Monthly Archives: July 2018

To All the Books I’ve Loved Before

It started with the Baby Feet nursery book. Copyrighted in 1928, it had stories like the politically incorrect ‘Little Black Sambo,’ and the tale of the Teeny Tiny Woman. My siblings and I never grew tired of them, and even now, are constantly looking for an edition in better shape than the one we still own. (Full disclosure: I drew on the pages and cut them up with scissors when I was four. Or maybe six. I was very young for my age.)

Books can be friends, and not just the characters in the story. It’s the way it feels in your hands. The cover design. It looks back at you and says, yes. We are going to be besties. When at age nine my teacher said no more picture books, I was horrified. My obsession with Dr. Seuss was genuine: Bartholomew Cubbins and the Five Hundred Hats. Oobleck. Yurtle the Turtle, the King’s Stilts. I loved them all. But I took a breath and stepped into the world of Hugh Lofting, who I called Hudge until a teacher corrected me.

The Dr. Doolittle series was my first foray into chapter books. It was so influential, we ended up naming our new red haired puppy, Chee Chee, which means ginger in monkey language. From there I became Pollyanna, Trixie Belden and every adventurous character by Enid Blyton. Then there were the classics like Little Women, Heidi, and Robin Hood, an abridged series that my uncle gave us every year for Christmas.

I could never figure out what really happened to Beth in Little Women. The last sentence in the saddest chapter says: “…a face so full of painless peace that those who loved it best smiled through their tears, and thanked God that Beth was well at last.” Was she dead or not? I wasn’t a ‘read between the lines’ kind of girl. But eventually I figured it out. She was dead. But with God. So she wasn’t really dead. Or something like that.

As a teenager, Harlequin Romances were my entrée into the world of working women, travel and romance. The protagonists were all virgins. Many had cool jobs like ballerina, opera singer, or first violin in a London orchestra. But they all got married and lived happily ever after, though I was never sure if they got to keep their jobs.The books cost a dollar, and we traded them around like comics.

After the Harlequins came the aptly named bodice rippers. To be honest, it was hard for me to understand how such aggressive seductions could be romantic. The word no really meant, ‘only if you force me.’ And then there was the age difference. If he was thirty-two, she’d be sixteen. I only read a few before I was done. I got halfway through ‘Sweet Savage Love,’ (a lot like the title) and said, nope.

In high school, my favorite novel was Rumer Godden’s ‘An Episode of Sparrows.’ My least favorite was ‘Ethan Frome’ by Edith Wharton. I just didn’t get it. We also read ‘Of Human Bondage’, ‘Tess of the Durberville’s and ‘Huck Finn.’ The last was the only book that wasn’t unrelentingly sad. I always had trouble understanding the theme of a book and still do, which is troublesome, given that I’m a writer. On another note, in my first year at university I discovered the Lord of the Rings series and almost failed  midterms by trying to get through the whole thing in five days. Never do that.

I was a more discerning reader by this point. Barbara Taylor Bradford was hugely popular back then. I read a few of her books, then picked one up where the protagonist had twin one year old’s, was the CEO of a large corporation and a master gardener. I had no kids yet, and no green thumb to speak of, but somehow I knew this character was extremely far fetched. Like an early Clive Cussler book where a scuba diver lands on a beach and ravishes a girl who is sunbathing. ‘Thanks,’ she says afterward. ‘I needed that.’ I clapped the book shut and shook my head. These authors are hugely successful and have made millions of dollars, so I’ll doubt they’ll be hurt by my words. They can laugh all the way to the bank while reading this blog.

But here’s the truth about reading. Immersing oneself in a novel makes life better. Empathy, curiosity, hope and persistence are traits we can absorb from characters we love. Like when Dumbledore from Harry Potter says, ‘It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.’ The child in all of us understands that no matter how old we are, we’re on a journey, and we have some input into where we go and how we get there. We learn from our heroes that being brave and forging ahead really does help. Unless you’re reading Thomas Hardy. Then, abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Just kidding. (Sort of)

This is the cover of my childhood book, ‘Little Women.’ Just because.

E.T. Phone Home

I have PTSD. This sounds self aggrandizing and presumptuous since I’ve never been in a war. But lately, the crazy weather we’ve had has been getting me down. And Friday night, a week ago, was the worst.

I was sleeping soundly when the loudest thump I’ve ever heard woke me from a dead sleep. It was storming, and the lightning was like nothing I’d ever experienced. The sky was lit up and crackling like a scene from the movie, War of the Worlds. I scrambled out of bed and gazed at the window in awe filled dread, certain that the large maple tree behind my bedroom was falling onto the house. Yet when I threw open the curtains, there it was. Still standing.

I turned on a light, but the power died promptly, so I grabbed a flashlight from my nightstand. Rushing to the living room, the strange thumping sound morphed into something more sinister: like a madman breaking through the back door with a big axe. With the rain slamming against our house like a separate malevolent force, I scurried over to the garden doors leading to our deck. And I couldn’t believe my eyes.

My husband, who passed away in March, had built a canvas topped pergola on top of our raised deck, three years before. It was homely on the outside, but the inside was cozy and completely sheltered from the sun. During mild rainstorms, I could sit outside under the canopy. It was this beloved edifice that was making the noise.

To my horror, the whole thing was jumping up and down, like a ten foot high, ten foot wide and fifteen foot long monster having a temper tantrum. Amidst the terrible noise, sheets of lightning lit the sight of tall 4 x 4 beams leaping high enough to drop over the other side of the deck railing, and 2 x 6 roof slats ripping away from the beams to dance above the two glass tables on the deck. In the meantime, one of my eight foot high metal plant holders left its spot and sailed through the air, scratching the house siding an inch below my bathroom window and landing with a crash in the yard seven feet below the deck.

I backed away from the doors as the breaking pergola continued its insane dance, certain that the whole mess would bust into the house at any moment. As I lowered myself onto the sofa in the middle of the living room and listened to the craziness of the storm and the maniacal behavior of our formerly well adjusted pergola, a feeling of betrayal crept over me.

I sat on the sofa with my small flashlight that barely lit up the wall across from me and said aloud to my dead husband, “How could you leave me to face this by myself?” I really meant it. The fact that he couldn’t help it didn’t factor in. In that moment, I felt as if he’d abandoned me on purpose. Every marriage has a contract, and his part was to make me feel like everything would always be okay. And just when I needed him most, he wasn’t there.

“Where are you?” I asked aloud in a whiny voice, feeling about five years old. It was a futile question, because he didn’t answer. But strangely, I began to feel the presence of my parents who had passed away some years before, and a few others, too. I immediately calmed down and began to pray, because that is what I usually do after having my own version of a temper tantrum. I prayed for peace, and for everyone in my community to be okay. While I prayed, the canopy on the deck continued doing the Armageddon Rumba. My heart was still thumping in time to the beat, but somehow I knew I was going to be all right.

I never went back to bed. Around five in the morning, when the storm was over, I started crawling around under the mess, picking up broken plant pots and busted pieces of wood. I cleaned up the yard below where debris had fallen, and a little after eight, went over to my good friend Rick Hall’s place, to ask for help. Within fifteen minutes, he was at my back deck undoing all the screws and dismantling the whole thing. He offered to try and repair it, but I knew I’d never feel safe again under that green canopy.

I’ve learned a few things about myself from this whole experience. First, I’m pretty sure I still have some anger issues over losing Clarence. Second, I’ve turned into a bit of a nut job. However, as Oprah says, when you know better, you do better. Since I’ve already admitted my kookiness to the world, I’m going to go one step further and confess that I really am waiting for my husband to get in touch. A celestial phone call will do nicely. Or some other kind of sign. I’m certain there’ll be something. Friends in similar situations have assured me of it.

For now, I will get on with things. I’ll woman up, I’ll lean on my family and, as I learned on that terrible Friday night and other times since Clarence died, I’ll get by with a little help from my friends.