I said to my critique partner this morning, The whole project is stinky it stinks it’s fatally flawed just nothing no hope.
She said, But Chapter 13 is so good so funny Molly is so funny it’s not stinky.
I said, Yes, the first part of chapter 13 and the last part of chapter 13 are funny and very very good but there’s still no middle of chapter 13 and what there is stinks and anyway the other 47,000 words stink except for a few hundred here and there.
And she said, But the middle could be revised and edited it has promise.
I said, But it won’t work because I have written myself into a hole and can’t get out so I have to trash that part and anyway the whole concept stinks.
And she said, NO you can fix it just keep going because I like Molly she’s so funny.
And that is why I go to critique group every blessed week.
Writing is a solitary activity, but most of writing isn’t writing. It’s rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. And then it’s revising and revising. And editing editing editing. And rewriting again. And . . .
Sometimes it’s whingeing and complaining and eating peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon and buying larger clothes and telling Molly she’s a heartless ***** who doesn’t deserve one paragraph of her own, much less a whole book.
And it’s feeling like a fraud when you tell people you’re a writer and deciding you’d be happier if you gave up and dedicated yourself to French cookery or tatting or riding a unicycle.
But if you’re lucky, it’s also going to critique group and then going home and writing and writing and writing and . . .
Here’s the way Austin Mystery Writers work: We email first drafts, revised drafts, or final (almost) drafts, depending on where we are in the process.
We read all the week’s submissions, then sit around a table–or on one side of a table in front of a monitor displaying partners in little Zoom squares–and talk about what each member has written.
Criticism here doesn’t mean trashing. It means that each member points out what the writer has done well and what she might have done better. Sometimes we suggest examples of better–the “experts” say that’s not proper, but it works for us–and sometimes we simply say what we think doesn’t work so well without elaborating. Sometimes we disagree; one person doesn’t like a word or sentence or paragraph, while another thinks it’s fine. Sometimes we all chime in and discuss ideas.
Then we say, “Thank you.”
Because we’ve become friends during our association, we can say what we think and appreciate what the others say.
We encourage one another.
We also laugh a lot.
Because of AMW, I’ve published short stories and co-written one novella.
Because of AMW, I’ve become a better writer.
I posted “Why I Go to Critique Group” (one time I titled it “Why I Go to Critique Group and Can’t Afford Not To”) on my personal blog on July 9, 2010, when Gale Albright and I were members of the two-person Just for the Hell of It Writers, which was soon swallowed up by Austin Mystery Writers (a consummation devoutly to be wished).
I periodically pull the piece out and repost it.
Because it’s important.
Has anyone noticed that the em dash (—) in my posts looks like an en dash (–)? I can’t help it. Sometimes I find an em dash on a grammar website (like now) and copy and paste into my post, but right now I’m just not in the mood. But I’d like picky readers, like myself, to know that I’m aware of the error and wish the platform would correct it,
Kathy Waller posts on her personal blog, Telling the Truth, Mainly, http://kathywaller1.com. She’s published the anthologies pictured above, the first three with Wildside Press, the last a novel co-written with Manning Wolfe, with Starpath. She has finally decided the ancient pre-published book is not stinky and has hopes of finishing it one day. If her critique partners agree.
The definition of reading readiness is the point at which a child goes from not reading, to reading. ~ Sight and Sound Reading
But, Gwammy, I can’t wead.* ~ Jenny, five years old, after one week in kindergarten
When I was five, my Great-aunt Ethel gave me an ancient primer. She had found it in an old school building, abandoned when consolidation sent children in my hometown to a school two miles away, and then used only as a polling place. The primer had also been abandoned, and Aunt Ethel, election judge, liberated it and gave it to the youngest member of the family (youngest by about forty years; it was an old town).
My parents read to me almost from day one. The story goes that, as a toddler, I met my father at the door every evening when he got home from work, saying, “‘Ead a book, Daddy.” (Unlike Jenny, I had no pwoblem pwonouncing my ahs; I just dropped them.)
We didn’t have a library nearby, but I plenty of books: a Bumper Book, Little Golden Books, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Andersen’s Fairy Tales, which I didn’t like, in part because they were dark (“The Little Match Girl”), but mostly because the end papers sported a hairy black thing with an ugly humanish face and enough long, winding legs to qualify it as a spider. Grimms’ tales were more pleasant.
When I received the primer, I already knew the alphabet. In fact, a year before, I’d written my name in red adhesive tape–the gooiest, stickiest adhesive I’ve ever come across–on the inside of the kitchen door. It stayed there for years.
Anyway, armed with the primer–a school book, for reading–I set about teaching myself. While my mother did housework, I trailed behind, spelling out words.
I don’t think I taught myself to read. But the next year, when I entered first grade–no kindergarten back then–I was ready. I took right off on the underwhelming adventures of Dick, Jane, and Sally (siblings who never had a decent disagreement) plus Spot and Puff, who came and ran a lot.
In second grade, I got a Little Big Book—Gunsmoke–that had one hundred pages. I read it on Saturday and reported the accomplishment in our Class News at school on Monday. Later I got a literary Little Big Book, Huckleberry Finn. One sentence confused me: a dead man’s leg was stuck out at a strange angel. I was about thirty when I realized angel was really angle. I was also surprised when, in high school, I learned that the Little Big Book had been severely abridged.
Then I discovered comic books. They were more educational than most people think. From Scrooge McDuck, I learned that emeralds come from South America. Unfamiliar with physics, I pronounced Atom Cat as A-Tomcat. Seemed reasonable.
The next year, thanks to a Christmas present from my grandmother, I discovered Nancy Drew. Nancy had a blue convertible and drove around wherever she wanted, and her father never grounded her. I envied Nancy her freedom. I didn’t like her, though; she had a tomboy friend, George, who said, “Hypers, you slay me,” which was fine, but her other friend, Bess, was plump, and Nancy often referred to how much Bess ate. I presume in later editions, Nancy behaved better. But her treatment of Bess didn’t stop me from reading about her. I wrote letters to Joske’s Department Store in San Antonio: “Please send me one copy of The Hidden Staircase and one copy of The Clue in the Jewel Box. Please charge my account.” They each cost two dollars. My mother kindly signed the letters. It was her account.
I soon outgrew Nancy, but, like many other mystery readers and writers, I credit her for getting me hooked. I read a couple of Trixie Beldens–Trixie was sickeningly enthusiastic when her mother made her dust the living room before going out to solve mysteries, but she did manage to sneak out at night. I read some Kathy Martins. Kathy, a nurse, often suspected her (nice guy) brother for whatever (minor) crime had been committed, which I thought strange, but she was more mature and more realistic than other characters. No convertible, no sneaking.
But enough about me. The point is that reading was, and is, important to me.
And that this week I’ve been reading A Velocity of Being: Letters to Young Readers, edited by Maria Popova & Claudia Bedrick. The editors compiled 121 letters from “scientists, musicians, artists, philosophers, composers, poets, actors, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more remarkable humans whose splendor of spirit cannot be contained in the shorthand descriptors we often use to condense a person’s character and cultural contributions.” Each letter is paired with an illustration to “bring it to life visually.”
Many letters describe books as portals to the universe, to other worlds, to adventure, to curiosity and questions, to dreams, to logic and imagination; they’re boats and planes and magic carpets. Contributors write about hating book reports, and being hellions when they were little and refused to listen to Goodnight Moon at bedtime because they wanted dinosaurs, and being called antisocial when they preferred to read instead of play with friends.
But other contributors take the subject to a deeper level:
Author Alain deBotton writes, We wouldn’t need books quite so much if everyone around us understood us well. But they don’t. Even those who love us get us wrong. They claim to know what we need, but forget to ask us properly first. They can’t understand what we feel . . . That’s the moment to turn to books They are friends waiting for us, and they will always speak honestly to us. They are the perfect cure for loneliness. They can be our very closest friends.
Screenwriter Shonda Rhimessays, Reading saved me. When I was twelve, I spent most of my day trying to be invisible. The year before I’d been the new girl in school, and I’d spent a lot of time trying to be accepted. . . . The very desire to bend and twist to fit in–assures your rejection They did not like me. They hated me. I spent a lot of time alone. I rode the bus alone. I spent weekends alone, I ate lunch alone. Except I was never alone. I always had a book in my hand. If you have a book, you don’t need to bend and twist to fit–you’re there. You are in. . . . If you have a book in your hand, you can stop being invisible. Because you’re a little more invincible.
Venture capitalist Chris Sacca says that books are dangerous: If you keep reading, you might learn so much that you can take over for the adults and then you kids will be in charge! You all could be the journalists, entrepreneurs, artists, professors, authors, doctors, explorers, scientists, and even the leaders of our countries! Then what would the grown-ups do? Live in a world run by brilliant, interesting, innovative, and compassionate young people. Ugh. No, thank you. So please stop reading before you become really smart, successful, and happy.
But seriously, books are dangerous. Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin writes about life in the World War II Polish ghetto, where being caught reading by the Nazis meant anything from hard labor to death. But books were smuggled in, read by each person for only one night, and then, for the sake of safety, passed on. She stayed up all one night reading Gone with the Wind. Then she decided the children she secretly taught needed not dry information, but stories. And for one hour each night, she told them the story of Scarlett and Melanie, Rhett and Ashley; and for that hour they “escaped a world of murder.” Then “a knock at the door shattered our dream world.” Years later, she met one of only four of the students who survived. The woman called her “the source of my hopes and my dreams in times of total deprivation and dehumanization.”
Composer Mohammad Fairouz shares a story that I cherish from my upbringing; . . . 1400 years ago in the deserts of Arabia, a meditative prophet named Mohammad had a vision of the Angel Gabriel who came to him with a message: “Read” . . . This was the first word of the Quran. In the years following the prophet’s death, his followers built an empire where they contributed to every branch of knowledge, from algebra to optics and medicine to music. Countless things we have today would not exist without their contributions: that includes space stations, glasses, aspirin, your iPad. They were able to do this because they were inspired to seek out the power that comes with being to read. You deserve the same power . . .
Years ago, I knew a young man who had never learned to read. I don’t know why; he just hadn’t. As an adult, he took a literacy class. He said that when he traveled for his work, he was always scared, because he couldn’t read road signs, and he was afraid he would get lost. At the most basic level, reading is power.
And consider: At one time in the American South, it was illegal to teach slaves to read. If they were literate, they might be able to read signs that would help them escape. They might also read some inconvenient truths: “. . . that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . .” Inconvenient for their owners, that is.
“So the research shows that perhaps reading fiction does make people behave better. Certainly some institutions consider the effects of reading to be so significant that they now include modules on literature. At the University of California Irvine, for example, Johanna Shapiro from the Department of Family Medicine firmly believes that reading fiction results in better doctors and has led the establishment of a humanities programme to train medical students.
“It sounds as though it’s time to lose the stereotype of the shy bookworm whose nose is always in a book because they find it difficult to deal with real people. In fact, these bookworms might be better than everyone else at understanding human beings.”
Philosopher and professor Martha Nussbaum gives an example: The great African-American novelist Ralph Ellison said that a novel like his Invisible Man could be “a raft of hope, perception, and entertainment” on which America could “negotiate the snags and whirlpools” that stand between us and the democratic ideal. He’s referring here to Huck Finn and Jim, who got to know one another as full human beings, rather than just as a white man and a black man, when they traveled down the river on a raft together. On the raft, they had to look at one another, listen to one another’s stories. In our divided society, such encounters happen all too seldom in real life, and are fraught with mistrust when they do. Reading can create such encounters in the head, so that the ones that happen in the world are a little less crude, a little less deformed by fear and anger.
Huckleberry Finn has for years made the American Library Association’s list of most often challenged, banned, or restricted books–a novel that can teach us to be better people.
Design writer and educator Steven Heller extends the idea that reading is power and issues a challenge: Books are weapons in humankind’s battle against ignorance. I don’t mean like lasers and drones. I mean that knowledge is strength and the kind of knowledge you get from books is not the same as the quick fix that Googling gets you. What’s more, books can’t be hacked. But they can he censored, which means blocked or forbidden from being published. And this is why they are so valuable to us all. Often in fighting ignorance, the ignorant take books prisoner. If you don’t read books, then those that have been censored over the ages will be lost and forgotten. So kids, don’t let them down. Read them, savor them protect them. Don’t let others make books irrelevant.
*Jenny soon learned to wead. And to pwonounce her ahs.
I’ve gone on too long. If you’re still with me, thanks for sticking. And one more thing: Despite the title, A Velocity of Being isn’t just for young readers. It’s also for adults who need to be reminded to make reading part of their children’s lives.
George Woodstock received the peculiar phone call on his sixty-sixth birthday. . . He let the phone ring twice, then answered, “Woodstock Machine Shop.”
It was Helen’s voice. “Clara called, George.”
“Where is she?”
“Your sister. She’s out at Woodstock where she always is. Your papa has escaped from the nursing home.” . . .
“What in the hell does escaped mean? Did you ask any questions? . . . Have they put up a fence for patients to climb over? Or did he tunnel out? Did he wound any guards? I thought Papa was in a nursing facility.”
“Please don’t be snotty, George. I’m only telling you what Clara said. I said you’d call back.”
According to Best Mystery Novels, mysteries must meet certain criteria: there must be a puzzle; a detective or protagonist who sets out to solve the puzzle; suspects; clues; red herrings; hidden evidence; gaps in information; and suspense.
The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock isn’t classed as a mystery. It’s “general fiction.” Literary fiction. It isn’t shelved in bookstores and libraries amongst the Christies and the Hammetts and the Chandlers.
Author Benjamin Capps is famous for his award-winning historical fiction, realistic novels set in an Old West lacking the romance of pulp fiction. He didn’t write mysteries.
But based on the criteria laid out above, The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock is a mystery. On page one, the puzzle is laid out: ninety-one-year-old rancher Franklin Woodstock has “escaped” from the nursing home and is missing. And protagonist George Woodstock sets out on the three-hour drive from Fort Worth, northwest to the town of Woodstock, near his father’s seven-thousand-acre ranch, to find out what’s going on. (Clara, the sister who called, is known in the family as “a dingbat.”)
George’s investigation begins in chaos. The sheriff says they don’t usually find missing persons, just bodies they then identify by going through the files. He has two deputies out looking and will call in more searchers–George offers to help with expenses if necessary–but that’s about all his office can do.
At the Goodhaven Nursing Home, George asks the nurse at the front desk if she has a clue as to what his father might have been thinking in the days before he disappeared. She has a ready, and vehement, non-answer:
“I’m trying to bring the charts up for the next shift,” she said. ” . . . Now, sir, I would like to tell you what is charted again and again about Mr. Franklin Woodstock: Stubborn! Will not eat boiled and mashed carrots. Stubborn! Will not accept bath. Stubborn! Will not let aides assist in toilet. Stubborn! Tries to pinch aide or nurse. Stubborn! Will not lay as asked in bed. Stubborn! Pulls out feeding tube. Stubborn! Broke injection needle. Stubborn! Will not swallow boiled and mashed vegetables. Stubborn! Spits out pills.”
Asked the same question, the ward nurse sticks out a hand: “See that thumb? That knuckle! That’s where a patient bit me. Just bit me on purpose. . . . She’s only got about seven teeth and she sunk every of them into my thumb.”
The Director of Nursing speaks more formally, but her only specific reference to George’s father is that a nurse was fired because she was discovered bringing him food from home–ground broiled steak mixed with mushroom soup and thermoses of cold beer.
At the Woodstock ranch, George finds a haven in the person of Izzy, housekeeper, cook, compulsive gardener, canner, egg gatherer and churner of butter, and mother to everyone, although she’s probably no older than George. Izzy’s son Juan, who’s always gone by the name of Johnny Woodstock, is, as always, doing the practical–heading out on horseback with tenant-cowhands Buck and Slim to search for their employer. Johnny knows the ranch nearly as well as Franklin does.
Then the phone calls begin, and the six-hour round-trips to the airport in Fort Worth to pick up siblings and to try to keep his small machine shop afloat.
So the suspects gather. With plans. And motives.
Walter, a New York businessman with a degree from Harvard Business School, sees an opportunity to subdivide five thousand acres for an exclusive community, “no low-class people.” With his experience, of course, he’ll head up the project. That Chicano Johnny is good enough for punching cows but using a computer and managing a huge enterprise? Maybe he graduated from high school. Walter has also hired a private detective to find Papa, no matter how far he has to go or how much it costs.
Irma and her evangelist son Wilbur propose a different idea: The ranch will become Noah’s Ark, a combination religious retreat that will attract famous preachers, and a place of safety where every resident will be armed, a thousand rounds of ammo for each rifle, seeds, chainsaws, experts who can fix windmills and water pumps, animals two by two . . . because Russia, or somebody, is preparing to drop the Bomb. They’ve thought it out to the nth degree. Papa was a Born Again Christian and would have approved. Wilbur will probably be the first president, receiving a modest salary of $60,000. Irma had suggested $100,000.
Clara seems to want only to spoil her grandchildren, and Clarence, with a Ph.D. in literature and teaching in California, seems only to want to sit up all night with George, sharing several six-packs and talking old times. But Frank, his geologist son, believes the ranch sits on deep oil wells that could be profitable.
During George’s long drives between Fort Worth and the ranch, we learn a lot about Franklin Woodstock. He hasn’t always been “stubborn” or “Born Again.” He’s been a hard worker and a shrewd manager, starting with nothing and acquiring land and cattle, building “the Old Place” and later a large house, adding stock tanks and windmills, working alongside his hands in every endeavor. He has raised a family and sent his children to any school they wanted. When Clara’s grandson, Homer, who is “different,” is expelled from third grade for arguing unintelligibly with the teacher because he doesn’t want to sit down, and then (it is assumed) keeps breaking into the school library and stealing books (which are always returned), Franklin somehow smooths things over and starts building a library in his own home; the break-ins cease. Homer can’t read but seems to think if he could , he would understand what everyone else does.
Franklin Woodstock is the best man George has ever known.
We learn a lot about George, too: a surveyor with the CCC, a navigator who flew forty missions over the Pacific in World War II, an assistant engineer with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, a machinist and tool-and-die maker. He’s a man with a high school education who wants to work with his hands, and he’s good at it. His father respects that and has promised him $100,000 to expand his business–a loan, not a gift. But with nothing on paper, and no witnesses to the promise, George doesn’t know whether he’ll get the money. And he feels guilty for even thinking about it.
He’s also worried that his siblings are behaving as if Papa is already dead. Walter says they can have him declared so. Walter is determined. Who knows what the others will agree to?
Although the active characters are the heirs of Franklin Woodstock, the old man holds the novel together. He’s missing. Is he dead or alive? Will they ever know?
What happened to Franklin Woodstock? There’s the mystery.
There are, of course, clues, red herrings, hidden evidence, gaps in information, suspense–all of the other basic criteria. But it would be a shame to share too much here.
As they say in fourth-grade book reports, if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book.
A word about the author:
Benjamin Capps was born in 1922 in Dundee, Archer County, Texas.
At fifteen, he entered Texas Technological College in Lubbock but left after a year to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps and then as a surveyor in the U. S. Department of Engineering. As a navigator, he flew forty missions over the Pacific in World War II. He received two degrees in English and journalism from the University of Texas and taught at Northeastern State College in Oklahoma. But teaching didn’t allow him time to write and drained his creativity. He became a machinist and tool-and-die maker before becoming a full-time writer. He lived in Grand Prairie, Texas.
According to Capps, his writing’s aim is to be authentic and “to probe the human nature and human motives” involved in his stories. His works are painstakingly researched for historical accuracy and generally explore lesser known facets of the American frontier.
Three of his books won Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America. One novel and one work of nonfiction received a Wrangler Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center. He was the recipient of numerous other awards.
Dundee, Capps’ birthplace, is nineteen miles from Archer City, where Larry McMurtry was born eleven years later. Capps never achieved McMurtry’s fame (or notoriety).
But he’s been counted among writers such as Walter Van Tilburg Clark and Conrad Richter for writing about the Old West with “compelling authenticity.”
James W. Lee, Director, Center for Texas Studies, University of North Texas, calls his Woman of the People “the finest novel ever to come out of Texas.” (Note: Lee is right.)
He also says “Ben Capps is the Texas author whose work will still be read a hundred years from now.”
The summer I was six, my cousin of the same age was visiting our spinster great-aunt and bachelor uncle who lived up the street. Uncle called one evening. Cousin was being a major pain. It was a weeknight, and the only amusement our miniscule town afforded, a roller skating rink, was open only on weekends. Great-aunt and uncle weren’t accustomed to dealing with children of the painful variety, so he did what he often did when desperate. He appealed to my mother: You’ve got to do something.
A veteran of dealing with a juvenile pain, she proposed the perfect solution. They loaded both of us into the car and took us fifteen miles to the drive-in movie.
A synopsis of the novel from which the movie was adapted appears on Wikipedia:
A prosperous shipbuilder hires a former detective who suffers from vertigo to tail his wife Madeleine who is acting strangely. The detective falls in love with the shipbuilder’s wife but is unable to stop her committing suicide by jumping from a tower. Haunted by her death, he sees a woman who bears a strong resemblance to the dead woman, however, his attempts to get closer to this doppelgänger ultimately result in tragedy.
In these enlightened times, many, if not most, parents would be horrified at anyone’s allowing a first-grader to see such a nightmare-inducing movie. I, however, spent every afternoon glued to the Afternoon Movie. I guess my mother assumed that if I could handle Don Ameche trying to get rid of his wife, Claudette Colbert, by drugging her hot chocolate and then piping in repeated suggestions that she jump off her bedroom balcony, Hitchcock wouldn’t upset me.
And I’ve always been grateful to her, because that night at the drive-in, I fell in love. I watched Hitchcock’s television programs and all the movies I could manage. They were wonderful, and if they starred Cary Grant–Francine Paino wrote about one of those, North by Northwest, last week–that was icing on the cake.
Now Netflix, Prime, Roku, and other streaming services have allowed me to watch many of them again.
But this post isn’t a celebration of Hitchcock. It’s about two stories adapted for his television show. Watching them as an adult, I saw something I hadn’t seen years (and years) ago. I enjoyed both, but one had something extra.
The first is “The Second Wife,” in which a mail-order bride comes to believe that her husband plans to kill her. At the outset, he seems insensitive, unconcerned about her needs; when she says the laundry room in the basement is uncomfortably cold, he complains about the cost of installing a heater. She also hears stories: he took his first wife to visit her people at Christmas and she died and was buried there–or that’s what he claims.
Gossip fuels the second wife’s fears, and when the husband announces plans to take her home for Christmas, she acquires a gun. Before they leave, however, he insists she go down to the basement. She takes the gun and descends the stairs. He’ll follow in a moment.
The viewer feels her fear: The husband will kill the second wife, as he killed the first.
But there’s a literary catch. In a letter, Anton Chekhov stated one of his principles for writing fiction: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”
The wife has a gun. And this is Hitchcock; he keeps his promises.
The wife shoots and kills her husband, then realizes he’d only wanted to show her her Christmas present–the heating system he’d had installed in the laundry room.
A couple have reared an adopted daughter, now a teenager, a bright student, a well-adjusted, happy girl. But the parents have carefully guarded a secret: the girl’s father murdered her mother, then killed himself in prison. When a prison chaplain and his accomplice appear and blackmail the couple, then come back for more, the father considers his options: murder the blackmailer, or tell his daughter about her past. Both are unthinkable. Then one of the blackmailers is murdered. Evidence points to the father.
How can the plot be resolved? Did the father commit murder? He escapes being charged but can’t escape telling his daughter about her birth parents.
In “The Second Wife,” the resolution is either/or, and the viewer can almost certainly predict which it will be.
But the ending of “The Night of the Owl” isn’t predictable. Will the girl become hysterical? Fall into depression? Reject her adoptive parents? Run away? Harm herself?
Told the truth about the murder/suicide in her background, she expresses empathy. How unhappy her parents must have been, she says–what sad lives they must have lived.
I didn’t see that coming. A Hitchcock program with a happy ending. And an exceptional character.
Critics (professional and amateur) point to problems with both programs. Fair enough. I didn’t watch for flaws. In fact, I didn’t watch for anything but the pleasure of seeing programs I’d first watched as a child. I just happened to see something more.
And to quote Osgood Fielding III, “Nobody’s perfect.”
Research turned up this biographical item: “An ardent opponent of the Nazi regime, in 1939 Brown testified before the House Immigration Committee in support of a bill that would allow 20,000 German-Jewish refugee children into the United States. He would later adopt two German-Jewish refugee girls himself, naming them Mary Katherine Ann (born 1930) and Kathryn Francis (born 1934).”
Images are taken from Wikipedia. Both are in the public domain.
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.