On Making French Onion Soup

It was a rainy day. A drizzle in the beginning, and then a downpour.

“The earth needs a drink of water,” Anna said. This is how I explained rain to her, once upon a time, and she remembered.

I don’t mind rainy days. Every now and then, especially during summertime, it’s refreshing to take a break from sunscreen, water bottles and hours-long outdoor fun (swimming! sandboxes! biking!) and simply hang out.

Read on the front porch. Watch a movie. Go to the coffee shop (my personal favorite).

Or make French onion soup, as I recently did.

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For Christmas, my brother Jared gave me a copy of The Skinnytaste Cookbook by Gina Homolka. I’ve made several recipes from it since then, and liked them all. My favorite one probably is the recipe for French onion soup.

Do you like French onion soup, friends? It might be an acquired taste; I don’t know.

When I was growing up, there was a local restaurant called Jim Dandy’s. My family and I often dined there. And when we did, I ordered their French onion soup. It was hot and cheesy—what was there not to love? Jim Dandy’s made me fall, hard, for French onion soup.

The foods we prefer now, as adults, usually are the ones we loved as children. It’s why, even at the swankiest restaurants, you often find some version of macaroni and cheese on the menu. Sure, maybe it features bites of lobster. Maybe it boasts Beaufort D’Ete. But you know, and the restaurant knows, that underneath all the glamour and gourmet ingredients, you’ll take a bite and happily remember the Kraft version your mom or dad threw together way back when.

So I recreated that happy childhood memory—French onion soup—that rainy day.

But you know, and the restaurant knows, that underneath all the glamour and gourmet ingredients, you’ll take a bite and happily remember the Kraft version your mom or dad threw together way back when.

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The Skinnytaste recipe for French onion soup estimates that it takes about an hour and a half to cook, start to finish.

I read once that you can’t rush soup…and the home cook in me begs to differ. You can rush pretty much anything if you’re hungry enough, friends.

In this recipe, the onions go through three stages of cooking: 1) softening, 2) caramelizing and 3) simmering. Each stage is supposed to consist of 30 minutes each, but I’ve found you can get the job done in about 25 minutes per stage.

It’s pretty cool, I think, to watch onions transform through softening in the beginning…

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and then caramelizing…

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and finally simmering. I took this picture before adding the dry sherry, white wine and beef stock…but hopefully, you get a sense of the distinctions in the three stages here:

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I didn’t really start cooking until after Grace was born. Before parenthood, Stanton and I loved trying out different local restaurants together, and becoming regulars at our favorites. Given the choice, I still would rather make a reservation than make dinner. 😉

Over the years, though, I have found a fulfillment in feeding the people I love. There must be something innate or biological about this, because I really do love eating out. But when Grace or Anna ask for a second helping of the pasta and meatballs I make every week, or the dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets we always have on hand in the freezer (that counts as semi-homemade, right?)…I feel good.

Given the choice, I still would rather make a reservation than make dinner.

Grace and Stanton share similar tastes. Basically, they both love red meat. Burgers, steak, tacos. Grace’s favorite fast-food chain is Five Guys. Do they like my French onion soup? The answer is no, although they will politely have a few spoonfuls. Anna, however, will sit down and enjoy a bowl with me.

Because French onion soup isn’t a crowd favorite in my house, I don’t make it all the time. Just on chance rainy days.

“Some people walk in the rain; others just get wet.” (Roger Miller)

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I didn’t think, when I was younger, that I would grow up into the kind of person who makes soup on a rainy day, and enjoys it. Instead of, say, the kind of person who does something just a bit more interesting.

In the moment, as we’re living life, it’s easy to forget the value in our many, seemingly mundane tasks. Preparing food for a family. Answering the phone when a friend calls, even though we don’t have much time to talk. Helping a co-worker save face. Waving another driver into our lane from the parking lot, even though it means we may not make the green light ahead.

It’s also easy to forget, or maybe not even consider, that who we are now…what we’re doing right now…maybe this is what was meant to be all along, even if the route to our current destination was circuitous, confusing or all-out crazy.

I’m not a great cook. I can’t create a recipe like I can create story. What I can do is (mostly) follow a recipe. I can make sure nobody is hungry. I can offer second helpings and listen to what happened during everyone’s day, and share some of my own.

I offered our neighbor, who told me she had a cold, some French onion soup. She said thanks, but no thanks. “I never really got into French onion soup,” she said.

“It’s an acquired taste,” I agreed.

Anna, who was with me, crossed her arms. “My mom?” she said to our neighbor. “Her soup is delicious.”

Our neighbor laughed; I did too. It’s nice to have somebody in your corner. “I’ll have to give it another try,” she said.

“It’s OK if you don’t,” I assured her.

Some things are acquired tastes.

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

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You Made It Home Just in Time

Friday, about 5 p.m. I spooned freshly pan-fried slices of chicken, still hot, into plastic, pink dishes for Grace and Anna. I added another spoonful, this time of four-cheese macaroni and cheese, into each dish.

“Girls!” I called. “Dinner’s ready!”

The girls burst into the kitchen, and I ushered them into the breakfast nook to eat. From the basement, I heard the dryer beeeeep. Before I could run downstairs to grab our clean clothes, the front door creaked open.

“Dad!” Anna said, in between a mouthful of mac and cheese.

Grace ran to greet him. “You made it home just in time!”

Stanton hugged her. “Just in time for what?”

“Food!”

“And it’s good!” Anna yelled.

Beeeeep.

“Figure out what you’d like to eat”—my greeting to Stanton. “We’re almost ready to go.”

My maternal grandmother had just turned 90, and that weekend, my three siblings and I were gathering at my parents’ house to celebrate this milestone birthday. Stanton, the girls and I would make the drive that evening, about a three-hour trip south from our home. A manageable excursion, although traveling with kids is never easy, per se.

“Can we get McFlurrys before we go?”

“Honey, you and Anna just had ice cream.”

“Mommy, can I have more ice cream?”

“Mom! Anna just spilled her water, again!”

“Stanton! Where did you go?”

Traveling with kids. (And we were still in the house at this point.)

About an hour later, the four of us were on the road to my Pennsylvania hometown. The drive through the Hudson Valley and Catskills is panoramically beautiful; we watched the sun set, softening from orange to yellow, near the New York/Pennsylvania border. In between the girls’ eventual snoring in the backseat and Ed Sheeran’s bring-you-to-your-knees voice on the radio (“And darling I will be loving you ’til we’re 70”), the thought that runs through all moms’ heads mid-road trip ran through mine: Did I forget anything important?

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The next morning, Saturday, Stanton and I went for a rare walk together while my parents, brothers and sister entertained the girls. We took a route of back roads that my childhood best friend and I called “the monster walk” years ago.

“This is the monster walk?” Stanton asked, holding my hand as we trekked down a hill. (Kate, if you’re reading this, we were on Church Street at the time.)

“This is it,” I said.

Later, back in my parents’ kitchen, I told my family that I wanted to write a blog post (this is that post, friends) based on Grace’s quote from the evening before. “I love the idea of making it home just in time,” I said. Then someone said something witty, and I noted that that quote would make for a good post too.

My sister raised her eyebrows. “You’re just sitting here, waiting around for us to say something to inspire you.”

“That’s not…completely true,” I told Jenna.

Jenna and I began looking through a box of our Grandma’s mementos, which our mom had brought out of storage. Grandma had saved a drawing of a teddy bear I made for her when I was 6 or 7. “Awww.”

Jenna showed me some old family photos. We both agreed I had had some awkward years. I texted snapshots of some of the photos to family who weren’t able to be with us that weekend; we all shared some laughs (or, more accurately, LOL’s and smiley-face emojis).

Despite some cringe-worthy blasts from the past, I really appreciated having someone to share these memories with. I hoped, not for the first time, that my own daughters would stay close all their lives too.

On the subject of memories, my siblings and I had each come up with five memories of Grandma, that Josh typed up and then collected into a keepsake box—a “memory box” of sorts for our grandmother. One of Josh’s memories made us smile: When we were little, on half days from school, Grandma would pick all of us up (our parents would be working) and take us to Burger King for lunch. And every time, on our way out, Grandma would say, “Refill your cup before you go.” I’m not sure if Burger King still offers free refills (I haven’t been there since those half days from school with Grandma), but “Refill your cup before you go” isn’t bad advice, would you agree? 🙂

Jared remembered needing a ride to his after-school job at the Y. He was running late, and he called Grandma. “You got me there in 5 minutes,” he wrote for the memory box—and it should have been more than a 5-minute drive. (Grandma had a bit of a lead foot, back in her driving days.)

Despite some cringe-worthy blasts from the past, I really appreciated having someone to share these memories with.

Jenna had a sweet memory of coffee breaks with Grandma, going up to Grandma’s house (she lived just one block from us) for regular afternoon caffeine fixes and chitchat.

I remembered calling Grandma to tell her I was expecting Grace, and she would be a great-grandmother. Then I said, over the phone line from San Antonio to Northeastern Pennsylvania at the time, “Thank you for everything you did for Josh, Jared, Jenna and me,” to which Grandma replied, “You kids were my life.”

I remember that phone call, that conversation, where I was that day, and that was exactly what my grandmother said: “You kids were my life.”

When I was growing up, my family went to a local Italian restaurant, Perugino’s, for special occasions. We did not branch out; we went there all the time. Stanton’s parents also hosted our wedding rehearsal dinner there, which I may have shared here before. Perugino’s is very special to my family. Thus, we had to have Perugino’s for Grandma’s 90th birthday celebration.

We did not branch out; we went there all the time.

We got takeout this time—easier to eat at home. My mom ordered our old favorite, Chicken a la Andy, along with manicotti and pasta e fagioli. (Side note: If you go through life without trying Perugino’s Chicken a la Andy at least once, then I’m sorry to say, you have missed out just a bit, friends. 😉 )

Finally, we all sat down—my parents, my three siblings, Stanton, the girls, myself, and the guest of honor, my Grandma. My dad said grace, and then he and my brothers encouraged Grandma to say something. “Speech, speech!”

Grandma looked up from her spot next to Jenna. She has thin, gray hair now, and soft, wrinkled skin. She looked around. She isn’t used to being the center of attention, at least not these days. But she smiled and said, “It’s great to see everyone, and I’m happy to be here.”

Her words touched my heart.

My grandmother grew up humbly, the daughter of Southern Italian immigrants. Her life isn’t my story to tell, and I want to respect her privacy. But I will share that, like all of us, she had moments of sorrow and struggle, as well as those of joy.

So for her to say, very simply, that she was “happy to be here”—that was beautiful to hear.

What Grandma said also made me think about the journey we all travel. Life.

“It’s great to see everyone, and I’m happy to be here.”

The truth is, many of us (most of us?) will live fairly ordinary lives. When we reach age 90, if we’re lucky enough to do so, whatever big box of mementos we have probably will hold keepsakes of fairly ordinary moments: family dinners, high school and college reunions, weekend soccer and softball games, summer vacations at the beach, the occasional red-carpet night out memorialized with a tattered ticket stub. We won’t actually have walked that many red carpets ourselves.

And as the recent sad news about Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain has showed us, even years of red-carpet walks doesn’t promise contentment or fulfillment. (For those who may need it, the number for the national lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.)

Rod Stewart, himself a living rock legend, noted, “You go through life wondering what it’s all about, and at the end of the day, it’s all about family.”

There’s a lot of beauty in living a fairly ordinary life, I think.

In looking around a table when you’re 90, seeing people you love and lived for, and being happy to be there.

In having a big box of tattered ticket stubs, old family photos and drawings your grandchildren made you—in finding joy and meaning in those seemingly simple things.

In taking a walk, watching a sunset, walking in a front door and getting a hero’s welcome home.

You made it.

You made it home.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

Coincidence (or Fate) and a Few Wrong Turns: A San Francisco Story

About 17 years ago, I was standing outside a high school in my Pennsylvania hometown. It was a Saturday morning, and I was waiting to take the SAT II’s, in Writing and Math. At that time (and maybe still today), the majority of colleges didn’t require SAT II scores in addition to the much more familiar SAT scores. But a college I was interested in—the University of Richmond—did.

Like other writers before me, math has never been an intuitive skill of mine. There are times, today, when I’ll catch a glimpse of one of Stanton’s Excel worksheets on his laptop, chock-full of line after line of numbers and budget items for his job, and my eyes will literally glaze over. Excel = my cure for any bout of insomnia.

So 17 years ago, I was feeling confident about the SAT II in Writing, and concerned about the Math one. Part of my concern stemmed from my unfamiliarity with my new graphing calculator, which my handy SAT II prep booklet had instructed me to bring to the testing site that morning. What were all these buttons for again? Sine, cosine…I was pretty clueless.

Standing outside that sunny morning, I noticed a girl. She was tall and blonde, and—I’m relying on an old memory here, but I believe this next part is true, too—had a large supply of No. 2 pencils. This girl looked prepared, I thought. She also looked like a person who would know how to work the sine and cosine buttons on my calculator. I walked over to find out if she did.

As it turned out, the answer was yes. She was warm, friendly, helpful. She helped me with my calculator. We chatted some more, and I discovered she also was applying to and hoping to attend the University of Richmond. Popular colleges for high schoolers in our part of Pennsylvania include Lehigh University, Penn State and St. Joe’s in Philadelphia. It was extremely coincidental (or, perhaps, fate) that I bumped into anyone else thinking about that particular school in Richmond, Va.

As it turned out, the answer was yes.

Allison and I ended up heading six hours south and attending the University of Richmond together. She was my first friend in college. When she invited Stanton (whom I met in college, and whom Allison knows well, too) and me to her wedding in San Diego, this past weekend, we very much wanted to be there for her, if possible.

Flying from our home in New York across the country to California—that’s a bit of a trip, friends. Not a problem, but a bit of a trip, East Coast to West. Coincidentally, Allison’s wedding date fell around the same time as our 10-year wedding anniversary. Stanton and I decided to combine our good friend’s happy day with a mini vacation of our own—several days in Napa, by way of San Francisco. We flew out to the Golden State earlier that week.

Before we left for our West Coast adventure, my dad gave me his copy of the AAA TourBook for Northern California. I smiled with affection, and some amusement. Does anyone but a dad still actually have these kinds of hard-copy guide books and maps anymore? We’ve got our phones with access to Google, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Uber. A guide book I could hold in my hand—of course my dad had one.

I did read through my dad’s AAA TourBook, but the Millennial in me couldn’t help but turn to Yelp for a first-morning-in-Northern-California breakfast spot recommendation. Yelp recommended the Beanstalk Café, not far from our hotel in Union Square—lots of good reviews, opening soon at 8 a.m., sounded perfect. Stanton consulted Google Maps on his phone for directions.

Seconds later, we trekked up one of San Francisco’s famous hilly streets for breakfast, my dad’s guide book tucked away in my carry-on back at the hotel.

I smiled with affection, and some amusement. Does anyone but a dad still actually have these kinds of hard-copy guide books and maps anymore?

If you ever find yourself near Union Square in San Francisco, the Beanstalk Café is a solid choice for breakfast. Stanton and I both enjoyed their signature toast cups (bacon-wrapped scrambled eggs baked within bread—I could have eaten another one!) and coffee. I’ve enjoyed a lot of coffee, in a lot of places, and this place’s coffee is amazing.

Now, I wasn’t planning on writing this post. If I was, then I would have taken a picture of my toast cup to show you, friends. I would have been that person styling and photographing her food (typical Millennial behavior, right, Dad?), instead of doing what generations before us have done with food—putting it in their mouth, and chewing.

But one hour into our San Francisco excursion, things took a turn for the story-worthy. (You never do know when your life is about to take a turn for the story-worthy, do you?)

Stanton and I had been to California before (San Diego, both of us; Monterey, just him), but never to San Francisco. Of course, we wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge; we had to. Also on the itinerary my Type A self had prepared weeks ago: A drive by 2311 Broadway, the house where Party of Five, one of my favorite TV shows, had been filmed.

“Ugh, Party of Five,” Stanton said, as we walked out of the Beanstalk Café.

“Come on, it will be fun!”

“What will you do there, Mel?”

“I just want to see it, Stan.”

Stanton grumbled a bit more about my ‘90s nostalgia and enduring affection for Scott Wolf. Then we came upon a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station. Stanton gestured. “Let’s take the subway to the Golden Gate Bridge, and then we’ll take an Uber to Fisherman’s Wharf to pick up our rental car.”

Stanton grumbled a bit more about my ‘90s nostalgia and enduring affection for Scott Wolf.

“Why don’t we just take an Uber to both places?”

“Mel, the subway is right here.”

I frowned. “How about a trolley, or cable car? Those things are much more San Francisco.”

“But the subway is here, honey.”

Reluctantly, I fell into step with Stanton as we made our way down. “You know I don’t like being underground.”

“I do. You’ll be fine.”

We walked past a gentleman playing lively music on his guitar, as well as several folks engaged in questionable activities. “I’m also concerned about earthquakes.” I grabbed Stanton’s hand.

“The chances of that happening…”

Huh…I witnessed a few more questionable activities. “Stanton. I am officially out of my comfort zone.”

Stanton squeezed my hand. “We’re fine, Mel. I’ll just buy our tickets, and we’ll be at Golden Gate in no time.”

And when Stanton asked the lady behind the Information Desk how to get to the location, that’s how he described it: “Golden Gate.” (A mistake, as we would later learn.)

“Take the N train,” she told us.

“N?” Stanton repeated.

She nodded. “N as in ‘nasty.’”

The N as in ‘nasty’ train, friends…that should have been our first clue.

The lady directed Stanton to hold his ticket against an electronic reader. He did, and then walked through the turnstile.

“And what should I do?” I asked the lady.

She peered through her glasses at me. “Follow him.” (This is a direct quote.)

Follow him. Stanton and I would later joke that this was not the best advice anyone ever gave me.

But I didn’t know then what I know now. So I followed him, friends.

Stanton and I would later joke that this was not the best advice anyone ever gave me.

Two other things we should have asked that lady: 1) The N as in ‘nasty’ inbound or outbound train? We didn’t know, and we needed to know. And 2) at which station did we get off the train? Two major questions.

We ended up on the outbound train—an educated guess. Then I asked another rider where we should exit to see Golden Gate.

“The park, or the bridge?”

I smiled blankly. “Excuse me?”

“Golden Gate Park, or Golden Gate Bridge?” this lady said in accented English. “They are two different places.”

“Are they pretty close to each other?” Stanton asked, nodding optimistically.

The lady shook her head. “No.”

I looked at Stanton. “We have no idea where we’re going. Let’s get off this train.”

Stanton grunted his agreement, and we got off at the next stop. We walked back up to street level.

Have you ever seen the movie My Cousin Vinny? There’s a scene in which the title character’s girlfriend, played by the excellent Marisa Tomei, notes that she and her New York City-accented, leather-jacket-wearing boyfriend “don’t blend” in the small-town Alabama setting they’ve found themselves in.

Let me tell you, friends: Wherever in San Francisco we were that morning, at that moment, Stanton and I didn’t blend.

“Stanton…”

“I know, I know, I’m getting an Uber now.”

And then, like many a wife has done during a romantic getaway with her better half, I looked at my husband and hissed, “You did this to us. This is your fault.”

Never one to lose his cool (except when watching his beloved San Antonio Spurs), Stanton continued tapping at his phone.

“We have no idea where we’re going.”

Minutes later, we hopped into our Uber ride. “My husband may have mixed this up when he called you,” I said to the driver, as Stanton shook his head, “but we’d like to go to the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge, not the park.”

“OK,” the driver said, confirming the information with his phone. He picked up another passenger, and we were off.

We drove along, and drove along some more. Then I noticed a street sign: Broadway. We continued along Broadway, a thoroughfare lined on both sides with gorgeously maintained Victorians. “Stan…oh, my gosh.”

“Mel, you should feel completely fine here…”

“No, no.” I scrolled through my itinerary (in an emailed “note to self”) and smiled. “This is the street the Party of Five house is on!”

The driver stopped and dropped off the other passenger at a home across the street from the site of the Salinger family’s many and varied dramas. (One of my favorite quotes from the series: “She’s a juvenile delinquent, Bai!” –Will to Bailey, regarding fun but troubled Jill, in the first season.)

“What are the chances?!” I rolled down the window and took a bunch of pictures, as any bona fide fan would do. Here’s one of them, for all the other Scott Wolf, Matthew Fox and Neve Campbell (circa 1994–2000) fans out there:

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“I can’t believe that happened,” I said, as we began driving through Pacific Heights again. “That was the craziest coincidence. The subway, the N as in ‘nasty’ train, the wrong stop…all of that led to this.”

“I’m glad you’re happy, honey.”

“And I’m not upset with you anymore, Stan.”

“That’s good, too.”

Finally, we arrived at the Golden Gate Bridge. Here’s the picture of that, because you can’t go to San Francisco for the first time and not get a picture of yourself against the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge.

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A breathtaking place.

Stanton and I both loved walking the nature trails of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area surrounding the bridge. The setting, along the deep-blue Pacific Ocean, is amazingly gorgeous and refreshing. We could have stayed all day, simply walking and listening to the waves breaking.

We had to get to Fisherman’s Wharf, though, to pick up our rental car and head to Napa for a wine tasting reservation. Another Uber, please.

(A travel tip, for those who may not know: It’s difficult to find parking in San Francisco, and it can be expensive to park in the city, too. For example, it would have cost us about $60 to park a car at our Union Square hotel overnight, for just one night. Thus, we didn’t want to pick up our rental car until we were ready to drive it out of the city.)

I asked this Uber driver to bring us to Ghirardelli Square, which (according to my dad’s TourBook) was an easy walk to Fisherman’s Wharf. “The original Ghirardelli Chocolate Company is there,” the chocoholic in me informed the driver. He smiled politely, but didn’t seem interested.

Soon after, he pulled over at a busy intersection. Stanton and I exchanged a glance. “Is this Ghirardelli Square?” I asked him.

He smiled politely again, and pointed to his phone. “My phone says it is.”

My phone says it is. Even the Millennial in me will agree (as my dad certainly would) that there’s something unfortunate about that statement, about that philosophy. Stanton and I hopped out, crossed the street, and did indeed find Ghirardelli Square close by.

We enjoyed walking through the elegant space…

3_Outside Ghirardelli Square

…and partaking in Ghirardelli chocolate treats inside the red-brick building. (Impossible to resist.)

4_Inside Ghirardelli Chocolate

Fisherman’s Wharf, nearby, was much more tourist-y, but still fun to see. There was a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! on Jefferson Street, and any time I see one of those, I sense I’m in Tourist Trap Central. (Can you believe the hills?)

5_Fisherman's Wharf

We picked up our car, then bags at the hotel, and headed to Napa. On our drive back to San Francisco later that week, Stanton and I exited before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge in order to explore the national recreation area again, this time on the north—we love this place. Absolutely beautiful. We conferred with our phones and my dad’s TourBook to find directions, and were mostly successful.

6_North Tower

However, we inadvertently drove into Sausalito, a lovely coastal town opposite San Francisco. It felt like a “hidden gem” find to us. The pace is a little more laid-back, and parking is easier. We had dinner at the Salsalito Taco Shop (gotta love that pun)—a seafood platter for Stanton, some lettuce wraps with chicken and veggies for me (pictured below).

7_Salsalito Taco Shop

How do we end up where we do? On a visit to an unfamiliar city…on a Saturday morning taking the SAT II’s…wherever we find ourselves right now, this very minute?

Some of us may believe that a life is a series of events, strung together across many years, a random collection of people, places and things. Life as chance, as coincidence. A valid point of view, to be sure.

Others of us may believe that some things are meant to be. That people, places and things come into a life for reasons. Even if the reason is simply to surprise and delight us with the apparent craziness of the moment (my Party of Five house moment), so that we can remind ourselves to smile, take a breath, have a little faith.

Have a little faith in the goodness of life, the beauty and resilience of it, and in the goodness of the people who surround us.

Or maybe life is a little of both, part coincidence, part fate.

I’m not going to make a case for one point of view or the other. I am, after all, the person who still isn’t quite sure how to use a graphing calculator, 17 years later. What do I know?

…smile, take a breath, have a little faith.

One thing I do know. This past weekend, my husband and I attended our good friend’s wedding. Allison looked radiant as she walked down the aisle holding the arms of her mom and dad. I felt tears come to my eyes.

I was happy for her, that she had found the perfect person for herself. I was grateful for our friendship, our love for each other.

(Because what good is anything—a special occasion, an ordinary day, a misadventure on a San Francisco subway that becomes a story—if you don’t have friends and family to share that journey with, and reminisce and laugh about it with later?)

Most of all, I was happy to be there.

Whatever coincidence, or fate, may have contributed to my being there, at that moment, to share in joy, friendship and all the good things that words often struggle to explain, and math and science can’t quantify…but that move us in life, and that we remember for years…

I was happy to find myself there.

(P.S. Congratulations and best wishes to the newlyweds. We love you. ❤ )

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

You’re Not Subtle, and I’m Not an Idiot: On 10 Years of Marriage

Tomorrow, Stanton and I are celebrating our 10-year wedding anniversary. You’ll excuse me, friends, for taking a moment here to reminisce.

We got married in my Pennsylvania hometown, early spring a decade ago. It was a beautiful day, filled with family and friends. Italian pepper cookies (a Minetola family favorite), as well as a rendition of “God Blessed Texas” (a nod to Stanton’s San Antonio roots), were involved.

Afterward, we honeymooned on the Costa del Sol. One morning, we took a ferry from southern Spain to Morocco, to spend the day there. I remember setting out at sunrise, the mint tea when we arrived, the adventure of it all.

2_Wedding Day

What most sticks out in my memory, though, is getting seasick on the ferry ride back.

That’s true love for you, am I right? One minute you’re #livingthedream; the next, you’re asking your partner to find a barf bag, ASAP.

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You know, I really do believe that’s true love. Oprah may have said it best: “Everyone wants to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.”

During 10 years, our limo has broken down a time or two. And it probably will break down a time or two again; we’re only 10 years in. At this point, Stanton and I have seen each other at our worst, at our most vulnerable, in our darkest hour. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has always been worth the effort and the journey.

What have been helpful to Stanton and me all this time, I think—and what we want to pass along to our children—are gratitude, humility and hard work. Values that our own parents lived out for us. We try to embrace and enjoy every day, and we also recognize real life is not an endless joy ride.

Speaking of which…

One minute you’re #livingthedream; the next, you’re asking your partner to find a barf bag, ASAP.

Stanton and I met at a party, in college in Virginia. Our good mutual friend David introduced us. David has since passed away, sadly, but I still smile at the memory of him, and the memory of that young, innocent time we all had together.

At that party, David was talking with me, plus my other girl friends. Stanton told me later that he saw his friend David across the room and thought, “What’s David doing with all those girls? I’ve got more game than him.” A healthy level of self-confidence (possibly fueled by some Milwaukee’s Best) prompted Stanton to join our group and introduce himself to me.

(We’ll always love you, friend.)

1_After College

College parties, your wedding day, ferry rides across international seas—they’re all more “special occasion” than “real life.” As anyone who has been married for a while knows, marriage is made up of more ordinary moments than special occasions. Real life is working…grocery shopping…taking your car for its state inspection and hoping it passes. If you have kids, then real life also includes less sleep and more worry.

One evening recently, Stanton and I were in the family room (10 years later, we’ve landed in New York’s Capital Region). Grace and Anna were upstairs; they had both just fallen asleep. The TV was on, quietly, tuned in to a “Parks and Rec” rerun. (Maybe one day we’ll watch something new, something we haven’t already seen hundreds of times—maybe.)

Neither of us was watching the show, though. Stanton was replying to a work email, and I was folding the girls’ laundry.

Not. Glamorous. But this is exactly what was happening.

I had music on in the background, and a new-ish country song started playing: “Unforgettable,” Thomas Rhett.

This is one of the things Stanton and I bonded over, when we were getting to know each other: our love of country music.

“And I bet right now you’re thinking/ That it’s crazy I remember every detail, but I do”—these lyrics from that song can get stuck in my head.

Everyone says it, and they say it because it’s true: I can’t believe how much you’ve grown. I can’t believe how much time has passed. It feels like just yesterday.

It feels like just yesterday to me too, friends. College—studying at Boatwright, weekend pizza dates at Mary Angela’s in Carytown. Our first home. The births of our daughters. Saying good-bye to our grandfathers, his Grandaddy and my Poppy. Being there for each other, for a lot of things.

Everything.

In that moment—that ordinary moment when we were together in the family room, doing nothing special—I looked over at Stanton and told him I loved him. I interrupted the relative quiet to say it; it was different from saying, “Love you!” as you’re both leaving the house, going in opposite directions. Stanton knew that; he replied, “I love you too, Mel.”

I feel a lot of gratitude for ordinary moments like that. For our home, for our family, for our history together. For those end-of-day, “Parks and Rec”-rerun moments.

Maybe one day we’ll watch something new, something we haven’t already seen hundreds of times—maybe.

I have just one more story to share. I don’t want to overdo it in the sappiness department. So here’s my last story, friends.

About halfway into our marriage, Stanton and I were on a date. Dinner. The place was an Italian restaurant.

We were talking, eating, drinking some wine. I said something—I don’t remember what—and Stanton narrowed his eyes at me.

“What?” I asked. WP_20160904_019

“I hear you,” Stanton said. “If that’s what you want, then OK, we’ll do it.”

I narrowed my eyes back at me. “I didn’t say that. What are you talking about?”

“Mel.” Stanton sighed. “I know you. I can read between the lines; you’re not subtle. And,” he added, “I’m not an idiot.”

I like to think I communicate well with people—I try to be diplomatic, to listen and empathize. What was revealing for me in that moment with Stanton is that he knows me—he really knows me. My diplomacy doesn’t work on him (anymore).

And that was an encouraging revelation, the revelation that I can be myself with him. I can be totally honest with him, and he’ll still stick around.

Every now and then, it’s also worthwhile to remember that you did not, in fact, marry an idiot.

😉

Happy Anniversary to my hubby. Thank you for loving me, for everything you do for our family, for reading everything I write and providing constant encouragement (and great raw material).

You make me happy—and you drive me crazy—but most of all, you make me happy. ❤

“I sing to you. Not all the time, but definitely on special occasions. We’ve dealt with our share of surprises and made a lot of sacrifices, but we’ve stayed together. You see, you’re a better person than I am. And it made me a better person to be around you.” (The Family Man)

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

 

When a Picture Falls Out of a Book

One corner of my kitchen countertop is a mess, always. Stuff just accumulates there.

My daughters’ ponytail holders. My Us Weekly magazines (I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit, I’ve been a subscriber, off and on, for years). Stanton’s various electronic gadgets. Pens, batteries, coupons, Shopkins, the occasional card. Lots…of…stuff.

The other day, I tried to clean up some of the stuff. Scoop the ponytail holders into a drawer. Recycle the magazines. Then I picked up an overstuffed file folder and a coming-unbound book—“Chocolatina” by Erik Kraft, one of the girls’ favorites—and a picture fluttered out of the jumble of paper and pages.

This picture:

When a Picture Falls Out

This picture shows my three siblings and me with our mom and her parents, our Poppy and Grandma. I’m the cute one. Just kidding, friends. 😉 I’m the one wearing the orange shirt.

My brother Josh is making bunny ears on my head. My other brother, Jared (in the striped shirt), would grow up to become the cute one. My sister Jenna is resting her head on the table.

I’m not sure whose birthday we’re celebrating here. If one of them is reading this, maybe they’ll help me out. (Hint, hint…)

I emailed this picture to my family, along with some old friends who have been around us Minetolas so long, and sat at that kitchen table with us so much, that they, too, know all the characters in this story.

Jared replied all: “photo cred: John Minetola?” That would be my dad, and I replied that yes, I thought so. Otherwise, he would have been in the picture.

This was before the selfie stick era, you know.

When this picture fell out of that book, I wasn’t expecting it. But instantly, after I picked it up, I smiled.

I smiled because it was a happy memory. Not a perfect memory—whose birthday cake was that?—but a happy one, because we were all there together. And I’m grateful that we still do gather around that table, many years later, for dinners and rounds of Uno and other normal, nothing-special moments that actually are special in their togetherness.

Poppy, of course, has since passed way, five years ago now. I miss him, but I know he’s in a good place.

I do wish he could have been here to have met Anna. I know he would have loved everything about her—every little thing, from her dimples to the mischievous twinkle in her eye, which is exactly like his.

Poppy did have a chance to meet Grace, about a year and a half before he died. I will always remember the way he leaned over to her—an old man with glasses, looking with big love at my baby—and said, “I hope you live to be 90.” Grace looked back, and I like to think she understood what he said.

Sometimes, our best pictures are the ones we don’t take. But our memories, strong and enduring, of times that touched our hearts and stay with us forever.

“I hope you live to be 90.”

In her book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” Marie Kondo writes that it can be difficult to organize pictures. Not only do we file them into photo albums, but we also stick them into books as bookmarks, or magnet them to the refrigerator, or pull them out of our photo albums to send to loved ones. Our pictures…end up…everywhere.

Have you ever opened a book, or knocked a day planner to the floor, and a picture or other memento fell out, rousing a memory?

What did you remember, friends?

Reflecting on a past moment, we might slip on our rose-colored glasses. We might romanticize a time, long gone, that we struggled through in real time, years ago.

I’ve had my moments with rose-colored glasses, and romanticism too. I’ve had my moments, friends.

People aren’t perfect. We aren’t perfect. Life is beautiful, and it’s also humbling.

Life is both/and; shades of gray, not black and white.

Our pictures…end up…everywhere.

Poppy loved nature. The older I get, the more I love and seek it out too.

Last week, my parents were in town for the girls’ winter break. One morning, I brought my dad and Grace to Five Rivers, a nearby nature park. We spent some time bird-watching at the visitor center, using binoculars to look out the expansive windows. We spotted many eastern bluebirds, and even an opossum.

“Poppy would have loved this,” my dad said.

I agreed.

“The best thing about a picture,” Andy Warhol said, “is that it never changes, even when the people in it do.” I loved seeing Poppy again in the picture that fell out of the book. I so appreciated remembering him, too, when I was bird-watching with my dad and my daughter.

Years from now, I wonder if my daughters will stumble upon an old picture, or frayed certificate of participation that I saved—a memento of some kind. So much of our life is digitized now, but we still keep hard copies of this and that here and there.

I wonder what Grace and Anna might find. I wonder what they’ll remember.

I hope they’ll skim over the imperfect parts. The persistent morning rush and end-of-day crankiness. My forgetting Anna’s teddy bear on “Bring Your Teddy Bear to Preschool Day” (that happened yesterday), Stanton’s coming home later than he’d said (two nights ago).

I hope they’ll skim over those parts, and remember that we loved them. At the very least, that we tried.

That is, after all, what families do: Love. Work. Play. Be there for one another. Try.

This quote made me laugh, so I’ll end with it, for your enjoyment too: “My whole family is lactose intolerant, and when we take pictures, we can’t say, ‘Cheese.’” –Jay London

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

You Are Where You’re Supposed to Be

Two Sundays ago, I was sitting in a pew at the neighborhood church that Stanton, the girls and I attend. The pastor announced the next song; I flipped to it in the hymnal. “Lord, When You Came to the Lakeshore.”

The choir director began playing the melody of the song. In that moment, my memory flashed back about 20 years.

My very first job, at age 15, was as an organist for a small church near my Pennsylvania hometown. I probably was in a bit over my head, friends. I knew how to play the piano, not the organ…so I learned as I went. In the beginning, I played the organ like a piano—focusing on one keyboard only. As time went on, I began adding in sounds from the other keyboard, plus the pedals.

The biggest challenge, though, was trying to direct the choir. The choir consisted of four or five regular members (median age: 76), all of whom harbored strong opinions about which songs we should be singing. They didn’t mind so much that I was young and inexperienced; they just wanted to belt out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” every.single.Sunday.

At this point, you might be wondering how I got this job. (You also may be wondering if I was qualified…) Answer to the first question: My friend’s mother was the original organist at that church, and needed some help with some of the services.

I ended up playing the organ for that church all through high school. I also ended up (eventually) becoming fairly close to my septuagenarian choir members. I invited all of them to my high school graduation party, and they all came. As I’m writing this, I’m smiling at the memory. George, Annette, Eddie…they were all there.

They didn’t mind so much that I was young and inexperienced; they just wanted to belt out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” every.single.Sunday.

Back to that song, though: “Lord, When You Came to the Lakeshore.” At my hometown church, there was an old lady who always sat in a front pew.

If you’ve ever attended a worship service somewhat regularly, then you know that many people usually sit in the same spot week after week. Similar to having “your” seat in a college classroom, or “your” table at a coffee shop. You get comfortable; you gravitate toward the familiar.

This lady, friends—I wish I could remember her name. I can’t. But she had white hair and wrinkled skin, and she was nice. She also wore a hat, every Sunday.

One Sunday before the service, I was downstairs where the pews are. I was making my way up to the choir loft, where the organ was, along with George, Annette and the gang. I stopped to say hello to the lady. We chatted a bit, and she asked me if I wouldn’t mind playing her favorite hymn, “Lord, When You Came to the Seashore.”

There was still some time before church started, so I said sure. She squeezed my hand. I went upstairs and played that song. When I was done, she turned around in her seat and smiled her thanks.

Organ

I like the song “Lord, When You Came to the Seashore.” It’s straightforward to play (which is helpful). The melody is pretty, the lyrics uplifting. I got into the habit of playing it every Sunday before church started, partly because I liked it but mostly because the lady did. Every time after I played that song, she turned around and smiled.

I waved back: “You’re welcome.”

Twenty years later, in a different place, in a different church, I was the one sitting in the pew, and I heard that familiar melody I once knew so well. The title of the song was slightly different—“Lakeshore” instead of “Seashore”—but it was the same song. Hearing that song took me back to 15.

I had to blink myself back to the present. I also had to blink some tears away. Because almost certainly, my old friend has passed on by now. I’m not sure where my “Battle Hymn of the Republic”-loving choir members might be either.

I do know, though, that that small church doesn’t exist anymore.

Has something like that ever happened to you too? You hear a song, or a line from a movie, or something like that…and suddenly, you’re time traveling?

Hearing that song took me back to 15.

For me, time traveling—nostalgia—isn’t constructive. I start to miss people. Places. More than anything, I feel my mortality. I look at pictures of my high school graduation party, for example; I see a younger version of myself (alongside George and Annette); I have to acknowledge, “I’m getting older.”

Sometimes I’m surprised by the people and places I miss. Maybe you are too.

As we move along in our lives, we still may carry within us pieces from our pasts, from our childhoods. Pieces stay with us…still. Because they mattered.

On Monday evening, the day after “Lord, When You Came to the Lakeshore,” I stopped by a yoga class at our Y. I love yoga, but don’t always make the time to practice it. At one point during the class, the instructor led us through a challenging pose.

He encouraged us not to compare ourselves—our bodies, our yoga practice—to our neighbors. Go with your own flow, he said. Appreciate what you can do. Then he said, “You are where you’re supposed to be.”

Friends, those words struck me. You are where you’re supposed to be.

The wisdom in those words, for me, is that this makes sense. This present moment means more than anything. This is right.

Be present.

Whoever you wish you could be with again—whoever you may miss, including your younger, carefree self—whatever time from years ago seems easier than the moment you find yourself in now…no. No, this is it. This is where you’re supposed to be.

(And try not to compare yourself to your neighbor. Everyone has their own journey. Everyone has their own struggle.)

When you struggle, where do you find hope? And when your heart overflows, when your cup runneth over…where do you acknowledge the goodness, the grace, the second chances?

For some of us, the answer (to both questions) may be church, or temple, or another place of worship. For others of us, the yoga mat, or another form of exercise or meditation. Nature. Lots of places.

This present moment means more than anything.

In “A Moveable Feast,” Ernest Hemingway ends his memoir with a beautiful reflection on Paris, a place that “stayed with him” throughout his life. He concludes that when he lived there, with his first wife, “we were very poor and very happy.”

My old friend in that small church can’t perfectly compare to Paris—it’s not the best parallel—but that time in my life was very “coming of age,” as Hemingway’s Paris was to him. I learned then something that has stayed with me all these years, which is work with people. Find common ground; meet in the middle. Wherever you find yourself—whatever odd set of circumstances you seem to have stumbled into—make the best of things.

Leave that place better than you found it, if you can.

Maybe it doesn’t make sense at the time, but you are where you’re supposed to be. One day, you’ll understand why.

“Be where your feet are.” (Anonymous)

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

But What Will People Think?

One morning this past week, the four of us were getting ready for the day. Stanton left the house first, as a light snow began to fall. Grace and Anna stood at the window (Anna’s chin touching the windowsill) and wondered if then (7:45 a.m.) would be a good time to build our first snow girl of the New Year.

(Answer: No.)

I was wondering if school would be delayed because of the snow. (Answer: Another thumbs-down.) So I made Grace’s lunch, changed Anna’s shirt (“Mom! I had a spill! But it’s not a problem, Mom!”) and began gathering all our bags.

Do you and your kids also have so many bags to locate, pack and get out of the house each morning? I’m continually loading stuff out of my house, into my car and back again every…single…day.

Backpacks. Lunch boxes. My laptop bag. In the winter, bags with the girls’ snow pants and boots so that they can play outside during recess.

I stuffed a granola bar into my handbag. Anna noticed and noted that she was hungry. Grace held up her finger. “Mom! I need a Band-Aid!”

“Mom!” Anna had forgotten about the granola bar because now, of course… “I need a Band Aid too!”

“OK,” I said. I distributed Band-Aids for one paper cut and one nonexistent medical emergency. Then we all climbed into the car.

I drove Grace down the block to her bus stop. Once she hopped on the bus, I drove Anna to preschool.

Someone once said that the major requirement of parenthood is a driver’s license. This might be true, friends.

I distributed Band-Aids for one paper cut and one nonexistent medical emergency.

En route to Anna’s preschool, I realized I had forgotten to pack her sneakers into her backpack, for her to change out of from her snow boots. Sometimes my almost-3-year-old can be amazingly understanding. Other times, she teeters toward irrationality. Not sure which Anna Parker Leddy I’d be getting, I broached the topic: “Honey, guess what.”

“What, Mom?”

I tapped my fingers against the steering wheel. “I forgot your sneakers.” I glanced in the rearview mirror; Anna was starting to frown. “Oh, well, right? You can be comfy in just your socks…”

“MOM!” Anna exhaled. “But what will people think?”

“They will think…your mom forgot your sneakers.” Hopefully, that was all people would think about Anna’s mom.

Anna sighed. “Oh, Mom… How could you?”

Dear Lord. “I know, honey; I know.” But trust me: At some point, for some reason, I’ll fall short of your expectations again.

Forgetting your sneakers? This is nothing.

What people think. I had forgotten we begin worrying about that at such a young age.

“They will think…your mom forgot your sneakers.” Hopefully, that was all people would think about Anna’s mom.

I remember when I was in third or fourth grade. I had gone to the nurse’s office, and returned back to my classroom with a note recommending that I see an eye doctor to get glasses. That day—and I remember this clearly, to this day—I folded the note up and hid it in the palm of my hand, so that my classmates wouldn’t notice. So that people wouldn’t think something was wrong with me. I was maybe 10 years old, and I worried what people would think.

Twenty-five years later, I’m thankful to share that “what people think” isn’t much of a worry anymore. Yes, I care about things…but I’m comfortable—dare I say, confident—with the person I am.

Many of us reach this comfort zone, I imagine, by the time we’re adults. We’ve lived a little. We’ve probably loved, and lost, a little. If we have a young person in our life—a child, niece or nephew, little neighbor—we’re aware, in a way we probably weren’t before, that life is fragile, and precious. That good health, and family, and friendship far outweigh things we once thought mattered so much: the cool table in the school cafeteria, the right logos, the hot ZIP code.

People 1-8-18

On Saturday, I brought the girls to a friend’s birthday party. I enjoyed chatting with the other parents while Grace played (and Anna ran back and forth from the water fountain). It was remarkable—and really nice—how easy the conversation among everyone was.

Easy because, perhaps, all the moms and dads had some shared experiences related to parenthood. When you’re raising a child, you have empathy for those who are doing the same. There’s a kinship, a kindness, a respect.

I’ve been reading a book about teaching children about empathy. The book mentions John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, and his “seven-point creed for life,” which his father gave him. This creed for life includes guiding principles such as “Be true to yourself,” and “Make each day your masterpiece.”

As the New Year unfolds, I’ve been thinking about main guiding principles I’d like to pass along to my own children. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1. Be the best YOU.

2. Do your best. Work hard, play hard, get enough sleep.

3. Talk to people—really talk to them. Set your phone aside; then don’t look at it. Look at the people who are with you. And listen to them. Be in communion with them.

4. Make each day your masterpiece. (I love this one; I’m stealing it, friends!) If it’s cold out (it’s been cold out, right?!), bundle up and make the most of it. EMBRACE LIFE. There are no do-overs, girls.

5. Count your blessings.

A quote I’ve always liked—and I’ve probably shared it before—is Willie Nelson’s: “When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.” You forgot something. You got bad news. Things aren’t perfect. Yet…

You have so much. You have so much, girls. You have so much, friends.

It can be difficult, though, to feel grateful. For me personally, there have been times in my life when I’ve been down. I can’t know for sure, because I never spoke to anyone professionally, but I’m fairly certain there were times when I was depressed.

Even during those difficult times—which I’m so thankful to have walked through and have left behind—I had moments of clarity when I knew, consciously, that life is good. I struggled with counting my blessings, so I tried to “be a blessing,” so to speak, to others. I tried to be kind to the people around me. I tried to write stories that would make people smile, or laugh, or feel uplifted.

As it turns out, blessing others with kindness can help turn your life around too. At least, it turned out this way for me.

When you’re raising a child, you have empathy for those who are doing the same. There’s a kinship, a kindness, a respect.

I would make that my next main guiding principle:

6. Be a blessing to others.

Or, simply: 6. Be kind. Give love away (to quote another great musician, MC Yogi).

One day you’re riding in the back of the car, horrified that your mom forgot your sneakers. But what will people think? Then in a blink, it seems, you’re up front, driving.

From your vantage point behind the wheel, you have a better sense of what people will think.

Did she care?

Did he try?

Did they show up?

You did?

Then you’re standing on solid ground, friends.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.