Inside Biggs – a snippet from Sanity of Strawberries

The hallway was mostly empty now, the heavy scent of hamburger and cooked onions hung in the hot humid air.  That must be where they were all heading before, to an early supper.  When I came around the corner at the end of the hall, only one man  lounged against the wall, but he was big and broad enough for two or three and had  tattoos covering his arms, neck, and even his shiny pink bald head. I nodded. He didn’t nod back, but his eyes followed me, and the short hairs on the back of my neck prickled.

When his big hand landed on my shoulder, I was expecting it enough to keep from flinching, from breaking into a run, from wetting my pants. Barely.  I turned around to face him, hoping I looked calmer than I felt.

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Renee – a snippet from Sanity of Strawberries

I should have known William was bad news the first time he stepped up on Mama’s front porch, on account of he showed up with my cousin Ricky, and everybody knew what all kinds of meanness Ricky was into. But all I could think of when I saw William was how big he was. Big and tall and solid.  Ever one of us Stantons looked like the runt of the litter, pushed back on the hind tit and never getting quite enough to grow right.  William looked like he always got his share and then some.



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Story-a-Day for May – snippets from my new mystery

The A to Z Challenge for April kept me writing every day. The blog posts were a good warm-up for my novel writing sessions and I made progress on The Sanity of Strawberries.

Since I am a master procrastinator, the accountability of posting something online every day is a great motivator, and I need to keep at it a finish this mystery.  So for this month I signed up for another challenge: StoryaDay, where the founder, Julia Duffy, encourages writer’s to design their own challenge.

For each day in May, I’ll post a snippet from my work-in-progress, a murder mystery about a murder at Fulton State Hospital, The Sanity of Strawberries. Here’s the first snippet.

The phone by my elbow rang, my direct line that by-passed the dispatchers.

“Bo, we’ve had some trouble at the Biggs building. Can you come over here?”  Konner Dey’s voice, ordinarily mellow, was brittle with tension.

“Sure. Be right there.”

Trouble at the Biggs building?  As the state’s only maximum security facility for the criminally insane, there was always trouble at Biggs. The unflappable Dr. Dey didn’t call in outside help for fights between patients or for staff with broken bones and smashed in faces.

This had to be trouble with a capital T.

I grabbed my hat and stuck my head into Communications to let the dispatchers know where I was going. Two minutes after Dey’s call I was at the entrance to the parking lot.

A county ambulance, red lights flashing, pulled out, just as I pulled in.  Did that have something to do with the emergency?  The lot was packed with cars and pickups, so I parked  close to the door in the emergency spot just vacated by the ambulance.

Narrow barred windows and a twenty foot, two-layer fence topped with a three foot coil of razor wire made the old red brick building look more like a prison than a hospital. A newer, smaller building squatted directly in front of the old three story hulk. It housed security people and a secure sally port. Right inside the door the narrow hallway was blocked by a steel gate.

“You can’t bring that there gun in here.” A skinny, wrinkled old codger grinned at me from behind a glassed in counter on the right.

“I’m the County Sheriff.”

“It don’t matter if you’re Jesus Christ hisself. You can’t bring no guns in here.”

I pulled my Glock out and looked around for a place to put it.

“You got to lock it up in your trunk,” the old guy informed me. “Before you come in. Your knife, too, if you have one, and that shiny star, anything metal.”

“Maybe you could call Dr. Dey?”

“Nope.  And don’t forget to take off that there belt, cause it has a metal buckle.”

When I came back from the car he made me hand over my keys, the only thing I had left in my pockets. I felt naked, but the old man finally pushed the magic button.

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Z is for Zinnias

Every time I see beautiful zinnias in a flower garden, I think of my mother and how much she loved her flowers.  She didn’t have very many pretty things to enjoy.

When I was child her life was an endless round of cooking, cleaning, washing clothes with an old wringer washing machine, hanging them out to dry winter and summer, ironing for hours at a time, and raising a huge vegetable garden with no equipment any more advanced than a simple hoe. She loved gardening and took delight in filling shelves with jars of beans, tomatoes, and corn. But her favorite part of gardening was the blazing bright color and beauty of the wide border of zinnias and marigolds all around the garden.

She always said the flowers kept bugs from bothering the vegetables.  She was careful to explain that they didn’t cost anything extra because she saved her seeds from year to year, sometimes trading with friends and neighbors to get a new color or variety.

She wore faded flour sack house dresses most of the time. Her dishes were plain and mismatched.  But she brightened the inside of our house with quilts she stitched from leftover sewing scraps, and crocheted pretty rag rugs from our worn out clothes.

And in the summer time, nobody in town was able to match the glory of her zinnias.

Z is for Zinnia, and this is my last post for the April 2017 A-Z Blogging Challenge.


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Y is for Yellow – the color of sunshine

Yellow has always been my favorite color. Just looking at yellow makes me feel good, so I try to surround myself with yellow whenever I can.

The walls through most of my home are a very pale yellow called Banana Split. I fell in love with the shade at Westlakes and keep going back to buy another bucket.

I wore a yellow dress on my first date with my husband. I wrote about buying that dress back in 2013.

I LOVE yellow flowers. I have forsythia, jonquils, sunflowers, yellow roses, yellow tulips & crocus,  and of course, a bumper crop of pretty yellow dandelions.

I even have Pintrest board to celebrate my love of all things yellow.

Tomorrow is Z,  the last day of the April A to Z challenge.  Kind of sad to see it end.


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X is for xenophobia

William Stoughton was a colonial magistrate and administrator in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. He was in charge of what have come to be known as the Salem Witch Trials.

The word xenophobia is actually relatively new, and only entered English in the late 1800s. It’s rooted in two Greek words, xénos meaning “stranger, guest,” and phóbos meaning “fear, panic.” defines xenophobia as “fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers.” It can also refer to fear or dislike of customs, dress, and cultures of people with backgrounds different from our own.

Although the word, xenophobia, is fairly new, the attitude it refers to is ancient.

Here in America, our founding fathers — the men who settled 17th century Massachusetts — spoke the first dark words about those who were different, not like themselves. No matter that they sailed to these shores in search of religious freedom. Once established, they pulled up the gangplank behind them. The city on a hill was an exclusively Puritan sanctuary. The sense of exceptionalism — “we are surely the Lord’s firstborn in this wilderness,” the Massachusetts minister William Stoughton observed in an influential 1668 address — bound itself up from the start with prejudice. If you are the pure, someone else needs to be impure.

Quakers fared badly. In Boston, Cotton Mather compared them not only to dogs, but to serpents, dragons and vipers. The great young hope of the New England ministry, he sounds as if he would have started a Quaker database if he could have. Banned, exiled, imprisoned, whipped, Quakers were a “leprous” people, their teachings as wholesome as the “juice of toads.”

Baptists and Anglicans fared little better. In 1689, Boston’s Anglicans discovered the windows of their church smashed, “the doors and walls daubed and defiled with dung, and other filth, in the rudest and basest manner imaginable.”

And Catholics? Even the most moderate of Massachusetts men believed in Papist cabals; priests were viewed much as the most radical Muslim clerics of  today. From Protestant pulpits came regular warnings that boatloads of nefarious Irishmen were set to disembark in Boston harbor, to establish Roman Catholicism in New England.

Xenophobia is an excellent word for the hardest letter of the April A to Z blogging challenge.

Even so, I wish it was a word we didn’t need here in America.


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W is for Wringer Washer

This is how we did the washing when I was a kid at home and for quite a few years after I got married, too. Notice, I did not say laundry. I never heard that word until I was an adult, and even then I thought it only applied to that place in town. Folks took laundry to the laundromat, but at home, we just did the washing.

You couldn’t fit the washing in between other tasks. It was a job that took your full attention and energy for several hours, maybe even all day.

As a trip down memory lane for some and maybe an eye-opener for the lucky young ones who never had to to it – here is –

A step-by-step guide to doin’ the washin’.

  1. Take a galvanized bucket out to the well in the back yard. Pump the handle on the cistern til the bucket is full. Carry it back into the house, pour it into your biggest pan and put it on the stove to heat. Repeat. Many times. It takes a lot of water to do a washing. Some women heated water in a metal lard tin, or even in a tub.
  2. Fill the washing machine and at least two tubs. Set aside two smaller tubs of water – one for bleach water, and one for starch.
  3. As soon as the machine is full, put in your first load of whites. Let the clothes agitate for 10 or 15 minutes.
  4. Flip the release on the wringer and position it between the washing machine and the first tub. Turn off the agitator.  Tighten down the wringer. Reach down in the machine and grab a sheet, or a towel, or a pair of drawers. Feed the clothes slowly into the wringer, one at a time. Make sure any buttons or zippers are folded to the inside so the wringer doesn’t break them.
  5. Turn the agitator back on and put your next load of clothes into the machine. Position the wringer between the two tubs and run the clothes, one at a time through to the second rinse.
  6. Set an empty clothes basket on the floor beside the second tub. Swing the wringer around to position it between the tub and the basket. Run the clothes through the wringer into the basket.
  7. Carry the basket outside and hang up the clothes on the clothesline. If the wet clothes pull the line down too low, use a long prop pole to push the line higher.
  8. Repeat steps 3 – 7 until all the clothes have been washed. Your last load will be the dirtiest jeans and overalls. If the water gets too gross along the way, (it will) repeat steps 1 and 2.
  9. Drain the wash water into your bucket and carry it outside. Repeat til machine is empty. Dip water out of the tubs, carry it out, too. Push the machine back in the corner, hang up your tubs.
  10. Before the end of the day, go out and gather in the clothes. In the summer, with a good breeze blowing, they’ll be dry in an hour or two.  It doesn’t take long in the coldest days of winter, either. If you start early in the day, your clothes will freeze dry before supper.

Speaking of supper, don’t forget to fix lunch for the kids and have a good meal ready when your husband gets home.

We won’t talk about the ironing. That’s tomorrow’s job.


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V is for the VOTE for Women

Alice Paul was a women’s rights activist and a key figure of the 20th century women’s suffrage movement.

From 1848 to 1920, thousands of women in the United States fought to attain the same civil and political status as men, including the all-important right to vote. They had a lot working against them: Victorian-era scientists argued that women were by nature inferior to men, even claiming that the shape and size of female skulls were evidence of their weaker brainpower.

One of the largest protests of the suffrage movement happened the day before Woodrow Wilson was to be inaugurated as President in 1913. Between 5,000 to 8,000 suffragists marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the White House — and hundreds of thousands of onlookers.

Organizers Alice Paul and Lucy Burns had secured a permit to march, however, many protesters were assaulted by those in the crowd who opposed the women’s right-to-vote campaign. Attacks ranged from spitting and throwing of objects to all-out physical assaults. While many women were injured, public outrage at the violence translated to wider support for the suffrage movement.

Alice Paul and her friend, Lucy Burns, formed the National Woman’s Party (NWP) in 1916. The group aimed at bringing about a change in the way the government viewed women’s suffrage.

In January 1917, Paul organized the ‘Silent Sentinels’, a group of women who supported the suffrage movement and protested in front of the White House during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. For over two years, thousands of women picketed on every weekday and held banners demanding the right to vote. The protests were non-violent. The women simply carried signs, deliberately remaining peaceful and silent.

Between June and November 1917, police arrested 218 protesters on the trumped up charge of “obstructing traffic.” Several of the picketers were also mercilessly beaten up by the police. Most of these women were imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia.

Usually, after three days in prison, the women were released. But they returned to the White House to continue picketing. The battle between the police and the protesters escalated. Inside the prison, the women faced harsh living conditions, rancid food and the denial of medical care when they were ill. They were denied visitors. Their jailers beat them and confined them to cold, unsanitary, rat-infested cells. Some were placed in solitary confinement.

Alice Paul was arrested October 22, 1917.  In late November, still in prison, she went on a hunger strike to protest.  She was forcibly fed raw eggs to make her relent.

None of the government’s atrocities could make the women relent and they continued with their demands. Their demonstrations also received widespread media coverage and  forced the president’s hand.  In the past he claimed the “time is not right”, but  on September 30, 1918, Wilson gave a speech to Congress in support of granting women the right to vote.



On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was finally ratified, enfranchising all American women and declaring for the first time that we, like men, deserve all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.



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U is for Uncle Harry Rogers

Harry Rogers was my Mother’s brother.  He was a good man and very well loved by his six older sisters.  My grandfather William Riley Rogers probably considered Harry an unexpected miracle when he was born June 1, 1919.

The family gathered in front of a crop of giant sunflowers the following summer for a family portrait.

That’s Harry in the little white dress (all babies wore dresses – boys and girls) sitting on his Mother’s lap, surrounded by his sisters.  Later, another boy, Fred, was born, and then one more sister. Seven girls and two boys. Harry and Fred must have felt they had a house full of mothers.

 Harry attended a country school.

As soon as he was old enough, he started working in the fields with his father. He worked in the woods, too, and learned to cut staves for the railroad.






When World War II began, he enlisted in the United States Navy.

This is Harry Rogers with his nephew, Jim Kemp. Because Harry was so much younger than his sister, Lenora, her oldest sons were almost the same age as Harry, and they grew up together like brothers.

Harry made it through World War II. He got married and bought a garage in Mokane. I talked recently to one of the men who sold the garage to Harry Rogers.  He said they left all the parts they had on hand in the garage, with the verbal understanding that when a part was sold, Harry would pay for it.  Harry was scrupulously honest: at the end of every day he walked to their home, told them what parts had sold, and delivered the money.

Men who came into Harry’s garage talked about how strong and athletic he was. There was an old anvil left in the garage, too heavy for most men to lift. Harry could pick it up and throw it. He was a good car mechanic and could fix anything.

Harry and his wife, Marie, had two little boys, Tommy and Gary. Harry built a house for his family.

On May 4, 1957, he was digging a well for his home. He was working in the bottom of the well, with hand tools, when he suffered a fatal heart attack. Harry Rogers was only 38 years old.

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T is for Television

Mama and the new TV is probably my most requested story. I told it at the historical society once and the video ended up on YouTube and was used as part of a Smithsonian Exhibit.  This is a chapter from my memoir and is all 100 percent true.

Mama and the new TV

July, 1955

I know it was late afternoon when the television salesman came because Daddy was at home and Mama was at work. Daddy worked days at the shoe factory and Mama worked evenings at the State Hospital.  My best friend, Femi Adams, and I were playing in the road ditch making mud birthday cakes. We decorated them with orange trumpet flower candles picked off the vines that grew along the railroad track on the other side of the road. We were wearing our usual summer outfits of ragged white panties, but when the stranger in his starched white shirt stepped out of his truck, Sissy ran out of the house and dropped a cotton dress down over my head. I was already on my way to that panel truck and she chased me down the sidewalk trying to tie the sash. She didn’t get it tied until Daddy stopped my momentum with a hand dropped absently down to stroke my hair, as he asked the salesman, “Westerns? You can watch western movies?”

The salesman had thrown open the doors of his panel truck to reveal rows of television sets. And not just any televisions! These were huge, with beautiful dark wood cabinets and 25 inch glass screens. The pied-piper magic of this vision had drawn in every kid on the street and most of the adults.

The salesman’s pitch was simple. A free television for every house. Absolutely free! No obligation to buy anything. Ever! Free entertainment for one full week until the panel truck came back around. “We’ll talk about the details then, Sir, if you should happen to decide you want to keep it. If not, I’ll just load it back in the truck. No questions asked.”

Within the hour every television had been unloaded. The truck was gone and even though the late afternoon sun still lingered, the streets were empty. Mud pies, bicycles, marble games, and front porch swings were abandoned. Every family was inside watching television.

At our house the first show we watched was a cartoon called “Crusader Rabbit”.  A little later Daddy was leaning forward in his chair, captivated by the adventures of the Cisco Kid. We didn’t mind that the picture was a little snowy. Even the commercials were new and exciting to us and we enjoyed everything the box had to offer. We were still gathered in front of the television when Mama came home at 10:30. That’s when all hell broke loose.

Her first questions, “Why are the kids still up?” and “Where did that come from?” led quickly into a loud, fast-paced argument with Daddy that seemed to have more to do with our icebox than it did with the television. My older brothers, at 8 and 10, were smart enough to quickly and quietly take themselves off to bed. I wanted to stay and see how the fight turned out, but my sister grabbed my hand and insisted I go to the outhouse with her.  As she dragged me through the kitchen, I stopped in front of our big wooden icebox, with its many brass handled doors and asked Sissy what seemed to me to be an obvious question. “Why does Mama want a new icebox? We already have an icebox.”

“She means an electric icebox, silly! We’re about the only family left in Mokane that doesn’t already have one.”

As we headed down the path past the garden,  the sound of the argument faded. But even after we were settled in the outhouse, me on the little hole, Sissy on the big one, with the door firmly closed, we could still catch an occasional outburst. We waited until it was completely quiet before we cleaned up with pages torn from the Montgomery Ward catalog and headed back to the house.

The next day after Daddy and Sissy had gone to work and the boys had taken their fishing poles and headed for the creek, I talked Mama into letting me turn the television on. I was hoping for Crusader Rabbit, but the first thing we saw was a picture of a lighthouse with its beam searching out across the darkness. Mama gasped as the house filled with the familiar theme music of the “Guiding Light,” her favorite radio soap opera.

She took in ironing to make a little extra money in the mornings and usually went through two or three baskets at a time, but that morning she barely finished one.  Dr. Nichols’ shirts narrowly escaped scorching as Mama marveled at actually seeing the faces of people she had only imagined before.

When the television salesman came back the next week, both Mama and Daddy were at home. They both signed the finance papers and the television was ours to keep.

Mama said it was because ‘you can’t bring something like that in here and let the kids have a taste of it, and then just take it away from them.’

It was another full year before we got that electric icebox.

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