Tales of the Fairies Reimagined

For many children, some versions of popular fairy tales can be frightening! An evil witch who bakes children in her oven? Not a great story to lead into bedtime. In fact, folktales collected by the Brothers Grimm were often ghastly and not even meant for kids! And even some of the stories written by Hans Christian Andersen contained very dark and tragic themes.

When I was recently tasked with retelling a collection of fairy tales in rhyme, I knew right away that I wanted my versions to be positive, fun, and uplifting. Jack‘s giant doesn’t have to die, Pinocchio can use his nose to save Geppetto, and Goldi would decide to leave the Bears’ home safely of her own volition. Red‘s grandmother remains safe, of course, while the girl ponders how the wolf might react if her hood were sewn in different colors.

All in all, this was such a fun and challenging project. I hope you’ll take a peek at my 4 rhyming stories published right here at Empowered Parents!

Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #11: Gelatin Gems from the Past

As a kid, I thought Jell-O was a generic term. Although I remember seeing Royal gelatin and pudding mixes at the store, my mom was a loyal Jell-O consumer.

I love finding these cute vintage recipe booklets at the used bookstores or antique shops and snagged this one dated 1942. I even wrote in the back where and when I purchased it, which I often forget to do: Hancock, MI, August 28, 1991. I lived near there, in the Upper Peninsula, for many years.

This booklet contains recipes for puddings, “ice box” desserts, pies, ice creams, candies, soups, gravies, fruit salads, main dish salads, and of course, gelatin desserts! Here’s one that looks rather refreshing for a hot day like today…

Whenever I see a “fancy” gelatin recipe like this, I think back to a major Jell-O fail I experienced in my youth. The spring I graduated from high school, I was supposed to take a dessert to the Junior/Senior Banquet at school. My parents and younger brother were going out of town, I think to pick up my older sister from college. My mother told me how to make the dessert out of Jell-O, fruit, and something to make it creamy…maybe Kool Whip? She warned me to make it well in advance so it would have time to set. Well, that didn’t happen, and I took a very soupy dessert to school that evening.

No one at my table ate any of it, and I certainly didn’t admit that I had provided that particular dish. The next day, we were supposed to pick up the washed plates and bowls from the cafeteria, and I was embarrassed to do that, thinking the workers would connect my face to the disaster in the bowl. I think maybe I told Mom it was nowhere to be found when I went to check. Possibly I never told her the truth. Knowing me as she did, she may have guessed something close to the real story.

Speaking of gelatin, I’m reminded that this particular product is made from animal parts. Now eating as a vegan, this bothers me, so I looked into some likely vegan gelatin substitutes. Several of these are brand name products that may or may not be available at the grocery, health food store, or online. A few of the suggestions are more generic, however, and can be found in many shops. If you know of any similar products that are easy to find, please let us know in the comments.

And if you have any “Jell-O fails” you’d like to share, we’d love to read about them!

Vintage Bedtime Stories

I can still see that dark orange set of books lined up on the shelf in my paternal grandparents’ home. In the mid-1950s, I would have begged someone to read one or two of the Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories to me. Later, I learned to read them on my own. That’s when I realized why my parents and older sister often skipped over certain tales they guessed would be much too sad for my taste. People died in some of those stories…even parents and children!

Heavy on guilt, prayer, and in-your-face morals, I did love many of the stories, however, especially those about being kind to people and animals. To this day, Volume One rests on my own shelf, amid other vintage books I’ve saved or collected. When I leaf through the pages, breathe in that old-book smell, and look at the illustrations, I can picture myself sitting contentedly on the floor in my grandparents’ small house, guarded by the highbush cranberry trees at the end of a quiet lane…

I’m happy to say that my own quartet of bedtime stories has recently been published on Empowered Parents! Pushing no heavy-handed morals, they do gently teach some important life-lessons about friendship, kindness, and family. I hope you’ll take a look and maybe share them with a little person in your life!

Trees are the Bee’s Knees!

Quote from Tarun Sarathe

The last Friday in April is National Arbor Day, though some states also celebrate this on various dates, depending on ideal planting times. The importance of protecting our trees and planting new trees to replace those that die or are cut down cannot be exaggerated!

Besides providing the oxygen our bodies require, trees also offer us lovely views. From childhood, I fondly remember the stately maple trees in our front yard, each autumn turning fiery shades of red, yellow, or orange. Near the edge of our property, we had an apple tree that was just the right size for a little girl who wanted to climb trees but was afraid at the same time.

Behind our house, a huge willow tree grew. In my father’s bedtime stories, the Teenie Weenies of his tales, who were based on William Donahey’s books and comic strips, lived under that tree. I suspected for many years that this was truly the case. Walking out by the willow tree by myself was exciting but a little scary. What if I were to come face to face with one of those little people?

In my last home in Michigan, we had many beautiful trees in our yard and nearby. From small to large, some blossomed, while others provided a lovely green cover in the summer. But one small, funky tree holds a special place in my heart. It was a larch I had known since its infancy.

Each winter, I felt certain and horrified that it might die. Its branches were of the “weeping” variety, and the thin trunk appeared rather weak and almost bent. In the summers, I checked it often, lugged buckets of water during dry spells, and marveled at the feathery new growth each spring.

I miss that tree and all the surrounding beauty. There it is, below, near the middle of the photo, just to the right of the house corner. The light green on the ends is the new growth. I wonder if “my” tree still grows in that yard.

Where I now live in Texas, my only gardening space is the balcony. Although some people grow small, ornamental trees in pots, I have not tried this, yet. I recently read about growing miniature citrus trees in containers, which can then be brought in during the coldest parts of the winter. It’s a thought…

WHY READING IS MORE IMPORTANT NOW THAN EVER!

FROM THE WEBSITE:

“During the last year when most countries have seen periods of confinement and people have had to limit their time spent outside, books have proved to be powerful tools to combat isolation, reinforce ties between people, expand our horizons, while stimulating our minds and creativity. In some countries the number of books read has doubled.  

During the month of April and all year round, it is critical to take the time to read on your own or with your children. It is a time to celebrate the importance of reading, foster children’s growth as readers and promote a lifelong love of literature and integration into the world of work. 

Through reading and the celebration of World Book and Copyright Day, 23 April, we can open ourselves to others despite distance, and we can travel thanks to imagination.”

Happy reading, blogging friends! ~Becky 

A Poisonous Mistake?

Staghorn Sumac in Michigan

I have very few memories of my paternal grandfather because he died when I was so young. I do quite clearly remember, however, the day he urged my sister and me to touch our tongues to sumac that grew in my grandparents’ back yard. This is probably so clear not because of its lemony flavor but because my mother was NOT pleased when she heard about it! Like many others, she may not have been sure about the difference between poison sumac and the safe variety of staghorn sumac.

I remember at the time my father assured her that he knew it was safe. I didn’t know until he told me his story years later exactly how he knew that the sumac was edible. He recounted to me that as a child he had been worried his parents were making a poisonous mistake by planning to use sumac berries in making an inexpensive, lemonade-type beverage. As the berries ripened, he took it upon himself to discover the truth about their safety. That’s the story I tell in “Sumac Summer,” which I am happy to say has just been published by Modern History Press in the U.P. Reader #5 anthology!

Reverend Ernest Ross and Family (Becky’s father, Philip, is 3rd from the left in front, wearing the dark sweater)

Because this has just been published, I won’t be posting the story here until next year. Meanwhile, I told readers of my blog last year about publication of a story regarding an early spring walk near Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. A face-to-face meeting with an indeterminate species brought about a rather humorous situation, which I chronicle in my short story, “Much Different Animal.” I hope you’ll read and enjoy it!

Much Different Animal

by Becky Ross Michael

Spring in Upper Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula arrives late and is a whole different animal from other places I’ve lived. Harsh realities of winter recede, inch by inch, while signs of sprouting spring replace them in fits and starts. “Unpredictable” is the key word, and if the weather is pleasant for ten minutes, you should take advantage.

“Let’s go for a ride out by Sand Bay,” he suggested, as the two seasons collided on a clear Saturday afternoon.

Happy to make enjoyable use of weekend hours away from the classroom, I agreed. “Great idea. Let’s leave the dog home,” I added, glancing at our little, black Shi Tzu. “Boo Boo’s muddy from our walk this morning, and I don’t want him in the car before he’s had a bath.”

The drive along a two-lane, twisty road from Laurium toward the bay was relaxing, as always. I imagined the smell from clear, icy waters of Lake Superior greeting us as we turned northward. That day, unfortunately, the sky darkened as we neared the lake, and the view through the windshield became misty.

 We passed a small waterfall and a bakery displaying a closed sign. I looked forward to when the monks would reopen The Jampot for the tourist season. Their delectable muffins often enhanced our trips to the beach.

Spotting the driveway to a house where one of my students lived, I knew we were approaching the turnout. By the time we arrived at the graveled parking lot, the air was a thick, soupy fog.

We parked next to a lone car wearing an out-of-state license plate. Tourists didn’t usually visit so early in the spring. Donning our jackets, we headed to the path. This was in the years before the posting of erosion regulations and construction of steep wooden steps for traversing the sand dunes. Our zealous beach-dog, Boo, had helped us blaze a trail during previous summers, and it headed west at an angle to avoid the steep decline of the bank. The winter’s snow and ice were gone, but flattened grasses, bent bushes and cracked tree limbs attested to their recent occupancy.

Picking our way along the path, I envisioned warm summer days and wondered if we’d be able to see anything when we reached our goal. From the calm lake, I heard only a soft lapping when an occasional wave reached the shore. Toward the end of our descent, a male form materialized through the mist in front of us, as we gained on him. The tourist? When the figure came to an abrupt halt, we almost ran into him, standing stock-still and looking toward the beach.

“Those your dogs?” the stranger asked, with a nervous edge to his voice.

Our gaze followed where his hand pointed, through a narrow expanse of underbrush and grasses. Slinking along the sand, their ghostly forms appeared out of the haze. As their sure paws wove around piles of stones formed from the scraping of winter ice floes, the two moved past us without a sound.

I held my breath.

“I don’t think those are dogs,” answered my partner.

 Eyeballs widened, the stranger turned to face us for confirmation. Without missing a beat, he ignored the path and clawed his way straight up the steep embankment.

Relieved we hadn’t brought Boo Boo along, we also decided to use caution and cut our visit short. With a bit more decorum, we stuck to the path.

Back in my elementary classroom on Monday, a typical indoor recess was necessary due to spring rains. During that wild twenty minutes, I overheard the student who lived near Sand Bay mention “dogs” while talking with a friend.  With practiced nonchalance known to many teachers, I asked them if anything special happened over the weekend. The child then recounted a story about their “hybrids” escaping the house and how they found them across the road at Sand Bay.

To this day, I picture the stranger telling anyone who will listen about his run-in with the “pack of wolves,” in the untamed wilderness otherwise known as the Keweenaw.

END

Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #10: Mixing Up Memories

I absolutely love used bookstores, especially those that house specialty sections, such as ephemera, advertising, or cookbooks. The booklet pictured above has been in my collection for years, and I don’t remember for sure in which shop it was found. Dated 1948, this was published not that many years before I was born. The black-and-white pages offer information about handy home gadgets and detailed recipes for various meals, including desserts, like cakes and other sweets.

Becky’s 1st Birthday, March 19, 1953; with Mom (Ella Ross) in the White Blouse

My mom’s kitchen arsenal didn’t include an elaborate mixer with a stand, turntable, and large bowl. The following image from the booklet is more like the mixer she would have used when making my birthday cake.

My Grandma Witzke (pictured above next to my mother) was the first person I remember who had a blender. It looked much like the one shown below.

Friend, Andrea, with Becky; outside my Grandparents’ House in Tawas City, Michigan in 1958

During my early years, Grandma and Grandpa Witzke lived nearby, and we would often visit. On lucky days, Grandma would make us malts in her blender, and vanilla was always my favorite (and still is today).

Over the years, my birthday weeks have involved many memorable activities: a horse-drawn sleigh ride in childhood, moving into “my” first house as an adult, trips to Florida, an overnight stay in a lighthouse, gorgeous flowers, delicious meals drenched in wine, thoughtful gifts, my parents singing to me over the miles, and wonderful times spent with my children and grandchildren.

This year, my big event is a much-needed haircut. Whoo-hoo! These days, I’m thankful for the smallest of favors. And it WILL be a happy birthday and a good year!

Talking with Kids about Martin Luther King, Jr., Activism, and Volunteerism

From Reading Rockets:

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrates the life and civil rights work of Dr. King. In 1994, the holiday was officially recognized as a National Day of Service where volunteers across the country work together to make a difference in their communities. The titles include children’s books about Dr. King, fiction and nonfiction books about ordinary people who stand up for what’s right, and stories about helping others and giving back.

You’re sure to find some great books here to share with your children, grandchildren, or students! Stay safe and be well! ~Becky

Hoping for Snow?

children playing in snow
Becky and sister Terri

Growing up in Michigan, the opportunity to play in winter snow was always a given. Many years would pass, before living in the much different climates of North Carolina and now Texas, to understand how scores of children (and even adults!) maintain such strong desires and dreams for that white stuff.

In 2019, I wrote a blog post with the happy news about the anticipated publication of my story, “Welcome to Texas, Heikki Lunta,” which revolves around two children waiting for snow. To check out the history of Heikki Lunta in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, you can read that post here.

Today, I’m excited to share my full story with you, which was first published in U.P. Reader Issue #3.

frosty window

Welcome to Texas, Heikki Lunta!

Another winter holiday passed with no snow in sight. Not one flake. That glorious white stuff hadn’t fallen on Ella and Rae-Ann’s part of Texas in years. The sisters searched the sky when cold winds blew. They peered out the windows to see what was new. Nothing.  

“We had such fun playing in the snow that year,” said Ella, pointing at a framed photo.

“I only remember making snow angels when I look at that picture,” said her younger sister, Rae-Ann.

New Year’s Day came and went. The children said ‘good-bye’ to winter break and returned to their classrooms.

***

Mom shooed two dogs away as she sliced apples and spooned peanut butter onto plates for an after-school snack. Grandma sat in the kitchen finishing her coffee.

 “Y’all come to the table, girls. And don’t let the dogs get your food,” warned Mom. With a shiver, she turned the furnace up a notch before joining the others.

“It’s sure getting cold out there,” said Grandma. “I hear that Heikki Lunta might make a visit.”

“Hay-Kee who?” asked Ella, licking peanut butter from her fingers.

Rae-Ann’s eyes stole a quick look at the back door.

“His story’s rather long,” their grandmother said.

“Tell us,” the sisters begged in one voice.

“Well, you know I used to live w-a-a-a-y at the tip-top of Upper Michigan,” Grandma began.

“I sort of remember visiting you there,” said Ella.

“That was summer. You have no idea what it’s like in the winter.”

“Lots of snow?” asked Rae-Ann.

“Tons,” nodded Grandma. “The snowbanks grow taller than people. Schools sometimes close for a week at a time because of the blizzards.”

“Wow!” Ella exclaimed. The dogs cocked their heads to the side, listening.

“What does that have to do with this Heikki Lunta?” Mom asked.

“Quite a few families in Northern Michigan came from a far-away, snowy country called Finland,” said Grandma. “Many years ago, those who lived in Finland shared stories called ‘myths,’ just like most ancient people around the world.”

Scooping Snow in Finland (Pixabay)

“I learned about myths in school,” Ella said. “Those are made-up stories that explain how things work or got started. We read about how the elephant got its trunk.”

“Exactly,” said Mom. “And you’ve both seen a movie about Hercules, which is also a myth.”

“That’s right,” Grandma said. “Many of those stories include gods and goddesses. ’Heikki Lunta’ is like a snow god from Finland. People who live in Upper Michigan often talk about him in the winter when they’re hoping for snow. Hotels and restaurants looking for visitors to the area even put up signs saying, ‘Heikki Lunta, do your thing.’”

“Did you ever see him?” whispered Rae-Ann.

“He’s just pretend,” Ella reminded her younger sister. “Grandma, why did you tease us and say he’s coming here?”

Mom and Grandma exchanged knowing looks.

“The weather report says we might get a bit of snow tonight or tomorrow,” Mom answered.

Her daughters’ smiles reached from ear to ear.

Make it snow, Heikki Lunta, make it snow,” sang Grandma, when it was time for her to leave.

***

When Dad returned from work, the sisters rushed out to his red pick-up truck and told him about the forecast. After dinner, they drew pictures of their neighborhood covered in snow. At the bottom of hers, Ella wrote, “Please send snow Haykee Loonta.”

The girls welcomed bedtime that night. Ella left her blinds open in hopes of seeing some flurries. In another room down the hall, Rae-Ann was excited and just a little nervous. She peeked through long lashes at her bedroom door before falling asleep.

While she slept, Rae-Ann imagined someone like Hercules. He wore a heavy white coat with its collar turned up against the cold. Ella dreamed of a man with long gray hair and beard, who was dressed in a flowing blue robe. Wind and snow swirled around him. Heikki Lunta?  As the whole town slept, dark clouds gathered and delivered a bit of magic.

                                                                     ***

At the sound of Dad’s pick-up leaving in the morning, four eyes popped open wide. Rae-Ann and Ella ran to their windows and cheered at the sight of powdery snow on the ground and glistening flakes in the air. The time said 9:00. Why had their parents let them sleep so late?

“You’re taking a snow day,” Mom explained in the kitchen.

“School’s closed?” asked Rae-Ann.

“The roads are quite safe, according to the radio. We don’t get snow very often, so Dad and I decided to let you stay home and enjoy it.”

 “Yay!” both girls cheered, as they ran to get dressed.

“A warm breakfast comes first,” Mom yelled up the stairs. “Then we’ll hunt up our wooly hats and mittens. You’ll need to wear your snow boots and not just those ropers.”

***

dogs in the snow
Dogs Surprised by Snow

Light snow continued to fall throughout the morning. The three stomped trails in their backyard and built a small snowman. Ella and Rae-Ann lay down and flapped their arms to make snow angels. Their happy dogs rolled near them on the frosty ground. While watching their fun, Mom picked a torn section of blue fabric from a nearby bush.

“Maybe Heikki Lunta really did help us out,” Ella said with a secret grin, at the sight of the blue material. “Does Grandma know about the snow?”

“I’m sure she does,” said Mom. “Let’s pick her up for a snow ride.”

“What’s that?” asked Rae-Ann. “A car drive on the snowy streets?”

“It’s mostly melted from the roads. I’ll phone her to say that we’re coming, and then I’ll show you my idea.”

Ten minutes later, the laughing trio arrived at Grandma’s apartment building. When she slid into the front seat, she saw what was causing their excitement. Sparkling snowflakes floated into the car from the open moon roof.

Mom pulled back onto the street. People up and down the sidewalks turned in surprise. Echoes of four voices drifted through the winter air, “THANK YOU, HEIKKI LUNTA!”

snowman
Texas Snowman