Purple Hair and Punctuation

We wanted a book like this.

“What are the names of three of your child’s little friends?”

That was the question that stumped us. I was standing at a kiosk in the mall with my friend Linda. We were buying a personalized children’s book for our friend Judith, who was turning fifty.

We had decided which book we wanted, a birthday book. We had filled in the blank that asked for the name of the child being honored: “Judith.”

We’d entered the name of the town where she lived and the street she lived on.  But now we’d been asked for the names of her three best friends.  We looked at each other.  We were only two.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Linda.  We’ll just put in your name and mine. “What difference does it make?” Linda lives in the real world.  I’ve always admired that about her.

In just a few minutes, the book was printed and a hardbound copy was printed for us. It was beautiful, with colorful balloons on the cover. I read the opening lines:

“It was a beautiful day on Sunnyside Road in Scotia, New York.  Judith was very happy.  Today she was fifty!”

Perfect! We gave the girl at the kiosk cash for the book and walked away.  I turned the page and continued reading:

“Judith and her little friends Margaret, and Linda.” I stopped short. This was a problem. A serious problem. I turned towards Linda. We needed to talk.

“Linda,” I whispered. I looked around to see if anyone else was nearby. “The book is incorrect. “ Linda looked at me skeptically.

“It’s the punctuation,” I said.  “It’s all wrong. Oh, it would be fine if we had put in the names of three little friends.  But with only two little friends…” Again, Linda looked at me, and this time I swear she rolled her eyes just a little.

“Linda,” I said. “That comma between Margaret and Linda.” I took a deep breath. “It shouldn’t be there.”

I waited for the look of horror on her face.  As far as I was concerned, the book was ruined.  But from Linda, nothing.

“Oh, it would have been fine, don’t you see,” I continued, “It would have been fine if there had been three little friends. Then the comma would have been correct.  But with only two little friends, it’s all wrong. “

But from Linda, no reaction at all.

“We’ve got to do something,” I said.  We’ve got to go back to the kiosk and tell the woman working there.  Other people buying books must be making the same mistake.  They’ve got to know: There must be three little friends, or the punctuation will be wrong!”

Linda gave me a long, withering, oh-my-god-what-will-I-do-with-her-look.

“Margaret,” she said, in a surprisingly patient voice. “I don’t think a woman with purple hair and combat boots is going to worry about punctuation.”

Now it was my turn to be puzzled and confused. I hadn’t noticed anything different about the young woman who had helped us.

“She had purple hair?” I asked. “And combat boots?”


A few days later, we took Judith to dinner.  She unwrapped the book and laughed.  Then, in the restaurant, she began to read:

“It was a beautiful day on Sunnyside Road in Scotia, New York.  Judith was very happy.  Today she was fifty!”

She turned the page and continued to read.

“Judith and her little friends Margaret, and Linda…”

She stopped short.  This is all wrong,” she said. We waited.

“It’s the punctuation! There shouldn’t be a comma between Margaret and Linda.”


Copyright by Margaret French


Facebook Woes

Disclaimer: These friends belong to other people.

After waffling for years, I finally signed up for Facebook.

I had felt I ought to worry about privacy. After all, many of my friends do, especially those who, like me, were born eons ago. I also worried about technology destroying the human spirit, the never-ending necessity to learn new stuff, the possibility of looking ridiculous with clueless Facebook posts, and whether, when all is said and done, I even wanted to be all that sociable.

And when I had waffled long enough, I signed up. Slowly I began to enjoy the connections.  I loved seeing the photos, hearing the news, and reading the funny comments from friends and family.  I began to feel like a kid riding a bike down a hill for the first time.  You remember that moment when you realized that you were not falling off, that you’d found your balance, that you were riding a bike! The moment just before the fall and the band-aids?

Recently I made a small mistake.  Facebook was sending me messages that I wasn’t always reading carefully enough. Once, just once, I hit the “yes” button before I finished reading the entire message.  Too late!  It seems I invited every person on my gmail contact list who was not currently a member of Facebook to join: every person whom I’ve ever sent an email to, every person who has ever sent an email to me, and every person on any mailing list that I’m also on.  All in all, about five hundred people.

Since then, friends and acquaintances have been getting back to me about the invitation.  They are stopping me in the supermarket and Kinko and the library to explain their non-Facebook philosophies. Some of them are not happy.

Some, who don’t ever want any part of Facebook, have come to me to apologize.  They hope I don’t mind.  They truly appreciate the invitation.  It was very kind of me.  They hope I understand that they would prefer not to join Facebook at this time.  Dear friends. I knew they didn’t like Facebook: they’ve told me so, many times.

Others were clearly annoyed.  (And I can understand.) One woman, who had just quit a committee I am on, wrote me a rather curt email:

“I do not know why you ‘friended’ me on Facebook.  I am not interested.”

Mindlessly, I have invited all my doctors, dentists, mechanics, and insurance agents to be my friend on Facebook. I’ve invited every person on every committee I’ve been a part of. And, as far as I know, I’ve send an invitation to every company I do business with. None has said yes.

I suppose I’ve friended foreign philanthropists who want to give me millions in British pounds if I just send them a few bucks for the privilege.  Certainly they send me mail often enough.

Not everyone has rejected my invitation, of course.  (This would be a mournful post if that were true.) Many good friends accepted the invitation, and it’s wonderful hearing from them, especially when I can remember who they are.

Am I the only person who loses the connection between friends and their names?  Out of necessity, I have developed a strategy. I go to their Facebook wall, look at their photo, and try to remember how I know them. I google them.  I double check with friends who may know them. And if I’m lucky, I have the thrill of recognition. Yes! She is the barrel racing champion from Oklahoma! We met when my car broke down in Alabama! A lovely woman!!

Occasionally, I can’t remember no matter what. For example, I am now Facebook friends with a lovely young woman named Alyssa.  For the life of me, I don’t think we’ve ever met.  I do know that she loves Dancing with the Stars and puppies.  I enjoy reading about her; she seems like a person I’d love to have as a friend (and I do).

In all of this mess, I see an etiquette problem. Should I continue to skulk around, waiting for the puzzled responses from friends? (Many will go to their graves rather than tell me their true thoughts on the subject.)  Or should I write another annoying email to everyone I know telling them that I never really meant to invite them to be my friend after all?  Oh what complications I have brought upon myself and inflicted willy-nilly on others.

I was prompted to write this post this evening by an email I just got from my seven year old granddaughter. With some help from her Daddy, she wrote to explain why she, too, couldn’t be my friend on Facebook.

“Sorry, but I’m not allowed to have a Facebook account. I can when I’m older.

Thank goodness my grandchildren are the only kids whose email addresses are in my contact list.  Think of the mayhem I would have created otherwise.

Copyright by Margaret French

The Christmas Cactus

A dusty, wretched excuse for a houseplant, a scrawny, lopsided Christmas cactus sat on an end table in every house we lived in when I was a child. It never died, nor did it ever grow.  And certainly it never bloomed. I thought it was the ugliest plant I’d ever seen and wondered why my mother didn’t toss it. I suppose it was her depression-survivor thriftiness, like saving brown paper bags and aluminum foil.

I bought my own Christmas cactus when I had a home of my own and it didn’t fare much better.  I tend to forget to water and fertilize plants, so it’s no wonder. But I was on a mission: I was going to get my Christmas cactus to bloom.  I read everything I could find on the subject—because I tend to read up on things, rather than get things done.

And I tried most of the suggested systems, though fitfully.  Come autumn, I might stick the cactus in the closet for varying hours a day or put it under a cardboard box. The routines were complicated, and I invariably got them wrong. And nothing happened.  My Christmas cactus failed to bloom, or at best, I’d get one or two flowers that came and wilted far too quickly. I decided that blooming Christmas cacti were the province of horticulturists or the truly dedicated home gardener and not for the likes of me.

Then I visited an elderly couple on a farm in Pennsylvania.  And on the end table was the largest, healthiest Christmas cactus I’d ever seen.  It was covered with hundreds of deep pink flowers.  Maybe thousands.  It was drop-dead gorgeous. At that moment I longed once more to have my own Christmas cactus bloom.  I asked the woman’s secret.

“It’s easy,” she said.  Every spring, after the danger of frost is over, I set it outside in a protected spot.  I mostly ignore it all summer. Then come fall, before we have a killing frost, I bring it inside.”

That was it?  That was all there was to it?  It seemed too easy. I believed that life is always hard, and the more you want something, the harder it is and the more work you have to do.

But I tried her method the next year anyway.  I put my Christmas cactus outside in a shady spot near the house and did nothing else. In the early fall I noticed that it had many little buds soon to be flowers.  I brought it inside and sure enough, my Christmas cactus bloomed that year.  A quite respectable show, really.

Not at Christmas, mind you. I’ve never had my Christmas cactus bloom anywhere near Christmas.  But to ask for that is hubris. I need not challenge the province of the gods or horticulturists.

Since then, every year that I’ve followed those simple directions, my Christmas cactus has bloomed. And those beautiful drooping pink flowers cheer my soul.

No doubt there are many other ways to get Christmas cacti to bloom, all of them more complicated and scientific. No matter.  I found a system that works reliably for me—provided that I actually do it. And that is the catch, of course.  If I put it outside, if I find a spot out of the wind and bright sun, if I water it if we have a very long, dry spell, and if I bring it inside before a killing frost, my Christmas cactus will produce beautiful flowers for me.

It occurred to me that there were lessons for me to learn from this.  I tend to make life very complicated and very difficult.  How many challenging diets have I not quite followed to the letter? How many ingenious work schedules have I failed to observe?  How hard I make my life.  How quickly I don’t do what I need to, in my unnecessarily stress-creating schemes.  How many times have I bemoaned my feckless ways. My systems are often elegant—but usually doomed.

Life is never easy, true enough. But when I find and follow a simpler, less complicated path, I often bloom like the blossoms on my Christmas cactus.

I say this, and I’m getting better; but lessons come hard to me. A few weeks ago I went to sit with a Hospice patient, as I always do on Sunday mornings.  The husband had just brought in their huge Christmas cactus.  It had been sitting on their front steps all summer and was now covered with hundreds of buds. Magnificent. And, I remembered with a jolt, my own Christmas cactus was still sitting in a ceramic pot on my dining room table. I’d forgotten to put it outside. The summer and the first frost have come and gone. It’s too late for this year.

But I hope to remember next summer. After all,  I’ve found a simple plan that works, that has worked for me for years. All I have to do is follow it.  My Christmas cactus will bloom come November, next year.

May you and I bloom too.

Listen to the story here.

Maggie Smith / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Copyright Margaret French

Photo of bloom by Maggie Smith.
(Maggie Smith / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Kids in the good old days (and other myths)

I’ve reached the age where my friends and I indulge in fantasies of the good old days. We had chores; our kids had chores; this was good.  I came across a passage in The American Frugal Housewife, by Lydia Maria Francis Child, published in 1832, that I wanted to share with you. (Why I read this stuff, I’ll never know.)

By the way, you may want to read this book yourself.  It has a recipe for Whortleberry Pie and hints for “How to Endure Poverty” that look too good to be missed. Here’s the passage.

In this country we are apt to let children romp away their existence until they get to be thirteen or fourteen. This is not well. It is not well for the purses and patience of parents, and it has a still worse effect on the morals and habits of the children. Begin early is the great maxim for everything in education. A child of six years old can be made useful; and should be taught to consider every day lost in which some little thing has not been done to  assist others.

Children can very early be taught to take care of their own clothes. They can knit garters, suspenders, and stockings; they can make patchwork and braid straw [for hats]; they can make mats for the table, and mats for the floor, they can weed the garden, and pick cranberries from the meadow, to be carried to market.

Provided brothers and sisters go together and are not allowed to go with bad children, it is a great deal better for the boys and girls on a farm to be picking blackberries at six cents a quart, than to be wearing out their clothes in useless play. They enjoy themselves just as well, and they are earning something to buy clothes, at the same time they are tearing them.

Comment if you like.  I’d love to read your thoughts.

(Now before you leave this site,  check out my page on the Saratoga storytelling open mic.  On Monday, November 8th, Jane Ainslie is our featured teller.  She is too good to miss!)