Thursday, April 7, 2016

Family Lore

Family Lore

I've always been passionate about stories, sometimes to my determent. More than once I was in a bit of trouble at school for using Show and Tell as an opportunity to tell strange tales, although they seemed quite plausible to me. Never one to let reality ruin a good story, introvert that I was and remain, I didn't hesitate to turn the most mundane events into high drama. I've always loved a good story even if I had to make it up.

A little older and wiser, I became a collector of stories. Stories are everywhere of course, but I found a rich vein of stories at the heart my quiet, conventional family. I took in the immigrant stories from my father's side and the pioneer stories from my mother's people. For reasons that have always alluded me, almost none of these stories were told to me directly, but told from adult to adult with the assumption that the quiet child in the corner wasn't paying attention, but she was.

Sometimes I was shooed out of the room, but I was resourceful and as quiet as a stone when I sensed the chance of adding to my store of family lore. The old Sears Roebuck farmhouse my uncle lived in had a wonderful pantry that sat mostly unused except by me on Sunday. While preparing Sunday dinner, my mother and my uncle's housekeeper would talk for hours while they cooked up the overdone roasts and filled the relish trays. I sat behind the door in the pantry, that somehow always smelled of lemon cookies, and heard about the romances and scandals that had occurred years before, usually to people I'd never heard of. My father and his brother would walk the vineyards or explore the delights of a new tractor while they reminisced about the mischievous boys they had replaced with their somber selves. As long as I stayed away from heavy equipment, I seemed to be invisible to the men, something I counted on.

In contrast, my wheelchair-bound grandmother seemed to know I was absorbing every word and would feed me snippets about my grandfather who drowned when my father was a small boy. (His obituary stated that the tailor drowned from the weight of his own clothes.) Sometimes she'd talk about being a maid to Jefferson Davis's fat daughter in Chicago or how her father had helped to excavate a Viking ship in Sweden or maybe it was Norway. Or perhaps it was her grandfather who was involved. Like me, my grandmother didn't fuss too much about details or absolute reality.  

This weekend I attended an event featuring a musician and storyteller who grew up in his grandmother's house, just a few doors down from our home. He regaled us with stories of unscrewing seats at the movie theater, prom flowers that smelled of embalming fluid because they'd been in cold storage with a corpse, and the time his father set a match to the newly tarred Main Street, setting the whole street on fire with a horrific whoosh, Directly in front of him sat a group of women who had been his childhood friends. Since it was a casual event, these women didn't hesitate to correct him and remind him how it really happened. Like older sisters, they wanted to set the record straight or at least tell the story they remembered, the story that belonged to them.

I've often thought, and said, that stories are the thing that set us apart from the animals, perhaps the only thing that sets us apart from the animals. Story is the also the beginning of all art and religion. Every brush stroke, every note of music, every theatrical performance, every photograph, every creation begins with the concept of story. Every god and goddess began with an attempt to explain us and every religion gives us stories about how to navigate the world.

This week-end my husband asked me to tell our dinner guests a story from my mother's side of the family. It's a really good story set in Colorado in the 19th century and I think I heard it from my Great Aunt Ida, another one who loved a good story. In truth, it's such a good story I think there is a better than even chance it never happened and it seems even more unlikely that it happened anyone in my family. Still, after the disclaimer I told the story because a story needs to be told. I think it's only a matter of time before one of guests tells the story to someone else. The story will be altered in small ways as all good stories need to be. It will become someone else's story and that is how it should be.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Magical Thinking

Spring is here, but we seem to be buried in endless winter up in Vermont. We got a little excited last week when the thermometer shot up to forty degrees for a nanosecond, but tonight we are once again looking at subzero. Yesterday I decided to try a little practical magic, sometimes referred to by the less whimsical as positive thinking.
     I banished my embarrassingly  large collection of heavy sweaters to the off-season closet. I did hold out a couple of older ones for snow-shoeing, but anything with a reindeer or a snowflake was packed away. Instead I pulled out a cotton sweater; a favorite with a French sailor vibe. I wrapped a lovely floral scarf around my neck and assured myself that I looked rather wonderful. I swanned around the house for about fifteen minutes before I had to pull on a faux fur vest so that I wasn't freezing. Now the vibe was French sailor being attacked by multiple groundhogs, but at least I was finally warm. (Not one to let reality get in the way, today's sweater is the same one I've been known to wear on chilly summer days. Once I've written this, I'm going to grab that vest and warm up a bit.)
     In my novel Glory Days, Glory is something of a master at magical thinking, as are many children. She's yearned for a father her whole life and her hope has never flagged. After all, didn't the fancy red shoes show up when she wanted them?

Glory ran around to the front of her house, but Elmo Robinson's car wasn't there. She ran towards the library, all the time hoping and praying that he'd be inside. Halfway there she stopped and tore the red shoes off of her feet. They'd been too tight for over a month now, but she hated not to wear them. It had seemed ungrateful somehow, like tossing away a gift or the ability of to saw a woman in half. But now they were just slowing her down and she couldn't let that happen because the rest of her felt as fast as lightening.
     As she turned the last corner she saw the two of  them coming out of the library with their arms around each other. Elmo, even though it was the middle of the day and he didn't even know who might be watching, kissed her mama right on the mouth and ran his hands up inside her hair, which for some reason was no longer in a braid. Something about that hair being down made her one-hundred-percent, 'A'-plus-with-a-star certain that she finally was getting a daddy.
     She squinted up at the sun. She wasn't sure, but she thought she saw it dancing.

Glory Days, A Twist of Light and Careful Mistakes are published by Little, Brown UK and available as e-books internationally. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Common Currency

I grew up in a medium-sized city and for as long as I can recall, I yearned for life in a small village where I could really get to know my neighbors. It wasn't until we moved to East Hardwick, Vermont that I realized how much I could learn about our neighbors with very little effort on my part. Within a three month period I had been told the biographies and genealogies of at least two dozen of our fellow residents. In turn, I found myself sharing my story with anyone who asked, even if my story is enough to make make almost anyone's eyes glaze over. Gossip is an unpleasant word, but information is still the common currency here and one of the great pleasures of village life.

In my novel Glory Days, Dr. Gorman has been dead over thirty years, but there is still talk about how he first came to town.

Whatever his reason for leaving the house to his children, he'd left them the biggest, finest house in the whole town. It was the only house with two stories and it was set back on a lot that was big enough to hold three or four houses. Grandpa Gorman's own daddy had won the house in a poker game. He'd never lived in it because he'd been shot on the way home from that same poker game.
     His young wife had moved herself and her son into the house a few hours after she'd buried her husband. There had been some grumbling about it at the time because she'd cut short the funeral lunch as she was so anxious to move into the grand house with its ten rooms, wraparound porch, and indoor privy.
     The grumbling didn't stop when the young widow started putting on what were thought to be airs. Most of the people in town remembered when she'd come to town with her late husband. Neither one of them had been too ready to talk about where they were from. When asked about who their people were, the young couple would come up with one or two names that didn't mean anything to anyone who heard them. Some people in the town suspected they were no-accounts and hadn't been afraid to say just that.
     For a while the grumbling got pretty loud. The Widow Gorman issued invitations, but they were politely, if firmly, refused. She joined the Presbyterian Church and even started singing in the choir. This was a cause concern until Easter morning when she sang 'The Old Rugged Cross' and there was hardly a dry eye in the pews. Most people realized that a woman who could sing like that must be a good Christian and a fine mother. People began to notice what a fine job she was doing with her young son and how nice the yard looked at the big house. The townspeople cane to see that what had appeared to be putting on airs was merely a reflection of the young widow's true nature.
     She was a hard worker and her boy was the best-dressed child in school. She saw to that by sitting up late into the night, carefully sewing his smart yet sturdy clothes. Within a few month, what with the late-night sewing, which she did in front of the window that looked onto the street where people would see her doing it, and singing in the choir, which she did better than anyone could ever remember, she became a respected member of the community.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Je Suis Charlie? Hell yes.

I read this morning that je suis Charlie was already being printed on the tea towels and aprons.  The inevitable backlash has started with no doubt valid concerns about insincerity and commercialization, but I can't help but feel that I have a dog in this fight and quite frankly, je suis Charlie.
      The writers, the artists, the thinkers and innovators are the Charlies.  Yes, Charlie Hebdo often crossed the lines of propriety, political correctness and good taste, but art and creativity have never been about propriety, political correctness and good taste.  In my personal life I'm frightfully polite, thoughtful in my words and actions, known for my good taste in clothes and interiors, but those are my conscious choices.  In my writing life, my characters are often people who wouldn't know good taste or thoughtfulness if it hit them across their fucking heads.  (Yes, I wrote fucking.  I thought about it for a few beats, but since this is about expression, I shall write any fucking thing I want.)
      Life is messy, chaotic, fraught, sometimes obscene and it is the function of art to reflect that life.  Writers and artists not only have a right to examine life as we see it, we have a duty to do so. 
      I am je suis Charlie and honored to be so.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Close to the Bone

I never intended to write about this, not again.  I wrote about it in my novel A Twist of Light, but that was years before it happened to me.  I recall thinking, if only for a moment, when I heard the diagnosis that my writing had brought it into reality.  Nonsense of course and way too much like a bad Twilight Zone episode.  Even Rod Serling wouldn't have kept a straight face as he announced that a writer writes about her own breast cancer fifteen years before it appeared.
       Yes, as of four years ago I joined that sorority that no woman wants to belong to.  I'm fine now, better than fine, but I find myself getting slightly nauseous whenever I see a pink ribbon.  From the minute I was diagnosed I knew I wasn't going to let that wretched disease define who I was and what I might do.  I have cheerfully refused to be labeled as a survivor.  Survivor is too much of a proactive term for someone who is alive because of excellent health care and top shelf health insurance. And  it's not a big secret.  It's part of my history and I've tried to own it, but I never intended to write about, not again, but I thought I'd changed my mind.
         A few days ago a man I know through a local board approached me and mentioned that he had a friend who was recently diagnosed.  I immediately offered to talk to her as I'd talked to others and a couple of phone calls later, we met.  I've spoken to a number of women about breast cancer and I've been happy to tell my story.  I'm in a state of ridiculous good health, have almost as much energy as my young Golden Retriever and just bought two pairs of jeans in a size two sizes smaller than I've worn in years.  My story is a good one.
        I talked to her, did my best to encourage and inspire and she said it helped.  Still, all that fear and uncertainty boiled up inside of me as though the last four years of ruddy good health hadn't happened.  It's still too close to the bone to write about.

The follow is an excerpt from A Twist of Light, published by Little, Brown UK in 1996 and re-issued this year as an e-book.

Liz, a writer who is debilitated from breast cancer is talking to her daughter Mary who is trying to complete the book her mother is unable to finish. (American readers and spell-check will have to ignore the British spelling and punctuation.)

        'I think this is quite good actually.' Liz handed the pen and the stack of papers back to her daughter.
       'But?' Mary sat sprawled in a chair next to her mother's bed.
       'But what?' For almost a week she'd been able to cut back on her pain medication.  Knowing it was nothing more than a short reprieve, she'd had her bedside table piled with the tasks she planned to finish while she still could.
       'I know you too well, Mum. "But" hangs heavy in the air.'
       '"But" does not hang heavy in the air, darling,  I think it's quite good. I do think Andrew needs to be more clearly defined. You've made him a bit too nice and that takes tension away from the story. Don't be afraid to be a little vicious. Was it Hemingway or Faulkner who said, "Don't be afraid to kill your darlings?"
       'I think I've become too attached to this lot.'  Mary laughed and put her foot on her mother's bed. 'I want to go easy on them.'
       'That happens. It's easy to forget what's real and what isn't when you stare into that screen long enough. It's one of the nicest things about fiction, writing it and reading it. Even now I can go anywhere I want.'
       'I think I know what you mean.  I've had times when I'm a bit fuzzy on where my "alternative reality" ends and where the real world begins. I'm starting to understand why you seemed so bizarre sometimes when you were working.'
       'Bizarre? Me?'
       'Distracted is probably a better word. I realize now how hard it is to shift from one reality to the next. It's kind of the ultimate escape, isn't it?'
       'When things are really cooking, it can be.  I think you may have caught the midnight disease.'
       'What's the midnight disease?'
       'The curse of the writer. The incurable virus that pulls you out of a warm bed because you've just figured out what a character really wants. It can cause you to leave parties early because the conversations in your head are so much better than anything you're hearing via your ears. In my case it was responsible for piles of dirty laundry, and my family eating a hell of a lot of cold suppers. I suppose it's a bit like being an alcoholic, except there isn't a twelve-step programme for it.'
        'Oliver says one can't write fiction until the age of thirty.'
         'Nonsense. Utter crap. He's just saying that because he's a technical writer who probably wants to be a novelist.'
         'I don't think he does. He's terribly down to earth. I can't imagine him spinning yarns in his head.'
         'Good. I'm glad to hear it. I think you need to have personalities that balance each other in a relationship. If you had two people who spent a good part of their lives in fantasy worlds I think it could get awfully sticky. There needs to be someone who's good at reading maps.
       'Reading maps?'
       'It's one example of what I mean. Your father reads maps and we get to places in a fairly reliable fashion. I, on the other hand, tend to head in the general direction and enjoy the ride. Some of the nicest things have happened to me what I got lost.'
       'I suppose I should be grateful I've reached this age without any major mishaps or injuries, what with a mother who spent a lot of time God know where, literally and figuratively.'
       'I suppose that's the main reason I didn't start writing again until your brother was eight.  Being a mother required all my concentration and creativity when you two were younger.'
       'Any regrets? Do you wish you'd spent more time on your work?'
       'Oh God, no. Once I figured things out, I wanted a family more than anything.'
       'What things did you figure out?'
       'After Ellie and my mother died, I thought nobody could get close to me. Nobody but the aunts and Mrs. Harper, that is.'
        'Then you met Jim?'
        'I met Jim, but I didn't get involved with him right away. I'd convinced myself that I couldn't stand another loss, another death. Bad luck, but the one guy interested in me, that I was interested in back then, was headed for Vietnam. From the minute I met him, I agonized over what would happen if he died. Then Jim died and I survived. After that I slowly came to realize that loss is inevitable, all kinds of loss. Jim's death freed me to take chances with myself and everyone else.'
       'Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die? That doesn't sound like my mother.'
       'That's because it isn't what I'm talking about. When Jim died it made me realize that nothing is permanent. Everything is going to be lost eventually. Everything, the good as well as the bad. The bad has to be accepted and dealt with, but the good is there to be treasured and enjoyed. The only way to live is to live without looking ahead and worrying about what's just around the corner. Whatever is around the corner is not going to change just because you worry about it.
       'Do you still feel that way?'
       'More than ever. This crap that's taking over my body simply confirms my belief. If I thought too much about my death, I'd forget about what's left of my life.' She adjusted her reading glasses. 'Let's take another look at this. I think I have an idea about what you do to make Andrew a little rougher.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Family Jewels

I recently gave my daughter my favorite bracelet.  An antique Navaho bracelet that had belonged to her great-grandmother, it seemed like the perfect gift for the day she received her doctorate.  To my surprise, although I've worn it frequently for over forty years, I haven't missed it all.  It's where it belongs and that's how it should be.
     When my mother moved to a smaller place and divested herself of things she wouldn't need, I was amazed at how eagerly she was giving away furniture, china, silver and all the other things she'd treasured for years.  I couldn't quite understand it then, but I'm getting there.
     Yesterday, in anticipation of Thanksgiving and Christmas, I decided to start getting the house in order, starting with the breakfront in the dining room.  I was just going to dust, but dusting wasn't enough, so all the glasses in the glassed in section had to be carefully washed and dried, by hand no less.  As I carefully took the glassware into the kitchen, I realized that I have acquired through the years the crystal of several women who are now gone.  Once these dust catchers were treasured by brides and later proudly displayed by the matrons those brides had become.  Later when widowhood arrived and the family house was sold, these things were handed down to the next in line.
     I realized with a start that I was thinking of them as dust catchers.  Yes, most of these glasses are lovely, but they've ceased to be treasures to me.  Still, I washed them carefully, dried them lovingly and put them back on the newly dusted shelves.
      I turned on the light at the top of the glassed cabinet and admired how beautiful it all looked, but I also started thinking about who I was going to give it to when the time comes, which it certainly will.

The following is an excerpt from my novel Careful Mistakes which has recently been re-issued as an e-book by Little, Brown UK.

Jilly is talking to her daughter Chloe as she prepares for an Easter celebration, two days after her father's funeral.

She came up behind me as I sat at the dressing table adjusting my hat.  She held the neck of her robe with one hand as she began poking through my tray of earrings.
     'Better get your clothes on, dear.  We need to leave in about fifteen minutes.'
     "I'm just looking for some pearls, I left mine at school.  All I have to do is toss on my dress.'  She held a pearl swirled with small diamonds, up to her ear.  'Can I wear these?'
     The earrings were a pair Rick had given me right after Chloe's birth.  Dainty and valuable, they had little appeal for me now.
     'I'd like for you to have them, I always meant to give them to you.'  I wanted her idea of her father to be valuable, sparkly.  His betrayal had been against me, not her.
     'Thank you, they're beautiful, but don't you have one of your rules about diamonds?'  She slipped them into her ears and admired the effect in the mirror.
     Chloe was referring to the fashion rules she felt I alone observed.  There were a goodly number of them: a woman over forty can't wear her hair below her shoulders, white shoes must never be worn before Memorial Day or after Labor Day, no white shoes in San Francisco or New York whatever the date, no bare shoulders on a girl under seventeen.
     'There was a rule about no diamonds before six o'clock or before the age of twenty-one.  It seems to be generally flouted.'  None of the usual stuff seemed to work these days.
     'All of your fashion rules are flouted, Mom.  I'd venture a guess you are the only one who even knows what they are anymore.'
     'That is the world's loss, daughter of mine.  I'm going to throw convention to the wind because I was given those earrings on the very best day of my life, the day you were born.  I remember telling your father I would give them to you some day.'  I smiled at the memory of the new family. my new family.  I'd loved the bastard so much.  I was so new in those days.  So grateful that a wonderful man could love me.  So relieved to get a second chance.
     'Thank you, I love them.  I'm going to keep them here, if that's all right.  Thing tend to walk in the dorms.'  She kissed my cheek.
     'I'll keep them for you.'
     She headed for the door.  'Thanks again for the earrings.'
     'Let's start a tradition, Chloe.  Give them to your daughter or granddaughter on her eighteenth Easter?'  I still intended to spend my dotage with grandchildren at my knee.
     'It might be a hundred years away, but I'll remember.'  As she left the room smiling I couldn't help wondering what else she might remember for a hundred years. 


Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Belonging and having a sense of home are things most of us want and need, but I suspect it's also something of a gift.  It's a gift I've always believed wasn't mine, by the way.  I've felt a bit like an outsider for as long as I can recall, but in a good way.  I like being an observer and that particular activity is best done just on the edge of outside.  Just on the outside is where I'm most comfortable, but something happened yesterday that makes me wonder if I've somehow come inside.
     Yesterday was voting day so I drove over to our equivalent of City Hall to do my civic duty.  I walked in and started talking to Karen who is the Zoning Administrator.  We chatted about her children for a few moments and then she asked me if I was there to vote.  Assuring her that was case, she reminded me that I needed to go over to the elementary school for this particular election so I said my good-byes and wandered over there after stopping at the drug store where I ran into two people I know and exchanged thoughts on the weather with them.
     I went into the elementary school and was handed my ballot by someone who informed me that my husband had already been there hours before.  When I was finished I went to the next table where I greeted my friend Kathy, a Select Board member, and Alberta, the Town Clerk.  Alberta explained to me that I had to say my own name, apparently a new rule since of course, both of these people knew my name.  All three of us giggled a bit when I confirmed my identity.
     Civic duty accomplished, I went outside to find my friend Alana who was putting her mother, also Alana into the car.  We chatted for a minute about my dog, her children and a mutual friend.  A few more steps and I ran into my friend Pat so we chatted about an elderly neighbor who has moved to New Hampshire to be closer to her daughter.  Pat also assured me that the brown barn coat that Cheryl found at her house doesn't belong to her.  We already knew it didn't belong to Anne, because Anne hates to wear brown.
     Leaving Pat, I wandered into the village market where the clerk told me, without my asking mind you, that they were getting another shipment of chicken leg quarters in by the end of the week.  She knows not only that I feed my dog raw chicken, but that she usually has to remind me that I have change coming.
     There is an old Vermont saying that a cat can have kittens in the oven, but that doesn't make them biscuits.  No matter what, I will always be from away, I will never be a Vermonter, but I think I finally belong.

In the excerpt below from my novel A Twist of Light, published by Little, Brown UK and recently re-issued as an e-book, young Lizzy Sinclair finds herself staying with the English relations of her foster mother and navigating the language differences the best she can.

Foreshore, West Sussex, July 1967

'Let's see if we can find a pair of wellies that fit.' Tarquin had led her to a room off the kitchen that was hung with dozens of coat-hooks holding an assortment of jackets, sweaters and hats.  The floor was strewn with rubber boots and canvas shoes.
     'What's a wellie?'  She'd changed into jeans and a loose white cotton shirt. At Beryl's insistence she'd abandoned the costume of unremitting black she'd adopted for university. Her suitcase seemed like someone else's, with its whites and colours neatly stacked by Beryl's hands.
     'This is a wellie.' He indicated a green boot with the toe of his stockinged foot. 'Necessity for where I'm taking you.' He looked at her shirt. 'We'd better find a jumper for you as well. This isn't California, but you knew that didn't you?' He handed her a worn blue cardigan from one of the hooks. "This looks as though it will probably fit.'
     'Thanks.' She pulled the cardigan on and pushed the sleeves up to her elbows.
     'It's low tide so I'm going to show you your first real piece of English history. Isn't that what you   read at university?'
     'It was my minor.' She was surprised he knew that much about her. 'But we say "studied" instead of "read".'
     'Between loo, study and kip, we're doing pretty well talking at all.' He handed her a pair of boots. "Try these, they look about right. I just checked the tide tables and St. Mary's should be showing up just about now.'
     'What's St. Mary's?' She leaned against the wall to pull the boots on.
      'It's the old parish church. Went underwater sometime in the seventeenth century, but you can still scramble around the ruins when the tide is low.' He watched her for a moment. "How are those?'
     'They fit like socks on a rooster.' Liz put her booted foot in the air, shaking it back and forth.
     'Certainly conjures an image. Do many barnyard animals wear clothes in America?' He dropped to the floor, looking for a smaller pair.
     'Only the modest ones.' She slid the boots off, balancing on one foot.
     Tarquin put his hand on her calf and worked her foot into the smaller boot. 'How's this?'
      'Better, thanks.'
     He patted her thigh, just above the knee. 'All part of the service. Now the trick will be to find the mate.' He pawed through a pile of seemingly identical boots. 'Doesn't make the job any easier, the fact that Mother can't bear to throw away anything that might have five minutes of use left in it. Here we go, Cinderella. Let's have the other leg.' He held her foot for moment before guiding it into the rubber.
     'Thanks' Liz took a tentative step. 'Is this really necessary? I feel like a duck.'
     'Rooster, ducks, you're a basic, earthy sort, aren't you?'
     'I suppose when you grow up with the smell of fruit-packing plants and cow shit, it has some effect.' She looked at his face for signs of a reaction, regretting the use of "shit". He's probably never spewed a vulgarity or even acknowledged the by-products of colon, man's or animal's.
     'Well, basic or not, you look charming. Not the least duck-like.' he tossed the compliment to her from over his shoulder.
     'Are we ready?' Liz felt the colour rise in her cheeks again. She suspected the comment was given freely because it had no value to him.
     'Follow me.'