The Dolly's Dress

Always make it a pair. When buying a bra, get the matching panty. When sewing a dress for a little girl, make one for her dolly, too.

Mom sat quietly in front of the sewing machine, the lamp shining brightly over her shoulder onto the tiny dress she held on her lap. A matching one, only slightly larger, already hung in a little girl’s closet, far away in Australia. 

Mom turned the dolly’s dress inside out to inspect the waistline seam she had just sewn. She frowned and slowly pulled out each little stitch: something wasn’t right. This was for her first granddaughter. The dolly dress must match the girl’s dress perfectly.

Mom, Isabel, dress. Photo by Karen Dean.

Mom, Isabel, dress. Photo by Karen Dean.

My own sewing lessons ended abruptly years ago when I broke a fourth needle. Mom had, however, successfully taught me the satisfication of sewing—precision—particularly when attaching a full skirt to a fitted bodice. Each stitch must take in more fabric from the skirt than from the bodice, but it must do so invisibly. Begin by pinning the side seams to one another, then pin the center and the back of the skirt. Do not sew. A gathered seam must first be basted. Cut a long section of cheap thread and sew it first by hand. Squish, push, squeeze the fabric. Do not fold it: we are gathering, not pleating. 

Once the dress was finished, she hung it on a tiny hanger next to her sewing machine, anticipating the dolly’s next visit. Mom refused to mail the dress, preferring to gift it in person so she could savor the delight it would elicit. 

As the months passed, though, her cancer progressed. She could hardly walk by the time the little girl arrived, but in the middle of the international arrivals lounge, next to the luggage carousel, dolly was stripped and joyfully transformed into something quite perfect.


- After her mother’s death, Jerilyn Sambrooke took a renewed interest in sewing but has yet to master the fine art of a gathered skirt. Jerilyn currently lectures in the Rhetoric Department at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also working on a memoir, Alpenglow: A Year of Darkness, that narrates the year following her mother’s death. Her reflections on grief owe much to her academic research on religious practice and secular life in contemporary fiction.

How to Get Your Grandchildren Ready for Church

It’s a little easier, but not by much, if the children’s parents also spent the night before Sunday service, but for the mornings you are alone preparing anywhere from five to seven grandkids for church:

Wake up the two girls first. Give the sisters a little privacy as they pick out their toothbrushes from the bathroom collection. Invite them to the table as you finish your coffee. Remind them to bring what they need for their hair. No, not on the kitchen table. Coffee table is fine. Make sure it’s blue Ultra Sheen for extra shine.

Corral the boys. The girls are savoring perfectly toasted bread spread with real butter. They fantasize about the day they will be old enough to be offered a pour from the percolator. Shout the wrong names at all the boys until they get it together enough to sit at the table for scrambled eggs, toast and orange juice. Inspect all their haircuts. Giggle to yourself remembering the edge ups their grandfather had given them the night before: Lord, how that Tony screamed, then, with tears drying in his eyes, reassured his brother in the chair that it doesn’t hurt. It don't hurt, Andy. That Tony, oh boy, that Tony.

Style the girls’ hair and here comes their favorite part: picking out the hair ribbons that match their dresses. Clip barrettes to the ends of their ponytails, pin a bright bow to their pigtails. Inspect their knees for ash.

Cry out for the industrial-sized lotion bottle and attack those ashy knees. Pile everyone into the Lincoln after carefully wrapping their offering coins into embroidered handkerchiefs. Arrange those beautiful black children in a row on your regular pew. Sorry, Sister Campbell, my grands are visiting and they are taking your seat. Pass down to each a hard butterscotch candy and a final warning hush. The service is beginning.

This custom doll by Jacqueline Bryant Campbell wears a dress made from the author’s daughter’s baptismal gown.

This custom doll by Jacqueline Bryant Campbell wears a dress made from the author’s daughter’s baptismal gown.

- Erica Hoskins Mullenix is a freelance writer and editor, and a contributing editor here at Dead Housekeeping. Besides personal essays detailing her life as an introverted middle kid, bewildered but kickass mother and special needs parent, she also writes short fiction. Proudly an alum of Howard University in Washington, D.C., Erica created the online writer’s community known as yeah write in April 2011. She has had essays published in Salon, The Houston Chronicle, PANK, and other print and online publications. Her fiction and other writing can be found on her personal blog. Follow Erica on Twitter @freefringes

- Jacqueline Bryant Campbell is a contributing editor at Dead Housekeeping, and you can admire and order her dolls at her shop, Jacq's Dolls.

How to Stamp a Robin

Here in Michigan, where Marilyn always lived, not all robins migrate south for winter. But unlike a hardy cardinal who will brighten a snowy view, or a crow who gloriously doesn't give a shit when you see or hear it, robins are out of sight, out of mind here, until lots of them show up come spring.

Robin, Mrs. and worm.jpg

If you "stamp" the first robin you see once the snows melt, it will bring good luck.

When you see that first robin of springtime, you lick the pad of one thumb and grind it into the opened-flat palm of your other hand, as if securing a stamp on the "envelope" of your hand. That's it. The missive need not be addressed, apparently the stamp knows where it's going.

You can do this even if you are not very superstitious. For example, Marilyn had an aunt back in the U.P. who read the tea leaves from the bottom of a China cup. It was fun, but Marilyn didn’t put much stock in it. Annotations in her cookbooks all deal with measurements, never improvisation. If Ed hadn't insisted she stay home because his management job at General Motors "was enough," Marilyn said she would have liked to become a librarian because she liked putting things in order.

All this is to prove: Even the data-minded can celebrate spring by stamping a robin.

Marilyn and Meredith laugh and wait for the snow to melt in 1998 or 99.

Marilyn and Meredith laugh and wait for the snow to melt in 1998 or 99.

The only other thing that needs doing is to check in with a few loved ones you’ve taught to stamp robins. If you're the first to stamp one, it will alert them that it's time. If they already beat you to the stamping, you let them know anyway because spotting a robin is something good to talk about.

Don't worry about missing your chance. Once the habit is ingrained in you, you will always know, as soon as that first spring robin appears, to stamp it. It is satisfying to do so, like balancing your checkbook to the penny, but better because this makes you feel like a family and the forsythia will blossom any day now.

 

- Meredith Counts is one of the founding editors of Dead Housekeeping.

Cabbage Rolls On Vicodin

Mom and I come up to help you and Pap after you get your knees replaced. Pap’s old-school, a Greatest Generation guy who’s only comfortable cooking BLTs, maybe an egg or two. Mom and I trade off tasks, but we want to leave you with sustenance: your trademark cabbage rolls.

From your bed, you sleepily tell us the ingredients. The filling is half ground pork, half ground beef, a kind of rice they don’t make anymore (I parboil regular rice), chopped onion, eggs. The cabbage, you say, should be dense. Feel how much it weighs. For the sauce, get Campbell’s tomato soup, the big cans. We’ll also want to get a can of chopped tomatoes to put on the bottom on the pot along with the pieces of the cabbage we cut off so the bottom rolls don’t burn. The sauerkraut should be the kind with caraway seeds. Remember to squeeze it.

Gram, on the phone with the author

Gram, on the phone with the author

Pap helps you out of your room while Mom and I smoosh together the filling. We’re using your big pot to boil the cabbage—not the heavy one of my childhood that gave us your pot roasts, but a lighter one that one of your kids must have gotten you. You tell us to put the whole head in there; stick a fork in the core, and with a knife, cut off the leaves as they get tender and stack them off to the side. “Be careful. You’ll get …”—you search for words, even though you’re nothing if not precise—“… hot hands.” Mom and I look at each other and realize that you’re kind of high from your pain medication. But you’re also right. You remember all this, even behind the curtain of Vicodin, the lessons of your Polish mother.

You show us how to form the cabbage rolls, using a sharp knife to trim the edges. “Tuck in the ends. Not like that. Like this. You don’t want them to fall apart.” You do one before you need to rest. Mom and I are both amateurs at this—it’s a miracle of pharmacology and aging that we’re allowed to use your kitchen—but we do our best.

I’m assembling and layering the cabbage rolls in the pot, and I run out of tomato soup. I scrabble through the cupboards because I know I don’t have time to go to the store, not if you and Pap will eat at a decent hour. I come up with some Prego.

We wake you. We ask you if it’s okay that we use Prego in the cabbage rolls. “Some people do,” you say.

“Some people,” I realize too late, translates into “some poor fools who weren’t taught right.” (Later, you’ll tell Mom, “I don’t know why I said that!” and laugh.) We ruin the cabbage rolls and know it almost immediately—but you eat a little over the mashed potatoes that Mom made and say, “I love you, my angels.”

 

Jennifer Niesslein is the editor of Full Grown People and the author of Practically Perfect in Every Way. You can read more about her Gram, a bootlegger’s granddaughter, in Jennifer’s essay “Before We Were Good White.”

 

Preserving Time

Perfect sun-warmed peaches fill baskets slung on my arm in August. A recipe from my mother reads “Pfirsiche,” but I hardly need it. That day, my granddaughter fetches the folded paper. She is a struwwelpeter, a messy child, whose hair catches on the fly paper hanging in the barn. She needs taming, and I start with teaching her to preserve peaches.

I tie an apron behind my neck, as we begin putting time in a bottle.  We wash a dozen quart-size jars with Ivory liquid in the porcelain sink. Rainbow bubbles escape into the sunlight streaming through the wavy glass of the farmhouse windows. Her smooth young hands—a contrast to my wrinkled ones—reach out to catch them.

The author's grandmother and great-grandmother, picking peaches in 1943

The author's grandmother and great-grandmother, picking peaches in 1943

Dropping the clean glass into pots of boiling water with tongs, I set the timer to twenty. I show her how to schnibble with a paring knife, and she fills a red enamel bowl to the brim, my clever Schnookzie.

Add the zucker and the salz, I say, teaching her German as we cook—two-cups per two- cups per bowlful. Easy. I want her to remember. She rolls lemons under her palm, halves them, squeezes out the juice. Mixing everything together with my hands, I tell her, these will be the best tools in your kitchen. I sprinkle in ein kleines of vanilla, which we both pronounce a klex into the filled jars.  Sealing the lids, I say, wait for the magic.  Peng! go the tops, and she laughs.

- Ryder Ziebarth is a writer, a gardener and a mother, who lives on a hay farm in Central New Jersey where her daughter is fifth generation. Ryder received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2016 and has been published in Brevity, The New York Times, N Magazine and is currently working on a memoir about her life on Cedar Ridge Farm.

Grandma's Bread


Grandma raised seven children during the Great Depression, baking bread every morning but the Sabbath. Even a generation later, with the house filled only on weekends, there was never a loaf of store-bought bread.

Grandma couldn’t read, so I had to watch her prepare what we all called “grandma’s bread,” writing down the recipe and guessing at amounts. “Feel the water on your wrist,” she showed me, as she mushed a cake of Red Star yeast into a glass of warm water, “and add a bissel sugar.” We waited for it to bubble and foam. Five times she scooped from the 50-pound sack of flour that lived in the corner cupboard, dumping each scoop into a large ceramic bowl. “Make a well,” she said. Into it she tossed two small piles of salt, measured in the palm of her hand, the yeasty water, a blob of Crisco, and another glass of water. “Here’s the secret,” she whispered, cracking two eggs, saving out a little yolk for the crust, and pouring in the rest.
 

the author's grandmother sitting in her yard

the author's grandmother sitting in her yard

Grandma’s large, rough hands – hands that also embroidered, and cleaned, and hovered over the Shabbos candles, but rarely had hugged her own children – kneaded the smooth white dough. I knew I gave her naches: joy from children. “Just for you,” she’d say, forming a baby loaf, back when I was a little girl who tiptoed downstairs at sunrise. It smelled and tasted of love when I ate it, hot from the oven, slathered with good Wisconsin butter.

- Enid Kassner is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University writing program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Elephant Journal3QR: The Three Quarter ReviewRat’s Ass ReviewInscape, Switchgrass ReviewWatershed Review, and other publications. She was awarded first place in creative nonfiction by the Coastal Bend Wellness Foundation. Enid writes and teaches yoga in Arlington, Virginia.

How to Make Daal

Spread lentils on a rattan tray, surveying every single grain. Scan for tiny pebbles masquerading as lentils. Close your eyes. Feel with fingertips for hard pebbles amidst the suede of lentils.
 
Rinse once. Drain. 
 
Rinse again, watching bits of dirt surrender—the flotsam you wish you could cull in your life. Drain.
 
Rinse again. Wonder if it’s ever completely cleansed? Be reminded of scars. Drain.
 
Repeat till it feels redundant or clear, whichever comes first.
 
Cook low and slow in a silver-clad handi —stir in all the spices you can muster. Simmer till the tiny beans forgot they were tiny and turn into fiery silk. Lace with garlic slices fried in ghee. Entice everyone within one kilometer of the house.
 
Ladle two big spoonfuls of steaming daal onto an island of gleaming white rice. Your plate: cheery and hopeful. A ruse.
 
Suck in your breath. Brace yourself for the unabashed heat. 
 
The first spoonful is confrontational, the second, loud. The following are demanding—your mouth feels numb and your skin lets go of beads in apology for all you can’t go back and heal.
 
Remember—it’s punishing and delicious. Remember your childhood zeal for it annoyed your mother who made perfectly delicious daal herself, though hers didn’t try to pick a fight with the world; being so brash, like your grandmother’s.
 
Your mother’s daal: a well-constructed, post-colonial argument, checking off all the vagaries of politeness and repression. Her daal took the path of perfectly balanced civility in spices, tried to smile its way out of anger, tried to look to the ground to mask moments of rage. 

the author's Nani and mother on her mother's wedding day in 1975

the author's Nani and mother on her mother's wedding day in 1975


You are definitely full. Ladle another big spoonful.
 
Because this reverie will end the moment you lick your fingers. You’d be back yearning for a home that never was.
 

- Saadia Muzaffar is a marvellous, brown, work-in- progress - trying to feel her way through life, friendship and love while fighting to stay angry.

Of Modakams and Meticulousness

Savoury Modakams were everyone’s favourite. Soaked uraddhal and chillies, coarsely ground then steamed. Seasoned with mustard seeds, curry leaves, a pinch of asafetida and a generous amount of grated coconut.

The author's Patti, whose nimble fingers moulded perfect modakams

The author's Patti, whose nimble fingers moulded perfect modakams

“Never leave the coconut for more than thirty seconds in the hot oil,” was Patti’s thumb rule.

“The determinant of a good ‘Modakam’ is its wafer-thin skin and not the sweet or savoury puran whose taste lingers on after the consumption.”

Pinching off a ball of wet rice dough, cooked in boiling water with a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of oil, she would use her fingers to flatten the edges and work the middle to get a cup shape. Then she would spoon the filling, nimbly bring the edges closer to taper it at the top and break off the extra dough. the finished Modakam would join the army in the steaming plate.

"Innipu kozhukkattai" Image by  Jayashree Govindarajan/Wikipedia  

"Innipu kozhukkattai" Image by Jayashree Govindarajan/Wikipedia 

“It is an endurance test, a testimony to becoming a good wife.” I would look at the broken dough in my hand, panic shuddering through me. Secretly smashing it, I would start again.

As the making peaked, Patti would multi-task. She would knead fresh batches of the dough with water and oil, splash water on the cooked Modakams, coax them apart and transfer them to big steel bowls after they cooled.

The process would go on throughout the day. By night, not a single Modakam would be left. Patti would be stretched on the heirloom wooden swing, expecting no praise.

- Vijayalakshmi Sridhar has been surrounded by stories since young - both telling and listening to. Her day job as a freelance feature writer for the mainstream dailies and monthlies is the platform through which she meets people, many of whom have found their way to her stories’ characters- either as they are or in disguised forms. She believes that human relationships and their dynamics are the most interesting things to write about. She is keen to explore her journey as a story writer in non- specific genres. A mother of two girls, Vijayalakshmi is also interested and involved in many other creative pursuits.

Yarn

White yarn turned into lacy covers for toilet paper rolls. Skeins of homely grey wool became 17 Christmas mice. Grandma’s knitting needles kicked together on long silver legs through balls of yarn that darted around the living room. Hot afternoons high above Minneapolis, her stout thighs stuck to my skinny ones on the sofa, her needles clacked like a second old lady while we watched Days of Our Lives, with its slamming doors, kisses, and crying. “He’s no good,” Grandma would tell me, or “She deserves better,” or “I was afraid of that.”

The author's grandma, making something pretty.

The author's grandma, making something pretty.

Over TV trays of Wonder Bread covered in oleo and sugar, with the last of her preserved rhubarb, we’d watch General Hospital, then As the World Turns. Summer vacation passed, as each day Grandma wore a different homemade purple dress, ranging from palest lilac to deep violet, and a rotation of aunts, uncles, and cousins visited while she knit them baby blankets and ski caps, and once, with a tiny, hooked needle, she crocheted a red bikini for my Barbie. Sometimes someone would mention The Farm, a place they all loved but could never return to because Grandpa still lived there. In the city, Grandma had fashioned herself a new life, with lots of accessories and a pink car, just like Barbie. She’d cushioned herself with family and ball upon ball of colorful yarn, made a soft place, a woolen fortress blocking out the one person who could make a big woman feel small.

- Lynn Mundell's flash fiction has appeared most recently in Drunk Monkeys, Tin House "Flash Fidelity," and Pure Slush. More is forthcoming this year in Split Lip Magazine, A3 Review, KYSO Flash, and Five Points. Lynn lives in Northern California, where she co-edits 100 Word Story.

 

Copy Your Life

Every time my dad would travel somewhere, even if it was just to Tijuana for the day, my grandmother would make him Xerox all of his documents.  In case there is an emergency, it is important to be able to prove your identity.

Not just your passport, which the US State Department recommends, but literally every document you might need in your life ever. What if you are detained by a Mexican cartel or someone steals your wallet or if you get into legal trouble or if there is a storm or an earthquake or if? Or if? Or if?

So, Driver’s license. Check. Social Security card. Check. Credit Cards. Check.  Recent photos, medical records, and bank account information.  Also check.  Sandwich club cards and contact information for high school friends.  Probably all that too. Just to be safe.

Preferably, all of this will be contained in a meticulously organized stack, contained in a manila folder that can then be contained in a filing cabinet inside the den next to a computer that needs to boot up for five minutes.  You never know what might happen, so best to get your affairs in order ahead of time (even if those affairs are really just peace-of-mind-Xeroxes). 

For all of the traveling my father did she never stopped him. Instead, she just kept an ever-growing anthology of his papers.  Just in case.

the author's grandma, sans anxiety

the author's grandma, sans anxiety

- Alexandra Bay is a an aspiring writer trying to find her place in the world. Alexandra graduated from the University of Arizona with a MA in history the same weekend that her grandmother died and, shortly after, packed up all her belongings to live in a truck.  Alexandra now lives in a house in Salt Lake City where she is eagerly awaiting summer.

A Wiped Wall Gathers No Mold

Keep (v):  2. "continue or cause to continue in a specified condition"

My grandmother truly "kept" a house. Things stayed perfect—like magic—and thus perfectly non-replicable. I saw the product, not the process. 

Vesta and great-grandson (and apron), 1991

Vesta and great-grandson (and apron), 1991

And then last winter, eight years after Grandmother died and 40 since I'd stayed overnight, I remembered something. It was when I noticed my black bathtub mold had again fluffed itself twice the width of the grout. In contrast twinkled the memory of Grandmother's white grout and pink tile. How did she do it? She certainly did it without a squeegee, ylang-ylang spray, motorized rotary brush and citrus solvent, all of which cannot cure the nadir of nastiness that is my tub. 

She did it with a towel.  

My epiphany was a vision of Grandmother wiping the walls after my little cousin and I had taken turns in the shower. Prevention was this particular magic: a dry wall gathers no mold. And although memory cannot confirm, I am certain she would have used a small hand towel to save on laundry. Not a "company" towel, but one too good for the rag bin and too old for show. And she would have smoothed it onto the shower rack to dry, hidden, for next time. Simple, thrifty, effective.

I'm trying it now. A ratty washcloth hangs in my tub as a working tribute. So far, it actually does work. I will never "keep" a house, but with her help maybe I can at least keep the grout on the lighter side of gray. 

 

Joanna Brichetto is a naturalist and educator in Nashville, where she writes the urban nature blog Look Around. Her essays have appeared in Jewish Literary Journal, Killing the Buddha, GeekDad, Mamalode, GardenRant and (forthcoming) The Fourth River. 

Nine Kinds of Ice Cream

In the basement, you keep a spare freezer for extra necessities – a turkey on sale in October that will do for Thanksgiving; the fruits of a 10-for-$10 sale. When your son calls to say he will be bringing your granddaughters to visit, you want to have something to offer them. Children love ice cream, you know, but you have not met these children. What flavors would they like? Your son says anything will do. But you want to be sure. You buy ice cream and keep it in the basement freezer. You present a different flavor on every visit.

Neapolitan

You chose this one because it is bound to have something everyone will like. The granddaughters are shy, but smiling. They eat all the strawberry and vanilla, but leave the chocolate.

Orange sherbet

When your children were young, they loved orange sherbet. Your granddaughters are clearly children of a different time.

Rainbow sherbet

Apparently sherbets of all flavors have fallen out of favor with modern children.

 

Maple walnut

Your son’s wife mentions that this is her favorite flavor. The granddaughters seem to like it too, though they pick out the nuts.

Coffee

The ice cream is the same shade as your granddaughters’ skin, and just as smooth. You realize their visits bring you joy. You did not expect joy.

Vanilla

Your son proudly tells you that when he buys this flavor, he still pours on chocolate syrup from a can. Your oldest granddaughter loves it too, he says. You smile.

Mint chocolate chip

You buy this flavor in the summer, to ease the ever-present heat. Your granddaughters finish quickly so they can play with the Tinkertoy set you brought down from the attic. You offer your daughter-in-law a cup of coffee. Her people come from the south, after all.

Cherry vanilla

Your granddaughters poke at the cherries. The older one eats some, slowly, saying they are too cold and hurt her teeth; the younger one leaves them all in the bowl. You move that box to the back of the basement freezer and tell your son that maybe they’ll like that flavor when they’re older. You wonder if it will be true.

Chocolate marshmallow swirl

Your oldest granddaughter tells you this is her favorite flavor. You glance at your son’s pale skin, his blond hair under the kitchen light, and then at the dark skin of your daughter-in-law, her jet-black curls. You clear the empty bowls without comment.

 

- Laura Lucas is an alumna of the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop and an Artist Trust EDGE graduate.  Her writing has appeared in Beat the Dust, Falling Star Magazine, Line Zero, Imaginaire, The Poetic Pinup Revue, Vapid Kitten, and It Starts With Hope, the blog for The Center for Victims of Torture. 

Graphic artist and painter Allen Forrest was born in Canada and bred in the U.S. He has created cover art and illustrations for literary publications and books. He is the winner of the Leslie Jacoby Honor for Art at San Jose State University's Reed Magazine and his Bel Red painting series is part of the Bellevue College Foundation's permanent art collection. Forrest's expressive drawing and painting style is a mix of avant-garde expressionism and post-Impressionist elements reminiscent of van Gogh, creating emotion on canvas. (@artgrafiken on Twitter, website here)