A group blog featuring an international array of killer mystery, suspense, and romantic suspense writers. With premises and story lines different from your run-of-the-mill whodunits, we tend to write outside the box. We blog several times a week on all topics relating to romantic suspense and mystery, our writing, and our readers. We welcome all comments and often have guest bloggers. All our authors can be contacted separately, too, using their own social media links.

We find our genre delightfully, dangerously, and deliciously exciting - join us here, if you do too!

NOTE: the blog is currently dormant but please enjoy the posts we're keeping online.

Julie Moffet . Cathy Perkins . Jean Harrington . Daryl Anderson . Nico Rosso . Maureen A Miller . Sandy Parks . Lisa Q Mathews . Sharon Calvin . Lynne Connolly . Janis Patterson . Vanessa Keir . Tonya Kappes . Julie Rowe . Joni M Fisher . Leslie Langtry

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

What's Another Year?

It's hard to believe my first book was published way back in 2001. It doesn't seem that long! I've lost count of the ups and downs during that time, the successes and the not-so-goods. I won't say failure, because I've not had one of those, not completely. I've had books that have done really well, and books that haven't.
Looking back, yes, it's surprising. My first success was the Richard and Rose series. I planned it as a historical mystery series, with the hero and heroine as two quiet, unprepossessing minor aristocrats who solved country house mysteries.
It didn't quite turn out that way. Richard Strang turned out to be far from unprepossessing, and minor was not a description that suited him in any way at all! I wrote the series in the first person, with the same protagonists in each book, showing what happened before, and during their marriage. All those things were no-nos when I wrote the series, and yet they were a huge success for me.
And should I write paranormals? The prevailing wisdom was that you should stick to your genre, and yet the Department 57 series, about a group of Talents (vampires, shape-shifters, mermen) who worked as secret agents did so well I started a new series, STORM, which is being reissued next year.
Rock stars fighting for their women? Yup, Pure Wildfire and Nightstar.
Back to history, and I'm in the throes of writing two series. One is about the children of the Old Pretender (Bonnie Prince Charlie's father). They have a lot of history about them, with a big helping of romance. The first three books have all featured in the Amazon Top Ten.
I'm writing a series about the Roman gods and goddesses come back to life in the 18th century. That's another thing you're not supposed to do. Paranormal and historical aren't supposed to do well.
Now they tell me that vampires are dead. Darlings, vampires will never die. Not as long as I'm here to write about them!
I guess what I want to say is that new year resolutions and a structured career are good ideas, but phhht - who wants to do that when you can be having fun?
I did make an effort this year to structure my novels, but Things Happen and as I get to know my characters, it becomes clear that's not going to work out like I wanted it to. So yet again, I'm doing a plan, but I'm not counting on it happening.
Next year I'll probably look back and laugh. Just like I'm doing now.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Gratitude...Or Finding That Silver Lining

I don't believe in making New Year's resolutions. It's a great way to set yourself up for failure. So the past few years, in the midst of some very profound losses in my family and some personal health issues, instead of working on a list of resolutions, I've counted my blessings. When I started working on thankfulness, the notion of counting calories or meeting a set page count seemed rather trivial by comparison.

Research supports the idea that gratitude is good for us. In fact, according to Psychology Today, gratitude improves both physical and emotional health, reduces aggression, helps us sleep better, opens the door to more relationships, increases mental strength and improves self-esteem.

Sure, increasing my page count is good for my wallet, but I'm thinking that I'll be more productive if I'm healthier. My wellbeing will improve without me having to obsess over every calorie I put in my mouth. And despite the above-mentioned setbacks, I've got a lot for which to be thankful.

Although I spent some time in the hospital and recuperating early in the year, which cut into my writing time, I did manage to release two books. Silver lining.

Even though one of my publishers became embroiled in a legal battle and started doing very poorly, they have agreed to return the rights of all my books to me by February of next year. I plan to release those books in several omnibus collections. Silver lining.

When I look at the big picture, it's all good. I get to do what I love to do, work at home at my own pace. I have the best agent who supports me and is an awesome person whom I'd be friends with even if she wasn't my agent. My editor at my current publisher is terrific and every time I work with her, I learn something new that improves my writing.

So no resolutions here. Just a big, fat THANK YOU to the universe for landing me right where I am. I hope you have an awesome 2016!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Happy Holidays from NYUS!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from all of us here at Not Your Usual Suspects. 

We hope this holiday season finds you surrounded by warmth and happiness (and curled up with a fantastic mystery, thriller, or romantic suspense book)!

May 2016 bring you many hours of reading time and anything else you could hope for!


-- The NYUS Gang

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

How to Create Holiday Suspense

For suspense-lovers, the holidays are a perfect time to generate a feeling of anticipation. There are many ways you can do this…

  • Order so much online merchandise that you don’t remember what’s in the boxes that arrive days or weeks later.

  • Wrap all of your gifts in September, so you’ve forgotten what they are by the time you put them under the tree.

  • Start your day (every day) with a hunt for a creepy elf. (See Julie Lindsey's post from earlier this month!)

  • Watch Christmas movies. Our favorite suspenseful "holiday" movies are: The Ref, Trading Places, Die Hard (yeah, it’s a Christmas movie AND a romantic suspense!), A Christmas Story (will he get that BB gun??), and Home Alone.

Photo courtesy
  • Take a walk through the woods. In the dark. When it's cold and snowy. (There'll be a full moon this Christmas!)

  • Read holiday-themed books (preferably with murder and mayhem)!

How do you create holiday suspense in your household?

Monday, December 21, 2015

Holiday Recipes & Tips

Most cooks have their tips and secrets, and certain recipes they do better than others. For me, it's my stuffing and gravy that my family raves about. My secret? Lemon juice and white wine. 

Photo courtesy
Stuffing/Dressing: Sauté the chopped celery and onion in a small amount of butter until they caramelize a bit, then add seasonings, a splash of white wine (and add a little bit to the cook while you're at it), a few squeezes of lemon juice, more butter, chicken stock, and some water as needed, and then mix in the bread cubes/crumbs. This is the best way I've found to make a moist, delicious stuffing. (You may notice that I don't mention measurements. That's because I don't have any patience. LOL I prefer to eyeball it and if I make a mistake, I claim artistic license. *wink*) But that touch of citrus is key and seems to make the rest of the flavors sing. 

I do the same thing for gravy, adding lemon and white wine for a bit of enhanced flavor.

Marcelle Dube shared a recipe for a traditional French-Canadian dish that her mother would make every Christmas. Of course, it always tasted better reheated the next day! The quantities will vary according to the size of pot you have. Use a heavy pot with a lid. This dish is easy and delicious, but definitely not for vegetarians.


You will need:

Chicken, veal, pork, rabbit, moose (any kind of meat you prefer) cut into one-inch cubes NOTE: you will be limited by the size of your pot
Peeled and sliced potatoes to a ¼-inch thickness
Peeled and sliced onions to a ¼-inch thickness
Salt, pepper, spices to taste
Chicken or beef broth (your preference)
Pastry to cover the top; also sliced in one-inch strips (I use the ready-made stuff from the store)

Ready? Okay. Now, place a layer of potatoes on the bottom of your pot, followed by a layer of onions, then a layer beef (or chicken, or veal…). Season with salt and pepper and any herbs or spices you favour. Then add one-inch-wide strips of pastry in a criss-cross pattern. Repeat the layers with a different kind of meat until you are near the top of your pot. Don’t forget to season as you go along. When you’re close to the top, pour in about a cup of broth. Then cover everything with pastry, with slits for venting. Cover with the lid.

Cook at 250°F for about five hours. Check every hour or so.


Another favorite of my family's is snowball cookies (also known as Mexican Wedding Cookies, and they have other names as well). They're easy and fun to make (and delicious!):

Photo courtesy

1/2 lb. butter
2 1/3 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar
1 c. walnuts or pecans
2-3 tsp vanilla
about 2 c. powdered sugar and/or sprinkles

Cream the butter with the sugar and vanilla. Add the flour gradually, then the nuts. Form into balls about 1-2 inches in diameter (using the palms of your hands to roll them gently). On ungreased cookie sheet, bake for about 15 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, but do not brown. While the baked cookies are still hot, roll them in powdered sugar (and sprinkles if desired). Roll in powdered sugar again once cool.


Any holiday traditional recipes that you'd care to share? (Christmas is the season for sharing!) Got a good recipe for egg nog? Your secret family recipe? Or just some tips in general for saving time or creating flavor?

Friday, December 18, 2015

Outfitting Characters

Outfitting characters is kind of like playing with paper dolls, but with a lot more thought going into the selections.
Old-fashioned Paper Doll

I must admit I don’t give this a lot of thought initially, but as I learn more about my characters, how they dress does become important. Since most of the characters in my current series (Gulf Coast Rescue) are in the Coast Guard, they’re usually wearing flight suits. However, what they wear when out of uniform must match their personality—or contrast for a specific reason (and will usually make them uncomfortable in the process!)

A character’s clothing choice can be used to make him or her distinctive from other characters; it can hint at hidden personality traits, and deepen your characterization. Put serious thought into your choices. Why would this character make that choice? It matters because it conveys more information about that character.

So where do I go to begin outfitting my characters? My closet isn’t going to help me at all…

My Boring Wardrobe
Contemporary sources include print and online catalogs, Pinterest, Instagram, and stock photo sites. 

Sample Catalogs
If you’re writing a historical, you’ll need to get a little more creative in tracking down accurate images and descriptions of period dress. Internet searches, fashion books, images from museums (books and the Internet), and period catalogs can provide images as well as information on types of materials and colors that were popular in the time frame you are writing in.

Sample Books on Victorian Dress
My Steampunk characters are the most fun to “shop” for. I can combine elements from a specific time period (mine is 1885 London) with typical Steampunk elements (goggles, leather, brass, and bits and pieces of cogs and wheels) and pure imagination.
Simple Goggles

Goggles and Bowler
I would imagine the same applies to futuristic stories. You have more freedom, but it may take you longer to establish the look, colors, and materials used in your world.

What season does your story take place in? Will it span more than one? You’ll need to remember to include coats or jackets. And speaking of weather, you have to think about accessories like sunglasses, hats, gloves, scarves, and umbrellas. 

What about purses, backpacks, and briefcases? And don’t get me started on shoes (sorry, I really don’t get the shoe thing—now socks, that’s an obsession I can understand). Then there is jewelry—earrings, rings, necklaces, and watches (metal, rubber, or leather bands? Does it glow in the dark or have a different colored face?)

Which Style Would Your Character Wear?

Does all this really matter? It depends on your character, the kind of story you are writing, and reader expectations. If I wrote a Regency historical romance, the clothes not only need to be described in detail, they must be accurate because that’s part of the reader’s enjoyment in reading that genre. 

So, as a reader, do you notice how characters are dressed? Does it matter to you?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


courtesy of Max Blain  Dreamstime Stock Photos

     It’s holiday season and the windows of bookshops are filled with the latest bestsellers and perennial favorites. They’re nestled amongst scarlet poinsettias, silver and gold Christmas bells and pine wreaths the color of jade. Customers browse the shelves, trying to find the perfect read for family and friends.
     The section playing host to mysteries is crowded as buyers read the front page, the blurbs at the back, study the cover, and try to make a decision—which whodunit is best for an elderly aunt—not the cozy type, what about the nephew who seems stuck on horror? The daughter, who has just turned fourteen and who suffers from her first major crush? The last is easy—a romantic mystery is right for her.
courtesy of Frankiphotographer Dreamstime Stock Photos

     Has the aunt read Hercule Poirot’s Christmas or the Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie or The Adventures of the Blue Carbuncle by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? The latter would be found in a short story collection titled A Treasury of Sherlock Holmes. Does she remember O’Henry? His A Chaparral Christmas Gift is available as an audio-book at A Classic Christmas Crime includes short stories by P.D. James, Peter Lovesey, Robert Barnard and Simon Brett among other authors. The Big book of Christmas Mysteries edited by Edgar Award Winner Otto Penzler offers the gift of Ed McBain, Colin Dexter, John D. MacDonald, Ellis Peters and a banquet of tales mysterious.
     Then there’s the classic Silent Night by Mary Higgins Clark and O Little Town of Maggody and A Holly Jolly Murder by Joan Hess, and Jerusalem Inn written by Martha Grimes. Anne Perry’s A Christmas Hope and Shakespeare’s Christmas by Charlaine Harris.

     The closest I’ve come to writing about the Holidays was a play I titled Ten Minutes to the Nativity. Have you written a mystery or romance that takes place during this special time of the year?

Monday, December 14, 2015

Help! There's An Elf on My Shelf!

What can I say? It's tradition. And much as it drives me bonkers to deal with Elf every night, I started it. Some people hate him. Personally, I think he's fun. We don't tell the kids he's watching or reporting anything to anyone. The book says that, but we don't even read the book anymore. We've taken Elf in our own direction. The direction where Mom is responsible for one more unnecessary task. Because that's what moms do. Because we love to see those toothless grins.

Around the time my youngest made it to preschool, the Elf on a Shelf was is full popularity mode, and I didn't want my kids to miss out. Everyone seemed to be making daily posts with pictures of the fun their family Elf was getting into. I loved it. My creative side wanted in on it. So, I ordered an Elf. I read the book to my kids, and I got started with gusto. 

Here's the problem: There are twenty-four days in December, and I'm on year four with this blessed Elf, which has required about one hundred fresh ideas

I'm ready to break Elf's leg, wrap it in a "cast" and give him a sign that says he was injured on his trip back from Santa's workshop and is shelf-bound for the rest of the year.I'm crying Uncle. My creativity is busted. I've done all the things. I've looted Pinterest, friends' feeds and websites in search of new ideas for the busy mom's Elf.

This year, I'm busier than ever, and the kids' expectations keep growing. They want more! What will Buddy (that's what I named our Elf) do tonight? That crazy guy! We can't wait! What will it be??

Well, that's a darn good question because I don't know. I'm in a semi-panic state. I want off Elf duty.

But that's not an option. I mean, it's Christmas. The season of love and magic, and there aren't many years left where my kids will care if the Elf arrived safely or died in a tragic North Pole avalanche. What can I do besides power through? I'm so blessed with friends and family and purpose. I've got purpose (and coffee) oozing from my pores. Who knows? Maybe the fond memories we make with Buddy will lead him to one of my children's homes one day, when they have kids of their own. Maybe this will be a silly little treat they share with their family and my legacy of love will live on in yet another way.

December is always bittersweet for me. It's a time of reflection and rededication. Making memories is so important in life. In the end, they're all we have. I learned this summer, in a devastating way, we aren't promised another year, holiday, or day with our loved ones. So, I'm (by me I mean Buddy) filling my kids' rooms with red and green balloons tonight, and I can't wait to see their bright smiles tomorrow. You're a pain in the backside, Buddy, but the looks on their faces are totally worth the trouble. I'd be crazy not to do anything I could to enjoy one more of these sweet smiles.

What about you? What are you doing this holiday season to make amazing memories? Do you have a tradition to share? Or something you did for your kids that you once hated, but now look back on with love? I'd love to hear!

Friday, December 11, 2015

My holiday reading

When I’m reminded that Christmas is approaching, I go straight into Bah Humbug mode. First, I can’t understand why Christmas cards and general festive items appear in the shops alongside the Halloween costumes. I mean, that’s October, people. October!

As the days/weeks pass, I begin to stress about everything I need to do - all those presents to buy, wrap and, more often than not, mail to far-flung places. The cards needs writing and, naturally, the friend’s new address that I scribbled on a piece of paper months ago has vanished. Slade’s Merry Christmas, Everybody blasting out from every shop in the land does nothing to improve my bad mood. 

Or perhaps it does because in an instant I change from “Bah Humbug - Christmas should be banned” to “OMG, Christmas is coming. Let’s party!”. The decorations come out, yet more twinkling lights are bought and I can’t wait for the festivities to begin. I get to eat lots, yes? And drink even more, right? I can sit in front of a blazing log fire with a glass in one hand and my Kindle in the other without feeling guilty. Bliss!

In readiness, I’ve loaded up the Kindle. I’ll be making a start on Silent Nights.

Christmas is a mysterious, as well as magical, time of year. Strange things can happen, and this helps to explain the hallowed tradition of telling ghost stories around the fireside as the year draws to a close. Christmas tales of crime and detection have a similar appeal. When television becomes tiresome, and party games pall, the prospect of curling up in the warm with a good mystery is enticing - and much better for the digestion than yet another helping of plum pudding. Crime writers are just as susceptible as readers to the countless attractions of Christmas. Over the years, many distinguished practitioners of the genre have given one or more of their stories a Yuletide setting. The most memorable Christmas mysteries blend a lively storyline with an atmospheric evocation of the season. Getting the mixture right is much harder than it looks.This book introduces readers to some of the finest Christmas detective stories of the past. Martin Edwards' selection blends festive pieces from much-loved authors with one or two stories which are likely to be unfamiliar even to diehard mystery fans. The result is a collection of crime fiction to savour, whatever the season.

Then I’ll move on to The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries.

Here, for your yuletide reading pleasure, are the collected crimes of Christmases Past and Present: sixty classic Christmas crime stories gathered together in the largest anthology of its kind ever assembled. And its an all-star line-up: Sherlock Holmes, Brother Cadfael, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Ellery Queen, Rumpole of the Bailey, Inspector Morse, Inspector Ghote, A.J. Raffles, Nero Wolfe and many, many more of the world's favourite detectives and crime fighters face unscrupulous Santas, festive felonies, deadly puddings, and misdemeanors under the mistletoe. Almost any kind of mystery you're in the mood for - suspense, pure detection, humour, cozy, private eye, or police procedural - can be found within these pages.
Includes stories from (many of which are difficult or nearly impossible to find anywhere else): Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, Isaac Asimov, Sara Paretsky, Ed McBain, Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters, Mary Higgins Clark, H.F Keating, Donald E. Westlake and John Mortimer and more.

I can’t wait.

What will you be reading over the festivities? Do you have any recommendations for great holiday stories?

Happy holidays, everyone!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


Well, the holidays are upon us so that means gift giving galore for most of us. While it's great to get that comfy pair of slippers and a fuzzy sweater, the writer in us longs for specific gifts. Not sure what they are? No problem. Grab a pen and a piece of paper because I'm here to help you find just the right gift for that writer in your life.


1.) TIME.  For writers (especially those with children) the most precious gift is the TIME. Time alone time to plot, think and actually write. Offer to babysit or take their kids somewhere. You will get so many bonus points as a friend/spouse/companion for giving this that you will end up gifting yourself in terms of gratitude from said writer.

2.) A TRIP TO A WRITER'S RETREAT/CONFERENCE. Give the writer in your life the chance to go away on a writer's retreat or conference. This is important because writing is a solitary profession and writers NEED that connection with other writers to commiserate the hardships or celebrate in the milestones that only other writers can understand. This can be a monetary gift, making the arrangements for the conference/retreat or watching the house/cat/children while the writer goes away.

3.) EXTRA MONEY FOR PROMO. These days writers are not only writers, but they must also be marketing whizzes as well. Since most of us are trying to figure out how the heck to do this right, we need to experiment a bit with advertising. A little extra support in the promo budget would be very welcome. If you are flush and want to offer the gift of a personal assistant -- well, I freaking guarantee you that will go over WAY better than a diamond bracelet.

4.) BUY THE BOOK. Buy the writer's book and encourage all your friends/family/co-workers to do the same. Talk up the writer to everyone you know and be sincerely proud of their hard work. This is a low cost gift, but would be much appreciated.

5.) WRITE A REVIEW. This is a no-cost gift in terms of cash, but the gratitude you will receive from the writer in your life will come back to you tenfold. A kind word-of-mouth about the writer's books and a review or two will be very well received, I promise you.

Every writer is different and each writer will want different things. My advice is to ask the author in your life what they need to support their writing. The fact that you asked will also earn you bonus points.

By the way, if you are MY friend and you want to know what to get ME for the holidays -- my latest book, NO ROOM FOR ERROR, the seventh book in my geeky, mystery series was just released and is available for purchase here. Hint, hint!

Good luck with your gift giving and Happy Holidays!  Love, Julie

Monday, December 7, 2015

18--Count 'em 18--Days Til Christmas!

Something happens to me this time of year. I'm normally an organized and reasonably punctual person, but from about mid-November on I suffer one of those space and time continuum things. I'm moving so fast and in so many directions that I fully expect to run into myself head-on any moment. Oh there you are! Did you remember to phone the insurance company? You still haven't bought your mother's birthday gift! Did you find that missing box of ornaments?

It's a crazy time of year for everyone, but for writers I think it's especially crazy because this is (or at least it is for me) when I sit down to finalize my writing schedule for the next year. As in I stop fantasizing about how much I can humanly do and get realistic about the books I'm really going to write. Usually there's a lot of last minute promotion stuff going on--holiday stories and holiday promos (raise your hand if you DIDN'T write a holiday story in 2015). And it's the time of year when I pause long enough to figure out how successful the year actually was. As in, take a deep breath and study those numbers.

What worked? What didn't.

There are always surprises in that final tally.

It's an emotional time of year. It's a time for reflection and memory--sentiment and nostalgia seem to be riding shotgun with me even as I sketch out my plans for the future. It's an exciting time of year. Presents! Okay, not presents (or not ONLY presents), but the reset button is punched and we start the race all over again. I love that. I love the possibility and the challenge. What will I do next year I haven't done before?

This is my December. What is your December like? Is it a time of family, friends and fun? Is it a time when you start pulling out the ledgers and frowning over the numbers? Is it a period of reflection and review or excitement and anticipation? For me, it's all of the above. And it's the uneasy feeling that there must be a better way...

Thursday, December 3, 2015


And I do mean random. I simply could not decide what to post today soooo, ya get a little bit of everything.
Ever roll your eyes when a person pontificates they only read literary books on the NYT best list? Ha! This article may make you giggle. 
It’s about THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN and GIRL ON THE TRAIN. Two different books. Hundreds if now thousands of people slogged through almost 500 pages of the second book, hating it, but kept reading because it was…on…the…list.  Snort!
Then, in this article  I learned a new word. Goldfinching. Until last week I called it Book Bullying or Fiction Shaming. It’s when people talk down to others, mostly women, because of their reading choices. The article discusses how critics ignore books people actually read. It suggests the reason is the books are written and read by women.  It’s long but quite entertaining.
And we come to my musings about why I read and write fiction. Easy peasy. It makes me happy.  When reading a book I’m transported to other times and places. Pulled into the story to the point when I go out and about I’m disappointed everyone doesn’t have a Scottish accent and the men aren’t in kilts. Don’t laugh you know what I mean.   
This past year I went on a tear of reading ‘different’. The Insect Farm, Jonathon Mayberry’s bio zombies, YA, and books that pushed the edge of my moral envelope. And…collections of short stories. 
During this past year in many ways my writing style has evolved. The biggest changes came, and will come, from reading the short stories and what I heard another author say. This author said she wasn’t going to write anymore because she couldn’t make any money and she didn’t have any more stories in her. What? You can count her published books on the fingers of one hand and have fingers left over. Zowie!
I opened my new stories file. Eleven stories with pages and or synopsis written that I’ll get to someday. Yeah! Right!  The new ideas folder has four just with an idea for a beginning and end. Then I remembered a note book (you know the kind with paper that you have to make squiggles on with a pen or pencil) where I sometimes jot down ideas.  Three pages of, I have to write this down now because it will be a great story ideas. I’m fond of saying I have a million ideas and occasionally one of them works. No stories left in me is certainly NOT my problem. 
Any how, I had a talk with Myself about why I’m not putting these ideas to use. I won’t go into the discussion details because there was quite the battle with yelling and screaming, some bad language. Suffice it to say Myself and I came to the conclusion most of these ideas will not make a novel but they will make a short, ten to thirty thousand words, story.  Hmmm. Okay. Two short stories in I’m having fun. Actually loving it.  Only down side is I’m not working on my full length novel. Will I ever invite you to read any of my ideas? Dunno. Frankly, I’m kinda dazed and confused with the publishing process right now. I am in such awe of the ladies here and their publishing talents. When I first started writing, a big name author told me if you don’t write with being published in mind you won’t be published.  I keep thinking about that and wonder if writing solely for the joy of it is a big mistake. Am I a writer if it’s not a commercial venture? If I don’t make money?  Would the authors I’ve read the last year keep writing even if they weren’t selling books? Sigh. I’m sure I’ll figure it out evidentially. Until then I’m writing and very much enjoying the process.

Thanks for reading my ramblings. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A December Memory

As Thanksgiving's bounty gives way to the holiday rush, I find myself looking backward rather than forward. I think of people who have not crossed my mind all year--the assorted aunts, uncles and cousins who appeared once a year at the holiday table and then disappeared.

Once their faces were as familiar to me as my own, but time and distance spare no one--especially time--and so some of the memories are a little frayed at the edges, but they're not lost. Late at night when  the house is quiet, I see them in my mind's eye, gathered around the table as before.

Last week I hosted Thanksgiving dinner for the first time in many years. Maybe that's why after dinner I found myself blathering on about old times to my guests, conjuring my old beloved ghosts as we finished our bottle of wine--in retrospect, all that wine might have contributed just a bit to my sudden transformation into a Chatty Kathy doll.

I should point out that I'm usually wary of nostalgia, which depends too much on ignorance for my taste. But then we all tend to paint our personal past in pretty colors, regardless of its true hue. I am no exception.

It's a fact of life that each family has its oddballs and malcontents, and there's certainly no shortage in mine. First I told my guests about Uncle Willy, who was virtually mute. To this day, I'd swear on a Gutenberg Bible that I'd never heard him utter more than two words in my presence--and each of those monosyllabic. Then there were my  odious male cousins--whom everyone called Frick and Frack for some unfathomable reason--whose sole purpose in life was to make me miserable. A minor character was a passive-aggressive maiden aunt who turned gift-giving into a test of wills.

"How'd she do that?" My friend Sally interrupted, pouring herself another glass of wine.

"She insisted on giving everyone on her gift list a fruitcake." I quickly explained that I was not a fruitcake hater and baked them myself for the holidays. But my aunt's cakes were those cellophane-wrapped bricks that you could buy for a couple bucks at the supermarket, though she always claimed the cakes were home baked. Essentially inedible, most of the bricks were tossed out along with the dessicated Christmas trees, though my mother managed to choke down hers, but only after dousing it with enough whiskey to pickle a boatload of sailors.

"I've got  you beat in the aunt department," Sally said. "Let me tell you about my Aunt Jeannie."

Jeannie wasn't her real name, as the innocent need protection as much the guilty, and it turned out that she wasn't Sally's real aunt.  "She sort of attached herself to the family."

"Attached?" I asked, imagining a suckerfish latching onto a passing shark.

Sally shrugged. "It happened before I was born, and I never did get the story, but throughout my childhood Aunt Jeannie was a fixture at every Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. My dad used to call her a batty old maid, which wasn't very nice, but he had his reasons."

An awkward silence and then Sally continued. Sally's Aunt Jeannie was a  quiet,unassuming woman who had led a quiet, unassuming life. She worked as a cashier and for recreation watched TV-with bowling programs being a particular favorite.

"Sounds pretty ordinary," I said.

"Yes, but there depths in Aunt Jeannie--dark, mysterious depths." Sally gulped her wine and her eyes clouded. "Jeannie always remembered her adopted family for the holidays. She was always fair in that she gave everyone the same gift. The teenagers and kids each got a couple ten-dollar bill, fresh from the bank." Sally's brow wrinkled, and she sipped  more wine. "She did the same thing for the adults--everyone on her gift list got the same thing, only it wasn't the same gift year after year, like your fruitcake aunt."

"Hey, wait a minute." I could insult my family, but others didn't have that right.

"I didn't mean it like that," Sally said quickly.

"That's okay," I said, leaning closer. I wasn't sure where Sally was going with this, but there was definitely blood in the water. "So what was the problem?"

"With the gifts themselves--the first one I remember my parents receiving was a Chop-O-Matic. Jeannie must have seen the commercial on TV and thought it was a great idea for gift."

I recalled the flashy commercial in which a fast-talking pitchman chopped a refrigerator full of produce into neat slices and dices in a matter of seconds, ecstatic over the possibility of so many perfectly julienned french fries.

"I was still a kid so when we got the Chop-O-Matic, so I couldn't wait to use it, but when I tried to chop a potato, the only  thing that got chopped was my finger. The cut was no big deal, but the disappointment..."

"I know what mean," I said, and I did. The first time was always the hardest, when you realize that things don't always work as advertised.

"Every Christmas that I can remember there was a white elephant gift from Aunt Jeannie under the tree--every one from an infomercial." Sally went down the dismal list. There was the EggScrambler (Scramble an egg in the shell!); the dangerous RoboStirrer (It stirs so you don't have to!); and even a Bacon Bowl (Now  you can make a bowl out of bacon!). Most of the gifts were destined to be regifted to some other poor schmuck or shipped off to Goodwill and Salvation Army stores, though a few tender-hearted souls  hung onto the stuff because they didn't want to "hurt" kind Aunt Jeannie, who meant well."One year she sent a  Tiddy Bear."

"A what?" My teenaged nephew said, looking up from his phone for the first time.

"It's not what  you think." Sally spelled it out. "It was a tiny stuffed bear you attach to your car's shoulder strap to avoid strain." Sally stopped. My nephew had lost interest and was back working his phone.

"Why did she do it?" I asked Sal.

"For years I've asked myself the same question. I used to think that maybe she was a frustrated cook. Most of her choices were cooking aides, though the Christmas she sent the Snuggies still gives me the creeps."

I grinned and said, "It's a blanket with sleeves, right?"

"That doesn't help," she said, and I poured us both more wine. "I even wondered if she had some kind of bizarro egg fetish--how else to explain the Egg Shell Extractor or the Egg Genie? But in the end I think she was just gullible. She  really believed in  those idiotic commercials."

There was another explanation, but I didn't raise its specter to Sally, who had suffered enough. It was entirely possible that Jeannie was keenly aware of the havoc she wrought with her unwanted gifts.  I asked Sally if Aunt Jeannie was still in the gifting game.

Sally shook her head and her eyes took on a faraway look. "She died last year, a week or so before Christmas. It was sudden, but not entirely unexpected--by then she was her nineties. I think the whole family sort of heaved a communal sigh of relief--the long nightmare was over at last. But Aunt Jeannie had one last surprise." Sally drew a deep breath.

"A week before Christmas everyone in the family received a package with Jeannie's return address on it."

I thought about that. Had the old woman had felt a cold wind at her back and trimmed her sails in preparation that final journey? Or perhaps it was simply her habit to do her holiday shopping early.

"Jeannie's final gift," Sally continued, "was the last gift I opened last Christmas. It was a Shoedini." Seeing my puzzled expression, Sally added, "It a shoehorn on a stick."

Of course it was.

I poured the last of the Thanksgiving wine and we raised our glasses to Aunt Jeannie.

"Do you know I still have the stupid Shoedini? I didn't have the heart to throw it away, it being her last gift."

"Are you sure it's the last?" I asked. "Jeannie sounded like a tenacious woman. You can't know how far ahead she planned."

"It''s not possible--is it?"

I laughed and said, "Happy Holidays, Sal."

Happy Holidays to us all!

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