What is the Truth, Anyway?

                                 

            Working on a nonfiction book has allowed me to reexamine a period in history that I actually lived through. The setting of this book is 1969 to 1972, a time that I remember vividly and thought I understood. In 1968 as a sixteen year old high school junior, I had gone to the Maine Democratic Convention as one of the McCarthy Children and cried when he was pushed aside by Humphrey. I thought I was aware of what was going on with the Vietnam War in 1969 as I watched reports of body counts and failed peace negotiations on the evening news. In 1972, I watched some POWs disembark from a plane at Kennedy Airport and hoped the event heralded a big move toward peace. A half a century later, I am dumbfounded by how much I didn’t know about what was actually happening. I wonder if others feel the same as more is now being written, or dealt with in films, about this time in our history. Books and films are still being made about World War II that tell us new things about it. It worries me how little we as average people really know what is happening politically now in our country.

            Do many of us really understand that things are happening at a federal, or sometimes local, level behind closed doors that are only open to a chosen few? Politics is about competition, and many things are done to win elections. Once presidential papers have been made public years later, we learn moves were made secretly, not to help bring a war to an end or bring aid to a certain group of people, but to grab a presidential election. We have come to accept the fact that prominent people often say one thing in public and do the opposite in private.

            Media spin is now a commonly accepted fact of life. Has it always been, and no one talked about it? If you have personally never been misquoted in some form of media, you are fortunate. I attended a conference in the mid-1970s as a head teacher of a Head Start program. I was in a group discussing methods of safety restraints and which ones perhaps went too far. Another teacher talked about a mother tying one hand of her preschooler to a counter to keep her away from a hot stove where she was canning. The rope used was long enough for the child to play with toys around her. Teachers in the circle had mixed feelings about the example. I said anything can be detrimental to a child if done for too long. I cited an example of a mother who put her young child in a playpen for hours every day. People seemed to agree that common sense was always needed, and we went on to a different example. A day later in the Sunday edition of the local newspaper, the conference was reported with the headline, “Local Head Start Head Teacher Says Playpens Are Abusive.” It then went on to name me. I had some explaining to do to the county director of the Head Start Program the next day.  Since then, I questioned media quotes of well-known people.

            Along with recognizing the influence of friends and coworkers, I am old and wise enough now to realize that my perspective about a period of time is affected by my experiences, socio-economic status, and political persuasion. For example, what is happening to one social-economic group sometimes has no effect on other groups. Many people are beginning to examine the fact that inequities abound in our country in many facets of life. In the last presidential campaign, I read the phrase “evidentiary truth” in many different places. I immediately thought whose evidence and from what political persuasion and socio-economic strata was this person or people who attained this evidence? Even firsthand accounts of the same event can be witnessed very differently. With the hindsight of fifty years after the Vietnam War, I am reliving three years writing this book with new eyes and different views of notable people of that time. It’s compelling albeit somewhat disconcerting.

Writing about Someone Else’s Mom

                                 

I have accepted a huge writing challenge. One that demands an incredible amount of understanding of a certain piece of history. One that requires trying to conjure through skillful characterization a person I never met. One that needs to be done in a way that allows the reader to understand the significance of what Minnie Lee Gartley accomplished in three short years in the middle of her life. I am honored to be given the chance to do this, but I am also worried about being up to the task.

            The book I’m writing starts in the summer of 1969 and goes to the fall of 1972, during which time I was seventeen through twenty years old. Of course, I was aware of the Vietnam War, fearful for friends with low draft numbers, and horrified by body counts on the news, but I’m afraid I was not aware of so many things that were going on socially and politically around the war issue. The political divisiveness with a Republican president and a Democrat-controlled Senate was something that I didn’t worry about as much as the schism of thought between the younger and older generations. The social movements for peace, for racial and sexual equality were important to me, but they were backdrops to my becoming an adult. After reading and studying this time period, I find there are many, many versions of what actually happened. So many different perspectives and opinions. It makes me question the whole idea of “history” itself.

            In describing my main character, my heroine, I have the help of her son and daughter-in-law, some of her close friends, videos, and her personal notes, testimonies, and talks. I’ve interviewed a brilliant peace activist who worked with her and a charming reporter who befriended her husband and wrote many articles about him and Minnie Lee’s activities. The problem is everyone seems to have a slightly different image of Minnie Lee. Some images contradict other images. Do we all have different versions of ourselves? The mother version, the teacher version, the wife, the friend, the activist? And most important, and what I see in Minnie Lee’s writings, the adversary. She was a fierce one of those. I am struggling to follow her through this quagmire of political and social groups to understand how she moved forward and managed to rescue her son from a prisoner of war camp in North Vietnam.

The whole time I have been doing this project I also have a stern face in my mind’s eye. One of a strong woman from Kentucky who spent her married, adult life in Maine. One who defied her government’s admonitions and went with a peace group to Hanoi in the midst of U.S. bombing. One who looks at me and says, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”

Gracie Says Goodbye, a guest blog by Kelsey Grace Gillespie

Grace Says Goodbye

It was only natural that the ghost of Cherie’s mom was glaring at her. Cherie had seen her make that same angry face when she was alive thousands of times. It had gazed at her stonily when Cherie was six and accidentally swore in church, that time when she was twelve and spilled tomato soup all over the couch, and most memorably when she was nineteen and told her mother she was engaged. It was a face of silent judgement. It told Cherie exactly how exasperated her mom was with her, without having to speak a word. Cherie thought it was only right that if her mother’s spirit were to haunt her, she would do so with her best stern glare firmly in place.

Cherie had not been expecting her mom to return to her from the great beyond. She had passed away over a year ago after many years of ill health. For the last few months of her life, Grace had lived with her daughter and son-in-law, occupying a small room on the ground floor of their home. She was ornery and difficult for the duration of her stay, resentful of the fact that she had to rely on “kids” to take care of her. Grace had been generically religious in the way that all women of her generation were. She went to church every Sunday but her daily habits never indicated to Cherie that she was a true believer. It was just something she did because she was supposed to, the same way she curled her hair or wore stockings if she went out. Cherie was laxer in her Christianity than her mother. She had been raised Protestant, but in adulthood had adopted atheism. She was only thirty-three, but nothing in her experience thus far had convinced her of the existence of the spiritual world. It all seemed like wish-fulfillment and nonsense to her. When Grace died Cherie knew that would be it. Her mother was gone. End of story. Or so she had thought.

Jake, Cherie’s tall, patient husband, was a carpenter. They had purchased an old house a few years back with the intent of fixing it up to resell. Grace’s presence had slowed down renovations a little, but Jake hadn’t minded. His mother-in-law wasn’t an easy woman, but she had been through a lot in her life so Jake excused many of her surlier habits. He even enjoyed her company from time to time; Grace had a funny, feisty spirit that made him smile.

Jake gave Cherie some time to grieve after Grace’s passing and then went ahead with remodeling her old bedroom into a bathroom. The house previously only had one bath that was up a narrow set of creaky stairs. Adding the new full bath downstairs would increase the resale value and make it more friendly to visitors. Plus, Jake thought Grace would find humor in her old bedroom’s new purpose so he wasn’t worried about offending her memory. He was, perhaps, slightly mistaken.

There was nothing out of the ordinary about the day Grace appeared. It was a Sunday. A few weeks had passed since Jake had finished the new bathroom. Cherie and Jake had a lazy start to the morning, lingering in bed to read the paper and savor warm cups of coffee. Cherie had hopped up to let Muffin, their old sheep dog, out. On her way back to Jake, she stopped in the new downstairs bathroom. She stood in front of the sink washing her hands when she glanced up into the mirror.

“Holy shit,” Cherie whispered under her breath. Her own reflection was gone. It was replaced entirely by Grace’s critical countenance.

Cherie quickly turned her head to look over her shoulder. All that was behind her was the freshly painted wall. She took a deep breath, closing her eyes for a second. When I turn around, she thought, it will be my own face. I was just thinking about her because this was her room. That’s all.

She kept her eyes tightly shut until she was fully facing the mirror again. Another deep breath. A split second of blissful blurriness when the possibility of it all being a trick, a joke, a dream of her half-awake mind stayed alive. Then, clear as the sky on a cloudless day, there she was again. An unmoving, solid presence in the small bathroom mirror.

Cherie leaned closer to the image of her mother. Grace didn’t react. She just stood still. Kept glaring. Cherie shook her head, gently at first, then a little harder. Grace did not move. Cherie reached for the tap, thinking maybe splashing cold water on her face would help.

That’s when Grace crossed her arms. Cherie screamed at the top of her lungs and ran out of the room.

“JAKE! Jake, Jake, Jaaaaake! Come here. I need you. You need to see this. Hurry!”

Jake sat up, swinging his legs over the edge of his side of the bed. He couldn’t imagine what Cherie had found that needed his attention so urgently. He gave Muffin a curious look before staring expectantly at the door. Cherie was small but fast, a habitual runner, and she should be popping up from the top of the stairs any second now. When she appeared, long blond hair wild, face pale, he became worried.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“It’s Mom. My mom. Grace. She’s here.”

Jake stayed still, dark brow furrowed with concern as he tried to understand what Cherie was telling him. “Cherie –“ he started to reply, but he was cut off.

“I know. I know she’s dead. But she’s here. In the bathroom mirror. Just staring at me. I tried to shake it off but she won’t go anywhere. Come downstairs and see for yourself.” She leaned towards Jake, grabbing the front of his white t-shirt. He let her pull him upright and then followed her towards the stairs with a chuckle.

Neither of them spoke on the short trip to the first floor bathroom. Cherie paused at the threshold, hand on the doorknob. Her eyes wide, she looked at Jake for confirmation that he was ready for the horrors that might be held within. He smiled at her in a way he hoped did not reveal the laughter he felt bubbling up in his chest but rather reassured her that he was there to support her. She was clearly upset. His wife was normally rational, calm, collected; whatever had happened in this room a few minutes ago had thrown her off kilter. He wasn’t expecting to see his mother-in-law when he walked into the bathroom, but he didn’t want to make Cherie feel stupid or small for believing he would.

She nodded at him. Then took two large, militaristic strides to stand in front of the mirror. Jake stood in the doorway, leaning his head in far enough so he could also see into the glass. Nothing was there, aside from their own reflections. He saw Cherie’s face fall in the mirror first, then turned to look at her real face instead.

Cherie’s mouth opened into a perfect “O” shape. She held it like that wordlessly for a few seconds, then closed it. Jake placed a big hand on Cherie’s shoulder. He rubbed it up and down a few times, then pulled her into his side gently. She still hadn’t taken her eyes of the mirror.

That was when Jake realized she was crying silently. Her cheeks were wet. He leaned down to kiss the top of her head then held himself there for a few seconds, taking in the pleasant scent of her hair.

Cherie wiped at her face, finally breaking eye contact with the mirror. She tilted her face up towards Jake’s. “She was here,” she whispered.

“I know,” he nodded to confirm his belief in her story. “Maybe she was pissed that we turned her bedroom into a bathroom. Doesn’t want people shitting where she sleeps.”

Cherie rolled her eyes at his crudeness, but Jake could tell she was holding back a laugh. She had always liked his ability to ease the tension in a room with a joke. It was part of what made them work so well together as a couple. Cherie may feign annoyance, but not-so-deep-down he knew she enjoyed his sense of levity. She pressed a firm hand to his wide chest. “Or maybe,” he continued, “she came to say goodbye.”

At this, tears began to flow down Cherie’s face again, faster than before. Jake pulled her fully to him with both arms, letting her bury her head in his chest. He stroked her hair gently with one hand.

They stood like that, pressed tightly against one another, for several minutes. When Cherie’s tears finally subsided, she let out a big puff of air. “Or maybe she just likes fucking with me,” Cherie mumbled into Jake’s shirt.

He laughed loudly at this. It would be just like Grace to come back and play a trick on her daughter. She had not been an affectionate mother; that much had been obvious to Jake from day one. But he thought she had loved Cherie in her own unique way. She wouldn’t be the kind to send Cherie a message of comfort after her death, to let her know she was at peace. Grace would use any opportunity to remind her daughter she was always watching even if it meant scaring her from beyond the grave.

“That’s definitely it,” he said to Cherie. They dropped the hug, stepping out of the small bathroom and back into the hallway.

Dad

Dad

            My father was only given fifty-five years on this earth. In that time he was a son, brother, husband, father, uncle, grandfather, boxer, golfer, a builder, and much more. He was also my mother’s caretaker. In 1948, three years into his marriage with my mother, he signed a document that stated she was released from the Augusta State Hospital in his custody, and he was to watch over her.  He kept his promise. He guarded her like a hawk through a tumultuous relationship. Though my mother asked him to leave three times, and sued him for divorce at least two of those times, he always went back to her when she called. He only stopped taking care of her when he dropped dead one hot summer Sunday of 1978. He was helping a neighbor, young Tom Michaud who lived just down the road, dig postholes that August day. Massive coronary. Dead as soon as he hit the ground, another neighbor and cardiologist told us.

            Born in 1923 in Roxbury, Maine, he was the fourth child and only boy in his family. He wasn’t raised as a prince because of this, though. He got up at four every morning and worked the family farm as soon as he physically was able. Bob and Sandy, two huge work horses, were close friends. It’s a good thing they liked him. At sixteen, Albert was a Golden Gloves boxer, weighing in at less than 115 pounds. Bob and Sandy had no reason other than love to let Albert work them. Albert’s father insisted he was needed on the farm, so he brought his wife Gracie to the Grant family home after their wedding and lived there until his father died a couple years later.

            A product of his times, Dad was a traditional sexist who could spout derogatory ethnic names at work and come home and still in his work clothes, do things like hold onto the back of the seat of my bicycle and walk around and around the driveway while I desperately tried to learn to ride. My mother didn’t believe in training wheels. In the few months before his death, Dad was supervising a construction crew of young men. One worker was African American. He became Dad’s favorite on that building site. Dad told my husband and me at every visit about this nice, smart kid. Of course, the free sandwiches didn’t hurt. My mother would scold my father for packing four or five sandwiches into his lunch bucket each morning. She said they couldn’t afford to feed his whole crew.  Dad’s reply was always the same. “Gracie, how can I enjoy my lunch knowing that some of those young lads didn’t have anything to pack a lunch with?”

            One of my dad’s joys in life was having his college educated son-in-law, my husband, tear off    his tie and take a job as a carpenter. He told everyone this young man was smart enough to realize that building was more creative and challenging than any desk job. They spent many a visit talking shop in the barn after that. Dad’s wooden box containing his woodworking tools sits in my husband’s shop even now although on the job John uses electric tools. Sometimes I am still jealous of the close relationship they developed as John seems to remember more things about my dad than I do. Dad was very guarded with his only girl.  I would resort to eavesdropping on conversations he was having with my older brothers to try to understand him better. As a teen and young adult with my brothers off and living their adult lives, I started watching Red Sox baseball with Dad. We loved George Scott, a big bat everyone called “Boomer.” I still love the Red Sox and have always loved their power hitters, probably thinking of Dad as I cheer for them.

            One teaching job I had just before Dad left us was near his jobsite at the time. My car failed to start before school, and I called the house to ask Dad if he would pick me up after he was done work. I planned to correct papers until he came. It seemed to be getting late that afternoon, and I was worried he’d forgotten me as he didn’t appear in the foyer of the school. I walked out to the school bus driveway and found him sitting in his beat-up station wagon he used to drive his tools back and forth to work in. I asked him why he didn’t come into the school. He replied that he was worried I would be ashamed of him in his work clothes. He died a few months later. The funeral director at his wake apologized to me for not being able to get his fingernails clean for the open casket. I remarked sarcastically that he wouldn’t be recognizable with perfectly clean fingernails, and the poor director scurried off. Dad has been gone for forty-two years this past August. What I wouldn’t give to have that man pick me up anywhere while he was wearing his grungiest work outfit ever!

Chronicles of the Head

 

Chronicles of the Head

 

Fifty-three years of changes, and my husband’s head chronicles them the best for me. As I stand at the stove while peeking at John’s head as he naps before supper, I can’t help but think of the hair-raising evolution of this journey.

The head I peer at now is covered with white wisps of curls desperately trying to cover an otherwise pink baldness. The curls give up on the top of his head, and his skull shines through. “Not enough of the crap to pay a hairdresser to cut,” he announced six years ago as his younger daughter trimmed away impatiently at it the day before her older sister’s wedding.

This same head a decade or so ago was covered with thicker salt and pepper hair always too unruly to be kept in a baseball cap. I used to trim it a few times a year then.

Before that a Beatle bob escaped in all directions that was defined by a trimmed moustache. His serious, college-educated, running his own business, but still wearing jeans phase.

A ponytail came before that in a rebellious phase when he pounded nails for some other asshole.

A blonde-streaked, banged do was what he sported when we met in 1967. No moustache. Baby face. Too cute.

Those blue eyes are still shining out on the front of this gray-haired gentleman, but oh, that gorgeous head of hair. Where did it go? It’s bouncing around on our older daughter’s business woman’s head as she rushes off to work in San Francisco, and growing thicker and curlier each day on the head of a darling granddaughter as she bops around at Child Time Daycare. That’s where you’ll find it!

Young Love in Cheap Apartments

Young Love in Cheap Apartments

 

The beehive on Brunswick Avenue was notorious in Old Town, Maine. It was also the site of my husband’s and my first apartment upon marrying in 1971. It worked because it was cheap and close to University of Maine at Orono where we were students. The landlords, dear, elderly Mr. and Mrs. Bosse, had the audacity to rent to UMO students mostly. One young family with two little, tow-headed girls, named Lisa and Terri, snuck in the first floor, front apartment on the right side building. The girls’ dad enjoyed living the college life vicariously through drinking beer in the parking lot with the students. Lisa and Terri begged for the purchase of chips when a beer run was announced, and they usually got them. This couple comprised the only tenants perhaps over the age of twenty-two in the complex.

I never counted how many apartments were in this unsightly, huge conglomeration comprised of an old paper baron house and a makeshift ell, but the whole monster was numbered seventy, with its various letters delineating the individual units. The original old house must have been elegant in its day. An odd wall or unusual corner would make one wonder about the original use of spaces now carved into less than elegant apartments.

My husband and I occupied three different apartments at this unique dwelling over the course of two year. Our first one was an almost two room wonder stuck in the back of the house to the right facing from the street—behind Lisa and Terri’s place. The bathroom was so tiny that on a visit my Aunt Lucy’s 300 plus pound being was difficult to cram in the space between the shower stall and the wall to allow herself to sit on the commode. Thankfully, the cheap tin shower stall bent graciously for her. She did not visit again, though. Our rent was $60.00 monthly, which included electricity and a little bit of heat supplied by an open vent in the middle of the floor of the real room. There was no telephone. Mr. Bosse graciously let his student tenants list his home phone number when applying for part-time jobs, etc. He was delighted to knock on our door and inform me about my job at Grants’ Skillet one fall day. I spent many days later in the months of January and February dancing on top of that heat vent. My husband’s best man stayed with us for a couple weeks as fall semester started. It was a tight squeeze until his student housing came through, and his wife and baby joined him from Calais.

We splurged the next summer on the three room, pent house in the attic of the building. There was a poetic feeling to looking out over our section of Old Town from the tiny windows carved in the roof. Our thirteen inch, black and white television had better antennae reception up higher, and we could actually make out the picture of our favorite show MASH. The heat, derived from the kitchen oil stove, was nicer than what we had in our first apartment, albeit a bit smellier. My mother-in-law declared it was a “deathtrap” as our source of oil for the stove was down a set of stairs to a tank set in the inside hallway. Tenants, including us, would fill canisters and drip oil all over the floors and stairs back to our stoves. We never told Mother about the small oil fire we had in the old stove one morning. We kept that secret and enjoyed an old claw-footed, enamel tub that at the time both my husband and I could fit into.

The penthouse proved to be stifling in the warmer weather, so as soon as possible,  we moved to a second floor, four room unit on the outside of the building. This apartment had the same, old-fashioned funk of our previous ones, but with an added delight. From a kitchen window, one could crawl out onto the roof of a porch that went with the unit below. We spent many evenings in a cheap beer-induced, relaxed pose on that roof as we mulled over what shape our lives would take once we had graduated and grown-up.

In the fall of 1972, we watched in awe as a POW walked off a plane in New York. He was from Maine. I still remember watching that young pilot with fascination. Years later I would not only learn his name but meet him as the husband of a teaching friend of mine. Life goes around in funny circles. I am now writing about this returning POW’s mother and her journey to get him home.

Spirituality?

Spirituality?
When people asked me about my religious views a while ago, I usually played games. Sometimes I said I was a complete heathen. Never been baptized. Had original sin on my soul. Sometimes I joked about how relatives tried but failed to bring me into the fold. At a recent book group, a couple friends told me they thought I must be a lapsed Catholic because of my French mill town home. I got the impression that some thought it would be better for me to be a lapsed “something” than to never have been anything. Religion had always puzzled me. I used to wonder why after sixty something years God had not spoken to me like so many people talk about. It wasn’t that I never tried to hear him. Was it that I was not understanding how this communications works?

A string of negative experiences involving churches had made me bitter about organized religion. For example in grade school, I loved going a Baptist Church in Waterville, Maine. I had friends at Sunday school. I still remember gathering the small communion cups after a service and being affectionately scolded by the minister about the germs involved with sipping the remains in some of the cups before putting them in the trays. He never ratted me out to my mother who would have thrown a fit about it. When I was about ten-years-old, the church committee found out that this dear minister’s wife had experienced a nervous breakdown before being at this church. They proceeded to ask the minister to leave. My mother was furious. She liked the minister’s wife, and she made a fuss at the next church council meeting. We left the church as a result.

A couple years later during my parents’ first separation, my mother’s friend picked me up and took me with her family to a different Baptist Church. I felt like someone’s charity project and begged my mother to stop this. Even later on, my mother and I attended a Nazarene Church for a short while. The church people seemed nice at first. Not wearing makeup was okay with my mother who never put anything on her face except for a touch of lipstick, but when she was told that curling her hair was sinful, she decided that religion was not for us. I still remember riding home with my mom in her VW bug and laughing about walking around looking like an old wash woman for the sake of being pious.
Things bumbled along for me and my attitude toward religion until January of 2000. My brother Steve lay in Cardiac ICU in Mobile after a quadruple bypass. Unfortunately, his brain had been without oxygen for a few minutes too long, and he didn’t regain consciousness. As I sat in the cafeteria of the hospital with my nephew Rhett, I glanced out the window and noticed a beautiful wading bird in the manmade pond in the hospital garden. This egret stood and watched me as I tried to console my nephew. Every time I went get a snack after that first sighting, the bird was there. I walked to the other side of the garden to a small chapel with Rhett. Rhett railed at God about taking his father at such a young age. I looked out the chapel window at the pond and saw the egret standing near the edge looking into the chapel. A couple weeks later, we went to bury my brother in a section of the cemetery in Mobile that my brother’s wife had picked because it overlooked a lovely pond. As the coffin rested on the mechanism that would drop it into the grave, I looked away toward the pond. An egret was at the edge of the pond watching us.
Later that year, I was working with a cousin on a scholarship in my brother’s name. I told her over dinner about the egret. She flashed a knowing smile and asked me to send this story of the egret to her in an email, so she could share it. I didn’t ask why. My epiphany about spiritual communications crashed on me like a high, fly baseball I caught awkwardly. Since then, I have been visited by a cardinal bird couple when writing about my parents. The beautiful, olive green female glances at me tentatively and looks away. She doesn’t stay long. The brilliant red male seems to watch me for long lengths of time. He stays in view of my kitchen window long after his mate leaves. My brother Wayne has not visited me yet. His death was premature and accompanied by many unresolved relationships. Maybe he’s not ready to look for people yet.

A couple years ago, I was walking with my elderly neighbors Ron and Jan. Ron is a retired Congregational minister. Jan is a gregarious minister’s wife. She was entertaining me that day with a story about how she thought she was probably going to hell as she had left the Catholic Church to marry a Protestant. She and I were exchanging sarcastic stories about being doomed when Ron interrupted us. He announced that what church one belongs to doesn’t matter. There is a place in heaven for anyone with a good heart. He looked at me and said he’d seen my heart, and Jan and he would see me in heaven. That was that. We continued to walk, and Jan started fussing about neighbors who didn’t mow their lawn enough. I think I may have been baptized that day by a true Christian soul. Bless you, Reverend Ron.

 

 

 

The Orchid Dress

The Orchid Dress

     Alvina and Delia’s Dress Shop was not only the swankiest boutique in Waterville, Maine in the early 1960s; it may have been the only dress boutique for miles around. The two exotic names puzzled me. My mother and I would window shop there as we walked down Main Street on our way to Woolworth’s, a store that fit our budget better. A week before my piano recital when I was twelve years old, an orchid dress was displayed in the boutique’s window. My mother was captivated by it.

“Do you like it?” asked my mother without turning her head away from the dress to look at me.

“It’s pretty,” I answered, thinking no harm done in agreeing with her as there was no way in hell we would be able to afford anything in Alvina’s. I could be compliant in this case.

“Let’s go in and try it on.”

“Don’t think they’d have my size,” I immediately said to no one as my mother was already through the store door. I followed her.

The inside of the boutique was completely foreign to any shopping I previously experienced. The roomy shop displayed bouquets of flowers on pedestals here and there. There were velour seats as well. Racks were small. No huge collections of the same dress in long lines of rack upon rack. A well-dressed woman greeted us and asked if she could help. I thought she took a second to look Mom and I up and down in a concerned manner, but Mom didn’t seem to notice. She asked what sizes the orchid dress in the window came in as we were shopping for a special outfit for me. Much to my surprise, the saleswoman announced she thought she had one that would fit me and disappeared.

“It’s part of our young ladies’ attire,” she said to us as she reappeared a couple minutes later with a copy of the dress in the window that looked like it just might fit.

“My daughter will try it on, please,” my mother said. She turned and plunked down on one of the velour seats.

Nervously, I followed the saleslady into the fitting room. A velour seat was waiting in there, too. I watched her unzip the dress as it hung on a decorative hook. I tried to remember what I had on for underwear. I was not thinking about trying on anything at Alvina and Delia’s when we left the house earlier. I didn’t have a slip on, for goodness sake, as I was wearing slacks. I started to unbutton my blouse.

“Holler if you need help with the zipper, darling,” said the saleslady with a definite look of condescension. She left me alone.

I scrambled into the dress while hoping she would not reenter the fitting room and notice that the front of my bra scrunched where I didn’t have enough to fill it out. I didn’t really need a bra, but my mother insisted that someone who had hit puberty early and suffered “the curse” deserved to have one even though we couldn’t find one small enough. I managed the zipper of the dress and looked in the mirror. It was a nice color on me. I’d have to do something with my straggly, blonde hair. What would I wear on my feet? Relax, I told myself. No way can Mom actually afford to buy this.

“Cherie, come on out and let us see you,” Mom said. I pushed the curtain of the fitting room aside and stepped out to see my mother still on her velour chair. The saleslady stood behind her with her head held high. A bit too high I thought to myself.

“She’s a beautiful young lady,” the saleslady announced. With buck teeth that desperately need braces, I added in my head. My mother just smiled.

“Cherie, you will be the prettiest girl at the piano recital next week. We’ll take it,” Mom said.

“How much is it?” I asked.

“That’s for your mother and I to discuss, sweetheart. Let me start that zipper for you,” said the saleslady.

I was horrified. I knew my father would have a fit when we went home with this dress. There was no way my mother could hide spending this much for something.

While I was still pulling on my slacks, the saleslady reached in and grabbed the dress from the fitting room. Heavens, she must want to complete the sale quickly before my mother comes to her senses, I decided. I joined Mom at the counter where the cash register resided and noticed both the saleslady and she were chatting pleasantly. I was handed a box with handles on one side and Alvina and Delia’s decorating it in big print.

“Good luck with your recital, dear,” said the clerk.

I said nothing. Mom and I walked out. I felt like we had robbed a bank. How would we walk into the house with this box? We skipped going to Woolworth’s that day. I never asked why. I figured my poor mother didn’t have a cent to her name now.

All the way home I guiltily thought about the last practice I went to where my piano teacher Mrs. McInnis had been so frustrated, she rapped my fingers against the keys and scolded me for being lazy. I deserved it. I had not practiced my recital piece. I also knew from other students in the waiting room she wouldn’t drop me from her lessons as she had threatened from time to time as she was widowed and needed the money. I was an underserving brat, and here I was with this box on my knees that contained the most expensive dress I ever owned in my life. I was almost hoping my father would notice the box, confront my mother, and insist she return it. He didn’t. He was late getting home that evening. The dress was put in my room.

The next day after school, I sat down at our big upright piano in the living room of our old farmhouse. I stretched my fingers as I looked at the grape work on the old, mahogany instrument. I did scales I had almost forgotten as I never warmed up the way I was trained to by Mrs. McInnis. I glared at the sheet music of my recital piece. Debussy! What was Mrs. McInnis thinking? She was the Clair de Looney Tunes! I stumbled through it a half dozen times. I stopped and wondered if my mother noticed I was practicing. She had to hear me from the kitchen. Nothing was said about it at supper.

I practiced for the next six days. Mom never made any comments. The evening of the recital I felt somewhat elegant in my orchid dress. My mother let me put on a slight touch of her lipstick. My hair looked the best it ever could considering the skimpy, fine mess it was. I knew better than to ask about nylon stockings. White, lacy socks under my black patent leathers with the straps tucked backward would have to do. My older brothers fought in the car all the way to Mrs. McInnis’ house even though my dad fussed at them from behind the wheel. He commented about how nice I looked in my purple dress. I sneaked a guilty look at Mom.

“It’s orchid, actually, Al,” my mother told him. She turned and smiled at me from the front seat. I stopped breathing for a minute, but we continued on to the recital.

I did a decent job of Clair de Lune at Mrs. McInnis’ baby grand piano. We used that for recital instead of her worn upright in the corner reserved for lessons. Mrs. McInnis found me during the cookie reception after everyone had played and gave me a knowing look.

“Someone broke down and practiced, Miss Grant,” she said. “Perhaps that could be continued next fall.”

“Huh, yes,” I mumbled with a mouthful of cookies. I was glad neither of my parents or either one of my snitches of brothers were around to overhear her.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. That summer my mother divorced my father. I moved into a small apartment with my mother and one brother. The older one escaped the chaos by joining the Navy. Piano lessons were out of the question even though my mother paid a heavy price to have help moving the piano into our small new place. As I look back now, I wonder if my mother tried to soften the blow of our future for me by buying that orchid dress. Parents are funny like that.

The Unfolding of a Book

A book unfolds more than one story. As relatives react to my latest book about my parents, I am astounded by what I never realized about my two, older brothers. Wayne and Steve were six and four and a half and years older than me. I still easily recall listening to both my mother and father scold them about watching me and taking care of me. I considered Wayne and Steve bossy when I was little. Not only did I not appreciate their efforts to carry out our parents’ instructions, I taunted them about being the pampered baby sister.

On Sunday mornings, I would sneak into their bedroom and wake them up. Then I’d stand aside and watch them get punished by one or both parents for waking them up too early. I remember fussing to my father about one of them touching me too hard and then watching one get sternly rebuked by our beloved, but dreadfully sexist dad.

They did pay me back occasionally. When I was three-years-old, they shut me in a closet and made weird noises. As a result, I was terrified of the dark for years. A few years after the closet incident, I stepped out into the backyard of our farmhouse to a sight that I still remember with a feeling of trauma. All three of my favorite dollies-Pam, Karen, and Georgie-were hanging by nooses from the frame of our homemade swings. Somehow they convinced our mother that the hanging was all part of a cowboy game they were playing, and much to my dismay they didn’t get punished for it. There were also jabs to my sides or accidental whacks while my brothers were fighting one another when I was riding between them on the back seat of the family sedan during Sunday afternoon drives.

At around the age of ten, though, I began to realize Wayne and Steve truly were my protectors and care takers. My parents had a very stormy relationship. Although never fighting physically, their arguments were loud and emotional with such things as dishes flying across a room and doors slamming. My mother’s mental illness sometimes completely derailed her, and if Dad had to work, it was Wayne or Steve who would care for me. They did it in different, but very loving ways. The Christmas I was a month away from turning ten-years-old, I desperately wanted a beautiful baby doll I had seen in a store window in downtown Waterville. My mother remarked at supper the evening I had asked for it that I was a silly, spoiled thing still wanting dollies when I was almost a young lady. Wayne bought the baby doll for me with hard earned money from his job at the local grocery store and stuck it under the tree when Mom wasn’t looking. Wayne’s concern was occasional like this, but Steve continuously worried about how I was getting by. He did things like teaching me how to hold my books so I wouldn’t look like a loser as I was about to be a freshman in high school or make his culinary special for my lunch—diced spam with mayo and relish sandwiches. Steve also started scolding my parents about neglecting me after they had several separations. This didn’t win any favors for him with them.

Both my brothers moved far away from Maine as adults. I resented the fact that I was the one left home to care for our sick mother after our father died. After our mother’s death, I stopped to think about why they kept their distance from family. One of my brothers’ widows has confided in me that both Wayne and Steve talked about how they resented me as we were growing up. A niece has told me that her father never wanted to talk about our family and would make sarcastic comments if pushed for information. One brother had very stormy marriages before his early death at forty-nine-years old. The other died at fifty two. A nephew tells me that he enjoys reading my writing as he doesn’t know much about his father’s childhood. That floored me. At sixty eight, I am now left feeling guilty not only for surviving longer than everyone, but for not trying to talk to Wayne and Steve more about the effect our dysfunctional childhood had on them. They were so often surrogate parents to me instead of brothers. What I have learned from cousins would fill another book!

Readers not related to me speak of the effect my book has had on them. I relish that, but I guess I failed to realize how much of an effect it would have on me. I should have known that putting out a book that is so personal would do this. Most books, of course, come from the author’s own experience. Even Stephen King once told an interviewer that his books certainly were. His book Misery resulted after watching what his mother went through battling cancer. For those of us who pen memoir or personal nonfiction, it is just more obvious.

Leaving a piece of your heart in a book…

Leaving a piece of your heart in your book…
     Nineteen years ago, I lost the last member of my childhood family when my brother Steve died.  He was the last person whom I thought shared the lifelong family conspiracy—the plan to shelter and protect my mother. I drowned in grief and aloneness for a while before I decided to write. I found it immediately cathartic to write about my mother— her childhood of extreme poverty, her alcoholic, abusive father, the loss of her older siblings, and her health problems, among other things. I spent years on a chronological biography of her entitled The One Left Behind. I paid for writing workshops and critique groups at a local university where I manipulated pieces of it.  I shared almost completed copies with cousins. Somehow, it didn’t feel quite right. 
     The manuscript sat idyll for a while. Life got in the way with work, two daughters, and a husband. Then I became involved in a group of women who all wrote about how their mothers’ lives affected them. They were also trying to come to an understanding of their mothers. It was wonderful. I studied my mother’s life in more depth. An anthology called Compassionate Journey: Honoring Our Mothers’ Stories came out eventually. I am very proud of my part in it, but I still needed to write more about my mother, particularly for relatives who always had questions.
     My book Gracie & Albert used many parts of my other writings, but in a new way. I wanted to share the story of the courage, love, and determination my mother and father displayed in their challenging lives. I needed to help people realize what they incredibly overcame. A piece of my heart will be in every paperback or ebook version of Gracie & Albert. I hope people understand.