Saturday, July 2, 2016

When Less is More at a New Home Bakery


(Previously published in The Sturbridge Times Magazine, July 2016)

Food has a way of bringing us closer together. Ethel Mertz famously shared her foodie secret with Lucy Ricardo when she admitted, “I can’t help myself. Eating is my hobby.” Fiskdale resident Nicole Latch has a friend who inevitablasks, “Can I have a nibble of yours,” whenever they dine out and dessert arrives. Through the years her BFF has requested little taste so frequently that Nicole, an avid baker, would tell her“If I ever have a bakery I’m going to name it after you.” 

Nicole recently made good on that promise when she turned her small kitchen on 251 Arnold Road into a home bakery specializing in a variety of treats, breakfast and dessert platters, and cakesJust a Nibble Home Bakery has been serving the Sturbridge area in Central Massachusetts since 2015, delivering to Sturbridge, East & West Brookfield, Brookfield, Brimfield, and Holland.    

“We specialize in baked goods that celebrate small things,” says Nicole. Small as in brownies and blondies and cinnamon rolls (her favorite) shaped like bunnies for Easter and men’s ties for Father’s Day. Her frosted chai spice sugar cookies have become a popular order since she introduced them to her cookie menu in May for Mother’s Day. “ I thought of chai tea and cookies . . . I experimented a bit,” she says, referring to the cardamom that is sprinkled on the thinly rolled dough along with traditional spices. 

     I got to sample one of these – tangy, sweet, and warm– when I visited Nicole early one morning. She greeted me at the door clad in a full, ruffled peach and aqua apron, looking a lot like the silhouette on the “Just A Nibble” trademark on her web page ( “I just love the Fifties,” she admitted, referring to this iconic housewife look. Very Lucylike.

     Just a Nibble delivers to your door, a practice Nicole began long before she went into business. Melissa Beachemin, director of the Sturbridge Senior Center, has never tired of seeing Nicole or her husband Rob, along with their three children ages three to eleven, visit the Center with trays of goodies. The two women met at ServSafe class, a food safety course.  “I love herShe’s the most positive person,” says Melissa, recalling the trays of Valentine cookies the Latch family brought to the Center this year and small wedding cake Nichole baked for the annual Not-So-Newlywed Game.

     The home business also specializes in traditional and custom chocolate and vanilla cakes frosted with a variety of fluffy buttercreams (including peanut butter) and toppings (drizzles, sprinkles, cookies, malted milk balls, etc.).Customers can pair together any combination. “No judgment here,” the website assures. Lots of choices continue on the cookie and brownie menu which also features the “brookie,” a chocolate brownie topped with a chocolate-chip cookie.

     Personally I have my eye on a crunchy brownie layered on crushed pretzels and brown sugar. But then there’s that chocolate-chip, flower-pot cookie with a pretty sugar flower sprouting from a bit of crushed Oreo-cookie “dirt”, featured this month. I’ll guess I’ll just have to have a nibble of both. Join me at



Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Going Around in Circles

(Previously published in the June 2016 Issue of The Sturbridge Times Magazine)

One would think my first whirl as a grandmother would have prepared me for the second. 

So much for supposing.

Back in 2012 I didn’t know what to expect. The parents-turned-grandparents circle around me assured me upgrading from mother to grandmother would be more fun, less worrisome, more rewarding, and much less tiring. “The kids go home at the end of the day,” many echoed. 

What I wasn’t prepared for was that, even as I anticipated the wonder of holding my first grandchild, there awaited something just as wonderfulSomething as precious as, a few days laterfeeling the intensity with which he’d fix his wide-open eyes on me, as if to acknowledge Grammy was a sight worth absorbing to his very soul

What became just as special was watching my daughter morph from wife to mother. She exuded a deeper joy than even on her wedding day, a greater seriousness of purpose than her care for her students or the house pupIn the midst of this passage she also seemed to take on the added worry and tiredness I have been – to a degree – relieved of as my son and daughter set out paths of lives and loves of their own. 

Last month, I expected to relive similar wonders as I awaited my second grandchild’s birth – this time, a girl. Yes there would be more pink, more bows and ruffles. But I had been around the block with a grandchild already. Nothing much would surprise me this time.
Nothing – except Grandchild Number One.

A month or so before her birth I asked my grandson, “Are you excited about having a little sister?’ 

He looked me straight in the eye with – I swear – the same gaze-to-the-soul he shot my way as a one-week-old, and answered“Yes no yes no yes no yes no.” 

Thus began the unexpected narrative of Grandchild Number Two: Watching Grandchild Number One take on the mantle of Big Brother. He’d been rehearsing older-siblinghood since Christmas, wheeling a little sister doll around the house in a miniature umbrella stroller. He’d read his favorite book to the make-believe sibling, telling more his story than the one in print. Those were easy scenes for him to play out in his unfolding drama of family. 

It became more difficult for him when, as his mom’s belly swelled, he had to refrain from jumping on her lap. Even less coolbeing woken up after a nighttime car ride, because he was just too heavy for his very pregnant mom to carry from car seat to toddler bed. Perhaps his “yes no” answer evolved from one sort of moment here, another sort of moment there

When the Big Day arrived my grandson joined me for our first trip to the hospital. His dad took him to meet the baby first.I followed a few minutes later, walking in to find Little Sister propped by pillows, cradled in Big Brother’s arms. “Meet Mallory Ann," he announced, having just learned her name. I’never seen him sit so straight or smile so wide.

The joyful exchange of three generations ensued in the room through the afternoon. At one point my grandson performed a Snoopy dance as he exclaimed, “Tonight I get to sleep at Grammy’s.” After a round of great hugs and kisses, the two of us headed down the hallway, ten steps or so, until he stopped in his tracks. Pointing his finger to his head, as if he had just discovered a solution to a problem, he said, “I forgot to tell Dad something.”

“Then let’s go back and tell him,” I said. We retraced our steps to the room.
Message conveyed, we once again exchanged goodbye hugs. This time we made it as far as the elevator when I felt the extra-tight grasp of his hand over mine. As we descended to the parking garage the tightness turned to tensionNext, I perceived a lip quiver, then a sniffle, followed by tears. 

“I don’t want to go,” he cried softly.

We can go back for a bit, ” I said, pressing the up button.

After our third visit Dad walked us to the car. Big Brother cried, louder this time, but fell asleep within minutes on the ride to Grammy’s. He awoke refreshed, recalling the visit with glee and eager to share the day’s news with my neighbors. 

“My Little Sister was born today,” he said, then turned to me to ask, “What was her name again?”

©LauraBHayden 2016

Thursday, October 22, 2015


This column first appeared on 

I’m writing a biography of a woman who has fascinated me since I first heard her name in the 1970s. I can’t give her name – yet. And you might not even recognize it when I do, for she died at age 65 in 1983. Time will tell. But if you are a writer and you are interested in trying your hand at biography, I do have some news you can use.

Writing biography is different from tackling a memoir, even though both are nonfiction, true accounts of true lives. Obvious difference: the memoir is about you, the biography is about someone else. But there is more to it than that. Readers and writers have been known to confuse biographical writing with historical writing. I like the distinction Virginia Woolf’s biographer, Hermione Lee, makes. She calls biographical writing “life-storying,” putting the emphasis on narrative and not just the verifiable facts of more academic histories. In addition, the biographer also wants to convey some sort of idea about the writer’s subject, which is why two biographies about the same person, let’s say John Fitzgerald Kennedy, can be so different, as with Kenneth O’Donnell’s Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye and Nigel Hamilton’s JFK: Reckless Youth. 

I can tell you this because I’ve been studying the craft of biography the way I studied memoir when I was writing Staying Alive: A Love Story, my memoir of loss and recovery. I loved that book. Loved that it made my husband’s life present in his children’s and my life again and because it has become respected in the field of writing about loss, receiving a 2012 Reader Views memoir award, a 2013 award from the New York Book Festival, and a recommendation from the American Institute of Health Care Professionals. But I’m on to something else now and in its own way, being essentially about someone else lessens the emotional weight of the project.

Yes, in trying to write something non-autobiographical, I’ve tried fiction. But my heart wasn’t in it. The same way Truman Capote’s heart wasn’t in his fiction either. And yet, just by picking up the New York Times one morning in 1959, Capote knew in his gut he had to write a book-length investigation of the news of that day, the Clutter family’s murder. Thus, In Cold Blood was born, the nonfiction book that broke the mold of true reporting when it was published seven years later.

So, in getting serious about the biographical writing, I found that, unlike memoir, there’s very little advice about craft available. Google how to write a memoir and pages and pages of “how-to” books will pop up. Not so when you google how to write a biography. I’ve found only two, Hermione Lee’s Biography which is part of the Oxford Very Short Introductions series and Nigel Hamilton’s How to do Biography: A Primer. Both have been very helpful, along with reading critically praised biographies and profiles.

The same dearth of information goes for online or on ground workshops on biography. I found a single four-day workshop on writing biographies being offered at this summer’s Yale Writer’s Conference, but the cost was just under $1000, nonresidential, just over $1000, residential. Both more than I could afford.

Finally, I came across a surprising good podcast: How to Write a Biography by Carole Angier, available for free at It is also available on iTunesU. So, if your heart is in nonfiction and you are passionate about someone else’s life, take some advice “life-storying” advice from Lee, Hamilton, and Angier.

Laura Hayden is the author of Staying Alive: A Love Story (website: http://laurabhayden.comShe teaches writing at Asnuntuck Community College and in the WCSU MFA in Creative and Professional Writing program, both in Connecticut.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Harper Lee Conundrum

First published at Poor Yorick Journal on September 25, 2015
Photo from
When, like me, you’ve taught To Kill a Mockingbird to tenth graders for thirty years, you have a personal stake in Harper Lee’s only “other” novel, Go Set a Watchman, published a few months ago. For three decades, I’ve deconstructed Atticus’s airtight argument that proved Tom Robinson’s innocence beyond anyone’s (but a racist jury’s) doubt. I’ve introduced countless teens to the notion that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” Reading and rereading the classic so connected me to the text; I learned and loved something new every time. 
It’s been as difficult for me to separate the truth from the gossip surrounding Watchman, as it has always been to get students to appreciate the full monty of Mockingbird, the book, as compared to To Kill a Mockingbird, the movie. The 1960s Oscar-winning film omits the Southern excesses of Atticus’s siblings: Aunt Alexandra and bachelor Uncle Jack, the doctor in the Finch family. Yet, sister and brother continue to impact Harper Lee’s fictional world in Watchman in surprising and crafted ways.
Writers know, however, that crafted and well-crafted are two separate treatments, which leads me to the talking heads’ debate over Watchman: is it merely the rejected original manuscript of Mockingbird, something that aged and, some say ailing and addled Lee got duped into publishing? Or has Lee reshaped Watchman twice over her long life? First in the late 1950s, following her editor’s suggestion to turn the original manuscript’s clock back two decades—a rewrite that morphed into the Pulitzer Prize winning Mockingbird—and then again years later, trying to get the older Scout’s story right? 
Even before Watchman’s publication, airways buzzed about which came first, the Watchman chicken or the Mockingbird egg, as well as a striking difference in Atticus. 
I was all ears.
So when, on the way to a James Taylor concert a few weeks ago, my niece asked me, “Auntie Laura, where do you stand as an English teacher on this new Harper Lee book?” it was as if she had pressed my play button. “You know there’s all this controversy about if Lee wanted it published and if it is the rejected or the rewritten version, yadda-yadda-yadda I’m not sure I even want to read it, yadda-yadda-yadda, because I don’t want to be disappointed.“
I felt confident about my know-it-all English teacher rant based on The New York Times saying this and The Guardian saying that, etc., etc. That is, until the fellow I know so well, the one next to me at the JT fest, questioned me, not then, but the next evening, as straightforwardly and objectively as Atticus himself might have cross-examined. 
“How do you really know it’s not worth your time unless you read it?” His emphasis on really implied that I who have been connected to the hip of Lee’s body of work, including her legwork as researcher for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood—that I should know better. 
Before the night was over, I downloaded Watchman onto my Kindle. And I read, delighted with the first chapter. At 3% (my Kindle doesn’t give page numbers), it appeared to be a love story between a grownup Scout, now exclusively called Jean Louise, and her childhood friend Henry, also known as Hank. But where did this Henry/Hank guy come from? Where were Jem and Dill? 
Watchman had me turning, I mean tapping, who-knows-what number page after page, until—at 6%—I lingered awhile on a single sentence that pegged Maycomb, the county Jean Louise left behind for NYC, as a place where “If you did not want much, there was plenty.” That perfectly wrought sentence was plenty enough for me to feel it was worth picking up—I mean downloading—the book.
That is until 5% later when Lee writes off Jean Louise’s brother in three words and goes on to throw out all the stops at 36%, as Jean Louise sneaks a peak of Atticus and Hank at The Citizens’ council meeting. Seated at a table alongside an influential racist who has just delivered a no-question-about-it hate speech, neither man says anything. Atticus’s silence betrays everything he has taught her. Hank’s everything she believes. She flees the scene and vomits.
If I weren’t reading this on a Kindle, I would have thrown the book across the room. I did put it down for a day or so. Still, my thoughts wouldn’t let go of the book and the buzz.
If Watchman was written before TKAM, then Atticus “the Saint” (as opposed to Atticus “the Segregationist”) wouldn’t exist until after a savvy editor told Lee to rethink and revise the matters of Maycomb by bringing the story back to Jean Louise’s childhood . . . so maybe, in the way all writers must sometimes kill off their darlings, maybe Lee killed off her anti-darlin’ by stuffing him in a drawer or safe deposit box where he couldn’t breathe, and so he died. And reincarnated Atticus #2 from the dead Lee scroll to inhabit the Mockingbird manuscript? 
I recharged the Kindle and read through one-sided rantings about race, religion, and marriage at Aunt Alexandra’s tea and speechifying about history and politics via Uncle Jack. Jean Louise comes to blows with Atticus too but not in the way reviewers had led me to believe. 
Sure, I wish I could climb into Harper Lee’s skin to view this all from her point of view, but she declined an interview with Oprah and there is a guard at her assisted-living residence door. So, judging by what she wrote, I’ve formed my own opinion: Go Set a Watchmanis nothing more than the failed draft. I missed the polished style and grace that becomes the smooth storytelling of Mockingbird and the classic’s ideals. Yet, even if the new novel is really the old rejected novel, reading Go Set a Watchman reminded me—as it did Jean Louise—how often the objects of our affection—our loves, our family, our friends, and even our favorite writers—can fall from grace, simply because they are human or think differently from us. Even recognizing the narrow-mindedness and rough edges of this literary milestone—flaws that may have been out of Lee’s control to keep under wraps – I still have the urge to embrace its creation. When it comes to Harper Lee and me, the love is so strong as to risk being 100% unconditional.