“Never let anyone tell you magic doesn’t exist or that fairies aren’t real. It isn’t cynicism that will change the world. Do your best to believe in yourself, and even if you don’t, keep trying to and never give up. If all else fails, use your imagination and pretend.” ~ Susan Branch (Martha’s Vineyard: Isle of Dreams)
Though I’ve been a Susan Branch fan for decades, until I read her 3-part illustrated memoir I knew only a little about her personal life or how she started painting, writing, and publishing.
It was love at first sight when I discovered her greeting cards, calendars and illustrated cookbooks back in the late 80’s — I just couldn’t get enough of her beautiful handwritten recipes and inspirational quotes, the cozy, quaint watercolors of old fashioned baskets, bowls, and quilts, those scrumptious fruits, veggies, cakes and pies. Oh, the checkered floors! The Laura Ashley hats and exquisite floral borders! That iconic vintage stove! I wanted to inhabit the world of her homemade books; they were charming, unique, and most important, personal.
You may remember how much I adored A Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside (review here). It convinced me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Susan was even more of a kindred spirit with her love of Beatrix Potter, the Yorkshire Dales, afternoon tea, the Cotswolds, Emma Bridgewater, and the Queen!
But it wasn’t until I read the prequels to A Fine Romance — The Fairy Tale Girl and Martha’s Vineyard: Isle of Dreams (both based on her diaries) — that I gained a true appreciation for how this self-taught artist built her career from scratch, how the first seeds were actually planted in childhood, and how she’s been able to effectively elevate the various facets of homemaking (cooking, sewing, gardening, interior decorating) to a fine art.
THE FAIRY TALE GIRL
In The Fairy Tale Girl, Susan turns the clock back to her 50’s California childhood, 60’s coming of age, and 70’s marriage to prominent entrepreneur Cliff Branch.
As the eldest of eight children, she learned the domestic arts early on and naturally bought into the traditional ideals of womanhood set by her mother’s example as devoted wife, parent, and homemaker.
Susan met Cliff in her early 20’s while working at his record and stereo equipment store in San Luis Obispo. It’s easy to see why she fell for him — he was three years younger, whip smart, enterprising, successful, good looking and rich, and he loved prime real estate and building beautiful homes. Here was her chance to “play house” for real with the fairy tale life and happily ever after she had always dreamed about.
But alas, Cliff had a wandering eye, which made for a tumultuous courtship, marriage, and eventual divorce. It was also a time of great social change in our country. With the women’s movement gathering steam, prescribed roles and values were rapidly being redefined.
Still, Susan was blissfully happy most of the time. She was able to hone her cooking skills and indulge her natural flair for entertaining. There was nothing she loved more than cooking for the people she loved and making them happy. She busied herself doing everything she could think of to make a good home, a welcoming and nurturing place that Cliff often called “paradise.”
She also discovered she had a natural talent for art. A gift certificate to an arts supply store sparked an interest in watercolors, and with Cliff’s encouragement and the offer of her own studio adjoining the kitchen, Susan was able to practice her painting and refine her style.
But after 10 years of marriage, everything unraveled with another of Cliff’s infidelities. Devastated, angry and heartbroken, Susan berated herself for not having a contingency plan.
My entire identity was built on the foundation of my husband . . . He was still the be-all and end-all of my life, the embodiment of my childhood dreams, the fairy-tale Prince Charming. They said, ‘Hitch your wagon to a star,’ and I’d certainly gotten that part right. It’s just that real life was a bit more complicated than a child’s dream.
In 1982, she decided to “run away from home” — escape to Martha’s Vineyard for a three month respite. But a few days after she arrived, she “accidentally” bought a tiny one bedroom cottage in the woods.
MARTHA’S VINEYARD: ISLE OF DREAMS
In Martha’s Vineyard: Isle of Dreams, we see how Susan left her loved ones in California behind, built a new life on the opposite end of the country, and came into her own as an artist and writer.
Though there were many lonely days and nights with only her diary and cats for company and lots of growing pains on her path to self discovery, Susan slowly adapted to her new surroundings, refurbished her cottage (Holly Oak), made new friends, painted, planted a garden, and learned to live in concert with the changing seasons.
Her California friend Jane had long ago suggested that Susan write a cookbook, with recipes illustrated just like the recipe cards Susan had given Jane for a wedding gift. For many years, self doubt overruled action, but with daily meditation, lots of reading and intense introspection, Susan was finally able to forgive herself and articulate her dreams, realizing she had the power to choose what she wanted out of life, and that she was the only one who could make it happen.
And then I learned something else about meditation. The quiet was fertile ground for creative thoughts to grow, and came with the gifts of acceptance, bravery (to a certain extent, everything had its limits), and gratitude (which had no limit) . . .
Trapped indoors without power during a raging winter storm, Susan thought again about the cookbook and took a leap of faith. She sat at her dining room table and by candlelight, created a page of handwritten text and watercolor pictures celebrating Fall apples, and then another page featuring an illustrated recipe for Apple Crisp.
And so it began, one small step at a time, as she began amassing pages until she had 50 — enough of a sample to show a real publisher. Little, Brown in Boston, only the second publisher to see her project, loved it — handwritten text and all. They published Heart of the Home: Notes from a Vineyard Kitchen in October 1986, selling out its first printing of 20,000 copies before Christmas.
Susan went on to publish twelve more lifestyle books with Little, Brown ( millions sold). For her recent three-part memoir, she decided to self publish, using a hybrid publisher (Vineyard Stories) for A Fine Romance, and then establishing Spring Street Publishing for The Fairy Tale Girl and Martha’s Vineyard: Isle of Dreams (a New York Times bestseller).
Today Susan is still living her fairy tale life on Martha’s Vineyard with Joe Hall, the man of her dreams (a 6’2″ doll who can cook!). Having just completed a cross-country book tour, Susan and Joe will once again visit England in September for an entirely new adventure. You can bet she’ll be keeping a diary, blogging about meeting her British girlfriends/fans, and drinking copious amounts of tea.
MAGIC, MIRACLES, AND SERENDIPITY
I read both The Fairy Tale Girl and Martha’s Vineyard: Isle of Dreams on several leisurely summer afternoons, purposely taking my time to savor each and every page. Like A Fine Romance, both books are hand-lettered gems, chock full of old photos, delicious recipes, adorable spot illos, amusing little asides, and great quotes and song lyrics (Susan always finds the best ones to amplify her narratives!). Her intimate, conversational writing style is positively addictive, and her emotional candor, humor, and attention to detail make the books a sheer pleasure, a sweet indulgence that begs repeated readings.
Her story will inspire readers to pursue their passions, believe in themselves, and when in doubt, look within for the answers. The entire memoir trilogy is not only a touching journey of self discovery, but a paean to women’s friendships and an interesting take on feminism (the liberated female’s choice of domestic life and motherhood should never be perceived as a lesser one).
I love how Susan’s ability to create her own distinctly “homemade” life organically evolved into her life’s work. Even when she was at her lowest, she was able to appreciate the beauty in the world and somehow infuse bits of its magic into the practical tasks of domesticity. Celebrate the small pleasures, take the time to observe, internalize it all, then share with a generous heart.
I also appreciated the life lessons on coping with the isolation most creatives experience. It was inspiring to read about how she overcame personal loss and sustained her emotional stamina through years of soul searching before finally achieving a hard-won sense of self identity and purpose.
Over and over again, I was struck by a feeling of familiarity and deja-vu. I nodded knowingly when this fellow baby boomer described her love of handwriting and encounter with the Beatles, quoted from Bob Dylan and Elton John, discovered Julia Child, baked a banana cream pie, curled up with the latest issue of Country Living Magazine.
I had the same hunter green and red color scheme in my first house, the same affinity for red hearts and New England (with a special fascination for Martha’s Vineyard), knew precisely how she felt when experiencing her first autumn and snowfall as an adult, always wanting to experience the four seasons. I love her vivid and lyrical seasonal descriptions of the island:
Because Martha’s Vineyard is an island, no matter which direction the wind comes from, and no matter what season, it has to blow across the ocean before it gets to us.
It filters through the many woods and meadows, not only carrying the fragrance of the sea but gathering perfume from everything that grows wild: goldenrod, clematis, wild apples and pine, blueberries, beach plums, asters and bayberry. It slips in and out of seashells, climbs tree trunks, dives into squirrel holes, slides along old porch rails, stumbles through the bittersweet, skips along picket fences, scoots beneath falling leaves, whistles past ancient graveyards, flits over and under dragonfly wings, and steals all the wishes off the dandelion puffs, flinging them in every direction, wishes for all.
I too, had a basket of red apples and a brownie beanie, and my first book contract with Little, Brown. I also count Anne of Green Gables, Louisa May Alcott, and Anne Frank among my heroes. And yes, I also once roasted a Thanksgiving turkey with the packet of giblets still inside the cavity. 🙂
There’s one photo of Susan that actually made me gasp (Fairy Tale Girl, p. 99), where she’s sitting crossed legged on the grass wearing jeans and a capped sleeve shirt. I had the exact same hair style, sandals and top!
But even more Twilight Zone-ish, was the diary excerpt she shared on page 246 (MVIOD). Gasp again. The handwriting looks exactly like mine: “9:22 am, jan. 17, 1978.” Truly, I thought it was my writing, from the days I scribbled in my journal with a fountain pen.
Happy coincidences all, but a bit of magic and mystery too — status quo for those of us who believe in fairy tales. Susan was able to effectively convey that in this life, no matter the ups and downs, enchantment is ever present, serendipity right around the corner. There is magic, too, in books that resonate with readers in uncanny ways — giving you the feeling that you intimately know someone you’ve never actually met.
Most will agree that the kitchen is the heart of the home, and at the heart of Susan’s work has always been a sincere desire to spread joy by creating books that are both beautiful and practical.
Susan never had a formal art lesson, is self-effacing and modest about her many talents, and initially didn’t think of herself as a “writer.” Yet here she is, entertaining, nurturing, and inspiring so many with her words, pictures and gentle wisdom. There is much to be said for honoring God-given gifts using heart and passion as your compass, hard work, resourcefulness, and tenacity as daily fare. Reading her books, I think the world is not as big and scary as it sometimes seems. We are all not that much different from one another when we gather around a common table.
Aren’t you glad a brownie beanie grew up and fell in love with a black beret? 🙂 Here’s to happily ever after!
NOM, NOM POTATO CHIP COOKIES
Susan calls her mother the original fairy tale girl, and it does sound like a fairy tale growing up with such an upbeat, energetic, endlessly resourceful, constantly singing beautiful soul who loved old movies, old music, and good books.
Having to cook 3 meals a day for 10 people meant that there was always something in the oven and the house always “smelled wonderful.”
My mother had an interesting relationship to food: she didn’t refer to it by its actual name, such as potatoes, chicken, and lettuce. She looked at food scientifically, as fuel to build strong bones and teeth; she called it ‘starch, protein & roughage.’ Ice cream was ‘calcium.’
Susan grew up with her mom’s “bowl-licking” potato salad, “fall-off-the-bone” spareribs, ambrosial grilled cheese sandwiches and yummy birthday cakes.
Because of us, she would make any recipe that featured miniature marshmallows, chocolate chips, or Jell-O — or potato chips: — which were mashed into our bologna sandwiches and crushed on top of our tuna casseroles. She even made cookies with potato chips.
Susan included her mom’s recipe for potato chip cookies in The Fairy Tale Girl. Since they kept calling to us, we simply had to make a batch. 🙂
Mr Cornelius was excited at the prospect of a little salty with the sweet and enjoyed crushing the potato chips with the rolling pin. He also wanted to share the cookies with Raggedy Ann, our Beatrix Potter friends, and none other than HRH the Queen (who enjoyed her “biscuits” with a cup of Earl Grey).
We had fun with this easy recipe and enjoyed imagining Susan with her brothers and sisters scarfing them down with tall glasses of grape Kool-Aid. 🙂
MOM'S POTATO CHIP COOKIES
- 1 cup butter, softened
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2 cups flour
- 1/2 cup chopped pecans
- 1-1/2 cups crushed potato chips (with rolling pin)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Cream butter and sugar until lemon-colored.
Stir in all other ingredients and combine well.
Roll into small balls and place on lightly buttered cookie sheet.
Flatten balls with bottom of glass (dip in powdered sugar to prevent sticking).
Bake 15 minutes until light brown.
Put in tupperware; take camping. Delicious with grape Kool-Aid.
Do try these yummy cookies (if they’re good enough for the Queen, they’re good enough for us). Just don’t be surprised if after eating them, you start speaking Arf and Arfy (and if you don’t know what that is, you’d better read the entire memoir trilogy immediately!). 🙂 🙂 🙂
Sing us out, Frankie! *swoons*
“Everyone’s life is a fairy tale written by God’s fingers.” ~ Hans Christian Andersen
Copyright © 2016 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.