Grandma’s House Isn’t The Same

Grandma’s house is the second one from the corner. It’s on Adams Street, which is paved with bricks, located in a small Oklahoma town called Purcell. The town dates to 1887, the year after my grandmother was born. It sits on a bluff overlooking the South Canadian River. Oklahoma was still Indian Territory then.

Grandma was born in Kentucky. She came to Oklahoma before it became a state. I was born in Purcell. The clinic where that event occurred is now the McClain County Historical Museum.

Though I call the one-story house on Adams Street Grandma’s house, it’s not the same.

Grandma died nearly 50 years ago. I haven’t seen the interior of the house since then, but the exterior looks very different. The detached garage is gone and the mimosa trees that graced the yard have disappeared as well.

The water tower gone, too. That landmark was across the alley from Grandma’s house. It loomed over town, visible from the highways that led into Purcell. In the years I visited this house, it was a source of temptation to several older male cousins determined to climb the structure.

I used to climb the trees in Grandma’s yard, scrambling into the higher branches, or all the way to the roof of the garage. The front porch, which had a swing, was another temptation. We used to jump off it. That’s how my brother broke his leg.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time at Grandma’s house. I remember Sunday dinners around the big table in the dining room. After dinner, my cousins and I would walk downtown. On Main Street, also paved with bricks, was the movie theater owned by my aunt and uncle. It was quite a treat for us to help out, taking tickets and selling popcorn.

Purcell has seen many changes since Grandma died. The swimming pool at the top of Red Hill is gone and there’s a new pool somewhere else in town. The house two doors down from Grandma, where a woman known as Miss Bessie raised chickens, no longer has a coop in the backyard.

The Canadian Theater, where I saw lots of movies as a youngster, closed after my uncle and aunt retired. It was an antique mall for a time. Now it’s empty and for sale. The Sky Vue Drive-In, where my uncle hoisted huge reels onto the projector, is completely gone, another business built on the land that was once covered with speakers.

When I visit Purcell, which isn’t often these days, I drive around town looking at various houses once occupied by aunts and uncles, and Grandma’s house, of course. I stop at a florist shop and buy a rose to put on her grave in the family plot in a hillside cemetery.

My recent visit was an informal family reunion, a gathering of relatives at a cousin’s house north of town. A potluck, flavored with lots of conversation, and plenty of food, including homemade ice cream. As we ate, we talked about those summers in Grandma’s backyard, with the uncles cranking the handle on the ice cream freezer.

And Grandma’s blackberry cobbler. Nothing in the world tasted like Grandma’s blackberry cobbler, and probably never will again, even if I roll out a crust and fill it with blackberries myself. I plan to do that sometime this summer.

Grandma’s house isn’t the same. She’s gone, visible now only in photographs.

But the memories remain. Oh, what memories they are.

Happy Force of July

Independence Day, coming up on Saturday, used to be my favorite holiday.  This year I’m not so sure I love it.  As always with so-called holy-days, commercial exploitation is an annoyance.  A Yahoo News headline this morning jumped out at me:  “Where to Find a New Car Bargain on the Fourth of July.”  Forget shopping.  Go eat some potato salad and think patriotic thoughts.

I had a patriotic upbringing.  My father had been a naval officer, serving in the Pacific on a baby aircraft carrier.  After the war, he taught high school.  He was also the high school music director.  Every Fourth he would dress up in his handsome uniform and take me and my brother John with him to the cemetery.  After the designated minister had conducted a brief memorial service for local men killed in the world wars and Korea, my father took out his silver trumpet and played Taps.  When I think of patriotism I think of Dad and his trumpet.  The ship he served on was built in the town I now live in, down on the Columbia River.  It was hit by a kamikaze.

This year I am looking at a Fourth of July in which patriotic southerners are going to rally in defense of the Confederate battle flag, the flag of the army of Northern Virginia.  Excuse me, did I miss something here?  Some years back, 1861 I believe, a war broke out in this country.  According to the media, some folks down below the Mason Dixon Line are now calling it the War of Northern Aggression.  It was called the War between the States too, for a while, back about the time references to slavery and Jim Crow were being removed from high school textbooks so the books could be sold in Texas.

The war with three names was, in fact, a civil war, “where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”  It was fought between people who wanted to abolish slavery in the United States and people who wanted to continue to buy and sell human beings, specifically African-American human beings.  The”aggression” occurred when South Carolina troops fired on Fort Sumpter, a federal fort.  And the war was not between states, not Louisiana versus Kentucky, for example.  It was between the government of the United States and states that seceded from the Union in order to be able to continue practicing slavery.

This was partly a straightforward economic issue.  Southern plantation owners were not paying their workers, so they could undersell farmers in the north who did pay their workers.  However, it was also a moral issue.  Many people in the northern and western states thought that slavery was wrong.  “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave,” but the truth he died for goes marching on.

I am glad southerners like their states.  I’m glad they like their barbecue and their churches.  But I think it’s time and past time to point out that the Civil War is a done deed, that the north won, and that honoring the battle flag of the Ku Klux Klan is just plain despicable, especially on the Fourth of July.

Whew!  I’m glad that’s over.  We have a lot to be glad about right now, including Pope Francis.  The Supreme Court (of the United States) has upheld marriage equality and medical coverage for millions.  We’re doing a lot of things right, even down south.  And, while I’m not going to whistle “Dixie,” I won’t sing “Marching through Georgia,” either.

 

A WRITER REACHES FOR THE STARS

My fellow Vermonter, Alison Bechdel, was writing what she knew in her 2008 tragi-comical graphic memoir, Fun Home, a sort of expose of family secrets that her closeted gay and emotionally distant father didn’t want people to know. Alison’s own coming out in a letter to her parents that she’d ‘imagined as an emancipation” only intensified his anxieties. He was enraged, for example, when she refused to wear “frilly girl” clothes or no barrette. “Next time I see you without it, I’ll wale you,” he shouts in her book as he jams it back into her hair. At age 44, just two weeks after his unhappy wife asked for a divorce, Bruce Bechdel was hit by a Sunbeam bread truck in what Alison believes to be a suicide.

The book, as many of you know, was an immediate bestseller. Modest about her success, Alison told a local reporter: “I think many people identify with the idea of a family with a secret.” (We mystery writers would surely concur.) The book ultimately earned her a MacArthur Foundation Genius grant and a windfall of $625,000 to work on her art. All she wanted to do now, she said, was to stay home in Vermont and “draw cartoons.” In her early fifties, she was quietly working on a new graphic memoir about physical fitness and the aging body–a book I was looking forward to!

But Alison’s family secrets flew quickly out into the open, and with it came an offer to turn Fun Home (a nickname for her father’s Pennsylvania funeral home) into a New York City musical. For a time she didn’t know what she was getting into–she felt “like a paratrooper” about to leap out of a plane. “I was anxious about it,” she said of this new (to her) mix of story and song. “Is this going to be terrible, or what?”

But the musical opened off-Broadway in late 2013, garnered great reviews and won Obie awards–far more than she’d dreamed of. Yet she knew she had earned the praise after spending seven years writing the book to get the tone just right and the illustrations detailed into full three-D dimension. Those of us who’ve read the book might recall, for one, the loaf of Sunbeam bread often seen sitting quietly on a shelf, to remind the reader of her conflicted father and his tragic death.

The play was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which helped propel it up into the bright lights of Broadway–in the Circle Theatre in the Round, where it received twelve Tony nominations and has just won Best Musical. Critics call it “dense and poignant and funny–a probing of artistic and sexual identity.” Sitting in the audience, Alison thought: “Oh, I wanna live in this play! But then I have to remind myself: Wait! I kind of did.”

And she brought a bit of Vermont along with her. There are nine characters in the play–three of them portraying herself at various ages. The youngest child, playing her little brother, is Vermonter Oscar Williams, who had just last February starred in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in my son Donald’s Vermont-based Very Merry Theatre, where the lad had his acting start as a 7-year-old. Now, at the grand old age of 11, the eldest of five brothers, with large luminous eyes and a head of longish dark hair, he’s on Broadway.  “I just know I’m doing my dream,” he exalts as he makes plans to go to the Tony award party for the cast and crew, “and it feels awesome.”

His stardom hasn’t been easy, though, for his family. His father has mostly remained at home in Vermont with two of his brothers, age 9 and 6, while his dedicated mom, along with a 3-year-old, 3 dogs, and a 7-month old baby, stays in a New York City studio apartment. His dad drives down weekends, though, and Oscar somehow juggles his school work with the hoopala on stage. “He’s a really great, creative kid,” says my son, who has directed the boy in umpteen plays, and is proud of his success. But Donald has “subtly” warned the parents that Broadway life can be really hard on a young actor–not to mention his family. Don’s mission for his own Very Merry Theatre is that every kid is his own star. “They don’t have to be on Broadway,” he insists, “to shine.”

The Manuscript Returneth

Wendy Hornsby

Amazon offered a book for free on Kindle. I didn’t recognize the author, but the accompanying blurb promised something interesting. And free’s free, right? So I downloaded the book. The story premise was, indeed, intriguing. The author had a strong voice, and the writing was generally quite good. But overall, the book was a mess. The meandering plot lot was full of holes, the POV shifted randomly, and the protagonist was vaguely drawn. I soon wondered, where was the editor? Need I say that the book was self-published?

Yes, there are some amazing self-published books out there. Quite a few successful, traditionally published authors, like Tim Hallinan and Sue Ann Jaffarian for example, also self-publish some titles, but these are pros who would never make a book available unless it had been carefully edited. By edited, I don’t mean that your mom or your best friend read it, added some commas, and told you it was really, really great. Good editing requires skill, experience, a sharp pencil, and a ruthless, dispassionate eye. Without it, a book is unfinished.

In May, after the usual marathon sessions at the keyboard, I typed The End at the bottom of the last page of Disturbing the Dark, my twelfth book, and handed the manuscript to Meredith, my editor at Perseverance Press. Then I went off to visit family, plant a garden, run the vacuum cleaner, and wait for the copy-edited manuscript to come back so that I could finish my part of the work on the book to make it ready for publication.

Now, with the 4th of July approaching, the copy-edited manuscript has come back, liberally festooned with red pencil and pithy notes that need to be addressed. I always look forward to this part of the process. I haven’t looked at the book since I printed it and sent it on its way. As I read it again after a little time to give me some distance from it, some perspective, I can see where there need to be adjustments, some additions, certainly some cuts. I never met a comma I didn’t like. Or a semi-colon. The book is set in France and liberally salted with French expressions that make it clear that I have forgotten more of my college French than I thought I had. I have confused accents ague and grave to a faretheewell, and Meredith has fixed them. She has also showed me where story needs tightening, where pacing lags, and characters need definition.

I’ll finish my work on the copy-edited work, and it will go back to Meredith for another read through, and perhaps more changes. And then, and only then, will it be a finished, publishable book.

Back to the Garden

One of my first blogs, two years ago, was about my flowerbeds. I’ve decided to revisit them for two reasons: 1) I don’t have much of anything else to write about at the moment and 2) I am getting so much enjoyment out of them this summer.

Right now my writing “career,” as inconsequential as it has been, seems to have ground to a halt. I had signed a contract for a book with Ingalls Publishing, the traditional small press with whom I worked during the first decade of this century, but the owner of the company died in March and his wife has decided to shut the business down. They’ll finish the couple of books they have in the pipeline. Mine isn’t one of them.

So, for the first time since 2001, I don’t have a book under contract. I’m writing one, but I have no idea if it will ever see the light of publication. And I’ve got to deal with getting rights to my earlier books and deciding what to do with them—probably republishing them in some electronic format. I’ll be 70 in September, still teaching fulltime and am something of a technophobe (or maybe technodolt), so this all feels overwhelming.

That’s where my flowerbeds come in. As I explained in an earlier post, I own two houses next door to one another. I live in one and rent the other (to my daughter and her family right now). The two houses sit on what was originally one inner-city lot that was divided about 1925, before anyone had to deal with bothersome things such as codes and minimum sizes. The lots are small and heavily shaded.

benchSix or seven years ago I started laying out the first flowerbed, emphasizing shade-tolerant perennials. I’ve never been a gardener, but I discovered how much I enjoy the work—and the results. I often finish my breakfast coffee sitting on the bench (inherited from my parents) in that first bed. Given my current state of melancholy, I sometimes return to the bench during the day.

In the last two years I’ve expanded into every other available spot around both houses, to the point that I don’t have any more space to plant anything. My wife and I have a little routine we call “walking the estate.” Usually after supper, we stroll around to the various beds and see what’s blooming, what needs to be dead-headed, etc. She likes to cut and arrange some of the flowers, and I have planted some showy ones in the few sunny spots that I have, just for that purpose.

Now, I’m going to follow some age-old advice: show, don’t tell. Enjoy the pictures.

my favorite clematis

my favorite clematis

 

a neighbor contributed the frisbee

a neighbor contributed the frisbee

 

impatiens along the driveway

impatiens along the driveway

 

in my newest bed

in my newest bed

Climbing mountains and sliding down the other side

I’ve reached the tipping point in the book I’m working on now

I don’t outline before I start, I make some notes and start writing. Sometimes random scenes, sometimes the first few chapters in order. When I get to around a hundred pages, I may have an idea of where the book is going, but I don’t know how it’s going to get there and I’ve run out of scenes or chapters. Not much left in my head. So I start finding excuses not to write. Too many students, too many classes, too much demand from my private life.

That’s when I know I have to go into phase two: go through those hundred pages and write a paragraph for each scene or chapter. Voila! An outline of sorts. Followed by more excuses and even less in my head.

This book is the sequel to the novel formerly known as Blackjack—book two of what is to be the Blackjack trilogy. The first book is now called Torch Song. I think this one is called Envoy. Don’t ask what the third one’s named. I have no idea.

When I run out of excuses, I read this initial outline and begin to see what’s missing. Besides a middle and an end, that is. Chunks of information and transition, foreshadowing. Clues and cogitation. That’s when a couple more chapters appear, and more holes to fill begin to chatter at me.

This is, as I said, the tipping point. Because this is where the book begins to take shape. It climbs mountains and slides down the other side. The characters discover new problems or new solutions. New loves and new reasons for vengeance.

I‘m at the stage where it’s chunks of information. Wish me luck.

 

 

Ten Things You Don’t Know About Maggie Summer

Yes, this is Lea Wait, and Maggie Summer is the protagonist in my seven book (so far) Shadows Antique Print Mystery series.

Recently I conducted a writing workshop and one of the pieces of advice I shared was that every character in a book — yes, even the minor ones – should have a secret. Maybe many secrets. And, no, they don’t have to be revealed in the book. (Or books, if it’s a series.) But the author should know what those secrets are, because their secrets can  influence a character to do one thing … or another.

After all — we all have secrets, big or small. And, no, I’m not going to tell you mine. (Maybe another time. Or maybe I’ll give one of mine to one of my characters …..) If you’re in doubt, think for a moment. Have you (or your character) every shoplifted? Lied to a parent, a spouse .. or a policeman? Had too much to drink and told someone off? Used illegal drugs? Used prescribed drugs when they weren’t prescribed? Cheated on a test? Slept with someone who was “off-limits”? Pretended to be someone you weren’t?  Exaggerated (or totally invented) an accomplishment?  Been arrested? Lied to protect someone else?  Lied about your age? Called in sick when you were feeling fine? Turned down an opportunity because you were afraid of something?

OK – some of those things are more serious than others. Often the seriousness would depend on the circumstances … and consequences.

But none of us are perfect.

So … although I won’t tell you my secrets … here are ten of Maggie’s.

1.  She knew her husband was cheating on her long before she found the evidence.

2.  She drinks Diet Pepsi, but she keeps a secret supply of chocolate in that red canvas bag she carries, and sometimes she eats it all.

3. She hasn’t heard from her brother in over ten years – and she’s glad. She’s afraid of him.

4. She wants to be a mother because she’s sure she can be a better mother than HER mother was.

5. She’s afraid to be dependent on any man, because she doesn’t trust men not to leave.

6. One reason she wants to adopt is that a high school friend of hers was forced (by her parents) to give her baby up for adoption.  And Maggie was jealous  of her friend’s pregnancy.

7. She doesn’t drink much wine because she’s afraid of losing control.

8. She’s an intellectual snob.  She judges people by the books they read.

9. She’s allergic to perfume.

10. She thinks her legs are ugly, so she wears slacks instead of dresses.

Will any of these  secrets influence her life?  Stay tuned!

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