Thursday, April 24, 2014

Oh the Humanity

It's odd that we as a species became dominant in this world.  We're not very strong, nor terribly fleet, we don't have a nice thick pelt and our young are completely dependent for several years and don't even reach sexual maturation for a dozen years or more.  Apart from our physical shortcomings, we can be perfectly horrible.  If we only listened to the news or read the headlines, we could reasonably assume that we are collectively as nasty as a pit of vipers and the sooner this old world shakes us off, the better.

But then there is StoryCorps. Created by Dave Isay in 2003, StoryCorps puts two people, usually family or friends, but sometimes a StoryCorps facilitator, in a sound booth for forty minutes to discuss whatever they like.  The results are then permanently stored at The Smithsonian as part of our nation's on-going oral history project and some of these abbreviated interviews are broadcast on NPR stations.

I've been a huge fan of StoryCorps from the beginning, but this week I read Isay's book, Listening is an Act of Love about this wonderful project.  Alan Lomax wrote in 1940 that "the essence of America lies not in the headlined heroes....but in the everyday folks who live and die unknown, yet leave their dreams as legacies".  Almost seventy-five years later, these words are still so true.

The beauty and glory of ordinary people doing extraordinary things is reflected in the story of the firefighters running to what would surely be their death on 911.  This beauty is vividly told by the hospital chaplain who annually goes through her hospital and blesses the hands of every single member of staff.  The stories of growing up and living through the Great Depression made me grateful for how hard my parents and grandparents worked to ease my way in the world.  An interview with a generous man and a panhandler he helped to sobriety made me marvel at his bravery.  Imagine if you will, taking a falling down drunk to your family home.  I wouldn't do it, but it made so happy that I live in a world with people who are so much kinder and trusting than I could ever be.

We may be flawed, weak and naked, but we are human and we are capable of wonderful things.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Under the Covers

I was chatting with my daughter on the phone last night about plans for the upcoming week-end.  We settled on those, (lemon curd trifle for the grown-ups, cupcakes for the girls) when we started talking about Donna Tartt's remarkable book, The Goldfinch, which we are both reading.  I recommend this wonderful Pulitzer Prize winning book to anyone who believes in the power of a great story.

Still on the subject of books, she told me that my seven-year-old granddaughter was found under the covers in the guest room, with a book light and the second of the Harry Potter books.  The decades disappeared and I could see my own small self doing exactly the same thing, only I used a flashlight in hopes that my older sister wouldn't rat me out.

It's hard work for such a young kid, reading big books.  The reading itself isn't a problem for a child like my granddaughter.  She's got two college professors for parents and her home has always been stuffed with books and wonderful, complex language, but with a book, she's on her own under the covers.  All those ideas and relationships to work through with her limited understanding of the world must seem daunting when she's by herself in the dark.  All those scary parts that might be just made up, but maybe they're not.  I remember the scary parts seeming very real under my sheets when the rest of the house was quiet and my parent's room was all the way down the hall.

But I know she'll finish the book and the other books in the series in a few weeks.  She'll probably read them again and again, as most of us Potter fans do.  Then she'll keep reading other books and everyday her world will be just that much bigger and everyday she will understand just that much more.  She is only seven, but she has already discovered the power of a great story.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Funny Old World

Over dinner a few nights ago I was telling my husband about some oddity I had encountered or read about.  For as long as I can recall, I've always been fascinated with what some people might call the paranormal, but I prefer to think of these things as the parts of life we just can't quite get a bead on.

It's taken over forty years to bring him up to speed on these things, my areas of interest, but I've been patient in bringing him along and then of course there was the ghost dog in the haunted house.  By the time he encountered the ghost dog,he was convinced that it is a funny old world indeed.

Below is a very slightly fictionalized account of our encounter with the ghost dog.  Names have been changed and the event took place in our first home in England in West Sussex, not Brussels where I placed it.  I also made the storyteller a glamorous  woman who is very unlike my pedestrian self.  Lena is visiting her mother-in-law's summer camp on Lake Champlain and telling her story to Jonas, who like me, collects stories.  I have hung onto this story for years and was delighted when I could finally use it in my yet-to-published novel Summerland.

“Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic, but I refuse to think the whole world can be explained away. When I was a child I was so religious, I suppose because my mother was, and it meant so much to me until I was about six or seven. As I grew older, I couldn’t believe anymore, at least not in the Church. But there must be so many things, wonderful things, we know nothing about.”
     “So you can’t believe in God, but a lake monster might fill that void?”
     “Oh, it doesn’t have to be a monster, not at all. And I’m not against God, just the God I was handed as a child.” She made a silly face and giggled like a four-year-old. “Can I tell you what happened to me when I we lived in Brussels? I never mention it because people will think I’m odd, or making it up, but I think I can tell you.”
     “Of course, that’s what I do, I listen to stories.” As he said the words he thought they made him sound useful and wise. He almost told her he was neither, but she wanted to talk and he did listen to stories, so she could find out on her own over the course of the summer that he wasn’t very useful or wise.
     “The house was an old one-but not an ancient one, about half a kilometer from the Grand Place. A very nice house, two stories and quite good sized, at least by Belgium standards. Spencer and I had our bedroom downstairs and the boys each had a bedroom upstairs. Marcus had a room with another room attached, a play room if you will, just on the other side of it. That room was accessed through double doors next to Marcus’ bed. Are you getting the picture?”
     “Yes, I think so.”
     “Good. So we moved into this house and my first thought was that it had a very nice feel to it. It felt like a happy house, do you know what I mean by that? Have you ever walked into a place and you just knew that people had been angry shortly before, or something bad had happened there?”
     “I think I know what you mean.” He knew exactly what she meant. Even though he was grown he still avoided the two tiny rooms off the kitchen in the New Haven house where servants used to sleep. The rooms were used for storage now, but he could feel sadness whenever he entered them. He’d tried to find out what might have happened in those rooms, but back when the house required several servants, those servants where almost anonymous. They were mentioned only by name in the household accounts and only in reference to what they were being paid.
     “We’re living in this nice house and one night I am making dinner and I see this figure just outside the kitchen door, the door that is off the front hall. Just for an instant I saw her, but it seemed to be a woman in some sort of old-fashioned dress with a bell-shaped skirt. Just for an instant, then she walks into the next room. Of course I followed her, but there was nothing so I tried to put it out of my mind. Just thought it was a trick of the light or something. Not that I’d ever been given to seeing things, still I didn’t give it much thought what with running a busy home.
     “Anyway, the boys had been asking for a dog for ages and I wasn’t against the idea, so Spencer agreed. We had some friends who were being posted to England and they couldn’t take their dog with them because of the quarantine laws. We agreed to keep the dog for a year until they returned to Brussels, sort of a practice dog if you will. He was a cute little fellow and we took to him right away and him to us, I think.
     “It was a Sunday morning and only Alex was home. Marcus was spending the night with a friend when Spencer and I were awakened in our downstairs bedroom. I remember this part very vividly, by the way."      “What awoke you?”
   “Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? We heard the dog playing in the room above our heads, the room that Marcus usually slept in. The dog was having a lot of fun, too. We could hear him rushing back and forth, chasing a ball and we were laughing and feeling pleased that he had settled in so well. After a few minutes of this, Spencer got up to put him out in the garden. I remember Spencer grumbling that Alex should have put him out before letting him run riot upstairs. Spencer was always worried about the rugs when we were renting this house since some of the rugs were quite nice.
   “Still grumbling, Spencer ties on his robe and goes upstairs to Marcus’ room which is completely empty with all the doors closed. He then goes into Alex’s room and the little dog is sound asleep on Alex’s pillow. They are both sleeping like little angels. Trying to figure out what we heard, he goes back to Marcus’ room and looks around again. No balls, no toys, and certainly no little dog.” She looked at him as though she had just given him a basket of ripe peaches.
   “Weird. Any other visits from the phantom dog when you were there?” He glanced over at Forty who was sunning himself on the flagstones of the patio.
   “Oh yes, do you want to hear it?”
   “Is the pope Catholic?”
   “I don’t really know anymore. Remember, I have renounced the church.” Lena smiled at him and bit her lower lip.
   “Tell me about this dog.” He wondered for a moment if she was flirting, but realized that she was the sort who flirted with everyone including old women and babies. Just being friendly, he thought. A damn good thing considering the circumstances. He quickly imagined what a farce it would become; a relationship with the woman who was married to the man who was the son of his mother’s best friend.
   “The house had two staircases, one off the main hall and another back staircase which was very narrow and clearly intended for utility as the laundry room was at the bottom. The little dog didn’t like this back staircase by the way and I had assumed it was simply because the steps were too narrow and dark for his taste. Anyway, I went into Marcus’ room to awaken him for school one morning. I sat down in a stuffed chair by his window and we were just chatting about this and that; our day ahead.
   “Then we heard the dog on the other side of the double doors that I’d mentioned earlier. He was scratching and we could hear his tags jangling. He’d already been out that morning and he’d been fed. This dog often did a walk around in the morning, but the thing that was odd was the only way he could have come into that room on the other side of those doors was up that staircase that he dreaded. I went to the door to let him in, but as I did so Marcus and I both commented that it was odd that he’d found his way into that room.
   “So, I opened the door and the room was empty. We used it as a guest room and I was always very careful that the room be kept pristine for guests, whom we often had, and it was pristine indeed. I turned around to comment on the dog’s absence to Marcus and the little fellow walked in through the other way, the door he always used. He was never in the other room. Something was, but it wasn’t the dog. What do you think of that?”
   “I think I wish I had been there.”
   “But have you ever heard of anything like this?”
   “I’ve heard of a few ghost dogs and even one ghost cat. The literature is full of things like phantom stags and there is something called the black dog, but it’s not really something that could be classified as a ghost dog.”  
     “What is the black dog then?”
     “It’s meant to be more like, oh how to put it, more like an apparition or sometimes a portent. It’s an ancient legend, dates back long into the pre-Christian era. Conan-Doyle based the Hounds of the Baskervilles on the legend. And the phantom stag is probably tied with up with early fertility rituals in some way although if you believe the literature, there have been sightings very recently of the stag. ”
     “But my ghost dog, what do you think that was?”
     “There’s a theory that buildings can act almost like tape recorders. The thought is that they can somehow record an event and then when the situation or the conditions are just right, it can somehow be played back. I don’t know if I buy it, but it’s in the literature.”
     “What is this literature you keep referring to?”
     “Oh, that’s whatever book I’ve recently read.” He smiled at her and tied off the awning with a square knot.
     “You are an odd man, Jonas Adams. I like that.”

Thursday, April 3, 2014

To England Where My Heart Lies

I can recall humming this line from the Paul Simon song as I boarded that first flight to Heathrow.  My husband was being transferred to the UK and something about it felt so right.  I had always dreamed of living there and in many ways, thought of it as my spiritual home.  This was in the early 1990's and I was still angry about the Vietnam War, and I hadn't felt like an American in a long time.

England was the perfect place to relocate, I was sure of that.  My mother was mostly of English extraction and through the Lutherans, I had always been a part of the Swedish community in our town.  Hell, I was practically a European already, or so I thought.  I loved Monty Python, had watched Masterpiece Theater for years, even had a Sassoon haircut back in the sixties and my nickname in college was Twiggy.  Probably no one would even notice that I wasn't a Brit.

My sister-in-law, who had spent many years of life following her engineer husband around the world, warned me that it took a particular personality to be a successful ex-pat.  In my arrogance and excitement, I didn't even bother to ask her to enlarge on that statement, but I remembered her words later, many times.

We lived on the English Channel in West Sussex, a place I still miss, but a place that never truly became home although I'm not entirely sure why.

The following is an excerpt from my novel A Twist of Light which is being re-issued on May 15th by Little, Brown UK.  The narrator, Lizzy, is an American who married a Brit and moved to England when she was twenty.  She was better at being an ex-pat than I was.

Cotherstone, West Sussex, January 26th

Dearest Mary,

We have a touch of snow today.  Patch had a terrible time deciding whether or not he really needed to go out this morning.  Finally your father kicked him out and gave him a lecture about soldering through.  Patch didn't seem awfully impressed as he demonstrated by ignoring your father as the poor man was reading the Times.  Although your father tried to make up, Patch insisted on staring out the window rather than assuming his usual station at your father's feet.  I think he misses you.  (Patch that is.  I hope you realize that Daddy definitely misses you! I keep finding him (Patch) sleeping on your bed.

Daddy leaves for Brussels today and will be gone a week or so.  I thought about joining him, but decided it would be too complicated.  Once Chaz is away for A levels I'll have lots of trips.  I can't believe my youngest heads off next year.  I'd like to stretch this mothering business out more, but you and your brother seem determined to grow up.

Yes, I am feeling all broody.  Do you realize lots of women my age are still having babies?  No, no , I'm not contemplating anything quite so dramatic or rash.  My baby days are a thing of the past, but I am thinking about getting another dog to keep Patch company.  With you and Chaz no longer available as playmates on any kind of regular basis I'm afraid he'll get awfully lonely.  Of course, not only would a puppy keep him young, but it would satisfy my broodiness a little less radically than a change-of-life baby.

I'm very glad you're finding friends.  I knew it wouldn't be a problem, but I know you were a little concerned.  Americans are mad about an English accent and or course, you are such a delight, even without the accent.  I can say that because I an completely objective about my children.

As promised, I've been sifting through the grey matter to give you an overview of the distaff side of your family tree.  As you know, your grandmother was called Laura Sinclair, though I believe her real name was Laura Shook.  I'm not even sure why I know about the Laura Shook business, but my sister, at least, was convinced this was her real name.  As the oldest child I suppose she had some information I wasn't privy to when we were children.

I do know she was born in a farm labour camp in Fresno County in 1935.  Her mother was still in her teens and probably unmarried.  My grandmother had left Oklahoma after poor farming practices had blown all the topsoil out of the state.  I don't know who fathered the baby, or if she had any other family, but I do know she died in childbirth or shortly after.  Her baby, my mother, was given to a woman who had lost a baby.  Apparently she was never allowed to forget that she was the cuckoo in the nest.  She left this woman and her family when she was about fourteen or fifteen. 

She always told us that she had been married to a man, our father, who died in Korea during the war.  I doubt this was true.  If a soldier had died, leaving a wife and children, there would have been some sort of death benefits or pension.  She once told me she'd never gotten around to applying for benefits, but that seems terribly unlikely since we lived on public funds for the last year or so of her life.  Even if she'd never gotten around to claiming benefits, it seems likely that the Welfare Department would have done so to defray some of their costs.  She also told us the marriage certificate, pictures and everything else had been lost in a fire, but neither Eleanor nor I remembered a fire.