What Do They Even Eat Here? — Wednesday Writing Prompt

“There’s no Prince Spaghetti here. There’s no Hood Ice Cream. There’s no Salada Tea. What do they even eat here? How am I going to feed myself?”

My older brother had just taken a new job at the University of Missouri at Columbia, and his first trip to the grocery store was an exercise in culture shock. We are Bostonians, and that means that we grew up drinking Salada tea with milk and sugar around our grandparents’ dining room table, we ate Hoodsies (ice cream in a cup) at birthday parties, and Wednesday was always Prince Spaghetti Day. Our family did not buy a lot of name brands, but these were staples. When we move from Boston and can no longer smell the ocean, these are among the things that we miss.

I understood his shock, because when he called me, my husband and children and I had been living in Texas, where one also could not find these things. Tea had been the first shock. Salada teabags had sayings on their tags. Some of these were profound, others were bad puns. In Texas, when I drank a cup of tea and looked at the tag, all it said was the name of the brand. I took to drinking coffee, instead. But at restaurants and gas stations, one could not get coffee “regular” (milk and two sugars), which was a New England Thing long before Starbucks had people ordering ventis and lattes. No, because it was hot outside, coffee came not with cream but with non-dairy creamer — in powder form.

I had a sister-in-law to guide me through this strange new world. She and my husband’s brother had moved from Michigan to Houston to work for NASA back when there were fewer Yankees in town, and at the local Kroger no one had heard of rhubarb or Vernors. But after one of the hurricanes, Kroger diverted all their trucks to Texas, to fill the emptied shelves, and these strange products became popular. My children grew to love Vernors, and after we moved to Connecticut, our trips to visit my in-laws in Michigan always ended with a Vernors run. The soda was rationed, saved for birthdays and illnesses.

My sister-in-law explained to me about heat and food, about how Yankee food has to be kept cold and Southern food was designed for warmer weather, and for people who, before air conditioning, needed more salt and sugar, both of which my children’s classmates put on their watermelon slices. People needed sweet iced tea, and buffet foods that could be kept warm without losing their flavor.

She gave me brands to try. Blue Bell Ice Cream turned out out to be as good as Hood. Skinner Pasta had as much of a cult following as Prince Spaghetti, in part because they made Texas shaped pasta for the State’s Sesquicententennial and they were so popular that they just kept making them. Over the course of our time in Texas, each of my children glued Texas-shaped pasta to an outline of the State of Texas for “Go Texas Day,” something my son was sad to learn, when we moved, that Connecticut did not celebrate. “That’s okay,” he told his first grade teacher. “Just tell me, when is ‘Go Connecticut Day?'” Alas, there exists no such beast. Texaroni cost no more than any other pasta, so it became part of our Wednesday pasta supper, and also made a nice gift for visitors.

I told my brother he had to adapt, and learn to eat for the region where he was living, and come to appreciate the good things that Missouri had to offer. He tried, but told friends who asked where he was working that he was “living in the State of Misery,” and when he had a chance to teach at Princeton, it wasn’t just the prestige and the salary that attracted him — it was that he could find good Italian food at the local Shoprite.

When you are young, you don’t know what is local and what is everywhere. A friend from Long Island who was planning on visiting Wellesley as a prospective student asked me if Wellesley got New York television stations. I told her no, Wellesley got Boston stations. Her face fell. “I’ll die if I can’t get NBC, CBS, and ABC,” she said. I explained the difference between nation wide networks and their affiliates, and it made more sense to her once she started classes.

The Prompt: What brands did you assume were everywhere, and not find when you moved? How did you cope? Or, what things did you think you would never see again, and were surprised to encounter?

Using brands in your writing: Name brands can ground a story in space and time. In “Summer of My German Soldier,” the narrator hears the family maid singing the “Rinso White” laundry jingle. This small nod to 1940’s Arkansas domestic life also subtly hints at race issues which arise later in the book. The cleaning products your characters use, the brand of coffee that they prefer, the brand of detergent the family can afford, all can be a shorthand introduction to their lives.

What you remember: Some brands don’t exist any more. Some people who preferred these brands also are no longer with us. Write about a product that you remember that you can no longer find, whether because you moved or because it no longer exists.

Write about revisiting something you used to love but don’t buy any more. It can be those disgusting orange candy peanuts or your father’s aftershave, lemon oil furniture polish or your ex-boyfriend’s brand of soap. Smelling and tasting things again brings back a flood of memories that do not exist in words. When you put words to them, you gain some mastery over your past and present. You can find many discontinued products online.

There is one value in a planned encounter. But you could also write about finding an old friend in a strange place. There was one dessert my late mother made that I could not find a recipe for anywhere. We had called them “date nut bars,” and all the recipes that I had found under that name were…wrong. Then at an estate sale, I bought a cookbook that did have the recipe. I made them and brought them to church. “Oh! Chinese Chews,” the ladies said. Had I known the other name, I could have found the recipe sooner.

You were a different person when you ate these foods, used these products, smelled these scents. There may be things you forgot that you did or thought that will come back to you when you explore.

Putting It Together — Wednesday Writing Prompt

When my goddaughter was old enough to ride without a car seat, her family let her celebrate by riding home from church in my car. My car doubles, sometimes, as a purse, so in preparation, I had crammed everything that had been in the back seat into the netting behind the driver’s seat, and she was intrigued and pulled something out. “You have a lot of interesting things here! What’s this? Is it lotion?”

I could see that she was holding a tube, but I couldn’t see what it was. “I don’t remember! What does it say?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I can’t read yet.”

“I forgot! Okay, can you tell me the letters and I can spell it out?”

“Okay. I see an A, and a G, and an E, and a D-E-F….”

“This isn’t working. Why don’t you hand it to me at the red light.”

When we stopped for the red light, she handed me the tube. “Age-defying sun screen.”

“Oh!” I said, “This is what I wear in the sun, so I don’t get wrinkles.”

“Oh! I can use that!” she said. “Sometimes the tips of my fingers wrinkle.”

Putting things together from clues is an imprecise art. What one person infers from what another describes can be the catalyst for wonderful stories. The late writer Vasili Aksyonov used this technique brilliantly in his story “Papa, Slozhi,” “Daddy, Put it Together,” where a young girl spending Saturday with her father spells out words for her father to read, and in the process drops clues about another situation he needs to spell out for himself.

In Aksyonov’s work, the revelation is poignant. Modern cartoonist Nathan Pyle uses the technique humorously, referring to familiar body parts as “flavormuscle” and “mouthstones,” while making universal observations about human troubles.

Mystery writers love problems with letters. On “Columbo” the detective solves a mystery by re-arranging the stencils that a slain millionaire was going to use to paint a word on his boat. In other mysteries, a message is typed with the hands three letters off, and ripped pages with words that are incomplete are a trope.

There are also abecedarian essays and poems.  I don’t really care for these, but sometimes having to use a form makes you realize what you really do want to write. 

Writing Prompt: Letters

Write about someone figuring out what a word really is, and thereby figuring out something bigger.

Examples: A person misreads a word in a friend’s post or note in a way that reveals an underlying fear.

The rest of a word or sign is obscured, and the reader reaches a conclusion that is unfounded and debunked.

Parents spell something in front of their children, and the children conclude the wrong thing from it.

In a letter someone spells a word wrong in a way that changes the meaning, and another person reads the letter and reaches a wrong conclusion. (Example: when I was substitute teaching some young readers kept using the word “pride” out of context. It took me a while to realize they were aiming for “pretty.”)

Play around with the idea, see what you come up with and consider having it published if it’s any good.

This is For Special — Wednesday Writing Prompt

The Wentworth by Thomas

Growing up, I understood that my mother’s mother’s china had a special place in our lives. They were not just dishes; they were “your grandmother’s good china.” We used them for company and birthdays, for special occasions and holidays. Grandma Rooney died before I was born, and these dishes were, with a few other items, my connection to her. These dishes were kept in a special built-in rosewood cupboard in the dining room, and stayed behind glass when it was not a special time.

Dishes can be a shibboleth. When we read “Jane Eyre” in ninth grade, I was struck by how important a treat it was for ailing young Jane to receive a pastry on a special dish:

Bessie had been down into the kitchen, and she brought up with her a tart on a certain brightly painted china plate, whose bird of paradise, nestling in a wreath of convolvuli and rosebuds, had been wont to stir in me a most enthusiastic sense of admiration; and which plate I had often petitioned to be allowed to take in my hand in order to examine it more closely, but had always hitherto been deemed unworthy of such a privilege. This precious vessel was now placed on my knee, and I was cordially invited to eat the circlet of delicate pastry upon it. Vain favour! coming, like most other favours long deferred and often wished for, too late! I could not eat the tart; and the plumage of the bird, the tints of the flowers, seemed strangely faded: I put both plate and tart away. 

Some dishes are an honor; others serve a less honorable function. When my children were young, once all of them were sick at once, and we followed suit. I handed out buckets and basins and finally designated one of my cheaper mixing bowls as the Emergency Barf Bucket. After everyone was better, all the receptacles were washed and sterilized and the mixing bowl was put in the kitchen but not with the dishes, just with the canned goods, in case I needed to hand wash something or soak an item of clothing. Everyone knew not to use the plastic green mixing bowl — everyone who lived with us all the time.

Then as a special treat, some weeks later, my husband and I hired the daughter of our son’s pre-school teacher to babysit for the evening. She was a teacher in her own right, and the children really loved her. I told her she could help herself to anything and could even make brownies, if she liked. I put the box of brownie mix on the counter. I should have been more thorough. When we came home, she told us how good the children had been and told us they had even saved a brownie for each of us. I was about to pick one up and bite it when glanced across the kitchen and saw the green mixing bowl in the sink, with brownie batter still clinging to it.

An object that has meaning and history for one person is just a thing to another.

Here’s the background: Everyone has a special dish, a favorite coffee mug, the plate that everyone wants to use or the dish that no one wants. My husband and his brothers each had their own colored cup, and it was unthinkable to drink from the green instead of the blue.

Getting the Dishes You Want: I learn from my friends. One bought her sister a beautiful gold china set that their parents gave away upon the sister’s death. This left a hole in my friend’s heart until she saw a way to fix it. On Ebay, she found the same set and bought it, setting it up in her dining room where it shined on her quilts, statues, paintings, and carpets, part of the warp and weft of her daily life. That inspired me. When my stepmother moved, she had given each of us siblings some of what remained of my mother’s good dishes. I chose the big glass plate with metal decorations that had held so many birthday cakes, the tray that had held the celery that I stuffed with cream cheese and walnuts for hors d’oeuvres as a child, and as many of the Wentworth plates as still were intact. I lamented that there weren’t really enough for a full dinner, so my husband encouraged me to go through an online website to obtain enough matching plates to have eight place settings. The day they arrived, I could hardly breathe with anticipation. Unwrapping them felt good, initially, and I set aside the bubble wrap, removed the stickers, washed the plates, and put them in our new china hutch with the rest of the set. But after, I felt like a fraud. I could not tell which dishes my mother and grandmother had held and which were from strangers. I was almost as unhappy as Jane Eyre. Later, when we had company, pre-COVID, and I served a formal meal on the good china, with flowers and candles such as I could not have done with four children home, some of my joy was restored.

Here’s the prompt: Every family has their own special dishes, for better and for worse. Write about a time when someone let you use the good thing, or when someone made you use the bad thing. Think — who or what kept you from having the one you wanted? Was it love on your part, giving your husband the big cup or your child the plate that wasn’t chipped, or was someone making a statement, or, worse, oblivious to your happiness or sorrow?

Here are examples: You might write about choosing your own china pattern for your wedding, or about seeing dishes like those someone you love had at a yard sale or flea market. Or you could write about what happened when a dish that you didn’t know that you treasured broke.

You might write about a mother and daughter arguing over whether an old, chipped dish should be discarded. To the daughter, it’s old; to the mother, it’s a gift from the departed. Or, vice versa, it may be important to the child to use the pink cup and a parent may try to give her juice in the white one.

How many ways can you reveal a conflict, using dishes, without actually spelling out the source of tension?

Enjoy!

Wednesday Writing Prompts

Introducing something new, a writing prompt every Wednesday, to do with what you will.

See the source image

Here’s the background:

I needed to print something.

I remembered that we were low on ink.

I called out to my beloved, “Could you please change the ribbon?

He asked, “What ribbon?”

I sighed and remembered what century it is.

“The ink cartridge. Could you please change the ink cartridge?”

Here’s the prompt:

What is a word that we don’t use any more for something that we still do or use?

Examples:

When I was growing up, older adults said “dungarees” for “blue jeans” and “ice box” for refrigerator. Somewhere between 1975 and 1985, “jogging” became “running.” At some point as a nation we stopped using participles and nouns (“unveiling” and “request”) and started using verbs as noun (“the reveal,” “the ask.”) Tee shirts used to be “undershirts.” Now they’re just “tees.”

Here are possible ways to use the prompt:

  1. Have one character use a word that the other doesn’t understand, as an aside or as a catalyst for crisis, to show the difference in age without using numbers.
  2. Write a poem using the old word for something as the title, perhaps the memory of a moment.
  3. In WWII, escaped prisoners gave away that they were Americans by the way they used their knife and fork in France. Create a scenario in which the use of a term gives away something about a character.
  4. Nonfictionistas, write about a time you used a word that everyone knew when you were younger and people don’t know now.

Enjoy!

There May Yet Be Time

“Hurry up and write that book, Ann Marie,” said my last living grandparent. “I’m not getting any younger, and I want to read it before I die!”

No pressure.

I have written many things in my life — poems, essays, two theses, many posts to online groups that were turned into articles, and some articles that were accepted and even paid for, which is becoming uncommon. But I haven’t written The Book, or even A Book, even though I have made verbal promises to produce two (One is about Bishop Constantine and the other isn’t) and I have saved pictures and documents for a third. Now that my children are grown and we are living both in semi-retirement and during a general world wide pandemic quarantine, you’d think I would find the time to write them, but time is not the issue. As an old commercial used to say, “It’s not soup yet.”

But I am encouraged by a show on PBS that I found in passing and watched twice (we have both Ohio and Kentucky PBS stations available in Cincinnati, so often I can catch something on one channel if I miss it on another.) It was part of a series on poetry, and focused on one of my favorite poems.

My senior year of high school, when I took the AP English exam, I was gobsmacked by the poem we were asked to analyze. It was by a poet I had never heard of, Elizabeth Bishop. “One Art,” which you can visit here, discusses “the art of losing.” The list of things that she has lost escalates and becomes both more abstract and more intimate. I almost went over the allotted time writing about it, because it so mirrored feelings of my own.

I thought, then, that poets had to be single and young.

I was blessed to be able to take poetry courses at Wellesley with Frank Bidart, who had been Bishop’s friend. I paid for my graduation gown rental with the prize money for a sonnet I wrote as a senior, and had poems published in various school publications, but then I got married and had four children. I still wrote poems, but I rarely published them.

When I watched the PBS show, in which various people talk about how the poem affected them, and talk about loss, I was mesmerized. I lose things — I am a frequent flyer when it comes to praying to St. Phanourios. This is a season of loss anniversaries — ten years since my brother’s repose and twenty-five since my father’s — and we have relocated to another State and Town which meant selling the house we had lived in for nearly twenty years. This was the third “realm” I had lost, after Roslindale, Massachusetts, and Webster, Texas. Intellectually, I accepted the loss of the house, and parish, and town, but when I saw that the new owners had cut down all my flowering shrubs, I felt a fresh wave of new pain. I expected the windows and roof to go, but I thought the lilacs and forsythia were forever.

My mother lived to be 37, my brother 47, and my father 57, my current age. I worry that I am reaching my expiration date without having Done Things. I am too old to make a “thirty under thirty,” or “forty under forty,” or even a “fifty under fifty” list of hot new writers. And I feel neither hot nor new.

But a group of MFA writer friends and I formed a poetry group, and I have been writing poems again, which also makes me want to write everything else, also. And then, when watching the PBS show, I heard two facts that I didn’t know about the poem: it took sixteen drafts. And Bishop was sixty-five when she wrote it.

I have published poems that had fewer than sixteen drafts.

And I am still not sixty-five.

We live in hope.

There are so many things I want to say and write, but, one cannot water a garden with a firehose. I don’t just want to fling my words into the universe — I want to curate them, I want them to be sculpted and present them properly. And that’s what Elizabeth Bishop did. It took her sixty-five years and everything else she did and wrote to prepare her for this task.

I may yet have worlds enough, and time.