Thursday, April 26, 2007

Do you see what I see?

All my life, I've lived with the knowledge that I come from a long line of strong, Southern women. I've known this, I really have. And I've always feared that I would not live up to their expectations. Because I don't really know what it is to be Southern, I'm not always sure what the Southern response should be in any given situation.

My great-grandmother, Gladys, was ninety-five years old when she died. We actually put her in the ground on her ninety-sixth birthday. We stood by her grave and shouted "Happy Birthday" to her, while trucks stopped out on the road to see what was going on. You see, she had 13 children, 11 of which were still alive. Twelve of those kids had kids of their own, only my namesake uncle died before marrying and raising his own family (baby of the family, only one that died in Viet Nam, very tragic story). Most of the grandkids already had children. And some of the great-grandchildren (like me!) already had children. There were a LOT of people there for her funeral. I'm sure we made quite the sight, dressed in every color of the rainbow, screaming our heads off at the side of the hole in the ground.

My kids are fifth generation babies, just like I was. There were pictures taken of each of them, resting snugly in my great-grandmother's arms, printed in her local newspaper. After the birth of each child, I had to make the pilgrimage, no matter where I was living, to her home in Oklahoma, so that she could have her picture taken with my babies and put in the paper. She loved those pictures, she felt that they showed she'd accomplished something. When she passed, I felt a hole open up inside of me, and that really surprised me. No more pictures would be taken of her and my children, to be printed in that paper, so that her friends could see how beautiful her family was. Yes, they mostly equated beauty with how many grand-children you could claim. For my great-grandmother, her family was beyond just simply beautiful, for she had over three hundred, if you counted them all up.

I think that hole was there because she was the least complicated female family relationship that I'll ever have, and I truly mourned that simple friendship we shared. She teased me because I stopped at six children, telling me she did it with more than twice as many. Yes, I'd agree, but life was simpler back then. She'd reply that it was simpler because the adults ran the house, not the other way around. I'd silently agree. We bonded because of our big families though. Not to say that she was a sweet little old lady, because she was far from that. By the end, her eyesight was all but gone, her hearing only worked when you were two rooms away and muttered a curse under your breath, and most of her internal organs decided to go to work on a part time basis. I guess after almost ninety six years, some things just decided they'd worked long enough.

My relationship with my mother was tumultuous, at best. We rode this roller coaster of recriminations and regrets, love and laughter, for most of my life. In hindsight, I can see the signs of a very manic depressive life in the way that we lived. I've charted and graphed and diagrammed my life with my mother ten ways to Sunday, and no matter how I look at it, I see the peaks and valleys in the journeys that we took. It fills my heart with sadness when I think of how unhappy she must have been at her core, for most of her entire existence, to keep leading such a vagabond life, searching in vain for a peace that would release her from the demons in her mind. It shatters me when I think of all of the angry words I hurled at her, so many times, when she announced she was uprooting us, again, to start over somewhere else. Yes, I loved the adventure of moving, but part of me really longed for a place I could call home, and I wasn't getting it with my mom. Still though, seeing so many ugly scenes in my mind's eye, and having the knowledge that she was most probably bipolar, really puts a different spin on why we traipsed across the bottom half of the country as often as we did.

My daughters, each of them, are very assuredly Southern, even though the oldest will deny it if asked. However, I am trying to eradicate some of the baser Southern tendencies from them. I don't want them to think that nice girls do what they're told, and never complain, and boys are in charge of everything. I want them to use their brains. I want them to use their mouths. I want them to do math, and science, and drive fast, go to college, and want more, and be able to actually get it. I have difficult, and very beautifully distinct, relationships with each of my four daughters. My oldest is truly one of the best friends I have. My baby is the song that is sung in my heart. The other two are mercy and grace, always doing for others and unto others, and both know just how to smile. I am truly blessed with my daughters.

My hardest relationship is with my grandmother. I call her Mama, or Grams, depending on my mood. My mother gave birth to me when she was only 18, so my grandmother was around quite a bit to help out. Or at least that's the story I used to tell myself. I think the reality is that my mom was with my dad, in another part of the country, for the first few months of my life. My dad was not all that great back then, and I think my mom left him. Or my Papa went to get her. I'm really not sure. That part is fuzzy. Hey, don't blame me, I was less than a year old. I think.

Anyhow, we somehow ended up living with my grandparents. My grandfather, or Papa, up until the day he died, was the man that I compared all other men to. He was my measuring stick, in the way that my husband has become the same thing, encompassing all that is right and perfect with men, a living reminder of how chivalry is not dead. I have long-treasured memories of that special man, and all of the ways that he spoiled me and doted on me, and showed me that I was worth love. I didn't always feel that growing up, as there was never a 'dad' around long enough to establish that bond that is so essential in a girls life. My Papa forged that bond with me, and made sure I understood that the parade of men that went through my house like there was a revolving door on my mom's bedroom had nothing to do with me. It didn't really have anything to do with her either, except as an indicator that something was wrong. But we're Southern, see, so nobody would dare accuse her of being a mental case. Instead, it was whispered that she was still shaken up about the way my dad had treated her, and she'd never gotten over that. Whatever. Anyhow, Papa was the single steady male in my life, and I adored him for it.

Why do I keep skirting the issue of my grandmother? When I started this, it was just going to be short blurbs about everyone else, because I really wanted to talk about my Mama. She's been on my mind a lot lately, because we're going to see her soon. It's been since my great-grandmother's funeral, in December of 2005, since I've seen her. Half my family hasn't seen her since December of 2004. I can't believe how long it's been for some of them. And I don't call as much as I should. I know I don't. Part of me rebels, because I honestly can't remember a single time, ever in my entire life, and I mean EVER, that that woman has picked up the phone and dialed my number. She just doesn't do that. It goes beyond hating the long distance bill too. She just thinks that she shouldn't have to call. She thinks everyone else should call her. She's the matriarch of the family now, and she takes her role very seriously.

I used to get so angry with her for her attitude. She acts like people owe her something, because she's buried her Daddy and her Mom, her husband and her daughter. Yes, my grandmother is the last person behind me now. When she's gone, there will be no one for me to turn to with questions about my past, about my history. Of course, she's not always been the most reliable source, or so I thought. I'd get upset because I'd share a memory of mine and she'd tell me it hadn't happened, or tell me I was remembering it wrong. Generally, I felt she wore rose-colored glasses when it came to memories.

It wasn't until recently, until reading another blogger talk about memories, that I came to understand that there is truth in what my Mama remembers, but there is also truth in what she doesn't.

I am not yet thirty five years old. I have my life stretching before me, like a blank book, waiting for me to write my story, waiting for me to fill in the missing pieces. She has her book almost full.

She's buried the people that meant the most to her, and now she lives in a house alone, waiting for the phone to ring. I helped her move from the home that she shared with my grandfather for over thirty years in Texas, to a smaller house in Oklahoma. It's still new, and unfamiliar, and strange to her. There are no memories of her children in that house. There aren't even really memories of her grandchildren or great-grandchildren, as not many people have visited her there.

Every day, her world shrinks a little bit, and there is nothing she can do about it. She was diagnosed with macular degeneration a few years back. She went in for cataract surgery and instead left knowing that her world would slowly go dark until she saw nothing. I can't even imagine that. So much of my life is centered around my sight. Yes, I think that there are many blind people that live full and happy lives, but those people are not my Mama. She's had her sight for so long, and to know that it's going must be heartbreaking for her.

Beyond the sadness though, I think there is anger. Her life is written, but she's not ready to put down the pen yet. Her dad has been gone for over twenty years, her husband for over ten. Her daughter has been gone for five, her mother for over one. Her and I? We're still here. She looks behind her and sees emptiness. She looks in front of her and sees me, the child of her baby child - the daughter of her daughter that is gone, the one that almost didn't make it, the one that endured.

I spent so many years not understanding her, being angry with her, wanting her to step into my whirlwind of a life and rescue me from my mother. She didn't though. She was the safe harbor from the storm in the summer, but she never let us stay beyond Labor Day. We always had to return to the craziness of our "normal" life, and I really hated her for that. My brother was there, but I've learned that his memory is very subjective, almost non-existent. On most days, he'll admit that *I* am his memory, because he's blocked most everything about our younger years. It's just too painful for him.

So here I stand, in the middle. My daughters are in front of me, with more blank pages than even I have. My Mama is behind me, with only a few empty pages left. I stand in the middle, surrounded by the ghosts of strong women, strong-willed women. Here I stand, in the middle, hoping to raise four daughters to be the kind of women that know their own worth, that know not to measure themselves against women in magazines or on television, frightened that I will fail them. Here I stand, in the middle, hoping to live up to the expectations of my Mama, expectations that have been colored by her many years spent twisting and shaping the past to fit into a mold that is acceptable to her.

I take all of this with me when I sit down to write. I feel this pull to include my mom's gypsy-ness, to pull it apart, to try to understand it, to hopefully escape it. I feel compelled to include the adventurous spirit of my daughters, how they each think of going to colleges, far apart from each other, getting married and settling down someday, dreams so far from what I dreamed, but also similar in many ways. They want home too, but they want it because they know, from the experiences I've given them, what home really is. I feel like I haven't failed them there. When I write, I want to describe my great-grandmother's patience, her steadfastness. Hers was not really a love match, but she stood by his side for decades, and she wept at his funeral. He was not an easy man to love, my great-grandpa Joe, but she managed it. She lived her entire life in a forty mile radius of where she was born, never venturing beyond those boundaries that were set back then, never seeing what was beyond those imaginary lines.

Mostly though, when I write I want to re-create my Mama. I want to tell the world of how she married young and had two daughters, then divorced that man because he was not nice. Divorce in those days rarely happened, and the scandal was swift and harsh in her rural Oklahoma town. She left her two small girls with family and went to California on her own. The courage it must have taken to do that astounds me. She knew that she needed to get her head together, knew that her girls were going to be cared for, so took off on an adventure of epic proportions in order to grab the life she must have really wanted. While there, she met and married my Papa, a Marine three years her junior. Again, the scandal must have been intense. Instead of marrying an older man that could take care of her and her children, she chose the man that made her heart melt faster than ice cream on a California beach. She grabbed him and held on tight. My mom was born shortly after that, in California, the product of a love so dazzling, so blinding, it was a thing of beauty to behold. Their marriage lasted forty three years. Only the hands of death could separate them. She stood by him through the military, the Korean War, when he drove a gas truck to put food on the table, when things were rough and lean, when things finally started getting better. She stood by him. She wasn't always the picture of gentility, she had her moments of fire, but she stood by him.

When I look back at her life, when I glance behind me to see the pages that were written before I arrived on the scene, it's sometimes like re-reading my very own chapters. Maybe the reason I have such mixed emotions where she is concerned is because I connect with those parts of her that are me. Her sense of adventure, her courage, her willingness to face a scandal because she knew it was best for her to get out of a bad situation no matter what society said, these are all things that I've always admired about her but have not always recognized in myself. She gave me those things, but it took me quite a few years to see that. She whispered them in my ear when she rocked me to sleep as a baby, she hid them in the stories she told me as a child, she wove them through the memories she shared with me as a teenager. Always, they were there, her gift to me, though sometimes I tried to refuse. Still, they were there.

When I look back at her life, when I read those pages that she has already written, I see something very clearly. She is me. I am her. And that is not a bad thing at all.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Fear and Hope in Central Virginia

I am not a poet. I'm not a preacher, or a counselor of grief. I'm not a politician, or a talking head on television armed with witty writers of dialogue to fill my teleprompter with words of wisdom and healing. I'm not an author that can fashion language into pictures so startling and full of light that even the most stone-hearted among you will be moved to tears.

I'm just a mom. And a resident of Central Virginia.

I doubt that you will gain much from my ramblings that you can't find at other, more prestigious and informative sites. I haven't searched the web for facts, or assembled long pages of theories on why this thing or that has happened. I don't have any answers. If you're looking for those, you've come to the wrong place. All I have is my feelings, my fears, and yes, even a bit of hope. I am driven to share these with you today. I don't expect that my voice will be heard beyond the pages of this small, personal blog. I would be very surprised to learn that more than a few will even read this. Still though, I must write today. I must share what is on my mind.

Raising children with my husband in Virginia has been one of the monumental blessings of my life. This place has become home to me, in a way that this vagabond mom only ever dreamed home could be as a child. Growing up in too many states to really remember, traveling the country according to the whims of my own gypsy-hearted mama, I always held a secret desire for a special place to belong. In my childish yearnings, I wanted a large place, made of strong walls that could withstand any storm, all strong winds, and yes, even the occasional hurricane of words and shouts that living as a family often entails. I saw a sturdy structure, most usually on a hill, overlooking some picturesque site or another that would easily fit on a postcard or a landscape calendar. This place would be near the mountains, with fresh clean air. It would be near the ocean, close enough to escape to my beloved salt water if the need arose. The place would be near a large, vibrant city, to appease my need for activity. Yet it would also be near a small, quaint town, with old streets and historic buildings, to keep me in touch with a past that has shaped me. In this place, I would find a group of friends, young and old, rich and poor, that would feed my soul with love and laughter. I would have that thing I so often searched for in every place to which I was sometimes unwillingly dragged - community. It's almost funny that, after joining the Navy and seeing the world, I would land in Virginia. This was not the place that I pictured when I thought of home those many years ago, yet has become exactly the home I always longed to have.

When tragedy strikes, I automatically start cataloging my choices, trying to decide how things that I have done in my past are going to affect my future, and the future of those that I hold most dear. This is especially true now that I have children. I rethink virtually every decision that has led me to this place where I am now, in a house with sturdy walls, on a hill overlooking a small pasture, with mountains in the distance and an ocean down the road, two capitals within an hours drive, an Old Towne that I've claimed as my own, and a community that has embraced me despite my eccentricities.

People ask where you are from, and you say the place that means "home" in your heart, sometimes the place of your birth, usually the place of your childhood. I often replied "Well, I grew up all over, but I live in Virginia now". More recently though, I've come to think of myself as a Virginian all the time. Two children have been born here, four others have adopted it as their own home. Of those six, two of them look forward to one day attending the great college that is Virginia Tech. We pass the turnoff often on our travels to see other family, and it never fails to garner a wistful look and a "Someday, Mom, you're dropping me off there" comment.

Would I still send my children there now, after this week? How could I, knowing the tragedy that has befallen so may? Of the thirty people killed, almost 20 were from Central Virginia. Does that change my mind about the future direction my children will take? Should it?

Without going into already catalogued detail of the gunman and his victims, or supposed errors made by school administration or handgun dealers, I want to say, loudly and unequivocally, that my children will attend Virginia Tech in the future, if it is their desire to do so. While I abhor violence in any form, I still recognize that not all people are as full of the despair that claimed the young man responsible for the deaths of so many.

My fear that this tragedy could happen again, and my own cherished children could be involved, is far outweighed by the anger that is slowly seeping over me at the way the media continues to fuel the flames of hatred and intolerance already so hot in this world. While "gun control" generally evokes strong feelings in a person, regardless of the side you might take, that knee-jerk reaction should not be the solution. Nor should a condemnation of the school or its officials take center stage during this time. Instead of finding a direction in which to point fingers, people should be united in mourning the loss of lives cut short in their prime, of lives that were full of courage and grace, and yes, even of a life that was full of anger and despair. I'm not condoning the acts committed by the young man responsible, but the loss of life, any life, really is a reason to mourn.

The students at Virginia Tech are a very special group of some of the best and brightest minds this country has to offer. Young people from all over the country strive to make it to Blacksburg, in search of an education that will often mean the difference between a decent job and merely making ends meet. In this state, however, going to Tech is more than just the thought of a good education close to their houses. It is a dream that lives in the hearts of young boys and girls, teenagers, and even adults, a dream to wear the red and orange and be a part of something that is larger than self. For some, making it to Tech is like coming home.

That's a sentiment I can understand. While I'm not a Tech alumni, I am a Virginian. Home is not just where you lay your head at night. It's a peace that invades every facet of your life, every shadow of your soul. Tech was home to many of those students. However, this week their safe walls were breached by violence and death. Should they leave and try to find a new home elsewhere, or would that be like letting evil win? Those choices are not for me to make, neither are they for you to judge.

Whether or not 'gun control' laws are made stronger, whether or not the administration undergoes censure, ridicule, or even the inevitable and sadly common lawsuits, the victims will not return. The wounds that were inflicted go deeper than the bullets that were discharged. Peace was shattered, and home was violated. But friends, hope was not lost. Even today, all over the country, and most especially down the road at Tech, people gather together and weep, mourn the loss of friends and co-workers, and look together toward a future that includes the knowledge that, although we may not understand it, there is always a Perfect Plan. Prayer vigils have sprung up across the campus, across the community, across the state, and even across the country, led by students that are not willing to pin blame on anyone, but seek only the chance to mourn and heal.

Please join me as I send my prayers to the people involved in this tragedy, to the family and friends of the people that died, to the community that is suffering the shattering of so many lives, and yes, even to the young boys and girls whose dream it has always been to attend that still great school. During this week when so many lives have been changed forever, I cling tight to my family. I cherish the fragile peace that exists within the walls of my own fortress on a hill, and I thank the Lord above that He has blessed me with this home that I have. And I pray that others will find the same solace that I have in His comforting embrace, no matter the state of their own world right now.

Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the LORD thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest. - Joshua 1:9


Friday, April 13, 2007

Check THIS out!

Having a book review blog has been wonderful in so many ways. Let me explain.

- I have an excuse to read any book I want to read

- I have a reason to be on the computer, typing up a Dish on a book

- I have an excuse to read any book I want to read

- I get to run fun contests that people from all over the world enter

- I have an excuse to read any book I want to read

Are you getting the main reason I love having the review blog? YES - I get to read any book I want to read. Ok, ok, probably, knowing my wonderful husband (and some of you DO know him. So.) you know I probably don't need an excuse to read any books. But it's nice to be able to say to the kids "Shhh, mommy HAS to get this book read so I can review it. This is for WORK". Yeah, right. Things like that happen.

Perhaps one of the most surprising benefits from the blog has got to be having the opportunity to meet some wonderful authors. Last month, I got to have lunch with Lani Diane Rich in Maryland. I was so psyched, because Lani is one of my favoritest authors ever. And she's one of those cool people that always has time to answer a question from a less experienced writer. I just love her! Well, she brought her friend Sam along to the lunch, and Sam is also a writer. Sam wrote this book called SIGHT UNSEEN, and it's out in stores this very month. So, you need to get out there to the store and grab this book, and read it. Or, drop in to the book review blog and tell us how much you want to read it. You might even win yourself a copy of the book! Doesn't it just look FABulous though?

Clues only this psychic can see
Can an art thief earn an honest living? Raven Callahan does, with the help of a rare psychic power that lets her read the emotions locked inside ancient objects. But when her partner is kidnapped and Raven is forced to steal a priceless masterpiece to save him, ESP take a backseat to quick wits, steely nerves, and the lethal skills she needs to survive.

A Killer only this cop can catch
Ex-cop Dax Maddox made just one mistake on the job, but it took a young rookie's life and cost Dax his ability to see color. Now stalking a killer brings Raven into his life - and floods his gray world with vivid and conflicting emotions: anger and lust, suspicion and awe. Are the criminals they seek one and the same? If so, Dax and Raven's growing need for each other could inspire a madman's terrifying scheme for the ultimate revenge.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

When I grow up, I want to be...

I don't do this very often, but today, I feel compelled. Yes, compelled.

Many of you know that I write. I don't do it "for a living". Yet. Someday I hope to be able to say, "You can find my book on the shelf at (insert your favorite bookseller here)". One of these days, my goal is to finish writing the book that has my heart right now, and send it out there into the world to see how it does. I feel that, sometimes, I know some things that I've learned along this road I'm on, and I should share that knowing with other people. Besides, I must write. It's not something that I always want to do, but it is something that I simply must do. It's like breathing for me. It has to happen, or I flounder around, all out of sorts.

As I've gotten more serious about my writing, I've found myself seeking out authors that have a true gift. I don't limit myself to a certain genre, or a small circle of writers. I've found authors in all sorts of genres that have a way with words, a way of seemingly peering into the deepest, darkest parts of me, and extracting the tiny little kernels of my hidden self, those itsy parts that I never share with anyone. Those books go on my "Keeper" shelf, and those authors become automatic buys for me. I'll even purchase their books in hardback, something that I will rarely do for any author unless they are on a bargain table. Sometimes, if the author really touches my innermost being, I will go to great lengths to learn more about them, read all of their books (or anything else they've written), find their sites or blogs, even e-mail. A few times, I've been blessed enough to meet a few of them. Generally, that involves a road trip, and some of you know how much I love an excuse for a road trip. I've travelled to two different places in Maryland (Jenny Crusie and Lani Diane Rich), Richmond (Susan Elizabeth Phillips), and New Jersey (various, for a conference). My longest trip was also one of my most treasured memories. I drove to Charlotte, North Carolina, to see Joshilyn Jackson. You can read about that amazing afternoon if you search my July 2006 archives. I'm not adding the link, because this isn't about that trip. I'm only mentioning it because it cemented, for me, what exactly I have to aspire to be.

I've loved both of Joshilyn's books, and I adore her blog. Out of the many authors that I consider "favorites", she has earned her spot at the very tippity top of the list. That's not to say that I don't love a select handful of others as well, as writers or as people. There are some that I simply can't imagine not having in my writing life. However, there is just something about reading one of Joshilyn's books. She has this intuitive gift, a way of exploring those secretive places that each of us has, and bringing them to light in all of their sometimes ugly glory.

She's done it again, for me. I read her blog, Faster Than Kudzu, on an almost daily basis. I hope that you've been encouraged to take a peek over there as well. I have it on good authority that it's almost as addictive as chocolate, and once you become a regular, you never want to leave. She recently wrote a beautiful post, and I've read it at least 8 times. Every single time, I've had tears running down my face. It's just that beautiful. So yeah, this whole thing has been to tell you to go over to FTK and read this post . You'll see what I mean when I say that she is the kind of writer that I hope to become.

Thanks for indulging me.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A poem for you, and for me

Because I read Laura Florand's blog every chance I get (even if I don't always get around to leaving a comment), I found Amy. Amy is a wonderful Renassaince woman in New England. She's a wife, a mom, a writer, a knitter, and also a good person to have as a friend.

Right now, she's running a contest over on her blog. You're supposed to post a poem, this being National Poetry Month and all. Well, I'm all about contests, but it goes even farther. Laura mentioned, and Amy reiterated, that poetry is really very personal. There are so many poems out there, written by so many different people. Because of that, not every poem will speak to every person. Like music, you find your own rhythm in poetry, your own beat. While you may venture into the unknown and discover new artists (and yes, even new poets) there will always be a few that call to your very soul.

For me, this poem has always been one of my very favorites. It's gotten me through tough spots, it's gotten me through valleys, and it's stayed in my mind all these many years since the very first reading of it. That's got to mean something. So when someone says "Hey, what's your favorite poem?" I reply "Hope". I hope you enjoy... :)


Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

by Emily Dickinson