My photo

I'm most recently a writer.  In the six plus decades of my life, I've been a wife, mother, grandmother, Jill of all trades though mistress of but a few, and most of the time pretty content with my lot.  As a much younger person, I believed I was called to write, but life and living distracted me for most of those decades.  An unwilling transplant from the South,  twenty years ago I unintentionally landed in the geographical center of the US.  Writing came about in part due to the unwillingness, I expect.  When caring for family, gardening, and renovating a century-old house failed to provide sufficient creative outlets, I turned to the one thing I always intended to do.  Eight titles later, I'm grateful I found myself while Lost in the Plains!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Small Town Inspired

In the real world, small towns are love 'em or leave 'em kinds of places. In fiction, they are often  airbrushed with rainbow colors of innocence or brutalized in darker shades of prejudice or worse. It's no secret that I grew up in a small town--well, to be honest, a small village--situated on land first granted to my ancestors by the King of England in the 1720's. I've since lived in towns with populations of 1,000 to 10,000, and the dynamic is pretty much the same, regardless of the number of souls within the city limits. Unique to small towns are treasures such as unsolicited support in hard times, shared celebration and grief, life long friendships, time honored feuds, and mutually respected secrets.

I keep in touch with a childhood friend who unequivocally declares the years he and his family spent in our little village are the foundation for his life. "Everything I needed to know I learned there." I agree that the lessons were simple and straightforward, possibly purified by memory and softened in the haze of experience by now. While his memories are idyllic, mine include the bumps and bruises of living where everyone not only knew your name, but those of the skeletons in your family closet, the transgressions of your ancestors, as well as your daily business.

My friend's family were not "from there." They came from a nearby city and eventually returned there. While they were welcomed and accepted  during the years they spent with us, they never experienced the deeply rooted ties of those who shared DNA with the generations who pioneered, timbered, plowed, and constructed everything in sight. My friend enjoyed the benefits of a close-knit community without the obligations history passed down to some of us.

I eventually left what I saw as the confines of that little village, only to find myself in similar places time after time. Of course, in those places I wasn't one of the "original settlers" but I clearly recognized the inner workings of a small town. As happens with experience and age, I came to appreciate the value of those deep roots, despite their obligations. All of those benefits my friend had enjoyed came into focus for me, too. Sadly, I can't go back to apologize to my village for my lack of proper respect. It barely exists today and bears little resemblance to the place where I grew up.

Instead, without setting out to do so, I memorialized my small town experiences when I started writing Hearts Unfold. Once I saw what I was doing, folding the best of my memories into Emily's story, I wondered if anyone would believe a single, small community could possess so many sterling qualities. But the memories were truth, from the town fathers at the coffee shop to the postmistress who passed on the latest news along with the daily mail. I hadn't fabricated the "courthouse" or the characters who populated the surrounding farmlands.They were carefully preserved in a benevolent corner of my mind.

Stani gently brushed a windblown strand of hair from her cheek.  “You really love it here, don't you?  You positively light up when you talk about it.”

Emily blushed, turning to lead him further along the street.  “I know it's all very ordinary, but yes, I love it.  When I was a little girl, I would come into town with Pop.  Everywhere we went everybody knew us and seemed to genuinely care about us.  It made me feel important when someone asked how my mother was doing, or how the garden was coming along.  Now that I'm back, everybody makes me feel included, like a part of the community.”  She swept her hand through the air, taking in the four blocks of the square and all of the shop fronts.  “These people are my family, although I'm not related to any one of them.  From Mr. Harris at the bank, to Katie Malone at the flower shop, to Mr. Brown at the market, to Martha Jean at the boutique, I know I can count on every one of them to be there if I need anything.”--Hearts Unfold 

Like Emily, I was raised by a small town. As a fatherless child, the daughter of one of the founding family's daughters, I was gathered to the collective bosom of my village. If at times I felt more smothered than cherished, I know now that was not the intention. They, like Emily's neighbors, recognized a need and were called to address it. Unlike Emily, I can't go back, and probably wouldn't chose to if I could. Still, there's no doubt growing up in the secure embrace of a small town inspired not only my writing, but much of what is best in me. Thankfully, my village lives on in the memory of those of us who grew up there, not only as inspiration for written word, but also for life well lived.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Sixty Years a Survivor

This post from August, 2014, was my attempt to tell the tale of one case among too many of its kind. On the 60th anniversary of my father's death by suicide, I'm repeating it with the hope it may reach someone who also seeks comfort, or at least companionship, as the survivor of yet another seemingly senseless loss. 

Last night and this morning, FB is filled with posts expressing sadness and shock at the death of Robin Williams. Why? I suspect because we all felt we somehow knew him and the loss is personal in a very real way. Just as with the recent deaths of Cory Monteith and Lee Young, we are brought face to face with the tragic truth of suicide. We don't see it coming, yet when it strikes, we are compelled to respond with the desperate hope of preventing the next one.

My father with me in happier days.
I don't normally weigh in on this issue. For me it is indeed personal and I fear my private grief will color my comments. But last night these thoughts circled my dreams, and in the light of day, it occurs to me that if my thoughts touch one of you who read
this blog, perhaps it is worth putting them here. But be warned, my ideas are based on what suicide looks like from the inside and may not ease your mind on the subject.

Only this past year did I finally get around to destroying the letter my father wrote to my mother the day he died. I had promised myself for years that it would not be left for another generation to find when I was gone; that it was not meant to be part of my legacy to my children and grandchildren, but a heartfelt farewell to the woman he loved. But the words are forever burned into my memory, words that seem to make so much sense and yet explain nothing.

In 1957 my father chose to end his life because, in his own words, he was weary. He described a loss of enthusiasm for living, of falling short of his expectations for himself in every area of his life, feeling old at only thirty years of age. He expresses his joy in my mother's love, despite feeling he never deserved it. He blames no one, saying he's considered suicide many times during his life, looked for alternatives, and now believes it is the best way.

My father with his students-printed in the school paper at his death.
While he didn't enumerate his struggles, they had been obvious to those close to him. Possessed of considerable talent, he had failed to achieve recognition, at least the kind he sought. An aspiring writer and a gifted cartoonist, his numerous submissions had met with rejection, something he found very hard to accept. His career as a high school teacher was not the one he'd hoped for, and although he was loved and admired by his students, his performance came under criticism from his superiors, something else he found hard to accept. In fact, at the time of his death, he had decided to leave teaching for some as yet undecided new venture. During periods of high spirits, he ran up debts far beyond his ability to repay and made notably poor choices; during the low times, he turned to alcohol to ease the pain. He was a classic bi-polar with a load of baggage from his childhood. In short, he was a suicide waiting to happen.

In 1957 there was little viable treatment available for depression or bi-polar disorder compared to that today. My father did turn to the VA at one point, asking for help, but was told there was nothing wrong with him. To be fair, based on what they could see, there wasn't. He went to work, to church, taught and mentored young people, loved his family, and had a kind word for everyone he met. The kind of illness which caused his pain was only visible in his eyes, if you knew him well enough to see it. Even those who saw it convinced themselves he would never do anything so drastic. Only after the fact did they admit they had any fear he would self-destruct.

Also, in 1957, suicide was looked upon as an ugly secret among many families, something to keep hidden in shame. I was fortunate that that was not the case in my family, but there were others, who I'm sure considered themselves well-intentioned, who pointed out the disgrace my father had brought on us by ending his life. Time and again I went to my mother in tears, to have her remind me that no matter how hurt we were by his leaving, we must understand that he loved us and meant to do the best thing for us all. In fact, those had been his words as well. He said in his letter that he had spent weeks working out the best way, the method that would hurt us the least. He planned carefully, making sure my mother would not be the one to find him, indicating his plans to no one who might try to warn her. From all indications, he was carrying out what he had long seen as a option to end his suffering before he inflicted more on those he loved.

Could he have been stopped? I don't believe so. If not that day, someday, he would have succumbed to that weariness. That said, I believe some potential suicides can be prevented, and we must work unceasingly to raise awareness and encourage treatment. But for every one that is prevented, there will be others that won't be. We will be shocked and saddened, and hopefully led to look more closely at those around us. But when the unspeakable happens again, as it surely will, my hope is that we will not second-guess the reasons, look for what-if's, or lay blame at the feet of the victim or those who loved him. Whether it be someone as widely known as Robin Williams or someone in our own community or family, we will instead acknowledge the value of the life lived, even as we sorrowfully accept its end.

Just as all cancers can not be cured, all depressions cannot either. Each case is different, the sum of a person's life experiences compounded by the mysteries of brain chemistry. Just as all illnesses are not addressed "in time," the potential of those who suffer depression is not necessarily recognized until it is too late, even by those who suspect they may be suffering. Human nature requires us to question what might have been, pointless as that might seem. Fortunately, human nature also prods us to persistently seek a better way. Therein lies hope for some and comfort for others.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Years of Seven

Numbers are not my thing. I don't have a lucky--or unlucky--number. I'm pathetic with phone numbers, house numbers, even birth and anniversary dates. I'm a word person. From grade school on, I chose to nurture my vocabulary and leave the numbers to fend for themselves.

There is one major exception--the dreaded seventh year of every decade--The Year of Seven. Now, I know how that sounds, but I categorically deny being the least bit superstitious. I love black cats and have been owned by several in my lifetime. I'm blessed with the lack of inches that allows me to walk under ladders without even noticing them. On rainy days,  I leave my open umbrella to dry in the foyer. I frankly don't have the nature or the time to indulge in superstition. But these years of seven aren't about superstition. Instead, they are about a a very real story about grief and loss. Yes, you can argue that there is all of that in other years. But over time these particular years earned a badge of mystical significance in my life, first through my mother and then for myself. I hope the story speaks for itself.

In 1947 my mother's fiance drowned at a party celebrating her birthday and their upcoming marriage. His death resulted in a very different life than the one she was looking forward to. She eventually married a brilliant young school teacher, gave birth to a daughter, and fought tooth and nail for the happy ever after that was never to be.

In 1957 my father committed suicide. It's fair to say, my mother never stopped grieving for him,
never lived fully without him, and never stopped reliving their time together. His death was the defining moment of her life.

In 1967 my maternal grandfather, a wise and gentle man who saved this fatherless child when her five year-old world imploded, died unexpectedly two days after Christmas.

At this point you can see the pattern, but you might also say this rule of seven was more about my mother than about me. You wouldn't be wrong. For years, I tried to lay it at her door. Hard things happened every year. But even I was impressed with the fact that the hardest things, the kind that change the color of our worlds forever, seemed to strike in the seventh years of each decade.

Then came 1977. I was a young, but dedicated, wife with two small children by this time. Short version--the marriage ended when my husband literally drove off into the sunset without a word of explanation or farewell. I ended up hospitalized for months with a major bipolar breakdown.  That was the year I embraced the truth of what many might call coincidence.

That said, 1987 was just one more year in the horror story of my second marriage. It might have been worse. It certainly wasn't better.

On Valentine's Day of 1997, my dearest friend died of cancer. I was blessed by her invitation to share her journey toward eternity, to sit by her, read to her, plan her memorial, and make sure all her pet projects were brought to a satisfactory end. I remember '97 as the year I cried almost daily, often at something we'd laughed at; the year I started talking to the familiar angel perched on my shoulder.

In 2007 my mother passed to her well deserved reward, exactly fifty years and twenty days after my father left her. If I'd never believed the seventh years held a special place in our lives, that would have confirmed it for me. I remember early that year, as she grew weaker and, between the two of us, we accepted that her fight was almost over, she stopped talking about my father. I sensed that she was thinking of him and that her thoughts were private. I knew she was hoping he'd waited for her.

Was I hoping during the past ten years that just maybe the cycle had ended? After 2015, when our lives were changed so drastically with John's fall, I couldn't imagine '17 topping it. Not that I was challenging fate. More like asking for a pass for this decade. Or forever. 

It's now 2017. Maybe it's just coincidence that I've been diagnosed with cancer?  Not the worst diagnosis, specifically bladder cancer, but one I hoped would never be entered in my medical history. Juggling all I have to do and want to do with surgery, treatments, and tests seems to be asking a lot, just when I've begun to realize I'm not as young and strong as I once was.

Whatever I think about these symbolic seventh years, I certainly do not expect the worst. Much like what I recall as the Black Hole of '77, I intend to fight my way out of this and survive. I have a husband I adore who needs me, literally, every hour of the day. I have family, friends, my old house, and my garden, to spend time with and care for. I have stories to tell, and possibly new ventures to undertake. Most of all, I have my God, who has held me close and carried me forward in the worst of times. I know I have nothing to fear and everything to look forward to beyond this seventh year.

This detour may be unknown and certainly unwelcome, but I'm looking forward to new things to learn and new people to meet along the way. I hope you'll join me.