The Truth in Stories

Stories are important.

That’s why there is truth in fiction.

When you think of a story that has touched you, that’s the truth in it, but it may not be factual.

Family stories aren’t always factual, because we always remember things differently, especially from our childhoods. But the truths we learn from them last a lifetime or more.

I remember my mom talking about when my dad came home from Europe at the end of World War II. He was sitting at the table in my maternal grandparents’ kitchen in Connecticut. My grandmother, who was an excellent baker, served him a slice of cake. I picture chocolate cake, but I don’t know if it was. I picture my mom sitting across from him, her eyes full of love at being reunited with her husband after three years. As he took a bite, he began to cry and said, “Cake! I haven’t had cake in three years!”

I know the gist of the story is factual, but the image in my mind may not be. It might have been another kind of cake. The four of them may have been enjoying dessert in the living room. But the story is true. The emotion my dad felt on finally being home and enjoying a simple slice of cake is true. And the fact that my mom remembered what happened, and the emotion she felt, are also true. 

The story is true. It contains the truth of home, family, and love. 

Children never really know the sufferings of their parents. My dad told me stories about his experiences during World War II, but I was a child, and he told it as an adventure story. I know now that it wasn’t all adventure. 

Nevertheless, I treasure the memories of his story telling. These were my bedtime stories. Then my mom would come in to kiss me goodnight, and I would repeat dad’s story to her. 

Another one that will always stick in my memory is his account of being on a ship traveling from England to North Africa. After surviving a storm on the Atlantic, the ship joined up with a convoy coming from the States. The ship developed engine problems and fell behind the convoy ships, making my dad’s ship a sitting for German U-boats. After several days, they made it safely to Gibraltar, where they anchored in the bay for eight days while the ship was repaired. They were still not out of danger. One morning an Italian frogman was apprehended trying to attach a mine to the side of the ship. The food was limited and being an English ship, the experience led to my dad’s lifelong aversion to mutton and orange marmalade. 

Years later, I told the story to a friend of mine who is of Japanese background. She told me that her father had been kamikaze pilot in World War II. The pilots were only allowed one mission. If it failed for some reason, they would not be sent out again. Her father went out in his plane, ready to die for his country, but the American ship he was sent to attack was not where it was expected to be, and he returned alive. 

Both of our fathers survived. One because a ship was not where it was supposed to be, and one because he was on a ship that miraculously avoided an attack. 

These are our stories. I know some of the facts because my dad wrote them down. Most importantly, I know how the stories make me feel, and this is the role of story in our lives. 

We All Need Sparkle

Came across this poem that I wrote in May, 2020, near the beginning of the pandemic.

I need a manicure.

I need a pedicure.

My hair’s not too bad.

I trimmed some ends and pushed the sides behind my ears.

My shoulders are sore from leaning over the computer.

My quarantine world is getting smaller and smaller.

I shop online. Groceries arrive.

Books arrive. Same.

I wish I could order a museum, and have it delivered to my door.

Or maybe Van Gogh and Dali could walk in my door.

What a talk we would have!

And the next day I’ll invite Mozart.

He will play something bright for me.

I want to see something sparkle today.

I need sparkle.

I Live in a Tree House

(Written April 2020)

I live in a tree house.

As the trees turn green in the spring, my forest closes in around me.

Wraps me in branches filled with life.

I plant flowers on the deck and the blood red of the begonias reminds me that life can be violent.

Squirrels race across the deck to the trees on their rodent superhighway.

The first hummingbird of the season arrived today.

It drinks from the feeder, also red.

Red is a color of nature, blood, flowers, a cardinal looking for sunflower seeds.

I live in a tree house.

Full of sunshine.

Full of life.

Not Just a Book Review

There are many reasons to choose a novel to read. It may be for purely entertainment, to immerse oneself in an historical time period or a journey into the future. I choose books for all of those reasons and more.

I have been thinking recently about how novels can inform about issues of the day, and touch our hearts and minds in ways that non-fiction or a news article cannot do. A good novelist who conscientiously researches her subject can make a connection that doesn’t always happen with non-fiction. This will be the first in a series of blog posts where I bring to light a novel that has touched me and informed me at the same time.

Something to Hide by Elizabeth George

Author Elizabeth George touched my mind and heart in her latest novel, Something to Hide, in which she deals with the troubling issue of FGM, or female genital mutilation. I give tremendous credit to George for tackling such a difficult subject. 

As horrifying as the practice of FGM is to those of us in Western cultures, it is a crucial part of the cultures of around thirty countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Proponents of the practice, including parents of the girls, claim that it “purifies” the girl and makes her “valuable” to her husband. The crux of the problem is the devaluation of a girl as little more than a commodity, and her value as a “marriageable” female far outweighs recognition of her as an individual. Not to mention the life-long physical and medical difficulties it creates for her.

In Something to Hide, author George uses her familiar characters who work for London’s Metropolitan Police to conduct an investigation into a suspicious death. This investigation leads to discovering of a clinic performing illegal FGM procedures. The Metropolitan Police work to close down the clinic as well as solve the suspicious death. 

I have enjoyed Elizabeth George’s novels for many years. I so admire her ability, as an American, to delve into the culture of Britain as it is today, as well as her knowledge of the workings of the police in London.

Something to Hide is #21 in her Inspector Lynley series, but they don’t necessarily have to be read in order. I  highly recommend this book, all 704 pages of it!

Review of The Black Witch by Laurie Forest

I am so overwhelmed by this book! Written for a YA audience, it sends a message of tolerance and understanding of the diverse people inhabiting Earthia. Elloran enters the university and is thrown into contact with the other races that inhabit their world, and whom she has been taught to hate, as they have been taught to hate her, a member of the dominate race, the Gardnerians.

As she is forced to interact with students of other races, whom she has only heard about, she begins to question what she has been taught. She is constantly on her guard, as she has powerful enemies. Her grandmother was the powerful Black Witch. Elloran has no magical powers and relies on her capabilities of intelligence and understanding to begin to break down barriers. Her efforts allow her to make new friends, but her actions also create enemies and place her and her friends in dangerous situations.

The message of learning to understanding and appreciate differences is strong in this book, but it doesn’t overpower an exciting story.

I don’t usually read fantasy, but I’m going look for the sequels to The Black Witch. Thank you, Laurie Forest!

Can You Go Home Again?

Came across these photos and a poem I wrote after my visit back to my home town in Illinois in 2011. A bittersweet journey.

A barn built to last one hundred years.

Rusty now. But the only farm building left standing.

Everything else is corn fields.

Hay bales still crowd the loft, a place a mystery and a home for kittens.

Everything else is gone. The house, the truck shed, even the pond where Grandma taught me to fish.

We tramp the ground – The back door was here. The pump was here. Remember? Remember?

Children of the farm – we came back to see.

Took photos of each other.

Stole an ear of corn to eat later, cooked in the hotel room microwave.

A farm built to last in the hearts of the grandchildren.

Review of The Night Watchman

I don’t know where I picked this book up. Probably from my Little Free Library. I cannot praise and recommend it enough. Set in North Dakota in the early 1950s, it takes us into the lives of Native Americans struggling to survive and preserve their traditional beliefs and way of living, while fighting the U.S. government to retain their right to live on the land that has been their home for as long as they know. 

Thomas is the night watchman at a factory that manufactures jewel bearings for use by the Defense Department and in the manufacture of watches. In the long hours of the night, he writes letters to authorities in support of the rights of his people, especially against the policy of “termination,” a resolution before Congress which would essentially end the reservation system and any government protection of native peoples.

Thomas’s niece is Pixie, who wants now to be called “Patrice.” Patrice is on her own path, valuing the ways of her family and ancestors, while struggling to improve their lives at the same time.

This book is beautifully written, pulling you into the cold North Dakota nights with a sky full of stars. The story vividly tells the story of two cultures in opposition to each other in so many ways: spiritually, materially, linguistically, and just the ways of looking at life. 

I came away wanting to know more. We cannot undo the past, but we can always learn from it.

Found a Poem

Came across a poem I wrote ten years ago. It was the year I went back with my brothers to the Illinois farm where we grew up. We have all traveled so far since then, but some elements provide continuity — like water.

My Thoughts on Water

The pond behind the barn where I caught catfish with Grandma.

The fishpond behind her house, filled in when we were still small.

Mom so worried that one of us would drown in it.

The pump in the yard. Cool water from deep in the earth.

Our farm never was without water, even in the driest summers.

A river ran under our farm, Grandpa said.

I couldn’t picture that. A river underground?

I knew the Embarras, the Wabash, the Mississippi.

Then later the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the fountains on the terraces in Haifa with the water lap lapping down the side of Mount Carmel.

Mist on my face on a rainy day.

The waters of my life.

The Heady kids. Where it started.

Bookstores and More Bookstores

In the infamous year of 2020, I had a plan to visit a new bookstore or library each month. January and February went great. In January, I participated in a book festival at McIntyre’s Books in Pittsboro, North Carolina. In February, I was in Los Angeles visiting family and visited the Hawthorne Public Library and Skylight Books in Los Angeles. Then, well, we know what happened in March, 2020.

2021 started out slowly, but by May I was back in the swing of things. I visited Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, NC, a dream of a bookstore with both new and used titles. In June, I paid a visit to Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC, which my daughter insisted I had visited before, but I did not remember. 

July turned out to be the best month that I have had in a long time — travel, bookstores, new food, new adventures.

After much deliberation about travel during the pandemic, I took the non-stop Raleigh to Los Angeles flight and hung out with my sons and their families for twelve days. After roughing in on Catalina Island for a couple of days, which included two close encounters with resident bison on the island, it was back to enjoying museums and the artsy, literary places that I love.

I managed to hit five bookstores in two days, an adventure only rivaled by the four art museums in six days in the Netherlands in 2018. Ojai Valley Library Friends Twice Sold Tales was the first, followed by Bart’s Books in Ojai, California. Then to Ventura, where my son Will had another bookstore he didn’t want me to miss. OK, it turned out to be three. Bank of Books, Timbre Book, and Abednego Book Shoppe. We were headed for Bank of Books, where I believe I made a purchase. Abednego was about a mile down the street, so three of us decided to walk, along the way we found Timbre Books. A very successful trip. 

Thank heavens for media mail, I was able to mail home several books to avoid an overweight suitcase.

It’s the end of August now. I need to catch up. Fortunately, the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area has several good bookstores I haven’t been to. It’s just a matter of making a choice.

Bart’s Books, Ojai, California

Traveling for Inspiration and Other Things

Most of my inspiration for writing comes when I travel. There is something about being in a new place where I can free my mind from everyday tasks that stimulates my imagination. The idea for my first novel, The Gate House, came about when my husband and I stayed in a bed and breakfast in Spalding, Lincolnshire, England. That bed and breakfast became the setting for most of the story. We also traveled to the city of Lincoln on that trip, which is home to one of the most impressive cathedrals in England in my opinion. 

I loved the cathedral roof tour, where visitors are able to traverse the catwalks situated between the vaulting that forms the cathedral ceiling and the roof. I used this spot for some exciting scenes in The Gate House.

I am fortunate to have relatives and friends who live all over the world, which means not only a free place to stay (although that happens), but it sometimes means carrying some rather odd items back and forth.

In the photo, I was packing for a trip to Alaska where my brother lives. His request from the “lower 48” was fresh summer corn on the cob. Since we grew up in Illinois, we appreciate good corn. The hiking shoes you see in the bag ended up staying in Alaska until the following spring. I didn’t have room for them on the way back, so my sister-in-law brought them to me when we were all in Hawaii together for a wedding.

I think of my main character Nara as an adventurer who would be up for the kinds of trips I enjoy. In fact, a pair of shoes is instrumental in Nara meeting the love of her life in The Gate House.

The cat had to stay home.