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.