Latter-day Jane

A happy diversion of life, love and sisterly advice for Jane Austen fans everywhere. [There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart. -Jane Austen]

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Beware of Wolves, my son; Become a Woodsman

My Dear Son,

The days of your childhood are passing through my fingers like the silver-winged butterflies of fairytales, and as much as I might like to try, I cannot reach into the pages of life’s book to catch them. You are still little enough now – little enough to delight in feeding the Canada Geese, little enough to ask, and ask, and ask again the questions that will help you better understand the bits of life unfolding around you, and little enough to occasionally bring a treasured blanket as we cuddle together and read.  


My son, feeding Canada Geese.

But one day, my son, one day (much sooner than I can help you understand), you will not be little anymore. You will be big, and it will be time for you to go out into this forest of a world. I’ll be there with you for a while, sharing the things I have learned along the way. But the day will come when you will be called upon to make your way through the tree-covered paths without me. This journey will require courage.

In this forest, you will see the beautiful as well as the monstrous, radiating from the hearts of those you chance to meet. You will encounter wonder and joy, along with sadness. And you will be challenged in ways I cannot foretell.

You will have opportunities to become many things, and to shape the forest in many ways. Be careful what you choose, for in the forest, there are those who protect life, as well as those who seek to tear it apart.


My little one, taking in a magical scene.

There will be wolves in the forest. Some may appear sleek, elegant, and grace-filled. Others may be masterful shape-shifters, not resembling wolves at all. You may be surprised by their strength as well as the apparent ease with which they move about. They will captivate many with a fixed gaze and a melodic voice. Take care, my dear one, for their words are as rich as they are dangerous. Their mercenary minds will attempt to discover your mission, your direction, and any potential weakness, that they might take advantage, or slow your progress.  

It is not enough though, to warn you away from the influence of these wolves. It is not enough to dodge, hide, or run away. As is the way of the forest, my son, your journey is perhaps even more about what you must become than what you must not.  

The being you must choose to become during this journey is a woodsman. A woodsman knows the forest, and quietly observes everything in it. A woodsman is a hard worker who gladly seeks to share. A woodsman is not only aware of the danger inherent in wolves, but keeps a listening ear at the ready, in case there is a cry for help. A woodsman is humble and kind; even as he offers a helping hand, he does not boast of the strength in the arm that moves it. (There is wisdom in the story of Little Red Riding Hood, my son, and if you’ve forgotten just how it goes, it’s worth reading again.)

Yes, a woodsman is what you must seek to become, in your mind, and in your heart.  

As a woodsman, you must carry a torch of truth.

As a woodsman, you must work hard and be watchful.

As a woodsman, you must be mindful of those around you.

As a woodsman, you must seek to spread hope and kindness, in the face of danger and doubt.

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The forest is counting on you, my son, and others like you. You’ll learn to recognize the others as you observe and grow – these woodsmen who carry torches of truth.

And whether I am by your side, or watching from the lush banks of a stream just beyond your view, as often as I can, I will whisper in your ear this fervent reminder:

Beware of wolves, my son; become a woodsman.

Sarah Elizabeth resides in a small Southern town with her husband, son, and their not-quite-therapy comfort dogs. She once enjoyed a life with a slightly faster pace as an award-winning reporter, and marketing professional, but these days her life is much more quiet. She writes about life observations, experiences with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, chronic illness, and occasionally, her love of Jane Austen. Latter-day Jane and Sweeten the Lemons are her thinking places. Click here to follow on Facebook. 




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Four Empty Stockings

Jennifer was bright; her inner light glowed in an excited, hungry-for-life kind of way. She was kind, she was earnest, and she was honest. You always knew where you stood with Jenn on any given day, and it sometimes varied. Her fair, pink-hued skin, naturally blonde hair, and light blue eyes would’ve made her a natural stand-in for a townsperson in Disney’s Frozen. She talked loudly and laughed loudly, and she demanded that life be fair and just, despite behind-the-scenes circumstances in her own life that were anything but fair. We didn’t agree on everything, but our friendship respected those differences.

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Jennifer in high school.


For all the things Jenn was and would become, there was one thing she would not be.

Jenn would not be a domestic violence survivor.

[A caution for those who have experienced domestic abuse in any of its many forms – the story that follows may be a trigger.]

The news of Jenn’s death reached me on Christmas Eve day in 2007. I had finished my early morning shift at the news station where I reported, followed by a late lunch with my mom and younger sisters. Christmas Day would be filled with love, warmth, and board and card game challenges, all with the people I loved best. There would be a fire crackling in the farm house where I grew up, and I’d spend most of the day there relaxing, soaking up the memories of the past, while hoping the new chapters I’d planned would take root in the coming year.

But as I stood against my kitchen counter opening the mail late that afternoon, my growing baby bump starting to get in the way, all of those hopes and thoughts were traded in for a single, overwhelming emotion:


In that day’s mail was a Christmas card I had mailed to Jenn two weeks prior. It had been returned unopened, with a bright yellow sticker that read “not deliverable as addressed.”

That’s strange, I thought, reviewing the marks I had made on the front. She said that was her new address.

In the same stack, there was a manila envelope with a return address label bearing the name of Jenn’s mom.

Oh, I reasoned as I eagerly opened it. Plans must have changed. Maybe she’s still staying with her mom for the time being.

There were two things inside that manila envelope that would dash all hope of that: an unopened envelope with a Christmassy border, addressed to me in Jenn’s own hand, and a single sheet of white paper – a letter. The writing seemed cramped, and as I read, I could feel the intense pain behind each word. It was from Jenn’s mother; her signature stood alone at the bottom, bearing witness of something too terrible to fully comprehend:


I don’t know if you heard or not, but Jennifer, Olivia and Magnus were killed last Friday by Jenn’s ex-husband and the kids’ father. In the process of cleaning her apartment we came across some Christmas cards that she was getting ready to mail. I don’t know if you will want to keep this but I thought I would go ahead and send it to you. Jenn talked about you often. I know that your friendship meant a great deal to her. Thank you for being her friend.

I gripped the kitchen counter, blinded by tears as I choked out unintelligible sobs.

Jenn had been killed?

JenniferBernsdorff 1

Jennifer with Magnus and Olivia.


Her children had been killed?


What happened?

As I continued to process this information, my mind sifted through the previous months. That summer, Jenn had included me on a friends and family email, explaining that she was gay, and would be leaving her husband. What she left unsaid was that her husband was becoming increasingly abusive, and she was desperate to escape. Their marriage had not been the rosy picture their personal and family websites painted to the outside world. Behind the excited announcements of vacations, home births in water pools, mindful mothering, midwifery, and community involvement, there was turmoil.

There was a hidden fissure deep below the surface that threatened to tremble and quake with a magnitude that would break that carefully crafted façade into a million tiny, jagged pieces.

At first, Jenn took refuge with her mom. She said she’d have unlimited visits with her children while they continued to reside with their father in their family home, as Jenn got on her feet and figured out a way forward. I didn’t know at the time that his custody had more to do with her feeling that she didn’t have the strength to fight him. That would take time. As time went on and in subsequent emails, Jenn explained she’d fallen in love with a woman — someone much older — someone with whom I presume she felt safe. She then moved in with her girlfriend, and those close to her would later say she was putting a plan in place to get custody of her children.

As I sorted through these thoughts, I went in search of news coverage from Florida, where Jenn had resided ever since moving halfway through high school. With police and family members providing the missing pieces, reporters there developed a clearer picture of the events on the day Jenn died, December 14, 2007.

Jenn had become increasingly afraid of her ex-husband, going so far as to speak with a domestic violence specialist with the local police department, in an effort to form a safety plan. Her family described a marriage that had become more and more violent – one that left her afraid and desperate to escape. They described physical violence after the divorce that caused Jenn to fear for her personal safety.

I never knew.

For as much as Jenn did share, there was so much she didn’t.


Celebrating with Jenn during happier times, mid 90s.


It appeared her ex-husband had been something of a dreamer and a big spender, without the necessary career path to keep up with the mounting debt. During and after the divorce, his anger towards Jenn blossomed into hatred and instability. He seemed intent to fixate on what he perceived as a rotten hand of cards he’d been dealt, believing that fate, along with the actions of others, had backed him into a corner with no real way out.

So he sat down and devised a way. That deranged way out would ultimately end five lives: that of Jennifer, their two young children, and Jennifer’s girlfriend. Each was shot more than once. A determined killer, he took no chances. The fifth life he ended would be his own, to avoid facing the consequences for the atrocities he had committed.

Miraculously, the 4-year-old daughter of Jennifer’s girlfriend was unharmed during the killing spree. That’s in sharp contrast to Jenn’s children, Olivia and Magnus. Their calculating father placed a phone call cancelling their school pick-up that morning, claiming he’d be keeping them home to “do something fun.” He didn’t want his horrific crimes to be discovered before he had finished the entire string of them.

In the days and weeks that followed the murders, police sifted through the home Jenn had once shared with her ex-husband (though I know his name, I choose not to write it – nor did Jennifer’s mom in the letter she sent me). Along with the child pornography hiding away on his personal computer, authorities found a rambling manifesto in which he talked angrily of Jenn’s supposed psychological shortcomings, as well as those of his children, who he labeled “future time bombs” due to the influence of Jenn. That, he reasoned, would justify ending their lives.

The result of these carefully planned pre-Christmas killings is this:

  • Jenn’s children are gone – their lives snuffed out not long after they began.
  • Jenn and her partner, who worked to help others as employees of the local Hospice chapter – are gone.
  • Somewhere out there, a 12-year-old girl has likely endured years of pain and emotional trauma – a result of being present as her mother’s life was extinguished.
  • The lives of loved ones have been ripped apart and reshaped again, as a result of this heavy burden.

Why do I share this?

I share this because Jenn’s story matters. Her life mattered. Her children’s lives mattered, as did the life of her girlfriend.  Her ex-husband’s life mattered, though I struggle mightily to understand the path he chose and the evil he embraced.


Another day at school, mid-90s. Jenn is on the right.


Sometimes, we compartmentalize abuse and all its forms — physical, emotional, psychological, and so on — into a specific week or month of awareness. We talk about it when someone famous behaves reprehensibly, or when someone famous is on the receiving end of that reprehensible behavior.

We talk about it less when it resides next door, or across the street — when we suspect that someone in our extended family or at work is in trouble. And unimaginable as we might wish it to be, we have a hard time talking about it when it remains carefully masked in a church pew next to ours. It’s a delicate subject, after all, and we don’t want to embarrass, make things awkward, or cause undue pain.

But then?

Then before we know it, the pain, the ugly, and the unthinkable are all clawing their way to the surface, and suddenly, the thing – domestic violence – is threatening to beat the door down for want of recognition.

It’s especially unpleasant to give it thought during the holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s – it’s so easy to become wrapped up in the reverie, or just as easily the stress, to see that there are people who are experiencing intense grief and pain. Among those, there are people whose fears are mounting, because those they fear are expressing anger, hatred, or increased bouts of delusion. It’s not an altogether new phenomenon.

My grandfather saw it back in the 50s and 60s, as he served as an assistant police chief in our hometown. On his rounds one day, he found a man inside a local watering hole, gripping the sides of a juke box, tears streaming down his face. The mournful sound of Blue Christmas came out through the speakers; that was the song the man had wanted to play after killing his wife in a holiday rage. Even now, when my mom hears that song, she says that haunting story is the first thing that comes to mind.

The holidays can be difficult. As much as they remind so many of life’s goodness and bounty, they also serve to remind others of life’s deepest forms of despair.

There are people you know who are silently suffering this holiday season. They may be looking for support or help. Maybe they haven’t gotten out yet. Maybe they’re like Jenn – out, but facing real and immediate danger.  Or perhaps they’re dealing with the painful ghosts of the past that can visit unbidden in thoughts and in nightmares, creeping in after years of struggle.

My hope is that we can stop for a moment and look around us –- that we can see those who are in need of help — and that we can find the strength to offer that help, even in the smallest of ways.

Jenn would’ve done it for someone else. She wouldn’t have hesitated. Although I hadn’t seen her in person since we were teenagers, that’s the kind of person she was then, and I like to think that’s the person she became as an adult. Maybe in some way, our noticing of others can honor her memory, and the memories of so many others like her.

Merry Christmas, Jenn. You are missed, but your memory lives on.

To read more about what happened on December 14, 2007, I suggest the following article at, published some months after the tragedy.

Sarah Elizabeth resides in a small Southern town with her husband, son, and their not-quite-therapy comfort dogs, a miniature Schnoodle and Goldendoodle. She once enjoyed a life with a slightly faster pace as an award-winning reporter, and marketing professional, but these days, her life is much more quiet. She writes about life observations, experiences with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, chronic illness, and occasionally, her love of Jane Austen. Latter-day Jane and Sweeten the Lemons are her thinking places. Click here to follow on Facebook. 







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Rare 30% Off Any Book (Amazon Promo Code)

If you’re a book lover like me, this Black Friday weekend deal is going to make you do your happy dance — even if silently, in your head. Today through Sunday, November 29th, Amazon is giving us 30% off any one print book! Just use the promo code HOLIDAY30 at checkout.

Important notes: this works on only one print book per Amazon account, and is good only on a book sold by Amazon. The maximum discount is $10. Shipping is free on orders of $35+, but of course the Amazon Prime subscription service offers free Prime shipping anytime. If you’re interested in the 30-day free trial, this is where you sign up.


Whether you’re treating yourself to something on the bestseller list, or snagging a great buy on a gift to go under the tree, enjoy the 30% off money-saver!

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Edenbrooke fans, it’s finally here!

Sandwiched between texts describing the goings on of my beloved nieces and nephews, my sister reminded me that today would be the day. Edenbrooke fans, IT’S HERE — and you’re not going to be able to wait until Christmas to read it.

Julianne Donaldson has just released the prequel to Edenbrooke, one of my favorite stories of all time. The newly released novelette is Heir to Edenbrooke, told from the perspective of Philip Wyndham, the most sought-after bachelor in London. It’s available electronically for $3.99. (There’s a free Kindle app that can be downloaded for most smartphones and tablets.)


If you’re not familiar with Edenbrooke, it combines romance (the clean kind) with adventure, wit and intelligence. I’ve recommended it time and again, and it doesn’t disappoint. Julianne Donaldson is a masterful storyteller, and her debut novel took so many by complete surprise. I was one of them.


She turned us into eager overnight fans. (Overnight, because we found ourselves unable to put the book down.) If you’re unfamiliar with Edenbrooke, treat yourself. I have a feeling you’re going to love it!

Sarah Elizabeth resides in a small Southern town with her husband, son, and their not-quite-therapy comfort dogs, a miniature Schnoodle and Goldendoodle. She once enjoyed a life with a slightly faster pace as an award-winning reporter, and marketing professional, but these days, her life is much more quiet. She writes about life observations, experiences with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, other chronic illness, and occasionally, her love of Jane Austen.  Click here to follow on Facebook. 



Select Magformers are 40% off today only at Amazon! (November 9)

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40% off Magformers (awesome toy for Christmas!)

Every now and then, I come across a deal that is just too good not to share.

Today only, select Magformers sets are 40% off at Amazon. This has the coveted 5 ***** rating. The most popular sets will likely sell out at this price point, so if you’re interested, don’t wait — if it’s anything like last year, your selection will be more limited as the day goes on.

Select Magformers are 40% off today only at Amazon! (November 9)

Some sets are recommended for ages 3 and up, others are marked for ages 6 and up. My son started playing with Magformers at age 3, and still plays with them now, several years later. I first learned about them through extended family (there was talk of these being something of a miracle distraction for little ones at restaurants). That momma who passed the word along deserves a mothering medal for discovering these!

We started with a small set, and they far exceeded my expectations — we’ve purchased several sets since! A handful of these provide a perfect distraction for eating out, quiet play at church, and for learning and play right at home. Little ones will surprise you with the 3-D shapes they’re able to think up. These make wonderful Christmas gifts, and they’ll be enjoyed for years to come.

Gift exchange or holiday scam? Here's how to tell.

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Is your gift exchange really a holiday scam? Here’s how to tell.

The following comes from Sweeten the Lemons, my new place for sharing thoughts.

Please BEWARE before you fork over $10+ for a “gift exchange” via facebook posts or other social media sharing this holiday season. It may be a scam!

Gift exchange or scam? (Graphic) Here's how to tell.

A true gift exchange = give one gift + receive one gift. Simple.

In a true gift exchange, there is a limited number of people, each giving and receiving a gift. It can be a lovely holiday tradition! However, the model circulating on facebook, where one gift is sent with the hope of receiving 6+ gifts in return is NOT a gift exchange. It is considered a scam called a “pyramid scheme” and is usually illegal.

To find out why, please continue reading on the new blog.



A Rescue Mission for Sweet Briar College

The board of directors and interim president at Sweet Briar College, in Sweet Briar, VA, have a problem on their hands.

That problem comes down to this: women. Responsible, intelligent, free-thinking, probing, won’t-go-down-without-a-fight, you-owe-us-an-explanation kind of women. Given that Sweet Briar is an all-women’s institution, the beautiful irony of the situation is apparent.

Taking the #savesweetbriar message to The Today show.

Taking the #savesweetbriar message to The Today show.

Last week, with no warning and very little fanfare, those charged with the protection and welfare of the college quietly announced that they would be closing Sweet Briar’s doors at the end of the current term, citing a lack of funds and a lack of viable options going forward — in other words, it would be better to shut down immediately, rather than drag out what they feel is an inevitable process of closure.

I’m not sure what they expected following their announcement, but I don’t think they expected to have a problem with these women. They do though. Because these women aren’t willing to give up. They aren’t willing to accept the “inevitable” without an intelligent fight, and they aren’t willing to cower in the corner. They’re asking questions. They’re demanding honest answers. And while they’re waiting for the latter, they have taken it upon themselves to save their alma mater.

There are hundreds of them — thousands, more likely — alumnae, students, parents, and friends, and they’re banding together, refusing to accept this outcome. They’ve sounded the alarms. They’ve hired a legal team. They’ve attracted media attention. They’ve created a website, and a social media movement.

Save Sweet Briar

In only two days, they have amassed more than $2 Million in pledges to help save the school — a sum they hope can be replicated many times over. Someone has even uncovered the will of the founder, which stated very clearly that the gift of Sweet Briar could not be sold . (The latter is relevant because there have been questions about the motivation to give up and close doors so quickly.)

Sweet Briar Pledges

Although I didn’t attend Sweet Briar College, its fate matters to me. I hope it matters to you too. Small liberal arts colleges make up a rich piece of America’s higher education tapestry. They are crucial in the development of a robust society of critical thinkers and leaders, and in the case of Sweet Briar, budding equestriennes.

Sweet Briar College has a rich history and legacy that should be preserved for future generations. I think it can be, if these alumnae have anything to say about it.

For more information, or to find out how you can get involved, visit

think is for girls

Sarah Elizabeth is a wife and mother residing in a small Southern town filled with rolling green hills and thousands of kind, beautiful faces. She once enjoyed a life with a slightly faster pace as an award-winning television journalist, and marketing professional, but these days, her life is much more quiet. She writes about her daily observations, experiences with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, and occasionally, her love of Jane Austen. Latter-day Jane is her blog. Click here to follow her on Facebook.