The Last Leaf

Navy mom

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.

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

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My earliest memory of books was when my dad read nursery rhymes to me—about  kings and queens, farmers and peasants—a precursor to fairy tales. When I won first place for my nonfiction piece, “A Memoir of Mother Goose,” I told my old professor that I had a slight “obsession with Mother Goose.” He’d chuckled and said it could be worse.

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! by Lou Kassem every day in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, where I stayed with my grandparents every summer as an adolescent and tween. I also read many stories in the Mostly Magic installment of the Through Golden Windows series, printed in 1958; I loved all the retro books my grandmother’s bookcases were filled with. I remember it was a lot more fun to sift through books than it was to surf through channels.

Still is. 

Many Moons by James Thurber was (and still is) my all-time favorite children’s book, but I also loved the Wayside School series by Louis Sachar and The Face on the Milk Carton series by Caroline B. Cooney.

I guess you could say I’ve always been a series girl—The Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin in elementary, Sweet Valley High by Francine Pascal 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.)  My mom and I shared a lot of books—Tami Hoag, Lisa Jackson, and Sandra Brown—the usual suspects.  

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 remember reading it when I was live-in nannying for three girls in Sidney, Montana, and feeling a bit homesick. The book is set in fictional Wintergreen, Missouri, which, is close to Poplar Bluff. It was because of that reference, perhaps, that I called my Aunt Cheryll (she and my uncle had recently split up after 27 years of marriage), with her telling me that she loved me; I realized then she would always be Aunt Cheryll to me.  

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 were the heroines of these novels that make them so beloved—a feisty Southern belle who toughened up when push came to pushing back ten times harder and two precocious girls (one of them a storyteller, the other, a writer).

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

My dad instilled in me, through poetry, a legacy of literacy—just as my mom shared that legacy with me. Thus, I am passing this legacy on to my daughter, who loves Mother Goose as much as I always will.

Updated 12/4/2019

10 Elements I Don’t Like in Popular Novels

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  1. When the story starts off in the wrong place, as in LaVyrle Spencer’s, “Bittersweet”.  The catalyst for the heroine returning home to her “real” friends from high school (apparently, she didn’t make any real friends after high school) was the death of her husband.  We read about her support group, and then never hear from them again.  The book should have started with her leaving her old life behind.
  2. When the book is really two, interweaving stories.  One story is always going to be more interesting.  This was done in Francine Rivers’, “The Scarlet Thread”.  Sierra Madrid (yes, that’s really the name of the main character) is the heroine of the modern day story, and her grandmother (whose name I cannot remember, as hers was the story that didn’t interest me), the heroine of the “backstory”.
  3. Too many characters.  It’s why I didn’t finish the “Left Behind” series.  Mental overload.
  4. Slutty men.  Okay, this is popular in mainstream romance.  I don’t see why a romance has to be a “Christian romance” for the man not to have slept around.  A man who doesn’t sleep around can be attractive, too (and it’s not totally unrealistic.  I’m not saying he has to be a virgin.)  Lisa Jackson apparently doesn’t think so.
  5. Female protagonist, if she’s going through a stressful time, she always under eats, never the other way around.  I guess the author has an impossible time of conceiving a man being attracted to an overweight woman.  (It does happen.)
  6. When all your main characters sound alike.  Even though I enjoy Mary Higgins Clark, all her women come across as bland (they all seem to like linguini with clam sauce, too).  None of them have any memorable quirks or say anything witty.  However, I read her because I like her plots.
  7. When the author is in love with a hobby, and talks about it in minute detail.  Barbara Delinsky obviously loves knitting, and she mentions it in her books, but she doesn’t overdo it.  The one time I remember my eyes glazing over was when I read “The Bridges of Madison County”–the photography jargon bored me.
  8. Too many references to pop culture.  Jodi Picoult is bad about this.
  9. Too many complicated names.  Rachel Ann Nunes (an LDS author) tends to use a lot of unusual names in her novels.  One or two is fine, but any more than that is distracting.
  10. Poetry in novels.  If one of the characters is a poet, it makes sense to include something they wrote, but sometimes, it just seems like the author couldn’t find a market for the poem, and wanted to use it, so he/she stuck it in there.  Tami Hoag did this in one of her books; the poetess was supposed to be gifted (she wasn’t, in my humble opinion), and her work just sounded like a moody teenager’s stream of consciousness put on paper.

Categorically, some of the best books I’ve read (thus far)

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LDS (Mormon fiction):  Shannon’s Mirror, by Luisa M. Perkins

  • I think a girl/woman of any age can enjoy this book, LDS or not.  Thirteen years ago, a friend of mine mentioned this book; the title stuck in my head until I finally bought it a few years ago.  It is a very beautiful, but very sad story, about how the quest for perfectionism (which I, as a former LDS woman, struggled with) can lead to heartache and destruction.

Christian fiction:  Any books by Linda Hall

  • This is the kind of Christian fiction I like–where Christians are real people who question things.  Rich in character, and description, too, but in a way that paints a picture as you read rather than slowing the momentum of the story.

Harlequin romance:  Redeeming Claire, by Cynthia Rutledge

  • Good Harlequin romances are as hard to find as an adverb in a Stephen King novel (or so I’ve heard), but this one is a gem because again, Christians are portrayed as regular people, not holier-than-thou or square as Wally Cleaver.  And it’s actually funny!

Mainstream romance:  Small Town Girl, by LaVyrle Spencer

  • I’ve read this book several times, and will read it several more.  It’s about a country music star who goes back home to help her mother and ends up falling in love with the one boy, now a man, whom she taunted all through high school.  The fact that Poplar Bluff, Missouri, the little town I was born in, was mentioned, was a bonus.

Memoir:  In My Hands:  Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer, by Irene Gut Opdyke

  • Though the subject matter isn’t unique, the voice was.

Biography:  Natasha:  The Biography of Natalie Wood, by Suzanne Finstad

  • I’ve been a fan of Natalie ever since I saw her as a little girl in “Miracle on 34th Street”, for she reminded me so much of myself when I was at that age.  She also personified physical beauty that did not come in blond hair and blue eyes (which I, and every other girl I knew, wanted growing up).  This book read like creative nonfiction.  I do think one would have to be at least a lukewarm fan to get pleasure from this book.

Chick lit:  Confessions of a Shopaholic, by Sophie Kinsella

  • Story and protagonist are hilarious (though I hope Becky learns her lesson by the end of the series).

Beach read:  The Sunday Wife, by Cassandra King

  • Though the author’s personal views are quite different from my own (and were presented in a very one-dimensional way), I enjoyed this because the friendship of two women was the focus, relegating the romance to the background.  Again, a bonus was that Pensacola, Florida (“The Buckle of the Bible Belt”/”The Redneck Riviera”), the town where I live, was mentioned.

Gothic horror:  Flowers in the Attic, by V.C. Andrews

  • I first read this book in high school and was hooked on V.C., till her ghostwriter became a hack.  I love this book because it’s just the kind of story I like to write.

Children’s book:  Many Moons, by James Thurber

  • I had read this book once, many years when I was in elementary school, and it stayed with me for almost 30 years, after I had my own daughter.  It epitomizes one of my favorite scriptures, “…and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

On writing:  Self-Editing for Fiction Writers:  How to Edit Yourself into Print, by Renni Browne, Dave King and George Booth

  • This book opened my eyes on how to break my stories up into scenes–how to show, rather than tell.

Best nonfiction/religious book (besides the Bible):  What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?:  The Positive Impact of Christianity in History, by Dr. D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe

  • This was an enlightening book.  I’d never thought about how life might be different had Jesus not come yet.  Whether or not you’re a Christian, I think it makes for a thought-provoking read.

When a movie makes you want to read the book

Once in awhile, I’ll watch a movie that intrigues me enough by what it doesn’t show (or tell) to want to read the book.  The movie I am referring to is “Rachel, Rachel” from 1968, starring Joanne Woodward.  It is about a 35-year old virgin schoolteacher named Rachel Cameron who has lived in the same, New England town all her life with her mother, whom she allows to run her life.  Rachel grew up surrounded by death–her family lived above her father’s funeral parlor.  We are not only privy to cryptic flashbacks, but also get to see inside her head–of her imagining things she wants to do, but cannot bring herself to.

This film isn’t without flaws, but it made me think, and is the kind of movie that stays with me for days afterward.  It is interesting that it is following the scene in the tabernacle (where Rachel has a breakthrough of some sort–I wouldn’t call it a conversion) that she falls from grace, because whatever was going on in that room, made her want to feel again.

I have always loved stories set in New England, perhaps because I live in an area where we have two seasons–summer and winter (without snow).  Though I love covered bridges and the changing of the leaves, I am a beach girl at heart, and would live in flip-flops year round if I could.

“Rachel, Rachel” is the kind of film that needs to be watched more than once, because you won’t catch everything the first time.  Much can be learned from is not said or shown.  There is more to the story, and I will be reading the book (“A Jest of God” by Margaret Laurence).

I can count on one hand the number of movies that made me want to read the book:  “Flowers in the Attic” (great score, but not even a good movie–the premise just intrigued me), “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, “The Hunger Games” (for the same reason I want to read Ms. Laurence’s book–I needed more backstory), to name a few.  Of course, if I loved the movie, the book cannot compare (as was the case with “Gone with the Wind”).

The same is true if I loved the book, the movie cannot compare, as was the case with “Flowers in the Attic”.

Then there are books that just should not be made into movies, like books by LaVyrle Spencer (a hit-and-miss author for me), and Belva Plain, to name a couple.