Friday, October 13, 2017

Christine, James Drury, and Me

I wrote this in October of 2014. I had  a new book out--always a good thing--but was feeling melancholy, too. I've felt that way a lot this past year, too. Makes me more grateful than ever for sisters--by birth, by marriage, and of the heart. They are precious all.



Her name was Christine Ann and she died of diphtheria when she was three, nine years before I was born. In the few pictures of her that remain, she has straight white blonde hair and sturdy legs in long cotton stockings. “I always thought she would have been big when she grew up,” my mother said. My father never talked about her. My other sister, Nancy, who was two years older than Christine, still grieves.

I was the youngest in my family. There were three brothers between my sisters and me. I was a girly girl on a farm, and I was lonely. So I thought a lot about Christine. I was convinced she would have liked me. She would have wanted to play house with me and talk about Little Women and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. She’d have been a willing participant in dress-up, swinging high enough to touch that branch up there, and playing with kittens in the hay mow in the barn.

I used to pretend, when I was unhappy, that she had not died. She was not only my sister, but my imaginary friend.

For years after her death, Mom would write notes to her in her baby book. “You would be nine today…what a big girl…we miss you so much.” I used to cry over the baby book, for the sister I never knew, for Nancy who’d lost the sister she really loved, for Mom and Dad, who surely would have liked me better if they hadn’t lost her. I cried for myself, too, because I never felt I measured up to the invisible daughter-sister bar.

Years after the last time I read my mother’s notes to Christine in her baby book, someone wrote an article in RWR about wanting the heroine in books she read to be her sister. This was years before I was published, before I’d even finished the first dreadful manuscript. I don’t remember the article well enough to quote it, nor do I know who wrote it, but I knew then what kind of women would populate my stories.

They would be sisters. Even if they were only children, they would have best friends they loved like sisters. They would be flawed, often pretty but probably not beautiful. Some would be heavy, some skinny. None of them would have particularly good hair unless they had broad hips to offset it. They wouldn’t dress especially well, excel at very many things, or cry prettily. They would be neither brave nor stupid. When they sang, it would be out of tune, but they would sing anyway.


I am meandering in this post, for which I apologize, but Christine’s birthday would have been October 11 and she is on my mind a lot. I’ve only lately realized how much her brief life and too-early death had to do with me being a romance writer.

Because her story was the first one I ever made up.

She not only swung with me and read with me and played with me in the quiet of the barn, but in my imagination, I saw her as an adult whose bright blue eyes never faded, whose blonde hair never darkened. The twelve years between us would have been like nothing if she’d lived. She’d have married a man who looked like James Drury. He would have liked it if Christine’s little sister spent vacations and long weekends with them. They lived, oh, yes, happily ever after.

I’ve aged, but in my mind she has not. The tenderness, angst, and sweetness of those imaginings are as clear to me today as they were when I was a little girl missing the sister I’d never known. I still miss her, but I think I was wrong. I think I knew her after all. Happy birthday, Christine.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Confessions of a square peg

I wrote this in 2004, seven years before I retired from the proverbial day job. Although I loved the workplace where I spent 30 years, I was happy to leave it. Most of the "good work" in my classification was gone, replaced by bigger machines and bigger offices, so all I really missed was the people I worked with. I was startled when I read back over this that I'd used the word "broad" more than once, because I hate the term as much now as I did then. It was in this workplace that I learned a lot about sexism--including the fact that I am sometimes guilty of it myself--and a few other of the isms that continual to do structural damage to society. 

I wore my favorite green slacks (size ten) and the velour shirt that matched them. I was thirty; age-wise I fell to the younger side of the middle of the work force at my new job. One of five women in an office of fifty employees, I was so nervous on that first day I must have gone to pee every half hour. Which was, several men commented dryly, no more than they expected from a broad. They supposed I would be the next one to get pregnant and stand around and ask for help and not be able to do my job.

What was I doing here? I certainly didn't fit.

Two of the women I worked with were pregnant. They didn't stand around, and they always did their jobs. We all did, and the only ones we asked for help were each other, because we didn't like being called broads and we didn't like being bitched about.

I learned a lot in that first few months. That some men gossiped and lied and that cute young women in tight pants (smaller than a size ten) didn't have to work as hard as others. That no one cared if my youngest had spots and a temperature of a hundred and climbing; I was supposed to be at work. On time.

But I also learned that working with men isn't really much different from working with women. I had female bosses who were as susceptible to a fresh-out-of-college man with washboard abs and a beguiling wink as their male counterparts were to the aforementioned cute, young, and tightly wrapped. I learned that behavior explained as PMS in women is just a bad mood in men.

I worked very, very hard because that was the way I was brought up and because, truth be told, more was expected from the five women. We had to prove that we could do historically male jobs as well as the men. So we did. After while, no one used the term "broad" very much and though the bitching didn't lessen, it did become pretty much gender-blind, which was all most of us cared about.

Now I'm fifty-something. I wear blue jeans to work most days, the ones with elastic insets in the sides of the waist because now I buy a size fourteen. The office still has about fifty people, but the man-woman ratio is closer to fifty-fifty these days. Of the women in that equation, I am the oldest. Young, cute, and well-built still pays off - time hasn't changed human nature that much. Working hard, once a source of personal pride, has become something rather pointless, even foolish. Response to the word "loyalty" is generally a blank look. Be on time? Why?

"I hate this place," I mutter on a semi-daily basis. My friends and I talk about retirement, counting off the days toward it like children waiting for Christmas. We talk about traveling at our convenience rather than our employers', being Wal-Mart greeters, sleeping till we feel like getting up. It will be so much fun, we say, even though we'll have to be more careful with money and pray harder for good health since insurance costs will be heart-stopping. We can't wait!

Oh, but there's the rub, because I can wait; I'm not ready. I want to give my 401k a chance to recuperate a little from its recent dip into the toilet. I'd also like to shore up my mad money account, buy some new appliances, and maybe trade cars. I have a new grandchild due to arrive in Vermont in March. I live in the Midwest, and I want to see this sixth grandbaby more than the once a year my retirement income will allow.

I've always planned on retiring at sixty, or fifty-five at the earliest, but I don't feel welcome in the workplace anymore. I work too hard, and have little patience with office politics and tales of who's bonking whom. I resent pregnancy being treated as an illness calling for hours of break-room rest instead of a planned condition that one works through with care. I'm sick to death of the cry of "it's not my job" no matter what the job is and of the terse "because I can" when a supervisor is asked the reason for an order that seems out of line.

What am I doing here? I certainly don't fit.

But I've learned more things as the years have gone by.

My work ethic is mine, and it's not something I can visit on someone else just because I don't like theirs. Although I will still give loyalty because I don't know how to do anything else, I am now smart enough not to expect it in return. I've learned, and repeat to myself almost every day, that my employers don't have to value me; they have only to pay me. I finally accept that being in the minority on an issue doesn't make me right or wrong; it makes me out-voted. Being a sort-of-liberal residing in Indiana, I should have known that anyway, but I'm still voting for underdogs every time. I don't fit in my ultraconservative geographical area any better than I do in my thirties-oriented workplace.

But my home is still my home, and my place of work is still where my paycheck comes from. Just as I love my neighborhood even if I am a square peg in its round hole, so do I like the office where I've spent twenty-some years of my working life. And it really doesn't matter if I fit.

Friday, September 29, 2017

They're the parents of a player...

I wrote this in August of 1991, when my years on bleachers were winding down, and it's probably been my most repeated essay ever. It's a little dated, I guess, because it's been a long time, but I still think there's very little that's better than watching your kids be engaged, whether it's in sports, drama, debate, or anything else. There are things I'm sorry for from my active parenting days, things I wish I'd said or done and things I wish I hadn't. But I don't regret one minute of being a spectator. 

Picture borrowed without conscience from https://www.facebook.com/nmwarriorfootball/ Watching players walk the field is more moving than I can begin to express.


They're the parents of a player. You'll recognize them because they're the ones carrying umbrellas, rain ponchos, winter coats, a big Thirty-One bag full of blankets, and enough money for the entire family to stuff themselves on popcorn and Spanish hot dogs and nachos because there wasn't enough time for supper before the game.

They bring the weather gear even on a clear night, you'll notice, because although clouds may burst with bucketfuls of rain or snow or both, the parents won't have the option of going home or even to the car. It doesn't matter if everyone else leaves the stands--as long as the players are on the field, their parents are in the bleachers.

She's the mother of a player. You'll recognize her because she's the one whose chin wobbles and whose eyes get big when someone screams at the player she belongs to. She's the one who only claps politely when her son's name is called in the team lineup because she doesn't want anyone teasing her about being unduly biased.

She's the one who, when her son does something wonderful on the field, comes completely unglued and spills popcorn and extra blankets all over the people below her on the bleachers as she jumps up and down and screams, "Way to go, honey!"

She's the mother of a player. You'll recognize her because when a player is down, regardless of who it is, she grows silent and covers her mouth with her hand and swallows hard. She's the one who says, "Is he all right? Is he getting up?" in a whisper heard all around. She's the one who, when he gets up and is fine, is first to clap her hands and laugh breathlessly and shake the fearful moisture from her eyes.

She's the mother of a player. You'll recognize her at the grocery store at five in the morning in her sweats buying food so her son can eat in that twilight time between school and game that is is own. She's the one who has washed uniforms 10,000 times and would cheerfully wash them 10,000 more if it will only keep the player safe.

He's the father of a player. You'll recognize him by his hat. It will have his son's team name on the front above the bill and a number stitched somewhere over his ear. It's a silent advertisement that says, "I'm his dad."

He's the father of a player. You'll recognize him because he's the guy working in the concession stand and craning his neck to see over the customers' heads. He will interrupt his "Can I help you?" spiel with a banshee yell of, "THAT'S IT! THAT'S IT!" and then go on as if nothing had happened. But he'll be smiling real hard.

He's the father of a player. You'll recognize him as the man in the bleachers who doesn't yell very much and never criticizes a player who is not his own. Mistakes make him angry, but someone else drawing attention to those mistakes makes him angrier.

He's the father of a player. You'll recognize him by the blaze of fierce pride that crosses his face and by the look of pain when the kid blows it. Every parent knows that expression of agony--it's the one you wear when you'd like to draw all your child's pain into yourself so he wouldn't have to feel it. Ever.

They're the parents of a player. On Senior Night, she'll be the one with a rose and he'll be the one with his chest puffed out. And their good cheer and enthusiasm on Senior Night will seem a little quiet, a little forced, because they know it's nearly over.

They know they'll soon be able to eat regular meals on Friday nights. That they'll no longer have to spend money on things like football packages and special shoes and funny gloves. That they won't have to sit on wobbly bleachers at away games and listen to announcers who can't pronounce their son's name.

They know the extra blankets and weather gear can go way to the back of the closet and they've probably bought the last bottle of rubber cement necessary for the scrapbook.

Pretty soon, they won't be reading Saturday morning's newspaper before the ink has completely dried and sitting at the kitchen table to listen to "Coach's Corner" on the radio. And they'll be envying the parents of underclassmen who play the game because they get to do it all again next year and maybe the year after.

They're the parents of a player. You'll recognize them because they're always there. Always.


Friday, September 22, 2017

At the end of the day...

This essay is comparatively new--I wrote it in 2012. I had a book out called A Soft Place to Fall, about a marriage gone wrong and how two people found ways to make it right. I still have a soft spot for that book and for long marriages. I regret that I sometimes get a little too glib when I talk about it--I make it all sound easy when it's not at all. At the end of the day, though, marriage is private and what goes on within it is not to be shared. No one really understands anyone else's. Looking back on this, my feelings toward my parents' marriage haven't changed, but I have come to realize that--at the end of that day I just mentioned--it wasn't really any of my business.


“A great marriage is not when the 'perfect couple' comes together. It is when an imperfect couple learns to enjoy their differences.” ― Dave Meurer

On September 28, 1935, my parents went to a minister’s house and got married. My dad wore a double-breasted suit and my mom had on a hat. They stayed married through the rest of the Great Depression and three wars, through the births of six children and the death of one at the age of three, through failing health and the loss of all their parents and some of my father’s siblings. Dad died in 1981, Mom in 1982. They were still married.

From the viewpoint of their youngest child, who was born in their early 40s when they thought they were finished with all that, it was the marriage from hell. I never saw them as a loving couple, never saw them laugh together or show affection or even hold hands. They didn’t buy each other gifts, sit on the couch together, or bring each other cups of coffee. The only thing I was sure they shared was that—unlike my husband and me—they didn’t cancel out each other’s vote on Election Day.

“Why on earth,” I asked my sister once, “did they stay together all those years? Mom could have gone home to her family, even if she did have to take a whole litter of kids. Heaven knows Dad could have.” (He was the adored youngest son and brother—he could do no wrong.)

Nancy gave me the look all youngest siblings know, the one that says, “Are you stupid?” When you’re grown up, it replaces the look that says, “You’re a nasty little brat.” But I regress.

“Don’t you get it?” my sister asked. Her blue eyes softened. So did her voice. “They loved each other. Always. They just didn’t do it the way you wanted them to.”

Oh.

I remembered then. When they stopped for ice cream because Mom loved ice cream. How they sat at the kitchen table across from each other drinking coffee. How thin my dad got during Mom’s long illness because “I can’t eat if she can’t.” When they watched Lawrence Welk reruns together and loud because—although neither would admit it—their hearing was seriously compromised.
And the letters. The account of their courtship. We found them after Mom’s death, kept in neat stacks. They wrote each other, in those days of multiple daily mail deliveries, at least once a day and sometimes twice. When I read those letters, I cried because I’d never known the people who wrote them.

I have to admit, my parents’ lives had nothing to do with why I chose to write romantic fiction. I got my staunch belief in Happily Ever After from my own marriage, not theirs. But how you feel about things and what you know—those change over the years.

As much as I hated my parents’ marriage—and I truly did hate it—I admire how they stuck with it. I’ve never appreciated the love they had for each other, but I’ve come to understand that it never ended. I still feel sorry sometimes for the little girl I was, whose childhood was so far from storybook that she wrote her own, but I’m so grateful to have become the adult I am. The one who still writes her own stories.

But—and this is the good part—these are the things I know.

Saying “I love you” doesn’t always require words. Sometimes it’s being unable to eat because someone else isn’t. Sometimes it’s stopping for ice cream. Sometimes—and I realized this the other day when my husband and I were bellowing “Footloose” in the car—it’s hearing music the same way, regardless of how it sounds to anyone else.

Marriage is different for different people. So is love. So is Happily Ever After.

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad.

Friday, September 15, 2017

If you're saving it for good, the time is now...

This is from 2010, and I can't say I remember the reason for writing it. I like it, though. I still feel the same way. Yeah, I know change is good, but I also know that no matter how old I get, I'm not good at it. When I think of collections I think of my mother-in-law's teapots--and of her--and my heart breaks a little, but I also remember the fun she had collecting them and the fun we all had helping her find them. They were, like the quilt I talk about below, well loved, and I like having the ones she gave me.


She had collected experiences, I realized, as much as she had collected all these things. - Jenny Moore





I’m not a collector. I’m also not a saver-of-new-things. About the only thing I collect or save up is dust, and I’m told that’s not in demand on the resale market. While I enjoy other people’s collections, I don’t want any of my own. (In a disclaiming aside here, I will admit to having more fabric than I’ll ever get sewn and two more laptops than I actually need, but I’m not collecting them. Exactly.)

To try put my shattered focus into semi-one-place, let me try this again. I don’t save things for “good.” I don’t have Sunday dishes or company towels or candles that have never been lit. The quilts I have from previous generations are on beds, not put away to be passed on. I’ve learned not to maintain a three-size wardrobe, because even if I lose enough weight to wear the smallest size, I don’t like the clothes anymore.
My grandkids’ drawings are not kept neatly in scrapbooks for them to have and laugh over when they are grown; they hang on the refrigerator until the paper is yellow and curled and has footprints on it from hitting the floor too many times. Sometimes they hang there even longer. My first granddaughter’s drawing of a lion is held in place by a business card magnet. Mari was probably five when she drew the lion and she’s now in her third year at Ball State. I might take it down if she drew me another, but then again I might not. I like it where it is, the way it is.

The drawing would probably look much better if it had been kept clean and flat for fifteen years, but I would not have enjoyed it every day. I wouldn’t have taken a fresh mental snapshot of our own little red-haired girl each time I looked at it. I wouldn’t remember the day of her birth so often.

A few years ago, my daughter-in-law Tahne gave us a set of Christmas dishes. My first thought was to use them just during the holidays, and then only when we had a sit-down meal. This way they would not get broken and sometime in the future, the aforementioned granddaughter would inherit them and look at her mother and say, “What am I supposed to do with these? I don’t think Nana’s washed them since 2005.”

Instead, we use the dishes all the way through the holidays and whenever else we feel like it. That none of them are broken yet is both miraculous and maybe a clue that they are meant to be used and enjoyed whenever the mood strikes, not just at Christmas.

Christmas, by the way, is the reason I’m writing this. I know I’m not saying anything original here. I’m pretty sure there are Lifetime movies based on this very premise. But we’ll get and give gifts at Christmas, which is going to be here in about fifteen minutes, as quickly as time’s going these days. Some of those gifts will be complete failures, some will be okay, some will be fun, and some will be keepers. Ones you put up to use at the perfect time and the perfect place.

I hope you don’t—keep them and put them up, I mean. Use them. Wear them out. My other daughter-in-law, Laura, made me a quilt as a reward for quitting smoking nine years ago. It’s queen-size, beautiful, and never gets too far from my bed, but I told my son I thought maybe I should put it away so it wouldn’t be worn out when it came time for Laura’s and his son to inherit it. He said he thought something well-loved might be a better gift than something well-preserved. I didn’t put it away.

Collecting isn’t bad, by any means, but I’m kind of glad I don’t. I’d rather wear the things in my life out by enjoying them. I don’t want the gifts I give or the ones I receive to be keepers. I’d rather they were things remembered than things passed on to the next generation in good shape.

As another side note (remember my little problem with focus), remember what my son said about well loved being better than well preserved? I think that goes for people, too. Even though I’d like to be a whole lot better preserved than what I am, well loved is better. I wish it for all of you. Till next time.