Row that boat! (On parenting… and letting go)

This post is definitely a “Throwback Thursday.” I wrote a column, called “Sanity Check,” for ten years–a humor and lifestyle column about kids, parenting, and life in general. It ran every Monday in my hometown newspaper.

I thought it might be fun to occasionally share some of these columns with you. I was a bit stunned to realize that this one was published TEN years ago! A year or so after it was published, the daughter it describes was leading a group of kids at a rowing camp on a river, upstream from a dam. Their boat got caught in a cross current, pulling them toward the dam. There is no doubt they would have all drowned if they’d gone over the dam. Our daughter directed them on what to do and maneuvered them to a rescue boat, and though shaken, they were all fine.

I’ll never forget that when she got home, she casually shared this story with us over dinner. She was so calm and collected! (And her rowing coach later verified the event.)

So I think about that now, when I get a little nervous about her profession in the Air Force, just as I think about how our younger daughter–a teaching naturalist–was always so drawn to the outdoors. Isn’t it fascinating how the seeds for who we are meant to be seem to be within us from the beginning?

In any case, here’s my Throwback Thursday column. I hope you enjoy it!

“But weren’t you nervous, watching her race?” my friend asked, incredulously.

I was a little taken aback by my friend’s question, a result of my description of watching my oldest daughter’s first rowing competition.

A little background: my daughter became interested in rowing a few summers ago. Last summer, she went to a week long rowing camp with the Greater Dayton Rowing Association. She enjoyed that experience enough to spend this past winter conditioning for rowing, and then to participate in the junior crew’s spring season.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, and my description of my daughter’s first regatta experience… also my first experience of actually seeing her in a row boat.

I told my friend about how surprisingly beautiful a regatta is to watch. How surprisingly passionate my daughter is about rowing. How much joy I felt in watching her row because she’s so joyful about it; how natural she looked during the race; how peaceful she looked while rowing with her teammates after the race back to the dock.

Since my focus was on sentiments such as “peace” and “joy” and “passion,” my friend’s question about my own fear in watching the regatta threw me for a second.

After all, in describing the overall event, I’d also talked about the safety-consciousness of my daughter’s coaches, who emphasize proper techniques and water safety. And I’d mentioned that, in fact, I’d observed how safety-conscious the rowing community in general seems to be. (Medic boats, for example, are always out on the water during practices and events.)

So why that question about my being fearful? Why, there wasn’t any reason at all to be fearful! And then it hit me…

I suddenly recalled how reluctant I’d been to look into rowing opportunities for my daughter, finding any excuse possible to put it off, even though my daughter kept asking about rowing. I’d confided my reluctance to this same friend. Plus, I’d confided how fearful I personally am around water and how I’ve struggled to keep knowledge of that fear from my daughters, because I don’t want to impose my fears on them. I’d told my friend that, even so, I really didn’t like the idea of my daughter doing a water sport.

Even a water sport that’s in a boat. With other people in the boat. And floatable oars. And medic boats nearby.

No wonder, after all my fearful whining months ago, that a few weeks ago my friend asked if I’d been fearful watching my daughter row, because I’d predicted that that’s exactly how I’d feel.

And yet… the very first time I watched my daughter in a regatta, I literally forgot to be afraid for her. My lack of fear had nothing to do with the safety precautions of the coaches and volunteers (as much as I appreciate those precautions), and everything to do with how happy and peaceful and right my daughter seemed in that boat as she rowed by with her teammates.

So… back to the question my friend asked: “Weren’t you nervous, watching her race?”

I smiled and finally answered: “No. Not in the least.”

My daughter’s learning to row, row, row a boat.

And the further I go, not-always-so-gently down the parenthood stream, the more I learn that you can’t choose who your kids are or what they’ll end up loving in life… but you can choose to love them for who and what they are.


Literary Life: Malice Domestic 2018

At the end of April, I attended the Malice Domestic mystery fan convention in Bethesda. It’s a mecca for fans and writers of the traditional mystery, and it was so much fun to connect with this community. Ahhh… attending inspiring–and often humorous–panels of some of my favorite mystery authors–Ann Cleeves, Louise Penny, Elaine Viets, Lori Rader-Day, just to name a few. (Hey, a writer can also be a fan!) Bonus: meeting more members of my terrific Minotaur publishing team. Extra Bonus: enjoying coffee on the hotel’s veranda and gazing upon this lovely cherry tree in full bloom.

Plus, I got to hang out with long-time friends such as Jeff Marks (the new Crippen & Landru publisher!), who debuted Elaine’s new short story collection, and make new friends such as Ashley Weaver, also published by Minotaur. AND, as we got to know each other, we realized we have the same editor, so we declared ourselves editor-siblings. Add to that, we discovered we have the same Myers-Briggs personality type (INFJ). So, basically, we’re twins—if it’s possible to have one twin (me) be much older than the other twin (Ashley).

I also enjoyed moderating a panel called “Out in the Country,” about mysteries set in rural settings, with authors Gloria Alden, Sandra Bretting, Terry Shames and Teresa Trent. They were all bright and savvy, and I hope you’ll check out their work!

I find it ever-inspiring to go to book events and see how many passionate readers are in the world! Do you like to go to book signings, author events, conferences? Share some of your favorites on my Jess Montgomery Author Page.


Pie of the Month: Kentucky Derby Pie

The first horse race I ever went to was in Louisiana, with my husband of about six months (I was 23, and my husband was 22), my mother-in-law, and my father-in-law Frank, who loved horse racing. His own father had owned a race horse who ran and won in minor races.

Frank knew my parents (and all the generations before them, as far back as anyone can recollect) were from eastern Kentucky, and so he assumed that I knew a lot about horse racing. Truth be told, my family of origin were tobacco farmers, more likely to have had mules than horses, and certainly they didn’t have horses for racing, or follow horse racing. Animals were for work, not for sports! What’s more, I was reared in a religious background that when it came to betting or card playing (including solitaire!), well, all bets were decidedly off.

It wasn’t a view I shared, and I wanted to get along with my husband’s family, so I confessed my lack of knowledge but shared that I was willing to give betting a whirl. I caught on to the concept of “win, place or show” fairly quickly, but Frank might as well have been explaining arcane, complex incantations in Latin when he tried to tell me his methodology for handicapping the horses.

I ended up making my choices based on the simple combination of how much I liked the horse’s name and/or the design/color of the jockey’s silks.

My horses won, placed, and showed. Frank’s… ran.

He asked me how I made my choices. Ever overly-honest (I took to heart the Thou Shalt Not Lie part of my upbringing), I shared my methodology. Now, Frank liked to talk. A lot. But my explanation struck him speechless. And I’ll never forget his expression of shock.

Fortunately, Frank forgave me. (He may have tried to hide it behind a gruff exterior, but he was a kind man.) And I learned that one does not need to be blunt about everything, all the time. But secretly, when we’d gather to watch the Run for the Roses with my in-laws, I still used my tried-and-true methodology–and only cheered inwardly when my methodology worked,

Whether or not you’re watching the Run for the Roses, a.k.a. the 2018 Kentucky Derby, this Kentucky Derby Pie is a sure winner. I got the recipe from a friend, former colleague, and book fan Pam Tippett. She says she got it from the 1776 Inn, in Waynesville, Ohio, back in 1977/78. It’s very rich, but I still like to have it with a mint julep while watching the Derby on television–and give a toast to Frank.

Kentucky Derby Pie


  1. 1/4 cup butter
  2. 1 cup sugar
  3. 3 eggs, beaten
  4. 1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate bits
  5. 3/4 cup light corn syrup (Substitute pure cane or simple syrup if you are avoiding corn based products.)
  6. 1 teaspoon vanilla
  7. 1/2 teaspoon salt
  8. 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  9. 2 tablespoons bourbon
  10. 1 unbaked 9″ pie shell (here’s my basic pie crust recipe)


  1. Preheat oven to 375-degrees F.
  2. Cream together butter and sugar.
  3. Stir in eggs, chocolate bits, syrup, salt, vanilla, nuts, and bourbon.
  4. Pour into pie shell and bake 40-50 minutes.
  5. Let cool completely before slicing and serving.


Sticky Note Philosophy: Go Forth With Enthusiasm!

Nineteen years ago, I had a well-paying, well-respected job as a marketing copy writer for a large corporation. I’ll admit it–I didn’t totally love this job. But I didn’t feel like Dilbert, either. I had a nice office, good benefits, kind colleagues–some of whom were (and still are) good friends. Even better, I’d negotiated for my job to be three days a week–perfect for juggling with rearing two small children and my dream work of novel-writing.

The only downside? Well, this corporation was renowned for its layoffs. Or right-sizings. Or whatever was in vogue at the time in corporate-speak for, “we’ve decided to make a change…” Usually, those layoffs came at the end of each October.

I’d survived nine years worth of layoffs, including one during a corporate takeover by another large company. But in October nineteen years ago, I went to what I thought was a routine marketing department meeting.

Except our marketing department manager wasn’t there. Instead, at the front of the conference room stood a person none of us recognized. She turned out to be a new representative from Human Resources. Once that introduction was made, she announced that she had an envelope for each of us containing information about options, next steps, nondisclosure agreements and severance. I still remember the colleague who was sitting next to me, turning to me wide-eyed to whisper: “Have we just been fired? I think we’ve all just been fired!”

Indeed, we had been. All 28 or so of us. En masse.

But we hadn’t been directly fired. Or laid off. Or right-sized. We each had to apply for a job within the corporation before we could accept our severance. The only problem was that our function–marketing–had just been axed from the corporation, and would be outsourced.

I did my due diligence, of course. I applied for the position I was instructed to apply for–a sales position–for which I was wholly unqualified. In that interview, I didn’t even understand the terminology used in the interview questions. I asked the poor beleaguered interviewer (I think all 27 of my colleagues had also applied for the position) if it was necessary to continue the interview, given that I wasn’t qualified. She said yes, and continued to ask the questions on her list. I kept replying, “I don’t know.” (In that moment, I admit it, I DID feel like Dilbert.)

I didn’t get the job.

So now I had an actual choice. I could take severance–a few months’ worth of pay–or apply for another job as an administrative assistant. I wasn’t particularly qualified for that job, either, but it was one I could eventually learn (so I was told). My pay would be cut a bit, but at least I’d be employed. At least, until the next lay off.

After work, I came home, had dinner with my husband and our two kids. And then I decided to take a long walk, by myself. As I did so, I kept thinking, “what should I do, what should I do?” Declining the possibility of a certain year of employment seemed foolish. But I didn’t want to stay at the corporation, in a job I didn’t really want to do, and face the possibility of another layoff.

Suddenly, I had this thought. Or perhaps the good Lord, or the Universe, or whatever you want to call the small still voice that sometimes speaks to all of us, shared this thought:


I stopped in my tracks. Well, that seemed profound. But what did it really mean?

By the time I was home, I knew. It meant that whatever work I did, I had to embrace it wholly and with passion. I wouldn’t be happy and whole any other way. I had to go forth with enthusiasm!

I wrote that phrase down on a sticky note, and put it by my home computer. I took the severance, and put together a plan to do what I’d been wanting to do for a long time: launch my own local marketing communications practice. I made a list of thirty people to call. Three of them had work for me on small projects. From there, my business grew by word of mouth. I was steadily employed as a freelance marketing communications writer for nine years–until the crash of 2008.

But by then, I’d gotten adept at living by the mantra.

Oh, and by the way, my former employer? Well, that corporation became one of my steady clients during my freelancing years!

Every now and then, I look at that saying–now on a digital sticky note, as the original is long gone. And when I’m stuck in my writing or on another project, I take a deep breath (or a long walk) and remind myself: GO FORTH WITH ENTHUSIASM!

Conjugating Other People’s Books: Have Read, Am Reading, Will Read

I didn’t realize until I took this photo (Mycroft tried to steal the scene!) that the authors all have first names beginning with “A!”

Not by design. Sometimes lovely coincidences just happen!

Here are my three OPBs this month–a book I’ve read, a book I’m reading, and a book I’m looking forward to reading.

A book I’ve read: The Promise, by Ann Weisgarber

From the cover copy: “1900, Catherine Wainwright flees her fashionable hometown of Dayton, Ohio in the wake of a terrible scandal. Heartbroken and facing destitution, she finds herself striking up correspondence with a childhood admirer, the recently widowed Oscar Williams. In desperation, she agrees to marry him, but when Catherine travels to Oscar’s farm on Galveston Island, Texas–a thousand miles from home–she finds she is little prepared for the life that awaits her… Meanwhile, for Nan Ogden, Oscar’s housekeeper, Catherine’s sudden arrival has come as a great shock… And when the worst storm in a generation descends, the women will find themselves tested as never before.”

Why I loved it: I thoroughly enjoyed this novel for the journey it took me on–in time and place, but also emotionally. Ann deftly tells the story through both Catherine and Nan’s points of view, alternating between them with first person narration, yet bringing each woman’s voice distinctively, clearly to life. As a writer, I was in awe. As a reader, I was riveted!

A book I’m reading: Fierce: Women of the Bible and their Stories of Violence, Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex and Salvation, by Alice Connor

The subtitle says it all, but here is more detail from the cover copy: “Women in the Bible–some of their names we know, others we’ve only heard, and others are tragically unnamed. Pastor and provocateur Alice Connor introduces these women and invites us to see them not as players in a man’s story–as victims or tempters–nor as morality archetypes, teaching us to be better wives and mothers, but as fierce foremothers of the faith.”

Why I’m loving it: I usually don’t read nonfiction (other than memoir, personal essays, or for research), but I’m savoring these essays, allowing myself time between each to consider what I’ve read. They are thought provoking, surprising, and at times laugh-out-loud funny.

A book I will read:The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Kahn

From the cover copy: “Despite their many differences, Detective Rachel Getty trusts her boss, Esa Khattak, implicitly. But she’s still uneasy at Khattak’s tight-lipped secrecy when he asks her to look into Christopher Drayton’s death. Drayton’s apparently accidental fall from a cliff doesn’t seem to warrant a police investigation, particularly not from Rachel and Khattak’s team, which handles minority-sensitive cases. But when she learns that Drayton may have been living under an assumed name, Rachel begins to understand why Khattak is tip-toeing around this case. It soon comes to light that Drayton may have been a war criminal with ties to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995…”

Why I’m looking forward to it: The premise is intriguing, and I’m eager to read a mystery that also explores timely cultural themes while pulling from the background of the Bosnian War. Then too, my hometown (fashionable Dayton, Ohio!), was the site of the Dayton Accords in November 1995, the peace agreement (later signed in December 1995 in fashionable Paris, France) that put an end to the Bosnian War. The Dayton Literary Peace Prize, held annually, was inspired by the Dayton Accords.


Wit and Wisdom (and Cousin Pat) at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop

This past weekend, I was blessed to spend a busy but inspiring time at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, where I led a class on “Creating Vivid Characters,” moderated a panel of agents, met with writers for a speed-dating q&a, and introduced one of the keynoters, John Grogan of Marley & Me fame.

Oh, and I may have hung out with a friend. Or two. Or three.

Truth be told, though, all weekend I was nervous as all get out about doing that introduction of John–even though I know him. Even though it was an honor to be asked. Even though, usually, I’m not fearful (too much!) of public speaking.

You see, I grew up in Erma‘s hometown of Dayton, Ohio, and as beloved as she still deservedly is everywhere else, here in Dayton she is revered. This was not the time to trip, stutter, fall, or spill water all over the mic. What’s more, for John’s lunch keynote, I was seated at a table that included John, his lovely wife Jenny, Erma’s sons (Matt and Andrew), and the new president of University of Dayton, Erma’s alma mater, where the workshop is held every other year.

The only thing to do? Channel my cousin Pat.

Pat, you see, is a now-retired Associate Vice-Chancellor from a large university, and has never seemed, at least to my eyes, to be terrified of any public situation. I once went to an posthumous installment of Pat’s mom, my Aunt Opal, into University of Kentucky’s hall of fame for Aunt Opal’s specialty (Home Economics). At the banquet, I did my usual introverted shtick: I smiled, nodded, and sat down at our table and contemplated the arrangement of silverware. Yep, forks still go on the left.

Pat, however, warmly greeted everyone at our table, one-on-one, introducing herself and looking each person in the eyes as if he or she were a long-lost friend. Then she did the same with the people at the nearby tables. When the time came to speak on her mother’s behalf, she stood up straight and tall (she’s a lovely, petite blonde), and took each of us in with her charm.

Now Aunt Opal came from humble beginnings–a tobacco farmer’s daughter in Eastern Kentucky–and worked her way up all the way to a PhD, and from there to state and national level positions. She had more grit than anyone I’ve ever known. And she always spoke from the heart, and connected with people right where they were. Pat learned well.

Erma would have adored both of them, I believe.

I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of Erma’s wit and wisdom ended up on Aunt Opal’s fridges in Kentucky and later in Washington D.C.

In any case, as lunch progressed and the time neared for me to introduce John, I became more and more nervous. I kept reminding myself that the introduction was only two minutes long. That, rightfully, attendees were eager to hear John. That, I’d prepared my introduction, written it from the heart in the privacy of my home. In it, I shared how I’d met John just after his runaway bestselling memoir was published, at a booksellers’ convention, and how gracious and generous he was with everyone. How he’d been that way as well at two other workshops where our paths crossed.

Still, I knew I needed to deliver what I’d written from the heart as well. Aunt Opal, Cousin Pat, and Erma Bombeck would expect no less.

What to do? Well, Cousin Pat is about fifteen years older than me, and I’ve looked up to her ever since I was a little girl. And I like to think I have, deep in me, some of the same grit and warmth and charm that I saw in her mother, and that I see in her.

So, when it was time to introduce John, I paused for just a moment at the bottom of the steps to the podium. And I thought: Be Cousin Pat.

Suddenly, with the feeling of Pat and Aunt Opal–and yes, even Erma–cheering me on, it didn’t seem quite so hard.

I introduced John. He spoke with humor and inspiration–and reminded us all to always write and communicate from the heart.

I had to smile at that. Pat, Aunt Opal and Erma would definitely approve of that message! I know I certainly do.

I hope you have a Cousin Pat to draw inspiration and courage from whenever you have to do something challenging.

If not, well, just draw on the inspiration and courage of Erma Bombeck. Here are some Erma quotes that just might help:

  • “When humor goes, there goes civilization.”
  • “I believe everything of any importance in this world has been brought about by dreamers, visionaries who see beyond the first step.”
  • “Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart.”
  • “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.'”