All posts by healy24yang

Tales of a Pumpkin Grower

I was surprised to realize recently that I have been growing pumpkins for almost thirty years!  And it all started by accident.  One early summer afternoon, when I lived in Connecticut, I was sitting  in my yard under some shady trees with a friend, when I noticed we had these big orange flowers growing in the composting area.  I had no clue what they were.  When I asked my friend, she said they looked like squash flowers-but I hadn’t planted any squash seeds.  Yang was away in China visiting his family, but when he checked in with me by phone, he said those were probably from the Halloween pumpkins we’d put in with the compost last fall.  He told me to check for a bump under some of the flowers, which I sure enough found:  embryos on the female flowers.  I even learned how to pollinate the female with male flowers.  Happily, we ended up with some giant pumpkins for Halloween that fall. My pumpkin growing with Yang was off to a successful start!
Eventually, we had to re-purpose that area, but we created another pumpkin garden next to the house.  They loved it there!  We had gourds, pumpkins, decorative squash and even hulu!  You can see how the vines spread out and took over. The land was so rich we had the best of luck growing.  You can also see that in my thirties, I was a natural blonde-just saying.

When we moved to Auburn, we had a lot of land, but not all of it was good for growing vegetables.  Still, after the first year, we did get some nice pumpkins and gourds, as well as other veggies (peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, soy beans, corn).  However, the earth in the first garden we had started to wear out after almost twenty years.  About three years ago, we got NO pumpkins or gourds.  Yang decided to do something.
He developed a circular garden in the middle of our large lawn, filling it with lots of good earth and cow manure.  Last year, we got plenty of veggies and some outstanding pumpkins and gourds.  One white pumpkin is still whole and unrotted over a whole year later.  Of course, Yang also circled the garden with a fence and chicken wire at the bottom to keep out the critters.  This year he expanded the garden and replaced about six inches of bad earth with cow manure and good soil.  Boy did we do well with eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and PUMPKINS!

 

Here’s Number 1 Son, the first pumpkin to get fertilized (thanks to me), as well as the first pumpkin to be picked.  He’s not the biggest, but your first born is always special.  He came off the vine of some seedlings that we bought.

 

 

 

We also have a sister to last year’s big white pumpkin.  I think this one might even grow to be bigger than last year’s.  This pumpkin grew from seeds that I saved from an early pumpkin.  When I buy pumpkins for decoration, I always look for good “breeding stock” from which I save the seeds for growing the next generation.

 

I’m not sure what the heck this one is.  It’s green with stripes.  I don’t remember buying seeds or saving any that looked like this one, so it’s probably some kind of hybrid.  If anyone recognizes the type, please let me know.  Maybe it’s part squash?

 

 

We bought a bunch of pumpkin seedlings from Howe’s in Paxton, and I also planted seeds from previous years’ pumpkins of a similar variety.  I did plant the seedlings and the seeds in different quadrants, but the vines just went wild, so it’s hard to tell which is the source for these beautiful orange pumpkins.  this one, I can trace back to a seedling, but the others are hard to tell.
Some of the plants are more adventurous than others.  This guy snaked through the fence and is now growing wild and free (and subject to rabbits and ground hogs) in the yard.  What a rebel!

 

 

 

As you may have noticed, we have some sunflowers in this garden.  I successfully planted delphinium and bachelor buttons, then said, “What the hey!” and dropped in two sunflower seeds.  We’d had a mammoth sunflower that I bought last year, towering about seven feet.  Well, one of my seeds (either from a package or that sunflower) has shot way up.  Here it is next to me (I’m 5’3″) for scale.  So, I hope your growing season this year, despite the drought, was as successful as ours!

 

Touring the Gardens and Meeting the Animals at Chez Yang

So, summer is here and all the flora and fauna is out in full force at chez Yang.  We have plenty of avian visitors, as well as furry beasts.  The flowers are coming along nicely – or were until the insects and fungi started to stage their voracious assaults.  Anyway, lets take a tour!
Yang and I were joking that we have about 14 gardens spread around our property.  He set out to improve some of them this year.  We had a triangle of standing flox, dianthus, balloon flowers, and black caps, with a delphinium and two fox gloves returning from last year – all overrun with God knows what.  Yang cleared out what we didn’t want, and we added new delphinium and foxgloves, transplanted some more delphinium, and rounded things out with asters and ageratum.   Above is how the plot looked initially.
Now, the foxglove in the foreground is literally (and I know what the word actually means) taller than I am.  The delphinium from last year has also shot up.  The other foxglove from last year is also doing well, despite a slow start (left of big foxglove).  The black caps are ready for harvest – I’ve already had black cap and walnut scones and black caps with ice cream.  There are more to be plucked.  Sorry, I didn’t take the pictures earlier, so that you could see the flowers in full bloom.  Here’s a close up of the tip of the tallest foxglove, where the flowers remain.  The bees love this garden!
This is the peony garden on the other side of the house, named for – you guessed it! – pink peonies given us by Rosemary Adams years ago.  You’ll notice that there is chicken wire around this garden. Why?  That gets us to the fauna flourishing this year.   We’ve been sighting innumerable rabbits around our property and that of the neighbors on either side of us.  Apparently, they believe delphiniums are delicious!  Especially, the expensive ones you send away for in the mail.  Grrrr! Anyway, here you see one of the wonder bunnies taking a sun bath alongside a Flicker hunting for her dinner in my neighbor’s yard, right next to my fish pond.  Sociable little devil, isn’t s/he?  Some days, I look out in the backyard and see one of the rabbits, some birds, and a chipmunk or two amicably chomping away on clover and seeds or bouncing about under the bird feeder there.  It’s like living in a Disney movie.
 
Speaking of chipmunks, we’ve got quite a few digging holes and taunting my cats in the yard, especially when the girls are looking out the window.  Natasha is particularly in  Ahab mode, sitting patiently outside a hole or drain spout in the yard, waiting for the munk to make a fatal mistake.  She nabbed one once, but we managed to get it free of her.  Our reward will be more holes, devoured sunflower shoots, and gnawed planks on our porch.  Behold what Natasha calls Nemesis.

With all these evil fur balls waiting to decimate everything we’ve planted, Yang created a larger central vegetable garden, fortified by a wire fence and chicken wire.  We’ve got pumpkins, peppers, eggplants, bachelor buttons and delphinium growing in here – yes, we know we can’t eat the last two.  We even have some volunteer tomatoes growing from last year.  This fence is DEFINITELY necessary.  Several times, I looked out to see a rabit sitting outside the fence and staring in.  Another time, I found a big pile of rabbit scat directly outside the gate (which is tight to the fence and flush to the ground).  I know wascally wabbits when I see them.  I’ll keep an eye out for heavy equipment deliveries from ACME.

The birds are less destructive visitors, and they enjoy the gardens – especially the ones with feeders.  Here is an oriole feasting on orange halves.  I haven’t seen any in a few weeks or even heard any in the woods.  Perhaps they have moved on to their next migratory stop.  The catbird loves our suet feeder, and loves to hang out on various perches around the gardens.  We caught him in is ablutions.  You can enjoy a commentary from me and Natalie Wood in Inside Daisy Clover.
We also have window boxes filled with lovely color combinations of flowers. Some flowers have passed now, but the pots and window boxes, on the whole, most are still a pleasure to see.

 

 

 

Our roses have done nicely as well.  Years ago, I bought about four sea-rose bushes and now they have spread to create a slope of beautiful scent and sight behind our house.

 

 

 

One of my favorites is a single yellow rose given us by my mother-in-law about twenty years ago.  Every year we get at least one bloom. Lately, it has only been the single bloom.  However, this year, that single bloom was the biggest I’ve ever seen on the bush.  Beautiful, isn’t it?

 

Happy Gardening!

Summer Peregrinations: Joan Bennett and Sherlock Holmes

Last week, Yang and I made one of our periodic visits to Joan Bennett’s final resting spot in Lyme, Ct.  We had planned to try to clear up any overgrowth as well as pay our respects, but, fortunately, the caretakers had mown the cemetery and Alixandra Lindberg (on a brave February visit) had put things on the grave stone in order.  In fact, I can’t praise Alixandra  enough for the fabulous job she did on Joan’s headstone.  You can see that clearly in this picture.  A tip of one of my many hats to you, Alixandra (I have about 136 of them!).  There was an old Christmas wreath at the grave, but we didn’t remove it because we didn’t know if a family member had left it. Doing so felt intrusive.
The cemetery is a small one, but it’s pretty. We even saw some Phoebes flitting about – birds not girls.  Across the road used to be a riding stable, now closed, sadly.  I used to think Joan would have liked that location, given her experience as a rider – except for  the Gilda Grey incident.
All we really needed to do was clip some overhanging grass with scissors and brush away some dirt.  Yang did the clipping and I did the brushing.  Here’s photographic evidence of me with a brush, anyway.  By the way, Yang made that gorgeous blue blouse I’m wearing.  There’s little he can’t do!

 

We didn’t just go to see Joan – that’s a two hour ride for a twenty-minute visit.  Afterwards, we went to the nearby town of Essex and had lunch at the Griswold Inn:  socially distancing of course.  We also wore our masks – except when we were eating. Then we drove to fairly nearby  Gillette Castle, built by William Gillette at the turn into the twentieth century.  Gillette was a famous Sherlock Holmes  for his day.  Kind of an early twentieth-century Benjamin, er, Benedict Cumberbund, um, bach – you know whom I mean!  Fortunately, there were few people around, so we hiked the extensive wooded grounds, avoided poison ivy,  and saw many Bluebirds!  Gorgeous! We also strolled around the outside of the castle and enjoyed the gardens and the extraordinary views of the Connecticut River below.  Just for fun, we had taken the car ferry across the river to get to the castle.  The ride was under ten minutes, but hey, nice river views. Even nicer views from the terrace of the castle.  Imagine waking up every morning to these images.

So, it was a lovely expedition and a lovely way to spend the day.  You may not see us wearing our masks in the pictures, but that’s only because we took them when no one else was around at all!  We also picked places to go where infectious incidents were low, as well as a time of day and day of the week when most people would not be visiting.  No dangerous interchanges!  So, I hope you enjoyed this little virtual tour and adventure.

Backyard Birds 2

Right after I did my last backyard bird posting, wouldn’t you know that Mr. and Mrs. Grosbeak made their return.  And they were ultimately joined by some exciting friends.  But enough about the friends later – first, let’s get to the Grosbeaks.
First, I saw the female and managed to get some nice shots of her.  I never noticed this on females before, so I’m not sure if this gal is unique, but you can see from these pictures that this gal has some lovely orange coloring, analogous to where her hubby has his rose breast – a broad splash, with a narrow taper. There may be another couple, because I believe that I have also seen a female this year without the orangey coloring. I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled.  We’ve been having Rosebreasted couples visit us for more than five years.  At first, we had only females, then one year males joined in.  One year we had two males.  We may have more than one couple as it is, but I just haven’t seen all four at the same time.
Anyway, is it me or is this girl giving Yang a smile?

It’s fun to watch the male and female come and feed together.  They seem to prefer the single copper-topped feeder.  I usually hear one of them singing, then, there they are, having a meal out!  I love to hear them sing in the trees as well.  I can’t help wondering if they have any nests nearby.  I do know that the pair with the gal in the peach-colored breast feathers makes the round with some of my neighbors, as well.  According to the Cornell Ornithology site, both parents brood the children, with the Daddy often singing away in the nest.  Here’s a link for more information on these wonderful birds.  I also love to watch the males fly away, with the flash of black and white on their wings like a special optical effect.
I have also noted that these birds can be pretty aggressive.  No Grackles, Starlings, Mourning Doves, or Blue Jays better mess with them when they want to feed.   Who you Lookin’ at?
Another fairly aggressive beauty that I found on my feeder this year was the Baltimore Oriole.

Yes!  We do have Orioles this year! Usually, one or so will cruise through in May, take a look at our suet and seeds, then turn up his beak and take it on the wing.  This year, I got wise and noted how people placed their orange halves for Oriole delectation.  It worked!  I cut the oranges  across the equator, then impaled them on the trellis for our Morning Glories.  Now I can’t keep the Orioles away.  We have two adult males, one juvenile male (below), and two females, one orange and one yellow (yellow to the right).  And woe betide the Oriole who wants to join another Oriole at the juice bar, even if it’s a female with a male  or they can sip from different halves.  Orioles may have lovely calls to announce their coming, but their aggression chatter is NOT soothing.  We even had an Oriole/Grosbeak confrontation – Mr. Grosbeak won.  Still, if two Orioles can rarely feed together, the disappointed party will usually go to town on the suet. One time, Yang looked up to see a male Oriole perched on the window ledge and staring in  at him!

 

If all this weren’t exciting enough, on three separate days we had a hummingbird on the hummingbird feeder.  I couldn’t tell you if it’s the same one or not, but there have been repeat appearances.  Yang was even able to snap some photos, as you can see – well, you can see better if you click on the photo.  I normally don’t see these guys until July, but I’d been hearing on FB about all kinds of sightings. So I thought, maybe if there are no flowers around, the hummers would be more interested in my feeder.  Bingo!  It worked.
Now, for my final extraordinary sighting.  I’ve never had a clear look at one of these guys before.  I’ve always wanted to see one in all his glory.  It seemed as if everyone in Massachusetts was sighting these guys but me!  Then, yesterday, while we were watching the episode of Father Brown that I’d dvr’d, Yang said, “Wow!  What is this strange bird.  I’ve never seen this before.”  I hopped up, took a careful peek around the window curtain, and there it was in all his indigo  glory!  Yes!  My first full-color Indigo Bunting!  Well, I guess he has completely changed from his winter to his summer duds, but he is still something!
I don’t know if he’ll be back.  He wasn’t crazy about the oranges, he was skeptical of the suet, but the sunflower hearts did seem to grab his attention – though the Grackles kept getting in the way.  Let’s hope we see more of him!  Wow!  What a bird- watching season!

The Marvelous Marble of the Barre Cemetery

I hadn’t had a chance to do up a blog of this wonderful, remarkable cemetery in Barre, VT before,  which Yang and I visited three years ago in the Fall.  What makes the spot so unique?  Well, this town in Vermont is famous for its marble quarrying and this local product is beautifully worked to produce the most creative, unique monuments.  Many of these take on unique forms to honor the life work or interests of those they honor in death.
Thus,  you can find a musician with this apt memorial.  I wonder what instrument this person played?

 

 

 

 

Appropriately, this man was a sculptor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’re a fan of Dr.  Who, don’t blink. Otherwise,  you could be pursued by those pesky stone aliens by car or plane.

 

 

 

 

 

The Fukuda family chose to celebrate their Japanese heritage with this rendition of a Japanese house.

This man seems to be dreaming of or lovingly guided by the spirit of his late wife, though her wafting out of cigarette smoke probably wouldn’t please the Surgeon General.

There are also some startlingly unique works of funerary art, such as the following:

 

 

 

The blocks
The pyramids

 

 

 

 

The open book, as in his life was  an. . . all in French.

And there were more traditional statues, equally beautiful. There was the Pieta.

 

 

 

 

 

Here are the traditional weeping women.

 

 

 

 

 

I particularly love the detail you can see in this closeup shot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And we can never forget the angels and urns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were also striking columns

  

 

and mausoleums
and reliefs:

 

All were lovely to see on a clear Vermont Sunday morning, with the fall colors tinting the trees in gorgeous contrast to the blue skies and white wisps of clouds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Backyard Birds, Part One

Despite the polar vortex heading our way this weekend, spring is trying to sprung on us.  And the feathered visitors to my backyard are showing the way.  Bright new plumage is emerging and old friends are returning from warmer climes, though some winter visitors have lingered on.
The bird I’ll introduce to you first is a Downy Woodpecker.  We’ve seen these lovelies all winter long, and this spring they’re still pecking away at trees and the wooden poles holding up our feeders, as well as chomping away at suet.  I noticed that they seem to come in different sizes.  I’m not confusing them with Hairy Woodpeckers, who seemed to disappear from my feeders in the winter, only to return in the spring- especially for suet. We also have gotten a few Yellow-Bellied Woodpeckers throughout winter and spring – and a Flicker or two. Unfortunately, so far this year, we’ve only gotten  photos of the Downys.
Bluejays can be real stinkers – one of the biggest bullies at the bird feeder.  We have four who show up together and try to boss the other birds away.  Often they succeed, but we also have some extremely aggressive Cardinals, Chickadees, and Goldfinches who won’t take excremental effluvia from no one.  So, the Bluejays aren’t always the boss of everyone.  Still, they are beauties, aren’t they?
Speaking of Cardinals, we have more than a few pairs visiting.  I suspect the same couples hang out here through the years, and their kids may even take up residence in the yard as well.  The other day, I saw a female feeding a male black-oil sunflower seeds off the feeder.  I guess when you both brood and fledge the kids and take them out to lunch, you split courting and parenting even-steven.
And in these pictures below, you can get a gander (so to speak) at the ‘ttude both Cardinals and Chickadees possess that enables them not to take any guff from Bluejays.

Who you lookin’ at?

Here’s a less belligerent  chickadee.  They have to be one of my favorites!  I love their cheery calls and the way that that bounce through the air in flight.  They seem to disappear in the mid summer and not return in number until almost fall. Then they stay winter through spring.

 

Juncos always herald the beginning of winter, with their castanet-like calls and the flash of white fanning out in their tales when they take flight.  I haven’t seen any for about two weeks now, but they did seem to linger much later this year.  I love how on some their grey feathers almost shine blue.

 

Speaking of blue, I adore the soft blue backs of the White-Breasted Nuthatch.  It’s fun to watch them scoot up and down a tree, searching for a snack.  You can always tell they’re around by the ack-ack-ack call they give.  Like the woodpeckers (in that family, right), they go for suet the way my cats go for dental snacks. I used to see Rust-Breasted Nuthatches when I lived in Lowell or in Connecticut, but I can’t remember seeing any in Auburn.

 

But let’s look at some spring birds.  The Goldfinches never completely left us, even in the winter, but now their numbers have increased.  Better yet, the boys have shed their drab winter coats and put on their bright, yet soft, yellow finery. You can see that the fellas in these pictures have pretty much converted their outfits to suit (ha!) the season. They LOVE sunflower seed hearts the best of all, but real troopers that they are, they will also go for black oil in the shell.  They also will take guff from no one when food is involved.
One of my favorite returnees is the Catbird.  Another suet gobbler, this guy bobs her tale and shoots about with glee. I especially like this picture because you can see the bird has got her cap on.   Like the Mockingbird (a relative), this character has many calls.  My favorite is when she calls my name, “Sharon!”
We don’t yet have pictures of all the return visitors.  The Rose-Breasted Grosbeak has been back for several days, but we haven’t gotten a good picture of him.  I’m waiting hopefully for the Baltimore Oriole, though I did see one on a rail trail yesterday. You can see one of the first harbingers of spring in this group shot:  the Redwinged Blackbird (center). 
Another typical spring sojourner is the grackle.  Mourning Doves are always with us – and pretty greedy, too.
However, we did have some real excitement when we saw this fellow on the ground beneath out feeder this week:  a male Rufus or Rufous Towhee (I have heard it both ways!).  It’s not the best shot because we had to grab it fast from indoors and a little far away.  Still, you can see the wonderful colors.  I haven’t seen one of these guys in like three years – when I was on a rail trail in Millerton, NY.  Thrilling, isn’t it?

So, I guess that’s all for  now.  The end is in sight!

 

Sharon and Yang’s Secret Place

Way back in the ’90s, when I was first married and either working on my dissertation or teaching part time at UConn and Eastern Connecticut State University, Yang and I had a place we liked to visit that we called “The Secret Place.”  The name didn’t quite fit because we would  run into my students canoeing by  or other  walkers in nature.  However, “The Secret Place” was not crowded with people and a little hard to get to.  In fact, if you didn’t know it was there, you’d never think of going there.  So what is this secret place and how did we ever find it?

Well, without giving away too many secrets, I’ll explain.  We’ll go to the second part of the question first.  Yang and I lived in the Mansfield/Wilimantic area in Connecticut while going to UConn.  When driving one of the yellow-line-divided roads (no route number), we’d often pass over a bridge that let you look down into a lake made by a dam, with an abandoned asphalt road running alongside.  It looked like such a cool place to walk, so Yang did some map snooping and found the road to take us there.  That road in and of itself was almost a secret:  a right that intersected the main road at such a sharp angle that taking it was almost like hooking a U-ie (non-New England translation: making a sharp U-Turn.). That brought you onto an old paved road tunneling through trees on both sides, a road slowly crumbling on the edges and being submerged by encroaching woods.  A steel gate prevents vehicles from going more than about 1/2 mile down the road, but pedestrians are welcome.  At one time this had been a route with houses following a river, but  building  the dam not only turned the river into a small lake but ended the status of the street.
The asphalt does continue through the woods and opens up along the body of water, ending in the dam.  I have so many fond memories of coming here when the wild roses were blooming through the woods along the road, chickadees, titmice, and even Baltimore Orioles were flitting through the trees and brush, and all kinds of water fowl sailed along the lake, sometimes putting in at the many coves.  I’d come here with Yang in all seasons to relax in nature, and even sometimes took a blanket and whatever books I was reading for my orals or dissertation and did my studying chilling in nature.  What a wonderful place!  But moving to Worcester and finding new places there and around the Northeast to explore, Yang and I put our thoughts of “The Secret Place” on the back burner – until the first week in March, when the good weather made us determined to explore something so old it was new again.
After a tasty breakfast at Bagel One in Windham – still the best bagels and cream cheese in my book! –  we drove on down to find our Secret Place.  This was not easy  since we hadn’t been there in so long – and that entrance really hooks back from the road, making it difficult to see.  But we found it!  Our excitement grew as we drove down the old paved road through a tunnel of winter- denuded trees – it doesn’t take much to excite us.  We found that metal gate and were surprised to see a sign calling the place a park – but a park with no name.  I guess the state of Connecticut wants to keep it secret, too, sort of.  We slipped through the gate and strolled in the sunny cold down the old road and found ourselves fascinated by stone walls and trees nature-crafted into twisted forms, which we’d never really noticed before.  The bare bones of wild rose bushes tangled through the brush, but later in spring we knew they’d be bursting with sprays of white and soft pink tiny blossoms.
We emerged out of the tree-hugged road to see the lake sparkling silver-blue in the cold March sun.  In days of yore, you couldn’t always follow the asphalt to the damn at the end because flooding would cover the road.  You could still see the ghost of floods past in the scallops of dead plants and small debris across the road – nothing impassable, though!  So, today, we were able to travel all the way to the dam, across an old bridge built in 1927.  A place where in summer we would sit and watch fish and turtles take their leisure in the waters.  And today, those waters sloshed over and under sheets of ice, hosting a variety of waterfowl:  swans, golden eyes, mergansers, and the ubiquitous sea gulls!
SONY DSC
The state has also now cleared and marked trails here  that you can take through the woods.  We circled back to the car over a roundabout route around coves (more ducks!) and up and down ridges.  But they haven’t give the place a name.  maybe they want to call it a “Secret Place,” too – but with well marked trails.  Late spring and summer should  bring us more beauty when we return – but, “Shhh!  Don’t tell anybody!”
Here are some other neat shots:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mystery Making and a Book Fair with Sisters in Crime- NE

I recently had a ball  with Sisters in Crime New England appearances.  On February 11, I joined Ursula Wong, Edwin Hill, and Tilia Klebenov Jacobs for a session of Mystery Making at the Warwick Public Library.
We had a wonderful time working with the audience to create a mystery from their suggestions that included a standard-poodle service dog and a black-leather-clad martial arts femme fatale, both named Angelica; a retired detective with a Welsh name living on the Cape with the service dog; a baker of dog treats with a dark hidden life; a busybody who thinks she’s Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher rolled into one; and trafficking in illegal human organs!  I got to be the MC, writing up all the suggestions on a white board and helping audience and panel alike draw their thoughts together – those teaching skills never cease to find an outlet!  How do the authors and audience put this kind of thing together?!  If you think such an adventure would be fun or inspiring for your library, school, book club, etc., click here for details from the Sisters in Crime Speakers Bureau on how to set up something.
I also had fun at the Cumberland Library Book Fair.  The library is located in a former monastery and surrounded by woods full of trails.  Gorgeous!

There were lots of folks from Sisters in Crime there, like Arlene Kay, Dale Phillips, Leslie Wheeler, Nicole Asselin, to name a few.  I made sure to wear by best 1948 ensemble, including the nylons with the seam up the back.  I also have several appearances lined up for March and April.  On Monday, March 16, I’ll be at the North Reading Library, hosting a showing of Walter Wanger’s 1940 warning to Americans about the true danger of Nazism, The Man I Married.  The film raises many telling points about how easy it is for people to be sucked in by Fascism and racism, sadly still relevant.  And it’s worth seeing just to catch Joan Bennett kicking Nazis! On April 4th (11:30), I’ll be doing a reading and signing at the Whitinsville Social Library; on April 16th (7:00), I’m doing another Sisters in Crime Mystery Making session at the Groton Public Library.  Click here for more details on my Appearances and Events Page.  Come see me!

 

“My Smart-Talking Gal Mystery Heroine: A Joan Bennett Birthday Tribute”

“My Smart-Talking Gal Mystery Heroine: A Joan Bennett Birthday Tribute”

It’s only natural to honor Joan Bennett on her birthday by explaining her powerful influence on my writing. A lot of this influence goes back to my earlier years watching old movies. As a kid, I started out hooked on Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and the rest of the stable of Universal and RKO horror films – God Bless Val Lewton! The mystery and otherworldliness of black and white film, the smart dialogue, the clever twists of plot that other forties and thirties film genres shared with horror lured me into a liminal world like a perpetual deep summer night. I was further captured by classic films’ biting wit, challenging plots, and independent women – especially in what I came to know as film noir. And who showed herself the queen of this world? Above them all, Joan Bennett.

I must admit that I first came really to know Joan when she appeared in Dark Shadows. Her Elizabeth Collins Stoddard was formidable, reminding me of my mother when I was in deep trouble. How could vampires, werewolves, and witches withstand her powerful, regal stare? Still, like my Mom, there was deep feeling and love for her daughter and her family. However, only in film did I discover Joan displaying one of the traits I loved best about my Mom: that witty, smart-talking-gal sense of humor. In outright comedy, Joan could drop a clever line with style and intelligence, but even in some of her darkest dramas that wit came through. What a delight to see her wield that humor to put firmly in their places anyone trying to crush or bamboozle her. In The House across the Bay, she undercuts a smart-mouth chorine who harangued her, “Cheep, cheep, cheep” with “Where’s the birdseed?” When the obnoxious woman tries to go after her physically, Joan rakes her over the coals with, “Just a minute, Miss Dimwit.  I was silly enough to apologize, but now that you want to make something of it, I’ll give you a good reason. You’re a phony, you’ve got a voice like four panes of cracked glass, and about as much appeal as a can of embalming fluid. I could go on, but that ought to give you a rough idea of how I feel about you.” Eight years later, when Paul Henreid tries to disparage her cynicism towards him in The Scar with a deprecating, “You’re a bitter little lady,” she puts him in his place with a world-weary but tough, “It’s a bitter little world, full of sad surprises, and you don’t go around letting people hurt you.” In The Man I Married, Joan’s not even daunted by Nazis, telling her husband-turned-fascist, “Heil heel” when he promises to dump her and take their son. Her feistiness isn’t limited to verbiage, either. Take a gander at this picture.
Like my Mom, Joan played women of wit, strength, humanity, and confidence – not just what the New York Times dubbed her gallery of “hydrochloric dames.”
So, in my twenties, when I decided to take my writing seriously than developing Victoria Holt knock-offs or spoofs of Dark Shadows, I turned to 1940s style mysteries to inspire my own adventures of romance, danger, suspense, and wit. Interestingly, as a writer influenced by film, I found I could better create distinct, believable characters by casting them as actors with whom I was familiar, blending their traits with some of the people I knew (including myself!). I also knew that I didn’t want my heroine to be wimpy, weepy, and inclined to faint in the final reel or pages, which, unfortunately, did often happen on the page or screen in the ’40s and ’50s. Guess who I saw as perfect for the role of Jessica Minton, a smart, independent, quick-with-a-quip forties gal? Someone who had a sensitive heart and a strong sense of responsibility, but didn’t take guff from anyone – and would smack said guff out of the ballpark with whip smart humor.
Surprise!
I do see a lot of myself in Jessica – and in Joan’s less nasty roles – or maybe an idealized version of myself, anyway. I know that mischievous banter with those I love and pointed barbs for those I don’t is something I share with Jess, which Joan plays to perfection. However, I doubt that like Jessica, I’d have the guts to hold onto a mysterious package left by a mysterious and handsome British stranger at the risk of being liquidated by Nazi fifth columnists – to disguise myself as a maid to get into a criminal’s apartment while he’s still there (!) to retrieve a gun used to frame a friend – to grab a gunsel by the lapels and threaten to turn him into a soprano if he ever threatened my cat again – to show up in a shadow-draped room and wittily bargain with a gun-toting femme fatale and her hired gun to trade stolen jade for my friends’ lives – or to slip into a cove and explore a beached and rotting ship while layers of ocean fog swept in around me. I might dare to weaponize a banana-cream pie, but I can’t guarantee my aim would be as good as Jessica Minton’s. I can guarantee you that any fans of our Joanie could picture her carrying off these adventures with verve and wit, though not without human trepidation.
Those of us who love Joan Bennett and appreciate her talents would also, as Sam Fuller writes, see her as “a sensitive actress” enough to also believe her playing Jessica’s distress at being torn between loyalty to an old boyfriend and to a new man who brings her adventure and love; a sister who gets annoyed with her older sibling’s foibles leading them into danger but sticking by her to the end (though not without a smart quip or two exchanged between them); a sweetheart waiting to hear news of a fiancé lost in the war, then a wife supporting her husband’s struggle with memories from that war. And Jessica loves her cat. I know Joan was a dog person, but heck, there’s still part of me in Jessica Minton. So, she’s a cat person!
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got to say on the subject, but if you’d like to take a peek at some passages from Bait and Switch or Letter from a Dead Man, click on the links on the titles and have fun picturing Joan working her magic as Jessica Minton. Oh, and by the way, I cast her sister Elizabeth as Rosalind Russell (and my sister-on-law). Can you imagine what a grand ride it would have been to catch Joan and Roz trading quips with each other, then marshaling their humor to take on Nazis, criminally corrupt American aristocrats, femme fatales, underworld crooks, and crooked cops? And I’ve got two more books on the way! Viva Jessica Minton and Joan Bennett!
If you love mysteries on the screen or on the page, especially centered on the golden era, click here to go to my web page where you can find lots of interesting stuff – including my Joan Bennett tribute page!

 

 

Photos: Author’s collections

Duck, Duck, Horned Grebe – and a Loon!

January and February have become a tradition for us to go bird watching for ducks, geese, and other aquatic birds.  This year has been an exceptionally good one for such adventures.  We always head to the Cape and the Shining Sea Trail around my birthday for one of our biggest forays.  This year we were not disappointed.  Once more, we saw a large flock of Eider Ducks rafting on the rough January seas.  The weather was so cold one of my knees started to seize up!  Nevertheless, we saw a large flock that included the brown females, mature males startling in their contrast of black and white feathers, and the juvenile males that tended to a gradual graying into white in a less striking contrast.  Did you ever notice that Eiders have a beak reminiscent of Bob Hope’s ski-slope schnozz – no disrespect to Eiders.
Swimming separately in the same bay were other interesting aquatic birds.  Here are a pair of Common Golden Eyes.  I thought they were Ring-Necked Ducks at first; but, no, they are Golden Eyes.    Anyway, they were fun to watch surfing the waves, diving for lunch, and popping up goodness knows where.  We also had the good fortune to catch sight of a Horned Grebe.  I can’t remember the last time I saw one.  He also was a little charmer with his unexpected dives and equally surprising reappearances.  I hope these guys caught some snacks – pace to the Atlantic fish.
We scooted over to a pond in Falmouth and got a gander (sorry, couldn’t resist) at some Canada Geese, Hooded Mergansers, and a Swan.  Here’s a group shot.
Here’s a flotilla of Hooded Mergansers. Just click on the photo to get a clearer view.

Our next adventure was at the Charles River in Needham Heights, where we saw not only Mallards but the Common Merganser.  This guy was so beautiful, with his green/black head and contrasting pure white chest and underside.  Also on display were more Hooded Mergansers.  I love to watch these guys.  Where the other ducks and geese serenely loiter across the waters, these guys surge along like mini speed boats, white crests proclaiming their presence!

 

Third stop:  Rocky Neck, Ct.  Here we saw quite a few interesting water birds.  Once again, the proud and speedy little Hooded Mergansers powered their way across the marsh water.  We also saw several other types of birds as well.  There were Gadwall Ducks, Blue Herons,  gulls and even a Common Loon.  The Loon was not in this same marsh, but in the ocean, in a cove by the jetty.  Many of these critters were pointed out to us by two lovely people who were also birding fans.  Thanks to their kind advice!  Check out some of the images below.
A closeup of the Hooded Merganser.

The Gadwall Ducks.
                                 The  Loon

 

Who you lookin’ at?

A different type of Loon. The Sharon Bird on her migratory peregrinations in search of feathered friends at the beach.  Note the winter plumage.