Archive for the 'Magpie Tales' Category
The Advent season is upon us and this is my favorite time of the year. I am big on rituals and festivals, sharing and expressing my love of my family and friends, and of music and books that speak to my heart. Perhaps because I have been a child in a different culture and experienced the magic of the season there, I have not fallen prey to the consumerism aspect of what Christmas is in the States. Having purchased my gifts weeks in advance, I avoid the false cheer of crowded malls, and rude, impatient shoppers.
I focus inward instead. What greatness am I willing to allow be born within me during this time? As we prepare the Advent table with its silken blue cover, the color of Mary’s cloak, and light the candles of the Advent wreath, I hold my children near me, and read stories of Christmas and sing the old fashioned carols my grandmother taught us as children.
And I tell them stories of my childhood, sledding down the hills with my other four siblings in the stillness of a starry night, going caroling to the houses of family and friends where we were eagerly awaited with warm drinks and tables heaped with food, spending whole days at cousins’ houses where the parents cut the goose and the pig and made pates and sausages, while the kids had merry snowball fights. Oh and then there was the anticipated arrival of Saint Nicholas. Not Saint Nicholas aka Santa Claus, but Saint Nicholas of Smyrna himself.
On the eve of every 5th of December, we shined our shoes and placed them in frosted windows, or next to drafty back doors. Sometime during the frigid, glittery night the dear Saint would come and leave behind an orange, a golden walnut, a little cookie, a few candies, and a little treasure. And always besides all the goodies, was the prettiest silver switch, a reminder for us to behave ourselves. My children love Saint Nicholas day, and we use the example of the switch as an opportunity to discuss the areas that need strengthening and growing in the coming year.
Although I am a woman of faith, I feel uncomfortable wearing it on my sleeve (because it looks self-righteous and arrogant on me, perhaps?), but have to ask, what greatness are you allowing to be born within you, and transform you to the highest possible best that you can be?
This is a true Magpie Tale.
Maybe it is the sight of smoke curling out of chimneys, or maybe the scent of damp earth, or it could even be the sound of hissing pines in the wind, or the feel of frost touching the tip of my nose on my late afternoon walks, but in autumn my body craves the comforting taste of soup.
When I was young, my family had a rooster who in turn had his own little harem of hens. Whenever one of the hens would stop providing the required daily eggs, my mom or my dad would catch it, cut off her head, pluck off the feathers, and plop the body in the soup pot. But every once in a while it was determined that a new rooster would need to become the king of the henhouse. The overall egg production was too low, the hens bickered far too much, and my parents were in no mood to humor their jealousies, or his disinterest. And so it was decided that the rooster would be made into soup. And what a soup it was!
Honestly, I cannot tell you that rooster soup is better tasting than hen soup. My dad insists that it is so. I, however, tend to think that it is the combination of chicken broth, my mother’s home-made noodles, a few slices of carrots and a bit of parsley, that make that simmering bowl unforgettable.
1 whole free-range rooster (or hen), beheaded and de-feathered. Wash well and discard the liver, neck, and heart.
8-10 large carrots, peeled
6 celery stalks
1 large yellow onion peeled
1 parsnip (small)
1parsley root (small)
1 cup parsley chopped
1 tablespoon salt
Fill large pot with cold water. Add the salt and the chicken. Cover. Keep it on medium high until it starts to boil, then lower the temp to medium. Add the carrots, celery, parsnip, parsley root, and onion and bring to a boil, partially covered. When the meat is fully cooked (check by inserting a fork, or approx. 2 hours later), turn off the heat and let it sit for about 20 minutes. Then strain it, discarding everything but the chicken and carrots, and let it cool a bit more before refrigerating.
In a saucepan bring some of the broth to a boil. Add the home-made noodles and let them simmer over low heat, covered for 10 minutes. Ladle it into bowls. Garnish the serving with the chopped parsley.
It is particularly delicious with a buttered chunk of baguette. Oh, and the meat you can lightly brown in some olive oil. Add sauteed mushrooms, some polenta, and a green salad and you’ll have every excuse to stay in, build a fire, and perhaps play a game of Scrabble.
Anyway, Bon Appetit!
This is a Magpie Tale.
Shortly before my great uncle turned thirty, he left for the old country in search of a wife. He traveled from city to city and village to village looking for the right girl to start a family with. When he’d arrive at his destination, he would call upon the priest and ask about the single young women of the place, requiring only that they be industrious, not too attractive of face, and God-fearing. He was a hard working jeweler, suspicious, and a bit on the thrifty side, and he wanted a wife who wouldn’t give him any trouble.
In that entire land of available, plain-faced girls, only a handful were found to meet his standards. My great uncle picked the prettiest of the bunch, because she had a lazy eye, he used to say, and he pitied her. He bedded her, found her to be a virgin, and married her right after. As he wanted to be seen a man of social standing and wealth, he refused the dowry her parents had prepared, even the linen, and requested that she not take a single article of clothing or memento with her. They sailed as husband and wife for America, and her parents could not believe their good fortune.
For the young wife, the doorway into the new world changed her life. My great uncle however, was disappointed. The girl he had married out of the generosity of his heart turned her back on all the good he had done for her. She soon caught on to the new language, and taught herself to read and write. She observed the fashionable women coming in and out of the jewelry shop and wanted to be like them. She bought rouge for her cheeks and dancing shoes. Yet she did not neglect to bear her husband two daughters and then a son before she announced that she would have no more children, but a mink coat instead. After he reminded her what a good, obedient wife was supposed to do, he gave in and got her one.
Years later my great uncle left for the old country again. He wasn’t widowed, nor was he divorced, but he was in search of another wife. He bought himself property and built himself a grand house out in the middle of nowhere. The girl he found was young, still in her teens, and not set in her ways. He married her and the very next morning sent her out with the cows.
Regardless of how he mistreated her, the girl didn’t complain. She bore him many children and my great uncle was happy. As so he remained until the day the communist government came to power and took every bit of his land, and all of his possessions. Then he remembered the wife and the children he had left behind in America, and wrote letters of love, pleading forgiveness. But the slighted woman would have none of it. She burned them in the fireplace, laughing at the absurdity of the man, put her mink coat on, and left for the opera.
This is a Magpie Tale.
When I was a child I was afraid of every shadow. Maybe it was cultural, maybe it was generational, but the adults related to me thought it important to threaten me with either kidnappings by gypsies, monsters, or goats (apparently they liked to eat little children and came out at night), anytime I wanted to do something they didn’t feel like doing. Certainly, one of those three was out to get me, waiting until I was alone and then snatching me quickly and throwing me in a sack carried for just such an occasion.
I was a timid child and maybe not so bright, because I must have been twelve when I finally figured out that it was all a big, fat lie. Still, the damage was done and I continued sleeping with a night light on for many more years. To this day, to be alone in complete darkness raises my hairs on end, and every little creak is a monster’s footstep.
When the movie Psycho came out in the nineties I went to watch it with my husband, thinking that I was an adult and to be scared of something make believe was indeed silly. Maybe I actually thought that or maybe he insinuated something to that effect, because there I was popcorn and pop in my lap, waiting for the movie to begin. And was I brave? Let’s just say that for weeks after I only took a shower if my husband was home, preferably standing there and talking to me. Even now, if I am on a trip somewhere alone, that shower image pops in my head and I choose to bathe instead.
The funniest thing about this is that I am around people in the autumn of their lives. I am right there when they pass from this life to the next, and I often am the person who takes the pulse and listens for that last heartbeat. And did I mention that the house I live in has been used as a hospice and still is? Yet, none of these things frighten me. I go through the dark house at night and feel no fear. There’s nothing lurking in the shadows.
But ask me to watch a scary movie and I will have a month of sleepless nights.
Also (and totally unrelated)… I am super excited to announce that one of my posts is featured in the current issue of the Creative Nonfiction journal. Hurray for me! Here is the link to The Woman.
After an early, misty morning trek to our favorite bakery for croissants and coffee, we decided that the best way to spend the weekend was at the beach. My husband and I have very opposing views of what constitutes a perfect day at the beach. I tend to be drawn to gloomy, stormy weather, relentless crashing waves and pelting rain. After an invigorating, brisk walk on the water’s edge, I look forward to the coziness of the beach cabin, with its crackling fire, mugs of hot coffee and cocoa, countless board games, and hours of staring at the incessant waves from the comfort of my wing chair, open book ignored in my lap while I daydream of lighthouses, hurricane lamps, and a wind that is howling and knocking at the windows.
My husband, on the other hand, wants meltingly hot days where he doze off to the lively chatter of kids playing in the sand and seagulls calling to each other overhead. Later on, he wants to fly the kite with the kids, go in search of dripping ice cream cones, possibly have a game of beach volleyball, and maybe even go surfing.
Because we know a happy marriage takes a lot of work and compromise, he’s willing to accept stormy evenings, and I suppose I’m willing to have a couple scorching hours late morning.
When we arrived at the beach, there wasn’t a cloud to be seen directly overhead, although the horizon was a steely gray. We both smiled uneasily at each other, he, most likely, wondering how soon the rain would fall, while I was worrying that the clouds would dissipate before the wind would blow them our way. No sooner did we spread out our blanket, than the northwest wind began to roll in off the ocean, cooling the air immensely and sweeping sand into our faces. Yet the clouds were still a distance away, and the azure of the sky lingered on.
And then the rain came. First one plop and then another. The mountain whose road we had meandered on, had donned a cap of foggy gray descending in waves, it seemed, down the side. We quickly sought shelter and listened from our cozy spots at the rain tap-tapping on the window panes, snuggling deeper within our blankets, and sipping our hot drinks, content for the moment, to watch the last summer storm push through.
This is a true Magpie Tale!
Sundays. I tend to feel sad on Sunday nights. I blame my parents, of course. Since I can remember, Sundays were church days. Waking up early, getting dressed in uncomfortable dresses, itchy hose, and tight shoes was only made better by the fact that we were going to see friends and perhaps go over to their house until the evening service.
I used to get lectured quite a bit on Sundays. How to sit, how to stand, how to talk, how to laugh. Who to look at, who not to. How to wear my hair, even. My mother would have me practice my posture with the handle of a broom behind my back, held secure in the crook of my elbows, and two, three books stacked atop my head every day after school. It was common for girls in the church to be married by seventeen. It was not common for them to go to college.
Sometimes I think about all the things I missed out on while in church, or getting ready for it. Maybe I would have learned to roller skate or swim. Maybe I would have become more courageous, more adventurous, more articulate. Maybe I would have openly read books that were censored by the church, and not hid them from my parents. Maybe I would have learned to express my opinion, stand behind it.
I wonder about the me I could have been. The one not so obsessed with pleasing. The one that is hiding in there somewhere, looking at the world, anticipating the moment the cloak would come off.
This is a Magpie Tale.
It was early. A fire had already been laid in the big stone fireplace. I watched the woman make her way to the threadbare cushioned seat before it, holding on to her distended belly as though it were a melon she was in danger of dropping. Giant shadows danced upon the walls, reaching up into the eaves where the garlic and the peppers were hung to dry. I slipped into the room as quietly as I could, and slid underneath the lacy bedskirts of my mother’s bed, into my hiding place.
It smelled like drying apples in there. It smelled like cinnamon and nutmeg, and mint, and thyme and dill. It smelled like my mother. Tears bubbled up in the corners of my eyes, but I did not want to cry, and thought of something else, something funny that almost made me laugh out loud, until I remembered that I was spying. So then I thought about my mother again, and how sad I was to be in the world without her. I thought about the wailing women at her funeral, and my father’s sad smile and reddened eyes, and then I thought about how he went away one day and came back with this woman to take care of me. Except she didn’t really take care of me. She mostly sat and brushed her long hair and chattered to me about parties and dancing and dresses.
And then she got busy with making a baby. And when her belly began to round she smirked at me and told me that I was a big girl from this day on and no more climbing on my father’s lap. And sure enough I didn’t believe her until my father came home and he sat me on the bed next to him and told me the same thing himself.
It was grey outside when my father and the midwife arrived. I worried that he would go to my room and find me missing. Instead he carried the woman into my mother’s bed and set to boiling water and rags for the birth. The midwife shooed him out and sent him to wait underneath the shuttered window, promising that it wouldn’t be long.
The woman was silent in childbirth. A drop of blood plopped on the wood before me. Then another. And yet another. And just when I was sure that she was dead, I heard a grunt and the wailing of the newborn pierce the air. The midwife went to the window to announce the birth of a boy. From my father’s happy whistling I knew the woman had won. My mother was forgotten. My childhood was over.
This is a work of fiction. For more, please head over to Magpie Tales.
The old grandfather clock on the landing has just chimed the midnight hour. I kick at the sheets and get out of bed. Perhaps a hot cup of milk would induce the land of dreams to claim me. Wrapping myself in the cashmere throw at the foot of my linen upholstered sleigh bed, I tiptoe to the darkened lace-curtained window. Outside the rain is falling, enveloping the neighboring houses in a cloak of mist.
I switch the church candelabra-turned lamp on my kitchen counter on, and set about warming my milk in one of the copper saucepans off the potrack. I remember when papa brought this set of saucepans with him from one of his solo yearly trips to France. I had been about eight at the time, and had come running home from school, bounding up the stairs to see him, only to be shushed by my mother and scooted down the hall into the living-room. I remember vividly the slant of the afternoon sun across the pinks and blues of the Savonnerie rug and the brown leather of the opened suitcases. I remember the shiny, golden orange of the copper pans, and the reflection of my face staring back at me, my large black eyes, my chocolate chip eyes, papa liked to call them, inquisitively trying to peer at the girl inside. But I cannot remember the day he left. Or why.
And now here he is. His tall lanky frame tucked away in the canopied bed he had shared with my mother. The canopied bed I would slip in myself those nights after he was gone, when I was frozen with the fear that she would disappear as well. Why now? Why is he here now?
When the milk almost reaches the boiling point, I ladle it into my mug, and because I can’t stand the thought of milk alone, break half of a dark chocolate bar into it and wait for it to melt. How perfect the tiny kitchen looks bathed in the lamplight, with the pine cabinets from some farm kitchen long abandoned, and the walnut hutches containing all the pottery and ceramics mother had collected in the years since.
“There’s no way of justifying my neglect of you. Or of your mother.” I start at the sound of his voice, spilling half of my drink across the trestle table.
“No.” I say. “There isn’t.”
“I’ve never wanted children and your mother knew that. I let her talk me into it, I was young and in love, but was relieved when the doctors told us we couldn’t have any.”
“But somehow, you decided to adopt me. That must have been a conscious decision on your part as well. And for a while there, you loved me.” My voice drifts off and I sit still. I feel drugged. As lethargic as though I had taken a narcotic. I look at him; a feeble old man, that’s what he is. He’s probably come home to die. Suddenly I don’t want to know his excuses for making me feel so unwanted. I don’t want to know his reasons for being here. Perhaps in the light of day that may change. But now, all I want to do is get between my egyptian cotton sheets and fall asleep.
“Help yourself to whatever is in the refrigerator.” I say. ”And don’t forget to turn off the lamp.”
This is a work of fiction. For more, visit
You know how little kids like to get their hands and feet into everything? Well, once when I was about five, my parents visited a relative on a farm who had the pig trough right outside the summer kitchen door. I was a city girl and thought the trough a little wading pool. Sure the water was a little murky, with bits of food and such floating around, but it was a hot day and the air was dry and there was nothing else to play with.
I got in fully dressed and splashed around until I heard my mom’s horrified screams. I knew she wanted to give me a thrashing just from the look on her face and the sounds coming out of her mouth. But lucky me, I was too stinky and dirty for her to touch. A bar of lye soap thrown in my direction, and the ice cold water of the garden hose were punishment enough.
That evening the beds of my fingernails and toenails were surrounded by pus. I was running a temperature, hallucinating, who knows what else. I don’t remember much of it myself. But I do remember the red nails. And the milk baths.
For two weeks after, I had a medication applied to my nails that stained them a rasberry red, besides being forced to bathe daily in a tub-full of goat milk. Where my parents got the goat milk, I have no idea, as we didn’t have a goat. Still, my red toes peeking out of the white milk looked very pretty. The only thing that sucks about this memory, is that to this day I cannot add any red berries to a bowl of cereal and milk, without feeling nauseous.
Only parts of this story are true. For more great reading visit
Ella married the plumber at seventeen. By the time she turned thirty, she already had eight children and was pregnant with her ninth. The plumber was not anyone’s sexual fantasy. Perhaps he had been when he was single and hitting the gym daily, or perhaps it was just his family’s money and the convertible Firebird he raced around town that had the girls swooning. Ella, herself, had been one of the prettiest girls around. But you would be hard pressed to find that beauty in her now. Her housewife ponytail is more white than black, and the curls that used to cascade down her back, just create a halo of frizz.
Ella shouldn’t have married the plumber. God knows, there were plenty of guys around who wanted her. And not just in their church community. But Ella fell in love with him and with the holiness his family portrayed, not thinking for a moment that life could be anything other than wonderful. And it was wonderful for the entire honeymoon period. She knew she was expected to get pregnant and procreate until menopause set in. She knew she would become her husband’s property. She just didn’t think it would be so difficult.
It was his controlling behavior that got to her. She wasn’t allowed to speak with her mother and sisters, nor have any friends. And then, of course, his beatings. The ones in secret were her shame alone. But when he took his frustrations out on her in front of others, she wanted to die. A few times he had slapped her face in public, and once, when his parents were over for dinner, he hit her over the head so hard, her head slammed against the wall behind her. She could never remember the reason why, but it didn’t matter anyway. He didn’t really need a reason. Last summer, in full view of the neighbors, he whipped the water hose across her back. To teach her a lesson, he said, but a lesson about what, she had no idea.
Ella often thought about taking her kids and leaving. But she didn’t, of course. She didn’t drive anymore. And she had nowhere to go. On top of it all, the kids were all on his side. They were his little spies, bribed with candy and sugary drinks.
But on the day before her birthday she found the perfect gift to give herself. It had been under her nose all along.
Ella settled herself on her bed. She covered herself with the quilt, arranged her scraggly hair on the pillow. She wanted the kids to think she was asleep. Ella unscrewed the bottle of sulfuric acid her husband used to unplug pipes. It smelled rotten and she almost gagged. She forced herself to swallow it down, her still dainty nostrils held tight by her fat fingers.
For a moment the acid burned so horribly, Ella was certain her body was consumed by the fires of hell. But then numbness set in, her head fell gently against the pillow, the bottle dropped from her fingers, and Ella closed her eyes for the last time.
This is a work of fiction. I have no idea what sulfuric acid is used for, but it seems like it should be used in plumbing. For more great readings head to Magpie Tales.