much she meant to me.

She still does.

What was your favorite gift? Why was it special to you?

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Best Gift I Ever Gave

Last week I wrote about the wonderful Christmas Tea I attended for the ladies in our neighborhood. I told about the question I received: what is your earliest Christmas memory?

Today I want to answer another question someone else was asked: what is the best gift you ever gave?

Lots of people can answer what gift they received was the best, but how many of us have thought about the best one we ever gave?

For me, it was a no-brainer.

The gift that brought me the most satisfaction as the giver was one I gave to my mother many years ago.

She and Dad were married while he was in the military. She lived in a little detached apartment behind her parents’ house. She paid rent and worked full-time. Dad sent nearly his entire paycheck home to Mom, who faithfully put it in the bank. (He earned his spending money by playing poker with his fellow soldiers. He volunteered for duty when they were on leave, and then he snookered his buddies when they returned to base after carousing.)

By the time Dad returned home in the fall of 1945, Mom had saved enough for the down payment on their first home. She continued to save until they bought their house in Alhambra in the fall of 1948. By then, she had enough for the furnishings as well. (We lived in the ‘little house’ behind my grandparents until I was twenty-six months old.)

Her pride and joy was her dining room set, a Duncan Phyfe table and four chairs. It barely fit in our tiny dining room, but Mom loved it. She always said she’d like to have a corner china cabinet to go with it, but Dad died six years after they bought the house, so she could never afford the additional piece of furniture.

Over the years, she moved several times, and her table and chairs moved with her.

Around 1980 or so, she moved to an apartment in Alhambra with larger rooms. At the same time, I received a promotion and a raise. This was in the days of the Christmas bonus, and I received a large one that year.

In those days, one of our regular activities was to visit the mall several times a week after work. We sometimes ate dinner or window shopped, but we enjoyed spending time there just wandering from store to store.

In around October, I wandered into a lamp store and spotted a small corner china cabinet. It was just the size of the one Mom had always wanted. I honestly thought it was walnut, and Mom’s set was mahogany, but both were dark, and I thought they just might go together. But the price was far out of reach.

For the next few weeks, I continued to ‘visit’ the china cabinet every time we were at the mall. Sometime in November, it was marked down to half price—still more than I could afford.

On the day we received our bonuses, we went to the mall as usual. The china closet had been moved to the clearance section—at half off—one quarter of the original price. My bonus would more than cover it.

I wanted to get it for Mom, but it was still a lot of money. So we went to dinner and talked about it. I knew the piece of furniture was meant to belong to Mom, and Larry agreed. (He adored her until the day she died, so he had no reservations.)

We bought it, loaded it into our van, and called my brother to meet us at Mom’s apartment. While my daughter, Kim, and I kept her in her bedroom, Larry and my brother brought it in, set it up, and plugged it in.

I’ll never forget Mom’s face when she first saw it. Not only was it mahogany, but it matched her set perfectly! Even the design on the trim matched the style of her chair backs (an unusual one). It was certainly meant to be.

When she eventually moved into our home, it was the only piece of furniture she brought with her besides her bedroom set. (We put the table and chairs into storage until Kim could use them in her own place.)

Eventually, Mom moved to a retirement home, and Kim gained possession of the china closet. She now has it in her home in Texas.

The day we delivered the china closet to my Mom was one of the best of my life, and hers as well.

What is the best gift you ever gave, and why?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

First Christmas Memory

Last week I attended a wonderful Christmas Tea for the ladies in our neighborhood. What a lovely event! We have lived in this house for well over twenty-eight years. During this time, we have gotten to know many of our neighbors quite well, especially those at our end of the cul-de-sac. I was thrilled to receive the invitation from Pam for this special afternoon event and even more delighted to be retired and able to attend.

Each year, our end of the street holds an annual Christmas party for everyone—the guys included. The tea was the first occasion for all the ladies to get together, not just from our street, but from the other two cul-de-sacs and the street entering our small tract. I had seen most of the gals around and knew a few, but the party was a chance to meet some of the others.

After we enjoyed the yummy goodies and carried on some terrific one-on-one conversations, Pam asked us to sit in the family room, decorated festively to enhance the holiday feel.

She passed out strips of paper with different questions for everyone to answer so we could get to know each other better. Mine said: What is your earliest Christmas memory?
I didn’t have to think very long to answer. Those of you who know me are aware that my brother and I both are blessed with incredible memories. We sometimes surprise ourselves with the things we remember.

My earliest memory is from when I was sixteen months old. (I turned two at the end of August, and this was December.)

I remember being lifted to stand on my grandparents’ dining room table. (My grandfather must have been responsible for putting me there, as my grandmother would never have approved of my standing on the furniture.)

I remember the look of my black patent Mary Janes and the feel of my starched, ruffled, and ironed dress. I looked up to see a sea of adult faces.

When prompted (I assume, again by my grandfather, who doted on me), I began to recite:

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap…

I rattled off the poem like a rapid-fire machine gun, pausing only every two lines to take a deep breath. I finished the poem—all of it, and everyone applauded.

I remember feeling very accomplished, but not a bit frightened.

The story became something of a family legend. My mother wrote about it in my baby book, and various friends of my grandparents told me about it for years, so I know it’s true. I also have snippets of memory of having done it.

My grandfather read to me every single night. He came to our little house (built behind my grandparents’ big one) as soon as he got home from work. I had a whole drawer full of Little Golden Books. Grandpa let me pick out whichever one I wanted him to read. When I found a favorite, he’d repeat it over and over. I became obsessed with A Visit From St. Nicholas (the real name of the poem, by the way). He read it so often I memorized it.

I tried it again the other night, and I still remember every word. As a kid, I became annoyed when anyone said the wrong words—like “Merry Christmas to all” instead of “Happy Christmas to all” or called Donner “Donder.”

I learned a few things from my memory of this performance.
  1.   I came by my mouth naturally.
  2.   I’ve always loved the sound of words.
  3.   Even from such an early age, I always felt comfortable speaking in front of other people.

No wonder I became a writer.

Do you have an early Christmas memory? If so, what is it?

Monday, December 7, 2015

Assembling Anthologies

I love anthologies. Every year I was excited when the Regency, holiday, romance anthologies appeared on the bookshelves in the stores. I like the length since the novellas or stories are shorter reads than full-length novels. I read before going to sleep, and it’s possible to get through one in an evening or two.

I initiated the idea of writing romance anthologies with several of my friends. Little did we realize we’d end up with six in the Aspen Grove series.


I’ve edited a few more over the years, including a recent collection of mysteries set in Hawaii: Paradise, Passion, Murder (currently available for pre-order).

Assembling an anthology requires some attention to how the stories are arranged. When I was putting them together, I considered some features of the individual works.


I tried to vary the lengths of the stories, alternating shorter ones with longer ones for variety.


Not all novellas/stories are created equal. Even good writers don’t always create works of the same quality. When I assembled anthologies, I tried to put a strong story at the beginning and another strong one at the end. Those of lesser quality, I sandwiched between. I know if readers enjoys the first book, they will continue reading. I also wanted to make sure the final story left a good memory for the reader.


In some books, the stories can be arranged in order by date. For our romance anthology, Directions of Love, my novella, “Finding Love in Paradise,” contains the backstory of the four friends. Therefore, it is the first in the book. Luanna Rugh’s novella, “Love Under the Northern Lights,” ended right before the Epilogue and left a suspenseful situation to be resolved in the Epilogue. So, it went after the other two. The four novellas were bookended by the Prologue, which set up the overall story, and the Epilogue.


Most of our Aspen Grove books have an overall story arc, supported and moved along by the individual novellas in the book. I tried to arrange them in the order which would move the overall story forward. This was always a consideration of how to tell the whole story best.


When I edited Larry’s short story collection, Lakeview Park, I tried to pace the stories by mood. Some were sweet, some sad, others bittersweet. I tried to vary the mood of the stories for variety. One character appeared in several stories, so I tried to intersperse his appearances throughout the book.


In Seasons of Love, each novella had a different seasonal theme, so it seemed logical to start the book with spring and end with winter. …And a Silver Sixpence in Her Shoe followed the old rhyme, which starts, “Something Ole, Something New…” The order of the novellas is the same as the lines in the poem.

In some anthologies, the novellas are ordered by the status of the authors. Others seem quite arbitrary on the whim of the editor. Some appear to have little or no reason for their order.

Next time you read one, see if you can tell why the particular order was made.