It was a terrible week. I got caught trespassing by some hothead who didn’t even own the property I was taking photos of. He threatened to call the police on me. Me! A 60-year-old woman in Easy Spirit shoes! My brother-in-law’s health, steady for so long, dropped a big notch. In my family, we are keenly aware that spring is nearly at an end. And Persnickety decided it was time for her own end.
By Friday I was still sobbing over the cat, my brother-in-law, the national news. (That old woman finding her dog in the tornado rubble…) I could not pull myself together. A cold front had come in bringing wind and showers but I couldn’t stay indoors with my own thoughts. I got in my truck and headed for a farm.
I turned off on Orange Plank Road, a two-lane road I’ve never driven, yet I knew it. I knew the arching trees meeting overhead like a cathedral ceiling. I knew the spill of honeysuckle tumbling over banks like bride dresses. I knew the rural mailboxes, the old Fords parked by brick ramblers. This way I knew.
This was my road, my countryside, my place on the grid. I knew deep beneath the red clay lay bullets and horseshoes because the road cut through Wilderness Battlefield. A sign marked “Longstreet’s Wounding” brought to mind Lee’s stricken face when he heard his general had fallen. The very air still carries the desperation of that May 1864 conflict.
At Miller’s Farm, I waded into the strawberry patch with my basket. It had poured all night and most of the morning. Water stood in the paths and the wind was freezing. I bent and picked. This I could do. I couldn’t bring back the cat or turn the clock back for my brother-in-law or warn those people in Oklahoma how bad it was going to be. But I could pick strawberries for my husband.
After a few minutes my back began to hurt. I straightened up. A few older ladies were in the field, too, filling little white buckets. They called to one another across the rows, their voices clear as song sparrows. “My bucket is full!” And I was swept back to the strawberry patch my mother kept steps from our back porch. When the strawberries came in you didn’t walk outside without a pan or a collander in your hand.
The first ripe strawberries were thrilling. Mama made shortcake with Hostess “shells,” Cool Whip, and juice from berries that had been sugared down. Because I hated strawberries, my shell was a volcano of Cool Whip, but I did love dribbles of the thin pink juice. Short as the season was, it seemed to last forever. One time as I helped pick in the hot sun, I grumbled, “Are these things everbearing?” Some crop my parents had planted was called that (and during August, everything seemed everbearing).
I finished filling my robin’s egg blue basket, remembering the green plastic mesh baskets my mother sold her strawberries in, gently washed and not a berry with a bird bite or soft spot. The strawberry money was hers–she bought our stereo console with it one year.
At the market shop, I paid for my berries. I also bought a couple of begonias because I had a strong craving for pink, some locally roasted coffee for my husband, a “Farmhouse Brownie” for myself, and got back in the truck. I’d go home and hull the berries, sugar them down in my mother’s strawberry bowl.
I drove back down the road I’d always known, passing the “Longstreet’s Wounding” sign again. My own wound seemed a little less raw.
Longstreet lived. So will I.
I’ve been watching her closely, looking for signs. But with cats it’s hard to tell. They are eating and fine one day . . . Just the day before yesterday I told my husband Persnickety is still very much here, still vital.
But yesterday morning I got up early to take my walk. I gave Snick her breakfast. And then she took a walk of her own.
I went through my to-do list. Dishes, laundry, emails. Ran errands before lunch. I pitched her bed and cushion out of my truck bed (where she slept), noticed she wasn’t around. She was profoundly deaf and couldn’t hear car engines so we always checked when we backed out of the garage.
Came back from the errands. Still no Snick. I put her lunch out and went back to my to-do list. Changed the sheets, dusted the den, wrote. I ate my lunch on the porch. Snick usually came around to see what I had. Then I pulled weeds in the flower box. Skinks ran all over–some quite big and all with their tails. Snick loved to catch skinks.
By dinnertime her absence was keen. She’d stuck close to the house these last few years. She never missed meals. By dusk my husband and I were outside with a flashlight, looking under the porch, the shed, the deck, the bushes.
And then I knew. While I’d gone through my to-do list, busy-busy all day, she had one item on hers. This is so not what I wanted for her. I wanted to be with her, to help her out. But this cat came to us on her own terms, lived with us on her own terms (and they were strict!), and left this world on her own terms.
She was here . . . and now she’s gone.
Paul Theroux has a new book out, The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari, chronicling his experiences to find the Bushmen, the world’s oldest people. He was nearly 70 when he made this arduous and important trip. The African bush, he says, is his favorite place in the world.
In an article for the Wall Street Journal, he discusses his note-taking method: “I spend nearly all of my traveling life with a notebook in one hand and a pen in the other. The idea is to have a notebook that fits in your pocket, so that you are not advertising yourself as a note-taker. And two pens, because you’ll probably lose one.”
Last week I went to New York City for two days (up for a CBC Children’s Choice Award, didn’t win, loved the bizarre evening). This is as close to a foreign country as I’m liable to travel to these days. I took my camera and a small notebook, but I didn’t take a single note. I took exactly five photos.
This is the only picture I kept, the entrance of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. Why didn’t I take any notes? Why didn’t I take more photos? Why didn’t I lean into the strange—if there is ever a place with plenty of strange, New York City is it.
I found myself in Times Square, a gigantic, often living, billboard. Actors dressed in costumes hawked ads for movies. The tide of people carried me from street to street. I made no decisions, just walked when the conveyer belt of people moved, went where they went. I passed the same stores, Duane Reade, Papyrus, Crumbs. Much of what I saw was strange, but a lot of it wasn’t and didn’t seem worth recording.
Theroux says, “I write down everything and never assume that I will remember something because it seemed vivid at the time.” New York is so vivid, and yet at the same time, mundane, that I could not find my place there. At last I broke away from swarms of midtown and headed for the Village to the Strand Bookstore. My friend Donna Hopkins told me about it. A four-story genuine bookstore, these days as hard to find and as exotic as the Bushmen. Eighteen miles of books!
There I found my place. I roamed the stacks, looking for certain books yet coming out with books I had no idea I wanted until my fingers found them. On the train home (which I almost missed because I stayed so long in the bookstore), I read happily, falling into other people’s adventures. I made scratchy notes about the other passengers, my curious spirit once again free.
Amtrak steamed into my station the same time as the VRE. Commuters streamed off the double-decker local. My husband said they looked locked together like Lego people. But everyone quickly dispersed into their cars and so did we. I drank in the sight of woods, birds, and the first appearance of the seventeen-year cicadas. I saw old places I wanted to record with my camera.
Paul Theroux warns that “the accumulated experience in travel can be overwhelming—too much for anyone to trust to their memory. Because foreign travel is at times almost hallucinatory, you need to record everything, as well as your own disbelief.”
In New York, I developed a mental shield to protect me from the strange—too much felt like an assault. The energy and pace was overwhelming. I didn’t even know the name of the restaurants where I ate.
A few days after I was home, I was ready to take in the strange in my surrounding area. I could approach these places on my own terms and have time to think about what I saw. I took notes. I took photographs.
I’m writing this listening to the steady chorus of cicadas in the treeline beyond our house. They began showing up last week, ghost locusts stuck to porch railings and brick walls as they shed their amber skins. Magicicada stay above ground long enough to mate and lay eggs before dying. The nymphs from this brood will go underground seventeen years before it’s their turn to complete the cycle.
I made note of that in my notebook this morning. Unbelievable. Strange.
Finally, we are up to my era in Mad Men. I was 16 that year and I remember the make-up, the clothes, the shoes. It was a mixed-up time–volatile and fast-moving. But most of us were not adults living in New York City and working in an alcohol-fueled ad agency. Here’s what girls wanted in 1968, from my March 1968 Seventeen.
Pretty eyes. I had big round eyes, the fashion (I also wore glasses but kept them off except for reading the board). I perfected my eye makeup at age 12. Max Factor liquid eyeliner in brown. Max Factor powder eyeshadow in Espresso. Maybelline mascara in brown-black. Max Factor brow powder in dark brown (most girls ignored their brows). Once in a while, pink lipstick. Never Yardley white! White lipstick made you look like something helped from a coffin. I would love this eye makeup right now.
Pretty hair. Yes, the straight look was in (the curse of curly-haired girls like me who had to sleep on 4-inch rollers–my head never hit the pillow for four years), but curls were also popular. Most of the hairstyles you see on Mad Men are wigs or hairpieces–falls, wiglets.
Granny dresses. I made mine in eighth grade home ec and still wore it in high school.
I loved the midi-length, too. Look at how pretty these dresses are . . . they didn’t make you feel like a six-year-old at a birthday party. They made you feel like a girl.
The shoes. Okay, I had mini feet. I didn’t wear a woman’s shoe size until I was in eleventh grade. So these gorgeous shoes weren’t available in kids’ sizes like shoes are today (I still wear kids’ shoes sometimes). I remember a girl in my school who had turquoise patent leather Mary Janes with a spool heel and a wide turquoise grosgrain bow. I lusted after those shoes. I still do. Stockings were fun and if you had skinny legs like I did, the bright colors helped fill them out. I’d wear those pink ones today.
This issue was all about California. We all wanted to go there. We all wanted to be California Girls. Blonde!
It was a time of experimenting with your looks. I never wore shiny “peel-off” eyeliner–too harsh. But my sister did streak my long brown hair, one blonde rebellious streak.
It was a time of dresses. Romantic dresses. Dresses to play in. Dresses to dream about your future in. The world around us may have been mixed-up but with the right dress, we could face anything.
And we did.
In 1988 I wrote The Big Green Pocketbook. It was based on the little bus trips I would take with my mother. We’d catch the Trailways from our house on Lee Highway to Manassas to run errands. In the afternoon, the bus picked us up in front of Cocke’s Drugstore and took us home.
I was only five, but I didn’t want a little girl purse. I carried my mother’s old green pocketbook hooked over the crook of my spindly arm. We went to Woolworth’s, Rohr’s Five and Ten, People’s National Bank, Drug Fair. It was Big Day out with my mama.
But one time I left my pocketbook on the Trailways and—well, you’ll have to read the book to find out what happens. You may have read it already . . . it was published in 1993. The Big Green Pocketbook has been in print for 20 years this month.
Here’s how it all happened: After I worked on my manuscript for weeks, I felt it was ready to submit. The record inside my folder tells the story:
Sent to Ann [Reit, my editor at Scholastic] in 6/88. She didn’t much like it but passed it to Diane Hess [still at Scholastic]. Diane presented it to the board – late August. Sent back to me 10/11/88 w/letter [I don’t have]. Sent to Harper and Row – 10/12/88.
And then I forgot about it. By spring my mother was seriously ill. On April 11, 1989, I picked up my mail from my post office box on my way to see my mother in the hospital. I saw the big brown envelope and my own typed address label. Another reject. But at the bottom of the envelope, in neat little letters, was the message: Not a rejection.
Not a rejection? At a stoplight I ripped the envelope open. There was a letter from Laura Geringer: “Sorry it took so long to get to THE BIG GREEN POCKETBOOK. I’ve read it now and I think it’s charming, perfect for a very young picture book.” If I would make a few tiny changes, she would publish it. On the inside of my folder I wrote in big letters: SOLD, 4/11/89.
That day I told my mother I had sold a story that was about me and her. She was happy, I think. She never left the hospital, passing away in its hospice unit in June. But my journey with my mother continued on through this book.
Although the original manuscript is archived at the Northeastern Children’s Literature Collection, I still have the reviews, catalog, and production letters. Laura Geringer, my editor at HarperCollins (somewhere between the selling and publishing of the book the publisher’s name changed), told me that Felicia Bond had agreed to be the illustrator. I should have been thrilled instantly, but I didn’t know who she was! When I figured it out, I was over the moon.
Felicia was one busy gal. Besides her collaboration with Laura Numeroff on the If You Give . . . books, she wrote and illustrated her own books. My editor told me it would be three years before Felicia got to my manuscript. I waited. In 1992, I met Laura Geringer for coffee outside the JavitsCenter in New York City, where Book Expo was being held. By now my editor had her own imprint at Harper, Laura Geringer Books. She showed me sketches from Felicia. I loved them.
I had no idea when I wrote that little story that I would be lucky enough to be paired with such a successful illustrator, that my editor saw my manuscript’s potential, that the children’s department at Harper would guide the book so carefully through production. Most of my letters are from Caitlyn Dlouhy, Laura Geringer’s assistant, now editorial director at Atheneum. Caitlyn kept me in the loop on that long journey.
In May 1993, The Big Green Pocketbook was published and given the lead two-page spread in the spring Harper catalog. Felicia designed a poster that combined her popular characters with my little girl dancing on the soda counter at the drugstore. The book had already been named a Children’s Book-of-the-Month Selection. It was also an ABA Pick of the List. The reviews were good. PW said: “Studded with inventive imagery . . . A playful and most suitable setting for this winsome story with its timeless theme.”
Two years later, BGP was given new life as a Harper Trophy paperback and a library edition was published as well.
To my amazement, it kept on selling. Parents told me BGP was their child’s favorite book. Those children became teenagers, then college students, but I still heard from them. Then they became parents themselves. They bought or checked out The Big Green Pocketbook from the library. And it became their child’s favorite book, too.
“One of the Best Children’s Books Ever! My daughter is twenty one now but when she was little this was her favorite book. As a parent, I enjoyed reading it too.”
“Classic. This was my all-time favorite book as a kid. I read it with my mom, my dad, my grandma, and basically anyone who would read it with me.”
“Still our favorite! My daughter is now 11—and we still call errand day ‘our big green pocketbook’ day. It’s one of our favorite books as we still read it after 7 years.”
“My SON loves this book!”
I’ve just read these quotes for the first time—there’s a lump in my throat. I’m grateful my little story is still being enjoyed after all these years, twenty years in print, twenty-five years after I sat down to write about a sweet memory of my mother.
Whenever I open the cover, my mother and I are still riding the bus to town, our pocketbooks crooked over our arms. Mothers and daughters (and sons) everywhere run errands together. They go to the bank and buy crayons and eat ice cream in chilled silver dishes.
Some things never change.