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Thursday, January 28, 2021

New Release -- Yolanda’s Hope (The Barlow Wives Book 5) Kindle Edition by Agnes Alexander


Yolanda Stinson has had her eye on handsome Paxton Barlow ever since they were kids. Though she’s four years younger, she’s always hoped that one day he’d notice her. When the Stinson ranch is attacked and Yolanda’s father, Daniel, is severely injured, Paxton steps in to help—and to protect the Stinson family and holdings.

But Paxton is shocked to realize that Yolanda is all grown up—not the little girl he remembers from their growing-up days. And his beautiful neighbor has the power to make Paxton see red when she looks at another man! A confirmed bachelor, now the youngest Barlow brother is confronted with a decision he never thought he’d have to make.

With more attacks on the Stinson ranch, Paxton vows to get to the bottom of what’s going on—and as the sinister plot unfolds in unimaginable ways, he and Yolanda find themselves in a desperate situation.

But some hard losses bring Paxton and Yolanda together in an unbreakable bond of trust and love. As they fight together to hold on to the legacy Yolanda’s father worked so hard to build, can they also hope to make something of their own? Can Paxton promise Yolanda a future, and be the answer to YOLANDA’S HOPE?


Yolanda Stinson sat the plates on the table and glanced at her mother. “How long do you think it will take Daddy to finish in the barn?”

Shirley turned from stirring the green beans in the big black iron pot on the stove. “I don’t think it’ll take him much longer. That’s why I want to go ahead and finish up dinner. He’s been up working since dawn because he intended to go to town. He didn’t take much time to eat breakfast. I wanted to have everything ready when he comes in because I know he’s going to be tired and hungry.”

Before Yolanda could answer, the thundering sounds of horses came through the open kitchen window.

“What in the world could—”

Shirley hadn’t finished her sentence when several shots rang out.

Yolanda ran to the back door and jerked it open. Her mother was on her heels.

One of the riders turned his gun toward the house and fired. The bullet hit the post holding up the porch roof. Before he could get off another shot, Shirley jerked Yolanda backward and slammed the door shut.

“Mama, what—“

“I don’t know, Yolanda. Shut the window, and I’ll get the rifle. I don’t know who they are or what they want, but we have to keep them out of here if we can.”


Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Intrepid Women of the Klondike

     When we learn about the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98, the names we usually hear are male – those Klondike “kings” who struck it rich. But many women also caught the “gold fever” that ignited the frenzied stampede northward in search of treasure, a fever that spread quickly thanks to an economic depression. They came from all walks of life, some with husbands but many alone. Their reasons for venturing into the unknown were as varied as those of the men, ranging from desperation for money to feed themselves and their families to a desire for adventure.

     About 1500 women crossed over the White Pass or the Chilkoot Trail in their quest to reach Dawson City and the Klondike River region. Here are four of them.

  Mollie Walsh Bartlett

      Mollie Walsh left her home in Butte, Montana to join the Klondike Gold Rush in the fall of 1897. On the boat north, she met a Presbyterian preacher who began building a church upon his arrival in Skagway. Mollie raised money and helped build the structure, then became active in the congregation.

     In March 1898, Mollie bought restaurant supplies and had them packed up the White Pass Trail to Log Cabin, in Canadian territory. There she set up a successful grub tent and roadhouse, where she served freight packers and gold stampeders. She became known as the “Angel of White Pass Trail.” Many men became enamored with Mollie, and she had her share of suitors.

      She moved to Dawson in June, opened a restaurant and became involved with Mike Bartlett, a pack train driver with a drinking problem. They were married in December. The next summer, she left the Klondike with enough money to make a home in Seattle, Washington, with her newborn son. Her husband went to seek gold in Nome, Alaska.

     When Mike joined her in Seattle, their marriage deteriorated and she left him. In 1902, Mike shot her in the back outside her home. He was acquitted of the murder charge by reason of insanity and sentenced to an asylum. The court called it a "crime of passion," as they often did in those times. After his release he hung himself, leaving their two-year-old son orphaned.

   Kate Rockwell

     Kathleen Eloise Rockwell lived in New York City working as a chorus girl and performing in vaudeville houses. She moved to Spokane, Washington, following a job opportunity with a variety theater where she lived on dance and drink tips. When Kate heard of the Klondike Gold Rush, she and a friend immediately left for the Yukon.

     After arriving in Skagway in 1899, she continued northward, with stops at Lake Bennett, Whitehorse and other settlements along the way where she tap-danced to support herself. In Dawson, she was offered a job with the Savoy Theatrical Company, the largest theater troupe in the Klondike. Her risqué “Flame Dance” was very popular, and she earned as much as $750 a night performing for newly rich, but lonely, miners. She became known as “Klondike Kate, the Belle of the Yukon.”      

      Kate amassed a significant fortune. Working with her lover, Alexander Pantages, she sold bottles of watered-down champagne to inebriated miners, thus adding to her riches. Dawson’s prosperity began to wane in 1902, and Pantages convinced Kate to leave for the West Coast of the U.S. There he used much of her money to buy theaters in the Pacific Northwest and persuaded her to take her show on the road to earn more money to support his pursuit. She returned from one such tour to find he had married another woman.

       To support herself, she again took her act on tour, performing in saloons and theaters up and down the West Coast.  This life took its toll on her and she retired from the stage, nearly broke. She traded her house in Seattle for a homestead claim of 320 acres near Brothers, Oregon. She stayed at her claim for the requisite seven years, making improvements to the land and outbuildings then sold the land and moved to Bend, where she built a lodging house.

      She had a short-lived marriage to a cowboy followed by a happier one that lasted thirteen years to a miner who died in Alaska. Two years later, in 1948, she married again—this time to a longtime friend and accountant Bill Van Duren. They retired to Sweet Home, Oregon, where Rockwell died in her sleep in 1957 at age 84.

  Lucille Hunter

     In 1897, nineteen-year-old Lucille Hunter left Michigan with her husband, Charles, for the Klondike. They were among the few African Americans who joined the gold rush.  After leaving with a group of stampeders from Wrangell, Alaska, they followed the Stikine River through the coastal range and then overland to Dawson. This was considered one of the most difficult routes to the gold fields.

     Lucille was pregnant at the time. She and Charles stopped at Teslin Lake, where she gave birth to a daughter. The indigenous Tagish community apparently had not seen black people before and were at a loss for what to call them. They referred to the Hunters as “just another kind of white person.”

     Most of the others in their group stayed at Teslin Lake for the winter, but the Hunters decided to go on alone by dogsled over hundreds of miles of snow in temperatures that dipped as low as 60 degrees below zero. They and their infant daughter arrived in Dawson just after Christmas in 1897, well ahead of most of the stampeders. This allowed them to stake three claims along Bonanza Creek, where they lived in primitive conditions, digging gold and raising their daughter.

      A few years later, Charles also staked some silver claims near Mayo. The couple mined gold and silver until his death in 1939. Lucille continued to operate the mining claims and raised her grandson, since her daughter had died earlier. When construction began on the Alaska Highway in 1942, Lucille and her grandson moved to Whitehorse. She set up a laundry business and her grandson made the deliveries around town. 

     In later years, she lost her sight but kept up with current events by listening to her radio. She died in 1972 at age 93.

  Martha Black

      Martha Purdy and her husband Will left Chicago and their wealthy society life for the Klondike in 1898. Her brother George accompanied them, but they left their sons with Martha’s mother in Kansas. When they reached Seattle, Will was called on business to San Francisco.  While there he changed his mind and suggested they go to Hawaii instead. Her biography, My Ninety Years, states: "I wrote to Will that I had made up my mind to go to the Klondyke (sic) as originally planned, that I would never go back to him, so undependable he had proven, that I never wanted to hear from or see him again. He went his way. I went mine."

     Martha persuaded her brother to accompany her on the trip north. They arrived in Skagway in July and joined a party that set out on the Chilkoot trail. A fashionable woman, she found her clothes ill-suited for the climb. "As the day advanced the trail became steeper, the air warmer, and footholds without support impossible. I shed my sealskin jacket. I cursed my hot, high buckram collar, my tight heavily boned corsets, my long corduroy skirt, my full bloomers, which I had to hitch up with every step."

     As she was traversing the trail, Martha discovered she was pregnant. The party stopped at Excelsior Creek, where she and George staked placer claims, which they planned to work the following spring, then went on to Dawson. Single and pregnant, she was shunned by Dawson society. The town was overrun with stampeders and there were few accommodations available. George rented a cabin across the Klondike River, in a less reputable area near the brothels. She gave birth to a son in the tiny cabin.

     While she was still in Dawson, her father arrived and convinced his reluctant daughter to return home with him on the condition that she would return if her claim, left in George’s care, panned out $10,000 worth of gold or more. In June 1900, she received word that her claims had surpassed that level of production. She returned to Dawson, where she established and managed a successful sawmill and mining camp financed by her family. This and her original claim made her financially independent and she was finally welcomed into the local social scene. In 1904, her divorce from Will was finalized and she married Dawson City lawyer George Black.

      George became Commissioner of the Yukon in 1912 and later served four terms in the Canadian Parliament. When he resigned for health reasons, Martha ran in his place in the 1935 election and won. At age 69, she became the second female Member of Parliament to serve in the House of Commons. She was known as the First Lady of the Yukon.

      “What I wanted was not shelter and safety, but liberty and opportunity,” she wrote in her autobiography. On October 31, 1957, Martha died in Whitehorse at the age of 94.


     I often include real-life historical figures in my novels. Although I didn’t include any of these women specifically, they and several other women of the Klondike provided the inspiration for Katie, Millie and Grace in The Claim. Intrepid female trailblazers of our past, like Mollie, Kate, Lucille and Martha, paved the way for the courageous female leaders of our present and our future.  

Monday, January 25, 2021

Love & Magic in the Middle Ages

Love and magic in the Middle Ages

The Beguiling of Merlin (1874), by Edward Burne-Jones. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.Imagine you're a young medieval lady and a young man creeps up, whacks you three times over the head with a hazel stick inscribed with the magical incantation pax+pix+abyra+syth+samasic and tries to kiss you. It sounds a touch desperate these days, but in the Middle Ages this was seriously suggested as a way for a man to get a woman to fall in love with him.

Medieval lovers tried subtler ways, too - spells, charms, amulets and potions - to win the affections of those they desired, all in defiance of the church, which objected to magical interference with a man's or woman's free will.

Love magic was practised and feared by all sections of medieval society, including royal courts. This is reflected in the stories of the time. In the romance of Tristram and Iseult, the couple fall in love because they accidentally drink a love potion intended for Iseult and her betrothed, King Mark. In the story The Two Lovers, composed in the late 12th century by Marie of France, a suitor must carry his beloved up a high mountain before he can marry her. Too proud to drink the magic potion that will give him strength, he completes his quest by the power of love - even though he dies of exhaustion afterwards!

A possibly Viking love spell that has passed into folklore in northern England is a custom where on certain nights unmarried girls chant: 'Hoping this night my true love to see,/I place my shoes in the form of a T'. T surely stands for Thor, the Norse god for storms and also for marriage, the idea being that the girl would then dream of her future husband.

Men and women in the Middle Ages also believed in a multitude of herbs and spices to bring them luck in love. Caraway was used in love potions, as were cloves, coriander and mallows. Garlic and ginger were believed to inspire lust and so good sex. Valerian mixed with wine was claimed to make even the most pure woman lustful. And in Italy, women would wash their eyes with the diluted juice of the deadly nightshade to increase the size of their eye pupils and appear more beautiful (which is why nightshade is known as belladonna.)

In medieval England guests to a wedding would bring small cakes and pile them into the middle of the table. The bride and groom would try to kiss over the cakes for good luck.

In northern Europe, it was the custom to supply a newly married couple with enough mead for a month, to ensure their happiness and fertility - hence our term 'honeymoon'. If a man had problems with virility in bed, it was often assumed he was bewitched and the couple was advised to remove any evil charms that might be placed under or near the bed, such as the testicles of a rooster. Once these were removed, the man should be free of the curse. To drive a woman wild with desire, it was believed that mixing ants' eggs into her bath would do the trick. Hmm.

You can see and read about more medieval magic and beliefs in my novels, TheSnow Bride and A Summer Bewitchment, where the heroine Elfrida is a witch and hero Magnus a warrior. You can see more Viking magic in my novel The Viking and the Pictish Princess and read romances inspired by medieval ideas of midsummer magic in the anthology One Midsummer's Knight.

The Snow Bride 
A Summer Bewitchment
The Viking and the Pictish Princess 
One Midsummer's Knight 

Lindsay Townsend

Walking and Writing. Walking and Thinking. How Walking Aids the Creative Mind

 By Patti Sherry-Crews

Walking While Reading

“He appeared one day, driving up in one of his cars as I was walking along reading Ivanhoe. Often I would walk along reading books. I didn’t see anything wrong with this but it became something else to be added as further proof against me. ‘Reading-while-walking’ was definitely on the list….Anyway, I did not want a lift. That was generally speaking. I liked walking—walking and reading, walking and thinking.”—From The Milkman, by Anna Burns

In this story, set in 1960’s Belfast, a young woman insulates herself from the sights and sounds of life lived in a war zone by burying her head in books as she navigates the city. Until one day a notorious paramilitary leader takes an interest in her and she is forced to face the sectarian violence in her community. I think about this book a lot. I imagine the main character (who remains nameless like all the other characters) repeating like a mantra, “I’m walking and reading. Walking and thinking.”

Walking While Writing

 Views From My Morning Walk

I’ve always been a fan of the long walk. I start my days, except in case of extreme weather, with a long, brisk walk. This past year I’ve set about my walk with more intensity. Not unlike the young woman in The Milkman, the thought runs through my mind, I’m walking and I’m writing, walking and thinking.

This walk plays a key part in my writing, which is a fact I’ve known for years. I do my best writing away from my desk. I dialog with my characters and see where they take me. I organize my thoughts and problem-solve while I'm out in nature.

And I’m not alone in this, because there are many writers who find this exercise spurs their creativity. Wordsworth said he wrote the whole poem Tintern Abbey while out on a ramble, and when he got home he was able to commit it whole to paper.

There was a study that came out years ago saying the opposable limb movement involved in walking is like a brain massage and walkers reported an increase in their creativity hours after going for a walk. 

So imagine my delight to find a new book, In Praise of Walking, by Shane O’Mara. O’Mara is a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College, Dublin. Much of the book tells us things we already know about the benefits of walking: weight loss, mood elevation, strengthened circulatory system, etc. But the chapter that most interested me was titled Creative Walking. 

According to O’Mara our brains work in two modes. 1) Active Executive Mode and 2) Default Mode. In Active Executive Mode, the mind is focused and processing details. The Default Mode he calls mind-wandering or what we might call gathering wool or daydreaming. We switch back and forth between the two modes, and it’s necessary we do so. The default mode allows us to incorporate information from the active executive. I’m sure the writers among us recognize hitting a snag and having to “procrastinate” for a few moments. Stop feeling guilty when you step away from your work! It’s part of the process. 

Lake Michigan a Short Walk Away

He goes on to say that when you use both modes simultaneously, you are at your most creative. So, this is where walking comes in. While we’re not aware of it, walking is a very complex activity. We’re trying to stay balanced and upright, while being alert to possible hazards, and accessing maps in our head. But unless you’re a toddler your body has this covered. Meanwhile your mind is free to wander. I liken it to giving a child a box of crayons so the parent can turn their attention to other work. 

While we’re walking, we drift in and out of awareness of our environment. Take a minute and think about all the things that run through your mind on a hike or a walk. You remember past experiences, imagine future possibilities, work through problems, and think about your relationships among other things. O’Mara calls this “Active idleness” or “mental housekeeping.” I call it story-telling. 

In addition, walking stimulates the part of the brain, the hippocampus responsible for memory function. And what is creativity but the ability to make connections? As a writer, I’m aware of how I use stored memories to create a story. Bits and bobs I’ve collected over the years, float around in my brain, ready to be stitched together.

An Evanston Bridge

Walking while Talking

“The advantage of walking in company is that it facilitates information exchange, and the integration of that information with your own memories, thoughts, and feelings.”— Shane O’Mara

I love to walk with friends, and in this time of Covid, it has become one of the only ways to spend time together. But, my favorite walk is the walk I take with my daughter every morning. She lives in New York City. I live in a suburb of Chicago. We coordinate our free times so we have an hour or so to chat. We share news, gossip, laugh a lot, share insights, talk about the past, and sometimes we walk together in silence. Often we share pictures of interesting or pretty things we see on our walks.

When my then 24 year old daughter drove off to New York City March 1, she had an apartment lined up in Brooklyn, sight unseen. She rented one room in a windowless apartment with three strangers. Yes, really, no windows. Just skylights in every room. I asked her if she thought living in a windowless apartment with three strangers was a good idea. Her response was “How much time do you spend in your apartment, anyway?”

As fate would have it, she would spend a lot of time in a windowless apartment with three strangers. Months, in fact. Within weeks of moving there, the virus hit New York City and hit it hard, especially in the area of Brooklyn where she lived. She hadn’t even had a chance yet to meet people, so she was largely alone. In her favor she left Chicago given the opportunity to continue working remotely, so that was a blessing as it turned out.

All she could do outside of her apartment was to go for long walks or bike rides. This was when we got in the routine of our morning walk and talks. It was our lifeline to each other. At that time, while we walked I heard the almost constant ambulance sirens in the background. In fact, she did compare it to living in a war zone.

She came home for the summer and returned to New York just as things were opening up again. She switched apartments and now lives in a converted loft that has not only windows but floor to ceiling windows and two new, great roommates. 

So, things are much better now, but we have kept up our daily walk and talks. I love listening to the city sounds in the background of her calls—the traffic, other people talking and laughing, and the bird sounds. An incredible amount of birds! More than I hear here.

The Brooklyn Bridge

Anyway, I mention this because recently I was going through her Instagram account to find a particular item. Scrolling through her pictures sent me back in time, and I thought, wow, we’ve been through a lot! We’ve been through a lot—not she’s been through a lotI didn't just remember her telling me what happened, I felt it in my bones.

Walking and talking with her, in good times and bad, her experiences are imprinted in my mind in such a profound way, that even before reading In Praise of Walking, I had an ah-ha moment about the power of walking while talking.

Thankfully, she’s living her best life (or near to it as can be at the moment) in NYC. Incidentally, she has a new job producing podcasts for the aptly named Roam Media. My fellow roamer.

Living Her Best Life (as best as can be expected with outdoor dining, masks, sneeze guards, and social distancing)

Of course, not everyone can get out for a daily long walks for one reason or another, but there are other activities I find allow my mind to wander and help me craft a story. Knitting and working jigsaws puzzles will do this for me as well. Are you a walker? Are there other activities you engage in that help your creativity?

images the author's own

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Revolution Ends

 January 14 marked the release of the last of my trilogy on the Revolutionary War. It's fitting that the final book of this series, A British Governess in America, culminates with the burning of Groton, CT by the British in the final days of the long Revolutionary War. 

I've written before on this blog about the Ohio Firelands, which I investigated upon my return to my home state after an extended absence. The part of Ohio I returned to was part of the compensation the government extended to the citizens of Groton as payback for losing everything in the war. When I wrote this book, since I had already researched the fires, I tried to place myself in the town, and in the situation my heroine found herself in. As a stranger in the country, and an English lady, she found herself in a precarious situation each time she left the relative safety of the home. 

My heroine, Eleanor, spent her days hunkered down in her house, always concerned that there was not enough food in the house to feed her charges, and without the proper supplies to teach the children, who were relying on her for schooling. 

Somewhere along the way of putting together this story, I began to compare the life I was crafting for Eleanor to my own situation in the middle of a pandemic. I was virtually housebound, constantly concerned about if I had enough toilet paper, and afraid I'd run out of paper for my printer. 

We may be a long way from the America of 1783, but due to our current circumstances, maybe not that far. Here's hoping we can return to our normal lives in 2021. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

New Release -- A British Governess in America (Revolutionary Women Book 3) Kindle Edition by Becky Lower

Eleanor Chastain has never left her hometown in Sussex, England. For ten years, she’s been a governess to the local earl’s young children, and now that the last of them has gone to boarding school, she finds herself unemployed. But the earl has other plans for her—a nephew of his in the fledgling country of America desperately needs a guiding hand for his five youngsters. Though Eleanor wants no part of America or the earl’s nephew, she has no choice but to accept the “offer” and set sail for the war-torn country.

Patterson Lovejoy’s wife died two years ago in childbirth, and chaos has ruled his household since that dark day. Though he’s glad to have Eleanor’s help, he begins to wonder if the peace of mind he has enjoyed since her arrival is worth the torment he is feeling as time goes by—and he finds himself falling in love with her. He can’t allow that to happen, since he feels responsible for his wife’s death. Marriage--ever again—is out of the question.

But with the deciding battles of the Revolutionary War approaching, can they take a chance on their love, after all? Will the war end their secret longing for what might be between them before they can admit their need for one another? When the battle hits their home and they are separated, Eleanor discovers an inner strength she didn’t know existed, and Patterson must make a decision he never thought he’d face.


Reginald Patterson bustled into the room, finally, and sat behind his desk. “Miss Chastain, I wish to thank you for all your years of service.”

Eleanor bent her head to hide her tears from the earl. “You’re quite welcome, sir. I have enjoyed my years here.”

“Look at me, Eleanor.” The earl’s voice was soft.

Eleanor brushed the tears from her cheeks and slowly raised her gaze. The earl was smiling! How could he? Did he have no grasp of how her life was about to change? No, he could not fathom how her life would be upended. Only his life was important to him. He was smiling because he was probably happy to reclaim the coin he’d had to pay her over the years to educate his large brood. She gritted her teeth and locked her gaze on him.

“Do you suppose after all these years, I’d simply kick you out?”

“No, sir. I’m certain you’ll provide me with a letter.” Eleanor lifted her chin. “I have ensured that all your sons were properly prepared for Eton.”

“Yes, you have. My wife and I have made certain everyone in Sussex is aware of your value to us. But I’ve also informed everyone in Sussex that simply because we no longer have children at home, we still have need of you, and they shouldn’t bother attempting to entice you away.” The earl grinned at her.

Eleanor sputtered. “You did…what?”

“There’s still a job for you, Eleanor.” The earl rose and strode to the globe he insisted on having near his desk. He spun the orb so it showed England, the Atlantic Ocean, and America. Pointing to the American side of the Atlantic, he shifted his gaze to Eleanor. “You are going to America.”

Eleanor’s stomach clenched and she fisted her hands over the knot. “I beg your pardon?”


Wednesday, January 13, 2021

My dachshund Charlie – looking for the door into summer by Kaye Spencer #dachshund #pets #prairierosepubs #funnypetstories

I wrote this reflection the first winter Charlie, my rescue dachshund, lived with me (2012). He moved in with me that July, and we were still getting to know each other. He was barely four years old, and he had never been house trained.

I hadn’t yet discovered indoor pee pads. At the time, I didn’t have a doggie door, just a cat door, and it was too small for him to use. (That egregious oversight was soon remedied.) haha

Charlie - summer 2012

A dachshund as an exercise workout

 No one needs to purposely exercise in the winter when they have a wiener dog who needs to go outside on a below zero day with eight inches of snow on the ground. Let me tell you my story…

 I bundled-up my rescue dachshund, Charlie, in his cute little winter coat, and carried him outside, because he refuses to go out on his own if the temperature is below 90° F. I tried all the usual places for him to ‘do his business’, hoping he’d find one of them appealing. No luck. So, out into the neighborhood we ventured (not an unusual occurrence) with stops every ½ block or so to check for just the right spot.

My snow boots ar
e awkward and make me walk like a duck with snowshoes on, and my long heavy coat is fuzzy on the outside so when Charlie’s feet are too cold for him to continue walking (which is about every two feet), I hold him so his feet are in the fuzziness so he can get warmed up. Of course, the streets are icy and snow packed, but I only lost my footing twice. The first time I went down in a gracefully soft slow motion way in a snowdrift that cushioned my fall. No one saw it.

The second time, I lost it completely, sending Charlie nose diving into the snow. A guy driving toward us witnessed the crash, and he stopped to see if I was okay. We weren’t hurt. But it kicked into high gear my Charlie-must-pee-before-I-give-in mission.

By the time this outdoor adventure was over, I’d done deep knee bends, toe touches, and leg stretches to brush snow away from potential pee spots just so he could give me the old stink eye while standing and shivering on dry ground from which I’d gone to all the work to clear off the snow…just for him. Plus, Charlie weighs 15 pounds, so carrying that little tub of lard added to my aerobic workout. My heart rate was up, I was sweating, and I was on the verge of frostbite on my nose and cheeks but, by golly, I won the battle. He finally peed…35 minutes later and two pit stops back to the house to warm up.

Darn good thing I’m retired.

Darn good thing I love him to pieces.

And I get to do this repeatedly…all winter long…and next winter…

Until next time,

Kaye Spencer

Look for Kaye here:

Monday, January 11, 2021

What’s the first thing you do every morning? Me? Coffee! Before I can even consider doing anything else, I pour my first cup of steaming, fragrant brew. After nearly 40 years, my husband knows not to talk to me before I’ve had my first cup—I wouldn’t remember what he said anyway.

I started drinking coffee when I was very young. My first memories are sitting down with my Granddaddy Thrailkill and sharing a cup. Of course, mine was a cup of milk with just enough coffee to tint it a bit and his was black as pitch. But that didn’t matter to me: I was drinking coffee.

Coffee has been around a long time. From the legend of the caffeine-hyped goats in Ethopia in the 1400s, to monks drinking the brew to stay awake for evening prayers, to the fashionable of London visiting one of the 300 coffee houses in the mid-17th century, coffee is a permanent part of all cultures around the world.

Many times through the centuries, governments and clergymen have tried to ban coffee with little success. Mecca, Italy, Constantinople (Istanbul), even Prussia, where Frederick the Great tried to convince the populace that beer was a better choice for breakfast.

The Dutch brought coffee to New Amsterdam (New York) in the 1600s. After the “tea party” held in Boston Harbor, coffee became the American beverage of choice.

Coffee is said to have fueled the American Civil War. Soldiers wrote in their diaries of their need for their morning cup more often than they did rifles, cannons, or bullets. Men ground their own beans and brewed coffee in little pots call muckets. Some carbines even had built-in grinders so the soldier never went without.

There’s even a statue to coffee. At Antietam in September of 1862 19-year-old William McKinley made the most unlikely coffee run ever, dodging through heavy Confederate fire to deliver vats of coffee to the Union troops. No wonder he was elected president thirty-five years later.

Ah, that fabulous brew. Love it or hate it, it’s fully entrenched in our lives and in our kitchens.


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Friday, January 8, 2021

Countess Mabel Montgomerie -- a woman ahead of her times or a monster in men's eyes?

 The first in a series of looking back and ancestors

Ever notice the media tends to be harder on women than men?  They critique their hair, what they wear.  If a women is strong she is portrayed as being hateful, mean or—excuse the slur—a bitch.  Men are not subjected to such criticisms.  You cannot go anywhere that you won’t see this in action: she’s too fat, too short, too skinny, her nose is too long, eyes close together, omg—she wore a pantsuit!  There is Miss America, Miss Universe, Mrs. America, Miss Black America—but where is the Mr. America or Mr. Universe?  Just stop and try to think of a platform that subjects men to those same demoralizing nitpicking.  Tapping my nails on the table, waiting.  Fashion throughout history was a means to see women conform.  Whatever the era the dress, customs, protocols and positions in life, all were dictated by men’s critical eye and control.  Along with the male point of view on the woman’s role in life, they have also managed what we know of how women lived, survived and dealt with their roles in a man’s world. 

Now extend that throughout history. There were a few matriarchal societies through the ages, the belief being you cannot tell a man’s true father at birth, but you knew who the mother was.  Those societies were stamped out, or consumed by male dominance.  This is not a rant of hating men, for I find them endlessly fascinating, only I am humbugged that women’s pasts are increasingly lost to our knowledge due to being relegated to “unknown mother”.  There were women over the centuries that seized life and molded the course of their destiny, their fortunes, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine (my 24th great-grandmother).  Only rarely have historians portrayed these women in the light of admiration.  Randall Wallace, in the screenplay for Braveheart, opens the movie with the line “...history is written by those who have hanged heroes”.  Women had often been portrayed as little more than servants to their husbands, a brood mare to bear heirs, and a piece of property easily discarded, once they have worn themselves out birthing babies one after another.  They were set aside, locked away in some nunnery— or sometimes died in highly suspect circumstances i.e. murdered— to make way for another younger, richer wife. 

 I had to wonder about this slant against women as I looked at my first ancestor in this series of blogs about unusual women:  Mabel Montgomerie.  She has been called many unflattering things, murderess, "l'Empoisonneuse", evil, greedy, wicked—and she paid the price for her deeds—real or rumored slander.  However, with history turning a blind eye to granting women their true recognition, it’s very hard to find the facts to refute these claims.  I can only ponder and try to be impartial in judging my ancestor, especially since some of the writings about her come from Orderic Vitalis, who was only two years old at the time of her death. 

(Countess Mabel Montgomerie's arms)

My 31st great-grandmother on my mother’s side, Mabel Montgomerie was born Mabel Talvas dame de Bellême et d'Alençon in Alençon, Orne, Basse-Normandie, France, sometimes around 1030.  As often the case for females, the exact date was not noted.  Neither was the name of her mother recorded, only singled out as “Hildegard, daughter of Raoul V de Beaumont”.   Even in death, Mabel is not allowed to rest in peace, as her tomb has been destroyed due to the hatred of her.  She was a wealthy Norman noblewoman.  She inherited the lordship of Bellême from her father, Guillaume II "Talvas" de Bellême, seigneur d'Alenço.  Mabel was a loyal woman, but that loyalty cost her when her brother exiled their father for various offences—his cruelty was legendary, they say—including killing their mother for daring to disagree with him on the way to church.  Being a loving daughter, favorite of her father over her brothers, she accompanied him in his exile, thus earning the amenity of everyone, automatically believing she was “cut from the same cloth”. 

Mabel and Guillaume sought the protection of Roger II "The Great" de Montgomerie, 1st earl of Shropshire, earl of Arundel & earl of Shrewsbury.  He was one of William the Conqueror’s counselors, but stayed behind for the 1066 invasion of England, actually left in power to run the whole of Normandy.  For that, William rewarded him with holdings of two powerful positions in England, and immediately he began building the massive Ludlow Castle.  Besides this, he eventually built his honours to number eight-three, over half of England and Normandy.  Small wonder, people called him Roger “The Great”.

(Ludlow Castle)

Mabel saw him as a husband worthy of her goals.  The Talvas convinced Roger they were the aggrieved party, and that her brothers were plotting to get rid of her, since Guillaume had named her as his heir.  Well, the brothers were plotting, so we have that much truth.  Her dowry was worth a king's ransom—if they could get his oldest son off their backs.  Mabel came with massive lands, endless wealth and a shrewdness that attracted Roger.  He was as ambitious as Mabel, if not more so, thus they seemed a perfect match.  Theirs was not only a brilliant political bond, it must have been a marriage of love, since she bore him eleven children!  Thus, Mabel became Countess Shrewsbury, Shropshire, Arundel—and eighty other titles—through her marriage to the eminently pious, Roger Montgomerie. Through the ages, Montgomerie men have proved time and again to warm to intelligent wife, relishing the challenge of women willing to step outside of the normal roles afforded females.  Following that tradition, Mabel was given free rein to be an equal partner to Roger.   

(Abbey of St Evroul)

But not in one matter—religion.  Montgomerie supported many churches and abbeys, and even built several abbeys on his different fiefs.  The biggest thorn in her side was the Abbey of St Evroul.  Religious views likely was one their first clashes of wills.  She was determined he curtail the huge fortunes he was placing in the hands of these monks and priests.  Roger was very devout, and the religious sects ran their monastery on his largess, frequently prevailing upon him to give more than the general tithing. Tithing was required in ancient times—everyone was to give ten percent of their income to the church.  Since he inherited control of her lands through the marriage, coin from her holding of Bellême, in northwest France, was going into the hands of these ever-needy monks without a bye your leave.  That didn’t sit well with Mabel. Most of this tale comes from writings of the monks, especially the head of the order—Abbot Thierry.  He was Roger’s confessor, so in spite of Montgomerie’s ever growing greed, the abbot proved adept at bending his lord’s will on concerns of the monastery.  Thierry heard the man’s confessions.  It was reasonable he likely knew Montgomerie’s nature, as well as Mabel’s.  Since the strong-willed Mabel’s attempt to curtail their monies, we have to take their reporting of incidents with a thimble full of salt.

(Abbey of St Evroul)

No matter what, Mabel could not influence her husband on this issue, especially this tug of war with Abbot Thierry.  Being a cunning woman, she devised an end run.  She began visiting the monasteries, with her full entourage.  Castles and the monasteries, in medieval times, were basically required to serve as hotels for traveling lords and ladies. Mabel created a win-win situation.  She would go traveling the countryside on the excuse of checking on her husband’s vast holdings, along with her one hundred knights and ladies, and various servants. These abbeys dare not offer insult to the countess, or run the risk of Roger withdrawing his support. They were forced to open their gates and all Mabel and her retinue in, to stay as long as they liked.  They would have to feed them—and all the horses.  Mabel saved money by not feeding the lot at the Montgomerie honours, and she was draining away the supplies bought with her husband’s monies. 

The Abbot tried to reason with her, that they were a poor monastery (which was not the truth and she knew it) and it would drain them completely to support her entourage.  Mabel was unmoved by his appeals.  When he said feeding one hundred knights, and providing for her “worldly pomp” was simply too much, Mabel said fine, she would leave.  But—she would return the next week with one thousand knights!  Thierry was furious—a mere woman daring to best him.  Likely, he knew he was losing this battle of the wills, so he countered, “Believe me, unless you depart from this wickedness, you will suffer for it!”  Much to no surprise, a few hours later at supper, Mabel suddenly was seized by stomach pains.  She retired for the evening and the queasiness turned to agony.  From this distance, we can assume one of the learned monks put something in her supper, and you can bet the incisively smart Mabel knew it, too.  Ceding the battle for the moment, she took her troops and left the monastery.  The monks were not content with that bit of mischief.  On the way home, Mabel stopped at the holding of Roger Suisnar.  Still feeling ill—according to the Abbot—Mabel demanded Suisnar he give her his infant child to suckle at her breast.  The child drew the poison from Mabel, who instantly recovered.  Only the small child died doing it. Mabel knew the monks had poisoned her, but instead of demanding her husband punish them, she wisely never went to the abbey again.

The next big black mark history sees against Mabel was endlessly hunger for more land—and vengeance against those who had opposed her, her father and her husband. Arnold de Echauffour, the son of Lord William Giroie, presented himself to Roger, seeking his aid.  William was an old enemy of Mabel’s father, and there was a long running blood feud between the Montgomeries and the Giroies.  Arnold was making his way back from Italy, and stopped to present himself to Earl Roger, hoping to gain favor.  Arnold sought to barter a truce between his family and the Montgomeries.  He even presented a fine fur cloak to Roger as a gift.  He wanted Roger to throw his might behind him, so he could see his ancestral lands restored to his father.  As Roger’s holdings were so widespread, he was always in the need of loyal knights, so having one less enemy was worth putting aside old grievances. Arnold swore homage to Roger, who gave him a writ for Arnold and his father to travel across Montgomerie lands without bother, and agreed the Giroies lands in Montgomerie’s hands would be returned to them.

It is reported that Mabel was less than happy with this turn of events.  She decided to avenge her father on her own, so it is written.  Here is where it’s murky, more rumors than fact, but history seemed determined to paint Mabel as a monster.  Tales say she prepared a celebratory drink to seal the pact, and had one of her prettiest ladies take the potion to him, before he left the holding.  Whatever the circumstances, Arnold did not trust the daughter of his old enemy, and refused her kindness.  Unfortunately, Gilbert Montgomerie, Roger’s only brother, was showing off, grabbed the goblet and gulped it down.  Gilbert was some miles away, when he fell ill.  Three days later he died in anguish.  Roger’s brother had been a valiant knight, and was much loved by all.  Roger adored his brother and grieved deeply.  

Some time later, Arnold did fall gravely ill.  Rumors swirled Mabel had poisoned him by sending some “special” refreshments to him.  It seems rather unlikely, if Arnold did not trust her, and proved that by refusing the drink she offered before, why would he accept another such beverage sent from her? Arnold, Lord Grioie, and his chamberlain, Roger Goulafre, all fell ill, and had to be carried back to their castle.  Both Goulafre and Lord Grioie recovered with good care.  Arnold did not.  He died on the first of January 1064.  The lands he sought to claim stayed with Roger Montgomerie's possession.  After those events, the Giroie family fell on hard times.  Arnold’s infant children were sent to live as poor relations within the households of various lords across Normandy.  His wife sought refuge with her wealthy brother, Eudo, steward to the Duke of Normandy.  The Giroie family would never be powerful again.  Who poisoned Arnold?  There were several possibilities, but all fault fell on Mabel’s shoulders.  Few point at Roger Montgomerie, who gained as much as she did.  It’s just too easy to blame a female—just like they blame Helen of Troy for causing the Trojan War.

Roger held great influence with the duke of Normandy, who was paranoid about his vassals rebelling.  When Roger hinted this his neighbors were planning just this thing, the duke listened, and was only too happy to have Roger put down the so-called rebellion by striking first and seizing the lands of Eodolph de Toni, Hugh de Grant-Mesnil and Arnold d’Eschafuour, amongst many others.  So it was clear, Roger was as devious as Mabel, maybe more so.  When Mabel’s brother died in 1070, she finally seized control of that part of the lands of her father.  Between Roger and Mabel, they owned so many honours in three countries, that he was as powerful and wealthy as any king. 

That sort of influence, and sway with the kings of two nations, naturally fermented jealousy and enemies. Hugh Brunel de la roche was one of the knights who lost everything to Roger and Mabel.  Unable to accept the humiliation of losing his ancestral holding, he plotted to take his revenge.  During the long night of December 2, 1079, Hugh led his three brothers to force their way into Mabel’s quarters at Château at Bures-sur-Dives.  Mabel was relaxing in her chamber, enjoying a bath, when Hugh and his brothers burst in.  Before she could raise a cry, Hugh lopped off Mabel’s head with his great sword.  Her son, Hugh de Montgomerie gave chase to the murdering brothers; they evaded pursuers by destroying a bridge, knowing those following could not cross the small river due to wintertide flooding.  They left Normandy, never to return.

Mabel’s decapitated body was buried three days later at Troarn Abbey.  Her tomb was marked by an epitaph.

Sprung from the noble and the brave,
Here Mabel finds a narrow grave.
But, above all woman’s glory,
Fills a page in famous story.
Commanding, eloquent, and wise,
And prompt to daring enterprise;
Though slight her form, her soul was great,
And, proudly swelling in her state,
Rich dress, and pomp, and retinue,
Lent it their grace and honours due.
The border’s guard, the country’s shield,
Both love and fear her might revealed,
Till Hugh, revengeful, gained her bower,
In dark December’s midnight hour.
Then saw the Dive’s o’erflowing stream
The ruthless murderer’s poignard gleam.
Now friends, some moments kindly spare,
For her soul’s rest to breathe a prayer.

Mabel’s tomb survived into the early 18th century, but by 1752 it no longer existed.  No one knows what became of her body.

History, written by men, painted her as a monster, a poisoner.  But you have to wonder how much was really her machinations, and how much was blamed on her because she was an easy target.  She was beautiful, smart, aggressive, and dared to take a place in a man’s world.  I have to wonder if she is guilty more of those thoughts, than the supposed deeds attributed to her.

Her son carried the mantle of her animosity.  Robert de Belême de Montgomerie, comte de Phonthieu, 3rd earl Shrewsbury and Arundel, was known as "Robert the Devil."

Thank you for taking time to stop by and learn about Mabel, a woman ahead of her times.  I hope you will continue to join me on the second Saturday of each month, to learn of another colorful ancestor.