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So That’s Where the Can Opener Went

So That’s Where the Can Opener Went

So that’s where the can opener went.

That was my first thought when I cleaned out the dishwasher at our son and daughter-in-law’s house not too long ago. It was the can opener of my childhood and a good one at that. The narrow end made prying the caps off pop bottles on the rare occasions when there was pop in our house. The wide end made short work of opening mason jars filled with the fruits and vegetables Mom canned each summer. That end was put to use almost every night before supper.

But those memories weren’t the second thoughts that sprang to mind as I stared at it.

My second thought was of the jars of jelly and jam mentioned in See Jane Run! Teaching duties and solving mysteries don’t leave much time for Jane to make decent meals. She frequently resorts to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Her mother insisted on sending plenty of home canned jellies and jams with Jane when she moved. Her mom was quite sure that grocery stores didn’t exist in sparsely populated Tipperary County where Jane had accepted a teaching job. And that home canned fruits and vegetables were nowhere to be found.

Jane’s mom was wrong on both counts.

Tipperary County had three grocery stores, and almost every cook in the county spent August through September canning and freezing garden produce and lugs of fruit purchased from those three grocery stores. In See Jane Run!, she’s busy figuring out 1) how to teach country school, and 2) who the murderer is that she’s unaware of the county canning culture.

Which led to my third thought while staring at the can opener.

See Jane Can! would be an intriguing title for a future book in the West River Mystery Series. Canning could be a launching pad for flashback memories of canning with her mother. A broken canning jar or a purposefully damaged pressure cooker could be a murder weapon. If Jane has a can opener like the one pictured above, it could unfold more of the story of her dad’s illness.

That thought, the fourth if you’re counting, sobered me.

The writing on the can opener says it came from the Glenwood, Iowa Lumber and Coal Company. Glenwood is in Mills County, Iowa. My dad was the county extension director there when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The story of how the disease impacted Jane’s dad and his family is based on our family’s story.

“Mom,” my son said. “Why are you staring at the can opener?”

“It reminded me of something from when I was a kid.” I laid it on the counter and took a picture with my phone.

“Something good?” he asked.

“Something hard.” I smiled and put the can opener in the utensil drawer. “And very good.”

It Could Be Worse. It Could Be -45°.

It Could Be Worse. It Could Be -45°.

It could be worse. It could be -45°.

That was my first thought when I scrolled through Facebook and saw the low temperatures my friends, both near and far, were posting. Curious, I checked the local temperature on my phone.

“It’s -21°,” I told my husband.

He shook his head. “That’s cold.”

“It could be worse. It could be -45°.”

We silly grinned at each other as we remembered the stupidest thing we ever did in the coldest weather of our married lives.

It was a February Sunday in 1982.
We were a young and foolish.
We’d been married for 4 years.
We lived in Camp Crook, South Dakota.

Someone called to say church had been cancelled because it was -45°. I wanted to know what -45° felt like. The inner door worked without a hitch, but the screen door barely moved. It wasn’t frozen shut, but the lubricant in its push/pull mechanism had congealed. It took some muscle to open it. I poked my head out for maybe a second and pulled it right back in. -45° is cold. Really cold.

But not cold enough to say no when our friend Craig called. “Liz and I are going out to eat in Spearfish. Want to come?”

“It’s -45°,” we said.

“We’ll warm up the car,” they said. “We’re not leaving until noon. It’ll be warmer then.”

They was right. It was only -30° when we crawled into Craig and Liz’s car. The sun was shining. The car was toasty. Dinner was tasty, and we all returned home safely. So why do I say the trip was the stupidest thing we’ve ever done? Consider the following details:

Camp Crook is 100 miles from Spearfish.
There are only 2 towns between where we lived and where we were going.
I was 5 months pregnant.
That’s why I know it was 1982.
Now do you see why it was the stupidest thing we ever did?

Then again, it’s a shared memory that makes us grin and say, whenever the temperature dips into the double digits below zero, “It could be worse. It could be -45°”

Sign up to receive website updates and See Jane Run! book news on Gravel Road’s home page right under the picture of–you guessed it–the gravel road.

Jane Threw Her Bible Away

Jane Threw Her Bible Away

The Forest Service Ranger Station in Camp Crook. The brown house in the background is similar to the one where Jane and Pam meet.

Jane threw her Bible away years before she moved to Little Missouri. Her lack of faith is a major player in See Jane Run! Finding a way to show rather than tell readers why Jane threw her Bible away was a real challenge. My daughter, who is doing a final consistency read through before the manuscript goes to the publisher, says a recently added flashback rose to the challenge.

The flashback is based on something that happened during my high school years. I had forgotten about it until about 10 years ago when my uncle–the inspiration behind Uncle Tim in the novel–invited me to look through the journals he’s faithfully kept for decades. I chose the one for 1973-74, which was my senior year in high school. I scanned pages for mentions of our family. One described a phone call to my uncle after I got home from school and found Dad on the bathroom floor. My uncle came over. He cleaned Dad and dressed him in fresh clothes. My uncle’s journal account ended with these words, not written out of pity but with deep compassion: Poor man. Poor wife. Poor family.

To be clear, I didn’t lose my faith after the real event. However, I used it in a fictional flashback to show why Jane threw her Bible away and abandoned her faith. The excerpt you’re about to read is an early scene. It takes place a few days after Jane moves to Little Missouri. On a walk around town she meets Pam, who shows her around the Forest Service campus. Here goes:

After the tour ended, I declined Pams offer of more tea. 

Then would you join us at church tomorrow and come to Sunday dinner?”

I wanted to say no. After all, I had wasted years going to church, following every thou shall” and thou shall not” in the Bible. Every night at bedtime, I asked God to heal my father. I prayed the same prayer night after night. But Dad didnt get better. He got worse. Even so, I prayed up a storm. Until the day I walked the bathroom and found him huddled on the floor by the toilet, feces smearing the floor.

 He gazed at the wall and spoke in a monotone. I fell off the toilet.”

Its okay, Dad. Ill call Uncle Tim.” 

His jaw clenched. Its not okay. A daughter shouldnt see her father like this.”

Uncle Tim got there as fast as he could and took over. While he gave Dad a bath, I went to my bedroom, found my Bible, and threw it away.

I opened my mouth to say I didnt go to church, but opted for Iowa nice. I dont want to put you out.”

Put us out? Dans grilling hamburgers, and Im making potato salad.”

My mouth watered. 

What do you think of the scene? Does it showing rather than tell why Jane threw her Bible away? You can leave your feedback in the comment box!

Sign up to receive website updates and See Jane Run! book news on Gravel Road’s home page right under the picture of–you guessed it–the gravel road.

Concrete Withdrawal

Concrete Withdrawal

Concrete withdrawal was something I dealt with during our first year in South Dakota. The memory surfaced yesterday while we watched a skilled crew of men pour the floors of the basement bump out and the downstairs and upstairs garages.

To me it looked like our addition boasted more concrete than all of Camp Crook’s paved outdoor surfaces. The town had no paved roads or paved parking lots. There wasn’t a house in town with an outdoor patio. During a reading lesson that included “curb” as a vocabulary word, my student asked, “What’s a curb?”

I thought a while. “Have you gone shopping with your parents in Belle Fourche?”


“Well, you know how when you park downtown, you get out of your car and go to where the street and the sidewalk meet?”

She nodded.

“You know the bit where the sidewalk is higher than the street and you step up?”

Another nod.

“That’s the curb.”

Big grin.

To be fair, Camp Crook did have more concrete outside than our addition has. The gas station had some around the pump. The Forest Service complex had a few sidewalks. So did the school and a couple buildings on Main Street. Across from the school was what everyone in town called “the concrete slab.” It was a fenced in area about the size of a basketball court complete with baskets. But that wasn’t enough for a young woman who came from an Iowa town with paved sidewalks, roads, and parking lots everywhere.

In a letter to a high school friend, I said I was going through concrete withdrawal. Now that I’m older and wiser, I know it wasn’t concrete withdrawal. It was culture shock. Jane deals with the same sensation in See Jane Run! and subsequent books in the Tipperary County Mystery series. Until she learns, like I did,

that gravel roads are safer to drive on during the winter–and the winters are long on the tall grass prairie,
that raised wooden decks are better than concrete patios in summer–because it takes longer for mosquitos to hunt you down, and
that gravel roads and walkways lead to houses filled with people who welcome you inside whenever you visit.

Sign up to receive website updates and See Jane Run! book news on Gravel Road’s home page right under the picture of–you guessed it–the gravel road.

Little School on the Prairie

Little School on the Prairie

I once taught in a little school on the prairie. Those 5 years as a country school teacher are the basis of my first cozy mystery, See Jane Run! If it gets picked up by a publisher, my hope is to turn it into a series. Which is why I’ve spent the last few months plugging away at Hear Jane Sing!, the second mystery in the series.

If there’s been a personal silver lining to shelter in place mandates and the cancelation of all spring and summer speaking engagements because of coronavirus, this must be it.

There is no silver lining to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. But it has led many, like myself, who enjoy white privilege to learn more about what it means to be black in the United States. To that end I recently watched 13th, the documentary about our country’s prison system. Part of the timeline traced the events of the war on drugs.

Part of that war happened while I taught in a little school on the prairie. Our son, who was born with a condition that required frequent surgeries and hospitalizations, was born during those years, too.

That may explain why I was oblivious to the racial injustices being done to black citizens in America. But it’s not an excuse.

When the documentary ended, I almost quit working on my cozy mystery. In light of historic protests and fellow citizens dying because their skin is a different color, the book seemed trite. It is populated by lily white characters, and to be true to the story’s time and place that can’t be changed.

Then again, the heart of each book in the series is the writing of wrongs perpetrated against innocent victims. Victims of injustice.

That sounds familiar. So as soon as this post is finished, I will return to the manuscript and keep writing. I will think of the children in the picture of above who were my students. I will think of Marie, who assisted me and taught me more than I taught my students. I will think of the little school on the prairie and the town’s citizens who reached out to my husband and me in practical and loving ways when our baby was sick and we were vulnerable.

Most of all, I will pray for our nation to do the same thing for its most vulnerable citizens today and always.

*In May, my agent pitched See Jane Run! to 3 publishers. The first to reply complimented the writing, but said the switch from being a non-fiction author to being a fiction author was tricky to negotiate and passed on the project. The second editor said cozy mysteries are hard to sell to their readership. The third hasn’t yet replied. While my agent waits for a reply from that publisher, he’s preparing to pitch it to 4 more. He’s a great agent!

Ugly Sweater Cookie Contests and EA/TEF Memories

Ugly Sweater Cookie Contests and EA/TEF Memories

What could ugly sweater cookie contests and EA/TEF memories possibly have in common? For this EA/TEF mom, the answer is plenty and here's why.

Ugly sweater cookie contests and EA/TEF memories. What could they possible have in common? The answer is plenty, thanks to a recent Facebook post by a dear friend named Barb. She posted a picture about the ugly sweater cookie contest she hosted during her family’s 2019 Christmas gathering and asked Facebook friends to vote for the ugliest.*

Of course, I thought, Barb held an ugly sweater cookie contest at Christmas. That sounds just like her.

We met Barb and her young family way back when, when we lived in a remote town of 92 people in the northwest corner of South Dakota. Her 2 oldest daughters were in my country school classroom, and Barb created beautiful birthday cakes for them each year. Word got out, and since our town was at least 60 miles from the nearest bakery, she was soon creating cakes for all sorts of occasions.

She even created a cake for our EA/TEF baby’s first birthday in 1983. The cake featured a baby-with-a-feeding-tube-and-a-string-coming-out-of-his-mouth. Those who are used to 2020 EA/TEF technology may not be familiar with the 1982 version. Our baby’s feeding tube was a honking, huge Foley balloon catheter. The string went into his mouth, down his esophagus (placed there during a very dicey surgery), into his stomach, and out the feeding tube hole. The two ends were tied in a knot that was untied so dilation tubes could be attached to it when his repair scar needed to be stretched. Our baby endured this process, without anesthesia, about 2 dozen times. Thankfully, modern day dilations are less frequent, more effective, and much more humane.

Back to the cake.

My husband and I tucked the cake in the back seat of our car and strapped our baby into his car seat. Then we drove 120 miles to Rapid City Regional Hospital to celebrate our boy’s birthday in the GI lab with his GI doctor and his nurse.

The long trip was not kind to the cake, which looked like it had been in an earthquake by the time we arrived. Even so, our fellow party goers oohed and aahed over it. “Who made that? How did she do it?” they wanted to know.

Barb was amazing then, and she still is.

For me, posts about ugly sweater cookie contests and EA/TEF memories go hand in hand. Both of them show that things we’d rather not have in our lives (ugly sweaters and EA/TEF) can be redeemed in relationships and celebration.

Families decorating ugly sweater cookies at Christmas and asking Facebook friends far and wide to vote.
A friend turning the hard bits of an EA/TEF baby’s first year into cake decoration.
A doctor and nurse taking time from their day to eat cake with the young parents of a baby whose life they saved.
A cozy mystery book series (if, God willing, a publisher offers a contract) to celebrate the long ago place and time where our EA/TEF baby was born.

Thanks to my friend Barb, ugly sweater cookie contests and EA/TEF memories will always belong together. If you have an EA/TEF baby, and even if you don’t, hope you have a friend like Barb in your life, too.

*I forgot to vote, but the cookie I deemed ugliest won, which can only mean that my thoughts are able to influence elections.