My Aunt Joan

Aunt JoanMy mother’s youngest sister,
My aunt Joan, was glamourous.
She wore red lipstick and high heels
And her hair rolled in a sausage.
She had a handsome boyfriend
Who was a sailor
And became my uncle John.
She worked in a big department store downtown
Where she used a typewriter and
An adding machine
And had to go home on
The El
With all the other grown-ups of Chicago.

She brought me books and candy from the store
And taught me funny songs.
Oh I wish I was a fishy in the brook, brook, brook.
I wish I was a fishy in the brook.
Id go swimming in the nudie
Without my bathing suit-ie
Oh I wish I was a fishy in the brook.

She knitted sweaters for my dolls,
Pants and socks,
And little hats with pompoms on the top.
Each time she came to visit,
I begged her to teach me how to knit
And each time she would,
Moving my grubby fingers up and down the needles
To make the stitches tighter or looser or
Not so crooked.
Each time she left, I forgot what to do
And each time she came,
I would beg her to teach me again.
And each time she would.

My aunt Joan taught me about
Patience and
Persistence and
I thought she was the best aunt in the world
And wished I had many more
Just like her
And not so many
Who don’t know how to

A Recipe for Hanukah

My husband thinks chicken is one of the basic food groups so we generally make chicken for any special occasion, including Hanukah.  Chicken this way is very nice on a cold, dark, winter’s evening.  And it’s easy.

roasted chicken with dried fruits


Baked Chicken with Dried Fruit 

3/4 cup chopped dried apricots 
3/4 cup dried blueberries or cranberries
3/4 cup pitted prunes, chopped
1 teaspoon mustard (I use a little Dijon and a little German)
2/3 cup orange juice  (more if needed at the end to make sauce)
1/2 cup cider vinegar
8 chicken thighs (my own favorite) or a chicken, cut into 8 pieces 
Salt and pepper

In a saucepan, combine fruit, mustard, juice and vinegar. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until mixture is thick, about 5 minutes.

Season chicken with salt, pepper, garlic, thyme or whatever looks good, and place in baking pan. Pour fruit mixture over and around chicken. 

Bake at 375 for 40 minutes to one hour, depending on your oven and the size of the chicken pieces. 

Becoming Californians

My father loved California and the
He’d do cannonballs
Into the neighbors swimming pool
And float with only his nose,
His belly, and his toes
Above the water.

My mother sat in the shade.
With the other wives.
They drank martinis,
Painted their toenails,
And talked about womanly things.

My brother was as pale and thin
As a wisp of smoke
But he could run like the wind.
He found three boys his age
In our new neighborhood
And played basketball and baseball,
Or just ran, fast as he could,
Animated by youth and happiness
And friends.

I was the oldest girl
By far
In the neighborhood,
A block full of babies and

I’d swim 100 laps because I could
And because it pleased my father
And then escape inside,
Put lotion on my sunburned nose,
And read.

I was more lonely than I knew.
The loneliness came in flashes
And I swallowed it inside.
I was out of place, not good enough,
Strange and foreign,
Marked like the laundry my Irish mother
Didn’t get clean enough,
Like I, too, should be hanging on the attic,
God’s attic. 

My uncle Stooge’s pigeons could go far away
and still find their way home
But not me.

So I read.
And I wrote.
I wondered and remembered,
Told myself stories I needed to hear,
Stories where I was the hero, the star,
The popular girl, the tap dancer
Or the opera singer.
Stories where I wore tight skirts and black flats
Like the other girls
Instead of brown oxfords and
Puffed sleeves.  

I learned the joy of making things up. 

I wrote about outsiders,
Like Santa Claus going down the wrong chimney
On Christmas Eve
And finding himself in a Jewish home.
I wrote about the handsomest boy in school
Falling in love with the shy, bookish girl. 
And I wrote about masks,
And painted faces,
And swallowing feelings.

Writing was a place to put my sadness
And my joys,
My fears
And tenuous hopes.

Writing saved my life and
Made me who I am.

Karen Cushman typewriter gift

Reading Past, Present, and Future

I’m in a holding pattern with my own writing at the moment while I await editorial feedback on my book in progress (more later) so I’m able to tackle the books on my bedside table. Here’s what’s happening now:


I just finished This Tender Land  by William Kent Krueger  Set in 1932, the book follows four runaways from the Lincoln School, where Native American children are forcibly sent, as they launch a canoe and head for the Mississippi River. They encounter tragedy, heartbreak, kindness, and hope. Some lovely passages, exciting incidents, and interesting characters. Think Homer’s Odyssey.  I greatly enjoyed the book and will search out another by William Kent Krueger.

I’m now reading (gobbling up is more like it) Fountains of Silence by the brilliant Ruta Sepetys. Madrid, 1957. Silence, secrets, danger, fear.  Such writing, such research! I’m gobsmacked.

Next up is an indie titled The Serpent, The Puma, and the Condor, written by Gayle Marie. It’s a tale of Machu Pichu. Incas, conquistadors, and the tragic conflict of cultures. I can’t wait.

Grandma’s House

Today is my grandma’s birthday.  She would be 129 years old.  Happy Birthday, Clara Czerwinski Lipski. You were a great grandma.


Once there was a small, old, brick house
With a tiny brown lawn and a stoop
On a street of small, old, brick houses
With tiny brown lawns and stoops
In Cicero, Illinois.

My grandma lived there
With my grandpa
And my Uncle Stooge and
Uncle Chester
But I always thought of it as
Grandma’s house.

I lived there, too, when I was just born,
With my mama and daddy,
Grandma and Grandpa,
Uncle Stooge and Uncle Chester,
All of us in the small old house
Crowded together like clowns in a circus car.

I was the star of the show
And had an audience of six.
Did she eat? my uncles would ask.
Are her bowels moving?
Did that rash go away?

When I grew older,
I spent nearly every weekend at that house.
The furniture was dark and solid
And there were always surprises for me
On the big old round table
In the dining room:
Cracker Jacks or
Hair ribbons
Or a new dress
From Marshall Field’s.

It was all different from my own house
In a new suburb.
The air at Grandma’s house
Smelled of bleach,
Mothballs, and
Pipe tobacco.
Clocks ticked in quiet rooms,
And pigeons cooed in the back yard.
The floor in the bathroom was made up of
Little white tiles.
That made you dizzy if you stared at them too long.
The toilet was called
A Toledo
Because that’s where it was made:
Toledo, Ohio.

At Grandma’s house
We ate chocolate cake and Pepsi for breakfast,
Played Old Crow at the dining room table,
Climbed the hill of coal in the coal bin.
And my grandma slept
In her clothes
At the foot of our bed
To make sure we were safe.

Los Angeles

We moved from Chicago to Los Angeles when I was ten. When asked recently how I liked California, I came up with this.

Los Angeles

With my frizzy perm and
Little puff-sleeved cotton dresses
With sashes that tied in the back into floppy bows,
And brown oxfords, sturdy and roomy enough
To last all year,
I arrived to find California girls,
Mature even in their
Catholic School uniforms.
California girls rolled skirts up shorter and
Tucked white blouses into tiny waists
And tossed their hair in the boys’ direction.

The nuns at my new school didn’t like the way I
Looked or
Talked or
Or that the smartest girl in the class,
Had a whiff of
Polish and
Chicago about her.
You might have crossed your Ts like that
in Chicago,
The nun in my class told me with a sniff,
But we it is not proper here.

Those shoes might be acceptable
In Chicago
But they are not correct uniform shoes

I went home each day
Alone to lie on my bed and
In a book I could go wherever I wanted—
Home to Chicago, to Grandma and Grandpa, or
Over the ocean or
Back in time and
Imagine myself there.

Sometimes I wrote my imaginings and
My feelings down
But I never showed anyone.
I was supposed to be happy to be in California
Where the sun shone every day
And it never snowed.

I wrote letters to my grandma
Who couldn’t read or write.
My grandpa wrote back,
Enclosing a $2 bill each time
So I knew he still went to the bookie joint.

Who was drinking Green Rivers with him now?
Who helped Grandma make kolachke,
Sticking little fingers into the dough to make
Dents for jelly?
Was Sparkle happy in her new home,
Or was she sad and bedraggled,
Her cocker ears hanging to the floor?

Did the neighborhood kids play
Red Light, Green Light without me?
Did they play Hide and Seek,
Looking for
But never finding

Fall Reading Recommendations

I’ve been reading a lot of middle grade novels lately. Here are some I really liked.

Heartseeker.  Melinda Beatty. First book of a fantasy trilogy. I know—me recommending a fantasy. Who’da thunk? But it’s a lovely book.

Rebound. It’s Kwame Alexander. What’s not to love?

The Night Diary. Veera Hirandani. Family forced to leave home after India is partitioned in 1947.

The Train of Lost Things. Ammi-Joan Paquette. Boy searches magical train full of lost possessions, lost memories, and lost relationships for the last gift his father ever gave him.

Ghost Boys. Jewell Parker Rhodes. Boy shot by police speaks from beyond the grave.

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl. Stacy McAnulty. Math savant tries to hide her abilities.

Bob. Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead. Girl finds small zombie in a chicken suit looking for home. Odd but sweet.

FAQ #10: Joy

What’s sitting on your desk that gives you joy?  

This photo of Padraic never fails to make me smile. He was a great dog, part border collie by ancestry, ALL border collie by behavior. At his heaviest he weighed 30 pounds and liked to sleep on my lap, which he had to share with Lobelia, the orange cat, who snuggled against him. Wish I had a picture of that! Padraic loved to play football, with a real football. We’d throw it, he’d leap and catch it and carry it home in his mouth like a cigar.


FAQ #9: Inspired

What do you read for inspiration?

I tend to read novels set in whatever time period I am writing about. I like to see how other authors tackle the tricky problems involved in writing historical fiction: authenticity vs. info dumps, history vs. imagination, how they invent the past.  

During the years I worked on the medieval books, I read a heap of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books. Fabulous books. 

I also read a lot of middle grade novels since that’s what I write.

At the moment I’m reading the delightful Bob by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead about Livy and her friend, Bob, a short, greenish creature dressed in a chicken suit, and Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s The Book of Boy, in which a Medieval child named Boy discovers his courage, his skills, and his wings—literally. I’m loving it.

Brother Cadfael, Bob, The Book of Boy