Living rooms.

July 24th, 2014

Teen Lair Project Update

There are no stand-alone home improvement projects. The newly improved thing demands the old thing next to it be likewise improved. The rearranged objects necessitate the rearrangement of other objects. The clearing of one space requires the finding of new space. And so on, like a cascade of dominoes, where “dominoes” stands for painting equipment, stacks of possessions temporarily dispossessed of shelves and closets, no place for anything, and everything out of its place. Life coming together and coming apart, as life does in this ecosystem we call a home.

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I love going to estate sales, pretending to shop, but really to study—to note where and when the cycle of domestic renewal ends, and stasis sets in. The founders of our mid-century suburban neighborhood are in their nineties now, dying and dwindling. I walk through the houses that were their homes for decades, measuring the half-lives of a lifetime from the wallpaper, the lamp shades, the kitchen tile. Many of them are like time capsules from the 20th century. It seems if you live in one house long enough, there comes a point when you stop putting energy into changes. The material kind, anyway.

Maybe it’s because income contracts, or physical ability diminishes, or priorities simply shift. I suppose if I live long enough, I’ll get to find out. For now, I’m the amateur archaeologist, hypothesizing the end of little lost empires from artifacts left behind.

Here in my own little empire, civilization is still bustling. We have entered the Teen Epoch, and have switched all the bedrooms around to accommodate it. It isn’t as simple as changing beds (which wasn’t at all simple)—bedrooms also contain wardrobes, books, toys, and an astonishing amount of STUFF. Stuff that is all over the house while we redraw the lines of our household map.

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And even though it’s all uncontainable, I’m managing to contain my focus on one smallish project at a time, breaking the overwhelming, vast whole of it into increments of weeks and fifty dollars (which is as much money as I can afford to put into this project at a time, and a great safeguard against starting more than I can finish in a few days). In other words, I’m harnessing the Power of Small. Which converts to the awesome Power of Done.

Instead of starting the Teen Lair project in the Teen Lair (formerly our master suite), I began with my new bedroom (formerly the 15-year-old’s room), painting the bright green walls a serene ivory that captures the beautiful natural light that pours in from the southeast and southwest windows. I found room for my writing desk, that I’d sadly thought I’d have to give up, leaving just enough space for our antique dressers. It still has a way to go—I need to make curtains and hang some pictures on the walls—but it’s lovelier than I imagined it could be, a sanctuary in the midst of all this upheaval. I don’t miss our giant suite even a bit, after months of talking myself into making this big sacrifice!

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In home improvement, and other dramatic changes of altitude, always, always, put your own oxygen mask on before assisting fellow passengers.

As for my fellow passengers, they’re loving their new quarters., even though I’ve barely gotten started on the Teen Lair. Last week, I painted the bunk beds and moved them to their new position. It brought up memories of moving the older boys to their very own room the first time, decorated in a vintage cowboy theme. They were so excited to each get their own bed, though they still slept together anyway, piled like puppies on the lower bunk. I had a brief pang before painting over my 13-year-old’s five-year-old hieroglyphics, but settled for a keepsake photo. This isn’t a time capsule, it’s a home, still growing and changing with us, still improving.

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What I’ve been working on.

July 11th, 2014

In which I answer a few probing questions about my novel, its progress and my process. Or lack thereof.

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I was invited last week by author and blogger Rita Arens to participate in a writers “blog hop,” where various authors are sharing on work in progress. Assuming they are making progress.
“Okay if I totally fabricate my answers?” I asked her. 
I like Rita. She gets me.
I’ll give straight answers to these questions, though, because I love peeking into other writers’ processes, particularly when they confide stumbles and stalls
What am I working on/writing?
I’m working on a first novel. It’s about the tension between domestic, cultivated life, and the soul’s wilderness–the same theme than ran through my memoir, Planting Dandelions, and runs through much of my writing here. My protagonist is a lifestyle blogger whose explosive crossover success is based on her exquisitely curated cottage life on an Ozark homestead. And it’s about to get very chaotic and messy. The story is about the way we tend to fence ourselves in, in the quest for security and stability, and what we fence out. 
There’s also an ecological layer, mirroring the same conflict. I’m a naturalist at heart, and the ecosystem in which the story takes place is a character as much it is as a setting. I’m hoping I can bring a touch of magic realism to the writing through the perspective of a child character, who loves to wander through woods as much as I did as a girl. I want there to be a sense of fable.
Finally, there’s a conflict within another kind of ecosystem, media. My antagonist is a journalist with a career built on print. Everything she’s worked for is being encroached upon and choked out by (to borrow the infamous, sniffy phrase from Martha Stewart) “these bloggers.”  A feminist who  pursued her career while singly raising a son to adulthood, she’s appalled at the retro-romantic obsession of younger women with traditional domestic roles. She’s afraid and she’s angry. Understandably.
There are other characters and subplots, but I think I’ve already given away way more than you’re supposed to, and at the rate it’s going, I may be reading this summary off someone else’s book jacket before I finish the first draft.
How does my writing/work differ from others in its genre?
With one memoir, and a not-nearly-there novel, I’m not sure what my genre is. Trying to sort it out just gets me frustrated about the way literature by women gets packaged and pegged. I write as a woman. I try to represent the experience of being a woman. But I loathe the chick lit designation. I write for people who are interested in the same things I am: relationships, identity, creativity.
One thing I’m doing with this story that (I think) is unique is writing about the lifestyle/family blogger world in a way that’s intimate, not gimmicky. I’ve occupied that world for a long time in blogger years, and I know it very, very well. People are going to speculate that certain situations and characters are based on actual people, but they aren’t, except as a check for myself to ask if a scenario is plausible: could a blogger rocket to crossover success in a few short years? Might a blogger be given the opportunity to shoot a television pilot? Might a blogger’s divorce be news in national papers? Could there be people who are obsessed with destroying the reputation of well-known bloggers?
If you spend any amount of time in this realm, you already know the answer is yes, yes, yes, and hell, yes. 
Why do I write what I do?
I think I covered this above. I write what I know, including what I know I can imagine. I believe in the power of “what if?”
How does my writing process work?
This is where I would love to fabricate an answer. Not having a legally binding deadline is really kicking my ass. Without that external do-or-die, avoidance and diversion is just too easy. I’ve got moleskines full of character sketches and back story. I’ve got a plot summary and an outline. I’ve got index cards and passages and snippets. But I have precious few numbered pages. People who complete manuscript after manuscript on spec are a wonder to me. I swing between feeling like I have all the time in the world, and panic attacks that my editor and agent will have forgotten who I am by the time I have anything substantial to show.
Since the kids got out of school, I haven’t strung three words together. I’ve thrown myself into nesting and homesteading instead: gardening, redo-ing our bedrooms, baking, pickling. I’m on the verge of sewing curtains. It’s ironic, because it’s my protagonist’s domain. Maybe it’s hiding. Maybe it’s research. Either way, it’s all usable.
Enough about me.
I’ve asked two of my most cherished creative companions to play along next week. Asha Dornfest is the creator of Parent Hacks — a site crammed with forehead-smackingly smart tips for life + kids–and the co-author of Minimalist Parenting. She’s at work on the fervently anticipated Parenting Hacks book.  Karen Walrond is the author of bestselling book, The Beauty of Different, and author of Chookooloonks, an award-winning photoblog. 
I’ll hook you up with their posts next week. Meantime, have a terrific weekend. Let’s kick it off with this:

Got anything to share about your own progress/process? I’d love to hear!

In the seams

June 23rd, 2014

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In the seams between seasons, time leaks away. School days turn to summer days, and two weeks are gone before the calendar catches them in its grid, fallen leaves at the storm grate after a June shower.

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Yesterday, we sat at the dinner table to eat for the first time in over a week. Four of us did, anyway. The fifteen-year-old left for summer camp a week ago Sunday, and we’ve somehow managed to avoid setting the table without him since then. He’s an assistant counselor this year, so he’s away for two consecutive weeks. I drove up the mountain to visit him on Saturday—two weeks is too long to go without hugging my boy. It’s an incredible place, and he’s having a great time, but I’m poignantly aware that all this is dress rehearsal for the sleep away camp of life.

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The thirteen-year-old has a girlfriend—very quiet and easy-going, like him. I’m getting used to having girls around all the time now, and gradually coming to accept that I won’t always be the principal woman in my boys’ lives. There’s a whole lot of the usual parental anxieties about teenage romance, but it’s also sweet to see my sons grow into this phase of life.

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I’m still the queen of the littlest who’s heart, though he’s a fifth grader now, and can hardly be called little anymore. When school starts again, he’ll be in his last year of elementary school, and last year of cub scouts. He spent the first week of summer vacation at a scout day camp, shooting arrows and BBs, doing arts and crafts, and learning to hula hoop. All excellent survival skills.

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I’ve been watching my garden—the literal one—grow, too. Instead of packing lunchboxes and signing school papers, I spend the first hour of my mornings watering containers and beds, tying up vines, stalking insects, and trying to foil my cat, who thinks it is all a luxury litter box. It’s exhausting and consuming in the best possible way. It’s restoring and reordering my creative self at a deep, wordless level. In the garden, I don’t make anything happen. I just create the space and protect it, every day. It’s a good lesson.

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Speaking of creating space, Phase One of the Teenage Lair is happening while the fifteen-year-old is at camp. I’m painting his bedroom in preparation to move our bed into it. When I started removing skater decals from the walls, giant strips of painted wallpaper started coming off with them. I’m afraid to find out that the ceiling is only held up by decades worth of wallpaper, so I’m not taking it down past that top level, but I loved the glimpse of the room’s earlier history. I thought of Helen, the elderly widow who lived here before us, who must have picked out that paper. She raised her own family in this house, watched her children grow in it, then out of it, tended her garden and home through the seasons, school days into summer, childhood to adulthood, time flowing away in floods and trickles. 

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Mealtime, deconstructed and reconstructed.

June 9th, 2014

Cooking for picky and plucky eaters.


I’m a plucky eater. I love complex, highly seasoned dishes, with lots of textures and flavors coming together to make something greater than the sum of their parts. My middle son is a picky eater. What I just described to you would make him gag. There is no bribe or threat or loving logical consequence that can make him eat certain foods without cost to his psyche, our relationship, and the family harmony. I decided years ago that we would not pay that price. There are plenty of moms for whom it’s a point of pride that their family eats whatever is put in front of them, but I’m not that mom. Dinner in our home isn’t just about eating–it’s about nourishing. My kids don’t bolt from the table the second the plates are cleared; they linger because the family dinner table is a pleasant place to be. Let their spouses fight with them someday about getting more cruciferous vegetables in their diets. Our table is not a Phyrric battle ground.

Everyone else in the family falls somewhere in between our two extremes. My youngest is an adventurous gourmet, who loves raw vegetables and spicy foods. My eldest is a meat-and-potato guy who will eat a whole pan of roasted broccoli, but won’t go near a banana. My husband goes along to get along, but really doesn’t care for casseroles or tomato based dishes.

You can’t please all the people all of the time, but over the years, I’ve learned how to keep most of us mostly happy at mealtime by deconstructing recipes, and letting diners reconstruct them to taste. Take spaghetti and meatballs for example: I put out serving bowls of hot buttered pasta, baked meatballs, marinara sauce, and cheese. Spaghetti squash, too, if I’m low-carbing. There’s usually a bowl or two of raw vegetables to munch on. Everyone fills his plate to taste, with a little parental prodding to have a bite of this or that.

Curries and stir fries can be taken apart and put back together the same way: grill or roast the protein and vegetables separately with simple, but flavorful seasonings like garlic, soy, or citrus. Serve with a huge bowl of steamed rice, raw veggies (sugar snap peas and bell peppers are favorites), and offer the sauce on the side to pour over whatever you like. Sure, I love a slow-simmered lamb korba, but I save those recipes for my dinner parties where they are most appreciated. Someday the boys will get curious enough about what the grown ups are raving about to want to try a taste. Which is exactly how I overcame my childhood horror of stewed tomatoes long enough to try my mother’s famous cabbage rolls. My picky eater recently started eating sushi on his own volition, not because he was pressured into it by his parents, but maybe because he sees that we regard it as a special date night treat.

My latest triumph in pleasing picky and plucky eaters is beef chili. I simmered a big pot of it all afternoon yesterday, thinking we’d have leftovers for nachos later in the week, but almost every bite of it was eaten at dinner last night. I’ve come to prefer it to traditional ground-beef/beans/tomato chili, and if we ever did have leftovers, they’d be very versatile in tacos, nachos, a green salad, or a hot sandwich. The beef is stewed with chiles, onions, and peppers, and is very flavorful, but because the meat is cut and not ground, it’s easy for picky eaters to separate from the “green bits.” Plucky eaters can just ladle out the meat and broth together and load up on favorite toppings. 

Try it on your picky or plucky eaters and let me know how it goes over! Here’s the recipe:


Deconstructed Chili Con Carne
  1. 2 lbs fajita or stew beef, cut into 1.5 in chunks
  2. 1/2 onion, diced fine
  3. 1 jalepeno pepper, diced fine
  4. 1 4-oz can diced green chiles
  5. 1 cup finely diced green pepper
  6. 3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  7. 1/4 c. dry red wine (optional)
  8. 1 tsp salt
  9. 2 T chili powder
  10. 2 tsp cumin powder
  11. 1 tsp. pepper vinegar (a.k.a. "pepper sauce" with pickled tabasco peppers, or use a splash of vinegar from pickled jalapenos or other hot pickled pepper)
  12. 1 qt. water
  13. 1 can low sodium beef broth
  14. 1/4 c. corn meal
  15. toppings and sides as suggested
  1. Brown beef and onions in oil over med-high heat, add peppers and chiles, and cook until vegetables are tender. Add garlic, wine, and seasonings, cook one or two minutes. Add water, broth, and pepper vinegar. Bring to a boil, then lower to simmer for at least two hours, or until meat is very tender. Make a slurry of cornmeal and 1/2 c. water and pour into chili, stirring to prevent any lumps. Let simmer another 20-30 minutes until thickened.
  2. Serve with cornbread, shredded cheese, pickled jalapeno peppers, ranch-style beans, pico de gallo, guacamole, corn chips, or whatever else you can dream up.
Planting Dandelions

Life in progress: on being vulnerable and visible.

May 30th, 2014


As an introspective extrovert, my employment of first person pronouns was once inexhaustible. I didn’t mean to always take up more than my fair share of a conversation–I just had a lot that I wanted to share. Needed to share. Feelings and ideas would tumble out in a torrent. Some people really liked that about me. Some people really didn’t. In my defense, it came from a place of enthusiasm, not selfishness–like a four-year-old who brings everything from her room to show you, because that’s how much she likes you.

After my memoir came out, that urge to constantly reveal myself changed. Something–maybe a craving to be known and understood intimately– felt fulfilled.  I had said everything I needed to say, as best as I could say it, and it was time to shut up and listen. It was so easy and satisfying to let other people talk about themselves for a change. I became a much better listener and–I hope–a much better friend.

Partly too, the publication of the book made me feel exposed in a way blogging never had. I’m not sure why that is, but privacy became intensely important for a little while. I’ve yet to regret anything I shared in the book, but I put a whole lot of myself into it, and it felt necessary to pull back for a while, and recharge.

Balance is not static–it’s an ongoing process of correction. We shift our weight from one side to the other, and so we move forward, sometimes smoothly, sometimes lurching.

I must have veered too far to one side, because one of my closest friends recently chided me, lovingly, for not being more open with her when I have my own struggles and problems. I was completely taken aback by her observation, because I thought I was doing everyone a favor these past few years by not burdening them with so much about me. But here was my friend telling me I’ve been withholding something vital to intimate relationships–vulnerability.

Even beyond that conversation, the idea of vulnerability and visibility has been coming up a lot for me in the past year. I’m attracted to those qualities in some people, and repelled by them in others, and I’m not sure I can say what makes the difference–why one person’s self-revelation blesses me, and another’s feels burdensome. Perhaps it comes down to expectations, real or perceived. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, and the important thing is to risk being known and seen; to connect intimately with someone, never mind the people who don’t get it. I don’t know, but I’m being nudged to reconsider my own boundaries with respect to being vulnerable and visible, to paint a new center line.

As a writer who frequently rails against toxic myths of creative success, I immediately loved Austin Kleon’s manifesto, Show Your Work!  I know what a generous thing it is to be shown a work in progress, how reassuring and instructive to see the cycle of vision and revision, the stalling and starting, the lurching movement forward.

Maybe it’s just as important to see life in progress, and just as magnanimous to show it.



The Teen Lair

May 22nd, 2014

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It’s been six years since we moved into our little house in the valley, a fact so unbelievable to me, I have to keep checking the math to be sure. But the math is correct. In the spring of 2008, when we downsized from our two-story, 2200 square-foot home, to a one-story, 1700 foot home, our boys were nine, seven, and four. Still little kids.

Even though we’d given up a lot of space, our new address seemed spacious after purging the clutter of a decade and actually decorating  instead of ad-libbing with hand-me-downs and garage sale finds, as we’d always done before. The move reflected our shift to a new stage of family life–the middle years–where we would feel less squeezed for time and energy.

Fast forward at warp speed, and those little kids are big kids: 15, 13, and 10. We have two teenage boys. In case you don’t know, teenage boys rarely exist in ones and twos. They are pack animals. They travel in a cloud of testosterone-oozing, cologne-drenched baby-men. We call it the brozone.


The brozone comes in, not on little cat feet, but on the thudding soles of man-sized Vans and Converse All-Stars. It would come in on skateboards, but even “cool” moms have their limits. And I do hope I’m a cool mom—not cool in the sense of “anything goes,” but in the sense of providing a place where the brozone feels welcome. Because I would much rather wake up every weekend to three or four adolescent boys sprawled every which way on our living room sectional, hungover from nothing more than an all-night game of Halo 3, than not know exactly where my sons are after dark and who’s with them. I would rather the brozone come into our home and inhale all the cereal than wonder what’s available to inhale at an unsupervised party. We’re fortunate in that most of our sons’ friends have parents whose sensibilities are more or less in line with ours, but there’s always a kid whose mom or dad is parenting from a different place altogether.  I’d rather those kids came to our house to hang out than vice versa.

It’s not that I’m trying to keep them on lock down. I’m no helicopter mom, and they’re all good boys. Teenagers need safe places where they feel comfortable, and I’m happy to give them one.


I would also like to have the family room back on weekend nights and mornings. And to maybe cut back the number of gaming controllers and consoles on the TV table by two-thirds.

My 13-year-old would also like to have his own room. He’s been sharing with his little brother since our first teenager graduated up to a room of his own, and he’s emphatically over it. I don’t blame him. When the youngest and oldest have friends over, he really has no place to go. He’s been more than accommodating, and a change is past due.

The fact is, we could all use more space. The reality is, moving or adding on isn’t feasible right now. And even if it were, would it make sense to size up for the sake of a few years? In less time than we’ve been in this house, our oldest will have graduated from high school, and this nest will begin emptying. I don’t want the brozone to get too comfortable.

So we’ve got to work with what we’ve got: 1700 square feet, three bedrooms, two baths, and a budget based on what’s left after orthodontics get started this summer–not much. Somebody’s going to have to use her imagination. It also looks like somebody is giving up their master bedroom to make way for a teen lair, where two baby men can hang out, study, play games, draw, and sleep without being on top of each other. It’s a daunting sacrifice, but a temporary one. We’ll either reclaim our space when they start going to college, or we’ll have moved by then. In the meantime, I’m hoping we gain more privacy than we lose. Call it a strategic retreat.

Things will get started as soon as my oldest goes to summer camp next month. I’ll be chronicling the process for moral support and motivation. Meantime, you’re welcome to check out my Teen Lair Pinterest board. I’d love your ideas–and if you’re raising, or have raised teens, your own solutions for giving everybody some space. 

Honeysuckle Time

May 14th, 2014


I wish I could post the fragrance. It borders on too much.

The fireflies can’t be far behind. Any evening now, my youngest will burst in from outside, calling for something to catch them in. In a crate on the back porch, there’s a stash of jam jars with hole-punched lids, a little rusted and dusty, but ready to go. Maybe his teenage brothers will join the chase again this year. Or maybe not. They’re like fireflies themselves now, blinking in and out of view, and I’m the one running behind them with my jar, catching them for a moment, then letting them go. 


It’s all so sweet and fleeting–the honeysuckle, the fireflies, these years. 



Quite contrary.

May 12th, 2014

Adventures in gardening


 I woke up last weekend needing to dig in the dirt. That urge has been somewhat restrained since we moved to the little house in the valley. I had a very big, very ambitious perennial garden at our old address, and I just haven’t felt like committing to another long-term landscaping relationship.

I flirt around with growing vegetables instead, in a 4 x 4 raised bed that was a gift I chose for myself on Mothers Day a few years ago. It’s a brief, but intense infatuation. Spring comes, and I get excited by the possibilities. I have visions of ripe tomatoes and bell peppers falling into my open arms by the bushel. I obsess over seed company websites and garden forums. I head to the home improvement center and I buy starter plants and soil mixes. Then Southern summer hits, and I am all, excuse me, do I know you? to my parched and withering crop, panhandling for water and fertilizer. 

Vegetables are so needy.

Every spring, I forget all that. Or I sort of remember it, but I persuade myself that this time, this summer, it will be different. Saturday morning, off I went to the home improvement store, preempting an intervention from Patrick by invoking Mother’s Day privilege. I was trying to appear calm and casual, but inside I was burning to get to the store to pick up the latest gizmo that I know will be the answer this time, a self-watering container system (a SYSTEM) that hordes of Home Depot reviewers assured me will practically farm itself. As of one a.m. Friday, which is how late I was up googling tomatoes, there were eight units in stock at our local store. I could barely sleep for worry that others in my city would learn about this miracle product overnight, and beat me to them.

Come morning, I entered the garden center with laser focus, fully prepared to do battle with anyone trying to come between me and my “City Pickers” planter. But I didn’t have to, because–can you believe it–all eight boxes were still in stock. I had a budget that would just cover one, plus the prescribed soil mix, nutrients, and transplants, or I would have grabbed three, maybe four. Because think of the savings in produce! 

There’s a whole other form of wishful thinking going on there, with respect to how many fresh vegetables my family will actually eat, even if I could grow them, but that’s another topic. 

The planter had very specific instructions about the growing medium, because it’s a SYSTEM, but I was on my own to choose what to grow. Thank God I had to be somewhere in an hour, because it doesn’t take a long time in the vegetable aisle for me to get thoroughly lost in the weeds. Also, I was already over budget by half, and I feared Patrick bringing up the inconvenient math of past investments in vegetable gardening. I managed to get a handful of cherry tomatoes from last years’ garden and he said he’d never tasted $100 tomatoes before. The fact that I now have a SYSTEM would be lost on my husband, oh he of little faith.

After several rounds of picking out plants and putting them back, I settled on two tomato plants, a bush cucumber, a hot pepper, and a sweet pepper. 

Do you remember getting a new toy at the store when you were a kid, and you could not wait to get it home and play with it? On Saturday, I was that kid, and this was my toy:


Maybe that’s what gardening really is for me–an excuse to play, which is something I recognize I need more of in my life, but have a very hard time granting myself permission to do. Gardening looks industrious, but maybe it’s just a cover so I can dig in the dirt, like my ten-year-old does for hours without asking what for. When I don’t take time to play, my creativity and productivity become miserable indentured servants. I wind up stealing time from myself here and there to feed them pilfered crumbs of junk that don’t satisfy. 

The assembling and planting of the new planter was over in a couple of hours, but there is more digging and dreaming to be done. The Littlest Who and I are going to try a “Three Sisters” planting of corn, beans, and squash in the 4 X 4. We have a packet of morning glory seeds for the bamboo tee pee. I’ve staked out a new bed in front of the porch for annuals. And there are the petunias he brought home from school in a cup, for Mother’s Day. I planted those with some new ones in a hanging basket. I’ve been in and out of the house all morning, doting on my veggie box. The cucumbers are growing new leaves already. The tomato plants seem taller than they were two days ago. Maybe this year will be different. Maybe I’ll actually harvest enough of a crop to bring the price per pound down to under $20.

Or maybe not.

Either way, I think it was a good investment.  

Finding Ruby Nancy: an adoption story (and an Ancestry Giveaway)

May 2nd, 2014


See that cute little tomboy on the left? That’s my Nana Ferne. Her handsome papa was Johannes Henry Neilson, and that grim looking lady next to him is my great-grandmother Ruby Nancy Neilson. My mother remembers her as quite a lively lady, so maybe she was suspicious of the camera. Or just plain worn out. Look at all those kids.

Henry’s parents were Danish immigrants to Canada in the late 1800s, who founded a farming community near the border between New Brunswick and Maine, clearing the forest by axe, and eventually transforming the land into the pastoral countryside they were persuaded it was before they left Copenhagen.

Until recently, I didn’t know anything about Ruby’s origins, except that she came from Maine, and that she had been adopted by the people from whom she got her maiden name.

I mentioned that when my Ancestry DNA results came in, I had two close matches right away. The first was a long-lost, recently-found 2nd cousin on my father’s side. The next was an estimated 4th cousin. I clicked on her family tree, and started scanning for common surnames. There were none, until I came to the one that belonged to my great-grandmother’s adopted parents: Boynton. I scrambled along the branch, and quickly came to their first names. But how could that be, since Ruby wasn’t their biological child?

I fired off an excited message to my DNA match, who lives in Maine, and sure enough, she and my mother were third cousins “on paper.” Her great-grandfather and Ruby’s adopted father were brothers. Our kinship should have been in name only, but here was the genetic data saying it was also through blood.

I looked up and down both our trees for any other way we could be related, and found nothing. The most obvious and likely explanation was that Ruby had been adopted within her biological family, as was common in days of bigger clans and earlier mortality.

After searching the rest of my DNA matches for her maiden name (as well as new ones that the database finds continuously), the evidence mounted. If great-grandmama Ruby wasn’t the biological child of these people, one of my great-grandparents was. And they weren’t.

So, who were Ruby’s biological parents? We’ve narrowed it down to two suspects, both siblings of her adopted father, both whose lives ended early. We may never know which, or more information may surface—which it seems to nearly every time I login to my Ancestry account. As more people share their family trees and DNA online, more pieces of the picture come together, like we’re all gathering up shards of something that broke apart into tens of thousands of pieces and are patiently gluing it back together.

It kind of blows my mind.

What really blows my mind is learning that my American roots, through Ruby, run deep and long. Back to the Revolution, back to the Pilgrims, back even farther than my husband’s tree shows so far. Eleanor Pell, my eleventh great-grandmother, was born in Boston in 1614. Her husband, John Boynton came to the Massachusetts from England in 1643.

Even though I vaguely knew that my great-grandmother on my Mom’s side came from Maine, I’d always considered myself a stranger to these United States of America. I’m the first generation American, I’m the modern pilgrim to the New World. That’s been my personal mythology.

But it turns out a lot of my relatives beat me to it. I’m at least a thirteenth generation American. I could qualify for the American Daughters of the Revolution. As the founding fathers surely intended the Constitution to say, there goes the neighborhood.

There’s more I want to write about adoption in family trees, because there’s a flipside to this story in which I realize that my adopted ancestors are as much part of my heritage (and sometimes more) than bloodlines, but it will have to wait for a separate post. 

Meantime, how about a FREE 1-Year World Explorer membership to (valued at $299), in time for an incredible Mother’s Day gift for yourself, your mom, your grandmom, or a mom you know?  Just leave a comment, and a winner will be randomly drawn after noon CT, Friday, May 9th. is kindly sponsoring a series of posts on my incredible Ancestry journey. Congratulations to Melissa, who won the DNA test from in April!

The Happy Sad Day

April 29th, 2014


On Sunday, our Littlest Who turned ten. The night before, he had a Minecraft-themed sleepover party (and by “Minecraft-themed,” I mean they played Minecraft and ate some brownie squares with green icing– don’t bother looking for the DIY tutorial on Pinterest). In the morning, they had more Minecraft, and donuts. The birthday boy opened his presents from us, and began planning how to spend the gift cards that were burning a hole in his pocket. I told him we could go shopping wherever he wanted, as long as I was back in time to bake cake for our dinnertime family celebration. In spite of a worrisome weather forecast that his Dad and I were keeping anxious eyes on, it was shaping up to be a very happy day.

Shortly after the last guest left,  Patrick quietly alerted me that our dog, Fanny had taken a sudden turn for the worse.  Fanny was an old lady–at least 15 years old, since she was an adult dog when I adopted her from a shelter in 2001. It’s been clear to us over the last month that she was winding down–she had all but stopped eating, and was sleeping almost around the clock–but she wasn’t in any apparent suffering or distress.We agreed there was no point putting her through the trauma of a visit to the vet until it was clearly time.

Clearly, on Sunday, it was time. As I sat next to her on her bed, it was plain that she was not resting comfortably anymore.  After a brief period of hoping against hope that we might be able to postpone the inevitable just one more day, we gathered the boys together and explained that it was time to say goodbye.

I accompanied each separately. “I’ll have my birthday supper tomorrow,” my youngest said, as he wept. Our thirteen-year-old, who has always been the most nurturing to Fanny, stroked her fur in silence, his face ashen. Then he went to his room and lay face down on his bed.

My eldest son came with me to the emergency vet clinic. I’ve never  been so proud of my firstborn as when that tall young man wrapped one strong arm around my shoulders, and kept his other hand gently stroking our dog as she went to sleep for good. It happened very swiftly and serenely. She was there one minute, and then she was gone.

It’s a holy thing to be present for someone when they die, I told him, remembering that we were both beside his grandmother when she took her last breath, him tumbling in the womb, yet to take his first. Birth and death, joy and grief, the coming and going of things, all mixed up together.

“Let’s have a birthday,” I told our not-so-little Who when we got home. “We can be happy and sad today. That’s how life is sometimes.”

And so we had a very happy birthday on a very sad day. Gift cards spent to the last nickel, extra big slices of chocolate cake, the declaration of a family rest day on Monday, and a special wish granted to a 13-year-old brother who is a friend to animals (even the orneriest ones like Fanny), and deserves his own phone. None of it to deny what was lost, but to celebrate all we’ve been given.




Goodbye, Fanny. You were a crabby, crazy old dog. And we miss you.