An Old-Fashioned Louisa May Alcott Thanksgiving

From Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag comes “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving,” one of many charming short stories Louisa May Alcott wrote after the success of
Little Women.

Story summary

It’s a simple story of a time long ago and far away (very early 19th century), starring a country family in New Hampshire, “poor in money, but rich in land and love …” Familiar themes but I never grow tired of them, especially when the world today is so full of uncertainty and misery. Continue reading

Announcing my first book, “River of Grace,” to be published this Fall!

River of Grace is available for pre-order through Amazon.com.

I am pleased to announce that my very first book, River of Grace: Creative Passages Through Difficult Times will be released this Fall, published by Ave Maria Press!

You can pre-order it now on Amazon.com.

A memoir with life application

River of Grace is a faith-based memoir (written from my Roman Catholic tradition) with life application exercises, offering true and hopeful stories of growth and transformation after hard losses.

amy belding brownAmy Belding Brown, author of Mr. Emerson’s Wife (see review) and Flight of the Sparrow (see review) writes:

“Susan Bailey’s powerful and beautifully-written book is much more than an insightful spiritual memoir. River of Grace is also a brilliant reflection on the connections between creativity and grace. Deeply grounded in a profound Christian faith, the author chronicles her personal experiences of loss and shows how they were transformed as she learned to accept and respond to new challenges. This wonderful book also includes a valuable assortment of exercises that will enrich your spiritual life and gently guide you to confront your own difficulties and deepen your relationship with God. Anyone who seeks to discern God’s purposes in life’s most challenging situations will find this book one to cherish.”

Seasons of loss

louisa loses lizzieJust about all of us can cite a time in our lives whether now or in the past, where we have lost something precious to us.

  • Perhaps it’s been the death of a parent or a child.
  • Or, you yourself are suffering through a long illness.
  • It could be a long stretch of unemployment causing financial difficulties, even the loss of your home.
  • Maybe you’ve lost a best friend due to a falling out.
  • Perhaps you’ve recently put down a beloved pet.

These are all serious losses that tear at us, causing grief or anxiety or anger. Where do we find the strength to pick up the pieces and carry on?

Could a serious loss signal a new life, even a transformed life?

This is what I write about in River of Grace, beginning with the loss of my parents and then my singing voice. Through the means of a kayak and my love for Louisa May Alcott, I believe that God led me on amazing, joy-filled and sometimes crazy adventure within his river of grace, leading up to this book and beyond.

Louisa May Alcott’s story, and my story

louisa may alcott for widgetLouisa’s life and writing played a central role in my journey from loss and grief to creative rebirth and a life transformed. In River of Grace you will find out how I came to find Louisa again, how she spoke to me through her life and works, and how I came to create the community known as Louisa May Alcott is My Passion.

Writing through the ages that offers comfort

Louisa May Alcott’s candid and heartfelt writing provided much consolation after I lost my mother to a long illness. This  beloved 19th-century author spoke to my own season of loss.

Reading through “Mommy’s” copies of Little Women, An Old-Fashioned Girl and Aunt Jo’s Scrap-bag drew me out of numbing grief and reunited me with the mother I called my best friend and confidant.

aunt jo's scrap-bag combined

Awakening the creative spirit

By immersing myself into all things Alcott, my long dormant creative life came to life again and led me to places I never would have dreamed possible.

Understanding for the first time what true creativity is, I show in this book how such creativity is for everyone, not just for those who possess certain talents.

Stories and tools

River of Grace is not just book of stories. I provide practical tools so that you too can go on your amazing adventure. These “Flow Lessons” appear throughout the book and will also be available on this website.

In the weeks to come, I will share quotes and stories from River of Grace. Please spread the word to everyone you know who has gone through a season of loss or is just looking to jump start their spiritual and creative lives.

Available in many formats

River of Grace will be available as a print book, e-book and audio book (through Audible.com and iTunes). Just this past week I started the process of recording the book. My thanks to producer extraordinaire Ron Zabrocki for his expertise (he produced several of my music CDs).

recording montage

Here is more on River of Grace:

Writing River of Grace and having it published by such a well-respected publisher is a dream come true. I would definitely classify it as a “crazy adventure!”

River of Grace Creative Passages Through Difficult TimesPlease share this post on Facebook, on Twitter, on Pinterest, through email with anyone whom you think would benefit from reading my book. Feel free to share the book cover. Your recommendation is the best way to get the word out.

I will let you know just as soon as it is available when you can order River of Grace. Signing up for my email list is the best way to be the first to know.

I can’t wait to share this book with you!

 

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Remembering my mom with the words of Louisa May Alcott

Today (April 22, 2015) marks the fifth anniversary of my mother’s passing. But it’s not a sad day. Like Louisa, I have a firm belief in the hereafter. Like Christie Devon in Work, I too have seen “signs” that my mother is still very close to me (see previous post).

In those first weeks after my mother’s passing when I was too numb to cry I found Louisa. The one thing that broke through that wall of numbness was reading Louisa’s words in my mother’s copies of her books, personalized with her name plate.

There was Little Women with a copyright of 1911.

little women combined

There was An Old-Fashioned Girl from the 1920’s with the most exquisite color plates.

an old fashioned girl combined

There was Aunt Jo’s Scrap-bag, Volume 6 with my favorite of Louisa’s short stories, “The Dolls’ Journey from Minnesota to Maine.”

aunt jo's scrap-bag combined

My mother at eighteen, just before entering Wellesley College in 1938

My mother at eighteen, just before entering Wellesley College in 1938

Now, five years later with many wonderful books read and much writing done, I think of my mother with heartfelt love and and a few tears,  knowing that somehow her spirit guided me to Louisa, along with the beloved Friend that lives inside of me.

Happy anniversary, Mommy.

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Summer Conversational Series 2014 – “Navigating the Vortex: Creative Genius in the Time of the Alcotts” – Is it Talent or Genius?

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director, introducing the speaker.

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director, introducing the speaker.

I am grateful to be able to attend again the annual Summer Conversational Series at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House this year. The theme concerns talent versus genius, and the abundance of genius that existed in Concord, Massachusetts in the 19th century.

I was not able to take in all five days of the series but I will present the speakers that I was fortunate enough to see.

Was Louisa a genius?

Was Louisa May Alcott a genius or merely a crackerjack professional writer? Was she both? These questions and more were explored during Monday’s session.

Cathlin Davis, Ph.D

560 cathlin1

Cathlin Davis, Ph.D on Talent versus Genius

The first speaker was a perennial favorite, Dr. Cathlin Davis, professor of Liberal Studies at California State University, Stanislaus. Dr. Davis probably knows Louisa’s juvenile canon better than anyone with a particular emphasis on her numerous short stories.

Louisa’s breakthrough work in children’s literature

Dr. Davis is passionate about elevating children’s literature to the level of respect it deserves by highlighting its most prominent authors. Dr. Davis maintained in her presentation “Is it Talent or Genius?” that Louisa’s unique genius was the ability to get inside the mind of the child and voice that child’s thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears. Before Louisa, children’s literature presented all-too-perfect children presenting moral teaching through stilted dialog. Dr. Davis compared a sample from Nathanial Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales of a twelve year old’s conversation (stiff, formal, full of long words and complex sentences) to Louisa’s An Old-Fashioned Girl featuring childish conversation laced with slang and grammatical errors; in other words, the way children of that era really talked.

Examples from Louisa’s stories

Dr. Davis spelled out the qualities of talent and of genius, displaying them on a poster (see photo). She then took several examples from Louisa’s books and short stories to illustrate. These included Amy and Laurie from Little Women, Rose, Charlie, Phoebe and Mac from Rose in Bloom, Psyche and her little sister from the short story “Pysche’s Art,” Clara from “A Bright Idea” (from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, Volume V), and Diana and Persis. As you can see from the photo, she listed who she thought had talent and who possessed genius.

560 talent versus genius

 

Louisa herself is on that list.

Louisa’s genius was her genuine love of children, her commitment to truthfulness and accuracy, and her passion. She respected children, never writing “down” to them. These qualities were instantly recognized by her adoring public with the first publication of volume one of Little Women.

Much to find in Louisa’s stories

Dr. Davis concluded that Louisa wrote extensively on the subjects of talent and genius. She remarked that preparing for this presentation, she realized that Rose in Bloom is not just about romance but about discovering one’s talent, determining whether or not it is genius, and using it to benefit others. While Louisa did often focus on the fine art talents of music, acting, dancing and painting, she also pointed out those talents which often go unnoticed – the talents for helping others which Rose displayed so well in the story.

True confession

rose in bloomI have a confession to make which has probably been obvious to you who read this blog regularly: I enjoy writing about Louisa more than writing about her books and stories. It is an odd disconnect, one that I am seeking to correct. Having listened to Dr. Davis’s presentation (and later having the pleasure of conversing with her over dinner), I have a better sense of what to look for when I read Louisa’s juvenile works. Dr. Davis is convinced that in spite of the infamous quote (which she is loath to use) of writing “moral pap for the young,” Louisa was in fact proud of her juvenile writing and poured herself into her writing.

You all of course have always known that. I felt that way about Little Women despite Louisa’s protestations about having to write it. Perhaps the author doth protest too much?

Needless to say, I have much catching up to do and a pleasant task it will be!

More to come …

In my next post I will present more about the other presenters in Monday’s session.

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On vacation with Louisa May Alcott: Last Day of the Summer Conversational Series – Being and Doing: Louisa explores herself and her beliefs through her writing (Part Two)

Cathlin Davis on Louisa’s philosophy of life

cathlin 560Continuing with Day 4 of the series, Professor Cathlin Davis from California State University presented on “Practice Philosophy: ‘I want something to do.’” Through passages from Hospital Sketches, Work, Little Men and some of the rarer short stories (“May Flowers” from A Garland for Girls and “What Becomes of the Pins” from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, volume 5), Davis presented a thorough analysis of Louisa’s philosophy for life: work as salvation.

Christie’s personal search for salvation

Davis presented one of my favorite passages from Work where Christie is searching for religion. Work is seen by most as an autobiographical feminist manifesto but often the important spiritual element of the book is overlooked. Davis did a masterful job of tracing the story of Christie showing how she “got religion” by finding meaningful work in her life. Christie has led a hard life and is in need of healing; the protection of the home (and her baby, “Little Hearts-Ease”), something to do (purpose), her tasks in taking care of the greenhouse which generates the income (and surrounds her with nature) and good friends bring that healing.

Purpose and acceptance

Davis continues with Little Men, demonstrating through Demi, Dan and Nan how each found their salvation through their purpose. Demi, the contemplative, surprisingly takes on a practical occupation as a journalist to support his family but still maintains that harmony of body and soul. Dan, a troubled street boy, finds acceptance at Plumfield after traveling a rocky, winding road. Demi’s acceptance of him was most important:

“No honor that [Dan] might earn hereafter would ever by half so precious as the right to teach his few virtues and his small store of learning to the child whom he most respected; and no more powerful restraint could have been imposed upon him than the innocent companion confided to his care …” (Little Men, from Davis’ handout)

Teaching the children

Louisa used her rich imagination in short stories “May Flowers” and “What Becomes of the Pins” to drive home the same point – that purposeful work is the means to salvation. In essence, Louisa was an active contemplative, one who blended being and doing into perfect harmony.

John Matteson on Louisa and Emerson

DAY 4 john 560The series ended with Orchard House favorite John Matteson from John Jay College in New York; he is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts. His presentation was titled “Innocence and Experience: Alcott, Moods, and the Emersonian Prism.” Using what Louisa considered to be her most personal book, Matteson demonstrated how Louisa sough to live out the teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson in her own life.

How does Emerson deal with artistic genius?

Matteson raised several important questions centered on artistic genius:

  • Can Emerson’s masculine philosophy be applied to feminine thinking?
  • Can the philosophy apply to minds in distress?
  • What about self-denial versus self-expression, and self-governance/service to others versus self-exploration of artistic genius?

Fear of genius

Suggesting that Louisa might have battled privately with a bipolar disorder, Matteson traced the life of Sylvia Yule and her mercurial nature as evidenced by her moods. He asserted that Louisa was fearful of the power and mania of her vortexes; Sylvia’s fear of the intensity of Adam Warwick plays out this concern. She sought to “tame” Sylvia as a means of achieving more of a balance as seen in the conventional ending of the 1882 revised edition of Moods where Sylvia resolves to remain with Geoffrey Moore, her husband (in the 1864 version, a younger Louisa felt she had no choice but to kill Sylvia off to consumption). Matteson believes Moods lost its power as Sylvia drew closer to that balance and maturity.

Contradictions

Emerson’s contradicting thinking on the nature of the mind had to have caused confusion for Louisa. Because Emerson did not believe in neat and tidy endings (since everything to him was fluid and open-ended), he could simultaneously hold the belief that all men were part of one universal mind and yet each man is a unique individual. The universal mind connotes community (something Louisa experienced much of in her early life due to Bronson’s views on consociate families); Louisa challenges Emerson as to whether genius can live in community since it does not lead to commonality. Sylvia is an early depiction of Louisa: full of contractions, longing for harmony due to the inner turmoil of her genius.

On the outside looking in

It is sad to consider how rigid Victorian society was at the time of Louisa’s life, it was vital it was to “fit in” to narrow expectations (which were even more narrow for women) and yet Louisa by nature was far outside of convention. Sylvia was a frustrated intellect who suffered from an overactive and overwrought mind and a heart that never rested.

Violent nature

Mattteson brought up the fascinating point about nature. Emerson promotes nature as healing and stimulating but what happens when nature becomes turbulent and dangerous? Matteson noted three occasions in Moods where Sylvia encounters this part of nature: the thunderstorm that threatened her company’s boat journey, the brush fire that nearly consumed her and the high tide that nearly swept her out to sea. She is challenging Emerson: what happens when the inner life becomes turbulent and dangerous?

Cleaning it up

In the end, Louisa gives Moods the tidy ending, perhaps not having the courage to explore the more open-ended thinking of Emerson.

Final thoughts

The Summer Conversational Series is a wonderful experience of intellectual stimulation and discussion with like-minded people. It’s not just that we discuss Louisa but more on how we discuss life. I have increasingly found it difficult to think like the rest of the world as I read more and more. I was surprised at how much of a Transcendentalist I actually am. Like Louisa, I don’t understand all the thinking of people such as Emerson and Bronson Alcott, but intuitively, I know what they were promoting. To me it is a joy to overlay the Transcendentalist way of thinking onto my Roman Catholic faith; it is helping me to embrace the mystic in me, something I once feared.

I made several new friends this week, friends that I will get together with outside of the Conversational series. To be in the company of such thoughtful and caring people, to find that kind of fellowship gave me the kind of vacation I truly enjoy.

DAY 4 audience laughing 560

DAY 4 jan3 560My heartfelt thanks to Jan Turnquist, Lis Adams, all the presenters and all the Orchard House volunteers for a week I will never forget.

Click to Tweet & ShareLouisa explores herself and her beliefs through her writing (Part Two) http://wp.me/p125Rp-1wo

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Susan’s ebook, “Game Changer” is now available From the Garret – download for free!

The boys in Louisa May Alcott’s life

From the pages of Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag comes an intriguing memoir of the boys in Louisa May Alcott’s life, “My Boys.”

From one “boy” to another

Louisa had always preferred the company of boys and wished she had been born one herself.  She particularly favored the age when boys were “regarded as nuisances till they are twenty-one.” Enjoying the rough and raw edges of adolescent boys, she writes:

“I like boys and oysters raw; so, though good manners are always pleasing, I don’t mind the rough outside burr which repels most people, and perhaps that is the reason why the burrs open and let me see the soft lining and taste the sweet nut hidden inside.”

Finding acceptance

Louisa herself was certainly rough and raw and found acceptance with boys that age that she didn’t find with her own peers. Her manner was considered “queer” (her word) by most who felt she didn’t fit the mold of a Victorian woman but boys readily embraced her queerness. In Louisa, they found a friend and intimate confidant who embraced and accepted them. It was a way of accepting herself.

Fact or fiction?

“My Boys” was written after Little Women and probably needs to be taken with a grain of salt. There is no way of verifying the facts. However, the story reveals a warm and bighearted woman who, despite her desire to remain single, did on occasion, require the intimacy of a close friendship.

Let’s meet some of the boys in Louisa May Alcott’s life:

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Frank

Frank was Louisa’s first “well-beloved” boy. Meeting him at the age of seven, he became her constant playmate. He insisted on testing her mettle with a bit of bullying, trying his best to make her cry “by slapping my hands with books, hoop-sticks, shoes, anything that came along capable of giving a good stinging blow.” It was with great pride that Louisa did not, and he respected her for it: “‘She’s a brave little thing, and you can’t make her cry.”

Beginning with Frank, Louisa competed with any boy who was up to the challenge. She prided herself with being able to drive a hoop as tall as she around the Boston Common better than any boy.

Frank ultimately broke her little heart through betrayal, breaking up the friendship. Yet despite the pain, Louisa remembered him fondly in the story.

Christy

Here was a boy in whom Louisa could place her confidence. She met Christy while visiting relatives away from home and found him to be a tremendous source of solace. Punished by the matron for being naughty, she is banished to the garret to ponder her sins. Being Louisa, she lashed herself endlessly with guilt. Christy offers sweet solace:

“Seeing the tragic expression of my face, he said not a word, but, sitting down in an old chair, took me on his knee and held me close and quietly, letting the action speak for itself. It did most eloquently; for the kind arm seemed to take me back from that dreadful exile, and the friendly face to assure me without words that I had not sinned beyond forgiveness.”

Augustus

Louisa refers to “Gus” as her “first little lover, and the most romantic of my boys.” Fifteen at the time, she was again visiting, away from her family. Gus was seventeen and made overtures, inviting her to go berry picking. They discussed novels and poetry, and he serenaded her with his accordion while out boating.

Louisa speaks of him in a very soft and sentimental manner; it sounds like a typical summer romance. They kept in touch from time to time after parting but tragically, Augustus died young. It made me wonder if the relationship would have continued, perhaps matured, had he lived.

Alf Whitman

Louisa met Alf later in life, she being considerably older than he. He was motherless and thus, she reached out as a caring Mama. They met during her tenure with the Concord Dramatic Union (now the Concord Players), performing as Dolphus and Sophy Tetterby in the “Haunted Man” by Charles Dickens. They formed a fast and lasting friendship even after he married and had children, she always referring to Alf as Dolphus in her letters.

Certainly the two connected through their mutual interest in acting, acting being one of Louisa’s strongest passions.

According to Louisa, Laurie was based on a combination of Alf Whitman and Ladislas Wisniewski.

Alf is considered one of the inspirations for Laurie in Little Women. Louisa writes to Alf, “… I put you into my story as one of the best & dearest lads I ever knew! “Laurie” is you & my Polish boy “jintly” [sic jointly]” (from The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott edited by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy; associate editor Madeleine Stern).

Louisa’s Polish Boy, Ladislas Wisniewski

“Laddie” is the boy that invites the most speculation. At twenty, Laddie was thirteen years Louisa’s junior when they met in Vevey, Switzerland during Louisa’s first trip to Europe. Although again, the affection appears motherly on Louisa’s part (and he even referred to her as his “little Mamma”), it is obvious this boy meant the most to her.

Louisa’s service as a nurse in the Civil War heightened her motherly instincts, attracting her to young men who had served, especially those who were sickly. Laddie had served in the Polish Revolution and was suffering from a respiratory illness that was possibly life-threatening.

Laddie was something of a prankster, appealing to Louisa’s sense of humor. His skill as a pianist spoke to her heart.

The two companions found ways to communicate despite the language barrier: she struggled with French while he learned  English. Theirs was a warm and intimate relationship sharing their interests and passions.

The fortnight that the two spent in Paris had tongues wagging. Some scholars believe Louisa might have had a full-blown romance with Laddie.  Certainly being escorted by a young man without a chaperone all around the romantic city was daring (although she defends the action as proper, citing her age).

Louisa writes poignantly of their parting:

“… I drew down his tall head and kissed him tenderly, feeling that in this world there were no more meetings for us. Then I ran away and buried myself in an empty railway carriage, hugging the little cologne bottle he had given me.”

Laddie was to be, in part, the inspiration for Laurie (as shown by Laurie’s ability as a pianist, his European background and experiences, and his pranks).

Why adolescent boys?

So why was Louisa attracted to adolescent boys? As previously stated, she found a kindred spirit in boys this age and they accepted her wholeheartedly. With boys, she could be herself.

Her infatuations with Emerson and Thoreau offer a second explanation: safety. As a young girl “in love” with older men, she could enjoy her innocent and private fantasies without ever having to act out on them. Later, as an older spinster, she could seek out the intimate male companionship she desired without having to consider marriage and all its pitfalls.

In both cases, she never had to tread into the dangerous territory of sexual relations.

It is ironic that her younger sister May also engaged in a relationship with a younger man (Ernest Nieriker) and ended up marrying him!

Recalling the massive crush I had on my French teacher in middle school, I can attest to the satisfying nature of a fantasy relationship. As an adult, I’ve had the opportunity to become friendly with this man but I deliberately kept my distance, thus preserving the fantasy. It remains a pleasant memory.

Why do you think Louisa sought out the company of teenage boys?

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Complete list of stories from the Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag series

Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag is a collection of short stories, mostly for children, that Louisa wrote in the 1880s (including stories from her grand tour of Europe with younger sister May). While none of the stories have anything to do with Little Women, the publisher obviously was banking on the title drawing in lots of buyers (and it obviously worked!).

Thanks to one of our readers (Tarissa, In The Bookcase blog) we have the entire list of stories from all 6 volumes of Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, all of which are available on the web (just click on the Volume number to get to the stories).

Here is the complete list (note: a permanent link to this list will be posted on the My Growing Library page of this blog):

Volume #1:

  • My Boys
  • Tessa’s Surprises
  • Buzz
  • The Children’s Joke
  • Dandelion
  • Madam Cluck and Her Family
  • A Curious Call
  • Tilly’s Christmas
  • My Little Gentleman
  • Back Windows
  • Little Marie of Lehon
  • My May-Day Among Curious Birds and Beasts
  • Our Little Newsboy
  • Patty’s Patchwork

from Shawl Straps

Volume #2:

Contains a book called ‘Shawl-Straps’ and is divided into 6 parts named:

  • I.  Off
  • II.  Brittany
  • III.  France
  • IV.  Switzerland
  • V.  Italy
  • VI.  London

These are stories from Louisa and May’s grand tour of Europe.

Volume #3:

  • Cupid and Chow-chow
  • Huckleberry
  • Nelly’s Hospital
  • Grandma’s Team
  • Fairy Pinafores
  • Mamma’s Plot
  • Kate’s Choice
  • The Moss People
  • What Fanny Heard
  • A Marine Merry-Making

Volume #4:

  • My Girls
  • Lost in a London Fog
  • The Boys’ Joke, and Who Got the Best of It
  • Roses and Forget-Me-Nots
  • Old Major
  • What the Girls Did
  • Little Neighbors
  • Marjorie’s Three Gifts
  • Patty’s Place
  • The Autobiography of an Omnibus
  • Red Tulips
  • A Happy Birthday

Volume #5:

  • Jimmy’s Cruise in the Pinafore
  • Two Little Travellers
  • A Jolly Fourth
  • Seven Black Cats
  • Rosa’s Tale
  • Lunch
  • A Bright Idea
  • How they Camped Out
  • My Little School-Girl
  • What a Shovel Did
  • Clams
  • Kitty’s Cattle Show
  • What Becomes of the Pins

Volume #6:

  • An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving
  • How It All Happened
  • The Dolls’ Journey from Minnesota to Maine
  • Morning-Glories
  • Shadow-Children
  • Poppy’s Pranks
  • What the Swallows Did
  • Little Gulliver
  • The Whale’s Story
  • A Strange Island
  • Fancy’s Friend

Many, MANY thanks to Tarissa for this great piece of research! This is why this blog is nothing without all of you. 🙂


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