Childhood Memories: The Luck of the Irish

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I remember, years ago, when my brother was little, good things seemed to happen to him. (He once won a Beetlejuice contest and we all got a free trip to Hollywood, though it was a real downer when my parents went trolling for celebrity headstones).

I remember expecting to be picked up in a limousine, but an old man that reminded me of Alfred from the Batman show came for us in a Lincoln, holding up a sign that said Brooks. (Our name was Booker, which I never liked because kids would replace the k with a g.)

So yes, Kel (then Kelly), was lucky, and I would get so sick of my parents saying he had “the luck of the Irish,” to which I would exclaim, “He’s not Irish!”

Well, many years later, my parents would send their spit to have their DNA tested and so it turned out, he was.

We were.

And I am so glad that is something my mom got to do before she passed away, even though Dad got on her nerves with all his lamenting that she didn’t have any Jewish blood (which he though “prestigious”).

Dad, however, was thrilled when he found out he was one-third Scandinavian, or “Viking” (as he calls it). I’d considered getting him one of those helmets with the horns on it, though I could’ve sworn he was French, being so passive.

But even though DNA tells us where we came from, what we’re made of, and sometimes, where we’ve been (outer space in Scott Kelly’s case, for example), it doesn’t tell us where we’re going.

That is the story we get to write.

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The Mark of a Day

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It was last spring that I wrote “Hanging from the Family Tree” for poetry class, and a year ago that I read it to a group of students, professors, and faculty at a student poetry reading.

Not even two months ago, I’d already had two pieces picked out to read this evening–one serious, the other silly.

That changed a week ago.

*

Last year, I remember it being dark and cold, but this year, it was mild and sunny.  The weather seemed almost profane, in light of all that had transpired.

A part of me had wondered if it was too soon to read a poem about my mom, but I read it anyway, and I’m so very glad I did.

I’d struggled with the piece until after my mother’s funeral yesterday morning, and then, with that small measure of closure, the memories came tumbling out like the contents of a cornucopia.  I realized then that when someone is with us, we don’t go around thinking about them, but when they’re gone, we think about them to keep them near, for we fear forgetting even one of the thousand little details that made them, them.

*

So I asked God if He would grant Mom special permission to listen in tonight.  I sort of think that’s how it should work, because I don’t want my loved ones up there watching me to go to the bathroom, among other things.  (That might be quite embarrassing.)

I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get through it without weeping, but I think when Q–the first poet of the night–opened with his piece about losing his mother, his story startingly parallel to my own, I shed the tears that were in store.

And what a blessing it was to be among friends that night–to share with them something of myself.

Student Poetry Night was a catharsis for me, for I believe every time we share a story of a loved one, it’s like they are right there with us, and that wherever they are in the heavens, they hear their name and know that they are missed.

The Last Leaf

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Betty Ann Booker: Apr. 23, 1953-Mar 6, 2018

I’ve always considered myself the unofficial family historian (my parents the genealogists). Documenting the lives of those I love has always been my way of honoring their memory.

Last night, my mom passed away following complications of pneumonia, which she contracted from a cracked rib she sustained in a car accident a month ago.

I am thirty-six years old, and still too young to lose my mom. My daughter is four, and too young to lose her grandma. I can’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t my mom’s time to go; the suddenness of it all makes it feel that way—the fact that I didn’t get a chance to say good-bye because I didn’t know the last time would be the last time.

 

My mom was a survivor, having beat breast cancer twice. The second time she told me she had it, I was distraught, for how often did lighting strike twice in the same place?

This time, when I found out she had a fractured rib, I thought, broken bones heal.

When I found out she had double pneumonia, I thought, Dad beat that (complete with a blood clot on his lung) seven years ago.

It wasn’t until she took her last breath in hospice that I accepted she was truly gone, after having pleaded with her to wake up, but she had already lapsed into a coma.

The same doctor who had saved my dad’s life seven years ago hadn’t been able to save hers.

 

Before she passed away, while she was still in ICU, I was able to read her a story—Many Moons, by James Thurber, my favorite children’s book (she liked it, too)—about a girl named Princess Lenore who asks her father for the moon to make her well. I’d thought about reading Small Town Girl, by LaVyrle Spencer—one of our favorite novels—but maybe, in my own way, I didn’t want to start what I didn’t believe I would finish.

 

I am so grateful for technology—that I was able to play my daughter’s laugh from a handful of videos I had uploaded to Facebook. I even sang Amazing Grace to her (with no one close enough to hear me, of course)—all things I have done with my daughter, who loves to laugh at herself.

My mom has always considered a sense of humor a vital character trait, and I like to think I get a little bit of that from her. I have learned that having one has nothing to do with your ability to laugh at something funny, but everything to do with being able to laugh at yourself.

I told her that I loved her, and to say hi to some people for me; I told her that I appreciated her more than she ever knew.

The last thing I did was play her favorite song (or one of them)—Saginaw, Michigan, by Lefty Frizzell. It didn’t even finish before she had gone.

I was told by one of the nurses that the hearing was the last to go, and so I am glad she was able to hear her granddaughter—the one she nicknamed Hannah Banana—one last time.

I remember thinking, Gee, I hope you were this glad when I was born! But every mother should want their mother to love their child so much.

 

Time with Mom while she was in the hospital became like silver, if all the silver in the world had been mined. It became as precious as life itself.

I am so sad there won’t be any more memories to be made with her, but I showed a picture of her to my daughter and asked her who she was. She immediately said “Grandma!” and when I asked her what Grandma did with her, she said, “Build an ark/arch!”

Whenever Grandma came over, Hannah would bring the blocks and Grandma would build with her.

I will show my daughter that picture every day and ask her who she is, and what she did with her, so that there won’t be a time Hannah won’t remember her.

 

Technology has taken over our lives, so I’ve always tried to live “in the moment,” and then write in retrospect, but I say to anyone who will listen—take more pictures, shoot more video. My brother’s girlfriend shot this past Christmas, and there is Mom, just a couple of months ago, hamming it up.

That, that was who she was.

My brother played some voicemails she left on his phone, which he will save forever—voicemails which I have asked him to send to me, because the fear that I may forget her voice makes me incredibly sad.

For now, I am trying to piece together a thousand little memories; every scrap of paper with her face on it has become priceless.

But she left behind so much more than memories—she taught me how to be a good person by being a good person. At the time of her accident, she was on her way to help a family member in need.

I will miss her, but not forever, because she is in the forever—that forever she taught me about–so that I could find some measure of peace amidst the seemingly insurmountable grief I am experiencing now.

Childhood Memories: Spelling Bees

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Back in the nineties, when I was in high school, I participated in the spelling bees sponsored by Sandy Sansing (a local car dealer whose alliterative name I appreciated).  

I remember when the bees were held at the Cordova Mall and one of the boys was asked how to spell ‘minstrel.’  I will never forget the gobsmacked look on his face.

When he asked the judges to use it in a sentence (i.e. a stalling tactic for when your mind goes blank), and he figured out they weren’t referring to ‘menstrual,’ it was like he’d been waiting to exhale.

 

I remember being given a booklet of words to study, which my dad would grill me on every night.  He will always remember the word that tripped him up was chiaroscuro; ironically, I never learned to master that one (thank you, spellchecker).  

I don’t remember what my waterloo was, but I realized that my proficiency in seven-letter (or fewer) words (my dad rarely beat me in Scrabble) would only get me so far.

Being more of a visual person (probably due to my unilateral hearing loss) made such an auditory activity more challenging, because I couldn’t write the word down and see if it “looked right.”

Even though I never went farther than Cordova Mall, I always had fun, and I realize it wasn’t because the bees themselves were so fun, but because of all the hours my dad and I spent together, playing what I think of now as the pre-games to the “Spelling Olympics.”

Influences on my early writing

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It has been at least fifteen years since I’d read My Sweet Audrina.

I’ve always considered V.C. Andrews novels a guilty pleasure (like the Shopaholic series by Sophie Kinsella). They are easy reads, and, considering I do most of my reading in bed at night before I go to sleep, it’s what I need.

I was afraid of reading Audrina—afraid that it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered—but even though V.C.’s novels aren’t considered literature, Audrina touches on a variety of important topics: self-hypnosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, brittle bone disease, autism, and how parental favoritism can destroy the favored child.

What is haunting about V.C.’s Southern Gothic horror novels is their timelessness. Reading this book made me nostalgic for that time when I was getting into more “adult” novels.

 

The first time I came across a V.C. Andrews novel was at a “Friends of the Library” sale (https://www.facebook.com/FriendsOfWFPL). It was Dawn—the first book in the Cutler family series—a crisp, hardcover edition sheathed in a dust jacket with a haunting family photo on the cover. I was immediately intrigued, and of course, I had to read everything she wrote after that.

When I was a teenager, I wrote part of a sequel about the Lamar Rensdale character in Audrina, bringing him back from the dead. I wanted Audrina to ditch Arden and marry Lamar instead—a man who helped her—even as Arden had failed her the first time, a second, a third…

I think my juvenile attempt to write a sequel to My Sweet Audrina was my way of living in that crazy Whitefern world just a little longer.

What’s more, I’ve always wanted to give characters happy endings—just like I wanted to give a happy glimpse of Ginger (from Black Beauty) in the afterlife.

 

Audrina is unputdownable, for it drew me into this strange, Whitefern world. Coming from a caring, but odd and somewhat dysfunctional family (a neighbor of ours, I found out, once referred to us as the Addams family), I related, however distantly, to the Whiteferns/Adares, for they live in an old house where things don’t always work and consider themselves outliers in the community. (My parents don’t even watch the local news.)

 

I think, when we read a book, we either like to be taken away or see ourselves in someone else’s work, to feel less alone—Audrina was both. It was also well-edited, unlike some of V.C.’s other books, where last names are spelled two different ways and middle names were changed altogether.

 

I don’t recommend any V.C. books after the Logan series, because the quality tanked and they all started to sound the same. I have no plans on reading Whitefern, the sequel to Audrina that Neiderman wrote, though I will try the televised version of Audrina. (The original flick, Flowers in the Attic, though not a masterpiece, had a haunting quality about it the TV movie lacked.)

 

V.C. Andrews had one hell of an imagination, and it’s too bad she passed away before she got to write more books. She was an influence on me in my early writing (who doesn’t love dark family secrets?), just as the breezy, Shopaholic series lightened what V.C. darkened.

 

Even though I read many novels by different authors, I think series books will always have a place in my heart, because I fall in love with the characters, and don’t want to let them go. I think that’s why I’ve always preferred novels over short stories, and short stories over poetry. It’s always been about the characters for me. Even the poetry I write is often about characters (many of them wacky).

Plots may keep you reading, but characters will keep you rereading.

 

Books: A part of my childhood, a part of my adulthood

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My earliest memory of reading was when my dad read nursery rhymes to me. I vaguely remember him running me through the one about “the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker–just to get me to say “three foul balls in a tub” at the end, which my uncle got a real kick out of. (They’d have my cousin Jeremy go through the alphabet just to watch him put a finger to his chin when he came to “W.” The things adults make kids do for our amusement!)

Mom and I read the Encyclopedia Brown series together, often in the car when my parents sold lamps and lampshades at an outdoor flea market in Summerdale, Alabama. Books were my salvation from boredom.  If I didn’t have a new book, I’d reread an old one.  I think I read Mom, You’re Fired! several times one summer.

Many Moons was (and still is) my all-time favorite children’s book, but I also loved the Wayside School set and The Face on the Milk Carton series.

I guess you could say I’ve always been a series girl—The Baby-Sitters Club in elementary, Sweet Valley High in middle, and V.C. Andrews in high school—the last of which I stopped reading when Andrew Neiderman (Andrews’ ghostwriter) turned out to be a hack.

I read many a Harlequin romance in my early twenties, which I deemed as research. (I wanted to write for them.) In my late twenties and early thirties, I fell in love with Linda Hall novels—Christian fiction that didn’t resort to caricatures (as a lot of Christian fiction does). I reread her books every so often, but LaVyrle Spencer’s Small Town Girl will always be my favorite. I loved that the heroine was a country music star who had the courage to leave home at eighteen and made it on her own (a la Mary Richards).

If I had to choose three classic novels that top all the others I’ve read thus far, it would be Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. (Ironically, the films that were adapted from these fine works were flawless.)

Sometimes I wonder if it weren’t the heroines of these novels that make them so beloved—a feisty Southern belle who toughened up when push came to push back (ten times harder), and two precocious girls (one of them a writer).

Though television programming has become portable with the advent of cell phones, back then, reading was the perfect portable form of entertainment. At night, when I could no longer see (no Kindles in the late eighties and early nineties), I’d make up stories in my head.

And it all started with an appreciation for poetry, whether it was read or sung to me.  What’s more, writing it has helped me appreciate it more.

A literary trinity

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I had the privilege of attending a reading, a writing workshop, and a book talk–the first and last of which included a question-and-answer session with author, Eileen Myles.

That’s the pretty neat thing about being a student: having access to these events.  I’ve never been able to afford to attend a writers’ conference/retreat, but since I’ve been a student, I’ve been to workshops, gone on journalism field trips, and taken classes that have helped me become a better writer.  And it isn’t just the solitary knowledge, but the communal experience, that has helped get me there.

I’ve met so many wonderful and interesting people because of my writing–people I would’ve never met otherwise–that I could never imagine my life without it.

Of course, being a writer, the workshop is always my favorite event (where there’s always one little upstart who doesn’t play by the rules), but I love the Q-&-A sessions where the writer is just connecting with her audience.  I only hope that someday, if I am ever called upon to speak extemporaneously about my work and the craft, I am as engaging as Eileen.

One of the many things she said that resonated with me was that “you may not be graceful in life, but you can be graceful on a page.”  I found her complete lack of self-consciousness endearing, for I’m that girl who worries about her lipstick being wrong.

I covered these events for the student newspaper, so when it is published, I will post it below (and I am holding back a lot of good stuff for the article).

My advice to all writers:  Take advantage of every opportunity to meet one.