What is your first memory?

My mother had a recurring dream while we lived in the cottage beside the river. Great rains would come and she’d wake to find the house unhinged upon the flooding water. Her brand new sewing machine sat upon a porch the real cottage didn’t have. The machine’s weight tilted the house to one side and she must throw it overboard or lose everything.

The cottage wasn’t this bad.

My uncle slept on the top bunk in our bedroom for a while after my grandparents died only a week apart from each other. While serving as a Seabee during the war, he had put my grandmother in charge of his Navy pay in hopes of buying his own house and starting a family upon return. The lure of buying a house of her own had been too much for my grandmother. My uncle returned from the Pacific to find himself broke and forced to live with his siblings and parents. What could he offer a wife? When my grandparents died my uncle was distraught over not having been able to forgive his mother. He then had a nervous breakdown.

That is my first memory: my father yelling at a grown man in a bunk bed.

The television on the formica kitchen counter flickered the black and white moon landing. I rushed outside with my visiting cousins. The idea of space suits and adjusting to a lunar environment terrified me.

My cousin, Lucy, wore canvas smiley sneakers that she’d just gotten from Valley Fair (the department store our parents shopped at when they couldn’t afford Sears). I envied Lucy those sneakers. It’s funny to think that a four or five-year-old could envy anyone, but I did. We snuck into the dark, swampy woods alive with mosquitoes and skunk cabbage, Lucy complaining of the mud inching up the rubber soles of her sneakers.

Far off and partially hidden by trees lurked an abandoned Volkswagon Beetle with the windows down and Virginia Creeper running riot over the interior. My older cousin, grabbed us by the shoulders. “There’s someone in there! Run!”

We tore back through the woods, our shorts catching on blackberry brambles until my cousin screamed. I saw my younger sister far ahead of us breaking into the light of our spongy but mowed yard — always the tattle tale.

My poor sneaker-clad cousin had trodden through a muddy patch. My older cousin yelled, “Quick sand!”

How we knew about quick sand is beyond me now, but there was Lucy crying and wallowing; afraid to move forward or back. I stood on the edge of the unfolding tragedy. My cousin might be lost forever, but this didn’t seem to trouble me. I only thought about the sneakers. Of course my older cousin, a boy, had to have known that his sister would not die in six inches of mud. I may even remember him smirking.

There was my little sister again, furtively glancing back, only once, at the light from the adult world of the yard. She carried three pale blue bathroom towels in her arms, the corner of one trailing through the muck of the undergrowth. Do skunks eat skunk cabbage? My mind wandered. My sister and two of my cousins pulled Lucy, sobbing now, to safety — minus one of the sneakers. They did their best to wipe off the remaining one, but even my older cousin was unwilling to attempt fishing the other from the depths of the quick sand. The towels were tossed beside a moss-covered stump teeming with creepy white worms.

The cousins were loaded into their boat of a car soon after, Lucy still crying over her lost sneaker. My uncle was squeezed between my cousins in the back seat that afternoon. My father had enough of his wallowing. He must go back to the family house he never wanted and make peace with his bachelorhood.

That evening it rained, the spongy earth bled into our basement again. My father spent all night like a crew member on a sinking ship pushing water with a big broom out the door of my parents’ newly finished bedroom. My mother read to us in our bedroom, the bunk bed ours again.

What I didn’t know back then was that my father blamed my mother for the cottage on the flood plain located so far from his parents’ home — a home he would have gladly stayed in (even after marriage) if it meant it would have prevented his parents’ deaths. My mother had saved her money to buy the house while he was away in Germany. He hadn’t spoken to her in months.

From the bunk bed I sometimes worried about the house tipping over. I thought about my cousin nearly vanishing in quick sand. The world felt so wet and slippery. The smell of mildew was everywhere.

How about you? What’s your first memory? Let me know in the comments!

“Your life is your medicine.” Dr. Cassie Huckabee

Only yesterday, I called my adult daughter to ask her to tell me I was an okay writer.

My mother once knitted and donated an entire barnyard full of stuffed animals — a grey horse with glorious mane and mini bridle, a cow with black spots and pink udders, and pigs with soft, felted snouts — to the annual Christmas fair at the Catholic school we attended. I remember the timid pride in her eyes as she lovingly tucked the animals into their special boxes and brought them to the organizers the night before the event.

It was my first year at the school — fifth grade — and the atmosphere of the gymnasium on that Saturday morning was as unsettling on the weekend as it was during the week. The smell of boiling hot dogs and warm popcorn filtered in from the adjacent cafeteria as a cute boy from my grade brushed by. The popular girls stood under the basketball net in their cheerleader uniforms having just come back from an away game, their cheeks rosy with the health that comes from being part of an accepted clan.

I trailed a few steps behind my mother who browsed disinterestedly at the lacy plaques and decorated wooden spoons. Even then I had an aversion to frills and cheap prettiness like my mother. I don’t know if she had ever said a word about such things or if she’d passed it through blood into her children. Just like my mother I sought the knitted animals, hoping if they didn’t sell that they would come back home.

Not a single person said hello to us, and we made no effort either as we wound down the crowded aisles of holiday shoppers. After a pile of “seconds” socks my mother stood still. I came beside her and followed her gaze. There were the animals, bent and thrown about like useless cattle in a muddy feedlot. One of the pigs lay on the floor muddied by someone’s boot. My mother’s face showed no expression whatsoever. After a moment she scooped up the pig, brushed it off quickly and set it down on the table, as if she were ashamed to have anyone see that she had given her heart to this project, before pulling us away to get promised hot dogs. She never made animals again.

My father, a brilliantly funny and smart man, took codeine once before public speaking to ease his anxiety. His thirst was so severe and his mind so benumbed with the drug, he could not connect with his audience and came home in shame.

My poison of choice has been a sort of misguided humanitarianism. I profess to love the world but have real trouble with the individuals. The world does not beat me down, but individuals do and have. Don’t get me wrong, I have many wonderful relationships, but when I’m in poison mode I unwittingly seek the drowning man who in his own panic and self-loathing drags the rescuer into the murky deep.

I think sometimes that one of the reasons some readers express frustration and annoyance when reading about BUCK CRENSHAW in my novels is that he’s so blind to his self-sabotage. Time and again he makes such stupid decisions. He can also be cruel — not the best thing in a lead character. Yet I’m cruel, too, when I feel unloved.

Our genealogy bequeaths us with some pretty annoying habits: silence, explosive anger, neediness, reticence, inability to give an honest compliment or honest criticism. My sister didn’t speak to me for years because she knew that I had married a mess of a man (it had seemed easier than losing a good man’s love). It would have been nice if someone had told me what they were thinking back then.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past. All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born.”

William Faulkner

Since Thanksgiving I’ve been thinking about all this stuff again because as a family for generations we’ve let our hurts define us. I’ve spent years being just like Buck, blind to the patterns that come with being overprotective of self. As a child it makes total sense, but as an adult it dampens out creativity and joy. How many more holiday dinners will I spend racing through a meaningful story because I’m afraid of the response from “my audience”? My family around the table seems so distant in these moments, like the shadows you see when you’re on stage.

I read this a few days ago:

Travel and tell no one,
live a true love story
and tell no one,
people ruin beautiful things.

Kahlil Gilbran

I’m not sure I completely agree but I understand the advice.

As some of you know, we adopted a profoundly traumatized child from foster care. I’m going to be honest and say that part of the reason for me taking her on was to prove that I was a valuable person despite not selling a ton of books. Of course at the time I wasn’t fully aware of my underlying reasons. I did truly want to help her “get better.”

Here’s another truth: she doesn’t want to get better. It’s easier to stay the victim. I understand. It is easier in a way. But it’s terrible. She’s like the living embodiment of all the worst case self-sabatoges. And because of that she becomes quite often extremely unlovable. It makes me think of Buck. It makes me think of me.

Of course there are moments when we are all lovable, when the drama, the noise, the self-doubt, the picking at wounds still can’t shut out the beauty of a human soul. I think all of my Buck Crenshaw stories are treasure hunts. Behind all of his self-protection is a boy who had hoped to be loved but wasn’t. Spolier alert: he finds love.

We have all experienced being unloved at some point. Sometimes we invite it in and sometimes it just crashes into your house like a wayward airplane. We idealize home for the holidays because in that womb we still hope it is safe even if it never has been. We want our little barnyard menagerie to be cuddled. We want our books to be read, our dreams to be understood and for our family to come with a clean slate and endless patience to put up with our egos and idiosyncracies. In short we want to be adored.

“Your life is your medicine.”

Dr. Cassie Huckabee

What medicine will I choose?

I’ve never written to anyone before and I quite like it.

A loyal friend is like a safe shelter; find one, and you have found a treasure. Nothing else is as valuable; there is no way of putting a price on it.  A loyal friend is like a medicine that keeps you in good health. Sirach 6:14-16

There is nothing like the thrill of opening the mailbox and finding a handwritten letter inside. I strongly believe in genetic memory. Even before our letters drew us closer, I felt an immediate knowing, a bond on a deeper level than made any sense with my distant cousin, Peter.

I met Peter for the first time two years ago when I was researching our shared ancestors. He’s an older gentleman (just turned 88 this past May). Peter drove us through the valley and up onto the hills now covered with state forest that once belonged to our ancestors. His wife, Grace, and daughter, Patti, brought along a picnic of homemade potato salad, sandwiches and cookies. We sat chatting beneath dappled August sunlight by the pond it is my dream to someday own.

McKenzie, my daughter, was along and was most grateful for the cookies and the way she was treated like instant family. After only a few hours touring the haunts of our forebears we said goodbye. A few months later I sent Peter and his wife a card to let them know I was thinking of them. Peter responded with a letter and we’ve been happily corresponding ever since.

At first I wondered was it just that as a writer I was enjoying his letters because of his answers to questions I had about our shared homeland, but it wasn’t that. Once last winter Peter’s daughter called to ask me how I was doing. It was unusual because we had hardly spoken after the picnic.

“I’m well. How are you?” I asked. “Is everything okay with your parents?”

“Oh, yes. The reason I’m calling is because Dad asked me to. He’s worried since he hasn’t received a letter in the last few weeks.”

No longer did I have to worry if my questions had been too intrusive or my letters too rambling. He liked receiving them as much as I did receiving his.

When he told me things about his childhood I would realize that I had already focused on those same themes and come to the same conclusions about our shared relations from the past while writing the story about my 3x greatgrandfather and his 2x great grandmother (my 3x great aunt). The dynamics Peter talked about between himself and his father were almost identical to the ones I imagined when writing about his great grandfather and his sons. Somehow our letters and my writing were tapping into the same magic!

This last summer McKenzie and I went to the family reunion in the same valley by the pond and I was thrilled when I saw Peter and Grace arrive dressed in their Sunday best — overdressed — but perfect to me. He tipped his straw fedora and his wife gave me a hug. It felt like all we did was eat that day. First at the reunion and then when Peter and McKenzie conspired to keep the day going with dinner out.

It was late when we said our goodbyes. Peter and Grace have a caretaker of sorts. A somewhat pushy lady with a good heart but lacking in sentimentality.

“Give me your email and cell phone number so Peter has it,” she said in her no-nonsense way.

Peter had sent McKenzie a few letters too but she’d lost interest in writing replies. “I can’t read your handwriting,” she said, much to my annoyance.

He laughed good-naturedly, but the caretaker jumped in.

“Okay, from now on you can tell me what to write and I’ll type it into an email,” she said to Peter.

Peter looked as crestfallen as I felt for a moment.

“I’ve never written to anyone before and I quite like it,” he said.

. I couldn’t let this happen no matter how well-meaning the caretaker.

“Peter, this doesn’t let you off the hook with me,” I said. “I love your handwritten letters and I can read them just fine.” The very idea of an intermediary!

He clasped my hands in his. “I love them too. I won’t stop. I promise,” he said mirroring my own devotion.

True friendships are so rare. Finally I am old enough not to take them for granted.

On the drive home the next day I received a text from an unknown number. “Are you home yet?”

At the next stop I answered. “Who is this?” though I was pretty sure I knew.

“It’s Peter.”

It’s never too late to make friends and write letters.

Anyone out there still have pen pals?

Family Histories: An Unexpected Trip

Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.

Today BRIAN from EQUINOXIO shares a secret story from his mother who served in the French Women’s Army Corps at the end of  World War II:

The photograph came in the post. In a manila envelope, with a note from my brother:

“Here’s a picture of the family star. You’ve probably seen it before. I had it enlarged. Ask her the story behind it. I hope it lifts her spirits. Hugs. Richard.”

My brother’s handwriting was as bad as usual. But decipherable. I looked at the photo. A black & white blow-up of a picture I had indeed seen before in a much smaller format. The enlarged pic was good. My brother had been a photographer before shifting to flea market vendor of old furniture. Had he enlarged the photo himself?

One could easily recognize my mother, early twenties maybe, in an army uniform. With a cap daintily placed on her combed back dark curly hair. She wore a French W.A.C. uniform (Women’s Army Corps). What the French called a P.F.A.T: Personnel Féminin de l’Armée de Terre. Army Female Personnel. Or so I thought. On close look there were wings on her cap. So she was Air Force Auxiliary Personnel. A P.F.A.A, pronounced “Péfa”. There was tall grass in the foreground, trees in the background. It looked like the picture was taken in a garden or a field. Maybe at my grandfather’s house in Rennes? I remembered the house, on the outskirts of the city. It opened up on fields all the way to the horizon.

I’d never asked my mother ‘why the uniform?’ I’d assumed she’d joined the Armed forces at the end of the war as so many had, when France had been liberated. But I had no details. I only knew she’d met my father in Air France in the Fall of ’45, in Paris.

I put the photo and note back in the envelope. I’d give it to her in the evening when I dropped by my parent’s house on my way back from the office.

F Berlin

My mother was in bed. She was mostly bed-ridden then with the cancer that would eventually claim her life. Though always a fighter, she still tried her best to walk a few steps every morning and afternoon in her room. She would say a phrase I will always remember:

“Bon! Ne mollissons pas.” ‘Let’s not get soft’. She would swing her feet to the side of her bed, maybe ask for a helping arm, walk a few steps in the room to a nearby armchair. Rest for a while. Chat. Get up, walk a few more steps and climb back in bed.

She was in good spirits as I kissed her cheek. Later, in the last weeks of the “crab”, she stopped talking. She’d once said that before her mother died in ’44, of a cardiac condition and the privations of the war, she’d spent the last weeks without a word, or a complaint, never whining. Neither were whiners.

I showed her my brother’s envelope. She smiled. Read the note. Said: “your brother’s handwriting is getting worse every day.” Looked at the picture and said:

“Hah! Of course. I remember that picture. That was in Rennes (Brittany) outside your grandfather’s garden.”

“When was that?” I asked. “Do you remember?”

“Summer of ’45, I think. I joined the Air Force after my mother died, that must have been late ’44 or early ’45. There was nothing else to do. Not many jobs. Brittany, Paris, and most of France had been liberated but the war was still on. The Germans were fighting back very hard. Remember the Ardennes?”

“Yes”, I said, “The German counter-offensive that took the Allies by surprise. In the winter of ’44-’45? Were it not for Patton, the outcome of the war could have been very different. So, you were stationed in Rennes?”

“Yes. I lived in Rennes, so I signed up there. I wanted to go to Paris. I’d never left Brittany, and Paris sounded like a promise of liberty. The Air Force was as good an option as anything else.”

My mother never finished high school. Between a working-class background, blue-collar to a fault, the war, her mother’s illness, she had to drop-out. As a typist. At least she had a trade. She even taught my sister and I shorthand. Which I forgot, of course. Quite fun, it was like writing in code.

“I was a typist at the military command for Brittany,” my mother went on. “I asked the Colonel several times for a transfer to Paris. Which he always refused. I was getting desperate to move out of Brittany.”

“What did you do then?” I asked.

She laughed: “I sneaked into the Colonel’s office one day while he was out somewhere. Probably in the loo. And I stole a few “ordres de mission” forms that were lying on his desk. Orders and transportation forms. I filled them with my name, destination Paris, assignment: typist at the Ministry of War, Paris, forged the Colonel’s signature, and hopped on the first train to Paris.” Smile. She was pleased with herself. And I was not surprised. She could cut corners.

“I remember those trains,” I said, “when I was in the Army, stationed near Rennes. Took them back and forth to Paris for a full year! The train back to Paris was always a train to freedom. And nobody noticed? That your orders were forged?”

“No. You must remember this was the war. People moving around, stationed here, moved there, the Colonel probably never even noticed I was gone!”

She was smiling at the good trick she’d played. Got her way as she had always done and would always do. I can imagine the young, pretty Breton girl having the time of her life in Paris.

“If you left for Paris around April or early May, you were, what? Barely 18, or 19?” (My mother was from May 18th, 1926)

“Yes. I was 19. Barely, but old enough to know I wanted a different life.”

“I can imagine. And how was work at the Ministère de la Défense?”

“Mostly boring. I was at the typing pool. Memos and memos, in 4 or 5 copies, with carbon paper. In early May 1945, the race was on between the Allies and the Russians to see who would deal the final blow to the Germans. We all knew it was a matter of days.”

“Hitler shot himself on April 30th in the Bunker in Berlin. Goebbels and his wife killed their six children before killing themselves as well. The Soviets were rushing West, the Allies running East at full speed.”

“Yes”, she said, “the thing was: who would get to Berlin first?”

“The Russians did, right?”

The Soviet Army under Joukov (Zhukov in English) and the first US Army corps under Hodges make their junction on the river Elbe at Torgau on April 25, 1945. The Reichstag is destroyed by the Soviets on April 30th, the red flag hoisted over the ruins. On May 2nd, the German troops in Berlin surrender to the Russians. On May 7th, the Germans surrender in Reims to the Allied troops (British, US, French). On May 8th, Keitel signs unconditional capitulation of the Reich in front of all four Allies including the Soviet generals. A third of Berlin has been completely destroyed, up to 70% in the centre of the city.

“Yes, the Russians got there first,” my mother said. “And then, on May 8th, the war was over. Celebration everywhere, Blue, White, and Red flags in all the streets of Paris, and every village. Japan was still fighting in the Pacific, but for us, in Europe, it was over…”

“And then what?”

“Nobody knew what was going to happen. Many cities in France had been destroyed: Le Havre, Rouen and others. France was basically in ruins. I didn’t know what would happen to my job at the Ministry. If the war was over, there wasn’t really much need in the War Office for a small typist from Brittany. Until…” She paused. My mother always had the knack to pause at the right moment.

“Until what?! What happened? Don’t ‘pause’ me!”

“One morning, I can’t remember when exactly, a few weeks after the capitulation of the Germans, a young and dapper Air Force Captain came to the typing pool. We all suddenly pretended to type something.” Smile. “Work had been slow after the 8th.” She smiled at me again with one of her damn pauses. I kept silent. I could play the game. She went on:

“The Captain asked: ‘Who’s the one who speaks English here?’”

“No! You must be joking!”

“Nope! I kept my eyes glued to my keyboard. See, I’d not… exactly… lied, but let’s say I ‘d ‘exaggerated’ a tad when I joined the Air Force as an auxiliary. On the sign-up form, I’d ticked the box next to ‘Foreign languages spoken’ and written ‘English’ ”.

My mother’s English was flawless but that was after 8 years in India, and 25 years abroad. After the war. I wasn’t sure of the quality of her English in 1945…

“English?” I asked. “In Brittany, during the war, in German-occupied France?”

She laughed. “Well, you could almost be executed for speaking English. ‘Suspected intelligence with the British enemy’ and all that. But I had a self-learning book. Well hidden in the house. And I knew a few people in the Resistance who spoke some English and gave me classes. So, I managed. Not very well, but better than many of our dear compatriots, as you know…”

“I know. English is still not their forte. And the Captain?”

“The Captain repeated: ‘Which one of you speaks English? Come on! I haven’t got all day!’ I lifted my eyes from the keyboard. Raised my hand.”

My mother went on: “The Captain said: ‘Ah! It’s you! Get up. Come with me.’ I took my notepad and my French-English dictionary, just in case. Maybe he wanted to draft a memo in English. I rushed after him. He turned around and told me: ‘Meet me in an hour at Villacoublay. Here are your orders.’ “

“Villacoublay?” I said. “The Air Force base, south of Paris?”

“Yes. I was dumbfounded. But what could I say? I was just a small typist, a WAC. He was a Captain. So, I went along. Then he looked at me. Up and down. And said:

‘Make it an hour and half. You can’t go in that sorry uniform of yours. Give me your notepad.’

“He took out a gold-tipped fountain pen from a breast-pocket under a bunch of ribbons.  He looked young but had certainly earned his share of medals. He scribbled and signed a note, handed the pad back to me. ‘Here. Take this note to the store, get a pair of new uniforms. Yours is a disgrace. And shoes too. Then take any Jeep to Villacoublay. Show them your orders. Meet me there in an hour and half sharp.’ “

It was my turn to be “dumbfounded”. What did the Captain want? Villacoublay? The Air Force base? Another uniform?

“Why another uniform?” I asked my mother.

“Again, think ‘WAR’. France had been occupied, bombed and ransacked for 5 years. There was shortage of everything. Even decent clothes. My uniform was coarse, thick wool. My shoes were practically cardboard! So I went to the Air Force store in the basement. They handed me two brand new uniforms, of the finest, most delicate, softest wool I’d ever seen. Fitted me like a glove. And the shoes! I couldn’t believe it. ‘Des mocassins en chevreau!’ Flat-heel fine leather shoes. I had never seen shoes like that either. I ran to my locker. Grabbed a toothbrush, a pair of panties, stuffed them inside my bag, took the first available Jeep to Villacoublay. The Captain was already waiting. Looked approvingly at my new uniform. A man of not so many words he pointed at a military airplane nearby, engines already running, we hopped on and took off!”

To be continued…


Family Histories (Holiday Edition): Dad’s Birthday

Welcome to Family Histories (Holiday Edition). I’ve invited readers and bloggers to share holiday themed pieces with the accent on “Family” and “History” in any way they like.

This story by my friend LUANNE CASTLE nearly made me cry so get ready for a beautiful love story!

When I was nine, my mother took my little brother and me to Robert Hall to buy my father a dress shirt and tie. She asked the salesman for a gift box. “It’s for my husband’s birthday.”

As the man turned away, I pulled on my mother’s purse. “It’s not Dad’s birthday! His birthday is the day after Christmas! It’s only June 26!” My mother’s lie shocked me. My brother’s little face, peering up at us, swiveled between Mom and me.

“Shhh, this really is a birthday present, but it’s for your father’s half-birthday!”  As we walked out to the car, my mother explained the new holiday she had invented.

My father and his fraternal twin, my uncle Frank, were born on 26 December 1928, just before the start of the Great Depression. They were raised by their single mother, a tailor, with the help of their sister who was only four years their senior. The only birthday gifts my grandmother could afford for her children was the clothing she sewed them. So my father grew up with very little—and what he had was shared with his brother. Even his birthday was shared.

What made it even harder for him was that he shared the season of his birthday with that of the baby Jesus. When my parents got married, my mother saw right away that my father craved the attention of a good birthday. We were careful never to use Christmas wrapping paper for my father’s gift. My mother made him a special birthday meal and cake, rather than serving him food left over from Christmas. But his birthday always felt a little stale, with everyone satiated with food and gifts from the days before—and with gifts to return to the store.

Even as a very young child, I could sense a sadness in my father on his birthday. His gestures and words were brittle, and I could sense that the year after year repetition of disappointment on December 26 weighed on him. In this way, I grew up knowing that my father’s experiences as a child had molded his adult emotions. My mother didn’t seem to carry the scars of childhood with her, but my father did. My mother taught us that we would make it easier for him when we could.

That’s why she came up with the idea of a half-birthday. When we left Robert Hall that first year, we picked up birthday wrapping paper and a cake mix at the grocery store.

When my father came home from work on June 26, he was tired and hungry for dinner. But he saw the gift and cake on the table and smelled the ham and sweet potatoes (his favorite meal). “Happy birthday!” My brother jumped with excitement. Dad smiled at him, then me, and his gaze rested on my mother. “I love you guys!”

When my uncle heard about the half-birthday celebration, he decided he too wanted to celebrate his half-birthday, but the brothers were now living in different states, so they each had their own celebrations with their own young families, and had the spotlight on themselves once a year.


Many of you already know Luanne, but if you don’t, now is the time to head over to her blog: LUANNE CASTLE’S WRITER SITE


Family Histories: Family Traits Good and Bad

“They said in the D.A.R.E. class that since my real mother did drugs Then I probably would too.”

(D.A.R.E. is the anti-drug class taught in many public schools in the U.S.)

This is why too much information given to children may sometimes be a bad thing. Our newly adopted daughter is only mildly intellectually disabled which really means that she seems “normal” until you realize that everything you say to her she takes literally. Some of you may remember the funny antics of Amelia Bedelia the main character of the children’s book series who constantly mixed up things like steaks and stakes.

In real life the concrete thinking goes more like this: My real mom does drugs and smokes. Therefore I will do the same by begging other students through email on my Chrome book during class to let me vape with them.  I will side with the devil and really believe that there is a tiny devil on my shoulder. I will then say I had to try since my mother did and the people teaching the DARE class said I would.

(once my husband caught her bringing to school an inappropriate note. The body parts mentioned in the note were spelled wrong. my husband sarcastically told her to ask her teachers the next time about the spelling — and so she did the next day).

Anyway, it made me think about how our parents affect us. Sometimes we like to blame parents for everything — I think  this is a trap to keep us from reaching our full potential –and sometimes we neglect looking back in gratitude for some of the better traits they’ve passed down to us.

With the holidays in full swing most of us are probably thinking a lot about family memories — the good and bad. Or maybe we are dreading seeing parents over the holidays …

Lately I’ve been getting deep into my genealogy and wondering which strands of DNA have been passed down to me. Am I more like the stoic and heroic men and women on my mother’s Dutch/English side of the tree or more like my father’s Irish side with its sentimental streak and love of the underdog? Am I fearful of the neighbors because of the peasant blood of my father? Am I rebellious when it comes to religion because my great grandfathers were all seekers?

On both sides of my family is a deep love for humanity and storytelling and for those things I am truly grateful — fear and self-loathing, not so much.

Now what about you? What family traits are you most proud of and which would you rather were tossed a few generations back?

Please let us know in the comments. It may be cathartic. LOL.

“Characters so deep you follow them into the abyss, hoping to come out unscathed, but never returning the same. They will haunt me forever.”

Family Histories (Holiday Edition):Do You Have a Favorite Christmas Ornament?

Welcome to Family Histories (Holiday Edition). I’ve invited readers and bloggers to share holiday themed pieces with the accent on “Family” and “History” in any way they like.

Today we have a beautiful piece about the simple pleasure of decorating a family Christmas tree written by one of my favorite bloggers, A.M. PINE at HEARTH RIDGE REFLECTIONS.

The crumpled gift bags are rustled open. The little boxes are poked into – the faint tinkle of a bell is heard in the shuffle. A few stray hooks fall to the floor, sunlight glinting. Glitter shifts down like December snowflakes on our arms and hands. The smell of pine is permeating the air, as we part the branches. We “ooh and ahh” as we unpack our beloved Christmas ornaments one at a time. A daughter takes a big breath of the box and says, “Mommy, it smells like Christmas!” The baby’s first, the humorous hunting one that’s dads, of course, all of us chattering about our family vacation where we bought the wooden cut out one.

Every year the children beg for the stories connected to these bits of our lives. Tangible pieces of the trips we’ve taken. They always want to hear of our honeymoon to lighthouses of Maine, and the other far off places my husband and I have been alone,  the Grand Canyon, represented by a miniature swinging coffee mug, the pieces of love and laughter from Prince Edward Island.

Our hands dip in and out of these boxes and bags of memories, a collective pool as the voices share and we rush and squabble a bit about who gets to hang what and where. Some ornaments are costly, others, cents on the dollar. It’s the memories that give them value.  The scent, the voices, and twinkle all bring us together as a whole, as a family.

The popsicle ‘n glue sled with a cotton ball snowman, the delicate, wooden snowflakes, the tin can punched top with a picture of grandpa and a beloved daughter in it. The yarn, metal, wood, plastic, cinnamon, and dried sprigs of greenery become a genuine, yearly tactile gift that keeps giving. We pass out, dig around, rooting for memories. Christmas love brought forefront, people remembered and celebrated, and dreams hung out for all to see and enjoy.

The hunt for each person’s yearly ornaments always amazes me. The child who you would never think would care, searching deeply for a little ceramic chicken because of mother having picked it out for them two years ago. The tired finishing of the last few ornaments, big clumps of them gathered at the 3 foot mark, and all of us looking for “holes” on the tree.  We sink down onto chairs and the couch, admiring our work, perhaps one of us putting on the kettle for hot chocolate, another year of remembrance wrapped up for the taking.  Joy found in the simple, little things of life.

Hello, I’m Amy. I write at Hearth Ridge Reflections about the intersection between faith, relationships, and nature. I enjoy reading and writing while sipping dark coffee, my idea of bliss. I’m grateful for each day and for flashes of beauty that spur me on my way.

Family Histories (Holiday Edition): The Empty Chair

Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.

Today my friend SHARON BONIN-PRATT of INK FLARE shares with us the many mixed emotions one feels about the holidays after the passing of a loved one.

What to do at the holidays when there’s an empty place at your table.

It was the opening statement in a letter offering coping advice when you’re grieving the absence of someone you love. A list of practical strategies meant to give relief to the ache of facing that empty chair and missing the person who’s supposed to sit in it. Who used to be there at all the holidays.

Thing was, I didn’t need the advice. Not this year at least – I needed it ten years ago when my dad died and left me with the responsibility of caring for my mom. When I found she was not in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, but well enmeshed in the illness that was destroying her brain. When I had to have her declared mentally incompetent to make lucid decisions and remove her from her home for her safety. When I had to delve into her finances, her medical needs, her social obligations, and supervise every aspect of her life, all while hiding out in the guise of her little girl because she was – the Mom.

That first year after my dad died was the Year of No Celebrations. I missed every single holiday – federal, religious, personal, greeting-card-nonsense event. I got sick – pneumonia, bouts of cold, flu, bronchitis – as well as being the default contact for crises and emergencies. I slept with two phones next to me, frequently jolted awake by a call from the nurses at the residence where Mom lived. Every holiday was a calamity to endure, leaving not a flick of a second to celebrate. Leaving me tense and exhausted, afraid to see the dawn, fearful of the night. Nine years of dealing with the effects of Alzheimer’s, but I am no hero. Millions of other family members live this way, trying to find a safe route through a maze with only one outcome for the ill person they love.

My mom died nine months ago, in an assisted living residence devoted to caring for people with progressive and unrecoverable memory lapses. After my dad’s death, I frequently took her to our home for the usual holidays, and she participated in the family gatherings. She read to her great-grandchildren, laughed at the stories and jokes, ate momentous amounts of food because that’s what we do at family gatherings. But the changes were obvious and painful to watch. She could answer questions, sometimes just to acknowledge that she couldn’t remember a detail, but she could no longer initiate conversation. She could react but not act.

Over those years, Mom’s memory fractured and fizzled as we knew it would. Bringing her to family celebrations at my home became more and more difficult. To discuss why would betray Mom’s privacy, and I’d vowed not to do that. Four or five years ago, the situation declined into impossible. I couldn’t watch her every second as she turned my house into tumultuous residue from her condition. She didn’t act with malice but with mindless energy. This is what Alzheimer’s does.

After dad’s death I felt like a battleship trying to barge through a pinhole. More accurately, a sob soaked wad of tissues attempting to dry up the desert. For the first three years, driving up and down the California freeways to the residence where Mom lived, to her attorney’s or accountant’s offices, to the mall to shop for her clothes, I cried and raged at the injustice of so much to do and no past experience from which I could draw. Every encounter was a new one, every crisis unpredictable, every visit with Mom another failure to communicate.

Friday evenings at our temple I said Mourner’s Kaddish for my dad, tears streaming. Synagogue was a safe place to cry – the other congregants understood. They surrounded me with their arms and their comfort. Kaddish is an ancient, exquisite prayer in the Jewish tradition. It’s recited while remembering those we’ve lost in the past year, but not one word has anything to do with death or human beings. It’s a prayer that extols God’s virtues and greatness, reminding us that after life, there is the World to Come.

Crying, screaming, driving, reciting Kaddish. This was how I spent my three years of grieving.

I didn’t have time to indulge in a grief support group though I participated erratically in an Alzheimer’s support group. Erratic not because the dissolution of keeping to a schedule is my nature but because it’s the nature of the disease to flummox every situation. Don’t plan ahead except for the advent of chaos, the world shaken like an abused child – and with the same ultimate effect of unimaginable damage.

Our table has been reduced these last ten months and the ten years previous. My parents are missing. But our home is surrounded by photos of those we love. It is saturated with their presence. My sorrow ebbs day by day, but capriciously – a reminder here of how my mom cooked spaghetti that was better than mine, there of how my dad spoke wisely about how I could better parent my sons. The lacy blouse I nearly bought Mom a month after her death, the scent of a flower recalling the rose garden Dad lovingly tended. The dream when they stood by my side and we watched the sun set over the Pacific, all of us at peace, seeing future.

I won’t refer to the coping advice generously offered by the grief support group when my family celebrates the seventh night of Chanukah this coming Saturday. As I look at the chairs where my parents used to sit, I will not mourn the vacancy. Their places are filled with my memories of them and always will be.


Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s disease inflicts on families. It’s in the process of being edited, and then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are eighteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

shari 1


Photo courtesy Bonin-Pratt family archives: Sharon at 3 with her parents.

Family Histories: The Copper Coffee Pot

Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.

Today I’m happy to share a poignant poem from MIRIAM IVARSON about connecting to her seafaring forefathers when polishing a family heirloom.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you just look at the title
and think;  Coffee Pot!  What is there to say about such a
seemingly everyday object?
And I would understand you, but please stay with me a little
longer through this post.

In my About page I hint that there will be stories coming
that show vignettes of my life both in England and Sweden.

O.K. , I can hear your frustrated sigh, so why a Coffee Pot?

This Copper Coffee Pot is very old, goes back to my
Grandfather’s days. It was an important part of the men’s life
and I am now the caretaker, until such time that it passes to the
next generation. It has pride of place and I often tell the stories
that were told to me, hence giving my children a feeling of their

The poem below came to me as I was polishing it one day
and all was abandoned for the notepad and pen.


Copper Coffee Pot

An inanimate object it might seem,
Yet, is it really so?
Emotions stirred by the Pot,
The Copper Coffee Pot,
say no.

Polishing this morning,
its surface filled;
With lustre and life lived.

It had sailed the Sea, in storms,
in hurricanes,
also in still, smiling swells.
For seven men it brewed every day,
Gave warmth and cheer,
clattered its spout lid to say;
Coffee ready, take a break.

Men with strength of body and heart,
with purpose and skill;
In tune with the elements each day,
feeling the mood of the Sea.
Respecting and honouring,
Its power, its gifts.

Their work was heavy,
cold, among waves,
Full trawls spread smiles.
No-one minding the tearing of
sinews, muscles and backs.
In this age old task.

These men were my ancestors,
part of who I am, and I of them.
Their lives, their hands had touched me,
Given me strength.

The Copper Pot in my hands
A cherished and vital part
of their days.
Here they met, found warmth,
succour and laughs.

An empowering friend.

© miriam ivarson

Vinga lighthouse

All photographs © miriam ivarson

For more of Miriam’s poetry visit her blog: MY WINDOW

***PS~ Also had a thought that Miriam’s poem and a story shared by ANNIKA PERRY  here on Family Histories are great companion pieces. You may want to check it out! LOSS OF A PATRIARCH

Family Histories (Holiday Edition): How I Stay in Touch With Far-flung Family

Celebrating the holidays with family members who can’t make it home for the festivities can be an emotional challenge. Here JACQUI MURRAY shares her methods for bringing family together though miles apart in the holiday edition of FAMILY HISTORIES.

Thank you so much, Adrienne (author of The Tenafly Road Series), for inviting me to again participate in this wonderful exploration of families.

Last year, I shared how my children inspired most of my writing (see below). This year, as I consider another holiday without my adult children, I wanted to share how we stay in touch.

My son Sean serves as a SGT in the Army in Okinawa and my daughter Meaghan is a LT CDR in the Navy at Ft. Meade Maryland. My daytime is my son’s nighttime and my daughter is always busy so staying connected would be a challenge if we hadn’t come up with a variety of ways to make it work:


jacqui 2This is a free Facebook app which allows free phone calls (video or audio) and texting. That’s free even to Japan and my son and I use it weekly. I also set up a family group for texting so we can share daily thoughts, pictures, or whatever with everyone. My kids love pictures of my Labrador, Casey, so I send what I call the Daily Casey through Messenger every day.

Google Hangouts

Messenger doesn’t always work so we have the Google Hangouts app on our phones for video chats. It’s more reliable than Messenger with a few more features. I like redundancy in my life.

Google Keep

jacqui 1Google Keep lets us set up lists or short notes that can be shared for not only viewing but editing without involving a full Word doc.  You can share videos, images, lists–pretty much anything. Whoever you share it with can edit it on their phone so it often serves for ongoing events. Right now, I’m not using it with my kids but I do share the shopping list with my husband.

Google Docs

My daughter does a lot of writing in her job and as a growing passion. She still thinks I can help her with editing so shares the docs with me. I love reading her voice, her ideas, in ways I’d never hear otherwise. Through Google Docs, I can share suggestions which she can respond to.

Google Sheets

jacquiI use this a lot to plan family trips. Thankfully, my kids are happy to travel with me. Last summer, my son had a month leave from Okinawa so took a 2-week trip with me to visit my daughter (his sister) on the East Coast and my sister (his aunt) in Indiana. We left Indiana via train and took that all the way home to California. We organized everything on Google Sheets–daily schedules, stuff we wanted to do, who was responsible for what. Everything. Since it’s accessible from phones as well as computers, I could check it for daily details also.



jacqui 3

That’s about it. How do you stay in touch with your far-flung family?


A recap of last year’s post about how her children’s career choices have influenced some of the books Jacqui has written:

This is a personal how-to on preparing for and applying to the United States Naval Academy.  It’s based on my daughter’s experience in high school where she first thought such a selective school was out of her reach and then was accepted into a life-changing activity that would change her forever.

This story comes from time spent with friends of my daughters who served in the Silent Service. It is a story of brain vs. brawn, creative thinking, and the importance of family in our lives, but at its core is patriotism. Many of my ancestors were in the military though I wasn’t, and by the time I started writing this book, both my children were committed to their paths. I respect the patriotism, single-mindedness, and stalwartness of our warriors–this story reflects that.

This story takes place in large part on a US warship, the USS Bunker Hill. This was my daughter’s first ship after graduating from the Naval Academy. She secured amazing access for me during my research to the ship and its people. She put herself way out there to help me. For that, I am forever grateful.



Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and Born in a Treacherous Timefirst in the Man vs. Nature saga. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, blog webmaster, an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for TeachHUB and NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Survival of the Fittest, Spring 2019. You can find her tech ed books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning