A curse on this week’s post. I banged out nearly 2,000 words that should have been online yesterday, and the post just gets longer and longer, and there ain’t no way I’ll get it finished and revised and edited and polished today, or this week, or possibly by New Year’s Eve 2022. I know the problem. Too much thinking. But I can’t help that. So I’ve pulled up something I wrote for my personal blog in 2010. I’m reposting, with some changes. I’d like to say it’s outdated, but nothing much has changed. No matter what the last line says.
In one of my favorite scenes from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, assistant TV news producer Mary Richards suggests that writing a news story isn’t all that difficult. News writer Murray Slaughter disagrees.
Then a wire comes in, something big. The story must be written and rushed to anchorman Ted Baxter, who is on the verge of uttering his sign-off: “Good night, and good news.”
Murray, smiling, bows to Mary.
Mary rolls a sheet of paper into her typewriter. She types several words. Then she stops. She erases. She starts over. She stops. She erases. She starts over. She stops . . . Everyone in the newsroom stands around her desk, watching . . . waiting . . .
Finally, at the last minute, Murray loads his typewriter and, fingers flying, writes the story, rips the paper from the machine, and hands it to producer Lou Grant, who runs for the anchor desk.
That’s why didn’t go in for journalism. I’m not Murray.
That, and because I knew that if I were a journalist, I would have to talk to people: call them on the phone, request interviews, ask questions. I had no intention of talking to people I didn’t know.
But mainly, editors would expect me to write without thinking.
I look back and wonder how I got to that point. Not the distaste for talking to people I didn’t know—I’ve always had that—but the difficulty with writing.
When did I start letting my editor get in the way of my scribe?
Once upon a time, I loved to write. By the time I was seven, I was writing long letters to my grandfather and great-aunts and aunts and uncles and cousins. Once, I used a pencil with a point so soft, I doubt the recipients could read through the smears on the pages.
Another time, when I was on sick leave from school, enjoying the mumps, my mother let me use my father’s Schaeffer White Dot fountain pen, a source of even better smears.
The summer I was eight, I spent June in Central Texas with Aunt Laura and Uncle Joe while my mother stayed in Dallas with my grandmother, who was ill. My father, who remained in Del Rio working, visited one weekend and brought me a present: a ream of legal-sized paper.
I don’t know what prompted the gift, and on a scale of one to ten, most children would have rated a ream of paper at minus 3. I gave it a twelve.
I wrote my own newspaper. Most articles covered weddings between various cats and dogs of my acquaintance. I discovered a talent for describing tuxedos and bridesmaids’ dresses worn by Blackie and Bootsie and Miss Kitty and Pat Boone (my fox terrier). It was a devastating little parody of a small-town newspaper.
But suddenly, it seemed, I did what my thesis adviser, years later, warned me not to do: I got tangled up in words. Writing was no longer fun. Confidentially, I think it had something to do with English class, essays, outlines, and needing to sound erudite. I hated it.
Why I thought should teach English, I do not know.
It was years before the English Teacher Establishment (Macrorie was part of the shift) said, “You can’t write an outline until you know what you’re going to say, and you can’t know what you’re going to say until you’ve written something.”
Novelist E. M. Forster had said it long before: “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” But education always lags behind.
Anyway, the word to both students and conflicted teachers (aka me) was—Write it and then fix it. And lighten up.
When I write blog posts, I don’t think so much. I lighten up. Words flow.
Unless I’m trying to be serious and sincere and profound and erudite. I’m not a profound writer. I think profound, but I write shallow. It’s in my nature.
And I still can’t imagine squeezing myself into the little journalism box. That’s pressure. And talking to people I don’t know. I’d rather make up the facts myself. Can’t do that in journalism. Journalism matters.
I don’t like talking to journalists, either. I always tell them to be sure to make me sound intelligent. A reporter told me she didn’t have to fix anything in my interview because I talk in complete sentences. I told her that was an accident.
Now. It’s way past my deadline for putting up this post.
But that is not of paramount concern. Because I’m not trying to say anything worthwhile.
I have lightened up.
“I’m thinking it over.” Forty seconds of perfection. (If the video doesn’t play, google “jack benny i’m thinking it over”. That should work.)
Image of Mary Tyler Moore cast via Wikipedia. Public domain.
Today is Memorial Day, the last Monday in May, when we remember the men and women of the military to whom we cannot say, “Thank you.”
There are many stories about when and where Memorial Day, formerly called Decoration Day, began. Originally, it honored soldiers fallen during the Civil War, and was first officially celebrated in 1868.
Wikipedia, however, points to an earlier beginning: “On May 1, 1865 in Charleston, SC, formerly enslaved African Americans honored hundreds of Black soldiers who were killed in the Civil War but who were buried in a mass grave. They unearthed the bodies and gave each a proper burial and held a parade in the soldiers’ honor. This is the first major honoring of fallen soldiers that is believed to have begun the tradition.”
In honor of the day, I’ve chosen a poem by British poet and novelist Thomas Hardy.
My Boy Jack (Television film based on play by Daniel Haig) (Link leads to complete film on Youtube.) The title My Boy Jack comes from a poem written by Rudyard Kipling for Jack Cornwell, “the 16 year old youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross who stayed by his post on board ship during the battle of Jutland until he died.” The poem “echoes the grief of all parents who lost sons in the First World War. John Kipling was a 2nd Lt in the Irish Guards and disappeared in September 1915 during the Battle of Loos in the First World War.” His body was never found. (Wikipedia). Haig’s play deals with Kipling’s grief at the loss of his son.
I’m working on a mystery novel—I’ve been working on it for years, but now I’m working on it—and am faced with dilemmas too numerous to whine about in only one post, so I’ll move along.
I will instead write about the one pleasure of the writing life: creating and naming characters.
My novel is set in a little town very like my own hometown. I don’t base my plot on real events, and I don’t use real people as characters—with one exception: Steve Dauchy.
Note: One of my readers, Cullen Dauchy, knows more about Steve than I do, especially about his early life, and I hope he’ll feel free to correct any errors.
Steve Dauchy was a career blood donor at Katy Veterinary Clinic in Katy, Texas. On retirement he moved to Fentress, where he lived with his veterinarian-owner’s parents, Joe and Norma Dauchy. Joe and Norma lived next door to me; in local terms, next door meant that my house was on one corner, then there was a half-acre “patch” of pecan and peach trees and grass and weeds, then a street, and then on the next corner, the Dauchy yard and their house. The point being that when Steve visited me, he didn’t just walk across a driveway.
Joe was my dad’s first cousin, so I guess that makes Steve and me second cousins. I have a lot of cousins on that side of the family, although most are human.
Steve is a family name, with a story behind it. As I understand it, back in the ’20s or ’30s, my great-uncle Cull (Joseph Cullen) Dauchy, Sr., enjoyed listening to a radio program about a Greek character who frequently spoke of “my cat Steve and her little cattens.” Uncle Cull was so amused by the phrase that he named a cat—probably one of the barn cats—Steve. And ever after, he always had a cat named Steve.
So when the clinic cat became part of the Uncle Cull’s son and daughter-in-law’s family, he became the latest in a long line of Steves.
How to describe Steve. He was a fine figure of a cat: a big tabby, deep orange, with an expression of perpetual boredom. His reaction to nearly everything translated as, “Meh.” I’ve heard that’s common among clinic cats.
Once when Steve was standing on my front porch, the neighbor’s Great Dane got loose and charged over. I was frantic, shouting at the dog, shouting at Steve. But when the dog hit the porch, Steve just looked up at him. Dog turned around and trotted home.
Some would say Steve was brave, and I’m sure he was. But I believe his grace under pressure had their roots elsewhere.
First, he had experience. He knew dogs. In his former employment, he’d observed the breed: big, little, yappy, whining, growling, howling, cringing, confined to carriers, restrained by leashes, sporting harnesses and rhinestone collars, hair wild and matted, sculpted ‘dos and toenails glistening pink from the OPI Neon Collection. He’d seen them all, and he was not impressed.
Facing down a Great Dane, however, took more than experience. There was something in Steve’s character, an inborn trait that marked him for greatness: his overarching sense of entitlement. He was never in the wrong place at the wrong time. My porch was his porch. The world was his sardine.
Except for the kitchen counter. Steve thought kitchen counters were for sleeping, and Joe and Norma’s maid didn’t. Consequently, he stayed outside a lot. He took ostracism in stride and used his freedom to range far and wide. Far and wide meant my yard.
At that time I had three indoor cats—Christabel, Chloe, and Alice B. Toeclaws—and a raft of outdoor cats. The outdoor cats started as strays, but I made the mistake of naming them, which meant I had to feed them, which meant they were mine. Chief among them was Bunny, a black cat who had arrived as a teenager with his mother, Edith.
One day Bunny, Edith, and I were out picking up pecans when Steve wandered over to pay his respects, or, more likely, to allow us to pay our respects to him. Bunny perked up, put on his dangerous expression, and walked out to meet the interloper. It was like watching the opening face-off in Gunsmoke.
But instead of scrapping, they stopped and sat down, face to face, only inches apart. Each raised his right paw above his head and held it there a moment. Next, simultaneously, they bopped each other on the top of the head about ten times. Then they toppled over onto their sides, got up, and walked away.
That happened every time they met. Maybe it was just a cat thing, a neighborly greeting, something like a Masonic handshake. But I’ve wondered if it might have had religious significance. Bunny was a Presbyterian, and Steve was a Methodist, and both had strong Baptist roots, and although none of those denominations is big on ritual, who knows what a feline sect might entail?
Steve had a Macavity-like talent for making himself invisible. Occasionally when I opened my front door, he slipped past and hid in a chair at the dining room table, veiled by the tablecloth. When he was ready to leave, he would hunt me down—Surprise!—and lead me to the door. Once, during an extended stay, he used the litter box. Christabel, Chloe, and Alice B. were not amused.
Invisibility could work against him, though. Backing out of the driveway one morning, I saw in the rearview mirror a flash streak across the yard. I got out and looked around but found nothing and so decided I’d imagined it. When I got home from work, I made a more thorough search and located Steve under the house, just out of reach. I called, coaxed, cajoled. He stared. It was clear: he’d been behind the car when I backed out, I’d hit him, and he was either too hurt to move or too disgusted to give me the time of day.
It took a long time and a can of sardines to get him out. I delivered him to the veterinarian in Lockhart; she advised leaving him for observation. A couple of days later, I picked him up. Everything was in working order, she said, cracked pelvis, nothing to do but let him get over it.
“Ordinarily,” said the vet, “I would have examined him and sent him home with you the first day. I could tell he was okay. But you told me his owner’s son is a vet, and I was afraid I’d get it wrong.”
Although an indoor-outdoor cat, Steve did plenty of indoor time at his own house, too, especially in winter, and when the maid wasn’t there. One cold day, the family smelled something burning. They found Steve snoozing atop the propane space heater in the kitchen. His tail hung down the side, in front of the vent. The burning smell was the hair on his tail singeing. They moved him to a safer location. I presume he woke up during the process.
At night, he had his own bedroom, a little garden shed in the back yard. He slept on the seat of the lawnmower, snuggled down on a cushion. Except when he didn’t.
Once extremely cold night, I was piled up in bed under an extra blanket and three cats. About two a.m., I woke up to turn over—sleeping under three cats requires you to wake up to turn over—and in the process, reached down and touched one of the cats. It was not my cat.
I cannot describe the wave of fear that swept over me. It sounds ridiculous now, but finding myself in the dark with an unidentified beast, and unable to jump and run without first extricating myself from bedding and forty pounds of cat—I lay there paralyzed.
Unnecessarily, of course. The extra cat was Steve. He’s sneaked in and, considering the weather forecast, decided sleeping with a human and three other cats in a bed would be superior to hunkering down on a lawnmower.
Steve’s full name was, of course, Steve Dauchy. In my book, he will be Steve MacCaskill. MacCaskill was the name of a family who lived next door to my Aunt Bettie and Uncle Maurice. Their children were friends of my father and his brothers and their many cousins. They were a happy family.
“My family had to plan everything,” my dad’s cousin Lucyle Dauchy Meadows told me, “but the MacCaskills were spontaneous. If they decided they wanted to go to a movie, they just got into the car and went to a movie.” When Lucyle and the other girls helped their friend Mary Burns MacCaskill tidy her room before the Home Demonstration Agent came to examine it (I am so glad the Home Demonstration Agent didn’t examine rooms when I was a girl), one of the first things they did was to remove the alligator from the bathtub.
I heard so many delightful stories about the MacCaskill family that I decided they were too good to be true until my Aunt Bettie’s 100th birthday party, when my mother introduced me to Mary Burns MacCaskill, who had traveled from Ohio for the party.
So as an homage to that family, I’ve named my main character Molly MacCaskill. And when choosing a pet for Molly, I couldn’t choose a finer beast than Steve.
Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. She has published short stories, as well as a novella co-written with Manning Wolfe. She is perpetually working on a novel.
I was preparing an update to my January 25 post about resolving to read all forty-seven of Anthony Trollope’s novels in 2021. I worked all day yesterday and all day today (with time out to play Candy Crush and Scrabble Online while waiting to think of the next word).
The post was intended to be both light-hearted and erudite—the erudite part was the reason for the Candy Crush time-outs, because although when I was in graduate school I was, at times, extremely erudite, I’m a little out of practice.
And it takes a lot of words to be erudite. The piece kept getting longer and longer, with no end in sight.
So I did what I do. I scrapped it in the interest of a post with no erudition at all.
It begins with a cat bite and ends with a poem.
William the Cat had dental surgery last month. He’s twelve years old and overweight and diabetic, and I spent the day before surgery crying because I was afraid he would be anesthetized and never wake up.
However, he woke up and came home looking just as disgusted as he’d looked when he left home. In the interim, he’d lost five teeth, but he didn’t seem to miss them. In fact, he was downright perky.
Before surgery, David had to lift him onto the bed, where he spent his days monitoring squirrels and sleeping. Now he trips right up those kitty stairs and plops himself down any time he pleases.
He pleases when he smells coconut oil. I rub it on my hands at night for a moisturizer. He licks it off my hands. Sometimes he chases me onto the bed. Sometimes he gets there first and I have to wrestle him out of the way.
Being catlicked feels icky, but he’s elderly and determined, and I tolerate it, up to a point. The encounter usually ends in his getting a head, ear, and throat rub, followed by a tummy rub, accompanied by a rumbling purr (his). Sometimes he then walks across me, threatening to crack a couple of my ribs, to get to the other hand before succumbing to the tummy rub. Then he leaves.
But sometimes he bites. He’s always been a biter—lunge, chomp, lunge, chomp—as part of play. My fingers are toys. But where coconut oil is involved, he becomes the foe—adversary, attacker, assailant. Backbiter.
I’m not talking nips or little love bites. I mean he’s going for a mouthful of flesh and possibly some bone to go with it. And a few puncture wounds.
That’s how I know he still has his fangs. And that they’re in good working order.
Fortunately, the recent dental cleaning has kept me from having to visit the urgent care clinic for antibiotics. A little Neosporin and band-aids have sufficed.
I know about cat bites. Years ago, a stray cat named Perceval (I’d sort of adopted him) bit me when I gave him a tummy rub (not his fault; he turned belly-up, and I thought he wanted a tummy rub, but he’d been down the street chasing other stray cats and was still hyper). I ended up with cellulitis up to the elbow. “My gosh,” said the doctor, “we used to put people in the hospital on an antibiotic drip for that.”
More recently (six years ago, to be exact), while being worked on by a vet tech, William scraped my arm with a fang. Within twenty minutes the scrape was surrounded by a red circle two inches in diameter.
I went to the urgent care clinic. Then I went home and did what writers do: I wrote a poem about the experience.
But before I can talk about that poem, I must talk about another one: Leigh Hunt’s “Jenny Kissed Me.” It’s one of my favorites. To wit:
Jane Carlyle, wife of philosopher Thomas Carlyle, was a quiet woman. She did not show strong emotion. But one day when writer Leigh Hunt, who had been very ill, arrived for a visit, Jane jumped up from her chair, ran across the room, and kissed him. Surprised and delighted, Hunt memorialized the event in a poem.
Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kissed me.
And that is how I came to memorialize the almost-bite William gave me at the veterinarian’s office:
William bit me at the vet,
Didn’t like the aide’s assistance,
Used his claws and fangs to set
On the path of most resistance.
Say I’m teary, say I’m mad,
Say that pills and needles hit me,
Say my arm’s inflamed, and add,
William bit me.
It seemed a valuable medical course, and I recommended it to a lady. She had run down and down and down, and had at last reached a point where medicines no longer had any helpful effect upon her. I said I knew I could put her upon her feet in a week. It brightened her up, it filled her with hope, and she said she would do everything I told her to do. So I said she must stop swearing and drinking, and smoking and eating for four days, and then she would be all right again. And it would have happened just so, I know it; but she said she could not stop swearing, and smoking, and drinking, because she had never done those things. So there it was. She had neglected her habits, and hadn’t any. Now that they would have come good, there were none in stock. She had nothing to fall back on. She was a sinking vessel, with no freight in her to throw over lighten ship withal. Why, even one or two little bad habits could have saved her, but she was just a moral pauper. ~ Mark Twain, Following the Equator
So I decide to write about New Years’ Resolutions, and some I’ve made and why I don’t make them any more, and of course, to write about that, I must quote Mark Twain’s remark about smoking, and while searching for the quotation I wonder whether Mark Twain really said it, so I check other [more reliable] sources and learn that he probably didn’t, and now I’m so fired up about errors in attribution–and errors in everything else–flying around the globe even as I type, that I’m too emotionally jangled to settle down and write about resolutions.
Isn’t that just the way?
Well, whatever. Back to resolutions.
I don’t smoke, never have, so I can’t give it up–well, when I was ten, I did try to smoke a section of mustang grapevine, which my grandfather had warned me would make my tongue sore, but I was afraid of holding a lighted match so close to my face–one could get burned that way–so I gave up.
And another time, three cousins and I–we were eleven or twelve years old–lit one of their mother’s Winstons and each took one puff. Then we decided we’d done something entirely too daring, and their mother was probably already on her way home from town, less than a mile away, so we put the cigarette out, placed the butt on a piece of shingle one of them dug up from somewhere, carried it with great ceremony and a lot of giggling to their burn barrel, and disposed of it.
I guess that means I have smoked but resolved to give it up. One resolution kept.
I am not, however, a moral pauper. I have not neglected my habits. I have plenty of freight I could throw overboard. And I’ve tried, how I’ve tried. But what I intend as jetsam floats back and attaches like barnacles, as it were, to my hull.
I’ve never lost ten, twenty, thirty-five, forty, or any set number of pounds; or completed grad school papers (or blog posts) with more than a few hours to spare; or abstained from chocolate; or organized my purse, office, car, house, or self; or left my keys, reading glasses, or shoes where I could find them; or reached any other goal listed on a December 31st contract.
I know I’m not alone. A proper Victorian girl, Louisa May Alcott was taught to strive for self-improvement but had difficulty following through. At ten years of age, she wrote in her journal “A Sample of Our Lessons”:
‘What virtues do you wish more of?’ asks Mr.L. I answer:— Patience, Love, Silence, Obedience, Generosity, Perseverance, Industry, Respect, Self-denial. ‘What vices less of?’ Idleness, Wilfulness, Vanity, Impatience, Impudence, Pride, Selfishnes, Activity, Love of cats.
Alcott is famous for her industry, perseverance, and generosity, but also for wilfulness, impatience, and activity–and thank goodness she retained those “negative” characteristics. American literature would be in a sad state without them.*
Does breaking resolutions bother me? It used to. I have a broad streak of Puritanism. I want to do better. To get it right. When the Methodist minister inquired about me one Sunday morning and my mother told him I was at home trying to finish a grad school paper before slamming into the deadline, he asked, “Is she a perfectionist?” My mother said yes. “I thought so,” he said.
But that was then, and this is 2021. I’ve been at this resolution thing for a long time. A woman at my age and weight** knows how things work.
Contracts can be renegotiated. And when I’m the only party, I’m allowed to set new terms to suit myself. Or to say, “So what?”
We spend January walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives … not looking for flaws, but for potential.
I like that. I think Alcott would have liked it, too. In fact, maybe that’s what she did all those years. She saw her own potential, got down to business, and didn’t let up.
That’s the trouble with potential–once you’ve found it, you have to do something about it. Like work.
I suppose the trick is to learn to love the work. Alcott and Twain must have loved what they did. Even when they hated it, they loved it.
Well. What got me thinking about resolutions that I don’t believe in making?
Anthony Trollope. I binge-watched the miniseries adaptation of his The Way We Live Now a couple of weeks ago, for the fourth time. And then I watched the adaptation of Dr. Thorne. And I’m looking for the adaptation of The Pallisers series–I believe it’s seventeen episodes, and I’ve seen it at least three times, but I’d love to watch it again. And The Barchester Chronicles, which is so funny, and I’ve watched it so many times, I’ve practically memorized the dialogue . . .
I love Trollope. I decided to marry my husband when he told me he’d read many of Trollope’s novels. He hadn’t asked me to marry him, but I decided. If he’d read Dickens, I might not have been so impressed. But any man who’d read that many of Trollope’s novels just because he wanted to had to be a man of substance.
If you look at the reviews of The Warden on Amazon, for example, you find, “boring… boring… boring… boring… long and boring…” And, “I couldn’t get into it.” (Good grief, people, it’s a Victorian novel. What did you expect?)
But that is a matter of taste. Some of us think his novels delightful. Satirical. At times, drop-dead funny. The Eustace Diamonds, in The Pallisers series, is a murder mystery.
Trollope wrote forty-seven novels, plus short stories, plus a ton of travel books. He set a writing goal for each day. When he finished one book, he immediately began another. In an autobiography published posthumously, he admitted to writing for money rather than for a Muse. (The admission led to a decrease in sales, because writing for money was considered crass. I don’t know what readers thought Dickens was writing for.)
And Trollope was a civil servant, worked for the British postal service, where he invented the mailbox.
Now. My dirty little secret is that I’ve never read The Warden. I’ve read its sequel, Barchester Towers. But that’s the only Trollopian novel I’ve read. I have, like many writers of high school book reports, seen the movies.
So I made a resolution: In 2021, I’m going to read all the novels of Anthony Trollope.
If I read one novel a week, I’ll finish with two weeks to spare. My Kindle initially said I could read The Warden in 3 hours and 53 minutes, but a few pages later, it said I could be finished in 4 hours and 15 minutes. Beats me.
In the two weeks left over, I plan to read Brian Doyle’s Martin Marten, which was recommended by a former student, and something by Ann Patchett.
Furthermore, after looking for potential, I’ve resolved to finish writing my own novel. It’s been in the works for a while. Bits and pieces are stored in approximately 3, 508 files on my hard drive (and in the cloud).
I worked on it today, revising an ancient scene for the umpteenth time, and was stuck on whether an Afghan hound named Katie Couric should wear eau de lavender or eau de peppermint when I remembered I had to write this post.
By this time tomorrow I expect to have that issue solved and to have moved on to the next, which will probably involve a goat and a climbing rose.
I don’t write as fast as Trollope.
* I’m sure that if Louisa May Alcott stopped loving cats, she had to do it thousands of times.
** The phrase “A woman at my age and weight” is an allusion to Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels, a little book in which a thirty-nine-year-old woman gets tired of taking care of her bachelor brother and takes off with the owner of a horse-drawn bookstore who made a door-to-door stop by the farm and invites her to come along. When the brother catches up with them, he blesses her out:
“Look here, Helen,” said Andrew, “do you think I propose to have my sister careering around the State with a strolling vagabond? Upon my soul you ought to have better sense–and at your age and weight!…” ~ Christopher Morley,Parnassus on Wheels
I read Parnassus about fifty years ago and thought that phrase funny, and have waited all this time for an opportunity to use it.
***I know Ellen Goodman said this because it read it myself in her column in The Austin American-Statesman. She was one of my favorite columnists.
“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.” – Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings
In 2000, I wrote a story I titled, “Stop Signs.”
That was in the Dark Ages. Ancient desktop, probably Windows 3.1 and WordPerfect. Hard drives. Floppy disks that didn’t flop.
I composed in cursive—sat on the bed with a pencil and a tablet, wrote a couple of pages, crossed the room to type the fragment into a document and make some edits, moved back to the bed to pencil two or three more pages, went back to the computer to transcribe and edit, moved back to the bed . . . And reaching “The End,” printed and penciled in more edits, then went back to the keyboard to type the changes, then printed and penciled more edits, then back to the keyboard . . .
It was my second foray into fiction. I rather liked the result, and as a naive newbie, I submitted it to a contest. A month later the North Texas Professional Writers Association notified me the story had placed first in its fiction division. They enclosed a check for $50 (real money!) and a copy of the chapbook in which winners’ work was published.
Later I became comfortable composing at the keyboard. I printed, marked the manuscript, revised and edited the document, went through that process several times, stored the file, ripped up the paper.
Down the road apiece, “hard copies” became unnecessary—just attach a file and email it off to contests or zines. Easy peasy.
And then came another desktop, and laptops, and new versions of Windows, one after the other, and CD-ROMS (writable!), and external backups, and online backup services, and cloud backups, and a whole raft of things I’ve never heard of.
The paperless society. Everything on record, available at the touch of a fingertip, no document or image ever lost.
First, a flash drive disappeared. Several years later, during one of my 3:00 a.m. housecleaning binges, I moved the refrigerator and found it lying beneath, stashed there by a cat with her own method of digital storage. But it was no big deal; most of the documents were safe on the hard drive.
Then there was the crash. I’d been thinking about subscribing to an online backup service but just hadn’t gotten around to it. Still, no big deal. I’d hidden all the flash drives from the cat. And, quite frankly, there were a few files I was relieved to lose.
But last week I realized I’d lost something that matters: “Stop Signs.” My award-winning story. The first story that I was paid for. In money.
But more important than awards or money—my words were missing.
The file isn’t on my hard drive. Or in the cloud. Or in Drop Box. And I can’t find the chapbook.
Oh, it isn’t really lost. The chapbook is here. Somewhere. When we moved last year, I packed it. I just don’t know where it landed. Saturday, I went hunting.
I didn’t find it. I found something better: a draft of an interview I did in the early 1980s with my Great-aunt Bettie Pittman Waller, who was married to my grandfather’s older brother Maurice. It’s a mess, pages unnumbered–it was typed on a typewriter, probably directly from the cassette tape–with scribbled directions for moving this paragraph here and that paragraph there, to make it into a coherent whole.
Aunt Bettie and Uncle Maurice grew up in the Cottonwood Community in Guadalupe County, across the San Marcos River from the town of Fentress, Texas, where they lived for most of the nearly sixty-five years they were married. They were pillars of both Presbyterian and Methodist Churches—in the back pew of the Methodist Church on first and third Sundays, the back pew of the Presbyterian on second and fourth. What other people did was none of their business. They didn’t judge. They also didn’t sit down front because Uncle Maurice had no intention of being noticed and possibly asked to take up collection.
When they married, all she knew how to cook was pancakes. Three months later, Uncle Maurice told her she was simply going to have to learn to make something else.
She was born in 1886 and died in 1987; for most of that time, her mind was sharp and her memory impeccable. She moved from Cottonwood to Fentress in 1901, was the youngest resident, when her widowed mother built a boarding house there. She remembered names and dates. She held the history of the town.
She told stories about their marriage and the town and the people, and Uncle Maurice, who was known for not talking, sat there shaking with silent laughter. There was so much to laugh about.
Why does all this matter? Because I was a listening child. Because my roots are deep in the town she was so much a part of. A small, insignificant place, except to the few who remember.
Because that’s where my imagination lives.
Because my work in progress is set in a little town named Cottonwood, whose history is very like that of the small, insignificant place.
Because “Stop Signs” begins, My grandfather thinks stop signs cause wrecks—a statement my grandfather made while I was listening.
Because history isn’t a list of presidents and kings, wars and laws and dates. It’s ordinary people, who they were, what they did, day after ordinary day.
And because those ordinary people and places should not be forgotten.
The following is an excerpt of the interview with Aunt Bettie–her first date with Uncle Maurice, and two events that happened early in their marriage, while they were still living on the farm. “Pat” was Uncle Maurice’s pet name for Aunt Bettie. Barney and Frank are Uncle Maurice’s brothers. Tishie is Aunt Bettie’s older sister, Letitia. Old Fritz is a horse.
Maurice and I married in 1905. I remember our first date; we didn’t know the word “date,” we called it “having company.”
Mama wouldn’t let me go with boys. That was my sixteenth birthday, and I slipped off to go. I wasn’t proud of it, bit I did.
Ollie Hudgens was my best friend and Maurice’s cousin, and Pent Gregg was Maurice’s best friend and my cousin. Mr. Hudgens didn’t like Pent, but Ollie went with him anyway. Ollie was going to spend the night with me on my birthday, and Pent was going out with Ollie, and he didn’t want me along, so he made Maurice go along, too. I left home with Pent and Ollie, and later Maurice caught up with us. He had borrowed a buggy.
We were going to a protracted meeting at the Baptist Church at Prairie Lea. It was very dusty, the 19th of June, and watermelons were in. The 19th was always the biggest part of the melon season. Maurice had access to the icebox at the [family] store, and he put a melon in for us to eat after church.
Maurice had never had a date either, and we didn’t know what to say. Going down, I said, “It’s sure dusty, isn’t it?” and he said, “Surely is.” That’s all we said all the way to Prairie Lea. But on the way home, we got better acquainted.
It was the brightest moonlight I ever saw. We had to cross the river, and there was a gravel bar there. When we got home, Maurice got the melon, and it was cold and nice, and we four went down on the gravel bar and ate the melon. We had such a nice time. I called it my sixteenth birthday party—it was the first party I’d ever had.
But then I couldn’t get Mama to let me go out again. I cried and begged Mama to let me go. Tishie had a different way with Mama—she got mad and talked back, and then she didn’t get to go anywhere either. But I knew better.
So I had to slip around to see Maurice. I wasn’t proud, but that was the only way I could see him.
To Maurice, this was the funniest thing that ever happened. Ward Lane got muddy when it rained much. If you kept in the ruts, you did all right and didn’t stick. But it wasn’t wide enough for two to pass. You could probably squeeze by if it was dry, but not if there was mud.
There was a show in Fentress that night—we lived on the farm that year—and we went early, before dark. On the way home, about ten o’clock, it was bright moonlight. We had to go very slow because it was so muddy.
Our buggy didn’t have a top—it was a trap, a popular kind for youngsters then. I don’t know whose it was; well, I guess it was ours, because we were married then. Before we married, Maurice shared a buggy, but Frank didn’t go out with girls till he started going with Vida, so he didn’t need it much.
That night Maurice didn’t hold to the reins tight. The wheel hub on his side hit a fence post and knocked the car around. I fell perfectly flat on my back in the mudhole. It was so bright you could see very well.
I said, “Oh, I’m killed!”
Maurice didn’t say anything, and then I realized he was laughing as hard as he could. I thought, He doesn’t care if I am killed. That crossed my mind.
When he finally could talk, he said, “I’m just getting even with you.”
I wasn’t fit to get back in the buggy; I sat on the edge of the seat all the way home. I was wearing a white linen dress I had made, and I thought it was so pretty, and that stain never did come out. Boiling didn’t take it out. It was a fine woven cloth, and it was ruined.
But Maurice had a lot of fun out of it. Whenever it was mentioned, he would say, “Well, I just got even—I always wanted to.”
What he was getting even for happened soon after Barney and Hallie married. Maurice and I had been married a while, but I wasn’t a housewife, and I didn’t know anything about entertaining. It was Sunday morning, very cold, and we had a fire in one room, the only room where we could have a fire. Maurice was taking a bath in there, just inside the kitchen door to the dining room.
We heard a knock at the door, and I went to answer it, and Maurice said, “Pat, don’t ask them in here.”
But it was Barney and Hallie—he had come to introduce his new wife to us—and I didn’t know what else to do, so I said, “Won’t you come in?”
When we got into the kitchen, Maurice had disappeared.
Well, I was so tickled that I know Barn and Hallie thought something was wrong with me. They sat down and we visited and in a minute Barney said, “Bettie, when we drove around back, old Fritz had his head in the crib and was eating corn.” We had just a little corn out there to feed him, so I was going out to shut the door, even if it was cold.
When I passed through the dining room, there was Maurice, plastered up against the wall, wet and without a stitch on, just freezing to death. He said, “Bettie, get me some clothes.”
I just walked out and laid my head up against the corn crib and laughed till I cried.
Maurice was furious; that was the first time he’d got mad at me like that.
He never did get over it till he knocked me in the mud.
When you reread a classic
you do not see more in the book than you did before;
you see more in you than was there before. ~ Clifton Fadiman
The first few years I studied Romeo and Juliet with my high school freshmen, when I was in my early twenties, I followed the Star-Cross’d Lovers school of thought: Romeo and Juliet, two innocents, their eyes meet across a crowded room, she teaches the torches to burn bright, he’s the god of her idolatry, he wants to be a glove upon her hand, she wants to cut him out in little stars—but the cruel world conspires to bring them down.
The way Juliet’s father tells her to thank him no thankings nor proud him no prouds, but get to that church on Thursday and marry Paris or he’ll drag her thither on a hurdle—what kind of father says that to a thirteen-year-old girl? Parents don’t listen.
The kids might be a little quick to act, and goodness knows Romeo should have waited to talk to Friar Laurence before buying that poison. But who can expect patience of such romantic souls? A sad story indeed.
When I hit thirty, and had several years of teaching under my belt, I shifted to the What Can You Expect When Teenagers Behave Like Brats? philosophy: Romeo and Juliet, a couple of kids in a hurry, he doesn’t even bother to drop in on his family, just runs off to crash Capulet’s party, proposes to a girl before the first date, insists on a jumped-up wedding, then gets himself kicked out of the city, and he still hasn’t been home for dinner.
She mouths off to her father, tells him what she will and will not do, and that’s right after he’s told her what a nice husband he’s picked out for her. I mean, if you were a parent and your daughter spoke to you in that tone of voice, would you pat her hand and ask what’s wrong, or would you remind her who’s boss here?
If Romeo had just gone home in the first place, like any decent boy would, instead of running off with his friends, this mess wouldn’t have occurred.
In fact, since Old Montague and Old Capulet had that very afternoon been sworn to keep the peace, they might have arranged a marriage between Romeo and Juliet–formed an alliance that way—and the whole of Verona would have lived happily ever after, and Montague would have been spared the expense of a gold Juliet statue. Paris might have been a little put out at being jilted, but he’d have gotten over it. Kids! They don’t think.
When I hit forty, however, I developed the dogma of the Meddlesome Priest. Friar Laurence has no business performing a secret marriage between two minors without parental consent. He says he wants to promote peace, but he isn’t a diplomat. His field is pharmacology.
Furthermore, when Juliet informs him she’s about to acquire an extra husband, why doesn’t he go right then to her father and tell the man she’s married? Capulet wouldn’t have been pleased, but he’d have gotten over it. Instead, the Friar gives Juliet a sedative and stuffs her into a tomb with a passel of relatives in varying stages of disrepair.
The man appears to mean well, but it’s also possible he intends to take credit for being the brains behind the peace accords. Bunglesome or corrupt—the end is the same. With role models like him, are we surprised that children run amok?
Soon after the last epiphany, I ended my stint as a classroom teacher. I’ve wondered what would have happened if I’d continued to study Romeo and Juliet year after year. Would I have had new insights? Developed new interpretations? Uncovered new layers of meaning?
How much more would I have discovered in Shakespeare’s words? How much more would I have shared with my students?
Would I have continued to teach them respect and reverence? Would I have led them down the primrose path of dalliance and left them mired in levity?
I was writing a book review when Lark Rise to Candleford, a television series I had running in the background as a helpful distraction, suddenly hijacked my topic and required me to begin again.
I hate it when that happens. I hate it especially now, because when I finish this post, it’s going to sound like a fourth-grade book report.
But, as many of us have learned over the past six months, sometimes we just do what we have to do. So here’s my report.
Lark Rise to Candleford, adapted from a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels by Flora Thompson, is set in the English countryside in the 1800s, and focuses on the lives of residents of the country hamlet of Lark Rise and the nearby town of Candleford. David and I watched it on PBS ten years ago. It’s sweet and sentimental, and we enjoyed it. The critic who called it “ham-fisted” can go jump in the lake.
The episode that caught my attention tonight begins at harvest time, when all the residents of Lark Rise take to the fields to help young farmer Al Arliss bring in the wheat crop. That’s all the residents. Women and children follow the men and gather the “leavings.” What they bring in will determine how much flour they’ll have for the rest of the year. Harvesting usually takes two weeks, but Al is determined to finish in twelve days–perhaps in ten. He pushes the others. By the end of the day, adults are exhausted.
But before it’s time to leave the fields, children are falling ill–with measles.
One Candleford child, postmaster Dorcas’ adopted son, has worked in the fields that day “for fun.” The next morning, when Dorcas realizes he’s sick, she closes the post office and quarantines with him in their house upstairs. She tells her employees to provide as many services as possible from the post office porch.
Teenaged Laura, the eldest of a large Lark Rise family, now a postal clerk in Candleford, assures Dorcas that measles is common in families. Mailman Thomas, who as a teenager lost several siblings to measles and reared the survivors after his parents died, agrees that it’s common but says some families are “very reduced” by it.
A journalist stopping by Lark Rise on his way to Cambridge tells Laura’s father, a stonemason who’s been in the fields with his wife and children, that there are measles in Oxford; he’s been covering the story for his newspaper. It’s newsworthy because for the first time, the city has set up contagion hospitals.
The disease is hitting harder this time, he says, because it’s past due. This isn’t just an outbreak. It’s an epidemic.
By the next day, every child in Lark Rise has measles.
But the wheat must be harvested. Every single person must work in the fields. For the next two weeks.
But children are seriously ill. Mothers can’t leave them.
Children die of measles.
But if the women don’t work in the fields, there will be no flour for the winter.
Children will die of starvation. So will adults.
The men of Lark Rise agree. It’s a problem. But there’s not a thing to do about it.
Except there is.
The journalist tells them, “Measles will not recognize the walls that separate you as neighbors.”
Do what they’ve done in Oxford: bring the children to one place so they can be cared for together. The Turrill home–Queenie Turrill, the community’s wise woman and healer, has been foster mother to children for over fifty years. Mothers of children with lighter cases go to the fields. Others stay as nurses. Thomas, who has spent years trying to forget the deaths of his loved ones, puts that sorrow aside and helps with nursing–after all, he’s a committed Christian, and his wife has told him it’s the Christian thing to do.
And the shopkeepers of Candleford, many of whom look down on the poor, unsophisticated farmers of Lark Rise, show up en masse to work beside them and harvest the grain.
I watched that show ten years ago, and the only thing that stuck with me then was the death of the farmer’s teenaged brother. It was sad. As usual, I cried. That was that.
Tonight I saw something entirely different. Every line of dialogue had new meaning.
Contagious disease. Past due. Epidemic. Life-threatening. No treatment. Voluntary isolation. Immediate action. Quarantine hospitals. Collapsing economy. No food for the winter. No money for rent. Essential workers. Essential services.
And people listening to reason, following the lead of the medical community in a major city, caring about one another, taking care of one another. Working together for the good of everyone. Loving their neighbors as they love themselves.
Sweet, sentimental, ham-fisted, I don’t care. It felt good to see a story about people facing terrible odds and doing the best they could. And doing it right.
So you start writing your post about the incomparable Josephine Tey’s mystery novels two weeks before it’s due but don’t finish, and then you forget, and a colleague reminds you, but the piece refuses to come together, and the day it’s due it’s still an embarrassment, and the next day it’s not much better, and you decide, Oh heck, at this point what’s one more day? and you go to bed,
and in the middle of the night you wake to find twenty pounds of cat using you as a mattress, and you know you might as well surrender, because getting him off is like moving Jello with your bare hands,
so you lie there staring at what would be the ceiling if you could see it, and you think, Macbeth doth murder sleep…. Macbeth shall sleep no more,
and then you think about Louisa May Alcott writing, She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain,
and you realize your own brain has not only turned, but has possibly come unhinged.
And you can’t get back to sleep, so you lie there thinking, Books, books, books. Strings and strings of words, words, words. Why do we write them, why do we read them?What are they all for?
And you remember when you were two years old, and you parroted,
The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat,
because happiness was rhythm and rime.
And when you were five and your playmate didn’t want to hear you read “Angus and the Cat,” and you made her sit still and listen anyway.
And when you were fourteen and so happy all you could think was, O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!, and you didn’t know who wrote it but you remembered the line from a Kathy Martin book you got for Christmas when you were ten.
And when you were tramping along down by the river and a narrow fellow in the grass slithered by too close, and you felt a tighter breathing, and zero at the bone.
And when you woke early to a rosy-fingered dawn and thought
I’ll tell you how the sun rose, A ribbon at a time, The steeples swam in Amethyst The news, like Squirrels, ran
The Hills untied their Bonnets
And when you saw cruelty and injustice, and you remembered, Perfect love casts out fear, and knew fear rather than hate is the source of inhumanity, and love, the cure.
And when your father died unexpectedly, and you foresaw new responsibilities, and you remembered,
We never know how high we are Till we are called to rise.
And when your mother died, and you thought,
Oh, if instead she’d left to me The thing she took into the grave!- That courage like a rock, which she Has no more need of, and I have.
And at church the day after your father’s funeral, when your cousins, who were officially middle-aged and should have known how to behave, sat on the front row and dropped a hymnbook, and something stuck you in the side and you realized that when you mended a seam in your dress that morning you left the needle just hanging there and you were in danger of being punctured at every move, and somehow everything the minister said struck you as funny, and the whole family chose to displace stress by laughing throughout the service, and you were grateful for Mark Twain’s observations that
Laughter which cannot be suppressed is catching. Sooner or later it washes away our defences, and undermines our dignity, and we join in it … we have to join in, there is no help for it,
Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.
Laughter which cannot be suppressed is catching. Sooner or later it washes away our defences, and undermines our dignity, and we join in it … we have to join in, there is no help for it,
Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.
And when you fell in love and married and said with the poet, My beloved is mine and I am his.
And when, before you walked down the aisle, you handed a bridesmaid a slip of paper on which you’d written, Fourscooooorrrrrrre…, so that while you said, “I do,” she would be thinking of Mayor Shinn’s repeated attempts to recite the Gettysburg Address at River City’s July 4th celebration, and would be trying so hard not to laugh that she would forget to cry.
And when your friend died before you were ready and left an unimaginable void, and life was unfair, and you remembered that nine-year-old Leslie fell and died trying to reach the imaginary kingdom of Terabithia, and left Jess to grieve but to also to pass on the love she’d shown him.
And when the doctor said you have an illness and the outlook isn’t good, and you thought of Dr. Bernie Siegal’s writing, Do not accept that you must die in three weeks or six months because someone’s statistics say you will… Individuals are not statistics, but you also remembered what Hamlet says to Horatio just before his duel with Laertes,
There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.
And by the time you’ve thought all that, you’ve come back to what you knew all along, that books exist for pleasure, for joy, for consolation and comfort, for courage, for showing us that others have been here before, have seen what we see, felt what we feel, shared needs and wants and dreams we think belong only to us, that
everything the earth is full of… everything on it that’s ours for a wink and it’s gone, and what we are on it, the—light we bring to it and leave behind in—words, why, you can see five thousand years back in a light of words, everything we feel, think, know—and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave.
And about the time you have settled the question to your satisfaction, the twenty pounds of Jello slides off, and you turn over, and he stretches out and leans so firmly against your back that you end up wedged between him and your husband, who is now clinging to the edge of the bed, as sound asleep as the Jello is, and as you’re considering your options, you think,
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea In a beautiful pea-green boat, They took some honey, and plenty of money, Wrapped up in a five-pound note. The Owl looked up to the stars above, And sang to a small guitar…
and by the time the Pussycat and the Elegant Fowl have been married by the Turkey who lives on the hill, and have eaten their wedding breakfast with a runcible spoon, and are dancing by the light of the moon, the moon, you’ve decided that a turned brain has its advantages, and that re-hinging will never be an option.
Kathy Waller writes crime fiction, literary fiction, humor, memoir, and whatever else comes to mind. Her short stories appear in the Silver Falchion Award winner Murder on Wheels, Austin Mystery Writers’ first crime fiction anthology, and in their second, Lone Star Lawless, as well as in other print publications and online. Her novella STABBED, co-authored with Manning Wolfe, was released in October 2019. She blogs at Telling the Truth–Mainly.
Memories of growing up in a small town on the San Marcos River in Central Texas, and life in a large extended family, inspire much of her work. She now lives in Austin with two cats and one husband.