Inauguration Day. Except for exercise class, I stayed home. We have no TV and my husband took the newspapers with him to work. But the Internet sprayed me with the day’s events. People would not stop talking. Talk, talk, talk. By the time I went to bed, my stomach was in knots.
Saturday I left the house for Richmond. I wanted a day away from politics and hoped another 50 miles from D.C. would do it.
The weather was gray and mizzly. I wanted to catch the Jefferson exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society. Most of Jefferson’s personal papers are archived in the Massachusetts Historical Society and select letters, books, and drawings were on loan. The show would close on Sunday.
I arrived too early and walked around. Sometimes I think I might like living in the city, with its different houses, runners, dog-walkers, coffee shops, bookstores, quirky boutiques. In the city, I could be left alone with my own thoughts.
If I believed I’d avoid other people’s conversations, I was wrong. Even though no one spoke a word to me, their voices were broadcast loud and clear. These photos don’t reflect my opinions, they only document what I encountered on one street.
These people intruding on my thoughts, pushing their agendas at me, made me grumpy. I decided I didn’t like the city. I don’t drink coffee and have no desire to work on a laptop in a coffee shop. Boutiques are generally filled with things I don’t need. Even the bookstores were disappointing (no real children’s section).
My feet hurt by the time I trudged back to the Virginia Historical Society. But I felt lighter when I entered the gallery featuring Jefferson’s papers. Much has been written about Jefferson and in recent years he’s become a popular target. Many people think they know him, but in truth, no one does.
I was delighted by his drawing of the “Pigeon House,” no mere dovecote, but a dwelling I’d move into tomorrow. I marveled at his very tiny handwriting in his Farm Book. Unlike most of the founding fathers, Jefferson’s cursive is readable; his thoughts clear as a Virginia creek. He was a writer and I am, too.
I stood a long time before his handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, the document that began the journey toward our right to free speech. Those people on the sidewalk were entitled to their way of thinking, just as I’m entitled to mine.
Across the hall in another gallery I found a surprise: an exhibit of original illustrations from recent children’s books. My spirits lifted higher. After viewing the art, I sat down with the collection of books. Nothing soothes like sitting with a lap of picture books.
Frazzled nerves calmed, I drove home. Okay, I like some things about the city. Museums. I’m overdue for a visit to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Soon I’ll board the commuter train to D.C. I’ll ignore coffee shops and political chatter and enjoy the part of the city that belongs to all of us, but can be mine for a day.
Today is the launch day of my newest–and first 2017–book, Tooth Fairy’s Night. It’s a Level 1 Step into Reading, written for the newest readers. And here is how it came about.
In the spring of 2015, I was restless and in need of “filling the well,” as most long-term career writers must do from time to time. I went to New York City by myself, not to attend a conference or sign books at a convention (something I hadn’t done in years anyway), but to find my own New York.
I had written two Step into Reading books for Random House, Pumpkin Day and Apple Picking Day. So I arranged to stop by Random House and met with Heidi and Anna, the SiR editors. They asked me to write a Level 1 (the hardest!) on the Tooth Fairy.
I gulped. Fantasy and imaginative writing is not my thing. All of my books are grounded in reality. But I have long admired children’s writers who reach for the impossible, who make something out of nothing, who don’t need a bit of research. I said yes.
From there, I went to the American Museum of Natural History for the first time ever. My other RH editor, Frances Gilbert, urged me to go and told me I’d be astounded. She was right. From the first second I entered the AMNH, I knew I’d found my New York. I stayed till closing time. The next day I was there when it opened and again stayed till closing.
The exhibitions in the museum are very much grounded in the real world, but it took the imagination of many naturalists, scientists, and artists to make this one of the most famous, and most attended, museum in the world.
As I roamed the halls, I thought about my assignment. What about the Tooth Fairy? The practical side of me compared her to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny who only work one night a year. The Tooth Fairy, however, works every night. And she doesn’t have a bunch of elves to help her!
The Tooth Fairy, I decided, was a shift worker. She carried a lunch box (union rules state she must take a break). She had to pack her supplies. She had to feed her pet. Before she left her cottage, she checked to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything.
And off she went to work.
Meanwhile, back at home in Candice’s Office/Workshop (also without elves), I got ready to go to Hollins for a summer of teaching. After I’d been at Hollins a week or so, my SiR editor asked how the Tooth Fairy book was coming.
I gulped. It wasn’t coming at all. I hadn’t even started it! Random House would like the book to come out in time for Dental Health Month in 2017. But if I couldn’t do it, my editor assured me, then 2018 would be okay.
What would the Tooth Fairy do? She never slacked off because she was busy with something else. Nope, she showed up, every single night because it was her job and she couldn’t disappoint all those children.
I told my editor she’d have a manuscript by Tuesday. This was Friday. Then I stayed in my apartment on campus that weekend and wrote and wrote and wrote. Draft after draft. Level 1 readers must rhyme, must use meter, and–clearly–must make sense.
By Monday I had a draft to send to my editor. It needed work, but we would make our 2017 deadline. When we were finished, I was thrilled with the story.
Now it’s out with Monique Dong’s cheerful illustrations that show the impossible.
Of all the books I’ve written, this one–and my new picture book coming out this summer–make me feel like a children’s book author. The kind that can write stories from the imagination.
Update from Monique Dong, illustrator:
“Working on Tooth Fairy’s Night was a dream come true for me as a new illustrator! The story was so sweet and charming and drew me in from the first read. It’s such a creative take on the tooth fairy concept that will delight children for years to come!
I had the wonderful opportunity in this project to work with Random House. They were supportive and encouraging, from the rough sketches through to the final colour. I’m so excited to see this book on the shelves!”
I’m late putting up a New Year’s post, owing to the fact I had a book due, I was hospitalized, and there were all those holidays. Being in the hospital for three days (and three mostly sleepless nights) gave me plenty of time to think about the coming year and change. A new year usually generates resolutions, goals, or “word of the year.”
I have no resolutions because, like most people, hard resolves tend to shatter within a matter of weeks. I’m too old to have goals: it’s all I can do to keep moving forward with my writing career and teaching.
I used to have a “word of the year.” I remember my first word of the year, claimed back in January 1987. It was “onward” (stolen from my Mary Engelbreit calendar). I was all ready to charge onward into a year of writing when, just after New Year’s Day doctors gave up on my ill stepfather and sent him home to die. Not the kind of onward I’d hoped for.
The magazines I read while I was sick devoted whole articles to promoting “no” as word of the year, perfect sense for people who hurl themselves from one place, one activity, one day to the next. I’ve felt that way myself this past year. To me, “no” sounds strident. I plan to practice saying “no,” but I don’t want to wave that banner for 2017.
If I had a word of the year, it would be “wonder,” a commodity we have precious little of when every question can be answered with a swipe. Pull out a phone and curiosity is immediately smacked into fact. Close on the heels of “wonder” is “pay attention.” (Two words, so I cheat.)
All around me people chatter, multi-task on phones and laptops, drive while eating and drinking, walk with headphones, eyes straight ahead. Everyone seems to have tunnel vision. I’m the only one who stops in the Walmart parking lot to watch a flock of Canada geese fly low overhead. It’s an astonishing sight, always, and deserves our attention.
The end of the year is also time for assessment. Since I’m deep into my career, I’m not about to flit off in another direction (that too-old thing again). I ponder why I’m doing what I do, and that inevitably leads me back to my childhood self. At ten, I was so full of wonder, I could barely stand up. Everything was fascinating: dirt, birds, stars, rocks, dinosaurs, clouds, trees. I couldn’t get enough of the world around me.
Annie Dillard talks about waking up in her book An American Childhood:
Who turned on the lights? You did, by waking up. You flipped a light switch, started up the wind machine, kicked on the flywheel that spins the years . . . Knowing you are alive is feeling the planet buck under you, rear, kick, and try to throw you . . . Do you remember, remember, remember?
I do remember. And I want some of that feeling back. It’s still there, underneath the dailyness of cleaning toilets and buying milk and washing the sheets. The planet ripples a little when I have to sit down to emails and go to appointments. I’m older, not dead.
So here’s what I’m going to do this year. Wake up. Be wide-eyed with wonder. Because I’m a grown-up, I’ll call it a project. I’m keeping a nature journal, writing down what I see, what I’m paying attention to. Even if I can’t go outside, I’ll observe from the window. I’ll draw in it, maybe paint a little. Use photos. The important thing is that I’ll make note I was aware of this world, every day.
I’ll share some of what I see and hear and experience with you (which will be mercifully better than my endless whining). You can come, too.
Flip the light switch again. Pay attention with me.
It starts in late October when I pick up special-issue Christmas magazines. Something fires in my brain. Visions of cut-out sugar cookies, homemade breads for neighbors, our house turned into a picture-perfect vintage winter wonderland . . .
For Type-A control-freaks like me, Christmas represents the pinnacle of overachievement. Pull out garland, lights, and mistletoe! Dig out candles, ornaments, and tinsel! My head teems with craft projects and design decor. Never mind I have a ton of work. Forget that perfection isn’t a realistic goal. On with the show!
After I’ve browbeaten my husband to hang the outside lights, I go to town with fake greenery and bead garlands. No demure holly branches or pine cones for me. Pile on the glitz! This year I added a vintage tin barn on our porch as a touch of the unexpected.
The inside of the house is next. Rather than install one lavish display (I used to put up a seven-foot tree loaded with Victorian ornaments and would dress fifty bears), I “curate” vignettes of heirloom and vintage decorations. My mother-in-law’s putz village always resides on the hutch in the dining room, but everything else is featured in different displays each year.
I enjoy unpacking family treasures, aware I’m the final caretaker of these fragile old things. I honor other people’s traditions—my husband’s, my stepfather’s, my grandparents’. And of course, my own.
In my memory map, the Christmases-that-actually-were sit at a crossroads with the Christmases-that-never-existed.
~ ~ ~
Each year when I set out my out my tiny plastic nativity, I am ten again, spending a precious dime on my first decoration. That year, 1962, my stepfather cut down a cedar tree, scraggly and with a “bad” side, from our woods, and nailed two crossed pieces of lumber as a stand.
My mother brought boxes of ornaments down from the attic. I decorated the tree by myself, as I would the rest of my life. My mother set out the gold-painted turkey carcass sleigh pulled by three mismatched reindeer. Holiday cards of carolers were Scotch-taped to the mantel. I wanted more.
When I grew up, I decided, I’d decorate my whole house. I’d open all my presents on Christmas Eve, not just the one I was allowed. Supper would be party food eaten under the tree: cashews and French onion dip with potato chips, sugar cookies and ginger ale punch. Christmas Eve held all the magic.
With money from my first job, I bought decorations from Dart Drug, glitter-dusted sugar-plum garlands, candy canes, and pink plastic gumdrops. At seventeen, I was already into themes. Since then, I’ve blasted through several phases: Victorian, early children’s book, primitive Americana. None of them felt genuine.
One dusky December afternoon, I went into our woods and climbed a half-fallen oak tree. I took two package tie-ons shaped like angels from my pocket. Wrapping the pipe cleaners around my fingers like puppets, I listened to the angels. I was nine and understood every word they whispered. It was the only time Christmas ever felt real, that cold afternoon alone in the woods, but not that far from home.
~ ~ ~
I was 35 when my mother died and wanted nothing to with Christmas. I bought a small artificial tree and decorated it with miniature Charlie Brown ornaments from Hallmark. Christmas Eve day, I insisted we go to Williamsburg. It grew dark and still I had no plans to drive home. As the Royal Albert outlet store was closing, I rashly purchased a set of bone china, originally priced at $1200, for $200. I craved beautiful things but they did not bring back my mother.
We ate Christmas Eve supper in a Holiday Inn on the way back home. I glimpsed my reflection in the window, noting the tightness around my mouth. We used the china exactly once. And when we moved, I never found the little artificial tree or the Charlie Brown ornaments. They had vanished.
I learned you cannot run away from Christmas, but for years and years, I dreaded the holiday and raced through the season like I was running through a burning building.
~ ~ ~
Heartburn started in August. The only way I could cope with Christmas was to bury it in elaborate decorations and cookie exchanges with people I barely knew and rich lunches in restaurants where I was never comfortable. I wrote zesty holiday letters and agonized over selections of Christmas cards. The postage stamps had to coordinate.
I created a schedule: shopping done by Halloween, letter written before Thanksgiving, cards started on Thanksgiving evening, packages mailed by December 8, cards mailed by December 9, tree up December 10. The check-list was less a tradition and more a set of marching orders.
December 26, everything was put away except the tree. No Southerner, even one as anal as I am, would tempt next year’s fate by taking the tree down before New Year’s Day.
We did “city” stuff, like attend The Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center and hear The Messiah by the National Symphony. I wore velvet and diamond earrings. I was thin back then and always cold. Inside and out.
~ ~ ~
In my heart, I wanted to live in the country. I wanted to cut our own Christmas tree and haul it back to our farmhouse in a red ’55 Chevy truck. I wanted to stay up on Christmas Eve and hear the animals speak at midnight and see angels.
I wanted to make peace with Christmas.
I wanted to go home.
~ ~ ~
After a while, I realized that the house I live in is home and I could keep fighting Christmas or reach a compromise.
I let go of the schedule (mostly). I cut my present list. I choose the parts of Christmas that are important to me. But I still make a huge decorating fuss.
Eventually I wound my way back to the old mercury-glass ornaments and my mother’s mismatched reindeer. Creating artful displays lets me feel like a window designer.
Yet I get tired and cranky, as many women do this time of year. We’re the ones who pull it off like a rabbit out of a hat. For me, the stress of unattainable perfection weighs heavily and, in truth, no one gives a rip if the pink pre-lit tree clashes with the red pre-lit tree next to it.
For some reason, I feel Christmas gives me a chance to make right the failures and goals I didn’t achieve the previous eleven months. No one heaps those expectations on me. I do it all by myself, just as that ten-year-old girl took on decorating the tree all by herself.
If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that I need to do less. To be still and quiet. To find a patch of woods. To wait for the angels. If I listen, they might whisper to me again.
Last week I wrote about being “between selves,” referencing an essay by writing teacher, Heather Sellers. I’m still mining that essay, “The Wizard in the Closet,” which is about how Sellers’ FSU writing mentor, Jerome Stern, shaped her into a writer (and a person).
As Stern’s grad assistant, Sellers often ran errands for him: “picking up a writer at the airport, dropping off a poster at the printer, hanging flyers on bulletin boards, getting a book from the library.” And when she returned, Stern always asked her, “What did you notice? What was interesting?”
Most of us don’t notice much of anything when we’re doing errands because we aren’t looking for anything interesting. We’re just in a hurry to buy rolls for supper, mail a package, fill up the gas tank, grab a latte at Starbucks. Only something extraordinary would make us pay attention, like falling into a sinkhole.
Sellers’ professor insisted that she take note of what was happening and find the story in it. “He taught me that all writers are essentially travel writers . . . Only after shaping the trip into a narrative could you honestly say, ‘I’m back.’”
I took Stern’s advice to heart. The next time out, I’d pay attention and find the story. As it so happened, my husband and I went to lunch at a café in Spotsylvania Courthouse, a new place for us. I sat down, ordered a BLT without the T and not much L, and checked out the scene. My gaze locked on an older couple sitting in the booth across from us.
The man wore the county uniform of John Deere cap, flannel shirt, suspenders, green work pants, and brogans. His wife had on a long knit skirt, a red flowy top, and sequined Converse sneaks. Pinned in her dyed black hair were two coral roses. Neither had any teeth, but that didn’t hinder them from chowing down burgers and chili while keeping up a brisk dialog with each other and a chatty waitress. Immediately I fixated on them.
My husband changed seats with me so I could observe better. I peeked around my menu. My ears practically bent forward like tuning forks so I could eavesdrop. Amazingly, the woman talked about museums. I itched to take their picture and record their conversation in a notebook. But I didn’t have my camera or even a scrap of paper with me. What kind of a writer goes out unprepared?
I ate my BLT, forking out the still-too-much L, as the couple finished their meal. Although they’d cleaned their plates down to the shine, the woman asked for doggie bags. I watched as they carefully scraped bits into Styrofoam boxes, poured dregs of sweet tea into to-go cups. When they left, the exotic air in the café leaked out into the autumn day.
What did you see? Jerome Stern would ask me if I were his student. I imagined myself proudly relating a colorful description of the farmer and his festively-dressed wife.
What happened? Stern would press. I’d stammer that they ate and talked and packed a doggie bag before leaving. Even telling it in my head, it sounded skimpy and anecdotal.
I glanced around the café. A line of crayoned placemats hung like pennants from the counter. One child had a drawn a cross and the word Faith. Another showed a sleek racecar. The woman in the booth behind us grilled the waitress about every single ingredient in her order. I cain’t touch dairy. A group of retirees in badge-studded VFW hats grumbled over politics. Why hadn’t I noticed all this before?
In my search for story, I’d chosen to focus on the curious and strange, ignoring the fact the rest of the restaurant offered up a whole novel on a platter.
What happened? Well, that part is up to me.
The couple aren’t characters by themselves (maybe they are, but you know what I mean); not until I let them interact with others in the café. Or give them lives outside the café.
Suppose they get into a beef with the non-dairy woman over the rights of cows? Suppose their granddaughter drew the racecar picture on an earlier visit—and they’re raising her because her mother is in jail? Or the doggie bags contain their supper for the next few days because today is their anniversary and they splurged?
There are the stories.
Heather Sellers realized her mentor wasn’t just trying to get her to observe, but to stretch beyond observation and note-taking. (What do we do with all those notes anyway?) So she wrote a short story about a character that combined her own traits with those of a fellow student she didn’t care for, and gave the character the assignment of breaking up with a fictional boyfriend. “I made the whole thing up, but it felt like the truest story I’d ever written.”
I never got to take a class with the late Jerome Stern (or with Heather Sellers, yet), but I appreciate knowing this new practice however it came to me.
Go out. Pay attention. Report back with a story.
Recently I attended our regional SCBWI conference. It was a great conference, as always, and like old home week. Lots of people came up to me: Hollins students, retreat attendees, critique clients, workshop attendees, even someone who heard me speak at a romance writers panel in 1982 (“You were a girl!”). I was pleased that people touched base or shared great news. But it seemed they sprang away like gazelles while I spluttered, “Wait! Here’s what’s happened to me . . .”
I realize that after nearly 40 years in the business, I’m sort of a fixture: Oh, that’s Candice Ransom, she’s published a gazillion books. I won’t deny that it’s nice to be well-published, but it isn’t always a picnic.
I came home from the conference wondering why I hesitate to mention my news. A large part of this reticence stems from a mother who told me never to brag. And she practiced this herself. If, for example, my aunt boasted that my cousin had made all A’s and one B, Mama would rather be thrown under a semi than report that I had made straight A’s. (This was after my early high school years in which I’d flunked Home Ec, P.E., algebra.)
Why did I feel isolated among people who love children’s books as much as I do? I watched and listened to the participants. They were bright-eyed with excitement and I could tell many were on the cusp of wonderful things.
Some of my hesitation to join in was my natural shyness. I’ve never felt comfortable in large groups, even if I know everybody. Then, too, I sense when I come to this conference each year, I’m a different person, in a different place.
Five years ago, I believed I’d finally reached the writer self I’d launched myself toward for so long. But things went wrong and I was tangled in confusion and frustration.
A few days ago I stumbled on an essay by my favorite writing teacher, Heather Sellers. In the essay, which is about her favorite writing teacher, Sellers says that “all of us, always, are between selves . . .” It makes perfect sense. I’m between selves again. Not exactly here or exactly there. Yet.
If Sellers is right, then everyone at the conference (and anywhere else) was between selves. Many were coming into their own as writers, connecting with the right agent, meeting an empathetic editor, hearing the one piece of advice that resonated, writing down the one sentence that jolted them from a rut, jotting down the title of the one book they needed to read. Some, however, may have been experiencing a kind of fugue, and were waiting for the fuzziness to clear up.
That would be me. I’ve shed the husk of that recent failure, but I’m still crawling toward who I can be. As Sellers says, “We forget how painful it is [sometimes] to be between selves . . . and that it is in that desolate gap that everything true and useful is happening.”
I’m taking notes, Ms. Sellers. And if I actually reach that “person-in-the-making,” I know I probably won’t get to stay there long. But that’s okay. Maybe the leap to the next self won’t be as far.
Now I will tell my news for this year:
- I have a new agent who makes me work and gives me hope, the best combination ever.
- I have a three-book contract from Random House for three more Step into Reading Level 1 readers.
- I have just been signed to write the sequel to my 2017 picture book, Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten.
- I am working on a nonfiction book with National Geographic.
- Next year I will have five new books out!
As you grow older, you realize there are a great many things you can’t get back: your childhood home, your size two body, your mother’s moonstone pendant you lost in the front yard and never found no matter how many times you raked through the grass. In this era of ever-facing forward, you may think some decisions are irreversible.
Like how you exercise.
I never did a stroke of exercise unless forced at knife-point. Then I turned 40 and realized that whenever I walked upstairs parts of me were still moving even after I reached the top. I crept into a neighborhood Jazzercise class in 1992 and stayed (although in a different town and studio) for 18 years. And then I quit. I was teaching and gone all summer. My work seemed to take all my time. I didn’t like the music any more. I would walk instead. I’d take up running!
And I did, but only if it wasn’t too hot, too cold, too windy, raining, or a squirrel hadn’t looked crossways at me. I’m the Goldilocks of outdoor activities. I joined Curves and dropped out. Tried Zumba, but it wasn’t like Jazzercise.
When my husband had open-heart surgery, we joined a nearby gym and I discovered that even if the gym was next door, even if it was in my house, I would only climb on the leg press machine if it blocked access to the bathroom.
I spend my days in my office, or hovering around the goody drawer. At 64, I look great on paper as far as sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, and BMI. While my weight isn’t terrible, I’m nobody’s tiny thing, as my mother would say. Then there are my moods.
Depression is insidious. One of my first symptoms is a sense of disappearing. I stop looking in mirrors. I don’t feel present when I’m out in public. I am nobody. I don’t count. Meds help, but only so much. My days lose shape. It happens almost every fall, but two weeks ago I decided to reverse a decision I’d made.
I went back to Jazzercise. I was very nervous. I was six years older and more things hurt. Would I remember the moves? Would I pass out from exhaustion? More important, would I be welcomed?
And then there’s the stamp of fuddy-duddyness associated with Jazzercise. Once, in my summer graduate class, I mentioned Jazzercise. My younger students snickered. When I asked them what was so funny, they said, “My mother did Jazzercise!” “My grandmother did Jazzercise!” I checked my pulse to make sure I was still alive and then I told those girls that if they walked into a Jazzercise class right now, the “old ladies” would mop the floor with them.
Jazzercise has always changed with the times. No more leg warmers or Sweatin’ to the Oldies. Yes, the morning class I attend is largely made up of retired people. The woman I dance next to is 80. She’s in better shape than many women half her age.
What inspires such loyalty? Sense of family. Was I welcomed back? You bet I was. I’d forgotten names, but not faces, and no one, it seems, had forgotten me. Going to the gym, or walking or running by myself offered no sense of community. People come to class week after week, year after year to work out and work through loss, problems, and illness. Jazzercise gives shape to our days.
The first four classes were rough. I had four different instructors who never repeated a number. I concentrated so hard to learn routines smoke poured out of my ears. Yet I left with a feeling of pride as I breezed through after-class chatter and out into the sunshine.
I was back.
When I think about the stars and how far away they are and how many, I get so I have to sit down.
And then I remember that matter cannot be created or destroyed, which means nothing ever leaves. Not dogs or fleas or mockingbirds or Jefferson’s eyelashes. The dust stirred by the hem of Cleopatra’s robe is still here. It all returns, all of it, some way or another.
My mother could have been a color or a drop of rain. What if I missed her? Will she come back again?
No tuna for the cats this week. These are the first of the season and Social Security only stretches so far. Time for homemade strawberry shortcake with real cream.
Fifty years ago you kissed Estee Lauder Swiss Strawberry off my lips. When all the kids had measles, you picked tiny wild berries and put them in my great-grandmother’s Satsuma teacup. At your passing, my world turned red. How would I get by alone?
This evening for supper, fresh hot biscuits, sugar-topped and brown, will pillow an old woman’s memories. The cats will have the cream.
Spring cleaning for this blog! Once a week, I plan to post a photo and write a story that has nothing to do with me or the photo. Artist’s exercise: take a photo, print it, and live with it for a week until it tells a story.
Something was wrong.
Sick of being buttoned-up, jammed-up, grown-up, I tore out in the Little Red Truck, down a wide-open highway, windows down, eating a Twix bar, CD player blaring Waylon and Willie in “Good-hearted Woman.”
It wasn’t too long before I met the girl who used to drive barefoot down tree-dappled backroads, sipping the dregs of a Pink Fink Slurpee, Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love Traveling Salvation Show” blasting from the a.m. radio. My redneck didn’t-give-a-damn self. How I’ve missed her.
Spring brings planting sprees, cleaning spurts, and spells of restlessness. We stand at the edge of summer, one leap from quarry-deep memories of “laying out” and evening jaunts to nowhere in particular, while we declutter the garage and tackle weeds.
At night I hunt that summer girl in my dreams. The brick rambler where she grew up is there (last night a forest of cellphone towers rose up in place of our woods), yet bumbling around inside is a nearly-sixty-four-year-old woman, confused and disoriented. The woman is confused and disoriented awake, too. Her memory is failing. Huge chunks of her past have crumbled to dust, like slabs of ceiling plaster fallen onto a concrete floor.
When we sold my childhood house in 1990, my husband took photos of each empty room, every forlorn corner. The other day I came upon those pictures. When did Mama change the kitchen counter? Was the linoleum always that color? Pictures don’t lie, but they didn’t match the images in my head, patched-together fragments from actual life and night-time stumblings toward a ghostly home.
Last night I finished Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, the memoir by my favorite writer, Lee Smith. Smith’s novels are like going home, even if you’ve never set foot in Appalachia. In the chapter entitled, “A Life in Books,” Smith speaks of the joy in her work:
For the time of the writing, I am nobody. Nobody at all . . . though I say I am no one at all, my every sense is keen and quivering. I can smell the bacon cooking downstairs in my grandmother’s kitchen that winter morning in 1952. I can see the bright blue squares of the kitchen wallpaper, bunches of cherries alternating with little floral bouquets . . . my grandaddy’s Lucky Strike cigarette smoke still hangs in the air, lazy blue, though he is already up and gone . . .
I am there now, and I want to stay there. I hate to leave that kitchen and come back to this essay.
I know exactly how she feels. It’s a harder trip for me to find our old kitchen, but necessary. You see, I left something important in there.
In her memoir, Smith recounts Eudora Welty’s visit to Hollins College where Smith was a student. Lee Smith hadn’t read any of Welty’s work, but she high-tailed it to the library after Welty’s reading. Eudora Welty opened a path for Smith to follow, much as Smith slashed a trail for me. In her own memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, Welty said, “My imagination takes its strength . . . from what I see and hear and learn and feel and remember of my living world.”
Lee Smith quit writing frivolous stories about stewardesses and evil twins and began writing “plain stories about country people and small towns,” her own ‘living world.’ What Welty and Smith call “plain stories” I call kitchen table stories. The ones we told around the table after supper. The ones I’ve forgotten.
My work depends on tracking down that kitchen. Lately my writing has felt stale. My characters seem less like real kids and more like actors directed on a stage. Part of this is driven by a trend towards over-sophistication, a thicket of “swirly” covers in the children’s section of Barnes and Noble, and other factors that have led me to stray from writing truthfully and directly to my audience.
On that drive, I stopped at an antique shop, one of the best ways to jog my memory. The shop was divided into booths, some set up like old-timey kitchens. I lingered by Formica tables laden with Melmac plastic or green Depression glass dishes. Picking up a copy of The Moffats, a 1941 children’s book by Eleanor Estes, I read the first lines:
The way Mama could peel apples! A few turns of the knife and there the apple was, all skinned! Jane could not take her eyes from her mother’s hands. They had a way of doing things, peeling apples, sprinkling salt, counting pennies, that fascinated her.
I closed my own eyes as joy pierced the fog I’ve learned to live with. I owned this book in paperback, all of the Moffat series, in fact. But I carried the wonderful old hardcover to the check-out. I’d re-read the story of a family steeped in their living world, find my place at the table as nobody, nobody at all, and, hopefully, my salvation, as well.
Photos are from my collection of vernacular snapshots.