compassion · Family · older adults · personal growth

The Thief

Joan on her honeymoon

I am watching you wither away and there is nothing I can do but love you. Dementia is more powerful than I am. I’m just a human. It has the power to weave its way into the lives of anyone it wants. It doesn’t care how old you are, what kind of life you’ve lived, how much money you have, or how well-known you are.

It was clever. It snuck in like a thief but didn’t steal anything right away. It waited and watched. It wasn’t greedy at first. It took a little here and there so we wouldn’t notice—a misplaced item, a forgotten word, a memory. After it stole the little pieces, it wanted more. It took your short-term memory, your grandchildren’s names, and the way you understand and interact with the world. It will soon take the last of your independence, your children’s names, time and place, and who you used to be. You’ll forget about me and only know me as the kind woman who hugs you and tells you everyone is safe and sound when you can’t find the babies who grew up years ago. I wish I could put bars on our windows to keep the thief out.

You can’t count on dementia to be the same each day. It doesn’t like predictability, structure, or schedules. Sometimes it swirls you around until you don’t know up from down and other days, you’re just a regular old lady with a touch of forgetfulness who knows the name of the president and season. Every day is a surprise.

You tell me about your day and how busy you were—where you went, who you saw, and what they said. A stranger would believe you, but I know you spent your day traveling through time, and that busy day you had was decades ago. Time travel is exhausting and disorienting. No wonder you can’t always remember when and where you are.

You swear people break into your home and leave food in your fridge and cupboards. “Mom, why do you have eight boxes of granola bars and three family size bags of chips?” You look at me and say, “Oh, those aren’t mine. Those were here when I moved in.”  Cleaning out your fridge is a guessing game.

I ask to look in your purse to make sure you have your debit card. Your purse is full—a brush, three combs, one glove, pictures, old greeting cards, junk mail, and $10 in change. Your debit card isn’t there and I panic. It’s in your pocket. “Oh, I don’t know who put that there.” It’s the same answer you give me when I ask why a watch you haven’t worn in forty years is in your purse.

You are angrier than you used to be. You accuse your twin sister of going through your purse and stealing your money. She is the target of all your wrath. It’s as if a lifetime together has reached its breaking point and sibling rivalry is alive and well. You yell at her and strike out. Your words drip with anger. “Mumma always said you can’t be trusted. Daddy said to act right and come home right now!” You were sixteen when your father passed away.

Lately, is seems like your disease is on fast forward and we are losing you more quickly. I can’t keep up. I thought I’d be ready but I’m not. I look at your face and try to soak you in. I touch your soft silver hair. I wrap my arms around your shrinking body. I want to scoop you up and hold you forever. You are more than my mother-in-law. You are my mother and I am your daughter. You love me like I’ve always been yours, and you’ve always been mine. My heart will break when you don’t know who I am and how much I love you. I’ll never be ready.

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The World of We

Mike and Jenny

I feel like I have loved you forever but I know 30 years is just a speck of time in a 13-billion-year-old universe. It’s insignificant compared to the millions of stars in the Milky Way or the light years between those brilliant stars and us. Our love affair is nothing compared to the billions of galaxies we’ll never see. Our life together is not insignificant to me. You are my favorite galaxy.

Our worlds collided and we made a new one together—bits and pieces of our old lives and who we used to be melded together to make something truly unique. The world of We; the universe of Us. There is no untangling the parts of this world. They are perfectly intertwined—two broken people pieced together and made whole. If by chance we were undone, we would never be who we were before the world of We. When we are returned to dust, it will not be our separate worn-out bodies. It will be a million particles of our shared life— memories, history, experience, and emotion. There is no tearing us asunder because there are parts of you in the nooks and crannies of my brain; you flow through my veins and arteries into my heart; you are in my bones, the strands of my hair, and the laugh lines around my eyes. You are wrapped around my spirit. I see you in my dreams and think of you while awake.

I cast a love-spell on you so you would love me forever. It was a magical mixture of butterfly wings that tickled my tummy on our first date, popcorn and licorice, the sound of your laughter, a drop of Oregon rain, and a movie ticket. I kissed you goodnight with my spell-stained lips and you were mine and I was yours—an enchantment made more powerful with time and 10,000 kisses.

Our perfectly imperfect love story is written with words dripping of honey and honesty—a story of how we saved each other and built a beautiful rollercoaster life together in the world of We. I will love you forever even when we are just stardust and memories in the universe of Us.

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Memories of the Desert

California poppies—bright orange petals like sunshine, happiness, and everything wonderful in a sea of desert dirt and sagebrush. At dusk, they wrapped their petals tight like a hug before bed. Gold, orange, and fuchsia stretched across the sky. Beautiful memories of growing up in the Mojave Desert.

My dog, Alexis, and I chased jackrabbits in the expanse of desert in front of our boxy stucco house. The sagebrush and creosote scraped against my legs as I ran. We returned home thirsty, breathless, and exhausted, me more so than her. The only thing I caught were foxtails and burrs in my shoelaces. It took forever to pick them from her silver and black hair, but it was worth the adventure we shared. She wasn’t just a dog. She was my battle buddy and best friend.

My human best friend, Adrienne, and I walked across town to the library in the scorching heat every week. We spent hours searching the stacks and enjoying the air conditioning before the long walk home with an armful of books. We took a shortcut home—a vibrant oasis surrounded by brown apartment buildings and dead grass. I touched every green leaf and vivid petal in the nursery before slipping through a hole in the fence and walking the rest of the way home.

Adrienne and I watched old episodes of The Monkees on MTV. I remember thinking that the twenty years that passed between 1966 and 1986 was the equivalent of a hundred years. Adrienne was steadfast in her love of Davy Jones. I was in love with Micky Dolenz, then Mike Nesmith, then Peter Tork, and then back to Micky. Davy and Peter are gone and Micky and Mike are old men. They were in their forties when their show played on MTV. Now, I’m in the last year of my forties and MTV just celebrated its 40th anniversary. Oh, to be young again and think twenty years was the same as a hundred.

Adrienne and I became obsessed with The Monkees. We laid on her bedroom floor and listened to all their records more times than I could count. She still loves The Monkees. I secretly love them. I can’t tell you how excited I was when “Steppin’ Stone” was featured in The Queen’s Gambit last year. If we weren’t playing their records, we listened to Poison and wished we were as beautiful as Bret Michaels. My friend Michelle and I listened to Bon Jovi and Journey and ate all her mother’s Doritos. I’d go home and listen to Elton John, Billy Joel, Huey Lewis, Otis Redding, and Madonna. I wasn’t in love with Duran Duran like everyone else. Boy, did I have a major crush on Corey Hart and Corey Haim. And the lead singer of a-ha. And Val Kilmer and Patrick Dempsey. And of course, River Phoenix had my heart and I will love him forever.

MTV and VJs were part of our daily lives and we waited anxiously for world premier videos, none of which has ever been better than Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” We watched Live Aid and I recorded bands on my tape recorder. We didn’t have a VCR yet. After Live Aid, there was Farm Aid and U.S.A for Africa. I watched the “We Are the World” video a million times. Everyone but The Monkees was in that video—a veritable who’s who of recording artists from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Kenny Rogers still looked like Kenny Rogers.

I was 16 when we moved back to Oregon and left the desert and all my friends behind. I hated living in the desert, but I was devastated when I had to leave. Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” played on the radio every hour. A car ride that should have taken no more than two days took six— six days of staying at camp grounds and rest stops in the Fall of 1988. My only connection to Adrienne was handwritten letters we mailed back and forth. Of course, this was before texting, social media, and free long-distance calling plans. Each stack of letters is tied with a ribbon in a box of treasures underneath my bed. I read through them every once in a while,

In the Willamette Valley of Oregon, California poppies bloom every year and remind me of what I loved about growing up in the desert—the brilliant colors, my sweet dog, laughing with my friends, watching MTV videos, and riding my motorcycle with Adrienne on the back. I treasure those memories. Not every memory of living in the desert was wonderful, but that’s a story for another story.

personal growth

I’m Going Through Changes

I’m almost embarrassed to admit I only know the song “Changes” by Black Sabbath by watching the hilariously inappropriate animated series Big Mouth. It’s a show about a bunch of middle-school kids going through puberty—changes to their bodies and how they related to the world; overactive sex drives; hormone monsters; anxiety mosquitos; depression kitties; talking vaginas; and the such. There is nothing funnier than Maya Rudolph as Connie the Hormone Monstress. The show opens with a cover of “Changes.” I totally relate to the lyrics, “I’m going through changes.”

As part of my treatment plan for breast cancer, I take a tiny white pill every day that successfully launched me into early menopause. The type of cancer I had thrives on estrogen. So, no more estrogen. I have an Anti-Hormone Monstress. I’d like her much more if she was voiced by Maya Rudolph.

I was hoping for a few more years before I changed. They told me about the side effects—hot flashes, mood swings, joint pain, weight gain, etc. Here is what they didn’t tell me:

  • I sweat in places I didn’t know were possible doing absolutely nothing other than breathing. I look like a glistening crazed maniac with pools of sweat underneath my eyes.
  • You can measure my irritability on the Richter scale:
    • 1-2. I love you, but the sound of your chewing makes me want to impale my eardrums with the spoon you’re using to eat your cereal.
    • 3. Any words that leave your mouth will be met with complete distain and exasperation.
    • 4-5. If I could legally run you over with my shopping cart, I would. Consider yourself lucky I can only imagine lighting your face on fire with my sweaty eyes.
    • 5-6. I want to turn your cereal spoon into a shiv.
    • 6-7. My vocabulary consists of every conjugation of fuck, which I string together to strangle you with like piano wire. But that’s only if you’ve really pissed me off.
    • 7-10. We’ll just have to wait and see. There’s only so much my mood stabilizer can do.
  • Weight gain isn’t just a number. My perky fat rolls are now a droopy testament to cravings that alternate between greasy, sugary yumminess to greasy, crunchy happiness.
  • The switch to my brain is controlled by my eyelids. Before menopause, my brain would switch off the moment my eyes snapped shut. Now, closing my eyes zaps my brain to life and every single thought I have is electrified and replayed over and over.
  • My depression, anxiety, ADD, and menopause compete in cage fights for the title of Brain Fog Champion of the World.
  • My talking vagina can be one cranky bitch sometimes.
  • I spryly get off the couch only to walk like my 80-year-old mother-in-law across the living room.

I’m going through changes, but if it means no more cancer, I’m good with it. Ok, maybe not good, but I’m fine with trading in estrogen for another day with my family.

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2020 – It’s OK Not to Be OK

I’m not going to lie, 2020 has been a rough one. Understatement of the century, am I right? I’m one of the fortunate ones seemingly untouched by the true horrors of COVID-19, but I’m not OK. I’m not fine, all right, a little right, or anywhere close to right.

I’m told by those smarter than myself that it’s OK not to be OK. That’s a relief for someone like me who needs permission to not have it all together.

Do I have countless blessings? Yes, but I’m not OK.

Am I full of gratitude? Yes, but I’m not OK.

Do I try to focus on the positive when I can? Yes, but I’m not OK.

And it’s OK for you not to be OK, too. We aren’t puzzles that can be easily solved if we fit the gratitude-shaped piece into the blessing border, and connect meditation and yoga with self-help books and mantras.

The pandemic has wrecked my mental health, not all at once, but by bits and pieces. Some days I feel like my sanity is tethered to me by a string of thread. I want to run away, but there is nowhere to go during a pandemic.

I have proven to be very resilient over the years, but this feels different because I don’t know how long the pandemic will last or how long I will have to be strong. Not knowing is the worst for me.

How does your not OK feel? This is how mine feels:

  • I’m stuck in the middle seat on a long flight with no leg room or elbow space. My seat doesn’t recline. I desperately want to jump out of my skin and tear the door off the plane mid-flight. I’m stuck in my chair and just have to be happy with my cup of ginger ale for a million more miles.
  • I’m walking a tight-rope made of a single piece of blue string not meant to hold a human, let alone one chock-full of Uber Eats and Grub Hub. I’ll fall into an abyss of nothingness with one quick snap.
  • I’m lost and can’t see where I’m going or where I’ve been. I don’t recognize any of the landmarks or signs that tell me I’m on the right path. I’m wandering, stumbling, and taking tiny steps with the hope I’ll soon be home.
  • A time bomb is counting down in my head, but I don’t know if I have 30 seconds or 30 years. I just know I will explode. It could be a little smoke and noise or it could leave a crater where my neighborhood used to be. Tick. Tick. Tick.
  • I can burst into flames just as easily as I can burst into tears.
  • I’m wearing a straight-jacket made of heavy wool that makes my skin itch and burn. I can’t move my arms to scratch my skin and it’s the only thing I want to do. My skin is screaming.
  • Black tentacles are wrapped around my internal organs and tighten every time I fight. My tummy bursts like a water balloon. Stomach acid floods my body and eats away my brain.
  • A tornado rips up all my fears and swirls them inside my mind so furiously chunks of gray matter are lobbed like grenades and all my happy little memories are leveled.
  • Everything matters and nothing matters.
  • I want to curl up under my work-from-home desk and shrink down to the size of a dust bunny and disappear into the heater vent where I don’t have to care about anything. I’ll run away with a lonely spider and we’ll cuddle in its web—just before it spins me into a cocoon and saves me for a midnight nibble.

I’m not OK, but I will be. I promise.

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The Brightside of 2020

I think we can all agree 2020 is a total shit show. It’s tragically comical in its absurdity. Its devastation is heartbreaking. The uncertainty of the next three months is terrifying. We all hope and pray the nightmare ends on December 31, 2020. I’m not sure if time works that way, but I have to believe.

Despite the shit-ton of horribleness that is 2020, amazing things happened, too. A call for social justice; united voices saying the names of those who were lost at the hands and knees of police brutality; a call to the end of systemic racism; people coming together to protest and let the world know that black lives matter; compassionate police officers linking arms with peaceful protesters; action, not just words. Love perseveres.

During the current wildfires in my beautiful Oregon, people are coming together to offer refuge and support to those forced to evacuate and who lost everything. People responded immediately to help in any way they could. People are brave, resilient, and compassionate. We collectively grieve for what Oregon has lost and what continues to be at risk. I imagine this is the same for Washington and California right now. Love perseveres.

Creativity flourished: artwork demanding social justice; protest signs; spoken and written words of love and compassion; new ways to connect to one another; different ways to express creativity. In 2020, I wrote from my heart and shared my life showing all its heartbreak and triumph. The response were words of support. Love perseveres.

For me personally, 2020 gave me more time with my family. Because I now work from home, I have extra moments with my sister that I would not have otherwise. And every day with her is a gift because she is living on borrowed time. 2020, brought my eldest daughter home to live with us and my youngest daughter home for a long, lovely visit. My heart is full. Love perseveres.

2020 marks the 30th year of my incredible love affair with Mike. I will settle for nothing less than another thirty years with my one true love. Yes, love perseveres.

I hope you, too, can see the brightest parts of 2020.

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We All Wear Masks

I wear a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep myself and others safe. Sure, I complain about the tropical heatwave under my mask, maskne, and foggy glasses. It’s a minor inconvenience. That’s it. It’s not a political statement. It’s the very least I can do.    

I don’t mind wearing a mask during the pandemic. When I wear it, I can be any one—someone more confident, funny, beautiful, worldly, sassy, brutally honest. I think I’m hiding from the world, but I’m always recognized. So much for that plan.

Wearing a mask isn’t new to me. I’ve been doing it my entire life. I was the girl who smiled with her eyes and laughed while I was broken inside, hiding a homelife that was anything but safe, loving, and stable. No matter how much I hurt inside, I smiled. My mask hid my secret. I wore this mask when I met my husband. I broke off little pieces at a time to give him just a glimpse of my real life. It felt wonderful when the mask finally fell away and he wasn’t horrified by what he saw. He sees everything. I’m not sure he wants to sometimes, but he put a ring on it.

I still wear a mask so people don’t see my depression or how hard it is for me to get out of bed sometimes and be amongst the living. I smile and say I’m fine. Or I will really lie and say I’m good when I’m anything but. I will hide behind a sunny disposition and laughter (except with my poor husband and kids). There are times I’m good. I just never know.

Let’s be honest, we all wear masks. Saying exactly what you’re thinking during a work meeting may not end well. I mean who doesn’t want to call someone a complete fucking idiot over Zoom. But instead, you smile and agree with their insane idea. Or when you lie to the cashier at the grocery store and say your day is going wonderfully even though you just got the results of your biopsy and you’re terrified; it took everything you had to get out of bed and you just want to curl up on the floor and cry at the check-out line; your marriage is hanging on by a thread and the next fight just may end it for good; you’re so stressed at work your hair is falling out; you worry how you’re going to buy your groceries next week; you’ve been holed-up with your kids during the pandemic and they are on your very last nerve; or you woke up in a shit mood and the sound of the cashier’s voice makes you want to jam your car keys into your eardrums. The list is endless.

Writing gives me the courage to take off my mask so you can see me—not just the person I want you to see. You see my ugly side. Writing let’s me be brave and honest. You may judge me, but maybe something I write may help you in some small way. It’s helping me.

P.S. Don’t be an asshole. Wear your mask or cloth face covering when you’re out and about, wash your hands, and follow physical-distancing guidelines. We’re all in this together.

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Hope is a Gift

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

and never stops at all

Emily Dickinson

Hope has been the one constant in my life, even as a child. I may not have had a word for it, but I believed things would be better one day. I believed every hurt and fearful moment would pass, and I just needed to hang on a moment longer. So, I tightened my grip until it was safe to let go.

I’ve always had hope, it just looked and felt differently at different times in my life. As a child, hope saved me. It was the only thing I truly had. As a young adult struggling with depression, I had hope I would feel better again because hope carried me through much worse. As a young mother, I had hope my children would know how much they were loved because I had so much love to give. I had hope for their future and that they would grow into the people they were always meant to be. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I had hope that no matter the outcome, I would be at peace because I was surrounded by those who loved me.

I’ve been gifted with hope. Even when I question everything in this world, my belief in hope is unwavering, not because I choose to see things differently, but because it has proven itself to be real in my life. I hope for the best, even though I know not everything will be as I hoped. I believe anyway. I have hope in the midst of despair and uncertainty, especially now. We must have hope for this world and our future. Otherwise, all is lost, and I refuse to belief that it ends this way. I refuse to live in a world without hope.

I have hope, even though our world may be different after the pandemic, we will continue to love, dream, and believe in our collective future. We were meant to be hopeful, and when we hope together, we fight for a better world. It gives us strength. It inspires us to create, persevere, believe in our abilities, and triumph.

Hope truly perches in our soul.

Life · personal growth

My New Normal in the Time of COVID-19

My new normal is working in my pajamas and not brushing my teeth until noon. I roll out of bed fifteen minutes before the beginning of my work day to make a pot of coffee, feed the cats, and corral my hair with a plastic clip. I don’t even bother brushing it first. No make-up. I haven’t worn a bra in days. It looks like depression.

I sit at my desk in my bedroom for hours. I talk to voices that used to be faces. I sit in virtual meetings on mute so no one can hear the dogs barking in the other room. I leave my new office long enough to say hello to my sister-in-law in the living room, collect my Uber eats delivery, and grab a Diet Coke from the fridge. I’m a hermit with a head-set. My connection to people is a string of instant messages and emails.

My work day ends by closing my laptop—no goodbyes over cubicle walls; no see-you-tomorrows; no drive home to clear my head. It’s like I’ve snapped my fingers and am instantly home. My bedroom is a bedroom again. I take a nap, make dinner, hang-out with the family in the living room (steps away from my “office”), and go to bed at my usual time because tomorrow is a work day. One day is identical to the next and I don’t even care what day of the week it is.

Before COVID-19, I dreaded going to work, not because my job is dreadful, but because I just wanted to stay home and hide from the world. I didn’t realize going to work and being in the world helped me manage my depression. Depression loves my new normal. It’s been trying for years to keep me home in my jammies. It loves that I don’t shower every day or brush my hair. It loves my isolation and our long conversations. It loves that I look like I’ve given up.  It loves that I look like I feel. It loves that it’s my new co-worker I have coffee with in the morning instead of my best friend.

I don’t know how long my new normal will last. We live in a strange, frightening new world. Social distancing is a word I didn’t know existed before the COVID-19 pandemic. Stay-at-home orders, quarantines, and travel bans are part of our everyday language. Personal protective equipment and ventilators are on everyone’s minds. It’s not just my depression that loves my new normal. My anxiety thrives on every uptick of COVID-19 cases and the real possibility of someone I love dying. It’s not my usual fear of death. It’s so much more.

There’s much I don’t have control over right now, but I can define my new normal. It includes hope, hair brushes, and hot showers. It includes creativity in place of naps, FaceTime coffee dates, and inhaling fresh air. It means telling depression and anxiety to keep it down during work hours. I’m thankful I can work from home, and so very grateful for those who leave home to save lives, keep our world running, and give us hope. They normalize the world that is anything but normal right now.

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Thank Goodness I’m Not a Good Wife

Creepy AF

I was packing up my 80-year-old mother-in-law’s kitchen to move her into her new home across the street from us. That’s a whole other story, my friends. I came across her copy of Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book. Maybe this was new fifty-five years ago judging by the pictures and yellow pages. I’m pretty sure my mother-in-law rarely used this cookbook from the stories I’ve heard about her cooking. I couldn’t throw it in the Goodwill box. I was strangely drawn to it.

Here is what I’ve learned from this cookbook:

1. I’m a horrible mother and wife for not making my family breakfast every morning and sitting them down at an “attractive as possible” breakfast table.”  Clearly, the fend- for- yourself breakfast is a no-no. “Try to serve each member of your family the foods he particularly likes.” What? Who has time for that non-sense? You get cereal! And you get cereal! “You won’t have to force your family to eat if you set out a breakfast that smells, looks, and tastes good.” Force my family to eat? Eat what I cook or go make your own damn meal.

2. If I didn’t already feel like a failure at breakfast, I might as well jump in front of a train as punishment for the dinners I prepare. “Plan each dinner with as much thought and care as a company meal.” Right. Plan. My planning involves stopping at the grocery store after work and wandering the aisles trying to figure out what I can throw together quickly because I’m tired as hell from working all day. Even worse, I don’t serve coffee and dessert after dinner. Fail.

3. “Plan meals the easy way.” I’m directed to choose items from six columns: meat, starchy food, vegetable, salad, dessert, and “nice to serve.” Six fricking columns! On a really good day, my family gets three columns worth of food. The meat column is a choice of beef in all its glorious forms (steak, ribs, loaf, and corned) and one chicken option – chicken fried steak. The starchy food column is every single way you could possibly serve a potato. Just about every thing is buttered in the vegetable section. Way to go butter! If you struggle to eat a salad, this column will not help you. I would rather eat a bowl of snot than a molded vegetable salad. Come to think of it, maybe those are the same thing. Pear and cream cheese salad? Pass. If I were to serve dessert, it would be whatever pre-made thing I grab from the bakery section of Safeway. Homemade desserts. As if. I could probably pull off the “nice to serve” column. Here’s your dill pickles and grape juice. Enjoy.

4. If you really want to torture someone and make sure they never eat again, serve something from the “meals built around a variety of meats” section. Maybe I’m wrong. Someone must be into liver loaf, scrambled brains (from what, I don’t know), and stuffed veal hearts.

5. Another reason I suck as a wife and mother. No one gets a packed lunch. “A good general rule for planning lunch-box meals is: pack something hearty, something sweet, something good to drink, and something for a surprise.” The surprise would be if I actually packed a lunch. Here’s your lunch money. Try to buy something resembling food.

6. Just in case you didn’t know, “meat is money—take care of it.”

7. I tell you what, if I’m at a party that serves hors d’oeuvres consisting of codfish balls, anchovy puffs, and liver pinwheel canapes, I’m out.

8. Here’s the intro to the casserole section: “Park dinner in the oven to look after itself while you greet guests, catch up on your mending, or just relax a little.” Mending? Who do they think I am? We have learned to live with holes in our socks.

9. Anyone in the mood for a baked prune whip?

10. Table settings? “Have a sufficient variety of everyday dinnerware, too, so your family won’t tire of the same setting meal after meal, day in and day out.” Listen, I’m not moving the table into the living room. We’re just fine eating off our mix-matched, chipped, dinnerware in front of the T.V. And by the way, the kids wouldn’t notice our dinnerware if it was on fire.

I haven’t used an actual cookbook in quite a while. I have a smart phone and Pinterest. Maybe that’s why I love these old books.

Bon appétit!