Wednesday, April 1, 2015


Happy National Poetry Month!  Today, I'm celebrating in a big way with a guest blog by someone who is a superb teacher, writer, world-class Emily Dickinson scholar, and treasured friend.  Enjoy!

For the last 17 years, I’ve been teaching a college seminar on Emily Dickinson.  I teach the course in the poet’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts, and in the very rooms where Dickinson created her memorable verse. 
The Emily Dickinson Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts
I joke that the course doesn’t make me work too hard: the house does all the heavy lifting.  That’s mainly true.  From the moment students walk into the Dickinson Homestead, they are staggered by the quiet, the austerity, and the “certain slant of light”—as Dickinson would say--that warms the old wood floors.

Marty Figley was a student in my class a handful of years ago and I will never forget how she exclaimed when early in the semester I off-handedly mentioned that Emily Dickinson owned a big, drooling Newfoundland: a dog named Carlo.

I immediately could see the ideas firing in Marty’s imagination. She was beginning to conjure up a children’s book on Emily and her beloved companion.

Sure enough, a few years later Marty’s book, Emily and Carlo was published—a charming and heartfelt evocation of a child, her dog and the love they shared.

Emily Dickinson said Carlo was one of her best friends and—no doubt—a literary inspiration to boot.  Writing to a new friend, Dickinson observed, “You ask of my Companions.  Hills—sir—and the Sundown, and a Dog large as myself, that my father bought me.” (Letter 261).

For this National Poetry Month, it’s a special pleasure to think about Emily Dickinson roaming the gentle hills of Amherst with her beloved Carlo. Inspiration came from just about everywhere for Dickinson.: spiders, chipped teacups, a neighbor’s chimney, prairies, bees and reverie.  “My business is Circumference,” she once said, and she meant it.

Poetry captures the world we see, the world we’d like to see, and even the world we try to turn away from.  At its best, it clarifies our vision presenting the treasures around us as if they’d just been washed in a cleansing summer rain.

Sometime during this month take a walk, look up, look down and consider the world that Emily and Carlo once saw. What you experience may astonish you.

And when you return home—pull out a volume of your favorite verse. The words will spin you into the incomparable world of imagination.  For Emily Dickinson, there was no better place to live.  That is, if she had Carlo by her side.
A path traveled by Emily and her beloved Carlo, "just wide enough for two who love."

Martha Ackmann is a writer who teaches at Mount HolyokeCollege in South Hadley, Massachusetts.  Her most recent book is Curveball:The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League. Marty Figley is one of her favorite students. (Martha wrote this last sentence and I'm very flattered!)

Martha's wonderful book about another exceptional woman!

Sunday, November 9, 2014


Yesterday I spent several delightful hours wandering among forty historically inspired costumes from the immensely popular Emmy-winning PBS series "Downton Abbey."  The exhibit, at the Winterthur  galleries, will end January 4th.  If you can't make it, here are a few pictures of the glorious garb that will make you even more ready for the fifth season of the show, which premiers in the U.S. on January 4.

This beautifully presented exhibit informs on societal dress codes, tiaras, corsets, afternoon tea, and much more.  The costumes were made to fit the actors who wore them, so you can conjure up images of your favorite characters standing before you.  And, mourn the ones that have left the series . . . 

According to Downton Abbey costume designer, Susannah Buxton, the costumes are "translations of period dress, inspired by the past but influenced by modern styles and enhanced for dramatic television effect." 

Just as the stories of both the "upstairs and downstairs" characters are told in the series, the costumes of both were displayed.
I wonder how many apron changes a real-life maid would make during a work day in order to remain so pristine.
The manly Mr. Bates in his own version of an apron.
Here are a few examples of the gorgeousness of the gowns included in the exhibit.
A vision in rose
Lady Cybil's daring harum pants
The dress is magnificent, but look at that fabulous face . . .
Lovely wedding attire, even if the event was rather a bust!

It was fun to closely examine the intricate detailing on many of the garments.
Vintage and new combined with exquisite results.

What a statement one could make wearing this hat!
Why doesn't L. L. Bean carry stuff like this?
Back home again, I long for the new season of Downton to begin.
Shall I fiddle with photos and dream that I'm wearing one of those magnificent gowns?
Or just hang out in my study, drinking a cuppa tea!

Saturday, July 19, 2014


I love pancakes.  When I was a kid, mom made them every Saturday morning for breakfast.  My little brother and I had fierce pancake eating contests, but the sticky-fingered loser never felt bad. A favorite place to eat in our hometown of Springfield, Missouri, was Aunt Martha's Pancake House.  Oh, what that woman could do with a flapjack!  Fifty-four years of hotcake flipping and the restaurant is still going strong!

I've continued the tradition of Saturday morning pancakes.  This A.M. I made them for my grandsons.  The second batch was on the way when this picture was taken!
Watching the butter slide off the hotcakes while waiting for more.  What well-mannered boys!
Here's my favorite basic recipe for pancakes.  It's from the classic Fannie Farmer Cookbook, Twelfth Edition, page 496.  I usually double the recipe.

½ – ¾ cup milk
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 egg
1 cup white flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt

Beat the milk, butter, and egg lightly in a mixing bowl.  Mix the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt and add them all at once to the first mixture, stirring just enough to dampen the flour.  (Add more milk if batter is too thick.)  Lightly butter or grease your pan or griddle, and set over moderate heat until a few drops of cold water sprinkled on the pan sizzle.  Bake until cakes are full of bubbles, then flip.  Brown the other side and then enjoy!

Here's a great list of children's picture books about pancakes to share with your young pancake lovers.  Thank you, "LaurenLanita."

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


Abraham Lincoln has been on my mind lately.  His birthday is next week (Feb. 12) plus a few days after that I will be sharing my book about him at the National Portrait Gallery and celebrating Presidential Family Day along with representatives from the wonderful President Lincoln's Cottage.

I have always admired our 16th president. After all, he’s the guy who wrote the Gettysburg Address, freed the slaves, and won the Civil War.  Before his tragic assassination, Lincoln envisioned joining our war-torn country back together again, promising forgiveness, “With malice towards none, with charity for all.”  Many Americans, including me, rate him as our greatest president.
Wonderful portrait by David Riley for President Lincoln, Willie Kettles, and the Telegraph Machine 
 But four years ago, after researching and writing my children’s book President Lincoln, Willie Kettles, and the Telegraph Machine I loved him even more. 

Here are some things I learned. 
Not a country bumpkin, Lincoln was interested in new ideas and concepts.  He is the only president to hold a patent.  In 1849 Lincoln invented a device that lifted boats over sandbars and other obstructions. 
No. 6,469 patent for
"Buoying Vessels Over Shoals"
When Lincoln was president the telegraph had been around for several decades.  But Lincoln was the only world leader to see the value of it in battle.  By spring 1862 Lincoln was using it to give orders to his generals in the field.  He called the telegraph messages “lightning messages” because he could send and receive information so quickly—in real time.  This new electronic technology had a profound influence on how Lincoln commanded the war.

The War Department telegraph office was next door to the White House.  Many of the young men who worked there were barely out of their teens.  Willie Kettles, the youngest telegrapher, who took the momentous message that Richmond had fallen, was only fifteen.  David Homer Bates, manager of the office, later wrote a memoir Lincoln in the Telegraph Office.  According to Bates, Lincoln was kind to all the telegraphers.  To me the mettle of a great person is shown by how they treat others (especially others with less power).  Bates said Lincoln regularly told jokes and used humor to diffuse tense situations.  After reading about Lincoln in the telegraph office, I appreciated another aspect of his greatness.
Lincoln in the War Department's telegraph office (drawn by C.M. Relyea) from  Bates' book
I enjoy ending a blog with a recipe.  Plus, it gives me an excuse to bake!  According to the Lincoln Home website, the man loved cakes.  And his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, baked them for him.   I would have too!

Here’s the recipe for Lincoln's favorite cake.  If it were up to me, I'd name this fabulous confection "Abe's Heavenly Almond Delight."  I can see why the man liked it!

(Janice Cooke Newman's adapted recipe from Lincoln’s Table by Donna D. McCreary)

1 cup blanched almonds, chopped in a food processor until they resemble coarse flour
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
3 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
6 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract  (I also added a teaspoon of almond extract)
confectionary sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a Bundt cake pan.
Cream butter and sugar. Sift flour and baking powder 3 times. (I just mixed the flour/baking powder well with a whisk.)
Add to creamed butter and sugar, alternating with milk. Stir in almonds and beat well.
Beat egg whites until stiff and fold into the batter. Stir in vanilla extract.
Pour into prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Turn out on a wire rack and cool. When cool, sift confectionary sugar over top.

I won’t lie, this recipe was a little difficult to make—but worth the effort.  I decided to bake cupcakes and used very well-greased, floured silicone muffin pans, or nonstick greased metal tins with or without cupcake liners, baking them until light brown and springy on top  (about 25-30 minutes, depending on size of your cakes).   Cool cakes at least 10 minutes before removing from pans.  Delicious—especially with a little whipped cream!

This one's for you, Abe!
by David Riley

I'll be speaking and reading from my Lincoln book on Feb. 15, 2014, 1 p.m. at Kogod Courtyard, National Portrait Gallery.

Friday, November 29, 2013


I hate clutter. When I’m on an anti-clutter rampage I’ve been known to throw away the most alarming things–directions for various appliances, assorted bills, and even once a paycheck.  My daughter takes delight in reminding me about the time when I accidentally threw away the circus tickets.
Years ago, but not forgotten—my distraught circus-deprived children.

One thing I never throw away is the after-Thanksgiving turkey carcass.  I make a nice soup.  Here’s the recipe, if you’d like to try it.

1 meaty turkey carcass (fat and skin removed)
8 cups water
2 tablespoons Better Than Bouillon reduced sodium Chicken Base (more or less to taste—check broth after it cooks for a while to see if you desire more chicken flavor)
1 15 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 cup sliced celery
1/2 cup sliced carrot
1 medium turnip, peeled and diced
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup snipped parsley
salt to taste
and . . .
1 recipe Dumplings

In large pot combine carcass, water,  and bouillon.  Bring to boil, then cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours.  Remove carcass and cool.  Then remove meat from bones and chop.  Add meat to broth with undrained tomatoes, celery, carrot, turnip, onion, parsley, and salt. Bring to boil, reduce heat, then cover.  Simmer for 30 minutes.

Make Dumplings
In saucepan combine 1/2 cup water and 4 tablespoons butter.  Bring to a boil.  Add 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, and 1/8 teaspoon all at once; stir vigorously—and I mean vigorously. It's nice if you use a wooden spoon to do this.  I couldn't find mine today—clutter alert!  Cook and stir until mixture forms a ball that doesn't separate.  Remove from heat.  Cool slightly.  Add 2 eggs, one at a time, beating vigorously again after each addition till mixture is smooth and holds together.  Don't give up!  Stir in a heaping tablespoon of chopped parsley.  Makes 12 dumplings.

Drop dumpling batter by tablespoons into simmering broth.  
Cover and cook for 20 minutes.  They will puff up!!
Enjoy!  Makes about 6 servings.