Category Archives: story and family

story

Last time I wrote about what was not true in my latest novel (or in other words, the fiction in the fiction), so here’s what is true in Before Versailles……when Louis XIV* was 22 years old, his mentor died, and he was brought face to face with the fact that someone else in the kingdom was quite powerful, perhaps more powerful than Louis himself. What he did with that fact is interesting even to this day. During that same time period, Louis had been married for one year to a Spanish princess, and for that year, he’d been faithful. But he began a friendship with his new sister-in-law, an English princess who had always lived in France, that quickly turned to flirtation, and maybe more. History becomes quite unclear on this point.

To me,  all of the above, from powerful men to painful decisions to powerful flirtation, is the stuff of drama, the stuff of story. And Louis’s only brother and heir was gay. And that brother’s best friend was also in love with the English princess. More drama. And Louis himself fell in love as he grappled with power and how much was truly his…..all of this in a period of four months in the summer air of the summer palace of Fontainebleau. And so I tried to make a story of that, of young people in extraordinary positions who were unfurling in all manner of ways. They were the Hollywood of their time, a real historical reality show. I thought for a long time the story belonged to the two key women in the excitement, but it didn’t; it belonged to Louis. And once I realized that, I had so much, passion, fear, ambition, treachery, love, betrayal, competition, tenderness; those emotions and qualities were really there, and it was my job to make them discernable again, to polish the tarnished silver of another century and show everyone its gleam……..

For me, it’s always about the people in the story….what do you think? What pleases you in fiction?

*A marvelous snippet from YouTube from Le Roi Danse that shows a young Louis XIV…enjoy…..

bubbles

There’s a beveled glass window set high in the wall of the master bathroom. In the afternoons, the sun shines through it to make prisms of light on the tile floor. When my first grandson was very small, he saw them one day and exclaimed, “Rainbows!”  His seeing them, his excitement, touched me. And then he became older, as did I, and we forgot about them.

Now my second grandson, not 2 yet, has seen them. “Bubbles,” he cried yesterday in a voice of wonder. He walked among them, putting his feet in each and every one, looking at me and smiling. I see them every day and never think to exclaim at their beauty. I don’t notice them. I don’t put my feet in them in delight–which is the wonderful thing about being around young children: their wonder at the world. It reminds me of the mantra I want to age by: make me sweet again, fragrant and fresh and wild and grateful for any small event……like my youngest grandson….

Another note: Headed west today to teach a writing class in Alpine, Texas . Passed through a lot of big country, little civilization, country that reminds you you are not the center of the universe, that you’d better work with the universe to survive. Neil Young sang as I drove….This old guitar is only mine for awhile…..

spaces

I’ve been driving across a lot of vast, open spaces in the past few days….the beginning of plains country around Amarillo and the high desert and desert of New Mexico stretching all the way to mountain. Dad has been on my mind. He was about the same age I am now when he died. And I never really knew him. If he could have waited on me to grow up more, to be able to sit in the discomfort that was always between us, we might have been able to have some real conversation, or if not that, that sincere quiet that can reside between two people who love one another. My Dad was a child of the Great Depression, and that marked him all his life. He left home early; by 16 he was off to college and then to the Merchant Marine Academy. He was forthright and opinionated. He drank too much and said things I would imagine he regretted later. It was the saying of those things that put distance between us. They hurt, and by the time I was 8 I moved some place far back inside myself and never came close to him again. But some of my siblings managed better. My late sister Carmen said she always saw him as a hurt, little boy. My brother loved and admired him and has nothing but that to express when my Dad’s name comes up to this day. But me….I missed an opportunity to know him. I couldn’t get past the fear of hurt. So I’m thinking of him as I drive past vast, open spaces because there was a vast, open space between us, and now I’d like it closed.

for my son, whose middle name is edward*

*(This was among the first posts I wrote in this blog. I wrote it in 2008, and I think it bears repeating. Hope you agree……) 

I called an old soldier for Memorial Day. Elgin, I said, how are you? Karleen, he replied, it’s so good to hear from you.

Tell me about the war, I said. Oh, baby, he answered, I don’t like to talk about that. War is ugly, you know. And so we talked about his vegetables. In his mid-80s, hale and hearty, he’d just come in from the garden, which is full of squash and zucchini and tomatoes and onions and bell peppers.

He was stationed in the Philippines for two years in World War II. Old sepia-colored photographs show a lean, slouching, hawk-faced young man standing with a rifle slung over a shoulder near a pile of dead Japanese. A recent PBS documentary reminded that the battle for the Philippines was hard fought, often hand to hand, against a formidable and determined enemy who almost beat us.

I asked about Edward, his brother-in-law, whose old high-school, senior-year portrait, gently watercolored as was the style in those days, I have on my altar. Edward is handsome and young and smiling, seventeen, I think, in the portrait. He wears a suit and tie. His hair is neatly parted on one side. He too had been in the Philippines, but he was part of the three-month Battle of Bataan, which was lost. And he walked the long, hard, harsh, killing miles of the Bataan Death March, prosecuted as a war crime after the war ended. He survived and was on a unmarked prison ship on its way to Japan, when it was bombed by American forces. So he survived combat and a death march to die at sea. I think he was nineteen when he died. The baby of the family.

The news came to a little town in East Texas called Troupe. His mother lost her sanity for a time when the news came, and when she recovered she was never the same. That’s family legend anyway. Edward was my son’s great uncle. And Elgin is his grandfather………

My note this 5/29/11. Elgin, at 90, soldiers on. He lives by himself, drives himself around the little town in east Texas near which he lives, and tends his garden. He still won’t talk about the war. War scars and maims. Men who live on the brink of death bond in a way that is immediate and soul wrenching. Is there a war story in your family? How have the men in your family been impacted? How has that impact reverberated down? And what about the women?

motherlode

Like many woman, I’ve had many jobs. I’ve been a local magazine editor. I’ve run a small department within a university. I’ve done freelance writing. I’m a novelist. But there’s one job that gave me a satisfaction that went soul deep, and that was being a mother. When I was in the midst of it, I was harried, behind schedule, and just trying to keep my head above water managing my household and, at times, my job. Now that it’s over–not that I’m no longer a mother, but rearing young is over–I look back on it with a different perspective. What a sense of loss I felt for a long time. And why? Because it was really, really hard. Why would I miss that? Because it was so rich, too.

I’ve decided the loss was about my sense of purpose (unexpressed or even realized when I was in it). It was so clear and so grand. I had these young beings to keep alive, from bringing them food to getting them to birthday parties. It was nonstop, and it was difficult, and it was, well, grand. A purpose bright and clear, like knights in quest of the holy grail. I felt useful. I felt needed……A good mother rears her young in such a way that they fly off without too many backward looks while she prays their little wings will hold. And if the wings are strong, then a good mother sits alone and begins to understand the complexity that was once hers and makes new purpose, yes, but nothing with such a scale to it…..What about you? What’s your experience in this?

Hit this link and then hit LISTEN and hear a bit of that complexity……….

On another note, I’m not quite over media whiplash. The froth and frill of the royal wedding. Love, marriage, the gown, the kisses. Oh, hopeful fairytale. Then to wake up to Bin Laden’s face huge on the front page and the same endless media over how he died. Seals. Helicopters. Bullets. Burial at sea. What a contrast. It felt like more than my psyche could take in. Once upon a time, information took time to get to you and came in the form of someone telling you or your reading it. Now, it pounds around you like huge drums 24 hours a day…….I don’t know what I think about that. Is it just that I knew a world in which TV only had 3 channels and there weren’t computers, much less phones and i-things? Don’t we need some kind of refuge from the noise? I guess we must make one or become the pinball in a giant machine that propels us from one point to another with no purpose other than making certain we’re listening……….And I’m reminded that death is part of the world we live it. Perhaps that’s what really bothered me……….

kissing the frog

Princess Diana was there, the sob sisters and brothers of the media said, as they gently dabbed at eyes with hankies. The ring. The abbey in which her funeral had been held. A hymn or two. Bah. Humbug. I’ll tell you how Princess Diana was there. She was there by the fact of Camilla sitting front and center as Duchess of Cornwall. If Princess Diana hadn’t put up the fuss she had, Camilla would be somewhere discreetly in the crowd, and a married Diana and Charles would be grimly watching their eldest son carry on. If Diana hadn’t put up the fuss she did,

her son wouldn’t be marrying an commoner, a real first and almost a Cinderella story, but rather an aristocrat, as Diana herself was, Diana, the sacrificial lamb to the mores of time and centuries of tradition, but a lamb who grew claws.

Before Diana, a married princess bore her lot. Until the 20th century, she married because of political alliance (in Diana’s case, purity was the thing), she had to be virgin, her role was brood mare bearing sons, never mind that the sex gene came from the father because for hundreds of years no one knew that, and she mostly endured a life that might have privileges but very little joy.

There are all these fairy tales about princesses, but the lot of a princess was seldom a pretty one. Most often her husband didn’t love her. Quite often, he didn’t respect her. Whether he did love her or not, women were throwing lures all the time, and most husbands eventually succumbed. The princess had kissed the prince, but too often he really was a frog.

Princess Diana (and no one young can realize her impact; she was movie star gorgeous with real charisma, and she attracted attention and fame) should have quietly allowed Charles his affair with Camilla. That’s what every princess and/or queen before her had done. (And I’m not even going to go into poor Charles, having to marry a virginal aristocrat when his heart was taken. Someone else play that violin.) She kicked. She screamed. She had affairs of her own (risky conduct until 20th century;  George IV wouldn’t crown his wife queen because of her scandals–not that his own was any better, but he was male, after all). Diana  got a divorce. Jesus God!!! Those young can’t imagine how radical that was.

Because of that divorce, Camilla could sit respectably by Charles as his wife. Because of that divorce and all its fallout, Charles could marry the woman he loved and some day be king. His great uncle, King Edward, gave up the throne for the woman he loved.  (Wallis Simpson, who needs a better PR agent).

Three cheers for Diana, gorgeous, bulimic, neurotic, stubborn and media savvy. She cleared a path through centuries of royal male privilege as wide as the tornados that just struck the south. And frankly, it was the awful shock of her dying that did the most wind damage to traditions that put royal women in an unbearable box.

Are we out of the box? Yes and no. Maureen Dowd has insightful comments in the Sunday NY Times about modern Cinderella stories, and Lara Logan, a media princess, was on this week’s 60 Minutes speaking of her horrendous sexual assault and near death.

Too often, there are shards in the glass slipper. And Camilla, well, she wore a very big hat………………..

tuesdays

It’s our usual day. She dozes on the couch most of the morning. I dress her for our outing. She’s as fragile as cracked glass, gasping and moaning at the putting on of socks, befuddled at the pulling up of pants, completely lost at the pulling over of a shirt. She can still tie her shoes.

We go out for lunch. It’s what we do on the Tuesdays when I visit her. It’s also become one of the ways I most see her decline: the inability to choose a utensil, know what a straw is, cut her own food anymore. She jabs at what’s on the plate and then opens her mouth, and it is a gamble that the food gets there. She has no preferences about what to eat, though she won’t eat what she doesn’t like. She couldn’t tell me if she did have a preference. It’s been a year or more since she’s collected enough words together to make meaning.

She still laughs. She still smiles. She is still more beautiful than any woman her age. She is willing to do what I ask if she understands it. That’s where I fall down so often, thinking she’ll understand. I’m always exhausted by my lack of acceptance as to what has happened and is happening to her and by my expectations, always too high.

Later, I make dinner, keep an eye on her as she does her rounds, from hall to dining room to den and around again. She walks carefully, so carefully, often reaching out to the wall or a chair. She runs her foot along the creases of the joined tiles. She doesn’t step, she shuffles.

I put her in pjs early, sit in a rocking chair, emotionally battered by our day, by what I see. I always try to prepare myself. I remind myself of her decline, but I am never, never ready for it. And so my mood dips in the afternoon. I hate myself for its dipping.

Are you tired, I say, more to make conversation than anything else. So often there is silence between us. She can’t talk, and I seldom chatter, but chatter is what is needed these days, a light ongoing constant from the only one of us who can do so, but I’m bad at it. She looks at me. She answers with stunning clarity: You’ll never know how tired I am.

It’s the first sentence I’ve heard in over a year. And before I can even respond, she’s back to her shuffle through the hall, the dining room, the den.

I sit where I am in shock. Yes, everything is hard for her, isn’t it? Moving, dressing, eating, getting up and down from a chair, walking, recalling, associating, living. All hard now.

I must remember this, I tell myself. But I won’t. I’ll be as surprised and upset next week as I am this week. Later, I think of the poet Mary Oliver:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

The family of things….her place in it and mine, her despair and mine, her love and mine…………….

love

Dusting my office shelves, I found a relic of the past crumbling to pieces. It was a tiny clay Halloween pumpkin that my sister made for me when she was 5, and I was 18 and away in my first year of college. She had painted the little clay piece orange and its eyes and mouth green, but it had flattened on the bottom when it dried. She and I both had a hard time that year. She kept running away from her kindergarten class, running all the way home whenever she could. And if I could have run away home, I would have, but I didn’t have her certain, independent, little spirit. How difficult that year was, the first time away from home, few social skills, and certainly no flirting skills. I didn’t know how to fit in, and that’s what I wanted, to fit. What did my sister want? Not to fit? To go her own way? For the teacher not to scare her? Her year was just as hard for her.

The little relic was past repair. It crumbled away when I picked it up. I thought I’d kept it all these years because it was funny looking and dear that it had been given. Only as I write this do I realize the pure love it contained. Sweet, sweet little sister.

 

 

 

page proofs

I just sent off page proofs to New York. This means that not another word of the book I’ve finished will be changed. I did something I didn’t expect. I took what I thought was some worldly wisdom out of the book, deleted it. When I wrote the worldly, warning words, I was adamant about keeping them in. I don’t like sticky sweet romances. I feel like they’re a lie. But in rereading the story again, I decided that I wasn’t being fair to the character, who couldn’t know what he would do in the years ahead, and that I was killing hope, that we begin everything with hope. Time or circumstances may change that, but hope is one of the most beautiful things in our lives. We’ve never dare to anything without it. So I dropped lines that were foreboding, showing what the future would hold. I decided they reflected my own cynicism. I don’t want to be a cynic. I want to keep  aspects of a child, but not deny the wisdom of my years.

What are you looking for when you read? An escape? Realism? Adventure? Why do we read fiction?

hey, dad

My father was a peddler at heart. He made his living (and ours) as a captain in the merchant marines, but he would buy all kinds of things (clocks, beer mugs, straw hats, even a pontoon once) and bring them home with the idea of selling them. They always ended in our garage or on shelves in the kitchen. One time he bought a truckload of local watermelons and set himself up as a one-man roadside stand on the highway between our home and another town. My mother was embarrassed. My father was sunburned and didn’t sell any. He was always picking up excess lumber and building materials as he drove around town. Then he’d drop them off at whatever child lived nearest. He had grown up on a farm, and a spring garden was in our back yard every year, as well as as many fruit trees as he could plant. (Since he merchant marined for a living, our mother was the farm hand.) He’s been gone a long time out on that eternal sea. I wouldn’t mind him driving up, walking into my house in his long-legged, restless stride, and then showing me what was in the back of his truck just once more.