Book Review: Beauty in the Broken Places

by Mary Jedlicka Humston

If you’re looking for an honest portrayal of how one woman meets tragedy with strength, faith, and courage, I highly recommend Allison Pataki’s Beauty in the Broken Places: A Memoir of Love, Faith and Resilience. Pataki is five months pregnant when her thirty-year-old husband Dave (a healthy surgical resident) suffers a rare form of stroke while on a vacation flight.

beauty in broken
At this point, his life is in serious jeopardy. If he survives, will he have a full recovery? So much is uncertain that Pataki begins to write letters to Dave. They become written memories she hopes to share with him, reminders of all that has happened while he fights for his life and eventually as he works to reclaim it through a challenging and rigorous recovery.

Pataki is the author of several books, including the bestselling novels Sisi, The Traitor’s Wife, and The Accidental Empress, so writing is a large part of her life. Composing these letters became essential in how she managed as a caretaker for her husband and eventually their newborn daughter.
As she states:
“I would write to understand. I would write to bring together the ragged and disparate threads, to try to weave something comprehensible from the frayed strands of pain and love, loss and hope, fear and faith, beauty and brokenness. I would write to try to find some order, some narrative, some meaning from the daily torment of having lost so much. And so that is what I did. DearDave.doc became the place where I turned, the pages piling up as the days passed, one by one.”
Pataki includes some of these letters for Dave while she honestly portrays the challenges of dealing with her husband’s stroke. Her book will keep you so involved it will be difficult to set down. That’s how it was for me.


A Slice of Heaven in My New Home

Both Marys have a tendency to storing “stuff,” particularly paper. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, the average U.S. household contains 300,000 things, from paper clips to ironing boards. That statistic presented a dilemma when it came time for a move to Dubuque, Iowa, where I now work. The house I purchased was less than half the size of my former one. I realized I was going to have to get rid of a lot of “stuff.” Several weeks of sorting, two garage sales, and copious donations later, last week I managed to fit all my worldly possessions into a U-Haul cargo van driven by my son and a horse trailer pulled behind the truck of my generous friends Dan and Carmen Cooke.
In preparing for this move, I had to carefully consider each and every item I owned, deciding which items meant the most to me. I would no longer have a separate office. No storage space, except an outside shed.  Some of my favorite things that wouldn’t fit in my smaller home made their way into my new office, instead.


One thousand books were weeded down to less than fifty. I sold a bench, two oak shelves, my huge solid oak desk, a kitchen shelf. A cabinet. Half my wardrobe. My mother’s kitchen table that wouldn’t fit in the new house, went to my sister. I sold, donated, and left things on the curb to be carted off. I was amazed, and somewhat horrified, at the sheer amount of paper in my possession; photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, greeting cards. I spent hours, then days, sifting through stacks, boxes, totes, and a trunk. Daybooks (shorter day diaries) were burnt, journals kept. Greeting cards that were simply signed; discarded. Despite all this, much of the paper still came with me; photo albums packed into storage totes that fit under my bed, letters organized by groups; my mother, my siblings, my children, and yes, even fan letters. The childish scrawls of a niece, crayon drawings of a grandson; too precious to dispose of. The trunk in my bedroom is filled with such paper memories.
I’ve spent three days unpacking, managing to fill one room with the contents of two; my bedroom and office. The laundry area is also in this same room, but hidden behind a door in the corner. Because of what shall forever be remembered as “the great purge,” everything that remains gives me joy, makes me smile.

st. michael
The corner across from the laundry area. Without a desk, a single cabinet and several file folder totes hold my important papers. The wonderful hanging bins are from Hobby Lobby, and serve as a receptacle for my stationery. Of course my bird/butterfly curtains and Michael the Archangel came with me.


My mother’s cabinet. The books inside are the only survivors of the purge, outside of  favorite spiritual ones I moved to my office, and a stack of books to be read on the floor by my bed. The hand-carved clock made by my brother Bill has my favorite Bible verse inscribed on it. chair.jpg

The cozy chair my children gave me for Christmas, where I listen to music, write, read, and journal. I’ve been known to fall asleep in this wonderful chair.
There’s a reason a big black star was drawn on one of my kitchen boxes; the coffeemaker was inside it! My daughter Rachel came over Thursday night to help me unpack the kitchen. She organized a coffee shelf and a tea corner for me. Those make me smile, too.


There’s still a lot of unpacking to do, organizing, and hanging pictures on the wall, but overall, I’m excited by how the house is coming together, and grateful for my children’s help and that of my good friends Dan and Carmen in getting here. I don’t know what I would have done without them. It was a huge amount of work.
I’ve heard it said that everyone should move once every ten years, just to clean out their possessions. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but downsizing to a house half the size certainly does the trick!

Going once, going twice, SOLD on stationery!

I’m often asked where I get my stationery. While the majority is discovered at thrift stores and Goodwill, the online auction site of ebay has also been a wonderful source for my paper habit.

Now, if you’ve seen my shelves of stationery, it’s obvious I don’t actually need to purchase any more.


I have more than enough to last me a lifetime of writing letters.

That said, occasionally I need a little pick-me-up, something to brighten my day. Or, I may have sold some of my stash and feel the need to restock. Because I do often sell stationery that isn’t bringing me joy, or isn’t the texture I like, or I get tired of using. Yes, the wrong texture of the paper, or a bad pen, can ruin my letter-writing fun.

Now, as much as the other Mary claims a penchant for paper, her letters are more often written on notepaper, often of the “free” variety, while I am the one in our duo more likely to purchase pretty paper and stationery sets, as is evidenced by this pile of letters I’d written Mary.

mary letters

Note the colorful, decorated envelopes that matched the bright and cheery stationery inside. This was during my early 2000’s Mary Engelbreit stationery era.

Perhaps some would view my investment in paper as an extravagance, but I allow myself this one vice. It isn’t expensive jewelry, purses or shoes, but it’s obvious from my filled baskets that it is, indeed, a vice of mine.

As a public service for fellow paper lovers, I’ve decided to share my tips to discovering good deals on stationery on ebay.

  • If you type “vintage stationery” into the search on ebay, you come up with 2985 results. I love vintage stationery.
  • You can narrow down the results by typing “Hallmark vintage stationery,” or “scented vintage stationery,” or whatever it is you are looking for, like I did when I searched for bird stationery, and came up with this result, two boxes I purchased.bird stationery.jpg
  • Another idea is to spell it incorrectly in your search. Type in “vintage stationary” and you’ll get significantly fewer results (780 vs. 2985), but the majority are different listings. (some sellers know to spell it both ways in their description, because for some reason, this is a word that gets mis-spelled frequently) Someone might attend an estate sale and end up with a bunch of greeting cards and boxes of stationery that they aren’t sure what to do with. Or maybe their mother died and they cleaned out her desk. But for whatever reason, these people just want to get rid of something that seems so foreign to them. Stationery? (or stationary, to those not familiar with it)
  • I sometimes search under “huge lot of stationery.” I’d rather pick up five boxes in one fell swoop (and have) than purchase one box at a time. The same seller who had the bird stationery also had lovely sunflower and flower print vintage stationery listed, and was happy to combine shipping, even though his listing didn’t state that. I e-mailed to ask him before I purchased additional sets.

sunflower stationery

  • Some sellers list stationery under Collectible Paper Ephemera. That’s a clue they take their paper very seriously. That’s where you’ll see vintage stationery priced at $40 a box, or the box all by itself (with no paper inside) for $20. Avoid that category for your stationery search. I’m assuming you aren’t collecting stationery, but using it.
  • If you love a certain brand of paper, like Lang, try searching under “Lang paper” or “Lang printer paper.”  One of my favorite packets of stationery was from the Martha Stewart collection, but with just five notecards, five postcards, and five sheets of paper inside, I’m not about to pay the $13.27 Amazon price.

martha stewart stationeryAnother favorite was Susan Branch boxed set of paper with tea cups on it.  Occasionally, I’ll search ebay for these sets. There’s a Martha Stewart set listed right now, for $24.99, and yes, it is listed as stationary. 

  • My last tip would be to think outside the box (pun intended) when you are searching for stationery. Unfortunately, our Hallmark stores don’t carry as much boxed stationery as they used to. (“No one writes letters anymore,” I was informed when I asked why) Check out your local drugstore, bookstores, specialty shops. Don’t forget your Goodwills or consignment stores. I’ll share some online sources in the coming weeks.

Journey back in time…with journals

My co-author and I discuss our mutual use of journals in Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink. Mary JH has been journaling for most of her adult life. I, on the other hand, utilized daybooks from 1992-2012, with just enough room on the pages to make daily notes.


I clearly remember choosing most of these; searching for one that spoke to me in some way. If I really loved the style, I’d order more than one. The Lucy Swindoll “Quite Honestly” and the “Fruit of Her Hands” came from a Christian book club I belonged to. I loved the Susan Branch Days style so much, I searched for more on eBay. Who knows why I chose the 2010 Retro Mama with a wine bottle on the front, when the only time I drink wine is on Christmas Eve? Clearance rack, perhaps? The 2009 large format Day Book was one of my favorites. The dark blue leather-bound was a splurge for 2012. Sadly, I stopped writing in it after my husband’s death in late March, but that was also when I began journaling in earnest, utilizing personalized journals I’d gotten free with coupon codes, and then stashed away, not sure what to do with them.


In looking through my old daybooks this morning, I discovered just how much I managed to convey in them; It’s painfully obvious that I lamented my lack of time as a young mother. I can’t look too closely at the many times I scrawled notes like a woman crazed, desperate for some time alone. I wrote about this in Mary & Me:

Not long ago, I unearthed my old weekly engagement books dating back to 1990, when I was a thirty-year-old mother of four. Two things are evident from these abbreviated journals: I loved my children with all my heart, and being a mother was a difficult job most days. Parenting was particularly hard considering the intensity of my mothering style. In the span of twenty years’ worth of journals, I would add an additional four children to our fray. Those daybooks with their brief notations do a pretty fair job of chronicling what it was like to care for a large brood.

After several hours of reading them, my breath quickened and my heart raced. Before I succumbed to an anxiety attack, I shoved them back into the cupboard. I telephoned my daughter Elizabeth. When she picked up and said hello, I heard a screech in the background along with an ominous crash.

“How do you do it?” I asked without preamble. “How do you handle three children underfoot all day and not go crazy?”

“Who said I’m not crazy?” she retorted with a laugh.  (page 50)

This morning’s foray into the past netted some interesting tidbits of information. I’m surprised how much of my past would eventually become my future. In 1992, I listed my goals for the year. I wanted to #1) send out one article a week, #2) present the idea of a couponing/refunding class to Hawkeye community college, and #3) approach the Independence Bulletin Journal newspaper with an idea for a column. By March 3 of that year, I had a job with the Bulletin-Journal, one that included a once a month column. In May, a New York film company visited my house, filming for a video-tape about couponing. It wouldn’t be until November 2011 that I would conduct a couponing workshop for a community college. On May 7, I noted that my article on “letter-writing” had appeared in the newspaper. A  prelude to a future book on letter writing perhaps?

In October 1994, my book proposal for “Homeschooling From Scratch” was accepted, via a postcard through the mail. I signed the book contract (again by mail) on December 14. Advance copies of that first book arrived on my doorstep on June 13, 1996.

I wouldn’t remember these dates, if it weren’t for the engagement books.

In 1998, I noted that I was sending out a book proposal to potential publishers again, one for a book I planned to write that would be filled with hints and tips for large families. I advertised in Mary Pride’s “Big Happy Family” magazine for women to respond to my questionnaire, and had collected nearly 40 responses.

Eventually, I would throw out the entire file. It wasn’t the greatest idea for a book, particularly during an era when families were getting smaller. After reading my daybooks, the real reason behind it becomes obvious. I was desperate to know the secrets of those mothers who’d managed to find time for themselves. Peace and quiet. Contemplative silence. By researching and writing a book specifically for women like me, I was hoping to find some answers for myself. Those answers remained elusive, however. I was disappointed to discover that none of the women who filled out my questionnaire had free time.

Maybe because the secret was in not having a large family in the first place. When Mary JH and I met in 1986, the youngest of her three children was three years old. I was pregnant with my third, and would go on to have five more children in the ensuing years, while Mary stopped at three. During the years I was lamenting my lack of time, letters from her revealed she was experiencing what I yearned for. She could already see a difference in 1987:

“Later journal entries showed mothering was less intense as my children grew, reflecting that freedom by showing a less-stressed mother. More joys of parenting were chronicled, and a woman with better rest, more confidence in her mothering, and more free time emerged. Me time was still a precious commodity, don’t get me wrong, but it was easier to fit in than before. Looking back, I only wish I could’ve given that worn-out mother with the young children in the early 1980s even a smidge of the bountiful time I have now. That young mother would’ve devoured it. I know this because I remember her well.”- Mary Jedlicka Humston, “Mary & Me” page 59

It’s obvious through the notes in my engagement books that I did manage to find time for one thing during those years, and that was writing. Some days, I think it saved my sanity.

I carried a notebook everywhere I went. If a child fell asleep in the back seat while I was driving, I’d pull over to the curb and frantically write before he or she woke up. I scribbled away on a legal pad as I sat on the toilet lid while toddlers bathed. I made notes on the back of grocery lists in the store. I eagerly welcomed my children’s desire to have me sit near them as they fell asleep, because I could write by the dim bulb of a nightlight.

When I teach beginning writing workshops now, I bring along a laminated 8 x 10 photo from that era. There I am in 1994, pecking away at a typewriter with baby Matthew in a backpack, peeking over my shoulder. This was my reality, the “glamorous life of a writer,” I tell those young mothers in my classes who lament their lack of writing time. –from “Mary & Me,” page 67

No matter how many children or how little time I had, that 1992 goal became a reality for me. Outside of a few arid months after the birth of each baby, I submitted something at least twice a month, sometimes once a week. If my work was rejected, which happened quite often, I’d tweak it, polish it up, and send it out again. The submissions, rejections, and acceptances are all noted in the daybooks. I managed to hit 100 acceptances by 1993. 1996 was particularly prolific. I stopped counting published clips by the time I hit 500.

I often wonder what I should do with my daybooks and journals. Mary JH has confided that she has wondered the same thing.

When I filled the first journal after David’s death, I knew I would leave it behind for the purpose of possibly helping one of my children (probably a daughter) through the inevitable loss of a spouse. It would have helped me to know how my mother handled the loss of Dad.  I lived more than an hour away from Mom and was busy raising young children when he died. She and I didn’t share a lot of conversations about her experience, but I still cherish the letters she wrote afterwards, where she shared little bits and pieces. Dad died in May. In June, my mother wrote about Father’s Day. It seemed as though she was thinking about her children’s loss more than her own:

mom letter fathers day

Four months later, she would write about a bereavement support group she attended:

mom letter bereavement2

My children won’t need to wonder how widowhood was for me. They’ll have my journals and my book, “Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace.”

But do they need to know that on November 4, 1994, I paid the bills and had only $85 left to get through the rest of the month?  Or that too many times to count in the year 2000 I wrote I would “go stark-raving mad” if I didn’t get some time to myself?

But then, maybe Michael would like to know we went to Show Biz Pizza on his 5th birthday, and Dan left on an airplane for Alaska on June 15, 1994, and a year later, on June 5, their dad and I opened a bookstore. That Matthew fell down the stairs on October 12, 1995, and while the ER doctor said it was just a bad sprain, three days later, our family doctor would discover his wrist was fractured. Would Emily like to know that in February 1996, when we discovered I was carrying a girl, we were considering naming her Sarah?

I guess I’ll hang onto those daybooks, after all.

Book Review: The Waiting

Twenty years of hand-written letters. That’s what was included in baby Betty Jane’s adoption file; letters from the mother who had given her up for adoption.

The Waiting, by Cathy LaGrow, with Cindy Coloma, is a powerfully written true story of a young girl whose brutal assault in 1928 resulted in a pregnancy. It was more than 75 years before that woman would meet the baby that she never stopped loving or missing.


It was her faith that kept Minka (Minne) going all those years until she was reunited with her daughter. She knew a lot of heartache in her life, but her faith never wavered.

I read this book in one sitting, unable to put it down.

When a Poem Comes A-Knocking

by Mary Jedlicka Humston

You know that napping sweet spot? That moment when you’re juuuust about to tumble headlong into slumber?
I approached this nirvana the other day, lying on my living room floor, only a whiff of angel dust away from heavenly bliss when…when…a poem intruded, and words jumbled around inside my sleepy head.
“Oh, no,” I moaned. “Not now. I’m too tired.”
And, so I ignored the words writing themselves into lines and then stanzas.
For one slight moment, I thought, (delusionally, of course), “Ah, yes. I will remember this poem when I wake up. I can just memorize it. Memorize it. Memorize it. I will. Yes, I will. I will. I will.” Pause. Deep sigh. “No, I won’t.”
After pushing up my energy-deprived body from the carpet, I grabbed a nearby paper and pen (writing paraphernalia is always nearby in a writer’s home). I blearily, wearily scribbled away.
The words threatening my repose were transferred to paper creating the bones of a poem now readied for more meat. I put the pen and paper by my side in case further inspiration ensued and then collapsed back into a heap.

croppillow3 (1)
Restless after that, I never fell asleep, but I did feel a bit more refreshed than before. And, I had a poem to work on.

That poem is listed below and is also on my Mary Jedlicka Humston Facebook author page.

After the Storms: Early July 2016
by Mary Jedlicka Humston

Luminiferous lasering skies.
Thunderous baritone booms.
Downpours, drenched with
sorrow, despair, uncertainty.

Raucous silences echo within.
Where to go from here?
Where to go from here?
Where? To? Go? From? Here?

Let us start with drizzles of faith.
Mists of peace. Fog-free futures.
Sprinkles of unity, community.
Building, building, building
welcoming deluges of
Hope. Hope. Hope. Hope.

That is where we go from here.

mary humston

Whoa! Did we both just attend a caucus?

by Mary Jedlicka Humston

When you read the chapter “Sex, Drugs, & Rock & Roll: What We Don’t Talk About” from our book Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink, you’ll see just how little Mary and I have talked about politics in our letters throughout the years.
And, yet, Monday night in our respective Iowa towns, we both participated in our first caucuses. Mary attended as a reporter for her local newspaper, and my husband and I decided we simply must take part in this momentous 2016 political event. Having our caucus spot located only four houses away at the elementary school our three kids had attended was another impetus. While we made plans to experience this phenomenon, Mary prepared for reporting on the caucus in her area.
With plenty of time before we had to leave for the 7:00 pm start, Jim and I relaxed. However, car doors slamming and people talking outside our house made us glance at the clock. What on earth? It was only 6:30 pm. He opened our front door and looked toward the school. The line was already out the main entrance. Oh boy! This was even bigger than we’d imagined. Jim hurriedly threw on his coat to save a spot, while I scurried out of my at-home duds and finished dressing. By the time I joined him only a few minutes later, the line already snaked down the long sidewalk toward the teacher parking lot. Ready or not, we were quickly propelled into our first caucus adventure.

Mary and I chatted the next day about our experiences. As Caucus neophytes, Mary, Jim and I have to say we enjoyed the excitement that night when the Democrat and Republican Presidential hopefuls vied for winning spots in the first caucus of the nation.
When we Marys wrote Mary & Me, we had no idea that a-caucusing we would go, but go we did.

And, what an experience it was!

democrat vs republican

Note from the other Mary: There were, and are,  good reasons to avoid topics such as politics and religion in our conversations, whether those conversations are in person or through the mail. Those kinds of topics have the potential to escalate into heated arguments. The fact that Mary and I avoided this topic in thousands of letters is an astounding feat.

From Mary PK in Mary & Me, page 156:  “We’d agreed that politics topped the list. Even during election years we’d barely touched on it, though I had a vague idea who Mary might have voted for once or twice. The subject had never been dubbed taboo; it just wasn’t something we discussed in letters. Frankly, during the years when I had struggled just to survive, politics wasn’t on my radar at all. That was embarrassing to admit to someone like Mary, who seemed to take her voting privileges seriously. My husband had always voted, and never quite understood when I chose not to. It was a personal failing I wasn’t eager to share. Occasionally, my stance had been more of a default position. I couldn’t in good conscience vote for a candidate who supported abortion, so I wouldn’t vote at all that year. Other times I voted for an underdog candidate, knowing full well they wouldn’t win. When I did declare a party, it was Republican.”

Later in the same chapter, I declared my allegiance to Ben Carson, based solely on what I knew of him at that point of time in 2014.

From Mary JH, Mary and Me, page 159:  “But politics? Hardly at all. It’s not that we’re on opposite ends. In fact, I don’t even know for certain what end she’s on. It boils down to neither of us taking time to delve into that world to convince, change, or sway viewpoints.
I am uncomfortable talking at length with anyone about politics, so it’s no surprise I wouldn’t want to squander our valuable writing time. I vote. She votes. Or does she? Who we vote for and why is personal. Just to show how rarely we talk about it, I’ll ask the question now. ‘Mary, what party do you support?’ For the record, I’m an Independent.”

To me, what is even more astounding than our avoidance of the topic for nearly 30 years is how it came up just recently when we discovered we’d each attended a caucus for the first time.

When Mary suggested writing about our mutual attendance of a caucus, I balked a little at the idea. After all, I was attending as a reporter, assigned to a Democrat caucus, while she was attending as a supporter. Of who? Which party? I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. Could that knowledge hurt our friendship?

For the record, it didn’t matter.

Also for the record, if I were to vote today, it would not be for Ben Carson. But if I was attending a caucus as a strong support on either end, it would be more likely I’d be on that side of the spectrum.

And that’s all I have to say on that controversial topic~

Book Review: Snail Mail

This was an easy read, since the bulk of the book consists of luscious photos of well-decorated envelopes and stationery, but there are also wonderful hints and tips about crafting various types of letters, getting creative with your mail, putting together care packages, and snazzing up your penmanship. Random and fun facts about mail and correspondence are peppered throughout.

snail mail

“Snail Mail: Rediscovering the Art and Craft of Handmade Correspondence,” by Michelle Mackintosh, is a work of art in itself, and a must-have for any artsy crafter who wants to liven up their snail mail. I do have to admit that as I paged through the beautiful book, I found myself shaking my head. While I love pretty paper and even prettier envelopes, I am nowhere near close to spending that kind of time to decorate my letters. Sorry, Mary, but it isn’t going to happen anytime soon.