Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

© 2006-2019 All rights reserved

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Last Post of 2007

Happy 2008!

2007 was known for its lack of rain. On Dec. 30th, rain fell for hours.

It rained enough to have actual puddles!


Friday, December 28, 2007

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Yesterday I looked into the past.

My cousin Judy and her daughter Kara came from Roanoke to look at the family things I had—many old photos, old letters, some linens (mostly things crocheted by my great aunts or embroidered by my mother), a few pieces of furniture (such as the dining room set that my mother bought in the early 1930s; she paid a dollar a week for it from her seven dollars a week she earned working at Heironimus). These things aren’t investment quality antiques—alas, no Duncan Fyfe or Sheraton—but they’re remnants of a farm family from days gone by. Their value is sentimental and maybe historical.

My mother was her mother’s only daughter, so family things passed to her. My grandmother’s two sons wouldn’t have been interested in them. Household goods don’t interest boys.

Since I am my mother’s only daughter—and only surviving child (my older brother died the day he was born), the family things passed to me. Since I am childless, I need to pass them on. Of my three female first cousins, only one has a daughter. And that daughter has now a daughter. The female line continues. The family things will pass down through the generations.

And here’s what’s weird: two-and-a-half-year-old Maddie looks just like I did when I was her age. And her birthday is the same day as my mother’s, which was the same day as her paternal grandmother’s.

We looked at things that Judy and I remembered from our visits to Grandma's house over fifty years ago. We remembered these dishes, but we couldn't remember them ever being used, though. They were always in the china cabinet. We remembered that the pitcher and glasses always sat on the server in the dining room; again, we never remember them being used:

A picture of three nymphs hung in the parlor. There was a matching picture opposite it, but another cousin has that. The other picture had swans.

We spent time looking at old photographs. Many were identified, but some were mysteries. Were the people in the pictures family, or were they acquaintances? We’ll never know.

We looked at pictures of ourselves when we were kids and gathered around the dining room table at Grandma’s house—the same dining room table that we gathered around yesterday. We looked at our pictures of our ancestors—the people who made us who we are.

Our granddaddy, Howard R. Ruble, when he was a young man.

Grandaddy is at the lower right. Most of his fellow railroad engineers are unidentified.
The picture is dated 1914.

We are who we are because our ancestor Peter Nafzger and his brothers Rudolph and Matthais—Mennonites from the Swiss-German border—stowed away on the Phoenix and landed in Philadelphia on September 15, 1749. Their story is on the Nafzger website. In America, the Nafzgers became Noffsingers/Nofsingers/Noftsingers (or one of the many variant spellings).

We are who we are because of our ancestor William Nace, overseer of Mount Joy Plantation in Botetourt County. We looked at a copy of his will and the inventory of his estate. When William died in the summer of 1863, his son (and our ancestor, John Christian Nace) had leave from the 22nd Virginia Infantry to settle his estate—and thus missed the Battle of Gettysburg. John Christian Nace married Mary Ann Nofsinger.

William Robert Nace, the son of John Nace, married Sulmena Frances Spence, who came from the Big Island section of Bedford County—just across the mountains from where the Naces lived. How did they meet? We don't know. We talked about the few things were knew about her, but much of her life is mystery. (Two decades ago, I rode my mare through the Big Island area. Did I ride past family land? I'll never know.)

Sulmena Frances Spence, daughter of Andrew Francis Spence and Mary Lucy Goff.

Our Nofsinger ancestors (as well as some of our Nace Ancestors) lie in the Nofsinger-Styne Cemetery in Pico (near Buchanan in Botetourt County, Virginia). I’ve visited twice on family reunions. Other Naces lie in Lithia Baptist Church Cemetery. I've been there many years ago. One of the Nace graves at Lithia Baptist is that of our great-aunt Annie Pearl, who died mysteriously when she was in her early twenties:

Annie Pearl Nace, with her boyfriend Otha Young.

We looked at pictures of other ancestors, too. They made us who we are—and who we will become.


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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Walking in a Winter Wooded Land

Woods in Winter
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

When winter winds are piercing chill,
And through the hawthorn blows the gale,
With solemn feet I tread the hill,
That overbrows the lonely vale.

O'er the bare upland, and away
Through the long reach of desert woods,
The embracing sunbeams chastely play,
And gladden these deep solitudes.

Where, twisted round the barren oak,
The summer vine in beauty clung,
And summer winds the stillness broke,
The crystal icicle is hung.

Where, from their frozen urns, mute springs
Pour out the river's gradual tide,
Shrilly the skater's iron rings,
And voices fill the woodland side.

Alas! how changed from the fair scene,
When birds sang out their mellow lay,
And winds were soft, and woods were green,
And the song ceased not with the day!

But still wild music is abroad,
Pale, desert woods! within your crowd;
And gathering winds, in hoarse accord,
Amid the vocal reeds pipe loud.

Chill airs and wintry winds! my ear
Has grown familiar with your song;
I hear it in the opening year,
I listen, and it cheers me long.

Yesterday, we walked the woods. (OK, my "solemn feet" limped the woods. Again, my aches predicted today's weather.) We didn't encounter icicles or winds; unlike the day Longfellow describes in his poem, our day was mild.

Maggie ran flat out, pausing only to soak in the creek. For Christmas, a neighbor had given Maggie a new toy which she absolutely loved—sort of a squeaky toy squirrel on a rope. Maggie could chase it, pounce on it, play tug-of-war with it, throw it, etc. A perfect border collie toy! Maggie really wanted to take it on her walk—er, run—but I persuaded her to leave it in the truck while we walked the woods.

There is a beauty to winter woods: a wonderful starkness, an enchanted look. Longfellow's description does it more justice than my words can. This picture, taken yesterday, looks like a scene from fantasy, science fiction, or speculative fiction or poetry:

(This is for you, 'Nita! You know exactly where this shot was taken.)

From behind the vine, Maggie's eyes glow—an enchanted dog in an enchanted winter wood.

Longfellow's poem was written in the 1800's. To read James Thomson's 1726 poem about winter, click here. Warning, it's lengthy—but I love the last line: Pure flowing Joy, and Happiness sincere.

That's yesterday's walk in the winter woods.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas

If you saw chicken tracks instead of reindeer hoofprints on your roof this morning, this could be why:



Sunday, December 23, 2007

I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas

Today, one of my Christmas wishes came true: it rained. In fact, it rained until late in the afternoon—sometimes misty, sometimes heavy. I don’t know if today’s precipitation will be enough to make up for the lack of rain during 2007, but every little drop helps. If the rain helps the fields to green up and the water level in the well to rise, it’s a good thing.

A couple of days ago, I figured we’d get rain. I “felt it in my bones.” (Now I understand my grandma’s expression!) I suppose one of the benefits of getting old and achy is the ability to predict inclement weather.

Speaking of green, my “Christmas tree” is a ficus. When a friend gave it to me a couple of years ago, the ficus had maybe a dozen leaves and wasn’t expected to live. He thought I could recycle the pot the tree was planted in. Turns out I could, but I thought I might also be able to resurrect the tree. I repotted it and gave it plenty of water. In a few months, it was like a new tree—leaves all over.

Many ornaments on the ficus were gifts from friends. My favorite, of course, is the singing horse that neighs out “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” (Note to Polly and Robyn, who gave me the horse: You can now stop wondering if I’m going to post a picture of it this year.) The pear that Peggy gave me yesterday sets it off nicely (a horsie in a pear tree?). Another ornament—from Tina—looks just like Melody.

My other decorating is even more minimalist: a Christmas mat in the front hall, some red candles in the dining room, a bit of greenery on the mantle, and a patchwork wreath on the front door. My mother made the wreath from a kit years about twenty years ago—maybe longer. I can’t remember when I didn’t have it; it hung on the door of our Roanoke house for numerous Christmases before we moved here.

I took this picture two years ago. Maggie's head barely fits through the wreath now.

The older I get, the more I scale down. I no longer feel a need to decorate to bolster my Christmas spirits. I’d rather have a simple, peaceful day with the sound of rain on the roof.

Rain doesn’t dampen my spirits at all.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Curio Christmas

The Cottage Curio in Salem is decorated for Christmas.

Today, owner Peggy Shifflett had another gathering of artists and authors. I was one of two authors available to sign books; the artists were jewelry maker Tina Faith and her son Pat Donovan who makes beautiful wooden boxes. Peggy’s sister-in-law Hilda was making cookies in the kitchen.

Among the customers were folks I already knew: Marilyn (from the Franklin County Library), Ethel (a fellow member of the Roanoke Valley Branch of the National League of Pen Women), and my cousin Judy (who lives in the neighborhood).

Visiting Peggy’s shop is like visiting Grandma’s house—the place is filled with wonderful furniture and collectibles from days gone by, good smells emanate from the kitchen, and interesting folks sit around and talk. Today, for instance, I learned a lot about different kinds of wood, like ambrosia maple—silver maple that gets streaks because of a chemical interaction caused by the ambrosia beetle which burrows into it.

The box in the lower left has an ambrosia wood top.

Peggy, of course, has written and self-published two books that were among my 2007 favorites: The Red Flannel Rag (her memoir of growing up in Hopkins Gap) and Mom’s Family Pie (memories and recipes from her family).

I love old-timey stuff. Peggy’s shop and her books feed my interest in things from an earlier time.

And Hilda makes doggone good cookies. They're something to sing about!



Friday, December 21, 2007

So Bad

Today I finally received my copy of It Was A Dark And Stormy Night (The Very Worse Opening Lines in Fiction).

The hardbound tome is a compilation of the best or the worst (or maybe that’s worst of the best?) entries in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, sponsored annually by San Jose State College and named for 19th century novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose novel Paul Clifford contains the infamous opening line: “It was a dark and stormy night.”

According to the Bulwer-Lytton site, the contest is, according to SJSC professor Scott Rice, “a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”

Whimsical. Almost as good as quirky. (And some of the entries are pretty quirky, too.)

Through the years of the contest, I’d won a “Worst Western” division and had gotten a “Miscellaneous Dishonorable Mention.” A fellow Valley Writer, Dick Raymond, had also received some dishonorable mentions. (Hmmm. Since we’re both officers in Valley Writers, does that make Valley Writers the worst writers club in the USA?)

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night originally came out in September, but it was published in the UK by The Friday Project, so it wasn’t for sale in American bookstores, though it was available on Finally offered it, and I ordered my copy (which was considerably cheaper when I ordered than it is now) in early November. It took seven weeks to arrive.

The contest originated in 1982 with three entries. Now, tens of thousands of entries from all over the world pour in every year. I’ve been poring over the poor excuses for opening lines for the last hour. I knew that my 1996 “Worst Western” winner would be in it. I found it on page 103:

Following the unfortunate bucking of his horse when it was startled by the posse's shots, Tex—who now lay in a disheveled heap in the sagebrush—pushed back his sweat-stained Stetson from one deep-set eye, spat a stream of tobacco juice at the nearest cactus, and reflected momentarily that the men approaching him with ropes probably weren't just out for a skip, and—if they were—his freshly broken ankle would have to cause him to decline any entreaties to join them.

On page 23, I found my 1999 “Miscellaneous Dishonorable Mention”:

“Well, Mummy,” replied little Felicity in response to her mother's chiding, “I know for a fact you are lying to me and that I was not left on the doorstep by gypsies, as you are fond of telling me, for gypsies are not in the habit of abandoning infants on the twentieth floor of New York apartment houses, and furthermore there is absolutely no room on the street for them to park their horse and wagon, so—when you are old and in need of custodial care—we shall then see who has the last laugh as I abandon you in a substandard adult care facility.”

I found Dick’s entry on page 37 in the “Vile Puns” chapter. What surprised me, though, was that three more of my entries were included (pp. 11, 84, and 126)—three that didn't even get dishonorable mentions; I can't figure why they were included.

Mind you, I’m not complaining that I got more than I expected.

After all, I’m no Shakespeare—just a nationally-ranked really bad writer.


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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Fair & Tender Ladies

I just finished rereading Appalachian writer Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies, and it is still my favorite novel. I read it the first time about 17 or 18 years ago. It was originally published in 1988.

Lately Fair and Tender Ladies has been in the news because a few months ago someone wanted it banned from the Washington County Schools. Granted there are a few scenes that might have been shocking fifty years ago (like the scenes where Ivy is “ruint” or where she runs away to the mountain top with the bee man), but those scenes are pretty mild compared to what’s being written now. And, yeah, it contains the n-word, but its usage fits the context.

I doubt many high-school students would be shocked. I doubt even that many high-school students would be interested in the book. It wouldn’t interest boys in the least. I’m glad I read it the first time in my forties and now in my sixties. It’s a book for both ages. To appreciate it, the reader has to have lived for a while.

Told as a series of letters to various folks that Ivy Rowe knows or is kin to, Fair and Tender Ladies covers Ivy’s lifetime from the turn of the 20th century to the Vietnam era.

Some of my favorite lines come from that book: Ivy Rowe’s father says, “Farming is pretty work.” Ivy repeats the line several times in her letters. I thought about that line a couple of weeks ago when my neighbor plowed his fields. While I stood in the mares’ pasture, I could admire the beauty of what looked like a giant quilt spread upon the land. My late aunt once told me how my grandfather would slip into his wheat field to pull a weed if he saw one growing. A perfect field was important to him. When I was a kid visiting my grandparents, I used to think how pretty those fields were.

Another line of Ivy’s father: “I need a mountain to rest my eyes against.” I feel the same way. During the times we lived on the coast, I missed the mountains. I’m lucky to be surrounded by them now. One that I especially enjoy resting my eyes against is Turkeycock Mountain, directly to the south.

We own a hunk of it that we bought from my uncle in the late 70s. Over several years, he’d planted several stands of loblollies, fast-growing pines used for pulpwood, so that’s our crop. Over a decade ago, we did some thinning of the loblollies and some hardwood timber further up the mountain, but we don’t—and won’t—clear-cut. Part of our property is adjacent, though, to a patch that was clear cut and then sold to a Mr. Mullins, who built a cabin on it. For the past few years, we’ve leased the hunting rights on our land to him, and he also keeps an eye on our property.

On a clear day, when I’m resting my eyes against the mountain, I can see the sun glint off his cabin roof.


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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Another Good Debut Novel

I’m still reading "quirky" debut novels, albeit a few years after they’re originally published. Tuesday I finished The Dogs of Babel by Caroline Parkhurst. Little, Brown published it back in 2003, and I bought a copy at the James River Writers Conference after hearing Parkhurst speak.

"[THE DOGS OF BABEL] rises above its quirky particulars to reach a final moment of pure, stirring grace." —Janet Maslin, The New York Times

Like several other books I’ve recently read, this book also has a main character who is an artist–a maker of masks. Lexy dies before the book begins, and much of the story involves her husband Paul’s attempt to answer questions about her death. Since her Rhodesian Ridgeback Lorelei was the only witness to her death, Paul—a linguist—takes a sabbatical from his university teaching job to see if he can teach Lorelei to talk.

For more about the book, this interview of Parkhurst on (“a literary website, sort of”) is informative.

Playing By the Book,” a Boston Globe article about the world of publishing, contains much information about Parkhurst and how she became a best-selling author. It’s a good glimpse of how publishing/book-selling works.

The Dogs of Babel has what I like in a novel: time that moves back and forth rather than linear, metaphor (square eggs and masks in The Dogs of Babel), first person POV (actually I like multiple POV, but first is a close contender), strong writing, interesting—yeah, quirky—characters.

Astute readers of this humble blog will notice that this post isn't an official book review; I’m just noting my reactions and giving my opinion about a book I enjoyed. Were I to actually write a review, I’d follow John Updike’s “Book Review Rules.”

But I’m too busy reading to have time to write a review. I'm more than halfway through a reread of Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Pen Women Scholarship

I've been a member of the Roanoke Valley Branch of the the National League of American Pen Women for a couple of years. I enjoy the monthly luncheon with an interesting group of writers and artists and an equally interesting speaker. Because our group promotes education for women, one of the things we wanted to do was encourage a woman to return to college or perhaps enter college for the first time. Consequently, we established a modest scholarship to help with incidental expenses.

If you know a woman who fits the criteria and might be interested in applying, please pass the following information to her:

Roanoke Valley Branch
National League of American Pen Women

Scholarship Information

The Roanoke Valley Pen Women will grant a scholarship of a minimum $100 to a woman age thirty or older who has either returned to college or entered college for the first time, and who is taking one or more classes for credit in the arts, letters, or music at a college or university within 75 miles of Roanoke.

The money is to be used either for supplies (textbooks, art supplies, paper, software, etc.) or for other expenses related to college attendance.

Women interested in receiving the grant for fall 2008 must apply to the Roanoke Valley Pen Women on or before May 2, 2008. The application should include the following:

1. Statement of interest:
  • Contact information at top of page: name, address, phone, email.
  • A paragraph explaining the recipient’s reason for taking the class or returning to school.
  • A paragraph explaining the recipient’s career goals.

2. A work sample in one of the following:
  • Letters: an example (2-10 pages) of either published or unpublished fiction (short story, novel excerpt), non-fiction (article, essay), poetry (three poems) or a combination thereof.
  • Arts: CD or DVD of jpegs of artwork (paintings, drawings, sculpture, pottery, fiber art, photographs, etc.).
  • Music (composer, performer, choreographer): CD or DVD of performance.
Applicants who want work samples returned should provide a self-addressed mailer with sufficient postage.

3. Verification of class enrollment or college acceptance (a photocopy of acceptance letter, student ID, or receipt for payment of tuition).

The scholarship recipient is encouraged to report back to the Roanoke Valley Pen Women, either by mail/email or as a guest at a future Pen Women meeting to inform the membership how the scholarship helped her accomplish a goal.

Send applications to Becky Mushko, 8 Listening Hill Road, Penhook, VA, 24137 or to Peggy Shifflett, c/o Cottage Curio, 622 Colorado Street, Salem, VA 24153.

The Roanoke Valley branch also sponsors an annual poetry contest. Info about the 2008 contest (deadline February 1, 2008) is here.


Monday, December 10, 2007

Reading Southern

This past weekend I finished reading Joshilyn Jackson’s debut novel, gods in Alabama, a quirky bit of Southern lit and winner of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance 2005 Novel of the Year Award. Like good Southern lit, it has quirky characters, the road trip, Baptists, odd relatives, kudzu, home, a murdered high school jock, redemption, forgiveness, etc. A pretty good read, escapist fare, etc. I can see why it was a Booksense pick.

Jackson’s blog is kind of neat, too. OK, neat’s not the word I want. Interesting, maybe?

Quirky—ah, that’s the word!

Somehow, after reading gods in Alabama, I have an urge to reread Celia Rivenbark’s We’re Just Like You, Only Prettier—a collection of her newspaper columns and winner of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Nonfiction Book of the Year. (Can those Southern booksellers pick ’em or what?)

I must need a Southern fix or a down-home reading fix or something. Could be the quirkiness. Or maybe Rivenbark’s bio is something I can identify with.

Meanwhile, I’ve still got a big backload of books over-flowing a couple of shelves. Not all of them are Southern or down-home, but you'd be surprised how many are.


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Saturday, December 08, 2007

Good Memoir

I finished Voices from the Hollow, Philip Hirsh’s memoir of his childhood summers spent in Bath County, VA. Parts of the book had originally been public radio essays.

Besides being an interesting and well-written memoir, the book—subtitled, “What happened When the Blue-Bloods Met the Blue Ridge”—is both a cultural history of a small part of Appalachia and a look at the clash of two very different cultures. It also documents the positive influence the Appalachian culture had upon on the author.

Voices from the Hollow is the kind of memoir I find especially appealing; it’s much more than an I-did-this, I-did-that book. With meticulous recall and specific detail, the author defines both people and place.

I bought the book when the Blue Lady Bookshop, which carried many books by regional authors, had a going-out-of-business. I’m glad I bought the book. A good read!


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Monday, December 03, 2007

Good Reads

I’ve read more good books this week: Sue Monk Kidd’s The Mermaid’s Chair and Adriana Trigiani’s Milk Glass Moon were the answer
to “What to read next?”

I became a Kidd fan after reading The Secret Life of Bees a few years ago. I like her strong, powerful writing, her use of metaphor, her quirky characters, and her craftsmanship. The protagonist in The Mermaid’s Chair was an artist. (Lately, I seem to be reading a lot of books with artist protagonists.) The setting was an island off the coast of South Carolina. Since I’d lived in Charleston many years ago, I could “see” and appreciate the setting.

Milk Glass Moon was the final book in the Big Stone Gap trilogy. I’d enjoyed the previous two—Big Stone Gap and Big Cherry Holler—so I was primed to like this one. I did. I’d probably never have read Trigiani’s first book if I hadn’t been to Big Stone Gap a couple of times for the John Fox Literary Festival. The last time I went, I’d won first place in the Lonesome Pine Short Story Contest for the fifth time (I was retiring from competition) and my writer buddy Marion Higgins, a die-hard Trigiani fan, went with me. The day before the festival, we explored the streets of downtown Big Stone Gap and a few of the tourist attractions. So, I could “see” the setting in Milk Glass Moon, too. (If I have one complaint about the book, it’s the time frame. If the setting is anytime after the late-90s, why isn’t the teenage Etta emailing like most teens do?) Anyhow, now I’m primed to read the next Big Stone Gap book, Home to Big Stone Gap. Hmmm. Four books: not a trilogy anymore?

After Milk Glass Moon, I read some early (1980s!) Sharyn McCrumb, Bimbos of the Death Sun, that I’d found at a used book store a couple of years ago. I liked this murder at a fantasy-con mystery, but I like her later work a lot more.

On Sunday, an article on the front page of the Roanoke Times’ Virginia section proclaimed tha
t my favorite book, Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies, has been banned in Washington County schools because two paragraphs contained some improper words that teenagers shouldn’t know (Note: the middle-schoolers I used to teach knew these words pretty well). The article also said the book was published ten years ago; it was actually published in 1988. One trade paperback version was published in 1993. It really isn’t a kids’ book, although I know a lot of young people who’d enjoy it. I couldn’t find a link to the RT article, although I did find Lee Smith’s mother’s sweet potato biscuits recipe on the RT website. The Richmond Times-Dispatch, however, had an article about the proposed banning back in October.

I'm now half-way through a memoir, Voices from the Hollow, that I bought when Ibby's bookstore had its going-out-of-business sale. After I finish it, I think I'll reread my favorite book again. It's been almost five years since I reread it last time.


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