Monday, December 28, 2009

Year End Thoughts

The last present is opened; the remnants of the (very rare) rib roast is in the freezer awaiting resurrection as Beef Wellington, the lovely glow of Mimosas on Christmas morning has worn off - life has resumed and I finally know what day of the week this is.

Only a few days are left in the year and, like everyone else, I am reminiscing about many things, some pleasant and some not. Actually, January 1 is really just another day in the string of days that makes up our lives. But because we segment our lives into years, I guess it is a good time to reflect on the way the year played out. Now, about my reading life, let me say I had lofty goals.

Unfortunately, I didn't reach my reading goals this year - real life got in the way. In addition, I have been stuck on Armadale by Wilkie Collins for weeks now. That in itself has set me back several books on my TBR stack. But for the fact that it's Wilkie, I would have given up in frustration and moved on to something else. The story is actually very interesting - and sufficiently "twisty," but I think Wilkie could have economized on the character and plot development a bit and whittled down the 600+ pages by quite a few. I've never been inclined to read multiple books at the same time (even though I got two really nifty bookmarks for Christmas), so I'm determined to plow through the remains in order to get to the rest of the reading stack.

I had planned to tell you about my favorite and least favorite reads; however, like a mother reflecting on her children sleeping peacefully in their beds, picking a favorite is almost impossible. Conversely, the worst rushes to the finish line unchallenged. It is the only (read) book I have on the shelves that I will gladly give to a new home, and I feel more than a little guilty that it is so unloved. It's enough to make one want to read another bowser just so the two can keep each other company.

Yes, yes, I know. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski received rave reviews - some readers going so far as to say it is one of the best books of all time - comparing it to Shakespeare's Hamlet. And, after all, it was an O-o-o-o-prah book, so that seals the deal. I found it plodding, over worked, and just plain too long. I could feel it trying very hard to be precious. So I, and about 10 other people on the planet, say "blah" to this book. I give it my "Golden Toilet Plunger Award" being, I think, the only book I can say I truly hated.

In the disappointing category, I will have to nominate The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. I was predisposed to really love it, but for some reason it just failed to resonate with me. The plot was ripe with promise, but it never bloomed. In fairness, somewhere in the middle of it I got a shipment of books from Barnes & Noble. I am like a bumble bee in a field of flowers when a fresh new book arrives all crisp and fragrant. I think I might have been a tad anxious to flit on to the new pretty flowers and became itchy to finish the Setterfield. I raced through the last third of it and perhaps didn't give it the attention it deserved. I did like Setterfield's writing, and I might try it again one day. But, I don't know. There are just so many books to read....

Okay, enough kvetching. Among the books I loved, in no special order and certainly not a complete list:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which was unique in its premise, beautifully written and hauntingly sad and hopeful at the same time.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. A book on the journey through grief, this memoir touched me in a very personal way, and introduced me to the straightforward yet lyrical writing of Didion. Perhaps some of its appeal for me was the timing. In any event, it was among the best of the best.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. This little novella was so clever and funny and bright. It is the perfect little book to read when life is gray and nasty and needs a quick injection of warmth.

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. This novel is the first in a proposed trilogy set in the 19th century with the slave ship Ibus, the Opium Wars and swashbuckling adventure at its core. I flat out loved it. The characters are so sharply drawn and unique they could have been created by Dickens. The intricate story line, in fact, is very Dickensian. The reader may initially have a little difficulty with the vernacular Ghosh uses in the dialogue, but there is a glossary in the back and, like learning a language by hearing it and speaking it, after a time one gets the gist. Ghosh writes brilliantly; and, on the the strength of this book, The Glass Palace is next on my reading list.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is in the young readers genre, but adults will miss a wickedly wonderful read if they pass up this 2009 Newbery Medal Award winner. Nobody Owens is orphaned when his entire family is murdered in their beds. Escaping by chance, "Bod" wanders into a graveyard and the resident ghosts elect to raise, nurture and educate him, together with the man appointed to be his Guardian. The graveyard is the only place where Bod is safe, and outside its gates the murderer awaits to finish his task. I actually broke into sobs at the end of the book. This is an easy to read book (as it should be considering its intended audience) which should not be missed at any age.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick was unlike anything I had experienced before. Not really a graphic novel, this is a big book of beautifully written prose interspersed with pencil sketches which actually provides a continuum of the story. The words and the pictures interlock like the fingers on both hands to become one whole - neither will stand alone. The sketches pull the reader into the story much like a film would. And although it is very cleverly told, the story, taken by itself, is delicious.

The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins. I read the first chapter on line. I can only recall one other occasion when reading the first chapter of a book totally grabbed me. (Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone. There was just something about Prof. Dumbledore and Prof. McGonagall standing out on a muggle street in the dead of night which made me want to read more.) This is a short book, and so utterly Wilkie that any follower will be rapturous.

Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen is what one reads instead of actually running away to join the circus. The protagonist, Jacob Jankowski, tells his story from the perspective of a 93 year old man who resides in a nursing home. It weaves in and out of the past and present, as he relives his life traveling with a third-rate circus during the Depression. Gruen has populated the tale with strange (sometimes wonderful, sometimes twisted) characters that ride the circus train from small town to small town. We get to go along for the ride. It was a super read.

There were more books, of course. Happily for me, most of them were good. But the unfinished stack looms tall and appealing, and time is a very cruel master. So, onward!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Christmas Magic

Have you heard of the tradition of Secret Santa? You exchange names with friends or co-workers and then do small acts of kindness for that person during the days leading up to Christmas - anonymously. I've been receiving little gifts from my secret Santa the last couple of weeks, and I've been thanking my S.S. through little rhymes delivered over our network's e-mail system. The latest gift was a lovely snowman kitchen mitt. I brought him home last night, and a very strange thing happened. This will be the rhyme I post on Monday when I return to work, but it tells a tale so fraught with Christmas magic, I have to share it with you as well. (wink)

The Snowman and the Hula Girl:

The snowman on the oven mitt
Came to my house, a Christmas gift.
Around his new found home he looked
Saw pots and pans and cups on hooks.

Across the room - so sweet - so shy -
Another kitchen mitt he spied.
A Hula girl with lips ripe red,
A wreath of blossoms on her head.

She wore a skirt of island grass.
A fetching Polynesian lass.

The snowman, pierced by Cupid's dart
Called out with aching, melting heart,
"Oh Hula girl, I am quite smitten.
You are the most beguiling mitten.
You fill my head like summer wine.
Please say you'll join your mitt in mine."

The Hula girl, now teary eyed,
First paused - then sighed - and then replied,
"You are of frost and I of sun,
You're snow and ice, of which I'm none.
There is no way we can be one,"
She answered soft and warm as rum.

What happened next I cannot say.
I only know love has its way,
And in the darkness of that night
Courage reigned and fear took flight.

At break of day what do you think
I saw beside my kitchen sink?
Upon the counter they reclined,
Side by side, their thumbs entwined.

What miracle joins ice and fire?
Well - - nothing less than love's desire.

Monday, December 7, 2009

"The Time Has Come," The Walrus Said...

..."To talk of many things: Of shoes -- and ships -- and sealing wax -- Of cabbages and kings...

And also of Thanksgiving, and Nantucket Grey walls, and preparing for Christmas, and of course, the Big Book Sale.

Katharine spent Thanksgiving with Uncle Rudy and his family. She folded the napkins and sent me this photo. I counted my blessings...not the least of which were hearing the happiness in her voice and seeing photographs of her smiling again.

Now, on to the Big Book Sale!

Lydia Bastianich, Jamie Oliver and Joan Nathan to add to the cookbook collection. It's hard to see the spine on the Nathan book, but it's titled The Jewish Holiday Kitchen. Kitchen Confidential is there because my son purloined my other copy when I was 3/4 of the way finished. Only difference, I paid $15.00 for my first copy and .50 for this one!

Villas At Table is more a treatise on the joy of eating than a cookbook, although it does have some recipes. Grandmother and the Priests by Taylor Caldwell was published under a different name (which escapes me) in the U.K. and The Poisonwood Bible I've already explained.

The Wizard of Oz was the first chapter book I ever read. I was thrilled to find this volume of The Sea Fairies by L. Frank Baum at the sale (despite the rather grotesque and creepy cover illustration).

The DuMaurier was published in the sixties and is, I believe, set in Cornwall. This is a book club edition and it will fit in nicely with The Glass Blowers and The Flight of the Falcon, which I got as a teenager when they came out as book club selections. Du Maurier was my favorite author in high school, along with Dickens, and Arthur Conan Doyle. And The Hudson River In Literature speaks for itself.

A Louise Mae Alcott book I'd never heard of - about obsession and stalking. A Long Fatal Love Chase was published about 100 years after her death, was it not? Very un-LouisaMaeAlcott-ish I should think. Whatever was Louisa thinking under those lilacs? Still waters...

Please don't laugh. As soon as I saw it I absolutely HAD to have this book from 1955. Apparently, I need not have worried about someone arm wrestling me for it. I would hate to think of its fate had I not saved it from the dump pile. It still has the little card pocket glued into the back cover and sign out card. Poor little thing had only been checked out about 8 times since it first came out. ("That MUCH?" said one of my daughter's friends. Always a smarty pants.) But Mr. Himsworth, an Englishman, is totally enamoured with his subject. He addresses it with such gusto! Oh, it gets even better (or worse depending on your perspective). This book began as a series of lectures. So...people actually got dressed and went to a hall somewhere to hear Mr. Himsworth wax poetic about cutlery and, hopefully, stayed awake. Mr. Himsworth's lectures were a - destination. And if that were not remarkable enough, some editor somewhere actually suggested he work the lectures into a book, and then a publisher published it!! How cool is that? You can't imagine how much there is to know about the story of cutlery until you start to think about it - which apparently few people ever do. Please note, it is not a history of cutlery - but rather the story of cutlery. A subtle yet important distinction. Cutlery has a story to tell, and Mr. Himsworth was the one to tell it. Perhaps not a book you take to bed on a cold winter night, nevertheless it has a quirky charm I could not pass up. As an aside, the back cover shows a lovely depiction of a pair of shears.

The complete stash.

Running in Heels is in there simply because it looked like fun, and The Mitford Bedside Companion for reasons I cannot now remember, especially since I've never read any of the books in the Mitford series.

Now, the Nantucket Gray walls:

This is the sunroom (my flash wasn't working very well, but you can get the general idea of the stencils - oh - hello, Grad. I can see your reflection).

Magnolia Blossom and a better picture of the magnolia blossoms (soon to be history) The walls will be (what else?) and the trim work will be a glossy bright white, rather than the dull creamy white it is currently. The photo is crooked, but I assure you the door, in reality, is not. I'll unveil my "after" pictures, well...after.

The sunroom will soon become the same Nantucket Gray, shown here in my kitchen. The feeling it evokes is calm and restful - not gray and depressing as the name might imply. I've never been to Nantucket, but I would like to see where my Nantucket Gray would fit in. By the way, the illustrations come from the 1926 Radiograph yearbook, from The Girl Graduate fame. I didn't take Evie and Viola's yearbook apart, though. I wouldn't have had the heart. However, the 1926 Radiograph was from Duffy's senior year. The drawings represent Humor, Organizations, and Athletics, and are delightfully art deco. There is one additional plate entitled "Seniors" which will also go up on the wall - as soon as I find the identical frame.

Tonight I'll go home and put up the Christmas tree. I might begin taping off the woodwork in the sunroom. On Friday I'll open my nice new gallon of paint, purchased at the hardware store on Saturday (together with a wonderful squeegee that extends up to 7 feet for cleaning those tall windows.) And who knows, I might just crawl into bed with The Story of Cutlery and a glass of wine after all.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Its In The Bag

I just got back from The Big Book Sale at the library, and although I plan to take a nice little picture of my stack as "show and tell," here's how the morning went down.

Unfortunately, because I have a meeting at 1:00 p.m. (which has now been pushed back an hour), I had to wear something professional, i.e. a suit. Not my original plan, but the shoes are the thing. Those are easy to change, and besides, I have more shoes under my desk than I do in my closet at home. I tend to pad around barefoot in my office or in bedroom slippers, so no dressy type heels for TBBS.

I brought two black canvas bags that I use to carry home my groceries. Each has a little zippered pocket sewn inside - a perfect place to carry the necessary cash. They are deep enough to hold my glasses. That was a good thing since I forgot to buy a "granny chain."

At approximately 9:45 a.m., I set out (sans purse) with my two black bags and walked the two blocks to the library - no parking woes; so far so good - and found myself 16th in line. Also good. While the minutes ticked away, I glanced through the latest copy of Book Pages and periodically looked down the line that was forming hoping to see my old gentleman friend. Of course, I might not have recognized him had I seen him, but I was a little disappointed to be honest. Then at precisely 10:00 a.m., the double doors to the room were opened and we filed in. It was a much much smaller crowd this time, and there was no getting swept up in a sea of humanity. Oddly, the frenzy of last time added to the excitement. The crowd was a mixed bag of all ages and ethnicities - all united in the love of a good (and cheap) book.

My first stop was the cookbook table. Standing at the table was a very professor-ish looking fellow with a neat, short gray beard wearing a turtleneck sweater. All he needed was a pipe and beige corduroy jacket with leather buttons to fit into a stereotype of some sort. Of course, I don't know if he was a professor (BUT our world-famous art college has an academic building right next door to the library, so....) He was very dishy. "Dream big," say I to myself. Anyway, just as I reached down to pick up Lidia's Family Table by Lidia Bastianich his hand lighted on the same spine and we both pulled our hands back, and smiled at each other shyly.

"Go ahead," I said.

"No, no. I think you saw it first," says the dreamboat.

"No...really," said I.

He paused a second and looked deeply (or so I say) into my eyes. I tried to remember if I had refreshed my lipstick before I left the office. A little color is needed after a certain age. And as I was trying to mentally assess my appearance, he spoke.

"How important is this book to you?" He was smiling.

"Not very. How important is this book to you?," say I. (That's right, work the room Grad, a little voice says. I may have batted my eyelashes here, but I would hate to admit as much.)

"Not important at all. So you win..."

okay, here it comes - brace yourself

"...Ma'am." MA'AM??? Did that dude just call me Ma'am? That gray beardy dude?

"Yeah...well, thanks," I sniffed and shoved the damn book into my bag - my first grab. I wanted to shout, "And furthermore I bet you're not really a professor at all, so stop trying to pretend!" But I didn't. Poor fellow. I imagine he was left wondering what he could have done to offend the little old lady in the black suit with her pince-nez falling off the tip of her nose.

But the cookbook table was not a waste of time. I picked up my fill (including one by Jamie Oliver) and moved on to adult fiction. This was the most difficult area to wade through. Not only were books on the tables, they were under the tables as I expected. With my new (black) suit, it was best that I not kneel. Bending at the waist with my bum sticking out similarly didn't work for obvious reasons (small aisles and ample bum). Not to mention the fear of having my back go out and being stuck like that for days...and the problem posed by walking back two blocks dragging the bags of books on the sidewalk like a Neanderthal. Squatting was dangerous as I was not at all sure I could get up. Unless I could see the title clearly from an upright position, the bottom books were basically off limits. But I did pick up one from below - The Poisonwood Bible. Now, I wasn't going to go after it at first, but as soon as I lifted it out of a box a woman came up to me and said, "I loved that book. But it's so sad." Okay, you had me at first but now I'm not so sure. And then a second woman came up and said, "You have to read that book. I love that book." In the bag it went, not so much because I really wanted it, but I was very reluctant to disappoint these two ladies by not taking their recommendations. I probably could have sneaked it back into the box, but why take the risk of offending? After all, we're only talking $1.00.

After about 45 minutes I found myself not looking at the books so much, but listening to the conversations of the people who were there. One lady, obviously a teacher, was telling another lady, "I'm taking these back to my classroom. This is a great opportunity for me to get books that the kids want to read." A man and a woman arrived with post office bins on a hand cart in which they were grabbing armloads of volumes. In the bins they had children's books, and mysteries, fiction, and who knows what else, which they were taking to a shelter. A mother was saying to her little girl, "Which ones do you like? Which ones will you choose?" And her daughter's eyes were as large as saucers at the prospect. The kids' books were .50, so she could have as many as she could hold.

The one thing that I've noticed about The Big Book Sale (now that I am no longer a novice) is that the people who go there are just plain nice. There seems to be an effort to wait your turn, to stand back after awhile and allow someone else to get to the stack in front of you. There were a lot of "pleases" and "thank yous" (which, to be honest, are pretty typical for the South, so not a real surprise). There was no pushing, no shoving. The whole room shouted, "God Bless You," when someone sneezed. And, except for that one grizzly, old broad in a black suit with pince-nez perched on the end of her nose who had been standing at the cookbook table, everyone behaved themselves.

As I made my way to checkout, I spotted The Mitford Bedside Companion by Jan Karon. I thought I might have read someone blog about that one but I couldn't remember. It became my last grab.

Final tally (not sure how many books - I'll have to unpack when I get home) was $12.50.

Oh, and as I walked back to the office I passed several real professors on their way into the building next door. Male art professors, no doubt. I could not repress a smug smile as I watched. They all wore a turtleneck sweater, all wore either a tweed or plaid a jacket, and all carried books under one of their arms. Not one of them was smiling. There's poetic justice there...somewhere.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Gearing Up For The Big Book Sale

The time has come at last - I am giddy with excitement! On Thursday, November 19 at 10:00 a.m. the main library is once again having The Big Book Sale. Even better news...after my old firm merged with the new one I now work only one block away from the main library. I don't have to get into the car and drive for miles and fight for a parking space blocks and blocks away. I was a neophyte at the last big book sale and I came ill equipped, i.e. uncomfortable shoes, nothing in which to tote the books, and I had not practiced bending and getting up (not a small consideration for a woman "of a certain age.")

I learned to arrive early, with something to read to pass the time. However, there was such a friendly crowd last time that I found myself having a very pleasant conversation with the elderly gentleman standing in front of me regarding the virtues of Johnny Mercer's song lyrics. He was the one who told me, "You should have brought a bag to tote your books home, young lady." I seldom use the word "tote," it's such a southern expression, I thought him simply charming. The fact he called me "young" didn't hurt either.

When the big double doors were opened to the room where the big book sale was being held, I simply let myself get swept along with the tide. I landed at the cookbook table and my first grab was the huge and heavy "The Way To Cook" by Julia Child. A $50 book that I bought for $1. All hardbound books were $1 and all paperbacks were .50. Since I didn't have a tote, my purchases were limited to what I could carry (although when I got to the cashier, I was given some plastic grocery bags). This year I will be armed with my canvas grocery shopping bags emblazoned with Kroger or Publix - each strong enough to hold a huge frozen Thanksgiving turkey and all the trimmings and, so I figure, up to the job.

I still have to train, however. Many of the best books are in boxes on the floor and one must get down and dirty, and then be able to stand up. I don't have a lot of time to work out, but some squats are in order for the next few days. Experience has also taught me not to carry a purse. It gets in the way and I am absent minded enough to set it down and lose track of it. I think a jacket with a zippered pocket for the cash, my glasses on a chain, and my hair secured in a pony-tail are precautions which will work well for me.

I wonder what treasures await. I already feel the thrill of the hunt - like one of the big cats in the wild, stalking its prey - sniffing the air with nostrils flaring, low steady breathing, ears upright and listening, careful deliberate cautious steps. Of course, I am from the big city and know little of the big cats in the wild. For all I know, I may have just described a bovine chewing its cud in some sunny pasture. The point is...they are out there...perhaps being set by classification on and under tables right this very minute. Just a block away from where I now sit. Cookbooks and thrillers, poetry and home improvement, fiction and autobiography. Where will this year's tide take me (and believe me, one DOES get swept along with the sea of humanity that invades the big book sale) I wonder. My hands itch at the thought.

Thanksgiving turkey AND the Big Book Sale all in the same month. Life is good.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Going Gray

There is something about the autumn light this year. It seems so steely gray, perhaps reflective of my current mood. Or could it be the residual effects of Hurricane Ida, which is roiling around in the Gulf? I hear she is to work her way north and then east, grazing Savannah. Maybe there is a scientific explanation after all. Nevertheless, I have memories of a more rosy-golden Fall light. Of course, now that I think of it, I have rosy-golden memories of just about everything. I could ask myself if I remember only what I choose to remember. Is it a control thing? "I think therefore it was." Perhaps that should worry me a bit, but that is basically my outlook so I will have to embrace it.

Feeling befuddled and not in control is just not my style. In such a state, there is only one place to turn...the house. I was standing in my Nantucket Gray kitchen the other morning musing over how lovely the color looks late in the morning. Connected to the kitchen and breakfast room by a large doorless entry is my sunroom with more windows than walls (as the name "sunroom" would suggest). The focal point of the sunroom is a large, arched window which rises from practically the top of the ceiling (pretentiously called a "cathedral ceiling" - although if it really were in a cathedral it would be a very puny cathedral indeed) - almost to the floor. At present, the room is painted in "Magnolia Petals," a sort of blush - not quite pink and not quite peach and not white - a pinky blush is the best I can describe. It's the color of the inside of the magnolia flower near the stamen - hence the name, I imagine. Across the room from the arched window is a set of white double doors made of paned glass that lead into the library (which is what is was called on the blueprints. I seldom refer to it as the library since it also sounds pretentious. I usually call it "the room with the bookshelves." Somehow, Lindy from the southside of Chicago would not have a "library" in her house). It sounds all right so far; but, here is where it gets rather ghastly. Around the big wall of windows, arch and all, and around the double doors, I long ago stenciled a garland of magnolia blossoms. (You know, to tie in with the name of the wall paint. How clever of me!) I warn you, it gets worse. At the top of the windowed arch, and over the other door in the room - the one that leads onto the patio - I stenciled pale green bows with flowing tendrils. It was 1989 and the model home I saw in the subdivision was likewise painted. I thought it was stunning, and it probably 1989. You would think that raising 3 rambunctious kids in the house would have ruined the "Magnolia Petals," but an upstairs playroom and seasonal wall washing has kept everything remarkably intact. So let's fast forward to 2009. The sunroom is now a relic of bad taste. I think it is time to sand down the magnolia petals and paint over the "Magnolia Petals" and go Nantucket Gray all the way.

In a completely coincidental happenstance, my sister, my eldest son and my grandson will all be coming into Savannah tonight - for different reasons. John is leaving for Afghanistan in a week and he and Jayden are coming home...home to spend some family time. I'll get to perch him (the baby, that is, not John) on my lap and read the library books I have for him. Judi is coming to check on Shorty - who is getting extremely forgetful and drives her car like a bat out of hell. If I'm lucky, I can get Judi to install my new kitchen faucet. (One day I'll have to tell you about all the things she can do.) With all that, the magnolia petals will bloom another week. Their days are numbered, however, and on Sunday I will be off to ACE Hardware to get a couple of gallons of Benjamin Moore's Nantucket Gray.

I'm giving Katharine a treat for Thanksgiving - a week in Chicago with her beloved Uncle Rudy. She was only 4 years old when we moved away and does not remember anything of that wonderful place where she was born. Rudy's boys, who seemed so much younger than she when they were young, are now her contemporaries and friends aside from being her cousins. Strange how a few years separating people in childhood melt away in adulthood. She will be in very good and gentle hands, and has been happier than I've seen her in some time. It will be hard not having her here, the first holiday we've spent away from each other. Nevertheless, she will return home with great stories to tell. And as for me, after dinner at Shorty's with the family that remains, I will be able to spend a very long Thanksgiving weekend with Benjamin Moore - with whom I am quite smitten.

Have I told you how much I love the hardware store on the island? I have often thought of challenging myself to do all my Christmas shopping without leaving the island. I could probably do it all at the hardware store. Aside from a bookstore, it is like heaven on earth.

It will be good to be back at the hardware store. It will restore a sense of normalcy in a very abnormal couple of months. I'm looking forward to turning my attention to the house once again. It needs nurturing. It needs to know I love it because this is where my memories live. It needs to know that, no matter where I am, it will always be home. to "love" it is the best of all words.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Year Of Magical Thinking

Before October 1, 2009, I had experienced grief twice in life. Sadness, lonliness, loss - these had been more frequent visitors. But grief...twice. Grief bangs on the door demanding it be opened. And try as we will, there is nothing to be done but to allow it entry.

Life changes fast,

Life changes in the instant,

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends,

The question of self-pity.

With those words, Joan Didion begins her memoir The Year Of Magical Thinking, a journey of grief which began with the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and the concurrent grave (and subsequently fatal) illness of their only child. In her simple, clear and yet poetic prose, Didion draws the reader into her private world. A review in the San Francisco Chronicle correctly stated that Didion's journey was both personal and universal. I will leave it to those who use words for a living to fully review it. To me it was, simply put, beautiful. In Didion's words I found shared thoughts and feelings and movements. "Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it," she cautions.

When grief came calling, I longed for the image in the Superman movie. The scene where he flies up into space, and races around the planet at such speed that he reverses the spin of the earth and turns back time. If that could only happen, I told myself, I could change everything. Maybe I could control how things turned out. I would have a chance to fix it.

I could have another chance. I could, for instance, decide not to dive into my friend's swimming pool. Afterward, when the doctor told me I needed bed rest I wondered about that day -- about diving into the pool. Was that the fatal moment? The thought of it tormented me. He also told me not to read books about problem pregnancies. I wondered how he knew. Had my husband told him about my obsession? And so I laid in bed, my contraband reading material my constant companion. And when it happened, it happened so fast there wasn't time for anything. No time for an ambulance, no time for monitors, no time for anything. Medical records I read later noted my emotional state as a "flat effect." "Flat effect." Like a deflated balloon or a tire that wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. That pretty much summed it up. I grieved in silence; no drama. It was not that I wanted to die, I just didn't care if I lived. A flat effect...for as long as it took.

Two years before my nephew had died. He was two years old and an outwardly perfect and beautiful child. But the appearance belied the facts. We were told early on. We knew. Medical science was working on it and getting close but had not...quite...gotten...there...yet. Soon after he died it did get there. Joan Didion points out how open we are to the persistent belief that we can somehow avert death. If only I had...if only I hadn't.

And then Rob. In the early morning hours of October 15, two weeks after his death, I dreamed I awakened and walked into the hallway outside my room. Rob was standing there with another young man. Rob made a sweeping motion with his hands down his body, toward the floor, and said, "See, Linda, I'm fine. We're both fine!" I looked at the other young man, taller and thinner than Rob. they were both smiling. I threw my arms around Rob's neck and hugged him tightly. I could feel his back - his muscular upper back. I could feel his grip. "I love you, Rob," I said. "I love you too..." And then he said something I will never forget "...and I love Katharine and I can continue to love Katharine through you and through everyone who will ever love her." I stood back and smiled at him. And just that quickly they were gone.

Several days ago, two weeks after my dream, I was looking through a drawer and found a piece of lined notebook paper. Opening it I realized it was a letter to me from Rob written during his next to his last deployment. For a strong man, his handwriting was tiny and delicate. Some words so small they were hard to decipher. It was the sort of letter a young man writes to a mother telling her about the girl he loved. The girl was my daughter. His words were so heartfelt and sincere, they could never be doubted. But what resonated for me were the last few lines. He wrote, "I can't wait to come home and give you a hug. A massive hug." Is that what he did? Or had I stored that snippet of his letter somewhere in my subconscious? Tucked away safely. Was I simply determined to control the one thing...the one thing I could put right?

Near the end of A Year of Magical Thinking, Didion writes, "I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account. Nor did I want to finish the year." As the days passed, as winter became summer and then fall, she feared that memories would become clouded; that the instant of her husband's death would became "less raw." She came to realize that we try to keep the dead alive to keep them with us. But she also realized that if we are to live ourselves, we must let go. We must relinquish the dead. We must survive our own days, or months, or years of magical thinking.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"You Satisfy My Taste Buds Beyond Measure"

Why Julia Child came to my mind this morning I cannot say - but there she is. Last month my daughter and I went to see Julie & Julia. Katharine read the book and couldn't wait to see the movie - which we both loved.

I feel a special connection to Julia Child, although our lives never intersected. When I was living in Chicago with two children under the age of 4 and hugely, lumberingly pregnant with Katharine, I would settle the boys down to their lunch at 11:30 a.m., and then their nap time at noon. I would lie down on my own bed and turn on The French Chef. Being pregnant, it was difficult not to fall asleep despite my most valiant efforts. But I usually made it through to the end, always enthralled with her humor, her high spirits, her enthusiastic desire to show us how to eat. No. No, I'm wrong there. Not just eat. How to savor would be more accurate. Although I didn't know her, of course, I would nevertheless bet my bank account that Julia Child savored life as well as food.

There are just some things that go together naturally: Thunder and Lightening, Ying and Yang, Sean Connery and Me (just seeing if you are paying attention) Abbott and Costello, Life and Food. We feed people we love during happy times and tragic times. We nurture them with our gentle caresses and our baked lasagna. We wrap them up in our arms and in our flaky pastry. Our love bubbles over, like our chicken pot pies and homemade jam.

Julia Child made challenging dishes approachable. I remember making Lobster Thermador from her Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, Vol. I - which I still have, but which has lost both its front and back covers - for a small dinner party when I was a (fairly) young bride. It really did take all day (although it probably shouldn't have since the lobster turned out a little overcooked). What I remember most about making the dish was the joy I had in its preparation, the smell of butter and cognac and thyme and tarragon, and the pleasure I had in presenting it to my husband and friends.

For years I attributed my rich and unctuous Boeuf Glace/Glace De Viande recipe to Julia, but I am apparently mistaken about it's origin. Alas, I cannot find it in my old, faithful, battered, cookbook. You see, my knee jerk reaction is to lay all my gastronomic successes at her doorstep. Perhaps that is so because it isn't really the cooking lesson, but the living lesson, that is at the heart of feeding someone.

In my favorite episode of The French Chef, Julia boils lobsters. In the final moments, before the now-famous theme song begins to play and the credits begin to roll, she sits down at the table and ties a huge napkin around her neck. Every time I see it, I laugh aloud. Julia is poised to dig into life and lobster with an unrivaled gusto.

It is fitting to end this post with a poem written by her adoring husband, Paul Child, for her birthday in 1961:

O Julia, Julia, cook and nifty wench,
Whose unsurpassed quenelles and hot souffles,
Whose English, Norse and German, and whose French,
Are all beyond my piteous powers to praise --
Whose sweetly rounded bottom and whose legs,
Whose gracious face, whose nature temperate,
Are only equalled by her scrambled eggs:

Accept from me, your ever-loving mate,
This acclamation shaped in fourteen lines
Whose inner truth belies its outer sight;
For never were there foods, nor were there wines
Whose flavor equals yours for sheer delight.
O luscious dish! O gustatory pleasure!
You satisfy my taste buds beyond measure.

Well, if you can read that without feeling all slobbery and wildly romantic, a serving of diced potatoes sauteed in duck fat until brown and crisp should be administered to you immediately. With perhaps a nice glass of something red and robust.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Life And Faith

Life has been on my mind lately. So has faith. Life and faith. What do they expect from us? Do they sit on some throne high above us? Joined by Death? Faith sitting in the middle with Death at its left hand and Life at its right?

Yesterday, I was driving aimlessly in the car on some forgotten errand. I suddenly became angry with - of all people - my Father. "I know you love me, Dad," I shouted, "so why haven't you proven that there's something else? That when we die, we still live? That you are still aware, still loving us? Can't I get one damn sign from you, for God's sake? Is that really too much to ask?" (After which spewed forth some rather obnoxious swear words which, though not typical of me, nevertheless felt awfully good.) I looked over at the car next to mine and saw the "crazy person alert" look on the driver's poor face. It was Sunday. He was all dressed up and probably going to church. I didn't go to church this Sunday. I wasn't quite certain anymore. I had lost my bearings. My compass pointed everywhere except in the right direction.

I have heard people remark that God doesn't give us more than we can bear. To which I say, "Bull**it." God gives us much more than we can bear. Which is where Faith comes in. I was looking for a sign from my father that I am on the right track when I believe that the spirit continues to live, even after its vessel has died. After thinking about it more calmly, however, I decided that Faith is believing in something that cannot be subject to proof. That by its definition, Faith defies reason.

Before the drive ended, I realized that I had been driving in silence, with the radio turned off. I switched it on, and there was a discussion being had about a recent wedding. A man was talking about his daughter's wedding day. The first words I heard of the conversation were, "On our way to the church, I told my daughter it wasn't too late. We could still turn around if she wasn't sure." It swept me back to a January day in 1971. My Father took my arm in his and lead me to the waiting limousine. As he held my train and veil, I slipped into the backseat, and he slid in beside me. On the ride to the church, he gently picked up my right hand and held it in his, "You know, Lindy, it isn't too late," he said. "We can still turn the car around if you want to." Dad and I laughed about it for years and years.

Was it the sign I begged for? Who can say. Maybe it was; maybe not. In any event, it came after I had already reclaimed the peace I craved. Faith is, I have decided, a gift that you don't send back.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Goodnight, Sweet Prince

For Robert Sanchez, Soldier, Patriot, and Friend, who was killed in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan on October 1, 2009

And when [he] shall die, take him and cut him up in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will fall in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun. William Shakespeare

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Once Upon A Time...

...there was a little girl who lived in a very big city. In fact, it was one of the biggest cities there ever was in the whole world. But, she didn't think of it as big; it was simply home. Every now and then her mother took her and her brother and sister into the "downtown" of the big city. She didn't know why it was called "downtown," but it meant riding on a train up in the air - a train her mother called an "L"," and looking into pretty store windows, and having lunch at a restaurant called Jacques. They always dressed up to go "downtown," and that made it special too. Downtown was like a tall forest, but the trees were made of brick and concrete and steel, and stood straight and tight like broad-shouldered giants standing arm-in-arm. The little girl's name was Lindy, and she loved going into the brick forest. She wasn't at all afraid, even though her mother insisted they all hold hands so no one would get lost, and even though some people downtown talked to themselves right out loud.

Lindy wasn't the little girl's real name; but, it was the name her father gave her and the only name he ever called her. He told her about a man who flew across the Atlantic Ocean all by himself and made it safely to the other side. His name was Charles Lindbergh, and although Lindy's father didn't care much for the pilot's political ideas (which her father declared were "rusty") he liked a song that was written about Charles Lindbergh. Lindy's father loved to cross his right leg over his left, and give Lindy a ride on his foot while he sang, "Lucky Lindy up in the sky, Lucky Lindy flying so high." And - whoosh - up he'd ride Lindy and then - boom - down she would go. This game made them both happy. Although Lindy's father didn't care much for Lindbergh, he did think he had "guts," and guts were very important to Lindy's father. But when he talked about Charles Lindbergh's guts, Lindy's mother would narrow her eyes and tighten up her mouth, and say something about using words that the children might repeat, and guts was not one of the words she wanted the children to repeat. Nevertheless, Lindy's father was determined to win the argument, and Charles Lindbergh had guts it was and guts it was going to be no matter what mother thought about it.

There was nothing in the little girl's life that caused her to fear anything, until the night she was awakened by the sound of someone talking very low and far away. It sounded like her father's voice, but her father's voice was big and deep. Deep like a when she and her sister would stand on a wooden soda crate and yell down the almost empty rain barrel and the sound would come booming back at them. She got out of bed and carefully crept towards the living room and peered around the corner. The room was dark, except for a small lamp. Her father was sitting in his chair with both of his feet on the floor, his elbows on his knees, and his hands clasped in front of him. A cigarette with a long ash jiggled in his clenched fingers and an almost empty bottle of amber liquid stood sentinel on the floor. He was talking about a dog of long ago named Moochie, and about how a man in a car swerved to hit Moochie, about how her father chased the man as he drove away, how he ran for blocks down the city streets until he collapsed from exhaustion. Her father called the man bad names that Lindy knew would cause her mother's eyes to narrow and her lips to tighten. She looked to see if someone else was sitting in the darkness; but, her father was alone. She realized he was crying. Now she felt afraid. At the time she didn't realize that fathers cried. As she got older, she would learn that the good ones did.

A short time after she saw her father cry, Lindy began to have a nightmare. She was in a tunnel that looked like a subway station with gray walls, a gray rounded ceiling and a dark, wet pavement. Then she heard the "ba boomp ba boomp" sound, like the last echo of a train's retreating wheels, then a growl, and a hiss. And without turning around she tried to run, but her feet were lead. The dream came back again and again, and she became afraid to go to sleep. Then one night, while being chased by the unknown beast, she struggled to scream. She tried and she tried and finally let out a yelp that woke her up. Standing by her bed was her mother. "Had a bad dream, honey?" Her mother crawled into her bed and drew Lindy close and stroked her cheek. "Do you know what courage is, Lindy?" "Being brave?" the little girl responded. "Well, Courage and Bravery are sisters. Courage is a little older and wiser and lives up here," she said, tapping Lindy's forehead. Then she placed her hand where Lindy's heart beat and said, "Bravery lives here." Lindy looked over at the crib where her brother was fast asleep and asked, "Do they have a brother?" Mother's eyes followed Lindy's and she smiled knowingly. "Well, baby, their brother's name is Fearless." "And where does Fearless live?" With that, Lindy's mother tickled her feet until they both laughed. "He lives here where he can run, and jump and climb things he shouldn't."

"The next time you have the bad dream, I want you to use your courage and turn around. And then I want you to use your bravery and stare right back at the monster. And then Fearless can take over and chase the monster away! How does that sound?" It sounded like a pretty good idea. Lindy's mother turned out the light and sat on the floor next to the bed, and petted her hair. Her mother's perfume was Wind Song, and Lindy knew her mother was close because the familiar fragrance wrapped her up like a blanket. Eventually, the bad dream returned; but, Lindy was prepared with a plan - and it actually worked. The only glitch was Fearless. He ran backwards and out of the tunnel (so the monster might still be there.) But the nightmare was gone forever. When she told her father about defeating the monster with her Courage, Bravery and Fearlessness, Lindy's father was proud of her. "You got guts, kid," he said with a wink.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


I've been asked to select some titles for the next Slaves of Golconda book. At first I hadn't the ghost of an idea. I mean, it really was murder coming up with a theme. It was a devil of an assignment that haunted me. I think you now get the drift.

Autumn is here at last. The nights are growing cooler and soon leaves will turn their most brilliant hues - their last hurrah before...Death. Why do we love to be frightened? In what was my most recurrent nightmare, I was being chased by a frightful, demonic figure. As I tried to flee, my feet became leaden and I slogged forward knowing that right behind me breathed a beast. I was always just outside his reach. And then one night I discovered that I could run as fast as the wind with one...big...catch. I had to turn around and run backwards, thereby forcing myself to face the creature that roared and raged, ready to devour me. The nightmare never returned after that night. I had learned to face my fear, and by facing it I had defeated it. Perhaps that is why stories of mystery and suspense, of ghosties and ghoulies and monsters under the bed hold a certain goose-pimply charm for us. So, in honor of Halloween (my favorite holiday) I thought a little mystery, murder, mayhem or "things that go bump in the night" might be in order. Follow!


First published in 1926, and considered to be one of Christie's most controversial mysteries, the Murder of Roger Ackroyd breaks all the rules of traditional mystery writing. A widow's suicide has stirred rumors of blackmail, and of a secret lover named Roger Ackroyd, who was found stabbed to death in his study. The case is so unconventional that not even renowned detective Hercule Poirot has a clue how to solve it. For many Agatha Christie fans, this was her masterpiece.

THE MALTESE FALCON by Dasheill Hammett
The Maltese Falcon is a detective novel - one of the best ever written. It is also a brilliant literary work, as well as a thriller, a love story, and a dark, dry comedy.

It involves a treasure worth killing for, Sam Spade - a private eye with his own solitary code of ethics, a perfumed grafter named Joel Cairo, a fat man named Gutman, and Brigid O'Shaughnessy, a beautiful and treacherous woman whose loyalties shift at the drop of a dime. These are the ingredients of Dashiell Hammet's coolly glittering gem of detective fiction, a novel that has haunted three generations of readers. (from Google books).

Published in 1886, this is one of the best known of Stevenson's novels. It concerns the way in which an individual is made up of contrary emotions and desires: some good and some evil. Through the curiousity of Utterson, a lawyer, we learn of the ugly and violent Mr. Hyde and his odd connection to the respectable Dr. Jekyll. A brutal murder is committed. The victim is one of Utterson's clients, and the murder weapon a cane which Utterson had given to Dr. Jeykill. And so, the lawyer becomes entangled in the strange world of the physician who has created a drug that separates the good in human nature from the evil - and the despicable Mr. Hyde.


Set on the English moor, on an isolated cause-way, at a mansion in the bleak, flat wetlands - with no neighbors in sight, the story stars an up-and-coming young solicitor who sets out to settle the estate of Mrs. Drablow. Routine affiars quickly give way to a tumble of events and secrets more sinister than any nightmare.

Often compared to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, the book starts peacefully and builds to a frightening crescendo that, according to one reviewer on Amazon, "will haunt" you."
Are you game to take a sojourn (perhaps foolishly) into Eel Marsh House? What awaits you there? If you do, will you ever be the same? (I'm getting all spine-tingly just thinking about it.)
Happy Halloween! Oh, I haven't learned how to link yet - but you can always Google.  *The blurbs and reviews are taken from various sources.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night...

...which is how Snoopy perennially starts the novel he attempts to write from the roof of his doghouse.

Day One - Grad Writes A Novel:

I placed my laptop on the table in the breakfast room - the sunniest place in the house. It has a view that used to be quite lovely. That was back in the days when I had just learned to garden and threw myself into it with a frenzy. I planted and read and mulched. I deadheaded and weeded, misted and watered. Whatever I touched blossomed and thrived. Then something happened to my magic touch. The view is still green, but invasive vines seem to have choked out all the flowers, except for the Confederate Jasmine and Carolina Jessamine that have grown heavily over the arbor.

I cleaned the breakfast room windows at the beginning of the summer, except for one. A large, striped spider (a huge spider - the size of my palm) had built a magnificent web over that one and I didn't want to disturb it. My children have begged me to get rid of Flash Too (her name), but I'll have to wait until I have the time to catch her in a glass and transport her to the back of the yard (where she should have spun her web in the first place - like Flash One did several years before). One would think she could have picked a better piece of real estate - safety-wise. But I think she rather likes sunning herself.

Okay, so, hands on the keyboard. But, first I decided a pot of tea on the table would benefit the flow of thoughts (which I was certain would come fast and furious) and so off to the pantry. What kind of tea? There's Raspberry Lemon, Red Zinger, Earl Grey, Sleepytime (no, bad choice), English Breakfast. What's in that canister over in the corner? Oh, Apricot Tangerine. Just think I'll rearrange the middle shelf as long as I'm standing here. Why isn't all the tea in one place, the coffee in another, the canned goods arranged by type? The empty storage containers should be in the cabinet near the fridge, not in the pantry.

So, an hour later and I've forgotten that I wanted to brew a pot of tea. The pantry is in order. Back to the table, hands on keyboard.

Did I remember to pay the guy that cuts the lawn? The front yard looks truly awful and needs edging and mowing. I'm afraid my neighbors are talking about it. I'll just give him a call. Did I pay you? Will you come on Tuesday? In that case, should I tape the check to the door? No? Mail will do? I'll stop by the post office on my way to work on Tuesday. Thank you, thank you.

Let's see, I was in the middle of something. The laundry? The laundry!! I ran out of laundry detergent. Must run to the grocery store before I forget. They are having a sale on turkey breast, I think. So, let's see - turkey breast, stuffing mix, onions, chicken broth. We'll have Thanksgiving dinner in September! The leftovers will make great pita sandwiches during the week. Get pita bread, avocado, lettuce and tomatoes.

End of Day One of Grad Writes A Novel. At this pace, I should be published very soon.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Girl Graduate: And So Adieu

As darkness fell on May 26, 1903, a large and happy crowd gathered at the pleasant little house on Main Street. Lively music drifted out into the cool, spring evening as revelers enjoyed an elaborate wedding supper in honor of John and Estella, just married at St. John's Church. And thus, Evelyn's parents were tendered as a newly wedded couple. They welcomed Evie, their second child, into the world on May 11, 1906.

She was a happy child and a good student. And, although she had a large circle of friends and was actively engaged in outside activities, she was, at heart, a quiet girl. I suspect The Girl Graduate: Her Own Book, was given to her for her 17th birthday, just months before senior year at WHS. In any event, she began her journal in June of 1923, starting with a "Hike To Homer," accompanied by Viola, and Dorthea and someone identified only as "M," during which she collected fern fronds and flower petals, which she later carefully pressed into her little book.

Painstakingly, she chronicled the small and large events of the next year: the wedding announcement of a sister, the marriage of a teacher, the victories and defeats of the basketball and football teams (with numerous photographs of Duffy cut from newspaper accounts of his athletic prowess), the parties, dances, and club events at school. In short, she documented the life of a teenage girl during that most special of years - the year of evolution from child to woman. How impossible it was to read her journal and not be hopeful for her - even fearful for her. And each time I took the book into my hands, I prayed that the promise of youth had been fulfilled in reality. But, unlike Viola, Evie was illusive and ephemeral, and I worried about her.

After crossing the stage to receive her diploma, Evelyn stepped over the threshold of the Winona Opera House into the night, and began her adult life. Although I struggled for several years to find some thread to follow, some clue that would cast me in the right direction, the mystery of what happened to her remained. Whereas Viola actively threw herself into the community following graduation, Evie seemed to have evaporated into memory. The obvious burden I had was to determine whether she had ever married thereby changing her last name. I had limited my search to the 12 years immediately following graduation, the typical marrying years, with no luck. But as I expanded the time line, I was rewarded. On August 17, 1942, the announcement of her marriage to Rex appeared in the Winona Republican-Herald. So, Evelyn had married late in life, and I had her married name.

I wondered about the man who finally wed Evie - where they met, how long they courted, and what he looked like. I assumed she met Rex in her thirties - perhaps at work- and I feared she may have married him only as a recourse from spinsterhood. But, I was wrong. As I was preparing to write about Evie, I took out the 1924 yearbook once again to look at her graduation picture. My eyes wandered down the page, and for the first time I noticed Rex - young, blond, sweet-faced Rex. They had known each other since high school; I wondered what had taken him so long to ask the question.

In July of 1942, Rex sold his interest in a successful implement store (which had doubled its volume in sales steadily since it was started in 1938), and he and Evie moved from Winona to Madison, Wisconsin. Soon afterwards, Rex joined the army and the couple was stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia. It was in Georgia that Evelyn gave birth to her only child, James Emil, in December of 1945. She was nearly 40 years old.

There are no other facts of Evie's life that I can share with you, other than that there is a grave site at St. Mary's Cemetery in Winona with the names of three people inscribed: Rex 1908-1981, followed by James 1945-1991, and finally Evelyn 1906-1993. The dates tell some of the story. They explain why there was no one left to treasure The Girl Graduate, and why it found its way into that little antique store, and ultimately into my hands. It speaks of a mother who outlived her only child, the heartache which must have followed, and - if you believe - a joyous reunion at last. At least, that is what is settled in my own mind.

I choose to believe she enjoyed a full and happy life with Rex, that she found fulfillment in a life quietly lived, and that finding her book was not mere chance. I believe it was a gift.

Evie: Optimism, Viola.

Viola: Optimism, Evie, and a touch of faith.

Grad: Faith and optimism are sometimes all we have, dear hearts. And considering the alternative...

Evie: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely! Might as well look on the bright side. Isn't that right, Vi?

Viola: Indeed...yes...indeed! I've always said so. I'm famous for it.

Evie: Yes, of course...but, we are not talking about you at this moment, are we dear?

Viola: W-e-l-l, really Evelyn...

Grad: Come now, don't argue. Oh, I almost forgot about Duffy! Let me them about Duffy.

I must say one last word about Duffy. He went on to receive a degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin. He returned to Winona, raised a family of boisterous sons, and wrote a sports column for the Winona Republican-Herald for many years entitled, appropriately, "The Duffer." I never had any doubt about him.

So, that is all there is to the story I promised you. I ask your forgiveness in the clumsiness of its telling. I hope you understand that it if it had not been for a series of seemingly random events, it would never have been told at all. If there is a lesson to be learned, perhaps it was meant for me alone to decipher. And if there is no lesson? Well, that will be all right too.

Evelyn: Well, what do you think she will do now?

Viola: Perhaps she will put it all away, up in the attic.

Evelyn: Or, perhaps not. We lived in some pretty colorful times when we were young, Viola. It was The Jazz Age, afterall.

Viola: I still think she will box it all up and put it in the attic. What more is there to tell?

Grad: I might and I might not. It seems like a small story, I agree. But, maybe each one of us adds our own story to the one already told. And it becomes a larger story and then it becomes our history. Maybe we must tell our own stories while we are able, rather than leave it to chance? Rather than leave it to someone else from another place and another time....Is that the lesson? Evie?...Vi?

But they were gone. Perhaps there was a bridge game or a newcomer who needed to be eased through the first pangs of homesickness.

"They could have at least said good-bye," I thought, a little disappointed. I would have liked the chance to say good-bye - or hello.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Girl Graduate: Part V: Viola In Bloom

Viola sat at her bedroom window wistfully watching the falling snow. The wind was catching small sections of it, creating little frosty cyclones. Oh, how she wished she was outside to feel both wind and snow upon her face! There would be no chance of that - none whatsoever, unless she was lucky enough to get to the front door without anyone taking notice. As she gleefully pondered how she would pull off her great escape, she settled back into her chair and closed her eyes. In just a few weeks, she would celebrate her 100th Christmas. Notwithstanding the big fuss made over her last birthday, she was not certain that crossing the century mark was all it was cracked up to be.

Viola: I was not a hot house plant, after all. Surely a little cold air and a romp in the snow would have done no harm.

Grad: I imagine they just wanted to protect you, Viola. You could have caught cold, or fallen on ice and...

Viola: And what? What is there to fear at that age?

Grad: You've got a point there, Vi.

In her reverie, Viola thought about the telephone call from the stranger - something about Evie's little graduation book. She might forget what she had for lunch yesterday; but, she had no trouble at all in remembering fine details of the long-ago past. The faces of the Class of 1924 remained crystal clear to Viola; they never aged. The old woman who stared back at her from the mirror this morning was the one she could not recognize. Was it really 83 years ago that she delivered her valedictory address, she mused? She could still recite portions of it by heart.

Anyone entering Viola's room at that moment would have thought she was napping. Why did people assume that the ancient did nothing but doze, she fussed inwardly. In point of fact, she was wide awake, and young once more. It was another December - the winter of 1925. Once again she was in charge of planning an event - the annual reunion ball. Her mission was to arrange a program that would be in keeping with the "spirit of the occasion for renewing old memories of life at Old W.H.S." to be held on January 1. When she walked into the ballroom, even she was enthralled with the elaborate decorations. Viola had never felt more beautiful. She had selected a dark green silk frock with long sleeves that ended in a ruffle at each wrist. The drop waist skirt consisted of three soft tiers which, she rightly imagined, would float beautifully around her slim figure as she danced. As the strains of "I'll See You In My Dreams" filled the hall, she and a handsome young man (who I do not believe was Joseph) took to the floor - they danced all night. "If I live to be one hundred," she thought, "I will never forget how happy I am tonight." She never did forget.

As I reported previously, Viola and Joseph got "quietly married" in 1931. He became a successful lawyer; she stayed at home and raised the children which, I have no doubt, brought her satisfaction and joy. I do not know how she filled her days, but knowing Viola as I do, I am confident she filled them well. Joseph died suddenly when Viola was 57. For the first time in her life, she charted her course according to her own compass.

She would later tell her granddaughter that her life did not begin until Joseph died. She would always laugh when she said it; nevertheless, there was truth behind the wink. Joseph left her financially comfortable, and no one would have been surprised if his widow had decided to live out her days gardening and attending the theater. But such a life was not for our Viola - most definitely not.

Instead, Vi went to work. First, as an administrative secretary (apparently still utilizing what she learned in "short and type" class). And then, after attending college and receiving her four-year degree in business administration at the age of 70, as an accountant. By the way, Viola graduated from college with Honors (No surprise there, Vi), and became a charter member of the External Studies Honor Society at Winona State. Her late-in-life accomplishments continue to be a great source of pride to her family.

Viola did not retire until after she turned 80, and lived on her own until she was 95. From newsletters published by the retirement home to which she moved, it is apparent that she remained in the thick of things. Viola breathed deeply of every minute she was given.

I had planned on visiting Viola after the holidays in January 2007. I was to pack up Evie's little book, and the yearbooks. I had so many questions for her; however, I found myself in an odd situation. Whereas, by that time she was a friend to me, I was merely a stranger to her. I wasn't certain how I would ask the questions for which I wanted answers: whether all the girls had a crush on Duffie (as I surely did), whether she had learned about her paternal grandfather's suicide, her thoughts on marriage and careers, what she would have done differently. Finally I decided I'd just say hello and tell her about my journey back in time. I'd let her lead the way, and the rest would fall into place. Nevertheless, I still had to explain what I was doing there, and I was very nervous. She might find the whole project a ghastly waste of time. But I was also certain that if our roles were reversed, she would press on. So press on it was.

Viola died on January 11, 2007; we never had our meeting.

I was stunned and saddened and angry at myself for not searching harder. I could have found her a full year earlier; I could have traveled during the holiday.

Viola: Well, don't feel too badly, my dear, it could have been worse. You might have come to call when a Vikings game was on, and I would have been too busy to see you then. You would have had to wait until half time.

Grad: I was fore-warned that you were quite a Vike's fan.

Viola: Rabid, Grad, rabid.

Grad: (In a whisper so soft it could only be heard by dogs) Go, Bears.

I wish I had had the chance to tell Viola how greatly I admired her and what an inspiration she was and continues to be - how much I miss her even though we never met. I'll try to remember to breathe deeply, Vi, especially when the wind is blowing and the snow is falling and the seas are too rough to be safe. I'll try to remember to breathe deeply especially then.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Girl Graduate, Part IV: Chance or Fate

There are those occasions in life when fate and chance intersect at the perfect moment. On such occasions it matters little which element is fate, or which is chance. The reasons why this story should have been lost are many; the fact that it survived still bewilders me.

Looking back on my own journey, I believe that discovering the yearbook of the Class of 1924 was more of a catalyst to pursue this story than was Evie's journal. Whereas the journal piqued my interest; the yearbook gave breath to characters who would otherwise have been merely names in a diary. It was through the yearbook that I was drawn into these lives lived so long ago; even more, it provided me with small threads of information which, when knitted together and then pieced with other small threads, proved to be invaluable.

Whether the resurrection of the 1924 Radiograph was fate or chance, it only narrowly made it to press. The yearbook had been abandoned by prior classes due to lack of funding. But our intrepid seniors were unwilling to yield to such historical precedent (a determination that served some of them all their lives.) By way of dances, and bridge parties, bake sales, balloon sales, and advertising they inched toward the needed goal. By mid-year, it was clear that a major money-maker was sorely needed. Not only money, but time, was about to run out. Brilliant ideas are born out of desperate times. The "wiener lunch" was conceived as the last ditch effort to "save the Radiograph." And who was at the forefront of the endeavor, you might ask? Viola, business manager for the Radiograph, rolled up her sleeves and with the precision of a field marshal sending her troops into battle, coordinated the potato peeling, the cabbage chopping, and the wienie roasting to successfully serve 200 lunches to students and faculty, returning a profit of $40.00 - enough to publish the yearbook.

Pure and simple, Viola is someone who succeeded. I believe she did so quietly, and without fanfare, but there is no doubt she succeeded. As the top student in the Class of '24, Viola was offered scholarships to six colleges, including one to my Alma Mater. She chose to pursue a two year degree at the local teachers college (which would later become Winona State University, and which would play a major role in this story). It surprised no one that she graduated with honors in academics, and in athletics. Nevertheless, I was a little disappointed to learn she set her feet in that direction, for I do not believe Viola was following her passion in doing so. It is far more likely that she took the route which was most expected of her. She most surely had already met Joseph, the boy she would eventually marry, and his course was set in a particular direction. Her compass reflected his.

Joseph was, in his own right, an excellent student who attended the local Catholic school. Viola attended the Lutheran Church, and I often wonder if this dichotomy deadened both families' enthusiasm for the union. Joseph graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Law in 1929. By 1931 he was working as a lawyer in Rochester. A small article in the Winona Republican-Herald in August of that year notes that a "miscellaneous" bridal shower was given for Viola at the home of her parents. Since the evening was spent "playing bridge at three tables" it was obviously a small gathering.

In late August 1931, Viola and Joseph were quietly married at St. John's Church in Rochester. "The couple was unattended," read the newspaper. Those four words made my heart ache. The bride wore "a brown costume with accessories in harmonizing shades." I wonder if Joseph thought to present her with a small bouquet to carry, or if she might have at least worn a flower in her hair. Not everyone has, or indeed wants, a wedding of white froth and orange blossoms. That is not what saddens me about Viola's wedding day. The fact that they seem to have embarked on married life without the warm embrace of family or friends does bother me. The distance between Rochester and Winona is a little over 50 miles; and, even in 1931 would not have been a difficult journey, especially without the challenges of winter roads. Why was there no mother, or father, or sibling present; did the marriage cause a rift? Did Viola's family still suffer from questions arising from an old suicide? Were the families opposed to the marriage on religious grounds? I have no answers. If she had not been raised a Catholic, Viola certainly continued to practice as one after her marriage.

Viola and Joseph settled in Stewartville, where Joseph practiced law. He was apparently successful and opened a second office in Rochester; Viola stayed home to raise at least four children, 3 boys and 1 daughter. There is no evidence that she pursued any of her own artistic pursuits during this period. It would have been in her character, however, to fulfill her role as wife and mother with excellence.

There is an insurmountable frustration involved in telling some one's story with only a skeleton of a life to consider. I can tell you where Viola started, where she wandered, and where she eventually settled, but the essence of a person can only be the stuff of speculation with information that sketchy. Once again, as has happened so often in my pursuit of this story, fate or chance or something else intervened. I lose track of Viola as she lived out her role of wife and mother. I do not pick up any trace of her until many years later; but, I eventually do find her. And no one was more surprised than I was.

Grad: Viola, it is no surprise to me that what comes next is really the best part of your story.

Viola: Life must be lived...all of it. But, have you discovered what you were meant to learn yet?

Grad: About you?

Viola: No. What you were meant to learn.

Grad: About chance?

Viola: Oh, I don't believe in chance.

Grad: Fate, then? Like Shakespeare once said? The answer lies not in our stars but in ourselves, or something like that?

Viola: I don't believe that things are written in the stars, either. What would be the challenge in that? Keep thinking; you'll figure it out.

Grad: Well, had I known there would be a test involved afterward, I might not have started this.

Viola: Yes, you would have. You most certainly would have.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Girl Graduate, Part III: Viola Takes The Stage

It was the evening of June 12, 1924. The weather was unsettled and cooler than usual for that time of year. Lightening buzzed and crackled far off in the southeastern sky. The threat of rain hung in the air. But tonight marked the coming of age of the Class of 1924 and nothing could dampen their spirits.

The week had been a full one. Commencement Services held on June 8 at the First Congregational Church included scripture readings (which would be unheard in a public school today), a quartet of voices performing "O, Come to My Heart, Lord Jesus", a sermon entitled "A Good Investment," by the Rev. Ostergren, several hymns and prayers and finally the Postlude (the other end of a Prelude) consisting of an unspecified work by Vincent. The Senior Class Play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, had been performed - to rave reviews - the night before. All that remained was this final step forward.

Viola: I didn't think about it at that moment, but it would be the last time we were all together in one place.

Evelyn: Didn't you allude to that in your speech that night? I seem to remember you saying something about it being "a brief and fleeting moment, held aloft by a fragile gossamer cord..."

Viola: Evelyn, I do believe you are making that up.

Evelyn: No. No, on second thought I am quite sure of it.

Viola: I cannot imagine I said anything of the sort. You perhaps have my speech confused with Lucille's. She was always so dramatic - a regular Agnes Ayres in "The Sheik".

Evelyn: With Rudolph Valentino! "Captured and Carried Away!" Isn't that how the newspaper put it?

Viola: Whatever are you talking about?

Evelyn: You know, "The Sheik...A story of stolen love that has sent a new thrill through the English speaking world."

Viola: Ah, yes. But, I was making the point that Lucille was more apt to dramatics than was I. "Fragile gossamer cord" indeed - surely attributable to her.

Grad: I appreciate getting the fine details correct. Ladies, don't be shy, just jump right in whenever you feel the urge. Now, Viola's story...where shall I start?

Viola: I've always found the beginning the most logical place.

And so I shall. It was October 19, 1906. Theodore Roosevelt announced that he would once again be a candidate for the President of the United States if it appeared that William Randolph Hearst was to win his bid for governor of New York. "If the democrats win in New York, the next democratic candidate for the presidency may be William R. Hearst." This was a prospect Roosevelt regarded as a "calamity." He would therefore yield to popular demand, "cast aside a personal preference for private life," and accept another term as president - for the good of the country, of course.

Alberta Gallatin was appearing at the Winona Opera House in the N.Y. Lyric Theatre success, "Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall" complete with the original electrical effects. Tickets were selling for $1.50, although lesser desirable seats could be had for as little as 25 cents.

Men's wool suits, promising "long and satisfactory wear" were on sale for between $8 and $25 at the Columbia Clothing Store. Why was one man not as well and fittingly dressed as another, you might ask? The owners of the Columbia Clothing Store had the answer. "It is because of carelessness in buying".

But most important to my story, Viola was born. Her father's name was Edward; and, although I know her mother's maiden name I have not as yet been able to discover her first name. As was the custom then - and often remains so now - once a woman was married, she had little identity of her own separate from that of her husband. Viola's mother - when she was referred to at all in newspaper articles - was therefore identified only as "Mrs. Edward (blank)." Edward was a very young father, being only 21 years old when Viola was born. She was followed in fairly close succession by a brother, Harold, and a sister, Cleora.

I wonder about Edward's childhood and whether it might have been blighted in some way. If so, did it seep into Viola's young life as well? Despair and unhappiness are all too often legacies passed from one generation to the next.

Edward's father, Herman, was born in Germany in 1851. I do not know when he immigrated to the United States, but by 1886 he was residing in Winona, and Edward had been born. He owned his own tailor shop, although the fact that he and his family lived above a bakery suggests it may not have been an entirely profitable enterprise.

Was darkness always skulking silently around the edges of their lives, waiting like an opportunistic thief? Or was it a bold interloper who sat at the table with them every night and loudly dominated their dinner conversation? I will never know. Whatever its relationship to Herman's family, it made its presence felt on a bright June day in 1907.

On that particular morning, Edward's father had his breakfast, as usual, with his family and went to his tailor shop. At around 10:00 a.m. a customer entered the shop, having made an appointment with the tailor to alter some clothing. Finding the shop empty, he entered the little work room where Herman often did his cutting and sewing. Herman was sitting in a chair and the customer called out to him. When there was no answer, he called out again, and yet again. Advancing closer, the customer realized that Herman was dead; a revolver was lying on the floor at his side. Herman apparently placed the revolver against his right temple, just above the ear, and pulled the trigger. He had taken the precaution of loading all six chambers; only one was needed. Whatever it was that he could not face will never be known. Herman took all the answers with him.

During the investigation that followed, it was revealed that Herman had hinted at suicide the previous week. His sons were so concerned they confiscated their father's pistol. The night before his death Herman walked into the gun shop, just before closing time, and purchased another.

When her paternal grandfather took his life, Viola was almost 8 months old. Her father was 22. One has to believe there were residuals to this tragedy. If and in what way they affected Viola's life is pure speculation. And yet, surely this event would have had a profound effect on her father, and in turn, on her. Perhaps the family never spoke of it. Nevertheless, I am certain she would have known this sad family history. Its burden on her personally, or whether it had any effect on who she became, is impossible to say.

Evelyn: Where are we, Grad?

Grad: We're at the lagoon on the street where I live.

Evelyn: It seems to be a good place to think.

Grad: At this time of day, the sun sits too low in the sky. The light hurts the eyes.

Evelyn: Maybe this is a good place in the story to pause...just for a little while.

And so it is.