Tag Archives: family

dead

1656200_10152748816131421_8060093250869899255_n

We make an ofrenda, which is an altar for the Day of the Dead. I bring photos of a father, grandparents, an uncle, a sister. Among them is a suicide, an alcoholic, a poet too gentle for this life, women who had to scramble to survive or live with men who treated them badly. Few died with any semblance of peace.

I offer chocolates and mums, a pencil for the poet, a cigarette for the smokers. What I wish I could give them is another pass at life, for too much of theirs was stark and unforgiving. Some of it was character, some of it was heritage, some of it was cultural.

Do not go gentle into that dark night, wails a poem. But why not? Why fight against the dying of the light? For we all must die. It’s the last clause in the contract made with being born. What unseen can I offer my dead, who have gone on before me? Courage to amend mistakes and character flaws with unflinching honesty? The never ending weeding of my inner garden? Loving what is? Love?

For them. For me. For it all. Forever and ever. Amen.

1656200_10152748816131421_8060093250869899255_n_2

draft/other

indexThis summer, I’ll run a class at the Writers League of Texas’s Summer Writing Retreat, August. Here are some questions they asked me about the rough draft of a novel, my topic for the class.

-What is it about the rough draft that’s so difficult? It’s a longer process than a short story/poem/magazine piece. So you stay longer in not knowing. To know the story, you have to write it, messily, badly, imperfectly. Later you may perfect it, but to stay in the uncertainty a long time is trying for most. Including me.

-For you, what’s the most challenging part of the writing process? The most rewarding? The most challenging is the rough drafts, the only place I can begin to know characters and what they’re doing. My first rough draft is always so amazingly bad that it’s hard for me to see what I’ve accomplished, which is usually a plotting piece, what happens when or what should happen but isn’t there yet. Characters emerge (shakily, not fully formed) in the first draft, too. I love editing, when I have enough rough draft to shape, enough rough draft under me like a rock to hold me up as I really craft the story.

index-When is a novel “finished”? I’m tired of it and cannot do another thing to it. This is after several drafts and polishes. Just can’t. Put a fork in me, I’m done. But I also have a really good sense of story, the pace of it, the waves of it. So I know when I’ve got that wave up to the climax of the story and then the falling back to end.

-As a sneak peek into your upcoming class, what’s one invaluable tip for those working through a rough draft? Realize what a draft is and what you’re searching for in one.

-Are you currently “in the rough”? You better believe it, although I’m on a second draft. Bad enough to discourage me, but solid enough to give me wing space to fly into the story at times and “to know.” That’s when I know I have the story, a certain “knowing” of the characters. They no longer feel like cartoon strangers with balloon dialog above their mouths. They are real in some place in me that writes. I know the story will happen–not when it will happen to be finished–just that it will happen and be a story when I have the feeling of knowing the characters, which I am relieved to say has happened in this fifth book.

indexAnd more, writing life this week:

I saw a vivid image of the word “stricken” at a funeral this weekend. It was the pale face of a 14-year-old whose father had died. The expression on his face transfixed me, and I’ve thought about it on and off all week. Yesterday, the word “stricken” floated up, and I knew that’s what I’d seen……

Carpenter bees are in a tizzy at the garage, whose cedar lures them every year to drill nest holes. They hover a dozen at a time, like clumsy landing craft, near the holes. It takes them a long time to find their particular hole, a perfect circle on the outside. They drone. They’re large. This only happens for a few months, and I love it. It helps comfort me as I think about the stricken boy I saw.

tribe

TBP_8827We do death well….our family. Let it bare its teeth at one of us, and we drive in from far and near and go to work. Just recently we gardened, repainted a whole inside interior, cleaned, scrubbed, washed, and waxed the house of one of our own, whose husband just committed suicide. We let go of political or any bias and worked to make her home something she could come back to—brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers.  I love that in us, this clan tribe thing we can summon up when the chip is down and busted.

collagecropI was reminded of the long-ago autumn melanoma locked its pitbull jaws into my sister, and we knew it was over. We drove in from far and wide on clear autumn weekends, kids tumbling out of cars like a clown act, and gardened and cleaned and talked and cooked and did whatever we could for her. We loved her to death.

 

 

 

sister

10003703_618027664950695_1664031771_o

I think I’ll plant daffodils around their headstone. I was in Arkansas this weekend at the small country cemetery where my mother and father’s ashes will one day be buried. Dad was born around here; a sister of mine lived down the road. Daffodils were blooming everywhere, covering yards in thick clusters, and that sister, now gone, was much on my mind. We all planted dozens of bulbs in her yard for her during her last autumn, a few months before she left us forever. Days before she was taken to the hospital—a place from which we all knew she would not return alive—I walked with my daughter to look at the green daffodil stalks in my sister’s yard. They represented love for her. In those months before her dying, we would have done anything for her, bought her anything she wanted, taken her anywhere she wanted to go. There were parts of her that were the best of us.

daffcrop

My daughter was in her 20s; my sister’s daughters were 11 and 5. I remember realizing that she would never do this simple thing I was doing—walking with a grown daughter. The pain around that was sharp like a honed blade and achy dull at the same time.

daffcrop

She didn’t live to see her daffodils or her daughters bloom. When I see those flowers in this place near where she had her home and family, she lives again in me; her final, bittersweet leaving is daffodil fragrant inside.  Mom and Dad will like having them nodding their yellow heads around their grave, I think. I think my sister will like it, too.

daffcrop

mystery

indexIt becomes a day I treasure. My grandchildren are at my house. The weather is wonderful, mild, caressing, sunny, so beautiful it makes me a little crazy. My grandson, 4, is focused on the above-ground fish tank my husband has build. My grandson claims to be cleaning out the tank (a horse trough), but he’s really using the aquariam net to attempt to catch fish. Luckily, they’re too fast. His skullduggery amuses me, but the day is so beautiful, I am so glad to be outside and with these humans in the making, that anything would amuse me.

His sister has a small plastic Minnie Mouse. His sister is 2. Her vocabulary is, like her, small: stop, eat, open, again, Minnie, for Minnie Mouse,  her idol. She loves the fish tank too. It’s suggested by her brother that she drop Minnie into the water, and he will rescue her with the net. Well, the tank is too deep, and he can’t do it. So I do. Wonderful. Hurray. How fun. Minnie is dropped again. Again, a rescue is attempted, and I am called in. I think I have her. But I don’t. This happens twice. Now I reach my arm in (the tank goes almost to my shoulder). No Minnie.

Where can Minnie be? The question of a fish eating her is raised (not by me). My granddaughter considers this, but to her credit doesn’t break under the burden of that possibility. We swirl, we net, my arm goes in again and again. Where can she be? we all ask over and over. I get a big flashlight and shine it in the tank. There are cement blocks stacked to hold plants, and they have holes. I search the holes as best I can. No Minnie.

waterlilyWhen it’s time to go home, my granddaughter is willing to leave without Minnie and without tears. I tell my grandchildren—my grandson has taken charge about the disappearance and is pretty official about it—that my husband will find her for certain. There is a conference, quite serious, quite long, at the car as everyone is strapped in. Assurances are made. I promise I will call on the phone when she’s found.

She has to be there. Yet the mystery of it all…..

waterlilyAll afternoon, I laugh to myself. (I find out later that my grandson tells his father in no uncertain terms that another Minnie will have to be bought if she isn’t located, and that my granddaughter invents a game in which she goes all over the house asking, Where’s Minnie?*)

*She was pushed far back in one of those bricks’ holes.

for my son, whose middle name is Edward……

I wrote this in 2008, and I think it wears well. One more time……

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 during 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 eighteen when he died. The baby of the family.

The news came to a little town in East Texas called Troup. 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.

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.

 

 

 

another season begins

First Christmas tree of the season went up Thanksgiving weekend. Not mine, but my daughter-in-law’s. It was wonderful to be around her enthusiasm. We had to savor every ornament. Each one means something to her, as once mine did to me. We had to fret over Christmas lights….the ones she has always bought are no longer available. Oh, no, what will we do? The tree smelled so evergreen and slightly minty. There was a new person in the family–their baby–to keep away from the tree. We attempted to teach him to touch “with one finger” rather than grab with a fist. It makes me feel so happy to see her  vigor and unstained happiness around Christmas. I hope she never feels as tired and sad as I once did. Christmas can be a terrible season––divorce, death, loneliness, family drama all undoing the shine of its promise. I had to let go of my grand Christmases, had to remake the season to sustain my hurting heart. My heart is well now. Part of my season is to watch the younger women in my life create their Christmas worlds and to revel in their joy. I have my own joys, but they are mostly smaller ones.

What does Christmas mean to you? Do your traditions sustain or hurt you? Have you had to remake the season? How did you do it?

The first Merry Christmas of the season to you………

When I was younger

When I was a younger woman, I collected birds’ nests. The collection began when two dear neighbors brought me a branch from a tree on their farm, a branch which had an intact bird’s nest in its V. I loved it. And then, seeing that nest displayed, other friends began to give me ones they found, a cardinals’ nest from a back deck, a nest before a move to another city, tiny nests built atop a door wreath, a nest in which paper had been used as interweaving. Once when I was driving in pouring rain, there on the trunk of a parked car, was a nest. Once I was sitting under a tree saying a prayer and when I finished, the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was a nest waiting for me.  

I loved those nests with all my heart. Over the years, as I failed one marriage and another failed me, and I clawed my way up out of the debris, I carried them with me.

Not so long ago, I visited a friend’s weekend country house. The house was rambling and filled with flower prints on the walls and on the sofas. There was a big kitchen with a big table around which her family, sons, daughters, their husbands and wives, grandchildren, her forever husband, ancient parents, gathered at holidays. And I thought, this house is her life’s nest, a place where her family can gather in one container, and she can count heads and hearts and smile on the new little ones and sit at one end of the table and be proud of what she has created with the man she loves, a geniune nuclear family, no divorces cracking them open. 

That’s what the nests meant to me, I realized, as I slept in a bedroom of that house, an outward symbol of that which had always eluded me and which I had wanted most of all once upon a time, a marriage held sacred because love was held sacred, the same children by the same father, holidays where all could gather in one place and I could count my blessings.  

The other day, one of the cats knocked a nest to the floor, and I was able to sweep it up and put it in the trash without tears. My young mothering days are over. My family is splintered. I won’t ever have the luxury of looking around at a big table at what I have created with the man I created it with. I failed at that particular dream.

And that’s ok. And that’s a miracle. And that’s a blessing.

For you, Carmen

CarmenMy second novel was just reprinted, and it gives me another chance to say, I love you, little sister, this is for you. My sister died in 1995. She was 42 and left six children behind her, the youngest five, the oldest 20. I’ve never seen anyone die finer than she did. No blame, no recriminations, just a digging in to love harder.This new edition of Now Face to Face (it came out in January from Three Rivers Press) includes scenes I took out of the original manuscript. They were about a character dying, and I couldn’t bear for my sister, who really was dying, to read my imaginary death scenes. So I reworked the book and deleted those scenes.But now it’s been ten years. And there is a reprint. So the scenes are included in an afterward, which I dedicated to my sister. And this, too, this blog, this writing life, is for you, Carmen. You were beautiful. I love you. Karleen