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Mothers of Invention — A Tribute

Hello blog friends! It’s been a long time since I’ve posted here. I’ve missed chatting with you.

I should explain that my lovely and loving mother died on May 19 at the age of 71. Since then I’ve alternated between sorrow, anxiety, numbness, and a cautious cheerfulness. Many of you have been through this. No doubt you’d tell me there’s no right or wrong way to grieve, and that I should give myself as much time as I need. I do appreciate that.

This post really isn’t about grief, however. It is about a legacy of love. To honor my mother (and grandmother) I’d like to share a specific example of their magical influence on my life.

I promise this will make you SMILE.

Like many young girls, I obsessed over the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. My fascination began when Mom read Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie to me at bedtime. As Laura and I grew older, I graduated to reading the novels on my own. Wishing to be as much like my favorite protagonist as possible, I demanded that my hair be braided, wore my ruffled calico dress until it burst at the seams, and begged to go to Grandma’s farm where I could practice baking, butter churning, and cow tending. (Working in the garden was less inspiring, but imagining myself as Laura helped make it endurable.) When Mom remarried I decided henceforth that she and my stepfather would be known as Ma and Pa. No one dared to disagree. Even my Barbie dolls were forced to hold down a claim under a tree in the backyard. In their little frame house they cooked on a miniature cast iron stove, slept on straw-filled mattresses, and fed fragrant grass seed to their (plastic) horses.

Mom and Grandma were well aware of my obsession. They shared it, after all. And thus one year they concocted a plan for my Christmas present–a plan so ambitious they must have been as intimidated as they were excited by the enormity of their task. They undertook to sew a complete wardrobe for my Barbie dolls based on Laura Ingalls’ wedding trousseau from These Happy Golden Years.

Each day, as soon as I was safely on the school bus, my mother collected my Barbies and drove to Grandma’s house. Together they pored over the text of the book, taking notes on her descriptions of fabrics and dress styles. They cross-referenced these details with a reproduction 1900 Sears & Roebuck catalog and adapted Barbie dress patterns to the old-fashioned styles. Once they knew exactly what they would be sewing it was time to plunder the ragbag for fabric scraps that closely resembled the dresses described in the book. Only after they’d exhausted that resource did they take out their pocketbooks and travel to the fabric store for the materials they did not already have.

They watched the clock carefully in the afternoons to ensure my mom would get home before the bus. Each day she returned my dolls to what she hoped was the exact spot where I’d left them. To her credit, I never had a clue of the costume fitting adventures my Barbie dolls had undertaken during the day…


At least, not until Christmas Day brought this box of MAGIC.

Would you like to see what was inside?

[Here’s where I confess to devoting an entire day to a Barbie photo shoot, just so I could show you the clothes that were packed in that box. Many thanks go to Disney’s “Belle” Barbie for standing in for my long lost dolls. And as always with my blog photos, if you would like a closer view, click the image to enlarge.]


First there was the brown poplin dress:

It’s smooth, long sleeves fitted her arms perfectly to the wrists, where a band of plain silk ended them. The neck was high with a smooth band of the plain silk around the throat. The polonaise fitted tightly and buttoned all down the front with small round buttons covered with the plain brown silk. Below the smooth hips it flared and rippled down and covered the top of the flounce on the underskirt. A band of the plain silk finished the polonaise at the bottom. (These Happy Golden Years, 162-63).

I loved that there were two parts to this dress, and that you can see the underskirt’s ruffle peeping out below the silk ribbon of the polonaise. Note: this was the dress Laura wore during the infamous buggy ride in which she shook the buggy whip and startled the colts, all because Almanzo tried to put his arm around her. Cheeky young man! (And “devilish” young lady!)


The pink lawn dress also came in two pieces and was gorgeously feminine. Grandma and Mom were particularly adept at recreating the tuck work that Laura described:

They made the waist tight-fitting, with two clusters of tucks down the back, and two in front…The skirt was gathered very full all round into a narrow waistband, which buttoned over the bottom of the waist to secure them from slipping apart. All down the full skirt, tucks went around and around it, spaced evenly a little way apart, and below the bottom tuck was a full-gathered ruffled four inches wide that just touched Laura’s shoe tips (243-44).


Laura’s black cashmere wedding dress was constructed of soft, fine-waled corduroy, complete with lace at the neck and a tiny wooden brooch painted with an even tinier strawberry. [See a closer view of the brooch.] Grandma and Mom sewed Laura’s straw poke bonnet out of roughly textured green fabric and lined it with blue cotton.

Laura was ready when Almanzo came. She was wearing her new black cashmere dress and her sage-green poke bonnet with the blue lining and the blue ribbon bow tied under left ear. The soft black tips of her shoes barely peeped from beneath her flaring skirt as she walked (279).

(For the record, I simply could not manage to tie that ribbon under Belle’s left ear without it looking ridiculous.)


Being very attentive to detail, Mom and Grandma did not forget Laura’s underclothes. Mom cleverly constructed a narrow hoop skirt of wire and tape–“the very latest style in the East” (161)–and even fashioned a tiny bustle that could be taped underneath for fullness or on top for modest backside enhancement. Knowing Laura preferred a small bustle, I usually taped it on top. (In the photo, however, it is taped underneath for maximum enhancement. Check the side view of the black wedding dress for the effect.) To cover the hoop they provided a soft white cotton petticoat with yellow ribbon trim. Their pièce de résistance, however, was a corset of white satin sewn with the tiniest of stitches to fit the fabric exactly to Barbie’s inhuman proportions.


Mom and Grandma even found time to sew a long-sleeved, flowing nightgown of white flannel sprinkled with delicate purple flowers for Barbie. They also made a girl-sized one out of the same material for me. Sadly, my gown is long gone, but Barbie looks quite cozy in hers, doesn’t she?

As you might imagine, I was thoroughly enchanted by this miniature and very complicated wardrobe, and I spent hours dressing and undressing my dolls. A few items didn’t survive the heavy use, and one dress (a blue calico?) was drastically retooled during my Medieval Barbie phase, but the rest were passed down to my baby sister when I went to college. (I honestly can’t remember how I felt about this. I wonder if I even knew?) Eventually my dear nieces played with them as well, and I’m certain the dresses enjoyed their varied adventures over the years. Their good condition today is a testament both to the care that went into their construction and the delicacy with which we played with them.

A few years ago Mom and I searched through the toy box and collected all the Laura Ingalls items we could find. Just last week I conducted my photo shoot–partly for posterity, but mostly as a way to celebrate Mom and Grandma. They were true mothers of invention, and it is such an honor (not to mention a balm to my sore heart) to share their industry and artistry with you!

I will close with a message for these dearly departed ladies: Thank you, Grandma and Mom, for taking time out of your busy days to enter a child’s imagination, for making her dreams come true, and for gifting her with your love of history and story. Thank you for the magic. You both will live forever in my heart.


Grandma and me (You can see I inherited her mouth) on Christmas Day, 1978? (Photo taken by Mom)


Margaret Ellen (Grandma) and Marcia (Mom), circa 1962

**Many thanks to my sister, Heather Miller, who searched the family albums for the Christmas photos!

Summer travel postcards, final installment — the photo parade of TEA!


For our London stay, a friend recommended The Wolseley, and we were quite pleased with our experience. First of all, it’s not a stuffy sort of place in the least. It was very busy, with lots of chatter and laughter, plus great people-watching (& eavesdropping) opportunities. Steve and I both enjoyed the Wolseley Afternoon Blend tea. The scones were freshly baked and still warm, and the sandwiches were deliciously unfussy. As usually happens, we were a bit stuffed by the time we turned to the dessert tier of the tray, but rest assured we did our best. 😉


On our first full day in Cromarty, Scotland, we enjoyed tea and cake at The Pantry. This was a bright, cozy place, and quite peaceful in the late afternoon.


The next day we visited Coupers Creek, a cafe/gift shop also on Church Street. Doesn’t that freshly whipped cream look divine?


Once in Gairloch we enjoyed a tray of tea at the Shieldaig Lodge. We each had our own teapot, our own pot of hot water for refilling, and a couple of shortbread cookies. Quite reviving after our long (& winding) drive from the Black Isle!


Finally, a longstanding favorite — cream tea on the terrace at the Old Parsonage Hotel in Oxford. The silver teapot and strainers are fancy, yet the atmosphere is always relaxing. Over the years I’ve enjoyed many teas with friends at this spot. (Just for reference, here’s what a full tea looks like at Old Parsonage!)

That’s it for Summer postcards! I fully intend to return to my “Tea and a Book” posts this fall, so stay tuned!

Summer Travel Postcards: Chastleton House


A field overrun with wildflowers near Moreton-in-Marsh

After our Scotland adventures, it was time to move on to Oxford. We decided to spend our only free day visiting Chastleton House, which involved a train to Moreton-in-Marsh and lots of walking through the Cotswolds. Huzzah!


We were pretty hungry when we arrived. Fortunately the adjoining church, St. Mary’s, was offering tea and cake in return for donations to a charity supporting Medical Detection dogs. (This tickled me because I so enjoyed reading Nancy Cataldo’s marvelous Sniffer Dogs.) It actually was quite lovely to eat cake in the churchyard among the gravestones!


Chastleton House was built in the early 17th century by a wealthy wool merchant. Hardly any updates were made over the last 400 years, and although the exterior has held up quite nicely, the interior had fallen into terrible disrepair by the late 20th century. (We heard tales of a dotty old lady living there with 30 cats while the house was falling apart around her–you know how I aspire to love that sort of thing!) The National Trust bought the house in 1991 and has been in the process of restoring it ever since.


[As always, click images for a larger view]
In most historic houses, only a few rooms are available for public viewing because the resident family prefers to maintain some privacy. Well, since no one actually lives at Chastleton anymore, we were allowed access to a surprising number of rooms. I was excited to learn that Chastleton was featured in the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. In fact, a key scene between Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn was filmed in the Long Gallery, seen above at the right. Learn more about Chastleton House as a filming location here.


It was quite relaxing to wander in the topiary garden. I love this description from the National Trust website:

The garden has nods to changing garden fashions but still largely has its Jacobean layout, with divisions according to use. And it still preserves its secret garden feel of ‘romantic neglect’.

[*happy sigh*]


We wrapped up the day with an impromptu game of croquet. Did you know that the rules of croquet were codified at Chastleton House? They were written by Walter Jones Whitmore and published on April 7, 1866.

Stay tuned for one last travel post featuring . . . TEA!

Summer Travel Postcards: Scotland, part 2


Loch Gairloch

[Go here if you missed part 1 of the Scotland postcards.]

Our luck with weather continued throughout our time in Gairloch. I couldn’t ask for anything nicer than the cool breezes and partly sunny skies we experienced.


We stayed at the Shieldaig Lodge, a former hunting lodge turned hotel. I felt a bit like a character in Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling as I wandered through sitting rooms like this one with the bay window, this one with the coat of arms, or this little library where we enjoyed tea (more on that later).


Here Steve looks out over the Fairy Lochs. We were told at the lodge that this was a fairly easy walk, so we set out shortly after we arrived. It soon became clear that we’d need more time and energy, so we turned back. The next day we were determined to reach the lochs, but despite what all the travel guides said, it was fairly rough going–rocky terrain alternating with muddy bogs, and very steep in places. We had at least four moments of false hope when we thought we’d almost reached the plateau only to find there was SO MUCH MORE ground to cover. This view was well-earned, I tell you! (Going back down was even harder, but we won’t dwell on that…)


We enjoyed views like this (and easier paths) on our Flowerdale Glen walk.


Another view of Loch Gairloch.


I’ll wrap up by offering this post-dinner selfie taken on our last evening at Sheildaig Lodge. The pictures were so goofy, and we were laughing so hard, that the owner came out and asked if we would like him to take the photo. (We must have been making a spectacle of ourselves.) As you might imagine, his photo featured the lodge much more prominently.

Stay tuned for postcards from our walk to Chastleton House in the Cotswolds!

Summer Travel Postcards: Scotland, part 1


“Now this feels like the Highlands!”

On Sunday we flew to Inverness for five days in Scotland. We spent the first two nights on the Black Isle at Cromarty, a lovely little village. My photographs from the stay aren’t that impressive, however, because the weather was a bit dreary. I was terribly fond of Cromarty, but for now let’s move on to the more dramatic west coast sights near Gairloch. (We’ll revisit Cromarty when I post my blog on tea. Yay!)


First, I must praise my husband and, to a lesser extent, satellite navigation. I’ve never driven overseas, and Steve hadn’t for over a decade (not since we drove to Brontë country and he nearly abandoned the car in Bradford out of terror and frustration). What a difference a built-in sat nav makes! I wouldn’t say Steve was relaxed about driving this time around, but he was very good at it, particularly when the roads narrowed to a single lane, which happened A LOT.


One of our first driving adventures was out to the beaches at Red Point. The day started gloomy but turned quite fine as you can see. No filter on any of these photos–it was just that beautiful! And we nearly had it all to ourselves (but were happy to share).


Obligatory (and somewhat squinty) selfie. As we were leaving this beach, we ran into a group of pony trekkers. Later we walked to the Gairloch Trekking Center and watched two children grooming a pair of fat little ponies as part of the “Kids Stable Special” program. Do check out the gallery on their webpage–guaranteed to make you smile!


We were able to explore this rocky outcropping while the tide was out. You can see the Isle of Skye across the water — it was huge! Why did I think Skye was a wee island?


I didn’t have the nerve to walk to the edge, but that’s okay because it meant I could take this photo. 🙂

Stay tuned for more postcards from the Highlands!