Hilltown Postcards

A Yellow Toothbrush and a Box of Food for Christmas

Ah, Christmas: one holiday, so many emotions and circumstances. Happy Christmas. Sad Christmas. Rich Christmas. Poor Christmas. Stressful. Carefree. Lonely. Crowded. Weird Christmas.

I liked the ones we spend with our large family. Great food and laughs, gifts, and even one year, fireworks one daughter bought from the South where she lived.

We had a freshly cut tree with ornaments, many of them made by the kids. Why was one son’s Santa wearing gray and yellow? Because the red felt was already taken. Why did another son’s wooden Santa have a black, bandit’s mask? Just because.

We didn’t have a lot of money then, but we tried to buy thoughtful gifts we thought each child would enjoy.

On the Sunday before Christmas, the owners of the Corners Grocery would host Santa. We adults knew he was really Dave who lived in town, but for our kids who still believed, he was the real thing. 

Santa would station himself in the post office annex to greet kids and find out what they wanted. I recall one daughter asked for a yellow toothbrush. Don’t ask me why but we made sure she got one.

Christmas day was a mad dash for the kids to open their gifts and then we drove to my hometown to spend the holiday with my parents and to visit our extended family. When we lived in Ringville, the very helpful Win Donovan would visit our house to keep the fire going in the woodstove, our only source of heat, so the water pipes wouldn’t freeze.

I remember the Christmas after Hank was hurt on a job site a few months before. He fell 18 feet onto his shoulder because someone didn’t nail a board in place on the floor. He couldn’t work. The people who hired him as a subcontractor wouldn’t pay him while he was hurt.

After all those years staying home with six kids, I found a one-year teaching job. We kept things going with a starting teacher’s pay.

It was close to the holiday when we came home to find a large cardboard box on the doorstep of the house we were renting. It contained food and an envelope with $70 in cash.

We were stunned.

We asked around but no one would admit to it. This kind deed has not been forgotten.

Author reading

Sweet Homecoming at The Millicent Library

It was indeed a warm welcome when I gave a reading Oct. 18 at the Millicent Library in my hometown of Fairhaven, Mass. I was touched by the people who came, including many who had read my Isabel Long Mystery Series, which the library carries. Thanks Friends of The Millicent Library for hosting me.

When I was a kid, my mother brought me there to borrow books. As I told those who came for the reading, I tried to read the library’s entire Wizard of Oz series — a friend in the audience said he actually had it at home when it was bought at a sale the library held long ago — plus the one for Nancy Drew, when I and everyone else thought it was written by a woman named Carolyn Keene.

When I moved onto the adult books, I vowed to read every one in the library, an impossible task for certain.

I never know how many people will come to a reading or who will be in the audience. I was surprised right away when a man named Mike presented me with a large black and white photo taken a while back of my parents and his parents dancing at an event. How thoughtful.

Chairs were added as more people came. My cousin, Michael, who has read my books, was there. Several classmates from Fairhaven High School, who had likely seen my post on Facebook, were present. There were people I hadn’t seen in a very long time. Beth David was shooting photos for her Fairhaven Neighborhood News, the local paper.

The talk and reading went fine. I had prepared a script, with each opening sentence highlighted and the script in 22 point, which I had practiced ahead of time so I had most of it in my brain. I talked about my connection to the library and writing experience before delving into the books I have written. I read from them briefly, including the first chapter of Northern Comfort, my latest.

Then I opened it up to questions, which was fun. One man suggested I do podcasts. (Thanks for the suggestion. I am thinking about it.) People had questions about the books such as do I have a hard time keeping characters straight in my different books. (No, I don’t.) What authors do I like? Advice about publishing.

Afterward when I was signing books people bought, I was approached by my ninth-grade history teacher, Dennis Duval. I had written a blog post, The People Who Teach Us, about meeting him last summer at my mother’s convalescent home. I had no way of knowing how to reach him, but he told me he found it online by chance. He had printed it out and asked me to sign it for him. 

It was a sweet homecoming for certain.

NEXT READING: I will be doing one Sunday, Oct. 22, 2 p.m. at the Arms Library in my village of Shelburne Falls.

ABOUT THE PHOTOS: Hank took the ones of me talking and signing books. I snapped the one of the audience.


My Mother Is 99

On April 2, my mother, Algerina is 99 years old. That’s a very long life filled with creativity and a curiosity about the world around her. Let me tell you about her.

Her parents emigrated from the Portuguese island of Madeira. They met in New Bedford, Mass., worked in the textile mills, and bought a house and land in a nearby town, where they kept a large vegetable garden and goats. A great deal was expected of my mother and her younger sister, Ernestina. Although a good student, my mother was forced to drop out of high school to work in one of those mills. Her sister had to take care of the house.

As a young adult, Mom continued to live at home, thinking she was going to be an old maid, a term we don’t use today. She was 24 when she met my father, Antone on a blind date. They were married six weeks later. It was a very long and happy marriage that ended when our father passed at in 2015 a few months short of his 93rd birthday. Mom always says their years of marriage were the best of her life.

They had three other children besides me: my sisters, Christine and Kij; my brother, Tony. There are lots of grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren.

My father was active in their town of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, especially with sports, whether playing or coaching it. My mother would be there watching. Both were heavily involved in St. Mary’s annual shows, and my mother put her sewing talents to great use creating costumes for them both. (Her costume-making guaranteed me a starring role in my school plays. The prom gowns she sewed, including the one with the glass beads on the bodice, are in a trunk still.)

It’s unfortunate my mother had to leave school because she loved learning. She wanted to be a nurse, and seeing how she cared for our father in his last years, she would have been a caring one. She was a big reader. When we were kids, she took us to the library twice a week for an armload of books she read in bed. 

Mom took adult education classes in such subjects as millinery — I wore feathered hats with veils to church — jewelry making, cake decorating, painting, you name it.

She and Dad enjoyed traveling, especially to Hawaii, Las Vegas, Madeira, and the Azores.

I have fond memories of the long days we spent at the beach on the weekends. Mom would make clam fritters. (She and Dad dug for clams and quahogs in season.)

She loved eating lobster.

Until she had to give up her license a few years ago, Mom drove to three places to eat and shop — Wendy’s, Walmart and Market Basket, taking only right-hand turns. She had a bit of a heavy foot. Hank joked she drove like she was in the getaway car of a bank robbery.

My mother enjoyed gambling and winning, whether it was Bingo put on by one of the local churches or playing the slots at the casino. She had a head for Sudoku, a puzzle that mystifies me. A loyal newspaper reader, she still has a subscription to the New Bedford Standard Times.

My mom’s not the meddling kind of mother. She let her children find out things for themselves. I am certain there are times she was mystified by the decisions I made and the directions I took, but she kept that to herself.

Mom is also the inspiration for the mother, Maria in my Isabel Long Mystery Series. I give that character a lot of my mother’s interests and personality. She’s nosy and helpful solving crimes. My mother liked that.

On Friday, my son Zack and I paid a pre-birthday visit to Mom. She now needs special care and help, certainly understandable given her age and health. She was happy to see us, as we were happy to spend time with her. When we both sang “Happy Birthday,” she joined us. She still has her sense of humor. When she heard somebody say “Hey!” she responded with “Hay is for horses!”

There’s so much more I could write about my mother, but this post gives you an idea.

Happy 99th birthday, Algerina. Thank you for being my mother.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That’s a formal photo of her taken a number of years ago.

Cooking, Thanksgiving

My Mother’s Trunk Turkey

Driving with six kids 2½  hours through the woods to grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving got old. That’s when we were living in Worthington, a hilltown in Western Massachusetts. So we informed our extended family we were staying put but they were welcome to join us.

My parents took us up on our offer. They didn’t mind making the drive. But, alas, my mother didn’t trust that I could cook a proper turkey. So she volunteered to bring the turkey. I could make the rest of the meal. I wasn’t insulted.

My mother was indeed an excellent cook of anything that had feathers while it was still alive. And besides she wanted to contribute something to the meal. So I said yes even though the smell of roasting turkey is such a savory thing.

The first time, however, the kids and I were surprised when my father opened the trunk of their car and carried an aluminum pan of cut up turkey to the house. What no beautiful bird on the table?  Not this year.

One of the kids – I don’t remember which one – was the one who called it Grandma’s Trunk Turkey.

Of course, not to her face.

But the name stuck.

I should say my mother was a school cafeteria lady in those days. Serving food cut up in aluminum pans was part of the job.

Her trunk turkey, however, was delicious.

So it was Grandma’s Trunk Turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner if my parents came.

That changed when we moved to Taos, New Mexico. Sometimes I had co-workers over for the traditional dinner — by then I had learned to roast a turkey, even using brine one year — and other times we ate at friends’ or in a restaurant. We came east a couple of times.

Now that we are back living in Western Massachusetts, we will be hosting the Thanksgiving meal at our home. It will be a full house with family. Monday we picked up the turkey, which came from a local farm. It was a lot bigger than the 20 pounds I ordered by four pounds so there will be plenty of leftovers. Everyone is pitching in with side dishes — our granddaughter Ella is making biscuits — pies, and wine. 

I’ve done my research on the best way to cook this turkey. I now have a great pan and a high-tech thermometer. But part of me secretly wants me to put the cooked bird in the trunk of my car and take if for a spin before dinner. But only my mother could get away with that.

And Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate the holiday!

BOOKS: Hey, while I’ve got your attention …. THE SACRED DOG: This novel is not part of my Isabel Long Mystery Series although the setting is similar. Basically, there’s bad blood between two men. The title comes from the name of a bar one of them owns. I will be telling you a whole lot more about it from now until its launch date Dec. 27 and beyond. Here’s the link to learn more: https://mybook.to/thesacreddog 

FOLLOWING THE LEAD: Here’s the link for no. 6 in the Isabel Long Mystery Series: https://mybook.to/followingthelead

PHOTO: That’s the bird I will be roasting.


Good-bye Two

Two is the name of the cat who lived with us for 12 years, and sadly, our time together ended Christmas Day. She was too ill and weak, and so we chose to do the humane thing. Yes, we are so sad. Let me tell you about our cat, and you will understand why.

We found Two in a shelter in Northern New Mexico called Taos Feral Feline Friends, where its director had cats live in rooms in her house, except for the feral ones who had a separate building. Leanne brought us to the so-called old and obese room, and this black cat came up to me immediately. She started talking. I told Hank, “this is the one.” He wanted to look around, a fact I reminded the cat several times.


Two on my lap from NM to Massachusetts.

We usually give our animals human names. She came with the name Dusty, but that didn’t suit us. So, we named her Two, in honor of the two best cats we owned, also black. Actually, her full name was Dusty Two Cats. (I believe she was named Dusty by her previous owners, whoever they were, because she loved to roll in dust.)

We discovered that Two, who we suspect was Burmese, was a chatterbox who tried her best to communicate with us verbally. I swear she said “no” and “I don’t wanna.” We tried but failed to get her to say “yes,” however.

She also understood when we said “eat” or “out.” I am not making this up.

Unfortunately, her previous owner had her front paws declawed — something we would never do to an animal — so we had to keep that in mind. If she wanted to go outside, we were with her, especially in Taos where coyotes are opportunity feeders.

Not having front claws also hampered her hunting abilities, but lizards were catchable. As for birds, she waited patiently until one hit the large front glass of our house and dropped to the ground.

She drove Hank nuts when she escaped inside the culvert on our driveway.

We solved that situation when he and our son, Zack, on a visit, built a secure fenced-in yard. She liked to sit beneath the tall covered gate — that’s a picture of her above  — and even once ventured onto our 36404_1503605437102_4658278_nhouse’s roof. Hank climbed a ladder to coax her down, but typically she did it when she was ready.

What else can I tell you about Two?

When Hank had hernia surgery she sat on his lap, pressed gently against the incision, earning her the name Nurse Two-Two.


Ab anxious moment for Hank watching Two on the roof of our home in Taos.

Probably because of that experience and the fact he was home more than me, she clearly favored Hank. Two and I had our relationship although it was clear I was second banana. I wasn’t hurt.

During the winter she would sleep between us, under the covers with her head on the pillow.

She loved baking in the sunlight or beside the wood stove. Another of her favorite spots was the ironing board, especially when we were trying to iron. She didn’t play with toys and typically, wanted to be in the highest spots of the house.

During our cross-country move from New Mexico to Western Mass., she spent almost all of the 2,400-mile trip on my lap after she complained vehemently about being in a carrier.

To get out attention she sat on a newspaper or book that we tried to read, or in my case, walk across the keyboard.

Two would sit on Hank’s lap, his legs extended for more than an hour while he watched TV. I was impressed. Ten minutes was my max.

She had her favorite napping spots. Last night, I looked at the chair in our front living room and 10550038_10204551590536752_4851730321312986156_oimagined her there, curled and relaxed.

The list goes on. Two was a member of our family and so much a part of our life. She trusted us. We trusted her.

This year she had two bouts of a urinary tract infection that required antibiotics. But her decline began in late fall. She was, by her records, 17 or 18 years old. She still ate and drank water but toward the end, she began distancing herself until we decided we needed to let her go.

During the past week, I think about feeding her when I get up or that she’ll be watching in the living room window when we come home. The list goes on.

As I’ve said before, the hardest part about loving an animal is losing one.

Will we get another cat? Yes, someday. But this cat will have a tough act to follow.

Good-bye, Two. We loved ya.