How We Met; the Importance of Family History

Captain Alfred Stone left his ship on a cold autumn afternoon and hurried to a nearby Inn. As he quenched his thirst, his eyes never left the attractive scullery maid who sat in the corner peeling potatoes. Deciding she was the one, he walked over, sat on a potato sack and declared that he wouldn’t move until Susannah Coppick agreed to marry him.  It didn’t take her long according to her daughter; with his bright blue eyes and handsome beard, she immediately said yes! Living a mariner’s life back in mid 1800’s England, Alfred fathered ten children with his wife, Susannah Stone. The first six, seemingly just a year apart, were most likely a result of Alfred’s annual return home from the sea!

I’ve heard this tale of my great-great-grandparents since I was a child; gleaned from journal-like notes written by their oldest daughter, Louise. She and her family eventually moved to Sacketts Harbor, New York where her four youngest siblings were born. As a young woman, it seemed Louise always needed new shoes. She flirted with the shoemaker’s son James, also a shoemaker, until he finally got the hint. Soon after, Louise and James Carswell married and eventually became my great-grandparents. My grandfather loved telling stories about his parents and I remember Louise from old photos. I was about 7 or 8 when she died, but I don’t recall if she always wore great shoes! They had two children: my Aunt Gladys and my grandfather James…the 8th James in successive generations of the Carswell family, who originally came from Scotland.

James and Florence on the right, 1918
My grandma and grandpa met on a blind date at a masquerade party in 1918. Florence Radcliff and her girlfriend dressed as traditional Irish lasses. James played it safe, dressing in a tuxedo. Grandma was born in Ontario and had two older sisters, Marion and Dallas. Six weeks before she was born, her father Thomas was killed in a farm accident. Her uncle, a horse trainer and farmer who worked on the farm was like a father to Grandma and her sisters.  Eventually the family moved to Mt. Clemens, Michigan to find jobs and schooling, leaving the farm to Uncle Jack. 

Florence and James Carswell were married in 1921.  My mom, Donalda Louise, was the first born, followed a year later by a brother, the 9th James. Her second brother came along ten years later. I have my grandmother to thank for teaching me to sew, hang clothes, play piano and write in my journal using proper cursive.  My mom and Betty Bickley were friends all through school. During their junior year, Betty dared Donna to ask her brother Billy to the Sadie Hawkins Dance. He said yes, and that night changed her life, mom would tell me, my sister and two brothers.  The guy who’d been pretty much in the background was now her boyfriend. After graduation, she worked in sales at Mrs. Brown’s Dress Shop in downtown Detroit and my dad joined the Army Air Force to become a pilot.

S/Sgt. Gordon Bickley served
as a ball turret gunner in WWII.
Gordon (nicknamed Billy) and Donna (shortened from Donalda) Bickley married in June, 1943. Stationed in San Antonio, Texas, my dad wrote letters to Mom every day. He proposed in one of these letters, which I now have framed. Written on United States Army Air Force stationary, he tells how much he loved her and wanted to share his life with her. He then signed ‘Love Bill’ and added a PS…’This is a proposal’….just in case she didn’t get it! 

When he learned he'd be shipped out soon, he wired Mom via Western Union and said “Let’s get married now!”  She took the train to Texas with her friend Jean, bought a flirty little dress and got married in the local Presbyterian church. After six weeks together, he was sent overseas and Mom took the train home, went back to work and soon realized she’d be waiting for both Billy and me!

My grandfather, mother and great-grandmother
 Louise Stone Carswell holding me.

Naming me must have been a family fun night! My paternal grandmother’s name was Fanny. She and Florence, my mom’s mom, suggested combining their names into Fanny Flo! Luckily, Mom loved the name Joan Louise; keeping her middle name and her grandmother’s name going. Louise became my daughter and granddaughter's middle names as well. 

During my sophomore year of college, my dad lost his job and I had to stay out a semester. My grandfather paid the tuition for me to return in the spring but with the stipulation that I join campus activities and not be “tied to homework and boys.” I began working on the school newspaper. I did interviews and covered both school and community events.  But the editor, Jim Stommen, changed everything I wrote. No one had ever edited my colorful way with words nor told me my feelings and opinions didn’t count and I didn’t like him one bit! "Facts, just the facts," he’d say and correct my punctuation. A year later I gathered a group of friends to celebrate my 21st birthday and he declined, saying he’d take a raincheck. Sure enough he called me a week later and asked me out on a date. I knew that night, as we talked over gin and tonics, that I’d marry him someday….Scrooge had become my Prince Charming.

Jim and Joan met working on
our college newspaper.
James and Joan Stommen married in August, 1966. We continued to work on newspapers together the rest of our lives, me finally showing respect for his expertise and he finally accepting my mushy, gushy style. My degree in education coupled with his lifelong mentoring led me to become a writing coach. Our two kids were treated to constant cross-country moves and Dad’s desk-pounding ways, whether in a newsroom or at the dining room table. Both eventually decided to attend college back home in Michigan.
 Our son met his future wife while dating one of her girlfriends. Our daughter found her guy online fifteen years ago. Although online dating is no big deal today, her story being passed down in the years to come just won’t have the same ring to it as my great-great-grandparents’ did on the shores of merry old England.

Portable Magic

"Books are a uniquely portable magic" says author Stephen King. My teen granddaughters have read most of Mr. King's books and this middle-school-bound boy will soon be too.

An academic achiever and gifted athlete, my oldest grandson is an easy-going kid who happily takes a book along wherever he goes. Visiting my family last month, they took Grandma to the local Mexican restaurant. Look at that smile...just a quick one before he got back to his latest Rick Riordan novel. At 11, he loves electronics too...but parental time limits or discipline can interfere. Oh how I remember being sent to my room as a kid...often in a huff or tears...but pretty soon I'd be lost in a book.                                                                          

I take Grandma credit of course; spending hours reading to my grand kids even as babies. I love his focus here, hanging on my every word! I still give books as new baby gifts, read stories to the classrooms I work in and take turns reading a page with the twins as they practice expression and the rhythm of their voice. I recently joined a writing class that has us sharing our pieces orally....podium and mic included! Reading aloud is good for the soul. 

'Mystery Reader' when he was in First Grade
Love the Share Chair

One of his favorite places is the library; especially now that school's out for the summer. He devoured this heavy, two handed coffee-table sized book; Percy Jackson's Greek Gods by Rick Riordan, in 24 hours.
I scoped out my local library and got my card so we'll be ready to browse when he comes to visit next month! Barns and Noble is another favorite place; they all choose this over Target or a Dollar Store when given a choice. Even without a purchase, they're excited to see new releases they can look forward to and displays of trending authors or genres to watch for.
The twins are fine with the 'kid's section' and the older girls can handle adult and young adult material....but this is the hardest age....almost 12. Ready for challenging and engaging stories; but not mature content. Luckily he enjoys history...especially those in photo-journo style.

Big brother using his time wisely at his brother and sister's games, and at their First Communion earlier this year. "Reading gives us someplace to go, when we have to stay where we are," says Mason Cooley.

I am so proud of the young man this kid is becoming. My wish for him is to always believe in his smart, sincere, kind and funny self; and that his sense of fairness and rightness will guide him along the educational pathways of school and life. Remember that books are a lighthouse in the dark, a window into ourselves, a doorway to the world and a cozy blanket for comfort. Love you, DB!

And Fifth Grade is a wrap!

Inspired With Write Words

Session Days, Dancing Nights
 Women writing words; this was the group of bloggers I joined in Las Vegas last month. It was the annual Bloggers At Midlife Conference...the very first one for me. These friends I've made through Facebook and Blog posts greeted me in real life with hugs, laughter and excited chatter including "come sit here" and "you look exactly as I thought you would!" I could feel the instant camaraderie as we danced the night away at the Osteo Bi-Flex Disco Party!
We enjoyed two days of sessions filled with self discovery, branding and publishing expertise and technical updates. In reflecting over my notes and my time spent one-on-one with many of these new girlfriends, I kept noticing key words..words that empower me to get back in the game with my mind and eyes opened wider. I call these motivating terms Write Words.

                                     The words that inspire and motivate me include:

We influence our readers with every word we write. We should be using the power of our words to influence the market place, the social conscious and the younger generations. As someone who is aging actively and positively; I need to view my writing as a message; public relations, advertising, medical, educational and entertainment fields need to realize it's time to drop the "old folks" image and focus on the youthfulness of boomers and beyonders. Walker Thornton and Lynne Spreen discussed ways to shine a positive light on the strengths, wisdom and power of growing along. 

The beautiful Glenda Harrison presented this word while discussing the loss of her beloved mother; "great pain can lead to a greater purpose" she told us. I too found healing in loss; found my ability to go it alone without my editor husband in the next room. To me this means always digging deeper, going the extra mile. By continuing to participate in blogging communities, attending this conference,  branching into difference genres...I've discovered an inner strength that's reflected in my writing. Thank you for such a beautiful word that describes perfectly what we do, Glenda.

Several panelists spoke about the importance of evergreen pieces...those that are usable again and again or can easily be repurposed. I've totally had this wrong; believing it was lazy or pushy...sort of like saying "you didn't read it a year ago so I'll try again!" Now I see the benefits of reusing my Mother's Day tributes or my Dad's war story every Veteran's Day. Whether a timely piece or one for the ages; our archives of essays are still empowering and meaningful! Thanks to all of you who made this word take on greater meaning.

A hug from Tammy Bleck
The idea of branding our blogs or our name can be as simple as using a constant theme in our posts. Glenda does this with her fashion and style theme, as does Tammy Bleck with humor and Jodi Okun with finance. So many of you do this, while writing about other things as well. Your posts are presented with a familiar graphic or photo that draws us in; reminds us this is a credible source and interesting read. Gramcracker Crumbs started as a grandma with tons of grandchildren pictures and tales. I now bring my teaching and reporting background into my posts; write about fitness, aging, travel and becoming a widow. I learned my blog is considered 'lifestyle' and I'm free to write about anything. But...great food for thought here; should I rename it, 'brand' it or continue by using images that reflect grandmothering? 

Another word used be ourselves, to shine a light on our uniqueness. I found this word on several note pages; underlined, circled and with arrows! This is a BIG one for me. Worry that someone else just wrote about the same issue. Unsure if my piece is polished enough or 'Elements of Style' worthy. I heard the words "no competition" and "everyone has a story" mentioned throughout the weekend from presenters, table mates and fellow pub crawlers. How many times did I ask students to write on command; to write about the theme/story starter on the board!? I loved reading the uniqueness of each one; their voice, their word choices, their various perspectives and experiences. I am grateful to you dear BAM friends, for this boost to my confidence!

What a fun way to hook followers, present a point and give your words visual variety! Thank you, MJ Tam and Debba Haupert,  for the wealth of  information, techniques and products. Although you also spoke to videographers doing live presentations; there are many ways to incorporate clips here and there into our written posts. I've taken lots of video and I now know how to upload them to my blog. Next up will be lining up interviews or action for a purpose. This is very new and scary for me; but I appreciate how your presentation beckons and intrigues me!

Signed copy and a new friend!

Other words I highlighted in my notes were Pinterest, promote, branding, quality and clarity. Each of these fit nicely into the comments above. I'm learning to better use Pinterest to promote myself and broaden my audience. I notice the authors who value quality over quantity, and appreciate those who consider clarity a tool to enhance rather than a necessity for the clueless. I was awe struck while chatting with  Elaine Ambrose, Kathy Gottberg and Doreen McGettigan; published authors who've shared their hearts and uniqueness to succeed.

B@M Managing Partners

BAMC16 was a gift. I learned so much and met so many amazing bloggers. Thanks to all of you who took the time to chat with my daughter and I around the table or over dinner and drinks. Thanks for the Marriott experience; the walking, the pool, the spa and shops. Most of all, thanks to our Fab Four... Anne, Teresa, Beth and Sharon...who set it all in motion! 

Out of Routine; Into The Moment

Away for almost a month; I was out of my comfort zone clothes, couch, town and routines. As I hugged my son goodbye at the drop-off curb, I felt a switch turn on inside; the switch that triggers anticipation, observation, excitement and awe.
People watching comes naturally; I notice how they're dressed, how much luggage they have, how young parents handle their little ones PLUS strollers, car seats and diaper bags. I wondered why men in suits carrying briefcases appear to be important; if  women about my age were going to visit their grandchildren or heading across the globe like me? 

Central Coast Ferry on our way
to Woy Woy. 
Their headmistress gave me permission
to snap a photo as they boarded.
I was happy to see my family and had a couple dates to keep with friends. Otherwise, I had nearly a month to take each day as it flowed. A spontaneous ferry ride for lunch, a local bus filling up with school children as I rode it home from the mall, a morning walk to the village, an evening with my brother's neighbors. I loved how these things just came about and I was ready.

An unexpected fall as that bus came to a stop kept me in the moment too! I stood up as we neared my corner, clutching my packages and holding onto the pole. But then I instinctively reached for a little girl's arm and down I went! Thanks to my training on 'how to fall,' I landed on my bottom, holding my bags and arms to my chest and then quickly standing up. I was fine....and grateful those kids didn't tell as they scrambled off and into mom and dad's arms!

Inscribed stones line the footpaths
of Old Sydney
Sydney is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I made a point to visit the places my husband and I enjoyed on our visit 14 years earlier. I also made a point to visit new and different things not mentioned in the brochures. Balmoral Beach is small, remote and covered in sparkling white sand. It's out of the way and not at all a big draw like Manly or Bondi Beaches. I loved the solitude; loved that I was there alone. I made time to read more history about Old Sydney...the original spot created for and built by convicts shipped over from England. It's all sandstone....this ancient part of the city.

Sandstone walls, steps, narrow walkways and terraced gardens. The weathered sandstone breakwater along the harbor changes color with the rising and setting sun. Barangaroo Reserve, reclaimed land of the indigenous people, is the newest addition to the busy harbor area. Centuries old sandstone formations line the water's edge; many smooth enough to sit a spell in the shade.

The Opera House has several theaters and venues inside. It's iconic full sail image is recognizable the world over. I took photos years ago; took the tour and learned about it's history. This time I walked around to the front....the view cruise ships see as they round the curve into Sydney Harbor. I climbed the layers of stairs, checked out the underground level and strolled through the 200 year old Botanical Gardens next door. 

Didgeridoo wind instruments
I was so tuned in, so aware of street activity and music. The sound of boat horns, train tracks rumbling, babies crying, performers singing or playing instruments and the various languages being spoken around me. The smoothly run Overseas Passenger Terminal was captivating with it's constant buzz of worker bees. 
As I strolled the cafe and boutique promenade, I captured this funny store sign; French Connection United Kingdom is the label. A sale sign in the window pulled me in to browse. I rarely buy white tops, but found one in thick cotton for $20 AUS. Without my glasses on, the sparkly design on the front seemed pretty subtle. Bought it! Tried it on back at the hotel and ooops... a nice fancy F on the front! 

Cruise ships come and go every day. Sometimes three or more sit in dock while commuter ferries and tourist-filled boats zig zag around them. I met my high school girlfriend as she and her husband disembarked from the Millennium on my last day in Oz. Another unexpected pleasure walking and talking in the warm rain. And finding my picky-eater self enjoying a chicken pot pie at Pie Face, a favorite Sydney lunch spot. I'm glad I stayed around the terminal dock to watch their ship get underway that evening. Amazing how something this huge maneuvers out, around and away so easily. As it grew smaller, fireworks filled the sky! 


What a cool way to end my stay in Australia. The plan was simple; let's meet early at the pier.
It was the best of times, letting the day unfold spontaneously. 

 Going home brings a sense of anticipation too. I had a flight and procedures to follow which put me back in travel routine. I looked forward to seeing my younger brother waiting at the other end of my journey. It felt good knowing I'd soon be back in school pickup line, my granddaughters' asking "please, Grandma, can we go to Dairy Queen!" I've been home several weeks now; back to day-to-day chores, work and favorite TV shows. 
The best part about getting away on an adventure is still with me though.... 

The Savoring
 I'm writing stories for my blog, creating another Gramcracker picture book, 
still talking about it.

The Reflection
 I feel a sense of peace from spending days and nights with my family
 on the other side of the world. 
I feel accomplished by journeying solo, figuring things out for myself and discovering that I'm much more capable than I thought! 

The Dimmer Switch
 That switch that turned on the moment I stepped out of my son's car has not really turned off. It's dimmed for now; awaiting time and opportunity for next time!

Ten Travel Tips I've Learned Along the Way

  I. PACK small; pack light     

 I managed with a carry-on size roller bag and a canvas briefcase. My backpack and duffel bag were tucked inside; ready for weekend getaways or day tripping.

 2. EXCHANGE CURRENCY at a trusted bank
Airport and city kiosks will charge a fee. The big name banks give the best exchange rate with no fee. I had $300 American to exchange,and was able to get cash off my Visa card since my ATM cards didn't work anywhere. All I needed was my passport and credit card and about 5 minutes of the teller's time. Australian currency is different colors; making it easier to select the bill or coins you need.

3. FAMILIARIZE yourself with language and cultural differences before you depart

Countries that drive on the left also ride bikes and walk on the left. That means stay to the left when you're on footpaths, in airports and queues. Pedestrian crossings say Look Right.
Morning coffee is pretty much universal. Hotel and motel rooms provided an electric pot for boiling water; freeze-dried coffee and tea and containers of milk. Most rooms had a set of wine glasses...acknowledging that wine is best enjoyed with proper glassware!
       English speaking countries use different terminology and expressions; don't be shy about asking for clarity; you'll soon find yourself using them too.

4. COMMUNICATION know how you'll keep in touch...both in country and back home.

Despite requesting international service before I departed, I was hit with a couple $100 fees right off the bat! I next tried switching SIM cards; but my carrier had mine locked! Instead of making calls back home to straighten out; I just used email, Facebook and Instagram messaging to communicate with my US and AU worries! I did make an overseas call from the hotel once; cheaper than using my cell. Bottom your provider, talk to a live person, read the small print!

5. ASK for help with a smile and a thank you. Graciousness is recognized worldwide

Traveling solo, I asked strangers to take my picture; usually I was able to return the favor by taking theirs. I contacted the hotel ahead of time; explaining my purpose and asking for off the beaten path, non-touristy places and activities. I had to ask servers for ice a couple times for swollen feet; how grateful I was when one delivered in a ziplock bag, another wrapped in bar towels.Vigilant about photographing children, I first asked permission of their teachers. It was granted with 'no worries'...the refreshing attitude of Aussies that I so love. These field trip kiddos were at the Harbor Bridge Museum.

6. BE FLEXIBLE, be patient...many countries/people operate at a slower pace than Americans

7. EMBRACE the unexpected and spontaneous; wonder and wander about!

On the way from the airport to my downtown hotel, I realized I was too late for Easter Mass. I asked my cab driver if we could at least drive by St. Mary's Cathedral. He kindly stopped so I could take quick photos and step inside.
I did not want anymore long walks; but saying yes to this bridge walk brought happy tears as I realized this is where my husband walked so he could watch me climb the bridge in 2002. Spontaneity begets serendipity...often the greatest gift of travel.

 8. LONG FLIGHTS are's a mindset. Accept and'll be fine.

I knew I'd be facing a long flight and prepared by wearing loose, comfy clothes, and packing necessities in a carry-on bag; change of clothes and shoes, medications, snacks and trial-sized everything.
I had no control with layovers, delays and big day of departure became an unusual situation. I adapted by making new friends and writing my first travel post about living in airports!
Flight attendants mentioned wearing compression hose; something I'll consider in the future.

9. ENJOY AND TRY unfamiliar food choices and presentations.

This was a big deal for me...a fussy, picky eater all my life. It started with asking for my morning coffee. Long Black? White Expresso? As soon as I explained I preferred coffee with milk or cream; the server appeared to understand. She brought  me a Vienna...strong coffee topped with whipped real cream whipped! It comes with a spoon and looks like a sundae...I was hooked! I stuck to familiar foods at first; beef burgers, fish and chips. But as the weeks went on, I needed variety. I tried lamb chops, duck, pot pies, and skinny red salmon slices...seemingly my salad. They were all delicious! Never ate lamb chops, duck or chicken pot pies in my life, and grilled salmon chunks with spinach are pretty much my staple at home. I noticed kangaroo burgers on menu listings, but no way!

 10. REACH OUT to a concierge or public relations personnel before you go.

I was going as a travel writer this time; but in New York City, I was a nervous grandma taking a teenager to the Big Apple. I talked with the head concierge at least once a week for months. By the time we arrived at our hotel, I was greeted at the front desk with hugs and hand holding to ease my stay and worries. I call ahead to ask for low floors near the stairs and what kind of meals are offered on site. I learn so much more from a live person aiming to please than I do from chain websites.

Wally in New York probably pictured a little ol' granny and was prepared to make me comfortable. Todd in Sydney found me in the lobby pub to see whom he'd been emailing with for weeks. Both of these gentlemen suggested places that were perfect for me!
       Local knowledge trumps guide books in my opinion.
                                  Happy Travels!