The Marketing of Sister B

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9781560851639: The Marketing of Sister B

 All Donna Brooks wanted was to make something special for Relief Society. Little did she know when she reached for her wooden spoon and plugged in her crock pot that morning, she would throw herself and her family into an emotional pressure cooker and become an instant, national celebrity.

This outrageously funny tale follows an LDS mother through an overnight start-up success and through the labyrinth of that most mysterious of institutions, the ward Relief Society. Wafting through this affectionate frolic are some serious questions. Who defines us? What constitutes our identity? What is authentic and what is, well, marketing?

Homemaking never went this far.

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About the Author:

 Linda Hoffman Kimball (M.F.A., Boston University), is the author of Home to Roost, illustrator of Birds of Algonquin Legend, editor of Saints Well Seasoned: Musings on How Food Nourishes Us—Body, Heart, and Soul, and a columnist for the internet site devoted to religion, Beliefnet.com. She lives with her husband and three children in Evanston, Illinois, where she is a proud member of the North Shore First Ward Relief Society.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

 Chapter 1

If Donna Brooks had known the grief it was about to cause her, she would have never gotten out the cinnamon that morning. If she had really understood the jealousies and strained relations she was about to stir up, she would not have reached for her wooden spoon. If she had had any idea that by plugging in her crock pot that day she was throwing herself into an emotional pressure cooker, she would have simply said to the cosmic powers-that-be: “Are you nuts?? Count me out, honey, ’cause this gal does not want what you’re selling!” But of course, there was no way to anticipate that favors for a visiting teaching luncheon would turn her into a national celebrity.

Donna Ray Brooks, the forty-three-year-old mother of four and resident of Rottingham, Massachusetts, member of the Commonwealth Falls First Ward, just wanted to make a little something nice for the women in her ward. She was “between callings” at the moment, which suited her fine. She had been released as Primary president and was enjoying a breather. Hank, her husband, had been tapped as the newest member of the high council, so the family had plenty of fingers in the church service pie.

She had loved being the Primary president. In fact, she thrived on coordinating doodads for children: visual aides, the flannel board stories, stickers, word searches, and gospel-oriented goodie bags. But now she was glad that she could shower her creative efforts on anyone she chose, not just on the little lambkins of her prior stewardship.

In the two months since her release, she had tackled the elementary school’s newly organized bulletin board for PTA and community notices, she had seen to it that her son’s soccer team feasted on cupcakes decorated with geodesic patterns in the frosting, and she had organized the baby shower for Hank’s co-worker that had proceeded flawlessly from cucumber soup to nut cups.

She decided she liked one-shot deals over long-time obligations. She would sign up to bring all the refreshments to a fifth-grade class party, but she did not want to be the room mother. That’s how she worked best. It was not an issue of committing time because she spent enormous amounts of time doing one project after another. It was the psychic obligation of a long haul that bothered her. So it was one morning in September when she called the Relief Society president.

“Hi,” she said. “This is Donna Brooks. I remember we have a visiting teaching luncheon next week and I thought I’d volunteer if you have any last minute needs.”

“Great!” said Jane Schmidt enthusiastically. “Let me check it out with my counselors and get back to you.” About half an hour later, Donna got a call from the homemaking counselor, Claudia Christiansen.

“Oh, Sister Brooks, I’m so delighted that you’ll help. It’s just so wonderful of you to volunteer like this. I tell you, it’s like pulling teeth sometimes. But you just up and volunteer. Why, that’s great. Sure wish we could bottle you. Just pop off the cork once in a while when we need a whiff of the real stuff, and there you’d be, Donna Brooks, right under our noses.

“Well, I’ve carried on here,” Claudia continued. “Let me tell you what we could use. We want to have some little favor at each place setting. Something each sister could take home with her, you know, that might remind her of the day. Something maybe a little fun. Maybe cute. It wouldn’t have to be super spiritual or anything. Just a little nice thing that would say, ‘Sure think you’re swell.’ In fact, that would make a cute saying on a sponge. Do you know what I mean? When they used the sponge, it would get all puffy and swell up and they’d see the saying, ‘Sure think you’re swell.’ I just thought of that right here on the spot. Oh, you don’t have to use that idea. Use your own imagination. I’ve seen what you did with those Primary tots, so I know you’ve got a million great ideas.

“We also need somebody to clean up afterwards,” she offered, “but I’d rather see you put your talents to better use. I’d say we need about fifty favors. That’s optimistic, of course, since we usually don’t get that great a turn-out. But this time we’re having food and that always draws a crowd. It seems like the kind of thing the sisters might like to invite their visiting teaching folks to even if they haven’t seen them for a while, so that will hike up the numbers. Fifty ought to do it.”

Claudia was not yet done. “The budget’s basically shot,” she said, “so it can’t be anything too pricey. But I know how you can pull rabbits out of thin air. Just, thank you, thank you for being so willing to do this. I think you’re a fabulous person–very special to all of us in the presidency.”

Donna hung up aware that her only contribution to the conversation had been to say hello. That was fine. She was pleased that they had challenged her creative abilities. Now, what could she put together that would not cost too much, that would not take too much time, and that would not be something that had been done to death? No grapevine wreaths wrapped with ribbons and dried flowers. No little straw, broad-brimmed hats with dried flowers. She didn’t want to work with dried flowers in any configuration.

She toyed with beanbag dolls with round, wooden heads covered with fluffy hair. But she vetoed that for two reasons. First, it would be labor intensive. Second, the finished product would look like the bishop’s wife–frizzy haired, round faced, and broad of beam. Thumbs down on magnets, too, even though there were imaginative things that could be done with salt dough, painted-wood slogans, ceramic casts, and little picture frames. But everybody did magnets. Besides, she already had a zillion magnets on her refrigerator.

She would not venture a bookmark again. During President Kimball’s era, she asked one of the Young Women who had bragged about her calligraphy skills to letter the encouraging motto “Do It” on the ribbons. Only after the bookmarks had been distributed to stake dignitaries did she notice that the motto had become “DOLT.”

This should be something truly creative. Something no one had ever done before. Something that she could make with things she had around the house. And she wanted the message of the trinket to symbolize the warmth and homey love and enthusiasm she felt for her sisters. She wanted it to be something that they might think about or carry with them in their minds or hearts. Something that might linger awhile and not be tossed into the next trash can, that would bridge the gaps of culture, age, education, and political persuasion in the ward.

That’s when she remembered something Sister Christiansen had said. She had mentioned something about bottling, popping the cork, and taking a whiff. That’s it! That’s what she would do! A big vat of some kind of fragrance that she could pour into those little vials left over from the 4th of July boutonnieres she made for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. She would find little corks, tie some classy ribbon around the neck of the vials, and voila! Eau d’sisterhood! When they put a drop on their wrist or behind their ear, they would be surrounded by sisterly affection. Fragrance never fails!

But what should the fragrance be? Nothing too floral. She didn’t want a traditional perfume smell. There was too much competition from those vaguely obscene Calvin Klein scents. It should be something fun and down-home like the smell of sawdust. No, that might make a good aftershave, but it wouldn’t be right for a visiting teaching luncheon. What were the other evocative smells of the home? A fire in the fireplace. Nice, but too woodsy. She liked the smell of clean kitchen floors and the smell of the dishwasher when it was running because they represented order after chaos. But these were pine and lemon smells and nothing unique about them.

Then the idea came to her. The stroke of heaven-sent genius that sent her into four months of hell. The smell of baking cinnamon buns! This was perfect. The smell of love. The smell of something fabulous in process. It meant comfort and nourishment and nurture. What a perfect combination! Tender, homey, and a little zing of spice. This was it!

To the average homemaker, making perfume would have seemed preposterous. But Donna had a double major in family science and chemistry from BYU. She knew her way around a still, a Bunsen burner, and a crock pot.

In fact, she did reach for her crock pot, along with some cheese cloth and a wooden spoon. Then she began gathering sundry ingredients and equipment from the pantry, garage, basement. She got a note pad, as a good scientist would, and recorded her procedure. She put on a Bonnie Raitt tape since she wanted to be loose and funky and energetic. She was cookin’!

By the time the kids were due home from school, the kitchen looked like Betty Crocker, Jonas Salk, and Coco Chanel labs all rolled into one. To make sure her fragrance matched the real thing, she would have to make real cinnamon buns, and that would be perfect for snack time–one of the perks of research and development. Before long, the top of the dryer in the laundry room held fifty-five upright, tiny vials, all lined up in a rack and filled three-quarters full of a handsome auburn fluid. Each vial sported mauve and forest-green ribbons around its neck and a slim cinnamon stick in the ribbons’ square knots. Donna could not have scripted a better scene than the one the kids encountered when they walked into the house.

“Wow, Mom! This place smells fantastic!”

“Gee, how many can I have?”

“I could eat the whole house, it smells so good!”

“This is a balm to my troubled soul, Mother mine,” said her fourteen-year-old daughter in her dramatic flair.

They consumed one cinnamon bun each, then Donna marched them into the laundry so she could show off her day’s non-edible product. The kids were used to this kind of routine. With all the projects she did, they were used to being queried for their input and assessment. Usually they were harsh critics. She’d go back to the drawing board only if there were major, truly persuasive complaints from all four. This time, she probably wouldn’t start over. She was exhausted and, after all, this was just a little gewgaw for the sisters, not the cure for cancer.

“These are favors for the visiting teaching luncheon next week,” she explained. “It’s perfume. Tell me what you think of it. Tell me what feelings come to mind. Tell me if you think the ribbons and cinnamon sticks look okay.”

She extracted the cork from one of the vials and passed it briefly under their noses and then had them dab a little on their wrists. They waved their arms around and sniffed, and then their eyes widened and their jaws dropped. After a few moments of reverent silence, the chorus began again.

“Mom, you’ve outdone yourself!”

“Yummy smells in such a teeny tiny bottle. Mommy, it’s my favorite thing you ever made.”

“Cool. This is just so cool!”

“Subtle, but it says hearth and home, doesn’t it?” again from the fourteen-year-old.

In retrospect, this was a momentous occasion. But in the living of it, it was just another day with the usual chores and routines of being a mother. By the time Hank got home from work, there were plenty of smells to compete with the cinnamon bun aroma from the fabric softener, a Magic Marker for a seventh-grade school project, and the dinner’s stir fry. At bedtime, Donna’s pride in her visiting teaching favors was supplanted by thoughts of seminary car pooling and the plot line of her Anne Perry mystery.

Getting ready for bed while Hank brushed his teeth, Donna remembered the towels that were still in the dryer. She trooped down, emptied the towels into the laundry basket, and turned to march back upstairs to fold them while they watched TV. But then she put the basket down and took the cork off one of the little vials the kids had sampled and dabbed a little behind her ears. Basket in both hands, she continued upstairs.

Hank was already nestled under the covers chuckling at David Letterman’s monologue, clutching the remote, when Donna dumped the towels onto her side of the bed and began to fold them.

“Did you just wash your hair or something?” Hank asked.

“No. It’s dry. See?” Donna laughed, tossing her brunette locks with a mock vampiness.

“Something smells terrific. Is it the laundry?”

“Check it out,” Donna threw a towel at him; it covered his head. She could hear him sniffing underneath the towel.

“No, no. This isn’t it. What is that, that ... tantalizing smell?”

This was unusual. Hank rarely talked during the monologue. Here he was sniffing, rifling through the laundry, stammering with an intriguing growl. Now his arms were around her. He was nuzzling her neck–something that never happened during Letterman.

“It’s you, Donna! You smell so fabulous!” He tossed the remote onto the floor.

Next morning. Donna called Sister Christiansen and told her the favors were ready and that she thought the sisters would be pleased. She said she had made something for the women that was wholesome and heartwarming and that seemed, from all indications, to have just the right amount of spice.

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