Girl of my dreams

In fourth grade I got my first, and only, “N” on my elementary school report card. Back then N stood for “Needs Improvement” but it really felt like an F. My handwriting skills were seriously lacking, and I guess my teacher couldn’t bring herself to give me an “S” for Satisfactory. It hurt, but even back then I knew she had a point.

My drawing skills were no better but I guess the art teacher was more forgiving. Maybe she saw an abstract expressionist in the making. I don’t think my art or handwriting abilities have advanced much past fourth grade. For a few years I helped oversee the bulletin board designs at my daughters’ elementary school. More than once, I wrote words that someone mistakenly thought were done by a student. I just went with it.

I offer this as a somewhat long-winded way to introduce my elephant. This is the go-to doodle that I have relied on for as long as I can remember.


I was always particularly proud of the three drops of water that come out of his trunk, a playful detail that brings the sketch to another level. Maybe fifth grade. I have signed many a birthday card with this little guy, and he often shows up to keep me company as I’m taking notes during long meetings.

My mother, of course, creates a much better doodle. For as long as I can remember, she’s been making “The Girl,” as I call her. I just learned that my mother learned how to make “The Girl” from her mother. And her four sisters also drew their versions of “The Girl,” and somewhere in her house she has a collection of some of their respective drawings. (She’s still looking for them and I will post if she finds them.)

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This is an old drawing of “The Girl” that I keep on my bulletin board at work.

What I also recently discovered is that The Girl was actually my Nana’s version of the Gibson Girl. In the 1890s, a man by the name of Charles Dana Gibson created the so-called Gibson Girl, known for her hourglass figure, aristocratic air and perfectly upswept hair.  His pen-and-ink drawings appeared in popular magazines and came to represent the spirit of this new, independent woman at the turn of the century. I read somewhere that the Gibson Girl influenced popular opinions about femininity in the early 1900s in much the same way that Barbie did in the late 1900s.


The original Gibson Girl


Who knew Nana was so hip to the scene?

On a recent visit, my mother agreed to teach me how to make her version of the  Gibson Girl, step by step. (I cut her off at the end as she’s adding her bow.)

I have been practicing the technique. I can’t get the lips down at all. They should be more heart-shaped. My girl also doesn’t look as sweet or as pretty as my mother’s.

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In fact, I think we can all be honest: She needs improvement.




Blossoming relationship

I have gushed at length about my mother’s many talents, but today I must divulge a weakness: computers (remote controls can be problematic as well). She tries, she really does. And I know I should have more patience. But … On a recent visit, she insisted that I refrain from touching the “wifi” plugged into the side of her laptop or it would  mess everything up. It was actually a mouse. She had two mice plugged in at the same time.

Seated side-by-side at her kitchen island, I had offered to try to straighten out an ongoing problem with email and so I took control of just one mouse and started clicking. But she insisted that I  teach her how to the fix the problem herself. You know, “Teach a man to fish,”  that short of thing. I relinquished control and guided her through the steps.  It was excruciating.

Less than an hour later, my mother and I had switched roles. She became the expert and I became the person painful to watch. I had asked my mother to teach me the steps to make a fresh flower arrangement and before long she actually took the scissors out of my hand, more than once in fact. It was a nice moment of understanding, or payback. We both laughed.

My mother’s expertise with flowers far, far exceeds my knowledge of technology. She has worked as a professional floral designer for some 40 years. And before that, as an amateur, she would cut and dry bunches of sea lavender to make centerpieces and wreaths to sell at school fairs. She taught me how to decorate my window boxes and mantle with greens for the holidays and how to hang a garland around the front door. She made flowers for my wedding and my two sisters’ weddings. She’s talented. And now famous.

The winter issue of Cape Cod Home featured a story on houses decorated for the holidays, including this one (see above and below images) done by my mother for Harvest of Barnstable. My favorite line: “Our beautiful designs were conceived in house by Alice Flynn.” Yeah Mom!


I love flowers, but I tend to place them in a vase after I get home from the supermarket. I don’t arrange. So that’s what brought us to Trader Joe’s on a recent Saturday morning for some hands-on learning.

Photo by Elizabeth Leighton

The selection was good. We picked out white hydrangeas,  purple delphinium and stalks of pink/purplish alstroemeria, along with three varieties of eucalyptus. You always want texture in addition to the flowers. Remember that. I also discovered that it’s best to select an odd number of each variety of flower (3 hydrangea, 5 delphinium, 7 alstroemeria).

And here’s a few other beauties I gleaned:

Tip 1: Before you start, always cut the stems diagonally, under running water, about an inch from the ends. You don’t want them all the same height, though. That would make for a boring flower arrangement.

Tip #2: Before placing flowers into arrangement, you must remove any leaves that would be in the water. My mother was adamant about this step.

Tip #3: Add water and preservative to the vase. (I always did this after the flowers were in the vase and it made a mess.)

Tip #4: Start with the larger, more dominant flowers first. In our case, it was the hydrangea. It’s best to work with a single type of flower at a time.

My mother looks worried.


Tip #5: Turn the arrangement as you go along to make sure it looks even on all sides.

Tip #6:  Generally speaking, the height of the arrangement should be one and a half times the height of the vase.

Tip #7: Keep layering the flowers, and edit as you go.

Tip #8: Use baby’s breath to break up any heaviness. “When in doubt, add white,” advises Alice.

In the end, the arrangement looked beautiful. I can honestly say I did 85 percent of it myself. I did catch my mother “editing” some after I had briefly left the kitchen and returned. She couldn’t help herself. I’m not complaining. There are far worse things a mother could meddle in.

The finished creation at home on our buffet. Photo by Sarah Leighton.












Nana’s Candy

First off, some apologies are in order. This Christmas I made “Nana’s Candy” from memory to give to some co-workers and neighbors. Then on Christmas Day my mother brought bags of her delicious candy to give to her children and grandchildren, as has been her tradition, and I noticed it tasted and looked a little different than mine. Then we started talking ingredients. Turns out I forgot a key one: sugar. I left sugar out of a candy recipe. I also shortchanged on the butter and bought the Toll House chocolate chips instead of her preferred Ghirardelli brand.

Some people can cook without following a recipe. I am not one of those people. My sister used to laugh when I set the timer to boil pasta. I like to measure; any advice to add a dollop of this, or a dash of that, is ultimately a recipe for disaster, or at least food that doesn’t taste as good as it could.

Shortly after our first daughter was born, I remember my utter panic when I asked the pediatrician for advice, and he said it’s up to me to decide what felt right. I can’t even remember the question, but was seeking definitive answers on how to care for this helpless infant completely dependent on us for everything. ‘Trust your instincts’ wasn’t one of them. YOU’RE THE EXPERT. PLEASE TELL ME WHAT TO DO. I eventually did learn to trust my gut as I navigated this motherhood thing. Most of the time I’m just winging it. But in the kitchen, I like rules.

Before I share the recipe, my mother wants to make sure everyone knows she didn’t invent it. There are many versions out there.  And she also noted that it’s “not the healthiest thing in the world.” You would have figured that out for yourself. But the salt-sweet combination is delicious, and addictive. It has magical powers over me, like the trance-inducing Turkish Delight that The White Witch used to control her subjects in The Chronicles of Narnia. More than once, I have climbed out of a warm bed, late at night, because I craved one more piece of my mother’s candy before I drifted off to sleep.

Without further ado, here is the recipe:

Nana’s Candy

1 sleeve of Saltine crackers

1 1/2 sticks of butter

3/4 cup of white sugar

1 12-ounce package of Ghirardelli semisweet chocolate chips

3/4 cup crushed walnuts.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat cookie sheet with nonstick spray. Arrange Saltines on cookie sheet.


In saucepan on low heat, combine butter and sugar, stirring occasionally, Once butter is completely melted, pour over Saltines, trying to distribute equally.


Then bake for 15 minutes. Remove cookie sheet from oven and sprinkle crackers with chocolate  chips.



Using plastic spatula, spread the melting chips out evenly over the crackers.



Then sprinkle walnuts on top.


Place cookie sheet in freezer for at least three hours; I left them in there overnight. Remove from freezer and break into small pieces.


You could create small bags of candy to give away on Valentine’s Day, or  you could hide it and keep it all for yourself.


Nana approves of either approach.