Dawn Pisturino's Blog

My Writing Journey

Reprise: The Best Gift

After nine years of marriage, Mary knew that the holidays were not a good time to ask her husband for a favor. Money was tight. The children were out of school. Her husband’s large, extended family had decided – at the last minute, of course – to honor them with their considerable presence at Christmas dinner. Christmas Day was only a week away, and Mary felt frazzled, overwhelmed, and out of sorts. She lay down on the small double bed in the master bedroom to take a nap.

It was Sunday afternoon. Betsy, 6, and Lauren, 8, were busy decorating sugar cookies in the kitchen. Their childish laughter rang through the house, a happy reminder of Christmas. Mary’s 12-year-old nephew, Jordan, lay on the carpeted living room floor playing video games. An occasional triumphant shout blended with the sound of video gunfire. Earlier in the day, he had announced his decision not to participate in any of his cousins’ childish activities. He was too old to decorate Christmas cookies, he declared; although Mary noted with a smile that he was not too old to consume half a dozen with a tall glass of milk. But he was a good boy, and Mary was happy to have the extra baby-sitting money. She had agreed to take him for the entire week while her sister was in the hospital having gallbladder surgery.

Mary wasn’t quite sure where her husband Todd had gone. He had left early in the morning before everyone was awake, leaving a note on the kitchen counter that he would be back later. She figured he was doing last minute Christmas shopping at the mall and would come home soon laden with packages. The children would greet him at the door, demanding to feel, prod, shake, rattle, and listen to each gaily wrapped gift. Then they would carefully lay them under the decorated artificial pine tree in the living room and continue to feel, prod, shake, rattle, and listen to them every day until Christmas.

Mary prayed as hard as she could that he would not go overboard spending their hard-earned money on Christmas gifts. They simply could not afford it, especially when they were expecting their third child in a couple of months.

Mary ran her hands over her swollen belly and sighed. She was not prepared to face another round of baby bottles and diapers — even if this one was a boy. She was tired and disappointed with her life. The constant pressure to pay bills, the ever-present fear of Todd being laid off, the nagging worry over providing an adequate future for the girls — the stress was tearing her apart and wearing her down. And soon there would be one more responsibility to face. She just didn’t feel up to it.

When Todd came home, she would beg him for this one favor: one of them needed to get sterilized. She didn’t care which one, but somehow, they had to come to some agreement. She didn’t want more children. They couldn’t afford anymore. She wanted to provide for the ones they had already.

Outside, the wind began to howl, and the softly falling snow grew thicker. She could no longer see the trees through the bedroom window. She shivered and drew the blanket tighter around her swollen body. Please drive carefully, she silently prayed.

* * *

“Mommy, mommy, we’re hungry!” cried the girls, jumping onto the bed.

Mary groaned and rolled over. The bedroom was dark. She glanced at the neon orange face of the alarm clock on the nightstand. Six o’clock. Todd should have come home by now.

Reluctantly, she got up and followed the girls into the kitchen. She grabbed a box of macaroni and cheese and a can of green peas out of the cupboard and began to prepare dinner. While she waited for the water in the pan to boil, she grabbed her cell phone and called Todd. She heard a few distant rings, then nothing. She tried again with the same result. Damn this snow, she cursed under her breath. She reached for the portable phone on the kitchen counter. No dial tone. Damn! She slammed down the receiver. There was no way to get hold of her husband.

“Mommy, when’s daddy coming home?” whined six-year-old Betsy, clinging to her shirt.

“I don’t know, sweetheart. We just have to be patient. Go into the living room with Lauren and Jordan. Dinner will be ready soon.” But inside, Mary did not want to be patient. She wanted to scream, Where is he? A feeling of dread came over her. Todd would have called if something was wrong — if he was able to call. And that’s what was worrying her. He had no way to communicate with her.

She poured the dry macaroni into boiling water, then placed the peas into a bowl and set it in the microwave. She set the dial for three minutes and waited. In the living room, she heard the familiar voice of Burl Ives singing cheery Christmas songs on TV. If only Todd were here . . .

When dinner was ready, she poked her head through the living room door to call the children to the table. The room was dark, and one of them – Jordan, probably – had plugged in the Christmas tree lights. Their soft glow filled the room with radiant colors. Mary smiled, allowing the gentle peace of Christmas to fill her heart. A small delay, that’s all. He’ll be here soon.

“Dinner, everyone! Put the video on pause and come to the table.”

The two girls ran to the table and scrambled into their chairs. Jordan pushed the pause button, then walked slowly into the kitchen and sat down. “When’s Uncle Todd coming home,” he asked glumly. “I want to play video games with him!”

“Any time now,” Mary responded cheerfully, dishing up a plateful of macaroni and cheese. “So, Jordan, it sounded like you were winning this afternoon!”

He took the plate from her hands. “Aw, I do okay.”

Outside the wind howled, and Mary thought she heard a faint knocking sound. Could it be . . .

“Hey! Somebody’s at the front door!” Jordan shouted. “Maybe it’s Uncle Todd!” And he was off and running before Mary could stop him.

“I wanna go see!” shouted Lauren.

“Me, too!”chimed in Betsy; and both girls raced into the living room.

“Wait!” Mary cried. “It could be a stranger!”

She hurried after the children. Jordan flipped on the outside light and opened the front door. In the doorway stood a State Trooper wearing a heavy jacket, thick boots, and gloves dusted with snow.

“Mrs. Abbott?” he inquired gravely.

Mary’s heart sank. “I’m Mrs. Abbott.”

“Ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you like this, but I’ve got some bad news for you.”

Tears welled up in Mary’s eyes, but she held her voice steady. “Won’t you come in, officer?”

“Thank you, ma’am. It’s mighty cold out here.” He stomped the snow off his boots and entered the foyer.

“Ma’am, I’m awfully sorry to tell you this –“

“The children, officer –“

“Yes, ma’am. Maybe we can send them into another room for a few minutes.”

“Children, you heard the officer. Go back into the kitchen and eat your supper.”

“Aw, I want to stay here!” Jordan grumbled.

“No, I need you to go into the kitchen. Now!”

Jordan mumbled something under his breath but turned and walked away. The girls reluctantly followed.

“As I was saying, ma’am, I have some awfully bad news for you. Your husband, Todd Abbott, was killed in a car crash an hour ago. He missed the turn down on Miles Creek Road and slammed right into that old oak tree in the bend. He died instantly from the looks of it. An ambulance took him to Mercy Hospital. He’s laying in the morgue there. You’ll need to come identify the body as soon as you can.”

Mary stared at him in horror. “No! It can’t be!” she cried. “It can’t be . . .”

* * *

In the days that followed, Mary stopped living. She refused to get out of bed. Taking the sedative prescribed by Dr. Lawrence, she kept herself sedated, locked in her room, lost to the world, oblivious to her own existence. All she wanted was to sleep – long, deep, and hard – until all the agonizing pain and suffering deep inside had shriveled up and disappeared. She wanted to blot out all the memories of her life, every thought and feeling, and to never think or feel again.

* * *

“He’s dead,” Jordan said quietly, bursting into tears. “I’m never going to see him again.” The two girls, not fully understanding, began to wail.

“I want my daddy! I want my daddy!” they screamed in unison. “Mommy! Mommy!”

“Shhh . . . Hush now, my darlings. Grandma’s here.” With a heavy heart, she drew the little ones close to her breast and held them tight. They sobbed hysterically, wetting her sweater, until sleep overcame them and offered a temporary shelter from their grief.

* * *

After three days, Mary emerged from the darkness of her bedroom. Stumbling down the hallway in her old flannel bathrobe, she made her way to the kitchen and poured herself a cup of black coffee. Her hands shook slightly, and her mother stared at her in shock.

“Mary, you look terrible! Come sit down. Do you want some eggs?”

“No, I’m not hungry.”

“Then come sit down and talk.”

“I don’t think I can do that yet.”

She stood over the kitchen sink and stared out the window. The day was crystal clear with a cloudless, vivid blue sky. Bright sunshine made the clean white snow sparkle with millions of tiny diamonds. It was a perfect winter day, just right for making snowmen and snow angels and drinking hot chocolate; sledding down Jackson Hill; ice skating on Fisher’s pond; building snow forts and throwing snowballs.

“He’s gone, mother, and I don’t know what to do. How can I go on? He was my whole life. And the kids — good Lord, what kind of god takes a wonderful daddy like Todd away from his children? I don’t understand it. It’s too cruel. Those kids are never going to be the same again.”

“They’ll get through it, Mary — and so will you. You’ll do it because you have to — for the sake of those little girls — and the new one that’s coming.”

Mary turned around angrily. “I don’t even want this child! Do you know what I wanted to do? I wanted one of us to get sterilized. I don’t want anymore children! I can’t even provide for the ones I have. How am I going to support three children working part-time at the video store? Todd’s life insurance will help, but there’s the house payment, and now we need another car, and the utilities, and food — and how am I going to pay for medical insurance? I don’t even know if Todd’s medical insurance is going to cover the delivery, now that he’s gone!”

“Careful, Mary, or that baby will grow up knowing you resent it. It’s not fair to blame the child for what’s happened.”

“I’m sorry, mother, but I do resent it! I didn’t want it in the first place — and now, with all this — I just can’t handle it!”

“It’s still Todd’s baby, Mary. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

* * *

The small bronze box on display at the front of the memorial chapel was engraved with these words: “Together Forever.” Two hearts intertwined, and Todd’s name, birth date, and date of death were engraved inside one of them. Mary gazed tearfully at the 8 x 10 color photo of her husband displayed next to the urn and fingered the thin gold wedding band hanging on a gold chain around her neck. Someday, she promised, my ashes will be added to yours, and we will be together forever.

She lit a small votive candle and placed it before the framed photograph. Then silently, reverently, she reached out and touched the smooth glass inside the frame, mentally stroking the familiar features of her husband’s face. Together forever . . .

She hugged her swollen belly and felt the child inside her move. If it’s a boy, I’ll name him after you. Todd Douglas Abbott. He might even look like you! I hope he looks like you, she prayed. She closed her eyes and wept.

She remembered the day when the doctor called to tell her the good news. Congratulations, Mrs. Abbott, you’re pregnant! She had been angry at the doctor and angry at Todd. The doctor tried to reassure her that everything would be okay, but she refused to listen and hung up the phone. She crawled into bed and stayed there all afternoon, crying about her condition. When Todd came home from work, she lashed into him with angry words, blaming him, and calling him names. Instead of fighting back, he merely looked at her with a deep sympathy and understanding that calmed her down, then took her in his arms and reassured her, like the doctor, that everything would be okay. He promised her that everything would be okay . . . and now he was dead. How could she ever forgive him for lying to her? Most importantly, how could she ever forgive herself for despising him and hating this child?

Somebody touched her gently on the shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Mary.”

She turned around and looked into the deeply lined, tear-stained face of Todd’s mother. “It’s all so horrible,” Mary sobbed, throwing her arms around her.

“Yes, it is.” Todd’s mother hugged her warmly. “He was my baby, Mary. I couldn’t have anymore children after he was born. It made him more special, somehow. Just like your little one. He’s Todd’s last gift to you — the best gift! Love him, Mary; really love him. Just like you loved Todd. Because there’ll never be anymore of him in this world.” Her voice broke, and she wiped the tears from her eyes with a handkerchief.

The best gift. The words echoed in Mary’s heart. Suddenly, she understood. Looking down at her swollen belly, the agonizing pain and anger melted away, and a deep love filled her: love for her husband, her family, and this beautiful child who would carry on Todd’s legacy. A bright spark of hope lifted her up, releasing her from her fears. She grabbed her mother-in-law’s hands and placed them over her belly, tears streaming down her face.

“We’ll love him together,” she said softly.

Dawn Pisturino

Copyright 2007-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

The first line of this story was provided by The First Line as a writing prompt.

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Christmas Dinner from the 1950s Housewife

(1956 Christmas table setting – Photo from Click America)

Christmas Dinner 1950s Style

Note the formal table setting above. Elegant, polished, shining, and decorative. Polishing the silver was a long and tedious job, but so worthwhile! Beautiful!

Christmas Dinner Menus

Menu #1:

Oyster Cocktails in Green Pepper Shells

Celery and Ripe Olives

Roast Goose with Potato Stuffing

Apple Sauce

String Beans

Potato Puffs

Lettuce Salad with Riced (Grated) Cheese and Bar-le-Duc (currant jam)

French Dressing

Toasted Wafers

English Plum Pudding

Bonbons

Coffee

Menu #2:

Cream of Celery Soup

Cheese Sticks, Salted Peanuts, and Stuffed Green Olives

Roast Beef with Yorkshire Pudding

Potato Souffle

Spinach in Eggs (hard-boiled eggs filled with cooked spinach)

White-Grape Salad with Guava Jelly (peeled and de-seeded white grapes on lettuce leaves)

French Dressing

Toasted Crackers

English Plum Pudding with Hard sauce

Bonbons

Coffee

(Menus from The American Woman’s Cook Book, 1950)

Christmas Cocktail Parties

(Cocktail wiener tree.)

Cocktail parties were popular in the 1950s, and the Christmas cocktail party was no exception.

Favorite drinks:

martinis

daiquiris

mint juleps

whisky sours

champagne cocktails

punch laced with alcohol

Appetizers:

Finger foods such as canapes, Vienna sausages, cocktail wieners, cheese, deviled eggs, and olives.

Sweets such as petits fours, candies, cookies, and other small desserts.

1950s Cocktail dresses:

1950s Christmas tree with lots of tinsel!

Christmas is timeless, however it’s celebrated.

Dawn Pisturino

December 12, 2021

Copyright 2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

31 Comments »

Reprise: The Woman with the Blue Tattoo

Olive Oatman, Library of Congress

Olive Oatman became famous in the 1850s for the blue perpendicular lines tattooed onto her chin. She called them “slave marks,” and people all across America wanted to know how and why she had acquired them.

On the afternoon of February 18, 1851, while camped along the Gila River in Arizona, Olive and her younger sister, Mary Ann, watched in horror as a band of Western Yavapai Indians massacred their mother, father, two sisters, and three brothers. Held back as captives, the two girls, fourteen and seven, were forced to walk barefoot through the rugged desert to the isolated Yavapai camp. For a year they lived there as slaves, fetching wood, hauling water, and gathering food, until traded to the Mohave tribe for two horses, three blankets, vegetables, and beads.

The Mohaves (Aha Macav, “along the river,”) inhabited a lush, fertile valley along the banks of the Colorado River, the traditional boundary between Arizona and California.

Chief Espaniole and his wife, Aespaneo, welcomed the girls into the tribe and adopted them into their own family. They were proud to have rescued the girls from the cruel Yavapai and vowed to treat them well.

The girls worked alongside the other women of the tribe, gathering wood, fetching water, and planting seeds. They soon learned the Mohave language and developed close friendships with other members of the tribe.

Olive was variously called “Ali,” “Aliutman,” “Olivino,” and “Owich (cloud),” the clan name of Chief Espaniole’s family. Mohave women inherited clan names passed down from their fathers, and bearing a clan name meant Olive was considered a full member of the tribe.

Facial tattoos were common among the Mohave Indians because they believed the permanent marks guaranteed a place in “Sil’aid,” the land of the dead. Tribal members who died without tattoos would spend eternity in a desert rat hole. Since Olive and Mary Ann belonged to the tribe, they were expected to undergo the tattooing process.

The girls lay quietly on the ground while experienced tattooers drew designs on their chins. Since the tattoos were meant to be decorative, they chose designs that would enhance the girls’ faces. Using cactus needles or sharp sticks, the designs were pricked into the skin until the wounds freely bled. The sticks were dipped in the juice of a special river weed, then into a powder made from a blue river stone, and applied to the pinpricks on the girls’ chins. The process took several hours to complete and several days to heal.

With this rite of passage, Olive and Mary Ann became permanent members of the Mohave tribe and the first white females in the United States to wear tattoos.

A terrible drought in 1855 brought famine to the tribe. Many people died, including Mary Ann. Olive soon fell ill herself. Aespaneo saved her life by feeding her gruel made from cornmeal.

In January 1856, a Yuma Indian named Francisco arrived at the Mohave camp with papers from Fort Yuma ordering the release of Olive Oatman. Chief Espaniole refused to release her. But Francisco persisted, claiming that five million white soldiers were hiding in the hills, ready to attack and destroy the Mohave village. The Mohaves reluctantly gave in.

Once again, Olive was traded for two horses, blankets, and beads. She arrived at Fort Yuma ten days later, tanned, tattooed, painted, her hair dyed black, and wearing only a bark skirt. She was nineteen years old. Her brother Lorenzo, who had survived the massacre, traveled from California for a tender reunion with his long-lost sister.

Olive became an overnight sensation. Newspapers all across America printed stories about “the white Indian” and her blue tattoo. The Evansville Enquirer reported on November 9, 1859: “She will bear the marks of her captivity to her grave. Her savage masters having tattooed her after the customs of their tribes.”

In 1857 Royal B. Stratton published the first book detailing the Oatman ordeal, Life Among the Indians, which became an immediate best-seller. Olive and Lorenzo traveled to New York, where Olive promoted the book with autographed photographs and lectures. She openly displayed her tattoo while relaying the tragic story of the Oatman massacre and her life as a “slave” among the Mohave Indians.

When not delivering lectures, Olive self-consciously covered her chin with her hands to avoid the staring eyes of curious people.

Olive married wealthy cattleman John Brant Fairchild in 1865, left the lecture circuit, and eventually settled down in Sherman, Texas. She became reclusive, hid her face behind a black veil, experimented with make-up to hide her blue tattoo, and refused to discuss her life among the Indians. She died of heart failure in 1903. Afraid the Mohaves would claim her body, John Fairchild had her coffin sealed in iron and covered her grave with a thick granite tombstone.

(Mohave Indian woman with body paint and tattoos.)

Dawn Pisturino

October 17, 2012; November 25, 2021

Copyright 2012-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

Please contact author for sources.

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Thanksgiving Dinner from the 1950s Housewife

Thanksgiving menu 1950s style

Clear chicken or turkey soup

Bread sticks

Salted almonds

Celery

Olives

Roast turkey

Giblet gravy

Chestnut stuffing

Mashed potatoes

Brussel sprouts

Jellied or whole cranberry sauce

Romaine salad with French dressing

Cheese plate

Hot mince pie

Bonbons

Coffee

~

How to make chicken or turkey bone soup

“Never discard the bones of turkey or chicken as they always will make a delicious soup. Scrape the meat from the bones, break the bones, pack in a kettle, and cover with cold water, adding a small onion. Cover closely and simmer very gently for three hours. Strain and cool. One-half hour before it is to be served, return to the fire, and for every quart of stock, add one cup of the cold meat, season, and keep hot till needed. This soup may be greatly improved by adding to it, three minutes before serving, ten oysters to each quart of soup.”

Chestnut Stuffing

1 quart chestnuts

1/4 cup bread crumbs

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons cream

Salt and Pepper

1/2 teaspoon onion juice

Shell and blanche chestnuts and cook in boiling water until tender. While hot, rub through coarse sieve. Mix with remaining ingredients. Makes 2-1/2 cups.

~

Formal Table Settings and Service

Housewives of the 1950s set their holiday dinner tables with their finest china, bearing the most exquisite designs. If the dinner was served in courses, a different design might be used with each course. All the dishes used in one course would match.

Place Plate – 10-11 inches across. This was the base plate on which the dinner plate was set.

Dinner Plate – 10-10.5 inches across, used to serve the meat and side vegetables.

Entree Plate – 8.5-9.5 inches across, used to serve an entree, salad, or fish. May have been used for dessert if the fingerbowl was brought in on it.

Dessert Plate – 7.5-8 inches across, used for dessert or salad. Used for the cake plate at tea.

Bread and Butter Plate – 6-6.5 inches across.

Soup Plate – 8-8.5 inches across with a broad, flat rim. Or a bowl could substitute.

Cups and Bowls

Cream Soup Cup – A low, broad cup with two handles, 4.5-5 inches wide and about 2 inches deep. Used for purees, bisques, and cream soups.

Boullion Cup – Looked like a tea cup with two handles that was used for clear soups, consommes, and bouillons.

Chilled Cocktail Bowl – A low, broad bowl inside a separate container. The bowl would be used to serve grapefruit, shrimp cocktail, and other chilled foods. Crushed ice would be packed around the bowl.

Glass

Colored glassware was very popular in the 1950s and would have matched the colors in the china dishes. Crystal glassware was preferred for formal dinners, either etched, cut, or rimmed with gold.

Goblet – The main component of the glassware setting. Two other glasses would have been set alongside the main goblet, usually a claret glass and a champagne glass.

Sherbet Glass – A medium sized bowl on a short stem used to serve sherbet, ice cream, and other frozen dessert.

Finger Bowl – a low, broad bowl used to dip the fingers in water.

Silver

Polished silver gave an air of sophistication to the table setting. Besides the usual dinner knife, fork, and spoon, the 1950s hostess might have provided an array of cutlery including a butter knife and smaller knives and forks for fish, entrees, salad, and fruit.

A List of Useful Serving Pieces

2 or 3 tablespoons

2 or 3 dinner forks for serving

Medium sized carving set

Butter knife or butter pick

Gravy ladle

Sugar tongs

Pie or tart server

Cold meat fork

Olive spoon or fork

Berry spoon

Jelly server

Preserve spoon

Long-handled fork and spoon

Pickle fork

Pierced server

Salad dressing ladle

Lemon fork

Asparagus server

Entree server

Cake fork

sardine server

Ice tongs

Ice spoon

Sugar spoon

Sugar sifter for powdered sugar

Ice-cream knife or server

Cheese server

Melon knife

Grape scissors

Linen

The 1950s hostess preferred white linen damask for a table cover at dinner. The napkins always matched the tablecloth. Monogramming was very popular in the 1950s.

Centerpieces and Decorations

Flowers were popular centerpieces in the 1950s. The colors had to blend in with the rest of the color scheme. Candles were usually white or natural wax color. The candles were lighted before the guests entered the dining-room and were kept burning until after they left the room.

From The American Woman’s Cook Book, 1950

~

Sounds like a lot of work! A lot of serving to do, and a lot of dishes to wash! But the 1950s housewife took pride in setting a well-appointed table. She derived satisfaction from pleasing her guests. Of course, we all know that that does not always work with family.

Most importantly, however, Thanksgiving is and was a time to spend with family and friends and to be thankful for what we have. Washing dishes is a small price to pay.

Thanksgiving Prayer

Lord, source and giver of all things, we give You thanks and all the glory on this Thanksgiving Day for the splendor and majesty of creation. We give You thanks for the blessings of family and friends: both those gathered around this table and those who are present only in our hearts. We give You thanks for this food, prepared by loving hands, and for the graces You provide to nourish our spirits, souls, and bodies so that we may continue to serve You passionately. Help us to be faithful stewards of all we have been given. May we reflect Your love and that which we have received to all those we meet, especially the less fortunate in our midst. Amen.

Practice Gratitude – Conversation Starters for Around the Table

Name two things you are thankful for this year.

Who are you thankful for, and why?

What part of nature is inspiring and beautiful to you?

What is something that makes you laugh out loud?

What is an unexpected blessing you’ve received this year?

Choose someone you are with and share three things you admire and appreciate about that person.

What is something you love about your family?

How are you going to practice gratitude this year?

Have a Safe, Happy, and Blessed Thanksgiving this year!

Dawn Pisturino

November 4, 2021

Copyright 2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

13 Comments »

The Seance: A Short Story

The heavy iron gates of Bellemont Cemetery stood open like silent sentries, daring her to enter. Lila hesitated, fearful that once she passed through those gates, they would close behind her, trapping her in a cold, dark, colorless place forever. Thick brick walls enclosed the historic cemetery on all sides, walls much too high to climb if she became trapped. She forced herself to close her eyes and take a deep breath, squelching the rising wave of panic inside her. Then, heart pounding, she hurried through the ominous gates and breathed a sigh of relief when they remained open behind her.

A thick line of trees leaned wearily against the walls, their branches swaying in the cold wind. All around her, the trees were alive with sound: raindrops drip, dripping off rain-soaked leaves onto the rich, mossy soil below; a merry chorus of tiny birds chattering in the treetops, flitting here, then there, delighting in their wet, dewy bower. Overhead, the sky was heavy with white and gray clouds moving rapidly with the wind. More rain threatened to fall. But suddenly, long beams of shimmering sunlight broke through the clouds, caressing the earth with wraith-like fingers, providing a glimpse of heaven, and the possibility of angels breaking into song. Raindrops glistened like silver beads of light in the trees; the last of the autumn leaves burst into fiery red and gold flame; and she was alone, blissfully alone, in a magical world.

Lila breathed in the pure, rain-washed air; inhaled the heavy odor of decaying leaves; the spicy scents of cedar and pine; and the delicate perfume of roses, pink ones and black ones, which she carried in a large bouquet in her hands. She held them to her nose, luxuriating in the sweet aroma, and felt the wetness of raindrops on their velvety petals.

A damp chill rose up from the earth, making her shiver, and she pulled her heavy, black velvet cloak closer around her. The heels of her black leather boots echoed on the pavement. The skirt of her long, black velvet dress clung to her with dampness. But she didn’t care — she was nearly there.

At a fork in the path, she stopped. Gingerly, she stuck one booted foot onto the rain-soaked autumn grass, turned stubby and brown. But the ground held firm, so she continued through the grass, feeling the cold dampness penetrate into her feet.

She walked among the ancient headstones with care, noting with sadness how they leaned and crumbled in the shadows, their weathered faces obliterated over time, their stories forever silenced, forgotten, erased from the world. But a few remained to tell their tales: Baby Emma, dead of pneumonia after two days of life in 1842; Mary Whitehead, Beloved Wife and Mother, died age 27 in childbirth, May She Rest in Peace; Harold Whitby, who died a local hero in the Civil War; and Hope Blaisdale, born 1767, Asleep in the Arms of Jesus since 1857.

So many lives, come and gone; so many hopes and dreams passed away; so many joys and sorrows extinguished forever; so many years gone by. Both the hardness and frailty of life were represented in this place, and she was overcome, once again, with the stark realization of life’s shortness and the finality of death.

She found what she wanted in the newer section of the cemetery, a gentle, grassy slope once sparsely populated. But ten years had witnessed the gradual appearance of many smooth, cleanly-engraved marble headstones, and the open, park-like feel of this section was disappearing. Many of the more recent headstones were simple oblong markers embedded in the soil, flush with the earth, to make it more convenient for the mowers. They lacked the character and history of the older stones. But here they were, and here they would stay, until decades from now they, too, would appear weathered and worn, a testament to the passage of Time.

She had insisted on a more enduring headstone to honor the memory of her dead husband. She stood before it now, examining the clean whiteness of the weeping angel’s marble arms flung mournfully over the shiny, black marble headstone where her husband’s vital statistics were deeply engraved. It was not a new idea. The Victorians had doted on the image of weeping grief. She had borrowed the idea from William Wetmore Story, an American artist who sculpted the original monument for himself and his wife in 1894. It now stood in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, where they were buried. Lila had kept most of the original design but paid the sculptor to sculpt her own image onto the angel’s face — and it was her own grief represented in the statue.

She knelt before the marble monument and placed the pink and black roses in the bronze vase embedded in the marble base. Pink for everlasting love; black for everlasting death. It was an annual ritual which had consumed her life for the last ten years. She uncovered her head, feeling the damp, misty air all around her, and traced the carved letters of her husband’s name with one gloved finger.

“Happy birthday, Jonathan,” she said softly, and tears filled her eyes. With loving hands, she brushed away a few dead leaves clinging stubbornly to the cold, wet marble. Ten years ago, she had vowed to keep his memory pristine and shining. She would not allow him to be forever silenced.

The dull ache of her everyday grief filled the empty loneliness of her life, reminding her listless spirit that she was still very much alive and obligated to remain so until either God or the devil decided otherwise; but today, on the most special day of her year, when the ritual of her grief found its most sublime expression, she needed no reminder of the separation that lay between herself and her husband. The hardness of the marble headstone felt all too real beneath her fingers; the shortness of his precious life felt all too bitter in her heart:

Jonathan Harkins

Born October 31, 1952

Died June 21, 1997

Beloved Husband, Lover, and Friend

She leaned over and kissed the cold, hard stone, unmindful of the clinging dampness or the tears streaming down her face.

“Tonight,” she said hopefully, and believed it in her heart.

* * *

At nine o’clock, when she felt certain there would be no more Halloween revelers at the front door, she stoked up the fire in the fireplace, turned down the lights, and placed a small, round mahogany table in front of the fire. She covered the table with a large square of deep purple velvet cloth and set out the wooden Ouija board and plastic planchette. She placed a small silver candelabra on the table next to the Ouija board, filled the candleholders with pink and black candles, and carefully lit each one. The effect was charmingly romantic, definitely Gothic, in keeping with her annual birthday ritual; and she said a silent prayer, hoping that this would be the year when Jonathan’s promise would come true. Then she changed into a long, black velvet gown embroidered with tiny silver stars and waited for her guests to arrive.

It wasn’t long before she heard a brisk knock on the front door, and she opened it with a large smile to admit two women of varying ages and costumes. They removed their coats, handing them to their hostess, and looked around the darkened room in expectation.

“How charming!” exclaimed a young woman with blazing red hair and large, green eyes dressed in a long-sleeved, forest green gown with red embroidery on the tight bodice. The material clung to her slender figure, emphasizing her plump breasts. “Lila, you’ve absolutely outdone yourself!” She leaned up and kissed her hostess on the cheek.

Lila crossed her fingers. “This year, Maureen; it has to be this year!”

“We’ll do our best, my dear.” She turned to her companion. “This is Madame Angeline, our guest psychic, just arrived from Boston, Massachusetts. Her reputation is impeccable!”

The older woman with platinum blonde hair and faded violet eyes was dressed in a long-sleeved, lavender-colored gown adorned with vintage cream-colored lace at the wrists and throat. An old ivory cameo was pinned to the starched, Victorian-style high collar, and Lila wondered how the woman could breathe. She stretched out her hand, and the woman took it gently, turning it over to examine her palm.

“Madame Angeline sees many things, my dear,” she said with a slight French accent. “But for you, I see a long, happy life — if you will allow it to be.”

Lila removed her hand from the old woman’s grasp. “Thank you, Madame,” she said nervously. “We will see tonight if that prophesy comes true or not.”

Madame Angeline shrugged. “A cup of hot tea with cream would be lovely. The air is quite damp outside.”

“Certainly. And you, Maureen?”

“I’ll pass. I’m nervous enough without adding caffeine.”

“Then, I’ll be right back,” Lila said. “Here, the table is all ready. Please take your preferred seat, Madame.”

Merci.” The old woman seated herself in front of the Ouija board where she could easily reach the planchette. The chair opposite was left for Lila, and Maureen took the third chair to the side.

Lila returned shortly with a serving trolley bearing a large pot of black tea and a small, white birthday cake decorated with pink and black candles.

Madame Angeline observed the cake with a strange look in her eyes, but said nothing. Maureen smiled apologetically. “Lila, dear, you really must explain to Madame what this is all about.”

Lila poured cups of hot tea for herself and Madame Angeline and sat down in the empty chair. She took a few sips of the strong hot liquid and began:

“My husband, Jonathan, was a psychologist who became interested in the paranormal when he took on a young man with schizophrenic tendencies as a patient. This young man was a gifted artist who had visions of another world after death. He painted beautiful canvasses depicting a world full of light and angels and unearthly spirits. His paintings sold well, but the young man’s visions grew in frequency to the point where he could no longer function in the real world. He began to drink and use street drugs, and he finally sought counseling for his substance abuse.

“Jonathan took the young man under his wing, so to speak, and became convinced over time that the young man’s visions were real. He became obsessed with the idea of life after death, reading every book he could find on the subject.

“When Jonathan was diagnosed with brain cancer, we were both devastated. Right from the beginning, the doctors told us it was hopeless. We tried chemo and radiation, but nothing worked. We finally turned to hospice, and Jonathan died in this very house ten years ago.

“Before he died, however, he promised to come back on his birthday and prove to me that there is life after death. We chose a special number code that only he and I knew, and if that code was revealed during a seance or Ouija session, that would be his message to me that life after death is real and everlasting.

“It sounds crazy, I know, but I have celebrated his birthday and honored his death every year for the last ten years without fail. We have hired a different psychic or medium every year, to no avail. There has been nothing but silence from the grave. We were hoping that tonight would be different.”

She reached over and squeezed Maureen’s hand. “Maureen has been my loyal friend through all of this. She has been right here with me through all the disappointment and pain for the last ten years. He has to come tonight, Madame, he has to! I don’t know how much more of this I can stand!”

Madame Angeline listened to her gravely, then closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. Then she placed her fingers gently on the planchette.

“Place your fingers lightly on the planchette, and do not force it to move!” The two women complied. “Now, open your minds and hearts to the celestial realm and join me in calling on the spirit of Jonathan Harkins!”

Lila’s heart leaped in her chest in anticipation. Please, God, let tonight be the night, she prayed silently.

Madam Angeline continued. “Jonathan Harkins, ten years ago, before you passed on to the other side, you made a promise to your wife, Lila, that you would send a message to her from the other side on the anniversary of your birthday if — and only if — you were able to do so. Please come to us tonight, on the anniversary of your forty-fifth birthday, and deliver that message!”

The fire crackled in the background, and the candles softly flickered. Outside, the wind howled gently against the windows. Then the soft patter of rain could be heard upon the roof. The lighted jack-o-lantern sitting on the hearth grinned a snaggle-toothed grin, and the odor of burning wax and pine logs filled the room. But the planchette did not move.

Once again, Madame Angeline took a deep breath, let it out, and continued. “I call upon all the spirits of Heaven and Hell to dissolve the veil between life and death, spirit and flesh, darkness and light, and allow the spirit of our beloved Jonathan Harkins to break on through to this material world on this holiest of nights, when the barriers between life and death are at their weakest, so that he may impart the message he promised to give to his beloved wife, Lila.”

Lila’s heart pounded in her chest, and a thin film of sweat dampened her brow. Her fingers trembled, but the planchette did not move. She looked nervously at Maureen and smiled faintly. Maureen smiled back reassuringly, her eyes glowing like green emeralds in the candlelight.

Once again, Madame Angeline closed her eyes, threw back her head, and said loudly, “I call upon the spirit of Jonathan Harkins to appear in this room and deliver the message he promised to give ten years ago!”

Lila and Maureen each held their breath as they waited for the planchette to begin moving idly across the board, slowly at first, then gathering speed. But instead of searching for alphabetical letters or numbers or touching upon the oui or the ja or even good-bye, the little plastic instrument sat there silently, mocking them both.

Lila stared at the planchette in disbelief. “It’s no good, my dear,” Madame Angeline said quietly. “Jonathan is not going to appear.”

“I don’t believe it,” Lila said, gripping the planchette tightly. “You didn’t try hard enough. In fact, you hardly tried at all.”

Madame Angeline reached for her hand across the table. “Remember what I said, cherie. You will have a long and happy life — IF YOU ALLOW IT. Ten years is a long time to wait. You are still young — only 42, am I right? Young enough to remarry — have a child, if you like. This obsession with grief is unhealthy. Life was meant for the living. For some unknown reason, Jonathan is not able to reach you from beyond the grave. That does not mean he’s lost to you forever or that he’s suffering in any way. It simply means that it’s not God’s will that he contact you. It’s time to let it go.”

“I can’t let it go, especially when he promised –“

“People make a lot of promises on their deathbeds, my dear; sometimes, not very wise ones.” Madame Angeline stood up and prepared to leave. “If you will bring my coat, Lila, I will say good-night to you.”

Lila stared at the little plastic planchette held tightly in her hand. Ten years of grief and frustrated hope burned inside of her, and she wanted to scream. She squeezed the planchette until the plastic cracked in her hand, and she threw it on the floor in disgust. Then she grabbed the Ouija board and flung it into the fireplace, making the fire sizzle and pop.

Lila stood up and pointed an accusing finger at Madame Angeline. “You don’t believe me! You never believed that Jonathan would come back! You’re nothing but a fraud!”

“Lila!” Maureen cried. “Madame Angeline is just trying to help you!”

“She’s not receptive to help,” Madame Angeline said sternly. “Please get my coat so I can leave.”

When they heard the knock on the front door, they were all startled, then annoyed. It was too late for visitors. Cautiously, Lila opened the front door without releasing the safety chain. She peered through the open crack at a stranger visible under the porch light. He was standing in the rain holding his brown overcoat over his head. He smiled at her apologetically.

“Excuse me, ma’am, but I seem to have run out of gas, and my cell phone battery is dead. Can I please use your phone? I know it’s late, but I have no other way to get home. I live about two blocks from here, at 12145 Maplewood Court. I could walk, I guess, but the weather isn’t too good out here. I’d really appreciate it.”

Lila stared at him, not believing her ears. “12145, you said? Did you say 12145?”

“That’s what I said.”

Lila’s heart leaped in her chest. “12145!” she exclaimed, clutching her hands to her breast and laughing ecstatically. She turned around. “That’s it! That’s the code! Did you hear, Madame Angeline? He’s come back! Jonathan’s come back!”

Maureen and Madame Angeline stared at her in stunned silence.

“Did you hear me?” Lila cried. “JONATHAN’S COME BACK! That man out there just gave me the code!”

But Maureen and Madame Angeline just looked at her in disbelief.

“Here, I’ll prove it to you!” Lila fumbled with the safety chain, released it, and threw open the door. But the stranger was already down the walk, disappearing into the rainy darkness. “No!” Lila cried. “Please don’t go!” She hurried after him, arms waving wildly, and calling frantically, “Come back!” until the rain and darkness engulfed him, and she was alone.

* * *

NOTE: This story is about Lila’s fear of death, her attachment to grief, and her inability to accept her husband’s death. Sometimes, authors get attached to their own words – “their little darlings,” as Stephen King would say. I would really like feedback from you, The Reader! Is the story too long? Too boring? Too wordy? What needs to be cut out? Or is it okay as it is? Please leave your feedback in the comments below – and, thanks!

Dawn Pisturino

October 15, 2021

Copyright 2009-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

9 Comments »

Ride of the Valkyries

The Ride of the Valkyries is one of Richard Wagner’s most popular pieces. The music has been used as part of the soundtrack in Francis Ford Coppola’s movie, Apocalypse Now, included in Halloween music collections, and hailed as an anthem for strong, courageous women. Everybody loves the iconic image of hefty, solid women dressed in armor, ready to wage battle. The music is rousing, active, and elevating. And the scene, which marks the beginning of Act Three in the opera Die Walkure, appeals to people who appreciate the enduring legacy of Nordic and Teutonic mythology. It is the second opera in the four operas which make up the Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle (The Ring). Many people believe J.R.R. Tolkien derived The Lord of the Rings from Wagner’s Ring, but Tolkien always denied that idea. Still, the similarities cannot be ignored. Wagner’s ring is a symbol of complete and total power that can be wielded against others. Cursed by Alberich, it becomes the cause of all the misery in the world. Sound familiar?

But who and what are the Valkyries?

In Norse mythology, the Valkyries were warrior goddesses associated with the god Odin. Their primary function was to bring back the bodies of slain heroes to Valhalla, where they would feast with Odin. They were called the Einherjar. Some were chosen to fight with Odin at the end of the world, during Ragnarok.

Wagner uses Teutonic mythology in his opera. The Valkyries were the daughters of Wotan who chose which heroes would be slain and then transported their bodies to the halls of Valhalla. Wotan’s daughter, Brunnhilde, embodies the qualities of courage, strength, wisdom, and precognition. It is her sacrifice which finally destroys the cruel, omnipotent power of the ring and saves the world.

The Ride of the Valkyries, from the Metropolitan Opera 2012 production. Enjoy!

Dawn Pisturino

October 4, 2021

Copyright 2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

17 Comments »

Women in Celtic History and Lore

Boudicca

The Celtic world spread over a large territory, from central Europe to Spain to the British Isles. Celtic culture originated in the Iron Age and continues to this day in places such as Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Brittany.

The Romans, in particular, wrote about the Celts because their armed forces invaded Celtic territory and enslaved the Celtic people. Most Celts had been absorbed into the Roman Empire by the 1st century C.E. By 500 C.E., Celtic culture was confined to Brittany and the British Isles. Because of their commonly-held language and traditions, these Celts stood out from other cultures and became the historical model for Celtic culture.

Celtic women were protected throughout their lives: first, by their fathers; secondly, by their husbands; and lastly, by their sons. But Celtic women were not weak and dependent creatures. They were highly regarded as daughters, wives, mothers, and warriors, if the need arose. They were expected to give good counsel, keep their households in good order, and remain virtuous and loyal to husband, family, and tribe.

Queen Boudicca

The best historical example of a fierce Celtic woman is Queen Boudicca of the Iceni tribe, who reigned in the East Anglia region of Britain. In 60 C.E., she led a revolt against the Romans. Bravely driving a chariot against Roman forces, she fought for the liberation of her tribe and vengeance for the rape of her two daughters by Roman soldiers. Although defeated, she went down in history as a British folk hero.

The Old Hag of Beara

The Old Hag of Beara is a legendary Irish Cailleach (divine crone) whose story originated in the Beara Peninsula in County Cork, Ireland. She represented a woman’s life cycle. In her youth, she was the consort of kings, toasting the king and giving sage advice to her royal lover. As an ugly old crone, she sits on the Beara Peninsula as a pile of stones, wielding power over the wind and sea. She has been associated with the coming of winter.

The Old Woman of Beare Poem

It is of Corca Dubhne she was, and she had her youth seven times over, and every man that had lived with her died of old age, and her grandsons and great-grandsons were tribes and races.

And through a hundred years she wore upon her head the veil Cuimire had blessed. Then age and weakness came upon her and it is what she said:

Ebb-tide to me as to the sea; old age brings me reproach; I used to wear a shift that was always new; to-day, I have not even a cast one.

It is riches you are loving, it is not men; it was men we loved in the time we were living.

There were dear men on whose plains we used to be driving; it is good the time we passed with them; it is little we were broken afterwards.

When my arms are seen it is long and thin they are; once they used to be fondling, they used to be around great kings.

The young girls give a welcome to Beltaine when it comes to them; sorrow is more fitting for me; an old pitiful hag.

I have no pleasant talk; no sheep are killed for my wedding; it is little but my hair is grey; it is many colours I had over it when I used to be drinking good ale.

I have no envy against the old, but only against women; I myself am spent with old age, while women’s heads are still yellow.

The stone of the kings on Feman; the chair of Ronan in Bregia; it is long since storms have wrecked them, they are old mouldering gravestones.

The wave of the great sea is speaking; the winter is striking us with it; I do not look to welcome to-day Fermuid son of Mugh.  

I know what they are doing; they are rowing through the reeds of the ford of Alma; it is cold is the place where they sleep.

The summer of youth where we were has been spent along with its harvest; winter age that drowns everyone, its beginning has come upon me.

It is beautiful was my green cloak, my king liked to see it on me; it is noble was the man that stirred it, he put wool on it when it was bare.

Amen, great is the pity; every acorn has to drop. After feasting with shining candles, to be in the darkness of a prayer-house.

I was once living with kings, drinking mead and wine; to-day I am drinking whey-water among withered old women.

There are three floods that come up to the dun of Ard-Ruide: a flood of fighting-men, a flood of horses, a flood of the hounds of Lugaidh’s son.

The flood-wave and the two swift ebb-tides; what the flood-wave brings you in, the ebb-wave sweeps out of your hand.

The flood-wave and the second ebb-tide; they have all come as far as me, the way that I know them well.

The flood-tide will not reach to the silence of my kitchen; though many are my company in the darkness, a hand has been laid upon them all.

My flood-tide! It is well I have kept my knowledge. It is Jesus Son of Mary keeps me happy at the ebb-tide.

It is far is the island of the great sea where the flood reaches after the ebb: I do not look for floods to reach to me after the ebb-tide.

There is hardly a little place I can know again when I see it; what used to be on the flood-tide is all on the ebb to-day!

From The Kiltartan Poetry Book by Lady Augusta Persse Gregory, 1919.

Dawn Pisturino

August 24, 2021

Copyright 2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

2 Comments »

Culinary Tips from the 1950s Housewife

Dedicated to my mother, Adeline Lucille Spencer

The 1950s housewife was expected to cook three wholesome and nutritious meals every day for her family; send children off to school with filling and healthy lunches; set an elegant and lavish table for entertaining; and keep her husband happy and satisfied with a full stomach.

She was expected to know how to choose the best foods at the best prices, and to plan weekly menus that fulfilled the nutritional needs of her family. She read women’s magazines and cookbooks, looking for new recipes and advice about raising happy, healthy kids. Over cups of coffee and freshly-baked cookies, she swapped recipes, shared marital secrets and advice, and complained about housework to neighborhood friends and family. The 1950s housewife was highly-regarded and well-respected as the glue that kept the family and society together. And she benefited from post-war prosperity with new innovations in household appliances, television, and increased leisure time. 

Simple Breakfast Menu

Fruit Juice

Coddled Eggs (hard-cooked or soft-cooked boiled eggs)

Graham muffins (or bran muffins)

Coffee and Milk

Simple Lunch Menu

Bacon and Liver Sandwiches (or Bacon and Liverwurst)

Lettuce and Onion Salad Bowl

Chiffondale Dressing ( a variation of French dressing)

Baked Stuffed Pears

Simple Vegetarian Lunch Menu

Creamed Asparagus on Toast

Stewed Tomatoes

Cottage Cheese Salad

Prune Whip

Custard Sauce

Simple Dinner Menu

Roast Beef

Yorkshire Pudding

Toasted Carrots

Buttered Onions

Lettuce and Chicory Salad Bowl

Cheese Tray and Toasted Crackers

Coffee

Simple Vegetarian Dinner Menu

Cheese Souffle

Mashed Potatoes

Buttered String Beans

Radish and Cucumber Salad

Strawberry Shortcake

* * *

A huge part of entertaining guests in the 1950s was setting a proper table using the best china, glassware, silverware, linen napkins and tablecloth, condiment holders, place cards, and centerpiece. Monogrammed napkins and tablecloths were quite popular in the 1950s. Buffet dinners, in particular, gave the 1950s hostess the opportunity to show off her best silver, glass, and linens.

The Formal Dinner

1st course – Appetizer

2nd course – Soup

3rd course – Fish

4th course – Roast 

5th course –  Game

6th course – Salad

7th course – Dessert

8th course – Crackers and Cheese with Coffee 

9th course – Nuts and Raisins

10th course – Fruit

The Simplified Formal Dinner

1st course – Appetizer

2nd course – Main Entree

3rd course – Salad

4th course – Dessert

5th course – Coffee with Fruit or Crackers and Cheese

Courses were served individually in a particular way, and the place setting and position of knives, forks, and spoons reflected the order in which the courses were served.

1950s Food Wisdom

“Expensive foods are not necessarily the most nutritious.”

“Prepare all food so attractively, and season it so well, that it will be irresistible.”

“Beautiful color and dainty, attractive arrangements play a large part in a successful meal.”

“A combination of colors pleases the eye, stimulates the digestive juices, and creates an appetite.”

“When planning combinations, follow the day’s nutrition schedule and good combinations will result.”       [Today, we have the food pyramid that provides nutritional guidelines.]

“Fine flavor in foods is developed by proper cooking. Additional flavors are provided by herbs: garlic, onion, celery, and by spices. Highly-seasoned foods whet the appetite, while sweets satisfy it. For that reason, well-seasoned foods are served for appetizers and sweets for desserts. Serve only one strongly-flavored food at each meal.”

“A most important point is the serving of at least one each soft, solid, and crisp foods at each meal.”

“Serve hot foods hot and cold ones cold.”

“Plan meals that do not have too many last minute touches. When entertaining, avoid serving food that will be ruined by a few minutes waiting.”

“If planning to bake one dish, arrange your menu so that the whole oven may be used.”

“Learn to buy so that there is a minimum of food left over.”

“In summer, the market provides foods low in energy value but high in minerals or vitamins, such as fruits and vegetables. In winter, high-energy foods, as fats and carbohydrates, are needed, too.”

* * *

When my mother got married in the 1950s, she did not know how to cook! She was given a wonderful cookbook called The American Woman’s Cook Book (1952) as a wedding gift. I pored through that cookbook when I was growing up. The colorful pictures of fabulous desserts and  savory cooked meats always fascinated me and made me want to experiment in the kitchen. I treasure that cookbook as a beautiful reminder of my mother and days gone by.

Dawn Pisturino

May 25, 2021

Copyright 2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

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