The Anchor

Mother and Sally exchanged Christmas Cards for over seventy-five years. Every year, no matter that they ‘d barely seen each other since high school, they sent each other Christmas cards. For most of those seventy-five years, they lived four hours from each other and could have easily visited, but I didn’t meet Sally until Mother’s ninetieth birthday.

They grew up in the same small town in New England. They were the same age, went to the same schools and the same church, and both left that small town after high school. But those are the only things they had in common. Teenage Mother liked to gamble, smoke, and party but did well enough in school to earn a scholarship while Teenage Sally apparently never rocked the boat. She met a soldier returning from the war with only one hand, married him and left for the West Coast, probably while my mother was at the university.

Sally’s husband worked for the Post Office until his death. They bought a house just south of San Francisco where they raised three children. After his death, their daughter moved in down the street to take care of Sally. According to the daughter, Sally’s children all did well and produced equally successful children.

In December 2019, after baking Christmas cookies for her neighbors, Sally sat down at the kitchen table and died. I can’t imagine a more pleasant way to go.

Mother somehow graduated from college although to hear her reminisce about those days it’s hard to understand how. She started her career in Hartford Connecticut, about thirty miles from where she’d grown up, and soon got married. My father spent about seven years trying to survive in the corporate world … jumping from company to company all over the states. And Mother went along with him having children and attempting to be a housewife. Once they settled in Reno Nevada Mother had finally had it with the charade. She went out and got the career she’d always wanted and resumed the lifestyle she’d had in college.

For some reason (which I never understood) through all of the turmoil — and it was turmoil — Mother always looked forward to Sally’s Christmas Cards. I wish one of them had survived but then Mother was never sentimental. I imagine they contained a synopsis of Sally’s year: How the husband was doing, how the children were doing and maybe even an account of a vacation to Yosemite. Or perhaps they just contained holiday greetings.

I finally met Sally during the year that Mother lived with us. Her daughter contacted me and we got the two ladies together, coincidentally on Mother’s 90th birthday and had lunch at a restaurant near my house. She looked about twenty years younger than my mother and said very little but smiled a lot. They sat together mostly in silence, affectionately touching and gazing into each other’s eyes and when the restaurant closed to prepare for the dinner rush, there were tears. On all our faces.

Christmas 2019 Mother called to tell me she had not received a card from Sally. She said something must have happened because Sally would never forget to send a Christmas card. Since both ladies were now approaching 94, I thought perhaps Sally’s mental state was slipping and so I contacted her daughter and heard about the Christmas cookies.

Telling Mother that Sally had died was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

Mother died in August 2020. I wish she’d exhausted herself making cookies and sat down to die, but it was during the plague and smoke from the fires made the air too hazardous to even open the windows. I played her music from the 30s and 40s on my iPhone, read aloud from a book, and played solitaire until finally in the morning her spirit escaped. She just didn’t want to go through another Christmas without getting a card from Sally. From what I know, the two ladies probably wouldn’t have enjoyed going on a cruise together but they anchored each other to this world. Some old friends are like that.

Ode to Grey

I hope you enjoy this poem from Bijou

tin hats

Do you ever care about something,
so much that a pressure builds up
hot and sweating, red and painful,
around that one thing and magnifies it-
so that any ebb and flow of energy surrounding that thing,
cut and bloody, wet and heady,
well you know, it
either gets you
stimulant-virgin high or
paints all your reds black,
over and over and over
until suddenly,
burst and bleeding, crushed and steaming,
you kind of turn grey from it all
like living TV static and you think
grey is a kind of comfort, a nothing,
a quiet,
you mouth the words but
don’t say them in the heavy grey-
lack of color, without a name-
that’s better, isn’t it?

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The once in a lifetime plant?

Many years ago, when my mother was living with us, my husband went to the Home Depot for something innocuous like a screw or a nail and returned with a bulb that was about the same size as a grapefruit. He said he’d found it in a bin next to the check out stand on sale for only fifteen dollars.

For those of you who aren’t gardeners, that’s a lot of money to pay for a bulb! Needless to say, mother got a big kick out of making a daylong fess about Joel’s foolishness. “Oh, they saw you coming alright! I could have gotten thirty bulbs for two bucks at the Walmart … ” (you get the picture). Then she sat at the window and watched him plant the thing in the middle of the garden. “You can’t let him go to the store alone again or you’ll end up in the poor house.”

Spring arrived. Mother decided we didn’t provide enough entertainment and moved into one of those fancy places with a bar, beauty parlor, gym and theater. But in the backyard, nothing emerged from the ground where the magic bulb had been planted. In fact, years went by and nothing emerged until last August. Fire season had come early. We had massive fires to the north, east and south of us. The air quality hovered between unhealthy and hazardous to your health. The apocalypse had come to Northern California and with it, the penis plant.

I have to admit, it was more than just a little spooky. It grew and grew and eventually blossomed and was spectacular. After the blossoming stalk fell to the ground and died, foliage emerged and basked in the sun until January. After the foliage died, I wondered what would happen August 2021.

Well, nothing happened. The blossoming stalk never emerged. Perhaps it was the coolness of the summer or the lack of rain. I certainly hope it wasn’t the unhealthy air that the plant needed! However, after a couple atmospheric rivers rolled through the area, I went out into the garden and here’s what I found:

I have no idea if the foliage will be followed next August by a blossoming stalk. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

My artistic rendition

Maybe it only blooms once in a lifetime. One look is all you get.

But it’s green here in California which is always nice and the Mexican lavender is happy.

I do wish Mother could have seen the Red Quill in all its glory. I doubt she would have apologized to Joel but he’s good with children and old folks. Even if he’s somewhat of a sucker for a magic bulb.

Dreads and fears in the sensitive soul

T’is that time of year when the lights oft flicker and fail. Mercifully I have many a crossword puzzle to keep me occupied through the candlelit nights.

Years back, my schedule being tight because of child care and commute issues, I had the choice between two classes: Supernatural Literature and Early Christian Art. At the college I attended, art history classes required field trips and a ton of memorization and so I went with the supernatural. I’d read all the popular sci-fi novels in high school and so figured I’d be rereading books like Dune or Stranger in a Strange Land. I was wrong but I wasn’t the only one with this misconception

On the first day of class the front row of the lecture hall was full of burly young men. It was a sight rarely seen in the English Department. Generally athletes took Eng 101 and then were never seen again. When Professor Hutchins arrived on his bicycle, late and in a fluster, he took one look at the buffed up dudes and raised both eyebrows as if to say “righty-dighty!” Then he began writing the syllabus on the blackboard. He’d had some trouble, he explained, making sure the book store could purchase all of the volumes he wanted to cover. They were quite old and some of them were out of print. But, he went on to explain, he had his sources and if he could figure out the damned Xerox machine, he’d have copies of his syllabus available in his office.

Righty Dighty! (aka Algernon Blackwood)

He began by explaining the difference between science fiction, fantasy and supernatural. Science fiction is what could be or what exists elsewhere (in the future or the past or in a distant galaxy). Fantasy draws heavily on magic. However, supernatural literature is based on what exists but is not understood. For example: obsession, death, prophetic dreams, and yes, even romantic love. He then read this passage from Algernon Blackwood:

My fundamental interest, I suppose, is signs and proofs of other powers that lie hidden in us all; the extension, in other words, of human faculty. So many of my stories, therefore, deal with extension of consciousness; speculative and imaginative treatment of possibilities outside our normal range of consciousness…. Also, all that happens in our universe is natural; under Law; but an extension of our so limited normal consciousness can reveal new, extra-ordinary powers etc., and the word “supernatural” seems the best word for treating these in fiction. I believe it possible for our consciousness to change and grow, and that with this change we may become aware of a new universe. A “change” in consciousness, in its type, I mean, is something more than a mere extension of what we already possess and know.

Algernon Blackwood

As he read, the athletes all began shutting their notebooks and shuffling out of the class. He didn’t seem at all surprised.

We began with the Irish writer J.S. LeFanu (1814 -1873) who has been credited with adding the psychological element to what were previously creaking doors and black cat ghost stories. In his novella, Carmilla, Le Fanu was also credited with equating passionate love with death:

“… my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die – die, sweetly die – into mine.”

The vampire to her victim
Illustration by DH Fristen who also illustrated the first Sherlock Holmes books

Because Le Fanu was not only a Victorian but also a Calvinist. sexual arousal was a source of contradictory feelings:

“In these mysterious moods, I did not like her. I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust.”

Calvinists believed that the only way to salvation was through deprivation. Anything pleasurable could lead to damnation. In Le Fanu, dreams are the portals to all sorts of mischief:

“But dreams come through stone walls, light up dark rooms, or darken light ones and their persons make their exits and their entrances as they please, and laugh at locksmiths.”

Unlike sci-fi and fantasy, in a supernatural novel there is no happy ending. The monster might be killed by the hero or heroine but the conditions that created the monster still exist.

“… to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations – sometimes the playful, languid beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I head the light step of Carmilla at the drawing room door.”

The ending of Carmilla

The title of this post is from the 1963 version of Best Ghost Stories of JS LeFanu, Introduction by E.F. Bleiler.

You can probably guess that Carmilla was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I don’t know which … a beautiful young woman or a handsome middle aged man … makes a more frightening vampire. What do you think?

The Perfect First Sentence

Tomorrow (Oct. 24) would have been my friend Carol’s birthday. We’re both at the age where we don’t like to be reminded and so a simple card or email (preferably something hilarious) would suffice. If the weather allowed, a hike would be ideal. We generally met at Inspiration Point, a walking trail along the coastal ridge. Looking east, you can see the Briones Reservoir and beyond, Mt. Diablo. Looking west you can see the entire Bay Area and on really clear days, even the Golden Gate Bridge.

Looking east from Inspiration Point

Last year we couldn’t meet because of the air quality. And also because she’d just gone on hospice. I’d known Carol for over thirty years. Aside from our walks, we also shared a love for writing. This mutual love led us to sign up for all kinds of crazy events focused on helping you formulate “the perfect first sentence,” along with the perfect blurb, the perfect bio, the perfect elevator pitch, etc., etc. In addition she joined many writer’s critique groups and attended many writer’s retreats. Carol did a lot better at those events than I did. She was always the loudest and friendliest person in any room. I stutter when I get nervous which is my perpetual state of being.

Anyway I spent those last few months of her life helping her compile a collection of her stories and publish them on Amazon. After her death I found this story on my old laptop. It should have gone in her book. It’s perfect. And so, in honor of Carol Teltschick, here is The Perfect First Sentence.

They whispered it to her as she rounded the corner of Rose and Thornton at thirty-five miles an hour, careening downhill out of control, as usual. It was the perfect first sentence. Absolutely perfect – every word, the nuance, the flow. Shaking badly she pulled off to the side of the road to try to trap it.

Damn! She snarled. She had nothing in the pockets of her spandex outfit with which to capture the wicked little beast. No pencil, no pen, no lipstick. And so she tore a twig from a nearby aspen tree and wrote the line in the mud by the side of the road. She would come back for it later; after the biopsy.

All these months (and money) I’ve wasted attending seminars and work shops, she thought as she peddled towards home. And there it was, all this time, on the corner of Rose and Thornton. I’ll be damned. All the blurbing and pitching sessions, the lectures from the agents and established writers all saying the same thing: you have to write the perfect first sentence otherwise your book will not sell. Like a maniac, spending hours in the saddle, whipping the poor first sentence like a tired old mule until it keeled over and died on the page.

They neglected to tell her that you cannot write the perfect first sentence – you must glide through it on your way to someplace else.

Last night I dreamt of Manderly… The first sentence can’t be too strained but must flow into the story like a stream.

Whenever it is a cold November in my soul…The first sentence must set the tone for the rest of your book.

I round the corner of Rose and Thornton and I am flying.

“I’d like to take your hand and throw it across the room. That’s what I’d like to do,” She screamed at the radiologist, after he explained he’d have to reinsert the needle at least five more times. She was laying face-down on a table with her boobs dangling through two holes like udders. The pain, indescribable. Remember, the words lying in the mud waiting for you to return. See them in your mind, she thought and then the needle broke through her skin again and she screamed.

Afterwards it was children she craved. Minds uncluttered by sympathy or guilt. She would be their auntie; take them when their parents had to work on long hikes or to the seashore. Bake cookies, read stories or just listen.

She forgot the perfect first line in the mud.

How cool are Black Holes

First bit of news … to those of you who have so kindly wished relief for those of us in the drought-stricken American West, the storm door has opened. We are now expecting at least five days worth of rain. Yeah!

Second bit of news … I’ve been working with Duke Miller on a darkly humorous mystery which will include the character of Fiona Butters from the 2014 book published by Booktrope and entitled Flipka. It may involve other characters from Flipka but at this point, I’m not sure. If you’d like to read about the original, click here.

And finally … in the shameless bragging about one’s offspring’s department, here is a video clip written and narrated by our granddaughter Audrey. We were there the day of the filming (which she also did) and she probably spent six hours in the garage working on it. By herself. She did have help with the editing from her parents. Afterwards we all celebrated with burgers and fries. Since the family is split between the meat eaters and the vegans we had to go to two different places. Thus, everyone was happy.

I hope everyone is staying out of Black Holes! They don’t sound like nice places to explore.

The Queen Mary in Long Beach California. To the right of the ship is a cruise ship terminal and not a White Hole!
On the Coaster towards San Diego as a storm was about to come ashore. Trains really are the only way to travel.


Abstract for a writer’s soul.

tin hats

The weather is the only friend I have. I’d like others, but I’m too ashamed of who I am.

It’s hard for me to speak, to control my breathing. I end up in a kind of spotlight that freezes me in place, nailed to the boards. Sometimes I’m like a horse at the starting gate, thrashing about as the crowd groans, impatient. I’m crazy and won’t go into the gate. The race starts without me and they talk about putting me down. She won’t run, they say.

Give her more medicine. Something to numb her living. Turn her into water, circling round.

Everyone looks at me and eyes are knives.

Online I read the weather report, the projections fluttering on my face in the half-light. Please no sun, no clear days with kites in the sky. No spring flowers. I only want good weather, bad weather for you, but we’re…

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tin hats

Remember standing in line for that one crazy rollercoaster ride with anxious thoughts emerging in the back of your mind. Remember having your ticket taken and being ushered toward your cart with those unnerving thoughts moving closer to the fore. Remember sitting in your cart knowing this is your last chance to bail before the attendant comes by to check on your restraints. Remember the palpable sense of doom that descended upon you as the grim-faced attendant locked you in place. Remember the queasy knot tightening sharply in your gut when your cart lurched forward and began ratcheting its way toward that first big momentum producing hill. Remember, half way up the hill, when the stranger sitting next to you turned his head and said he used to work at the theme park but had to quit because of major depression. Remember when he looked at you with those sunken…

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Death Halves the Hearth

I’ve just finished complying the various genealogies, ancient documents and photos I inherited into one document and all I can say is: Don’t do it! Let some other poor relative take on the task of making sense of family history. It’s like opening a Pandora’s box. So hard to close.

It wasn’t so bad when I was writing about folks who lived hundreds of years ago but as I drew closer the present and began writing about people I’d met, no matter how briefly, it got painful. When I got to my parents, I just couldn’t do it. They lived, got married and died, the end.

I wish I could say I discovered many fascinating tidbits about my ancestors but alas, I didn’t. Probably the most amusing “find” was the official reason why my most famous ancestor, Deacon Samuel Chapin, was important to the colonial settlement that became Springfield Mass.

Deacon Samuel Chapin’s “delicate duties.”

Yes, the appropriate seating of the “Goodwifes” on the Sabbath was apparently the only thing that kept law and order in the colonies! Heavens, you simply can’t have Goodwife Chapin “sitt in the Seate” alongside any other lady than Mrs. Glover, the minister’s wife. (Don’t ask me why some ladies are referred to as “good wifes” and others as “Mrs” because I do not know!)

Thanks to a wonderful blogger from Finland, The Snow Melts Somewhere , I did solve one mystery: What was in the Swedish Letters that my great-grandfather didn’t want to reveal to his daughter. From what Snow was able to decipher, Great Grandfather Nelson wasn’t trying to be cruel. He was trying to shield his daughter. She was only sixteen when her mother died. He probably felt she did not need to know the heartbreaking side of immigration.

2b. But before I write more, we would like to let you know that we have received the money that you sent us, 17 kronor and 65 öre, for which we now present you our heartfelt gratitude. And we think it is nice since it is in any case of an assistance to us old people. We always think it is fun to receive your letters but even more fun when you think of us with donations. But we can’t send you anything except for our loving thankfulness and we shall pray for you and for all our children, for you are all equally dear to Him. May He give you good health and blessings and may He keep you from sin, for sin is an abomination to God. Instead, God loves (us) and offers (us) everything and we will hope for Him to give you everything.

4a. And I cannot be alone. (…) It isn’t nice for me (…) but I must ask the Lord for good health. (…) 
Johanna, she won’t be home with me more than yesterday, she can’t come home with me, she gets nothing from it. She can ask the master (?) to make a little bit more but she is young.
Now (.…) is having (…)+ (…) and growing, but we are having bad times here, I don’t ponder it much but I’ll take what I can++ 344 and death halves the hearth, my friend by my side, out of grief (…) I ask God (…), I am weak, save me from (…)+++
…parents, children gone away… so empty, watch out for the soul’s wellbeing

To families left behind in the mother country, hearing from children who have traveled thousands of miles from home to achieve a better life must have been bittersweet indeed. I’m sure they were proud to know that their children had found communities to be a part of and did well enough to send money home. But the cost, from these letters, was very high.

Thanks again to Snow for helping me solve the mystery and giving me more appreciation for my great grandfather’s struggles.

Roads And Borders

Reads like the beginning of a novel, doesn’t it?

tin hats

He was sick. Something vague, but growing. He had nearly always been sick. Not as a baby, but by three he had real trouble breathing. Oxygen tents and concerned people. The lung difficulty stayed with him as an adult, until he stopped eating certain foods. Innocent breads and cakes delivered the allergy. Poor breathing eventually gave way to other diseases, other injuries, but he didn’t mind so much. Everyone was hurt around him, a constantly changing hospital or sometimes a morgue was there, just outside his door. Illness and death were part of his lifestyle away from home.

It was 5:00 in the morning. He was just waking in the partly destroyed trading post. He could imagine the Englishman behind the counter, barking at the tribesmen. The driver and vehicle were both asleep. He looked at the dead fire. He felt safe. No one would kill you this early. The…

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