The Bass Tracker Sunday, Mar 9 2014 

basstracker

In the late 1970s when I was about 8 years old, my father brought home a brand-new shiny Bass Tracker. He received the boat as a gift from his boss in recognition of his hard work managing a sod farm. Hauling the Bass Tracker behind his pick-up truck, my father drove up to our house and paraded around the boat with a self-congratulatory strut as he showed it off to my mother and me and my brother Will, who was about 10 at the time.

Will’s eyes grew wide with excitement when he saw the boat, a veritable redneck dream for any Florida boy who loved to fish.

A short while after unveiling his glorious Bass Tracker, my father covered her up with a beige tarp and carefully backed her into a spot under the pole barn off the front yard of our house.

“When can we take her out on the lake, Daddy?”

“When I get my work caught up, son.”

Days and weeks went by and Will pleaded with my father to take him fishing in the Bass Tracker, but the answer was always the same. “I will. When I get my work caught up.”

As my brother grew into a young man, he became an avid fisherman, spending countless hours out on the lakes of Florida’s West Coast and participating in bass and snook tournaments. Incredibly, twelve years passed and the Bass Tracker remained parked under our pole barn, still covered with a tarp that was turning green with mildew. The boat’s motor had never been cranked; its hull had never touched water.

At 22, my brother finally asked my father if he could buy the Bass Tracker from him. My father agreed and transferred the title to Will. The title showed a sale price of $1,000.00, but my father never took Will’s money.

In the years that followed, Will got loads of enjoyment out of the long-neglected Bass Tracker, taking his young wife and friends and brothers-in-law out fishing whenever he could. Sometimes, Will would call up my father and invite him to go out on the lake. “I will. When I get my work caught up,” was my father’s standard reply.

Today, my father is an old man. He has been retired for over a decade and lives alone in the same house where I was raised. The pole barn is still there, peeking through the tall weeds that were once our front yard.

I wonder if my father ever looks out his front window at that pole barn and thinks about the Bass Tracker that was parked under its tin roof during the formative years of my brother’s youth. I wonder why my father never took my brother fishing and wouldn’t even allow him to use the Bass Tracker for twelve long years. I wonder, too, if my father felt ashamed when his only son, as a full-grown man, offered to buy the Bass Tracker from him and then, showing immense grace, offered to take him fishing.

Most of all, I wonder if my father will ever realize, before it’s too late, that life is precious and finite. Will he ever set aside any time to spend with his son and his grandchildren before he departs this earth?

I have a good idea what my father would say.

Through A Child’s Eyes: My Son’s Essay About His Dad Wednesday, Jul 17 2013 

composition

As the kids’ summer vacation inches along at a snail’s pace, my husband Michael and I have asked our nanny Alicia to work with both of our children to get them ready for school and engage them in something other than marathon television viewing. I have been particularly concerned that our 11 year-old son Matthew’s writing may not be quite up to snuff as he prepares to enter sixth grade, so I’ve provided Alicia with different essay topics for Matt to write about to hone his writing skills.

Alicia, who is an elementary education major, first asks Matt to brainstorm ideas for his essay.  Then she has him write a rough draft.  Lastly, she circles all the misspelled words and jots down suggestions where the essay requires more detail, transitional words, or a smooth ending before sending Matt off to write his final draft.

Earlier this week, Matt and I had a rough start to our day and had a pretty explosive argument over his failure to clean out the litter box for the umpteenth time.  As punishment, I took away all of Matt’s electronics for the day and instructed him to work on his writing.  When I arrived back home that evening, Matt and I talked about our riff and exchanged kisses and hugs.  The next morning, as I was making coffee in the wee hours while the rest of my family remained sleeping, I noticed Matt’s composition notebook on the kitchen counter.  I flipped through the notebook full of sketches and stories and was delighted to find an essay Matt had written the day before on one of the topics I had proposed: write an essay about a member of your family, describing how you picture him or her and how you feel about him or her.

Call me sappy, but I had to wipe away tears when I read Matt’s essay entitled “My Wonderful Dad” and promptly went upstairs and woke up my husband so I could read the essay to him.

Matt’s writing has shown marked improvement this summer, and I am proud of his effort.  More importantly, I am thankful that he recognizes how richly blessed he is to have a dad who is so engaged, admirable, and loving.

Here is Matt’s essay, exactly as it was written:

My Wonderful Dad

July 15, 2013

My dad is amazing and these are things you need to know about him.

The first thing you need to know is what he looks like. My dad has brown eyes and glasses with short brown hair. He is tall, he is 6 feet and 11 inches tall.

Next you should know what he likes. He likes many things such as: T.V., sports, outside, Pawn and Wiskers our cats, sports cars, and concrete.

My dad and I like to do many things together. But we love to play outside together. When we play outside we play football or racketball. My dad’s job is a constructural engineer. So he builds buildings. Most of those buildings are hospitals.

I have learned many things from my dad. One of the things is how to write. I am so happy he has shown me how to write and many more things such as facts about car parts that I will need to know in my life.

I also admire my dad. I admire my dad because he only wants to do the best he can do in life. I want to be just like him and show honesty and respect to myself and others. That is my dad and why he is the best dad and why he is loved so much.

Michael and my step-son Matt who was the Best Man at our wedding last year.

Michael and my step-son Matt who was the Best Man at our wedding last year.

Mattie Pearl: the Story of My Amazing Mother Monday, May 13 2013 

Mom, second grade, 1948.

Mom, second grade, 1948.

My mother is as unique as they come. At once feisty and weepy, sharp as a tack but with simple tastes, gregarious but introspective, loving but tough as nails, fiercely devout but with a wild streak. I inherited these traits and many others from my mom, including her once raven hair and blue eyes, her faith in Christ, her weakness for chocolate, her voracious appetite for books, her flair for the dramatic, her propensity to worry, her appreciation for Elvis, her proud spirit, her dislike of Yankee season, her love of music and movies, and her affinity for writing.

Mattie Pearl (a great name, I’m sure you’d agree) was born at home in 1941 in Palmetto, Florida. She and her family lived in a working class area of town called Samoset. The story of my mother’s upbringing is part Little House on the Prairie and part American Bandstand.

Mom, 18 months old.

Mom, 18 months old.

As a child, my mother drew water from a well using a pitcher pump, battled spiders in the outhouse, and read her Bible by the light of a kerosene lamp. Though she lived in town, chickens roamed in my mom’s backyard. At the tender age of 10, she took on many of the responsibilities of running her household. She’d help her mother with dinner by chasing a chicken, wringing its neck, relieving it of its feathers, and throwing it in a pot. By age 12, however, my mom enjoyed the finer luxuries of life, like indoor plumbing and electricity. Always the teacher’s pet, mom won the county spelling bee in seventh grade, successfully spelling “disappointment,” much to the dismay of the red-headed, freckle-faced boy who came in second.

My mother’s early years, though happy, were marred by sickness and economic hardship. At numerous points during her childhood, her father became injured or sick. At one point, he was hospitalized for months and almost died. Mom, always a caretaker at heart, took the bus to the Dixie Grande Hotel in downtown Bradenton and claimed she was 16, instead of 14, to get a job working as a waitress to help support her family.

As a teenager in the 1950s, my mother grew into a lovely young woman. Not having much money, mom would sew her own full skirts and crinolines — sans poodle — so she could participate in the fashion of the day. Always full of energy, mom loved to dance. She and her younger brother Ron used to jitterbug – a wildly fun and acrobatic swing dance that gets its name from early 20th-century slang for alcoholics who suffered from the “jitters.” Mom knew how to cut a rug. She and her brother danced their way around Samoset, entering, and sometimes winning, jitterbug contests.

My mother and her dance partner, Uncle Doc (Ron)

My mother and her dance partner, Uncle Doc (Ron)

Mom was (and is) an exceedingly smart, responsible, caring, eternally maternal, paragon of virtue. Her saintly side, however, was tempered by a scrappy, take-no-crap attitude. Once, when she was 17, not one but two girls decided to gang up on mom after she got off the school bus. According to mom, the girls were jealous because she had deigned to say hello to one of their would-be romantic suitors at the local drive-in. Mom assured the girls that she had no designs on the fellow and encouraged them to keep on walking, but they were itching for a fight. A crowd of high schoolers had gathered in the empty lot near the bus stop to watch snarky Barbara and Faye lay waste to the goodie two-shoes Mattie Pearl. Mom did not run away or cry or plead with them to leave her alone. Instead, she dropped her books, tightened her fists, and proceeded to open up a big fat can of Samoset whoop-ass on those girls.

Unbeknownst to the girls, who relied on sissy maneuvers such as clawing and hair pulling, sweet little Mattie Pearl came from a long line of fighters. Why just a few weeks earlier, my mom’s older brother Bud had come home for a visit from the military and schooled her on how to properly throw a punch, goading her into punching his tightened abdomen with her fists for practice. Those ill-advised girls, one with a black eye and the other a fat lip, hobbled home to nurse their wounds while mom went home to celebrate her victorious battle with her family, in need of little more than a comb.

Mom, in her prom dress, standing next to her brother Bud.

Mom, in her prom dress, standing next to her brother Bud.

Soon after turning 18, when she was a senior in high school, my mom met my father. Apparently, as the story goes, mom’s friend Little Mae (so named because she was less than five feet tall), was also friends with my father Earl (who carried the stain of the unfortunate road kill nickname “Possum” due to his side business of selling possums to poor folk in Rubonia). Well, Little Mae told Mattie Pearl that she should go out with Possum and, unbelievably, she did! They went out on several dates, but my dad — who lived in the Palmetto back woods and still did not have indoor plumbing in 1959 — was painfully shy and backward.

While my father tried, unsuccessfully, to woo my mother during her senior year, she agreed to go out on a date with another young man — her friend’s cousin who was visiting from up North. He picked mom up in his fancy convertible the size of a tank and took her to the drive-in movie. But, as soon as the movie began playing, the lecherous college boy began pawing at my chaste mother like a housecat in heat. Mom jumped out of his high-falutin’ batmobile and ran to the concession stand. Lo and behold, my daddy just happened to be at the drive-in too. He offered to drive mom home and, after that night, she never dated anyone else. A few months went by and my dad invited mom out to Emerson Point for the day. He asked her to bring a very specific picnic lunch of fried chicken, potato salad, and a chocolate cake. Later, after he proposed, my dad explained that he had asked mom to make his favorite meal to ensure that she would make a decent wife.

Mom got married at 18, giving up the scholarship she won for taking shorthand to become a farmer’s wife. Not long after, dad moved mom to Loxahatchee, Florida where he got a job managing a sod farm on Flying Cow Ranch. The farm was surrounded by acres and acres of cattle ranch and fields of fruits and vegetables that were harvested by the day laborers who lived at Ma and Pa Rich’s seedy labor camp just down the road. For ten years, my mom lived in that swampy place out in the middle of nowhere. Dad’s work kept him away from home day and night, leaving mom alone with nothing to do but have children, and more children, and more children. While living in Loxahatchee, my mom had five children over a nine-year period.

Mattie Pearl, the most glamorous lady in Loxahatchee in the 60s.

Mattie Pearl, the most glamorous lady in Loxahatchee in the 60s.

As you can imagine, mom didn’t like being left to fend for herself all day in a tiny house full of kids with nothing but snakes, alligators, and creepy crawlies to keep her company. Nor did she like living in close proximity to a labor camp full of ne’er-do-wells. She worried that one of those men would get drunk at the local juke joint and try to force his way into the house one night when my father was out tending to the grass. Taking matters into her own hands, mom decided she better learn how to use a gun, so she took my father’s .22 single shot rifle and began shooting tin cans off of fence posts for target practice, in full view of the workers toiling in the fields.

One night, when my mother was about eight-months pregnant with her fourth child and my father was away, a car full of men stopped on the dirt road right in front of her house. Her heart stopped when she saw the car’s headlights slow to a halt and heard the men mumble something about “that house” as they climbed out of the car and began walking up the lane toward mom and her three sleeping angels. Never one to cower in fear, mom grabbed dad’s rifle and waddled outside to the front yard in her house coat. She fired a couple shots in the air and hollered at those men to turn around and get the hell off her property or they’d never live to see daylight. Scared senseless, the men took off running back to their car. One of them dove into the driver’s seat as the others stood behind the car and hurriedly pushed it down the dark country road back toward camp.

It was then my mother realized that the car must have broken down in front of her house, and the men probably just wanted to use the telephone. In any event, my mom left quite the impression. After the men returned to the labor camp, they warned their fellow laborers about the mad Annie Oakley who lived up the road, who shoots first and asks questions later. From then on, my mother became known as “Crazy Miss Earl,” and let’s just say she never had any more uninvited house guests.

By now, you’ve probably figured out that my mom is one tough broad. She’s like one of those pioneer women you can never keep down. No matter how bleak things are, she will always find a way to dig herself out … and up. That was certainly the case when our family’s home burned down to the ground in November of 1971. Mom and dad had returned from Loxahatchee to Eastern Manatee County to live on property they had purchased several years earlier. Mom’s dad, a master carpenter, and her brother Ron largely built the house themselves from the ground up. It was a fine home, especially compared to the little house on Flying Cow Ranch, but it lacked one essential feature – homeowner’s insurance. The day before Thanksgiving, and only five months after my family had moved into the home, it burned down to the ground. The official story was that an electrical fire was to blame, but I learned many years later that my brother, who was only three at the time, had been playing with my dad’s matches and accidentally started the fire before running and hiding under my crib where I lay asleep.

It’s not like my mom had a lot to begin with, but the few material possessions she did cherish were destroyed in the fire — like the garnet ring her parents had given her on her sweet 16 birthday, countless baby photos, and closets full of hand-sewn dresses and children’s clothes. I was just a baby then, at one-year old. Mom was outside bottle feeding some calves and tending to our German Shepard Delilah in run-down work clothes and rubber boots. When she finished her chores, she returned to find the front corner of the house engulfed in flames. Terrified, mom ran into the burning home, snatched me out of my crib and grabbed my frightened brother, saving her babies just in the nick of time. My three older sisters, who were 9, 7, and 5 at the time, were at school. On that particular day, mom sent them to school wearing one-piece jumpers she had fashioned out of feed sacks made of broad cloth. Those hog feed jumpers were the only clothes my sisters had that survived the fire.

Some neighbors saw the smoke and rushed down the dirt lane to help mom push our family’s car out of the carport, but everything else was lost, reduced to ashes. A family of seven, with five children under the age of 10, homeless, with no insurance. Such a tragedy would be enough to devastate a normal person, but not my mom. Yes, those were hard times, she says, as she recalls the years of dressing herself and her children in embarrassing hand-me-downs and living in a single-wide trailer on the property until they were finally able to rebuild. But Mom was so grateful to God that her two babies did not perish in the fire that everything else seemed small to her in comparison.

The photo of my family that ran in the Bradenton Herald newspaper along with the article about our house burning down.

The photo of my family that ran in the Bradenton Herald newspaper along with the article about our house burning down.

At 36, when my mother thought she was done having babies, she gave birth to my younger sister. In all, she raised six children, while working much of the time as a secretary or bookkeeper.

Family photo, 1982.

Family photo, 1982.

On any given Sunday, from the time she was a child to today, you will always find my mom on a wooden pew praising God for his goodness. She is a creative soul with a penchant for writing and acting. She has written dozens of poems and reads them in church. She’s also written and starred in many church skits, donning an array of props and costumes and accents to spread the Gospel. She’s a teacher at heart. She used to work as a teacher’s aide at Manatee Elementary School and taught Sunday School most of her life from the age of 18. In 1981, mom taught herself how to use a computer, long before most people had a computer in their homes. Of course, the life lessons she has taught me and my five siblings are too numerous to list.

Mom and her daughters, visiting my maternal grandparents' church, 1982.

Mom and her daughters, visiting my maternal grandparents’ church, 1982.

For the last 15 years, my mother has worked as the office manager for the Manatee Southern Baptist Association. Today, she is a vibrant woman of 72. Still working, still doing drama at church, still going to the movies, still sneaking chocolate, still feisty as ever, and still teaching me important lessons about life.

Mom, 2011.

Mom, 2011.

I have never seen my mom dance the jitterbug, but she has always kept the pep in her step, whether it is shaking her hips to a country tune or tapping her foot to Southern Gospel hymns in church. I never saw my mom fight, but she definitely kept her six children in line and held her own with my father. I never saw her brandish a gun, but she displayed immense strength and taught me the importance of self-reliance. I don’t remember the fire, or wearing donated clothes, or living in that trailer, but mom taught me that God and family, not material possessions, are the sacred things in this short life.

Mom and Genevieve, one of her two great-grandchildren (she also has 12 grandchildren).

Mom and Genevieve, one of her two great-grandchildren (she also has 12 grandchildren).

My singular wish is that, when my mom looks back on her life, she will be proud of her legacy, knowing how much she is loved and what a difference she has made to so many. She certainly has had a profound impact on my life — more than any other person — and I am eternally grateful to call her mother. No matter how old I get, I will never outgrow the need for my mom. Thank you, Mom, for everything. You’re amazing. Happy Mother’s Day.

Mom, walking me down the aisle on my wedding day, 2012.

Mom, walking me down the aisle on my wedding day, 2012.

Like Mother, Like Daughter Friday, Aug 24 2012 

Madison, First Grade

The new school year has begun and with each school year comes challenges.  A recurring challenge in my home involves my 6 year-old daughter Madison.  You see, Madison likes to talk A LOT.  Understanding this innate truth about my sweet child, I let her first grade teacher in on this poorly kept secret last week on “Meet the Teacher” night.  The teacher introduced herself and I quickly turned the conversation to Madison and gave the teacher the 411.  “Hi, how you doin’, what a darling classroom, so anyway this is Madison and she is a smart girl who is extremely gregarious.  Basically, she never shuts up.  When her mouth is going 100 mph in class, just understand that I warned you and, if it makes you feel any better, she won’t be quiet for me either and I’ve been living with her for six yearsSo good luck with that and have a nice year.”

On the second day of school, Madison brought home a note from her teacher for talking too much in class.   Here we go.  When she sheepishly brought me the note, I looked into her giant blue eyes and  said, “Well, honey, at least you made it to the second day.”  I then launched into my now-familiar lecture about the importance of listening, being respectful, learning to keep her mouth shut, not interrupting, yada, yada, yada.

When I was finished with my lecture, Madison passionately argued in her defense.  “But, Mom, the teacher NEVER lets me talk.  I raised my hand and she saw me and, you know what she did, Mom?  She IGNORED me, Mom!  She totally ignored me!  Can you believe that?  And guess what else, Mom?  If you get in trouble one time in the morning, you’re in trouble for the whole day.  The WHOLE DAY, Mom!”  (Sniff.  Sniff.  Cue fake tears for dramatic effect.) 

As Madison was pouring her heart out to me about the injustice of being silenced, my mind flashed back to my own elementary school experience.  I was a very good student, but whenever I would bring my report card home for my mother’s signature, it nearly always included one poor mark — “Needs Improvement in Talking.”  My dear mother would express her disappointment and sternly caution me against being so talkative.  She would ask me to do better next time, and I promised to try, but I continued to face criticism for talking too much.

Once, in third grade, my teacher asked for a volunteer to read from our story book.  There I was, waving my hand frantically in the air, practically leaping out of my tiny desk trying to get the teacher’s attention.  She looked right at me — right through me — and had the audacity to call on some other kid.  What the …?!  Who does this broad think she is?  To show my displeasure, I stuck my tongue out at the teacher when I thought she wasn’t looking.  Unfortunately for me, she was looking and all Hell broke loose when she caught me with my tongue still jutted out and my nose wrinkled in disdain.  I was written up, sent to the Principal’s office for an inquisition, and ratted out via rotary dial to my mother.  With all of the hullabaloo, I felt like I had committed the unpardonable sin.   Thou shalt not stick thy tongue out at thy teacher, so saith the Lord. 

In hindsight, I think I got a bad rap for being a Chatty Cathy.  After all, the gift of gab has served me well in life.  I always made As on all my speeches and presentations when other kids practically passed out or had an anxiety attack if they had to say a word in public.  Many of those quiet, well-behaved children didn’t have the chutzpah or self-confidence to make themselves heard,  while I sailed through college and law school, winning awards and competitions for public speaking.  When I became an attorney, I initially worked as a prosecutor in my local state attorney’s office where I got to say super cool stuff like, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, on behalf of the Great State of Florida, I submit to you that the defendant is GUILTY beyond and to the exclusion of any reasonable doubt!”  Eventually, I landed where I am today — a corporate litigator who is essentially paid to talk — a virtual mouthpiece-for-hire.  Along the way, I’ve held a variety of leadership positions, including President of the Future Business Leaders of America in high school, President of the Criminal Law Association in law school, and President of the local chapter of the Federal Bar Association.  Needs Improvement in Talking?  Ha!  I think not.

After signing the first (but certainly not the last) teacher’s note of the school year, I hugged my spirited little girl tight, encouraged her to try better tomorrow, and sent her off to do her homework.  As she walked away, I hoped she wouldn’t look back and catch me grinning.

Marilyn, First Grade

So You Want to Be an Olympian Sunday, Aug 12 2012 

Last week, my 10 year-old step-son Matthew and I were discussing my life’s journey and how, with God’s help, some determination, and a lot of hard work (and a dash of luck), I was able to go from being a farm girl who lived down a washboard dirt road in rural Bradentucky to an attorney in metropolitan Orlando.  I told him about the field trip I took to the county courthouse when I was 8 years old and how it sparked my interest in the law, how I got my first job as a high-school part-timer at my local prosecutor’s office, how I put myself through college and law school, and how I returned to my home town for a short time to work as a prosecutor before taking the leap into a federal clerkship and the law firm practice that followed.  My intent in telling Matthew this story was to encourage him to follow his dreams.  I then asked Matthew what he wants to be when he grows up, and that’s when our conversation took a more serious turn.  “I am going to be an Olympian,” Matthew declared matter-of-factly.  My response was something like, “No, seriously, what do you want to be?”  Thus began a heated conversation between me — the killjoy, Debbie Downer, step-monster — and my sweet, naive step-son.

You see, I’m a dreamer but I’m also a realist.  Yes, I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up, which seemed like a nearly impossible feat on its own considering no one in my family had ever gone to college, much less graduate school.  I didn’t insist, however, that I would go to Harvard Law School, graduate first in my class, and work in the White House.  I explained to Matthew the long odds of ever becoming an Olympian and how the great majority of athletes do not make the Olympic team, despite immense personal sacrifice and singular devotion to their chosen sport.  The more I tried to explain to Matthew the statistical improbability of becoming an Olympian and the need to have a more realistic aspirational goal (such as a collegiate athlete who competes in regional or national track competitions), the more discouraged and defiant he became.   “I am going to be an Olympic track star and everyone knows it and believes it, except you!”

Now, at this point in my story, you are probably thinking one of two things.  If you are like me, you’re thinking, “Better to let the boy down easy so he won’t set himself up for inevitable failure.” But, if you are of a different mind, you are probably thinking, “Anything is possible. You don’t know the future.  Who are you to dash a young boy’s dream?”

All of this got me thinking.  I did some research on the odds of a high-school student becoming a track and field Olympian and the odds are something like 1 in 9,000 according to one article I read. 1 in 9,000!  That might as well be one in a gazillion as far as I’m concerned.  Still, I get where Matthew’s head is at.  I really do.  In addition to wanting to be a lawyer when I grew up, I also wanted to be a French interpreter to the United Nations and study at the Sorbonne.  As an adult, my ultimate dream is to be a published author and see my book on the New York Times Bestsellers List, but I know the odds are 999 to 1 against it.   That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop writing or stop dreaming of seeing my book on a library shelf, but I’m not going to stake my self-worth on something largely outside of my control.

So, what should we do?  Should we encourage a child’s dream to become a famous rock star or professional athlete?   Or, should we explain to a child the challenges he will face and suggest that he aspire to a more likely, less lofty alternative in his field of interest?   I don’t know what the answer is, but my conversation with Matthew has definitely given me food for thought.  In my defense, my heart was in the right place.  I hope I did not undermine my good intentions by being too pragmatic.  The harsh reality is that everyone’s dreams do not come true.  If they did, I would know a whole lot of veterinarians and marine biologists and a busload of astronauts and Hollywood stars.  I don’t know a single one.  But maybe, just maybe, one day my step-son will be an Olympian.

Matthew leading the way in track.

Madison after completing her first race.

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