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.'

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Every Bad Boy

Those who have read my books have often been surprised by a scene in A Twist of Light where a character called Steve is killed.  That's right, I killed him and I didn't give him a sweet death; I gave him the death he deserved, the monster. The violence was totally out of character for me, by the way.
      You see, I'm a really nice person.  If someone is sick, I take over food.  I know most of the kids and dogs in the village by their first name.  If someone needs me, I'll drop everything to help, usually.  I serve on three local non-profit boards, recycle all manner of things, try to keep my footprint small and support a boy in the Philippines through a charity.  (One of my neighbors doesn't think much of me, but I could tell you a few things about her that would curl your hair.)
      I was reared to be a good person.  I come from a long line of good people, but the first time I held my newborn daughter, almost forty years ago, I knew that I had something else inside of me that my parents and the years of Sunday School hadn't been able to touch.  The doctor put her in my arms and something primeval bubbled up.  I wasn't overwhelmed with love, that would come the next morning, but I wanted to growl at anyone who came near her.  I would have happily ripped out the neck of anyone who I perceived to be a threat to that wet, bloody thing in my arms.
      For the record, I've never ripped out anyone's neck, but I have killed off a few characters.  Usually I let them die in their beds, but Steve had to die hard, really hard.  Steve was every bad boy I'd ever known.  I was never really attracted to the bad boys, but I was certainly aware of them with their dirty finger nails and their low-slung jeans.  Steve was every bad boy who made girls feel used and afraid to be themselves.  Steve was every bad boy who made a girl nervous about walking by the lockers when he and his friends were watching her.  Steve was the boy you didn't want to be in a room with by yourself, even if you sometimes you wondered what it would be like to be kissed by him. Steve was the boy who made you 'funny', but not in a good way.
      Steve had to die.

The following is an excerpt from my novel A Twist of Light, published in 1997 by Little,Brown and reissued this year as an e-book.

Lizzy, a girl who sees the auras of others, and her sister Ellie have recently buried their alcoholic mother on the side of the river.  Afraid that they will be separated if the authorities discover the woman's death, they have run away, but Ellie has insisted on bringing her boyfriend, Steve, along.  Lizzie hates her sister's boyfriend, especially after she finds that Ellie is pregnant and she even begins to suspect that Steve may have had a hand in her mother's death.
      They hole up in an abandoned cabin, but Steve becomes convinced that Lizzy will find a way to escape and take her now frightened sister with her.  He steals their money, their car and locks the girls inside the shuttered cabin without food or water.

"What do you mean, 'if', Lizzy?  Don't you think we can get away from Steve?"  The girls had climbed under the sheet, their mouths three inches apart in the dark.
     "Ellie, I mean if.  Steve has locked us in the a cabin a million miles from nowhere.  He's got our money and he's got our car.  We have no food and no water.  We can go for a long time without food, but we can't go for more than four days without water.  If we don't make something change, we die."
     "But the floor, Lizzy. We can dig through the floor."
      "Yeah, we can dig through the floor, but not while he's around.  Unless---, that could work.  That could work." Lizzy giggled with relief. To her own surprise she grabbed Ellie and hugged he until the older girl pushed her away.
      "Stop that Lizzy. Tell me what could work."
      "You've seen it work on TV about a million times before.  It's the oldest trick in the book.  One of us starts ripping up the floor.  It doesn't matter how much noise we make, the more the better.  The other one hides behind the door and cracks his head open as soon as he walks in to see what all the racket is about.  Once he's knocked out, we just step over him and start running down the hill."
     "We'd have to get some clothes first."
     "Duh, Ellie. That goes without saying.  I don't think either of us want to run down a hill with our rosy red bottoms showing."
     "Do you think it will work?"
     "It sure beats waiting around to die of thirst."
     "I want to be the one to hit him over the head." Ellie wiggled slightly with excitement.
     "No, Ellie.  We only have one chance to make this work. I'm afraid you might not hit him hard enough. You might get all mushy at the last second. I hate him more than I thought there was hate in the whole world. I wouldn't mind eating his eyeballs for a snack or picking my teeth with his pinkie bone."
     "You're disgusting."
     "I think it must be my Viking blood. I want to hang him up and strip the skin off his body. There's nothing I could to him that would be bad enough. I don't even care if they send me to prison until I'm older than Mrs. Kirby. He's going to pay for what he's done to us."
     "Tell me what you think we should do."
     "First off, let's take apart one of the beds to make tools.  We'll worry the wood a little to get it softened up. It's real spongy, s if we twist it some it should poke right through once you have a chance to make some real jabs at it.."
     "Why do we need to do that? After you knock his block off he can't hurt us."
     "I want that hole to be big enough for you to fit through by the time he's in the room. That way, even if I mess up and only slow him down, you can still be into the woods before he figures out what's going on."
     "But then you might not get away. I can't let you do that."
     ""It's better that one of us gets away than both of us die here."  Lizzy had read President Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage and knew this was exactly the kind of thing the man would want to hear when she met him.  "Besides,if I don't get away you can send help back."
     "I can't believe you'd do that for me."
     "Ellie, I'd do anything for you, just like you'd do anything for me."
     "Then if you can't stop him, I'll jump on him too.  He's not as strong as he pretends to be and I know we could take him. If we surprise him, we can take him."
     "Okay, Ellie. Can you promise you won't get all mushy and think about what a good kisser he is?
     "He's not a very good kisser."
     "Then why did you let him put his thing in you?"  Lizzy thought the kissing part, at least, might be fun.
     "Because he was something just for me. He wasn't a part of you or Mom. He was just mine, for me. I don't think I've ever had anything I didn't have to share." She was quiet for a moment. "I guess he wasn't the best choice."
     "The best choice?" Lizzy whooped and began to laugh. "I hope I never see your bad choice."
     "There you go again. Stop making me out to be the fool all of the time!" Ellie threw back the sheet as her voice rose. "I'm sick of you laughing at me and thinking you're so much better and smarter than me!"
     "The door burst open with a reverberating thud that shook the whole cabin. "Stop it!" Steve stood in the doorway, the sun streaming behind him. "What are you doing?"
     "We were just talking, Steve." Ellie grabbed the sheet and backed away from him as she tried to cover herself.
     "I don't want the two of you talking about me." He walked over and grabbed Ellie's shoulder. "Do you understand?"
     "Get your hands off my sister! Don't you ever touch her again." Lizzy grabbed for his leg and tried to pull him down.
     He kicked her away, striking her in the face with the side of his foot. He reached for Ellie and threw her off the bed onto the floor. He stood over them, his breath coming in rasping gulps.
     "This is the way it's going to be? I came in here to give you another chance and this is what I get? Bitches." He backed out of the door and slammed it shut. They could hear the bed being shoved back against the door.
     Ellie began to shake. "Now he won't come in again. What are we going to do, Lizzy? We're going to die in here. He's going to let us die in here!" She wrapped her arms around her chest and began to rock herself back and forth.
     "We start working on the floor, Ellie. It doesn't matter how much noise we make anymore. We dig up the floor and if he tries to stop us, we kill him with the tools we make from the bed. I'd love to stick something though his brain." Lizzy's hands twitched at the thought.
     "It won't work. It won't work and we're going to die." Ellie was trying to curl herself into a ball on the bed.
     "It won't work if we don't get started and it won't work if you're going to lie there like you're already dead. Get your fat butt up and show some spirit, Ellie!" She watched with satisfaction as the Ellie-ball unrolled and found that it still had legs.

"Before we try the floor, I think we should see if we could use this thing like a crowbar on the shutters." Using a discarded spoon as a screwdriver, Lizzy had been able to free the side bars from one of the beds.
     "What do you mean?" Ellie sat on the floor where she had been wtching her sister work.  Dark. half-moon had formed under her eyes.
     "I mean maybe we can undo the shutters and get out through the window. It would be a lot easier and faster than the floor, if it works." She looked at her sister breifly and then looked closer. "Are you okay? Do you feel sick? You're putting off some funny colors." Ellies soft pink lights had shards of brown digging into the space around them.
     "I'm just tired and I want to get this over with. Show me what to do." Ellise stood and looked at the side bars for the first time.
     "We need to get these in the little space between the frame and the shutters. Then I think if we move them back and forth a little, we might get somewhere." Lizzy worked the side bar against the wood. " "It's moving Ellie, it's moving." She glanced towards the door. "Stand over these and let me know if you hear anything."
     Ellie crept to the door and held her ear against the wood. She looked at her sister and shook her head. Lizzy signalled her back.
     "Take this and and work on this side of the shutter. Try not to make any noise. It will be easier if we can get out of here without a fight."
     The girls worked without speaking, but the wood creaked and groaned. The rusty nials could be hear scraping out of old pine shutters. Within minutes they could see light entering the room and glimpsed the ground under the window. Ellie gave a final shove and the shutter swung free. Steve stood under the window, a box of matched in his hand.
     "I told you I wasn't going to take any more shit off of you two. I tried to warn you, but you wouldn't listen." He kicked a pile of dry pine needles and twigs next to the cabin. "Do you know it hasn't rained for four months up here? Middle of fire season, so nobody's gonna think nothing about one more fire. It'll get so hot your bones won't even be left." He lit a and passed his fingers through the flame as he grinned. "Just wanted to make sure it worked." He tossed the match on the pile.
     A puff of greasy black smoke arose, then orange flames shot a foot above the pile and began to lick up the side of the cabin as Steve used a stick to spread the fire under the building.
     Lizzy grabbed he sister and pushed her towards the window.  "We've got to jump, now Ellie!"
     "Oh Jesus, I'm too scared!" Ellie stared at the flames.
    "Now Ellie, now! Put your knee on the sill and throw yourself out!"  Lizzy pushed her sister's knee up and gave her a shove.
     Ellie launched herself above the flames and rolled clear, scrambling to her feet. "Jump Lizzy! Come on!"
     Lizzy hesitated and threw the side bars out the window towards Ellie. The flames cracked at the ledge and smoke rose in swirls. She felt a searing pain when tried to put her knee at the ledge on the windowsill. She closed her eyes and dived out the window as though she was once again diving into the the river. She fell to the ground, her mouth filling with fine, powdery dirt. Spitting she jumped to her feet and watched as Ellie picked up one of the side bars.
     "You're right, Steve. Not even bones will be left." She pushed the side bar towards his face and he backed away from her, stumbling, the falling on his back. He lifted his head and started to speak. Ellie raised the side bar and hit him across the right cheekbone. He fell back, his head making a thudding sound against the hard ground.
     Lizzy stared at the boy and poked his side with her bare foot. He let out a low groan. "Give me the bar, Ellie. I'll finish him off." She reached for the piece of iron.
     "No. I'm going to do this." Ellie raised the side bar and drove it through Steve's left eye. His body shuddered for a moment and then lay still. 
     "Is he dead?" Lizzy leaned over to look at the boy lying in the dirt. 
     "He's dead." Ellie gazed at Lizzy in disbelief. "I killed him. I can't believe I killed him.
     Lizzy pulled the side bar from the body and shoved it into the undamaged eye socket. "I killed him too." She examined the blood with satisfaction before turning away. "I think I'm going to throw up" She looked at the burning cabin behind them. "I think I'd better wait to be sick. We've got to get out here, fast."


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Under the Brim

I have a lovely little photograph of my grandparents when they were very young, my grandmother only fifteen.  It sits on a windowsill at the bottom of the stairwell in our house and I glanced at it this morning on my way up to my office, noticing for the first time that it has a very Downton Abbey, albeit downstairs, look to it.  There is my grandfather, a handsome young tailor standing next to a lady's maid in what may be the earliest picture ever taken of her. Her small, pale face is partially hidden by a very large hat.
      While he seems quite comfortable in front of the camera, she reminds me of a deer in the headlights on the first day of hunting season.  I can imagine that he would been quite a catch for a girl who was the personal maid to the spoiled, overweight daughter of the former president of the Confederacy. He and his brothers were saving money to set up a tailoring shop in California, but I don't imagine she had much beyond that enormous hat she apparently was trying to hide under. It must have been very useful to have a hat like that.

The following is an excerpt from my novel, Careful Mistakes published in 1996 by Little, Brown and recently re-published as an e-bookThe narrator, Jill, and her best friend Susan are going through the extensive collection of hats left by Jill's late mother.

My mother was never concerned about current fashion.  Her clothes were simple, well-cut, conservative and usually in neutral colors.  She wore the same styles for years without giving a thought to decrees from Seventh Avenue.  Her skirts were always one inch below her knees and she never left the house in trousers, as she called them.  She wore powder, lipstick and and pulled her long chestnut hair into a chignon at the base of her skull.  She never would have admitted to vanity, although she watched her weight religiously.  Pretty, in a quiet way, she would have faded into her surroundings had it not been for her hats.
      Mother always maintained that her hats were a necessity because of her position as the Bishop's wife and because of her fair skin. She felt people needed to be reminded to dress properly in and out of church and felt that hats set a certain tone, as well as keeping her skin free of freckles. 
      She had sixty-seven hats when she died, I counted them and kept them all. Some were simple and dignified and some would have made Carmen Miranda green with envy.  Each hat rested in black tissue within its own hatbox.  Each box was labeled with an extensive description of the hat and when and where she had worn it.  My mother was not by nature a saver or a keeper so when she died I didn't find bundles of letters, diaries or journals.  The jewelry she left was the very same, for the most part, that she had inherited.  She didn't leave anything of interest in her pockets or purses, but I could have written my mother's biography from her hatboxes.
      A week after she died I packed all of clothes, shoes and handbags into boxes to be taken to the Junior Leauge thrift shop.  My father would have preferred that they go to some charity sponsored by the Church, but Mother was really no more interested in the Church than most company wives are interested in that aforementioned business.  
      After the other boxes were gone, Susan and I tried on every hat and I began to understand my mother's passion for them.  Each was a beautiful example of the milliner's dying art, but also a tiny roof, giving you warmth and privacy, hiding part of you, protecting you from that which you chose not to see.
      Susan and I went through the hats every few months. We brushed each other's hair, pinning it up to  resemble my mother's.  Grooming each other like monkeys, we usually decided not to wear the hats after all.  They would go back into the tissue and we'd sigh about fashion today and how we missed elegance.
      That day was the exception because Easter was coming.  Somehow, during the last few years it had become the rule that we had to wear a hat on Easter Sunday and it had to be from Mother's collection.  Susan and I shared several clothing related rules between us though neither of us was sure how they came about.


     'That's wonderful, put it on, just above the bun.'  Susan was suddenly twenty years old, my daughter's contemporary.  
      'The biggest mistake we ever was to give up veils. This is wonderful.  Any of those veils long enough to cover my ass and thighs?'  Susan cocked her head and admired her reflection, knowing damned well her ass and thighs were still pretty good.
      'If I had one, don't you think I would be wearing it?'  We'd been complaining about our bodies since we were skinny little girls.  We complained still when we were teenagers.  We were so busy worrying about our bodies when we were young, I think we ended up with the sags and softness we feared.  The power of visualization.  I try not to think about moles with hair growing out of them, dark moos where teeth used to be.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Queen of Everything

Religion has always been important to me, even though I'm an agnostic.  I'm fascinated by belief and how it influences our thoughts and actions in spite of my inability to believe. 

The following is an excerpt from my novel Summerland.  Although it is narrated by Torie, who like me is a collector of tales, this is a story that was told to me first hand by the 'Catholic sister'.  Make of it what you will. 

This comes from another friend of mine and you are going to have to trust me. (I can’t mention the name of the nursing home or even the town. These sweet Sisters, and the old crinklies in their charge, don’t need to have twenty-thousand people out on the lawn looking for Mary.)

     My friend’s sister converted to Catholicism a few years ago and like most converts, she is very devout. The two sisters had to make a decision about their mother’s care when the old lady started a rapid decline, both physically and mentally. As the Catholic sister lived in the same town as the mother, she chose a Catholic nursing home for their mother. My friend is more or less a Protestant-Buddhist hybrid with an interest in Hinduism, so she just wanted to make sure that her mother was well cared for and her sister assured her that the home had a fine reputation.

     The mother is a bit dotty and the sisters freely admit this about the woman. She spends a lot of time with her husband who has been dead a dozen years and she frequently goes out to lunch with her mother who was planted in soil during the Eisenhower era.

      She also isn’t very good on her feet anymore and one night, a Friday night to be exact, she fell down while moving furniture. (It seems unlikely that she was moving furniture, but I’m trying to present all the information at my disposal. The old girl said she was moving furniture so I have to go with that.) The old dear cut her head, made her way to her bed, and cried for help because she’d forgotten that she had a button to press to summon help. (She says she was calling for help for an hour, but her sense of time has also gone south. Her bosoms have too and my friend has a great story about that, but this is the Mary story.)

      Help finally came and this is where my specialty as a Marion chronicler comes in, if you were beginning to wonder where I was going with this.    According to the old dear, ‘the lady with veil’ came in and got her some help.    Right after the lady left, a member of staff came in, helped her up and cleaned up the wound she had suffered on her head. So, big deal you are rightly thinking. The place is Catholic so some nun wearing a wimple came in and helped a patient. That was my first reaction as well, but this order of nuns does not wear veils or wimples. They wear a headpiece that is akin to an old-fashioned nurse’s hat and all of the other staff wears the ubiquitous scrubs.

       My friend's sister asked the nuns (there are only three of them at the facility) if any of them had been in her mother’s room that evening or early morning. Of course none of them had been there, hadn’t even been in the building, but they wanted to know why she asked. They smiled when told of the appearance and said that the occurrence wasn’t an unusual one at all. In the past, the sisters had queried other members of staff and found that many of them had seen the lady with the veil and all felt it was the BVM. (The Blessed Virgin Mary/Mother, for those of you who don’t have the benefit of a RC childhood.) My friend suggested that it was the ghost of a nun, but apparently the apparition causes no fear and is felt to be a wonderful and comforting presence.

       The Catholic sister of my friend gently asked her Protestant mother who she thought the lady was. The old lady said that people around there were cagey when she asked about her, but she said that the lady ran the whole place, she said ‘she’s the queen of everything’. I was especially struck her use of the word ‘queen’. My friend assures me that it is not a term that she could recall her mother using, but she finds the whole thing comforting. She feels that she doesn’t have to worry about her mother too much if the queen of everything is keeping an eye on her. (Once again for the RC deprived; Mary is also known as the Queen of Heaven, the Queen of the Sea and the Queen of several other unlikely kingdoms.)

       Needless to say, it’s taking every bit of self-control I’ve got not to publish this story with names and details. I’m coming to realize that I have more integrity that I ever imagined.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Women of a Certain Age

Like so many, I've been fascinated by Ken Burns' excellent series that PBS has been showing on the Roosevelt family and this week, I visited the FDR home in Hyde Park.  It wasn't exactly a pilgrimage since we were staying at a friend's home not too far away in Hudson anyway, but it had the feel of a pilgrimage none the less.  To my mind, anyplace that Eleanor lived is hallowed ground.
     Like any good pilgrim, I took away proof that I had visited.  I bought a wonderful brooch that crafts Eleanor in three colors of metal; cloche hat, skinny legs and overnight bag included at no extra cost.  I also acquired a wonderful denim ball cap with a quote from Eleanor reminding me that the only way to to begin is to begin.  I bought it for hiking, but I think it might be more useful sitting on my desk.
     Of course she was amazing, decades ahead of her time, brilliant, enlightened, all of that, but the thing that I really marvel at is the fact that most of this didn't come through until she was older.  Until she was in her middle years she led the life that was more or less expected of a woman of her station, but then she bloomed.  Tragedy, loss, betrayal and heartbreak descended, but she overcame it all to become a woman the likes of whom the world rarely, if ever had seen.

      In my novel Summerland Cecelia Cabot Adams had dedicated her life to preserving the memory and memorabilia of her illustrious ancestors while helping her widowed son to raise his daughter.  A woman who takes pride in never faltering from her self-imposed standards, she finds herself suddenly at odds with her country's involvement in Vietnam and is reminded that the ancestor's she has cherished were all revolutionaries and it is time for her to join their ranks. 

My grandmother lived five more years, I sometimes think more out of will than anything else. One month after I graduated from her beloved alma mater, Smith, she died, but there is more you need to know about her last years.
              My grandmother, look her up if you doubt me, became one of the most important people in the anti-war movement. She was on the stage with Joan Baez and she met with Nixon in the White House. She invited Jane Fonda up for the week-end and she was in Paris for the peace talks where she met with all the delegates although she’d really been hoping for a seat at the table. (For a while it looked like she’d have the seat because Kissinger found her intimidating.) Unlike some activists, she didn’t forget or disdain the men who had been in the war and visited the wounded in local VA hospital. She also lobbied for improved veteran’s benefits and argued with those who held the returning vets responsible for the war.
The kids, the hippies and the freaks took to calling her Granny Adams and it stuck. She loved the name although she’d always insisted that I call her Grandmother. I complied because anyone could call her Granny, but I was the only one who could call her Grandmother.     
She was confined to a wheelchair, the bullet shot by Marcus shattered her femur and even after therapy she simply couldn’t put weight on the leg, but she ignored it as best she could since she had so much she needed to do. I’m not sure how it happened, but Katy became her assistant and if you look for images of my grandmother, you will see pictures of Katy pushing my grandmother all over the map as they did their work.    
In some of the pictures Forty can be seen at their side. In his sweet, half-assed way, he became something of a service dog. He was happy to do some simple things for Grandmother like bring her the paper or her purse unless he was busy with a ball or a bone. I believe his intentions were good, but he simply lacked focus, but she didn’t seem to mind.
The night she died, the word had gotten out somehow. Remember that this was before cheap long-distance calls and no one except Al Gore had imagined the Internet, but the word got out all over the country and across Europe and even into Vietnam. All over, people stepped outside on that July night and lit candles and beamed their flashlights and started bonfires. They lit the way for her. They lit the way for that stubborn, sometimes amoral old woman who showed us all that it was never too late to change and never too late to make a stand for what you know to be right. They lit her way to Summerland.